Chapter 4: Oct. 5

In which Worried sends another message and, by the way, mentions a couple of bodies in a bag.

Published July 2, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

I met this morning with Rupert Penrood, the Director of the Ponce Research Institute. He's British, with the long face of a royal, and appears just a bit too well-dressed for a research scientist. I mean in his attention to detail -- the silk-patterned tie matching the perfectly folded pocket square in his navy blazer. But then a lot of scientists are businessmen these days.

Dr. Penrood had, previous to the meeting, sent me a folder describing all of the research projects underway in the Lab. It's quite extraordinary what they get up to over there. Dr. Penrood assured me that the time wasn't long off when they would be able to take a cell from your body and alter a few genes to make you smarter or taller or sexier. You then pop the nucleus of that altered cell into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed and voila, you have an embryo that is a new and improved you. I told him I wasn't sure I liked the idea, whatever the improvements, though God knows, we could all use some.

I am able to recount in these pages our conversation because I have near perfect recall, at least in the short term. It's a knack I found useful during more than thirty years as Recording Secretary. Indeed, my memory is very nearly auditory, allowing me to rehear entire conversations in my mind, which is not always a pleasure.

Dr. Penrood spoke in the ripe, plumy intonations of a British aristocrat, saying, "You understand, Norman, we may be the last generation to die."

"Then we may be luckier than we think," I replied, not entirely as a witticism. But I didn't smile long. I looked up and said directly, "Dr. Penrood, I have it on good authority that you were present at a somewhat heated argument between Professor Ossmann and another party with what was described as a Minnesota accent not long before Professors Ossmann and Woodley were found dead in those strange circumstances."

He showed, perhaps feigned, puzzlement and then thoughtfulness. "Yes, I do recall it, now that you mention it. Yes, Ossmann and Tromstromer, Olof Tromstromer, he's Swedish. They have been working on the final stages of RL ... ReLease."

"The morning-after pill for tipplers," I said, dissembling that elusive sensation, spinal in its origin, that comes over me when I get a whiff of something amiss. What was Dr. Penrood hiding? I asked, "What was the bone of contention?"

"Well, you know, RL has advanced to human trials. It should prove quite lucrative. Pyramed, the pharmaceutical concern, has already started working on the ad campaign. As for Ossmann and Tromstromer, they had achieved a breakthrough in its development and there was the usual jostling for credit."

I nodded as though satisfied. For all his old-school self-possession -- Cambridge, I believe -- Dr. Penrood evinced an undeniable edge of arrihri pensee in his hesitations. But what, if anything, could he be hiding?

We reviewed the principal projects underway at the Institute. Dr. Penrood explained how a new version of NuSkalp, the biosynthetic scalp transplant, could be used to replace hair on other parts of the body. "It has enormous potential. There's sure to be a lot more real blonds around." He gave a curious little laugh, and again the double take.

He went on. Chicken without feet, MelSus, the clean transgenic swine; possible therapies for inherited disorders; and deciduous beef.

I raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, yes, very interesting. We're trying to get an Angus to grow an extra set of ribs, one that could be cleaved off with a minimum of blood and trauma, leaving the animal alive to grow another."

"And Mel ..."

"MelSus. It's a pig that produces virtually no dung. The feed-to-meat ratio approaches one. They produce lots of gas, but that gets harvested and used to heat their pens."

"And these pharmaceuticals?"

"Yes. As you can see, a lot of antibiotics. We're going sub-molecular. It's a war out there. I'm not sure we're going to win it."

"Then perhaps we won't be the last generation to die."

"Perhaps not."

Dr. Penrood qualified an attitude of impeccable deference with the remark that, of course, he had gone over all of this with officers from the Seaboard Police Department.

I admit to being a bit disingenuous in invoking at that point an upcoming meeting with the Oversight Committee, implying that I had to report to a higher authority than even the law.

Penrood appeared to relax at that point, as though academic politics explained everything. He even allowed that, given the range, complexity, and duplication of research conducted in the Lab, there could be room for "free-lance activity."

I asked if there might be some unobtrusive way to monitor such activity.

"Well, it's all rather difficult, you understand, but we have stepped up our in-house monitoring. I wouldn't exactly call it security, because that is not really the issue, if indeed there is such an issue here."

I nodded vaguely, thinking to myself that the "monitoring" could work both ways were something untoward transpiring in the labs.

"Speaking of which," he continued in a tone smacking of the stiff upper lip, "I must protest the changing of the locks in the offices of Professor Ossmann and Dr. Woodley."

"That," I replied, "is official police business. Or, if not quite official, something that can be made so with a phone call. At this point Ms. Stone-Lee is merely making an inventory. Best, right now, to handle it quietly and unofficially."

He agreed, reluctantly. Then, as though taking me into his confidence, he said, "You understand, of course, that Pip ... Professor Ossmann was not very popular among his colleagues. He liked to poke his nose into things. I'm not saying this had anything to do with his demise, but it's something you should be aware of."

I drew him out about Ossmann's relations with others in the Lab. I jotted down some notes. At the end of our interview I told Dr. Penrood to stay in close touch. I said I was counting on him to help us in our investigation.

After he left, I spent several moments pondering the man. I could not shake the impression that he had not been candid with me. There is a fine line between professional discretion -- the reticence of those in positions where confidentiality is a necessity -- and the kind of dissembling that attends efforts to cover up some malfeasance. Perhaps my antennae are too finely tuned, but I concluded that something, somehow, was going on in the Genetics Lab, and I am determined to find out exactly what.

In this regard I received an e-mail shortly after noon today from Worried. (Incidentally, I do little editing of the spelling and punctuation in these missives to avoid peppering it with sic, and, frankly, appearing captious.)

Dear Mr. Ratour,

I thought you'd be interested in that video of the babe doing the two profs. The guy who has it says he doesn't want to get involved in any police stuff. He says he doesn't want to get stung for invasion of privates and that sort of thing. He also says it takes a lot of time and he's gotta rent some real hi-tech stuff to do it. Anyway, he says he could probably get you a pretty good copy for about three and half Cs. Let me know and I'll tell him to get started. By the way, there was something that happened a couple of months back that you might find interesting. There was a guy in custodial, he's no longer here, and he asks me if I wanted to make an extra hundred bucks. Sure, why not? Here, he says, and gave me a grocery bag. Take this home and bury it in your back yard and don't say anything about it and don't ask any questions. Look, I says, I got kids, and I ain't burying nothing in my backyard until I know what it is. Okay, he says, it's a couple of dead rabbits. Okay, I says, but I want to make sure they don't have dangerous chemicals or radiation in them. No he says, they're clean, you could stew them and eat them if you wanted to, we're just trying to avoid a lot of paperwork. So, I took the dead rabbits home and threw them in the dumpster where they're taking the asbestos out of the old firehouse. I could probably dig out the guy's name if you wanted to talk to him.


Three and a half Cs. Strange how Roman numerals have persisted in slang.

It's clumsy and perhaps transparent, but I have sent out another e-mail to the entire list addressed to Worried, saying yes and yes.

On a much brighter note, I received today the uncorrected proofs of my history of the MOM. How real the typescript makes it all seem, how like something permanent, elevated, enduring. Electronic publishing will never, I believe, replace the heft and dignity of a book. Of course, I will now have to read every last word and tittle of what I have wrought, but that is a labor of love to which I look forward with keen anticipation.

By 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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