Wednesday, September 05, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 3 (Part 3)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr figures out Tom Purdue isn't having lunch with their mutual friend, Martin Crotchet, after all, so he and Martin set up a meeting along with another friend from their grad-school days, Dorothy Minnim, who's in the area. Hopefully, they can figure out what exactly has happened to Tom. Aside from bringing up an old incident when Tom protested the Vietnam War back in the '70s (breaking into a chancellor's office and spattering it with pig's blood), Kerr sits in Tom's study with Cameron and Amanda, wondering what to do next when Cameron notices a police car pulling up out front. Kerr creates a scenario to explain how he and Cameron just happen to stop by today and advises them not to give the police any information about that phone call, even if Amanda thinks that might be considered “obstructing an investigation,” something Kerr considers kind of a gray area...

(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.

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

“The whole day's been one big gray area,” Amanda thought, her head aching even without focusing on what Dr Kerr said, frequently glancing out the window, hoping the sun would metaphorically soon break through. “It was supposed to be sunny,” she remembered. But then, one friend had been murdered and another was considered a suspect. What kind of day could that be, after all, but gloomy and miserable: all it needed now was a steady drizzle. It's not like having the sun come out would make everything go away. Again, she'd noticed someone lurking about next door but figured it was either that Bond woman or one of the police. “No doubt, they're back to check on the Professor's whereabouts,” she'd been thinking. She was going to say something to Cameron – he seemed nice – but didn't. He was too intent listening to Dr Kerr.

And her heart already sank when she gathered this Martin fellow didn't know where the Professor was either, after all that, hoping he could've just met an old friend and they'd gone for lunch. She could hear him joke most people always thought he's “out to lunch,” anyway, a normal state-of-being for most creative people. She'd been hoping Dr Purdue could still waltz right in through the back door any minute, now, carrying a doggie bag, and wonder “what the heck's all the fuss about? And why the cops?”

Wasn't it awkward enough, after Cameron excused himself, when Dr Kerr looked over at her and didn't know what to say? All she could think was “so, how bad is it – really... that bad?” It felt like an hour as the silence dragged on before Cameron returned, but all he did was shrug his shoulders. “I remember him saying whatever happened, happened between 11:00 yesterday morning and 4:00, something about this lecture his friend was giving; but what did he mean,” she wondered, “by 'maybe it's already too late'?”

Seconds before Cameron came back into the room and told us about the police car he'd seen – was it Narder, again? – she was sure she'd seen movement out of the corner of her eye. Staring out the window, waiting for Dr Kerr to say something, she was convinced she's now imagining all kinds of things.

“One foot in front of the other, girl, and hold onto that rail,” Amanda kept telling herself, whatever Dr Kerr said, as they walked down the hall, then the steps, Cameron leading the way. “Okay, they were in the neighborhood and stopped in to see Dr Purdue, and, right, keep the police from snooping around.”

It was this last bit about not telling the police everything they knew: wouldn't that help prove he's not the killer? Wasn't that, like, withholding evidence from the detectives and obstructing a police investigation?

“Gray area, the man says,” but they seemed intent on this “stealth mode,” and there was something about Cameron she trusted. The important thing was to find the professor and prove he is innocent. Dr Kerr and Cameron took up positions in the dining room, looking nonchalant, leaving Amanda's brain whirling when the doorbell rang.

Amanda tried to smile but realized that might be inappropriate and certainly suspicious, imagining which scenarios might or might not work: she would not be glad to see them unless they had good news. With another sigh, she cautiously opened the door, hoping not to screw up (“remember, keep them from snooping around the place”).

Saying nothing might seem too belligerent, but saying too much could arouse suspicion (“and above all, don't give them any information”). She opened the door barely wide enough to peek out and said, “Yeah...?”

Two people held their badges up though Amanda already knew who they were from their inauspicious visit earlier in the morning, the woman introducing themselves curtly as Detective Narder and her partner Detective Reel.

“Good afternoon, Ms Wences,” the woman was saying, “sorry to disturb you again. Has there been any word from Dr Purdue?”

Amanda reminded herself she would need to focus what little concentration she had so she didn't give away Dr Kerr's plan, even though neither she nor, apparently, Dr Kerr knew what that plan was.

“No,” Amanda said, shaking her head, “nothing yet,” wondering what to say next. She thought a moment, then added, “and you?”

“No, sorry, nothing we can tell you, ma'am. You appear to have company.”

“Oh, not me,” Amanda said, “they stopped by to see the Professor, but...”

“Could we speak to them.” Narder wasn't asking.

Reintroducing herself, Narder was halfway across the living room before Amanda said “sure.” “Mind if I ask you who you are? An unfortunate time to be visiting Dr Purdue – what brings you here today?”

Dr Kerr stepped forward to shake her hand. “My names Dr Richard Kerr. Tom and I were friends back in school.”

When Kerr saw the other detective start to sidle over toward the bookcases, he asked if they would like some coffee. Narder waved his suggestion away and the one named Reel simply ignored him.

Amanda picked up the two cups they'd left sitting on the coffee table and said she was going to “refresh” them, hoping nobody would notice they'd already gotten cold. “It's okay, I'm an intern.”

Though Detective Reel also declined, at least he turned away from the bookcase, watching Amanda as she walked to the kitchen.

“Anyway,” Kerr continued, “I'm a friend of Tom's – my student, Cameron, here, hasn't met him yet, but we were hoping to...”

“And you happened to be driving through,” Narder said, “and thought you'd stop.”

Amanda could hear Dr Kerr trying to explain how he figured the professor would be home on a chilly Monday afternoon, then realized she didn't have Dr Kerr's teacup (did he leave it upstairs?).

“We were just talking about going out for a late lunch,” Amanda interjected, “or get some take-out instead while we wait.”

“So, uh... Dr Kerr, is it,” Narder resumed, “you have no idea, then, where Thomas Purdue might be at the moment?” Meanwhile, she pulled out a small wire-ring notebook and started jotted things down.

“Not really,” Kerr said, trying to look thoughtful, “probably went out for lunch – any reason the police are looking for him?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Narder answered but didn't bother to elaborate. “Know anything about his relationship with his publisher?”

“We haven't been close for several years, so – no, I don't recall anything.”

Amanda brought in two cups of fresh coffee and handed one to Cameron, hoping the other would calm her own nerves. “Dr Kerr, I'm heating water for some tea, unless you'd rather have coffee?”

Kerr looked around as if trying to locate something then shrugged his shoulders. Amanda thought he must do that quite often.

Before Kerr could respond about coffee or tea, Narder asked him what might have brought him to the Greater Marple Area, close enough to warrant dropping in on someone unannounced if you weren't close.

“Actually,” Cameron said, speaking up, “he wanted to introduce me to Dr Purdue and thought a spontaneous visit might be easier.”

“Really? 'Cause I know my granny'd tell you to come back another day if you showed up on her doorstep unannounced.”

“But, Detective,” Amanda broke in, “Dr Purdue isn't like that – not usually, anyway...”

“Dr Kerr,” Narder continued, “since you say you two were in school together, can you describe Dr Purdue as a composer? I'm told he's one of those cerebral types, like maybe even a serialist?”

Kerr, after explaining he was a composer himself, said from what he remembered, he would never describe Purdue as a serialist.

“Because it's my impression serialists don't give a damn about their listeners,” Narder rambled on, regardless, “only writing for other composers.”

Thinking that unfair, Kerr added this was clearly a case of aesthetic profiling.

“This place seems like an odd kind of house for someone who's an intellectual,” Det. Reel threw in, “don't you think?”

“Oh, I know, right? But then, he inherited it from his Aunt Jane.”

“It make sense to you he's lived here and never changed a thing?”

“And what's that got to do with anything?”

With a quick jerk of her head, Narder signaled Reel to step back, leaving Kerr's question to hang in the air. “Ms Wences, perhaps we could have some coffee after all, if that's okay?” She gave her partner another, less aggressive nod, and Reel, following after Amanda like a good little puppy, offered his help.

In the kitchen, Amanda apologized, “it's only instant – the professor was never a fan of fancy or time-consuming brews,” she explained, but Reel didn't mind, figuring it can't be any worse than the precinct's.

It annoyed her she couldn't hear what the detective was asking Dr Kerr, much less his answers, since they were whispering: was the detective playing the age-old trick of “Divide and Conquer,” she wondered? Reel kept up a steady stream of chatter asking Amanda about school stuff but mostly referring to her work with Purdue.

It felt like half an hour before the water finally started to boil, as if it would take the whole day. Once she started pouring it, Reel asked if he could have some sugar. She pretended to look for the sugar in a cupboard by the doorway and, despite Reel, managed to hear Narder clearly.

“There's a great deal in this on-going investigation we can't discuss with anyone, but let's say he's a person of interest.”

“So,” Kerr whispered, shocked, “rather than being 'out-to-lunch,' you're thinking Tom's more 'on-the-lam'?”

By the time Amanda could get away from Reel and take the coffee into Det. Narder, the conversation had moved on and Amanda couldn't help thinking she might have missed something important, however small, especially if Narder asked her the same questions and, not knowing how Kerr'd replied, she'd give his plan – or non-plan – away. Not that she would normally give in to any overriding sense of paranoia, but she rarely had to deal with policemen, even though this experience has been fairly benign except for that Tango guy. Despite Narder's not appearing particularly threatening to her (and Reel, if anything, sweet), she did feel a psychological pressure to conform, given the wording of the questions and what Narder thought her answers implied. Regardless how they treated her while trying to “extract” information from her, they were, apparently, still convinced the Professor's a killer.

Despite the reputation police generally managed to have, considering the news she'd seen on television engulfing the country since last summer, she didn't think it was likely either detective was going to shoot her but she couldn't help wondering if they were both wearing those body cameras in case she became uncooperative and “needed restraining.” She also found herself wondering how the Professor, who occasionally reminisced about his student protest days, might react to these detectives. What if some deep-seated fear from his past had suddenly made him snap?

Dr Kerr had apparently been regaling Det. Narder with stories about Tom Purdue, how he's known him since their student days, how they reunited only recently, especially after the professor's heart attack this spring, stories she would have enjoyed hearing because anything about the Professor intrigued her except, she admitted, not necessarily at the moment. It was amazing how Dr Kerr could take a personal story like this, filling out the factual details with emotional experience, and yet turn it into something which sounded as boring as a lecture.

But the detective, her eyes already glazing over, had barely put her pen and notebook away and sat there barely listening, bored to tears, trying to figure out how to shut this guy up. Perhaps this was Dr Kerr's plan, get her so bored she would leave so they could proceed with rescuing the Professor.

Handing her the coffee was enough to bring Det. Narder out of it, who, thanking her for this elixir of rejuvenation, then interrupted Dr Kerr in mid-sentence without apology to ask more pertinent questions, suddenly more interested in knowing what Dr Purdue had been working on recently, though Amanda already told her everything she knew. Only momentarily miffed at having his discourse curtailed, Dr Kerr quickly shifted gears, picking up at another point in the continuum, like a video where you've decided to skip over the boring middle bits.

“In the past, Tom was always eager to tell me what he's writing, rubbing it in, because he was so spontaneous when it took me so long to compose a few measures a day. So, I assumed either he was becoming more private about his work, now, or didn't want to admit he wasn't writing.”

Amanda heard Cameron cough one of those discreet little coughs people often used to make others aware of something barely noticeable, making her look up to see Det. Reel, not required to pay attention, wander back toward the bookcases with his cup of coffee in hand, a look of curiosity in those soulful, Irish eyes.

Without breaking the tone or cadence of what he was saying, Dr Kerr suddenly asked if they didn't need a warrant if they were going to search the house, “as if you'd find anything.”

Giving her partner another peremptory nod effective as any dog trainer's verbal command, Det. Narder decided to approach her question differently. “Could the fact Dr Purdue might not be writing anything especially bother him?”

“Creativity is a delicate balance – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't,” he explained, “and all artists, at one time or another...”

“Dr Kerr,” she said, interrupting him again, “could we cut to the chase? What I'm trying to figure out is this: do you know of any reason why Dr Purdue would feel particularly stressed?”

“You mean other than his just having had a heart attack and surgery, dealing with hospital bills because his insurance sucks, living in a world which increasingly undervalues art, a world dominated by fear, where corporate greed has taken over the government and Washington is in gridlock – no, I can't imagine why he'd feel stressed.”

Amanda could only imagine what those few words were the detective jotted down in her notebook or what traps she's setting now that Dr Kerr was beginning to lose patience, possibly blowing his cover.

“I don't understand how this will help you find this poor girl's killer or why it happened in Tom's publisher's office.”

“If you don't mind, Dr Kerr, I'm trying to understand someone,” she said, “who's a person of interest and your friend. Would you say Thomas Purdue, as a composer, would have had any talent?”

“Of course he does – even you have 'talent,' Det. Nardine,” Dr Kerr began, “but the concept itself is difficult to define, the way we use it today, considering everyone has 'talent' of some kind...”

He kept making that annoying “air quotes” gesture every time he said 'talent,' if mispronouncing Narder's name wrong wasn't annoying enough.

“We see a kid scrawling with crayons and say, 'doesn't she have 'talent' when we actually mean, 'oh, isn't that cute?'”

Amanda hoped Dr Kerr's plan to annoy Narder into leaving would start working.

“Talent is one thing but what one does with it, what it produces, what you probably call 'Art,' that's something else because you can have 'talent' and have absolutely nothing to show for it. Too many composers – and artists in general – have been quite successful at it without ever having even an ounce of talent.”

“Bravo,” Amanda thought, seeing how Dr Kerr's clever plan was having its effect as Det. Reel's phone broke through his tirade. Rolling her eyes, Narder slammed her notebook shut when Reel announced, “It's Tango.”

The conversation was short and to the point – “Yeah... Okay... On our way.” – though Amanda was wondering what the point was.

“Did he find something next door?” Amanda asked. “Because we thought we saw...”

“Tango?” Reel replied, pocketing his phone, “no, he's...”

Narder stood up, finishing Reel's sentence for him: “...on assignment elsewhere. Let's go.”

“Wait, what?” Reel stopped short. “You thought you saw what next door – when?”

“I did,” Cameron said, also standing up, “not long before you arrived. He was gone by the time anybody else looked.”

Narder wasn't hiding the fact she was annoyed. “And you didn't say anything?”

“Honestly,” Kerr said, “I don't recall your asking.”

Amanda explained Cameron had seen a guy dressed all in black next door but she assumed it was the new neighbor. “I've never met him, so I wouldn't know,” she said, gathering the cups.

Narder took out her pen and notebook again. “You think it was Purdue?”

“Wouldn't know,” Cameron said, “I've never met him.”

Shoving her notebook into her pocket so forcefully she almost tore her jacket, Det. Narder, staring down all three of them, was probably wondering how she could arrest them for hampering a police investigation.

“Yeah, it could be your new next-door neighbor, like you say, Ms Wences, or perhaps it's a prowler in the area – neighbors down the street reported seeing someone wandering through the cemetery last week – but it could also be your professor friend, Dr Purdue, using it as a safe haven till the coast is clear.”

“But that wouldn't make sense,” Kerr began arguing, “because this is his home, so he would stay here, rather than there.”

“We'll check it out, anyway, see who that is next door,” Narder said.

“Or probably it was that Bond woman who was here earlier,” Amanda added, “the one who said she's consulting with you.”

“What bondswoman are you talking about,” Reel asked. “You mean a bounty hunter?”

“Come on, Reel.” Narder was impatient to leave. “Tango's wondering where we are. I'll have some guys check out next door.”

The detectives were no sooner out the door, promising to return soon enough, when there was a collective sigh of relief before Kerr said it won't be long before they're back with a warrant.

“We'll have to scour this place to find any clues we can if we're going to find Tom before they do.”

Cameron wondered what kind of evidence he thought the police expected to find as opposed to what they hoped to find.

“What we're looking for,” Kerr said, “is probably stuff the police wouldn't notice.”

“And brilliant plan to get rid of Det. Narder, Dr Kerr,” Amanda said. “Congratulations on annoying her until she finally left.”

“Plan?” Kerr looked at her quizzically. “What plan...?”

“You know, everything you were...”

“Oh, he has that effect on people, sometimes,” Cameron explained with a wink. “Meanwhile, we have to think about what's next.”

Kerr, still confused about this mysterious “plan” which Amanda was congratulating him on, looked around the room to get his bearings, then asked her if Purdue kept any kind of a diary or journal, whether in a separate notebook or a file he had on his computer, something which might explain whatever was worrying him.

“Worrying him – like what,” Amanda asked, stopping short. “You mean like that prowler?”

“Had he said anything about seeing this prowler?”

“Yeah, maybe that's what spooked the Professor, then,” Amanda said, “now I remember!”

It had been about two weeks ago, probably not more but possibly less, before she went out to run some errands when the Professor had asked her to drop off a small envelope downtown. He'd been having a bad couple of days – “some pain around his incision” – and didn't really feel up to it, himself. Come to think of it, he did seem kind of worried about something but I had assumed it was this pain since it was six months after his surgery and that's making him anxious.”

But Amanda'd forgotten until Det. Narder mentioned it, how she was in the kitchen helping get his dinner ready one evening and there it was on the TV news, reporting live from the cemetery, about neighbors reporting a prowler in the area “skulking” along the stone wall, then “disappearing into those trees,” she continued, pointing.

“It scared me,” she said, “but the Professor laughed and mentioned he'd seen this guy a few times, coming and going, but when I said 'maybe it's the new neighbor,' you know, next door, he told me, 'new neighbors don't “skulk,” Amanda – they use the front door.' He still seemed kind of unnerved by it.”

Cameron looked out toward the trees and the cemetery from the dining room. “Did Dr Purdue report this to the police?”

“He didn't say, but I felt really creepy when I left that night.”

Then the next day, the Professor gave her this envelope and asked her to drop it off at the ballet school. She figured it was a back-up copy of the “Mysteries” for Rhonda Zhomme.

“Mysteries?” Kerr perked up at this. “What 'mysteries'? Sounds like a significant clue.”

“It's the dance piece he'd been working on.”

“You think he was afraid somebody would break in and steal his computer?” Cameron thought it sounded like a reasonable concern.

Kerr made some snide comment about another problem with composing on a computer.

“I didn't think someone would steal his composition, that just sounded too paranoid. And, besides, it was only the rough draft. He'd mentioned a couple weeks ago how he's way behind schedule with it.”

“Is there anything else on this back-up thing,” Kerr said, “something more mysterious? Why so adamant nobody else know about it.”

“Normally,” Amanda began, “I don't get into that part of town – it's a very ritzy neighborhood, old houses and wealthy families, and many of them converted into posh boutiques, way out of my range. The Professor's publisher is there, too, Marple Music, and I'd been there before, but not recently, probably not since early summer. Right across the street is this old-fashioned bakery and coffee shop called 'Lili's' – I hear they have really great lingonberry muffins – then a few doors up on the same side is the dance school.”

She knew she didn't need to bother Dr Kerr with all these details, but it helped fix things in her mind: it was all part of the experience that day and helped her memory. A sunny autumn day, the leaves finally beginning to turn, still warm out – she recalled feeling so alive and happy, regardless.

“Anyway, I'd taken the bus in from campus after my class with Wilsher – I guess that would be around 11:00, yeah? – and for some reason I felt so... what, clandestine? – like a spy movie.” She kept thinking how this prowler was somehow going to attack her on the bus, kill her and steal the thing.

“Silly, I know,” she laughed, “but it was, like, strange, what he said, handing the envelope to me the night before: 'Don't let anybody else see this,' he'd said, 'no one must know' – seriously?”

“Did he ever explain what it was or why it was so important – and why only someone at the ballet school? And if it were only a back-up copy, why couldn't you keep it?”

“Oh, Dr Kerr, it scared me, like I'd been given this huge responsibility, and yet somehow I wasn't worthy of it.”

“So then you transported it, handing it off,” Cameron said with added emphasis, “but this prowler wouldn't know you had it.”

“I guess not,” she said, “but like fear, I figured he'd smell it.”

Trying not to look over her shoulder, she'd gotten off the bus and walked to the Patty Beret School of Dance where she asked how to find Rhonda Zhomme. She was teaching a class.

“I waited forty minutes till her class finished then gave her the envelope: she didn't seem too terribly concerned about it.”

Amanda said she couldn't understand why all the mystery for a back-up copy – “yeah, I know the piece was called 'Mysteries,' but geez, it was only a memory stick, like what's the big deal?” It had been such a relief when Rhonda took the envelope from her, she decided to splurge at Lili's for coffee.

Two women there were talking about needing a secretarial assistant at Marple Music, a position which they needed to fill immediately. Ms Rivers, the publisher's office manager, recognized Amanda and asked if she'd apply.

“I told her I couldn't take the job on account of still being in school, but I knew someone who could. So Ms Rivers asked me to have her call them, if she's interested. But if I'd taken that job,” Amanda sniffed, wandering out to the kitchen, “I'd be the dead body at the publishers...”

“Before Martin and Dorothy get here,” Kerr told Cameron, “we're going to have to sort through things, see what we find. And maybe we ought to have a look at that memory stick, too.”

The question was, considering where it was hidden, how would they get it, especially without raising any suspicions at the school?

“You think,” Cameron said, “finding this memory stick is going to tell us what's happened to Tom Purdue and locate him?”

Yes, this may well be a job for “The League of Unlikely Musicians.”

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

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, Sept. 7th.]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

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

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