Tainted: A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery

Tainted: A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery

by Ross Pennie

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When incidents of food supply contamination dominate the news media, two investigators—Zol Szabo, a public health doctor, and Hamish Wakefield, a young infectious diseases specialist—come under immense pressure to find the cause of a mysterious epidemic before more victims show up on the autopsy table. In a race against the


When incidents of food supply contamination dominate the news media, two investigators—Zol Szabo, a public health doctor, and Hamish Wakefield, a young infectious diseases specialist—come under immense pressure to find the cause of a mysterious epidemic before more victims show up on the autopsy table. In a race against the clock, the two doctors must navigate the treacherous political minefields of the medical community and the media while the disease spreads. The situation soon spins wildly out of control and more lives are threatened after a government-appointed investigator hijacks the investigation and allows his inflated ego to supersede common sense. Speaking to contemporary concerns about food safety, this fast-paced medical thriller illustrates the potential for disastrous consequences when total responsibility for food safety is placed in the hands of manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Canadian physician Pennie's mystery debut introduces a winning protagonist, an Ontario public health doctor and former chef. When Zol Szabo, a devoted single father to his disabled son, Max, gets word that his jurisdiction, which covers the province's Niagara Escarpment, may be facing an outbreak of mad cow disease, Zol and his team must race to find the truth behind the mysterious deaths of three locals in order to avoid a public panic. Fans of the TV show House will find much of the plot familiar-the detailed medical detection that attempts to identify connections between the victims as well as the false or confusing leads in the hunt to locate a tainted food source. The appealing supporting cast includes a gorgeous female PI. Pennie, an infectious-disease specialist, makes the medical jargon accessible, though he throws in a few melodramatic touches, such as his hero's fear that Max may also fall victim to deadly prions. (Apr.)

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A taut and timely work of suspense . . . Pennie builds tension perfectly, grabbing readers from the first page and keeping them entranced, both with the story itself and with nagging worries about the safety of the food they eat . . . Must reading for fans of Robin Cook and Peter Clement.
Hamilton Spectator
Pennie is a bright new addition to the Canadian mystery writing scene . ..Tainted is a must read for 2009. Best yet, it's the first in a series.
The National Post
Ross Pennie, a physician and an infectious-disease specialist in Brantford, Ont., is at least as skillful with the plot twists and oh-no-how-are-they-gonna-get-out-of-this moments as he is, one supposes, with a case of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.
Winnipeg Free Press

A timely, fascinating and scary simulation of the scientific detective work involved in an outbreak investigation . . . [Pennie] stoutly eschews the potboiler epidemic of gratuitous sex, wild derring-do and cinematic hyperbole for stark realism.

From the Publisher

Tainted is fascinating and fast-paced, a medical thriller with the high-stakes tension of a frightening epidemic. Ross Pennie knows how to weave real science with crackling suspense.”  —Tess Gerritsen, New York Times-best-selling author, The Keepsake

“What works are the two likeable and convincing doctors and the scary plot. Pennie's message—that no matter how safe our world seems, it's still very fragile—is timely and true."  —Globe and Mail

“Pennie builds tension perfectly, grabbing readers from the first page and keeping them entranced, both with the story itself and with nagging worries about the safety of the food they eat. All the characters, including such secondary figures as Natasha’s Indian mother, obsessed with finding her a husband, and Zol’s young son, Max, are realistically portrayed, their actions and emotions well matched with both their personalities and the plot. Must reading for fans of Robin Cook and Peter Clement.”  —Booklist

“Canadian physician Pennie’s mystery debut introduces a winning protagonist, an Ontario public health doctor and former chef. . . . The appealing supporting cast includes a gorgeous female P. I. Pennie, an infectious disease specialist, makes the medical jargon accessible.”  —Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery

By Ross Pennie


Copyright © 2009 Ross Pennie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-343-6


They say when you're home alone and the phone rings, you're an extrovert if you jump up, grab the receiver, and delight in a familiar voice.

Zol Szabo let it ring.

He sipped his Scotch and nestled his lanky frame deeper into the buttery leather of his recliner. A north wind, sweeping across the western shore of Lake Ontario and howling up the Niagara Escarpment, rattled the living-room windows. Zol stroked the furry spine of Cory, the ginger cat who hunkered into his lap. They both gazed at the blue flames licking the simulated logs in the fireplace. Only a light November snow was forecast for tomorrow. Zol chuckled. Max would be disappointed. No snow day.

Zol cocked his ear and listened past the nagging of the phone for the sound of pleas from the bedroom upstairs. All seemed quiet up there. Max had finally settled, but it had taken two bowls of cereal, a glass of water, three adjustments to his night light, and a great big hippopotamus hug. As usual, Zol had stayed calm through each interruption, tingeing his voice with frustration only at the sixth or seventh petition from the seven-year-old's bedroom doorway.

The ice cube in Zol's glass, floating in two fingers of twelve-year-old Glenfarclas, clinked and snapped. Overripe apricots, cedar wood, and peat smoke kissed his nostrils. He closed his eyes and drew in a mouthful, letting the whisky dance across his tongue and down his throat.

He drank alone only during this bedtime ritual — and always just one shot, a single malt poured over a single ice cube in the single crystal tumbler left in the house. Francine had smashed five of them against the ceramic floor, the double-door fridge, and the wide-screen television before slamming the door on their brief marriage.

Who could be calling at this hour?

It might be that reporter from the Hamilton Spectator on the prowl for more details about a cluster of seven cases — with three deaths — of invasive streptococcal infection in a home for the elderly. The man's heated words from earlier in the week still rang in Zol's ears: "The residents are petrified. And their families are scared stiff. Surely it's the moral duty of you docs at the health unit to stop this epidemic before any more grandparents are consumed by flesh-eating disease."

It was not quite ten o'clock, too early to be Zol's boss, Peter Trinnock, md, lmcc, ccfp, frcpc, mcpha, chief of the Hamilton-Lakeshore Public Health Unit. Trinnock's workday hours were so much taken up by rounds of golf in summer, putting matches in winter, and protracted lunches all year round that he seldom caught a glimpse of what was happening under his nose until late in the evening. He'd find himself caught off guard by the ten o'clock news on tv, then blast Zol via telephone for not keeping him in the loop.

Zol had practically burned his boss's retirement day into his calendar. He reckoned that if he didn't make any major errors or misjudgements he'd be promoted from associate to chief medical officer of health for the municipality of Hamilton-Lakeshore when Trinnock stepped down next May. In fact, Zol was counting the days until Trinnock's departure and the relocation of his office from the building's dingy rear to its prestigious front.

At the continued ringing from the kitchen, Cory flashed his tail and looked at Zol as if to say, "Damn, we only just got settled."

Zol gulped another mouthful of Scotch, put down his glass, and heaved Cory from his lap. Then he grabbed the phone by its throat.

Dr. Hamish Wakefield's voice always gave him away with the first syllable. Singer's nodes, he'd told Zol before the operation. A consequence of his years as a boy soprano. But the biopsy of his vocal cords revealed no explanation for the roughness in a voice that still rasped no stronger than a whisper. Behind his back, the doctors and nurses called him the Whispering Warrior — on account of that voice, his short haircut, and the utter concentration he brought to the specialty of infectious diseases.

"What's up, Hamish?" said Zol.

"I'm calling from the office." Hamish's words hissed breathlessly down the line. "Came across something I thought you guys should know about."

"At this hour? Geez, you need a diversion outside the halls of academia. A hobby or a love interest."

"No time for either. Listen. Have you ever met Julian Banbury, the neuropathologist here at the med centre?"

Zol's job kept him in touch with the regional coroner, but he'd never dealt with any of the other pathologists at Caledonian University's tertiary-care facility. "Don't think so."

"You'd remember him, believe me. He's got a big scar across his neck and such severe exophthalmia that you'd think —"

Zol passed the phone from one hand to the other. "It's okay, I'm with you."

"Anyway," Hamish continued, "he's our local brain-infection guru, and a couple of weeks ago he came back from holiday. More like a mini sabbatical. And now he's catching up on three or four months' worth of brain autopsies."

Zol pictured a lineup of buckets on the dissection-room floor, a pickled brain floating in each one. He touched his nose, almost feeling the sting of formaldehyde that permeated the pathology seminar room when he and Hamish were students together seven years ago at the University of Toronto.

"Well," Hamish continued, "Julian said that three of the brains show signs of CJD. One man, two women."

"The last case reported on my patch was about eighteen months ago. A retired Anglican minister," Zol commented. "Big write-up about him in the paper when he died."

The article had described the congregation rallying to provide palliative care in the minister's home — twenty-four hours a day for several months. But why the alarm bells tonight at ten o'clock? It took twenty years for the Creutzfeldt-Jakob agent to cause disease after entering the body. These cases must be reflecting events two decades old. Hamish really did need a distraction in his life to lure him away from the constant seduction of Mistress Medicine.

Zol gazed at the glass of Scotch out of his reach on a table in the living room. The melting ice would soon dilute the whisky's complex fusion into insipidness. "Three cases within three months does sound like a cluster," he said. "But probably just a coincidence. I'll get my team to look into it later this week. Right now, I've got most of my nurses and health inspectors working on that outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis at Shalom Acres. That's one giant can of worms."

"But Zol ..." A gulping sound echoed down the line as Hamish sucked on the water bottle that seldom left his side. He needn't have bothered. His voice remained as croaky as ever. "I've got to tell you — Julian Banbury is calling it variant cjd."

Zol felt the blood drain from his face as the facts began to percolate. Three people dead from mad cow disease. Beef tainted and humans infected with BSE prions in his slice of Ontario. Hamish had graduated top of their class at U of T, and thanks to him Zol had memorized the components of the Krebs cycle long enough to pass his final examination in biochemistry, but ...

"I hope to hell your pathologist is jumping to conclusions," Zol said. "Is he a bit of a grandstander?"

"Not at all," said Hamish. "These people are all under fifty, Zol. Too young for regular cjd. Banbury is adamant. The microscopic features in their brains — the amyloid protein plaques — are diagnostic of variant cjd." He coughed and gulped, then coughed again. "The same as they're getting in England after eating mad cows. That's three local residents —"

"Infected with mad cow prions. I hear you."

"Now do you see why I called you this late?"

"Mother of God." Zol rubbed at his temple. "You know what this means, eh? I sure do. My dad was a tobacco farmer."

"I don't think bse has anything to do with tobacco," Hamish replied in the flat, humourless tone that came out whenever he was anxious or concentrating.

"I know," Zol said. "It's just that I've lived through what happens when agricultural commodities get stung by the fickle prick of scandal."

Zol pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and dropped into it. Hamish had just handed him a Chernobyl-sized problem. It would make last year's countrywide panic over one Alberta steer with BSE look like five minutes of rain at a Sunday-school picnic.

Neither man said anything. Cory jumped into Zol's lap and purred while Zol absently stroked his back.

Hamish broke the silence. "What do we do now?"

Zol gave Cory a pat on the rump then pulled out the loonie he always kept in his pocket. The coin was not for spending but for fingering whenever life's tensions mounted. Much cleaner than his father's chewing tobacco, and it didn't cause cancer.

Zol tightened his grip on the phone. "I'm sure not going to call the Spectator," he said. "Or Elliott York at head office in Toronto. I can't go reporting the country's first cluster of human BSE until I've got a whole lot more details. Just a sec." He set the phone on the table, dropped Cory onto the floor, and fetched his Scotch, draining it in two mouthfuls. "We'll have to be careful," he continued. "I can almost feel York and his Toronto cronies breathing down my neck already. And after them, every agricultural and public-interest lobbyist in the country."

"And the media outlets. Like that stupid Lassa fever wild-goose chase, two years ago."

"You knew from the start the woman only had malaria."

"Problem was, my senior colleagues with the big mouths and bigger egos wanted it to be Lassa. Better for their fame and fortune on the speakers' circuit."

Zol stared at the flames dancing in the fireplace and pondered the implications of this cluster — for the food industry, for his health unit, for his career. He weaved the dollar coin faster and faster through his fingers.

A staccato of clicks from Hamish's computer keyboard scurried down the phone line. "I can clear my calendar for tomorrow afternoon," Hamish said. "You can come to my office, if you like. Have a look at the charts of the three cases."

Zol rubbed at an ache beside his eye. It would take him most of the day to bone up on mad cows, prions, bse, and human-variant cjd. There were newspaper clippings, medical journals, and the Internet to scour. He'd have to duck tomorrow's staff meeting, always a time guzzler at best. "We better maintain as low a profile as possible. Can you bring the files over to my house? Say, tomorrow evening? I'll feed you supper."

"I guess this can wait until then. Let me pick up a pizza. Or how about Thai or Chinese?"

Zol coughed, and then grunted.

"Oh, right," Hamish replied. "Take-out never darkens your doorway."

"Just bring your appetite. And a bottle of wine. I'll see you at seven."

* * *

At five thirty the next morning, an hour before his alarm was set to buzz, Zol jerked awake. He heard the thump of the paper hitting the front steps and dashed downstairs to retrieve it. A blast of arctic air whistled through his T-shirt and boxers as he dusted the snow from the newspaper's plastic sleeve. On the way back to his bedroom he stopped in the pantry and pulled two Cornish hens from the freezer for tonight's dinner. The birds always impressed guests, who considered them more exotic than they really were. At the Stratford School for Chefs, Zol's instructor had called them the runts you could quickly stuff and overprice whenever relations with your banker were looking dicey.

The five years he'd spent as an apprentice chef, though barely a decade in the past, seemed like another lifetime altogether. Had the frenetic life in steamy restaurant kitchens been any less satisfying than his life as a public-health physician? He'd sweated plenty in both environments.

Leaving the hens to thaw in a bowl of ice water, he retreated to the warmth of his bed and scoured the newspaper. A suicide bombing in Jerusalem. A political assassination in Sweden. A rumoured record-setting private donation to the medical school at Caledonian University — right here in Steeltown. But no mad cows in Ontario and no hint of citizens with variant cjd.

A couple of hours later, downstairs at the breakfast table, Zol spooned up a final mouthful of cereal. In their daily father-and-son race to the finish, Max's bowl was almost always the first to be plunked onto the kitchen table, empty and triumphant. Zol downed a final triplet of flakes ahead of the few neon oat rings straggling at the bottom of Max's bowl. "I win!" Zol said.

"But look," said Max, holding up an empty glass, "I finished my juice. You didn't drink your coffee yet."

Zol winked at his son. "Okay, Max. I won the cereal event but you won the beverage round."

Max beamed as he put down his juice glass, oblivious to his handicap. His left hand, stiff and claw-like, had been fettered since the moment of his birth. But to Max it was just the understudy who stole the show.

It was strange what a man could be grateful for, like being thankful that the stroke your son had suffered at birth affected only one hand — not his legs, not his speech, not his intellect. And certainly not his ability to play an entire catalogue of electronic games.

His breakfast bowl empty, Max crimped his latest pocket video gadget in his left palm and jabbed at its buttons with his right. A minute later, at the sound of clatter from the front door, he looked up from the screen, grinned broadly, and slid off his chair. Even after three years as their beloved housekeeper, Ermalinda knocked like a visitor and waited for Max to run to the door and throw it wide open.

Ermalinda wasted no time in exchanging her parka for an apron and lifting the dirty dishes from the table. She swooped them into the sink and plucked the phone from its cradle as it began to ring. Without a word, she passed the handset to Zol.

"Did you see today's paper?" said Hamish, coughing into the line. "See the story about that huge donation coming to our medical school? It's going to be announced today that the donor is Bernard Vanderven, the auto-parts magnate. I've seen the press release."

"Two hundred million. That's a hell of a lot of coin."

"His wife is one of the three CJD victims I was telling you about. Vanderven's been saying she died of a heart attack. He's going to earmark half his donation for cardiac research."

"She was a bit young for an MI, wasn't she? What did her autopsy show?"

"That's just it. It didn't show even a hint of heart disease."

"That's strange."

"Her coronaries and myocardium were perfect. After all, she was only forty-three." Hamish took several gulps, probably of a double café latte made with his expensive machine. "But ..."

"But what?" Zol demanded. Something more than CJD was bothering Hamish. But didn't the guy even allow himself a few minutes to eat a peaceful breakfast?

"Her cjd wasn't advanced enough to kill her. Julian Banbury's report makes that very clear."

"Hmm. What was the official cause of death before Banbury got a chance to examine her brain?" Hamish rustled some sheets of paper that sounded as if they were right next to his telephone. "The death certificate says cardiac arrest due to ventricular arrhythmia, cause unknown."

A bit of a stretch considering the woman's heart appeared pristine at autopsy. "But you told me that the original autopsy didn't find —"

"Yes, I know," said Hamish, his voice rising. "It didn't turn up a darn thing that could explain the woman's death. Not in her heart. Not anywhere. But the duty pathologist had to come up with an official diagnosis for the death certificate so the body could be released to the funeral home. I guess arrhythmia seemed to fit the bill at the time." Hamish gulped, then continued. "I did notice a couple of other things."


"Toxicology showed Joanna Vanderven had a blood alcohol level that would put her way over the driving limit, and moderate levels of lorazepam, fluoxetine, and oxycodone."

Zol strolled into the dining room as far as the phone cord would permit and closed the door. The Vanderven woman had downed an explosive cocktail: a generous measure of alcohol, a few pills to counter anxiety and depression, and a potent narcotic. "Sounds like she was one unhappy woman. Did anyone suspect she'd overdosed intentionally?"

"Not as far as I can tell. The toxicology results only came in this week."

"Yeah," said Zol, "the provincial lab always runs a backlog, sometimes several months.

Autopsy specimens aren't exactly their priority." The belated results probably held the key to Joanna Vanderven's death: the alcohol she ingested could have acted in combination with the three powerful drugs to tip her into respiratory arrest — a final sigh through blue lips, the heartbeat ceasing a few minutes later. The autopsy could have missed that scenario.

"Anyway," Hamish continued, "no embarrassing questions were asked. The coroner agreed with the duty pathologist's arrhythmia diagnosis and signed the death certificate. Case closed."

"Until a few months later, Julian Banbury discovers that her brain is riddled with variant cjd."

"Not exactly riddled," said Hamish. "Not enough to kill her, but you've got the picture."


Excerpted from Tainted by Ross Pennie. Copyright © 2009 Ross Pennie. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Cathy Vasas-Brown
Pennie encounters magic—and so will his readers. (Cathy Vasas-Brown, author, Every Wickedness)
Ray Robertson
An honest, compelling tale of life, death, and the mystery of all that lies in between. (Ray Robertson, author, Moody Food)
Tess Gerritsen

Fascinating and fast-paced, a medical thriller with the high-stakes tension of a frightening epidemic. Ross Pennie knows how to weave real science with crackling suspense. (Tess Gerritsen, author, Keeper of the Bride)

Meet the Author

Ross Pennie is a physician and a professor at McMaster University. He is the author of The Unforgiving Tides. He lives in Brantford, Ontario.

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