Chapter 32: Friday, Dec. 15

In which a preposterous domicile is visited, and lust, exquisite food and talk of good vs. evil intermingle.

By Alfred Alcorn

Published September 24, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

The house is empty. I sit here in my modest eyrie, my head and my heart thumping from alcohol, from thwarted desire, and from a despair so solid and dark I feel entombed. We take our faith in mankind, if not in God, for granted. We scarcely know we have that faith until someone challenges it. Then we find ourselves unmoored, casting about for any anchor of decency to cling to.

This afternoon, Diantha, dressed alluringly in slacks, a clinging jersey, and tailored jacket, came in to see me at the Museum. My delight at her appearance vanished when I learned she wanted to borrow my car to drive out to "Eigermount," as Mr. Bain's country place is called. I was perfectly willing to let her take the old thing, but then she had another idea. "Why don't you drive me out instead? That way you can see Freddie in his natural habitat. It's surreal, to use one of your words."

When I declined, she persisted. "Oh, come on, Dad, you need an outing."

I couldn't really refuse, even though I was busy with year-end budget matters. Dealing with surpluses, I've found, is quite as tiresome as dealing with deficits. So we took a cab home where Diantha packed an overnight bag.

We drove northwest out of Seaboard to the Balerville Road and the picturesque little town of Tinkerton. Where the road forks just beyond a bridge that crosses Alkins Creek, we went right. The route climbed for several miles through gloomy stands of pine and hemlock and brought us eventually to a turnoff that would have been easy to miss. We drove into it and made our way along a rough and rutted drive.

Well, Diantha was right about one thing. Seemingly out of nowhere, like a castle conjured in a tale about sinister fairies, rose a great round structure of cut granite. Nestled in a rug of evergreens, it towered at least four stories against the side of a steep declivity. The windows, narrow vertical slits with Gothic arches, blinked at the visitor uncomprehendingly, bringing to mind that line in Yeats about the pitiless sphinx.

A baleful kind of folly, I thought immediately, but let that impression seem, in my outward expression, a kind of awe. "A Martello Tower in the woods," I said, as though giving it some kind of architectural context might blunt the sense of foreboding I felt wafting from it.

We pulled up across from the main entrance -- two massive oak doors with studded hinges set in a portal with pointed arch and curved surrounds of weathered stone. I wanted to drop Diantha and scuttle back to the office. I wanted really to keep Diantha in the car with me and drive away. But as in a dream bordering on nightmare, one of the oak doors opened, and Freddie Bain, in loose trousers and one of those Russian tunics cinched around the waist, came forth.

The man positively clung to me. He wouldn't hear of my returning without coming in for a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

I parked the car, and we crossed over a virtual drawbridge spanning a dry moat before entering through the great doorway. Such places are not really my cup of tea, but I admit the basic design had a vulgar grandeur to it. Indeed, it reminded me of the Museum, only circular, the central core an atrium around which rooms led off from balustraded balconies. Sconces in the form of torches alternated with large oils on the walls, which, made of marble or synthetic marble, gave off a dark shine. An octagonal skylight opened dimly at the top.

Diantha, apparently knowing the place well, went into a kitchen off the main floor to see about tea. Mr. Bain showed me around. He was particularly proud of the immense fieldstone fireplace that, situated on the side of the building against the mountain, rose up through three stories, narrowing as it went before disappearing into the wall. Somewhat prosaically, the heads of mounted game -- mostly deer -- looked down with glass-eyed serenity from over the fireplace.

"I had a moose up there, but he was too... How do you say..."

"Lugubrious," I suggested.

Then, as though on the same subject, he said, "Permit me to express my condolences on the death of your wife, Diantha's mother."

I nodded and murmured my thanks, feeling oddly compromised. "This is quite a space," I said, sweeping my arm around the area. There were sofas and several armchairs upholstered in black leather on a raised stone dais before the fireplace. A dining area, not far from the kitchen door off to one side, was furnished with Chippendale table and chairs. Otherwise, the remainder of the ground floor, a vast expanse of polished hardwood that gleamed, remained bare. "What do you use all this for?" I asked.

"Human sacrifice," he said, and laughed, making a sound devoid of humor. With a sharp glance, he went on. "I hear you have a very interesting tape from the late Professor Chard." We had stepped up onto the raised area and he was indicating an armchair to one side of the fireplace.

I tried to dissemble any double-take. "Diantha told you?"

"She says you say it's quite... sensational."

"That's one way of putting it."

Mr. Bain, whom I could see was handsome in a brutal kind of way, pursed his wide mouth. His frown was nearly confiding. Though accented, his English was very nearly American colloquial. He said, "I don't know quite how to put this delicately, Mr. de Ratour, but I believe that tape is my property." He turned and scarcely had to stoop to enter the fireplace, where he tended to the lighting of paper, kindling, and massive logs.

"On what grounds do you base that claim?" I asked, as evenly as I could.

"As you know from Professor Bauer, The Green Sherpa funded most of that expedition."

"He told you he told me?"

"He did." He bent with a long taper to light the fire in various places.

"In that case Professor Chard should have sent the tape to you. He very clearly sent it to me at the Museum."

"We had an understanding."

"In writing?"

"We are men of the world, Mr. de Ratour. We are gentlemen. We don't need lawyers to keep ourselves honest." He emerged from the fireplace.

"Perhaps, but I'm afraid you'll have to discuss this with the Museum counsel. I have given the family my word as a gentleman of the world that the tape will be kept sealed in a vault for the next fifty years."

Mr. Bain, the fire now roaring dramatically behind him as though he had stepped, a blond Lucifer, from the flames, smiled grimly. "We will discuss this matter at a more appropriate time... Norman. You don't mind if I call you Norman."

"Not at all." But I did in a way. The inner cringing that people like Mr. Bain provoke in me had already started. I glanced around. To change the subject, I said, "You built this yourself?"

"I did. With an architect indulgent of my whims."

"Which are also many, I presume."

"They are."

"Your restaurant and gift shop must do well to be able to afford this kind of whimsy. Not to mention..." I left it hanging.

"Whimsy?" he repeated, perhaps offended. "Oh, I have many other... resources." He moved out over the coffee table across from me. "Would you like to try a cigar. From Havana."

"No thanks. I never learned to enjoy tobacco."

"One of life's minor little pleasures." He toyed with a cigar but didn't light it.

"You seem to have a penchant for things Russian."

"I have a penchant for many things." He looked in the direction of Diantha, who was emerging from the kitchen in the company of a little old lady in head scarf and frumpy clothes, a veritable Babushka. "Among them beautiful women."

"I would think Diantha worthy of more than a penchant."

He glanced at me anew, his mobile face, his mouth and the finely wrinkled flesh around his eyes, registering a realization and some faint amusement. "That is very well said."

Diantha came over with the tea and the Babushka. "Nana's teaching me Russian," she said with a little laugh. "Spassiba, Nana."

The old woman smiled a gummy smile and retreated.

Diantha, whom I found to be disconcertingly at home, sat in the armchair across from me and poured tea. "Isn't this an amazing place," she more exclaimed than asked.

"I've never seen anything like it," I said honestly.

We made small talk, Mr. Bain standing in front of the large, busy fire, very much the man of the manor. He was definitely Diantha's point of reference, the recipient of her smiles and small attentions. It dismayed me that she could be so taken with him. His charm struck me as an elaborate pose, a kind of parody he put on for his own amusement. He smiled as he related, with a kind of mock homage, how he had visited the Museum several times over the past year or so.

"I like primitive art because it is primitive," he said. "Its savagery has an honesty we've lost."

I nodded, but noncommittally.

Diantha said, "Dad thinks that all art forms have their own integrity."

With a knowing laugh, Mr. Bain said, "Except for that noise your friend Mr. Shakur makes."

What didn't he know already about Diantha and me? I wondered.

At intervals, Mr. Bain's pocket phone would ring, and I found it curious that he usually hung up after a word or two in a foreign language that may have been Russian or German, and excused himself to use a regular phone. At one point a man with a head of shorn, pelt-like hair and wearing a hip-length leather jacket appeared near the entrance and beckoned to Mr. Bain to join him elsewhere in the building.

I suppose I am too scrupulous in these matters to have taken the opportunity to disparage Mr. Bain and his effects in his absence. I doubt Diantha would have listened anyway. She seemed utterly oblivious to any of the more indirect cues I offered her as to my real feelings about the man. And each time he returned, her eyes would brighten and she would hang on his every word.

As I was making motions to get up and go, Mr. Bain produced a bottle of expensive vodka and insisted I join them in a shot for good luck. That led to a second small glass, knocked back with ceremony. And while still capable of driving home, I was inveighed into staying for dinner. It didn't take much convincing, I'm afraid to say. The thought of returning to an empty house had left me vulnerable. And I nursed a faint hope that Diantha might change her mind and return with me to Seaboard for the night.

You may imagine my surprise when the Babushka, answering the sound of a gong, went into the small foyer at the main door and returned with Celeste Tangent in tow.

I expected from the lab assistant a start of surprise, a frown, a look of alarm, even. But after she had finished a loud and elaborate exchange of greetings with her host, she turned to me with an irresistible charm of smiles, voice, and gesture. "Norman, how delightful to see you."

"Miss Tangent," I said, inclining my head, standing my ground.

She gave a quick, toothsome laugh. "'Miss Tangent!' Oh, I love it. So full of restraints. Not that this place is a stranger to restraints. And, Di, princess!" She turned to Diantha. How are you? You're so right about Norman. He is precious." Then to me again, her hand sweeping the vast room, her silver bracelets jingling. "Isn't this wild! Don't you love its..."

"Extravagance," I offered, finding my voice. I was, despite myself, under the woman's spell.

"Yes. Yes." She took off her long thick fur to reveal attire that, though quite casual, slowly mesmerized me. I mean the pre-faded expensive jeans over nylons and thick-heeled pumps, a low-cut black jersey that molded her breasts just so and displayed her gorgeous throat and neck, what with her lustrous blond hair piled wantonly on her head.

"You will stay for dinner?" Freddie Bain intoned.

"Of course. Norman needs a date."

Norman did need a date. But I found myself wanting not to want what I wanted. I should have made some good excuse for excusing myself. I could have pleaded guilt or insanity or grief or all three. I felt complicit in some tawdry enterprise, but nor could I withstand the fantasy to hand, so to speak. Because Miss Tangent had me quite bedazzled, sitting next to me on the sofa, her shapely limbs articulate as she shifted around. In what remained of my detective's instincts, I understood then how she could have made slaves of Penrood and perhaps Ossmann. With my penchant for self-delusion, I told myself I might be able to get her, in a weak moment, to tell me about what was happening in the Genetics Lab. But I can see, looking back, that all the weak moments were to be mine.

For the nonce, it was Mr. Bain who saved me from any overt foolishness. For reasons I cannot fathom, the man seemed determined to impress me. Glasses in hand, we began a tour of the "art" that hung both in the main room and along the balconied walls. Diantha kept glancing to me now, as though trying to divine if I approved. I didn't. To me the stuff -- Daliesque vistas foregrounded with muscle-bound blond men and great-breasted naked Valkeries with heroic buttocks doing violence to subhumanoid forms -- appeared to be utter kitsch. Or kitsch so kitschy it achieved a kind of parodic authenticity. Art as a serious joke, so to speak. Not that Mr. Bain betrayed any self-amusement as he led us around.

"And what do you think, Norman?" Miss Tangent had hooked her arm in mine, had taken virtual possession, and now delighted in putting me on the spot.

"Influenced by Dali and perhaps by Wyeth, but N. C., not Andrew," I responded, fending her off with a gloss of erudition.

The works on the third tier included a Werner Peiner landscape, an Ivo Saliger nude, and a large mural of muscular Aryans, men and women, at various kinds of outdoor work. "Looks like Communist art," I said to Miss Tangent out of earshot of our host. "I suppose you could call it National Socialist Realism." But my bon mot did not appear to register.

Instead, Miss Tangent unhooked her arm and took me by the hand. "You want to see my favorite room?" I didn't have a chance to answer as she led me along the balcony to a door in the wall behind the fireplace chimney. It opened into a large bedroom with a row of pointed gothic windows on either side. A rug made from two polar bear skins lay in front of a smaller fireplace while a bed capacious enough for giants stood to one side under two angled gilt-framed mirrors. These hung from a ceiling where the beams stood out bold and formed with the joints a coffered effect. A painting over the fireplace depicted a knight in shining armor and a large-limbed maiden vaguely of the pre-Raphaelite School.

I didn't try to conceal my wonderment at it all. Because it wasn't until I glanced out of one of the windows that I realized we were in a kind of wide bridge between the main pile and the side of the mountain in the back.

"Is this the master's suite?" I asked, deliberately employing the Saxon genitive.

"Oh, no, that's upstairs. That's restricted territory. It looks like this only... it has a winding staircase that goes up to the top where there's a greenhouse and a pool." She gave her wide-mouthed laugh. "Maybe we'll all end up there... for a swim."

Which left my head swimming a little at the prospect. I walked over to the fireplace and, pretending some interest in Sir Galahad kneeling before the diaphanously clad beauty, asked, "Do you work for Freddie?"

"Don't we all?" Her laugh had a bitterness to it this time. "Oh, Norman, stop playing detective. It's a real turn-off."

"Miss Tangent..."

She had taken both of my hands in her hers, and it seemed unmannerly to shake them off. "Seriously, Norman, you're off duty. Officially. Until morning. Then we'll straighten everything out for you."

But Miss Tangent remained very much on duty. She let go my hands and reached up to give me a kiss, opening my mouth with hers and for the barest moment entwining her tongue around mine. At the same time she reached a hand down and brought it up softly against the crotch of my worsted trousers with a gesture so light and fleeting it might never have been. "I can tell, Norman, you're not the kind of older guy who needs much help."

I maintained enough presence of mind to ask, "Perhaps that's something you could tell me about?"

She pulled away. "If you're going to be a bore, I'm not going to get naughty with you. Or perhaps I'll just have to spank you."

It would be less than honest to say I wasn't tempted. Most immediately by this attractive woman, by the thought of a night with her on that vast bed, along with God knows what combinations of Diantha and Freddie Bain, the two polar bears, and the little old Babushka, for all I knew. Because Miss Tangent's jean-clad haunches swung before me with maddening palpability as we descended the stairs to the main floor. And as real as they seemed, I felt a deeper, more irresponsible temptation. To simply let go. To smile, finally, to laugh, to loosen my bow tie, and to give in to the allurements shimmering around me.

But I had misgivings, about Diantha's situation, for instance. What kind of sordid, silken rat's nest had she gotten herself into? Perhaps, I kept thinking, I should have been more forthcoming about my suspicions before we went snooping around his gift shop.

All the while, vodka, and then wine from Georgia -- the Republic -- kept flowing. We arranged ourselves at the dining table, which had been unleaved so that it was nearly square. I sat across from the host, the host from hell, as it turned out. I was sober enough, though, to realize that the meal the Babushka set out was far better than anything Mr. Bain served in his restaurant.

As we finished supping a chunky borscht and began some delectable piroshki, the discussion turned to the music issuing from well-hidden speakers. I recognized it as Wagner, but couldn't place it as his music seems to me one long continuum. Mr. Bain and I re-enacted the Wagner-Brahms debate in a minor key. I stood my ground, saying that Wagner was for hearing and Brahms was for listening to. Mr. Bain, imbibing heavily and growing ruddy of face, waxed dogmatic and craven at the same time, boring in on me, as though desperate for my affirmation of his tastes and ideas. Was it Diantha? I wondered. Did he want me to approve of him for her sake? Or was he just one of those men who cannot imagine others holding opinions different from his own?

I tried to involve the girls, as I thought of them, in other topics, including the food. The lamb shanks, baked to a turn in rosemary and served with a subtle, tomato-tinged gravy and garlic potatoes, had me asking Diantha how to say thank-you in Russian.

But Mr. Bain proved relentless. He wanted to talk about art, which turned out to be a subterfuge for talking about politics. I didn't mind when he excoriated 20th century art, especially the abstract stuff, calling it the greatest hoax of all time. I have heard those sentiments before. I comfortably demurred, confessing that I found a lot of early Picasso delightful. I declared a partiality for the works of Max Beckmann, saying I paid homage to his "Self Portrait in Tuxedo" whenever I went to Cambridge.

"Beckmann!" He spit it out like an expletive along with bits of food he was chewing.

"And August Klimt," I went on, baiting him a little. "I find his prostitutes touching and beautiful."

"Weimar scum," he said dismissively. "Degenerates."

The pot, I thought, calling the kettle black. But I simply shook my head and tried to dissemble a distinct repugnance as I remarked to myself the congruence between my host's opinions and the shirt of scarlet silk beneath his tunic and the welling Wagner and the flames from the roaring blaze in the fireplace reflecting off the polished walls and the deplorable oils, the whole effect creating a hellish Valhalla.

It got worse.

Mr. Bain leaned across the table and shook his head with exaggerated effect. "Do you know, Norman, who is the greatest artist of the 20th century?"

"I have some opinions, but I'm not very passionate about them," I replied.

"Adolph Hitler." He paused for effect. "Der Führer."

"You're not serious?" I said, rising to the bait with that queasy disquiet such topics elicit. Just a bad joke, I hoped. Because, guest or no, Miss Tangent or not, drunk or sober, I was not to be suborned into anything like admiration for or understanding of, however ironic, that arch villain.

Mr. Bain's smile had a Mephistophelean curve to it. "Think of it, Norman. Think of it in terms of what we are told art must do. Épater le bourgeoisie. Well, Mein Fuührer epatered them to the roots of their little beings, did he not? He epatered them like no one else has before or since. He made us stop and think what it means to be human."

"Or inhuman..."

It was not really a conversation. My host had turned declamatory, his words coming like something he had gone over in his mind or rehearsed with others again and again.

"War is not art," I said.

"On the contrary. World War II was his masterpiece. The world itself was his canvas. He drew his brush across it. He carved and painted with men and machines..."

"And madness."

"Yes, inspired madness. Der Fuührer was modern way beyond his time. While Picasso and the others were dabbling at their little experiments with reality, Adolf Hitler conceived and executed a fantastic, glorious war. He created new levels of reality. Do you have any idea of what life was like during the battle for Stalingrad? Do you know that human beings experienced there another order of existence?"

"Is that art?"

"By today's standards, certainly. Think of it in conceptual terms. Think of it as a kind of installation..."

"Not a permanent one, thank God." I turned to Miss Tangent, thinking she would at least smile at my rejoinder. But she was under the man's spell.

Mr. Bain leaned across the table and jabbed the air with his fork. "What do those faggy little critics keep telling at us every time someone slices a cow in half or buggers himself with a crucifix? They tell us it is art. And if we protest, we're told it's supposed to disturb us. Well, by that standard... I mean Der Führer disturbed us, didn't he? He still disturbs us, doesn't he?"

I looked to Diantha and, even allowing for the amount we had all drunk, was appalled to see her apparently impressed with the rantings of this charlatan. Perhaps she had heard this all before. Which made it worse.

"You are pushing the limits of irony," I said, hoping for some relieving laughter.

Freddie Bain shook his large head and his expression showed a twist of demonic anger. "Irony? What makes you think I would stoop to irony? Art is supposed to show us as we really are. Der Fuhrer held up a mirror to mankind, and we remain horrified at what we've seen in it."

"But the Holocaust," I said, my answering anger making me stumble over the words.

"The Holocaust." The man laughed, a laugh I can still hear. Then serious, boring in again. "The Holocaust was Hitler's master stroke. With the Holocaust he made himself immortal. Look around you, Norman. His monuments are everywhere. Every time the Jews put up another memorial to try to get the goyim to feel sorry for them, they honor Hitler's achievement."

I took my napkin off my lap and put it on the table preparatory to rising. "Who are you?" I asked.

He ignored my question. "Think about it, Norman. Think of who he killed. The Jews. Stalin killed more people, many more. Stalin had them shot. He had them worked and starved to death. But who did he kill? Kulaks. For Christ's sake. Peasants with more than one cow. A few intellectuals. Bureaucrats. Do you think if Hitler had killed twenty million Chinese anyone would care? Mao killed many more than that. No, Hitler killed Jews. The best and the brightest, no?"

I was reduced to shaking my head.

His eyes, cold and mocking in his inflamed face, bore into mine. "They wanted, my friend, to be chosen. Hitler chose them. The Jews claim they were chosen by God. But we Aryans know we were chosen by nature."

"I am not your friend."

"As you please, Mr.... de Ratour. I regret to upset you."

But he clearly didn't. He was leaning even farther across the table, his voice a loud whisper. "Do you know what every Jew fears deep in his heart?"

"People like you."

"No, no, I am not jesting. They fear, my friend, deep in their hearts, that Hitler was right."

"That is only human," I replied with some fervor. "Most people know in their hearts that Hitler was wrong."

"Don't be so sure, Mr. de Ratour. You would like to think, wouldn't you, that you would never have joined the Schutzstaffel, that you and those you know would be incapable of such a thing. But under different circumstances, in different times... People who thought of themselves as decent and law-abiding and progressive joined the Nazi party. The same kind of people joined the Communist party..."

Incredibly, he laughed. "They both got more than they bargained for, didn't they? They got right up to their noses in the blood of others. And when the party was over and fingers started pointing, they scuttled for cover like cockroaches." Then, his face taking on a strange, haunted cast, he said, "But my father never did. He never hid what he was. Never."

"Diantha, I think you should come along with me now."

"You see, Mr. de Ratour, what we really don't want to admit to ourselves is that evil can be fun. Think of all those films that have Nazis and ex-Nazis in them. That shiver of excitement when the swastika fills the screen."

"Hitler is dead."

"Then why do we have to keep killing him?"

I coughed to clear my throat. "I'm finding this conversation more than distasteful." I stood up to leave.

He rose to his feet as well. "You're running away, Mr. de Ratour. You're running away from yourself."

"You are not I."

"Do not be so sure, Mr. de Ratour." He stood up as well and leaned across the table. "Tell me, are you a Christian?"

"I'm an Episcopalian," I responded, not sure I had answered his question.

"Yes, then tell me, sir, where was your Episcopalian God when the trains pulled into Treblinka? Where was He when Khrushchev and Kaganovich, a Jew, by the way, deliberately starved to death six or seven million people in 1932 and 1933? Where was He when the machine guns of the special units overheated at Babi Yar? Where was your Episcopalian God when Stalin worked and starved and froze to death those millions in the mines of Magadan? Where was he when Pol Pot murdered a quarter of his countrymen? When the Hutus sharpened their pangas and hacked to death half a million Tutsis? Tell me, Mr. de Ratour, where was your almighty Episcopalian God?"

Had I only heard the man's raised voice it might have sounded like a cri de coeur. But Freddie Bain was smiling broadly, was on the verge of mirth.

"God is not cruel."

"Then why did he create us as we are?"

"Man is free to be evil," I said.

"Then God, too, is free to be evil. Think about it, Mr. de Ratour, if we are made in the image and likeness of the Almighty, Mr. de Ratour, then like us He needs a good laugh now and again. And what could be funnier than looking down on mass murder? Hilarious. Knee-slapping. God-roaring. A scream. Face it, Mr. de Ratour, God is a joker. If He made us for anything, He made us for his amusement." At which point he laughed himself, his noise bouncing like the reflected flames off the surfaces curving around us.

"That, sir," I said though a clenched jaw, "is the most damnable blasphemy I have ever heard."

"Not so, Mr. de Ratour. If not laughing, what else could He have been doing? And if God doesn't exist, then what difference does it make? We are then but infinitesimal specks on a speck, our greatest and worst moments of history of no more significance than what happens on a petri dish."

"History judges," I said, grasping at straws.

"History comes and goes."

"You're mad," was the best I could do.

"Bah," was all he said to my pathetic response. "And I want my tape." With that he turned unsteadily, but with a certain melodramatic flourish, and walked across to the fire. There, backlit by the flames, he stood and toyed with a cigar.

A moment later, Miss Tangent went over to join him. I looked at Diantha. "I think you should come home with me now."

But she seemed under a spell. She looked across at Freddie Bain and said, "Oh, Dad, Freddie's just pulling your leg. He has his little rants. Everybody does. You should have heard Sixy get going about gays. He wanted to kill them all."

I implored her again, knowing it was futile. I was torn myself. I was afflicted with the worst kind of lust. I was angry enough to burn the place down. I was filled with an awful foreboding. Though I had no real proof, I was now certain Freddie Bain had a lot to do with what was happening at the Museum of Man. But I couldn't stay.

It was freezing and dark outside, with the upper reaches of his preposterous domicile looking like battlements against the night sky. I got in and started my cold old car. I had been shocked into sobriety but still drove with the exaggerated care of the technically drunk. I was full of rebuttal. In the after-arguments running in my head, I stood back, remained dignified, and said things like, "If Hitler was an artist then art has no meaning." Or, "The profundity of nihilism is an illusion." Or, better, "Nihilism is the profundity of the unimaginative." Why? he would ask. And I would respond: "Because it is easy to imagine nothing, and evil is a form of nothingness."

I stopped at a roadside diner to drink coffee and calm down. I kept trying to convince myself that God is good. That the world is good. That people are good. The worst kinds of self-doubts gnawed at me, the kind from which you cannot escape into nice big abstractions like nihilism. Could I, I asked myself, have been a Nazi under other circumstances? No, I said, no. At the same time I knew my denial was an indulgence in the moral luxury afforded by hindsight.

I also wondered, as a more immediate concern, if I had done the right thing in walking away. Am I a coward? A moral coward and, where Miss Tangent was concerned, a sexual coward?

I am mired in confusion. With Elsbeth gone only days, I scarcely know my own heart. I loved Elsbeth. I thought I loved Diantha. And perhaps I do. But now that love has been polluted with lust for another. I sit here writing this with my head on a poker of pain wanting, in the depths of my corrupted being, feeling her lips and her touch, to be in that big bed with that mocking, maddening, Lorelei.

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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