Friday, September 14, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 5 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Kerr discovers some common ground with numerous clippings Purdue kept in a folder on his study desk: aside from the obituary for his former girlfriend, Violetta Diehl (“Odile”), there were bad reviews or articles pointing out how certain friends of his had never reached their once obvious potential. Kerr quickly dubbed the folder Schadenfreunde (“Friends' Shame”). After Cameron returns, then Martin, Dorothy, and finally Amanda arrive, each bearing armloads of take-out dinners, they work their way through what seemed to be a listening list for Purdue's Music Appreciation Class replete with numerous typos. Assuming it to be a coded message, they finally discover Tom is telling them “Help Me SHMRG after Clara.” When they boot up Tom's computer, Amanda discovers Clara is missing.

(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 overall look of the hotel (or motel: the terms, here, could be interchangeable) was one of faceless if functional mediocrity, unthreatening in pastel shades of pink and beige, fleshtones from not-too-pale to not-too-dark, where each location across the country looked the same, likewise interchangeable, likewise unremarkable, the obligatory coffee shop off the main entrance. Here, one tall, slender fellow with a pasty complexion, dressed all in black with matching rumpled fedora, sat in a corner like the thumb of a do-it-yourselfer who had yet to master the hammer. From the angle he was sitting, anyone else, had there been anyone else, would not be able to see his face which was the least remarkable thing about him, assuming there was anything remarkable. His lanky hair was not quite shoulder-length and as black as his coat; presumably, he always wore sunglasses, inside or out.

The woman who now entered was as short and pudgy as the man in the coffee shop was tall and slender, putting her phone away before dismissing the driver who'd carried her two suitcases. The man in black, guessing she must've given him too small a tip, was now assured his supervisor had finally arrived. As the porter carried off her bags, she hurried into the coffee shop, ordering lunch to be delivered to her room. She could barely wait to find a table before attacking a blueberry croissant.

Settling into a chair next to the window, her back carefully placed toward the only other occupant of the coffee shop, Perdita Vremsky casually took out her phone and casually reread her latest text. Her biggest concern about this unexpected message from Osiris, however carefully encrypted, was its being casually accessed by the neighboring FBI.

But she immediately received another text, this new one from her agent Falx, the man sitting in the corner behind her. She immediately complained about the accommodations, given the FBI building located next door.

(Mad Magazine: Spy vs Spy)
“Didn't know about it – pretty funny, eh? LOL,” he typed, then waited anxiously. A long pause implied she was not amused. Vremsky suggested meeting in her room in ten minutes, and then quickly left.

How seriously could she take the man when his profile pic was the Black Spy from Mad Magazine's “Spy vs. Spy”?

These new recruits, Falx especially, needed to show more respect for the profession, something that ought to be reported to Osiris, considering her own training under Agent Eunomia would never have tolerated such foolishness. For his part, Osiris would undoubtedly tell her Falx, being her subordinate, was entirely her responsibility to train or else eliminate. Which agent had recruited and mentored Falx before he was assigned to her? Ah, clearly this wasn't like the old days. Odd an organization determined to preserve greatness must condescend to attract today's youth.

She and Falx would need to have a serious talk, whether now or later on this first day of her visit, but she could hardly “eliminate” him, whatever that implied, for a single infraction. Besides, right now, she needed his help in tracking down this Thomas Purdue, so she would put this off till later.

It took her a few tries with the key-card to open her room, and once inside, Vremsky again felt this was perhaps not the day to have worn her pink and beige business suit. “With any luck, if the FBI should attack, they won't see me against this ridiculous décor if I stand very still.”

When she heard a knock at the door, she struck a pose before a mirror to see if such camouflage worked – it did not – but rather than her anticipated lunch, it was only Falx.

Nobody could call the man handsome even if anyone could see his face, between hat, hair and those ever-present oversized sun-glasses not to mention a slight growth of beard somewhere between neat and scruffy. He was tall – taller than Vremsky which wasn't saying much – with hunched shoulders, his complexion more pallid because he wore black. The way his shapeless hair, possibly dyed black, hung limply over his ears suggested a cheap wig attached to the hat. Perdita wondered if he took off the hat, was he completely bald underneath?

As soon as the door opened, he began speaking in short, apologetic phrases, rapid-fire and nearly inaudible, as if starting mid-conversation and making no sense, which reminded her of a cascade of escaping bubbles. Confusion aside, he was unlikely to strike much in the way of fear if he was ever to become an assassin.

Vremsky, not masking her irritation, yanked the drapes closed to block the sunlight and nodded sharply toward the FBI parking lot. “I was hoping lunch had arrived,” she said cryptically, interrupting the bubbles mid-flow.

“Thinking about it, being half-way across town wouldn't make it any less secure than having them right over there,” he explained. “You're probably better off, security-wise, if you think about it, being directly under their noses where they would least expect anything.” This brightened him up slightly, like he'd thought about that to begin with.

Vremsky didn't bother to look at him as she demanded he find her “more secure” accommodations all the way across town, before calling him an idiot for not having checked things out more thoroughly.

Stung by this, Falx thought “well, yeah, but you're ugly,” before replacing the expression she couldn't see with one more deferential.

Unfortunately, his personal insecurities coming momentarily to the surface, he tried to hide a concern he'd almost said that out loud. What if they supplied Upper Management with mind-reading chips implanted into their brains?

“Everything is going according to plan, whatever that means, if you think about it,” he began again, spewing out more bubbles, “except to admit there was one slight snaggle,” when she again interrupted him.

Vremsky threw herself down in the room's one comfortable arm chair, ignoring him. “There are new instructions I've received from Osiris.”

This was indeed momentous news, considering he had no idea who Osiris was but with a name like that, someone he could safely assume was higher up the food chain than his own boss. He immediately ceased bubbling and stood there, his attention completely focused on the figure seated uncomfortably in the chair before him. He hadn't taken a close look at her before and tried not to dwell on such things now, thinking them inappropriate, but someone should tell her how to dress, how to do her hair.

For her part, Vremsky tried not to look at the figure looming over her, hands clasped prayerfully in front of him, expression hidden behind dark glasses like insect eyes, lips and face a mask. She felt in the presence of a gigantic preying mantis wearing a trenchcoat, tensed and ready to pounce, eating her alive.

A moving target better than an immobile one, she stood and began pacing, careful not to turn her back on him, and thanked him for whatever efforts he'd expended identifying that piano quintet's composer, but now, she explained, they must concentrate their efforts on two other assignments, one on-going about this Codex and something new.

“But I already...” Falx began before she cut him off with a scowl long practiced to intimidate anyone she considered subservient, causing him to step back and cock his head inquisitively to the right.

Whether or not the Thomas Purdue she was trying to locate was the same Thomas Purdue Osiris was now interested in, the object of their quest was to locate the one exploring Artificial Creativity, one who's quietly been working on the process of encrypting codes into the very fabric of music generated by a computer.

“According to what other agents have been able to determine through on-line chatter, this particular Purdue is somewhere in our area and since we're here, now,” she smiled, “this has become our highest priority.

“It's possible the Purdue of the piano quintet may be the same composer in Osiris' text, considering similar interests in codes, and it may be a handy cover to help us in locating him. This new directive is crucial to Osiris' plans, and takes precedence over everything – to confiscate all the research of Tom Purdue.”

It was urgent she and her team succeed in accessing this information and relay it immediately to Machaon's assistant, Agent Moritásgeroth, whose own team was due to arrive in Philadelphia later in the day, due to an urgency, however, they had not been aware of before: SHMRG was also after Thomas Purdue and his data. Ostensibly, the text went on, SHMRG was hoping to use Purdue's Artificial Creativity in ways that could strongly impact the Aficionati, hence – he'd actually said “hence” – it was imperative she “beat them to it.”

Moritásgeroth and his team should be met at the airport – arrival time, 6:37 – and from there escorted to her local headquarters which should be equipped with space to create a laboratory suitable for surgery. She paused long enough to give Falx a piercing if not bone-chilling look – “and it should have no compromising security issues.”

The urgency was getting the code from Purdue to Mack's assistant in time the device, already implanted, can be properly programmed and a trial run set in motion during SHMRG's benefit concert tomorrow night. Considering it was already early Monday afternoon, she could imagine Osiris' richly imposing voice intone, “you have no time to lose.”

“That leaves barely 24 hours to get this particular Purdue under our control,” she said, enunciating everything distinctly, “is that understood?”

“But, Lovíatar,” he finally interrupted her, stretching his neck forward, “I already have.”

It was a rare occasion when Perdita Vremsky could say she felt her jaw drop but it definitely did on this particular occasion accompanied by a particular loss for words to attempt raising it, admittedly not feeling this much surprise and joy since she'd heard Lontana had taken a turn for the worse and died. Her mind raced with images, not the least being the glimpse she caught in a mirror as she turned to face him with her head ducking forward and her mouth gasping like a fish.

“What do you mean – that you 'have' him – how is that even possible?” But joy turned just as suddenly to anger. “I gave you no directive to apprehend him. The assignment was to 'identify'...” Then just as suddenly she imagined the smile replacing Osiris' presumably generic scowl, realizing she was responsible for fulfilling his command.

“Then why didn't you tell me,” she resumed before the tornado of thoughts and emotions could whirl her any further away. “I must text Dagon, tell him the news,” stumbling to reach her phone. “But first I need to know this is in fact the right Thomas Purdue, the one doing research in Artificial Creativity.”

How many Thomas Purdues did she think there could be in the world, much less composers who were named Thomas Purdue? Another thought bothering her was how accurate was this new agent of hers?

“Agent Falx,” she began, slowly starting to circle him, “this is good news – no, excellent news – indeed, if you are correct and one thing the Aficionati pride themselves in, naturally, is always being correct.”

Falx, sensing her circumnavigating him, said this was indeed the composer Thomas Purdue who admitted his research without even being asked.

“But how – and why – did you take him into Aficionati custody when your assignment had only been to identify the man?”

“He thought we were from SHMRG so I said we could protect him.”

“So if he knew SHMRG was after him, you did well, young man. And when exactly did all of this occur?”

“Agent F-1 and I surprised him yesterday afternoon, before sneaking off into hiding.”

“Why haven't you told me all this before? And where is he now?”

“I wanted to surprise you – he's at headquarters.”

Vremsky was trying to imagine what must have been going through Purdue's mind when he saw Falx on his front steps (and who knew what this Agent F-1 must look like) ringing the doorbell. If this guy was already aware SHMRG was after him and his research, did Purdue know anything about the Aficionati's plans?

“The first thing he said to us was, 'You're from SHMRG, aren't you?' and he looked very pale, ready to faint. So I could hardly tell him, 'No, we're here selling Girl Scout cookies.'”

His thought was to pass himself off as an agent from the IMP – the International Music Police – looking into publishing fraud. “Purdue ate this right up,” Falx told her, “babbling about age-old conspiracy theories.”

Falx assumed, if SHMRG really was after him, there must be a reason. “So, like Bush, I made a pre-emptive strike.”

“Good job, Agent Falx,” she told him, nodding, but took it no further.“ However, you should have told me this sooner.” Tapping a few short words into her phone, she smiled and hit send.

Considering how he'd inadvertently gone beyond her directives, Falx didn't want to admit he was afraid she wouldn't take it kindly.

Without smiling, cocking his head to the right, his eyes narrowed to slits which, fortunately for his sake, she couldn't see. He doubted now might be the best time to mention this morning's miscalculation.

Vremsky was annoyed her lunch still hadn't arrived by the time she told Falx they ought to relocate to his “headquarters,” even though he protested there were no really suitable accommodations there for her.

“No matter,” she countered, “I'll manage: anything is better than being overshadowed by the looming presence of our next-door neighbor here.”

“But the upstairs hasn't – at least not yet anyway – it hasn't really been made, well... suitable,” he repeated, “for visitors like...”

Vremsky pointed at her luggage as if she wouldn't bother explaining it again.

“You can tell me how Mr Purdue – though he is certainly 'Doctor' Purdue? – is responding to your inquiries about his research. I'm assuming,” she said, following him down the long hallway, “he is co-operating?”

“Well, Agent Lovíatar, we didn't yet know about his research to question him, at least in any way that'd be helpful.”

“Once we're in the car, I can bring you up to speed on where the... well, where the project currently stands. His research, I think, is exactly what Osiris needs to finish this... project.”

“Is this the Mobots?” Falx sounded particularly eager to work on this one.

“Shhh, farking idiot! The FBI's probably listening in...”

Vremsky checked out at the front desk and brushed off concerns expressed by the clerk, muttering about a change of plans. Falx, meanwhile, went to retrieve his van and met her at the entrance.

“I'd only just inherited the place after Dad died, but then no one's ever lived there, not after Grandma was killed. House's been empty fifteen years; only recently, I started fixing up the place.” Falx sounded very proud of his plans, turning it into their regional headquarters. “The basement will make a very nice laboratory.”

“But we can't just walk up to a house with a ton of scientific equipment and not raise nosy neighbors' eyebrows!” She also hoped the place wasn't next door to the local police station.

Falx explained it was a run-down farmhouse on a cul-de-sac beside a cemetery and basically it was completely isolated by trees. Plus there was a secret underground entrance, part of an old tunnel system.

After putting her suitcases in the back, Falx made a quick phone call.

“F-1, exciting new developments afoot – see you soon!”

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

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, Sept. 17th]

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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