Wednesday, September 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 5 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, the Greater Marple Metropolitan Police gather in front of their White Board to examine the details from this morning's crime scene with Det. Laura Narder and the other officers working on the case: Tango and Reel, of course, but also Mo Zerka, Sal Torello, and Paula Naze, among others. Chief Gagliardo (a.k.a. "Grumpy Cop") introduces an agent assisting on the case from the International Music Police, Special Agent Sarah Bond. With all the differences of opinion, Narder recalls something her late Uncle Lou once told her when she was a kid, warning her about politics: "Policemanship, Laura – it's a dance..." And then Tango calls from the crime scene: it seems there's more blood, but no body. 

(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.

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



Once those two detectives finally managed to leave – you know they'll be back – and with so many questions still needing answers, I had gone back upstairs to Tom's study accompanied by the ever-inquisitive Zeno, knowing there wasn't much time left to prepare the stuff I would need before Martin, Dorothy and Penelope would be arriving. Amanda, still too rattled to deal with the rest of her afternoon classes and hoping to help me find “The Professor,” decided to run back home, walk the dog and check on her mother. Assuming there was no point in him hanging around and twiddling his thumbs, Cameron, thinking we'd probably need food soon enough, offered to get some take-out so we could concentrate uninterrupted on our work. He'd found a Thai restaurant nearby with good reviews on his smart phone – and then I was alone in Tom's house.

I couldn't sit down with my friends and say “Tom's missing and we know nothing about it: where do we begin?” I needed clues and I needed facts, anything that could count as evidence. But I'd found nothing else on the desk which might develop into theories when a police car pulled up next door. Turning off the desk lamp, I carefully peeked through the curtains and watched as two officers knocked on the neighbor's door. Nothing. They sneaked around the side, checked the yard – again, nothing – then left.

At least they didn't come snooping around here, considering it's likely I might have left the dining room light on downstairs. With both our cars gone, wouldn't they think the fugitive might have returned? They'd hardly done a thorough job which, from my perspective, was good news; for neighbors worried about prowlers, not so much. But those newspaper clippings were calling to me and they needed going through, whether or not they proved to be helpful. Besides, he'd left the folder there along with the list and that note.

I had in fact left the overhead light on in the dining room, if anybody could see it from the street, and, settling down at the table, started sifting through probably dozens of clippings. Taped inside the back cover was an obituary with a vaguely familiar face, headlined “Violetta Diehl Rotabartilla, former dancer and teacher.”

“Oh, jeez – Odile!” I read quickly through the brief recounting of her life, a former member of the Prairie Ballet Company who died “this past Tuesday” – someone, probably Tom, scribbled “5/8/13” in the margin – “in Bennington where she lived after teaching dance in Salina for 25 years at Rotabartilla's School of Dance with her husband.” It went on to mention her first major role, dancing the Black Swan in the Prairie's first-ever production of Swan Lake “but a fall shortly after making her entrance ended her promising career prematurely.”

After Odile had run off with Tom's close friend, Lewis Albrecht, that summer, I tried to forget her, not really caring, but reading this now, sitting in Tom's house, I wondered, “was she happy?” She'd certainly managed to make his life miserable, at least for a while, and it didn't look like he'd forgotten her.

If her dreams had come true, it would've been like winning the lottery – she'd acted like it was obviously her birth-right – but it made me think of Patty Beret's and Rhonda Zhomme's dreams, here. Is this the reason why Tom was working on a ballet called “Mysteries” for a small-time dance school here in town?

The fact he'd called it “Mysteries” was enticing enough even without the association, reminding me of that piano quintet of his: did the ballet have a similarly mysterious program with Odile at its center?

“Well, this'll be something to show the gang,” I muttered, putting it aside and pulling out a review from The Gramophone. “Wow,” I thought, “I remember having heard this but was it that bad?”

“If never worth listening to when originally released, why subject ourselves to this CD re-issue of the rarely tolerable Otto Bielawa?”

Here was an article of mine from the soon-to-be-defunct “Philadelphia ArtScene” years ago, about Beethoven's women, one of my better efforts. Odd – why wouldn't Tom have tried getting in touch with me back then?

And here was a review – it didn't say where this one was from – of Martin's book Kalkbrenner: the Early Virtuoso Concerto: “Unless you're among the driest, dustiest academics, why crack open such a dry...” Clearly not one of Martin's more glowing reviews, I imagined, setting it aside, but I doubted he'd care to be reminded.

While there were several names I didn't recognize, here was one from a recital Dorothy gave several years ago in Boston. “One could imagine someone playing more ingratiating selections, or playing them more ingratiatingly.” The review said nothing about her playing but complained constantly about the program: “...forcing on us nothing but the toughest broccoli.”

“Now, there's a quote to use for promotions!” I laughed before going on, finding an article about a 2008 banking scandal which seemed an odd bit until I noticed he'd underlined Penelope Hart's name.

Everything, even ones with names I didn't know, seemed to be bad reviews or, in certain other cases, negatively tainted news like Penelope's involvement in a Wall Street bankers' bonus scandal after the bail-out. Penelope was probably the kindest person I knew in Tom's circle of acquaintances, so why would he keep such hurtful mementos?

Did rummaging through this folder make him feel better when he was down, seeing not everyone managed to “always be successful”? But my article, which seemed benign enough – why had he included it, here?

Perhaps he didn't think it “one of my best,” finding it badly written – is that why it's included in this folder? Because here I am, former composer and professor, reduced to a magazine by-line?

Was this a collection of Schadenfreude to remind him others missed their goals, that he was not alone in not succeeding?

When the kitchen door opened, I nearly knocked the dining room table over, scattering clippings left and right when I jumped, after losing track of time and forgetting Cameron would be coming back soon.

“Sorry,” he chimed in, carrying several bags, “didn't think I'd need to knock: who else did you think it might be?”

“Well, for starters, perhaps Tom, with any luck, or maybe the police again – or just maybe a prowler... or the killer?”

Cameron struggled to get all the bags spread out on the kitchen counter.

I explained, as he sorted through all the food – and it smelled delicious – I hadn't even started on the list yet, sidetracked by the folder I'd now dubbed Schadenfreunde.

“Friends' shame?”

“It seems appropriate...”

The list was another matter, full of typos, probably courtesy of an intern. “It'd be embarrassing to mention if they're Amanda's.”

There were pieces listed in the wrong key or with the wrong number, composers' names or even a work's title misspelled. Glancing over it, I noticed there were more. “Could this be 'Intern Shaming'?”

“Yeah,” Cameron said, taking a quick glance at it, “even I notice some. Do you think they're all deliberate?” Cameron asked.

Initially, it hadn't occurred to me, but there were so many of them; in fact, only a few were totally correct.

“I guess Tom could've prepared this some time ago as a coded message.”

That, of course, is where Martin, Dorothy and Penelope will come in handy as we recreate the League of Unlikely Musicians, or at least re-enactors who'd solved the secret program of Tom's Piano Quintet. Except this time, rather than discover what characters were involved behind the music, we must find what happened to the composer.

In the Quintet, Tom left identifying clues which, through analysis, helped us reveal who was involved and how the story progressed leading to the identity of the murder victim and eventually to the killer.

Martin possessed a wealth of music history trivia, something of a forensic musicologist; Dorothy could sift through tons of analytic detail; Penelope was good with numbers, a human calculator; I was good with patterns.

The drawback, given what time Tom had and imagining what clues he'd leave, was “where's the sketchbook of this incomplete work?”

Cameron stood back and looked at me with the skeptical look of youth: “Unless he orchestrated his own kidnapping,” he said, “how would he know what clues to leave, since reality happens so quickly? And if he knew his kidnapping was imminent, why leave musical clues behind rather than going directly to the police instead?”

“Because he left behind this post-it note with my phone number on it – not Martin's who lives in London, but mine; not Dorothy's who teaches in California, not Penelope's – attached to this error-filled list.”

“And you think there isn't some coincidence to the fact this 'kidnapping' occurs at the time, this very weekend,” Cameron continued, “when – wow! – all four of you miraculously happen to be in the area?”

It was a deflating argument and hardly welcome, but one necessary to mention. “The answer begins,” I said, “with this list.”

I dropped back in my chair with a heavy sigh, feeling already defeated, as if it's part of an elaborate joke, a ploy which, having gathered to solve it, turns into a reunion prank. Will Tom suddenly show up and laugh how we'd taken it so seriously, or is it true he's really in danger?

The murder at his publisher's office this morning was no prank, Krauterman aside, nor is the fact Tom's the prime suspect. Is the fact the victim was a friend of Amanda's another weird coincidence?

Nibbling some chips he'd gotten with the take-out, Cameron complained about the time as he wandered on into the living room, how it felt like it was taking forever for my friends to arrive, and that with the days constantly getting shorter – it already felt like late-afternoon – there would be less time to find Tom. I missed the impatience of youth with its urgency to get something accomplished even while lacking the focus to finish it, since Cameron, like me, was easily distracted when difficulties got in the way. Perhaps that was why I'd learned to compose so quickly as a student; now, I sit and savor a problem endlessly which, regardless, was why so many new pieces I'd started never got finished. Though peeking through the curtains every minute wouldn't get them here any quicker, he finally announced, “somebody's pulling up out front.”

Martin would naturally be the first to arrive, not surprising since Haverford was only a few miles from Greater Downtown Marple, though not being first would've given him the chance for a grand entrance. Shorter than I remembered but stockier and balding, he was still totally recognizable even at a distance of over forty years.

“You haven't changed much, Terry – a little shorter than I remember and stockier, but your profusion of hair is sadly disconcerting. How have you managed to remain the oldest and not look the part?”

Before I could introduce him to Cameron, Martin turned and said, handing him five bags, “could you do something with these?” his eyes following him approvingly as Cameron made his way to the kitchen. “Tom's student, I take it?, the one you mentioned in your phone call? Here, I didn't think Tom was the type.”

“Actually,” Cameron called from the kitchen, “I'm Terry's student, sort of his assistant.”

“Oh,” Martin said under a sharply arched eyebrow.

“Now, Martin, behave,” I laughed, taking his coat, “it's not what you think.”

Sighing his disappointment, he explained he was at Haverford for their annual “Friends of Copland” Seminar, talking about the Romantic Concerto, even though he'd met Copland only once and his topic was hardly related. “Their per diem allowance must have been determined by data that was current back in the day when Appalachian Spring premiered.”

Looking around as if trying to find a suitably tasteful place to sit, Martin explained he had stopped, thinking to bring some take-out along for dinner, at this “ghastly little restaurant” near the college. “The only thing on their menu looking remotely trustworthy was the lamb ragù so I got five servings with broccoli strascinati.”

Thanking him for his thoughtfulness, I led him out to the dining room, joking he's still peddling Kalkbrenner to the masses. “Musicologically speaking,” he corrected me, “pedaling in Kalkbrenner is quite a fascinating topic.”

Martin's phone jangled an insipid turn of phrase, probably from a Kalkbrenner concerto – it was Dorothy, complaining she's become hopelessly lost. Martin, letting her know he had safely arrived, wasn't sure he could help. “My GPS put me on a one-way street the wrong way,” she said, “and now I'm spinning through the immediate galaxy!”

She explained she had been driving around town for what seemed like hours trying to get back onto the main road until she was reduced to stopping at a diner and asking for directions. “And now I find myself in front of a house that's getting ready for Halloween – no, make that two haunted houses...”

Again, Cameron peered through the living room curtains and, this time, noticed a car idling in front of the neighboring farmhouse.

“Your keen analytical abilities notwithstanding,” Martin informed her, “it appears you have arrived.”

Dorothy quickly parked the car and followed Cameron's wavings to the front door, carrying with her several white plastic grocery bags which I assumed would be take-out dinners we could add to tonight's menu.

“Since I had to stop and ask directions, it seemed a logical choice. You said there'd be five of us, right?”

While Martin carefully helped her with her coat, I tallied the likely guests, six in all once Amanda and Penelope arrived. “Oh, okay – Martin hadn't mentioned this Amanda person, but then Penelope isn't coming.”

I introduced Cameron to her and explained that Amanda Wences was Tom's intern. “She's looked after him following his heart attack. As close as she's worked with him lately, her help will be invaluable.” I helped Cameron lug five bags of meatloaf dinners out to the kitchen. “Sorry to hear Penelope won't be joining us.”

“Yes, that's true,” Dorothy continued as if she might not have understood me, “but I was playing this recital on Saturday. They had every minute of my day planned out for me all weekend. I played Crumb, Copland, Sessions and then Elliott Carter's sonata, an 'all-contemporary' program or at least contemporary when I was young.”

She looked in the mirror over the fireplace and primped at her hair as we wandered out into the dining room. She too looked shorter and stockier, but I chose not to mention that.

In point of fact, it's true I was the oldest of these friends as Martin had so eloquently expressed it earlier, but only by a matter of barely five months, hardly enough to count. Dorothy never failed to rub it in I was officially older than she, my birthday a mere fifteen days after hers. But then fifteen weeks separated Martin and me; and fifteen days' Martin's junior made Penelope the “baby” of our little clan. A surprising symmetry which intrigued me in those days – like I said, “patterns.”

I'd forgotten Tom had been born eight months ahead of me, making him the oldest, regardless how immature he'd often acted.

“If we were all here,” Dorothy started saying, then left her statement dangle.

“Well, look at us, will you,” Martin said, “we three, here, together again.”

“But where's Tom,” Dorothy asked. “What's going on?”

If I thought the tale had been confusing when Amanda first told us, when most of it was fresh second-hand knowledge, I made enough of a hash of it to lose Martin and Dorothy in the retelling of what now became third-hand knowledge about Tom's apparent difficulties, filled out with a limited amount of supposition. I lingered less on the murder at the publishers which was almost coincidental despite the tragic loss of Amanda's friend's life, aside from being a wrinkle, though a fairly complicated one, in Tom's disappearance. But it was clear he had left some clues behind to help us, however the three of us had become involved, regardless how he knew he would somehow need our help in this matter. I wasn't sure what else we might find but whatever he'd left behind, this list, I said, was probably the key.

“The key's B Minor or E Minor,” Martin asked. “What's with the typos? The 'Noonlight' Sonata? What proofreader would miss that? An odd-looking list, don't you think,” Martin said, passing it on to Dorothy.

“Aside from some of the selections on it, not terribly representative at all,” she complained, “nothing contemporary beyond Stravinsky and... Sondheim?”

Martin was referring to Bach's Mass in D Minor, second on the list, with Brahms' 4th Symphony listed next in G.

“But I'm gathering listening's not the real purpose behind this list,” Dorothy suggested.

When the backdoor flew opened, we nearly knocked the dining table over, sending papers and coffee cups skidding in all directions, not thinking the latest arrival would be Amanda, carrying three boxes of pizzas.

“Sorry,” she said, looking up sheepishly after placing the boxes by the sink, “I thought I'd be back long before this.” She introduced herself to the two new guests as Professor Purdue's personal assistant, unaware they were quite pale following her arrival. “I brought something for dinner if you'd care to stay – how's it going?”

I showed her the list we were discussing, hoping it wouldn't embarrass her, and how we'd finally started to analyze it.

“Oh, that,” she said after a quick glance, “I saw this last month.”

She had no idea what it was for, maybe some left-over class preparation.

“We're thinking,” Dorothy hinted, “it might be code?”

What did it mean if he typed this up in August or September, considering Tom was “emergency sabbatical” for the semester, the college having canceled his fall classes, too cheap to hire a replacement? If this is more than three weeks old, what could it tell us about Tom's disappearance in the past twenty-four hours?

Dorothy and Martin ran down the list, making a column of the errors and leaving space for a column of corrections. “How does one pronounce 'Mo9dau,' anyway?” Martin quipped. “The '9' must equal 'L'...”

“Tom and I both use an integer-based, pitch-substitution notation for sketching,” I explained, “which means '0' is C, '1' is C-sharp. So '9' would be 'A' – actually, 'L' could be 'la' or 'A', also.”

“Here's Schumann's Rhenish Symphony in A-flat which should be E-flat, but which one's the right letter to use in the solution?”

The first thing to do was make a list of all the errors and see if that forms a coherent message; if not, then we do the same with a list of the corrections.

“It's unlikely '9' would figure into a message, don't you think?” Martin asked.

“Who knows,” I said, “could be an address.”

“Terry's right, Martin,” Dorothy said, “we need to go through every possible step. This is where my analytical skills come in.”

“Right,” he grunted, “gather the evidence by following protocols, then eliminate the obvious.”

Most of them, we thought, were obvious – misspelled words, wrong keys, missing letters – while some others required a more careful eye, since, depending on who was looking at it, it might appear almost undetectable. Did Tom intend this for our eyes only or was it an attempt to hide some critical information from the police? Someone could miss the first two mistakes in the Bach and Brahms pieces, still maybe miss the 'B' in Wagner's “Barsifal,” but as Martin pointed out, even a novice should notice the “Noonlight” Sonata.

Cameron pointed out those with no mistakes, starting with the Gregorian Chant, the Dies irae, followed later by Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, didn't happen with any regularity but yet must have some kind of function.

“Maybe they're supposed to be separators between words in the message,” I suggested, “since each piece's single error represents one letter?”

From the wrong keys listed for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, we worked our way down the list quickly, finding missing letters in “Mendelsson,” “Mussorsky” and Haydn's “Suprise” Symphony, sounding almost correct, plus 'n' for 'm' in Delibes' opera Lakné, all between two “correct” works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninoff and Liszt.

The next two were trickier for the novice – Dvořák's Symphony No. “5,” the “New World,” had long been renumbered No. 9, and Brahms' German Requiem was Op.45, not Op.46 as Tom listed it – clever.

“And Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony is not in B-flat,” Dorothy rattled on somewhat mechanically, “and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is not in E.”

“And there's that baffling Sondheim bit,” Martin groaned. “Why something from Sweeney Todd?”

“Don't know,” I said, “but it's spelled correctly.”

“Wait, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring,” Dorothy added, “it's Le, not La sacre, right?”

The “Beethoven Quartet in F, Op.59/3” was tricky since the Op.59/1 “Razumovsky” Quartet was in F but Op.59/3 was in C. Two missing letters – Mozart's “Eine keine Nachtmusik” and “Vaughn Williams” – were annoying typos.

Bach's Chorale Prelude, Von deinen Thron looked almost correct: “it was 'Vor,' yes?”

“Then 'E' becomes 'A' in 'Elger' – and... done.”

The list ended with Beethoven's 5th Symphony: “a triumph over Fate, correctly spelled.”

Put all the errors together and they spell:

DG9B NB (A-flat)HNRG 56(B-flat)AE (F/3)LANE

“Well,” we agreed, “that makes no sense whatsoever...”

“Of course not,” I sighed, “when did the first pass through cracking a code ever come up with the correct response?” Judging from my personal experience, the correct response would be, “What is 'Never'?” It's true I'd never been any good at solving puzzles despite my name being Richard Kerr – from ricercare, meaning “to seek.”

At least Tom's system was not so convoluted as some I'd worked with, thinking back to a blizzard at Phlaumix Court trying to solve the murder of a friend and protect a special secret. Maestro Schnellenlauter's code, communicating with Frieda, had been a fairly simple letter substitution made infinitely complex by “The Rule of 12,” meaning you then had to determine the correct order of each individual letter. By the time you'd passed through all possible letters in Schnellenlauter's long-winded messages, you'd be ready to scream from sheer frustration.

Thinking back to that piano quintet Tom composed for us in grad school, a virtuosic application of analysis to musical content, I couldn't remember details about all the different types of codes and clues except for a variety of number-letter substitutions from this integer notation he'd used, especially for any letters which “didn't exist” musically. How had he turned letters like O, J or W into musical pitches?

Let's hope this wasn't as complicated as that. It's good we're dealing with actual letters, here: there wasn't time for virtuosity.

Next, I formed a column where we'd translate the “mistake” into the “correction,” which might include different possibilities to choose from, leaving a blank space for a correct listing as a divider between words. I started seeing another pattern in those dividers. “No, wait,” I told myself, “there's something else we need to discover first.”

Martin, naturally, given his photographic memory, didn't need to look at the list as he itemized each piece and its error, leaving Dorothy and I to fill in the possibilities of each potential solution.

Some were straightforward, other had two or three options, depending on the context: B could also mean H or even Ti. Solfege also offered multiple choices for A or D, suggesting La or Re.

Looking down the column, like ribbons of possibilities, a solution eventually took shape:


“But who's Clara?”

Leave it to Dorothy to think of Clara first, perhaps a woman's intuition, as if sensing some young maiden in distress, but Martin, blustering about “first things first,” demanded to know who “SHMRG” was.

For me, I told them, the message was quite clear if lacking detail, even if it said nothing about Tom's whereabouts.

“It tells us there may be a reason Tom's disappeared, gone into hiding – or it could explain why he's been kidnapped.”

“But, professor, I saw this list on his desk weeks ago,” Amanda said.

“And it doesn't tell us anything about one or the other,” Dorothy protested, “How do we figure out which it is?”

“If he wrote this weeks ago,” Martin scoffed, “why'd somebody kidnap him now?”

“Cameron and I are well acquainted with SHMRG – we'll fill you in, later. And Amanda, we need to check on Clara...”

We headed for the basement, Zeno catching up, while Cameron and I explained our history with the organization known as SHMRG. It started as a music-licensing corporation which then grew into a major conglomerate. Buying up recording companies and various broadcasting platforms, their ultimate goal was to control every aspect of the American music industry.

“But why the hell would such an outfit be after someone like Purdue?” Martin thought Tom was a totally unlikely target.

Meanwhile, Amanda had begun booting up Tom's computer.

“Dr Kerr? Clara – she's missing!”

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

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.

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