Epidemic investigator Dr. Zol Szabo and his team are called to a panic-stricken high school in the heart of Ontario’s tobacco country, where teens are dying from liver failure. The team suspects a link with contaminated, cut-price cigarettes manufactured on nearby Grand Basin Indian Reserve. When Zol confronts The Badger, the multi-millionaire kingpin of the illicit Native tobacco trade, he is ordered to shut down his investigation when rebuffed by high-level government authorities. The Badger’s contaminated tobacco spreads across the country, and key witnesses and Zol’s family are put in the crosshairs of a ruthless criminal. Can Zol dig deep enough to find a creative solution before it’s too late?
About the Author
Ross Pennie was an infectious disease specialist and university professor for two decades before turning his hand to writing fiction. His two previous Dr. Zol Szabo novels (Tainted, 2009, and Tampered, 2011) both won the Arts Hamilton Literary Award. A father of two grown children, he lives with his wife near Hamilton, Ontario.
Read an Excerpt
Up in Smoke
A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
By Ross Pennie
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2013 Ross Pennie
All rights reserved.
He shivers inside his sleeping bag, rolls to the right, and groans. It's been a couple of years since he lost his Rolex to poker, but his body knows it's three hours past midnight. Bloor Street's sidewalk is playing hell with his shoulder. With no smokes left and the Canadian Club well out of his system, he should've taken a couple of Percs when he had the chance. And thrown on the flannel jacket that's at the bottom of the shopping bag. Under the good stuff.
At least he's out of the wind, thanks to that wild metallic thing looming above him, the giant zit stuck to the front of their museum. They call it the Crystal, and its weird angles would've sent him spinning if he was wasted. But tonight he's dead sober and not complaining. Not here, where their chi-chi extravagance overhangs the sidewalk, and the zany geometry makes a sheltered spot where a guy could catch a few z's. At least, until the busloads of school kids turned up in the morning.
He opens his eyes a crack at the sound of footsteps. Two kids in jeans and hoodies give him a wide berth and pretend not to stare. The taller one is carrying a gym bag that looks hefty enough to be loaded with a bottle of sherry and two twenty-sixers of rye. More likely, it's a set of tools they're packing — like a crowbar, glass cutters, and a couple of sledgehammers. Guys on their way to a job. And not shy about it.
He scratches that damn thing on his lip and it starts oozing again. He can taste the blood. Friggin' sore's been there for weeks and won't go away.
He shivers and shifts, sucks at his lip, and shifts again.
Minutes later, maybe more, the two kids slip out the museum's side exit, hoods raised. A third guy, a bit older, follows them out. He's got the gym bag, and it looks heavier than on the way in. Older Guy stops and scans for trouble. Sees only a wino on the sidewalk sleeping it off, waves the other two on. The light above the door catches the printing on his sweatshirt: ANISHINAABEG NATION. BIDING OUR TIME.
Really, eh? And then what?
The three of them head for the retaining wall. It's not a proper barrier, just a decoration between the museum and the music faculty next door. They don't run, but walk quick. Less likely to attract attention that way. Everyone in Toronto walks, bikes, drives like that — full of purpose.
But not everyone is a target.
He rolls onto his front and checks the street. No one else in sight.
He reaches into the sleeping bag and whips out the Glock.
They're down in three shots, before they even touch the wall.
He squirms out of the bedroll and grabs the gym bag from Older Guy's dead fist. He tosses out the crowbar and the hammers, throws in the Glock, and zips the bag closed. Then he heaves himself over the wall and drops into the black shadows of the campus behind the museum, telling himself it's okay he couldn't look at their faces.
Two blocks south on Hoskin Avenue, the Ford-150 flashes its lights. He jumps in and stows the gym bag at his feet. His twin brother hands him the throw-away cellphone.
He punches in the number, ten digits to show them who's boss.
He presses SEND, and they wait for it.
The Crystal explodes with a satisfying roar. Smoke swirls way above the streetlights.
There must be shit all over the place. Too bad he can't see it, all that shattered glass and tangled steel. Wicked.
The Big Guy will be pleased. Might even buy him a new Rolex.
* * *
When the sooty cloud descends on the Royal Ontario Museum, it shrouds the ruins, the tools, the blood-spattered hoodies. And the neat holes in three skulls.
All that remains of the shopping bag is scattered ash.CHAPTER 2
Zol Szabo measured six scoops of Kenyan Bungoma — shade grown and fair trade — into the grinder. Mornings were impossible without a large mug of coffee at breakfast and a booster around ten-thirty. And afternoons a sleepfest without a pick-me-up at three and often another at five. The public-health doc in him sometimes worried that his caffeine dependency might not be entirely innocent.
He pressed the switch and counted five Mississippis, reminding himself that he'd smoked fewer than one hundred cigarettes in his life, that his half-hearted experiments with marijuana were more than a decade behind him, and that one single-malt Scotch savoured every evening didn't constitute another addiction. Did it?
He dumped the coffee into a number-six cone and set it over his favourite mug. He poured in the six hundred millilitres of water he'd heated to a few degrees short of boiling, as recommended by the barista who'd sold him the beans yesterday at the Detour Café. That was the first time in almost a decade that he'd shopped on Norfolk Avenue in dear old Simcoe.
The sleepy town he'd been born in, an hour's drive to the southwest, was a few klicks from the farm that had raised him, and on which his parents still lived. But the town had little pull for him until two weeks ago. Now, Simcoe and adjacent Norfolk County were his top priority, professionally speaking. A massive stroke had felled the region's incumbent MOH, the medical officer of health in charge of the health unit. Zol had been swiftly promoted into the position. His Hamilton boss, Peter Trinnock, made certain Zol understood this secondment to Simcoe was temporary. And warned that Zol's performance would be under the meticulous scrutiny, from Toronto, of Dr. Elliott York, the province's public-health uber-boss. It was well known that York was grooming himself for an eventual cabinet post and would tolerate no embarrassing screw-ups by his underlings. Trinnock had warned Zol: Don't get any notions of selling that fancy house of yours over there on the West Mountain; plenty of good candidates in the running for the permanent position down in Simcoe. We'll keep your office here in the Hammer nice and warm for you. Trinnock was going to miss Zol toiling under his thumb; it would be just like him to engineer his early return.
Zol paused, revelling in the coffee's rising steam and cheery trickle, warm comforts on this grey October Saturday. Through the window, low cloud obscured the hawk's eye vista that on a clear day stretched to the glitzy towers of Toronto and jacked up the real estate prices in this part of the humble Hammer.
When he thought about it, the town of Simcoe had always been a quirky place. It sat alone, not quite on the north shore of Lake Erie. And owed its foundation to the tobacco farms that used to blanket every inch of the surrounding sandy loam. Now that the nicotine weed was no longer king, fair-trade coffees, pesticide-free veggies, and stone-ground grains were sidling up to Simcoe's fast food joints, tattoo parlours, and farm supply stores. How well the beer and white-bread town would embrace the organic scene was an open question, but his new posting was going to show him.
The Kenyan's aroma rose from the cone and tickled his nostrils.
He braced himself.
A split second later, there she was.
No audio gadget of any kind was playing in the house. No radio, no CD player, no iPod. Yet Céline Dion was belting the theme song from Titanic as clearly as if she was standing beside him. His neurologist had an explanation for the phenomenon: post-concussion synesthesia. A knock on his head a few months ago had crossed the wiring in his brain, creating a bizarre set of pathways between his sense of hearing and his sense of smell. Strong scents now conjured snippets of music inside his head so vivid they sounded like the real thing.
Almost every time he got a whiff of freshly brewed coffee, Céline showed up with ten or fifteen bars of "My Heart Will Go On." She was impossible to suppress and damned difficult to get used to. He'd prefer Amanda Marshall, Ray LaMontagne, or Royal Wood, but at coffee time he was stuck with Céline and Titanic.
He should have noticed that patch of black ice in April. Instead, he'd fallen prey to winter's last gasp. He was down in a second, his head whacking the sidewalk on Concession Street in front of the health unit. He was out cold, splayed in full view of his colleagues and the lunchtime traffic. Hours later, regaining consciousness in the intensive care unit of Caledonian University Medical Centre, he caught the scent of the hand sanitizer his nurse was rubbing between her palms. In a heartbeat, the Tragically Hip were at his bedside strumming the opening bars of "Wheat Kings." He'd thought either he was going crazy or had awoken in the afterlife, especially since the song opened with the ghostly cry of a loon.
Céline finished her kitchen breakfast concert, and, relieved at the silence, Zol lifted today's Globe and Mail from the counter.
The front-page photo grabbed his gaze and wouldn't let go. Yesterday, he'd heard a brief report on the radio, but he'd never imagined it was this bad.
The Royal Ontario Museum was in ruins, its ultra-modern entrance gaping like a great white shark with broken teeth. The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal — Toronto's latest engineering marvel, lauded and condemned for its cost, elegance, and flamboyance — was now a rubble of twisted beams, shattered glass, and police tape.
He scanned the article. Halfway through, the story got worse, then worse again. "Colleen!" He turned and called again through the doorway, "Come look at this." His perennially unruly hands, now flapping like startled crows, knocked the coffee fixings across the counter and onto the floor.
He was staring at the sludge and shattered stoneware when she breezed in. His navy bathrobe — huge on her trim, five-foot frame — flapped at her ankles.
"Goodness, that was your favourite mug," she said, grabbing a wad of paper towels from the roll. "Never mind, you've got a cupboard full of others you never use. You'll just have to pick a new favourite. That Scott Barnim one from your mother is very nice."
Not sure he felt like picking a new favourite, he crouched beside her to help with the cleanup. His nose caught the scent of his bergamot shower gel wafting off her skin. Immediately, Marvin Gaye began singing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Oil of bergamot, in concert with her skin, always brought out Marvin.
As they cleaned up the last of the coffee grinds, she started to speak, but Marvin was still crooning at full volume. Zol touched his right earlobe.
Her hazel eyes glinted with understanding, and she adjusted the towel she'd wrapped around her waist-length ponytail. She threw him a smile that flared, then faded quickly. "Enough, already. You're as white as a sheet. And it's not just your broken mug. What's up?"
He pointed to the Globe's front page. "That."
It took two headlines to tell the story: Three Bodies Pulled from ROM Rubble and First Nations Artifacts Missing.
She tutted in deference to the wreckage and the loss of life. "Extraordinary. Who are the victims? People you know?" Usually, her South African accent made everything — even the sordid details she occasionally divulged after an all-night stakeout — sound upbeat and musical. The story in the paper was making him too angry to appreciate that now.
"Surely the police must have some idea. And by the look on your face, I think you do too."
He shook his head. "It doesn't say ..."
"You mean, it doesn't say whether the victims have been identified — or it doesn't say the names of the victims, even though the authorities know who they are?"
He glanced at the article and wished she'd read it for herself. He couldn't cope with being grilled before his first cup of coffee. "If anyone knows who they are, they're not saying."
"But surely, someone is speculating. Is it suggested that the victims are innocent bystanders, ROM employees, or the perps themselves?"
He handed her the paper's front section. "See for yourself. You're the private eye."
She flashed him a look that warned his cheap shot was uncalled for and only glanced at the headlines. "Do they at least say which artifacts were stolen?"
"A couple of wooden clubs, a ceremonial tomahawk, and ..."
"And what? Why are you looking so sheepish all of a sudden?"
He didn't feel sheepish. Not in the least. But what he had to tell her would either stop her in her tracks or trigger another barrage of questions. "My ..."
"Yours? What are you saying?"
"Yes, mine. My ancient stone-carved pipe."
She paused, eyes huge, mouth open so wide he could see her uvula. A few seconds later, she found her voice. It never left her for long. "You'd better start from the beginning."
He took a deep breath. "I gave the Royal Ontario Museum my priceless Hopewell Culture pipe, carved two thousand years ago in the shape of a gorgeous little loon. They were supposed to keep him safe. But now someone's stolen him from under their noses."
"This is extraordinary, Zol. But you've got to back up a bit further. In fact, a good deal more than a bit. What sort of pipe are we talking about? An ocarina? A piccolo?"
He turned to page four and showed her the photo of his missing treasure. "Tobacco. You know, tar and nicotine."
"And when did you donate said pipe to the ROM?"
He left her gawking at the photo and grabbed a can of Maxwell House from the cupboard. He'd fussed enough over the gourmet stuff for one morning. He put the kettle on to boil again and shook the coffee into a fresh cone.
She waved the newspaper and frowned. "The caption says this extraordinary loon effigy is possibly the most valuable piece in the ROM's First Peoples Gallery. Is that an exaggeration?"
"You still haven't told me how you came to possess it and when you gave it up."
"I should never have listened to my dad. I damned well should have kept it."
"You're not serious."
"Why not? Finders keepers."
"But surely —"
"The ROM didn't do such a hot job of protecting it."
Through his anger at the theft, he could feel the excitement of his discovery raising his pulse as if it were yesterday, not fifteen years ago. There was something almost perfect about that little bird, nestled on an oblong block of stone the size of half a deck of playing cards. The entire object was carved from a single piece of charcoal-grey pipestone.
He cupped his right hand to mime its size and shape. "The first time I held that smooth little fellow, he felt ... It's hard to explain, but he felt graceful and ... alive. Yes, alive. I swore I could feel his heart beating, his garnet eyes boring through me."
Colleen looked surprised at his uncharacteristic burst of poetic enthusiasm. "Was it smoked every day, or just for show?"
"I haven't the faintest."
"Heavens, Zol. Surely some anthropologist has done a Ph.D. thesis on it. Have you never enquired?"
He shrugged, feeling like an overgrown, uncultured kid who grew up on a tobacco farm on the outer margins of civilization. His father had taught him plenty about the history and cultivation of tobacco, but cultural anthropology had never been his thing.
"It's my guess," she continued, "that something so exquisite would not have been smoked every day. Used by shamans, maybe? Communicating with the spirit world?"
He poured the now boiling water over the Maxwell House. "All I know is the British Museum has almost a hundred pipes more or less like him. A menagerie of stone-carved effigies — sparrows, frogs, a cat, an otter. But no loons."
"Extraordinary! How did they acquire them?"
"Dug them up."
"Shipped them from Ohio to London? From some punter's back garden in Cleveland all the way to Bloomsbury?" Ever the professional private investigator Colleen was intrigued by the outlandish. And had a natural sense of the absurd; you didn't survive childhood in apartheid South Africa — ride inside the cushy cab of your father's truck while your Black playmates rode behind in the unprotected flatbed — without a keen awareness of life's ironies.
"A long drive south of Cleveland," he told her. "Almost at the Ohio River. In two aboriginal burial mounds."
"And that's where you found yours? Outback Ohio? Then smuggled it over the border?"
He shook his head, then explained.
Excerpted from Up in Smoke by Ross Pennie. Copyright © 2013 Ross Pennie. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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