(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.
Peeking cautiously around the corner of Tom's garage, I noticed Cameron left my car parked on the street near the driveway, not that it would do me any good since he had the keys. So he's back from his grocery errand but he wasn't inside when I got back from... well, since I got back. That dark hatchback sitting across the street with two people in it was most likely a surveillance detail keeping an eye on our supposed comings and goings, oblivious to the activities in the tunnel. But speaking of escape, even if I had the keys, I couldn't just walk up to my car and drive away, even if I had an idea where the hell I might escape to. I couldn't leave, could I? I didn't know where Cameron was; maybe Tom's next door: the plan was to rescue Tom!
The problem with using the tunnel was, it sounded like it was already full of people I didn't care to run into, not Martin and Dorothy and maybe Cameron if he was with them; I was thinking more about the police, everybody coming back from the crypt with this “other body” I'd heard Dorothy mention. After all, given my most recent absence (which apparently went on longer than I'd anticipated, whatever my time-travelling friend told me) it would be difficult to use the Kapellmeister as my alibi, wouldn't it?
Not to mention the fact I'd showed up, obviously under mysterious circumstances, in the midst of a supposedly secured crime scene: “And how exactly did you get into the house if the exterior was under surveillance and we were in the tunnel?” “Oh, I'd just gotten back from Harvard – you can ask John Knowles Paine...” Another thing I didn't need was to have the police focusing on me as a suspect in Amanda's murder the way they've fixated on Tom as the suspect in the other two – or three...
Plus I haven't started processing Amanda's murder: who could've killed her and why? Unless she knew too much about Clara or got in the way of their trying to get hold of the software? And whether it was SHMRG or the Aficionati, where would I find them? Wherever I found them, would I find Tom?
So I couldn't stay in the house, except hiding upstairs in a bedroom closet; I couldn't use the tunnel; and I obviously couldn't use my car to make a get-away (and go where, exactly?). Maybe the cops in the dark hatchback hadn't noticed me, peering around the corner, so my only alternative was the cemetery. There were bushes behind Tom's house and the copse of trees between him and the other neighbors, places I could hide, but what's the plan after I'd made it over the cemetery wall? Hmmm...
There was no time to dither over logical alternatives, applying a dialectical discourse to various probabilities to find the best solution. And unfortunately, spontaneous action was never something I was particularly very good at. Plus a better knowledge of physics – not to mention my own functional anatomy – might have helped me clamber over the wall.
To say I “jumped” over the wall was not an accurate use of the word, nor did “gracefully” come to mind, pleased enough not to have thrown my back out or broken a leg. Not quite clearing the top, I dropped onto the tombstone of “Thomas Gradgrind Boole” who'd departed this world in the late-1860s.
There was little time to examine these facts when something caught my attention: seeing six people plus someone in a wheelchair marching out of a shed little bigger than an outhouse certainly looked suspicious.
Unless the inside were bigger than the outside (in itself an unlikely possibility), making it “dimensionally transcendental” like Dr Who's TARDIS, how could seven people manage to get into a small shed like that? Speaking of facts and logic, unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, how did they also squeeze in a wheelchair? The shed, from here, certainly looked like an outhouse or something proportionally comparable. If “mini-houses” were becoming quite the down-sizing rage, was this some kind of “mini storage shed” to more efficiently conserve space?
On the other hand, considering more logical possibilities as I scooted along the perimeter of the cemetery wall for a closer look, was it the other terminus for the tunnel originating at the crypt? Could this be where the tunnel beyond the farmhouse leads, the proverbial back-door?
“Wait! Is the person in the wheelchair Tom?”
From where I'd hunkered down, hiding under the brambles of a long-dead hawthorn – Cameron would point out I could identify shrubs or flowers but not the make of the car parked across the street – I saw two men dressed in black, someone official-looking in an expensive suit with two others who looked more like goons. The person in the wheelchair, conscious or unconscious, was draped in a blue blanket with a pillow case over the head and from my position I couldn't tell if he were alive or dead.
If that was Tom, had something happened and they were taking him somewhere else for whatever reason, perhaps to a hospital? Did they suspect that, with the police all over the place looking for him, the law was closing in on them? Had they already gotten what they were after, no longer needing his cooperation? If Tom had died of natural causes – or was also brutally murdered, like Ms DiVedremo and Ms Viva – they could hardly dump his body in the crypt since that hand had already been played.
I need to find out who's in the wheelchair: if it is Tom, what do I do next? Charge them, screaming and waving my arms like a maniac in hopes they'll all run away? The officious-looking suit could be the one in charge but the other four will certainly be armed: I'd be dead mid-scream.
“Dammit, why hadn't I finished installing those security cameras down at the crypt?”
Ripa – trying desperately to control himself – didn't care to point out to Osiris how behind schedule he was with his renovations but things were moving so rapidly once Vremsky – “Agent Lóviator” – identified his arch-enemy next door, old Tom Purdue, as her objective. If he'd had another day or two, all of his security cameras would've been in place, just as he'd planned it, but when Vremsky announced she was arriving early to check things out, well...
He had to take control of Purdue before he evaded capture – and it looked like he might be trying to escape even though he'd said he's only having lunch with a friend (likely story). So then it would all be his fault he'd gotten away, right from under their very noses (or, at least, his).
Then Vremsky showed up at the very same time as Govnozny – speaking of coming out of left field, thanks very much – where the plan was to have this lab ready before her arrival, afraid it might “spoil Osiris' little surprise,” even if he'd been told nothing about it, all very hush-hush, befitting a secret organization. Plus not to mention why Osiris himself – “Mr Big,” as he considered him – had come to check up on “the situation,” all of it carefully arranged through Govnozny's supervisor, Agent Machaon, “the Medical Guy.”
But now “the situation” had been resolved and Osiris, sitting in his renovated basement's laboratory, was taking him into his confidence. Even as Vremsky fell, he, Graham Ripa, imagining himself rising through the ranks. If only these other issues (he was convinced multi-tasking was highly overrated) didn't get in the way and spoil it all.
Now, however, considering the chip Govnozny had found, all that was explained and maybe the worst damage hadn't been done yet. That explains why Machaon had urged Osiris to move more quickly than planned. The problem remained, however, the police were already next door, and if they were on to them, aware of their plan – but how could they be, since everything had been so well-encrypted, hadn't it? – Ripa was aware it could still all collapse before his very eyes, his very revenge-filled eyes (after all these fucking years!).
No sooner had Lóthurr taken Vremsky out to the van and off to her inevitable doom – “Götterdoomerang,” her own karmic boomerang – taking the back entrance to the old shed where he'd hidden the van, he became aware of voices, other voices, distant voices that didn't belong to Lóthurr or his men, down in the tunnel. Were they coming back from the storage shed, if the police followed them those times he brought Vremsky to the farmhouse? But how'd they find that woman's body in the crypt his guys “mislaid”?
“Yeah,” he thought, peering down the tunnel to the bend toward Purdue's house, “if Yanni and Vinny hadn't screwed that up, things wouldn't be this bad – in fact, everything would be just fine, thanks.” But F-1 and F-2 did screw up the body dump, and now there's hell to pay with the police closing in.
But nobody came beyond Purdue's house, maybe turning into his basement before reaching that last bend: maybe he was imagining things? Maybe the police didn't suspect anybody in the farmhouse, unaware where Vremsky was? If Yanni successfully transplanted that tracking device onto a police car parked down at the crypt, that should really stymie them.
Yes, Ripa thought, he was enjoying Vremsky's fall from power entirely too much, if he could only blame everything on her.
“Yes, sir,” Ripa knew, “I am on my way up, hot diggetty daayumn!”
One of the all-in-black guys slid open the side door of the van, an old, beat-up, generic-looking black van a repairman might use, but here I could only tell his business was not good. The person in the wheelchair was getting a bad deal in this transaction, more than simply being behind in some payments. The other all-in-black guy disappeared around the other side and soon the van clunked into life with a great, farting shudder, the one driving it not someone used to driving it with any frequency. Between needing new glasses and the distance, not to mention all the weeds, I couldn't see enough of the license plate and telling the police it was “a black van” wasn't going to help. Not that I could call the police, anyway, since all they wanted was to arrest Tom for murders he didn't commit.
No, I needed to rescue Tom myself – it was, as they say, “up to me” (poor Tom, to have deserved this) – even if I'd had any idea how I could tail the van short of climbing on top of it or hanging on to the undercarriage (if there was an undercarriage to hang on to).
As the two goons struggled to hoist the wheelchair into the side of the van without the usual handicap-access lift, the pillowcase fell off and I saw to my great relief it wasn't Tom.
Not only wasn't it Tom, it was a woman with a frowzy-looking wig and a pink pill-box hat trimmed in white, and when the blanket started falling away in the tussle of lifting her, the men not being too gentle about it, I saw she was wearing a pink jacket also trimmed in white lace. It wasn't Tom these agents had been holding next door – dammit, I thought in the same breath, then where was he? – it had been one of their own, Bond's “woman-in-pink” unless... wait a minute...
When she showed us that set of photographs – the tall, skinny man dressed in Gothic black; and the short, dowdy woman dressed in once-fashionable pink left-over from the '50s – Bond hadn't bothered identifying them, but it was clear she thought they were next door, Aficionati agents she'd been tracking, perhaps the ones who're after Tom.
I couldn't see the tall, skinny guy among them (he would've stood out), but as I stared at the activity bustling around the truck, I had made eye-contact with the woman and immediately ducked. If she could have cried out they're being watched, she made no move; it looked like she was unable to move. Was she strapped in like a belligerent patient for her own good or to restrain her because she'd try to escape? Or was she being transported to the local hospital for some medical emergency?
Yet in that brief moment of our connection, her eyes, perhaps the only part of her she had any control over, became wide with what I could only describe as out-and-out fear, nothing less. She was being held, whatever the previous story may have been, against her will: rescuing her got us closer to Tom.
Though Agent Bond had given no further suggestions about those photographs, it seemed logical, now that I'd spotted one of them, I should call her and say “You remember that Woman-in-Pink you'd mentioned earlier?” Was it worth telling her “your subject is on the move” even if I didn't know where she was moving to?
Naturally, I couldn't figure out which pocket I'd put her card in – did I leave it on Tom's desk for Amanda? – but, relieved I'd found my cell-phone, it didn't matter: the battery was dead.
Breathing easily once back in a more congenial setting and having made a full report, Govnozny began to sterilize the instruments, grumbling there would normally be several assistants who would do the “washing up.”
“Yes,” he'd repeated, “I stayed there until they were well out of sight. The van had driven away without being seen.”
It had been getting late and becoming more overcast as the daylight waned, but then, under the pines outside the shed, the leaves crunching underfoot and the smell of autumn decay in the air, Govnozny wasn't sure if it was the tree canopy or possibly the clouds that chilled his soul more than he'd expected. Knowing what was to come – the results of his day's handiwork – would have little to do with it, affecting his mood. He was a scientist, this was his assignment, and he'd completed it professionally.
He hated walking back the length of that tunnel alone, dark and dank, glad it was the shorter of the two: he figured the longer of the two was too long for his taste.
The Aficionati's management may have found it amusing to name a short, squattly-built agent like himself after an obscure badger god, but he was still uncomfortable when confined in tight, especially dark, underground spaces.
Even so, he preferred not to accompany Agent Lóviator on her final assignment, more “at home” in his well-lit surgical lair.
But Govnozny couldn't help noticing Falx, their host for the test-run of their project, running over to monitor the security cameras, and becoming, if anything, even more skittish than usual – “is 'antsy' a word?” Perhaps it's the nature of ectomorphs, their nerves squeezed too tightly, when confronted by complications you might potentially be blamed for.
Unfortunate, too, there was no elevator to take Osiris and his wheelchair upstairs – definitely what he would consider a “design flaw” – something else that made Falx nervous, having to keep him in the basement.
“Ah, again,” Govnozny noticed, “he's checking the security cams! What is bothering him?“
Meanwhile, Falx had chosen Arnold Schoenberg's String Trio for his over-achieving sound system – “speaking of 'antsy',” he sighed, “hardly celebratory music.”
If it were up to him, a late Beethoven quartet would be fine. And that bottle of champagne looked particularly cheap.
Everything around me eventually returned to stillness after the van rumbled off down its track carved through tall and withered weeds, as I stood beside the wall only partly hidden among the dead hawthorns, the hush of the cemetery behind me, with no more sound of footsteps, an unseen bird singing high in the pines. A solitude protected by the scrim of fading sunshine filtered across the path – if only the hawthorns had been in bloom – and an old rusty door creaked shut and latched somewhere ahead of me.
Someone had been standing in the shed, perhaps in front of it where I couldn't see them, just as I was standing behind it where no one could see me (at least, I hoped). Who, I wondered, and was he – or she – leaving now, going back inside? Or would we meet face-to-face on the path?
Instinctively, discretion being the better part of cowardice, I ducked down again behind the wall, hoping to evade being spied on, hoping I wouldn't stick myself on the thorny brambles along the wall's edge. I waited what felt like several minutes before realizing the wall, here, was considerably taller than it was behind Tom's home.
There was an old wrought-iron gate a little further down from me, but it was rusted shut and locked with chains. A break in the hedge allowed me a footing to pull myself up.
The bird, still invisible, still sang overhead; otherwise, the silence was momentarily breath-taking once I reached the top of the wall. Hoping it wouldn't crumble, I sat on my haunches and looked around: no one visible by the hut, nothing further down the lane where the van had disappeared, no thorny hedge to fall into. The gate provided no easy foothold for an easier descent, so I swung myself around, feet first, and, hoping to push myself off the wall, landing forward a few feet, I slipped and fell.
Once I'd made sure that snap I'd heard was a twig under my feet and not a femur, a sound sharp enough to startle the bird mid-phrase, I stood, noticing something in the grass. Not far from the entrance to the shed someone must've dropped a bit of heavy paper, white, like a business card.
“Maybe it belongs to Agent Bond's mysterious 'Woman-in-Pink'?” I was trying to rationalize why I wanted to check out this shed. “And a clue might shed some light on who's holding Tom – and where.” Besides, if I approached the farmhouse from this direction, I'd avoid all the goings-on (whatever they were) down at Tom's place. I half expected some creepy-faced ogre to pop out from the shed's entrance and collar me as I reached for it, falling for the trap, and now they would have both Tom and me.
Picking up the card without incident – “so far, so good” – I can see it's been stepped on, bent but still legible: a printed name, “Dr Amy Reilly-Cottard, therapist” with her phone, address, and e-mail. Across the bottom was a line for the patient's name with an appointment time set for... “Ah, actually, today – this afternoon!”
The patient's name was Thomas Purdue, written in by a strong hand in what looked like one of those indelible pens. I didn't remember seeing anything on Tom's kitchen calendar about an appointment with Dr Reilly-Cottard – Amanda'd said nothing about it, either – but then I don't remember checking to see what he'd had scheduled, either. I'm not sure how significant the discovery might be, but it was worth calling to find out if she knew anything: did Tom contact her about having to miss the appointment, possibly re-scheduling it?
Now that I had my own phone, that wouldn't be a problem assuming I'd recharged the battery and the phone worked, twice now in the past few minutes that would've been a Good Thing. It surprised me Tom was seeing a therapist, but we hadn't been in touch for a while and, frankly, I don't know if he would've told me about it even if we had been.
I figured I'd shove the card into my pants pocket, worrying later about when and where I could make this call. Turning to face the entrance to the shed, I became aware how very foggy it had suddenly become, the sunlight dimmer, the air cooler, the bird's singing further away. “It's happening again, isn't it?” Instead of a dilapidated farm shed with badly weathered wood surrounded by weeds, I was walking into a dimly lit office.
Two people were sitting in what seemed to be shadows opposite the doorway, the woman in the armchair no doubt Dr Reilly-Cottard but from where I stood I couldn't see her patient very clearly. I recognized the voice: it was Tom, talking softly about Susan, his wife – ex-wife, he'd always correct anyone – how they'd met.
He was describing our first “paying gig” during that first semester at Faber. He had been the pianist; I remember being the cellist; and Susan played the violin (not very well, as I recalled).
Glossing over details, he also mentioned Shawn Ferguson, a famous composer he'd become quite a fan of, and since Susan knew him, Tom was hoping she would arrange a chance for them to meet. I remember how excited he was when she managed a lunch with Ferguson who was in town for a world premiere.
Unfortunately, all he did was complain about the food, how poorly the rehearsal went and how the conductor was “an idiot.” Paying little attention, he ignored Tom completely after learning he was a composer.
Tom and Susan had always been friends, but he admitted how he'd held her “responsible” for this disappointment and avoided her. Then he met this dancer – that would be “Odile” – and fell in love. When they broke up (she ran off with a friend), he married Susan “on the rebound – biggest mistake of my life.”
I was stunned by these admissions: he'd never mentioned them to me and here I thought I was his best friend. I knew he was disappointed the way things turned out, but “biggest mistake”...?
The room was quiet except for the burbling of the fish tank against the wall opposite her desk. She took notes.
“And...?” No question looking for deeper insights, no “and-how-do-you-feel-about-that” follow-up. Eventually, he continued.
They'd stayed together only because of their son – but he was always aware Susan was not a person he really “loved.”
“It was all a downward slide, after we married.” He paused. “I wasn't happy with my first college job, but I couldn't leave because she had a good job teaching at the high school. I wasn't happy with the works I was composing, it became more difficult to write; soon, the reviews became less promising.”
All the letters, the times I'd run into him – at different conferences; in New York, especially, for that Carnegie Hall premiere – things were going well for him, he seemed happy (happier than I was). The premieres, the commissions, the reviews, the fact he'd gotten his new symphony published: everything pointed to “Tom Purdue's a Success.”
“Even that premiere I'd had at Carnegie Hall was a dead-end: by that time, I thought I'd arrived, but then – bam! – my career wasn't going anywhere, there was no follow-through, just more useless failures.”
He mentioned an orchestral piece he'd written – “not on commission, because I wanted to” – and how he'd sent it off to two conductors, friends of his, neither of whom ever bothered to write back. No comments, not even critiques, no excuses about why they couldn't perform it. “My only assumption was it wasn't good enough.”
Was this when he started drinking, I wondered? He didn't mention that. Susan had told me about it, how it worried her, that one time I called and he wasn't home. Such a shock...
The divorce was a shock, too, when I found out about it – through a mutual friend. He hadn't even called me to talk about it. Maybe I wasn't that good a friend after all. It wasn't a sudden decision, he told the doctor. “I started thinking about it only a few days after the wedding.”
But listening to him, here, in this lonely, dim little room with the fish tank and the woman taking notes, I realize I'm witnessing the onset of despair which began years before I knew.
Only I never knew, had no idea, assuming he smiled less, laughed less, because we'd grown up, facing reality head on.
Tom's murmuring about the divorce gradually became lost in the murmuring from the fish tank as the light faded even more. Soon the shadows deepened and I could no longer see nor hear them.
The chill in the air was sharper – I almost thought it came from inside me – when I saw I was once more standing in front of a dilapidated old shed outside the cemetery wall.
I pulled the handle – the door was unlocked. With a slow creaking moan, it opened wide enough to let me in.
The bird continued singing as if it could fend off the evening's twilight, but in those few brief moments it only succeeded to shorten the time I wished could have lasted a little longer.
Inside, I could barely see how steeply the path descended, like a ramp, my flashlight too weak to see the bottom.
If Tom was in the farmhouse, I needed to rescue him, to be there when I hadn't been in the past.
And with that, I took a deep breath, then stepped into the darkness.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 21st]
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.