(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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Lady Vexilla explained, with fewer than twenty guests, we would still dine in the "more intimate" dining room and save the Banquet Hall for the wedding. She told me she saw no need for ostentation on such a night, given the weather and "this most horrid excitement."
Once the reception broke up and the Pageant's performance was about to begin, everyone else worked their way down the hall elegantly led by Lady Vexilla and Sir Bognar, the rest falling in behind.
Burnson passed me and whispered the local police have in the meantime returned.
"After correcting Constable Drumm's assumptions, he's on the trail of our large violist. With luck, we'll have no further trouble tonight."
I pushed Frieda in her wheelchair into the room as Cameron escorted Toni, the two youngest people among the evening's guests.
Cameron and I were, as expected, seated at opposite ends of the table and I was surrounded by rather imposing strangers. Once we'd found our places, the servants filed in and began to serve. With the addition of Toni, there were now fourteen of us "at table," a welcome relief for those dreading thirteen guests.
Burnson's sister Tabitha, fortunately, was the strategically placed buffer between Maurie and me while Canon Pettifogger droned on on my left. Sir Charles sat directly across from me, LauraLynn holding up on his right.
Lady Vexilla, seated at my end of the long table, gave the signal and servants began ladling out the mock-turtle soup.
"Sidney, good heavens," she said to the footman serving her, "you've been wounded!"
As Sidney bowed in acknowledgment, Vector confirmed his "instrumentality in rescuing Master Cameron not once but twice during the late ruckus."
"Am I to understand you also played some role in this incident, Rudyard?"
"Yes, m'lady," he said blushing, "I'm afraid so..."
"Well, I'm glad you both were so helpful in looking after our guests."
There seemed to be no consternation among the guests that the "alleged" kidnapper – at least the second one – was still at-large. Perhaps the fact Cameron had been safely rescued made any further danger moot?
He had deferentially agreed not to press any charges against Herring and deKoy, but issues with our free-range violist were different.
Frieda tapped her glass and the general conversation quickly came to a stop.
"I wanted to introduce a newly arrived guest since most of you have not had the opportunity of meeting her yet." She put her hand on the girl's wrist. "This is Antonie Auvoir-duBois who's a math wizard but more importantly a composer."
Frieda explained how Schnellenlauter's last gift to her was to locate her great-great-granddaughter, the most important aspect of her surprise arrival.
"I am saddened that Schnelly will never know the joy he's given me."
Cathie was the first to ask the child who her favorite composer was.
"Why, Beethoven, of course," she responded, "who else?"
"Quite logical, really," Frieda agreed, "under the circumstances."
"How so?" Canon Pettifogger asked.
By this time, I noticed Sir Charles had managed to get Burnson's attention and started pointing into his bowl of soup.
"Perhaps after dessert, my dear," Mrs. Dean said, looking around toward the girl, "you could play something by Beethoven for us? It is so nice," she added, "to hear young people play real music."
"Perhaps, Mrs. Dean," Frieda suggested, "she could play something she has composed herself?"
"Oh, we'd much rather hear Beethoven, wouldn't we?"
Charles started pantomiming pouring something into his soup, then holding his hands up to this throat like he was being poisoned.
I could barely see Burnson's reaction as he resolutely continued eating his soup.
The opening night of the reality show, "Pimp My Prodigy!", was already underway when producer Rhonna deMille told her assistant she had misgivings about going live. Who expected the reception to turn into such a muddle with that idiot. All the contestants were flustered by his "news."
"With each of them on edge, how can they focus on their performance?" It didn't help she'd already noticed a certain tension during the opening number, a tribute to Murder on the Orient Express.
Tootie Ghibatti thought nerves were good for them, "keeps them on their toes."
DeMille didn't disagree but felt better if they're on their own dime, then. "This show has disaster written all over it."
"Besides," Tootie said, "the meat of the pageant" – the competition itself – "would be taped and edited for broadcast the following week."
"Whose idea was it to use this as a theme for the opening?" DeMille wasn't interested in anything beyond Pop Culture. "Geez, Agatha Christie's like two hundred years old – might as well use Shakespeare!"
Tootie was pretty sure Hugh Brissman, the executive director, could've made it work but she thought his assistant was pretty weak.
"Look," deMille pointed out, "we're already behind schedule. That clarinetist can't keep up. We should tell the conductor to play faster."
And there still weren't enough glitzy special effects to keep an audience interested.
As it was, they had to put Brissman's assistant, Sven Galli, on the opposite side of the offstage area from Scricci or people'd be slipping in pools of blood before the night was out. Scricci himself was still too wired after his near-death experience at that reception. Atello never thought he'd need downers to perform.
The only way Badger Bronson could convince himself to go back on camera was to start drinking copious amounts of alcohol: he thought it helped give his delivery a more suave manner than usual.
Faiello was relaying several messages from Maestro Dumbledown but Mumwidge was nowhere to be found and nobody knew where she was.
Besides, whatever happened to that old broad, Fourthought? She's supposed to work backstage.
Colangelo, working security, was handed the APB about that terror suspect next door.
"Guys, he's that extra violist Mumwidge had hired!"
The hors d'ouvres course had been ruined as the reception descended into chaos but the dinner itself progressed smoothly through the soup and the salmon courses. Clearing away the artichoke salad, Sidney and Herring began serving the roast lamb which, like everything else, was prepared to perfection.
How much the others in the room knew about the significance of Beethoven's presence in this house, I could only imagine. But at least I knew it was a secret needing to be kept.
Cameron and I, despite earlier distractions, tried to discuss the whereabouts of Beethoven's lost quartet with Frieda but had no luck. Whatever Schnellenlauter may have found so far had not revealed its hiding place. No doubt he would have had something else to show her in person, perhaps even this missing fragment of a letter.
The Beethoven Collection in the Phlaumix Court library began under the supervision of Lord Sidney Leighton, the 9th Marquess of Quackerly, who, early in life, developed an intense passion for the music of Beethoven. It was then expanded by his grandson Rudyard, an inveterate collector of original manuscripts and letters as well as first editions.
Whatever it was Schnellenlauter may have discovered in folders full of uncatalogued items, I wondered if the quartet wasn't also here. But if Melissa Fourthought was researching Beethoven, too, had she found it already?
As the footmen began serving the platters of meat with crisply broiled vegetables, I noticed Vector come in, looking somewhat disturbed. He first approached Burnson and whispered to him (I couldn't see his response) and then also whispered something to Frieda who, noticing my glance with curiosity, nodded in my direction before she answered him.
Waiting until Sidney and the vegetables had passed, Vector then came down and handed me a folded old piece of paper, saying it was found outside the library, where perhaps I might've dropped it.
I said I didn't think so, but he urged me to take it, so I glanced at it before pocketing it.
Sir Charles seemed quite interested.
"Nothing important," I said. "Something from my agent."
It was a series of names in old German with Schubert's crossed off.
The signature at the bottom was Anton Schindler's.
"It was a dark and stormy night" kept playing through Hemiola's beleaguered brain, one of those unwelcome clichés that bore through his head like an ear-worm. The snow was blinding and the wind, howling – more clichés for the descriptively challenged – but there was nothing he could do.
They had stopped to grab some take-out at the Curry Palace before heading out of London, and now they're almost there. He figured, barring any problems on the back roads, maybe another twenty minutes.
It was unlikely in this weather Dr. Kerr could escape from their clutches: unless he too had a snow-worthy vehicle like the IMP's indomitable Ludwig Van, there was little chance he'd get away again.
Looking out the window, all Hemiola saw was a heavy blanket of snow, just like the night Gloria had been killed.
The memory of his partner's body like that, lying bloody in the snow, was as fresh as yesterday despite the years. Trying to shake his mind free of her, thoughts began swirling even more.
"Do you have to watch that stupid show?" He had to snap at something, might as well be "Pimp Your Prodigy!"
"Don't worry, boss," O'Rondo said, "we're almost there!"
Libitum turned the TV down.
"Damn," Sforzato barked, "the GPS must be stuck!"
"Hurry, before Kerr kills again!" Hemiola hoped it'd be this show's moronic host...
Vector was clearly feeling uncomfortable, glancing around from his post by the sideboard, but it had little to do with the progress of this evening's dinner which had proceeded flawlessly to dessert, a perfectly delicious and beautifully molded blancmange, just one of Mrs. French's many exquisite specialties. But after having to tell that woman – the one all dressed in black – she's in the wrong part of the house, he'd noticed that Herring said a few words to her before she left.
He felt tension was at a minimum by having Herring serve on the side of the table opposite young Mr. Cameron. But perhaps there was something else going on: "who was that woman, then?" Given the smirk he wore, Herring no doubt was up to something fishy: "what had he been saying to that woman?"
Frieda enjoyed the conversation with her newly-discovered great-great-granddaughter, finding out more about her and some of the works she's already composed. To Frieda's surprise, the child was quite prolific but very careful about performances.
"The Maestro," she explained, "had really liked some piano pieces I've just finished and a string quartet I'd started last month."
She meant to bring a copy of it with her to show Schnellenlauter, but she'd accidentally left it in another notebook.
"What did you say, dear – in another book...?" Frieda cried out, "that's it!"
Several people put their spoons down and stared toward Frieda who, in great excitement, looked around for Vector who had just followed the footmen out the door, clearing away the rest of the dishes.
Turning to Bugsy, she asked him if he wouldn't mind going to the Reading Room for her – "just a small favor."
Some time ago she had left a second copy of her novel there – he'd recognize it, with its faded brownish cover – "it's probably sitting out on one of the tables just inside the door."
"My dear," Bugsy said, smiling, "even if it's the last thing I do. But as we're no longer thirteen at table, it's safe to be the first to leave. (*) I'll return before the port."
Lady Vexilla knitted her brows and gave her husband a slightly disapproving scowl.
With that, he stood up and excused himself.
Hemiola felt they were going in circles but that's what the GPS said.
On the TV, still too audible for Hemiola's taste, that joke of a newscaster was interviewing one of the judges backstage.
"Who is that guy, anyway," Agent Libitum asked.
"You mean who's Desi Finado!?"
"Well, her, too, but I meant the reporter."
"Didn't he used to be with Fox News?"
Hemiola tugged his scarf tighter.
Desiderio Finado, Fermata explained, was a 'he,' a big pop-star who sang opera and considered by many the latest Andrea Boccelli.
"Yeah," Hemiola wondered, "whatever happened to that guy? Haven't heard him in years."
"Oh, fabulous," Sforzato shouted, "he'll be singing Send in the Clowns!"
"Don't worry, boss," O'Rondo said, "we're already here."
Barely visible in front of them rose a huge house atop a hill, the snow swirling without let-up through the clearing.
"Welcome to Phlaumix Court, boss," Agent O'Rondo said after driving over two speed-bumps.
"Wonderful! We made it before the big finale – we can watch it live!"
"We're here to arrest a murderer," Hemiola growled.
With that, they waded through the drifting snow and rang the front doorbell. Agent Bond, ever alert, brought up the rear.
Drawing their guns, the agents fanned out across the Great Hall.
Shortly after Bugsy excused himself, I did the same, making a quick apology that I needed to check out one of the house's more spacious bathrooms. I left behind my dessert, a rather bland dish they called a blancmange, a shivery gelatinous thing, pale and sweetly tasteless.
I had hoped by now the kidnapper would no longer be at large, that the police had managed to apprehend him and that soon, under their interrogation, we would discover what his affiliations were.
That paper Vector handed me which I needed to check was quite old. Of course I'd need to verify the handwriting – could this be Schindler's list? – which meant it could be 180 years old.
Unfortunately, there was somebody already in the stall, probably one of the servants.
"Fortunately," I thought, "I only need the urinal..."
"That would be Dr. Eliasen's job," Bugsy said, "he would know where to..."
Then he became conscious somebody had followed him.
"Ross Budd! My god – you!" the voice said.
"Now there's a name I haven't heard in a long time," Bugsy thought.
With a glimmer of recognition, he turned to see a figure behind him.
"If need be," he thought, "I can kill my way out of here."
He had to be careful. Who was it?
He wasn't really sure, as he peered through the crack in the door.
"Ah, what luck," he realized. "It's Dr. Kerr!"
Nepomuck was prepared to start playing the viola when he heard a scream.
"OMG," she wailed, "he looks ever so dead!"
It was Sir Bugsy lying there with a book in his outstretched hand.
Hearing footsteps behind her, Lisa quickly turned around.
"You," she screamed, and ran away, still screaming.
A crowd started forming instantly.
After Holly Burton had taken away the last of Mr. Goodwood's dinner tray, the man formerly known as N. Ron Steele turned down the television set. He hadn't been there a whole day yet and already he felt constrained; but being in hiding gave him few options. Ever since he had been shot at Schweinwald, life has not been easy for the CEO turned man-on-the-lam, a wounded criminal. It was like his luck had run out, his meteoric rise finally stalled.
The fact this wound refused to heal was one thing to deal with: being confined to a wheelchair was something else. He used to laugh at handicapped people before – now, he's one of them. Not being able to go up stairs bothered him, cutting down his independence, because he knew the rooms upstairs were bigger.
All because some minion had gotten carried away and accidentally shot his target instead of merely scaring the man into submission. The plan had been to cancel Sullivan's opera, not to murder the composer. True, a few people had died along the way – more than they knew – yet they still insisted on performing the thing.
"That final act would've given away one of my earliest murders," Steele thought, "make some well-meaning detective look into the past." It was the only one he'd committed himself, but police called it suicide.
And now LauraLynn Harty was insistent on staging the damn opera in London, Rob Sullivan's cousin intent on keeping it alive. Alas, intimidation wasn't what it used to be, not against someone like her.
But the good news was that concert suite premiering tonight had been canceled. There'd been no explanation given: presumably the weather.
Holly said she'd heard it on the radio, saw the cancellation posted on-line. It was meant to be a major fund-raiser. How could this not hurt her chances to stage the complete opera later?
And now Monty, his IT Director, has heard through the internet grapevine that the conductor died backstage of a "heart attack." There were even rumors it might've been murder but nothing anyone could prove.
Steele had said he wanted this production stopped: his new "Thomas á Becket Doctrine" meant he didn't need to explain how.
And here they're staging this pageant in the house where LauraLynn's getting married.
"Surely, she won't think that's a coincidence, hmmm?"
That was some of his own ingenious plotting which very much amused him.
This whole pageant itself was a stupid idea, one everyone thought would have made him laugh, but he saw its potential.
"We should hold it in one of those grand old houses," he explained when Scricci first suggested the project to him, "you know, like 'The Amazing Race' and 'Survivor' meet something like Downton Abbey!"
And of course, he had just the place while Darke worked on the National Trust to approve leasing them a house. It was one of Holly's old school friends who really came in handy. When she asked her about using Phlaumix Court, Alice told her husband, Gordon Nott, who's the property's manager with the Trust.
It took some pressure to cut through the red tape, Steele had complained, but it was worth it in the end. Scricci, of course, hated the place, so old-fashioned, not that Steele really cared. Not like there weren't other problems getting this silly show off the ground aside from marketing Classical in a Pop World.
He left it up to Scricci to choose those contestants who looked good, could dress well and fit a certain image. Of lesser importance was how well they played or even what they played.
Just as they broke away for one of SHMRG's overly produced cross-over commercials which featured one of SHMRG's hottest classical pianists hamming it up with one of SHMRG's hottest rock bands on the planet, there was a gentle knock at the door, barely audible above the TV, followed by the resonant voice of Lucifer Darke.
"Sorry to bother you, Mr. – Goodwood," he intoned. "Is this a convenient time?"
Not that he needed to watch the pageant or was desperate for company, but still, no, it wasn't a convenient time.
"Yes, yes, Mr. Darke, come in, come in." Steele thought it sounded forced enough he'd take the hint, but he didn't.
"Ah, but you're watching the pageant," Darke said, nodding superfluously toward the set.
"This may not be so silly a plan after all, you know, Darke? Old Scricci may be on to something here."
Judging from what he'd seen introduced on the show so far, Steele explained, they shouldn't have many problems marketing these kids – and that's with him having the volume turned almost all the way down.
"Several of them are already looking hot enough with all the right moves, most people won't care if they can play."
Steele said the reviews – most of them had been completed earlier that afternoon – were waiting for "the final bell" before being e-mailed to the waiting world, not to mention SHMRG's live tweeters and bloggers.
Then Steele reached over and picked up his nearly empty tumbler of Scotch, suggesting that Darke should pour himself a drink. Raising his glass, Steele offered a quick salute "for a job well done."
Since Darke was reluctant to take credit for something he wasn't sure about, he hesitated before asking, "in relation to what?"
"How did you make it look like 'natural causes,' knocking off the old maestro – or is that giving away trade secrets?" Steele smiled before he added, "come now, you mean you've already forgotten it?"
Darke tasted his Scotch warily, wondering what the hell Steele was up to.
"You know, the guy conducting tonight's concert with music from Sullivan's cursèd opera – found his body backstage and canceled the concert!"
"I'm not sure that SHMRG can officially take credit for that one, sir."
"Then, if we didn't kill Schnellenlauter – who did?"
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(*) first to leave: In social situations, if having 13 guests wasn't considered unlucky enough, it was generally thought unlucky to be the first of the 13 guests to leave the dinner table.
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to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active at 8am on Wednesday, August 17th...]
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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