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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 5
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Sam Staid and The Case Fantastique
Dashiell Chandler

 

It was a cold, dark night with a granular fog that had rolled into the Bay area a week ago about dinner time and stayed like Monty Woolley. The fog thins in the afternoon and thickens 'round midnight and it was nearly a stew by the time I'd got back to my office in The Beaux Arts building, a seedy dump that had provided professional offices before decades of downward drift placed it squat in the middle of the "adult entertainment zone." Now home to assorted siding scammers and deck swindlers, The Beaux Arts was where the booking agents for local club bands and hootchie cootch dancers rented space. Me, I liked the irony. At midnight it was dark and empty, except for the charwomen who kept it from descending into a genuine slum. In my usual haze, I found the door lettered "Samuel L. Staid/Private Investigator." I let myself in and switched on the lights, half expecting to find Essie asleep on the sofa. I hung my wet raincoat and hat on the clothes tree in the corner. As seen from the rear, it reminded me of my one-time partner, Myles Archer.

Where Essie usually sat there was now a fax machine, a telephone answering machine, a computer, a TV monitor, a keyboard, a pair of tiny loudspeakers, and a scanner. I felt like the old bebop songbird who went to the recording studio for a nostalgia gig. It was explained to her all she need do was play the tune (say, "I'll Remember April") on the keyboard synth, then punch in rhythm (say, samba), then tempo in metronome count (60), and key (say, B flat). The computer would work out an arrangement and tell the drums machine and the bass synth what to do. Nonplussed, the singer turned to the A&R man and said, "If the computer works out the arrangement, plays the keyboards, bass and drums... then who do I sleep with?"

Badabing, badaboom.

On foggy nights like these I really missed that girl. But, since I was a one man show now, a lone wolf, a rogue knight, I figured I oughtta go through the motions anyway.

"O.K., sweetheart," I said perfunctorily to the row of machines that had replaced Essie as I sat myself in my army surplus oaken desk-chair. "What've you got for me?" On the panel that read "Messages" I punched a little button and an LED indicator registered a big, fat zero. Great start. I flipped on my standard, big, obsolete desktop computer and after a while a vapid cheery voice told me, "You've Got Mail." There was one lone message there from Iva Hankering@tabu.com. It said, through little phosphors that lit up on the cathode ray tube, "Dear Sam, Hope you can help us with this mystery." She, of the new-money Hankerings (who'd only recently intermarried with the old-money Pickerings), no doubt. What mystery?

I was at a loss. Certainly, Iva Hankering was a pseudonym: but for whom? One of the strippers that wandered in and out of the booking offices on my floor? They all had great pseudonyms. "Candi Barr," "Tempest Storm," "M'Aimeé Eisenhauer," "Jaquie Oh!" and "Simi Busch." Tabu was something, but what? They had their own site. I went to the appropriate directories and figured out Tabu was a record label, a specialized-niche, mail-order outfit that featured boudoir and striptease-routine music. Never having heard any of their offerings, I could only imagine. "Night Train," Bump and grind; slow gri-eye-yeiynd, quick bump, bump, bump. Badabing, badaboom, boom, boom. You get it. And with a little more computer searching, I found Tabu was part of Fin de Siecle productions (mauve and gold logo), a holding company that posed as an independent but was part of the Five Majors. The pieces were coming together. "The Mystery" had something to do with the usual suspects. But who were the usual suspects? And what was the mystery? Indeed, this was a job for a subtle mind. This was a job for Samuel L. Staid, Private Eye.

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I hadn't checked my snail-mail, so I went through the box on the inside of the door. Among the usual promotions for video surveillance equipment and undetectable telephone bugs, insurance plans and graveyard plots, I found a blister envelope that held two CDs. They were: Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique; Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble (Altesheis,1983), Sir Bernhard Gøøgle (pere) conducting (the cover art unfortunately accenting his hyperthyroid Peter Lorré eyes); and, another of the variorum version (Altesheis, 2003), by the same Ensemble, Bernhard Gennady Gøøgle (fils) conducting, with Karlheinz "Dizzy" Wöbish, cornet. There was also a note: "What do you make of the second movements?" This sent me to my locked horizontal file cabinet, where I kept my portable CD player, my dedicated tube amp, and my electrostatic headphones (and my 90 year old Rye whiskey) locked away. I set up quickly and listened to the two second movements. The playing seemed pretty close, though I could hear improvements in the recording technology. Twenty years does make a difference! There was a trumpet, or, more precisely, a cornet part, though it was so far down in the mix you'd hardly call it a major difference.

The earlier one was dark and somewhat mysterious, a waltz in tempo and rondo-like in form, featuring two harps, but a waltz nonetheless. Valse Triste et Mysterieuse? Who and why would anyone send me this? I asked myself. The later one, featuring the characterful cornet, had more of a carnival feeling to it. The cornet was the only difference, but what a difference a horn makes. Imagine the "Carnival Of Venice" written for anything but a trumpet or cornet! Certainly, it was not for solo piano, or cello. I don't know much about music, but I know good from bad.

Then I noticed the cover photo of Dizzy's black anodized cornet. The Black Horn! Of a sudden, I could hear the pieces clicking into place. I had read about such a horn, Le Cor Noir, designed by Edgar the Bruce, the famed Scottish goldsmith who was taken on the Crusades. He alone could camouflage the stones appropriated by the Crusaders into an object no one would suspect to be made of gold, and encrust them with fabulous gems, diamonds and rubies. He set up shop every time the crusaders sacked a town while en route back to Malta with the Knights Templar. In his makeshift shop he would forge beautiful objects, coat them in lead to make them look ordinary, to hide the fabulous wealth they actually contained, then paint them black. Dizzy was always having new horns made with somewhat smaller or larger bore to accentuate the "brilliance" or "mellow" register of his ax. He wound up with one that pointed the horn's bell up forty-five degrees, the better to project his sound when unamplified. In theory, could be: in practice it projected a suggestive rakish angle. Maybe these harmless CDs would be the beginning of an adventure with a big payoff. I poured myself a shot of Old Overholt from a treasured bottle I kept in my file cabinet, lit a cigarette, and wondered. What was going on?

I dozed off at my desk, in the seated position, with my headphones in place. I thought the swirling music of the waltz was still in my head, like an ideé fixé, until I realized I had isolated the second movement and left my CD player on repeat play. Some time later, as I gradually pulled everything into focus, I saw my Regulator clock pointing toward noon. I noticed foggy daylight had moved from medium gray to a lighter shade of pale. And I heard a rapping, a gentle tapping on my office door. "It's open," I shouted. She let herself in.

She scudded across the receiving room into my office within a cloud of very expensive perfume. Scurrying to put my audio gear into the file cabinet from whence it came, sidling laterally, like a Chesapeake Bay blue crab, I couldn't help but look at her. She stood like a dream; an apparition made flesh, her universal face peering out at me from under a wide-brimmed hat trimmed out in red fox fur that matched the collar of her designer raincoat. She stared at me brazenly, sizing me up as some—usually older—women do. She was taller than I was in her imported alligator heels, and I'm six feet. Her height and her bearing allowed her to carry her plain, long-line raincoat regally, like a queen, or at least a fashion model. She was a redhead, with emerald green eyes surrounded by naturally occurring long lashes, and little makeup. Maybe this was Iva Hankering?!?

I was just a tad less than paralyzed as I stood there staring, open-mouthed, wrinkled, unshaven, smelling of booze and cigarettes. She caught me gawking. I handed her a magazine and disappeared into the powder room off my office, where I did a quick morning routine and came out smelling of mouthwash, hair gel, and after-shave lotion. My Rye-soaked brain cells tried to catch up. I stalled for time.

There are redheads and there are redheads. There is the cute little freckle-faced redhead who has fluttery moves, makes infantile sounds with her voice and lips, looks a little like Cissy Spacek, and who likes bright "Pro" sound ‘cuz she's been told she sings like Loretta Lynn. Then there is the larger than life Buffalo Girl redhead who arches her back at you and dares you to stare at her boobs, whose voice is contralto, and likes her sound system to sound similarly deep and plumy. Her views on men are very egalitarian, she likes guys who rise to the challenge and say, "Won't you come out tonight": stock clerk or stock broker, it's O.K. with her. Looking something like a well-upholstered Rhonda Flemming, she seldom wanted for escorts.

Then there's the redheaded ingénue who can't understand how she's gotten herself into such a fix, but is ever so grateful that you've come, like a white knight on his charger, to help her, a damsel in distress. She looks away, then up at you with her littlest little girl look, her Julianne Moore face pleading, biting on her under lip like a disingenuous ex-president. She catches you unaware with her baby blues, fixing you in her gaze, imploring without a word. You feel yourself being drawn in, swirling down and down, ‘round and ‘round. She's good, real good at working that old black magic. She's used to getting her way. You feel yourself going over, until you figure that she rehearses that move in her three-way mirror, and she'll use it for the next thirty or forty years. She has a very subtle sound system in her apartment, but she is willing to trade up to subtler. By the time she's thirty five she'll have the speakers in the ceiling, with a music library targeted at various niche listeners. Do you remember Bread? "I'd give up everything that I own to have you back again?"

There is the ditzy Lucille Ball type redhead who's got great legs and a butt that looks so fine in or out of clothes, who was the Homecoming Queen at both high school and college weekends. She's a genuinely funny gal, the type who can play any situation for a laugh, except the hollowness she feels inside that's got her being a multiple substance abuser for the last ten years. She's so wrapped up in herself she only listens on headphones. She's so hung up in her bad love affairs, she doesn't know the only successful relationship she's ever had ... has been with herself.

There is the athletic redhead who jogs and plays tournament level tennis, holds a purple belt in karate and can kick the butt of any unsuspecting jerk who tries to get animal on her. She looks something like Amy Madigan, calls you "pal," and wants to be "buddies." She also has the discipline to have maintained a training regimen year round while she studied for her MBA. And she's a Vegan. She's got a no frills surround sound rig she bought on sale at "Cheapest Guy In Town" Mad Max's discount house out off the Interstate. Hiding the unsightly black boxes, she's placed the satellites behind her beige velvet drapes, which takes the edge off the highs. Without trying she's stumbled into passably good sound. Clever and resourceful. All you want from her is to rub bellies.

Then there's the ethereal redhead, beautiful as your favorite model – she has the young looking face deemed universally beautiful in all cultures – but wants to be accepted for her mind. Half Irish skin of peaches and cream, half Slavic eyes of yellow-green; she's always reading something impossible for ordinary mortals (Haiku in Japanese, Dante in the original, or the Provençal Poets in Old French, something), and asking you if you've heard the monophonic recording of a Russian ballet as performed by the Bolshoy Orchestra, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. She knows long sections of The Canterbury Tales by heart in Middle English and recites them when tipsy, but laughs when you flatter her accent: "If I were ever in a time-warp, and dropped into Chaucer's presence, he'd know by my diphthongs that I'm from Philadelphia." She also knows whole sections of Gilbert & Sullivan, and, if you're lucky, the Kama Sutra which she'll teach you if you can make love and read an ancient wedding-night manual at the same time. She'll give you lessons while her father's old Marantz tube amps pump sitar music through her electrostatics. She has a stick of sandalwood incense burning before each of her Quads to further cloud men's minds, as if she needed it.

Finally, there is the drop-dead gorgeous show piece who will marry (and divorce) three self-made millionaires by the time she's thirty, and parlay them into even more important, richer inherited wealth billionaires by the time she is forty, picking up incredible settlements along the way. Each of her ex-husbands, when interviewed by Forbes magazine, will describe their brief marriages as "the happiest years of my life" and consider it money well spent. She knows a thing or two about men, stuff she must have learned in diapers. She's already been disillusioned by her PipeDreams/Krell/Burmester system (Husband IV bought it as an engagement gift when she admired it in passing, at the CES show in vasel Vegas), and she's waiting for the next step in the technology. Perhaps that'll be supplied by a big-time audio dealer she might wink at. She looks something like the young Rita Hayworth, only better, way better, and she always wears long Kislet gloves. Ah, to be a glove upon that hand.

As I stood there, gawking at this real-life redhead, trying to figure out which version of redhead she was likely to be, she handed me her engraved (and scented, natch) calling card. "Harriet Smithson," it read. Related to the Smithson of the Smithsonian Institution? I wondered until I remembered James Smithson died a bachelor. Since I always figured the best defense is a good offense, I said to her, "Honey, did anyone ever tell you that with all that fur around your face you look like ‘Nanook of the North?'"

"Oh Sam Staid, you are a card. I've heard about you, that one never knows what you'll say or do. You are so, so unpredictable." She read her lines flawlessly, like Vivienne Leigh masquerading as an ingenue; just the right lilt.

"And you, Miss Smithson, are such a charmer I'm just melting away," I said letting her know I wasn't going to play her game. "Enough of the Hollywood dialogue, Eskimo Pie. What's the deal?"

"Well, Mr. Staid, as you so directly put it," now hardboiled backatcha. "The deal is the missing Trumpet Solo Part."

"Miss Smithson, as you so beautifully put it, ‘the missing Trumpet Solo Part.' Just what missing Trumpet Solo Part is that? Pray tell!"

"Why the Trumpet Part to my Great, great, great grandfather Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. That's ‘what' Trumpet part."

"Are you telling me I'm some kind of a barbarian because I don't know that. I knew that. I really did. I knew that."

A pause.

She looked me in my bloodshots with her emeralds. Can I get away with a joke? No, too weak, I thought. Time is ticking. A learnëd comment to a music critic? I'd be out of my league.

Just now, as she has me pegged for a bluff, I say, with my most awful schoolboy French accent; "Un Bal. Second Movement. The Waltz." Her eyes widen. She looks me up and down again. I don't need to pretend to be stiff, after sleeping in my desk chair since dawn. I yawn and stretch, flexing the small of my back with my palms, elbows akimbo. This moves my hips slightly forward. An almost immeasurable pelvic thrust. Her eyes widen.

She's measuring me. She walks up to my clothes tree that just now resembles Myles on the lam. She wriggles out of her raincoat, all shoulders, and hat and drapes them opposite Myles, making a couple of our garments. She plumps up the two of them, as if to get the water to run off, but actually to push their centers together, keeping her greens on my pinks. She flops her hair down in front of her face, and then flips it back over her head, as if had been wet. It is a gesture she learned watching the old movie channel. She straightens herself inside her matching heather green cashmere skirt and sweater, a green that serves as a complement to her eyes, a contrast to her hair, like a pastel mat might do for a water color. Just now she's doing something vaguely suggestive with her hands, picking imaginary bits of lint off her bosom. Lint doesn't collect on girls like Harriet Smithson for very long. She smiles, knowingly, when she catches me admiring her.

"Of course not a barbarian, Mr. Staid. You actually know the Fantastique! You are unpredictable." I'm catching a scent of excitement mixed in with her perfume.

"May I call you Sam?"

I nodded.

"Allow me to explain?"

I nodded.

"Good."

She then went on to tell me the most fantastique tale. She was born Brigette O'Shaunessy, and in her music appreciation class at Swarthmore College she learned of Hector Berlioz's famed symphony and that it was written to win the hand of the fair Harriet Smithson. After a while she noticed that many of her cousins were redheads named Hector and Harriet, and that some had the middle name Smithson. She had the Irish branch of her family tree checked, and indeed it became clear she was a direct descendant of a child of the Hector Berlioz and Harriet Smithson marriage, back in the 1830s. She then had her name legally changed to honor Harriet Smithson, her ancestor.

Her family eventually migrated to the U.S. from France three or four generations later, after World War I and the raid on the French franc destroyed their finances. Three generations later, when (after J-School in New York) she found herself music critic for the local paper, The Picayune Times Intelligencer, she was invited to attend the recording sessions of the local symphony's performance of her family's contribution to the History of Western Music, the first truly Romantic symphony, her Great, great, great grand-daddy's Symphonie Fantastique.

At the first rehearsal there was much made of the "trumpet part." Should it or should it not be included in this performance? Factions arose. First, was this "solo trumpet part" authentic? The conductor, Zbiginiew Portzrebie, had the original pages of the autograph manuscript flown over, on loan, from the Louvre. There was also a letter from Berlioz to his favorite cornetist, one Pierre "Sâtchmö" André, to substantiate this claim. Others, who granted the authenticity of the provenance, were unenthusiastic about the part, citing the exclusion of it from 90% of the contemporary recordings on the grounds the cornet part is not much in service of the larger work. It removed a certain tang of unresolved harmonic suspensions much like those in the rest of the work, and substituted a less refined "Carnival of Venice" folk-flavor, they held. The telling argument was this: while it is without doubt that Berlioz wrote the part after his initial publication of the score, it was never reproduced by him in any full score of the work published in his lifetime.

Anyhow, the envelope with both the score (two pages) and the letter to "Sâtchmö" André (one page), had been purloined. While these documents had little inherent value of their own, they represented a small fortune to be had on the collector's market. While an authenticated letter from Berlioz to "Sâtchmö" might bring hundreds of $Ks: the signed printer's proof, one of a kind in the world, might bring God only really knows on the market of demi-monde forgers and collectors – certainly considerably more. Miss Smithson, as the only direct heir to the Berlioz estate had made herself executrix, and she wanted to recover these documents, on the QT, and have them returned to the Louvre, where her name would be inscribed on a plaque beneath their display. This would be a bit of light housekeeping: no dangerous fat man to dance with, no cops to outwit. It was probably just some sticky-fingered musician to shake down. Indeed, this was a job for Sam Staid, Private Eye.

Little did I know…

To be continued!

©Charles Hollander, Copyright, 2003

 

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