Friday, October 05, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 10 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr, inadvertently abducted by the Kapellmeister, erstwhile time-traveling Tempo Maestro, finds himself involved in a search for the Belcher Codex, an early-American version of the “Ten Commandments of Harmony,” ending up in backwoods Maine in 1814. Originally created by the composer Supply Belcher, they were pawned off on William Billings as a joke, and the son of Billing's former apprentice who'd stolen them no longer has them. After meeting Bill Prentiss' twin sons – one called Junior; the other, Junior's Brother – Kerr's next question is, “where are they now?” followed quickly by “how the hell do we get out of here before the place explodes?”

(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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The first thing she wanted to do, once back in her hotel room, was to kick off her shoes and relax, though Sarah Bond knew there wasn't time for a quick nap or shower. The morning got off to an early start at the local police precinct but finding that odd button clarified her suspicions. Somehow that single, small, easily missed button with the Aficionati insignia on it meant this case became an entirely different case. This wasn't just a routine murder any more, but one with international implications. And now her growing suspicions were amplified by the news she'd just received at that secret meeting in Center City Philadelphia. She hadn't understood why the agent couldn't just tell her over the phone. It didn't help driving in morning traffic had always set her on edge; even in London, she would've taken the tube.

Before leaving, she'd picked up an order of coffee and crullers to go and the car smelled so good driving back. The whole time her mind buzzed with possibilities, she thought about those crullers. Now she could literally “kick off her heels” as opposed to “kick ass.” (The vagaries of American slang still confused her.) She sat down at the drab little table by the drab little window. “Open the box of crullers – first things first.” The room and the hotel were equally drab. It should help her think.

Looking out over an especially drab parking lot which was far from little, she found her mind soon beginning to wander, at first about what it was the stereotypical American cops saw in donuts. The parking area, she noticed, was largely empty, no doubt bad for business, the hotel surrounded by a sea of asphalt. Around the perimeter of the lot was a scraggly strip of browning grass that hadn't seen a mower for several weeks. Beyond the fence which could use some paint was a scraggly, weed-choked woodland.

But just beyond that she knew, figuring she'd turned left instead of right into the hotel's lot, was the FBI building. Did they really think they looked discreet with signs all over the place? Did they have any idea what's going on in their own back yard? Or know she was here, much less why?

Funny how the folks in Booking and Accommodations at IMP Central had overlooked the FBI's presence right there on the map, though when she called to acknowledge her arrival, her comment registered little concern. Mimi Solfeggio, the Chief's secretary, told her it wasn't worth worrying about it and to proceed with the mission as planned. Unfortunately, Sarah noticed a dozen different men in the lobby, all with short-cropped hair wearing dark suits and ties with sunglasses. She told Mimi it was like they're hosting an FBI convention, hardly secretive.

Given her years of service, she'd certainly stayed in worse places than this with its bland pink and beige color scheme. Besides, she was here to investigate a case, not to enjoy a holiday. She'd spent most of yesterday checking out that seemingly empty, creepy old farmhouse. “At least,” she thought, “I'm not staying there.”

She'd wondered what was so suspicious about that farmhouse, too, old and decrepit, several windows either broken out or boarded up, a perfect hideout next to a cemetery in the middle of a suburb. But that's what the chatter seemed to indicate, some activity going on there. “But our target's there. The place looks deserted.”

Chatter also revealed the identity of an old composer who lived next door, not very famous and with recent health concerns. Central also found out his student assistant's name plus something about an investigation.

So many little items, these little facts, little seemingly unconnected facts, in fact, floating around in their separate little factual worlds, but she knew how disparate elements like these eventually coalesced into a thread. Sometimes it took something big to jar them into place, or closer into some semblance of place, but it took time. And over the years, time was something this case had in common with all the other cases related to the Aficionati. Unfortunately, none of these other cases ever led to an entirely satisfying conclusion.

Speaking of time, as she wiggled her toes in the barely plush carpet, something else was happening that made her pause: it was only a few weeks before she would celebrate her 45th birthday. Not that it would count for much in the grand scheme of things; still, to her, it was an important milestone.

She'd joined the force when she was 25 right out of the Academy, an idealistic agent dedicated to solving music-related crimes, and this summer had marked her 20th anniversary of service with the force. Ever since she'd decided she didn't want to play clarinet all her life, the International Music Police had been her goal. But it would be another twenty years till she would be 65 and retire from the IMP with the highest honors. Did she want to spend her entire life fighting crimes against classical music?

Granted, her friends working in the Pop Division were kept a lot busier and maybe had more violence to contend with, but she never once complained life in the Classical Wing was too dull. Ever since she'd been assigned to working with Inspector Bundle in Special Cases, she found life as an IMP agent fulfilling.

She had to smile, though, thinking if 45 was middle-aged, was it more like her “half-life,” however physicists used the term? Did that mean she'd make it to 90, like Tony Kunzler had managed?

Or maybe this year's birthday would be the “Golden Section” of her life – didn't Americans call their retirement the “Golden Years”? – enjoying only, what, maybe eight years of retirement if she died at 73?

When had Bundle passed his “Golden Section Year” only retiring at 65 to slip too soon behind the scrim of dementia?

She had spent most of her twenty years working with Inspector Davis Bundle who'd been a mentor and father-figure to her, probably closer to her than her real father had ever managed to be. And here Bundle retired only five years ago, mostly because of health issues after serving the IMP for forty distinguished years. Yet it wasn't long till he could no longer take care of himself, disappearing into a nursing home just outside London. “How sad is that,” she asked repeatedly, “and him, such a brilliant mind.”

She tried to visit him every week or so, schedule permitting, even if only for a few minutes to say hello and bring him the latest news or see if he had any ideas. She was careful not to say “pick your brain,” because then he'd smile and quip there wasn't much left to pick.

Sometimes, he'd be asleep when she got there so she'd sit patiently by the bed, waiting until he'd eventually wake up, then pretend she'd just arrived even though she sensed he probably knew better, and if she didn't have time to wait, as happened more often lately, she'd leave him a cheery note saying hello.

She was glad his own mentor, the even more legendary Tony Kunzler, sharp as a tack when he died at 90, hadn't lived to see how Bundle's mind had started to fade so quickly.

She always liked Det. Kunzler, the greatest legend ever to crack a case for the IMP, a master at seeing patterns who'd transferred from Scotland Yard to the IMP almost immediately after the War. Gathering up some of the finest war-time code-crackers who were excellent amateur musicians, he helped form IMP's elite Special Cases Unit.

In 1970, he took on a new recruit named Davis Bundle who eventually became a legend of his own in time. Though Kunzler retired before she joined the force, his presence was still felt.

Asked to become Bundle's partner, she was thrilled to be working with him, especially since she'd heard he requested her himself. And then how often did the two of them consult with “Old Kunzler”!

Was she on her way to “legendary-ness” like her partner and his mentor? Or just another agent forgotten after her retirement?

There was no talk of advancement when they handed her her 20-Year pin – admittedly, she'd hoped for more than a pin – just the usual laudatory remarks and generic praise (because she's “only a woman”?). Would they offer her the Directorship – which they'd offered both Bundle and Kunzler – whenever that time in her career would occur? Would she turn it down as they had, preferring to remain Chief Inspectors and actively involved working the cases as detectives? But then, both of them had become Chief Inspectors before they'd turned 45.

She wasn't sure she was up to another twenty years in the field, especially considering this was her third case alone, a year after her previous partner, Agent Tronca, decided to leave the force. She asked about somebody new, looking into whom she might consider partner material, but the Chief always avoided giving a response.

Was she losing her passion for the job as she was getting older, after Bundle retired with no new partners to challenge her, the enthusiasm that fueled her at the beginning starting to fade? But she had no one to turn to with Kunlzer dead and Bundle ending his years off in a nursing home. She never had the necessary stomach for bureaucracy and the very idea of becoming a bureaucrat admittedly made her skin crawl.

She'd finished the first cruller without noticing whether she'd enjoyed it or not.

Looking up at the ceiling like someone who might gaze heavenward to some benign deity beyond the clouds doling out advice, she wondered not for the first time this week, “What would Bundle do?” as if a voice – Bundle's voice – would actually boom forth and tell her, this stentorian baritone, kindly pointing out the obvious.

First, he'd no doubt ask her to clarify the question: “about what, exactly?”

“I mean,” she back-pedaled her thoughts, “about the case or maybe the Directorship – no, wait, just about my life in general?”

After carefully sipping the coffee which by now had turned less than lukewarm, she picked up the next cruller with care, determined this time she would do it justice and judiciously savor every bite. Unfortunately, the verdict was quick and not welcome: tasting only sugar and dough, wasn't it a metaphor for an empty life?

“So, Inspector,” she thought, putting the cruller down, “shall we begin with life? – we can always branch out from there, sir.” Not that she would often discuss issues of life or career with him, but they might be discussing details about a case when she'd become aware how he'd turned it into some subjective life-lesson. And she was never quite sure, once she'd noticed, if he was reflecting on his own life or commenting on hers. Invariably, he always managed to hit it “spot-on”, knowing exactly what troubled her.

Sarah knew little about his own life, the details he shared with anyone, but he had neither wife nor apparent partner, very little private life, presumably, outside his work and not much inside it. There had been a wife once, possibly a son who had died young, but that, people hinted, was very long ago.

At least he had his books, those obtuse, Proustian novels he was writing which always took him several years to complete. Two of the earlier ones had been published, but the sales were dismal.

After being dropped by his publisher, he wrote a book which had not one letter L in it, set at Christmas-time, which, according to Kunzler, ran on for over seven hundred “absolutely indigestible” pages.

Kunzler waited a few seconds before repeating, “No 'L' in it? At Christmas?” The device was a pun: “Noël at Christmas-time?”

If you considered “writing literary novels no one read” a hobby, she wondered, what hobbies did she have occupying her leisure, something that might fill her retirement with activities more fulfilling than watching television? When she was younger, giving up the clarinet (which she hated practicing, anyway), she had started painting, mostly watercolors and oils. Whenever she had some quiet time or was forced to take a vacation, she found she enjoyed painting, considered it relaxing. But she'd soon filled her flat with dozens of still-lifes, all very similar.

The problem was, they were all the same plates and jars and vases full of flowers with only the slightest variations, having tried landscapes and found she didn't really have the talent for them. Then she tried doing still-lifes with different objects she'd bring home from work, thinking maybe what her art lacked was relevance.

But after a while, she'd show these to friends who found bloody murder weapons and decomposing cadaver parts even less intriguing until she herself couldn't imagine ever hanging one of them over her couch. As she got older, the idea of picking up a brush again to paint what, exactly, no longer appealed to her.

If Inspector Bundle wrote these intellectually challenging novels to engage his spare time and showed symptoms of dementia soon after retirement, how could mindlessly painting the same things over and over possibly help her?

While cold coffee (“room-temperature” qualifying a hot beverage to be considered cold) was something she'd become used to over the years – and this coffee, once so promising, had ceased being coffee some time ago – Sarah considered wandering down to the hotel's “coffee shoppe” to get another cup except locating her shoes wasn't worth the effort. What passed for coffee here she called, not without grounds, “Ishiguro Coffee,” likely brewed from the “remains of the day” which, unlike the novel, had been hastily scraped off the bottom of the pot. There was something of that about the case which brought her here, too, similar ingredients concocted in a vaguely recognizable way, something it had in common with all the other cases involving the Aficionati. She wasn't sure what they were up to this time, however they're brewing it, but it sure didn't smell like coffee.

How is it possible, fifteen years later, she's still tracking down the Aficionati after she'd first started working with Inspector Bundle in a case so bold, even today it's still taught to IMP trainees, when the oboists and bassoonists at a much-hyped Mozart and Madonna cross-over concert keeled over dead during the strobe-lit Impresario Overture? It had taken them a few days before they'd unearthed the decisive clue, laying it on the doorstep of the Aficionati but even then implicating only the lowest minions, never touching the upper echelon.

It was Bundle's greatest frustration, all those years, he'd never been able to place responsibility for these crimes he'd been investigating directly in the lap of the highest named operative they'd so far uncovered even though he'd been implicated in several ever since Kunzler first positively identified him in 1952 if not earlier in 1946. As for his true identity – was he really the Top Man, “Mr Big”? – all they had managed to find was “Osiris,” yet, no matter, for these past seventy years, he remained only a name.

Kunzler had been the first to notice the connection between numerous suspects, all members of a shadowy organization called “The Aficionati” which he researched as much as one could before the advent of Google. From what he could gather, it was already old during the 15th Century when the composer Okheghem was Il Gran Maestro.

One of the last things Bundle did before he retired was to set up the appropriate channels to monitor Aficionati activity, especially in light of an increasing reliance on terroristic techniques in recent years, since what was once an underground secret organization quickly manifested itself into a covert threat to the world of classical music. Like many such organizations based on a strong adherence to beliefs and principles, ingrained by age-old traditions and long-standing educational biases, those who had once been dismissed as Philistines were being considered Philistine Extremists. Now the IMP was capable of pursuing the organization through standard surveillance procedures, monitoring the internet for chatter, gathering crucial intelligence, rather than waiting for them to do something Bundle could only respond to. With luck, this time, already in place, Sarah would be able to stop them before they pulled off another nefarious plot.

Her dream, ideally, was to succeed where both Bundle and Kunzler had failed – or, more benevolently, failed to succeed as hoped – and somehow bring down the organization's central administration and thereby neutralize its power, realizing these days, unfortunately, it wasn't like playing “Capture the Flag” where taking out the leader caused the enemy to surrender. But there would be a certain unmistakable pleasure, not only in identifying “Osiris” but also removing him from power, destroying him, even if it would only delay the inevitable until his successor proved worse.

Over the years, Bundle had managed to discover, after long hours analyzing endless data his men from the unit had recovered, how the Aficionati's arcanely secret structure managed to protect the organization's individual identities, something Kunzler had theorized about since the mid-'60s but could prove nothing more convincingly than whatever physicists could about Black Holes. It worked well when communicating upward or downward on the structure, Kunzler hypothesized, like plucking a strand of a spider's web, but working laterally from one's minions to another's was the implacability of bureaucracy.

And while she's known one of the Aficionati's mid-level agents who'd been tagged and released like an elephant in the wild had arrived in Philadelphia yesterday, it seemed another unexpected arrival has joined her. Sarah herself had arrived hot on the trail of Agent Lóviator's tracking device, but what were the implications of Moritásgeroth's appearance?

Lóviator – or Perdita Vremsky, artists' representative, as she was known in real life – placed somewhere in the midst of this web, at least as far as the men from UNIT could figure it out, and while they'd managed to ascertain her immediate supervisor was somebody named Dagon, anyone beyond that was, so far, merely conjecture. While her recent request to locate a composer named Thomas Purdue had jangled quite a few strands across the Aficionati's web, the number of layers in this web between her and Osiris remained undetermined.

Generating considerable curiosity was the connection between this old farmhouse and the house next door owned by this same Thomas Purdue, not to mention the apparent involvement of this particular Purdue in two murders. To her mind, this was a bit like the Chicken and the Egg balancing carefully on the edge of a Coincidence.

And now she's been informed this afternoon, another Aficionati agent, though his identity is shrouded in anonymity, will arrive in Philadelphia by private jet, to be met there by Lóviator and her minion, Falx. Will they too head into greater downtown Marple and settle into this farmhouse? What could all this Aficionati activity possibly mean?

And whatever Thomas Purdue's role in any of this may be, she realized, there's another wrinkle in the time-line to consider: what the hell is the Aficionati's purpose in killing someone like Belle DiVedremo?

But the bigger question, she knew, was Osiris, or at least concerned Osiris: the indications weren't clear but something was happening. Chatter was only “chatter” and though UNIT couldn't say exactly, something was afoot. The problem was, since Lóviator had started to move almost immediately, did that mean Osiris was directly involved in her operation? Was Lóviator – and now this agent named Moritásgeroth – moving into place in this Philadelphia suburb directly upon something initiated by Osiris? Is Thomas Purdue, an otherwise unremarkable, once-promising academic, involved as another Aficionati agent?

The fact the day had escalated just as she positioned herself for observation with two unexplained murders, Purdue suspected in both, meant this was no mere coincidental convergence of Aficionati operatives, whatever the implications. It appeared to be a typical bureaucratic implementation, originating near the very top, which might lead them directly back to Osiris.

There was already an immense file the IMP had been accumulating on him even years before she had joined the force; even, as it turned out, years before her mentor had joined the force. And it led to the longest-running operation in the existence of the IMP, the one that became known as “Operation Makropoulos.”

Bundle had chuckled at the significance when he initiated Sarah into its complexities, but it was not a matter for levity. Here was something she felt disinclined to ponder: was Osiris, in fact, immortal?

Taking its name from Janáček's The Makropoulos Case, an opera premiered in 1924 – the main character was a soprano famous in the 1920s who was the daughter of a 16th Century Holy Roman Emperor – the operation was originally Kunzler's attempt to track down the identity of Osiris and implicate him directly in the Aficionati's crimes.

Given their inability to pin anything on him much less expose his identity, the operation's name had become a self-fulfilling prophecy as if “Osiris,” the constantly self-resurrecting Egyptian deity, wasn't enough of a clue.

Naturally, many of the composers he and his organization aimed to protect were “immortal” in a different sense of the word, but was “Osiris” an honorific title or a single individual surviving for generations?

Yet, like many religions, no matter how ancient, wasn't the succession of leadership based on precepts of immediate and constant rejuvenation?

Like several terrorist organizations active in today's world, no matter their locations or whatever slogans they shouted before committing their crimes, the Aficionati was motivated – “were motivated,” she wondered? – by their deeply held beliefs even if, like the organization itself, this system of laws they lived by was a secret revealed only to the initiated. How did one attract converts to a cause if these beliefs were secret? “Except it wasn't a matter of either, really,” as Sarah realized shortly after Bundle had retired. “Wasn't it one of interpretation?”

It was the typical Western delusion, wasn't it, where everything we fight is the mirror image of everything we hold dear, so by merely re-aligning evil to our perceptions, everything will become right again. Unfortunately instead, from the other side's view, we're the ones losing our way, the ones who, being wrong, have become evil.

To the Aficionati, Art with its “Upper-Case A” was supposed to be edifying, moreso than anything meant merely to entertain us, since “complex Art was good for the brain” and a mark of education, though Sarah, considering Bundle's novels, found their level of complexity often headache-inducing, much like most of the music he listened to.

Should the greatest Art affect only the brain and Entertainment only the heart? Shouldn't Art at its best appeal to both? Why had whichever side Art sustained became such a polarizing matter of “either/or”?

Paging through years of reports in “Operation Makropoulos,” she saw the Aficionati supported – indeed, enforced – the dominant 20th Century serial intellectual, writing in a style so arcane it could only appeal to other serialists, and especially the “total serialists” turning every aspect of music – its dynamics, its rhythms, even its registers – into preconceived mathematical patterns.

“But here,” she noticed, “they'd gone from attacking 'old-fashioned romanticists' like Samuel Barber to those 'new-fangled' tonal Minimalists, the latest 'avant-garde.' The stylistic pendulum of music history now swung back to the other side.”

To a point, Sarah couldn't disagree the Aficionati were right to oppose the evaluation of Art based entirely on popularity ratings, how so much of the Art we were exposed to had been determined. Like every belief-system, however, there were always those choosing to interpret the subjective who turned an objective viewpoint into an extreme.

Everyone admitted the Aficionati's goal was to protect classical music for the Select Few, their anointed members, by any means possible from being tarnished by those calling Mozart the “Lady Gaga of his day” (considering audiences today thought once-popular performers like Lady Gaga were “so last year”); but what did “by any means possible” mean?

To what extremes would classical music extremists go to counteract young people's need to drink beer and dance in the aisles? Is that what made the music and the experiencing of that music relevant?

It was easy, as Inspector Bundle constantly pointed out, for anyone concerned about “preserving classical music” to be considered a Philistine but as usual with such stereotypes, it was usually a question of degree.

“Don't forget, it's only a few short, often dangerous steps,” he would say, “from 'defending the faith' to 'becoming a radical'.”

“And then there's SHMRG,” she sighed, thinking back to her earlier meeting with the IMP agent who'd infiltrated the backstage crew for SHMRG's cross-over extravaganza at the Kimmel Center, populism at its most blatant. The music lover was once again caught between one extreme and the other; except wasn't it always the same old story?

Her thoughts started drifting off to the political rivalry between Mozart and Salieri when her phone intruded with more current news.

“Damn...” She wearily put her shoes back on, leaving the last cruller unfinished.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, October 8th]

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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