Monday, September 10, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 4 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Perdita Vremsky, a concert artists' management executive in London, arrives in Philadelphia before meeting with some of her musicians about a piano quintet she had discovered on a previous trip, hoping to make arrangements for them to play it if she could convince any American concert presenters to take them on. In reality, Perdita Vremsky is also an agent – given the name L√≥viator – of a shady organization called “The Aficionati” whose primary focus is to safeguard classical music against the influences of the rabble. The reason she is in Philadelphia at this particular moment in time is to meet with one of her underlings about a project she's been assigned: the location of a composer with an expertise in using musical codes as a form of secret communication. His name is Thomas Purdue. And ironically, the composer of this piano quintet she's trying to locate is named Thomas Purdue. Even more ironically, the next-door neighbor of the agent she is going to meet had a nephew named Thomas Purdue: could they all be the same person?

(If you're just tuning in, 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.

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


Since there was little time, sorting through all the evidence and assembling everything they needed for the infamous White Board presentation, most of the officers working on the case ate lunch at their desks after one of the rookies was delegated to supply massive quantities of take-out for anyone avoiding the precinct canteen's vending machines. It was like catering for ten finicky clients where everyone wanted something different whether it was Chinese or Mexican or subs, ending up with a long-enough list it could take her hours to fill. The breakfast donuts were long gone and the coffee had already turned stale so in addition to making freshly brewed “joe,” Officer Paula Naze opted to grab some additional pizzas for the meeting's snacks. She was hoping next time she'd get to work the case and let Zerka or LeMonde pick up the requisite food.

Everybody knew Det. Narder had been called in on the case because Chief Gagliardo wanted his best officers working this homicide, even though she wasn't supposed to be back for another couple of days. Just this past Saturday she'd buried her uncle, a decorated policeman shot in the line of duty back home in Baltimore. Several of her fellow officers from Marple's precinct had gone to support her and their brothers in a sea of blue. It had been a reminder to everyone what they risked every single day.

Everybody also knew her story and nobody believed she needed time to grieve except maybe to stay and comfort her aunt who had taken her husband's death very badly, randomly attacked by some gunman. Narder was tough, tough as nails – something else everybody instinctively knew about her – and things like this only made her tougher. Laura's own father, a college professor, had been killed when she was ten in what's now called a “road rage” incident. The fact her uncle was a policeman channeled grief into the best revenge.

That's why Laura Narder decided to become a policeman in the first place, taking out killers to make the streets safer. Every criminal she helped put away was one more tribute to her dad. One less bad guy with a gun meant fewer little girls had to worry about their dads coming home for dinner.

She hadn't quite finished her vegetarian platter with garlic sauce when Nortonstein called, the first word in on the victim's autopsy. “Cause of death was obvious, bleeding out from having had her throat slashed. As for the murder weapon, nothing conclusive yet: either some kind of curved knife or” – here he hesitated – “maybe a scythe.”

“You mean a scythe like a farmer'd use – or Death, the Grim Reaper?”

He wavered only momentarily. “Well, it is Hallowe'en...”

“But who wanders around at morning rush carrying a scythe without being seen?”

Then Reel remembered Ms Jones, the assistant director at Marple Music, had said Alma saw someone tall, dressed all in black. “He hurried around the side and into the back alley behind the building.”

“But she'd said nothing about seeing him carrying a scythe.” Narder was skeptical. “A little too early for a costume party...”

One of the problems they were having was the number of people who'd been through that back alley behind Marple Music which appeared to be a busy shortcut during the course of a day. And nobody else saw this guy – or could say it even was a guy – to know just how tall “tall” was.

“The victim was 5'5” herself,” Narder pointed out, “so how tall would someone be for her to think he was tall?”

“Do we know how tall Thomas Purdue is?”

“According to his license: 5'9”.”

Officer Torello had been at the crime scene all morning, perhaps the last to return, processing a file full of photographs. Despite his longevity on the force, he'd proven very adaptable to digital technology. He had also been the envy of many of his fellow officers, packing some of his wife's old-fashioned lasagna for lunch. Everybody knew it was Lasagna Monday whenever Sal brought in his padlocked lunchbox even before the canteen filled with magical aromas, not like one of the crime scene guys couldn't have picked the lock.

Sal snapped the first photograph up on the white board: a head-shot from Marple Music's publicity file on composer Thomas Purdue.

“Okay,” Narder said, directing everyone to the board, “our most likely suspect: why?”

Tango went first. “Well, the vic was holding an angry letter Purdue'd written.”

“Don't forget several angry phone messages,” Reel added.

Torello put up other photos of everyone else who worked at the publishers this morning, most of whom could be dismissed because they were downstairs at the time of the murder – except Ms Jones.

“The guy in the adjacent office had already left for some vacation time and Ms DiVedremo had been at the hairdresser's.”

The next set of photos were taken surreptitiously by Reel on his cell phone at Thomas Purdue's home on Marymede Lane.

“You even got the cat?” Tango assured everybody that was one mean cat.

“After arriving at Purdue's home,” Narder continued, “we met Purdue's assistant, Amanda Wences. Of all these, she actually knew the victim.”

“In fact, she'd gotten Alma the job there – well, told her about it...”

“She's very protective of her boss,” Narder said, “always calls him 'The Professor.'”

Tango coughed a bit too obviously and chuckled.

“Then there's also Purdue's friend,” Reel added, “the guy calling himself Dr Kerr – and his assistant, a kid named Cameron Pierce.”

“Who just happened to show up this morning for an unscheduled visit – odd...”

Torello then posted a photo of Alma's body, so clear you could see severed arteries seeping with fresh blood. Several gasped.

“And this,” Narder said, ”is the killer's victim. Her name is Alma Viva.

“So who do we think's the killer and why did they kill her?”

“Frankly,” Tango offered, “my money's on the cat.”

An older cop, balding with a graying fringe, large brown eyes and a mouth that seemed permanently frozen into a frown stuck his head in the room and asked them how it was going.

Tango and Reel jumped up, straightened themselves as if at attention, said “Good afternoon, sir,” then mumbled various vaguely generic responses.

Det. Narder explained they'd found nothing conclusive yet – “still basically early hours, sir” – but one very strong suspect was looking good. “The only problem, sir, is he seems to have disappeared without a trace.”

Freddie Gagliardo had been a cop in Marple as long as anyone remembered, since he'd graduated from the local Police Academy. He'd grown up in Marple, knew almost everybody and had earned everybody's respect. He'd taken on this sad demeanor after he became chief twenty-some years ago. Everybody in the precinct called him “Grumpy Cop.”

While he was a good cop and a fair if strict chief, it always looked like he was going to chew you out and say “no” no matter what it was you'd ask him. He also was something of a damper whenever they closed a case, reminding them of the risks they took every day.

“There's a guy out there killing young girls with a machete or something, so you get him off the streets fast.”

“That's the plan, Captain,” Narder said, and with that, Gagliardo grunted and withdrew.

“Okay, it was 9:00 when the office's phone started ringing, and everybody got to their work stations, when the Office Manager, Ms Rivers, handed Alma the mail to take upstairs a couple minutes later. But the first person in the building had been Arugula Jones, opening the office and starting the coffee in the kitchen.”

“Jones was followed shortly by Ms Viva,” Tango continued, “whom she'd seen earlier in the bakery – good donuts, by the way. And within a few minutes to nine, a bunch of other coworkers arrived.”

“There were several minutes between when Rivers said she sent Alma upstairs with the mail and the first 'thud' they heard – presumably the table getting knocked over; the second, presumably, when her body fell.”

“So you think the killer may have been waiting for her – or someone?”

“Or he walked in when Alma's already there.”

“In the process of the struggle, it appears the table was knocked over and scores scattered everywhere all over the floor – but that's after the victim was slashed. The rug underneath them is stained. There were several pieces of mail scattered around the floor near the desk, the mail Alma had brought upstairs for DiVedremo.

“But in addition to scores and mail and files in general, what else do you see that could attract a burglar?”

“Paintings on the walls, expensive furniture, those lamps, some knick-knacks – and that dollhouse.”

Reel said Ms DiVedremo had looked around and didn't think anything was “stolen” but was she sure nothing else was missing? “She was referring to objects in the room but what about any files?”

“So the only thing we know was missing is part of Purdue's letter – the only thing tying Purdue to the victim.”

Reel figured if the killer was after the letter, why leave without the part that was still in the victim's hand? “If that was left behind, maybe it wasn't the letter he was after?”

“Yet the killer was still in the room when Jones opened the door...”

“Meaning, if he wanted it, there was time.”

“Meaning,” Narder said, turning around and seeing Grumpy Cop coming up behind them, “you'd better get back and canvas the scene – look around and see if you can find the rest of that letter.”

“Before you leave, boys,” the captain said, holding out a hand in warning, “there's someone I think you need to meet.” Narder hadn't noticed the statuesque woman behind him – blonde hair, tall, drop-dead gorgeous. He'd said this in such stately tones, Gagliardo made it sound like a new witness had come forward, perhaps a person-of-interest.

Smiling, Tango immediately stood up, straightened his back and his tie as well, the case, in his eyes, now more interesting. The others, mostly already standing, merely turned and looked on with mild curiosity.

The woman following Gagliardo was not being deferential to his age or rank. Given the openness of the precinct's office space, it was the closest thing she could make to what constituted “an entrance.” She had already removed a crumpled khaki-colored raincoat and left it in the captain's office with her equally crumpled pork-pie hat.

“Of all the dames who coulda walked into my precinct,” thought Alejandro Tango, smoothing down the graying hair across his temples, “the good Lord chose this one to brighten another miserable Monday in Marple!” Reel looked over at him with an arched eyebrow, convinced he had heard his partner begin to purr like a jaguar.

Once she had stepped around beside the captain, he introduced her as Special Agent Sarah Bond of the IMP, London Branch. “She has been assigned by the International Music Police to assist this investigation.”

Despite what must have been the closest thing to a smile his coworkers had seen on Captain Gagliardo's face in years, it was clear from the expression in Narder's eyes this was unwelcome news. Why the IMP felt this was now part of their jurisdiction was one thing, but did the GMMPF need a consultant?

One could argue – as Tango certainly would – she was more than just another bimbo with a badge wearing a red dress.

Narder intended to find out. “Great – so, what can you tell us about...?”

“I apologize,” Bond explained with a condescending tone, “but I'm not really at liberty to share information about an on-going investigation except to say it's international in scope and at a fairly delicate juncture.”

Narder's expression made it clear she didn't like that, regardless of juncture, she was expected to share information about her investigation.

“We were getting around to discussing 'motive' before you were introduced, Agent Bond.” Narder quickly scanned over the six other officers. “So, rather than starting over again, let's ask, what was the killer after?”

Torello, doing his best to impress their guest, pointed at the board and said the victim was not the likely target.

Officer Naze agreed. “She was way too insignificant. Yet she was holding the letter, wasn't she, which presumably the killer wanted. If we find the rest of the letter, it's probably not the motive.”

“We've assumed the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps it's a case of mistaken identity?”

“If the letter's not the motive,” Torello mentioned, “does that clear Dr Purdue?”

“Not necessarily.” It's true the main connection to Purdue was that disturbing letter, but why leave the most incriminating part behind?

“Tango, Reel – you, too, Zerka: check the crime scene, go see if you can find the other half of that letter before it gets too dark. Take a look in the neighbors' backyards, too.”

With that, the three of them packed up their gear and took off, Reel grabbing another slice of pizza “to go.”

While some of the officers made a half-hearted attempt to freshen their coffee or see if there was any pizza left, others took a closer look at the board or engaged in further discussion.

“Is the current whereabouts of this letter, or this fragment of a letter,” Bond asked, “really so important to the case?” With a quietly shrugged shoulder, she hinted at playing more than devil's advocate.

“Yeah, I feel it is.” Narder left it at that, remembering the differences. If she wanted more, she'll have to ask.

Bond strode with a certain studied, un-policeman-like elegance up to the white board and casually looked over the photographs, clearly bored.

“Care to explain?” Bond asked without turning to face her. “I'm just curious.”

“I'm just curious why you're here,” Narder wanted to ask her out loud but decided not to, shuffling papers around instead. She could sense her co-workers – several others standing in the hall – watching them. In the back of her mind she heard her uncle's soft voice with its soothing advice: “Policemanship, Laura – it's a dance.”

That was something her uncle always told her when she was a kid, especially those weeks after her father was killed. Police officers often had different, sometimes opposing viewpoints, and nothing was ever simple. Then he would take her tiny hands in his big paws and lead her in a slow waltz around the room.

She imagined waltzing with Uncle Lou, ignoring the British Bitch from the IMP and contemplating different dance steps and different opinions. “If it isn't simple, deal with the difference – it's the justice that's important.”

“If Purdue's not the killer,” Narder pondered, pointing at his photograph, “then who's the tall man in black carrying a scythe...?”

Officer Torello looked over the pictures and singled out Arugula Jones. “What about...?”

“She was,” Narder pointed out, “the only person on staff upstairs – yes, alone – and the second person there on the scene.”

Naze piped up that she was also the only one who actually saw someone in the room with the victim's body.

“Perhaps that was just a ruse,” Naze suggested.

“No, Turner saw him, too.”

As her phone rang, Narder dismissed the idea since Jones got sick and barfed by the dollhouse after seeing the blood, not to mention where would she hide a weapon that big so quickly?

“Yeah, Tango,” she said, answering the phone, “what's up? The crime scene, already? What d'you mean, 'more blood' – but 'no body'?”

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

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, Sept. 12th]

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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