Friday, November 02, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 18 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, Dr Kerr has been whisked back to Harvard in 1886 by the Kapellmeister as his quest for the Belcher Codex continues. The only problem is, when they find where it had been stored in Harvard's vast library, the box it was kept in is empty and Miss Norton, one of John Knowles Paine's composition students, is attacked by what appears to be an evil monk. Will Kerr be able to rescue her in time? And who screamed when the monk rushed toward him?

(If you're just tuning in, 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.

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



“He's just sitting there. He's not nervous, he's not sweating... – what's up with that?”

Detective Sgt. Alejandro Tango was becoming impatient as if, despite his neatly pressed suit and his designer sunglasses, he would like to take the young man out into the back alley and work him over, get him to confess.

“He's not moving, like he's deep in meditation or something.” Detective Sgt. James Reel, in his rumpled clothes, sounded impressed. “How can he be so calm?” “Keeping calm” was something Reel tried hard to work on.

“Because there's no captain breathing down his back to find who murdered three women in the past two days,” Detective Lt. Laura Narder said. “All this guy has to do is keep us off the track about the location of Purdue and his buddy, Kerr. Until then, we make him think he's the main suspect.”

“And so far, he's the only one we've got,” Tango pointed out, shining the toe of an otherwise barely scuffed shoe on the back of an otherwise immaculately clean pant leg. “What, you disagree?”

“Even though we know he couldn't have done it, could he,” Reel parried, “considering he was under surveillance at the time?”

“We know he went into the store: but he could've slipped out through a back door, snuck back to the house...“

“So,” Narder said, “apparently it's safe to say you haven't had lunch yet?”

Reel ignored his partner's theory. “Zerka and Torello had Pierce under surveillance, leaving Purdue's at 10:43; followed him as he drove to the supermarket on Springfield Road, entered the store at 10:58 and exited fourteen minutes later; then drive to the pizza place on the Pike before driving back to Purdue's house, returning at 11:32.”

“If he was carrying several bags of groceries, as they reported, he did a lot of shopping in fourteen minutes,” Narder continued. “So, when did the others leave? And also, who are 'the others'?”

“So, in addition to young Mr Pierce, there's this mysterious professor, Dr Kerr, and his two older friends – Dorothy Minnim and Martin Crotchet.” Tango pronounced this last name in French, croh-'shay. “And maybe Purdue.”

“Nobody was there when we arrived, searching for Purdue at 10:21; yet someone was there before we returned with the warrant.”

The room they stood in was cramped but had a good view of the interrogation room where Cameron Pierce sat, his hands folded in front of him, his feet together under the desk where they'd seated him. It did, in fact, look like they'd told him not to move because he had barely twitched much less shifted his position since they'd left him there. But as often happened when faced with long waits, whether it was standing in check-out lines or sitting somewhere waiting for Dr Kerr, Cameron could switch on an inner sound-system and listen to a steady stream of his favorite music uninterrupted, whether it was Beethoven or the Screaming Dead Lawn Zombies. Today, he had chosen a Schubert piano sonata, the one in G Major, the long, contemplative one preceding the last three. He found it always helped calm him down.

The so-called observation room, actually more of a converted closet with a large picture window that was really the back of the obligatory one-way mirror, had a small desk, a few chairs and an old run-down end table with a microphone on a goose-necked stand rigged up to a speaker which comprised their intercom system. Tango had already checked the small red light indicating the microphone was off since it had proven embarrassing once before when comments made in private were overheard in the interrogation room by the suspect.

There was no obvious cause of death yet for Amanda Wences, certainly nothing like the ones any novice could see on the bodies of the previous two victims. There hadn't, for that matter, been any sign of a struggle or even of distress, making them wonder if in fact it couldn't be simple “natural causes,” though explaining a heart attack in a woman barely in her twenties was a bit of a stretch, even for Tango's far-flung and usually fantastical theories (he drew the line at alien intervention – in his usage, “space aliens” – but there were times his ideas seemed almost as far-fetched). But since this latest body in what was most likely the result of a serial killer on the loose had only just arrived at the M.E.'s lab, it would be a while till they would have anything even close to definitive.

“Whoever killed Ms Wences, if we can even be sure this is murder, the first question we need to answer is, 'how did they kill her?' And since it has nothing in common with the other two murders, does it point to a second killer and if so, how do we tie the two together? Let's hope there are no more murders real soon,” Narder cautioned her colleagues. “Nortonstein and Tran are working as fast as they can and could use a break. For that matter, so could we.”

Narder knew there was no evidence yet she could pin on Purdue and it seemed more likely the accomplice, assuming there was one, would be Kerr, not Pierce. “So, what is the relationship of our third victim to the first two?”

Reel said the first two both worked – and were killed – at Marple Music which published Purdue's music. Tango barely stifled a derogatory snicker. The third victim worked directly for Purdue out of his home, where she was found – he almost said murdered, but decided to go with “dead.”

Tango continued that Wences and Viva were friends and how in fact it was Wences who got Viva her job there – through her boss, Thomas Purdue. “Oh, and that lottery ticket we'd found on Viva? One number off from winning a couple hundred bucks – what a kicker, huh? As if she needed more bad news...”

“If this is murder and it's pretty clear who killed the first two,” Narder resumed, “who are the likely suspects in Murder #3?”

Reel began with what he'd found out about the scholar, Martin Crotchet, whose name he deliberately pronounced the English way while raising his eyebrows toward his partner. “He is a musicologist specializing in early-19th Century romantic piano music, in town to lecture about Chopin's Contemporaries at Haverford College. He's written several books, none of them even remotely selling well, but presumably highly respected by some of his peers, whoever they are.”

Tango took up the resumé of Dorothy Minnim, “a concert pianist specializing in what was once called 'contemporary' music, stuff nobody's really interested in mostly from the mid-20th Century, and a respected if not very busy piano teacher, in town to give a poorly attended recital at West Chester University.”

“Both Wences and Viva are Latinas,” Tango pointed out, “and DiVedremo's parents were born in Italy, so perhaps,” he continued, smoothing out his already flawlessly smooth mustache, “our murderer – or murderers – have problems with immigrants?”

Narder'd dealt with racists before; Kerr didn't strike her as any more racist than any other mild-mannered old white guy.

Reel added Pierce's mother was an Iranian immigrant, related to a known radical executed during the overthrow of the Shah.

“Aha!” Tango practically knocked over the microphone. “He's an Islamic terrorist, I knew it!”

“Let's stay on focus, guys,” Narder calmly suggested. Being African-American and with Tango being Argentine and Reel a second-generation Irish-American, she knew investigating these suspects could quickly get side-tracked going down that rabbit hole. Four were Old White Folk, in many non-White eyes making them automatically racist; and only one of them was a woman.

“Connections,” she continued. “Wences was Purdue's personal assistant. Like Kerr and his friends, Purdue is also a musician, a professor on the verge of retirement, but a washed-up composer who's apparently outlived his career.”

“Like Purdue, Kerr's also a musician – at least, that's what we assume, though I saw nothing about his being a performer in his bio,” Reel said, picking up the thread. “A retired professor, he taught theory and composition most recently at Claxon College; presumably still composing but hasn't had a new work performed in years.”

“Yeah, some career,” Tango grunted. “I ask you, why would somebody keep composing if he wasn't getting anything performed?”

“Or published...” Reel snorted a decidedly dismissive harumph.

A moment of silence followed during which, whatever the others' thoughts may have been, Narder wondered how she would get them back on the trail of their killer.

Watching Cameron sitting there as if mesmerized by something in front of him – though there was clearly nothing on the table – Reel wondered how a young guy like Pierce ended up in this predicament.

“He's like the Odd Man Out,” Tango suggested, “the 'Which One Is Not Like the Others' guy. Maybe he's the ringleader?”

“Maybe he's the young guy they take along to do things they can't?”

“You mean like drive the car, carry the luggage, kill the targets,” Tango asked. “I still think he could've done it.”

“What doesn't make sense is what motive would he – or any of them, for that matter – have for murdering Amanda Wences?”

“Maybe she knew too much? Or discovered they were going to double-cross her?”

“Maybe she'd figured out what they were up to and, well, they realized she was getting ready to call the police?”

“Maybe young Pierce killed her in a fit of jealous rage after discovering she was having an affair with his boss?”

“You know, Tango, maybe you ought to go grab some lunch,” Narder suggested.

While Tango made a quick dash to the break room for whatever coffee and donuts were left over from the staff meeting, Narder and Reel enjoyed this moment to stretch a little after a busy day, given the extra room their colleague's absence allowed them, continuing to observe their suspect who still had not noticeably moved a muscle. She realized this guy was going to be a tough one to crack if he was this cool. Most suspects, innocent or guilty, would have started fraying a little by now.

“Sorry,” Tango said, slipping back into the observation room, “they only had powdered and jelly-filled donuts left,” and they knew he wouldn't want to get any of that on his suit. Reel figured there'd maybe been a cruller or two left in the box. Still, Narder thought, the last thing Jandro needed was more sugar.

“Look, while I'm grilling Pierce, why don't you two slip out and grab some burgers or something? You guys have had a long day,” Narder said. “Just bring me back a salad or something.”

“Nah, that's okay.” Reel waved away her offer with a wave of his hand. “I wouldn't miss this for the world.”

Tango, realizing too late that now he would have to stay, too, pulled his lapels together as if smoothing out his jacket one more time and mumbled, “That's okay, I'm good, too. Let's continue.”

Narder checked her notes to make sure of the exact times and then rattled off the time-line leading up to the discovery of Amanda Wences' body.

“After we searched the place looking for Purdue and found nobody – ”

“...beyond four cups of freshly brewed, still hot coffee,” Tango inserted.

” – I called for Officers Zerka and Torello to set up surveillance on the place; they arrived ten minutes later, at 10:35, after we'd left to search elsewhere for Purdue or anyone from his gang. We can assume there had, until we arrived, been at least four people in the house – ”

“More, if they're not coffee drinkers,” Reel interjected. “What, maybe one of them's a tea-drinker or had already taken a cup somewhere else with them?” He shrugged his shoulders and waited for Narder to resume her narrative which, after a few seconds' controlled annoyance, she did.

” – but no idea where they might have gotten to. We'd entered through the back door and the front door and it was unlikely they all slipped into the garage which, as I recall, was the first place you guys looked, right?”

Both of them nodded their heads.

“Judging from the cars parked across from the second crime scene, which just happens to be around the corner from Purdue's house on Marymede Lane, we know Martin Crotchet,” she said, emphasizing the English pronunciation, “and Dorothy Minnim were probably in Purdue's house at some point before we arrived, along with Cameron Pierce and Richard Kerr” (which she pronounced to rhyme with cur).

“But we searched the whole house, all the rooms and closets, and found nobody, though two beds and the sofa had been slept in and someone got stuck on the couch in the basement.”

Tango asked when Zerka and Torello arrived. Checking her notes, Narder said “it was within ten minutes of my calling them but only a few minutes after we'd left the premises.”

“So you're saying 'a few minutes' as in maybe three?”

“Well, yeah, three or four, I guess, but not, like, ten.”

“Wait, they arrived ten minutes after you called them, not ten minutes after we left, right?”

“Right,” Narder said, trying not to sound exasperated by their specificity. She knew accuracy was an important part of efficient policework.

Just then, Nadia Klüh opened the door and, seeing Narder, smiled. She was the one tech person on the force who could handle not only computers and the latest gadgetry but also Det. Sgt. Alejandro Tango who was in line for a sexual harassment charge if he even looked at her again like she was naked. Barely 5'5”, Nadia wouldn't fit into the room which, eying up Tango, probably wasn't a bad thing.

“Purdue's computer was just delivered to my lab.”

“Great.” Narder suggested looking first for any correspondence between him and DiVedremo or any of the suspects, frankly, but there could also be lists, like names of people he (or they) might be targeting.

“It's an old computer and doesn't look very sophisticated, so it shouldn't take long. I'll let you know as soon as I find something.”

And with that, Nadia disappeared.

“So,” Narder said, organizing her thoughts and gathering up her notes, “given the few minutes between when we left and surveillance arrived, who could have entered Purdue's house in that brief window of opportunity – ”

“Which,” Tango added, “we know knocks less than twice...”

” – had they found another way in or out of the house outside Zerka and Torello's view? Because at 10:38, Torello reported Amanda Wences arrived at the front door and at 10:43 Cameron Pierce, who hadn't been inside the house at 10:21, left by the back door.”

“Yeah,” Reel said, “but Pierce told us when he left, the three old folks were all there – Crotchet, Minnim with Pierce... and Kerr.”

“So when did they get back and how did they get in? So, there's a secret way in and out Torello and Zerka couldn't see.”

Tango and Reel were deep in thought.

“Somewhere between 10:43 when Pierce left and 11:32 when he returned, shortly (meaning 'probably three but less than ten minutes') before we arrived with the warrant, someone allegedly killed Amanda Wences in the basement...?”

Narder squeezed past Tango and left the room.

Reel sat down in one of the chairs and was soon joined by Tango before the one-way mirror, front-row seats for the interrogation of Cameron Pierce.

“Hey,” Reel said, “it's your turn to bring the popcorn: I got it last time!”

“Jeez, Jaimie, that was months ago...”


“I'm quite certain it's still an uncomfortable experience, watching somebody cut up a total stranger's body,” the county's chief medical examiner, Dr Horton Nortonstein, commented as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves, “but we can no longer wait for Officer Zerka, given Chief Gagliardo and Detective Narder breathing down our collective lumbodorsal fascia.” Nortonstein was not looking forward to his imminent retirement, assuming his years of training and experience would soon be limited to the occasional rotisserie chicken or the annual ritual of his daughter's Thanksgiving dinner.

A moment's pause as he and Dinah Tran, recently completing her first year as his assistant after finishing her M.D., looked over the newly arrived remains just delivered to their examination room, a young woman found only moments after she'd died, her naked body now discreetly covered by a thin sheet despite their pending indiscretions.

“There is little more tragic than the death of a child.” Nortonstein was always respectful, at least before he got down to work, after which he put what emotions he cared to express aside in favor of scientific acuity.

Tran frowned, thinking she was only a few years older than the victim, a young woman.

“So young – like our first victim yesterday, Ms Viva,” he continued. Tran could imagine him chanting this, like some medieval monk. “In addition to lost potential, they've both taken with them a horrible secret.”

She had heard this part often enough when he stood there, waxing philosophically over how every death was always “a natural death” – “regardless what may have initiated the process, whether blunt-force trauma, a gunshot, perhaps strangulation or poisoning, whether premeditated or accidental, before this or that had ceased to function and, then ultimately, the heart.”

She felt her lips move as if following a prayer and had to control herself not to utter a quiet “amen” when he concluded. “But why would someone want to kill such young women?”

“Motive, Dr Tran, is for the police to discover,” he reminded her. “It is up to us, now, to offer them whatever evidence will help answer the question, 'who took away this child's future?' But considering whatever might constitute a motive,” he added, moving closer to the body, “doesn't every death become a suspicious death?”

Since the main lab was occupied by the body of Ms DiVedremo, brought in just hours earlier, they'd placed Ms Wences, whose CoD was now marked “high priority,” in a smaller side examination room. DiVedremo, not used to waiting her turn in life, was for the moment put “on hold,” not, presumably, her final indignity. While her CoD was obvious, there were things that might have been invisible to the killer's eyes but which, once examined, discovered, and duly cataloged, might well help the police in identifying her murderer.

Ms Wences' CoD, however, proved an initial puzzle even to his assistant, arriving only minutes after the body had been discovered. Unfortunately, Nortonstein realized he didn't have the luxury of contemplating such a riddle.

“Dr Tran, if you would examine the body and tell me what, if anything, might have any import to our investigation?”

Dinah Tran found Dr Nortonstein's formality comforting, much as those ancient rituals of her family, dating back generations to her ancestral home in Viet-Nam long before the French, gave her grounding and respect for the past, whether, as an American raised in an American culture, she cared to observe them or not. While she sometimes thought she might have liked the informality of having him call her Dinah, she could not imagine ever calling him Horton. She still blushed, remembering the time she had inadvertently called him “Dr Hortonstein.”

Officer Zerka hurried into the room, leaving her coat on a chair inside the door, and mumbled an apology for being late. It was not her first autopsy but it was still not very high on her list of Favorite Things. She quickly pulled on a white lab robe, fitting a mask across her face. There was more of an urgency here to find what killed her so suddenly: examining the viscera to determine, say, her last meal was not a top priority. She might be spared that much.

“So, what did I miss?” As soon as she said it, she knew it sounded too flip, disrespectful, but for her, it helped break the tension, especially since Nortonstein's frown was enough to make her day. Standing near the counter, her usual observation post, she noticed Tran trying not to smile, even behind her mask.

His shoulders buckled as Zerka's attitude deflated all the sense of personal respect and professional propriety he had worked so hard to establish. Nortonstein's lips had crinkled slightly when he saw Zerka's name on the list as the precinct's liaison for Ms Wences' autopsy, but still, she was better than Tango with his cynical wisecracks and Reel who tried to be too helpful; and then there was poor Officer Naze who'd passed out as he'd made the first incision. These days, Detective Narder was always too busy to attend.

“I'd asked Dr Tran to peruse the body to see what she might observe that could bear on the case. It is my understanding you need to know the cause of death – indeed, even if it's murder at all – but don't need the time of death since that was fairly easily established. Is that correct?”

Zerka nodded but when Nortonstein looked up with a slight glower in her general direction, she added a gruff “Affirmative” to avoid further friction. “We rarely get them much fresher than this.”

Another frown.

“What I'm seeing is more what I'm not seeing,” Tran said, ignoring the other two. “No sign of blunt-force trauma, no contusions or discoloration of the skin, no wounds of any kind readily visible.” Tran's eyes moved quickly over the body's torso. It was unlikely anyone other than her boyfriend had seen Amanda this vulnerable.

“Except there are these odd maculations here which I suspect were where they'd removed a pendant from around her neck, and a ring that had been on this finger. They could be fresh – recent.”

Nortonstein's more experienced eye leaned closer to investigate the anomaly. “And what do you think those could be the result of?”

Zerka tried to stifle a laugh when she realized Dr Nortonstein had spoken a sentence that actually ended with a preposition.

“Perhaps she had an allergic reaction to the metal – ah, or perhaps not.”

Her fingers cautiously touched the skin at those two points, lightly sweeping across the one above the manubrium before lingering there. “The skin feels like it has been recently, perhaps only lightly burned – scorched? The ring-like mark on the third left metacarple is darker – and feels rougher.” Holding the hand gently, she checked the fingertips.

“And what, may I ask, are you finding on the distal phalanges?” Nortonstein clearly had already figured this out, waiting patiently while Tran checked the other hand, his head slightly tilted toward the right.

“Joule burns,” she nodded, laying the hand down just as gently, “I'm assuming. They seem to be consistent with joule burns.”

Zerka had gotten used to “science-speak,” learning basic anatomy so they no longer had to translate everything into plain English. Someplace on the chest, different parts of the fingers, that she got. “Jewel burns?”

“In some cases, we would say 'a patient died of shock,' something traumatic that happened, strong enough to, say, 'send her into shock.'” Nortonstein took the right hand and examined the fingertips himself, showing Zerka, after adjusting the magnification lamp to her height, the small, rough dots they'd found there, hardly any bigger than pinholes. “But in this case – in Ms Wences' case – the shock seems to be more literal than that, and manages to beg the question whether in fact this is murder or merely an unfortunate accident.

“These,” Nortonstein continued after a slight pause while this sank in, “are caused by electricity entering the body and produced by the conversion of electricity into heat which then burns the tissue. Note the otherwise barely noticeable hyperaemia, here,” he added, pointing to a slight discoloration around the thing that otherwise looked like a pinprick.

What appeared to be small scorch marks – the result of her jewelry, the ring and the pendant – Nortonstein explained as the result of the electrical current passing through the body. “However small and inconsequential the entry wounds appear to be, there must have been sufficient current to heat the metal in the jewelry to cause...”

“Ah,” Zerka interrupted, “I get it: 'jewel burns'!” She was, however, being serious.

“Uhm, no, but to give you a preliminary if uncorroborated possibility, I'd say 'electrocution' had something to do with her death.”

Zerka told him the witness who'd discovered the body said she was trying to say something when he found her, lying flat on her back in the middle of the floor. “It was like she was saying there was 'something fishy,' – maybe we should look for an aquarium with a loose wire in it that...”

“But where was the body found? Yes, in Thomas Purdue's basement: wasn't this, to put it simply, his 'computer room'? And according to Detective Narder, wasn't Ms Wences working at Dr Purdue's computer earlier?”

“How can a computer electrocute you,” Zerka asked. “Is there enough current flowing through the keyboard to kill a healthy person?”

“That question is for the police geeks. Otherwise, we may know more after looking inside: shall we?” Nortonstein readjusted his mask. “Frankly, sometimes, I'm convinced my home computer has a mind of its own...”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 5th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

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