Chapter 24: Tuesday, Nov. 21

In which a food review seems to be evidence of a kidnap case and a sick, deranged mind.

Published August 29, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I received this morning a most extraordinary document. It indicates -- the good news -- that Korky Kummerbund may still be alive. It also indicates -- the bad news -- that he is under considerable distress and possibly in great danger. I'll let the document, which is carefully hand-written and which came via ordinary mail in a standard #10 envelope, speak for itself.

Dear Norman:

The following article must appear in The Bugle as soon as possible under my byline if I am to have any chance of being seen alive again. It must be word-for-word or I will be starved to death. As it is, until the meal described below, I had not had anything to eat for more than a week. I am allowed to tell you that I am under extreme duress from lack of food and noise on a loop, but that is all.

Your trusting friend, Korky

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"The Best Meal Ever"

By Korky Kummerbund

It is not difficult to describe the decor at this new eatery, which opened recently to a very select clientele. It is strictly no frills, a setting informed by a radical minimalism that announces an anti-aesthetic so total it defines a whole new aesthetic.

Suffice it to say, the surroundings achieved a congruity with the food and service to a remarkable degree. The walls are ... well, walls, unfinished gray chalkboard. The floor, of concrete, is covered with a thin carpet of gray beige, and the ceiling matches the walls. The toilet facilities, over in the corner, are rudimentary but adequate. The food is served through a hinged pet flap in the bottom of a sturdy door of solid wood.

For a starter I had what the simple but elegant, hand-printed menu called "bouillon avec bons morceaux de papier de journal." It was in fact a transparently thin bouillon with florets of newsprint cut from one of my food columns in The Bugle. I was unable to discern which particular column. The bouillon came in a tin bowl with a ring attached to the rim for hanging up. Along with the white plastic soup spoon which had a slightly flaring handle, the bowl made for a fittingly Spartan vessel for the dish, especially when arrayed against the scarred Formica top of the table and the simple and effective lighting, a naked 75-watt bulb hanging from a standard ceiling fixture, dirty white against dirty white.

Appetite truly being the best relish, it takes an effort to describe how delicious the bouillon and the bouillon-soaked newsprint tasted. The first sip of the nearly clear liquid is like a revelation, an epiphany of the senses, as the tongue and the esophagus surrender to its essential minerality, satisfying a primordial craving for salt in a way hard to describe with mere words. (It brought to mind the remark by A.J. Denny that food gives the tongue a voice beyond language.) The florets of newsprint, cut into simple, almost childlike patterns, added body to the fluid and, when properly chewed, proved not all that difficult to swallow.

It was, in any event, the perfect prelude to the fish, or should I say amphibian, course. The menu lists Les petites tranches de crapaud grillis avec des allumettes. The toad came under the door on a small, stark cutting board complete with a box of wooden matches, plastic fork and X-acto knife. To my great delight, it was accompanied by a pint of Thunderbird, a sweetish little wine with no pretensions to complexity whatsoever.

If anything, the bouillon and newsprint had whetted my appetite, and I tore into this delicacy with a gusto I usually reserve for more prepossessing dishes. The truth: I found every morsel of the thing delectable, especially after I had gotten the hang of cutting off an appropriately sized piece and skewering it on the tip of the X-acto knife where, with one or two matches, I could crisp it nicely. The sulfur from the matches added its own distinct resonance to a taste hard to limn with mere words. The essence was that of a paludal origin, not quite fetid, but definitely smacking of the swamp. The bones were sufficiently pliable not to be crunchable unless properly singed, but alas, I ran out of matches before quite finishing. Actually, raw toad isn't that bad, either.

Again, after the perfect interval, I was served the main course, which, according to the simple but beautifully wrought bill of fare, consisted of Tartare d'icureuil ditritus franche sur un lit de glands gratini es et coupures finement haches. (One would have thought the French language contained a phrase more stylish for road-kill than detritus -- perhaps morte de rue.)

But I do not complain. Again simplicity added an undeniable elegance to the presentation. The rodent had been skinned and flensed. The meat and, from what I could gather, the rest of the soft parts, had been ground medium coarse then served in the cavity of the pelt, artfully splayed on its back, legs outspread and tail in full fluff curling upwards and over toward the turned little head.

The entree was delicious. I never thought acorns could be so tasty. They added the exact right textural counterpart to the chewy meat and the shredded newsprint, the flavors combining with a gustatorial synergy little short of wondrous. I was ingesting nothing less than the essence of oak, at first hand in the muted yet subtle woodiness of the acorns, and then, at one remove, in the nutty echoes alive in the flesh of the little creature that feeds on these under-appreciated delicacies.

The service was truly excellent, the dishes being slid on the floor through the door flap after just the right interval between courses, as you would expect in any well-run establishment.

As well as food, I was served food for thought. It is seldom in life that a meal serves both the body and the spirit, if only with a lesson in the true meaning of hunger and humility.

-- Korky Kummerbund

It was only after I had read this document through twice did I realize that it constituted evidence of a kidnap case and of a sick, deranged mind. Holding it by the edges, I forthwith placed letter and envelope in a plastic bag and phoned Lieutenant Tracy.

He arrived at my office less than a half an hour later. Donning white gloves, he examined the letter in detail. He shook his head in disbelief. "What is this? Fresh road-kill squirrel? What kind of sicko ...? Is this serious or some kind of joke?"

I nodded. "Both, I'm afraid."

He shook his head again. "Where do you find fresh toad this time of year?"

"Maybe it wasn't fresh."

Lieutenant Tracy started to laugh, something I had never seen him do before. It was an attractive, revealing laugh that had him shaking his head and wiping tears from his eyes. Then, like a squall, it stopped as abruptly as it started. He apologized. I said I understood.

I told him it was, as far as I could determine, Korky's handwriting. Over the past two years he had sent numerous notes and cards to Elsbeth and me. I said I could easily provide a sample, but I thought the editor of The Bugle should be informed immediately as to what had transpired.

Donald Patcher, the editor of The Bugle, responded with a sense of concern for Korky's welfare when we contacted him. There was no bluster about the inviolability of the press and that sort of thing. He said he would run it the next morning just as though it were Korky's regular column.

In part because it can't be avoided -- she is sure to read the column in tomorrow's Bugle, or one of her friends will mention it to her -- I called Elsbeth and let her know what had happened. I did not go into details. She took it well, saying it would be good to read his column again, whatever it said. I've told her about Corny's death as well, again without going into details. The truth in these matters is always the best policy.

Robert Remick has called again. He was his gentlemanly self, but news of the Bert and Betti fiasco had reached him, as I knew it would. I sensed a note of exasperation in his tone as he told me that he and the rest of the board had full confidence in my ability "to clean up this latest mess" at the Museum.

I had Bob's call very much in mind when I summoned Alger Wherry up for a meeting. Closing the door and having Darlene poised with her pen and steno pad did not have much effect on the man. He refused to answer any questions I had about the use of the empty room in the Skull Collections. "Good," I said, "you're fired. Effective immediately. Please collect your personal effects and remove them."

He turned surly. "There are procedures ..."

"We are no longer part of the University in that way, Alger. Appeal all you want to Human Resources, it won't do you any good. In fact I'm looking for a good excuse to get rid of Maria Cowe and her inefficient staff." It was something of a bluff, but it worked.

"The Long Piggers have been using the room."

"You mean they never stopped using the room."


"Who are its members."

"I honestly don't know."

"You don't really expect me to believe that."

"I don't know most of the new members. Everyone has a code name. I don't know who they are. I don't really care."

"Who does have the names?"

"Brauer. And Corny did."

I believed him if only because I could tell from his air of defeat, which was more pronounced than usual, that he didn't care enough to lie. He left, agreeing to clean out the room and start using it for storing skulls.

Word of Corny's demise has spread far and wide. I have arranged for the Chard's family attorney and an officer of the Middling County Probate Court to witness the tape. I can only hope they don't start telling others about it afterwards.

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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