Monday, September 24, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 7 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, after moving their cars to make it look less suspicious to anyone watching Purdue's house, our intrepid team – Amanda Wences, Dorothy Minnim, Martin Crotchet, Cameron Pierce, and Dr. Kerr – try to unlock access to Clara, Tom's Artificial Creativity program, to see if he'd left any clues concerning what may have happened to him in the back-up copy. Once again, Kerr has one of those funny moments where he suddenly finds himself in a hospital room not long after Purdue's heart surgery back in May, and after he started coming to, Purdue begins to explain what he's been working on. All this begins to dissolve into the mists of memory when Kerr hears an automated voice: “How do you wish Clara to help, Master?”

(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.

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Their brows sweating even without any serious exertion, the two men continued hauling several cases over to the basement's far side, part of the broad open space designated for the make-shift lab's main room where, once they started cracking open the cases, they would begin to assemble the doctor's necessary tables, lamps, and equipment racks. Beyond that, Agent Moritásgeroth said he would take care of the assembly himself, hooking up all the various machines and monitors because he'd already indicated he wouldn't trust them with the “delicately detailed work.” Agent Machaon's assistant, flying in from San Francisco, proved a very officious person, detail oriented and not prone to small talk, which was fine if F-1 and F-2 had anything to say about it. He was all business, everything cut and dry – “put this here, that there” – giving them only what they needed to know.

While Moritásgeroth was busy directing Falx's henchmen between the tunnel and the staircase, mapping out each piece's position in his mind, Perdita Vremsky tried not to look bored or impatient waiting for Falx's return. He'd already been gone several minutes too long: how many secret agents does it take to turn off a light bulb? She told him about seeing that light on the second floor at Purdue's place and didn't want anything to attract attention. The last thing she needed was having policemen next door looking for Purdue.

Once the last of the cases had been positioned and the two henchmen had started to break open the packing seals, Moritásgeroth took Vremsky aside and explained how he would need all this space.

“I afraid this place barely adequate for needs, yes? – such lowly ceilings and...”

“Best my agents could do on short notice...”

“Oh, and other thing – let's dispense with ridiculously cumbersome names we've been assigned, Agent Luvyatór, or whatever I call you, yes? While I'm saddled with this five-syllabled Celtic monstrosity, please – call me Iván Govnózny.”

“It's Lóviator,” she nodded, shaking his hand, “but good evening, Dr Ivan Govnozny. My real identity... – my name is Perdita Vremsky.”

“Ah, so you Russian, too, eh?” Govnozny said, betraying his thick Russian accent.

“My grandfather was an emigrée following the Revolution. I don't speak the language.”

“So he was intellectual?”

“The opposite – an aristocrat.”

Trying not to act surprised when she heard the basement door fly open and footsteps hurrying down the stairs behind her, concerned perhaps it might be the FBI who'd trailed her from the hotel, Vremsky turned to find Falx, nearly breathless, descending two steps at a time, not returning as expected through the tunnel entrance. His fedora was slightly askew and his black trench coat looked badly wrinkled but, worse, there was mud on his shoes and he had that panicked expression on his face he was being chased.

Vremsky, quickly pulling herself together, gave the intruder an equally quick head-to-foot scan, indignant at being interrupted, furious at being surprised. Her lips began to tremble as if they could erupt with withering consequences.

“Agent Lóviator!” Falx, wheezing, tried to catch his breath, thoughts stumbling over words. “I'm afraid we've got ourselves a little snaggle.”

Without waiting for the explosion, Falx explained how he had gone next door, entered the neighbor's house through the basement tunnel, and turned off the light someone had left on in the upstairs bathroom. “No sooner had I outened the light than I heard a commotion downstairs – suddenly I was aware we... – I – had visitors!”

Naturally, this blocked his escape, especially once they quickly disappeared into the basement, leaving no other route than the back door. “Then I tripped over a stone – some idiot's been digging in the yard...”

“Shouldn't the place be empty? Who was it? What were they looking for?” Vremsky tried to appear more inquisitive than alarmed. “Any idea how many of them were there? Could anyone have seen you?”

“No idea, maybe a dozen – could be more.” Falx brushed off his coat. “Maybe less – talkative bunch, though. Couldn't really tell.”

“It's probably that black cat again,” F-2 said, “out diggin' in the yard.” He and F-1 had stopped momentarily to listen.

“Cat's don't dig holes like that,” F-1 argued. “Maybe it's a neighbor's dog?”

“More importantly, what if it were the police, poking around looking for Purdue? You'd been telling me he lives next door.” She jerked her head toward a corner room and seemed even less pleased.

“I don't think they're police,” Falx said, “there's only one car out front. Who'd notice the old man was missing already?”

“It doesn't matter,” she practically yelled, “you abducted him at gunpoint yesterday afternoon – and now the police have probably been tipped off by some nosy neighbor and nobody's seen him for over 24 hours.” And in broad daylight, she hastened to add, if that wasn't bad enough, before there'd been any directive to abduct him.

But then F-1 remembered that odd sight after they'd parked the van across from the mausoleum before he closed everything up. “Good thing they hadn't arrived any earlier and seen what we were doing.”

He and his brother had just finished unloading the last boxes of that doctor's equipment, parking the van up at the other end because that part of the tunnel was a good deal shorter. That was when Falx called and said they needed to bring the van in to take care of a “little snaggle.” He told them to dump it the crypt for now, then later on take it down to Purdue's basement. They had to finish up Moritásgeroth's lab, first, so they'd come back later.

Anyway, they'd finished cleaning up after Falx's little snaggle when all these cars suddenly pulled into the lot beside their van. Five people scrambled out, ran around, then piled into one car and left. He hadn't gotten around to telling Falx, yet: they'll deal with it later. There was still plenty of time for that.

First things first, Vremsky thought, after checking her phone and seeing the time, already running far too late in the day: it was necessary she inform Osiris that Moritásgeroth's equipment was being set up, ending up abbreviating the agent's name to “Mo” since it was easier to type and anyway he'd know what she meant.

“No point telling her what I'd seen back at the crypt,” F-1 considered, thinking about that lame Chinese Fire-Drill he'd witnessed. Could these be the same people Falx was talking about being next door?

He didn't think they looked like real policemen, and three of them were more like grandparents, too old to be cops. “Probably just a family carpooling before going out for dinner. Speaking of which...”

After sending her update, it crossed Vremsky's mind the visitors next door might be SHMRG agents, something she should look into.

Moritásgeroth – or rather, Dr Govnozny – had told her SHMRG was in Philadelphia with their big concert tomorrow night at Kimmel Center, one of their loathsome populist extravaganzas designed to lure in would-be music lovers, but did that mean they were here looking for Purdue and his research – but, if so, why were they after him?

Vremsky felt it was quite the coup, however inadvertently it had been accomplished, beating SHMRG to the goal, finding Purdue first. Perhaps she should cut Agent Falx some slack and call it “beginner's luck.”

But Osiris had said SHMRG was after the work Purdue was doing on Artificial Creativity – whatever reason they'd want that for – so was getting hold of Purdue himself then only part of their goal? Or was that even their goal at all if all they wanted were the files and notebooks he'd been working on?

She should have her agents check the house to see whatever they'd find rather than wait for Purdue to tell them. “What if SHMRG is already over there, clearing everything out as we speak?”

Falx was helping Govnozny unpack boxes of equipment, assembling monitors and wiring up computers that would eventually fit into the racks. Motioning him over, Vremsky asked if he'd seen any computers in Purdue's basement.

Yes, he'd noticed a couple computers there surrounded by lots of take-out containers – “Figured I'd grab some on my way back.”

But since he couldn't because the arrival of those people blocked his escape, maybe he could go back after they'd left. “There was Thai food and maybe some Indian,” reviewing it in his mind.

“I'm not interested in what food they had, you farking maladroit – the computers!” Really, any sense of forgiveness was gone, now.

Vremsky's outburst got the others' attention, especially F-2 who questioned the psuedo-vulgarity “farking,” while F-1 was feeling a bit insulted himself, given their supervisor's boss had just “disrespected” him in front of his staff.

Noticing their glances as they tried to hide their embarrassment at her bullying, Vremsky brought her tone down a couple notches. It was unnerving, looking into Falx's bug-eyed sunglasses, unable to read any response. “Look, we need to find where Purdue stored his research, on which computer. Can you go back tonight and steal them?”

Falx shrugged his shoulders, not moving his eyes off her pudgy little face and the uncertainty he could see registering there. He knew how he looked with these sunglasses; that's why he wore them. He was wondering if she saw the resemblance to a praying mantis, too, something fearless and capable of striking without warning?

“It's not necessary to 'steal' them, Agent Lóviator,” not hiding his geekish disdain. Maybe she's the boss but she's no expert. “I'll simply download the contents onto USB drives. It's how we do it.”

Govnozny continued shuffling between different crates and work-tables trying to ignore this “dust-up” as the installation moved into its next phase, and pointed out where the main operating table should go once finally assembled.

“This is largest room, yes?” taking the place in with some geekish disdain of his own, completely ignoring Vremsky and Falx.

He looked around the basement with his beady eyes squinting behind thick glasses, concerned his mental inventory was not adding up.

“Everything from van, it has been brought in?”

F-1 nodded.

“Nothing still outside?”

Trying not to look peeved, F-1 opened the door leading to the tunnel to reveal, alas, some half-dozen smaller cardboard boxes resting forgotten on top of one medium-sized crate which they'd left for last.

“Ah, right...” He remembered the larger box, now; despite not being that big, it was easily the heaviest of the lot.

By the time they heaved it into place, both of Falk's agents, neither strong, hulking men, were ready for a break. They viewed themselves more as intellectuals, physical labor not something they genuinely understood. Identical twins, one was Yanni and the other, his exact duplicate, Vinny – the Punimayo Twins. The question was, which was which?

Trying not to look impatient, Govnozny declared they were “at long last” done with the initial unloading part of their assignment. “Take fifteen-minute break, then we start next phase. That will be more fun.”

To ease the tension between them, Vremsky went over to the far corner where Falx said her prisoner was being kept, a dusty, dark and still fairly dank room once used to store coal.

After Falx unlocked the door, she saw a man bound, gagged and asleep.

“Why is he in this old, over-stuffed armchair?”

“It's the closest thing we had handy – it was my grandmother's favorite chair. Seemed reasonable to keep Old Doc Purdue comfortable.”

So how was she to torture her prisoner, tied to a comfy chair?

“Nana said it went back to the Spanish Inquisition – I hadn't expected that...”

There was an awkward pause before Vremsky spoke.

“And why would she think that, Agent Falx? Clearly, it's early-1940s, at best.”

Cocking his head to the right, his eyes rolled unnoticed behind the sunglasses. Seriously, the woman had no sense of humor...

While F-1 and F-2 wandered off up the steps to find some quiet corner of the kitchen to enjoy a smoke, they continued their age-old argument about the early evolution of the sonata-allegro form. Govnozny unpacked some of the smaller boxes, assembling yet more monitors and machines after uncoiling yards of cables to connect them.

The basement had been better than Vremsky imagined, considering her first impression earlier. Seeing Ripa's googled image, the exterior appeared haunted. She couldn't imagine trying to explain this one to Moritásgeroth much less Osiris.

But the basement had been completely transformed during the past few weeks' renovations: certainly, the decrepit exterior was a good ruse. Who would see the run-down property and suspect it's the Aficionati's regional headquarters? Unfortunately, when shown the kitchen, she realized the upstairs had hardly been touched and felt like somebody homeless in a squat.

Falx explained, once the additional grant from Aficionati Central Financing would be approved, he would start the transformation of the upstairs, all while maintaining the overall run-down look of the outside, with minor adjustments. But the general idea was basically the same: mask the windows and create a whole new interior within the old framework.

Like the basement's walls, reinforced with layers of stone and lined with cork, impervious to extraneous noises and neighborhood wifi vampires. No sound got in or out: no one outside would hear you scream.

Falx checked Purdue's vital signs and determined he might have used more sedative than really necessary before going to meet Vremsky. The old man was still passed out cold and hadn't eaten his lunch. Judging from the mess on the floor, he had probably been sick earlier, too. That was F-2's job, checking him hourly. That's was something they didn't teach you in Secret Agent School, the care and maintenance of prisoners once you've captured them; that particular chapter ended with interrogating them and then disposing of the bodies.

But the past few hours everybody's been pre-occupied with this new guy's arrival and so far Falx new little about him, what's going on, why his house was being turned into an emergency laboratory. Yet he thought it was odd, watching his immediate supervisor, secret organization aside, Lóviator was telling him so little about it.

Falx – or given his real identity, Graham Ripa – had spent considerable time in this old house when he was a child and that he'd turned it over to the Aficionati should count for something. As far as his standing in the organization was concerned, didn't that contribution automatically put him in line for immediate advancement? Instead they saddle him with this lame excuse of a “farking maladroit,” a bit of a troglodyte herself, as his supervisor. Did they expect to motivate him with someone like her in the way?

“If SHMRG really is getting this close and they're already after his software,” she was saying, regardless if he were listening, “we must get Purdue to talk and soon – otherwise, it'll be too late.”

“Listen to her,” he thought, watching her carefully, how she moved and spoke, “straight out of an old James Bond movie!”

Didn't she know that he and his fellow students had considered James Bond “ancient history” even down to his out-moded technology? Why would anybody consider modeling themselves after James Bond in a comic-book world?

That was the problem with these Classical Music nerds, growing up with old things for role-models: they don't understand what's relevant. That's why Fate chose to drop Thomas Purdue into his hands – not hers.

Just then there was a loud knock at the door, grabbing their attention. Vremsky pushed past him, very much in charge.

Govnozny stood in the doorway, rapping on the frame to get her attention. “Sand trickles through hour-glass even as we speak.” Science has proven multi-tasking, he reminded her, was an unproductive use of time. That she could have other things to attend to was not his concern. Regardless, he expected her full cooperation and concentration. Even though technically he was Machaon's assistant and therefore inferior to her in the Aficionati hierarchy, Osiris had “highlighted” his project. No amount of bureaucratic bickering overrode the fact his presence here took precedence.

She had already argued with him in the van on their return from the airport until he showed her Osiris' letter-of-intent, how her career in arts administration would suffer if she failed to cooperate. “Multi-tasking is what I do, it's what we're trained to do,” she argued, “and it's how we keep everything running smoothly.”

Govnozny's only reply was to wave Osiris' letter in her face and repeat, “the world of classical music is very methodical. It's a byzantine world of privilege and knowledge, full of ritual and compliance.”

Vremsky heard this argument often enough, how they were “keepers of the flame” (yet remember what happened to the Byzantine Empire). “Even Beethoven multi-tasked, working on several compositions at the same time,” she argued, but that wasn't something likely to faze him.

“Yes,” he had responded, “that may be, but we are not all Beethovens.”

Badger-like in appearance – appropriate for one named, however cumbersomely, for a Celtic badger-god, much less for a Celtic badger-god of healing – Moritásgeroth stood there, his shoulders bowed, hands clasped reverentially across his broad chest. His hair was steel-gray along the temples, but still black otherwise except for a narrow white stripe along the center part. Beady eyes, myopic from years of close work spent in the operating room, appeared abnormally magnified behind unusually thick, black-framed glasses. A pointy nose, thin lips and large teeth made for a disconcerting smile.

With his broad frame over short legs, Govnozny had the stance of someone who might have been deemed a natural wrestler. He was certainly considered scrappy enough, an “intellectual wrestler,” he used to joke. To him, any argument was a competitive match-up and few could out-maneuver him. Even at his age, he was still formidable.

And formidable was what was needed to get his assignment completed in time, a high priority with or without Osiris' endorsement. Plus he could only guess what consequences failure would bring down on him. If he was to have his assignment ready by the concert tomorrow evening, there was no time to waste on niceties. He fondly recalled years of training as a young man in the KGB during the waning days of the Soviet Empire. These did more than hone his technical skills and sharpen his keen imagination.

“I realize your project about the newly acquired knowledge with Dr Purdue's work in Artificial Creativity is important,” Govnozny told her, “but in terms of my project, yours more, how you say, long term.”

“Without his research,” Vremsky countered, “if the old man dies before it's recovered, all Osiris will have is a dead body.”

Even if they had all of Purdue's work at hand and the men who understood it – not to mention, he pointed out, if it were even the least bit useful – didn't mean the Aficionati's current major project (of which his was, as Govnozny called it, a “prefatory action”) was any closer to being successfully implemented.

They continued to dance around their surrounding's short-comings which Govnozny considered “grossly inadequate,” something Vremsky was careful not to contradict whole-heartedly. “I'd consider it short notice, descending on us with only an hour's warning.”

Given the tangled organization typical of a society intent on preserving its legacy, things moved slowly through the Aficionati's upper echelon and took forever, as expected, to trickle down to those in the middle. The “current major project” Govnozny continued to invoke was only one such example, something Vremsky had been hearing about for years, wherever it originated, whoever (at her level) knew, not that it really mattered, since eventually it would become every agent's goal. It was initially called, in deference to the Great Wolfgang Amadeus, the “Mobot.”

What this was, when anybody explained it to anyone who needed to know – and few needed more than the mere basics – was a remote-controlled robot that could infiltrate the camps of the Aficionati's adversaries. Making the robot lifelike was a considerable challenge, humanoid enough to be undetectable, yet only recently had this been deemed “unrealistic.”

Long dismissed as a dream of science fiction, the plan languished until someone realized Middle Eastern extremists already created the prototype, one that gave whatever faith-based organization controlling it a supreme amount of power. A suicidal fanatic with a bomb can kill untold numbers in his proximity and spread far greater damage by fear alone. Even with only a dozen dead, thousands more may be affected by its very unexpectedness: where would another one strike next? The terrorist's invention of the suicide bomber was indeed a stroke of brilliance.

Lacking the spiritual indoctrination of most religious extremists, unsure mere enthusiasm was sufficient, the Aficionati decided by turning humans into robots and having over them some amount of control, they could achieve similar results. The question now was could they create some kind of mind-control device that would successfully overcome Western Man's squeamishness about self-destruction? Govnozny's idea had been a subdermal implant which, when activated, would take over the brain, turning a human into a robot. The question was how and where to implant what explosives – yet remain undetectable?

Old Machaon and his Munich lab were working on a radio-receiver implant device that could be useful in controlling a robot. The problem was one of communications, some coded message that couldn't be intercepted. But “Mack” was getting old and might retire before reaching the final goal. This experiment's success was crucial to Govnozny's advancement.

Ivan Govnozny grew up in Russia, coming of age in the turbulent times when the Soviet Union was ready to collapse, a young scientist in the KGB's Research Division like his father before him, his grandfather, likewise named Ivan, once a member of Stalin's dreaded NKVD back in the glory days of the Great Terror. Little had changed from more recent troubles to the rise of Vladimir Putin, now that the KGB once again ruled Russia, and like many Soviet agents, Govnozny decided to find rebirth among the Capitalists. Employed by one of the less prudent oligarchs who disappeared in the early-1990s, he drifted from one corporate lab to another before finding a home in one of the Aficionati's facilities in St. Petersburg. Having caught Machaon's attention during an international convention, Govnozny returned with him to Munich where he spent the last ten years.

During the past few, Govnozny – now Agent Moritásgeroth – became Machaon's Chief Assistant Liaison Engineer with Agent Hephaestus of the London branch, one of Osiris' key agents in research and production of technology and gadgetry. Between them, they developed the components this experiment was to prove or disprove and Govnozny knew his reputation depended on success. What Machaon had been unaware of was the extent to which Govnozny worked under Osiris' direct supervision, going against hierarchical regulations. Failure would definitely lower his standing with Osiris but also destroy Mack's trust.

What Govnozny developed, free of Machaon's supervision, and was now ready to test was a plastic device smaller than an earbud inserted directly into the brain where it would be undetectable on most scanners. If some body scan did reveal its presence, the subject would automatically respond it was a surgical implant following “the accident.” The question remained, given the size of most humans, how much C-4 such a device could contain and still be effective? It wasn't four pounds in a fanny pack but that wasn't the point.

Others might quibble about how ethical this was, testing it on a human, but what was the point destroying a perfectly good million dollar robot if the technology failed to live up to expectations? Though it worked effectively in cantaloupes and watermelons, it lacked the impact of spattering everyone with real blood and brain matter.

How many would such a detonation kill also needed to be tested: how effective could this be, depending on the setting? Was it something worth pursuing if the number of casualties was only minimal? By tomorrow evening, Govnozny's men, a team supplied by the scientific research division of Hephaestus' London organization, would be in place. But before they could proceed, Govnozny's device had to be ready to activate, the subject chosen and the surgical implant completed. This is why, he explained to Vremsky, he'd tolerate no more “useless delays.”

The target, of course, was the SHMRG gala, one of Skripasha Scricci's extravaganzas, planned for tomorrow evening at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center. Govnozny wanted the human Mobot to explode backstage, somewhere within range of Scricci. But he liked Osiris' suggestion of planting the person in the audience instead, a more public display with greater shock value.

There was still a question where they'll be directed to find their subject, snatching up some homeless person or addict somewhere, perhaps a young mother on her way back from her child's piano lesson? Vremsky thought perhaps one of the people next door, whatever they were, might be possible candidates: certainly, they were conveniently located.

She glanced uncomfortably at the coal room where her prisoner was being held. “Well, under no circumstances will it be Purdue.”

“No,” Govnozny smiled, his beady eyes glistening, “I didn't think it would be.”

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

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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