Whose Time is it to Die

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: December 31, 2016

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Submitted: December 31, 2016

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Whose Time is it to Die?

 

Stanley M. Wolfson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Stanley Mark Wolfson

All rights reserved, including rights of reproduction and use in any form or by any means, including the making of copies by any photographic process, or by any electronic or mechanical device, printed or written or oral, or recording for sound or visual reproduction, or for use in any knowledge or retrieval system or device, unless permission in writing is obtained from the copyright owner.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Amy pulled into her driveway, pushed the button to open the garage door, put the top up on the car, and drove in. As the door closed, she heard the phone ringing.

It was a gorgeous Fall Southern California Friday afternoon -- the day perfect for top-down driving, wind blowing through her hair, and soft ocean breezes. After a drive along the beach, she felt renewed and alive. 

With the car filled with packages, she hurriedly grabbed all she could carry and balance. With agility, she opened the door to the small alcove off the kitchen. As she entered the house, the answering machine picked up. The message was playing loud and clear.

“Hey Bitch. Yeah you Bitch. You’ve ticked me off for the last time. I got you this time. You’re so busy with friends. You barely notice what you eat or drink. You ignore the little people. Man, you are one stupid Bitch. Well, now you got yours. By ten-thirty-five, you will be dead. You hear, dead, dead, dead, Bitch.”

 ***

Amy froze in place. Her mind numbed by the message. Without realizing, she dropped the packages and her purse, the contents strewing about, on the floor.

Her mouth agape, some spittle dripped alongside her lip on to her chin. Her mind tried to make sense of it. Dead? Tonight? What did she do? To whom? It’s crazy. Her thoughts were in disarray.

She stared at the phone and answering machine. Brian installed it to screen calls. Everything connected to Wi-Fi and the surround sound speakers. The words coming from everywhere overwhelmed her.

She saw her cell phone on the floor. Panicked, as she reached down she unwittingly kicked it, and it skittered away. Finally capturing it, she needed both hands to keep it steady.

Her first thought was to call her best friend Evelyn. Evelyn, the calm in any storm lived nearby. Her shaking hands caused her to punch the wrong number. In her haste it took three tries before she got it right. As usual Evelyn answered with a cheerful, “Hel-lo.” Amy was hyperventilating, making breathing and speaking difficult.  “Evveelyyn.” Her words came out in a rush and all jumbled. “Please help me. I’m scared and frightened. I don’t know what to do. I got this crazy phone call. It doesn’t make any sense. Everything fell. I couldn’t get in fast enough to answer the phone. I’m …..”

“Whoa,” shouted Evelyn. “Hold on.” Before she could get another word in, Amy continued talking, panicked and hysterical.

Finally, Evelyn shouted into the phone, loudly and forcefully, ”Amy, for goodness sake, you’re upset. I can hardly understand what you’re saying. I’m coming now.”

“Evelyn, hurry. Someone is going to kill me.”

With those words, Evelyn hung up the phone, rushing to get her purse and a light sweater. Smelling the Kung-Poa chicken cooking for dinner, she took a moment to turn off the oven and burners.

She started running, quickly slowing to a trot. With a few more birthdays and some extra pounds, she no longer could run full tilt. Breathing hard and gasping for air, she rang Amy’s doorbell.

The door opened immediately and Amy grabbed Evelyn and pulled her into the house. Holding Evelyn close, she tried to tell Evelyn about the call, her words a jumble.

To calm her, Evelyn led Amy to a chair in the living room. With her hands up in a don’t-go-anywhere gesture, she went to the kitchen. From an opened bottle of red wine on the counter, she poured two small glasses.

Before letting Amy say anything, she had her drink some of the wine. Amy became more flustered and frustrated. Didn’t Evelyn know this was life-and-death? Finally, Amy got Evelyn to stop jabbering and trying to calm her.

“Evelyn,” Amy shouted, “Someone is trying to kill me!”

Evelyn stopped. She looked hard at Amy, noticing her face was drawn and pale. For someone never jittery, Amy was fidgeting, jiggling her legs, and shaking. “Amy, what’s happening?”

“Someone is trying to kill me. I came home from the Mall and while I was in the garage, the phone was ringing. I couldn’t reach it in time but the guy calling left a message. He said I’d be dead by ten-thirty-five. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I call the police? A lawyer? A detective agency? I’m so confused.”

“Amy, you said there was a message. Is it still on your machine? Can I hear it?”

Amy jumped up from the sofa and followed by Evelyn, ran into the kitchen and turned on the answering machine. There were six messages. Amy hadn’t been paying attention.

The first was a doctor’s office confirming an appointment. The second, a salesperson, wanted to enhance the value and enjoyment of her home with a pool. Would Thursday, next week at 10:00 am be a good time? Please call back and confirm. Amy started to erase the message. Evelyn shouted, “No, don’t. Let the Police decide.”

The third message was strange. There were background noises and a sense of someone listening. When no one said Hello, the person hung up. The fourth message was Brian.

“Hi hon, the seminars are same old, same old. I am bored and miss you. I assume you are out spending our family fortune. I’ll call tonight.”

The fifth message was from a drugstore; Amy’s prescription was ready.

The death threat was the sixth message. Evelyn listened carefully. The surround sound made the threat chilling. When done, Evelyn continued staring at the machine, waiting for it to say more.

“Amy, do you recognize the voice? Are you sure it’s not someone playing a sick joke?”

Amy shook her head. “Evelyn, I’m so bewildered and scared.”

As Evelyn took charge, Amy’s relief was obvious. “First off, we call the Police. We’ll get friends over. Someone may recognize the voice.”

With Amy’s silent agreement, Evelyn called mutual friends in the neighborhood, giving each a brief rundown. She asked them to come over, listen to the tape and provide support for Amy. Everyone agreed.

Amy called 911. “May I have your name please?” “Amy Collins.” “And your address please?” Amy gave it. “What is your emergency?” Amy explained the message on her answering machine saying someone was going to kill her by 10:35 tonight.

“Did you recognize the voice?” the dispatcher asked.

“No, I’ve never heard it.”

“Were you in an automobile accident today?”

“No”

“Any confrontations in the last day or two?”

“No, nothing.”

“Okay Amy, a police unit will be there as soon as one comes available.”

“Wait, it’s an emergency. The person said I’d be dead by tonight.”

“Yes Amy, I understand, but we have a little time. I’ll have someone there as soon as possible.”

The neighborhood friends began to arrive. A few brought snacks, others a bottle of wine or two. With all the friendly faces around, Amy began to calm down.

“Now Amy, don’t you fret. Until this is solved, we’re all staying. We’ll take turns getting the kids from school and Irma will keep them. She’ll watch over them, feed them, and try to keep them from killing each other. Oops, sorry.”

“It’s alright Jenna,” said Amy, “and thanks to all of you. I appreciate your support and feel better and safer.”

Evelyn piped up, “Okay everyone, listen up. I’m going to play the message. See if you recognize the voice or anything about the person speaking.” Evelyn played the tape and all listened.

When the message ended, everyone looked at Amy. Once again, the surround sound enhanced the words of the threat. The reactions ranged from shock to pity to disbelief. Some stared into space.

“Does anyone recognize the voice, anything? asked Evelyn.”

No one did. A few asked for a re-play. The second time made it more menacing. No one said anything.

***

The unexpected suddenness of the doorbell and a loud knock were startling. Evelyn checked the peephole. She announced, “It’s the Police” and opened the door

Too late, one jittery women shouted, “Wait, how do you know?”

There were two, one man and one woman. They both were dressed in police uniforms, wearing badges and a prominent city emblem. Each wore a waist belt loaded with gear and paraphernalia.

“Hello, I’m Officer Nagle and this is my partner, Officer Stiles.” Stiles nodded her head and said, “We got a call about a possible murder in progress at this address.”

Amy stepped forward and introduced herself to the officers; she explained she was the one who called 911. “During my call I was distraught. In my haste, I obviously created a misunderstanding.”

She told the officers about coming home, hearing the telephone ring, the rush to collect her packages, and trying to answer the telephone. She went over everything up until they arrived. She told them about her husband being away on business and explained why her friends were there.

“So there is no murder taking place, ma’am,” asked Officer Nagel.

“Not this second, no,” Amy replied. “The murder is to happen at ten-thirty-five tonight.” She asked the officers, now with perplexed looks, to follow her to the kitchen. There she played the message. The booming message at first disconcerted the officers. They had her play it again. This time, Officer Stiles took a recorder out of her pocket to document it.

“Ma’am,” asked Officer Stiles, “Do you recognize the voice?”

“No. Neither did my friends. We are at a dead end.”

“Well ma’am, we get many of these crazy sounding calls, more than you think. Many sound much like you played. Most cases wind up as random crank calls. Often a bunch of kids think it’s funny to leave a threatening message.

“They think it’s exciting. Something to put a little pizzazz into their otherwise boring life. Mistakes happen when dialing. They believe the message went to the right person and they will recognize the voice and know it is a joke.”

“And if someone does want to kill me, then what?”

“We will not let it happen,” responded Officer Nagel. “Starting immediately an assigned officer will remain with you in the house. Perhaps some friends will stay as well. We take these messages seriously. Detectives now take over and should be here shortly. Sound okay?”

“It’s a start,” Amy replied. I don’t want to keel over at 10:35 tonight without anyone knowing why.”

“We’re on it ma’am. For now, Officer Stiles will remain while I write the report.”

***

Within the hour, more police officers and technicians and two detectives arrived.

Officer Stiles answered the door. Seeing who was there, she stepped out to brief the Detectives. When everyone entered, Officer Janice introduced Detective Harmon and his partner, Detective Halls, to Amy.

The Detectives knew the officers and technicians by name. Detective Harmon, the senior officer on the scene, took Amy aside and explained who everyone was and what each did.

A brief flashback reminded Harmon of the poor judgment of a detective. A similar case treated as a crank call, wasn’t. The proper protocol assigns an officer to stay in the house with the possible victim. In the confusion, no one did, and instead, she became a victim. Now the department erred on the cautious side with every threat taken seriously.

Technicians connected their equipment-- a voice recorder, line tracer, and phone line tap – so it would all be accessible at the police laboratory. Over time they found this setup to make the difference of a few seconds; enough to often trace calls to the point of origination.

The police laboratory was analyzing the answering machine tape. Technicians checked for background noise or any sounds to help reveal the caller’s location. The tape went through a voiceprint analysis and checked against a database to identify repeat perpetrators.

The Detectives asked to talk to Amy in private. She led them to a small library off the main living room.

 

***

The detectives settled into comfortable chairs across from Amy. Detective Harmon built a brief mental image of the woman across from him. Amy was a beautiful young woman, about 5’ 8” tall with a lithe body obviously kept in shape by regular gym workouts. She dressed well, emphasizing but not flaunting her body and good looks.

Harmon asked where her husband was and if she had called him to tell him what was happening? Was he on his way home and when was he expected?

She explained Brian was in Minnesota at a conference until tomorrow. The conference ended tonight with the major awards banquet. He had called her and left a message. As she said this, Detective Halls got up and left the room. She guessed it was to locate the answering machine and listen to the message. He returned and nodded at his partner.

Harmon asked Amy to reiterate what happened from the time she entered the house.

When Amy finished, Detective Halls again stepped out of the room to talk to the technicians. He explained what Amy said happened before they arrived. This affected handling the evidence collection areas. The well-meaning neighbors had contaminated the living room and kitchen. The technicians told Halls they’d get all the neighbors fingerprints for exclusionary purposes. As Halls stepped back into the Library, Harmon was continuing to elicit details from Amy.

“Amy, why are you so sure you will die at 10:35 tonight?” Detective Halls asked.

“I assumed from the message; it said 10:35 and it was already the afternoon. Not imagining another time, I jumped to that conclusion. Why, do you think it’s a different time?”

“Not really. It’s curious the time was not more specific such as am or pm, or tonight or tomorrow morning. As you say, it’s obvious the time referred to is tonight, but an alternative time is possible.”

“Amy, we have a bunch of questions designed to elicit basic information about you and your husband. Do both of you work?”

“Yes,” replied Amy. “We both work at the nearby hospital. Brian is a surgeon and I work in orthopedics.”

“The next two questions are purposefully personal and intimate and designed to probe into your private life.

“First, are you involved in an affair?” The expression on Amy’s face answered the question for Harmon. Her face turned red from the simple embarrassment of the question and the thought of cheating on her husband.

With a quiver in her voice, she answered, “Absolutely not. Whatever gave you such an idea? Something I said?”

“No,” responded Harmon, “but it’s a question we have to ask and one investigators check in detail. It is surprising how many women deny having a ‘special friend’ who adds excitement to a dull life. When it breaks off, ‘special friends’ become angry and upset. Rather than a calm peaceful resolution, resentment fans their anger. They want revenge.

“Now Amy, the second intensely personal question. Do you have an inkling or ‘a woman’s intuition’ whether your husband is seeing other women?”

Amy’s embarrassment again showed on her face. How did prying into their personal lives have any bearing on the threat to her? With quick introspection, she suddenly understood the connection.

“No,” Amy said with conviction. “Brian and I are kindred spirits and I would intuitively know if he was cheating or seeing anyone else.

Brian is a dream-come-true husband. Before we leave the house he’ll say, ‘Darling, you’re beautiful tonight. Is the outfit new?’ He says it with conviction and makes me feel special even if he’s seen it a dozen times.”

“Okay,” said Detective Harmon, “now the difficult part. We need, as accurately as possible, a second by second accounting of your time since you woke this morning. Try to remember every detail, including the mundane and usual. Officers will backtrack everywhere you went to find anyone who remembers seeing you and if something unusual occurred. Everything is important: Where you ate, what you drank, where you stopped to browse, the stores you visited and what you bought and didn’t buy.”

***

Amy began a recitation of her day. She started with her alarm waking her and the details of getting ready to leave the house. Organized and thorough, she provided times, the route she drove, and stops made. The details included the names of her friends, the name and location for lunch, the Shopping Mall, and the names of the stores they visited.

Amy gave details of an unusual event. The friendly Mall parking valet smiling and holding her hand too long as he took her keys. However, she explained, it happens occasionally. When her husband Brian accompanies her, he glowers at anyone excessively friendly to her.

She tried to describe how a gaggle of women shopped, or didn’t. For anything interesting, everyone went to look and offer comments. Occasionally someone bought something. However, the real enjoyment was simply looking and the comradery.

As normal for a weekend, they would see hospital co-workers and doctors. They often waved and might stop to share news or gossip; like the rumored upcoming layoffs at the hospital.

Harmon interjected, “Could you supply the names of these people as you remember them, please.”

“Well, we ran into at least four Doctors or Surgeons: Dr. Evans, Dr. Simmons, Dr. Scott and a Dr. Grayson. There were three nurse practitioners, JoAnn, Michel, and Betty. My small colleague group is physician assistants, and we met and talked to Jerry and Douglas.

“We passed two administration staff, but I didn’t recognize them. You can ask Grace, who is in the living room, as she knows them both.

“Oh,” Amy said, “almost forgot. Meeting Marty Skittle, a Hospital assistant and a lab intern was a surprise. Marty usually works weekends and is shy. He came up to us and said hello.

“Everyone likes Marty. He’s indispensable and willing to help everyone. He works part-time at the pharmacy and he is always studying. He dreams of becoming a pharmacist.”

Amy explained how the shopping tired them so they stopped for cupcakes and coffee. When finished they went their separate ways. She briefly described her uneventful drive home.

“It’s all I remember.” She suggested talking to the women in the living room. Two of them were part of the lunch and shopping group.

Detective Harmon thanked her and reiterated how Officer Stiles would remain in the house with another officer stationed outside. “Right now your safety is our highest priority. No one will get into this house who is not a police officer or you don’t personally know.”

He assured her he’d be back before 10 o’clock.

***

The recitation took over two hours. Before leaving, the Detectives added four names to contact from Amy’s friends in the house, concentrating on whom they remembered seeing at the Mall.

Amy noticed the group of friends had shrunk. Evelyn explained: some had errands, some had to pick up kids, and others needed to get family dinners ready. She was to arrange a schedule. Three friends would keep Officer Stiles company during the night.

Amy thanked her for being such a good friend.

The stress of repeatedly hearing the death message and recounting every second exhausted Amy. She found a comfortable chair and as soon as she put her head down, quickly drifted into a deep sleep.

***

At police headquarters, technicians created a case file database. It grew exponentially with each field report, interview, laboratory result, and related information. Data analysis became the challenge.

Detectives Harmon and Halls reported what they knew to the Chief, emphasizing the time deadline. The Chief agreed to the temporary assignment of a dozen officers and detectives for canvassing.

He gave them until 10:00 pm to unravel the puzzle or find a major lead. Then they were to camp out at the woman’s house and make sure nothing happened to her.

“And be sure you keep me in the loop.”

***

They were working blind. Nothing was obvious why someone wanted to kill the woman.

Officers canvassed the Mall and the Hospital. With everyone they talked to, they recorded the conversations to avoid ambiguities. At the Mall the officers had few positive results. Many shopkeepers and remaining shoppers did not remember or notice seeing the group of women shopping together. Of those that remembered, few were able to offer any new observations. In the shops Amy mentioned stopping at, many salespersons were now gone for the day; officers noted who would have to be visited at home or if necessary interviewed via telephone. 

***

As officers became available, they made visits to off duty staff and shopkeepers at their homes.

Officers at the Hospital received earfuls of gossip and innuendos about everyone. The close-knit friends were “demeaned” and called the “Saturday Ladies Club.” Many staff interviewed vented pent up anger and were eager to snap out their claws and provide unrelated and malicious comments. Nothing said raised any suspicion of the women, but everything would have to be checked, adding additional investigation time.

***

Experienced police officers built up an innate “bull-shit” meter. Most could read a person’s voice inflections, facial expressions, and mannerisms, with skills bordering on psychic.

That the police were simply asking questions raised curiosity levels. However, the police were pros at deflecting questions with non-answers.

Every note, recording, and incident report expanded the case file. Electronic voiceprint analysis was negative. The hundreds of investigative hours and thousands of pieces of information yielded nothing new or suspicious. The reason and person behind the message remained a mystery.

***

Detectives returned to Amy’s house by 10:00 pm. They had nothing promising to report. Officers continued canvassing and locating missing store and Hospital staff.

Amy remembered a television mystery show. “Detective Harmon, I’m confused. I thought calls were traceable to a specific telephone?”

The Detective, suppressing a smile said, “Tracing a call is not as simple as on television. TV detectives have magical computers and technical equipment. Our technicians tried. However, the call was from a cheap prepaid onetime use phone card sold everywhere. When limited to outgoing calls, there is no specific phone number to track.”

“Thank you, Detective Harmon. I appreciate the explanation.”

It was 10:20 pm. Everyone sat around, waiting. Amy sat on a couch, her friends encircling and providing protection with their own bodies. The telephone ring broke the silence.

Amy reacted the fastest. She picked up the phone as the technician’s machines worked to trace the call. “Hello.” The phone on open conference allowed everyone to hear the conversation.

“Hi, darling. How are you doing?” It was her husband, Brian. Amy, surprised and struck dumb for a moment, was silent. “Amy, are you there.” Brian asked.

“Oh my darling, yes, I’m still here. I’ve missed you so much. What’s going on is unbelievable. As soon as you get home I’ll explain it all. Will you still be here tomorrow as planned?”

“I wasn’t scheduled for any awards or recognition tonight. Deciding no one would miss me, I caught the last flight out. I just landed at Orange County. I called to see if you were still up. If you pick me up, we could get something to eat. I’m famished. What do you think?"

“Brian, I can’t right now. I know it sounds strange, but you will understand when you get home. It’s complicated and the Police are here.”

“The Police? Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I need you to come home and hold me.”

“Okay, I hear the strain in your voice. I’m on my way. I’ll be home as fast as I can bribe the driver to go. Love you.”

“Love you, too,” Amy replied. But Brian had already hung up.

It was 10:30 pm.

Suddenly, it was 10:35pm. Then 10:45pm. Then 10:50pm. At 11:15pm, Brian came rushing through the door. Dropping his luggage and bags, he grabbed Amy and gave her a ferocious bear hug and kisses.

When he put her down, he noticed the lower floor filled with people. He recognized some of Amy’s friends and neighbors. The rest were strangers.

Before he said anything, phones rang.

The time was 11:20 pm.

***

Answering their phones, no one said a word, everyone listened. Detective Harmon said into the phone, “Was there a message on her answering machine or on her cell phone.” He listened. “Okay, we’ll be there in 30 minutes.” After hanging up, he made a call. “Jessie, what’s the telephone number there.” He wrote something down. “Okay, thanks, see you soon.”

***

“Amy, we have to be going. Nothing will happen to you tonight.” As he said this, the police were packing up equipment and leaving.

“The call was from a Police Officer at JoAnn Patterson’s home. I’m sorry to tell you this but she is dead.”

Amy gasped. “JoAnn is a Nurse Practitioner at the Hospital,” Amy said. “We met her at the Mall, remember?”

“Yes, I do.

“It’s too much of a coincidence,” Detective Harmon said. “I called the officer back, to check for a connection. Turns out, she had a message like yours on her cell phone.

“Her message sounds like the same guy. It said, ‘Hey Bitch, its ten-thirty-five. I hope you’re dead. Dead, dead, dead.’ There was no earlier message, like yours, saying she would die at ten-thirty-five. However, when she died and fell her watch broke freezing the time."

Harmon continued, “When I called back, I asked for her phone number. Her number is 756-9878, yours is 756-9879. It would seem that the killer made a mistake. He, or she, miss-dialed and left the 'You will die' message on your phone by mistake. I think I mentioned the possibility when we first talked; keying mistakes happens more than you think.

“I’m sorry for all you’ve gone through. With your mystery cleared up, now we have a murder to solve. Goodnight Amy, I’m happy nothing happened to you."

***

The conversation he overheard stunned Brian. The police thought someone was going to murder Amy. Instead, another person had died. The story sounded crazy and he was anxious to hear it.

With everyone helping to clean up, the house emptied in barely 15 minutes.

As tired as she was, Amy knew Brian wanted to hear what happened. Forcing herself to remain awake, it took an hour to explain what had transpired. Exhausted, she fell asleep in the middle of explaining about waiting for the time to arrive.

Brian leaned over and gently kissed her. He knew there was nothing he could have done. What mattered was his absence when she needed him. He resolved not to let it happen again.

***

It took the Detectives an hour to reach the crime scene. Midnight had come and gone. It was already a long night.

At the victim’s home, the medical and technical staffs were busy at work, collecting what little evidence there was.

JoAnn, the, victim, seated on a couch, had fallen face forward, her face buried in a bowl of popcorn on the table. Her backside was on the couch; her feet were flat on the floor. The top of her body was horizontal. It looked like her watch broke on the table as her hand was reaching for popcorn while she watched television.

A smallish woman sat on an armchair in a corner, rocking back and forth, her hands covering her face. “Oh Jo, what am I to do now? Jo, what happened? Jo, I’m missing you so much. This can’t be real. Jo? Jo? Jo?” She continued to rock, her body in a crumpled heap. With little variations, she repeated her mantra.

A Senior Police Officers reported the progress to the Detectives. “The locked doors and windows show no signs of tampering. There was no struggle. There are no obvious marks on the body. She simply fell over and died.

“The Doc’s initial diagnosis was death by natural causes. When he heard the phone message, he adjusted his thinking to murder by undetermined causes. He’s guessing a poison, perhaps in the popcorn. He promised to do the autopsy in the morning.

“We found no presence of anyone else in the house. The woman in the corner is her partner, says her name is May Strum. We’ve confirmed her identification and whereabouts. She was celebrating with friends at the Plantation restaurant.

“There were 11 women with her. We did confirmation face-to-face interviews with each. All confirmed her presence and of having a good time. The proprietor was unhappy. Seems no one drank much; mostly virgin fruited and soft drinks. The owner upset at the little spent, made homophobic slurs about the women.”

Detective Harmon read the officer’s body language and saw how upset he was with the language guessing the officer had similar tendencies.

The officer continued, “One of the lab guys made a copy of her phone message and ran it through a voice recognition program. The voice matches both messages.

“The Doc is calling it a locked door mystery. She was alone. If poison, how did the killer know with precision the time of death?

“Until he can get lab results, he’s stumped at what kills so quickly, and exactly.

“His on-site examination found nothing. She didn’t choke to death. There is no specific odor in her mouth or on her body or hands. By her positioning, there was no warning of a ‘sickness’ coming on. There is no discoloration in the mouth, eyeballs, gums, or fingernails. She simply flopped over, no spasms, no twitches, no chance to stand up. She quickly and immediately dropped dead.”

***

Detective Harmon thanked him for his concise summary. He asked him to enter the report into the case file. Walking over to the dead woman’s partner, he pulled up a chair.

“Ms. Strum, I know this is a bad time for you, but I have to ask a few questions. Something you remember may help us catch whoever did this to JoAnn. We believe she was poisoned.

Wracked with sorrow at the loss of her loved one, her voice was a whisper. “Yes, I’ll do whatever I can to help. Jo and I have been partners for twelve years and were going to travel to Europe in three weeks to celebrate our anniversary. Jo was ‘good people,’ if you know what I mean. She went out of her way to help others. Did you know she was a Nurse at the Hospital? Everyone liked her. Patients asked for her; Jo was so proud. Then there was .  .  . .”

At this point Harmon stopped her by injecting a question. “Do you know if JoAnn had any quarrels with anyone recently?”

“No, not quarrels exactly. Nurses or an administrator sometimes made a complaint. Jo liked to help people, especially patients she knew. Nurses complained. She always made time to talk with patients; some thought too much time. Definitely not hospital policy.”

Harmon pushed on. “Did JoAnn tell you about anyone she had a disagreement with? Or, someone who threatened her?”

“Absolutely not. Jo was the nicest, sweetest person you could imagine. She never riled someone or made anyone so mad they would want to kill her.”

“May, did you often go out partying without JoAnn?”

“Yes. No, I mean no. What I mean is Jo and I usually went out together. Everyone knows we’re partners. It’s no big secret, has never been a bother, or a source of animosity.”

“May, is there anything you can think to help us find out who hurt her? Do you have any ideas? Something seemingly minor?”

May looked at him and shook her head. Her eyes showed her on the edge of breaking down again. There was no benefit to continue pushing. The murder was senseless. He patted May’s hand and got up to leave.

“So, what do you think?,” Harmon asked Halls. 

“We’ve got nada. It’s a strange set of circumstances. All hinges on who made those phone calls.

"Partner, it’s two-fifteen in the morning. We need sleep and take a fresh look in the morning.”

“I agree. Do you want to go get your car at the station; or I can drop you off and pick you up in the morning?” Harmon asked.

“Why don’t you drop me off? It’s on your way.”

***

As they drove, they hashed over the little they knew. Approaching Hall’s house the radio squawked. “Dispatch to Detective Harmon.”

“Harmon here.”

“Detective, just a heads up. There’s another victim dead of mysterious circumstances on the other side of the County. A Detective Team is on-site. They think it’s similar to your case.”

“Dispatch, Detective Halls and I have had enough mysteries for one night. We’ll take a look in the morning. The medical and tech teams with me the past few hours are beat. Are you able to find backup for them?”

“Already done. See you in the morning Harmon. Out.”

***

Harmon picked up Halls at five-thirty. They were both grumpy from too little sleep. At a take-out they got breakfast sandwiches and coffee. Detective Halls had a thermos filled with coffee. His cop instincts and senses were tingling. He felt a monstrosity of a day coming on.

Arriving, a note greeted them about a meeting at six with the Chief. Involved Detectives, medical, and technical staffs were to be there. It was six-fifteen -- they were late.

They grabbed case folders and ran. Despite standing room only, two places were at the table for Harmon and Halls.

The Chief stared at the two Detectives. “I hope you got your beauty sleep.” From the back of the room someone made a whisper comment heard throughout the room, “And did you guys ever need it.”  

The Chief ignored the barb and continued, “The Detectives, med and tech staff who ‘WORKED’ all-night, will brief you. Don’t take too much time. With three identical deaths last night, I expect the phones to start ringing again.”

Do we have a serial killer, a poisoner, loose in the city? If so, how do we proceed? See me as soon as you’ve worked up a plan for some strategic actions.” The Chief left.

***

The information stunned Harmon and Halls. With the chief gone, they looked around the room and Harmon said, to no one in particular, “Three deaths? When did they happen?”

With background chuckles, one detective brashly said, “While you were sleeping, of course.”

“Okay, let’s hear it all.” What did we miss last night?”

The two detectives, Jacobson and Hashmid who had caught the hysterical women case, started.

The lead detective, Jacobson, gave a concise verbal report. “At the woman’s house, her husband was lying on his side, wedged between the bed and the wall. It initially looked as if he simply rolled off and was stuck in place and couldn’t move. However, he was unresponsive with no pulse.

"The Chief Medical Examiner, Jacob Ratner, said he’d have some conclusions and details about the deaths today. His initial diagnosis favored a fast acting poison.

“The wife's name ‘Andi,’ short for Andréa knew of no one who wanted to hurt her husband. Doctor Simmons was a well-known and well-respected Surgeon at the Hospital. She added nothing of substance to the information collected from the other victim.” 

Jacobson continued. "Like the other victim combined with your almost-victim, the same two messages were on his cell phone. The difference, substituting ‘Bastard’ and ‘Shithead.’

“One, set the time for death at twelve o’clock. Then, at twelve o’clock, was the second message, 'Shithead, are you dead yet? etc. etc.

“We couldn’t understand why the doctor or his wife didn’t call the police about the first message. His wife, a lawyer at one of those big shot law firms downtown, was out of town. She had a late flight on a private jet, and didn’t get home until about 2:00 am. She called as soon as she found him.

“The husband was a doctor with few emergencies and rarely on night call. He went to a late movie. The ticket stub was in his suit jacket pocket. His phone was on vibrate and the volume turned down. He obviously did not hear or feel the phone during the movie. It was inside a lower inside jacket pocket you find in the suits we can’t afford.

“He was in no condition to give any information about what he did during the day or who he met.

“The wife called her sister. She lives nearby and was there in 20 minutes, still in nightclothes. She is staying.”

Harmon and Halls simultaneously looked at each other -- they had heard the name before. Before Jacobson could continue, Harmon held up his hand. He checked their notes; Doctor Simmons was on Amy’s list of those met or seen at the Mall. They passed this on. Few of them believed in simple coincidence anymore.

Jacobson turned to a junior officer by the door. "We need a computer and a specialist." He got the message and left.

***

Detective Jacobson's partner, Detective Hashmid, picked up the summary.

“While waiting for everyone to vacate the premises, we start working on reports. We get a call from dispatch.

“There's a call from a woman, screaming and yelling. She found her husband dead in the bathtub. She thinks he drowned. An ambulance is in route. The medical and technical staffs with you need to proceed to this address.”

“The victim in a bathtub didn’t drown; his head was still above water. He looked peaceful, simply asleep, his chin resting on his chest.

“His wife, Jan, was at their daughter's house, about an hour's drive. Her daughter recently gave birth and was having a tough time with a colicky baby. So a couple of nights ago good ole' mom went over to help.

Scott, the victim, provided for himself. The wife had been trying to reach him all day on his cell, with no luck. When he hadn’t called by evening she became worried and came home to check and found him in the tub.

“Andrew Scott was a doctor. He practiced in a field without nighttime emergency calls. So he lived a normal existence.”

At this point, Halls interrupted. His notes were open as Hashmid gave his report. “Dr. Scott was also on Amy’s list. He, too, briefly met the group of friends. Do we have a laptop yet so we can review all the case notes?”

As he spoke, a computer technician with a laptop arrived. Nicknamed “Red,” because of her bright red hair, she performed magic with organizing, finding, and analyzing information in a database. She booted up the machine as Hashmid continued.

“The Doctor at first ruled the death an unexplained drowning. As he continued to examine the body, he noticed the same lack of details similar to the other victims. There was nothing specific, simply a combination of the lack of any facial expressions, bruises, smells, or body color.

“He’s calling Doctor Scott’s death inconclusive until further tests. However, he believes he too was poisoned.

“Scott decided to take a relaxing bath and simply died. No fuss, no mess, no bother. The Doc is estimating the time of death to be approximately 3:00 am. His wife found him an hour later.

“Now, you may all be wondering about his cell phone. Were there messages? Despite an extensive search, his cellphone was nowhere in the house. We tried calling his number a few times. We did not hear it ring anywhere in the house.

“On the third try, as I was about to hang up, a sleepy woman’s voice answered, ‘Scott, you left your phone here. It rang a couple of times but I didn’t answer it in case it was your wife. Are you coming back for it? I know it’s important for your work.’

“I said, sorry, but this is not Scott. May I ask your name, please?”

“She immediately became defensive.”

“Who are you? Why are you calling Scott at 4 o’clock in the morning. I don’t know you and I’m hanging up.”

“Miss, please don’t. I am Police Detective Hashmid. I need to send an officer to get Scott’s phone. Please may I have your address?

“After a long pause, she gave it. I then asked her if I could please have her name. By then she realized what she had done.”

“No, you may not. I don’t know who you are, but I am calling the police. You can talk to them if you dare come here.”

“Sure enough, she called 911 and a police officer responded. I had sent one of our officers to the address she gave. They straightened it out.

“I mistakenly sent a new officer without experience or sufficient time on-the-job. He never had to inform anyone of someone’s death; especially not a close friend, a spouse, or in this case, a lover. When she asked why they needed Scott's phone and where was he, the officer simply blurted out, ‘Sorry ma'am, but Doctor Scott is dead.’”

“The woman broke down and went into hysterics. The officer, not knowing what to do, called me. I had him ask her if she had a friend in her building or nearby she could call. She did and the friend came right over. The officer left when the friend arrived.

“We have the phone. Sure enough, there are two messages. The first, around midnight, had the ‘At three o’clock you are dead, dead, dead,’ message. At three o’clock there was the second message, ‘Hey, are you dead yet?’

“The officer who retrieved the doctor’s phone was smart. He not only remembered to get the woman’s name and cell phone number, but also found a plastic bag for the phone and wrote the date, time and his initials to initiate the chain of evidence. While we don’t like to do interviews over the phone, we had some important time-line questions. When she answered, she was a wreck. Sobbing, crying, sniffling, everything you expect from someone who lost a loved one.

“I kept it brief, and explained it was vital we know where Scott was today. Could she help us at all? She said they had gone to dinner at 10:00 pm at Arthur’s Steakhouse and home to her place about 11:45 pm. The two took a shower together and made love. After a couple of hours, Scott said he needed to get home. He hadn’t talked to his wife yet and wanted to be home in case she called him or came home unexpectedly.

“I asked whether Scott’s phone rang at all. She said she wasn’t sure. They left their clothes strewn about downstairs. The bedroom was upstairs. When he left, he forgot it. At this point, she broke down again, stuttering and sputtering. I gave my condolences and hung up. Now we know the reason Scott never called the police.”

***

Detectives Jacobson and Hashmid looked over at Detectives Harmon and Halls. Jacobson spoke first. “After using all the manpower and the time spent guarding the first supposed victim, we have nothing.

“However, Amy’s list links all the murders. All the victims are on it. We need to take time and review the case notes. What’s the link? At a minimum the Chief wants a plan of action."

Harmon looked to Red, "Please pull up the case file, and let's take a look."

Red toggled the laptop and an image filled a screen at the end of the room. “I’ve reviewed every piece of data in the case file and have read through it at least four times. Any questions, let me know and I’ll find the information.” Her fingers flew as she moved through the file pages quickly.

From time-to-time, she stopped at a part of the file she believed important. The case file provided an extensive time-line and confirmation of events. There were no holes or unexplained times.

The "quick" review took forty-five minutes. The immediate and first objective of the action plan was to find the seven people on Amy’s list not yet interviewed. Harmon, Halls, Jacobson, and Hashmid made note of the names and addresses for immediate follow up.

***

It was seven-thirty when they finished. As the meeting started to break up, Harmon’s phone rang. It was dispatch reporting there were two new victims. Harmon held up his hand and everyone remained to hear the latest.  

Dispatch reported the name and address of the first victim as Doctor Samuel Evans who lived in a townhouse in one of the gentrifying neighborhoods. The other, Betty Sim Yung, lived in a rented apartment near the hospital.

As Harmon wrote down the names, Halls checked their notes and reported that similar names were on Amy’s list.  

Jacobson wryly observed, “Someone is targeting people at this Hospital. We need to find the why and who.

“Officers will need to crosscheck all the hospital staff and patient lists. We’ll start from the newest and work back. We need to find the common denominator.

“Let’s create a cross-reference chart of all the staff. See which match up. What staff knows which victims?

“Do the same with patients and regular visitors or salespersons.

We’ll tackle the worst-case scenario last; a stranger.

Everyone nodded. Harmon called the Chief and gave him an update. He briefly explained how they were proceeding.

The Chief was unhappy. Word about the murders had already leaked to the press. He did not like the press looking over their shoulders or hounding officers at victim sites. If they found out that some victims knew some of the other victims, he imagined the headlines: “Is Your Best Friend A Serial Killer; Are You Next?”

The Chief mused how word of a murder traveled at light-speed. What made murder so mysterious and glamorous?

He authorized Harmon to use whatever resources were needed.

***

Harmon assigned detective teams to the latest victims and to find and interview those missed the first time. He called dispatch with instructions regarding the detective and police officers assignments. Jacobson called the medical and technical team leaders and gave them their assigned addresses.

Before leaving, Halls suggested going to the Morgue to check the autopsies. It entailed little delay and could provide vital information.

Chief Medical Examiner Ratner, and his assistant, Donny, looked exhausted. Harmon asked the Chief about any progress on the causes of death.

Chief Ratner said, "Your timing is perfect. Toxicology reported all the victims tested positive for poison. They cannot identify it exactly. They’re intrigued and are working nonstop and using the finest analysis technology. Only the best for the dead.”

Harmon asked, "If you don't know the exact poison, do you know how it got into the victims’ bodies?"

“We have not yet discovered the delivery mechanism," said Chief Ratner. “We do know it is so lethal, minute amounts will kill. What’s confusing is how the doses account for each individual’s height, weight, and physical condition.

“What’s scary is the impossible is now possible. However it’s delivered, the poison’s effect is instantaneous at an exact time.”

Before he could continue, Harmon broke in and asked him to get his report finished and distributed as quickly as possible. He explained about the newest victims.

***

Harmon and Halls went to Doctor Samuel Evans’ house; Jacobson and Hashmid took on Betty Sim Yung. The medical and technical teams were there.

Harmon saw the same police officer who was at the last scene with him. He waved him over and asked for his report.  

“Detective, as they say, this is like déjà vu all over again. The answering machine had over 30 messages.

The officer had copied the pertinent messages to his recorder and played them for Harmon.

“The first was at two-thirty. The Doctor was asleep. He either didn’t hear it or bother to answer. ‘Hey, Doctor Evans. You’re a real shithead and are going to be dead by five-thirty-five. Dead, dead, dead.’

“The second message was at five-thirty-five and again, ‘Hey Doc, you dead yet?’”

Harmon asked, “Officer, given the time, I imagine the Doctor was up and getting ready to go to the Hospital.”

“You’re right Detective. A friend, Ameco, found him in the shower. I got all of her information and her identification. I had the computer check her. There’s nothing. She is who she says she is and does what she says she does.

“She was a ‘good and close’ friend of the Doctor's. She lives a block away and has her own apartment. They do not always sleep together. They take turns picking each other up and ride into work together. Their arrangement was no secret.

“When she arrived, the Doc wasn’t outside as usual. She double-parked, set the flashers and went to the house, rang the doorbell and knocked.

“Now with their relationship, I found it strange. She has a key but explained how in her country you first knocked to get the person’s attention. As she put it, ‘You never know when something has changed,’ and she didn’t want to burst in and find another woman.

“With no answer, she used her key. In the hallway, she called out for him. Becoming concerned she went up the stairs. Hearing the shower, she realized he couldn’t hear her. She decided to give him a special surprise and so she stripped and went to the shower. She was about to step in when she saw him lying on the floor.

“She immediately went to his body and felt for a pulse. Finding none, she broke down and started crying. She left the shower, called 911, went back to the Doctor and held his hand until help arrived.

“He was dead. The responding officers found her naked, sitting on her heels next to the body, the shower still running. He got her to leave the shower and handed her a towel and her clothes. She went into another room to dry off and dress.

“She’s in the kitchen. She made coffee for everyone and started making sandwiches. As you know, it’s typical behavior for a victim of a victim.”

Harmon and Halls went into the kitchen and sat with Ameco. Halls asked the questions. Ameco didn’t know anything. She suspected Sam went to a mall to look for a present for their two-year anniversary.

Ameco asked, “Who did this? Why Sam? I don’t understand. He was a great surgeon. A good person. Everyone liked him.” She then began to cry and shake again, moaning his name, in denial of his death.

Harmon asked her if he could call someone to be with her. She told them she was going to go to the Hospital.

Harmon and Halls checked with the same police officer and he said all was in control. The body was gone. The medical and technician staff finished and left.

Harmon and Halls, back in the car, flipped a coin. Go to Jacobson’s crime scene or back to the office. The office won.

***

At Betty Sim Yung’s apartment, Detectives Jacobson and Hashmid viewed a similar scene to what Harmon and Halls faced. A police officer who worked with them before gave them a rundown.

“When we checked her cell phone there was a dozen messages. Two messages were similar to other victims. In the first, the killer gave his goodbye greetings at two-thirty, telling her she would be dead at five-thirty-five. Her phone was next to the bed. She either didn’t hear it ring or slept through it.

“The alarm rang at five. I never realized hospital staff started so early. When she woke, she went to her bathroom. She then took a shower, dried her hair, dressed, and went to the kitchen.

“The second message came in at exactly five-thiry-five. It said, ‘Hey Bitch, you dead yet?”

“Who found her?” Hashmid asked.

“An interesting story. As you probably noticed, Betty was a big girl. I don’t have the official stats yet, but she’s about five foot six or seven, and matched her height with her weight. She looks like she weighed in at two-hundred and eighty pounds or so.

“She must have put some water on to boil and when she turned from the stove, dropped dead. When she fell, rather than collapsing down, it’s as though she tipped over. She fell full forward, fully extended, right on her face and body. In falling, she shook the whole apartment house.

“The crash of her body woke the people who live below her, Jerry and Jeri Hunt. Jeri is a good friend and they go to Weight-Watchers together. Hearing the noise, Jeri tried to call Betty. When she didn’t answer, they became concerned. They went to her apartment to check on her.

“Jeri has a key to Betty’s apartment and vice versa. They watch over each other’s plants. Jeri first rang the doorbell and then loudly knocked on the door. With no answer, they entered the apartment and called for her. Getting no response, they walked in and found her in the kitchen. They found an empty pot on the stove that was starting to burn, so Jeri turned off the burner.

“Betty was lying flat out. She had broken something when she landed because there was blood pooling around her head. Jeri rushed to get a towel, wet it and went to help her. When she turned Betty’s head to put the cloth on her nose she noticed Betty’s eyes were open and staring, at nothing. She realized Betty had soiled herself and smelled. Jerry leaned down and tried to find a pulse.

“They then called 911. Jeri called first, but was babbling nonsense to dispatch. Jerry took the phone and gave the address and name. They’re in the living room now.”

“Thank you, officer,” Hashmid said, "It was an excellent report. You’ve done a good job."

They went to talk to the Hunts. “We know you are upset,” Jacobson said, “however, we have some questions.” Both nodded.

“Do you know who Betty was seeing regularly?” Both Hunts shook their heads.

“Do you know if Betty went out much?” Again, the Hunts shook their heads.

“Is there anything you can tell us about why someone would want Betty dead?” When Jacobson confirmed Betty was dead, Jeri got upset. She covered her eyes, put her head down on her knees, and started rocking and moaning.

Jerry explained that they were simply good-neighbor friends and tried to watch out for each other when one or the other went out or was going to be away. Occasionally they went to a movie or dinner together. They took turns visiting to watch something on television like a football game. Betty seemed to be so alone, they felt sorry for her, and she welcomed their times together. They would talk, but Betty was very quiet and rarely discussed anything about her personal life; however, she would become very passionate about politics. She told them she had family in Texas. After thanking the Hunts and letting them go back to their apartment, the detectives left. Finally, quiet and with no new deaths reported, they headed back to headquarters. As they drove, Hashmid checked in with Harmon and Halls. All agreed the first stop would be for coffee and food.

On their return, they marveled at the processing speed of both crime scenes. “Practice makes perfect,” quipped Hashmid.

***

The teams of Detectives met again in the main conference room. Many medical and technical staff and less senior detectives had gone home to get sleep.

Detective Harmon, Halls, Jacobson and Hashmid began to review the known, the suspected, and what was still conjecture.

Harmon took the lead. “First, we know the victims worked at or had a connection to the Hospital.

“All the victims are on Amy’s list. Looking at the chart on the wall, I believe we can determine all the victims knew each other. Some were simple acquaintances, others work friends, and others interactive friends.”

Hashmid checking his notes added, “There are officers out trying to find and interview still unaccounted for individuals on Amy’s list. Officers are at the Hospital waiting for them. Officers have gone to all the unaccounted for individual’s homes. They have orders to wait there until the individual comes home or they have reported for work at the Hospital.”

Harmon’s phone rang. Everyone in the room heard him say, “Okay, we’re on our way. The Medical Examiner says they finally have a breakthrough.”

***

Everyone, including the Chief, reconvened at the Medical Examiner’s Office. Medical Chief Ratner thanked everyone for accommodating him and coming to his office.

“First, we have identified the substance responsible for the death of all the victims.” Ratner could not resist and paused: “The substance is Conotoxin -- a rare and exotic poison. Microscopic residues were in each body. Conotoxin, gathered from Cone Snails, is similar to the deadly poison of the blue ring octopus. A single drop can kill 20 people.

“This snail venom, properly distilled and compounded, is a potent pain reliever. Its chemical name is Preialt. It is 1,000 times more powerful than morphine and effectively treats people in constant, excruciating pain. 

"Conotoxin is difficult to find, it works quickly, and a microscopic drop will kill. The toxin stops nerve cells from communicating, causing paralysis within seconds, and instantaneous death.

“Once we identified the poison, we sent out an emergency call for information. There is no known antidote for the snail poison.

"One specialist did propose a solution. Keep the body alive and the heart pumping until the body clears itself of the venom. However, it’s untried and strictly conjecture. The chance of saving someone is slight. Remember, the poison works fast.

“The poison compromises the nerves from the brain. With the lack of nerve communication, the heart stops beating and the lungs stop working. To keep the victim, alive the heart must continue to circulate blood and the lungs deliver oxygen to the blood.

“The proposed solution is to provide continuous Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation. Keep blood circulating until the person gets to a ventilator.

“The ventilator will help the victim breath, pumping a higher concentration of oxygen through the lungs while the heart continues to have its rhythm maintained. The infusion of the extra oxygen into the blood stream will help minimize brain damage.

“The solution is simple. The moment a victim is given the poison, start CPR and don’t stop until the person is in a ventilator.

“The problem we face is getting someone to a hospital in time. Once the person is a victim, he/she is dead and it’s too late.

“There are few studies to determine how long someone can stay alive while on CPR. Also, until the body can cleanse itself of the poison, the person is going to experience excruciating nerve pain.

“So, find us a live potential poison victim and we can find out if we can save his or her life."

The medical Chief paused, and smiled at all the information he had supplied. He believed he had passed on the Holy Grail.

***

Before the Chief finished, the lead detective working the Hospital, Nat Slattery, left to take a call. He returned as the presentation ended.

It was ten o’clock. It felt like a long morning. Slattery returned, went to the front and the podium.

“Everyone, bad news. The officers checking on staff not yet at the Hospital found another four victims. Secondary medical and technical teams are at the homes. The early reports confirm similarities to the other victims.

“Now the good news. I talked to the in-charge nurse at the Hospital. She was late for work and I feared for the worse. It was a parent-teacher’s conference about her son. Finally, we have a major lead on a connection vector.

“Every year the Hospital takes the offense to provide protection for the staff. All Hospital staff receives preventive shots for the flu, pneumonia, and a general antibiotic. It’s done floor-by-floor and takes a month.

“Everyone on Amy’s list received the shot the day before the calls started.”

At this point, the Medical Examiner interrupted. “Finally, an answer to administration of the poison. It helps explain the ability to tailor each injection.

“Whoever prepared and labeled the vials or administered the drugs could mix the poison with other drug combinations to account for the timed release based on a person’s height, weight, and gender. Given the poison, we know a nanoliter will kill.

“A time-release gel capsule could dissolve at an exact time. Unlike a gel capsule, injecting the drugs by needle requires keeping the compound inert before allowing it into the bloodstream.

“I have to admit, I’m stumped at the method of administration. We found no needle marks anywhere on any victims body.

"I’ve talked with experts in pain intervention using the derivative Prialt. The wrong dose kills immediately once in a person's tissue or blood stream. No one knew of any gel capsule offering protection from stomach acids to release the drug at an exact time. Timed-release medicines are not practical for poison nor are they accurate.

With a smile, the Doctor said, “We know more now than an hour ago. Find who prepared the poison and you have the killer.”

***

Harmon asked the detectives to stay to review where they were, what needed doing, the next steps, and who would do what.

Harmon asked Detectives Halls and Hashmid to start. They were to condense the case file by concentrating on the victim connections and any differences in their deaths.

The summarization went quickly. The victims worked at the Hospital and their names were on Amy’s list. The connection was meeting or passing by Amy and her group of friends. All had a required preventive medicine injection the day before they started to die. They all died instantaneously from the same poison.

Harmon interrupted. “Hold on a second. Nat, one main vector is the injection the day before yesterday. Did you check if everyone on the list received an injection?”

“Yes sir. They all did during the day. There were specific appointment times.”

“Who gave them their shots,” Harmon asked, “a nurse, the pharmacist, or someone else?”

Nat had a stumped look on his face and moved to the side of the room making a cell phone call. The others, meanwhile, continued, with Nat listening with one ear.

Hashmid continued the review. Each victim was alone with no signs of anyone present when the poison struck. Every victim got two phone calls. All, except for Amy, got the calls two to three hours apart before the poison hit and they died. All but one victim received their calls and died in the early morning hours. The two exceptions were Amy, whose call was midday, but did not receive a second call, but who died in the midevening hours. Our assumption, because of their telephone numbers being so close, is the killer made a digit transposition error when calling. 

When Nat got off the phone, he held up his hand and everyone quieted down. “About the staff injections. This year all nurses learned a new injection technique. As practice, all nurses gave injections with all given in the Pharmaceutical Lab. Each vial had a label with the staff’s name and birth date to avoid mix-ups.

“In previous years, a high-burst of air-pressure injected a vial’s contents through the skin. Unlike a needle, the air injection is painless and barely leaves a mark.

“This year heralded a breakthrough in drug injections technology. The head-nurse explained about an electromagnetic technology replacing high-pressure air. She called it a ‘rail gun’ for medicine. There are no vials. Special nano-sized gel capsules contain the drugs. The injector moves the capsule at a super-high speed to push it through a microscopic opening in the skin tissue. It’s injectable into muscle or a blood vessel. The dissolution rate of different drugs determines the placement. There is no mark showing an injection. No needle hole. No bruising. 

“The new technology has everyone excited. Now mini-capsules can contain drug compounds designed for specific purposes for an individual with time-release capabilities.” 

The Medical Chief, out of curiosity had remained to listen. He jumped up out of his chair as if receiving an electrical shock. In his excitement, he yelled, “Detectives, it’s the ‘smoking gun.’ It’s the reason there were no needle marks. This new injection method controls when a drug will enter the body. This information solves the mystery. We have the how. Now we need the who and the why.”

Harmon asked Nat to find out if the pharmacist and his assistant were at the Hospital. Nat, still on hold with the nurse, asked and got the reply immediately.

“Sorry Harmon, but both the Chief Pharmacist and his assistant, Marty Tilman, called in sick today.”

Suddenly a bell sounded in Harmon’s head. “Guys, Marty’s name is on Amy’s list. Nat, get lab techs and officers to their offices and homes and see if they are alive.

"If they’re alive, place them in protective custody and take them to the Hospital. One or both are responsible for the poisonings. We’ll meet you there.

“Go through their papers and computers. Call in whatever experts we need. We need to find the source of the poison.”

Detective Halls startled everyone with his hand soundly slapping on the top of the table. “Quick, someone, what time is it?”

Someone answered, “It’s just going on ten o’clock.”

“It’s purposeful misdirection. The killer is running us in circles. Every victim but two always had two messages. The first incoming call tells the victim the time he or she is going to die. Based on the timing, the killer doesn’t intend for the victim to answer.

“Of course,” a detective spoke out, “otherwise they would call the police.”

“Exactly.” responded Halls. “The second call comes to confirm the victim’s death.” Looking around the table, he said, “Right?”

Everyone nodded except Harmon. He saw where Halls was going.

“Oh my God,” Harmon exclaimed, “the first supposed victim, Amy. Her first call was midafternoon. As expected, she called the police. The intensive investigation distracted us.

“We now know it didn’t fit the pattern. However, using our investigative knowledge and deductive reasoning, we conveniently discovered a simple transposition of numbers and determined it was a simple mistake. We surmised Amy wasn’t the supposed victim.

Instead, JoAnn was the victim, at, ... ,” he quickly looked at his notes, “ten-thirty-five. Her size may have complicated the calculations, and account for the difference in timing. Of course, she never got a first warning call.

“And there we were, staking out Amy’s place, sitting on our hands waiting to save – nobody. It’s always been strange, yet convenient; the times given never specified am or pm – simply, o’clock.”

“I think our Amy may be the next victim and,” looking at his watch, “in less than half-an-hour. Can we save her? She needs to get to where they can infuse her with oxygen and maintain constant CPR.”

***

At this point Chief Ratner spoke up. “We’re not normally an ambulance service, but I have two of my best technicians and a fully equipped emergency rescue van, compliments of the Federal Government. I’m willing to bet the Government didn’t spare any expenses and there’s a portable CPR stored in a cabinet. If not, a technician will have to give and maintain CPR until we can get her to the hospital. We’re probably the closest to her house and know what needs doing. It may be her only chance."

Harmon, nerves frayed, yelled, “So, what are you waiting for?”

The Chief ran from the room. He got his technicians, Roger and Marcy and gave them the address. He would fill them in by phone on the way. “Don’t use the radio or we’ll have the press and television on-site before you get there. They’d love to televise a serial killer’s kill, live as it is happening.’”

The technicians were half-way there when the phone rang. ‘Roger, this you?” came the Chief’s voice.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, here's what’s happening and what you have to do." He explained the poison and the need for constant CPR, until Amy

was in a ventilator or on a respirator.

"Right now, speed is essential. Pile on the horses, and if necessary ride against traffic.

"You're this women's only possibility to live. The poison is instantaneous. Once in the bloodstream, the victim has little time left."

"You get it all?”

“Yes sir, we’ve got it."

***

Roger drove with sirens blaring and every light possible flashing. They’d only had a few practice hours in the medical rescue van the Federal Government gave them as surplus. The vehicle, a modified Humvee, was huge and powerful. They hadn’t yet had time to check-out all the equipment and supplies in the van’s cabinets.

Roger cursed at drivers slow to get out of his way. Feeling like he was driving a Monster Truck, he played “chicken” with cars in the opposite lanes. He gambled at intersections and ran red lights faster than ever.

They arrived at Amy’s house with only minutes left.

They jumped out of the van and ran to her house. They rang the doorbell and banged on the door. Amy, using the door peephole, realized they were medical personnel and opened the door.

Roger spit words out as fast as he could. “Amy, you need to come with us immediately. There is no time to spare. There’s poison in your body. When dispersed you have only moments to live.”

It registered with her immediately and she said, “Okay, let’s go.” Turning, she ran back into the house. The medical techs ran after her. They caught her as she grabbed her keys and a small wallet off the kitchen counter and turned to head back to the door.

The two medical techs each grabbed an arm and started running with her through the house.

Suddenly, Amy went limp, held upright only by the medical techs. They knew she was now a victim.

The techs dragged her out the door and shoved her into the van. All the while, Roger started counting: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, ... .

Marcy knew Roger was counting on the five golden minutes. The time a person could still live, albeit with possible brain damage, once the heart stopped pumping blood.

Without bothering to place her on a stretcher, Roger straightened her out and began CPR. He again started counting aloud. Marcy searched the van and found the necessary equipment. Despite having no training, Roger and Marcy started learning on the job.

***

Amy awoke to a murmuring sound -- like someone praying and she was hearing it through a tunnel. She slowly opened her eyes and realized she was in a hospital bed, hooked up with wires and tubes. She felt an alternating pressure on her chest.

As she focused, Brian was next to her, holding her hand. He stroked it in rhythm to his rocking and mumbling. She only could catch a few phrases; “Please God” . . . “She’s so wonderful . . .“ “I couldn’t live without her.” “You can’t do this, why . . .” Simultaneously she heard another sound from him. She couldn’t hear or understand it, realizing he was ‘keening.’

Feeling his hand, she gave a feeble squeeze.

Brian jerked up. Amy’s eyes were open and she was managing a small smile. She finally said something to him. Low and growly, he could not understand it. He leaned closer.

With barely a whisper Amy asked, “What’s it take for a girl to get a drink?”

***

Amy had succumbed to the poison. However, the quick thinking medical technicians working together were doing their best to create a miracle. Roger dared not stop CPR. The remaining tasks were Marcy’s. She found a cabinet stenciled with ‘MCPR.’ Inside was a mechanical mobile CPR machine; new technology developed for a battlefield. A diagram on the inside of the door showed pictorial instruction. She silently gave thanks to whomever in the military left it behind.

Marcy was a big girl and strong. She worked around Roger. Following the diagram, Marcy shoved a heavy flat solid plastic piece under Amy; a second molded plastic piece with a box on top, went over Amy’s chest. Velcro straps connected and tightened the two pieces. It was awkward, but Roger continued employing CPR.

As soon as it was in place, Marcy pushed a toggle switch. The device started operating. A battery operated pump opened and closed a bladder in the chest shell over Amy’s heart and lungs. Its pumping action provided the pressure and timing needed for perfect CPR. A switch on top with an arrow pointed to numbers. Marcy and Roger immediately recognized that the device’s pump speed was adjustable.

With Roger now available to help, he and Marcy opened the cabinet marked “VENT.” Inside was a two-piece clamshell-like plastic helmet. The simplified diagram showed it worked with the MCPR device. Put over the victims head, the two pieces tightened with large adjustable thumbscrews creating an airtight seal with a connection for an oxygen tank. A wire connection coordinated the two pieces. The MCPR box coordinated the two machines into a battlefield ventilator/respirator.

The artificial CPR box coordinated the pumping of her heart and the ventilator forced and pumped oxygen into and through her lungs. Without the devices, there was no way to provide oxygenated blood circulation to her blood vessels, tissues, and brain.

Amy Jo was on life support as Roger counted 360 one-thousand, about 6 minutes. They had done all they could.

Roger got the van started and began the fastest trip to a Hospital he had ever managed. In the back Marcy, while looking for the CPR device, read other cabinet labels. She marveled at the various medical devices stenciled on them. In one marked “DEFIB” she found a small machine similar to a standard portable defibrillator. This one, however, rather than paddles, had wires with clamping-type ends she had never seen before. Leaning over Amy, she noticed knobs on the side and top of the MCPR plastic body for attaching the clamps. Attaching the wires, she pushed the large red button on the box and could see “shock” to Amy’s body. The MCPR had built in defibrillator paddles. She pushed the button a few times. She took a large needle and injected a dose of adrenaline directly into Amy’s heart. Marcy then used the defibrillator again.

Although there was no change in how Amy was lying, Marcy imagined she saw a finger twitch. Feeling for a pulse, she found a feeble one. Marcy prayed it was because the defibrillation, oxygen, and the mobile CPR/ventilator were doing their job.

Both knew they might have been working on someone already dead. They knew people didn’t die instantaneously, rather gradually. When the brain stopped receiving oxygen it did not immediately die, it took a while. The time a person “lived” varied from three minutes up to ten minutes. The longer the time the brain was without fresh blood, the greater the damage. CPR helped extend time and often meant the difference between life and death.

  ***

As they were rushing Amy to the Hospital, Detective Harmon called. Impatient, he was speaking before anyone could say “Hello.”

“This is Detective Harmon. We haven’t heard from you. What’s happening? Did you get there on time?”

Roger answered, “Well, maybe.”

“What do you mean maybe?”

Roger told Harmon what happened. He explained about there being a feeble pulse.

“Isn’t there an antidote?” Roger asked.

Harmon replied, “No. but thanks to your working under impossible circumstances, she may have a chance. Now we're all praying.”

***

The Detectives finally found the Pharmacist. He had taken the day off because he had a bad reaction to the protective injection he received two days before.

Sick and weak he had remained in bed. When he heard about the poisonings, he became distraught. It took the detectives a few minutes to calm him down to discover what upset him so much.

“Is it Marty? I can’t believe he did it.”

“What makes you ask?” Harmon prompted. 

“I don’t know, it’s simply a feeling. For the last few months, he’s been moody and angry and feeling unappreciated. He‘s friendly with everyone. However, lately, I don’t know . . . There’s nothing specific. However, he started muttering to himself. He was upset and began to make remarks about getting even. How one day he’d show them he was as good as they were.

“He’s smart and he has the expertise. Have you found him yet? Isn’t he at the Hospital?”

“No,” answered one of the Detectives. “We have someone searching his office now and we have officers at his home.”

***

While the Detectives were at the Pharmacist’s home, Nat Slattery was going through Marty’s office at the hospital. As he picked up Marty’s phone messages, he came across the same one he had heard many times already. This one said Marty would be dead by 3 o’clock today.

It was on his office phone, so the poisoner had expected Marty to be working today. Marty, telling no one, had taken the day off.

Nat called Detective Harmon and told him about the message.

In turn, Harmon, now confused, told Nat about the conversation with the pharmacist. “I thought we had officers going to his home to find him for questioning? What’s happening?

“Officers are in front of his house now,” Nat replied. “They’ve been there for the past three hours. They’ve knocked and rung his bell. They’ve been doing it every hour to double check he wasn’t sleeping or somehow got into the house without them seeing him. They’ve checked with his neighbors. They say he’s quiet, keeps to himself, and they rarely see him. No one has seen him the last few days.

“How do you want to proceed? Should we have the officers enter the house?”

“With the phone message we have cause. I’d rather we were there, but for time, let’s go ahead. Have the officers enter. Have them do it with the least amount of damage. Tell them to simply look around, see if they can find Marty, and report.

Meanwhile, Halls and I will get started to his house. Why don’t you call and alert Detectives Jacobson and Hashmid? We’ll call the Medical Examiner and get his special van on its way.”

Nat first radioed the officers. He then called Jacobson and Hashmid and quickly briefed them. They, too, started towards Marty’s house.

 

***

Marty was at his house admiring, playing with, and working in his aquatic domain. He hoped to one day be a Pharmaceutical Researcher, helping to develop new drugs from exotic animals, birds and sea life.

He had originally bought two attached townhouses. He lived-in one and rented out the first two floors of the second. The second-floor ceilings were reinforced with steel beams to handle the weight of his water tanks and aquariums.

He joined the top floor of both homes into one room. Converted to hold sea tanks, it rivaled any major sea research laboratory. Whenever he could, he obtained new species of sea life: from clams, to shrimp, to exotic fish, predator fish, octopi, squids and corals. He had an extensive collection of poisonous sea creatures. There were numerous varieties of cone snails with their magnificent colors. The blue ring octopi. Reef stonefish. A worldwide collection of Jellyfish including the Portuguese man of war. And sea snakes.

He had become an expert on poisonous sea creatures and occasionally made a breakthrough. He wrote articles and research papers on modifying poison secretions into useful medical cures.

He had to create a different name, a false resume, and credentials. Though unknown, pure luck got his first work published in a small organization’s magazine. They were short an article and his work was sound and passed the scrutiny of the expert readers on the subject. Given the time rush and the complicated subject, no one ever followed up to check on who he really was.

Although not initially known in the specialized profession, his groundbreaking work was soon accepted and published worldwide. However, he was always angry at his situation. He could never receive the accolades and recognition he deserved.

As he worked with the new capsule injection machines, his experimentation yielded amazing results. He had taken the concept and created capsules to dispense multiple medications at exact and specific times. His work had broken new ground introducing medicines into the human body.

Despite it all, he remained an expert “nobody.” His false persona was the expert, not he.

Unable to accept speaking engagements or give lectures, his frustrations festered. Each time he had to refuse, he turned his anger and bitterness towards the Hospital staff. They had their degrees. They lived expensive lives. Meanwhile, he lived a shadow life.

He imagined the Hospital staff looking down on him. He never felt treated as an equal or respected. Stymied about how to accept the accolades rightfully his, in a blind rage he decide to kill off Hospital staff.

He expected the police were looking for him, either as a suspect or a next victim. In his soundproof laboratory, he could not hear much. An invisible pressure pad outside his front door rang a chime in his lab if anyone came to his door. Warned, via a well-hidden set of cameras, he could see who was at the door and in the front and back yards.

A few hours ago, the chime rang. When he looked up, he saw police officers at the front door, obviously ringing and banging on the door. He ignored them. They came back a couple of other times. He knew he didn’t have much time. Whether or not they found the message on his office machine, they’d be coming back.

As he thought this, the warning chime rang. As he watched, the police became more aggressive, broke a small window next to the door, and entered his house. Was he too late?

They’d never find him, hidden as he was. He checked the time. It was nearing 3:00 and the message he left said he would be dead by then.

He had to hurry. There wasn’t much time left before they came back and if they didn’t find him dead, they’d start to do a serious search. He’d have to rethink the story he had worked out. As he continued working, he heard the front door warning chime and watched the police leave.

***

He was preparing two new batches of the poisoned injections. One batch would kill off a second group of Hospital Doctors and Nurses. The second batch for him was special. He’d become sick, come close to dying, but the dose would not kill him. It would render him unconscious and near death. He’d live and be a miracle survivor. Marty would be another “poison victim.” As a victim, police suspicions of him should end.

Earlier, he had made the first “You are dead,” call to himself. His phone had one of those ubiquitous ‘apps.’ Its distortion made the voice unrecognizable. If he remained a suspect, a voice analyzer would still match.

The police should find the killer’s message on his office phone. His plan was simple. He would return to the lower floor of the house to make the second call, this time to his cell phone, asking “Was he Dead Yet.” He had carefully coordinated his position on his couch. He would administer the venom by needle, between his toes, with the needle mark virtually invisible.

Timing was critical. For each victim, he bought two prepaid cell phones for the calls. There was no trail to trace because he trashed one after each call. After his own second call, the phone and needle would be attached to a rubber strap. When released it was pulled down into the back of the couch cushions and disappeared. He had practiced until it worked perfectly.  

With a ‘live’ victim, they’d rush him to the Hospital. He doubted the police would bother with a major search of the house and discover his hidden lab. Access to the third floor required finding and moving a hidden wall.

The first step was to gather venom and distill it. For his special batch, he needed a less mature and smaller Cone Snail. The Snails sensed him. As he approached, they slowly moved to the side of the tank where he put in his hand. Because the snails were slippery, he had developed a special collection glove. Its adhesive fingers kept a snail from slipping away.

He used a vial with a rubber membrane. Pressed atop the membrane, the snail extended its proboscis, and in turn, a harpoon pushed out and injected venom into the vial.

Having respect for the killing power of the Cone Snail’s venom, he was careful. Grabbing a snail to milk its venom was a simple task. But it was becoming late and he began to rush. When the police arrived, they were expecting to find him dead. Mentally chastising himself for not preparing his dosage earlier, he did not notice a new clutch of baby Cone Snails had hatched on the front corner of the glass top. It was unusual. Cone Snails laid their eggs in rocky crevices or hidden cracks.

He picked up the lid holding it in place with his elbow. Reaching in, he chooses a small snail near the bottom of the tank. All he felt was the drip of a tiny drop of water on his elbow. He never felt the baby snails, born moments before, stick him and inject tiny doses of venom.

As his fingers closed on the snail he wanted, he began to feel light-headed. Suddenly he felt his chest constrict. He began to remove his gloved hand. Needing to steady himself, he grabbed the top of the still open tank.

***

Detectives Harmon and Halls got to Marty's house a few minutes before 3 o’clock with Detectives Jacobson, Hadshid and Nat right behind them. The Medical Examiners Special Van was a minute or two behind them.

As the detectives left their cars and gathered in front of the house, the officers on the scene left their car and quickly briefed the Detectives. They explained how they had entered the house, how they thoroughly searched both floors and finding no one, returned to their car to wait.

The detectives turned toward the house. Nat was the first to notice and as the others started for the door, he simply stood there, hands on his hips.

Harmon and the others stopped and looked back at Nat. He was smiling and was looking upward. The others followed his gaze and saw that it was actually a three story home. As the officers also looked, one simply said, “Well I’ll be a son of a bitch.”

“Detectives, I swear to you, when you go into that house, there are only two floors to search. There is nothing to indicate there is a third floor.”

As they all continued toward the house, Halls motioned upward, and all could see the camera hanging from the roof eaves.

With the door already opened, they simply walked in. No one was sure what they would find, but given what had transpired so far, they expected to find a dead Marty laid out somewhere in the house.

They all began to again search. After a thorough search they found the house, as the officers described, deserted and with only two floors.

As they reconvened in the first floor living room, Harmon voiced what everyone was thinking. Everyone now knew that something was wrong. “We’ve thoroughly searched both floors of the house and it’s empty. We could find no trace of any laboratory equipment and there were no drugs in the refrigerator. It seems as though there is nothing here, including Marty.

“So three questions: First, where’s Marty? Given the phone message and the time, did he step out and is now undoubtedly dead somewhere. Next, it’s now after three, why hasn’t there been a second call? Unless it was coming in on Marty’s cell phone and he has it with him. Finally, none of us could find anyway up to a third floor. So, I think we need to search the house again and concentrate on finding what has to be a hidden entrance.” 

The search started anew. This time they were specifically looking for an entrance to the third floor. They rechecked the closets, tapped on the walls, looked for worn areas on the floor, anything to lead them to an access point.

Harmon sent an officer to get tools from the techs, especially a sledgehammer. The Detectives continued searching.

The officer returned, panting, and out-of-breath. As he handed the hammer to Harmon, there was a loud crash inside the upstairs hall wall. Moments later, water began coming out from under the wall into the hallway. With no obvious door or other entrance, Harmon took the large hammer and punched a hole through the wallboard, over the rivulet of water.

Through the hole, his flashlight located the back of the hidden doorway and the steps leading to a third floor. Moving into the master bedroom closet, he again used the sledgehammer, opening a hole in the back of the closet. Reaching through he released the door catch.

Water was cascading down a stairway. Scattered on the stairs were small objects. A closer look showed them to be colorful snails.

Climbing the stairs, they took care not to step on any of the creatures. At the top, they saw a wonderland of lit tanks holding aquatic fish and fauna. A fully equipped laboratory took up one end of the room.

Marty was on the floor with a large aquarium tank on top of him. Covered with hundreds of snails of all sizes and myriad colors, he died with the Cone Snails by his side, on his face, on his arms and other exposed areas; all feasting on their “keeper.”

The Medical Examiner determined death to be by snail. There was never a second phone call asking him if he was dead yet.

 


© Copyright 2018 Stanley M. All rights reserved.

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