(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. If you want, this link will take you a post about Harrison Harty's Journal.)
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Darke stood watching the storm from his window, everything lost under drifting snow, an apt metaphor, he thought, for the situation SHMRG currently found itself in. This was an advantageous position, these windows facing the front of the house looking out over the main entrance and driveway. And since the study, part of his suite, looked out across the back, toward the garage and the garden shed beyond, he could imagine the old vicar living here, meditating on man's grievous sins.
Though the sun had set an hour ago, the meager light had been close to darkness for much of the afternoon. Early sunsets and long nights made him come alive this time of year. He loved winter and found the storm exhilarating between the cold and wind, even if this snow was a bit much.
It amused him, as second-in-command, to have been assigned the house's largest bedroom but that was all part of the plan. To outward appearances, should anyone need to notice, it showed who's in charge. The old man, Osmond Goodwood, recovering from illness, needed ground-floor accommodations at the back of the house because of his disability.
Should anyone come to investigate, none would notice the old man back there, most of the staff oblivious to his existence: Lucifer Darke was occupying the old vicar's bedroom; Mr. Steele's whereabouts were unknown.
Steele may be the boss – it is, after all, the company he founded – but this wound sapped him of his strength. Goodwood, on the other hand, gave him the requisite disguise to retain control. The problem was, while his disguise as an old man hid his strength, it underscored the fact he lacked the power.
And while the international police were looking for the dynamic N. Ron Steele, the CEO of a shadowy organization called SHMRG, they would find no sign of him here in this insignificant little outpost.
Like the world around him hidden from view, snow had covered the sins of the world with a layer of evil. Hidden by darkness, evil was free to proliferate where goodness could remain ignorant.
So once again, another corporation conceals its operations under successive layers of snow which everyone agrees is pretty to look at.
Steele told him shortly after he'd started here how a corporation's like a feudal society, everyone owing fealty to the CEO. He controlled the nobles who controlled the knights, as he saw his agents. And everybody lived off the peasants who supplied the food and the taxes but being peasants, they didn't deserve any better.
Steele felt Darke's role was that of a bishop enforcing the king's power, by using faith to keep everyone in line with the promise that things will be better if they do his bidding.
Anyone who disagreed with him or the "king" would be committing a sin and therefore punishable as an example to others: anything bad that happened resulted from their sins, the result of divine retribution.
By keeping the corporate by-laws (their Holy Book) vague and open to interpretation, the company kept itself in a fluid state.
Yes, it probably was suitable Lucifer Darke found himself in the Vicar's Bedroom, serving as the CEO's high priest and stand-in. And where was the king? In hiding downstairs. And one could overthrow kings.
For Steele had unfortunately overlooked that temporal power was, like man, only temporary: religion, call it what you will, was immortal.
The snow was beautiful because it covered over the sins of the world; also feared because it could punish the wicked.
And punishment came in the dark of night when least expected, without warning.
Now, how to explain these two inexplicable deaths? There were no signs of struggle on them, nothing that would indicate murder. For all intents and purposes, they appeared to have died from natural causes. But how is that possible, both at the same time, the same way – and in such close proximity to each other?
And what connection might these two have had to each other, he wondered, a minor, mid-level assistant and a lowly techie? Maybe they were part of a love triangle, some drug deal gone bad?
What possible motive would there be for someone to have caused their deaths: who would benefit from it and, indeed, how? Perhaps they had overheard something they shouldn't have, someone's version of damage control?
If it had been a purely random killing – wrong place and wrong time – the killer managed to leave nothing incriminating behind.
Perhaps, Darke considered, he was jumping to conclusions, given his line of work: what if it hadn't been murder at all? But how else could you explain the coincidence and the lack of evidence?
Two young people just happened to have what looked like a heart attack and were found several yards from each other.
No, whoever did this did it very carefully, so carefully, in fact, Darke rather envied him: one of his own minions?
Did this minion act alone? Did someone within the ranks order their deaths?
And he couldn't very well risk bringing the local police in to investigate – why risk putting their entire operation in jeopardy? Maybe he was giving them too much credit, but still why take chances?
No, he needed to take care of this matter himself, judge and jury. And he thought he'd just figured out how.
Lex said Mumwidge was waiting for a cab but Darke, while standing here contemplating the snow, saw a cab pulling away.
"So, perhaps the murderer had taken the cab and used it to escape?"
He'll call Lex and tell him to take the limo to Phlaumix Court and dump the bodies off along the way.
"First, find out who was in that cab. Then report Mumwidge missing tomorrow."
Without a body, there was no reason to call the police, was there?
Now he could concentrate on more important matters.
No wonder Lex was confused between the "Immortal Society" founded by Beethoven's friends and the "Guidonian Hand" which she explained was formed by Beethoven's outraged fans. "What was the big freakin' deal," he wondered, "them going around, bumping off people who were descended from Beethoven's bastard daughter?"
But when he recognized the name of Díaz-Éray's latest target being someone nearby, well, now that was something he could understand. "And how nice it's got her all excited: makes her look really hot."
"What do you mean, you think she's a contestant here?" she'd practically screamed. "That'd be, like, bloody amazing! Are you sure?"
"I remember seeing that name on a list," he explained, "so damned pretentious-sounding."
Lex took out his phone and got Melissa Fourthought's number from the dispatcher. "Yeah, checking on the whereabouts of a contestant..."
He didn't particularly care for this Fourthought woman who was easily over fifty, one of the oldest people working on staff. "No idea why they'd hire someone like that – should be only cool people..."
He also had no real idea what she did, here: just another assistant. "Seems everybody on this pageant was somebody's assistant..."
"I'm sorry, she's not answering her phone right now," the dispatcher's assistant said, "but I found Agent Faiello with the pageant."
"Have him contact me as soon as possible. Thanks, anyway – appreciate your help."
A few moments had passed before Lex's phone rang again – an unfamiliar number.
"Melissa Fourthought, calling you back," the voice said.
Her businesslike precision was also off-putting, but then she wasn't a cool person.
"Ms. Fourthought," Lex began, "I'm trying to locate one of the pageant's contestants, a girl – a late arrival – named Antonie... Auvoir-duBois?"
"Hmmm." There was a pause. "It seems everyone is interested in Ms. Auvoir-duBois," she continued, sounding very bored. "What's your interest?"
"One of the bureaucrats here was asking me, there are still some forms..."
"We've just finished the opening night dress rehearsal but she was not involved."
"Not involved? Why is that? Is she sick?"
"She's a composer. We've no need of composers."
"But she is there, yeah?"
"For the moment... There was some unfortunate mistake." And then, Fourthought hung up.
"Sounds like we'll have to move quickly, Agent."
But the immediate problem was crossing the distance from Umberton to Phlaumix Court, barely over a mile as the crow flies. Of course, in this weather, there weren't that many crows out actually flying.
"Agent Luthier," she asked him, "is there some way of commandeering the limo?"
Before he could respond, his phone began ringing.
Lex reached for his phone – "It's my boss," he mouthed, taking the call. "Yeah, Lex here," he said, turning his back. Making various grunts as he listened, nodding occasionally, he paced around the room.
Darke had a new assignment, "something that's just come up, requiring your expertise. Whoever killed these two left in that cab. Check anything strange going on at the pageant," – then mentioned some other things.
Lex ended by saying, "Sure thing, boss, right," then put the phone away.
Díaz-Éray thought it safe to clear her throat.
"Unfortunately, the boss has assigned me another mission which takes top priority, now, but it gets me over to Phlaumix Court. On the way, he wants me to dump these bodies in the snow."
At this rate, Lex thought, they probably wouldn't be found until early spring.
"Hey, I know: why don't you join me?"
That way, then, he could look for the killer Darke was interested in while she tracked down and eliminated her target.
"Come on," he smiled, "it'll be fun, yeah? – two birds with one stone?"
"I don't know, Holly," the man who'd like to call himself Goodwood said, "I just wish I didn't feel like I was side-lining myself, you know?"
"But you're still very much in control, sir, everybody knows that," she said. She hadn't been his secretary forever for nothing.
She knew on gloomy days her boss's mood was even gloomier than usual – why he chose London to hide out in... – being on the lam with an old wound that never seemed to heal.
Thing is, she knew he very much wasn't in control, not like before. "Not like the good old days, not now." He had too many assistants now, things she used to do for him.
She handed him his tea and made sure his lap-robe was tucked in, more like a nurse than his executive assistant.
"But soon, these projects here will be done, the opera will be canceled," she said, trying not to be too encouraging, "and then we're off to Bavaria where the weather's not so dreary, sir."
She was looking forward to the move to their new headquarters in Schweinwald. It would be much better for his recuperation.
"You get some rest before dinner, Mr. Steele – sorry: Mr. Goodwood, I mean. The fire feels nice and warm, doesn't it?"
"Anything against this infernal dampness, Holly," he groused. "Thank you, that'll be all."
"No wonder the Brits lost their damned Empire," he thought once she'd left, getting himself situated more comfortably in his wheel-chair. "They build big gloomy houses like this in this gloomy climate of theirs..."
His mind wandered off to why LauraLynn Harty, his current object of control, had chosen to stay here, even marry here.
Funny thing about this wedding, being planned for the house they were able to procure for this ridiculous pageant of theirs. But he knew simply getting "rid" of her wouldn't kill her cousin's opera.
Holly had warned him not to focus too much attention on LauraLynn Harty, neglecting other things she felt were also important. But that's what he had guys like Darke for, running the day-to-day operations.
How many deaths, he wondered, had happened in his climb to the top? But there's one more he's looking forward to.
That's when the phone rang, disrupting his fantasy. Angrily, he stabbed the remote. "This had better be good, Agent – I'm resting."
"Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Goodwood, sir, but... Agent Díaz-Éray's on the line."
Even though the dispatcher called him Mr. Goodwood, he knew whom he'd called. Nobody liked upsetting the Boss, whatever his name.
Since he was alone, he switched to speaker-phone, easier for him to handle, as he wheeled himself closer to the desk.
"Like I said, Agent, there better be a good reason calling me now."
Díaz-Éray apologized for the interruption but announced she'd just received confirmation their target – the one she'd mentioned earlier – was actually on-site, how, after more than a century of waiting, the Hand would finally triumph.
"It's quite a brilliant stroke of luck, sir: she'll be eliminated before dinner. I just wanted to thank you again, sir..."
"Agent Éray," he interrupted, "a change of plans: I've been thinking – if this child is truly the heir of Beethoven, then. Maybe we should sign her up as a SHMRG composer, a future investment. I know you've talked about the Guidonian Hand and all this ancient baggage, but you're working for me, now."
"If the kid is who you think she is – Beethoven's heir, fer Chris'sake! – she'd be a very lucrative contract for Classical.
"Oh, and ask her if she does cross-over – that would come in handy."
Chief Inspector Hemiola just hung up the phone, sitting in his darkened office – somebody from Rigorian's lab summarizing the coroner's reports plus the one from Munich. How could there be three prominent musicians killed without anything to go on, not even a reasonable CoD that made sense.
He turned the television off – nothing but weather! He hated dark winter days. This snow isn't going to stop anytime soon. Long cold nights, heavy snow and howling winds – no wonder he hated it.
It was a night like this they'd found her body in the snow, shot point-blank in the head, with blood everywhere. They'd ended their shift, working on this case when she was heading home.
That was twenty years ago, that awful night, a night just like this. He could never forget receiving that phone call.
Leaning forward, he continued thumbing through his notes: Schnellenlauter, Drang and now Zenn, each of them interconnected in new music circles. A conductor, a performer and a composer, too, like something from each category.
And they all had one thing in common: this professor, T. Richard Kerr. Without realizing it, he'd left him get away.
It's similar to that case he was working on with Gloria – his partner. Gloria Petri was brilliant, destined for good things.
Then she got mixed up with that guy in MI5 – drove Hemiola crazy.
He knew that was the guy who killed her, this "boyfriend" of hers – too old for her: what was the attraction? Then she discovered he was a Soviet spy who's trying to recruit her.
"You're watching too many James Bond movies," he joked with her, "just relax." You never knew with those secret agent types.
She'd never told him the guy's real name, just his handle: "Ross Budd."
"That's a pretty stupid name for a spy, don't you think?" He laughed. But she did show him that single photograph.
After they found her body, the coroner said she was pregnant: "Any ideas?" Apparently they were regarding him as a suspect.
Hemiola had told his superiors everything he knew, but nobody was buying it.
Never did find the killer – everything hushed up. If only he had listened.
He always thought of her on snowy nights.
"But, how is that possible," I asked her, leaning forward in my chair once she finished explaining how Schnellenlauter found the missing branches on the tree. That this child, mysteriously appearing here, was a long-lost great-grandchild was one thing, but that LauraLynn's Cousin Maurie was her grandson...? Which of course was even more astounding when you consider that made Maurie a descendent of Beethoven, not LauraLynn or Rob. How could someone so unworthy, I wondered, be the offspring of such genius?
"I'm quite sure Gracie, adopted shortly after birth, knew nothing about her real origins to pass anything down to subsequent generations. Will," she said, "never saw his own daughter, dying before she was born." She mentioned all this with the calculated detachment of an experienced genealogical researcher, as if involved only in its scholarly explanation.
"Of course, for me, we had found Gracie when she was still young, and I felt quite reassured, in a way, because I knew she'd grown up in a good home and married well."
Will, adopted by Americans, ended up in foster care, disappearing into the system: she had no idea whatever happened to him.
"I would spend much of my life looking for him, worrying about him, wondering what my decision had done to him. But even by the time we'd located Gracie, Will would have already died."
"Had you ever met your daughter, let her know you were her mother?" Cameron broke the awkward silence with quiet understanding. He'd often wondered about his own family's heritage, the Iranian side largely unknown.
"No, of course not," she said with a meek smile, "it wasn't right. Not that I hadn't thought about it – often.
"For Gracie, it would have been very upsetting, discovering she had been adopted, especially given the family that she'd married into. She'd been adopted by a wealthy American couple – they'd care nothing for me.
"There was a time not many years later, when Schnellenlauter was on tour and Gracie's family was passing through New York and I caught a glimpse of her, then – her son was maybe ten?"
Maurie was ten that summer I joined Rob and LauraLynn, vacationing in Maine. I couldn't imagine that bastard was Frieda's grandson...
Will's whereabouts were a constant concern for Frieda, especially after Schnellenlauter let drop the real interest in helping locate her twins. That had been a bombshell of its own, learning about that, and understandably. It still made no sense to her, she thought, however he explained it, and it took some years to convince her.
"I would have believed almost anything he said," she added, shrugging her shoulders, "if it brought me news of my children." But wherever it was he looked for Will, he always came up empty.
By the time Schnelly had managed to locate the family who'd adopted him, they had moved several times to different towns and by then the parents had both died, leaving only two other siblings. They had little recollection of the older boy who ran away from home without saying a word before he was 14.
But then just recently he'd come across this reference to a William Hawk, listed in an obituary as Melody Klangfarben's father. Born in the same year as Gracie's son, Melody's world was completely different. Tracking down her birth certificate was challenging, too: there was her father, recently deceased; her mother listed merely as Jane Doe.
There was the memory that Will's half-sister mentioned, how he was a German refugee and preferred going by the nickname, Hawk, which, she said, had been his original name, one link with his past.
Then, the half-brother remembered an article that had appeared in the local paper when they were children, new to the town. He'd long forgotten about it, burying it deep in the old family Bible. But there he was in the family photo, a thin, sullen teenaged boy, dark complected with an unruly mop of hair.
When Schnellenlauter told them a friend of his may be the boy's mother and how he'd been searching for many years, both siblings told him simultaneously, "You'll never find him: he loved to hide."
There was no proof, only this slight hunch, to prove William "Hawk" Widmerpool was the same William Hawk, a 20-year-old man, who fathered an illegitimate daughter born in Hoboken to a mother maintaining anonymity.
And the daughter and any memories she might have had of her parents was now laid to rest: again, too late.
But the coincidence was too great to ignore, even if it was all just a hunch which only kept getting stronger. Two daughters were mentioned in Melody Klangfarben's obituary: would they remember family stories? But Schnellenlauter's busy conducting schedule took him away, postponing his search once more. What if he'd be once again too late?
This last time, Frieda explained, Schnelly had a week's holiday between his concerts, returning to Hoboken to find Melody's younger daughter. But Fern Geliebter had died under mysterious circumstances shortly after her mother's death.
Fern, Schnellenlauter discovered after he'd locating her birth-certificate, was the "love-child" of an affair with a co-worker named Andrew Vernon Geliebter who then raised the girl with his wife as part of their family. Andy told him how Fern grew up thinking Melody was some distant relation and as a child called her "Aunt Melly."
But it seemed finding out Melody was actually her birth-mother unnerved her: she died not much later of a drug overdose – which was odd considering they never knew that Fern had a drug problem.
In Hartford, finding Klavdia Klangfarben, Melody's older daughter, was not that big a challenge, especially given a noticeable name like that, working in an insurance office and otherwise not having much of a life.
"It was Klavdia who unexpectedly dropped the bomb about Fern's daughter – also illegitimate: Klavdia was only about 15 at the time."
Klavdia's own story wasn't particularly remarkable, growing up: moving to Valley Hills, CT, as a child (where the Geliebters still lived), growing up without a father, dropping out of college, landing an office job. She had wanted to go into music – then, Frieda explained, "saw the light" which had everything to do with financial security. Klavdia, now in her mid-30s, was a humorless, uninspired woman living by herself, devoted to her cats, doting on vampire fiction, who never married and basically bragged of never having had a long-lasting relationship.
She described her relationship with her mother as being "tired" if rather businesslike, especially during the time spent in the hospital. Though saddened by Melody's death, Klavdia wasn't unhappy to be free of her. Now she was waiting for the cancer to resurface in her own body, her mother's parting pay-back for a miserable childhood.
Her father, a would-be rock musician named Karl Klangfarben, died when she was two, so she had no memory of him other than her mother's "silly, glorified" images of what he might have become. "Typical big teenager dreams – play in a band, start his own record company. Drug overdose – wasted in more ways than one."
But she sounded jealous of her half-sister Fern ("Mom's badly kept little secret"). The girl got herself pregnant to that boy in music camp that summer. "The boy was hot – gotta picture here, somewhere..."
"Do you recall anything," Schnelly'd asked her, "your mother'd said about your grandfather?"
"Mom knew his name, knew he'd died – wasn't he a German war orphan?" she answered, "but that was about it – why?"
It seemed confirmation enough that Melody's father, William Hawk, was indeed Frieda's son – DNA testing might prove it but Klavdia declined.
Andy Geliebter, saddened by both Melody's and Fern's recent deaths, was more helpful with strands of hair from Fern's old hairbrush, but he knew nothing of the whereabouts of Fern's child or the father.
It saddened Frieda to think of the suffering and disappointment in Will's life, how his family never experienced "the common happinesses," and she wondered if it was too much to know even this little. But at least now they knew, and Schnelly was onto something, finding Fern's daughter by the boy from music camp – until...
"When Schnelly first told me about this Beethoven story, I couldn't believe him, it was too far-fetched, yes? – a fairy tale – with this secret society meant to protect the Immortal Belovèd and her child. The lineage passes mostly through illegitimate daughters, a mirror held up to royalty; then there's the business about the gypsy's prophecy.
"He told me how I was the result of my mother's love affair with one Falkenstein cousin before marrying another one and how my grandmother Fredericka was already pregnant with Mother before her marriage."
It sounded like such an unlikely history but, she said, there it was, going all the way back to Ludwig van Beethoven's affair in 1812 with a woman whose name she still doesn't know.
"In fact, the only legitimate child in this would be Gracie's son, Maurice, and we wondered if that negates the legacy?"
While I wouldn't mind knowing that LauraLynn's cousin Maurie was a genuine bastard even if he were descended from such greatness, Frieda reminded me, like it or not, we'd become part of this secret.
"Schnelly involved you in it out of necessity, without swearing you to secrecy. There are few Watchers left: we need you."
"But, Frieda," I explained to her, "we've been part of this secret for over a year, after reading Harrison Harty's journal.
"What if I told you Cameron and I'd already found the Belovèd's grave?"
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to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active on Monday, August 8th.]
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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