Wednesday, December 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: The Conclusion

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

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any luck with Osiris, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Things can only go up from here.”

Then he pressed the down button.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bond laughed. “About time, too!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 30

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

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And that was when all hell broke loose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Then you must find a cab,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look out!”

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

= = = = = = =

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

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

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

Friday, December 07, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 29

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

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

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

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



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

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

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

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

“Not officially, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he turned to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We're doomed!”

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Narder ignored Bond's poor attempt at fitting in.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless, Cameron hit him broadside with the shovel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more, Cameron whacked Ripa with the shovel.

“Which way did Osiris go?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


= = = = = = =

to be continued...

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 28

In the previous installment, the conversation between Osiris and Agent Falx (a.k.a. Graham Ripa) ranges the gamut from the aesthetic and philosophical to specific details about the Mobot Project and how Agent Lóviator will be a wake-up call in the battle between good and evil (depending on how you define the word “good”). Vremsky (a.k.a. Lóviator) moves perilously closer to fulfilling her latest mission, hearing the music the Aficionati team is broadcasting into her brain. Meanwhile, the International Music Police are closing in on her and spot her not backstage as originally assumed but sitting in the audience. Just then, there's an explosion – and lots of screaming...

(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.

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


It had been a long and trying day for Dorothy, sitting in the kitchen, complaining how her feet were so tired, she couldn't imagine having to deal with any more of Kerr's little “adventures.” Martin, shuffling around by the sink dealing with the instant coffee – “how barbaric, but what can you do?” – tended to agree. The late afternoon continued to be cloudy and wasn't getting any better, enhancing the sense of gloom she'd sensed all day. Although glad of the break, she thought the anticipation only made things worse.

“And speaking of Terry,” Martin said, “just where the hell has he been while we're off wandering around that old farmhouse, walking what seems like miles in that tunnel, discovering dead bodies in crypts, then being grilled for over an hour by the police like we'd had anything to do with any of these murders.”

“Whenever we're getting ready to go do something, we turn around and – poof! – he's gone off somewhere, like he's no help.” Dorothy noticed Zeno the cat was intent on something beyond the basement door. “It'd be nice to know what we're looking for, much less how to accomplish whatever it is we're trying to accomplish.”

After spending too much time at the police precinct, they'd been dropped off at Purdue's and told not to go anywhere. It's not like they felt particularly safe there: besides, Kerr was still “at-large.”

Meanwhile, a killer was also on the loose, even if the police were convinced both Terry and Tom were the killers, and Cameron was still being held in jail, presumed to be their accomplice. She couldn't forget that sweet young girl had been murdered in the basement; now Zeno was beginning to creep her out.

A sudden flash under the door made her jump, almost spilling her coffee; then something like a box got knocked over.

“Damn it,” a familiar voice complained, “what did you do with my phone?”

Zeno meowed from the top of the kitchen cabinets while, in his surprise, Martin had thrown himself against the back door. “That sounds like Terry – how'd he get in?” Dorothy hurried toward the door.

Before making it halfway down the steps, they could see their friend standing with his back to them, dusting himself off.


“What the... – Where the hell have you been!” Dorothy sounded more annoyed than concerned as I turned around to face her, striking me more like my mother when I'd come home, late for dinner. This immediately unleashed a canonic conversation where, between the two of them, the same questions spilled forth, one over the other.

I looked around, shooshing them, after realizing, fortunately, the Kapellmeister had disappeared and there was no sickle-wielding maniac about to attack. Still unnerved, I was breathing as hard as if I'd run a mile.

“And how'd you get in here without the police nabbing you,” Dorothy continued. “You do know they're out looking for you?” She sounded even more like my mother, convinced I was getting into trouble.

I could hardly tell her where I'd been but, for that matter, how would I explain popping up out of nowhere?

Martin, assuming my lack of response was more confusion than lack of oxygen, wondered how I managed getting past the stake-out. “Presumably, they have policemen keeping an eye on each end of the tunnel.”

Dorothy explained two were in a car out front, “supposedly for our protection.”

“Not that we,” Martin interrupted, “feel particularly safe.”

They both looked at me expectantly, hoping I would set them at ease.

“There, uh... was something I needed to do...”

“Well, did you accomplish what you'd 'needed' to?”

“Not exactly.” Where to begin...

“How long was I gone – I mean, give or take a few minutes?” Since I don't wear a watch and must have mislaid my phone again – there weren't any clocks in the basement, either – and the last time I'd been outside was, like, almost ninety years ago, it struck me as a fairly reasonable question.

But they just stared at me like I'd dropped in from the moon, which wasn't much more far-fetched than the truth.

“You dropped your phone – and a flashlight – in the tunnel – outside the farmhouse...?”

“Ah, right, you were going to check the farmhouse to see if... what, exactly: if Tom was there? And was he?”

“Not exactly...” Martin hesitated as he and Dorothy exchanged cautious glances. “You see...”

Dorothy cut in by reminding me “we,” indicating the three of us, “were going to look for Tom, when you disappeared.”

“That's when we got distracted, waiting for you, and we heard – uhm, what was it we heard, Dorothy? Two people talking...”

“Yes,” she continued with some hesitation, “then we got distracted – waiting for you.”

“And then they'd said something about this body,” Martin said, pointing, “down at the far end, beyond the crypt, maybe Tom's...”

The more they stammered, the less explaining I had to do, even though their excuses sounded almost as bizarre as mine.

“Terry, there are these people in the farmhouse...”

“Yes,” I said, “the Aficionati...”

“Fishy what?” Dorothy looked at him, brows furrowed. “Isn't that what Amanda said?”

“What did Amanda say – and where is Cameron?”

“He – well,” Dorothy stammered, “he's at police headquarters. They think you killed Amanda.”

She pointed to the taped outline where I was standing, where Amanda's body had been found. And everything became very quiet.

“Cameron said her last words were 'a fishy,...' like maybe 'a fishy aftertaste,' he thought, like maybe some left-overs had spoiled.”

Martin obviously had an epiphany: “You mean, she was trying to say 'Afici-onati'?”

Dorothy imagined the girl was trying to tell Cameron who really killed her. “Terry, what – or rather, who – are the Aficionati?”

“I'm not really sure,” I said, carefully stepping outside the crime scene outline.

“Whoever 'they' were, they should be considered dangerous.” I told them Bond said they were next door and probably abducted Tom.

“If they killed Amanda,” Dorothy said, stepping closer to Martin, “they could come back here to kill the rest of us.” Martin, putting an arm around her, didn't look like he'd be much protection. Having police outside watching the comings and goings didn't mean they'd notice anybody who'd already have inside access to the tunnel.

I had no idea if any of the Aficionati knew we were here or realized the police were watching the place, but I didn't want to take any chances: I needed to call Bond.

“Have either of you seen my phone?” Looking around for it on Tom's now empty desk seemed pointless. “And that card...?” Initially, I'd assumed whoever killed Amanda also had taken Tom's computer – and Clara.

“What card,” Dorothy asked. “And the police have your phone – the battery was dead, anyway, so they took the charger, too.”

Martin observed we were now no further ahead than we'd been before Amanda had been killed, and that was hours ago.

“Hours?” Damn the Kapellmeister, I thought, and that screwdriver he rode in on.

“Well, guys, how are we going to get into the farmhouse and rescue Tom if the place is crawling with killers?”

“Frankly, I'm not sure I want to go in there without police back-up.” Or, better yet, go in there at all.

“The same police who want to pin four murders on you and Tom?”

“No, that's why I want to call Bond – she's worked on the Aficionati case with the International Music Police for years. I'm afraid Tom's disappearance has gone far beyond anything involving the local gendarmes.” I started going through my pockets again, hoping I hadn't dropped Agent Bond's card out in front of Charles Ives' home.

Martin sighed, sounding remotely wistful. “You know, there was a time when I think we all would've found this rather exciting.”

“Oh, I agree,” Dorothy said, “if I was watching a movie or something.”

“Well, it's a bit like being in some over-the-top thriller without all the special effects – or the stunt doubles, I'm afraid.” The card wasn't in any of my pockets; again, I checked my wallet.

Taking a deep breath, I told them what I knew about “the plot,” their eyes widening further with each new detail.

I explained I only overheard these guys talking for just a couple minutes – apparently not the same two guys Dorothy and Martin had overheard from the tunnel, either (“they had Jersey accents,” she thought) – so naturally I didn't get everything, like who “Lóviator” was, or the Woman-in-Pink, and then there's the bit about “the bomb.”

When I finished, the room was weirdly silent as we each stood there, our eyes wide, scarcely breathing, wondering “what next?” The phone jangled, cutting through like a knife; we jumped a figurative mile.

When Dorothy reached out automatically to answer it, I held out my hand. “Wait a minute, it could be a telemarketer.” The last thing I wanted to deal with now was a blasted robo-call.

“Or maybe it's the killer, wanting to know if anybody's home so they can come over and, you know, kill us.”

“There's that.” I was pretty sure Tom's answering machine was on the kitchen counter between the back door and the fridge. “Go upstairs and listen: the volume may be too low for down here.”

Dorothy and Martin hurried up the steps to hear if the caller left a message, Tom's out-going tape starting to play.

I stayed behind, ready to pick up the receiver if it was Bond, eager to tell her about Amanda's last words.

“Hang-up,” Dorothy called out after a brief silence.

Bond would've left a message.

Perhaps he had adjusted his technique and was better at controlling his entrances, or I was preoccupied with watching the phone, as if that were enough to make the call be from Agent Bond, but, missing his tell-tale signature flash, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I realized someone was standing beside me. Pulling myself together, I whispered he should have some calling card like a whiff of brimstone or causing magnetic hair-tingling shivers, rather than just creeping up on you unannounced like that (speaking of “creepy”).

It occurred to me, since we'd figured out where the Belcher Codex ended up and his search was over, now, there was nothing to fear from some new distraction, another bout of “breaking news.” I wanted to get rid of him as quickly (and easily) as possible, or, better, enlist his help to rescue Tom.

“Glad you're here. There's no time now” – not that that stopped him before – “but when I accidentally ended up back in that office yesterday, becoming a witness to that murder you saved me from, I noticed that same dollhouse Little Edith was playing with in Charles Ives' living room in a corner of that office. Yes, I realize it's not quite the same, all cut up like that – and who knows if it's even all there – plus there's also a little problem with a certain amount of blood spatter...”

Upstairs, I heard someone rummaging through the refrigerator, perhaps checking what take-out still remained from our initial stock the night before, wondering if we shouldn't grab dinner before proceeding, however I'd explain my guest. Fortunately, I'd wolfed down some cold leftover meatloaf before he'd shanghaied me back to the 1920s, otherwise I'd probably be starving.

It sounded like somebody was talking to Martin and Dorothy but who'd showed up while I was preoccupied with the Kapellmeister? Thinking it was a policeman, I realized Martin had turned on the TV.

Well, no harm in asking him: “Herr Kapellmeister, it'd really help if you'd get us inside the farmhouse next door without anyone else finding out so we can pop in and rescue my friend.”

“Hey,” Martin hollered, turning up the volume on the small kitchen TV set, “what were you telling us about a bomb?”

The Kapellmeister tried to keep his voice down, the noise from the TV set most likely masking anything reaching the kitchen.

“Okay, I'll take you next door but go back only a few minutes. That way, I don't have to be there to bring you 'home': you'll just modulate into the future, no extraction necessary.”

“Okay, thanks – actually, that would be great, but we need to wait for...”

“Which means,” he continued, ignoring me, “if there's anything you need to change, then, it will just blend into the present.”

“But I need to call the Music Police so they'll arrive after you've...”

“Oh,” the Kapellmeister said, setting up his sonic screwdriver, “they're already on their way, once the dust clears from the explosion.”

“Wait, what do you mean, 'explosion'? What explosion?” I shoved his hand away to break contact before it was too late.

I could hear the reporter saying, “They'd just started performing... uhm, Vivaaldi's 'Four Seasons' when a sudden explosion rocked the auditorium.” (It was difficult to understand him over the pandemonium going on behind him.) “There were unconfirmed reports a mysterious 'Woman-in-Pink,' apparently Caucasian, was carrying a bomb... – too soon to call it a terrorist act.”

Too late. Before I could hear more, the upward rush of a rapid-fire chord progression whisked me off into the past.

I'm sure once Martin ran down the steps, I had already disappeared – again.


When the last chords faded, after having swirled up into the higher registers, this time it seemed like it took only a few seconds, if that much, to reach what felt like a landing. There was no sign of the Kapellmeister but since this wasn't one of his projects, maybe I was on my own. I could only hope by shoving his hand away like that I hadn't screwed up either the location or time coordinates. He said it was only a few hundred yards and a couple minutes.

While it might have been enough to get me into the farmhouse, I couldn't guarantee the Kapellmeister wouldn't have set me down in the middle of a dozen Aficionati in the midst of dinner. I thought of suggesting, if I ever saw him again – which I hoped not to – he might opt for “invisible” arrivals.

Of course, not knowing my way around, I had no idea where I was or where they might be keeping Tom, or for that matter if they were still holding him here at all. As the fog around me cleared, I noticed how bright the room was – and small – with lots of brilliant white tile.

In the center was an old recliner laid almost flat and in it an old man tied to its arms.


The man shook his head, looked at me and gasped.

“What the... – Terry?”

I had no sooner gotten Tom untied from the chair – he was barely able to stand, his legs were so tottery – when the door burst open with a noisy wallop, banging against the wall. There stood the same creature I'd seen in that office, the one holding the scythe, who'd cut down that unfortunate woman.

“You!” he screamed, pulling himself up to his full height and nearly banging his head against the ceiling in the process.

“Ah, yes – hello,” I said, as I froze, “how are things in Kikimora?”

Perhaps because of the brightness – it was rather blinding – he wore polarized sunglasses, giving his face the look of an insect.

“You're that witness from last night,” he raved. “Who the fuck are you!?”

He grabbed both of us by the shoulders and shoved us toward the door.

“How the hell'd you get in here?!”

= = = = = = =

to be continued...

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

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

Monday, December 03, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 27

In the previous installment, things are not going well on a certain South Pacific island paradise for N. Ron Steele as the local volcano has decided now would be a good time to erupt, just as Steele has to leave before Darke's SHMRG Task Force arrives to take care of a problem, just as Cable thinks he's solved a curious coded message he'd received. Fortunately, the supply helicopter has arrived and with any luck they'll get out before anything serious happens. Meanwhile, traveling through Time after escaping his own harrowing experience, Kerr runs across Tom Purdue having a depressing moment in the middle of nowhere.

(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.

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



Never a fan of cold climates, Osiris explained how he often liked to think of a tropical island deep in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, far from the contaminated shores of Fukushima, Japan, rambling on while listening as Schoenberg's quartet chugged along, but ignoring the fondue which he thought even worse than cheap champagne.

“You see,” he said, dropping his voice until Ripa was forced to lower the music's volume, “it's like the human mind.” He detested using such simple explanatory devices, almost as distasteful as this champagne.

Osiris furrowed his brows till he figured his eyes would look like slits and Ripa, the clueless young man he thought had been better than this, might think he was concentrating on his comparison. He never could stand dealing with small talk, merely filling the void until news arrived the experiment had been a success.

“Above the ocean level, the 'island' is the conscious mind, all beautiful surface, full of things which can easily be seen. Even the beach revealed at low tide is what they call the 'pre-conscious.'” Thinking of the island made him long for anything other than the basement of a decrepit old farmhouse in American suburbia.

“But what we cannot see, the great rocky mass hidden beneath the ocean's surface, is... the unconscious – hidden, unknown, perhaps volcanic!” He chose not to think beyond the bedrock, which some equated with God.

“And nothing happens,” it occurred to him, “that has not already been determined.”

It was now Ripa's turn to furrow his brow, wondering how this was turning into a discussion of metaphysics and Fatalism.

Osiris noted the change of expression with satisfaction, dazzling him with philosophical discourse.

“The old man's drunk or crazy,” Ripa thought.

“It is,” the old man resumed, “the causality of Time, the inexorable moving forward to that which we have long sought.”

Ripa misunderstood “causality of Time,” thinking Vremsky was certainly a “casualty of Time.”

“As in so much of our lives,” Osiris rambled on, “we must seek out 'The Mean,' the balance, avoiding the extremes. We must avoid pointless refinement for that passion leading to control and balance. The Mean wasn't the extreme of lacking tension or being far too passionate: the proper tension yields the one true note.”

Something vibrated deep within Ripa's being, call it his soul, his psyche or inner child, rising from beneath that all-encompassing ocean. What note about to sound would this be, he wondered, nearing the surface? His glass in hand, a cube of cheese-dripping bread suspended in mid-air, Ripa had been unaware the topic had changed again.

“What is beautiful, naturally, is often beautiful for different reasons to different people, even something as universally beautiful as a rainbow.” Osiris smacked his dry lips, wishing there was decent wine to whet them.

“On the surface, rainbows are aesthetically pleasing and need no explanation, a given, without the 'buried beauty' of its physical properties, the technical analysis which makes a rainbow understood only by the scientifically educated. This is something we acquire through learning, the difference between the nature we inherit and the learned knowledge which nurtures us.

“Aristotle talks about the senses and knowledge, about experience, theory and, naturally, wisdom.” He spoke with the automatically flowing voice a lecturer uses who's delivered this talk dozens of times over the past years. “We know how the intellect advances through experience and memory to theoretical knowledge, and, naturally, how sound allows us to learn. Music enables man to return to the Divine, whether you consider that the Greek's Elysian Field or Eden, the biblical Paradise: it's the one essential memory at the source of everything we consider Art.

“Like all things in society today, whether it is sports or computers or, for that matter, our very professions,” Osiris continued, “the more we know, the more we appreciate or even excel at it. This does not bar the would-be computer geek or the potential baseball fan as long as they learn their respective languages. It's not just a question of creating mystery for the sake of elitism: yet the involved terminology behind anything – of music, say – is one way of protecting it from the Great Unwashed, n'est-ce pas?”

He placed his hand, palm down, over the glass without a nod when Ripa went to pour him some more champagne. “Art,” he nodded, “is like a fine wine that is aged to perfection. There is no excuse for a cheap imitation.” And that, he continued to himself, is something you have yet to discern.

“The beauty of something – let's say, a piece of music – is more than being merely 'superficially pretty' as we sense it because, like all things as they age, familiarity breeds decay, so to speak. If someone surrounds himself with what is merely popular, in time he will find himself lacking inspiration – sustenance – from the best.”

Ripa had a hard time imagining one day he could wake up awash in a pile of decay, himself considerably aged. “What has happened to all those favorite songs and movies from my life?”

Osiris continued how Man – the generic, non-gender-specific human – must spend the bulk of his life in the contemplation of absolute beauty, coming to appreciate its pure essence beyond the transience of its surface qualities. As generations of philosophers have stated, he explained, Art must overcome its “perishable popularity” and “general vulgarity” to be truly valued.

“You see, the Mobots, as they're designed, have none of those human failings of things like 'gut reactions' or 'moral imperatives.' They're not concerned about issues that play to the weakness of human emotions.”

“So, in a way,” Ripa said as he chewed his lip, deep in thought, “they are agents of the Divine Will.”

“They are certainly an embodiment of the divine in art, acting for good.”

Sitting back in his chair, Osiris felt he'd succeed in making his point, but also sensed the unwelcome onset of exhaustion.

“I see,” Ripa said, as he sat pensively in his own chair, letting his fondue fork fall back into the pot. “Vremsky – Agent Lóviator – is like the human prototype, a kind of crash-test human.”

Osiris, thinking this sounded too crude and insensitive, especially considering a once-valued agent, raised a tentative finger as if to object.

“No, no, I understand,” Ripa said, raising his wine glass in a salute, “collateral damage, a sacrifice to the greater good. But how effective do you think she'll be, compared to a Mobot's capacity?”

“We could have, if we'd had the time,” Osiris said, after pretending to sip his champagne but ignoring the fondue fork, “worked out some additional explosives elsewhere on her, uhm... person, you would think. Unfortunately, with the concert tonight presenting a perfect opportunity for a warning shot, it was only the best we could do.”

“A last-minute flash of inspiration, so to speak,” laughing at his own joke. Ripa offered the old man more bread cubes. “Whatever happens, I'm sure it will blow old Perdita's mind! Some more fondue?”

Osiris, eying the tray without changing his expression, explained, with Purdue being uncooperative, there was no opportunity for a functional simulation.

“Allowing us the opportunity to check the impact the device might have without wasting the necessary funds on sophisticated technology: priceless! But the 'social impact' will be amazing: is anybody filming it for YouTube?”

Graham Ripa found himself standing tall, after turning his back to Osiris' wheelchair, a clenched fist raised high in the air, how, in a grand crescendo, they must urge the Mobots on to victory. He turned around with a dramatic – and obviously well-practiced – flourish to face Osiris, his face beaming with freshly minted Messianic fervor. “Even,” he shouted, “if it leaves only 1% of the population behind to create a utopia based solely on the Arts, and so, starting civilization over again, purge it of centuries of cultural contamination!”

Osiris sat back with the shadow of a frown passing over his brow, pitting reluctant admiration for the young man's enthusiasm against how disappointingly he had failed him on the matter of the Codex. This shadow was more deeply tinged by the realization he might need to handle Falx much the way he had Lóviator.

“So if there's really no such thing as 'good' and evil,' per se, without putting a specifically Christian spin on it, you're implying then there is only faith and doubt, regardless what you believe?” Ripa chewed his lip as if it would keep him from “flying off the handle,” as his grandmother would've put it.

“Whatever someone deeply believes is, to them, seen as 'good,' is it not? Anyone who opposes that viewpoint therefore becomes 'evil.' Someone failing to believe as strongly, therefore, has the potential to become evil.”

It was, Osiris observed, the role of the Aficionati to maintain the supremacy of the faith in the presence of evil or rather what would be construed as growing doubt, detrimental to the faith.

Ripa's brow furrowed as if deep in thought which made Osiris' eye twinkle. “So, doubt itself becomes a matter of perspective?”

“Yes,” Osiris confirmed, sitting back comfortably into his wheelchair, “the moment you bid fond farewell to the life of the unimportant, you will see how everything falls into place in relationship to everything else.”

Ripa looked down at his feet as if they could answer his question. “How does one stop the advancement of doubt?”

“The only thing that stops a bad man with a philosophical argument is a good man with an opposing philosophical argument.”

Osiris smiled, realizing the two sides will continue arguing indefinitely, never accomplishing anything.

Ripa suddenly stood up, interrupting Osiris to say, “Music,” showing what he had learned, “is the language of the unconscious mind. So, how do we use Clara to unlock the brain of a Mobot?”

“How, indeed,” Osiris said, a thin smile wafting briefly across his dry lips, “do we teach the Artificially Intelligent to learn?”

“Old Purdue's program,” Ripa began quietly in the lower register of his voice, “is beautiful because of its symmetry, its simplicity... But Purdue's so stubborn, what are we to do if he won't help?”

Osiris, like someone at an all-you-can-eat buffet who is hungry but finds nothing around him he could ever imagine eating, waved his one good hand in the air, Ripa's words so many annoying flies. “That is why we have our own experts – they can take Dr Purdue's discovery and turn it into their own creation.”

The problem, he admitted, was one of timing – “the problem is always Time” – but learning in itself was not instant gratification, though he was concerned about being too impatient to show off their results. “What if it's too soon to be effective, that by setting off this experiment before it's 'perfect,' we've spoiled the surprise?

“Knowledge wasn't what a man has been told or shown, or even taught; it is the accumulation of research and observation. It is what he finds for himself after a long and rigorous search!”

The so-called Mobots – and he still hadn't explained why he called them that: the logical combination of Mozart and Robots, perhaps, though what exactly, Ripa wondered, did Mozart have to do with suicide-bombing androids? – were not merely a topical “philosophical argument,” even if, judging from the drawings, he doubted they could pass for something human. But that anomaly didn't seem to bother Osiris, in an age when robots would be waiting on us hand and foot. Who'd notice another robot hanging around the coatroom or acting as an usher?

Underneath all the variety that makes up everything we see in the universe, scientists are still looking for the one unifying theory or something ambiguously called the God Particle that will connect it all. Logic is what holds it together, not Chance, but the Rule of Law: Truth can be approached only through the mind.

“'Knowledge is the path to the highest of The Realities,' philosophers point out, the knowledge of Good, according to the Greeks, unlike our modern sense, because 'a moral, intellectual passion is its driving force.' The Truth, that ultimate goal,” Osiris continued rhapsodizing, “embraces everything like a 'State of Grace' with its divine nature and perfection...”

“But who had warned me earlier the search for perfection is a trap, that striving to achieve perfection is irrational, procrastination? It's Zeno's paradox, always approaching a state of being but never attaining it.”

“You're right, perfection is not attainable,” Osiris sighed. “But is it too soon? Won't more research make it better, more terrifying...?”

“You can't call it off, everything's in place! You'll catch them by surprise!”

“Yes – no, you're right, young man,” the old man admitted, feeling himself tiring. “It is too late to stop it now.”

“But aren't you really saying, then, these Mobots are a force for good?” Ripa's head tilted inquisitively from side to side. “And they are good, not evil, because they have been ordained by God?”

“Yes, yes!” Osiris' eyes were shining with enthusiasm. “Like Wotan's Valkyries, they will safeguard Valhalla, protecting the 1% from the masses!”

Ripa's phone chirped, the special ringtone indicating it was Yanni driving the van. His “What!?” sounded rudely impatient, given the stress.

“Vremsky's just sat down – the signal is strong. Don't worry, boss: everything's fine.”

Osiris had been unaware Ripa was on the phone and, once in “professor mode,” kept mumbling, unable to shut it off, another change of topic just like that river you couldn't step into twice. As he put the phone away, Ripa looked at him, thinking the old man seemed a bit more wan than usual.

“And this is not just another matter,” Osiris continued in the same tone, “because it is a deep disappointment to me.” He inadvertently knocked over the glass of champagne. “Now, it seems, too late.”

“Too late?” Ripa, suddenly still, cocked his head in that insect-like way he had which reminded others of a preying mantis. “Agent Lóviator's sitting down at the concert as we speak. You just said...”

Raising a finger in mild dismissiveness, Osiris told him this was not the issue he was, at the moment, concerned about.

He began with a long explanation about how another one of his agents, a high-ranking, highly considered musicologist “of high years,” far too old for anything but research in dusty libraries at this point, had stumbled upon some correspondence between the wife of Charles Ives and an old society friend of hers from New Haven. They mentioned a valuable and historical document her husband came across and Osiris had had him tracking it down for decades – rules of composition, Ten Commandments written on leather, once owned by William Billings.

“My agent,” he continued quietly, “traced these letters to a box of Ives Memorabilia a publisher here in Marple recently purchased, a box that maybe contained what my agent called the long-lost Belcher Codex. But,” he said, raising an admonitory finger, “I've still no idea where it is because, having located her, I sent you...”

Ripa hung his head in defeat, waiting for the verbal ax to fall. “I know,” he said, “I killed her – accidentally! I'd been distracted by... by...,” and he felt this deep inner quivering again.

“You,” Osiris said, shaking in mounting rage, “because you're in the same town as Belle DiVedremo, literally down the street, and...” He fell back, screaming, and Selket rushed over, tearing open her medical bag.

“It was a goddamn accident, okay?,” Ripa screamed back, bolting for Purdue's cell. “That does it, this can't wait any longer...”


The first thing Perdita Vremsky noticed, making it into the auditorium and slinking across the row to find her assigned seat – it's in the middle of the left side of the hall: “how cute...” – was, after sitting down, she could no longer control her actions, unable to straighten her hair, sure her wig was off-center. What was the point, she thought, of making herself comfortable in the seat when, at some point in a few minutes, brain matter would be splattered without warning across several rows of enthusiastic concert-goers? She wondered if Yanni and Lóthurr, still in the van and controlling the broadcast signal to the device in her brain, could read her thoughts or know she was attempting to move her arms. Vinny was in a seat far enough away focusing the camera on her as she sat between him and the stage.

It was unlikely she'd just get up and make a run for it – they'd only detonate the bomb early and she didn't care to piss them off any more than she apparently already had. She couldn't even lean over to the young woman sitting on her right and warn her she might want to move. Would the people around her be killed in the explosion or merely grossed out by being covered in brains and blood? One thing she was sure of, she needn't worry about attending another reception.

After the orchestra finished tuning and the audience settled down, the conductor rushed out to begin with Bernstein's lively Candide Overture. She felt the program in her lap slide off, falling to the floor. She had no idea who the conductor was – just another lively young fellow – or what piece would be coming up next. She knew there was some over-the-hill glam-rocker who'd come out to perform some travesty based on bits of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. “Maybe it would all be over before that.” People were clapping and cheering.

In a flash of lights and on-stage smoke, the conductor turned around and took on the role of Master of Ceremonies. God, she hated when conductors talked to audiences, especially small talk like this. Next were arrangements of songs by Lady Gaga which other people apparently knew. What other indignities would she have to endure?

Then, during a particularly nauseating rendering of “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” presumably one of the “classical” selections, she heard it begin: quietly, as if from inside her head, came the opening music from “Jaws.” Seconds later, it morphed into the famous slow movement from Haydn's “Surprise” Symphony – of course: the loud, unexpected wake-up chord! “Cute...” Clearly, these guys were having too much fun with her but she couldn't even grimace, much less give them the finger. Then it switched to the ticking metronome from Beethoven's 8th Symphony, second movement.

When would it happen, the signal being sent out to detonate the bomb? Considering what she heard coming from the stage, she found herself listening more to the transmission going on inside her head. Would the last music she'd ever hear be the trombone theme from Sibelius' 7th or the “Dies irae” from Verdi's Requiem?

There was little else for her to do but think, physically incapacitated for anything beyond involuntary reflexes like breathing or blinking, so her mind raced ahead, hoping to find some way to counteract it. She sat there wondering if some loud chord or sharp dissonance or even a big deceptive resolution would pull the trigger.

If nothing else, this sense of imminent dread, considering the numerous theoretical options, gave new meaning to the term, “harmonic tension.”

“It's enough to make my head explode – no, wait, let me rephrase that...”

The elderly woman on her left leaned over, whispering something about André Rieu which made Vremsky want to vomit even more (adding to the churning she already felt in the pit of her stomach). The younger woman on her right, admitting she'd never been to a classical music concert before, thought this was really pretty. “It's the kind of stuff I'd want to listen to when I turn the lights off and relax, watching my aquarium.” Under ordinary circumstances, that remark alone would've been enough to make Vremsky puke.

Not that one could possibly make the experience any worse – and there was precious little in these last moments to savor – she decided, as long as she could still think, then she'd continue thinking! That was, until she realized her inner soundtrack had modulated to another piece, the most mind-numbing work ever written – Ravel's Bolero!

Vremsky would never consider herself a religious person, in fact rarely even a “spiritual” person, whatever that meant, even at holidays, but two quotes she thought were biblical came to her in her distress: “How long, O Lord?” and, one of her mother's favorites, “Lord, take me now,” neither of which she found particularly comforting.

When would the slide-show of her life begin flashing before her eyes like a grainy montage, posted on Facebook's Throwback Thursday? At what point, she wondered, would it come to its inevitable, abrupt conclusion?

There was also a train of thought (a thought closer to the caboose) concerning why this must be happening to her, not that there was anything about it she could go back and change. There was no sense dwelling on karma, like wondering if she'd only been kinder to her sister or hadn't offended Osiris.

There was nothing she could do but accept it as she had done with every other major set-back in her life. There was no doubt in her mind this was her fate, her purpose.

She always had trouble remembering that line everybody quoted from Milton's sonnet, the one usually called “On His Blindness.” Ah, yes:

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” Or in her case, sit.

Then she heard another familiar piece starting up.

“Oh, my farking God,” she practically screamed. “Not the '1812 Overture'! You bastards...”


The quarters were cramped because the van was small but that's because the budget to rent it and outfit it with their surveillance equipment was too small for anything more spacious, if not practical. Agent Bond started working her way through all the hectic behind-the-scenes activities and into the auditorium before it was too late.

“Keep looking for her – the 'Woman-in-Pink,'” she told her team. “She's been made and wouldn't be there on her own volition.” Kerr's expression, “Lóviator's the bomb,” started making sense: what else could it mean?

Agent Shendo sat at the panel, operating the radio contact which connected the van with Agent Samantha Quivar in the auditorium and their contact backstage, Agent Sauron Zimmerman whose undercover name was Pete Gross. Agent Damien Wendeaux, the electronics engineer, tried keeping the video feed on line, but distance didn't make the greatest reception easy.

The assumption had been Vremsky – the “Woman-in-Pink” for easier identification – would be backstage, the initial assumption being whatever was going to happen would be aimed at Skripasha Scricci, an attempt to ruin his event. This was, as far as assumptions were concerned, part of a turf war between SHRMG and the Aficionati, a political statement.

Any concert they were sending Vremsky to would have to be this one. How did they find and remove the tracker? Given Kerr's info, since Vremsky is Lóviator, “the bomb” probably wasn't street talk.

As far as Agent Zimmerman could tell, working undercover as a carpenter backstage on SHMRG's stage crew, SHMRG security was tight, and they were particularly watchful of any non-SHMRG personnel including in-house union workers. Even so, he thought their making fun of his name – his undercover identity – was because they had become suspicious of him. Every time a guard said, “Hey, Gross,” several others said, “Ewwww, that's gross!” It's a good thing none of them knew about his father's Tolkien fixation and that his real first name was Sauron.

Whatever they might know about the Aficionati's plans, it could just be an effort to foil any surprises from Fictitia LaMouche, that journalist who'd dogged Scricci's life and sent him to prison twice already.

“Scricci's as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Anyway, he's headed on stage as we speak.”

“Wait, so if Vremsky's not backstage,” Bond realized, “maybe her target isn't Scricci...?”

“I see her – in the audience,” Agent Quivar announced. “There's a woman, fairly short, dressed all in pink like you said.”

“Maybe her plan is to rush the stage? Quivar, where is she located?”

“Seated left of center, about in the middle.”

Then it occurred to her: “Damn, they're not after Scricci, at all – they intend to kill concert-goers! Sammy, don't spook her.”

She maneuvered around the back of the section to get a better view.

Agent Wendeaux was trying to zoom the camera in for a closer look when Agent Shendo, tapping his headset, thought somewhere in the distance he heard a familiar strain from the 1812 Overture. “Weird.”

Everybody was cheering Scricci's entrance, everybody but Vremsky.

Just then, Bond's phone rang – it was Agent Ollie Breverton. “What!” she barked.

Quivar thought she looked like an uglier version of Harry Potter's Dorothy Umbridge, but Wendeaux chided her for being so judgmental.

Bond apologized to “Brev” that now wasn't a good time. Scricci started playing.

Wendeaux agreed with Quivar, though, after closing the camera in on the Woman-in-Pink.

“Wait,” Bond said, taken by surprise, “you mean...?”

It was difficult to say what happened next: did the camera malfunction again?

“What was that noise,” Shendo shouted, “an explosion?”

People screamed, the music ground to a halt.

Quivar was screeching, “OMG! OMG!”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... 

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

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