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And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
“Whoever the hell booked this 'vacation paradise' should have their fucking head examined.” The man everybody tried to remember they should call Mr Fischer sat there, grumbling into his half-empty cup of lukewarm coffee. “Nothing but sunshine and sand and that never-ending ocean – and a steady diet of fish. It's enough to drive you crazy.” It was bad enough they'd booked him on an island with a volcano. “Maybe it's some kind of off-season discount package. Wonder if I can get my money back if the damn thing explodes?”
And the way things were feeling lately with this constant rumbling, wasn't it more a question of “when” rather than “if”?
“I've gotta talk to those dratted lawyers of mine about this next place, wherever it is they're going to hide me” – whatever it was Bushy Baggot & Green saw in this miserable place, anyway.
He had no idea how long he'd been here – it felt like forever since they'd first arrived, he complained every day – but there was nothing for him to do except, what... write his memoirs? “Plus I have to wait a week for my damn supplies to arrive from Tahiti,” forcing him to ration his scotch.
Yes, he definitely missed the Good Old Days when he had power and lived in the heart of New York City. This place was okay for old people with nothing to do but die.
Mostly, he missed the power, back in the distant days when he was busy turning his dad's little company into SHMRG, a mighty international conglomerate once feared in the music business around the globe. He missed the power to make or break some rock star's career because he liked or didn't like his latest hit.
He missed the power that could have the effete world of Classical Music with its intellectual snobs fawning all over him like he was God's Gift to Art, the greatest thing since Beethoven – “Greater!”
“All because I had the power,” Steele crowed, “and the power was money. More money meant more power, infinitely more power. And because there was never enough money, I could never get enough power.” Take it away from the troglodytes he controlled – “Simple!” – and it spiraled exponentially until they had next-to-nothing and Steele had next-to-everything!
It was time for lunch. Holly was already in a foul mood since she had not been prepared for becoming Steele's chief cook and bottle-washer since Margarita and her daughter took off for safety. It was beneath her station, she blathered under her breath, beyond getting his coffee, his scotch, his meds, and changing bandages. There wasn't much call for her continuing to be a secretary to a man who did nothing, who had no power. Steele was now reduced in the eyes of the 1% to having next-to-nothing.
Steele had to consider what kept his minions loyal in his current situation, historically challenging where there was no glow of power for them to bask in and little money to buy it. He knew for a while he could rely on Holly, on Monty Banks. But then he had to wonder about Cable.
“Now this whole damn place is going to explode and let loose the dinosaurs, I can feel it in my bones.” Then there were other times he felt reassured nothing was going to happen. Besides, it took years for things like this to build up, whether for man-made things like civilizations or forces of nature.
But mostly he knew “that infernal volcano” couldn't possibly erupt while he's there because “we're Americans,” he snorted; “it wouldn't dare!”
It's more important he get off the island before Darke's “expeditionary force” arrived.
And what exactly, he sat there contemplating – since he had nothing but time to contemplate – would this “expeditionary force” consist of? Certainly you didn't need a whole regiment to take out one unsuspecting victim? That was the beauty of the Beckett Doctrine (which, once the War on Terror began, became known as “the pre-emptive strike”). Cable talked like a ton of trained soldiers were on their way, flying on Darke's own private jet from New York. Though good for jobs, it wasn't a very cost effective way to operate.
No, Steele thought, if anything, it would be a single agent flown in from Los Angeles or maybe some closer point: wasn't there someone stationed in Buenos Aires or even Lima who'd be closer? Maybe Darke already had a hired assassin who just happened to be vacationing on the beaches of Tahiti, mere hours away?
Who would they send, he wondered, who would be given the privilege of taking Steele down? Someone who'd worked for him a long time, the shock of being betrayed a little touch of drama? Or some anonymous agent, disguised as a representative from Bushy Baggot & Green, a nondescript person he'd never suspect of treachery?
And when could they arrive? New York was so far away, thirteen hours just to get to Tahiti – nine from LA. Or is there already someone on the island just waiting for the signal?
When you consider loyalty, such a huge part of the hierarchy of power, he's known – trusted – Holly Burton for decades, now; he's known – and not sure he could trust – Cable for almost three years. In fact, Steele thought, rubbing his index finger across his lower lip, Cable hadn't been born when he first hired Holly.
“What if he's the one, working for Darke? What if Cable is the guy who's meant to bring about my demise? Maybe he's the 'sleeper cell' this time, the instigator of the Beckett Doctrine?”
And what was Cable doing all day long, anyway, sitting upstairs, playing with his computers and tracking events in far-off places? He knew Steele couldn't go upstairs and check out what he's up to.
“Why, I bet he's e-mailing back and forth with Darke and his hooligans, no doubt reading his instructions as we speak.”
He sat staring at the elusive message which by now he'd typed out several different ways, hoping one of them might trigger an idea or lend itself sooner or later to a potential solution. This time, Agent Cable didn't have the luxury of patience, knowing they would have to leave the island sooner than later. In fact, there was the threat they could lose power any minute if the volcano became serious and decided to erupt. He printed out a number of copies of the text, just in case. What it meant, though, was only one of its various mysteries and not the only one he felt obliged to solve. There were questions in his mind how – or even why – he'd gotten it. Did it concern the safety of his boss, Rex Fischer, or was it merely some hacker getting the best of him?
First of all, it arrived minutes after Cable received Carsonoma's first e-mail this morning, then his computer had immediately been 'pinged,' which, moments later, Monty Banks confirmed had originated in SHMRG's New York headquarters. If Carsonoma's account had been compromised, had he even sent it or had Darke's agent sent it with an embedded tracer? It was already too late to bother deleting it – was it, he wondered, even a real message or just random nonsense? The damage already done, he copied the text but deleted the original, regardless.
It always amused Cable no matter how many times he'd tried to crack some code, whether it was “computer code” or some seemingly indecipherable bit of intel, it was always the same, deep down: you needed a cryptographer's logic to break it but nothing would ever happen if something didn't click in your gut first.
It was the age-old dichotomy: which came first, the intellect or the heart? Only the old-fashioned pedant relied solely on one or the other, when they were really two sides of the same dialectic. He could set out any number of hypotheses and work his way categorically through each one but it was a tedious and time-consuming process and time was one of many things Cable didn't have. Or he could stare at the patterns indefinitely and see if anything in particular would start to materialize before his eyes.
Another thing putting a distinct crimp on his concentration was the almost constant deep rumbling he could feel, even if he couldn't hear it, rattling the premises – not very secure premises, at that, as flimsy grass shacks go – the way one might feel the lowest pipes on the pedals of a vast cathedral's pipe organ. He was convinced if they'd had a dog – Steele had firmly vetoed any idea of their having a dog – it would be circling around, its tail between its legs, looking for someplace to hide.
He also overheard Holly in the kitchen grousing about the constant interruptions in their electrical power, how she couldn't even heat up water for coffee without the microwave cutting out every couple of minutes. Steele's solution, of course, was to skip the coffee and switch to scotch, confident his monthly case would be arriving soon.
Cable, despite these distractions (not to mention other worries), continued to stare at the coded message, not knowing where to start. It was times like this he wished he'd downloaded one of those code-breaking apps but he'd never thought he'd need one, considering intercepting intel and cracking such codes wasn't part of his job description.
That's when he noticed it – not exactly a pattern but it was a string of exactly 64 characters: an 8x8 square? Could this be one of the oldest secret codes in the cryptographer's playbook?
Steele scooted his heavy behind further back into the wheelchair, hoping to find a position he could be more comfortable in after Holly finished the post-lunch ritual of changing the bandage on his wound, then, sighing, closed his eyes to block out the ever-present ocean and found respite in the shade of the bungalow's porch. Time moved so slowly here, where every relaxing hour-long nap increased the digital read-out on his watch by only five minutes until he swore he'd throw away his Rolex and break all the clocks.
He remembered the dinosaur toys he played with as a child, reading about how mighty “thunder lizards” stomped across the earth, completely forgetting their names today (he'd recognize their pictures if he saw them). He couldn't pronounce them, then, either, so he called them Fred, Sam and Susie after his friends, those few he had.
That's what this place reminded him of, with its sand and coconut palms: the set of some 1960s Grade-B horror film where, in the midst of this so-called “Edenic Paradise,” in lurid technicolor hues, scantily clad castaways romped in benign ignorance of monsters lurking in the jungle, each one soon eaten alive or crushed underfoot.
Fred – was he the T-Rex? – came down from the volcano while Sam and Susie shuffled out from caves in the mountainside. Ominous rumbles interrupted the castaway's party – the earth shook – the claymation monsters attacked...
Ever since they'd first arrived, Steele had been having these daily “dinosaur dreams,” usually ending in some form of well-deserved carnage. Only the misunderstood hero, the perennial outsider ignored by everyone, was left alive. He'd watched as the girl who refused his advances stared into the gaping jaws of Mighty Fred – and the hero laughed.
Earthquakes destroyed the island, killing the dinosaurs as he was somehow whisked or swept away – and then, invariably, he woke up.
“Yep,” he sighed, checking his watch, “just what I thought: another five minutes.”
But this time the ominous rumbles were real, continuing underneath his gradually awakening awareness, his cup on the table rattled tenuously, everything, except Holly cursing at the microwave in the kitchen, was eerily calm. Where was a man in a wheelchair – the misunderstood hero, the perennial outsider – supposed to hide once Fred and Friends approached?
No, Steele made up his mind: regardless when Darke's agents were expected to arrive, he must get off this island now, make it to safety, whisked away before disaster struck, escaping the metaphorical dinosaurs. It's been forever since that bastardly bullet struck deep into his heart – again, speaking metaphorically – causing this constantly festering wound.
Someone called it his “Amfortas Wound” – not that he understood much of what happened in Parsifal (if anything happened in Parsifal) – locking him into the horror of this God-forsaken wheelchair like a common invalid.
Now he'll spend the rest of the day stuck in the “Circle of Pain,” that spin cycle of his anguished whirlpool – the wound that brings back memories of his fall from power, that causes him to drink more heavily to forget the pain that keeps him weak, that keeps him from crawling back into power.
It didn't matter where in the world his loyal partisans might hide him, waiting for the right moment, his enemies were always seeking him out, could always find him, could always get at him. Surely there was some place within the civilized world he could hole up, where he could fight back from and win?
There's probably a mansion somewhere in Flatbush he could hide in, not far from that bastard Darke who's usurping his office. He'll have Banks – not Cable – arrange it with Bushy Baggot & Green tomorrow.
After another hour – or maybe two – Cable finally found a system that worked with one of the oldest codes in the book, going back over two thousand years to the days of Julius Caesar. One of those “magic square” things you read down rather than across, it took a while before it started making sense. He'd tried any number of letter substitutions, playing with inversions and retrogrades, even a retrograde inversion, subdividing the alphabet “every which-way,” until he remembered his grandmother warning him about “minding your 'p's and 'q's.”
“Lower-case 'p' mirrors lower-case 'q' in this font,” so, placing a hypothetical mirror between these two adjacent letters in the alphabet, he realized a-through-p became the retrograde of q-through-f and, likewise, q-through-z became g-through-p.
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p | q r s t u v w x y z
f e d c b a z y xwv u t s r q | p o n m l k j i h g
Beautifully symmetrical, but it still made no sense. “Except it fits into a perfect 8-by-8 square – just like a chess board.”
He quickly started scribbling the new letters into the square, excited by the discovery, and made it through the entire message when the house shook like someone being throttled, everything swaying in all directions. The computer went dead, the desk light went out and from below he could hear Holly and Steele screaming like children.
Grabbing the one page with his latest solution, Cable made a dash for the stairs and managed to reach the porch, pushing Steele ahead of him, just as a helicopter landed on the beach.
The rumbling had become a roar, but not loud enough to drown out the screams of practically everybody from the village who were now headed their way, away from the now-quivering volcano behind them. Looking over his shoulder, Cable saw bright puffs of ash escaping from the mountain, and knew it was about to blow.
Steele was glad to see his “official supplies chopper” arriving ahead of schedule. Cable hoped there'd be enough room for them.
“Damn,” Steele said, increasingly impatient, “where's that scotch? I'm going to need it!”
In the seconds they were forced to wait until the blades slowed down enough they could approach the helicopter, pushing others out of the way, Cable looked at the message he'd begun to solve.
It was starting to make sense but yet, in a way, it didn't: something very weird was going down in Philadelphia!
This time, I felt I was definitely swirling, yanked by force from certain death as that... that creature with the scythe – no, it was really a sickle, but it really did feel like I'd faced the Grim Reaper himself in that room, not to mention seeing the woman he killed die in front of me! Who knows what would have happened to me if the Kapellmeister hadn't returned in time to haul me out of there; not that my imagination was having any trouble coming up with likely scenarios. And while for once I'd been glad to see him, the Kapellmeister was nowhere to be seen: where had he gone? All I could see was this swirling mist while I tumbled through space. Again, my ears were completely stuffed with cotton. I assumed once I landed, it would correct itself, hopefully better this time.
Where – and for that matter, when – I landed, how off the mark that one was in terms of time or place. Ah, I thought, I must tell the Kapellmeister, looking around for him, how I'd seen Edith Ives' dollhouse in that room. Would he be able to find the place again? Things started slowing down. A shadow began to form ahead of me and I found myself slowing down. How long was I traveling – minutes? years? – leaping from some past Halloween's frying pan and jumping into Christmas Future's fire?
But the more the shadow took on a definite shape – a man, yes; an old man sitting alone at a table? – the more I realized this was Tom though I couldn't be sure when. Was this after the divorce, when Susan left him; or later, after his Aunt Jane died? Or after he'd been fired? There was something else, an out-of-tune piano in the distance – no, inside my head – playing... what? The tune was very familiar: something I used to play, something every piano student played at some point.
No, the man looked old and sad, alone and lonely, staring into an uncertain future without Tom's usual sense of fortitude, that confidence I knew when we were young, that resilience I always envied. Wasn't that Chopin, one of his most popular tunes, but rendered unrecognizable: no, that's not the way it should be played.
“Let us go then, you and I,” he started in this strained, sing-song voice, a chanteuse who's forgotten there's a tune, approximating the vague memory of notes, “had we but world enough and time, when the evening spreads across the sky...” (here, he turned his head, trying to remember) “and stars are in the blue. Walk through streets where women talk, their conversation flowing in tedious arguments, nattering on about Michelangelo till the end of time.”
I figured he'd sung this song before but has forgotten most of it.
Something about “the yellow snow that rubs against the window pane” got the best of his memory and he stopped, stared into his empty glass and waited while he filled it up once more. “Let us go then, you and I – in a minute, my muse, in a minute there is time...” then stopped again.
He growled outside the song like an inner critic with frequently repeated commentaries.
“Enough time in a minute – sixty brief seconds – to say one hurtful thing, a silence, a glance between you and me...” After another swig, draining the glass, he thumped it down on the table. Perhaps it jostled the bottle, I couldn't tell.
He sat and stared straight ahead, almost daring someone to speak, to answer, but I could see no one else there. He was alone, I was sure; I couldn't see or hear anyone else.
I hadn't paid much attention to the words – the music, whatever you could call it, whether it was accompanying the words or defying them, was getting in the way. (Pay attention to the words!) This wasn't, from what I gathered, Tom at what he ironically considered “the height of my so-called career,” from happier times. Was he singing this to someone? Susan, perhaps? As far as I could tell, unless Time was playing tricks, this was the recently retired version of Tom, laid off from his last full-time job.
Closing my eyes against the encroaching fog, I tried to imagine Tom back when Susan first left him, before the divorce and though he'd felt terribly hurt, wasn't this a deeper level of despair? At least not one inflicted on him by someone else, more likely the result of some injury he's done to himself.
Making a toast to an invisible companion, Tom said, “oh, to find that lost time again, back when composing was fun – when I found it fulfilling and when, above all, I found it easy.” Again, he drained the glass and thumped it down on the table, the bottle rattling, his chin falling to his chest.
“As long as love is in the air,” his song resumed, “and birds still sing, know I will always love you...” – (again, dissolving into some half-forgotten cadence) – “...like a patient etherized upon a table.”
Unlike other experiences I'd had today, revisiting memories Tom and I had shared where I was an observer of the past, this was not something I could recall having shared with him in reality.
“In a minute there is time enough, when roses bloom from May to December. Do I dare to eat a peach?”
There was no chance I could ask him what he's thinking, or intervene; only by looking at him, a tired old man hardly visible through the darkened mists, could I imagine when we are.
“I grow old,” he whispered, drawing out each word. “I... grow... old...,” this time stretching it out across a great arc of a phrase, from the top sinking into the bottom of his range. “Till the well of inspiration runs dry, till the mountains I've achieved are all erased: do I dare disturb the universe?”
From the angle of my vantage point – where was I, suspended beyond his left shoulder as he sat in his kitchen? – there was hardly anything else I could see of the room around him. The location, though, was less important – where but home alone could he be? Was this before or after the heart attack? Since I'd known him, we'd never shared a moment this personal, this raw, this full of doubt and tainted with failure; we'd never have allowed ourselves, either one of us, to appear this vulnerable. It was something we both felt was important, never letting our defenses down, never letting anyone else see those occasional weaknesses, dealing with the self-doubt, the lack of confidence, most of all the fear. Who else would understand this sense of loss: Tom wasn't missing his wife or, for that matter, his long lost youth.
Hadn't I had similar moments, myself, since being forced into retirement, whether I could prove it was “age discrimination” or not? Why bother dwelling on it? I'd hated what was happening to me at the magazine, that whole “new career” business aside. Few look forward to the idea of being, or at least feeling, useless. Which comes first, the uselessness or the death of our creativity, used up like some finite source of fuel – burned out? At some point in time, the surface cracks, the center no longer holds.
“I've seen my head, grown slightly bald, displayed on Arthur Flecknoe's silver-tongued platter” – he snorted at the recollection of some half-baked critic's scathing review, often wittily misquoted, which I doubt he'd never once forgotten – “I've seen the moment of my greatness flicker – stumble, falter, collapse,” (he tried to find a word) “dissolve, or, better, vanish.”
He resumed the thread of his vigil, stepping along at a modest pace.
“My hate for him grows deeper every day, for some poor cuckolded scapegoat, easy to blame, till the end of time.
“But stay and sit a while and let us think which way to walk and pass our too brief time together, since at my back, now, I always hear 'Time's wingèd chariot' galloping apace. If we cannot make the heat of the day stand still, my golden sun, why should we dread the dormant moon?”
Tom reached forward, realizing the bottle was nearly empty, picked it up and drained it dry with one last straining swig. Upending it over his glass, no drop left, he slowly shook his head, then took and tossed the bottle forward toward some unseen wastebasket, but I couldn't hear if it shattered on the floor.
“I've seen the eternal Footman – Creativity's critic – hand me my coat and snicker as we leave behind the cups, the marmalade, the tea, staring across desserts of vast eternity – in short, I am afraid.”
As long as I've known him, Tom was never one for physical contact, an awkward hug when a handshake might suffice. And yet he was so alone, I wanted to wake him, though he'd be so embarrassed to be seen like this. But I'd no sooner reached out than I began to slowly spin away.
“And can you hear the mermaids sing: 'I am here'” he crooned, “'and care for you, through laughter or through tears'? We've squandered time, my dear, and wandered in the chambers of the sea.”
At this point, now, I couldn't tell who was moving away from whom or where either of us might end up.
“This is where you say to me, tenderly, 'I'm the one you love and live for till the end of time,'” – his song trailed off, morendo – “till other voices wake us and we drown...”
= = = = = = =
to be continued...
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.