(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.
Tom Purdue didn't look well but then he'd been under a lot of stress since he'd been abducted three days ago, tied up to an old recliner, kept in a brightly lit, locked room. His skin was pale, his hair unkempt and his clothes rumpled; no doubt he hadn't had a bath since the kidnapping. I wondered if he'd been given the heart medication his doctor had prescribed. While they've been feeding him, what about exercise? Even in prison, inmates get regular periods of activity and some fresh air.
When I'd asked the Kapellmeister for help rescuing Tom, I thought he could transport us to where they were keeping him, and then, before anyone noticed, transport us back again, taking Tom with us. I hadn't planned on being dropped off and left to my own devices, having to work my own way back, unaided.
Thinking “so far, so good,” I'd barely gotten Tom untied from the chair, realizing the Kapellmeister was nowhere to be seen, when we were interrupted by the man in the trench coat, the killer. If Tom was surprised by seeing me, his captor was even more surprised, greeting me with a shower of frenzied expletives.
“I take it you've met,” Tom asked, his voice faint.
“Not officially, no.”
The man he identified as his neighbor, Graham Ripa, grabbed us by the shoulders and rudely shoved us toward the door.
“The concert's already started,” he snarled. “You and your newly-arrived friend here can listen to the broadcast – it'll be a blast! Guard, tie them up good and tight, hands and feet – gag them, too.” He plopped us into some armchairs in front of a folding table with a fondue pot and a bottle of champagne.
I gathered from Tom's expression our present surroundings were not what he expected, our host explaining he'd been doing some redecorating. Nice touch: the tablecloth even matched the curtains in this otherwise sterile interior.
When he first pushed us into the large open space, bright lights reflecting off white and metal surfaces (speaking of sterile), I noticed a nurse hovering over an old man in an ornate wheelchair. There wasn't time to “process” him beyond his being overly tanned and shriveled like a mummy; the nurse appeared unnaturally tall.
The young man Tom called Ripa might be considered handsome if anyone could see his face, long, narrow and poorly proportioned between his hat and a high-buttoned shirt, eyes obscured behind those over-sized sunglasses. I would've guessed Mr Ripa hadn't fully recovered from some serious illness, yet, and his being so high-strung wasn't helping him.
As Tom and I were forced into our chairs, I heard the old man's breathing gradually relax, the nurse, an elongated woman with an Earth-deep voice, speaking soothingly in a language I couldn't understand.
Perhaps the old man was... – what, Ripa's grandfather; and the old homestead, converted into a nursing facility to care for him. If so, the décor lacked any sense of human sympathy or personal warmth. The fondue and champagne may have been nice touches but they could also have been part of some bizarre eucharistic ritual.
The room that was Tom's cell stood to the left of the steps; an operating table with several racks full of equipment, bottles and monitors filled the wall behind our table – a surgical suite! To the left of that was a counter with computers, more monitors, tools like hammers, saws, a hatchet, even a fire-extinguisher.
Ripa now turned on an old-fashioned radio, finding a station playing a nauseatingly swooning version of some overly familiar Strauss waltz.
“Aha, just in time for an old chestnut.”
Then he turned to me.
“Who the hell are you,” Ripa snarled, his face only inches from mine: it was very definitely not a pretty sight. “How did you get into a locked room? – or get into DiVedremo's office?”
“What do you mean, 'get into DiVedremo's office...'?” It was an egg-shell thin voice coming from the old man behind me.
“He just popped up out of nowhere, scared the crap out of me. That's how I killed her, an involuntary reflex!” He whirled back to me. “Who sent you? Did Alistair Neal send you?”
“Alistair Neal?” A critic I'd usually dismissed, Neal claimed those who viewed the “resurrection of tonality” as a return to God replaced the “articulateness of academic serialism” with merely pleasurable if not anti-intellectual entertainment, advocating how such forms of “aesthetic extremism” must be stopped “at all cost,” the rallying cry of everyone calling themselves “Nealists.”
Ripa grabbed me by the shoulders, shoving his face into mine until I saw my fear reflected in his over-sized sunglasses which, no matter how you sliced it, was also not a pretty sight.
“What do you mean, 'just popped up'?” the quavery voice behind me continued. “You mean he witnessed your... uhm, activities there?”
“No, don't think so – freaked me out! My blade swung a little wider than I'd planned, only meant to scare her. By the time she'd hit the floor, this guy'd just as suddenly disappeared...”
Ripa's skin, what little was visible, soon began producing lots of nervous sweat. “I didn't mean to kill her, just wanted to threaten her, like, make her tell me where that Codex thing was.”
He turned around and shut off the radio. “Ugh, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons,' I hate this piece...” The old man remained silent.
“And that bimbo of a secretary – she freaked out when she saw me. When she stepped back and tripped,” he continued, “I went to grab her and, well... forgot I was holding my sickle...”
“It hardly matters now, you maladroit,” the old man said, “since he's heard you confess to both murders, witness or not. The old professor, too,” he added, apparently unaware I'm also an old professor.
“But Vremsky – I mean, Lóviator – wanted Purdue alive to unlock the software's secrets...”
“The Aficionati's tech wizards'll take it from here.”
Ripa froze, staring at the man behind me, and I realized something clicked – or maybe snapped, it was hard to say.
The old man sounded bored. “We have his program; his input is pointless.” In fact, he seemed perfectly convinced Purdue and his brain were now unnecessary and I had become even less than unnecessary.
Considering how quickly the expression melted away from around Ripa's otherwise unflinching mouth, I gathered he too realized he'd become “unnecessary.” If Lóviator was the Woman-in-Pink, I knew he knew where his future lay.
“If the essence of the universe is Change,” he began, “everything is in a state of flux – which they don't believe. Philosophers tend to disregard what's on the surface, the transitory appearances of things. You can't distinguish between the changing, imperfect and ultimately unknowable world of sense and the unchanging, perfect, knowable world of Reason.”
And Ripa rambled on, how he didn't believe anything was “ever in balance,” how he couldn't believe some people, brilliant intellectuals like Neal and even himself could be inferior to those dismissed as “mystics.” “None of their ideals is right,” he argued, citing their lack of substance. “I don't believe they can give anyone satisfaction.” Everything about them – these “mystical ideals” – overlooked one thing that wasn't really there, that basic “inner meaning of Art” making it not good music for the hour but the greatest music for all time.
The sound of gentle breathing behind me had changed to soft, even snoring as the old man had apparently drifted off, though Ripa, prancing awkwardly back and forth, rarely took his eyes off him. His performance was fractured, spasmodic, confined to a fraction of the lecture stage, threatening us or appealing to some unseen audience.
“They're out to discredit me, Neal and his followers,” Ripa whispered to me, “afraid I'm getting too close to Osiris' ear,” chucking his chin toward the figure behind me. “They want to kill me...”
“Osiris?” I wondered if that was the old man I'd seen in the wheelchair, thinking “what strange names these people have.” What kind of a secret society was this? How dangerous could it be?
“Have you been sent here to kill me” – I felt his warm breath against my ear – “or just to warn me?”
The snoring stopped abruptly and Ripa bolted to his feet, snapping to attention.
“You have disappointed me, young man,” Osiris said.
“I'm the one who brought you Purdue's software, and created this space for our regional headquarters – my ticket into the 1%!”
“You think you, a failure,” he snorted, “deserve to be among the elite?”
His voice was thin but far from weak. “You” – again, he snorted dismissively – “have cost me the Belcher Codex! 1%, indeed!”
Ripa gripped the back of my chair and nearly threw me over backwards.
So, this Osiris fellow was after the Codex, too? What did he gain by owning it? Was it really that valuable? Was the Kapellmeister also working for him, trying to locate it for him? Was he trying to find it before Osiris got his hands on it, to keep him from gaining control of it?
“You think I'm a loser?” Ripa pulled himself up to his full height. “I am like any other man without talent, playing a role before you.” He began swaying back and forth, hypnotic, paranoid. “With nothing to offer you but my talentlessness, I play the Golden Mean – not smart; not stupid, either – the dialectical average.”
Ripa stood back and took a deep bow, deferentially spreading his arms wide. “I have nothing to offer but my blood.” Speaking of blood, he sounded more like he was threatening the old man.
By now, Ripa had moved outside my field of vision, standing somewhere behind us, how far away I couldn't be sure. I glanced at Tom but he was either asleep or had passed out.
“That's your biggest fear,” Ripa whispered to the old man, “isn't it, contaminating your precious 1% with new ideas, new blood?”
Poor Tom, I thought, what have we done to deserve ending up in this place, in the power of these maniacs?
“Yours is some ancient Paradise,” Ripa continued, “this sacred society of the dead.”
And it was up to me to rescue us, since neither Cameron nor Bond nor anyone else knew where we were. Somehow, I had to get myself free or we're both going to die.
With no response from the old man – and where was the nurse? – Ripa's breathing became the prelude to slowly mounting rage.
Depending on how quickly it took him to reach a boil – sooner, I imagined, than later – I didn't have much time. Never very good with knots, twisting my wrists only hurt my shoulders more. Suddenly losing my balance, I felt the chair tip over onto its side, my feet, tied together, flailing into the table.
Lying on the floor in a fetal position, there wasn't much to see except I must have knocked the pot of hot cheese off the table, already beginning to congeal, bread cubes flying everywhere.
Perhaps if I could reach one of those little forks, I'd be able to pry open the rope around my wrists. I tried to imagine attacking someone wielding a sickle with a fondue fork. Then I saw this pale blue aura flowing over the cheese, faintly flickering – the hot oil from the little sterno can.
As the oil continued to spread, the apparently cheap tablecloth began to smolder, and in seconds the table erupted in fire. Before Ripa could respond, flames were licking the sheet draped across the gurney.
In the sudden blast of commotion, I could see heavy boots – the guard who'd bound and gagged us or another one? – trying to avoid stepping in the flaming cheese and cursing volubly in Russian.
It didn't help the fire-extinguisher he waved around had fizzled to nothing – empty! He then barked frantic instructions into his radio.
A woman bellowed – no doubt the tall nurse with the cavernous alto voice – something about “leaving you alone for one minute,” though I had no idea where she might've gone (perhaps a downstairs bathroom?). “What has happened here, Agent Falx, what have you done, you stupid man!?” Falx, I assumed, was Graham Ripa's secret name.
I could hear him stammering some excuse, no doubt blaming me for having started the fire, then kicking the back of my chair in frustration, pushing me a few inches closer to the flames.
Looking over at Tom, I could see the fear in his eyes, but he seemed more focused on the one computer over near the tunnel wall than on the fire in front of him.
Ripa, meanwhile, poured the bottle of champagne on top of the cheese which only caused the bluish flames to spread further.
“And how, you troglodyte, could he have 'started' the fire with hands and feet bound, gagged and tied in a chair?”
I imagined her pushing the wheelchair, probably toward the tunnel, eager to escape.
“Never mind that,” she bellowed again, “open the gate! You go on ahead and start the van. We must escape! Hurry!”
“But there is no van, Agent,” the guard shouted in heavily accented English. “They have come back yet not, from concért.”
“Then we'll have to call a cab to get to the airport. Quickly!”
The flames, fortunately, were sweeping away from me, I noticed, and there seemed little along the way to feed the fire. Was it too much to hope the oil would soon burn itself out? On the other hand, two bodies, fully clothed, unable to move, could feed the fire long enough to be a problem. Why weren't they beating the flames senseless with a heavy blanket: didn't the old man have a lap rug with him? The smoke from the burning tablecloth, however, was becoming noxious with chemical fumes.
Instead, Ripa started screaming about not leaving “her” behind – who else was here? – rushing toward the old-fashioned PC with the tower. “Ah, that must be Tom's missing computer,” the one that contained Clara's software. Nearly invisible, given the limited field of my vision and the increasing smoke, Ripa began desperately grabbing at the tower. “Wait!”
It must've been more than he could lift: between the size and weight of the CPU and the various wires and cables – the power cord, the monitor and keyboard cables, probably a printer, too – Ripa must have tripped on the wires, his head slamming against the monitor which blinked into life as Ripa rolled forward.
Sparks flying everywhere, Ripa tumbled to the floor, the monitor falling down on him till he writhed like he'd been tasered. Somebody started screaming at him. Whose voice was that? She sounded familiar – Clara??
Ripa stretched out on the floor not far from me, the still-burning cheese with its eerie bluish aura seeping toward him. The impact of the fall must've knocked his sunglasses off and I saw the look of fear in those pale eyes. Judging from his obvious panic, yeah, I'd say Clara was winning this one.
It dawned on me, however, no one seemed terribly concerned about Tom and me, still gagged and tied to our chairs. Nobody else remained who cared about Ripa or the computer, either.
Why hadn't the oil burned itself out, yet? Then there was a small explosion, a bottle shattered, something on the shelf. Great, now the curtains had caught fire and it began spreading more rapidly.
This, I hoped, would be a good time for the Kapellmeister to appear out of the smoke and deliver us.
“But you have no idea where he's gone?”
“No, none,” the distinguished-sounding professor was saying, the one who was a musicologist. “We'd heard the news about the explosion at Kimmel, but he'd already disappeared.”
Bond thought Kerr told her this guy's name was Martin Crotchet but couldn't remember exactly, introductions had happened so quickly before.
The woman with him spoke up at this point, talking from the extension.
“That's when we'd found this card with your number on it – he'd dropped it in the basement – and decided to call.”
Fortunately, Bond was already on her way to Purdue's after the explosion caught everyone by surprise, especially Vremsky's role in it.
“And he said he was quite sure Dr Purdue was in the farmhouse?”
“He said he wanted to call you because you're familiar with the Aficionati.”
“Yes,” Dorothy added, “he thinks they killed Amanda.”
Bond never thought this Dr Kerr was the type for heroics, who'd try breaking into an Aficionati stronghold all by himself and take on a nest of agents single-handed even to rescue a friend.
“We didn't think he'd go by himself, and I at least wanted to wait till Cameron got here,” Dorothy went on.
“No, it couldn't have been more than a couple minutes when we'd come upstairs to check the answering machine,” Martin explained. “There's no sign of a struggle, the tunnel gate was closed – just... poof!”
Since Agent Breverton had called her about the belated news from the airport surveillance cameras, things had started moving quickly, almost too quickly: first the explosion and now news that Osiris was in town. And where else would he be but at the same place where Vremsky, Ripa and the others had been hanging out?
Yes, that was him, going through customs under the name Biblos Tamirakis of Basilikon, a dried-up old relic in a wheelchair. Next, he was seen getting into an old black van driven by Ripa. And Vremsky, too. How did they miss that? All this was before they'd lost track of Vremsky due to “technical difficulties.”
And now Dr Kerr, totally clueless, could screw everything up and ruin it.
“If that's the case, I'd better call Narder for back-up,” she told them, wishing she'd put her on speed-dial long ago.
The dreariness of the day had given way to a cool fall evening, but Narder couldn't think about the “frost on the pumpkin” or any of that “Hallowe'en horseshit” she'd hated as a kid. Maybe Cameron was still young enough, but Narder noted both he and Reel were very quiet on the short drive over. Pulling up in front of Tom Purdue's house, Det. Narder also made note of three cars parked there (not too obvious): Amanda's and Kerr's; the other was the stake-out with Officers Naze and LeMonde.
Seeing Narder pull up, the two rookies got out to stretch. “Quiet night,” Naze said. LeMonde nodded his head in agreement. They said the guys at the two tunnel entrances hadn't noticed anything, either.
“Crotchet and Minnim haven't gone anywhere and nobody else has arrived, so yeah...”
Cameron, nodding good-bye, headed to the front door.
No sooner had he been pulled inside by unseen hands, Narder's phone rang.
“Yeah.” She turned her back to Naze and LeMonde, holding up a cautionary index finger – “Yeah?” – glancing at the farmhouse. “Yeah...”
Pocketing her phone, Narder said that was Agent Bond with some interesting news. “She'll explain once she's here. Jaimie – call Tango.”
Reel hadn't even begun dialing when a car pulled up beside them.
Narder ignored Bond's poor attempt at fitting in.
“No time to talk – follow me.” Bond hurried around to Purdue's back door.
After one wild helicopter ride, Bond wasn't ready to deal with a lot of explanations and theories. The trick was to get to the farmhouse basement before Osiris escaped. “Okay, how'd you get in?”
Dorothy recalled there had been an eye-level stone set slightly back from the others that acted as a kind of handle.
Cameron and Martin were armed with a shovel and a weed thingee between them; Dorothy held a can of bug spray. They would have felt better waiting for the others but there wasn't time.
Afraid Bond's flashlight might miss it, they had no difficulty finding the gate: thin whiffs of smoke seeped through a narrow crack in the tunnel wall.
“Uh oh,” Bond thought, “that can't be good...”
The question now, she wondered, given the smoke made it difficult to see the stones, was “which one was the handle?”
As she pushed against any stone she could feel might've been at Dorothy's eye-level, the wall suddenly started to slide open, revealing a tall, thin man dressed in black standing there holding a CPU and, despite the smoke, his large sunglasses reflecting strangely in her flashlight's beam. They both stopped short and gasped. “What the...?”
Beyond him, Bond saw a smoke-filled room with flames climbing up the drapes, two figures in chairs, one on the floor.
“Freeze, Ripa,” Bond yelled, “police!”
Regardless, Cameron hit him broadside with the shovel.
Dorothy sprayed him in the face, his glasses flying off as he fell.
Yanking the monitor down on top of him, Ripa screamed in agony, writhing like a live fish on a hot grill.
Martin, threatening Ripa's groin with the weed prong, hurried over to Purdue while Dorothy untied Kerr.
“C'mon,” Bond shouted, “where's Osiris?”
Clearly, Ripa looked like the last thing he wanted to do was engage in another discussion about Osiris. “I'm so screwed...” And, he must be thinking, “why hadn't I downloaded Clara on my tablet?”
As soon as Dorothy had pulled his gag off, Kerr hollered back to Bond that Osiris must've escaped through the tunnel.
“And Ripa's already confessed to the murders of both DiVedremo and the secretary.”
Once more, Cameron whacked Ripa with the shovel.
“Which way did Osiris go?”
Kerr shouted, “Into the tunnel – to the right.”
“No, no – to the left! You're other left!” Even under the best circumstances, “Mr Fischer” was rarely known for being patient.
But these were hardly the best of circumstances, a tropical island paradise about to be blown to kingdom come, or worse.
“Hold your horses, Mr Steele – I mean, Fischer,” Holly Burton fumed. “Hold on!”
Everything was happening so quickly but even with advanced warning, still, the man in the wheelchair waited till the last minute. She thought about rolling his wheelchair directly into the mouth of the volcano...
Cable was still upstairs backing up his files and wiping clean various hard-drives so nothing could be found after they've left – assuming anything survived the impending earthquake – by anyone who'd come looking for them.
Her instructions had been to wheel the Boss down toward the beach and watch for the helicopter expected to arrive shortly.
And yet so much of this past hour, Steele was outlining how he planned on tracking down this child prodigy, some teenaged composer supposedly a descendent of Beethoven's (how was that possible, she wondered), going on how this would be his “big ticket” back to controlling SHMRG, how Lucifer Darke can then “kiss my anatomy.”
“Perhaps that's the helicopter, that small dot on the horizon,” she said, pointing. “They said they'd leave their supplies back in Papeetee this time – that way, there's more room so we can be evacuated.”
She'd been careful to place the wheelchair with his back to the volcano but that didn't stop her from occasionally glancing over her shoulder to see it was now spewing ash and smoke continuously. The ground shuddered like some gigantic beast seething with lots of pent-up frustration, kind of like Mr Steele got on occasion.
“Oh, I forgot. You wanted this,” Holly said, handing him a thumb drive. It contained all the files Cable had about this music software he'd located, clandestinely copied earlier while Cable took a shower.
“Whoa, not a moment too soon,” Cable laughed, as the chopper landed, noticing the hand-off as he rushed to join them. He suspected Steele would try getting his hands on that software, the double-crosser. Just in case, he'd deleted a few key lines of code after he'd copied it himself, rendering the remaining program useless.
Almost instantly, much of the village behind them started going up in flames, and hundreds of people running from the volcano now headed towards Steele's “Little Grass Shack” as if he would protect them. Or perhaps they saw the helicopter land and thought it could take them all away to safety somewhere, anywhere but here.
The air was thick with smoke and the screams of the approaching villagers. Holly prayed they'd make it to the chopper before it was too late – and it could safely hold only four people.
With one look back, she saw another speck flying toward them, hurtling out of the sky, flames trailing like a comet, and, seconds later, her home these past few idyllic years was on fire.
It was a mad scramble but with the pilot's help, they got Steele's wheelchair into the helicopter and were soon airborne.
As another chunk of burning rock passed not far from the helicopter, Holly struggled to get “Mr Fischer” strapped in safely. When the chopper banked steeply, Cable lost his balance, slamming into the door.
It all happened so suddenly, Holly thought, but before she knew it, Cable was outside, a pin-wheel falling into the ocean.
Trying to recall later how it happened, she insisted she didn't see a thing, quite sure Cable couldn't have been pushed.
Nor had she seen “Mr Fischer” use his legs to push him.
= = = = = = =
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.