of the Classical Music murder mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto
I beg a thousand pardons if there's anyone here
I haven't insulted tonight!
--Johannes Brahms, leaving a party.
The four paced back and forth, wringing their hands in counterpoint.
The Baguettelle Restaurant was rigged up with a garish yellow "WELCOME VON KLIPOP" sign that seemed to contradict its intent. Spreading across two wooden beams, it looked more appropriate for a teenage slumber party. As proprietors of the restaurant, Don and Krista compensated by their usual quality cooking and catering.
They had also set up a table for such delicacies as members of the orchestra insisted on bringing, offering homage to the Great Conductor.
Some of the musicians fancied themselves the equal of any chef; in a few cases this faith was justified.
The glorious triple-decked (Mary had called it triple-sec) Welcome-Cake stood proudly in the middle. Krista was studying its almost swaggering form in an experienced manner; she was widely acknowledged as the best in the state in constructing what Ben called "Sugar-Coated Cathedrals", and her eyes darted quickly over every detail, checking every inch of its Palladian design. She had contrived to replace the standard newlywed pair at the top of the cake with a conductor. She had to go through several catalogs to find the figure, but it seemed like an appealing gesture.
A few members of the orchestra had gotten there early, and were now seated at a few tables near the window, self-consciously trying not to look at their watches. Although it was only a few minutes past seven, one of the musicians grumbled that he should have brought the sports section to read if 'this guy' was going to be 'this late.' This earned him a slap on the arm from his long-suffering wife. It was evident that she was also bored, and she studied the wall decorations with feigned interest.
A rather poky station wagon pulled up, so close to the curb that the front tire squeaked against it. It was Connie, and she reared out of the car with a sense of purpose and no grace at all. She ambled to the back of the car and lifted the trunk door with little effort, bringing out a large tray of cookies and multi-colored muffins. Her fiancée, a somewhat elderly and cowed figure, trotted up to the double-doors and tried to hold them both open for her.
"Well! We got here! Well? Will someone take care of this?" she asked as if summoning a hiding maid.
Krista eyed the tray's contents critically, and said, "Let me take them off your hands, dear," adding smoothly, "they look like they weigh a ton."
There was a minute pause as Connie decided that Krista could never be in a social position to successfully insult her. In this, as in many things, she was profoundly mistaken. Smoothing her hair back, she examined the festive trimmings with regret.
"Oh, dear", she said, "do all the decorations have to be so American? They're so gauche."
"Make up your mind," Krista sighed, "which language you want to condescend in. I studied in Paris and can swear expertly in both."
Connie laughed this off. "Well, what can't be cured must be endured. Don't you have a clue, my dear? No one told you Von Klipop is German? I thought we were going to try to make him feel at home."
Krista was losing her patience. "My lederhosen are still at the dry cleaners, but there’s German pastries on the table, if you want to look them over." She looked down at Connie's tray, and asked coyly, "And since when are corn muffins German, darling?"
Connie gave Krista the sort of cold, wintry smile women of a certain age give each other when they're wearing identical dresses. She quickly turned to her fiancée and beckoned him over. "George! Come here. Here, George." She slapped her hip as if trying to get an errant Airedale's attention. She then waved at the man, who seemed to be staring at the ceiling. "This is Krista. She spends most of her life in the kitchen, so you wouldn't see her much."
Krista was ready to haul forth with an answer to this one, doubtless something vague about Connie's greater expertise in bedrooms, when the diminutive George approached her, and squinted, close up, into her face. He launched immediately into a tirade of his own.
"That's an old sprinkler system you got there," he said, in a higher voice than she'd expected. "Before I got into Cruise Lines I made my money on making sprinkler systems. Yep. That's how I made a bundle. I'm an expert. That's right. An expert on sprinkler systems."
"Is that a fact?" Krista sighed, and then realized that it was a stupid question. No one would lie about being an expert on sprinkler systems.
"I'd like to drop off a brochure or two about my sprinkling --" he piped, and Krista took a wary step back. He rummaged through his sports coat and brought out three or four differently-colored, lightly stained brochures, licking his thumb as he counted them off. Krista turned to Mark by way of extrication.
"Where’s our fabulous star?" she asked him.
Someone pointed out the window. A long white limousine drove up the curb in its complacent but superior way. You could tell it wasn’t from Videntia: there were no dents in its side. The only people who could afford a rented limousine in this town were those who lived in the old section, with streets so narrow no car that size could negotiate its turns. Videntia's older limousines looked like some small child had been at the corners with a small hammer.
A young, anonymous-looking chauffeur with an attempted moustache jumped from the front seat, jogged around the back, and opened the side door.
The people in the restaurant --there were more than forty there now-- were congregating near the front window and straining to see.
Klipop got out first, wearing a dark-gray suit; in one hand he carried what appeared to be a gold-tipped cane. He surveyed the street with disapproving eyes, particularly the pawnshop next door to the restaurant, and the pizza parlor on its other side. He gave what appeared to be a sigh, and then put his hand out for someone else still in the car.
Out of the car now came what appeared to be a beautiful, blonde girl of fifteen, but closer examination revealed a woman in her late twenties: there were the beginnings of worry lines on her forehead. She, too, looked around her, and, unlike her husband, graced the surroundings with a gentle smile.
The women in the restaurant, of course, had decided immediately what kind of woman Klipop's companion was. She looked like a bimbo. Good. That was easy.
Some of the other musicians were on tip-toe, straining to see above the shoulders of the trustees. No one noticed a fretful-looking man of short stature coming out the other side of the car. It was Derek. He carried a very small briefcase in one hand, and was dialing some number into a cell-phone on the other.
The chauffeur attempted to be doorman as well, but the restaurant had double-doors and opening all four of them required some dexterity. He managed it by slinking around and ahead of them.
Klipop, his wife, and manager (on the phone) all made their way through the second door into the restaurant. Klipop's eagle eye immediately saw the sign on the door.
"Welcome, Maestro Sergei!" he read and laughed. "I suppose there cannot be two Sergeis in this sort of town!" and raised his arms triumphantly to acknowledge the applause.
The applause was delayed, but it came, and seemed genuine. Klipop's wife and his manager stood on either side of him, quietly, with their hands in front of them like award statuettes.
Mark approached and was about to extend his hand, but was beaten to it by one of the trustees, a banker whose idea of masculinity was to shake hands like a vise. Klipop saw this coming, avoided the banker's hands by patting the man affectionately on both shoulders, and saw Mark.
"So we meet!" Klipop said to the younger man with a heavy accent; he was evidently intent on pretending they hadn't met before. "My manager hass given me a press-packet of your little orchestra and I recognize your face at once."
"Well! Thanks. I think." Mark returned.
Klipop wagged a finger at him. "You should haff promotion photos of yourself from ten years ago put in instead," he suggested. "It brings in more money from people who subscribe, but never come to the concerts to see what you really look like."
Mary, who was standing by, remarked, "I think we have some baby pictures of you somewhere."
"Not where you can find them," he snapped. "I hid them when we moved into the house." He turned to Klipop. "I received all the parts for the orchestra, thanks for sending them ahead so we could check the strings' bowing. And I assume you've brought your own master scores with you."
Klipop nodded vigorously. "Yess. They are in the trost of my manager." He waved Derek forward, who had now finished whatever phone-call he'd made and made a fumbling attempt to shake Mark's hand. Since Mark's right hand was holding a drink, there was some spilling of white wine on both the men's suits. Klipop laughed, "Derek is my right-hand man, but sometimes he needs the right-hand man himself." Derek said a very quiet "howdyado" and then turned to Klipop.
"I was just letting Ronchev know that you arrived." he said to his boss. "Now, he left very strict instructions on how every single one of--"
"Yess, yess," Klipop waved him away with an irritated gesture. Derek immediately shut up, and Klipop shot a weary glance at Mark. "My manager's manager, and a pain in the azss. I will not be with him moch longer, you can trost me."
Mark nodded sympathetically, and saw that Derek was not surprised by this news. "I'm between managers myself," Mark said.
"Really?" asked Klipop, envy clearly in his voice. "For how long?"
Mary spoke up, "About four years now," she said. "In fact, around the time he joined the orchestra."
Klipop nearly whimpered in sympathy. "Oh, you poor man. Of course, is nice not to have a manager. But will no one take you on? Are things here so bad?" And then he asked after a pause, "Are you so bad?"
"Not at all," Mary shot back crisply. "There's just no reason for him to have one at the moment."
"I see," Klipop said, not looking at her. "The wife manages the affairs. I know so many marriages like that."
Before Mary could reply to this double-barreled remark, Klipop looked up at the yellow banner stretching over the room, and scowled. "Why is the 'Von' in my name so small? 'Von' is a sign of honor, of an honorable family." He turned to Beatrice and snarled, "You are the smart one here. This is your fault. I ask you why this has happened."
"I'm the smart …?"
"You were famous, once. Therefore, you are the smart one. You know that 'Von' is like 'Sir' in Britain, and like 'millionaire' in America. It is a sign of greatness. I hold you responsible."
Beatrice's expression did not change. "Mr. Klipop, I mean Mr. Von Klipop: you can hold me any way you like -- and that's not an invitation -- but I'll gladly take responsibility for the mistake."
This stopped him in his tracks. Klipop nodded, knowing that he'd met his match. The trace of a smile crinkled his features. "I apologize," he said, and gave her a courtly half-bow.
Despite her reserve, she found herself half-smiling. "That's all right. Would you like to meet some of the trustees?"
"Why on earth would I want to do that?" he asked.
"Well, they're as responsible for the health of this orchestra --"
"--As you are. Oh, yes. Ronchev told me about how you haff saved this orchestra from der Tod, the death. As many orchestras in this country have died. If only the richest could also play the instruments as well as I hear you do. And your wonderful recordings. I haff asked to hear a few last night. They are splendid. You should have kepp recording… though not so much the French works, my dear, more of the German."
Beatrice felt the beginning of a blush on her cheeks. She knew that Klipop was turning the full faucet of his Viennese charm on her, and that not a syllable of it was genuine. Still, she found it difficult to resist the cataract.
"I understand they're giving you and your wife the best room in the hotel here," she said, changing the subject. He shrugged and looked away, as if this were a foregone conclusion.
"There's a very good rooftop restaurant there," she went on. He nodded absently, and she continued, "I understand that one of the chefs studied desserts in Vienna." Klipop had put his hand out for his young wife, and she instantly materialized by his side. "Yes," he said sarcastically, "it is always the Schlagobers, the desserts, that they send their best chefs to Austria for, and to France for the main course. It should be the other way around. My wife Sophie makes the wonderful German food, though she is American. The little woman cooks everything I eat," he said, and nudging her he added, "practically."
She giggled. "I can't keep him away from sweets."
"I have so much the sweet tooth that most of them have been replaced," he pointed at his mouth, its contents shining translucently.
Since no one was going to introduce the two women, Beatrice went ahead and extended her hand to Mrs. Klipop. "My name is Beatrice Klarke. I'm the concertmaster."
Sophie practically leapt at the older woman's hand, and beamed back a somewhat vacant smile. She shook Bea's hand vigorously, and asked, "How do you like it here?" and added bluntly, "The town looks really poor."
Somewhat taken aback, Beatrice was about to defend the city, when Sophie went on, "Don't get me wrong. I like poor places. Well, not really poor, but not rich. They make me feel sad."
Beatrice noticed that Klipop was using her own self to amuse his wife. He had slyly abandoned them and wandered off to find the drinks table.
Thanks, Sergei "Von", she thought. Now Beatrice was probably going to be stuck with Lisping Child-Bride Sophie for the rest of the night, trying to make small talk smaller. Well. She'd try and make the best of the situation.
"It's a nice town," she started, "and widely laid out. There's a lot of sections that might interest you. I'm an amateur photographer --"
"So am I!" Sophie squealed. "I saw these large, grey-brick factories as we came in. Are they still working? They're beautiful."
"Many of them are lofts and artists' studios now."
"Well," Sophie considered, "they're still beautiful. I'd like to spend a whole day racing around there with lots of rolls of film…"
" -- but I would think that Boston is far more comfortable for you," Beatrice continued, rather regally. "I imagine that there you must meet a lot of interesting people."
Sophie frowned, and her head bent forward. "Yes," she said quietly; she looked around to where Klipop was. Then she whispered to Beatrice, "He doesn't take me to meet many of them. I wish he did. I end up spending a lot of evenings at home." Her eyes timidly wandered over the crowd, and Beatrice felt a twinge of guilt for being standoffish. Sophie looked back at her and smiled, "He thinks I'm stupid. Sometimes I am."
"Sometimes we all are."
Sophie grabbed Beatrice's hand so quickly that the older woman flinched. "Oh, thank you for saying that. I can tell you're a good person."
Bea was uneasy around such hastily proffered affection, but let her hand stay in the other woman's. Perhaps Sophie, too, was an expert at manipulating people's feelings, she thought. Still, perhaps the poor woman had to play this role to her husband all day.
And all night.
"Where are we staying?" Sophie asked suddenly. Informed that it would be the Deluxe Hotel Biltlesse, she asked if their suite had a kitchen. Beatrice didn't know, but said she was sure the hotel food would be suitable for all needs, allergies, whatever.
"He's on a special diet," Sophie happily explained, "to keep his tummy trim." They both looked over to his form at the bar; Klipop was happily knocking back his second cocktail. He was also listening, more or less, to Mrs. Holly's confessions of undying admiration. At least he seemed to be nodding in her direction.
Beatrice observed, "He's drinking enough to put on whatever weight you've kept off him." Sophie nodded at this, and said, more to herself, "Well, there's the threats, too…"
"On his life." Sophie turned to her in surprise. "I thought all conductors had their lives threatened from time to …. Doesn't your conductor get any threats? Maybe he's not important enough."
"Just a few days ago the brass threatened him for not giving a clear downbeat," Beatrice started, but then felt a stronger need to defend Mark's importance. "We were nearly the victims of a hit and run driver two weeks ago."
Sophie's eyes grew wide and excited. "But that's marvelous!" she cried.
"Yes, yes. Oh, you must tell my Sergei. He just loves to hear such things."
"I'll bet he does."
"No, no," Sophie went on in a quiet voice, "I mean… I mean, they'll have something in common to talk about, my Sergei and your friend, do you see?"
"I'm beginning to," Bea said. "A sort of Roadkill Club."
"My husband loves to talk about how famous conductors die. It's a fascinating subject for him."
"I'm not sure that Mark shares that kind of enthusiasm." Sophie looked hurt when she said this; Beatrice tried to reassure her. "But that's all right. I'm sure they can find some sort of grisly hobby they have in common, short of decapitation."
"De-who?" asked Sophie.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All Rights Reserved.