Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 21 (Part 1)

In the previous installment, following a particularly difficult ride in Graham Ripa's decrepit van, Perdita Vremsky is surprised to find herself suddenly placed under arrest. When Dorothy & Martin return to Purdue's basement after returning the errant wheelbarrow to a different location, they're surprised to find some equally surprised policemen staring at them. After they tell them about the body they found at the other end of the tunnel and Narder and Nortonstein arrive to check out yet another crime scene, it turns out this body is considerably older, presumably Lily Ripa who disappeared in 2002. Narder wonders how long Purdue has been killing people...

(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.

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“Okay, freeze!“

It was a voice I wasn't familiar with. No sooner back from the past and already I've been seen! I hadn't turned my flashlight on; how'd he spot me in this darkness? There was a play of flashlights against the wall – I'm in the tunnel! – with two rather large and awkwardly frozen silhouettes.

Two voices, now, both in a very unfriendly fashion, the voices of someone startled, challenging some unseen (or previously unseen) force.

Raising my hands, about to reply, I noticed the silhouettes started moving slowly.

It wasn't me these aggressive voices were talking to (how could they've even seen me, around the corner from Tom's basement?). When the silhouettes started talking, I knew the shadows were Martin's and Dorothy's. How'd I get ahead of them? When the Kapellmeister grabbed me, I was outside the gate, not out in the tunnel.

In their rapid cascade of explanations, I couldn't really tell what anyone was saying and didn't want to risk moving closer. There was something about being friends of Tom's; then they explained the tunnel. Then Dorothy mentioned quite clearly how they'd found another body and everything stopped. Whose body? They'd found Tom? Was he dead?

I heard them starting to come toward me – toward the tunnel. They were taking the other voices – police, probably – to the farmhouse; then in a few seconds they would see me in the shadows.

It was a whirlwind escape from Harvard's library and I'd barely caught my breath, thinking the next thing would be me splattered with my guts all over the floor of Gore Library (“Gore,” indeed). The last thing I remember was a scream – it probably wasn't Miss Norton but then I wasn't sure it wasn't me. Then it was very dark and now I'm here where it's still very dark except I know where I am, maybe. The question is when am I: a few seconds or several minutes later?

How had I ended up ahead of Dorothy and Martin when, after they'd started out – I was talking to Amanda, some problem she needed to figure out with Clara – I'd been right behind them? Maybe the Kapellmeister was off by a few seconds or a few feet. (With luck, I won't be seeing him again.)

Didn't Agent Bond from the IMP think the farmhouse was full of Aficionati? My memory was still a bit foggy. (“Aficionati?”) We'd set out to check the farmhouse; maybe Tom was being held there. That's when Amanda said something about Clara, a problem she needed to check. And Cameron, late for lunch, went for groceries.

Okay, it's coming back to me – good news, I think – but I can't tell if they've left yet or they're back. And what are the police doing here (again)? When did they show up?

And who the hell did Bond say these Aficionati were? Hadn't Tom thought it was SHMRG who was after his software? Wait, or was that me jumping to conclusions? (I need to ask Amanda...)

So why're they going in the opposite direction? Not that I mind: the police won't see me, then, with any luck.

I waited another few seconds till the two cops following Martin and Dorothy had disappeared around the bend; then I followed the faint glow of the light in the passageway coming from Tom's basement. But Amanda was no longer sitting at the computer. In fact, it looked like the computer was gone, too. “What the...?”

The only thing I could see was Zeno sitting on the bottom step: meowing at me that the coast was clear? Warning me I'm walking into a trap? (Or maybe he was hungry – again).

And the place had very definitely been searched. That wasn't a good sign... Where would Amanda have gone in that short a time and why would she have taken the computer with her? Unless... Why were the police here? Did Amanda call them? I looked at the cat but he continued meowing, totally indecipherable. “Great.”

I sneaked through the basement, looking behind the rug hanging on the wall, under the desk that once blocked the gate, back into the corner where the hot water heater was – and saw nobody.

It was then I noticed the odd marking on the floor, a childish abstract outline as if a body had ineptly been sprawled there unceremoniously, something out of a crime scene. “Oh, not again...!”

If Dorothy just said they'd found another body, why did they go off toward the crypt if there was one here?

Another body – that's Alma Viva and DiVedremo, both down at the publisher's office; this one (pointing at the floor) and that one (pointing toward the crypt), which would mean four bodies in two days!

That can't be good – I mean, who is killing all of these people? I wonder if the police have any suspects?

But not knowing who these last two were gnawed at me, especially since I didn't know where Cameron and Amanda were.

“I go away for only a few minutes and, jeez, look what happens!”

Working my way past Zeno who was not budging, I tip-toed upstairs to look around, wary about calling out for anyone. If not the police, what if someone from SHMRG or one of those Aficionati people had also broken into Purdue's house, looking for something (though “what” and “why” were big questions on my mind)?

The downstairs – especially the living room – had been thoroughly searched but not ransacked. The police would search; an Aficianato (whatever you called a single member of the Aficionati) would probably have trashed the place.

And what is it they're looking for, if they've already got Purdue's computer? Maybe some back-up copy, something that might have... Of course: that thumb drive we so diligently “liberated” from the ballet school!

Didn't Amanda use it to access Clara last night, with its missing “key.” I'd wanted to ask her to “uninstall” it...

“Shit, piss and corrosion!”

I hadn't meant that to be as loud as it came out, standing in the living room. Somebody could've heard me, depending on where they're hiding (assuming there's someone hiding). After standing still for what seemed like several minutes but was more likely seconds, that's when I heard it: something upstairs.

Somebody was down the hall, perhaps in Tom's study looking for the thumb-drive. It didn't sound like someone busily rummaging but then I couldn't tell whether the person was tall, large-framed and muscular, either. Not that I wasn't curious to find out who it was, I certainly wasn't interested in sneaking upstairs to surprise him. I also wasn't into getting clobbered, kidnapped, and tortured over this thumb-drive's location. With that, I decided it was safer – and definitely wiser – to hide behind the recliner, leaning against the bookcase, breathing slowly.

Maybe it was another one of the policemen, left behind to secure the scene after the others followed Martin and Dorothy. Wondering whether he'd imagine me dangerous enough to “shoot first, ask questions later,” I didn't care to be caught in the house by any policeman convinced Tom's their prime suspect and I'm somehow involved.

The toilet flushed, the water at the sink began to run – whoever it was was conscious of simple hygiene basics – and then, after another moment that felt like eternity, I heard the door open.

(“Jeez,” I thought, “what if it's the Kapellmeister?” – which potential scenario was worse?)

The steps were hesitant at first, as if someone was being careful, looking around, maybe conscious he was no longer alone. Zeno rushed in from the kitchen, mewing noisily, and dashed up the steps to the landing.

(“Don't give me away, cat!”)

Finally, afraid to move my head to look out from behind the chair, I was able to see the person who walked into my field of vision once he started walking down the steps.

The guy wore the blue police jacket marked “Forensics”. He looked fairly short, slim, wore glasses and was in his mid-twenties.

“Hey,” the young man said, as he leaned over to pet the cat, “I'm really sorry someone killed your human, fella.” After a pause he continued, “well, if someone did kill her.”

(“Her? Amanda...?”)

Since the young man headed toward the kitchen – causing me to breathe a sigh of relief – Zeno turned and followed him.

“Don't worry, cat, if someone killed Ms Wences, we'll find him – speaking generically.“

A phone chirped and I heard the man say he's bringing his evidence bag back to the lab “as we speak.”

“Nothing suspicious here, evidence of several people though – hard to say.” A pause. “Yeah, well, I'm the last one here – the others are following some sort of lead down at the earlier crime scene.”

The familiar sound of a can opener increased the frequency of Zeno's mewing. “Hasn't anybody fed you yet this morning, kiddo?” I could see him bend over and place a dish on the floor.

“I can't comment on an on-going investigation, cat, but if you see that Kerr fellow, be sure to call us, okay?”

Once the door had closed behind him and Zeno was busily wolfing down the meal he'd cadged from the crime-scene guy, I leaned more heavily against the bookcase, preferring to “hunker down in place.”

“Amanda is dead? Amanda is dead – and even though they're not sure she's been murdered, they think somehow I'm a suspect?”

There were so many questions needing answers, I didn't know where to begin: “who killed Amanda” but also “why kill Amanda...?”

I began the process of shutting down and retreating further inside my brain.

To some, as I tried to explain on those few occasions I've needed to, I imagine it's a bit like “meditating” – not in the spiritual sense of ancient monks; more in an intellectual sense – and I don't use some endlessly repeating transcendental formula to hypnotize myself until I've succeeded in closing out the outside world. It's easier in the context of having a “quiet place” with fewer distractions, so I wasn't sure how successful this'd be knowing I would somehow have to clear my name as well as Tom's. This was a “place” (in the mental sense) where I might concentrate on certain questions or issues and, in essence, “free-associate,” something I knew drove my rational-minded friends wild because it reeked of Dionysus, not that I ever used wine to help stimulate the process but drink is, I admit, strongly irrationalizing if often counter-productive.

Yet that's part of the process: while I relied on logic to make sense of the illogical and to wander among the possibilities that could lead to some sort of epiphany (like many detectives), it also became a distraction with so many more avenues of curiosity that cried out for exploration resulting in fascinating details. As I told one interviewer who asked me a question where he clearly hoped for a simple yes or no response, “why answer with one 'gray' word when 377 words might prove more colorful?”

First, I needed to identify the different questions which may all be interrelated, not only those about Amanda but those I wanted to ask her which she could no longer answer for unfortunate reasons. There wasn't time, the time was limited, the answers had to be found before time ran out (but time is eternal). There was the ticking of a clock – Aunt Jane's clock on the mantle – time passing, inexorably; time moving forward but not backward – though I certainly managed to prove that wrong today, twice! (“Shut up!”)

Wasn't it amazing Tom, not known for being a “technical guy,” could create a computer program not only capable of composing but capable of learning to compose something so subtly complex – and literally overnight? How is it even possible a machine could learn something so irrationally subjective – how was Tom able to figure this out...?

Okay, so Clara was demonstrating increased mastery of various parameters of musical discourse – melody, harmony, rhythm, form – completely on her own. Surprising, but unusual or unexpected? Except the accelerated time-frame and lack of oversight. Was it something happening in the rhythmic field? That's the most astounding thing, how that evolved in such a short time.

But what significance did this have, if any? Was there some logical explanation? Independence of rhythm was the most obvious development in musical style since the days of Debussy or The Rite of Spring.

Was it some kind of code, like Tom's error-filled list, misspellings and wrong keys revealing a code leading to a clue? How would you turn a rhythm like this into a code like that? Maybe it's not the rhythms Clara created that was the code: could it point to some potential use for the code?

It's not just a matter of Tom's technology but how somebody else could develop it, why it was worth killing for. How did Tom know, in writing his coded plea, SHMRG was after it? When had he realized, perhaps too late, what SHMRG could do with it? And why can't I find the same answers?

In the back of my mind, off in the distance, as if being played on a car radio a block away, I heard a familiar song: “Over the Rainbow”! – Why, oh why, can't I?

But Tom's computer – and with it, Clara – was missing so even if I knew how to access the program, there's nothing I could do to look for answers there (well, in so many words). I assume the killer might have stolen it, but the guy who fed Zeno said they weren't sure she'd been murdered.

“So how did Amanda die?” Hardly natural causes... “Had there been blood?” No... Perhaps by poison, slipped into her coffee? – they'd find that in the autopsy. Wait... – what if Clara was a witness? (Right...)

If there's no murderer to steal the computer, maybe the police took it down to their lab, looking for some clues. What do they know, if anything, about Clara? Could they access the codes? What could they possibly hope to find? – obviously hoping to find anything that could incriminate Tom. Or me, for that matter.

That would explain what happened to Tom's thumb-drive – wait, a dwarf killed Amanda? No – what does a little person have to do with this? (“Shut up!”) Focus: what did Amanda do with the thumb-drive? Didn't we leave it in the computer after Amanda used it to access the program? That's the key to all this. It's back-up against a crash – you don't expect the computer to be stolen – leaving it in the USB port seems safe. Except Tom did expect the computer to be stolen – SHMRG was after it.

So you'd think, like a spare house key, you'd keep it near where you'd need to use it, like by the back door – under a rock – not literally, but where was Tom's figurative rock? And if you're expecting someone's going to steal your computer, you wouldn't put it beside your computer, not in the open. That means I should be looking for it in the basement and it would be somewhere I could probably see it or its hiding place from where I'd be sitting – at his computer desk!

There's not much time (there's never enough time): everybody'll be coming back from the tunnel soon, so I'll have to hurry. I unfolded my creaking bones from behind the recliner – and froze. “That's it!” Seeing Tom's ballerina figurine, I didn't want to touch it and be transported...

“Now I know what to look for downstairs!”


Not the least of numerous reliefs I felt at the moment was having taken the opportunity to visit the upstairs bathroom – perhaps the forensic guy's flushing the toilet reminded me it had been almost 130 years since I'd last taken a pee – when I realized there was little free time left to check the basement. Granted, Cameron complained I did some of my best thinking in the bathroom, without needing to comment on any comparable processes, but there wasn't the necessary time to think as much as this required. If it was – were? – a question of code, and the code was to be transmitted through the rhythm of the piece, what content was being transmitted and to whom, not to mention by whom? Besides, it's not that rhythm and code were never combined in the past, especially when it was only a single layer.

Morse Code was based on rhythm, generically speaking, a series of short and long pulses that could be gathered into beats, maybe not fitting easily into the standard “waltz time” or “march time” patterns, but one layer easier to assimilate, lacking the usual distractions of melody and harmony more readily admired by the typical music-lover. But Tom's rhythmic code – or, rather, a code constructed by manipulating Tom's software – wouldn't be as obvious as old-fashioned Morse Code. Most listeners shouldn't notice it underneath the pitch content – except maybe a percussionist.

The next question, aside from identifying who was hiring washed-up rock drummers to be “code-masters” for this end of the operation, was who's after the software and how do they intend to use it? Could it be used to brain-wash the public, to circulate some subliminal message? (Okay, to be precise, “the next three questions”...) But the general public – less its percussion-minded minority – wouldn't be any more aware of complex rhythmic patterns and what they “mean” than they would be of motivic development, tonal structures and standard harmonic progressions.

Society has long been using music to control the public – exciting rhythms and simple melodies to promote a crowd's patriotic fervor; slow, sombre music in times of national tragedy – so that idea's nothing new. But if not disseminating more than generalized emotional responses to control their audience, what about, say, instructions for a terrorist attack?

Now, as familiar as I was with the dastardly doings of an organization like SHMRG, I wasn't convinced they had yet reached the point of becoming a terrorist organization, out to commit social mayhem. Their primary function, it seemed to me, involved establishing economic power over society through music they could control by capitalist means. It was a process involving manipulation of the government and consumers in order to increase revenues taken in through corporate domination, and “terrorism” didn't make much sense except to, however possible, eliminate the competition.

But Agent Bond of the IMP had mentioned “The Aficionati” which I now remembered hearing about not too long ago, despite centuries of their existence, implying some degree of success for a secret organization. (Wasn't it in England visiting Phlaumix Court where Sebastian Crevecoeur warned me about them, except hadn't Sebastian been dead for years?)

Now, as unfamiliar as I was with the Aficionati and their existence, beyond the fact Sebastian regarded them with some fear, Bond claimed they were protecting Classical Music “by whatever means” from the barbarians. Could one of those means be the dissemination of secret commands through music only sophisticated computer software could transmit and decode?

What if both of them were after Tom's software at the same time: SHMRG to capture the market with a computer that composed music for you, and the Aficionati to eliminate SHMRG, their competition?

All these questions, I realized, whether any of them could be answered at this point or not, were secondary to the immediate question of where to find Tom Purdue and how to rescue him, since I was becoming more convinced, given what Bond said, he was being held next door in the least logical place. (Okay, the two most important questions were “where to find Tom” and “how to rescue him” – and “find out who killed Belle DiVedremo, Alma Viva, and Amanda Wences!” Wait – the three most important questions...)

If Martin and Dorothy had the police occupied down at the crypt with yet another body – and who would that be? – that would buy me some time to go to the farmhouse next door. But I hesitated trying it alone without Cameron around at least for back-up. He should've been back long ago: another question...

But then, why the farmhouse; what's the connection? Just because Bond says – thinks? – the place is full of these Aficionati agents? Does that prove they're after Clara or answer why they're holding Tom hostage? Could some agents from SHMRG have swooped in under the Aficionati's collective nose and absconded with Tom to undermine the Aficionati?

That's the trouble with questions: once you figure out what to ask, they start multiplying like Fibonacci's rabbits! Before you know it, you're snowed under with a blizzard full of them (mixed metaphors aside).

And how am I going over there to single-handedly rescue my friend Tom when I have no idea who I'm facing, how many of them there are, or where it is they're holding him? I needed a plan – “yes,” I thought, as I walked through the downstairs toward the kitchen, “a plan would be good.”

Listening for tell-tale signs of intruders in the house, I noticed Zeno had long ago inhaled the last of his food. There was so far no sign of anyone else, either friends or foes.

What if I could walk into the basement of the farmhouse and find Tom without seeing any of these other agents? What if it could be that simple to get him out of there?

What if I could walk into Tom's basement without seeing anybody else and find that mysterious thumb-drive everyone is looking for?

The back door, kicked in off its hinges by the earlier arrival of the police, had now been jerry-rigged into place with a few screws and pieces of plywood nailed over the broken window, similar to how the front door had temporarily been “repaired,” not that it would keep anyone else out, unwanted or otherwise. I could look out the windows over the sink to see across the back yard into the quietly sleeping cemetery beyond, but the view down the sidewalk behind the garage was blocked by plywood.

It would be even easier now for this so-called prowler, whoever he was and regardless of his association with the neighbors, to get into the house even if he didn't know the tunnel existed. That little bit of yellow “crime-scene tape” I imagined stretching around to the front door wouldn't likely stop a mere burglar.

And how would Cameron get back in, if the doors were now sealed shut – that was a possibility, though the Forensics guy had left, closing the door behind him (probably not locked, either, then). He might use the tunnel – I'm sure the place is under surveillance, anyway – but aren't the police already in the tunnel? Of course, I also had to worry about when or if the police might return, with or without Martin and Dorothy, whether there was any reason for them to come back to the house.

And then, what if the tunnel gate was locked? Could I get out, much less back in once I'd rescued Tom? Did Cameron know where Tom kept his spare key to the back door? “Spare key!” Right, that's what I needed to find: focus! Where did Tom keep his back-up copy of Clara's access codes?

The steps creaked more than I'd been aware of before (probably my imagination). Was it from all the traffic they'd put up with today (it had been very busy, all this coming and going).

What happened to the cat, by the way? Where had Zeno gotten to, gone to sleep off the effects of lunch? Ah, there he was, sitting on Tom's desk where the computer had been. I sat down in Tom's chair, facing the computer, and wondered if I would see whatever I expected to see – somewhere.

The basement, largely unfinished, wasn't a place where a family relaxed with TVs or pool tables, comfortable couches and track lighting. Aside from the computer desk, there was little else that wasn't functional: the old coal room, the oil tank to store the winter's fuel, washer and dryer, and shelves full of odds and ends. Shelves covered most of the walls, thick rugs hanging over the tunnel wall. Had he hidden it behind one of the rugs, maybe in a box; in that jelly jar filled with old nails?

“Ah, no,” I thought, once I saw it, “that's where it will be,” sitting on the top shelf behind the steps but fully in view of the desk and barely lit by the lamplight. I went over and carefully took down a faded photograph, almost unnoticeable, its old wooden frame little bigger than a postcard.

It was an old Degas print, ballet dancers on rehearsal break, viewed backstage – at least, done “in the style of Degas” – perhaps a souvenir postcard he'd purchased long ago after visiting an art museum.

In the midst of female dancers stretching willowy arms stood someone majestic in her black feathery costume: Odile from Swan Lake.

Taped inside the boxy frame along the base was a small tin for breath mints which contained an unmarked thumb-drive. Bingo!

“Ah!” Voices in the tunnel – someone was returning.

Zeno started to meow again.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 16th]

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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