Chapter 5: Tuesday, Oct. 10

In which Worried is asked to bury two bodies and the animal-rights contingent gets riled up.

Published July 9, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

As has been my custom for decades now, I walked to work through Thornton Arboretum at a pace brisk enough to do my heart and lungs some good. Or so I like to think. It takes nearly half an hour. Descending Bridge Street, I turn left through the Oakdale section, formerly a patchy area of run-down red brick housing that has undergone a dramatic revival. Gentrified, I believe, is the appropriate term of opprobrium for such improvements. Then, after crossing at the lights on Merchants Row, I ascend through an area of large-lawned affluence to the granite gates of the arboretum.

I have never cared much for the gaudy death bloom of our northeast autumns. I prefer the aftermath, the subtleties of yellows, golds, and browns, the baring branches, the crunch underfoot, the rustle of wind, the smell of sweet decay. The world was thus this morning, with the sky a forbidding gray rendering the agitated waters of Kettle Pond a dull pewter.

A like agitation stirred my own heart as I walked along, as though more in haste than with the purposeful stride of the health- conscious. The geese paddled the cold water, the crows flew against the palled sky, and the jays called, sounding like augurs of disaster. The very trees, my old friends, might have been watching me, mute, as though in warning. My pulse quickened as I crossed the Lagoon Bridge and saw the Museum, its five stories of elegant brick with neo-Gothic and neo-Grecian flourishes, rising into view behind the browning sycamores that line Belmont Avenue. Was that beautiful structure, designed by Hannibal Richards, "the Bernini of Seaboard," harboring another clutch of murderers?

Of course, if there is a criminal conspiracy, it's no doubt festering in the Genetics Lab, housed in the bastardized wing added later, which squats to the left.

All of this foreboding, of course, is nothing next and no doubt related to the dread that now shadows my life. I am worried sick about poor Elsbeth. We will have the results of her tests the day after tomorrow, and I fear the worst. She has all but stopped eating. Her face is drawn and pale. Her eyes still shine, but it is only her essential goodness showing through. Today, at the first meeting of the Curatorial Ball planning committee, I had an awful premonition that she would not be with me there. I shook the notion immediately, of course. She may simply have one of those pernicious viruses that abound these days. Dr. Berns will probably give her a shot or a prescription, and I will have my Elsbeth back in glowing health again.

I have, for all my presentiments, little to report on the Ossmann-Woodley case. I forwarded the two e-mails I have gotten from Worried to Lieutenant Tracy. He dropped by this morning, and we went over the contents of the Worried missives and what they could import. He agreed with me that it might be very useful to learn the identities of the three individuals who were involved in what he termed "the threesome." But more than that, he said he would really like to talk to the person who had asked Worried to bury those rabbits.

I said I had already asked Worried to help us on both of those accounts. I also related to him the essence of my interview with Dr. Penrood, but kept to myself the tincture of suspicion that meeting occasioned in me. I did tell him, however, that I thought it entirely possible that something out of the ordinary might be going on in the Genetics Lab.

The lieutenant sympathized when I told him I was to meet with the University's Oversight Committee. In the wake of the Ossmann-Woodley matter, the Committee, has, through the University administration, come under pressure from a local group calling itself "The Coalition Against the Unnatural." He nodded ruefully at the mention of the name. The same group has been lobbying the mayor's office to have the research in the Genetics Lab opened to general public scrutiny. We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse has it.

I reminded him that it's not just the Ossmann-Woodley strangeness that has attracted undue attention to the Lab. Bert, one of our remaining chimps, is back in the news. In a so-called expose in this morning's Bugle, Amanda Feeney-Morin repeated the canard that Bert "was tortured with forced intoxication" during the final stages of animal testing for ReLease, the Ponce's promising new drug. RL, as it's referred to, is a morning-after medication for those who have imbibed too much. It combines, among other things, a drug that affects the elasticity of the cardiovascular system, a high dose of Vitamin B, and a powerful analgesic. Its commercial potential is said to be enormous.

Ms. Feeney-Morin claims in her article that Bert is now the pongid equivalent of a recovering alcoholic. She claims, erroneously, that Bert has been sent to a program that deals in post-traumatic shock syndrome among animals subjected to "inhuman" (sic) experimentation.

I have been over to the Pavilion myself to check on Bert. To be honest, he does appear depressed; he has, tinged with self-disgust, that hankering, haunted look in his eyes that many of us can identify with. It reminded me of a remark once made by Father O'Gould in another context: There are times when low self-esteem may be a sign of intelligence.

Be that as it may, with this morsel of misinformation, Ms. Feeney-Morin has given herself the pretext to rehash yet again the whole so-called controversy revolving around the development of RL. For instance, about six paragraphs into her skein of fabrications, she trots out the "ethical issues" she and others claim attend the development of a "hangover" pill. Given all the other ills of the world, her argument goes, should we really be diverting the time and resources to contrive a medication that encourages people to over-indulge in alcohol by ameliorating its more immediate and tangible consequences?

As my good friend Izzy Landes has pointed out, if lovers can have a morning-after pill, why not boozers? Why not, indeed? Is not the alleviation of suffering, whatever its origins, a noble cause?

In any event Ms. Feeney-Morin has succeeded once again in riling up the animal-rights contingent. My phone simply did not stop ringing this morning. One gentleman asked to speak to Dr. Mengele before launching into an abusive tirade. To those making more respectful inquiries, I stated that Bert did in fact undergo a successful detoxification process -- admittedly, more like two steps than twelve -- and has rejoined his fellow chimps as a functioning member of that community. It's more than you can say for a lot of people out there.

This continuing fuss has made it clear to me that we need to proceed as expeditiously as possible to find places for the animals still on the premises. Back a couple of years ago, we had a sizable population of chimpanzees (P. troglodytes, not panicus) that a somewhat demented keeper, one Daemon Drex, tried to induce to wax literary. (Mr. Drex, I hear, was recently released from an asylum and has gone to work for a zoo.)

When I became Director, I decided to close down the Primate Pavilion on the grounds that chimpanzees, whatever their DNA reads out to be, are not human, and have no real place in the Museum of Man. I objected, diplomatically, of course, to the neat paradigm proposed by one or two of the older board members that the pavilion represented man's distant past, the Museum proper his recent past and present, and the Genetics Lab his future.

The Primate Pavilion is now simply known as the Pavilion, although it still contains primates, mostly human, who occupy the same offices built for Damon Drex's typing chimps. We have leased much of the space to Wainscott at a very good rate, thanks to arrangements worked out and insisted on by our young new counsel. Indeed, the premises don't look all that different than they did before, what with people in their cubicles bent over computer screens. One big difference, of course, is that there are no droppings on the floor.

But there are still some rhesus cages upstairs, and the old, unconverted part of the ground floor, with its doleful cages and rather pathetic inmates, still exists. Under strict supervision, these animals are licensed to the Genetics Lab for experimental uses. Under strict supervision from the appropriate state and federal agencies, I might add. Plus ga change, plus c'est la mjme chose!

In other words, we still have in residence a number of troglodytes. To oversee them we appointed Dr. Angela Simone as the Rudy and Phyllis Stein Keeper of Great Apes, the endowed position Mr. Drex occupied. A well-respected primatologist, an attractive young woman with a sympathetic manner, Dr. Simone is devoted to her charges and punctilious when it comes to treating them humanely. She realizes that her duties are to be phased out gradually. (What we will do with the position, I'm not sure. Perhaps we could put the occupant in charge of the personnel department I plan to establish for the Museum.)

On the other hand, Dr. Simone may be with us some time. We have not found it easy to "place" the animals. Some of them have been sold or donated to other institutions. You can't give the creatures away to private citizens because, frankly, they don't make good pets. You don't see sensitive-looking people leading them around the streets the way they do with slow greyhounds.

Some of the animals have been habituated back into the wild on an island off the coast of Africa. As an aside, there are times when I think it would be handy if certain people could be habituated back into some wilderness more suitable to their feral natures. I am thinking about people like Malachy Morin, who might benefit from living in a real state of nature. Though, to give credit where credit is due, he has settled down somewhat since his marriage to Amanda Feeney, the Bugle reporter.

The fact remains Mr. Morin should be in jail for his part in the unseemly death of that young woman Elsa Pringle. The man simply does not know how to do anything except hang out with the boys and bluster and bully people around. Or try to. As it stands he has been able, through his cronies, to get himself made a University Vice President with responsibility for museums and other affiliated institutions. He remains my superior on some organizational charts, which are utter fabrications. In reality he is little more than a large nuisance.

The real mystery is why do they keep him around? I've heard unsavory rumors that he has something on someone high up in the Wainscott hierarchy, perhaps on President Twill himself. The man is as thick as thieves with Maria Cowe of the Human Resources office, another person of manifest incompetence.

The fact is, I want to more than hold the line against any University encroachment. For instance, once the chimpanzees are out of the Pavilion, I intend to remove the rest of the primates as well, the people that is. Well, not entirely. What I want to do is to convert the space in the Pavilion into curatorial areas open to the public. Here, at designated times, people would be allowed to watch as the curators tease from the matrix of time and rock and neglect some priceless ancient object, reclaiming beauty and restoring to wholeness at least some fragment of our shattered past.

None of this vision would come to pass, I know, if the University were to succeed in getting its bottom-line, budget-obsessed little bureaucrats in charge here. That's what I am struggling against. That's why these sudden dark happenings are a threat not just to our institutional survival, but to the fulfillment of a necessary dream.

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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