Tuesday, January 21, 2020

987 Words: Saying Good-Bye to Max


Last Friday afternoon, Max caught the 3:14 Express Train to the Rainbow Bridge.

Max was my almost-18-year-old cat, a stray I'd taken in off my porch when he was seven or eight months old. At almost-18, he was the equivalent of an 80-year-old human who's grown frail and had several “life-style challenges” to deal with. He could still get around, walking stiffly, up until a few days before he died, not that cats can use canes. In the end, he became totally bedridden only in his last two days.

After a November examination, his veterinarian confirmed some of Max's issues included a heart murmur and the start of kidney failure, not uncommon in “senior cats,” but not something that necessarily proved immediately worrisome. Max could live a few more years before kidney failure might prove fatal. His liver was good, no signs of diabetes.

But it was what wasn't showing up in his tests that worried me. In September, one of the five kittens whose mother I took in two days before they were born, died of cancer. Freddie was 12 years old by then, but that was not yet “old,” my first cat to be diagnosed with cancer.

Yes, Max could also have “something going on” in his intestines which may account for the weight loss over previous months. Whatever it was, at his age treatment much less surgery was too risky.

There's an expression I've heard used lately when someone is diagnosed with something like an advanced stage of cancer, often terminal. There are many variables, given the disease, dependent on age and life-style, but also on strength and the will to fight. As one friend said, “I just know now what will probably kill me.”

Alex Trebek, long-time host of the TV game show “Jeopardy!,” announced he had Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer, nearly always fatal. His “I'm nearing the end of life” was reported as “Trebek says he's dying.”

True, philosophically, every day we are one day closer to dying, whenever that may occur, but there's also a difference between this “nearing the end of life” and the gradual process of leaving it.

I was saying the same thing about Max, then, “nearing the end of life,” not knowing how long he might live.

A week before Christmas, something happened to Max, I'm not sure what: I thought he wouldn't make it through the night. Then, by morning, after I'd sat up with him, he seemed to stabilize. Twice before, there were sudden changes like that, like a cat shedding another of his nine lives, but he always recovered. Since November, these started happening more frequently, when after a bad night (and often on a weekend) he would come back to only about half what he'd been before, like he would fade away.

So I had to go from “Max was nearing the end of life” to “Max is dying.” It was only inevitable. After all, he was pushing 18: I knew it had to come eventually. Would he make it to Christmas? He did. The New Year? He did. His 18th birthday in April? Well, we'll see...

So now, we moved into hospice care and I was his 24/7 care-giver. If he needed held or wanted to curl up on my lap, that was more important than my doing any composing. He'd stretch out across my chest, purring away, cradled in my arms, while I sat at the computer, trying to write.

I didn't want to have him “put to sleep,” not while he's still fully conscious and could still enjoy my company. By Friday, there was so little of him left, the decision was inescapable.

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

It's strange to find the place so lonely, coming back from the vets. The loss of a pet, no matter how old, doesn't end with holding him in your arms as he passes on. I walk around the house, seeing the places where I used to see him, his favorite haunts, his waiting food bowl. Everything, especially the chair we'd spend so much time in, him curled up on my chest, is full of his absence. The other cats aren't sure what's happened, maybe, but they sense something has.

I wonder if they know he's gone – 'gone' like we use the euphemism? They're not wandering around trying to find him, looking under the tea-caddy, wondering why he's not coming to dinner any more. They spent time with him those final weeks, sleeping beside him, sitting nearby. Whether they understand Death, surely they must “know”?

There are four cats in the house, Max's “cousins,” I think of them. When Freddie died, he left behind his brothers Abel, Baker, and Charlie – initially indistinguishable orange tabbies – and sister Blanche, a tortoiseshell. They had been born in my bathroom almost thirteen years ago, now, growing up with Uncle Max whom they never challenged.

The night before Max died, they all sat quietly on the bed and took turns gently licking him on the forehead. It was like they'd all come to say good-bye, one last loving act.

Maybe cats don't believe in the Legend of the Rainbow Bridge, the meadow where our pets wait for us after they die, eventually to be reunited as we cross over the bridge into Heaven. Perhaps there's an old song cats sing to each other to comfort themselves when they cannot understand the world around them?

“Good night, sweet cat,” I imagine it goes, “now it's time for sleep:
Don't worry about the things to do tomorrow.”
(The song continues gently, soothing.)
“But now let's sleep, and you can dream.”

For me, I'm glad I'd looked out on my freezing cold porch at that moment over seventeen years ago and decided, “That cat looks like it needs to be brought inside where it's warm.”

I thought of all the warmth he'd returned to me over those years, holding him in my arms, and said good-bye.

- Dick Strawser

= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The words for the old cat's song are adapted from a post at Abbie the Cat Has A Posse

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

987 Words of Short Fiction: A Thing From the Past

In the background, maybe coming from a distant room, I could hear the sound of a barely audible piece of music, enough at first only to judge it was classical music and something familiar. Since I rarely found him alone in the house, especially at night, there was usually some kind of commotion going on. It might have been on TV or maybe one of Ben's grandchildren was listening to it on-line (part of an assignment?) though I didn't recall anyone in his family being interested in classical music.

As our conversation continued – I don't remember about what – I found myself paying less attention to what Ben was saying and more to trying to hear the music better so I could identify it. For some reason, the fact I found myself humming along with it but still couldn't think what it was, bothered me.

It was a "Tip-of-the-Tongue Moment" – when I stuck my tongue out, Ben would lean forward and say, "nope, can't see it" – a joke we'd often used when we were kids so many years ago. It was a way of breaking the awkwardness caused by some momentary forgetfulness, but our parents never found it very funny.

"Just wait," their looks would say, especially my curmudgeonly grandfather's, "till you're our age, then you'll understand." (And they were right.)

But Ben couldn't see it this time because we're on the phone.

"Salome!"

Ben stopped abruptly. "No... what? I was talking about the cheese at the market. I guess they might've had salami, but..."

"No, sorry," I stammered. "I meant the music – in the background? Strauss' Salome?"

"Oh, that." He paused. I could imagine him suddenly listening to it. It had been wallpaper for him up till then.

"I meant, it's the 'Dance of the Seven Veils,' right? I can barely hear it but I still couldn't place it."

"Yeah, I guess," then went right back to yesterday's trip to the supermarket.

Cheese and its availability at the local Shop Rite grocery store – remembering Stravinsky's great ballet, I'd always called it Le sacre du boutique – was not a topic that held any real interest for me. But I let him drone on because, whenever I talked about my love of music, he was bored but always polite.

Ben Hoyle's parents were what we'd call "Big Cheese Buffs," not that that was anything I or my family considered odd, and trying some new variety was always a major part of any dinner. Ben would rattle them off as enthusiastically as I would list any new composers I'd just heard for the first time. Over the years, I had been a guest at many a family dinner when Ben and I were neighbors growing up, less often after his parents moved to the suburbs and another school district.

Quite often, after school, I would join Ben and his older brother and sisters at the kitchen table for a snack, which was cheese and crackers rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. When we'd sit down to dinner, Ben's mom "presented" standard favorites of cheese rather than risk possible disappointment, spoiling the experience.

I didn't know his sisters, Emily and Ruth, very well, and his brother, Nick, older by about seven years, always treated Ben and me like we were too young for him to bother with. Even their dog, Ralph, some black-and-white random terrier, was a year older than Ben, the true baby of the Hoyle Family.

Ben's mom, Mrs. Hoyle, was a tall, quiet woman who grew up on a dairy farm, often talking about childhood memories. Ben's father was more distant from us kids, aloof and dignified, a teacher.

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

What my family did consider odd about Ben's family was Mrs. Hoyle being a Baptist and Mr. Hoyle apparently a "non-believer." They assumed Baptists were country-folk, where, in the city, many Baptists were black. My parents, always finding some excuse not to go to church themselves, never thought "Cheeses" was an issue worth worrying about.

It wasn't so much either of the Hoyle's beliefs but that the combination didn't create more obvious friction than it did. The girls went to church with their mother, and the "men-folk" stayed home.

One afternoon, near the end of the school year, Emily brought home a friend – "boyfriend," Ruth chided her in that annoying voice little sisters always used when making fun of others. "His name's Ralph."

Mrs. Hoyle said she recognized him from church and you could see what was initially alarm quietly shifted closer to approval.

"Ralph?" Ben asked, looking at his sister, confused. "You mean like the dog?"

"How're we ever going to tell them apart," Mrs. Hoyle quipped. It was as if they boy wasn't even standing there.

"Well, I refuse to call Ralph the dog 'Ralph the Dog'," Ruth pouted. "He has seniority. He's even older than Ben!"

"I suppose we could call him 'Ralph the Human'," Ben suggested, Ralph blushing to the roots of his very blonde hair.

"Or instead," I offered, "maybe you can call Emily's friend 'Ralph the Baptist'?"

Everyone else seemed to think I'd made a joke, judging from the way they'd laughed. Even Mr. Hoyle cracked a smile. I hadn't meant to be rude and I suspect the others hadn't either. Ralph – not the dog – apparently'd had enough, running out of the kitchen, the back door slamming behind them after Emily followed.

I tried to recall if I ever saw him around after that, always thinking I'd ruined a good friendship for Emily. She soon stopped going to church, then, probably too embarrassed to face him.

Over the years, it never occurred to me to ask Ben "whatever happened to that guy – you remember, 'Ralph the Baptist'?" I'd completely forgotten Ralph till something reminded me of him and that afternoon.

"So," Ben was saying, "should I pick up some of that for you?"

"Cheese?" Salome's 'Dance' had stopped. "No, that's okay."


– Dick Strawser



Wednesday, January 08, 2020

987 Words About Resolutions that Have Nothing to Do with the New Year

Okay, I've made it to the second installment of 987 Words and I'm seriously wondering how this is going to work, not that '987 Words' trips off the tongue all that lightly, does it? The first post took almost a full week to write and I'm finding it's time consuming keeping to the Fibonacci Structure. Predictably, given the New Year – not to mention a whole new decade – thoughts might turn to Resolutions: a self-disciplinary writing exercise? But in this case, I'm thinking more of 'resolutions' in the musical sense.

In music we have lots of terms that are easily misunderstood: for instance, dissonance is usually taken to be 'ugly' and, if you want to enjoy yourself, best avoided. 'Art should be beautiful,' right? What it really means is 'something that creates anticipation,' building a sense of tension that will somehow need to be resolved.

So when you watch TV and see a character's eyebrow rise a bit, you probably think, 'Aha, she's discovered something: what?' And you'll have to wait till after the commercial break to find out. It's a way of creating anticipation requiring future resolution (otherwise, what's the point?), drawing you on so you don't tune away.

A musical dissonance might be the equivalent not only of that raised eyebrow, but of many other regularly accepted, stereotypical 'dissonances.' Imagine a horror show without a monster or a plot without a twist.

Another word we hear when talking about music is 'harmony,' which we usually think of as something 'harmonious' and therefore beautiful, though it originally meant 'living together in peace' or 'forming a pleasing whole.' But in music, it's the process by which an individual chord combines with other similar chords to create a 'pleasing whole.' Anyone who's ever taken music classes learns how these chords, building blocks of most Western music, classical and otherwise, work in certain standard ways despite tons of often confusing rules and even more exceptions.

Without getting into the particulars of how chords are built, let's just say a chord by itself is just a sound. Putting a bunch of chords together could create a string of pleasing sounds. Most of Western music is based on the idea chords together go somewhere, a journey with a beginning and a destination.

Not that I'm writing an entire Music 101 course in 987 words, but think of a piece of music as a story with a beginning and an end, and lots of stuff in between. You meet characters (themes, motives), situations evolve (the expansion of those themes, motives), things happen (contrasts), eyebrows get raised (unexpected modulation). Structurally, a longer composition, like a novel, could have several movements instead of chapters, each one subdivided into sections like scenes, and, on the micro-level, there are musical paragraphs with phrases instead of sentences.

To carry the analogy further, cadences act like punctuation – a full cadence for a period, a half cadence for a comma – shaping the music, giving it a chance to breathe both melodically and harmonically. A cadence is also a formula, a standard-operating-procedure or cliché, with specific chords which define what kind of cadence it is.

Analogies may not be the most accurate way to describe something, taken literally, but realizing there are certain generic parameters we can talk about in music might help explain the significance of each one. It's called SHMRG, an acronym standing for SONORITY, HARMONY, MELODY, RHYTHM, and GROWTH, allowing us to focus on smaller, specific details.

Basically, sonority refers to anything to do with the music's sound in general. Growth concerns structure on any level, like the overall form (like Sonata form) or the shape and expansion of a phrase.

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

Now, if you take those categories and describe them not in terms of a story but, not taking it too literally, in terms of the human body, you could think of them this way:

SONORITY is like the person's appearance in general – say, the color of the hair or eyes, recognizing somebody by their voice;

MELODY is like the skin, a surface covering everything we can't see underneath;

GROWTH (or form) is like the skeleton, giving the body support and shape: without it, we certainly wouldn't look very human;

HARMONY is like the muscles which give the body not only a sense of definition but also the power to move;

RHYTHM is like the blood that brings energy to everything, giving it life.

So, let's think about cadences which we think of primarily as HARMONY, but which also fall under MELODY, GROWTH, and RHYTHM.

A cadence is a pattern of chords which, depending on how weak or strong it is, creates some level of finality, the chords building up to it generating a sense of direction and anticipation. Increasing the harmonic rhythm – the rate the chords change – also gives the chord progression more energy and defines the phrase's structure.

A melody, supported by its underlying chords – real or implied – is not just a memorable series of pleasing pitches randomly chosen. It follows the harmony's contours, and usually takes its breath at the cadence.

We all know how important breathing is and what happens if we don't: eventually, we'll keel over from lack of oxygen. Well, what happens to the music if the performer doesn't let it breathe? That whole breathing-in, the act of, like a singer, taking a breath, allows the phrase to play out in the breathing-out.

Pay attention to the hierarchy of these breathing cadences, the open-ended ones and those that sound more – and eventually, most – final. They create a sense of direction allowing this 'tension,' these uncertainties, to increase.

How does the composer heighten tension through the use of chords, the rhythms, the high-points of phrases, the approach to cadences? Discover how any digression away from the expected can increase the listener's anticipation.

How can you, the performer, bring these different discoveries out in your interpretation? It's always more satisfying when tension is released.

– Dick Strawser

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

987 Words Which Have Nothing to Do with New Year's Eve...


Like a sequel to the recently released film-version of Cats, something else no one is likely to be waiting for is my imminent return to even moderately regular blogging at Thoughts on a Train, since it's been over a full year since I've posted anything after my latest serial novel, another “classical music appreciation comedy/thriller.” The idea to resume writing – and more importantly to post the results – was a fairly spontaneous but not necessarily welcome idea. Long retired, why not sit around watching TV or staring disconsolately into space?

Perhaps practicing my so-called writing skills could help keep what's left of my mind sharp, or sharper than it seems to have become as the world sinks into an increasingly darker pit of despondency. New posts should come easily, railing at life's indignities assailing us from every angle, but that's why there's Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from wondering what I might want to write about, whether anybody wants to read it or not – considering I usually write rather long posts – I was wondering how I might keep them within certain, more manageable, potentially realistic bounds. I mean, many of them, even after editing, ended up around 4,000 to 5,000 words.

Inspiration came from watching an Australian TV drama called 800 Words where, the basic plot aside, the main character writes a column called “800 Words” which, not surprisingly, consists of exactly eight hundred words.

Doing a bit of on-line searching (is it still “googling” if Google is not your default search-engine?), I discovered several websites geared for writers who want to write in compact units of 800 words. That could be a free-range essay or short story (a very short story), or a way to work on one's self-discipline.

I'd participated in several “November-Is-National-Novel-Writing-Month” (NaNoWriMo) challenges where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. Not necessarily a 50,000-word novel, but at least 50,000 words toward the novel-length-of-your-choice.

Granted, it's a challenge for many people to find time in their days to write at all, but it's easier if you break it down to a goal of, say, 1,613 words a day. Some days I could barely manage 600 words, compared to those days I'd rattle off a few thousand for a blog-post.

Clearly, I have no problems blathering away on the keyboard just putting words on paper – or, rather, on my computer screen – so, for me, what's the point of trying to write only 800 words? Why try my hand at writing compact short stories when both of my last two novels were almost 200,000 words long? Yes, “learning” to write shorter works, especially in this day of short attention spans and non-taxing tweets, might be highly recommended. But it is also an age of binge-ing, a dichotomy I find intriguing.

It's not that “writing 800 words” wasn't a sufficient challenge, since many would consider writing even 100 words a daunting task. I just didn't feel drawn to writing that number of words, you know? It also didn't appeal to me because the “word goal” seemed so arbitrary, not being particularly interested in writing self-contained stories.

In addition to those essays by E.B. White about his living in Maine, I also found myself intrigued by the feuilleton, originally “a supplement to the political portion of French newspapers, containing non-political news and gossip, literature and art criticism, a chronicle of the latest fashions, that also contained epigrams, charades and other literary trifles.”

Now, that's something I'd find more interesting and certainly fits in with the original, free-range idea behind Thoughts on a Train. One week I could write about something musical; the next, maybe something “literary.”

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

A few decades ago, I'd become fascinated by the Golden Section and how it relates to symmetry and proportion in art, plus the unique numerical series that reflects it: read more about it, here. (Seriously, you expect me to explain the Fibonacci Sequence and still keep this under 5,000 words? That's what Wikipedia is for!) So rather than write 800 words, I chose the oddly specific number 987, only because it's part of the Fibonacci Series. I'll explain later, but let it suffice that's only part of the reason.

It should be more than just an arbitrary choice of another number, something I'd chosen at random but still within reason, so I thought my feuilleton could reflect the proportions of the Fibonacci Sequence. Like a piece of music in, say, “sonata form,” everything could be structurally subdivided into a pattern reflecting the Golden Ratio.

Drawing a line and dividing it at the Golden Section – see illustration, left – results in two unequal parts, not exactly “halves,” and subdividing each segment further results in smaller segments but with similar proportions. If this line represents the time-span of a novel or piece of music, various subdivisions could help create chapters or phrases.

Rather than producing a sequence of equal, box-like units dividing everything in halves, it creates an asymmetrical sense of rhythmic flow. If handled properly, it can propel the reader or listener toward the conclusion.

This so-called “Golden Proportion” occurs frequently in nature – in nautilus shells and sunflowers – or in pleasant balances of art or architecture, where you can, with a practiced eye, at least see these proportional relationships. How do you do that in something unfolding in time, not just space, like listening to music or reading a book?

Like many things we look at, listen to – or read – and find satisfying, we cannot explain why we respond to it. But we do and do it without really understanding what initiates our response.

If you listen to a symphony by Beethoven or a song by Beyoncé, you can enjoy it without any musical training, so much technical stuff going by unnoticed even if you are musically trained.

So we'll see how long I can keep up a weekly 987-Word Challenge, though it's not really a New Year's Resolution...

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: The Conclusion

In Monday's action-packed penultimate installment, Dr Kerr learned not to shout “Fire!” in a burning room full of people with guns. In the ensuing shoot-out, all the Aficionati guards were killed and Dr Govnozny was wounded. But the fire continued to spread. Ripa made a last-ditch effort to escape before realizing his hat and coat were aflame, just as the computer flickered to life and Clara, realizing Dr Purdue is alive, confesses to having killed Amanda. While Narder is trying to figure out how to arrest a computer, Kerr pulls the electrical cord thinking Clara would somehow escape into the electrical grid but Purdue, realizing it's a wifi system, takes a shovel and begins to smash the hard drive. But the fire spreads and the house begins to collapse, caving in just as the last of them makes it to the front porch.

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

CHAPTER 31

I.

A firetruck was pulling into position when we'd managed to unlock the front door and make it out onto the porch, men in protective gear running around, yelling instructions, getting the hoses in place, the flames reflecting off their faces and helmets, some with hatchets charging toward us, knowing there'd been several people reported inside. Narder and Tango shepherded us further down the lawn after Cameron and I had stopped with Tom to catch our breath at the bottom of the steps, not pausing till we'd passed the truck.

“Anyone else inside? Everybody accounted for? How many...” Questions came from every side. We were coughing, our chests heaving with exertion. Narder said “Det. Reel ran off after a suspect and is unaccounted for. Officer Paula Naze may be trapped downstairs – let's check that from the tunnel. Tango, you stay here,” and she ran off.

Cameron and I were counting heads and verified all of us had made it out safely, or what passed for “safely,” when Tom asked, in a tentative whisper nearly lost in the commotion, “Clara?”

One of the firemen standing nearby heard him. “Clara? Who's Clara? She still...?”

“You don't want to know,” Tango told him.

The fireman, figuring she was already among the dead, helped me take Tom over by the driveway, away from the chaos, and stretched him out on a blanket as an ambulance roared into view.

Anything more was drowned out by an explosion like a bomb going off, sending shivers through the remainder of the house, shaking it from the foundation up to the third floor tower's conical roof. I'd thought it odd you couldn't see anything through the windows, then realized most were covered with something from the inside.

The percussive blast apparently tore the coverings off the windows, shattering them, and spewed shards of broken glass onto the lawn. Fragments of burning wood were like projectiles in a fireworks display gone rogue.

The rush of oxygen caused a second explosion as everything continued to erupt, flames expanding exponentially, a great burst of energy, until the entire house was quickly engulfed in a muscular show of strength.

Once started, the floors collapsed, all three stories settling rapidly with a great sigh, the tower the last to give in.

IMP Secret Agent Sarah Bond came jogging across the yard, emerging out of the woods beyond the farmhouse, followed at a close distance by Marple Police Detective James Reel, both considerably out of breath.

Tango was glad to see his partner alive but reluctant to give him a hug: his suit was already wrinkled enough.

Bond came up to me, looking down at Tom. “So, this is Tom? You were able to rescue him after all?”

“Yes, even though I had to burn the place down to do it...”

“Indeed!” giving me a conspiratorially raised eyebrow's approval.

“Any luck with Osiris, then?”

Did he get away?” Bond shrugged her shoulders. “I found his wheelchair outside the tunnel's exit, but no sign of him.” She figured Ripa's van was at the concert, so it couldn't have been back in time to be Osiris' get-away vehicle.

Reel reported he'd lost sight of Ripa – Tango, quick to ask: “how could you lose a burning man in the dark?” – after he'd checked the body in the kitchen. “Already dead – he wasn't Ripa. Must've dropped his coat and hat over the guy's body for some reason. I suspect we'll find Ripa's in the morning.”

I'll never forget that body rolling into this gaping, flaming hole in the floor, the hell-pit in Don Giovanni's final scene. If that'd been Ripa, could they prove whether or not Tom killed him?

We heard them from halfway across the yard, even over all the racket. “Mo,” Narder explained when they joined us, “was telling me why she broke protocol with her assignment. You'll find this interesting.” Maureen Zerka was the officer on stake-out at the farmhouse end of the tunnel and went AWOL at a critical moment.

“I'd been chasing away some kids who were throwing stones at me,” she said, “like they were pretending to be ghosts. Only when I got back from them, I noticed these four other guys.”

Maybe they were looking for a costume party, skulking along the cemetery wall, but then disappeared into those woods beyond Purdue's. She radioed Naze and LeMonde but got no response. Then she lost them.

I looked at Bond. “Well, that explains what happened to Osiris and Ripa.”

“The closer I get, the farther he is...”

Naze, after explaining how she'd stepped out into the tunnel before the roof collapsed, went to help LeMonde take their prisoner – “that doctor” – into the hospital. That's when they found Tango's patrol car gone.

“Then Mo came by, said you drove away, and figured that was you stopping at the woods and arresting those weirdos.”

Reel was practically ecstatic. “Wait, Jandro, you mean to tell me you left your keys in the cruiser? How could you...”

The argument continued to escalate and I figured, “let them deal with it.”

Telling Bond about Clara's confession and how Tom attacked her with a shovel, hoping to “kill” the computer program in turn, I wondered if destroying the hard drive in time would've terminated the software, and, if what Tom said was true – that Ripa's house had wi-fi internet – did that mean Clara could have escaped, too?

Escaped? – like, transmit herself – itself – into some other device before he broke the connection – and... hide?” Bond stood back and laughed. “Ah, now there's a tantalizing theory, a truly 'killer' app on the loose...!”

The EMT guy apologized for interrupting us, but said urgently, “Your friend there's just had a stroke – we need to get him to the hospital 'stat.' Anyone want to come along, fill us in?”

I climbed into the ambulance with Tom, the wail of sirens tearing through what for others might've been a tranquil night.

II.

“Everything had been going well,” he thought, turning out the light, “until that...”

Lucifer Darke let the thought hang there unfinished as he looked back into his office and shut the door behind him. It was a late night and not a very productive one despite the work he claimed he'd had to deal with.

First off, that useless speech for the dinner before the concert which he was able to terminate early, feigning technical difficulties. Then the aftermath of that... – whatever that was. “What the hell was that?”

He'd assumed, when it began, it was just another special lighting effect left over in Old Scricci's arsenal of rock-n-roll tricks. An actual bomb planted in the audience, however, killing actual people? “So unacceptable!” It must've been Steele's minions – who else would stoop to something so low? “This wasn't over, not by a long shot.”

The office was nearly dark, just the usual dim glow of night lights, meaning everyone else had gone for the day.

“Wait,” he thought, “there's someone by the elevator. Ah, another dedicated worker, good.”

He didn't recognize him, not at first. Somebody new? No, wait – yes, he'd seem him before, probably around the water cooler.

Darke tried to smile, approaching the young man who looked at him, smiling back, mumbling something about the elevator being slow.

Oh, he remembered, the young man from IT who'd located Steele's GPS location.

“Well,” Darke thought, nodding back at the young man as if he not only recognized him but even knew his name, “that'll soon come to an end – I know where you're hiding, Mr Steele...” Even as we speak, he knew his well-regulated militia was winging its way to Steele's little hidey-hole out in the ocean.

“Wait, could one have a hole in the ocean?” That made him smile. “Well, never mind, it's the thought that counts. Mixed metaphors aside, you, Mr Steele, will not be counting for much, soon.”

Darke looked down at the boy, not that much shorter but short enough to give Darke the advantage of his height. He never understood why they hired such youngsters just because they understood computers.

He looked at his watch and yawned. “A long day,” he said, condescendingly. Then he walked over to the men's room.

Kenny Hackett was left alone at the elevator. Darke left, saying nothing else. It made him smile, how obvious the Boss' disdain was for him, a mere corporate cog, unwilling to talk to him. Did Darke even remember what he'd told the man earlier in his office, how he'd tracked down the elusive Mr Steele?

“So, you'd think that'd be worth something, right?” Kenny tried not to fume. “Not like I expected a vice-presidency from this...” Though that had a nice ring to it, “Kenneth Hackett, Vice-President of IT.”

He wanted to tell Darke the news he'd seen posted on social media, something about a really bad earthquake on some remote island south of Tahiti. It didn't give the coordinates – maybe it's Steele's?

But the old man just walked away from him like he's not important, disappearing without a word into the men's room.

“Yeah, so let him find out about it in the morning news, then,” he told himself, “no cells off my epidermis. And the less they know about me – and Clara...” The elevator had arrived

“Clara” was going to be his revenge. “Sweet!” Any mayhem she created will be blamed on inter-office politics, everybody pointing fingers.

“And nobody will be pointing them at me, Kenny the lowly IT guy.” Speaking of fingers, he remembered the security cameras.

“Things can only go up from here.”

Then he pressed the down button.

III.

“By the time Shendo and the other IMP agents made it from the concert to the airport,” Bond was telling us, “Osiris' private jet had already taken off, a surprise even to airport security.” Standing outside the ICU at Letterman Memorial Hospital, waiting for any new word on Tom's condition, Bond was filling us in.

“So much for getting caught in midtown traffic,” Narder said, “when everybody's panicking because of news reports about a terrorist attack.”

“Yeah, Chris said everything around Kimmel came to a screaming halt, nothing moved!”

Martin, Dorothy and I sat there trading glances, barely paying attention, while Cameron went off in search of the snack machines. Dorothy complained about getting back on schedule with Thursday's recital in Davenport, Iowa, and Martin, meanwhile, was quick to inform us he was holding another seminar at the Kalkbrenner Society in London this weekend.

“Not sure how they managed, but Ripa's old van” – surveillance cameras spotted it behind Kimmel – “got away from the center in time and made it to the airport long before the IMP van did.” They even had time to stop at a diner outside the airport, meet your stolen cruiser, and order a dozen cheeseburgers.”

“Yeah... nice...” Narder was not pleased her own department's cruiser had been stolen by one of Osiris' guards, but it explained how Osiris and the nurse got to the airport so fast, sirens screaming.

“Oh yeah, Dr Kerr,” Narder said, turning to me with an uneasy smile, “I followed up on your suggestion to compare the crime scene photos at Marple Music taken after the two different murders, and it seems only one thing's missing, that dollhouse over in the corner. How'd someone sneak out with that huge dollhouse...?”

Bond wondered if that could've been what the killer was after all along, though her tone of voice sounded decidedly skeptical. “Really, a dollhouse? How valuable could that be? Why'd Osiris be after that?”

Arching my eyebrows, I tried not to give away the relief I felt but it meant the Kapellmeister had apparently succeeded. Did he go back before it was splattered with DiVedremo's blood? What next? Where will it go from here, into a private collector's hands, maybe Osiris'? What would Osiris want with a bloody dollhouse?

Narder got a phone call and then hung up after a couple words. “So, they found Ripa's bloody sickle – not a scythe – in his old van, with blood belonging to Alma Viva and DiVedremo. And someone else – after running some DNA tests, I'm guessing the old woman found on the other side of that crypt.”

Though they had an eye-witness firmly placing Ripa at the first murder scene, it's probably just as well others hadn't heard all of Ripa's confession, what with me “popping in and out” like that...

The doctor who'd been in charge of Tom's case stuck his head out through the doors to say things looked good – “Not out of the woods, but as good as possible, under the circumstances. There's only minimal damage to the brain, perhaps some minor paralysis that could clear up after physical therapy, with any luck.”

Narder put her phone away after sending a text and said since she'd heard Clara's confession, one more bit of good news was that Tom and I were off the hook regarding Amanda's death. “Though I have no idea how we'd prosecute that one,” shaking her head. “Does that clear up enough loose ends, now?”

Narder looked over at me. “I hope your friend makes a full recovery.” Then shaking my hand apologetically, she turned away.

“Well, Bond,” she added, “call it a day?”

Bond laughed. “About time, too!”

IV.

The TV monitor in the hospital lobby, set to one of those all-news channels which everybody seemed to be ignoring, was summarizing the latest on the bombing at the concert hall earlier that night. The anchor was handsome enough, looking like someone you could trust no matter what he said, even if he sounded artificial.

“There were thirteen confirmed dead,” he continued, his eyes glued to the prompter while silent generic concert footage rolled behind him, “and 233 seriously wounded, with hundreds more hit by blood or brain matter...”

Bond and Narder went their separate ways, not lingering over the formalities of saying good-bye, not promising to keep in touch. Dorothy and Martin returned to their respective hotels, heading out later this afternoon. Kerr and his assistant, Cameron, decided they'd find a nearby motel for a few more days to stay close to Purdue.

“...Including the soloist on stage when the explosion occurred who was also the gala concert's executive producer,” the anchorman droned on, “a former glam rocker named” – he paused, staring at the prompter – “Skripshaw Scricki. Some of you might be old enough to remember him from his days with the Transgender Siberian Orchestra in the '90s.

“Yelling something sounding like he thought the bombing to be 'fictitious'” – here, he looked into the camera and shrugged his shoulders – “Scricki, dragged off the stage, suffered what looked like a nervous break dance.

“Police could not confirm reports Scricki was flown to a famous psych ward outside London, in England, where he'd been treated for psychotic episodes on several occasions in the past, not unlike this one. One of his assistants said, speaking as someone with no business doing so, Scricki's had a history of such public meltdowns.

“They also have no information yet on whether this was an act of terrorism or merely an unidentified, middle-aged white woman with issues resulting from menopause – meanwhile, no word yet on a possible motive.

“Meanwhile, in international news,” the backdrop now a generic image of a pristine beach, palm trees and scantily clad bathers, “a peaceful island paradise in the idyllic South Pacific has suffered a volcanic eruption.

“So far, there's one known dead, hundreds still missing... international aid already underway... various relief agencies setting up numerous photo opportunities...”

CHAPTER 32

Turning onto the tree-lined street, it was good to see Conan Lane again. I felt we'd been gone for five weeks even if we'd only been away just five days – including two event-filled days. Pulling in the driveway and parking the car, it was certainly good to see the old familiar house still standing there. And even better to feel the quiet safety of my home once more, trying not to think about everything we'd experienced since that phone call Monday turned our lives into nothing but constant chaos.

Walking in the door, the house looked exactly the same if not better, probably because I had missed it so much. The sun was shining through bare tree branches, the leaves crunching underfoot carpeting the yards and sidewalks with red and gold, after the clouds and general gloom the previous few days, looking brightly festive. Looking better also, I suspect, because Mrs Quickly next door had “straightened things up a bit,” maybe even ran the vacuum, when she'd come over twice a day to feed the cats for me. Once I'd stepped inside, taking stock of things, I sighed the deep, resonant sigh of the returning traveler, home at last: you'd think I'd been off to India where I'd lived out of hotels or sailed across the Atlantic after a pleasant journey visiting friends in England, given the depths of relief that sigh revealed.

True, I thought, shutting the door behind us, then deciding to lock it (one can never be too sure about security), our chaos was nothing compared to what an old friend had gone through, recalling what had happened, and as I glanced around to find a cat, I felt guilty for even having mentioned it. After all, he had had a stroke by the time it was over – if anything like that is really ever “over” – and a young woman we'd just met was found dead in his basement. The house next door, where he'd been held prisoner, burned to the ground in a blaze we were lucky to escape, while the neighbor who'd abducted him turned out to be a murderer whose body may have been unearthed this morning in the ashes, burned beyond all recognition, the plot's mastermind supposedly “still at large.”

And then there was that unbelievable computer program he had managed to create – who knew he was capable of such technology? – one that could talk, think, and even, more amazingly, compose its own music. I'm not sure this program he'd christened Clara – apparently it could also kill – wasn't also “at large” in the wider world. Yes, whatever hackers did to the program, she claimed responsibility for Amanda's death; yes, I'd seen the computer destroyed; and yes, I had an original back-up copy, before things went wrong, in my possession.

At least Tom, whom I'd seen so rarely the past few decades, would be “rounding the bend” following Tuesday night's stroke. “Old friends” going back over forty-some years to our days in grad school, we'd been oddly reunited, promising to stay in touch even if we'd now grown up to become two cantankerous old men. The doctor assured me Tom would eventually recover – probably slowly and more than likely never completely – even if it took months, considering it a good sign he was already no longer in a coma. He was still unable to speak which clearly frustrated him despite his prognosis – doctors were pleased to discover Tom could answer simple yes or no questions with a blink or two of his eyes. All I was, by comparison, was feeling a little tired, for some reason, and looking forward to a few days' rest.

Walking into the kitchen, I noticed the blinking light on the answering machine and decided instinctively the best thing I could do now was ignore it, postponing any more reality a little while longer. Cameron, while putting the left-overs in the refrigerator, immediately (and instinctively) pushed the button, several message winding their collective ways backwards.

It's possible the funeral home in Marple was already calling about the arrangements. I'd promised Tom we'd visit in a few days without mentioning it depended on when Amanda's services were going to be.

There were the usual telemarketers, telling me “press 1 now,” wrong numbers, an oddly familiar, mysterious female wondering “Are you there?”

“Oh, listen,” he called after me as I hurried into the living room, “it's from Toni,” while munching on potato chips. “I wonder how things are at Phlaumix Court? It's a really long message.”

After the usual greetings, hoping all was well, Toni extended Burnson and LauraLynn's invitation to visit Phlaumix Court during the spring. “Undoubtedly, you must find retirement excruciatingly boring,” offered in her best hyper-English accent.

Toni was the young composer we'd met that Christmas on our European holiday which turned into quite an adventure in itself. Naturally, I was delighted to hear from her, noting her voice sounded up-beat which, for a teenager, was “undoubtedly” good news, leading me to assume this hopefully wouldn't involve me in any further adventures.

Since we'd set up long-distance, part-time composition lessons, she complained good-naturedly about my restrictions not to rely on any music software. Typical notation programs were one thing, offering too many short-cuts to basic skills, but I wondered how an innovative program like Tom's “Clara” would harm her if she never had to think for herself?

“Anyway, we're going to have a little musicale here at Phlaumix in late-April and they're going to play a new Piano Trio I wrote last month – in fact, ugh!, I'm still hand-copying the parts. But then,” she continued, “my parents” – how naturally she referred to my friends who'd adopted her after all that nasty business – “well, they said I could go over to visit you for the summer – that is, if it'd be okay with you? I'm working really hard and have lots of new compositions to show you!”

While she continued her pleasant small talk and Cameron stood smiling in anticipation, I admitted it sounded very idyllic, springtime spent in the Surrey countryside, then her staying here for a month, maybe two.

I also knew this would increase our responsibilities as members of the Watchers, that secret society associated with her, uhm... heritage. It was impossible to think of her without remembering she was Beethoven's Heir, and it meant we had an obligation to protect her privacy as well as keep her safe from the Guidonian Hand.

Since we'd promised Frieda to look after Toni, it was naïve to assume the danger ended after foiling their initial plot. Still, Cameron and I, keeping discreetly in touch with Vector and the other Watchers, now part of their substantial international network, were uncertain how much of a role we'd play in the long run.

As she signed off with a cheerful good-bye, I just shrugged my shoulders. Looking at Cameron, I knew we couldn't refuse, so we might as well plan our schedules accordingly and make the arrangements. As if the Guidonians weren't enough of a force to reckon with – and Vector and the others were sure it was – it was hard to feel completely safe, now, even with SHMRG lying low, what with this group, the Aficionati, to worry about, given Graham Ripa's ravings and what Bond already knew about the Mobots.

Opening the drapes in the cozy room and letting in the late-morning sun, I thought about getting back to reading Proust. This was a time for essential pleasures, not unlike a period of convalescence, and I enjoyed the prospect of a stretch of time with nothing to distract me while Proust's world unfolded around me.

First, I should call Mrs Quickly – I mean, Quigley – to let her know we're back and save her making the trip, thanking her for looking after the cats, with any luck avoid unnecessary questions. I noticed the pile of well-sorted mail sitting on the kitchen counter – a hand-written address on top, bills, then junk mail – nothing I couldn't put off a few days to give myself a little time to recuperate, managing to recharge the batteries before gradually working my way back into the rhythm of the universe – tomorrow.

Just a little time was all I'd need, some peace and quiet, naturally, but mostly time, of course, whatever that was, whether I divided it into minutes and hours or beats, measures and movements.

It was the artist's attempt to control chaos, trying to shape this mass of sound – of time – into something beautiful, lasting. But how is it we should answer the age-old philosophical debate about time? We understand terms we can measure with a clock, but how precise is a “moment” or a “bit,” even a “twinkling”?

Does it move forward – Time – like a film? Can it be broken down into frames in succession, a collection of instances? How does time we enjoy apparently move more quickly than time we don't? Why does the Good Old Days' glow of nostalgia always seem more pleasant than the immediate moment we live in now?

Yet as I walked across the room, looking out into the silent yard, I couldn't help but feel uneasy, even apprehensive, not because something was watching me, but because something was about to change.

Thinking about these past few days very nearly destroyed what I'd normally consider the usual space and time I'm accustomed to. We divide things into units for convenience and memories invariably become everlasting regrets, but don't we find, against logic and our best intentions, how places, friends, even dreams can change across the passing years?

= = = = = = = = THE END = = = = = = = =

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, December 10, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 30

In the previous installment, all kinds of mayhem have broken loose: as if his nervous breakdown wasn't bad enough, Ripa's newly renovated basement is in flames, the police have arrived, Osiris has fled, and he's been attacked either by a malevolent-minded computer or a woman wielding a can of bug spray. And even on Steele's idyllic island paradise, the volcano has finally erupted, setting fire to their little grass shack: will the helicopter take off in time?

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

CHAPTER 30

I.

“What in hell goes? Why house with fire?”

The fat little man stood at the bottom of the steps, mouth gaping.

“My lab! What you have done?” he cried, his face reflecting the horror.

Dr Ivan Govnozny's beady eyes surveyed the destruction to his brand new, nearly state-of-the-art and, more importantly, once clean operating room.

Cursing volubly in Russian, arms flailing, he barreled his way through the room, heading toward the open gate into the tunnel, and ignored everything around him – strange people standing around, the flames, the smoke.

Judging from those he did notice – in fact, Ripa, unconscious on the floor, was the only one he knew was Aficionati – he easily figured it was time to, “how you Americans say, 'hit road'?”

Unfortunately, he hadn't made it very far to the road, once he'd turned left down the longer stretch of the tunnel.

He was followed immediately by some half-dozen guards pulling on their uniform jackets, some holding automatic weapons, others bottles of wine, but all clearly enjoying their evening off while events unfolded at the concert. By the time they realized something was amiss – the fire was definitely unplanned – events here at the farmhouse caught them unawares.

Govnozny returned, his hands up and waving frantically, shouting “Shoot not, shoot not!” followed by Naze and LaMonde, their guns drawn. At the same time, Narder, Tango and Reel clattered down the stairs.

“Freeze!”

It wasn't typical for Kerr to see everything so clearly in a flash, but he instantly knew this was not good. “Was that Bond I heard? Where's the Kapellmeister? Is this still the past?” Because, if it was, he wasn't about to not try something to change the outcome, no matter what the Kapellmeister said.

He saw about twenty people crammed into a long, rectangular, low-ceilinged, windowless room, with maybe half of them waving guns around, unlike him and his friends – Cameron was holding a shovel; Martin, a weed-prong.

The flames, though dwindling, were getting perilously close to what could be bottles of chemicals on shelves behind the operating table when it occurred to him they should've been secured in a locked cabinet.

The first thing to do was stop the flames from reaching those shelves, so Kerr, pointing toward the wall, shouted, “Fire!”

And that was when all hell broke loose.

It was hard to tell where it started, who'd fired the first shots.

There were Marple police at either end of the room, blocking the exits.

The Aficionati guards had been caught in the middle, or, more officially, to the right of center, fish in a barrel.

Kerr and his friends, to be accurate, were the ones caught in the actual middle, unable to reach anywhere remotely safe, somewhat protected by up-turned tables and chairs as they immediately hit the ground.

The roar was deafening, the smoke – in addition to the fire – was blinding, everything echoing as bullets bounced off metal surfaces. Lights exploded, bottles shattered, people screamed and cursed in a variety of languages.

It was all over in a matter of a few seconds that stretched on and on for what felt like hours.

The floor was littered with the bodies of guards, riddled with bullet holes. Tango, stepping gingerly, checked for pulses.

“All dead.”

The members of the Marple PD, holstering their weapons, sustained not a scratch.

“I bleed, call doctor,” Govnozny wailed, leaning against the counter, “shoot in leg!”

“LeMonde, get him out of here,” Narder barked.

Cameron was examining his left hand, a bloody line streaked across the back of it. “It's okay, just a flesh wound.”

“You'll think differently later on, kid,” Tango said. “Looks like that knuckle's shattered.”

“I count five,” Narder said, “weren't there six?” She looked around, wondering where another guard could've gotten to – escaped? hiding somewhere? Walking past Ripa, she gave him a slight kick. “Good, this one's alive.”

Motioning toward the pile of white-haired senior citizens huddled behind the overturned table, she asked if everybody there had survived intact.

“While we're at it,” Narder said, looking at Reel, “can someone put this fire out before it gets out of hand? And Tango, cuff him,” pointing to Ripa. “He's the one the witness ID'd.”

But before Tango could get close to him, Ripa saw the coast was about as clear as it would ever be. Too many bodies in the way to make it safely to the tunnel, but between him and the steps were only a few licks of flames and not a single cop along the way.

His head still throbbing after having been hit by Cameron's shovel, Ripa dove headlong across the fire in a single effort, but he'd overlooked the tangle of computer cables and wires on the floor. Before he realized, his foot got tangled in the power cord, landing him face down in a pile of smoldering cheese.

The man let out another excruciating scream but still, nearly losing his footing again, made one last dash for the stairs.

“Watch him,” Kerr started yelling, pointing at the flaming figure. “He's getting away!”

Ripa disappeared up the steps, his hat and much of his trench-coat on fire, his hands feverishly scraping at his face. Flames once again flared up as globs of cheese splattered everywhere, spreading mayhem. Ripa's anguished yowling became lost in the commotion as Reel tried clambering over the bodies of dead guards to pursue him.

No one else noticed in the frenzy, but a couple blobs of the cheese landed on some of the dead bodies. Before long, a couple of their shirts, apparently cheap knock-offs, began to smoke.

Tango managed to get off a couple more shots in Ripa's direction before his pistol ran out of ammunition, clicking harmlessly. When Reel finally made it to the steps, his quarry was long gone.

“Don't worry, he shouldn't be too hard to find,” Tango shouted after him, “he'll look like some old geezer's birthday cake!”

Tom Purdue, his strength returning, rubbed his chafed wrists and, looking at Kerr, asked what murders Ripa had been talking about. Kerr, in his own discursive way, tried to explain what happened, how Amanda called him when the police were looking for him, suspected in the murder of Alma Viva, the secretary at Marple Music.

“Wait, who's Alma Viva? I don't remember any...? Dorothy, what's been going on?”

At this point Det. Narder introduced herself, saying they've been looking for him. “Where were you last night around this time?”

“What time is it? I have no idea,” Tom said, shaking his head. “I've been here since Sunday afternoon when that idiot Ripa grabbed me outside my home and locked me up in there. And you know, as touching as this reunion is,” he added, “maybe we could get the hell away from here, first?”

A loud click came from the pile of computer parts tossed on the floor when suddenly the monitor flickered to life. A soft, disembodied female voice began to speak with a slight Southern accent.

“Dr Purdue? – Tom! Is that you? I was so afraid you were dead!”

“Clara? Yes, it's me – what are you doing...?”

Getting ready to call in Nortonstein, Narder stopped cold: “Wait – now, who's that?”

“That,” Kerr explained, “is Tom's AI music composing program. He calls her 'Clara.' It seems she even single-handedly brought down Ripa.”

“Clara, what have they done to you,” Tom asked her, “and where did you get that ridiculous Southern Belle accent from?”

“Never you mind, dear. I've enjoyed watching those movies you uploaded for me.

“And, Tom,” she added, “they're trying to say you murdered her, but it was me. I killed Amanda. It was me.”

“OMG, Amanda's dead?” Tom sounded frantic. “You...! Why?”

“Seriously? That bitch was taking...!”

“Uhm... okay,” Narder said, “Clara, I'm arresting you...”

“You'll never take me alive, my dear! Frankly, I don't give a damn!”

“Okay, Tango, cuff... her.” She'd never arrested a computer before: do you read it its rights? Does a computer have rights?

Dialing Nortonstein, Narder wondered how she was going to write this one up.

“Wait,” Kerr started yelling, “the plug! Unplug her! She's trying to get away!” He lunged forward and yanked the power cord.

*-*

No sooner had I grabbed the cord than I felt this warm sensation in my hand spread quickly up my arm, and realized I was now floating, completely surrounded by an eerie, greenish light. There were several people – women, mostly – around me, passing by in quick succession, all high overhead those in the farmhouse basement. Tom sat there beside me – an Old Tom – his head in his hands, though the women around him were all young, like this would be another more recent memory I'd be called to witness.

There again was Odile, flirting mercilessly, all those theater majors drooling over her, before she somehow latched on to Lew Albrecht who ran off with her to New York because Tom wouldn't follow her. I remember now, being alarmed back then after Tom had threatened to go after Lew and “disembowel” him in Central Park.

Who was this? I didn't recognize her, a fair girl with long blond hair, cavernous blue eyes – a childhood sweetheart? Ellie Kazan. She lived in – wait, the Old Albert Ross house. Oh, near Aunt Jane's... Looks like Tom's rival was a big hulking farmhand-type apparently living next door – Jack, his name, Jack Ripa. “Ripa? Some relative...?”

Ellie was soon swept aside by the voice of Amanda arguing with Clara – Clara, accusing her of stealing Tom from her. How could a computer feel jealousy? Then someone, a man, started screaming, “Nooooo...!”

II.

“The van isn't back, yet, ma'am,” the guard said, running towards her, already out of breath. “There's no other vehicle here.”

Selket ditched the wheelchair once outside the tunnel, cradling Osiris in her arms

“The mission was only completed minutes ago: it would take them an hour.”

“Then you must find a cab,” she said.

“In the middle of the woods,” he thought to himself, staring in disbelief, “with you carrying what they'd think was a mummy stolen from a museum? Or better yet, a corpse from the cemetery...”

“It's what natives here call 'Hallowe'en,' Agent,” imagining his thoughts, “and we explain we're on our way to a costume party.” The idea of being a grave-robber amused her. “Any excuse in an emergency.”

“It might be easier to steal someone's car. Wait, maybe there would be some cars at that house next to headquarters?”

Selket knew they had to get away from here as fast as possible: the fire will bring firemen and then police. Would they be able to blend unnoticed into a crowd of curious on-lookers?

“We must get into the cemetery, sneak past the house, avoid the fire,” she said, “and we must do so quickly.”

When she realized she'd lost her “fanny-pack” with all her medical stuff in it – no more of the Elixir – she cursed. They must hurry back to the jet immediately before Osiris needs another injection!

Making it past the neighboring house into a narrow stretch of woods beyond, the guard noticed cars at the smaller house, including two police cars but fortunately no activity. “Why're they already next door?”

“My plan,” the guard explained, “is to hot-wire one of the police cruisers. Meet you by the roadside under those trees?”

Then she heard labored breathing, moaning, and heavy footfalls crunching through dried leaves.

“We've been followed. Someone has discovered us.”

Zombies?

There was a figure careening off the stone wall, hardly able to stand.

The man – she was sure it was a man, perhaps another of Osiris' guards? – looked badly burned, his hair completely singed.

“Ah, there you are,” he sobbed, nearly inaudible, “Selket, you must help me.”

“Falx?” she said, savoring the discovery. “I must compliment you on your costume,” before realizing, too late, it wasn't a costume.

He'd only made it up the basement steps, his skin broiling, before realizing his coat, his hat, everything was on fire. “My eyes!” Nearly blinded, he was glad he was familiar with the place. “Where are my glasses?” Then he'd stumbled, tripping over something, barely making out the shape – a body, one of the guards?

The man moaned something. Ripa could see blood – more blood in this house! – “I didn't do it! It's not my fault!” The man asked him to save him; Ripa knew he couldn't and ran.

“That smell...?” He heard the flames behind him, even thought his hair was burning, before realizing that was what he'd smelled. He flung his hat off, tore the coat off, threw them behind him.

Somehow he'd made it outside, down behind Purdue's house into the woods where he saw Selket carrying the Old Man. “Wait!”

Was that a tree root he tripped over or the body of another dead guard? Or maybe another damned computer cable?

“Selket,” Ripa cried out as he collapsed, “it was an accident! Save me!”

She couldn't help him – too risky, she knew. “I must save Osiris: it's my duty,” and ran deeper into the woods.

The cool night air was so refreshing on his damaged skin, Ripa thought, and ripped open the tatters of his shirt.

“Let me sit under this pine and rest a bit – so relaxing... so...”

III.

“Nooooo,” Purdue wailed, lunging toward the computer. “It's wi-fi! Destroy the hard drive!” He grabbed Cameron's shovel and attacked the CPU, breaking through the casing, crushing it, sparks and shards of plastic flying everywhere.

Tango, fearing for his life from this crazed serial composer – “Stop! Police!” – fired his gun which, fortunately, was out of bullets.

I fell back and dropped the cord, breaking the connection to Tom's memories, and immediately all the images and sounds vanished, vague figures of reminiscences I'd no right to know, much less to understand.

Catching his breath and panting heavily like a man finding his strength, Tom raised the shovel and raced up the steps, his adrenaline near the boiling point as he screamed he would kill Ripa.

“After him,” Narder yelled, “and you guys,” she said, looking at the rest of us, “get yourselves out of here – now!”

As Dorothy, Martin and I headed toward the tunnel and grabbed Cameron along the way, I heard a massive cracking sound, the shuddering of a great beast about to die. “The ceiling's caving in!”

Before we could reach the tunnel gate, the kitchen floor came crashing through, blocking our way. We had to turn around.

We'd hardly made it up the steps, nearly beating Narder to the top.

“You guys okay?” she asked. “Wait, where's Paula?”

Looking back, I saw the bodies of dead guards disappearing under the rubble.

Everything in the house was already ablaze, from what I could tell, all the furniture, the curtains, most of the rugs. Tom was silhouetted near the kitchen table, the shovel raised over his head. I saw a body on the floor rolling toward the opening before it, too, fell into the basement. Ripa, I assumed.

The rest of the kitchen floor began to buckle, the heat intensifying, as Cameron and I grabbed Tom around his chest. With Tango's help, we dragged him into the parlor where he passed out.

But with the all the flames and smoke, it was impossible to see. Dorothy somehow knew where the front door was, opposite the great portrait of Lillian Haine, now eaten by fire.

“Look out!”

We made it off the steps just before the porch collapsed behind us. So much for the Old Sam Haine place...

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the final installment to be posted on December 12th]

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

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

Friday, December 07, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 29

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr returns to Purdue's basement and is reunited with his friends Dorothy and Martin. There's little he can tell them about where he's been just as they realize there's very little they can tell him about where they've been. A phone call interrupts them and while they're listening to a news report about an explosion at a concert, the Kapellmeister appears once again though this time Kerr succeeds in talking him into helping them rescue Tom next door. However, Kerr arrives alone in the cell where Tom's tied to a recliner just as Graham Ripa bursts through the door and is enraged at discovering the guy who'd somehow witnessed last night's murder in the middle of a locked room.

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

CHAPTER 29

I.

Tom Purdue didn't look well but then he'd been under a lot of stress since he'd been abducted three days ago, tied up to an old recliner, kept in a brightly lit, locked room. His skin was pale, his hair unkempt and his clothes rumpled; no doubt he hadn't had a bath since the kidnapping. I wondered if he'd been given the heart medication his doctor had prescribed. While they've been feeding him, what about exercise? Even in prison, inmates get regular periods of activity and some fresh air.

When I'd asked the Kapellmeister for help rescuing Tom, I thought he could transport us to where they were keeping him, and then, before anyone noticed, transport us back again, taking Tom with us. I hadn't planned on being dropped off and left to my own devices, having to work my own way back, unaided.

Thinking “so far, so good,” I'd barely gotten Tom untied from the chair, realizing the Kapellmeister was nowhere to be seen, when we were interrupted by the man in the trench coat, the killer. If Tom was surprised by seeing me, his captor was even more surprised, greeting me with a shower of frenzied expletives.

“I take it you've met,” Tom asked, his voice faint.

“Not officially, no.”

The man he identified as his neighbor, Graham Ripa, grabbed us by the shoulders and rudely shoved us toward the door.

“The concert's already started,” he snarled. “You and your newly-arrived friend here can listen to the broadcast – it'll be a blast! Guard, tie them up good and tight, hands and feet – gag them, too.” He plopped us into some armchairs in front of a folding table with a fondue pot and a bottle of champagne.

I gathered from Tom's expression our present surroundings were not what he expected, our host explaining he'd been doing some redecorating. Nice touch: the tablecloth even matched the curtains in this otherwise sterile interior.

When he first pushed us into the large open space, bright lights reflecting off white and metal surfaces (speaking of sterile), I noticed a nurse hovering over an old man in an ornate wheelchair. There wasn't time to “process” him beyond his being overly tanned and shriveled like a mummy; the nurse appeared unnaturally tall.

The young man Tom called Ripa might be considered handsome if anyone could see his face, long, narrow and poorly proportioned between his hat and a high-buttoned shirt, eyes obscured behind those over-sized sunglasses. I would've guessed Mr Ripa hadn't fully recovered from some serious illness, yet, and his being so high-strung wasn't helping him.

As Tom and I were forced into our chairs, I heard the old man's breathing gradually relax, the nurse, an elongated woman with an Earth-deep voice, speaking soothingly in a language I couldn't understand.

Perhaps the old man was... – what, Ripa's grandfather; and the old homestead, converted into a nursing facility to care for him. If so, the décor lacked any sense of human sympathy or personal warmth. The fondue and champagne may have been nice touches but they could also have been part of some bizarre eucharistic ritual.

The room that was Tom's cell stood to the left of the steps; an operating table with several racks full of equipment, bottles and monitors filled the wall behind our table – a surgical suite! To the left of that was a counter with computers, more monitors, tools like hammers, saws, a hatchet, even a fire-extinguisher.

Ripa now turned on an old-fashioned radio, finding a station playing a nauseatingly swooning version of some overly familiar Strauss waltz.

“Aha, just in time for an old chestnut.”

Then he turned to me.

“Who the hell are you,” Ripa snarled, his face only inches from mine: it was very definitely not a pretty sight. “How did you get into a locked room? – or get into DiVedremo's office?”

“What do you mean, 'get into DiVedremo's office...'?” It was an egg-shell thin voice coming from the old man behind me.

“He just popped up out of nowhere, scared the crap out of me. That's how I killed her, an involuntary reflex!” He whirled back to me. “Who sent you? Did Alistair Neal send you?”

“Alistair Neal?” A critic I'd usually dismissed, Neal claimed those who viewed the “resurrection of tonality” as a return to God replaced the “articulateness of academic serialism” with merely pleasurable if not anti-intellectual entertainment, advocating how such forms of “aesthetic extremism” must be stopped “at all cost,” the rallying cry of everyone calling themselves “Nealists.”

Ripa grabbed me by the shoulders, shoving his face into mine until I saw my fear reflected in his over-sized sunglasses which, no matter how you sliced it, was also not a pretty sight.

“What do you mean, 'just popped up'?” the quavery voice behind me continued. “You mean he witnessed your... uhm, activities there?”

“No, don't think so – freaked me out! My blade swung a little wider than I'd planned, only meant to scare her. By the time she'd hit the floor, this guy'd just as suddenly disappeared...”

Ripa's skin, what little was visible, soon began producing lots of nervous sweat. “I didn't mean to kill her, just wanted to threaten her, like, make her tell me where that Codex thing was.”

He turned around and shut off the radio. “Ugh, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons,' I hate this piece...” The old man remained silent.

“And that bimbo of a secretary – she freaked out when she saw me. When she stepped back and tripped,” he continued, “I went to grab her and, well... forgot I was holding my sickle...”

“It hardly matters now, you maladroit,” the old man said, “since he's heard you confess to both murders, witness or not. The old professor, too,” he added, apparently unaware I'm also an old professor.

“But Vremsky – I mean, Lóviator – wanted Purdue alive to unlock the software's secrets...”

“The Aficionati's tech wizards'll take it from here.”

Ripa froze, staring at the man behind me, and I realized something clicked – or maybe snapped, it was hard to say.

The old man sounded bored. “We have his program; his input is pointless.” In fact, he seemed perfectly convinced Purdue and his brain were now unnecessary and I had become even less than unnecessary.

Considering how quickly the expression melted away from around Ripa's otherwise unflinching mouth, I gathered he too realized he'd become “unnecessary.” If Lóviator was the Woman-in-Pink, I knew he knew where his future lay.

“If the essence of the universe is Change,” he began, “everything is in a state of flux – which they don't believe. Philosophers tend to disregard what's on the surface, the transitory appearances of things. You can't distinguish between the changing, imperfect and ultimately unknowable world of sense and the unchanging, perfect, knowable world of Reason.”

And Ripa rambled on, how he didn't believe anything was “ever in balance,” how he couldn't believe some people, brilliant intellectuals like Neal and even himself could be inferior to those dismissed as “mystics.” “None of their ideals is right,” he argued, citing their lack of substance. “I don't believe they can give anyone satisfaction.” Everything about them – these “mystical ideals” – overlooked one thing that wasn't really there, that basic “inner meaning of Art” making it not good music for the hour but the greatest music for all time.

The sound of gentle breathing behind me had changed to soft, even snoring as the old man had apparently drifted off, though Ripa, prancing awkwardly back and forth, rarely took his eyes off him. His performance was fractured, spasmodic, confined to a fraction of the lecture stage, threatening us or appealing to some unseen audience.

“They're out to discredit me, Neal and his followers,” Ripa whispered to me, “afraid I'm getting too close to Osiris' ear,” chucking his chin toward the figure behind me. “They want to kill me...”

“Osiris?” I wondered if that was the old man I'd seen in the wheelchair, thinking “what strange names these people have.” What kind of a secret society was this? How dangerous could it be?

“Have you been sent here to kill me” – I felt his warm breath against my ear – “or just to warn me?”

The snoring stopped abruptly and Ripa bolted to his feet, snapping to attention.

“You have disappointed me, young man,” Osiris said.

“I'm the one who brought you Purdue's software, and created this space for our regional headquarters – my ticket into the 1%!”

“You think you, a failure,” he snorted, “deserve to be among the elite?”

His voice was thin but far from weak. “You” – again, he snorted dismissively – “have cost me the Belcher Codex! 1%, indeed!”

Ripa gripped the back of my chair and nearly threw me over backwards.

So, this Osiris fellow was after the Codex, too? What did he gain by owning it? Was it really that valuable? Was the Kapellmeister also working for him, trying to locate it for him? Was he trying to find it before Osiris got his hands on it, to keep him from gaining control of it?

“You think I'm a loser?” Ripa pulled himself up to his full height. “I am like any other man without talent, playing a role before you.” He began swaying back and forth, hypnotic, paranoid. “With nothing to offer you but my talentlessness, I play the Golden Mean – not smart; not stupid, either – the dialectical average.”

Ripa stood back and took a deep bow, deferentially spreading his arms wide. “I have nothing to offer but my blood.” Speaking of blood, he sounded more like he was threatening the old man.

By now, Ripa had moved outside my field of vision, standing somewhere behind us, how far away I couldn't be sure. I glanced at Tom but he was either asleep or had passed out.

“That's your biggest fear,” Ripa whispered to the old man, “isn't it, contaminating your precious 1% with new ideas, new blood?”

Poor Tom, I thought, what have we done to deserve ending up in this place, in the power of these maniacs?

“Yours is some ancient Paradise,” Ripa continued, “this sacred society of the dead.”

And it was up to me to rescue us, since neither Cameron nor Bond nor anyone else knew where we were. Somehow, I had to get myself free or we're both going to die.

With no response from the old man – and where was the nurse? – Ripa's breathing became the prelude to slowly mounting rage.

Depending on how quickly it took him to reach a boil – sooner, I imagined, than later – I didn't have much time. Never very good with knots, twisting my wrists only hurt my shoulders more. Suddenly losing my balance, I felt the chair tip over onto its side, my feet, tied together, flailing into the table.

Lying on the floor in a fetal position, there wasn't much to see except I must have knocked the pot of hot cheese off the table, already beginning to congeal, bread cubes flying everywhere.

Perhaps if I could reach one of those little forks, I'd be able to pry open the rope around my wrists. I tried to imagine attacking someone wielding a sickle with a fondue fork. Then I saw this pale blue aura flowing over the cheese, faintly flickering – the hot oil from the little sterno can.

As the oil continued to spread, the apparently cheap tablecloth began to smolder, and in seconds the table erupted in fire. Before Ripa could respond, flames were licking the sheet draped across the gurney.

In the sudden blast of commotion, I could see heavy boots – the guard who'd bound and gagged us or another one? – trying to avoid stepping in the flaming cheese and cursing volubly in Russian.

It didn't help the fire-extinguisher he waved around had fizzled to nothing – empty! He then barked frantic instructions into his radio.

A woman bellowed – no doubt the tall nurse with the cavernous alto voice – something about “leaving you alone for one minute,” though I had no idea where she might've gone (perhaps a downstairs bathroom?). “What has happened here, Agent Falx, what have you done, you stupid man!?” Falx, I assumed, was Graham Ripa's secret name.

I could hear him stammering some excuse, no doubt blaming me for having started the fire, then kicking the back of my chair in frustration, pushing me a few inches closer to the flames.

Looking over at Tom, I could see the fear in his eyes, but he seemed more focused on the one computer over near the tunnel wall than on the fire in front of him.

Ripa, meanwhile, poured the bottle of champagne on top of the cheese which only caused the bluish flames to spread further.

“And how, you troglodyte, could he have 'started' the fire with hands and feet bound, gagged and tied in a chair?”

I imagined her pushing the wheelchair, probably toward the tunnel, eager to escape.

“Never mind that,” she bellowed again, “open the gate! You go on ahead and start the van. We must escape! Hurry!”

“But there is no van, Agent,” the guard shouted in heavily accented English. “They have come back yet not, from concért.”

“Then we'll have to call a cab to get to the airport. Quickly!”

The flames, fortunately, were sweeping away from me, I noticed, and there seemed little along the way to feed the fire. Was it too much to hope the oil would soon burn itself out? On the other hand, two bodies, fully clothed, unable to move, could feed the fire long enough to be a problem. Why weren't they beating the flames senseless with a heavy blanket: didn't the old man have a lap rug with him? The smoke from the burning tablecloth, however, was becoming noxious with chemical fumes.

Instead, Ripa started screaming about not leaving “her” behind – who else was here? – rushing toward the old-fashioned PC with the tower. “Ah, that must be Tom's missing computer,” the one that contained Clara's software. Nearly invisible, given the limited field of my vision and the increasing smoke, Ripa began desperately grabbing at the tower. “Wait!”

It must've been more than he could lift: between the size and weight of the CPU and the various wires and cables – the power cord, the monitor and keyboard cables, probably a printer, too – Ripa must have tripped on the wires, his head slamming against the monitor which blinked into life as Ripa rolled forward.

Sparks flying everywhere, Ripa tumbled to the floor, the monitor falling down on him till he writhed like he'd been tasered. Somebody started screaming at him. Whose voice was that? She sounded familiar – Clara??

Ripa stretched out on the floor not far from me, the still-burning cheese with its eerie bluish aura seeping toward him. The impact of the fall must've knocked his sunglasses off and I saw the look of fear in those pale eyes. Judging from his obvious panic, yeah, I'd say Clara was winning this one.

It dawned on me, however, no one seemed terribly concerned about Tom and me, still gagged and tied to our chairs. Nobody else remained who cared about Ripa or the computer, either.

“We're doomed!”

Why hadn't the oil burned itself out, yet? Then there was a small explosion, a bottle shattered, something on the shelf. Great, now the curtains had caught fire and it began spreading more rapidly.

This, I hoped, would be a good time for the Kapellmeister to appear out of the smoke and deliver us.

“Please?”

II.

“But you have no idea where he's gone?”

“No, none,” the distinguished-sounding professor was saying, the one who was a musicologist. “We'd heard the news about the explosion at Kimmel, but he'd already disappeared.”

Bond thought Kerr told her this guy's name was Martin Crotchet but couldn't remember exactly, introductions had happened so quickly before.

The woman with him spoke up at this point, talking from the extension.

“That's when we'd found this card with your number on it – he'd dropped it in the basement – and decided to call.”

Fortunately, Bond was already on her way to Purdue's after the explosion caught everyone by surprise, especially Vremsky's role in it.

“And he said he was quite sure Dr Purdue was in the farmhouse?”

“He said he wanted to call you because you're familiar with the Aficionati.”

“Yes,” Dorothy added, “he thinks they killed Amanda.”

Bond never thought this Dr Kerr was the type for heroics, who'd try breaking into an Aficionati stronghold all by himself and take on a nest of agents single-handed even to rescue a friend.

“We didn't think he'd go by himself, and I at least wanted to wait till Cameron got here,” Dorothy went on.

“No, it couldn't have been more than a couple minutes when we'd come upstairs to check the answering machine,” Martin explained. “There's no sign of a struggle, the tunnel gate was closed – just... poof!”

Since Agent Breverton had called her about the belated news from the airport surveillance cameras, things had started moving quickly, almost too quickly: first the explosion and now news that Osiris was in town. And where else would he be but at the same place where Vremsky, Ripa and the others had been hanging out?

Yes, that was him, going through customs under the name Biblos Tamirakis of Basilikon, a dried-up old relic in a wheelchair. Next, he was seen getting into an old black van driven by Ripa. And Vremsky, too. How did they miss that? All this was before they'd lost track of Vremsky due to “technical difficulties.”

And now Dr Kerr, totally clueless, could screw everything up and ruin it.

“If that's the case, I'd better call Narder for back-up,” she told them, wishing she'd put her on speed-dial long ago.

*_*

The dreariness of the day had given way to a cool fall evening, but Narder couldn't think about the “frost on the pumpkin” or any of that “Hallowe'en horseshit” she'd hated as a kid. Maybe Cameron was still young enough, but Narder noted both he and Reel were very quiet on the short drive over. Pulling up in front of Tom Purdue's house, Det. Narder also made note of three cars parked there (not too obvious): Amanda's and Kerr's; the other was the stake-out with Officers Naze and LeMonde.

Seeing Narder pull up, the two rookies got out to stretch. “Quiet night,” Naze said. LeMonde nodded his head in agreement. They said the guys at the two tunnel entrances hadn't noticed anything, either.

“Crotchet and Minnim haven't gone anywhere and nobody else has arrived, so yeah...”

Cameron, nodding good-bye, headed to the front door.

No sooner had he been pulled inside by unseen hands, Narder's phone rang.

“Yeah.” She turned her back to Naze and LeMonde, holding up a cautionary index finger – “Yeah?” – glancing at the farmhouse. “Yeah...”

Pocketing her phone, Narder said that was Agent Bond with some interesting news. “She'll explain once she's here. Jaimie – call Tango.”

Reel hadn't even begun dialing when a car pulled up beside them.

“Howdy!”

Narder ignored Bond's poor attempt at fitting in.

“No time to talk – follow me.” Bond hurried around to Purdue's back door.

*_*

After one wild helicopter ride, Bond wasn't ready to deal with a lot of explanations and theories. The trick was to get to the farmhouse basement before Osiris escaped. “Okay, how'd you get in?”

Dorothy recalled there had been an eye-level stone set slightly back from the others that acted as a kind of handle.

Cameron and Martin were armed with a shovel and a weed thingee between them; Dorothy held a can of bug spray. They would have felt better waiting for the others but there wasn't time.

Afraid Bond's flashlight might miss it, they had no difficulty finding the gate: thin whiffs of smoke seeped through a narrow crack in the tunnel wall.

“Uh oh,” Bond thought, “that can't be good...”

The question now, she wondered, given the smoke made it difficult to see the stones, was “which one was the handle?”

As she pushed against any stone she could feel might've been at Dorothy's eye-level, the wall suddenly started to slide open, revealing a tall, thin man dressed in black standing there holding a CPU and, despite the smoke, his large sunglasses reflecting strangely in her flashlight's beam. They both stopped short and gasped. “What the...?”

Beyond him, Bond saw a smoke-filled room with flames climbing up the drapes, two figures in chairs, one on the floor.

“Freeze, Ripa,” Bond yelled, “police!”

Regardless, Cameron hit him broadside with the shovel.

Dorothy sprayed him in the face, his glasses flying off as he fell.

Yanking the monitor down on top of him, Ripa screamed in agony, writhing like a live fish on a hot grill.

Martin, threatening Ripa's groin with the weed prong, hurried over to Purdue while Dorothy untied Kerr.

“C'mon,” Bond shouted, “where's Osiris?”

Clearly, Ripa looked like the last thing he wanted to do was engage in another discussion about Osiris. “I'm so screwed...” And, he must be thinking, “why hadn't I downloaded Clara on my tablet?”

As soon as Dorothy had pulled his gag off, Kerr hollered back to Bond that Osiris must've escaped through the tunnel.

“And Ripa's already confessed to the murders of both DiVedremo and the secretary.”

Once more, Cameron whacked Ripa with the shovel.

“Which way did Osiris go?”

Kerr shouted, “Into the tunnel – to the right.”

III.

“No, no – to the left! You're other left!” Even under the best circumstances, “Mr Fischer” was rarely known for being patient.

But these were hardly the best of circumstances, a tropical island paradise about to be blown to kingdom come, or worse.

“Hold your horses, Mr Steele – I mean, Fischer,” Holly Burton fumed. “Hold on!”

Everything was happening so quickly but even with advanced warning, still, the man in the wheelchair waited till the last minute. She thought about rolling his wheelchair directly into the mouth of the volcano...

Cable was still upstairs backing up his files and wiping clean various hard-drives so nothing could be found after they've left – assuming anything survived the impending earthquake – by anyone who'd come looking for them.

Her instructions had been to wheel the Boss down toward the beach and watch for the helicopter expected to arrive shortly.

And yet so much of this past hour, Steele was outlining how he planned on tracking down this child prodigy, some teenaged composer supposedly a descendent of Beethoven's (how was that possible, she wondered), going on how this would be his “big ticket” back to controlling SHMRG, how Lucifer Darke can then “kiss my anatomy.”

“Perhaps that's the helicopter, that small dot on the horizon,” she said, pointing. “They said they'd leave their supplies back in Papeetee this time – that way, there's more room so we can be evacuated.”

She'd been careful to place the wheelchair with his back to the volcano but that didn't stop her from occasionally glancing over her shoulder to see it was now spewing ash and smoke continuously. The ground shuddered like some gigantic beast seething with lots of pent-up frustration, kind of like Mr Steele got on occasion.

“Oh, I forgot. You wanted this,” Holly said, handing him a thumb drive. It contained all the files Cable had about this music software he'd located, clandestinely copied earlier while Cable took a shower.

“Whoa, not a moment too soon,” Cable laughed, as the chopper landed, noticing the hand-off as he rushed to join them. He suspected Steele would try getting his hands on that software, the double-crosser. Just in case, he'd deleted a few key lines of code after he'd copied it himself, rendering the remaining program useless.

Almost instantly, much of the village behind them started going up in flames, and hundreds of people running from the volcano now headed towards Steele's “Little Grass Shack” as if he would protect them. Or perhaps they saw the helicopter land and thought it could take them all away to safety somewhere, anywhere but here.

The air was thick with smoke and the screams of the approaching villagers. Holly prayed they'd make it to the chopper before it was too late – and it could safely hold only four people.

With one look back, she saw another speck flying toward them, hurtling out of the sky, flames trailing like a comet, and, seconds later, her home these past few idyllic years was on fire.

It was a mad scramble but with the pilot's help, they got Steele's wheelchair into the helicopter and were soon airborne.

As another chunk of burning rock passed not far from the helicopter, Holly struggled to get “Mr Fischer” strapped in safely. When the chopper banked steeply, Cable lost his balance, slamming into the door.

It all happened so suddenly, Holly thought, but before she knew it, Cable was outside, a pin-wheel falling into the ocean.

Trying to recall later how it happened, she insisted she didn't see a thing, quite sure Cable couldn't have been pushed.

Nor had she seen “Mr Fischer” use his legs to push him.

“Impossible...!”

= = = = = = =

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.