The Disappearance of Anna Popov; Chapter11; Rose Cottage, 21 February

‘Pagliacci and Bald Archy? What on earth was all that about?’ asked Rebecca, climbing stiffly off the chopper. She pulled off her helmet and gave it to Jack. ‘Here, I won’t be needing this again.’

‘Just because he told me to come alone next time? You’re sulking, admit it.’
‘Rubbish.’

‘Come inside and I’ll tell you about the Bald Archy.’
Stretching her stiff back, Rebecca followed Jack into the house.
‘You keep reminding me that painstaking research is the path to success,’ said Jack, throwing a bundle of papers on the coffee table. ‘I’m listening – see? There’s a lot more to the Wizard than meets the eye.’

‘Oh? What’s that?’
‘Newspaper clippings reporting the Pagliacci incident. It happened four years ago.’
‘Sounds interesting.’ Rebecca raised an eyebrow and locked eyes with Jack.
‘Does Pagliacci mean anything to you?’ he asked.
‘Yes of course. It’s an opera by Leoncavallo.’
‘Exactly. And the main character is Pagliaccio, the clown. It was Caruso’s signature role.’
‘So?’
‘You saw the portrait of the Wizard in the crypt – dressed as a clown?’ Rebecca nodded. ‘That picture has a title – “The Untouchable Clown” – and quite a story behind it. It won the Bald Archy.’
‘You’ve lost me, I’m afraid,’ interrupted Rebecca, shaking her head.
‘Let me tell you the story,’ said Jack, pointing to the newspaper clippings on the table. ‘The Wizard is an opera buff with a good voice …’
‘You’re having me on …’
‘I’m serious. On the night in question,’ Jack nodded towards the newspaper clippings, ‘the Wizard arrived at the Sydney Opera house with two bodyguards dressed in full Wizards of AUS regalia. If that wasn’t enough to raise a few grey eyebrows, there was more to come. It was the opening night of Pagliacci, the Wizard’s favourite opera.’
‘What happened?’
‘Well, during the famous laughing sob of the “Vesti la giubbia” aria, the Wizard began to sing along – loudly.’
‘What, sitting in the audience?’
‘Yes. Pagliaccio stopped singing on stage, the orchestra stopped as well, but the intrepid Wizard continued and finished the aria, apparently rather well. Needless to say, this caused quite a stir. When the security guards approached – obviously to throw him out – the Wizard stood up and made a speech.’
‘You’re joking, surely,’ interrupted Rebecca.
‘No, it’s all in here,’ replied Jack, picking up one of the clippings. ‘The whole of Sydney was talking about it. But wait, it gets better.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Addressing Pagliaccio on the stage in front of him, the Wizard apologised. He said he was so moved by the aria that he got carried away and just had to sing along. He then apologised to the audience as well and promised to leave at once if they wanted him to go, but then begged to be allowed to stay.’
‘What happened?’
‘The audience started to clap. Then someone shouted, “Let him stay!” and everyone joined in, even the orchestra.’
Jack held up the newspaper article and began to read: ‘Meanwhile back on stage, Pagliaccio took a bow, turned to the conductor and said “Da capo, Maestro” – from the beginning – and repeated the aria.’
‘This is incredible.’
‘Sure is, but the best is yet to come,’ said Jack, reaching for another page. ‘Listen to this: Apparently while the Wizard was enjoying the limelight at the Opera House, his henchmen raided the headquarters of a rival motorcycle gang, burnt down their clubhouse and shot dead three of their members. The Wizards of AUS denied being involved and the Wizard himself, of course, had a perfect alibi. Clever, don’t you think? And that brings me to the Bald Archy and the portrait.’
‘What is this Bald Archy?’ asked Rebecca, looking exasperated.
‘It’s an art prize. Actually, it’s a parody of the Archibald Prize, a prestigious Australian portraiture prize which was first awarded in 1921. The Bald Archy began in 1994 and usually consists of cartoons or caricatures making fun of Australian celebrities. It’s an Aussie spoof which – rumour has it – is judged by a cockatoo called Maude. One of the Wizards of AUS, a painter who calls himself The Joker, entered the portrait of the Wizard in the competition under the title “The Untouchable Clown”. It was obviously meant as a joke, but he won first prize.’
‘How weird.’
‘Do you know why he called it “The Untouchable Clown”?’
‘No idea.’
‘The title is based on a film. Have you seen The Untouchables?’

Rebecca nodded.
‘In the film, Robert DeNiro plays Al Capone. The notorious gangster is at the opera. Pagliacci is his favourite. Moved by Pagliaccio singing the famous aria, he starts to cry. Then comes the memorable scene: one of his men leans over and tells him that he’s just killed Jim Malone, the Chicago Police officer.

Al Capone stops crying and starts laughing. And we have a portrait of the Wizard dressed as a clown – laughing – while his men are burning down the clubhouse of his rivals. He’s the untouchable clown – get it?’

‘Ridiculing the establishment.’
‘Exactly. And the establishment loved it. A fascinating character, don’t you reckon? Dangerous, unpredictable and …’
Jack’s mobile rang in his pocket. It was the Wizard asking him to come to the clubhouse at midnight – alone.
‘… on the phone,’ whispered Jack, as he thumbed the ‘end call’ button.

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