(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.
Maybe it was safer than staying next to that FBI office building, afraid she'd be unmasked simply checking her phone, but Perdita Vremsky confessed she would no doubt have slept better at the motel. Falx's minimalist accommodations, not much worse than barely adequate, would never survive one of those reality TV shows like “Hotel Hell.” Okay, this wasn't meant to be a full-service, get-away spa, just temporary “clandestine headquarters” which was also, she realized, a work-in-progress. Still, as she continued rubbing her neck, the mattress could've been less grotesque. Plus, admittedly, it was far better than what she expected after seeing the exterior on one of those Google Earth maps. Falx called up the image on his computer to give her an idea. She'd missed the full impact by not driving up to the front door. Clearly, there were benefits to the underground tunnel.
Considering it's been empty for – what, fifteen years? – falling apart in the process, she's amazed the place hadn't previously been condemned but then as long as the taxes were being paid, who would care? It's not like it was a visible eyesore to any neighbors who'd complain, except the guy next door who didn't care. Funny how that “guy-next-door” turned out to be, for whatever purposes, the man both she and the Aficionati were searching for. That reminded her: she checked her phone again, but still no new messages.
She had come down from her bedroom, one she'd still found an improvement over the faceless universality of the typical American motel since it had furniture and décor giving it a sense of character, to find her host Falx – or Graham Ripa as she should call him – waiting for her with breakfast in the kitchen. The French toast smelled a bit overdone and the eggs looked slightly underdone but she hadn't expected he'd do the cooking – however, though, wasn't that what staff was for, to look after their superiors?
One of the things she had to remember was Agent Falx was new, only recently assigned to her, and still learning, so she needed to be a bit more indulgent with him for now. Serving everything carefully, he poured two cups of coffee, then sat down directly across from her, perhaps a little too familiarly.
“Govnozny and the boys are already in the basement,” he explained, eying her through his sunglasses which she still found unnerving, “so I thought, meanwhile, I could give you a tour of the establishment, beginning with the renovations we've been working on since the early summer once I took ownership after my father finally died.” The idea of restoring the inside while leaving the outside looking completely dilapidated was an intentional part of his original plan, pawned off to the local authorities as a house-within-a-house, a haunted house bed-and-breakfast.
Reinforcing interior walls and floors was one thing, shoring up the foundation, the roof and outside walls from the inside, but covering up the windows, concealing any sign of occupancy, was an on-going challenge.
“It keeps things delightfully dark, sort of like an eternally overcast, rainy day while anyone outside assumes the place is empty.”
Members of his cohort, the Punimayo Brothers directly under his supervision, brought the materials in mostly through the tunnel at night and did the work themselves, watching a few episodes of This Old House. It was magical to watch the steady transformation, bringing the rooms back to life as he remembered them from his childhood.
“It's been the Old Sam Haine Place for decades, so that's what I'm calling it: 'the Old Sam Haine Place Bed-and-Breakfast.' The township authorities bought it, hook, line and sinker: little do they know!”
Before she could even consider asking him (not that she had wanted to), Ripa began explaining who Old Sam Haine was – first of all, his great-great-great-great-great grandfather, counting each “great” off on a finger. Sam started as a captain in the Mexican War, was wounded; then began the Civil War as a general, wounded again. Sam's grandfather built the first farmhouse on this site back in the 1790s, which his father then expanded in the 1830s. That burned down in 1858, and the present house rose from its ashes.
After losing his left leg at Gettysburg, Sam returned to find his wife on her deathbed; she died only days later. A week after this, his eldest daughter Lillian married a man named Winslow. The “little house,” Ripa explained, pointing next door, had been a wedding present, their daughter Samantha born there the following year.
Ripa led her through different rooms, pointing out pieces of furniture, some not yet restored, others still covered with dusty cloths, explaining who the different people were in numerous faded paintings, obviously family portraits. One, of Samuel's son Herman, was left incomplete when his wife and both their children died before it could be finished.
After his father's death in 1883, Herman began writing the family history but left it also incomplete when he “turned senile.” Samantha's son Jackson updated the manuscript but saw no reason to publish it.
Sweeping the largely untouched front parlor with a flashlight pulled from his pocket, Ripa mentioned the vast painting over the fireplace. “That redoubtable woman is my great-great-great-great grandmother, Lillian, no doubt frightening to behold. Curiously, my own grandmother looked exactly like her except for the period clothing, just as florid of face, just as fearsome.”
Vremsky looked up at the painting, which, frankly, gave her the creeps. “What is that in the corner: looks like blood...” He swept his flashlight across it so she could see it more clearly.
Ripa explained it was indeed blood spattered across the corner of Lillian's portrait. He'd decided they should let the stains remain.
“My grandmother was actually murdered in this room – some say by Lillian's ghost.”
“The place really is haunted, then?” Vremsky asked. “How farking convenient for business!”
“That's what we'd like the visitors to think.”
Before she questioned what Lillian's motive might've been, Ripa resumed the family tale. Two years after their wedding, Lillian's husband died at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse, the very last battle of the war. Her brother Herman, whose wife and children died within months of each other, then a broken man, became a hopeless recluse.
“But Sam took life by the horns and built up his law career, even becoming the Mayor of Marple in 1870. Then, a few years later, he'd become ill, eventually confined to a wheelchair.
“That was when Sam's brother Charles came to live with them, a strange figure according to both Herman and, later, Jackson, though they never quite explained in their memoir what they thought was 'strange.' Old photographs show he was tall, slender, fairly dark, dressed in perpetual mourning and, curiously, wore dark-tinted glasses all the time.”
As they moved through more rooms, looking at more dusty furniture and old oil-lamps with stained-glass shades, Vremsky soon became bored. If he'd told her all this last night, she might have slept better. No, she corrected herself, probably not, not after having seen these portraits and coming face-to-face with blood spilled by Lillian's ghost. She listened to Ripa droning on about his ancestors and wondered where he'd fit on the Haine Family's Spectrum of Strange. It made her uncomfortable realizing she might be spending several more nights here.
She eventually realized Ripa continued to ramble on about his family's woeful saga, how in the same year Richard Wagner died – “that would be 1883,” assuming her blank look was more forgetfulness than indifference – the once vibrant Union General and mayor of Marple had been reduced to a bedridden invalid following a series of strokes. Charles had gone to Washington on business, leaving his brother in Herman's care, servants assuming others looked after and fed him, and Herman, avoiding unpleasantness, figured his father continued not to speak to him.
“It wasn't until Lillian came over for dinner one night and noticed that no one had any news of her father, dismissing her brother's protests that he was 'in one of his moods again.' She stormed upstairs in a fury of recrimination, practically breaking down the door to discover her father's body, cold and stiff.”
The doctor assumed Samuel had probably been dead for the last few days, dying peacefully in his sleep following another seizure. Then after Charles returned, they made arrangements to build a grand family crypt, conveniently plopping it down in the midst of the tunnel Old Sam had built to protect the family against Confederate attack.
“It gave Lillian a way she could visit her father's grave without worrying about bad weather, given the tunnel's general commodiousness, but it's also served other purposes more recently,” he added with a smile.
Like a docent going through a memorized script – she wondered how much of this he would actually share with any guests – Ripa continued how Lillian then moved into the main house with her brother. “She never spoke to him again, a constant reminder of their father's death, making his senility that much easier to bear.”
“Speaking of senility,” Vremsky said, abruptly interrupting him, “we must interrogate Dr Purdue before this house claims him as another victim. There are things I need to find before we retrieve Dagon's superior's information.” Handing him her almost empty cup of coffee, she tilted her head quizzically, expecting him to “lead onward” without further delay.
Ripa was of course disappointed as he'd hoped to impress his boss with the house he's made available to The Cause. So far, she had not once acknowledged his initiative with the least thanks.
Vremsky heard the squeak of a door and wondered where it was coming from, who it would be – friend or foe – and, considering the history her host (and corporate underling) had been telling her, whether this imminent intrusion they would experience was alive or a ghost (except, she reconsidered, ghosts wouldn't need to use doors).
The hurried footsteps that followed belonged to the two members of Ripa's cohort known only to her as F-1 and F-2. “You'll both want to come into the basement: Dr Purdue is coming to.”
The outline of a smile accidentally broke across Vremsky's lips as she followed Ripa and the two henchmen down the hall, while Ripa, humming a tango reminding her vaguely of “the rain in Spain” – “Old Doc Purdue... is commmming to, hooraa-aay!” – held the basement door for her before ending with a flurry of imaginary castanets.
The room they were using for this interrogation – the small embossed sign on the door benignly called it “The Interview Studio” – was neither very large nor very well lit, and so far only half-renovated. It had served as the coal room after the old house had been converted to central heating with its coal-burning furnace.
“And for a one-time contribution of a mere $10,000,” Ripa crooned, “we could rename this space the Perdita Vremsky Interrogation Center!” Seeing Purdue in an over-stuffed recliner reminded her it should be called “Lounge.”
“He wouldn't sleep so much in a chair that was miserable and was also designed to keep him awake,” she said, before remembering the grandmother who owned this “comfy chair” had been uncomfortably murdered.
“I haven't researched the latest catalogues,” Ripa replied, “but I'm sure the best chairs at Terrorists-Are-Us would probably run over $10,000...”
When she didn't respond, he suggested, “for an additional gift, you could have this lovely DVD of our first ten interrogations.” Vremsky ignored his spiel, assuming he'd been watching too much public television lately.
Purdue had begun to stir faintly, his eyes starting to flutter before he realized he was unable to move his arms. Trying to yank his right arm free made him realize he'd been restrained.
While Vremsky had difficulty understanding what he'd started mumbling, she had an idea. She clearly understood “Who the fuck are you?”
“Who I am is immaterial, beyond the fact you wouldn't know who I was anyway,” Vremsky began, peering down at him. “Are you comfortable? My assistant assures me this is a very comfy chair.”
“Then where the fuck am I?” Purdue looked around, moving as much as his restraints would let him which wasn't much.
“But then, where you are is also immaterial, though, quite true, you might be more familiar with it than with me.”
“I'm assuming finding out what time it is is out of the question...?”
“Let's leave it at 'yes' to that one: time, for that matter – at least, in this case – is also quite immaterial.”
“Yeah, but then I've always kinda figured that.” He sat back, eyes closed.
“I wouldn't recommend going back to sleep on me, just yet, Dr Purdue.”
“But, immaterial or not, you know my name...”
“Immaterial or not, Dr Purdue, there are many things I need to know,” Vremsky continued, stepping around in front of him. “Let's begin with information about this fascinating Piano Quintet of yours, for instance.”
“My quintet?” Purdue's eyes narrowed to mere slits as he followed her suspiciously. “How do you know anything about that quintet?”
“I know you never published it, so, what – there must be a reason? It seems like an awful lot of work.”
“It was, for a student piece. I'm curious – how did you find it?”
“Immaterial, I assure you, Doctor,” though she mentioned she found its “musical language,” especially the generating of mystery-solving clues, quite fascinating. When he didn't respond directly to this, she moved in closer and smiled.
“Then,” she resumed, “I would like you to explain a bit about Clara.”
“And how do you know anything about Clara!?”
“The people I, shall we say, 'work' for are quite interested in these secret musical clues you've devised for your quintet, and they're curious how Clara might help in programming to create musical codes.”
He tried explaining he can't explain it because he can't figure out what it was she wanted to do with it. The program had been designed simply to compose music according to stylistic specifications.
“Listen, lady,” Purdue grumbled, “whoever you are – and don't try explaining it again – I'm a composer, not a goddamned software engineer.”
With that, the old man shook his head, tried to free his wrists, groaning against the restraints that held him firm, then sighed and fell back in his chair, exasperated, and quickly drifted off.
“We could try electric shocks, see if that will make you more talkative,” she whispered in his ear, registering no response.
She kicked the base of the chair which, judging from her frustration, undoubtedly hurt her foot more than it jostled Purdue.
“What the fark size dose did they give you, old man, anyway... Ugh!”
F-2 shouted a security camera was flashing though no alarm had yet sounded. “Someone's entered the perimeter – there, it's the tunnel.” He pointed to the monitor. “Just minutes ago, right outside our secret entrance.”
Hadn't Ripa explained yesterday there were still some bugs that needed working out? “So much for security, you simpleton,” Vremsky hissed.
The footage was grainy, given the darkness, and the contrast between them and their flashlights was, like night-vision goggles, almost blinding. But clearly, three people had definitely stood there, two men and a woman.
They opened the gate, guns drawn, cameras showing the immediate vicinity of the tunnel was empty – “Clear! No one in sight.”
Once again, Vremsky felt Ripa was the poster child of cluelessness: “Any ideas?”
“No,” he mumbled. “Who could they have been? What were they doing here?”
“Or, more importantly, how did they find us?”
So much for being sound-proof.
Afraid to move, Cameron leaned against one of the tunnel's posts, holding his breath, waiting, listening. Martin stood there with his eyes closed tight; Dorothy's were wide with fear. He only assumed the men he'd heard heading for the crypt were police, seeing the two marked cars and the van. But what if they were SHMRG “enforcers” who'd already taken out the police while they're out mopping up after kidnapping Purdue? What if they've caught Terry and that was his blood on the floor?
“Hey, did you hear that? Somebody's in here,” one of the voices said, his whisper far too husky to go unheard.
“Yeah,” the second voice said. “Look – someone's knocked over some of the markers.”
Cameron noticed the crack of light had disappeared which meant the door had shut tightly behind them – that was good news.
“Maybe it was a squirrel,” the second, lighter voice said. “Squirrels'll do that...”
“Then where'd he go? Maybe it's a vampire?”
“Yeah, right, like vampires'd be out after sunrise... No, I'm goin' with squirrels.” This was then followed by a lengthy description of the damage squirrels were doing to the bird feeders in his backyard.
If SHMRG had just caught Terry, how did the police get here so quickly and put out all that crime-scene stuff? He was assuming it had only been a few minutes since Terry disappeared.
When it sounded like the voices retreated back to the safety and sunlight outside the crypt, no longer concerned about vampires, Cameron motioned perhaps they should retreat back to the safety of Purdue's basement. Neither of them disagreed with him: what to do next was the issue but Martin shushed her when Dorothy mentioned it. One thing they didn't have time for was dealing with the police – assuming those were the police – to help find Terry. The only thing they'd do was arrest them for contaminating a crime scene.
Martin thought the whole thing reminded him of Alice through the Looking Glass, without expounding on the implication left hanging there. Cameron gave him a sharp look, considering his earlier experience in the backyard.
“What makes you say that? Feel like you've fallen down a rabbit hole?”
“No, it's just he's there – then he's not...”
Even half-way back to Purdue's, beyond the point where anyone in the crypt could probably hear them, they continued to whisper, wondering how Terry could have disappeared like that without having left a trace.
“It's not like he hasn't been inconsiderate before,” Dorothy said, “but we've got flights to catch so we can get home.”
“Ah, I could have burst into the crypt like a vampire and distracted them while you two ran for your cars.”
“Clearly, boy, you've been watching too much television.” Martin did not sound amused.
“If they're after Tom and maybe have Terry, now, it's also possible they know whose cars those are across the street. Maybe they're waiting for us to come get them, then arrest us, too?”
“But, Dorothy, why would the police arrest us? What have we done that...?”
“From their viewpoint, we're 'tampering' with their case!”
“I'm afraid she's right, Martin.” Cameron stopped as if he needed to rest – not so much physical rest as 'brain rest.' “Ever since they decided Tom Purdue's their suspect, they view us as 'meddling'...”
“But that's exactly one thing we are doing is 'meddling' because we're trying to find Tom and prove that he's innocent.”
“Here's the thing: either Tom's run off because he's not innocent or he's been abducted by somebody and therefore not guilty. And now,” Cameron continued, “Terry's run off because... Wait, what was that noise?”
From the depths of the tunnel, somewhere in front of where they'd stopped – perhaps the middle distance, though hard to tell – came a noise like the slow creak of an old gate needing oiled, the sound, Cameron thought, of metal scraping against metal, annoying to the ear, echoing through the tunnel's equally annoying, unflattering acoustics. Not that it made a difference but he was aware how they were all holding their collective breath, straining their concentration, as if, somehow, it would sharpen their hearing and help focus the sound.
A pregnant pause was taking forever to gestate, the silence expanding with potential, even with only a few options to consider, ranging from the gate at Purdue's to the roof possibly starting to collapse. Given a cave-in, Cameron figured it would be more of a woody sound, a crack as the lumber supports gave way.
But on a happier note, if it were the gate at Purdue's basement, an iron sliding door on a metal track, that could mean Terry had returned or – someone else has found the tunnel. This brought him to consider, if 'choice B,' would it be the police or maybe agents from SHMRG, neither very promising.
The pause resolved into another sliding of metal-on-metal before cadencing with a thud, audible punctuation for the end of a phrase. Whoever it was who had opened the door had now closed the door.
Martin broke the concentration first, convinced that – “Good news!” – Terry must have returned. He started to hurry forward, swinging his flashlight.
Dorothy wasn't so sure, wondering, “if it was Terry, where'd he come from?”
“But what if someone else is in the tunnel – or just left it?” Cameron reached forward, trying to hold Martin back.
“But who else could it be? The farmhouse is empty and... oh... Ah... You're thinking someone who's looking for us, now?”
Dorothy shuddered and shrank back against the wall, hitting one of the posts.
“Yes, we can't escape through the crypt since the police are already there, and who knows if we'd reach the farmhouse?” Plus they'd still have to figure out how to open the farmhouse gate.
“Well, what else is there to do,” Martin eagerly suggested, “but go see? It's not like we have any other option.”
Finding the handle on the outside of Tom's sliding gate was not as easy as it had been from the inside, and Cameron wondered, would they have eventually found it on the farmhouse gate? Of course, the question in his mind was, if the farmhouse was abandoned, why would Kerr go there to begin with? Certainly, if he'd discovered anything about Purdue's whereabouts, he would've mentioned something as basic as “it appears he's right next door.” If the farmhouse has been empty for years, what made Terry think otherwise?
Then he remembered furtive movements in the backyard, a man dressed in black, things he'd barely noticed looking out a window, someone he figured at first was this local prowler reported on the news. Then he began to wonder if this prowler couldn't be a SHMRG agent who's been hiding out in an abandoned house.
The gate was a brick wall only partially hidden behind dirt and stones yet the inside was a rough-hewn stone wall, like foundation stones, great chunks of granite, that also lined the tunnel walls. The whole thing was nearly a foot thick, but it still slid easily on metal tracks in the floor and ceiling.
Dorothy found it, a slight outcropping on one stone which, pushed down, released the catch so the door slid open easily. This one, however, didn't sound as squeaky as the one they'd heard earlier.
He didn't remember which lights were on when he'd come down before breakfast but clearly the basement was a lot brighter now than it was before he and the others had entered the tunnel. Which meant what, exactly, Cameron thought as they slipped cautiously into the room: either Terry's returned or someone else was here.
Dorothy let out a quiet, tentative call which, if he'd been upstairs, Terry probably wouldn't have been able to hear anyway but then maybe no one else in the house would hear it, either.
It was also clear the desk had been searched, Cameron told the others – not that the place had been ransacked, necessarily – but somebody had been looking though some papers by the computer – and recently.
“But we couldn't have been gone that long.” Martin looked at his watch. “Maybe only about twenty minutes? Who could have...”
They were immediately distracted by this intense flash of light from behind them, no overpowering explosion or even a camera flash, more like an old-fashioned light bulb that fizzled when someone flipped the switch. His hearing always fairly acute, Cameron wasn't aware of any sound, not even the pop when a light bulb burns out. And yet as soon as they turned around to see what had happened, considering their recent discoveries which were creepy enough, Cameron wasn't prepared to see what he saw: a befuddled-looking T. Richard Kerr.
There he stood, more stooped than usual, perhaps fending off some approaching attacker, a look of absolute fear on his face, an expression Cameron knew well from various experiences shared over the past years. The strangest thing, though, was his standing between them and the tunnel entrance, as if he'd been following right behind them.
“Where the hell have you been,” Dorothy said, not usually prone to profanity. “You've given us all quite a fright, Terry!”
“We've been looking for you all over that tunnel,” Martin added, not pleased.
After brushing himself off, Terry regained his composure. “Have I been gone... I mean, have you been searching for me long?”
Cameron looked at him knowingly and asked why he just disappeared like that.
“I, uh... thought I was on to something.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“No,” Kerr said, “not exactly...”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 17th]
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.