Chapter 20: Thursday, Nov. 16

In which there's a report of "a blockbuster aphrodisiac," and Sixpack is caught doing the wild thing with Candy Dolores.

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

It's been one of those days. I sit here in my perch at home like some old gangly bird full of hankerings more suitable to a man half my sixty-odd years. What did Oscar Wilde say about the tragedy of growing old? It's not that you feel old but that you feel young.

My unseemly yearnings stem in part from the "enhanced" video I received from Worried this morning showing the three people having sex in the smoking room of the Genetics Lab. Worried e-mailed me last night, telling me I would find the tape in a bag labeled "toxic" next to the recycling area on the second floor. I was to remove the tape and replace it with an envelope containing three hundred and fifty dollars, which I did, no questions asked.

It took little courage for me to play the tape alone in the audio-visual room. And you can imagine my surprise when I was able to identify the gentleman being fellated as none other than Professor Ossmann. What I found interesting was the manner in which he contorts his face as though in pain or from pleasure bordering on pain as he holds onto the back of the woman's bobbing head. She has, as far as I could tell -- it is a black and white print -- thick blond hair done in a braid that fell to one side of her neck. The woman is, I'm willing to bet now, Celeste Tangent.

The gentleman kneeling behind her, is tall, more slender than thin, with dark hair and very white buttocks, which twink, as buttocks are wont to do, with his thrusting motions. I have a distinct feeling the unknown man is Dr. Penrood, but I can't be sure as I have not been privileged to see him in that position before. His face does appear in profile, but only for an instant. When their various culminations are reached, to judge from their motions, parts are disengaged and they move off into shadow and darkness.

I immediately supervised the making of a copy -- keeping the screen blank throughout -- and sent the original to Lieutenant Tracy by special courier. In an accompanying note I identified Ossmann, but I also wondered aloud, so to speak, about how useful, at this point in the investigation, the information really was. Had Ossmann and the other two been working on some kind of love potion and decided to give it a try? Had he tried again with Dr. Woodley and gotten the dose wrong? Or was the effect of a lethal dose known and for some reason used against Ossmann and Woodley? If so, why keep experimenting on Bert and Betti?

Speaking of whom, the spotlight of unseemly publicity has once again been turned on the Museum of Man. Amanda Feeney wrote a front-page story in yesterday's Bugle disclosing details from the autopsies of Bert and Betti. She revealed that the biochemical analysis found compounds identical to those present in Ossmann and Woodley. Ms. Feeney quotes an unidentified source within the SPD to the effect that the compounds constitute "a blockbuster aphrodisiac." It sounds like my friend Sergeant Lemure is at it again.

Then Ms. Feeney got to the real point of her story. "Norman de Ratour, Director of the museum, did not return our calls." Of course the woman called me. She calls every day to ask me if I beat my wife or molest donkeys. So of course I don't return her calls. But that's not the kind of thing I can include in the press releases that I put out stating that no research on aphrodisiacs is taking place in the Genetics Lab. But I knew that would get twisted around until it sounded like an evasion.

Which reminds me, I have yet to look at the second half of Corny's tape. Why me? I complain to the air. Why not send it to Murdleston or Brauer? Because Murdleston's too foggy and Brauer, who has his own geek show in progress, can't be trusted.

But none of the above, I must confess, is what has me dithered like a teenager. Sixpak Shakur has moved out, lock, stock, and amplifiers, and while a measure of peace reigns here at home I find myself beset again with the worst kind of temptation.

More accurately, the King of the Redneck Rappers was thrown out by Diantha for whom I feel both a heartfelt sympathy, genuine love, and a low, cunning, opportunistic lust. Even when I try to be high-minded, when I lift my head and straighten my shoulders and think, yes, indeed, the break-up will be the best thing for her in the long run, I find myself in the equation. I find my imagination flaring, conflating with images from the video so that I am behind her, in front of her, on top of her ... Which is shameful beyond words because the young woman is, for the nonce, upset and vulnerable.

Diantha, in fact, was close to hysterics when I came in around seven-thirty after a long day that included a tedious, and unproductive meeting with Jane Jeremiah, the Curator of the Meso-American Collections. (She wants me to fire the new assistant that, over my objections, she just hired.) At any rate, Di met me at the door, her eyes fetchingly pink from weeping. She fell into my arms, sobbing again.

"Elsbeth?" I asked in alarm, fearing and expecting the worst.

"No, no, no," she moaned. "It's Sixy. He's gone. Sixy's gone."

"You poor girl," I said, taking her in my arms, my relief at the man's departure mixing with my commiseration for her all too evident distress.

"But I still have you, don't I, Norman," she sniffled and gave me a big wet kiss on the lips, which I can still feel imprinted, like a stain I want to keep.

I decorously disentangled myself. "Gone," I said, trying to dissemble the sense of giddy release that kept arriving like pleasant shocks as I hung up my topcoat in the hall closet. "Diantha," I said firmly, putting my arm around her shoulder. "Tell me what happened. But first, how is your mother doing?"

Diantha nodded, my indirect rebuke and its implied perspective calming her. "Mom's okay. She's still sleeping. Do you want a drink."

"A martini would do the trick." I rootled around the drinks cabinet and made myself a strong one. Diantha poured herself a glass of white wine. For a strange moment it seemed we were an old established couple going through the routine of home-coming.

"So tell me what happened," I urged her as gently as I could.

She sat demurely on the couch, one shapely knee pertly crossed over the other, and took a sip of her wine. "I threw him out. I told him to get out before I called the police."

She began to grow tense again. I went over and sat beside her and put my arm around her shoulders. "It will be all right," I said.

She put her face into my chest and snuffled. "I came in from shopping around four and found him screwing that little slut Candy Dolores from next door. Right in my own bed. In our own bed."

"Oh dear."

"They didn't even stop when I came into the room and started screaming at them. And her little sister, Shirleen, the one with the braces, she was standing there watching them. She was probably in line."

"I'm not surprised, frankly," I said, saying, I'm sure, the wrong thing. "It's happened before, hasn't it?"

She snuggled closer, and I felt the fullness of her breast nudging into my ribs. Oh, to find out what a loathsome, crawling monster one is! To find out that pity can be as much allied with lust as with contempt! Or is it just natural? To want to transform those sobs and sighs of hurt into moans and gasps of pleasure? Or is it all a matter of self-sophistry? Because right then I wanted nothing more than to take her in my arms, kiss her tear-wetted lips, and roger her silly, as the English say. And, indeed, she did pull even closer, her hip against mine, and kiss me full on the lips. How in that moment I kept my hands to myself I simply cannot explain.

But resist I did. Diantha suffered another outbreak. "I mean, Norman, they were both buck naked and fucking like fiends. And no apology. He just got off the bed, steaming from that little slut and telling me to 'Chill out, baby, chill out. I was just helping the chick find her groove.'"

I stayed with her, sensing that her tears and the flood of angry words gave her some release, a kind of purgation. I don't remember what I said, nothing, really, just comforting noises disguised as words.

Until finally she calmed down, wiped her eyes, beamed at me with a most endearing smile, very much like her mother's, and said, "Go wake up Mom. I'm going to make us all one fabulous dinner."

Despite everything, a new spirit descended on the house. I certainly felt liberated. And Elsbeth, poor dear, waking from her drugged sleep, caught something of the mood. I helped her to the bathroom. I helped her wash. It is painful to see how Elsbeth is wasting away. But what spirit. What courage! I helped her into what she calls her "frolic" clothes, a smart turtleneck jersey and a wraparound skirt. We chatted. Yes, she had heard the commotion. "Frankly, I'm glad he's gone. The poor boy had begun to believe in his own wigger fantasies, as Di says."

"Wigger?" I asked.

"It's a Di word. She said we wouldn't understand."

Elsbeth shrugged, took another of her pain pills, and I helped her into the dining room.

Diantha served up a delectable seafood lasagna and a salad of fresh greens that we had with a deal of wine, a robust California Zinfandel Izzy had recommended. When we had finished, she excused herself to go upstairs and "hit the restart button on a whole new life."

Elsbeth and I, mostly I, finished off the second bottle. And as I rinsed the dishes for the dishwasher -- I must say I am enjoying our new kitchen very much despite my initial reservations -- Elsbeth said plainly and simply, "I want you to take care of Diantha after I'm gone."

When I started in about how she still had a fighting chance, she repeated what she had said.

"But, of course, darling, I'll take care of Diantha. She's my daughter, after all."

"I mean as a daughter."

And while I wanted to ascribe Elsbeth's concerns to fatigue and perhaps even a low-grade delirium brought on by the medications for her illness, I could tell from her smile that she knows I fight the fiends within me when it comes to her daughter.

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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