Chapter 22: Saturday, Nov. 18

In which the kingdom of grinning death is found to be a very suspicious polling place.


Alfred Alcorn
August 24, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

The plot is thickening like one of those soups you throw things into without being quite sure how it's going to turn out. I finally got up the courage this morning to undertake a most delicate and sad task: I called Jocelyn Chard, Corny's widow, and told her I needed to come by and see her.

"You've heard from Corny?" she asked, an excited hope in her voice.

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"Yes, but I'd rather ... come over."

There was one of those silences. "He's dead, isn't he?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so, but I'd like to come see you anyway, Jocelyn."

After another silence, she said, "Yes, of course. I'll call the children in the meanwhile."

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I drove over to their home on Wordsworth Avenue, a tree-shaded neighborhood of commodious but not ostentatious houses known as Professors Row. Jocelyn let me in as she spoke on a cordless phone. "Yes, dear. I'm fine. He's just arrived. Yes, I'll call right back."

A nearly tangible aura pervaded the house as Jocelyn led me into the bow-fronted living room. I could feel that dark sense of expectancy that the news of death brings, especially the death of someone close. I think we expect a kind of revelation, when in fact it's only death, the end. With bright nervous eyes, the Widow Chard bade me take a seat in an armchair adjacent to the sofa. I couldn't help but notice, as I had on happier occasions (though I seldom socialized much with the Chards until Elsbeth came along), that the things on the walls, the masks and the bark cloth hangings, were of museum quality. And, I wondered in a shameful sort of way, had Corny left any of them to the Museum?

A slight, enthusiastic woman, Jocelyn effects more than a touch of the Bohemian. Her long graying hair braided down her back was of a piece with the necklace of heavy ebony figurines and the layered dark clothing she always wears. She put a hand on my forearm. "Tell me, Norman, tell me what's happened. You have coffee?"

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"Of course, of course," I expostulated. To think that the routine gestures of hospitality still pertained under the circumstances. I took a deep breath. "He was killed by natives. By members of a tribe that live on the upper reaches of the Orinoco drainage area."

"Oh dear." She placed her hand over her mouth. She held on to my forearm again, as though to steady herself. "Did they ... Did they eat him?"

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"I'm afraid they did."

"Oh, my, my." She held her hand to her mouth again for a moment. Her face twitched. She gave a short, hysterical laugh. "I think it was what he always wanted." Then, with utter composure, she asked, "How did you find out?"

"A tape was made."

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"Of the ..."

"Yes."

Her self-possession wavered for a moment. "I don't want to see it. I don't want the children to see it. I want it kept private."

"Of course. I can see to that. For estate purposes, I will have to show it to whatever authorities need to see it." I cravenly avoided the word attorney. I could envision some lawyer convincing her to sue the University or even the Museum for wrongful death.

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"Was it ... gruesome?"

"By my standards. By anyone's standards, I would think."

"It shows him being killed?"

"Yes."

"Was he terrified?"

"Only partly. I think he was exalted in a way. They had administered a drug to him, an hallucinogen before they really started."

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"They stabbed him?"

"No."

"How did they ...?"

"They cut him up."

"Alive?"

"I'm afraid so."

"With ...?"

"A chainsaw."

"Oh my, poor Corny." Her attractive gray eyes went awry for a moment and she held her hands to her breast. "I don't want anyone else to see it."

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"I understand."

"These things have a way of getting around ..."

"You and I are the only people who know about it other than a young prospector who brought it to me. And the cameraman, of course, as well as members of the tribe. The cameraman is a kind of go-between. He gave the tape to the mining geologist who delivered it to me personally."

The widow was nodding, looking around the room, as though it were now strange territory, its trappings those of a man, a husband, who no longer existed.

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"Jocelyn," I began, "I don't know what kind of legal consequences there might be in terms of prosecution for murder. I doubt very much that the long arm of American law can reach into such remote parts. I have a feeling that the State Department will say, in a very nice way, of course, that Corny should have known better."

"He did know better. He knew it was very dangerous."

"We all knew it was risky. It's one of the reasons, frankly, that I refused to fund any part of the expedition. Except for medical supplies and insurance for medical evacuation."

"I know. Corny understood that. He was very appreciative of what you did."

I cleared my throat. "But what I would like to know, Jocelyn, is, who did fund his trip?"

She hesitated for a moment and then threw up her hands. "Oh, I don't suppose it makes any difference now. Corny swore me to secrecy, but he's dead now, isn't he? Dead and gone." She held onto to my forearm again, the tears welled but didn't spill. I admired her for that.

"Who was it, Jocelyn?" I pressed.

"Oh, someone in that pig society he was always going to."

"Pig society?"

"Le Sociiti de Cochon Long," she said with a disdainful exaggeration of a French accent.

"Really?" I exclaimed, just managing to conceal the extent of my surprise and, beyond that, a nearly vaporous sensation, vertebral in its origin, that comes over me when I feel I have somehow uncovered a piece of the larger puzzle. Though in the mundanity of things, I couldn't see how Corny's death in a far-off jungle had anything to do with the murders of Ossmann and Woodley. "I didn't know it still existed," I said, trying to sound casual.

"Oh, God, all that publicity around the cannibal-murder trial brought in every screwball you could imagine. There's a lot more of them out there than you might suspect."

I nodded. "Who belongs to the society today?"

"Oh, the usual people. Raul is very active, as is Alger from down in the Skull Collection. And some newcomers, apparently. Corny didn't talk about it very often. It was, after all, supposed to be a secret society."

Of course, I thought, determined now to investigate the basement room behind the green baize door, to break it down, if I had to. I remained a while longer, going over arrangements I would need to make with the University about an official notice of death and an obituary. I told her I would speak to the dean and to Alfie Lopes about a memorial service if she wanted me to.

"Oh, thank you, Norman, but that's all right." She was palpably rallying, doing what had to be done. "I know Alfie well. I'll call him myself. I'll need his comfort. He's so good at times like this."

As I was leaving, she took one of my hands in both of hers and her face had a contrite expression. "I'm sorry, Norman, but I forgot to ask, how is Elsbeth?"

"Not well," I said, realizing with a wave of empathy that I would be in her shoes before long.

"Oh, I'm so sorry." But the Widow Chard was also looking me over, I swear, as a man who would soon be single again.

Though it was Saturday, I drove from her house to the Museum. I found there another recorded communication from Mr. Castor of Urgent Productions. His voice reaching out of the little speaker on the phone, he apologized a bit too profusely for "losing his cool" during our last conversation, but told me he had been under intense pressure from the film's backers to have "respectful use" of the Museum for "the authenticity of the project." This time I did not find his call a nuisance. On the contrary, it gave me an idea regarding Corny's fate that I intend to pursue.

But I had gone to the Museum mostly to take a look at the room behind the baize door in the Skull Collection. Luckily, Mort, back to his usual form, was on duty. He fished out his great ring of keys, and we made our way down into the kingdom of grinning death. At first Mort couldn't open the door. He said the key had been changed. The master wouldn't fit. But Mort is a man of many resources. He took out of his pocket something that looked like burglar's tool, pried around for a while and voil`, the door opened.

Well, Alger Wherry lied to me. The room has not been used for storage. Indeed, we found evidence that it had recently been a venue for a meeting. In the wastebasket I found eleven folded pieces of paper marked with Y's and N's, evidence of a vote. Someone had also thrown away a withdrawal slip from one of those automated money-dispensing machines with an early November date.

Mort said nothing when I told him I wanted to leave the room exactly the way we had found it. He nodded knowingly when I said we were to tell no one about what we had uncovered. Driving home I entertained little fantasies of placing a hidden camera or a microphone in the room, though I had little idea of what I might learn thereby.


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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