(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time for the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
The door was sticking a little, as usual, despite the air being dry, so she nudged it with her shoulder again before it gave way without much more effort or much of a groan. She'd told Dr Purdue about that a couple times back in the summer but he said it'd clear up before winter. “Typical absent-minded professor,” she said under her breath, “what you can't fix, procrastinate,” walking in without knocking or ringing the bell. The cat sauntered into the kitchen before stopping a foot from his bowl.
“What's the matter, Zeno, did he forget to feed you again this morning?” The cat grumbled an affirmation, then plopped down. “Okay, well, hang on a minute,” she said, flicking on the light switch. Amanda put a pile of journals on the table before petting the cat which seemed to mollify him for the moment.
“I can only stay a few minutes, bud – got Wilsher's 10:00 class today, and I can't afford to miss another one. I'm running late as it is, dropping off these journals the doc wanted.” Amanda opened up the kitchen cupboard where the professor stored Zeno's canned food and noticed there was only one can left.
“Uh oh, kiddo,” she said, and stepped around the cat's ever-tightening figure-8 dance, “looks like somebody's going to the store soon.” Opening the refrigerator and finding it nearly empty, she figured sooner than later.
She was hoping by this time Dr Purdue would have recovered far enough to be a little more on his own, especially after he'd finished his therapy at the cardio center three weeks ago. It had been six months ago last Tuesday he'd had his heart attack and the surgery to bypass a blocked artery. By now, he's been driving downtown to get some groceries on his own, careful about bulky items too heavy to lift, but it helped to build up his confidence as much as his strength. She'd gone with him initially when she'd been concerned about his going alone, watching the clock so he didn't tire himself, but the people at the store, only four blocks away, were always helpful. And his pharmacy – Popper's – was only a few doors further down the street, walking distance from where he'd parked the car.
Just in case he had fed Zeno last night (though the cat looked convincingly hungry), she opted for the dry food which did not meet with his immediate approval, so he continued to grumble. It's not that she minded running errands or looking in on the professor, but there were times she was too busy. Regardless, she decided to stop at the store and get a few cans for tomorrow – she'd soon be late for class. “Maybe he's planning on going this evening,” she thought. “I'll leave a reminder.”
She sighed as she reached for the notepad he kept by the phone, jotting down the journals were on the table before adding like an afterthought, “do you need to go to the store?” Scratching the cat behind the ears, she realized there were times she felt more like a nursing student than an intern.
It felt good to her, Amanda recalled, after she reconnected with her grandmother back when Nana was first diagnosed with cancer, the experience not without rewards even if it had been painful to watch. But the professor wasn't dying and he certainly didn't need a hospice nurse: she reminded herself he was recuperating quite well.
If he became too dependent on her, that wouldn't be a good thing, especially at his age, old enough to retire. But she couldn't help feel sorry for him, so alone, apparently without friends.
Amanda Wences recently started her last year at Stone-Rawlings College where she'd known Professor Thomas Purdue since her first freshman year when she'd taken his Music Appreciation course and later the Music Education class – it always sounded odd whenever she explained that cumbersome expression, “first freshman year” before she'd decided to pursue a dual major. Graduating from high school with no idea what she wanted to do professionally, she thought first she would try elementary education, but when that didn't sound like a realistic profession, she switched to computers. It was Purdue who suggested it to her when she was so upset, worried if she'd made the right career choice, back on a rainy afternoon a week before her first year's final exams. She'd been reading how more people were leaving the teaching profession every year and wondered perhaps she'd made a huge mistake.
As long as politics continued to absorb the legislature in the state capital where deep divisions kept them from coming up with reasonable budgets to help the schools reach even the most basic goals, it didn't help established teachers were burning out faster than ever while younger ones left for more lucrative, less demanding jobs. It wasn't that Amanda Wences considered herself lazy but why put up with that kind of abuse for such little reward? “I mean, who expects anyone to walk backwards into a rip-saw on purpose?”
When Dr Purdue asked her, “thinking hypothetically,” what she imagined herself doing instead, anything which could be turned into a career, it took her several minutes to come up with anything, hypothetical or otherwise, before she mentioned, while her boyfriend enjoyed playing computer games all day long, she was more interested in how they're made. Since Jorge barely had the intelligence to figure out how to play them, getting any technical basics from him was pointless, much less how she could possibly ever turn that into a money-making career.
But Purdue suggested she take one of those summer introductory computer engineering courses if she could work it into her schedule which turned out to be one of the smartest things she ever did. And here she was, four years later, earning credits as the Professor's intern, helping with his project combining music and computers.
It made her laugh, now, leaving this note, how much of her internship money was being earned by running household errands or dealing with mundane things which had nothing to do with his project – but then didn't most corporate interns sort mail or get coffee and sandwiches, never doing substantial work that taught them anything? She debated whether to mention in her note the door was still sticking, not that she wanted to be nagging him; especially if it hadn't bothered him before, would it make any difference, now?
Back in July, her boyfriend offered to help with a few handyman jobs, odds-and-ends around the house if he needed anything, but that was weeks before they'd broken up, each going their separate ways (this had been Hector, her most recent boyfriend, not the half-literate, computer-game-playing moron she'd broken up with over three years ago).
Hector found several windows had been painted shut, but since they'd been that way for years, the professor thought it a waste of his time trying to dislodge them, considering he had central air. This was what Hector called “deferred maintenance,” putting repairs off until something fell apart and then it became a costly emergency. The whole house was like that, Amanda thought every time she walked in, an old house inherited from his elderly aunt. One of these days, it will look like that haunted place next door.
The Professor said it's been over ten years since he moved into it, not long after his aunt moved into a nursing home in Ardmore, leaving the place to him, “lock, stock and barrel,” and yet it still had that creepy “little old lady look” about it despite all those books and recordings of his. He said he never felt the need to make the place his own, though Amanda couldn't imagine it felt like “home,” always assuming he must feel like he's in a perpetual state of visiting.
It's not like he's keeping it for her since she died years ago, a few weeks after celebrating her 100th birthday – sharing cake and ice cream with some friends in the home's social hall – yet even without those photos of his aunt and him as a boy, it's like a shrine to some irretrievable past.
Earlier in the summer, while he was recuperating from his heart surgery and she was getting over her break-up with Hector, she offered to help “tidy up” the place and “de-clutter” the living room when what he needed most was a maid service coming in every week along with the regular home health care nurse. She suggested having friends over to work on half the room one weekend, then finish the other side the following weekend, hauling some of the bigger furniture out to the curb for trash pick-up.
Then he could replace everything with new pieces he could call his own but he would brusquely wave her suggestions away, apologizing it would be too much of an imposition on her like that. Only later did she understand it would be a major intrusion for him, more change than he could deal with, now.
Even though she wasn't technically employed as his intern over the summer break, she came by to help almost every day, and worked with him on his project whenever he felt up to it. She knew he didn't have any family and if there were close friends, they were gone for most of the summer.
Six months after the surgery and still recovering, Dr Purdue was finally “through the woods,” if not exactly out of them. She considered maybe talking to him again about “de-cluttering” the place after Thanksgiving.
In all her years spent growing up as the youngest of three children, Amanda had never considered herself a “take-charge” girl, but now that she was becoming a woman, having only recently turned 22, she realized there was more to life than being the submissive child or the good student and eventually the obedient wife. Going to college was a relatively recent goal, even if she wasn't sure what she'd wanted to do with her life, something, she figured, she'd find along the way, if given the right chance. While she wasn't “geeky” enough to excel in higher levels of computer engineering to land a decent job in a corporation, Amanda was glad Stone-Rawlings eventually proved savvy enough to take her idea seriously. Now it looks like she'll be teaching third graders how to write programming code, thanks to Purdue's invaluable inspiration and support.
Initially, she developed a course she blandly called “Education & Technology” (Dr Purdue thought it should be the other way around) designed to embed simple computer coding language seamlessly into the general elementary curriculum much the same way one introduced younger children to reading, music or art without worrying over the application of advanced skills. Of course, Purdue told her, given the current lack of support for the arts in public schools from politicians and administrators, would an arts-inspired approach to teaching computer science in reality fare any better?
Now, Amanda enjoyed classical music but after years of piano lessons she knew she'd never be more than an amateur player because of her half-hearted training, lack of goals and decided aversion to practicing. Besides, the world of classical music didn't need another unemployed would-be concert pianist – what performers needed most was a sympathetic audience. Even if you never became good at it, it helped build awareness if you've had the experience (on your own level) and can appreciate what it's like to be actively involved in a performance.
The same thing with computers and kids who've grown up spending so much of their time passively involved in their technologies like kids who listen to so much music they pay no attention to. Why not learn – just a little – what it takes to compose even a simple song or create a rudimentary computer game?
If nothing else, Amanda felt stronger for having held her own against the boys in the IT classes she started taking, considering how everyone, especially the teacher, thought coding was primarily a man's world and since she hadn't been that knowledgeable, entering the class as a beginner, proving herself against the Geeks took some effort. Thinking how these guys would be considered “losers” by most of her friends, – overly intellectual, socially awkward and definitely not cool – it was an epiphany seeing things through their eyes, being inside their world.
The biggest problem for many of them, introverted as they were, was how they could adapt to the world of teaching which was something Amanda thought she might be able to help them with. It was a challenge for most of them, barely comfortable with their peers, to open up to anyone younger and inexperienced.
A few, like talented, highly-trained musicians, could still remember that spark of discovery, what one called his “putative loss of innocence,” to approach something so elementary without projecting a sense of boredom or impatience. But others felt themselves too smart to understand a child's sense of wonder, above it all, ready-made Einsteins stuck in kindergarten.
A human calculator who couldn't get into MIT, administrators realized, was going to have to find something practical he could do. And so they thought perhaps a Technology Education degree might be the answer.
Amanda finished her note and left it on the kitchen counter as usual, held down by the remaining cat food can when she heard a complaint from Zeno in the living room – “Now, what...?” Was it his way of acknowledging displeasure she'd offered him only dry food when he knew there was one can left?
“Leave it to Old Zeno to know I'd touched the can,” she chuckled, not used to the clairvoyant ways of cats. Herb, her pet hamster, was happy enough with his kibble and fresh veggies.
She began buttoning up her coat, getting ready to leave, already aware she'll barely make it in time to Wilsher's class, when she decided to check the living room and make sure everything's okay. It's not like Zeno to be so vocal unless he really is hungry: what if he didn't get fed this morning?
“If you're hungry, you can eat the dry food – you do other times,” she whispered at the cat, her annoyance showing. Zeno continued to grumble but ran from her, disappearing quickly up the steps. “What's the matter, did Timmy fall down the well?” though it's been years since she'd seen any of the “Lassie” reruns.
Until she started looking after him when Purdue came home from the hospital, she had never been upstairs; nor recently, again. And if he were working or sleeping, he didn't like to be disturbed.
But it worried her, after his heart attack: what if he'd had another one during the night and couldn't call 911? So she cautiously followed the cat past the dark bedroom toward the study. This door was left open, too, a small lamp still on, but then he rarely worked in this room any more.
That's when she saw the post-it note: “If anything happens to me, call...”
Then she heard someone at the front door.
“What does he mean by 'happens to me'? Whose phone number is this?”
Quickly pocketing the note and trying not to think how ominous it sounded – “he must be working in the basement study”– she hurried down the steps, followed at a little distance by the cat.
“So who could be at the door now – some traveling salesman, a neighbor?” realizing she would definitely be late for class.
For all the time she'd been in Marple, Det. Laura Narder couldn't say she'd ever been on this street before, either, a small cul-de-sac on the edge of Greenwood Cemetery just off Marple Road. Laura looked around and thought it strange that, twice in one morning, she's investigating a crime on streets she'd never seen. Most of the town, despite going back before the Revolution, had the look of a 1950s suburb, for better or worse. Here was a block of mostly mock-colonial homes, two of them run down.
“Guess our composer isn't one of those successful types,” Tango said, parking in front of the second house from the end, the less run-down of the two but then the other looked genuinely abandoned.
“He could be one of those serial composers,” Reel suggested, “a real old-timer.”
“No, if he were, this place'd be immaculate.”
Narder had read in some psychological profiler's magazine about the personality traits of creative people and artists who were highly organized – and a serial composer, she imagined, would have to be one of them – would reflect that organization in their outward lifestyles with everything in its place, and this place looked a little too Zen.
“No,” she explained, pointing out the overgrown shrubs and the preponderance of weeds, “our Mr Purdue's probably some New Age minimalist...”
“Maybe he's got health issues,” Reel suggested, “or doesn't give a rat's ass.”
Narder drew herself up to her full height which made Tango stand up even straighter so he could still be taller, and told Reel to go 'round the back, checking for any tell-tale footprints.
“If he makes a break for it, the cemetery's right behind him – he runs into that, we'll lose him for sure.”
She wondered how creepy it must have been, growing up with a cemetery on the other side of your back yard but then again it could've made playing things like “hide-and-seek” a lot cooler.
“At least we know somebody's likely to be at home,” Narder said, nodding toward the beat-up old car in the drive-way, though she couldn't imagine even a down-and-out minimalist would drive something like that.
Tango rang the doorbell and waited a few seconds before ringing it again. This time, someone peeked out behind the chain.
Narder saw a young woman possibly in her early twenties looking at them with something like fear in her brown eyes when she started stammering how she was just leaving, running late for class. A little on edge as she stood behind the door, the woman acted like something was wrong but said nothing else.
Flashing her Greater Marple Metropolitan Police badge and introducing herself and her partner, promising they wouldn't take much of her time, Narder said they only wanted to know if her father might be home.
“My father...?” The girl frowned and then continued stammering, “oh, no, I don't live here, I work for... What's this about?”
Tango raised his eyebrows and asked her what she was doing here, then.
“I work for the professor,” she said, still not moving, “and I was dropping off some journals he'd asked me for.”
“You're running late for class but you're dropping stuff off at his house. Why not drop them off at his office?” Tango's right eyebrow remained raised, broadcasting considerable skepticism, like he's already interrogating her.
“Because he's on sabbatical and doesn't go into his office. What's this about?” The girl knitted her brows, looking increasingly annoyed.
“You're working for him while he's on sabbatical and stop by his place first thing Monday morning, just... 'leaving for class'?”
The girl thrust her head forward, looking a little more defiant. “Yeah. So...?”
Narder quietly nudged her overly inquisitive partner aside and asked the girl if they could speak with a Dr Thomas Purdue, glancing down at a note card she held as if checking the name. “This is the address we had been given by his publisher's office manager,” holding up Ms River's card. “Is he here?”
The girl became a little more fidgety than defensive, taking off the chain. “What do you want to see him about?”
“We'd like to ask him a few questions, please – if he wouldn't mind.”
When she hesitated, Tango cocked his head trying to peer inside past her when he heard a cat (he hates cats). “It's a simple question, yes or no: is Dr Purdue here or not?”
“Is 'maybe' an option,” she asked, pushing the cat back with her foot. “I'd just gotten here and haven't seen him.”
“Guess what,” Det. Reel said, bouncing around the corner from behind the garage. He'd managed to find three distinct sets of footprints on the sidewalk, but none of them seemed to be leaving.
“Oh, hello, ma'am,” he said, interrupting himself and quickly flashing her his badge. “I'm Det. Jaimie Reel – friends call me Jaimie.”
“Yo, Reel,” Tango said, tossing his head back with a tinge of derision, clearly intending it as a put-down between colleagues, “friends don't call you, period, man, unless they're, like, starved for social interaction.”
Ignoring them, Narder continued talking to the girl who now appeared thoroughly confused, and asked if she'd let them come inside. “Would you happen to know where he'd be? It's important we find him.”
Stepping aside to let Narder in and asking them to “mind the cat,” the girl explained there was no one upstairs.
Tango's eyebrow automatically raised again. “And you were upstairs in your professor's house...?” letting the question hang there, full of innuendo.
“Dr Purdue's recovering from a heart attack and I went up to check...”
There was a noise coming from the kitchen and the girl seemed relieved, thinking the professor had been in the basement. She explained he sometimes worked downstairs all night, then slept during the day.
Drawing her gun, Narder asked whether she would mind if they'd look around.
“Isn't that something you'd need a warrant for?”
Tango and Reel drew their guns and followed Narder cautiously into the kitchen as the cat jumped down from the counter where a single can of cat food perched perilously close to the edge.
“Clear,” Narder said as she opened the pantry, looking at the nearly empty spice rack on the inside of the door.
Reel pushed a door open into what could be called a powder room, way too pink and frilly for his taste. The whole place looked like this composer was living here with his mother.
“Basement,” Tango called out as the others turned and assumed the stance, guns raised, Tango leading the way down the steps.
“Is there an outside entrance down here,” Narder called back to the girl.
The cat darted between the detectives' legs and stopped at the bottom step.
“Not that I can think of, not anymore.”
In another minute, each detective called out “Clear” and the girl, glancing around, hurried down after them to retrieve the cat.
“No sign of anybody, here,” Reel called back after checking behind the furnace.
“Well, then, I don't know where the professor could be,” the girl said, after scooting the cat back up the steps.
“Do you know if he had any plans this morning, an appointment, perhaps?” Narder browsed through papers on a cluttered desk.
“He said tomorrow he's meeting with his publisher.”
“Yeah, that may be postponed...”
The girl was clearly worried like she knew something or had figured something out, but Narder couldn't quite figure out what.
“You mention this appointment tomorrow with his publisher: any idea what that's about?”
“No,” the girl said, fidgeting with her sweater, “he never talked about business. Mostly, I just help him with his project.”
“'Mostly,' huh...?” Tango said as he checked out a pair of old slippers. “These look like they'd be a size 9.”
“Do these slippers belong to Professor Purdue, ma'am?”
“I think they're Aunt Jane's.”
Then she spent several minutes explaining who Aunt Jane was, how the professor had inherited her house but hadn't up-graded much. “And, yes, they wear the same shoe size – he found her slippers comfortable.”
The girl, becoming increasingly defensive, demanded to know why they're asking these questions.
“Because there's been a murder at his publisher's.”
Minutes later, Tango pulled away from the curb, making the turn from Purdue's driveway to head back to the police station. It hadn't been a productive visit, Narder admitted, but it could've been worse. They may not have caught their prime suspect but he hadn't escaped from their immediate grasp, either, right before their eyes.
“No,” she said, thinking through the available facts which were admittedly quite few, “but he's apparently much smarter than we'd thought.” She got out her notebook and jotted down, “Reduce reliance on tired clichés.”
“We know Thomas Purdue wasn't at home at the time of the murder because Amanda Wences, his assistant” – here, Tango snorted – “was at his home and didn't see him, thereby affording him no alibi. And since he wasn't wearing his usual jacket and hat which would be too easy to identify, he was probably disguised.”
“But if Purdue wears size 8s and our killer wore 11s,” Reel added, “wouldn't it look like he's wearing clown shoes? And Amanda seemed genuinely distraught after finding out her friend was the victim.”
Tango figured maybe they got her the job there as an inside plant. “Things backfired and Purdue had to kill her.”
“Meanwhile, I want an APB on our professor, a stake-out on the house – and get a warrant to search the place. Something's very strange about that basement,” she said. “I want to know what.”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
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.