(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.
Considering only seconds earlier I was standing in an old cabin ready to explode in the backwoods of Maine in 1814, my sudden return surprised my friends nearly as much as it surprised me. How would I explain where I'd been or even how I'd gotten there? And of course, where was my traveling companion? Considering he'd grabbed a hold of me and pulled me out of there, I'm guessing the man also succeeded in escaping. But where'd he get to? – or did he just send me back here?
“What's that?” I asked, looking around for some way to change the topic, “there, under that table – by the tunnel entrance.” Was it so strange I didn't recognize a wheelbarrow when I saw one? I could've asked them, “nice morning, isn't it? Anything going on I've missed?” But frankly that felt a little too obvious.
“Why,” Martin began in a sarcastic tone, “I do believe that's a wheelbarrow, and a rather rusty old thing at that.” He peered at it as if it was something about to attack him. Then he, Dorothy and Cameron looked over toward me, wondering what possible interest the wheelbarrow had, when it occurred to me.
“But it wasn't there last night when we were here talking about Clara, with all the take-out piled on the table? And I'm pretty sure it wasn't there when we discovered the tunnel entrance.”
Cameron agreed because he'd tried budging the table slightly to gain better access to the entrance and it wasn't there then. Plus, why would Purdue keep an old, beat-up wheelbarrow in his basement, anyway?
“Especially if it wasn't there earlier today, considering Purdue's been missing since Sunday. Either Tom's back, or somebody else's been here.”
The four of us gathered around this bit of garden equipment like it was an archeological artifact from a colonial-era dig. Dorothy thought it was the same wheelbarrow they'd seen earlier in the tunnel.
“So, you didn't bring it back with you when you just came back from – well, wherever it was you just were?” Dorothy thought maybe I'd been up at the old farmhouse, exploring the tunnel.
Hmm, I didn't remember grabbing onto one in Prentiss's shack back in Maine: how could I park it underneath Tom's table?
Martin started to pull it out into the open for a better look when Cameron reached over to hold him back. There was something weird about this, he thought, which warranted our “taking precautions.” An old towel by the computer served his purpose as he wrapped it around the one handle, gently pulling it out.
“Remember how the crypt at the other end of the tunnel had been marked up like a crime scene?” Cameron said. “This could be some evidence we don't want to contaminate with our fingerprints.”
“Apparently, I have missed something this morning,” I thought but also figured it's best to play along and follow Cameron's lead, since he'd already realized something I'm unable or unwilling to explain had happened. The fact there's now a crime scene at the end of the tunnel made things even more curious, certainly more dangerous.
“Nobody'd thought to check the wheelbarrow but you saw it before we got to the other end of the tunnel, right?” Both Martin and Dorothy nodded in silence. “And somehow, it's ended up here. There'd been blood on the floor of the crypt and also yellow tape and orange evidence markers all over the place.”
The wheelbarrow had once been painted deep blue but over the years had chipped and rusted until the original color faded. Cameron pointed out a stain on one side: “looks like blood – fairly fresh.”
Could the body the wheelbarrow had carried down to the crypt been Tom's? But since Cameron hadn't indicated any such horrible discovery – that Tom Purdue is dead – I should wait before jumping to conclusions. On the other hand, where could this victim have been murdered, I wondered? There's no scent of blood in Tom's basement. The only possibility was the murder had occurred in the old abandoned farmhouse and the body carted down to the crypt. Meaning the farmhouse probably isn't as abandoned as it's cracked up to be.
Perhaps that was the noise I'd heard inside the wall last night while I was trying to drop off to sleep. I'd dismissed it as “rats in the woodwork,” sounds of a strange house. What if that was the murderer, wheeling a body down through the tunnel? What if my Kapellmeister was involved in it?
I'd thought it was this Kapellmeister of mine who'd plugged the computer back in but he said he'd only just arrived, so since Cameron didn't do it – nor Martin or Dorothy, likely – then who? Why would the killer break into Purdue's basement, plug the computer in while I slept, then return later with a wheelbarrow?
What kind of traffic was going on in this tunnel, for how long; did they always have access to Purdue's house? Did Tom know what had been going on – was he involved in it?
We hadn't watched television after returning from our caper at the ballet school, whether there would've been new developments last night, but clearly something had been going on at Marple Music when we'd left. “Did anybody hear any news this morning,” I wondered, “had there been any reports about a body found at the crypt?”
Martin admitted they hadn't turned the TV on while getting breakfast ready and who would think to turn on a radio? “For that matter,” Dorothy said, “I don't recall seeing a radio, do you?”
Zeno now started mewing impatiently from the top step, glancing toward the kitchen while strutting back and forth, very clearly annoyed, a reminder to those who occupied his home he needed to be fed. Whatever might have happened to The Man and whatever else was going on, there were things that simply could not wait.
Earlier, Dorothy was getting something ready to eat, not sure how to justify having warmed-up Chinese or cold pizza for breakfast, but she was quite sure Zeno had showed little interest in eating then. “Besides,” she said, “we weren't gone that long, and suddenly now he's starving. What, we were probably gone about fifteen minutes?”
Maybe I didn't know how they felt, but I was sure I'd been gone a lot longer than a few minutes.
“Yes,” Dorothy and Martin said simultaneously, looking at me, “where did you go?”
Again, Cameron was quick to interrupt the conversation by pointing out, however long anyone was gone, no matter where we went, someone had been in the house while we were “away” and looked around. And it took them only a few minutes to sort through things on the desk and, well... drop off a wheelbarrow.
Dorothy didn't understand how anyone could be so sure things had been moved since there didn't seem to be any difference but Martin remembered a few things from last night were just slightly off. He pointed out several more things he noticed, only slightly moved, like somebody was being very careful not to disturb things.
“I noticed it,” Cameron said, “because Terry had unplugged the computer last night but it had been plugged in this morning. And this CD-case had been turned over so you couldn't read the label.”
Waving her arm in futility, Dorothy trudged upstairs to feed the poor cat, mumbling that much was beginning to make sense. I also sensed her frustration which would only make the day more difficult. Zeno rubbed against her ankles, anticipating his demands were about to be acknowledged as Martin followed her in anticipation of coffee.
For the moment, we were alone in the basement when Cameron gave me one of those looks that said, “So? Spill!” But before I could, Dorothy screamed and we both ran up the steps.
Instead of finding someone waiting for us in the kitchen, a possibility I'd half-anticipated, some evil ready to snatch us away, it turned out the backdoor had been broken in, splintered, left partially open. Martin found the front door in the same condition, barely on its hinges, but shut like they hoped we wouldn't notice.
Once we managed to calm Dorothy down and, to a certain degree, myself (no small challenge, there, I'm sorry to admit), we began searching the house to see what intruders were still lurking about. Initially, Dorothy suggested calling the police but on the other hand, couldn't the police be on our list of potential intruders? As a group, a single organism with eight arms and eight legs and the over-riding fear of perhaps six additional people, we moved through the living room and up the steps to the bedrooms.
Everything checked clear, the closets, under the beds, behind doors, under the toilet seat: the question remained, “what about the attic?” I was a little kid afraid to imagine the monster in the dark. It was easy to feel stupid until I remembered the doors broken down. And then we heard it – a noise downstairs.
With no weapons, not even a kitchen knife, we felt together we had four times the strength we might've had individually, though for myself, being somewhat closer to “zero,” I canceled out the others. As we tiptoed down the hallway, I heard the slow movement of Haydn's “Surprise” Symphony in some corner of my mind.
From the top of the stairs, we heard a faint and timorous voice in the kitchen calling out a tenuous “hello?”
I was pretty sure it belonged to Amanda.
“Dr Kerr? What's going on...?”
While Amanda got Zeno's food ready for him, Cameron and I gave her a brief recap of the day so far – well, as far as I could without giving away my own side-bar adventure – from the discovery of the tunnel, the crime scene in the crypt, and the wheelbarrow in the basement to the break-in. Both Martin and Dorothy quietly nursed their coffee, adding additional comments on occasion, leaving the brunt of the reporting to Cameron, since Dorothy was still shaken after having discovered the condition of the doors.
“If it had been someone like the killer who'd broken into the house” – the backdoor wasn't even locked, Amanda pointed out – “what were they looking for that they didn't trash the place to find?”
Since we were a little reluctant to admit the answer might be “us,” I asked what news she'd heard this morning.
The local paper Amanda's mother gets had a picture of Alma and a vague crime scene photo on its front page, the report lacking anything like details beyond “the killer was still at large,” giving more coverage to things like this weekend's Halloween parade in Media and the robbery of a cabdriver in nearby Springfield. As for what she'd heard on the morning news, since she normally listens to public radio when she's in the car, Amanda missed the latest about another body being discovered in the Marple area.
The ensuing discussion focused on what still needed to be done to find Tom Purdue and, as we now agreed, rescue him from those who've abducted him and from wherever they were holding him, both Amanda and I convinced the answer (or at least some additional, potentially helpful information) might be found in Clara's music. We were soon huddled around the computer listening to music Clara had created – I was still reluctant to say “she'd composed” – including several earlier pieces Tom hadn't included in this little ballet called “Mysteries.”
Some were the most basic – a simple melody over a simple chordal accompaniment with not very imaginative harmonies and bland rhythms – but ones written days later already used arpeggiated accompaniments and more complex rhythms. The next few were still rather child-like, reminding me of Schumann's children's pieces, capturing a similar sophistication of a child's world.
“This,” Amanda said, setting up the next piece, “is where things get really fascinating: this was written after a week's hiatus, a week that the Professor spent in the hospital following his heart attack.”
The music clattered along joyfully with an entirely new sense of rhythmic propulsion – for one, in the unusual meter of 5/8.
It's amazing, with what we'd heard last night, how quickly these pieces matured, how sincere and natural they managed to sound, yet I had to remind myself these were apparently created by a machine.
“Hmm, what's this?” Amanda looked closer at the monitor. “Dr Kerr, were you playing with Clara last night after I left?”
The suggestion sounded a bit risqué; even Cameron stifled a chuckle. “No, why?”
“Because there's a folder here, created at 23:54, which contains several new compositions. I wonder if the Professor accessed her remotely?”
Written overnight in a period that spanned not much more than two hours, this latest set of pieces was surprisingly complicated, and reminded Dorothy of some of Conlon Nancarrow's complex studies for player piano.
“That's astounding! But remember, I'd unplugged the computer when I went to bed and found it plugged in again this morning.”
Could I imagine the computer did that itself any more than it could make its own aesthetic choices like any composer, finding – from all these possibilities – the right note? (What composer wouldn't want one?)
These newest pieces sounded miles ahead of those from a few months ago, more technically refined and more assured as well, not just more modern by comparison but also more emotional in their responses. Dorothy understood why Amanda referred to the program as “Clara” rather than as an inanimate object: she was demonstrating a “personality.”
“Oh, I think we need to steer clear of going quite that far,” Martin argued, despite his being suitably impressed himself. “But it seems it's growing and learning from its mistakes and past choices.”
“Wait – listen to the lowest part of this line in the left hand: it's not accompanimental or part of the harmony, more of a rhythmic pattern divided between registers that's part of the texture. These bits, here, like separate lines of text, almost independent of everything else. Could Clara be trying to tell us something?”
“Oh, but Clara can speak,” Amanda insisted, “or at least that's part of the Professor's plan, more than some introductory words. The idea is to have a conversation with her about music and art.” She wasn't sure how far the Professor was able to get in programming her for that: “The software's not fully functional. He wanted her to be able to express herself about so many things, without confusing her with a lot of information.” There's only so much data you could input before it started becoming counterproductive.
But was this a code where Clara was speaking to us through the music whether we could understand her or not? I suppose, until I examined it more carefully, it could all be coincidence. I've often talked about composers who've created “word-motives” to inform the listener something non-musical lies underneath the surface, something very personal.
Dorothy reminded us how these secret messages and “musical clues” fascinated Tom before. “Our piano quintet's a perfect example, isn't it?”
Was Clara programmed to be aware – imagine her being “aware”! – of such possibilities?
“Don't be ridiculous!” Martin sat back, thoroughly dismissive. “How is that even possible? You can't imagine that machine is intellectually cognizant!”
“It's enough of a surprise hearing how Clara 'learned' and then applied it...”
“But to write original music, hold a conversation and communicate in coded messages?”
“Here, let me show you.”
Everyone leaned forward.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday Oct 22nd]
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.