(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.
On the whole, looking back, he'd always hated whenever Steele called an early-morning meeting he had to attend in this room. “I don't know,” Lucifer Darke thought, “it just looked too fancy for me. More like something that said 'I'm richer than you are,' not just 'I'm more powerful than you' – I've always hated that.” But until Darke's fully consolidated his power, he can't expend the necessary money to redecorate the office to his own specifications. Meanwhile, he has to put up with the portraits of Steele's dead relatives.
“What I need to have looking down on the minions working for me – especially the Board who must reenforce my plans – are portraits of all those politicians we own through our increasing lobbying efforts. That will reinforce how powerful we are – I am – when they see me shaking hands with senators, presidents, and prime ministers.”
It was easier, Darke had discovered, to be occupying the penthouse suite that was once N. Ron Steele's overlooking Central Park, especially since Steele's wife died some years ago, leaving the space otherwise unoccupied. It was unlikely whatever “hidey-hole” Steele found himself in nowadays was any grander; more likely, not much bigger than the bathroom.
“And yet Steele managed to dominate his company from some off-shore, undisclosed location, wherever in the world he'd run to ground. He was like a crazed drug-lord running his cartel from inside a prison.”
Darke poured himself another drink – while others needed coffee, Lucifer Darke, sleeping in rather than working much before noon, preferred scotch – and debated opening the drapes to reveal a view he found altogether useless. “What is the point of a view, looking upon the world you see, if you don't have complete control of it?”
Steele, given his disgrace and current status as international fugitive from the law, was a man with quite limited real authority. “Wherever he is, what view could offer him suitable compensation for his loss?”
The latest report coming in from Uriah Lockstep, SHMRG's current Chief Security Officer, was no more informative than all the rest. “How could someone fall so far off the grid like that,” he wondered.
And apparently the IMP were no closer to finding Steele than they were. “But one of these days, he'll slip up.”
It must be a horrible existence, Darke considered as he stared into his glass of scotch, its golden colors swirling about, to fall from such a high position after years of so much power. Unfortunately, the problem was he still clung to a fraction of that power, hanging on to the merest vestiges of control. How long could Steele maintain this ridiculous charade he was still in charge, that loyal board members would continue to believe? But as long as they did, Darke knew his power would be incomplete.
Did Steele sit there, hiding, his back to the wall, waiting, wondering, fearing the world would soon catch up to him? Was he afraid to show his face, lying in darkness nursing his wounds? Did every little sound he'd hear frighten him, realizing they were getting closer, knowing he would be hunted down and killed?
“No,” Darke thought, as he slammed the empty glass down on the desk that to some minds still belonged to Steele, “it is imperative we find him, his location, first before the IMP does!” That was his plan, as far as he could hope, given their technology, not to mention the importance of the goal.
“It must be SHMRG who hands him over to the IMP,” Darke insisted, “SHMRG who leads them directly to his hide-out. SHMRG must be seen taking responsibility for Steele – then he's the IMP's responsibility.”
Everyone in SHMRG's security division knew The Plan as they searched through the Internet to find any trace of Steele's existence, some blip on the grid that would show them some minor, inadvertent screw-up. From there, the discovery went to the Director who'd tell Lucifer Darke himself, then Darke would contact the IMP task force. That was certainly the official plan as Darke had officially explained it, a directive distributed to all members of the Board. Not that he was so naïve to think that's what everyone believed.
Surely, they would all be aware of the first law of corporate America? “It's not called the 'Shark Tank' for nothing! 'Eat or be eaten,'” though Darke was reluctant to go quite that far. Once he's found, even if he's already been caught, Steele must be eliminated. “Even if he's already 'safely' in IMP custody.”
It was not just the argument Steele had committed a little embezzlement and may be implicated in a murder or two, things which, according to the modern world of corporate politics, were fairly mundane. There was the even older law of survival dating from man's earliest competitiveness, meaning Steele must not be allowed to testify.
The main problem was, considering what Steele knew and everything that had happened, relevant or not, a trial could be dangerous. If he revealed too much, he'd destroy SHMRG. Or worse, take down Darke.
It was an uncomfortable coincidence Steele's testimony might bring to the IMP's mind a recent death officially dismissed as a suicide. A middle-manager at SHMRG, Stuart Pidgeon, discovered someone selling software to the Russians. But Darke had him fired with sufficient innuendo so others would assume Pidgeon, “not a team player,” was the actual culprit.
But if Pidgeon – “poor Stu...” – went to the IMP anyway with his evidence, Darke realized he would be in serious trouble. So he had his men go after him, convincing everyone it was suicide.
When Steele would start getting into details about the death of Pansy Grunwald, there would be way too many uncomfortable similarities. It was all because of that “Daisy Episode” in Sullivan's opera, Faustus, Inc.
Darke knew bringing that up – Steele's reason behind eliminating Robertson Sullivan's opera – might make them re-examine the death of Stu Pidgeon.
To take his mind off Steele and that unfortunate association between Pansy Grunwald's “alleged” murder and the plot of Sullivan's opera, which Steele took as a subtly veiled reference to an otherwise insignificant crime – Darke hoped he would never get as paranoid as Steele had become then – there were other crises that needed his attention. Foremost was Wolfe's report about the conference in Philadelphia with tonight's concert at the Kimmel Center, jokingly called “Scricci's Last Stand.” So far everything was going well and the house was nearly sold out. It had been a stroke of genius to suggest this venue for the concert, he admitted, patting himself on the back, knowing it would draw more people to the location and sell more tickets since, like most people on the street, he assumed the place was named for a famous late-night TV talk show host.
There had been a last-minute surge of intense promotion waged through social media – anybody who was anybody had to be there – resulting in a groundswell of ticket sales mostly on-line through SHMRG's app, TixBuzz, for this event showcasing several leading acts in the world of pop music with “the World's Greatest Orchestra,” the Philadelphia Philharmonic (when the Philadelphia Orchestra's management declined the contract he'd offered, Scricci managed to scrape together a pick-up ensemble of hungry free-lancers which, to anyone mostly unfamiliar with classical music, wouldn't make any noticeable difference).
The SHMRG-sponsored convention would kick off with a celebratory dinner before the concert and then the next day get down to business with meetings and seminars about marketing classical music in a pop world. So far, Wolfe reported, no stars had canceled but the concert was still several hours away and, granted, “anything could happen.” The tech run-through last night, once all the equipment had arrived, went smoothly, nobody created a fuss over the dressing rooms, and there were no fights backstage as they had timed rivals' schedules accordingly.
Business had precluded Darke from being able to attend the dinner in person so instead he'd address the group via SKYPE, introducing the keynote speaker, Christopher Babbilla, the board chairman of the European branch. He didn't want to intrude on the concert which was Skripasha Scricci's baby, a wise idea given Scricci's past track record.
And it was that very track record which made Darke pause, even momentarily, thinking perhaps maybe things were going too smoothly. “After all,” he pondered, looking out toward Central Park, “the day is young.” But that was why he had appointed Peter Andrew Wolfe, a loyal addition to the board, as the project's chief administrator. Other than hosting the show, for those who might still remember him, Scricci was to have as little contact with the artists and, for that matter, staff or crew as humanly possible.
After the debacle at that British “Pimp My Prodigy” Pageant which aired live, Wolfe promised the security would be extra tight, even if only half as tight as the artists were likely to be. But this time the live broadcast had a thirty-four second delay – “Good, good” – in case they'd need to shut down quickly.
The whole purpose was to engage people unfamiliar with classical music, attracting them by some big names in the music business who'd play arrangements of “classical hits” with the orchestra between their own numbers – Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik with this metal band and some hot young pianist, or that R&B legend playing Schubert's “Ave Maria.”
Darke read through the list of performers but they meant nothing to him, since he never bothered to learn artists' names. By the time he'd figure them out, they'd already disappeared off the charts.
His eyes glazed over as he scanned through the report's next several pages except for a quick check of the expenses buried near the end mentioning how much the project is already over budget, despite having forced the musicians (especially the orchestra) to accept less than their usual rates “for the good of the cause.” But Wolfe pointed out ticket sales and advances on the various media platforms indicated the deficit may be half that amount, making expenditures like “artists' fees” quite the bargain even at a realistic price.
“If properly marketed and assuming they could keep some of these legendary rock stars current enough in the pantheon of pop, it's quite possible future residuals from this concert,” according to Wolfe's detailed calculations, “after cornering the 'nostalgia market' in five years, could mean considerable long-range profits given the low royalty fees in their contracts.”
That's what Darke needed without a doubt, something that would increase the money coming in to match the “prestige going out.” After all, he knew, what's the point of even being in the business? That was the problem with Art which on its own was never profitable – “and where's the realistic business plan in that?”
Whether or not this concert could ever possibly generate that kind of income, he needed some kind of project that would. That was the big challenge, the elusive answer, and he needed it soon.
If you're going to make money, he knew he couldn't just keep adding new fees and routinely jack up the prices because the audience was already in a state of near-rebellion as it was. Or tighten the regulations and reduce what little pittance the artists' already received considering how much they're complaining about their “royalties.” The very idea of paying these peasants something called “royalties” cracked him up, and he often joked about calling them “peasantries.” It was all part of his feudal view of the modern music industry.
Wasn't that all part of the joy of being this gigantic corporate monopoly – or eventually becoming a complete and total monopoly? Was there any really serious competition left to squash the life out of? If his artists mutinied and jumped ship, what frying pan would take them? Except for Steele and his renegades, always plotting...
It was not that he had managed – not yet, anyway – the highest power just by having taken over SHMRG as is, but who knew it would be such hard work to maintain his control? He hadn't reckoned with the idea of needing to be both a general and a politician often at the same time. What if the Democrats won control of the Congress in the next election, all that money spent on lobbying, now wasted? He had to maintain his share of the best Congress money could buy.
And he knew that glory didn't come to one who merely waited on the sidelines for things to go his way. He remembered Steele's dream of being the first corporation to run for President. Thanks to “Citizens United,” it could happen, but not now, with Steele's disgrace. What if Lucifer Darke could revive that dream?
He began pacing the room, his back to the window and its view, thinking if he could only produce some bit of musical demagoguery that would manage to grab the attention of the masses. With SHMRG in charge of the nation's musical entertainment, the company was poised to take over TV and film distribution on-line.
But that was a gigantic next step and he knew he couldn't do it with Steele nipping away at his heels. There must be something else, some way he could eliminate this constant nuisance.
The door burst open with such force and without knock or warning, Darke made an involuntary move toward his safe room – alas, on the other side of the office, too far to reach safely, instinctively reaching for the gun he usually kept in a pocket holster but which he remembered leaving in a desk drawer.
“So, this is how it all ends,” Darke had time enough to think, “gunned down by one of Steele's loyal minions,” when he realized the young man was alone and wasn't holding a gun.
“Oh, I'm sorry, sir, maybe I should've knocked,” the young man told him, “but I've got news you'll want to hear,” introducing himself as Kenneth Hackett from IT who's been leading the Amfortas Project. This was the special technology division's operation trying to track down Steele's whereabouts, uncover where he's hiding, what he's up to.
Without apologizing or explaining his otherwise rude behavior, Hackett told Darke the news: Steele's agent got in contact with Basil Carsonoma, the one they had long suspected was Steele's main man on the board. There was some technical failure Darke couldn't understand but the important bit was, they now have access to the encryption codes.
“Steele's agent 'CableGuyLGS' has been connecting with 'Kark!nos69' for almost a year, now, but now we can prove Carsonoma is Karkinos.” The only problem was CableGuy routes his signal through five continents including Antarctica.
“So, technically, no, we don't yet know exactly where Steele is hiding – sir,” Hackett added when he noticed Darke's increasing frustration, “but it does mean we can now read their correspondence – most of it.” The code wasn't difficult to crack but Hackett assumed, after starting his explanation, Darke was only interested in the end result.
The information should have come up from this fellow to his supervisor, then through his boss, Lockstep, before reaching his desk. Darke was not inclined to overlook the transgressions of underlings who ignored protocol.
Handing Darke a print-out of his translation, he said Steele is trying to locate a composer in Philadelphia named Thomas Purdue. “It seems he's developed some artificial creativity program,” Hackett pointed out, “called CLARA.”
“And what exactly is it this program does?” Darke was becoming less frustrated.
“It composes music according to your personal specifications.”
It was like an answer to prayer, despite his not believing in prayer, Darke listening carefully to this young man whom he'd not met before (or didn't remember meeting, anyway) while he explained it. Before Hackett could get through an even more elementary level trying to make sense of it, Darke was on the phone. Fortunately, Toccata was in his office, just back from a meeting before lunch, and now was on his way, arriving momentarily. Without bothering to ask him, Darke pointed young Hackett into a chair.
As for Hackett, he looked pleased with himself – that much, Darke could understand – realizing his discovery had generated so much interest, though the news of this CLARA software seemed more interesting than Steele's whereabouts. This could be the big break any young IT geek could hope for, impressing the boss, showing him what he's worth.
A knock was followed by the obsequious figure of a tall, rotund man, a fringe of gray around his balding head, making a slight bow from the doorway as if begging permission to enter. Horace Toccata was a board vice-president and the head of his own subsidiary yet he had been imperiously summoned to appear.
Impeccably dressed, Toccata may be more sartorially conscious, but no one would ever mistake which man here possessed the greater authority. Toccata's face may indicate wisdom but wisdom knew how to act before power.
In a few terse sentences, Darke brought Toccata up to speed without mentioning Steele or the circumstances of their on-going search. “Perhaps,” Hackett made note, “there is some question as to Toccata's true loyalty?” Fascinated by the interplay between lord and subject, Hackett hadn't overlooked how, without having being introduced, he had been completely ignored.
Everything was about this software program they've discovered, speaking as if it were found in some remote corner of the Amazon. You couldn't help think, from listening to him, Darke had discovered it himself.
There was no mention of Hackett or how he found out about it, no mention of the man who'd created it. It was like something wild, “ready to be tamed, picked like a fruit.”
And now, Darke said, it was something Toccata Industries would market by Christmas.
“Fascinating,” Hackett noted, “this is how it's done.”
“Christmas, sir?” These were the first words Toccata spoke since Darke began explaining what exactly this new project of his entailed. “Yet that's only two months away,” Toccata said, trying not to sound pessimistic.
The prototype should be ready to demonstrate on December 1st and be ready to ship by the 15th. “Two months, exactly.”
Hackett saw the anxiety churning across Toccata's face: how would he explain that left really five weeks to develop the prototype? How would he convince Darke any decision to delay must be his own?
“This is a top priority for SHMRG and Toccata Industries should market it,” Darke forgetting Toccata's company specialized in touch-screen technology. “With any delay, a competitor already after the product will devour our profits.”
“It will be a challenge, sir,” Toccata admitted, wincing at Darke's inflection on the word 'devour,' “but yes, it could work.”
“To quote your countryman, Horace,” Darke smiled, “'there is no can, only do.'”
It didn't matter Yoda was not even half-Japanese, unlike Toccata who knew there was no wisdom in pointing out such mistakes. The spirit of Toccata's mother would writhe in anguish to hear her son say, “and wise he was beyond his years.”
“Then,” Darke said, turning to Hackett whose name he clearly didn't know, “this young man will get you the program – tomorrow?”
“Uhm...” Hackett now began to squirm in his chair, thinking of Yoda. “Sure!”
All Darke knew was what Hackett had told him from CableGuy's apprehended e-mail, finding out that Steele planned to develop CLARA, so all he had to do was market the program before Steele did. How difficult could it be, he reasoned, to take some lines of code and then add or adjust a few more? You make a prototype which demonstrates the program's potential – promises and hot air – which whets the appetite of the intended audience. Suddenly, everybody thinks they'll turn into get-rich-quick song-writers and everybody will want one.
Put it out before Christmas and within days it's on everyone's “must-have list,” the latest technological gadget as stocking-stuffer, the “toy-of-the-century.” It's the perfect gift for music-lovers who now can create their own songs. Doesn't matter if they're any worse than the ones being written by humans. The important thing is, these songs are yours!
What were the two major things going through the average Joe's mind when he hears some song for the first time? “I wish I could do that” or “I can do better than that.” This way, with SHMRG's new creative software, they would not only be able to do that, it might just be better.
There's no guarantee you would produce a hit and make millions but, like winning the lottery, “ya gotta buy a ticket!” And to a CEO, that means one thing – “ka-ching! Money in the bank!”
Toccata was to have his best engineers ready to work on this tomorrow and if any were music lovers, even better. Whatever else they might be working on, this was now their top priority. “As soon as...” – here, Darke turned to Hackett – “you've gotten the program code, you pass it directly to Toccata's development department.”
Toccata, wiping his brow, heaved himself up from his chair with great effort, shaking hands and hurtling quickly toward the door. Darke assumed he's eager to get to work; Hackett could sense his fear.
What could possibly go wrong, right? Would it catch fire, accidentally kill people? And even so, accidents happen; what's the point? There were always some bugs to work out. Nothing a patch couldn't fix!
“I'll get the marketing guys to come up with a plan,” Darke said. “Meanwhile, you'd better locate and secure this software.”
The kid hurried out and shut the door, leaving a fading trail of “thank you”s and “yes, sir”s in his wake, and still Darke couldn't remember the guy's name or who his boss was. He looked like all the other geeks working in IT, dressed in black turtleneck and jeans with trendy glasses, otherwise indistinguishable. Yet he'd cracked the encryption code to uncover the identity of Steele's chief undercover agent on the board – no surprise there – though who knew how many others still around might be just as loyal.
More importantly, Darke realized, he had discovered the existence of what might well become just the ticket he was hoping for. Would this software program be the magic bullet that could bring down Steele? He jotted down a reminder to give the kid a reasonable bonus but first he had to find out his name.
Wait – what if he were one of Steele's loyalists and this was some ruse to bring his plotting into the open? What if the kid went back to his computer, sending Steele a confirmation? He jotted down another reminder to have Lockstep beef up Security monitoring all the geeks' computers rather than targeting one individual.
But what if he's not some double agent, only a hard-working loyal cog? Darke knew this only reinforced his natural-born pessimism. It wouldn't take that much to stand in the way of his unhappiness.
With no time to dwell on this now, Darke decided he must prepare a memo for Legal to copyright the program. For this, he didn't need to know the name of the software, either. As far as Legal was concerned it was referred to as “The Product.” They inserted the exact product name only once.
Speaking of names, he'd need one for the program's virtual assistant since “Clara” could be traced back to this Purdue fellow. Maybe call it “Otto”? No, something trendy – a woman's voice would be sexier.
There had to be some fine print buried deep in the license, something nobody would find since nobody reads licenses anyway, flatly stating anything created by this software was automatically the property of SHMRG.
“Yes – 'any work not published by a SHMRG agency and became a hit could result in millions of dollars in fines'!”
He was full of such ideas when he heard a strange whistle coming from his computer, then someone calling his name.
“Mr Darke... uhm, Mr Darke, are you there?” The voice sounded innocent, familiar.
Darke cautiously returned to his desk and peered cautiously around at the monitor. It could be a trap – perhaps a hacker?
“It's Kenny Hackett from IT – I just met with you about Steele's e-mail? And that music-composing software he's trying to find?”
There indeed was the kid, like he was peering down a toilet bowl.
Darke, still silent, watched carefully as his screen split into two separate windows. The smaller of the two was Hackett now furiously typing various rapid-fire commands while following the progress developing across his monitor. The other was an image of Hackett's monitor itself, full of pulsing dots – a world map criss-crossed by flashing yellow lines.
The kid continued to talk techno-gibberish as he typed, explaining to Darke how something he'd just discovered in the encryption meant he could trace everything back from Carsonoma's office to find the e-mail's point-of-origin. Darke watched his screen as if watching someone play a computer game you didn't understand but were supposed to find fascinating.
“Aaaaand... Ping-o,” Hackett said, looking up with a broad grin, “there it is. That red dot... is Steele's formerly undisclosed location.”
Everything about Darke's smug satisfaction told Hackett, “and that is how it's done.”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, Oct. 12th]
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.