The thirteenth case. The little boy.
He was the stray thread in the skein. The odd sock in the laundry. The accidental text in the night. He changed everything. My life. The balance of good and evil. Magic. Science.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. He looked blighted. Like he was suffering an Old Testament plague. I flashed my credentials to the cop in the hall, stepped through the ramshackle quarantine, and stopped dead. The kid’s skin was turning to ash right there in the hospital bed. He was wheezing. His gums were weeping. He could barely open his eyes. His young mother was hunched over his bright, starched sheets like a nun at prayer. She had his bedding tucked so tight it pinned him down. Like she was afraid he was going to float away.
I just stood there, barely out of the doorway. She didn’t even turn. I suspect so many doctors and nurses and public health officials had come and gone by then that she didn’t care anymore, which was just as well. I don’t know what I could have told her if she’d acknowledged me anyway. There’s nothing so heartbreaking as a dying child. I felt so powerless.
So I left. The best thing I could do was get to work anyway.
De’Von. That was his name. Eight years old. Good kid.
Only nobody had any clue what had made him sick, which is why I was sent to consult with Dr. Oliver Waxman of the New York City Department of Health. Waxman was the first to suggest it was food poisoning. But after a battery of negative tests, the working theory switched to AIDS with a weird fungal infection. After that it was just weird.
I met him in his office—a windowless, underground box permanently stained nicotine yellow despite that it had been decades since anyone had been allowed to smoke in the building. I can only imagine what it was like back in the day, all those white guys in starched shirts and dark-rimmed glasses scowling over eight-inch stacks of paper, permanent wisps of smoke rising from the butts at the end of their lips. Like the smokestacks of a factory. But now there was none of that. It was all disposable. Including the people. Not a factory. The inside of a computer.
Waxman was sweating under the overly bright fluorescent lighting and his comb-over looked moist under the glare, like the sheen of butter on a rising loaf. He kept pressing it flat with his palm. Then he would rub the furrow between his eyes. He was baking under pressure.
I shook his hand and met a short battery of questions. Oliver had that New York brusqueness that no one from New York seems to notice. Yes, I said, I am married. Marlene. Just one: a three year-old daughter, Marigold. Oh, and a dog named Vector. The mustache is new. Marlene doesn’t like it. Doctorate in microbiology, but I also have a master’s in epidemiology. The Epidemiological Intelligence Unit. It’s a post-doc. No, not as fancy as it sounds. Supposed to give bench scientists some field experience. Yes, very excited. Happy to get it.
He gave me my network credentials—the only proof that I had been there, the only proof I existed—and a squat, coffee-brown desk in an even older office where I spent the afternoon scratching my new mustache and squinting at a screen through my glasses.
Spanish Harlem. Puerto Rican male, 42, vomited uncontrollably on the subway, triggering an emergency stop in rush hour. No history of alcoholism.
The Village. Homosexual couple. Both mid-60s. One rushed to the ER after several days’ sickness. The other admitted on-site. Hair loss. Immunosuppression. Told they had HIV. Both negative.
Queens. African-American male, 29, with a long history of drug abuse, collapsed while working at a construction site. Caused an accident that nearly killed two pedestrians.
Upper West Side. College students. Two white females, one Asian male. All 19-20. Presented to university hospital with unspecified malaise. Sent home on suspicion of malingering.
Standard procedure for this kind of thing starts with case histories. The Department of Health had done well enough. I couldn’t blame them. There just wasn’t anything. The victims were all of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. They didn’t know each other or have occasion to interact. They hadn’t eaten the same foods or shopped in the same grocery stores. They had different doctors, different pharmacies, even different hair stylists.
I was lining up their symptoms in a spreadsheet—nausea, vomiting, fatigue, neutropenia—when it hit me.
I sat back and rubbed the mustache.
I’d seen this before. All of it. But not in school. When my father died. Protracted battle with pancreatic carcinoma. Dead six years.
I printed all thirteen medical histories and laid them on the desk, one next to the other.
I stood straight and caught myself rubbing my own furrowed brow. How do thirteen unrelated, previously healthy people develop symptoms of radical chemotherapy . . . when none of them had cancer?
It wasn’t just a dead end. It was an impossible end. An absolutely delicious riddle.
Waxman’s solution was to jackhammer his way through. He wanted some seriously heavyweight analysis of the victims’ blood, stuff the normal panels wouldn’t cover. But the Department didn’t have the tools. Or the budget. That kind of work is expensive when you’re in a hurry. Oliver needed the CDC. My presence was a mere formality. The New York FBI office could have done it, he was sure to remind me, but it wasn’t a criminal case yet.
“Yet,” he repeated.
I scowled, and he explained that some people suspected a serial poisoner.
“Serial poisoner?” I asked. “Is that really a thing?”
He shrugged indifferently. “Some guys set fires. Some blow shit up. Would you prefer a terrorist? For now, it’s a public health issue. But . . .” He nodded at the phone, as if it were about to ring.
Oliver and I would come to a serious disagreement, but right then he wasn’t wrong. That very night, poor blighted De’Von hit the local news and the entire investigation changed. Oliver was pulled into a phone conference with his superiors ahead of a phone conference with the mayor’s office ahead of a phone conference with the governor, so I went back into the field. It was rework, which I would normally say was a waste, but I was certain there was something the Department had missed. There had to be. Logic said it couldn’t be otherwise.
I was interviewing the college students—they’d presented first—when my phone dinged. The lab at HQ had finished. In a day. It was unusually fast. Someone must have lit a fire. But then, the culprit wasn’t exactly hiding. The spectroscopy was consistent in all samples. I opened the email and cursed as I pushed out of the dorm.
It’s called illudin, and it was prominent in every victim’s blood. Only that made no sense. There was only one significant natural source, and that was something people just wouldn’t eat. Ever. The victims may as well have ingested moon rocks. Or plutonium.
“Looks like a poisoner after all,” Waxman said on the phone.
“No way,” I scoffed. “If someone wanted to poison people, they’d do it with digitalis or anthrax, not something so rare it could easily be traced. Besides, illudin is only lethal in megadoses. What would be the point? This is accidental. The victims were exposed to something. They had to be. We just haven’t found it yet.”
“Yeah, well, once that lab report reaches the mayor’s office, they’re gonna plan for the worst case scenario just to cover their asses. They’ll call it domestic terrorism.” He said the higher-ups would be desperate to demonstrate progress to the public, and that moving the case to the police and blaming the Department of Health was an easy way to do that. And painless for them. “We have a couple days. Tops.” And that was assuming no one else got sick.
I wanted to re-interview the victims, particularly the middle-aged hippie couple. They’d presented fourth but were actually the first to get sick—or so Waxman had discovered after some clever timelining. There had to be some connection between them and the source.
But Oliver had another idea. A crazy idea. Bonkers, even. But he was desperate. We both were. Little De’Von had seized in the night. His doctors weren’t sure he would last the day.
Waxman was out of his nicotine cube and waiting at the curb as my taxi stopped in front of the Department of Health building. I stepped out and he pushed me right back in. He’d read the lab report fifteen times, he said, rubbing his comb-over. He told the driver to head to Brooklyn. It didn’t matter whether the victims were intentionally poisoned or not. Unless we came up with something, the mayor’s office would throw the Department—and both of us—under the bus. The police would come for our files, and that would be it. I figured he was worried about himself. About his job, I mean. This was his case. He would be the first one rolling under the tires.
But then, I was angling for a teaching position—a better life for my wife and child than what a post-doc could provide—and that meant I needed to get a published paper out of this case. And I couldn’t do that if it became a criminal matter.
I asked what he had in mind.
“Did you notice where it comes from?”
I assumed he meant the illudin. “Mushrooms,” I said. It wasn’t something you forget easily.
“No,” he corrected. “Bioluminescent mushrooms. Fucking giant glow-in-the-dark Amazonian fungus.” He snorted.
The cabbie looked at us in the rear view mirror.
“Yeah,” I nodded. It was a mind-bender.
Waxman was silent as we crossed the bridge. But his leg was shaking. He rubbed his comb-over about four times.
“So . . . ?” I asked.
He said we should probably talk to someone. Only he didn’t seem happy about it. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself it was a good idea. When I asked who, he didn’t want to say the name aloud, like speak of the devil and there he be. And when the taxi stopped, he grabbed my arm and insisted he do all the talking and that, if this didn’t pan out, it was best not to tell anyone we’d even been there.
“It’s just easier,” he urged.
“Sure,” I said with as much indifference as I could muster. But that was a feat considering our destination.
I stood on the curb as the taxi pulled away and watched my colleague storm into a restaurant. A nice restaurant—modest, but definitely upscale, set on a busy street corner several blocks from the river. The sign said “Bistro Indigenes,” which means something if you’re a foodie, but it didn’t mean anything to me. Waxman flashed his credentials and scared the poor hostess with some bluff about an inspection and needing to see the owner. I thought his little speech seemed awfully well-rehearsed, but she ran off as a server passed holding a plate. I couldn’t believe it. Flayed salamander on a bed of greens, belly up, its cooked skin pinned open in multiple places like a frog in a dissecting tray. With salad. I did a double-take and asked why we were there.
“He might know something,” Waxman said. Then he corrected himself. “He will know something. The genius bastard knows everything. Whether or not he’ll tell us . . .” He shrugged.
“Who?” I asked.
It's official. I am tweaking Agony in Violet, the previously-published first course of THE HERETIC ARCANUM, ahead of the book's release earlier next year. It was the first thing I ever put out... and it shows.
To be successful, the book needs a strong opener. As it stands, I'm not sure this is it, although all the pieces are definitely there. It's still a great story and, frankly, one of the most imaginative things I've written. I'll do what I can.
I'm also toying with adding an amuse-bouche to the very beginning of the meal -- think very short prologue -- for the same reason.
As for the rumor that part of the reason I'm doing all this, besides that it probably will help, is because I'm making no headway on the final course, Bright Black ...