Beneath the Wake: A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery

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9781770412767: Beneath the Wake: A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery

The eagerly anticipated fourth medical thriller in the award-winning series

Epidemic investigator Dr. Zol Szabo hopes an extended cruise on the Indian Ocean with his girlfriend and his son will salve the wounds of the rough times they’ve been weathering at home. As they set sail coddled in unaccustomed luxury on the Coral Dynasty, things below deck are a little less sunny for the ship’s physician. Dr. Noah Ferguson reckons that bandaging the wounds of the crew’s seedy missteps is just part of a job that comes with a fair share of loneliness, but he’s increasingly frustrated that the most rewarding aspect of his practice must remain unspoken. When a mysterious microbe cuts a lethal swath through the crew’s quarters, Noah enlists a reluctant Zol, who must put his vacation on hold to investigate the illness before it consumes everyone on board. As the body count climbs, it becomes apparent that everybody carries a secret in international waters. Miles from land, the captain makes the rules, and anything inconvenient gets tossed overboard to disappear beneath the wake.

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About the Author:

As a specialist in infectious diseases worldwide, Ross Pennie has treated multifarious patients battling every germ imaginable, from drug-resistant malaria in Papua New Guinea to flesh-eating Streptococcus in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. His first two Zol Szabo mysteries, Tainted and Tampered, won the Arts Hamilton Literary Award for fiction. The third, Up in Smoke, stirred the RCMP into investigating the trade in contraband tobacco in eastern Canada. He is the father of two adult children and lives with his wife in southern Ontario.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 7


Noah took the stairs down to his stateroom, hung his jacket on a chair, and pulled off his tie and shoes. He unbuttoned his shirt and sat on his bed. The clock radio said 10:14. Hamish would be at the hospital by now. He picked up the phone and dialled his friend’s private mobile number.


After a long, dead-air silence, the connection went through. Half a dozen rings later, a male voice answered. “I can see your international caller ID number. If you’re calling from a call centre in Pakistan with an offer to clean my ducts, forget it. You shouldn’t even have this number.”


“Never been to Pakistan. But I am on the other side of the globe. Next stop, Komodo Island and the dragons.”


“Noah?”


“Calling from the Ark. How you doing, Hamish?”


“I’ve got a wet sponge in one hand and a specialized instrument in the other. My arms hurt like hell and I’m dead tired. Otherwise, I’m fine.”


Noah could hear rock music, Arcade Fire, blaring in the background. It didn’t sound like something Professor Hamish Wakefield would normally choose. During their med school days together, Hamish had been obsessed with micro-organisms and Mozart. Now that he was a recognized guru in the field of infectious diseases and microbiology, was he listening to rock music? “You at a rock concert or performing surgery?”


“Scraping wallpaper.”


He’d never seen Hamish with a tool in his hand. Or take a day off work. The guy was evolving. “You? Where?”


“Master bedroom. Finished the kitchen last week.”


“You bought a house?”


“Inherited it. A North Hamilton fixer-upper. Foot of Bay Street, near the yacht club. Took a while to get Aunt Gwen’s will probated, but here we are.”


We? Hamish never said we in any context. Noah couldn’t picture the guy sharing his life with anyone. He was too solitary, too set in his routines for domestic bliss. “We?”


“Al and me. Al Mesic. He’s an investigative reporter with the Hamilton Spectator.”


A man. Good for Hamish. Out of the closet. Officially, that is. Everyone knew he’d been hiding in plain sight for years. “Congratulations. And once you get the house fixed up, you’ll be getting yourselves a sailboat and joining the yacht club. Listen . . . I need to pick your brain again. But . . . you know, in strict confidence. Nothing must hit the media.”


“Can you speak up a bit? This connection isn’t perfect.”


Noah raised his voice a notch and told Hamish the story.


“Hmm,” Hamish said. “Three deaths in one month among a youngish crew. Got to tell you, I don’t like the sound of those pus-filled lymph nodes.”


“You see why I called.”


“Unusual that they died so quickly. Very few infections kill that fast.”


“Anything come to mind? You know, off the top of your head?”


“Vibrio vulnificus can manifest that way. Acquired by shucking clams and oysters, or swimming in heavily contaminated tropical waters. You’re in the right part of the world. Were the victims covered in giant bruises?”


“Just one stubbed toe,” Noah told him. “Didn’t look like much.”


“V. vulnif affects primarily the elderly and people with serious underlying illnesses. Not robust young men. No, it won’t be that.”


“One man did have scratches on his forearms,” Noah added. “And the guy who died early this morning had a small lesion on his thumb.”


“What did it look like?”


“I’ll text you a photo in a sec.”


“How clean is your vessel? You got a problem with rodents?”


Noah wiped the sweat from his forehead. “I know what you’re thinking.” He lowered his voice. “I worried about that too, but there are rat traps in the cargo hold. And the rest of the ship is as pristine as any five-star resort.”


After a pause punctuated by half a minute of Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go,” Hamish said, “Okay, I got the photo. That skin thing . . . could be anything. A burn. Herpes. Staph.” He gave a forced cough. “Even bubonic plague.”


“Shit!”


“Or it could be nothing. You need to take a touch prep and a swab of it. Identify the bacteria in it.”


“You’re kidding, right?”


“You have to determine if the bacteria in that thumb and in the pus from the neck are one and the same. If they are, that tells you the bloodstream was infected and spread the germs throughout the body.”


“You’re talking septicemia.”


“Got a microscope?”


“Just for looking at urines.”


“Fine. Do a couple of Gram stains and look at them under your scope. All you need is a single drop of the pus and a touch prep from the skin lesion. Nothing to it.”


“Let’s be realistic here.”


“Who’s not being realistic?” Hamish got miffed easily when you questioned his advice or his knowledge. “You asked to pick my brain. I’m telling you that managing your outbreak will be nearly impossible―”


“Who said it was an outbreak?”


“You did. Three dead crewmen. Similar demographics. Same purulent lymph nodes.”


He knew Hamish was right. Characterizing the offending agent with a Gram stain was key to determining what it was, to pinpointing its source, and to stopping it from causing further deaths. But a Gram stain in the middle of the ocean? “You do know we don’t have a lab, eh?”


“Right now, you don’t have the faintest idea what killed these guys. And let’s face it, there are going to be more of them.”


“Hamish, for God’s sake.” The guy’s candour could be overwhelming. “Have a heart. I’m all alone here.”


“You can do it. Start by finding some gentian violet for the first step of the Gram stain. It looks like ink. Often comes in a dropper bottle.”


Noah knew gentian violet as an age-old remedy for infected insect bites, superficial yeast infections, impetigo, even ringworm. It didn’t work well and was usually consigned to the back of the medicine cupboard along with castor oil and Mercurochrome.


“You’ll also need a bottle of iodine solution,” Hamish added. “Should be no problem for you. Every first aid box in the world has that.”


“What strength?”


“Doesn’t matter as long as it smells like iodine.”


“Anything else?”


“Alcohol. Unflavoured vodka will do. I’m sure you have no shortage of that.”


No kidding.


“And one more thing,” Hamish said. “A counterstain.”


“A what?”


“Something to give colour to the Gram-negative bacteria so you can see them under the scope. Only Gram-positive bacteria hold onto the gentian violet dye.”


“Sounds tricky,” Noah said.


“But not impossible.”


In his mind Noah canvassed the ship looking for dyes and stains. The engineering shop: paint and varnish ― unsuitable. The bathrooms: makeup, hair dye, and shoe polish ― no good. The kitchens: tons of stuff came to mind, including . . . well, yes.


“How about food colouring?” Noah offered, feeling pleased with himself. “Got plenty of that in our industrial kitchens.”


“Worth a try, I guess. Not yellow, though. Won’t show up. Come to think of it, cochineal red might work.”


“Cochineal?


“It’s made from the pulverized bodies of a particular species of Central American beetle. Safe to eat.” He chuckled. “And, as people love to say these days, one hundred percent natural. They’ll have it in the kitchen.”


Noah shook his head. The things the guy knew . . .


“Collect your stuff and call me back. Don’t forget microscope slides. I’ll talk you through the procedure step by step. Oh, and Noah . . .”


“Yeah?”


“Make sure you’re wearing a gown, gloves, mask, and eye protection whenever you’re handling specimens from this case. Including when you’re performing the Gram stain.”


“Got it.”


Hamish cleared his throat. “But listen, I’ve got to be frank here.” Wasn’t he always? “We’re kidding ourselves if we think you can do this on your own. You’ve got a complicated situation on your hands. You need someone on board who knows the ins and outs of investigating epidemics. Without that, you’re dead in the water.”


“Bad choice of metaphor, Hamish.”


“Sorry. But I am serious. You need to hire a consultant.”


“Sure. They’re a dime a dozen, ready to jump at the chance of being flown to a plague ship so they can revel in our deficiencies.”


“No, not a grandstander or a whistleblower. Someone on your side who doesn’t answer to local authorities. But can still make things right. For everyone.”


“You’re talking fairy godmother, Hamish.”


“I’d come myself, but I can’t get away. Al and I sing barbershop. Got a big concert coming up.” In the background, Arcade Fire had given way to Neil Young, who was sounding awfully damned sorry for himself.


“You know,” Hamish continued, “one of the best investigators I know works right here. He’s in charge of our local public health unit and is a master at discretion.”


“Does he offer himself as an international troubleshooter?”


“Not that I know of. I’d say his hands are full most of the time. Actually, he’s away on an extended leave with his son. Been going through a rough patch since his fiancée died last year.”


If the guy was on leave from his regular duties, he might be available. “Could you call him for me? Sound him out? Tell him we’d put him up in a beautiful suite. And feed him very well.”


“I haven’t the faintest clue where he is. I’m sure he told me, but―”


“Can you find out?” Surely Hamish could see how desperate Noah’s situation had become.


“He’s overseas somewhere. I don’t know which continent. Funny thing though, Zol said he would be spending at least part of his leave on a cruise ship.”


“Which cruise line?”


“I don’t know one from the other. Look, this call must be costing you a fortune and I should get back to my hideous wallpaper.”


“Just a sec.” Had Noah heard correctly? “Did you say your guy’s name was Zol?”


“Yeah. Short for Zoltan. Hungarian parents. Tobacco farmers.”


Noah’s heart rate picked up twenty points. “Does he have a girlfriend named Natasha?”


“I’m not aware that she’s his girlfriend. A co-worker for sure. And a talented investigator herself, even though she’s not an MD.”


“This Zoltan fellow’s last name. Is it Szabo?”


“How did―”


“Hamish, our next drink is on me. Call you back tomorrow.”


CHAPTER 47


Noah pressed Aksoy’s doorbell. They could hear it through the door but there was no answer.


Zol jabbed at it three more times.


A moment later, the captain and Prem the security chief came striding down the corridor. Neither man looked happy.


“He’s not answering,” Noah told them.


“He must be in there,” said the captain. “He never use the public lounges. And the outer decks, I order them closed. Too much wind.” He banged his fist against the door. “Mr. Aksoy, Mario here. We must talk.”


“Sorry, Mario.” Aksoy’s voice was muffled and strained. “It’s . . . not a good time.”


“Mr. Aksoy, it’s Dr. Szabo. Dr. Ferguson and I are here too. We need to speak with you.”


“You . . . you should come back later.” Aksoy was clearly uncomfortable. But whether the man was frightened, anxious, or embarrassed, Zol couldn’t tell. And for some reason, he wasn’t using the intercom.


“I’m afraid it’s very important we talk to you, sir,” Zol persisted. “How about you take five minutes to finish what you’re doing?” If he was in the middle of watching one of his porno flicks, five minutes would be plenty of time to turn off the TV, put away the disk, and zip up his fly.


“This evening would be better,” Aksoy said. “Perhaps after dinner?”


The captain turned to Prem. “This is ridicolo. You open the door. We go in now. Not later.”


Prem nodded then cupped the walkie-talkie attached to his belt and swept his index finger along the underside of the device. The motion was barely perceptible. Normally, Zol would have thought the man was hitching up his pants. But after what Noah had shown them in Gustave’s room, he was almost certain the security chief had pressed the walkie-talkie’s unmarked button that connected the device directly to a speaker on the bridge. Prem pulled a key card from his shirt pocket, inserted it into the lock, and turned the handle.


Through the partially open doorway, Aslan Aksoy was impossible to miss in his oversized black recliner. But he looked nothing like the massive but genial host who’d greeted Zol and Noah a couple of hours earlier. His face was pasty grey, his eyes bloodshot, the armpits of his Liberace jacket stained dark with sweat. When the big man turned to face Zol and the others crowding the entranceway, the door closing behind them, Zol could see he wasn’t just pasty, he was terrified. A second later, the reason became obvious. Three men in dark clothes were standing in front of Aksoy’s white sofa and threatening him with kitchen knives ― German-made Henckels from the galley, by the look of them, their razor-sharp blades forged from ice-hardened steel.


“What the hell?” the captain said. “What’s going on?”


The tallest of the three, dark-haired but seriously balding, had hold of a white iguana the size of a house cat. It was tucked under his left arm like a rugby ball, and he was menacing its throat with his ten-inch knife. “Everyone freeze,” he said. “Hands in the air, feet apart.” He jerked his head toward the armed man on his right. “Check them for weapons.” Then, avoiding the captain’s fiery gaze, added, “Anybody moves, I decapitate the lizard.”


Aksoy’s face crumpled. “Please, do exactly what he says. He’s serious about killing Pogo.”


The second man passed his knife to the youth beside him, a kid still in his teens. The now-unarmed man hesitated before stepping forward, caught Zol’s eye briefly, then looked away. Zol felt sick. This man was no stranger. No anonymous pirate. It was Mir, Ramesh’s brother, the Hazara waiter and translator. And it was soon clear from his awkward pat-down technique he’d never searched anyone for weapons before. Still, he managed to seize the walkie-talkies from Prem and the captain, and take Prem’s Maglite and Swiss Army knife.


When Mir finally finished, the bald guy gestured toward Aksoy’s curio cabinet next to the wide-screen TV and ordered Mir to set the Maglite and walkie-talkies on top of it, keep the pocketknife, and take his Henckel back from the kid.


A few moments later, Zol found himself sitting squeezed on the sofa between Noah and the captain. His aching arms were down, thank God, his hands gripping his knees as commanded.


The captain looked at his watch. “I don’t have time for no nonsense. Tell me what you want.”


“I ask the questions,” said the bald guy, clearly battling to maintain the upper hand but not finding it easy in the presence of his captain.


“Okay, so you ask,” Mario told him.


The man’s bare scalp glistened with sweat. “First . . . we want no more games from Mr. Aksoy.”


Aksoy’s fearful gaze was riveted to the pure-white iguana. “I . . . I haven’t the foggiest why you men are upset. And I beg of you, don’t hurt Pogo. He’s an innocent in all of this.”


The bald man threw Aksoy a look of disgu...

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