Wednesday, October 17, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 13 (Part 1)

In the previous installment [posted on Wednesday, October 15th], Perdita Vremsky, after having been given a tour of the Old Haine Place, “interviews” Tom Purdue now that he's regained consciousness and the results are not very promising. Meanwhile, Cameron, Dorothy, and Martin return to Purdue's basement, quickly closing the tunnel gate behind them when Dr Kerr suddenly shows up, much to everybody's surprise (including Kerr's).

(If you're just tuning in, 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 13

I.

The Marple Precinct's supply of coffee turned out to be not so endless, alas, having run out half-way through the morning, so Officer Naze was dispatched to a nearby grocery store for fresh supplies. When she returned, she found the break room's coffeemaker its usual recalcitrant self, and a pot of fresh coffee taking forever. The smell of some fresh brew eventually filtered its way down the hall into the bull-pen where the other officers sat, staring at the white board with little thought beyond a cup of joe. Since it was proving to be a tougher case than she'd initially imagined, a rough morning after finding this latest body, Det. Laura Narder let everybody have ten minutes to replenish their caffeine intake. Meanwhile, she kept staring at the board herself, trying to reconfigure the information till something new might jump out at her.

If nothing else, giving them a break might get the collective blood circulating, a chance to get up, stretch some muscles, with or without coffee, talk about something else for a couple of minutes. She wondered what she should do with herself, knowing if she'd walk into the break room, they'd all clam up immediately. Her preference was to walk out the back door, take some deep breaths, and stand under a tree for a while. Then her co-workers would think she was too good to go join them.

Tango, looking in the window, saw Narder check the time on her phone, then turned to everyone in the break room. “Yo, everybody,” he called out, jerking his head toward the bull-pen, “time's a-wasting.” Everyone resumed their places, coffee cups in hand, once again serious and attentive, ready to attack the questions from different angles.

Reel, handing Narder a fresh cup “in case you need something stronger than that bottled water,” gave her a “we'll-get-this-one” nod. “Maybe we should sit in different chairs – you know, get a different perspective?”

The evidence was the same, they went over it in the same order, again they placed everything onto a convenient time-line. Nothing was different but somehow she hoped they would have a different result. “Isn't that the definition of 'insanity,'” she thought, as she rattled off facts. “But maybe someone'll notice something we've missed before.”

“The first victim, Alma Viva, arrives early for her first day of work; Arugula Jones gives the 'new girl' the tour; just before 9:00, they're both in Belle DiVedremo's office and everything seems fine. Shortly after 9am, everybody's arrived and Crimea Rivers sends the victim upstairs to put the weekend's mail on the boss's desk. From there, it was only a few minutes before those downstairs heard noises coming from upstairs – Nick Turner's sent to investigate. Arugula Jones hears the commotion, goes to help; first one on the scene.

“Jones looks in, sees the blood, sees the body, looks up, sees someone 'praying mantis-like' standing over the body and screams. Turner glimpses a tall guy dressed in black running into a connected office. He runs after him, sees our presumed killer running down the back steps. The presumed killer disappears into the back alleyway.”

Pointing at photos, maps or diagrams as she goes, Narder continued her recitation: ”Jones describes the intruder as a tall man. From the footprints, we know he wears a size 11 shoe – no fingerprints. Turner didn't catch a good look at the guy, can't say whether he's tall or not, hunched over as he ran.

“From the attack on the victim, we know he's right-handed and pretty strong, slashing her across the throat – she bled out. And, oh yeah – he killed her with something that could be a scythe.

“Dr Nortonstein found a fragment of a rambling hand-written letter in the victim's hand, but the signed part was ripped off; addressed to DiVedremo, everything pointed to Thomas Purdue, a composer Marple Music published. There'd been some problems with Purdue along with several desperate-sounding, nearly incoherent messages on the answering machine from over the weekend. He'd been last seen on Friday by his assistant” – Tango snorted – “Amanda Wences; his last phone message came in Saturday night. After that, Dr Purdue seems to have disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

“The second murder took place right under our very noses, people – at the crime scene after we'd locked up yesterday afternoon. Belle DiVedremo returns to her office, is apparently killed there; the body's removed. The body – same M.O. – is discovered inside the Haine Crypt at Blackwood Cemetery. That's just around the corner from Purdue's house.”

The problem, she explained, was that Thomas Purdue is apparently not a tall man, he's 65 and not likely that strong, plus he wears a size 9 and nothing places him at the scene. But his recent behavior, the phone messages, the letter, the fact he's disappeared – all these, she points out, make him “suspicious.”

“Not to mention all these academic friends of his who pop up the moment he disappears,” Reel added, “like they're accomplices.”

“And,” Tango piped up, “don't forget, he's a serial composer – turned serial killer?”

There was little physical evidence to identify a killer and they're still waiting on results from Nortonstein about some trace evidence found in the wounds or on the rug used to cover DiVedremo's body. Curiously, there was this button found between Victim #2's body and the rug, something their guest, IMP Agent Sarah Bond, identified.

Tango smiled. “Speaking of whom, has anybody heard anything from the vavavoom-alicious Agent Bond since she left here earlier this morning?”

Ignoring his question, Narder again mentioned its presumed association with The Aficionati. “Nadia?”

From what she could gather on-line, Nadia Klüh reported it was a secret organization, so there was a ton of information. “Nothing helpful, just a group committed to preserving the... 'sanctity' of classical music?”

“But is it a group that would commit murder to do just that? And is Purdue a member of this group?”

The door from the precinct main lobby was flung open with great force and a once tall, stoop-shouldered, basically overweight old man stood in the doorway, nearly bald and scowling, thoroughly gray of visage. It was more sensing his presence than hearing him enter, but everybody shut up and turned as the man stood there.

Narder nodded but tried not to smile, hoping to look serious, like “we're-doing-our-best-Cap'n” serious and then hoping he'd let it go. Rather than nodding, Captain Freddie Gagliardo plodded forward, walking right into the bull-pen.

Judging from the look on his face, he was not pleased with the latest news he'd been given earlier this morning. His expression was all about disappointment, heightened by the cynicism of years' experience. Narder thought he looked like it was already the end of the day. Small wonder everyone – lovingly – called him “Grumpy Cop.”

“People,” he said, looking around the room slowly as if he's taking roll, trying hard to look like he might smile, “I know you're all good, hard-working officers, and you've had a rough morning. But, let us face facts, you've got to move faster on this case – as fast as possible, then even faster still.” Gagliardo let this sink in a moment, wondering if anyone caught his drift. “Not that I'm excusing sloppy work, mind you. We need to solve this case and soon – before there's a third victim.”

He didn't need to remind them they now had the bodies of two dead women lying in their morgue, brutally murdered, and no suspect in custody in their jail, not even in their sites. But when he expressed it this way – needing to preempt a third victim – it drove the point home with resounding force. Tango looked at Narder whose quick glance around the room caught the expression on everyone's faces, one of a dark epiphany: “We must catch this bastard,” they collectively felt, “or it'll be our fault.”

Narder knew, as they all knew, when you're dealing with a serial killer, it's when will he strike again, not if. It hadn't occurred to her before, though, who that next victim might be. Is anyone else at Marple Music in danger, if Purdue's out for revenge? Or could he just strike anywhere, without warning?

“When the discovery of this second body hits the media,” the captain continued, “the good people of this town will panic.” His voice was calm and, as usual, understated, almost cynically devoid of emotion. Narder had to admire him for that, not erupting into demagoguery (if that was the right word, here), ablaze with fear.

“The fact there'd been a second murder at all, as they've heard it reported on last night's news, was bad enough. But now they'll have a body to point to and they'll want answers.”

Narder picked up the ball, adding, “We want time to do our job but time is unfortunately something we don't have. You heard what Gru... uhm, the captain said, so let's avoid any panic.”

But Reel figured it depended on how it's handled, what wording they used. “People panic when the media tells them to.”

Officer Anne Roofer, the precinct's intrepid dispatcher, stuck her head in the door. “While you guys have tried being productive, has anyone noticed a group of about twenty people just showed up out front? I imagine it's reporters from every newspaper and TV station in the region – looks like they're expecting a press conference soon.”

Gagliardo rolled his eyes back as his shoulders sank a few more inches. “Well, you guys get me some answers – fast!”

Tango heard the increasing sounds of grumbling from outside. “Panic in three... two...”

When holding a press conference, it was Gagliardo's experience the rumpled, exhausted look always won you some sympathy with the media – three TV stations, two radio stations, and the remnant of a local newspaper – because it made you look like you were interrupted while hard at work, taking time out from chasing after potential perps. With any luck, the alarmed public will see this as a welcome sign rather than typical bureaucratic indifference to their plight when you consider there's a killer on the loose who could strike again. But then, as Narder knew, the residents of the Greater Marple Area were well aware of their rumpled, exhausted-looking police chief, whether announcing a drug-related arrest or a street closing for a summer fair. It didn't help he reminded people of someone rudely awakened from a nap where no amount of gravitas could instill confidence.

No matter that Alejandro Tango has been working on the latest developments since the DiVedremo body had been discovered around midnight, he still looked more dapper than Captain Gagliardo arriving to start his day. If it's public relations you wanted, Narder'd put Tango and Reel on the podium with the latest information in the investigation. People had the utmost respect for Captain Gagliardo, even after The Marple Busybody broke the Captain's nickname “Grumpy Cop” last summer. It didn't help when that turned him into an immediate social media meme.

Before he left to see to the growing crowd outside the precinct's door, Gagliardo quickly scanned the white board for information, knowing what he knew he could and could not release to the public. He knew they'd just gotten the all-clear to release the latest victim's name, there having been no immediate next-of-kin to notify. There were things that were and were not pertinent to what the public needed to know, especially about the gorier details. Mostly they wanted to know how close the killer was to being caught.

Gagliardo might mention Purdue in the context of a “Person of Interest,” but he couldn't officially identify him as a suspect. He'll ask for the public's help in locating him since he's “whereabouts unknown.”

All was going well, considering, until Narder noticed the chief's eyebrows knotted up.

“You realize, detective, there's a basic problem, here?”

Narder was about to acknowledge how they'd been discussing that when he arrived, without mentioning it was for the umpteenth time, as the Captain moved in closer to the board for a better look and started pointing out “obvious discrepancies” between what the witness saw, what the physical evidence indicates and the description of Purdue.

“The man the assistant director saw standing over the first victim's body was tall; and bloody footprints indicate a size 11. How does that corroborate with Mr Purdue who is 5'8”, wearing size 9s?

“Also, where's the murder weapon? 'Possibly a scythe'? But did the assistant director see a bloody scythe in the killer's hands? And when the murder weapon's found, will it have Purdue's prints on it? There's a letter from Purdue found in the victim's hand which arrived Saturday. Plus 'odd behavior' exhibited in his phone messages.

“But there doesn't seem to be anything in the physical evidence so far that can tie him to the crime scene, meaning any judge and jury could easily reach a decision of 'reasonable doubt.' While he may have motive, as you suggest, 'motive' by itself does not mean he had 'access' to commit the murder.

“If 'odd behavior' were enough of a reason to suspect someone of murder, you could arrest half the media out there. Don't quote me on that – I believe that's what they call a metaphor.”

Narder, not sure that really was a metaphor, watched as Gagliardo ran his fingers through his hair and massaged his temples before he left his officers to do their work of apprehending the killer.

“Catch this guy as soon as you can,” he reminded them, “but do a clean job of it – follow the evidence.”

“Will do, sir,” Narder said with a smile. “Thank you for your confidence.” She watched Gagliardo shuffle out of the bull-pen.

“Well,” he said, “I must go meet the enemy – I mean, the media.”

“Man,” Tango said, breaking the silence, “leave it to good ol' Grumpy Cop,” watching the man head toward the front door. Everyone knew he had the utmost respect for the Captain, despite his tone. “What do you expect from a man who listens to Mahler all day?” He turned his attention back to the board.

“So, you heard the Chief,” Narder began again, regaining control of their concentration, “always 'follow the evidence,' right? Always good advice. So, if Purdue wasn't physically at the scene, could he still be involved?”

“You mean our scythe-wielding tall man in the size-11s was a hit man, someone Purdue hired to do the job instead?”

“Now, that's something we haven't considered before,” Narder said, “someone went to retrieve that letter before DiVedremo'd read it – but then...”

“...killed Alma Viva by accident, before going after DiVedremo after she'd read it.”

“But had DiVedremo in fact read that letter – at least, all of it,” Narder said, jotting notes down on the board.

“And then how'd our hit man know DiVedremo would return later that afternoon?”

“Reel, check Purdue's financial records, see if he made any sizable withdrawals recently and who they were made to, if possible.”

Tango pointed out they may not find anything in the evidence pertaining to Purdue because “you know how serial composers are. They can disguise anything so you can't see it, upside-down, backwards, or both!”

Narder was trying her best to be forceful. “I know we think he did it but that doesn't mean he did. If we can't find any evidence tying him to this case, it's hopeless.”

“So wait, if Thomas Purdue isn't our killer,” Reel whined, “then who is? Without him, there's nobody even near our radar!”

Again, the door from the lobby opened up, letting some noise leak in from outside where members of the local media were interrogating Captain Gagliardo over his lack of information concerning these recent murders. When Narder frowned, the others turned in time to see Special Agent Sarah Bond not bothering to hang up her coat.

“Quite a gauntlet I had to run, there – could barely squeak through. Your press always that keen on broiling your guv?”

“Grilling,” Narder said, turning back to the board, “the term here is 'grilling'...”

Tango turned and, realizing he'd made eye-contact with her, gave Bond a nod timed to a pair of quickly raised eyebrows which Narder knew was traditional Tango-speak for “wolf-on-the-prowl” and meant Bond best beware.

Ignoring him, Bond reached for something in an inside pocket of her raincoat and pulled out an equally rumpled manila envelope.

“I won't take up much of your time, detective, but I have some information here that could be useful to you. That description given of the bloke seen standing over your first victim's body? I've some surveillance photos taken of a particularly interesting person we've been tailing who could be someone you'd be interested in.”

At least, Bond suggested, he more or less matched the description given by the assistant director a lot better than Purdue. Plus, being an agent for the Aficionati, it explained that button she'd found.

“We've traced so far three Aficionati agents already to the Philadelphia area, though it's almost impossible to identify them as such. They've had several centuries to perfect their secrecies, and they've proven highly elusive. I'd followed one of their agents here which led us to two more. One of those may be your would-be suspect. And given that Captain Grumpy Cat was outside getting a good broiling from the local press, it might be welcome news.”

The IMP agent's subtlety and her timeliness were not lost on Det. Narder.

“Do you have anyone you'd suspect of wanting to murder the director of Marple Music, some disgruntled client, enemy or rival? Have there been any threats made against her, anything that you're aware of?”

Narder said that this one composer, Thomas Purdue, was very upset about being cut from the roster: there may be others.

Without denying the possibility of some class-action conspiracy against DiVedremo instigated by a bunch of senior citizens, retired composers turned vigilantes, Bond thought it less likely than some international ring of classical music extremists. She handed Narder copies of a couple of photographs she'd just been sent, taken from surveillance cameras at the Philadelphia airport.

“I'd received these from an agent working this case from our London office who's following this Aficionati cell active in Philadelphia. It could mean they are involved in the murder of DiVedremo – and others.”

Narder looked at the grainy photos, enlarged to the point of being useless which didn't show much of the man's face. “We're trying to find out if Purdue's a member of your Aficionati group.” She mentioned these three other academics visiting Purdue's house, supposedly friends of his, who might also be part of the organization.

“Hmm” – Bond hesitated for a moment so as not to appear dismissively rude – “no, I don't think so, but who knows? As I said, they're very good at keeping their identities and involvements secret.” Narder thought it was like Bond was hiding something about Purdue's academic friends but decided against saying anything at this point.

Narder tried comparing her image of Thomas Purdue, older, shorter, pot-bellied, against this taller, younger man in these photographs: “Could be...” Regardless, Narder shook her head and handed the photos around. “Anyone recognize him?”

Bond pointed out in the earlier photo, time-stamped Sunday afternoon at 13:21, there's a small button on his black trenchcoat's lapel. “But on the one stamped on Monday at 21:34, you'll notice it's missing.” Also, looking closely at the Monday photo, it was easier to see those glasses he was wearing, large convex, mirrored sunglasses. “Didn't your witness describe him as looking like some kind of praying mantis? Would Purdue even own a pair like that? This is certainly a look that would get you noticed out in public.”

Tango, the first to see Bond's photos, dismissed them at a glance for not being proof it wasn't Purdue in disguise, passing them to Reel who was sure he'd never seen the guy before. Officer Naze moved quietly over to Reel to look at the photographs next before Torello had a chance to see them.

She studied them more carefully, going back and forth between the two, giving them each her careful and fully concentrated attention. “I've seen this guy somewhere, fairly recently, too,” she said, viewing them again.

“Paula, really? Can you remember where? Maybe hanging around at the crime scene?” Narder walked over and looked over her shoulder.

“Uhm, no, I think – weeks ago, maybe? Yes, at a township commissioners' meeting.” Paula nodded as if agreeing with herself. “Definitely!”

Patting her on the shoulder, Narder asked if she could remember anything more.

“I was there on-duty but not paying really close attention to the proceedings – check the official records from their last meeting. I remember seeing those glasses and how they made him look really weird. He, uhm... – yeah, he owns this old run-down property and applied for a license to turn it into a 'haunted' bed-and-breakfast.”

She remembered it because others argued it should be condemned and demolished but this guy wanted to fix it up – inside. The outside would stay the same, but the inside would be authentically renovated.

“Right,” Reel agreed, after tapping in a bunch of words to a search on the township's website, “here's the full report.”

Naze recalled the guy's name sounded Italian, something like maybe Rupa or Reppa.

“Close enough.” Reel continued scrolling. “Here it is: his name is Graham Ripa. He's talking about the Old Sam Haine Place.”

“Graham Ripa? He's the guy who owns the black van at the cemetery.” Narder pointed out the photo on the board. “And isn't the Old Haine Place right next door to Thomas Purdue's house?”

That got Tango's attention, sitting up and also peering over at Reel's computer. “Well, you know what that means, don't you?”

Before Narder could say anything, Tango explained how Purdue hired his next-door neighbor, the creepy-looking Graham Ripa, to kill his publisher, only first time he flubbed it, then went back to finish the deal.

“Rein in those wild horses, Gaucho-Man,” Narder cautioned, “let's see where this leads. Are there any photos posted from that meeting? Especially ones showing Ripa speaking to give us a better ID on him?”

“No,” Reel said, continuing to type in even more words, “but when I do a search on 'Graham Ripa,' there's this...”

By this time, everybody in the bull-pen, including Bond, gathered around Reel's computer, even Tango who thought he'd figured it out. Reel was reading from an old newspaper article about a 2002 missing-person's report. “A woman named Lily Ripa, 62, had disappeared,” Reel read aloud, “under 'very mysterious circumstances' as reported by her son, Jack. Her grandson, Graham, found blood all over the living room in her house, the old Sam Haine Mansion on Marymede Lane. With no body ever found, no one was ever charged with her murder.”

“Well, that's curious,” Narder said, “the grandson who discovered the blood wants to turn his grandma's house into a 'haunted B-n-B,' a house which happens to be next to one belonging to Thomas Purdue.”

Tango suggested setting up a pool to see who'd win where they'd find Grandma's remains. “I got dibs on the basement!”

“Too obvious... – oh shit!” Reel was bouncing around in his seat, he was so excited. “Oh, my freakin' God! Get this!” They hadn't found this one before because Purdue's name had been misspelled “P-E-r-due.”

A later report said police interviewed “one Thomas Perdue, then visiting his aunt, Jane West, who lived next to Lily Ripa, concerning an old wheelbarrow found in West's basement that was smeared with blood.”

“Also curious,” Reel added, “the blood in the wheelbarrow was a blood-type match for the blood found in Ripa's living room!”

Tango explained he meant Tom Purdue's basement for the lottery pool, not Ripa's, considering Purdue was probably a “sleeper” serial killer, pretty sure they'd find “all kinds of bodies” in Purdue's basement by now.

Narder wondered, with evidence like that, why drop the investigation? “Maybe Gagliardo remembers...”

“Or,” Reel suggested, “her body's in the crypt?”

“I believe your expression is 'curiouser and curiouser'?” Bond excused herself, saying she had work to do on another case. “Ta!”

Narder thanked her for the photos and told her they'd keep in touch.

Reel resumed reading, noting the wheelbarrow in question belonged to the Haine family and Graham Ripa's fingerprints were all over it. Purdue's theory was the kid hid it in his aunt's basement – “but how?”

Yet there were no fingerprints or other evidence tying Purdue to the scene. “Somebody's gotten away with murder all these years!”

Tango stood up and looked around the room. “So, any questions, guys? We're dealing with a serial killer from way back. And I remind you, our guy Purdue is a serial composer! Just sayin'...”

“If anything, wouldn't that be motive enough for other people to kill him?” Narder suggested they check out this guy Ripa.

”Meanwhile, Zerka, go back to Marple Music, check the alleyway for tire tracks. That body didn't just float out of there.

“Then we'll get a warrant for Purdue's place and look for... – a wheelbarrow.”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, October 19th]

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, October 15, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 12

In the previous installment [posted on Friday, October 12th], Cameron, Martin, and Dorothy explore the tunnel they've discovered outside Tom Purdue's basement, checking out both directions, hoping to find what happened to Dr. Kerr. At the far end, perhaps the starting point, they find themselves in an old crypt, one that recently became a crime scene, and they barely make it back into the tunnel before two policemen return to the scene.

(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 12

I.

Maybe it was safer than staying next to that FBI office building, afraid she'd be unmasked simply checking her phone, but Perdita Vremsky confessed she would no doubt have slept better at the motel. Falx's minimalist accommodations, not much worse than barely adequate, would never survive one of those reality TV shows like “Hotel Hell.” Okay, this wasn't meant to be a full-service, get-away spa, just temporary “clandestine headquarters” which was also, she realized, a work-in-progress. Still, as she continued rubbing her neck, the mattress could've been less grotesque. Plus, admittedly, it was far better than what she expected after seeing the exterior on one of those Google Earth maps. Falx called up the image on his computer to give her an idea. She'd missed the full impact by not driving up to the front door. Clearly, there were benefits to the underground tunnel.

Considering it's been empty for – what, fifteen years? – falling apart in the process, she's amazed the place hadn't previously been condemned but then as long as the taxes were being paid, who would care? It's not like it was a visible eyesore to any neighbors who'd complain, except the guy next door who didn't care. Funny how that “guy-next-door” turned out to be, for whatever purposes, the man both she and the Aficionati were searching for. That reminded her: she checked her phone again, but still no new messages.

She had come down from her bedroom, one she'd still found an improvement over the faceless universality of the typical American motel since it had furniture and décor giving it a sense of character, to find her host Falx – or Graham Ripa as she should call him – waiting for her with breakfast in the kitchen. The French toast smelled a bit overdone and the eggs looked slightly underdone but she hadn't expected he'd do the cooking – however, though, wasn't that what staff was for, to look after their superiors?

One of the things she had to remember was Agent Falx was new, only recently assigned to her, and still learning, so she needed to be a bit more indulgent with him for now. Serving everything carefully, he poured two cups of coffee, then sat down directly across from her, perhaps a little too familiarly.

“Govnozny and the boys are already in the basement,” he explained, eying her through his sunglasses which she still found unnerving, “so I thought, meanwhile, I could give you a tour of the establishment, beginning with the renovations we've been working on since the early summer once I took ownership after my father finally died.” The idea of restoring the inside while leaving the outside looking completely dilapidated was an intentional part of his original plan, pawned off to the local authorities as a house-within-a-house, a haunted house bed-and-breakfast.

Reinforcing interior walls and floors was one thing, shoring up the foundation, the roof and outside walls from the inside, but covering up the windows, concealing any sign of occupancy, was an on-going challenge.

“It keeps things delightfully dark, sort of like an eternally overcast, rainy day while anyone outside assumes the place is empty.”

Members of his cohort, the Punimayo Brothers directly under his supervision, brought the materials in mostly through the tunnel at night and did the work themselves, watching a few episodes of This Old House. It was magical to watch the steady transformation, bringing the rooms back to life as he remembered them from his childhood.

“It's been the Old Sam Haine Place for decades, so that's what I'm calling it: 'the Old Sam Haine Place Bed-and-Breakfast.' The township authorities bought it, hook, line and sinker: little do they know!”

Before she could even consider asking him (not that she had wanted to), Ripa began explaining who Old Sam Haine was – first of all, his great-great-great-great-great grandfather, counting each “great” off on a finger. Sam started as a captain in the Mexican War, was wounded; then began the Civil War as a general, wounded again. Sam's grandfather built the first farmhouse on this site back in the 1790s, which his father then expanded in the 1830s. That burned down in 1858, and the present house rose from its ashes.

After losing his left leg at Gettysburg, Sam returned to find his wife on her deathbed; she died only days later. A week after this, his eldest daughter Lillian married a man named Winslow. The “little house,” Ripa explained, pointing next door, had been a wedding present, their daughter Samantha born there the following year.

Ripa led her through different rooms, pointing out pieces of furniture, some not yet restored, others still covered with dusty cloths, explaining who the different people were in numerous faded paintings, obviously family portraits. One, of Samuel's son Herman, was left incomplete when his wife and both their children died before it could be finished.

After his father's death in 1883, Herman began writing the family history but left it also incomplete when he “turned senile.” Samantha's son Jackson updated the manuscript but saw no reason to publish it.

Sweeping the largely untouched front parlor with a flashlight pulled from his pocket, Ripa mentioned the vast painting over the fireplace. “That redoubtable woman is my great-great-great-great grandmother, Lillian, no doubt frightening to behold. Curiously, my own grandmother looked exactly like her except for the period clothing, just as florid of face, just as fearsome.”

Vremsky looked up at the painting, which, frankly, gave her the creeps. “What is that in the corner: looks like blood...” He swept his flashlight across it so she could see it more clearly.

Ripa explained it was indeed blood spattered across the corner of Lillian's portrait. He'd decided they should let the stains remain.

“My grandmother was actually murdered in this room – some say by Lillian's ghost.”

“The place really is haunted, then?” Vremsky asked. “How farking convenient for business!”

“That's what we'd like the visitors to think.”

Before she questioned what Lillian's motive might've been, Ripa resumed the family tale. Two years after their wedding, Lillian's husband died at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse, the very last battle of the war. Her brother Herman, whose wife and children died within months of each other, then a broken man, became a hopeless recluse.

“But Sam took life by the horns and built up his law career, even becoming the Mayor of Marple in 1870. Then, a few years later, he'd become ill, eventually confined to a wheelchair.

“That was when Sam's brother Charles came to live with them, a strange figure according to both Herman and, later, Jackson, though they never quite explained in their memoir what they thought was 'strange.' Old photographs show he was tall, slender, fairly dark, dressed in perpetual mourning and, curiously, wore dark-tinted glasses all the time.”

As they moved through more rooms, looking at more dusty furniture and old oil-lamps with stained-glass shades, Vremsky soon became bored. If he'd told her all this last night, she might have slept better. No, she corrected herself, probably not, not after having seen these portraits and coming face-to-face with blood spilled by Lillian's ghost. She listened to Ripa droning on about his ancestors and wondered where he'd fit on the Haine Family's Spectrum of Strange. It made her uncomfortable realizing she might be spending several more nights here.

She eventually realized Ripa continued to ramble on about his family's woeful saga, how in the same year Richard Wagner died – “that would be 1883,” assuming her blank look was more forgetfulness than indifference – the once vibrant Union General and mayor of Marple had been reduced to a bedridden invalid following a series of strokes. Charles had gone to Washington on business, leaving his brother in Herman's care, servants assuming others looked after and fed him, and Herman, avoiding unpleasantness, figured his father continued not to speak to him.

“It wasn't until Lillian came over for dinner one night and noticed that no one had any news of her father, dismissing her brother's protests that he was 'in one of his moods again.' She stormed upstairs in a fury of recrimination, practically breaking down the door to discover her father's body, cold and stiff.”

The doctor assumed Samuel had probably been dead for the last few days, dying peacefully in his sleep following another seizure. Then after Charles returned, they made arrangements to build a grand family crypt, conveniently plopping it down in the midst of the tunnel Old Sam had built to protect the family against Confederate attack.

“It gave Lillian a way she could visit her father's grave without worrying about bad weather, given the tunnel's general commodiousness, but it's also served other purposes more recently,” he added with a smile.

Like a docent going through a memorized script – she wondered how much of this he would actually share with any guests – Ripa continued how Lillian then moved into the main house with her brother. “She never spoke to him again, a constant reminder of their father's death, making his senility that much easier to bear.”

“Speaking of senility,” Vremsky said, abruptly interrupting him, “we must interrogate Dr Purdue before this house claims him as another victim. There are things I need to find before we retrieve Dagon's superior's information.” Handing him her almost empty cup of coffee, she tilted her head quizzically, expecting him to “lead onward” without further delay.

Ripa was of course disappointed as he'd hoped to impress his boss with the house he's made available to The Cause. So far, she had not once acknowledged his initiative with the least thanks.

Vremsky heard the squeak of a door and wondered where it was coming from, who it would be – friend or foe – and, considering the history her host (and corporate underling) had been telling her, whether this imminent intrusion they would experience was alive or a ghost (except, she reconsidered, ghosts wouldn't need to use doors).

The hurried footsteps that followed belonged to the two members of Ripa's cohort known only to her as F-1 and F-2. “You'll both want to come into the basement: Dr Purdue is coming to.”

The outline of a smile accidentally broke across Vremsky's lips as she followed Ripa and the two henchmen down the hall, while Ripa, humming a tango reminding her vaguely of “the rain in Spain” – “Old Doc Purdue... is commmming to, hooraa-aay!” – held the basement door for her before ending with a flurry of imaginary castanets.

The room they were using for this interrogation – the small embossed sign on the door benignly called it “The Interview Studio” – was neither very large nor very well lit, and so far only half-renovated. It had served as the coal room after the old house had been converted to central heating with its coal-burning furnace.

“And for a one-time contribution of a mere $10,000,” Ripa crooned, “we could rename this space the Perdita Vremsky Interrogation Center!” Seeing Purdue in an over-stuffed recliner reminded her it should be called “Lounge.”

“He wouldn't sleep so much in a chair that was miserable and was also designed to keep him awake,” she said, before remembering the grandmother who owned this “comfy chair” had been uncomfortably murdered.

“I haven't researched the latest catalogues,” Ripa replied, “but I'm sure the best chairs at Terrorists-Are-Us would probably run over $10,000...”

When she didn't respond, he suggested, “for an additional gift, you could have this lovely DVD of our first ten interrogations.” Vremsky ignored his spiel, assuming he'd been watching too much public television lately.

Purdue had begun to stir faintly, his eyes starting to flutter before he realized he was unable to move his arms. Trying to yank his right arm free made him realize he'd been restrained.

While Vremsky had difficulty understanding what he'd started mumbling, she had an idea. She clearly understood “Who the fuck are you?”

“Who I am is immaterial, beyond the fact you wouldn't know who I was anyway,” Vremsky began, peering down at him. “Are you comfortable? My assistant assures me this is a very comfy chair.”

“Then where the fuck am I?” Purdue looked around, moving as much as his restraints would let him which wasn't much.

“But then, where you are is also immaterial, though, quite true, you might be more familiar with it than with me.”

“I'm assuming finding out what time it is is out of the question...?”

“Let's leave it at 'yes' to that one: time, for that matter – at least, in this case – is also quite immaterial.”

“Yeah, but then I've always kinda figured that.” He sat back, eyes closed.

“I wouldn't recommend going back to sleep on me, just yet, Dr Purdue.”

“But, immaterial or not, you know my name...”

“Immaterial or not, Dr Purdue, there are many things I need to know,” Vremsky continued, stepping around in front of him. “Let's begin with information about this fascinating Piano Quintet of yours, for instance.”

“My quintet?” Purdue's eyes narrowed to mere slits as he followed her suspiciously. “How do you know anything about that quintet?”

“I know you never published it, so, what – there must be a reason? It seems like an awful lot of work.”

“It was, for a student piece. I'm curious – how did you find it?”

“Immaterial, I assure you, Doctor,” though she mentioned she found its “musical language,” especially the generating of mystery-solving clues, quite fascinating. When he didn't respond directly to this, she moved in closer and smiled.

“Then,” she resumed, “I would like you to explain a bit about Clara.”

“And how do you know anything about Clara!?”

“The people I, shall we say, 'work' for are quite interested in these secret musical clues you've devised for your quintet, and they're curious how Clara might help in programming to create musical codes.”

He tried explaining he can't explain it because he can't figure out what it was she wanted to do with it. The program had been designed simply to compose music according to stylistic specifications.

“Listen, lady,” Purdue grumbled, “whoever you are – and don't try explaining it again – I'm a composer, not a goddamned software engineer.”

With that, the old man shook his head, tried to free his wrists, groaning against the restraints that held him firm, then sighed and fell back in his chair, exasperated, and quickly drifted off.

“We could try electric shocks, see if that will make you more talkative,” she whispered in his ear, registering no response.

She kicked the base of the chair which, judging from her frustration, undoubtedly hurt her foot more than it jostled Purdue.

“What the fark size dose did they give you, old man, anyway... Ugh!”

F-2 shouted a security camera was flashing though no alarm had yet sounded. “Someone's entered the perimeter – there, it's the tunnel.” He pointed to the monitor. “Just minutes ago, right outside our secret entrance.”

Hadn't Ripa explained yesterday there were still some bugs that needed working out? “So much for security, you simpleton,” Vremsky hissed.

The footage was grainy, given the darkness, and the contrast between them and their flashlights was, like night-vision goggles, almost blinding. But clearly, three people had definitely stood there, two men and a woman.

They opened the gate, guns drawn, cameras showing the immediate vicinity of the tunnel was empty – “Clear! No one in sight.”

Once again, Vremsky felt Ripa was the poster child of cluelessness: “Any ideas?”

“No,” he mumbled. “Who could they have been? What were they doing here?”

“Or, more importantly, how did they find us?”

II.

So much for being sound-proof.

Afraid to move, Cameron leaned against one of the tunnel's posts, holding his breath, waiting, listening. Martin stood there with his eyes closed tight; Dorothy's were wide with fear. He only assumed the men he'd heard heading for the crypt were police, seeing the two marked cars and the van. But what if they were SHMRG “enforcers” who'd already taken out the police while they're out mopping up after kidnapping Purdue? What if they've caught Terry and that was his blood on the floor?

“Hey, did you hear that? Somebody's in here,” one of the voices said, his whisper far too husky to go unheard.

“Yeah,” the second voice said. “Look – someone's knocked over some of the markers.”

Cameron noticed the crack of light had disappeared which meant the door had shut tightly behind them – that was good news.

“Maybe it was a squirrel,” the second, lighter voice said. “Squirrels'll do that...”

“Then where'd he go? Maybe it's a vampire?”

“Yeah, right, like vampires'd be out after sunrise... No, I'm goin' with squirrels.” This was then followed by a lengthy description of the damage squirrels were doing to the bird feeders in his backyard.

If SHMRG had just caught Terry, how did the police get here so quickly and put out all that crime-scene stuff? He was assuming it had only been a few minutes since Terry disappeared.

When it sounded like the voices retreated back to the safety and sunlight outside the crypt, no longer concerned about vampires, Cameron motioned perhaps they should retreat back to the safety of Purdue's basement. Neither of them disagreed with him: what to do next was the issue but Martin shushed her when Dorothy mentioned it. One thing they didn't have time for was dealing with the police – assuming those were the police – to help find Terry. The only thing they'd do was arrest them for contaminating a crime scene.

Martin thought the whole thing reminded him of Alice through the Looking Glass, without expounding on the implication left hanging there. Cameron gave him a sharp look, considering his earlier experience in the backyard.

“What makes you say that? Feel like you've fallen down a rabbit hole?”

“No, it's just he's there – then he's not...”

Even half-way back to Purdue's, beyond the point where anyone in the crypt could probably hear them, they continued to whisper, wondering how Terry could have disappeared like that without having left a trace.

“It's not like he hasn't been inconsiderate before,” Dorothy said, “but we've got flights to catch so we can get home.”

“Ah, I could have burst into the crypt like a vampire and distracted them while you two ran for your cars.”

“Clearly, boy, you've been watching too much television.” Martin did not sound amused.

“If they're after Tom and maybe have Terry, now, it's also possible they know whose cars those are across the street. Maybe they're waiting for us to come get them, then arrest us, too?”

“But, Dorothy, why would the police arrest us? What have we done that...?”

“From their viewpoint, we're 'tampering' with their case!”

“I'm afraid she's right, Martin.” Cameron stopped as if he needed to rest – not so much physical rest as 'brain rest.' “Ever since they decided Tom Purdue's their suspect, they view us as 'meddling'...”

“But that's exactly one thing we are doing is 'meddling' because we're trying to find Tom and prove that he's innocent.”

“Here's the thing: either Tom's run off because he's not innocent or he's been abducted by somebody and therefore not guilty. And now,” Cameron continued, “Terry's run off because... Wait, what was that noise?”

From the depths of the tunnel, somewhere in front of where they'd stopped – perhaps the middle distance, though hard to tell – came a noise like the slow creak of an old gate needing oiled, the sound, Cameron thought, of metal scraping against metal, annoying to the ear, echoing through the tunnel's equally annoying, unflattering acoustics. Not that it made a difference but he was aware how they were all holding their collective breath, straining their concentration, as if, somehow, it would sharpen their hearing and help focus the sound.

A pregnant pause was taking forever to gestate, the silence expanding with potential, even with only a few options to consider, ranging from the gate at Purdue's to the roof possibly starting to collapse. Given a cave-in, Cameron figured it would be more of a woody sound, a crack as the lumber supports gave way.

But on a happier note, if it were the gate at Purdue's basement, an iron sliding door on a metal track, that could mean Terry had returned or – someone else has found the tunnel. This brought him to consider, if 'choice B,' would it be the police or maybe agents from SHMRG, neither very promising.

The pause resolved into another sliding of metal-on-metal before cadencing with a thud, audible punctuation for the end of a phrase. Whoever it was who had opened the door had now closed the door.

Martin broke the concentration first, convinced that – “Good news!” – Terry must have returned. He started to hurry forward, swinging his flashlight.

Dorothy wasn't so sure, wondering, “if it was Terry, where'd he come from?”

“But what if someone else is in the tunnel – or just left it?” Cameron reached forward, trying to hold Martin back.

“But who else could it be? The farmhouse is empty and... oh... Ah... You're thinking someone who's looking for us, now?”

Dorothy shuddered and shrank back against the wall, hitting one of the posts.

“Yes, we can't escape through the crypt since the police are already there, and who knows if we'd reach the farmhouse?” Plus they'd still have to figure out how to open the farmhouse gate.

“Well, what else is there to do,” Martin eagerly suggested, “but go see? It's not like we have any other option.”

Finding the handle on the outside of Tom's sliding gate was not as easy as it had been from the inside, and Cameron wondered, would they have eventually found it on the farmhouse gate? Of course, the question in his mind was, if the farmhouse was abandoned, why would Kerr go there to begin with? Certainly, if he'd discovered anything about Purdue's whereabouts, he would've mentioned something as basic as “it appears he's right next door.” If the farmhouse has been empty for years, what made Terry think otherwise?

Then he remembered furtive movements in the backyard, a man dressed in black, things he'd barely noticed looking out a window, someone he figured at first was this local prowler reported on the news. Then he began to wonder if this prowler couldn't be a SHMRG agent who's been hiding out in an abandoned house.

The gate was a brick wall only partially hidden behind dirt and stones yet the inside was a rough-hewn stone wall, like foundation stones, great chunks of granite, that also lined the tunnel walls. The whole thing was nearly a foot thick, but it still slid easily on metal tracks in the floor and ceiling.

Dorothy found it, a slight outcropping on one stone which, pushed down, released the catch so the door slid open easily. This one, however, didn't sound as squeaky as the one they'd heard earlier.

He didn't remember which lights were on when he'd come down before breakfast but clearly the basement was a lot brighter now than it was before he and the others had entered the tunnel. Which meant what, exactly, Cameron thought as they slipped cautiously into the room: either Terry's returned or someone else was here.

Dorothy let out a quiet, tentative call which, if he'd been upstairs, Terry probably wouldn't have been able to hear anyway but then maybe no one else in the house would hear it, either.

It was also clear the desk had been searched, Cameron told the others – not that the place had been ransacked, necessarily – but somebody had been looking though some papers by the computer – and recently.

“But we couldn't have been gone that long.” Martin looked at his watch. “Maybe only about twenty minutes? Who could have...”

They were immediately distracted by this intense flash of light from behind them, no overpowering explosion or even a camera flash, more like an old-fashioned light bulb that fizzled when someone flipped the switch. His hearing always fairly acute, Cameron wasn't aware of any sound, not even the pop when a light bulb burns out. And yet as soon as they turned around to see what had happened, considering their recent discoveries which were creepy enough, Cameron wasn't prepared to see what he saw: a befuddled-looking T. Richard Kerr.

There he stood, more stooped than usual, perhaps fending off some approaching attacker, a look of absolute fear on his face, an expression Cameron knew well from various experiences shared over the past years. The strangest thing, though, was his standing between them and the tunnel entrance, as if he'd been following right behind them.

“Where the hell have you been,” Dorothy said, not usually prone to profanity. “You've given us all quite a fright, Terry!”

“We've been looking for you all over that tunnel,” Martin added, not pleased.

After brushing himself off, Terry regained his composure. “Have I been gone... I mean, have you been searching for me long?”

Cameron looked at him knowingly and asked why he just disappeared like that.

“I, uh... thought I was on to something.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

“No,” Kerr said, “not exactly...”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 17th]

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, October 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 11 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Lucifer Darke, the interim CEO impatient to consolidate his power at SHMRG and eliminate N. Ron Steele who's a fugitive from justice being hunted by the IMP, receives two pieces of good news from one of his I.T. Geeks, Kenny Hackett. First of all, it seems they've found a weakness in an encrypted e-mail to a member of the Board (and a known Steele loyalist) that will soon be able to track down Steele's whereabouts. Secondly, it seems there's chatter about an Artificial Intelligence program someone named Thomas Purdue has written which will compose music to your own specifications. Eager to find a way to boost their bottom line, Darke tells Horace Toccata, once Hackett obtains this software, to have it ready to market in time for Christmas. And then Hackett succeeds in locating Steele's hiding place.

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

With this installment, we reach the
mid-point of the novel! (In fact, the middle word of the novel is 'mid-point'...)

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

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

III.

Again, Cameron shook his head trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness and maybe knock his brain back into focus after whatever that was he'd just seen there, afraid to jostle his flashlight once he saw two faint beams ahead of him and the barely visible figures of Martin and Dorothy not far away. Whatever had just happened here – and he wasn't sure he could describe it – at least he was back where they'd started: regardless of explanations, wherever it took him, it couldn't have taken that long. A quick look around to get his bearings, as unfamiliar as they were – and definitely he was back in a tunnel – didn't answer the question where he'd just been or how he'd gotten there. He couldn't have gone far since the backyard he'd been observing was only a few feet above where he stood now.

How do you walk through a previously unnoticed doorway and into a tunnel, then end up in some parallel universe somewhere which takes you back maybe only a few dozen years into the past? Is that what happened to Kerr, vanishing into another layer of the past after stepping through what must be a portal? But if that's what happened, why didn't it happen to Dorothy and Martin – unless they've only returned seconds before he did? Perhaps they're trying to sort this out, too, equally unnerved by their experience?

“Doesn't look like your flashlight's going to hold out much longer, young man. Who knows how old these batteries might be.” Martin impatiently flicked his light back toward Cameron as if urging him on. There was enough of a glow to see rough dirt walls, evenly spaced wooden posts and heavy beams across the ceiling.

“If being in the dark bothers you, Cameron, you'd better catch up with us,” Dorothy continued, sounding more conciliatory than impatient. “I doubt these bulbs are likely to go out at the same time.”

“We have no idea where these tunnels go – I'm assuming it connects to the neighbor's house which is not very far.” Martin flashed his beam ahead of them where it shortly dissolved into blackness.

Dorothy asked if there was anything beyond the property of the old farmhouse.

“I don't know,” Cameron answered, “it's a cul-de-sac.”

If they'd had any similarly unnerving occurrence, chances are they would not sound quite so matter-of-fact, talking to him like this. He plodded forward, his legs moving again, no longer rooted to the spot. He sensed a certain curiosity in their voices about what they might find but nothing to question something they'd just experienced. There was no bravado as they might try to brush off the incomprehensible nor any sign of fear at the inexplicable. As he approached them, he decided to match them as matter-of-factly as possible.

“I was just wondering what this place is. Terry never indicated Tom had told him about a tunnel under his house.” Cameron wasn't sure that's something you'd tell everybody – “and hey, check this out!” If Dr Purdue thought he was being targeted, instead of having been kidnapped maybe he had used the tunnel to escape?

It's unlikely he didn't know it was there, keeping it fairly well hidden – the table's placement, the rug on the wall – because if he really wanted to hide it, he'd've put bookshelves across it. He must have wanted to have access to it when he needed it, but would the table keep anyone from entering?

“It has to be old because who'd build a tunnel nowadays,” Martin said, “yet it all seems very well cared for.” The walls, though not smooth, were still firm; the floor, packed down solid.

Now Cameron was wondering if Terry hadn't gotten caught up in whoever's still using the tunnel – the ones who'd kidnapped Purdue?

“Wait, Dorothy, what's that, at your feet – footprints? And more than just ours.”

As they shined their flashlights back and forth, the dirt was too well packed down to see all the tracks clearly.

But different types and sizes of shoes were heading in both directions, perhaps a whole group of people coming and going. Martin noticed a wheel-print – “a single wheel like a wheelbarrow?” – down the center.

Dorothy doubted these went back to the days they were constructing the tunnel, left undisturbed all these years in the darkness. Martin confessed being a musicologist, not an archeologist, made his own theorizing “pointless.”

“Perhaps they were a long-lost tribe of Mole People – or maybe alien smugglers?” The others frowned at Cameron's attempt at humor.

“Of course,” Martin resumed, slipping on that straight-forward, professorly persona which Terry fell into often enough whenever he argued a point, “there has to be a logical solution for Dr Kerr's so-called 'disappearance,' correct?”

But Cameron knew from past experience, academic minds aside, “logical solution” and “Dr Kerr” rarely ever belonged in the same sentence.

“Hopefully, we won't have to worry about running into a herd of bats.”

“Ugh! Martin, really,” Dorothy muttered, “I hate bats...”

Somehow, Cameron was concerned bats might well be the least of their worries.

It was clear – as much as writing in a thin layer of dust could be “clear” – newer footprints obliterated older ones but there was still no way of knowing which direction Terry set out. His would've been the freshest prints but Cameron couldn't recall what shoes he'd been wearing to tell if these were his. Not knowing where the tunnel would lead, which direction would he have chosen? The shorter distance to the farmhouse seemed logical. But the other direction might lead to a specific destination somewhere in town.

It didn't take long until they reached what appeared to be a wall, no dead end but making a sharp left. Leaning against it were piles of cardboard cartons and – imagine that – a wheelbarrow. On their right, Cameron noticed layers of large stones like a foundation wall. “If there's a door, it must be here.”

Dorothy pointed out that Terry didn't have a flashlight with him, did he?, not unless he'd found one in the basement. If he didn't have any source of light, how would he have managed? And if he had found this bank of stones embedded in this wall, could he have realized it was a door?

Martin suggested, if he had, would he have been stupid enough to try and open it, entering a presumably empty house, not knowing what, if anything, he'd find inside – “perhaps facing Tom Purdue's kidnappers?”

Cameron wondered, if they were so concerned about disturbing an otherwise empty house, why everyone was whispering, practically walking on tip-toe? If they were trying to find Terry, shouldn't they be calling his name? But for some reason they all understood there was danger in being discovered, even without having asked “by whom?”... or what?

“The tunnel doesn't end here,” Martin said, flicking his flashlight into the turn where it was soon lost in the void, “so should we turn around, see if maybe Terry'd gone the other way?” There was always the possibility we'll run into him as he returns, if the tunnel was longer in the opposite direction.

“I'm wondering,” Dorothy said as they passed that intersection which took them back into Purdue's basement just as they'd left it, “does the other half of the tunnel go someplace in town, some safe-point?”

“Other half?” Was it like listening to a piece of music, Cameron thought, and wondering how much longer till it's over, or going on vacation and periodically asking your parents, “are we there yet?” Was this tunnel like two paths, one shorter and the other one longer, or one long path originating beyond the farmhouse?

But how would we know when we've gotten to the middle to say, “this is the mid-point,” you know, right here? How do we know when we've reached the last chance to turn back?

Martin coughed but Dorothy at least humored him by saying if we've come this far, we might as well keep going: “after all, having invested this much time and effort, why give up now?”

“Things like 'middles' are merely arbitrary constructs in time or distance,” Martin argued, “not things you can quantifiably sense in passing.”

Given the age of the farmhouse, probably dating back before the Civil War, and Purdue's place being older than it looks judging from the old-fashioned stonework in the basement walls, despite the sliding door, Dorothy assumed the row of houses along the lane were probably not connected to the tunnel, being of “more recent vintage.”

“How old is Purdue's house anyway, any idea? It's hardly a replica of the farmhouse: more likely built several decades ago.”

Given what Kerr talked about, Cameron didn't really know or hadn't paid attention.

“All I know is Dr Purdue's Aunt Jane lived here a long time before she died maybe ten years ago and... well, I know he used to visit her when he was a child.”

“So that was probably in the '50s, early-'60s?” Dorothy swept her flashlight around. “This tunnel must have been built before 1900.”

It reminded Martin of photographs from old coal mines he'd seen years ago, the way the wooden supports were set in but here it's just dirt, mostly clay, and rocks holding up the walls. “It's amazing the thing's never collapsed after all these years, given this dirt, especially after a lot of heavy, soaking rains.”

“Well, there's a comforting thought, Martin, getting caught in a cave-in or something – as if running into bats wasn't bad enough...”

“Bats would be a good sign, Dorothy: that'd mean there's a way out.”

Discussions about the initial intent of the tunnel, since mining coal was unlikely, suggested it was part of the Underground Railroad or an emergency escape in case of fire or some kind of attack, though what might have done the attacking back then they weren't quite sure; perhaps it was protection from a Confederate invasion. If the farmhouse was mid-19th Century, then Purdue's house could have been built for Haine's newlywed daughter as a wedding present. Besides, why wouldn't Confederate troops try for Philadelphia, having been headed to Harrisburg?

It was the kind of talk people would make while taking a walk where there was little else to engage them beyond the mutual enjoyment of their immediate surroundings and considered preferable to silence. Cameron for the most part didn't pay attention to them, occasionally looking behind him to see if they were being followed.

They hadn't found any more “intersections” to join the tunnel to other houses, so perhaps Dorothy was right in her assessment and from here it was a fairly straight shot to wherever it ended. But was it wise to talk at all, if anyone could hear them, remembering Terry's talk about “rats in the walls”? When it seemed they could go no further, he noticed a slight line of brightness cutting down through the dark wall.

“Shh,” he called to them, “looks like another door – and not shut tight.”

Wherever this opened and whatever they might walk out into, they needed to be careful, drug smugglers or Mole People aside, the narrow slit of light bright only in comparison to their own darkness. Unlike the door from Purdue's basement which slid open, this one pulled back and, yes, it had been left slightly ajar. Pulling it back just enough to peek through the opening, he saw a small, rectangular room, unlit but not completely dark. In the center was a raised rectangular box on a platform – a coffin!

He pulled the door open further until all three of them could peer through the doorway, feeling a damp, cool breeze.

“We seem to have surfaced inside the cemetery.”

“Inside a crypt, I'm guessing...”

Martin pointed out the yellow police tape across the top of the entrance. Dorothy imagined that dark irregular stain was blood.

“This doesn't look good,” Martin mumbled, “not just a crypt but one that, apparently rather recently, has become a crime scene,” noting how light came in through the entryway and two window-like apertures overhead. Yet he held the door open slightly so Cameron, the youngest and slightest of the three, could crawl through to investigate.

“If Terry did come this way, where would he have gotten to already? Had he left the crypt or did he...?”

Cameron finished Dorothy's unspoken thought: “did he become part of the crime scene?”

He climbed through the doorway, a tight squeeze, carefully skirting the stain which didn't strike him as being all that fresh, and trying to avoid the number of yellow police evidence-markers littering the floor. Whether there would be policemen outside the crypt, standing guard, was one thing: his major concern was what happened to Terry.

The crypt, whoever it belonged to – probably the Haine Family – was fairly cramped, several plaques on the walls with various inscriptions. Looking through the partly open door he realized they're near the cemetery entrance. He could see the gate, which hung open, and the lot across the street where Dorothy and Martin parked their cars. But to the right were two police cars parked nearby on the grass and beyond that, a barely visible white van. If Terry had been kidnapped by anyone, it was most likely the police.

Two voices – about “cold coffee and stale donuts” – were headed toward the crypt and Cameron decided not to wait for them, whether he recognized either of them or not from his encounter at Purdue's. Regardless, it would be difficult enough to explain to anyone what exactly he was doing inside an otherwise sealed crime scene. He scrambled back down the steps, not without knocking over a couple of markers or bumping into the central coffin's pedestal. Glad for the light, he couldn't imagine getting stuck here in the dark.

Before reaching the barely open panel that marked the entrance into the tunnel, he noticed the name carved over the coffin: “Samuel Jackson Haine” in ornate, old-fashioned block letters, born 1809 and died 1883.

Clearly, this was the Haine Family's crypt but there wasn't time to explore; however, it solved the mystery of the tunnel.

What it didn't solve was what happened to Dr Kerr who could only have passed through here a few minutes ago, since there was no sign of him anywhere else in the mysterious tunnel – if he did pass through here, Cameron thought, knowing some of the strange things Terry could get himself caught up in.

Not to mention what might have happened that the police would be here, long enough for their donuts to turn stale, though that bloodstain on the floor could have something to do with it.

Scrambling back through the panel and pushing it closed, Cameron urged Martin and Dorothy to turn back before they were discovered, holding a finger to his lips as they heard voices entering the crypt. The door sealed shut behind them with a soft whoosh and a thunk which he hoped might escape the policemen's notice.

There was only silence but whether that was because they'd stopped talking or the panel was sound-proof, Cameron couldn't be sure. He had no problem urging the others to stand still and not breathe.

“Even if Terry had come this far,” he thought, “did he return to the house while we'd gone the other way?”

Martin imagined the police must've found Terry in the crypt and arrested him.

But Dorothy was thinking whoever had abducted Purdue may now have taken Terry.

“What've we gotten ourselves into? Are we safe...?”.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, October 15th]

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 11 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Cameron has a weird episode of his own, following Martin and Dorothy into the tunnel but, after having trouble with the old flashlight, finding himself in the backyard observing a teenaged Tom Purdue, his Aunt Jane, and his annoyed father, Henry. Suddenly, Cameron sees a lot of parallels between Purdue's childhood and his own, but how does he get back to the present?

(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 11

I.

On the whole, looking back, he'd always hated whenever Steele called an early-morning meeting he had to attend in this room. “I don't know,” Lucifer Darke thought, “it just looked too fancy for me. More like something that said 'I'm richer than you are,' not just 'I'm more powerful than you' – I've always hated that.” But until Darke's fully consolidated his power, he can't expend the necessary money to redecorate the office to his own specifications. Meanwhile, he has to put up with the portraits of Steele's dead relatives.

“What I need to have looking down on the minions working for me – especially the Board who must reenforce my plans – are portraits of all those politicians we own through our increasing lobbying efforts. That will reinforce how powerful we are – I am – when they see me shaking hands with senators, presidents, and prime ministers.”

It was easier, Darke had discovered, to be occupying the penthouse suite that was once N. Ron Steele's overlooking Central Park, especially since Steele's wife died some years ago, leaving the space otherwise unoccupied. It was unlikely whatever “hidey-hole” Steele found himself in nowadays was any grander; more likely, not much bigger than the bathroom.

“And yet Steele managed to dominate his company from some off-shore, undisclosed location, wherever in the world he'd run to ground. He was like a crazed drug-lord running his cartel from inside a prison.”

Darke poured himself another drink – while others needed coffee, Lucifer Darke, sleeping in rather than working much before noon, preferred scotch – and debated opening the drapes to reveal a view he found altogether useless. “What is the point of a view, looking upon the world you see, if you don't have complete control of it?”

Steele, given his disgrace and current status as international fugitive from the law, was a man with quite limited real authority. “Wherever he is, what view could offer him suitable compensation for his loss?”

The latest report coming in from Uriah Lockstep, SHMRG's current Chief Security Officer, was no more informative than all the rest. “How could someone fall so far off the grid like that,” he wondered.

And apparently the IMP were no closer to finding Steele than they were. “But one of these days, he'll slip up.”

It must be a horrible existence, Darke considered as he stared into his glass of scotch, its golden colors swirling about, to fall from such a high position after years of so much power. Unfortunately, the problem was he still clung to a fraction of that power, hanging on to the merest vestiges of control. How long could Steele maintain this ridiculous charade he was still in charge, that loyal board members would continue to believe? But as long as they did, Darke knew his power would be incomplete.

Did Steele sit there, hiding, his back to the wall, waiting, wondering, fearing the world would soon catch up to him? Was he afraid to show his face, lying in darkness nursing his wounds? Did every little sound he'd hear frighten him, realizing they were getting closer, knowing he would be hunted down and killed?

“No,” Darke thought, as he slammed the empty glass down on the desk that to some minds still belonged to Steele, “it is imperative we find him, his location, first before the IMP does!” That was his plan, as far as he could hope, given their technology, not to mention the importance of the goal.

“It must be SHMRG who hands him over to the IMP,” Darke insisted, “SHMRG who leads them directly to his hide-out. SHMRG must be seen taking responsibility for Steele – then he's the IMP's responsibility.”

Everyone in SHMRG's security division knew The Plan as they searched through the Internet to find any trace of Steele's existence, some blip on the grid that would show them some minor, inadvertent screw-up. From there, the discovery went to the Director who'd tell Lucifer Darke himself, then Darke would contact the IMP task force. That was certainly the official plan as Darke had officially explained it, a directive distributed to all members of the Board. Not that he was so naïve to think that's what everyone believed.

“Seriously?”

Surely, they would all be aware of the first law of corporate America? “It's not called the 'Shark Tank' for nothing! 'Eat or be eaten,'” though Darke was reluctant to go quite that far. Once he's found, even if he's already been caught, Steele must be eliminated. “Even if he's already 'safely' in IMP custody.”

It was not just the argument Steele had committed a little embezzlement and may be implicated in a murder or two, things which, according to the modern world of corporate politics, were fairly mundane. There was the even older law of survival dating from man's earliest competitiveness, meaning Steele must not be allowed to testify.

The main problem was, considering what Steele knew and everything that had happened, relevant or not, a trial could be dangerous. If he revealed too much, he'd destroy SHMRG. Or worse, take down Darke.

It was an uncomfortable coincidence Steele's testimony might bring to the IMP's mind a recent death officially dismissed as a suicide. A middle-manager at SHMRG, Stuart Pidgeon, discovered someone selling software to the Russians. But Darke had him fired with sufficient innuendo so others would assume Pidgeon, “not a team player,” was the actual culprit.

But if Pidgeon – “poor Stu...” – went to the IMP anyway with his evidence, Darke realized he would be in serious trouble. So he had his men go after him, convincing everyone it was suicide.

When Steele would start getting into details about the death of Pansy Grunwald, there would be way too many uncomfortable similarities. It was all because of that “Daisy Episode” in Sullivan's opera, Faustus, Inc.

Darke knew bringing that up – Steele's reason behind eliminating Robertson Sullivan's opera – might make them re-examine the death of Stu Pidgeon.

To take his mind off Steele and that unfortunate association between Pansy Grunwald's “alleged” murder and the plot of Sullivan's opera, which Steele took as a subtly veiled reference to an otherwise insignificant crime – Darke hoped he would never get as paranoid as Steele had become then – there were other crises that needed his attention. Foremost was Wolfe's report about the conference in Philadelphia with tonight's concert at the Kimmel Center, jokingly called “Scricci's Last Stand.” So far everything was going well and the house was nearly sold out. It had been a stroke of genius to suggest this venue for the concert, he admitted, patting himself on the back, knowing it would draw more people to the location and sell more tickets since, like most people on the street, he assumed the place was named for a famous late-night TV talk show host.

There had been a last-minute surge of intense promotion waged through social media – anybody who was anybody had to be there – resulting in a groundswell of ticket sales mostly on-line through SHMRG's app, TixBuzz, for this event showcasing several leading acts in the world of pop music with “the World's Greatest Orchestra,” the Philadelphia Philharmonic (when the Philadelphia Orchestra's management declined the contract he'd offered, Scricci managed to scrape together a pick-up ensemble of hungry free-lancers which, to anyone mostly unfamiliar with classical music, wouldn't make any noticeable difference).

The SHMRG-sponsored convention would kick off with a celebratory dinner before the concert and then the next day get down to business with meetings and seminars about marketing classical music in a pop world. So far, Wolfe reported, no stars had canceled but the concert was still several hours away and, granted, “anything could happen.” The tech run-through last night, once all the equipment had arrived, went smoothly, nobody created a fuss over the dressing rooms, and there were no fights backstage as they had timed rivals' schedules accordingly.

Business had precluded Darke from being able to attend the dinner in person so instead he'd address the group via SKYPE, introducing the keynote speaker, Christopher Babbilla, the board chairman of the European branch. He didn't want to intrude on the concert which was Skripasha Scricci's baby, a wise idea given Scricci's past track record.

And it was that very track record which made Darke pause, even momentarily, thinking perhaps maybe things were going too smoothly. “After all,” he pondered, looking out toward Central Park, “the day is young.” But that was why he had appointed Peter Andrew Wolfe, a loyal addition to the board, as the project's chief administrator. Other than hosting the show, for those who might still remember him, Scricci was to have as little contact with the artists and, for that matter, staff or crew as humanly possible.

Darke laughed.

After the debacle at that British “Pimp My Prodigy” Pageant which aired live, Wolfe promised the security would be extra tight, even if only half as tight as the artists were likely to be. But this time the live broadcast had a thirty-four second delay – “Good, good” – in case they'd need to shut down quickly.

The whole purpose was to engage people unfamiliar with classical music, attracting them by some big names in the music business who'd play arrangements of “classical hits” with the orchestra between their own numbers – Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik with this metal band and some hot young pianist, or that R&B legend playing Schubert's “Ave Maria.”

Darke read through the list of performers but they meant nothing to him, since he never bothered to learn artists' names. By the time he'd figure them out, they'd already disappeared off the charts.

His eyes glazed over as he scanned through the report's next several pages except for a quick check of the expenses buried near the end mentioning how much the project is already over budget, despite having forced the musicians (especially the orchestra) to accept less than their usual rates “for the good of the cause.” But Wolfe pointed out ticket sales and advances on the various media platforms indicated the deficit may be half that amount, making expenditures like “artists' fees” quite the bargain even at a realistic price.

“If properly marketed and assuming they could keep some of these legendary rock stars current enough in the pantheon of pop, it's quite possible future residuals from this concert,” according to Wolfe's detailed calculations, “after cornering the 'nostalgia market' in five years, could mean considerable long-range profits given the low royalty fees in their contracts.”

That's what Darke needed without a doubt, something that would increase the money coming in to match the “prestige going out.” After all, he knew, what's the point of even being in the business? That was the problem with Art which on its own was never profitable – “and where's the realistic business plan in that?”

Whether or not this concert could ever possibly generate that kind of income, he needed some kind of project that would. That was the big challenge, the elusive answer, and he needed it soon.

If you're going to make money, he knew he couldn't just keep adding new fees and routinely jack up the prices because the audience was already in a state of near-rebellion as it was. Or tighten the regulations and reduce what little pittance the artists' already received considering how much they're complaining about their “royalties.” The very idea of paying these peasants something called “royalties” cracked him up, and he often joked about calling them “peasantries.” It was all part of his feudal view of the modern music industry.

Wasn't that all part of the joy of being this gigantic corporate monopoly – or eventually becoming a complete and total monopoly? Was there any really serious competition left to squash the life out of? If his artists mutinied and jumped ship, what frying pan would take them? Except for Steele and his renegades, always plotting...

It was not that he had managed – not yet, anyway – the highest power just by having taken over SHMRG as is, but who knew it would be such hard work to maintain his control? He hadn't reckoned with the idea of needing to be both a general and a politician often at the same time. What if the Democrats won control of the Congress in the next election, all that money spent on lobbying, now wasted? He had to maintain his share of the best Congress money could buy.

And he knew that glory didn't come to one who merely waited on the sidelines for things to go his way. He remembered Steele's dream of being the first corporation to run for President. Thanks to “Citizens United,” it could happen, but not now, with Steele's disgrace. What if Lucifer Darke could revive that dream?

He began pacing the room, his back to the window and its view, thinking if he could only produce some bit of musical demagoguery that would manage to grab the attention of the masses. With SHMRG in charge of the nation's musical entertainment, the company was poised to take over TV and film distribution on-line.

But that was a gigantic next step and he knew he couldn't do it with Steele nipping away at his heels. There must be something else, some way he could eliminate this constant nuisance.

The door burst open with such force and without knock or warning, Darke made an involuntary move toward his safe room – alas, on the other side of the office, too far to reach safely, instinctively reaching for the gun he usually kept in a pocket holster but which he remembered leaving in a desk drawer.

“So, this is how it all ends,” Darke had time enough to think, “gunned down by one of Steele's loyal minions,” when he realized the young man was alone and wasn't holding a gun.

“Oh, I'm sorry, sir, maybe I should've knocked,” the young man told him, “but I've got news you'll want to hear,” introducing himself as Kenneth Hackett from IT who's been leading the Amfortas Project. This was the special technology division's operation trying to track down Steele's whereabouts, uncover where he's hiding, what he's up to.

Without apologizing or explaining his otherwise rude behavior, Hackett told Darke the news: Steele's agent got in contact with Basil Carsonoma, the one they had long suspected was Steele's main man on the board. There was some technical failure Darke couldn't understand but the important bit was, they now have access to the encryption codes.

“Steele's agent 'CableGuyLGS' has been connecting with 'Kark!nos69' for almost a year, now, but now we can prove Carsonoma is Karkinos.” The only problem was CableGuy routes his signal through five continents including Antarctica.

“So, technically, no, we don't yet know exactly where Steele is hiding – sir,” Hackett added when he noticed Darke's increasing frustration, “but it does mean we can now read their correspondence – most of it.” The code wasn't difficult to crack but Hackett assumed, after starting his explanation, Darke was only interested in the end result.

The information should have come up from this fellow to his supervisor, then through his boss, Lockstep, before reaching his desk. Darke was not inclined to overlook the transgressions of underlings who ignored protocol.

Handing Darke a print-out of his translation, he said Steele is trying to locate a composer in Philadelphia named Thomas Purdue. “It seems he's developed some artificial creativity program,” Hackett pointed out, “called CLARA.”

“And what exactly is it this program does?” Darke was becoming less frustrated.

“It composes music according to your personal specifications.”

II.

It was like an answer to prayer, despite his not believing in prayer, Darke listening carefully to this young man whom he'd not met before (or didn't remember meeting, anyway) while he explained it. Before Hackett could get through an even more elementary level trying to make sense of it, Darke was on the phone. Fortunately, Toccata was in his office, just back from a meeting before lunch, and now was on his way, arriving momentarily. Without bothering to ask him, Darke pointed young Hackett into a chair.

“Sit.”

As for Hackett, he looked pleased with himself – that much, Darke could understand – realizing his discovery had generated so much interest, though the news of this CLARA software seemed more interesting than Steele's whereabouts. This could be the big break any young IT geek could hope for, impressing the boss, showing him what he's worth.

A knock was followed by the obsequious figure of a tall, rotund man, a fringe of gray around his balding head, making a slight bow from the doorway as if begging permission to enter. Horace Toccata was a board vice-president and the head of his own subsidiary yet he had been imperiously summoned to appear.

Impeccably dressed, Toccata may be more sartorially conscious, but no one would ever mistake which man here possessed the greater authority. Toccata's face may indicate wisdom but wisdom knew how to act before power.

In a few terse sentences, Darke brought Toccata up to speed without mentioning Steele or the circumstances of their on-going search. “Perhaps,” Hackett made note, “there is some question as to Toccata's true loyalty?” Fascinated by the interplay between lord and subject, Hackett hadn't overlooked how, without having being introduced, he had been completely ignored.

Everything was about this software program they've discovered, speaking as if it were found in some remote corner of the Amazon. You couldn't help think, from listening to him, Darke had discovered it himself.

There was no mention of Hackett or how he found out about it, no mention of the man who'd created it. It was like something wild, “ready to be tamed, picked like a fruit.”

And now, Darke said, it was something Toccata Industries would market by Christmas.

“Fascinating,” Hackett noted, “this is how it's done.”

“Christmas, sir?” These were the first words Toccata spoke since Darke began explaining what exactly this new project of his entailed. “Yet that's only two months away,” Toccata said, trying not to sound pessimistic.

The prototype should be ready to demonstrate on December 1st and be ready to ship by the 15th. “Two months, exactly.”

Hackett saw the anxiety churning across Toccata's face: how would he explain that left really five weeks to develop the prototype? How would he convince Darke any decision to delay must be his own?

“This is a top priority for SHMRG and Toccata Industries should market it,” Darke forgetting Toccata's company specialized in touch-screen technology. “With any delay, a competitor already after the product will devour our profits.”

“It will be a challenge, sir,” Toccata admitted, wincing at Darke's inflection on the word 'devour,' “but yes, it could work.”

“To quote your countryman, Horace,” Darke smiled, “'there is no can, only do.'”

It didn't matter Yoda was not even half-Japanese, unlike Toccata who knew there was no wisdom in pointing out such mistakes. The spirit of Toccata's mother would writhe in anguish to hear her son say, “and wise he was beyond his years.”

“Then,” Darke said, turning to Hackett whose name he clearly didn't know, “this young man will get you the program – tomorrow?”

“Uhm...” Hackett now began to squirm in his chair, thinking of Yoda. “Sure!”

All Darke knew was what Hackett had told him from CableGuy's apprehended e-mail, finding out that Steele planned to develop CLARA, so all he had to do was market the program before Steele did. How difficult could it be, he reasoned, to take some lines of code and then add or adjust a few more? You make a prototype which demonstrates the program's potential – promises and hot air – which whets the appetite of the intended audience. Suddenly, everybody thinks they'll turn into get-rich-quick song-writers and everybody will want one.

Put it out before Christmas and within days it's on everyone's “must-have list,” the latest technological gadget as stocking-stuffer, the “toy-of-the-century.” It's the perfect gift for music-lovers who now can create their own songs. Doesn't matter if they're any worse than the ones being written by humans. The important thing is, these songs are yours!

What were the two major things going through the average Joe's mind when he hears some song for the first time? “I wish I could do that” or “I can do better than that.” This way, with SHMRG's new creative software, they would not only be able to do that, it might just be better.

There's no guarantee you would produce a hit and make millions but, like winning the lottery, “ya gotta buy a ticket!” And to a CEO, that means one thing – “ka-ching! Money in the bank!”

Toccata was to have his best engineers ready to work on this tomorrow and if any were music lovers, even better. Whatever else they might be working on, this was now their top priority. “As soon as...” – here, Darke turned to Hackett – “you've gotten the program code, you pass it directly to Toccata's development department.”

Toccata, wiping his brow, heaved himself up from his chair with great effort, shaking hands and hurtling quickly toward the door. Darke assumed he's eager to get to work; Hackett could sense his fear.

What could possibly go wrong, right? Would it catch fire, accidentally kill people? And even so, accidents happen; what's the point? There were always some bugs to work out. Nothing a patch couldn't fix!

“I'll get the marketing guys to come up with a plan,” Darke said. “Meanwhile, you'd better locate and secure this software.”

The kid hurried out and shut the door, leaving a fading trail of “thank you”s and “yes, sir”s in his wake, and still Darke couldn't remember the guy's name or who his boss was. He looked like all the other geeks working in IT, dressed in black turtleneck and jeans with trendy glasses, otherwise indistinguishable. Yet he'd cracked the encryption code to uncover the identity of Steele's chief undercover agent on the board – no surprise there – though who knew how many others still around might be just as loyal.

More importantly, Darke realized, he had discovered the existence of what might well become just the ticket he was hoping for. Would this software program be the magic bullet that could bring down Steele? He jotted down a reminder to give the kid a reasonable bonus but first he had to find out his name.

Wait – what if he were one of Steele's loyalists and this was some ruse to bring his plotting into the open? What if the kid went back to his computer, sending Steele a confirmation? He jotted down another reminder to have Lockstep beef up Security monitoring all the geeks' computers rather than targeting one individual.

But what if he's not some double agent, only a hard-working loyal cog? Darke knew this only reinforced his natural-born pessimism. It wouldn't take that much to stand in the way of his unhappiness.

With no time to dwell on this now, Darke decided he must prepare a memo for Legal to copyright the program. For this, he didn't need to know the name of the software, either. As far as Legal was concerned it was referred to as “The Product.” They inserted the exact product name only once.

Speaking of names, he'd need one for the program's virtual assistant since “Clara” could be traced back to this Purdue fellow. Maybe call it “Otto”? No, something trendy – a woman's voice would be sexier.

There had to be some fine print buried deep in the license, something nobody would find since nobody reads licenses anyway, flatly stating anything created by this software was automatically the property of SHMRG.

“Yes – 'any work not published by a SHMRG agency and became a hit could result in millions of dollars in fines'!”

He was full of such ideas when he heard a strange whistle coming from his computer, then someone calling his name.

“Mr Darke... uhm, Mr Darke, are you there?” The voice sounded innocent, familiar.

Darke cautiously returned to his desk and peered cautiously around at the monitor. It could be a trap – perhaps a hacker?

“It's Kenny Hackett from IT – I just met with you about Steele's e-mail? And that music-composing software he's trying to find?”

There indeed was the kid, like he was peering down a toilet bowl.

Darke, still silent, watched carefully as his screen split into two separate windows. The smaller of the two was Hackett now furiously typing various rapid-fire commands while following the progress developing across his monitor. The other was an image of Hackett's monitor itself, full of pulsing dots – a world map criss-crossed by flashing yellow lines.

The kid continued to talk techno-gibberish as he typed, explaining to Darke how something he'd just discovered in the encryption meant he could trace everything back from Carsonoma's office to find the e-mail's point-of-origin. Darke watched his screen as if watching someone play a computer game you didn't understand but were supposed to find fascinating.

“Aaaaand... Ping-o,” Hackett said, looking up with a broad grin, “there it is. That red dot... is Steele's formerly undisclosed location.”

Everything about Darke's smug satisfaction told Hackett, “and that is how it's done.”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, Oct. 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.