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.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
A large balding man in a rumpled overcoat carrying a tattered viola case slid into an isolated booth at the back of a popular Italian restaurant. Nepomuck always liked it here, stopping by regularly, enjoying the menu's endless variety, a place famous for its numerous pasta dishes. He also liked that they played nothing but the finest Italian classical music, mostly Rossini (naturally) but also Vivaldi and Verdi, hardly anything more recent than Puccini's glorious melodies except maybe Respighi's “Ancient Airs.”
Young Gioacchino, the owner's son, bustled about, smiling, urging on his kitchen staff, and noticed one of his regulars settling in. He always took time to chat with customers, greeting them like old friends. Lots of his customers liked this easy-going familiarity as much as the food, and usually first-timers would quickly turn into regulars.
But Gioacchino knew this one – the large balding man in the rumpled overcoat – kept to himself, preferring to be left alone. He was always friendly to him, of course, but the man rarely responded. There were all kinds of people, he knew, but basically only two types: out-going friendly people, and then those who weren't.
This guy whom he knew only as Nepo was one of the introverts but he always ate a ton of food. Gioacchino knew he'd lose money on this guy if he ever went "all-you-can-eat."
"Eh, Nepo, my large friend, good seeing you! What'll it be this morning?" Young Gioacchino waited while Nepomuck scanned the specials. Meanwhile, Gioacchino scanned the restaurant as other customers arrived and waved to them.
Nodding his approval, Nepomuck ordered the breakfast lasagna, made with sausage and bacon, which came with scrambled eggs and fried potatoes.
Gioacchino, a spry, wiry man over 80 already, bounded off to the kitchen. ("Young" was a relative term to distinguish him from his father, the owner: Old Gioacchino only worked on Sundays, any more.)
Nepomuck placed his tattered old viola case carefully beside him on the bench and wrapped his equally tattered scarf around it. It was awkward slipping out of his coat, so he left it on. Standing well over six feet tall and weighing a solid, bear-shaped 340 pounds, he had enough trouble fitting into the booth.
He preferred coming to Rossiniana's after a gig, unlike that place on Mandeville: much simpler and less inclined to notice him. It was food he was after, not ambiance, not to mention cheaper prices. He could afford three entrees here, most likely, compared to an appetizer there, and, still a growing boy, that was important. Of course, his being a free-lance classical musician also meant budget was important, and they're very good about "doggy bags" here. He could just imagine asking for a box from the waiters at Mandeville.
It was these unfortunately infrequent special gigs that tired him out the most, made him the most ravenous, especially for Italian. He wondered if anybody here had noticed he'd also been in last night? He had the dinner special, a Florentine lasagna along with some pasta fagiole. In fact, he'd ordered three servings of each.
Last night's had been a particularly exhausting gig with another early this morning, the drawback of a limited window of opportunity, considering Nepomuck wasn't a soloist or even a very good freelance section player. Like most people who were not musicians themselves, his employer never understood artists, especially what it took to develop that skill.
Nepomuck had developed a very good specialized reputation, proving music was fully capable of doing more than soothing the savage beast. If artfully handled, he found he could use his instrument to kill people.
He never remembered much about his early childhood beyond wanting to study music which had become a solace to his reality. Nepomuck loved listening to music, especially the good old tunes of classical music. He found he could lose himself in music, become transported to another world through its beautifully expanding melodies or exciting rhythms. Someone had once handed him a toy drum which he'd thought too pedestrian and he'd beaten the crap out of it. But it was a violin he'd stumbled upon that really captured his imagination.
The only memory he had of his mother, beyond the vaguest of recollections, was watching his father bludgeon her to death after what had started as just another fight (that's when he ran away). After coming up with so many different identities, he'd forgotten his real name by the time he arrived at the orphanage.
It was a janitor there – curiously named Blindt – who had christened him Nepomuck, though why didn't make any sense to him. It's a big awkward name, he thought, and he's a big awkward kid. Of all the other aliases he'd tried on for size over the years, he felt this one maybe suited him best.
But it was hearing the old man play the violin late at night when all the other children should be asleep that made him want to learn to play and give his life purpose.
After weeks of listening in the tranquil darkness, Nepomuck approached the old man and asked if he would consider teaching him. So the long process of his training began on that very same night. He struggled learning how to hold the thing, how to draw the bow, how to produce a sound that wasn't painful.
Blindt told him he must practice each day once he started playing melodies, working eventually toward an hour every single day. "It could take thousands of hours, my boy, maybe even ten thousand hours!"
Mr. Grinder, the director, reluctantly adjusted Nepomuck's schedule despite not seeing the purpose of weekly music lessons and needing to practice. "It's a waste of time," the old worn-out teacher complained, "rots the mind!"
"Ten thousand hours at an hour a day," Nepomuck estimated: "that's twenty-seven years! What kind of idiot would work that hard?"
Maybe life at Dothby's Orphanage was not easy but Nepomuck didn't really notice. It seemed little different from his previous life. Every day was practically the same except for days he had his lessons. Bullying from the other children was one thing, he was used to that, and the abusive adults were like his father. But it helped he quickly began developing as a boy, growing taller and, more significantly, broader across the chest and shoulders. Though not the oldest of the boys there, he'd easily become the biggest.
Eventually he found the others left him alone, meaning there was less fighting, and he realized his size gave him security. He only fought to defend himself, he'd say: he wasn't one to attack. In fact, Nepomuck hated violence which didn't mean he wasn't incapable of it. It's just he didn't care to use it.
So, the bigger he got, the less the older children beat him up, an easy target who appeared to be stupid. Instead, they teased him because he was slow but this didn't bother him. The fact is, he knew he was stupid, everybody always told him that – "slow and stupid, that's our Nepo," they'd say.
Everyone except Old Blindt at his violin lessons where he made excellent progress and was now practicing two hours every day. His only consolation was found in the music. Nothing else mattered to him.
The problem was he didn't have much talent and Blindt had his limitations, a player of little technique and less experience. Plus the boy was physically outgrowing his violin, presenting all kinds of problems. Besides, Blindt grew up as a dance-band musician who played mostly old-fashioned tunes which even the staff at Dothby's couldn't recognize.
These were the popular songs from Blindt's youth, back when life was good, tunes that wafted him into a nostalgic fog, plus the usual bunch of folk songs everyone could recognize but not remember.
But Dothby's was not equipped to teach music beyond Miss Carbunckle's little chorus where students learned to sing some popular pieces. Music existed primarily to entertain them, like recess, and didn't require private lessons.
Director Grinder agreed to send him to the town church for his lessons where he began studying with Dr. Franklin Stine.
Long ago, when Old Professor Stine was a young man everybody called Frankie, he was a jazz pianist with monster chops, plus he played violin in the local orchestra and conducted his church's choir. He listened to classical music quite often and even loved opera, he confessed, building his musical taste from this and that. He had little patience for rap music, though, and even less for what other people considered the "pop music du jour," so he'd stopped listening to it years ago – "there were limits," he'd stressed.
When Nepomuck arrived at the church to meet Professor Stine that first time, the old man was playing the pipe organ, what Nepo later found out was Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The sounds continued to reverberate around the church even after Stine stopped playing but ricocheted inside his head for minutes longer.
Nepo said he'd never heard such music before, asking him not to stop, so the old man obligingly kept on playing. The sound grew in volume and became faster, flurries of notes cascading everywhere. Once the music roared to its inevitable conclusion, Nepomuck shouted bravo and applauded. Music had always been soothing – this... was exhilarating.
But it would be impractical for him to take lessons on the organ, not having access to one at the orphanage. Besides, solving the violin problem was easy enough: Stine handed him a viola.
As the other orphans were gradually all adopted, soon replaced by new ones, Nepomuck was now the senior orphan at Dothby's on the verge of finishing his allotted time, ready to be cut loose. Then after Blindt the janitor became ill and Nepo substituted for his mentor, he realized, "here's something useful I could do."
Since Old Blindt soon became too weak to return to work full time, Director Grinder agreed to make Nepomuck Blindt's assistant, since he'd essentially finished all his necessary classes and needed an occupation now.
One night Blindt was taken to the hospital after he'd suffered a stroke, Nepomuck going along, playing his viola for him. After the old man died, Grinder asked Nepomuck to become Dothby's chief janitor.
As career paths went, it had been no different for Blindt who'd started there as an orphan himself, never to leave.
Through all this, Nepomuck had kept up with his lessons from Professor Stine, shuffling off each Wednesday for the village church. Sometimes he would go in early, hoping to catch him practicing the organ. Being the janitor kept him quite busy but his evenings were his own when he could practice late into the night.
Being the janitor also meant he had his own room – a cell, really – a little privacy just off the basement steps. There, he could practice three hours every night and not bother the others.
He was making great progress, Stine told him, mastering several popular classical melodies, great tunes from Beethoven symphonies or Verdi operas. This classical music, even older than Blindt's songs, he found new and exciting. On an old radio Stine had left him, one station would play nothing but great hits from two hundred years ago.
Even if he didn't know the themes or what the chords were doing, he pretended he was part of the orchestra, scraping along with the sounds, trying to fit, getting the hang of it.
At first, not knowing what he was doing, he admitted it sounded awful, but with familiarity he could figure it out; rather than playing the melodies, he'd find a note that fit the harmony.
And when it was over, he would laugh and applaud from sheer joy, feeling happier than he had ever remembered before.
Sitting there, waiting for his breakfast at Rossiniana's, Nepomuck felt that same satisfaction, warming to old and pleasant memories nearly forgotten, how the discovery of something new had given him a sense of power. That awareness of satisfaction was something he rarely felt before – felt rarely since – but it was good to feel it again.
Realizing he might become a musician had given his life some meaning, then, rising above the horrible, empty childhood he'd endured. He filled with pride when he was handed his first musician's union card.
Stine trained him well and worked him hard, had him play in church, and included him in the school's student orchestra which no one seemed to mind since there were few other violists around. From there, he was hired for several performances by the local opera company, known for being quiet and a hard worker.
"It's only been a few years," he reminisced, almost breaking into a smile, "but it's like such a long time ago." (The waiter set down a plate heaping with lasagna, scrambled eggs and bacon.) "How much trouble it had been to find a tux that fit me – cost more than the gig's pay, that did."
And now he's attained a whole new plateau in his career, he thought, "one where I shall excel and achieve success. I've been inducted into the Penguins of God! I wear its uniform proudly!"
He recalled that gig Stine contracted him for, but he'd had a cold: they needed a chamber ensemble to play music before a big-time banker from London was going to be speaking about music, some philanthropist whose goal was to preserve the great masterpieces of classical music, a talk he called, "Why You Hate Schoenberg."
They had practiced several hours, getting it right, playing one of Mozart's divertimentos and of course his favorite piece, Pachelbel's Canon. After Nepomuck missed the performance, Stine agreed to tell him all about it.
The speaker described a musical Garden of Eden, a long-sought-for, unfortunately long-lost paradise where there stood two trees with tempting fruit, one full of beautiful simplicity and lovely melodies, the other full of thorns, and how we music lovers should eat plentifully from the Tree of Enjoyment but avoid the bitter, disappointing Tree of Knowledge.
"In every age, there were those who ate too much of Knowledge and pushed Enjoyment beyond the boundaries of good taste, and these composers, their music and their advocates need to be weeded out."
After he'd listened to Stine tell him this, Nepo wanted to "join up," like the talk ended with an altar call.
Oh, to have missed such an inspiring lecture and join this great army to protect Beethoven from the likes of Schoenberg!
Nepomuck became a committed believer who'd never forget that man's name: Maurice Harty.
But then he remembered, before enjoyment, before fulfillment, Nepomuck knew, even before he could become one with his plate of lasagna, there was a phone call to be made and news to be reported. He had now completed three assignments – so far – with further instructions awaiting him. He reached into his pocket for his phone.
Like his viola, this was a special phone designated for only one purpose, programmed to communicate with only one special person, encrypted to circle the globe to reach someone who might be blocks away.
It was the voice he always heard that now spoke clearly to him, relaying his instructions, requiring confirmation of his success, always speaking in a low, digitally modified voice, the sibilants like drawn-out hisses.
The call was quickly answered by a man known only as The Serpent. The news was quickly imparted: all was good.
Yes, admittedly, it very much looked like the card was addressed to me, a piece of folded paper with my name in a rather spidery handwriting:
This had been written hurriedly across the front but inside was something making even less sense:
hr okhh ggutauq
g"sryllv wG dFnh fskfu;x fqauqe
kre ulq ruiM grggglqrsy mguvhuh vhewfkt Qld ffes
kuum hqvl ln lsau k yuu,o aylh' ruaq cyny qfhka eyhf nlowk uulnuuskyfuf
Hemiola coughed politely as if to remind me he was still standing there. "Perhaps you can make something out of this?" The message itself, unlike the address, was neatly written with a calligraphic pen. "It's clearly in some kind of code but since it's addressed to you, we thought you might be familiar with it."
Cameron, looking over my shoulder, thought we might. "Doesn't it look like it could be the same code from Harty's Journal? But then what association could there possibly be between Schnellenlauter and Harrison Harty?" (*1)
"This first word, see? – (Xunkdùv:-) – title or salutation: is that a smiley face? And here – fskfu;x – contains an internal semicolon – strange."
"You've seen this code before?" Hemiola sounded intrigued. "So you know it, then."
"Well, let's say," I hesitated, "we've seen a code similar to this one but I wouldn't say they're actually the same."
It also didn't make any sense how the two would possibly be connected. How could Schnellenlauter know about Harrison Harty's code? After all, that was from 1880 and we only decoded it last summer. Harty had written the account of his Schweinwald adventures using a substitution code but I'm sure that was the only similarity.
"I keep looking at these three interior punctuations, each time a different one, but especially this one with the end-quotation mark." It looked like it ought to indicate the last letter in the message.
"There may be something here in the way he's addressed the card, though, perhaps a clue to figuring out the code: this pun playing off my name, for one, since ricercar means 'to search'..."
"But search what?" Cameron pointed at the card. "Whose Op.45 does he mean?"
"Oh, that's easy: it's obviously Arnold Schoenberg's – A.S.?"
Hemiola frowned, then pointed at the coded message. "I thought this was strange," running his finger along the text's right-side margin, "how the lines' lengths increase considerably with each new line – sort of geometrically."
His observation prompted me to take a closer look at the text itself, broken up into eight lines of varying length.
Each line was divided into distinct, definable words, regardless of their complete incomprehensibility, and I immediately began to count them, line-by-line.
"Hah!" An old memory flickered through my brain. "Guess what? It's a Fib!"
"He's lying?" Hemiola spluttered his annoyance, stepping back, and grabbed the folded paper. "Is he in the habit of telling fibs?"
"No, no," I said, taking the card back from him to show Cameron.
The first line was just a single word – "probably a salutation," I assumed; the next two lines were one word each.
Each following line consisted of two, three, five, eight, then finally thirteen words. (*
"It's like haiku with its 17-syllable, three-line structure, only here each line is a number of words in a Fibonacci Sequence."
"That sounds a bit too brainy to be art, for me," Hemiola said.
But what were haiku with their strict formulas?
"Would it be true art
The age-old argument between intelligence and emotion continued. Hemiola disagreed, frowning in irritation.
While I explained how Schnellenlauter would send me these Fibonacci poems or 'Fibs' – whether or not they sounded 'poetic' like haiku – a frazzled-looking administrator from the school hurried in and apologized profusely to LauraLynn. He had already been at the crime scene when the police first arrived, unable to control his anxiety at the news.
"I am so sorry, Ms. Harty," he began, trying not to show his curiosity at the view unfolding just behind her as SOCOs were having some trouble putting Schnellenlauter's corpse into a body bag.
Given rigor mortis set in and affected the awkwardly outstretched arm and leg, especially since he'd been lying on his side, the body's stiffening into this rather peculiar position caused the agents considerable effort.
It was impossible not to notice their difficulty which made us all uncomfortable until the coroner ushered us out the door.
Inspector Hemiola interrupted himself to introduce us to the coroner, Dr. Mortimer Rigorian, an elderly and knowledgeable-looking gentleman in white scrubs, and Agent Ben Rubato who hesitated before reaching out to shake our hands.
"So, Mort," Chief Inspector Hemiola asked the coroner, "what can you tell us? Time of death – maybe the cause of death?"
"Challenging to say, you know," the doctor replied with a certain scholarly indifference, "at least not until after the autopsy, certainly. But so far, with no wound, no blood and no obvious blunt-force trauma...?"
"So, in other words," Hemiola said, "you're saying it doesn't look like murder?"
"Come now, inspector, did I actually say that?"
Aside from the odd position of the body, he'd noticed nothing really suspicious.
I considered the position of the body and the coded message they'd found and suspected a good deal of foul playing.
LauraLynn began to sob again as Schnellenlauter's body, covered by a yellow tarp, rolled past us, lying sideways on the gurney.
Was she thinking the same thing I'd thought, that SHMRG was behind this?
Hemiola took the card as I went to slip it inside a book. "Sorry, sir, but I'm afraid this is evidence. I'll have our code squad break it down, if you would not mind?"
"If I can have a copy of this, we'll work on it also – and maybe a score of Schoenberg's String Trio...?"
Hemiola, clearly irritated, looked over at me quizzically. "And why exactly that piece? This is no time for pointless scholarly analysis."
"Oh, not that," I explained, pointing to the message addressed specifically to me.
"Aren't you a composer who'd published a Ricercar as your Op.45," he asked. "No? Then who, may I ask, are you?"
I'd taken an immediate dislike to this inspector even back at the restaurant and it was clear the feeling was mutual. He'd dragged me in here as a consultant yet had no idea why.
"I am an old friend of Maestro... of the... deceased," I corrected myself (it sounded brutally cold calling him 'the victim'). "And he's telling me 'to search' – ricercar – in an Op.45 by A. S. Now, given Schnellenlauter's musical tastes, I'd easily imagine what he'd be referring to was the String Trio, Op.45, by Arnold Schoenberg."
What I expected to find was another matter, conjecture that perhaps could wait, just as the coroner's reports required additional delays. Schoenberg wrote it after the heart attack he'd suffered and had actually died. But a doctor injected Dilaudid directly into his heart which immediately revived him: three weeks later, he began composing this trio.
The music, opening with spasmodic, almost kaleidoscopic gestures, perhaps reflected his 'near-death' experience, sounded like nerve fibers bursting back into life. Did eventually longer lines, even a waltz-like bit, imply a return to consciousness?
If Hemiola would be wrinkling his nose at the sound of Schoenberg's name, imagine how he'd react to hearing his music. Reluctantly, he approached the administrator talking to LauraLynn and asked him a question. While I couldn't hear exactly what he said, he looked back at me, and the administrator nodded, calling over a student.
"Agent O'Rondo," the inspector called to one of his associates, "come here, Axel." A young man approached him immediately and nodded. "This student will take you to the library to find a specific score."
He quickly scribbled down Schoenberg's name with the piece's title and opus number, explaining somewhat dubiously it may have some relevance.
The agent looked at the paper and smiled. "Great piece, sir: right away."
Hemiola growled at him. "Great piece, my arse, and be quick about it." Giving another nod, the young man hurried off.
Excusing himself from the administrator, Burnson came over, wondering what else was happening. "Have you made sense out of anything here? Not that one could ever make sense out of someone killing another person... The Dean's said they've already canceled the concert but they'll wait till the police are ready before making any public announcement."
"They wouldn't be able to keep something as sensational as this," I imagined, "out of the news for very much longer." Besides, I needed to get to work on cracking this code, didn't I?
I showed Burnson the copy of the message Schnellenlauter had addressed to me, but he made no sense of it either. Running his finger across the coded text, he shrugged his shoulders and frowned.
"They've sent someone to find a copy of the Schoenberg trio he'd mentioned," I said, pointing out the reference to Op.45.
"Right, Schnellenlauter was very keen on that, lately – we'd have it at home. There's an extensive Schoenberg collection in our library. Great-Grandfather Rudyard was very interested in new music, and Schoenberg especially," he added. "I'm sure Frieda would know – Oh God, I've forgotten all about Aunt Frieda! I've got to break the news to her..."
"Wait – Frieda? Who is Frieda," I asked him. Schnellenlauter's wife was named Frieda. "You're talking about your mother's maiden aunt, right?"
"I guess you'd call her Schnelly's 'significant other.'"
"Your aunt's Frieda F. Erden?"
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
to be continued... [the link will become active at 8am, 6/29/2016]
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
(*1) Harrison Harty: a cousin of the composer Hamilton Harty, young Harrison was also a prodigy as a composer and in 1880 studied at the summer session of that great music school, the Schweinwald Academy in Bavaria, when Dudley Böhm was headmaster. Harty kept a journal of his stay which, following the unexplained death of a fellow student, broke into a mysterious code. Among his friends were Hans Rott, Ethel Smyth, and Gustav Mahler. It forms the basis of much of the story of The Lost Chord. The last part of the journal was missing.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
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