WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2001 21:09
Just as I got back to the comm center from the market, Dr. Henry Zimmer was walking in from the parking lot to the door. I walked in with him.
“Carl, just the man I’m looking for.”
“Why? Am I sick?” Sometimes I crack myself up.
“No, but that last ME case you sent to me this afternoon sure was. Really, really sick.”
“Well, yeah,” I said, buzzing the door and staring up at the security camera. “I mean, he was dead.”
“Sicker than that,” said Henry. He sounded much more serious than usual.
The dispatcher recognized us and triggered the unlocking mechanism. Henry opened the door for me, because I’d gotten a bit carried away and had a ten-pound bag of dog food and three boxes of assorted dog treats in my hands.
“Thanks.” He and I walked back toward the comm center, where we caught sight of Hester with Big Ears on her lap.
“Was Hester at this unattended death, too?”
“Yeah. Turned out the dead guy was supposed to be a witness of sorts in the homicide.”
“Yeah. Not been my day.”
We entered the comm center, and pleasantries were exchanged between Henry and the gang while I divested myself of the dog rations.
“Can I talk to the two of you?” asked Henry, indicating Hester and myself.
“Sure,” she said, and put Big Ears on the floor.
“Cute dog,” said Henry, and leaned over and scratched Big Ears’ head.
I closed my office door. “What’s up?”
“This Jose Gonzales who you found this afternoon,” said Henry. “Do you know where he’s from, or where he’s been the last few days?”
“Nope. Not yet.”
“I think you better find out. We’re going to need to know.”
Hester and I looked at each other. “Sure,” I said. “Why?”
“What killed this man,” said Henry, “was extremely virulent. Much more than pneumonia. Much more. Acute hypoxic respiratory failure. Severe pulmonary edema. The man’s lungs were absolutely full of liquid, and so was his upper GI tract. His nasal passages were completely shut, and even his eyes were infected. When I pressed on his abdomen to check for masses, he ejected about a quart of bloody liquid from his rectum.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what got him, but I’ve called the State Board, and he’s being transferred to the University Medical Labs in Iowa City. Whatever it is, it might be transmittable from one person to another.” He paused. “So, then, are you two feeling all right?”
“Jesus, Henry,” I said. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope. I think I better see you both at the clinic yet tonight. Who else was present?”
I called Sally and had her get the contact information for the Battenberg ambulance crew, the social worker, and the Battenberg chief of police.
“I think I can guess,” said Henry, “but where did he work?”
“The packing plant. Should I notify them?”
“Just let’s find out when he last worked, and who the workers are in close proximity to him. Anybody who cohabits with him. I don’t know if this is a poisoning, something toxic in their environment, or if it’s a rare sort of disease, or what. Regardless, they’ll have to be examined, too. Everybody in contact with him, or who works or lives in the same place.”
I just stared at him for a second. “Uh, there might be a little problem with that…”
While Henry poked and prodded us at the clinic, I finally got to use my cell phone to its fullest extent. My first call was to Ben Hurwitz, the manager of the packing plant. I told him it was extremely urgent that we find out when Jose Gonzales, aka Orejas had last worked. He was reluctant, but I told him it was either that or warranted search of his company records.
“This is a joke, right?”
“No, Ben. Not at all. And I think I can promise we’ll be there yet tonight, if we do the search warrant bit.”
“I’ll see what I can do. What’s your number?”
I gave him the number at Dispatch, and then called Harry over in Conception County. I got him at home.
“This is gonna be good, isn’t it? “he asked.
“‘Fraid so, Harry.” I told him that the search for the missing Hispanics was now just a whole lot more urgent than before, and then told him why.
“You gotta be shittin’ me, Carl.”
“Are you sayin’ they’re contagious? Like with a plague or like that?”
“Could be that, or it could be something toxic at the plant. Maybe the chemicals they use to cool the place, or to disinfect, or something like that. All I know is I’m standing here at our clinic, getting checked out pretty damned thoroughly. Here, how about I let you talk to Doc Z? “I handed Henry my phone. I noticed he wiped it off with a sterilization wipe before using it. He was serious.
A lab tech named Lois, who I knew all too well from my quarterly cholesterol tests, came in with the familiar tray of tubes. As she wrapped the ligature around my arm, I said, “Could we do my regular checkup now, too?” I expected a smile. Nothing. Deadly serious.
“What are we looking for, Henry?” I asked Dr. Z.
“His white count was astronomical,” said Henry. “Whatever this is, it gets the attention of your immune system in a big way. That’s what I’m looking for right now. Just to see if your white count is up.” His eyes twinkled. I knew right then I was in deep trouble. “And, according to my little manual here. let’s see, ‘Useful testing includes a complete blood count (which may reveal leukocytosis), electrolytes, BUN, creatinine, glucose, prothrombin time, activated partial thromboplastin time, international normalized ratio, type and screen, fibrinogen, liver enzymes, amylase, and lipase. An arterial blood gas may reveal hypoxemia.’ Well, what do you know about that.”
“I’ll bet that, even if we leave out the blood gasses, we’ll need at least…whatcha think, Lois? Five tubes?”
“At least,” said Lois.
“Five tubes? Hell, Henry, you’re gonna have to feed me for five tubes.”
“Be brave,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “This will hurt you more than it does me.”
“Right,” I muttered. “So, then, if it is, you treat me for the thing, right?”
“If I knew what it was, and if there turned out to be a treatment for it, you bet.”
That didn’t help much at all.
“Not even a guess?” I asked, watching tube after tube fill from the needle embedded in my arm.
“No. Remember when Alice and I went to Machu Picchu? How sick I got? Just some tropical kind of bug we’d picked up on the way. Still don’t know what it was.” He sort of cleared his throat. “Hell on wheels is what that bug was. But I still can’t name it.”
“It could be some strain of something I’ve never heard of. Or it could be a chemical that’s toxic. Don’t worry,” he said. “With your cholesterol level, it might even be good for you.”
Don’t worry, my butt. I took a deep breath. “Okay. So, how soon will you know?”
“Shortly. If you don’t have an elevated white count, it’s a very good sign.”
“I’m sure,” I muttered. The needle came out, and Lois pressed folded gauze over the puncture and pushed my arm up so I’d hold it in place until she got some tape. “I got lots going on, Henry,” I said. “I can still rule out foul play on this one, can’t I?”
“There’s no sign of it,” he said. The way he said it left him a bit of room, though.
Lois pressed a Buzz Lightyear bandage over the gauze pad inside my elbow.
“Hey, thanks,” I said. I looked back over at Henry. “So it’s not likely? “I didn’t want two homicide investigations going at the same time, and the ME was the only one who could classify Gonzales as a possible murder case at this stage.
“No. But if it’s something like a transmittable disease or a toxic contamination of the workplace…we could lose a bunch of people.”
My cell phone rang. Lamar.
“What in the hell is going on?”
“You mean about the dog? “I asked, trying to lighten it up a bit.
“Screw the dog. What’s with all the commotion with the medical stuff?”
I told him. It’s very important to manage information that might mean an impending plague with at least some discretion. Since the anthrax-in-the-mail thing after 9/11, it was even more important. In a small, rural jurisdiction, where just about everybody is known to or related to just about everybody else, it’s absolutely vital.
“What does Doc Z think?”
Henry cleaned my cell phone off again before putting it to his ear. He told Lamar that the medical investigation was precautionary but absolutely necessary, and that the point of origin was probably not Jose Gonzales. “Gonzales is a victim, but I’d be surprised if he was the only one,” was what he said. Doc Z was right, but in a way that never would have occurred to any of us at the time.
About fifteen minutes later I knew my white count was just fine, and so was Hester’s. That was a real relief, I think, because we’d both seen what Jose Gonzales, aka Orejas, had looked like. It couldn’t have been a pleasant way to go.
Henry was now leaning toward some toxic substance that Jose Gonzales had been exposed to somewhere, and fairly recently.
“How recent, Henry?” asked Hester.
“I don’t even know that yet,” he said. “Since we don’t know what it is, we don’t know how fast a lethal dosage will take to advance. But within the last week, I’d say. When I examined him, I half expected to find some chemical burns in his throat or windpipe, or in his nasal passages…Nothing. Inflammation, though. But chemical burns would have given me a toxic chemical to work with. Nothing.” He was half talking to himself. “Chemicals would be faster acting, probably…”
Part of this was settled by my next cell phone call. It was the office, who told me that Ben had returned my call. They had strict orders not to give my cell phone number to anybody. I called Ben Hurwitz back, and he told me that Jose Gonzales had been at work Monday. He’d done his normal shift, which was from 3 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. A seven-and-a-half-hour shift wouldn’t jeopardize his part-time status.
“Where does he work?” I asked. “In the plant.”
“Well, he’s logged in as doing his usual job. He carried meat into the refrigerated trucks.”
“Semitrailer trucks? The kind where each trailer has its own refrigerant plant?”
“Would he be exposed to a refrigerant leak, or anything like that, maybe?” The checking had to start right now.
“There weren’t any reported. We keep good records of that.”
“We’ll need the serials of the trailers he might have helped fill that shift, too,” I told Ben.
“He’d be lugging swinging meat, right?”
“Couple hundred pounds, on his shoulder, like quarters that dangle from hooks?”
“So he’d have to feel at least okay, to do that, you think? “I was assuming that to do such heavy labor for a nearly eight-hour shift, he sure couldn’t have any serious respiratory problems.
“I’d think so. Yes.”
“Okay, Ben. I’ll need to talk to some of the people he worked with. As soon as you can contact any of them…”
That was the problem. Everybody was still on that impromptu “coffee break.”
“Can you tell me what this is about? “he asked.
I thought about it for a second. Why not? He’d likely find out very soon anyway, and I thought it was better for the relations between his plant and our department if he heard it from me first. “Well, Jose Gonzales is dead. It looked like natural causes at first, but now it looks like it might have been some toxic substance, not necessarily a disease, that did him. We don’t know yet.”
There was a profound silence on the other end. With either the toxic or the disease scenario, Ben knew he was now pretty likely to have the FDA pay a visit. Just to make sure that the product they shipped was not contaminated. OSHA would be equally fascinated, on the chance that the illness had been contracted at the plant by exposure to some substance or some unhealthy condition. Even though his plant routinely passed every inspection with flying colors, this would be a different sort of thing. An IRS audit would be mild in comparison. Also, any interviews with employees, assuming they could be found, could really complicate his life, and involve the INS paying a visit, as well.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service was in a perpetual overload state and had been for years. But if FDA and OSHA both hit them with a report, they might well actually respond this time. The odds were at least even, anyway. The Immigration violations and fines, bad publicity, and all that went with it could really hurt the plant. I was glad it was Ben’s problem and not mine.
“I’ll have our in-house inspection team on it as soon as possible,” said Ben.
“That’d be great,” I said. “Somebody from our office should be there, then, too.”
“Was he worried about OSHA or the FDA?” asked Henry.
“I think so. Probably should be.”
Henry chuckled. “Well, don’t tell him yet, but this is also going to be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. CDC has even more clout than the others.”
“That’s pretty heavy stuff,” I said. It was also fascinating. I’d never worked a case with CDC being involved. This could be neat.
“The U of Iowa labs will refer it, if they haven’t already. Since the 9/11 business,” said Henry, “these things are moved along fast.”
“Right.” The anthrax mailings had been quite a lesson, not to mention the attendant media frenzy.
“I think our biggest concern will be the media-if they get this, and it gets blown out of proportion. I’d hope,” said Henry, “that we could conclude this quickly enough to avoid that.”
I just looked at him. “Good luck.”
Henry gave us each a sheet of paper with a list of things he’d like us to find out about the late Jose Gonzales, and questions to ask of any of his close friends, relatives, and coworkers. He also told us to report to him at the clinic at 08:00.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t know how long it takes from exposure to onset of symptoms. We get to stick you again tomorrow morning.” He grinned. “That’s the fun part of my job.”
The list of things Henry wanted answered ran as follows:
1. Did the victim(s) travel outside the U.S. in the last thirty days?
2. List common denominators of victims: a. Race b. Socioeconomic status c. Sociopolitical groups d. Associations e. Locations f. Events g. Travel h. Religion
3. What do the victims think made them ill?
4. Do the victims know of anyone else who has become ill?
5. Did they see any unusual activities or devices?
6. Have they noticed any unusual odors or tastes?
7. Have they noticed any sick or dead animals?
“We’re gonna have a little problem with the items under question two here,” I said. “The ACLU would be all over us like stink if we started asking those sorts of questions.”
“At least he doesn’t want questions asked regarding sexual preferences,” she said. “Did you check out number seven?”
Actually, I’d been too busy talking. I looked at seven again, and we both had the same thoughts. First, our newly acquired mascot, Big Ears, had been found under the victim’s bed and was still alive and well a short time ago. Second, these guys were meatpacking plant workers, and they’d likely seen lots and lots of dead animals recently. We went back into the clinic and told Henry.
“Where’s the dog now, and where will he be? I want the vet to examine him as soon as possible.”
“We’ll keep him at the jail,” I said.
“Okay…just don’t let the other personnel be exposed to him until we get him checked out.”
Talk about way too late. “How about if we just don’t let the next shift be exposed,” I asked. “Little dogs attract lots of attention.”
“Sure. That’s the little dog I petted, isn’t it?”
“Yep, that was him. He belongs to Hester,” I said, and got a dirty look.