The Strange Case of Neosoma

The willow-oak tree that stood near my side door threw its acorns every other year. And it was during the fall of one of these years that, as I was fixing dinner, the telephone rang. The subsequent conversation was accompanied by the sounds of acorns striking the metal awning. The call was from my place of work—Salvific Pharmaceutical Laboratories—a small but productive research firm tucked into the North Carolina countryside. Florence Wickersham, the popular departmental secretary, was dead. The
Department Head had discovered her body in the research library.

I put dinner in the refrigerator and drove out to the long, low building that housed the laboratories. I arrived to find the front door and part of the lot taped off—as a crime scene. The evidence searchers were still inside, checking the library, and the Sheriff stood in the parking lot, along with two deputies. There were three marked Crown Vics and an ambulance in the lot. Minutes after I arrived, medics wheeled a shrouded body to the ambulance, and the square, blue and white vehicle road away. The Sheriff addressed me as I approached the yellow tape.

“May I have your name, sir?”

“I’m Dr. Wayne Andrews. I’m employed here.”

“Were you present here—sometime earlier today?”

Today was Saturday. I had sometimes come to the Laboratories on weekends to search the literature or consult my own notes. But this hadn’t been one of those days.

“No—not today,” I replied.

“Have you ever had a close, personal relationship with Florence Wickersham?”

“No—we were on friendly terms. She was well-liked here.”

Sheriff Ben Elmwood had a calm, but firm manner and a stone face. A visible scar bisected  his left eyebrow, and the lobe of the opposite ear had disappeared and was likely shot away. He had been Sheriff of Crabtree County for over twenty years.

“To your knowledge—did she have any enemies?”

“None that I know of—but may I ask a question.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“How did she meet her end?”

“Right now, it looks like she was strangled—with some kind of cord. But we won’t know for sure until after the autopsy.”

My curiosity was aroused. “Did you find the cord?”

“No.”

“Were there signs of a struggle?”

“Her clothes were intact. The area around the body was orderly.”

“Perhaps she was killed elsewhere in the building and brought to the library—to separate her from any evidence.”

“That’s possible.”

“May I look around the building?”

The Sheriff thought that one over, but then nodded. “All right—but if you notice anything unusual, let me know right away.”

“I certainly shall.”

The Sheriff lifted the tape, and I entered the building and walked down the main corridor. The library was near the administrative offices and still occupied by a man and a woman in white shirts and black trousers. They appeared to be brushing the tables and the floor. I walked on toward my own laboratory and office, stopping along the way to look inside every door, not sure of what I might find of value. But in Room 15, a combination laboratory and office much like mine, I noticed two office chairs facing each other. Normally, one chair would be pushed against the desk, and the other placed beside the desk. It was perhaps a small thing, and perhaps innocent enough. The rest of my journey around the building, past the organic chemistry, biochemistry, and pharmacology laboratories, past the NMR room with its liquid-helium-cooled magnet, the mass-spectrometer room, and the rooms devoted to polarimetry and infrared and ultraviolet spectroscopy, revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Analytical chemists were carefully neat. A few of the other scientists lived in indecipherable chaos. There were no security instruments to protect all the expensive scientific instruments. The administrators of the private fund that supported the place were trusting souls, unattuned to the present-day world.

Anyway, there was still the question of those out-of-place chairs in Room 15. The desk chair was normally occupied by Wembley Davidson, a crotchety old organic chemist who wasn’t fond of visitors to his laboratory. And so, the other chair—meant for visitors—was almost always empty. Retracing my steps, I met the Sheriff in the hallway and mentioned the anomaly in Room 15. He acted immediately, alerting the CSI people working in the library.

As it happened, those CSI people had a field day in Room 15. They found what proved to be Florence’s face powder on one of the chairs and on the floor, and two fingerprints on the light-switch shield that were also hers. And in a corner of the office cubicle, they found a piece of rubber tubing that bore not only Florence’s face powder, but two different DNA traces—the tubing was the murder weapon. But how did she enter the building? She wasn’t on the list of those authorized to have keys. Did someone, perhaps Wembley, let her in? Not necessarily—after all, she was the one who gave out the keys. She could have borrowed one at anytime.

The following Monday, the entire staff was working less and talking more—about the death of Florence Wickersham. When Wembley Davidson arrived, he was the same old Wembley. The previous Saturday, he had been out for an early round of golf. He had lunch at his club with his wife and spent the evening at home. But if Wembley didn’t commit murder in the laboratory, who did? Was it one of my colleagues?—or was it some street criminal who stalked Florence and forced her to let him in? But if the murder was such a random act, why was nothing of value taken, not even the money in the purse found in her car.

And what about the discoverer of the body—the Department Head. He was a bright man in his fifties, passed over for research director, and, I suspect, a man given to depression. Did he arrive at the Laboratories that Saturday and meet Florence here—perhaps engaged in a love affair? Was the murder a crime of passion?

Ah, well—the shadow of the crime, a kind of gloom, continued to hang over Salvific Pharmaceutical Laboratories. And the mystery deepened when, one day, Harold Ames stopped by my laboratory. He was a research chemist and given the additional duty of checking data for new chemical compounds. He showed me one of the information sheets I had submitted for the Salvific records.

“Wayne, this molecular formula is incorrect—an odd number of nitrogens requires an odd number of hydrogens.”

“Huh—yes, let me get my notebook.”

The note book in question was one of many lined up on a shelf above my desk. But when I reached for it, I found it out of its proper place. In fact, none of them were in their normal, chronological order. I was puzzled, but looked up the compound in question.

“One of the nitrogens carries a positive charge,” I said. “The number of hydrogens is correct.”

“Oh, yes—thanks, Wayne.”

Harold left the laboratory content, but I was left puzzling over the disarray of my notebooks. This was another Monday, and whoever had searched my notebooks, must have done so after I left them—I had been here Saturday morning. When I examined them further, I noticed some of the pages were turned down at the edges. That wasn’t my way of doing things. I always took meticulous care of my notebooks. Twelve years of experimentation had produced a long line of them. But who had handled them?—a busybody colleague? Or was it some curious interloper, or even a corporate spy?

Of course, another question was why did Salvific Laboratories still rely on notebooks, instead of an electronic data system fed directly by the research scientists—password protected and all that. I suppose such a system would offer challenge to hackers or to someone with an accomplice on the inside. An accomplice?—the idea led to a new train of thought.

“You know something, Wayne,” Harold Ames said to me at lunch. “I think someone’s been reading my notes—after hours.”

“Huh—really?” I replied, not wanting to appear too interested.

“Yes—and judging by the coffee stains on the pages, I think he wanted information about Amphobine.”

Ah, Amphobine—another anti-anxiety drug. The Laboratories were in the patenting stage and hoping to market the drug soon. But I was wondering about the coffee.

“Coffee stains?—did whoever it was make coffee in your lab?”

“No—he bought it at Wendy’s. I found the cup in the waste can.”

Coffee?—was someone drowsy, perhaps here late at night? I didn’t want to alarm the staff and frighten away a possible interloper among them. I decided to have a private talk with the Research Director of Salvific Pharmaceutical Laboratories. I informed him that someone, either from inside or outside the company, had been reading my notebooks after hours.

“What you say is troubling,” he said, rubbing his gray beard. “Such a person may have killed Florence.”

That was my own conclusion, of course. “Maybe we should install security cameras, or even hire a security company.”

“No, no—that would create an atmosphere of distrust. Not the kind of thing to promote creativity. I’m told Sheriff Elmwood is very reliable. I’ll speak to him about patrolling our immediate area.”

Well—I did my duty in bringing the matter to his attention. I wanted to think less about all this whodunit business and more about my work as a medicinal chemist. But one day, not long after our talk, I was taking a lunchtime walk around the Salvific grounds. I noticed the two emergency exit doors at each end of the building and another, wider door near the loading dock. Neither of the doors could be opened from the outside.  Standing on the dock was a tall, insulated flagon mounted in its own metal bracket. It contained a newly arrived supply of liquid helium—the coldest substance known. As I reflected on this, the rear door opened. The man in charge of the supply room, appeared, blocked the door open, and placed the bracketed flagon on a hand truck.

“Say, Sam,” I said to him, “do you get many Saturday deliveries?”

Sam was in his twenties and always wore jeans and a light-blue baseball hat. “Sometimes—if I’m expecting a delivery, I’ll come here to check.”

“Do you have a key?”

“I can sign for one on a Friday—return it on Monday.”

“Did you ever see strangers in the building—on a Saturday?”

“No—but I don’t get around much. There was one thing sort of odd. A couple of times, I found a little wooden block holding this door open.”

“Did you report it to anyone?”

“No—I just assumed someone had stepped outside and wanted to come back the same way.”

“Was this before or after Florence’s death?”

“This was before she died.”

“Any blocked doors since?”

“No—come to think of it.”

Ah, me—all this was getting too interesting to put aside. I decided the best thing to do was to visit Sheriff Elmwood. His office was, of course, in the Crabtree County Courthouse in the town of Bedford, a short drive from the Laboratories.

“What have you learned about Florence Wickersham?” I asked naively, as I sat staring at the Sheriff’s granite face.

He was annoyed by the question. “I don’t like discussing an investigation in progress. A leak can hinder the progress.”

I explained my reasons for being there—the rifled notebooks, the door blocked open. The Sheriff raised his scarred eyebrow, looked up at the ceiling, then at me.

“Do you know somebody named Leon Lassiter?” he asked.

The mention of that name stunned me. “Yes—he worked at Salvific Pharmaceutical. About eight years ago, he created an enormous scandal. It very nearly caused the company to close its doors.”

The Sheriff explained that Florence had divorced her husband after ten years and two children. Shortly before, or shortly after the divorce, she had met Lassiter and had been dating him—which, in the modern world, surely meant an affair. I knew Lassiter well enough to know he had a way with women. He was a seducer who could judge vulnerabilities. Years before, he had worked in Salvific’s toxicology laboratory. He had falsified data, and this led to several deaths during clinical trials of an anti-bacterial drug. When discovered, these betrayals of trust evoked no remorse in Lassiter—I couldn’t believe he cared so little.

“Right now,” the Sheriff said, “I consider this Lassiter a person of interest in the murder of Florence Wickersham. I gather he’s not an honorable man. But why would he come back to your company?”

“He’s looking for information to sell—to competitors, or even to illegal manufacturers outside the country. Either way—he’ll find a market.”

Indeed, chemists and pharmacologists were busy developing a new generation of anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants. Between them, drug companies and psychiatrists were doing what ordinary citizens were forbidden to do—turning people, even children, into junkies. There was an industry-wide competition in developing new drugs to cure each new “disorder” discovered by the psychiatrists. Salvific Pharmaceutical Laboratories had produced a number such drugs and had others in the experimental stage. These and some successful anti-bacterials and anti-cancer drugs—these last were my contributions—had erased the blight created by those deadly falsifications widely known as The Lassiter Scandal.

And now, the company was about to market its mind-altering masterpiece—Neosoma. It was to be the ultimate cure for anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. Take one pill before climbing into bed, and the next morning, you awakened as a new man—or woman. All fears were gone, pessimism replaced by a healthy, optimistic glow. You were emotionally healed—all sorrows evaporated. Neosoma promised to be, not only a money tree, but also a source of perfection for all mankind. My suspicion was there would soon be Temples to Neosoma, much like Saint-Simon’s Temples to Newton.

The catch was that the effects of a single dose lasted only thirty days. Then another pill was indicated, if the person could afford it. There was no withdrawal agony, just an intense longing for the Neosoma bliss. And yet, many less affluent people might fight, even kill, to get Neosoma. And the market would be so enormous, that few potential manufacturers would be discouraged by a small thing like a patent. Thus, Leon Lassiter had an enormous incentive to steal information from Salvific Pharmaceutical.

Neosoma’s synthesis from common chemicals, its effective doses, its toxicity, and the antidotes to an overdose—all represented saleable information.

I decided on a specific strategy—one in harmony with my normal work. I began leaving at least one chemical reaction going on Friday evening before leaving for home. I always chose one that required extended heating or simply standing at room temperature, timing it to require a visit to the laboratory late in the evening, either on Saturday, or on Sunday.

And so, it was such work that brought me to the laboratory one chilly night in early spring. I had left a three-day reaction running and needed to turn off the heat under the flask. This I did, and waited for the flask to cool before turning off the stirrer and the water flowing through the condenser. My task completed, I stood in the corridor, gazing along its length. I sensed some sort of movement in one of the rooms, just a shadow on the wall opposite the doorway to Room 22. This was the laboratory where, in an Erlenmeyer flask, Neosoma had first bloomed. As quietly as I could, I moved toward the doorway, and, reaching it, saw no one at first. But then I looked inside and noticed someone seated at the desk in the office cubicle He wasn’t the usual occupant, but someone familiar and picturesque. His hair was dyed red and cut in the silly style of the 1970s, and a cane leaned against the desk beside him. I couldn’t resist being clever.

“Dr. Lassiter, I presume.”

When he saw me, he stood up with eyes wide, but then he smiled. “Yes—hello, Wayne. Nice to see you again.”

“Forgive me, Leon, but what exactly are you doing here? And equally relevant, how did you get in the building.”

“I’m satisfying my curiosity about that super-drug, Neosoma. As to how I got inside—I used a key provided by one of the employees.”

“You mean Florence?”

“Yes—too bad about her.”

I noticed that old Lassiter grin. It reminded me that I was likely talking to a murderer. “Perhaps I should call Sheriff Elmwood, and tell him you’re here.”

I thought that might get rid of him. But instead of excusing himself and hurrying away, he did a curious thing. He picked up the cane and tugged at the handle, while grasping the shaft with the other hand. The two elements parted, exposing a long and gleaming and sharply pointed blade. A sword cane—how like the swine to carry that symbol of treachery.

“Sorry to resort to violence, Wayne. But the circumstances require me to kill you.”

“But not like you killed Florence.”

“She was easy prey.”

“But why her?”

“In simple, old-fashion words—she knew too much.”

With that, he approached me with the blade pointed at my midsection. I backed away from the cubicle, across the laboratory, looking for anything that resembled a weapon. And as I backed near a bench under an exhaust hood, I found something—a half-liter glass bottle that fit easily into my hand. It was partly filled with a deep red-orange liquid, with an orange vapor in the remaining space. I raised the bottle, placing my free hand on its glass stopper.

“I’m sure you know what this is, Leon,” I said. “It’s elemental bromine. You know what it can do to human flesh, to the eyes, to the face.”

Now it was Lassiter who backed away. “All right, Wayne—take it easy.”

“Leave now, or get scarred for life—even if wounded, I could still toss it.”

“All right, all right, I’m going.”

Truly frightened, he hurried to the doorway and down the corridor. When I heard the front door slam, I replaced the bottle beneath the exhaust hood and called Sheriff Elmwood’s office. Later, when I described my adventure to the Research Director, he decided to install security cameras and hire a night watchman.

But as for Leon Lassiter—he eluded the Sheriff and escaped to Mexico, where he sold his secrets to a drug lord known as El Malo. The latter man, having bought the secrets to making Neosoma and ensured himself more billions, calmly shot Lassiter and had his body flung into the Rio Grande. It floated to the Texas shore and fed the buzzards until discovered by the border patrol.

As for myself—I returned to my life’s work without further distractions.

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