Chapter 28: Tuesday, Dec. 5

In which Bobette Spronger admits to using soy sauce and we encounter Homo academicus.

By Alfred Alcorn

Published September 10, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Professor Randall Athol called me this morning to tell me there would an emergency meeting of the Subcommittee on Appropriateness Friday at 2:00 p.m. and that my presence was particularly crucial. I couldn't get out of him what the meeting concerned as he kept saying he was on one of those cell phones, which don't have a secure line. I can't imagine why my presence at one of the Subcommittee's meetings would be necessary unless it pertained to the Jones-Spronger affair. Perhaps there's been a development in their investigation into that sale histoire. Perhaps they want to chide me for going to the disputants directly in defiance of Subcommittee rules.

Well, if that's the case, I have a surprise for them. Bobette Spronger called me yesterday around noontime to confess something I had suspected all along. In that contemporary, and to my ears graceless accent, she went on at some length. "I know I like should have told you sooner, Mr. Ratour, but like for my rice I did like use the soy sauce I like found in one of those little plastic tubs someone left in the fridge."

"Why then," I asked, "didn't you tell me this before?"

"Because like it was against like my diet and I didn't want anyone to like know I was cheating. And Mosy like likes it with soy sauce."

"Is there any of it left in the refrigerator."

"I don't think so."

I rang off and called Lieutenant Tracy. He came over immediately and together we drove to the Library. We met in the nondescript little room where we had met before, and Ms. Spronger and Mr. Jones gave him a full statement. We were in the process of checking the refrigerator with the help of Mr. Jones, who wheeled around the place with admirable ilan, when the Director of the Library, a Mr. Dewey Jackson, arrived on the scene.

Our encounter with him represents an example, I can see in looking back, of the difference between real and fictionalized detective work. In that ethereal realm of Commander Dalgliesh, for instance, the police show up at a library and are treated with respect, even deference. In reality, Mr. Jackson, thinnish, balding, bristly beard, and stringy ponytail, a child of the sixties, demanded to know exactly what we thought we were doing in his library.

Lieutenant showed his badge and suggested we retire to Mr. Jackson's office, a request that had to be given considerable thought. Mr. Jackson made it clear he considered the police at best a necessary evil. We finally returned to the stark little room and sat around the table.

Mr. Jackson demanded to know if we had a search warrant.

The Lieutenant patiently explained that we were merely trying to ascertain the origin of any soy sauce brought into the building over the past several months.

"Then you are searching for something."

"Mr. Jackson ..."

"Dr. Jackson."

"Dr. Jackson, we are only making preliminary inquiries ..."

"I don't want you interrogating my staff without counsel present."

"We are only asking some basic questions."

"I think I should talk to the Dean about this."

There he was, I thought, Homo academicus at his worst -- petty, picky, and, despite all the bluster, timid. And what galled me to the quick was the realization that, in many ways, I was looking at a reflection of myself.

Lieutenant Tracy sighed. Then, his voice with an edge like cold steel, he said, "Dr. Jackson, we can go at this two ways. We, in your presence, can question the staff in a very casual way. Or, you can call the dean and the lawyers. I then go and obtain search warrants. I bring in a squad of investigators. We turn the place upside down. We maybe take you in for questioning. The public has a right to know, so we have to issue statements. People talk. Rumors start."

Dr. Jackson got the point.

For all that, we came up with precious little. A staff party in June had been catered by The Jade Stalk, a gay Chinese restaurant. There had been leftovers, including little tubs of soy sauce, which, as everyone knows, have a shelf life comparable to salt.

In the end, we agreed it was no breakthrough, but another important confirmation of what we already suspected. And there seemed little that we could do in a practical way. Issue a public health warning or a recall of all local soy sauce? That, surely, would only create a panic. Our "lead" had dwindled to a long shot, which the Lieutenant said he would continue to investigate.

On the way back to my office, he told me that Celeste Tangent had been seen several times entering the gift shop associated with the Green Sherpa during the past week or so. He said it probably meant nothing, but wondered if I might drop by there some time inconspicuously and get a sense of the place. He had heard the FBI had been interested in its owner, one Freddie Bain, for some time. But then, the Feds never tell the locals anything.

I agreed to poke around, dissembling that inexplicable shiver of anticipation and foreboding that comes over me when I sense we are onto the quarry.

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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