Wednesday, August 22, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 1 (Part 5)

In the previous installment, Amanda Wences, composer Thomas Purdue's assistant, a student intern from Stone-Rawlings College, arrives on Monday morning at the Professor's house to drop off some journals and finds the cat, Zeno, apparently hadn't been fed. She decides to check upstairs to make sure Dr Purdue is okay and finds a note with a phone number to call if anything should happen to him. Just then, the doorbell rings. Narder, Tango, and Reel are looking for the Professor who, apparently, is nowhere to be found, after they've checked the house. Driving back to the station, Narder plans on getting a warrant: there's something odd about that basement.

(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.

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

After the detectives finished their search and left, leaving Amanda in the basement, she found herself still reeling from the news: the murder victim they'd found at Marple Music was Alma, her good friend, and to make matters worse, Alma was holding a letter from the Professor which somehow made them want to question him. It's not like Dr Purdue would've killed her – or anybody – over a letter, but they kept asking Amanda about the professor: did he ever show signs of a temper; had he been depressed lately?

She didn't believe for one minute he could've killed anyone and run off: his bed hadn't been slept in last night and his jacket and favorite hat still hung on the kitchen coat rack. If anything, it looked more like he'd been abducted somehow before last night which meant Zeno probably hadn't been fed, then. Without thinking, she replaced the old drop-leaf table back where it usually belonged, standing in front of the hanging oriental rug, and wondered what she ought to do next (other than feed the cat). She wondered if anybody had called Alma's grandmother or told her boyfriend Luis, not to mention all their friends on Facebook.

But she would hate to be the one having to break such news: that's the police's job, isn't it, contacting relatives? Amanda always hated hearing the over-used platitude, “Sorry for your loss” – so impersonal.

Zeno's complaint, as he rubbed up against her, brought her back to “now,” which, she swore, was exactly what he's saying: whatever she should do in whatever order must begin with feeding the cat. As if scratching him behind his ears would give her time to think, she went upstairs and found the can opener. Even if they had nothing else in common, it was clear neither of them cared particularly much for this Det. Tango. If Zeno'd bitten the guy, would they charge him with assaulting an officer?

“Her poor grandmother,” she thought, slowly breaking up the food in Zeno's bowl, “losing first her daughter and then two grandchildren! If I hadn't told Alma about that job, she would never have applied. And if she hadn't gotten the job,” she sobbed, “she'd still be alive. Alma's death is my fault – I killed her!”

Zeno, unwilling to wait patiently while Amanda continued to dab at her eyes, stretched himself up to reach his paws to the counter, upset because he was only an inch short of his goal. Just as the cat was getting ready to leap up on the counter, Amanda put the bowl down on the floor.

“And what was this business about Alma holding some letter from Dr Purdue? Why should I have known anything about that?” She did think that nice Det. Reel wasn't supposed to mention it, though.

She had no idea what Purdue might have written to his publisher about, but while he was convalescing he'd been upset, mostly about these new pieces and how his project was falling behind schedule.

“Glad I didn't tell them he'd described Ms DiVedremo as a 'menopausal dalek' – I'm sure they'd take that the wrong way...”

The professor used to joke about having this giant breathing down his back, always badgering him for something new to publish, but once they'd finally get his project working, then she'd let him alone. Amanda knew whatever the project's result would be, it would be so impressive he'd become famous and then they'd become rich.

“Besides, why would he kill Alma 'by mistake'? Ms DiVedremo was a large black woman and, like, 6'4'', this formidable presence. Alma was a sweet little thing, only 5'3'', and Purdue'd never met her.”

For that matter, Amanda had met Ms DiVedremo only once three years ago at some reception she'd attended with the professor but it left enough of an impression sufficiently proportional to her overall image. Her reputation in the business happened to be as imposing as her appearance – or had it been the other way around? She'd warned Alma who as an introvert needed to overcome her natural shyness, how the boss may come off as abrasive. Despite everything she'd heard, though, DiVedremo was usually always fair if not balanced.

Plus the professor admitted the job would be a challenging experience for Alma, though he had declined to write a recommendation. Initially he'd said that was because he didn't know her, not well enough.

“If she can survive working for Belle DiVedremo, she can work with anybody. But she needs to stand up for herself.”

“OMG,” Amanda thought, peeling her hand away from her mouth as if her gasp didn't need to be stifled, “that's it!” She staggered over to the kitchen table, and sat down in a chair. “'If she can survive...' – those were his exact words barely a week ago!” Basically, she figured the professor was being humorous.

Trying to calm herself, Amanda kept saying it meant nothing about Alma's death. Why would Dr Purdue want to kill her? “Why would the professor want to kill anybody? There's no way he could...”

Another epiphany jolted her out of the chair: she's alone in the professor's house and he could return at any moment. He would come back to his home expecting the place to be empty. “What if he walks into the kitchen wearing clothes that are all bloody? (Judging from what they'd said, there was blood...)” She thought of Alma's body lying there in a pool of blood then seeing the professor with blood on his clothes. How would he be able to explain it? What could she even believe?

Amanda knew she was obviously jumping to conclusions. First, you must examine the facts, then from there you make your deductions. She had learned that in her science classes: even Dr Purdue mentioned it. But the facts were her friend, poor sweet innocent Alma, was dead – murdered! – and detectives were here looking for Dr Purdue!

Zeno, finished with his belated dinner, settled down in the middle of the kitchen floor to give himself some extensive grooming, purring contentedly as he raised his left leg and started to lick it. Amanda thought it must be wonderful being a cat, nothing to worry about – nothing beyond getting fed in a timely manner.

Her eye caught the clock over the kitchen sink, an old-fashioned cuckoo clock with the chiming mechanism Dr Purdue had disconnected.

“Damn,” she muttered under her breath, “it's almost 10:30 – I've missed Wilsher's class...”

No longer in contention for the Perfect Attendance Prize, Amanda didn't want to alienate the dean by constantly missing her class because she'll need all the help she can get to graduate this year. And who but a masochist would teach a 10:00 class on Monday mornings? The last thing she needed was an 'incomplete.'

Since Dr Purdue kept his house so quiet between clocks that didn't chime and all-pervasive fabrics which absorbed the least disturbance, Amanda wasn't sure what she heard except she knew it came from outside. What if the professor's come back and wondered what she was doing there, or the police've returned to check his whereabouts?

Peeking through the back door's curtain, she couldn't see anything behind the garage; the professor's car sat empty inside the garage. Checking the front, then, she saw her car still alone in the driveway.

If that wasn't Dr Purdue, maybe it was one of the neighborhood cats: unlikely they'd tell her where he's gotten to.

She decided to call Ms Celli, the Humanities Department secretary: she might know.

“Hi, Betty, it's Amanda Wences. Have you seen Professor Purdue there this morning?”

“Why, of course not, dearie – he's on sabbatical.”

“Is there any mail for him I should stop by and pick up?”

“No, dearie, nothing here – is he expecting anything?”

“He thought there might be something coming in.” (Better not say any more.)

“I'll just call his cell phone,” Betty said.

“Don't bother, I can do...”

Oddly enough, then, the couch began to ring.

Amanda thanked Betty, saying she'd see her later, then retrieved the professor's phone.

He hated sitting on that couch, so it didn't fall from his pocket. He must have hidden it there on purpose.

“Pocket – of course!” Amanda reached into her pocket and found the note Purdue left on his desk in the upstairs study, another thing he'd put someplace where she – or someone – could easily find it. The note was out in plain sight: anybody would see it if they'd know to check his study, like his intern.

But the phone – that was more covert, buried between the cushions, like he'd hidden it suddenly and at the last minute. Did he know something was about to happen – that he was in danger?

It was not a pleasant thought, not any more pleasant than the police thinking he was somehow involved in Alma's murder. But what if his disappearance were related to the murder at the publisher's?

Rather than being “a person of interest,” she thought, much less a suspect, has he also been targeted by Alma's killer?

Was there important information on the professor's phone the killer might be after, like something to do with his project, perhaps? What if the killer came back looking for it and she's still here?

“What the hell was that?” Her eye darted toward the kitchen window. “There!” A slight movement – down by the garden shed.

She stuffed his phone deep into her coat pocket along with the note, ready to make a dash for her car. The next question was, could she back out of the driveway fast enough?

“It could be another police detective,” she thought, once out the front door before wondering if she'd locked the kitchen door. But she had already missed one class and didn't care to miss another. On the other hand, looking around, there wasn't another police car in sight. “I can't just leave the back door unlocked...”

The submissive daughter and good student stopped and decided to hurry back inside, check to make sure the door was locked and then leave again before the stranger in the yard could spot her.

What would neighbors think if they had seen the police outside, assuming they could, and now her dashing from the house not to mention someone else they might notice creeping around the back yard?

“What if it's that burglar, the one scoping things out from the cemetery?” Then she froze: “What if it's Alma's killer...?”

Her imagination was racing with the worst possibilities having watched too much TV when she realized it's probably only the professor trying to sneak his way back into his own house without being seen.

“He'd left his jacket here and forgotten to take his phone,” she reasoned, “the phone that seemed hidden – plus that note...”

Did the note refer to some medical emergency, about calling his heart specialist even though anyone would probably call 911 first? She'd take a quick peek to see where this “stranger” had gotten to.

Amanda nearly peeled herself off the ceiling fan after walking into the kitchen because somebody was standing there and startled her, though once she'd calmed down she'd argue whether “startled” was the right word. Moments ago, this person had been at the far end of the yard – a person she thought might be the killer.

The figure appeared to be a woman, moderately tall, even stately, totally unsurprised like someone with every right to be there. But she wore an incongruously rumpled raincoat and an old-fashioned, battered pork-pie hat.

“I found the door unlocked,” she said with a calm, even elegant expression, “so I thought I'd see if everything's okay.” The woman spoke in a resonant voice like she might be an alto.

Reaching into a pocket, she pulled out a wallet and flashed a badge.

“Such manners – apologies. The name's Bond – Sarah Bond.”

“How did you... – what the... – who are you?” Amanda tried to say while she tried catching her breath with little luck, meanwhile edging her way toward the front door if she needed to escape.

“You seem startled, Ms Wences,” the woman said while successfully masking any concern. “You did not expect to see me here?”

Amanda's mind was racing several miles per minute, but mostly around inconsequential things: like, was that raincoat called khaki or chino?

“Wait, you know my name? Are you with those other detectives from earlier?”

“You look as if you've seen a ghost, Amanda. Is everything okay? I'm a special agent with the International Music Police.”

Amanda also wondered where that accent was from and why the pork-pie hat.

“It's just I didn't really expect to see anyone in the Professor's kitchen.”

“Ah, Dr Purdue? How is he, these days?”

Amanda now had the front door, which she'd left standing open, in view but unlocking the car would slow her down. She tried calculating how long it would take before the car would start. Regardless of the math which came slowly to her brain at the moment, it wouldn't be quick enough to escape unscathed.

“Well, that's a bit of a question, now,” she told her mysterious intruder, not sure how much more she should say. “He doesn't seem to be home right now – haven't seen him since Friday.”

What were the chances she could make it to the door before this elegant woman, despite what must be a costume (was the badge even real?), would tackle her onto the living room floor? She imagined herself lying there, her skull broken open hitting the coffee table, something Narder would blame on the Professor, too.

The woman's eyes may have looked cold but not dead like a zombie's; her skin, pale but with a smooth complexion. Yet it was broad daylight, if cloudy, so she probably wasn't a vampire.

But that wasn't the point – couldn't be the point, Amanda tried telling herself. Dr Purdue's voice echoed through the background of her mind: “emotional responses are the often contradictory personalized perceptions of the facts.”

“Ms Bond, whoever you are, would you tell me what you're doing here? The police left just a few minutes ago.”

“Well, no, I'm sorry, I can't,” she said, glancing quickly out the window, “except that I'm consulting with the Marple Police. It's impossible to comment on an on-going investigation,” she added, tilting her head.

“But you waltzed right in, breaking into Dr Purdue's house without a warrant...” That's when Amanda realized Bond was wearing gloves.

A phone rang and Bond reached into her pocket, clicked the line open, said only “Yes,” then listened for several seconds. Before adding “Yes, I'll be there shortly, then,” she smiled wistfully at Amanda.

“I'm terribly sorry, rather urgent business, I'm afraid. I'll let myself out, then. We'll meet again, I'm sure,” the woman said. “And please give Dr Purdue my very best next time you see him.”

Amanda was in the midst of saying “It's okay, you let yourself in,” when she found herself alone in the kitchen.

“Really, what the hell was that all about?” She looked out the window and watched her disappear down through the yard.

Seeing the wall phone mounted by the door, she pulled out Purdue's note.

“Well, there's a number he left for me to call if something happened, and now,” she thought, “something certainly has happened,” picking up the old telephone but confused by the rotary dial. “What the...?”

Once she finally completed the call, it rang eight times before someone answered.

“Hello, you have almost reached Dr Richard Kerr...”

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

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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