Chapter One

of the Classical Music Murder Mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto


1

 

The more intelligent one is, the more men of originality

one finds. Ordinary people find no difference between men.

                                                       -Pascal, Thoughts, 1670.

 

Mark, of course, didn't see the car speeding at him; he was used to having his life saved. Unaware that he was crossing the street, Mark stopped in the road to finish the point he was trying to make.


Aunt Mattie screamed from the curb as she saw the car bearing down on them at full speed. Ben whirled around and pushed Beatrice out of the way, then lunged at Mark with both hands and pulled him back, just as the car clipped their coat buttons.

The black car with a white hood had obviously aimed for them: it had deliberately swooped into the left lane and almost hit a car coming in the opposite direction.

Mark looked back, but the driver turned the corner just as they tried to read its plate. Beatrice ran after it, but oncoming traffic slowed her down, while Mark stumbled to a park bench in front of the bank.  Aunt Mattie sat down next to him, soothing him.

"You okay?" Ben asked him. Mark barely nodded. "It's a good thing violists have strong arms," Ben joked and patted him on the shoulder. "A violinist wouldn't have pulled you out in time. Next time you cross the road let’s have Seth along..."

 Seth Kainor played double-bass in the orchestra and was built like a high brick wall.

Beatrice walked back to the three of them, clearly out of breath. "You didn't get the plate number, Bea, honey?" Mattie asked.

"No, I didn't, Aunt. I'm sorry."

Mattie grabbed both her canes irritably. "Well, let's go if we're going. The meeting's about to start. I've never been late for one; as long as I'm around, neither are you."

 

They walked around to the bank's ornate entrance there discovered a lumpy-looking woman of late-middle age.  Beatrice recognized her as the new co-principal for the orchestra's Second Violins, or, as Mark called them, the "mezzos." Now she looked lost, and Beatrice stepped ahead to greet her.

"Excuse me. It's Mrs. Duville, am I right?"

"Mrs. Dupique, I'm afraid."

They shook hands, and Bea invited her to sit in.  She knew Mark disapproved of players sitting in at board meetings, but as the orchestra's concertmaster, Beatrice felt she had a responsibility to settle new people in comfortably.

"Are you sure it would be all right?" Mrs. Dupique asked. She had to get close to people in order to see them, and smelled pleasantly of rose-water. She  squinted up at Beatrice, the tallest person in the group.

"I'm sure it'd be okay, just this once. Wouldn't it, Mark?  Mark?" Bea saw him leaning with one hand against the building. The full possibility of near-death had just hit him, and it took him a moment to answer.

"Yes," he nodded finally, "fine." He straightened up, and shook Mrs. Dupique's hand, attempting a wan smile. "We're all very glad to have you on board, Mrs. --ah-- "

"Dupique. But please call me 'Mrs. D.'  Or Vera…"


In the bank building’s dark hallway, painted a Library Green, Ben introduced himself as the elevator took its time. He was First Violist, and Beatrice's boyfriend. Though he'd spent years in Canada and the States, he still had the occasional trace of a Brazilian accent. In his middle forties, as Beatrice and Mark and his wife Mary all were, he also had an olive complexion and handsome face, offset by a remarkably ugly nose.

Getting off on the third floor, they heard noises coming from the boardroom, with a number of Important Personages seated and already sounding resentful.

As they entered the wood-encrusted room, Beatrice whispered to Mark, "If misery loves company, why aren't more people here?" Mark swept her in and assumed his best professional smile.

On the massive boardroom table rested a number of orange and pink-labeled boxes, open and in various stages of disembowelment.

"You mean you all brought donuts?" Bea asked, crestfallen.

She used to watch her weight, and now had to watch her diet, as well as her allergies. Now her doctor was making warning noises about the possibility of diabetes. And today, she'd be sitting and watching everyone devouring what she'd have to pretend she couldn't stand anyway.

Silverstone, the head of the bank, whose hands seemed to go naturally to a holding pattern -- holding the lapels of his coat -- announced that the meeting would come to order. "Mr. Medli, you …ahh… are slightly behind your schedule," he drawled. "But I know you know it. Let's, ahh, not waste time."

Mark agreed, "Let's not," setting his plastic folders on the table, their contents detailing every penny his orchestra spent … and earned. He knew from experience that this was the quickest way to handle his board.

"I've asked a few of us," the banker continued dryly, "to, arrive here a bit before-hand, as my new assistant requested that we do." For the first time, Mark noticed a small, well-dressed figure to Silverstone's left. The new assistant nodded to Mark and went back to his papers, until realizing that Silverstone's introduction was a command to speak. He removed his glasses with a weary gesture.

"Of course you know the situation," the little man sighed. "We all know it. The orchestra is not paying its way. It's ridiculous, and has to stop," he concluded with a wintry smile. "We are calling it quits. Sorry."

Mark's shoulders fell a little as he realized that, yet again, he had to justify not only his job but that of fifty others. He also knew he wouldn't have the patience to endure another battle that could last all year, if he didn't cut it short.

Other conductors didn't have to put up with this.

Maybe that's why so many orchestras were failing.


"Have you read the minutes of last year's meetings?" Mark started out by asking the little man, and received a bored shake of the head in answer. "In that case," he continued, "I will not discuss with you anything to do with the orchestra's making money until you do read them." The little man opened his mouth but was cut short by Mark: "And that is final."

The banker was not particularly interested in Mark's attempt at stalling. "But you don't make any money. It's always up to us to bail you out."

"Excuse me," said Beatrice, who had comfortably ensconced her aunt and Mrs. Dupique off to two of the boardroom's corner armchairs. "Did I just hear you say what I think you said?" She was more than ready to do battle herself.

The banker said with a perfunctory, dismissive air, "We are, of course, grateful to you, Beatrice, for your contribution --"

"Contribution?!" Bea shot back. "I contribute a fourth of the budget and your bank gets nine-tenths of the publicity." Mark laid an easing hand on her shoulder, and turned to the boardroom members in general, "It was up to all of you to bail us out… until Beatrice came along. Anyway, that's not important…."

The banker's face was beginning to turn red, with a subtle hint of purple. "Not important! You're not grateful for our past service to you!"

"We are. And we mention that gratitude in full every time we print a programme.  But you don't seem to understand that it's not the orchestra's job to make money," Mark explained, as if to a child, as if it was for the thousandth time, which it probably was.  "Our job, outside of art and music and all that stuff I won't bore you with and often do, is to make money for everybody else."

The banker muttered as he sat down, "Not for us, certainly."

"I'm not so sure about that." Mark said, jangling the keys in his pocket and glancing at the darkened storefronts across the street. "Look over there," he pointed out the window. "There used to be four expensive restaurants over there; oh, you ought to know --you loaned all four of 'em enough money. The orchestra cut discount deals with them so they could put folks in their seats as well as ours.

"While they made enough cash to float an opera house, not one of them would give a red dime to the orchestra while we were struggling … and during the whole time they were repaying your loans … with interest, I might add. 

"So. What happens? My whole orchestra goes under for nine unhappy months, 'restructuring', as you called it, reducing our size from seventy players to fifty, just as one of the two resident theatres close. The clientele for all our performances stay home, and those four restaurants slowly go bankrupt. A Pyrrhic victory."

Warming to his task, he turned to his still-skeptical audience and waved his arms about like a put-upon penguin. "Sure, I could go on about the beauty of music and art, but one of our jobs is to create jobs for the community. Jobs outside of the orchestra.  Those restaurant tables across the street are gone; and perhaps the company that built and expected to be paid for them as well." He pointed out the window. "Their liquor licenses sold, their kitchens empty.  It might even have cost less for you to keep them running yourselves instead of having someone start them all up all over again.  Do you understand now?"

"What we need is an executive director …" one of the elders said. He brought this up at every meeting.

"We had one five years ago," Mark cut him short, "fully qualified and Ivy-leagued; and when we invited him over to one of your mansions for a weekend meeting, he stole half your silverware. Don't you remember? We found it in the trunk of his Porsche."

"That," the elder protested, "was just a coincidence."

 

Mark gave up and slammed his hand down on the paperwork he'd brought in, and got ready to stride out of the room. Aunt Mattie stopped his exit with a loud thump of her cane. "I move we talk about the fund-raising concert," she announced, in low, sepulchral tones.

Mark stopped and turned at the door. "Have we got a celebrity?"

Mrs. Holly, an elderly woman who lived to meet the talented and famous, gushed, "We do, Mark.  It's ... it's a conductor."

"There," said the new assistant to Mark with a victorious grin. "That'll teach you.  You didn't want it to be a rival conductor, did you?"  Mark turned to him with raised eyebrows. "On the contrary: It's heaven-sent. I'll be glad of the week off: Mary and I will catch up on all of our grant-writing proposals." He grinned at the little man, whispering, "Sorry to disappoint you," and turned to Mrs. Holly with a smile. "I can tell by your face that it's Sergei Von Klipop." Mark knew exactly how to charm the old biddy. He leaned over and added sweetly, "You got the boyfriend of your dreams to show up, didn't you? Are you happy now?"

Mrs. Holly, momentarily the center of attention, gave a high-pitched giggle, and her glasses started to fog up. "I've been going to his concerts in Boston for years," she gasped. "Can you imagine him coming here? Our little unimportant orchestra?"

Mark ignored this unintended slight, and asked the group, "Is it agreed, then, that we try to get Sergei Von Klipop to conduct our last concert?"

"Who represents him?" someone asked.

There was a pause.  Mark finally broke the silence.  "Fidelita.  Of course."

Of course. An even darker gloom settled over the boardroom. 

Fidelita Artists' Management was America's most powerful music agency.

Ben sat next to Bea and heard her grinding her teeth. She sighed and said, "Get it over with, then.  Seeing as they 'represent' everyone, anyway." She crossed her arms and nodded at Mark, "That's all right: we've already proven that we can survive without their 'help'. I hate giving those dirty sons of --- excuse me, giving them another red cent, but it can't be helped. Contact them, Mark."


Mrs. Holly objected; she was one of the oldest and richest board members, a bright-eyed, overeager type who loved meeting VIPs.  It was the only reason, she once confidentially told Ben, to be on boards at all. She wanted the honor of meeting The Great Conductor, and telling him the good news.

"And what," Ben said from his corner of the table, "would you say if he snaps, 'Good news? How can conducting a grubby little fourth-rate orchestra in a fifth-rate town like yours be good news?'"

Mrs. Holly considered this. "Well," she decided, "I'd agree with him.  I mean, you've got to agree, don't you? He's a celebrity, and they always know best." Having discharged this gem, she put her paws in front of her, as if expecting a little treat.

"Is that the definition of a celebrity?" Ben asked. "I've always wondered."

 

Mark wasn't sure that the gushing Mrs. Holly would be the best advocate for the orchestra. By the end of the meeting it was arranged that Mark, Michael Munie, who ran the business side of the orchestra, and Beatrice, the orchestra's concertmaster, would attend Klipop's final concert for the season.

            That is, if The Great Man was really serious about coming to town.



  

Chapter Two

 

copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.