(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.
It had been a long and trying day for Dorothy, sitting in the kitchen, complaining how her feet were so tired, she couldn't imagine having to deal with any more of Kerr's little “adventures.” Martin, shuffling around by the sink dealing with the instant coffee – “how barbaric, but what can you do?” – tended to agree. The late afternoon continued to be cloudy and wasn't getting any better, enhancing the sense of gloom she'd sensed all day. Although glad of the break, she thought the anticipation only made things worse.
“And speaking of Terry,” Martin said, “just where the hell has he been while we're off wandering around that old farmhouse, walking what seems like miles in that tunnel, discovering dead bodies in crypts, then being grilled for over an hour by the police like we'd had anything to do with any of these murders.”
“Whenever we're getting ready to go do something, we turn around and – poof! – he's gone off somewhere, like he's no help.” Dorothy noticed Zeno the cat was intent on something beyond the basement door. “It'd be nice to know what we're looking for, much less how to accomplish whatever it is we're trying to accomplish.”
After spending too much time at the police precinct, they'd been dropped off at Purdue's and told not to go anywhere. It's not like they felt particularly safe there: besides, Kerr was still “at-large.”
Meanwhile, a killer was also on the loose, even if the police were convinced both Terry and Tom were the killers, and Cameron was still being held in jail, presumed to be their accomplice. She couldn't forget that sweet young girl had been murdered in the basement; now Zeno was beginning to creep her out.
A sudden flash under the door made her jump, almost spilling her coffee; then something like a box got knocked over.
“Damn it,” a familiar voice complained, “what did you do with my phone?”
Zeno meowed from the top of the kitchen cabinets while, in his surprise, Martin had thrown himself against the back door. “That sounds like Terry – how'd he get in?” Dorothy hurried toward the door.
Before making it halfway down the steps, they could see their friend standing with his back to them, dusting himself off.
“What the... – Where the hell have you been!” Dorothy sounded more annoyed than concerned as I turned around to face her, striking me more like my mother when I'd come home, late for dinner. This immediately unleashed a canonic conversation where, between the two of them, the same questions spilled forth, one over the other.
I looked around, shooshing them, after realizing, fortunately, the Kapellmeister had disappeared and there was no sickle-wielding maniac about to attack. Still unnerved, I was breathing as hard as if I'd run a mile.
“And how'd you get in here without the police nabbing you,” Dorothy continued. “You do know they're out looking for you?” She sounded even more like my mother, convinced I was getting into trouble.
I could hardly tell her where I'd been but, for that matter, how would I explain popping up out of nowhere?
Martin, assuming my lack of response was more confusion than lack of oxygen, wondered how I managed getting past the stake-out. “Presumably, they have policemen keeping an eye on each end of the tunnel.”
Dorothy explained two were in a car out front, “supposedly for our protection.”
“Not that we,” Martin interrupted, “feel particularly safe.”
They both looked at me expectantly, hoping I would set them at ease.
“There, uh... was something I needed to do...”
“Well, did you accomplish what you'd 'needed' to?”
“Not exactly.” Where to begin...
“How long was I gone – I mean, give or take a few minutes?” Since I don't wear a watch and must have mislaid my phone again – there weren't any clocks in the basement, either – and the last time I'd been outside was, like, almost ninety years ago, it struck me as a fairly reasonable question.
But they just stared at me like I'd dropped in from the moon, which wasn't much more far-fetched than the truth.
“You dropped your phone – and a flashlight – in the tunnel – outside the farmhouse...?”
“Ah, right, you were going to check the farmhouse to see if... what, exactly: if Tom was there? And was he?”
“Not exactly...” Martin hesitated as he and Dorothy exchanged cautious glances. “You see...”
Dorothy cut in by reminding me “we,” indicating the three of us, “were going to look for Tom, when you disappeared.”
“That's when we got distracted, waiting for you, and we heard – uhm, what was it we heard, Dorothy? Two people talking...”
“Yes,” she continued with some hesitation, “then we got distracted – waiting for you.”
“And then they'd said something about this body,” Martin said, pointing, “down at the far end, beyond the crypt, maybe Tom's...”
The more they stammered, the less explaining I had to do, even though their excuses sounded almost as bizarre as mine.
“Terry, there are these people in the farmhouse...”
“Yes,” I said, “the Aficionati...”
“Fishy what?” Dorothy looked at him, brows furrowed. “Isn't that what Amanda said?”
“What did Amanda say – and where is Cameron?”
“He – well,” Dorothy stammered, “he's at police headquarters. They think you killed Amanda.”
She pointed to the taped outline where I was standing, where Amanda's body had been found. And everything became very quiet.
“Cameron said her last words were 'a fishy,...' like maybe 'a fishy aftertaste,' he thought, like maybe some left-overs had spoiled.”
Martin obviously had an epiphany: “You mean, she was trying to say 'Afici-onati'?”
Dorothy imagined the girl was trying to tell Cameron who really killed her. “Terry, what – or rather, who – are the Aficionati?”
“I'm not really sure,” I said, carefully stepping outside the crime scene outline.
“Whoever 'they' were, they should be considered dangerous.” I told them Bond said they were next door and probably abducted Tom.
“If they killed Amanda,” Dorothy said, stepping closer to Martin, “they could come back here to kill the rest of us.” Martin, putting an arm around her, didn't look like he'd be much protection. Having police outside watching the comings and goings didn't mean they'd notice anybody who'd already have inside access to the tunnel.
I had no idea if any of the Aficionati knew we were here or realized the police were watching the place, but I didn't want to take any chances: I needed to call Bond.
“Have either of you seen my phone?” Looking around for it on Tom's now empty desk seemed pointless. “And that card...?” Initially, I'd assumed whoever killed Amanda also had taken Tom's computer – and Clara.
“What card,” Dorothy asked. “And the police have your phone – the battery was dead, anyway, so they took the charger, too.”
Martin observed we were now no further ahead than we'd been before Amanda had been killed, and that was hours ago.
“Hours?” Damn the Kapellmeister, I thought, and that screwdriver he rode in on.
“Well, guys, how are we going to get into the farmhouse and rescue Tom if the place is crawling with killers?”
“Frankly, I'm not sure I want to go in there without police back-up.” Or, better yet, go in there at all.
“The same police who want to pin four murders on you and Tom?”
“No, that's why I want to call Bond – she's worked on the Aficionati case with the International Music Police for years. I'm afraid Tom's disappearance has gone far beyond anything involving the local gendarmes.” I started going through my pockets again, hoping I hadn't dropped Agent Bond's card out in front of Charles Ives' home.
Martin sighed, sounding remotely wistful. “You know, there was a time when I think we all would've found this rather exciting.”
“Oh, I agree,” Dorothy said, “if I was watching a movie or something.”
“Well, it's a bit like being in some over-the-top thriller without all the special effects – or the stunt doubles, I'm afraid.” The card wasn't in any of my pockets; again, I checked my wallet.
Taking a deep breath, I told them what I knew about “the plot,” their eyes widening further with each new detail.
I explained I only overheard these guys talking for just a couple minutes – apparently not the same two guys Dorothy and Martin had overheard from the tunnel, either (“they had Jersey accents,” she thought) – so naturally I didn't get everything, like who “Lóviator” was, or the Woman-in-Pink, and then there's the bit about “the bomb.”
When I finished, the room was weirdly silent as we each stood there, our eyes wide, scarcely breathing, wondering “what next?” The phone jangled, cutting through like a knife; we jumped a figurative mile.
When Dorothy reached out automatically to answer it, I held out my hand. “Wait a minute, it could be a telemarketer.” The last thing I wanted to deal with now was a blasted robo-call.
“Or maybe it's the killer, wanting to know if anybody's home so they can come over and, you know, kill us.”
“There's that.” I was pretty sure Tom's answering machine was on the kitchen counter between the back door and the fridge. “Go upstairs and listen: the volume may be too low for down here.”
Dorothy and Martin hurried up the steps to hear if the caller left a message, Tom's out-going tape starting to play.
I stayed behind, ready to pick up the receiver if it was Bond, eager to tell her about Amanda's last words.
“Hang-up,” Dorothy called out after a brief silence.
Bond would've left a message.
Perhaps he had adjusted his technique and was better at controlling his entrances, or I was preoccupied with watching the phone, as if that were enough to make the call be from Agent Bond, but, missing his tell-tale signature flash, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I realized someone was standing beside me. Pulling myself together, I whispered he should have some calling card like a whiff of brimstone or causing magnetic hair-tingling shivers, rather than just creeping up on you unannounced like that (speaking of “creepy”).
It occurred to me, since we'd figured out where the Belcher Codex ended up and his search was over, now, there was nothing to fear from some new distraction, another bout of “breaking news.” I wanted to get rid of him as quickly (and easily) as possible, or, better, enlist his help to rescue Tom.
“Glad you're here. There's no time now” – not that that stopped him before – “but when I accidentally ended up back in that office yesterday, becoming a witness to that murder you saved me from, I noticed that same dollhouse Little Edith was playing with in Charles Ives' living room in a corner of that office. Yes, I realize it's not quite the same, all cut up like that – and who knows if it's even all there – plus there's also a little problem with a certain amount of blood spatter...”
Upstairs, I heard someone rummaging through the refrigerator, perhaps checking what take-out still remained from our initial stock the night before, wondering if we shouldn't grab dinner before proceeding, however I'd explain my guest. Fortunately, I'd wolfed down some cold leftover meatloaf before he'd shanghaied me back to the 1920s, otherwise I'd probably be starving.
It sounded like somebody was talking to Martin and Dorothy but who'd showed up while I was preoccupied with the Kapellmeister? Thinking it was a policeman, I realized Martin had turned on the TV.
Well, no harm in asking him: “Herr Kapellmeister, it'd really help if you'd get us inside the farmhouse next door without anyone else finding out so we can pop in and rescue my friend.”
“Hey,” Martin hollered, turning up the volume on the small kitchen TV set, “what were you telling us about a bomb?”
The Kapellmeister tried to keep his voice down, the noise from the TV set most likely masking anything reaching the kitchen.
“Okay, I'll take you next door but go back only a few minutes. That way, I don't have to be there to bring you 'home': you'll just modulate into the future, no extraction necessary.”
“Okay, thanks – actually, that would be great, but we need to wait for...”
“Which means,” he continued, ignoring me, “if there's anything you need to change, then, it will just blend into the present.”
“But I need to call the Music Police so they'll arrive after you've...”
“Oh,” the Kapellmeister said, setting up his sonic screwdriver, “they're already on their way, once the dust clears from the explosion.”
“Wait, what do you mean, 'explosion'? What explosion?” I shoved his hand away to break contact before it was too late.
I could hear the reporter saying, “They'd just started performing... uhm, Vivaaldi's 'Four Seasons' when a sudden explosion rocked the auditorium.” (It was difficult to understand him over the pandemonium going on behind him.) “There were unconfirmed reports a mysterious 'Woman-in-Pink,' apparently Caucasian, was carrying a bomb... – too soon to call it a terrorist act.”
Too late. Before I could hear more, the upward rush of a rapid-fire chord progression whisked me off into the past.
I'm sure once Martin ran down the steps, I had already disappeared – again.
When the last chords faded, after having swirled up into the higher registers, this time it seemed like it took only a few seconds, if that much, to reach what felt like a landing. There was no sign of the Kapellmeister but since this wasn't one of his projects, maybe I was on my own. I could only hope by shoving his hand away like that I hadn't screwed up either the location or time coordinates. He said it was only a few hundred yards and a couple minutes.
While it might have been enough to get me into the farmhouse, I couldn't guarantee the Kapellmeister wouldn't have set me down in the middle of a dozen Aficionati in the midst of dinner. I thought of suggesting, if I ever saw him again – which I hoped not to – he might opt for “invisible” arrivals.
Of course, not knowing my way around, I had no idea where I was or where they might be keeping Tom, or for that matter if they were still holding him here at all. As the fog around me cleared, I noticed how bright the room was – and small – with lots of brilliant white tile.
In the center was an old recliner laid almost flat and in it an old man tied to its arms.
The man shook his head, looked at me and gasped.
“What the... – Terry?”
I had no sooner gotten Tom untied from the chair – he was barely able to stand, his legs were so tottery – when the door burst open with a noisy wallop, banging against the wall. There stood the same creature I'd seen in that office, the one holding the scythe, who'd cut down that unfortunate woman.
“You!” he screamed, pulling himself up to his full height and nearly banging his head against the ceiling in the process.
“Ah, yes – hello,” I said, as I froze, “how are things in Kikimora?”
Perhaps because of the brightness – it was rather blinding – he wore polarized sunglasses, giving his face the look of an insect.
“You're that witness from last night,” he raved. “Who the fuck are you!?”
He grabbed both of us by the shoulders and shoved us toward the door.
“How the hell'd you get in here?!”
= = = = = = =
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.