The Gene Police is a work of fiction that wraps a murder mystery in elements of the eugenics movement. To be clear, it is not a treatise on the subject but should enlighten readers about this little known pseudo science and hopefully inspire some of them to delve deeper into its history, its proponents, and its impact on American life. The author puts it this way: “My interest in race issues can be traced to growing up in the segregated suburbs of Washington, D.C. My mother's relatives were slave owners. My great great uncle was a famous eugenicist who was instrumental in the passage of the miscegenation and sterilization laws in Virginia. I'm convinced that if we as society are to rid ourselves of the curse of racism and white supremacy, we need to continue to keep the issue in the public conversation. My hope is that The Gene Police will add to the dialogue about racial issues by teaching readers about America's fascination with eugenics while simultaneously entertaining them.”
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Monday, February 11
The morning started innocently enough. Robbie was in her office talking to a client about a fence that had been installed on the client's property by the client's neighbor. I was working on a spreadsheet of Reilly's charitable deductions going back fifteen years in preparation for turning over Reilly's tax issues to a tax attorney.
My door was open, giving me a view of our small waiting room and the front door. My attention alternated from my computer screen to a large icicle hanging menacingly over the waiting room window. The icicle refracted the sunlight into a small swath of colors that flickered on the carpet. Objectively, this light display was not terribly exciting, but when compared to the unrelenting boredom of tax returns, the colors were fascinating.
The spell of the lights was broken when the door to the office was thrown open, allowing a surge of cold air to rush in. A moment later, the doorway was all but filled by the frame of Reggie Mason. He hesitated for a moment, then stepped inside and removed his dark glasses, his face expressionless while his eyes adjusted to the light. As I stood up, he saw me and flashed a smile.
"Hey, Shep. You got a minute?"
"What the hell are you doing here?" I offered him a hand, but he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a man-hug. When I stepped back I saw weariness and angst written on his face.
The door to Robbie's office opened and her client stepped out. The client was a small white woman, and she seemed to step back at the sight of a large black man. But he nodded his head, said "'ma'am" in a soft, southern voice, and she erupted in a smile. Reggie had that effect on people.
Robbie walked the client to the door and returned with a scowl on her face.
"It's good to see you, Reggie," she said firmly, "but I can't remember the arrival of an uninvited visitor, especially a cop, that wasn't made memorable by bad news."
Reggie shrugged. "Whether news is bad or good kind of depends on your perspective. I just need a favor."
"Why does the word 'just' always precede a request that smart people would say no to?" she asked.
Reggie forced another smile. "Maybe you'll say no. Maybe you won't."
"I'm sorry, Reggie, but men in general are untrustworthy. Cops and ex- felons even more so," Robbie said. "You've got a folder in your hand, so pardon me if I don't believe you're here to use the bathroom."
I am technically not an ex-felon. Robbie knows this but uses the reference when she's annoyed with me. From her tone, she suspected that Reggie and I were up to something that would distract me from my estate work. I decided it was best to allow her to negotiate with Reggie, but after two months of looking at tax records, I admit to being intrigued by what was in the folder he carried.
"All I want is a few minutes of your time," pressed Reggie. "After that, you can just say no. I hope you won't, but no hard feelings if you do."
Robbie led us into our small conference room. Pulling back a chair, she said, "You are going to explain why you're here, and then I'm going to explain how Shep has a meeting with an IRS agent in two weeks and can't be distracted until the audit is over."
Reggie took a seat. "It's just a small favor."
Robbie and I sat across from him. "What favor and how small?" she asked sternly.
Reggie opened the file and removed a stack of photographs. "Look at these and then I'll tell you what I need."
Robbie and I stared at a series of sweeping views of a pasture brimming with wild flowers. A farmhouse rose in the distance, a curl of smoke coming from its chimney. The photos were oddly familiar. A moment later, we stared at a close-up of the farmhouse that is now my current residence. The next picture stunned us both.
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Robbie. "That's Carrie! She can't be much older than we are now. She's so cute!"
In the next photo, two teenage boys with hardened, muscular bodies were leaning over a fence. "I think that's Harry and Cecil Drake," I said.
"No way," said Robbie excitedly. "Look at them. They're just kids."
I handed her a picture of a tall, thin man in his twenties standing on the porch and holding a cat. "That is Jamie Wren." Jamie Wren is now confined to a wheelchair and has trouble speaking.
The four of them — Carrie, Harry, Cecil, and Jamie — live in the mansion I inherited from Reilly Heartwood and are affectionately known as the "Residents." Cecil and Harry are now in their sixties, Jamie a little north or south of seventy, and Carrie over eighty.
We continued to shuffle through pictures of men and women that we didn't recognize. "Who took these and where did you get them?" asked Robbie.
"I don't know who took them," said Reggie. "But I thought you might ask the folks that used to live on your farm if they know. It would help me a lot."
"Help with what?" I asked.
"Just something I'm looking into," he said.
Robbie tossed the pictures onto the table. "That seems like a small enough favor, but there's no way we are going to help you look into something without knowing what it is. If this were official, you wouldn't be here. That may sound distrustful, but we need to protect our law licenses. Where were the pictures found and what are you looking into?"
Reggie looked at me. "Is she always like this?"
I nodded. "She is, but she's also right."
"I believe I'm guilty of illegal use of the state DNA databases and maybe a few more felonies. I'm trying to decide whether to turn myself in. Finding out who took the pictures of the poor farm might help."
I glanced at my friend, his usual happy demeanor replaced by a defiant gaze tinged with fear. Robbie looked at me, her distrustful attitude receding under the weight of Reggie's words.
"Give me a dollar," I said. Reggie returned a puzzled look. "We need to establish attorney client privilege."
Reggie handed me a ten. "I need that for lunch."
"Okay. Let's start at the beginning."
"Hold on," said Robbie. "We're not criminal attorneys. I don't know that we can provide you the kind of representation you need."
"I know that," replied Reggie. "But I trust you. That's the most important thing."
"Start by explaining why you were playing with DNA databases," I said.
Reggie hesitated, glanced at Robbie, then said, "It involves a murder."
I heard Robbie take a quick breath. "And you didn't mention this because ...?"
"Because you might think I'm asking Shep to investigate the murder, and I'm not."
Robbie took Reggie's hand. "Now I'm completely lost. You want us to find someone who took photographs at the poor farm fifty years ago because that will help you solve a murder?"
Reggie shook his head. "No. Well, kind of maybe."
"One more time," I said, "and this time start at the beginning."
Reggie nodded and took a deep breath. "I was raised by my Aunt Betty after my parents were killed in a traffic accident. I was sixteen and she was forty-six. My Uncle Carl was in prison for armed robbery. Aunt Betty didn't have children, so she spoiled me a bit. When I entered the police academy, she told me that in 1953 she went to Sweetwater Hospital and gave birth to a baby boy named John Mason Langard. Sweetwater accepted black patients, so her race shouldn't have been a problem."
"But it was," offered Robbie.
"That's not it," replied Reggie. "Aunt Betty was told that the baby died of a heart defect, and that she had complications during childbirth that left her unable to have any more kids. Aunt Betty didn't believe the story they told her about Baby John and asked me to find out what really happened. To make her feel better, I said I would. I thought that would end it. But she kept asking me if I'd learned anything. I didn't have the courage to tell her that I had no idea how to investigate his death. I guess she thought that since I'd become a cop, I could just go into some file and look it up."
"What did she think happened to Baby John?" I asked.
"Either he was given away or he was murdered."
Robbie shook her head. "You don't believe that, do you?"
"I didn't at first," said Reggie, "but when you've heard the whole story, you can decide for yourself. So, Virginia was one of the first states to maintain a DNA database of felons. I became a trainer in the use of the database. I selected my uncle's DNA profile as a training tool. With each class, I ran his DNA against new samples entered into the database, hoping to find a partial match in the database that I could use to determine if Baby John was still alive.
"To be clear, the odds of this working were very small. The DNA used in criminal investigations is not particularly useful for establishing family connections. I had my aunt's DNA profile, so I had a pretty good idea of what my cousin's profile would look like. Even so, for me to find him, he would've had to have been at a crime scene in Virginia where DNA samples were taken, or he would've had to have been accused of committing a serious crime. I did this for ten years just so I could tell my aunt that I hadn't given up.
"And then last month, the system provided a sample that statistically had a high probability of being the offspring of my aunt and uncle. I didn't believe it would ever happen, but there it was. The sample was taken from the house of a murdered woman. The murder victim was an elderly white female named Jennifer Rice."
I was eager to learn more about the murder, but Robbie cut me off.
"Why would the hospital lie about your cousin dying?" asked Robbie.
"I don't know," replied Reggie. "But using the DNA database for personal reasons is a felony."
"I'm not sure if your conduct was actually criminal," I said. "I mean, you were authorized to access the database for training purposes. I don't see the point in telling anyone, particularly since you used the data you acquired for a legitimate purpose."
"The thing is, officially, my uncle had no children, so there is no reason for the investigators of Jennifer Rice's murder to look at DNA profiles in which some, but not all, of the loci match. I haven't told them about Baby John, so I'm probably obstructing a police investigation, which I suppose is another crime."
"What does any of this have to do with the pictures of the poor farm?" pressed Robbie.
Reggie handed us one more photo. Robbie and I studied it, unsure for a moment what we were looking at. The picture was back-lit. In the foreground, intentionally underexposed, was the silhouette of a woman. She appeared to be holding something against her chest.
Robbie took a sudden breath. "It's a baby!"
Reggie nodded. "That picture was taken at Shep's farm fifty years ago."
"You think it's your cousin?" I asked.
"Of course I do, but rationally it could be anyone's baby. It may be white or it may be black. I think the woman is white but I can't be sure. But it's all I have. If I can find the person who took the pictures, I might be able to find my nephew. In case I'm charged and arrested, I need to track him down before I confess to anything. I also need to know what he was doing at the scene of a murder."
"Okay," I said. "I get that you want to find who took the pictures and find your cousin. But let's talk about you confessing to what might be technical violations of the penal code. You know that's a bad idea."
Reggie leaned back in his chair. "I'm sure it is, but I'm kind of in a pickle."
"Explain pickle," said Robbie.
Reggie nodded. "The victim, Jennifer Rice, was seventy-eight when she was beaten to death in her home in Winchester. Detective Hunter Darnel is in charge of the investigation. The evidence points to a handyman named Albert Loftus. The case against Albert looks solid. They found a few pieces of Ms. Rice's jewelry in Albert's truck. Albert's story is what you might expect. He said he came to the house to clear the gutters of ice. He knocked and went inside to hook up a hose to the hot water heater. The door wasn't locked, which he says wasn't unusual. When he called out, Jennifer didn't answer. He saw a dark liquid on the tile floor in the living room, and followed a blood trail to the bedroom, where he saw Ms. Rice lying on the bed. She was covered with blood and badly beaten. He said he panicked and ran out. He didn't call the cops because he says they don't like him. He's found Jesus and given up his bad ways. Despite the jewelry found in his truck, he says he didn't steal anything and never touched her."
"What put the police on to Albert in the first place?" I asked.
"An anonymous tip."
"A little convenient," said Robbie, "but he had her jewelry."
"He did," agreed Reggie, "but I'm not sure he killed her, and neither is Detective Darnel."
"Based on what?" asked Robbie.
Reggie shrugged. "It doesn't feel right"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"At worst, Albert's a petty thief, but he's not violent. No one is considering any other possibilities because they have no reason to. If I come forward with what I've learned, Albert at least get's a fair shake."
"And you open yourself up to being prosecuted," I said. "But if Albert's guilty, then your concealing the information about Baby John would have no impact on the investigation and you would have confessed for no reason other than to clear your conscience."
Reggie nodded. "That's the 'if' I've been grappling with. I don't know what Detective Hunter would do with the information if I gave it to her. And if Albert's not guilty, then my cousin's DNA is certainly material to the case. He could be a person of interest. Of course, if I were to cause my missing cousin to be investigated for murder, my Aunt Betty would never speak to me again."
I pointed at the folder. "What else do you have?"
"Nothing you need to know about," replied Reggie. "Humor me."
Reggie opened the folder. "I don't have the full case file, but a friend of mine who logs in the evidence at the Winchester police department sent me these." He placed a stack of photos on the table. "These are photos of Germany after World War II that were found in Jennifer's house. We've determined that they were taken by a Seymour Van Dyke. They look to be original prints, so I'm guessing she knew him. I checked and he was pretty famous in those days. A lot of what he took was published in Life Magazine and in the major newspapers. The first few are pretty hard to look at."
Reggie placed another stack of pictures next to the first. "These are travel photos that the victim took."
Robbie and I flipped through a dozen pictures of concentration camp victims, orphaned children, and starving animals. The black and white photos were somber and reflective. The color photos were striking; in each, the central horror was framed by something normal – a flower, an aid worker's bright dress, a group of vigorous soldiers playing baseball. In one picture, a small boy sat on a pile of human bones holding a sign in German. When I showed it to Reggie, he grimaced.
"I'm told it says, 'Are my parents in here?' That's tough to get your head wrapped around."
A second group of pictures depicted harbors, beaches, streams flowing through forests, and ancient ruins. These, too, were framed with a flair for the artistic.
"Jennifer Rice took some very nice pictures," said Robbie.
Reggie nodded. "In the early fifties, she was modestly successful at selling stories about the war, mostly about the way refugees were treated. But when the public's interest in war journalism faded, she turned her attention to travel pieces and published a number of very successful guide books. The books were illustrated with pictures she'd taken of people and places she'd encountered on her travels. Her photos were published as coffee table books. The travel and photo books made her quite wealthy. But we're getting off track. The police don't care about photographs. I only care about the pictures taken at the poor farm."
I handed the photos back to Reggie. "Let me see if I have this straight. All you want us to do is to ask the Residents if they remember anyone taking pictures at the poor farm or if they saw a woman with a baby"
"That's all," replied Reggie.
"What if Jennifer Rice took the pictures of the poor farm?" asked Robbie. "What if she was the one with the baby?"
Reggie shook his head. "I don't know. I just need to understand why my cousin's DNA was found at the house where she died. Where that leads is anyone's guess."
We sat quietly for a moment.
"What a mess," said Robbie. She glanced at me, then at Reggie. "I think we can ask a few questions."
I can't explain why those words excited me, but I did my best not to show it.
With the favor asked and granted, Reggie stood up. "Thank you. Some police reports, the photographs, and a CD of scanned versions are in the folder."
"Promise me you won't speak with Detective Hunter or the prosecutor without speaking with us first," I said.
Reggie agreed and left.
Robbie was quiet for a few moments, her attention focused again on the pictures. She showed me the photo of the boy on the pile of bones. "Can you, for an instant, imagine what that was like? I can't. I can't imagine people doing this to other people." She shook her head. "You can't help but wonder why more wasn't done to stop it." She picked up the photograph of the woman with the baby. "Why would the hospital tell Reggie's aunt that her baby died if he didn't?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gene Police"
Copyright © 2013 Elliott D. Light.
Excerpted by permission of Bancroft 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.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Monday, February 11,
Chapter 2: Monday, February 11,
Chapter 3: Monday, February 11,
Chapter 4: Tuesday, February 12,
Chapter 5: Tuesday, February 12: Wednesday, February 13,
Chapter 6: Thursday, February 14,
Chapter 7: Thursday, February 14,
Chapter 8: Thursday, February 14,
Chapter 9: Thursday, February 14,
Chapter 10: Friday, February 15,
Chapter 11: Friday, February 15,
Chapter 12: Saturday, February 16,
Chapter 13: Saturday February 16,
Chapter 14: Sunday, February 17,
Chapter 15: Monday, February 18,
Chapter 16: Monday, February18,
Chapter 17: Wednesday, February 20,
Chapter 18: Thursday, February 21,
Chapter 19: Thursday, February 21,
Chapter 20: Sunday, February 24,
About The Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“Elliott Light has written a fascinating murder-mystery. I found myself getting annoyed with my schedule when I had to break away from reading it. Shep Harrington, the protagonist is sufficiently quirky, intelligent, ethical, and marked by an old-fashion humanity that’s rarely found these days. But equally important were the historical references, including eugenics experiments that occurred in the United States and around the world that many people either didn't know about or have chosen to forget. As an African-American, I was reminded of the various experiments on black people in the name of so-called medical research and became engaged anew. Fortunately, I was not alone. All of the characters in Light’s novel were equally repulsed. (No 35 percenters there.) Light provided a glimpse of that era and effectively used it to explore some of the current issues of white supremacy, racism, and economic inequality, which made the novel even more interesting for me. Without giving it away, I thought the most powerful and thought-provoking aspect of Light's intriguing and entertaining novel may have been its ending. It hinted, in my view, of Richard Wright's Native Son.” “An intriguing, fascinating, and entertaining murder-mystery that explores some of today’s most burning issues: white supremacy, eugenics, racism, and economic inequality.” rose esther
Great story The prologue gives a good introduction to the narrator and main character "Shep" or formally known as J. Shepard Harrington. I found some of the dialogue a little formal, but I enjoyed the story, and the perspective of Shep. Shep and his law partner, Robbie, just got a new client. And that is just the beginning of their new case, which is more investigative and suspenseful then just a regular legal client would need. I liked the premise of the story, and I like Shep. He's one of those unforgettable characters, and his relationship with Robbie is intense, and fun. A well-written intriguing story.