Editor's note: Salon is pleased to present Alfred Alcorn's highly entertaining new mystery novel, "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)." The story, both funny and thought-provoking, is appearing in People throughout the summer, with a new installment running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"The Love Potion Murders," a classic whodunit, begins as a killer aphrodisiac has taken the lives of two researchers in the Genetics Lab of the Museum of Man. Norman de Ratour, director of the museum, is desperate to solve the case and he works with Lieutenant Tracy of the Seaboard Police to unravel a scheme by a rogue outcast of organized crime to steal the deadly potion. The story takes Alcorn's protagonist to the bleak edge of the human heart, where evil and comedy conjoin, where nihilism holds sway, and brings him face to face with a fiendish villain -- and with the darkness inside all of us.
The first week of "The Love Potion Murders" -- Chapters 1, 2 and 3 -- is available to all Salon readers. Beginning the second week -- with Chapter 4 -- the novel is available exclusively to Salon Premium subscribers.
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By Alfred Alcorn
June 25, 2001 |
It is early evening. The light fades over the Hayes Mountains, and from my high windows I can see the first flares of autumn touching with scarlet and orange the rolling, mist-tendrilled foothills, now in shadow. And though I would rather linger here and welcome the darkness in a Keatsian drowse of sweet melancholia, I feel compelled once more to trouble these pages of the Log of the Museum of Man with separate and personal entries.
I say pages only figuratively, of course, as I am seated at my computer, creating words or the ghosts of words on the screen before me. Still, I am reluctant to serve as amanuensis to a nightmare. I do not wish to prompt iniquity with words, however real or spectral they may be. But write I must, because yet again I have a presentiment of evil uncoiling itself in the womb of this ancient institution.
Let me start with this morning. Just as Darlene was heading down to the cafeteria for our coffees (it was her turn), Lieutenant Tracy of the Seaboard Police Department brightened the doorway of my fifth-floor domain. Dapper as ever in charcoal suit, off-white Oxford shirt, and tie in the plaid of the McTaggarts, the officer reminded me that he took his coffee black. The amenities of small talk attended to, the door closed, the detective got down to business.
"I'm here to see you, Norman, about the Ossmann-Woodley case." His tone indicated that he spoke off the record.
"Ossmann-Woodley," I repeated with a sigh, not entirely surprised. "I was under the impression, Richard, that the matter was too riddled with imponderables to even begin an investigation. It's a most unusual case, I know, and not a little embarrassing for the University, not to mention our own Museum, given Professor Ossmann's affiliation."
Thanks to the tabloids and those television programs devoted to the tawdry and the sensational (for which my dear wife Elsbeth has a decided weakness), much of the world knows that, some weeks ago, Professor Humberto Ossmann and Dr. Clematis Woodley, a post-doctoral student, were found dead quite literally in one another's arms, indeed, in an unequivocally amorous embrace.
Foul play, other than double adultery -- they were both married -- has not been ruled out given the circumstances of the corpus delicti. For instance, they were found by one of the security guards, not in some comfortable bed or even on the divan available in a nearby office, but on the floor of one of the laboratories. There, judging from the disorder -- an overturned chair, some smashed pipettes, and a terrified white rat running around loose -- their lovemaking had been spontaneous and energetic if not violent. Rape does not appear to have been involved inasmuch as Professor Ossmann was a smallish man, a good two inches shorter and twenty-five pounds lighter than the formidable Dr. Woodley, who played rugby for Brown, albeit on the women's team. Moreover, neither participant had disrobed in a manner suggesting what might be called premeditated sex. Professor Ossmann's trousers and boxer shorts were down around his ankles, and Dr. Woodley's panties and pantyhose had been clawed off, but by herself, not Professor Ossmann, judging from the fragments of matching material found under her fingernails.
Finally, both victims, if that's what they are, entertained a deep and abiding antipathy for each other. Professor Ossmann had blocked Dr. Woodley's appointment to a tenure-track position as associate professor a year or so back. Dr. Woodley for her part had taken to calling Professor Ossmann "Pip" to his face, "Pip-squeak" being the nickname colleagues used behind his back.
I know the case in considerable detail, not only from the lurid and often inaccurate coverage in the Seaboard Bugle, but from briefings I arranged between the SPD and important University officials in an attempt to keep the rumor mills from working overtime.
The postmortems, done by the venerable Dr. P.M. Cutler, have provided only preliminary findings. The Medical Examiner reported gross inflammation of the genitals of both parties, who otherwise presented no signs of trauma or assault. Professor Ossmann succumbed to a coronary thrombosis while Dr. Woodley died of massive systemic failure when her blood, apparently, simply stopped circulating. Curiously enough, according to Dr. Cutler, despite prolonged sexual activity, no evidence of ejaculate was found. Whether Dr. Woodley experienced a physiological orgasm could not be determined with any certainty. Assays on blood chemistry, other bodily fluids, stomach contents, and organs are presently being conducted and should tell us a lot more as to what happened on that Friday night in early September when the Lab was deserted except for those two.
Sergeant Lemure, Lieutenant Tracy's blunt-spoken deputy, put the matter in words of a characteristic crudity, which I will refrain from repeating here.
One of the psychiatrists in the University's health services opined how a mutual loathing may have driven the pair to a violent mutual rape in which, expressing their deepest cravings and fears, they were murdering with sex each other's corresponding parent, Dr. Woodley her father, and Professor Ossmann his mother. This observation was duly entered into the official police report.
The Lieutenant regarded me closely. "Officially, Norman, it is a low-priority case because we cannot determine whether it's a murder, an accident, or some kind of bizarre suicide pact. But something about this case reeks."
His remarks struck a chord, if nagging doubts can be said to resonate. Despite myself, I have acquired of late a knack for suspicion. It's related, no doubt, to my work with the Seaboard Police on what have come to be called the Cannibal Murders, which gained Wainscott, the Museum, myself, and others such notoriety a few years back. Indeed, my account of those grisly events in a journal like this one was subsequently entered as evidence in the rather sensational trial that ensued. Published initially over my objections, it was well received in those circles devoted to the "true detective" genre.
Moreover, I have found that working as a sleuth sharpens one's apprehension of those slight discordances that indicate the presence not so much of clues but of what might be termed "negative clues" -- the hound that doesn't bark, so to speak. It makes you aware of the anomalies within the anomalies, life being full of the anomalous, after all. And this case, if a case it is, is loud with silent hounds.
While I was thus cogitating, Darlene came in with the coffee. The dear girl had been offered a higher salary to go back to her old boss, Malachy Morin. But she told me she wouldn't even consider it, calling the man "a serial groper." She is now squired around by a new beau and has finally ceased inflating out of her mouth those gaudy-hued, condom-like bubbles of gum.
After Darlene had withdrawn and closed the door, I stated the obvious. "We have no real evidence of foul play. At least not until the lab tests come in."
The Lieutenant lifted an eyebrow ever so slightly at the implied collaboration in the "we," as though both realizing and acknowledging that we were once again, however unofficially, a team.
"No real evidence, it's true," he said. "It's as though someone got there before the bodies were discovered and tidied things up."
"Really?" I was somewhat taken aback. I had not been told of this before.
"Yes, and there are a few other details you might be able to help us clear up."
"Well, I'm at your service, Lieutenant," I said, trying to dissemble a shiver of excitement as my pulse quickened, the way a hunter's would at the first unmistakable sign of quarry. The lieutenant's request for assistance made real what had heretofore been little more than a premonition. Indeed, I have unwittingly developed a keen predilection for the blood sport of murder investigation. For that's what it is, at bottom, a blood sport. And, in the darker reaches of my heart, I could also feel that strange craving for the reality of evil, if only for something to confront and conquer.
Lieutenant Tracy smiled. He has one of those smiles the scarcity of which makes it the more appealing. "I knew I could count on you, Norman. And also on your discretion. My visit here, strictly speaking, is unofficial."
I nodded. "What is it that I can tell you that you think will be of help?"
"Could you tell me, what exactly was Professor Ossmann's connection with the Genetics Lab?"
His question made me frown. The Genetics Lab over the past couple of years has changed beyond all recognition. The Onoyoko Institute, suffering in the general stagnation of the Japanese economy and the blaze of bad publicity in the wake of the Cannibal Murders, has long since gone, replaced by the Ponce Research Institute. Though nominally nonprofit, the Ponce has proved an absolute boon to the Museum. It has given us the wherewithal to resist persistent attempts on the part of the University to take us over on terms other than those ensuring the integrity and longevity of this institution as an actual public museum.
I chose my words very carefully in responding to the Lieutenant's question because, truth be known, I was not entirely certain what constituted the late Professor's connection with the lab. I cleared my throat. "Professor Ossmann, as you know, was a consultant at the Ponce, as the Institute is generally called. He worked on therapies having to do with the cardiovascular system, which was his primary research interest."
As I paused, the Lieutenant leaned forward. "You seem skeptical of your own description."
"I am," I said. "This can go no further than this room, but I've suspected for some time, Richard, that Professor Ossmann was as much an agent provocateur for the University administration as an active consultant."
"Un agent provocateur," the detective repeated with a surprisingly good French accent and frowned.
I nodded. "Professor Ossmann played an active role in the higher councils of the University. He served on the Next Millennium Fund Steering Committee. He was on the somewhat controversial Benefits Subcommittee of the Faculty Reform Committee. He also served for a while as chair of the Steering Committee on Governance. In fact it was during his tenure in that last position that he and I had one or two significant disagreements."
The Lieutenant said nothing, but his listening appeared to intensify.
"The same old story," I said. "Wainscott wants to take us over. We, the Museum, were the subject of a long report by Ossmann's committee. My own Board of Governors rejected the report outright."
"How did he end up over here?"
"We have a goodly number of consultants from the University who have contracts with the Institute. It remains something of a sore issue between the University and the Museum."
"Why is that?"
"Money," I said and smiled. "Lieutenant, I don't want to bore you with the endless petty politics that go on in institutions of higher learning, but it's clear to me now that the University is trying to get its hands on the Museum for nothing less than the income it can derive from the research done in the Genetics Lab under the auspices of the Ponce Institute."
His frown deepened.
"And they might have succeeded had we not had in our employ a canny young attorney named Felix Skinnerman, who has been handling our affairs with Wainscott for nearly two years now. He has learned, for instance, that the University's charter was amended during the heady days of the 1960s -- an overrated decade in my opinion -- to include a clause stating that 'no faculty, administrator, or affiliated person, nor any particular department is to benefit directly from any patent, license, agreements, royalties, or substance thereof deriving in whole or in part from research, discoveries, inventions or such taking place under university auspices or on university grounds. Any such income is to revert in whole to the University's general fund.'"
The Lieutenant shrugged. "Why doesn't the University simply amend its charter?"
I shook my head. "It can't without the unanimous consent of the Board of Regents ..."
"And the composition of the board includes by decree three members of the Faculty ..."
"And one of those is Professor Lou Wanton."
"I've never heard of him."
"I'm not surprised. He's a Marxist ornithologist ... He's a ..." I did not bother to elaborate for the detective my opinion of Professor Wanton. Suffice it to say that my good friend Izzy Landes calls him an "ideological fossil."
"Anyway," I continued, "he refuses to budge. He has issued statements saying that universities are becoming part and parcel of what he calls 'late capitalism.'"
"How does all this connect with Ossmann?"
"It doesn't really," I continued, "except to provide the context for Ossmann's activities in the lab."
"He was something of a troublemaker. He liked to object, to talk a lot about issues. He liked to speak to the press."
"But enough so that someone would want him out of the way?"
"Perhaps. I mean if he were about to blow the whistle on some shady dealings or some off-the-books research. Of course I may be mistaken. I'm sorry, Richard, but I feel like I'm offering you little more than wretched stalks."
The Lieutenant smiled and rose to go. We shook hands. "That's all any of us are doing right now, Norman, clutching at straws. But if you hear anything ..."
"Of course," I said. "We will stay in touch."
I finished my cold coffee alone. The Lieutenant's visit reminded me anew that the unfortunate deaths of these two people, each estimable in his and her own way, have cast a decided shadow over the Museum of Man. While both were on the faculty of Wainscott University, they were, as biochemists, under contract to the Institute directly and to the Genetics Lab indirectly. The shadow is real, darkened by the press, which has hounded me daily, all but accusing the Museum of perpetrating a coverup.
Indeed, the University's Oversight Committee, a claque of inquisitorial busybodies, has requested "in the strongest terms" that I attend a meeting to discuss "its concern with the unseemly recent events in the Genetics Lab." I have responded to Constance Brattle, who still presides over the Committee, reminding her that I have myself (for my own good reasons) remained an ex officio member of the Committee. I said I would acquiesce to her request but only if it is clearly understood that where the Museum is concerned the Committee's involvement remains purely advisory. I also stipulated that the press is to be excluded and all statements kept privileged. I reminded her that, as Director of the Museum of Man, I was as concerned as she in maintaining the high repute of both the University and the Museum.
Strange, how, when you start to worry about one thing it leads you to worry about something else. For instance, no one has heard for some time from Cornelius Chard. Corny, the Packer Professor of Primitive Ethnology in the Wainscott Anthropology Department, inveighed me to have the museum underwrite some portion of his expedition to the Yomamas. It's a venture I tried to talk him out of. There's been considerable unrest in the area he has gone to, apparently because of logging operations.
The Yomamas are a small tribe who inhabit an all but inaccessible plateau astride one of the remote tributaries of the upper Orinoco. The tribe, according to Corny, is the last "untouched" group of hunter-gatherers left on Earth. He also contends that they are the last people in the world actively practicing cannibalism. He has gone virtually alone to witness, as he puts it, the actual thing. He says he wants to refute once and for all what he calls, in questionable taste, "the cannibalism deniers."
Where he raised the majority of his funding, I don't know. It's one of those small mysteries. He claims it's a perfectly legitimate source that will in no way taint the objectivity of his research. His very protest makes me wonder. I do know he associates with some strange people.
Through Elsbeth, who goes way back with Jocelyn, Corny's wife, I have gotten to know the man better, perhaps, than I might have wanted to. He's an advocate of anthropophagy and author of "The Cannibal Within," among other works. I never go to dinner at their home without wondering, exactly, what it is we're eating.
I believe Corny organized this expedition to the Orinoco because, though he won't admit it, he's envious of all the publicity Raul Brauer has been getting for his book, "A Taste of the Real." Brauer, some people may remember, was involved in the cannibalism of a young volunteer on the Polynesian island of Loa Hoa back in the late sixties. His account was something of a succhs de scandale and is, I've been told, being made into a movie.
Still, it's a relief to get these things down on paper if not off of my mind. Now I must brace myself for another meal out with Elsbeth and her friend, the food critic Korky Kummerbund.
For the life of me I cannot see what Elsbeth sees in "the restaurant scene," as she calls it. What is this cult of the gustatory that seems to have afflicted half the good people of Seaboard? What has happened to the days when you simply went to a restaurant of good reputation, ordered a recognizable dish and a decent wine, enjoyed it, paid for it, and left?
I have nothing against Korky; he is an engaging young man and he is devoted to Elsbeth. But the food! I scarcely recognize any of it anymore. And the menus. They read like parodies of pornography. Then we have to sample each other's portions and, worse, talk about them. I have small relish in "savoring the complexity" or "thinking with my taste buds," as Elsbeth and Korky urge. For me, the life of the digestive tract and the life of the mind do not mix. Of late I have hankered simply for a plate of old-fashioned beef stew served with mashed potatoes and peas, which used to be a staple at the Club.
But I really don't want to complain, certainly not about Elsbeth. My world, after all those years of barren bachelorhood, has been utterly enriched by her presence, by her vitality, by her love. Our happiness is very nearly a public scandal. We have become the toast of Seaboard's better tables. Last year we won the waltz contest at the Curatorial Ball. Ah yes, and those little billets doux we leave for each other! No, I do not complain. A meal out from time to time in some new bistro is small sacrifice on my part for the woman I love.
This evening we're to go with Korky to The Green Sherpa, a restaurant that specializes, they tell me, in a fusion of Tibetan and Irish cuisines. I can't imagine what they'll be serving, no doubt some kind of braised yak with boiled cabbage gotten up to look like something fancy.