Chapter 39: Monday, Jan. 29

In which the story concludes, all the loose ends (except some) are tied up in messy, peculiar fashion, and you'll never guess who reappears, though not entirely.


Alfred Alcorn
October 10, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

The repercussions of the Love Potion Case, as this curious tale has come to be called, are going to reverberate for some time for myself, for the Museum, and for the larger Seaboard community. There has been considerable media hoopla. There were calls from some quarters for a full investigation of Freddie Bain's death even after it became apparent that I had "taken out" a major drug lord.

Then, as more details came to light, I had to endure the fickle adulation of the media. At the same time there remains some concern for the safety of both Diantha and me in terms of possible mob revenge. Actually, I am more worried that some distant relative of Mr. Bannerhoff/Bannerovich/ben Rovich/Bain will show up with a lawyer in tow claiming wrongful death.

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I would like to have it generally known that I do not feel smug in the least about killing Freddie Bain, however richly he deserved to die. Though under duress at the time, though fearful for my own life and Diantha's, I question my motives now. I fear that I shot him in the heat of an argument. And that is the way despots win arguments -- by imposing the ultimate silence. I take some small comfort in the more likely possibility that I killed him because of Diantha, that it was, ultimately, a crime of passion. Who will ever know? In life, unlike in art, loose ends seldom get tidily tied up.

What happened to Celeste Tangent, for instance? She quite simply disappeared. Perhaps she had divined earlier than most that her erstwhile colleague, Manfred aka Freddie, was going off the rails. When the Seaboard Police, armed with a warrant, searched her apartment, they found evidence that she was long gone. I trust that, given her wiles and other endowments, she will survive quite well.

Lieutenant Tracy tells me that the SPD, now pretty much under the thumb of the FBI in this investigation, has a good idea of how Mr. Bain conducted his business. For some time various Federal agencies had been suspicious about the shipping coming and going at Clipper Wharf. The theory, promulgated by the FBI, was that he was using the import and export of highly aromatic spices to mask a far more lucrative drug trade. Apparently not. Instead the wharf, the restaurant, and the spice trade were merely a distraction. Most of his contraband came in on one of the larger trawlers using another dock. This ocean-going vessel "fished" specially wrapped and buoyed bundles of narcotics dropped off by tramp freighters far out to sea. Those little GPS devices come in handy for ill as well as for good.

Indeed, it turns out that Mr. Bain's castle in the woods contained only his private supply of controlled substances. This was found, cleverly hidden, in a chamber quarried out of the mountain's granite core, where he maintained a shrine dedicated to the Third Reich. Along with bits and pieces of Wehrmacht memorabilia, the usual flags and rags, there was a fountain pen supposedly used by the Führer and an ornamental dagger with a handle of early plastic, remarkably like ivory, adorned at the top with a swastika inside a circle.

It's quite clear from the evidence gathered so far that Mr. Bain planned, as he told me on that fateful day, to export the powerful aphrodisiac being developed covertly at the Lab in exchange for illegal drugs. What he intended to do with the enormous sums generated by such commerce remains a secret he took with him to his grave.

Dr. Penrood, I regret to say, has been deeply implicated in this matter. Among his papers in the Genetics Lab, investigators found a detailed account of how things transpired. It appears that Professor Ossmann, in his work on the hangover drug ReLease, came across a compound -- first noted in the research of Dr. Woodley and Professor Tromstromer -- which he dubbed JJA-48. It reportedly triggers the vascular dilation needed for an erection far faster and more aggressively than anything in Viagra, for instance. He combined this with other compounds and with a cocktail of psychoactive drugs that act directly on those parts of the brain involved with sexual urges.

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Dr. Penrood found out about these experiments through a routine inquiry into the disappearance of the small mammals Professor Ossmann was working on. When Penrood confronted Ossmann with his suspicions and threatened a thorough review by a committee of his peers, the latter decided to include the Director in his scheme. Basically, they were to repeat some of the experiments openly and proceed through the usual channels in developing and testing the aphrodisiac.

Freddie Bain found out about the experiments through Celeste Tangent. She, in her role as a provider of escort services, had "escorted" Dr. Penrood on one of his trips to a research conference in Atlanta. Penrood, smitten with her, took her on as a laboratory assistant. She, Bain's sex and drug slave, in turn made Penrood her sex and drug slave. I certainly cannot excuse Dr. Penrood's behavior, but I think I understand it.

There remain other details yet to be cleared up. Mr. Fang, who is very well lawyered, has said little to date as he maneuvers for some plea bargaining. It is not clear, for instance, how he knew Ossmann and Woodley would be in the Lab together that fateful night. It's not clear how he inveighed both of them to eat the food from the Garden of Delights that he or someone unknown had doctored with the fatal potion.

Speaking of which, and perhaps not all that surprisingly, the Ponce Institute has already come up with the trade names, Priaptin, the version being developed for men, and Lubricitin, for women. Another team has taken over the project and the Acting Director at the Lab tells me it shows enormous commercial potential.

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A thorough search of that monstrosity in the woods turned up the cellar room where Korky had been kept on a starvation diet. Korky appears, by the way, to have landed on his feet. With the cooperation of many of the haute cuisine restaurants in and around Seaboard, he has opened up a soup kitchen for the homeless dubbed "The Best Leftovers." It uses surplus food from the sponsoring eateries and aims at "personal redemption through fine dining." It's been so successful he has reserved a part of the establishment for paying customers.

Other matters are resolving themselves in one way or another. Production of "A Taste of the Real," Raul Brauer's self-aggrandizing film project, has come to a shuddering halt. It turns out that Freddie Bain was the principal backer. The government has seized all of his ill-gained assets, and I doubt it will feel compelled to honor Mr. Bain's obligations in that regard. Although, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that lawyers are working on it right now.

Speaking of which, Ariel Dearth has noticeably toned down his anti-lawyer rhetoric. He and several others have founded a group called Recovering Lawyers of America. They had apparently considered calling the organization Lawyers Anonymous but thought that it sounded too sinister. It seems RLA uses the twelve-step approach and vocational retraining to help lawyers break their dependence on "abusing the law." His project has drawn considerable public attention. Bills are being introduced in the state legislature to underwrite "the transformation of attorneys to useful citizens." Unfortunately, Mr. Dearth has become as ubiquitous as ever, not exactly a boon to the public, what with that face and all.

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On quite another topic, my book about the MOM, "The Past Redeemed: The History of the Museum of Man," has received some very positive advance notices. Indeed, on the strength of this reception, I have been asked by a well-known university publishing house to edit the considerable correspondence between Mason Twitchell and Lady Miriam Rothschild. At her country seat, Waddesdon Manor, the eccentric English aristocrat kept a large collection of trained fleas she pampered and dressed for show. To date I haven't said yes, but I haven't said no, either.

In the interest of promoting the Museum and my new book, I have made several guest appearances on national television talk shows. Elsbeth could watch them for hours and knew extraordinary amounts about the people interviewed and talked about. To me the shows all seemed the same -- a ritual in which the host and the guest try to be profane or profound. And I have always found it annoying when the host or hostess lowers his or her voice, mimicking sincerity and signaling to everyone they were asking a searching question. But I must say they all treated me with great respect and consideration. One fellow, in suspenders, reminded me of a side-show barker, and the alpha female on one of the morning shows had very nice legs.

Which brings me to my own situation. Two nights after the denouement in the castle, late in the evening, Diantha came into my bedroom where, restless, I was trying to read myself to sleep. She sat on the edge of the counterpane and, in essence, confessed that she had returned to the Bain place "on an impulse." She said she was going to try to convince him to leave me alone. "I knew it was a mistake the minute I got there. At first he was amused. Then he turned freaky. I mean really freaky. He wouldn't let me go. He kept asking me where Celeste was. He wouldn't believe me when I told him I didn't know."

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"Were you still in love with him?" I asked.

"Maybe. Until I got there and saw him again. Then ..." She sighed and looked at me with her marvelous eyes. "I kept thinking about you and me."

So, in quick succession, she came into my arms, into my bed, and into my life.

Diantha, it turns out, is pregnant. A week ago she informed me she was late with her period and that an off-the-shelf test from the pharmacy proved positive. I didn't know quite how to respond, to tell the truth.

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"It's yours, you know," she said, as we moved around the kitchen, making dinner together.

"How can you be sure?" I asked as the realization sank in through layer on layer of denials, no, no, no, culminating in a large, smiling yes.

"Freddie was shooting blanks. He had a vasectomy years ago."

"So like a nihilist!" I said, stopping to take her in my arms. "You're sure you're pregnant?"

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"Positive. I'm seeing the doctor, but I know I am. If it's a girl I want to call her Elsbeth."

"Absolutely," I said.

At the same time I knew I would peruse the autopsy report on Mr. Bain, where the fact of his vasectomy should be listed. What strange beings we be.

It hasn't been all roses between Diantha and me, but the thorns have been few and predictable. It would seem that I am playing Professor Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. But cultural transmission, so to speak, goes two ways. It's not simply a matter of, say, music. Like her mother, Diantha cannot abide Brahms. She can also be casual about meals. She doesn't like to cook, and I am still leery about ordering prepared food that comes in those white containers.

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It also turns out that my nubile Galatea has certain preferences of an intimate nature that test both my capacity for stimulation and the limits of my taste. And while a few eyebrows have been raised regarding our arrangements, I could care less. Not that I haven't tried to get Diantha to refrain from referring to me, in public, as "Stud."

In the wake of all this, I have initiated an ongoing discussion with Izzy Landes, the Reverend Lopes, and Father O'Gould. It could be that I have been seeking a kind of expiation for killing another man, however justified my action was in some lights. We meet at the Club for dinner and often end up speaking about the nature of evil and the nature of comedy. What intrigues us, I think, is the way comedy relies in large part on pain, mishap, even cruelty.

The good priest has admitted that evolutionary psychology has yet to come up with a credible theory as to why humor developed among Homo sapiens. It's not entirely clear, he says, in what ways a good laugh enhances reproductive fitness. For his part, Alfie Lopes concedes that neither of his good books provides much insight. There really isn't, he notes ruefully, one good joke in either the Old or the New Testaments. And, as Izzy points out, we can no longer look to Freud in these matters. The Viennese doctor's work, nowadays viewed as an inadvertent parody of the scientific method, is more a source of hilarity, however unintended, than an explanation thereof. Increasingly of late we have explored the possibility that comedy is a form of recognition -- but of exactly what, I believe, remains the mystery.

And finally, and I mean finally, gentle reader, you can imagine (you must imagine) my surprise this afternoon when, as I ruminated over this final entry in my office at the Museum, the door opened. In hobbled none other than Corny Chard, missing a couple of limbs, of course. His ruddy face, shagged with a rough beard, beamed with a wild smile. "Norman," he said, clanking over and sitting down in the chair before my desk, his crutch dropping to the floor with a clatter. All the while I stood, speechless with incredulity, and watched as his eyes lit up with a demonic, triumphant glee. "Norman ... Norman, man, do I have a story to tell!"

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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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