(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, it's time to find out what else is going on in the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
“It hadn't been a good year for SHMRG, as far as I'm concerned.”
The more he thought about it, it had not been a good several years for SHMRG – or him, for that matter. Thinking back to that summer at Schweinwald and that bastard Robertson Sullivan's opera, he often recalled the moment he'd been shot. The wound didn't seem that serious, at first – that's what his doctor said – except, had it been a half inch to the right or left, he wouldn't be alive today to complain about it. Every time the pain got to him, he'd think “oh, it's great to be alive,” and try not to imagine whether the alternative, given the history of his business empire, might not be preferable. Sometimes, when reality affected his judgment, he'd think maybe it would've been better to go out in a cloud of glory.
N. Ron Steele – though he hadn't used that name officially for some time – has been “on the lam” far too long for his involvement in the murder of composer Robertson Sullivan and “related crimes.” He's been hounded by the International Music Police who've doggedly maintained their search, the FBI threatening imminent arrest upon his return. A criminal forced underground who must travel incognito – on those occasions he can – he's found both Germany and America legally inhospitable. Years of laying low have proven politically pointless, bringing his empire to ruin.
At first, he turned the company – quickly becoming the most powerful music licensing organization on the planet – over to his lieutenant with the understanding he would still call the shots from his undisclosed location. But after fraud and corruption charges surfaced in England following that reality show, things for the company resumed their downward slide. Barely able to escape before the IMP discovered his temporary headquarters outside London, not far from Sullivan's cousin's future husband's home, Steele found himself less and less in control as his hand-picked substitute ascended.
Lucifer Darke had promised to preserve his appointed role as a “care-taker CEO,” looking after Steele's interests in maintaining the company. Yet that wasn't the way things evolved once Darke created his own power-base. He continued to entice Steele's most loyal supporters over to the Darke Side. Soon, Steele would find himself in history's dustbin.
Barely twenty-something when he founded SHMR&G with some colleagues from the recording industry, he nurtured Steele, Haight, Mayme, Rook & Griedman in the late-'80s from his off-Broadway office near Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan. It took a while for them to build up a reputation for ruthlessness, a forerunner of the current Wall Street mentality. In five years' time, the other four principals died or let Steele buy them out, bringing everything under his complete control. He decided to keep the name because he thought the acronym suitably evil.
Starting gradually, he bought up copyrights and licensing agreements with bands and singer-songwriters, then went after broadcast infringements for his artists. That's when he started buying up old, nearly expired copyrights and extending them. Usually, the fines his company's lawyers imposed were more of the nuisance variety, easier to just pay than take to court.
By being vigilant and ruthless, going after the Little Guys of the industry – internet radio, small networks, especially colleges and churches – Rook's legal division amassed millions through such diligence employing surprise and subtle threats. They quickly made a killing with their most gullible target, the Classical Market, before taking on the on-line ticket sales monopoly. After buying up performers' contracts and absorbing artist managements into their corporate fold, Steele decided it was time to invade Europe. He soon had control of a sizable percentage of the world's music industry.
There was even talk 2016 would be the year SHMRG, thanks to “Citizens United,” could run for President as a corporation, but that was before Sullivan's opera ruined everything, unleashing an epic power struggle. Well, Steele won't be the first candidate to start thinking ahead to 2020, with hopes more than his vision would improve. He had hardly built up his company to amass this kind of power for someone else to wrest control from him. Otherwise, what's the point if you can't reap the benefits that power brings?
He should have seen it sooner, noticed the various signs his underlings were becoming corrupted by their power, sensing the possibilities. Definitely, he should have considered culling his staff on a more regular basis. “Especially Darke” – he practically spat out the name! “I trained him well, alas. He'd seen opportunity and took it, ungrateful bastard.”
“All because Sullivan threatened to unmask me,” Steele would grumble in his solitude, “whoever the hell he was to challenge me.” He'd uncovered unsavory details of Steele's rise to power and wrote an opera. Robertson Sullivan was nothing but a sniveling little composer and useless music professor. “Yes, he was rich, but I was richer!”
Of course, everybody said he was over-imagining things, that Sullivan couldn't possibly have known, everything in his opera was a coincidence. But the International Music Police were on to him and why? Sullivan's opera!
So here he was, in yet another “hidey-hole,” still reeling from his injury, the bullet wound that never seemed to heal, barely hanging on to a mere shred of what was once his power. He couldn't even let his most trusted followers know his latest undisclosed location, living behind a constantly changing curtain of encryption.
How long could all this subterfuge last before the IMP finally found him, before Darke had figured out where he was? How long before the money ran out and his loyal base drifted away?
Sullivan, whom he'd only meant to threaten so he'd withdraw his damnable opera, had been inadvertently killed by an accident-prone operative. Yet those IMP fucktards dared charge him with “complicity” because he'd “ordered” it!
Even his earlier crimes were being held against him – and for what reason? Because he had become too rich and powerful.
A dowdy woman wearing a flowered apron, her graying hair in a bun, wearing out-dated harlequin glasses accentuating her near-sighted squint, carried in an old silver tray, like her slightly tarnished, with mismatched cups. There was very little left that did match, she knew, but no matter: her boss rarely bothered with such pointless details. Speaking of whom, she noticed he had been grumbling when she came in, no doubt in some far off, nasty place. That was when he seemed happiest, she figured, with something to complain about.
Not wanting to disturb his reverie, she carefully placed the tray beside him, despite the table being slightly beyond his reach. As usual, she sat down across from him on the veranda and waited. It was going to be a warm afternoon with a good steady breeze. Enjoying the sunlight, she adjusted her chair accordingly.
Steele was awake, sitting in the shadows toward the back of the porch, sheltered from both the sun and the breeze, but then he often pretended to be asleep when Holly brought the coffee. He couldn't believe how frumpy she'd become, especially in the last five years; even her conversational skills had become incredibly tedious.
Not that he had remained the vital, vibrant, dashing “young man of yore” he had been when he'd founded the company. But his festering “Amfortas Wound” was a pretty good excuse – what was hers?
Why was it, wherever they found a place to hide, there were problems – much less crises – he had to cope with? Holly thought this was a “delightful island paradise,” sounding like some travel brochure. Wasn't a small island four hundred miles south of Tahiti an improvement over that freezing castle in the highlands outside Glasgow? She was adjusting pleasantly to the “native life” – an image Steele found disturbing – but it saddened her nothing appealed to him. What was the point of living if you couldn't enjoy anything around you?
Of course, part of her job, aside from being his nurse and secretary, was to reduce the stress in his life. As if living your own idyll in the South Pacific couldn't eliminate stress! Then he threatened to charge her licensing fees whenever she hummed “Bali H'ai.” No wonder she'd begun calling him “Old Fuckface.”
After a while, Steele knew, Holly would get tired of waiting out his game of 'possum, sitting there like a silhouette, and take her coffee cup to go back inside and get lunch ready. The coffee was barely palatable, hardly coffee at all, some “froo-froo” flavor that was, like everything else here (except Holly), “pretty.” Lunch he'd “wake up” for, unless it was some other kind of fish – that's all these people ate around here: seafood. What he wouldn't do for a big thick juicy steak right about now.
That was the trouble, here, everything was pretty, nothing had substance (especially Holly), like some dream never getting closer to reality. So every day, you wake up, nothing's changed – and you feel like screaming. It's bad enough everybody here either spoke French or God knows what they called that gibberish the handful of natives spoke.
What he wouldn't give to be back living in his New York penthouse looking out across Central Park toward Lincoln Center, but his usurper Lucifer Darke lived there now, taking over home and empire. Ever since that fiasco in London brought the IMP down on his hideout, Steele's revenge was only a matter of time.
And once he's won it all back, he wouldn't trade places with Darke – no, he had something far worse in mind, the only thing that kept him going in the middle of the night.
Being in the middle of nowhere – or directly south and slightly to the east of the middle of nowhere, looking at the battered globe on his desk – made interaction with the world a challenge, half-way between South America and Australia on a tiny dot in the ocean, one Steele can't even find on this globe. But thanks to the wonders of technology and the magic of the internet, sitting on his bit of volcanic rock and coral, surrounded by ocean, was not quite the exile Napoleon experienced after Waterloo.
Lonely, yes, with only his loyal secretary Holly Burton and his presumably loyal IT guy, Bill Cable, supplied by his master of technology, Montague Banks (who, for personal reasons, located himself in Los Angeles). The household staff, a local cook and a maid, came in only three times a week, but they spoke no English.
Holly had been with him since the beginning of the company, the sole surviving member of his staff from those days, indispensable not only to his running the company but also keeping him alive. For much of that time, they had been lovers, but like many older married couples, things dissolved into a stable companionship. Cable, new to his immediate household, had joined them before they left Scotland, as usual one step ahead of the IMP. Banks had been grooming him over the years to take over SHMRG's technology.
From here, between encrypted e-mails and the wizardry of Skype like the magic decoder rings and imaging telemetry of his childhood, Steele – disguised as an aging invalid named Rex Fischer – tried ruling his world. In daily communication with his main offices in Los Angeles and New York, he was still “in the thick of things.” Perhaps much of the day-to-day operations had been delegated to his loyal underlings but it was enough to keep Darke wary. Steele controlled the larger share of the company and could still prove dangerous.
Yet not even Darke knew what Steele was up to, where he was, how he was spending this “leave of absence.” Brilliant as he was with the bureaucracy, Darke still lacked the necessary imagination. It was, however, a matter of time before Darke would force him out. Steele knew he must get there first – soon.
As long as Steele could maintain control over the major part of the shares and the greater share of the board, there was very little Darke could manage except to continue plotting the coup which had occupied most of his thoughts since that episode in London when the pendulum of power had begun to shift. Steele had let things slide while he thought he could rest, thinking Darke competent at least for the general day-to-day before realizing Skripasha Scricci's reality show about child prodigies included prodigious amounts of mismanagement.
The IMP's charges of fraud and embezzlement against SHMRG went back too far to manage laying all the blame on Darke, leaving Steele (in his disguise as Osmond Goodwood) barely time to escape unnoticed. Fines were paid and minions were sacked – except for Scricci, his management skills deemed non-existent, who served time in a sanatorium.
While in his incapacitated state Steele was seen as weak, aimless and vulnerable (as Darke made the most of his absence), the IMP's multiple murder charges raised Steele's cachet within the company's corporate perception. Such long-term ruthlessness, kept hidden for several decades, only increased the regard and needless to say the devotion of SHMRG's board.
Even though the fines the IMP levied were a mere nuisance, Darke bragged, he couldn't brag with the menace Steele radiated. It didn't matter what Darke did, in fact: Steele was revered as Better.
The best thing about lunch was having it served by the young maid Holly hired to clean three times a week, as perfect and innocent a personification as Holly claimed the island was itself. Her name was Nanahi Mo'e which apparently meant, according to her mother, the cook, “Keep Fucking Paws Off My Little Flower.” She was beautiful to look at, charming in her deference, graceful in manner, and above all totally subservient in her attitude. The fact she spoke no English made the need for conversation completely irrelevant. The cook, whom everybody called Margarita, was her polar opposite in many ways except the long black hair and almond-shaded skin which made Steele wonder if “Nahi” wouldn't grow up to become her mother. He knew enough to smile and nod and nothing more since he also knew how easily his food could be poisoned.
Steele imagined Holly strolling down to the village, loosening her hair and whipping off her glasses to attract some island boy, wondering if it were even remotely possible she might have ever been successful. Still, he kept up the charade of Holly being his secretary and assistant by always addressing her formally as “Ms Burton.” She preferred to play according to the script, always calling him “Mr Fischer” since “Mr Steele” might raise too many eyebrows, nodding in the direction of the staff or the supposedly loyal Mr Cable.
Cable lived in the spare bedroom at the back of what Steele called his “Little Grass Shack,” a five-bedroom wood-and-stone mansion with a wrap-around veranda and a peaked thatched roof “in the native style.” Growing up in a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia where he'd been “carefully taught,” Cable found life a bit lonely and boring. Steele also imagined him wandering into the village, mussing up his hair with a day's worth of stubble on his chin and being far more successful than Holly with the hot young island boys.
Cable also spoke French well enough to talk to Margarita and her daughter, an indispensable translator in the daily household operations. In the evenings, he would talk with “Mr Fischer” about SHMRG's internet technology. There were things Steele – or rather, “Fischer” – didn't understand about how CLARA worked, and all thoughts were now focused on CLARA.
So far, they hadn't figured out what CLARA stood for, most likely some clever acronym about “artificial creativity algorithms” or something, but Cable had figured out enough of what it was capable of doing to know that was something pretty impressive once they managed to tweak it a little by adding their own specific modifications. The unfortunate thing was the software's creator, working out of his basement, apparently, seemed reluctant to work with SHMRG's engineering team to perfect his beta-version into something they would then market to the world. For some reason, the possibility of wealth they'd offered him was not sufficient enough to impress him to change his mind, and since he'd gone silent for several days, urgent action now became necessary. So Steele decided the only way SHMRG would be able to acquire the “property” was the usual corporate alternative – by theft.
Handling this project personally through his LGS Network – “LGS” for “Little Grass Shack” – Cable hadn't discovered any on-line chatter about CLARA to indicate the guy was exploring options about selling it to some rival and nobody working the project from Banks' tech centers in California or London noticed any activity at all since Sunday morning. Things had been pretty heavy for a while once Cable discovered the thread, especially since he'd made direct contact in mid-September. It was like the engineer, some has-been composer named Thomas Purdue, vanished overnight.
And just earlier that morning, local time, Cable got a ping from the Philadelphia branch of the FBI, some shadowy bounce, which indicated perhaps the Feds had now joined in the hunt for Purdue. The message had been heavily encrypted and involved agents named Osiris and something indecipherable – cute – but there was the FBI's stamp. Unless something happened to Purdue – did someone file a Missing Persons Report already? – why was the FBI interested in this guy? More importantly were they after him personally or after something on his computer?
There had been nothing to indicate Purdue was a possible threat or terrorist – a lapsed serialist, perhaps, but that was all. Cable found nothing beyond some overheated e-mails and whiny letters in his files.
“What do you mean by 'overheated' and 'whiny,'” Fischer asked him, brows furrowed.
“Like many aging composers past their prime, sir.”
Yes, Steele – or Fischer – had known many composers who'd survived their early successes to become only moderately productive by their mid-30s, then smash head-long at high speed into the Middle-Aged Brick Wall of Fate. “That would explain his interest in 'Artificial Creativity.'” Fischer shrugged, his face expressionless. “How old is this guy Purdue, now – 50?”
Cable checked his notes to be sure. “65?” Fischer shrugged again, equally expressionless. “He hasn't published anything in over ten years.”
“You're sure his software works, it's not crap like, apparently, his music is?”
Cable explained, again shuffling through pages of notes, “Purdue's music – most of what he'd written in the previous ten years, anyway – was a little too Carter for my tastes, but technically solid, if academic.”
He tapped into his tablet and a music file began to play mid-phrase. “Here's something from a cello sonata from 2004.”
“Ugh...” Fischer waved it away after twelve seconds. “Who likes this shit, anyway...?” He kept waving until Cable closed the file. His primary concern was that CLARA didn't automatically compose music only like that. “I want a computer program that can write music, but not music that sounds like it's been written by a computer.”
“Theoretically, you plug the stylistic parameters you want to have into the database in terms of harmony, melody, rhythm, phrase-structure, whatever...”
“So, we program Andrew Lloyd-Webber as the default and everything sounds like Phantom?”
Cable was thinking perhaps they could pre-program two different packages – Deluxe and Basic – and market one to the would-be classical audience and the other, a more slimmed-down, simpler one, specifically for the pop audience. “That way, you could choose what you want and create your own style: out comes a fugue or a three-chord song.”
“Sounds like the Deluxe requires a lot of extra work, pre-programming all that. Maybe come out with the Basic model first? Besides, Mr Cable, who needs fugues these days? The F-Word of Classical Music...”
Undaunted, Cable – who happened to enjoy a good fugue when in the mood – explained the prototype Purdue built is already complex. “Given the musical details of his surface language, it comes with numerous possibilities. It wouldn't take much to expand its various options, variations on his code. Realistically, it might be harder to simplify it.”
Fischer frowned, not liking the sound of that. “Simplicity is always difficult,” he mumbled, trying to remember who told him that. “We have a greater market for your Basic model, lots of wanna-be songwriters. We call it something trendy, like La Basique and charge $144 a pop. No, maybe a contract at $89... a month!”
What Cable tried to explain, given the number of programs already out there that did the same thing, didn't phase him.
“Nonsense, boy – we buy up all the other licenses, then trash them. Simplicity!”
Cable hated it when the Old Man called him “boy,” the obese bastard, sitting there like a pasha sipping his coffee. He may be the all-powerful CEO, Rex Fischer, but he's an arrogant blowhard. Cable thought he should wear his sunglasses all the time, even inside, so Fischer couldn't see the hatred in his eyes. He had to be careful what he said, even to that termagant of a secretary of his, always checking him out. He's surprised she hadn't had the shits of him years ago and left.
When they first arrived, he thought he was in paradise, a desert island except for a handful of people around him. And this amazing room full of technical apparatus connecting him to the world. The little French-speaking maid pronounced his name Guillaume, soon shortening it to Gui. But then Fischer started calling him “Guy Cable”...
Then there was that time, some evening last week, when Cable played a sample of what he'd gotten CLARA to produce, considering there was no “instruction booklet” and Cable wasn't himself an experienced composer. He'd cautioned Fischer not to expect too much since this was a prototype, given Purdue's own first efforts sounded pretty simplistic. A few days earlier, he had managed to copy all the files Purdue had in his computer dealing with the program. The only thing he didn't have was the computer-generated audio-interface Purdue called “Clara.”
It took a few hours to get the hang of it, finding the basic elements to input into the “style database.” This became the “universal set” CLARA would choose from to create his “sound.” Even Cable was disappointed in his first efforts, since he wasn't musically trained. Still, it was better than anything he'd compose.
He had to work on the audio playback within the parameters, since Purdue clearly had his trained ear to rely on, because otherwise it was difficult for Cable to tell what he was selecting. Without hearing it and judging which sounded better, the result sounded arbitrary, disconnected, probably no better than most children's first efforts. Once he could choose things sounding more consistent and build up his options, he could shape the possibilities into something palatable. And in a few hours, he had something, sounding more childish than child-like.
After he proudly wrote in the title, “Mozart Wasn't Built in a Day,” he went to play it for Mr Fischer and found him sitting there grumbling half-asleep in the living room after dinner. The music barely lasted a minute and despite the pride on Cable's face, Fischer's face remained passive, neither approving nor disapproving.
“It sounds like a child wrote it, Cable, a not very talented one. Is this all the better you can do?”
“But a child didn't write it, sir, not even me: a computer did!”
Fischer wasn't the least impressed. “It sounds like those old paint-by-numbers paintings look. This'll never make it into the Louvre, either.”
“But that's the thing, sir – remember, this is only my very first attempt.”
Clearly, they needed to get Purdue's cooperation to improve the prototype, but how? If they stole CLARA, they must abduct Purdue.
And now, Fischer was just finishing up his lunch under Holly's watchful eyes when Cable came running in with the latest. Seeing the look on Cable's face, she nodded to Nanahi Mo'e to leave.
“I've stumbled on some chatter about Purdue, sir,” his eyes followed the girl. “It may explain why he's suddenly gone off-the-grid.”
Cable explained there had been a murder this morning at Purdue's publisher's office, one of the office staff, some new girl. “The police have issued an APB for a 'person-of-interest' named... Dr Thomas Purdue.”
Fischer remembered those “whiny” letters and “overheated” e-mails Cable had warned him about, products of nothing more than a bruised ego. But was it enough this guy might have flipped out and killed someone?
“Maybe,” Fischer suggested, “he was only making threats which the police over-reacted to?” If their composer/scientist's a murderer, that's even better.
“If he's a suspect,” Holly said, “the police may already have him in custody, if the FBI gets involved in this.”
Fischer was used to making split-second decisions and last-minute changes, but not now.
“This would make it almost 5:00 in Philadelphia – you'll have to move fast. Any operatives you trust already on the ground?”
Fischer's face turned prune-like with an intense frown. “Dammit, the place is crawling with Darke's men – maybe they already have him?”
Then he told Cable to get him Basil Carsonoma in New York – “Fast!”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
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.