Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Another excerpt from THE EARTHQUAKE LADY, due out in February.

Okay, folks, be sure to pick up the first two of the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series on any e-reader so you'll be ready for the third! However, BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER and THE STITCHER FILE will be available as paperbacks, probably by the middle of January, from Amazon. Here's the excerpt (although see also, the previously posted excerpts below):

It’s almost noon. What I’d really like is to be deposited at my truck, parked across town at the Courtyard Marriott. We both decline. Albright leaves, returns in a couple of minutes with her supervisor. Introductions are made. We walk down the hall to a small conference room, where there is a speaker phone in the middle of a long table. She looks at her watch, punches in a number, and taps her foot while we hear the electronic ring. When the call is answered, I’m a little surprised to hear
“Burkholder, here.”
“Good. Thanks for joining us,” says Albright; “As usual, this conference is being recorded. I’ll let folks introduce themselves just so we can make sure everyone can hear the discussion.” She nods at me.
“Gideon Marshall.” I assume that Burkholder recognizes both the name and the voice.
“Mykala Marshall.” She assumes the same.
“Kyle Peterson, Level Four Supervisor.”
For the next hour, Mykala and I are both questioned extensively about everything we have witnessed during the past two days. At the end, Albright closes the conference.
“Thanks, ladies and gentlemen,” she says; the word choice is a little bit surprising, given what we’ve heard from various people during the last week. “We’ll be in touch.”
We walk back to Albright’s office.
“Thank you for your time, Dr. Marshall,” she says, extending her hand. “And especially to you, too, Mrs. Marshall. I’ll drop you back at the hotel. Feel free to stay an extra night and enjoy the pleasures of Oklahoma City, but be sure to send us your receipts when you get home.” She hands Mykala a card. “I think you already have one of these, but here’s another, just in case.”
Our drive back to the Courtyard Marriott is another twenty minute study in Oklahoma City traffic and Albright’s ability to negotiate it easily. She pulls into the parking lot next to my truck. For some reason, that white Dodge pickup looks almost like home, a comforting vision of our real life instead of the surreal one we’ve been living for the past seventy-two hours.
“Got everything?” she asks.
We make a quick search of the Suburban, retrieving personal belongings, including Mykala’s purse with her weapon, a purse that’s destined, I suspect, to be replaced with one from which she can quickly get dangerous.
“We’ll be in touch,” says Albright, evidently her code for ‘you are now a part of this investigation whether you want to be or not.’ “Thanks again.” This time the smile lasts almost three seconds.
“Inspector Albright,” I ask, realizing it will probably be my last opportunity to do it; “why, exactly, were we sent on this trip?”
“Mrs. Marshall was brought along as protection for you.” I can’t tell whether she’s serious or not, until she adds “detective Burkholder recommended it.” She looks at us both, almost as if studying us. “You will eventually be an expert witness in a murder trial. Some of the evidence used in that trial will consist of the kinds of materials you’ve encountered over the last couple of days.” It’s the longest string of words I’ve heard out of Linden Albright’s mouth in the past week. “We want to make sure you don’t come across as too na├»ve about the business. You’ve been going to school, professor, whether you realized it or not.”
I did realize it.
“Have a good trip home.” Inspector Albright gets into her Suburban, puts on her dark glasses, gives us that three-second sort-of smile, waves, and is gone.
“Okay,” I ask my bodyguard; “home or the night lights of OKC?”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she says.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Another excerpt from THE EARTHQUAKE LADY, available as an e-book in February

Here is a short excerpt from THE EARTHQUAKE LADY, third in the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series. The first two from this series are BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER and THE STITCHER FILE, both available on all e-readers. The excerpt:

“Because of that incident last fall, we’ve had an on-going conversation with Mr. Bennett,” says Burkholder. “And Mrs. Bennett,” he adds. “Over the past several weeks. They’ve agreed to help.”
If I remember the events of last fall correctly—“that incident,” in Burkholder’s words—Elizabeth ended up in custody as a result of finding that body, her car was towed to the city lot and probably dissected for whatever local police thought might be of value in an investigation, and in the middle of a storm that shut down travel over half the state for a full day, Joe ended up driving his tractor to town to rescue his wife. The “rescue,” of course, didn’t happen until after some fairly extensive interrogation and the attachment of an ankle monitor. I found out some time later that Elizabeth also underwent counseling as a result of her experiences that early morning and the events that followed discovery of Stitcher’s body on the tracks.
Elizabeth Bennett is the last person on Earth that I would have thought needed counseling for anything. After all, she is a farm wife that’s helped rear two sons, now grown, and been a partner to Joe, doing her share of both the physical and mental labor required to stay in the production agriculture business. I will say, however, that if you own enough land in Iowa, and manage it correctly, you’re going to do just fine. It’s the “manage it correctly” part that’s the challenge. As you drive across our state, every well-kept, painted, clean farmstead you see, those quintessential pastoral scenes reminiscent of landscape paintings, are screaming “managed correctly.” They might as well have billboards proclaiming that fact.
“How are they able to help?” Now I’m actually curious.
“In a number of ways,” replies Burkholder, although I can tell he’s not all that eager to share the full list. “We told them we might have to train some local people and needed some fairly secluded location to do it. They volunteered their property.”
If Broderick Burkholder honestly believes that you can conduct any kind of criminal investigation training on a piece of Iowa farm land, and do it in any kind of seclusion, that means he’s pretty clueless about social interactions in our part of the Great Plains. Make that former Great Plains. It’s still plains, but it’s mostly all corn nowadays.
“So, officer Burkholder,” asks my wife; “when do we get to go out there to Joe’s farm and learn how to kill someone?”
Burkholder is either patient by nature, or he’s heard so much of this smart-ass tone of voice that it no longer affects him. Or, maybe, he doesn’t listen to tones of voices—“paralanguage,” they call it, in the anthropological literature, the meaning of some utterance that has nothing to do with the words involved. If you’re curious about the communication power of paralanguage, consider how many different ways an actor could say “I love you,” or “go to Hell;” or, if you’re sitting in the Marshall living room: “when do we get to go out there to Joe’s farm and learn how to kill someone?”
“I’m ready whenever you are. Mr. Bennett knows we’re coming.”
Mr. Bennett knows we’re coming?
“Like now?” I ask.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he repeats. “You may want to put on some appropriate clothes.”
Broderick Burkholder does not look like he has on appropriate clothes. My mind imagines him in all kinds of situations where he may not have on appropriate clothes, or, alternatively, he dresses like this all the time and just deals with the diversity of tasks typical of a detective in the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
“We’ll be out in the field?”
“I can drive up pretty close to the ravine, but ideally, you might want to put on some jeans. It’s probably still a little wet out there.”
“You have this all worked out? You’ve actually been to this so-called ravine?”
“Yes,” he answers, his patience showing; “and I talked to Mr. Bennett earlier this morning.”
“Detective Burkholder,” I ask, simply out of the blue; “are any of those samples from the Bennett farm?”
“I can’t say where they are from,” he answers, verbally, but his eyes tell me “yes.”
“Are we taking two cars?” Ah, the old married couple whose kids have left home question.
“I’m driving,” say Burkholder; “we can drive right up to the site.”
He looks at his watch; he’s ready to go shooting with a couple of folks who have never handled a pistol, and he’s probably going to “expedite the permit process” afterwards. As I walk back to the bedroom closet, looking for some “appropriate clothes,” I’m wondering what detective Burkholder knows that Mykala and I don’t.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Essay on the Death of a Beetle

I received an e-mail from a former grad student in my lab, a highly successful one now in a faculty position at another university, teaching parasitology, and this individual asked about this essay, which I'd handed out in one of my classes years ago. It took a while to find it, but here it is. I don't remember the date, but it was at least ten years ago.

Essay on the Death of a Beetle

John Janovy, Jr.

            In his truly magnificent best-seller book, Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, nationally acclaimed cancer researcher and president [at the time] of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, included a chapter entitled “Death in the Open.”  He begins this chapter with a discussion of road kills: “seen from a car window they appear as fragments, evoking memories of woodchucks, skunks . . . etc.”  His essay addresses death as a natural phenomenon, and ends with a commentary on humanity: “Less than half a century from now, our replacements will have more than doubled the numbers.  It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret, with such multitudes doing the dying.”  The secret he is talking about is that of the death of our fellow human beings, a truly “vast mortality” of some 50 million a year.

            Whenever I develop an undergraduate laboratory exercise that involves the death of an animal, even a beetle or an earthworm, and especially one in which students are assigned the task of doing the killing, Thomas’ words come back to me, along with those of E. O. Wilson (On Human Nature) and Paul Fussell (Wartime).  In his chapter on aggression, Wilson talks about the dehumanization of fellow humans as a prelude to violence, especially in times of social conflict.  Fussell is more explicit, using WWII as an example and citing ways in which we dehumanized our enemies, thus desensitizing not only our soldiers, but also our citizens back home.  In my Field Parasitology course at Cedar Point, in which we routinely sacrifice animals in order to discover “who’s infected with whom,” the basic observations necessary to analyze any parasitic relationship, I often end the semester with an extended discussion of Thomas, Wilson, and Fussell, as well as some more modern cases involving massive human destruction (Rwanda, Kosovo, Persian Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, etc.)  There is a simple reason why I often feel that such a discussion is necessary: when you come to know an insect, snail, or “minnow” rather intimately, and build your reputation on the scientific study of their parasites, then it’s not so easy to dehumanize these lowly creatures.  These organisms with which you do your first real research project, show someone you are truly capable of conducting an original scientific investigation, earning your guaranteed-get-in letter of recommendation to med school, suddenly become valuable to you.  They are no longer worthless trash, they are no longer repulsive, they are no longer something you have absolutely no feelings whatsoever for, but instead they become a part of your emotional and intellectual library.  They’ve given their lives, yes, but they’ve also given you analytical powers, power conveyed by experience, and the intellectual sophistication that comes from doing research, that you would never have otherwise been given had you not set about to study their parasites.

            We choose beetles, this week, because we grow them in large numbers, they are not endangered, no permits are required for their use, and they are not like us (furry, warm, with large eyes).  For most of you, this week’s lab will be the first, and perhaps the only, original experience you will have with the distribution of infectious agents in a population until your graduate from medical school, get into practice, and deal with a flu or head lice epidemic.  If this prediction turns out to be true, then I hope you remember your lessons well.  And if, as a “health care professional,” you find yourself caught up in a military adventure, then you will find yourself wishing you had studied the biology of infectious organisms over and over again and been somewhat less enamored of reproductive physiology, cancer, and cardiovascular function.

            This discussion leads, of course, to my rather smart-aleck comments about dead birds at the bases of city buildings, and perhaps my unwise advice to simply pick up a stunned bird and kill it.  Those comments were intended to accomplish one thing and one thing only: to vastly increase your sensitivity to death at the population levels, and put into some kind of rational perspective our use of beetles this week in lab.  Actually, I was a little shocked at the class’s reaction to those comments; I did not expect laughter.  By way of comparison to the migratory bird situation, about 32,000 Americans die each year of gunshot wounds.  Another 42,000 die in automobile accidents.  From a biologist’s perspective, especially a biologist who studies small organisms, the clearing of tropical forests at the rate of 50-100 acres a minute for the past 20 years results in the deaths of uncountable, but truly beautiful and wondrous, organisms.  Fourteen thousand deer were struck by automobiles in Iowa last year, at a cost of about $3000 per incident ($42 million a year in damage).  A friend of mine who regularly rode a bicycle along a country highway and counted road kills, then extrapolated that sample to the national level, estimated that at any one moment there would be 75 million birds lying dead on America’s highways.  I read a report (unconfirmed) that house cats in Great Britain kill and estimated 60 million song birds a year.  [Note added in retyping in 2009: The UNL population of feral cats is out of control as a result of university policy to let it stay that way in order to keep the rabbit and rodent populations in control.]  The Kearney Arch has cost one human life, and not too many years ago the Omaha World-Herald reported that the increase in speed limits from 55 MPH to 65 MPH on I-80 resulted in approximately one additional human death a month.  The speed limit is now 75 MPH.  A visit to a packing plant makes your hamburger and bacon look quite different than from before the visit.  And, of course, I have not addressed the issue of quality of life for those still living who, for various reasons, do not have access to the humanizing influences of quality education, a safe place to sleep at night, adequate health care, and meaningful employment.  Into this latter category fall millions of Americans and billions of other human beings around the world.

            I’m not condemning anyone for contributing to the above figures; I am, however, simply reminding us that just by living our normal, 21st Century, human lives, we contribute to the death of vast numbers of organisms and generally ignore the deaths of vast numbers of human beings, all except, that is, the ones closest to us.  Thus it does not bother me very much to use beetles to provide young people, many of whom will become physicians, with their first scientific experience with infectious organisms [we all have non-scientific experiences with infectious organisms].

            On a more personal level, I do appreciate the fact that an intimate encounter with death, as when you cut the head off a meal worm, or separate a beetle’s head from its body, can produce an emotional reaction.  In this particular case, you have chosen to terminate a life in order to study something that most people find repulsive (a parasite), even though that “repulsive” organism is living the most common way of life on Earth.  I only ask that you remember this week’s lab when your kid comes home from day care with lice or pinworms and you wonder how to cure the infection (it’s not terribly difficult, at least in the case of pinworms.)

            Finally, as a philosophical aside, as part of your overall education as a biological sciences major, I strongly recommend a personal examination of your own reasons for reacting as you do to the welfare of other organisms, be they insects or fellow humans.  I’m guessing that the closer an organism is to you personally, or the closer in appearance and demeanor to humans in general, or the younger the organism, then the stronger will be your reaction to its death.  This principle figures prominently in politics and government regulations surrounding the use of animals in research and teaching.  Thus the death of a baby cocker spaniel has an infinitely higher emotional content than the death of a mosquito or cockroach, at least to the average person.  And if you contribute to that death, then the puppy’s will probably linger in your mind for a lifetime, whereas the mosquito and cockroach will be forgotten as soon as you get over the pleasure, and probably smug satisfaction, of having killed them.