Chapter 26: Tuesday, Nov. 28

In which it's revealed that Miss Tangent's mother has Jesus for breakfast, and Big Moe and the Crazy Russian enter the picture.


Alfred Alcorn
September 5, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

Well, Lieutenant Tracy and I have taken the bulls by the horns, so to speak, and confronted Dr. Penrood and Celeste Tangent about their relations with Professor Ossmann.

In turns out that Ms. Tangent's possible involvement takes on added significance in the light of certain aspects of her background. Indeed, the Lieutenant's briefing on the matter provoked in me a heuristic arousal bordering on the unseemly. According to his sources in New York, both of the establishments mentioned prominently in her CV, the Caucasian Escort Service and the Crazy Russian, were controlled or owned through dummy corporations by one Moshe ben Rovich, a leading figure in the Russian-Jewish mob in Brooklyn with connections to Tel Aviv and Moscow. A leading figure, that is, until he crossed Victor "Dead Meat" Karnivorsky and disappeared a couple of years ago.

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The Lieutenant and I discussed strategy at some length. We decided to try to "break" Penrood first, using tactics somewhat less than gentlemanly. To that end, I put in a call to Dr. Penrood first thing yesterday morning, saying that I needed to see him in the Twitchell Room on a matter of some urgency. He said he could spare some time around eleven. I said that would be fine.

Penrood's evident if subtle British annoyance turned to a decided wariness upon his arrival at the Twitchell Room, where I introduced him to Lieutenant Tracy. I said the meeting was part of our investigation of the Ossmann-Woodley case, but was for the time being, anyway, still unofficial. We needed him to look at some video footage. The play's the thing and all that.

So after I had closed and locked the door and turned down the shades, we watched for several minutes in silence Professor Ossmann and two other persons in sexual congress. There was enough light for me to notice that Dr. Penrood's complexion went from considerable color to a decided pallor and back again.

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When the tape ended, I turned the lights back on. Lieutenant Tracy pulled his chair closer to Dr. Penrood's and leaned into him. "This footage is dated September 8. The man facing the camera is quite obviously Professor Ossmann. And we have reason to believe, Dr. Penrood, that the woman involved in this arrangement is Celeste Tangent and that the man with his back to the camera is you."

I took my seat to one side and watched Dr. Penrood wrestle with what to say. Finally he shook his head. "I don't want to say anything without a lawyer present."

Lieutenant Tracy leaned back, nodding as though in sympathetic agreement. "It's that bad?"

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"No, it's not that bad."

"Of course, Dr. Penrood, you have the right to remain silent and the right to consult an attorney ..."

Marvelous, I thought, the way the detective was using the Miranda warning.

He leaned even closer. "If you do decide to get an attorney before assisting us with our inquiry, as my colleagues in your country would put it, it could get very messy. You won't have to tell us much, true. But you see, Dr. Penrood, Ms. Tangent has documented connections with organized crime in New York. That will help us considerably when we go before a judge, show him this footage, and ask for all different kinds of surveillance as part of our investigation into the Ossmann-Woodley murders."

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"Murders ...?"

"That's what we've announced."

"Of course, of course," Dr. Penrood said, his nervousness obvious now.

When Dr. Penrood lapsed into silence for a good while, the Lieutenant quietly leaned forward again, his voice low and cold. "I can also assure you, Dr. Penrood, that if you help us now, we will make sure that no one else gets to see this footage. Because, as Mr. de Ratour can tell you, the Seaboard Police Department can turn into a regular sieve when it comes to leaks ... despite our best efforts."

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Dr. Penrood stiffened. "Are you blackmailing me, Lieutenant?"

"No. I'm only trying to reassure you. I want to know what happened the night you and Ms. Tangent and Professor Ossmann had sex together."

Dr. Penwood wavered a while longer. It was obvious, I think, that he was trying to figure out what to tell us and what not to tell us. Finally he sighed. "First, I want it established that my relations with Ms. Tangent are strictly my own business and I am only telling you what I know to help clear things up."

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"Of course."

"On the night in question, September 8, Dr. Ossmann and Ms. Tangent dropped by my office for an after-work drink."

"Had you been intimate with Ms. Tangent before this incident?"

Dr. Penrood hesitated. "Yes."

"When did your relations with her start?"

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"About six months ago."

"After she came on board?"

He hesitated. "Yes."

"Did you hire her?"

"Not really. I mean I was only one of several to interview her."

"Had she been intimate with Professor Ossmann before the incident with the three of you."

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"I don't think so. But ... she has a life of her own."

"As do you."

"Yes."

"Tell me, Dr. Penrood, what did everyone have to drink on the evening in question?"

"Sherry. That's all I keep in the office."

"Who poured it?"

I think I detected a look of cunning come into the researcher's eyes. "Actually, it was Professor Ossmann. He was well acquainted with the cabinet where I kept the sherry and glasses."

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"You knew Professor Ossmann well then."

"Not in any real social sense. He was always in there, usually complaining. The drink placated him."

Lieutenant Tracy looked up from the notebook he had been writing in. "How much sherry did you have?"

"A couple of glasses each."

"And Professor Ossmann poured all of them?"

"Yes."

"Over at the cabinet?"

"Yes."

"And in each case he could have slipped something in the glasses had he wanted to?"

"Yes."

"Tell me exactly what happened after you each had several glasses."

Dr. Penrood colored a little and cleared his throat. "It's hard to remember exactly. Celeste ... Ms. Tangent ... was sitting between me and Professor Ossmann on the couch. We all just ... started getting amorous."

"Are you bi-sexual, Dr. Penrood?"

"No. It wasn't that way. I and, I think Professor Ossmann, were only interested in Ms. Tangent."

"What happened then?"

"I said something to the effect that if we were going to get carried away, I knew a better place in the building."

"The staff smoking room?"

"Yes."

"So you went there?"

"Yes. It's just down the hall from my office."

"Did you ever feel at any point that you were under the influence of some ... drug ... or potion?"

Dr. Penrood did a very good job right then of feigning what might be called the ignorance of innocence. He shook his head, appeared to think back, made a grimace. "I can't really tell. It did happen quite ... suddenly. At the time I just thought it was ... Celeste."

"Do you know if Professor Ossmann was working on any kind of aphrodisiac? I mean on the side."

Again he hesitated, but only for a moment. "He could have been, but I doubt it."

"How's that?"

"Professor Ossmann was a serious scientist. He tracked assiduously every last little thing he contributed to any project. I doubt very much he would have been involved in something he couldn't put his name on."

"But it's not inconceivable."

"Right."

The Lieutenant looked up, glanced at me, and said, "I think that's enough for now, Dr. Penrood. I'm going to have this typed up and I would like you to sign it."

"But ..."

"It won't be under oath. If, later, you want to add or subtract something, we'll understand completely. People often leave out things, details."

"Is it really necessary?"

"No, not really. But it will look a lot better for you if ..."

By the time Dr. Penrood left he had lost that air of superiority that mantles so many British of a certain class.

I tackled, and that is the operative verb, Celeste Tangent next. Lieutenant Tracy suggested that I speak to her alone. He was of the opinion, and I agreed with him, that, given her background, Ms. Tangent might open up more with me, say things she might not say in the presence of the police.

So this afternoon, when Darlene ushered Ms. Tangent, "Oh, please call me, Celeste," into my office, the dear girl showed all the awed deference she might have kept for a movie star. I was a little awed myself, frankly, with the way Ms. Tangent's rich blond hair swept up from a regal neck, the sudden, brilliant smile lighting from behind the cornflower eyes, the form-fitting slacks and how she sat herself just so into the chair I held for her in front of my desk.

She was instantly alive with throwaway chatter in an accent I couldn't quite place, Oklahoma, perhaps, with an overlay of Brooklyn. "Oh, but I do love this part of the museum. I mean parts of it are creepy, you know, but really fascinating."

I nodded, half hypnotized not so much by the way her turtleneck of fine wool molded her ample bosom, but by her eyes and voice and how they played off each other, the effect was like some exquisite sonata. A lab assistant, indeed.

I cleared my throat. "Ms. Tangent ..."

"Oh, please call me, Celeste."

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to call you Ms. Tangent."

She smiled. "Actually, coming from you, it sounds really nice. But then call me Miss Tangent. Ms. always sounds like someone who wears heavy shoes."

I cleared my throat again. "Miss Tangent, as you probably know by now, we have a somewhat compromising tape of a person we know to be you with Dr. Penrood and the late Professor Ossmann involved in ..."

She gave a tut of mock self-reproval that, as she leaned towards me, turned into a kind of confiding embarrassment. "Oh, our little threesome. It was all my fault. I know you think Pen ... Dr. Penrood, isn't that a silly name, told me to tell you that. But it's true. Sometimes, Mr. ..."

"de Ratour."

"Mr. de Ratour, now that's a name. Anyway, there are times when I feel lonely with just one guy. But not with every man, Mr. de Ratour. There are men who are up to it. I can sense it in them. Even some older guys ..."

"Miss Tangent ..."

She smiled, gave a laugh. "So they have it on tape. Oh, my God, I hope my mother never gets to see it. She's born again. She has Jesus for breakfast. Can I get a copy? I could have been a porn star ..."

"But instead you became a lab assistant."

"Yes. Isn't life amazing?"

"Why?"

"Why is life amazing?"

"Why did you become a lab assistant?"

"It's where the action is, isn't it? I mean the men doing this work are the modern giants, aren't they? At least I thought so. There's a lot of teeny weenies out there."

"What are your connections with organized crime, Miss Tangent?"

She did miss a half beat on that one. She shook her head.

"You can talk to me, Miss Tangent, or we can involve the Seaboard Police Department directly. I'm sure you know the drill, the interrogation, the fingerprinting, the surveillance ..."

A different Celeste looked at me, as though with a loathing that had been there all the time. "What do you want to know?"

"What was Professor Ossmann working on that would interest Moshe ben Rovich?"

"Moe? Big Moe? Moe Rovich? You gotta be kidding. Nobody's seen Moe in years. They say he sleeps with the gefiltefish."

She was a good actress, but I didn't find her convincing. I had to conceal the sudden excitement of having hit a raw nerve. She overplayed it. She went on, elaborating when she didn't have to.

"Big Moe. Yeah, he used to hang around the Crazy Russian all the time. You'd think he owned the joint."

"He did own the joint, Miss Tangent."

"Really. Nobody ever told me."

"He also owned the Caucasian Escort Service."

"Yeah? That doesn't surprise me. The guy was always using the escorts, sometimes two at a time."

"You have something in common, then, don't you."

As Mr. Shakur would have put it, she blew her cool at that remark. "Listen Mr. little mustache, I don't have to take this shit from you. I know guys who could buy and sell you all day long and stick you in a hole at the end of it."

I nodded. "Perhaps if you would tell me what guys, we could be of help to you, Miss Tangent."

She stood up. "It's the other way around, pal. Take my advice. Pretend you never saw that little tape you probably keep around for jacking off. Pretend we never had this conversation. I'm doing you a favor. You can regard this as a health warning."

And with that she flounced her admirable behind out of the office, leaving the door open for dramatic effect.

Lieutenant Tracy and I met for an hour in the late afternoon going over each interview in detail. We came up with what might be called "degrees of complicity." Miss Tangent had indirectly admitted, with her threats to me, that something very untoward was or had been happening in the Genetics Lab. We surmised that Dr. Penrood was in some manner implicated, but to what extent we could not quite determine.

At one level we found it maddening that we had no real evidence pertaining to a solution of the Ossmann-Woodley murders, if that's what they are. At the same time we knew for sure that a conspiracy of sorts existed in the Genetics Lab and we knew at least two of the principals involved in it. I discussed Diantha's observation about the potential illegal market for a powerful aphrodisiac. Exactly, the Lieutenant said. That's exactly what I think is happening.

On another matter, he informed me that the SPD had received a lot of pressure to tell everything it knows about the disappearance of Korky Kummerbund and the reappearance of his column in a way that amounts to a kind of sick parody. Both the SPD and Don Patcher of The Bugle have kept mute on the subject, leading to wider and wider speculation. I hate to say it, but I'm grateful to both of them that they have kept my name and the Museum's out of it.

But Celeste Tangent. I must confess that I keep thinking about her. I don't believe I've ever met a woman more palpably sexual. It wasn't just her looks, but a sense that she is, in her minute-to-minute life, a hair-trigger away from amorous initiation or response. I now have watched that video clip with her and the two researchers several times, telling myself of course, that I was looking for some detail that might help with the case.

Just last night, when I knew Elsbeth was asleep and thought Diantha had gone to a movie, I was about halfway through it when the latter came into my old study where we have the enormous television. I hit the stop button, and the unmistakable image stayed on the screen.

She took a long look and laughed, "Oh wow, a real min`ge a twat. So, you're into amateurs, huh? I do think it's better than the professional stuff, you know, where the bimbos fake like they're really into it."

"Actually, it's evidence," I said, regaining my composure. "The man being fellated is Professor Ossmann."

"The one who got murdered?"

"Yes." I hit the play button.

"Too cool. So you're not just getting your jollies."

Or was I? I sat there, my heart in a wringer, reminding myself that Diantha was my daughter, my stepdaughter, it's true, but still my daughter, as she sat next to me on the couch and as lust, in all its confusing eddies, swirled around in me.


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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