Monday, December 03, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 27

In the previous installment, things are not going well on a certain South Pacific island paradise for N. Ron Steele as the local volcano has decided now would be a good time to erupt, just as Steele has to leave before Darke's SHMRG Task Force arrives to take care of a problem, just as Cable thinks he's solved a curious coded message he'd received. Fortunately, the supply helicopter has arrived and with any luck they'll get out before anything serious happens. Meanwhile, traveling through Time after escaping his own harrowing experience, Kerr runs across Tom Purdue having a depressing moment in the middle of nowhere.

(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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Never a fan of cold climates, Osiris explained how he often liked to think of a tropical island deep in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, far from the contaminated shores of Fukushima, Japan, rambling on while listening as Schoenberg's quartet chugged along, but ignoring the fondue which he thought even worse than cheap champagne.

“You see,” he said, dropping his voice until Ripa was forced to lower the music's volume, “it's like the human mind.” He detested using such simple explanatory devices, almost as distasteful as this champagne.

Osiris furrowed his brows till he figured his eyes would look like slits and Ripa, the clueless young man he thought had been better than this, might think he was concentrating on his comparison. He never could stand dealing with small talk, merely filling the void until news arrived the experiment had been a success.

“Above the ocean level, the 'island' is the conscious mind, all beautiful surface, full of things which can easily be seen. Even the beach revealed at low tide is what they call the 'pre-conscious.'” Thinking of the island made him long for anything other than the basement of a decrepit old farmhouse in American suburbia.

“But what we cannot see, the great rocky mass hidden beneath the ocean's surface, is... the unconscious – hidden, unknown, perhaps volcanic!” He chose not to think beyond the bedrock, which some equated with God.

“And nothing happens,” it occurred to him, “that has not already been determined.”

It was now Ripa's turn to furrow his brow, wondering how this was turning into a discussion of metaphysics and Fatalism.

Osiris noted the change of expression with satisfaction, dazzling him with philosophical discourse.

“The old man's drunk or crazy,” Ripa thought.

“It is,” the old man resumed, “the causality of Time, the inexorable moving forward to that which we have long sought.”

Ripa misunderstood “causality of Time,” thinking Vremsky was certainly a “casualty of Time.”

“As in so much of our lives,” Osiris rambled on, “we must seek out 'The Mean,' the balance, avoiding the extremes. We must avoid pointless refinement for that passion leading to control and balance. The Mean wasn't the extreme of lacking tension or being far too passionate: the proper tension yields the one true note.”

Something vibrated deep within Ripa's being, call it his soul, his psyche or inner child, rising from beneath that all-encompassing ocean. What note about to sound would this be, he wondered, nearing the surface? His glass in hand, a cube of cheese-dripping bread suspended in mid-air, Ripa had been unaware the topic had changed again.

“What is beautiful, naturally, is often beautiful for different reasons to different people, even something as universally beautiful as a rainbow.” Osiris smacked his dry lips, wishing there was decent wine to whet them.

“On the surface, rainbows are aesthetically pleasing and need no explanation, a given, without the 'buried beauty' of its physical properties, the technical analysis which makes a rainbow understood only by the scientifically educated. This is something we acquire through learning, the difference between the nature we inherit and the learned knowledge which nurtures us.

“Aristotle talks about the senses and knowledge, about experience, theory and, naturally, wisdom.” He spoke with the automatically flowing voice a lecturer uses who's delivered this talk dozens of times over the past years. “We know how the intellect advances through experience and memory to theoretical knowledge, and, naturally, how sound allows us to learn. Music enables man to return to the Divine, whether you consider that the Greek's Elysian Field or Eden, the biblical Paradise: it's the one essential memory at the source of everything we consider Art.

“Like all things in society today, whether it is sports or computers or, for that matter, our very professions,” Osiris continued, “the more we know, the more we appreciate or even excel at it. This does not bar the would-be computer geek or the potential baseball fan as long as they learn their respective languages. It's not just a question of creating mystery for the sake of elitism: yet the involved terminology behind anything – of music, say – is one way of protecting it from the Great Unwashed, n'est-ce pas?”

He placed his hand, palm down, over the glass without a nod when Ripa went to pour him some more champagne. “Art,” he nodded, “is like a fine wine that is aged to perfection. There is no excuse for a cheap imitation.” And that, he continued to himself, is something you have yet to discern.

“The beauty of something – let's say, a piece of music – is more than being merely 'superficially pretty' as we sense it because, like all things as they age, familiarity breeds decay, so to speak. If someone surrounds himself with what is merely popular, in time he will find himself lacking inspiration – sustenance – from the best.”

Ripa had a hard time imagining one day he could wake up awash in a pile of decay, himself considerably aged. “What has happened to all those favorite songs and movies from my life?”

Osiris continued how Man – the generic, non-gender-specific human – must spend the bulk of his life in the contemplation of absolute beauty, coming to appreciate its pure essence beyond the transience of its surface qualities. As generations of philosophers have stated, he explained, Art must overcome its “perishable popularity” and “general vulgarity” to be truly valued.

“You see, the Mobots, as they're designed, have none of those human failings of things like 'gut reactions' or 'moral imperatives.' They're not concerned about issues that play to the weakness of human emotions.”

“So, in a way,” Ripa said as he chewed his lip, deep in thought, “they are agents of the Divine Will.”

“They are certainly an embodiment of the divine in art, acting for good.”

Sitting back in his chair, Osiris felt he'd succeed in making his point, but also sensed the unwelcome onset of exhaustion.

“I see,” Ripa said, as he sat pensively in his own chair, letting his fondue fork fall back into the pot. “Vremsky – Agent Lóviator – is like the human prototype, a kind of crash-test human.”

Osiris, thinking this sounded too crude and insensitive, especially considering a once-valued agent, raised a tentative finger as if to object.

“No, no, I understand,” Ripa said, raising his wine glass in a salute, “collateral damage, a sacrifice to the greater good. But how effective do you think she'll be, compared to a Mobot's capacity?”

“We could have, if we'd had the time,” Osiris said, after pretending to sip his champagne but ignoring the fondue fork, “worked out some additional explosives elsewhere on her, uhm... person, you would think. Unfortunately, with the concert tonight presenting a perfect opportunity for a warning shot, it was only the best we could do.”

“A last-minute flash of inspiration, so to speak,” laughing at his own joke. Ripa offered the old man more bread cubes. “Whatever happens, I'm sure it will blow old Perdita's mind! Some more fondue?”

Osiris, eying the tray without changing his expression, explained, with Purdue being uncooperative, there was no opportunity for a functional simulation.

“Allowing us the opportunity to check the impact the device might have without wasting the necessary funds on sophisticated technology: priceless! But the 'social impact' will be amazing: is anybody filming it for YouTube?”

Graham Ripa found himself standing tall, after turning his back to Osiris' wheelchair, a clenched fist raised high in the air, how, in a grand crescendo, they must urge the Mobots on to victory. He turned around with a dramatic – and obviously well-practiced – flourish to face Osiris, his face beaming with freshly minted Messianic fervor. “Even,” he shouted, “if it leaves only 1% of the population behind to create a utopia based solely on the Arts, and so, starting civilization over again, purge it of centuries of cultural contamination!”

Osiris sat back with the shadow of a frown passing over his brow, pitting reluctant admiration for the young man's enthusiasm against how disappointingly he had failed him on the matter of the Codex. This shadow was more deeply tinged by the realization he might need to handle Falx much the way he had Lóviator.

“So if there's really no such thing as 'good' and evil,' per se, without putting a specifically Christian spin on it, you're implying then there is only faith and doubt, regardless what you believe?” Ripa chewed his lip as if it would keep him from “flying off the handle,” as his grandmother would've put it.

“Whatever someone deeply believes is, to them, seen as 'good,' is it not? Anyone who opposes that viewpoint therefore becomes 'evil.' Someone failing to believe as strongly, therefore, has the potential to become evil.”

It was, Osiris observed, the role of the Aficionati to maintain the supremacy of the faith in the presence of evil or rather what would be construed as growing doubt, detrimental to the faith.

Ripa's brow furrowed as if deep in thought which made Osiris' eye twinkle. “So, doubt itself becomes a matter of perspective?”

“Yes,” Osiris confirmed, sitting back comfortably into his wheelchair, “the moment you bid fond farewell to the life of the unimportant, you will see how everything falls into place in relationship to everything else.”

Ripa looked down at his feet as if they could answer his question. “How does one stop the advancement of doubt?”

“The only thing that stops a bad man with a philosophical argument is a good man with an opposing philosophical argument.”

Osiris smiled, realizing the two sides will continue arguing indefinitely, never accomplishing anything.

Ripa suddenly stood up, interrupting Osiris to say, “Music,” showing what he had learned, “is the language of the unconscious mind. So, how do we use Clara to unlock the brain of a Mobot?”

“How, indeed,” Osiris said, a thin smile wafting briefly across his dry lips, “do we teach the Artificially Intelligent to learn?”

“Old Purdue's program,” Ripa began quietly in the lower register of his voice, “is beautiful because of its symmetry, its simplicity... But Purdue's so stubborn, what are we to do if he won't help?”

Osiris, like someone at an all-you-can-eat buffet who is hungry but finds nothing around him he could ever imagine eating, waved his one good hand in the air, Ripa's words so many annoying flies. “That is why we have our own experts – they can take Dr Purdue's discovery and turn it into their own creation.”

The problem, he admitted, was one of timing – “the problem is always Time” – but learning in itself was not instant gratification, though he was concerned about being too impatient to show off their results. “What if it's too soon to be effective, that by setting off this experiment before it's 'perfect,' we've spoiled the surprise?

“Knowledge wasn't what a man has been told or shown, or even taught; it is the accumulation of research and observation. It is what he finds for himself after a long and rigorous search!”

The so-called Mobots – and he still hadn't explained why he called them that: the logical combination of Mozart and Robots, perhaps, though what exactly, Ripa wondered, did Mozart have to do with suicide-bombing androids? – were not merely a topical “philosophical argument,” even if, judging from the drawings, he doubted they could pass for something human. But that anomaly didn't seem to bother Osiris, in an age when robots would be waiting on us hand and foot. Who'd notice another robot hanging around the coatroom or acting as an usher?

Underneath all the variety that makes up everything we see in the universe, scientists are still looking for the one unifying theory or something ambiguously called the God Particle that will connect it all. Logic is what holds it together, not Chance, but the Rule of Law: Truth can be approached only through the mind.

“'Knowledge is the path to the highest of The Realities,' philosophers point out, the knowledge of Good, according to the Greeks, unlike our modern sense, because 'a moral, intellectual passion is its driving force.' The Truth, that ultimate goal,” Osiris continued rhapsodizing, “embraces everything like a 'State of Grace' with its divine nature and perfection...”

“But who had warned me earlier the search for perfection is a trap, that striving to achieve perfection is irrational, procrastination? It's Zeno's paradox, always approaching a state of being but never attaining it.”

“You're right, perfection is not attainable,” Osiris sighed. “But is it too soon? Won't more research make it better, more terrifying...?”

“You can't call it off, everything's in place! You'll catch them by surprise!”

“Yes – no, you're right, young man,” the old man admitted, feeling himself tiring. “It is too late to stop it now.”

“But aren't you really saying, then, these Mobots are a force for good?” Ripa's head tilted inquisitively from side to side. “And they are good, not evil, because they have been ordained by God?”

“Yes, yes!” Osiris' eyes were shining with enthusiasm. “Like Wotan's Valkyries, they will safeguard Valhalla, protecting the 1% from the masses!”

Ripa's phone chirped, the special ringtone indicating it was Yanni driving the van. His “What!?” sounded rudely impatient, given the stress.

“Vremsky's just sat down – the signal is strong. Don't worry, boss: everything's fine.”

Osiris had been unaware Ripa was on the phone and, once in “professor mode,” kept mumbling, unable to shut it off, another change of topic just like that river you couldn't step into twice. As he put the phone away, Ripa looked at him, thinking the old man seemed a bit more wan than usual.

“And this is not just another matter,” Osiris continued in the same tone, “because it is a deep disappointment to me.” He inadvertently knocked over the glass of champagne. “Now, it seems, too late.”

“Too late?” Ripa, suddenly still, cocked his head in that insect-like way he had which reminded others of a preying mantis. “Agent Lóviator's sitting down at the concert as we speak. You just said...”

Raising a finger in mild dismissiveness, Osiris told him this was not the issue he was, at the moment, concerned about.

He began with a long explanation about how another one of his agents, a high-ranking, highly considered musicologist “of high years,” far too old for anything but research in dusty libraries at this point, had stumbled upon some correspondence between the wife of Charles Ives and an old society friend of hers from New Haven. They mentioned a valuable and historical document her husband came across and Osiris had had him tracking it down for decades – rules of composition, Ten Commandments written on leather, once owned by William Billings.

“My agent,” he continued quietly, “traced these letters to a box of Ives Memorabilia a publisher here in Marple recently purchased, a box that maybe contained what my agent called the long-lost Belcher Codex. But,” he said, raising an admonitory finger, “I've still no idea where it is because, having located her, I sent you...”

Ripa hung his head in defeat, waiting for the verbal ax to fall. “I know,” he said, “I killed her – accidentally! I'd been distracted by... by...,” and he felt this deep inner quivering again.

“You,” Osiris said, shaking in mounting rage, “because you're in the same town as Belle DiVedremo, literally down the street, and...” He fell back, screaming, and Selket rushed over, tearing open her medical bag.

“It was a goddamn accident, okay?,” Ripa screamed back, bolting for Purdue's cell. “That does it, this can't wait any longer...”


The first thing Perdita Vremsky noticed, making it into the auditorium and slinking across the row to find her assigned seat – it's in the middle of the left side of the hall: “how cute...” – was, after sitting down, she could no longer control her actions, unable to straighten her hair, sure her wig was off-center. What was the point, she thought, of making herself comfortable in the seat when, at some point in a few minutes, brain matter would be splattered without warning across several rows of enthusiastic concert-goers? She wondered if Yanni and Lóthurr, still in the van and controlling the broadcast signal to the device in her brain, could read her thoughts or know she was attempting to move her arms. Vinny was in a seat far enough away focusing the camera on her as she sat between him and the stage.

It was unlikely she'd just get up and make a run for it – they'd only detonate the bomb early and she didn't care to piss them off any more than she apparently already had. She couldn't even lean over to the young woman sitting on her right and warn her she might want to move. Would the people around her be killed in the explosion or merely grossed out by being covered in brains and blood? One thing she was sure of, she needn't worry about attending another reception.

After the orchestra finished tuning and the audience settled down, the conductor rushed out to begin with Bernstein's lively Candide Overture. She felt the program in her lap slide off, falling to the floor. She had no idea who the conductor was – just another lively young fellow – or what piece would be coming up next. She knew there was some over-the-hill glam-rocker who'd come out to perform some travesty based on bits of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. “Maybe it would all be over before that.” People were clapping and cheering.

In a flash of lights and on-stage smoke, the conductor turned around and took on the role of Master of Ceremonies. God, she hated when conductors talked to audiences, especially small talk like this. Next were arrangements of songs by Lady Gaga which other people apparently knew. What other indignities would she have to endure?

Then, during a particularly nauseating rendering of “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” presumably one of the “classical” selections, she heard it begin: quietly, as if from inside her head, came the opening music from “Jaws.” Seconds later, it morphed into the famous slow movement from Haydn's “Surprise” Symphony – of course: the loud, unexpected wake-up chord! “Cute...” Clearly, these guys were having too much fun with her but she couldn't even grimace, much less give them the finger. Then it switched to the ticking metronome from Beethoven's 8th Symphony, second movement.

When would it happen, the signal being sent out to detonate the bomb? Considering what she heard coming from the stage, she found herself listening more to the transmission going on inside her head. Would the last music she'd ever hear be the trombone theme from Sibelius' 7th or the “Dies irae” from Verdi's Requiem?

There was little else for her to do but think, physically incapacitated for anything beyond involuntary reflexes like breathing or blinking, so her mind raced ahead, hoping to find some way to counteract it. She sat there wondering if some loud chord or sharp dissonance or even a big deceptive resolution would pull the trigger.

If nothing else, this sense of imminent dread, considering the numerous theoretical options, gave new meaning to the term, “harmonic tension.”

“It's enough to make my head explode – no, wait, let me rephrase that...”

The elderly woman on her left leaned over, whispering something about André Rieu which made Vremsky want to vomit even more (adding to the churning she already felt in the pit of her stomach). The younger woman on her right, admitting she'd never been to a classical music concert before, thought this was really pretty. “It's the kind of stuff I'd want to listen to when I turn the lights off and relax, watching my aquarium.” Under ordinary circumstances, that remark alone would've been enough to make Vremsky puke.

Not that one could possibly make the experience any worse – and there was precious little in these last moments to savor – she decided, as long as she could still think, then she'd continue thinking! That was, until she realized her inner soundtrack had modulated to another piece, the most mind-numbing work ever written – Ravel's Bolero!

Vremsky would never consider herself a religious person, in fact rarely even a “spiritual” person, whatever that meant, even at holidays, but two quotes she thought were biblical came to her in her distress: “How long, O Lord?” and, one of her mother's favorites, “Lord, take me now,” neither of which she found particularly comforting.

When would the slide-show of her life begin flashing before her eyes like a grainy montage, posted on Facebook's Throwback Thursday? At what point, she wondered, would it come to its inevitable, abrupt conclusion?

There was also a train of thought (a thought closer to the caboose) concerning why this must be happening to her, not that there was anything about it she could go back and change. There was no sense dwelling on karma, like wondering if she'd only been kinder to her sister or hadn't offended Osiris.

There was nothing she could do but accept it as she had done with every other major set-back in her life. There was no doubt in her mind this was her fate, her purpose.

She always had trouble remembering that line everybody quoted from Milton's sonnet, the one usually called “On His Blindness.” Ah, yes:

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” Or in her case, sit.

Then she heard another familiar piece starting up.

“Oh, my farking God,” she practically screamed. “Not the '1812 Overture'! You bastards...”


The quarters were cramped because the van was small but that's because the budget to rent it and outfit it with their surveillance equipment was too small for anything more spacious, if not practical. Agent Bond started working her way through all the hectic behind-the-scenes activities and into the auditorium before it was too late.

“Keep looking for her – the 'Woman-in-Pink,'” she told her team. “She's been made and wouldn't be there on her own volition.” Kerr's expression, “Lóviator's the bomb,” started making sense: what else could it mean?

Agent Shendo sat at the panel, operating the radio contact which connected the van with Agent Samantha Quivar in the auditorium and their contact backstage, Agent Sauron Zimmerman whose undercover name was Pete Gross. Agent Damien Wendeaux, the electronics engineer, tried keeping the video feed on line, but distance didn't make the greatest reception easy.

The assumption had been Vremsky – the “Woman-in-Pink” for easier identification – would be backstage, the initial assumption being whatever was going to happen would be aimed at Skripasha Scricci, an attempt to ruin his event. This was, as far as assumptions were concerned, part of a turf war between SHRMG and the Aficionati, a political statement.

Any concert they were sending Vremsky to would have to be this one. How did they find and remove the tracker? Given Kerr's info, since Vremsky is Lóviator, “the bomb” probably wasn't street talk.

As far as Agent Zimmerman could tell, working undercover as a carpenter backstage on SHMRG's stage crew, SHMRG security was tight, and they were particularly watchful of any non-SHMRG personnel including in-house union workers. Even so, he thought their making fun of his name – his undercover identity – was because they had become suspicious of him. Every time a guard said, “Hey, Gross,” several others said, “Ewwww, that's gross!” It's a good thing none of them knew about his father's Tolkien fixation and that his real first name was Sauron.

Whatever they might know about the Aficionati's plans, it could just be an effort to foil any surprises from Fictitia LaMouche, that journalist who'd dogged Scricci's life and sent him to prison twice already.

“Scricci's as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Anyway, he's headed on stage as we speak.”

“Wait, so if Vremsky's not backstage,” Bond realized, “maybe her target isn't Scricci...?”

“I see her – in the audience,” Agent Quivar announced. “There's a woman, fairly short, dressed all in pink like you said.”

“Maybe her plan is to rush the stage? Quivar, where is she located?”

“Seated left of center, about in the middle.”

Then it occurred to her: “Damn, they're not after Scricci, at all – they intend to kill concert-goers! Sammy, don't spook her.”

She maneuvered around the back of the section to get a better view.

Agent Wendeaux was trying to zoom the camera in for a closer look when Agent Shendo, tapping his headset, thought somewhere in the distance he heard a familiar strain from the 1812 Overture. “Weird.”

Everybody was cheering Scricci's entrance, everybody but Vremsky.

Just then, Bond's phone rang – it was Agent Ollie Breverton. “What!” she barked.

Quivar thought she looked like an uglier version of Harry Potter's Dorothy Umbridge, but Wendeaux chided her for being so judgmental.

Bond apologized to “Brev” that now wasn't a good time. Scricci started playing.

Wendeaux agreed with Quivar, though, after closing the camera in on the Woman-in-Pink.

“Wait,” Bond said, taken by surprise, “you mean...?”

It was difficult to say what happened next: did the camera malfunction again?

“What was that noise,” Shendo shouted, “an explosion?”

People screamed, the music ground to a halt.

Quivar was screeching, “OMG! OMG!”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... 

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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