(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.
There was a chill in the air completely out of proportion with an overcast October afternoon which, after leaving the plane's warmth, tore through the old man's arthritic joints, those he could still feel. Selket bundled the wine-red blanket tighter around him as she wheeled him toward the bleak-looking van not far from the runway. Osiris tried not to scowl at the indignity of having to travel in such a vehicle, noticing they didn't even have the courtesy to drive out to meet him once his jet had landed. The constant pain would lessen gradually in time as Selket's Elixir, as he called it, had its effect on his body, not only warming his veins but also his creaking joints and atrophied muscles. His legs had long been useless but that didn't mean he couldn't feel their pain, practically frozen into a seated position.
It was a slow procession, lowered from his cabin on its special elevator, descending less smoothly than it should have been, with the other members of his entourage having already disembarked through the cargo hold to form an honor guard greeting a visiting head of state which, a law unto himself, he felt he was. He had decided, this time, to travel light, since this visit was a purely working conference intended to be tediously brief, so in addition to the indispensable Selket, he brought only a dozen minions.
Not that that diminished its significance, he felt, since secrecy must be maintained. Few in his own network knew his whereabouts, so he could hardly raise the suspicions of the media with old-fashioned pageantry. He'd brought with him no largess to bestow upon the city's music scene to maintain – indeed, sustain – past glories and accomplishments. He was not here to meet with those who preserved one of the finest orchestras in the world or its maestro. Nor was he checking up on one of the country's finest music schools. Still, he looked at the nearly derelict and decidedly vulnerable van awaiting him, given the nature of events that lay ahead, and immediately regretted he'd chosen to leave his personal limo, the Ra-Mobile, behind. This would doubtless promise to be as excruciating as it was an indignity; but if it got the desired results, well...
Standing tall, imperious, above all proud, Selket was the very image of loyalty even if only a few people greeted them: he reminded her it was how she saw herself that mattered, knowing others might notice her no more than they would a piece of furniture or any other prop in the presentation of Osiris. To others, she probably appeared part of the wheelchair, a fixture, another accessory, yet since he could no longer manage the controls as smoothly as before, she was indeed the power behind his throne. There was nothing of the sycophant in her demeanor: she was his nurse. If anything, he might be afraid of her, especially if he didn't feel like doing whatever her duties required of him. Then she'd scowl at him without a word, able to freeze over the entire Underworld at a glance until he submitted.
She would never tell him he'd gone a little overboard with this Osiris Thing, reaching the top tier of the Aficionati. He had been one of the best trial lawyers in Boston as a young man and it's quite possible she was one of the few people in his world who knew his true identity. Yes, understandably it's a way to protect one's anonymity in a secret society, but really, it would be nice to be called, she'd thought, once in a while by her real name, Nora Wratchet.
Osiris' entourage consisted of a few lawyers, some highly respected scientists, and a few soldiers intended to be his “security detail,” considerably less than the twenty or so who would normally travel with him. These were not “agents” of the Aficionati, per se, though they were well aware who it was who wrote their paychecks. As its world-wide role expanded, not only did the Aficionati's responsibilities increase but also the support it needed for everyday necessities, and these could include everything from legal and secretarial to kitchen and protection. Because it had become a struggle – it had always been a struggle, the Aficionati fighting for the very mind of music – the old feudal models of the Medieval court had long ago become outmoded, having originated in the days when amoral ne'er-do-wells plagued the powerful families of 14th Century Italy when the Aficionati first gathered.
These days, not just political leaders but major corporation's CEO's needed protection from thugs employed by those generically called “The Opposition.” One side rising up with a goal and an ideology to achieve it was immediately met by those arising on the other who opposed it regardless, fighting it out in the truest dialectical drama. As Machiavelli moved with the times, the medieval roots of the Aficionati evolved, once the basic trappings of government proved inefficient, and remodeled themselves after the modern corporation and the world of organized crime.
But still, whatever power he may have been able to claim, Osiris could do little against the molasses-like force of bureaucrats, as indispensable as they were in realizing the very core of his ideas. (He would use the expression, “from my lips to God's ears,” cutting out the middle men, had he believed in God.) If he could clone himself a hundred times over, creating a department of loyal and indefatigable functionaries to implement his bidding, could he ever overcome this obstacle that has plagued civilization since its inception?
No longer amused by the irony of being all-powerful while being restricted by the encumbrances of others within the Upper Echelon, Osiris realized he was, regardless, an old man and therefore viewed as “weakened.” Despite being tired, he must approach this project, perhaps his last, with the vigor and ruthlessness of a man decades younger.
Escorted through the indignities of having his passport scrutinized and his luggage searched even with much of the protocol overlooked as a courtesy because he was an American businessman with his own private jet – it was probably his leathery skin after all those years of sunning himself on tropical beaches that made him look Middle-Eastern – he sat secure knowing they would not find what he was bringing into the country, aside from his own innate genius, safely hidden in his colostomy bag (and who would even imagine checking that?). This time, he traveled under one of his many assumed names – he could hardly call himself “Mr Osiris,” now, could he? – Biblos Tamirakis, the Greek-born founder of one of the world's largest corporations, Basilikon, though, not to offend such a rich old man, most people were too embarrassed to admit they'd never heard of it.
Nor could he explain the true reason he was visiting the United States: “to gain information, run a test in a major terrorist plot, and deal with a purely internal personnel issue – basically, pleasure.” So he told the guard, “to attend a short business meeting, returning later tonight.” And that, he smiled, was certainly true. Osiris could tell the guard's expression revealed a certain envy of his wealth, wondering how much this little jaunt must've cost; then stamped the passport realizing he could live for a year on that.
Once Osiris got his hands on the computer code this composer had developed, following all these months of tracking him down, it should solve the problem of how to communicate with their weaponized robots, a detail long the major sticking point in perfecting this latest instrument to be used against the degenerates defiling classical music. Anything Agent Hephaestus concocted had been far too easily neutralized by a select panel of trained hackers, all of them teenagers, leaving the detailed instructions not only intercepted but also critically anesthetized – a disaster.
According to what Agent Marduk heard through whatever musical grapevine he had accidentally tapped into, the intent of this composer – his name was Thomas Purdue – was to create a computer capable of composing music and he'd apparently stumbled upon something even he was unaware of: the ability to transmit secret codes through complex embedded formulas.
How exactly Dr Purdue was able to manage this meant nothing to Osiris – his intellectual brilliance did not score highly on the technical side of things. Marduk tried to explain it (so much technobabble) until Osiris told him to “cut to the chase” and tell him what it was they could do with this technology. It made no sense, whatever Marduk had said, if the “creator” of the program didn't realize what it was capable of, yet when he brought up the “Creative Fallacy,” it all fell into place. This was the doctrine that any creative agent – composer, painter, author, or code-writing computer geek – working from a purely intellectual standpoint, always had a certain amount, however small a percentage, of otherwise inexplicable “inspiration” initially unnoticed by the artist, beyond analysis, the product of the artist's subconsciousness, therefore arguably something he did not knowingly “create.”
While it was convenient in expediting the “Inner Mysteries” in the common perception of things, too easily dismissed as “God-given talent,” it helped to explain one of the basic tenets of the Aficionati's beliefs: that, regardless of the artist's awareness and control, no matter how well thought-out, Art originated in the brain, consciously or subconsciously. So in essence, by utilizing something “created” by Purdue he was unaware he'd “created,” it was not really stealing, was it? And in this sense he had given Marduk and his associates his approval.
They began loading him into a beat-up, black-painted van that in its previous existence probably belonged to some anorexic, post-pubescent flower-child. There was a lot of fussing between his security detail and the one called Falx, weirdly dressed in black, very goth-like, not to mention Lóviator's other two agents whose names he did not catch. “So,” he sighed, “this is all the latest generation of Aficionati could recruit?” And yet Dagon, doddering old fool he had become lately, had good things to say about Agent Lóviator and her subordinates. Selket struggled to maintain self-control as they hoisted the wheelchair into the back of the van without benefit of any ramp, the wheels tangling in well-worn rugs and rumpled blankets strewn across the floor. Initial attempts at securing Osiris's chair with leather straps had him facing the side of the van before turning him around.
Selket was barely able to maintain her poise, seated next to Osiris on a crude bench soldered in over a wheel-well, facing the security agents who squatted cross-legged on the floor, expressionless but alert. Even with a seat-belt, she felt she would fly into space when they made a sharp curve, getting off the interstate. The security agents, completely indistinguishable in their uniforms, plus the lawyers and scientists, completely indistinguishable in what passed for theirs, fended for themselves, crammed together, and swayed in unison with each turn and lane-change.
Osiris, unable to turn his neck, sat more stiffly than usual, forced to stare at the opposite wall, spray-painted “flat black” (and unevenly, at that: “such an amateur job”), and tried not to react. Selket occasionally checked her monitors, surprised the blood-pressure hadn't risen to dangerous levels, while his entourage deferentially avoided looking at him. She understood – well, more likely comprehended – the plan to look as unlikely as possible but honestly who, she wondered, would have noticed a comfortable limousine traveling the same route and thought it looked suspicious?
In a high, almost disembodied voice not unlike a countertenor's, Osiris squeaked out a tersely worded question, intended for anyone who could hear: “how long might it yet take to reach this 'undisclosed location'?”
Vremsky coughed, signaling the driver perhaps he should answer, and Falx, looking at his odometer, announced it would not be long.
Vremsky, known only as Lóviator to the others, sat on the passenger side of the second row, the same side of the van as Osiris so fortunately they could not witness each other's mortification. “Really,” she thought, conscious of the sweat continuing to bead across her brow, “how could Falx imagine this would be acceptable?” Even with the variable for traffic taken into consideration, what Osiris was expecting was more like “about 25 minutes” or better yet “we should be arriving in 21 minutes,” not this vague “not long.”
And this van! Vremsky could scarcely contain her embarrassment at seeing the Great One hoisted into a decrepit van like a drum kit in a garage band going out on a Saturday night gig. It was too late to yell “Stop this!” since hiring an airport limousine would now provide a trail for the police.
She knew, however she might blame Falx for cutting corners on her orders – seriously, must she spell everything out so precisely? – she couldn't apologize to Osiris for Falx's shortcomings because everything reflected on her. And now, somehow the police were wise to them, all because somebody was sloppy, her eyes drilling deep into Falx's skull.
Osiris closed his eyes, meditating on the comment the driver Falx had made so casually about needing to avoid the police. Why would that be necessary? Had somebody been sloppy? “Yes, I thought so...”
“We shall arrive at Maison Ripa in 6½ miles,” Falx announced confidently, “depending on traffic, I'd say maybe ten minutes.” He sounded like a guide hosting visitors on a bus driving through Hollywood despite his tourists being sequestered in the back of the van, unable to see anything around them but badly painted walls. Looking in the rear-view mirror, however, he noticed the veins in Lóviator's neck tighten like cords when he turned up a street a block before she expected him to. “A slight detour, as planned...”
He explained because the police had “probably” staked out the place he'd usually park, they would be taking the “scenic route” and approach the house from the rear of the property through the woods.
Selket imagined her boss's jaw tightening, knowing how much the man abhorred nature. The monitor showed an increase in his blood-pressure.
The narrow street ended abruptly just beyond the last small suburban ranch house, a two-tired path curving through an overgrown field that resembled a country farm rather than something in the middle of suburbia, anything bumping along soon obscured from the street or the house by a few mounds of overgrown weeds and stumpy trees. Vremsky was sure that rattling she heard was Osiris's bones and as she imagined his jaws clenching in pain, she felt her own face turn ever deeper shades of pink to match her dress.
Once under a bank of overhanging pine trees, she noticed an old stone wall and beyond it the flat open field of a cemetery like the one stretching behind the farmhouse.
“Aaaaand we've arrived...”
Falx parked the van facing against the wall, and shut off the engine. A small shed stood off to her right.
Vremsky had been aware how quiet the trip had been, road noise aside, no one daring to breathe, much less talk, but now there was a profound silence if not one she found relaxing.
“The shed, there,” Falx said, “is the terminus of a tunnel leading past the house to the crypt. We'll enter, there.”
Once everyone had gotten out of the van and F-1 (or was it F-2?) unlocked the shed, Osiris opened his eyes, and said firmly to his security detail, “please place Agent Lóviator under arrest.”
“But, Martin, he just dumped her there,” Dorothy said in a hoarse whisper as they wandered back through the winding tunnel, “nothing more than a sack of old potatoes rolled out of the wheelbarrow. We have to report it, tell the police, let them give her a...” but then Martin's curt frown cut her off. She was still indignant at the cruelty of it all, a grandson murdering – Martin interrupted her: “allegedly murdering” – his own grandmother. “He just tossed the body aside like that, not even attempting to bury...”
They shuffled along, dusty and tired after spending far too much time in this tunnel and who knows what the hell that was they saw back in the farmhouse (or even when it was) not to mention their discovery of those remains on the other side of the crypt, like they'd overheard those guys say.
At least now her flashlight was working “flawlessly,” not sputtering like it had before it went out back in that basement. “It was right after the battery died we suddenly found ourselves in... in...”
“...Another dimension, some parallel universe?” Martin sounded as dismissive as he was exhausted. “Do you really think that was... was real?”
“Were those bones in the tunnel, there, 'real'? Or another 'double hallucination,' maybe?” shining her flashlight behind them, just in case. “But we both heard what they'd said, Tom and his aunt, didn't we?”
“And wasn't it convenient the police had left the crypt untended,” Martin continued. “That would've been difficult, wouldn't it, trying to explain, 'oh sorry, officer, just passing through, taking our wheelbarrow for a walk'...”
“Scoff as much as you like, Martin Crotchet, but things have happened since we got here yesterday that cannot be explained.”
He grumbled something that might have been an agreement but then added they'd told Terry they were going to check out the farmhouse to see if Tom were there and they still didn't know.
“Should we go back, maybe? And by the way, what happened to Terry? He was right behind us, then he disappeared.”
“Or what if we're the ones who disappeared? Did you think of that?”
Dorothy shivered, wondering if Martin had been reading something about Quantum Physics again. “Still, we saw no clue Tom was there...”
Martin agreed somebody was there, that was obvious, at least, judging from the two voices they heard coming down the steps, two guys from Jersey and one of them a whiner (Dorothy hated whiners). “But we were only in a couple rooms after we followed Tom and his aunt upstairs and no sign of Tom.“
“Which Tom do you mean? There was Tom from several years ago with Aunt Jane, right?, however anyone can explain that. But did we see anything upstairs as it would appear today? Probably not.”
She remembered how everything started to change once her flashlight started working again, a rapid transition from the old, unfinished basement to something new and sparkling white, full of equipment like a hospital room.
“You mean the upstairs wouldn't look the way we saw it just now? You think Tom – today's Tom – is somewhere else?”
“It's possible the upstairs was never cleaned up after the murder. Didn't Terry say the house had been abandoned for years? But I'm pretty sure what we saw just a while ago is what the place would've looked like in the past, and I'm also pretty sure Today's Tom would not be 'in the past.'”
“Well,” Martin said, pushing the door to Tom's basement open, “how will we explain this to Cameron and Amanda? Is Terry...?”
And there stood several people just as surprised as they were.
Dorothy and Martin, each with their flashlights, stood on one side of the door, the darkness of the tunnel behind them, for the moment looking not unlike the proverbial deer caught in the headlights; while two people wearing police uniforms, each with their flashlights, stood on the other, Purdue's basement blazing with light behind them. On the floor was a rough outline of a sprawled-out body made of tape where a third person, on his knees with tweezers and what looked like a freezer bag, also stared at them.
It hadn't occurred to Officer Paula Naze she ought to have been holding the flashlight in her left hand so she'd be able to reach for her revolver with her right just in case, but it was too late to be second-guessing herself now: whoever'd gotten the drop on them had the benefit of surprise.
That didn't stop Officer Torello from gripping his flashlight with both hands as menacingly as possible when he shouted, “Okay, freeze!” He figured the intruders looked pretty old so maybe they'd be easily confused.
Dorothy and Martin both raised their hands, deferentially pointing their flashlights straight up at the ceiling, but didn't say a word.
“Would you mind telling us who you are – and what you're doing here?” Torello advanced toward them, not lowering his flashlight.
“Not to mention,” Naze added, “where the hell you came from?”
Naze ran her flashlight across the top and sides of the doorway that had opened so unexpectedly in front of them. The fact there was a door there at all, not to mention a large, sliding one, came as a total surprise. How had they managed to miss that, not that they would've expected it.
Dorothy and Martin both pointed behind them as they identified themselves, talking over each other until Torello held up his hand. “One at a time – you first,” he said, pointing at the old woman.
They explained who they were, friends of Tom's, how they were hoping to find him (without going into too much detail) and explained how the tunnel ran from next door down to the crypt.
Then Dorothy mentioned they had something to show them: “We found another body.”
With that, they all went into the tunnel.
It didn't take long for Det. Narder to arrive at the crypt with Tango and Reel and quickly join Naze and Torello, standing behind two senior citizens, where they'd found DiVedremo's body that morning. “You're saying this isn't a fresh dump but something going back several years?” (“Geez,” she thought, “when'd he kill this one?”) She had the two old folks explain the bit about the wheelbarrow again, how it ended up in Purdue's basement (again?) and why they decided to get it out of the way down here.
The entrances to both tunnels stood open, so Narder shined her flashlight first down one tunnel, presumably coming from the farmhouse, then down the other, opposite Samuel Hayne's sarcophagus, ending where the ceiling collapsed. Crumpled on the ground was a set of twisted remains just a few feet in and beside it an up-ended wheelbarrow.
“Does anybody know where this tunnel leads? Wait, don't bother,” she realized, just when Nortonstein arrived, as the real questions for right now were “whose body is that and when did this person die?” Also, “did he get lost in the tunnel, wander in and suffocate? Or, do you think we're dealing with murder here?”
“I should be able to answer at least some of those questions momentarily,” Dr Nortonstein said, kneeling beside yet another body, “but I remind you I don't think; I examine the facts, then deduce.”
While Reel moved the wheelbarrow out of his way, Narder explained it had only been placed there maybe ten minutes ago – Nortonstein's brow knitted only momentarily – saying forensics would examine the blood on it.
“You really must slow down, Narder,” he sighed. “I mean, seriously, four bodies in two days is getting to be excessive!”
Narder asked the two seniors how they knew about this tunnel and when the last time was they'd seen Dr Purdue when Dorothy said, “well, I haven't talked to Tom myself for, oh... years.”
“Definitely murder,” Nortonstein announced. “And it's a woman, over 60? – not well preserved considering she's spent years in an underground tunnel. Those marks there, across the chest, indicate some rather severe, quite deep wounds.”
Tango wondered if they could've been caused by a large knife – or scythe. “You know, maybe like our first two victims?”
Reel reminded them of that 2002 police report, how the house belonged to a widow, Mrs Lily Ripa, who lived alone, but she'd apparently disappeared around the same time, according to her son, Jack.
“Let me guess,” Tango added, “with no body, they couldn't charge anyone – like her neighbor – with the murder of Jack's mother?”
“And when exactly were you last in touch with Dr Purdue,” Narder asked.
“Why,” Dorothy said, jumping in, “I haven't really seen him since that reunion back in... – when was it, Martin: 1995, right?”
“And you just happened to show up yesterday at his house because you both just happened to be in the area?”
“Yes, as we'd explained, Terry Kerr called and told us about Tom's disappearance.”
“And did Dr Kerr say anything about when he thought Purdue had disappeared?”
They both agreed he'd said about sometime Sunday.
Unfortunately, disappearance or not, after his aunt died and left him the house, Narder explained, maybe Purdue decided not to sell, because maybe a new owner would uncover some evidence that might incriminate him? Knowing he could keep the lid on an old murder from years before, knowing where they'd hid the body – or bodies...
“So, yes, it seems likely Thomas Purdue, having returned to the scene of the crime, may be keeping some old secrets.”
Dorothy and Martin stole quick glances at each other, scowled, and said nothing.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 14th]
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.