the previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, Bugsy, Lady Vexilla's husband, has a flashback; Frieda fills in many of the gaps about young Toni's birth-family; Cameron has an epiphany of sorts; and the reception resumes as reporter Badger Bronson goes live on TV with startling revelations there's a terrorist in their midst. Who could it possibly be?
(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.)
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
Chapter Eight, concluded:
Agent Mimi Solfeggio pushed the cup of cold tea back across her desk and tossed the stale biscuit into the trash, looking longingly at her watch. It was after 5:00 on a Monday the week before Christmas, she sighed, and she had lots of holiday shopping left. Her daughter Laura – dear, sweet 'La-La' – was coming down with a cold and might have to miss school a few days. And on top of that, she was only feeling a bit so-so, herself.
She wondered how she might preface telling her boss, Chief Inspector Hemiola, that she was feeling a bit under the weather. (Especially given the weather they're dealing with today: she already felt seasonally depressed.) Maybe she should start coughing a little bit, the prelude to a cold. (It'll take forever, going home in this blizzard...)
Her husband Ray would be home soon to get everything started for dinner but she hated not being there for him. The bureau was understaffed and their office especially, with less money for overtime. He'd started pressuring her the past few weeks to look for another job, but in this economy that wasn't so easy.
And now, here they had this big case that broke earlier this morning that was going nowhere fast with no leads: a triple homicide – well, two in London and assisting with one in Munich.
The line buzzed and she perked up immediately. "Solfeggio here," she answered efficiently.
"Hey, Mimi," the voice said, sounding equally tired. It was Agent Holden Fermata, drawing out the last syllable longer than usual.
"Hello, Holden. Any word on Dr. Kerr's whereabouts?" Despite the APB, there'd been no tangible leads, like the guy just vanished.
"No, sorry, love – nothing heeeere." After a pause, he continued, trying her patience. "Anything from anybody else out on the streeeet?"
"Axel was the first to call in, right at 5, but no – nothing."
That didn't exactly surprise him. Agent O'Rondo always beat everybody to the punch whether he had results to share or not.
The line was buzzing again. "Hang on," and Mimi took the second call.
"Ms. Solfeggio, this is Agent Rubato checking in." Ben was a 15-year veteran, always very professional. "No luck canvassing Victoria Station."
Hemiola stomped in, trailing chunky snow behind him, grumbled loudly about the weather and tossed his hat artfully onto the rack. When he looked at Mimi and she shook her head, he grumbled again.
"Get everybody back to the office," he said, "and we'll summarize today's events. Unless anything else breaks, that's enough for now."
He limped over to his desk – “his hip's acting up again,” she thought – while she called in both Fermata and Rubato. Hemiola started taping up photos from the crime scene on the white board.
Agent O'Rondo hurried into the room, stammering hello, out of breath as usual. The snow was still caked around his galoshes.
"It's like the guy vanished into thin air!" He knocked his heels together.
"Nothing on surveillance from Victoria?"
"No, boss, nothing. He walked in and vanished."
"Any chance he changed into a disguise somewhere?"
O'Rondo rushed off to the break room to get fresh coffee for everyone. Meanwhile, Mimi sat quietly at the radio console and coughed a few times, hoping Hemiola would ask if she's feeling okay.
With a coffee cup steaming in his hands, Hemiola sat down to wait, hoping the other two agents wouldn't be long.
Sgt. Sforzato burst into the room having seen news on television about a terrorist attack at that prodigy pageant in Surrey.
"Crykie," Hemiola thundered, "now what! An angry stage mother taking out the competition?"
"That would make sense," Sidney thought, if anything was making sense right now, "whatever they'd possibly get out of kidnapping him, why they'd even do it." He knew Red had it in for him, but how, Sidney wondered, could he treat one of their guests like that? Admittedly, Herring was pretty nasty on his own, everyone would agree to that, and deKoy was a piece of work herself. "You put them together as they usually are, it's like fire to gunpowder."
But more to the point, as he wandered back downstairs – with Vector's leave – was, having done it, where'd they put him? "They'd both been down here, so they didn't dump him in some closet." It would have to be some room out of the way, he imagined, someplace that wasn't being used except for storage.
Nobody would've been in the back hallway past the library to notice them: it would've been easy getting to the stairwell. It would be easy, as well, to carry a body down the steps: there wouldn't be any traffic at the moment. Then the main hallway turned left toward the kitchen, past the servants' lounge.
But with everyone so busy getting dinner prepared, how did they get past? He couldn't imagine eagle-eyed Mrs. French hadn't noticed. Even Vector was convinced she had eyes in the back of her head.
But standing at the base of the steps, looking away from the kitchen, turning right would take you toward the cellars. They must've gone this way and hid him in – what, the wine cellar? Red's the one who usually retrieves the wine for Vector before each meal. Sidney rarely needed to come down this way.
But that was almost too obvious, wasn't it, so Sidney walked quietly past the wine cellar and around the less-traveled corner. These were the old larders, replaced by modern freezers, and empty for decades.
Wouldn't they be kept locked? Herring could've gotten the key from Vector's office. And how was he going to break in? If there was some sign, he could at least go and tell Vector.
That was when he noticed how the footprints in the dust stopped here, in front of this room – and it's unlocked.
The thought crossed his mind: what would they have done to Mr. Cameron? Would he be drugged, lying on the floor, or maybe hanging naked from a meat hook like a side of beef? What if it's a trap meant to catch him and Mr. Cameron in a compromising situation, a camera on a trip-wire?
It also occurred to him, if Cameron's naked, how's he going to get him to safety without anyone noticing he's naked? However, Sidney realized, such trains of thought would best be left till later.
There he was, barely visible in the darkness, bound, gagged, blindfolded – fully clothed.
"Mr. Cameron, hello" he whispered, "it's me, Sidney."
Cameron groaned something and tried to turn around as Sidney quickly freed him.
"Hurry," he said, "we have to get out of here."
"Oh, man – thanks!"
Then they heard a noise in the hallway.
When deKoy entered the room, it appeared empty.
"But how can zet be?"
The door was ajar. "Zey must've already ezkept."
She looked in cautiously, unsure what she'd find.
Then something hit her head.
Cameron and Sidney quickly tied her up, leaving her in the same spot.
"Hurry, before Herring gets down here," Sidney panted.
He led the way back toward the kitchen, Cameron rubbing his chafed wrists.
"We'll take the back hall, up to Frieda's..."
By the stairs, there stood this hulk – that temporary footman – blocking their path.
Hemiola tried ignoring the TV once Sforzato tuned it to the news channel.
"He's being very vague – it's a developing situation – you know," using air-quotes, "fluid."
"Okay, but keep the volume down," Hemiola growled, "we've got work to do."
By this time, Fermata and Rubato joined them.
"Yeah, I was listening to this," Rubato drawled, "This guy's a real... idiot."
Hemiola was trying to redirect their attention, unsuccessfully.
"Look, if they need us," he reminded them, "they'll call us. So, meanwhile..."
The main problem, he explained, trying to summarize the events of the day, was their chief suspect hadn't become their suspect until after he had managed to elude them, apparently disappearing into thin air.
"Now, I'm told," Hemiola continued, "this Professor Kerr is supposed to be brilliant but he looks like any muddled middle-aged guy."
"D'you think it's part of a clever disguiiise?"
"That wouldn't account for his... disappearing from the surveillance cams, though... would it?"
Sometimes Hemiola really hated having Fermata and Rubato working on the same team.
"Wait!" Sforzato shouted. "Where's that sidekick of his?"
Hemiola rifled through some photos.
"They could've split up, then regrouped somewhere later."
"Holy crap," Sforzato shouted again. "Look at that! There he is, on TV!"
"What the hell's he doing there? Isn't that...?"
"Gentlemen, we've just found our elusive Dr. Kerr: both him... and his sidekick."
There on the screen was Badger Bronson standing in front of a graphic of Dr. Kerr and his assistant Cameron Pierce.
"Apparently, they're terrorists and they've attacked the reality show, Pimp My Prodigy!"
"Mimi," Hemiola blurted out, "call everyone for back-up: Agents Ritard, also Sarah Bond. O'Rondo, get the van ready. Five minutes, people!"
He grabbed his lucky red scarf, knitted for him by his Aunt Jane.
"Whatever happens, tell them I want Kerr alive: he's our prime suspect for three murders and who knows how many others!"
Everyone hustled about, even Fermata, grabbing their gear, running down to the van. Hemiola barked orders after them, charging down steps.
Very soon, the van – their beloved 'Ludwig Van' – pulled out into the snow.
Chaos in the office deflated, returning to tranquility once Hemiola left the building.
Mimi sighed. It would be a long night.
"Terry," Burnson yelled, "come with me," grabbing me (a little too roughly, perhaps) then he started pushing me through the library hallway toward the back stairwell. Something strange had suddenly erupted at the reception which didn't make any sense and whatever this was all about didn't help. It was as if a fire had started spreading across the Great Hall: did that have anything to do with Cameron? Did somebody have some news regarding his whereabouts; did they find him somewhere?
Burnson only managed to heighten the strangeness, saying he'd explain it all later, but I couldn't help wonder what was happening. Vector led LauraLynn and followed close behind us, acting as calmly as possible. It was like some emergency had taken place and we were being evacuated but I didn't see any flames or smoke.
At the bottom of the steps there was even more commotion, I noticed, where numerous servants were running to and fro. Mrs. Linebottom and Mrs. French were fretting about getting dinner ready on time.
"That's him!" Lisa the maid looked at me, yelling, "he's one of them!"
"What? I'm one of whom...?" Burnson said nothing.
As a composer, I always dreamed of being recognized by an appreciative audience but something told me that this wasn't it. Lisa honestly seemed to be afraid of me and the others pulled back.
Burnson pushed me ahead into what turned out to be the Servants' Hall, a long room before you reached the kitchen. There was a long table down the center with chairs on either side.
Vector escorted LauraLynn in also, then turned and shut the door behind them. Mrs. Linebottom was tending someone with a towel.
"I can't say I know what's going on," she said, looking at Vector, "but I'm sure young Sidney's seen better days."
I noticed there was quite a crowd gathering outside the door, looking in.
Sidney looked awful, all scuffed up with a bruised eye, his livery torn, and with a bloody cut on his temple. Mrs. Linebottom continued to pat his forehead with a damp cloth, muttering encouragingly.
"Has someone sent for the doctor," I asked, looking from Burnson to Vector, hoping that's not why I'd been brought here.
"We think it has something to do with the disappearance of Mr. Cameron," Vector explained, "but I can only guess how. He told me he had 'a hunch' what might have happened, without elaborating."
Mrs. Linebottom explained how she had heard a "ruckus" out in the hall and someone screaming "bloody blue murder" for help.
"By the time I got there – with half the kitchen staff, to boot – there he was, lying on the bottom step."
With a start, Sidney shook his head and knocked Mrs. Linebottom's hand away.
"Where's Mr. Cameron," he stammered. "Is he okay?"
"Okay?" Mrs. Linebottom soothed his brow. "Mr. Cameron is nowhere to be found."
"Sidney, did you find Cameron," I asked him. "Please, what's happened to him?"
"No, I rescued him – from the one larder. He was bound and gagged..." Sidney tried to sit up. "It was Herring..."
"Herring? Are you sure?" Vector wasn't entirely skeptical.
"Cameron said they thought he was a terrorist, abducted him and called police."
"Hmmm, that would explain a lot," Burnson said. "That newsman is an idiot!"
"Who's a terrorist," I asked, "he thought Cameron...?"
"It's all over the news there's a terrorist cell lurking about Phlaumix Court!"
"But what happened to Cameron after you rescued him? Did Herring attack you?"
"No, that new guy, the really big one..."
"Why did he attack you?"
"I don't know – but he's got Mr. Cameron!"
"OMG, so... wait: Herring kidnapped Cameron, you rescued him and now this new guy, the big one, has abducted him – again?" I was having trouble making sense out of any of this, quite frankly.
In the midst of this, I heard Vector ask Mrs. Linebottom if she'd go upstairs and "fetch" Mr. Herring for him.
Burnson said everything was in a "pandemonious state" after national news reported Cameron and I were part of a terrorist cell.
"Wait... what?" Something else my beleaguered brain failed to wrap itself around. "What!?"
Burnson explained how, if Herring had let slip he'd caught himself a terrorist, the word had quickly spread after Scricci's outburst that we were under attack and the media frenzy immediately went to work.
"The guy found a clip taken earlier of you and Cameron talking together – I imagine that's how you became a cell."
"Wait, I forgot," Sidney added, carefully massaging his aching forehead "about Mlle. deKoy. She must've come back to check on him." Cameron hadn't much time to explain what happened before she'd found them, either. "So I'd gotten him untied, we ambushed her, then knocked her out, gagged her, tied her up and left her there."
Vector, looking rather surprised, opened the door and finding Mrs. French standing there, asked her if she'd wouldn't retrieve Mlle. deKoy.
"Okay, but my souffle will be absolutely ruined..."
"One more tragedy to bear."
Mrs. Linebottom returned just then, pushing ahead of her a smug-looking Rudyard Herring. A frigate in full sail, she'd gone up to him and that reporter – "he was being interviewed on TV, he was" – and how she clapped her hands on his shoulder, telling him he'd better come with her, "right before the camera, too."
Herring defended himself, stating quite proudly they'd apprehended a confessed terrorist before anything serious had happened and he deserves praise instead.
"Plus I've already alerted the police," he said. "I'd expect a nice reward."
"You blithering troglodyte," Vector snarled. "Have you any idea what you've done, man?"
Herring looked rather crestfallen at the butler's response.
"Can we please go find this new guy," I asked, "and rescue Cameron?"
"By the way, who is this 'new' footman? I don't recall hiring him..."
"Well, whoever he is, he's got Cameron now."
Mrs. French marched down the hall with Mlle. deKoy looking a bit dazed and deposited her in the room beside Herring. If looks could kill, Herring would die a thousand deaths before very long.
"Found her wandering around in the hallway, none the worse for le wear et tear," she said, "Isn't that right, Duckie?"
Then she turned around and dismissed the others who'd hung around the doorway still waiting for something more exciting to happen.
"There's nothing to see here, all a mistake. Now, back to preparing dinner!"
Mlle. deKoy snarled at Sidney under her breath, something about "weak as water."
Sidney, meanwhile, wondered about a witness protection program.
Burnson apologized again to me and said he'd go correct the reporter's assumptions.
"When the police do arrive, I'll have them search for this new footman. Given the weather, he can't have gotten far."
Herring and deKoy were meanwhile hissing accusations back and forth at each other. Vector tried to silence them with his stare.
"It was you," he said, "who overheard him say he was a terrorist!"
"But it was you," she snarled back, "coming up wizz ziss hare-brained schema!"
I asked her what she'd heard Cameron say.
It didn't surprise me to hear he'd been joking about his Fubaristani roots or that he's been a member of Al-Qalín. How many times had I told him these jokes would cause him trouble?
Vector informed them they should have come directly to him with their concerns and let him take whatever actions were necessary: that way he would have been able to put a stop to it.
"Instead, you had the audacity – yes, the audacity – to go off on your own and pull a stupid stunt like that!"
Burnson said he'd discuss it with his mother but he was sure Lady Vexilla would be most upset with what happened. "It wouldn't surprise me if she'd sack the pair of you before dinner!"
"Meanwhile," Vector continued, "we must clarify this misunderstanding with our idiotic TV reporter, whatever he's doing here, for whatever it's worth: he should inform the world we are not, in fact, facing immediate annihilation."
"I'll take care of that, Vector," Burnson added, "you locate this new footman. And thank you again, Sidney, for rescuing Cameron."
Vector prodded Herring and deKoy into the hallway which had not yet cleared – "Move along, now, it's of no significance whatsoever" – and soon the room was empty except for Sidney, Mrs. Linebottom and myself.
"You'd better get yourself cleaned up, young man," she was saying to Sidney,
who protested he was just bruised, not broken.
"But we have to search the house to find Mr. Cameron," he insisted, "figure out where that monster might've taken him!"
I suggested we get Vector to organize a search party and start looking.
"I'm afraid, for now, that's not a wise idea, Dr. Kerr," Vector said, nodding at me as he shut the door.
Mrs. Linebottom took Sidney's jacket so she could mend the rip in it.
"Despite Mr. Burnson's best efforts, he's only convinced them there's no immediate danger, but the general consensus is you're still terrorists."
Mrs. Linebottom led Sidney out into the hallway after whispering in Vector's ear.
"Ah, Mrs. L., that's a very fine idea."
He then suggested that I should go visit Miss Frieda for a while.
Vector thought my presence might only confuse the issue of searching for Cameron: the important thing, somehow, was to find him.
While I disliked not being able to participate, maybe it wasn't so bad. "But what does this guy want with Cameron?"
"Maybe, if you think about it," Vector suggested, "it's not Cameron he's after."
Mrs. French requested Mr. Burnson hold his meeting somewhere not near the kitchen if he didn't want to ruin the dinner his mother had carefully planned. It wasn't much of a meeting, more of a drawing up of teams meant to search the house and find Cameron.
Nor did it involve everyone in the house – in fact, fewer was better – so, he decided, after he'd consulted with Vector, they would keep it distinct from the reception and meet behind the library.
I'd told Burnson, regardless of the general perception of my being a terrorist, as far fetched as that may have been, I couldn't sit hiding in a room while everybody else searched for Cameron. He was my responsibility, clearly, and I owed him that as my friend. Burnson reluctantly agreed, still fearing for my safety.
The idea was we would break into pairs (one of whom should have a mobile phone) and be assigned specific areas; whoever found any sign of them would then call either Burnson or Vector. However, getting these pairs matched up took me back to those dreaded memories of choosing teams in my school's gym classes.
Burnson didn't want the Marquess as his partner any more than Sidney did, nor did Vector want Sidney paired with Herring. In fact, when Herring volunteered, Vector trusted him to be only with him.
Burnson also hadn't been keen on LauraLynn's having volunteered, either, considering her safety, until she chided him about his "misplaced macho-ness". Since Mrs. Linebottom had no phone, she and LauraLynn would cover the downstairs.
Having left my phone back in the bedroom, I too needed careful consideration. Sir Charles and I became the potential rejects.
Vector was going to pair Burnson with me before he realized that meant Sidney would then be paired with Sir Charles. Given the look of fear in Sidney's eyes, Burnson gave a "whatever" shrug.
Before we separated, Vector's words echoed through what was left of my brain: was this big guy using Cameron as bait to get his real target? What if he's an agent working for SHMRG?
Then wasn't it possible LauraLynn was the target and she was in danger? Regardless, she'd be safer with Linebottom than me.
"Remember," Burnson told us before we split up, "we have a distinct advantage – well, most of us, anyway," frowning at me. "This big guy is unfamiliar with the house and could easily get lost."
"Plus," Vector added, "he has no likely escape."
"Isolated from the rest of the world," Sir Charles concluded, "just like us."
"But don't forget, Herring already called the police, so they're on their way, however long it may take in this weather. They can help us look for the big guy and take him away."
"Can't we call him something other than 'The Big Guy'? I mean, that sounds so childish, doesn't it," the Marquess complained.
When Burnson didn't bother responding, Leighton thought 'Leviathan' might be a suitable code-name.
Sidney and I had already headed up the back steps to our assignment so I missed the rest of this repartée.
Mrs. Linebottom led the way to the downstairs, no doubt assuming he couldn't be hiding in some kitchen cupboard, after all, not with Mrs. French likely to be wielding a skillet just in case. From there, they would check out the cellars, mindful of cornering our villain, only locating him rather than performing any heroics.
Burnson and Charles were taking the ground floor, starting with the Cube Room, hoping to keep any damage to a minimum. Vector, with the master key, would scour the upstairs bedrooms, starting with Frieda's.
Our goal – Sidney's and mine – was to eliminate any chance he was hiding in the servants' quarters on what we in America called the third floor, which Sidney explained consisted of two unconnected wings. The first one was for the male servants, the other for the women, each with separate entrances from the second level.
But with only three men in service any more at Phlaumix Court, he said there were nearly a dozen empty rooms. Even with a few additional kitchen's maids, now, there'd still be empty rooms...
"Wait," Sidney said, stopping us in our tracks, pointing toward the far end of the hall, "is someone playing a violin?"
"No," I said, "technically, that'd be a viola – looks like a larger violin...?"
If that's the servant ready to play his viola for me in the Pendulum Room, why choose now to go practice?
I had seen him walking around with the canapés at the reception like a big fish out of a little pond but it hadn't occurred to me this was the guy who'd abducted Cameron.
Sidney confirmed the guy with the canapés was the one who'd attacked them.
"And," I added, "who also plays the viola."
But why would a guy who's a new hire kidnap one of the guests and then play the viola for him?
Was the man that starved for an audience? Something was very wrong, here.
Just as I was going to suggest Sidney call in Burnson and Vector, he jumped ahead and kicked down the door. Perhaps he felt Cameron was in immediate danger and needed to be rescued.
And Sidney's instincts were correct: there he was, trussed up in a chair, the big guy sawing away at his viola.
"Talk about desperation," I thought, "what lengths some classical musicians will go to!" This certainly wasn't going to help his tip.
Instead of stopping the performance, he kept playing, turning toward us, eyes blazing.
I had noticed his intonation suffered from needing to stretch his little finger and was about to advise him of this when he started playing on the lower strings, deliberate dissonances even more jarring.
"Hey, everybody, he's in here," Sidney started shouting.
With that, our violist pushed past us into the hall and was gone.
Cathie seconded Toni's comment about the crowd they had for that reception downstairs and Frieda agreed she was glad to be out of it, wheelchair aside.
"I hate trying to navigate crowds sitting down when everybody towering above me thinks they're so superior, all young and healthy."
Toni, who disliked being stuck in a large crowd regardless – call it agoraphobia – blushed at Frieda's casual reference to her handicap.
"Oh, your ladyship, I didn't mean anything by..." Toni stammered, then simply stopped.
"First of all, again – I'm not 'your ladyship.'" Frieda shook her head with a sour grin, noticing Cathie's barely concealed amusement. "Lady Vexilla is 'her ladyship,' but I'm only her maiden aunt, you see. Besides, you should probably get used to calling me 'Granny,' I would imagine. And there's even more to tell you, tonight."
Frieda explained she uses the wheelchair only because she's old and tires easily, not because she was necessarily sick or disabled. And then, being around many others, she's always concerned about being knocked down.
"But you and I are the same height," she added with a chuckle, "you when you're standing and me, sitting down."
She invited Toni to sit closer to her and asked Cathie if she wouldn't mind getting a little something to drink.
"Are you old enough for a little wine or perhaps you'd prefer soda?"
Before Toni could answer her, there was a firm knock at the door – Toni figured it would be someone telling her she's too young for wine.
It was Vector with Herring following close behind.
"Oh, Vector, come in – I realize you're busy." Frieda sounded very cheery as she greeted him, pointing at the young girl.
Vector tilted his head to the side as he quietly surveyed the room as Frieda introduced her great-great-granddaughter with considerable pride.
"Indeed, ma'am," Vector intoned with the crack of a smile, "most excellent news."
"I'll tell you more about it after dinner: yes, it's most excellent news!" She was practically beaming as she told him. "Would you kindly have a spare bed set up for her here, Vector?"
"Why, certainly, ma'am. Rudyard, you and Sidney could manage this after dinner tonight?" Herring nodded approvingly, despite his noticeably raised eyebrow.
Vector whispered something in Frieda's ear about an intruder wandering around the house, "no doubt from that awful pageant next door." Still, he recommended locking her door for the duration just as a precaution.
"Even when I am inside?" She sounded incredulous that this would be necessary.
"But we should locate him very soon, ma'am."
She hadn't even noticed Cathie had momentarily disappeared, returning just now with a small silver tray holding three glasses of champagne. Vector explained the necessity of locking the door as soon as he's left.
"Here we are, Frieda, my dear," Cathie said, "one for each of us. Things are quite a panic downstairs with talk of terrorists in the house."
"Sounds a bit overdone, from what Vector said."
After handing Toni her smaller flute of champagne (a 'piccolo,' she called it), Frieda began to explain her most recent discovery.
"The Maestro had already discovered you were the granddaughter of my son, William, but he also discovered my daughter Gracie's grandson. What he didn't know was that that grandson is also your father, Toni.
"So, you see, my dear, you're descended on both sides from my twins. That makes me two times over your great-great-grandmother."
Before Toni could respond, someone tried the door and found it was locked.
"Fräulein, is everything okay?"
Cathie opened the door.
"We must go down, now." Minona was impatient. "Dinner will be shortly served."
Sidney yelled at the top of his lungs and ran down the hallway as soon as the guy broke past us, the viola under his arm.
"Stop! Stop him, somebody!" Not that that would be very effective, I thought.
"Sidney, your cell phone," I shouted after him.
As I hurriedly untied Cameron, between asking him if he was feeling okay and what the hell was going on here, I told him the arrangement was whoever found him would call Vector first.
"Sidney shouldn't be trying to catch the big guy by himself," I said, "but I need to make sure you're safe."
He confirmed he was okay – no broken bones and only a few bruises.
After I was able to get him standing, Cameron wasn't exactly pleased to have been kidnapped twice in a half hour.
"At least his playing wasn't as bad as listening to that biofeedback Bolero last summer," he said, pulling out his iPod. "By the way, hadn't you better call Vector? Did you forget your phone?"
Confessing I'd left it in the room, I said I also didn't have Vector's or Burnson's numbers on it, just LauraLynn's.
"Right – here's mine," he said, "but, don't forget, I want it right back!" He recalled how frequently his phones disappeared before...
"LauraLynn," I told her, "call Burnson: the big guy got away from us."
Cameron was pleased his iPod still worked after his fall down the steps and immediately re-pocketed his only slightly cracked phone.
"Do you think this big guy could be the one who killed Schnellenlauter?"
"How, with his viola? Unlikely – but still dangerous. He's probably an agent from SHMRG sent to keep us off their trail."
But Cameron wasn't paying attention, bopping in rhythm to something on his iPod.
"So what CD are you listening to now?"
"Huh? Oh – the latest from the Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies, my favorite band."
Pulling out the ear-buds, he explained they're computerized sound files, MP³s. "Seriously, Doc, who listens to CDs these days?"
That reminded me how I'd just corrected Sidney saying he'd heard a violin.
"Yeah," Cameron agreed, "like the cabby said before passing out, a 'big violin'..."
"Wait – was our SHMRG agent in Danny's cab?"
So far, Vector and Herring, making their rounds, found the men's bedrooms locked but still checked each one for signs the kidnapper might be hiding there.
Herring wondered how the guy might have gotten a key to get in unless he's working for one of the guests.
"If he's someone's valet, how did he end up downstairs as a footman?" Vector's eyebrows fairly bristled at the potential embarrassment.
"Don't know, sir," Herring answered with a shrug. "Saw him wandering around, and..."
They had reached the so-called "Star Bedroom," named for its various five-pointed stars especially those nested within pentagons with colored tiles, worked into infinite patterns across the floor, the walls but especially the ceiling.
"This is the room assigned to Miss LauraLynn's cousin, Mr. Harty," Vector announced. Opening the door, he looked in and stopped.
"I don't recall this being in here before when I oversaw the preparation." The butler moved in for a closer look. There on the night stand was a very strange ceramic bust of Beethoven.
Herring admitted he had not though the sunglasses were certainly a nice touch, not that he'd ever admit that to Vector. The old fogies around here were so pompous in their veneration of Beethoven.
Vector picked it up carefully, half out of curiosity, half out of disgust. Immediately, the bust started beeping and whirring, like a computer coming to life, soft lights flickering across the sunglasses like shadows. A breathless voice began speaking: "Sorry, sir, not now – in the middle of..." and which point the connection suddenly went dead.
He peered into it as a video began to play, grainy in quality and tinny in sound, frequently stopping and starting. It was a large man – yes, their free-range kidnapper – playing a white viola!
"What in bloody hell is this?" Vector couldn't take his eyes off it. Behind him stood rows of penguins – stuffed, ceramic – and over it crooned a silky, artificial voice, eerily serpentine, hissing its approval.
"Uhm, sir, perhaps you should look at this," Herring said, turning him around. On the bed were a dozen stuffed penguins.
Before Vector could see more of the video the bust had started playing – it was apparently some kind of wireless communication device and video playback unit but between whom and for what possible purpose? – his phone rang, LauraLynn warning him the big guy was seen in the servants' quarters but was now headed back downstairs.
"Ah, then," Vector said, placing the bust back down without a second glance, "our secondary kidnapper is again on the move."
"We'd better go, sir," Herring said, without taking his eyes off the penguins.
"On my word, what grown man would travel with a dozen stuffed animals?"
Herring himself was no less incredulous, looking around.
"Well, Mr. Vector, he's not that full grown a man, now, is he?"
Twelve penguins were symmetrically placed in a line, in what seemed curiously refreshing: the largest one stood squarely in the center.
"We'd better go, sir," Herring said, tugging at Vector's sleeve, "before we're discovered." For all his bravado, Herring was clearly uncomfortable. "Something tells me Mrs. French will soon be throwing fits about serving dinner."
"Damn Mr. Harty and his penguins," Vector thought, wondering what the hell he'd stumbled upon, here, before turning out the lights.
Looking back at the penguins on the bed, he had an uncomfortable sensation, as if they were smirking back at him.
He doubted this was of no significance whatsoever.
Shuddering, he closed the door.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active at 8:00 am on Monday, August 15th.]
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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