Chapter 37: Monday, Jan. 1

In which Diantha returns to the Eigermount, Norman follows, and his imagination starts working in feverish double time.

Published October 5, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

I am in a hellish quandary. Diantha has gone back to that ridiculous gangster and that absurd pile in the woods, and I don't know whether she has been kidnapped or not. She may simply be suffering from the common illusion that love conquers all. There must be some evolutionary advantage to self-deception. How else to explain its prevalence among the human species? Especially when it comes to love. Especially among women.

But not just women. Since the incident with the doctored food, I have harbored the hope, however unrealistic, that Diantha would take Elsbeth's place in my life. Several times I have been on the point of declaration, suggestion, even action. But I have not been able to turn myself into a gallant suitor, bringing her roses and lighting candles. I have been, as I should remain, ham-strung by scruple. I am in mourning for my beloved wife. The figurative black band is around my heart as well as my arm.

At the same time I fear that in temporizing with Diantha I have lost her as I lost her mother so many years ago. For courting too slow, as the song has it. Not that Diantha has been open to any real advances had I made them. She has been in turn flirtatious, gay in a semi-hysteria, drawing me on then laughing me off when I reciprocated in the slightest way; and then silent, her eyes avoiding mine. I have heard her talking at length on that little phone of hers behind the closed door of her bedroom.

All the while I have been subject to a kind of sensual haunting. Diantha did love me, after all, if only under the sway of that pernicious potion. And I almost willingly delude myself that, despite the grotesque circumstances, we made love rather than merely raped each other.

Our coexistence would not have been easy in any event. It is difficult and soul-trying to stay vigilant. It was a strain to be cooped up, especially given the way things were developing between us. I did go to work, impersonating a museum director. When absent from home I made sure that a cruiser drove by the house at regular intervals. I called to check on Diantha to the point, I'm afraid, that I annoyed her. But what else could I do? An attempt had been made on our lives.

Indeed, Lieutenant Tracy called yesterday at the Museum with some preliminary results on the food brought to us from the Chinese restaurant. It was saturated with the compounds that had been given to Ossmann and Woodley, Bert and Betti, and probably Spronger and Cloud. It had been nothing less, in short, than attempted murder.

Something had to give, and it did. About mid-morning yesterday, Diantha called me at the office to let me know that she was driving over to the supermarket at Northgate Mall to shop for groceries. And, in fact, we had run quite low on things. I cautioned her to be careful. I told her to park as close as she could to the door of the store, even at the risk of getting a ticket. She said she would be very careful, and I believed she would be.

I came home in the early afternoon to find she hadn't returned. I called her pocket phone number several times. It rang and rang, the last time in sync with a faint echo coming from upstairs. I went up and found it on her bureau. I didn't know what to do. I perhaps should have called Lieutenant Tracy then, but Diantha is, as they say, a free agent.

I finally took a cab down to a car rental outlet and obtained the use of a small inconspicuous sedan. I drove over to the mall and searched every conceivable parking place for my little car, but to no avail. Then, with my heart lurching, I drove out to that monster's lair in the woods, all the while rehearsing my rebuttals to his provocative remarks about God, art, Hitler, and history. I composed stinging ripostes that sent Freddie/Manfred Bain/Bannerhoff reeling.

Until, arriving there, I found I really had no words. Because what could I say, I wondered, as, through a gap in the trees some distance from that ludicrous bastion, I could clearly see my little Peugeot docilely parked next to an expensive English car. I suppose she could have been car-jacked, as they say these days. Mostly, I hate to admit, I was fearful of appearing like some old besotted fool, knocking on the door, hat in hand, a beggar for love. Because, however trenchant my speech to him, what claims, really, could I make on her?

Perhaps I should call Lieutenant Tracy, but I have no real proof of anything. I would be loath to tell him what may be the truth: that Diantha prefers that ogre to this ogre.

Because now my imagination works in feverish double time conjuring all sorts of debauchery out at that ridiculous place where Sir Walter Scott meets the Third Reich. Manfred Bannerhoff aka Freddie Bain is not circumcised. Why does her knowing that torture me so? Why can I visualize so acutely her fondling, her submission, her hunger for that prick's prick. There, I have, finally, been reduced to vulgarity. I want to take my gun and ... I am going mad.

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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