(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.
A firetruck was pulling into position when we'd managed to unlock the front door and make it out onto the porch, men in protective gear running around, yelling instructions, getting the hoses in place, the flames reflecting off their faces and helmets, some with hatchets charging toward us, knowing there'd been several people reported inside. Narder and Tango shepherded us further down the lawn after Cameron and I had stopped with Tom to catch our breath at the bottom of the steps, not pausing till we'd passed the truck.
“Anyone else inside? Everybody accounted for? How many...” Questions came from every side. We were coughing, our chests heaving with exertion. Narder said “Det. Reel ran off after a suspect and is unaccounted for. Officer Paula Naze may be trapped downstairs – let's check that from the tunnel. Tango, you stay here,” and she ran off.
Cameron and I were counting heads and verified all of us had made it out safely, or what passed for “safely,” when Tom asked, in a tentative whisper nearly lost in the commotion, “Clara?”
One of the firemen standing nearby heard him. “Clara? Who's Clara? She still...?”
“You don't want to know,” Tango told him.
The fireman, figuring she was already among the dead, helped me take Tom over by the driveway, away from the chaos, and stretched him out on a blanket as an ambulance roared into view.
Anything more was drowned out by an explosion like a bomb going off, sending shivers through the remainder of the house, shaking it from the foundation up to the third floor tower's conical roof. I'd thought it odd you couldn't see anything through the windows, then realized most were covered with something from the inside.
The percussive blast apparently tore the coverings off the windows, shattering them, and spewed shards of broken glass onto the lawn. Fragments of burning wood were like projectiles in a fireworks display gone rogue.
The rush of oxygen caused a second explosion as everything continued to erupt, flames expanding exponentially, a great burst of energy, until the entire house was quickly engulfed in a muscular show of strength.
Once started, the floors collapsed, all three stories settling rapidly with a great sigh, the tower the last to give in.
IMP Secret Agent Sarah Bond came jogging across the yard, emerging out of the woods beyond the farmhouse, followed at a close distance by Marple Police Detective James Reel, both considerably out of breath.
Tango was glad to see his partner alive but reluctant to give him a hug: his suit was already wrinkled enough.
Bond came up to me, looking down at Tom. “So, this is Tom? You were able to rescue him after all?”
“Yes, even though I had to burn the place down to do it...”
“Indeed!” giving me a conspiratorially raised eyebrow's approval.
“Any luck with Osiris, then?”
“Did he get away?” Bond shrugged her shoulders. “I found his wheelchair outside the tunnel's exit, but no sign of him.” She figured Ripa's van was at the concert, so it couldn't have been back in time to be Osiris' get-away vehicle.
Reel reported he'd lost sight of Ripa – Tango, quick to ask: “how could you lose a burning man in the dark?” – after he'd checked the body in the kitchen. “Already dead – he wasn't Ripa. Must've dropped his coat and hat over the guy's body for some reason. I suspect we'll find Ripa's in the morning.”
I'll never forget that body rolling into this gaping, flaming hole in the floor, the hell-pit in Don Giovanni's final scene. If that'd been Ripa, could they prove whether or not Tom killed him?
We heard them from halfway across the yard, even over all the racket. “Mo,” Narder explained when they joined us, “was telling me why she broke protocol with her assignment. You'll find this interesting.” Maureen Zerka was the officer on stake-out at the farmhouse end of the tunnel and went AWOL at a critical moment.
“I'd been chasing away some kids who were throwing stones at me,” she said, “like they were pretending to be ghosts. Only when I got back from them, I noticed these four other guys.”
Maybe they were looking for a costume party, skulking along the cemetery wall, but then disappeared into those woods beyond Purdue's. She radioed Naze and LeMonde but got no response. Then she lost them.
I looked at Bond. “Well, that explains what happened to Osiris and Ripa.”
“The closer I get, the farther he is...”
Naze, after explaining how she'd stepped out into the tunnel before the roof collapsed, went to help LeMonde take their prisoner – “that doctor” – into the hospital. That's when they found Tango's patrol car gone.
“Then Mo came by, said you drove away, and figured that was you stopping at the woods and arresting those weirdos.”
Reel was practically ecstatic. “Wait, Jandro, you mean to tell me you left your keys in the cruiser? How could you...”
The argument continued to escalate and I figured, “let them deal with it.”
Telling Bond about Clara's confession and how Tom attacked her with a shovel, hoping to “kill” the computer program in turn, I wondered if destroying the hard drive in time would've terminated the software, and, if what Tom said was true – that Ripa's house had wi-fi internet – did that mean Clara could have escaped, too?
“Escaped? – like, transmit herself – itself – into some other device before he broke the connection – and... hide?” Bond stood back and laughed. “Ah, now there's a tantalizing theory, a truly 'killer' app on the loose...!”
The EMT guy apologized for interrupting us, but said urgently, “Your friend there's just had a stroke – we need to get him to the hospital 'stat.' Anyone want to come along, fill us in?”
I climbed into the ambulance with Tom, the wail of sirens tearing through what for others might've been a tranquil night.
“Everything had been going well,” he thought, turning out the light, “until that...”
Lucifer Darke let the thought hang there unfinished as he looked back into his office and shut the door behind him. It was a late night and not a very productive one despite the work he claimed he'd had to deal with.
First off, that useless speech for the dinner before the concert which he was able to terminate early, feigning technical difficulties. Then the aftermath of that... – whatever that was. “What the hell was that?”
He'd assumed, when it began, it was just another special lighting effect left over in Old Scricci's arsenal of rock-n-roll tricks. An actual bomb planted in the audience, however, killing actual people? “So unacceptable!” It must've been Steele's minions – who else would stoop to something so low? “This wasn't over, not by a long shot.”
The office was nearly dark, just the usual dim glow of night lights, meaning everyone else had gone for the day.
“Wait,” he thought, “there's someone by the elevator. Ah, another dedicated worker, good.”
He didn't recognize him, not at first. Somebody new? No, wait – yes, he'd seem him before, probably around the water cooler.
Darke tried to smile, approaching the young man who looked at him, smiling back, mumbling something about the elevator being slow.
Oh, he remembered, the young man from IT who'd located Steele's GPS location.
“Well,” Darke thought, nodding back at the young man as if he not only recognized him but even knew his name, “that'll soon come to an end – I know where you're hiding, Mr Steele...” Even as we speak, he knew his well-regulated militia was winging its way to Steele's little hidey-hole out in the ocean.
“Wait, could one have a hole in the ocean?” That made him smile. “Well, never mind, it's the thought that counts. Mixed metaphors aside, you, Mr Steele, will not be counting for much, soon.”
Darke looked down at the boy, not that much shorter but short enough to give Darke the advantage of his height. He never understood why they hired such youngsters just because they understood computers.
He looked at his watch and yawned. “A long day,” he said, condescendingly. Then he walked over to the men's room.
Kenny Hackett was left alone at the elevator. Darke left, saying nothing else. It made him smile, how obvious the Boss' disdain was for him, a mere corporate cog, unwilling to talk to him. Did Darke even remember what he'd told the man earlier in his office, how he'd tracked down the elusive Mr Steele?
“So, you'd think that'd be worth something, right?” Kenny tried not to fume. “Not like I expected a vice-presidency from this...” Though that had a nice ring to it, “Kenneth Hackett, Vice-President of IT.”
He wanted to tell Darke the news he'd seen posted on social media, something about a really bad earthquake on some remote island south of Tahiti. It didn't give the coordinates – maybe it's Steele's?
But the old man just walked away from him like he's not important, disappearing without a word into the men's room.
“Yeah, so let him find out about it in the morning news, then,” he told himself, “no cells off my epidermis. And the less they know about me – and Clara...” The elevator had arrived
“Clara” was going to be his revenge. “Sweet!” Any mayhem she created will be blamed on inter-office politics, everybody pointing fingers.
“And nobody will be pointing them at me, Kenny the lowly IT guy.” Speaking of fingers, he remembered the security cameras.
“Things can only go up from here.”
Then he pressed the down button.
“By the time Shendo and the other IMP agents made it from the concert to the airport,” Bond was telling us, “Osiris' private jet had already taken off, a surprise even to airport security.” Standing outside the ICU at Letterman Memorial Hospital, waiting for any new word on Tom's condition, Bond was filling us in.
“So much for getting caught in midtown traffic,” Narder said, “when everybody's panicking because of news reports about a terrorist attack.”
“Yeah, Chris said everything around Kimmel came to a screaming halt, nothing moved!”
Martin, Dorothy and I sat there trading glances, barely paying attention, while Cameron went off in search of the snack machines. Dorothy complained about getting back on schedule with Thursday's recital in Davenport, Iowa, and Martin, meanwhile, was quick to inform us he was holding another seminar at the Kalkbrenner Society in London this weekend.
“Not sure how they managed, but Ripa's old van” – surveillance cameras spotted it behind Kimmel – “got away from the center in time and made it to the airport long before the IMP van did.” They even had time to stop at a diner outside the airport, meet your stolen cruiser, and order a dozen cheeseburgers.”
“Yeah... nice...” Narder was not pleased her own department's cruiser had been stolen by one of Osiris' guards, but it explained how Osiris and the nurse got to the airport so fast, sirens screaming.
“Oh yeah, Dr Kerr,” Narder said, turning to me with an uneasy smile, “I followed up on your suggestion to compare the crime scene photos at Marple Music taken after the two different murders, and it seems only one thing's missing, that dollhouse over in the corner. How'd someone sneak out with that huge dollhouse...?”
Bond wondered if that could've been what the killer was after all along, though her tone of voice sounded decidedly skeptical. “Really, a dollhouse? How valuable could that be? Why'd Osiris be after that?”
Arching my eyebrows, I tried not to give away the relief I felt but it meant the Kapellmeister had apparently succeeded. Did he go back before it was splattered with DiVedremo's blood? What next? Where will it go from here, into a private collector's hands, maybe Osiris'? What would Osiris want with a bloody dollhouse?
Narder got a phone call and then hung up after a couple words. “So, they found Ripa's bloody sickle – not a scythe – in his old van, with blood belonging to Alma Viva and DiVedremo. And someone else – after running some DNA tests, I'm guessing the old woman found on the other side of that crypt.”
Though they had an eye-witness firmly placing Ripa at the first murder scene, it's probably just as well others hadn't heard all of Ripa's confession, what with me “popping in and out” like that...
The doctor who'd been in charge of Tom's case stuck his head out through the doors to say things looked good – “Not out of the woods, but as good as possible, under the circumstances. There's only minimal damage to the brain, perhaps some minor paralysis that could clear up after physical therapy, with any luck.”
Narder put her phone away after sending a text and said since she'd heard Clara's confession, one more bit of good news was that Tom and I were off the hook regarding Amanda's death. “Though I have no idea how we'd prosecute that one,” shaking her head. “Does that clear up enough loose ends, now?”
Narder looked over at me. “I hope your friend makes a full recovery.” Then shaking my hand apologetically, she turned away.
“Well, Bond,” she added, “call it a day?”
Bond laughed. “About time, too!”
The TV monitor in the hospital lobby, set to one of those all-news channels which everybody seemed to be ignoring, was summarizing the latest on the bombing at the concert hall earlier that night. The anchor was handsome enough, looking like someone you could trust no matter what he said, even if he sounded artificial.
“There were thirteen confirmed dead,” he continued, his eyes glued to the prompter while silent generic concert footage rolled behind him, “and 233 seriously wounded, with hundreds more hit by blood or brain matter...”
Bond and Narder went their separate ways, not lingering over the formalities of saying good-bye, not promising to keep in touch. Dorothy and Martin returned to their respective hotels, heading out later this afternoon. Kerr and his assistant, Cameron, decided they'd find a nearby motel for a few more days to stay close to Purdue.
“...Including the soloist on stage when the explosion occurred who was also the gala concert's executive producer,” the anchorman droned on, “a former glam rocker named” – he paused, staring at the prompter – “Skripshaw Scricki. Some of you might be old enough to remember him from his days with the Transgender Siberian Orchestra in the '90s.
“Yelling something sounding like he thought the bombing to be 'fictitious'” – here, he looked into the camera and shrugged his shoulders – “Scricki, dragged off the stage, suffered what looked like a nervous break dance.
“Police could not confirm reports Scricki was flown to a famous psych ward outside London, in England, where he'd been treated for psychotic episodes on several occasions in the past, not unlike this one. One of his assistants said, speaking as someone with no business doing so, Scricki's had a history of such public meltdowns.
“They also have no information yet on whether this was an act of terrorism or merely an unidentified, middle-aged white woman with issues resulting from menopause – meanwhile, no word yet on a possible motive.
“Meanwhile, in international news,” the backdrop now a generic image of a pristine beach, palm trees and scantily clad bathers, “a peaceful island paradise in the idyllic South Pacific has suffered a volcanic eruption.
“So far, there's one known dead, hundreds still missing... international aid already underway... various relief agencies setting up numerous photo opportunities...”
Turning onto the tree-lined street, it was good to see Conan Lane again. I felt we'd been gone for five weeks even if we'd only been away just five days – including two event-filled days. Pulling in the driveway and parking the car, it was certainly good to see the old familiar house still standing there. And even better to feel the quiet safety of my home once more, trying not to think about everything we'd experienced since that phone call Monday turned our lives into nothing but constant chaos.
Walking in the door, the house looked exactly the same if not better, probably because I had missed it so much. The sun was shining through bare tree branches, the leaves crunching underfoot carpeting the yards and sidewalks with red and gold, after the clouds and general gloom the previous few days, looking brightly festive. Looking better also, I suspect, because Mrs Quickly next door had “straightened things up a bit,” maybe even ran the vacuum, when she'd come over twice a day to feed the cats for me. Once I'd stepped inside, taking stock of things, I sighed the deep, resonant sigh of the returning traveler, home at last: you'd think I'd been off to India where I'd lived out of hotels or sailed across the Atlantic after a pleasant journey visiting friends in England, given the depths of relief that sigh revealed.
True, I thought, shutting the door behind us, then deciding to lock it (one can never be too sure about security), our chaos was nothing compared to what an old friend had gone through, recalling what had happened, and as I glanced around to find a cat, I felt guilty for even having mentioned it. After all, he had had a stroke by the time it was over – if anything like that is really ever “over” – and a young woman we'd just met was found dead in his basement. The house next door, where he'd been held prisoner, burned to the ground in a blaze we were lucky to escape, while the neighbor who'd abducted him turned out to be a murderer whose body may have been unearthed this morning in the ashes, burned beyond all recognition, the plot's mastermind supposedly “still at large.”
And then there was that unbelievable computer program he had managed to create – who knew he was capable of such technology? – one that could talk, think, and even, more amazingly, compose its own music. I'm not sure this program he'd christened Clara – apparently it could also kill – wasn't also “at large” in the wider world. Yes, whatever hackers did to the program, she claimed responsibility for Amanda's death; yes, I'd seen the computer destroyed; and yes, I had an original back-up copy, before things went wrong, in my possession.
At least Tom, whom I'd seen so rarely the past few decades, would be “rounding the bend” following Tuesday night's stroke. “Old friends” going back over forty-some years to our days in grad school, we'd been oddly reunited, promising to stay in touch even if we'd now grown up to become two cantankerous old men. The doctor assured me Tom would eventually recover – probably slowly and more than likely never completely – even if it took months, considering it a good sign he was already no longer in a coma. He was still unable to speak which clearly frustrated him despite his prognosis – doctors were pleased to discover Tom could answer simple yes or no questions with a blink or two of his eyes. All I was, by comparison, was feeling a little tired, for some reason, and looking forward to a few days' rest.
Walking into the kitchen, I noticed the blinking light on the answering machine and decided instinctively the best thing I could do now was ignore it, postponing any more reality a little while longer. Cameron, while putting the left-overs in the refrigerator, immediately (and instinctively) pushed the button, several message winding their collective ways backwards.
It's possible the funeral home in Marple was already calling about the arrangements. I'd promised Tom we'd visit in a few days without mentioning it depended on when Amanda's services were going to be.
There were the usual telemarketers, telling me “press 1 now,” wrong numbers, an oddly familiar, mysterious female wondering “Are you there?”
“Oh, listen,” he called after me as I hurried into the living room, “it's from Toni,” while munching on potato chips. “I wonder how things are at Phlaumix Court? It's a really long message.”
After the usual greetings, hoping all was well, Toni extended Burnson and LauraLynn's invitation to visit Phlaumix Court during the spring. “Undoubtedly, you must find retirement excruciatingly boring,” offered in her best hyper-English accent.
Toni was the young composer we'd met that Christmas on our European holiday which turned into quite an adventure in itself. Naturally, I was delighted to hear from her, noting her voice sounded up-beat which, for a teenager, was “undoubtedly” good news, leading me to assume this hopefully wouldn't involve me in any further adventures.
Since we'd set up long-distance, part-time composition lessons, she complained good-naturedly about my restrictions not to rely on any music software. Typical notation programs were one thing, offering too many short-cuts to basic skills, but I wondered how an innovative program like Tom's “Clara” would harm her if she never had to think for herself?
“Anyway, we're going to have a little musicale here at Phlaumix in late-April and they're going to play a new Piano Trio I wrote last month – in fact, ugh!, I'm still hand-copying the parts. But then,” she continued, “my parents” – how naturally she referred to my friends who'd adopted her after all that nasty business – “well, they said I could go over to visit you for the summer – that is, if it'd be okay with you? I'm working really hard and have lots of new compositions to show you!”
While she continued her pleasant small talk and Cameron stood smiling in anticipation, I admitted it sounded very idyllic, springtime spent in the Surrey countryside, then her staying here for a month, maybe two.
I also knew this would increase our responsibilities as members of the Watchers, that secret society associated with her, uhm... heritage. It was impossible to think of her without remembering she was Beethoven's Heir, and it meant we had an obligation to protect her privacy as well as keep her safe from the Guidonian Hand.
Since we'd promised Frieda to look after Toni, it was naïve to assume the danger ended after foiling their initial plot. Still, Cameron and I, keeping discreetly in touch with Vector and the other Watchers, now part of their substantial international network, were uncertain how much of a role we'd play in the long run.
As she signed off with a cheerful good-bye, I just shrugged my shoulders. Looking at Cameron, I knew we couldn't refuse, so we might as well plan our schedules accordingly and make the arrangements. As if the Guidonians weren't enough of a force to reckon with – and Vector and the others were sure it was – it was hard to feel completely safe, now, even with SHMRG lying low, what with this group, the Aficionati, to worry about, given Graham Ripa's ravings and what Bond already knew about the Mobots.
Opening the drapes in the cozy room and letting in the late-morning sun, I thought about getting back to reading Proust. This was a time for essential pleasures, not unlike a period of convalescence, and I enjoyed the prospect of a stretch of time with nothing to distract me while Proust's world unfolded around me.
First, I should call Mrs Quickly – I mean, Quigley – to let her know we're back and save her making the trip, thanking her for looking after the cats, with any luck avoid unnecessary questions. I noticed the pile of well-sorted mail sitting on the kitchen counter – a hand-written address on top, bills, then junk mail – nothing I couldn't put off a few days to give myself a little time to recuperate, managing to recharge the batteries before gradually working my way back into the rhythm of the universe – tomorrow.
Just a little time was all I'd need, some peace and quiet, naturally, but mostly time, of course, whatever that was, whether I divided it into minutes and hours or beats, measures and movements.
It was the artist's attempt to control chaos, trying to shape this mass of sound – of time – into something beautiful, lasting. But how is it we should answer the age-old philosophical debate about time? We understand terms we can measure with a clock, but how precise is a “moment” or a “bit,” even a “twinkling”?
Does it move forward – Time – like a film? Can it be broken down into frames in succession, a collection of instances? How does time we enjoy apparently move more quickly than time we don't? Why does the Good Old Days' glow of nostalgia always seem more pleasant than the immediate moment we live in now?
Yet as I walked across the room, looking out into the silent yard, I couldn't help but feel uneasy, even apprehensive, not because something was watching me, but because something was about to change.
Thinking about these past few days very nearly destroyed what I'd normally consider the usual space and time I'm accustomed to. We divide things into units for convenience and memories invariably become everlasting regrets, but don't we find, against logic and our best intentions, how places, friends, even dreams can change across the passing years?
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.