Honor and Arsenic by Marisa Abrams

“Did you get the report yet?” A hint of annoyance rumbled over the phone line.


“And good afternoon to you too, Detective.” Great. Detective Steve McMerty was calling me, again.


“I’m running out of time to file on this mope, Amy.” He sounded tense. Not that it was unusual. To me, homicide detectives always sounded on edge.


“I’m sorry about the delays but we have to wait for the tox screen to get back.   I told you that yesterday, and this morning.” Now I was sounding agitated. I took a deep breath as the avalanche of stress Det. McMerty unloaded onto my lap started, again.


Name: Shweta Shaikh.


Age: 20


Sex: Female


Place of Birth: Comilla, Bangladesh


Status: one pregnancy, one live birth. A baby girl. Married to Arpit Shaikh, age 31. Living with him and his mother in a small two-bedroom apartment in Rogers Park.


Facts and figures spread out in front of me. This had been her life. This had been someone once. Now I waited for paperwork that would link her husband to her death and put him in prison for life, or worse.


“Look, this is just another one of them honor killings. These people justify murder if their girls look crossways at a boy.”


I harrumphed loudly.


“Why are you a bleeding heart for this guy? He snagged some pretty, young thing in an arranged marriage. Brought her over here to be his slave. And when the little missus didn’t give him a boy, he offed her. End of story.”


“You do realize it’s just as likely the mother-in-law did it, don’t you?”   This case was not adding up for me the way it had for Det. McMerty.


He was giving me the old lecture. I fumbled with Shweta’s paperwork. When I got tired of reorganizing the reports in the manila folder, I started straightening my black hole of a desk.


Det. McMerty was waylaying me with the facts of the case again. Right. Boys are highly prized. I straightened my nameplate aligning it with my computer monitor.


Right. He admitted this was an arranged marriage. I moved a stack of papers around. A square envelope fell out of the papers and hit the linoleum floor with a thud. I bent down to pick it up, still yessing and uh-huhing Det. McMerty.


“Look, I have to go, Detective. I have autopsies piling up over here. When the report comes you will be the first to get it, I promise. Girl Scout’s honor.” I held up my hand and gave him a salute but I was not sure he would have appreciated seeing it.


“Listen Amy, no funny gut feelings on this one. It’s a simple point and shoot. Send me that report ASAP, you got it?”


“Yup.” I said my good-byes and hung up. Nope, I thought not a simple point and shoot.


I was still handling the envelope I had picked up off the floor. I didn’t even have to look at the return address to see who had sent it.


Smooth lines of black ink written in elegant calligraphy glared at me. There was only one person on the planet who I wanted to make proud. Mom.   Once again, she crushed me with the simple carefree stroke of her pen.


As if her spider-sense tingled at my very thought of her, the phone rang. I nearly jumped out of my seat at the sound.


“Hi, honey.” Her voice was melodic like a songbird.


“Hi, Mom. I’m in the middle of,” what I was in the middle of I never got to tell her.


“Oh, gawd don’t even start to tell me the horrible details. Yuk. I just had lunch. Did you get the invitation?”


I was opening it as she spoke. She had made the invitations, organized the party too no doubt. Nothing social happened in our family world that my mother did not have her hands in, elbow deep. The envelope contained a thick, buff colored cardstock. Square with beveled edges. Very fancy. It was for my cousin Bobby’s graduation.

“Yeah, about the invitation. Not that it really matters Mom, but I have an MD. I would appreciate if you put Dr. on the envelope instead of Miss.” This was an old argument. She had started sending all my mail to work instead of my house.   She claimed it was because I was never home. If I spent all that time at work, she said, it was easier to reach me here.




“Well, but honey, you’re not a real doctor. I mean you don’t see patients.” She prattled on but the sting of her remark boiled my blood.


She was still dishing out the guilt about me not being the kind of doctor she could tell her mahjong club about over scones. Nevertheless, I was Amy Miller M.D., I told myself. Deputy Medical Examiner for Cook County.


The drone of her voice continued. “Now I can tell people we have a lawyer in the family. Oh and did I tell you Bobby, excuse me Robert, is bringing some of his fellow graduates. He promised they are Jewish and single.”


“Ok, Mom. I have to go,” she cut me off again as I knew she would.


“Don’t even tell me. Love you.   Oh, get a haircut, maybe some color?   Cover those greys. Ok? Kiss kiss.”   The phone line clicked and then she was gone.


A loud beep startled me out of my pity party. The fax machine was spitting out mounds of paper across the room. Red curls flapped against my lab coat as I scurried to it. I secretly loved the sensation of my hair swinging on polyester. My dad ordered this coat as a gift when I had gotten the job here. It had my name embroidered over the left breast pocket.


Wearing that coat made me feel just a little more confident every time I stepped into this building. The Cook County Medical Examiners Building sat like a red brick fortress on the corner of Roosevelt and Damen Avenues. Six easy blocks away was the University of Chicago Medical School campus. My alma mater just steps from my door. Further east was the City of Chicago federal holding facility where Det. McMerty and his partner poured over paperwork to condemn Arpit to a lifetime in prison for the murder of his young bride.


I flipped through the papers, licking the tip of my index finger to try and unstick the pages. It was July outside. Hot and humid. In here, it was cold. Icebox cold.   My mind snapped back into focus as I found the reports with Shweta’s name on them.


Blood lead levels normal. Blood calcium levels normal. That was what I had expected. I sat back at my desk. Now for the clincher, the test that had caused me to send the blood out of house, delaying the report. Her blood arsenic levels.


When I first saw the body, a few things stood out to me. Her skin; or partial lack thereof. The color of her skin was off. She was a mottled patchwork of hyperpigmented and hypopigmented areas. It was a strange combination. The mottled effect had given her an almost jaguar-spotted appearance under the harsh autopsy room lighting.


Melanosis. Rare stuff.


I was starting to add things up in my head. Doing an autopsy was like putting together the pieces of a large puzzle.   Reports aplenty came with the body but I looked at them after I looked at the body. Even though I had techies who prepped and autopsied the body, I still did a lot myself. The body told me one story and the reports told me another. I knew the paper was most often wrong. The body never lied.


The melanosis on her skin told me one story. The lesions corroborated it. They had been her cause of death. But they were the marks of a hidden killer lurking deeper. I would make sure I found the real cause.


Lesions the size of navel oranges pocked her belly and inner thighs. They were open and ungranulated. She died before they could even start to heal.


Some of them were deep enough that the muscles had rotted away from gangrene and white bone peeked out from the black center. I had swabbed the sores, labeling each culture tube. Whatever bacteria were in the sores were in her blood as well. They found their entrance point moving into her bloodstream sending her body into a spiral of septic shock ending in her death.


I took hair samples, fingernail clippings, blood samples for toxicology screening and culturing, and urine samples to store. I knew I would find the killer hiding in her blood and there would be evidence of it in her urine too. So the urine was a backup. A precaution in case I needed it.


Her blood report sat on my desk as I exhaled a breath I had not been aware I was holding. I leafed through the next page and found the tox screen from the fingernail sample.   The hair sample’s report lay deeper in the stack. I laid them out side by side.


Identical triplets.


Fruits of my labor. Keys in the lock of Shweta’s life and death. Pieces of a puzzle now made even deeper.


Arsenic. It was what I had expected. It was what I had feared. I feared for Arpit. I feared for that little girl whose mother had died a horrible, painful death. Now her father was sitting in jail. The baby was in foster care. The mother-in-law was only here on a visitor permit and was in serious danger of having that revoked.


I let my head fall onto my desk, not caring that my foundation was going to rub off on the fax papers.


“Hey, no napping on the job.”


I bolted upright in my chair at the sound of that rich baritone. My hands covered the reports, scooping them up to my chest. I held them like infants. I suffocated them into my breast rather than lose them.


“Bill,” I squeaked.


“Amy.” He smiled.   A boyish grin.


Shit, I yelled at myself. I was so in trouble. Big trouble spelled with a capital McMerty doled out by his partner.


Bill Sanders leaned over my desk. His 6’4” frame blocked out the overhead lights, making shadows dance on my papers.   His hands spread over my disorganized piles. I glanced to his bare left ring finger sitting on top of the invitation from my mother.


“What’cha working on?” He leaned in closer so that I could smell the cologne he was wearing. Armani. I loved Armani. Two fingers pinched a corner of the report peaking between my fingers and twisted.   “Shaikh, Shweta. Hmmm. I bet you were just about to fax this over to me, weren’t you?”


“Um, yeah. Yes, I was.   I just wanted to put them in order for you. I know how busy you two are. Solving murders, catching bad guys.” Oh god, did I really just say that? I am such a moron.


Bill let go of the paper and then proceeded to sit on my desk. Well, it was more like a lean. A long leg covered in black, wool gabardine pants took up the length of my workspace. God, he was tall. The belt holding his gun and handcuffs made a loud clatter as they hit the faux wood veneer.   The part that wasn’t hidden under a mess of papers.


“Look, these just came in. Really.”   Bill was giving me his best yeah-right glare. The fluorescent lights made his hair a dull yellow. I knew that when he stepped out into the sunlight it was golden blonde.   I handed over the reports and pointed to the time stamp on the bottom. Ten minutes old, vindicated. I would save the happy dance for later.


Bill gave a long whistle as he flipped through the reports. I knew he was coming to the same conclusion I had.   Arpit was doomed.


“What is the normal level for arsenic?” Bill thumbed the reports comparing data from one to another. It made me wonder more about detectives really being scientists in disguise. I was such a snob.


“Um, it depends on your government. Here, 0.01 mg/L or less.” I just read some article in JAMA about physicians seeing arsenic outbreaks in China, Taiwan and Mongolia. Acceptable arsenic levels could go as high as 0.08mg/L. No one was sure how much was acceptable or tolerable.


Arsenic is a funny heavy metal. It naturally occurs in certain rock formations. Ground water bubbles up thorough rocks, or gets filtered through them as it passes to underground wells and aquifers. Depending on your water source, there was always some arsenic in it.


The weird stuff was what happened once you ingested it. In the 1700s, apothecaries used mass amounts of the stuff in their snake potions. Even more recently, the miracle leukemia drug Glevik increased potency when paired with arsenic. The stuff was being sold as Trisenox, a new and amazing chemotherapeutic.


In some people, small amounts of it caused skin lesions and discoloration.   Later organ cancer and skin cancer appeared. In other people, mass amounts had no side effects. So determining the amount of arsenic that was safe for consumption or exposure was like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.


“So her levels are around 31 mg/L.” Bill’s voice pulled me back out of my daydreaming. “That is a pretty good dose.”


“I’d say so.”


“So our mope really is the mope.” Bill whistled to himself again. “Can’t believe he would kill his wife just because they had a girl. This is America. They could just have another baby. What’s the big deal?”


“Don’t tell me you buy into that racist crap, too?” I was getting really annoyed with this storyline. “So what, you just look at people and know everything about them in a millisecond? How long before you assumed I was just another pampered JAP?”


“A what?” Bill just stared at me as I wrinkled my nose in disgust. I knew it made all my freckles bunch together into one big brown smudge.


“Look, he is the typical profile for an honor killer. He came here to be a doctor but couldn’t pass the English medical board exams. So he is frustrated and a failure. His mother shows up and gives him the general mother crap. Why aren’t you married? I have a nice girl for you.


“You do that so well.” It sounded snide even to me. Bill gave me a look that I usually give to my mother since I hear that line a lot from her.   My mother’s voice chimed in my head like the Liberty Bell. I have a nice Jewish lawyer for you. So he is short and has psoriasis, don’t be so picky. You know 30 is pushing it for finding a man who will marry you.   “So, what’s your point?”


“So, he is a pharmacy technician in an oncology clinic.”


I stared blankly at him. I was still trying to figure out why they weren’t putting the finger on the mother.   In all the literature I’d read about spousal murder in India, the overbearing grandma poisoned or burned the daughter-in-law as punishment for having a girl. Her son gets remarried hoping the new wife does better. My thoughts had digressed and Bill was giving me a look.


Trisenox, the arsenic compound, was a cancer therapy. Arpit was working as a pharmacy technician in an oncology clinic.   How could he? I shuddered. My belly hurt from all the tension.


“Pee!” I jumped out of my chair as if I had been stung on the tuchas.




“The urine.” I was racing through the office towards the door that leads to the sample room. I opened the door to the small refrigerator that looked like the evil twin of the one I owned when I was in college.


Behind this week’s samples was a three-week-old jar of urine. It was so beautiful I could cry. I held it in my hands like it was liquid gold. The label confirmed it was Shweta’s.


“What are you doing, Amy?” Bill was standing in the doorway watching me gawk over the urine.


“Nothing. Maybe everything.” I brushed past Bill heading toward the main hallway. I was on a mission to the Illinois State Forensics Lab, which happened to be just across the street. Lucky for me.


Bill was right with me. I walked faster just to antagonize him. He still had the lab reports clutched in his hands. Only now, I realized he had a large manila envelope. The folder contained the evidence they would turn in to the Grand Jury.


“Tell me about Shweta. What’s the background?” I had only gotten small bits of the story. I had not really looked at it that closely until this week. This urine could tell me something. If it confirmed arsenic poisoning, then Arpit was guilty and he needed to pay for what he did.

I rounded the corner towards the front lobby. My heels made an important clatter on the asbestos tile floor. Bill was still on my tail.


“Like I said, Arpit’s mom came and gave him the ‘I want a grandchild’ guilt so they went to Comilla and picked up a wife. That was March 2005. Arpit and Shweta got married and came back here.”


“Where was his mother?” I blew past the security clerk sitting at the front desk. He had seen me do this enough times to know not to question the mad redhead running with fluids across the busy street.


“She stayed in her own village. Where are you going?” Bill shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight.


“Gas chromatograph.” Ours was on the fritz.




“Nothing, keep going.” I was waiting for the light to change so we could cross the street.


“They had the baby in January of 2006. Honeymoon baby you suppose?”


“Funny, ha ha.” I quipped.


“What about the wife’s health since January?” If Arpit was poisoning her with the injectible arsenic, she may have had some health problems out of nowhere. It should have started right after they brought home the disappointment.


“No, she was in perfect health after the birth.”




“That’s why McMerty and I were sitting on pins and needles for this report. The arsenic in her blood is sky high. Arpit works in and around a ready source of it.   He brings it home, injects her while she sleeps. Poof, dead wife.”


“Fine connecting of dots, Detective. Except,” The light changed, finally. We crossed the street. It was just one hundred feet to the door. “Her skin was in such bad shape there was no way I could have seen a puncture mark.   I looked, believe me. Good luck proving he was the one doing the injecting.”


Bill opened the heavy outer glass door for me. I had my hands full, after all. We stepped inside the doorway facing the speaker box in the marble wall adjacent to a pair of plate-glass doors. The forensic science symbol, etched prominently on the glass, sparkled in the afternoon sun. A finger print swirl boarded by calipers. An outdated symbol to say the least but one that made me pause and think how far we’ve come in so little time. God, I love science.


“Can I help you?” The rental security person’s voice crackled over the speaker.


“Dr. Miller with the Medical Examiner’s Office. I want to see Gary Zielinski.”


“Do you have an appointment with Mr. Zielinski?”


“Well, no. I need to use his gas chromatograph.”


The almighty box in the wall clicked. I figured he was calling Gary. Telling him a crazy lady wants to play with one of your machines. I could picture it now; Gary would laugh then let me in.


A buzzer sounded and the door popped. Bill grabbed the closest handle opening the inner door for me.


An artic blast of air conditioning hit us when we stepped into the hexagonal lobby.   It was hot out and I had not even noticed until now. The security guard sat to my right. Another set of heavy glass doors were on his left. The guest book lay open on the desk. Bill signed us in and got our visitor passes.


“So, then what?” I asked stepping through the doors into a long hallway decorated with the same gray marble as the lobby. It glittered in the incandescent lights. When did they get those? We get stuck with fluorescent and they get GE soft white bulbs. That was a crime.


“What, what?”


“2006, the baby. Then what?”   I was still swimming in the shallow end of the evidence pool.


“Oh, she went back to her village in Comilla with the baby to visit family.   She was there for almost 6 months.   She returned with her mother-in-law and has been here ever since.”


I just kept moving towards the elevator at the end of the hall. It took us smoothly up to the third floor.


Gary was already in the hallway, waving at me when I got off the elevator. His hair was peppered with more white than when I had first met him. His pant size was a little larger, too. He always complained that middle age and desk jobs don’t mix. Close to mid-life crisis or not, Gary was still handsome, with a boyish charm and real comedic sense of timing.


Gary and I had bonded over some long nights of watching sci-fi movies while waiting for lab results to come in. Very few men could put up with my intense love for Star Wars.


“I have to run a sample through your GC, Gary. Do you mind?”


“No, not at all, Amy. Hi, I’m not sure we’ve met.” I had already shoved my way past Gary into the lab.


“Oh, this is Detective Bill Sanders. Bill is working on a homicide.”


Gary shook Bill’s hand. He let out a long, slow whistle. “It’s all yours, should still be warmed up.”


The GC sat on a long counter in the back of the lab. It was actually a series of machines. One was the GC itself. Another held the gaseous material that was going to vaporize my liquid sample. The last machine was a computer interface. The monitor blinked its readiness to receive my sample.


Using a syringe, I took a volume of deionized water. I placed the syringe into a small, one-way valve on the side of the machine and injected the water. The machine whirred to life as peaks and valleys suddenly appeared on the monitor to my left.


The water sample that vaporized inside the heated coils of the GC threw up their mountain ranges on the display. The temperatures and signature energy changes of the molecules going from liquid to gas phase made crests and troughs at precise locations. Water in every GC gave the same readout, the same signature.   Peaks and valleys in the same patterns told me two hydrogen atoms formed covalent bonds to one oxygen atom.   Water, pure and simple. It was working perfectly.


“I sure wish we had this computer when I was back in organic chemistry lab.   That would have saved me hundreds of hours analyzing my data by hand with nothing but a dinky ruler.” Gary laughed at me. He got the joke.


The computer analyzed the crests and spit out the chemical structures.   Machines are not infallible, and I am not that trusting. It was good to be able to read the printout myself. Just to double check.


Now it was time for my sample. I loaded up a clean syringe with the urine. I held my breath as the GC sucked up the sample and vaporized it in its uncaring machinery. Peaks and valleys blurred across the screen. Bill gasped. It was a messy picture, not the clean and easy readout of pure water. This was a complex body fluid after all. There were nitrogenous wastes from protein digestion, sugars, ketones, other acids, water of course, and arsenic.

The computer spit out the list of compounds in her urine. Most of it was stuff that was not supposed to be in urine.   She had septicemia, her body was going through meltdown when she died. The urine only confirmed that.


Gary and I were studying the arsenic compound’s bonding patterns. Bill was looking anxious. I put in another sample of pure water to clear the machine. I had to be sure I was seeing what I was seeing.   A man’s life was at stake.


Another sample of urine and the same peaks and troughs. The computer confirmed the arsenic compound. I asked Gary to work it by hand to make sure the computer had the correct structure. I was off to use his internet.


“Amy?” An angry sounding tone from Bill’s cell phone interrupted whatever thought he might have had next.


I could hear Bill talking to McMerty. It must have been 20 minutes later and I had been surfing the internet like a crazed California beach bum. I furiously printed stacks of documents as Bill stepped in the room.


“You had better have something good, Amy. Time is running out to press charges on Arpit. We can’t hold him if we don’t file your written report by 6pm. You’re the only thing between us and evidence.”


“Look at this, Bill.” I handed him a stack of papers. The one on top was a report from the World Health Organization. Bill sat down as he perused the printouts. His long legs folded under the too-short table.


“Before 2005, Comilla was using one deep well for all its water needs. But that well was not easily accessible to all the surrounding villages. So AquiFund, a not-for-profit group that digs wells in Africa, volunteered to donate 60 tubwells to Comilla and its surrounding area.   It was supposed to be a great day for them. WHO just published a report about Comilla last month. I knew I had read something about groundwater contamination in Asia, but I forgot that they also mentioned southwest Bangladesh.”


“What’s your point?” Bill was getting nervous. He flipped through some of the other papers in the pile.


“Shweta grew up drinking water from the distant deep well. When she went back, her village was enjoying the prosperity of their new local tubwell. So she drank the water, bathed in the water, and cooked with the water.”


“Come on, Amy.” Bill’s voice was going tight. He was not getting it. Gary walked into the room and handed me his evaluation of the chemical structure on a small piece of paper. It was the same thing the computer had given.


“Blood screening only shows the heavy metal, arsenic, but not the chemical structure of the heavy metal. Trisenox’s main ingredient is arsenic trioxide.” I flipped papers in the stack and pointed to the chemical structure on the Trisenox FDA approval form. “The arsenic in her blood and urine is not from Trisenox. It’s sodium arsenite, the most common form of arsenic in contaminated groundwater.”


“You’re kidding?” Bill leaned back in his chair. He had a strange smirk on his face. I was not sure if he was laughing at me or at how McMerty was going to take this news.   His smile shifted suddenly as he sat upright in his chair.


“But the baby was with her. The baby should be sick too.”


“No, she was breast feeding. Natural chelation therapy.” I smirked but Bill had missed my joke. “Mother’s milk has high levels of calcium. It prevented the heavy metal absorption. She protected her own child without even knowing it.”


“Mother-in-law?” He was quizzing me but I could tell he believed my analysis.


“Different village, different well.”


“Wow.” Bill was laughing at me now.


“Seems like your stereotypical killer isn’t so stereotypical anymore, huh?”   Bill picked up his cell phone.


“Steve, I’m with Amy. She’s got some news. You sitting down?” Bill winked at me. His blue eyes were sparkling with an air of mischief as he relayed the information to his partner. He took the GC printout and placed it into his envelope. While he was talking, Bill wrote something on another scrap of paper.   He stood up, shook Gary’s hand and mouthed thanks. He pushed the paper over to me and walked out the door.

I smiled to myself as I folded the paper and put it in my pocket. Arpit had been pigeon-holed. There had been a string of particularly nasty honor killings in Illinois.   I wondered if they saw Arpit, an immigrant with old customs, and an arranged marriage and figured it was the easiest explanation.


Ockham’s Razor always said the simplest explanation was the truest.   That Arpit did it was simple enough.   But he hadn’t. Now he could go home to his baby and try to reassemble some kind of life.


I thanked Gary for letting me intrude on his day. He remarked how I always had something interesting going on.   We laughed about that and made plans to do a movie night.


I floated out of the Forensic Lab. I had trusted my gut and been correct. Now I could do my happy dance. I pranced my way across the street to my office with its cramped, cluttered desk. A bright pink message note lay carefully on top of it. Call mom, it read. I tried a deep breathing technique to calm away the cramp those two words gave my stomach.


I brushed the “You’ve Got a Message” paper away replacing it with the one from my pocket. Bill’s strong, clear pen strokes stood out prominently from the computer font. I reread it for the tenth time.


“Nice work, Dr. Miller.”

The End