Chapter 10: Monday, Oct. 23

In which Worried identifies the blond in the video, and Norman becomes both shocked and aroused during dinner.

Published July 20, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I arrived at work this morning to find another e-mail from Worried. Again, I will reproduce it in its entirety. I have also redirected it over a secure line to Lieutenant Tracy.

Dear Mr. Ratour:

I think maybe you're right. I think there is something very, very fishy going on over here again. Don't ask me what it is, but I get a feeling someone's discovered something and doesn't want anyone to know about it. I don't think it's anything like trying to come up with a new human model like the last time, but something sure is happening. Also, I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but there's a lab assistant here named Celeste. I think she's the babe doing the two guys. She's got all the straight guys drooling. I mean, you know, long blond hair and hooters big time. It may be she and Dr. Penrood are an item. One of the security guys who works on electronic surveillance showed me this tape of Penrood and Celeste hanging around in one of the offices after hours. Not much happens, but it's pretty clear she's coming on to him and then the body language. Anyway, after a while they get up and leave together. But get this. The security guy tells me it isn't one of the cams they've got hooked into the monitors. So he's put a cam on the cam, trying to figure out who put it there. The whole thing sounds like a set-up to me, but I ain't an expert. I'll let you know if anything turns up. Also, the guy that's working on the threeway tape says it's going to take a while because the guy who lets him use the equipment he needs is out of town.

-- Worried

Worried's little missive has stirred in me that inexplicable sleuthing instinct, that not altogether admirable indulgence in the blood sport of human hunting, even if the prey is a murderer. What, I wondered, is a gorgeous woman doing as a lab assistant? Not that lab assistants are not worthy in their own right. It's simply not an occupation that attracts glamour.

Perhaps I ought to have the security personnel in the Lab discreetly interrogated by Lieutenant Tracy. It might also be useful to have Human Resources send me the resume of this Celeste creature. Of course, it's not that straightforward. Nothing ever is. As an employee of the Ponce, she's not really in our files, though there is an agreement that we can review their personnel files when we want to. But I have to go through channels.

To keep things rolling I made a copy of Dr. Cutler's latest results on the autopsies and gave it, in strictest confidence, of course, to Nicole Stone-Lee. She is the young graduate student I hired to review the research files of both Professor Ossmann and Dr. Woodley. We met in Ossmann's office and briefly discussed its import. I found talking about erections to a very appealing young lady somewhat disconcerting. It didn't make it easier that she's the kind of young woman to make an older man wish he had it to do all over again. In my case that would mean loving her and losing her. In any event, she took it all with an admirable sangfroid and pointed out that, given the nature of Professor Ossmann's specialty, almost any of it could apply to research on what she termed "erectile enhancement." She did ask to hire a specialist in retrieving deleted hard-drive files, and I told her to go ahead and have the bills forwarded to my office.

The fact is I'm starting to feel some pressure quite apart from anything generated by our immediate circumstances. As I foresaw, the announcement by the Seaboard Police Department that it is treating the Ossmann-Woodley case as a murder has stirred things up again. Robert Remick called this morning. He was, as usual, the impeccable gentleman. But he did say that several Board members had voiced to him concerns about "the adverse publicity" that events at the Museum have generated of late. With time one gets adept at listening between the lines, so to speak. Bob's call, for all the sincere reassurances that the Board has full confidence in my management, left me far more concerned than all the various ploys the Wainscott satraps have concocted against the Museum.

And while I have a normal enough ego when it comes to what might be called my own institutional longevity, I truly believe the MOM's survival as a dynamic, independent museum depends on my continuing as director. The wrong successor, a few pivotal changes in the makeup of the Board, and we would become a creature of the University. We would cease to be a place where ordinary people can view firsthand the beauty of the ages. We would cease to be what someone has called "the ultimate interpretive center of the human condition."

Speaking of which, we had something of a cursory visit by young Winslow Lowe. He came in on Saturday and left on Sunday. He's remarkably like his late father, as Diantha is like her mother. Strange, the way genes for looks and character get handed around in a family. But then, his attendance, however brief, did cheer up Elsbeth.

On a lighter note, Korky Kummerbund came over yesterday, and I must say we had what very nearly amounted to a celebration. But a celebration of what, I keep wondering. But not to cavil. Elsbeth was up and around and, at times, positively jolly as Korky described "a divine new little bistro on Upper Market Street called the Airliner Galley." Korky went on about how the owner, his friend Jeremy, had taken the bottom floor of the old Tweed Building, a narrow leftover at the corner of Morton, and redesigned it in the shape of a passenger jet interior. "But all first class."

"I want to go," Elsbeth exclaimed. When I began to frown at the idea, "Oh, God, Norman, I just want to take a break from dying!" She took some of the miracle medicine Dr. Berns had prescribed and a handful of vitamins. Korky called ahead, and we set off, Diantha as well.

We were not disappointed. The seats, apparently from a real airliner, were arranged into two rows of snug booths. Each has a porthole through which you look down at a continuous video of landscapes or clouds that you select on a console just beneath the window. Elsbeth pushed the button for clouds. There was a film playing on an overhead screen that you can listen to with earplugs.

A waiter with a drinks trolley took our order. Jeremy came on over the loudspeaker, welcoming us aboard as special guests. He said the seat-belt sign would remain off for the rest of the flight, weather was clear and calm at our destination, and we were lost, but it didn't make any difference. He then asked one of the cabin staff to please bring him a dry martini, up with a twist.

The food, a parody of airline fare only as far as the plastic accouterments, proved delicious in an old-fashioned kind of way.

At one point I escorted Elsbeth up to the ladies room in the back. It had one of those push folding doors, which opened into a roomy vestibule, and another door leading to the ladies room directly. She had to control the laughter of her delight, as it weakens her.

There was one note of ... well, not exactly discord, but of surprise, at least for me. Diantha, sitting next to me in one of the four-seater booths, in the course of the meal, entwined the calf of her leg under and around mine. I would be less than honest if I did not admit to being shocked and aroused. Not to pull away, I knew, was to make myself complicit in the gesture, and yet to draw back struck me as a kind of ungallant rudeness. For once, though, I did something quite natural: I leaned towards her, put my arm around her shoulder, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Until that moment, Diantha, who had been subdued through the whole course of the meal, broke down and started to cry. Her mother reached over and took her hand, as did Korky. Diantha dried her tears, smiled, and kissed me back on the cheek.

Indeed, with Diantha now living with us, it is as though, through some strange alchemy of being and becoming, she and Elsbeth are merging into one. There are times when, in my heart, I cannot separate them.

Perhaps Diantha is sad not only because of her mother's decline, but because Sixy left a message, which I could barely decipher, dude this and cool that, telling her he would be a few days late. In solving her problem, I'm hoping it will solve mine, which persists like some alluring danger to us all.

Well, I must get back to work on the uncorrected proofs of my magnum opus. Why does it all seem so much in vain? Another dusty book to sit on a remote shelf, mute to all save the occasional scholar looking for stones to add to his own little monument of words. But I can't just put it aside. Ms. Myrtlebaum wants it back next week.

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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