(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.
One of the more remote lady's rooms was not Perdita Vremsky's idea of a place to hang out, taking care of the pre-concert ritual of “putting oneself back together” before heading into the auditorium, but as it was one of the less crowded rooms, she sighed, it also meant she would therefore be less noticed. Several other women freshened their make-up, set their hair to rights, adjusted their dresses after a disruptive drive into the city, but in general they ignored her, frumpy, middle-aged, unfashionably dressed in pink wool. Her lipstick was smudged, her skin was puffy – no doubt, she'd been weeping – and her hair needed much more than brushing, since, even at a quick, disapproving glance, it was obviously a bargain-basement wig. Whatever had happened to her, they were probably thinking, did she really have to come to a concert looking like that?
This particular restroom, she gathered, was more practical than some of the more centrally located ones, elegant lounges meant for display, where women could “adjust” themselves before luxuriant mirrors, chatting about nothing-in-particular to everybody-in-general. Here, where nobody pretended to recognize anybody else, she could enjoy some anonymity, and kill some time before the concert began.
“Ah,” she thought, trying not to look in the mirror over the washbasins, “an unfortunate turn of phrase, that – no matter.” This wasn't exactly where she'd want to spend her last minutes on earth.
The stall furthest from the entrance opened up, revealing an elderly lady, perhaps twice Vremsky's age, who hurried up to a washbowl to rinse her hands as if the concert were only minutes away. She saw Vremsky and nodded toward the now-empty stall as if she thought the Woman-in-Pink was unaware it had become available. Before Vremsky could respond and thank the woman for her kindness, a bird-like woman weighed down with diamonds barged past her, nearly knocking her off her feet, and elbowed her way into the stall.
“Well now, dearie, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go,” the older woman quipped with a philosophical tilt of the head, not realizing her small hat and veil slipped a bit and almost fell. “You'd think she was the Duchess of Sansom Street, her,” the woman said. “Well, enjoy the show, dearie,” and she left.
Vremsky stared into the mirror wishing she could adjust her hat and straighten up the wig Govnozny had plopped down on her head in an attempt to cover the scar left from the operation. She should hardly be out walking around already, the miracle of modern medicine aside, even treating brain surgery as an out-patient. She felt “woozy,” like she might collapse on the floor at any moment, losing her balance if someone else bumped her. She felt very weak, unable to raise her arms, everything going numb. “Fark...”
Her eyes were deep and dark, infinitely sad, recalling those once-popular, cheaply produced paintings of wide-eyed orphans or whatever they were, staring at you from the wall as they begged relentlessly for your pity. That moment, she thought of her sister Lontana – the beautiful, radiant, distant Lontana – and felt she would vomit into the sink.
Standing there, unmoving, a steady stream of old women (“did young women not need to use the bathroom?”) swirled around her. It reminded her of a TV commercial where a dying woman stood static, nearly frozen in her isolation, oblivious to reality, while the rest of the world flew past at five times normal speed.
She felt she could no longer use her hands or even speak; she walked like someone who's recovering from a stroke. She was unable to do anything, much less run away or even scream.
“'Enjoy the show,' yeah, right,” Vremsky thought, as if the old lady couldn't tell there wasn't something seriously wrong with her, that she wasn't even able to enjoy her visit to the lady's room. Even as concerts went, the idea of sitting through this one would be torture enough without knowing what's going to happen.
And what exactly was going to happen? Just because she'd overheard Osiris and that creep Falx talking about their glorious 'plan' when they weren't aware she'd come to once the anesthesia began wearing off...
Maybe, with any luck, that wretched old bitch, the “Duchess of Sansom Street,” will be sitting close by when it happens. She didn't seem the kind of uppity society dame who'd be using a more pedestrian restroom if those diamonds were real. Vremsky swore she looked more like a tired old drag queen than anything.
One of Osiris' men stood outside in the hallway, watching the lady's room, in case she made a run for it. A brief flash of bathroom humor – considering the only way she could make a “run” for it, now – would ordinarily have brought a childish smile to her otherwise unmoving lips, but not any more. Could something have gone wrong with Govnozny's wiring that she could, through some miracle, control her body well enough to escape? But how, much less where to, with this thing planted in her brain?
“Oh, the humanity,” she wanted to wail, but knew she couldn't, not anymore. She could no sooner warn somebody what was going to happen than she could straighten her wig – she hated feeling powerless. What if they're capable of reading her mind? What good would it do? Could she will herself to stop the command? It's not like they would punish her by setting the device off early. Well, given the technology, she figured they could somehow make her soil herself moments before it all happened, one last indignity.
Soon, the command would come and she would wander back into the hallway, ready to do what Lóthurr programmed her for. From there, trailed by Osiris' guard, she would nonchalantly wander into the auditorium. There was nothing she could do, waiting for that last command to arrive. She'd become nothing more than a human bomb.
Agent Shendo didn't want to think how the Aficionati found their tracking device, successfully removing it from under their target's scalp, then planting it on one of the local police cars as a distraction. It wouldn't be a difficult operation – it wasn't, implanting it in the first place – but how had their pigeon been plucked? Were the Aficionati's gadget guys able to read the information on the device which could trace it back to the IMP? He figured they discovered it by accident with no idea where it originated.
While their surveillance went off on a wild goose chase tracking down a Marple police car hoping to catch their pigeon, the real target was once more on the move, this time completely free-range. Bond said some guy near their hide-out overheard “concert” and “bomb” in the same sentence and figured “This is the place.”
“So here we are, at the biggest concert in the region tonight,” Shendo explained to his men and the handful of Phillie's finest and three FBI agents that could be spared on short notice. “All we know is we're looking for the usual suspects and suspicious packages. Oh, and here's a surveillance photo taken yesterday.”
Bond hurried over, joining them at the side entrance, one that led directly to the backstage area, and quickly introduced herself. She'd just gotten a call from the IMP mole infiltrating SHMRG's stage crew.
Agent Sauron Zimmerman reported there were no signs of Scricci backstage, but some of the crew said he was being kept safe in an undisclosed location. “Perhaps they'd gotten wind of some credible threat?”
“Or,” thought Bond, “they're keeping him hidden away so he didn't create a scene if someone shouted 'Hey, it's Fictitia LaMouche!'”
Considering such a high-profile event with Scricci as its host, it wouldn't surprise Bond if LaMouche did put in an appearance. Undoubtedly, SHMRG was taking every precaution to avoid another of Scricci's classic melt-downs.
Ms LaMouche, an on-line investigative blogger, had crossed paths with Skripasha Scricci several times in his past, none of them pleasantly, first exposing him as a drug dealer during his Siberian Transgender Orchestra days, then unmasking other “unsavory” activities in various, imaginative ways until the mere mention of her name unleashed a tsunami of fear.
Lucifer Darke's keynote speech was a “total dud” – Bond loved the technical jargon – the signal breaking up shortly after it started, before SHMRG's engineers finally cut the feed once they'd totally lost the connection. “Some of the guys backstage are saying it had been scuttled from Darke's end,” Zimmerman said, “not from the concert hall's.”
“Sounds like your standard 'oh-you're-starting-to-break-up' excuses ending with an 'oops-sorry-we-got-disconnected' cover-up,” Bond said.
Zimmerman laughed. “Yeah, they don't seem to be aware of anything with Project Fly-on-the-Wall,” the IMP code-name for their backstage surveillance.
“There's a reception going on in the Green Room with most of their stars,” she told him. “I'll check it out.” If Scricci's anywhere, he'd be there, she figured, not in his dressing room. They can't be after Darke if they brought Vremsky here, but how will she get in past security – and do what?
Then it occurred to her, looking around: “What if Scricci and the performers on the program are not the intended target?” Beyond the technical difficulties at the dinner, the concert is the real event. If the Aficionati weren't after SHMRG and especially their Golden Cross-Over Boy, Scricci, who would most likely be in their cross-hairs?
Bond looked around at the chaos backstage – “Nothing out of the ordinary here” – yet there was no sign of Perdita Vremsky.
“What if it's not going to happen backstage – and she's somewhere out front?”
The dinner hour at Chez Bourbonne, touted as the best (if not the only) jazz club in Marple, was already underway when Det Narder, with Tango and Reel, arrived to talk to Arugula Jones. Narder had been there on occasion with friends though for both Tango and Reel this visit was a first-time “ethnic experience.” The place was humming, dim and smoky, a perpetual after-hours club even during lunch when the ambiance toned down only slightly. Reel assumed it suddenly turned midnight and a beer would taste good, now.
“Sorry,” Narder told the bartender when he asked what they wanted to drink, “business, this time, Sasha, at least for now. When do the musicians take their break? I'd like to talk to them.”
“Oh, come now, detective,” he said, flashing her an ear-to-ear grin, “surely you don't think they done killed someone, do you?”
When she grinned back, he said they'd probably be taking a break soon – they'd just started playing “As Time Goes By” – setting up glasses of water on-the-rocks with lemon for them, “on the house.” They might as well look like they're here to enjoy themselves. “Otherwise, you might make some people kinda jumpy, ya know?”
Narder enjoyed stopping by here when she had the time and needed to “unwind a bit,” like her Uncle Lou said. He'd loved places like this but usually they were a little less classy.
While Narder was racking up big points in the body count with this case – now four bodies in two days – Grumpy Cop was practically apoplectic they haven't scored anything pointing toward a credible solution. If anything, she could use some time to help her “unwind a bit,” but so far nothing was helping – or happening. It irritated her this Bond woman cornered the biggest score yet, even if it was from one of her prime suspects. Even though this information was therefore suspect itself, she would follow her lead.
True, the International Music Police had better tech at their disposal, not nearly as cool as stuff you saw on TV. Uncle Lou told her, “never turn down help from guys with cooler toys.” So she reluctantly agreed to show her witness Bond's photos on the off-chance Dr Kerr wasn't tossing them a red herring.
“That water?” Arugula asked, sashaying over from the raised stage and smiling at the applause from her fans. She'd finished her set but her colleagues stayed behind to play another number on their own. “Hey, Sasha, chérie,” she beckoned to the bartender, “I'll have what they're having.” Narder'd mentioned some “new development” earlier. “What's up?”
The detective explained while Reel sat back, listening to the song Rivers was playing, nodding his head, an old favorite he hadn't heard in years: Bill Evans' “Time Remembered” from back in the '60s.
Arugula, sweeping an imaginary strand of hair from out of her eyes, glanced over the grainy photos in the dim light. She squinted a couple times, went back and then examined them more thoroughly. The first one she knew was Old Tom Purdue whom she identified. Narder pulled it aside when she said nothing more.
She also passed over the one of the Woman-in-Pink. “If she'd come into the office, chérie, I sure would've remembered her.” She spent most of her time in her office upstairs. “Ask Crimea, though.”
Then, staring at two different angles of the tall skinny guy in the black trench coat, she said “yeah, that's him...”
She'd kept thinking how it had been a full minute between Nick trying the doorknob and when she actually opened it. “He stayed there, must've been looking around for something. But that's definitely him...”
Crimea and Nick came over and joined them after nodding at the applause, casually polite rather than enthusiastic, but pleasant enough.
“That was really great,” Reel said. “I love that old Bill Evans tune.”
“Oh, cool,” Nick smiled back, “not many people these days know his stuff.”
“Better than that stuff Purdue writes,” Tango groused.
Narder coughed, hoping to get them refocused while Arugula showed Crimea the photographs. “Do either of you recognize any of these?”
Her phone rang. “Torello,” she said, “anything new? Sorry, speak up, could you?”
When Nick saw the photo of the van, he remembered having seen a black van, old and kind of beat up, parked down at the end of the alley a few times, recently. “I figured it belonged to some new neighbors. You think it's the killer's? Of course, there's a lot of black vans around...”
Narder tried listening to her phone call but between everybody talking and all the clinking glasses, she couldn't really hear him. “Yeah, okay, Sal, we'll meet you at Purdue's as soon as we can. Just keep an eye on that farmhouse – and that goes for the tunnel. Don't let anyone in or out of it.”
Putting her phone away, she turned to the others, gathered up the photos and apologized they had to leave so suddenly. “If you're right, his name's Graham Ripa and he's Tom Purdue's next-door neighbor.”
Torello had told her how Naze and LeMonde found Kerr's phone and a flashlight on the tunnel floor – “just dropped there” – and how it could be the spot right outside the farmhouse's basement entrance.
“So that probably confirms what Kerr was saying, and somebody in the farmhouse – maybe Ripa – found him there, and grabbed him.”
Reel recalled that article about the disappearance of Ripa's grandmother back in 2002. “Remember all that blood in the farmhouse's living room? Who wants to bet 'Old Jane Doe' is Graham Ripa's missing grandmother?”
“Well, as far as Alma Viva's concerned, the only one where there's an eye-witness, yeah, Purdue's probably not the actual murderer.“
Reel wondered if that could mean Purdue was innocent like Cameron Pierce insisted.
“Not so sure,” Narder said, “he could still be the mastermind behind everything.”
“Typical serialist,” Tango grumbled, “they're such control freaks.”
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, November 26th]
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.