Chapter 14: Tuesday, Oct. 31

In which two more bodies are discovered along with an odd video hookup, and a gorilla and a nun approach Norman's house.

Published July 30, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

There has been a shocking development. Bert and Betti, two of our remaining chimpanzees, were found dead in a cage this morning under circumstances remarkably similar to those of the Ossmann-Woodley case, only worse. They were found by Dr. Angela Simone, the very responsible young woman who took over from Damon Drex as the Keeper of Great Apes. The poor woman was in a state of considerable shock when she phoned me at home just after eight this morning to tell me what she had found.

I came over immediately in a cab and secured the area as a crime scene before calling in the Seaboard Police Department.

Dr. Simone took a moment to compose herself. But she is a tough professional, and she soon related to me the simple facts. Upon her arrival she sensed immediately that things were amiss. Lights, normally dimmed, were on full. Doors normally closed were open. The other animals were in a state of considerable agitation. Then she discovered Bert and Betti dead in the cage.

We went into the area, and I can tell you it was not a pretty sight. I forced myself to look at it carefully and take mental notes. Betti lay sprawled in one corner of one of our larger cages, most of her left ear missing, one eye hanging from its socket. From her bloodied mouth protruded what might have been the genitals of Bert, who lay face down in the opposite corner, his hands clutched at his crotch. In their struggle they had wrecked the exercise tree and tipped over the bowl for water. There were blood and feces everywhere.

"What about Mort?" I asked, referring to the security guard who has kept watch over the Pavilion and the Museum proper since before I came on board more than thirty years ago.

"I haven't seen him," she said, alarm making her eyes go large. "I hope he's okay."

We were just about to go down the spiral staircase to the basement where Mort has his office when Lieutenant Tracy arrived with his crime scene crew. We left the crew in charge and clattered down the steps with the Lieutenant to the enclosure equipped with an array of television monitors that Mort watches when he's not out making his rounds.

He was slumped in his chair, his old graying head back, his mouth wide open. I feared the worst. "Mort," I said, shaking his arm. "Mort, wake up." As the Lieutenant and I stood over him, he opened first one and then the other eye. He sat forward, his disorientation obvious as he moaned and put his hands over his eyes.

"We should call an ambulance," Lieutenant Tracy said.

Mort shook his head. "Please. No ambulance. No hospital. No doctors."

Dr. Simone disappeared for a moment and came back with a cup of black coffee. Mort sipped the coffee, rubbed his eyes and the back of his neck, and answered our questions.

We determined that Mort, who came on duty at midnight to work a twelve-hour shift, as is his preference, found everything normal as of 2:30 a.m. when he went to the staff room for the lunch he had brought with him. There, in a refrigerator used by the staff, he had left a sandwich and a large bottle of Coke with his name taped to it. He said he warmed his sandwich, a cheese and tomato, in the microwave, poured himself a paper cup full of Coke, and brought it back down here. He ate the sandwich and drank the Coke and that's the last thing he remembers.

I asked him had he noticed then that the monitor covering the area of the cages had gone blank. He replied that he is certain all of the monitors were in working order when he started his meal.

After directing one of the crime scene officers to secure the Coke bottle in the staff refrigerator, and after seeing that Mort had a ride home, Lieutenant Tracy and I went with Dr. Simone into her office.

Taking notes, the Lieutenant with firm gentleness took Dr. Simone through what she had found upon arriving at work. I must say I admired again the thoroughness of his questioning. However, I was able to make one important contribution. I asked if Bert had been in the larger cage alone when she had left in the evening.

Dr. Simone nodded. "He still gets moody and at night we usually put him into that cage by himself."

"How would someone have enticed Betti to leave her cage and go into Bert's?"

"They may have used M&Ms."

"M&Ms?" the Lieutenant asked.

"M&Ms were used in the writing program that was in place before I came here," Dr. Simone explained. "Betti participated in that program and, like the others, developed a real craving for them. We still use them as little bribes to get the animals to do things."

"Who would have known about that?" I asked.

She made a shrugging gesture with her hands. "Anyone who worked with the chimps. I mean people in the Labs."

"Could you possibly get us a list of names?" the Lieutenant asked.

"I'll try," she said. "It might not be complete."

The Lieutenant thanked her in leaving and paused to commiserate with her, letting her know in a subtle way that he realized her charges were something more to her than mere animals.

We stopped by the crime scene again so that the Lieutenant could tell one of the crew to keep an eye out for M&Ms.

"We've already found some," the officer said, and indicated a clear plastic bag with some of the candies in it along with a distinctive brown smear.

Next we met with Walt, the technician in charge of audio-video security. He indicated the camera, an unobtrusive black device with a short lens, that covered the cage area. He showed us that not only had the cable from the camera to the monitor and the recording tape been cut, but that it had been reconnected to a line that snaked into a phone booth in the cloakroom near the visitors entrance. A sign on the booth said "out of order." The leads were wired into the phone in a way that made Walt, a burly fellow with an engaging face, shake his head. "Whoever did this knew what he was doing."

"What do you mean?" Lieutenant Tracy asked.

"I'd say, when they wanted to see what was going on and to tape it at the same time, all they had to do was dial this number."

"Wouldn't the phone company have a record?" I asked.

He shrugged. "You could try them, but I doubt it. They could have phoned from another booth. There's other ways around it as well." He had attached a small video screen to the telephone and showed us how the video camera had been adjusted to take in just the cage where Bert and Betti were found.

The Lieutenant and I finally went up to my office. Darlene brought us coffee. I could not sit still. I paced diagonally corner to corner while the Lieutenant watched me pensively.

"The two cases are obviously related," I said, stating the obvious.

"But not really the same."

"Yes." But for the moment I was too agitated with anger and frustration to think straight. I sat down and took a couple of deep breaths.

Lieutenant Tracy went on. "The Ossmann-Woodley case could be murder. This looks more like an accident."

"Yes, yes, but a kind of deliberate accident."

The Lieutenant's frown eased as he picked up on my meaning. "The way accidents occur when someone is testing something."

"Exactly. They may be trying to calculate exact doses or ratios of that mix Cutler described for us. Which is what may have happened to Ossmann and Woodley. But ... if both cases were deliberate and made to look like accidents, experiments gone wrong ..." I paused and the Lieutenant waited. "Then what exactly would the motive be unless ...? Unless it's part of some grotesque scheme to get me out of the Museum."

"How realistic is that?"

"I don't know. They want the Lab and the revenue it brings in. The University itself would never sanction such means, but there's a cabal doing everything it can to discredit me. But you're right, Richard, it's a stretch. At the same time you might want to question Malachy Morin ..."

"The fat guy involved in the death of Elsa Pringle?"

"The very man."

"We'll bring him in."

"Good. And have someone leak the timing of his arrival to the television news people."

He smiled. We spoke about what to do next. I called one of the mammalian specialists in the Biology Department and asked him to assist Dr. Cutler in a post-mortem.

With the Lieutenant's assistance I dictated a news release to Darlene setting out the facts as tersely as possible. We checked it over and had her fax it to our priority list. The phone started ringing immediately. Amanda Feeney-Morin, in that preemptory tone of hers, demanded to know every last detail. I told her the matter was under investigation and that I would keep her and others up-to-date with any new developments. She persisted, asking a lot of insinuating questions designed to make it seem like we are covering things up.

The Lieutenant agreed with me that, given the implications of what had happened and the intense media interest, it would be best to hold a press conference. Accordingly, I secured Margaret Mead Auditorium for one in the afternoon and had Darlene contact our list with that information. Lieutenant Tracy, after talking to Chief Murphy of the SPD, agreed to conduct the conference with me. As best we could, we went over probable questions and arrived at responses we deemed as candid as we could make them.

In the midst of these preparations, Malachy Morin called to ask me why I was conducting a press conference without his authorization. I'm afraid I lost my temper. I told the man that he was a poor deluded wretch to think that he had any authority over anything that happened at the Museum of Man. I told him he was perfectly welcome to call a press conference of his own and share his considerable ignorance with anyone so feeble-minded as to take seriously anything he would have to say about anything. I then gently hung up the receiver.

Now I want to go on record to say that, in the course of my career in dealing with the press, I have met many thoughtful, diligent, intelligent, and responsible journalists. And it is clear that a democracy cannot function without an active Fourth Estate. But even in a community as small as Seaboard, there appear to be hordes of them. And so many of them are benighted beyond redemption, crude beyond credibility, and so openly hostile as to be comic. One young man, after making a dramatic entrance in a long, swirling overcoat belted like a bathrobe, asked me in a challenging manner some long unintelligible question with the phrase "sex torture" thrown in. I simply shook my head and said I didn't know what he was talking about.

Another one of them, wearing raked-back hair and those squinty little glasses you see in photographs of W.B. Yeats, asked me were Bert and Betti a "breeding pair."

I answered that we no longer had a breeding program at the Pavilion and that the two chimps had been placed together in a single cage by persons unknown and without any authorization.

"If the chimps are not allowed to breed, how do they take care of their sexual needs?"

When I responded facetiously that we did not disclose details about the sex lives of our chimpanzees out of respect for their privacy, I was taken entirely seriously.

"Was Bert still in a program for recovering alcoholics?" someone else asked.

"No. Bert completed that program and had been sober for more than three months at the time of his death."

Amanda Feeney-Morin sat right up front, poised, I knew, to make slurs disguised as questions. Right on cue, she stood up. "Given what's been happening at the Museum of Man over the past few months, Mr. de Ratour, are you going to resign as Director?

"Absolutely not."

"Have you considered, given what's been happening, turning over administration of the Museum to the University."

"Absolutely not."

To be fair, the journalists did ask some pointed, pertinent questions that it was our responsibility to answer. One of the network reporters, who had flown up from Boston, asked the Lieutenant if the deaths of the chimps confirmed his suspicions concerning the Ossmann-Woodley case.

The Lieutenant nodded. "The similarities are obvious and, of course, we're exploring any links it might have to this case."

"Is the Genetics Lab as vulnerable to break-ins as the Pavilion?" one sharp young woman asked me.

I indicated that her question was a good one before reassuring the public, through the press, that the Lab had its own highly sophisticated and independent security system.

I was starting to feel a little complacent when the same reporter asked, "If that's the case, what happened to Professor Ossmann and Dr. Woodley?"

I gave her as honest an answer as I could: "We don't know. There was no detectable break-in. That's one of the mysteries we're trying to solve."

When a reporter asked me what possible motive could anyone have to be wreaking such havoc in the constituent parts of the Museum, I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to say that perhaps it was part of a conspiracy to discredit the management of the Museum so that the University can take it over. Instead, I shook my head with wise sadness, or perhaps it was sad wisdom, and said I didn't have a clue.

After more than an hour of taking abuse and providing some useful information to the public, I closed off the questions. Afterwards, outside in front of the Museum, I could see the television reporters in front of cameras, reading from notes, sawing the air, and pausing to glance away, as though in thoughtfulness, before resuming their narratives for the evening news.

I spent most of the afternoon handling press calls. It is an exhausting, nerve-wracking exercise in trying to balance candor with discretion as you talk to people who, basically, have given themselves the right to insult you with impunity.

The one bright spot was a call from Elsbeth, who told me I looked absolutely dashing during the news conference. She said that a reporter on the mid-afternoon news summary had labeled the death of the chimps the latest of "The Love Potion Murders in the Museum of Man." I told her it sounded like a title for a murder mystery and heard her give that old chortle of hers.

Sometime well after six, I was able to leave for home (where I am writing this after a dinner with a bit more wine than I needed). In the relative darkness of the Arboretum, as I strode along, I nearly fainted at the sight of a chimpanzee coming up the path towards me. I was about to start back to the Museum and spread the alarm when the chimp was joined by a gorilla, a nun in full regalia, a football player in helmet and pads, a ballerina, and a fairy godmother. I had forgotten it was Halloween.

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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