The Magic Quill #169: Bernie Landstein

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Dragonic
Runner-up: TWZRD

The rehearsal of the Blastburn Philharmonic was not going well even before the guest conductor called a 30-minute break and stormed offstage, muttering and clutching his head. The musicians dispersed, some to take a nap in the green room, some to have a smoke outside the stage door, a few to throw back a quick drink at the pub around the corner. Two or three viola players (it was never easy to tell for sure) stayed onstage, trying to get their instruments in tune. The stage manager loitered near the snack machine, unable to decide between a vacuum-packed sandwich and a bag of crisps. The horn players played a quick hand of rummy. The backup conductor, whose primary income came from a secondary school teaching job, put his feet up in the sound booth and began correcting a stack of algebra papers.

So no one observed the purple light that flashed from under the door of the guest conductor’s dressing room. No one heard the muffled “whuff” sound caused by a stunning spell; nor, if they had, would they have been able to identify it as such. No one even noticed the thud of Bernie Landstein’s body collapsing on the floor. Even the fact that the maestro kept the orchestra waiting ten minutes past the end of the break did not raise much concern. The violas were still trying to get tuned. The piccolo player was having a case of hiccoughs. One of the horn players, who had a habit of cheating at cards, was still applying direct pressure to a nosebleed when Landstein reascended the podium.

The musicians’ chatter and practice riffs gradually died. This, in itself, would prove to be the first sign that something unusual had happened to their conductor – when the players had leisure to think back on it. Bernie Landstein was usually such a commanding presence. For a few moments, however, he seemed reluctant to assert control of the situation. He seemed, in fact, to fade gradually into visibility – though he had walked quite openly out of the wings.

Just before silence fell, one of the oboists muttered: “My, Bernard, but what a big baton you have!”

“All the better,” Landstein purred, “to beat… er, time with.”

“Black and blue,” a horn player mouthed behind the bell of his horn.

“Let’s pick it up,” the conductor said, scanning the score with what momentarily looked like a glance of desperation, “at Rehearsal Number 61. A-one, a-two, a-one two three…”

The musicians gamely plunged into an extremely brisk march, which caught them off guard because the passage in question was usually played as a graceful lament.

“Keep it together, trombones,” the conductor said, much to the confusion of the clarinettists he was looking at. “Look alive, there, timpani,” he added in the direction of the xylophone player. “No, no, no! That’s an A-flat!” The cellists looked at each other, wondering what clef the conductor was reading. “All right, stop! Yes, Mister… er…”

“Frogbourne,” the concertmaster piped up. “Just a question, sir. Do you want us to hold the crotchet in bar 211 for its full value?”

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Landstein exclaimed, looking deeply affronted. “Any other questions?”

Another musician put her hand up and said, “Would you like the bassoons to double the basses in bars 198 to 206?”

“What does the score say, Miss…”

“Boing,” said the bassoonist.

The maestro rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Boing? Where does it say Boing?”

“The name is Boing,” said Miss Boing. “The score says como sardini, avido, senza ginocchia…”

“And that means…?”

“Er… like sardines, greedily, without knees?”

“Exactly!” the maestro cried triumphantly. “Therefore, the answer to your question is…?”

Miss Boing hung her head. “No, I guess.”

“At last, we are communicating. Mr. Cheesedanish?”

“Hasenpfeffer, Herr Direktor.”

“Yes, yes, what is it?”

“Your score is on fire, sir.”

“Oh, dear! How did that…”

“A spark from your baton, sir…”

“But that’s…” Bernie Landstein looked at the stick in his hand and suddenly giggled: a sound no one had ever heard him make before. “Well, how silly of me. Agua.”

The baton squirted water at the singed sheet music, dousing the flames with a hiss of steam.

“Whoops-a-daisy,” said Mr. Landstein. “I seem to have picked up somebody’s joke w-… that is, baton. Carry on, then, from Molto moderato assai ma non troppo, with feeling now!”

The next portion of the rehearsal was, if at all possible, even more chaotic. While Bernie Landstein, eyes closed with rapture, waved his baton in a broad, swinging 6/8 time, the orchestra struggled to reconcile his gesture with a rigorous passage in 2/2. “That’s the ticket,” he said, oblivious to the fact that one of the bassists – a dumpy, pock-marked creature with curlers in her hair – was struggling to drag her instrument through the middle of the orchestra and colliding with two out of three musicians in her way.

“I say, there, Madrigal dear,” Bernie Landstein said, opening his eyes and looking straight at her.

The ugly bassist froze in her tracks. The music, like the baton, went on.

“Your solo isn’t until the next movement,” said the jovial, dissolute face under its swirl of prematurely gray hair. His eyes, however, locked on hers with a steely force that, for once, reminded the band of the conductor they knew and hated.

“I’m just going to fetch some rosin,” the bassist said in a demure yet gravelly voice.

“I’m sure the… er, cello section here would be delighted to lend you some,” said the maestro, sweeping his baton in the direction of – rather surprisingly – the cello section. The tip of the baton emitted a puff of smoke, at which the principal cellist faltered.

“What did he call her?” one flautist asked another, audibly, during a rest in their part.

“Madrigal,” said the second flautist.

“That’s funny,” said the oboist, regardless of a solo he was supposed to be playing. “I thought her name was Erwinia Mizenboom.”

“She and the maestro must have a special relationship,” hissed the harpist, from two rows away.

“Enough chatter,” Bernie chided. “Madrigal, love, do resume your seat.”

The ugly bassist dithered, looking longingly toward the exit.

“Don’t make me point my baton at you,” the maestro added meaningfully. Grape pips began to fall out of the wand as he said this, forming a heap around the podium. He didn’t bother stopping this unusual manifestation until one of the pips ricocheted over the viola section and struck Miss Boing above the eye. “I beg your pardon,” he said in an unapologetic tone. “Keep up, people! Where are the cymbals? I wanted a cymbal crash there!”

“But maestro,” someone hissed, “this passage is marked pianissimo!”

“Don’t correct me!” Bernie Landstein exploded, his arms waving more furiously than ever.

“It really is him,” the concertmaster whispered to his assistant principal. “I was starting to wonder if we had an impostor.”

“Terrible! terrible!” the maestro screamed, waving the whole band to a stop. “That’s enough existential horror for one day. Come back tomorrow, if you can remember how to play by then!”

“But maestro,” the bassoonist bravely urged, “our concert is tonight!”

“Get out of my sight!” Landstein screamed. “You – Madrigal, there – stay put. We shall have a private rehearsal, just the two of us.”

The bass player gulped, her eyes darting toward all the exits.

Some time later, the bass player walked very stiffly out the stage door, her hand on the guest conductor’s arm. She appeared to be trying to resist his lead, but she could not let go of him. He heaved her toward his car – a black AC Frua with mirror-tinted windows.

“My instrument will never fit,” the gravelly voice said in a tone of desperation.

“Nonsense,” said the maestro. “It’ll go in the boot.” He waved his baton at the car, and the rear door popped up. Some cars have glove compartments larger than the Frua’s trunk, but with a bit of coaxing from Bernie Landstein’s baton (or rather, wand), the huge bass violin sank right into it.

Madrigal began to tremble as Landstein opened the left-hand door and pushed her down into the car. The door snapped shut behind her. He walked round and got in on the right-hand side, put the key in the starter, fastened his safety-belt… and suddenly threw himself face-forward against the steering column. And again. And a third time. Unconscious, Bernie Landstein sagged against the restraining belt.

The arms that had reached out of the sides of the driver’s seat relaxed their grip on the conductor. One of them patted the shoulder of the frightened hag in the left-hand seat. The neck-rest turned toward her and smiled. “It’s all right now,” the car seat said reassuringly. “I’ve taken custody of Mr. Shore here. Or rather, Mr. Noir. Are you all right?”

Madrigal made a strangled noise.

“The name’s Albuquerque,” said the driver’s seat, offering to shake her hand. “Joe Albuquerque, RMB. You must be Madrigal. I’ve been tracking this one, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped to talk with you, too. Don’t worry — ” He added this, seaing the hag was about to bolt from the car. “I won’t stop you if you want to run. It’s just that I know somebody who, in my opinion, is overdue for a nightmare. You wouldn’t know anyone who could supply one?”

Madrigal left off trying to batter the door open. “Maybe,” she admitted.

“Excellent,” said Joe Albuquerque, pulling a card out of a pocket in his upholstery. “Here’s the name and address. Scream for me if you need any assistance. I’ll be within earshot from half midnight until dawn. Can you read that all right?”

“H. H. Harvey, Esquire,” the hag read with painstakingly precise diction. “The Drains, Suite Number…”

“Fine, fine,” said the seat. “You may go now. Don’t forget your instrument.”

+++ Double Challenge for TMQ #171 +++

You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! Simply leave a brief comment (up to 150 words) answering the Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next.

SURVEY: What gift from way back in Chapter 141 should Merlin use next? (A) Karl’s survival satchel. (B) Another dose of Endora’s Liquid Skill. (C) Subito’s Turbo Gum. (D) Boccachiusa’s Peekaboo Kit.

CONTEST: Propose an entertaining alternate definition of a word or phrase, preferably with a touch of magic in the meaning.