(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.
“Damn it! There's never a farking hand towel around when you need one!”
At least, she'd been wearing her usual gloves. At least, her new security camera remote “mute” button worked like a charm. She was not pleased about stepping over the body of the airport red-cap but at least it was a successful experiment. He shouldn't have started whistling what sounded like something from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as if mishandling her luggage wasn't bad enough. Fortunately for him he never saw it coming. “Clearly, he needed to die.” Considering her height, the problem was getting the gadget behind the target's ear so she had to find someone short enough which meant, in her mind, it needed a little work to be practical. Also, at any rate, cleaning it off after she pushed the body aside, there wasn't supposed to be this much blood.
Today ought to be a wonderful day, as far as she was concerned, auspicious, even, if she'd believed in that stuff, but she couldn't deny it made her feel good inside, warm and fuzzy. It was one day on the calendar she looked forward to every year: the anniversary of the death of her sister. It was good, finally, after all these years, to be rid of her, no longer having to deal with the comparisons. Her sister Lontana had always been sheer perfection; Perdita Vremsky, not so much.
And everything for her latest assignment was finally beginning to fall into place after years of careful planning and exhaustive research, not a moment too soon, as her boss always managed to point out. But then technically it wasn't her fault the agents in the Munich branch suffered setbacks with their part of the project. Like any corporation, of course, when one manager falls behind in his responsibilities, an entire project can find itself in jeopardy. Then, before you know it, everybody's getting blamed, not just the one responsible.
Perdita Vremsky watched the outdated suburbs of Philadelphia flow past, nondescript and boring, as her hired limousine left the airport behind, headed north toward her meeting with one of her agents, their first encounter. They'd corresponded through encrypted e-mail and burner cells, using all the normal protocols, but now a face-to-face meeting had become necessary.
The lone passenger in the limo's back seat felt dwarfed by her surroundings with its glistening leather upholstery and unnecessary mirrors, as if she'd wandered into Dr Who's TARDIS, inexplicably bigger on the inside. She saw no reason why the company needed to splurge on such luxuriousness – for her, a simple BMW would have sufficed. The mirrors in particular were making her uncomfortable, placed practically everywhere she looked: if she ruled the kingdom, she'd banish mirrors. Why did everyone need to check themselves out, constantly preening in some mirror?
Her feet barely touched the floor – another annoyance – making her feel ridiculously insignificant like some little girl in an oversized chair. It reminded her of that Lily Tomlin character she'd always hated so much. She was short, she admitted, but she knew that didn't make her inconsequential. Looking insignificant and being insignificant were entirely different.
Plus her hair never did her any favors no matter how she tried to style it (such a waste of time), whether she cut it short or let it grow long, almost shoulder-length, now. Frizzy yet always lacking anything remotely like body, it hung there, completely lifeless, the quintessential bad-hair day in a bad-hair life.
She described its color as “Protestant rat brown” – she'd seen that somewhere before: maybe it was in a John Updike novel. Whatever the color, it rebelled at the very suggestion of dyes and conditioners.
Lontana Vremsky, dead now these past five years – five wonderful years, Perdita recalled – had been tall and statuesque like a model, with long blonde hair (“burnished,” some described it) and skin like pure alabaster. Her eyes were not just blue but possessed a depth like the sea where men found they could easily drown themselves. Her smile revealed the radiance of fine jewels, reflecting an affirmation of life; her lips possessed the promise of eternal sweetness. A turn of her head, the tilt of an eyebrow rendered men prisoners.
Of course, Perdita thought of all this differently, without resorting to unnecessary poetry, how like a freak of nature Lontana seemed. Nature, in addition to vacuums, also abhorred perfection, allowing its occurrence only rarely. And men, she noticed, could be such imbeciles when it came to beauty. In Nature's finest irony, Lontana was a lesbian.
Even as a baby, Lontana commanded everyone's attention, people cooing over her beauty offering the proud parents – a most happy pair – the most heartfelt of congratulations as if they'd succeeded in doing something right. Beside them stood this sad-faced, pudgy toddler with unruly hair and sallow skin, ill-fitting clothes unable to mask her ill-proportioned body.
With a deferential nod to their older daughter, her parents, it was obvious, realized that this time they had been lucky. Perdita was a constant reminder that beautiful people didn't always produce beautiful children.
Not that her parents were necessarily prize-winners themselves when it came to beauty, Perdita began to understand the older she got, realizing early there were people among their friends she considered much better looking; plus she'd overheard Grandmother complaining Perdita's mother was nothing but a common whore and though ignorant about whore, “common” she understood.
Her father was tall and slender – later, she thought of him as “skinny” – with a great head of usually wayward hair, “straw-blonde” he had called it, his Russian heritage, the legacy of pre-Revolutionary aristocrats.
Her mother was descended from vineyard laborers in the Italian town of Sporcizia, a dirty little village in the Po Valley, and went to Livorno to become an actress where she met Perdita's father.
True, Grandfather had been the second son of Count Poteryanikov-Vremsky before the Revolution, but neither lineage was worth much in reality.
Perdita didn't like thinking about things like family, at least at the moment, as the limousine sped along the busy highway, knowing she should never let anything so trivial distract her from her goal. She'd had the flight from Munich to Philadelphia to think about such things, and couldn't afford to lose her focus now. If she were to go all nostalgic about her sister's death, she argued, wasn't such emotional baggage a sign of weakness? Unfortunately, catching glimpses of herself in all these mirrors only made it worse. The driver told her it should take about a half-hour, depending on traffic, but that must have been an hour ago. Had he gotten lost or missed an exit and she'd miss this meeting? Who was to blame for all these mirrors dredging up these unwanted memories? “It's like I'm trapped inside some farking fun-house!”
Perdita looked around to see if there was some kind of sound system and some music that would sooth her mind and distract her from her sister's memory and the driver's increasingly galling effrontery, but the only thing she found was a disc of “Vivaldi's Greatest Hits” and that only inflamed her annoyance even more. Maybe she could blame the handsome limo driver for mishandling her emotional baggage like the airport red-cap who dropped her suitcase? It would definitely make her feel better if, perhaps, he too should die.
Certainly, as a baby, Lontana was innocent, lying there in her frilly pram, compared to the adult who constantly mocked Perdita, even if it had only been through her existence, by just being perfect. The very memory of those long blonde tresses, that perfect nose, those eyes was enough to inflame Perdita's dark, misshapen soul. She didn't have to remember the playground mockery, the boys who preferred Lontana, or the piteous looks from her parents' friends, yet five years after she'd died, Lontana still taunted her from the grave.
Even if this many years later her memories of childhood weren't quite accurate, this was how she remembered them, more importantly, to the point where, for her, memory was impossible to distinguish from reality. Where was the person who'd ever convince her it hadn't happened this way? Besides, which was more important: perception? – or truth?
Though she had grown up in a household where her father tried to manage a small second-rate opera house in Italy and her mother tried learning how to sing well enough to perform there, it wasn't until she attended college in America and took an intro course that she learned how to love classical music. Most of the time, because it had been her parents' choice of music, she had made the decision to detest it, preferring to listen to the latest rock-n-roll fads primarily because it annoyed them.
Then, when Lontana started to take music lessons, showing promise as a pianist, Perdita managed to join a neighbor's rock band despite their saying she had a voice like a frog in a blender. Considering much of what she enjoyed, she had taken that as a compliment, but it wasn't long till the band dissolved.
For several summers, she would follow her favorite bands around Europe, then America, deciding to take a business degree in college where senior year she was forced to take this “Introduction to Music” class. The premise of the course seemed to indicate classical music was much too good for her, that she'd never understand it.
Real music lovers turned these composers into marble busts, treated them like gods, told stories about suffering artists like mythological legends. And yet, she had discovered a new religion: Beethoven suffered for our sins.
Blown away by the Late Quartets of Beethoven which she found totally incomprehensible, even more than much of the modern stuff, she soon discovered the more complicated the music, the better it was regarded and that any true lover of classical music would implicitly understand this complexity thus ultimately making her a truly superior person. The salvation she would receive through this revelation, having once opened her mind, would be a sense of considerable intellectual supremacy, something that others like her with similar understanding would hold in high regard. It was not a matter of passionate responses and palpitations of the heart, the racing pulse or sweat on the skin which any simpleton could experience in the climactic throes of an emotional orgasm: it was in the expansion of the intellect she sought to express herself even if, honestly, it sounded like pure crap.
She practiced the dismissive sneer of her professor, the theorist Dr Preston Headstone, which he, with arched eyebrow signifying arch contempt, reserved for simple music that could be easily appreciated because it was pretty. He held in equal contempt purely entertaining music with its heightened rhythmic pulsings where people responded primitively by bopping their heads. The aim of classical music wasn't to engage the masses in mere entertainment – any music in societal contexts could do that: the goal was one of purely individual enlightenment, the expansion of the mind.
It was through personal experience that the mind would discover its greatest potential, able to comprehend its place in the universe, and thereby embrace the opportunity to achieve a higher level of sophisticated intelligence. But it was good that Classical Music (with its upper-case C and M) could also engage people at an entry level. The world sought to enrich the masses' lives through art, improving their lot, but it needed more educated people as leaders. “Bach was better than Vivaldi, Mozart better than Haydn, nobody better than Beethoven.”
She may not have done well in class thanks to the Bell Curve and a slow start with poor test scores. She was, however, one of the few to catch on by the final. But life, in her experience, was never fair to one of the Masses. Her goal was to join the Select Few.
Like so many devotees of something newly discovered, she wondered how much she could increase her ability to accept, to understand, basically how to attain the necessary enlightenment with the least time or effort. She went to every concert she could, waded through program notes and books that would have been indecipherable to her before. She bought a bust of Beethoven – good-sized, not one of those puny ones – and placed it on top of her stereo. Next, she arranged bowls of fresh fruit and flowers in front of it.
She stopped going to hear her favorite bands, threw out her old recordings, and indiscriminately started buying “tons” of classical LPs. Her favorite second-hand shop had a section called “The Best of the Greatest.” Every night before bed she listened to a Beethoven symphony or some Bach. Soon, she also needed to find new roommates.
Perdita quickly gave up her dream of managing a rock band and started promoting a string quartet that played Beethoven exclusively, the first of many such classical music ensembles she'd take under her wing, eventually becoming a famous impresario before realizing it's spelled with only one 's' (she'd thought it meant “someone destined to impress”).
Gradually, she developed a reputation for offering fine performers playing the greatest music for the edification of the most astute audiences. She had little patience for presenters interested merely in ticket sales and popularity.
It was this very devotion to classical music, especially the idea of protecting it from the riff-raff who demeaned its greatness, which eventually led Perdita Vremksy to becoming noticed by members of the Aficionati. By this time, she'd decided to move her base of operations to London because she found its intellectual atmosphere more congenial. Twenty years out of college, after earning a master's degree in arts management, she joined forces with her mentor, Eben Flut. Together, Vremsky & Flut became a commanding force in London's competitive art world.
They built up a stable of artists with only a few select performers representing the best that London had to offer, including the foremost pianists and the finest violinists, even a cellist or two. What they lacked in recognition, they made up for in dedication and professionalism, nothing trendy nor likely to be one-hit wonders.
The Kenner Quartet, founded by violist Vaarten Niemann, soon became their signature thoroughbred and began to bring in the largest fees, taking their Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles around England and playing in contemporary festivals. They treated the Late Beethoven Quartets like warhorses and used Bartók as curtain-raisers, often playing the Grosse Fuge as an encore.
The reaction, admittedly, was mixed, many thinking these programs too academic and boring, especially those who missed the “rock star days.” The thing about “rock stars” was most had the shelf-life of a gnat.
It was a much more difficult task to crack into the American market which usually resisted such approaches to concert programming, and one of her objects with this visit was to attend several conferences. She knew her artists were not PBS material, while many universities, like radio, were basically, on the whole, a lost cause.
But if she met with chamber music presenters who'd hear the Kenner play, maybe someone would hire them for a concert. They would certainly balance the lighter fare many American organizations offered their subscribers.
The plan was to join up with the Kenner Quartet at one such conference in New York City later this week. In the meantime, there was pressing business to attend to here in Philadelphia.
It seems one of her agents had run into some kind of snag. And one thing the Aficionati hated was “snags.”
On a recent American visit, Perdita unearthed an old copy of a piano quintet by some composer she'd never heard of which included a detailed analysis of a secret program embedded within the music, a manuscript from the “Used Score” bin at the late, lamented Patelson's Music, “The Best Little Score House in New York.” A complex, intellectually challenging work that even had a real “mystery” behind it, this would be great for the Kenner to play with pianist Timon der Tijd whenever she'd finally schedule their American debut.
They'd read through it this past summer, making a convincing case for it, and agreed it would be fun to perform since, the embedded story aside, it's fairly inaccessible, lacking tunes but harmonically inventive. The fact she couldn't “hear” the story supposedly hidden in its complicated code didn't bother Perdita, figuring real aficionados would “understand.”
She told Niemann to comb through the score with the analysis in hand, verifying everything worked like it said it did, which he said “it did,” even if some things were “a tad arbitrary.” Arbitrary, however, was not her major concern, as long as it was there: an audience would believe whatever it was told.
The arcane program notes had been prepared by someone named T. Richard Kerr; the music was composed by a Thomas Purdue. Perhaps the Aficionati knew who these guys were: they might be members, themselves.
That was one thing about the byzantine organization behind the Aficionati she disliked, especially when it came to times like this, how it was almost impossible to find out who else was a member. So she sent a Personnel Identification Request to her superior (whom she knew) to ask his superior (whom she did not). From there, it echoed for months around what passed for the bureaucratic halls of a clandestine international organization of such secrecy not one single person in any single office knew who belonged to it.
Like many such secret organizations which felt its members required a certain anonymity, this protected them from any unnecessary public scrutiny, though everyone knew that that public scrutiny included law enforcement and the courts. This meant, should there would be any “inquiries,” it kept upper management safe. Perdita could only identify two people above her.
Given the formula was old in feudal times but with some added security and choice (if confusing) terms borrowed from antiquity, Perdita knew her “phalanx” consisted of six additional agents working under her supervisor. She, beyond that, supervised seven more agents which were known as her “cohort,” each of which supervised a further seven agents. Though Perdita and her six colleagues plus all their “cohorts” formed a “legion,” technically she could only identify fourteen other members. How many further cohorts existed above or below each agent was anyone's guess.
Without specific ranks, agents wouldn't know their standing within the overall organizational hierarchy, but those on the lowest levels were probably like her college “Intro” professor whose primary function was to identify future recruits. It's possible the only person who knew the identity of the organization's leader was the one who had no immediate supervisor.
And then there was each agent's code name, something assigned at their induction, chosen from a broad array of ancient myths. Her immediate supervisor was a gentleman called “Dagon,” after some old Phoenician god. Whatever she thought his ranking may have been, Vremsky accidentally discovered his immediate supervisor, or some higher-up administrator, was named “Osiris.”
Her own name, as much as she disliked it, was “Lóviator,” an obscure witch in Finnish mythology capable of changing shapes. Dagon, despite being a fish-god, sounded somewhat cool; but Lóviator was... well – obscure.
There were two in her immediate phalanx whom she'd worked with quite often, Hephaestus, after the blacksmith, a master of gadgets, and Machaon, named for the younger brother of the father of medicine, Aesculapius. Frequently involved on mutual projects, Perdita spent much time hopping between their locations, gadgets in Glasgow and medical apparatus in Munich. Hephaestus was having her try out his latest, the security camera “mute-button remote” and the “stun pen,” among various other things. “Mack” had inadvertently let slip their latest project came directly from this “Osiris.”
Ironically, it was her search for the composer of that “mysterious” piano quintet that led to a break-through to solve everything – well, maybe not everything, but the major stumbling block in Osiris' fantastic scheme. It seemed possible this Thomas Purdue might actually know something helpful with programming musical codes as a secret form of communication.
Whatever information requests given to Dagon's superior yielded, trying to identify the possible membership of Dr Purdue in the Aficionati's ranks, they indicated only that Purdue had once been identified as a potential convert. Whether he'd refused, showed no interest in joining or the recruiter lost interest was information which remained, by and large, unknown.
All this, Lóviator was told, happened decades ago, perhaps back in the 1970s, most of the agents involved having long retired. Still, as Dagon had recently relayed to Lóviator, Purdue's whereabouts remained likewise unknown.
Trying not to appear impatient, after sensing Aficionati affiliation was not that crucial, and concerned more with premiering this piano quintet, she set her own minions (as she viewed her cohort) on Purdue's trail. If he were still alive or if the quintet had previously been published, there were, for instance, legal issues to consider.
Odd nothing turned up after Googling the name which pointed directly to him, a famous composer teaching somewhere, getting works performed. While there were numerous hits on the name, several of them were composers.
Yet it was her most recently assigned agent, the one they'd named “Falx,” who had some vague memory from his childhood. His grandmother's neighbor's nephew was named Tom Purdue (or maybe it was Tim?).
What author wrote, “there aren't enough people to go around in the world”? But even with this serendipitousness, there were doubts.
Dagon hadn't actually told her how he knew anything about this Thomas Purdue who'd been doing some research into musical codes; then, Perdita hadn't told him about the mystery encoded into Purdue's quintet, either. But what would it matter if it weren't part of any organizational directive where withholding information could be construed as disloyalty? Without letting on to Falx what her real interest was in Thomas Purdue, she told him to confirm his identity first, then check if that aunt or any other childhood friends knew his whereabouts. But if, on the off-chance the Thomas Purdue she was interested in was the same one Osiris was now interested in, it would certainly be a feather in the collective cap of Team Lóviator. As the Aficionati hadn't mentioned anything about being interested in “musically coded communications,” Perdita immediately became intrigued by the subject herself.
Last week, in preparation for meeting Falx during her business trip to America, with eyes to a future proposal to Dagon, Perdita asked Niemann to take her on an in-depth journey through Purdue's quintet, not only about the details of its mystery but also what, specifically, there was to this concept of musically embedded codes. But it struck her, considering what she'd tried to read about “Artificial Intelligence,” as something very basic, an almost rudimentary experiment, which made her wonder why Osiris would seriously be interested in this composer?
But that was the thing about a secret organization, having become so secretive, no matter how large it may have grown, no one else in the organization knew what the others were up to. So it's possible Osiris had this project assigned to another of his cohorts, nothing she would need to be involved in. And while there was no specified hierarchy among those in any given phalanx, she wondered how high her own cohort ranked, or was there the possibility she stood near the bottom, insignificant, an afterthought?
There wasn't much she could do about it if that were the case, twiddling her thumbs while lost in idle speculation, since their managerial style – using the term loosely – was part of its secrecy. Besides, much of an agent's time was spent waiting for that next assignment, never knowing when an assignment might “trickle down.”
If this is how the organization had been run since it was established before the glory days of the 15th Century, who was she, over six hundred years later, to question its perceived short-comings? In these days of jets and e-mail, she considered its attitudes terminally out-dated, its unwillingness even to consider change morbidly obtuse.
But the purpose behind the organization of the Aficionati in the first place was to preserve “Art Music” for the Initiated. Far be it from her to second-guess the sacerdotal wisdom of upper management.
Judging from the rumbling in her stomach, Perdita imagined the last time she'd had real food was over 10 hours ago, especially since that $25 coffee-and-donut airport special would never classify as “real food.” Another whiff of leather upholstery was enough to make her glad she'd arrived. Seriously, lunch could not be served soon enough.
The limo turned once again as the driver announced their arrival – “God, finally!” – coming to a halt on a tree-lined driveway leading to some motel on the edge of an office building theme park. The front entrance on her left looked pedestrian enough if a little institutional. Then she noticed the building on her right.
He'd booked her into a place across from branch offices of the FBI? “What kind of a farking moron is he?”
Her concerns were pushed aside when her phone buzzed: a text from Osiris.
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, Sept. 10th]
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.