Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 21 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, following a particularly difficult ride in Graham Ripa's decrepit van, Perdita Vremsky is surprised to find herself suddenly placed under arrest. When Dorothy & Martin return to Purdue's basement after returning the errant wheelbarrow to a different location, they're surprised to find some equally surprised policemen staring at them. After they tell them about the body they found at the other end of the tunnel and Narder and Nortonstein arrive to check out yet another crime scene, it turns out this body is considerably older, presumably Lily Ripa who disappeared in 2002. Narder wonders how long Purdue has been killing people...

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

CHAPTER 21

I.

“Okay, freeze!“

It was a voice I wasn't familiar with. No sooner back from the past and already I've been seen! I hadn't turned my flashlight on; how'd he spot me in this darkness? There was a play of flashlights against the wall – I'm in the tunnel! – with two rather large and awkwardly frozen silhouettes.

Two voices, now, both in a very unfriendly fashion, the voices of someone startled, challenging some unseen (or previously unseen) force.

Raising my hands, about to reply, I noticed the silhouettes started moving slowly.

It wasn't me these aggressive voices were talking to (how could they've even seen me, around the corner from Tom's basement?). When the silhouettes started talking, I knew the shadows were Martin's and Dorothy's. How'd I get ahead of them? When the Kapellmeister grabbed me, I was outside the gate, not out in the tunnel.

In their rapid cascade of explanations, I couldn't really tell what anyone was saying and didn't want to risk moving closer. There was something about being friends of Tom's; then they explained the tunnel. Then Dorothy mentioned quite clearly how they'd found another body and everything stopped. Whose body? They'd found Tom? Was he dead?

I heard them starting to come toward me – toward the tunnel. They were taking the other voices – police, probably – to the farmhouse; then in a few seconds they would see me in the shadows.

It was a whirlwind escape from Harvard's library and I'd barely caught my breath, thinking the next thing would be me splattered with my guts all over the floor of Gore Library (“Gore,” indeed). The last thing I remember was a scream – it probably wasn't Miss Norton but then I wasn't sure it wasn't me. Then it was very dark and now I'm here where it's still very dark except I know where I am, maybe. The question is when am I: a few seconds or several minutes later?

How had I ended up ahead of Dorothy and Martin when, after they'd started out – I was talking to Amanda, some problem she needed to figure out with Clara – I'd been right behind them? Maybe the Kapellmeister was off by a few seconds or a few feet. (With luck, I won't be seeing him again.)

Didn't Agent Bond from the IMP think the farmhouse was full of Aficionati? My memory was still a bit foggy. (“Aficionati?”) We'd set out to check the farmhouse; maybe Tom was being held there. That's when Amanda said something about Clara, a problem she needed to check. And Cameron, late for lunch, went for groceries.

Okay, it's coming back to me – good news, I think – but I can't tell if they've left yet or they're back. And what are the police doing here (again)? When did they show up?

And who the hell did Bond say these Aficionati were? Hadn't Tom thought it was SHMRG who was after his software? Wait, or was that me jumping to conclusions? (I need to ask Amanda...)

So why're they going in the opposite direction? Not that I mind: the police won't see me, then, with any luck.

I waited another few seconds till the two cops following Martin and Dorothy had disappeared around the bend; then I followed the faint glow of the light in the passageway coming from Tom's basement. But Amanda was no longer sitting at the computer. In fact, it looked like the computer was gone, too. “What the...?”

The only thing I could see was Zeno sitting on the bottom step: meowing at me that the coast was clear? Warning me I'm walking into a trap? (Or maybe he was hungry – again).

And the place had very definitely been searched. That wasn't a good sign... Where would Amanda have gone in that short a time and why would she have taken the computer with her? Unless... Why were the police here? Did Amanda call them? I looked at the cat but he continued meowing, totally indecipherable. “Great.”

I sneaked through the basement, looking behind the rug hanging on the wall, under the desk that once blocked the gate, back into the corner where the hot water heater was – and saw nobody.

It was then I noticed the odd marking on the floor, a childish abstract outline as if a body had ineptly been sprawled there unceremoniously, something out of a crime scene. “Oh, not again...!”

If Dorothy just said they'd found another body, why did they go off toward the crypt if there was one here?

Another body – that's Alma Viva and DiVedremo, both down at the publisher's office; this one (pointing at the floor) and that one (pointing toward the crypt), which would mean four bodies in two days!

That can't be good – I mean, who is killing all of these people? I wonder if the police have any suspects?

But not knowing who these last two were gnawed at me, especially since I didn't know where Cameron and Amanda were.

“I go away for only a few minutes and, jeez, look what happens!”

Working my way past Zeno who was not budging, I tip-toed upstairs to look around, wary about calling out for anyone. If not the police, what if someone from SHMRG or one of those Aficionati people had also broken into Purdue's house, looking for something (though “what” and “why” were big questions on my mind)?

The downstairs – especially the living room – had been thoroughly searched but not ransacked. The police would search; an Aficianato (whatever you called a single member of the Aficionati) would probably have trashed the place.

And what is it they're looking for, if they've already got Purdue's computer? Maybe some back-up copy, something that might have... Of course: that thumb drive we so diligently “liberated” from the ballet school!

Didn't Amanda use it to access Clara last night, with its missing “key.” I'd wanted to ask her to “uninstall” it...

“Shit, piss and corrosion!”

I hadn't meant that to be as loud as it came out, standing in the living room. Somebody could've heard me, depending on where they're hiding (assuming there's someone hiding). After standing still for what seemed like several minutes but was more likely seconds, that's when I heard it: something upstairs.

Somebody was down the hall, perhaps in Tom's study looking for the thumb-drive. It didn't sound like someone busily rummaging but then I couldn't tell whether the person was tall, large-framed and muscular, either. Not that I wasn't curious to find out who it was, I certainly wasn't interested in sneaking upstairs to surprise him. I also wasn't into getting clobbered, kidnapped, and tortured over this thumb-drive's location. With that, I decided it was safer – and definitely wiser – to hide behind the recliner, leaning against the bookcase, breathing slowly.

Maybe it was another one of the policemen, left behind to secure the scene after the others followed Martin and Dorothy. Wondering whether he'd imagine me dangerous enough to “shoot first, ask questions later,” I didn't care to be caught in the house by any policeman convinced Tom's their prime suspect and I'm somehow involved.

The toilet flushed, the water at the sink began to run – whoever it was was conscious of simple hygiene basics – and then, after another moment that felt like eternity, I heard the door open.

(“Jeez,” I thought, “what if it's the Kapellmeister?” – which potential scenario was worse?)

The steps were hesitant at first, as if someone was being careful, looking around, maybe conscious he was no longer alone. Zeno rushed in from the kitchen, mewing noisily, and dashed up the steps to the landing.

(“Don't give me away, cat!”)

Finally, afraid to move my head to look out from behind the chair, I was able to see the person who walked into my field of vision once he started walking down the steps.

The guy wore the blue police jacket marked “Forensics”. He looked fairly short, slim, wore glasses and was in his mid-twenties.

“Hey,” the young man said, as he leaned over to pet the cat, “I'm really sorry someone killed your human, fella.” After a pause he continued, “well, if someone did kill her.”

(“Her? Amanda...?”)

Since the young man headed toward the kitchen – causing me to breathe a sigh of relief – Zeno turned and followed him.

“Don't worry, cat, if someone killed Ms Wences, we'll find him – speaking generically.“

A phone chirped and I heard the man say he's bringing his evidence bag back to the lab “as we speak.”

“Nothing suspicious here, evidence of several people though – hard to say.” A pause. “Yeah, well, I'm the last one here – the others are following some sort of lead down at the earlier crime scene.”

The familiar sound of a can opener increased the frequency of Zeno's mewing. “Hasn't anybody fed you yet this morning, kiddo?” I could see him bend over and place a dish on the floor.

“I can't comment on an on-going investigation, cat, but if you see that Kerr fellow, be sure to call us, okay?”

Once the door had closed behind him and Zeno was busily wolfing down the meal he'd cadged from the crime-scene guy, I leaned more heavily against the bookcase, preferring to “hunker down in place.”

“Amanda is dead? Amanda is dead – and even though they're not sure she's been murdered, they think somehow I'm a suspect?”

There were so many questions needing answers, I didn't know where to begin: “who killed Amanda” but also “why kill Amanda...?”

I began the process of shutting down and retreating further inside my brain.

To some, as I tried to explain on those few occasions I've needed to, I imagine it's a bit like “meditating” – not in the spiritual sense of ancient monks; more in an intellectual sense – and I don't use some endlessly repeating transcendental formula to hypnotize myself until I've succeeded in closing out the outside world. It's easier in the context of having a “quiet place” with fewer distractions, so I wasn't sure how successful this'd be knowing I would somehow have to clear my name as well as Tom's. This was a “place” (in the mental sense) where I might concentrate on certain questions or issues and, in essence, “free-associate,” something I knew drove my rational-minded friends wild because it reeked of Dionysus, not that I ever used wine to help stimulate the process but drink is, I admit, strongly irrationalizing if often counter-productive.

Yet that's part of the process: while I relied on logic to make sense of the illogical and to wander among the possibilities that could lead to some sort of epiphany (like many detectives), it also became a distraction with so many more avenues of curiosity that cried out for exploration resulting in fascinating details. As I told one interviewer who asked me a question where he clearly hoped for a simple yes or no response, “why answer with one 'gray' word when 377 words might prove more colorful?”

First, I needed to identify the different questions which may all be interrelated, not only those about Amanda but those I wanted to ask her which she could no longer answer for unfortunate reasons. There wasn't time, the time was limited, the answers had to be found before time ran out (but time is eternal). There was the ticking of a clock – Aunt Jane's clock on the mantle – time passing, inexorably; time moving forward but not backward – though I certainly managed to prove that wrong today, twice! (“Shut up!”)

Wasn't it amazing Tom, not known for being a “technical guy,” could create a computer program not only capable of composing but capable of learning to compose something so subtly complex – and literally overnight? How is it even possible a machine could learn something so irrationally subjective – how was Tom able to figure this out...?

Okay, so Clara was demonstrating increased mastery of various parameters of musical discourse – melody, harmony, rhythm, form – completely on her own. Surprising, but unusual or unexpected? Except the accelerated time-frame and lack of oversight. Was it something happening in the rhythmic field? That's the most astounding thing, how that evolved in such a short time.

But what significance did this have, if any? Was there some logical explanation? Independence of rhythm was the most obvious development in musical style since the days of Debussy or The Rite of Spring.

Was it some kind of code, like Tom's error-filled list, misspellings and wrong keys revealing a code leading to a clue? How would you turn a rhythm like this into a code like that? Maybe it's not the rhythms Clara created that was the code: could it point to some potential use for the code?

It's not just a matter of Tom's technology but how somebody else could develop it, why it was worth killing for. How did Tom know, in writing his coded plea, SHMRG was after it? When had he realized, perhaps too late, what SHMRG could do with it? And why can't I find the same answers?

In the back of my mind, off in the distance, as if being played on a car radio a block away, I heard a familiar song: “Over the Rainbow”! – Why, oh why, can't I?

But Tom's computer – and with it, Clara – was missing so even if I knew how to access the program, there's nothing I could do to look for answers there (well, in so many words). I assume the killer might have stolen it, but the guy who fed Zeno said they weren't sure she'd been murdered.

“So how did Amanda die?” Hardly natural causes... “Had there been blood?” No... Perhaps by poison, slipped into her coffee? – they'd find that in the autopsy. Wait... – what if Clara was a witness? (Right...)

If there's no murderer to steal the computer, maybe the police took it down to their lab, looking for some clues. What do they know, if anything, about Clara? Could they access the codes? What could they possibly hope to find? – obviously hoping to find anything that could incriminate Tom. Or me, for that matter.

That would explain what happened to Tom's thumb-drive – wait, a dwarf killed Amanda? No – what does a little person have to do with this? (“Shut up!”) Focus: what did Amanda do with the thumb-drive? Didn't we leave it in the computer after Amanda used it to access the program? That's the key to all this. It's back-up against a crash – you don't expect the computer to be stolen – leaving it in the USB port seems safe. Except Tom did expect the computer to be stolen – SHMRG was after it.

So you'd think, like a spare house key, you'd keep it near where you'd need to use it, like by the back door – under a rock – not literally, but where was Tom's figurative rock? And if you're expecting someone's going to steal your computer, you wouldn't put it beside your computer, not in the open. That means I should be looking for it in the basement and it would be somewhere I could probably see it or its hiding place from where I'd be sitting – at his computer desk!

There's not much time (there's never enough time): everybody'll be coming back from the tunnel soon, so I'll have to hurry. I unfolded my creaking bones from behind the recliner – and froze. “That's it!” Seeing Tom's ballerina figurine, I didn't want to touch it and be transported...

“Now I know what to look for downstairs!”

*-*

Not the least of numerous reliefs I felt at the moment was having taken the opportunity to visit the upstairs bathroom – perhaps the forensic guy's flushing the toilet reminded me it had been almost 130 years since I'd last taken a pee – when I realized there was little free time left to check the basement. Granted, Cameron complained I did some of my best thinking in the bathroom, without needing to comment on any comparable processes, but there wasn't the necessary time to think as much as this required. If it was – were? – a question of code, and the code was to be transmitted through the rhythm of the piece, what content was being transmitted and to whom, not to mention by whom? Besides, it's not that rhythm and code were never combined in the past, especially when it was only a single layer.

Morse Code was based on rhythm, generically speaking, a series of short and long pulses that could be gathered into beats, maybe not fitting easily into the standard “waltz time” or “march time” patterns, but one layer easier to assimilate, lacking the usual distractions of melody and harmony more readily admired by the typical music-lover. But Tom's rhythmic code – or, rather, a code constructed by manipulating Tom's software – wouldn't be as obvious as old-fashioned Morse Code. Most listeners shouldn't notice it underneath the pitch content – except maybe a percussionist.

The next question, aside from identifying who was hiring washed-up rock drummers to be “code-masters” for this end of the operation, was who's after the software and how do they intend to use it? Could it be used to brain-wash the public, to circulate some subliminal message? (Okay, to be precise, “the next three questions”...) But the general public – less its percussion-minded minority – wouldn't be any more aware of complex rhythmic patterns and what they “mean” than they would be of motivic development, tonal structures and standard harmonic progressions.

Society has long been using music to control the public – exciting rhythms and simple melodies to promote a crowd's patriotic fervor; slow, sombre music in times of national tragedy – so that idea's nothing new. But if not disseminating more than generalized emotional responses to control their audience, what about, say, instructions for a terrorist attack?

Now, as familiar as I was with the dastardly doings of an organization like SHMRG, I wasn't convinced they had yet reached the point of becoming a terrorist organization, out to commit social mayhem. Their primary function, it seemed to me, involved establishing economic power over society through music they could control by capitalist means. It was a process involving manipulation of the government and consumers in order to increase revenues taken in through corporate domination, and “terrorism” didn't make much sense except to, however possible, eliminate the competition.

But Agent Bond of the IMP had mentioned “The Aficionati” which I now remembered hearing about not too long ago, despite centuries of their existence, implying some degree of success for a secret organization. (Wasn't it in England visiting Phlaumix Court where Sebastian Crevecoeur warned me about them, except hadn't Sebastian been dead for years?)

Now, as unfamiliar as I was with the Aficionati and their existence, beyond the fact Sebastian regarded them with some fear, Bond claimed they were protecting Classical Music “by whatever means” from the barbarians. Could one of those means be the dissemination of secret commands through music only sophisticated computer software could transmit and decode?

What if both of them were after Tom's software at the same time: SHMRG to capture the market with a computer that composed music for you, and the Aficionati to eliminate SHMRG, their competition?

All these questions, I realized, whether any of them could be answered at this point or not, were secondary to the immediate question of where to find Tom Purdue and how to rescue him, since I was becoming more convinced, given what Bond said, he was being held next door in the least logical place. (Okay, the two most important questions were “where to find Tom” and “how to rescue him” – and “find out who killed Belle DiVedremo, Alma Viva, and Amanda Wences!” Wait – the three most important questions...)

If Martin and Dorothy had the police occupied down at the crypt with yet another body – and who would that be? – that would buy me some time to go to the farmhouse next door. But I hesitated trying it alone without Cameron around at least for back-up. He should've been back long ago: another question...

But then, why the farmhouse; what's the connection? Just because Bond says – thinks? – the place is full of these Aficionati agents? Does that prove they're after Clara or answer why they're holding Tom hostage? Could some agents from SHMRG have swooped in under the Aficionati's collective nose and absconded with Tom to undermine the Aficionati?

That's the trouble with questions: once you figure out what to ask, they start multiplying like Fibonacci's rabbits! Before you know it, you're snowed under with a blizzard full of them (mixed metaphors aside).

And how am I going over there to single-handedly rescue my friend Tom when I have no idea who I'm facing, how many of them there are, or where it is they're holding him? I needed a plan – “yes,” I thought, as I walked through the downstairs toward the kitchen, “a plan would be good.”

Listening for tell-tale signs of intruders in the house, I noticed Zeno had long ago inhaled the last of his food. There was so far no sign of anyone else, either friends or foes.

What if I could walk into the basement of the farmhouse and find Tom without seeing any of these other agents? What if it could be that simple to get him out of there?

What if I could walk into Tom's basement without seeing anybody else and find that mysterious thumb-drive everyone is looking for?

The back door, kicked in off its hinges by the earlier arrival of the police, had now been jerry-rigged into place with a few screws and pieces of plywood nailed over the broken window, similar to how the front door had temporarily been “repaired,” not that it would keep anyone else out, unwanted or otherwise. I could look out the windows over the sink to see across the back yard into the quietly sleeping cemetery beyond, but the view down the sidewalk behind the garage was blocked by plywood.

It would be even easier now for this so-called prowler, whoever he was and regardless of his association with the neighbors, to get into the house even if he didn't know the tunnel existed. That little bit of yellow “crime-scene tape” I imagined stretching around to the front door wouldn't likely stop a mere burglar.

And how would Cameron get back in, if the doors were now sealed shut – that was a possibility, though the Forensics guy had left, closing the door behind him (probably not locked, either, then). He might use the tunnel – I'm sure the place is under surveillance, anyway – but aren't the police already in the tunnel? Of course, I also had to worry about when or if the police might return, with or without Martin and Dorothy, whether there was any reason for them to come back to the house.

And then, what if the tunnel gate was locked? Could I get out, much less back in once I'd rescued Tom? Did Cameron know where Tom kept his spare key to the back door? “Spare key!” Right, that's what I needed to find: focus! Where did Tom keep his back-up copy of Clara's access codes?

The steps creaked more than I'd been aware of before (probably my imagination). Was it from all the traffic they'd put up with today (it had been very busy, all this coming and going).

What happened to the cat, by the way? Where had Zeno gotten to, gone to sleep off the effects of lunch? Ah, there he was, sitting on Tom's desk where the computer had been. I sat down in Tom's chair, facing the computer, and wondered if I would see whatever I expected to see – somewhere.

The basement, largely unfinished, wasn't a place where a family relaxed with TVs or pool tables, comfortable couches and track lighting. Aside from the computer desk, there was little else that wasn't functional: the old coal room, the oil tank to store the winter's fuel, washer and dryer, and shelves full of odds and ends. Shelves covered most of the walls, thick rugs hanging over the tunnel wall. Had he hidden it behind one of the rugs, maybe in a box; in that jelly jar filled with old nails?

“Ah, no,” I thought, once I saw it, “that's where it will be,” sitting on the top shelf behind the steps but fully in view of the desk and barely lit by the lamplight. I went over and carefully took down a faded photograph, almost unnoticeable, its old wooden frame little bigger than a postcard.

It was an old Degas print, ballet dancers on rehearsal break, viewed backstage – at least, done “in the style of Degas” – perhaps a souvenir postcard he'd purchased long ago after visiting an art museum.

In the midst of female dancers stretching willowy arms stood someone majestic in her black feathery costume: Odile from Swan Lake.

Taped inside the boxy frame along the base was a small tin for breath mints which contained an unmarked thumb-drive. Bingo!

“Ah!” Voices in the tunnel – someone was returning.

Zeno started to meow again.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 16th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Monday, November 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 20

In the previous installment, Kenny Hackett overhears bits of Lucifer Darke's mysterious phone conversation in the hallway near the office's elevators. He didn't hear much – words like “extraction” “Pansy Grunwald” and “accident” – just enough to make him think he's not making a dentist's appointment. Finishing his break, Kenny goes back to his cubicle to continue his work on sabotaging Clara's codes. At the Marple Police Precinct, Narder finds out Purdue's basement has access to a tunnel which could, she's sure, explain a lot.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

CHAPTER 20

I.

There was a chill in the air completely out of proportion with an overcast October afternoon which, after leaving the plane's warmth, tore through the old man's arthritic joints, those he could still feel. Selket bundled the wine-red blanket tighter around him as she wheeled him toward the bleak-looking van not far from the runway. Osiris tried not to scowl at the indignity of having to travel in such a vehicle, noticing they didn't even have the courtesy to drive out to meet him once his jet had landed. The constant pain would lessen gradually in time as Selket's Elixir, as he called it, had its effect on his body, not only warming his veins but also his creaking joints and atrophied muscles. His legs had long been useless but that didn't mean he couldn't feel their pain, practically frozen into a seated position.

It was a slow procession, lowered from his cabin on its special elevator, descending less smoothly than it should have been, with the other members of his entourage having already disembarked through the cargo hold to form an honor guard greeting a visiting head of state which, a law unto himself, he felt he was. He had decided, this time, to travel light, since this visit was a purely working conference intended to be tediously brief, so in addition to the indispensable Selket, he brought only a dozen minions.

Not that that diminished its significance, he felt, since secrecy must be maintained. Few in his own network knew his whereabouts, so he could hardly raise the suspicions of the media with old-fashioned pageantry. He'd brought with him no largess to bestow upon the city's music scene to maintain – indeed, sustain – past glories and accomplishments. He was not here to meet with those who preserved one of the finest orchestras in the world or its maestro. Nor was he checking up on one of the country's finest music schools. Still, he looked at the nearly derelict and decidedly vulnerable van awaiting him, given the nature of events that lay ahead, and immediately regretted he'd chosen to leave his personal limo, the Ra-Mobile, behind. This would doubtless promise to be as excruciating as it was an indignity; but if it got the desired results, well...

Standing tall, imperious, above all proud, Selket was the very image of loyalty even if only a few people greeted them: he reminded her it was how she saw herself that mattered, knowing others might notice her no more than they would a piece of furniture or any other prop in the presentation of Osiris. To others, she probably appeared part of the wheelchair, a fixture, another accessory, yet since he could no longer manage the controls as smoothly as before, she was indeed the power behind his throne. There was nothing of the sycophant in her demeanor: she was his nurse. If anything, he might be afraid of her, especially if he didn't feel like doing whatever her duties required of him. Then she'd scowl at him without a word, able to freeze over the entire Underworld at a glance until he submitted.

She would never tell him he'd gone a little overboard with this Osiris Thing, reaching the top tier of the Aficionati. He had been one of the best trial lawyers in Boston as a young man and it's quite possible she was one of the few people in his world who knew his true identity. Yes, understandably it's a way to protect one's anonymity in a secret society, but really, it would be nice to be called, she'd thought, once in a while by her real name, Nora Wratchet.

Osiris' entourage consisted of a few lawyers, some highly respected scientists, and a few soldiers intended to be his “security detail,” considerably less than the twenty or so who would normally travel with him. These were not “agents” of the Aficionati, per se, though they were well aware who it was who wrote their paychecks. As its world-wide role expanded, not only did the Aficionati's responsibilities increase but also the support it needed for everyday necessities, and these could include everything from legal and secretarial to kitchen and protection. Because it had become a struggle – it had always been a struggle, the Aficionati fighting for the very mind of music – the old feudal models of the Medieval court had long ago become outmoded, having originated in the days when amoral ne'er-do-wells plagued the powerful families of 14th Century Italy when the Aficionati first gathered.

These days, not just political leaders but major corporation's CEO's needed protection from thugs employed by those generically called “The Opposition.” One side rising up with a goal and an ideology to achieve it was immediately met by those arising on the other who opposed it regardless, fighting it out in the truest dialectical drama. As Machiavelli moved with the times, the medieval roots of the Aficionati evolved, once the basic trappings of government proved inefficient, and remodeled themselves after the modern corporation and the world of organized crime.

But still, whatever power he may have been able to claim, Osiris could do little against the molasses-like force of bureaucrats, as indispensable as they were in realizing the very core of his ideas. (He would use the expression, “from my lips to God's ears,” cutting out the middle men, had he believed in God.) If he could clone himself a hundred times over, creating a department of loyal and indefatigable functionaries to implement his bidding, could he ever overcome this obstacle that has plagued civilization since its inception?

No longer amused by the irony of being all-powerful while being restricted by the encumbrances of others within the Upper Echelon, Osiris realized he was, regardless, an old man and therefore viewed as “weakened.” Despite being tired, he must approach this project, perhaps his last, with the vigor and ruthlessness of a man decades younger.

Escorted through the indignities of having his passport scrutinized and his luggage searched even with much of the protocol overlooked as a courtesy because he was an American businessman with his own private jet – it was probably his leathery skin after all those years of sunning himself on tropical beaches that made him look Middle-Eastern – he sat secure knowing they would not find what he was bringing into the country, aside from his own innate genius, safely hidden in his colostomy bag (and who would even imagine checking that?). This time, he traveled under one of his many assumed names – he could hardly call himself “Mr Osiris,” now, could he? – Biblos Tamirakis, the Greek-born founder of one of the world's largest corporations, Basilikon, though, not to offend such a rich old man, most people were too embarrassed to admit they'd never heard of it.

Nor could he explain the true reason he was visiting the United States: “to gain information, run a test in a major terrorist plot, and deal with a purely internal personnel issue – basically, pleasure.” So he told the guard, “to attend a short business meeting, returning later tonight.” And that, he smiled, was certainly true. Osiris could tell the guard's expression revealed a certain envy of his wealth, wondering how much this little jaunt must've cost; then stamped the passport realizing he could live for a year on that.

Once Osiris got his hands on the computer code this composer had developed, following all these months of tracking him down, it should solve the problem of how to communicate with their weaponized robots, a detail long the major sticking point in perfecting this latest instrument to be used against the degenerates defiling classical music. Anything Agent Hephaestus concocted had been far too easily neutralized by a select panel of trained hackers, all of them teenagers, leaving the detailed instructions not only intercepted but also critically anesthetized – a disaster.

According to what Agent Marduk heard through whatever musical grapevine he had accidentally tapped into, the intent of this composer – his name was Thomas Purdue – was to create a computer capable of composing music and he'd apparently stumbled upon something even he was unaware of: the ability to transmit secret codes through complex embedded formulas.

How exactly Dr Purdue was able to manage this meant nothing to Osiris – his intellectual brilliance did not score highly on the technical side of things. Marduk tried to explain it (so much technobabble) until Osiris told him to “cut to the chase” and tell him what it was they could do with this technology. It made no sense, whatever Marduk had said, if the “creator” of the program didn't realize what it was capable of, yet when he brought up the “Creative Fallacy,” it all fell into place. This was the doctrine that any creative agent – composer, painter, author, or code-writing computer geek – working from a purely intellectual standpoint, always had a certain amount, however small a percentage, of otherwise inexplicable “inspiration” initially unnoticed by the artist, beyond analysis, the product of the artist's subconsciousness, therefore arguably something he did not knowingly “create.”

While it was convenient in expediting the “Inner Mysteries” in the common perception of things, too easily dismissed as “God-given talent,” it helped to explain one of the basic tenets of the Aficionati's beliefs: that, regardless of the artist's awareness and control, no matter how well thought-out, Art originated in the brain, consciously or subconsciously. So in essence, by utilizing something “created” by Purdue he was unaware he'd “created,” it was not really stealing, was it? And in this sense he had given Marduk and his associates his approval.

They began loading him into a beat-up, black-painted van that in its previous existence probably belonged to some anorexic, post-pubescent flower-child. There was a lot of fussing between his security detail and the one called Falx, weirdly dressed in black, very goth-like, not to mention Lóviator's other two agents whose names he did not catch. “So,” he sighed, “this is all the latest generation of Aficionati could recruit?” And yet Dagon, doddering old fool he had become lately, had good things to say about Agent Lóviator and her subordinates. Selket struggled to maintain self-control as they hoisted the wheelchair into the back of the van without benefit of any ramp, the wheels tangling in well-worn rugs and rumpled blankets strewn across the floor. Initial attempts at securing Osiris's chair with leather straps had him facing the side of the van before turning him around.

Selket was barely able to maintain her poise, seated next to Osiris on a crude bench soldered in over a wheel-well, facing the security agents who squatted cross-legged on the floor, expressionless but alert. Even with a seat-belt, she felt she would fly into space when they made a sharp curve, getting off the interstate. The security agents, completely indistinguishable in their uniforms, plus the lawyers and scientists, completely indistinguishable in what passed for theirs, fended for themselves, crammed together, and swayed in unison with each turn and lane-change.

Osiris, unable to turn his neck, sat more stiffly than usual, forced to stare at the opposite wall, spray-painted “flat black” (and unevenly, at that: “such an amateur job”), and tried not to react. Selket occasionally checked her monitors, surprised the blood-pressure hadn't risen to dangerous levels, while his entourage deferentially avoided looking at him. She understood – well, more likely comprehended – the plan to look as unlikely as possible but honestly who, she wondered, would have noticed a comfortable limousine traveling the same route and thought it looked suspicious?

In a high, almost disembodied voice not unlike a countertenor's, Osiris squeaked out a tersely worded question, intended for anyone who could hear: “how long might it yet take to reach this 'undisclosed location'?”

Vremsky coughed, signaling the driver perhaps he should answer, and Falx, looking at his odometer, announced it would not be long.

Vremsky, known only as Lóviator to the others, sat on the passenger side of the second row, the same side of the van as Osiris so fortunately they could not witness each other's mortification. “Really,” she thought, conscious of the sweat continuing to bead across her brow, “how could Falx imagine this would be acceptable?” Even with the variable for traffic taken into consideration, what Osiris was expecting was more like “about 25 minutes” or better yet “we should be arriving in 21 minutes,” not this vague “not long.”

And this van! Vremsky could scarcely contain her embarrassment at seeing the Great One hoisted into a decrepit van like a drum kit in a garage band going out on a Saturday night gig. It was too late to yell “Stop this!” since hiring an airport limousine would now provide a trail for the police.

She knew, however she might blame Falx for cutting corners on her orders – seriously, must she spell everything out so precisely? – she couldn't apologize to Osiris for Falx's shortcomings because everything reflected on her. And now, somehow the police were wise to them, all because somebody was sloppy, her eyes drilling deep into Falx's skull.

Osiris closed his eyes, meditating on the comment the driver Falx had made so casually about needing to avoid the police. Why would that be necessary? Had somebody been sloppy? “Yes, I thought so...”

“We shall arrive at Maison Ripa in 6½ miles,” Falx announced confidently, “depending on traffic, I'd say maybe ten minutes.” He sounded like a guide hosting visitors on a bus driving through Hollywood despite his tourists being sequestered in the back of the van, unable to see anything around them but badly painted walls. Looking in the rear-view mirror, however, he noticed the veins in Lóviator's neck tighten like cords when he turned up a street a block before she expected him to. “A slight detour, as planned...”

He explained because the police had “probably” staked out the place he'd usually park, they would be taking the “scenic route” and approach the house from the rear of the property through the woods.

Selket imagined her boss's jaw tightening, knowing how much the man abhorred nature. The monitor showed an increase in his blood-pressure.

The narrow street ended abruptly just beyond the last small suburban ranch house, a two-tired path curving through an overgrown field that resembled a country farm rather than something in the middle of suburbia, anything bumping along soon obscured from the street or the house by a few mounds of overgrown weeds and stumpy trees. Vremsky was sure that rattling she heard was Osiris's bones and as she imagined his jaws clenching in pain, she felt her own face turn ever deeper shades of pink to match her dress.

Once under a bank of overhanging pine trees, she noticed an old stone wall and beyond it the flat open field of a cemetery like the one stretching behind the farmhouse.

Aaaaand we've arrived...”

Falx parked the van facing against the wall, and shut off the engine. A small shed stood off to her right.

Vremsky had been aware how quiet the trip had been, road noise aside, no one daring to breathe, much less talk, but now there was a profound silence if not one she found relaxing.

“The shed, there,” Falx said, “is the terminus of a tunnel leading past the house to the crypt. We'll enter, there.”

Once everyone had gotten out of the van and F-1 (or was it F-2?) unlocked the shed, Osiris opened his eyes, and said firmly to his security detail, “please place Agent Lóviator under arrest.”

II.

“But, Martin, he just dumped her there,” Dorothy said in a hoarse whisper as they wandered back through the winding tunnel, “nothing more than a sack of old potatoes rolled out of the wheelbarrow. We have to report it, tell the police, let them give her a...” but then Martin's curt frown cut her off. She was still indignant at the cruelty of it all, a grandson murdering – Martin interrupted her: “allegedly murdering” – his own grandmother. “He just tossed the body aside like that, not even attempting to bury...”

They shuffled along, dusty and tired after spending far too much time in this tunnel and who knows what the hell that was they saw back in the farmhouse (or even when it was) not to mention their discovery of those remains on the other side of the crypt, like they'd overheard those guys say.

At least now her flashlight was working “flawlessly,” not sputtering like it had before it went out back in that basement. “It was right after the battery died we suddenly found ourselves in... in...”

“...Another dimension, some parallel universe?” Martin sounded as dismissive as he was exhausted. “Do you really think that was... was real?”

“Were those bones in the tunnel, there, 'real'? Or another 'double hallucination,' maybe?” shining her flashlight behind them, just in case. “But we both heard what they'd said, Tom and his aunt, didn't we?”

“And wasn't it convenient the police had left the crypt untended,” Martin continued. “That would've been difficult, wouldn't it, trying to explain, 'oh sorry, officer, just passing through, taking our wheelbarrow for a walk'...”

“Scoff as much as you like, Martin Crotchet, but things have happened since we got here yesterday that cannot be explained.”

He grumbled something that might have been an agreement but then added they'd told Terry they were going to check out the farmhouse to see if Tom were there and they still didn't know.

“Should we go back, maybe? And by the way, what happened to Terry? He was right behind us, then he disappeared.”

“Or what if we're the ones who disappeared? Did you think of that?”

Dorothy shivered, wondering if Martin had been reading something about Quantum Physics again. “Still, we saw no clue Tom was there...”

Martin agreed somebody was there, that was obvious, at least, judging from the two voices they heard coming down the steps, two guys from Jersey and one of them a whiner (Dorothy hated whiners). “But we were only in a couple rooms after we followed Tom and his aunt upstairs and no sign of Tom.“

“Which Tom do you mean? There was Tom from several years ago with Aunt Jane, right?, however anyone can explain that. But did we see anything upstairs as it would appear today? Probably not.”

She remembered how everything started to change once her flashlight started working again, a rapid transition from the old, unfinished basement to something new and sparkling white, full of equipment like a hospital room.

“You mean the upstairs wouldn't look the way we saw it just now? You think Tom – today's Tom – is somewhere else?”

“It's possible the upstairs was never cleaned up after the murder. Didn't Terry say the house had been abandoned for years? But I'm pretty sure what we saw just a while ago is what the place would've looked like in the past, and I'm also pretty sure Today's Tom would not be 'in the past.'”

“Well,” Martin said, pushing the door to Tom's basement open, “how will we explain this to Cameron and Amanda? Is Terry...?”

And there stood several people just as surprised as they were.

“Uh oh...”

Dorothy and Martin, each with their flashlights, stood on one side of the door, the darkness of the tunnel behind them, for the moment looking not unlike the proverbial deer caught in the headlights; while two people wearing police uniforms, each with their flashlights, stood on the other, Purdue's basement blazing with light behind them. On the floor was a rough outline of a sprawled-out body made of tape where a third person, on his knees with tweezers and what looked like a freezer bag, also stared at them.

It hadn't occurred to Officer Paula Naze she ought to have been holding the flashlight in her left hand so she'd be able to reach for her revolver with her right just in case, but it was too late to be second-guessing herself now: whoever'd gotten the drop on them had the benefit of surprise.

That didn't stop Officer Torello from gripping his flashlight with both hands as menacingly as possible when he shouted, “Okay, freeze!” He figured the intruders looked pretty old so maybe they'd be easily confused.

Dorothy and Martin both raised their hands, deferentially pointing their flashlights straight up at the ceiling, but didn't say a word.

“Would you mind telling us who you are – and what you're doing here?” Torello advanced toward them, not lowering his flashlight.

“Not to mention,” Naze added, “where the hell you came from?”

“That, too...”

Naze ran her flashlight across the top and sides of the doorway that had opened so unexpectedly in front of them. The fact there was a door there at all, not to mention a large, sliding one, came as a total surprise. How had they managed to miss that, not that they would've expected it.

Dorothy and Martin both pointed behind them as they identified themselves, talking over each other until Torello held up his hand. “One at a time – you first,” he said, pointing at the old woman.

They explained who they were, friends of Tom's, how they were hoping to find him (without going into too much detail) and explained how the tunnel ran from next door down to the crypt.

Then Dorothy mentioned they had something to show them: “We found another body.”

With that, they all went into the tunnel.

III.

It didn't take long for Det. Narder to arrive at the crypt with Tango and Reel and quickly join Naze and Torello, standing behind two senior citizens, where they'd found DiVedremo's body that morning. “You're saying this isn't a fresh dump but something going back several years?” (“Geez,” she thought, “when'd he kill this one?”) She had the two old folks explain the bit about the wheelbarrow again, how it ended up in Purdue's basement (again?) and why they decided to get it out of the way down here.

The entrances to both tunnels stood open, so Narder shined her flashlight first down one tunnel, presumably coming from the farmhouse, then down the other, opposite Samuel Hayne's sarcophagus, ending where the ceiling collapsed. Crumpled on the ground was a set of twisted remains just a few feet in and beside it an up-ended wheelbarrow.

“Does anybody know where this tunnel leads? Wait, don't bother,” she realized, just when Nortonstein arrived, as the real questions for right now were “whose body is that and when did this person die?” Also, “did he get lost in the tunnel, wander in and suffocate? Or, do you think we're dealing with murder here?”

“I should be able to answer at least some of those questions momentarily,” Dr Nortonstein said, kneeling beside yet another body, “but I remind you I don't think; I examine the facts, then deduce.”

While Reel moved the wheelbarrow out of his way, Narder explained it had only been placed there maybe ten minutes ago – Nortonstein's brow knitted only momentarily – saying forensics would examine the blood on it.

“You really must slow down, Narder,” he sighed. “I mean, seriously, four bodies in two days is getting to be excessive!”

Narder asked the two seniors how they knew about this tunnel and when the last time was they'd seen Dr Purdue when Dorothy said, “well, I haven't talked to Tom myself for, oh... years.”

“Definitely murder,” Nortonstein announced. “And it's a woman, over 60? – not well preserved considering she's spent years in an underground tunnel. Those marks there, across the chest, indicate some rather severe, quite deep wounds.”

Tango wondered if they could've been caused by a large knife – or scythe. “You know, maybe like our first two victims?”

Reel reminded them of that 2002 police report, how the house belonged to a widow, Mrs Lily Ripa, who lived alone, but she'd apparently disappeared around the same time, according to her son, Jack.

“Let me guess,” Tango added, “with no body, they couldn't charge anyone – like her neighbor – with the murder of Jack's mother?”

“And when exactly were you last in touch with Dr Purdue,” Narder asked.

“Why,” Dorothy said, jumping in, “I haven't really seen him since that reunion back in... – when was it, Martin: 1995, right?”

“And you just happened to show up yesterday at his house because you both just happened to be in the area?”

“Yes, as we'd explained, Terry Kerr called and told us about Tom's disappearance.”

“And did Dr Kerr say anything about when he thought Purdue had disappeared?”

They both agreed he'd said about sometime Sunday.

Unfortunately, disappearance or not, after his aunt died and left him the house, Narder explained, maybe Purdue decided not to sell, because maybe a new owner would uncover some evidence that might incriminate him? Knowing he could keep the lid on an old murder from years before, knowing where they'd hid the body – or bodies...

“So, yes, it seems likely Thomas Purdue, having returned to the scene of the crime, may be keeping some old secrets.”

Dorothy and Martin stole quick glances at each other, scowled, and said nothing.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 14th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Friday, November 09, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 19 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, various villains (Osiris, Lucifer Darke, Vremsky, and N. Ron Steele) meditate on why they do what they do – why, they do it for Art, of course! – and how it reflects on their own personal stories. But in the end, it is the jiggling of ice in a drink that makes Steele realize, paradise or not, all is not well.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

II.

He could use a drink, not that even in such a cool place to work as SHMRG they would stock what he had in mind, so Kenny Hackett decided he'd go “stretch his legs.” To him, that meant “taking a break,” the typical adult euphemism for “hitting the men's room and checking the snack bar” – he'd heard some of the older women say to each other, “I'm going to go powder my nose,” whatever that meant – part necessity but also part reward after his private meeting with the boss. The lunch he'd eaten at his computer consisted of a sandwich, some pie and a soda purchased at the cafeteria downstairs, so since he felt entitled to use a little more of his half-hour, maybe all he needed to tide him over till his 3:00 break was a bag of barbecue chips and another soda.

No one else was in the hallway leading down to the reception area and anybody he could see over their cubicle walls was hunched over a computer, hard at work after their lunch breaks. At times like this, he thought that cute receptionist would ask what he was doing and want to see his passport. But Portia Gates wasn't at her desk, perhaps not back from lunch yet. The only person in view was Mr Darke. Maybe he's waiting for an important visitor to step out of the elevator.

Without noticing Kenny outside the rest rooms, Darke quickly reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, turning away from the lobby as if he had noticed somebody else there and wanted privacy. Then he stepped behind a large potted ficus. “That's kind of paranoid,” Kenny thought. “Why not just go to his office?”

Kenny realized if he continued and went either toward the men's room or into the snack bar Darke might notice him, so he pulled himself up and stepped behind another of the potted palms.

What was even more suspicious-looking was how Darke was hunched over the phone, not that Kenny heard what he was whispering, but it was clear the boss didn't want to be seen or heard. Not that Kenny, only yards away behind another potted plant and paging through a technical journal, didn't look any less suspicious.

He was trying hard not to eavesdrop and hoped no one would come by and see this awkward pantomime like something out of a spy movie, not that Kenny saw that many spy movies. The snack bar would put him in the direct field of Darke's vision and he knew the men's room door squeaked. There was no alternative plan if somebody did come by so he nonchalantly leaned against the wall, engrossed in his magazine. What if Darke turned and saw him? He wasn't exactly just passing through...

Just then, he heard one word clearly: “extraction.” Was it his dentist, something about an appointment to have a tooth pulled? But why was he being so secretive about setting up a dental appointment? Of course, it wouldn't be any fun if he needed a tooth pulled, what with his big speech at tonight's banquet.

But in the next breath, he heard Darke say something about “Pansy Grunwald” which seemed like one of those non sequiturs. What would she have to do with dentistry – she was dead, after all. “Yes,” Darke continued, no longer bothering to whisper, “an accident would be unfortunate. But see what you can do about it...”

Kenny, realizing it wasn't safe to move just yet, now froze in mid-step. Steele had had Pansy killed, had it made to look like an accident, so perhaps, Kenny thought, Darke was speaking figuratively.

Lucifer Darke, without looking around – Kenny was holding his breath he'd be discovered – made some vague remark about “hell and night,” slipped the phone back into his pocket and strode off toward his office. Nodding at nobody specifically, the boss disappeared into the corner office – which everybody still called “Steele's Office” – and shut the door.

While he didn't think much of what he'd overheard at first, the more he thought about what it all meant, Kenny was pretty sure Darke wasn't talking about dentistry, except in the metaphoric sense.

Being a lowly tech engineer in a company involved in the International Music Scene, Kenny Hackett was not used to the fine, mental workings and subtle acrobatics with which Upper Management ran the business.

“And to think I'd only given him Steele's GPS coordinates about an hour ago: I wonder if this call was related?”

The longer he waited, the more likely he'd be seen leaning against the wall, paging through a magazine – wasting his time (people should have special badges to wear that would indicate “I'm on break”) – and the more of a necessity his visit to the men's room became (not to mention needing that can of soda). On his way back from the snack bar, the door to the ladies' room opened to reveal Portia Gates, the receptionist. She smiled at Kenny, a pleasant, almost shy smile which totally transfixed him.

“Hi, Kenny,” she said, getting herself settled with her headset, “anything exciting happening?” He thought she meant while she was gone. He was desperately trying not to think about the excitement in his pants.

“Depends on what you call 'exciting,' I guess,” he stammered as he tried nonchalantly to rip open his bag of chips.

With that, she had to take a call and it was like he no longer existed, more than his ego crestfallen. Not that he had any right to imagine dating someone like Portia Gates.

Soon, he was back to thinking about Darke's mysterious behavior during that conversation: did it have anything to do with Steele?

“I mean, I know why the IMP's after him, but why is Darke? Maybe he's just trying to protect Steele from being arrested by the police – yeah, that's probably it. But what did Pansy...?”

By the time he got back to his desk, practically unnoticed by his colleagues, he'd already finished the bag of chips and had downed more than half the soda while talking to some guy about problems they're having with this project Kenny was only peripherally involved in and was hoping to keep it that way. Still, he felt magnanimous, like he was being courted for his invaluable opinion, so he made a not too obvious suggestion which he hoped would be satisfactory, prove he was being a team player. Ear-buds again in place, he settled back into his desk, mentally closing his imaginary door as if to lock the rest of the world out of his life, and focused on his own project. “Clara” was his own private assignment, and would make him a major player far above the rest of this sorry team.

Unlocking his computer with his latest password – since starting work on “Amfortas,” Kenny'd been careful about changing it several times a day, even if no one really knew what he's working on is “sensitive” (one can never be too careful or too paranoid in this line of work, especially working in a place like SHMRG) – he quickly forgot what he'd overheard Darke talking about when he realized things were moving ahead dramatically with the “Clara Project,” his virus already contaminating its so-called “learning process” with an unstable emotional variable.

“But that could only mean this program has been developed not as 'Artificial Intelligence' but as an attempt at 'Artificial Life.' Sure, the distributed processing creates billions of units working together like a brain,” Kenny thought, “complete with the ability to function as a larger, living creature, but in robotics that's, like, Old Technology – ancient.” Only here, if he understood it correctly, it's a brain that, given the right codes, could learn to make logical decisions, but which with the added indeterminacy of emotion could prove chaotic, even terminal.

True, this could considerably reduce its market value if it's known to the public the program they've purchased is seriously flawed, perhaps even fatally flawed, given how bugs are part of development and marketing. But, with a little more tweaking, it might even become a “killer” program in a very real sense of the word.

He had no idea who the guy who developed this software was beyond being an unknown composer and an almost-retired academic, but whoever he was, technical skills aside, he had a very creative mind if he could see around some of the fundamental problems that had been plaguing developers and code-writers like himself for years. There were details Kenny, so far, couldn't quite, didn't need to figure out. “How Purdue did it was not important,” he thought, rapidly scrolling along; “all I know is I've got the end results.” More importantly, he knows he could change it dramatically by adding that one little command with a few more emotion-laden musical examples for the reference library (which, granted, was severely logical in its outlook). “And there it was, a completely transformed personality, turning a shy, careful and demure young woman into a fire-breathing, risk-taking bitch.”

It would be entertaining to see how this would play out, he thought. “Nobody here could catch what I've done – there's no time, with this deadline – so I know it'll go through development undetected. Somebody, eventually, might discover what's been done, once it's actually killed a bunch of people, and trace it back to SHMRG. It's not like other companies haven't marketed flawed and often fatal products before: they'd only issue an apology and a recall. It's my job to just deliver the software and that's what I'm doing.”

III.

For a kid, Narder thought this guy was pretty tough, sticking to his story like a seasoned criminal and complaining that, while they're holding him, the “Real Killer” – he'd said this with a sneer – had probably abducted both Purdue and Dr Kerr who were now seriously in danger despite lacking evidence to substantiate his claim. Vague about who could possibly have wanted to kidnap Dr Kerr, Cameron absolutely clammed up about his disappearance earlier that morning, saying only there had not been time for them to discuss the matter.

Even so, Narder wanted to keep an open mind but the evidence, such as it was, was so strong against Purdue, it was difficult to bother with “alternative possibilities” when everything seemed so open-and-shut. It was that “such-as-it-was” phrase that kept gnawing at her, all hunches considered, unable to place Purdue in Belle DiVedremo's office.

Yes, she realized the one eye witness who actually saw someone else in the room when Alma Viva's body was discovered could not commit herself to confirm the person she saw was Thomas Purdue. And, yes, the footprints they'd found indicated they belonged to someone who wore a size 11 and Purdue wore size 9s.

The young man who chased the killer down the back steps doubted the man who outran him was in his mid-60s. Unless Purdue was lying about his health, how could he have managed that?

How could she convince a jury if none of the crime-scene evidence would effectively place her suspect at the crime scene of either Alma Viva's murder or the murder of Purdue's publisher, Ms DiVedremo? With this latest murder – a third murder victim: how high was this death toll going to go? – it was much clearer, though there were no witnesses to the death of the third victim Amanda Wences, a friend of the first victim who'd recommended her to the second victim and who worked for the prime suspect.

Evidence of Purdue was everywhere but then it was his house and they often worked together in his basement computer studio. But then there was the mysterious Dr Kerr who just happens to show up the day of the first two murders. What was he doing there, this friend of Purdue's – he and his assistant?

“Look, why would Dr Kerr kill Amanda, anyway,” Cameron said. “What's the motive? She'd called and asked him to help find Purdue, something about his leaving Kerr's phone number in case something should happen. He seems to have disappeared sometime on Sunday. So now Dr Kerr's gone, too – they both could be in grave danger.”

Narder thought there was a slight hesitation following this, like he was going to say something else then changed his mind. She looked at him without saying anything, and waited for him to continue.

When he didn't and continued to sit there with that petulant frown of his, Narder wondered what she should say next.

“Look,” she tried, “Purdue's place was under surveillance: nobody else came or went...”

“I don't know,” Cameron said, “maybe the killer came in through the tunnel.”

“Tunnel?” Narder looked up, stopping short. “What tunnel?”

Narder's phone rang before Cameron could reply but she didn't miss the look of disbelief on his face before he chuckled.

“What!” Narder snapped at the phone. “No, I'm in interrogation. What've you got?”

Cameron pretended not to listen but she knew he was paying close attention, so she walked over to the far corner.

Nadia Klüh, their IT specialist, had been examining Purdue's computer, brought in from the crime scene, and noticed something “really weird.”

“It took a while to get past the password, but then it... well...”

Narder didn't have the patience for long, drawn-out, technical explanations, with or without her sexy German accent. “Cut to the chase...”

“Well, I started to feel short bursts of electricity as I continued typing, even though I was wearing rubber gloves, yes? It was like it was defending itself against a hacker – through the firewall?”

And, Narder thought, Nortonstein said they'd found burn marks on the victim's fingertips. Was she maybe getting into part of the computer Purdue didn't want her in, booby-trapping his own computer against a break-in?

“Tell Nortonstein – maybe he can figure out if it has any tie-in with this latest CoD. Just be careful in there.” She hung up the phone with an irritated scowl but wondered why she'd worded it that way: “be careful in there”? And meanwhile, turning to Cameron, she had an interrogation to get back to.

“Now, Mr Pierce, tell me: what the hell is this about a tunnel?” She braced both her fists on the table opposite him when at first he didn't respond, hoping it would intimidate him. There'd been no sign of a tunnel but it would explain a lot. Like, how Kerr escaped without having been seen.

Narder waited. “And...?”

Cameron explained how it apparently ran behind Purdue's place from the old farmhouse next door down to, as far as he could tell, the old crypt just inside the cemetery gate.

“And you hadn't bothered to mention this before?”

“Technically, Detective, you hadn't asked...”

Narder stood up, glowering down at the young man who chose to keep looking at his hands on the table. “Huh...!”

“I'd also noticed when...,” Cameron began, “earlier this morning, someone had been looking through stuff on Purdue's desk by the computer...”

“Any idea who?” Narder's impatience was quickly increasing.

“Well, there'd been reports of this prowler some neighbors saw in the area.”

“Oh, right, the famous 'prowler.'” She'd assumed it was Purdue but if he...

Just then, her phone rang again.

“What!”

“Det. Narder? Paula Naze, here. You're not going to believe this, but I'm at the crime scene – well, Purdue's house – and we just found something really weird.”

“A tunnel?” Narder leaned back against the wall, a palm across her forehead.

“Yeah. Uhm, how'd you know? Wait, there's more...”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 12th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 19 (Part 1)

In the previous installment [posted on Monday, November 5th], Martin & Dorothy decide not to wait for Kerr who's apparently gotten lost again, somehow, but as they're heading toward the old farmhouse through the mysterious tunnel, they are overtaken by an old woman whom the middle-aged man with her calls Aunt Jane. She calls him Tommy and, Dorothy notices, he happens to look like a younger version of Tom Purdue. Aunt Jane is explaining how she'd heard someone screaming in the middle of the night; they find blood on the carpet in the old farmhouse's living room. Following them back through the basement into the tunnel, Martin & Dorothy see the basement transform into a clean, well-lit medical lab like an operating room and overhear two guys with thick Jersey accents talking about the body they dumped in the crypt. Since they'd returned the wheelbarrow left in Purdue's basement once already, Martin thinks they need to hide it someplace else – and he knows just the place.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

CHAPTER 19

I.

Agent Selket, straightening her uniform, ignored the other members of the staff, as usual, which hardly mattered since she didn't know their names, barely knew what they were charged with doing, and, above all, hardly cared how well they did it as long as it had no impact on her and, especially, on her patient. She was relieved they'd be landing at the airport soon – Selket hated flying over the ocean, a fear augmented by the fact even if she did know how to swim, there were always sharks. The others traveling with them on this assignment may have been members of an elite force sent to protect her boss, but no one could protect him as she has done over the years. Recalling her decades of devoted service, she smiled with satisfaction at her accomplishments, remembering exotic places and perilous assignments they'd shared.

Not that any of these youngsters hanging around in the back of Osiris' private jet would even imagine having to do half the things her position required her to do, more care-giver than agent, but regardless how often the minions called him “Mr Big,” someone had to change the old man's colostomy bag: reality bites... Trained as the last line of defense if needed, she was well aware how many times, alas, it had been needed, though she doesn't blame the novices for their expertise, only for their inexperience.

There was a routine before landing that must now be completed, so Selket drew the heavy curtain separating the man in the wheelchair from those buckling themselves in at the back of the cabin. She would check his usual stats and give him his shots, now that he was rested or at least reasonably relaxed. The others knew not to disturb them until she'd drawn the curtain back, not until after the pilot announced they'd arrived (there was nothing worse than giving someone a shot while hitting some turbulence).

Little needed to be said between them during this phase of the landing, details so routine she could perform them blindfolded, unrealistic as that would be, of course, when reading his blood-pressure or temperature. His “vitals” barely registered, like some hibernating creature just coming out of a long winter's nap, but that would soon change.

Retrieving a few items kept in a sporran-like pouch belted around her waist (avoiding the indelicacy of calling it a “fanny-pack”), she warmed the small silver flask, embossed with an ankh, in her hand. This was part of her precious supply of Osiris' most important life-saving medication, what she called his fons vitae – “Flamel's Khalidaqua.” After the pilot had sounded the all-clear and she felt the jet's wheels settle onto the tarmac after that initial jolt, Selket opened a small black lacquer box, a jade scorpion on its lid. Taking one of the gold-tipped hypodermic needles, she stuck it carefully into the flask, then pulled back the syringe and watched. She only needed 2ml of the miraculous potion – any more had dangerous side-effects. A brilliant, dark red elixir seeped into the syringe, more viscous than fluid, tiny gold flecks glistening in the dim light.

“Steady, now.”

She spoke as much to herself as she did to him – his eyes, heavy with sleep, blinked slowly – then inserted the needle into the port on the left side of Osiris' neck and, despite its initial sluggishness, watched as the blood-like serum began to flow, while beginning to count slowly backwards from ten. By zero, he'd feel that familiar warmth as it began mixing with the saline solution dripping from the IV bag and, further warmed by what body temperature he possessed, start coursing through his veins.

The old man sat motionless, unsmiling, a good patient trained by decades of familiarity and trust, as she poked and prodded. Without paying attention, he sensed her going through the well-calculated motions, wrapping the cuff of the sphygmomanometer around his upper arm, pumping the bulb until it began to tighten its grip around his arm. Always afraid of biting it in half if a spasm seized his jaw, he was glad the old-fashioned glass thermometer had been replaced by something less irritating, something instead merely aimed inside his ear. The air around him filled with gentle harp music and the soft rhythms of a rattle – a sistrum, to be exact – ancient music, they'd said, to take him back millennia and replenish the soul. Whether this was something real or sounds he only imagined in his head, it sounded real enough and had its effect.

His motorized wheelchair, which she'd dubbed “Atet” after Ra's sun-barge, bringing light to the world by day and coursing through the Underworld by night, included a specially-designed IV pole fitted into the left arm, intricately carved from the wood of an ancient tamarisk tree, topped by the stylized head of a wolf, like a scepter. When not in use and all its paraphernalia removed, this pole could be lowered, the wolf head peering over his shoulder. An embossed metal cover on door-like hinges shielded his lower body from view.

He was a powerful man; people around the world respected, even feared, him – but if they saw him like this, kept alive by the ministrations of an old woman like Selket, not so much. He was old – he'd forgotten exactly how old, most likely in his nineties – and that was bad enough in today's world. When most men in power were only in their seventies, Osiris gave out he was over a hundred: let them marvel. He'd led the Aficionati for over fifty years: who knew how much longer?

Osiris also knew, without the old woman, his faithful nurse these many decades, even with his own strength of will, he'd still be nothing more than a bed-ridden old man in a nursing home. He owed not only his power but his life to Selket's loyalty: the question was, he wondered, for how much longer?

For the moment, he closed his eyes, trying to forget the unpleasantness, and waited the additional few minutes until the serum took full effect, reviving his blood, and the team was ready to disembark. It was a tiresome routine, landing, but it helped his energy return from the hibernation of traveling before returning to life. His team would wheel him through the ritualized gauntlet of customs and security but, judged wealthy enough to be above suspicion, dismissed as an eccentric invalid in a wheelchair with a fearsomely glowering nurse.

“Why do we do what we do,” he said to himself, somewhere deep in his deepest thoughts, “through these many years?” He raised his chin slightly, as if stretching the muscles in his neck. “We do it for Art, of course.” He used the “Royal We” and spoke “Art-with-a-Capital-A” with a well-practiced arrogance. “Of course.”

And by Art, he meant primarily music, especially “Music-with-a-Capital-M,” and by that he meant specifically Classical Music (in a general sense, not just the music of the Classical Era, something only pedants argued about). It's not that he dismissed the “Other Arts”: the Aficionati's sole reason to exist was for the perpetuation of Art Music.

“We are,” he intoned, even when thinking his thoughts, “the Keepers of Art, with its ageless secrets and traditions, through Time. It is for us to lead the Music-Lovers into the realm of Enlightenment.”

Music by itself lacks the necessary energy to transcend mere entertainment until the listener possesses the knowledge to fully appreciate it – this Wisdom of the Ages (of the Aesthetes) – much, he thought, like himself. Without his life-giving serum, Osiris knows he is merely a shell of himself; but with it, he becomes alive and ageless. So, when Music combines with vision – not as the mere sense of seeing but with all its intellectual applications – it brings us out of the nothingness of our present experience into the wider Universe.

“It is the Universe, on the one hand, the embodiment of constant change, imperfect and unknowable, which we must somehow comprehend, balanced, on the other, by the Universe which is logical, bound by Reason. It is this search for perfection – Symmetry! – where we find balance, no matter how complex the surface, in its underlying simplicity.

“That which is beautiful,” he resumed, “is beautiful because it pleases us and we can comprehend its natural form and symmetry. It is not the surface that attracts us but what's beyond the surface. We are aware, in some way, of the patterns that create the surface; we comprehend these patterns' complexities beneath the surface. We do not like something, as populists tell us, because it is beautiful, responding only to the surface with our senses, because the road to truth exists through the mind, not through the emotions.”

It is this very antithesis that's long been at the heart of the “Death of Classical Music” discussion for generations – centuries! – where blasé sophistication of the Intellectuals opposes the worldly ennui of the Sensualists. We find pattern and balance everywhere we turn: only the mind can analyze the beauty of music into its component parts.

“We can only find ourselves satisfied if, to paraphrase Plato by way of Freud – as incongruous as those dichotomies may seem – we assert that the condition of civilization, in uniting individuals, is a modification which the vital process experiences through Intellect and Necessity, thus managing to create an aspect of this community we call Culture.”

But he also knew this “condition of Culture” (again, speaking of Culture-with-a-Capital-C”) was, he sighed, subject to a more or less rapid degeneration, like all realities where their origins have been lost to Time.

*_*

There were times, those few times when he had nothing urgent to do, Darke liked to stand at his office's corner window – technically, he always reminded himself, still “Steele's Office” – and observe the scene. True, it was constantly changing depending on the time of day or whatever the season, but it was essentially the same. “Like that river in Greece they said you could never step in twice.” The buildings never changed, the park was always just out of view; he was too far up to see the street. The clouds might be interesting or maybe it was raining, but it never seemed to vary till the streetlights came on. By night, it all seemed a different world but if he were going to enjoy the darkness, he wouldn't care to be spending it at the office, even if it were still “Steele's Office.”

Like any New Yorker, he'd look across at the next building, wondering “what could be going on there, behind those windows?” Were they dealing with office politics on the verge of undermining the company? How much of its time did Upper Management spend trying to fleece its customers in order to better their bottom line? Did the person discovering the loop holes in the government's regulations receive a satisfactory raise to reward him for his loyalty? Could the CEO buy another house, perhaps in Barbados, with his Christmas bonus?

Lucifer Darke was pleased with the change in his own financial standing in the world since he'd taken over SHMRG after forcing N. Ron Steele out of his office, even if “not officially recognized” – maybe after the next board meeting, assuming he wins over enough of Steele's loyalists to turn the vote in his favor. If not, he must act quickly to feather his off-shore nest to guarantee the lifestyle he'd hoped for, going into business; otherwise, what was the point, all the back-stabbing and power-grabbing he'd engaged in?

It unnerved him, walking down the hallways and bringing conversations to a halt, when everyone gave him their smug, self-satisfied smiles. What were they saying, what was it they didn't want him to hear? Plotting against him, no doubt, something he knew he'd have to live with, living by and dying by the corporate sword.

But, putting personal misgivings aside, he needed to start preparing for his introduction at tonight's banquet, a “live-remote shot” or not. What he would say was immaterial (since no one really listened), but it had to look convincing, like he was far too busy to be bothered... – no, to be able to attend the banquet. Social responsibilities, he knew, were not his thing: true, it was something he had to work on, but not right now. He was still, as far as the board was concerned, new and “temporary.” Some CEOs were born leaders who managed their team into the right direction; others were “idea men” who created that direction. Granted, the only thing he felt he really had going for him was his ruthless ability to get where he was, but could he prove ruthless enough to consolidate that power and, eventually, survive?

He began to look over his bookshelves and rummage through his desk drawers for files and books, preferably large, fat ones, to clutter his desk with the appearance of industry, too busy to stop. But wouldn't that make him look like some relic out of the past, a bureaucratic dinosaur still using pencil and paper? These days, he wondered, didn't everybody, especially executives, do their work on computers? It's been so long since he did any actual work, he couldn't remember. He decided he'd look at other people's desks.

“Why do we do what we do,” he wondered as he walked around, not really sure what he was looking for. “Is it for Art, making available to the Masses what we consider worthy?” He peered through windows, peeked in office doors, trying to look relatively inconspicuous, and skulked across wide-open floors littered with cubicles. While he thought of Art-with-a-Capital-A as marginally important, it was obviously the Masses-with-a-Capital-M which had more relevance to SHMRG's bottom line. “A good manager, we always remind everyone 'there is no I in TEAM'.”

“We are,” he said, sweeping his eyes across an imaginary audience, “the Guiders of Opinion, convincing listeners what they should like, SHMRG's whole purpose as a corporation thriving in the business of the arts. It is for us to lead the Music-Lover in the right direction and, by successfully pushing our products, increase our profits.”

Music by itself had little impact on affecting these all-important profit margins unless it was carefully researched, invested in and marketed, allowing him the opportunity to live the lavish lifestyle he'd become accustomed to. Naturally, he admitted his use of the “Corporate We” referred only to upper management when it came to sharing those profits.

“It is the stock market we serve, that quixotic universal wheel of fortune, inscrutable, unknowable, where the Hunch rules over Logic, where the 'Art of the Deal,' not Art itself, decides success or failure.

“When I was in grade school, my teacher told us 'Classical Music is the music people don't like.' And she's right! Who could 'like' that hoity-toity mumbo-jumbo if you couldn't dance to it? Bo-ring! The most important question is, 'Is it pretty?' If not...” – here, Darke made a derisive gesture accompanied by a rude noise.

This has long been at the heart of Classical Music's failure and it was time the old stuffed shirts who continued to pedal it get with the times and learn something from pop culture.

This is not about whether civilization survives 'as we know it' because whatever civilization is, it is always changing, evolving upwards: this is about the survival of the fittest and most powerful – the richest. It is not some musty religion borne of incantations in some ancient temple: it's the living, breathing Voice of the People.

*_*

Vremsky was wondering, given the secrecy behind the organization's hierarchy, whether there was anybody higher than Osiris in the Aficionati's pantheon; she gathered he was well above her superior, Agent Dagon, on the list. As Agent Lóviatar, she assumed she was somewhere near the middle of it, a junior-level agent entrusted with merely minor responsibilities. But the question in Vremsky's ever-curious mind was, why was Osiris coming here? What was going on she was unaware of? Something was definitely afoot and somehow Falx was at the bottom of it.

Trusting Falx did not seem like a good idea, given that ever-curious mind, trained by too many years of business-induced paranoia, yet she knew his success in his assignments would reflect well on her. Loyalty to one's superior was as valued as loyalty to those beneath you, yet how loyal had she been to Dagon?

As the van rambled unobtrusively through the streets of suburban Philadelphia, returning to the airport where she'd only recently landed herself, she reflected on that unfortunate but unavoidable incident, dismissing any sense of regret.

“Dagon's old,” she admitted, “and getting too farking old to make necessary decisions,” whether it was right to openly contradict him.

She knew immediately it was wrong – his decision – yet going her own way had been viewed as “unprofessional,” and therefore “wrong.” Saying “it was for the good of the organization” made it sound worse.

But this, she thought, looking around at the other occupants of Falx's van, what fresh hell was this going to bring? No one spoke but the others were smiling which made her immediately suspicious. They were meeting Osiris at the airport and transporting him back to this dilapidated old farmhouse in a miserable, run-down van? This would not reflect well on her, she knew: they should have gotten a limousine but then Falx said they had no limousine equipped to transport a wheelchair (how did the man travel otherwise?).

“If Osiris is displeased, trundled into the back of a van” – (she hadn't heard about the body from the night before) – “how will that reflect on me? I will be mortified in his presence!” She kissed all those dreams of promotions good-bye, advancing higher up the power structure, unable to handle something even this simple.

“Just wait till I've explained what we can get from that old professor. He'll be amazed what I've discovered, if I can get Purdue to talk (he's almost there, if he doesn't die first). Surely Falx can't take the credit for that, simply because he knew the guy was an old neighbor of his grandmother's? That's not skill, that's not doing your work, pursuing the patterns and then following up on theories until they're proven facts! That's just fate and one thing the Aficionati doesn't believe in is Fate. After all, I'm the one who found him, who saw the value in what he was researching – not Falx, not Govnozny! (And what is that troll doing here? He's a medical agent, a surgeon!) It was me,” she pointed out, reassuring herself, “and it's me he'll reward once he sees the work I'm capable of!”

Falx, not saying a word, kept an eye on the rear-view mirror – watching her, she wondered, or was someone following them? Had they been compromised by the local police? And whose fault was that? What's this about Purdue having “visitors” next door, anyway; have Falx's two agents been sloppy? Could that have alerted the police?

“Maybe Osiris is really here to honor me, rewarding me with a bonus or advancement for having acquired the target Purdue?” No, he'd've already been on his way before Falx said he'd found him.

“Why do I do what I do,” she sighed at her disembodied reflection in the window, superimposed on the glimmering landscape. “Fark, most times I don't even know what I do, much less why.” She tried sneaking glances at the others, wondering how they would answer this: seriously, did they even bother thinking about it? As a struggling concert promoter, she figured she did it for Art's Sake as long as it kept the business afloat but there were times her higher principles collided with economic realities: “Sorry, guys...” She had to let go certain performers who no longer attracted audiences or played music considered too “esoteric” for ticket sales, torn by the need to promote good music with the need for profit. That was why she found being an agent of the Aficionati so attractive: this music had to be protected and preserved.

“But what was the point if we diluted the quality of what we believed in just to fill out the book-keeping so at the end of the month everything might at least balance out?” “We,” Vremsky knew, meant her partner and all the musicians her agency represented, plus those few presenters who trusted her judgment. It was what they in the business called “The Good Fight,” and they carried it on relentlessly against all the odds, like keeping a museum of rare treasures available to an ever-dwindling, appreciative public.

“How would anyone ever discover they could respond to it if they were never exposed to it, like I had been as a student, finding enlightenment through understanding after careful study and constant familiarity? It's not important that I like it; it's 'why do I like it?' It must survive if we're to be complete.” By being brought into the presence of great art through whatever means possible and becoming initiated to its subtleties, its complexities, we'll no longer be indifferent to beauty in the world, but superior beings.

That it is great and has withstood the Test of Time is enough and because of it, our civilization will survive, thereby balancing the decline of culture if we keep the barbarians at bay.

“I'm a docent in this Museum of Life, bringing others into the fold. Surely, Osiris will see this and reward me.”

*_*

“Why do we do what we do,” Steele thought, setting his drink down beside him, feeling smug, “if not to succeed?” It was an age-old argument he could never understand: why is Art important? “And especially, what's the point of 'Art-for-Art's-Sake' if it's not to make people like me rich? What's the point of anything? We,” he said, closing his eyes with a self-satisfied grin, enjoying the warmth of his drink, “are the arbiters of taste. Give them flashy artists playing the loudest, fastest music to rev them up!

“But Classical Music's become this annoying little niche of dead composers where all the profits are wasted because of Public Domain. Who's making any money off of these guys? We sure as hell aren't! It's the Stock Market we serve,” he said, “where Hunch overrules Logic – it's 'The Art of the Deal,' not Art itself.

“Who could 'like' all that hoity-toity mumbo-jumbo, anyway? People actually make a living 'analyzing' the stuff, experts writing for other experts. No, the question is, 'Will it sell?'” Then Steele made a rude noise. “We must save Classical Music from itself, recreate it in our corporate image, get more consumers hooked, make it 'popular' again!

“If it's to survive – all this Beethoven and Mozart stuff – it must evolve, shed its dusty past, move with the times. It's not some secretive religion: it's the living, breathing Voice of the People.”

The ice jiggled in his glass, sitting on the table, interrupting his easily interruptable thoughts with a tinkling like gentle wind-chimes, and he looked over to see a ring of ripples across his drink. He could hear nothing, feel nothing, imagining himself happily suspended in a hammock, yet he could sense something about to happen. “Doom” was what was about to happen, he knew it, and for the moment it terrified him, hanging heavily over him: no birds, no breeze, everything he'd become used to, suspended in fraught anticipation.

He felt if he looked back over his shoulder toward the volcano he would see a Tyrannosaurus Rex waiting for him and it would smile with that kind of reptilian smile Lucifer Darke had. Perhaps he'd misjudged how SHMRG could activate a plan in hours, not days; perhaps, he considered, they're already on their way?

“I've packed up all but the most essential equipment but I can take that down at the last minute,” Cable said. “Then after making arrangements for the helicopter to be ready, I got this.” He handed a print-out to Steele who barely looked at it before handing it back. “It apparently originates from Carsonoma's account.”

Steele looked up at him with a frown. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Well,” Cable hesitated as he glanced over it again, “maybe it wasn't him that sent it – it could be a hacker.”

“A hacker? A hacker got into Carsonoma's private e-mail?” Steele was more offended than concerned, considering the implications. “How dare he!”

“Which could mean,” trying not to sound like a frustrated Computer 101 tutor, “whoever just pinged my computer knows where we are and sent this to prove to us now we've been hacked, too.”

“So somebody found your computer, big deal,” Steele said, putting his drink back on the table. “How often does that happen?” He waited to see if his glass would shake again: it did not. Besides, he certainly paid Cable enough to make sure their network was secure. Maybe there was a reason somebody got through...?

“Coded message or not, man, there's no time to figure it out,” pointing toward the volcano. The glass began shaking again. “Isn't any of this getting through to you?”

Now, he felt it might.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 9th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.