Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Send the police,” he screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued...

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

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

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