Monday, September 17, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 5 (Part 3)

In the previous installment [posted on Friday, Sept. 14th], Perdita Vremsky, a.k.a. Aficionati Agent Lóviator (though others usually mispronounce it "Lovíatar"), arrives in Philadelphia and is upset to discover her nondescript accommodations are next door to the local FBI headquarters. She is meeting her subordinate, Agent Falx, for the first time (their mutual first impressions are not good), and while she fills him in on certain details, he informs her of some unexpected news which is both good and, considering it goes beyond her directives, disappointing: it seems Falx now has Thomas Purdue in custody. However, first she must change her location and even though Falx hasn't finished renovating his old homestead into the new Aficionati Regional Headquarters, she decides she'd rather stay there.

(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.

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


It took a while to sink in, admittedly – that their friend had devised a complex computer program capable of composing music, not just notation software like many others but one so advanced that, fed the basic rules of theory and various algorithms to cover stylistic variables, it was capable of composing “original” music from scratch. Martin had read about certain programs that responded to existing musical stimuli to “comment” on the music by devising additional counterpoint, but these usually sounded academic and totally predictable, a student's unimaginative homework assignment. Did Tom have enough practical background in computer technology to make the leap from someone who could undertake writing simple codes to someone capable of solving the intricacies involved in recreating a human-like mind? Had he managed to come up with a functioning program of “Artificial Creativity” simply by understanding how his own mind composed?

True, Amanda didn't need to see their expressions to realize they were skeptical as she'd gone through what details she knew, considering there was so much the professor had not bothered explaining to her. Her job had primarily been to enter data taken from various textbooks and his notes, then upload collections of musical examples. She didn't bother browbeating them with technical details to make them feel inferior, the way many listeners complained about music jargon. She wasn't sure how much she understood herself, especially about the music part.

And Kerr was particularly grateful she was not going to snow them under with page after page of mind-numbing, eye-glazing “techno-speak” when what they really needed to know was how they could find Tom. Cameron had already figured out they would need to rescue him – another adventure – regardless what the danger was, whatever Clara was. Dorothy, appreciative of the background, found it daunting but knew it led somewhere, analyzing the music to better inform her interpretation. Martin thought it “typical Tom,” all talk and promise yet nothing he'd published.

The first question had come from Dr Kerr who already knew this was something SHMRG would “absolutely, most definitely” kill for: did Amanda think Professor' Purdue's clandestine errand, to deliver the flash drive, deliberate? If anything happened to Tom, wouldn't she remember dropping it off at the school, and only she would know its whereabouts.

“Except Ms Zhomme who needn't know what's on it. What is on it?” Dorothy doubted an entire Artificial Intelligence program fit on a single flash drive. “I mean, they seem so small, don't they...?”

“Regardless, whoever knows whatever about it, how and why do we retrieve it?” Martin sat stiffly, the very image of skepticism.

Cameron stood back, smiling because he knew exactly what Terry planned on doing whether he realized what it took or not. Misgivings aside, Kerr tried not to look as totally clueless as he felt.

Obviously, Amanda figured, it might have something on it about Dr Purdue's disappearance but he'd never said anything about its contents. “I assumed it was stuff about his ballet project with the dance school.”

Putting ballet and Tom together could only mean one thing in Dorothy's mind. Clearly, Odile was behind it, whatever it was.

This project, as much as Tom had given Amanda any information about it, was a series of twelve short piano pieces, that much she knew, “sort of like some piece by Robert Schumann – Carnival?” The music would be played by a live pianist with Rhonda Zhomme's choreography at opening night for the school's “Spring Show.”

He'd chosen the title “Mysteries” for a reason: beyond the music, Kerr suggested a surprise would be revealed after the performance. “And it was to involve the composer's identity: not Thomas Purdue – but Clara.”

This also took a moment to sink in. If this were true, it wasn't the first piece written by a computer. That probably was Lejaren Hiller and the ILLIAC computer at Champagne-Urbana in 1957. But in “The Illiac Suite,” though, the computer was more like Hiller's assistant; here, Clara conceived the piece from the beginning.

Whether a new achievement or a rehash of old experiments, Martin was dubious. “How much did she... this Clara – already finish?”

“About half the pieces?” Amanda wasn't exactly sure. “Maybe only the first draft?”

“Any idea when the software – when Clara was... uhm, deleted from the computer?” Kerr looked but understood nothing on the screen. Everybody leaned forward as Amanda typed into the system and found some code.

“Someone made back-ups yesterday at 08:13,” she announced, “but I can't tell... oh... The program 'CLARA'... was modified Sunday at 13:21.”

Despite her misgivings, Dorothy didn't want to ask if this meant Clara had been whatever the computer equivalent was of abducted. “I don't suppose there's any way of knowing who actually did the... modifying?”

Amanda told her that was impossible, but whoever did had access to the professor's password – perhaps it was the professor himself?

“If the program's already on that flash drive,” Kerr pointed out, “then obviously we need to get hold of it, now.”

“But we can't just waltz in there and ask to have it back.”

Kerr always thought Martin was a bit of a stuffed shirt, even when he was a student, a little too logical, but it wasn't Kerr's plan to “ask” Zhomme to return it to them. Reminding them of the “League of Unlikely Musicians”, he said they would need to get inside, find it – and steal it.

However they'd do it, then, they should take Dorothy's car since it's larger and there were, after all, five of them. Amanda would ride shotgun as the team's navigator so Dorothy wouldn't get lost.

As they pulled away from the house, nobody noticed the light in an upstairs window over at the Old Haine Place. Martin felt too doubtful, Dorothy too scared, and Cameron too excited to notice.

After all, how often did three 60-something musicians break into a ballet school? Cameron was humming the theme from “Mission: Impossible.”

Patty Beret's School of Dance was on the same block as Marple Music and a few doors up from Lili's Bakery. Naturally, the only available parking space was directly in front of the publishers. Amanda would have preferred not to deal with a sudden sense of guilt, knowing poor Alma had been murdered there earlier. But she also knew the whole purpose of this mission was to prove her mentor couldn't possibly be her friend's killer. Confirming that would free up the police to focus on Alma's real killer.

The major problem they discussed on the short drive over to the school was how to get inside the school unnoticed if it hadn't closed for the day and it wasn't completely dark yet. Approaching it from across the street gave them a chance to look around, something Kerr called “reconnoitering” or “casing the joint.”

The “joint,” like several businesses along Maple Street, was once an old house with a spacious front porch and large windows; the studio no doubt would have hardwood flooring with mirrors on its walls. But the school seemed dark, uninviting, unless you might be a potential burglar, leading Dorothy to assume they were closed Mondays.

This complicated the situation since they couldn't literally (or, Kerr corrected her, figuratively) “waltz” in and ask for Purdue's flash drive. Trying not to look obvious, all five huddled closer together before walking on.

Turning around at the end of the block, then sauntering back, equally unsuspicious-looking, Kerr announced they'd need to circumvent any alarms, which meant Cameron, probably, climbed the backyard utility pole to disconnect the electricity. Once the security had been successfully disabled, they could break in the back, someplace out of view of any nosy neighbors. There, Martin, probably, would shimmy up to the balcony, crawl over the bannister, and pick the lock or break a window. Once inside, then, he'd come down and unlock the back door for them.

Once the rest of them stopped laughing, Cameron was quick to point out lights had suddenly flooded the front room as a dozen skinny girls, their hair in tight buns, erupted into the studio.

“The after-school class has begun,” Amanda announced, barely noticing a tall skinny person dressed in black disappearing further down the street.

Though they still couldn't walk right in and look around without being noticed, Amanda could show them where Zhomme's office was. But what had Zhomme done with the drive after Amanda dropped it off? No doubt she'd put it away somewhere secure, perhaps in a locked drawer. Dorothy worried it'd been placed in the safe. Once they heard the piano, they figured the class would be well underway, no more students running around in the hallway. Who else would be in the building except the students and their teacher?

As luck would have it, there was another teacher coming down the steps: Corrie Faye, another ectomorph, who taught adult tap.

“Yes,” she wondered, hoping to be helpful, “are you interested in taking class?”

Cameron grabbed Dorothy's arm and pulled her forward. He was, in fact, interested, because his grandmother, here, was once a dancer.

New to the community, Cameron, looking around, said he wanted to find a place he might take the occasional ballet class. Ms Faye kept smiling despite knowing it was too late for a career.

“Why don't I take you and your grandmother into the studio,” she offered, “so you can observe our after-school intermediate class?”

The other three said they would wait in what served as a lobby with an empty desk where students signed in, but as soon as they'd been left alone, Amanda hurried up the steps.

Kerr quickly followed after her, Martin lagging behind figuring if anybody else should ask, he was looking for a rest room, which, at this point, he was increasingly aware wasn't far from the truth. Amanda disappeared into one of the back rooms, beckoning Kerr to hurry up, who in turn beckoned more impatiently to Martin. The space was cut up into five bedrooms, most of them converted into offices, the largest into the women's changing room, the old-style woodwork smelling of fresh lemon polish, the carpet runners freshly vacuumed.

Martin remembered Kerr's warning about touching things but he'd forgotten to wear gloves today since it hadn't been that chilly, yet, more concerned about getting his hands sticky from the polish than leaving fingerprints. The only light on upstairs was the one in the girl's changing room which Amanda had already checked and found empty.

Zhomme's office was cluttered but not messy, piles of paper and file folders on any flat surface, but otherwise relatively neat, the kind of “organized chaos” which implied she probably knew where everything was.

“One folder out of place and she'll know someone's been here,” Kerr said. Martin assumed the place had already been ransacked.

The desk, modern and cheap, at odds with everything else in the house, stood facing the doorway, the chair with its back toward a side window, lights from next door visible through the trees.

The room was light enough despite not getting much of the afternoon sun, assuming there was still some late afternoon sun, and Amanda was glad she didn't need to turn on the overhead light. What if that teacher might come back if Cameron couldn't keep her occupied, see the light on and catch them red-handed?

“It's in a small, maybe 5x8” manila envelope with a 2x3” white label,” Amanda whispered, “unless she opened it – then what? Maybe the drive's in her laptop's USB port. Maybe she's taken it home...?”

Kerr wasn't sure where to begin with different drawers in the file cabinet – under 'P' for Purdue or 'M' for Mysteries? “Perhaps it's under 'S' for 'Spring Show'...?” But he found nothing there, either.

Martin also wasn't sure where he should start, checking piles on various chairs and on the coffee table (“such a mess!”).

Amanda was glad the key-chain flashlight she had was bright enough to see by as she rummaged through the desk drawers. Nothing was locked but then what would Zhomme have that'd need locked up?

There was one other drawer to check and she couldn't see any safe. “Any luck, you guys? I've got nothing, here.”

Martin was about to say “it's a bust” when he realized how buxom Amanda was, bending over, thought better of it, then decided it was best to say nothing: that's when he noticed it.

There on the desk, behind the telephone, sticking out from some loose papers, was the corner of a small manila envelope. He cautiously reached over, lifted the papers and saw a small white label.

“I believe the envelope's marked 'Mysteries,'” he quipped, “and looks something like this,” holding it up to the others' appreciative gaze.

“Hah! She hadn't filed it yet,” Kerr said, taking the envelope from Martin, who noticed Zhomme hadn't even opened it, either.

Amanda figured she'd just tossed it on the desk without a second thought.

“Chances are she'll never miss it,” Kerr said, stuffing it into his pocket as they turned to leave, their mission accomplished.

But then they heard the cutting wail of approaching police sirens – several cars. Had someone discovered them? Was it the neighbor? They decided to gather up Dorothy and Cameron and leave the premises quickly.

Following the class' progress, Ms Faye continued talking to Cameron and his “grandmother” about the health benefits of dance as exercise when the others passed the studio's doorway, Kerr nodding sharply toward the street. Putting her hand on Cameron's arm and thanking Ms Faye, Dorothy apologized how “Grandfather” was getting impatient and wanted to leave.

It was difficult to escape Ms Faye gracefully until Dorothy whispered to her how “Grandfather, poor boy,” had a heart condition. “Perhaps we might have a chance to visit again later in the week?”

“We both heard the police sirens,” Cameron whispered as they crossed the porch, “and wondered if you'd set off some alarm.” Kerr considered the light next door, though he'd seen nobody in the room.

The sirens were getting closer when they noticed several police cars, lights flashing, pulling into the street in front of them.

“This can't be good,” Kerr said, as they stopped short, watching the cars block the street in front of the publisher's.

“Why's that?” Cameron said. “At least they're not coming up here for us.”

The last police car to arrive pulled up and parked beside Dorothy's car.

“Uh-oh, now what,” Kerr said, “our getaway's blocked.”

As a short black woman with long dreadlocks got out of the car, Amanda recognized it was that detective, Laura Narder.

“What is she doing here? If she sees us, she'll wonder what we're...”

Collectively, the five of them had felt pretty smug up to this moment: they'd found what they had come looking for and now it was a matter of figuring out what to do next. But the sudden and unexpected police presence down the block had changed everything, especially the equally unexpected appearance of Det. Narder.

Instead, the five of them, feeling less invincible right now, turned around and hurried toward the other end of the block. A quick, whispered conversation from around the corner eventually evolved into a plan.

So, Dorothy would walk back by herself, retrieve her car, then meet them in the McDonald's parking lot one block over. Breathing deeply, she headed toward the police cars, hoping she wouldn't pass out.

Det. Narder stood right next to Dorothy's car, talking heatedly into her phone. She looked up and frowned. “Hang on, Jandro...”


Immaculately dressed despite latex gloves, Tango hurried down the main staircase to meet Narder hurrying in through the open front door.

“Jeez, I can't believe this,” shaking her dreadlocks. “There's been another murder here?”

“Sometime between when the last officers cleaned up and Reel and I returned.”

“And during that time the place wasn't secure?”

The back door's crime scene tape had been sliced open, but the place had been completely locked up – “so yeah, secure.”

“Yet the killer comes back looking for whatever, breaks in and finds – who?”

“Here's the thing: we don't know, yet. But DiVedremo's office has been ransacked.” Tango led the way upstairs. “There's blood everywhere.”

“You're sure all the other officers had left and the place was empty?”

“The last officer to leave,” Reel said, meeting them at the top, “was Sgt. Maureen Zerka who locked up around 1:30.”

“Oh, incidentally,” Tango asked, looking around, “did our new friend not come along?”

“You mean Bond? Don't know.” Narder sounded dismissive. “Had somewhere else she needed to be, maybe. After Mo left, then what?”

“Mo's inside,” Reel said, cocking his head toward the office, “a little rattled. We got here maybe, what – right before 5:00?”

Mo Zerka, an eight-year veteran, was going to sort through the papers inside while Tango and Reel checked the back alleyway.

“Right away she noticed the place wasn't as she'd left it.”

“No shit...”

Tango, dusting off his pants for the twentieth time, described the back alleyway as more cluttered than he'd remembered it before, like there'd been a parade tromping through there since earlier in the day.

“But here's the thing,” Reel continued, “only from the back of Marple Music down to the side street, then apparently disappearing.”

It always amused Narder whenever she caught Tango and Reel finishing each other's sentences or using each other's clichés – true partners.

“So, rather than turning along the side of the house out to Maple...”

Of course, nobody along here had security cameras – nice, quiet, safe residential street, especially along West Meade Street – except the bakery. After giving the police their morning's footage, nobody bothered to reload the camera.

“So when Mo radioed and told us to get inside ASAP,” Tango began, “we found this,” Reel finished, “but no body.”

“Wait, so you think the killer came back with some friends, murdered someone, then carried the body down the back alley, from there out to West Meade Street to a waiting car or van?” Narder thought back to the car parked almost in front of the publishers which her car'd parked in when she arrived.

She'd let the old woman go – an “inconvenience” – without even thinking about it, first jockeying her car back a few feet so the woman could pull out and then pulling into the spot herself.

The woman, rather dowdy and very grandmotherly the way she held her purse, explained she was only dropping her grandson off, pointing toward the dance school a few doors up where he took class. She had errands to run before coming back to pick him up, so deferential about not wanting to be an inconvenience.

After telling Tango she'd be right in and pocketing her phone, she tried not to think if that had been a black woman and she'd been a white cop, things probably would've been different. In that case, the old woman might have been detained and her grandson hauled out, hands against the car, and arrested.

So she felt it was the neighborly thing to do, good cop-and-community interaction, showing the woman her badge, explaining the situation. She'd only been there a few minutes and said she'd noticed nothing suspicious.

“It's a quarter past 5:00 now,” Narder noted, whatever the woman could've seen, “and all this must have happened hours earlier.” The door to DiVedremo's office was ajar as Reel led the way in. The smell was unfortunately familiar even to a cop in a small town like Marple: blood, fresh enough to smell warm.

“When I went to unlock the office door,” Zerka said, meeting them inside, “it wasn't latched, no sign of forced entry. And that coat,” nodding toward the coat rack, “wasn't there when I'd left.”

“Ah,” Narder paused after looking over the mess, realizing that solved who was here or why there was no forced entry. “That's Belle DiVedremo's coat – the rather indomitable boss? She was wearing it earlier.”

“She was pretty feisty about wanting to get some work done,” Tango noted.

“Reel, call that office manager – check security codes.”

Almost everything in the room that hadn't been moved before was moved now: some pictures were taken down, furniture shuffled around, the table with the dollhouse pulled away from the corner, lamps knocked over. There was even more blood everywhere except in the middle of the room: the rug DiVedremo so prized was now missing.

“So let's say the killer – or killers, now – had returned when the boss walked in and surprised them – they killed her – already finished searching the place – dragged the body away wrapped in the rug...”

“Except,” Mo mentioned, “we couldn't find any drag marks anywhere, either here, down the stairs, or out through the back door. There had only been one person this morning but now there're several footprints.”

“So we're not dealing with a circus strongman carrying a scythe or anybody with supernatural powers who'd whisked the body away...”

True, DiVedremo was a formidable woman in more ways than just her personality. Could all this blood come from one person? “It's like someone opened a bag of blood and just tossed it around.”

Reel came back in and said he'd reached Ms Rivers, the office manager, who said she'd been at home all afternoon and hadn't heard anything from “Miss Belle” since she'd left the office late-morning.

“She gave me DiVedremo's private cell-phone number, so...” Reel methodically punched it in.

A phone began ringing from under the dollhouse.

Tango was standing closest to the dollhouse but, indicating his impeccably pressed trousers, declined to crawl around on the blood-splattered floor, so Reel, on his knees, fished it out from behind a broken ashtray.

“Check the earlier crime scene photos,” Narder told Tango, “but I'm pretty sure that ashtray was on the desk this morning.”

“Yeah, there's my in-coming call.” Reel examined the phone. “This is DiVedremo's cell. What was that ringtone, something by Puccini, right?”

Tango thought it was 'O mio babino caro.'

“Really, guys? It's Madama Butterfly.”

Tango suggested running it by Agent Bond for positive identification in their report. “After all, she's with the International Music Police.”

Reel, slipping the phone into an evidence bag, didn't think that was important.

“Then a judge throws the case out on a technicality because someone,” Tango glowered at Reel, “mis-identified a piece of evidence?”

“Regardless, not looking good for one Belle DiVedremo,” Narder said and told Mo to get a BOLO out on her immediately. “If she were the victim, who knows where the killer would've dumped her. There's a photo of her on the receptionist's desk downstairs you can use. It won't be pretty when they find her.”

One of several things bothering her was, what was it the killer came back to find which he hadn't found earlier? What were the odds he again killed somebody who ended up here “accidentally”?

The door to the office creaked open slowly, a hinge needing some oil, everyone looking over to see who would enter. Narder found herself hoping it was DiVedremo coming back to retrieve her coat. Instead, it was Dr Nortonstein's assistant, Dinah Tran, a young-looking, petite Asian woman and a rather unlikely candidate for Medical Examiner. However meek and mild-mannered she seemed, though, Narder knew Tran was tough as nails and a terror on the witness stand. Tran looked around and asked “Where's the body? Who's already moved the body?”

Though she admittedly liked the curmudgeonly Nortonstein, Narder enjoyed working a case with Tran who, considering her extensive resume, either looked great for her age or she'd started med school when she was 8.

Narder explained the missing rug and how the killer absconded with the victim.

“If there's no body, why was I called?”

When Tango called her back at the precinct after they'd discovered the blood, even though they hadn't located a body anywhere, Narder figured the dispatcher, Anne Rufer, routinely called the list of “usual suspects.” Given all the blood Tango described, Rufer may have decided there had to be a body involved and included her automatically.

“As long as you're here, Dinah, do you think anyone, especially a large woman, could have survived losing this much blood?”

“If you're asking 'do larger people have more blood than smaller people,' yes.”

“I wasn't, but that's interesting to know. So...?”

Narder's cell rang and she excused herself to take the call. “Yeah, Narder.”

The call was from Nadia Klüh, the precinct officer who specialized in IT.

“You asked me to look into anything in Purdue's past I might find? Well, this came up on-line, could be... interesting?”

Nadia was one of the force's younger officers who turned everything into a question whenever she spoke which drove Narder crazy. Talking to her, most of Narder's own questions came out flat and declarative.

The information Klüh began passing on to Narder, however, only generated more questions.

“You're sure about that. Yes, that sounds... interesting.”

Narder turned to Tran. “Could you tell if this was not human blood?”

“After I get back to the lab... why?”

“Seems Purdue has a thing for pig's blood.”

There was a collective gasp.

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

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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