Oh, how the time drags when your life is on hold. I spent four depressing days hanging around the Medical Examiner’s lab waiting for Dr. Taylor’s call. It finally came late Thursday afternoon. In formal tones he told me I was accepted and would be awarded a fellowship of $12,500 per year. The program required each new student to conduct 30-minute get-acquainted interviews with all the profs. I should arrange these myself. The first official event would be a get-together luncheon, coming Tuesday. I told Doris the good news and asked to see the Old Man. He was pleased and not the least bit surprised. When I started to sit down and discuss strategy, he made a sour face and said I was invited to dinner for that purpose, that evening. Burk wasn’t surprised either when I handed him my letter of resignation.
When I told Carmen, her eyes moistened.
"But, Carmen, it’s not like I’m going to another city. I’ll be stopping in here every once in a while."
"You had better, viejo amigo!" she said.
I told her I’d be doing occasional maintenance on the instruments.
Suddenly, Jacob Brown became very interested in trouble shooting. I acted like I had no time for him, until he said "pretty please." Giving him a crash course tied me up until five o’clock. Then I began clearing my personal stuff out of the lab, stuffing it into a backpack. By a quarter to seven, I was riding to Dr. Westley’s, compiling a mental checklist of everything we needed to talk about. What should I tell him about Drs. Taylor, Sturtz and Gunnison? Which two or three profs should I concentrate on? With proper guidance from Dr. Westley, I could do a good job for him and probably start delivering answers in a couple of weeks.
At the guardhouse at Faire Isle, I repeated the scene with the luxury automobiles. This time, the guard was a Haitian who announced with an authentic-sounding "Oui, Monsieur" that I was among The Expected. Like his Jamaican counterpart, he commented that bicycles were an oddity in these parts.
As I tramped past the reception desk with my backpack, I was detained by a good-looking American brunette who politely but firmly asked me to state my business, which she then verified, telephonically, with Dr. Westley. I had no trouble finding Westley’s oaken door on the 43rd floor. He opened it on my second stroke of the brass knocker and graciously ushered me into his English country house some 400 feet over Miami.
"Ben, I am so pleased to have you visiting us. I chanced to see you riding up on your bicycle. I hope it was not too exhausting. In the summer, Miami is so dreary, with its heat and humidity. You can put that backpack by the door, and you shouldn’t be wanting the jacket until dinner, so let me take it. I thought we might sip a good sherry while Margaret is putting the finishing touches on the evening’s repast."
He produced a bottle and two glasses. He poured the sherry with a certain understated flourish, handed me a glass, toasted me with a subtle movement of his glass and said, "Cheers. I do hope that you share my little weakness for ecclesiastical music. It goes back to my childhood, so to speak."
In the corner were piles of records in dusty-looking albums. The jackets showed cathedral spires and organ consoles. He carefully took out a record from its jacket and placed it lovingly on the turntable of an ancient phonograph housed in a cabinet of polished mahogany. Deep within this fine piece of English cabinetry the turntable began to spin and music issued from the large fabric-covered speakers in a slowly-developing crescendo. I could practically smell the dust burning as the vacuum tubes heated up to power that antique.
Dr. Westley provided slow-paced, absent-minded chatter, explaining in bits and pieces that he had once been a choirboy at Exeter — "The Cathedral." He still had a hobby interest in music ("but completely vicarious and sedentary, I am afraid"). I committed the faux pas of sipping my sherry too fast and responding too slowly to his conversational offerings. Why couldn’t we get down to business?
Dr. Westley finally talked himself out. Our silence was filled by a sonorous boy’s voice singing a solo passage in Latin. How irrelevant, listening to this stuff when we should be talking about the investigation.
"Dr. Westley, I’d like to talk about how we’re going to solve the murder. There’s so much to discuss, and . . . ."
"I quite understand. Perhaps you would permit me to refill your glass," he replied in an even voice, but with raised eyebrows. My glass was completely empty and his was still three-quarters full. As he slowly picked up the bottle and refilled my glass, it became apparent that I was being mildly rebuked.
"Dr. Westley, I just feel like the guy in Kafka’s novel, The Castle. He couldn’t get in to do his job."
"Perhaps Kafka’s very point was to describe an exercise in patience."
"Or an exercise in futility?"
Dr. Westley slowly shook his head.
"You see," I plunged on, "there is so much that I need to know. Take the widow, Dr. Jane Cooper. You said that she suspects two or three profs. Which ones? She must have known everyone at Bryan. Knowing who she suspects would be very helpful to me."
"No, Ben, it wouldn’t. It would bring absolute disaster to your efforts."
"Look, there are twelve professors in that department. I can’t investigate them all. Which one is the suspect? I haven’t thought of anything else since you made your proposition to me." I caught myself just in time. I had gulped down half of the newly-filled glass of sherry and was becoming forceful. Westley sank deeply in his leather armchair. He stared vacantly at the floor a full minute, then slowly rose from the chair. For a dreadful second I thought he was going to ask me to leave. But he wandered to the corner of the room, opened the mahogany lid and pulled out the record.
"You wouldn’t mind bearing with me while we play the other side, would you?" he softly chided. "As you Yanks are so fond of saying, particularly your Southern variety, ‘I hear you talking.’ I can sympathize with you, but I cannot agree with you. It would simply not do for me to give you specific information on the personalities of this case. You must trust me to have put the pharmacological problem into stasis, so to speak."
He signalled with one bushy eyebrow and contemplated me in the diffuse gaze of his cloudy blue eyes. I put the dampener on my emotions and set my brain in gear. So he was telling me that he had put a big chunk of Dr. Cooper in the freezer where all the chemicals and protein toxins would stay frozen until we know what to look for. I nodded in understanding.
"And you might also give me credit for having taken certain steps to put the wrongdoer at ease."
This must have been the obituary which implied that Dr. Cooper’s remains were being cremated.
"But I shall give you no specifics, Ben. Any information which you receive, you will receive indirectly. As to why we must carry on in this indirect, inefficient manner, I shall answer you by analogy."
He carefully closed the lid and once again the boy choir filled the room.
"Ben, some fifty years ago I was honored to sing in the choir at Exeter. We were all so motivated in our choirboyish ways, wanting to please the director, who was quite a perfectionist. But there could be but one lead boy — the one with the best voice." The Old Man’s tone became so friendly, and a relaxed smile came to his face, as if he were recalling fond memories.
"The lead boy sang the part the most perfectly, enunciating correctly, with all the right nuances, and with perfect control of crescendos and diminuendos."
He blathered on about perfect pitch, holding memory of a note and making strong entrances in the correct pitch.
"Thus, the sound which issues from your mouth will be at once correct and beautiful. Ben, I sense you are becoming impatient," he concluded, in the tone of an offended schoolmaster.
"I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t see what this has to do with solving the murder." I probably sounded like an offended schoolboy, myself.
"Ben, it has everything to do with the murder. Your first step should be to refrain from speaking the word ‘murder.’ It is a most wretched and ugly-sounding word. Let us return to the youthful Geoffrey Westley and his fellow choirboys. We were all, in our own ways, striving for the perfection of the perfect solo — like the solo that we hope you will sing for us, Ben."
This time it was I who raised an eyebrow. The Old Man nodded in acknowledgment.
"The choirmaster told us about a perfect boy soprano who had once sung for him. He described all his attributes, but left him unnamed. We listened ever so closely, because we wanted to become that boy."
Dr. Westley chortled on about how a perfect choirboy always listened carefully, perceived nuance and never made the same mistake twice. He said these lessons served him well throughout adult life. He talked about learning to sing harmony when your voice turned alto, and having to sing your part as written, even when it didn’t make sense.
His message was that I didn’t know the whole score. I wouldn’t be "singing lead." I would "unwittingly" act as his eyes and ears in the Department of Pharmacology.
"You will see things which I would have no chance of seeing. You will obtain information in ways that the police cannot. Through polite and innocent conversation with me over a good English dinner, you will slowly reveal to me the realm of scientific possibility — the possible means by which one of those professors could have killed another, using the tools of his trade."
Hell, I could go along with his subterfuge. From overhearing Doris, I already knew that Dr. George Ashton was the one to investigate. I could play the good choirboy, picking up nuances in the Department of Pharmacology and "unwittingly" passing on "innocent" information at dinner. Afterward, I could truthfully tell police, prosecutors and defense attorneys that I had nothing to do with it. There would be no grounds for throwing the case out of court on constitutional technicalities.
The old ecclesiastic had a dandy circumlocution for the constitutional problem. "If we have lived our respective parts in practice, then we should be able to sing our respective parts from the depths of our souls. One must make a righteous and joyful noise unto the proper authorities. Do you understand?"
Well, it was a gray area since I would no longer be an employee of the M.E.’s Office. I gave Westley my assurances, adding that I’d already forgotten the conversation with him and Burk.
"Good. That fits with my memory of it. You would have made a good choirboy. Now that I have treated you to a ‘farewell dinner’ and have found I like you, I have taken a fatherly interest in you. Margaret also likes you. We lost our only son at a very young age, and it broke both our hearts. You are a sort of surrogate son to us. It has become habit to invite you for dinner once a week."
I asked, "But what happens if I come home empty-handed: A prodigal son." Dr. Westley smiled at my New Testament metaphor matching his Old Testament metaphor on "joyful noises."
"Well, we might not go as far as killing the fatted calf for you, but I wouldn’t disown you either. Possible failure? That’s the chance we have to take. We would at least have a better-trained Ben Candidi, who would hopefully receive his Ph.D. and return to my employ in a higher capacity. But I know you to be an intellectually curious fellow, and I know that you will, as they say in this country, ‘give it your best shot’."
As he chuckled over this witticism, Margaret came in from the kitchen.
"Margaret, have we killed the 'fatted calf' for our adopted son?"
"No veal tonight, Wessie. But I have just roasted a nice rump of beef, with potatoes, carrots and gravy."
"Well then, let us repair to the dining room and let the feast begin!"
Over a relaxed dinner, Margaret became less of an enigma to me. She grew up in a suburb of London as the daughter of a schoolteacher who eventually rose to the level of assistant principal. She married "Wessie" a few years after the war, and had "followed him through thick and thin." She said her first years in America were "rather like a Rudyard Kipling story."
"Our way of life is much different back in England, and I must say, please forgive me, more civilized — although Miami has certain organizations which help me to while away my time until I can return to England to further cultivate my arthritis."
This affliction did seem quite serious, and I felt sorry for her as she hobbled around slowly, bent over. Blue veins stood on her neck and head, suggesting a generalized circulatory problem. She had pronounced edema around the ankles, and I probably would have seen varicose veins if she hadn’t always worn three-quarter length dresses.
My visit seemed to make her happy, and she often leaned over to tell me something about "Wessie" in a conspiratorial tone. When speaking to him, she referred to me as "our fine young visitor." The Old Man seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
Dessert was accompanied by the reflected orange of a glorious sunset. Then the Old Man and I "went to vespers" on his balcony, which we approached through his Egyptology-laden study. An old, framed, black-and-white photograph caught my eye and brought to mind the Old Man’s choirboy lecture. There they were: thirty young boys, a handful of teenagers and a dozen men, robed and posed in four tiers on the steps before a cathedral chancel.
Around the seated choir director/organist stood his boys, dressed in black cassocks, white smocks and ruffled collars, ages between eight and 12. Some of the older ones had ribbons around their necks holding medallions the size of silver dollars — obviously hard-earned awards. The boys’ faces ran the gamut from conscientiously correct to mischievous to lackadaisical to carefree to intense to insouciant. Could I find the young Geoffrey Westley?
"Could a perfect choirboy be found among them?" asked the Old Boy, apparently reading my thoughts.
"Yes, I believe that it might have been this one," I said, pointing to a slightly obese 11-year old of serious demeanor. The boy stood in the second row, center, his left elbow practically touching the director’s right shoulder. His ribbon had three vertical stripes, in contrast to the solid color of the others.
"You will make a fine detective, Ben."
We "removed to the balcony." I told Dr. Westley how Dr. Gordon Taylor had described me as "cannon fodder" and had joked about making me "take the King’s Shilling."
"What does it mean, ‘to take the King’s Shilling’?" I asked.
"It goes back to the days when impress gangs roamed the English countryside, looking to Shanghai — if you’ll pardon the anachronism — unsuspecting country bumpkins for service of the King, as lowly soldiers and seamen. But in a groundswell of liberal fervor, Parliament passed a law that the recruit must first accept a shilling — hence, The King’s Shilling — before the recruitment would be binding. Then the press gang captains resorted to hiding the shilling in a free mug of ale. As a countermeasure, the innkeepers introduced pewter mugs with glass bottoms."
So I’d accepted the King’s Shilling twice: once for regular duty under Dr. Taylor and once for irregular duty under Dr. Westley. Were both officers serving the same king?
"Dr. Westley, I know that your job is to solve murders, and that the politicians are giving you trouble. But I sense that you have a more compelling reason for investigating this case."
"Yes, indeed. A knowledge of science enables one to create great good or great evil. It would simply not do to allow a rogue scientist to get away with bloodless murder." The Old Man uttered these words like a prayer.
He should have prayed to deliver me from my interviews with the next two profs.