Sent to the Devil: New Excerpt

Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow mixes opera and intrigue as Court Poet Lorenzo Da Ponte's friend is murdered with strange symbols carved into his head, and Da Ponte must solve the riddle before he's the next victim (Available April 5, 2016). 

In 1788 Vienna, Court Poet Lorenzo Da Ponte is putting some finishing touches on the libretto for the premiere of his new opera with Mozart, Don Giovanni. A huge success when it debuted in Prague, the Emperor has decreed that it shall be performed in Vienna. But Joseph II is off prosecuting a less-than-popular war against the Turks, and the city itself is in a bit of turmoil. There are voices protesting the war, others who see Turks around every corner.

Da Ponte, however, just wants to do his work and enjoy life. Alas, these simple desires aren't to be easily fulfilled. First, he's been getting a series of mysterious coded notes from unknown hands, notes that make no sense to him. Then his old friend Alois, a retired priest and academic, is viciously murdered and strange symbols carved into his forehead. Summoned to the police bureau, Da Ponte learns that Alois's murder was not the first. Determined to help find his friend's killer, Da Ponte agrees to help with the secret investigation.

Caught in a crossfire of intrigue both in the world of opera and politics, Da Ponte must find the answer to a riddle and expose a killer before he becomes the next victim.

PART I

A Solemn Oath

One

Monday, April 14, 1788

The second message was waiting on my desk when I arrived at my office.

The cheap paper had been hastily folded, sealed with a messy blob of wax, and its front scrawled with the words “Lorenzo Da Ponte, Court Theater.” I turned it over in my hands. There were no marks on the outside to show that the letter had traveled through the postal system, and no insignia pressed into the wax to identify the sender. I went to my cupboard, placed the note on a high shelf, returned to my desk, and pulled out the aria I had been writing. I had no time this morning for the game my mysterious correspondent insisted on playing.

I’d been working night and day for the last nine months. I am the poet of the Court Theater in Vienna, where I am responsible for editing all of the librettos—the texts—and coordinating the productions of operas performed there. I augment my salary by taking on commissions to write librettos myself, and last fall I had written three at the same time, one for each of the city’s top composers. The opera I had written for my friend Wolfgang Mozart, Don Giovanni, had debuted in Prague six months ago, and had been a big hit there. There was no rest for us after our triumph, however, because soon after, Emperor Joseph II had ordered a performance of the opera here in Vienna. Mozart and I were busy adapting our work to the more sophisticated tastes of the imperial capital. And onceDon Giovanni premiered in May, I had commissions for several more librettos. I was tired. Sometimes I wished that I’d been born a Viennese nobleman, instead of a leatherworker’s son from the Veneto who had to work for a living.

But although I was overworked, I had to admit that I was happy with my life in Vienna. I loved my job, and had achieved professional recognition for my talents. I treasured my relationship with the emperor, who had supported me from the very first day he had appointed me to my post. I had a small circle of friends with whom I could discuss literature, art, and music. And lately, I had even returned to writing my own poetry, which was my first love.

When I had edited the aria to my satisfaction, I put it into my satchel. My stomach grumbled as I pulled my watch from my waistcoat pocket. Half past one already! I had an appointment for dinner at two. I closed my satchel and went to the cupboard, where I pulled on my cloak. My eyes went to the high shelf. I sighed, grabbed the message and shoved it into my cloak pocket.

*   *   *

Outside in the Michaelerplatz—the gateway to the Hofburg, the large complex of buildings that housed the imperial government and the emperor’s personal apartments—small groups of newly inducted soldiers in crisp, shiny uniforms stood under the leaden sky laughing and teasing one another, their smooth faces flushed with excitement. In the Kohlmarkt, I stopped and peeled off my cloak. The spring weather had been unseasonably balmy for a week now.

At the end of the Kohlmarkt, a small crowd had gathered to watch two laborers bang a large board over the entrance of one of the city’s most popular print shops. A large painted sign indicated that it had been closed by the Ministry of Police. The once-free presses of Vienna must now be cautious about what they printed, or suffer the fate of this one. I hurried by. I had had my own encounter with the Ministry of Police two years before, and now tried to avoid trouble whenever possible.

I turned into the Graben. As late as last autumn, the large plaza had been the place to see and be seen for Viennese society, but as the snows of winter melted and the emperor and his troops marched off to war, the large expanse had lost its frivolous air. Instead of promenading down the plaza and stopping to chat with friends, people now hurried to their destinations, greeting one another with nothing but a quick nod.

“We are the aggressors in this war, not the Turks!” Ahead of me, a young man stood on an upended crate at the base of the elaborate plague column that dominated the middle of the Graben. A few shoppers and workmen were gathered around one side of the monument’s enormous plinth, which was decorated with sculptures symbolizing the triumph of faith over disease. I stopped at the back of the group, nodding at a square-jawed man in his early thirties who leaned on an ornate stick next to me.

“Our ally Russia is to blame!” the young man shouted. His features were handsome, but his long hair was tangled and his beard unkempt. He wore a threadbare coat over breeches that were torn at both knees.

“That’s nonsense!”

I started as the man next to me called to the protester.

“Read the papers. The Turks have been stocking arms since the Crimean crisis. They are stirring up the peoples in the Caucasus against Russia.”

“The Turks are just trying to defend themselves, sir,” the orator replied. “Russia provoked them. The emperor was a fool to sign a treaty with—”

My neighbor snorted. “The Turks declared war first!” he shouted. “You are the fool! How can you believe they are an innocent party?”

A group of market women had stopped to watch the argument.

“They had to declare war. They had to defend themselves before Russia’s army grouped along their borders—”

“If the Turks are just defending themselves, as you say, why did they refuse offers by France and Britain to mediate their dispute with Russia?” my neighbor asked.

The war protester turned to the newcomers in the crowd. “Friends, you look like solid citizens of the empire. Do you want your fathers, your sons, your brothers to give their lives for Catherine of Russia’s expansionist policies?”

“No!” a middle-aged woman holding the hand of a young child shouted.

The man left my side and, using his stick for aid, pushed his way to the front of the crowd. His twisted right leg dragged behind him. “Russia is not our enemy,” he shouted at the orator. “You are young and naïve. We need Catherine’s help in keeping the Prussians away from our own borders!”

Two constables approached the assembly. “Everyone move along,” one shouted. The market women turned away.

“We should also have France as an ally against Prussia.” The orator looked down at the crippled man. “The French carry on a large trade with the Turks. By declaring war against the Ottoman Empire, Joseph has alienated the French.”

As the constables continued to press, the group broke up. I lingered as the angry man moved close to the orator’s box. The protester shouted to the backs of the dispersing crowd. “Think of the lives lost already! Our men sitting in that swamp in Semlin waiting for the Russians to distract the Turks in Galicia before we can invade their garrison in Belgrade. How many of our boys will die of disease as the weather gets hotter?”

“That’s Turkish propaganda!” The crippled man shook his fist. “Joseph will be taking Belgrade any day now! The Turks will surrender. Everyone knows how bad morale is in their army. Our boys will be home before the end of summer.”

“How many will never come home?” The young protester looked the man up and down, taking in his dress suit and elegant stick. “It is easy for you to speak in favor of sending them to their deaths, while you sit at home, comfortable in your palace.”

“You insolent swine! How dare you speak to me like that!”

I watched, astonished, as the man raised his stick and swung it at the orator. The young man ducked and fell off the crate. He sprawled on the ground against the low balustrade that surrounded the monument.

“Hey now, stop that, sir.” One of the constables grabbed the assailant’s arm.

“Let go of me!” the man said, his face red with anger. “I am Baron Walther Hennen. I’ll report you to your superior officer.”

The constable withdrew his hand.

Hennen glared at the orator. “As for you—you are one to speak about avoiding service in the war. I know who you are. You had better be careful, or you’ll end up in Semlin before you know it.” He turned and limped angrily in the direction of St. Peter’s Church.

I continued on toward the Stephansplatz. I wasn’t sure what to think about this war. I was not a native Austrian, so I had no emotional connection to the hostilities. But I worried that a prolonged war could affect my life here in Vienna, especially my position at the theater. When the emperor had left a few weeks ago to join the troops at Semlin, he had ordered the city theaters to remain open. If the war dragged on, though, that situation could change, and I might be out of a job. But I knew the emperor well, and I respected his wisdom and trusted his judgment. If he felt it was necessary to support the empress of Russia in her war against the Turks, who was I to question him? I just hoped the Turks could be defeated quickly.

In the Stephansplatz, the buildings were draped in black bunting, as were the main doors of the great cathedral. A funeral mass had been held yesterday for General Peter Albrechts, a hero in the late empress’s war thirty years ago. I had not attended, but I had heard that the crowd of mourners had spilled out of the cathedral.

I walked by the west portal of the cathedral and crossed the small side plaza to a nondescript office building. I climbed four flights of stairs, made my way down a small corridor to the office at its end, and poked my head in the open door.

“Alois?”

“Lorenzo!” Alois Bayer rose from his desk. “I was beginning to worry that I had my dates confused.”

“I’m sorry. I was held up by a disturbance in the Graben,” I explained as I gently returned his embrace. My elderly friend was growing more fragile every time I saw him. “That young man who is always protesting against the war—he and a bystander almost came to blows.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No, some constables broke up the fight before any violence occurred,” I said. I settled into the chair next to Alois’s desk and looked around the familiar space. Books were piled on every free surface. I took a deep breath and inhaled one of my favorite smells—the scent of old books punctuated by a slight trace of the peppermint drops Alois ate constantly. A thin straw-filled pallet lay on the floor behind the desk. I frowned. “What is that? Are you sleeping here now? What happened to your room over in the Wollzeile?”

Alois shrugged. “The cathedral needed it for one of the new priests. I don’t mind it here. It gives me more time to study.”

I opened my mouth to object, but closed it as the red tinge of embarrassment spread over his papery cheeks. “Are you ready for dinner?” I asked. “I’d like to try that new catering shop over by the Greek church.”

He hesitated. “I’m not that hungry, Lorenzo. The older I get, the less appetite I have. I have a nice bottle of Tokay. Why don’t we stay here and drink it instead of going out for dinner? We haven’t had a good talk in a long time.”

I shook my head. I knew why he was protesting. Since he had retired from the active priesthood, he lived on a small stipend from the cathedral, and he spent most of his money on books. I worried that he seldom ate a hearty meal, which is why I had made a point of inviting him out today.

“Nonsense,” I said. “We can discuss whatever you want at the catering shop.” I put my hand up as he shook his head. “I invited you out to dinner, and out to dinner you will come.”

“No, no, Lorenzo,” Alois protested. “You have better things to do with your money.”

“Better things to do than spend an afternoon with a good friend, enjoying a delicious meal?” I stood. “No more protests. You’ll insult my Venetian honor if you don’t come,” I added, smiling.

“Well, since you put it that way—” He laughed. “Do you mind if we stop by the cathedral for a moment on the way out?” He took a book off his desk. “I want to return this to the archivist.”

“As long as we’re quick about it,” I said. “I’m famished.”

I helped him into his thin, worn cloak and followed him out of the office. We slowly made our way down the stairs. In the small lobby, I held the heavy door for him, and followed him out into the gray, warm afternoon.

*   *   *

 

Copyright © 2016 Laura Lebow.

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Laura Lebow, a lifelong history buff and more recent opera fan,retired from a career in environmental planning to write mysteries. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband.

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