(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.
I could feel my knees starting to buckle before my legs gave out, barely falling into Tom's chair before I collapsed. Cameron's expression indicated he knew this wasn't the news we'd been hoping for.
“What do you mean?” I asked Martin. “We thought he was with you. If he's not with you, where is he?”
Amanda gasped and stumbled back into the doily-covered chair next to the piano and sat down behind me with a thud. I could imagine her holding a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.
“I wouldn't know, Terry, what's this all about?” He sounded quite put out. “I hate to ask, but is something wrong?”
I'll say something's wrong, I thought: there goes my easy solution – now what?
If he wasn't there with Martin, having lunch in some fashionable noontime hang-out, then where the hell could Tom Purdue be?
“Look, I've only got a few minutes before my seminar resumes,” he said, “could I call you back in an hour?”
“An hour, unfortunately,” trying not to sound too melodramatic, “might be too late.”
“Hang on a minute, Terry.” Martin mumbled something to someone about the seminar. “Now, what was this about being 'too late'?”
“I'm sorry, but it seems, then, Tom's disappeared. We can't find him anywhere.”
“What do you mean, 'disappeared'? As in 'missing'?”
“And there's this little matter at his publishers – someone was murdered earlier today.”
It wasn't so much we were back to Square One as Square Zero and every minute we failed to find him was setting us further back into negative numbers which made things increasingly difficult. He could, of course, have gone for a walk, perhaps had an emergency, or maybe he actually was on the lam.
There was uncharacteristic silence on the other end and I felt like shouting at Martin to make sure he heard me.
“It's not that we think he's the killer, but it's a weird coincidence.”
“But that's awful, not to mention completely unlikely. Tom always was one for getting into trouble but even this seems extreme...”
“The problem is, the police apparently think he's somehow involved, even a suspect.”
I immediately thought of that time during those student anti-war protests at Faber when he'd single-handedly broken into the chancellor's office.
“I don't know how I can help, Terry: should I call the police? I guess actually they'll call me, soon enough.”
“We need to find Tom before the police do, make sure he's okay.”
“Right, of course – once they bring him in, proving he's innocent will be...”
Again there was a silence, even more annoying.
“Look, Martin, is there anything about his phone call you can tell me, like what you talked about, how he seemed?”
“I'm sorry, I was having a flashback to that incident in Krauterman's office.”
“Krauterman” was what we called the gestapo-like chancellor – I'd forgotten his real name – during the Viet-Nam protests at Faber decades ago, when the cleaning crew one Monday morning found his office splattered with blood. Campus police, convinced the chancellor murdered someone, eventually discovered it was pig's blood. The difference today was they'd found a body.
“Right, well,” Martin stumbled, trying to organize his thoughts like any good scholar, “he'd called me Sunday morning and chatted briefly, telling me he was coming up to catch my talk here yesterday afternoon. I didn't know he lived in the area so I was completely surprised. By the way, Terry, where're you living, now?”
“Still in Doylestown, not far away, but more on that later – what next?” eager to discover what Tom's state-of-mind had been.
“And then he suggested we get together for lunch while I'm in town.”
As it turned out, he continued, Martin had plans for dinner Monday night – “tonight,” he corrected himself – with another old friend. “Did you know Dorothy was in town, also – well, in the Philadelphia area?”
That was another thing I hadn't heard about, wondering what else I've missed, suddenly overcome by a Hirukami-like wave of nostalgia.
Dottie Minnim had given a piano recital Sunday afternoon at West Chester University (though these days she preferred going by Dorothy), so she and Martin made arrangements to have dinner together on Monday evening.
“You should join us, Terry – and Tom, if you find him in time. It'd be great to see you guys again.”
How could I explain I'd seen us all again only a while ago?
“Maybe once we've gotten everything straightened out here, that sounds like a plan,” I said, “knock on plastic-laminated, artificial wood substitute.”
“Anyway, after my talk, I figured I'd tell him about our dinner plans, and he'd be able to accept my invitation – I figured if he knew about her recital, he might go there instead. As it turned out,” Martin continued, “he never showed up at my lecture so I automatically assumed he'd gone to Dorothy's.”
However, when Martin called her later that evening to finalize their dinner arrangements, Dorothy hadn't seen or heard anything from Tom. “Plus now I needed to confirm lunch plans, but Tom's never called back.”
The seminar, Chopin's Also-Rans, was about to resume and Martin apologized he must return “to slake the curiosity of inquisitive students about the piano concertos of Kalkbrenner and Moscheles – exciting stuff, as always, right?” – suggesting I should give Dorothy a quick call about joining them for dinner. “Besides, she knows this area better than I.”
He texted me her number which Cameron then entered into my own phone, saying he'd call after his seminar was done, so I gave him my number in return – with that, he was gone.
“Well, then, not the outcome I'd prefer,” I explained to Cameron and Amanda who still looked like she was in shock, “but at least we know he was okay late yesterday morning around 11:00. Whatever happened to Tom Purdue must've happened between then and, I'd guess, 4:00, when he'd planned on being at Martin's talk.”
Unfortunately, none of that helped us clarify whatever might have happened to him, since nothing canceled out various options under consideration, perhaps only managing to suggest various other possibilities we hadn't so far considered. And since he could simply have decided not to go to the talk, was he simply refusing to answer his phone? Was it possible he'd hidden the phone so he couldn't hear it ring? But then why not simply turn it off? Did something happen to simply make Tom snap? It wasn't all that simple. Perhaps, some time before leaving for the talk, he'd gone for a walk either for exercise or to clear his head, during which he might've had a medical emergency – or had he been abducted? Or he could've made up his mind about some bothersome issue or other, then decided on a necessary course of action.
When we were grad students, Tom rather humorously took on a fractious persona as if he were satirizing the campus protesters, gleefully pumping his fist in defiance of music's “out-moded sacred laws of tonality,” shouting things like “Down with the Tonic-Dominant Axis” or “Give Atonality a Chance,” and always opposing “The Ten Commandments of Harmony.” His friends got the parody about “Big Maestro,” though others thought he was making fun of them and especially their causes. More recently I wondered if this light-hearted paranoia hadn't metastasized into something deeper.
But then in the '60s and '70s, as was the case in many not-so-liberal “liberal arts” colleges in the United States, most of the university's administrators were openly antagonistic to students protesting the war – I'd have to explain to my young friends this was the Viet-Nam War, for them just another chapter of ancient history. Our particular nemesis was a chancellor and professor of 19th Century European history, a graduate of Heidelberg, the one we called “Krauterman,” who lectured from notes he'd never bothered translating from the original German.
Someone discovered Krauterman's family fortune, tied to the “Military-Industrial Complex,” was underwriting secret research programs developing bombs for the war effort, “smart technology” bombs steerable by remote control, not just dropped from a plane. When this news broke, protestors chanted, “Yo heave ho, Kraut's got to go – the Blood of Innocents is on your hands!”
So Tom's satirical mind created a scenario which involved breaking into Krauterman's office – how he managed that was no great mystery – carrying a bag of blood gotten from a friend whose father butchered pigs. Making it look like there had been a struggle, he tossed the blood around the room, specifically ruining the German notebook. When the cleaning crew found it Monday morning, they called the campus police convinced Chancellor Krauterman must have confronted a student, perhaps surprising some protestor who had broken in, and, infuriated, brutally murdered him.
Half the fun, Tom later confessed to me, was knowing, even for a moment, Krauterman could be viewed as a suspect, that he might even be arrested for murder and spend time in jail. The police, alas, discovered it was pig's blood before any accusations were made, making Tom, once in jail, a “Campus Hero.”
While Amanda had been given few details about the murder at Marple Music, there were eery similarities between the two events and, considering the body, it wasn't difficult to imagine what might have happened: could Tom have started out pranking DiVedremo as he had Krauterman years ago, but then the matter got out of hand?
Had it escalated by accident and Amanda's friend been in the wrong place, walking in on a simple act of vandalism, or had something gone wrong with my friend I didn't want to contemplate?
Whatever might have happened in the publisher's office, mostly left to our imaginations, and however Amanda's friend became involved in it, the Krauterman Occurrence (as we'd referred to it) was something better left unmentioned, something I didn't want Cameron and especially Amanda to hear about, if possible, and best kept from the already prejudiced police. Because an event happened in one's past life – say, forty-some years ago – and these days rationalized as a “cry for attention,” does it stand to reason, all things considered, the same conditions existed again? One could argue the person involved in the Krauterman Occurrence wasn't seeking attention until his arrest following a lengthy police investigation, when Tom explained he'd merely made a statement exploding beyond his wildest dreams. Eventually, pressure from powerful alumni forced the research program to be closed down: what would Tom's protest hope to accomplish today?
The campus had been “atwitter” following the discovery of blood in Krauterman's office, but it seemed to take only minutes before people were saying Krauterman was being taken in for questioning by the police. Before such an interrogation could've possibly taken place (had there even been one), students were reporting, “Krauterman's being charged with murder!” Tom and I were leaving our 9:00 class when we'd heard the news from someone wondering, “what happened to the body?” Rumors back then spread only slightly less fast than through social media today.
Not long after Martin had hung up and before I could finish explaining what could be explained to Cameron and Amanda, my own phone began ringing, startling us all out of our apprehensive reveries. Reaching for it, what possible hope did I have it might be Tom calling to let us know everything was okay? It occurred to me, would he know my cell-phone number if he didn't have his own phone to dial it automatically? Thinking it was a robo-call, I considered letting it go directly to voice-mail.
It was Martin, beginning mid-sentence and half whispering, how he hadn't told me what Tom said or how he'd said it, like something was bothering him but he was trying hard to hide it. “It hadn't occurred to me,” he continued, “nothing seemed particularly odd about it, but since you mentioned it, I'm less sure.”
Martin decided he would cut his seminar short in about half an hour “since it seems to be losing steam, anyway,” so he'd be able to meet me at Purdue's house in an hour, then adding I should call Dorothy immediately to have her meet us there, “and maybe Penelope, too, since she's in town.”
“Penelope Hart? And what brings her to Philadelphia?” Was this Old Home Week and I'd missed out on all the invitations? If anyone could've been my girlfriend back in grad school, it was Penelope.
“Dorothy knows – she said they'd talked on Saturday, maybe a business conference with that bank she works for in Chicago? Whatever...”
I'd forgotten, after deciding Academe wasn't for her, she'd somehow gone into banking.
“We should try to get together,” Martin continued, “since our paths have crossed.”
And this time, it appeared I was included.
It certainly seemed one of those unexpected coincidences when the five of us should be in close proximity this past weekend and how, at this particular moment, one of us should be in need.
“Martin, do you think Tom was trying to organize some sort of reunion?” They'd certainly had time to call me, too.
“Well, Tom had mentioned that quintet of his – remember that piece we'd played?”
“Of course – it was truly 'An Unlikely Quintet'!”
“Perhaps it's time to enter the labyrinth again.”
“The League of Unlikely Musicians?”
Martin, after asking for Tom's address to put into his phone's GPS app, said he'd see me in about an hour but before he could hang up, a call was coming in from Dorothy.
“Ah, never mind about calling her,” Martin said, “I'll tell her about it. Assuming she can make it, see you soon.”
How to explain all of what was now developing to Cameron and Amanda – at least, Cameron had experience with similar developments but Amanda, perhaps, smart as she might be, could find this a challenge.
“Where to begin,” I said as I slipped my phone into my pocket, leaving Tom's in the middle of his desk. There was much to bring them up to speed on and little time. Drumming my fingers on the table, I saw the list Tom had paper-clipped to that folder and noticed something was... “off.”
With a nod, Cameron excused himself to find the bathroom across the hall, knowing whatever I would say could momentarily wait. I looked at Amanda, about to ask something, but then shrugged my shoulders. It's unlikely she knew anything about Tom's hopes to meet some old friends since he'd likely be keeping this a secret.
But Cameron hurried back in, zipping his fly, and, nodding toward the hall, reached for Tom's phone and promptly pocketed it. “A police car just pulled up out front. Prepare to enter Stealth Mode.”
“Since I didn't say anything yet about Martin's phone calls,” I told them, “there's nothing for you to tell the police. Remember, now, we were in the area, and stopped by to say hello. I don't think they need to know what it is we're doing here, especially since I don't really know that, myself.”
I quickly took the typed list clipped to the front of the folder, and, folding it, slipped it into my pocket. The folder, taking a quick peek, turned out to be full of clippings.
“Hopefully, there's nothing else we'd need to find,” I added, “because if they notice anything's gone missing, it might look suspicious. We must keep the police from snooping around and give them no information.”
“But isn't that what the police would call 'obstructing an investigation'?” Amanda whispered.
“Well, yeah, let's say that's a gray area...”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, Sept. 5th]
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.