Chapter 2: Friday, Sept. 29

In which Worried is contacted and our victims are imagined as cartoonishly Larsonesque sexual monsters.


Alfred Alcorn
June 27, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

It is a beautiful day, despite the wind and the rain, which has been blustering about most of the afternoon and rattling the windows here on the fifth floor of the Museum. Though now Director, I have kept my old corner office, with its view of the Hayes Mountains to the west and that stern and rockbound coast to the north of Shag Harbor. Ah, yes, the beauty of the world even in, especially in, an autumn rain.

I am surrounded by beauty within as well. Which is to say I have redecorated my office, jettisoning the mournful array of plaques and citations I accumulated over more than three decades as Recording Secretary, a position, I'm afraid, I have allowed to lapse somewhat. To replace them, I have truffled through the storage bins and closets deep within the bowels of this magnificent old pile and have come up with some rare treasures.

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Just over the door, I suppose to remind myself of my executive responsibilities, I have mounted an elegantly shaped nineteenth-century executioner's sword from the Ngala in the Congo. It has a wide short blade, crooked in the middle into a sickle shape just wide enough for a human neck. In a case behind glass I have a marvelous China robe of silk satin embroidered with a swirl of peacocks, butterflies, and flowers, all in brilliant hues. And on the mantle over the fireplace (which I have kept in working order), there's a coroplast of Eros with a dog, a piece that by rights should be on display in the permanent exhibits.

In my more Machiavellian moments, I have considered resurrecting a pair of shrunken heads, a missionary and his wife, if I'm not mistaken, that I came across in the Papuan storage area. I have thought of putting them in a glass-fronted case near my desk with a curtain I could draw aside when meeting with people I want to disconcert. But for the nonce I have made do with a montage of fantastic masks from Melanesia.

Speaking of which, I have just gone through several contact sheets of head and shoulder shots of yours truly. From them I must pick what image of myself to bequeath to posterity on the flyleaf of my upcoming book on the history of the MOM. It's a procedure for me that involves a rare and uncomfortable self-consciousness. I mean, how to look authorial but not pretentious, thoughtful but not gloomy, open but not callow; how to evince, in short, the expression of one who leads the examined life but not the overly examined life.

It's an odd sensation, really, gazing at several dozen pictures of yourself, nearly disorienting, as though there were all of these versions to choose from. The full frontal, I decided, wouldn't do, not with my ears. I have, at Elsbeth's behest, cultivated a rather dignifying, very thin mustache on the lower portion of my somewhat long upper lip. The dear woman says it makes me look as worldly and distinguished as I am in fact. She may be right. More than anything, its relative darkness offsets the paleness of my eyes and the prominence of my nose while providing some equipoise for the thinning and slowly fading blondness on top.

There is a good three-quarter view in which I am resting my chin on my fisted hand. I like the expression very much; it shows me as open yet reserved, dispassionate but not implacably so. The only problem is that the fist under the chin looks posed, which of course it is, deliberately evading the problem of what might be called the posed unposed look. I took the trouble to white-out my hand. The results were encouraging. Thus altered it makes me appear as though I have my nose in the air, but in some ways that does capture the essence.

It certainly goes with the book, "The Past Redeemed: The History of the Museum of Man." I had wanted to title it "The Solace of Beauty," but Myra Myrtlebaum, my editor at Wainscott Press, talked me out of it. No matter, you shouldn't judge a book by its title or by the face of the author, for that matter. To tell you the truth, I am both pleased and not a little doubtful about my first real book. I found it easy enough to encapsulate the Museum's remarkable history, its founding by the intrepid Remicks of Remsdale. I devoted a whole chapter to the Skull, and the role it played in the founding of the Museum. I reveled in telling how those canny Yankee captains scoured the world to collect, no doubt at bargain prices, priceless objects from every known culture. I chronicled the way the Museum has grown, persevered, and kept its independence.

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Where I may have failed, I'm afraid, is in my attempts to render for the reader the subtle glory of the treasures we have so carefully collected, curated, and put on display. As of old, when I leave in the evenings, I descend through the galleries that encircle and open onto the atrium, which is lit from above during the day by a domed skylight, a web of wrought-iron tracery worthy of Kew. From the delicate potteries, jade work, and silks of the Far East, to the masks and figurines in our Africa display, from the glories of our Oceania collection to the case after fabulous case of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, I find affirmation that, in our instinct for the beautiful, in our very need for beauty, we partake of the Godhead, that we are not merely creatures, but creators.

And more than beauty. There's a new addition to our small Greco-Roman collection. It's a funerary stele from the Classical period showing a woman in life taking leave of her husband and children. She is shaking his hand. The children are weeping. It moves me nearly to tears every time I pause before it.

Of course it was these kinds of effusions that Ms. Myrtlebaum at the Press kept putting her pencil through. Politely, of course, and with what sounded like good reason. But I do wish I had insisted on one unfettered declaration from the heart, whatever the risk of mawkishness, if only to lighten the darkness that pervades so much of life.

Speaking of which, I cannot, in the wake of Lieutenant Tracy's visit, get out of my mind the unseemly deaths of Humberto Ossmann and Clematis Woodley. I have the feeling that my good friend Lieutenant Tracy knows something about that bizarre tragedy that he's not telling me. Elsbeth and I were away at the time of the deaths, staying with an old friend of hers in Boston and visiting museums. As a result, I didn't get back until well after the crime scene, if that's what it was, had been restored to some semblance of normality. Strange how suspicion begets suspicion.

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I also missed, according to Darlene, a veritable plague of grief counselors who descended on the Museum telling people not to hold back their feelings. Darlene, who has the sturdy good looks of a back country girl, said one of the group, Roderick, a student from the Divinity School, came by several times and left his card. When she finally told the young man that she had never met either of the victims and hadn't really given them much thought, his disappointment was such she had to spend time consoling him. Indeed, Darlene and Roderick have become, as they say, an item.

The good Lieutenant called this morning and wondered aloud if it would not be a good idea for me to try to contact Worried. He -- I'm quite sure it's a male -- is the anonymous tipster who works in the Genetics Lab and proved instrumental in solving the Cannibal Murders. I told the Lieutenant I would put out an e-mail to all in-house addresses, which I have done, saying, "Worried, please contact me when you get a chance. Norman de Ratour." Worried may be able to tell me more than any number of meetings about what that wily collection of eggheads are concocting over there in the lab.

But Woodley and Ossmann. I am perfectly willing to consider the possibility that they were murdered or, in one way or another, murdered each other. But how? Murder requires an instrument. But what? Some elisir d'amore? (Incidentally, the Seaboard Light Opera Company, to which Elsbeth devotes considerable time, did a credible job with Donizetti's folie d'amour, though its artistry was lost on me.) Are they brewing up some magic love potion over there in the Lab? It seems too cartoonishly Larsonesque to imagine them sipping some philter from a retort and then transmogrifying into sexual monsters. But stranger things have happened.

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As Director of the Museum, of which the Genetics Lab remains an integral part, it might be supposed I could simply walk in there and demand to know what's going on. Ah, the illusion of power. People tell you either what they want you to know or what they think you want to hear. The truth? Another of those illusions by which we live? I don't know. But if murder has been done, the truth must out if justice is to prevail.

Speaking of justice, or, rather, injustice, I received a call today from Malachy "Stormin'" Morin, "the leading blocker of the Consolidation team," as he calls himself. He asked to schedule a meeting between me and "the big money guys" in Wainscott's development office. Mr. Morin and other worthies in the Wainscott bureaucracy persist in the fiction that "the consolidation process" is actually happening.

Mr. Morin, who ought to be languishing in jail for the grotesque manner he caused the death of young Elsa Pringle, fancies himself my boss. He has somehow managed to insinuate his blustering persona and considerable bulk -- he's six feet eight inches and some four hundred odd pounds -- into the Wainscott hierarchy as Vice President for Affiliated Institutions. I have to keep reminding him that the MOM is affiliated with the University strictly on its own terms and that he has absolutely no authority concerning our affairs. But, for the sake of good relations, I did agree in principle to meet with "the big money guys," telling him I would get back to him.

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On a more positive note, I received word today from Corny Chard. It came by way of a telegram, the diction of which made me think of the old days. (You might call it telegramese, a dying literary convention.)

NORMAN

HAVE REACHED MOUTH OF FASIDERI FAR UP ORINOCO STOP LOGGING AND UNREST EVIDENT STOP HAVE SET UP BASE CAMP STOP WILL PROCEED WITH MINIMAL CREW TO YOMAMAS AREA STOP BEST TO EVERYONE STOP CORNY

On an even brighter note, I have been invited to attend the inaugural Cranston Fessing Memorial Lecture that my good friend Father S.J. O'Gould, S.J. is to give in November. It has a curious title: "Why There Is No Tuna-Safe Dolphin." There's to be a dinner afterwards, a black-tie affair, to which Elsbeth and I have been invited.

Speaking of dinner, our evening at the Green Sherpa was not a success. The proprietor, a strange fellow named Bain, fawned all over us, especially when he noticed Korky Kummerbund tucking in his napkin. Korky took it all in good grace, politely refusing to let Mr. Bain, who managed to appear both obsequious and threatening at the same time, to pick up the tab. Korky did allow only one special dish "on the house" to be sent over. Still, it was disconcerting to have the proprietor, a big blond fellow in a tunic-like outfit who spoke British English with a foreign accent, hovering over us through half the meal.

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I had some sort of pummeled goat while Elsbeth, always game, had what looked like the remains of a rodent. She hasn't felt well ever since. Indeed, I'm beginning to worry about her.

So it was with some relish that I read Korky's review of the place in today's Bugle. He concluded a quite thorough savaging of the food with, and I quote: "Despite its elevated ambitions, the Green Sherpa serves up little more than a pastiche of yak-whey chic and tortured potatoes in a mushy chinoiserie cuisine that induces the gastric equivalent of altitude sickness."

As for British accents, I have been asked several times if I am of that nation. I am not, of course, but I did spend an impressionable year at Jesus College, Oxford. As a result I remain staunchly Anglophilic, and I've been told it shows in my speech, my writing, and my manners, all of which I take to be a compliment.

But Elsbeth. I'm afraid my love is starting to show her age just a little. Although still full-bodied with abundant dark hair (thanks to chemicals, of course), fresh coloring and brilliant agate eyes, the ravages of time have not left her untouched. There's a stoop to her now, a fine wrinkling about the eyes, the slightest tremor in her hands. I should talk. I'm getting a bit long in the tooth myself and a bit stringy, as tall ones are wont to do. But I've kept a good deal of my perpetually thinning hair and am at least not a candidate for a shaved head. So many men look like convicts these days. And I will not go into the unspeakable puncturing young people do to their various bodily parts.

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Oh well, just like the old days, I'm off on my own to the Club tonight. Elsbeth assures me that, though not up to going out, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Still, I do worry about the dear girl.


Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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