Wednesday, September 26, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 7 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, various agents of the Aficionati are converting the basement of Falx's run-down farmhouse into a pristine, state-of-the-art medical laboratory under the supervision of Moritásgeroth, a Russian agent named Ivan Govnozny, with the help of Falx's two assistants, twin brothers Yanni & Vinny Punamayo (a.k.a. F-1 & F-2). Turf wars lead to tension between Govnozny and Vremsky as each explains what they know of their various assignments. Vremsky is concerned Govnozny, whatever he's doing there, will be a complication with her mission concerning Purdue who sits incarcerated in an adjoining room. Falx also has news regarding a little snaggle from next door, Tom Purdue's place: it seems he has "visitors."

(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 was still early by my late-night standards, used to years of correcting papers deep into the midnight hours or composing when I could find the spare time (or, for that matter, the inspiration) but even Cameron felt the need, after a long and largely mind-bending day, to get to bed somewhat earlier than usual. We would need all the time we could muster and that meant as early a start as possible, regardless of habit, since we were no closer to a possible solution toward any helpful trail. Grumbling as I threw clean blankets over the cot in Tom's basement studio, the luck of the short straw being mine, I saw only a few more restless hours before dropping off to sleep. I looked around for a book to read which could help induce drowsiness: Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach might prove useful.

Amanda had apologized for breaking the party up before 9:00 after our discussions, since she was uncomfortable leaving her mother alone, even with arrangements she'd made for her aunt to come visit after dinner.

“You're welcome to stay; I'm sure the professor wouldn't mind,” she'd said, repeating the already accepted invitation to spend the night.

Cameron offered to walk her down to where we'd parked the other cars – it was stupid to have left Amanda's there – but given the reports of a neighborhood prowler, I suggested he drive instead.

Meanwhile, since the rest of us were staying, we divvied up the beds, giving Martin and Dorothy the two guest rooms, leaving Tom's room empty if he'd return in the middle of the night. (I couldn't imagine coming back from an overnight trip to find my house full of people and staked out by cops.) Cameron and I played “rock-paper-scissors” for either the couch or the basement cot since the recliner, unfortunately, could no longer recline. The couch was in no great condition but the basement was just creepy.

While still a little rough, most of Tom's basement studio had paneled walls and laminate flooring, a project left partly unfinished, the one wall insulated by large, old oriental carpets hung from the ceiling. The cot was partly hidden in an alcove made of shelves and tables. From there, everything else looked lost in shadows.

Naturally it had been deflating, after all that effort, not to find anything once Amanda succeeded in running the Clara program, not that we had any idea what we might find once it opened. Had he left a trail of breadcrumbs tantalizing us with what was happening or left a map to some hiding place?

If he'd actually told Clara who's after him or where he was going, that would've been too much to hope for. So we were back to square one again and Clara was no help.

Or perhaps Tom was protecting Clara from something, like the people who might be chasing him, by not giving her information. That way, if somebody did break into her, they couldn't track him down.

Actually, it's a more likely possibility they're after his software than him, anyway. Which explains why he'd deleted the “key” file.

“Uh oh,” I thought, “maybe that wasn't a good idea, re-installing it again, if Tom had disabled Clara to protect her.” Had we now made her vulnerable to anyone trying to access the program? Well, certainly no one would want me trying to re-delete the “key” file – no doubt I'd destroy years of Tom's work.

In that case, I unplugged the power supply and disconnected the internet cables, which should keep anyone from hacking into it. I'll ask Amanda to uninstall it in the morning, just to be safe.

Who would've thought Tom Purdue could have turned himself into a computer geek? Not me and not Martin or Dorothy, apparently. It made perfect sense to Cameron who, of course, grew up with computers. But we old-timers still thought of Tom as the fair-haired, indeed long-haired boy, the romantic we'd known back in grad school. Too intelligent to be one of those “daft hippies” he always complained about, Tom was never extreme enough for “total emotion.” If the initial response wasn't “emotion-based,” then to him it was too intellectual.

It was difficult for us to remember him after years of absence, and not think of his “emotion-based” response to Odile. What was the expression, “thrown him for a loop” when she ran off? It was easy to think he'd never be the same again after that. But had we known him that well, then?

Standing in the kitchen this evening, reminiscing while nibbling on some left-over take-out, Dorothy wondered what had ever happened to Susan? “Hadn't she had some kind of calming influence on him at the time?” They'd been married for years, I knew that, and apparently were still “friendly,” but he never once talked about the divorce.

Martin thought she may have been too much of an equal for him and eventually couldn't put up with his moodiness.

“All he told me was she didn't like being known as 'Sue Purdue.'”

Whatever it was, I imagined, from the few conversations we'd had after that, that was when he started becoming more analytical, at least in terms of the music he was composing at the time.

“I mean, things like that Piano Quintet were amazing on an intellectual level, but these newer pieces became less emotionally driven.”

Dorothy wondered if his search for some greater structural integrity in his music was because he needed something he could control.

“You think maybe working with Clara was a replacement for another failed relationship?”

“Maybe not a replacement, but definitely something he could control more,” I suggested, gathering up several of the empty take-out containers. “He said he wanted something to sift through the possibilities, at least initially.”

Eventually, it developed into a fully creative process he could “set in motion.” “Eventually, it might learn to compose everything itself.”

Only hours ago, Amanda had told us the professor talked about how he would spend hours up-loading data into the computer, everything from things about composers he liked to his views how harmony worked.

“She said he'd never spent so many hours sweating over a composition before, wondering if he wasn't just wasting his time.”

But there came a point when Clara's first efforts went from being simplistic little baby steps to something showing real promise.

“She actually was beginning to learn, to improve – to make her own choices.”

Purdue had designed the program to imitate him, his stylistic fingerprints, his “voice,” everything that made his music sound like him.

“He could do this now, he felt, at this stage in his life.”

The music the software began producing sounded clearly like it was his music. Or at least his music but greatly simplified.

“And yet, other than choosing certain parameters,” Amanda continued, much to our amazement, “the Professor had nothing to do with it other than clicking a button activating the program – which started the creative process.”

Then, an hour later, he'd open a folder and there'd be a finished composition – “the most recent ones needed very little tweaking.”

Amanda then asked Clara to play something for us, something of her choosing. Out came a brief three-minute nocturne for piano.

More melodic than I'd expected, but surprisingly it sounded unmistakably like Thomas Purdue.

“But that's impossible,” Martin sputtered, “no machine could've composed that, it's too subtle. Artificial Intelligence may be one thing, but this...?” Predictably, he assumed Tom had composed it, then up-loaded it into the database. It was an old trick but one easily disproved by asking Clara to compose something new for us on the spot.

Not that I wanted us to be side-tracked by this, but Amanda suggested a short demonstration, asking us each for input. Martin supplied a detailed form, Cameron a “mood,” Dorothy an atypical tonal scheme.

Knowing Tom would have avoided writing for the tenor saxophone, I suggested a short lyrical duo for tenor saxophone and piano. I also added the melody should first appear in the piano's left hand.

We sat, munching on our dinners, while Clara hummed and whirred almost imperceptibly.

Shortly, she was playing something she'd entitled Impromptu.

We'd lost track of the time, quietly sitting there in the basement, staring at the computer called “Clara” – or at the computerized box that contained Clara, since she was, technically, only a software program. My very first reaction to hearing her little composition was “I want one!” She had satisfied every one of our requirements.

Too excited to sleep, I wanted to listen to more pieces she'd composed, see what things she might create for me. I could imagine her writing a whole new string quartet in a day!

No wonder someone was after Tom's magical program – it really was like magic – but how was such a software program marketable? He had programmed it to compose like him: everything sounded like Tom Purdue. To get it to sound like me, I would have to upload everything I knew and liked to replace Tom's data.

But now, I needed to take my mind off Clara and her music, when I picked up one of Tom's books – the noises I heard in the walls around me certainly weren't helping – rats? I riffled through some denser pages of Gödel Escher Bach and soon found the book ready to drop from my grasp.

Not long after I turned out the light, I sensed someone else was in the room so I closed my eyes. It was only my imagination which already tonight had witnessed amazing, unimaginable things.


A crisp fall day had given way to a clear, starlight autumn night on this Monday before Hallowe'en's annual Trick-or-Treat night, when four young heroes assembled on the lot looking into the Blackwood Cemetery, easily the creepiest place in Downtown Marple, especially when the full moon cast deep shadows and winds wafted over dead leaves. They knew they were breaking so many rules just meeting here at midnight, especially since it was on a school night, but, regardless, the full moon before Hallowe'en was too good to pass up.

“And where's Jabba? He's always the last one.” The one they called 'Gumby' was impatient, having gotten there ten minutes early. “Even if he's on time, Jabba's always the last one to show up.”

“Then you shouldn't be early – what's the big deal with being early, anyway?” 'Sprout' was short but he always questioned authority.

Usually they met on weekends during the school year but tonight was special: the Tonic Avengers were on a special quest. The evil villain 'Schoenberg' was reportedly in the vicinity and must be stopped. They must rescue the Sacred Bust of Mozart from his vile atonal clutches and thus save the world from Modern Music.

Members of the Marple Middle School Concert Band and Ms Stringer's music class, 'Gumby,' the tallest and most out-going, played trumpet; 'Sprout,' the bass clarinet; 'Jabba,' the bass drum; and tomboyish 'Riadne' the piccolo.

Jabal, making adjustments to his white cape and his off-white, clown-like half mask, shuffled through the bushes across the lot's perimeter to join his friends, each wearing their own differently colored capes and masks. He always complained about being the Black Guy stuck wearing the white costume, making him stand out like a vintage graphic. Gumby looked cool in bright yellow and sky-blue and Riadne wore deep purple; Sprout had first dibs on the black costume. Jabal hated being called 'Jabba,' convinced the costume already made him look fat.

But tonight, this week before Hallowe'en, was a special late-night adventure for them with the full moon to light their way. Tonight, nobody'd see them lurking in the deep shadows around the cemetery's edge. And it was important they sneak quietly into the Old Haine Family Crypt, where Schoenberg's supposedly hidden the Bust of Mozart.

They reviewed their plan one more time and checked their weapons once again – light sabers, death rays and catalytic gravitational destabilizers, all tuned to the key of C Major – and, satisfied, entered the cemetery. They followed the footpath around the corner to the wall and from there to the entrance of the Haine Family Mausoleum.

“Look,” Sprout pointed, “someone's been here – recently, too. Several, judging from the footprints.”

“Schoenberg, probably – and his eleven minions,” Jabal whispered.

“Well, let's go save the Bust of Mozart.” Gumby descended into the crypt.

The Haine Crypt was a familiar setting for the Tonic Avengers, where most of their adventures took place, usually at night. Their going here often got them into trouble, usually with the cemetery's groundskeeper.

But tonight they sensed something was different as soon as they stepped inside.

“Hold on, guys,” Riadne said. “What's that smell?”

Their eyes hadn't adjusted to the darkness yet as flashlights pierced the gloom.

“It's a cemetery,” Gumby said. “Cemeteries smell weird.”

“Yeah, but Gumbo, she's right, man,” Jabal said, trying to hide his nerves.

It certainly wasn't anything they'd smelled in this crypt before, dry or musty; in fact, if anything, something here smelled fresh.

It was Sprout who stumbled against a mound beside the old stone sarcophagus, but it was Riadne who lifted the rug. Underneath the stiffening rug, they found a woman, eyes staring, throat hideously slashed.

And when they stopped running, almost out of breath from all their screaming, they'd reached the safety of the parking lot and saw lights had come on in several houses beyond the cemetery wall. What they should do next was up for discussion, Mozart's bust or not, as soon as thoughts could become coherent words.

Gumby pointed out as the Tonic Avengers they had a duty to protect the world from evil and call the police. Jabal quickly pointed out, “that was no game – that was a real body!”

There was discussion about their getting in trouble for being out this late, about trespassing on cemetery grounds, maybe vandalizing tombs, creating a disturbance after screaming bloody murder themselves, running away like little girls.

“But who would've seen us? There can't be any witnesses who saw us.”

“Maybe there are security cameras around the cemetery?”

“And what did we see, anyway,” Sprout argued, “a body in a crypt. Maybe they're getting ready for a funeral tomorrow.”

“Except they usually prepare bodies for burial in a funeral home,” Riadne argued.

Then Sprout started searching his pockets with a sense of quickly increasing dread. “Hey, you guys, did anybody take my flashlight?” The official Tonic Avengers Light Saber also had Sprout's address written on it. “We have to go back and get it.”

“You mean, you have to go back and get it: it's your responsibility.”

As Sprout nervously tiptoed back toward the cemetery, a car pulled around the corner and nailed him right in its headlights. As it came to a stop, he froze, unsure which way to run.

“Stop right there, son,” the voice called through the night. “It's the police.” Sprout was sure it was Schoenberg in disguise.

A short kid, white, 13, wearing dark jeans, a black hoodie with a black cape and mask – yeah, nothing suspicious here.

“You happen to know about some screaming kids, son?” the cop asked him.

The boy explained to him what happened, how they were playing this game, how they found this body in the crypt.

The officer followed the boy into the crypt and pulled back the rug.

“Tango, here,” the policeman said into his radio. “Yeah, tell Narder I found DiVedremo's missing rug – it's wrapped around her body.”

= = = = = = =

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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