Friday, October 12, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 11 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Lucifer Darke, the interim CEO impatient to consolidate his power at SHMRG and eliminate N. Ron Steele who's a fugitive from justice being hunted by the IMP, receives two pieces of good news from one of his I.T. Geeks, Kenny Hackett. First of all, it seems they've found a weakness in an encrypted e-mail to a member of the Board (and a known Steele loyalist) that will soon be able to track down Steele's whereabouts. Secondly, it seems there's chatter about an Artificial Intelligence program someone named Thomas Purdue has written which will compose music to your own specifications. Eager to find a way to boost their bottom line, Darke tells Horace Toccata, once Hackett obtains this software, to have it ready to market in time for Christmas. And then Hackett succeeds in locating Steele's hiding place.

(If you're just tuning in, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

With this installment, we reach the
mid-point of the novel! (In fact, the middle word of the novel is 'mid-point'...)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *


Again, Cameron shook his head trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness and maybe knock his brain back into focus after whatever that was he'd just seen there, afraid to jostle his flashlight once he saw two faint beams ahead of him and the barely visible figures of Martin and Dorothy not far away. Whatever had just happened here – and he wasn't sure he could describe it – at least he was back where they'd started: regardless of explanations, wherever it took him, it couldn't have taken that long. A quick look around to get his bearings, as unfamiliar as they were – and definitely he was back in a tunnel – didn't answer the question where he'd just been or how he'd gotten there. He couldn't have gone far since the backyard he'd been observing was only a few feet above where he stood now.

How do you walk through a previously unnoticed doorway and into a tunnel, then end up in some parallel universe somewhere which takes you back maybe only a few dozen years into the past? Is that what happened to Kerr, vanishing into another layer of the past after stepping through what must be a portal? But if that's what happened, why didn't it happen to Dorothy and Martin – unless they've only returned seconds before he did? Perhaps they're trying to sort this out, too, equally unnerved by their experience?

“Doesn't look like your flashlight's going to hold out much longer, young man. Who knows how old these batteries might be.” Martin impatiently flicked his light back toward Cameron as if urging him on. There was enough of a glow to see rough dirt walls, evenly spaced wooden posts and heavy beams across the ceiling.

“If being in the dark bothers you, Cameron, you'd better catch up with us,” Dorothy continued, sounding more conciliatory than impatient. “I doubt these bulbs are likely to go out at the same time.”

“We have no idea where these tunnels go – I'm assuming it connects to the neighbor's house which is not very far.” Martin flashed his beam ahead of them where it shortly dissolved into blackness.

Dorothy asked if there was anything beyond the property of the old farmhouse.

“I don't know,” Cameron answered, “it's a cul-de-sac.”

If they'd had any similarly unnerving occurrence, chances are they would not sound quite so matter-of-fact, talking to him like this. He plodded forward, his legs moving again, no longer rooted to the spot. He sensed a certain curiosity in their voices about what they might find but nothing to question something they'd just experienced. There was no bravado as they might try to brush off the incomprehensible nor any sign of fear at the inexplicable. As he approached them, he decided to match them as matter-of-factly as possible.

“I was just wondering what this place is. Terry never indicated Tom had told him about a tunnel under his house.” Cameron wasn't sure that's something you'd tell everybody – “and hey, check this out!” If Dr Purdue thought he was being targeted, instead of having been kidnapped maybe he had used the tunnel to escape?

It's unlikely he didn't know it was there, keeping it fairly well hidden – the table's placement, the rug on the wall – because if he really wanted to hide it, he'd've put bookshelves across it. He must have wanted to have access to it when he needed it, but would the table keep anyone from entering?

“It has to be old because who'd build a tunnel nowadays,” Martin said, “yet it all seems very well cared for.” The walls, though not smooth, were still firm; the floor, packed down solid.

Now Cameron was wondering if Terry hadn't gotten caught up in whoever's still using the tunnel – the ones who'd kidnapped Purdue?

“Wait, Dorothy, what's that, at your feet – footprints? And more than just ours.”

As they shined their flashlights back and forth, the dirt was too well packed down to see all the tracks clearly.

But different types and sizes of shoes were heading in both directions, perhaps a whole group of people coming and going. Martin noticed a wheel-print – “a single wheel like a wheelbarrow?” – down the center.

Dorothy doubted these went back to the days they were constructing the tunnel, left undisturbed all these years in the darkness. Martin confessed being a musicologist, not an archeologist, made his own theorizing “pointless.”

“Perhaps they were a long-lost tribe of Mole People – or maybe alien smugglers?” The others frowned at Cameron's attempt at humor.

“Of course,” Martin resumed, slipping on that straight-forward, professorly persona which Terry fell into often enough whenever he argued a point, “there has to be a logical solution for Dr Kerr's so-called 'disappearance,' correct?”

But Cameron knew from past experience, academic minds aside, “logical solution” and “Dr Kerr” rarely ever belonged in the same sentence.

“Hopefully, we won't have to worry about running into a herd of bats.”

“Ugh! Martin, really,” Dorothy muttered, “I hate bats...”

Somehow, Cameron was concerned bats might well be the least of their worries.

It was clear – as much as writing in a thin layer of dust could be “clear” – newer footprints obliterated older ones but there was still no way of knowing which direction Terry set out. His would've been the freshest prints but Cameron couldn't recall what shoes he'd been wearing to tell if these were his. Not knowing where the tunnel would lead, which direction would he have chosen? The shorter distance to the farmhouse seemed logical. But the other direction might lead to a specific destination somewhere in town.

It didn't take long until they reached what appeared to be a wall, no dead end but making a sharp left. Leaning against it were piles of cardboard cartons and – imagine that – a wheelbarrow. On their right, Cameron noticed layers of large stones like a foundation wall. “If there's a door, it must be here.”

Dorothy pointed out that Terry didn't have a flashlight with him, did he?, not unless he'd found one in the basement. If he didn't have any source of light, how would he have managed? And if he had found this bank of stones embedded in this wall, could he have realized it was a door?

Martin suggested, if he had, would he have been stupid enough to try and open it, entering a presumably empty house, not knowing what, if anything, he'd find inside – “perhaps facing Tom Purdue's kidnappers?”

Cameron wondered, if they were so concerned about disturbing an otherwise empty house, why everyone was whispering, practically walking on tip-toe? If they were trying to find Terry, shouldn't they be calling his name? But for some reason they all understood there was danger in being discovered, even without having asked “by whom?”... or what?

“The tunnel doesn't end here,” Martin said, flicking his flashlight into the turn where it was soon lost in the void, “so should we turn around, see if maybe Terry'd gone the other way?” There was always the possibility we'll run into him as he returns, if the tunnel was longer in the opposite direction.

“I'm wondering,” Dorothy said as they passed that intersection which took them back into Purdue's basement just as they'd left it, “does the other half of the tunnel go someplace in town, some safe-point?”

“Other half?” Was it like listening to a piece of music, Cameron thought, and wondering how much longer till it's over, or going on vacation and periodically asking your parents, “are we there yet?” Was this tunnel like two paths, one shorter and the other one longer, or one long path originating beyond the farmhouse?

But how would we know when we've gotten to the middle to say, “this is the mid-point,” you know, right here? How do we know when we've reached the last chance to turn back?

Martin coughed but Dorothy at least humored him by saying if we've come this far, we might as well keep going: “after all, having invested this much time and effort, why give up now?”

“Things like 'middles' are merely arbitrary constructs in time or distance,” Martin argued, “not things you can quantifiably sense in passing.”

Given the age of the farmhouse, probably dating back before the Civil War, and Purdue's place being older than it looks judging from the old-fashioned stonework in the basement walls, despite the sliding door, Dorothy assumed the row of houses along the lane were probably not connected to the tunnel, being of “more recent vintage.”

“How old is Purdue's house anyway, any idea? It's hardly a replica of the farmhouse: more likely built several decades ago.”

Given what Kerr talked about, Cameron didn't really know or hadn't paid attention.

“All I know is Dr Purdue's Aunt Jane lived here a long time before she died maybe ten years ago and... well, I know he used to visit her when he was a child.”

“So that was probably in the '50s, early-'60s?” Dorothy swept her flashlight around. “This tunnel must have been built before 1900.”

It reminded Martin of photographs from old coal mines he'd seen years ago, the way the wooden supports were set in but here it's just dirt, mostly clay, and rocks holding up the walls. “It's amazing the thing's never collapsed after all these years, given this dirt, especially after a lot of heavy, soaking rains.”

“Well, there's a comforting thought, Martin, getting caught in a cave-in or something – as if running into bats wasn't bad enough...”

“Bats would be a good sign, Dorothy: that'd mean there's a way out.”

Discussions about the initial intent of the tunnel, since mining coal was unlikely, suggested it was part of the Underground Railroad or an emergency escape in case of fire or some kind of attack, though what might have done the attacking back then they weren't quite sure; perhaps it was protection from a Confederate invasion. If the farmhouse was mid-19th Century, then Purdue's house could have been built for Haine's newlywed daughter as a wedding present. Besides, why wouldn't Confederate troops try for Philadelphia, having been headed to Harrisburg?

It was the kind of talk people would make while taking a walk where there was little else to engage them beyond the mutual enjoyment of their immediate surroundings and considered preferable to silence. Cameron for the most part didn't pay attention to them, occasionally looking behind him to see if they were being followed.

They hadn't found any more “intersections” to join the tunnel to other houses, so perhaps Dorothy was right in her assessment and from here it was a fairly straight shot to wherever it ended. But was it wise to talk at all, if anyone could hear them, remembering Terry's talk about “rats in the walls”? When it seemed they could go no further, he noticed a slight line of brightness cutting down through the dark wall.

“Shh,” he called to them, “looks like another door – and not shut tight.”

Wherever this opened and whatever they might walk out into, they needed to be careful, drug smugglers or Mole People aside, the narrow slit of light bright only in comparison to their own darkness. Unlike the door from Purdue's basement which slid open, this one pulled back and, yes, it had been left slightly ajar. Pulling it back just enough to peek through the opening, he saw a small, rectangular room, unlit but not completely dark. In the center was a raised rectangular box on a platform – a coffin!

He pulled the door open further until all three of them could peer through the doorway, feeling a damp, cool breeze.

“We seem to have surfaced inside the cemetery.”

“Inside a crypt, I'm guessing...”

Martin pointed out the yellow police tape across the top of the entrance. Dorothy imagined that dark irregular stain was blood.

“This doesn't look good,” Martin mumbled, “not just a crypt but one that, apparently rather recently, has become a crime scene,” noting how light came in through the entryway and two window-like apertures overhead. Yet he held the door open slightly so Cameron, the youngest and slightest of the three, could crawl through to investigate.

“If Terry did come this way, where would he have gotten to already? Had he left the crypt or did he...?”

Cameron finished Dorothy's unspoken thought: “did he become part of the crime scene?”

He climbed through the doorway, a tight squeeze, carefully skirting the stain which didn't strike him as being all that fresh, and trying to avoid the number of yellow police evidence-markers littering the floor. Whether there would be policemen outside the crypt, standing guard, was one thing: his major concern was what happened to Terry.

The crypt, whoever it belonged to – probably the Haine Family – was fairly cramped, several plaques on the walls with various inscriptions. Looking through the partly open door he realized they're near the cemetery entrance. He could see the gate, which hung open, and the lot across the street where Dorothy and Martin parked their cars. But to the right were two police cars parked nearby on the grass and beyond that, a barely visible white van. If Terry had been kidnapped by anyone, it was most likely the police.

Two voices – about “cold coffee and stale donuts” – were headed toward the crypt and Cameron decided not to wait for them, whether he recognized either of them or not from his encounter at Purdue's. Regardless, it would be difficult enough to explain to anyone what exactly he was doing inside an otherwise sealed crime scene. He scrambled back down the steps, not without knocking over a couple of markers or bumping into the central coffin's pedestal. Glad for the light, he couldn't imagine getting stuck here in the dark.

Before reaching the barely open panel that marked the entrance into the tunnel, he noticed the name carved over the coffin: “Samuel Jackson Haine” in ornate, old-fashioned block letters, born 1809 and died 1883.

Clearly, this was the Haine Family's crypt but there wasn't time to explore; however, it solved the mystery of the tunnel.

What it didn't solve was what happened to Dr Kerr who could only have passed through here a few minutes ago, since there was no sign of him anywhere else in the mysterious tunnel – if he did pass through here, Cameron thought, knowing some of the strange things Terry could get himself caught up in.

Not to mention what might have happened that the police would be here, long enough for their donuts to turn stale, though that bloodstain on the floor could have something to do with it.

Scrambling back through the panel and pushing it closed, Cameron urged Martin and Dorothy to turn back before they were discovered, holding a finger to his lips as they heard voices entering the crypt. The door sealed shut behind them with a soft whoosh and a thunk which he hoped might escape the policemen's notice.

There was only silence but whether that was because they'd stopped talking or the panel was sound-proof, Cameron couldn't be sure. He had no problem urging the others to stand still and not breathe.

“Even if Terry had come this far,” he thought, “did he return to the house while we'd gone the other way?”

Martin imagined the police must've found Terry in the crypt and arrested him.

But Dorothy was thinking whoever had abducted Purdue may now have taken Terry.

“What've we gotten ourselves into? Are we safe...?”.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, October 15th]

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment