Monday, August 20, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 1 (Part 4)

In the previous installment, the police have arrived at the offices of Marple Music to investigate the death of Alma Viva, the young woman who'd been brutally murdered within a few minutes of just starting her new job. Chief Detective Laura Narder, along with Detective Sargents Alejandro Tango and James Reel, interview the two witnesses who discovered the body and saw the killer, gather information from the office manager, and, after talking with the company's president and CEO, Belle DiVedremo, find themselves a suspect: a disgruntled composer, soon to be dropped from the publishing house's catalogue, named Thomas Purdue. Not only did he have a motive, the victim was holding onto a letter from him, torn in half during the struggle with her killer, that could possibly be interpreted as a threat, and there was a long rambling phone call that had come in to the answering machine over the weekend. The next step is to pay Mr Purdue a visit.

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

And now, it's time for the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

II.

The door was sticking a little, as usual, despite the air being dry, so she nudged it with her shoulder again before it gave way without much more effort or much of a groan. She'd told Dr Purdue about that a couple times back in the summer but he said it'd clear up before winter. “Typical absent-minded professor,” she said under her breath, “what you can't fix, procrastinate,” walking in without knocking or ringing the bell. The cat sauntered into the kitchen before stopping a foot from his bowl.

“What's the matter, Zeno, did he forget to feed you again this morning?” The cat grumbled an affirmation, then plopped down. “Okay, well, hang on a minute,” she said, flicking on the light switch. Amanda put a pile of journals on the table before petting the cat which seemed to mollify him for the moment.

“I can only stay a few minutes, bud – got Wilsher's 10:00 class today, and I can't afford to miss another one. I'm running late as it is, dropping off these journals the doc wanted.” Amanda opened up the kitchen cupboard where the professor stored Zeno's canned food and noticed there was only one can left.

“Uh oh, kiddo,” she said, and stepped around the cat's ever-tightening figure-8 dance, “looks like somebody's going to the store soon.” Opening the refrigerator and finding it nearly empty, she figured sooner than later.

She was hoping by this time Dr Purdue would have recovered far enough to be a little more on his own, especially after he'd finished his therapy at the cardio center three weeks ago. It had been six months ago last Tuesday he'd had his heart attack and the surgery to bypass a blocked artery. By now, he's been driving downtown to get some groceries on his own, careful about bulky items too heavy to lift, but it helped to build up his confidence as much as his strength. She'd gone with him initially when she'd been concerned about his going alone, watching the clock so he didn't tire himself, but the people at the store, only four blocks away, were always helpful. And his pharmacy – Popper's – was only a few doors further down the street, walking distance from where he'd parked the car.

Just in case he had fed Zeno last night (though the cat looked convincingly hungry), she opted for the dry food which did not meet with his immediate approval, so he continued to grumble. It's not that she minded running errands or looking in on the professor, but there were times she was too busy. Regardless, she decided to stop at the store and get a few cans for tomorrow – she'd soon be late for class. “Maybe he's planning on going this evening,” she thought. “I'll leave a reminder.”

She sighed as she reached for the notepad he kept by the phone, jotting down the journals were on the table before adding like an afterthought, “do you need to go to the store?” Scratching the cat behind the ears, she realized there were times she felt more like a nursing student than an intern.

It felt good to her, Amanda recalled, after she reconnected with her grandmother back when Nana was first diagnosed with cancer, the experience not without rewards even if it had been painful to watch. But the professor wasn't dying and he certainly didn't need a hospice nurse: she reminded herself he was recuperating quite well.

If he became too dependent on her, that wouldn't be a good thing, especially at his age, old enough to retire. But she couldn't help feel sorry for him, so alone, apparently without friends.

Amanda Wences recently started her last year at Stone-Rawlings College where she'd known Professor Thomas Purdue since her first freshman year when she'd taken his Music Appreciation course and later the Music Education class – it always sounded odd whenever she explained that cumbersome expression, “first freshman year” before she'd decided to pursue a dual major. Graduating from high school with no idea what she wanted to do professionally, she thought first she would try elementary education, but when that didn't sound like a realistic profession, she switched to computers. It was Purdue who suggested it to her when she was so upset, worried if she'd made the right career choice, back on a rainy afternoon a week before her first year's final exams. She'd been reading how more people were leaving the teaching profession every year and wondered perhaps she'd made a huge mistake.

As long as politics continued to absorb the legislature in the state capital where deep divisions kept them from coming up with reasonable budgets to help the schools reach even the most basic goals, it didn't help established teachers were burning out faster than ever while younger ones left for more lucrative, less demanding jobs. It wasn't that Amanda Wences considered herself lazy but why put up with that kind of abuse for such little reward? “I mean, who expects anyone to walk backwards into a rip-saw on purpose?”

When Dr Purdue asked her, “thinking hypothetically,” what she imagined herself doing instead, anything which could be turned into a career, it took her several minutes to come up with anything, hypothetical or otherwise, before she mentioned, while her boyfriend enjoyed playing computer games all day long, she was more interested in how they're made. Since Jorge barely had the intelligence to figure out how to play them, getting any technical basics from him was pointless, much less how she could possibly ever turn that into a money-making career.

But Purdue suggested she take one of those summer introductory computer engineering courses if she could work it into her schedule which turned out to be one of the smartest things she ever did. And here she was, four years later, earning credits as the Professor's intern, helping with his project combining music and computers.

It made her laugh, now, leaving this note, how much of her internship money was being earned by running household errands or dealing with mundane things which had nothing to do with his project – but then didn't most corporate interns sort mail or get coffee and sandwiches, never doing substantial work that taught them anything? She debated whether to mention in her note the door was still sticking, not that she wanted to be nagging him; especially if it hadn't bothered him before, would it make any difference, now?

Back in July, her boyfriend offered to help with a few handyman jobs, odds-and-ends around the house if he needed anything, but that was weeks before they'd broken up, each going their separate ways (this had been Hector, her most recent boyfriend, not the half-literate, computer-game-playing moron she'd broken up with over three years ago).

Hector found several windows had been painted shut, but since they'd been that way for years, the professor thought it a waste of his time trying to dislodge them, considering he had central air. This was what Hector called “deferred maintenance,” putting repairs off until something fell apart and then it became a costly emergency. The whole house was like that, Amanda thought every time she walked in, an old house inherited from his elderly aunt. One of these days, it will look like that haunted place next door.

The Professor said it's been over ten years since he moved into it, not long after his aunt moved into a nursing home in Ardmore, leaving the place to him, “lock, stock and barrel,” and yet it still had that creepy “little old lady look” about it despite all those books and recordings of his. He said he never felt the need to make the place his own, though Amanda couldn't imagine it felt like “home,” always assuming he must feel like he's in a perpetual state of visiting.

It's not like he's keeping it for her since she died years ago, a few weeks after celebrating her 100th birthday – sharing cake and ice cream with some friends in the home's social hall – yet even without those photos of his aunt and him as a boy, it's like a shrine to some irretrievable past.

Earlier in the summer, while he was recuperating from his heart surgery and she was getting over her break-up with Hector, she offered to help “tidy up” the place and “de-clutter” the living room when what he needed most was a maid service coming in every week along with the regular home health care nurse. She suggested having friends over to work on half the room one weekend, then finish the other side the following weekend, hauling some of the bigger furniture out to the curb for trash pick-up.

Then he could replace everything with new pieces he could call his own but he would brusquely wave her suggestions away, apologizing it would be too much of an imposition on her like that. Only later did she understand it would be a major intrusion for him, more change than he could deal with, now.

Even though she wasn't technically employed as his intern over the summer break, she came by to help almost every day, and worked with him on his project whenever he felt up to it. She knew he didn't have any family and if there were close friends, they were gone for most of the summer.

Six months after the surgery and still recovering, Dr Purdue was finally “through the woods,” if not exactly out of them. She considered maybe talking to him again about “de-cluttering” the place after Thanksgiving.

In all her years spent growing up as the youngest of three children, Amanda had never considered herself a “take-charge” girl, but now that she was becoming a woman, having only recently turned 22, she realized there was more to life than being the submissive child or the good student and eventually the obedient wife. Going to college was a relatively recent goal, even if she wasn't sure what she'd wanted to do with her life, something, she figured, she'd find along the way, if given the right chance. While she wasn't “geeky” enough to excel in higher levels of computer engineering to land a decent job in a corporation, Amanda was glad Stone-Rawlings eventually proved savvy enough to take her idea seriously. Now it looks like she'll be teaching third graders how to write programming code, thanks to Purdue's invaluable inspiration and support.

Initially, she developed a course she blandly called “Education & Technology” (Dr Purdue thought it should be the other way around) designed to embed simple computer coding language seamlessly into the general elementary curriculum much the same way one introduced younger children to reading, music or art without worrying over the application of advanced skills. Of course, Purdue told her, given the current lack of support for the arts in public schools from politicians and administrators, would an arts-inspired approach to teaching computer science in reality fare any better?

Now, Amanda enjoyed classical music but after years of piano lessons she knew she'd never be more than an amateur player because of her half-hearted training, lack of goals and decided aversion to practicing. Besides, the world of classical music didn't need another unemployed would-be concert pianist – what performers needed most was a sympathetic audience. Even if you never became good at it, it helped build awareness if you've had the experience (on your own level) and can appreciate what it's like to be actively involved in a performance.

The same thing with computers and kids who've grown up spending so much of their time passively involved in their technologies like kids who listen to so much music they pay no attention to. Why not learn – just a little – what it takes to compose even a simple song or create a rudimentary computer game?

If nothing else, Amanda felt stronger for having held her own against the boys in the IT classes she started taking, considering how everyone, especially the teacher, thought coding was primarily a man's world and since she hadn't been that knowledgeable, entering the class as a beginner, proving herself against the Geeks took some effort. Thinking how these guys would be considered “losers” by most of her friends, – overly intellectual, socially awkward and definitely not cool – it was an epiphany seeing things through their eyes, being inside their world.

The biggest problem for many of them, introverted as they were, was how they could adapt to the world of teaching which was something Amanda thought she might be able to help them with. It was a challenge for most of them, barely comfortable with their peers, to open up to anyone younger and inexperienced.

A few, like talented, highly-trained musicians, could still remember that spark of discovery, what one called his “putative loss of innocence,” to approach something so elementary without projecting a sense of boredom or impatience. But others felt themselves too smart to understand a child's sense of wonder, above it all, ready-made Einsteins stuck in kindergarten.

A human calculator who couldn't get into MIT, administrators realized, was going to have to find something practical he could do. And so they thought perhaps a Technology Education degree might be the answer.

Amanda finished her note and left it on the kitchen counter as usual, held down by the remaining cat food can when she heard a complaint from Zeno in the living room – “Now, what...?” Was it his way of acknowledging displeasure she'd offered him only dry food when he knew there was one can left?

“Leave it to Old Zeno to know I'd touched the can,” she chuckled, not used to the clairvoyant ways of cats. Herb, her pet hamster, was happy enough with his kibble and fresh veggies.

She began buttoning up her coat, getting ready to leave, already aware she'll barely make it in time to Wilsher's class, when she decided to check the living room and make sure everything's okay. It's not like Zeno to be so vocal unless he really is hungry: what if he didn't get fed this morning?

“If you're hungry, you can eat the dry food – you do other times,” she whispered at the cat, her annoyance showing. Zeno continued to grumble but ran from her, disappearing quickly up the steps. “What's the matter, did Timmy fall down the well?” though it's been years since she'd seen any of the “Lassie” reruns.

Until she started looking after him when Purdue came home from the hospital, she had never been upstairs; nor recently, again. And if he were working or sleeping, he didn't like to be disturbed.

But it worried her, after his heart attack: what if he'd had another one during the night and couldn't call 911? So she cautiously followed the cat past the dark bedroom toward the study. This door was left open, too, a small lamp still on, but then he rarely worked in this room any more.

That's when she saw the post-it note: “If anything happens to me, call...”

Then she heard someone at the front door.

“What does he mean by 'happens to me'? Whose phone number is this?”

Quickly pocketing the note and trying not to think how ominous it sounded – “he must be working in the basement study”– she hurried down the steps, followed at a little distance by the cat.

“So who could be at the door now – some traveling salesman, a neighbor?” realizing she would definitely be late for class.


*_*


For all the time she'd been in Marple, Det. Laura Narder couldn't say she'd ever been on this street before, either, a small cul-de-sac on the edge of Greenwood Cemetery just off Marple Road. Laura looked around and thought it strange that, twice in one morning, she's investigating a crime on streets she'd never seen. Most of the town, despite going back before the Revolution, had the look of a 1950s suburb, for better or worse. Here was a block of mostly mock-colonial homes, two of them run down.

“Guess our composer isn't one of those successful types,” Tango said, parking in front of the second house from the end, the less run-down of the two but then the other looked genuinely abandoned.

“He could be one of those serial composers,” Reel suggested, “a real old-timer.”

“No, if he were, this place'd be immaculate.”

Narder had read in some psychological profiler's magazine about the personality traits of creative people and artists who were highly organized – and a serial composer, she imagined, would have to be one of them – would reflect that organization in their outward lifestyles with everything in its place, and this place looked a little too Zen.

“No,” she explained, pointing out the overgrown shrubs and the preponderance of weeds, “our Mr Purdue's probably some New Age minimalist...”

“Maybe he's got health issues,” Reel suggested, “or doesn't give a rat's ass.”

Narder drew herself up to her full height which made Tango stand up even straighter so he could still be taller, and told Reel to go 'round the back, checking for any tell-tale footprints.

“If he makes a break for it, the cemetery's right behind him – he runs into that, we'll lose him for sure.”

She wondered how creepy it must have been, growing up with a cemetery on the other side of your back yard but then again it could've made playing things like “hide-and-seek” a lot cooler.

“At least we know somebody's likely to be at home,” Narder said, nodding toward the beat-up old car in the drive-way, though she couldn't imagine even a down-and-out minimalist would drive something like that.

Tango rang the doorbell and waited a few seconds before ringing it again. This time, someone peeked out behind the chain.

Narder saw a young woman possibly in her early twenties looking at them with something like fear in her brown eyes when she started stammering how she was just leaving, running late for class. A little on edge as she stood behind the door, the woman acted like something was wrong but said nothing else.

Flashing her Greater Marple Metropolitan Police badge and introducing herself and her partner, promising they wouldn't take much of her time, Narder said they only wanted to know if her father might be home.

“My father...?” The girl frowned and then continued stammering, “oh, no, I don't live here, I work for... What's this about?”

Tango raised his eyebrows and asked her what she was doing here, then.

“I work for the professor,” she said, still not moving, “and I was dropping off some journals he'd asked me for.”

“You're running late for class but you're dropping stuff off at his house. Why not drop them off at his office?” Tango's right eyebrow remained raised, broadcasting considerable skepticism, like he's already interrogating her.

“Because he's on sabbatical and doesn't go into his office. What's this about?” The girl knitted her brows, looking increasingly annoyed.

“You're working for him while he's on sabbatical and stop by his place first thing Monday morning, just... 'leaving for class'?”

The girl thrust her head forward, looking a little more defiant. “Yeah. So...?”

Narder quietly nudged her overly inquisitive partner aside and asked the girl if they could speak with a Dr Thomas Purdue, glancing down at a note card she held as if checking the name. “This is the address we had been given by his publisher's office manager,” holding up Ms River's card. “Is he here?”

The girl became a little more fidgety than defensive, taking off the chain. “What do you want to see him about?”

“We'd like to ask him a few questions, please – if he wouldn't mind.”

When she hesitated, Tango cocked his head trying to peer inside past her when he heard a cat (he hates cats). “It's a simple question, yes or no: is Dr Purdue here or not?”

“Is 'maybe' an option,” she asked, pushing the cat back with her foot. “I'd just gotten here and haven't seen him.”

“Guess what,” Det. Reel said, bouncing around the corner from behind the garage. He'd managed to find three distinct sets of footprints on the sidewalk, but none of them seemed to be leaving.

“Oh, hello, ma'am,” he said, interrupting himself and quickly flashing her his badge. “I'm Det. Jaimie Reel – friends call me Jaimie.”

“Yo, Reel,” Tango said, tossing his head back with a tinge of derision, clearly intending it as a put-down between colleagues, “friends don't call you, period, man, unless they're, like, starved for social interaction.”

Ignoring them, Narder continued talking to the girl who now appeared thoroughly confused, and asked if she'd let them come inside. “Would you happen to know where he'd be? It's important we find him.”

Stepping aside to let Narder in and asking them to “mind the cat,” the girl explained there was no one upstairs.

Tango's eyebrow automatically raised again. “And you were upstairs in your professor's house...?” letting the question hang there, full of innuendo.

“Dr Purdue's recovering from a heart attack and I went up to check...”

There was a noise coming from the kitchen and the girl seemed relieved, thinking the professor had been in the basement. She explained he sometimes worked downstairs all night, then slept during the day.

Drawing her gun, Narder asked whether she would mind if they'd look around.

“Isn't that something you'd need a warrant for?”

Tango and Reel drew their guns and followed Narder cautiously into the kitchen as the cat jumped down from the counter where a single can of cat food perched perilously close to the edge.

“Clear,” Narder said as she opened the pantry, looking at the nearly empty spice rack on the inside of the door.

Reel pushed a door open into what could be called a powder room, way too pink and frilly for his taste. The whole place looked like this composer was living here with his mother.

“Basement,” Tango called out as the others turned and assumed the stance, guns raised, Tango leading the way down the steps.

“Is there an outside entrance down here,” Narder called back to the girl.

The cat darted between the detectives' legs and stopped at the bottom step.

“Not that I can think of, not anymore.”

In another minute, each detective called out “Clear” and the girl, glancing around, hurried down after them to retrieve the cat.

“No sign of anybody, here,” Reel called back after checking behind the furnace.

“Well, then, I don't know where the professor could be,” the girl said, after scooting the cat back up the steps.

“Do you know if he had any plans this morning, an appointment, perhaps?” Narder browsed through papers on a cluttered desk.

“He said tomorrow he's meeting with his publisher.”

“Yeah, that may be postponed...”

The girl was clearly worried like she knew something or had figured something out, but Narder couldn't quite figure out what.

“You mention this appointment tomorrow with his publisher: any idea what that's about?”

“No,” the girl said, fidgeting with her sweater, “he never talked about business. Mostly, I just help him with his project.”

“'Mostly,' huh...?” Tango said as he checked out a pair of old slippers. “These look like they'd be a size 9.”

“Do these slippers belong to Professor Purdue, ma'am?”

“I think they're Aunt Jane's.”

Then she spent several minutes explaining who Aunt Jane was, how the professor had inherited her house but hadn't up-graded much. “And, yes, they wear the same shoe size – he found her slippers comfortable.”

The girl, becoming increasingly defensive, demanded to know why they're asking these questions.

“Because there's been a murder at his publisher's.”

Minutes later, Tango pulled away from the curb, making the turn from Purdue's driveway to head back to the police station. It hadn't been a productive visit, Narder admitted, but it could've been worse. They may not have caught their prime suspect but he hadn't escaped from their immediate grasp, either, right before their eyes.

“No,” she said, thinking through the available facts which were admittedly quite few, “but he's apparently much smarter than we'd thought.” She got out her notebook and jotted down, “Reduce reliance on tired clichés.”

“We know Thomas Purdue wasn't at home at the time of the murder because Amanda Wences, his assistant” – here, Tango snorted – “was at his home and didn't see him, thereby affording him no alibi. And since he wasn't wearing his usual jacket and hat which would be too easy to identify, he was probably disguised.”

“But if Purdue wears size 8s and our killer wore 11s,” Reel added, “wouldn't it look like he's wearing clown shoes? And Amanda seemed genuinely distraught after finding out her friend was the victim.”

Tango figured maybe they got her the job there as an inside plant. “Things backfired and Purdue had to kill her.”

“Meanwhile, I want an APB on our professor, a stake-out on the house – and get a warrant to search the place. Something's very strange about that basement,” she said. “I want to know what.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...
with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, Aug. 22nd) [link to the next installment]

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, August 17, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 1 (Part 3)

In the previous installment, the day at Marple Music started like any Monday with the exception of the new girl, Alma Viva, who's gone upstairs to place the weekend's mail on Ms DiVedremo's desk, her first assignment. As the next few minutes unfold, those in the downstairs office hear strange noises overheard and then a loud thud, sending Nick Turner (the company's “token white male”) dashing up the steps. It is Arugula Jones, the assistant director, who opens the door to DiVedremo's office first and sees a tall figure dressed in black standing over the body – the very bloody body – of the new girl, Alma Viva. The others run up to the scene as the killer runs down the back steps, pursued momentarily by Nick. While Arugula's reaction is not surprising, Crimea calmly calls 911.

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

And now, it is time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

Maple Street was probably like many side streets in this section of Marple, quiet, residential, well-to-do, with lots of old homes long ago converted into offices for lawyers, doctors and, apparently, one music publisher. This morning, rather than being typically empty, the sidewalks around the house were awash with spectators probably coming from miles around. Nothing attracted a crowd better than a handful of police cars, some officers, yards of yellow crime tape, and an ambulance. What part of the street the police hadn't blocked was filled by onlookers.

She wasn't familiar with this street, despite having lived here for five years, and had never heard of Marple Music Publishers. But even if she had, would she have paid much attention to it? It was one of those neighborhoods where nothing much ever seemed to happen. Well, now that was all about to change.

Laura Narder had been chief detective with the Greater Marple Metropolitan Police Force for three of those years, respected, even liked – short, plumpish, her skin the color of cocoa, her hair in long dreadlocks. But some told her she didn't “sound” black, whatever the hell that meant. She'd spent her whole life breaking through stereotypes.

Detective Sergeant Alejandro Tango – his friends called him Jandro – was driving the car, wearing a smart gray suit with matching tie. He looked like a swashbuckling Argentine dancer stepping gallantly off a ballroom floor.

“But that's the point,” he said, continuing their discussion while parking the car, “because by denying tonality, serial music implies atonality.” Earlier arrivals hadn't bothered saving them a spot, something that always annoyed him.

“Which is exactly my point: tonality and serialism are basically two distinct systems where pitches can be organized through specified hierarchies.”

“So then, what you're saying is serialism is organized but atonality is not?” Tango waved some gawkers out of the way.

“You're getting hung up on this term, 'organization' – all music is organized, somehow.”

“But if the piece doesn't sound tonal, then, wouldn't it automatically be atonal?”

“Not necessarily. It could just be highly chromatic.”

A tinny reproduction of the Dies irae from Verdi's Requiem made everyone stop.

Tango lifted the tape so he and Narder could walk up the steps.

Narder answered her phone. “Reel – sorry we're late...”

She told Tango Reel was already back in the break room getting statements from the two co-workers who found the body. “Technically,” she added, “you could write a serial piece completely in G major.”

“You mean someone would want to do that? Just to prove they can?”

“I mean not everything serial necessarily sounds atonal.”

“So in that case – an exception, I assume – it would be both serial and tonal but yet it wouldn't be atonal...?”

“Not all atonal music is serial nor is all serial music necessarily atonal.”

Tango frowned, holding up his badge, and asked where the break room was, then thanked the woman who pointed the way.

“Well, then, someone here can settle the matter: they publish music, after all.”

“Don't forget, Jandro, we're here about a murder – stay focused on the case.”

She shook out her dreads and stepped inside.

“So, let's see – the 911 call came in at 9:06,” Narder said as they walked down the hall toward the kitchen, “the police, including Detective James Reel, arrived at 9:10 and found the victim. The medical examiner, Dr Horton Nortonstein, arrived two minutes ago and it's now...” – she paused and looked at her watch – “9:17.”

Narder recalled their hurried drive from the station, the foliage on the trees, the crisp fall air with a slight breeze. “If a Monday on a beautiful autumn morning wasn't bad enough,” she sighed.

Officer Torello stepped forward before Narder opened the kitchen door looking for Reel, ready to give her the particulars already gathered, the “Who, What, When” if not yet the “How” much less the “Why.” He was an old-time cop, close to retirement, with 28 years of service and much liked for his dedication and thoroughness.

“And a happy Monday morning to you, Detectives Narder and Tango,” he said. “Jaimie's still getting statements from the two who found the body,” he added, nodding to the other side of the door.

Basically, he rattled off as he led them back to the staircase landing, the victim was a Hispanic female, aged 22, named Alma Viva and this morning was her first day on the job.

“Can you believe it? Five minutes on the job and she gets whacked.”

“Ouch! That won't look good on her resumé...”

Narder shot Tango a look that quickly wiped the smirk off his face, then turned back to Torello, checking his notes.

“Not much else – she hadn't met most of her co-workers yet, poor kid.”

“Yeah, what could make Monday mornings any worse...?” Narder sighed and glanced around. “Sal, tell me again what this place is?”

“It's the office for a music publishing firm,” Torello said, flipping through notes. “Mostly children's books, teaching editions, some chamber music...”

“I wonder – are any of their composers serialists,” Tango asked with another smirk.

“You think we could be dealing with a serial killer, Tango?” Torello asked, not that he took the guy too seriously. “But you haven't even seen the body, yet – speaking of which, it's upstairs.”

Narder stood there, frowning, and shook her head, trying to ignore Tango's comment. “Anybody see anything other than finding the body?”

“The two Jaimie's talking to in the kitchen both say they saw a man standing in the room with the body but he ran out another door and disappeared – tall, thin, dressed in black.”

“They get a good look at his face? That could certainly be helpful.”

“Not sure yet – Jaimie can tell you more.”

And with that, the kitchen door opened as Detective James Reel joined them.

He was tall, slender and at the moment dressed in a black raincoat, a well-stained sweatshirt, torn jeans and beard scruff.

“Rough night, Reel?” Tango took in his partner with a single ironic glance and smoothed down the jacket of his suit. “Looks like you must've pulled an all-nighter on vice and didn't call me.”

“No, wise-ass, I was playing poker with the boys over at my place and then fell asleep on the damn couch.”

Everybody knew Tango had a “gambling problem” and Reel would never have invited him over whenever he had a game going. Even now, years after Tango'd left Argentina behind, old habits could easily re-surface.

Narder's cough brought the two of them back to the business at hand, a brutal murder on a beautiful Monday morning.

“So what've you got,” she asked, “other than a crook in your neck?”

“Yeah, well,” Reel said as he pulled himself up straight, “nothing seems to indicate it wasn't just a burglary gone wrong.”

A graying woman looking mildly distraught came out from the waiting room and introduced herself as the office manager, Ms Rivers, and didn't bother with the usual grieving platitudes, getting right down to business. She handed the detective a printed list of “everyone who's worked here longer than five minutes” plus everybody on the board.

“There's one person out sick,” she added, pointing, “and Mr Baroldo's on vacation, but otherwise everyone else is accounted for, here. Oh, and we decided to postpone the board meeting this afternoon till tomorrow.”

Ms Rivers led the way up the staircase, a docent giving a tour of a historical old home, pointing out paintings, architectural features, mentioning when it had been built, who the past owner was. And now, Narder thought, increasingly impatient, the site of a particularly nasty murder to give the place a whole new notoriety.

“This hallway,” Narder said, interrupting the tour, “steps lead down to the kitchen? Reel, why didn't you close off the kitchen?”

“You exit the building through a small mud room – he entered through there.”

Realizing they're showing no interest in the finer points of the house's history, Ms Rivers merely pointed down toward Belle's office. She could hear the boss was clearly peeved, complaining about the murderer's inconsiderateness.

“A pity about the girl,” Ms Rivers countered, “only starting her job today – so young and, presumably, so full of promise.”

“But this has ruined my rug, absolutely ruined it,” the voice was saying, indignant, half-whispering apparently to no one, Narder thought, since no one was responding to what she could hear behind the door. “My grandfather had brought that over from Italy,” she continued, “it's absolutely priceless! When will you people have this cleaned up?”

“And civilians are at the crime scene because...?” Narder asked Torello and Reel.

“That's the president, one Belle DiVedremo,” Torello explained.

You try and stop her,” Reel told her. “She was on Nortonstein's heels.”

As Narder went to pull the door open, she heard the woman going on about the bloodstains splattered across a dollhouse, offering precise instructions how carefully their clean-up crew must handle this precious antique.

Even before making eye contact with the detective, DiVedremo completely changed her tone, modulating smoothly into “poor girl, dying so young...”

Ms Rivers made the obligatory introductions which DiVedremo glossed over with little interest. A tall, statuesque woman of considerably imposing proportions, DiVedremo looked down at Narder with some surprise but didn't drop a beat.

“Just think, had I been even a few minutes earlier,” she continued whispering, “that might be me on the floor instead.”

While Narder thought that would be highly unlikely, glancing over DiVedremo's substantial frame, it's clear Alma was in the wrong place.

“Do you have any reason to think you might've been the intended victim?”

“No, Detective, I don't,” Ms DiVedremo said, pulling herself to her full height, her rich, alto voice steeped in Southern tints, “but I rather doubt they intended to kill this poor girl, don't you? I'm told she started working here this morning, so what was the point? But ordinarily, I would've been in my office...”

Clearly overcome by her close brush with death, she felt a bit tottery but couldn't find any place to sit down, every chair behind crime scene tape except where someone had obviously been sick.

“I'd returned from my hair appointment,” she added, artfully dodging the befouled chair, “and stopped at the bakery across the street – Lily's has the finest homemade doughnuts in Marple, if you don't already know – when I saw everyone come bursting out of the house onto the sidewalk. Well, I suspected immediately something must be wrong.”

As she continued explaining to them how she had immediately taken charge, not knowing what, yet, she was taking charge of, first to Detective Narder and then to the more interesting one called Tango, Reel took Narder aside and, pointing to the footprints, explained how the guy who'd found the body inadvertently contaminated the scene.

“You mean he sashayed through a pool of blood and had no idea?” Narder, not impressed, began pulling on plastic booties. “And what did he think would happen if he ran into the killer?”

Stifling a yawn as Tango led the voluble Ms DiVedremo into the hallway, Reel pulled on a pair of protective shoe-coverings himself, following his boss' lead, gloves as well before pushing open the door.

“Ordinarily, this door is kept locked; usual access is from the other hallway. Where the killer went after that was unclear.” Bloody footprints stopped not far from the door and there were the shoes. “Those are Nick Turner's – who'd followed the killer? Realizing he'd made a mistake, he decided to leave his shoes right here.”

Carefully opening the door leading to the hall, Reel told her it was a well-used hallway with lots of daily traffic. “We're already in the process of getting prints from everyone for exclusionary purposes.” He explained how Ms Jones had brought the victim up from the kitchen, plus there'd be others from the week before.

Checking his notes, Reel rattled off again the inside door from the crime scene opened into this office, the marketing director's – one Donald Baroldo who was on vacation, having left for London on Saturday. Ms Jones told him both she and Don Baroldo were more likely to use this back hallway to access their offices.

“And it wasn't unusual for others to use it, too, since it's less pretentious than the front steps – and saves time. They'd use the main staircase if they were going to see the boss.”

Reel pointed back to the door from DiVedremo's office and said they'd found wood shavings there plus scrapes on the lock so it hadn't been opened with a key, unless it hadn't fit properly.

“They're not finished examining the backdoor yet; but so far, other than this, seems there's no sign of any forced entry.”

“Right,” Narder said, looking around and frowning when she stopped to focus on the bloodied shoes left near the far door. “So who'd've known both these people were out of the office this morning?”

At that point, Ms Rivers stuck her head around from the back hallway, ignoring for the moment Det Narder's apparent exasperation.

“Actually, quite a few,” she said, “at least Don with his vacation plans – the staff, the board, his friends and family. Ms DiVedremo's appointment wouldn't be that well known, at least until this morning.”

After asking Ms Rivers if she'd stay back behind the crime scene tape, Reel continued Ms Jones had said the victim – he checked his notes again, referring to her as “Alma, Spanish for soul” – mentioned she'd seen a tall man dressed in black go around the outside of the house.

“The killer? When was this?”

“Around 8:40, while Alma was waiting at Lily's?” Arugula forgot to ask Ms Rivers to check if there were any deliveries. Anyway, by 8:55 or so, she brought Alma up for a quick tour.

“They were ready to hit the third floor which is mostly storage and technical stuff, things Alma wouldn't be dealing with, but that's when the bell rang announcing the arrival of some more co-workers. Ms Jones hadn't noticed anybody in the middle office when they'd looked in – they'd walked into both her and DiVedremo's offices.”

Reel led the way back to the body as Nortonstein was finishing up, Ms DiVedremo still standing watchfully in the doorway.

“The thought the killer could've already been hiding somewhere in Baroldo's office made Ms Jones go all weak in the knees. I figured if she got sick again, let her puke in the kitchen.”

Nortonstein, pointing to the mess by the dollhouse, mentioned he would be surprised if she had any more left in her.

“Damn,” DiVedremo muttered, “now I'll never be able to use this room again...”

“By the way,” Nortonstein added, showing Narder a large and bloodied fragment of paper sealed in a medium-sized glycine evidence bag, “the only sign of any immediate struggle, here – we haven't found the rest.”

“Part of a hand-written letter? Who's it from? It looks mangled pretty badly.” Narder flipped it over but found no signature.

“It was in the victim's hand – had a tight grip on it, too. Seems to be addressed to Ms Rivers, there.”

DiVedremo looked over Narder's shoulder and said she's seen that handwriting often enough.

“It arrived on Friday,” Rivers said, “but I didn't open it till late. It's from Thomas Purdue, one of our composers. I'm afraid he's written a really nasty letter. I should've made a copy...”

DiVedremo frowned and took a step back. “That would not be good news.”

“And what,” Narder asked, “makes you say that?”

Taking in three detectives, the medical examiner and his assistant plus two other policemen still busy examining the room for clues, Belle DiVedremo sighed, then glanced over at her office manager and frowned again. “I would say 'let's go talk in my office' except we're already here and it's not exactly private at the moment.”

Rivers suggested they might use Ms Jones' office since she's probably not sufficiently recovered to be getting back to work, yet. “Then the third floor meeting room which is usually empty might be better.”

Ms DiVedremo agreed and led the way up the next flight of steps which, stature aside, involved more than conscious effort and which took considerably longer than the more nimble Narder felt was necessary. Tango tried not to think about a massive frigate navigating a narrow canal, aware they'll all arrive at their destination eventually.

The top floor of the old house had been converted into two rooms, more open with broad windows on three sides, the front part filled with tables either laden with boxes or computer work-stations. The back third, walled in with large windows and lit by a sky-light, had a single large table down the center.

“We do our preparation here but send it to a printer for production, who then ships it back, some assembly required – not that you're interested in that,” DiVedremo said, closing the door behind them.

“What you do need to know is Marple Music is a small company primarily involved in educational projects but also has a number of – shall we say – small-time composers from the Greater Philadelphia Region who write music for educational ensembles, professional-level chamber music or short orchestral works, though we lack resources to distribute larger works. Given the economy, as you can imagine, we're barely keeping afloat,” she continued, taking a slight pause, drumming on the table, “and we've had to make several changes recently, more than just office staff.”

Part of the age-old problem was, unfortunately, their composers weren't getting any younger, a collection of white-haired retirees with fading reputations, since most new composers coming up in the business these days were “self-publishing.” Most Marple composers had been with them for over twenty, even forty years but Purdue joined them only a decade ago.

“It's not a question of retiring only the oldest ones,” the boss explained, dipping into her spiel for the board meeting, “letting go the last one signed or for that matter eliminating the under-performers when you take into consideration the long relationship we've had with so many, several of whom had been good family friends. A few had been regarded as 'The Next Generation' back when my grandfather signed them up after he founded the company, and a few, now pushing eighty, continue producing some marketable pieces each year.

“While Marple Music had never been intended to become much of an empire, it still has to survive like any business: it can't afford to become an assisted living center for some washed-up composers. And one of those under-performers we've decided to let go is Thomas Purdue who's written nothing worthwhile these past five years.”

“And how did Mr Purdue take this news,” Narder asked, “or any others? Strong enough any of them might commit murder? Not that I could imagine someone pushing eighty slitting someone's throat like that...”

“Mr Purdue – who had turned 65 last month – was the only one who became deeply disturbed when I talked to him.”

Ms Rivers leaned forward, now, adding he was the only one being “dropped” – others were being moved to the back catalogue.

“But no,” DiVedremo said, shifting position, “Thomas Purdue did not take it well.”

First came the piteous e-mail summarizing his recent ill-health including a heart attack – implying such drastic news might possibly kill him – before mentioning some new revolutionary plan left unexplained which would revitalize his career. “He said something how 'with Clara's help' he'd soon produce several new works and was writing some 'promising' short piano pieces.”

DiVedremo thought this sounded desperate and wasn't sure how seriously to take it much less how she should respond to it. “So I decided not to respond at all until after today's board meeting.”

Rivers added to DiVedremo's comment, having no idea who this 'Clara' person was, or what her role was in his composing, having arranged through the college to find him this student intern, Amanda Wences. They figured she would help him get organized, take things down in dictation but she was not herself a composition student.

“Then this letter arrived Friday,” Ms Rivers said, pointing to the barely legible fragment in the plastic baggie Narder was holding. “It's like desperation had suddenly morphed into hyperdrive with a dash of paranoia.”

“That's all very poetic,” Narder said, “but we'll need to examine the letter ourselves to be sure of his mental state.”

“You can see it's handwritten in an old-fashioned longhand,” Rivers continued, somewhat nonplussed, “starting legibly but ending in a drunken scrawl.”

Narder flipped the bag over but the ending of the letter was missing.

“I'm sorry I didn't make a copy of it but having read it, it haunted me all weekend,” Ms Rivers resumed. “He was asking me personally to step in and convince Belle to reconsider.”

“As if you or anyone would ever get me to change my mind,” DiVedremo said, “once my mind is made up.”

Most of the first page was about this new project of his, Rivers explained, something he thought was “so earth-shatteringly amazing” and how the whole world would be forced to take notice of him.

“It was like the second side was descending into... well,” she stopped short, “I was sure he must have been drinking. Then he concluded, 'or you can be assured you will greatly regret it.'”

“How do you think he meant that, Ms Rivers,” Belle asked her calmly.

“It was as if he'd said, 'or else'!”

There was a great swath of uncomfortable silence when Rivers finished her report, and nobody felt this discomfort more than Narder as she took down some quick notes while Tango nervously shuffled his feet, DiVedremo telling the detectives she would stay back with Ms Rivers a while once the others had gotten up to leave.

Rivers was clearly upset after reliving the letter one more time, especially having mentioned the long rambling message Purdue left on the answering machine Saturday night – not to forget all those hang-ups immediately before.

As usual with an investigation like this, there were more questions than answers at this point, and things were rarely easy, but they couldn't ignore someone who certainly had motive and quite possibly opportunity. But why, if it had been Purdue, would he kill an innocent secretary whom he'd clearly know was not Belle DiVedremo?

“But you've got to think that letter is a clear and open threat,” Tango said on their way down the steps.

“Then was the phone call Saturday night asking her to ignore the letter?”

“Reel, get that message and have it analyzed,” Narder said, “not just transcribed. See if there's anything more than an implication.”

Until they found the rest of the letter, all they had to go on was Rivers' memory of it, she continued.

“Still, I think it all sounds more damning than it may really be.”

“You just missed the last of Alma Viva, the soul no longer living,” Dr Nortonstein said as they entered DiVedremo's office. “Her mortal remains had been escorted out in a body bag moments ago.” With the help of his assistant, Dinah Tran, as usual standing quietly by, he packed up the last of his equipment.

“The cause of death,” he said, “was the gaping wound across her throat, not that you'd need me to tell you. The time, we also know: nine o'clock give or take a few minutes.

“I'm not sure you need more until I know what the murder weapon was beyond a sharp and rather sizable blade. I'm tempted to guess it was a sickle, but then that's highly unlikely.”

Officer Torello hurried in with news about the footprint from the back stairs. “You're looking for someone wearing a Size 11.”

Narder wrote that down as she asked how they know that's the perp's. “How many men here wear a Size 11?”

“Only one guy works here and he wears a size 9,” Reel said.

“It matches two from the back sidewalk running toward the gate,” Torello added, “and our token male here found the body.”

Narder smiled. “Right, Nick Turner, our would-be hero! So we're looking for a tall guy with big feet. Nice work, Sal.”

“And,” Tango said, “we know Nick didn't get further than the middle office.”

“Tango, get a recent photo from their files here of Thomas Purdue and see if the two who found the body recognize him as the tall guy in black they'd seen in DiVedremo's office.”

Narder looked at the letter again as she planned to call the chief about getting a warrant to search Purdue's home.

She handed it to Tango and told him to have the lab clean the blood off so they can read it. “Until we have the precise wording, we'll have to assume it's a threat.” As far as she was concerned, it already looked like an open-and-shut case, but always best not to jump to conclusions.

“Reel, if you'll get the address for this composer from Ms Rivers, here, Tango and I will close up with Nortonstein. Let's have a talk with this Purdue guy – and check out his shoes.”

= = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, in case you're wondering, 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 imagined, is entirely coincidental.

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 1 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, the novel begins as a young woman starts her first day on a new job full of anticipation and hope. Alma Viva arrives early at Marple Music Publishing where she will be the new office manager's assistant and meets several of her co-workers as they arrive to begin the week: there's Arugula Jones, the assistant director (and by night the best jazz singer in Marple), the office manager, Crimea Rivers, as well as the receptionist Froyde Oh and graphic designer Nick “Deezer” Turner. The boss, a stern powerhouse named Belle DiVedremo, has not yet arrived when Alma is given her first assignment: to take Saturday's mail – including an irate letter from Thomas Purdue, one of the company's more disgruntled composers – and leave it on Ms DiVedremo's desk. How difficult could this be, she thinks. But then things go horribly wrong...

It is time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

No sooner had the clock turned nine than the phone started its strident ringing before they all found their respective places as Froyde, in full Monday mode, grabbed the receiver to squelch the racket. It was like some old-fashioned school bell signaling the start of class, everyone scrambling for their desks before the teacher arrived. Very soon, the calls began to back up and one after the other she asked “could you wait on hold, please?” In between, she beckoned to Nick to get her a cup of coffee. Several of the calls were from board members who couldn't remember what time or where the meeting had been scheduled for – it was in a new place and she knew that would cause confusion. One who was fairly irate about it she passed on to Arugula who better understood how to deal with these people.

Another caller who didn't bother to identify himself needed to talk to DiVedremo (not Ms DiVedremo) “now!” – some young guy trying to sound tough – and demanded it was “highly urgent” he speak to her. Froyde explained she wasn't in the office yet, then had a board meeting, but she'd leave a message saying he'd called. Unfortunately, the man said that wasn't good enough because of the “situation's urgency – I need to speak with her right away!” So, when Froyde asked him for his phone number, he just hung up. 

“Aren't they all like that,” Froyde asked herself, wondering what was keeping Nick as she went on to the next call, another absent-minded board member wondering about the meeting, hoping it could be rescheduled. Then, next, a frazzled woman wondered why the hospital put her on hold; another had hung up, not bothering to wait.

“Let's hope the rest of the day goes better than this,” she thought, fielding a few more calls, mostly wrong numbers. Once things had begun to quiet down, she started clearing the weekend's messages.

Nick arrived – finally – with her much needed coffee while she jotted down messages before realizing there were about a dozen hang-ups, most of them coming in on Friday evening with several more on Saturday. Then there was a rambling message from this guy who sounded extremely distracted, like maybe he had dialed a wrong number.

Becoming impatient, Froyde was ready to push the button to delete the message when she heard the guy mention DiVedremo's name and that was when she recognized the voice, someone she'd talked to before. She restarted the message and wondered if it wasn't Thomas Purdue, like he was off his meds, almost impossible to understand.

It wasn't that she expected she should understand what the message was about: her job was merely to take messages down. But frankly, this just didn't make sense, period: maybe she should forward it?

That was when a new call came in asking to speak to Belle, but Froyde recognized the board president's soothing voice. His message was direct, clear and thoroughly business-like – “Why isn't everybody like that?” After wondering what Ms DiVedremo'd think after she'd hear this message from Purdue, she asked Crimea to come listen to it.

When Ms Rivers heard it, she jotted down a quick note to herself before telling Froyde to forward it to her, that she'd talk to Ms DiVedremo later and take care of the matter. After she'd read that letter Purdue sent her, she could understand his urgency but she knew something had to be done.

“Belle would be in no frame of mind to deal with this today,” Rivers thought, “given the board meeting this afternoon. Still, it isn't every day we have to 'fire' one of our composers.”

As Nick put the coffee on her desk, Froyde gave him a smile and a quiet “Thanks” along with a wink, all the while punching through the messages, not wanting to break her concentration. She could be very efficient and was fully capable of multitasking when required, no doubt the result of her “compartmentalized ethnicity.” Her father was Korean, a junior-level diplomat, and her mother a Norwegian clarinetist, though she inherited neither of their professional attributes. Growing up as an Asian who's naturally blonde, punk became more than camouflage.

She'd grown up in Oslo, then moved to America with her parents once her father gave up on the Norwegian language. He'd recently retired from a life in Academia on the outskirts of Philadelphia. She'd simplified her name – originally Frøydis– to Froyde, once considered changing it to Joy except becoming “Joy Oh” didn't seem wise.

Nick would've been good boy-friend material, she knew (her mother constantly reminded her) – “kind, reliable, sweet, almost like a Boy Scout”– if it hadn't been for the gay thing which had never bothered her. After she had discovered her own lesbian side, they decided to become roommates and frequently passed judgment on each other's dates.

Even though he was about ten years older and almost a foot taller, they made a nice couple and became inseparable. Plus they had everyone in the office so confused, it made them laugh.

Nick gathered up some of the new proofs and began sorting through them, two new children's books and a few scores, trying to figure out which one he wanted to start the week with. “Definitely not the kids' stuff,” he groaned after idly flipping through some pages – he always felt those things were beneath him.

Unfortunately, the only scores that arrived Friday afternoon, barely glancing past the covers, were by two of their most boring composers. “Seriously,” he sighed, trudging back to his desk, “who'd ever play this crap?”

Crimea looked out the front window wondering when the mail would arrive today, scanning the street for any sign of activity. It's been getting later every day since this new mailman started the route.

“What's happened to the new girl,” she wondered aloud to nobody in particular. “I hope she didn't submit her resignation already.”

She also wondered if all those hang-ups on the answering machine were from Tom Purdue or had someone else kept trying, convinced they'd had the right number regardless what the out-going message told them? Some people could be such morons, she groused, never listening to the message, simply clueless they could've dialed a wrong number. Last week, when Froyde was off sick, there were nearly a dozen messages, some increasingly irate maladroit ordering a pizza who repeatedly called back complaining it hadn't been delivered yet and threatening to sue.

For several years, Purdue had been a problem, even before his heart attack, and she did feel genuinely sorry for him. Besides, being dropped by your publisher wasn't going to help your blood pressure. Still, the man needed to get himself together, not only to compose again; it wasn't their job to look after him.

She'd tried giving him advice, suggested a therapist, even arranged with the college to set up a student like some assistant, but DiVedremo said that was going too far, that this wasn't their responsibility. She felt they'd been cutting Purdue too much slack over the years already since his last few pieces were performing miserably.

DiVedremo insisted publishing was a business, not an exclusive club for once-talented has-beens: there was no room in business for slackers. And the boss had made it perfectly clear Purdue wasn't “pulling his load.”

Speaking of “pulling one's load,” Crimea wondered what was keeping this new girl? Surely, it shouldn't take her this long to drop off a little mail. How would she handle a more complicated task? She had to check her paperwork again to recall her name – “yes, Alma. Spanish for soul” – isn't that a good omen?

“I do hope this girl isn't going to prove so difficult to train.” Crimea pushed some papers around her desk impatiently. “The last few girls had been such disappointments. Everything's so hopeless,” she sighed.

She checked her e-mail and began to type responses, so after another minute had gone by with no sign of Alma, she could rationalize sending Froyde upstairs to investigate, since she's clearly too busy.

“Sure, Ms Rivers, things have quieted down, now,” Froyde said, shrugging her shoulders. “Probably made a wrong turn in the hallway...”

Of course, the boss' office was right at the top of the stairs – so after all, how lost could you get? – but Crimea chose to ignore her intended sarcasm and went back to typing. Froyde barely reached the bottom of the staircase when, naturally, her phone rang and she immediately turned back to answer it.

When she sat down to take a message, she shrugged her shoulders again (she'd been doing that a lot this morning). “It's someone to interview the boss for a local business magazine,” she whispered.

Explaining Ms DiVedremo was out of the office at the moment but how she would connect her with the assistant director, Froyde heard a distinct thud – heavy, too – coming from the room above them.

Nick hurried in from the kitchen and looked up, his brow appropriately furrowed, a fresh cup of coffee in his hand.

“Apparently, our new secretarial assistant is something of a klutz,” Ms Rivers sighed, her eyes scanning the ceiling for any damage, as if she half-expected to see a spiderweb of cracks across the plaster. The other women in the office had taken quick glances at each other and, re-focusing on work, tried not to giggle.

“Nick, since you're already up,” Ms Rivers said as she nodded toward him, “would you go up and see what happened? I hope she didn't knock that old doll house over and break it!”

Nick had stopped in the break room one more time to fortify himself, managing to snatch up the last jelly-filled doughnut, before settling in to proof this odd chamber piece for brass and winds. One benefit of being an ectomorph in an office full of weight-conscious women was always finding doughnuts left in the kitchen. True, a whole pot of coffee wouldn't lubricate his brain on a Monday and this had been a particularly busy weekend, with a symphony concert on Saturday night and a jazz gig the next.

“That's right,” he mockingly complained, smirking at Crimea, “when one of you girls is in trouble, who you gonna call, hmm?” The sound of that thud, however, seemed more serious than he let on. Still, he welcomed any kind of diversion as pleasant, singing out “Deezer to the rescue” after carefully putting his doughnut down.

Froyde ducked her head down, stifling a laugh, while Crimea tried to look annoyed as befit an office manager losing control and impatiently waved him away toward the stairs when they heard another thud. This was enough to signal perhaps something more was wrong, more than Alma backing into some furniture and knocking it over.

When Nick had reached the top step, he couldn't remember her name, so he just called out, “You there – new girl!” and pulled at the door which wouldn't budge. “Why is this door locked?”

Arugula pushed open the door to her office and peered into the hallway, a manila file folder dangling from her hand and her sequin-framed reading glasses balanced precariously on the tip of her nose.

“Not these sounds, Deezer honey,” she said irritably, “I've got work to do. What's all this fuss about? Her name's Alma...”

“The door's locked,” Nick said, “and she's been in there a long time.”

“Are you sure you didn't push the door? This one you have to pull open, chérie, you do know that, right?”

Nick turned the ornate doorknob, pulled and then, for good measure, pushed on the door but the thing still wouldn't budge.

“It's no good,” he said, “the door must be locked from the inside.”

Arugula, pulling out her key, pushed past Nick. “Alma, chérie, everything okay, there?” Then she unlocked the door, pulling it open.

Arugula screamed out and quickly shut the door. “There's a body in there!”

“Wait, what do you mean, 'body'? Where's Alma?”

She opened the door again, screamed again and closed it just as quickly.

Just as Arugula screamed, someone – something– turned, glared at her, threw something on the floor and dashed toward the other door which connected directly with the next office and from there into the hallway.

Nick stumbled past Arugula, yanked the door open and saw someone running away.

“There's not one person inside,” Arugula gasped, eyes bulging with fear, “there are two, chérie – and one of them's in black!”

By this time, there was quite a commotion from everybody on the stairs.

“What's going on, what's with all this screaming?”

That's when Arugula looked down at the body sprawled across the oriental rug. Everything was covered in blood – lots of blood...

“It's Alma,” she screamed and, hand over heart, fell back fainting against Nick, who struggled to see where the intruder went.

He heard another door slam – “which way would the guy go from there?”

Would he suddenly burst out from Arugula's office, threatening to kill them all? Or run down the back steps and outside?

“Call 911,” Nick yelled back toward the hall where the others were gathering. “Everybody back downstairs – in fact, everybody outside – now!”

Crimea asked him, “what do I tell them?”

“Send the police,” he screamed.

It wasn't the smartest thing he's ever done and certainly went against type, but Nick had to see where he'd gone, where this intruder had run after killing Alma – why would anyone kill Alma?

“Why am I chasing after a killer, anyway? He could be hiding anywhere,” Nick thought, “like I'm going to stop him.”

There were bloody footprints stopping a few feet short of the door leading to Arugula's office or down to the kitchen.

That's when Nick realized those were his footprints: he'd run through Alma's blood.

Aware he'd now contaminated the evidence pretty thoroughly, Nick also knew the police would not take kindly to his attempted heroics. He looked out from the window, but noticed nothing unusual in the alleyway. “The police'll take it from here,” he thought, carefully pulling off his shoes, then walked tip-toe back to Belle's bloodied office.

Arugula knew from the look of her there was no reason to check the body – how could she still be alive? She felt she ought to close those eyes, still staring up at her. But then, thinking back to all those police shows she'd watched on TV, they wouldn't want her to touch the body.

“Not that I really want to touch the body, myself,” she thought, shuddering, but she didn't know what else to do. She considered crossing herself, saying a quick prayer, then running the hell away.

Crimea rushed into the office but stopped short when she saw Alma's body perfectly centered in a widening circle of blood. Arugula collapsed in the armchair by the dollhouse where she now became sick.

Nick came back in, even paler than usual, asking what Crimea was doing. “You should've stayed outside: there's a killer loose.”

Crimea looked down at his socks and frowned, then saw the bloody footprints. Nick smiled at her sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders.

“Yours?” she asked, nodding, with a slight smirk. “None too bright, Mr Turner.”

For the moment, they ignored Arugula, carefully wiping the barf from her chin, as if to spare her any further embarrassment.

It was also not easy to avoid seeing Alma's body or her blood.

“It's a good thing Don's on vacation today,” Crimea said, turning to leave. “I'll call Belle – we should reschedule today's meeting.”

= = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...

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, August 13, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Time to Begin!


For a long time, I have been working on the sequel to The Klangfarben Trilogy, the adventures of a retired composer and music professor inadvertently turned music detective named Dr. T. Richard Kerr and his side-kick, assistant, and friend (because every detective needs a Watson), Cameron Pierce. They live on Conan Lane, a quiet side-street of the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, where his neighbors are bracing for another round of Hallowe'en and where things will not remain quiet for very long.

Oh, but actually, they will, once Dr Kerr receives an odd message from a friend of his, fellow composer Thomas Purdue who lives on what should be the idyllic Marymede Lane in nearby Marple, since that is where the action takes place. No fancy English castles like Phlaumix Court, no German music festivals like Schweinwald, and certainly no parallel universes like Harmonia IV, not that I won't rule out the occasional oddity or unexpected change of scene. And while Dr. Kerr's pending adventures are a continuation of some of his past experiences, you need not be familiar with them to understand what is going on in this new novel, though what self-respecting author would not immediately refer you to the appropriate links in the column to the right?

There will, of course, be a cast of sundry villains who've occupied whatever one calls pages in a book posted on a blog: while Klavdia Klangfarben herself is no longer available (though, who knows...), anyone following these posts will recognize the unlucky founder and CEO of SHMRG, N. Ron Steele, trying to hold on to what corporate influence he can still grasp in his power struggle with Lucifer Darke, but there is a new evil on the horizon with the advent of a group calling itself “The Aficionati” which does not bode well for the world of Classical Music.

The International Music Police are, of course, still on the case, but this time it is an inspector named Bond – Sarah Bond – who's on the trail. And in the midst of this, we'll meet the local police of Greater Marple, led by Detective Laura Narder with her own sidekicks, Tango and Reel.

It begins, since everything must begin somewhere, with a young woman named Alma Viva who is about to have a singularly epic bad first day at a new job. And then, it seems, Dr. Purdue has disappeared.

Welcome to the first installment of In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

For what felt like a long time before she could reach the exit, Alma had no idea what she'd do next, even after the bus driver confirmed (once again) this was indeed her stop. “But I'm way too early,” she told herself, banging against someone's oversized purse. “There won't be anyone in the office yet.” It was her first day on the job and she was nervous enough, what with her car being in the shop. “Well,” she thought and took a deep breath, “at least you're not late.” She'd been at the office for her interview only a few days ago, when her friend Amanda'd given her a lift. She'd considered asking her boyfriend for a ride, if it weren't so early. Then there was a problem getting home afterward which wouldn't work out either, so maybe the bus was better, after all.

Stepping down off the bus, she turned to ask the driver for directions but he'd already shut the door behind her. “Not like he'd know his way around town that well, anyway,” she considered. She wasn't familiar with this part of Marple, not beyond the college campus, so she'd have to ask somewhere for directions. In front of her was an old-fashioned pharmacy, a place called “Popper's Drugs” – her boyfriend Luis would snicker at that one – and underneath this was a neatly inscribed sign, “founded 1897 by David Popper.”

Considering she didn't know much about classical music, didn't usually listen to it, Alma felt this had to be an omen, one still connecting her to her beloved mother who'd died only last year. Her mother seemed happiest when playing her cello while Alma was growing up, especially this one piece by somebody named Popper. It's unlikely this was the same guy who'd long ago opened a pharmacy and she doubted they could even be related. Still, anything reminding her of her mother's memory was obviously a good thing.

“And it's a real job,” she kept thinking, “not some internship,” she added as she opened the door and walked inside. Nobody was in the shop except a clerk, already looking bored to tears. When the old-fashioned bell tinkled, he perked up and turned toward the door, the expression on his face changing almost instantly.

Before the young man in the blue apron could say anything to her, Alma apologized because she wasn't here to shop. “I just need some directions, if you could help,” giving him the address.

“Today is your lucky day,” he smiled back with an exaggerated courtly bow. “I happen to know exactly where this is.”

His name tag said Angél, her brother's name, and that also felt good as he explained it was quite close by. “Perhaps you want to buy a lottery ticket? We've sold winners here, before.”

Armed with the necessary information and a smile her boyfriend would consider flirting, Alma quickly pocketed her newly purchased lottery ticket, turned and left the pharmacy, Angél still waving, because she'd started to blush. The office was in fact quite nearby, only two blocks down this street, then a left turn and two more blocks.

She pulled her coat more tightly around her against the bracing autumn chill, once she turned the corner into the wind, glad to be on the sunny side of the street – another good sign. Wouldn't it be great if she'd win the lottery on her first day and could afford to quit her job immediately? Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction for her, she thought: she couldn't wait to call Amanda after work. “If it hadn't been for her, I would never have gotten this job.”

She glanced at her watch to figure how long it was taking her to walk from the pharmacy to the office, knowing she would still have plenty of time, even if she got lost. Unfortunately a later bus, more convenient, arrived ten minutes after the office opened, not counting the walk from the bus stop. It wouldn't look good if she showed up late on the first day, having to apologize for catching the wrong bus, and Amanda warned her the boss, Ms DiVedremo, could be “a real bitch.”

Too bad the mechanic hadn't been able to replace the alternator in her clunker of a car in time, of course, but maybe after another day she wouldn't have to worry about her commute. Catching the earlier bus might be an inconvenience, compared to her driving schedule, but it was only for a couple days.

The closest bus stop to her new job, the secretary had told her, was this unassuming block of shops and storefronts, Popper's looking more like it had been built in the '70s than 1897. But beyond the pike, a busy four-lane street, everything was tree-lined and suburban, several houses converted into doctors' or lawyers' offices.

And like Angél had said, there was the coffee shop across the street where a cousin of his was the manager. She ordered a basic cup of coffee – black – but it wasn't very good.

Alma Viva knew she was young and inexperienced, like her mother always said, a girl who had so much to learn, a very impractical girl who liked pretty things and lacked something called “discernment,” like graduating from college with a useless degree, which Mama thought would never advance her much beyond some basic entry-level position. Alma was happy she would soon marry Luis – they'd been dating for years – then stay home and raise her own family but recently she'd been having some doubts about his being a good provider.

But then her mother died of breast cancer weeks before her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight; so who was there now who'd be able to take care of her? This job was the first big step toward her taking care of herself, especially if Luis started drifting away from her.

The job, of course, didn't pay too much, she admitted, very much an entry-level position with something called Marple Music Publishers, a small independent company focusing mainly on educational books and music for beginners plus a handful of living composers who'd have been better off self-publishing everything if they could've figured it out for themselves. She knew her job didn't sound too difficult, mostly assisting the office manager, without needing to understand a lot about music. She would learn about the products they published but their content wasn't important. For all their talk about “upward mobility in the publishing business,” Amanda explained, the job wasn't likely to last very long since most of the girls left because they were bored or got fired. The biggest problem she might have was staying out of Ms DiVedremo's way though Crimea Rivers, her supervisor, was nice enough.

The name of the town, part of those vast suburbs west of Philadelphia – officially, Marple was a township, not a “town” – amused her even if she had never read any mysteries by Agatha Christie. She gathered from what Amanda told her Ms DiVedremo wasn't going to be some old biddy out of an English village. The house, anyway, looking at it from across the street, was nice enough, a big old grand Victorian pile of brownstone. Three stories tall, it had broad porches, steep roofs and large, deep-set windows.

If anything, it looked almost spooky, Alma thought, ivy covering the one side, with all its dark stone and dark-painted trim, the front and side yards heavily shaded by several big, dense maple trees. At her interview, she'd been surprised how bright the first floor rooms were, but the walls were painted in light colors. So far, the house was empty, no lights visible through blinds and drapes, and Alma found herself frequently checking her watch. “Another twenty minutes,” she said, debating about getting a refill on the coffee.

People had been walking by on the street, a destination clearly in mind as they trudged through waves of fallen leaves. One motion caught her eye, someone all in black suddenly stopping next door. She couldn't see much of him – or her – before the figure turned and walked around the house toward the back gate.

“Maybe that's the person who's supposed to open the office,” she told herself, “going through the back door into the kitchen.” With only a few more minutes to wait, she put the coffee aside. Alma looked around the shop and noticed the place still wasn't very busy but imagined it might do better at lunchtime.

A rather large woman had come in to get a box of doughnuts, something Alma thought (unkindly) she didn't really need. The girl behind the counter greeted her warmly and the greeting was returned.

“A regular,” Alma guessed, “no doubt from one of these offices around here – I wonder which one? She seems nice enough.” Her long dark red cloak, old-fashioned wool, covered her from head to foot. With a quick wave, she hurried out the door and crossed the street, hurrying up onto the porch at the publishers.

Grabbing her coat, Alma smiled to think she'd almost met a new co-worker and wondered which of them she might be, someone too important to be a mere secretary but certainly not the boss. Alma set her coffee cup on the counter but decided not to ask the waitress about the Lady of the Doughnuts.

“Perhaps it's not a good idea to seem too inquisitive: my first day hasn't even begun. Save the friendliness for tomorrow.” Alma, shrugging on her coat, crossed the street: “Let my new life begin.”

There were lights on in the vestibule and the front door was unlocked, so Alma, taking a deep breath, stepped inside ready to start this new chapter in her story, her first real job. She could hear the soft tinkling of a little bell announcing her arrival and took a quick glance at her surroundings. A stately staircase led to the upstairs and a shadowed hallway lined with portraits led toward the back of the house, ending in a doorway with frosted glass no doubt to the original kitchen. An archway on the right opened into the lightly painted, somewhat spacious room she recognized from her interview the other day with its pale sand-hued walls and tan furniture, home to several potted plants. A fine rug in some southwestern design with various geometric patterns, all whites and lavenders, spread across a shining hardwood floor.

But this time there were no people around, unlike during last week's visit which, granted, had been sometime during the mid-afternoon – no receptionist, no other women working in the rooms beyond, no customers waiting. The woman she'd seen unlocking the front door was no doubt setting up the doughnuts back in the employees' break room. There was a coat rack inside the archway by a table with flowers, but no red wool cloak could be seen which surely would've added a splash of color to the otherwise understated room.

“We're not officially open for business, I'm afraid,” said a friendly sounding voice which anticipated the woman's arrival into the room, the recognizable figure, as it turned out, of the Lady of the Doughnuts. When she sailed in behind the desk, carrying a small green watering can, prepared to be all apologetic, she stopped short.

“Oh, chérie, didn't I just see you across the street at Lily's Bakery? You're awfully early – ain't nobody else here yet!” She was a statuesque woman with dreadlocks, sounding more informal than she looked.

Before Alma could say anything, the woman put a hand to her hip and shook the watering can at her playfully. “Now, don't tell me, ain't you that new girl who starts today? Alma – ...?”

“Yes, that's right – Alma Viva. I was hired last week after my interview with... oh, I've forgotten her name – Ms Rivers?”

“That's okay, chérie,” she said, putting the watering can down on the desk, “I won't tell Crimea you forgot her name. Just don't forget Belle's name – Ms DiVedremo to you – or you're outta here! Anyway, I'm Arugula Jones, mild-mannered assistant director by day, jazz singer by night – the best in Marple... which ain't sayin' much!”

Arugula laughed, grasped her by the hand and gave it a hearty shake, welcoming her aboard with her big infectious grin. “Now,” she smiled, “lemme take you on a quick tour of the premises.”

After she finished watering the various potted plants, explaining how Ms DiVedremo didn't want to have artificial plants in the office, she led her toward the kitchen for some coffee to start things right. “Because if you had any of Lily's coffee,” she explained, pointing across the street, “you'll be needing some real coffee, now.”

Alma followed her new friend back through two rooms with several desks and drafting tables, Arugula pointing out who sat where, then pointed to a desk in the corner with a phone and computer. “This will be your desk, chérie,” she said. “The good news is, it's next to the rest room and the kitchen. The bad news is, it's next to the rest room and the kitchen – everybody stops to chat on their way past. And they'll say, 'Alma, get me some coffee, wouldja?' or 'any donuts left?'”

Every morning must start with coffee, she emphasized, opening the door to a surprisingly modest kitchen for such a big house, and the better the coffee, the more civilized the day will then become. Brewing the coffee is the responsibility of the person who opens the office “which eventually, chérie, will be you,” Arugula laughed.

“I make good coffee,” Alma smiled back, holding her head up with more pride than self-confidence, “if I say so myself.”

“Well, tomorrow we'll see how you do – with guidance from moi,” Arugula added.

As she poured two cups from the freshly brewed pot, she explained how the last few new hires hadn't worked out. “It shouldn't be such a high-powered business but Belle can be very demanding.” With that, Arugula handed her a beautiful china cup which Alma savored approvingly, then turned to walk up the back steps.

“Honestly, the last one left after a month because she was getting married, but the one before her was bad news. I don't know how she got the job but she couldn't do anything. And then there was the one who got nailed for drugs one day – cops came in, arrested her at her desk!”

This litany of disappointment did not dampen Alma's spirit or even unnerve her. “I know I can do better than that.”

“See that you do, chérie,” Arugula shook her head, “see that you do.”

As Arugula showed her around the upstairs offices, Alma noticed nobody else around even though it was close to opening time and asked where that tall person in black she'd seen had gotten to.

“Tall person? In black, chérie? I've no idea. Perhaps somebody left a delivery. I'll have Ms Rivers check the back porch.”

And then Alma heard the tinkle of the bell at the front door, no doubt someone else who's on the staff.

“That's probably her arriving now – always cuts it rather fine, Ms Rivers does...”

Of course, she continued, it was a Monday and Ms Rivers was always full of excuses to be late on Mondays, but Arugula beckoned her to follow her back down on the grand staircase.

“You've already met her, naturally,” she said, working her way down sideways, favoring her left hip, “but there's everyone else, too.”

At the bottom of the steps stood a tall, thin fellow wearing tight jeans, a black turtleneck under a white shirt, his black hair and well-trimmed beard turning prematurely with bits of inflected silver. He struck her as possibly handsome in a definitely nerdy sort of way but didn't look to be much over thirty. Behind him, taking off her coat, was a short Asian woman who looked like a girl her own age, Alma thought. She held a motorcycle helmet and her hair was decidedly spikey and purple.

“Hey, hi there! You must be the new girl,” the short woman squeaked, reaching out to give her a welcoming handshake. “I'm Froyde Oh, the receptionist – you need anything here, gimme a shout, 'kay?”

The man quietly introduced himself as Nick Turner, the company's resident graphic designer. He told her everybody usually called him “Deezer.”

“We're a diverse bunch here at Marple Music,” Arugula said, rubbing her hip. “Nick's our token white male, homosexual or otherwise. Froyde checks off several of the various categories on the government's bureaucratic forms. And me – guess I'm working on being the resident handicapped person if my sciatica don't soon clear up. Lord have mercy!”

She explained Deezer also played the bass for her and Crimea's trio, as well as playing in the local symphony orchestra. “Guess that makes him the only legit musician in our little band, here.”

Just then, the door burst open, revealing an older woman in a heavy coat looking like she'd recently escaped from a wind tunnel though Alma didn't remember it being all that windy this morning.

“Traffic was horrible out on the highway, and I hit every light red! Plus there's a huge pile-up on the Schuylkill.”

Heading for the coat rack, this latest arrival took no notice of them, almost knocking Arugula over as she rushed past.

“Crimea, you were nowhere near the Schuylkill Express; don't give me that shit!”

“Belle will be late this morning,” she said, ignoring Arugula and her comment, “getting her hair done for today's board meeting. Oh,” she said, seeing Alma standing there, “you're the new girl – follow me!”

“Oh, my laws,” Arugula shrieked and disappeared, “I forgot about that damned meeting. I've got reports to print, forms to kiss...”

“Happy Monday,” Froyde yelled over the ensuing chaos as her phone began ringing and everyone made mad dashes for their desks. A few stragglers came in, took off their coats and joined the fray. Alma could barely recognize the woman who'd calmly interviewed her and offered her the job last week: “So this is reality?”

Ms Rivers was standing beside an overly cluttered desk that barely fit into the small bay window behind the receptionist's desk where, without rummaging around, she picked up a handful of variously sized envelopes.

“Every morning, sort through the mail and distribute it to the respective desks. Anything for Ms DiVedremo, put on my desk.”

“Oh, maybe that's what the guy delivered – before Arugula... uhm, Ms Jones arrived?”

“I've no idea what you're talking about, child. We're not expecting any deliveries. Anyway, here's Saturday's mail – for Ms DiVedremo's office.”

Then she took a letter, already opened, a single sheet of paper, unfolded, and handed it to her with a warning. “Put this one on top – she needs to see this one right away.”

It had been addressed to Rivers but the boss would have to deal with it, one of their more disgruntled composers.

“You do know where Ms DiVedremo's office is, girl? What's your name, again?”

“It's Alma, Ms Rivers,” she answered, “Alma Viva.”

“Right, good... well,” the office manager stammered, “take these and off you go!”

“My first assignment,” Alma thought, taking the pile of mail from Ms Rivers and then going upstairs to the boss' office, “my first assignment on my first day working on my first real job. How difficult can it be, putting the mail on her desk, like so, but making sure this letter's right on top?” She walked gracefully up the steps, not too slow, not hurried, certainly dignified – she was carrying, after all, the boss' mail. She felt the whole future of the company depended on her complete success. Everyone's eyes were on her, watching to see how well she'd manage this (even though she knew that wasn't the case) wondering if she had what it took to make it in this business. This wasn't waitressing at the diner or even being a clerk at Walmart: she was now part of the music industry!

How far could she go, she wondered, climbing the ladder of corporate success? Could she become an office manager some day, earning quick promotions, or even become president of the company like Ms DiVedremo? Everything was going so well today – good omens – and here she was, first thing, climbing the steps to the boss' office.

She'd work while Luis went to barber school like he always wanted to, then become Mrs. Luis Figueroa, raise her children. “This is no temporary job,” she reminded herself. “This could start my career.”

It was a sturdy door, heavy wood, very old-fashioned, the name – Belle diVedremo, President – on a brass plaque in the center (“Imagine my own name there,” she thought: “Alma Viva, President – no, Alma Figueroa”). She knocked cautiously before pushing the door open, looking around with the keen excitement of a child entering the Oval Office. She saw the bay window with its heavy drapes, three deeply comfortable chairs, the large and well-organized desk, some large bookcases. Beside the desk was a table piled high with photographs and musical scores.

There were several portraits on the walls, all guys in powdered wigs or maybe with wild hair and equally wild expressions. She figured these were probably some of the composers Ms DiVedremo's company published.

It's a very masculine room, these guys in the portraits, the heavy furniture. But there was something odd – a doll's house.

It stood on some kind of low cabinet, ornate, perhaps a credenza, she thought, maybe where the boss kept her drinks – she could imagine after a very busy day, kicking back with a brandy – and it was definitely very old-fashioned and certainly old, older than any dollhouse she'd seen unless it was in a museum.

“What's the significance of the dollhouse,” Alma wondered, peering through a few windows. “Maybe it had once belonged to her grandmother?” The amount of detail, especially inside, surprised her, particularly all the leather-like upholstery.

There wasn't time to dawdle – who knew when the boss would be arriving? “Just put the mail down and then leave.” There was a noise, maybe a door closing – old houses and odd noises. But in her nervousness over maybe getting caught, she fumbled with the envelopes and the letter slipped unceremoniously off the desk.

After she had picked it up off the floor, something caught her eye but unfortunately the light in the room wasn't good enough to read it by so she turned on the desk lamp. “Why did Ms Rivers want DiVedremo to look at this immediately, first thing? If I'm the boss, how'd I handle it?”

The letter was in long-hand (speaking of old-fashioned), going from neat to sloppy. Whatever it's about, she knew it was angry. It was signed Thomas E. Purdue – “Isn't that the guy Amanda works for?”

But before she could begin to read it, she heard another noise, muffled, most likely coming from the hallway behind her, and quickly put the letter down before DiVedremo walked in and found her. It's a good thing she hadn't sat in her chair like some kid, fantasizing about what it's like being the boss!

Alma glanced over her shoulder but couldn't hear anything else from the hall though now she thought she heard someone breathing. Was there somebody in the room watching her, evaluating what she was doing?

While she was wondering about security cameras, a tall dark figure all in black swooped toward her from behind the curtains. It didn't look like how she'd pictured Belle DiVedremo, President, whoever it was.

“It's the tall man – well, the person – in black,” the one she'd seen earlier go around the back of the house.

Holding up the letter, her thoughts jumbled together, tripping over each other in her haste to explain to him (or her) she was delivering the boss' Saturday mail, doing only the best she could. If there was something wrong with the way she's doing it, she thought, she was willing to learn, make things better.

But the black-clad figure, racing toward her, said nothing, stepping into the light: what Alma saw were dark, penetrating, insect-like eyes. And then there was this brilliant flash of gleaming metal – lots of it.

The pain was hot, like nothing she'd felt before, slashing across her throat, but there wasn't time to imagine what metaphors she would use to describe it or if a simile might be better. And sticky, too, though that was probably blood, her hands feeling its warmth as its deep stain spread across her dress.

Through the agony, she tried to figure out what was happening to her – everything was going so well, up to now. She got away from him – “this time, I'm pretty sure it's a him.” But she knocked over the table with all the scores, spewing them everywhere before she fell, her hands dripping with blood.

She slipped trying to regain her footing but she had little strength left. There's blood everywhere and she knew it's hers.

“I'm going to be fired over this mess, I can just feel it!”

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

to be continued...

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 rather warped imagination, frequently inspired by elements of parody. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used." The towns of Doylestown and Marple in Pennsylvania do exist though I've never been there and my use of them – having found sites in such proximity unlikely to be associated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or one of Agatha Christie's more endearing creations – is purely fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And then of course I would be completely remiss if I failed to thank Marcel Proust who will be found frequently popping up in the oddest places, though, to many readers perhaps, he may well be merely another face in the crowd.

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