Monday, August 13, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Time to Begin!

For a long time, I have been working on the sequel to The Klangfarben Trilogy, the adventures of a retired composer and music professor inadvertently turned music detective named Dr. T. Richard Kerr and his side-kick, assistant, and friend (because every detective needs a Watson), Cameron Pierce. They live on Conan Lane, a quiet side-street of the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, where his neighbors are bracing for another round of Hallowe'en and where things, as usual, are always quiet.

Oh, but actually, that's about to change, once Dr Kerr receives an odd message from a friend of his, fellow composer Thomas Purdue who lives on what should be the idyllic Marymede Lane in nearby Marple, since that is where the action takes place. No fancy English castles like Phlaumix Court, no German music festivals like Schweinwald, and certainly no parallel universes like Harmonia IV, not that I won't rule out the occasional oddity or unexpected change of scene. And while Dr. Kerr's pending adventures are a continuation of some of his past experiences, you need not be familiar with them to understand what is going on in this new novel, though what self-respecting author would not immediately refer you to the appropriate links in the column to the right?

There will, of course, be a cast of sundry villains who've occupied whatever one calls pages in a book posted on a blog: while Klavdia Klangfarben herself is no longer available (though, who knows...), anyone following these posts will recognize the unlucky founder and CEO of SHMRG, N. Ron Steele, trying to hold on to what corporate influence he can still grasp in his power struggle with Lucifer Darke, but there is a new evil on the horizon with the advent of a group calling itself “The Aficionati” which does not bode well for the world of Classical Music.

The International Music Police are, of course, still on the case, but this time it is an inspector named Bond – Sarah Bond – who's on the trail. And in the midst of this, we'll meet the local police of Greater Marple, led by Detective Laura Narder with her own sidekicks, Tango and Reel.

It begins, since everything must begin somewhere, with a young woman named Alma Viva who is about to have a singularly epic bad first day at a new job. And then, it seems, Dr. Purdue has disappeared.

Welcome to the first installment of In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

For what felt like a long time before she could reach the exit, Alma had no idea what she'd do next, even after the bus driver confirmed (once again) this was indeed her stop. “But I'm way too early,” she told herself, banging against someone's oversized purse. “There won't be anyone in the office yet.” It was her first day on the job and she was nervous enough, what with her car being in the shop. “Well,” she thought and took a deep breath, “at least you're not late.” She'd been at the office for her interview only a few days ago, when her friend Amanda'd given her a lift. She'd considered asking her boyfriend for a ride, if it weren't so early. Then there was a problem getting home afterward which wouldn't work out either, so maybe the bus was better, after all.

Stepping down off the bus, she turned to ask the driver for directions but he'd already shut the door behind her. “Not like he'd know his way around town that well, anyway,” she considered. She wasn't familiar with this part of Marple, not beyond the college campus, so she'd have to ask somewhere for directions. In front of her was an old-fashioned pharmacy, a place called “Popper's Drugs” – her boyfriend Luis would snicker at that one – and underneath this was a neatly inscribed sign, “founded 1897 by David Popper.”

Considering she didn't know much about classical music, didn't usually listen to it, Alma felt this had to be an omen, one still connecting her to her beloved mother who'd died only last year. Her mother seemed happiest when playing her cello while Alma was growing up, especially this one piece by somebody named Popper. It's unlikely this was the same guy who'd long ago opened a pharmacy and she doubted they could even be related. Still, anything reminding her of her mother's memory was obviously a good thing.

“And it's a real job,” she kept thinking, “not some internship,” she added as she opened the door and walked inside. Nobody was in the shop except a clerk, already looking bored to tears. When the old-fashioned bell tinkled, he perked up and turned toward the door, the expression on his face changing almost instantly.

Before the young man in the blue apron could say anything to her, Alma apologized because she wasn't here to shop. “I just need some directions, if you could help,” giving him the address.

“Today is your lucky day,” he smiled back with an exaggerated courtly bow. “I happen to know exactly where this is.”

His name tag said Angél, her brother's name, and that also felt good as he explained it was quite close by. “Perhaps you want to buy a lottery ticket? We've sold winners here, before.”

Armed with the necessary information and a smile her boyfriend would consider flirting, Alma quickly pocketed her newly purchased lottery ticket, turned and left the pharmacy, Angél still waving, because she'd started to blush. The office was in fact quite nearby, only two blocks down this street, then a left turn and two more blocks.

She pulled her coat more tightly around her against the bracing autumn chill, once she turned the corner into the wind, glad to be on the sunny side of the street – another good sign. Wouldn't it be great if she'd win the lottery on her first day and could afford to quit her job immediately? Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction for her, she thought: she couldn't wait to call Amanda after work. “If it hadn't been for her, I would never have gotten this job.”

She glanced at her watch to figure how long it was taking her to walk from the pharmacy to the office, knowing she would still have plenty of time, even if she got lost. Unfortunately a later bus, more convenient, arrived ten minutes after the office opened, not counting the walk from the bus stop. It wouldn't look good if she showed up late on the first day, having to apologize for catching the wrong bus, and Amanda warned her the boss, Ms DiVedremo, could be “a real bitch.”

Too bad the mechanic hadn't been able to replace the alternator in her clunker of a car in time, of course, but maybe after another day she wouldn't have to worry about her commute. Catching the earlier bus might be an inconvenience, compared to her driving schedule, but it was only for a couple days.

The closest bus stop to her new job, the secretary had told her, was this unassuming block of shops and storefronts, Popper's looking more like it had been built in the '70s than 1897. But beyond the pike, a busy four-lane street, everything was tree-lined and suburban, several houses converted into doctors' or lawyers' offices.

And like Angél had said, there was the coffee shop across the street where a cousin of his was the manager. She ordered a basic cup of coffee – black – but it wasn't very good.

Alma Viva knew she was young and inexperienced, like her mother always said, a girl who had so much to learn, a very impractical girl who liked pretty things and lacked something called “discernment,” like graduating from college with a useless degree, which Mama thought would never advance her much beyond some basic entry-level position. Alma was happy she would soon marry Luis – they'd been dating for years – then stay home and raise her own family but recently she'd been having some doubts about his being a good provider.

But then her mother died of breast cancer weeks before her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight; so who was there now who'd be able to take care of her? This job was the first big step toward her taking care of herself, especially if Luis started drifting away from her.

The job, of course, didn't pay too much, she admitted, very much an entry-level position with something called Marple Music Publishers, a small independent company focusing mainly on educational books and music for beginners plus a handful of living composers who'd have been better off self-publishing everything if they could've figured it out for themselves. She knew her job didn't sound too difficult, mostly assisting the office manager, without needing to understand a lot about music. She would learn about the products they published but their content wasn't important. For all their talk about “upward mobility in the publishing business,” Amanda explained, the job wasn't likely to last very long since most of the girls left because they were bored or got fired. The biggest problem she might have was staying out of Ms DiVedremo's way though Crimea Rivers, her supervisor, was nice enough.

The name of the town, part of those vast suburbs west of Philadelphia – officially, Marple was a township, not a “town” – amused her even if she had never read any mysteries by Agatha Christie. She gathered from what Amanda told her Ms DiVedremo wasn't going to be some old biddy out of an English village. The house, anyway, looking at it from across the street, was nice enough, a big old grand Victorian pile of brownstone. Three stories tall, it had broad porches, steep roofs and large, deep-set windows.

If anything, it looked almost spooky, Alma thought, ivy covering the one side, with all its dark stone and dark-painted trim, the front and side yards heavily shaded by several big, dense maple trees. At her interview, she'd been surprised how bright the first floor rooms were, but the walls were painted in light colors. So far, the house was empty, no lights visible through blinds and drapes, and Alma found herself frequently checking her watch. “Another twenty minutes,” she said, debating about getting a refill on the coffee.

People had been walking by on the street, a destination clearly in mind as they trudged through waves of fallen leaves. One motion caught her eye, someone all in black suddenly stopping next door. She couldn't see much of him – or her – before the figure turned and walked around the house toward the back gate.

“Maybe that's the person who's supposed to open the office,” she told herself, “going through the back door into the kitchen.” With only a few more minutes to wait, she put the coffee aside. Alma looked around the shop and noticed the place still wasn't very busy but imagined it might do better at lunchtime.

A rather large woman had come in to get a box of doughnuts, something Alma thought (unkindly) she didn't really need. The girl behind the counter greeted her warmly and the greeting was returned.

“A regular,” Alma guessed, “no doubt from one of these offices around here – I wonder which one? She seems nice enough.” Her long dark red cloak, old-fashioned wool, covered her from head to foot. With a quick wave, she hurried out the door and crossed the street, hurrying up onto the porch at the publishers.

Grabbing her coat, Alma smiled to think she'd almost met a new co-worker and wondered which of them she might be, someone too important to be a mere secretary but certainly not the boss. Alma set her coffee cup on the counter but decided not to ask the waitress about the Lady of the Doughnuts.

“Perhaps it's not a good idea to seem too inquisitive: my first day hasn't even begun. Save the friendliness for tomorrow.” Alma, shrugging on her coat, crossed the street: “Let my new life begin.”

There were lights on in the vestibule and the front door was unlocked, so Alma, taking a deep breath, stepped inside ready to start this new chapter in her story, her first real job. She could hear the soft tinkling of a little bell announcing her arrival and took a quick glance at her surroundings. A stately staircase led to the upstairs and a shadowed hallway lined with portraits led toward the back of the house, ending in a doorway with frosted glass no doubt to the original kitchen. An archway on the right opened into the lightly painted, somewhat spacious room she recognized from her interview the other day with its pale sand-hued walls and tan furniture, home to several potted plants. A fine rug in some southwestern design with various geometric patterns, all whites and lavenders, spread across a shining hardwood floor.

But this time there were no people around, unlike during last week's visit which, granted, had been sometime during the mid-afternoon – no receptionist, no other women working in the rooms beyond, no customers waiting. The woman she'd seen unlocking the front door was no doubt setting up the doughnuts back in the employees' break room. There was a coat rack inside the archway by a table with flowers, but no red wool cloak could be seen which surely would've added a splash of color to the otherwise understated room.

“We're not officially open for business, I'm afraid,” said a friendly sounding voice which anticipated the woman's arrival into the room, the recognizable figure, as it turned out, of the Lady of the Doughnuts. When she sailed in behind the desk, carrying a small green watering can, prepared to be all apologetic, she stopped short.

“Oh, chérie, didn't I just see you across the street at Lily's Bakery? You're awfully early – ain't nobody else here yet!” She was a statuesque woman with dreadlocks, sounding more informal than she looked.

Before Alma could say anything, the woman put a hand to her hip and shook the watering can at her playfully. “Now, don't tell me, ain't you that new girl who starts today? Alma – ...?”

“Yes, that's right – Alma Viva. I was hired last week after my interview with... oh, I've forgotten her name – Ms Rivers?”

“That's okay, chérie,” she said, putting the watering can down on the desk, “I won't tell Crimea you forgot her name. Just don't forget Belle's name – Ms DiVedremo to you – or you're outta here! Anyway, I'm Arugula Jones, mild-mannered assistant director by day, jazz singer by night – the best in Marple... which ain't sayin' much!”

Arugula laughed, grasped her by the hand and gave it a hearty shake, welcoming her aboard with her big infectious grin. “Now,” she smiled, “lemme take you on a quick tour of the premises.”

After she finished watering the various potted plants, explaining how Ms DiVedremo didn't want to have artificial plants in the office, she led her toward the kitchen for some coffee to start things right. “Because if you had any of Lily's coffee,” she explained, pointing across the street, “you'll be needing some real coffee, now.”

Alma followed her new friend back through two rooms with several desks and drafting tables, Arugula pointing out who sat where, then pointed to a desk in the corner with a phone and computer. “This will be your desk, chérie,” she said. “The good news is, it's next to the rest room and the kitchen. The bad news is, it's next to the rest room and the kitchen – everybody stops to chat on their way past. And they'll say, 'Alma, get me some coffee, wouldja?' or 'any donuts left?'”

Every morning must start with coffee, she emphasized, opening the door to a surprisingly modest kitchen for such a big house, and the better the coffee, the more civilized the day will then become. Brewing the coffee is the responsibility of the person who opens the office “which eventually, chérie, will be you,” Arugula laughed.

“I make good coffee,” Alma smiled back, holding her head up with more pride than self-confidence, “if I say so myself.”

“Well, tomorrow we'll see how you do – with guidance from moi,” Arugula added.

As she poured two cups from the freshly brewed pot, she explained how the last few new hires hadn't worked out. “It shouldn't be such a high-powered business but Belle can be very demanding.” With that, Arugula handed her a beautiful china cup which Alma savored approvingly, then turned to walk up the back steps.

“Honestly, the last one left after a month because she was getting married, but the one before her was bad news. I don't know how she got the job but she couldn't do anything. And then there was the one who got nailed for drugs one day – cops came in, arrested her at her desk!”

This litany of disappointment did not dampen Alma's spirit or even unnerve her. “I know I can do better than that.”

“See that you do, chérie,” Arugula shook her head, “see that you do.”

As Arugula showed her around the upstairs offices, Alma noticed nobody else around even though it was close to opening time and asked where that tall person in black she'd seen had gotten to.

“Tall person? In black, chérie? I've no idea. Perhaps somebody left a delivery. I'll have Ms Rivers check the back porch.”

And then Alma heard the tinkle of the bell at the front door, no doubt someone else who's on the staff.

“That's probably her arriving now – always cuts it rather fine, Ms Rivers does...”

Of course, she continued, it was a Monday and Ms Rivers was always full of excuses to be late on Mondays, but Arugula beckoned her to follow her back down on the grand staircase.

“You've already met her, naturally,” she said, working her way down sideways, favoring her left hip, “but there's everyone else, too.”

At the bottom of the steps stood a tall, thin fellow wearing tight jeans, a black turtleneck under a white shirt, his black hair and well-trimmed beard turning prematurely with bits of inflected silver. He struck her as possibly handsome in a definitely nerdy sort of way but didn't look to be much over thirty. Behind him, taking off her coat, was a short Asian woman who looked like a girl her own age, Alma thought. She held a motorcycle helmet and her hair was decidedly spikey and purple.

“Hey, hi there! You must be the new girl,” the short woman squeaked, reaching out to give her a welcoming handshake. “I'm Froyde Oh, the receptionist – you need anything here, gimme a shout, 'kay?”

The man quietly introduced himself as Nick Turner, the company's resident graphic designer. He told her everybody usually called him “Deezer.”

“We're a diverse bunch here at Marple Music,” Arugula said, rubbing her hip. “Nick's our token white male, homosexual or otherwise. Froyde checks off several of the various categories on the government's bureaucratic forms. And me – guess I'm working on being the resident handicapped person if my sciatica don't soon clear up. Lord have mercy!”

She explained Deezer also played the bass for her and Crimea's trio, as well as playing in the local symphony orchestra. “Guess that makes him the only legit musician in our little band, here.”

Just then, the door burst open, revealing an older woman in a heavy coat looking like she'd recently escaped from a wind tunnel though Alma didn't remember it being all that windy this morning.

“Traffic was horrible out on the highway, and I hit every light red! Plus there's a huge pile-up on the Schuylkill.”

Heading for the coat rack, this latest arrival took no notice of them, almost knocking Arugula over as she rushed past.

“Crimea, you were nowhere near the Schuylkill Express; don't give me that shit!”

“Belle will be late this morning,” she said, ignoring Arugula and her comment, “getting her hair done for today's board meeting. Oh,” she said, seeing Alma standing there, “you're the new girl – follow me!”

“Oh, my laws,” Arugula shrieked and disappeared, “I forgot about that damned meeting. I've got reports to print, forms to kiss...”

“Happy Monday,” Froyde yelled over the ensuing chaos as her phone began ringing and everyone made mad dashes for their desks. A few stragglers came in, took off their coats and joined the fray. Alma could barely recognize the woman who'd calmly interviewed her and offered her the job last week: “So this is reality?”

Ms Rivers was standing beside an overly cluttered desk that barely fit into the small bay window behind the receptionist's desk where, without rummaging around, she picked up a handful of variously sized envelopes.

“Every morning, sort through the mail and distribute it to the respective desks. Anything for Ms DiVedremo, put on my desk.”

“Oh, maybe that's what the guy delivered – before Arugula... uhm, Ms Jones arrived?”

“I've no idea what you're talking about, child. We're not expecting any deliveries. Anyway, here's Saturday's mail – for Ms DiVedremo's office.”

Then she took a letter, already opened, a single sheet of paper, unfolded, and handed it to her with a warning. “Put this one on top – she needs to see this one right away.”

It had been addressed to Rivers but the boss would have to deal with it, one of their more disgruntled composers.

“You do know where Ms DiVedremo's office is, girl? What's your name, again?”

“It's Alma, Ms Rivers,” she answered, “Alma Viva.”

“Right, good... well,” the office manager stammered, “take these and off you go!”

“My first assignment,” Alma thought, taking the pile of mail from Ms Rivers and then going upstairs to the boss' office, “my first assignment on my first day working on my first real job. How difficult can it be, putting the mail on her desk, like so, but making sure this letter's right on top?” She walked gracefully up the steps, not too slow, not hurried, certainly dignified – she was carrying, after all, the boss' mail. She felt the whole future of the company depended on her complete success. Everyone's eyes were on her, watching to see how well she'd manage this (even though she knew that wasn't the case) wondering if she had what it took to make it in this business. This wasn't waitressing at the diner or even being a clerk at Walmart: she was now part of the music industry!

How far could she go, she wondered, climbing the ladder of corporate success? Could she become an office manager some day, earning quick promotions, or even become president of the company like Ms DiVedremo? Everything was going so well today – good omens – and here she was, first thing, climbing the steps to the boss' office.

She'd work while Luis went to barber school like he always wanted to, then become Mrs. Luis Figueroa, raise her children. “This is no temporary job,” she reminded herself. “This could start my career.”

It was a sturdy door, heavy wood, very old-fashioned, the name – Belle diVedremo, President – on a brass plaque in the center (“Imagine my own name there,” she thought: “Alma Viva, President – no, Alma Figueroa”). She knocked cautiously before pushing the door open, looking around with the keen excitement of a child entering the Oval Office. She saw the bay window with its heavy drapes, three deeply comfortable chairs, the large and well-organized desk, some large bookcases. Beside the desk was a table piled high with photographs and musical scores.

There were several portraits on the walls, all guys in powdered wigs or maybe with wild hair and equally wild expressions. She figured these were probably some of the composers Ms DiVedremo's company published.

It's a very masculine room, these guys in the portraits, the heavy furniture. But there was something odd – a doll's house.

It stood on some kind of low cabinet, ornate, perhaps a credenza, she thought, maybe where the boss kept her drinks – she could imagine after a very busy day, kicking back with a brandy – and it was definitely very old-fashioned and certainly old, older than any dollhouse she'd seen unless it was in a museum.

“What's the significance of the dollhouse,” Alma wondered, peering through a few windows. “Maybe it had once belonged to her grandmother?” The amount of detail, especially inside, surprised her, particularly all the leather-like upholstery.

There wasn't time to dawdle – who knew when the boss would be arriving? “Just put the mail down and then leave.” There was a noise, maybe a door closing – old houses and odd noises. But in her nervousness over maybe getting caught, she fumbled with the envelopes and the letter slipped unceremoniously off the desk.

After she had picked it up off the floor, something caught her eye but unfortunately the light in the room wasn't good enough to read it by so she turned on the desk lamp. “Why did Ms Rivers want DiVedremo to look at this immediately, first thing? If I'm the boss, how'd I handle it?”

The letter was in long-hand (speaking of old-fashioned), going from neat to sloppy. Whatever it's about, she knew it was angry. It was signed Thomas E. Purdue – “Isn't that the guy Amanda works for?”

But before she could begin to read it, she heard another noise, muffled, most likely coming from the hallway behind her, and quickly put the letter down before DiVedremo walked in and found her. It's a good thing she hadn't sat in her chair like some kid, fantasizing about what it's like being the boss!

Alma glanced over her shoulder but couldn't hear anything else from the hall though now she thought she heard someone breathing. Was there somebody in the room watching her, evaluating what she was doing?

While she was wondering about security cameras, a tall dark figure all in black swooped toward her from behind the curtains. It didn't look like how she'd pictured Belle DiVedremo, President, whoever it was.

“It's the tall man – well, the person – in black,” the one she'd seen earlier go around the back of the house.

Holding up the letter, her thoughts jumbled together, tripping over each other in her haste to explain to him (or her) she was delivering the boss' Saturday mail, doing only the best she could. If there was something wrong with the way she's doing it, she thought, she was willing to learn, make things better.

But the black-clad figure, racing toward her, said nothing, stepping into the light: what Alma saw were dark, penetrating, insect-like eyes. And then there was this brilliant flash of gleaming metal – lots of it.

The pain was hot, like nothing she'd felt before, slashing across her throat, but there wasn't time to imagine what metaphors she would use to describe it or if a simile might be better. And sticky, too, though that was probably blood, her hands feeling its warmth as its deep stain spread across her dress.

Through the agony, she tried to figure out what was happening to her – everything was going so well, up to now. She got away from him – “this time, I'm pretty sure it's a him.” But she knocked over the table with all the scores, spewing them everywhere before she fell, her hands dripping with blood.

She slipped trying to regain her footing but she had little strength left. There's blood everywhere and she knew it's hers.

“I'm going to be fired over this mess, I can just feel it!”

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

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 rather warped imagination, frequently inspired by elements of parody. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used." The towns of Doylestown and Marple in Pennsylvania do exist though I've never been there and my use of them – having found sites in such proximity unlikely to be associated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or one of Agatha Christie's more endearing creations – is purely fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And then of course I would be completely remiss if I failed to thank Marcel Proust who will be found frequently popping up in the oddest places, though, to many readers perhaps, he may well be merely another face in the crowd.

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

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