Friday, July 22, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #23

In the previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, Frieda reveals the existence of a shadowy organization known as “The Guidonian Hand,” convinced someone from the group has infiltrated the house. Kerr assumes they're probably responsible for Schnellenlauter's death but that was in London: what are they doing here? Then Cameron receives a message from Dylan: he thinks their woman in the library is the same old lady who'd kidnapped him last year, the Countess du Hicquè. Frieda recognizes the woman, too, from a photograph taken at the funeral of Melody Klangfarben who is actually Frieda's granddaughter. But what was this woman doing at Phlaumix Court?

(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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At Umberton, SHMRG's temporary headquarters: earlier that afternoon

It was a chance remark Anton Schindler made one day, almost in passing. Like many of the people now mourning Beethoven, he'd been greatly distraught, inconsolable. And why shouldn't he be, he thought: he was the Great Man's amanuensis. Beethoven made him important – and now he's gone. In fact, Schindler'd been down in his cups, unable to control his emotions, ever since he knew the inevitable was near. And given everything that had been going on, it was a terrible end. Beethoven had always managed to surmount his suffering, the constant illnesses, the deafness, and especially that business with the young nephew. If it hadn't been for that boy and his evil mother, what then? Schindler knew he had nearly stopped composing during the worst of that ordeal. "How much had we lost because of them?"

Feeling sorry for himself more than usual on the night after the funeral, Schindler sat in his favorite tavern's darkest corner, and told a friend about this mysterious letter he'd found among Beethoven's papers. It had been addressed only to "my angel" and called her numerous things – "my life," "eternally mine," and "my Immortal Belovèd." Schindler complained, "he only ever called me his Papageno, an appendix, a wretch," and with that, he resumed his uncontrollable sobbing. "I wonder if she's that woman he'd mentioned – that kid Knussbaum would know..."

But Knussbaum, a tall gangly young man, had left Vienna after the funeral, taking with him whatever he might have known, not only who she was but also where, the greatest secret Beethoven kept. Schindler's drinking companion, intrigued by this unexpected revelation – "Beethoven, this genius, in love?" – decided her identity must be learned.

And destroyed...

"It simply will not do," this man had subsequently told his other friends, "that this god-like colossus who strode among men should have his name sullied by the contamination of the basest human passions."

"What," one friend suggested, "if they'd had sex?" More deeply shocked, another wondered, "What if this woman had had a child?" The very possibility sent them into a frenzy of personal outrage and disgust. Their intention was to keep Beethoven's reputation pure, befitting the loftiest of minds. Thus the five called themselves "The Guidonian Hand."

Like any former hired assassin worth her salt, Carmen Díaz-Éray still preferred to wear tight-fitting black regardless of her current assignment, something not all ex-SHMRG agents could pull off, no matter how they tried. (Actually, there was only one agent she knew she'd let pull it off, but that was long ago and he's dead.) It had been several years since she last worked for N. Ron Steele, back in what she called her Glory Days. Most of the agents she'd remember would either be reassigned, retired, or deceased.

Happy enough to be back in the field, she'd arrived an hour ago before they stopped running the trains from London. "Quaint place, this," she thought, looking around as she sashayed down the hall. The fact it was out in the middle of nowhere didn't bother her: it was harder for the police to find.

The only real problem with her standard uniform this time was the weather, something she hadn't thought about before leaving town, making her stick out like a sore thumb against the blinding, drifting snow. Steele told her they'd have some white snow suits that might fit her but not likely any snow mobiles lying around.

She was excited at the prospect of working with her old boss again despite some of his recent, not unexpected problems. The crime industry, like any business she knew, had its ups and downs.

Like The Hand itself, around for 186 years, SHMRG had weathered a volatile course over a period of comparatively fewer years. Even when The Hand had been expertly organized, it had been relatively ineffective. But the problem with SHMRG was that it wanted to move too fast, relying more on raw power and ignoring finesse.

She hoped that by bringing a revitalized Hand into the grasp of SHMRG, this combination of superior intellect and brute force would allow both their organizations the "optimal opportunity" of realizing their long-range goals.

Not since the days of Special Secret Agent Carmilla Varné, her inestimable predecessor, had The Hand come so close to victory, almost securing the necessary information from the old, enfeebled Knussbaum before his death. It was this discovery there'd been a child with the gypsy's prophecy about twins and their offspring that reactivated the quest.

Most assumed the Immortal Club maintained its secrecy to protect the Belovèd's identity, her name as well as her burial place, that they wanted her to rest in peace, guarding Beethoven's desire for privacy. But little did the world's best musicologists know the extent of the secret which years of research had failed to reveal.

And that was a secret the Guidonian Hand also did not want revealed, preferring to obliterate any historical proof it existed. SHMRG, once hearing of the ancient gypsy prophecy, sought to control its fruition.

"Director Steele, so wonderful to see you again, after all these many years," Agent Díaz-Éray said, trying to ignore his situation. She'd heard how he'd been badly wounded in an IMP shoot-out in Schweinwald.

"It's Osmond Goodwood these days, Carmen, and I'm just a lowly departmental manager: Mr. Steele," he sighed, "is on extended leave."

Though he may have looked and, in this particular exchange, even sounded weak, there was clearly nothing weak about SHMRG's director, no matter what this ruse was about his not being N. Ron Steele.

Their meeting began amicably enough, given the circumstances, each of them needing information and knowing the other had access to it but not knowing how willingly the other would part with it, collaboration aside.

It was, she knew, why they were now sitting in Umberton, after all, because something was going on down the road.

The meeting had ended warily twenty minutes later after much disagreement about implementation: Díaz-Éray was concerned SHMRG would act like cowboys; Steele – or rather, Osmond Goodwood – was dissatisfied the Hand had no definitive target. Though smiling through the obligatory handshake concluding negotiations, the limitations were clearly evident if she could not obtain the essential identification.

Strutting out into the hallway, she bumped into a large, rather disheveled man who hadn't bothered watching where he was going, trying to juggle his phone in one hand, a viola in the other.

His protuberant eyes probably indicated a medical condition related to a thyroid disorder but that wasn't enough to explain his attitude. He nearly knocked her flat against the wall without even noticing her presence.

She had half a mind to demonstrate her keen skills with kick boxing and shatter his phone with a single blow.

The large-built man, clearly someone on a mission, had hardly broken his stride while fumbling to balance his phone and instrument, annoyed some ectomorphic nymphette in pretentious black leather stepped in front of him. As he plowed his way down the hall, she was easily swept aside. He didn't feel it necessary to look back.

"No wonder nobody can see properly around here, everything is so bloody dark," Nepomuck muttered, annoyed he couldn't get a signal. "Dark wood, dark rugs, dark drapes and furniture – and the minions wear black!"

Dressed in his black tux, Nepomuck strode along, checking his phone for reception, headed inexorably toward the end of the hall. Turning right, he eventually found a secluded room but it was already occupied. He was sufficiently annoyed having discovered he'd been sent to the wrong house: it wouldn't take much to set him off.

"You can't come in here," the geeky little man warned him, "go away," looking up from his wires and computer screens.

"Shut up," Nepomuck glowered back, realizing he'd found sufficient signal for a connection.

When Nepomuck took the viola out of its case and began to play, the guy said, "Hey, you can't practice here," and stood up to his full diminutive height before hearing an excruciating sound.

The geek fell over, hands to his ears. In seconds, the writhing stopped.

"Now maybe I can make my call... Hello?"

"Nepomuck, my sssssweet," the oily voice finally answered, hissing softly into the phone. He always waited until after the fifth ring. Unfortunately this time, Nepomuck had found it annoying, trying to mask his impatience.

"It seems I was apparently given faulty information: I'm at the wrong house. The directions said to get off at Umberton."

"Are you sssssaying I made a missstake, Nepomuck?" he asked, dripping with disapproval.

"No, Master, not at all, I wouldn't dream..."

"You may have arrived too late – the sssssnow... – the orchessstra left long ago."

He explained how the orchestra stayed at Umberton but rehearsed at Phlaumix Court. "Their firssst taping sssssession is about to begin."

"Then I'd better hurry, Master," Nepomuck said deferentially. "How do I get there?"

"Practisssss, Nepomuck – practissssssss..." With that, he rang off.

"Damn it all," Nepomuck mumbled under his breath, kicking the techie's body aside.

Looking out the window into the worsening storm, he saw the side entrance where the orchestra's personnel manager, Minnie Mumwidge, waited.

She saw him approach and berated him humorously. "Typical violist, missing the bus!"

She waited for a cab since the house limo was no longer running. "You'd better come with me, or you'll miss..."

But the poor woman didn't even have a chance to finish her sentence before Nepomuck played some chords on his viola.

He'd barely hidden her behind a snow drift before the cab pulled up.

In the Great Hall of Phlaumix Court: later

Since we'd heard that morning about Schnellenlauter's murder, everything just kept getting weirder. Next, we'd found ourselves trapped in the library – and then Frieda's unbelievable revelations... It was difficult to imagine how it could get any weirder than this but I imagined we'd probably soon find out. After Frieda announced she would have to take a long nap before dinner, we left her to recuperate and to grieve, exhausted by the shocking news of Schnelly's death and decoding his secret messages.

Cameron took the final segment of Harrison Harty's journal back to the room, excited to work on realizing its coded text. He figured it should take a couple hours, keeping him out of trouble. I knew I should be reading more of Knussbaum's Tale, given our conversation, but I found it impossible to sit still.

It's true, as usual, I needed to walk more than just for exercise: I simply needed time to think about everything. I could check out the place by myself – there was plenty to see. As long as I'm moving, my little gray cells would be firing away, the mind, like the body, staying in motion.

It still struck me as an odd coincidence how familiar everything here seemed and yet I'd only arrived here this afternoon. Had I seen pictures before? Even Burnson hadn't described it in such detail.

That globe at the bottom of the steps caught my attention every time, so perfectly round, grasped in its brass claw. Could it contain every image of the universe, condensed into its crystal sphere? Could it mean our brains, full of memories, held firmly within the skull, contained everything we've ever experienced, retrievable or not?

"Every death contains within it every other death," someone told me years ago, if we strip away the layers of memory. In thinking about Schnellenlauter's death, I recalled Zenn's – could there be some connection?

What was it that Howard Zenn had said at his chalet outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, something that didn't register with me till now. Hadn't he told us about the Guidonian Hand, which made no sense then.

He made only a passing reference to it without explaining what it was. Did he know anything about the organization's secret?

Once again I found myself standing in front of the library's impressive entrance, looking up at the inscription over the door: lifting veils only to find even more veils, questions only begetting more questions. What did Zenn know about the Guidonian Hand? How did they kill Schnellenlauter? Why is this woman in the library here?

And Frieda – could she be in real danger, if this woman's after her? Since she's using Frieda's nom-de-plume, isn't that "logical"? How can I protect Frieda from imminent danger without creating any undo panic?

As Frieda was still searching for more answers about her children and grandchildren, I also needed some answers, not more questions. But now there were all these other issues that made my head swim.

I checked the library door out of curiosity but it was still locked. What answers could it yield, anyway, I wondered?

Frieda spent her entire life looking for answers, after giving up the twins – and apparently she is still looking for them. It might have been easier had the War not intervened, destroying many records. Such searches are hard enough under normal circumstances, laws intent on preserving privacy, but the complications of changing countries and cultures...?

By the time she could get back to St. Ludwiga's Orphanage in Ottobeuren, the building and its records had been destroyed. After fleeing to England herself, she discovered both children were taken to America.

That, at the time, was the best news: they had survived the bombings. Shouldn't that be enough to give her satisfaction? But she knew it was a big country and adoption a private issue. The problems quickly became insurmountable and very expensive. The Leightons, her sister's in-laws, were little interested in looking for illegitimate children. So she put it aside as an impracticality, glad to know they'd escaped and were able to start new lives afresh. What had they been told, growing up American: was their story kept secret?

That was when she wrote that awful novel (even by her own admission) about separated twins who unknowingly find each other. She dreamed it would become a big hit, that even Hollywood would notice. Her fantasy included more fortune than mere fame, something her music wasn't offering: she'd use the money to find her children.

But she discovered it was only a fantasy, taking years to get published; even then, barely a hundred copies were sold. The royalties she'd earned wouldn't buy a month's groceries, especially in post-war England. She felt that she had abandoned them a second time, giving up hope, and putting everything she had into her composing.

But then, after she'd met this young conductor from Germany named Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter, everything swung back and forth – present to past...

Suddenly, I was overcome by this creepy feeling somebody, somewhere, was watching me.

"Ah," I muttered, turning away from the library, out into the Great Hall, "there's just so much to absorb, isn't there?" I felt thrown into a world with 'bad dream' written all over it. Cameron seemed to take it all in stride as if everything were normal: like Vector said, it's "of no significance whatsoever."

That's what Vector said about the Pendulum Room which, as I recall, should be on the opposite side from the library.

"Hmmm," I thought, looking around, "is this it?" I couldn't find an inscription.

It surprised me to find the door unlocked after what Vector had said, how the "infamous" Pendulum Room had been closed. But here it was, open and well lit, full of paintings and mirrors.

Then it fell into place, what Frieda'd said: "Don't you understand? I'm descended from the Immortal Belovèd: Beethoven is my great-great-great-grandfather!"

The road to Phlaumix Court: a little earlier

"I thought it was a woman made the call, mate," the cabby said. "She's working at Phlaumix Court, is what I was told – she ready, then?" Danny Carron pulled up under Umberton's port cochere for what he seriously hoped would be his last fare of the day. The only person there was this big hulking guy wearing just a tux, no overcoat or boots – odd, given the blizzard – and carrying nothing but a big violin case cradled carefully in his arms.

"Uh, yeah," the man said, looking back toward the house, "right, Phlaumix Court. She called it in, okay? I'm new here. Seems I missed the bus to the concert," holding up his instrument case.

"Ah, okay then, mate," Danny said, nodding to the back of the cab. "No sense standin' out here any longer, then."

The big guy struggled, trying to fit himself into the cab's back seat as Danny's wheels spun trying to get traction.

"I'm late for the rehearsal – you'd better drive faster," the guy was saying.

But even with all his passenger's extra weight, the cab was still fish-tailing when Danny finally pulled out onto the road.

"Yeah, I was sayin' earlier, haven't seen snow like this in ages, right?"

The passenger just sat there, staring straight ahead.

"So, not used to snow like this, then? Where you from?"

Again, nothing.

With swirling snow drifting even worse than earlier, his passenger not very talkative, and almost missing that last turn back there, Danny decided it was better to concentrate on driving than holding a conversation.

"Crikie, I sure hope nobody else needs to go anywhere, tonight," Danny thought, "except maybe between the pub and the hotel."

"Mind if I warm up my instrument a little?" Nepomuck said, leaning forward.

"We should be there in just a few."

But the man in the back seat didn't hear or was ignoring him.

Instead of waiting, the guy opened the case and pulled out what looked like this big violin, all white and shiny. Suddenly the cab smelled of spaghetti as he began scraping away on it.

"Hey, dude, that's one horrible sound," he screamed, staring into his rear-view mirror.

Then, without knowing what happened, everything went dark.

The Public Wing at Phlaumix Court: moments later

Nepomuck arrived at the side door of the public wing covered in snow, his viola case wrapped in a tattered blanket found in the cab's trunk. He'd been trudging through snow drifts at some places up to his hips, guided only by faint lights from the house. Very sorry he'd left in such a hurry without his shabby old overcoat which had served him well in the past, he would have welcomed having it this afternoon, that and his heavy scarf.

And boots would've been nice, he thought, stamping his feet against the steps before someone finally came and answered the bell.

"God's bum – who the bloody hell are you," he squealed over the mayhem.

"I'm late – missed the bus," Nepomuck said unapologetically, snow caked to his pants.

"So, what, you bleedin' walked over from Umberton?"

Mike Colangelo, another ex-actor working for the pageant, had no time for late-comers especially since the rehearsal was already well underway. The guy had all the right security credentials: why give a rat's ass?

"Thought you was a penguin for a minute," Colangelo said, helping Nepomuck brush himself off. "Why're you dressed like that, anyway?"

He must've missed the memo about the dress code, too, for that matter, but why send him back into the storm?

Nepomuck dropped the old blanket and stomped off toward where the orchestra sat.

"Hey, hey, hey, where you goin', big guy?" someone else screamed, arms flailing, despite wielding a clip-board and cup of coffee. "You can't just come bargin' in here like Cleopatra on her bloody what's-it!"

An officious little twit, now, the conductor's assistant, Ray Faiello, was another has-been actor down on his luck rescued by Scricci.

Since this scene hadn't involved any of the would-be prodigies, just the orchestra, Sven Galli, the director's stand-in, took no notice. The orchestra ground to a halt as Maestro Dumbledown glowered at his assistant.

Faiello argued loudly with Nepomuck, viola in hand, stabbing at the personnel list which seemed to have left off his name.

"There isn't even an empty seat for you. Where the hell's Mumwidge, anyway?"

"An ectomorph with orange hair, bit of a bob – bad teeth?" Nepomuck asked.

"Yeah, that's her – seen 'er?"

"Uhm, no, actually..."

"Dear Mr. Faiello, would you kindly take this up with our esteemed director so we may resume taping the overture, hmm?"

Dumbledown sounded all very pleasant but Faiello knew his words dripped with sarcasm.

Faiello pushed the stubborn intruder off the set, over toward the director's chair where Galli sat surrounded by several nubile contestants.

"Well, what seems to be the problem, Atello? Can't you see I'm busy?"

Faiello tried explaining the situation with minimum verbiage.

"Take it up with what's-'er-name – Mumwidge?" he decided. "Don't bother me with this."

Galli, pointing to Colangelo, told Faiello, "Have Faiello escort him off the premises," and turned back to his adoring, giggling fans.

Faiello sighed, mumbling, "I'm Faiello, you offensive moron." Then he beckoned his colleague.

With that, Colangelo strode over to Nepomuck, handed him his blanket and pushed him toward the door to Phlaumix's private wing.

The door was usually kept locked from the other side, but Colangelo, being an assistant to the pageant's Director of Security, had been given a key for easy access in case of an emergency.

As far as he was concerned, Colangelo thought, this counted as an emergency: he had to get rid of this guy.

Prodded unceremoniously through the door, viola in hand, Nepomuck found himself all alone.

Not quite alone: wasn't that the Serpent's nemesis, that man entering that room?

Positive that was his quarry, Nepomuck followed him.

Meanwhile, at the International Music Police's London Headquarters

Chief Inspector Hemiola tried to ignore the obvious, brooding over his cold coffee: not wanting to admit it, he'd not been having a very good day. There were now two murders, quite possibly related, with one very common denominator who, however, had managed to elude his grasp. It wasn't even clear they actually were murders, though they were certainly suspicious, judging from evidence found at the crime scenes, but until after the autopsy reports came back, he really had nothing definitive.

There was nothing to connect the two vics, aside from both being musicians, one an old, German-born conductor past his prime, the other a middle-aged violinist born in England, both specializing in contemporary music. The one had been killed before a concert, leaving a weird, coded message; the other, without a note, after a concert.

He wasn't even sure how this Dr. Kerr had either means or motive other than what could be perceived as coincidence. He was friends with both of the victims, but what would he gain? Unless, of course, it was a revenge killing and Kerr, a frustrated composer: had they both declined to play his music?

He picked up his phone and said to his trusty dispatcher, Agent Solfege, "Mimi, have Agent Fermata check out Dr. Kerr. Basically, I want to know if he ever submitted scores to either victim."

Hemiola put the receiver down just as Agent Sforzato burst into the room.

"Boss," he shouted, "from Doc Rigorian – look here!"

Hemiola grabbed the papers from the agent's hand, eagerly paging through both reports.

Disappointed, Hemiola sat back, perplexed. "There's nothing conclusive. What got you so excited?"

"But, sir, you wanted to see them immediately."

"Yes, well..." Hemiola hesitated, hating to belittle his agent's excitement, "very good, then." He smiled, giving the man a curt nod.

Sforzato snapped to attention with a loud click of his heels and left.

But Hemiola was no better off than before, lacking the tox screen results: there was nothing that indicated this was murder. No blunt-force trauma, no wounds, no inexplicable DNA or fibers – nothing remotely obvious.

Everything pointed to natural causes yet without signs of heart attack or stroke. The most likely possibility was "they dropped dead."

The expressions of fear frozen on their faces at the time they died, something he will never be able to forget, made Hemiola wonder about the possibility they hadn't both been scared to death. But such thoughts were interrupted when the phone at his desk started ringing. "Maybe it's Fermata getting back to me already."

"Chief Inspector, there's a call here from the director of the Munich office: shall I ring him through?" Agent Solfege asked.

"Yes – yes, of course," Hemiola stammered with surprise, wondering what this was about.

"The last time Director Schwungvoll phoned," he recalled, "was over five years ago when he was trying to get tickets to some sold-out West End show for his mother-in-law, back when she visited England."

This time, Schwungvoll was calling to alert him about a potential international situation (one not, apparently, involving his mother-in-law's imminent arrival).

"About the death of American composer Howard Zenn – you've read about it, yes? Old guy about to celebrate his 100th birthday? So naturally, the police assumed it would be simply 'natural causes,' not so?"

But the coroner noticed something that looked suspicious and called in the IMP. That's when Schwungvoll began describing something very familiar.

"So I thought you should know since one of the last people to see Zenn alive was now in your jurisdiction."

"And who might that be," Hemiola asked him.

"Someone named... Dr. Richard Kerr."


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to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active at 8am on July 25th]

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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." 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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