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George Santayana had an irrational faith in reason ... I have irrational faith in television.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Free Taste of The Silk Code
"As a genre-bending blend of police procedural and science fiction, The Silk Code delivers on its promises." -- The New York Times Book Review
Part I: The Mendelian Lamp
Most people think of California, or the midwest, when they think of farm country. I'll take Pennsylvania, and the deep greens on its red earth, any time. Small patches of tomatoes and corn, clothes snapping brightly on a line, and a farmhouse always attached to some corner. The scale is human...
Jenna was in England for a conference, my weekend calendar was clear, so I took Mo up on a visit to Lancaster. Over the GW Bridge, coughing down the Turnpike, over another bridge, down yet another highway stained and pitted then off on a side road where I can roll down my windows and breathe.
Mo and his wife and two girls were good people. He was a rarity for a forensic scientist. Maybe it was the pace of criminal science in this part of the country -- lots of the people around here were Amish, and Amish are non-violent -- or maybe it was his steady diet of those deep greens that quieted his soul. But Mo had none of the grit, none of the cynicism, that comes to most of us who traverse the territory of the dead and the maimed. No, Mo had an innocence, a delight, in the lights of science and people and their possibilities.
"Phil." He clapped me on the back with one hand and took my bag with another. "Phil, how are you?" his wife Corinne yoo-hooed from inside. "Hi Phil!" his elder daughter Laurie, probably 16 already, chimed in from the window, a quick splash of strawberry blond in a crystal frame.
"Hi--" I started to say, but Mo put my bag on the porch and ushered me towards his car.
"You got here early, good," he said, in that schoolboy conspiratorial whisper I'd heard him go into every time he came across some inviting new avenue of science. ESP, UFOs, Mayan ruins in unexpected places -- these were all catnip to Mo. But the power of quiet nature, the hidden wisdom of the farmer, this was his special domain. "A little present I want to pick up for Laurie," he whispered even more, though she was well out of earshot. "And something I want to show you. You too tired for a quick drive?"
"Ah, no, I'm ok--"
"Great, let's go then," he said. "I came across some Amish techniques -- well, you'll see for yourself, you're gonna love it."
* * *
Strasburg is 15 minutes down Rt. 30 from Lancaster. All Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens till you get there, but when you turn off and travel a half a mile in any direction you're back a hundred years or more in time. The air itself says it all. High mixture of pollen and horse manure that smells so surprisingly good, so real, it makes your eyes tear with pleasure. You don't even mind the few flies flitting around.
We turned down Northstar Road. "Joseph Stoltzfus's farm is down there on the right," Mo said.
I nodded. "Beautiful." The sun looked about five minutes to setting. The sky was the color of a robin's belly against the browns and greens of the farm. "He won't mind that we're coming here by, uh--"
"By car? Nah, of course not," Mo said. "The Amish have no problem with non-Amish driving. And Joseph, as you'll see, is more open-minded than most."
I thought I could see him now, off to the right at the end of the road that had turned to dirt, grey-white head of hair and beard bending over the gnarled bark of a fruit tree. He wore plain black overalls and a deep purple shirt.
"That Joseph?" I asked.
"I think so," Mo replied. "I'm not sure."
We pulled the car over near the tree, and got out. A soft autumn rain suddenly started falling.
"You have business here?" The man by the tree turned to address us. His tone was far from friendly.
"Uh yes," Mo said, clearly taken aback. "I'm sorry to intrude. Joseph -- Joseph Stoltzfus -- said it would be ok if we came by--"
"You had business with Joseph?" the man demanded again. His eyes looked red and watery -- though that could have been from the rain.
"Well, yes," Mo said. "But if this isn't a good time--"
"My brother is dead," the man said. "My name is Isaac. This is a bad time for our family."
"Dead?" Mo nearly shouted. "I mean ... what happened? I just saw your brother yesterday."
"We're not sure," Isaac said. "Heart attack, maybe. I think you should leave now. Family are coming soon."
"Yes, yes, of course," Mo said. He looked beyond Isaac at a barn that I noticed for the first time. Its doors were slightly open, and weak light flickered inside.
Mo took a step in the direction of the barn. Isaac put up a restraining arm. "Please," he said. "It's better if you go."
"Yes, of course," Mo said again, and I led him to the car.
"You all right?" I asked when we were both in the car, and Mo had started the engine.
He shook his head. "Couldn't be a heart attack. Not at a time like this."
"Heart attacks don't usually ask for appointments," I said.
Mo was still shaking his head, turning back on to Northstar Road. "I think someone killed him."
* * *
Now forensic scientists are prone to see murder in a ninety-year old woman dying peacefully in her sleep, but this was unusual from Mo.
"Tell me about it," I said, reluctantly. Just what I needed -- death turning my visit into a busman's holiday.
"Never mind," he muttered. "I babbled too much already."
"Babbled? You haven't told me a thing."
Mo drove on in brooding silence. He looked like a different person, wearing a mask that used to be his face.
"You're trying to protect me from something, is that it?" I ventured. "You know better than that."
Mo said nothing.
"What's the point?" I prodded. "We'll be back with Corinne and the girls in five minutes. They'll take one look at you, and know something happened. What are you going to tell them?"
Mo swerved suddenly onto a side road, bringing my kidney into sticking contact with the inside door handle. "Well, I guess you're right about that," he said. He punched in a code in his car phone -- I hadn't noticed it before.
"Hello?" Corinne answered.
"Bad news, honey," Mo said matter-of-factly, though it sounded put on to me. No doubt his wife would see through it too. "Something came up in the project, and we're going to have to go to Philadelphia tonight."
"You and Phil? Everything ok?"
"Yeah, the two of us," Mo said. "Not to worry. I'll call you again when we get there."
"I love you," Corinne said.
"Me too," Mo said. "Kiss the girls good night for me."
He hung up and turned to me.
"Philadelphia?" I asked.
"Better that I don't give them too many details," he said. "I never do in my cases. Only would worry them."
"She's worried anyway," I said. "Sure sign she's worried when she didn't even scream at you for missing dinner. Now that you bring it up, I'm a little worried now too. What's going on?"
Mo said nothing. Then he turned the car again -- mercifully more gently this time -- onto a road with a sign that advised that the Pennsylvania Turnpike was up ahead.
* * *
I rolled up the window as our speed increased. The night had suddenly gone damp and cold.
"You going to give me a clue as to where we're going, or just kidnap me to Philadelphia?" I asked.
"I'll let you off at the 30th Street Station," Mo said. "You can get a bite to eat on the train and be back in New York in an hour."
"You left my bag on your porch, remember?" I said. "Not to mention my car."
"All right, I'll drive you back to my place -- we can turn around at the next exit."
"I'd just as soon come along for the ride, and then we can both go back to your place. Would that be ok?"
Mo just scowled and drove on.
"I wonder if Amos knows?" he said more to himself than me a few moments later.
"Amos is a friend of Joseph's?" I asked.
"His son," Mo said.
"We'll I guess you can't very well call him on your car phone," I said.
Mo shook his head, frowned. "Most people misunderstand the Amish -- think they're some sort of Luddites, against all technology. But that's not really it at all. They struggle with technology, agonize over whether to reject or accept it, and if they accept it, in what ways, so as not to compromise their independence and self-sufficiency. They're not completely against phones -- just against phones in their homes -- because the phone intrudes on everything you're doing."
I snorted. "Yeah, many's the time a call from the Captain pulled me out of the sack. Telephonus interruptus."
Mo flashed his smile, for the first time since we'd left Joseph Stoltzfus's farm. It was good to see.
"So where do Amish keep their phones?" I might as well press my advantage, and the chance it would get Mo to talk.
"Well, that's another misconception," Mo said. "There's not one monolithic Amish viewpoint. There are many Amish groups. They have different ways of dealing with technology. Some allow phone shacks on the edges of their property, so they can make calls when they want to, but not be disturbed in the sanctity of their homes."
"Does Amos have a phone shack?" I asked.
"Dunno," Mo said, like he was beginning to think about something else.
"But you said his family was more open than most," I persisted.
Mo swiveled his head to stare at me for a second, then turned his eyes back on the road. "Open-minded, yes. But not really about communications."
"About what, then?"
"Medicine," Mo said.
"Medicine?" I asked.
"What do you know about allergies?"
My nose itched -- maybe it was the remnants of the sweet pollen near Strasburg.
"I have hay fever," I said. "Cantaloupe sometimes makes my mouth burn. I've seen a few strange deaths in my time due to allergic reactions. You think Joseph Stoltzfus died from something like that?"
"No," Mo said. "I think he was killed because he was trying to prevent people from dying from things like that."
"Ok," I said. "Last time you said that and I asked you to explain you said never mind. Should I ask again or let it slide?"
Mo sighed. "You know, genetic engineering goes back well before the double helix."
"Breeding plants to make new combinations probably dates almost to the origins of our species," Mo said. "Darwin understood that -- he called it `artificial selection'. Mendel doped out the first laws of genetics breeding peas. Luther Burbank developed way many more new varieties of fruit and vegetables than have yet to come out of our gene-splicing labs."
"And the connection to the Amish is what -- they breed new vegetables now too?" I asked.
"More than that," Mo said. "They have whole insides of houses lit by special kinds of fireflies, altruistic manure permeated by slugs that seek out the roots of plants to die there and give them nourishment -- all deliberately bred to be that way, and the public knows nothing about it. It's biotechnology of the highest order, without the technology."
"And your friend Joseph was working on this?"
Mo nodded. "Techno-allergists -- our conventional researchers -- have recently been investigating how some foods act as catalysts to other allergies. Cantaloupe tingles in your mouth in hay fever season, right? -- because it's really exacerbating the hay fever allergy. Watermelon does the same, and so does the pollen of mums. Joseph and his people have known this for at least 50 years -- and they've gone much further. They're trying to breed a new kind of food, some kind of tomato thing, which would act as an anti-catalyst for allergies -- would reduce their histamine effect to nothing."
"Like an organic Claritin?" I asked.
"Better than that," Mo said. "This would trump any pharmaceutical."
"You ok?" I noticed Mo's face was bearing big beads of sweat.
"Sure," he said, and cleared his throat. He pulled out a hanky and mopped his brow. "I don't know. Joseph--" he started coughing in hacking waves.
I reached over to steady him, and straighten the steering wheel. His shirt was soaked with sweat and he was breathing in angry rasps.
"Mo, hold on," I said, keeping one hand on Mo and the wheel, fumbling with the other in my inside coat pocket. I finally got my fingers on the epinephrine pen I always kept there, and angled it out. Mo was limp and wet and barely conscious over the wheel. I pushed him over as gently as I could and went with my foot for the brake. Cars were speeding by us, screaming at me in the mirror with their lights. Thankfully Mo had been driving on the right, so I only had one stream of lights to blind me. My sole finally made contact with the brake, and I pressed down as gradually as possible. Miraculously, the car came to a reasonably slow halt on the shoulder of the road. We both seemed in one piece.
I looked at Mo. I yanked up his shirt, and plunged the pen into his arm. I wasn't sure how long he'd not been breathing, but it wasn't good.
I dialed 911 on the car phone. "Get someone over here fast," I yelled. "I'm on the Turnpike, eastbound, just before the Philadelphia turnoff. I'm Dr. Phil D'Amato, NYPD Forensics. This is a medical emergency."
I wasn't positive that anaphylactic shock was what was wrong with him, but the adrenaline couldn't do much harm. I leaned over his chest and felt no heartbeat. Jeez, please.
I gave Mo mouth-to-mouth, pounded his chest, pleading for life. "Hang on, damn you!" But I knew already. I could tell. After a while you get this sort of sickening sixth sense about these things. Some kind of allergic reaction from hell had just killed my friend. Right in my arms. Just like that.
EMS got to us eight minutes later. Better than some of the New York City times I'd been seeing lately. But it didn't matter. Mo was gone.
I looked at the car phone as they worked on him, cursing and trying to jolt him back into life. I'd have to call Corinne and tell her this now. But all I could see in the plastic phone display was Laurie's strawberry blonde hair.