Chapter 23: Monday, Nov. 20

In which we learn about the principle of undue temptation and the parasites that feed on society's vulnerabilities.

Published August 27, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Prejudice, as the Reverend Lopes has remarked, is like excrement: we tend to think of our own as less offensive than that of others. I try to keep Alfie 's dictum in mind when it comes to my feelings regarding members of the legal profession. Not all lawyers, to be sure. When I catch myself wanting to send the whole lot of them to the wall, I stop and recall the good ones I have known. Not many, actually, but a few. I tell myself that it may be something genetic, something over which they have little or no control. I remind myself that, in the past, members of the de Ratour family have married lawyers or even gone to law school. But that was at a time when it was considered something of an honor to join the profession.

I bring this up because of what happened today when I finally met with the principals of the date rape case that came before the Subcommittee on Appropriateness. After several futile calls, I informed them each that I was assisting the Seaboard Police Department in a matter that their case could have a bearing on, and that our conversations would be off the record and strictly confidential. Pulling one of my own teeth would have been easier.

Ms. Spronger told me they would have to consult "their" attorney, a use of the plural possessive I didn't pick up on immediately. I increased the pressure at that point, letting them know my requests to see them sprang from the Ossmann-Woodley case, now considered a murder investigation, and involved some urgency.

My action constitutes a transgression of the rules of the Subcommittee. Indeed, the whole point of that body is to avoid involvement with the police or the legal system unless absolutely necessary in conflicts between members of the community. I didn't really cavil with myself on the point. If these young people had been exposed, however inadvertently, to some kind of potion being concocted in the Lab, then we had to find out about it immediately. Still, I was somewhat surprised to learn that a lawyer had become involved, that the rules had already been bent if not broken.

It perplexed me even more that they insisted on meeting me together. For my purposes it made little difference except that important information can be garnered from the differences that inevitably arise in separate accounts of the same incident.

At the appointed time, I made my way over to Sigmund Library, a modern, faceless building of gray granite that exudes an air of futility. We met in the Rex Room, named for a donor, I'm sure, as there seemed to be donor plaques on everything. The room is one of those small, nondescript spaces that all libraries seem to provide and which few people seem to use.

You can imagine my surprise when Mr. Jones and Ms. Spronger arrived in the company of Ariel Dearth. I could not completely conceal my chagrin at seeing the ubiquitous lawyer, but I dissembled my reaction enough to get through the obligatory introductions and handshakes. Mr. Jones wore chinos and a short-sleeved, open-collared jersey, and I could not but remark again on the musculature of his arms and shoulders. Ms. Spronger sported denim over-alls, and for a moment I thought she might be a member of the maintenance staff. Mr. Dearth wore a contentious expression and one of those tweed hunting jackets with a leather patch at the shoulder, fitting attire for a predator, when you think about it.

"Are you their counsel?" I asked after we, the mobile, had sat down at a stark table and after Mr. Jones had pulled his wheelchair up.

He appeared to think my question over, perhaps consulting the lawyer within. "I am," he said.

"In what capacity?"

"We're suing the University," Ms. Spronger announced.

"Bobba..." Mr. Dearth started.

She bridled. "Just because we've hired you doesn't mean I've like given up my First Amendment rights."

Mr. Dearth nodded perfunctorily and turned to me. "I want to ask you, Mr. de Ratour, what gives you the right to threaten my clients with a police investigation?"

"Because, Mr. Dearth, it's a fact, not a threat."

"And you know it's strictly against the rules of the Subcommittee for any member to contact disputants privately without the consent of the Chair."

I had to suppress a laugh. "You mean you had the consent of the Chair to solicit these good people as clients?"

"That's privileged information."

"I'm sure it is." I turned to the disputants. "Are the grounds on which you plan to sue the University also privileged information?"

"We..." Mr. Jones started.

"That's privileged," Mr. Dearth said.

"We're victims of an institution that like created a working atmosphere in which people like want to rape one another." Ms. Spronger spoke with what seemed like pride.

"Ms. Spronger..." Mr. Dearth twitched his nose in frustration.

"How much are you suing the University for?" I asked.

"We haven't settled on an amount," the learned counsel said emphatically.

"We're not concerned with like the money part of it," Ms. Spronger added with a touch of indignation. "It's a way of like sending a message."

"How much is the message going to cost the University?"

"Is this germane to your interests?" Mr. Dearth asked.

"Five big ones," Mr. Jones said, a large smile lighting up his handsome face.

"Five million dollars!" I repeated, incredulous.

"Five big ones each." Mr. Jones seemed to be enjoying his freedom of speech.

"Have you settled on a contingency fee?"

"I advise against answering that question."

"Is it thirty percent? Forty? Fifty!!!?"

The disputants were nodding.

I turned to Mr. Dearth. "Have you no shame, sir?"

He shrugged. "It is a long shot."

"It's a way of like effecting social change," Ms. Spronger said, as though in defense of her attorney.

"I suppose making lawyers rich through this kind of extortion is a form of social change," I said.

Mr. Jones leaned back and laughed. "Makes lots of change, anyway."

"What have we like got to do with what happened to those professors?" Ms. Spronger began immediately, speaking as though she had been accused of something.

"Perhaps nothing," I said, Investigator de Ratour now, professional to my fingertips. I paused for effect. "And perhaps everything."

Sitting across the table from me, she in a chair and he in his wheelchair, they exchanged glances at my words then looked to their attorney.

I thought this curious, as curious as their insistence that they meet with me together.

"What are you saying?" asked Mr. Jones.

I shook my head. "I don't want to prejudice any answers you might have to my questions."

"They are not prepared to answer any questions until they know what they are." Mr. Dearth spoke with great solemnity.

I kept the obvious rejoinder to myself, as I know Lieutenant Tracy would have. I nodded sagely. "It's quite simple," I said. "First, as you stated in your statement to the Subcommittee, you ate lunch together on the day of the incident."

"You don't need to answer that," Mr. Dearth put in.

"That's true," I said, "since it has already been established. What I need to know is what food or drink you shared just prior to the incident that you brought before the Subcommittee on Appropriateness."

"You don't need to answer that," Mr. Dearth said.

I started to gather up my notes, making as though to rise. "In that case, I am turning the entire matter over to the police." I turned to the disputants. "That, of course, will be to Mr. Dearth's advantage as he will be able to bill you for the hours of interrogation that are sure to ensue and at which he will insist on being present. And that may well adversely affect your quote-unquote case against the University."

They glanced at each other. "We shared your rice, Bobba," Mr. Jones said.

"As your attorney..." Mr. Dearth began.

Ms. Spronger waved him off with a frown. "I don't see like what harm there is in the truth." She turned to me. "I'm on a whole-rice diet. I had like plenty for both of us."

"And you had a half of one of my tuna fish sandwiches," the wheelchair marathoner said.

"That's right. My diet allows for like a small amount of wheat gluten."

"Did you cook the rice yourself, Ms. Spronger?"

"Oh, yes. I use only organic rice."

"And none of it came from a Chinese restaurant, from a take-out place?"


"And the tuna fish sandwiches?" I asked, turning to Mr. Jones.

"Ditto. My wife made them for me. Right out of the can." He shrugged. "I mean with mayo, salt, pepper, and some chopped chard."

"Chopped chard," I repeated with a wince.

"And nothing else?"

They both shook their heads.

I had begun to get the empty feeling of drawing a blank. I took one last stab. "In your preparation of your respective lunches, did you at any time leave them unattended."

Ms. Spronger shrugged. "I like put my rice in the microwave. But I wasn't gone more than a few minutes."

"And there were other people in the area?"

"Lots of them."

"Any strangers?"

"None that I recognized."

I frowned. "You mean you saw no one you didn't recognize."


"And what did you have to drink?"

"I got a Coke from the machine in the staff room," Mr. Jones said.

"And I like have my water." Ms. Spronger held up the quart-size bottle I had seen her drinking from at the Subcommittee meeting. Apparently she's one of those people who carries a nippled container with her everywhere, like a child still on the bottle.

"How soon after you shared your lunch did the incident occur?" I asked.

"Actually, we hadn't quite finished," Ms. Spronger replied.

"But almost."

"Mr. de Ratour," Mr. Dearth said with an ominous voice, "I am going to report your behavior to the University authorities."

"Feel welcome to, sir," I responded and turned to the library employees. "Can you tell me exactly how the feeling came over both of you."

They were both clearly embarrassed. "It just came over us," Mr. Jones said. "Big time."

"Me, too," Ms. Spronger said. "It was like a compulsion."

"Who first suggested that you retire to the closet?"

"You really don't have to answer that question. In fact, I advise against it very strongly." Mr. Dearth had grown visibly agitated during this time.

For my part, my irritation at what Mr. Dearth was attempting to do with these two young people had grown to indignation. But I kept my voice calm. "Actually, that's not really a question pertinent to my purposes. What's really important is that I ascertain that the only food you ate during that shared lunch came from home."

They both nodded. Then Mr. Jones said, bringing up a question Mr. Dearth had not asked, "What are your purposes?"

"Good question," I said. "It's one your attorney should have brought up at the beginning." I paused to let that register. "It's possible that somehow, somewhere, you ate food that had been doctored with a very powerful aphrodisiac. We're not sure, but it may have been a mild form of whatever it was that killed Professor Ossmann and Dr. Woodley."

Ms. Spronger grew pensive. "Actually..."

"We doubt very much anything like that happened," Mr. Dearth said forcefully.

"Because that would exculpate the University?" I turned to Ms. Spronger. "You were about to say something?"

She glanced this time at her counsel. "Nothing. Really."

"Are you sure?" I persisted. "This is very important. Other lives may be at stake."

But Mr. Dearth had them back under his control. He kept advising them not to say anything. He said, "Mr. de Ratour has no standing legal authority in this case."

I regarded Ms. Spronger and then Mr. Jones. I said, "If either of you change your mind about anything, please give me a call. Anything you tell me will be kept private."

When we all, except Mr. Jones, rose to go, I asked to speak to Mr. Dearth in private. The principals left to wait in the hall, and I closed the door. I did not sit down. I leaned across the table on my fisted hands. I looked Mr. Dearth straight in the face. I told him I could scarcely believe what he was doing.

"I am defending my clients' rights to a safe working environment," he responded.

"You mean to tell me that the University is responsible for the private consensual actions of these two adults?"

"We are contending that in the particular case of Sigmund Library, the University wittingly or unwittingly allowed an environment of sexual exploitation to exist of which these two young litigants are the very evident victims."

"What exactly, could you tell me, Mr. Dearth, should the University have done differently?"

"That is up to the deans in the administration to decide. But the very existence of a large securable closet and the ends to which everyone knows it was used indicates substantial grounds for complaint. The principle of undue temptation applies here."

"Undue temptation?"

"A concept I developed. It recognizes the limits of human virtue."

I shook my head in wonder and disgust.

"There's considerable case law in this area," the lawyer continued. Morin vs. Museum of Man established a good many of the points now being used in current cases."

I told him what he was doing was unconscionable even by the farcical ethics of the legal profession. I paraphrased for him a quote from Izzy Landes to the effect that the worst parasites are usually internal to the organism. As in the case of Mr. Morin, I said, you are making a travesty of the law. "You, Mr. Dearth, and people like you in the legal profession are consciously and for your own selfish ends deconstructing a great and noble American institution."

"Are you calling me a parasite?" he demanded to know.

"That's exactly what I'm calling you, Mr. Dearth. You and your ilk do not help society in the least. You merely find and feed on its vulnerabilities, all the while perverting the law as you go."

I told him that, as a member of the Subcommittee on Appropriateness, I was writing to the state Bar Association demanding that he be disciplined in a most decisive way.

There was some small gratification to see Mr. Dearth dumbfounded for once in his garrulous life. Leaving him there I turned and walked from the room, ignoring the two pathetic individuals he had suborned into a suit against the University.

I'm afraid I spent valuable time and a deal of spirit making good on my threats. Not only did I send a detailed and indignant letter to the members of the Subcommittee with copies to President Twill and the Wainscott Board of Regents, but I filed a complaint with the state bar association. Not that I have much faith in that latter organization, despite its impressive-looking code of ethics. The lawyers handling the estate of my late aunt, Augusta Heathering, all but looted its substance, leaving the sole heir, a nephew, with a pittance. When he took the matter to the state bar, they sat on it for a year and finally did nothing. As Izzy says, we live increasingly under a rule of lawyers, not law.

And such is life and death that none of this really means a damn to me; it is nothing more than a tempest in a tosspot next to the daily unraveling of my beautiful Elsbeth. She is now insisting that we spend Thanksgiving out at the cottage, but the poor dear is scarcely able to get out of bed.

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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