Chapter 17: Thursday, Nov. 9

In which a mysterious videotape arrives from the upper Orinoco, home of the last cannibals, and some bone mold is inspected.

Published August 6, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Every person, I think, questions his own courage from time to time. And for me that time is right now. I have on the desk, not far from where my hands address the keyboard, a video cassette. My responsibility is clear: I must take this cassette to the Twitchell Room, insert it into the VCR, and watch it.

But I cannot bring myself to do it.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. As many people know by now, Corny Chard has been on an expedition to one of the very remote tributaries of the upper Orinoco to witness the rituals of the Yomamas tribe. Still "anthropologically untainted," according to Corny, the Yomamas are reportedly the last group in the world still practicing cannibalism. Concern has been mounting, both here at the Museum and among his family, because no one, until today, has heard anything in weeks. (As to his family, I think his daughters are more concerned than is his wife, the merry Jocelyn, who keeps saying that Corny will come to a bad end.)

This afternoon, just as I was about to descend to the Twitchell Room for the annual meeting of the Visiting Committee to the Skull Collection, a likable young man by the name of Henderson appeared in my doorway. I surmised that he brought me news of Professor Chard inasmuch as he wore the garments of a field scientist or nature guide -- loose-fitting chino jacket, matching trousers with lots of pockets, and a well-worn leather hat with a wide brim. He also carried a canvas duffel betokening rough usage in rough places.

He came in at my invitation, apologizing for not having phoned ahead, but indicating that the purpose of his visit might justify the forgoing of such civilities. I glanced at my watch and told him I had a meeting to attend, but could spare him a couple of minutes. He nodded and sat down in a manner that betrayed the diffidence of one still not at ease with the amenities of civilization.

"I've just flown in from Caracas," he announced, as though apologizing for the state of his clothes. "I just came out of the bush."

"And you have news of Corny?" I wondered aloud. "Professor Cornelius Chard?"

He smiled uncertainly. "I think so but I'm not sure. I was given a package by a man I know from the upper Orinoco. The man's Christian name is Fernando. He works as a jack-of-all-trades, you know, between the local tribes and the prospectors, loggers, missionaries, and anthropologists that make it into the area. He had this package for me. He kept saying, "very important, very important. For Mr. Norman at Museum." Then he paused as though trying to think of how to word something. "He seemed very upset, scared even. He was very happy to be rid of it."

He produced from one of his capacious jacket pockets a rectangular package roughly wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. "He said a Professor Card promised him two hundred and fifty dollars if he could get it to you in America." He handed the package across the desk to me.

"And you paid him?"

"I did."

"I'll make sure you get compensated," I said, feeling the slight weight of the package with a premonition of excitement and dread.

He nodded his thanks.

"You have no idea what's in it?"

He shook his head. "It might be a videotape of some kind."

My hands just a little uncertain, I took scissors and snipped away the string and then carefully cut away a bit of what looked like duct tape. Young Henderson was right: Nestled in several layers of paper was the cassette from a video camera in wide use.

I called Darlene and asked her to get Mr. Henderson a check for two hundred and fifty dollars. I glanced at the time. With relief I realized I couldn't watch it then because of the meeting in the Twitchell Room. The equivocation of avoidance had begun. It deepened as, in assembling my papers for the Committee meeting, I chatted with Henderson, learning about conditions in the region of the upper Orinoco. It did little to assuage my misgivings when he told me that the unrest there had turned violent with murders, maimings, and mutilations.

I asked about the Yomamas. He shook his head. "Those are bad hombres from what I've been told. It's hard to get porters even to go near the area. They joke about being eaten, though most people think the talk about cannibalism is a lot of nonsense."

Reluctantly, shaking his hand, I left him in the good care of Darlene who, despite a recent engagement ring, seemed quite taken with the young man.

All through the meeting with the Committee my thoughts kept turning to the package, which I had brought along, determined to play the tape once the room was clear. I kept thinking of questions I should have asked. Where had he met this man Ferdinand? What else had the man said? I kept wondering why Corny himself hadn't turned over the tape to Henderson. Why hadn't he put my name and address on it? As I sat there listening to Alger Wherry detail his usual problems and some new ones that had developed over the past year, I was in the awful quandary of wanting to know what it was I really didn't want to look at.

I did, however, manage to impersonate an attentive museum director deeply engrossed in the problems of acquiring, curating, and storing human skulls. It turns out there is something of a crisis in the collection. In his subdued but pithy way, Alger reported that, because of space limitation, you would have at present a better chance of winning a Nobel Prize than of getting your skull into the Collection.

The members of the Visiting Committee listened attentively. The Committee is little more than a holdover from the days when the University was tightening its grip on the Museum. I added a few new members on my own, an action that prompted a rebuke from the University's Committee on Visiting Committees, which I ignored.

Morgan Marsden, Professor of Divinity Emeritus, an expert on the afterlife and a longtime member of the Committee, scratched the back of his own fine skull and said, surely, with the repatriation of skulls to various American Indian tribes, there must be a lot more room for new specimens.

Alger, his head bones prominent, his complexion unnaturally sallow from spending a life virtually underground, reported that in fact the repatriation program had bogged down because of inter-tribal squabbles as to what skulls belonged to whom.

Why not just move some of the less valuable skulls into a "de-acquisition" program, asked Hermione Cabot, the doyen of curators at the Frock, Wainscott's small but well-endowed art museum. Alger shrugged. "It's not that easy. They are human remains, and we'd have to bury them in a cemetery with all that entails. Crematoriums won't touch them without a death certificate. I mean you can't just load them into a Dumpster and have them taken to a landfill. Although, I suppose you could."

Alger also reported that the problem of bone mold, a pernicious form of which has afflicted our well-known forensic collection, is worse than initially estimated. He said they were running dehumidifiers around the clock, but it had been a wet summer and that part of the basement sits right on top of an old stream bed.

We went down to the basement for our usual tour of the Collection, row upon row of grinning death. We examined a few serious cases of bone mold and looked at some new acquisitions for the Curiosities Cabinet.

When we passed the door of green baize behind which the Sociiti de Cochon Long used to hold its secret meetings, I tried the brass knob and found it locked. "What's this used for now?" I asked Alger.

"Oh, storage," he said in a way that made me wonder. I scribbled a mental note to check on it later.

The meeting finally ended with resolutions to pursue funding for storing "marginal specimens" elsewhere as well as those contested by Native American tribes. A subcommittee was formed to look into the bone mold problem and report back to both Alger and me.

When the meeting concluded, I remained in the Twitchell Room, thinking I would pop the cassette in and simply watch it. I have to confess I was relieved again to be told the room had been scheduled for a meeting of the Museum's Subcommittee on Signage.

I returned to my office to learn that Lieutenant Tracy was on his way over to see me. Darlene offered to fetch coffee, and I sat down pondering what news the Seaboard constabulary had come up with that could not be trusted to the telephone. All the while, I was conscious of Corny's tape lying on my desk like an accusation.

The coffee served, the door closed, the Lieutenant got right down to business. The preliminary analyses of blood and tissue from Bert and Betti indicate that they ingested compounds similar if not identical to those found in Ossmann and Woodley.

"Dr. Cutler called you?" I asked.

"Right. He says the dosage may have been different, but he can't really tell.

It does not reflect well on me, I know, but my real concern upon hearing this news involved the media. I did not want another circus. The Lieutenant understood, when I voiced my misgivings, agreeing that it was important not to have the information released until we had it in writing and until we had decided how best to handle it.

He then asked me about my follow-up to the incident in the library involving the two employees and their accusations of mutual date rape. I told him I had drawn a blank so far. I recounted how, despite my initial resolve, I had, like any dutiful citizen of the institution, asked permission from Professor Athol to interview the disputants privately. He said he would have to refer the request to University Office of General Counsel, a veritable law firm, before allowing us to take any action.

We discussed as well Celeste Tangent and the slow progress we were both having in obtaining her CV. It was then I realized something I already knew: Lieutenant Tracy had other cases, lots of them. Indeed, he told me then of a body they had just found behind a derelict gas station in Seaboard's Old Town, a run-down part of the city.

"Not Korky Kummerbund's?"

"I doubt it. A middle-aged man. Been there too long. We've called in Strom Weedman from the Herbarium."

"The forensic botanist."

"Right. He's looking at ground cover, root invasion, fungal growths. Competent guy."

The detective got up to go, his coffee scarcely touched. An altogether decent man, I thought, considering how much of his life is spent dealing with the dark side of human existence.

So here I am, with the cursor blinking at me, as though my words have a heartbeat. The tape and keys to the Twitchell Room are in the drawer. My responsibility to the Museum and to the Chard family is to go downstairs, put the tape in the VCR, and watch the damn thing. But courage takes energy, and right now I am utterly drained. I scarcely have the wherewithal to go home. It seems that everywhere I turn death has come or death awaits and I suffer the awful epiphany that in life the only escape from death is death itself.

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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