(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 Seven, continued:
We left Frieda's room when Minona returned to get her ready for dinner, now that afternoon had given way to evening, promising to continue our conversation. Not sure what we'd gotten ourselves into through not fault of our own, there was still much we needed to learn. Invited to attend this reception in honor of the pageant's opening, Frieda declined, feeling it would be too tiring for her but stressing it would be a good opportunity for us to look around.
One thing to figure out was if I could live in a society where I must "dress" for dinner every night, though Burnson had admitted it was only for special occasions, not every night. LauraLynn was kind enough to tell me an "ordinary" suit and tie sufficed: Lady Vexilla gave up on tuxedos only recently.
Sidney the Footman was hurrying down the long hallway toward the Marquess' room, a dress coat slung smartly over his arm. He apologized he needed to see to Sir Charles first before helping us.
"Oh, there's no need, Sidney," I said, "no reason to trouble yourself – thanks."
"No trouble, sir," he said, though clearly disappointed.
This life of luxury with servants to wait on you was so foreign, I couldn't imagine it on a regular basis. For a fancy vacation, it wasn't so bad, but I wasn't exactly comfortable.
As we Yankee barbarians proceeded to fend for ourselves, retrieving our own suits, Cameron and I resumed our discussion more seriously, wondering what it was we needed to uncover and what theories we had.
"The problem is," I continued, "there is no one theory that makes sense, only a series of possibilities, none really convincing."
Even if the Music Police in London are working on solving Schnellenlauter's murder – and who knew what they know about Drang's – whatever's going on here is related some way, but what are the connections?
"Even if you have a multiplicity of options," Cameron said, folding his pants, "which possibility might be the most possibly possible?"
"Don't forget last summer at Schweinwald when I kept seeing our villain everywhere..."
It had been a complicated case with two look-alike villains – father and son – both involved in Rob's murder for different reasons.
"I wonder how this one will turn out, if you've got several options." Cameron helped me with straightening out my suspenders. "Isn't there any single one you've thought of that stands out to you?"
"I'm not sure I have enough clues that make a 'single' one feasible. It's like several pieces from different jigsaw puzzles."
Cameron handed me my old dress shoes (comfortable but needing polish, I'm afraid). "I'm still convinced SHMRG has to be involved, especially since Scricci's little pageant just happens to be coinciding with LauraLynn's wedding."
"Would SHMRG kill the conductor to scare LauraLynn into canceling Faustus, Inc.'s production?"
"Well, they did kill the producer and the composer to cancel the premiere. Are they here to keep the pressure on?"
Just because their CEO, Steele, is in hiding doesn't mean he's no longer concerned about the opera exposing his criminal past.
"But why would SHMRG want to kill Howard Zenn and Norman Drang," Cameron asked, brushing ever-present cat hair off my jacket.
"Thanks. Well, because they're New Music Terrorists, right? Maybe the connection's somewhere else...?"
"Or is it this group called The Hand? Is Melissa Fourthought working for SHMRG's pageant, here, part of the Guidonian Hand?"
"And was Schnellenlauter killed because he knew too much about the Beethoven legacy rather than anything to do with Rob's opera which means instead of LauraLynn being in danger, maybe Frieda's in danger instead?"
Which, of course, put us in danger, too, whether or not The Hand was aware yet of our recently added responsibilities, Cameron and I, like Harrison Harty and friends, now absorbed into the Unsterblichesverein. We had read how Professor Dudley Böhm had deputized them in an emergency and now Schnellenlauter, posthumously, had called upon us.
But what exactly that entailed was not easy to figure out, I admitted. Wasn't it more than just understanding their secrets? Didn't this require, in its own way, protecting more than just these secrets?
And how could we protect my friend Frieda – and now this child, Toni – from the evil intentions of the Guidonian Hand whether or not they were working hand-in-hand with SHMRG as some shadowy subsidiary?
Surely, I must admit my days as an untrained assassin countering trained assassins were long in the past, regardless of wits.
"Is there any point retrieving Frieda's book from the woman in the library, the one who's claiming to be Melissa Fourthought?" Cameron continued adjusting his tie in the mirror, occasionally glancing over his shoulder.
"I doubt she would admit to having it much less hand it over," still evening out the length of my tie. "Besides," I pointed out, "the fragment of this letter Schnellenlauter was talking about wasn't in the book when I found it."
"But you'd dropped the book several times," he pointed out in return.
But there's also one bit of information missing, after he'd successfully tracked down everybody on William Hawk's side of the family: how and where did Klavdia get that photo of Gracie's grandson, Earl King?
"Hmmm," I wondered, "it seems my tie's tied so the top part ends at the golden section of the lower part..."
It was a surprising coincidence, I added, that Toni would also have the same photo of this man in her phone. But the day proved to be nothing but a series of surprising coincidences.
I was amazed, as we prepared to head downstairs, first checking the hallway, that Schnelly found Toni's father without realizing it.
"I'm amazed," Cameron added, "someone like Maurie could've fathered such a hot son."
I thought it was amazing that Maurie could've fathered a child at all.
"Don't forget, Schnelly didn't call him 'Maurie's son'..."
Badger Bronson, ace TV newsman, urged his cameraman, Derek O'Rotcey, to hurry up.
"Come on, Pop, we've gotta move quickly to get all these shots in."
The gala reception was already in full swing, people pouring in from everywhere and Badger couldn't figure out where to begin.
Dr. Kerr and Cameron, walking down the staircase, passed between the TV reporter and the crystal globe on the newel post. Lex Luthier and Carmen Díaz-Éray passed in front, too close to the camera.
"Hello," Badger began, "you look like one of the contestants. What's your name?"
"Yeah, cool," she squealed. "I'm Carmen Miranda Reitz!"
"I see you're a violinist. What are you going to start with, tonight?"
"Oh, you know," she shrugged, "I thought, like, maybe my over-the-shoulder red sequined outfit, like, with the fruit on the tiara?"
Lex was on the look-out for Melissa Fourthought, getting Díaz-Éray's project set up, and then he's on to his own assignment. So far the body dump had gone well if the snow keeps drifting. But nobody recalled seeing the cab show up or who was in it. Then he saw Fourthought way across the room.
The door to the Public Wing shot open with a buzz of excitement and Skripasha Scricci made a diva's grand entrance. Too bad Badger wasn't able to extricate himself from Ms. Reitz in time.
Cathie Raighast, simply dressed, stood on the crowd's periphery like a family retainer, keeping an eye out for one person – Toni. There she was, looking uncomfortable but not afraid. Cathie walked over to her.
"Toni, why don't you come up and talk to Miss Frieda some more?"
The girl seemed relieved to see her again.
Dr. Kerr looked around – so many people he didn't know – also feeling uncomfortable. "Notice," he told Cameron, "it's always the same, how guests are talking to guests and pageant people talk to pageant people."
"Well, there's one bit of mingling going on – over there," Cameron pointed out. "It seems Cathie has managed to rescue Toni."
Then he noticed a familiar mound of gray hair by the drinks table.
"You don't mind missing this awful reception, now, do you?" Cathie asked Toni as she led the girl down the hallway.
It took them a while to work their way through the crowded room. By the time Lex and Díaz-Éray reached her, Melissa Fourthought, taking a drink from Herring, already began circulating away from them.
"Ms. Fourthwright," Lex said with a deferential nod, given her age if not position in the company, "nice to see you."
He introduced Agent Díaz-Éray and wanted to know if one of the contestants – a Toni Auvoir-duBois – was perhaps attending the reception.
"She was here a moment ago," Fourthought glowered.
Herring handed Díaz-Éray some champagne.
Lady Vexilla Regis, the house's "grand dame" and honorary host of the reception, sailed down the grand staircase in grand manner, her future daughter-in-law beside her, LauraLynn lost in the sails of regal presence. They stopped at the base of the steps to create a moment in time which no one was there to catch.
Her son Burnson Allan, easily overlooked by comparison, followed a few steps behind before being met by the Marquess of Quackerly.
"Be careful, Cousin Charles," Burnson whispered, "or you might trip down the stairs."
"Look out, yourself" Charles responded, "or you might find your drink's been poisoned."
They jostled each other with smiles and elbows.
Dr. Kerr turned to the footman, Sidney, and wondered, given the children present, if there was ginger ale instead of champagne.
"Sir," Sidney smiled, "I'll get you a glass. And something for Mr. Cameron?"
Lady Vexilla swept LauraLynn away toward the private, family side of the room with Badger and his cameraman scurrying after them.
A laptop with a webcam had been set up beside the punch bowl. The agent for the National Trust, Gordon Nott, unable to attend this evening, viewed the proceedings through the magic of Skype.
"Such a wonderful event, Lady Vexilla," Badger said, pushing the mike at her. "How did this pageant come about? Who's idea...?"
"Oh, you should ask Mr. Nott," she said. "Sorry about the weather, Gordie..."
A short, evil-looking man in a vile temper suddenly appeared behind the laptop, so disconcerting the cameraman, he nearly lost focus. Maurice Harty, dressed in white tie and tails, brandished a fearsome walking stick.
Trapped in the hallway behind the table's set-up, Maurie was nothing but indignant.
"Cut!" Badger apologized. "Can we do a re-take?"
"And then there's that cabby!" Mrs. Dean, by the pastries, told Canon Pettifogger, shuddering at the very memory of her ordeal. "He couldn't wait until he'd dropped me off? It absolutely ruined my day."
The good-natured Canon Pettifogger listened to her with the sympathy of the beleaguered. "Yes, and think what it did for his!"
Unnoticed in the reception's constant motion and hubbub, Melissa Fourthought overheard the footman's request for some ginger ale for Dr. Kerr.
While the Marquess was distracting Sidney, the woman slipped something into the drink.
Badger now cornered an imposing woman with long blonde hair and pronounced breasts.
"Destinée Knox – and a judge for our pageant..."
"Why yes, it's wonderful to be here abjuricating all this wonderful talent, tonight."
"It must be exciting to..."
"Yes, people are always excited to meet me," she said, fluttering her eyelashes.
"Yo, Destinée – bitch..."
Holly Grayle was another judge.
"Tell that creep Scricci, he makes another crack about my tits, I'm yankin' his... – oh, sorry..."
"Yeah..." Badger groaned. "Sorry, Pop, looks like we'll need to cut that, too..."
Nepomuck navigated his way through the crowd holding a tray of canapes but at a height not many people could reach. He knew he'd rather be 'strolling' and wipe out the lot of them.
Dr. Kerr picked up the glass from Sidney's tray and warmly thanked him.
"Nothing like ginger ale to calm the nerves."
Kerr recognized the dour face of Kerry Eliasen, house librarian for the Leightons, meeting him after their encounter with Melissa Fourthought, and he assumed the equally dour woman with him was his wife, Christie.
After introducing herself, she apologized for any misunderstanding there might have been earlier. "It's not the way our library is run."
She was denying she'd initialed a lot of Fourthought's book searches and requests, most of them after hours which looked suspicious.
"And it seems her research focuses on Beethoven's relationship with the Immoral Belovèd."
Maurice Harty, contemptuously returning Herring the footman's glances, carefully skirted around the table blocking "pageant people" from exploring the private hallways. He'd been wandering around the place by himself but found it tastelessly overdone.
Picking up a glass of champagne, he grimaced: clearly a tasteless, cheap brand. As Badger headed toward him, Maurie walked away.
While his wife talked to Kerr, Kerry Eliasen told Cameron he had a cousin twice removed who'd married an Iranian woman. "I suppose you get odd looks, these days," he said, "given our xenophobia."
Cameron joked about telling people he's a long-standing member of Al-Qalin from Fubaristan.
Mlle. deKoy, navigating past them, raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not quite sure what her angle is," Ms. Eliasen told Dr. Kerr. "Maybe she's stealing some of our first editions?"
Nodding thoughtfully, Kerr whispered something, then set his drink on a nearby table.
Vector, standing formally in the middle of the hallway leading to the library, noticed Kerr and Ms. Eliasen step back to the periphery of the crowd, sure that it was of no significance whatsoever.
He did, however, notice Mlle. deKoy whispering to Herring at the drinks table, and wasn't quite so sure of its insignificance.
Certainly insignificant was his lordship, the Marquess, stalking about the reception, head erect, acting as if he owned the whole place and who kept a watchful eye on Sidney despite Sidney carefully avoiding him.
Two other contestants from Pimp My Prodigy! were giggling over their purloined champagne (contestants were only allowed punch or ginger ale), complaining how awful everything was, "but ya gotta do what ya gotta do..."
Skripasha Scricci, walking past them, complained how he was dying for a drink, inadvertently picking up the one Kerr left behind.
Ms. Eliasen and her husband rejoined the party after saying their respective farewells, leaving Dr. Kerr and Cameron on the sidelines. Some guests would stand still while others would continue circulating in ever-widening patterns.
LauraLynn came up to them and asked if they were both enjoying themselves. Kerr confessed it was rather enjoyable, this "people-watching."
Then Kerr remembered his drink and looked around where'd he left his glass.
"That's okay," Cameron said, "I'll get you another..."
Burnson's sister, Tabitha, meanwhile, told LauraLynn she's trying to avoid "poor Cousin Charles."
Mlle. deKoy nodded to Herring as Cameron walked up to the drinks table, asking him for a glass of ginger ale.
She started talking to Cameron. "So, you enjoy your visit to Phlaumix Court?"
Scricci, talking to the one judge, Desi Finado, suddenly complained of feeling dizzy.
"You mean dizzier than usual, Pashi?" he smiled.
Lex and Díaz-Éray had gone their separate ways, unsuccessful in both their projects, Lex bumping into the biggest servant ever seen.
Suddenly Scricci yelled, "I know she's here – get that bitch away from me!"
As the crowd began to part during the commotion, Bugsy looked toward the noise and saw Lex almost directly opposite him.
"Flaming Fictitia LaMouche," Scricci screamed, flailing his arms.
His glass shattered to the floor as Aiello and Colangelo dragged him away.
"Who is that handsome young man," Bugsy wondered. "He reminds me of someone..."
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
to be continued... [with any luck, this link should become active at 8am on Wednesday, Aug. 10th]
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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