in the previous installment, three Marple Police detectives watch Dr. Kerr's assistant, Cameron Pierce, sitting calmly in the interrogation room, as they go over the time-line and what facts and scenarios are available to see if there's anything tying him to the death of Amanda Wences. Dr. Nortonstein and Dinah Tran examine her body hoping to determine the cause of death but the only thing they notice are some burn marks indicating she might have been electrocuted.
(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 a short stretch of unassuming tunnel connecting Purdue's basement to the main tunnel, a hundred feet, something Martin might describe merely as “your basic, average tunnel” added years after the Civil War, no doubt an afterthought once the original house had been built to connect it with the farmhouse in case of emergency. Sweeping his flashlight over the ceiling as if checking the wooden beams and supports, he felt the main tunnel was at least sturdier looking but kept any misgivings about their imminent safety to himself.
“Spare me your musicological expertise, Martin,” Dorothy said, “especially since '19th-Century Mining and Tunnel-Building Techniques' wasn't likely one of your 'specialities.' Now where did Terry go – I thought he had been right behind us?”
They heard the sound of the tunnel gate sliding shut, Kerr starting to say something but then there was a flash.
“Hold on, Terry,” Martin called out, hurrying back the few yards to the intersection of the main tunnel they'd just entered. But when he got there, there was nothing to see, just empty space. He and Dorothy flashed their lights around, looking for any sign of Kerr. “Did his flashlight burn out? Where'd he go?”
“Don't tell me he got 'distracted' again,” she asked, losing her patience. “Honestly, he's like a cat surrounded by shiny objects.”
“Maybe he made a wrong turn...?”
“A wrong turn? It's a single-line tunnel!”
Martin suggested what they'd heard was him going back to get another flashlight.
“How many flashlights does he think Tom's going to keep in the house? He's only one person. And very clearly,” Dorothy added, holding up her aluminum tube-shaped one, “I've got the oldest one which Aunt Jane probably bought back in the '50s.”
“Well, we can either wait for him or go back inside to find out what's keeping him. Maybe Amanda found something...” Martin swept his light across the basement gate, waiting for it to open.
“Or we could just keep on going and let him catch up: we're only going next door to check things out. It's one right turn – even Terry can't get lost down here with that.” Just in case, they both aimed their lights down through the opposite side of the tunnel, heading toward the crypt.
They turned and started for the farmhouse, leaving Kerr to his own devices. “You're not suggesting we break in or anything, Dorothy? You know I'm in no mood for heroics. We check the place out, find the entrance to the house and leave it to the police” – the police who seem convinced Tom's the killer.
“And what if there are agents of this group that woman mentioned – the Aficionados? Sounds like a gang of Mexican bandits! And if we're discovered hanging around outside their basement wall? 'Trick or treat'?”
“Don't overthink this, Martin, you know how you always get so deeply analytical.”
“Says the woman who performs complex modern music solely on her intuition. Seriously, I'm an academic, I'm supposed to overthink things.”
Dorothy's old Silver Bullet flashlight started sputtering, the light fading quickly. She gave it a good whack across her palm.
“I think I must've gotten the one Cameron was having trouble with, last time. I thought he would've replaced the batteries.”
“Maybe there wasn't time,” Martin said, taking the lead. “Well, let's hope my very modern model from a major manufacturer holds up any better.”
“Oh, great – now I've got that pattering through my brain...”
Having made it around a slight bend in the tunnel, they heard the sound of someone hurrying up behind them and Martin called out before Dorothy thought perhaps they should keep their voices down.
Instead of one flashlight beam, however, they saw two. “Maybe Cameron's come back and he's joining us,” Martin said, greatly relieved. Instead, they saw an old woman and a middle-aged man rounding the bend.
Dorothy thought she recognized the man, both of them in quite a hurry. “Tom, is that you? Where have you been!”
“Tom,” Martin called out, even more greatly relieved, “we've been looking everywhere for...”
But the man and the old woman, who clearly had no problems keeping up with him, paid no attention to them.
The woman, heavy-set, silver-haired and somewhat dowdy in her old-fashioned calico dress, waved her flashlight, a Silver Bullet just like Dorothy's.
“Is that Tom,” Dorothy wondered. “He looks remarkably well-preserved to be our age...” Granted, the man fit Tom's general size and shape, perhaps, but his hair was still dark enough to be called blond.
“Aunt Jane, are you sure? How much further till we reach the farmhouse?” He even sounded like Tom Purdue, but when Dorothy waved at them, she couldn't figure out why he was ignoring her.
“Oh, Tommy, I haven't been down here in years,” the old woman said. “Decades, probably. The gate can't be much farther.”
“Aunt Jane? Tommy?” Dorothy fell back against the wall of the tunnel. “Didn't Tom's Aunt Jane die, like, ten years ago? Don't tell me the damn tunnel is haunted? That farmhouse looks bad enough.”
As the couple ran past them, the beam of Martin's flashlight cut right through them, illuminating the blue jeans Tom wore, not what he would've expected from somebody playing a Hallowe'en prank on them. They didn't look like ghosts, whatever ghosts might actually look like. Martin was immediately struck by a sudden drop in temperature.
“The stone'd be around here,” the old woman who might or might not be Aunt Jane said, pressing against the wall, Tommy joining in. “It'd be similar to the one in mine, I suspect.”
“Here it is.” Tom pushed against one of the stones and Dorothy heard the familiar click of a lock gently unlatching. Martin tried to remember which it was but they all looked the same.
Tom slid it open, scarcely wide enough for his aunt to squeeze through, followed with some reluctance by Dorothy and Martin.
Once inside the dark, damp-smelling room Dorothy assumed was the basement of the Old Haine Place, Tom slid the door closed behind them. Martin wished he would've left it open so they could find it again in case of an emergency. What that emergency might have been was something he definitely didn't want to overthink. Since the man called Tommy and the woman called Aunt Jane didn't seem to notice Dorothy, Martin, or, curiously, their flashlight, Martin used the occasion to study the two people they were now following.
“That is definitely Tom Purdue, don't you think?” Martin whispered to his companion who, despite her own sense of “heroics” leading the way into the basement, didn't bother to venture far from Martin's side.
“I can't remember when I last saw Tom, but yes – and there's a picture of that woman in the living room.”
For all she could tell, this was like any basement in what, from the outside, might pass for an abandoned house, where things had long been stored to the point they were now forgotten. The foundation was made of old white-washed stones, wearing and chipped in places; the floor, packed earth as hard as rock. Garlands of dust-covered spiderwebs festooned the rafters, larger ones hanging like torn drapes in the corners, perhaps hiding a few skeletons. The whole place reeked of something Dorothy didn't want to think was blood.
“There's the stairway,” Jane said, running her flashlight up and down the steps.
Dorothy noticed Jane's flashlight was brighter than hers had been. How old were those batteries in the one she was holding?
“I've only been in the house a few times and not recently,” Aunt Jane was saying. “Never saw the basement before.”
Despite the appearance of having been long abandoned, several footprints crisscrossed the floor. “See these marks? Someone or something had been dragged,” Martin pointed out as Tom and his aunt hurried up the stairs.
“Lily was never very neighborly, you see,” Jane continued. “I always felt I was intruding if I came to say hello.” Tom grunted about Lily not being the only one not seeming very “neighborly.”
“Lily?” Dorothy stopped short while Martin scanned the stairway before them. “Who's Lily? Did Tom ever mention the next-door neighbor's name?”
Martin, meanwhile, examined the footprints, occasionally sweeping the light around behind them in case someone – or something – might be following them.
“See? Two tracks indicate heels being dragged, but from here,” he said, pointing to a spot beside the old coal cellar, “it's becomes a single track, like a wheel – maybe our famous, well-traveled wheelbarrow?”
“Come on, Martin,” Dorothy whispered, “we'll look at that later. We'd better stay close to them. Maybe we'll find Tom upstairs.”
“But that's Tom we're following, isn't it? You're expecting to find two Toms?”
“The steps creaked when they walked up them and they're creaking just as loudly as we follow them. They're not ghosts.”
“Well, they're not zombies, either, so how do you explain it? Time travel?”
Dorothy, holding up her flashlight, said it's the same one Jane is holding.
“And you're telling me not to overthink things...?”
They followed the intruders – the ones Dorothy was convinced were from the past – through the kitchen where dishes were piled high in the sink, around a newspaper-littered dining table before reaching the living room.
All three flashlights converged on the dusty oriental rug before the fireplace, revealing a dark stain, glisteningly wet – no doubt blood.
Martin, stepping too close to the still fresh stain, nearly slipped in it, getting some of the blood on his shoe.
Jane swept her flashlight across a painting. “There's blood spattered on Lillian's portrait.”
She told her nephew how she had heard these awful screams sometime after midnight – “Woke me up, they were so loud” – though she'd forgotten to look at the clock to get an exact time. She'd checked around her own house because at first she was convinced they'd come from somewhere downstairs, maybe from the basement. It took her a while to realize they'd come from Lily's house next door, “and me with all my windows closed.” That's why she'd called Tom to come over even before the sun rose.
Tom – the middle-aged version of Tom – swept his flashlight around him, turned on the light (the chandelier had several burnt-out bulbs) as she explained again what she'd heard and done before she'd called him, then continued looking for any other signs to explain what his aunt heard and what he, clearly, saw. “And the tunnel...?”
“Well,” Jane recounted, unwilling to stand there, staring at the blood, “I thought I'd heard noises in the wall when I was down in my basement. It'd been years since I went into that tunnel – I'd almost forgotten about it. It just... well, it scares me, like having a secret passage in a haunted house.”
“But you opened the gate anyway – didn't you wonder what you might find?”
“I certainly didn't expect to find Lily's grandson there, wearing some kind of flashlight strapped around his forehead, pushing a wheelbarrow!”
Jane mentioned how startled he'd looked. “The boy just stopped, his jaw dropped and he glowered at me, like pure evil!” She shuddered, recalling how dirty he was, with his face and hands all covered with something dark like blood, she'd thought, though in the light it was hard to tell. “Plus he was naked!”
Martin stretched out his arm, nearly knocking Dorothy off her feet, both so transfixed by what they couldn't believe they were seeing, they hadn't noticed the shadow pass through the hall toward the kitchen.
“Well,” Tom hesitated, his flashlight still playing around the edges of the stained rug – passing unnoticed over Martin and Dorothy's feet – “there's no body and we can't exactly prove this is Mrs Ripa's blood but before you and I get charged with trespassing and contaminating a crime scene, let's go home and call the cops.”
“We've got to get out of here before someone realizes we're here,” Dorothy whispered to her companion, “regardless of where we are, trespassing or not, or when we are. If Tom's here, somewhere, we...”
“You're right, Tommy,” Jane said, “we don't want to be here if Graham or his father come back to clean up.”
“Wait, his father?” Tom turned the chandelier off as Dorothy noticed the sunrise through the dining room window. “Jack was here?”
“I didn't see him, but I heard two men talking in the tunnel...”
“Then maybe they were in on this together, father and son, but why,” Tom wondered, ushering his aunt toward the kitchen.
“Those two certainly are quite a piece of work,” the old woman tutted.
“That whole family was nothing but a collection of such pieces, Aunt Jane...”
Dorothy and Martin, wide-eyed, tiptoed quietly after them.
Jane wondered where they might've hidden Lily's body. “Probably the crypt,” Tom suggested, “taking her through the tunnel in that wheelbarrow. Are you sure she's the one who's dead? She did live alone, right?”
Martin froze in his tracks, noticing Tom look back over his shoulder, staring right at them. “Wait, did you hear that?”
“Well, the last thing you need is getting wrapped up in another murder. You go home, Tommy, I'll call the police.”
“Yeah, we'd better go – careful, watch your step.” Tom pulled the gate open.
Dorothy gave her flashlight another whack as they headed for the gate when things began to change around them. Rather than a dark, dirt-floored basement, the room started becoming brighter, changing before their eyes.
“Careful, watch your step, bozo,” a gruff male voice with a thick New Jersey accent called out, charging down the steps.
Terrified what was happening around them would leave them behind as Aunt Jane and Tommy made good their escape, Martin and Dorothy scrambled to make it through the gate before Tom yanked it shut.
“Hey, how'd I know there's another tunnel on the other side of that crypt? Falx said dump the big broad's body but I couldn't find no opening.” This other guy sounded like a whiner.
Looking back, Dorothy saw the foundation wall replaced by cinder blocks, the place transforming into a well-stocked and well-lit operating room.
In the confusion, Martin noticed the other two, if they really were Tom and his Aunt Jane, hurrying down the tunnel and slowly fading from view as Dorothy's old flashlight flickered back into existence.
“I don't know, but maybe we should follow them – and do it quickly!”
“Do not overthink this, Martin, just... do not...”
“Wait!” Again, Martin froze, holding his finger to his lips, then pointed at the wall. Dorothy saw it immediately, the thin slice of light shining into the tunnel. They both turned their flashlights off.
“Yeah, but what if the cops find the tunnel,” the whiner was asking. “Maybe we should just blow the thing up?”
Dorothy, standing beside the crack, strained to hear what the men were saying.
“What, and lose the best way out of this joint without our being seen?” This was followed by a rude noise.
“Beside, we gotta go to the airport and pick up Mr Big, right?”
They both began to laugh and then it seemed they were heading back up the steps. Soon, the basement was quiet.
Dorothy turned and stubbed her toe on the wheelbarrow. They both froze and waited what seemed like minutes before breathing again.
“Martin, what did Jane mean about Tom not getting involved in 'another murder'?”
“I don't know, but I think we'd better hide this wheelbarrow somewhere else. And I think I know just the place...”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 7th]
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.