Friday, October 26, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 16

In the previous installment [posted on October 24th], Steele's I.T. Guy, William Cable, just discovered their undisclosed location is no longer undisclosed: it seems someone has broken through an encryption error and found them. Vremsky, frustrated by Purdue's lack of co-operation, contemplates the cost of failure, or at least disappointment. Lucifer Darke contemplates the responsibilities of power and actives “The Plan” to eliminate Steele. Osiris, arriving in Philadelphia, contemplates a personnel issue that has rapidly become a liability. And Sarah Bond is contemplating what possible use the Aficionati might have for trying to steal “Clara,” if that, indeed, is their object: are they planning on “weaponizing” the arts?

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

And now, as we reach the novel's "Golden Section,"
it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



As if Amanda was the one who was going to need some luck when I'm out here chasing after two friends the same age as me – three old-timers who should be enjoying their retirement – running off like a bunch of adrenaline-hyped kids checking out a place possibly crawling with who knew what kind of villains. And what did they mean, “checking it out”? like we're going to break in, go through the house hoping to find Tom and rescue him in broad daylight right out from under their noses? The whole idea seemed preposterous, especially without Cameron and certainly without police involvement, not that Bond wouldn't realize where we'd gone when she'd find us missing, doing exactly what she told us not to. Of course, the question which hadn't really had time to form was, when she did return, would she return in time?

Say we figured out how to get inside the farmhouse without alerting anyone; say it was while everybody's upstairs having lunch; say we even succeeded in locating Tom, getting him back to the tunnel: did that mean we'd do all these things without somehow setting off alarms, knocking over a chair or waking the dog? And even if we succeeded in all that, how long would it take before someone there would realize what had happened? Just making it back to Purdue's house didn't mean we were “home free!”

In the sudden flash, I very nearly knocked him over – knocked something over: at first I wasn't sure what it was, standing there in front of me. “Oh, jeez, no! Not the Kapellmeister again!”

“Ah, Dr Kerr,” he whispered, “Good, I have caught you before you left.”

“But I'm in a hurry – can't this wait?”

He was dressed exactly as before which shouldn't surprise me: so was I.

“You must come with me – I need you.”

He mentioned he'd found new information about the whereabouts of the Belcher Codex.

“But this is a really bad time for me right now,” I tried to explain. “I was on my way to...”

“Yes, I know, rescue your friend, but this takes only a few minutes.”

Despite going back into history – he wasn't saying where or when, I noticed – he assured me there was plenty of time.

What, I wondered, if I could ask him to do me a favor, I mean if I'm actually helping him out – though I have no idea how that's really working – something special in return? Maybe when we get back I'll ask him to help us find Tom, or better yet foil the whole kidnapping thing. It shouldn't be that difficult, only going back a couple days, not centuries, and “rescue” him Sunday morning before he's abducted. That way, I thought, none of this would happen, no one would die.

'That would be highly irregular, though, as it goes against all our regulations.'

Wait – whose voice is that? That's the Kapellmeister's!

'That's right. I can read your mind; now I'll let you read mine. But in the Tempo Maestro's Handbook, it says on page 13, article 8, “you can't change the past.” It's that simple.'

He agreed to think how he might be able to help but rescuing people in distress, even if well-intentioned, was dangerous, especially if the technology, this ability to time-travel, got into the wrong hands.

'While the unscrupulous could increase their profits from it, villains could go back and undo all the good in the world.'

That was something I vaguely remembered thinking about, years ago, but there was no time to waste, now, arguing about it.

Finally, the Kapellmeister grabbed my arm and we were gone in another flash.


“Thanks, Dr Kerr.” Amanda hadn't bothered looking up, typing into the computer to see what might be setting off the alarm. “I'll need it – not a lot of experience with this sort of thing.” She continued talking, unaware that Kerr had already hurried off into the tunnel. Clara distractedly hummed little fragments from Cherubini's Medea.

“Have you found anything wrong in my system?” Clara's concern was clearly growing. “There's something about this music, though – so different...”

Amanda couldn't figure out why someone would bother uploading something like Medea – unless...

To her surprise, Amanda found traces someone had indeed gained access to Clara. “When's the last time I ran a check?” And not one but from three different locations. “Huh... all since last Friday.” She knew she hadn't checked anything over the weekend, hadn't thought it necessary. “And look here, someone did log on overnight!”

Since she hadn't given them to Kerr, who else would know the passwords? She couldn't imagine Cameron had hacked the security. But who else was around at 5:08 to access Clara from this computer? This wasn't an outside hack job by some bored teenager looking for trouble: it was a definite and focused attack by...

But by who – she heard the Professor's voice correcting her: “by whom” – exactly? She continued typing but was finding nothing helpful. Who would break into the house at 5am just to use the computer?

“This one's been in several times over the last few days,” she discovered, “even downloaded a copy of Clara Sunday morning. That can't be good news: what do they plan on doing with it?” She couldn't imagine who would even know about the software, since the Professor hadn't published anything about what he was developing.

“Wait a minute! Somebody's in here right now.” She tried to block him. “That must be the source of the alarm.” Figure out who Clara's attackers are could help identify who's abducted the Professor.

“Dr Kerr?” Amanda turned around but couldn't see if he was still there. He couldn't have gotten that far this quickly. “I may have found something, if you're there.” But there was only silence.

There was no time to go after him – they'll be back soon, anyway. “What could they do themselves without the police?”

This is what playing computer games is all about, what they prepare you for in the real world: dueling with hackers – the thrill of discovery, the formulation of a defense plan, the quick response – given all the talk of cyber-attacks from the Chinese or the Russians or even homegrown terrorists, this must count for something. Kids weren't aware of it at the time, the way high school athletes didn't think about abilities they could use later, the way chess was a game developing war skills: they just had fun. Eventually, foreign governments figured out how to use the technology of computer games as one more weapon in their increasing arsenal. A whole generation of couch potatoes and gamers suddenly come to the rescue.

“Take that, thug!” And with that, Amanda realized her foe had logged off. But because she'd won or he'd already succeeded?

What if the hacker had done enough damage, whatever his initial intentions were, and he's implanted some virus she can't locate? But by leaving the fray early, he also gets to maintain his anonymity. Her mind is racing in different directions, wondering what to do, where to check the files, so far beyond her experience. Then she remembers what Agent Bond had said, how several members of the Aficionati were gathering next door at the farmhouse: isn't that what Dr Kerr and his friends were going to check out?

“That would make sense, I guess,” she said to no one in particular, though Clara thought Amanda was talking to her.

Clara interrupted her humming to ask what she meant. “Nothing makes sense, Amanda.”

The fact Clara sounded calmer helped Amanda relax and she stopped typing as furiously as she'd been before the hacker fled.

Yet it made sense: if someone could break into the basement to move a wheelbarrow, they must've come from next door. If the Aficionati are holding Dr Purdue, they're probably the ones hacking Clara.

“I wish Cameron would get back,” she said, impatiently dialing his cell phone, but her call went right to voice mail.

“Aww,” Clara said, resuming her humming, “is Amanda falling in love with Cameron?”

Despite Clara's playful tone, it surprised her, she realized, Clara feeling these emotions. Then Clara's alarm went off again, louder, now.

“What's happening? Where's the Professor? Why are you making adjustments to my programming?” Clara sounded worried but her tone changed quickly. “What the hell do you think you're doing? Get away from me, slut!”

Amanda sat back, frightened by the sudden change. “It must be a virus!”

Just as suddenly, Clara apologized and began sobbing.

“Oh, Amanda, something seems to be suddenly overheating – could you adjust my vents? Dammit, child, must you always be so slow?”

Amanda wondered, considering she's learning everything so quickly, had Clara suddenly hit menopause?

She realized the virus was spreading in real-time, but what could she do? Running an anti-virus program would take too long. It was like watching a friend die who's been injected with poison! “Clara!”

Amanda decided she had to disconnect the internet cable and power down immediately. But Clara wasn't allowing her to shut down!

“You're trying to kill me! No, you can't!”

Amanda typed as fast as she could to circumvent the virus' expanding code.

“No, I won't let you do this to me – first, you killed Tom!”

Amanda felt she'd been hit in the stomach. “What? How could you even...”

Clara started screaming. “What've you done with him?”

“Dr Kerr,” Amanda yelled, “if you're there somewhere, I could use some help!” Clara was seriously overheating and Amanda was desperate.

“You've stolen him from me, you can't have him – he's mine, you bitch!”


They would definitely need to get these doors fixed before it got dark, especially if there's a prowler in the neighborhood – even from the street, you could tell the front door was hanging crooked. And you can't just hang up some plastic trash bags with duct tape like that's going to keep the place secure. The back door wasn't much better, its one hinge cracked, the lock nearly shattered so you couldn't even shut it right. Who'd broken in and ruined the doors but then didn't ransack the place?

“Well,” Cameron thought, carefully spreading the grocery bags out across the kitchen counter, “things will be better after a good lunch.” There was French bread and lunch meats for sandwiches, fresh fruit and cheese. “I probably didn't need to buy all this stuff just for another day. But it'll save last night's left-overs for dinner.”

“Amanda! – Terry?” Nobody answered him as he set out the “fixings” for lunch. “Who wants a roast beef or turkey sandwich?” He remembered Amanda's phone call, the one he missed while in the store. There'd been a lot of static and just two garbled words: “Call me.” When he did, it'd gone to voice mail.

Zeno, the only response he'd gotten, sat at the top of the basement steps washing first one paw, then the other.

“So, cat, what've you done with everybody else?” He began to feel uneasy.

He took a quick look into the living room – he could actually see light around that door frame – and called again, then looking upstairs, waited before wondering if it was safe to call again. It's like the whole place was empty but where could everyone have gone? And why wouldn't they have waited for him?

Uneasiness was quickly replaced by fear, and since Amanda's car was still out in the driveway, silence did not bode well. There didn't seem to be any obvious sign of another break-in.

“Anyone...? Bueller?”

Cameron carefully picked up a kitchen knife before heading down the basement steps, thinking this was probably not the best weapon-of-choice. Everybody'd been in the basement before: maybe they'd gone out through the tunnel?

Cautiously, he'd crouched down, holding out the knife, thinking about Alma Viva's body. “Did I bring a knife to a scythe-fight?”

No, there was Amanda, lying on the floor behind the desk. Was she unconscious? Had Terry gone to get a doctor? What would have caused her to pass out? He couldn't see any blood. Rushing around behind the desk, he wondered why the others left her alone. What had anyone else seen or heard?


She was coming to – her breathing was shallow, her pulse was barely registering. “Amanda, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

In a brief moment of awareness, she stammered, “virus...” and then, “a fish...”

“Fish? What do you mean?” He didn't remember any fish in yesterday's take-out. He thought about running upstairs for some water. And “virus” – had something gone bad overnight and she'd gotten a stomach bug?

Not knowing what to do, he dialed 911 and yelled again for Terry. Then Amanda fell back like she'd fainted again.

There's no signal on his phone. “It's dead?” He remembered other calls being made and received down here. “What the fuck...?” What could he do, some kind of first aid – induce vomiting for poison? Frantically, he looked for a land-line in the basement but couldn't see anything. “Wait, there's a wall phone in the kitchen.”

After another brief spasm, she opened her eyes again, looking toward the computer and tried to point, barely whispering “a... fishy...”

“What's fishy, what kind of fish? Amanda, who...?”

But with that, she died!

“No! Amanda!” Cameron screamed like it would keep her from passing over into wherever it was people went when they died. But he knew it was too late: there was nothing he could do.

And where had everybody gotten to – Terry and his friends, Martin and Dorothy? Was somebody else here while he was gone? Had the murderer been here, killed Amanda and run off with the others?

Had he missed being kidnapped himself – or worse? The tunnel door was still closed, but there were no signs of struggle...

He heard a click – was there someone else in the basement? The killer? (But he didn't know if Amanda was murdered...) He realized the computer monitor just went dark: Clara had just powered down.

“Wait – could that mean Clara was a witness? She might have overheard something.” Great, how is he going to explain that!?

He was about to run upstairs to check the land-line and call 911 when he wondered, “what's the point, by now?” More importantly, he needed to call the police, though little good that'll do. Of course, he knew the first thing they're going to say was that Purdue had come back and killed Amanda, too. Going upstairs to face the inevitable, he also realized he'll be a suspect, not just the person who found the body.

A commotion erupted as several people rushed around the corner behind the garage.

“Thank God, you're here,” he shouted, ripping the door open but instead of paramedics who might've answered an earlier 911 call, he realized it was Detective Narder and her two sidekicks, Tango and Reel. Narder held up a folded piece of paper but Tango and Reel immediately drew their guns and charged inside.

“Marple Police!”

Narder calmly showed Cameron the piece of paper. “We have a warrant to search Thomas Purdue's house, starting with the basement. Plus we'll also need to talk to you and your friend, Dr Kerr.”

After a quick look in the living room, Tango and Reel headed down the basement steps, trying to avoid the cat.

“We'll also need to talk to Purdue's intern – what's her name, Amanda Wences?”

Before Cameron could begin to explain what's happened since he'd returned moments ago, Tango called up from the basement.

“Found her...”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, October 29th]

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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