of the Classical Music Murder Mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto
Music is the only noise for which one is obliged to pay.
"He's got to see it through," Mary said at dinner, putting her wine glass firmly down on the table. Beatrice pointed out that Klipop had broken contracts before. Mary waved this information away with an impatient gesture.
It was around ten at night. Ben, Bea, Mark & Mary had been slowly getting stewed over wine and a hardly-touched dinner at the Baguettelle. The restaurant had no liquor license, but the group finished off two bottles of Beaujolais they'd brought themselves. Krista and Don had seen most of the other customers off, and listened while the four discussed the day's troubles.
Krista and Don had their years of service for various other eateries before they'd set up their own, and were happy to unload stories and advice from their own experience. Some involved broken contracts with bosses who should have had something else broken as well. "But in the end it all came out all right," they said. Mary pointed out that perhaps it had, for them; but many of those restaurants were now closed. Ben, in his own way, managed to cheer her up by the end of the dinner, mostly by making fun of her Portents Of Doom.
The four managed to get out of the restaurant without colliding into anything, but the fresh air was doubling the effects of the wine. Aunt Mattie's house was a block beyond Mark and Mary's, and the four weaved along the sidewalk. Fortunately, there was an occasional fence to lean on as they made their way.
After bidding Beatrice and Ben a good night, Mark and Mary turned into their street and saw an unfamiliar car in front of their house. Getting closer, they realized it was a large, white limousine.
In the front seat a chauffeur was idly perusing a copy of the National Review. Draped over the hood of the car, Mark and Mary were surprised to see Klipop himself. One leg dangled lazily over the side; a white fedora was rakishly set on his head. He was smoking, and gave them a friendly salute and blazing smile. On the whole, he looked like an ad for Spanish cigarettes.
It all looked too glibly rehearsed to be genuine.
On the curb next to him were two large, heavy-looking brown suitcases. "Hail to thee, fallow-spirit, as well-met," he said, misquoting some poet Mark was too drunk to recall.
"Hey," said Mary coldly. She didn't like what she thought this all meant.
"My hotel, she is no good," Klipop said. "So I come here, to your very humble home. You have mentioned that you have a spare."
Mark didn't remember mentioning alternate accommodations, and certainly none for the likes of a Sergei Von Klipop. "Spare room?" Mary asked incredulously.
"No, Spare Limousine. Of course, woman, a spare room," Klipop answered. He was used to more fulsome welcomes than this.
"We do, yes," Mark said; he felt Mary ‘s warning grip on his arm, "but it's just a small bed, and not for both you and your --"
"Sophie, she stays at the hotel. I stay here."
"But, Mr. Von Klipop, the star guest room at the Hotel Biltlesse’s very --"
"Yes, is very nice, but it is without soul." he interrupted Mark, sliding off the car hood. The chauffeur looked up briefly to check whether his guest had scratched the paint with his shoes. Klipop went up to Mark and buttonholed him. "Besides," he reasoned, "I could not sleep. I wish to talk with you, late." Neither of the Medlis liked the sound of this, so they said nothing.
The famous conductor turned from them and looked at their tiny, 1930's, two-floored house. Its dinky modesty seemed to amuse him greatly. He walked up to the door, turned to them and beckoned, "Come," graciously inviting them into their own home.
"It's a small room, but the bed's okay," Mary said, with her hands put together tightly and leading Klipop into the Guest Room. She was doing the talking to save Mark the trouble. He had his hands full bringing the two large suitcases up a narrow staircase. "Anyway, it's not a bad place to sleep for a night," and she nudged her husband as he lumbered into the room, "is it, Mark?"
Mark ignored this.
Klipop looked over the old books on the windowsill, picking Alfred Einstein's Greatness In Music off the shelf immediately. He looked at the dowdy flowers on the wallpaper, the strange angle of the ceiling. "It is very cozy," he said. "Like the guest rooms I have to stay in, when I start conducting in the east of Germany. Do you know what is Heimat?"
"Let me see if I can describe. It used to be a place, but is now like a home. No, it is a feeling, difficult to explain in English ... "
"I'm afraid we won't be able to offer you much of a breakfast," Mary said.
"Not to worry. I call my wife and perhaps have the breakfast there when I go get her," Klipop said. There was an ancient phone near the bed. Mark winced when Klipop picked up the receiver, but on that occasion it behaved itself.
Mary was whispering to her husband as they walked down the stairs, "Why couldn't you suggest another hotel he could stay at?"
Mark shrugged, "if the Biltlesse isn't good enough for him, what around here is? Anyway, you know we can't afford to put up the Klipops at two expensive hotels."
"Suit yourself. I have to get up early and proofread the programs," she said, taking a floppy disc out of her bag. "You two can stay up all night and talk to your heart's content for all I care."
Mark nodded forlornly. He, too, was tired, and the half-bottle of wine was lulling him to sleep where he was standing. He thought to go into the kitchen and put on some hot water, but the only tea in the cupboard was decaffeinated.
He heard the sound of a phone decisively being slammed down on a receiver, and the heavy tread of a tall man descending the rickety staircase.
"My wife is all right," he said, coming into the kitchen as if it were his own. He nonchalantly picked up one of the figurines on the window and nearly dropped it. "She is fine wherever I put her; she is a sensible woman."
Mark stared at the teapot, not saying anything. Mary came into the kitchen, grabbed a cup off the sink's draining board and filled it with water from the fridge. "Well, I'm to bed, you two. Don't stay up too late." She turned to Klipop on her way out. "There's an extra blanket in the hall closet. We have a shower, but no bath. Goodnight." Her exit was as businesslike as her entrance.
"Tea?" Mark asked. Klipop shook his head. Mark automatically opened a cabinet door above the sink and took out a Cognac glass. "The liquor table is in the living room; I think we have some Courvoisier left." Klipop took the glass cheerily and left the room. There was a sound of clinking and pouring, and the older man called from there, "I envy you."
"Why?" Mark asked. He leaned on the open doorway; the door had been removed years ago.
"I have a beautiful house in Boston. I have a beautiful house in London. I have a beautiful apartment in Leipzig. But this," Klipop said, sweeping his hand around the small living room, "I do not have."
Mark was not terribly impressed with Klipop's attempt to level the two men. He answered, "Places like these are probably a dime a dozen to you, though they cost rather more to me."
Klipop slowly lowered his hand. Evidently the continental charm that got him through many a scrape in Vienna didn't work in Videntia. The kettle was beginning to boil, and Mark went back to turn it off.
"Maybe then I envy you because you have such small ambitions," Klipop called from the living room. Mark thought this over as he poured hot water into a homemade mug made by one of the players' husbands. He put this on a saucer, grabbed a bag of cookies from the kitchen table and walked into the tiny living room.
"They're not small ambitions," he answered. "They've just been circumscribed by time."
A dark glint came into Klipop's eye. "Did you ... want more?" He leaned forward in his chair.
"What I wanted in my early life I hardly remember now," Mark shot back as he sat down on the small sofa. This was a lie, and both men knew it. "Then again, maybe I just don't want to recall."
"This town is like a home to you."
Mark nodded. It was true.
"Boston is not a home," Klipop said, half to himself. His voice had dropped half an octave, and he seemed to be falling into a reverie.
"You jet-set all over the world," Mark observed. "That makes up for it, doesn't it?" But the older man was staring into his glass, frowning. He started to say quietly, "I once had a brother ..." but stopped. He gave Mark a slight look of suspicion, and changed the subject. He leaned back quickly, and the old easy-chair emitted a loud and ominous creak. Klipop looked around and said, "Your furniture is a cornucopia."
"Ten years of collecting," Mark admitted, "most of it at Garage Sales. I think you can guess a man's salary by looking at his living room."
"The house is not paid for?"
"It is. Well. Partly."
Klipop seemed to find this satisfactory. "Now listen," he said, attempting to be all business and leaning forward in his chair, "I watch you warm up the orchestra this morning with the players not yet awake. You wake them easily, and with good grace. You are good. Not very good, but good enough. I will see about the guest conducting -- once -- with my orchestra in Boston. On one condition: You must leave this place first."
Mark's heart leapt at the first part of Klipop's statement, and fell like a stone at the last part of it. "Leave here? I don't understand."
"My manager, Ronchev, is looking for young blood. You have waste some of your life. But younger than me you are. And this orchestra is good as a result of your hard work. You cannot do any more for them." He leaned back in his chair. "Although I certainly would like to do something for the young ladies in the orchestra. Very nizce."
Mark suppressed a wry smile. He was picturing Klipop pinching the orchestra's gorgeous harpist on his way onstage, and being violently slapped by her as he returned offstage. She had an angel's appearance, and an angel's righteous anger.
"And another t'ing," Klipop continued. "All these chamber groups that I hear that you allow to form in the orchestra. They are bad. You must not divide up your orchestra and allow them to re-integrate. This is inbreeding."
"Exactly. Inbreeding. Unhealthy."
"Actually, we're thinking of adding another chamber group. For children's concerts at schools."
"Children. Bah! What are children, but adults waiting to happen?" Klipop rubbed his hands together. "Anyway, they are not like your young girls in your orchestra. My goodness. What luscious milk-white shoulders and beautiful, pouting --"
Mark smiled and warned, "Be careful, sir. Those women can take care of themselves, and do; and not because they want to, but because they have to. Four women in our group are single mothers, and three of them work two jobs. God help you if you don't take them seriously."
"I am always serious. Germans always are. Even our jokes are not funny."
"So I've noticed. Still, I wish you'd give our little group some credit."
"Ohhh, but I do," Klipop said with condescension. "Extra credit, with teeny leetle golden stars for good behavior. Anything else?"
Mark played with the spoon in his mug of tea; he decided to find the courage to ask The Important Question.
"Seriously, sir: What do you really think of my orchestra?"
Klipop put his glass down, and leaned back in the easychair; he took a pause before he spoke. He brought his fingers together as if in prayer, and then tapped them against each other. He took so long, in fact, that Mark thought he wouldn't answer at all. He was obviously weighing his words carefully. Or appearing to, which to him was probably as important.
"Is a strange little group," he said at last. "Very strange. They are so amateur …at first. So when the music gets excited, I think, here we go, they will fall apart like the famous house of cards. But they do not fall apart after all. When they are excited they get better… This is not like most small orchestras at all. Most amateurs get worse when they excite. Your second violins, for instance. They are so warm, their sound, so very warm. Unusual. How do you get them so?"
"Well, I don't call them second violins, for one thing. I've always thought the title a bit degrading, and so we, uh, call them mezzo-violins."
Klipop sat up as if struck. "But that is brilliant. Mezzos … mezzos ... like sopranos, but not like. Deeper. Yes. Very good." And then, he pointed two fingers at Mark as in benediction: "Is so good that I steal!"
By this time, Mark was hardly surprised. "Please do. I'd like to see it used as common currency, or common courtesy. You'll find the only ones who object to the title are the first violins. Them, it irritates."
"You must always keep the first violins just a little irritated! Is good to irritate sections sometimes, for when you do Twentieth-Century music. And Beethoven."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"One more thing. Your clarinets. They sound so creamy. Yommy-yum!"
"Our clarinetists are a doctor and a lawyer in real life."
Klipop struck the arm of his chair with his fist. "This is their real life. Not their spending time in offices. You must tell them."
Mark smiled, "I really don't think they need telling."
He was about to add to this, when Klipop took out his watch with a military motion and whipped it in front of his face, put down his glass with a decisive bang, and got up to go to bed. At the foot of the stairs, he leaned over the banisters in a conspiratorial way and beckoned to Mark. "One more question I ask. About you. I haff watched you conduct this afternoon. You have talent. Not a lot, but some. Why do you west your time in this ugly, broke, rabbit-hotch of a city?"
Mark, asked this question before, had a ready answer. "To be brief: I like being with serious artists who are serious artists for a living. And this may well be the last city in America where they can afford the rents to do that."
Klipop shook his head in disbelief, and took one step up the stairs.
Then he turned on Mark at the foot of the stairs, his face stern. He set his face close to the younger man's. His eyes seemed to dive into Mark's, examining him, as if he was looking for something he could use. After searching and seemingly finding nothing, one half of his face gave the briefest of smiles, and with a dismissive wave of the hand, he hopped up the stairs to bed.
Disturbed after this mental probing, Mark turned, lost in thought. He surveyed the living room, as if seeing it for the first time.
It wasn't an impressive sight. The furniture was bought used, and looked faintly Germanic: it looked like it had been unloaded by an Austrian ski-lodge after years of abuse by Overly Hearty Guests. The sofa's seediness seemed aggressive – by now Mark knew which parts you avoided for springs that hit you in the back. The lamps looked like they came out of newspaper ads a century old. Even the rugs seemed to scream, throw us out. Now.
He suddenly felt a rising sense of self-loathing in his stomach; that his life had been one long exercise in futility. He fought to quell the rising despair.
"Well," he muttered. If there was anything else that could be said, he couldn't think of what it might be. He sighed, mechanically turned out the lights, and climbed the stairs with a heavy tread. He was surprised to hear snoring already coming from the guest room. It was loud. Unceasing. And perfectly rhythmical.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.