(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.
Vremsky had thought she might receive praise for having identified and located that composer whose computer program Osiris was searching for: how fortuitous it was one of her artists who'd revealed the man's existence. (“Who'd ever heard of this guy, hardly a success. That early Piano Quintet wasn't bad: what had ever happened to him?”) Even more fortuitous was this obscure composer, one several Aficionati agents failed to locate, lived next to her own subordinate, Falx, who was then busily setting up new headquarters in his old family home! And while the headquarters were a work-in-progress, she figured Osiris would understand that, circumstances regarding Purdue's capture being what they were. Yes, and would The Great One understand Falx may have been a little overzealous abducting Purdue to make him more compliant? There'd been no memo about securing the target, just identifying and locating him.
All she knew was Purdue had something her boss wanted, being further up the pay scale than she could ever imagine, and that she had managed to apprehend the man (well, her agent had); beyond that, she had no idea what it was this information could do or what Osiris planned to do with it. She was curious why Govnozny – or rather Agent Moritásgeroth – had been brought in or why he had converted Falx's basement into what looked like a pristine operating theater, but this was not her concern.
But all her successes, the ones she'd planned on and the ones she'd hoped for, crumbled before her eyes when she saw the brief dust-driven scowl flashing so intensely across Osiris' otherwise immobile expression, a hot breeze that swept across desert sands dry enough to mummify everything on contact and obliterate a cool autumnal day. The glance made clear he had received an insult so deep, so pervasive, he would neither forget it nor forgive her: “so much,” she sighed from her back seat, “for any hope of advancement.”
“Back seat, indeed!” Vremsky had her own insults to deal with, despite realizing even if Falx were her chauffeur (or perhaps a mere cab driver), she would still be sitting in the back seat. It reflected on her leadership if this subordinate of hers – in official circles known bureaucratically as L-4 – behaved less than expected.
Agent L-1 – Hjalmar – her first recruit, was self-sufficient, independent, efficient and above all motivated by the best precepts of the Aficionati, a musician himself raised and trained by the strictest, most logical of teachers. A delight to work with, he was based in Norway but, side-lined by health concerns, was unavailable for this particular project. Even L-2 and L-3, perhaps less stellar converts to the cause, proved more reliable if not quite as imaginative as Falx, but Dagon, given his own age, urged her to recruit much-needed “younger minds.”
Perhaps the most damning thing about L-4, reported to Dagon only a month after Falx's initiation, was his reliance on “intuition” which he had, on several occasions, jumped to before going through logical channels. “Intuition” in reaching conclusions was not necessarily frowned upon within the Aficionati, but should only be the result of orderly applications.
And in this case, Falx had proven to be a “loose cannon,” making his own decisions without following protocols and doing what he saw as being “best” for reasons that were best for him. She regarded L-4 as a pain-in-the-neck (or, more anatomically correct, the lower back), but now he was considerably – and dangerously – “off-target.”
He had “jumped the gun,” taking Purdue into custody, and his rashness may have compromised the success of Osiris' pet project. But trying to concoct a possible solution, she knew it was too late.
All these artillery-oriented clichés: she became more convinced while riding through Philadelphia, then deeper into Suburbia with its tree-covered, business-lined streets, Osiris was considering different ways of taking her out and having her shot. At least she hoped he was thinking metaphorically: she might be demoted, traded to a different supervisor further down the hierarchy. Then she recalled the False Dmitri who usurped the Russian throne from Boris Godunov, in turn overthrown by Polish mercenaries, drawn and quartered, shoved into a cannon, then shot over the walls of Moscow.
With every bump and sliding swerve – Falx could have had the suspension repaired and made sure the tires were fully inflated! – Vremsky, unable to keep calm, imagined increasingly worse things coursing through Osiris' mind. “The Late Lóviator,” reported an official Aficionati document (assuming they kept official documents), “fell to her sudden if not unmerited demise...”
Not pretty thoughts, sitting in the van she tried imagining was a limousine – Falx should've rented from the same company meeting her at the airport yesterday: surely, they would have had wheelchair-accessible limos available? – thinking everything going wrong with this day was in fact a bad dream and she would wake up in Osiris' motorcade.
Yes, she sat in the back of a limo in her pink dress with pearls when suddenly shots rang out and she screamed, becoming Jackie O in Dallas, but they were shooting at her.
There was never a time in her life, she recalled, where she seemed to be “happy,” whatever that meant (or implied), since things usually went from bad to worse or, rarely, only less bad. Growing older – she always considered herself “mature” (her mother joked she had been “born old”) – she quietly put everything behind her. Whenever she scaled beyond symbolic plateaus in life, she wondered how anyone could think previous days were “The Good Old Days.” Now here, in life's on-going trajectory, she found herself standing behind a cemetery.
Had she heard the words correctly, she wondered – such a dry, egg-shell voice. “Please,” it said, “place Agent Lóviator under arrest.”
She might have responded “Under arrest?” She might have said “What the fark...?”
Vremsky remembered how her father always said, looking over their family's ill-fated history, “Some things, you'll discover, manage to defy logic.”
Dr Govnozny – alias Agent Moritásgeroth, officially M-6 in Agent Machaon's phalanx, one of the more highly regarded assistants among the Aficionati – accidentally happened upon what he called “an anomaly” as he scanned Lóviator's skull in preparation for what was a very risky, delicate but ultimately simple operation – simple for him; eventually fatal for his patient. This “anomaly” was easily removed just as it must have been easily implanted, involving making a slight incision along the hairline. It had left no noticeable scar and probably no real discernible, residual pain.
What kind of implant mystified him momentarily, holding it up to the light, until he realized it was a miniscule square of wires and plastic, smaller than the tiny SIM card in his cell-phone. It reminded him of one of those identity microchips veterinarians can put in your dog in case it should get lost.
In this case, it was more than a “dog-tag” with the owner's name and address where the pet can be returned – “a curious device to put into a human,” he thought, “very curious, indeed.” Looking at it under one of his microscopes, he pointed out to Osiris, sitting nearby, this wasn't something from Hephaestus' lab.
“Aside from being unmarked, itself highly suspicious, it's... – unless,” he added, “we're now concerned with keeping tabs on our agents' whereabouts?”
“'Keeping tabs on...' – what, like GPS,” Falx stammered.
“Not 'like,' exactly,” Govnozny hesitated.
Holding the tiny device up in his tweezers as if Osiris could see it from where he sat watching the proceedings, he explained it answered earlier questions about the police presence in the vicinity, tilting his head with that enigmatic smile people familiar with technology use to patronize people who aren't: “You've been played, sir.”
“Played?” Osiris' neck jerked and he sat up straighter, his chin jutting forward.
“Your agent,” he continued with a deferential nod, “is being tracked like an animal whose migration habits are being scientifically scrutinized.”
“Tagged like a moose?” Falx almost choked from laughter. “Not funny, of course...”
Osiris, on the other hand, was furious. “Outrageous!” He knew Lóviator had somehow been sloppy but reports he'd seen were inconclusive.
“It's not possible to say exactly who's doing the scientific study,” Govnozny continued, “but you realize this is not good news?”
The police were next door, they had been all over the crypt where F-1 and F-2 had failed in hiding that body, and it's quite possible they will have had his van under surveillance. It would only be a matter of time, Falx knew, before they would descend on the farmhouse, all his work – ruined!
“So, then,” Govnozny smiled, “I could simply crush this like bug, yes? – ha-ha! See, I make joke! – and that's the end.”
“No! – no, don't do that!” Falx dove to stop him. “Here's my idea.”
If the signal suddenly stopped, they'd know something was wrong and they'd know the last location the device had reported from. “The police – whoever it is – will be all over this place in minutes.”
Osiris, still crimson with rage, and Govnozny, still holding the damned tracking device, both looked at him with increasing curiosity.
Falx called Vinny over – or was it Yanni? – and told him to take this chip, encase it in putty he can attach to – say – the wheelwell of a police car down at the crypt.
“That way, when the car drives away, whoever's monitoring the device will think Agent Lóviator is moving away from the farmhouse.”
“Ah,” Osiris said, his color diminishing as his curiosity about this man increased. “I see! Yes, that is an excellent idea.”
“And now, sir,” Falx said, rising to his full height, “shall we continue?”
“Well, I'd come up with the idea myself and then Hephaestus developed the technology to bring it to its magnificent fruition,” Osiris, as usual, rambled on with his typical mix of pride and arrogance. “No doubt, it will operate flawlessly, leading to a complete and unequivocal success, marking the very pinnacle of my distinguished career.” He smacked his lips at the increase his power will attain, becoming a force to be reckoned with, an international player. He'll now be able to initiate a whole new era in Aficionati history!
Interrupting his revery to return to the less intoxicating explanation of his plan, Osiris did not care to call it a bomb though it was basically an explosive device embedded in the victim's skull. Govnozny and Falx both looked astonished at the brilliance of the Great Idea, and with bobbing heads murmured their unmitigated approval.
In the long term, it will be done by broadcasting some “specially-designed music,” he called it, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, but anybody intercepting it would just hear a generic piece of normal-sounding music. “It could have a nice melody with lush harmonies and a catchy rhythm, and maybe they'll like it or maybe not. But these brain-implant devices, the receiver unit, will be able to isolate the rhythmic layer where we've embedded a special code and not only interpret the instructions we've transmitted but fulfill them as well.
“It's awkward, you know,” Osiris complained, staring across at Falx and Govnozny, “since we don't yet have the necessary code to communicate instructions directly to Hephaestus' brain-implant device, but that will come in time. Soon, I'm quite sure,” he added, nodding toward the room where Dr Purdue was being held. “We'll see how it goes.” Even at this moment, he knew one of Hephaestus' top assistants, H-4, was already working at his computer on Purdue's program, a team of lawyers and soldiers providing “leverage” to help the process along.
Today's test involved a wireless receiver, as he could most easily explain it (or even understand it, less the technical gobbledy-gook), with a manual remote-control unit Agent H-4 will operate to implement the instructions.
“He will need to be in the van parked outside the concert hall: distance, in this case, could be a factor.“
“While I understand,” Falx said, “how it will work with the robots – the Mobots, sorry – ” (Osiris smiled at his deferential correction), “how exactly will this work,” pointing toward Vremsky lying etherized upon the table.
“Except for the instructions being registered manually with the receiver unit,” Osiris continued, “it is basically operating on the same principles.”
“As I understand it,” Govnozny said, picking up the scalpel again, “this is essentially a beta-test unit: if the transmitter can control the actions of a live human, a robot should be no problem.”
Once the subject is ready, Govnozny said it was all in H-4's hands, since he'll deal with all the “hard stuff.”
“Me? My job's easy, installing the receiver unit. For her, not so much...”
Falx couldn't help smiling, seeing Lóviator under the white sheet, hooked up to various tubes and wires. “Yeah – not so much...”
Osiris accepted the steaming cup of tea his nurse had poured for him. “There was some concern expressed – by Lóviator, among others – that perhaps this project was moving too fast and needed more research.”
“Oh, I'm quite sure everything's moving along just as it should,” Falx said, accepting a cup of strong tea as well.
H-4, a tall, blonde-haired man also known as Agent Lóthurr, Hephaestus' assistant Osiris had introduced earlier, declined his cup of tea. “Sorry,” he apologized, “but there'll be delicate wiring to do on the device...”
The hour passed slowly as Govnozny, assisted by H-4, occasionally by F-2 (or maybe F-1), installed the receiver under Vremsky's scalp, managing to work around more blood loss than either of them had expected. Lóthurr, checking various functions through his tablet, approved the connections of numerous fine wires into the appropriate parts of Vremsky's brain.
Osiris came slowly out of his nap in time to see Lóthurr test a series of simple commands on the patient: a faint smile flickered across his dry lips and his eyes glistened briefly.
Typing a few words on his tablet, Lóthurr was able to make Vremsky lift her right arm and open her eyelids despite his assurances to the others she was completely sedated and otherwise unconscious.
“Transmission successful!” He gave Govnozny the go-ahead to finish suturing around the device before the anesthesia might begin to wear off.
“When I send this particular command,” Lóthurr mimed hitting a few more keys, “that will mix the two chemicals implanted in the device, enough to create an explosion killing dozens of people around her.”
As Govnozny attached a very ill-fitting, cheap-looking wig to her crudely half-shaved skull, Falx had difficulty controlling his urge to giggle.
Only Selket chose not to laugh when Osiris pointed out Govnozny had put the wig on backwards, partly covering her face.
Falx was delighted. “That alone would be enough to make her head explode!”
In a few brief minutes, sitting there, waiting – minutes which to the patient seemed to have been hours if not days – Osiris and his team saw signs Vremsky was slowly coming to the surface. It wasn't the confusion of leaving the darkness behind but the faces peering at her with such curiosity that concerned her.
Short words began to take shape in the haze of her beleaguered memory despite the very definite awareness her brain hurt, words like “what,” “how,” “why,” “arrest,” and “fuck you.” Suddenly the light became blinding.
“So, let's try something, Agent Lóviator – shall we?” Lóthurr typed on his keyboard. “This command will hold up your left fist.” Her left arm moved, raising her fist. “Try opening it.” She could not.
Vremsky's eyes grew wide with fear, unable to speak or open her mouth.
She couldn't even give him the finger.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 19th]
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.