(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.
Agent Selket, straightening her uniform, ignored the other members of the staff, as usual, which hardly mattered since she didn't know their names, barely knew what they were charged with doing, and, above all, hardly cared how well they did it as long as it had no impact on her and, especially, on her patient. She was relieved they'd be landing at the airport soon – Selket hated flying over the ocean, a fear augmented by the fact even if she did know how to swim, there were always sharks. The others traveling with them on this assignment may have been members of an elite force sent to protect her boss, but no one could protect him as she has done over the years. Recalling her decades of devoted service, she smiled with satisfaction at her accomplishments, remembering exotic places and perilous assignments they'd shared.
Not that any of these youngsters hanging around in the back of Osiris' private jet would even imagine having to do half the things her position required her to do, more care-giver than agent, but regardless how often the minions called him “Mr Big,” someone had to change the old man's colostomy bag: reality bites... Trained as the last line of defense if needed, she was well aware how many times, alas, it had been needed, though she doesn't blame the novices for their expertise, only for their inexperience.
There was a routine before landing that must now be completed, so Selket drew the heavy curtain separating the man in the wheelchair from those buckling themselves in at the back of the cabin. She would check his usual stats and give him his shots, now that he was rested or at least reasonably relaxed. The others knew not to disturb them until she'd drawn the curtain back, not until after the pilot announced they'd arrived (there was nothing worse than giving someone a shot while hitting some turbulence).
Little needed to be said between them during this phase of the landing, details so routine she could perform them blindfolded, unrealistic as that would be, of course, when reading his blood-pressure or temperature. His “vitals” barely registered, like some hibernating creature just coming out of a long winter's nap, but that would soon change.
Retrieving a few items kept in a sporran-like pouch belted around her waist (avoiding the indelicacy of calling it a “fanny-pack”), she warmed the small silver flask, embossed with an ankh, in her hand. This was part of her precious supply of Osiris' most important life-saving medication, what she called his fons vitae – “Flamel's Khalidaqua.” After the pilot had sounded the all-clear and she felt the jet's wheels settle onto the tarmac after that initial jolt, Selket opened a small black lacquer box, a jade scorpion on its lid. Taking one of the gold-tipped hypodermic needles, she stuck it carefully into the flask, then pulled back the syringe and watched. She only needed 2ml of the miraculous potion – any more had dangerous side-effects. A brilliant, dark red elixir seeped into the syringe, more viscous than fluid, tiny gold flecks glistening in the dim light.
She spoke as much to herself as she did to him – his eyes, heavy with sleep, blinked slowly – then inserted the needle into the port on the left side of Osiris' neck and, despite its initial sluggishness, watched as the blood-like serum began to flow, while beginning to count slowly backwards from ten. By zero, he'd feel that familiar warmth as it began mixing with the saline solution dripping from the IV bag and, further warmed by what body temperature he possessed, start coursing through his veins.
The old man sat motionless, unsmiling, a good patient trained by decades of familiarity and trust, as she poked and prodded. Without paying attention, he sensed her going through the well-calculated motions, wrapping the cuff of the sphygmomanometer around his upper arm, pumping the bulb until it began to tighten its grip around his arm. Always afraid of biting it in half if a spasm seized his jaw, he was glad the old-fashioned glass thermometer had been replaced by something less irritating, something instead merely aimed inside his ear. The air around him filled with gentle harp music and the soft rhythms of a rattle – a sistrum, to be exact – ancient music, they'd said, to take him back millennia and replenish the soul. Whether this was something real or sounds he only imagined in his head, it sounded real enough and had its effect.
His motorized wheelchair, which she'd dubbed “Atet” after Ra's sun-barge, bringing light to the world by day and coursing through the Underworld by night, included a specially-designed IV pole fitted into the left arm, intricately carved from the wood of an ancient tamarisk tree, topped by the stylized head of a wolf, like a scepter. When not in use and all its paraphernalia removed, this pole could be lowered, the wolf head peering over his shoulder. An embossed metal cover on door-like hinges shielded his lower body from view.
He was a powerful man; people around the world respected, even feared, him – but if they saw him like this, kept alive by the ministrations of an old woman like Selket, not so much. He was old – he'd forgotten exactly how old, most likely in his nineties – and that was bad enough in today's world. When most men in power were only in their seventies, Osiris gave out he was over a hundred: let them marvel. He'd led the Aficionati for over fifty years: who knew how much longer?
Osiris also knew, without the old woman, his faithful nurse these many decades, even with his own strength of will, he'd still be nothing more than a bed-ridden old man in a nursing home. He owed not only his power but his life to Selket's loyalty: the question was, he wondered, for how much longer?
For the moment, he closed his eyes, trying to forget the unpleasantness, and waited the additional few minutes until the serum took full effect, reviving his blood, and the team was ready to disembark. It was a tiresome routine, landing, but it helped his energy return from the hibernation of traveling before returning to life. His team would wheel him through the ritualized gauntlet of customs and security but, judged wealthy enough to be above suspicion, dismissed as an eccentric invalid in a wheelchair with a fearsomely glowering nurse.
“Why do we do what we do,” he said to himself, somewhere deep in his deepest thoughts, “through these many years?” He raised his chin slightly, as if stretching the muscles in his neck. “We do it for Art, of course.” He used the “Royal We” and spoke “Art-with-a-Capital-A” with a well-practiced arrogance. “Of course.”
And by Art, he meant primarily music, especially “Music-with-a-Capital-M,” and by that he meant specifically Classical Music (in a general sense, not just the music of the Classical Era, something only pedants argued about). It's not that he dismissed the “Other Arts”: the Aficionati's sole reason to exist was for the perpetuation of Art Music.
“We are,” he intoned, even when thinking his thoughts, “the Keepers of Art, with its ageless secrets and traditions, through Time. It is for us to lead the Music-Lovers into the realm of Enlightenment.”
Music by itself lacks the necessary energy to transcend mere entertainment until the listener possesses the knowledge to fully appreciate it – this Wisdom of the Ages (of the Aesthetes) – much, he thought, like himself. Without his life-giving serum, Osiris knows he is merely a shell of himself; but with it, he becomes alive and ageless. So, when Music combines with vision – not as the mere sense of seeing but with all its intellectual applications – it brings us out of the nothingness of our present experience into the wider Universe.
“It is the Universe, on the one hand, the embodiment of constant change, imperfect and unknowable, which we must somehow comprehend, balanced, on the other, by the Universe which is logical, bound by Reason. It is this search for perfection – Symmetry! – where we find balance, no matter how complex the surface, in its underlying simplicity.
“That which is beautiful,” he resumed, “is beautiful because it pleases us and we can comprehend its natural form and symmetry. It is not the surface that attracts us but what's beyond the surface. We are aware, in some way, of the patterns that create the surface; we comprehend these patterns' complexities beneath the surface. We do not like something, as populists tell us, because it is beautiful, responding only to the surface with our senses, because the road to truth exists through the mind, not through the emotions.”
It is this very antithesis that's long been at the heart of the “Death of Classical Music” discussion for generations – centuries! – where blasé sophistication of the Intellectuals opposes the worldly ennui of the Sensualists. We find pattern and balance everywhere we turn: only the mind can analyze the beauty of music into its component parts.
“We can only find ourselves satisfied if, to paraphrase Plato by way of Freud – as incongruous as those dichotomies may seem – we assert that the condition of civilization, in uniting individuals, is a modification which the vital process experiences through Intellect and Necessity, thus managing to create an aspect of this community we call Culture.”
But he also knew this “condition of Culture” (again, speaking of Culture-with-a-Capital-C”) was, he sighed, subject to a more or less rapid degeneration, like all realities where their origins have been lost to Time.
There were times, those few times when he had nothing urgent to do, Darke liked to stand at his office's corner window – technically, he always reminded himself, still “Steele's Office” – and observe the scene. True, it was constantly changing depending on the time of day or whatever the season, but it was essentially the same. “Like that river in Greece they said you could never step in twice.” The buildings never changed, the park was always just out of view; he was too far up to see the street. The clouds might be interesting or maybe it was raining, but it never seemed to vary till the streetlights came on. By night, it all seemed a different world but if he were going to enjoy the darkness, he wouldn't care to be spending it at the office, even if it were still “Steele's Office.”
Like any New Yorker, he'd look across at the next building, wondering “what could be going on there, behind those windows?” Were they dealing with office politics on the verge of undermining the company? How much of its time did Upper Management spend trying to fleece its customers in order to better their bottom line? Did the person discovering the loop holes in the government's regulations receive a satisfactory raise to reward him for his loyalty? Could the CEO buy another house, perhaps in Barbados, with his Christmas bonus?
Lucifer Darke was pleased with the change in his own financial standing in the world since he'd taken over SHMRG after forcing N. Ron Steele out of his office, even if “not officially recognized” – maybe after the next board meeting, assuming he wins over enough of Steele's loyalists to turn the vote in his favor. If not, he must act quickly to feather his off-shore nest to guarantee the lifestyle he'd hoped for, going into business; otherwise, what was the point, all the back-stabbing and power-grabbing he'd engaged in?
It unnerved him, walking down the hallways and bringing conversations to a halt, when everyone gave him their smug, self-satisfied smiles. What were they saying, what was it they didn't want him to hear? Plotting against him, no doubt, something he knew he'd have to live with, living by and dying by the corporate sword.
But, putting personal misgivings aside, he needed to start preparing for his introduction at tonight's banquet, a “live-remote shot” or not. What he would say was immaterial (since no one really listened), but it had to look convincing, like he was far too busy to be bothered... – no, to be able to attend the banquet. Social responsibilities, he knew, were not his thing: true, it was something he had to work on, but not right now. He was still, as far as the board was concerned, new and “temporary.” Some CEOs were born leaders who managed their team into the right direction; others were “idea men” who created that direction. Granted, the only thing he felt he really had going for him was his ruthless ability to get where he was, but could he prove ruthless enough to consolidate that power and, eventually, survive?
He began to look over his bookshelves and rummage through his desk drawers for files and books, preferably large, fat ones, to clutter his desk with the appearance of industry, too busy to stop. But wouldn't that make him look like some relic out of the past, a bureaucratic dinosaur still using pencil and paper? These days, he wondered, didn't everybody, especially executives, do their work on computers? It's been so long since he did any actual work, he couldn't remember. He decided he'd look at other people's desks.
“Why do we do what we do,” he wondered as he walked around, not really sure what he was looking for. “Is it for Art, making available to the Masses what we consider worthy?” He peered through windows, peeked in office doors, trying to look relatively inconspicuous, and skulked across wide-open floors littered with cubicles. While he thought of Art-with-a-Capital-A as marginally important, it was obviously the Masses-with-a-Capital-M which had more relevance to SHMRG's bottom line. “A good manager, we always remind everyone 'there is no I in TEAM'.”
“We are,” he said, sweeping his eyes across an imaginary audience, “the Guiders of Opinion, convincing listeners what they should like, SHMRG's whole purpose as a corporation thriving in the business of the arts. It is for us to lead the Music-Lover in the right direction and, by successfully pushing our products, increase our profits.”
Music by itself had little impact on affecting these all-important profit margins unless it was carefully researched, invested in and marketed, allowing him the opportunity to live the lavish lifestyle he'd become accustomed to. Naturally, he admitted his use of the “Corporate We” referred only to upper management when it came to sharing those profits.
“It is the stock market we serve, that quixotic universal wheel of fortune, inscrutable, unknowable, where the Hunch rules over Logic, where the 'Art of the Deal,' not Art itself, decides success or failure.
“When I was in grade school, my teacher told us 'Classical Music is the music people don't like.' And she's right! Who could 'like' that hoity-toity mumbo-jumbo if you couldn't dance to it? Bo-ring! The most important question is, 'Is it pretty?' If not...” – here, Darke made a derisive gesture accompanied by a rude noise.
This has long been at the heart of Classical Music's failure and it was time the old stuffed shirts who continued to pedal it get with the times and learn something from pop culture.
This is not about whether civilization survives 'as we know it' because whatever civilization is, it is always changing, evolving upwards: this is about the survival of the fittest and most powerful – the richest. It is not some musty religion borne of incantations in some ancient temple: it's the living, breathing Voice of the People.
Vremsky was wondering, given the secrecy behind the organization's hierarchy, whether there was anybody higher than Osiris in the Aficionati's pantheon; she gathered he was well above her superior, Agent Dagon, on the list. As Agent Lóviatar, she assumed she was somewhere near the middle of it, a junior-level agent entrusted with merely minor responsibilities. But the question in Vremsky's ever-curious mind was, why was Osiris coming here? What was going on she was unaware of? Something was definitely afoot and somehow Falx was at the bottom of it.
Trusting Falx did not seem like a good idea, given that ever-curious mind, trained by too many years of business-induced paranoia, yet she knew his success in his assignments would reflect well on her. Loyalty to one's superior was as valued as loyalty to those beneath you, yet how loyal had she been to Dagon?
As the van rambled unobtrusively through the streets of suburban Philadelphia, returning to the airport where she'd only recently landed herself, she reflected on that unfortunate but unavoidable incident, dismissing any sense of regret.
“Dagon's old,” she admitted, “and getting too farking old to make necessary decisions,” whether it was right to openly contradict him.
She knew immediately it was wrong – his decision – yet going her own way had been viewed as “unprofessional,” and therefore “wrong.” Saying “it was for the good of the organization” made it sound worse.
But this, she thought, looking around at the other occupants of Falx's van, what fresh hell was this going to bring? No one spoke but the others were smiling which made her immediately suspicious. They were meeting Osiris at the airport and transporting him back to this dilapidated old farmhouse in a miserable, run-down van? This would not reflect well on her, she knew: they should have gotten a limousine but then Falx said they had no limousine equipped to transport a wheelchair (how did the man travel otherwise?).
“If Osiris is displeased, trundled into the back of a van” – (she hadn't heard about the body from the night before) – “how will that reflect on me? I will be mortified in his presence!” She kissed all those dreams of promotions good-bye, advancing higher up the power structure, unable to handle something even this simple.
“Just wait till I've explained what we can get from that old professor. He'll be amazed what I've discovered, if I can get Purdue to talk (he's almost there, if he doesn't die first). Surely Falx can't take the credit for that, simply because he knew the guy was an old neighbor of his grandmother's? That's not skill, that's not doing your work, pursuing the patterns and then following up on theories until they're proven facts! That's just fate and one thing the Aficionati doesn't believe in is Fate. After all, I'm the one who found him, who saw the value in what he was researching – not Falx, not Govnozny! (And what is that troll doing here? He's a medical agent, a surgeon!) It was me,” she pointed out, reassuring herself, “and it's me he'll reward once he sees the work I'm capable of!”
Falx, not saying a word, kept an eye on the rear-view mirror – watching her, she wondered, or was someone following them? Had they been compromised by the local police? And whose fault was that? What's this about Purdue having “visitors” next door, anyway; have Falx's two agents been sloppy? Could that have alerted the police?
“Maybe Osiris is really here to honor me, rewarding me with a bonus or advancement for having acquired the target Purdue?” No, he'd've already been on his way before Falx said he'd found him.
“Why do I do what I do,” she sighed at her disembodied reflection in the window, superimposed on the glimmering landscape. “Fark, most times I don't even know what I do, much less why.” She tried sneaking glances at the others, wondering how they would answer this: seriously, did they even bother thinking about it? As a struggling concert promoter, she figured she did it for Art's Sake as long as it kept the business afloat but there were times her higher principles collided with economic realities: “Sorry, guys...” She had to let go certain performers who no longer attracted audiences or played music considered too “esoteric” for ticket sales, torn by the need to promote good music with the need for profit. That was why she found being an agent of the Aficionati so attractive: this music had to be protected and preserved.
“But what was the point if we diluted the quality of what we believed in just to fill out the book-keeping so at the end of the month everything might at least balance out?” “We,” Vremsky knew, meant her partner and all the musicians her agency represented, plus those few presenters who trusted her judgment. It was what they in the business called “The Good Fight,” and they carried it on relentlessly against all the odds, like keeping a museum of rare treasures available to an ever-dwindling, appreciative public.
“How would anyone ever discover they could respond to it if they were never exposed to it, like I had been as a student, finding enlightenment through understanding after careful study and constant familiarity? It's not important that I like it; it's 'why do I like it?' It must survive if we're to be complete.” By being brought into the presence of great art through whatever means possible and becoming initiated to its subtleties, its complexities, we'll no longer be indifferent to beauty in the world, but superior beings.
That it is great and has withstood the Test of Time is enough and because of it, our civilization will survive, thereby balancing the decline of culture if we keep the barbarians at bay.
“I'm a docent in this Museum of Life, bringing others into the fold. Surely, Osiris will see this and reward me.”
“Why do we do what we do,” Steele thought, setting his drink down beside him, feeling smug, “if not to succeed?” It was an age-old argument he could never understand: why is Art important? “And especially, what's the point of 'Art-for-Art's-Sake' if it's not to make people like me rich? What's the point of anything? We,” he said, closing his eyes with a self-satisfied grin, enjoying the warmth of his drink, “are the arbiters of taste. Give them flashy artists playing the loudest, fastest music to rev them up!
“But Classical Music's become this annoying little niche of dead composers where all the profits are wasted because of Public Domain. Who's making any money off of these guys? We sure as hell aren't! It's the Stock Market we serve,” he said, “where Hunch overrules Logic – it's 'The Art of the Deal,' not Art itself.
“Who could 'like' all that hoity-toity mumbo-jumbo, anyway? People actually make a living 'analyzing' the stuff, experts writing for other experts. No, the question is, 'Will it sell?'” Then Steele made a rude noise. “We must save Classical Music from itself, recreate it in our corporate image, get more consumers hooked, make it 'popular' again!
“If it's to survive – all this Beethoven and Mozart stuff – it must evolve, shed its dusty past, move with the times. It's not some secretive religion: it's the living, breathing Voice of the People.”
The ice jiggled in his glass, sitting on the table, interrupting his easily interruptable thoughts with a tinkling like gentle wind-chimes, and he looked over to see a ring of ripples across his drink. He could hear nothing, feel nothing, imagining himself happily suspended in a hammock, yet he could sense something about to happen. “Doom” was what was about to happen, he knew it, and for the moment it terrified him, hanging heavily over him: no birds, no breeze, everything he'd become used to, suspended in fraught anticipation.
He felt if he looked back over his shoulder toward the volcano he would see a Tyrannosaurus Rex waiting for him and it would smile with that kind of reptilian smile Lucifer Darke had. Perhaps he'd misjudged how SHMRG could activate a plan in hours, not days; perhaps, he considered, they're already on their way?
“I've packed up all but the most essential equipment but I can take that down at the last minute,” Cable said. “Then after making arrangements for the helicopter to be ready, I got this.” He handed a print-out to Steele who barely looked at it before handing it back. “It apparently originates from Carsonoma's account.”
Steele looked up at him with a frown. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“Well,” Cable hesitated as he glanced over it again, “maybe it wasn't him that sent it – it could be a hacker.”
“A hacker? A hacker got into Carsonoma's private e-mail?” Steele was more offended than concerned, considering the implications. “How dare he!”
“Which could mean,” trying not to sound like a frustrated Computer 101 tutor, “whoever just pinged my computer knows where we are and sent this to prove to us now we've been hacked, too.”
“So somebody found your computer, big deal,” Steele said, putting his drink back on the table. “How often does that happen?” He waited to see if his glass would shake again: it did not. Besides, he certainly paid Cable enough to make sure their network was secure. Maybe there was a reason somebody got through...?
“Coded message or not, man, there's no time to figure it out,” pointing toward the volcano. The glass began shaking again. “Isn't any of this getting through to you?”
Now, he felt it might.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 9th]
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.