the previous episode of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, we began with the closing installment of Knussbaum's Tale (the death of Beethoven, the subsequent history of the Immortal Belovéd and their daughter). It seems Dr. Kerr, Cameron and the young composer-prodigy Toni (who's descended from Beethoven and the Immortal Belovéd) have found the way into the Pendulum Room where they discover not only the pendulum but also Klavdia Klangfarben and hear strange music which turns into a string quartet. In fact, it's the missing quartet Beethoven composed to celebrate his daughter's birth, the “Quartetto giocoso.” And then they discover the entrance to the labyrinth (remember the labyrinth??)...
(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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This mass of wiry gray hair rushed past me with such unexpected speed, pushing me aside with such vehemence, she nearly knocked me off my feet. The staircase began to unfold more quickly as it descended, level by level, paths branching out, walls sprouting up like weeds.
"Holy crap," I thought, as distant memories began seeping back into my brain, "what the hell's wrong with you, you bitch?" And what was it with the hair, anyway, like something from the '80s?
She was a gray visage, the hair aside, her eyes steeped in scorn, lips parted in what passed for a smile, her dark suit giving her an overall impression of something not quite life-like. A complexion of pasty grayness completed the effect, opaque in the dim glow, heightening the malice I saw in her eyes.
But such was the notorious kill-or-be-killed mentality in the rarefied world of musicology, where nothing stood between you and your prize, after all your hard-won research, to let some idiot beat you to it. In this case, I was clearly the idiot, drawn into it by accident, trying to deny her her claim to fame.
But would she exploit this discovery she'd make, using it for evil ends, making herself rich while destroying other people's lives? Wouldn't she ruin Frieda's world, divulging these secrets, or put Toni's at risk?
Wouldn't it become part of the inevitable exposé, a bit of salacious entertainment? Was there anything one could gain by it? There were those who wanted to prove Beethoven was only human, after all. How would it help us understand his music, bring us closer to him? Would it help enrich our lives, I wondered?
Yet who could say what I would do was better for the world if my goal was to keep it secret? Was hiding this information from curiosity seekers really in the interest of truth?
At Schweinwald, not long ago, after we learned how she – this unknown woman – had been a "fountain of inspiration" for Beethoven, I chose to leave her grave undisclosed so scientists would not disturb her.
But could the Belovèd's identity be kept separate, satisfying the age-old scholarly curiosity, without necessarily revealing the identity of her descendants?
Yet somehow I was sure I knew her – not the Immortal Belovèd, of course, but this crazy woman rushing past me. It was the hair that jostled the memory, forgotten images falling into place.
Once, I had spotted it in the distance on a street in Dresden; at another time some palace in The Hague. (*1)
We chased her through the streets of Heiligenstadt, rescuing Beethoven from her clutches when she left that lawyer-friend of hers behind.
And – what? – visiting Bach in Lübeck, convincing him not to marry Buxtehude's daughter...?
But more recently hadn't there been something else, something connecting past and present – that summer we were at the Schweinwald Festival. Wasn't she the same one who'd kidnapped Dylan, the woman who hated Beethoven?
Hadn't it been the hair Dylan recognized from Cameron's photo in the library? It's this image that kept nagging at me.
What was it Knussbaum had said in his book about the Belovèd's "wiry silvered hair, unmanageable," so like the Master's own, no doubt resisting any attempt to be controlled except under a lady's wig? But Rosa Kohl, as everyone always called her, was very clearly no lady, this woman who had captured the Master's heart.
According to Schnellenlauter's recent discoveries, Klavdia's mother was the daughter of Frieda's son which made Klavdia Frieda's granddaughter, another Beethoven descendent! Did this woman inherit the unruly hair of both Beethoven and the Belovèd?
In the seconds since Klavdia Klangfarben passed me, the stairway continuing to unfold, I saw from the corner of my eye the sudden movement of somebody in a full tuxedo standing just behind me. Perhaps one of the servants had come through the portal to rescue us, something Vector would certainly know how to do.
It was, however, with a sinking feeling that I realized it wasn't Vector but the viola-wielding, would-be kidnapper who stood there. Even more discouraging, I noticed he was blocking Cameron and Toni's only escape.
The big guy looked dazed and even slightly confused about finding himself here, little different from how we'd looked moments earlier. He held his viola tentatively at his side, his brow furrowed in concentration.
The viola, odd enough with its white-varnished wood, had an oddly ominous glow. Suddenly, I got a faint whiff of cheese.
"Dr. Kerr, I believe you know our guest soloist?" The disembodied voice of Abner Kedaver giggled from somewhere just above us. "Nepomuck certainly knows you – don't you, Nepomuck, hmmm?" The violist looked around, bewildered.
But when he caught sight of me, his confusion quickly turned to satisfaction. With a smile he went to step forward.
"Be careful, Nepomuck – avoid the void," Kedaver chortled. Nepomuck pulled back in time. "Dr. Kerr can hear you fine from there."
Something cold brushed past me and I saw the crystal globe float by.
The madwoman was now well below me, hurrying along on the still-unfolding steps and getting caught in one dead-end after another. Suspended incongruously in mid-air, the staircase became a vast room of its own. The floor continued to undulate in slow waves as walls kept sprouting upward. Whatever path one could find was constantly shifting.
From where I stood, still on the landing, it would be difficult enough to see where the thing would eventually lead. Small wonder, deep in the midst of it, she kept bumping into walls.
The distant music once again resumed, growing louder, enveloping us in its beauty: the harmonious dance had once again become celestial.
Where was it coming from? Perhaps its source was controlled by the pendulum?
For the moment, I found myself distracted while Cameron tried recording it again.
Then I noticed Nepomuck began tuning his viola.
That small crystal sphere floated past me again, a chill in its wake, and I could see it more closely now. It looked exactly like the one at the base of the Grand Staircase. Did Kedaver – whose disembodied giggle I still heard – remove it from the post? Or had he himself become the crystal sphere? Or had he always been the crystal sphere, sitting there watching everything going on around him – no, that seemed too far-fetched. But what if he were inside the sphere? How could he control it?
"No, you see, Dr. Kerr," the voice said as the sphere drew closer to me again, "this is Alf – look closely."
I could see nothing but my own image reflected convexly on its surface.
"Are you saying Aleph," I asked, "or something short for 'Algorithmic Labyrinthine Formula'?"
"No, actually," he giggled, "it's short for Alfredo."
The sphere, dodging about us, darted back and forth between Cameron and me, buzzing around a bit like an annoying mosquito. I could feel this coldness in its wake: Kedaver was holding the sphere.
"This sphere has a center that is nowhere, a circumference that is everywhere. It is an infinitely concentrated mass simply contracted."
He explained every image of the universe was condensed into this little sphere, in fact every image of every imaginable universe.
"You do not want to touch it or you'll find yourself trapped inside..."
Above me, I could feel the pendulum getting closer in its return sweep while below me I could hear Klavdia cursing. And once again, the music was becoming more distinct – louder, more clearly defined.
"But where's the music coming from? The pendulum?"
"Use your imagination, Dr. Kerr!"
Quite possibly, there was more than one mystery...
I recalled how old recordings from my youth consisted of one labyrinthine groove which engraved music's sound-waves into the needle's path.
"So the pendulum acts as a phonograph needle, but reproducing sound-waves from... what...?"
"Your grasp of technology is so leaded in the past, my good doctor. Imagine not needing to record anything with performers."
"You mean the pendulum is drawing the sound directly from... what – the score?"
"It's retrieving exactly what Beethoven heard in his mind as he wrote it!"
"If that's the case, then, where's the manuscript?"
The music grew in intensity; the sphere – Alf – spiraled up around the pendulum. Again, I felt the brush of cosmic winds.
"Such magical music, yes?" Kedaver crooned. "It makes me laaaugh for sheer joooooy."
This was becoming, alas, a distraction, hearing music recorded directly from Beethoven's brain!
I ducked as the pendulum passed directly overhead.
Klavdia yelled she could see the center of the labyrinth as it rose – not a flat plane, more a three-dimensional graph.
"There its is," she shouted, "a great golden casket bearing Beethoven's ultimate treasure!"
She was already half-way there and I hadn't even begun the race, yet.
But suddenly the labyrinth had reached its limits and, seeing it from my perspective, I realized she was far from home.
The walls, however, continued to grow, hedges gone wild completely obscuring her view.
From where I stood was a better position.
Cameron, caught in a trance, was still trying to record as much of the quartet as he could on his phone. It was Toni who looked back and realized Nepomuck was hurrying toward them.
The sphere circled back around Cameron and Toni, then came directly toward me as Nepomuck, marching forward, began playing his viola.
"You can run to the center of the labyrinth, Dr. Kerr – or you can rescue Cameron," Kedaver's sang into my ear.
"You said I rescued you in Heiligenstadt, Kedaver. Surely that counts for something?"
Then it occurred to me, where I'd seen this man called Nepomuck before: in the Hotel Mandeville where we'd had breakfast. I thought the man had looked too slovenly to be a guest there. He was bald with a rumpled overcoat and carried a tattered viola case – and very nearly knocked me off my feet.
I remembered how I'd even joked with Ivanskoff about that being his quartet's new violist, who'd barged out of the elevator. No, he wasn't a guest staying there, he'd been upstairs murdering Norman Drang!
Could he have been backstage to see Maestro Schnellenlauter after last night's rehearsal? If he was, it wasn't a matter of auditioning for them, was it? Why would he have killed them – and how?
No, he must've somehow used his viola to murder them in cold blood – and not by hitting them over the head!
"Ah! He killed them by playing his viola – by playing his white viola." That was it: not just any white viola. It was "The White Viola." Of course – why hadn't I realized this before?
It had been Stradivarius' legendary 13th viola whose varnish was ruined in that lunchtime accident (which explained the whiff of cheese).
Years ago, I'd read somewhere how it surfaced again when someone named Franklin Stine had found it only to have it disappear, others found inexplicably dead. Had it been turned into a killer viola?
"Excuse me, Mr. Nepomuck, sir" I called out. "Did you ever know a Dr. Franklin Stine, not long ago, I'm guessing?"
It was enough to make him stop playing and turn to face me.
"You look surprised – did you study with him? Maybe borrow his white viola?"
He played some aggressive notes on the C-string.
The pain was excruciating, even with the Beethoven quartet welling up around us.
"If I may make a request, would you by any chance know anything by the group called Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies?"
I yelled he ought to wait until the pendulum passed before playing it.
Cameron was able to understand me and smiled. I saw him reach for his iPod and quickly stick the ear-buds in.
"As a member of the Penguins of God, I do not take requests!" And with that, Nepomuck turned back to Cameron.
"Penguins of God?" What the hell was that? Some secret society, I imagined. "I don't think I'd ever heard of them."
Nepomuck once again began sawing away on his viola's lowest string: wolf tones!
Cameron motioned for Toni to stay close to the wall, cover her ears, and sneak around past Nepomuck toward the mirror.
"Well, if you're not going to honor my request, then," I shouted back, "you should come get me first, shouldn't you? Once I head into the labyrinth, you won't be able to catch me."
The music from Beethoven's quartet started welling up into a louder passage then and I could no longer hear Nepomuck's viola.
Ah, now I recalled hearing about "Penguins of God" before – some terrorist organization!
"Look, Mr. Nepomuck, your boss'll be really pissed if I get away – again."
He turned, playing several aggressive, pain-inducing down-bow strokes.
I quickly fell to my knees, my hands over my aching ears, but not before I saw Cameron rush toward Nepomuck. He had started backing up toward Toni who'd also fallen to her knees.
The expression on Nepomuck's face had been one of complete surprise: the viola proved impervious against Cameron's Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies.
Backing away from the abyss, Nepomuck kept sawing away at his Wolf Tones.
The sound of Beethoven's quartet shrieked in agony and I noticed the labyrinth itself started twisting, sufficiently distorted by the noise.
Without realizing what was happening, Nepomuck stepped back, tripping over Toni's huddled form, and found himself unable to regain his footing.
Once he stopped playing, the wretched sound disappeared, the infernal pain went away.
Toni sat up, hitting Nepomuck's leg as Cameron pushed him from the side which sent the violist stumbling toward the edge.
His arms began to pinwheel and the viola started flailing through the air. His feet tap-danced desperately to retain his balance. Far too big a man to be graceful, his end would be unenviable.
Toni backed away from him, hoping not to get caught in his gyrations and hoping, too, the violist would not latch onto Cameron for support and inadvertently throw him off the ledge with him.
With a great roar like a wounded beast, Nepomuck teetered on the brink, then fell over the edge, spiraling into infinity.
His final conscious act was to throw the instrument clear of his fall whether it would actually save it or not. Clearly, nothing would save him at this point: perhaps his viola would survive...?
The white shape rose in a slow-motion arc, spiraling back toward the wall. Graceful, unlike Nepomuck, its end seemed equally imminent.
Like a gymnast suddenly appearing out of nowhere, Toni leapt into the air starting with a well executed front full twist before – bravo! – sticking the landing after a punch front layout, viola in hand!
No sooner had Cameron and I started to applaud than Kedaver's obnoxious giggle overwhelmed the music which slowly continued its retreat.
Another voice was now heard reverberating through the space, a man's authoritative voice.
"Come to me, Toni, come and join me. Bring me the viola," it said, "and join me on the Darke Side."
"The Dark Side – what the hell is that?" Toni asked, looking around, perplexed.
Cameron was urging her back toward the mirror.
Where was the voice coming from? "Who are you?" The giggling wasn't helping.
"Cameron," I shouted, "get her back to the Reading Room – through the mirror!"
"Power and wealth await you," the voice continued.
Cameron grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her away from the voice.
"Remember the Fibonacci code," I yelled as the staircase buckled again.
I ran into the labyrinth, screaming like a little girl.
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to be continued... [with any luck, the link should become active at 8am on Wednesday, August 24th...]
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(*1) Dresden... the Hague: Kerr is having brief memories flashing back from his experiences recounted in The Doomsday Symphony, following a woman with a mound of platinum hair named Klavdia Klangfarben (as well as her sidekick, Abner Kedaver) through time, trying to kill Wagner and Mozart before they became famous (and also Bach and Beethoven).
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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