Chapter 11: Wednesday, Oct. 25

In which it's claimed that Pip was a sexual gourmet who had "curious notions as to where the sun shines."


Alfred Alcorn
July 23, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

It's been one of those days -- a lot of motion and no movement. Or that's the way it feels.

In following up on Lieutenant Tracy's suggestion, I called Professor Tromstromer. He readily, perhaps too readily, agreed to meet with me and tell me what he knew regarding Professor Ossmann and the unfortunate way he died.

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Professor Olof Tromstromer, a well-known pteridologist who came to molecular biology through his research into the medicinal properties of ferns, initially dispelled any notion that he might be mixed up in foul play. One of those hearty Swedes, well-fleshed if not plump, with bright blue eyes, ruddy complexion, and shaggy blond hair, he welcomed me with a laugh into his office, a virtual greenhouse in the Tetley Herbarium, and asked if I would join him in a glass of herbal tea.

I said yes, and he began answering my questions before I asked them as he fussed with a contraption that hissed and steamed and released a stream of colored liquid. "Well, of course, I had my disagreements with Pip. Everyone did. He was a very poor astronomer."

"What do you mean?"

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"He had curious notions as to where the sun shines." He laughed, his face reddening. "Sugar?"

"A little. Thank you. What did you disagree about?"

"Everything. Pip would dispute the time of day if you gave him a chance."

"Do you know if he was working on any kind of substance that could be considered an aphrodisiac?"

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The professor made an extravagant gesture meant to be a shrug. He appeared almost troll-like, a garden ornament amidst the collection of potted ferns, some of them huge, others extravagantly feathered, that surrounded his desk. "It wouldn't surprise me. Pip liked to imagine himself a ladies' man, how would you say it ... a kind of sexual gourmet. He saw himself as a great scientist. He wanted to be rich and famous. Last October I put on a real Swedish accent, ya, and called him at a meeting where they had a speaker phone. I told him I was calling on behalf of the Swedish Academy and that he had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. I mentioned some piffling little thing he did years ago. He fell for it hook and line, and ..."

"Sinker."

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"Ya, sinker." Professor Tromstromer laughed, obviously blessed with the gift of self-amusement. "He never forgave me for that."

"Do you know anyone who might have wanted to murder him?"

The big shrug again. "Ya, anyone who worked with him. He disputed everything. He sat on all the important committees and used his position in the Administration to bully his colleagues. He stole ideas. We all started telling him things. We set little traps. We sent him chasing wild swans."

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"Could the research you and Professor Ossmann were doing for ReLease be used on a Viagra-like compound?"

"Sure."

"Can you elaborate?"

He gave a half smile. "That's what you came here to really ask me, ya?"

"Ya."

His smile vanished. "Do you want to know if I helped concoct the sex potion that killed Ossmann and Clem?"

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"Did you?"

Though only a fraction of a second long, his double take made me think that might have been the case. Or that he knew something he didn't want me to know. I listened then, trying to decode the cipher of any evasions and half-truths he might resort to.

"Mr. ..."

"De Ratour."

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"Mr. de Ratour, things happen in every research laboratory that might be considered ... anomalous. People have pet projects they work on after hours. People spy on what other people are doing. People discover things and keep them to themselves. People use themselves as guinea pigs. People are people. Ya, ya, sure. RL is a vasodilator and Viagra prolongs vasodilatation. But they are very different. You'll be able to get RL off the shelf because its side effects are minimal. Believe me, it relies very much on the placebo effect. Did Pip concoct a love potion and try it out on Clem, who wouldn't sleep with him? Sure. Why not? Life is short."

"Do you know anything for sure?"

"No, but there were rumors."

"Rumors?"

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"Ya, ya. Rumors that Pip had found something that made rabbits and mice screw themselves crazy. For a while there were a lot of missing animals that got blamed on the cleaning ladies, but I never believed it."

"Do you have any idea what Professor Ossmann's substance might be?"

"I don't know for sure he had a substance."

I didn't believe him. But I had neither the interrogation skills nor enough technical background to question him further to any effect. I thanked him for the time and the tea and took my leave. In walking to my office through the leaf fall and brilliant light, it struck me that Professor Tromstromer, behind his evident bonhomie, was not the jolly fellow he pretended to be. Not that any of us are. I did not list him as a suspect, but I felt sure he was hiding something.

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On the other hand, I may only be projecting my own melancholy, which burns the deeper with the beauty of the day. I will be losing Elsbeth, it's true, however much I hope against hope. But she will be losing all this, the air, the light, the sounds, the beauty. I think it was the Russian writer Vasily Grossman who pointed out that each death is the death of a universe.


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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