Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben: Installment #34

In the previous installment of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, dinner at Phlaumix Court has been moving along smoothly, despite all the excitement, including a possible murderer being on the loose, and in the midst of the vegetables, Kerr is given an odd message; the IMP arrive, looking for Dr. Kerr; a scream is heard and another body is found. Meanwhile, at Umberton, N. Ron Steele has something of an epiphany.

(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 NINE concludes

A dark hallway, Phlaumix Court: the same time

"It must be here somewhere," the dark-clad figure was saying under her breath. She moved back and forth through the hallway, hoping not to be seen. Her wild, gray hair fidgeted cloud-like from side to side, looking up occasionally. She knew she wasn't supposed to be here.

Fortunately, the reception could prove a handy excuse. "Sorry, I'd dropped something earlier." Unfortunately, she wasn't supposed to be back here. How many times would they ask her to leave before they'd become suspicious?

Sneaking into the library after hours through the public side was one thing but wandering around the private wing was another. What she was really looking for would certainly be on the private side. Part of the problem was, she didn't really know what she was looking for, much less where it might've been hidden.

Right now she was looking for a small piece of paper she'd dropped, something very old but not, surprisingly, very brittle. She hadn't much chance to sort it out before the reception had started. It was a list of names in German written down by Anton Schindler, presumably the same Schindler who'd worked for Beethoven. But a list of what? Just a bunch of names, it looked like, and Schubert's wasn't the only one crossed off. There was this crudely drawn hand in the upper corner, an obvious clue.

"There it is again," she mumbled, freezing to a stop, "what the hell...?" It wasn't the first time she'd felt that. She looked around expecting to find someone staring at her. "But nobody's there...!" In the library, it had been just spooky, but out in the hallway, it felt different, more threatening, she thought – evil.

"Old girl," she told herself, "you're losing it, thinking like that, you know, after years of having lived on the streets. You think you'd be tougher than this, now, having landed something halfway respectable."

Not that working for SHMRG was remotely respectable, even by halves, she figured, but it was a job, wasn't it, and they didn't question her past as long as she got the job done. At least it got her access to the Phlaumix library's legendary Beethoven collection. Everything the old man had found pointed here.

"There it is again," she mumbled, clenching her teeth. She looked around. "Nothing!" She shuffled about more resolutely, convinced she had to locate this strange paper before she was discovered and told to leave. It had to be that tall, red-haired servant who was always skulking about, looking like he had nothing better to do.

"Klavdia... Oh, Klaaaaavdia..."

She froze in her tracks.

"Who's there?" Whoever it was knew her real name. "How is that possible?"

Everyone with SHMRG knew her as Melissa Fourthought.

"Who the hell are you?!"

"You don't remember me, Klavdia? I remember yoo-ooou..."

The disembodied voice did sound a bit familiar, she was reluctant to admit.

Plus, it seemed to be coming from above her, then all around her.

There was a slight giggle, really rather unbecoming for so serious a situation.

So why did she find herself so scared?

"Abner – is that you?" She tried to sound unconcerned, glad to see him.

"So you do remember our little project, yes?"

How could she forget killing off the great dead composers of the past?

Unfortunately, thanks to Dr. Kerr and his friend, everything had failed – then backfired.

"Why're you here, now, after all these years?

Considering she'd abandoned him back in Beethoven's day when their time-traveling devices were about to run out, this couldn't be good.

"Why, Klavdia, I'm surprised," and again he giggled. "I'm here to help you!"

The Vicar's Room at Umberton: several minutes later

Lucifer Darke had left Goodwood in his room downstairs and returned to his own suite upstairs where he found the sycophantic Igor Bieber waiting for him.

"Ah, sir, there you are," Bieber said, fawning over him, opening the door. "Word is, sir, the pageant's gone very well."

"Well, that's amazing," he snorted, "given Scricci's record. All he needed was to have another breakdown. He'd had another episode, earlier?"

"Yes, sir, that's what I heard, something at that joint reception," Bieber said.

"Yes, the great party thrown by Phlaumix Court to celebrate the pageant's kick-off," Darke said with a laugh, then sat down. "Perhaps he'd had one too many joints, eh?" He sorted through some papers.

"I'm not sure," Bieber replied, missing the joke. "Faiello said it was something in a drink that might've set him off."

"Hmm, yes, I'm sure it was," Darke mumbled. "And he'd gone off raving that crazy bitch Fictitia LaMouche was after him." He shook his head: anything that went wrong was her fault, it seemed.

"What is it about Scricci," he wondered, "beyond blind (and possibly deaf) loyalty, that Steele retains him like some aging butler?"

Darke had made every effort to steer clear of Scricci's latest hare-brained scheme, this ridiculous reality TV show – especially that name – arguing that it was too "overt" for someone whose responsibility was covert operations.

The fact it didn't end up a fiasco – yet – is something that will only extend Scricci's presence in the SHMRG hierarchy and that's something he and a few others at Corporate Headquarters couldn't tolerate. And that's another thing, now: where is "Corporate Headquarters" these days, after all? "Not in New York, not even in London!"

No, they're in some tiny little vicarage in the wilds of suburban Surrey, not even a real office with a receptionist, all because their CEO and fearless leader was hiding out from the police.

The once mighty corporation had become more like a revival of Moby Dick than a company feared in the entertainment world, with Steele as Captain Ahab chasing Rob Sullivan's opera as the White Whale.

But Steele's wound – the result of yet another loyal retainer's incompetence – isn't healing: he is weak and vulnerable, ripe for replacement...

Bieber coughed.

"Uhm... sir? Will that be all?" Bieber stood there, feeling awkward.

"Ah, sorry, my mind was off on a new project needing some attention. Actually," Darke added, "speaking of old projects, though..."

Darke shuffled some papers around on his desk as if looking for something. Nothing indicated there ever was such a project.

"Do you know of any plan to eliminate the conductor of Sullivan's opera, perhaps someone who's taken the idea upon themselves?"

"Other than intimidating Sullivan's cousin into canceling the production, I haven't heard anything."

"This one goes beyond intimidation, it would seem: somebody killed the old conductor and apparently made it look like natural causes. I mean, the man was ancient, after all – maybe he just keeled over?"

"Well, we're still waiting to hear from Agent Luthier about who killed Mumwidge."

"Maybe they're related – but that doesn't make sense."

Just then, his phone rang, the "Darke Side."

Realizing the call was from Agent Lex Luthier, he quickly waved Bieber away.

The report was not good, Lex told him: something weird was going on.

Agent Díaz-Éray who's consulting for SHMRG reported recognizing one of the servants there, someone she'd seen in the hallway at Umberton.

"A spy?" Lucifer Darke was not thrilled at the idea of being infiltrated.

"Could be," Lex continued. "The IMP just arrived."

Lex suggested he warn Goodwood.

Ringing off, Darke considered this.

"Or maybe not..."

A dark hallway, Phlaumix Court: a moment later

So Abner Kedaver showed up wanting to help his old friend, Klavdia Klangfarben: after all, what could be the harm in that, you might ask yourself? The thing is, they had a history, as they say, Klavdia and Abner: she understood how this could be a problem. Thinking she had left Beethoven dead that evening in Heiligenstadt, she hurried off, leaving her colleague behind to fend for himself. Her own time-traveling device had almost run out; she assumed his had, too.

Had she abandoned him to start a new life in 1802, a man who'd given legal advice to Brahms and Mahler? There was just enough power in her device to return to her childhood. Yes, she'd saved her mother but then couldn't get back to the present. Biggest mistake of her lives, that had been!

It didn't take much for her to figure out Dr. Kerr had won. Beethoven had not been killed: her mission failed. To top it off, her mother, then, had that illegitimate child, Fern Geliebter. And Klavdia'd been stuck in the past observing her childhood as an adult standing on the periphery without any legal identity.

Dead people from Harmonia-IV were invisible to the living when they crossed over, and now her sidekick, the one she'd discovered on the Other Side – in that parallel universe, Harmonia-IV – had returned to help?

Kedaver, aside from being dead, had the looks of a Hollywood star if you could see him – tall, slim, dark, decidedly handsome (somewhat like Clark Gable) – with the voice of someone like Peter Lorre. He didn't sound like he was particularly angry but what other reason could there be for this reunion except for revenge?

"So, you see, Klavdia – or perhaps you don't" (again, she heard him giggle) "I've been following you these past few weeks and you're so very close to whatever it is you've been looking for."

"If I find out the Immortal Belovèd's identity, it will make me famous!"

"Why? Are you jealous, Klavdia? – Just a little?"

"Hell, no," she spat back, "I detest Beethoven – both him and his music!"

" But you want to reveal her identity and find that missing quartet? I know where they are – so, follow me..."


The Reading Room, Phlaumix Court: a few minutes later

After hearing the scream and immediately running down the hall toward the noise, I found Lisa the maid standing in the Reading Room's open doorway, pointing.

There, lying on the floor inside, was Bugsy, his neck twisted, a look of horror on his face, quite clearly dead.

"What happened," I asked, "did you see anything?" I checked his pulse – nothing.

"No, nothing," she blubbered, still pointing at Bugsy.

"Call the police," I said. "The killer can't have gotten too far away."

"But they're already here, sir," she began explaining. "They're looking for that terrorist or one of them or something or... you!"

"No, no, we've gotten that all cleared up – big guy, plays the viola?"

Lisa ran screaming down the hallway, still pointing, this time pointing at me.

I heard other footsteps, people running toward me.

There was a book in Bugsy's right hand with a familiar brownish binding – a copy of Frieda's book, Melissa Fourthought's novel. And there was a piece of paper sticking out of it – a bookmark.

Was this what Schnellenlauter had been talking about: why hadn't I seen it? Or was this another copy of the book?

Was this what Frieda remembered during dinner and had asked Bugsy to do: go retrieve a second copy she'd forgotten about? Did Schnellenlauter leave this for her to find after his last visit here?

I reached down and quickly pulled it out, expecting to find more code. It looked like it was part of an old letter, definitely in German but there was something scribbled in the margins. The handwriting was barely legible but clearly recognizable: only Beethoven could've written this, but the margin was much neater – more recent.

And yes – damn! – it was written in code. I had to find Frieda. Judging from the hubbub, there wasn't much time.

This had to be the directions on how to find Beethoven's lost quartet!

"Oh, but wait – what's this?" What a relief. Someone already solved the message, or had at least tried to solve it.

I could make out just a few words – "missing... quartet... mirror... pendulum... labyrinth"...?

"What the hell...?" Pendulum... labyrinth? After all, wasn't this marked the Pendulum Room? How do you get into the Pendulum Room?

I'd been in this reading room once already, just a narrow, semi-circular space, full of mirrors and paintings, bookshelves and chairs. Vector said it was of no significance whatsoever which implied quite the reverse.

And Bugsy was lying in front of a mirror, possibly the largest one. What was this, some kind of secret portal?

I put my hand forward, touching the mirror, half expecting it to shimmer, the rabbit hole into some parallel universe's wonderland.

Suddenly, a flashback to a previous adventure overwhelmed me – when I'd met Beethoven.

But that was absurd, like an old dream, some other place and time – no, another place in time, someplace long ago.

This was getting weirder and weirder, I thought, like I'd entered a maze.

I pulled my hand back from the mirror – nothing had happened – then realized: there were several numbers written around its perimeter.

It was a coded entry like the library but a slightly different set-up: hitting the right sequence would open the portal. My mind was racing to find the pattern but it made no sense.

Maybe I was too close to the mirror to get the whole picture. Then I realized all the numbers were backwards.

There was another mirror hanging directly behind me and reflected in it I could read the numbers on the larger mirror. It was a Fibonacci Sequence but built on a series of higher numbers.

Suddenly the doorway was full of people – servants and other guests had arrived – all expressing much concern about what they saw. From the entrance, I now stood on the other side of Bugsy's body.

Burnson and Vector were the first to enter followed by Herring and Sidney. Burnson knelt down and checked his step-father's neck.

"I heard the maid scream and found her standing there," I said, pointing, "after I came running in from the bathroom. He had no detectable pulse. The maid, I guess, went for the police."

Vector motioned everybody to move back since it was apparently a crime scene as more people continued to arrive and gawk, suggesting to Mr. Burnson he should go break the news to his mother.

In the ensuing commotion and given Bugsy's death, there was no way now that I could figure out the mirror's code.

"What's happened, what's going on?" The voice sounded brusquely authoritative and vaguely familiar.

The man pushing his way through the crowd announced himself as Chief Inspector Hemiola of the International Music Police, London Division.

"Ah, we meet again, Dr. Kerr," he said, seeing me facing the crowd. "We've just arrived but, I see, too late."

Maurie squeezed his way in and explained, "Our host had gotten up from the dinner table, followed shortly by Dr. Kerr. Not much later we heard a woman scream. Then we ran down here."

Cameron, leading Toni by the hand, came in, maneuvering around the edge of the body, and stood close by my side. In the distance, I heard Lady Vexilla shouting, "How could this possibly happen?"

I explained again for Hemiola's benefit what had happened, how I left dinner for the bathroom, then heard the maid scream.

"So you were not the one who had found the body, Dr. Kerr," Hemiola said – I shook my head – "but you were close enough to be next on the scene?" I nodded my head.

At this point, a thin figure, presumably female, dressed like a hired assassin, pushed into the room and reached for Toni.

"There you are, we've been looking for you: you're needed at the pageant."

Toni shrank back and said, "No, I had been told to go home."

"Somebody was mistaken, my child: come with me."

Stepping forward with military precision, Cathie explained to this woman from the pageant Toni had been summarily dismissed from the contestants and that she's staying with Lady Vexilla's family until she can return home.

I whispered in Cameron's ear under no circumstances are we to let anyone from SHMRG's pageant take control of Frieda's great-great-granddaughter.

Almost instinctively, Toni sensed danger and moved to hide behind Cameron and me as the woman inched forward, her hand outstretched. When she went to step over Bugsy's body, Chief Inspector Hemiola stopped her.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, whoever you think you are: this is a crime scene! I don't need everybody trampling on the evidence. So until I give you the 'all clear,' stay out of my way."

The woman in black showed him her badge, saying she's with Special Forces. I noticed the outline of a red hand.

Quickly, I leaned forward and whispered to Cameron that she's an agent with the Guidonian Hand out to eliminate Beethoven's heirs and we must protect Toni at all cost from this woman's nefarious clutches.

"But what're we going to do," Cameron asked, "since we're trapped in here. Or have you discovered there's another exit, somewhere?"

"As a slight matter of fact, I have," and then I proceeded to tell him what I had found moments earlier: the letter fragment in the book; the mirror with the Fibonacci entry code...

"If I may have your attention, Dr. Kerr," Hemiola interrupted, brusquer than before, "I'd like to return to the crime scene, especially having met you at an earlier one – actually, at two earlier ones."

He continued, explaining how we'd met at the restaurant of the Mandeville Hotel, then went backstage at the Academy's concert hall.

"You disappeared rather adroitly after Maestro Schnellenlauter's body was removed from the scene, a note mentioning you left by the victim, and before we discovered violinist Norman Drang had been murdered at the hotel."

"Have you figured out the message Schnellenlauter left? It actually had nothing to do with telling us who his murderer is. It was something he wanted me to do should anything happen to him."

"Be that as it may," Hemiola said, smirking, "I'm arresting you for the murder of this... – uhm, what's this guy's name?"

Sir Charles stepped forward and said, "He is Sir Bognar Regis, Baron of Snaffingham, husband of my cousin Lady Vexilla Regis, granddaughter of the 11th Marquess of Quackerly and current resident of Phlaumix Court. I, for the record," he added, leaning forward deferentially, "am the current Marquess of Quackerly, Sir Charles Leighton-Quackerly, at your service."

Hemiola looked around for the other agents but could only find Agent Libitum.

"Is someone taking this down? Where're the others?"

"They're all out looking for Dr. Kerr, sir."

"You idiots, I've found him!"

While everyone else was distracted, I told Cameron the numbers around the mirror formed a sequence like the library's security pad, only you must view them in the mirror opposite it to read them.

"Piece of cake," Toni said, as she began tapping at the various numbers. "Cameron, hit that one, I can't reach it."

Hemiola spluttered at Libitum, ordering him to get the other agents here, ASAP, and seal everything off till the SOCOs arrived. "And get Dr. Rigorian out here as soon as he can make it."

Constable Drumm and the local municipal police pushed their way into the room.

Sir Charles started shouting, "Off with his head!"

Then the mirror's surface suddenly turned into a shimmering blueish-white pool of light.

Cameron immediately stuck his arm into the brightness.

He grabbed Toni's hand, she reached back and took mine – and we disappeared.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active at 8am on Friday, August 19th]

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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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