Friday, September 28, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 8

In the previous installment [posted on Wednesday, Sept. 26th], Kerr was getting ready for the night, sleeping in Purdue's basement, still amazed at what Clara, Tom's Artificial Creativity software program, had composed with little more than a few basic directives. Hearing noises in the wall as he drifted off to sleep, he sensed someone else was in the basement with him but knew it was his overworked imagination. Meanwhile, a group of  middle school band members were holding a special pre-Hallowe'en meeting of the Tonic Avengers which involved the Old Haine Crypt where they made an unsavory discovery, local neighbors apparently calling the police after hearing a bunch of screaming kids. Tango calls in that he's found DiVedremo's missing rug – rapped around her body.

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

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



Both Tango and Reel stood bleary-eyed after their long night once they dragged themselves into the bull-pen of Marple's police precinct. Somebody noticed Tango's trousers looked slightly wrinkled, causing him to wince with embarrassment. No amount of coffee could possibly make up for their lack of sleep, not even the high-test from the break room. The sun had risen cautiously over the horizon, a clear crisp autumn morning despite their just finishing up at the cemetery. Detective Narder managed a couple hour's nap at her desk before others arrived. The scene had been complicated by an army's worth of footprints, especially when those kids ran away after discovering the body. There had been tire tracks in the mud which they had completely obliterated. The kids' screaming was what alerted the neighbors who assumed they were vandals. It was, after all, coming up on Hallowe'en.

Nortonstein, the medical examiner, had shown up looking more ornery than he had been in the middle of a busy afternoon. Despite the melody he was humming, it's best tonight's patient was already dead.

“There's that tune again, the ringtone from her phone,” Tango said, stopping abruptly. Reel still wasn't convinced it was by Puccini.

Nortonstein looked over at them dismissively and harumphed, shaking his head in disbelief. “The barbarians are no longer at the gate...” He continued humming from where he'd been interrupted. “Seriously, it's Butterfly's big aria...”

The other officers began filtering in gradually, looking for all the world like zombies after a dry night on the town. Most of them – Reel included – had had a chance to go home, briefly. Tango, on the other hand, had been on a stake-out at Purdue's place. It was obvious he hadn't slept a wink.

Trying not to groan as he sipped his coffee, Tango felt his face must be even more wrinkled than his clothes. So undeserving for someone of such fashion consciousness – but then there was DiVedremo...

Not that anyone ever deserved having their body dumped anywhere after being murdered, especially having had her hair done that morning. Of course, they could've left her out in the woods for the scavengers. Police knew where she'd been murdered, but how'd the killer move the body? After all, Ms DiVedremo was a “full-bodied woman.”

Narder had left Tango at the scene to oversee the processing of any clues that might lead to the killer's identity and that involved interviewing the kids who'd found the body – and their parents. Overprotective under normal circumstances, these parents weren't thrilled being roisted out of bed no matter how late their kids were out.

The kids had nothing helpful – they'd just found the body (“coolest Hallowe'en ever!”) – but he did discover one bit of news: cars parked on that lot were usually “visiting” people living in near-by apartments.

Narder had gone over to check the lot where she found seven vehicles, one looking familiar but she couldn't place it. The black van way in the back had out-of-state plates and tinted windows. She had Reel run all the plates to try to ID the owners, then canvas the apartments to identify any “visitors.”

Turns out, two of the cars next to each other were rentals, including the tan Honda hatchback she couldn't quite place. Reel said it was too early yet to hear back from the agencies.

“Odd, though, two rental cars from different parts of the region end up side-by-side in a lot near a crime scene.”

The black 1990 Dodge Caravan tucked back in the corner of the lot was registered to a guy named Graham Ripa.

“Yeah, last known address was Bad Axe, Michigan, but moved out months ago.”

Narder, looking well-rested like those busy detectives usually do on certain television shows, greeted everybody from the center of the room, thanking those who'd come in early and especially those who'd worked all night.

“Let's wrap up these preliminary reports so some of you can get started and the rest of you can go home.”

No surprise, Nortonstein's initial if unofficial C.o.D., pending further tests, was “massive blood loss due to having her throat slit, basically.” The body basically confirmed the crime scene T.o.D. estimate as “sometime between 2-and-3pm.”

She also recapped what they found at the body dump, besides the body, how kids discovered it inside the Haine crypt, “part of some Hallowe'en fantasy-game – guess they got more than they bargained for.” Until further test results, we'd assume the new blood found at the office matches the body found in the Haine crypt.

Tango continued. “There's also the rug the victim pointed out earlier, following the first murder in her office, and reported missing as we investigated what appeared to be a second murder in her office. Wrapped around the body when we found it at the cemetery, this indicates she was killed in her office, then moved.”

If this Thomas Purdue guy was their chief and so far only suspect, there was one outstanding question in Tango's mind: “How'd a guy who wears size 9 shoes carry off a 300-pound body?”

“So, obviously, we assume the killer, whatever his motive, was not working alone,” Narder resumed, placing photos on the white board, mostly of several different cars parked in a lot, owned by potential witnesses. She said two of them were rental cars, but the van had out-of-state plates registered to someone with no current address.

“One of these is one I'd seen before but I can't place it. Officer Zerka, you have a pretty good memory...?”

“Yeah,” Zerka said, pointing at the tan Honda, “that one, from yesterday evening.”

“At the original crime scene, the second time? Right!” Narder slapped her forehead. “The grandmother who'd just left the ballet school.”

“And it was a rental, too,” Zerka confirmed. “I remember the bumper sticker.”

“This car was parked at the crime scene – and at the body dump.”

“And,” Tango added, “around the corner from Purdue's.”

Next they began to explore the possibility of this “little old lady” Narder met at the crime scene the second time and how exactly she could possibly have any involvement in something “so un-little-old-ladylike.” Narder explained how the woman approached her after she'd parked her car in and how she just let her drive off.

“No, I mean she looked exactly like some grandmother like she'd said, who'd stopped at the ballet school with her grandson – coming from the opposite direction – but I didn't see her leave the school...”

Zerka agreed with Narder: the woman was probably in her late-60s, maybe early-70s, trying to dress stylishly for an older person. “In fact,” Zerka added, “I remember thinking she kinda resembled my own grandmother.”

But, since so often many old people in their own way look alike, neither officer could provide a suitably definitive description.

“Most of what 'defined' her was her clothes and demeanor, all things she could change the next time we'd encounter her; plus it's also unlikely she's shacking up with someone at the apartment complex. It's quite possible if we find her, we find the evasive Professor Purdue – so we need to quickly identify this woman.”

The question still remained, how could a woman in her late-60s or early-70s help a man of 66 transport the body? Especially this body, probably weighing as much as the two of them combined?

“Unless...” Tango let the probability of an impending suggestion hang in the air and took a sip of coffee before nodding. “Yeah, so – what if this mystery old lady isn't really an old lady? What if, as you said, she could go change her clothes and demeanor – like a disguise? Maybe she's not really old?”

“Or maybe, for that matter, even a 'she'... or maybe like that orangutan in Murders in the Rue Morgue – it's possible...” Narder wasn't above using her gut but she preferred basing things on facts.

Until they had anything more definitive on the woman she reluctantly called 'Accomplice Granny,' even if she's not officially an accomplice, Narder suggested they should stick to the plausible, saving the implausible for emergencies.

“What about this supposed grandson? Could he be the muscle behind the group?”

“Torello, check with the ballet school, yadda yadda...”

Reel's phone started ringing and everybody stopped talking to look over at him. “Could be one of the rental agencies, finally.” The center of attention, he took a deep breath and answered it calmly. “Reel – yeah... uh-huh... okay – good, uh-huh... sure – thanks... Great, you've been very helpful.” He hung up, jotting down some more comments.

“Yes, well...? What is it?” Narder didn't sound very patient. “What's the word?”

Reel looked over at her and smiled. “Granny.”

Tango frowned, burying himself in his coffee cup, and mumbled something about luck.

“The Rent-a-Ride Agency rented the tan Honda hatchback to a Dr Dorothy Minnim, a pianist giving master classes at West Chester. And she's scheduled to return it sometime tomorrow before catching a flight home.”

A smattering of applause greeted Reel as if he'd performed a challenging solo. Tango took a loud slurp, finishing his coffee.

“Another musical academic, how very interesting,” Narder quipped, “even more interesting if there's some connection with our Dr Thomas Purdue, composer.” She turned and carefully wrote the woman's name down on the white board.

“On it,” and Reel, hunkering down, started happily typing away at his computer. Tango imagined a dog sniffing out a bone.

“Which doesn't yet answer the question, how did they move the body from Maple Street over to the Blackwood Cemetery – unseen?”

Tango was about to get up and stretch when the door burst open.

Despite the fact she still wore her rumpled khaki-colored raincoat – even though there was no rain in the forecast till Thursday – IMP Special Agent Sarah Bond looked stunning given it's seven in the morning. Taking off the raincoat, she hung it on the last available hook of the old-fashioned coat-rack just inside the bull-pen's door. The battered pork-pie hat she'd been holding in her hand was carefully placed over the same hook, the last one available. She didn't seem surprised the office was full so early in the day.

Instead of the red dress she'd worn yesterday which had seemed impractical enough, Bond wore an equally stunning pantsuit this morning. The dark purple pants were the equivalent of those skinny jeans now fashionable. The lavender jacket was also a bit too form-fitting for day-to-day police work. Her heels were even a little less unrealistic.

Narder wasn't sure if Bond hadn't been out working the vice squad overnight, maybe just getting back from a late shift, but then it seemed awfully early to be headed to a cocktail party. She made it clear the interruption caused by Bond's unexpected appearance – and not just how dazzling she looked – was not welcome.

On the other hand, while it did prove distracting, at least Tango was now sitting up straight and smiling, looking rejuvenated. Even Reel looked up and missed a few beats while typing away on-line.

Without looking around at everyone nodding their self-conscious welcomes to her – especially Tango – Bond strode over to Narder, her expression serious, her heels clicking on the tile floor in rhythm against Reel's rapid-fire typing.

She was holding a small evidence bag plus a print-out in her hand. “Sorry to interrupt, but you should see this.”

Narder took both the bag and the print-out. “It looks like a button.”

“It is, and it's one I've seen before.”

“Did they find this on the victim's clothing?”

“No, loose – underneath her body.”

It was a little larger than an ordinary button, perhaps from somebody's coat, with a detailed insignia on it, some symbol.

“And you're saying they found this between the victim's body and the rug?”

“I found it there, yes. The killer probably lost it during the attack.”

The symbol, Bond explained, belonged to the Aficionati.

“Aficionati?” It sounded like it would be some secret organization or fraternal order, a crime syndicate or an up-scale downtown club. The name didn't ring any bells with Narder who didn't get out much.

“Care to explain,” she asked Bond, taking a closer look at the print-out. “What is the Aficionati and what's this mean?”

“Technically?” Bond paused and took a deep breath. “It's the musical symbol for a double mordent approached by a lower neighbor.”

“Of course it is,” Narder's tone completely sarcastic, “but what does it mean?”

Basically, Bond went on to explain, it meant there were international implications behind the murders of Alma Viva and Belle DiVedremo, implications going far beyond the possibility of a disgruntled composer killing his publisher. “There are secret societies who will stop at nothing to protect their interests – this symbol belongs to one of the worst.”

It seems they were a group of life-long classical music aficionados who protected the mysteries of its appreciation for the Elect, only allowing in members who passed rigorous testing and fully comprehended its legacy. To preempt Tango's inevitable question, Bond didn't know if Purdue was a member – one reason they called themselves a secret society.

“But, if you'll excuse me, I must leave,” grabbing her coat and hat. “Unfortunately, I cannot tell you where I'm going.”

Narder figured that ruled out the cocktail party; probably meeting with an informant.

Each time Bond had uttered the word “Aficionati,” Narder thought surely there should be accented dark chords in the lower register creating tension that further increased one's expectation of dread, like any horror film, the way young ladies used to feel faint when hearing diminished-7th chords in Weber's horrific “Wolf Glen Scene” from Der Freischütz. Who exactly these Aficionati were and what they had to do with the brutal murders of Alma Viva and Belle DiVedremo would open even more questions, and questions she knew must be answered quickly.

“Nadia,” the detective said, turning to technical assistant Nadia Klüh, “check them out: find anything you can on-line about these Aficionati. I want to know everything you can find about their history and whereabouts. Check with our friends in law enforcement and the FBI to see if there's any chatter about them in the area.”

“Ding-ding-ding-ding!” Reel looked up from his computer, a big grin on his face. (Tango always hated it when he did that.) “I found Granny, our pianist Dr Dorothy Minnim – got her DMA from Faber. That's the same music school where one Dr Thomas Purdue earned his PhD – and they were there at the same time.”

“So they might know each other as friends, not just as professional colleagues, and both could be members of the Aficionati. Plus her car was seen at two out of three crime scenes – interesting.”

Once again, Reel's phone rang. “Reel, here – yeah... uh-huh... okay – good, uh-huh... sure. Great, you've been very helpful.” He continued smiling.

“Okay, spill, dude – your arrogance is not becoming.” Tango stood up and stretched.

“That was the Ride-a-Rental Agency – the other car? This one's rented to musicologist Dr Martin Crotchet, speaking this weekend at Haverford.”

“Wow, imagine that – two musical academics whose cars happen to be found just around the corner from our prime suspect's place.”

“Guess what else I found – Dr Martin Crotchet? He's also a Faber grad.”

Tango looked over Reel's shoulder at the screen. “Get this – not only was Crotchet there when Purdue and Minnim were there. It seems another musical academic we know was there, too – Dr Richard Kerr.”

“It seems like we've found our Aficionati cell, whatever else they're up to. Let's go pay the Purdue Place a visit.”


“Well, it sounded like rats in the walls, that's all I can say,” not that I wanted to admit being scared, “and besides, who's to know there aren't rat mazes behind this old stonework?” It's an old house, originally built after the Civil War, Purdue had mentioned, then rebuilt after a fire in the 1920s. The basement, whatever the rest of the house was, was certainly the original part of the foundation, stone walls and all, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't imagining the sounds I heard last night.

“Oh, that reminds me, I want to ask Amanda to re-uninstall Clara's key, to keep anyone from accessing the program externally. That's why I unplugged the computer last night and disconnected the internet connection.” I felt proud having figured that much out. “I didn't want to uninstall it, with my luck, and maybe damage it.”

“Right, like that would ever happen,” Cameron snickered, “but you remember specifically unplugging the computer and pulling the internet connection, too?” He showed me the cables, everything connected just like they would be normally.

“No, but I did – honestly – really, before going over there to lie down.” It surprised me: even the memory seemed real.

“Do you remember moving that table over there? – wasn't like that last night. That's solid oak – and probably weighs a ton.”

Yet there it was, one end about two feet away from the wall.

“And there's something odd about this section of wall, too, with this rug. No shelves or bookcases, just this large table.” Cameron pulled back the tapestry, a faded oriental carpet, to reveal heavy stonework.

“Almost the whole basement is lined with shelves except for this one area – was the rug hung here to hide something?”

I started pressing different stones, looking for something to trigger a secret doorway which might answer some questions about Purdue's whereabouts.

“No, there – carved into the stone, barely visible.”

Indeed, an old-fashioned lever-shaped handle!

Cameron gave it a hefty pull which proved unnecessary: it slid across effortlessly – like some antique version of sliding-glass patio doors.

“What's behind there – some kind of rat's maze?” What rat could open this?

“Wait here, Terry, let me go see if there are any flashlights upstairs. And don't go anywhere till I get back!”

“Trust me,” I called after him, “I have no intention of going anywhere,” as I peered into the darkness with misgivings and wondered where this went – did Tom have some secret hide-away back here? Or was it possible “they” might be keeping him tied up in there, which would explain the rat-like noises I'd heard.

A momentary flash of bright light distracted me; perhaps Cameron had turned on another light which then burned out and died. Except I became aware of someone standing behind me who couldn't be Cameron.

Because I'd just seen Cameron going up the steps into the kitchen, no one else could have come down the steps. And since Cameron opened the secret panel, no one could've entered from there. Slowly, I turned around and saw a man standing there, smiling at me. I took the smile as a good sign.

Not that his presence wasn't enough to scare the crap out of me, but his appearance was immediately noted as “weird,” but weird in a good way or a threatening one, I wasn't sure. My first thought was, he must be a guy on his way to a Hallowe'en party who'd taken a wrong turn. My second thought was, was he the guy who'd plugged the computer back in overnight and reconnected it to the internet? Thirdly, wouldn't that mean he'd waited all night for me to wake up?

Before he said “Hello,” my fourth thought was, I'd had an awful lot of thoughts in this brief amount of time, none of them terribly comforting as they increased in difficulty to answer rationally. I mean, was the Hallowe'en party last night, had he googled for help, was there some purpose in waiting for me? Then it occurred to me what his costume was – or rather, was like, being unlike anything I'd ever seen till now – like he'd just stepped out of the pages of a music appreciation textbook.

Standing there was a man not much taller than I (therefore, somewhat short) wearing what a German Baroque composer might wear, a long coat reaching almost to his calves, slightly flared from the waist, the sleeves long with deep cuffs, a waistcoat, a white shirt with lace, trousers only to the knees, and silk stockings.

But, except for the linen shirt, everywhere that ought to be elegant fabric – coat, waistcoat, breeches, even an uncharacteristic flat cap – was instead a heavy brown tweed as if he had originated in Edinburgh. Around his neck wound a scarf of seasonal reds, oranges and browns, which, when stretched full length, probably measured ten feet.

Yet, the costume aside, there was also a noticeable discord in distinctly Indian features with his cinnamon complexion and black hair, not at all what I'd expected in a Baroque court composer from Scotland.

Perhaps I wasn't fully awake yet, after all, which could explain many things, dropping off to sleep in a strange place, except why I chose to ask this stranger, “Who the hell are you?” It didn't seem to be the best foot to start a conversation on, but then again one had to begin somewhere.

“I suppose I could ask you the same, if only more delicately worded,” he said, though without any sense of challenge. He also spoke English without any sense of accent, German, Scottish, or Indian.

“Have you been waiting for me here all night, standing in the darkness? Or maybe you were sitting at the computer?” Either way, it made me feel creepier, knowing he'd been watching me sleep.

“No, actually, I'd just arrived a moment ago.” He stepped forward, hand extended. “They call me The Kapellmeister. And you are...?”

“I guess that would make me The Doctor,” I said with a chuckle, shaking his hand which, however, felt fully corporeal, “but if you're looking for Dr Purdue, he's not home at the moment.” Perhaps the less information I offered him, though, the better it would be: he might be the one who'd abducted Tom. It's possible he's here looking for Clara or he's already downloaded the program, though it's unlikely he would be technologically savvy. And, as weird as all this was, he might be reading my mind.

“Yes, I was, now that you mention it – and hoped perhaps Dr Purdue might be able to offer me some assistance since, unfortunately, I need to locate the thing before certain undesirable elements do.”

But rather than process this bit of information – specifically, how he knew Tom – I'm wondering where the hell he came from.

“And what 'thing' is this which you hope he can help you find?” (as if the plot wasn't already convoluted enough). “There're piles of stuff all over the place: maybe I can help you?” But then, looking around at all the junk lying about in the basement, I doubted that was a very wise suggestion.

“Ah, it's not a 'something' I think he has,” the strange visitor said, looking around and picking up a dusty book. “It's more something he might know where it is, who might have it.”

Putting the book back down, he explained what he's looking for is an old manuscript “of sorts” (whatever that qualification meant) but there's a major problem in tracking it after it disappeared in 1791.

“So, the year Mozart died – it has something to do with Mozart's death?”

“The year Mozart died is a coincidence only.”

Here, hoping this might explain one of the great tragedies of classical music, I missed some of what he'd said next.

“...Because it's imperative I find the Belcher Codex!”

“A manuscript by Supply Belcher?”

“Is this something Purdue has told you about?”

“No, can't say he did.” I heard Cameron calling me from the kitchen.

“Quick, someone's coming,” he said, “I must go.”

“It's just a friend of...”

The strange man grabbed my shoulder and then there was this brilliant flash.

Suddenly, I was no longer in Tom's basement.


“I found some flashlights, Terry,” Cameron called out as he hurried down the steps, Martin close behind him. “Doc? You there?”

“Really, a secret room? It was there all along?” Martin sounded quite excited.

Dorothy left the freshly brewed coffee she'd been pouring and followed after them. “Maybe it dates back to the Civil War.”

But when they reached the bottom of the stairs, followed by the cat, there was nobody else in sight. “Hey, Terry!”

Martin checked the rest of the basement – nothing. “Maybe they've abducted him, too?”

“Well, they couldn't have gotten far, if anyone did take him, but who? He probably got impatient and wandered off, exploring...”

Martin, checking his flashlight, suggested they go find him before Kerr gets lost.

“Hold down the fort, cat,” Cameron said as they hurried into the darkness.

Zeno meowed as Cameron slid the door shut.


Pounding on the doors, people shouting “Police! Open up!” were met with silence. Both doors exploded inward, wood splinters flying everywhere as Narder, Tango, Reel and several others fanned out systematically through the house.

There were signs someone had been there recently, freshly poured coffee, still hot, some cold pizza – otherwise, not a soul.


They checked the upstairs and in the basement, discovered no one hiding anywhere. No one, that is, except for the cat.

Four cups of hot coffee in the kitchen – but how did they escape?

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, Oct. 1st]

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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 7 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, various agents of the Aficionati are converting the basement of Falx's run-down farmhouse into a pristine, state-of-the-art medical laboratory under the supervision of Moritásgeroth, a Russian agent named Ivan Govnozny, with the help of Falx's two assistants, twin brothers Yanni & Vinny Punamayo (a.k.a. F-1 & F-2). Turf wars lead to tension between Govnozny and Vremsky as each explains what they know of their various assignments. Vremsky is concerned Govnozny, whatever he's doing there, will be a complication with her mission concerning Purdue who sits incarcerated in an adjoining room. Falx also has news regarding a little snaggle from next door, Tom Purdue's place: it seems he has "visitors."

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

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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


It was still early by my late-night standards, used to years of correcting papers deep into the midnight hours or composing when I could find the spare time (or, for that matter, the inspiration) but even Cameron felt the need, after a long and largely mind-bending day, to get to bed somewhat earlier than usual. We would need all the time we could muster and that meant as early a start as possible, regardless of habit, since we were no closer to a possible solution toward any helpful trail. Grumbling as I threw clean blankets over the cot in Tom's basement studio, the luck of the short straw being mine, I saw only a few more restless hours before dropping off to sleep. I looked around for a book to read which could help induce drowsiness: Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach might prove useful.

Amanda had apologized for breaking the party up before 9:00 after our discussions, since she was uncomfortable leaving her mother alone, even with arrangements she'd made for her aunt to come visit after dinner.

“You're welcome to stay; I'm sure the professor wouldn't mind,” she'd said, repeating the already accepted invitation to spend the night.

Cameron offered to walk her down to where we'd parked the other cars – it was stupid to have left Amanda's there – but given the reports of a neighborhood prowler, I suggested he drive instead.

Meanwhile, since the rest of us were staying, we divvied up the beds, giving Martin and Dorothy the two guest rooms, leaving Tom's room empty if he'd return in the middle of the night. (I couldn't imagine coming back from an overnight trip to find my house full of people and staked out by cops.) Cameron and I played “rock-paper-scissors” for either the couch or the basement cot since the recliner, unfortunately, could no longer recline. The couch was in no great condition but the basement was just creepy.

While still a little rough, most of Tom's basement studio had paneled walls and laminate flooring, a project left partly unfinished, the one wall insulated by large, old oriental carpets hung from the ceiling. The cot was partly hidden in an alcove made of shelves and tables. From there, everything else looked lost in shadows.

Naturally it had been deflating, after all that effort, not to find anything once Amanda succeeded in running the Clara program, not that we had any idea what we might find once it opened. Had he left a trail of breadcrumbs tantalizing us with what was happening or left a map to some hiding place?

If he'd actually told Clara who's after him or where he was going, that would've been too much to hope for. So we were back to square one again and Clara was no help.

Or perhaps Tom was protecting Clara from something, like the people who might be chasing him, by not giving her information. That way, if somebody did break into her, they couldn't track him down.

Actually, it's a more likely possibility they're after his software than him, anyway. Which explains why he'd deleted the “key” file.

“Uh oh,” I thought, “maybe that wasn't a good idea, re-installing it again, if Tom had disabled Clara to protect her.” Had we now made her vulnerable to anyone trying to access the program? Well, certainly no one would want me trying to re-delete the “key” file – no doubt I'd destroy years of Tom's work.

In that case, I unplugged the power supply and disconnected the internet cables, which should keep anyone from hacking into it. I'll ask Amanda to uninstall it in the morning, just to be safe.

Who would've thought Tom Purdue could have turned himself into a computer geek? Not me and not Martin or Dorothy, apparently. It made perfect sense to Cameron who, of course, grew up with computers. But we old-timers still thought of Tom as the fair-haired, indeed long-haired boy, the romantic we'd known back in grad school. Too intelligent to be one of those “daft hippies” he always complained about, Tom was never extreme enough for “total emotion.” If the initial response wasn't “emotion-based,” then to him it was too intellectual.

It was difficult for us to remember him after years of absence, and not think of his “emotion-based” response to Odile. What was the expression, “thrown him for a loop” when she ran off? It was easy to think he'd never be the same again after that. But had we known him that well, then?

Standing in the kitchen this evening, reminiscing while nibbling on some left-over take-out, Dorothy wondered what had ever happened to Susan? “Hadn't she had some kind of calming influence on him at the time?” They'd been married for years, I knew that, and apparently were still “friendly,” but he never once talked about the divorce.

Martin thought she may have been too much of an equal for him and eventually couldn't put up with his moodiness.

“All he told me was she didn't like being known as 'Sue Purdue.'”

Whatever it was, I imagined, from the few conversations we'd had after that, that was when he started becoming more analytical, at least in terms of the music he was composing at the time.

“I mean, things like that Piano Quintet were amazing on an intellectual level, but these newer pieces became less emotionally driven.”

Dorothy wondered if his search for some greater structural integrity in his music was because he needed something he could control.

“You think maybe working with Clara was a replacement for another failed relationship?”

“Maybe not a replacement, but definitely something he could control more,” I suggested, gathering up several of the empty take-out containers. “He said he wanted something to sift through the possibilities, at least initially.”

Eventually, it developed into a fully creative process he could “set in motion.” “Eventually, it might learn to compose everything itself.”

Only hours ago, Amanda had told us the professor talked about how he would spend hours up-loading data into the computer, everything from things about composers he liked to his views how harmony worked.

“She said he'd never spent so many hours sweating over a composition before, wondering if he wasn't just wasting his time.”

But there came a point when Clara's first efforts went from being simplistic little baby steps to something showing real promise.

“She actually was beginning to learn, to improve – to make her own choices.”

Purdue had designed the program to imitate him, his stylistic fingerprints, his “voice,” everything that made his music sound like him.

“He could do this now, he felt, at this stage in his life.”

The music the software began producing sounded clearly like it was his music. Or at least his music but greatly simplified.

“And yet, other than choosing certain parameters,” Amanda continued, much to our amazement, “the Professor had nothing to do with it other than clicking a button activating the program – which started the creative process.”

Then, an hour later, he'd open a folder and there'd be a finished composition – “the most recent ones needed very little tweaking.”

Amanda then asked Clara to play something for us, something of her choosing. Out came a brief three-minute nocturne for piano.

More melodic than I'd expected, but surprisingly it sounded unmistakably like Thomas Purdue.

“But that's impossible,” Martin sputtered, “no machine could've composed that, it's too subtle. Artificial Intelligence may be one thing, but this...?” Predictably, he assumed Tom had composed it, then up-loaded it into the database. It was an old trick but one easily disproved by asking Clara to compose something new for us on the spot.

Not that I wanted us to be side-tracked by this, but Amanda suggested a short demonstration, asking us each for input. Martin supplied a detailed form, Cameron a “mood,” Dorothy an atypical tonal scheme.

Knowing Tom would have avoided writing for the tenor saxophone, I suggested a short lyrical duo for tenor saxophone and piano. I also added the melody should first appear in the piano's left hand.

We sat, munching on our dinners, while Clara hummed and whirred almost imperceptibly.

Shortly, she was playing something she'd entitled Impromptu.

We'd lost track of the time, quietly sitting there in the basement, staring at the computer called “Clara” – or at the computerized box that contained Clara, since she was, technically, only a software program. My very first reaction to hearing her little composition was “I want one!” She had satisfied every one of our requirements.

Too excited to sleep, I wanted to listen to more pieces she'd composed, see what things she might create for me. I could imagine her writing a whole new string quartet in a day!

No wonder someone was after Tom's magical program – it really was like magic – but how was such a software program marketable? He had programmed it to compose like him: everything sounded like Tom Purdue. To get it to sound like me, I would have to upload everything I knew and liked to replace Tom's data.

But now, I needed to take my mind off Clara and her music, when I picked up one of Tom's books – the noises I heard in the walls around me certainly weren't helping – rats? I riffled through some denser pages of Gödel Escher Bach and soon found the book ready to drop from my grasp.

Not long after I turned out the light, I sensed someone else was in the room so I closed my eyes. It was only my imagination which already tonight had witnessed amazing, unimaginable things.


A crisp fall day had given way to a clear, starlight autumn night on this Monday before Hallowe'en's annual Trick-or-Treat night, when four young heroes assembled on the lot looking into the Blackwood Cemetery, easily the creepiest place in Downtown Marple, especially when the full moon cast deep shadows and winds wafted over dead leaves. They knew they were breaking so many rules just meeting here at midnight, especially since it was on a school night, but, regardless, the full moon before Hallowe'en was too good to pass up.

“And where's Jabba? He's always the last one.” The one they called 'Gumby' was impatient, having gotten there ten minutes early. “Even if he's on time, Jabba's always the last one to show up.”

“Then you shouldn't be early – what's the big deal with being early, anyway?” 'Sprout' was short but he always questioned authority.

Usually they met on weekends during the school year but tonight was special: the Tonic Avengers were on a special quest. The evil villain 'Schoenberg' was reportedly in the vicinity and must be stopped. They must rescue the Sacred Bust of Mozart from his vile atonal clutches and thus save the world from Modern Music.

Members of the Marple Middle School Concert Band and Ms Stringer's music class, 'Gumby,' the tallest and most out-going, played trumpet; 'Sprout,' the bass clarinet; 'Jabba,' the bass drum; and tomboyish 'Riadne' the piccolo.

Jabal, making adjustments to his white cape and his off-white, clown-like half mask, shuffled through the bushes across the lot's perimeter to join his friends, each wearing their own differently colored capes and masks. He always complained about being the Black Guy stuck wearing the white costume, making him stand out like a vintage graphic. Gumby looked cool in bright yellow and sky-blue and Riadne wore deep purple; Sprout had first dibs on the black costume. Jabal hated being called 'Jabba,' convinced the costume already made him look fat.

But tonight, this week before Hallowe'en, was a special late-night adventure for them with the full moon to light their way. Tonight, nobody'd see them lurking in the deep shadows around the cemetery's edge. And it was important they sneak quietly into the Old Haine Family Crypt, where Schoenberg's supposedly hidden the Bust of Mozart.

They reviewed their plan one more time and checked their weapons once again – light sabers, death rays and catalytic gravitational destabilizers, all tuned to the key of C Major – and, satisfied, entered the cemetery. They followed the footpath around the corner to the wall and from there to the entrance of the Haine Family Mausoleum.

“Look,” Sprout pointed, “someone's been here – recently, too. Several, judging from the footprints.”

“Schoenberg, probably – and his eleven minions,” Jabal whispered.

“Well, let's go save the Bust of Mozart.” Gumby descended into the crypt.

The Haine Crypt was a familiar setting for the Tonic Avengers, where most of their adventures took place, usually at night. Their going here often got them into trouble, usually with the cemetery's groundskeeper.

But tonight they sensed something was different as soon as they stepped inside.

“Hold on, guys,” Riadne said. “What's that smell?”

Their eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness yet as flashlights pierced the gloom.

“It's a cemetery,” Gumby said. “Cemeteries smell weird.”

“Yeah, but Gumbo, she's right, man,” Jabal said, trying to hide his nerves.

It certainly wasn't anything they'd smelled in this crypt before, dry or musty; in fact, if anything, something here smelled fresh.

It was Sprout who stumbled against a mound beside the old stone sarcophagus, but it was Riadne who lifted the rug. Underneath the stiffening rug, they found a woman, eyes staring, throat hideously slashed.

And when they stopped running, almost out of breath from all their screaming, they'd reached the safety of the parking lot and saw lights had come on in several houses beyond the cemetery wall. What they should do next was up for discussion, Mozart's bust or not, as soon as thoughts could become coherent words.

Gumby pointed out as the Tonic Avengers they had a duty to protect the world from evil and call the police. Jabal quickly pointed out, “that was no game – that was a real body!”

There was discussion about their getting in trouble for being out this late, about trespassing on cemetery grounds, maybe vandalizing tombs, creating a disturbance after screaming bloody murder themselves, running away like little girls.

“But who would've seen us? There can't be any witnesses who saw us.”

“Maybe there are security cameras around the cemetery?”

“And what did we see, anyway,” Sprout argued, “a body in a crypt. Maybe they're getting ready for a funeral tomorrow.”

“Except they usually prepare bodies for burial in a funeral home,” Riadne argued.

Then Sprout started searching his pockets with a sense of quickly increasing dread. “Hey, you guys, did anybody take my flashlight?” The official Tonic Avengers Light Saber also had Sprout's address written on it. “We have to go back and get it.”

“You mean, you have to go back and get it: it's your responsibility.”

As Sprout nervously tiptoed back toward the cemetery, a car pulled around the corner and nailed him right in its headlights. As it came to a stop, he froze, unsure which way to run.

“Stop right there, son,” the voice called through the night. “It's the police.” Sprout was sure it was Schoenberg in disguise.

A short kid, white, 13, wearing dark jeans, a black hoodie with a black cape and mask – yeah, nothing suspicious here.

“You happen to know about some screaming kids, son?” the cop asked him.

The boy explained to him what happened, how they were playing this game, how they found this body in the crypt.

The officer followed the boy into the crypt and pulled back the rug.

“Tango, here,” the policeman said into his radio. “Yeah, tell Narder I found DiVedremo's missing rug – it's wrapped around her body.”

= = = = = = =

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.

Monday, September 24, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 7 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, after moving their cars to make it look less suspicious to anyone watching Purdue's house, our intrepid team – Amanda Wences, Dorothy Minnim, Martin Crotchet, Cameron Pierce, and Dr. Kerr – try to unlock access to Clara, Tom's Artificial Creativity program, to see if he'd left any clues concerning what may have happened to him in the back-up copy. Once again, Kerr has one of those funny moments where he suddenly finds himself in a hospital room not long after Purdue's heart surgery back in May, and after he started coming to, Purdue begins to explain what he's been working on. All this begins to dissolve into the mists of memory when Kerr hears an automated voice: “How do you wish Clara to help, Master?”

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

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



Their brows sweating even without any serious exertion, the two men continued hauling several cases over to the basement's far side, part of the broad open space designated for the make-shift lab's main room where, once they started cracking open the cases, they would begin to assemble the doctor's necessary tables, lamps, and equipment racks. Beyond that, Agent Moritásgeroth said he would take care of the assembly himself, hooking up all the various machines and monitors because he'd already indicated he wouldn't trust them with the “delicately detailed work.” Agent Machaon's assistant, flying in from San Francisco, proved a very officious person, detail oriented and not prone to small talk, which was fine if F-1 and F-2 had anything to say about it. He was all business, everything cut and dry – “put this here, that there” – giving them only what they needed to know.

While Moritásgeroth was busy directing Falx's henchmen between the tunnel and the staircase, mapping out each piece's position in his mind, Perdita Vremsky tried not to look bored or impatient waiting for Falx's return. He'd already been gone several minutes too long: how many secret agents does it take to turn off a light bulb? She told him about seeing that light on the second floor at Purdue's place and didn't want anything to attract attention. The last thing she needed was having policemen next door looking for Purdue.

Once the last of the cases had been positioned and the two henchmen had started to break open the packing seals, Moritásgeroth took Vremsky aside and explained how he would need all this space.

“I afraid this place barely adequate for needs, yes? – such lowly ceilings and...”

“Best my agents could do on short notice...”

“Oh, and other thing – let's dispense with ridiculously cumbersome names we've been assigned, Agent Luvyatór, or whatever I call you, yes? While I'm saddled with this five-syllabled Celtic monstrosity, please – call me Iván Govnózny.”

“It's Lóviator,” she nodded, shaking his hand, “but good evening, Dr Ivan Govnozny. My real identity... – my name is Perdita Vremsky.”

“Ah, so you Russian, too, eh?” Govnozny said, betraying his thick Russian accent.

“My grandfather was an emigrée following the Revolution. I don't speak the language.”

“So he was intellectual?”

“The opposite – an aristocrat.”

Trying not to act surprised when she heard the basement door fly open and footsteps hurrying down the stairs behind her, concerned perhaps it might be the FBI who'd trailed her from the hotel, Vremsky turned to find Falx, nearly breathless, descending two steps at a time, not returning as expected through the tunnel entrance. His fedora was slightly askew and his black trench coat looked badly wrinkled but, worse, there was mud on his shoes and he had that panicked expression on his face he was being chased.

Vremsky, quickly pulling herself together, gave the intruder an equally quick head-to-foot scan, indignant at being interrupted, furious at being surprised. Her lips began to tremble as if they could erupt with withering consequences.

“Agent Lóviator!” Falx, wheezing, tried to catch his breath, thoughts stumbling over words. “I'm afraid we've got ourselves a little snaggle.”

Without waiting for the explosion, Falx explained how he had gone next door, entered the neighbor's house through the basement tunnel, and turned off the light someone had left on in the upstairs bathroom. “No sooner had I outened the light than I heard a commotion downstairs – suddenly I was aware we... – I – had visitors!”

Naturally, this blocked his escape, especially once they quickly disappeared into the basement, leaving no other route than the back door. “Then I tripped over a stone – some idiot's been digging in the yard...”

“Shouldn't the place be empty? Who was it? What were they looking for?” Vremsky tried to appear more inquisitive than alarmed. “Any idea how many of them were there? Could anyone have seen you?”

“No idea, maybe a dozen – could be more.” Falx brushed off his coat. “Maybe less – talkative bunch, though. Couldn't really tell.”

“It's probably that black cat again,” F-2 said, “out diggin' in the yard.” He and F-1 had stopped momentarily to listen.

“Cat's don't dig holes like that,” F-1 argued. “Maybe it's a neighbor's dog?”

“More importantly, what if it were the police, poking around looking for Purdue? You'd been telling me he lives next door.” She jerked her head toward a corner room and seemed even less pleased.

“I don't think they're police,” Falx said, “there's only one car out front. Who'd notice the old man was missing already?”

“It doesn't matter,” she practically yelled, “you abducted him at gunpoint yesterday afternoon – and now the police have probably been tipped off by some nosy neighbor and nobody's seen him for over 24 hours.” And in broad daylight, she hastened to add, if that wasn't bad enough, before there'd been any directive to abduct him.

But then F-1 remembered that odd sight after they'd parked the van across from the mausoleum before he closed everything up. “Good thing they hadn't arrived any earlier and seen what we were doing.”

He and his brother had just finished unloading the last boxes of that doctor's equipment, parking the van up at the other end because that part of the tunnel was a good deal shorter. That was when Falx called and said they needed to bring the van in to take care of a “little snaggle.” He told them to dump it the crypt for now, then later on take it down to Purdue's basement. They had to finish up Moritásgeroth's lab, first, so they'd come back later.

Anyway, they'd finished cleaning up after Falx's little snaggle when all these cars suddenly pulled into the lot beside their van. Five people scrambled out, ran around, then piled into one car and left. He hadn't gotten around to telling Falx, yet: they'll deal with it later. There was still plenty of time for that.

First things first, Vremsky thought, after checking her phone and seeing the time, already running far too late in the day: it was necessary she inform Osiris that Moritásgeroth's equipment was being set up, ending up abbreviating the agent's name to “Mo” since it was easier to type and anyway he'd know what she meant.

“No point telling her what I'd seen back at the crypt,” F-1 considered, thinking about that lame Chinese Fire-Drill he'd witnessed. Could these be the same people Falx was talking about being next door?

He didn't think they looked like real policemen, and three of them were more like grandparents, too old to be cops. “Probably just a family carpooling before going out for dinner. Speaking of which...”

After sending her update, it crossed Vremsky's mind the visitors next door might be SHMRG agents, something she should look into.

Moritásgeroth – or rather, Dr Govnozny – had told her SHMRG was in Philadelphia with their big concert tomorrow night at Kimmel Center, one of their loathsome populist extravaganzas designed to lure in would-be music lovers, but did that mean they were here looking for Purdue and his research – but, if so, why were they after him?

Vremsky felt it was quite the coup, however inadvertently it had been accomplished, beating SHMRG to the goal, finding Purdue first. Perhaps she should cut Agent Falx some slack and call it “beginner's luck.”

But Osiris had said SHMRG was after the work Purdue was doing on Artificial Creativity – whatever reason they'd want that for – so was getting hold of Purdue himself then only part of their goal? Or was that even their goal at all if all they wanted were the files and notebooks he'd been working on?

She should have her agents check the house to see whatever they'd find rather than wait for Purdue to tell them. “What if SHMRG is already over there, clearing everything out as we speak?”

Falx was helping Govnozny unpack boxes of equipment, assembling monitors and wiring up computers that would eventually fit into the racks. Motioning him over, Vremsky asked if he'd seen any computers in Purdue's basement.

Yes, he'd noticed a couple computers there surrounded by lots of take-out containers – “Figured I'd grab some on my way back.”

But since he couldn't because the arrival of those people blocked his escape, maybe he could go back after they'd left. “There was Thai food and maybe some Indian,” reviewing it in his mind.

“I'm not interested in what food they had, you farking maladroit – the computers!” Really, any sense of forgiveness was gone, now.

Vremsky's outburst got the others' attention, especially F-2 who questioned the psuedo-vulgarity “farking,” while F-1 was feeling a bit insulted himself, given their supervisor's boss had just “disrespected” him in front of his staff.

Noticing their glances as they tried to hide their embarrassment at her bullying, Vremsky brought her tone down a couple notches. It was unnerving, looking into Falx's bug-eyed sunglasses, unable to read any response. “Look, we need to find where Purdue stored his research, on which computer. Can you go back tonight and steal them?”

Falx shrugged his shoulders, not moving his eyes off her pudgy little face and the uncertainty he could see registering there. He knew how he looked with these sunglasses; that's why he wore them. He was wondering if she saw the resemblance to a praying mantis, too, something fearless and capable of striking without warning?

“It's not necessary to 'steal' them, Agent Lóviator,” not hiding his geekish disdain. Maybe she's the boss but she's no expert. “I'll simply download the contents onto USB drives. It's how we do it.”

Govnozny continued shuffling between different crates and work-tables trying to ignore this “dust-up” as the installation moved into its next phase, and pointed out where the main operating table should go once finally assembled.

“This is largest room, yes?” taking the place in with some geekish disdain of his own, completely ignoring Vremsky and Falx.

He looked around the basement with his beady eyes squinting behind thick glasses, concerned his mental inventory was not adding up.

“Everything from van, it has been brought in?”

F-1 nodded.

“Nothing still outside?”

Trying not to look peeved, F-1 opened the door leading to the tunnel to reveal, alas, some half-dozen smaller cardboard boxes resting forgotten on top of one medium-sized crate which they'd left for last.

“Ah, right...” He remembered the larger box, now; despite not being that big, it was easily the heaviest of the lot.

By the time they heaved it into place, both of Falk's agents, neither strong, hulking men, were ready for a break. They viewed themselves more as intellectuals, physical labor not something they genuinely understood. Identical twins, one was Yanni and the other, his exact duplicate, Vinny – the Punimayo Twins. The question was, which was which?

Trying not to look impatient, Govnozny declared they were “at long last” done with the initial unloading part of their assignment. “Take fifteen-minute break, then we start next phase. That will be more fun.”

To ease the tension between them, Vremsky went over to the far corner where Falx said her prisoner was being kept, a dusty, dark and still fairly dank room once used to store coal.

After Falx unlocked the door, she saw a man bound, gagged and asleep.

“Why is he in this old, over-stuffed armchair?”

“It's the closest thing we had handy – it was my grandmother's favorite chair. Seemed reasonable to keep Old Doc Purdue comfortable.”

So how was she to torture her prisoner, tied to a comfy chair?

“Nana said it went back to the Spanish Inquisition – I hadn't expected that...”

There was an awkward pause before Vremsky spoke.

“And why would she think that, Agent Falx? Clearly, it's early-1940s, at best.”

Cocking his head to the right, his eyes rolled unnoticed behind the sunglasses. Seriously, the woman had no sense of humor...

While F-1 and F-2 wandered off up the steps to find some quiet corner of the kitchen to enjoy a smoke, they continued their age-old argument about the early evolution of the sonata-allegro form. Govnozny unpacked some of the smaller boxes, assembling yet more monitors and machines after uncoiling yards of cables to connect them.

The basement had been better than Vremsky imagined, considering her first impression earlier. Seeing Ripa's googled image, the exterior appeared haunted. She couldn't imagine trying to explain this one to Moritásgeroth much less Osiris.

But the basement had been completely transformed during the past few weeks' renovations: certainly, the decrepit exterior was a good ruse. Who would see the run-down property and suspect it's the Aficionati's regional headquarters? Unfortunately, when shown the kitchen, she realized the upstairs had hardly been touched and felt like somebody homeless in a squat.

Falx explained, once the additional grant from Aficionati Central Financing would be approved, he would start the transformation of the upstairs, all while maintaining the overall run-down look of the outside, with minor adjustments. But the general idea was basically the same: mask the windows and create a whole new interior within the old framework.

Like the basement's walls, reinforced with layers of stone and lined with cork, impervious to extraneous noises and neighborhood wifi vampires. No sound got in or out: no one outside would hear you scream.

Falx checked Purdue's vital signs and determined he might have used more sedative than really necessary before going to meet Vremsky. The old man was still passed out cold and hadn't eaten his lunch. Judging from the mess on the floor, he had probably been sick earlier, too. That was F-2's job, checking him hourly. That's was something they didn't teach you in Secret Agent School, the care and maintenance of prisoners once you've captured them; that particular chapter ended with interrogating them and then disposing of the bodies.

But the past few hours everybody's been pre-occupied with this new guy's arrival and so far Falx new little about him, what's going on, why his house was being turned into an emergency laboratory. Yet he thought it was odd, watching his immediate supervisor, secret organization aside, Lóviator was telling him so little about it.

Falx – or given his real identity, Graham Ripa – had spent considerable time in this old house when he was a child and that he'd turned it over to the Aficionati should count for something. As far as his standing in the organization was concerned, didn't that contribution automatically put him in line for immediate advancement? Instead they saddle him with this lame excuse of a “farking maladroit,” a bit of a troglodyte herself, as his supervisor. Did they expect to motivate him with someone like her in the way?

“If SHMRG really is getting this close and they're already after his software,” she was saying, regardless if he were listening, “we must get Purdue to talk and soon – otherwise, it'll be too late.”

“Listen to her,” he thought, watching her carefully, how she moved and spoke, “straight out of an old James Bond movie!”

Didn't she know that he and his fellow students had considered James Bond “ancient history” even down to his out-moded technology? Why would anybody consider modeling themselves after James Bond in a comic-book world?

That was the problem with these Classical Music nerds, growing up with old things for role-models: they don't understand what's relevant. That's why Fate chose to drop Thomas Purdue into his hands – not hers.

Just then there was a loud knock at the door, grabbing their attention. Vremsky pushed past him, very much in charge.

Govnozny stood in the doorway, rapping on the frame to get her attention. “Sand trickles through hour-glass even as we speak.” Science has proven multi-tasking, he reminded her, was an unproductive use of time. That she could have other things to attend to was not his concern. Regardless, he expected her full cooperation and concentration. Even though technically he was Machaon's assistant and therefore inferior to her in the Aficionati hierarchy, Osiris had “highlighted” his project. No amount of bureaucratic bickering overrode the fact his presence here took precedence.

She had already argued with him in the van on their return from the airport until he showed her Osiris' letter-of-intent, how her career in arts administration would suffer if she failed to cooperate. “Multi-tasking is what I do, it's what we're trained to do,” she argued, “and it's how we keep everything running smoothly.”

Govnozny's only reply was to wave Osiris' letter in her face and repeat, “the world of classical music is very methodical. It's a byzantine world of privilege and knowledge, full of ritual and compliance.”

Vremsky heard this argument often enough, how they were “keepers of the flame” (yet remember what happened to the Byzantine Empire). “Even Beethoven multi-tasked, working on several compositions at the same time,” she argued, but that wasn't something likely to faze him.

“Yes,” he had responded, “that may be, but we are not all Beethovens.”

Badger-like in appearance – appropriate for one named, however cumbersomely, for a Celtic badger-god, much less for a Celtic badger-god of healing – Moritásgeroth stood there, his shoulders bowed, hands clasped reverentially across his broad chest. His hair was steel-gray along the temples, but still black otherwise except for a narrow white stripe along the center part. Beady eyes, myopic from years of close work spent in the operating room, appeared abnormally magnified behind unusually thick, black-framed glasses. A pointy nose, thin lips and large teeth made for a disconcerting smile.

With his broad frame over short legs, Govnozny had the stance of someone who might have been deemed a natural wrestler. He was certainly considered scrappy enough, an “intellectual wrestler,” he used to joke. To him, any argument was a competitive match-up and few could out-maneuver him. Even at his age, he was still formidable.

And formidable was what was needed to get his assignment completed in time, a high priority with or without Osiris' endorsement. Plus he could only guess what consequences failure would bring down on him. If he was to have his assignment ready by the concert tomorrow evening, there was no time to waste on niceties. He fondly recalled years of training as a young man in the KGB during the waning days of the Soviet Empire. These did more than hone his technical skills and sharpen his keen imagination.

“I realize your project about the newly acquired knowledge with Dr Purdue's work in Artificial Creativity is important,” Govnozny told her, “but in terms of my project, yours more, how you say, long term.”

“Without his research,” Vremsky countered, “if the old man dies before it's recovered, all Osiris will have is a dead body.”

Even if they had all of Purdue's work at hand and the men who understood it – not to mention, he pointed out, if it were even the least bit useful – didn't mean the Aficionati's current major project (of which his was, as Govnozny called it, a “prefatory action”) was any closer to being successfully implemented.

They continued to dance around their surrounding's short-comings which Govnozny considered “grossly inadequate,” something Vremsky was careful not to contradict whole-heartedly. “I'd consider it short notice, descending on us with only an hour's warning.”

Given the tangled organization typical of a society intent on preserving its legacy, things moved slowly through the Aficionati's upper echelon and took forever, as expected, to trickle down to those in the middle. The “current major project” Govnozny continued to invoke was only one such example, something Vremsky had been hearing about for years, wherever it originated, whoever (at her level) knew, not that it really mattered, since eventually it would become every agent's goal. It was initially called, in deference to the Great Wolfgang Amadeus, the “Mobot.”

What this was, when anybody explained it to anyone who needed to know – and few needed more than the mere basics – was a remote-controlled robot that could infiltrate the camps of the Aficionati's adversaries. Making the robot lifelike was a considerable challenge, humanoid enough to be undetectable, yet only recently had this been deemed “unrealistic.”

Long dismissed as a dream of science fiction, the plan languished until someone realized Middle Eastern extremists already created the prototype, one that gave whatever faith-based organization controlling it a supreme amount of power. A suicidal fanatic with a bomb can kill untold numbers in his proximity and spread far greater damage by fear alone. Even with only a dozen dead, thousands more may be affected by its very unexpectedness: where would another one strike next? The terrorist's invention of the suicide bomber was indeed a stroke of brilliance.

Lacking the spiritual indoctrination of most religious extremists, unsure mere enthusiasm was sufficient, the Aficionati decided by turning humans into robots and having over them some amount of control, they could achieve similar results. The question now was could they create some kind of mind-control device that would successfully overcome Western Man's squeamishness about self-destruction? Govnozny's idea had been a subdermal implant which, when activated, would take over the brain, turning a human into a robot. The question was how and where to implant what explosives – yet remain undetectable?

Old Machaon and his Munich lab were working on a radio-receiver implant device that could be useful in controlling a robot. The problem was one of communications, some coded message that couldn't be intercepted. But “Mack” was getting old and might retire before reaching the final goal. This experiment's success was crucial to Govnozny's advancement.

Ivan Govnozny grew up in Russia, coming of age in the turbulent times when the Soviet Union was ready to collapse, a young scientist in the KGB's Research Division like his father before him, his grandfather, likewise named Ivan, once a member of Stalin's dreaded NKVD back in the glory days of the Great Terror. Little had changed from more recent troubles to the rise of Vladimir Putin, now that the KGB once again ruled Russia, and like many Soviet agents, Govnozny decided to find rebirth among the Capitalists. Employed by one of the less prudent oligarchs who disappeared in the early-1990s, he drifted from one corporate lab to another before finding a home in one of the Aficionati's facilities in St. Petersburg. Having caught Machaon's attention during an international convention, Govnozny returned with him to Munich where he spent the last ten years.

During the past few, Govnozny – now Agent Moritásgeroth – became Machaon's Chief Assistant Liaison Engineer with Agent Hephaestus of the London branch, one of Osiris' key agents in research and production of technology and gadgetry. Between them, they developed the components this experiment was to prove or disprove and Govnozny knew his reputation depended on success. What Machaon had been unaware of was the extent to which Govnozny worked under Osiris' direct supervision, going against hierarchical regulations. Failure would definitely lower his standing with Osiris but also destroy Mack's trust.

What Govnozny developed, free of Machaon's supervision, and was now ready to test was a plastic device smaller than an earbud inserted directly into the brain where it would be undetectable on most scanners. If some body scan did reveal its presence, the subject would automatically respond it was a surgical implant following “the accident.” The question remained, given the size of most humans, how much C-4 such a device could contain and still be effective? It wasn't four pounds in a fanny pack but that wasn't the point.

Others might quibble about how ethical this was, testing it on a human, but what was the point destroying a perfectly good million dollar robot if the technology failed to live up to expectations? Though it worked effectively in cantaloupes and watermelons, it lacked the impact of spattering everyone with real blood and brain matter.

How many would such a detonation kill also needed to be tested: how effective could this be, depending on the setting? Was it something worth pursuing if the number of casualties was only minimal? By tomorrow evening, Govnozny's men, a team supplied by the scientific research division of Hephaestus' London organization, would be in place. But before they could proceed, Govnozny's device had to be ready to activate, the subject chosen and the surgical implant completed. This is why, he explained to Vremsky, he'd tolerate no more “useless delays.”

The target, of course, was the SHMRG gala, one of Skripasha Scricci's extravaganzas, planned for tomorrow evening at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. Govnozny wanted the human Mobot to explode backstage, somewhere within range of Scricci. But he liked Osiris' suggestion of planting the person in the audience instead, a more public display with greater shock value.

There was still a question where they'll be directed to find their subject, snatching up some homeless person or addict somewhere, perhaps a young mother on her way back from her child's piano lesson? Vremsky thought perhaps one of the people next door, whatever they were, might be possible candidates: certainly, they were conveniently located.

She glanced uncomfortably at the coal room where her prisoner was being held. “Well, under no circumstances will it be Purdue.”

“No,” Govnozny smiled, his beady eyes glistening, “I didn't think it would be.”

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

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.

Friday, September 21, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 6 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, we caught up with N. Ron Steele, the disgraced CEO of SHMRG who's being hunted by the International Music Police and the FBI for various musical crimes as well as his involvement in several murders. His current “undisclosed location” is an island in the South Pacific, where he is accompanied by his trusted secretary, Holly Burton, and his I.T. Guy, Agent Bill Cable who has discovered a new project that might help restore SHMRG's fortunes. It seems some has-been composer named Thomas Purdue has developed an Artificial Creativity program called “Clara,” though Steele (who's using the pseudonym Rex Fisher at the moment) is not quite so impressed.

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

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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


Both tables around Tom's computer, wherever there was space, were littered with numerous white cardboard take-out containers and a pizza box, more than I'd imagined necessary to feed the five of us, waiting patiently, the air thick with the mixed scents of Chinese, Thai, meatloaf and pepperoni washed down with beer, soda or plain water. I doubted Purdue's dark and almost musty basement ever smelled like this before, certainly not so noisy as it was now, while Zeno looked on with some confusion, watching us from the bottom step. With Cameron and I, take-out in hand, hovering around behind her right shoulder and Martin and Dorothy leaning over her left, Amanda, once Purdue's computer started humming back to life, inserted the flash drive. Ironic, I thought, considering we were hoping this would answer all our questions, proof Clara was in fact alive and well.

Amanda first tried the computer in Purdue's study – I'd noticed a blister pack for a USB drive in the wastebasket, there – and while it took forever to boot up, you could feel the anticipation. But the computer couldn't read anything on the drive, insisting it was empty; using another port kept bringing up error messages. Shutting the computer off along with all the lights, we trooped back downstairs, grabbed some dinner and headed into the basement. We realized by now anticipation was not enough to feed our growing hunger.

When anticipation mounts, we expect it to resolve in a satisfying way which was how we felt leaving the dance school until we realized those police cars we'd heard were parked down the street. And there, right beside our getaway car, stood the unmistakable figure of Detective Narder silhouetted against the headlights: we'd been trapped. They must've been called because someone reported a break-in at the dance school, so the proverbial jig was once again up. Fortunately, Dorothy's skill as a sweet grandmotherly type convinced Narder nothing was amiss.

After driving around partially lost while trying to lose anyone on our tail – policemen or SHMRG agents – we returned to Purdue's. How odd it must look to neighbors, all those cars parked in front. Between the five of us were four cars – was Tom throwing a party? Wouldn't the police be suspicious, all those cars?

Before we did anything else, I suggested we'd better move the cars to the parking lot across from the cemetery entrance. Amanda said it was where the Old Albert Ross House stood years ago. We'd each drive our cars there, Cameron ferrying all of us back in mine, hoping none of the neighbors would notice. Just to be safe, if the police or agents from SHMRG were watching, we decided Martin should keep the flash drive. He joked if approached by anyone particularly nefarious, he would swallow the drive.

Dorothy thought this was all too much bother, acting like a bunch of conspiracy theorists seeing “dark possibilities” everywhere we turned. “Next thing, we'll have to run to the store for some aluminum foil.”

“But, Dorothy,” Martin asked, “what if that police detective – Narder? – comes to check on Tom and recognizes your car?”

“Or me!”

As cars slowly filed away from Purdue's house, I wondered what happened to the police cruiser keeping the place under surveillance. The whole operation took only a few minutes; with any luck, nobody'd noticed. Once back, we first threaded our way upstairs to Tom's study, where Amanda told Martin she was ready for the drive.

He started riffling through various pockets trying to find the thing but couldn't, fretting maybe he'd dropped it in the car. In one pocket he found some cough drops. “Oh, wait, here it is...”

Then we trooped to the basement hoping this time would be better: “what if it doesn't work with that one, either?” I was always skeptical about technological inconsistencies which for me happened quite often. “What's the point of having a back-up device which becomes obsolete next year if you never know you can re-open it?”

This always irritated Cameron who insisted files were safer on a back-up drive, were easier to store and to copy from. “Unlike paper copies which burn in a fire.”

“No, I imagine these'd melt.”

Amanda inserted the drive into one of the USB ports and, after a bit of hesitation, announced it started to open, followed by a unison five-part sigh as we watched it whirr into life. The menu listed only a handful of files, some of them audio files, including one considerably larger text file marked “Tonality.”

“Perhaps it's an analysis of the Clara pieces,” she suggested. “These are wav.-files for the audio and pdf.-files for the scores.”

“Don't forget, 'key' is another word for tonality, like the Key of C.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “files that would unlock the program and reactivate the software – of course, the missing 'key'!” We all cheered.

Then Cameron and Amanda looked at each other, both wondering if it would be safe to re-install this. Amanda momentarily hesitated.

“What are we looking for? Maybe the Professor removed this for a reason?”

Martin spoke first. “I'm assuming we're hoping to find some clue as to what Purdue was afraid of, where he might have gone: did he disabled Clara for a reason before choosing to disappear?”

“Maybe there's some coded reference – not computer code...” Dorothy took another bite of the meatloaf and pronounced it “quite good, actually.”

“Assuming we're hoping to locate Tom and either help him or rescue him, he might have 'told' Clara where he'd go.” That and we also needed to give him an alibi for the police.

The only way, Martin and Dorothy agreed, was to activate Clara to see if Tom had left a message with her. “Removing the key would keep anyone else from getting in to ask her.”

“We can always re-delete it when we're done.” Amanda looked up at me. “Well, let's hope I know what I'm doing.”


Wasn't that what Tom had said to me that afternoon I'd visited him while he was still recuperating in the hospital? When was that, back in May? – like five months ago, right before exams. It seemed years ago, now, when I'd gotten that e-mail from Purdue's assistant, a student intern of his named Amanda Wences. She wrote to inform me of “the Professor's” heart attack and surgery, how he “could use his friends' thoughts and prayers” which struck me as rather odd since Tom had never been particularly religious. It was several years since he and I had last been in touch, so it's possible something significant may have happened, but even so, facing one's mortality after a heart attack would've been enough. Cameron was finishing up his own final exams, so one beautiful spring-like afternoon, I bravely drove down to Marple by myself.

A hospital probably couldn't look less hopeful on a sunny day, your soul tempered by the world you'd walked in from, faced with fluorescent lights and the scent of sickness, the sense of urgency. The room I was ushered into – I'd just missed “Ms Wences” – was stark, all beige and white, glistening steel, without windows. As if tubes and monitors, beeping screens and this low-frequency hum weren't enough, no matter how well you have prepared yourself, the friend you're here visiting lay there like a computer waiting to re-boot.

Again, it was that odd sensation I was standing in a corner of the room, the proverbial fly on the wall, observing everything that happened then several months ago like it was happening now. There I was, though I looked little different from what I do today, talking to Tom lying there amidst these machines. He looked older then than I remembered from another visit over the summer, not just grayer and paler – maybe more diminished – but tubes sticking out of you and being on oxygen could do that.

It had been a shock to see him like this after not having seen him for, what – five or six years? – wondering what had happened to the friend I'd once been so close to. I remember thinking how I'll need to tell Cameron “definitely no selfies with me after I've come out of any surgery!”

Tom had been gradually swimming to the surface – the nurse mentioned they'd given him something for the pain not long ago – when he furrowed his brow and mumbled something that sounded like “hello, stranger.” The words formed slowly, surfacing just as gradually, how he hoped his brain was still stronger – or better – than his heart.

“You know you need a quorum from both,” I said, pressing his hand, “especially if you intend to keep on kicking?”

“Like one could function without the other,” coming slowly and with considerable effort.

I gave him a sip of water when a nurse came in to check a few things, giving him more pills.

“These pain killers are great,” he told me, “been places you wouldn't believe...”

But he was more concerned about this project of his that's been interrupted.

“Some new piece you're working on?” Great news!

It wasn't a new piece, at least not one he was working on, which made it all sound even more mysterious, but I knew how, when faced with mortality, artists feared for unfinished works. Would there be time left to finish it? If not, what's the point? Feeling lucky to be alive isn't always enough.

That's when he mentioned he'd been experimenting in the field of “Artificial Creativity,” like Artificial Intelligence but geared specifically to composing.

“Well,” he said, taking deep breaths, “let's hope I know what I'm doing.”

When Tom and I went to Faber together, there wasn't much in the way of “technology” to be a geek about: computers were something primitive on the periphery of our lives, toys for scientists. Tom had taken a course in Fortran, one of those computer “languages” offered as an elective, but never talked about it. Some time after we'd gone our separate ways, he'd mentioned having done some work with a computer scientist where he taught. It hadn't been anything more than curiosity, basically, figuring out how they worked. Eventually, over the years, he had become more involved in new technological developments, things that began permeating our newest musical trends. “And not just the notational software for people with sloppy calligraphy like you. But I couldn't hold a candle to these kids writing with their laptops. Instead, I was after the computer's 'creative' potential.”

So, lying there kept alive by these machines – his surgeon had even used a computer to give him a double by-pass – he told me how he'd begun experimenting like some scientist in his garage. “There are things anybody could buy, now, to start some program from scratch, or ways to infiltrate existing programs for material.” He didn't like to think of it as hacking, in so many words, and had no intention of stealing anyone's copyrights. “I'm not planning to sell the program commercially: the thing's just for me.”

Originally, the idea was to develop a program to explore the “diverse potential” of the material he had come up with, “since I'm great with 'ideas' but suck at what to do with them.”

Imagine if Robert Schumann had a machine like this: think of the possibilities, all those great melodies he wrote so easily?

True, Schumann was one of those composers who had difficulty working out the expansion of his material, what theorists called “development.” Unlike Beethoven whose material came with considerable sweat yet unfolded itself so effortlessly.

“Isn't that what serialism was all about, basically,” he had argued decades ago, “distributing creative logic across pre-cognitive patterns – automatic development? You take twelve notes, set them into some order, and there you go. Now you expand that by playing them upside-down, backwards, finally upside-down and backwards. Wasn't this the ultimate game of creative logic?”

Serialism was the principal driving force behind classical music after World War II, the closest thing to a universal stylistic language, and one which alienated the general music-loving audience because of its mathematical abstraction. I'm not sure the “system” was to blame as those who abused its possibilities as an excuse for lack of talent. Many composers became mathematicians sticking to their rigid principles, music's newest academic rules, 19th Century “fugue-churners” reborn with their heartless laws. What's the difference between that and having a computer do it for you?

I had never found serialism a congenial fit – its constant tension lacked resolution – but many of the alternatives were equally unattractive. Atonality – music without a sense of “key” – seemed arbitrary for the same reasons. Neo-tonality sounded either old-fashioned or simplistic, like dredging through left-overs one more time. We'd both agreed there should be another way.

Tom, meanwhile, had started using a looser approach as a place to begin despite “real serialists” saying that wasn't really serialism, until eventually the Style Wheel turned another rotation and serialism was soon deposed. He tried this renewed tonality with rules similar to those we'd learned before but everything sounded derivative, a parody of Romanticism.

Eventually he decided the problem he was facing was either one of sincerity or a lack of willingness to work harder. What if it wasn't combining Intellect and Emotion? What if he lacked talent?

After getting himself more comfortable, he started feeling more alert and began telling me about this “project” he was working on. It began as a simple process to sort out “variable patterns and possibilities.”

“I hadn't intended it as anything beyond that, something to simplify the process but also speed it up, save me time. So I'd plug in note patterns which automatically proliferated into various harmonic ideas and I'd pick the ones I liked best. From there I could figure out what order the best presentation would be.”

He could've come up with them on his own eventually but it would've taken days of sketching and hours of improvising. “It was like having something pre-fabricated to my specifications, then I assembled it.”

This made him curious about what other things he could “make it do.” “So next I plugged in lots of chords.”

By coming up with algorithms created from the resolution of tension permeating the essence of tonality at its most basic level, he was able to produce the equivalent of harmonic progressions using non-traditional chords. “It was like having a book with every possible combination at my fingertips which worked at the click of a mouse.”

Granted, several solutions sounded academic – he could flag those in the computer's database. “Eventually it 'learned' to make certain aesthetic selections. That's why I decided to give it a personality – and call her Clara.”

“So, Dr Kerr.” I could hear Amanda's voice in the distance. “Why do you think the Professor named this computer 'Clara'?”

When I didn't respond right away, Cameron suggested it might be some acronym.

“You mean like 'Computerized Logical Analytic Referential Algorithm”? I could hear Amanda giggle. I could also imagine Martin rolling his eyes.

“No,” Martin said, “it's obvious Tom would have named it after Clara Schumann, muse to her husband Robert – and Brahms, too.”

Dorothy mumbled she was surprised he hadn't named it Odile, speaking of muses.

Tom was about to explain it to me – small wonder I'd forgotten all this: I thought sure he must've been hallucinating. A nurse rushed in with more pills as we faded into the background.

That's when I heard a voice like one of those computerized “virtual assistants.”

“How do you wish Clara to help, Master?”

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

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.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 6 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Amanda introduces Kerr and his friends to "Clara," Purdue's Artificial Creativity software. They decide to retrieve the back-up drive Amanda previously delivered to Patty Beret's School of Dance, not far from Marple Music. But after successfully completing their mission, they discover police cars are parked in front of the earlier crime scene. Narder, Tango & Reel are examining the old crime scene which has apparently been turned into a new crime scene when Narder receives word about a previous part of Purdue's story involves pig's blood...

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

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, it's time to find out what else is going on in the next installment of 

 In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



“It hadn't been a good year for SHMRG, as far as I'm concerned.”

The more he thought about it, it had not been a good several years for SHMRG – or him, for that matter. Thinking back to that summer at Schweinwald and that bastard Robertson Sullivan's opera, he often recalled the moment he'd been shot. The wound didn't seem that serious, at first – that's what his doctor said – except, had it been a half inch to the right or left, he wouldn't be alive today to complain about it. Every time the pain got to him, he'd think “oh, it's great to be alive,” and try not to imagine whether the alternative, given the history of his business empire, might not be preferable. Sometimes, when reality affected his judgment, he'd think maybe it would've been better to go out in a cloud of glory.

N. Ron Steele – though he hadn't used that name officially for some time – has been “on the lam” far too long for his involvement in the murder of composer Robertson Sullivan and “related crimes.” He's been hounded by the International Music Police who've doggedly maintained their search, the FBI threatening imminent arrest upon his return. A criminal forced underground who must travel incognito – on those occasions he can – he's found both Germany and America legally inhospitable. Years of laying low have proven politically pointless, bringing his empire to ruin.

At first, he turned the company – quickly becoming the most powerful music licensing organization on the planet – over to his lieutenant with the understanding he would still call the shots from his undisclosed location. But after fraud and corruption charges surfaced in England following that reality show, things for the company resumed their downward slide. Barely able to escape before the IMP discovered his temporary headquarters outside London, not far from Sullivan's cousin's future husband's home, Steele found himself less and less in control as his hand-picked substitute ascended.

Lucifer Darke had promised to preserve his appointed role as a “care-taker CEO,” looking after Steele's interests in maintaining the company. Yet that wasn't the way things evolved once Darke created his own power-base. He continued to entice Steele's most loyal supporters over to the Darke Side. Soon, Steele would find himself in history's dustbin.

Barely twenty-something when he founded SHMR&G with some colleagues from the recording industry, he nurtured Steele, Haight, Mayme, Rook & Griedman in the late-'80s from his off-Broadway office near Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan. It took a while for them to build up a reputation for ruthlessness, a forerunner of the current Wall Street mentality. In five years' time, the other four principals died or let Steele buy them out, bringing everything under his complete control. He decided to keep the name because he thought the acronym suitably evil.

Starting gradually, he bought up copyrights and licensing agreements with bands and singer-songwriters, then went after broadcast infringements for his artists. That's when he started buying up old, nearly expired copyrights and extending them. Usually, the fines his company's lawyers imposed were more of the nuisance variety, easier to just pay than take to court.

By being vigilant and ruthless, going after the Little Guys of the industry – internet radio, small networks, especially colleges and churches – Rook's legal division amassed millions through such diligence employing surprise and subtle threats. They quickly made a killing with their most gullible target, the Classical Market, before taking on the on-line ticket sales monopoly. After buying up performers' contracts and absorbing artist managements into their corporate fold, Steele decided it was time to invade Europe. He soon had control of a sizable percentage of the world's music industry.

There was even talk 2016 would be the year SHMRG, thanks to “Citizens United,” could run for President as a corporation, but that was before Sullivan's opera ruined everything, unleashing an epic power struggle. Well, Steele won't be the first candidate to start thinking ahead to 2020, with hopes more than his vision would improve. He had hardly built up his company to amass this kind of power for someone else to wrest control from him. Otherwise, what's the point if you can't reap the benefits that power brings?

He should have seen it sooner, noticed the various signs his underlings were becoming corrupted by their power, sensing the possibilities. Definitely, he should have considered culling his staff on a more regular basis. “Especially Darke” – he practically spat out the name! “I trained him well, alas. He'd seen opportunity and took it, ungrateful bastard.”

“All because Sullivan threatened to unmask me,” Steele would grumble in his solitude, “whoever the hell he was to challenge me.” He'd uncovered unsavory details of Steele's rise to power and wrote an opera. Robertson Sullivan was nothing but a sniveling little composer and useless music professor. “Yes, he was rich, but I was richer!”

Of course, everybody said he was over-imagining things, that Sullivan couldn't possibly have known, everything in his opera was a coincidence. But the International Music Police were on to him and why? Sullivan's opera!

So here he was, in yet another “hidey-hole,” still reeling from his injury, the bullet wound that never seemed to heal, barely hanging on to a mere shred of what was once his power. He couldn't even let his most trusted followers know his latest undisclosed location, living behind a constantly changing curtain of encryption.

How long could all this subterfuge last before the IMP finally found him, before Darke had figured out where he was? How long before the money ran out and his loyal base drifted away?

Sullivan, whom he'd only meant to threaten so he'd withdraw his damnable opera, had been inadvertently killed by an accident-prone operative. Yet those IMP fucktards dared charge him with “complicity” because he'd “ordered” it!

Even his earlier crimes were being held against him – and for what reason? Because he had become too rich and powerful.

A dowdy woman wearing a flowered apron, her graying hair in a bun, wearing out-dated harlequin glasses accentuating her near-sighted squint, carried in an old silver tray, like her slightly tarnished, with mismatched cups. There was very little left that did match, she knew, but no matter: her boss rarely bothered with such pointless details. Speaking of whom, she noticed he had been grumbling when she came in, no doubt in some far off, nasty place. That was when he seemed happiest, she figured, with something to complain about.

Not wanting to disturb his reverie, she carefully placed the tray beside him, despite the table being slightly beyond his reach. As usual, she sat down across from him on the veranda and waited. It was going to be a warm afternoon with a good steady breeze. Enjoying the sunlight, she adjusted her chair accordingly.

Steele was awake, sitting in the shadows toward the back of the porch, sheltered from both the sun and the breeze, but then he often pretended to be asleep when Holly brought the coffee. He couldn't believe how frumpy she'd become, especially in the last five years; even her conversational skills had become incredibly tedious.

Not that he had remained the vital, vibrant, dashing “young man of yore” he had been when he'd founded the company. But his festering “Amfortas Wound” was a pretty good excuse – what was hers?

Why was it, wherever they found a place to hide, there were problems – much less crises – he had to cope with? Holly thought this was a “delightful island paradise,” sounding like some travel brochure. Wasn't a small island four hundred miles south of Tahiti an improvement over that freezing castle in the highlands outside Glasgow? She was adjusting pleasantly to the “native life” – an image Steele found disturbing – but it saddened her nothing appealed to him. What was the point of living if you couldn't enjoy anything around you?

Of course, part of her job, aside from being his nurse and secretary, was to reduce the stress in his life. As if living your own idyll in the South Pacific couldn't eliminate stress! Then he threatened to charge her licensing fees whenever she hummed “Bali H'ai.” No wonder she'd begun calling him “Old Fuckface.”

After a while, Steele knew, Holly would get tired of waiting out his game of 'possum, sitting there like a silhouette, and take her coffee cup to go back inside and get lunch ready. The coffee was barely palatable, hardly coffee at all, some “froo-froo” flavor that was, like everything else here (except Holly), “pretty.” Lunch he'd “wake up” for, unless it was some other kind of fish – that's all these people ate around here: seafood. What he wouldn't do for a big thick juicy steak right about now.

That was the trouble, here, everything was pretty, nothing had substance (especially Holly), like some dream never getting closer to reality. So every day, you wake up, nothing's changed – and you feel like screaming. It's bad enough everybody here either spoke French or God knows what they called that gibberish the handful of natives spoke.

What he wouldn't give to be back living in his New York penthouse looking out across Central Park toward Lincoln Center, but his usurper Lucifer Darke lived there now, taking over home and empire. Ever since that fiasco in London brought the IMP down on his hideout, Steele's revenge was only a matter of time.

And once he's won it all back, he wouldn't trade places with Darke – no, he had something far worse in mind, the only thing that kept him going in the middle of the night.

Being in the middle of nowhere – or directly south and slightly to the east of the middle of nowhere, looking at the battered globe on his desk – made interaction with the world a challenge, half-way between South America and Australia on a tiny dot in the ocean, one Steele can't even find on this globe. But thanks to the wonders of technology and the magic of the internet, sitting on his bit of volcanic rock and coral, surrounded by ocean, was not quite the exile Napoleon experienced after Waterloo.

Lonely, yes, with only his loyal secretary Holly Burton and his presumably loyal IT guy, Bill Cable, supplied by his master of technology, Montague Banks (who, for personal reasons, located himself in Los Angeles). The household staff, a local cook and a maid, came in only three times a week, but they spoke no English.

Holly had been with him since the beginning of the company, the sole surviving member of his staff from those days, indispensable not only to his running the company but also keeping him alive. For much of that time, they had been lovers, but like many older married couples, things dissolved into a stable companionship. Cable, new to his immediate household, had joined them before they left Scotland, as usual one step ahead of the IMP. Banks had been grooming him over the years to take over SHMRG's technology.

From here, between encrypted e-mails and the wizardry of Skype like the magic decoder rings and imaging telemetry of his childhood, Steele – disguised as an aging invalid named Rex Fischer – tried ruling his world. In daily communication with his main offices in Los Angeles and New York, he was still “in the thick of things.” Perhaps much of the day-to-day operations had been delegated to his loyal underlings but it was enough to keep Darke wary. Steele controlled the larger share of the company and could still prove dangerous.

Yet not even Darke knew what Steele was up to, where he was, how he was spending this “leave of absence.” Brilliant as he was with the bureaucracy, Darke still lacked the necessary imagination. It was, however, a matter of time before Darke would force him out. Steele knew he must get there first – soon.

As long as Steele could maintain control over the major part of the shares and the greater share of the board, there was very little Darke could manage except to continue plotting the coup which had occupied most of his thoughts since that episode in London when the pendulum of power had begun to shift. Steele had let things slide while he thought he could rest, thinking Darke competent at least for the general day-to-day before realizing Skripasha Scricci's reality show about child prodigies included prodigious amounts of mismanagement.

The IMP's charges of fraud and embezzlement against SHMRG went back too far to manage laying all the blame on Darke, leaving Steele (in his disguise as Osmond Goodwood) barely time to escape unnoticed. Fines were paid and minions were sacked – except for Scricci, his management skills deemed non-existent, who served time in a sanatorium.

While in his incapacitated state Steele was seen as weak, aimless and vulnerable (as Darke made the most of his absence), the IMP's multiple murder charges raised Steele's cachet within the company's corporate perception. Such long-term ruthlessness, kept hidden for several decades, only increased the regard and needless to say the devotion of SHMRG's board.

Even though the fines the IMP levied were a mere nuisance, Darke bragged, he couldn't brag with the menace Steele radiated. It didn't matter what Darke did, in fact: Steele was revered as Better.

The best thing about lunch was having it served by the young maid Holly hired to clean three times a week, as perfect and innocent a personification as Holly claimed the island was itself. Her name was Nanahi Mo'e which apparently meant, according to her mother, the cook, “Keep Fucking Paws Off My Little Flower.” She was beautiful to look at, charming in her deference, graceful in manner, and above all totally subservient in her attitude. The fact she spoke no English made the need for conversation completely irrelevant. The cook, whom everybody called Margarita, was her polar opposite in many ways except the long black hair and almond-shaded skin which made Steele wonder if “Nahi” wouldn't grow up to become her mother. He knew enough to smile and nod and nothing more since he also knew how easily his food could be poisoned.

Steele imagined Holly strolling down to the village, loosening her hair and whipping off her glasses to attract some island boy, wondering if it were even remotely possible she might have ever been successful. Still, he kept up the charade of Holly being his secretary and assistant by always addressing her formally as “Ms Burton.” She preferred to play according to the script, always calling him “Mr Fischer” since “Mr Steele” might raise too many eyebrows, nodding in the direction of the staff or the supposedly loyal Mr Cable.

Cable lived in the spare bedroom at the back of what Steele called his “Little Grass Shack,” a five-bedroom wood-and-stone mansion with a wrap-around veranda and a peaked thatched roof “in the native style.” Growing up in a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia where he'd been “carefully taught,” Cable found life a bit lonely and boring. Steele also imagined him wandering into the village, mussing up his hair with a day's worth of stubble on his chin and being far more successful than Holly with the hot young island boys.

Cable also spoke French well enough to talk to Margarita and her daughter, an indispensable translator in the daily household operations. In the evenings, he would talk with “Mr Fischer” about SHMRG's internet technology. There were things Steele – or rather, “Fischer” – didn't understand about how CLARA worked, and all thoughts were now focused on CLARA.

So far, they hadn't figured out what CLARA stood for, most likely some clever acronym about “artificial creativity algorithms” or something, but Cable had figured out enough of what it was capable of doing to know that was something pretty impressive once they managed to tweak it a little by adding their own specific modifications. The unfortunate thing was the software's creator, working out of his basement, apparently, seemed reluctant to work with SHMRG's engineering team to perfect his beta-version into something they would then market to the world. For some reason, the possibility of wealth they'd offered him was not sufficient enough to impress him to change his mind, and since he'd gone silent for several days, urgent action now became necessary. So Steele decided the only way SHMRG would be able to acquire the “property” was the usual corporate alternative – by theft.

Handling this project personally through his LGS Network – “LGS” for “Little Grass Shack” – Cable hadn't discovered any on-line chatter about CLARA to indicate the guy was exploring options about selling it to some rival and nobody working the project from Banks' tech centers in California or London noticed any activity at all since Sunday morning. Things had been pretty heavy for a while once Cable discovered the thread, especially since he'd made direct contact in mid-September. It was like the engineer, some has-been composer named Thomas Purdue, vanished overnight.

And just earlier that morning, local time, Cable got a ping from the Philadelphia branch of the FBI, some shadowy bounce, which indicated perhaps the Feds had now joined in the hunt for Purdue. The message had been heavily encrypted and involved agents named Osiris and something indecipherable – cute – but there was the FBI's stamp. Unless something happened to Purdue – did someone file a Missing Persons Report already? – why was the FBI interested in this guy? More importantly were they after him personally or after something on his computer?

There had been nothing to indicate Purdue was a possible threat or terrorist – a lapsed serialist, perhaps, but that was all. Cable found nothing beyond some overheated e-mails and whiny letters in his files.

“What do you mean by 'overheated' and 'whiny,'” Fischer asked him, brows furrowed.

“Like many aging composers past their prime, sir.”

Yes, Steele – or Fischer – had known many composers who'd survived their early successes to become only moderately productive by their mid-30s, then smash head-long at high speed into the Middle-Aged Brick Wall of Fate. “That would explain his interest in 'Artificial Creativity.'” Fischer shrugged, his face expressionless. “How old is this guy Purdue, now – 50?”

Cable checked his notes to be sure. “65?” Fischer shrugged again, equally expressionless. “He hasn't published anything in over ten years.”

“You're sure his software works, it's not crap like, apparently, his music is?”

Cable explained, again shuffling through pages of notes, “Purdue's music – most of what he'd written in the previous ten years, anyway – was a little too Carter for my tastes, but technically solid, if academic.”

He tapped into his tablet and a music file began to play mid-phrase. “Here's something from a cello sonata from 2004.”

“Ugh...” Fischer waved it away after twelve seconds. “Who likes this shit, anyway...?” He kept waving until Cable closed the file. His primary concern was that CLARA didn't automatically compose music only like that. “I want a computer program that can write music, but not music that sounds like it's been written by a computer.”

“Theoretically, you plug the stylistic parameters you want to have into the database in terms of harmony, melody, rhythm, phrase-structure, whatever...”

“So, we program Andrew Lloyd-Webber as the default and everything sounds like Phantom?”

Cable was thinking perhaps they could pre-program two different packages – Deluxe and Basic – and market one to the would-be classical audience and the other, a more slimmed-down, simpler one, specifically for the pop audience. “That way, you could choose what you want and create your own style: out comes a fugue or a three-chord song.”

“Sounds like the Deluxe requires a lot of extra work, pre-programming all that. Maybe come out with the Basic model first? Besides, Mr Cable, who needs fugues these days? The F-Word of Classical Music...”

Undaunted, Cable – who happened to enjoy a good fugue when in the mood – explained the prototype Purdue built is already complex. “Given the musical details of his surface language, it comes with numerous possibilities. It wouldn't take much to expand its various options, variations on his code. Realistically, it might be harder to simplify it.”

Fischer frowned, not liking the sound of that. “Simplicity is always difficult,” he mumbled, trying to remember who told him that. “We have a greater market for your Basic model, lots of wanna-be songwriters. We call it something trendy, like La Basique and charge $144 a pop. No, maybe a contract at $89... a month!”

What Cable tried to explain, given the number of programs already out there that did the same thing, didn't phase him.

“Nonsense, boy – we buy up all the other licenses, then trash them. Simplicity!”

Cable hated it when the Old Man called him “boy,” the obese bastard, sitting there like a pasha sipping his coffee. He may be the all-powerful CEO, Rex Fischer, but he's an arrogant blowhard. Cable thought he should wear his sunglasses all the time, even inside, so Fischer couldn't see the hatred in his eyes. He had to be careful what he said, even to that termagant of a secretary of his, always checking him out. He's surprised she hadn't had the shits of him years ago and left.

When they first arrived, he thought he was in paradise, a desert island except for a handful of people around him. And this amazing room full of technical apparatus connecting him to the world. The little French-speaking maid pronounced his name Guillaume, soon shortening it to Gui. But then Fischer started calling him “Guy Cable”...

Then there was that time, some evening last week, when Cable played a sample of what he'd gotten CLARA to produce, considering there was no “instruction booklet” and Cable wasn't himself an experienced composer. He'd cautioned Fischer not to expect too much since this was a prototype, given Purdue's own first efforts sounded pretty simplistic. A few days earlier, he had managed to copy all the files Purdue had in his computer dealing with the program. The only thing he didn't have was the computer-generated audio-interface Purdue called “Clara.”

It took a few hours to get the hang of it, finding the basic elements to input into the “style database.” This became the “universal set” CLARA would choose from to create his “sound.” Even Cable was disappointed in his first efforts, since he wasn't musically trained. Still, it was better than anything he'd compose.

He had to work on the audio playback within the parameters, since Purdue clearly had his trained ear to rely on, because otherwise it was difficult for Cable to tell what he was selecting. Without hearing it and judging which sounded better, the result sounded arbitrary, disconnected, probably no better than most children's first efforts. Once he could choose things sounding more consistent and build up his options, he could shape the possibilities into something palatable. And in a few hours, he had something, sounding more childish than child-like.

After he proudly wrote in the title, “Mozart Wasn't Built in a Day,” he went to play it for Mr Fischer and found him sitting there grumbling half-asleep in the living room after dinner. The music barely lasted a minute and despite the pride on Cable's face, Fischer's face remained passive, neither approving nor disapproving.

“It sounds like a child wrote it, Cable, a not very talented one. Is this all the better you can do?”

“But a child didn't write it, sir, not even me: a computer did!”

Fischer wasn't the least impressed. “It sounds like those old paint-by-numbers paintings look. This'll never make it into the Louvre, either.”

“But that's the thing, sir – remember, this is only my very first attempt.”

Clearly, they needed to get Purdue's cooperation to improve the prototype, but how? If they stole CLARA, they must abduct Purdue.

And now, Fischer was just finishing up his lunch under Holly's watchful eyes when Cable came running in with the latest. Seeing the look on Cable's face, she nodded to Nanahi Mo'e to leave.

“I've stumbled on some chatter about Purdue, sir,” his eyes followed the girl. “It may explain why he's suddenly gone off-the-grid.”

Cable explained there had been a murder this morning at Purdue's publisher's office, one of the office staff, some new girl. “The police have issued an APB for a 'person-of-interest' named... Dr Thomas Purdue.”

Fischer remembered those “whiny” letters and “overheated” e-mails Cable had warned him about, products of nothing more than a bruised ego. But was it enough this guy might have flipped out and killed someone?

“Maybe,” Fischer suggested, “he was only making threats which the police over-reacted to?” If their composer/scientist's a murderer, that's even better.

“If he's a suspect,” Holly said, “the police may already have him in custody, if the FBI gets involved in this.”

Fischer was used to making split-second decisions and last-minute changes, but not now.

“This would make it almost 5:00 in Philadelphia – you'll have to move fast. Any operatives you trust already on the ground?”

Fischer's face turned prune-like with an intense frown. “Dammit, the place is crawling with Darke's men – maybe they already have him?”

Then he told Cable to get him Basil Carsonoma in New York – “Fast!”

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

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.