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"One of the most problematic aspects of the case is the longitudinal factor; the deaths have occurred over a span of at least a decade," Edmond Sweetheart said. He was standing by the window of his room at the Eldorado Hotel. Behind him the New Mexico sky was the color of raw turquoise and quartzite, metallic cirrus clouds highlighting a blue-green scrim.
"Why did it take so long to put it together?" Dr. Sylvia Strange had chosen to sit at one end of a cream-colored suede sofa in front of a polished burl table, the room's centerpiece. For the moment, she would keep her distance -- from Sweetheart, from this new case. Her slender fingers slid over the black frame of the sunglasses that still shaded her eyes. Her shoulder-length hair was slightly damp from the shower she'd taken after a harder than usual workout at the gym. She studied the simple arrangement of flowers on the table: pale lavender orchids blooming from a slender vase the color of moss. Late-afternoon sun highlighted the moist, fleshlike texture of the blossoms. The air was laced with a heavy, sweet scent. "Why didn't anybody link the deaths?"
"They were written off as accidents." Sweetheart frowned. "Everyone missed the connection -- the CID, FBI, Dutch investigators -- until a biochem grad assistant was poisoned in London six months ago. Her name was Samantha Grayson. Her fiancé happened to be an analyst with MI-6 -- the Brits' intelligence service responsible for foreign intelligence. He didn't buy the idea that his girlfriend had accidentally contaminated herself with high doses of an experimental neurotoxin. Samantha Grayson died a bad death, but her fiancé had some consolation -- he zeroed in on a suspect."
"But MI-6 chases spies, not serial poisoners." Sylvia stretched both arms along the crest of the couch, settling in. "And this is a criminal matter." She was aware that Sweetheart was impatient. He reminded her of a parent irritated with a sassing child. "So who gets to play Sherlock Holmes, the FBI?"
"As of last week, the case belongs to the FBI, yes."
She nodded. Although the FBI handled most of its investigations on home turf, in complex international criminal cases, the feds were often called upon to head up investigations, to integrate information from all involved local law enforcement agencies -- and to ward off the inevitable territorial battles that could destroy any chance of successful closure.
"And the FBI is using you -- "
"To gather a profile on the suspect."
Sylvia shrugged. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time I looked, you were a counterterrorist expert. Is there something you're leaving out of your narration?"
"There are unusual facets to this case."
"The suspect deals with particularly lethal neurotoxins classified as biological weapons. As far as we know, at this moment, there's no active terrorist agenda; nevertheless, more than one agency is seeking swift resolution."
Sweetheart settled his full weight on the window ledge, which looked too delicate to support his 280 pounds. "The suspect is female, Caucasian, forty-four, never married, although she's had a series of lovers. She's American, a research toxicologist and molecular biochemist with an IQ that's off the charts."
"You've got my attention."
"She received her B.S. from Harvard, then went on to complete her graduate work at Berkeley, top of her class, then medical school and a one-year fellowship at MIT -- by then she was all of twenty-six. She rose swiftly in her career. She cut her teeth on the big shows -- Rajneesh, Aum Shinrykyo, the Ventro extortion. She had access to the anthrax samples after nine-eleven -- worked for all the big players, including Lawrence Livermore, the CDC, WHO, USAMRID, DOD. As a consultant she's worked in the private sector as well." Sweetheart knew the facts, reciting them succinctly, steadily, until he paused for emphasis. "Two, maybe three people in the world know as much about exotic neurotoxins and their antidotes as this woman. No one knows more."
Sylvia set her sunglasses on the table next to the moss-colored vase. She rubbed the two tiny contact triangles that marked the bridge of her nose. "How many people has she killed? Who were they?"
"It appears the victims were colleagues, fellow researchers, grad assistants. How many? Three? Five? A half dozen?" Sweetheart shrugged. "The investigation has been a challenge. Five days ago the target was put under surveillance. We both know it's a trick to gather forensic evidence in a serial case without tipping off the bad guy. Add to that the fact that she doesn't use mundane, easily detectable compounds like arsenic or cyanide. Bodies still need to be exhumed; after years, compounds degrade, pathologists come up with inconclusive data. Think Donald Harvey: he was convicted of thirty-nine poisonings; his count was eighty-six. We may never know how many people she's poisoned."
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Christine Palmer."
"Fielding Palmer's daughter?" Sylvia was visibly surprised.
Sweetheart nodded. "What do you know about her?"
"What everybody knows. There was a short profile in Time or Newsweek a year ago -- tied to that outbreak of environmental fish toxin and the rumors it was some government plot to cover up research in biological weapons. The slant of the profile was 'daughter follows in famous father's footsteps.'" Sylvia shifted position, settling deeper into the couch, crossing her ankles. She toyed restlessly with the diamond and ruby ring on the third finger of her left hand. "That can't have been easy. Fielding Palmer was amazing. Immunologist, biologist, pioneering AIDS researcher, writer."
"Did you read his book?"
Sylvia nodded. Fielding Palmer had died of brain cancer in the early 1990s, at the height of his fame and just after the publication of his classic, A Life of Small Reflections. The book was a series of essays exploring the ethical complexities, the moral dilemmas, of scientific research at the close of the twentieth century. He'd been a prescient writer, anticipating the ever deepening moral and ethical quicksand of a world that embraced the science of gene therapy, cloning, and the bioengineering of new organisms.
Sylvia frowned. It jarred and disturbed -- this idea that his only daughter might be a serial poisoner. The thought had an obscene quality.
She saw that Sweetheart had his eyes on her again -- he was reading her, gleaning information like some biochemically sensitive scanner. Well, let him wait; she signaled time-out as she left the couch, heading for the dark oak cabinet that accommodated the room's minibar. She squatted down in front of the cabinet, selecting a miniature of Stolichnaya and a can of tonic from the refrigerator and a bag of Cheetos from the drawer.
"Join me?" she asked as she poured vodka into a tumbler.
Sylvia swirled the liquid in the glass, and the tiny bubbles of tonic seemed to bounce off the oily vodka. She turned, holding the glass in front of her face, staring at Sweetheart, her left eye magnified through a watery lens. She said, "That's the beauty of poison -- invisibility."
"Toxicology protocol is much more sophisticated than it used to be," Sweetheart said. "But there will always be undetectable poisons. Even water is toxic in the right dose. You have to know what you're looking for -- there are new organisms, new compounds discovered all the time. You have to know what to culture, what to analyze, which screens to run."
When Sylvia was settled once more on the couch, she balanced her heels on the table and tore the snack bag open with her teeth. She ate a half dozen of the orange puffs before tossing the bag onto the polished wood. "Okay." She held up her index finger: "Why you?" Her middle finger: "Why me?" Her ring finger, complete with precious stones: "Why now?"
"The FBI has a problem -- their strongest tool is a psychological profile, because there are no eyewitnesses; no secret poison cache turned up in Palmer's basement. All the evidence is circumstantial. The purpose of the profile is twofold: to track her patterns, her M.O., to look for a signature -- and to prime investigators for the interrogation process. I'm their profiling consultant, I've got carte blanche."
"And you want me because -- "
The answer in a name.
Sylvia nodded, not surprised, but discomfited all the same. Months after the investigation, she still had nightmares about the Riker case. Adam Riker had been a nurse, a hospice specialist, who'd worked at nursing homes and V.A. hospitals in Texas and California, and most recently at an Indian hospital in New Mexico. He'd had another speciality in addition to nursing -- serial murder. He'd poisoned at least thirty-five victims, ranging in age from an unborn child to a ninety-nine-year-old war veteran. And Sylvia had been part of the profiling team. In they end they'd brought him down -- but not before more victims died.
"The Riker case is fresh in your mind," Sweetheart said, interrupting her thoughts. "You know better than I do that poisoners have their own special tics."
Sylvia didn't respond; she was looking straight at Sweetheart -- seeing not his face but the faces of Riker's victims.
"You'll work with me on the psychological profile -- that means some intensive travel, interviews, assessment of the data we've already got, and retrieval of new data. It will be down and dirty, no time for anything but down and dirty. We'll stay in close touch with Quantico -- running our data past their guys -- and our local contacts will be the field agents on surveillance and their S.A.C. It's a short list -- intentionally short -- to avoid attracting attention. We'll have to give the investigators the tools they need for interrogation. We'll give them her stress points, her soft spots, her jugular. Once they have enough to bring her in, they're going to have to break Christine Palmer."
"As I said, so far all the evidence is circumstantial."
"They'll need hard evidence."
"What they need is a homicide on U.S. soil."
"Are you certain she's your poisoner?"
He barely hesitated. "Yes."
"So Palmer had the expertise and the access, the method and the means. What about motive?" Sylvia thought Sweetheart's energy belonged to a caged cat -- behind steel bars he was pacing a path in concrete.
He turned his head, avoiding her scrutiny, and said, "Before Samantha Grayson's death, she confided in her fiancé -- the analyst; his name is Paul Lang. Samantha said she'd been spooked by Palmer. There was an incident where Palmer criticized Grayson's protocol -- she flew into a rage and threatened Grayson. At the time Lang encouraged his girlfriend to go to someone with more authority to mediate the dispute. Grayson said nobody had more authority than Palmer."
"That's unpleasant, but it's not motive."
"After Samantha Grayson died, Lang started investigating on his own and found a string of incidents: abrupt arguments, paranoia, accusations of misconduct and negligence leveled by Palmer against her coworkers. He also found a disturbing number of 'untimely' deaths -- accidental and 'natural.' Together, the incidents and the deaths began to carry weight."
"Were the accusations of negligence and misconduct groundless, or did Palmer have a point?"
"Either way, a punishment of death is a bit harsh," Sweetheart said, his expression flat, his voice deadpan.
Sylvia took a drink of her vodka tonic. Ice beaded on the glass, dripping onto her fingers and then onto the deep mahogany wood. "In her line of work, psych screens are a given. Is she a full-blown psychopath? Paranoid? Schizotypal?"
"Her test scores fall within normal range."
"So she's smart enough to fake good."
"As far as the world's concerned, she's hyperfunctional. She's abnormal only because she's brilliant, ambitious, highly moral, and charismatic."
"Since when do you care what the world believes? What's the real story?"
"The surveillance team has seen some eccentric behavior." Sweetheart crossed his arms over his broad chest. "And there have been fleeting rumors of a breakdown, time spent at private retreats -- we'll have to look more closely at the rumors. It's our job to figure out why she kills, her pattern, her particular system of reference." He paused, his expression shrewd, then opted for understatement. "It's an interesting case."
Sylvia didn't speak immediately. In her glass, the last of the ice was melting in front of her eyes. What's there, what's not there? It took her a moment to focus on Sweetheart's face. She said, "Why do I have the feeling you've left something out?"
He didn't blink, didn't react. From a distance Sweetheart could almost pass for a tourist. Almost. He was dressed in slightly rumpled gray linen slacks, his broad, muscled shoulders softened by a casual yellow shirt. But even in shadow, his symmetrical features teased the viewer with alternating glimpses of European and Polynesian ancestry; the power of his body was undeniable, and the dark eyes gleamed with extraordinary intelligence.
The dead cases, the inactive files -- there were no such things in Sweetheart's language. She'd heard whispers of his alliances with the CIA and MI-6, as well as the FBI. (She didn't know how much was truth.) But his specialty could be summed up in the phrase "the ones that got away."
She stared at him. She didn't know exactly what drove him -- hadn't figured it all out yet. But she would. She was filling in the pieces slowly. Constructing her own profile of the profiler. The ice clinked softly in her glass as she set it down.
The first fugitive she'd known about was Ben Black, a terrorist with ties to the IRA and Osama bin Laden. Sweetheart had pursued Black for years -- he'd seen Black "killed" more than once. In the end, Black had died in an explosion of his own design.
And there were others on his most-wanted list. A bomber responsible for a plane crash in British Columbia that claimed 221 lives.
A sixties radical who had participated in a bank robbery that ended with three civilians dead, including a pregnant woman. (This one arrested a month ago, tracked down with the help of Sweetheart's profiling system, MOSAIK.)
And now this -- a serial poisoner...
Sweetheart shook his head, a gesture meant to dismiss her appraisal.
But Sylvia felt his hesitation. She considered the fact that he hadn't told her the whole truth; she didn't press him. She'd learned not to push Edmond Hommalia Sweetheart.
As partners she and Sweetheart made interesting chemistry. He -- analytical, obsessed with empirical data, prone to intrapsychic denial. She -- an equal mix of intellect and intuition, capable of faith under pressure.
Officially, Sweetheart was an expert in psycholinguistics, an antiterrorism specialist, and the creator of the multitiered computer profiling system known as MOSAIK. In his spare time he practiced sumo, collected rare timepieces, and consulted with federal and international agencies.
Officially, Sylvia was a forensic psychologist who had extensive experience with criminal and institutionalized populations; she was the author of several books, including one that had brought a popular readership. She had a mother in San Diego and a father who'd been missing for more than two decades. She had a highly perceptive eleven-year-old foster daughter named Serena, two dogs, and a lover named Matt England, whom she adored and was about to marry and who shared her tendency to prefer an adrenalized life in the trenches over mundane, day-to-day problems. In her spare time she ran miles, played Mom, and consulted with law enforcement agencies and private parties.
Placing the empty glass on the table, Sylvia stood and stretched her arms above her head. "You haven't asked about my life." She crossed the room to join him at the window. When she reached his side, she waved her ring finger in front of his nose. Light made the ruby shimmer. "You haven't said a word about my wedding."
"How was it?"
"Do you work hard to be this -- obtuse -- or does it just come naturally?"
"I want you on this case."
"Because you'll understand Palmer in a way I can't." He waited a beat, waited for the question she refused to ask, before he finished his answer. "Because you worked Riker."
Sylvia turned away from him to stare out at the city -- a shadowy, muted Santa Fe at sunset, purple and peach waves across a turquoise sea. Sounds drifted up from the streets: a car horn, laughter, radio songs. At that instant she felt poised between two worlds, between dark and light, between bad and good. "Hey, Sweetheart." Her voice was soft and flat. "What do you think of my city? How do you like this view?"
He shook his head, his gaze impolite in its intensity. His carotid artery was responding visibly to his heart. She felt as if she'd been penetrated and recognized.
"You want me on this case because of what I saw in Riker," she said. "It's what I saw in me that gives me nightmares. Riker made me touch a place within myself -- a place without compassion, without mercy." She turned away and her eyes were drawn toward the glass, but what she saw was her own reflection, her face distorted, a softening that read as compromise, a blurring of line. Her voice came out as a whisper. "That's a horrible realization when compassion is what separates you from the monsters. And you know mercy and compassion must be the lifelines that offer the only glimmer of salvation -- if not humanity, what's left? But all I touched was emptiness. Do you understand why I can't keep going back?"
"I know you can't turn away." He reached toward her; she shook her head and he said, "You're burned out from the Riker case, I understand that. You've lost your balance, but just for a moment -- "
"It's more than that."
"I need you, Sylvia."
She heard the urgency in his voice, and when she looked into his eyes, she saw an almost desperate entreaty that left her shaken. She took a breath, trying to retreat but feeling the internal pull. Strong. Sharp.
She sighed, abruptly exhausted -- taking the first step in his direction. "What's the time line on Palmer?"
"Four months ago she joined a team of researchers who've been working on a highly sensitive contract for the DOD -- potent marine toxins, analyzed and manipulated in a way that's cutting-edge. There's no evidence to arrest, and she's too valuable to freeze off the project."
"I can spend the next few days reviewing the files. I'll let you know..."
"Not acceptable. I need you now."
"I can't do that." She pushed away from the window -- physically distancing herself once again, as if freeing herself from some invisible force field. "Not until after the wedding."
"As of last Friday morning, we have a new victim. A molecular toxicologist. Part of the original research team in England."
"What did she use?"
"A neurotoxin -- " He faltered.
Sylvia shook his head, and Sweetheart countered harshly: "You said it yourself, the beauty of poison is invisibility. The toxicology screens will take time. They're not looking for the standard compounds."
"What happened to him?"
"The victim drove his car at seventy miles per hour directly into the path of oncoming traffic. Yes, it might have been a vehicular malfunction, it might have been an accident, it might have been suicide. But I'll stake my career it was murder."
"Can't they shut down the project on some excuse?"
"They'd lose invaluable research, and they'd tip her off." He shook his head. "She's under twenty-four-hour surveillance. The feds need to catch her in the act. Or they need a confession. That's where you and I come in. Sylvia, I'm asking you -- give me five days, then go have your life."
"She's in England? What -- London?"
Sweetheart shook his head. "Dr. Thomas died on U.S. soil -- and his murderer's in your neighborhood. Why do you think I'm here? Dr. Palmer's heading up this project at LANL."
Excerpted from Dark Alchemy by Sarah Lovett. Copyright © 2003 by Sarah Lovett. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.