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.