A MATTHEW ALEXANDER MYSTERY

Earl Simms watched from a distance as the crowd grew in front of the information desk. He shook his head in disgust at the rising chorus of complaints as Janice, the receptionist, dished out her usual mixture of misinformation and confusion. After observing the chaos for several minutes, he reluctantly left his security post at the mall entrance to the Museum of Natural History.

"What's the problem, Janice?"

"I can't find this Canadian tour group in the computer, Earl. He claims his company scheduled a guided tour for 10 o'clock this morning," Janice pouted while pointing an accusing finger at a frustrated, middle-aged tour director.

"Are any of the docents here, yet?" Earl asked.

"No, but they aren't supposed to begin guided tours until ten-thirty, anyway," Janice answered.
All the tour members sent up a howl of protest at the prospect of yet another delay.

"See here, Miss, it's just nine-thirty. You can't expect us to stand around in this lobby for another hour waiting for your staff to arrive. This is the worst service we've had since we've been in the States," the tour director loudly complained.

"It isn't my fault you're not in the computer," Janice complained just as loudly.

"It's nobody's fault, Janice. Even if they were in the computer, they still couldn't get a guided tour until ten-thirty," Earl insisted.

"That's right," Janice readily agreed.

"Why don't you let your group browse through the museum until ten-thirty. We ought to be able to work you in by then," Earl suggested.

The tour director threw Janice a dirty look before consulting with the group of elderly men and women, who slowly dispersed throughout the museum.

Thirty minutes later, Earl Simms was manning his station when he heard a series of high-pitched screams from the east wing of the museum. He quickly left his post and ran toward the screams. Just as he entered the Cultures of Africa exhibit, he collided with a half dozen elderly white women from the Canadian tour group, all howling hysterically.

When the women saw Earl, they stopped screaming and started pointing in the opposite direction. Only one of the women mounted the courage to go back into the exhibit with Earl. She took him over to the African village diorama and pointed toward two of the tribal figures at the back of the exhibit.

"Lord have mercy! What in God's name happened here?" Earl asked as he stepped into the exhibit to get a better look. He very cautiously wove his way through an elaborate African village diorama of half a dozen conical thatched huts and at least a dozen figures of men and women dressed in ritual costumes, including two figures on stilts, until he approached the very dead, grotesquely staged bodies of two young black men. One victim was limply sprawled across the stump of a tree, his upper body leaning awkwardly against the wall, his head savagely twisted toward his right shoulder. The other victim was propped against a tree trunk with both arms hanging over the limb supporting the weight of his corpse, his head thrown back at a bizarre angle as if the neck had been snapped in two.

Earl shivered as the dead man on the stump looked at him out of vacant eyes. It was clear from the bullet wounds to their bodies that both men had been shot to death and that they had bled profusely from the wounds. Earl grimaced at the smell from the release of the victims' sphincter and bladder muscles. He also noted that the animal-skin loin cloths they were wearing had been twisted to expose their genitals and that the victims' ritual costumes also included elaborate ostrich-feather headdresses and beaded collars. There was a thick layer of yellow grease smeared on both bodies.

The lone tour member fled the scene just as other museum staff and security guards ran in. Janice, the clerk from the information desk, was the last to arrive. She elbowed her hefty two hundred fifty pounds through the crowd in front of the exhibit to get a first-hand look, then promptly shrieked and fainted. It took two security guards and a staff person to break her fall and to maneuver her hefty bulk through the crowd and into the ladies room, where they placed her on a sofa and called for first aid.

The Chief of Museum Security, Willis Brandt, was grim when he arrived. He found Earl at the front of the African village diorama, as far away from the bodies as possible.

"The last thing we need right now is all you people milling around in here!" Chief Brandt shouted at the crowd before directing the security guards to chase nosy staffers back to their posts.

"The director hasn't arrived yet, so I called Colonel Kendricks," Brandt told Earl Simms. "Speak of the devil," he said as he turned to find the Smithsonian's Director of Security, Wallace Kendricks, striding purposefully in his direction.

"What the Sam Hill's going on, Brandt?"

"We have a double murder on our hands, sir."
Kendricks stopped in mid-stride as he absorbed the news.

"Tell me you're lying, Brandt."

"I wish I could, but the bodies are right over there. See for yourself."

Reluctant to leave the site of so much excitement, staff members ignored Chief Brandt's directive and gingerly stepped aside to make a path for Colonel Kendricks to the front of the murder scene. He simply stood and glared at the two bodies. Chief Brandt looked sheepishly toward his boss anticipating the worst, but Kendricks said nothing.
His silence was as ominous as the warning looks that passed among the security guards at the scene.
He finally spoke.

"Any idea when this happened, Brandt?"

"The first I knew about it was when Simms rang me about twenty minutes ago. I got up here as fast as I could. Simms got here sooner, but he doesn't know any more than I do."

"What happened in there, Simms?" Kendricks asked.

"Somebody killed those two men and left their bodies in the diorama, sir, with their privates exposed like that."

"That's obvious, Simms. You got any idea how long they've been dead?"

"When I went back there to look, I saw their blood was all congealed, with this yellow liquid floating around it; but I don't know how long they been dead."

"Are their bodies still warm?"

"Jesus, I didn't touch them, Colonel Kendricks."

"Give me a break, Simms," Kendricks said as he stepped inside the exhibit. "What the hell were you messing around in here for if you weren't going to find out how cold they are?" Kendricks walked over to the bodies and touched each dead man on the cheek. He also checked the pulse on the carotid artery, confirming what everyone else knew from just looking at the bodies . . . stone cold dead.

"Maybe they're Africans, sir," Earl hesitantly offered.

"And just what the hell is all that yellow grease smeared on them?" Kendricks asked as he violently wiped his hands on his handkerchief and catapulted the offending item into the trash bin.

"I don't know, sir" Earl replied.

"Even if they are Africans, Simms, they got no damned business dressed like that in one of our exhibits. Brandt, call the Park Police and then get the secretary's office for me. Tell them we have an emergency down here. Simms, clear these nosy people the hell out of here right now, and cordon off this exhibit at both ends. I don't want anybody who isn't authorized coming through here. Jesus Christ! A double murder in the Museum of Natural History!"

"Do you want me to cover their privates, Kendricks?"

"Don't touch a damned thing, Simms. Leave them just like you found them."
Brandt finished his call to the Park police before ringing the secretary of the Smithsonian, Andrew Marshall. He gave the telephone to Kendricks.

"Wallace Kendricks here for the secretary. It's an emergency! . . . I said it's an emergency, so put me through to the secretary, now! This is Wallace Kendricks, sir. We've got a nasty problem in the Museum of Natural History. Two men have been killed over here . . . That's right, sir. They've been killed, shot to death. We found their bodies in a diorama in the Cultures of Africa exhibit. Actually, some tourists found them there this morning. All hell has broken loose over here. We don't know who killed them or how long they've been dead; but from the looks of things it happened late last night . . . We just found their bodies 30 minutes ago. I've put a call into the Park police for assistance, so they should be here any minute . . .I agree with you, sir. It's a very serious situation. I think our best bet is to contain it as tightly as possible . . . No, sir. Nobody on the day-shift admits seeing or hearing anything so far. That's why I think it must have happened late last night . . . I see your point, sir, but if we close the museum, that'll alert the press immediately; and if the media smell anything like murder they'll be all over us in no time flat . . . The museum has been open for almost three hours now, sir, and things look pretty normal considering what's happened . . . Well, yes, sir. I agree that two murders at the Smithsonian are very unusual. . . No, sir. I don't feel that the visitors are in danger. The bodies are stone cold, so they've been dead for several hours. I wouldn't keep the museum open if I thought so. I think the killer has put a lot of distance between him and the Museum of Natural History, a lot of distance . . . I think it might be better if you didn't come over here, sir. That way, the press won't be able to question you about the bodies. I'll keep you informed."

After Kendricks rang off he called the Director of the Museum of Natural History, William Fisher. His conversation with Fisher was brief.

"He's on his way down, Brandt. Of all the museums at the Smithsonian, why did it have to be Natural History? I can't do a damned thing right as far as Fisher's concerned. Why did it have to be Natural History?"
© 2001 by Silver Maple Publications

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