Copyright© 2021 by Lumpy
Unlike what you see on TV, forensic labs aren’t a single group of people that do everything. Different areas of forensic science required different areas of expertise. Taylor and Whitaker were directed to another area of the extensive laboratory complex which housed the FBI’s chemists, who analyzed everything from trace residues to explosives.
They were shown into a small conference room where two chemists met them. Taylor assumed they didn’t want outsiders near their highly calibrated equipment. He’d dealt with their type on cases in the past and they’d always seemed fairly territorial.
“So, what killed Agent Mottern?” Taylor asked once they were all seated. “Someone said something about Sarin?”
“It wasn’t Sarin, although we understand the agents on the scene made that guess, based on how rapidly it killed Agent Mottern. It was, in fact, a form of chlorine gas.”
“I thought chlorine gas took time to kill someone, even in high concentrations,” Whitaker said.
“That is normally true, yes. With normal chlorine gas, concentrations over four-hundred and thirty parts per million are fatal, with death taking roughly thirty minutes. This, however, is a slightly different variant of chlorine gas that looks to be more rapid-acting. Normally, chlorine gas is produced by combining sodium hypochlorite with some form of acid or a byproduct of concentrated liquid chlorine. The difference here is the combination of liquid chlorine with a specific type of sodium-based acid. While it will still cause lung and pulmonary damage like normal chlorine gas, a side effect of this formulation is that it causes rapid swelling in the throat, much like an allergic action, along with a similar reaction in the upper bronchioles. That coupled with the early steps of damage to the air sacs themselves can cause someone to rapidly asphyxiate.”
“So had he had an EpiPen or something like that, he would have survived?” Whitaker asked.
“Maybe. The combinations still had the same effects as the more commonly seen chlorine gas, so there would still be those complications, although a first-rate medical center could have possibly managed to treat those effects as well. Unfortunately, his airway would have begun closing almost instantly, giving him only a handful of minutes before he passed out. Considering the pain he would have experienced from the searing of his nose, throat and lungs would have caused him to begin coughing, forcing out what little air he did have in his lungs and take more of the gas in at the same time.”
“Is this something new? Did the perpetrator invent this combination?” Taylor asked.
“No, we’ve seen it before. Chlorine gas is old, of course, dating back to the First World War. This combination we’ve seen as far back as fifteen years ago, used in Chechnya. We’ve seen it a handful of times since then as well.”
“If it’s so deadly, why isn’t it seen more often? Are the chemicals controlled or hard to get?”
“It’s not that hard to get. None of the parts are controlled, although the acid is hard to produce, so there aren’t that many companies that make it. I believe the Secret Service is already investigating this angle, talking to the manufacturers. The issue here is, the device wouldn’t have needed very much of the acid and it’s used in a wide range of industries. This means there will be a lot of orders and all of them will be large enough to be suspect.”
“So it’s a needle in a haystack,” Whitaker said.
“How did the acid not eat through the container?” Taylor asked.
“We’re not sure yet, since we haven’t been able to do tests on the device itself. My guess is it was coated in something that made it resistant to the acid itself.”
“Because that’s the only thing that makes sense?” Taylor asked.
“Yes, and because several of the times we’ve seen this combination before, the makers did that. Honestly, this perpetrator must have, at the very least, read about what happened in Chechnya. Although the delivery method was different, since the Chechen rebels didn’t hide it in an envelope, most of the other things here line up to that gas attack as well. I’m confident your target didn’t have a bunch of intuitive leaps, he’d just heard enough of that event to adapt its particulars to this.”
“I see. If you find out anything else, please let us know,” Whitaker said, ending the meeting.
As they walked out of the laboratory buildings Taylor said, “I know they said the Secret Service was looking into those chemicals, but do you think Joe would let us use some Bureau resources to follow up on it too?”
“Don’t trust the Secret Service?”
“I’m not saying they aren’t good at their jobs, I just think they have tunnel vision. I was serious when I told Cole we’d be operating a completely separate, parallel investigation because I’m not sure they’re going to ask the right questions.”
“That’s going to slow us down. Even if Joe okays using Bureau resources, we’re still going to be duplicating work.”
“I know, and we will look at what they share with us, but I think it’s something we’re going to have to accept. Besides, I already get the feeling that Cole is going to make getting anything from them like pulling teeth. I don’t want to be waiting days for information they already have, only to find out we have to dig into it further on our own to ask the right questions. These guys sat on those letters for weeks. They should have taken them seriously after the second one when it became clear the perpetrator was getting the Senator’s private schedule.”
“Okay, I’ll call it in. What next?”
“Unfortunately, we’re at the point of hurry up and wait. There just isn’t enough to go on yet. We either need to know more about whatever this guy believes or more about the chemicals he used before we can go to the next step.”
“Tracing the chemicals is going to take time. It could be days or even a few weeks.”
“I don’t think we have that kind of time. It feels like this guy is escalating.”
“I agree, but there isn’t much we can do about that. The list of manufacturers might be small, but if the uses are as wide as the technicians suggested, it could take time following up with all of them. You know it’s not just calling them up and saying ‘hey, did you buy this?’ If we do find a suspect, he isn’t going to readily admit to it. It’s why the more I think about it, the more I agree we need a team from the Bureau on this. It’s too much leg work for the two of us to do quickly, and we’d basically be locked in a room dialing phone numbers, putting everything else aside. Besides, this is the kind of thing the Bureau excels at, and honestly that you suck at.”
Taylor gave her a look as they got into their car and started the trip back to the city.
“Don’t give me that look, you know I’m right. You can do it, but you don’t like to. It’s one of the things that makes you not work well inside the traditional Bureau system.”
“So we follow up on the religious stuff then?”
“Yeah. I know someone we can talk to at Georgetown. She offered context on a case I dealt with about five years ago and seems to have a good grasp of this kind of thing. I’m hoping that, if she doesn’t know the exact answers, she’ll be able to point us in the right direction. It’s getting late and she would have already headed home.”
“So we head to her house and talk to her there.”
“No, she’s really particular. If we show up outside of business hours, she’ll become defensive and won’t talk to us.”
“We don’t have time to just sit and wait for this. Aren’t there other theology experts we can talk to?”
“Possibly, but I don’t know any. We could ask Joe, but he’d have to talk to other agents and see if anyone had a contact. I guess we could just start calling theology departments, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll know about whatever belief structure the perpetrator is in. I know we’re on the clock, but I honestly think Professor Detmer is the person we should talk to. She’s strange, but her knowledge of obscure religious sects is impressive. I think she’s our best bet.”
“So we wait,” Taylor said, glumly.
“Just until the morning.”
“Okay, then let’s stop and see Kara on the way home.”
They didn’t call ahead to see if the girls were in. Kara and Mary Jane both avoided parties and spent more time at home than the normal young adult, especially Mary Jane, who was a Junior at Georgetown. Kara’s dark history being trafficked in Russia and trouble at a party that nearly caused Mary Jane to have the same life, led both girls to avoid crowds and people they didn’t know. Considering Mary Jane now had a Secret Service detail assigned to her, it was unlikely that something like that would happen to her again, but that didn’t change their skittishness about situations that might result in anything like that happening to them again.
“Uncle John,” Mary Jane said, hugging him when she answered the door.
“Hey, kiddo. I hope we’re not interrupting anything.”
“No, we were just doing homework.”
“Why is it when parents drop by, you two are always doing ‘homework.’”
“It’s not like that, and you know it,” Kara said, coming out of her room and towards the front door.
The almost casual way she gave both Whitaker and Taylor a hug spoke volumes about how far she’d come in the last year. It had been months before she’d allowed anyone to touch her. She still had her issues and needed regular therapy, but she was so different from the girl he’d brought home last February.
“From looking at our credit card bills, the only thing I know is how much you like shopping.”
“Pissh, I don’t spend so much. Now, stop teasing or I’ll ask Whitaker to take us to the gym to practice some more.”
Taylor held up his hands in surrender.
They followed the girls into their living room, where everyone sat down. Taylor didn’t know much about decoration, but he was always taken aback by how stylish their apartment was. When he’d been in college it had been ratty old furniture mostly rescued from curbsides after the people who no longer wanted it threw it out. Of course, he hadn’t had Mary Jane’s resources, which is what had funded all of the fancy furniture and decorations.
“Mary Jane, have you talked to your mother, today?”
“No, is something wrong?”
Taylor looked at Whitaker for just a moment. He’d hoped the Senator had given the girls a heads up on what was happening and wasn’t sure it was his place to tell Mary Jane about the threats to her mother. It was his place to make sure Kara was safe, which overrode that concern. He’d just have to call the Senator after they left and tell her what they’d done. He was pretty sure she’d understand, although he knew if he’d been in her place he would have wanted to be the one to tell his family about something like this, and not leave it to a messenger, no matter how close.
“There have been some threats. She’s been getting really disturbing letters. Last night, a Secret Service agent who was going through her mail opened a letter that was meant for her. It contained a poison gas that killed him.”
Mary Jane gasped, her hand covering her mouth.
“Is Mom okay?”
“She’s fine. She has a full detail watching her back and they check her mail before it gets near her. She asked Whitaker and me to help in the investigation and find the guy who sent it.”
“Is she in danger?” Kara asked.
“Honestly ... yes. You don’t need to be worried though,” he said as Mary Jane became agitated. “She has the best protection of anyone in the country outside of the President and Vice President. We just want to keep this guy from hurting any more people while he’s trying to get to her. I know she would have been calling you soon and telling you about it, but I wanted to make sure you two knew what was going on.”
“We’re maybe in danger too, aren’t we?” Kara asked.
That’s what he liked about Kara. She was clever and could usually read between the lines, hearing what they were trying to say even if they didn’t get right to the point. Partially, it was something she’d learned dealing with her captors growing up, always listening for something that could suggest more trouble for her. It went beyond that, though. She was incredibly smart and very intuitive, which sometimes made her frustrating to deal with when she was in one of her more difficult phases. Overall though, it just made him proud of her.
“Maybe. There haven’t been any direct threats against you, but this kind of guy doesn’t care about anyone he hurts trying to get to the person he’s obsessed with. Now, I don’t want you to freak out. You’ve got your own security detail that will make sure you’re okay. You don’t live with your mom and this guy is really focused, so I don’t think he’s going to come after you separately. Besides, even if he did, your Secret Service guys are the best security anyone could ask for. You’re both perfectly safe.”
“But... ?” Kara prompted.
“But I wanted you to know about it and take precautions, all the same. Now isn’t the time to go out shopping or do a lot of dining out. I’m not saying you should let this rule your lives. You still need to go to school and you don’t have to become hermits. Just ... pay attention to the world around you. Watch for anyone following you or anything out of place. Security is great, but nothing beats you just being aware of what’s going on. I want you to keep your head on a swivel and be smart about the choices you make until we get this guy.”