Back in the lab, I pored over my data and still didn’t find a clue how the scientist was poisoned. If one of his colleagues poisoned his coffee, you couldn’t prove it by me. No Boy Scout merit badge for Ben Candidi today. According to my HPLC analysis, the deceased should still be walking around. At a quarter ’til five, Dr. Steve Burk marched in.
"So what’s the story, good buddy?"
"Same as before, Chief. There’s nothing to find among the ground clutter." Perhaps a weather radar analogy would strike a chord with him.
"Okay. Just finish it off and don’t forget the report."
"Dr. Burk, could I have until tomorrow morning? I just have enough time to finish up here before . . ."
I trailed off, not wanting to tell Burk about the dinner invitation. After one-upping him in Westley’s office, I almost felt sorry for him. Of course, Westley would always like him because he was predictable and reliable.
"Sure," Burk said. "First thing tomorrow morning." He left for the day.
After straightening things up, I went to the locker where I kept my computer, my important personal records and other water-sensitive stuff. I pulled out a light blue dress shirt and my sports jacket. These came in handy for emergencies, like when dignitaries from Dade County government drop in. Punching out on the time clock, I walked out to face another hot, humid mid-August, Wednesday afternoon. Carefully folding the jacket, I put it on the rat-trap carrier of my 10-speed bicycle, chained to a tree. Luckily, the dinner invitation would not take me out of my way. The Faire Isle condominium complex was only a few hundred yards from my home. Dodging hospital visitors and employees on the pedestrian mall, I rode out of the Medical campus and down 12th Avenue.
I’d like to shake the hand of the man who invented the bicycle. It’s the right conveyance for an athletic, ecologically-conscious man or woman. You move efficiently under your own power, as free as the wind in your face, at a speed that won’t kill you or anyone else. The scenery moves by slowly enough for you to enjoy it. In the winter I ride fast for the sheer thrill of it and for aerobic exercise; but in the summer I pedal just hard enough to be taken seriously by the cars, but slowly enough to keep from working up a sweat.
In the middle of a heavily travelled section of Little Havana, I stopped and bought a cola at a café. In the winter I drink café cubano. I chatted with Isabella who worked behind the sidewalk counter. It’s part of my daily routine. With a dozen open-air café s on my route, I visit each one only twice a month. I have a certain affinity for the Little Havana millieu.
Leaning against the counter, contemplating the traffic moving south along 12th Avenue, it occurred to me that my ride home through Little Havana was like the ride that the molecules take through the separating column of my HPLC machine. Different molecules get held back for different amounts of time — all according to their affinities for the packing material in the long, narrow column.
My affinity for Isabella and the café slowed down my trip through Little Havana by 15 minutes. I mounted up and reentered the stream. After crossing that ugly highway named U.S. 1, I was in Coconut Grove. The trees, tropical overgrowth and proximity to the Bay made for a cooler ride. After a mile on Tigertail Road, it was time to turn off and coast down to the Bay.
The Faire Isle complex sits a quarter of a mile out in Biscayne Bay. About 20 years ago, some rich people decided there wasn’t enough waterfront property to go around. So they filled in part of the Bay to create their own island with five enormous high-rises, swimming pools, tennis courts and clubhouse. And the rest of us lost a portion of the bay.
I pedaled along the private causeway and over the bridge, arriving at the guard house by which the cars must pass in single file. I glided past a half-dozen assorted Mercedes, BMW’s and Jaguars to the front of the line, falling in behind the leader. This provoked a few lower-class honks of protest from the upper-class cars. Luckily, the guard knew that I was expected and let me through without causing the gentry much delay.
"We don’t have many guests come here on bicycle, man," the guard said with a Jamaican accent and a toothy smile. Both features went well with his abbreviated khaki uniform and pith helmet.
I chained my bike to a convenient tree, sat down next to it and contemplated the millieu for the hour I had to kill. Yes, the black Jamaican with his Colonial uniform would suit the Old Man just fine when he drove up in his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Over the years I had glimpsed him a few times, driving that 1959 relic, with its rounded fenders emphasizing its white-walled tires and with its winged nymph on the hood. Did her elfin bottom inspire sexual fantasies in the old boy as he motored along, sitting in his over-stuffed, leather-appointed seat behind his cherished wooden dash panel?
It was just the car for an English fat cat to drive on the French Riviera — a definite plus for Faire Isle’s snob appeal, which was every bit as phony as English accents you hear in commercials for luxury cars. But how would the average Faire Isle resident relate to Dr. Westley, the genuine article?
How would the average Miamian relate to Dr. Westley? There was a story that, in the old days, Westley had considered the only thing at this latitude worthy of Her Majesty’s visit to be the Bahamas, 50 miles due east.
Professionally, he cut a fine figure in criminal court with his expert opinions on cause of death. The Miami Standard once described him as one part emergency room physician, one part scientist, one part detective and one part English gentleman. And he had an illustrious history solving Miami Beach Mafia murders, Cuban "political" assassinations, and cocaine- and designer-drug-related deaths of every kind. "He has kept pace with every step of Miami’s growth from tourist town to major metropolitan area," the Miami Standard once stated.
I could imagine him impressing the indigenous southern gentlemen, and other folk who ruled the roost 30 years ago, down here in Miami. But as the years rolled on, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and many other groups were added to the list. How did the new groups like the patronizing English gentleman? Could snob appeal and competence keep his career alive for another decade?
And what was I to make of this dinner invitation? I sensed a fatherly interest behind his stiff formality, but I have a very sensitive antenna for this kind of signal. Would he protect me against the budget crunch that Burk had been talking about?
Sure, I was in the doldrums with my job, but I’d been very idealistic about it in the beginning. In my second year, I suffered a major setback which held me back professionally. In a murder case, the defense had subpoenaed me to testify on my HPLC analyses on cocaine and its breakdown products. The defense attorney used country-boy tactics and sophistic arguments to make hash of my work. Afterward, Burk said my testimony was so bad that it threatened to destroy the State Attorney’s case.
I am too honest in reply and often crumple under the force of certain people’s will. After that day, I was no longer a signatory on forensic assays. The other technicians handled all of the formal bullshit, leaving me the role of special projects boy wonder and occasional trouble shooter. And did the Department really need a trouble shooter? For $150 per hour they could fly in a factory technician from Atlanta. How much was their pony-tailed Mensa genius in blue jeans actually saving them?
I put on my sports jacket and went to the clubhouse. The maitre d’ expected me and directed me to a secluded table. Dr. Westley would be with me shortly, and I should order a drink. A gin and tonic sounded fine. I could contemplate the quinine standard and my beloved HPLC machines. The Old Man appeared at about the same time as the drink, voiced his approval, and told the waiter to make it two. We started off with some small talk about his Silver Cloud and his experiences in Miami — stuff I knew he’d like to talk about.
After we ordered dinner, Dr. Westley got around to the special project. His proposition would be to our mutual benefit and would advance my professional development.
"I must first tell you more about the case. Please remember, Ben — I would like to call you Ben — that what I am about to tell you is to be kept in the strictest confidence. Not even Burk knows all of what I am going to tell you. The deceased is Dr. Charles D. Cooper, Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at the Bryan Medical School. As you know, it is a private medical school located a scant 300 yards from our building. The widow is Dr. Jane Goddard Cooper, Professor of Epidemiology, at the same institution."
"I see what you mean about the case being ‘close to home’."
"The following is a matter of record: Dr. Charles Cooper ate at a faculty meeting a fast-food lunch procured by his secretary. The meeting took place in his office at twelve noon. At least half of his faculty hated him, and Mrs. Cooper. Oh dear, what shall we call her? Dr. Mrs. Dr. Cooper, I suppose. In any case, she thinks that one of the faculty poisoned him. Let’s simply call her ‘the widow’. She isn’t just some hysterical female. She is a biomedical scientist, albeit a dietician. But she does have a Ph.D. She is an extremely well-connected individual, who is presently making life very difficult for me."
Dr. Westley went on to say that the County Manager was pressuring him to solve the case. The County Manager and the deceased Dr. Cooper were buddies on the vestry of St. James Episcopal Church. At church, Dr. Cooper had confided to the County Manager that he was despised by certain members of his Pharmacology Department. The widow had confirmed it.
Westley reiterated that, at the slightest hint of an investigation, the perpetrator would destroy all the evidence and forever destroy his chance of learning how the crime was committed. Dr. Jane Cooper and the County Manager were behaving accordingly.
I asked, "Does she suspect a particular professor?"
"She thinks three capable of having done it. She suspects one in particular, but I cannot tell you which. She can supply nothing in the way of proof. Our problem is that she and the County Manager expect us to solve this thing. Given my circumstances, I have no way of doing it. When it comes to modern pharmacology, I’m a bit out of my depth. And it’s precarious just existing in this office with all this political intrigue. Some of the commissioners are conducting a campaign to have me removed. They can’t forgive me for telling the truth about the blood cocaine level in the floozie in the Gettis case."
The Commissioner-Gettis affair had been big-city politics at its worst. It had ended when Gettis fled to an undisclosed Latin American country.
"A couple of the commissioners are still treating that pistol-packing cowboy like a cause celebre!" Dr. Westley said, alluding to an earlier incident where Gettis brandished a pistol in the faces of security guards at the High Point Condominium. It had something to do with valet parking.
The Old Man talked about recent efforts to sack him. He lamented the low quality of Miami political life, with politicians carrying on like irresponsible louts but expecting public servants to oblige their every whim. He intimated that his impeccable reputation was somehow catching up with him.
"People think that we can do anything, including raising bloody Lazarus from the dead!" Maybe he just needed a sympathetic listener, but he was speaking and gesturing with more candor than I’d never seen in him.
"You see, Ben, I told the County Manager that we can’t simply confiscate the contents of every one of those twelve professors’ freezers and subpoena their notebooks. Yet we can’t let the murderer get away with it. A healthy forty-eight-year-old man doesn’t simply drop dead. But with this collection of suspects, a meaningful investigation has to be every bit as clever as the crime itself. We can’t send in a mob of police detectives to trample about."
"Yes, Dr. Westley, I understand. You need a short list of molecules which were available to those professors."
"Quite. But even then we might have enormous problems with detection and analysis."
Dr. Westley dropped back in his chair and began massaging his flabby biceps through his blue blazer, while staring silently at the floor. He looked up for a second as if beseeching me, and then dropped his gaze to his plate. We were halfway through the main course.
"I must weather this one as I have survived such storms before. It is simply that — in our own medical community — this infernal backbiting — and the fact that they can criticize me silently, leaving me no means of defending myself. Oh, damn this city, anyway!"
Why was he telling me all this?
After a long silence, he began reiterating his difficulties, counterbalancing them by subtle jabs at me, emphasizing my lack of career plans. He described the severity of the English university system in which he had studied, lamenting that excellence is not appreciated anymore. The Canadian Consul stopped by our table for a minute and Dr. Westley half-introduced me.
With dessert and coffee, Dr. Westley’s behavior became downright odd. Forgetting his English manners, he paddled his coffee with his swizzle stick. Then he put it down, staining the white table cloth. He wrung his hands and avoided my eyes. His voice, usually so controlled, took on an almost whiney tone. He told of grave budgetary problems in the department, that the county bureaucracy was giving him trouble and that Dr. Steve Burk was not my greatest supporter. Painfully and inarticulately, he told me that, with a non-engineering bachelor’s degree, I was "betwixt and between" and that I was demonstrably ill-suited for positions requiring "supervisory skills."
"You know . . . these job descriptions . . . personnel reports . . . bloody bureaucracy . . ." His voice trailed off. He twisted the table cloth. "And you don’t even bother to dress for the part!"
Involuntarily, my toes curled up inside my tennis shoes. Dr. Westley was silent for a few seconds as if deciding whether to take back these words. He looked me in the eye for a split-cecond.
"Ben, you should not fritter away your life as a laboratory technician. You should receive further education and advance yourself. It is often a good turn for a lad who’s come of age, to throw him out of the house." He said this emphatically, but then practically buried his face in his empty dessert plate. I felt as sorry for him as for myself.
He rattled on about my being "ideally situated" to solve this "unprecedented intellectual problem" which might appeal to my "Mensa interests." Hovering on the brink of his proposition, Dr. Westley wrung his hands so hard I thought he would pop the veins in his blue-cheese skin.
"More coffee, sir?" asked the waiter.
"No, George," he said as if shaken from a trance. "Not tonight. We will be retiring shortly. Sherry on the balcony with Mrs. Westley . . . " His voice trailed off.
As the waiter walked away, I took two deep breaths and said, "Dr. Westley, I’m intrigued. What do you propose?"
"What I propose is that you become a graduate student in pharmacology at the Bryan Medical School. I propose that my department continue to engage you, but as an independent contractor to keep our instruments in good repair, at half your current salary. I suggest that while you are pursuing your Ph.D. degree, you may turn up information which might be useful to the present case." He searched me with pleading eyes.
"I will need to think about it."
"Why, most certainly. A doctorate in pharmacology that will carry more weight in this world than membership in that odd-ball society of yours. Mensa, is that what they call it?" he asked, chidingly.
I grimaced. He’d known for six years what to call it and he didn’t need to insult my friends to make his point.
"Toxicology is very closely related to pharmacology," he said in persuasive tones. "After receiving your degree, we could bring you back in a permanent position. Look here," he said, pulling a fountain pen from the inner breast pocket of his jacket and scribbling on a cocktail napkin. "The University gives a $12,500 fellowship to the pharmacology graduate students. Add the $12,500 that you will bill us for your time as an independent contractor, working a few hours a week on our instruments, getting the cobwebs out of the organ pipes, so to speak. You would have your current salary. I will keep your bread buttered during the four years that you will need for your Ph.D."
"How do you know they’ll take me?"
A sly smile crossed the Old Man’s face as he shook his head and said, "Oh, they’ll take you, they will. My sources say they’re taking students from all quarters of the compass, even from remote corners of the world."
"It sounds very interesting."
"Oh, I am so glad that you will consider it," he said warmly. "Now, may I invite you up to our apartment? I would like you to meet Margaret."
For six years he’d kept me at arms length. Now he was firing me for my own good and bringing me upstairs to socialize with his wife, whom I’d never met. Of course, I couldn’t refuse. "Margaret has more than her share of the infirmity of age, but she would so much like to meet you."
He continued with this line of gab all the way up to the apartment. The metallic-sounding music in the elevator added a surrealistic touch. We walked down a hallway papered with an indestructible sharkskin plastic material of hypnotic design, past several painted sheet metal doors of his condo neighbors until we reached Dr. Westley’s. His was made of oak and displayed a large, engraved brass knocker. He opened the door to reveal an interior suggestive of an English country house, with a long mahogany dining table and matching high-backed chairs, and a tall wood-and-glass china cabinet to the side, displaying tastefully designed, old and expensive porcelain. It also held glasses for wine, champagne, brandy, cocktails, and plain water, all of the most elegantly-shaped and refractive crystal.
I was greeted properly but warmly by a frail Mrs. Westley, gray-haired, wrinkled, short and bent over with a pronounced "dowager hump." She smiled up at me, expressing a curious mixture of friendliness and vulnerability as she offered her hand and said a few words of greeting. I tried to say the right things but was distracted by the frailness of her hand and the deep folds on her pale face. She was very English, the sort of upper-middle-class lady whom you would see in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Her voice and its inflection fit the part. She spoke with a high-pitched warble. Half of the quaver seemed intentional and the other half must have come from the ravages of age. I had never been to England, and I was surprised to learn that such people really do exist.
"Wessie tells me that you are one of his brightest lads . . . a genius with the gadgets that he uses to solve heinous crimes, murders foul in the night!"
With the words "genius" and "gadgets," her pitch rose half an octave. At the word "murders," her voice dropped deep, with dramatic conspiratorial effect. It would take me a long time to get used to her conversational cadence, with choice of emphasized words seemingly determined by momentary whim. Her sentence endings were determined as much by the need to breathe as by logic.
Fascinated by her language, I almost forgot to reply. "I try to give him my best, Mrs. Westley."
She pressed on, saying, "When I imagine how complicated and technical life has become, with machines to find out why you died, machines to keep you alive, machines to peek into you, it boggles the mind. But I do try to keep up with these things. We had a wonderful presentation by a most clever young scientist at the Ladies Auxiliary of the Bryan Medical School! You know, old faculty wives and wives of rich benefactors and that sort of thing. Last Tuesday, I believe. He was a most clever young man. He actually nudges along the divine act of conception in test tubes! Japanese or Chinese. Ikemoto, I think was his name."
Turning to Dr. Westley, she asked, "Darling, have you heard of him?"
"I am afraid not," replied Westley, slightly bemused.
How did it serve Dr. Westley’s purpose to engage me in such outdated and useless conversation?
Margaret thought for a minute and then fluttered on. "Yes I believe he was Chinese. Yes, Ikemoto. It is very fascinating and I should say strangely wonderful — what they can do in their Petri dishes and with their lasers. They are working on ways to tell by just looking at the seed whether they would be girls or boys. And how they can literally blast away the ones deemed unsuitable. To think, that one might be able to order a boy or a girl."
"Very Huxleyan" interjected the Old Man.
"But I shouldn’t very much want to order up a child from a Chinese or Japanese as some people order up a motor car," she said, glancing at the Old Man, who sadly shook his head. "Life can be very disappointing without having to suffer with all those Petri dishes and lasers."
She sighed, lost in thought. The Old Man wrung his hands, as if hopeless to make up for some past disappointment. Margaret continued:
"Happily, I shan’t live to see the day. But I will continue to see their little ‘fiber lens’ television pictures of my creaky old joints. And I will continue to devour their pills to my dying day, which may not be too far away."
I muttered something. Margaret ended up telling me that she hoped that the future belongs to nice young men like me, and that she did not know what the world was coming to, with the teeming masses springing up like weeds among the roses. Good manners were being lost, even in the Royal Family.
The Old Man changed the subject by showing me, with a certain measure of pride, the rest of the apartment. The furniture, overstuffed chairs, end tables, reading tables and lamps defined the apartment as a little piece of England. All that was missing was a fireplace. The walls held paintings of English countryside reminiscent of Carpenter. The Old Man narrated and interpreted:
"Penrith, Lake District, you know; Yorkshire moorland in autumn, fogs as messy as the bogs, they say; Clipper ships under sail; Thames Estuary." Walking into his study he said, "And here is where I hold forth."
On the wall behind his mahogany desk were his diplomas and certificates of completion of Public School. ("Of course, not to be confused with the truly public schools in this country.") Next to it hung a framed portrait photograph of Queen Elisabeth the Second on the occasion of her coronation. The other side of his study was dedicated to a collection of Egyptian artifacts and framed antique photographs of what appeared to be a British Museum expedition.
Under an oversized black-and-white photograph of the Sphinx, was a most unusual chair of ancient design but modern construction, painted in a hideous red-and-orange pattern. The back was straight and tall. The non-upholstered seat and arm rests were uncomfortably high. A pair of 10-inch jackal heads rose from the forward-most portion of the armrests where you would put your hands. Granted, the Pharaohs used to sit in those things. But 15 minutes in Dr. Westley’s chair would be enough to drive me nuts. Dr. Westley was standing nearby, vocalizing sub-audibly.
Of course, coroners are attracted to the occult, so I decided to humor him. "Dr. Westley, I knew you were interested in Egyptology. It seems that you have also been to Egypt."
"Yes, on more than one occasion. As you perhaps do not know, Egypt was the site of one of my more interesting autopsies, performed at the behest of the Egyptian department of antiquities. A question of possible skullduggery four millennia ago. It proved closer to skull surgery, although one can only speculate as to their motives. Clear, straight cuts on the roof of the skull, lines true as the base of the Great Pyramid. Done with the help of opium, as we can suspect from their hieroglyphs and from the morphology of seeds found elsewhere. Of course, we didn’t have chromatographic analysis back then, so there was no chance of any chemical detection even if the opium molecules had survived the mummification and four thousand years of oxidation."
"That sounds like it should have been in the National Geographic magazine."
"It didn’t appear there, but it did appear in Endeavour. Yes, we acquitted ourselves well. We turned over the medical evidence to the higher court of archeologists and anthropologists who can decide these things. It was all good fun! The Egyptian chaps were most appreciative of my help with the case," he said gesturing to a photo of a much more youthful version of himself in khaki, in a rather slumping pose next to Gamal Abdel Nassar. He ushered me out to the balcony.
"I should have submitted it to the Guinness Book of World Records, I suspect. Which brings us to the modern equivalent: the demise of Dr. Cooper. These days we have the use of liquid nitrogen freezers, which gives us the advantage of stasis. So we have time, but do we have enough material? And, of course, you will help me by showing us what to look for."
How could I say "no" to such a polished Englishman, after he offered me the chance to perform noble service?
We sat in comfortable chairs on Dr. Westley’s balcony on the 43rd floor of the building, facing out toward Biscayne Bay. He spoke about his old cases, about education and about his role as a mentor. The breeze was comfortably warm and gentle. Margaret pushed out a wooden trolley with glasses and bottles of wines and liqueurs. The wheels squeaked, reminding me of her arthritic joints. The glasses tinkled like the test tubes on my shaker several hours earlier. Three glasses of sherry were poured and some cordial words were said. Then Margaret returned to the kitchen, leaving me alone with Dr. Westley.
From the marina below, halyards were gently beating against the masts of the docked sailboats, sounding like alpine cows at pasture. Lights flickered from Key Biscayne, three miles across the bay. Although the Old Boy made me feel welcome, my thoughts turned to getting home to the Diogenes. After a quarter of an hour, I thanked Dr. and Mrs. Westley and told them I must go.
"I’ll think it over very carefully and talk to you about it tomorrow," I promised him.
He plodded to his desk and produced a glossy brochure titled Graduate Study in Pharmacology at Bryan Medical School.
"Take this home with you tonight and look it over. You do have electric lights on that vessel, don’t you? Tomorrow morning, first thing, you can come to my office and tell me what you make of it."
"And we would so very much like to have you for dinner in the near future," Margaret added.