A masterful masterpiece.
A breathtaking puzzle of beautifully-written words that provide vivid pictures.
A terrifying account of our world today.
Just an amazing work of jigsaw puzzle verbal art.”
Dr. Charles A. Steinberg
Longtime Executive Vice President,
Boston Red Sox
“Hidden under a cloak of legitimacy, I have been pressed to deliver extraordinary service for my country. It has been a successful ruse. A premium blend of dark deception with just an aroma of truth.”
-Dr. Lily Robinson
Dr. Lily Robinson is a brilliant physician with an encyclopedic knowledge of all toxins and poisons, and a penchant for stilettos. In an unforeseeable twist in her life, the United States Government appeals to her patriotism--and her knowledge of how to kill without bloodshed, to rid the world of threats to our nation. Emotionally blunted and flawed, she struggles to move between assassin and healer, yet still able to fulfill her competing objectives. Now asked to assassinate a terrorist threatening New York City, she quickly realizes the Russians have already released a deadly toxin in a surprisingly innocuous medium.
Read an Excerpt
Just between beats. There's a 20-millisecond window of vulnerability to create chaos, just before the heart squeezes out its next beat. I keep thinking about the assassination while I'm sitting in my office. He was just another threat with a bad heart. My poison incurs sudden death, like a physical blow to the heart delivered at the right time. I try not to rationalize these deaths anymore or allow my emotions to creep in. Years of denial have trained my clinical mind to focus only on the target. I do whatever I must to get the job done. It's about mastering control, yet letting go.
About a month ago, the Agency asked me to assassinate a terrorist infiltrator quickly and quietly in New York City. I waited for him at a coffee shop he frequents. It always amazes me how we are such creatures of habit. Routines — we eat the same breakfast, walk or drive the same way home, and visit our same favorite little café, every day. Even the terrorists. My target took two sugars with his French dark roast — the waitress brought him the two packets when she served him. They don't leave the sugar bowls at the tables anymore in this neighborhood.
She poured the coffee while standing behind the counter, and when she turned back to put the pot on the burner, I swapped out the packets. Coffee, delivered with steam rising from the brim, waited patiently as he tore open the sugars, dumped the contents into the abyss, and stirred the dark mixture with a cheap spoon. After drinking only half a cup he began to gasp for air and had difficulty breathing. He turned blue and slid off his chair, seizing as he hit the ground. Several people jumped up in alarm, including me. "Call 911!" While everyone surrounded the man on the floor, I picked up the empty sugar packets from the table and used my napkin to replace them with ones I had used.
I killed him with cyanide.
Not exotic, I know, but reliable on short notice. Most people think they can smell the bitter almond scent, but only a small percentage of the population can reliably detect any odor. Luckily, I've got that gene. Potassium cyanide crystals can't be distinguished from common sugar crystals. White crystals look like, well, all other white crystals. I always carry packets of sugar — and even packets of artificial sweetener — laced with enough potassium cyanide to produce death within minutes. Once you ingest the poison, the acid in your stomach converts it to hydrogen cyanide, and death will soon follow. Within minutes it delivers a knockout punch to the powerhouses of your body via the respiratory electron transport chain — the mitochondrial workhorses of your cells that generate ATP, which gives you the energy you need to live. Cyanide blocks all that, and without oxygen your cells die of chemical asphyxiation.
I exited the café during the commotion, having already paid for my cup of coffee. Another fatal blow, just between beats. With the collar turned up on my coat, I inhaled the wind and felt the oxygen fill my lungs, as my own mitochondria powered my disappearance into the crowded street.
I hear a knock at my office door, bringing my mind into focus. It must be Lisa. Best administrative assistant I've ever had, who anticipates my every professional need. Lisa knows I'm a physician with expertise in toxicology — that's all she knows. Her job is to keep my calendar and sort out when I'm at the hospital, or at the medical school. Her biggest challenge is how to account for the days when I'm at neither.
"Hi, Dr. Lily. Just reminding you that you have a lecture at the medical school you have to prepare for. Do you have everything you need?"
"Thanks, Lisa. I'm all set. Everything for the students is on the internal network."
"Okay," she says, rolling her eyes just a little as she spots my stilettos. "Here's your itinerary for the day. You also have some meetings scheduled this afternoon. One with the Dean, and a last-minute meeting with Chad."
A meeting with Chad. The acid in my stomach begins to rise like a tide during a full moon. The pH of my entire gastric contents drops precipitously, and I find myself reaching around to the back of my desk for antacids.
Chad is Pixie Dust's replacement. That was her code name. A woman with a pink streak in her hair met me in my office years ago and begged me to help. She told me I would be serving my country. All I had to do was poison one man, an enemy of the State, and make it look like he died from natural causes. I was at a low point in my life, when posttraumatic stress had hijacked my brain after a devastating incident on the job. I never really recovered. At the moment Pixie Dust asked, I probably could have been talked into anything. It's been years now. The Agency has taught me well, and I hide behind their cloak of invisibility.
My medical work keeps me in the city of Boston where I take the T as our subway is known, between the hospital and a small condo central to the buzz of the Hub. Yet the truth is, my home, and my heart, reside at a seaside cottage on the coast of Massachusetts where I escape this life, and that life. It's there where I keep a poison garden, nurtured by the moist sea air and ready to yield the natural killers I need.
There've been many bodies.
My conscience still screams, but my ears have turned deaf. Pavlov would call it conditioning. I take solace in the realization that I am not alone. A band of highly trained specialists, sworn to protect this country and other democratic nations, have fought by my side for many years. We are a team, subtly shaping the politics of the world by wiping out the bad and the ugly. Protecting global freedom from the terror that swells beneath our feet. This is our mission, and I'm all in.
The acid content of my stomach has reached epic proportions. When I see Chad this afternoon, I'll swallow the bitter pill that has become my treatment for unimaginable loss.
I expect him here any minute. When he visits me in my office he does a 360 review of the walls and shelves, scanning for any new mementos of toxins or other drug paraphernalia I may have acquired since the last time he saw me. There's noise outside my door. He must be here.
"Hi Chad, come on in and have a seat," I say, pointing to a chair in front of the table that stands in for my desk.
"Doctor, so good to see you again." He grabs my hand and places his other hand on top of it, as if to weld us together. "I want to give you an update on the NYC case, you know, the lone wolf from the coffee shop." He sees my surprise. "Robinson, I know this is always hard for you; and coming so soon after the last case. We sort of left you on your own for that one, and I know you need some time to to, catch your breath. We've learned quite a lot in the last several weeks, and it turns out our lone wolf wasn't such a lone wolf after all. We knew he had ties to Russia, but we didn't know how extensive they were — are. Every day in the news, the American public hears how the Russians are disrupting our way of life. They've hacked our computers, they put out fake news using bots and Internet trolls who obscure the truth; and we know they've meddled in our elections. Oh, and they're moving illegal drugs into the US."
"I know about the drugs, Chad. Don't forget — when I'm not working for the Agency, I'm working here, at the hospital, trying to save lives."
"Well, this time it's something big. You've seen what's been happening internationally. They're targeting the French, the Brits, and of course, us. It's chaos. We're busy tying our shoelaces and they're about to punch us in the gut. We need you."
I choke up and feel my stomach churn. I've done this long enough to know I want to help, but there's always that part of me that holds back. It's the oath I took to do no harm. Now I'm a killer. But it doesn't matter. Each life I take will save so many more.
"What's the plan, Chad?" My voice is almost shaking.
And then he lays it all out for me.CHAPTER 2
NEW YORK CITY
Beth Winslow finished putting on her face powder at her dressing table. She walked back into her bedroom and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over her dresser. Hmm, wrinkled. She pulled down hard on the bottom edges of her suit jacket to straighten it out. Across the room, her husband Bill fixed his tie in front of the full-length mirror. When they'd completed their preening, Beth and her husband walked out of their apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan and caught a taxi to Penn Station.
"I've just got some last-minute stuff to do before my meeting on Monday," he said apologetically. "Really appreciate you coming to Newark with me on a Saturday." Bill leaned over and took her hand from her purse, gave it a squeeze, and brushed his thumb across the nail polish decorating her fingertips.
"No problem, honey. I'll manage to keep myself busy."
When they parted after the train ride, Bill met with a few colleagues at his office while Beth occupied her time shopping at the outlet stores. After she'd been out for only two hours, she began to feel fatigued and a little nauseous. She looked into one store window filled with women's designer suits and started to cough. She stepped in to look at an outfit from the display.
"Good afternoon, miss," said the older woman behind the counter. Beth started to unbutton her coat.
"Boy, it's crazy. It's so cold outside, but I feel so hot. Must be all the walking around in this giant coat." Beth's voice sounded congested.
"Miss, would you like to sit down for a minute?" inquired the saleswoman. She moved out from behind the counter, wondering if her customer was old enough to be suffering from hot flashes. She certainly knew how that felt. It was like someone set you on fire.
"You know," said Beth, buttoning her coat back up with a shaking hand, "I think I better get going. Thank you for your help." She let out another cough.
Beth found a taxi down the block and caught up with her husband back at his office. It was getting to be early afternoon and the lunch hour had long passed.
"Bill, I really don't feel well. I think I need to go home." By now she was wheezing slightly and rubbing her eyes. She couldn't decide if her stomach discomfort was from lack of food, but she was nervous about eating anything for fear of throwing it all back up.
"What's wrong, honey? You were fine when we left the apartment this morning." There was a note of concern in Bill's voice, but he was more preoccupied with the papers in front of him than with his wife. Then, recognizing he had been a little selfish and noticing his wife's tired appearance, he added, "I guess I could wrap it up. Can you give me about a half hour, babe?" Beth nodded and sat in a chair in the corner of Bill's office, flipping through a magazine.
They left the office about forty-five minutes later and got a train back to the city without much waiting. When they reached Manhattan, Beth suddenly felt a squeeze in her chest, as if someone's hand had slipped beneath her blouse and grabbed her heart through her rib cage. Desperate to catch her breath, she struggled to call out to her husband, but the sound was muffled. She grabbed his arm instead, her polished nails digging hard into his wrist.
Bill turned toward his wife, looked into her red eyes, and could see a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. Now she had his full attention.
"Beth!" he said with alarm.
Beth clutched her chest, mouthed something that Bill could not quite understand, and fell forward into his arms.
"Someone call 911 NOW!" Bill shouted, his voice and his body trembling.
Jim Cassidy was an Emergency Medical Technician-paramedic who still lived with his parents, conservative Christians residing in Brooklyn. He kept his blond hair short so it wouldn't get in his eyes while leaning over his patients, starting an IV, or putting on EKG leads. The days were long between work and school, but he hoped he could make the transition from paramedic to physician with ease. All he needed were a few more courses before he could send in his medical school application. As a paramedic he had many more hours of training than a basic EMT, but regardless of training, all the members of his emergency medical services team referred to themselves as EMTs — the first responders to 911 calls for chest pain, building explosions, traffic accidents, gun shots, drug overdoses, and jet planes crashing into skyscrapers.
Jim's additional skills — airway management to help stabilize a patient's breathing, starting an intravenous line, reading an electrocardiogram, and giving medications to patients in the ambulance en route to the hospital — allowed him a certain independence that basic EMTs did not possess. He was confident his paramedic training would be an advantage to getting into medical school, and he wanted a career in Emergency Medicine anyway. He liked shift work and the idea of having only a brief relationship with a patient.
Jim's ambulance was dispatched from the bay to pick up a woman who was feeling tightness in her chest and having acute respiratory distress. She was accompanied by her husband, who told the EMT they had left Penn Station for New Jersey in the morning and had returned later that day when his wife felt sick.
"I called 911 right when she collapsed," her husband said. His voice was trembling as he fidgeted with his tie. "I don't know what happened. She was fine when we left the house this morning."
His wife's condition deteriorating, Jim pushed the husband to the back of the ambulance. He started an IV and put the oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. The husband overheard Jim on the phone with ED staff at the hospital.
"This is Jim Cassidy. Yeah, we got a 40-year-old woman, well this morning, now in severe respiratory distress, chest pain. We got the IV in, she's on oxygen but she's dropping her O2 sat. No, doesn't look good. Probably going to need intubation. Uh huh, uh huh. Yup, got it. Uh huh, yeah, husband's riding with us."
When they reached the hospital, the doors to the ED flew open as the stretcher emerged from the ambulance like a thoroughbred out of the gate. Emergency Department doctors and nurses triaged her to acuity level one and she was immediately moved into one of the open rooms. The ED team simultaneously intubated Beth, started another IV, and hooked up cardiac monitors, while Jim Cassidy relayed the vital information. After he completed his hand-off, Jim retreated quietly from the organized chaos to give the doctors their space. He decided now might be a good time to follow up on some other cases that had come in earlier in the week.
Jim went to the clinical laboratory and asked to speak with the pathologist. The only pathologist available was relatively junior and had just recently been hired into the practice as a locum tenens, a temporary fill-in, to cover another physician's maternity leave. Jim found the physician-temp sequestered in the cutting room in the front of the Pathology Department, where all human tissue removed from the body was handled. The cutting room contained stainless steel tables with small hoods above to capture any errant chemical fumes. The doctor was grossing a lung specimen presumably filled with cancer. Jim watched the dissection, wincing a little when he realized there were pieces of body parts being cut up on the table.
"Excuse me, are you the pathologist?" he asked as he looked around. The room was surrounded by white subway tile walls with steel shelving to the ceiling, and filled with strange and unfamiliar equipment. Occupying every inch of the long line of shelves were jars filled with fluid and floating pieces of human tissue, stacked up high and into corners and displayed as if a prized collection. The smell of formalin confronted his uninitiated senses and brought back memories of some pickled frog he had dissected during a science class long ago.
"Can I help you? Kind of busy. I've gotta finish grossing and then have an autopsy to do. We're really backed up today." The pathologist put down the scalpel and waited for a reply.
"Oh, sorry. Look, one of my buddies brought in a woman about a week ago with severe respiratory distress. She was maybe mid-thirties, died in the ED. Not sure if she had an autopsy. I asked the nurses in the ED, but wrong shift. They didn't know. Thought I'd check in with Path."
Jim told the pathologist about several patients he had recently transported to the hospital who had similar histories.
"What's odd is that the cases we're picking up tend to be younger people in their twenties and thirties, some forties. I'm still seeing some older patients, but not as many as the younger ones. I checked with a few other EMTs and several have seen an uptick in respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. What do you think?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Queen of all Poisons"
Copyright © 2018 BJ Magnani.
Excerpted by permission of Encircle Publications, LLC.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An amazing read ! Dr. Lily Robinson has two careers. She is a toxicology doctor in Boston and an assassin for the government. She is an expert. in poisons and grows them at her house outside of Boston. Yet, Lily does have a conscience. She knows that a mass killing by terrorists would be far worse than killing the perpetrator. New York City is in a bind for doctors to treat an increasing respiratory illness that is quickly lethal. Dr. Baxter (whom Lily had previously met) joins in, doing many autopsies on these mostly younger people, They, for the most part, have similar symptoms. Another interested party is Jim, an EMT that has been bringing patients to Lily's hospital. Also, John in Hong Kong, who Lily knows and had been her mentor. He helps her with sample tests and potions. Chad, Lily's government advisor, tells Lily that she has to go to New York for an important meeting of international bankers in Washington, DC - one of them being a terrorist (But WHO?) and to poison that person. There, she meets up with an old love, JP, from France and the museum curator. Now, the reader trusts NO ONE, except (maybe?) Dr. Baxter and of course, Lily. She is finding out that the trust factor isn't known to her - and feels completely alone. So who are the terrorists? Someone close to Lily? WOW - many twists in this superb read!!! I recommend to all! Many thanks to both Encircle Publications LLC and NetGalley for a colossal winner!!!