It was a good thing Denny McGregor didn't know he was going to die that day. It would definitely have put somewhat of a damper on his otherwise great mood.
He caressed the wheel of his cherry red Austin-Healy Bug Eye Sprite with reverence as he travelled along County Road 33 with the top down and the radio cranked. Billy Joel was singing his doo-wop tune “For The Longest Time”.
The song reached the end just as Denny pulled up in front of his butcher shop in the picturesque town of Gwillimbury. In large, elegant, scripted letters, the sign on the shop window read, “A Cut Above” and below that in a smaller script, “Organic butcher shop offering organic and naturally raised meats”.
His father had been a butcher and Denny had decided early on that he would not follow in his old man's footsteps and so he had not looked back when the opportunity to attend a university three hours away had presented itself.
To say that his father had been devastated by his decision would have been an understatement akin to Jim Lovell saying, “Housten, we have a problem”. There had been a long period of time when father and son didn't speak, all the more tragic considering the fact that Denny's mom had died when he was three and he had no brothers or sisters. And then the news that his father was sick. That had come just four months shy of Denny's graduation and as a testament to his father's stubbornness, the news had come too late. By the time Denny had reached the hospital, Tim McGregor was dead.
Given their differences, it had come as a bit of a surprise to Denny that his father had named him sole heir, but no surprise whatsoever that his father had also left him an envelope containing a single hand-written page that read, “There's no shame in becoming a butcher. Think about it.” The old man hadn't even bothered to sign it.
To everyone's amazement, but most especially to Denny's, after graduating he had done just as his father had asked and set up shop in Gwillimbury. He used his inheritance to refurbish his father's butcher shop and decided that if he was going to butcher meat, it wouldn't be the factory farmed kind. The animals he butchered would live a little before they died.
He got out of the car and unlocked the door to the shop. Once inside, he put a pot of coffee on to brew. There was a shipment from a local farm due anytime now.
Minutes later, the door of the shop opened. Ed Shepfield's face had the beaten-down appearance of someone who had known hardship.
“Morning Ed. You're early.”
“You bet,” Ed Shepfield nodded. “Coffee on?”
Denny smiled. “I'll pour you a cup while you put the boxes in the cool room.”
A few minutes later, Ed appeared pushing a dolly stacked with boxes of chicken. Denny handed him a cup of coffee when Ed had finished stacking them in the cool room.
Ed took a large swallow. “I hear you've given up running?”
And that was the trouble with small towns. Denny sighed. “Who told you that?” he asked, although he had a good idea what the answer was going to be before he asked the question.
Ed had the grace to look uncomfortable. “Kate mentioned something. I guess she was talking to Clare and it came up.”
“Women!" Denny thought sourly. He had specifically asked his wife not to mention his “arthritis" to anyone, including Ed’s daughter, Kate.
Ed must have noticed Denny's discomfort. “None of my business,” he said, holding up his hand in a gesture of mea culpa. "I just know how much you love running."
“Truth is,” Denny reluctantly began, “I haven't been feeling that great lately.”
Ed put down his coffee cup, pulled out his cell phone and hurriedly began typing with his thumbs.
“What are you doing?” Denny asked.
“Typing up a news release for the local paper. So far, I've only got the headline. 'Local Butcher Feels Shitty.' Too sensational?”
“Come on Ed, that's not fair. You know how news travels in this town.”
Ed nodded. “I also know that there are a lot of people in this town, including me, who really like Denny McGregor. They're not interested in gossiping about his health. They care about him and if he wasn't feeling well, they'd want to do something to help. Have you seen the Doc?” Ed asked, referring to the town's older and much beloved family physician.
“Just had a physical eight months ago. Doc Marshall told me I was in excellent physical condition.”
“The good Doc is getting on in years,” Ed said before draining his cup. “Maybe he made a mistake.”
“Thanks for that!”
Ed grinned. “De nada.” He handed Denny his empty cup. “I wasn't kidding by the way. You need me to butcher those chickens in the cool room? I can do the rest of my deliveries and be back to butcher them by eight.”
Denny looked at the older man and felt an uncharacteristic lump forming at the back of his throat. “I'm okay for now Ed, but thanks! I really appreciate the offer.”
Ed shrugged off the gratitude. “It stands, Denny. If you need help, just give me a call.”
“How was Kate’s first year of engineering?”
Ed shrugged and cocked his head to the side. "She passed, which to hear Kate tell it, puts her on a level playing field with Wonder Woman.”
Denny stood at the door and gave Ed a brief farewell wave before locking up shop and donning his butchering apron. He started for the cool room and the lightheartedness he felt only a moment before abruptly left him and was replaced by a sense of trepidation. The chilly air in the cool room made his arthritis flare. He had confirmed it the day before when he had put down new sawdust. He had, in fact, rushed the job so he could get out of the cool room as quickly as possible.
Denny was a firm believer in fate and had never really considered the role that human choice could play in altering it. Therefore, he couldn't have guessed that had he taken Ed up on his offer of help, he, Denny, would have lived to see another day. Instead, he stepped blissfully unaware into his cool room and turned on the radio. Michael Bublé was singing about having a thing with Mrs. Jones as Denny reached for the first box. He positioned one of the chickens on the butcher's block and set about butchering it with forceful and deliberate swings. The more he worked, the more cathartic it felt.
It wasn't until he had finished with the fourth box that he noticed the pain settling in. It ran across his back in waves and his biceps felt like someone had put them in a vice. As for his legs, well, he'd run half marathons and his quads had felt less painful than they did now. He caught himself glancing longingly at the closed door of the cool room and a sudden surge of self reproach overtook him. Gritting his teeth, he stubbornly reached for the fifth box.
Methodically and painstakingly he butchered two more boxes of chickens before his mind registered the numbness in his fingers, his shallow, labored breathing, and lightheadedness. He dropped the cleaver and began flexing his hands to get the circulation going. He glanced quickly at the remaining two boxes and stubbornly made up his mind to finish no matter how awful he felt. After that he would go home and get into bed and Clare could come and mind the shop for the day. Tomorrow, he vowed, he would go back to Doc Marshall.
He leaned over the butcher's block to catch his breath and forced himself to pick up the cleaver again. It felt terribly heavy in his hand and he knew with chilling certainty that he didn't have a lot left in the tank.
“Enough for two boxes though,” he told himself and determinedly positioned another chicken on the butcher's block. He raised the cleaver above his head and brought it down with as much force as he could muster. In the split second before the blade made contact with flesh, Denny McGregor had a terrifyingly lucid thought: “Oh fuck! My fingers!”
After that, everything was an incomprehensible blur. It seemed like forever that he stood staring at the tips of his four digits, melded with the carcass of a chicken in what appeared to be a macabre, artistic tableau. Something Dali would have painted in fact. Denny giggled hysterically. He liked Dali.
Suddenly, waves of dizziness swept over him and he vomited all over the tableau. “Not a fucking tableau,” he told himself. "Not a fucking tableau!" He vomited again and shortly after, the cool room reverberated with a gut wrenching shriek. He dazedly looked around for the source and realized with mounting horror that it was coming from him.
“Get the fuck out of here!” a voice screamed inside his head. Denny looked down at his severed fingertips. "Forget the fucking fingertips," the voice screamed. “GET THE FUCK OUT!”
Denny edged closer to the door, using the butcher block for support. It was only about 15 steps away, but for Denny Eugene McGregor it might as well have been a marathon. The dizziness and pain engulfed him now and he was swaying as unsteadily as an actor playing a drunk in a movie.
“Only five more steps,” he told himself before he let go of the table and lunged for the door. He was only able to manage two steps before he collapsed, however, and he was dead before his 6' 2" frame hit the ground.
Chester Morgan swung the Zamboni onto the ice of the Gwillimbury Arena and was greeted by thunderous applause from a packed stadium. With all of the showmanship of a cowboy sitting atop a bucking bronco, he half stood and removed his baseball cap, waving it over his head.
The crowd went wild, making its appreciation heard above the deafening rhythmic thumping of the Gary Glitter tune “Rock and Roll Part 2” that was blaring from the loudspeakers. Ches dropped back down onto his seat and deftly started maneuvering the Zamboni controls.
Folks here were in a celebratory mood alright. The Gwillimbury Cougars had trounced the River Grove Rockets in the minor league play offs only a month ago and if that weren’t enough, the town was now hosting an old timers tournament. People around here simply couldn’t get their fill of hockey and that suited Ches fine, because he loved driving the Zamboni.
Ches swung the machine around and marveled at his good fortune in never having children. He was fine to be “Uncle Chester” for a few hours when he went to visit his younger brother, Rod, but three kids were three kids after all and by the end of his so-called visits, he was ready for a stiff drink followed closely by a spell in an isolation chamber.
Ches loved his life. He was a freelance electrician and a part-time ice resurfacer and even though he would have described himself as average looking, he had absolutely no problem getting women. The problem he had was getting rid of them when things started to get too serious.
Ches was all about having fun and he discovered early on that staying with the same woman for a long period of time was no fun at all. You had to shake things up a bit to be happy. That’s why, although he would never say as much, he felt sorry for his brother who had been married to the same woman for the past 12 years. Rod really didn’t have a life anymore. He spent half his time looking like he could fall asleep on his feet and the other half refereeing those three screaming kids.
Ches swung around and began his final cut. He had just enough time to dump the snow, park the machine and make it to his seat for the start of the second period. There was a certain buxomy brunette in the stands who he really didn’t want to keep waiting. By all indications, tonight could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
He swung the pedal to the floor when he saw Danielle waving and jumping up and down in the stands, her breasts heaving and falling like two perfect, uniform globes wanting to escape the plunging decolletage of her contour fitting sweater.
He grinned and half stood, waving his hand in an elaborate farewell to the screaming crowd. That was when the pain erupted inside his chest. His waving hand dropped to clutch at his chest, which now felt as though an elephant were sitting on it. With rising hysteria, Ches realized that he could no longer breathe and shortly after that realization came a thought: “Oh shit, I’m going to pass out.”
But Chester Morgan didn’t pass out. He fell off the Zamboni and was dead before he hit the ice below. And the crowd continued screaming, but now for a different reason.
It was barely eight o’clock when Quentin walked through the door of the small clinic he ran from a refurbished 100-year-old house in Gwillimbury. Despite the early hour, his secretary, Lucy Barrows, was already waiting for him.
“Morning Quentin,” she said, passing him a freshly-made cup of coffee and a homemade blueberry muffin.
“Morning Lucy.” Quentin took an appreciative sip of the coffee and sat down on one of the waiting room chairs while he peeled the muffin liner away from the muffin.
“Jill Daniels' husband, Rob, left a message on the office answering machine. Jill collapsed on a refrigerated display case last night when she went to pick up a few things at the grocery store. She died on the way to the hospital.”
The muffin dropped out of Quentin’s hand and fell on the floor. “That’s not possible.”
Before Lucy could respond, the office door opened. “Kate!” Lucy ran to embrace the young woman who had just walked in. “We haven’t seen you in years.”
Kate hugged Lucy with gusto after which she pulled back and brandished a brown paper bag. “I brought you two a little surprise.”
The small Asian woman opened the bag and squealed with delight. “Chocolate ice cream! My favorite.”
“I guarantee it will be the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted. I’m addicted to it and I just tried it for the first time three weeks ago.”
“Well you’d never know it by looking at you,” Quentin eyed her 100-pound frame and disposed of the muffin liner in the wastebasket. “Kate, how about following me into exam room one and telling me what brought you in today.” He led the way to the exam room and told Kate to hop up on the examining table. “Well, right off the bat, I’d have to say you look good.” She wore a tartan pinafore dress, predominantly red, under which she wore a plain white long-sleeved shirt. Her legs were bare and on her feet, she wore calf-high combat boots. Her straight, blonde shoulder-length hair framed a pretty face that Quentin suspected was often overshadowed by the pierces above her eye and through her nose and tongue.
“That’s what everybody tells me. Problem is I don’t feel great.”
Quentin frowned. “What exactly is making you feel not great?”
“This is going to sound crazy, but I think I have arthritis. It started a couple of weeks ago.”
Quentin felt a chill run down his spine. Wasn’t that exactly what Denny McGregor had been complaining of just before he died?
“Just thinking, Kate. I’d like to run a series of tests if you’re good with that.”
Kate nodded. “Do whatever you have to do, Doc Marshall. I’m quite scared.”
Quentin hurriedly gathered together all of the vials he needed and one more for good measure. “I’m going to do a special test, Kate, one that requires that I keep the blood warm until it reaches the lab for analysis.”
“Warm? What does it test for?”
“It’s a bit out of the box, but I want to be sure I’ve covered all the bases. We'll discuss it when we know the results.” He drew the blood, making sure to put one of the vials in packaging to preserve warmth. He opened the examination door and called Lucy. “Lucy, please take Kate’s blood to the lab.”
“No problem. I’ve got a few things to finish and then I’ll run it right over.”
“No, Lucy, I need you to take it now and tell them to rush the results.” He didn’t know why he felt the way he did, but nonetheless he was plagued by the certainty that he was running out of time.
Back at home that evening, Quentin’s anxiety continued to grow. He paced around his living room until he came up with what he thought was a viable plan. His first call was to Rod Morgan, Chester’s brother.
“Rod, it’s Quentin Marshall calling. Is this a good time?”
“Yeah”. Everything all right, Doc?”
“Yes, everything’s fine. I just called because I had a few questions about Chester.”
“Oh, I see, okay, fire away.”
“I was just wondering if Ches ever complained to you about having arthritis?”
“Arthritis? No, I can’t say he ever did.”
For the first time since he had seen Kate that morning, Quentin felt his whole body relax. “Okay, Rod, thanks.”
“I mean, you’re not talking about the aches and pains he got when he was feeling cold, are you?”
Quentin felt his stomach roll over queezily and suddenly he felt like vomiting. “I might be. When did that start, Rod?”
“I can’t say for sure, Doc. Maybe two or three weeks ago.”
“Okay, thanks, Rod. I’ll let you know when I know more.”
The next call he made was to Rob Daniels, Jill’s husband.
“Hi Rob, it’s Quentin Marshall.”
“I was so very sorry to hear about Jill.”
“I don’t mean to intrude on your grief, but I’ve got a question regarding Jill. Did she ever complain about arthritis?”
“It’s funny you mention that. For the past few weeks, she had been complaining of feeling achy. Does that have anything to do with her death?”
“I think it might. Listen Rob, I’ve got to go. I’ll give you a call when I know more. ”
Quentin hung up the phone and sat thinking. Three of his patients died in the last three weeks and another one was sick. He had a feeling that if he didn’t get to the bottom of this and quickly more people would be dying.
Jeff Cousens had been the Gwillimbury town vet since time immemorial. He was just finishing up with an extremely overweight pug named Oscar when Quentin walked into the front reception area. “Quentin, this is a surprise.”
“Jeff, I really need to talk to you. Have you got any time?”
Jeff glanced quickly at his receptionist.
Abby nodded at his unspoken question. “That was the last patient for this morning. Your next patient isn’t due for a couple of hours.”
Jeff turned back to Quentin. “Okay buddy. You got me.” He led Quentin into his office and closed the door. Although he and Quentin were the same age, you’d never know it. Jeff was a tall, muscular black man who didn’t look a day over 50.His wife, Sara, had died 10 years earlier and despite the fact that he was a very good-looking man, he had absolutely no interest in finding another partner. “Okay, Quentin, what gives? You look awful!”
“Thanks for that!”
“Hey man, you know I don’t pull any punches.” He smiled.
Quentin, however, did not return the smile. “Jeff, this is serious.”
Jeff studied the other man intently for a moment. “How serious?”
“I think we’ve got a cluster of cryoglobulinemia. Are you familiar with the disorder?”
“Only as it pertains to cows.”
“Yeah, it was thought that there were cryoglobulins in cow’s milk that enabled creaming when the milk was cooled. Apparently the thinking was that immunoglobulin M was a cryoglobulin because it caused cold-induced aggregation.”
“What do you mean the thought ‘was’? Has it changed?”
“Yes. They reasoned that if cows had cryoglobulins in their milk, the cows would have clinical symptoms of cryoglobulins. The cows don’t show any symptoms and so they don’t think there are cryoglobulins in milk.”
“But this immunoglobulin M causes aggregation when milk is cooled.”
Jeff smiled, “That’s right. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it? How many patients do you suspect have it?”
“And three of them are dead,” Quentin continued. “I was only able to do bloodwork on one and she tested positive for Cryo. The others died of heart attacks and were all complaining of arthralgias. I confirmed with the families that they all had purpura below the knee and that they all had intestinal permeability.”
“Jeff sat back and shook his head. “You think it’s food related?”
“Could it be?”
Jeff shrugged. “I have no idea. I had a professor in university who suggested that cryoglobulins should be added to ice cream to make it more creamy.”
Quentin’s face turned white. “I need to make a call.” He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialled Ed Shepfield’s number.
Ed answered on the fourth ring. “Hello?” Ed’s voice sounded lifeless.
“Ed, it’s Quentin Marshall. I need to speak to Kate. It’s urgent,” Quentin sounded desperate even to his own ears.
Ed’s voice broke and he started weeping in earnest. “She collapsed this morning, Quentin, and died on the way to the hospital.”
Duane Redmond clutched the lapels of his lab coat as he raced for the lab and was relieved to see that Mohammed Hussain had not left for the day. “Have you seen the papers?”
The lead scientist regarded him quizzically. “Are you referring to the four deaths in Gwillimbury?”
Duane ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Gwillimbury is our test site.
Do you think our product could have anything to do with the deaths?”
Hussain considered this for a moment before replying, “I do, yes. Most certainly.”
“Oh my God! So what do we do?”
“Do?” Hussain seemed genuinely perplexed. “We don’t do anything. The ice-cream is an overwhelming success. I will recommend launching in as many towns as we can.”
“But it's killing people,” Duane whispered in stunned disbelief.
“The ice-cream is a very lucrative product. The company is poised to make a great deal of money, Duane, and no one will ever be able to trace the deaths back to us.”
Duane left the lab, wondering if getting away with it made everything alright. He suspected that he would wrestle with that particular question for the rest of his life.