The list of potential poisons was endless.
January 1, 2014
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Stone and Matt mounted the stairs to the Medical College. Ahead of them were a boy and girl, their bodies tightly glued together, large clumsy backpacks slowing their progress.
“You know where Professor Van Thorsen’s office is?” Stone asked as they got to the third floor together.
The boy blinked, but the girl giggled and detached herself from his side. “Doctor Doom? He’s down there.” She waved toward the end of the hall.
The Detectives exchanged glances and walked down a linoleum-tiled floor. Van Thorsen, an ER physician with a specialty in pharmacology, was on staff at Rush, and he consulted with the FBI from time to time. Vaughan had given them his name.
At the end of the hall was an open door. Matt peered into a small cramped office whose walls probably hadn’t been painted since the Vietnam War. Files, books, and monographs cluttered every surface. A computer on a credenza generated abstract shapes that uncoiled across the screen. Matt frowned. A discussion of lethal poisons seemed inappropriate in this environment, where the pursuit of knowledge was supposed to deepen the meaning of life.
He checked his watch. “You think he’s a no-show?”
“Let’s give him a few minutes.”
Five minutes later a tall man with carrot-orange hair and beard to match strode into the office with a sunny, open smile. “Detectives. Sorry to keep you waiting.” He held a plastic coffee cup with steam rising from the lid. “Have to get my daily dose of poison,” he chuckled.
The flap of his white coat fell away, and Matt caught a glimpse of faded Levis and a blue oxford button-down shirt. His eyes were as blue as his shirt. No gnarled wizard here, stooped and bent from years of studying noxious substances. Doctor Doom, indeed. The guy could probably bench press a Cadillac.
He started to wave them into chairs, then stopped when he realized they were filled with papers and books. “Sorry.” Setting his coffee cup down, he gathered the papers and dropped them on the floor. “There you go.” He beamed.
As Matt sat he noticed two photos behind Van Thorsen’s desk. One was obviously his family: a trim pretty blonde and three kids, all with flaxen hair and freckles. The other was Van Thorsen, grinning at the camera with his arm around another man. Both men, sweaty and disheveled, wore running shorts with paper numbers pinned to their tank tops. Van Thorsen followed Matt’s gaze.
“My brother,” he said. “He died two years ago. AIDS.”
Van Thorsen planted his elbows on the desk. “So. If Cecil Vaughan sent you, this must be serious.”
Stone leaned forward. “We think we have three poisonings. But we can’t prove it.”
“Tell me about them.”
When Stone finished, Van Thorsen pulled the sleeves of his white coat off his wrist, a bemused expression on his face.
Stone frowned. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. It’s just my aberrant sense of humor. Misplaced I know. But what you’re telling me isn’t anything new.” Stone looked puzzled. “See, I subscribe to the theory that all deaths with no visible signs of trauma are the result of some pathogen until the facts prove otherwise.”
Matt and Stone exchanged glances.
“I assume you’ve eliminated arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine. The Big Three account for forty-six per cent of all poisonings.”
Matt nodded. “We’ve done tox screens and cultures on two of the victims. Microhistologies too. But we haven’t come up with anything.”
“Of course not.” Van Thorsen sipped his coffee, then placed it at a precise angle to his blotter. “The problem isn’t the poison. It’s the process. If labs don’t have the right analytical guidelines, the pathogen will remain undetected.”
“Even with gas chromatography?” Stone asked.
“Garbage in, garbage out.” Van Thorsen said. “I’d be willing to wager your perpetrator knows that too.”
Matt looked over. “How do you figure?”
“When undetectable poisons are involved, you’re dealing with a very intelligent person. They know what they’re doing. Including how to get away with it.”
Stone raised an eyebrow.
“Let me give you some perspective.” He settled back in his chair. “In terms of poisons, you’re almost always looking at a chemical substance. Now these chemicals can be divided into three broad groups.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “Agricultural or industrial, drugs and health care products, or biological pathogens.”
“Poisons from plants or animal sources.”
Matt pulled out his notes. “One of our vics died from acute gastroenteritis, one from respiratory failure, and one from shock, probably through an injection.”
The doctor nodded, “You already know the weaponry is virtually unlimited. For example, take the gastroenteritis. You’re looking at so many different pathogens it would make your head spin. Heavy metals, caustic corrosives, bacterial toxins, bad mushrooms… the list is endless.”
“What about an aerosol pathogen? That you inhale?” Stone asked.
“Again, you could be talking about chlorine gas, other types of fumes, nerve gas, insecticides…” He laced his hands behind his head. “You won’t isolate poisons by elimination. Especially if an exotic plant or animal substance is involved.”
Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.