About the Author

Ross Pennie

Books by this Author
Beneath the Wake

Beneath the Wake

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Bitter Paradise

Bitter Paradise

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

 

Max watched Hosam end the call and scowl into some dark, forbidding place. It was like he was staring into a black hole – Monocerotis or maybe CygnusX-1 – in a far-away section of the Universe. Behind him, the dusky red spatters on the front door looked almost dry, but the splotches on the picture window still glistened.

 

“What did he say?” Max called from his chair at the back of the shop. “Is he…” His voice cracked on him like a frog’s stupid croak. Being fourteen, that happened a lot. “Is he coming?”

 

Hosam seemed incapable of hearing, his mind somewhere in the next galaxy. But his thumb was in this one, and it was stroking his thick black moustache. His comb and scissors were here too, poking from the pocket of his blood-soaked apron.

 

“Hosam?”

 

The front-desk phone was still tight in his fist, and there was no missing Marwan's blood clotted on the keypad. A moment later, Hosam jerked his head like he was tumbling out of a bad dream three thousand lightyears away. Steadying himself against the desk, he put down the phone and rubbed the back of his neck, staining it with more of Marwan’s blood. Hosam’s deep-set eyes, usually a light greyish-blue, were as dark as the muzzles on a pair of Stormtrooper E-11 Blasters set to fire.

 

Finally, he blinked. “Yes, Max. Your father, he says he is coming.”

 

“Right now?”

 

Inshallah.”

 

Inshallah, that was for sure. Even though Max and his dad never went to church, he hoped God or Allah was pulling hard on whatever strings it took to get Dad there fast.

 

Max pressed the facecloth against his forehead. Hosam had given it to him a few minutes earlier after he’d examined the gash and said Max was going to need stitches. For now, Hosam said, Max should keep pressure on the wound. Hosam also said he’d have to cut Max’s hair another day. Travis’s turn in Hosam’s chair had finished seconds before the incident, so his low fade was already done. The two boys were now sitting side by side in the chairs where clients normally waited for their barber to call them. Today had turned out to be anything but normal.

 

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Tainted

Tainted

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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They say when you’re home alone and the phone rings, you’re an extrovert if you jump up, grab the receiver, and delight in a familiar voice.

 

Zol Szabo let it ring.

He sipped his Scotch and nestled his lanky frame deeper into the buttery leather of his recliner. A north wind, sweeping across the western shore of Lake Ontario and howling up the Niagara Escarpment, rattled the living–room windows. Zol stroked the furry spine of Cory, the ginger cat who hunkered into his lap. They both gazed at the blue flames licking the simulated logs in the fireplace. Only a light November snow was forecast for tomorrow. Zol chuckled. Max would be disappointed. No snow day.

Zol cocked his ear and listened past the nagging of the phone for the sound of pleas from the bedroom upstairs. All seemed quiet up there. Max had finally settled, but it had taken two bowls of cereal, a glass of water, three adjustments to his night light, and a great big hippopotamus hug. As usual, Zol had stayed calm through each interruption, tingeing his voice with frustration only at the sixth or seventh petition from the seven–year–old’s bedroom doorway.

The ice cube in Zol’s glass, floating in two fingers of twelve–year–old Glenfarclas, clinked and snapped. Overripe apricots, cedar wood, and peat smoke kissed his nostrils. He closed his eyes and drew in a mouthful, letting the whisky dance across his tongue and down his throat.

He drank alone only during this bedtime ritual — and always just one shot, a single malt poured over a single ice cube in the single crystal tumbler left in the house. Francine had smashed five of them against the ceramic floor, the double–door fridge, and the wide–screen television before slamming the door on their brief marriage.

Who could be calling at this hour?

It might be that reporter from the Hamilton Spectator on the prowl for more details about a cluster of seven cases — with three deaths — of invasive streptococcal infection in a home for the elderly. The man’s heated words from earlier in the week still rang in Zol’s ears: "The residents are petrified. And their families are scared stiff. Surely it’s the moral duty of you docs at the health unit to stop this epidemic before any more grandparents are consumed by flesh–eating disease."

It was not quite ten o’clock, too early to be Zol’s boss, Peter Trinnock, MD, LMCC, CCFP, FRCPC, MCPHA, chief of the Hamilton– Lakeshore Public Health Unit. Trinnock’s workday hours were so much taken up by rounds of golf in summer, putting matches in winter, and protracted lunches all year round that he seldom caught a glimpse of what was happening under his nose until late in the evening. He’d find himself caught off guard by the ten o’clock news on TV, then blast Zol via telephone for not keeping him in the loop.

Zol had practically burned his boss’s retirement day into his calendar. He reckoned that if he didn’t make any major errors or misjudgements he’d be promoted from associate to chief medical officer of health for the municipality of Hamilton–Lakeshore when Trinnock stepped down next May. In fact, Zol was counting the days until Trinnock’s departure and the relocation of his office from the building’s dingy rear to its prestigious front.

At the continued ringing from the kitchen, Cory flashed his tail and looked at Zol as if to say, "Damn, we only just got settled."

Zol gulped another mouthful of Scotch, put down his glass, and heaved Cory from his lap. Then he grabbed the phone by its throat.

Dr. Hamish Wakefield’s voice always gave him away with the first syllable. Singer’s nodes, he’d told Zol before the operation. A consequence of his years as a boy soprano. But the biopsy of his vocal cords revealed no explanation for the roughness in a voice that still rasped no stronger than a whisper. Behind his back, the doctors and nurses called him the Whispering Warrior — on account of that voice, his short haircut, and the utter concentration he brought to the specialty of infectious diseases.

"What’s up, Hamish?" said Zol.

"I’m calling from the office." Hamish’s words hissed breathlessly down the line. "Came across something I thought you guys should know about."

"At this hour? Geez, you need a diversion outside the halls of academia. A hobby or a love interest."

"No time for either. Listen. Have you ever met Julian Banbury, the neuropathologist here at the med centre?"

Zol’s job kept him in touch with the regional coroner, but he’d never dealt with any of the other pathologists at Caledonian University’s tertiary–care facility. "Don’t think so."

"You’d remember him, believe me. He’s got a big scar across his neck and such severe exophthalmia that you’d think —"

Zol passed the phone from one hand to the other. "It’s okay, I’m with you."

"Anyway," Hamish continued, "he’s our local brain–infection guru, and a couple of weeks ago he came back from holiday. More like a mini sabbatical. And now he’s catching up on three or four months’ worth of brain autopsies."

Zol pictured a lineup of buckets on the dissection–room floor, a pickled brain floating in each one. He touched his nose, almost feeling the sting of formaldehyde that permeated the pathology seminar room when he and Hamish were students together seven years ago at the University of Toronto.

"Well," Hamish continued, "Julian said that three of the brains show signs of CJD. One man, two women."

"The last case reported on my patch was about eighteen months ago. A retired Anglican minister," Zol commented. "Big write–up about him in the paper when he died."

The article had described the congregation rallying to provide palliative care in the minister’s home — twenty–four hours a day for several months. But why the alarm bells tonight at ten o’clock? It took twenty years for the Creutzfeldt–Jakob agent to cause disease after entering the body. These cases must be reflecting events two decades old. Hamish really did need a distraction in his life to lure him away from the constant seduction of Mistress Medicine.

 

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Tampered

Tampered

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook
tagged : medical
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Excerpt

Zol Szabo peered across the sea of silvery heads bobbing in the buffet line at Camelot Lodge. Usually, he looked forward to these monthly Sunday brunches with Art Greenwood, his ex–wife’s granddad. Art, the only member of Francine’s family who hadn’t smoked himself into an early grave, sparkled with wisdom and wit in defiance of his age and physical restrictions. Best of all, Art and his tablemates never let political correctness get in the way of a candid opinion or a good story.

 

But today, Zol saw only clinical diagnoses smouldering through the retirement residence: the wobbly knees of rheumatoid arthritis, the stooped backs of osteoporosis, the trembling hands of Parkinson’s, the vacant eyes of macular degeneration.

Zol forced another smile at Art, who was taking his place at the piano in the sitting room on the other side of the archway. Zol hoped Art was well enough to play. He’d looked pale and drawn when he’d greeted Zol a few minutes ago and confessed he’d been hit by another bout of fever and the runs earlier in the week. That made it his third bout in the past couple of months. And he wasn’t the only one. Dozens of others had been hit with the same bug. Art denied any headache, thank goodness. When headache compounded the fever and diarrhea, the result was lethal. In the past month alone, two of the converted mansion’s thirty–eight residents had died within hours of a blinding headache compounding their explosive stools.

Art warmed up with a few bars of "Bicycle Built For Two." His chording was tentative, not as sharp as usual. He switched to an improvised version of Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." Art played everything by ear. He couldn’t read a note, but if he heard something once, he could play it forever. Despite the advancing muscle disease that had forced him into an electric scooter, he still glimmered with the genius that had made him an engineering whiz–kid in the telephone industry fifty years ago.

The understated elegance of the dining room’s caramel walls and burgundy accents reminded Zol of a café in one of Hamilton’s nicer hotels, except the bucolic vista through Camelot’s windows was considerably more handsome than any view of the city’s down–at–the–heels central core. Here on an elegant cul–de–sac a few blocks from downtown, stately homes abutted the woodlands at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment. Known locally as the Mountain, the imposing ribbon of limestone and old–growth forest snaked through the city like a giant’s doorstep, its flora and fauna protected by the United Nations as a World Biosphere Reserve. Zol thought of his own renovated house a couple of kilometres above as the seagulls flew, perched on a generous treed lot on the Escarpment’s edge. He was thankful once again for the two million in lottery winnings that had sent him to medical school and bought him such a gorgeous piece of real estate with its jetliner view. He could cope with Hamilton’s overgenerous share of shysters and gangsters if, at the end of the day, he could tuck Max safely in bed, then sip a Glenfarclas while watching Lake Ontario shimmer in the ever–changing light.

Camelot’s dining tables boasted smooth white linens, shiny cutlery, and imitation crystal that sparkled as brightly as the stuff his mother reserved for special occasions. Today’s spread of poached salmon, eggs, bacon, French toast, salads, and gooey desserts looked a treat. As a former professional chef himself, Zol respected the care and effort that went into every dish. But as a public–health doctor, the table seemed to him less a chef ’s delight than a minefield.

Something nasty and undetectable — a microbe or a toxin — was poisoning the food. But intermittently. Not every dish and not every meal. As the Associate Medical Officer of Health for Hamilton–Lakeshore, second–in–command at the region’s health unit, Zol’s job was to quash epidemics, not wallow in them during Sunday brunch. Twice he’d sent his inspectors into Camelot. They’d examined every centimetre of the place with a magnifying glass. They’d collected scores of samples from the kitchen and dozens of specimens from afflicted residents. But they’d come up empty. The kitchen met all the health codes, and the laboratory detected no disease–causing pathogens.

Zol’s friend and medical–school classmate, Dr. Hamish Wakefield, a savant in the field of infectious diseases, had raised the possibility of epidemic Norovirus. But even Hamish, an assistant professor at the city’s Caledonian University Medical Centre, was stumped; he conceded there was no indication that anything as simple as the cruise–ship virus was the culprit here.

Zol helped the wait staff — invariably hesitant, awkward, and struggling with their English — park the walkers in a double row against the far wall of the dining room. He escorted the frailest of the gauzy–white residents to their seats, then joined the slow–moving buffet queue. He knew he’d soon be hunting down unsalted butter for one person and cholesterol–free scrambled eggs for another. He shrugged off the risk to his intestines and half–filled his plate with breakfast fare he hoped would be sterile: a rubbery fried egg, three crispy rashers of bacon, and a piece of charred toast. Bypassing the devilled eggs, sliced tomatoes, and potato salad, he took his place at Art’s table where Phyllis and Betty were already seated.

 

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Up in Smoke

Up in Smoke

A Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery
edition:Hardcover
also available: Audiobook Paperback eBook
tagged : medical
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