Friday, August 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I mean not everything serial necessarily sounds atonal.”

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

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

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

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

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

She shook out her dreads and stepped inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The killer? When was this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was as if he'd said, 'or else'!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued...

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

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

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