Wednesday, October 24, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 15

In the previous installment [posted on October 22nd], Kenny Hackett, sitting in his cubicle at SHMRG's Manhattan headquarters, has succeeded not only in finding disgraced CEO N. Ron Steele's latest “undisclosed location,” but also Thomas Purdue's software program, “Clara,” the Artificial Creativity program designed to create music based on coded parameters specific to your own liking. The program has its own persona and is written in such a way, through a process of “strange loops” and “Easter eggs,” it seems to learn from its previous attempts. But as Purdue had programmed certain personality traits into the code, Kenny's decided to add – very carefully so it cannot be detected by the average engineer – code introducing things like fear and anger, and then, for good measure, hate and revenge. In addition to that, he inserts music from Cherubini's opera, Medea, into her reference library, music that should help charge her emotional responses and eventually turn her into a program capable of committing murder. The question was, how long would it take? In Purdue's basement, Amanda rather casually reveals to Kerr the coincidence of her grandmother having once been Dr Purdue's college girlfriend, the would-be ballet dancer, “Odile.” Kerr's memories are interrupted by the arrival of IMP Agent Sarah Bond.

(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.

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



The only reason he would ever imagine himself being awake this god-awful early was because it was already late-morning on Manhattan, regardless of whatever it was here in paradise at their little grass shack, and if that meant he had to get up at 6am to see what's going on in the world, too bad. It was strange, this morning – no birds singing, nothing moving, not even a breeze but the waves were a bit choppy – so he went on-line to see if there were threats of any storms. It seemed strange, also, even to check the weather here where the temperature was always perfection and the humidity barely an issue once you got used to it, the rain more like passing showers. So beautiful, this little island, recalling it when they'd landed here that first time, an emerald set in a turquoise sea.

William Cable logged on to the local government website informing island residents about anything anyone would want to be bothered with – which was preferably nothing – and found nothing posted more recently than last week. Then he checked the New York Times and found way too much information he didn't want to imagine dealing with today. After entering all his passwords and encryption codes, he logged onto his secure e-mail server, then ran a quick security scan. “Good!” There was only one new e-mail, an over-night reply from Basil Carsonoma.

There was no detailed report as reports go, regarding what was or wasn't going on in the board room at SHMRG, who was cozying up to Darke, where lines of loyalty were being redrawn, just comments about the new project Clara, suggesting an unrealistic time line, having it ready to market in time for Christmas. “Too soon, impossible,” Cable was going to write back when he noticed something about the reply code – something looked very wrong. “Gaaah! You idiot,” he shouted, “you lazy fool!” He'd sent an unencrypted message!

Cable typed furiously, hoping to trace back to Carsonoma's computer and delete or at least obscure the trail before anyone noticed. Kark!nos had forgotten the standard protocol to set up a new message – “Imbecile!” There was a chime from his security scan: that was never good news! “Damn! Too late...” Someone had already found them!

The sun had been up for about an hour – one thing he'd never adjusted to was how it set around 6pm – but Cable doubted Steele – or rather, “Fischer” – would already be out of bed. But he had to know: once the IMP knew their location, they would soon be on their way to arrest him. And if that ping originated from SHMRG headquarters, it wasn't so much “arrest” he knew they would need to worry about. It was Steele who'd initially established the precedent for dealing with corporate unpleasantness.

And chances were good Darke would “take care of” this bit of unpleasantness himself rather than reporting Steele to the IMP. Obviously, bringing him to trial would only throw the inquiry back on Darke. Predictably, “Fischer” wasn't thrilled to hear such news so early in the day. “I was just beginning to like the place...”

It's not that they hadn't had to leave hide-outs before on short notice (and this was where they've stayed the longest), but it was time to re-activate the process, setting up the next move. Cable immediately contacted Monty Banks, Steele's long-time loyal tech director located in L.A. where the call, he admitted, wasn't entirely unexpected.

First, Banks would notify Steele's lawyers, Bushy Bagot & Green, and then activate the move to the next available undisclosed location. “And just to confirm,” Banks told him, “that ping locating you? – was SHMRG.”

Holly Burton's morning had gotten itself off to an unsettling start as well after Margarita the cook showed up unexpectedly early, going on about how she'd heard rumors from some villagers about the volcano.

“They say it rumbles deep during the night – they feel it, hear it, all week,” she said, shaking a bit herself.

For Holly, the idea of sharing a small island with a volcano must be like living in California waiting for earthquakes. You don't think about it every day but yet there's always a possibility.

“Yeah, haven't they been saying that for years, even decades,” Steele scoffed when Holly had Margarita explain it to “Mr Fischer.” He had enough to think about, with Cable's news fresh in his ear.

Regardless, Margarita wasn't asking Fischer to give her and Nahani a week off. She scurried back to the village to pack.

“And where will they go,” Steele wondered, “even the nearest island could be inundated by a tidal wave following an eruption,” when Holly explained they had some cousins on Tahiti, hundreds of miles away. Cable, coming in to tell them Banks had already initiated their own evacuation, knew they could not take Nahani with them.

“But it makes sense,” he said, “the silence of the birds this morning, how choppy the sea is without any wind. Either way, looks like we'd better be packed and ready for Banks' helicopter.”

“But that could be days before SHMRG gets everything organized,” Steele said, “before they'd arrive here in the middle of nowhere. And this volcano could blow weeks from now, if it erupts at all.”

Cable, ignoring him, started bustling about, dismantling equipment, getting things boxed and ready.

“They're just calling in the damned music police!”

“Seriously, Ron,” Cable said, slipping into uncharted familiarity, “do you think Darke's just going to send the IMP to arrest you? Do you remember how you solved the problem of someone like Pansy Grunwald?”

N. Ron Steele, once the most powerful music executive in the world, sat back in his wheelchair, stunned at the implication. Cable suggested an invasion of SHMRG agents, Steele's death looking like an accident.

But Steele, knowing the history, inferred Cable meant they'd activate their “sleeper agent.” And that could only be one person, right?


“It's just you and me, Dr Purdue,” she said, walking in quiet circles around the man strapped into the old recliner. “You tell me what I need to know and you'll be set free.” Even if he wasn't aware who kept walking past him, always in the same direction, Purdue couldn't help realizing the implication. Vremsky didn't bother going into details with him, but her meaning was clear: “it's just a matter of time, isn't it?” His eyes, half-shut, barely followed her involuntarily as one watched an annoying mosquito.

Losing patience was something Vremsky did easily, and, she said, it wasn't pretty, but Purdue didn't appear to mind – or care. The buzzing was annoying enough, like his wife when Purdue tuned her out. Inevitably, Vremsky knew Dr Purdue would break down – the weak ones always broke. She was like this mosquito that never landed.

Purdue was obviously too sedated to respond yet, perhaps even unable to speak, and this succeeded in annoying her even more. “How much did they give this man,” she wondered, considering his puny body-weight?” She still had questions about his Piano Quintet yet she hardly needed to kidnap him for his permission to perform it.

So whatever it was the great Osiris was after, this “code” he'd mentioned, left her somewhat confused about how to proceed. Was it the engineers' software code or something needed to send secret messages?

How could she manage to leverage his cooperation if she didn't even know what it was she was trying to obtain? Is he lying when he says he doesn't know what she's talking about? She needed to text Osiris again, ask for clarification, see what he's after. Well, unless it would make her sound stupid.

What about a simple bribe since any composer would be in financial need? But how much would Purdue's information be worth? Osiris would soon be expecting a successful outcome. So far, she had nothing.

The handbook always said you should threaten their family to ensure their cooperation, but she gathered Purdue had no immediate family. There was an ex-wife somewhere and a son who'd died young, hardly bait.

She was aware, Falx told her, of some intern who worked for him. Unfortunately nobody knew if she had potential value.

Suddenly, it occurred to her she might fail, something she'd never considered before. “What if I did? What would Osiris do?” Her own supervisor wasn't one for passing out accolades; Osiris probably wasn't, either. Maybe Govnozny had an idea, whatever he may have been doing here, anyway. (“For that matter, what was he doing here?”)

She found him among his shiny new equipment, repeatedly cleaning some surgical instruments. “Did you bring anything along like mind-reading probes?” She found it awkward asking him for help. Regretfully, he laughed, he hadn't.

The basement, once empty, was now filled with all kinds of tables and machines, monitors and lighting, a regular operating room. “What did you bring with you?” she snapped. “Why are you even here?”

He leaned against a gurney, examining a scalpel. “I'm not really sure, myself. It seems I'm awaiting instructions.” Then he smiled.

She stormed back into the interrogation room, slamming the door, and stared down at Purdue who stared back with benign indifference. Her frustration, mounting all morning, finally exploded as she kicked at the recliner.

There was the slightest blush of fear wafting across Purdue's eyes, quickly subsiding. Perhaps, she thought, if she slapped his face?

If he registered anything, was it the fear wafting across her own face? She knew now that she was losing control.

Well, perhaps she'll look forward to her retirement. “Unless they don't retire 'disappointments'...?”


Lucifer Darke didn't need to think about it: he knew his response was obvious and it needed to be made immediately. He didn't want to plan or consider options; he just wanted it done. Not only did he know it was obvious, he knew a quick decision to implement it spoke volumes for his determination. Knowing exactly where Steele was hiding – a tiny pinprick of sand in the middle of an ocean, but he found him – meant he could send his agents there and “arrest” Steele (that's the “plan”). The most important thing in the long run was, with Steele gone, he could eliminate die-hard Steele loyalists on the board, then fire or lay off anyone still faithful to Steele on the staff. With Steele gone, Darke knew he'd be in complete control of the company and then all that power would be his.

It had taken a long time to get this far, dreaming about power since he was a child, how some day he would control the world and then get back at all those bullies, especially the ones who'd made fun of him because he couldn't play sports, who teased him because he was so quiet. Now that the glorious moment was finally here, he had to move decisively or otherwise those whom he sought to control would sit around the boardroom telling sad stories on the death of cowards.

But with Steele gone, the possibilities of enterprise reverberated through his brain, that, acting decisively, by successfully eliminating this main distraction, SHMRG becomes the profitable endeavor it once was, putting money in the bank. Here it was, within reach, this longed-for moment – he even reached out to grab at something suspended in mid-air before him. A single call would tell his security director, Lockstep, to activate the plan, the dagger that would guarantee the end of Steele, a moment so close he could almost taste the money in the bank.

“With Steele gone,” he reminded himself, “this office is finally mine; this view, mine; this board room, mine; this company, mine! With Steele finally gone, all this money in the bank will be mine!” He was about to laugh but thought that was a little too over-the-top. “Seriously,” pumping his fist, “money... in... the bank!”

That was the simplicity of the plan, how “The Plan” was having SHMRG's agents arrest Steele on behalf of the IMP in order to turn him over to the authorities to face murder charges, but how something would go “terribly wrong” – Steele, resisting arrest, pulled a weapon, shouting how they'll never take him alive – etc. They'll have to kill others like Holly Burton – they'd hardly leave her alive to testify it was an assassination – and Steele's tech guy, Cable, plus any others, all for the greater good, but hey...

“Killing a man in a wheelchair shouldn't be that difficult, now, should it? Roll him down some steps – over a cliff? It's not like he'd get that far running away from you, will he?” He imagined Steele as a sitting duck, a fish shot in a barrel. “It'll be like shooting shit on a shingle!”

That was the beauty of Steele's “Becket Doctrine,” – referring to some old king's rhetorical request about someone ridding him of this meddlesome priest (or was it a police detective?) – leaving so much to “interpretation.” Despite the vagueness, how it could be understood by others, Darke had been clear talking privately to his security director, Lockstep.

E-mail, naturally, was traceable, so nothing specific, no winky face after the directive, just a phone call to activate “The Plan.”

Darke punched in Lockstep's number. “So, you got Steele's GPS coordinates? Let's roll...”


His exact location, he knew, was unimportant at the moment, somewhere over water; the time, he also knew, was equally unimportant – he had lost track of both since they left his private airport behind. He had even managed a few hours rest, shutting down all systems for a chance to conserve some energy before arriving. In accordance with his usual procedures, he kept his private compartment dark and, during the flight, sealed off from the others. With acute hearing like his, he still heard them, playing cards and laughing.

A dark, silent – well, nearly silent – bubble hurtling through space, suspended in time, carried him effortlessly between Points A and B. It was the magic of science multiplied by the triumph of the imagination. The reality was, he was on a plane much like any ordinary plane. But this didn't matter because reality was unimportant.

The man at the center of this bubble, protected from the filth and contagion of the wider world, sensed mounting impatience. The mission he was on was important and needed to be completed quickly. Eyes flashed in the darkness, lips quivered, consciousness reasserting itself after his nap. Ears began processing sounds normal humans barely noticed.

Proportionally, he had a large, greatly expanded head, better for encasing his brain. “All the better to devour you with, dearie.” Newcomers, assuming he was joking, were informed Osiris had no sense of humor.

For the past twenty-five years, he had been a prisoner in this wheelchair specifically designed for him by the faithful Hephaestus. Fashioned with all manner of technology, it allowed him to maintain his power. The leader of the Aficionati, he was the only one in the world who knew there was nobody higher than he.

It's unusual he'd become directly involved in mere personnel issues, given his level, but this could severely impact a major project. And there was nothing he would allow to get in this project's way.

One of the Aficionati's mid-level agents has been revealed as a possible spy, reports indicating Agent Lóviatar was becoming a liability.

“How do you solve a problem like Perdita?” Vremsky had become a dilemma.

Osiris felt his toe tapping metaphorically against the treadle, his head nodding slightly.

A disembodied voice broke in: “Arriving in Philadelphia.”


Disappointed neither of us could identify the tall, thin fellow or the dowdy Woman-in-Pink from her photographs, Bond put them away, asking if it was true the computer actually “created” what it wrote down. Amanda explained Dr Purdue admitted he was only a musician, not a scientist, and turned to several music-loving scientists he'd met. The other summer, he'd started playing chamber music periodically with some of these – a doctor who helped design surgical computer technology, engineers who wrote code like authors wrote novels – but who played music intuitively. Afterward, relaxing over beer, they'd start talking shop, asking him technical questions to help them make interpretive decisions in their playing; then he'd ask them questions about scientific technology, not just to be sociable. He realized Clara must think like a composer, not a beginning music student: how could he program her to do that?

He wanted Clara to make her own decisions, finding the right note without lots of trial-and-error, by pre-determining any passage's direction, not just picking from possible data requiring additional code to correct and eliminate. Following his scientist-friends, he'd begun with the overall scope, rather than starting small and painting himself into some very ordinary corner. After building this skeleton, she'd overlay the muscles – harmony – the way more dissonance resolved to less dissonance, finally adding the melody. If she knew where everything was eventually headed, it eliminated lots of guess-work.

The one engineer who worked on a “distributed processing” project at his company described it as programming “from the bottom up,” more “artificial life” than “artificial intelligence,” mirroring how, say, an ant colony functioned. “Build molecular elements working within a composite organization, taking in the 'Big Picture,' each tasked with specific responsibilities and socially interacting.” However one did that was beyond Amanda's expertise. She just entered basic data about harmonic language or building scales and chords. Purdue decided how this material would be used and how it was introduced.

He had programmed Clara to work in the opposite direction music students learned, not with single pitches, scales and key signatures, before eventually getting to larger forms and structure at a more advanced level, but something he called “programming from macro to micro” which he found saved lots of time code-writing, then making constant revisions.

This reminded me how Tom and I talked when we were grad students, about the desperate need to revolutionize music education, and here he was, implementing those ideas in computer software he was designing! We'd talked about how important it was to develop a sense of listening – in fact, wasn't it just yesterday... oh, wait. No, it seemed like only yesterday, of course – how could I explain that? – but something we rather arrogantly called “Cognitive Generalities,” first getting hold of some larger scope before getting mired down in minutiae. And naturally, our pedagogy professors told us the idea was entirely too radical, overthrowing generations if not centuries of accepted practice. It wasn't really my idea, originally – I forget where I first heard it. Tom only gradually warmed to the idea as we'd talked about it, anyway. And now here he was, using it in...

Bond brought me out of my revery when I heard her mention “Aficionati,” wondering why they'd be interested in this technology, something about the kind of inflection she used: “why an organization like them...” (if there was ever a place you'd want to insert an ominous chord, it certainly sounded like this would be it). Facing down blank looks from both of us, Bond quickly told the story, enumerating the trail of murders and constant threats she and her mentors at the IMP have been dealing with for generations.

During this whole time, Clara had been quietly humming away, not quite “asleep,” barely audible but still running in the background. Once Bond finished her chilling tale, Amanda prepared to give her “Clara's Tour.” As an example, she would ask Clara to play her first completed composition and then the Impromptu she'd written last night. Taking only a few seconds to activate, we heard Clara's voice greet us, then sensing there was a new person present. Surprised, Bond leaned forward slightly self-consciously, introducing herself, and Clara greeted her warmly.

Amanda went on to explain how her first efforts, not surprisingly, were fairly simplistic, child-like, almost Schumannesque, little “Scenes from Childhood.” More recent ones had a greater sense of harmonic adventure and rhythmic flexibility. Amanda asked her to play some pieces for Agent Bond which she did. Even on second hearing, I found it astounding.

“The growth in stylistic maturity alone is amazing,” Bond said, “especially considering this is a computer program actually capable of learning. I don't know why the Aficionati would be interested, but I find this...”

“'Awesome' is what others have said,” Clara added without any hint of arrogance.

“Well, I would certainly agree with them, Clara!”

“Has anyone heard from Dr Purdue,” Clara asked, which startled all of us. “It's been three days now. I miss him.”

“He's... gone to visit friends,” Amanda told her. “He should be back... soon.”

Agent Bond may not be sure why the Aficionati would want this software, but I could easily understand why SHMRG would. They would market it to every starving, under-achieving, writer's-blocked composer in the world! I was pretty sure I'd want to get a copy for myself – before I'd have to pay SHMRG's exorbitant license fee.

“But there is something I could see of interest to them,” Bond continued, meaning, I'm sure, the Aficionati. “Embedding coded messages.”

“You mean, like 'mind-control'? Why...?”

“Wait – what about those 'Easter eggs' Clara mentioned?”

If the Aficionati were the ones abducting Tom, not SHMRG, what's their objective? Yes, SHMRG's wanting the software was fairly obvious. But what were the Aficionati looking for in a program with Clara's potential?

Clara might have unwittingly developed a communication system for connecting terrorists through music. Were the Aficionati interested in “weaponizing” the arts?

The door into the tunnel slid open once again and Dorothy and Martin rushed into the room, nearly out of breath.

“Took you guys long enough,” I said, “just to return that old wheelbarrow.”

“It wasn't just the wheelbarrow,” Martin said, pausing while he pointed behind him. I thought maybe someone had been chasing them.

“We heard voices,” Dorothy tried to explain as she leaned against the table, “some woman yelling, I couldn't hear what, exactly.”

“Whoever it was who put the wheelbarrow in here came from that house.”

“Interesting,” Bond said, checking them over, “tell me, what's this about a wheelbarrow?”

Forgetting they hadn't met, I introduced Agent Bond. Martin reached to shake hands before realizing she was only retrieving her badge.

We stumbled over each other explaining first the break-in and then the wheelbarrow which they'd seen earlier out in the tunnel.

“That house hasn't been empty for a couple of days, but I never had eyes on who was coming and going or,” Bond explained, “for that matter how they might've been coming and going.” She'd been told they've tracked that agent they'd electronically tagged to the place, hoping she could lead them to some others. “Apparently, she landed yesterday afternoon at the airport, but someone, some guy dressed in black was already next door by then.” That reminded me of reports about a neighborhood prowler making the local news.

Bond looked at her phone and was annoyed she'd missed an important call from a fellow IMP agent she'd been expecting, just as – also annoying – another one came in, this time from Detective Narder. After a few monosyllabic responses, Bond pocketed her phone and, handing me her card, said “If anything should happen, call me.”

Hurrying up the steps and noisily pulling the kitchen door shut behind her, Sarah Bond was quickly gone without another word.

“But, Terry, what if Tom's being held captive next door? We can't just...”

If the Aficionati were gathering at the farmhouse, the last thing I wanted was to storm the place without police back-up.

“I hesitate suggesting it, but shouldn't we wait for Agent Bond to return?”

“How long will she be?” Then Dorothy added, “we should wait for Cameron. I'd feel safer if he went with us.”

“He could be a while,” I said, “but, yeah, I could call him and let him know he should hurry back,” except at the moment I wasn't quite sure where I'd left my phone. Dorothy, pointing to it on the desk, waved impatiently and hurried after Martin who'd already disappeared into the tunnel, equally impatient.

I heard a sudden loud beep from the computer followed by a series of softer but persistent beeps, like an alarm. Above the noise, I could hear Clara humming some lyrical, vaguely memorable melody.

“Clara, what's that you're humming – I don't recognize it,” I asked while Amanda tried to find the cause of the alarm.

“Oh,” the computer responded, “it's a little something from Cherubini's Medea I like.”

Medea? I didn't upload Medea into your library.” Amanda looked at me, surprised.

“I'm really glad you did. I'm enjoying it.”

Amanda began typing more furiously through Clara's codes to see if anyone else logged into the computer – or perhaps hacked it. She immediately thought of Agent Bond's Aficionati supposedly next door and typed faster.

“Oh my,” Clara said, faltering. She stopped humming. “Oh dear – Amanda? – I think something is wrong... this music... there's something very...”

“I'm going to follow them; maybe we'll find out what's going on next door,” dashing into the tunnel after the others.

“And, Amanda,” I added, closing the door behind me, “be careful – good luck!”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on October 26th]

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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