In our last installment, Dr. Dhabbohdhú arrived at the lab, just as surprised to meet Haley Gedankgesang as she was to meet him. Meanwhile, the mysterious room deep beneath the Met turned out to be just another musty old practice room, but one that had some rather startling contents.
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Dr. Iobbha Dhabbohdhú looked down at the appealingly plump form of Haley Gedankgesang with obvious surprise. She had not been expected but perhaps she might prove useful, after all. He would try to be his most charming self since there was no point in alarming her unduly or leaving anything like a clue behind before he had accomplished what he set out to do this night.
As they walked past the various storage pods within this section of the Concourse, he attempted to engage her in small talk about their surroundings, there, what the various rooms were and what kind of place it must be that LauraLynn had invited him to see.
No, no one else would be there – Robertson, she said without sounding too concerned, had not yet shown up and, at this hour, now, may not (“Not,” the good doctor thought without a trace of a smile) – and as long as they were walking past these other rooms, she saw no reason not to give him a bit of a tour.
“This room, here, houses some antiques from the old Met, things moved up here for safe keeping when the New Met was ready to open in 1966.”
“Some old costumes, I would imagine, from the days of Lily Pons and Caruso, I would imagine?”
“I think so, yes, but they're mostly kept in storage trunks when they're not on display in one of the Met's gallery rooms upstairs. It's more props and set pieces, from what I remember,” she tried to explain, not being fairly familiar with the opera house or, for that matter, with opera. Her grandmother used to drag her to the Met when she was a child but it never left much of an impression on her beyond the hours of having to sit still in the dark.
“I grew up loving opera, myself,” Dhabbohdhú explained. “What sorts of things do they have in there?”
Haley was finding it very difficult to resist his charms. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she looked up at him and admitted she wasn't quite sure, something about Toscanini's old casting couch (or was it Mahler's?). Then she blushed.
“Ah, the stories that bit of furniture could tell, I'm sure,” he said smilingly. “I really would love to see that. Toscanini was someone my father had told me about seeing when he conducted at Carnegie Hall and Mahler – well, Mahler is just one of my favorite composers, so either way, it would be absolutely fabulous to see it.” He cocked his head to the left and looked at her expectantly.
She blushed and gulped some more. “Well, I suppose. It's not like we're in a big hurry, since Robertson isn't here yet.” She was beginning to think perhaps it would be better to leave him under the impression somebody else would be along soon, just in case.
She quickly punched in her PIN code and the door quietly swung open. Dhabbohdhú, looking down over her, was unable to process the code fast enough – 65-something, but that was all.
The light was dim, the room dusty but otherwise clean and orderly. There, just inside the door, was an old Victorian-style day bed or reclining couch, its once brilliant red plush upholstery still bright enough to give evidence of its value. Whether or not it had the ignominious distinction of being a “casting couch” per se, that's what it reminded her of. Dhabbohdhú examined the tag on it and saw that it had been requested for the maestro's dressing room in 1908 by Gustav Mahler but Toscanini had requested it for his own use when he continued to conduct there for the next five years.
There were a few cushions and a wig box labeled Thaïs placed on it with more boxes and crates piled high behind and around it. A hat rack stood empty next to it and between that and a chifferobe were propped several items that Dhabbohdhú carefully examined – a shepherd's crook, a more elaborate bishop's crozier and a fancy spear with a long pointed blade that, according to the tag, had been used in the very first production of Verid's Aïda back at the original Met in 1886.
Haley was beginning to get uncomfortable at the delay and mentioned that Dr. Sullivan must be waiting for them down at the lab.
Unfazed, Dhabbohdhú continued to look at some of the items in the room's dim light. Turning to her, he smiled and said “Have you ever sat on this récamier? I imagine it must have quite a sense of history about it.”
Récamier? She looked puzzled.
“The little day bed here, your 'casting couch,' as you called it. In that white lab coat of yours, I'm sure you'd look quite stunning on its crimson velvet upholstery.”
Really? She was trying to remember when a man – much less as virile looking a man as this – had ever paid the slightest attention to her.
“Well, no, I'd never thought about it, really...” She felt herself blushing.
“Oh, but you must – I insist!” He quickly moved the cushions and the wig box to the floor to make room for her.
She cautiously draped herself over the couch, thinking how awkward it must look with her in her lab coat and sneakers, trying to look sexy when who knows what opera singers in what glorious costumes must have stretched themselves out on it a hundred years ago.
“Now close your eyes and imagine that you are... let's see... oh... Claudia Muggiscamente as Aïda...”
“One of my favorite opera singers, a great Verdi soprano from the 1920s and '30s.” I knew you'd never know the difference: I just made her up.
Haley threw her head back with an imperious gesture as if she were about to say “Peel me a grape, Big Boy” when Dhabbohdhú quickly poised the blade of the Egyptian spear at her throat. She opened her eyes and realized what was about to happen – well, one of the things that could happen, none of which were very pleasant to contemplate.
“What the hell are you trying to do?” she whispered, afraid to move, her eyes wide with terror and betrayal. Claudia Muggi-whatever, indeed!
He reached down and yanked her ID-badge off her lab-coat, tearing a hole in the pocket in the process. “What is your PIN-code?”
She had to admit, at least he knew that 'PIN Number' was redundant but still she wouldn't speak. He pressed harder against the point of the spear.
“Who are you,” she demanded to know, knowing also it was fairly pointless, the spear aside. “You're from Grendel, aren't you!”
Now it was his turn to look surprised: Who? “Give me your access number – now!” He shook the badge over her.
“Security will have seen us enter here, they'll know you did it.”
“Security is too busy watching the World Series,” he sneered. “They won't realize it till long after it's too late to do you any good. Now, what is the access number for this badge?”
“654 – 837,” she said breathlessly. “Now, let me go!”
He remembered seeing the 65, so he figured the rest of it was okay. “Are you sure?” He nudged the spear-tip closer into her throat. She could feel the skin about to break.
“Yes,” she breathed, trying desperately not to move. “It spells out OLIVER... as in Oliver Twist - it was the name of my dog when I was a kid...”
Cute. “Would you like some more?” And with that he rammed the spear through her throat and into the fabric of the day-bed she was lying on. “How about an extra twist?” He then turned the blade before she was even able to scream, her voice now a raspy, impotent gurgle.
“I'm terribly sorry, my dear – what did you say your name was? – but you won't be able to sing Aïda ever again.” Dhabbohdhú chuckled softly to himself.
Then he noticed her blood had spattered across his suit, ruining his shirt and jacket. “Bitch,” he hissed at her, yanking the spear out of her throat, then wiping it against her lab-coat before ramming it forcefully into her abdomen, leaving it there, pinning her to the couch, if it mattered any more. “Let's see if anyone will cast you in a revival of Sweeney Todd, instead...”
As he tried to wipe her blood off his sleeves, he continued his pleasant conversation with her. “Yes, I think you could have quite a career in the theater, now. Too bad most of the roles are for dead men – Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi, for instance, or Pentheus in Hans Werner Henze's setting of the Bacchae – ah, but there, the body is already dismembered. You would find it very boring having to pull yourself together, night after night, after each performance... Maybe I could write Arsenic and Old Lace just for you – ah, but there again, all the victims are men, aren't they? Ah well, too bad – for now, my dear, you will have to satisfy yourself with this small walk-on in my latest and so far greatest work.”
Then he realized, given all the costumes in this room, he would not have to worry about his blood spattered suit giving him away. He opened the wig box and saw a great pile of hair intended for the courtesan Thaïs. In the chifferobe was a doublet from Rigoletto and the black silk cape that Tito Gobbi had worn as Scarpia. And in this box, some harem pants from The Pearl Fishers. He stuffed his own clothes into the chifferobe and turned out the light, gently shutting the door to Pod-3 behind him.
This was not the first person he had killed, nor, he was hoping, would it be the last. The events leading up to this night had begun years ago when he murdered – quite by accident though it felt good in hindsight – Katherine Shaw. And next, if all went according to plan, he had set his sights on Katie Shaw's niece, LauraLynn Sullivan.
Dhabbohdhú looked around cautiously and saw no one but assumed the security cameras were somewhere: oh well, he couldn't do anything about them, anyway, not at this point. Things will move quickly, now. With any luck, the next few minutes will happen while somebody's hitting a home run: the guard will never takes his eyes off the monitor to notice him.
I don't have to worry about sweet-talking little LauraLynn into opening her lab. Oliver gave me the key!
*** ***** ******** ***** ***
Practice rooms, of course, were part of a musician's training, both for endurance and to prepare them for working under the worst conditions imaginable, surrounded by all manner of noise and distractions. Row after row of them lined hallways in music schools across the country, probably around the world. It seemed a matter of efficiency, providing private space and pianos for thousands of students that should, in many respects, have at least managed to prepare them for non-musical lives with jobs in cubicles in the corporate world, comparable space that is about as efficient, private and sound-proof as most practice rooms, stocked instead with computers about as fine and reliable as typically cheap and overly abused practice-room pianos.
But what, Leahy-Hu wanted to know, was one doing down here, deep beneath Lincoln Center, and assigned as “personal space” to the Center's director, Robertson Sullivan? Didn't he have a grand piano in his apartment where he could compose in privacy? Would he have needed a space to compose while he's at work? And if so, why would he come down here to write music when, frankly, it would've been easier just to go over to Juilliard and borrow a teacher's studio or, for that matter, walk home to his apartment at the Dakota?
I was thinking the same thing: something about this space wasn't quite right. It wasn't the stale popcorn or the deteriorated can of soda but the fact that it had not been used for some time: it was as if it were a time capsule meant to memorialize a moment in time. But why?
Phil Harmon's fading flashlight flickered across the four forgotten walls: a tattered tapestry of indistinguishable pattern had been draped across the back wall and letters had been spray-painted on the wall opposite the piano.
“What's that say,” Leahy-Hu asked, grabbing hold of Harmon's hand to steady the light.
“Shmrg?” She looked at me a scowl. “What the hell does that mean?!”
Buzz almost froze at the sight of it.
Chief Harmon thought it referred to the evil Soviet spy agency in some of the James Bond movies from the '70s.
“No,” Leahy-Hu said, “that's SMERSH. And SHMRF would be those blue cartoon creatures, I guess. This, I'm thinking, has some musical significance – am I right, professor?”
“You would, of course, be correct, Director. It's a system some music teachers use to open their students' minds when listening to music analytically. If they can focus on one topic at a time or, hearing something they want to make note of, they can place it in the column of a certain topic.”
Harmon asked, “like bingo?”
I chuckled. “In a way, yes, but without any prizes. It was developed in 1970 by a musicologist named Jan LaRue for stylistic analysis. Robertson and I had used it in our ear-training courses when we taught in college, part of a junior-level ear-training course he and I had developed to help students organize their thoughts when listening to a piece of music. It helps them identify stylistic characteristics of a particular piece so they can make a more informed guess about when a piece might have been composed or by whom. It also just gets them to listen more carefully, trying to describe a piece of music and taking all of these observations into consideration when talking about it later. You'd be surprised how many musicians don't really know how to listen to music!”
“But what does it stand for? – I know SMERSH is an acronym for Smyert' Shpionem or Death to Spies.” Leahy-Hu was about to wax nostalgic for her days in the CIA.
“LaRue grouped the different things you could listen for into these five categories – Sonority, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm and Growth, adding as an afterthought T for Text if there are words involved.”
“Clever. Not quite so evil-sounding, then...” She sounded almost disappointed.
“Depends on which end of the pop quiz you were on,” Buzz confessed, remembering back to his days in my Form and Analysis class. SHMRG was the bane of his existence, that semester.
“It was a step on the way to discovery – or at least, discovering more about the music you'd be listening to. Admit it, Buzz, you've used it when you've gone to concerts – maybe not writing it down, but cataloging it in your mind, making note of different facts and observations you've heard?”
“Yeah, you're right. In fact, wasn't that what we were doing on the trip in here, playing 'What Makes It Bad' with that hunting-horn overture?”
“Uh, well, yes, actually,” I said, trying to deflect what could only get us off-topic, at this point.
“Whatever,” Leahy-Hu said. “And you know what my next question is going to be, professor?”
“You know, we haven't had dinner yet,” Buzz said as he turned and looked at me. Apparently the pop-corn was proving too tempting.
“I assume you're going to ask me what it's doing on the wall of Robertson's secret practice room,” I said, trying desperately to ignore Buzz's observation.
“There was also another association Robertson and I had with SHMRG but I'm afraid it's another Latin quote.”
“Another canonic clue?”
“Not directly. It was something he made up along the way. He used it as a kind of epigram on all his class material at least for a few years: not sure I can remember it exactly...” The thought that it might have any bearing on the case was limited, considering the only people who would know it were me and a handful of his students who might bother to remember it.
“Sapientia hortat mentem requiere gradus,” pointing at the wall as I spoke, as if inscribing it onto the plaster myself. “Yes, I think that's it. Sapientia hortat mentem requiere gradus.”
Leahy-Hu counted out the letters of the acronym on the fingers of her right hand. “Okay. And...?”
“Oh, sorry. Wisdom urges the mind... to seek the steps.”
“So you're saying we should be looking for more steps? Like through a secret portal that would lead to a stairway at the bottom of which we would find the answers to the ancient mysteries?”
“That, I think, would be more of a leap than a step. I really don't think Robertson was talking about a specific set of steps, rather just the steps in the process of examining everything in front of us to attain the knowledge each of us sought in becoming a musician. The whole process was one of...”
“HOLY CRAP!” Buzz shouted, pointing at the back wall as Leahy-Hu jumped almost a foot in the air.
At that moment, a light draft had come out of nowhere and the tapestry billowed just slightly. In the dim light of Harmon's flashlight, I couldn't be sure if it was a shadow or caused by the flickering of his rapidly fading batteries, but Harmon marched quickly across the room and pulled the fabric aside. It nearly crumbled in his hand.
Behind it was a niche in the wall, about waist-high – well, unless you were Director Leahy-Hu – and just a couple of feet square. In it stood three objects. Immediately recognizing two of them, I felt I had been knocked sideways.
Mostly, it amazed me that, perhaps, Leahy-Hu and our alleged maniac might be right. Was Robertson Sullivan using this space to hide the ancient mysteries of music? Was this in fact the portal they had been talking about?
One looked like a stone tablet, the kind that would have had the Ten Commandments carved on it. The other was clearly a pyramid. The third, however, was too obscure to identify.
- - - - - - -
to be continued...
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The Lost Chord, a Music Appreciation Thriller, is a full-length novel written by Dick Strawser and is a musical parody of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. It is being serialized on this blog: watch for the next segment on Monday, August 2nd.