Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #25

In the previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, it turns out the mysterious woman-in-the-library at Phlaumix Court (a.k.a. The Countess du Hicquè and Melissa Fourthought) is really Klavdia Klangfarben [insert ominous chord, here] – but why is she out to destroy Dr. Kerr? Meanwhile, he and Cameron have realized, if the identity of the Immortal Belovéd isn't enough of an enticement, there's the possibility of an unknown Beethoven string quartet at stake: isn't that enough of a reason to kill someone?

(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 FIVE concludes...

The Dog and Pony, Snaffingham: late that afternoon

"Sheltering at the pub" was an age-old village tradition during a winter storm, not just to drink or for the camaraderie, not even for keeping warm, but, as the rest of the world outside one's windows disappeared under snowdrifts, so everyone'd know there was still a world. It may not have seemed like that much, this safety within the community, considering how others might prefer being left alone: that meant being left alone as a society, an "island within an island." At least, if the power should go out, there were plenty of candles and of course the fireplaces were kept blazing, giving comfort to those who'd otherwise be home alone waiting out the storm. Who'd want to be caught sitting at home when the telly went out with nobody to talk to but the missus?

And now it was just the locals, people who knew everybody by name and who probably lived within reasonable walking distance, none of these tourist types nor that lot staying out at Phlaumix Court. Visitors from America looking to soak up "the local colour" were bad enough; people down from London tended to ignore everyone. Americans may have thought them amusing and quaint, like walking onto a set for one of those PBS shows they watched. Londoners tended to be all superior-like and felt the locals ruined their surroundings.

If it's true that Snaffingham's early history was shaded by centuries of neglect – well before the Elizabethans; probably before the Saxons – it's equally true the Dog & Pony was established 'round the same time. Before there were things like fancy government offices where people made momentous decisions, the village folk would gather at the pub. When the very first crops had been harvested by farmers in the village, they were bartered at the Dog & Pony. When someone got one of those new-fangled coins, they spent it on ale.

No doubt the current proprietress came from a long line of such tavern-keepers, kept in the family like many a fiefdom, except here nobody bothered keeping track of them, passing along the ancestral heraldry. Auntie Jen, as everyone called her, grew up in the Dog & Pony, and doubtless she would die there, some day.

No one claimed to know her husband's name – they called him "The Mayor" – or even if he actually was her husband. There being no Mayor of Snaffingham to offend, he bartered wisdom for brews. The two girls waiting on their customers were universally accepted as her "nieces," called either "A" or "B," and easily confused. Rumor had it one had been named Alferata at birth ("Alfie," for short), while the other, presumably darker one was "Betty." "A" was supposedly the elder by a year, but they could've been twins.

Auntie Jen had joked, were there more nieces, they would probably have been named "Celia" and "Delia" followed (confusingly) by "Effie," but with a wistful eye, she'd admit, "thankfully, it never came to that." There was, however, a long-range question that fluttered among the regulars often enough: with Auntie's passing, which niece inherited the pub?

In addition to the bar, there was a counter just inside the door with a phone and a few cubby holes which was the office for Danny Carron's cab and a make-shift post office. Auntie served as both the dispatcher and postmaster when these services were needed, even if the Mayor sat beside the phone.

It'd been a busy stretch for the cab, and Auntie was glad Danny'd gone for his last fare of the day. But then this woman from London, Phyllis Dean, arrived by the last train.

"But I'm expected for dinner at the house," the poor woman was crying. "My cab ran late, I missed my train..." She was frazzled beyond belief that this weather should do this to her.

"I'm sorry, dearie," Auntie said, patience wearing thin, "but I've been calling him. He'd gone to pick up someone at Umberton."

The thing was, given the roads this afternoon, he was way behind schedule and should've called in if there were problems. Not hearing from him was not unusual, really. Today, however, it worried her.

There it was on the ledger, the last call she'd taken with the info she'd told him over an hour ago: a woman named Mumwidge, at Umberton, destination Phlaumix – and that'd be "last call."

She told the woman to take her furs and sit opposite the fireplace: it would be quieter for her over there.

Besides, the old posh was out of place and might startle the regulars. Eyes lowered, she'd wandered away from the counter, mumbling over and over, "I've never been in a pub in my life."

The apothecary, a middle-aged quack with a keen eye for older women, wandered over to her and tried to start conversation. The old woman's eyes grew round as saucers: she tried not to faint.

Auntie went about her business but kept glancing over to the phone, worried: what if Danny was in some ditch, unconscious?

She made one more call on Danny's radio and again could hear nothing but the faint ticking of the meter running. The radio wasn't dead but Danny wasn't responding – was that wind she heard? Maybe he's waiting for the fare's return trip if she'd changed her mind (the cab had only been booked one way). But even so, Auntie thought, you'd think Danny would at least report back. No, this had trouble written all over it. She phoned Ms. Mumwidge back, but the call went right to voice mail.

Then Auntie saw the young red-head sitting at the end of the bar, chattering away with Mrs. Teal, the local gossip.

"Mona," she said, trying not to sound urgent, "d'you think the constable's in?"

"Yeah, I 'magine – if he's not on duty, he'd prob'bly be here, yeah?"

"Could you be a love an' pop over?"

Mona was the constable's office manager and dispatcher but it had been such a quiet day, he'd sent her home early. Knowing Constable Drumm, he'd still be sitting at his desk doing his crosswords. There's a difference between dedication to the job and not having a life, something that Mona Pennie never let bother her.

"What's 'is all about, then, Auntie Jen," Mona asked, trying to be discreet. "Is it that strange woman in the corner?"

Auntie laughed, understanding her concern. "No, luv, nothin' like that, 'least not yet."

Taking her aside, she explained how Danny the Cabby hasn't answered his radio, how he was out picking up a fare and hadn't called in if he'd been having any trouble with the snowstorm.

"Yah, you're right, that doesn't sound like our Danny, does it," Mona said. Grabbing her coat, she slipped out the door.

Before Auntie Jen turned around from thanking her, she sensed a growing commotion as half the tavern seemed in a turmoil, wondering about Danny the Cabby who was lying somewhere dead in a ditch.

Mrs. Teal'd said something to Alfie (or Betty) who told the other niece and before long it had made the rounds.

"They don't call this woman 'the town duck' for nothin'," Auntie Jen thought, "what with gettin' her beak in everybody's business." She started fielding questions from patrons and neighbors as the door burst open.

For a brief moment, everything stopped and everyone stared over at the doorway, half expecting it would be Constable Drumm, already.

"Whew, mates, that's a bitch of a storm out there, and no mistake!" The burly man stomped snow off his boots.

Auntie Jen shooshed him, nodding back to the corner where Mrs. Dean sat.

"Sorry, ma'am. Welcome to Snaffingham, I dare say," he smiled with mild embarrassment. Why, he wondered, was everyone staring at him?

Betty (or maybe it was Alfie) came over and handed him a pint.

The Mayor asked him how the roads were, if it'd stopped snowing yet, but Piers Hobson replied they were barely passable. "It could snow all night, by the looks of it, and no mistake! Through the farms, hard to tell where the roads are, drifts like waves!"

"And is your plow seaworthy?" asked the Mayor.

Each winter, Hobson would attach his plow to the biggest tractor he had, volunteering his services to clear the neighboring roads. Otherwise, villagers counted days till they'd be opened, with a storm like this. Without any real local government beyond the council and Snaffingham without a councilman, the Mayor gave him free ale all winter.

"Heard anything about the roads out toward Phlaumix Court and Umberton?" Auntie asked.

"Not yet – was goin' t'go check, soon. Why?"

He heard there was a big do there, what with Mr. Burnson's wedding.

Mrs. Dean immediately strode over to the plowman and asked him what he'd charge to take her up to the house.

"Can't Danny get you through, ma'am," Hobson said. "Don't wanna steal his trade."

"That's just it," Auntie explained, "Danny's out with a fare and hasn't returned. So I've asked the Constable to come over."

Just then, a tall man with a vast plaid overcoat, knee-high boots and a deer-stalker cap trudged heartily into the pub.

"Right, then, what's this about Danny gone missing?"

Constable Conan Drumm had arrived.

Auntie explained the situation again, then Constable Drumm deputized Hobson and his plow to open up the way. "The game's afoot!"

"Love, could I ask you to take this letter up to the house? And a telegram for someone at that pageant."

Constable Drumm accepted Auntie's letters as an obligation; less so, taking Mrs. Dean.

Somewhere in an unknowable location: an indeterminable time

It was a dark place, cold and inhospitable, not unlike some horrendous blizzard but black and utterly formless, where one is never sure where one is. There is no sense of time here, either, no daytime and no night; not even, one might say, past or present. One moves imperceptibly in time without awareness to a fixed point, floating suspended, neither here nor there yet everywhere at once, like falling into a hole, the blackest of holes, the eternal fleeting moment.

Wind howls, certainly, for one can hear it, but one cannot feel it, perhaps not upon the skin or one's face because one is unsure there is either skin or face to feel with. One senses it, like everything, with one's essence but yet it is imperceptible. One is always moving but yet without direction.

What does one call this, this unnameable place? Everything must have its name. Is it any more reality than, maybe, surreality? It is not the goal of our existence which we constantly strive for. Nor is it any part of that existence one is capable of perceiving: one realizes too late there's nothing to perceive.

One defines it by what it is not, the lack of everything knowable, this all-absorbing negativity of the Great I'm Not. One sets out from where headed for where, but there's no where there.

Abner Kedaver hated these moments lost in time: he wanted to be flying. He wanted to feel a sense of departure. Then he wanted to arrive someplace sometime later, seeing what he'd flown over. He knew that was what these modern people called being on an airplane; he'd only experienced being in a car once.

That had been exhilarating enough, speed without moving, sitting still while rapidly transporting. What was it like being on a plane? Could he even make it onto a plane, going through airport security screening?

Wouldn't it be fun, then, setting off alarms walking past all these sensors – being invisible, would he register on their screens? Otherwise, it'd be just a waste of time (another of those quaint expressions).

And what was this jet-lag he'd heard about, the body out-of-kilter with time? Was it worse than this horrid limbotic divergence?

He hadn't thought there would be drawbacks to being dead, not like that, given everything he couldn't experience since he died. And that had been 111 years ago, now, a long time in reality. Being beyond reality, it felt like only yesterday – in a sense, it was – but it was losing its sense of fun.

Kedaver had been a law clerk in Vienna working in his father's office, counting among his many clients Brahms and Mahler. An amateur violinist as well, he once played chamber music with Joseph Joachim.

When he died, he found himself assigned to the same parallel universe where many famous musicians had gone after their passing, since artists were always in need of someone to give them legal advice. But on Harmonia-IV, where many great composers continued to create after they'd died, he realized there wasn't much call for lawyers.

Kedaver found himself frequently crossing over to the Real World with his caseload, when
he'd bumped into forensic musicologist Frøkken Bohr (it was a long story and fairly clandestine) who'd developed some interesting theories. Of course, like all dead people crossing back, Kedaver was invisible to everyone (meetings with the still-living were more like seances).

But Bohr somehow knew about Harmonia-IV, its process, not to mention its reputation, plus how one could travel between both worlds. But when Bohr introduced him to a student, it became his biggest mistake.

Looking back on it, he wasn't quite sure what the appeal had been other than the sheer thrill of her project, mostly the chance to work with the Non-Dead, something that was expressly forbidden. Of course, the money he had been offered simply to be her guide was nothing that could be passed up easily.

The outline had been unproblematic from its inception as she had presented it – she just needed to go back in time – but he was sorry he had ever heard the name of Klavdia Klangfarben.

She just needed his expertise with time traveling (so foreign to the Living) and his access to the world of Harmonia-IV. She needed to do research, she called it, during four different composers' lives. But it was more than that, and dangerous, especially after her enemy's arrival. The appearance of Dr. Kerr had been unexpected.

Causing slight adjustments that altered these composers' lives had been unpleasant to him, something that rendered them no longer great composers. Kerr and his friend had followed after them to undo what she did. But he did what she paid him for: he kept to the bargain. She was the one who would abandon him.

She would've left him behind in Beethoven's time, rather than rescue him and return to Harmonia-IV as the signed contract agreed. It had been Dr. Kerr who rescued him, who allowed him to return.

There had been hell to pay – a trial, a fine, some jail time – and, even worse, his reputation had been ruined. He was transferred to the criminals' parallel universe, the Nefaria System, for eternity. He vowed that he would some day get revenge on her for this, even if it took centuries to find her.

After his release, he found she had herself, for whatever reason, gone "off-the-grid," but now, despite her aliases, he's located her. No manner of disguise could alter her brainwaves, the universal equivalent of fingerprints.

He was finally honing in on her whereabouts with newly learned time-travel methods, a type indigenous to the residents of Nefaria. So it was only a matter of time before he would wreak revenge.

That little joke amused him, given the timeless world of the Eternally Dead.

"I'm coming to get you, Klavdia," he crooned...

On the road to Phlaumix Court: early evening

"I've never been on a plow in my life," Mrs. Dean kept murmuring, as she bundled up, walking into the storm behind Hobson and the Constable.

"Come now, ma'am, I'm hardly going to make you ride on the plow," Constable Drumm joked with her over the wind.

Drumm told Auntie to locate Dr. Livingstone since they might need him, "and have an ambulance stand by, just in case." Unfortunately, he had to turn down many volunteers who'd wanted to go along.

He wasn't sure what they might find, there, but if they needed to rescue the cabby, he wanted to be prepared. Chances were, he'd probably gone into the house to wait out the storm.

"That's what I hope, too," Auntie Jen sighed, "but he could have called..."

"I'm sure everything will be okay," Drumm nodded.

Mrs. Dean settled herself carefully into the back seat of the police car as if Constable Drumm were her personal chauffeur. Drumm thought she might feel like a suspect being arrested but said nothing. Hobson brought his plow out in front of Drumm, waving as he passed, the police car pulling cautiously in behind him.

The roads Hobson had already plowed once looked like they hadn't been touched. The snow still fell, though not as heavy, and winds made things worse. But once in the woods, they might improve.

It was hard to tell, underneath that overcoat, that Constable Conan Drumm was a thin man, possibly even a skinny one. The coat had once belonged to his grandfather, a well-known, highly respected detective. Police work was in his blood, they said, but blood was a problem: he could barely handle looking at a corpse. A promising career at New Scotland Yard had been torpedoed by his inability to get used to that, a definite drawback. They'd transferred him to a small rural constabulary, near where he'd grown up.

He had to admit there wasn't much crime, the occasional burglary or vandalism, very rarely anything that required a coroner's services. The worst he had to deal with were accident reports or domestic disputes. There'd been that accident out past Hobson's farm, maybe the summer before last, with a man shredded by a hay baler.

He hated this drive out to Phlaumix Court, all these damnable left turns, hard enough to follow even in good weather. The signs were clear enough, but you couldn't always see them at night. It wasn't every left turn, of course not – that was the annoying thing, like some weird pattern you had to memorize. Of course, Hobson's family had been farming this area since before the Regency so he was well acquainted with its roads. But even on business, Drumm had few occasions to bother visiting the house.

How funny, then, that here he was, twice on one day, he thought, first in the morning with that broken window and now driving around in the dark investigating the village cabby's alleged disappearance. Maybe while he had Hobson's plow with him, he'd see if everybody's alright, since he had to drop Mrs. Dean off.

But considering some of the signs were most likely plastered with wet snow, it was more like totally relying on instinct. Still, the snow wasn't drifting that much, here, but not easy to navigate. What if Danny'd missed one of those turns? He could be anywhere, now. It might take them days to find him.

His thoughts elsewhere, he almost didn't notice Hobson's plow grinding to a halt. He saw the man signaling something up ahead. The plow began maneuvering around to the side and then Drumm saw it.

"Damn!" It was definitely a cab, Drumm thought, as he pushed open the police car's door and struggled through the snow. He barely saw lights from Phlaumix Court not too far away, up ahead.

Hobson maneuvered the plow around to get his headlights fixed on the cab lying nose-down in a ditch off the road.

It looked like they hadn't made it to Phlaumix Court yet, he realized, unless maybe he'd lost control and spun around. Did Danny and his passenger make it out? Would there be a body?

But there was a body in the cab, sprawled across the front seat, no sign of anyone in the back seat; plus the rear passenger door was partly open and the trunk lid popped. Naturally, the heavy snowfall would have already obliterated any sign of tire tracks or evidence of any footprints from the passenger.

That was clearly Danny in front, the radio transmitter dangling from his hand, lying there like he'd had a heart attack. Even with Hobson's considerable help, the constable couldn't pry open the driver-side door.

The snow was too deep around the front, so Hobson retrieved his shovel. Meanwhile, Drumm tried crawling through the back door.

He noticed that Mrs. Dean had stuck her head out the rear window. "Nice," he thought, "she wants to offer help."

"I do hope you can hurry," she chirruped, "I'm unfortunately already quite late."

"I've got a pulse," Drumm yelled. "He's alive!"

"Constable, is that you?" Auntie's voice squawked through the radio? "Is he okay?"

"Good, Auntie, glad you're there. Yes, but he's still unconscious. Most likely hypothermia."

There'd been no luck locating Dr. Livingstone who was in London visiting family.

"Send the ambulance: we'll take him to Phlaumix..."

It took a little while to get Danny entirely free from the cab, but they carried him to the police car and stretched him out across the back seat, much to Mrs. Dean's dismay.

"Well," Drumm told her, "you can sit up front or take the plow."

"The front seat will be fine, thank you."

Mrs. Dean moved quite nimbly for an old woman complaining about the cold.

"Okay, Hobson," Drumm said, "off we go as fast as you can travel!"

Mrs. Dean sat back, smiling smugly. "Well, finally..."

At Phlaumix Court: only a few minutes later

"But I don't see how that's going to help us find Schnellenlauter's killer."

"No," I said, once Cameron also started pacing, "that's up to the police."

There were things Schnellenlauter had been looking for; perhaps he'd even discovered things which might help answer why he was killed.

"One question was what had he already found and who else knew it? Well, I mean two questions – not to mention..."

"But if this is some secret terrorist organization," Cameron said, "how do we...?"

He stopped mid-thought, nodding cautiously toward the door. "Shhh – someone's in the hall.".

I heard some footsteps shuffle to a halt.

A gentle knocking was followed by the sound of a woman's fragile voice.

"Hello, Dr. Kerr?" Then after a slight pause, she continued, "Are you in?" The voice wasn't familiar but sounded very grandmotherly.

Cameron opened the door to see a woman with silver hair pulled back, a black shawl draped across her stooped shoulders.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought Dr. Kerr was staying in the Dodecahedron Room."

"No, that's okay, I'm his assistant, Cameron Pierce."

"Ah, good. I'm Cathie Raighast."

"Oh, you're Frieda's friend – won't you come in?"

She seemed quite flustered for having disturbed him, then smiled when she entered. I rose to meet her, taking her hand. Being unaware of her circumstances, I thought she might be some poor relation.

As Cameron shut the door, I heard the front bell start jangling wildly – yet another late arrival out of the storm – and the usually well-paced footsteps of a servant hurrying across the Great Hall.

"Ms. Raighast, nice to meet you," I said, "you must be feeling better?"

"Well," she said, ducking her chin, "not entirely."

When she asked if I'd examine her shoulder, I had to apologize that I was a doctor of music, not medicine.

"Usually I'd say, 'take two Haydn symphonies and call me in the morning'..."

As she started apologizing again, there was another polite knock at the door. This time I recognized Sidney's voice – the footman's.

"Dr. Kerr," he asked, "could you come downstairs, please? There's been an emergency."

While Cameron settled Ms. Raighast in a chair, I quickly grabbed my jacket and then we followed Sidney down the staircase.

When we reached the landing, Sidney stood aside, revealing Vector, Herring and Lisa gathered over in the vestibule with three strangers, one of whom was lying on the floor being helped by the others. One, wearing an odd deer-stalker hat, was a tall, thin, vaguely familiar man; the other was rather stout and clearly annoyed.

The man on the floor, loosely bundled up in a voluminous plaid overcoat, was our cabby from earlier in the afternoon.

The thin fellow looked up, waving me over. "You're Dr. Kerr, I presume?"

Introducing himself as the constable, though I still hadn't quite caught the name, he explained the nature of the man's emergency.

"But I'm a doctor of music, not medicine! I really can't help him."

"That's a rather rum thing to be a doctor of," the burly man huffed. "Does that mean you only treat musicians?"

"The ambulance's on its way," the constable said, "but these roads are terrible."

"Do you think he'll be alright?" I asked.

"Hard to say. Depends how long he was lying there in the cold."

Then Danny looked up, stammered out two words – "big... violin..." – and lost consciousness.

"Odd," I said. "What's he mean by that?"

"Oh, here – I almost forgot," the constable said, handing an envelope to Vector. "Could you see that this gets delivered, please?"

"Ah," he said, handing the letter to me. "A letter from Maestro Schnellenlauter..."

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to be continued... [with any luck, the link should become active at 8am, Friday, July 29th]]

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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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