(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.
Perhaps it was a miscalculation, making a splendid fondue with cheese, basil, and fresh sourdough bread, as a late-afternoon's celebratory snack. They would sit and wait, however impatiently, for the fruition of the experiment which Graham Ripa knew, given the time and the anticipation, he would be unable to deal with on an empty stomach. Dinner was still about an hour away, but a little “Schoenberg and Champagne” seemed just the thing to tide them over until he realized Selket had to feed Osiris each small chunk of bread. The champagne was the best Ripa had ever bought, certainly the most expensive, but he was unaware, after taking his glass – not an “official” champagne flute – Osiris set his aside with a disapproving scowl: he had always been of the school the only alternative to bad wine was no wine, even if it was free.
They sat in the center of the farmhouse's newly renovated basement, despite its lack of amenities – Ripa must now consider the added expense of making changes for handicapped patrons, putting in ramps and elevators – but he rationalized the living room, though grander, was much dingier and less, he thought, impressive overall (especially with that bloodstain). Osiris appeared gracious enough to understand the circumstances since his arrival at the Old Haine Place was both unexpected and sudden. Ripa had explained the reasons so often, Osiris tired of accepting his apologies.
Hoping to deflect the conversation and not sure he could maintain the usual small talk until the time the concert began, Ripa broached a subject that often came to him during the “Midnight Hours”: “Is there any rational reason for 'being good' if the concept of 'good' is not something that can easily be defined?” He thought the whole idea of “being a good boy,” as his father stressed when he was a child, was even more outmoded now, considering what he saw in reality, especially religion and politics.
Dealing not only with his father but that overbearing grandmother of his, not to mention most of his teachers and friends, Ripa considered his dislike for this attitude not only because it seemed unyielding, but also because it eventually yielded to every generational disagreement that came along, canceling out whatever authority such societal precepts condoned.
The problem was, Osiris began, pushing aside Selket's hand with one more cube of cheese-encrusted bread, our present moral system, such as it was, was over a century behind the times, if not more. How does one update our sense of what is 'good' if we're still defining the world through Victorian concepts and preferences? Even the Bible, written during some dusty, ancient time, its culture long vanished, is no longer the Code of Law it was intended to be, however followers used it to defend certain social attitudes.
“If that's the case, considering the debate among many Christians today, you can see why it's so difficult when the New Testament, as written, tells you one thing and modern society tells you another. 'What we believe' has become our religion; and 'religion,' an excuse for enforcing what we believe – contradicting things like... well, 'good'.”
The Mobots, of course, were a perfect example of this, helping the Aficionati implement the 'good' the world so desperately needed, combating the 'bad' – one should really call it 'evil' – of groups like SHMRG. It has become time for true believers of 'Great' Classical Music to stand up against the atrocities committed in Art's name. This was how Classical Music believers entered the 21st Century, by embracing technology, an advancement that could only be considered “good” – not that the whole world would see it the same way, he cautioned.
“With Agent Hephaestus' assembly line, we'll soon be turning out dozens of humanoid prototypes who, as he can perfect the technology once we can communicate with them directly, courtesy of Dr Purdue's musical code, will advance our cause around the world, wherever Great Classical Music is in danger of being watered down by popular contamination. And tonight, at this damnable so-called concert, we will make history as Lóviator shows the world the power of the Aficionati, when, sitting alone in the audience, she will enter into Valhalla a hero.”
Ripa could hardly control his enjoyment as he imagined the whole entertaining prospect, thinking of Vremsky in her little pink suit. “It blows my mind – almost as much as it will hers,” he laughed.
Making another toast, Ripa raised his glass high. “To Lóviator – she's the bomb! And making the sacrifice for the Greater Good!”
One often heard how “being good” had so significant a role in the beliefs and passions of adults, true or not, “certainly,” Osiris pointed out, “since they pretend it's one of their abiding principles. It's a dichotomy preying upon their vanities – that's 'preying'-with-an-'e' as opposed to 'praying'-with-an-'a' – a weakness they regard as a major strength.”
Classical Music was like a religion, he said, within the domain of self-professed Christians and their sacred mumbo-jumbo, “like any religion.” It was this appeal of the “Sacred” that drew most music lovers in.
“I know we're supposedly doing this for the 'good' of Classical Music, in fact, for the 'good' of Civilization,” Ripa smirked, “but in the long run, simply put, isn't it good to be good? But then,” he innocently added, like a child who had an either/or proposition to consider, “isn't it easier to be bad?”
It wasn't their being “good” in whatever sense you meant, something simply for the sake of “being good” sounding fairly childish; Osiris considered their having socially acceptable “good behavior” was “good enough” (pun intended).
Ripa naively wondered if a good person was one who lived by good principles and did good things to benefit others, wasn't it also possible for a recognized 'good person' to be... well, disgusting?
“So, one could ask 'What is good?' if it's good to be good?” Osiris, reaching for his champagne, decided “why not...?”
Ripa held up his glass, making a toast: “It's good to be king!”
Osiris sputtered with the incomprehension of the pop-cultureless (“was this underling telling me to my face he expected to replace me?”).
And Ripa, with the incomprehension that anything he said could possibly offend anyone, chugged back his champagne, unaware Osiris did not.
“Isn't it true any act you perform could be viewed as either good or evil, depending on who's doing the viewing?”
Osiris winced at Falx's inept choice of words, especially rhyming “doing” and “viewing,”
“Let's say I perform... Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, since we're listening to Schoenberg (not always one of my favorites, by the way).”
Ripa tried not to wince as his favorite, the Master's 4th Quartet, began.
“Critic A,” Osiris explained, called it “a divine inspiration,” but “Critic B” likened it to dust from the library's bottommost shelf.
“Who determines how composers we like become part of the accepted canon, recognized by society in general, therefore acknowledged as 'Great,' while composers we don't like are ignored and considered 'Awful'? On what grounds?”
It was like those catechisms Ripa remembered learning in church when he was a child: “Honor thy father and mother.” Why?
“Can you imagine,” Osiris said drily with what might have sounded like a chuckle, “being literally 'seized' by an idea? Rubbish!”
Ripa certainly agreed to feel such emotions physically was to “modulate” into insanity.
“Considering people like us, my dear Falx,” Osiris nodded toward Ripa, “you and I who are raised to possess a certain reserve in the face of the unfathomable – the logical analysis of scientific minds – statements about emotional responses to music akin to spiritual ecstasies embarrass me, torture that they are, something left from the Inquisition. It is as if they expect us to believe God speaks directly to them whether we believe in God or not – it is enough for them they do – and therefore that makes everything true.
“How can these irrational observations be considered data,” Osiris continued to argue, “when we're dealing with something as abstract as music, notes on a page played fleetingly in time which affect each individual differently? Yet they rarely express themselves in anything more coherent than the latest psychobabble heard on TV talk shows, vague and pointless.”
Ripa furtively looked at the clock, hoping Osiris wouldn't notice and think it was because he'd lost interest in what turned into a sermon, no doubt one he has delivered frequently over the years, but he was eager for some “data” of his own, since the van should be arriving at the Kimmel Center soon. He felt honored to be the recipient of such a sermon on such an occasion from Osiris, leader of the Aficionati, though he admitted perhaps he would be more receptive after their mission's success.
Just as Ripa's phone buzzed with the ringtone assigned to the Brothers Punimayo, Osiris noted it was a shame no music theorist ever acknowledged having such spiritual visions who could then sensibly explain them.
Ripa answered the phone as surreptitiously as he could, relieved to hear Yanni say they had the concert hall in sight.
Putting the phone away and nodding at Osiris, Ripa thought he saw some motion, a blur, on the one security camera, wishing he'd paid the extra money for the expensive brand, skipping the bargain. His hand on his pistol, he went toward the tunnel gate, glad Osiris couldn't see him, and slowly opened it: nothing.
It occurred to him, as tightly wound as he'd become these past few days, however exhilarating that may be, he was in danger of snapping like his grandfather's old watch – sproing! – just like that!
“Ah, sorry, that was... uhm,” Ripa nodded toward the pocket where he kept his phone, annoyed he'd forgotten Yanni Punimayo's agent-name, “er, Agent Castor” – or was it Pollux? – “calling to say they're almost there but the traffic on the Expressway had been worse than expected, plus there was an accident on – never mind... not important... The trick will be finding a parking place close enough to the hall (which could take a while, circling the block), and then they'll wait until Vremsky – uh, Lóviator – is strong enough to walk.”
The van will need to be close enough to the side of the auditorium she'll be seated on, having coordinated that between her ticket, then locating her seat number on the on-line seating chart. Ripa knew Osiris was not interested in these details, especially anything setting up an excuse for failure, even regarding back-up plans.
When they did their run-through earlier that afternoon, they'd parked too far away from the seat and their WiFi connection failed; even if one of too many strategically placed steel beams in the walls got in the way, their signal could fail, and they'd been unable to find any helpful construction blueprints for Verizon Hall. So Yanni would stay in the truck while Vinny roamed through the lobby with a simple WiFi booster, just in case, and then Agent Lóthurr could ascertain the signal was reaching Lóviator's receiver unit.
This was, of course, more of a beta-version of the Mobot Project than just making sure a detonating device planted in the brain of an unwilling victim could explode on signal, Ripa knew that, but still, he wished they'd had a few more days to work with Lóthurr, after all, not just a few hours. Vinny's emergency back-up (“can you hear me now?”) might've been more gracefully handled, and a little more experience wouldn't have hurt – what if some busy-body usher thought he looked suspicious, talking on his bluetooth?
What if the police were on to them, the police who were crawling all over Old Doc Purdue's house next door (what if he'd managed to frame Purdue for the murders at Marple Music?). Surely, the local police weren't expecting their suspect was still in the area? Surely, they couldn't possibly hack into Vremsky's brain?
All this was happening too rapidly but Ripa knew it was a test to see if he could handle an emergency, multi-tasking beyond just this beta-version trial for the Mobots and acquiring Thomas Purdue. If only the old man would comply, then his success would be complete; the rest now was up to Dr Govnozny. Plus he knew the real concern, the International Music Police, was nowhere near being “on” to them, sophisticated as they were. But there was another matter Ripa was hoping to avoid: Osiris' “little undertaking.”
He knew it was on The Boss's mind and he knew why he hadn't, so far, decided to mention the topic. Oh, they both knew the Mobot Prototype with Vremsky was their Primary Focus, but time was running out on the acquisition of this “ancient American artifact” Osiris so desperately wanted for his private collection.
Other agents around the world had tried tracking it down with little success; everyone of them had failed to procure it. And now, someone else was after it, too, and they must be stopped. Whatever Vremsky did to deserve being turned into a “human bomb,” what if he, Falx, failed to find this Belcher Codex?
Sitting back, Osiris, perhaps reading Falx's thoughts – “if I had that power, would I need a gadget to hack your brain?” – certainly glad for a change of topic, asked him about the concert broadcast.
Making some “minor adjustments” to his sound system, Ripa complained SHMRG's TV broadcast deal had fallen through (lack of sufficient funding) but how the local classical music radio station agreed to carry it live – the call-letters were WFRT or something like that; he couldn't remember the frequency, either, since only old people listened to radio. It must have annoyed the crap out of SHMRG they couldn't get the local PBS affiliate to agree to the broadcast despite the mix of classical cross-over with big stars from the pop world. He'd heard they'd considered taping it for a delayed broadcast the following weekend, fitting in after their current membership campaign, but a live broadcast was out of their budget on such short notice. It wasn't like SHMRG hadn't known about it, given all the planning involved: somebody's head should roll for dropping that one.
Ripa also switched out the up-coming Schoenberg Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op.47, given what his guest mentioned about his preferences, not sure whether he should go with some Late-Beethoven quartets or perhaps Brahms. He could never get enough Schoenberg, frankly, and never understood how quickly friends of his reached their saturation point. (“Their loss...”) But even if the centuries-old purpose of the Aficionati was to safeguard the Great Mysteries of Classical Music, for that matter, what's wrong with a little spiritual ecstasy when it came to Late-Schubert quartets?
“You know,” Osiris said, smacking his dry lips, “we should bring Dr Purdue out to watch the concert broadcast tonight so he can see how his research can facilitate what we plan to do. It may inspire him to work with us if he sees how he can help for the 'good' of the cause.”
Without mentioning the TV broadcast business again, Ripa explained they could listen on the radio but it wasn't the same thing. It wouldn't have the impact at the point when the bomb went off.
“Here's an idea, Great One.” Ripa turned his head with a devastating grin. “Call Agent Lóthurr and have him rig up a live video feed directly to the internet over our undercover YouTube channel. That way, millions more people will see it – including our friend Dr Purdue – than will ever hear it on the radio!”
The real surprise, once Nortonstein examined this latest body nicknamed “Old Jane Doe,” was that it was not a fresh victim but someone who'd apparently been killed maybe ten or even fifteen years ago.
“And,” Tango insisted, “remember Purdue moved in ten years ago: how often had he visited this Aunt Jane of his before?”
Jaimie Reel drove the squad car down Sproull Road back to the precinct, Tango straightening his cuffs in the passenger seat. Both looked forward to grabbing some dinner on the way at Rizzoli's nearby.
Reel mentioned the nicks on the ribs could be the result of slashing gestures with a blade – “like a scythe, maybe?” – probably cutting through several arteries so the old woman bled out, but where?
“Fine,” Tango muttered, “a very similar M.O. to our most recent murders, admittedly, but let's talk about this after dinner, okay?”
Traffic had come to a crawl. Tango tried the scanner to see if there was an accident up ahead. “What gives?” Behind them, he could hear the sound of a police siren: otherwise, nothing.
“Well, for one thing,” Reel said, “why would a serial killer start killing after a break of ten years or so?”
“No, I meant with this traffic – should we put on our siren, too, join the fun?” Nothing, yet, from the dispatcher.
“Something traumatic must've happened, something to trigger the perp to start killing again.”
Pulling over toward the curb to let the vehicle with the siren pass, Reel looked over to see an unmarked car pull up beside them with IMP Agent Sarah Bond in the passenger seat. She looked over at him quizzically, smiled mysteriously before glancing down at something, then back over as if surveying the car. Then she said something to the agent who was driving as she waved Reel to pull his car over and stop. When she stepped out of the car, Tango couldn't help notice those legs.
“I couldn't have been doing more than half the speed limit, officer,” Reel pleaded in mock dismay, acknowledging the traffic jam. Tango's eyebrows did a little dance as she looked in through the window.
“Sorry, officers,” Bond said, looking at her phone like she's challenging its technology, “but we've been following a dangerous international criminal.”
She explained briefly how they suspected she was riding in this car, her expression clearly mystified realizing the only ones in the car were Tango and Reel. Her driver now approached the passenger side.
“This is my partner, IMP Agent Christopher Shendo. Sgt Reel, would you mind popping your boot?” – Tango smirked – “I mean, 'trunk'...”
She explained how this person's last known location was the old farmhouse next to Purdue's place. “Then we followed her... here.”
Agent Shendo went to the trunk and opened it. “Nothing, Agent Bond – empty.”
Tango, trying to appear macho, challenged her. “And you think we'd have her, because...? Is she somehow involved with Thomas Purdue?”
“There was a tracking device on her, and it indicates she's... well, here.” She showed him her phone's GPS tracking app.
“You're hallucinating, Sarah Bond: I think you've been leading us on a dance.”
“Uhm, Agent Bond,” Shendo called out, looking into the car's right rear wheel-well.
“What is it, Chris?” Bond sounded clearly impatient.
Shendo walked around the car, holding out a small lump like bubblegum with a bit of hair sticking out of it.
Tango wanted to know what exactly it was she was after. “Is Purdue...?”
“Wait – there's blood on this. What's happened to Vremsky?” How could they've find out about their tracking device – and remove it?
And why would they have chosen Tango's cruiser to move it to?
Just as Reel asked, “Who's Vremsky?” Bond's phone started buzzing. Tango noticed the number, labeled “Unknown,” but thought he recognized it.
At first, Bond hesitated to answer it but decided to take the call.
“Yes, hello? Ah,” she said, turning away, “it's you.” She walked away from Tango and the cruiser. “Yes, what is it?”
It was Dr Kerr, calling on Tom Purdue's land-line after he located her card in his wallet. “I've seen the Woman-in-Pink.”
“That's more than I have. Where are you?”
He was in Purdue's basement.
Tango always thought everything about him was good, especially his hearing, though he had trouble understanding Bond over the traffic noise. It didn't help when people drove by shouting at them about snarling up traffic – “She making a citizen's arrest, you bozos?” But he remembered that number: it was Purdue's. He very quietly called Narder.
Kerr was explaining how he'd seen this Woman-in-Pink taken away from the farmhouse in a wheelchair – “yes, the woman in your photograph, scared out of her wits” – then driven away in a black van.
“And which direction were they heading?” He thought east but wasn't really sure. He wondered if they hadn't already carted Tom away on a previous run.
That's when he mentioned finding Purdue's appointment card.
“Now, I'd just called the therapist: so far she's heard nothing from him about canceling or rescheduling. So, if these guys with your Woman-in-Pink dropped Tom's card, that means they're probably holding Purdue somewhere.”
Then he'd overheard voices in the farmhouse talking about a plot involving a concert tonight, something about “Lóviator is the bomb.” Not knowing who this Lóviator was, he assumed it's code for the Woman-in-Pink. He'd heard expressions, how “someone's the bomb,” before, but in the context of “a plot,” he thought he'd better report it.
Bond agreed and thanked him for his information. She'd tell Narder about Purdue and the farmhouse so they can rescue him.
“No,” Kerr said, raising his voice. “They think he's the murderer. Don't tell...”
Kerr suddenly started whispering he had to go. “Footsteps, upstairs – I'm not safe – keep Narder out of it. Check... the farmhouse...”
But Bond had to find Vremsky before the concert at the Kimmel Center.
Frowning intently, she held up her index finger to signal Tango to wait.
“There's trouble – I need to make another call.”
As footsteps crossed the kitchen, Kerr grabbed his cell-phone and a flashlight, returning to the tunnel as quietly as he could. By the time he'd slid the gate closed, the two police officers who'd been watching the house tiptoed down the steps.
“Clear,” said the one.
“Damn,” said the other. “What was Tango talking about?”
Fortunately, Kerr knew by the time they made it out into the tunnel, he would already have made it around the bend toward the farmhouse and they wouldn't see him whichever way they look.
Officer Naze signaled to her partner, Officer LeMonde, pointing at the tunnel entrance. She went over and felt around for the one stone she remembered was the nearly invisible handle, sliding it open effortlessly.
Without a sound and with gun drawn, she led the way into the connecting tunnel and LeMonde followed, duly impressed.
Kerr stopped in front of the farmhouse's entrance and heard voices and music – Schoenberg's 4th String Quartet with its Mozartean textures – when a hand tapping on his shoulder made him jump nearly a foot.
“Ah, good,” said a familiar voice, “I come to you with 'Breaking News'!”
“No,” Kerr said, wheeling around, “please, just... 'No!'”
The Kapellmeister was back, no doubt with news concerning the whereabouts of his quest, the Belcher Codex. “I have discovered that...”
“No, I said,” Kerr whispered as fiercely as he could, “I'm not interested!”
“But this will take only a minute of your time and I need...”
“How many parts of 'NO!' don't you understand?”
“You'll be back before you know it and can continue whatever it is...”
“Look, my friend's being held captive by some creeps called the Aficionati and...”
“Aficionati? Hmmm,” the Kapellmeister said, interrupting himself, “okay...”
“'Okay,' what? What do you know about them? And do you know why they're after him?” Kerr tentatively grabbed his arm.
“Maybe they're after the same thing? Originally, I came for Dr Purdue's help...”
Kerr wanted to know what Purdue could possibly know about this Belcher Codex and why the Aficionati would be after it. “And they're planning something at some concert tonight: how's that involved with it?”
“No, that doesn't make much sense.” Kerr nearly laughed. “Come, we must hurry.”
“No, stop, get your hands off me! Don't...”
“Shhhh!” Paula Naze stopped and turned, her flashlight dancing across the tunnel's floor. “Al, did you hear that? Maybe it's Purdue...?”
She stepped forward with caution. “Sounds like arguing.” (No time to be nervous.)
“It came from down there,” Officer LeMonde said, pointing his flashlight in the same direction, the beam shaking. “Like, two guys...”
There was a brief shout, voices were cut off, with a sharp flash but no sound of an explosion – just light.
“Whoa, fuck, man!” LeMonde stopped in his tracks. “Maybe it's time for back-up?”
Officer Albert LeMonde, who joined the Marple Police Force only a month ago, had so far done nothing more dangerous than hand out parking tickets and set up a speed trap. This seemed different.
Office Paula Naze's own experience as a rookie wasn't much different but that didn't stop her. “Let's check it out, first.”
Even with the music playing, Ripa thought he heard something and once again checked the security cameras, hoping Osiris wouldn't notice. “Yes, my God,” he thought, “someone's out there.” He slid the gate open.
As he looked out, Ripa was just in time to see a bright flash, then nothing. “What the...? There's nobody there.”
Officer Naze heard something slide and latch: another gate? Perhaps it was the tunnel entrance from the old house next door?
They spotted a cell-phone and flashlight on the ground.
“Time to call back-up.”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on November 23rd]
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.