Chapter 9: Wednesday, Oct. 18

In which we hear about Viagra, Turnera aphrodisiaca and the natural and the good not always being the same thing.


Alfred Alcorn
July 18, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

Although it is still early in the afternoon, I have closed the door and asked Darlene to hold all my calls while I peck at these keys and at a crab meat salad sandwich we had sent in. I usually don't interrupt my workday to make entries into this subfile, but Lieutenant Tracy came in around 11 accompanied by Dr. P.M. Cutler, the Medical Examiner, and I want to record our conversation while it is still fresh in mind.

Dr. Cutler, as those who read the account of the Cannibal Murders may recall, specializes in analyzing the stomach contents of individuals who have met a suspicious end. A professional gentleman of the old school, Dr. Cutler parts his abundant white hair in the middle, perches his half-moon spectacles on his nose, and wears bowties bordering on the flamboyant. He gave us each a copy of his report, and, speaking in one of those Brahmin drawls that go with old silver, he took us through some of the more arcane findings.

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"As I reported earlier, the victims, and I think we can safely assume they were victims, more than likely ingested the poison, or the substance which acted as a poison, with what might be called 'snack' amounts of recognizably ethnic Chinese food. These included dim sum, vegetarian spring rolls,and pork strips.

"Further analysis reveals the presence of a potent cocktail of both neurophysiological and biomechanical agents. That is, substances that work on both the brain and the sex organs."

"Unlike Viagra," Lieutenant Tracy put in.

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"Indeed," the Medical Examiner continued, raising his calm gray eyes to both of us. "Sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra, acts, in prescribed amounts, as a vasodilator in the penis. More specifically, it prevents the breakdown of a compound, cyclic guanosine monophosphate or, for your notes, Norman, lowercase c and capitals GMP, no spaces, which is what causes the smooth cells of the arteries to relax, increasing the flow of blood."

"It prolongs but doesn't cause an erection?" I asked in the form of a statement.

"Exactly. We found elevated levels of a substance similar to sildenafil citrate, as you can see in paragraph four. But that in itself wouldn't cause anyone to go mad sexually. We also found evidence of yohimbine hydrochloride, a chemical derived from the plant Corynanthe yohimbe. It is both a stimulant and linked to cholinergic activity."

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He paused again. "So far we're only talking about inducing a severe case of priapism in males and the female equivalent in women, if there is such a thing. It's where we get into the psychoactive substances that it gets intriguing. Note paragraph seven. We found considerable plasma concentrations of ring-substituted amphetamines, that is to say MDMA."

"MDMA?" I asked.

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"Methylene-dioxy-methyl-amphetamine." He spelled it for me.

"Ecstasy," the Lieutenant put in. "The drug of choice at raves ..."

"Raves?"

"Club dances."

The Doctor continued in the manner of one accustomed to being patient. "MDMA floods the brain with serotonin. Though not by itself an aphrodisiac, it's thought that it could enhance the impact of other substances. For instance, the lab report indicates the presence of an extract from Turnera aphrodisiaca, a shrub widespread south of the border that is said to possess, as its binomial suggests, aphrodisiac powers. They also found, as you can see, evidence of anastrozole, which inhibits the breakdown of testosterone. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, they assayed higher levels of Super T ..."

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"Super T?"

"Right, in this case a synthetic form of dihydrotestosterone, a powerful form of that natural compound."

I sighed. "It's very possible then that we have a rogue researcher at large in the Lab."

"Or several." Dr. Cutler glanced at his watch. "Assuming the 'cocktail' originated in the Lab. As the report speculates in its conclusion, there may be one or more unidentified substances that catalyze the others or act as a synergizing element, perhaps boosting bioavailability and reducing blood-absorption time. They're going to continue working on it."

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We had a few questions for the Medical Examiner. In the course of these, he noted that Dr. Woodley, who was taking a nitrate-based prescription for hypertension, died from the consequences of a catastrophic drop in blood pressure. Professor Ossmann died of a heart attack apparently because he had a weak heart to begin with. When Dr. Culter left to examine the remains of another unfortunate soul who had suffered a suspicious demise, the Lieutenant and I went over the less arcane facts of the case.

I raised an obvious point. "Wouldn't it be wise to check with all the Chinese restaurants in town to see where they might have gotten the snacks they had that night?"

The Lieutenant's nod was an indulgent one, the kind a professional gives an amateur. "We've already done that."

"And ...?"

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"And. None of the thirteen ethnic Chinese restaurants in Seaboard or the surrounding communities reports sending takeout to the Lab at that time. They keep very good records and they all cooperated to the fullest."

"Was it strictly ethnic Chinese food?" I asked, thinking for some reason of the Green Sherpa.

"It was, but we checked all of the restaurants that have Chinese-like food, you know, the Thai place downtown."

"And the Green Sherpa?"

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The Lieutenant reached into his case and withdrew a sheaf of papers. He ruffled through them. "And the Green Sherpa."

"Perhaps one of them brought the food from home. Leftovers."

"Right. Or the stuff you put in a microwave. No go. Both Mrs. Ossmann, who did not seem particularly bothered by what had happened to her husband, said neither of them knew how to do as much as make boiled rice. And they didn't keep anything like that in the freezer. But, yes, they did occasionally go to Chinese restaurants, usually with friends. Ditto for Ms. Woodley's widower, a Walter Gorman. He was very shook up by the whole thing."

"I don't blame him," I said. "But what about the staff refrigerator? Leftovers get left in them all the time."

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He nodded, took out his notebook. "I talked to a guy named Baxter. He was down on a list for keeping the refrigerator clean. It was his turn that week, and he's positive that there was no fresh or leftover Chinese food in the refrigerator when he left for home that night. He says he left late, about six forty-five. Woodley signed in at seven eighteen and Ossmann at seven thirty two."

"So it would be unlikely but not impossible that someone came in and left the food in the refrigerator during that time."

"Possibly. But there's something else."

I waited.

The Lieutenant shifted in his seat, the gun metal eyes in his ruddy face taking on a sudden sharpness as he leaned forward. "At first it didn't seem significant." He paused. "We found no evidence of food wrappers, cartons, plastic forks, or anything like that at the scene. I went over the inventory list myself. I talked to crime scene people. They're good. They would have listed and bagged anything like that in a case like this."

"Perhaps they ate somewhere else."

"The ME's report estimates they ate the Chinese food no more than fifteen or twenty minutes before they ... did to each other what they did."

"And the sign-in book in the annex shows they were each there less than an hour before they died."

"Right."

The officer rose to go. He put on his trenchcoat and the sharp trilby that makes him look every inch a detective. "We're going to announce it just before the evening news. That will give you a chance to alert people, control the damage."

"Many thanks, Richard," I said. "It isn't just the bad news that bothers people, it's how they hear it. I'll make a few phone calls."

"Keep your ear to the ground, Norman. This is definitely murder."

Murder, I thought afterwards, trying to grasp in my mind what it means to take the life of another. Why was it so prevalent among our species? Murder for hate, for love, for gain, for politics, for its own sake. It brought back last evening when I had what might be called a night out with the boys. Actually, I met Izzy Landes and Father O'Gould for dinner at the Club. We got into our cups -- Izzy came up with a fine Australian Shiraz. We also grew just a bit morbid as the evening wore on. I mentioned Penrood's remark about how we may be the last generation to die. Izzy remarked that perhaps he and S.J. ought to do a book together on the history of death -- before people forgot what it was.

We moved into the comfortable common room and over coffee and a small brandy, the good priest confessed how he privately lamented the memorial being erected on the Seaboard Common by the local Irish community to commemorate the Great Famine. "I fear that the Irish in America suffer from a kind of Holocaust envy," he said in his soft Cork accent. "Sure, will it not only add to the spirit of competitive victimization into which we all seem to have fallen. In the end, is it not a divisive thing? Does it not keep us apart?"

I was a little surprised to hear Izzy say that he differed very much with Father O'Gould. "I would agree," he said, a world-weary look coming into his kind eyes, "that there is altogether too much made of the Holocaust by itself. To dwell so disproportionately on that catastrophe is to imply that the other millions murdered in the twentieth century are less worthy, the very cause of the Holocaust." He paused then in the manner of one expressing something he thought a lot about. "As a tragedy for the Jews nothing and not enough can be said about the Holocaust. As a tragedy for humankind it needs be put into the context of all the other genocides of the twentieth century. Otherwise there is the danger that it will become a geek show, one that pathologizes the history of the Jews."

"I'm not sure I follow you," I said.

Izzy shook his head slowly. "I mean that the deliberate Nazi extermination of Jews, Gypsies, gays and others is the singular, most horrific mass murder of the past hundred years. But it is by no means the only mass extermination or even the largest one. The Communists murdered tens of millions, perhaps a hundred million in all, in Russia, China, and Cambodia. If we are going to erect memorials to victims of twentieth century genocides, we need to include those victims as well."

"But in that case are we not then pathologizing human history itself?" Father O'Gould asked.

"Perhaps. History is the nightmare from which we are all trying to awake, after all, to quote the conscience of your own race, S.J. We need more, not less, memorials to what we have done to each other."

"To remind ourselves," I said.

"Exactly. Because we like to think it was done in the past by people not like us. But that is a mistake. The genocides have continued, haven't they? In Uganda, in Rwanda, in northern Iraq, and in the Balkans. We need to remind ourselves of what humankind is capable of in the name of some ideal. We need to remember that we are all at risk."

"You're not saying, Israel, that we should look upon murder, even mass murder, as a natural phenomenon?" asked Father O'Gould, who was still skeptical.

"I'm afraid so."

"The way cancer is natural," I said without thinking.

"Indeed, Norman, the way cancer is natural." And there was a subtle, acknowledging sympathy in Izzy's voice.

The Jesuit reluctantly nodded his understanding. "I suppose it is another way of looking at it. I mean in the sense we need remind ourselves that the natural and the good are not always the same thing. I must think and pray on it."

I wondered if the good priest were referring to his vows of celibacy, but I said nothing.

I walked home rather than accepting a lift from Izzy or calling a cab. I wanted to think, to sort out in my own life the conflict between what is good and what is natural. For me, at the moment, it is more than an abstract conundrum.

The fact is that I have, despite efforts to the contrary, conceived a most powerful amorous longing for Diantha. I trouble these pages with this revelation because, not given to therapeutics, I need to tell someone, even if only this mute screen. Imagine my torment. Here is Elsbeth, my beloved wife, visibly shrinking to extinction before my eyes, while I stew myself in concupiscent fantasies for her daughter. I dare not put on paper the details of the scenes with Diantha I have concocted in my fervid imagination, especially after I have had one or two stiff ones and my inner inhibitors have toppled like candle pins.

Though not biologically my child, Diantha is surely my child morally. It doesn't help that she is something of a flirt and, having lived for some time in Southern California, is altogether careless about modesty. The night before last, as an example, she took a shower in the main bathroom, and left the door open. I looked right in, right through the transparent shower door, and saw her, a full-bodied naiad oiled with water. And saw myself as well, in the fogged mirror, amid the steam, a peeping old Priapus in a silken gown in the throes of nympholepsy.

There may be relief on the way. Elsbeth tells me that one Sixpak Shakur, Diantha's "on and off" boyfriend, whatever that means, is arriving next week for a short stay. "Sixy," as Diantha calls him, is some sort of pop singer.

When I asked Diantha about him, she said, "He's a rapper, Dad."

"Of presents or knuckles?" I asked, not knowing in the least what she was talking about.

It filled her with amused amazement to learn I didn't know who Sixpak Shakur was, and didn't know or particularly want to know what rap music was. It charmed her when I told her I treasured my ignorance of such things. She gave me a kiss and told me I was like a precious antique.

Still, there are distinct advantages to Diantha's presence. She keeps Elsbeth company during the day. Apparently they watch a lot of soap operas on the television. I don't know what they find in these travesties of normal life, travesties in the sense that they show no moments of repose. Not only does everyone have what look like steroid-induced complexions, but they continually teeter on the verge of some apocalyptic revelation which, when it comes, turns out to be some predictably banal betrayal about love or money.

But they do occupy dear Elsbeth. She says she no longer has the energy to read murder mysteries, most of which, as she blithely admits, are not very plausible, just another form of pulp fiction, fantasies, really, even when the protagonist/detective drags in details of his or her personal life, which invariably happens.

Well, to thank God for small graces, I heard this morning that the meeting of the Subcommittee on Appropriateness has been postponed for another week at least. I'm not sure how useful the Subcommittee is, to be frank. At our last meeting a young woman came in with Maria Cowe of the Human Resources Department with a complaint about sexual harassment on the part of her supervisor.

We gently asked the young employee what her supervisor did to make her feel that he was sexually harassing her. She said it was nothing really specific. Had he said anything suggestive to her? She said she wasn't sure. Anything indirectly? She got somewhat flustered and finally blurted something about Oscar Wilde.

"Oscar Wilde?" I said.

"Yes. The supervisor said Oscar Wilde once said that for honeymooning couples Niagara Falls would be their second biggest disappointment." At which point in the proceedings the poor girl burst out crying.

At the behest of Jocelyn Chard, I have contacted the State Department and requested that they make some inquiries with the local government agencies in the area Corny was last reported seen. We haven't heard from him in some time. I've had calls from the Department Chair, who persists in believing that the Museum funded most of the expedition. He keeps reminding me that Corny is scheduled to teach the second half of the semester in a seminar on the origins of beauty among primitive peoples. I realize Corny's in a place that renders him virtually incommunicado, but surely, with modern communications, such places are becoming exceptional. I do hope the State Department can help us.

And while I remain concerned for Corny's safety, I have a gut feeling that the man would survive almost anything. There's no point in going, after all, unless you can get back to tell the story. I am convinced that the actual doing of something is merely preparation for what is really important in life, which is talking about it afterwards.


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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