(If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post, here.)
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"No, I don't really care what you think: coppers always make me squeamish." Lisa Newlife was the newest and youngest maid currently employed at Phlaumix Court.
"I think what you mean," Mrs. Linebottom said, handing her a fresh tablecloth, "is they make you nervous – they do, me."
Penelope Linebottom had been the housekeeper at Phlaumix Court, the home of Lady Vexilla Regis and her second husband, Sir Bognar, ever since the time Lady Vexilla's son Burnson had been a small boy.
"It's not likely we'd need a visit from the local constabulary this week, what with Master Burnson's wedding and their guests." Mrs. French was bustling about, making sure the breakfast dishes were put away. She may have been the cook at Phlaumix Court for nearly as long, but such events still demanded all her concentration.
It was a grand old house, she knew, that needed to run smoothly, what with all the cleaning and the cooking, where even the slightest disruption jeopardized their schedule, sending everyone into a dither. As Mrs. Linebottom would constantly remind her staff, "Upstairs is the stately swan; Downstairs, the madly paddling feet, keeping it afloat."
Hadn't it been enough with this awful blizzard that was cropping up unexpectedly? Luckily Mrs. French had had everything delivered early. Some may explain it as a second sense, but she considered it genius.
Sidney Foote had been a footman at Phlaumix for only a few years but liked to find the best in everyone. "Now, no one's accusing you of anything, Lisa. I'm sure he meant nothing." Sidney's attempt at being kind wasn't very bright. The constable had not only accused her but clearly threatened to arrest her.
"You can think what you like, Old Sid, but we all heard him: sounds pretty much open and shut, to me." Rudyard Herring, a footman with one year's seniority, rarely bothered with the best.
The problem was, Lisa was the last one alone in the Maid's Room before Mrs. French came in from the kitchen and noticed a small window pane was broken, the window unlocked and open.
"And then who knows, Rudyard, if you hadn't come back in, seconds later?" Mrs. Linebottom pursed her lips. "What about that?"
"But if nothing is missing, what's the fuss?" Lisa helped clear the last of the dishes. "Who could've gotten in, besides? That window's way too small for a normal person to crawl through, innit?"
"Well, we all know you're far from normal, Lisa, and that's a fact."
"That'll be quite enough out of you, Rudyard."
Mrs. Linebottom proceeded to dismiss everybody else except those working in the kitchen. "God knows, we've all got plenty of work."
Mrs. French started bustling about, tossing out orders. "Luncheon will be soon enough."
Lisa, hauling out some clothes that needed mending, then set herself to work, hoping it would take her mind off everything. All this attention was making her increasingly anxious, remembering things she'd rather forget.
"When you have those ready, bring them down to the laundry room, please." Mrs. Linebottom hoisted her anchor and set sail.
Mrs. French began whipping ingredients together as a marinade for the luncheon's salmon and apparently felt the urge to make conversation.
"Did I hear the constable say there was a similar thing at Umberton?"
"Apparently, Mrs. French – happened right before breakfast time, judging from what he said." Lisa thought she'd offer as little as possible.
"Oh, didn't know that place was even occupied: it's been empty for months."
"People with that pageant upstairs must've rented it."
"Coor, what a barmy lot that is, love. Glad they're not our responsibility!"
Mrs. French was kind enough in her own bossy way, as cooks went, aside from treating Lisa like a scullery maid. She was tall, broad shouldered and amply bosomed: 'formidable' could describe her well. Hearing there'd been a break-in, she immediately checked her cupboards for anything missing, then relaxed considerably realizing her things were safe.
Lisa'd never heard anyone but Mrs. Linebottom call her 'Bonnie' to her face – it was like she had no first name – though everyone chuckled whenever Herring called her 'Bonnie Petite' behind her substantial back.
Mrs. French was also quick with sage advice, as her aunt once said: "Never imagine yourself to appear as anything otherwise than that which others might assume you would probably never appear to be."
Of course, it made no sense to her but it impressed her nonetheless: people who talked like that sounded terribly intelligent.
Lisa didn't like being reminded who she was, because she wasn't terribly intelligent – at least that's what people were always saying. Her grades in school had never been stellar, in fact mostly below average. But she liked the idea of working in a great house like this, where people would tell her what to do. Everything must be done on a particular schedule: breakfast was served at 9:00; certain things had to be done by lunchtime. Fireplaces, even with central heating, needed regular tending; every room was cleaned daily.
Dusting, vacuuming and mending were things that required little intelligence, almost mindless work. It was repetitive, boring and therefore pleasantly comforting. One day passed so much like other days, never requiring things like algebra. This very consistency of her duties was satisfying, lacking anything like mental challenges, even when there was never the necessary time.
Watching Mrs. French working in the kitchen, however, where every day was different, was like contending with a perpetual motion machine dressed in a large white, often flour-dusted uniform, bounding from counter to table. From behind, the ends of her white headscarf stuck up like floppy ears, reminding Lisa of a very large white rabbit. But even if the menu changed every day, the schedule was the same.
"Hop to it," she'd cry out to Loraine, her solitary and over-worked assistant, "or otherwise, everything will be burned or late!"
Things had been quieter at her last place where the pace was different because they could afford to hire enough staff. But then they also dealt with a busy schedule of weddings and banquets. Hardly a week went by without some major event filling up the schedule though numerous managers helped keep everything running smoothly. Loseley Park, in nearby Guildford, was still privately owned and a commercial success, unlike Phlaumix Court which was part National Trust – fortunately, the family's downstairs staff didn't have to deal with the public side.
But then those unfortunate incidents had started happening where little things began disappearing from the various bedrooms – mostly jewels and cufflinks – and the police arrested her because she was the one cleaning those rooms. Only after she'd been fired and taken away did anyone discover the daughter's pet mynah bird was actually the jewel thief.
The director of housekeeping dropped the charges but neither apologized nor rehired her, something she deemed totally unacceptable, finding herself unemployed, especially since her family had been servants at Loseley Park since the Regency.
On the other hand, she had stolen one thing they never discovered missing: an old letter she'd found in the library.
Since it had been written by a maid she figured was her great-great-great-great-grandmother, she felt by rights it belonged to her. So while dusting one day, she simply pocketed the letter assuming nobody'd notice.
It was a very curious letter and one that got Lisa to thinking whenever her mind had the time to wander which, truth be told, was naturally quite often, more than Mrs. Linebottom liked. Written in small, awkward script, it flowed fitfully over a page of stationery embossed with the address of Christ Church, Oxford.
Mimsy was in service at Dean Liddell's home and had experienced something strange when visiting her mother's Aunt Dinah, Mrs. Tweedle, then the housekeeper at Loseley Park in Guildford (and who'd later hired her).
While playing with her cousins along the pleasant banks of the River Wey in view of the town's old castle ruins, she noticed a rabbit run toward an old stump followed by a stranger.
Then an even curiouser thing happened when the rabbit dove into the stump: "the air became all blue and shimmery like."
"The curiousest thing of all," she wrote, "was how this oddly dressed Wey-faring stranger dove in after the rabbit and disappeared and the surrounding light immediately ceased to shimmering, leaving only a shoe behind." She left her cousins down by the bank and walked toward the stump "looking about with much caution," retrieving the shoe.
"I held my hand out over the stump, the air became suddenly cool, and turned once again shimmery blue like water – but it didn't feel wet like water does – and I dropped the shoe."
She stepped back in surprise when she heard a thunk from deep underground and a distant voice said something like "donkey-shern." It was the strangest thing she'd ever seen but didn't really scare her.
"Perhaps they did things differently there in Guildford, at least compared to Oxford, but I so wanted to follow them both."
Later in the letter, she writes, "I told this nice Rev. Dodgson who often visited the Dean's children, telling them stories, and him wondering what was on the other side of that shimmering light. So later, I'm much annoyed when somebody named Mr. Carroll takes my story and publishes the thing as his very own!"
Certainly, Lisa thought while sitting at her mending, poor Mimsy deserved some credit. Wondering what's beyond that light, she thought maybe...
Then a voice warned, "Something's going to happen," but it wasn't Mrs. French's.
Everything backstage was in a state of chaos by the time we arrived, crowds of the curious, students and faculty, along with various types of police. Inspector Hemiola spoke quietly with an officer at the barricade, showing his badge, then motioned us through and down the hall.
"Is it true that they've canceled the rehearsal?" "What about the concert tonight?" Someone else wondered if the rumors were true. Several others were concerned if the killer was still in the building. “Killer?!"
I didn't even know what the rumors were, much less if they're true, regardless how Hemiola explained it in the car. Everything had happened so quickly, it seemed unreal – and we all had questions.
Several officers with IMP logos on their bullet-proof vests stood outside the room. Then Hemiola, opening the door, motioned us through.
But before all this had started to unfold back there at the restaurant, I wondered what the IMP wanted with me. Who was this strange man and how had me managed to find me? Looking at LauraLynn and Burnson hoping they knew what this was all about, I soon realized they had no idea, either.
Hemiola flashed his badge at us too quickly for anyone to read it, then pocketed it, nodding deferentially in my direction. "Dr. Kerr, I'm afraid we need your help on a rather urgent matter."
He explained he was with the London division of the International Music Police which handled crimes involving music and musicians worldwide.
"Am I being called to testify in Calcium Nightlight's lawsuit against Dennis Coombe?"
"Wait... what?" His brow furrowed into a frown. "That's not why I'm here."
"There was nothing criminal in Howard Zenn's death..."
"No – besides, that would be with IMP's special forces and Director Yoda Leahy-Hu.” (There's a name I didn't need to hear). "No, it's a matter concerning Maestro Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter – whom I believe you know?"
"Oh, why, yes, of course – I'm so looking forward to seeing him again: it's been years since I last saw him. Why didn't you say so? He's an old friend of mine, you know." I'd last seen him when he conducted at Lincoln Center in the late-1990s, three programs – part of the World Twelve-Tone Series.
LauraLynn told him the four of us were just leaving for the Academy to hear the rehearsal for his concert tonight. "Two minutes later and you'd have missed us: I'd say that's good timing."
"We're having lunch with him," I said as Cameron handed me my coat. "Would you like to go backstage and meet...?"
"Actually, Dr. Kerr, I've been backstage and, well... uhm, I've already seen him." Hemiola stood fidgeting, his hands in his pockets.
"Seen...?" His tone of voice alone had me wondering if all was well. "So, if I may ask, why have you come to ask my help? How did you find me? Is something wrong...?"
I looked at the others and saw they also showed signs of alarm.
"I regret Maestro Schnellenlauter will not be conducting the dress rehearsal this morning."
"Has he been taken ill?"
"Worse, I'm afraid..."
"Oh, no!" LauraLynn struggled to keep her balance, the news a considerable shock. "But I saw him at last night's rehearsal. It's okay if he can't conduct the concert as long as he's... he's..."
"But you said your agency deals with crimes...?" Burnson hesitated before going on. "It's more than a heart attack, isn't it?"
Burnson reached over and took LauraLynn's arm in his, as if preparing her for something that hadn't quite sunk in, yet.
"I'm afraid I have bad news for you: I'm sorry for your loss."
And now we'd arrived at what was being called simply "The Crime Scene," a prosaic-sounding cliché when it's your friend's body. It was here someone on the stage crew found Schnellenlauter early this morning. Some of the students had come in to check the stage before classes, and noticed the door to the dressing room. They didn't know who'd be in this early unless the Maestro left the door open and the light on last night. Who else could it be? Then they saw the body and called police.
"That's why the IMP has been called in," Hemiola explained in the car, as we crawled through snow- and traffic-clogged streets, "now that Scotland Yard believes this was more than just a routine murder."
"Routine murder." Two words echoed through my brain. How can that be possible? Not just a murder but a "routine" murder.
True, I'd watched enough TV shows to know murder mysteries fit certain patterns. Like I told my students, "if you dig deep enough beneath the surface, you will find some kind of common denominator. Standard forms could be broken down into equally standard clichés, consistently recognizable patterns regardless of whatever stylistic language was involved and..."
"...which is why we hope you can help us identify the Maestro's killer."
"Killer..." I hesitated, my thoughts interrupted. "But how...?"
And I still didn't know how they knew to find me, or where.
Hemiola slowly opened the dressing room door and there was poor Schnellenlauter's body
lying on its side against an overturned table. His left arm and leg stretched outwards at uncomfortable angles which looked odd.
Burnson held her closer as LauraLynn started sobbing, then walked her back outside: it was all so sudden, such a shock.
Hemiola apologized for having to talk to us, questions that still needed asking, but he had to find our friend's killer. One question stopped us cold: was there anyone who'd want to kill him?
Cameron indicated he's positioned like an alto clef – something used primarily by violas. "Perhaps he knew his killer was a violist?"
I wondered, was SHMRG still trying to stop the performance of Rob's opera?
Hemiola carefully took something out of Schnellenlauter's hand and handed it to me.
"Then we found this card – addressed to you."
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to be continued... [the link will become active at 8am, 6/27/16]
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The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody, occasionally by personal experience. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used," like the Mandeville Hotel and the Royal Academy of Music's Duke's Hall (my apologies to both the hotel and the concert venue for having murders committed there). Other places like Phlaumix Court and Umberton are purely fictional. Any similarity between characters and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train1