Friday, November 30, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 26

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr and the Kapellmeister – well, at least Dr. Kerr – leave Charles Ives' house on E. 74th Street in 1927 New York City to return to present-day Marple only to find a slight snaggle in the process when Kerr lands in Belle DiVedremo's office the moment she is murdered by Graham Ripa and only the timely appearance of the Kapellmeister manages to keep him from being similarly murdered. In his departing flash, Kerr notices a doll house in a corner of DiVedremo's office – the same doll house he'd seen Edith Ives playing with only seconds before.

(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.

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



“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) – “ 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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 25 (Part 2)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr inadvertently arrives in front of a New York City brownstone on a winter's afternoon as the Kapellmeister continues his search for the Belcher Codex and discovers he is about to enter the home of Charles Ives. While the composer is working at the piano somewhere upstairs – sounds of a creative struggle wafting down with occasional pauses – the Kapellmeister engages in conversation with family friend Dashiel Quigg who just happens to be related to Miss Norton from their earlier Harvard visit, both descended from Supply Belcher. In the process, he finds out the recent history of the Codex. It seems, after it had been given to Ives who hated the thing, Mrs Ives thought it too good to just throw away so when their daughter Edith wanted to turn it into clothes for her dolls and upholstery and drapes for her doll house, she figured “why not?” Just then, Ives comes downstairs, distraught to realize he can no longer compose.

(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.

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


It was stunning to see the composer of such vibrant music turned into someone so vulnerable, so weak, at such a low point in his life and his career (which to many were essentially the same thing). It was a powerful reminder how much the artist pays for the ability to create such works that amaze or inspire us – the Concord Sonata and the Fourth Symphony came to mind. What I'd seen in that brief instant was the shell of a man, truly one who had burned himself out. Perhaps it is best for those of us in the audience, listening to his hard-fought accomplishments, not to dwell on the risks of creativity with their personal toll. People may read about Beethoven's deafness and marvel he was able to overcome it, but we tend to ignore the pain it cost him to accomplish that.

I tried some quick mental math, never my long-suit, but if this was 1926, according to that journal I saw sitting on the table, then Ives could only have been... what, 52? That made what I'd just witnessed even sadder. If he had almost thirty more years left, had he, after this, given up composing? Was this a one-time attack of self-doubt or one of several? Was it the one that did him in, or would he sit down in a few days to find everything falling into place?

Everybody – well, anybody involved with Classical Music – probably knows the story of Charles Ives the isolated genius, scribbling away and hiding everything in his desk drawer, whether they like his music or didn't even know it beyond a few pieces like “The Unanswered Question” or those “Variations on America,” composed when he was a teenager. But like most things in the pantheon of Classical Music, that's a mere gloss, treating him like a self-taught “primitive,” the musical equivalent of Grandma Moses unaware of any more “necessary” refinements of craft.

What would have happened if I had been able to “talk shop” with Ives, preferably on a better day than this, one when he'd made a breakthrough trying to notate some of those spectacular effects we call “Ivesian”: did he really hear all that in his head or was he just trying to be complicated?

It was difficult to imagine two introverts like Ives and me trying to make conversation. We might have felt comfortable talking about the details – what he felt was important in what he composed or even how he approached composing – yet how did Ives react to strangers, especially other composers he might have been suspicious of? And what if, like some gushing fan, I'd blurted out how much I liked his Piano Trio which I knew had been written by 1914 or so, but forgot hadn't been performed until 1948?

No, things had begun moving too quickly for me to process everything that had or had almost happened, so close and yet as distant as any of those harmonic reverberations Ives often used to end his works. There had been no time, once I realized where we were, to imagine what questions I could ask.

And yet the Kapellmeister, aware his quest was over, refused to admit defeat. What could he hope to do after hearing confirmation the Codex had been destroyed: reassemble it from fragments like Lemminkaïnen's Mother? While they were distracted, could he grab the dolls and take off with the dollhouse itself? (The thing was, admittedly, huge.)

Couldn't he manage to go back a few years earlier, back to the time Ives had tossed the scroll on the floor after Quigg presented it to him, and rescue it from Edie's scissors?

The Kapellmeister sighed again, reading my mind, placed his arm on my shoulder and, staring me in the face, thought his own thoughts in reply. I'd forgotten the Time-Traveler's Rule about not changing history. “You might want to stop Lincoln's Assassination, say, assuming the future will be better, but there's no guarantee it would be.”

I had to laugh, staring back at him, wondering what anybody watching us might have thought. “Surely, this isn't a 'momentous event' like Lincoln's Assassination? Acquiring some manuscript is hardly on the same level?”

Originally, he was looking for clues to locate where the Codex was now so he could acquire it in the present.

“But isn't all of this,” I argued, sweeping my arm to take in everything around us – not only Ives' house but all the houses, streets, trees and cars we could see – “isn't this now?”

What was the big deal if Lady Beautiful never got her frontier skirt or the dollhouse she inhabited would never have been refurbished with rustic draperies, wallpaper and upholstery made of scraps of vintage leather? Surely no great historic event of the future was going to be compromised by such a minor loss, would it?

Couldn't I just go back a few days and rescue Tom Purdue before he was abducted, before all this started? Would it change history so drastically anyone checking out who's breaking rules would notice?

Mr Quigg hurried over to us and apologized for the abrupt leave-taking, apologizing as well for not having kept the leather commandments instead of giving them to Charlie. “Just think, then they would still be safe,” he laughed, shaking his head. “And if I'd had any idea it belonged to my family! Such an astonishing...”

Unfortunately, the Kapellmeister had already reached for his Tonic Screwdriver which, I gathered from my past experiences, meant it was Traveling Time. Ready or not, it was too late now to stop our departure.

Next stop, I thought, would be my safe return to the tunnel outside Purdue's basement – unless the Kapellmeister had some hare-brained scheme to check out another era to circumvent the destruction of Belcher's Codex.

If we're going back again, not forward, it would be too tempting to break the very code he insisted on upholding.

Despite the astonished looks on the faces of Mr Quigg and his son, their cries of surprise were drowned out by a rapidly ascending sequence of dominant-to-tonic cadences swirling through the Circle of Fifths. I had no idea where we started from and it was spiraling too fast to keep track of the rapid-fire modulations.

And this time, it's only some ninety years' distance till I can get back to Purdue's: what could possibly go wrong?

No, wait, let me rephrase that: “Where the hell is the damned Kapellmeister?”

All I can see around me is lots of darkness. The street, the bare branches of the tree overhead, even the old-fashioned car we were standing next to had all dissolved into the darkness. But the other times, wasn't the Kapellmeister's hand on my arm; wasn't there some kind of physical contact? Where was he?

I was sure I hadn't been alone the other times. I felt like a child left on a bus without a chaperone. When would I know to pull the cord – the chord! – in this vertiginously accelerating progression so the bus would stop and let me off, safely, at my destination? Who was driving this bus!?

The whoosh of cadences, starting so low I felt they rose from the ground beneath me, quickly evaporated into the stratosphere and soon reached a level only the most harmonically astute dogs could appreciate.

There was no sense of flying, no streaming hair nor wind slamming into my face, no weighty pull of gravity making me think my skin was being pulled off: I was just standing there. Then I sensed the darkness turn into mist, somehow, though I couldn't see it, not even sure I could feel it. My ears, though, felt as if they'd been stuffed with cotton and would need to pop once the air pressure dropped. Was I in a plane? How high were we flying? Were we flying?

We couldn't be flying, we're not traveling through space (are we?). If we're flying through Time, that has to work differently. No, hang on – something's taking shape through this haze. The darkness is clearing. There's no sense of landing, and now I'm standing in a different place. Is that a window? I think I'm inside.

Wait! Yes, that's a window, I can make out some drapes – heavy and dark – but that lamp's leaning against a table and there are books and papers all over the floor. What a mess! But no, I hear voices behind me, two people, muffled, running up from some great distance, rapidly closing in on me. Did I cause this when I ended up landing here, like the blades of a helicopter? Where the hell am I? Somebody's going to be pissed... Can I straighten this up before anybody notices?

My ears popped with such force, I thought it would knock my head off and I ducked when I saw the flash of light, nearly losing my balance. A woman screamed with ear-splitting volume.

“Wait,” I start to say, “don't worry, I can explain” – (no, I can't!). I turned around and saw... what, exactly?


A large woman stood in front of a desk, waving her arms like a semaphore, her eyes wide and fearfully white. I thought she had seen a ghost but she wasn't looking at me. Then I realized what she was staring at: not me, but a tall, skinny man all in black standing between us.

He wheeled around, apparently noticing the burst of light, and saw me. He swung his arms wide as he, too, screamed. Something he was holding in his outstretched hand glared brilliantly in the flash.

Conditioned by a generation of bad Hollywood films where some great, horrific moment, when seen from the protagonist's eyes, suddenly turned into slow motion, everything before me immediately started moving at greatly reduced speeds, including the ornate lamp she knocked off the desk which fell to the floor in a prolonged tinkle of shattering glass. Bursts of light reflected piercingly off the glass of several framed photographs hung on the walls and made me want to wince except I found it impossible to close my eyes even to blink. Sweeping across the room as I turned to face these people behind me, I was conscious of asking no one in particular if I was in the past or some other present moment not far from Tom Purdue's house that I happened upon accidentally, or had I somehow missed the mark of my return completely?

But rather than a series of cheesy special effects or computer-generated animations, the African-American woman's dark skin took on a pallid complexion, drained of blood, her body shaking as if suddenly made of gelatin, her mouth opening wider as the scream escaping from her took on the menace of a factory whistle sounding the alarm. Momentarily shocked, I found my eyes unable to tear themselves away from hers, though I sensed whatever I was doing here was not enough to save her, whether I could change history or not.

Most of all, what focus I could maintain, after shifting to the man in the center of the room, became glued to the bright, flashing object held in his right hand, making its broad arc outwards as he turned and, in his surprise, threw his arms wide, about to spring like some ancient ninja warrior. He stood closer than the woman, little more than arms' length, but for some reason I saw little of his face, a thin, pale mask with a distorted mouth, black against his pale skin.

Was it, in fact, a mask – one of those fashioned after Munch's painting, “The Scream” – and had I, I wondered, dropped unannounced onto a set in the midst of filming some low-budget slasher film? Had I heard someone shout “Cut!” or had I merely become aware the man was holding a long, thin, curving blade?

The only sound I could hear now, not quite buried among the screams and breaking glass, was the long, pronounced hiss of the man's flying blade – a scythe? a sickle? – slicing through the air as he spun his wiry body, covered in a long black trench coat, and pounced with deft precision in my direction. It was my turn to scream: I opened my mouth and bellowed for all I was worth, forgetting I was an old man with limited lung power, adding to this dissonant, nondescript three-part harmony.

And then I saw the bright red arc, dark, fluid, sparkling like jewels in the fading lightening flash of my arrival, bursting from the wound tearing open as it raced across the woman's throat. Her scream reached deeper into her range, knocking her against the desk before she folded into a heap toward the floor.

Before I realized, there was blood everywhere, falling in great thudding drops like heavy rain in the midst of a hurricane, spattering against the desk, the floor, the wall and possibly even the ceiling, not that I wanted to distract myself by tearing my eyes away from the man lunging closer toward me.

“Holy crap!”

The blade's handle was definitely short, a sickle (not a scythe!) as if that distinction were important now, but what demented maniac would carry around a sickle when he went breaking into somebody's office?

All this was immediately interrupted by yet another flash – there was no other word to describe it; I tried thinking of something else except my mind's thesaurus came up “access denied” and remained unavailable – not nearly as bright as the one I'd experienced when I arrived here only seconds earlier, more like half the luminosity. Perhaps the difference was because I had been at the center of that one and this was... well, something else, apparently. No doubt there's a logical explanation for this, but save that for later.

This slightly lesser flash opened up what I could only call a small “hole in the air” just to my right and out of this hole protruded the Kapellmeister who, this time, I was decidedly more glad to see than usual. Or I should say, to be more accurate, the upper part of the Kapellmeister.

He seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see even part of him though I suspect some portion of the surprise I saw registered on his face concerned my present location. Meanwhile, the large-framed woman fell across the floor, her hand to her throat, all sound and life draining from her scream. My traveling companion lunged through this hole in the fabric of time before he would land fully in the same location, his hands latching onto my shoulder with fragments of a second to spare.

I saw the woman's increasingly lifeless body stretching across the rug as blood seeped out from the gash at her throat – “that's gonna stain” – the killer tripping over her arm as it flopped forward. The look of fear on the killer's face was instantly replaced by panic as he realized he had lost his balance. Tumbling toward us as the Kapellmeister – in the proverbial “nick of time” – managed to yank me away, the killer's blade swept wide and in the process slashed the Kapellmeister's sleeve (“nick of time,” indeed).

There was, as much as I wanted to make my escape fully intact, one last thing I inadvertently became aware of, looking across the carnage that had occurred in a matter of only seconds: there, in a corner by a large table was the same dollhouse I'd seen moments ago in Charles Ives' living room.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 30th]

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.

Monday, November 26, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 25 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Perdita Vremsky, barely able to control her actions, finds herself in a distant lady's room at Kimmel Center just before SHMRG's big gala concert is to begin. She knows what's going to happen but she also knows she's powerless to make it stop: she has been programmed to become a human bomb. Following up on what Dr Kerr had overheard, Sarah Bond arrives at the Kimmel Center looking for Vremsky backstage: no sign of her. Meanwhile, at Chez Bourbonne, Marple's jazz club, Arugula Jones, the jazz singer who works at Marple Music, identifies one of Narder's photographs as the man she saw standing over Alma Viva's body, a man Bond said was Graham Ripa, Purdue's neighbor. The question now, even if he didn't kill Ms Viva, is Purdue innocent or could he still be the mastermind?

(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 woman, quietly concentrating on her knitting by the fireplace in a living room more elegant than plain, was of an age no longer young but neither on the verge of being dismissed as old, herself more elegant than plain. Clearly she was a beauty, once, and she'd be beautiful still if the culture would admit to that. Tall and poised, she was thin enough to be considered slender when most women her age tended toward the matronly, her hair piled up in a careful mound more gray than dark. At the same time, she was aware of various odd discords and strange rhythms emanating from an invisible piano somewhere upstairs, sounds creating a dissonance with the style of the furnishings and one which might have prompted a visitor happening upon the scene to think a child was banging away merely to enjoy the noise. The hallway where we stood, facing a set of steps leading to an upstairs lost in the late-afternoon shadows, was a narrow-enough affair, a vestibule helping to block out the day's chill and noise from the street, though by modern standards, it was certainly quieter than I'd expect for a large city. Before us, a coat rack hung to overflowing with heavy coats and scarves nearly blocked the view that led toward other rooms further back that at this point I could only guess at – dining room, kitchen.

When we arrived, the Kapellmeister and I, it wasn't so clear in my mind about that “when” since we stood before an old brownstone mansion, fairly timeless like most of Manhattan, and judging from the few cars on the street, sometime before the 1930s, though I'd never paid much attention to details about cars, their makes and models. It was old enough to be “before my time” yet modern enough to be an improvement on our latest jaunt to Boston assuming history advances and society evolves with technological progression. Once I'd given up arguing with him, there was little chance for him to explain anything before we saw a man approaching us who clearly thought we were lost and needed help.

“We're looking for the home of the composer, Charles Ives, and I suspect,” my companion said, gesturing toward the steps, “we've found it.”

Two children wrapped in warm-looking coats with long colorful scarves and matching mittens came running up behind the man, excited after their outing, and stopped suddenly at the sight of two coatless strangers barring their way, their gentle laughter coming to a halt more out of curiosity than fear.

“Then you are in luck,” the man said, holding out his hand, and introduced himself as Dashiell Belcher Quigg, a friend of the family, and the children as his son Edward and the daughter of Mr and Mrs Ives, Edith.

“Belcher,” I thought, my eyebrows arching as I glanced at the Kapellmeister, “this is no coincidence we arrive at Charles Ives' house the same moment as a man who's middle name is Belcher.” The Kapellmeister, meanwhile, put away the silvery pen he called his “tonic screwdriver” and shook the gentleman's hand, nodding at the children.

“Aren't you cold?” asked young Edward, following us to the front door. His father, also warmly dressed and far more suitably for such a winter's day than we were, apologized for his son's rudeness.

“We've just come from the park,” he explained, gesturing back toward Central Park, “where it was much windier than we'd expected.”

“Well, I can't wait to sit in front of the fire,” Edith said, “my fingers are bone-cold frozen!”

And with that, they burst into the living room, disturbing the woman who'd been patiently knitting.

“Ah, Dash,” the woman said, putting her knitting aside, and rose to greet them, giving the children a hug before eying us with some concern. We could hear the piano in the distance which I assumed meant Charles Ives, one of the greatest, if not most innovative of American composers, was somewhere hard at work.

When Mr Quigg introduced us, the woman – who was Harmony Twichell Ives, the composer's wife – said without fuss or further explanation her husband was busy, pointing toward the ceiling, and could not be disturbed.

“He's not been well, lately,” Mr Quigg explained as Mrs Ives helped the children out of their coats, “but he has been working hard today, it seems, and that must be a good sign.”

“Come, children,” Mrs Ives said, nodding at us, “let's go into the kitchen and I'll make you some nice hot chocolate.”

Mrs Ives with daughter Edith (1915)
I noticed she did not offer us any, as if she hoped by ignoring us we would go away that much sooner and not bother her husband. Mr Quigg, though friendly, did not offer us the opportunity of making ourselves comfortable before the fire.

“Charlie doesn't usually work this late into the afternoon,” he resumed. “By now, I would find him sitting here with Harmony reading to him.” He picked up a book on the table by the window. “Ah, Dickens, today – Hard Times, not one of my favorites.”

He wondered what our business was with Mr Ives who, Mr Quigg said, was not used to visitors and rarely expected or enjoyed them, even, at times, old friends. “In fact, I'm surprised you'd found him out already, since they only moved into this house a little over a month ago.”

The Kapellmeister offered no explanation beyond saying he – or rather, we – were looking for an old document which we – or rather in this case, he – thought Mr Ives might have come across during his student days at Yale.

Meanwhile, I'd noticed a periodical on the table next to the Dickens, a volume of the “Musical Quarterly” dated 1926. “Ah,” I thought, a little closer to knowing one answer. I'd considered asking Quigg “the time” but knew he'd only give me the hour and wonder why I'd need to know what year it was...

The Kapellmeister described it as an old manuscript written on a rather unusual piece of leather rather than parchment, so perhaps more durable than the standard “old manuscript.” More to the point, it was a list of Ten Commandments as might apply to beginning composers.

I could see a glimmer of recognition as Mr Quigg struggled with a distant memory.

“It was known as 'The Belcher Codex' which might be familiar to you, though I'm not sure the document itself is signed or referred to as that. Sound familiar?”

Quigg motioned for us to be seated as he leaned against the mantlepiece in the manner of someone about to launch into a lengthy tale. I suspected Mrs Ives would not be pleased to find us not only still here but so comfortably ensconced in her living room. The fire, I admitted, felt quite pleasant.

Quigg's Cousin Emaline, a cousin of the great singer Lillian Nordica – the family name had been “Norton” but her agent thought “Nordica” would be a memorable improvement for an opera star – anyway, “Cousin Emaline told this story about some old family heirloom, a curiosity going back over a hundred years ago, by now, I'm guessing. She was a student at that Harvard School for Women and studied with John Knowles Paine to, of all things, become a composer – a 'female composer' – therefore not one worth paying much attention to.”

“Eventually,” he explained, “she married and stopped composing, what with the busy-ness of being a wife and, soon, a mother, but she'd married another student of Paine's who was also a composer. Now, as I remember it, he had been badly injured in a fall, something about a student prank in the library one night. But Cousin Emaline said they had been looking for this old leather scroll that Professor Paine had stored away in Harvard's library which Paine said he'd been given by his organ teacher in Berlin.

“She described it as previously belonging to her great-something-or-other-grandfather” – I found myself nodding in recollection – “but as she never saw it and only knew of it through some strange tale her great-something-or-other-uncle used to tell, it was never enough to convince anyone the thing was real and not just the stuff of legend, after all.”

By this point, anyone else might have become impatient, but for me it was catching up with an old friend, nice to know Miss Norton survived that night in the library but saddened to know not only had she married the man I suspected she would but had also ended up no longer composing. But though, aside from Mrs Beach, there were no “female composers” of note from that period of our nation's musical history, how many might have proven talented enough to have been “worth paying attention to”?

“She became more of a nursemaid than wife to her husband,” Quigg continued, “especially after their only child – a daughter, I believe – died, but then Jeckelson Hyde never amounted to much of a composer himself and soon stopped all forms of creativity. He died a bitter young man shortly after the turn of the century.”

Everything left from Mr Hyde's creative life had been placed into a box, mostly unfinished manuscripts, some completely illegible, but all, as far as Cousin Emaline could tell, “very weird stuff, to put it mildly.” I was curious where this box might be and was tempted to ask Mr Quigg if he knew its whereabouts.

After a lengthy silence, we heard a mighty thump of a racket from the piano upstairs, perhaps both forearms slamming onto the keyboard but an actual “chord” or made out of frustration, who knew?

The sound startled Mr Quigg from his reverie – apparently some fond memory of his long-suffering Cousin (she would be, what, only 60 by now) or perhaps pity for the promise her husband's career never realized – and he lowered his voice as he continued, as if not to be somehow overheard by his friend upstairs. Again, the thread vaguely continued, as often happens, with Antonin Dvořák teaching here in New York City when a student of his found this “ancient colonial parchment writ on leather” in some Boston antiquarian's shop.

“There were long discussions about 'American' music, all their models being Dvořák's models – Brahms or Wagner, Beethoven or Bach – all Europeans. So this 'quaint' bit of frontier wisdom amused them and Dvořák had a good laugh over it, even though he left it behind when he abruptly resigned his post and returned home to Prague.

“We became friends, Charlie and me, at Yale. He was a year older and a class ahead of me. In a way, Charlie later reminded me a bit of my Cousin Jack – Jeckelson, but everybody called him 'Jack' – writing these strange pieces. Some things I'd heard Charlie play were enough to amaze or confound anyone! Considering the time and what 'good music' sounded like, then, I wonder what Charlie would've made of Cousin Jack's scribblings? Anyway, most of us thought Charlie was either nuts or a genius, possibly both.

“Then one of Dvořák's students – I've forgotten his name – arrived at Yale to finish his studies with Professor Parker” – Charlie's own long-suffering teacher – “and brought this 'backwoods manifesto' with him, telling us how they'd all laughed with Dr Dvořák over it after a few beers. No one took it seriously or thought it worth considering. It never occurred to him who might have written it or how long ago that'd been. At the time, I certainly had no idea any ancestor of mine had anything to do with it.”

Quigg explained he didn't know much about his Cousin Emaline then – his father always referred to her as “your poor Cousin Emmie,” always in that typically condescending tone of his. It wasn't until after her husband died she'd told him the story and he remembered Dvořák's colonial commandments, but by then, it had disappeared again.

The noise from upstairs got louder, more intense, more insistent as he repeated a passage several times as if Ives were trying to work out some subtle detail. The studio, Quigg said, was on the fourth floor, but at times I thought the whole house was shaking. Other times, I could barely hear Quigg talking. Then there would be a sudden silence and we'd all stop and wait, afraid to interrupt his concentration while he scribbled something down on paper. Then it started up again from a different spot.

And so Quigg would also resume his story, how a group of friends presented this leather scroll to Ives one night while celebrating one of his wilder “sound experiments” with the theater orchestra, suggesting perhaps these basic rules would help soften Charlie's “frontier roughness” and smooth the edges off those “Yankee crudities” he called style.

“Everybody but Charlie had a good laugh over it but he controlled himself well and didn't lash out at his friends like I thought he might once the fun-poking got a little too personal. Charlie was famous for his rages even then, and his temper could easily flare up and become nasty, venting his soul. When we got back to his dorm room, Charlie just threw the thing into the fire and walked away, but I was able to pull it out before it more than singed the edges.”

Quigg kept it for a while and forgot all about it, dismissing it with an airy wave of his hand.

“But then, after Charlie had his heart attack – this was, oh, eight years ago, now? – I remembered it and practically tore the place apart trying to find it. My wife, Dulcie, recalled seeing it one summer and after a thorough search of the house managed to unearth the box I'd stuffed it into. I guess it's true: she always said, even before we married, I never threw anything away.

“Well, it was a time when I thought Charlie could use some cheering up. Harmony said he was never a very good patient, always worried something would happen to him and he'd never be able to compose again, so I thought it might, you know, amuse him, maybe even inspire him. Unfortunately, it did neither...”

Quigg tried imitating the scowl Charlie'd given him, and described the rage with which he'd tried to tear it up, forgetting it was leather, not paper. “And I assure you, he pelted me about the ears with language of such pure Yankee cussedness which I dare not repeat with a lady and children in proximity.”

Exhausted, Charlie'd thrown it on the floor beside his bed and would have tried hitting him with his cane had Quigg bothered to retrieve it.

“And that's the last I saw of the thing.”

During a pause while we waited for the piano-playing (or rather, -pounding) to resume – I couldn't begin to imagine what the noise would sound like if it were only in the next room – Mr Quigg fixed us with a speculative stare as if a thought had come to him like one of Charlie's out-of-left-field inspirations.

“And why, may I ask – having done most of the talking – are you gentlemen interested in this old joke of ours?” After poking at the fire, he straightened up, his elbow against the mantlepiece.

The laughter of children could be heard coming from the kitchen and getting closer.

“How, for that matter, do you even know about it?”

“It may be of great value,” the Kapellmeister began, “to someone who's heard stories about it. I feel it should be in... well, a museum.”

“You mean, that thing's worth money?”

Harmony's return – that is, Mrs Ives' – was preceded by the eruption of the children who, ignoring the unknown visitors better than Mrs Ives had managed, made a bee-line for the ornate dollhouse that stood on a low table beside the front window. Unlike the children, Mrs Ives took a moment to eye up her unwanted company with pursed lips and, after giving Mr Quigg a quick scowl, no doubt for having detained us, took the box she was carrying and placed it on the floor next to the children.

“Here you are, children,” she said, her voice devoid of any tension she might have regarding our presence. “Mr Ives should be down shortly, however, since it's soon time for him to rest before dinner, so then it will be time for you, Eddie, dear, to take your father and head back to 67th Street.”

From upstairs, the sound of a familiar hymn began to unwind, phrase by phrase, first harmonized as it might be sung in any church service of the time, but then gradually wandering farther afield into an overlay of soft contrapuntal lines and chords creating such delicate dissonances, any congregation would be brought to a halt.

Not surprisingly, we all stopped – except for the children who merely became quieter – to listen and smile. I think I saw Mrs Ives' lips move as if she were about to start singing along.

Ives made a habit of quoting anything and nearly everything in his compositions. Also not surprisingly, poor church-goer that I had been all my life, I was vaguely familiar with the tune but had no idea which hymn it was or what the words might be.

Once it went beyond a simple Sunday sing-along, I leaned forward and asked Mrs Ives what it was her husband was working on, hoping to start a conversation the Kapellmeister – now with Quigg's curiosity aroused – could modulate into something about the Belcher Codex.

“What is it Mr Ives is composing today? I don't recognize it.”

She picked up her knitting, quite comfortable pretending she needn't bother with the duties of a hostess: not that she was rude, by any means; just indifferent.

“How could you, sir,” she said without looking up, “as he hasn't finished composing it yet?”

True, I nodded, aware I'd made what must be the typical time-traveler's gaffe about knowing how things will work out in the future. While there was a lot of Ives' music I did not know – or did not know well – I did know this much: by this time in his life, Ives wrote very little any more and had had very little of what he did write performed. The incompleteness of the Creative Cycle, from composer to performer to listener, was something that frustrated his career his whole life.

“His music,” she hesitantly began, “has always been a mystery to me, however much his beautiful soul shines through it, even the strangest bits, the sheer wildness of so much of it – but that's Charlie.” I wasn't sure at this point whether she would continue or merely give over to her knitting and her memories.

Charles Ives w/Edith, Passport Photo 1924
“That 'Comedy' thing he completed a couple years ago, such a huge part of this vast symphony of his – why, he'd finished that,” she added with a smile, “right before we went to England. But what he's working on now, I don't know. He works very slowly and revises constantly. Nothing is ever really finished...”

Quigg added the symphony was getting its first performance at Town Hall next month with Eugene Goosens conducting. “You should come!”

“That is if,” Mrs Ives said, “you'll still be in town for it?”

“Harmony,” Quigg said as she resumed her knitting once softer piano chords began floating over us like bells from far-off churches, “these gentlemen were asking about that old leather relic I gave Charlie back...” – he cut himself off before he'd remind her of the timing of the gift, a difficult time following that heart attack.

“Oh, that old thing.” She smiled without looking up. “Charlie hated the sight of it when I'd stumbled across it during the move here. I'm surprised we still had it after all those years. When I opened this one box and showed it to him, he clawed the air trying to get at it and shouted over and over, 'burn the thing!'” Her laugh sounded pleasant and childlike, the tinkling of little bells. “Well,” she admitted, “that was not the exact wording he used, but there are children present...”)

“No, Harmony, you didn't burn it, did you?” Mr Quigg sounded devastated, imagining a fortune going up in smoke. “These gentlemen said it could be very valuable...”

The piano had gone eerily silent for nearly a minute, underscoring the news the Codex was no more, the tolling of chords having dissolved into nothingness just like one of Ives' more ethereal soundscapes.

“Not in so many words, Dash,” Mrs Ives said. “It was a very nice piece of old leather and would've been a shame to destroy it like that.”

She nodded toward the children, explaining how Edie wanted it for her “fashion line for Lady Beautiful” – Eddie was playing with the boy doll she called Prince Rollo – something about a “rustic frontier costume.”

“The rest of it ended up in the dollhouse which she claimed needed new drapes and upholstery, though I suggested some other nice fabrics I had would have been more suitable. Leather was such an odd look for wallpaper.” Harmony shook her head and returned to her knitting. “Whatever Edith wants, Edith gets, you know...”

I noticed the Kapellmeister's eyes widen in disbelief at the discovery he'd come to the end of the road searching for the Belcher Codex. I hoped this meant he no longer needed my help.

“You seem disappointed, sir: perhaps I should get you a glass of water?” Then she noticed the piano-playing hadn't resumed yet.

The violence of the sound emanating from the composer's fourth floor studio had, over the course of our visit, gradually subsided and the quaint old brownstone, typical of many on Manhattan's East Side – I had not been aware at the time the original Mannes School of Music, one of America's great conservatories, was located across the street! – returned to its typical late-afternoon calm. But now the silence lasted longer, became if possible deeper, and Mrs Ives grew increasingly nervous, glancing at the ceiling, worried if something might be wrong.

The Kapellmeister sat stunned, his search for the so-called Belcher Codex over. Yes, he'd tracked it down but he was too late. There it was, in tatters, turned into doll costumes and dollhouse accessories!

And I, trying to conceal my excitement, was about to meet the idol of my musical youth, the incredible Charles Ives!

Mrs Ives apologized as the awkward silence continued – even the children had grown quieter. She'd said her husband wasn't in the best of health lately and his rages and frustrations sometime have been more difficult to defuse. She must be thinking she ought to go check on him, find out if he's – what, still alive?

But she'd also said this was the time he'd stop working and join her in the parlor so he could listen to her read aloud to him – Dickens, I remembered, glancing toward the book.

I'm sure that's all it is: his work-day was over and he was putting away his papers and pencils. Soon, we would hear his footsteps on the stairs and he would enter the room, exhausted from work – and, of course, probably not be pleased to find strangers waiting for him when he wanted to rest.

She rose and hurried toward the hallway when, in fact, I did hear footsteps on the stairs. She would probably divert him, take him out to the kitchen, make him some hot chocolate, too.

But the voice I heard was not the booming, cantankerous Yankee individual I would have expected, the sharp eyes peering out mischievously over the trim beard: the face, clean-shaven, was haggard, vacant, even scared; the voice, catching, a shredded whisper. The man leaned against the newel post for support, afraid without it he might fall.

“I can't seem to compose any more,” the voice stammered, “nothing comes!”

His wife fussed about him as one might comfort a frightened child, soothing his nerves, and led him to the kitchen.

“Come, Charlie, let's have some nice hot cocoa,” and they slowly shuffled down the hall, away from us. She didn't give us a backward glance.

“Nothing comes out right anymore, Harmony – no matter what I try, it all sounds wrong...” His voice trailed off as he hobbled out of view, an old man, his spirit broken.

It was not what I expected, not the image I had of Ives, the Great Innovator whose cussedness railed against anyone who couldn't stand up to his dissonance, to music that – to him at least – sounded right.

Quigg, his eyes shining with tears, called to his son and told us we too should leave quietly.

While Quigg and Eddie fussed with their coats, the Kapellmeister and I hurried toward the front door. His plans dissolved silently with the cosmic reverberations of distant church bells barely felt in the soul.

So, what about Supply Belcher's great joke, his Ten Commandments for Beginning Composers, nothing left but shreds after all these years?

The dollhouse stood in a soft pool of light from the nearby lamp, the street beyond the window deep in shadow. Edith's hair shone like spun gold as she sat there, clutching her doll.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 28th]

A historical note: while much of the novel is fiction, much of this scene is based on fact: the house at 164 E. 74th Street is real, the piano upstairs is real, even the scene in which Ives tells his wife he can no longer compose is real, though based on an elaboration by his biographers based on a later interview with Mrs Ives (recounted in Jan Swafford's marvelous biography, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, p.348).

Whatever Ives might have been composing that day, I imagined it sounding something like the ending of the Piano Trio with its Rock of Ages (in this clip, it begins c.10:26). The "Comedy" is the epic scherzo of the 4th Symphony which would indeed be given its first performance a few weeks later (the whole symphony was not premiered in its entirety until 1965). Here's a performance with the Yale Symphony & Concert Band conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada. This movement requires, at times, two conductors, and I am delighted to discover the band conductor, seated behind the pianist in the center, is a former student of mine from our University of Connecticut days, Thomas Duffy!

The final movement, which adds a choir to the ensemble, ends with one of Ives' more ethereal sound-scapes with reverberations hovering through the universe.

Most of the more familiar photographs taken of Ives and his wife date from either earlier in their lives or much later. These two are as close as any I could find: a painting from 1915, when Edith was 1 year old; Harmony, 39. The photograph with the composer was a passport photo taken before their trip to England in 1924 when Ives was 50 and Edith was 10.

This scene takes place not quite three years later, actually in early January, 1927. Most people would be unaware that Ives stopped composing when he was 52 even though he lived another 27 years, and that he was still working at his insurance company's  New York City office until he retired on New Year's Day, 1930.

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.

Friday, November 23, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 24

In the previous installment [posted on Wednesday, November 21st], Graham Ripa celebrates the impending demise of Perdita Vremsky, the human bomb, with a little Schoenberg, champagne, and fondue, trying not to dwell on his misgivings about what could possibly go wrong. Sarah Bond thinks she's caught Vremsky on the lam but it turns out to be Tango & Reel, when Kerr calls with news about Vremsky's whereabouts (or least her previous whereabouts). Just as Kerr is about to break into the old farmhouse's basement, he has yet another run-in with the Kapellmeister.

(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.

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



One of the more remote lady's rooms was not Perdita Vremsky's idea of a place to hang out, taking care of the pre-concert ritual of “putting oneself back together” before heading into the auditorium, but as it was one of the less crowded rooms, she sighed, it also meant she would therefore be less noticed. Several other women freshened their make-up, set their hair to rights, adjusted their dresses after a disruptive drive into the city, but in general they ignored her, frumpy, middle-aged, unfashionably dressed in pink wool. Her lipstick was smudged, her skin was puffy – no doubt, she'd been weeping – and her hair needed much more than brushing, since, even at a quick, disapproving glance, it was obviously a bargain-basement wig. Whatever had happened to her, they were probably thinking, did she really have to come to a concert looking like that?

This particular restroom, she gathered, was more practical than some of the more centrally located ones, elegant lounges meant for display, where women could “adjust” themselves before luxuriant mirrors, chatting about nothing-in-particular to everybody-in-general. Here, where nobody pretended to recognize anybody else, she could enjoy some anonymity, and kill some time before the concert began.

“Ah,” she thought, trying not to look in the mirror over the washbasins, “an unfortunate turn of phrase, that – no matter.” This wasn't exactly where she'd want to spend her last minutes on earth.

The stall furthest from the entrance opened up, revealing an elderly lady, perhaps twice Vremsky's age, who hurried up to a washbowl to rinse her hands as if the concert were only minutes away. She saw Vremsky and nodded toward the now-empty stall as if she thought the Woman-in-Pink was unaware it had become available. Before Vremsky could respond and thank the woman for her kindness, a bird-like woman weighed down with diamonds barged past her, nearly knocking her off her feet, and elbowed her way into the stall.

“Well now, dearie, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go,” the older woman quipped with a philosophical tilt of the head, not realizing her small hat and veil slipped a bit and almost fell. “You'd think she was the Duchess of Sansom Street, her,” the woman said. “Well, enjoy the show, dearie,” and she left.

Vremsky stared into the mirror wishing she could adjust her hat and straighten up the wig Govnozny had plopped down on her head in an attempt to cover the scar left from the operation. She should hardly be out walking around already, the miracle of modern medicine aside, even treating brain surgery as an out-patient. She felt “woozy,” like she might collapse on the floor at any moment, losing her balance if someone else bumped her. She felt very weak, unable to raise her arms, everything going numb. “Fark...”

Her eyes were deep and dark, infinitely sad, recalling those once-popular, cheaply produced paintings of wide-eyed orphans or whatever they were, staring at you from the wall as they begged relentlessly for your pity. That moment, she thought of her sister Lontana – the beautiful, radiant, distant Lontana – and felt she would vomit into the sink.

Standing there, unmoving, a steady stream of old women (“did young women not need to use the bathroom?”) swirled around her. It reminded her of a TV commercial where a dying woman stood static, nearly frozen in her isolation, oblivious to reality, while the rest of the world flew past at five times normal speed.

She felt she could no longer use her hands or even speak; she walked like someone who's recovering from a stroke. She was unable to do anything, much less run away or even scream.

“'Enjoy the show,' yeah, right,” Vremsky thought, as if the old lady couldn't tell there wasn't something seriously wrong with her, that she wasn't even able to enjoy her visit to the lady's room. Even as concerts went, the idea of sitting through this one would be torture enough without knowing what's going to happen.

And what exactly was going to happen? Just because she'd overheard Osiris and that creep Falx talking about their glorious 'plan' when they weren't aware she'd come to once the anesthesia began wearing off...

Maybe, with any luck, that wretched old bitch, the “Duchess of Sansom Street,” will be sitting close by when it happens. She didn't seem the kind of uppity society dame who'd be using a more pedestrian restroom if those diamonds were real. Vremsky swore she looked more like a tired old drag queen than anything.

One of Osiris' men stood outside in the hallway, watching the lady's room, in case she made a run for it. A brief flash of bathroom humor – considering the only way she could make a “run” for it, now – would ordinarily have brought a childish smile to her otherwise unmoving lips, but not any more. Could something have gone wrong with Govnozny's wiring that she could, through some miracle, control her body well enough to escape? But how, much less where to, with this thing planted in her brain?

“Oh, the humanity,” she wanted to wail, but knew she couldn't, not anymore. She could no sooner warn somebody what was going to happen than she could straighten her wig – she hated feeling powerless. What if they're capable of reading her mind? What good would it do? Could she will herself to stop the command? It's not like they would punish her by setting the device off early. Well, given the technology, she figured they could somehow make her soil herself moments before it all happened, one last indignity.

Soon, the command would come and she would wander back into the hallway, ready to do what Lóthurr programmed her for. From there, trailed by Osiris' guard, she would nonchalantly wander into the auditorium. There was nothing she could do, waiting for that last command to arrive. She'd become nothing more than a human bomb.


Agent Shendo didn't want to think how the Aficionati found their tracking device, successfully removing it from under their target's scalp, then planting it on one of the local police cars as a distraction. It wouldn't be a difficult operation – it wasn't, implanting it in the first place – but how had their pigeon been plucked? Were the Aficionati's gadget guys able to read the information on the device which could trace it back to the IMP? He figured they discovered it by accident with no idea where it originated.

While their surveillance went off on a wild goose chase tracking down a Marple police car hoping to catch their pigeon, the real target was once more on the move, this time completely free-range. Bond said some guy near their hide-out overheard “concert” and “bomb” in the same sentence and figured “This is the place.”

“So here we are, at the biggest concert in the region tonight,” Shendo explained to his men and the handful of Phillie's finest and three FBI agents that could be spared on short notice. “All we know is we're looking for the usual suspects and suspicious packages. Oh, and here's a surveillance photo taken yesterday.”

Bond hurried over, joining them at the side entrance, one that led directly to the backstage area, and quickly introduced herself. She'd just gotten a call from the IMP mole infiltrating SHMRG's stage crew.

Agent Sauron Zimmerman reported there were no signs of Scricci backstage, but some of the crew said he was being kept safe in an undisclosed location. “Perhaps they'd gotten wind of some credible threat?”

“Or,” thought Bond, “they're keeping him hidden away so he didn't create a scene if someone shouted 'Hey, it's Fictitia LaMouche!'”

Considering such a high-profile event with Scricci as its host, it wouldn't surprise Bond if LaMouche did put in an appearance. Undoubtedly, SHMRG was taking every precaution to avoid another of Scricci's classic melt-downs.

Ms LaMouche, an on-line investigative blogger, had crossed paths with Skripasha Scricci several times in his past, none of them pleasantly, first exposing him as a drug dealer during his Siberian Transgender Orchestra days, then unmasking other “unsavory” activities in various, imaginative ways until the mere mention of her name unleashed a tsunami of fear.

Lucifer Darke's keynote speech was a “total dud” – Bond loved the technical jargon – the signal breaking up shortly after it started, before SHMRG's engineers finally cut the feed once they'd totally lost the connection. “Some of the guys backstage are saying it had been scuttled from Darke's end,” Zimmerman said, “not from the concert hall's.”

“Sounds like your standard 'oh-you're-starting-to-break-up' excuses ending with an 'oops-sorry-we-got-disconnected' cover-up,” Bond said.

Zimmerman laughed. “Yeah, they don't seem to be aware of anything with Project Fly-on-the-Wall,” the IMP code-name for their backstage surveillance.

“There's a reception going on in the Green Room with most of their stars,” she told him. “I'll check it out.” If Scricci's anywhere, he'd be there, she figured, not in his dressing room. They can't be after Darke if they brought Vremsky here, but how will she get in past security – and do what?

Then it occurred to her, looking around: “What if Scricci and the performers on the program are not the intended target?” Beyond the technical difficulties at the dinner, the concert is the real event. If the Aficionati weren't after SHMRG and especially their Golden Cross-Over Boy, Scricci, who would most likely be in their cross-hairs?

Bond looked around at the chaos backstage – “Nothing out of the ordinary here” – yet there was no sign of Perdita Vremsky.

“What if it's not going to happen backstage – and she's somewhere out front?”


The dinner hour at Chez Bourbonne, touted as the best (if not the only) jazz club in Marple, was already underway when Det Narder, with Tango and Reel, arrived to talk to Arugula Jones. Narder had been there on occasion with friends though for both Tango and Reel this visit was a first-time “ethnic experience.” The place was humming, dim and smoky, a perpetual after-hours club even during lunch when the ambiance toned down only slightly. Reel assumed it suddenly turned midnight and a beer would taste good, now.

“Sorry,” Narder told the bartender when he asked what they wanted to drink, “business, this time, Sasha, at least for now. When do the musicians take their break? I'd like to talk to them.”

“Oh, come now, detective,” he said, flashing her an ear-to-ear grin, “surely you don't think they done killed someone, do you?”

When she grinned back, he said they'd probably be taking a break soon – they'd just started playing “As Time Goes By” – setting up glasses of water on-the-rocks with lemon for them, “on the house.” They might as well look like they're here to enjoy themselves. “Otherwise, you might make some people kinda jumpy, ya know?”

Narder enjoyed stopping by here when she had the time and needed to “unwind a bit,” like her Uncle Lou said. He'd loved places like this but usually they were a little less classy.

While Narder was racking up big points in the body count with this case – now four bodies in two days – Grumpy Cop was practically apoplectic they haven't scored anything pointing toward a credible solution. If anything, she could use some time to help her “unwind a bit,” but so far nothing was helping – or happening. It irritated her this Bond woman cornered the biggest score yet, even if it was from one of her prime suspects. Even though this information was therefore suspect itself, she would follow her lead.

True, the International Music Police had better tech at their disposal, not nearly as cool as stuff you saw on TV. Uncle Lou told her, “never turn down help from guys with cooler toys.” So she reluctantly agreed to show her witness Bond's photos on the off-chance Dr Kerr wasn't tossing them a red herring.

“That water?” Arugula asked, sashaying over from the raised stage and smiling at the applause from her fans. She'd finished her set but her colleagues stayed behind to play another number on their own. “Hey, Sasha, chérie,” she beckoned to the bartender, “I'll have what they're having.” Narder'd mentioned some “new development” earlier. “What's up?”

The detective explained while Reel sat back, listening to the song Rivers was playing, nodding his head, an old favorite he hadn't heard in years: Bill Evans' “Time Remembered” from back in the '60s.

Arugula, sweeping an imaginary strand of hair from out of her eyes, glanced over the grainy photos in the dim light. She squinted a couple times, went back and then examined them more thoroughly. The first one she knew was Old Tom Purdue whom she identified. Narder pulled it aside when she said nothing more.

She also passed over the one of the Woman-in-Pink. “If she'd come into the office, chérie, I sure would've remembered her.” She spent most of her time in her office upstairs. “Ask Crimea, though.”

Then, staring at two different angles of the tall skinny guy in the black trench coat, she said “yeah, that's him...”

She'd kept thinking how it had been a full minute between Nick trying the doorknob and when she actually opened it. “He stayed there, must've been looking around for something. But that's definitely him...”

Crimea and Nick came over and joined them after nodding at the applause, casually polite rather than enthusiastic, but pleasant enough.

“That was really great,” Reel said. “I love that old Bill Evans tune.”

“Oh, cool,” Nick smiled back, “not many people these days know his stuff.”

“Better than that stuff Purdue writes,” Tango groused.

Narder coughed, hoping to get them refocused while Arugula showed Crimea the photographs. “Do either of you recognize any of these?”

Her phone rang. “Torello,” she said, “anything new? Sorry, speak up, could you?”

When Nick saw the photo of the van, he remembered having seen a black van, old and kind of beat up, parked down at the end of the alley a few times, recently. “I figured it belonged to some new neighbors. You think it's the killer's? Of course, there's a lot of black vans around...”

Narder tried listening to her phone call but between everybody talking and all the clinking glasses, she couldn't really hear him. “Yeah, okay, Sal, we'll meet you at Purdue's as soon as we can. Just keep an eye on that farmhouse – and that goes for the tunnel. Don't let anyone in or out of it.”

Putting her phone away, she turned to the others, gathered up the photos and apologized they had to leave so suddenly. “If you're right, his name's Graham Ripa and he's Tom Purdue's next-door neighbor.”

Torello had told her how Naze and LeMonde found Kerr's phone and a flashlight on the tunnel floor – “just dropped there” – and how it could be the spot right outside the farmhouse's basement entrance.

“So that probably confirms what Kerr was saying, and somebody in the farmhouse – maybe Ripa – found him there, and grabbed him.”

Reel recalled that article about the disappearance of Ripa's grandmother back in 2002. “Remember all that blood in the farmhouse's living room? Who wants to bet 'Old Jane Doe' is Graham Ripa's missing grandmother?”

“Well, as far as Alma Viva's concerned, the only one where there's an eye-witness, yeah, Purdue's probably not the actual murderer.“

Reel wondered if that could mean Purdue was innocent like Cameron Pierce insisted.

“Not so sure,” Narder said, “he could still be the mastermind behind everything.”

“Typical serialist,” Tango grumbled, “they're such control freaks.”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 23

In the previous installment [posted on Monday, November 19th], Dr Kerr sees several people emerge from a small shed outside the cemetery with someone in a wheelchair who's being moved into an old van: thinking it's Tom, he discovers instead it's the “woman-in-pink” Bond had told him about, an Aficionati agent she's looking for. But when he tries to call Bond he realizes his phone is dead. After the van leaves, he finds a business card for a therapist with an appointment set up for that very day for Tom Purdue; he has another odd connection to some past therapy session Tom had with her; then, taking a deep breath, Kerr steps into the shed.

(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.

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



Perhaps it was a miscalculation, making a splendid fondue with cheese, basil, and fresh sourdough bread, as a late-afternoon's celebratory snack. They would sit and wait, however impatiently, for the fruition of the experiment which Graham Ripa knew, given the time and the anticipation, he would be unable to deal with on an empty stomach. Dinner was still about an hour away, but a little “Schoenberg and Champagne” seemed just the thing to tide them over until he realized Selket had to feed Osiris each small chunk of bread. The champagne was the best Ripa had ever bought, certainly the most expensive, but he was unaware, after taking his glass – not an “official” champagne flute – Osiris set his aside with a disapproving scowl: he had always been of the school the only alternative to bad wine was no wine, even if it was free.

They sat in the center of the farmhouse's newly renovated basement, despite its lack of amenities – Ripa must now consider the added expense of making changes for handicapped patrons, putting in ramps and elevators – but he rationalized the living room, though grander, was much dingier and less, he thought, impressive overall (especially with that bloodstain). Osiris appeared gracious enough to understand the circumstances since his arrival at the Old Haine Place was both unexpected and sudden. Ripa had explained the reasons so often, Osiris tired of accepting his apologies.

Hoping to deflect the conversation and not sure he could maintain the usual small talk until the time the concert began, Ripa broached a subject that often came to him during the “Midnight Hours”: “Is there any rational reason for 'being good' if the concept of 'good' is not something that can easily be defined?” He thought the whole idea of “being a good boy,” as his father stressed when he was a child, was even more outmoded now, considering what he saw in reality, especially religion and politics.

Dealing not only with his father but that overbearing grandmother of his, not to mention most of his teachers and friends, Ripa considered his dislike for this attitude not only because it seemed unyielding, but also because it eventually yielded to every generational disagreement that came along, canceling out whatever authority such societal precepts condoned.

The problem was, Osiris began, pushing aside Selket's hand with one more cube of cheese-encrusted bread, our present moral system, such as it was, was over a century behind the times, if not more. How does one update our sense of what is 'good' if we're still defining the world through Victorian concepts and preferences? Even the Bible, written during some dusty, ancient time, its culture long vanished, is no longer the Code of Law it was intended to be, however followers used it to defend certain social attitudes.

“If that's the case, considering the debate among many Christians today, you can see why it's so difficult when the New Testament, as written, tells you one thing and modern society tells you another. 'What we believe' has become our religion; and 'religion,' an excuse for enforcing what we believe – contradicting things like... well, 'good'.”

The Mobots, of course, were a perfect example of this, helping the Aficionati implement the 'good' the world so desperately needed, combating the 'bad' – one should really call it 'evil' – of groups like SHMRG. It has become time for true believers of 'Great' Classical Music to stand up against the atrocities committed in Art's name. This was how Classical Music believers entered the 21st Century, by embracing technology, an advancement that could only be considered “good” – not that the whole world would see it the same way, he cautioned.

“With Agent Hephaestus' assembly line, we'll soon be turning out dozens of humanoid prototypes who, as he can perfect the technology once we can communicate with them directly, courtesy of Dr Purdue's musical code, will advance our cause around the world, wherever Great Classical Music is in danger of being watered down by popular contamination. And tonight, at this damnable so-called concert, we will make history as Lóviator shows the world the power of the Aficionati, when, sitting alone in the audience, she will enter into Valhalla a hero.”

Ripa could hardly control his enjoyment as he imagined the whole entertaining prospect, thinking of Vremsky in her little pink suit. “It blows my mind – almost as much as it will hers,” he laughed.

Making another toast, Ripa raised his glass high. “To Lóviator – she's the bomb! And making the sacrifice for the Greater Good!”

One often heard how “being good” had so significant a role in the beliefs and passions of adults, true or not, “certainly,” Osiris pointed out, “since they pretend it's one of their abiding principles. It's a dichotomy preying upon their vanities – that's 'preying'-with-an-'e' as opposed to 'praying'-with-an-'a' – a weakness they regard as a major strength.”

Classical Music was like a religion, he said, within the domain of self-professed Christians and their sacred mumbo-jumbo, “like any religion.” It was this appeal of the “Sacred” that drew most music lovers in.

“I know we're supposedly doing this for the 'good' of Classical Music, in fact, for the 'good' of Civilization,” Ripa smirked, “but in the long run, simply put, isn't it good to be good? But then,” he innocently added, like a child who had an either/or proposition to consider, “isn't it easier to be bad?”

It wasn't their being “good” in whatever sense you meant, something simply for the sake of “being good” sounding fairly childish; Osiris considered their having socially acceptable “good behavior” was “good enough” (pun intended).

Ripa naively wondered if a good person was one who lived by good principles and did good things to benefit others, wasn't it also possible for a recognized 'good person' to be... well, disgusting?

“So, one could ask 'What is good?' if it's good to be good?” Osiris, reaching for his champagne, decided “why not...?”

Ripa held up his glass, making a toast: “It's good to be king!”

Osiris sputtered with the incomprehension of the pop-cultureless (“was this underling telling me to my face he expected to replace me?”).

And Ripa, with the incomprehension that anything he said could possibly offend anyone, chugged back his champagne, unaware Osiris did not.

“Isn't it true any act you perform could be viewed as either good or evil, depending on who's doing the viewing?”

Osiris winced at Falx's inept choice of words, especially rhyming “doing” and “viewing,”

“Let's say I perform... Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, since we're listening to Schoenberg (not always one of my favorites, by the way).”

Ripa tried not to wince as his favorite, the Master's 4th Quartet, began.

“Critic A,” Osiris explained, called it “a divine inspiration,” but “Critic B” likened it to dust from the library's bottommost shelf.

“Who determines how composers we like become part of the accepted canon, recognized by society in general, therefore acknowledged as 'Great,' while composers we don't like are ignored and considered 'Awful'? On what grounds?”

It was like those catechisms Ripa remembered learning in church when he was a child: “Honor thy father and mother.” Why?

“Can you imagine,” Osiris said drily with what might have sounded like a chuckle, “being literally 'seized' by an idea? Rubbish!”

Ripa certainly agreed to feel such emotions physically was to “modulate” into insanity.

“Considering people like us, my dear Falx,” Osiris nodded toward Ripa, “you and I who are raised to possess a certain reserve in the face of the unfathomable – the logical analysis of scientific minds – statements about emotional responses to music akin to spiritual ecstasies embarrass me, torture that they are, something left from the Inquisition. It is as if they expect us to believe God speaks directly to them whether we believe in God or not – it is enough for them they do – and therefore that makes everything true.

“How can these irrational observations be considered data,” Osiris continued to argue, “when we're dealing with something as abstract as music, notes on a page played fleetingly in time which affect each individual differently? Yet they rarely express themselves in anything more coherent than the latest psychobabble heard on TV talk shows, vague and pointless.”

Ripa furtively looked at the clock, hoping Osiris wouldn't notice and think it was because he'd lost interest in what turned into a sermon, no doubt one he has delivered frequently over the years, but he was eager for some “data” of his own, since the van should be arriving at the Kimmel Center soon. He felt honored to be the recipient of such a sermon on such an occasion from Osiris, leader of the Aficionati, though he admitted perhaps he would be more receptive after their mission's success.

Just as Ripa's phone buzzed with the ringtone assigned to the Brothers Punimayo, Osiris noted it was a shame no music theorist ever acknowledged having such spiritual visions who could then sensibly explain them.

Ripa answered the phone as surreptitiously as he could, relieved to hear Yanni say they had the concert hall in sight.

Putting the phone away and nodding at Osiris, Ripa thought he saw some motion, a blur, on the one security camera, wishing he'd paid the extra money for the expensive brand, skipping the bargain. His hand on his pistol, he went toward the tunnel gate, glad Osiris couldn't see him, and slowly opened it: nothing.

It occurred to him, as tightly wound as he'd become these past few days, however exhilarating that may be, he was in danger of snapping like his grandfather's old watch – sproing! – just like that!

“Ah, sorry, that was... uhm,” Ripa nodded toward the pocket where he kept his phone, annoyed he'd forgotten Yanni Punimayo's agent-name, “er, Agent Castor” – or was it Pollux? – “calling to say they're almost there but the traffic on the Expressway had been worse than expected, plus there was an accident on – never mind... not important... The trick will be finding a parking place close enough to the hall (which could take a while, circling the block), and then they'll wait until Vremsky – uh, Lóviator – is strong enough to walk.”

The van will need to be close enough to the side of the auditorium she'll be seated on, having coordinated that between her ticket, then locating her seat number on the on-line seating chart. Ripa knew Osiris was not interested in these details, especially anything setting up an excuse for failure, even regarding back-up plans.

When they did their run-through earlier that afternoon, they'd parked too far away from the seat and their WiFi connection failed; even if one of too many strategically placed steel beams in the walls got in the way, their signal could fail, and they'd been unable to find any helpful construction blueprints for Verizon Hall. So Yanni would stay in the truck while Vinny roamed through the lobby with a simple WiFi booster, just in case, and then Agent Lóthurr could ascertain the signal was reaching Lóviator's receiver unit.

This was, of course, more of a beta-version of the Mobot Project than just making sure a detonating device planted in the brain of an unwilling victim could explode on signal, Ripa knew that, but still, he wished they'd had a few more days to work with Lóthurr, after all, not just a few hours. Vinny's emergency back-up (“can you hear me now?”) might've been more gracefully handled, and a little more experience wouldn't have hurt – what if some busy-body usher thought he looked suspicious, talking on his bluetooth?

What if the police were on to them, the police who were crawling all over Old Doc Purdue's house next door (what if he'd managed to frame Purdue for the murders at Marple Music?). Surely, the local police weren't expecting their suspect was still in the area? Surely, they couldn't possibly hack into Vremsky's brain?

All this was happening too rapidly but Ripa knew it was a test to see if he could handle an emergency, multi-tasking beyond just this beta-version trial for the Mobots and acquiring Thomas Purdue. If only the old man would comply, then his success would be complete; the rest now was up to Dr Govnozny. Plus he knew the real concern, the International Music Police, was nowhere near being “on” to them, sophisticated as they were. But there was another matter Ripa was hoping to avoid: Osiris' “little undertaking.”

He knew it was on The Boss's mind and he knew why he hadn't, so far, decided to mention the topic. Oh, they both knew the Mobot Prototype with Vremsky was their Primary Focus, but time was running out on the acquisition of this “ancient American artifact” Osiris so desperately wanted for his private collection.

Other agents around the world had tried tracking it down with little success; everyone of them had failed to procure it. And now, someone else was after it, too, and they must be stopped. Whatever Vremsky did to deserve being turned into a “human bomb,” what if he, Falx, failed to find this Belcher Codex?

Sitting back, Osiris, perhaps reading Falx's thoughts – “if I had that power, would I need a gadget to hack your brain?” – certainly glad for a change of topic, asked him about the concert broadcast.

Making some “minor adjustments” to his sound system, Ripa complained SHMRG's TV broadcast deal had fallen through (lack of sufficient funding) but how the local classical music radio station agreed to carry it live – the call-letters were WFRT or something like that; he couldn't remember the frequency, either, since only old people listened to radio. It must have annoyed the crap out of SHMRG they couldn't get the local PBS affiliate to agree to the broadcast despite the mix of classical cross-over with big stars from the pop world. He'd heard they'd considered taping it for a delayed broadcast the following weekend, fitting in after their current membership campaign, but a live broadcast was out of their budget on such short notice. It wasn't like SHMRG hadn't known about it, given all the planning involved: somebody's head should roll for dropping that one.

Ripa also switched out the up-coming Schoenberg Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op.47, given what his guest mentioned about his preferences, not sure whether he should go with some Late-Beethoven quartets or perhaps Brahms. He could never get enough Schoenberg, frankly, and never understood how quickly friends of his reached their saturation point. (“Their loss...”) But even if the centuries-old purpose of the Aficionati was to safeguard the Great Mysteries of Classical Music, for that matter, what's wrong with a little spiritual ecstasy when it came to Late-Schubert quartets?

“You know,” Osiris said, smacking his dry lips, “we should bring Dr Purdue out to watch the concert broadcast tonight so he can see how his research can facilitate what we plan to do. It may inspire him to work with us if he sees how he can help for the 'good' of the cause.”

Without mentioning the TV broadcast business again, Ripa explained they could listen on the radio but it wasn't the same thing. It wouldn't have the impact at the point when the bomb went off.

“Here's an idea, Great One.” Ripa turned his head with a devastating grin. “Call Agent Lóthurr and have him rig up a live video feed directly to the internet over our undercover YouTube channel. That way, millions more people will see it – including our friend Dr Purdue – than will ever hear it on the radio!”


The real surprise, once Nortonstein examined this latest body nicknamed “Old Jane Doe,” was that it was not a fresh victim but someone who'd apparently been killed maybe ten or even fifteen years ago.

“And,” Tango insisted, “remember Purdue moved in ten years ago: how often had he visited this Aunt Jane of his before?”

Jaimie Reel drove the squad car down Sproull Road back to the precinct, Tango straightening his cuffs in the passenger seat. Both looked forward to grabbing some dinner on the way at Rizzoli's nearby.

Reel mentioned the nicks on the ribs could be the result of slashing gestures with a blade – “like a scythe, maybe?” – probably cutting through several arteries so the old woman bled out, but where?

“Fine,” Tango muttered, “a very similar M.O. to our most recent murders, admittedly, but let's talk about this after dinner, okay?”

Traffic had come to a crawl. Tango tried the scanner to see if there was an accident up ahead. “What gives?” Behind them, he could hear the sound of a police siren: otherwise, nothing.

“Well, for one thing,” Reel said, “why would a serial killer start killing after a break of ten years or so?”

“No, I meant with this traffic – should we put on our siren, too, join the fun?” Nothing, yet, from the dispatcher.

“Something traumatic must've happened, something to trigger the perp to start killing again.”

Pulling over toward the curb to let the vehicle with the siren pass, Reel looked over to see an unmarked car pull up beside them with IMP Agent Sarah Bond in the passenger seat. She looked over at him quizzically, smiled mysteriously before glancing down at something, then back over as if surveying the car. Then she said something to the agent who was driving as she waved Reel to pull his car over and stop. When she stepped out of the car, Tango couldn't help notice those legs.

“I couldn't have been doing more than half the speed limit, officer,” Reel pleaded in mock dismay, acknowledging the traffic jam. Tango's eyebrows did a little dance as she looked in through the window.

“Sorry, officers,” Bond said, looking at her phone like she's challenging its technology, “but we've been following a dangerous international criminal.”

She explained briefly how they suspected she was riding in this car, her expression clearly mystified realizing the only ones in the car were Tango and Reel. Her driver now approached the passenger side.

“This is my partner, IMP Agent Christopher Shendo. Sgt Reel, would you mind popping your boot?” – Tango smirked – “I mean, 'trunk'...”

She explained how this person's last known location was the old farmhouse next to Purdue's place. “Then we followed her... here.”

Agent Shendo went to the trunk and opened it. “Nothing, Agent Bond – empty.”

Tango, trying to appear macho, challenged her. “And you think we'd have her, because...? Is she somehow involved with Thomas Purdue?”

“There was a tracking device on her, and it indicates she's... well, here.” She showed him her phone's GPS tracking app.

“You're hallucinating, Sarah Bond: I think you've been leading us on a dance.”

“Uhm, Agent Bond,” Shendo called out, looking into the car's right rear wheel-well.

“What is it, Chris?” Bond sounded clearly impatient.

Shendo walked around the car, holding out a small lump like bubblegum with a bit of hair sticking out of it.

Tango wanted to know what exactly it was she was after. “Is Purdue...?”

“Wait – there's blood on this. What's happened to Vremsky?” How could they've find out about their tracking device – and remove it?

And why would they have chosen Tango's cruiser to move it to?


Just as Reel asked, “Who's Vremsky?” Bond's phone started buzzing. Tango noticed the number, labeled “Unknown,” but thought he recognized it.

At first, Bond hesitated to answer it but decided to take the call.

“Yes, hello? Ah,” she said, turning away, “it's you.” She walked away from Tango and the cruiser. “Yes, what is it?”

It was Dr Kerr, calling on Tom Purdue's land-line after he located her card in his wallet. “I've seen the Woman-in-Pink.”

“That's more than I have. Where are you?”

He was in Purdue's basement.

Tango always thought everything about him was good, especially his hearing, though he had trouble understanding Bond over the traffic noise. It didn't help when people drove by shouting at them about snarling up traffic – “She making a citizen's arrest, you bozos?” But he remembered that number: it was Purdue's. He very quietly called Narder.

Kerr was explaining how he'd seen this Woman-in-Pink taken away from the farmhouse in a wheelchair – “yes, the woman in your photograph, scared out of her wits” – then driven away in a black van.

“And which direction were they heading?” He thought east but wasn't really sure. He wondered if they hadn't already carted Tom away on a previous run.

That's when he mentioned finding Purdue's appointment card.

“Now, I'd just called the therapist: so far she's heard nothing from him about canceling or rescheduling. So, if these guys with your Woman-in-Pink dropped Tom's card, that means they're probably holding Purdue somewhere.”

Then he'd overheard voices in the farmhouse talking about a plot involving a concert tonight, something about “Lóviator is the bomb.” Not knowing who this Lóviator was, he assumed it's code for the Woman-in-Pink. He'd heard expressions, how “someone's the bomb,” before, but in the context of “a plot,” he thought he'd better report it.

Bond agreed and thanked him for his information. She'd tell Narder about Purdue and the farmhouse so they can rescue him.

“No,” Kerr said, raising his voice. “They think he's the murderer. Don't tell...”

Kerr suddenly started whispering he had to go. “Footsteps, upstairs – I'm not safe – keep Narder out of it. Check... the farmhouse...”

But Bond had to find Vremsky before the concert at the Kimmel Center.

Frowning intently, she held up her index finger to signal Tango to wait.

“There's trouble – I need to make another call.”


As footsteps crossed the kitchen, Kerr grabbed his cell-phone and a flashlight, returning to the tunnel as quietly as he could. By the time he'd slid the gate closed, the two police officers who'd been watching the house tiptoed down the steps.

“Clear,” said the one.

“Damn,” said the other. “What was Tango talking about?”

Fortunately, Kerr knew by the time they made it out into the tunnel, he would already have made it around the bend toward the farmhouse and they wouldn't see him whichever way they look.

Officer Naze signaled to her partner, Officer LeMonde, pointing at the tunnel entrance. She went over and felt around for the one stone she remembered was the nearly invisible handle, sliding it open effortlessly.

Without a sound and with gun drawn, she led the way into the connecting tunnel and LeMonde followed, duly impressed.


Kerr stopped in front of the farmhouse's entrance and heard voices and music – Schoenberg's 4th String Quartet with its Mozartean textures – when a hand tapping on his shoulder made him jump nearly a foot.

“Ah, good,” said a familiar voice, “I come to you with 'Breaking News'!”

“No,” Kerr said, wheeling around, “please, just... 'No!'”

The Kapellmeister was back, no doubt with news concerning the whereabouts of his quest, the Belcher Codex. “I have discovered that...”

No, I said,” Kerr whispered as fiercely as he could, “I'm not interested!”

“But this will take only a minute of your time and I need...”

“How many parts of 'NO!' don't you understand?”

“You'll be back before you know it and can continue whatever it is...”

“Look, my friend's being held captive by some creeps called the Aficionati and...”

“Aficionati? Hmmm,” the Kapellmeister said, interrupting himself, “okay...”

“'Okay,' what? What do you know about them? And do you know why they're after him?” Kerr tentatively grabbed his arm.

“Maybe they're after the same thing? Originally, I came for Dr Purdue's help...”

Kerr wanted to know what Purdue could possibly know about this Belcher Codex and why the Aficionati would be after it. “And they're planning something at some concert tonight: how's that involved with it?”

“No, that doesn't make much sense.” Kerr nearly laughed. “Come, we must hurry.”

“No, stop, get your hands off me! Don't...”

“Shhhh!” Paula Naze stopped and turned, her flashlight dancing across the tunnel's floor. “Al, did you hear that? Maybe it's Purdue...?”

She stepped forward with caution. “Sounds like arguing.” (No time to be nervous.)

“It came from down there,” Officer LeMonde said, pointing his flashlight in the same direction, the beam shaking. “Like, two guys...”

There was a brief shout, voices were cut off, with a sharp flash but no sound of an explosion – just light.

“Whoa, fuck, man!” LeMonde stopped in his tracks. “Maybe it's time for back-up?”

Officer Albert LeMonde, who joined the Marple Police Force only a month ago, had so far done nothing more dangerous than hand out parking tickets and set up a speed trap. This seemed different.

Office Paula Naze's own experience as a rookie wasn't much different but that didn't stop her. “Let's check it out, first.”

Even with the music playing, Ripa thought he heard something and once again checked the security cameras, hoping Osiris wouldn't notice. “Yes, my God,” he thought, “someone's out there.” He slid the gate open.

As he looked out, Ripa was just in time to see a bright flash, then nothing. “What the...? There's nobody there.”

Officer Naze heard something slide and latch: another gate? Perhaps it was the tunnel entrance from the old house next door?

They spotted a cell-phone and flashlight on the ground.

“Time to call back-up.”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on November 23rd]

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.