Chapter 9

Psyching Out The Profs

Violins danced playfully around the Old Boy’s ancient phonograph. Reflected rays of the setting sun sparkled from an ensemble of crystal in his China cabinet. The first movement came to an end just as we clinked our glasses in a toast.

     "You are putting me on the spot, Dr. Westley. But if you make me guess, I’d say it was Mozart."


     "I appreciate music, but I don’t have an active understanding of it. I never played an instrument or sang in a boy choir, like you."

     "Of course, exposure at a young age is very important. But Mozart is so pristine, so accessible to everyone. And he has a certain spriteliness."

     The Old Man, himself, revealed a certain geriatric spriteliness, as he chortled on about Mozart. He compared Mozart’s move from Salzburg to Vienna, to his own move from Devon to Cambridge, where he studied medicine. Tonight the lesson in parable was "finding your talents." Young Westley had been impressed with the Cambridge biochemists but was uncertain that he had "skills for the science of the general." He had discovered greater skills in the "science of the particular," such as determining cause of death.

     While serving the British equivalent of a residency in internal medicine, he "apprenticed" himself to the Coroner of London. As a sideline, he carried out certain x-ray examinations of mummies for the British Museum. This led to his "little project for the Egyptian chaps."

     Margaret announced dinner. After we were seated with food on our plates, it seemed natural for me to ask how they happened to come to Miami.

     "Oh, it was such an improbable series of coincidences!" exclaimed Margaret, turning towards Westley, who continued the story.

     "As I was telling you, I had earned myself a modest reputation in forensic archeology at the museum but hadn’t yet persuaded them to pay me. I had a semi-secure position with the coroner with a modest salary. We felt that we owed ourselves a little Caribbean holiday, did we not?"

     "It was a most marvelous cruise," affirmed Margaret.

     "Justin Waddington, an old friend from Cambridge, was doing something or other for the Consular Service here in Miami. And when he learned of our planned Caribbean holiday, he telegraphed that I simply had to stop in Miami. He scheduled me for a lecture on my Egyptian caper at the Miami Museum of Science. They had an Egyptology Society — still do, I believe. So I packed some slides in the bags, and off we went."

     It was nice to glimpse the human side of Dr. Westley.

     "Wessie gave a most brilliant lecture," added Margaret. "The audience were most taken with him."

     "But I must say, they were quite easily bedazzled. I rather suspect I could have told them that the pyramids were built on the advice of visiting Martians, and they would have been none the wiser for it."

     "Now Wessie, that is quite unkind of you. The ladies were so appreciative — and so helpful."

     "It was farcical," the Old Man persisted.

     Margaret cleared her throat and turned, with great effort, to face the Old Man. "You are being most unkind. And smug, snobbish and ungrateful. Have you lost all capacity for humility? You owe a debt of gratitude to those ladies, Jean-Ann in particular." Margaret was trembling.

     The Old Man’s face flushed and he stared for a long time at the tablecloth and played with his dessert spoon. "Yes, love. You are quite right. I do owe a great debt of gratitude to Jean-Ann. Bless her soul," he said almost prayerfully. We were silent for a long time. Then Dr. Westley turned to me.

     "But in the beginning of the evening it did seem rather farcical," he quietly explained. "The lecture was given in the ‘Space Transit Planetarium.’ As if it were some sort of way station to Mars! And then that silly buffoon insisted on turning on his planetarium machine and revealing to us the ‘Heavens over the Nile, Today, 2,650 BC!’" Westley was back to full volume.

     "You shouldn’t speak of him like that," admonished Margaret. He’s still — "

     "Yes. He’s still to be seen on public television around midnight with that bloody awful synthesizer playing Debussy’s Arabesque Number One," Dr. Westley exclaimed theatrically. "That particular evening promised to be such a farce that I nearly quit before I began!"

     "But you didn’t," Margaret said, half in contradiction, half in applause.

     "No. I presented my lecture, and managed to farce it out for them — in the sense of stuffing the fabric with wool, not in the sense of adding to the farce or pulling wool over their eyes, mind you — and my lecture was quite well received."

     The Old Boy could be so irrelevantly eloquent when he got up a good head of steam. He described the cocktail reception, the conversation with a Dade County commissioner who mentioned that the Dade County Coroner had just passed away, how one of the ladies proposed that he fill the position, how everyone magically agreed, how the Dade County Attorney was rousted out of his bed by telephone to affirm that the post required neither American citizenship nor a license to practice medicine in Florida, and how he was offered the job the same evening.

     Dr. Westley turned this into fatherly advice about how it can be necessary to move on, how one must recognize one’s skills and to be ready to seize opportunity. "Miami was a boom town back then, ready to make up for its deficits with ‘cash on the barrel-head.’ As with their recent choice of a symphony director, they wanted to import some first-class talent. Fine young man, he is, incidentally! In the best English musical tradition."

     "People have told me Miami has always been crazy," I said. "Some old-timers told me that in the late 1960s there was a guy studying dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium. Half of the people said that he was discovering that they had a humanlike language. The other half said that he was teaching them how to murder Viet Cong frogmen for the Navy."

     "’Twas probably a good measure of both," Westley said with a nod. "But craziness can be useful, if it pays the bills. Miami was, in fact, founded on craziness. Did you know that the City of Coral Gables was inspired by the lush "Barcarole Scene" from the Tales of Hoffmann? That’s why that Merrick chap dug his canals — to make it the ‘Venice of the South.’ And enough philanderers took it seriously to make Coral Gables a real city!"

     He recited a short history of Opa Locka. "Glenn Curtiss’ phantasy of an Arab city — minarets on every rooftop." He described it as South Florida’s contribution to the Roaring Twenties, with hordes of libertines acting out their fantasies of "A Thousand and One Nights" with the aid of free-flowing gin, money and sex. "But if we had been spared this sorry history, there would have been no Opa Locka University, and the Bryan Medical School might not have seen the light of day."

     I was glad when we finally "repaired to the balcony," where I could put an end to this cultural indoctrination session and tell him about my interviews with the profs.

     I told him about Dr. Gordon Taylor, making fun of his English parade-ground manner, but concluding that he was really a gentle soul. I conveyed all the important things in double-entendre, enabling me to deny under oath having discussed the profs as murder suspects. Concluding with Taylor, I said, "He doesn’t seem to have much ability in applied pharmacology, if you know what I mean."

     "Yes, ‘applied pharmacology.’ What a nice turn of phrase," Westley said, raising his bushy eyebrows to indicate that he understood my newly designated codeword for "toxin."

     The ex-choirboy proved a capable reader of nuance, readily learning my concept of Old Guard/New Guard. He tacitly agreed that Sturtz, Gunnison, Stampawicz and Pennington were of little interest.

     "Yes, Ben, one could agree with your impression that the ranks of this ‘New Guard’ are less likely to contain a brigand." Moving on to the Old Guard, he seemed to agree that Al Kozinski, the mensch, wouldn’t hurt anyone. His only reaction to our Acting Chairman, Dr. Peter Moore, was that he didn’t pronounce his name properly. Westley thought it should rhyme with "poor." He described Dr. Donald Fleischman as "a fine chap" whom he’d known "back in the early days."

     I told him of the absence of Dr. Howard Manson.

     "Yes I remember his picture: long scraggly beard, unkempt hair, wild-eyed look, rather like a bloody Irish terrorist from Belfast! But looks can deceive. And probably no ‘practical pharmacology.’ Still down at Brighton, is he?"

     Next came Dr. Grant Johnson, the laser jock. The Old Man raised a fuzzy eyebrow and pretended to not understand the expression ‘jock.’ This sent our conversation off on a tangent, with the Old Boy testing linguistic connections between jockeys, jock straps, disc jockeys, Scotsmen throwing the caber with kilts flapping in the breeze, Australian dialect, and cockney reverse slang. Finally, he dismissed Grant Johnson as "not having much ‘applied pharmacology’ either."

     The Old Man really got carried away, playing the irrelevant Englishman. And he drank a good deal of sherry and started dropping syllables. Maybe the Old Man wasn’t as upper class as he pretended.

     "I wanted to interview Dr. John Ledbetter, but he’s been out of town on some kind of business."

     "I see." The Old Man glanced down at his glass, and then said slowly and thoughtfully, "Well, I suppose that it is not possible to interview someone who is not here. You will of course interview him when he returns."

     In code, I asked him if Ledbetter and Manson were there on "D-day," the day of the deed. Westley reacted with frivolous chatter about "Monty’s invasion of Normandy." He finally agreed that "this intelligence could be delivered in due time."

     For some moments, Westley was pensive and quiet. Then he burst forth, saying, "Pray tell, my dear Benjamin, what other characters lurk in Madam Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors?"

     "The last man is George Ashton," I said neutrally.

     A glow of recognition came to the Old Man’s face. "Well, what do you make of him?"

     "That’s the question I’d like to ask you."

     "That may not be appropriate, Benjamin," he said stiffening. This told me what I needed to know. "You should give me your impressions."

     I described Ashton’s aristocratic demeanor, his hand-tied bow tie and how he always maintained conversational dominance. "He reminds me of a character in an old movie I once saw, the Scarlet Pimpernel."

     "Oh yes . . . Leslie Howard. Fine British actor. Much better than that New Zealander, Flynn, who was such a rake. Howard did a quite credible job for the British cinema." Why did the Old Boy keep getting off track?

     "Ashton has all sorts of ‘applied pharmacology.’ He works with snake venoms which act as neurotoxins."

     "I know."

     "He knows you, too," I challenged. Westley showed no reaction. I let a few seconds pass. "He said you and he ‘exchanged notes on snake venoms’ back in the early days. He said — "

     "I should hope that he did not — " Westley broke his composure and gave me a searching look.

     I recounted the details of our conversation and assured Dr. Westley that we had not dwelled on his history with Ashton or my work at the M.E. lab.

     It was now time for the Old Boy to tell me that Ashton was the one to zero in on. He stared for several silent moments towards the lights of Key Biscayne across the Bay. A small craft with a bow-mounted gasoline lantern had been slowly crisscrossing the Bay, half a mile out. Amateur shrimp fishermen. Probably Cuban-Americans supplementing their income and having a little fun on the side. Westley finally broke the silence.

     "Well, Ben, since Ashton is the only motivated ‘applied pharmacologist’ available to us at present, perhaps you should give his research some more special attention. Cautiously, of course."

     "Aye, aye, sir."

     It was time for me to go. Margaret had apparently retired, and Westley showed me to the door.

     The next morning I was standing in Dr. Ashton’s doorway, telling him how I’d read his papers and was definitely interested in neuroscience. He rewarded me with a phony smile and told me he had a special problem just for me. I should report to his lab the following Monday morning at nine o’clock.

     I made the mistake of being punctual.

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