Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #13

The previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben introduces one of my favorite villains, Nepomuck and his killer viola. Not only do we find out about his story and his studies with local musician Dr. Franklin Stine, we discover a delightful Italian restaurant, Rossiniana's, near London's famed Wigmore Hall. Meanwhile, backstage at Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, Dr. Kerr examines a coded message that had been addressed to him by the deceased which suggests he search Arnold Schoenberg's String Trio Op. 45 for a clue. It immediately becomes apparent that Dr. Kerr and Inspector Hemiola are not likely to become friends.

(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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CHAPTER TWO, continued...

An isolated booth at Rossiniana's: several minutes later

Nepomuck slipped his phone back into his pocket with a smile of satisfaction as Gioacchino brought him a heaping second serving of the breakfast lasagna special. No words were spoken between them this time – nothing needed to be said – as Nepomuck again tucked in with evident delight. An overnight cook told Gioacchino some big bald guy'd come in before midnight and ordered three dinner specials, one after another. Looking at Nepomuck's obvious enjoyment, Gioacchino needn't imagine who that might have been.

Food was only part of this customer's satisfaction, if the restauranteur only knew, and the ambiance hardly even entered into it. Yet it wasn't just a hard night's work that somehow affected his appetite. The funny thing was playing his new viola for any length of time always made him especially ravenous for Italian food.

Once again, Nepomuck admitted he felt overly warm sitting there in his overcoat, heated up by his breakfast and the coffee, but then he remembered why he was not supposed to take it off: The Serpent had told him if he's seen wearing a tuxedo at 9am, it would only call unnecessary attention to himself.

"No self-respecting free-lance musician would be out playing a gig at that hour," his master had warned him, citing security protocols. "Jazzers might get back from late-night clubs then but they don't wear tuxes."

Nepomuck had left Professor Stine's church after a rather long concert months ago – a wonderful program full of Telemann and Vivaldi – and he'd forgotten to change out of his tuxedo before returning to Dothby. Along the way, he was taunted by some school boys calling him names until he rose up to his full height.

Standing behind them, leaning against the village fountain and completely oblivious to everything, was a drunken bum he'd never seen before. Or at least not someone he'd seen recently until it dawned on him.

Standing in the moonlight, wearing his tux, his viola slung over his back, Nepomuck realized the drunk was calling him names. It was the wheedling voice he recognized first, a pestilence from his past.

He immediately went over and began pounding his fist into the man's face, the man he last saw killing his mother.

Should he murder his own father this way, attacking him on the street? He wanted to, but was it worth it? The police would catch him and then they would throw him in prison. He didn't think they'd let him play his viola in prison – would they? – so he decided there must be another way.

A few days later, Professor Stine showed him a new instrument he'd acquired, a large cream-colored viola brought in for repairs. Aside from a few cracks around the sides, it didn't look too bad.

The odd finish, as if it'd been dipped in a white cream sauce, was without a doubt its most striking feature but not necessarily its worst problem, Stine figured, demonstrating the instrument's 'wolf tone (*1).' This was an acoustical phenomenon that plagued even very fine instruments, he explained, a nasty sound originating from the lower strings.

But Nepomuck's mind wasn't on Stine's scientific demonstration ever since seeing his father and realizing how much he wanted him dead. This man had recently been released from prison but he had changed little. Nepomuck contemplated beating him to a bloody pulp like he'd beaten his mother, perhaps several times before he'd out-right kill him.

There were many ways he could kill him, playing them in his mind, then he'd run away again, escape the police...

"Nepomuck," Stine said with a kindly smile, "have you heard anything I've said?"

This unusual, supposedly 'legendary' instrument, Stine was explaining, came to him quite accidentally, a local businessman hoping it could be repaired, an instrument he'd found in an old cheese shop when traveling through Cremona. It had, he'd whispered mysteriously, a "strange and unusual history going back centuries," rumored to have been made in Stradivarius' workshop.

What Nepomuck most liked about it, more importantly – it was larger than most standard violas and easier for him to play. Too bad about that ghastly finish and those ugly wolf tones, he thought.

The weirdest thing was, after you'd played it and it warmed up enough, the room smelled like a plateful of spaghetti or more specifically like the grated Parmesan cheese he always heaped on spaghetti. Supposedly the result of a lunchtime workroom accident that completely ruined the finish, an apprentice spilled alfredo sauce onto fresh varnish.

Stradivarius instruments are, naturally, valued for their tone, their exquisite, rarely matched sound as well as the beauty of their finish. This poor instrument, set aside before being completed, was basically sold for scrap.

A woman named Ricotta Fontina bought it to hang in her cheese shop where for several centuries it absorbed fantastic aromas.

The fact Antonio Stradivarius made only a dozen violas in his storied career should have added some value to this one: with its odd, white finish and cheesy smell, this became the "Unlucky Thirteenth."

Stine set about over the next few weeks to fix the various cracks and with any luck eliminate the wolf tone though he could do nothing about the finish or its unusually fragrant varnish. He figured the change in climate after all these years aggravated its problems, given England's cooler, damper weather compared to Italy's.

With the help of his newly hired apprentice, a young boy named Silas, Stine took other old violas, discarded and broken, to find the necessary parts that, added inside, might correct the wolf tone.

Then, on a particularly dark and stormy night, Stine had finished his work and played an impromptu performance for young Silas. But the wolf tone turned out to be worse than before – much worse.

Before Stine knew what happened, he saw poor Silas fall to the floor, a horrific expression of fear upon his face.

Nepomuck had braved the storm that awful night to come help his teacher when he called about disposing of a body. The professor tried to explain what had happened but it hardly seemed possible. If word got out his playing could cause a listener's death, no one would ever hire him again – he'd be ruined.

A month later, Nepomuck, sneaking into the church, watched Stine practicing the viola when one of the local delinquents broke in. He watched as Stine marched toward the boy, repeatedly playing the wolf tone.

Immediately, the would-be burglar halted in his tracks, falling to the floor – dead! Even behind glass, Nepomuck knew it sounded awful. Other than the horror on the boy's face, there'd been no visible violence.

Once again, he helped his teacher drag the body down into the crypt and that's when they both figured it out.

There was something about the wolf tone that'd been amplified by Stine's repairs, how both deaths happened around the full moon. Whatever he'd done to it, Stine had turned it into a killer viola. It left not a single mark upon its victims, no sign of murder, and yet somehow the player had remained immune.

"The wolf tone has become even more evil – it's become a Werewolf Tone!" The poor professor, Nepomuck realized, began babbling incoherently. "God, Nepomuck, I've created a monster," Stine wailed. "Here, take it – destroy it!"

The old man fell to the ground, sobbing, when Nepomuck had an idea and threw the viola into its ancient case. Hurriedly tearing the bow from his teacher's hand, he disappeared into the night. Nepomuck would find his father and kill him by hardly lifting a finger but it would still be a horrible death.

It didn't take long to locate the bastard, partly visible in the moonlight, lying there drunk in a nearby back alley.

"Here, old dad," Nepomuck said, "let me play you a nice little song."

What started as Brahms' Lullaby quickly turned into a fiendish shredding of sound once he began violently attacking the wolf tone. The beast who'd beaten his mother to death now shrank back in horror.

Holding his hands to his ears, his father thrashed about, screamed, and fell.

Nepomuck quickly checked the body – "Like a doornail!"

He stood back, delighted with his new discovery. "My god, it really works!" (Then he realized how hungry he felt. Pasta!) At long last, his mother had been avenged and the evil man punished. Here, his father was dead just as if he'd shot or strangled him and with a great deal less effort, too. There was not a single mark on him, no sign of physical attack. The only trauma was visible on his face. Certainly it was quick if not exactly painless and a lot less messy.

Another thing he realized as he put the viola back in its case: "Here's something I can do – and do well." But what kind of career options were there for a free-lance hired assassin? It wasn't like he'd be in big demand plus was there a union? – and then the matter of income and benefits.

At that moment, Nepomuck decided to leave behind the only home he knew, heading off in search of fame and fulfillment. But where would he go, and how would he realize his new dream? He remembered hearing about that speaker from London who'd talked about defending Beethoven, protecting us from musical villains like Arnold Schoenberg.

He would offer his services to the cause, but how to find him? There can't be many bankers named Maurice Harty.

This, Nepomuck knew, would be his true calling: he'd become a serial killer.

On the Tube to Victoria Station: minutes later

"You could've knocked me over with a feather with that news about Frieda. I had no idea she'd still be alive – been over thirty years, now."

"Yeah," Cameron said, "you've mentioned that several times. Maybe we can stop somewhere for lunch soon? I'm feeling like something Italian...?"

"But you have to admit it's still amazing, knowing her all these years, then discovering after you've lost touch with her that she's related to the guy someone you've known forever's going to marry."

The last time I'd seen Frieda was that visit to New York City sometime back in the early-80s – it was October – when Schnellenlauter was on one of those tours with his Twelve-Tone World Series. She had come along to do some research at the Lincoln Center Library, something about being "on the verge of discovery."

Frieda F. Erden could have been a composer to contend with, like many, with lots of talent if only adequate training, but her star never quite rose far enough for posterity to take notice. In her prime, she had received many commissions but very few second performances, and after a while, even those dried up.

Her music was considered "difficult" both to listen to as well as perform but even so she had her loyal followers. And then a young conductor named Hans-J├Ârg Schnellenlauter began to champion her music.

"But you never explained what Burnson meant by her being Schnellenlauter's 'significant other.' I thought you had said she's his wife." Cameron turned around to check out the rest of the crowded subway car. The traffic above-ground had been bad enough but it wasn't much easier below-ground, more crowded, maybe, like New York only cleaner.

"Oh, they'd gotten married back during the war, shortly after they'd first met, but it didn't work out over the years, so they got a divorce and lived separately but still maintained their relationship."

We'd managed the connection at Green Park Station, feeling like salmon heading upstream (more like salmon with no sense of direction), waiting a few minutes for the line that took us to Victoria Station.

"Considering what Schnellenlauter'd said then in New York, when I last saw her, that would mean sixty years of non-commitment, today."

I took out the copy of the message Hemiola's agent had given me, stuck in between the pages of a book – a book I didn't remember having with me before we'd left the restaurant – and flipped back and forth between the curious address with its vague directive and the message itself which was pure gibberish.

Schnellenlauter always described a new piece of music as a kind of code, something he needed to crack to understand it; then he could help it reach the audience so they could understand it.

There was an old joke he loved to tell, studying Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire traveling from Communist East Germany to the West, how a border guard had confiscated the score and accused him of spying.

"You'd best admit it, comrade" he quoted him, exaggerating his own German accent. "Your friend Schoenberg has already confessed to everything."

There was a time when he would send me the occasional souvenir postcard, its message in the form of a Fib, usually something about the place, their experiences there, or the repertoire he'd performed. Each one consisted of seven lines of text that looked like a poem, each line breaking down to a distinct pattern.

It wasn't meant to be poetic, he explained, just a constant mathematical challenge, how one could create such an infinite variety from nothing more than a sequence of numbers, its invariant word-count spiraling outward.

Then, in the early-80s, he'd devised this 'Schoenberg Code' as he described it, following what he called 'The Rule of 12.' I'd forgotten all about this until Hemiola reclaimed the original card as evidence. The idea was to take every twelfth letter - obvious for a dyed-in-the-wool serialist (*2) - and then place them in a new order.

This had gone through a series of revisions that both simplified the process but in other ways made it more complicated, much as Schoenberg's 'twelve-tone' language had grown more sophisticated and, to many, incomprehensible.

After trying just a handful of letters – "fskfu;x" (did punctuation marks count separately?) – was I really on to something or not? It had been over twenty years since I'd last seen one of these.

I had no idea what might have been applied to it since then: all I could see was the Fibonacci Series.

Burnson had interrupted my dilemma with reality's dilemma, how the storm was increasing and since the concert had now been canceled, as no one seemed particularly interested in us, he thought about leaving early. To delay much longer might mean getting stuck in London with the snow; besides, they could grieve in private at home.

And there was the matter of telling Frieda who, considering the day's events, I wanted to see more than anyone else. So Cameron and I agreed we'd get our luggage and meet them there.

Since Hemiola was busy talking to other agents, we left without interrupting him, the four of us, unnoticed, walking sadly away. I hoped that leaving now wouldn't look like we'd given him the slip. Besides, what more was there we could do without getting in the way if I wasn't needed to solve the code?

Burnson didn't know if Schnellenlauter had any other family who'd make final arrangements and technically Frieda was only the Maestro's ex-wife. Who knew when the funeral might be held, given the inquest and investigation?

Eventually we made it back to the Cheap Bastard Arms, got our luggage and after quickly taking care of our bill, hurried the short distance over to Victoria Station despite the increasingly deepening snow.

It wasn't very long before we were safely aboard the train for Snaffingham, but I was sure we were being watched.


Snaffingham Station, later that afternoon.

The cabby sounded less threatening than we'd first heard him, only moments ago, hiding in the shadows trying to keep warm and somehow knowing our names. Figuring the little-used station might well be closed on a day like this, 'the house' called him to meet us there.

I should have known better than to ask. "You say the house called?"

"Right, the butler up at Phlaumix Court – Vector? Seems their regular chauffeur's been all commandeered by them TV fellows," he added. 

LauraLynn had told us about 'them TV fellows' working on the Prodigy Pageant, the people Burnson also complained so much about, taking over the public part of the house and getting in everybody's way. 

The cabby slid our luggage into the boot then gave us a nod.

"Carron's my name – Danny Carron, at your service.

"They've taken over the Dog & Pony, too," our intrepid cabby told us. Apparently they've gotten the whole village against them. "Nice quiet pub, the Dog & Pony was," he said, revving the engine. "But them's a noisy lot, them poncy ones what with their loud clothes – and the hair! And their birds're even worse! Some of 'em're not too bad," he added, nodding his head in self-agreement, "'cept for one, a bit of a loner. Old girl with a mound of silver hair – downright witch she looks, too."

It was kind of Burnson to have a cab there to meet us, even with our loquacious Carron at the helm, but admittedly I missed the idea of arriving in style in some limousine. It wasn't every day I pulled up to a great English manor house. It would've been great to look the part. Not that Carron's cab was a poor substitute, considerably smaller as it was, but it lacked a certain gentility and charm. At least it was dry and toasty warm as it rattled merrily along. 

"Have you heard the latest forecast," Cameron asked, hoping to change the subject. It looked like the storm was slowing down.

"Old Hugh up at Umberton told me yesterday: a bitch of a storm."

He mentioned how these particular birds were building their nests higher than usual. "Means the snow'll be real deep," he explained.

The snow was deep enough for me already despite what the weatherman said, how the worst part would hit later tonight, and as usual nobody was making specific predictions about the accumulation they expected. Quite frankly, Old Hugh's birds – different birds, I was sure, than the ones hanging out at the pub – might prove right. 

Once Danny got moving and turned left out of the station's minuscule car-park, I noticed we headed away from the village as the snow started to fall more heavily and the sun disappeared completely.

There wasn't much left to see around us once the wind picked up and we'd slipped further out into the countryside. I thought it odd that every road we took was a left turn. That certainly made giving directions a lot easier but Danny explained you didn't take every turn or you'd get hopelessly lost. 

"Now see, you take those first two lefts, then the second left and after that the third and fifth lefts, next. And finally, after a stretch, the eighth left. Lose count, you're a goner. F'rinstance," he continued, "you took that left there," pointing down an invisible lane, "you'd find yourself at the parsonage in Umberton." 

At this point, the road started straightening out and began a slight incline. In the dim light ahead was a clearing. 

"There 'tis," our cabby said, pointing up ahead. "Magnificent place, Phlaumix Court is."

While I was sorry to miss Schnellenlauter's concert, it wasn't a bad idea, not waiting till morning to take the train. It could be days till they opened these roads back to the house. What if this was another one of those annual Storms of the Century, one that took down trees and power lines?

But on the other hand wasn't it possible this could all be hype and blow over leaving behind just a dusting? I'm sure that's what everybody at Phlaumix Court, after all, had hoped for. 

With the wedding only a few days away, there wasn't time for delays no matter what kind of storm it was. With the Christmas holidays right around the corner, they couldn't just postpone it. Everyone and their cousin would have holiday plans undoubtedly made far in advance, guessing the crowd we'd be hanging out with. 

And if you could have your wedding held in a genuine English castle, especially one belonging to the man you're marrying, why move it to some London hotel just because of a little storm? Though I had to admit, as long as I got there safely myself, the other guests, frankly, could fend for themselves.

Getting stranded in a cab in the middle-of-nowhere wasn't a pleasant idea, either, and I had doubts about the cab's blizzard-worthiness. I'll be very happy once we're safe inside no matter what happens next.

And what more could possibly happen, I wondered – of course, as soon as I thought that, wasn't I asking for trouble? – after my friend Schnellenlauter, a friend of the groom's family, had been murdered? What if SHMRG was indeed behind Schnelly's death, another one of their warnings, determined to stop the performance of Rob's opera? 

It stood to reason Steele and his minions might go after LauraLynn herself, especially since she was backing the entire production, and with her wedding in a few days, wasn't she a potential target?

Of course they had to cancel the concert since it wasn't just the conductor's being indisposed but his being murdered, instead. Schnelly's assistant conductor might be young and inexperienced but he's also a suspect. And what if the concert happened as scheduled, even with a substitute conductor: would SHMRG go ahead and kill him, too?

Even after blinking my eyes, I couldn't see anything in front of us, the snow was falling so thick and fast. We could easily have taken a wrong turn, for all I could tell. And, I thought, we could still get stuck, not halfway up the driveway. Brandy by a roaring fireplace sounded pretty good.

I told Danny I'd have to take his word about it for now, but I was sure it looked very grand. 

"Grand," our guide spluttered, huffing into his scarf. "'Grand' ain't it by half! Not that they're much into 'halves' around here. Everything's off-center for my taste. Built to some fancy mathy-matical hocus-pocus, they say."

He'd turned to face us, his brow twitching, but now it quickly passed. 

"Yes, the Golden Section and the Fibonacci Series, that's what Burnson told us." I began re-calculating the tip, increasing it exponentially. 

Looking up, I could almost sense the house lurking behind the swirling snow (reminding me I needed to get new glasses) as we crawled around the bend in the driveway toward the main entrance. Cameron thought the snow on the trees looked like an old Victorian postcard, but all I could see was concealed evil. 

As we got closer to the house where the snowfall started to diminish, the hulking shadow assumed a more recognizable identity once I could see several pinpoints of light pricking cautiously through some windows.

"Bloody hell, wazzat?" Danny yelled, hitting the brakes and skidding to a stop. Two beady pinpoints of light glowered up ahead. 

"Unlike the others," I said, "these are red. See? Evil – I told you..." 

"They look like taillights to me," Cameron said, peering forward into the gloom which hid something looking long, sleek – and ominous. 

"A car? Must be some other guests arriving. Funny how dark it is. Can't see nothing in this crap," Danny muttered. 

"I think we're still yards from the door – doesn't look like they're moving." 

Cameron suggested we could just grab our things rather than wait much longer. "It's not all that far," he pointed out. 

After passing us our bags, Danny looked in the back and saw something. 

"Here," he said, handing me a book, "don't want to lose this, now."

"Couldn't lose this if I tried," I mumbled.

I paid the fare and hoped the tip was adequate to Danny's expectations after being both cabby and local tour guide – he seemed pleased with it, giving us what I assumed was a wave.
Stomping snow off his boots before clambering inside, he revved up the cab, wheeled brusquely around and disappeared into the snowstorm.

Cameron shrugged his shoulders and trudged on ahead, talking back over his shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about him, Doc," he said. "He's probably in a hurry to get back to the Dog & Pony." 

The snow was deep enough to give me serious trouble with my balance as I tried keeping up with Cameron's footprints. Looking ahead, I could barely follow his silhouette once he'd passed the car.

Without warning, I slipped, nearly hitting the car as a door flew open: someone jumped out in front of me, screaming. 

"I know that scream," I thought as I fell backwards into the snow, curious if possibly that wasn't me I'd heard. With any luck, maybe I didn't break anything – or sound like that, either. 

Several other people piled out of the car (I realized it's a limousine) and gathered around the guy who continued screaming. 

Cameron hurried back and helped me stand up, brushing the snow off me. 

"What're you bloody staring at?" the screamer shouted. 

"Isn't he that idiot, Skripasha Scricci?" I thought. Of all the rotten luck...!

= = = = = = = 

To be continued... [the link becomes active at 8am on July 1st...]

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(*1) Wolf Tone: an acoustic phenomenon where, on some string instruments, a note on a lower string might produce a "sympathetic overtone" which causes a particularly unpleasant "beating" or oscillation of overtones "that has been likened to the howling of an animal," hence the term "wolf tone." It has nothing to do with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

(*2) 'Rule of 12'... serialist: Schoenberg originated a 'method' of composing 'with twelve tones' which is usually referred to as 'serialism' (to get more involved in what that is would take longer than a mere footnote) and therefore the number '12' becomes significant (it should also be mentioned Schoenberg had a fear of the number 13, but that's another story). The pun comes in when Nepomuck, fighting fans of Schoenberg, becomes a serial killer - or a killer of serialists. 

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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 Train

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