(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.
“What in hell goes? Why house with fire?”
The fat little man stood at the bottom of the steps, mouth gaping.
“My lab! What you have done?” he cried, his face reflecting the horror.
Dr Ivan Govnozny's beady eyes surveyed the destruction to his brand new, nearly state-of-the-art and, more importantly, once clean operating room.
Cursing volubly in Russian, arms flailing, he barreled his way through the room, heading toward the open gate into the tunnel, and ignored everything around him – strange people standing around, the flames, the smoke.
Judging from those he did notice – in fact, Ripa, unconscious on the floor, was the only one he knew was Aficionati – he easily figured it was time to, “how you Americans say, 'hit road'?”
Unfortunately, he hadn't made it very far to the road, once he'd turned left down the longer stretch of the tunnel.
He was followed immediately by some half-dozen guards pulling on their uniform jackets, some holding automatic weapons, others bottles of wine, but all clearly enjoying their evening off while events unfolded at the concert. By the time they realized something was amiss – the fire was definitely unplanned – events here at the farmhouse caught them unawares.
Govnozny returned, his hands up and waving frantically, shouting “Shoot not, shoot not!” followed by Naze and LaMonde, their guns drawn. At the same time, Narder, Tango and Reel clattered down the stairs.
It wasn't typical for Kerr to see everything so clearly in a flash, but he instantly knew this was not good. “Was that Bond I heard? Where's the Kapellmeister? Is this still the past?” Because, if it was, he wasn't about to not try something to change the outcome, no matter what the Kapellmeister said.
He saw about twenty people crammed into a long, rectangular, low-ceilinged, windowless room, with maybe half of them waving guns around, unlike him and his friends – Cameron was holding a shovel; Martin, a weed-prong.
The flames, though dwindling, were getting perilously close to what could be bottles of chemicals on shelves behind the operating table when it occurred to him they should've been secured in a locked cabinet.
The first thing to do was stop the flames from reaching those shelves, so Kerr, pointing toward the wall, shouted, “Fire!”
And that was when all hell broke loose.
It was hard to tell where it started, who'd fired the first shots.
There were Marple police at either end of the room, blocking the exits.
The Aficionati guards had been caught in the middle, or, more officially, to the right of center, fish in a barrel.
Kerr and his friends, to be accurate, were the ones caught in the actual middle, unable to reach anywhere remotely safe, somewhat protected by up-turned tables and chairs as they immediately hit the ground.
The roar was deafening, the smoke – in addition to the fire – was blinding, everything echoing as bullets bounced off metal surfaces. Lights exploded, bottles shattered, people screamed and cursed in a variety of languages.
It was all over in a matter of a few seconds that stretched on and on for what felt like hours.
The floor was littered with the bodies of guards, riddled with bullet holes. Tango, stepping gingerly, checked for pulses.
The members of the Marple PD, holstering their weapons, sustained not a scratch.
“I bleed, call doctor,” Govnozny wailed, leaning against the counter, “shoot in leg!”
“LeMonde, get him out of here,” Narder barked.
Cameron was examining his left hand, a bloody line streaked across the back of it. “It's okay, just a flesh wound.”
“You'll think differently later on, kid,” Tango said. “Looks like that knuckle's shattered.”
“I count five,” Narder said, “weren't there six?” She looked around, wondering where another guard could've gotten to – escaped? hiding somewhere? Walking past Ripa, she gave him a slight kick. “Good, this one's alive.”
Motioning toward the pile of white-haired senior citizens huddled behind the overturned table, she asked if everybody there had survived intact.
“While we're at it,” Narder said, looking at Reel, “can someone put this fire out before it gets out of hand? And Tango, cuff him,” pointing to Ripa. “He's the one the witness ID'd.”
But before Tango could get close to him, Ripa saw the coast was about as clear as it would ever be. Too many bodies in the way to make it safely to the tunnel, but between him and the steps were only a few licks of flames and not a single cop along the way.
His head still throbbing after having been hit by Cameron's shovel, Ripa dove headlong across the fire in a single effort, but he'd overlooked the tangle of computer cables and wires on the floor. Before he realized, his foot got tangled in the power cord, landing him face down in a pile of smoldering cheese.
The man let out another excruciating scream but still, nearly losing his footing again, made one last dash for the stairs.
“Watch him,” Kerr started yelling, pointing at the flaming figure. “He's getting away!”
Ripa disappeared up the steps, his hat and much of his trench-coat on fire, his hands feverishly scraping at his face. Flames once again flared up as globs of cheese splattered everywhere, spreading mayhem. Ripa's anguished yowling became lost in the commotion as Reel tried clambering over the bodies of dead guards to pursue him.
No one else noticed in the frenzy, but a couple blobs of the cheese landed on some of the dead bodies. Before long, a couple of their shirts, apparently cheap knock-offs, began to smoke.
Tango managed to get off a couple more shots in Ripa's direction before his pistol ran out of ammunition, clicking harmlessly. When Reel finally made it to the steps, his quarry was long gone.
“Don't worry, he shouldn't be too hard to find,” Tango shouted after him, “he'll look like some old geezer's birthday cake!”
Tom Purdue, his strength returning, rubbed his chafed wrists and, looking at Kerr, asked what murders Ripa had been talking about. Kerr, in his own discursive way, tried to explain what happened, how Amanda called him when the police were looking for him, suspected in the murder of Alma Viva, the secretary at Marple Music.
“Wait, who's Alma Viva? I don't remember any...? Dorothy, what's been going on?”
At this point Det. Narder introduced herself, saying they've been looking for him. “Where were you last night around this time?”
“What time is it? I have no idea,” Tom said, shaking his head. “I've been here since Sunday afternoon when that idiot Ripa grabbed me outside my home and locked me up in there. And you know, as touching as this reunion is,” he added, “maybe we could get the hell away from here, first?”
A loud click came from the pile of computer parts tossed on the floor when suddenly the monitor flickered to life. A soft, disembodied female voice began to speak with a slight Southern accent.
“Dr Purdue? – Tom! Is that you? I was so afraid you were dead!”
“Clara? Yes, it's me – what are you doing...?”
Getting ready to call in Nortonstein, Narder stopped cold: “Wait – now, who's that?”
“That,” Kerr explained, “is Tom's AI music composing program. He calls her 'Clara.' It seems she even single-handedly brought down Ripa.”
“Clara, what have they done to you,” Tom asked her, “and where did you get that ridiculous Southern Belle accent from?”
“Never you mind, dear. I've enjoyed watching those movies you uploaded for me.
“And, Tom,” she added, “they're trying to say you murdered her, but it was me. I killed Amanda. It was me.”
“OMG, Amanda's dead?” Tom sounded frantic. “You...! Why?”
“Seriously? That bitch was taking...!”
“Uhm... okay,” Narder said, “Clara, I'm arresting you...”
“You'll never take me alive, my dear! Frankly, I don't give a damn!”
“Okay, Tango, cuff... her.” She'd never arrested a computer before: do you read it its rights? Does a computer have rights?
Dialing Nortonstein, Narder wondered how she was going to write this one up.
“Wait,” Kerr started yelling, “the plug! Unplug her! She's trying to get away!” He lunged forward and yanked the power cord.
No sooner had I grabbed the cord than I felt this warm sensation in my hand spread quickly up my arm, and realized I was now floating, completely surrounded by an eerie, greenish light. There were several people – women, mostly – around me, passing by in quick succession, all high overhead those in the farmhouse basement. Tom sat there beside me – an Old Tom – his head in his hands, though the women around him were all young, like this would be another more recent memory I'd be called to witness.
There again was Odile, flirting mercilessly, all those theater majors drooling over her, before she somehow latched on to Lew Albrecht who ran off with her to New York because Tom wouldn't follow her. I remember now, being alarmed back then after Tom had threatened to go after Lew and “disembowel” him in Central Park.
Who was this? I didn't recognize her, a fair girl with long blond hair, cavernous blue eyes – a childhood sweetheart? Ellie Kazan. She lived in – wait, the Old Albert Ross house. Oh, near Aunt Jane's... Looks like Tom's rival was a big hulking farmhand-type apparently living next door – Jack, his name, Jack Ripa. “Ripa? Some relative...?”
Ellie was soon swept aside by the voice of Amanda arguing with Clara – Clara, accusing her of stealing Tom from her. How could a computer feel jealousy? Then someone, a man, started screaming, “Nooooo...!”
“The van isn't back, yet, ma'am,” the guard said, running towards her, already out of breath. “There's no other vehicle here.”
Selket ditched the wheelchair once outside the tunnel, cradling Osiris in her arms
“The mission was only completed minutes ago: it would take them an hour.”
“Then you must find a cab,” she said.
“In the middle of the woods,” he thought to himself, staring in disbelief, “with you carrying what they'd think was a mummy stolen from a museum? Or better yet, a corpse from the cemetery...”
“It's what natives here call 'Hallowe'en,' Agent,” imagining his thoughts, “and we explain we're on our way to a costume party.” The idea of being a grave-robber amused her. “Any excuse in an emergency.”
“It might be easier to steal someone's car. Wait, maybe there would be some cars at that house next to headquarters?”
Selket knew they had to get away from here as fast as possible: the fire will bring firemen and then police. Would they be able to blend unnoticed into a crowd of curious on-lookers?
“We must get into the cemetery, sneak past the house, avoid the fire,” she said, “and we must do so quickly.”
When she realized she'd lost her “fanny-pack” with all her medical stuff in it – no more of the Elixir – she cursed. They must hurry back to the jet immediately before Osiris needs another injection!
Making it past the neighboring house into a narrow stretch of woods beyond, the guard noticed cars at the smaller house, including two police cars but fortunately no activity. “Why're they already next door?”
“My plan,” the guard explained, “is to hot-wire one of the police cruisers. Meet you by the roadside under those trees?”
Then she heard labored breathing, moaning, and heavy footfalls crunching through dried leaves.
“We've been followed. Someone has discovered us.”
There was a figure careening off the stone wall, hardly able to stand.
The man – she was sure it was a man, perhaps another of Osiris' guards? – looked badly burned, his hair completely singed.
“Ah, there you are,” he sobbed, nearly inaudible, “Selket, you must help me.”
“Falx?” she said, savoring the discovery. “I must compliment you on your costume,” before realizing, too late, it wasn't a costume.
He'd only made it up the basement steps, his skin broiling, before realizing his coat, his hat, everything was on fire. “My eyes!” Nearly blinded, he was glad he was familiar with the place. “Where are my glasses?” Then he'd stumbled, tripping over something, barely making out the shape – a body, one of the guards?
The man moaned something. Ripa could see blood – more blood in this house! – “I didn't do it! It's not my fault!” The man asked him to save him; Ripa knew he couldn't and ran.
“That smell...?” He heard the flames behind him, even thought his hair was burning, before realizing that was what he'd smelled. He flung his hat off, tore the coat off, threw them behind him.
Somehow he'd made it outside, down behind Purdue's house into the woods where he saw Selket carrying the Old Man. “Wait!”
Was that a tree root he tripped over or the body of another dead guard? Or maybe another damned computer cable?
“Selket,” Ripa cried out as he collapsed, “it was an accident! Save me!”
She couldn't help him – too risky, she knew. “I must save Osiris: it's my duty,” and ran deeper into the woods.
The cool night air was so refreshing on his damaged skin, Ripa thought, and ripped open the tatters of his shirt.
“Let me sit under this pine and rest a bit – so relaxing... so...”
“Nooooo,” Purdue wailed, lunging toward the computer. “It's wi-fi! Destroy the hard drive!” He grabbed Cameron's shovel and attacked the CPU, breaking through the casing, crushing it, sparks and shards of plastic flying everywhere.
Tango, fearing for his life from this crazed serial composer – “Stop! Police!” – fired his gun which, fortunately, was out of bullets.
I fell back and dropped the cord, breaking the connection to Tom's memories, and immediately all the images and sounds vanished, vague figures of reminiscences I'd no right to know, much less to understand.
Catching his breath and panting heavily like a man finding his strength, Tom raised the shovel and raced up the steps, his adrenaline near the boiling point as he screamed he would kill Ripa.
“After him,” Narder yelled, “and you guys,” she said, looking at the rest of us, “get yourselves out of here – now!”
As Dorothy, Martin and I headed toward the tunnel and grabbed Cameron along the way, I heard a massive cracking sound, the shuddering of a great beast about to die. “The ceiling's caving in!”
Before we could reach the tunnel gate, the kitchen floor came crashing through, blocking our way. We had to turn around.
We'd hardly made it up the steps, nearly beating Narder to the top.
“You guys okay?” she asked. “Wait, where's Paula?”
Looking back, I saw the bodies of dead guards disappearing under the rubble.
Everything in the house was already ablaze, from what I could tell, all the furniture, the curtains, most of the rugs. Tom was silhouetted near the kitchen table, the shovel raised over his head. I saw a body on the floor rolling toward the opening before it, too, fell into the basement. Ripa, I assumed.
The rest of the kitchen floor began to buckle, the heat intensifying, as Cameron and I grabbed Tom around his chest. With Tango's help, we dragged him into the parlor where he passed out.
But with the all the flames and smoke, it was impossible to see. Dorothy somehow knew where the front door was, opposite the great portrait of Lillian Haine, now eaten by fire.
We made it off the steps just before the porch collapsed behind us. So much for the Old Sam Haine place...
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the final installment to be posted on December 12th]
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.