Chapter 19: Monday, Nov. 13

In which the curriculum vitae of Ms. Celeste Tangent reveals some unusual work experience.

Published August 10, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

No, I have not yet viewed the rest of the Corny Chard tape. I dream about it nightly. I obsess about it during my waking hours. The very drawer in which I have placed the tape seems haunted. Several times now I have taken it in hand, gone down to the Twitchell Room and, at the last minute, lost my nerve.

Of course I have my excuses. I have been spending a good deal of time at home with Elsbeth. She has agreed finally to have an oxygen apparatus available to use when she has trouble breathing. I think she did it to relieve the anxiety Diantha and I experience when she starts gasping for breath like a fish out of water.

And, at long last, I have received the curriculum vitae of Ms. Celeste Tangent. Indeed, I have received two copies, one from a young man in Human Resources with a note apologizing for the delay, and one from Lieutenant Tracy. The woman appears to have had, if I do say so, a rather checkered career to have ended up as a laboratory assistant in a genetics lab.

Born twenty-seven years ago in Norman, Oklahoma, Ms. Tangent claims a degree in business administration from a correspondence school associated with Oral Roberts University. She next lists herself as an assistant supervisor at the Caucasian Escort Service, Brooklyn, New York. In that capacity, she "recruited, trained, and directed young women in the etiquette of an up-market escorting service patronized by a distinguished and discreet clientele."

After several years of plying this trade, she accounts for a gap of some seven months "to conduct research into the leisure patterns of successful entrepreneurs in vacation hotspots around the Caribbean, Mexico, and Rio." Upon returning to New York, she assumed the position of maitre d' at the Crazy Russian. This is an establishment in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn that she describes as "a pricey, after-hours bistro for a discerning clientele interested in seeing a side of New York few tourists know about."

She lists another hiatus devoted to research in exotic realms, including, of all places, Tibet, where she studied antiques. And for the past six months she has been working as a laboratory assistant for the Ponce Institute, "helping the best scientists in the world make really great discoveries."

I put in a call to the Lieutenant. He wasn't available, but called back a few minutes later.

"Ms. Tangent's CV," he said as a greeting.

"Thanks for sending it along. Tell me, Richard, do we have any background on the organizations she's been associated with?"

"Not a whole lot. My sources in New York say there's a good chance that both the escort service and the restaurant were mob-connected. But it will take them some digging to find out exactly which mob because both of those establishments are out of business now."

We discussed the obvious incongruence of Ms. Tangent's current employment given her background. "But if she's a plant," I said, not entirely comfortable with the jargon, "it implies there is something going on in the Lab that's of interest to organized crime."

The Lieutenant smiled. "Elementary, my dear Watson."

"Too elementary, perhaps," I conceded. "But how would 'the mob' know enough for them to want to infiltrate the Lab? The research really is quite sophisticated and the bureaucracy formidable. I mean it all seems a bit far-fetched."

"You're right, Norman, to a point. But people talk. They get a few drinks on board. They brag. They exaggerate. Someone down the line or up the line hears about it. Criminals are businessmen, they're opportunistic. They do some checking. The scam gets rolling. I've decided to make Ms. Tangent the object of some light surveillance. Find out where she hangs out and who she hangs out with, that sort of thing."

I said I thought that was a good idea and then brought the Lieutenant up to date on the Sigmund Library incident. I told him that after waiting several days and finally deciding that the proper channels were clogged -- as usual, I called Ms. Spronger and Mr. Jones directly. It seems both have retained lawyers. They said they would get back to me. "One wonders, Lieutenant," I said, "what the world did before lawyers insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives?"

The Lieutenant said to give him a call if lawyers continued to get in the way. "I have to admit I was somewhat dubious at first. But I think what happened there is strange enough to warrant closer investigation."

We chatted a while longer and ended agreeing that, while we had nothing definite to go on, there were some promising leads opening up.

I may be mistaken, but I think I detect strains in the Diantha-Sixy arrangement. It was noticeable on Friday when she brought him by to show him the Museum. I was in the midst of evaluating and commenting on the quarterly reports of the curatorial staff when they appeared in the doorway, seemingly disoriented by a wholly new milieu. I was delighted, of course, to see Diantha. She is so demonstrative, coming around the desk to give me one of those full-length hugs I find so unnerving, especially when they come with a big kiss on the lips.

Mr. Shakur, as usual, didn't just shake my hand, but went through a whole routine after a "gimme five, bro." Then, instead of sitting down like an ordinary person, he paced around like a caged cat with a bald head and earrings, jabbering away in that argot of his. "Too f..king, spanking real, man. I mean real like ozone, out there, man, orbit. I didn't know they had places like this, man. I mean cool with a capital K. That African gear downstairs is right over the edge, man. I mean off the freaking planet. What you say, Di, we do a shoot here, like with all of our faces morphing in and out of those, like masks and shit, and I do my black honky cut?"

"He's saying, Dad, that he would like to do a music video in the Museum." Diantha spoke with an apologetic edge to her voice, as though embarrassed, as though, perhaps for the first time, seeing her paramour through my eyes.

I smiled indulgently. "Getting permission would be a problem, I'm afraid."

The Rapper King turned a chair around and sat in it facing the desk, his chin propped on top of the back. "But you the top dog, Mr. Dude. I mean you bark and the others, man, they shit. You know what I'm saying?"

"It doesn't quite work that way, Sixy. The curators have a very large say about what goes on in their collections, and I know what they'll say." My response didn't seem to faze him in the least.

"I'm mellow with that, man." He shook his gleaming skull. "This crib is totally killer, man."

It went on like this for a while longer until they finally took their leave. Diantha gave me another one of those kisses that stay on the lips. I'm not going to bring it up with her, of course, but I do think it would be for the best if she and Mr. Shakur were to part company. She deserves so much better than him. But I confess I would feel a sense of propriety, regardless of whom she decides to consort with.

At the same time, Mr. Shakur's effect on me borders on disorientation. I felt I had been in touch with a different kind of consciousness, not necessarily lower, but off to the side, like off the edge, man. If I'm not careful, I'll end up speaking like that.

Mr. Shakur's productions came up later that afternoon when I went over to the Pavilion to drop in on a little party for Marge Littlefield, who is retiring as comptroller of the MOM. She's taking early retirement, because, she told me, she and Bill don't need the income and she has grandchildren to enjoy.

Anyway, in the course of this little affair, held in what used to be the "rec room" for Damon Drex's literary chimps, I ended up talking about Anglo-Saxon poetry with Maria Cowe's assistant, a comely young woman with nervous eyes from Human Resources. She said she had just read a recent translation of "Beowulf" by the Irish poet ... whose name escapes me now (a senior moment, Izzy would say). I remarked I thought there were similarities between rap music, so called, and the rhythmic scheme in Anglo-Saxon poetry. As a demonstration, I proceeded to quote to her some of the lyrics Sixpak had shown me.

I was quite amazed to see this young woman blush quite red, stammer something, and on the flimsiest of pretexts, turn from me and pretend to listen to people in another conversation. But then, I've come to accept that manners among young people and a lot of others aren't what they used to be.

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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