(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.
He could use a drink, not that even in such a cool place to work as SHMRG they would stock what he had in mind, so Kenny Hackett decided he'd go “stretch his legs.” To him, that meant “taking a break,” the typical adult euphemism for “hitting the men's room and checking the snack bar” – he'd heard some of the older women say to each other, “I'm going to go powder my nose,” whatever that meant – part necessity but also part reward after his private meeting with the boss. The lunch he'd eaten at his computer consisted of a sandwich, some pie and a soda purchased at the cafeteria downstairs, so since he felt entitled to use a little more of his half-hour, maybe all he needed to tide him over till his 3:00 break was a bag of barbecue chips and another soda.
No one else was in the hallway leading down to the reception area and anybody he could see over their cubicle walls was hunched over a computer, hard at work after their lunch breaks. At times like this, he thought that cute receptionist would ask what he was doing and want to see his passport. But Portia Gates wasn't at her desk, perhaps not back from lunch yet. The only person in view was Mr Darke. Maybe he's waiting for an important visitor to step out of the elevator.
Without noticing Kenny outside the rest rooms, Darke quickly reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, turning away from the lobby as if he had noticed somebody else there and wanted privacy. Then he stepped behind a large potted ficus. “That's kind of paranoid,” Kenny thought. “Why not just go to his office?”
Kenny realized if he continued and went either toward the men's room or into the snack bar Darke might notice him, so he pulled himself up and stepped behind another of the potted palms.
What was even more suspicious-looking was how Darke was hunched over the phone, not that Kenny heard what he was whispering, but it was clear the boss didn't want to be seen or heard. Not that Kenny, only yards away behind another potted plant and paging through a technical journal, didn't look any less suspicious.
He was trying hard not to eavesdrop and hoped no one would come by and see this awkward pantomime like something out of a spy movie, not that Kenny saw that many spy movies. The snack bar would put him in the direct field of Darke's vision and he knew the men's room door squeaked. There was no alternative plan if somebody did come by so he nonchalantly leaned against the wall, engrossed in his magazine. What if Darke turned and saw him? He wasn't exactly just passing through...
Just then, he heard one word clearly: “extraction.” Was it his dentist, something about an appointment to have a tooth pulled? But why was he being so secretive about setting up a dental appointment? Of course, it wouldn't be any fun if he needed a tooth pulled, what with his big speech at tonight's banquet.
But in the next breath, he heard Darke say something about “Pansy Grunwald” which seemed like one of those non sequiturs. What would she have to do with dentistry – she was dead, after all. “Yes,” Darke continued, no longer bothering to whisper, “an accident would be unfortunate. But see what you can do about it...”
Kenny, realizing it wasn't safe to move just yet, now froze in mid-step. Steele had had Pansy killed, had it made to look like an accident, so perhaps, Kenny thought, Darke was speaking figuratively.
Lucifer Darke, without looking around – Kenny was holding his breath he'd be discovered – made some vague remark about “hell and night,” slipped the phone back into his pocket and strode off toward his office. Nodding at nobody specifically, the boss disappeared into the corner office – which everybody still called “Steele's Office” – and shut the door.
While he didn't think much of what he'd overheard at first, the more he thought about what it all meant, Kenny was pretty sure Darke wasn't talking about dentistry, except in the metaphoric sense.
Being a lowly tech engineer in a company involved in the International Music Scene, Kenny Hackett was not used to the fine, mental workings and subtle acrobatics with which Upper Management ran the business.
“And to think I'd only given him Steele's GPS coordinates about an hour ago: I wonder if this call was related?”
The longer he waited, the more likely he'd be seen leaning against the wall, paging through a magazine – wasting his time (people should have special badges to wear that would indicate “I'm on break”) – and the more of a necessity his visit to the men's room became (not to mention needing that can of soda). On his way back from the snack bar, the door to the ladies' room opened to reveal Portia Gates, the receptionist. She smiled at Kenny, a pleasant, almost shy smile which totally transfixed him.
“Hi, Kenny,” she said, getting herself settled with her headset, “anything exciting happening?” He thought she meant while she was gone. He was desperately trying not to think about the excitement in his pants.
“Depends on what you call 'exciting,' I guess,” he stammered as he tried nonchalantly to rip open his bag of chips.
With that, she had to take a call and it was like he no longer existed, more than his ego crestfallen. Not that he had any right to imagine dating someone like Portia Gates.
Soon, he was back to thinking about Darke's mysterious behavior during that conversation: did it have anything to do with Steele?
“I mean, I know why the IMP's after him, but why is Darke? Maybe he's just trying to protect Steele from being arrested by the police – yeah, that's probably it. But what did Pansy...?”
By the time he got back to his desk, practically unnoticed by his colleagues, he'd already finished the bag of chips and had downed more than half the soda while talking to some guy about problems they're having with this project Kenny was only peripherally involved in and was hoping to keep it that way. Still, he felt magnanimous, like he was being courted for his invaluable opinion, so he made a not too obvious suggestion which he hoped would be satisfactory, prove he was being a team player. Ear-buds again in place, he settled back into his desk, mentally closing his imaginary door as if to lock the rest of the world out of his life, and focused on his own project. “Clara” was his own private assignment, and would make him a major player far above the rest of this sorry team.
Unlocking his computer with his latest password – since starting work on “Amfortas,” Kenny'd been careful about changing it several times a day, even if no one really knew what he's working on is “sensitive” (one can never be too careful or too paranoid in this line of work, especially working in a place like SHMRG) – he quickly forgot what he'd overheard Darke talking about when he realized things were moving ahead dramatically with the “Clara Project,” his virus already contaminating its so-called “learning process” with an unstable emotional variable.
“But that could only mean this program has been developed not as 'Artificial Intelligence' but as an attempt at 'Artificial Life.' Sure, the distributed processing creates billions of units working together like a brain,” Kenny thought, “complete with the ability to function as a larger, living creature, but in robotics that's, like, Old Technology – ancient.” Only here, if he understood it correctly, it's a brain that, given the right codes, could learn to make logical decisions, but which with the added indeterminacy of emotion could prove chaotic, even terminal.
True, this could considerably reduce its market value if it's known to the public the program they've purchased is seriously flawed, perhaps even fatally flawed, given how bugs are part of development and marketing. But, with a little more tweaking, it might even become a “killer” program in a very real sense of the word.
He had no idea who the guy who developed this software was beyond being an unknown composer and an almost-retired academic, but whoever he was, technical skills aside, he had a very creative mind if he could see around some of the fundamental problems that had been plaguing developers and code-writers like himself for years. There were details Kenny, so far, couldn't quite, didn't need to figure out. “How Purdue did it was not important,” he thought, rapidly scrolling along; “all I know is I've got the end results.” More importantly, he knows he could change it dramatically by adding that one little command with a few more emotion-laden musical examples for the reference library (which, granted, was severely logical in its outlook). “And there it was, a completely transformed personality, turning a shy, careful and demure young woman into a fire-breathing, risk-taking bitch.”
It would be entertaining to see how this would play out, he thought. “Nobody here could catch what I've done – there's no time, with this deadline – so I know it'll go through development undetected. Somebody, eventually, might discover what's been done, once it's actually killed a bunch of people, and trace it back to SHMRG. It's not like other companies haven't marketed flawed and often fatal products before: they'd only issue an apology and a recall. It's my job to just deliver the software and that's what I'm doing.”
For a kid, Narder thought this guy was pretty tough, sticking to his story like a seasoned criminal and complaining that, while they're holding him, the “Real Killer” – he'd said this with a sneer – had probably abducted both Purdue and Dr Kerr who were now seriously in danger despite lacking evidence to substantiate his claim. Vague about who could possibly have wanted to kidnap Dr Kerr, Cameron absolutely clammed up about his disappearance earlier that morning, saying only there had not been time for them to discuss the matter.
Even so, Narder wanted to keep an open mind but the evidence, such as it was, was so strong against Purdue, it was difficult to bother with “alternative possibilities” when everything seemed so open-and-shut. It was that “such-as-it-was” phrase that kept gnawing at her, all hunches considered, unable to place Purdue in Belle DiVedremo's office.
Yes, she realized the one eye witness who actually saw someone else in the room when Alma Viva's body was discovered could not commit herself to confirm the person she saw was Thomas Purdue. And, yes, the footprints they'd found indicated they belonged to someone who wore a size 11 and Purdue wore size 9s.
The young man who chased the killer down the back steps doubted the man who outran him was in his mid-60s. Unless Purdue was lying about his health, how could he have managed that?
How could she convince a jury if none of the crime-scene evidence would effectively place her suspect at the crime scene of either Alma Viva's murder or the murder of Purdue's publisher, Ms DiVedremo? With this latest murder – a third murder victim: how high was this death toll going to go? – it was much clearer, though there were no witnesses to the death of the third victim Amanda Wences, a friend of the first victim who'd recommended her to the second victim and who worked for the prime suspect.
Evidence of Purdue was everywhere but then it was his house and they often worked together in his basement computer studio. But then there was the mysterious Dr Kerr who just happens to show up the day of the first two murders. What was he doing there, this friend of Purdue's – he and his assistant?
“Look, why would Dr Kerr kill Amanda, anyway,” Cameron said. “What's the motive? She'd called and asked him to help find Purdue, something about his leaving Kerr's phone number in case something should happen. He seems to have disappeared sometime on Sunday. So now Dr Kerr's gone, too – they both could be in grave danger.”
Narder thought there was a slight hesitation following this, like he was going to say something else then changed his mind. She looked at him without saying anything, and waited for him to continue.
When he didn't and continued to sit there with that petulant frown of his, Narder wondered what she should say next.
“Look,” she tried, “Purdue's place was under surveillance: nobody else came or went...”
“I don't know,” Cameron said, “maybe the killer came in through the tunnel.”
“Tunnel?” Narder looked up, stopping short. “What tunnel?”
Narder's phone rang before Cameron could reply but she didn't miss the look of disbelief on his face before he chuckled.
“What!” Narder snapped at the phone. “No, I'm in interrogation. What've you got?”
Cameron pretended not to listen but she knew he was paying close attention, so she walked over to the far corner.
Nadia Klüh, their IT specialist, had been examining Purdue's computer, brought in from the crime scene, and noticed something “really weird.”
“It took a while to get past the password, but then it... well...”
Narder didn't have the patience for long, drawn-out, technical explanations, with or without her sexy German accent. “Cut to the chase...”
“Well, I started to feel short bursts of electricity as I continued typing, even though I was wearing rubber gloves, yes? It was like it was defending itself against a hacker – through the firewall?”
And, Narder thought, Nortonstein said they'd found burn marks on the victim's fingertips. Was she maybe getting into part of the computer Purdue didn't want her in, booby-trapping his own computer against a break-in?
“Tell Nortonstein – maybe he can figure out if it has any tie-in with this latest CoD. Just be careful in there.” She hung up the phone with an irritated scowl but wondered why she'd worded it that way: “be careful in there”? And meanwhile, turning to Cameron, she had an interrogation to get back to.
“Now, Mr Pierce, tell me: what the hell is this about a tunnel?” She braced both her fists on the table opposite him when at first he didn't respond, hoping it would intimidate him. There'd been no sign of a tunnel but it would explain a lot. Like, how Kerr escaped without having been seen.
Narder waited. “And...?”
Cameron explained how it apparently ran behind Purdue's place from the old farmhouse next door down to, as far as he could tell, the old crypt just inside the cemetery gate.
“And you hadn't bothered to mention this before?”
“Technically, Detective, you hadn't asked...”
Narder stood up, glowering down at the young man who chose to keep looking at his hands on the table. “Huh...!”
“I'd also noticed when...,” Cameron began, “earlier this morning, someone had been looking through stuff on Purdue's desk by the computer...”
“Any idea who?” Narder's impatience was quickly increasing.
“Well, there'd been reports of this prowler some neighbors saw in the area.”
“Oh, right, the famous 'prowler.'” She'd assumed it was Purdue but if he...
Just then, her phone rang again.
“Det. Narder? Paula Naze, here. You're not going to believe this, but I'm at the crime scene – well, Purdue's house – and we just found something really weird.”
“A tunnel?” Narder leaned back against the wall, a palm across her forehead.
“Yeah. Uhm, how'd you know? Wait, there's more...”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 12th]
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.