Disease Detectives

A maid greeted Emanuel Ashbel and Louis Pasteur before escorting them to Lillian Morgan’s well-appointed bedroom. Nose crinkled in disgust, the maid took the chamber pot and left the men to their visit.

Lillian slumped back against propped up pillows. Matted blonde hair was draped askew, framing bleary eyes, flushed cheeks, and caked mucous around her nose.

In appearance and disposition, she resembled Death not warmed over, Ashbel thought as he began his examination. Even with the chamber pot removed, the room still reeked of vomit. He held her limp wrist and noticed that her skin felt clammy. “Pulse is normal,” he said to Lillian. He continued his visual inspection and observed the new rash that covered the area above the palm to just below the elbow. Ashbel placed the twin bells of his stethoscope upon Lillian’s chest. He listened, brow furrowed in concentration.

Pasteur stepped forward, holding out a tongue depressor and vial. “Permit me, Madame to collect a sample,” he said.

“A sample?” she coughed. “You think that I have that dreadful pestilence? I was just visiting that filthy hole in the ground that my addle-brained step-daughter calls a mine. The layabouts working there — and I do use the term ‘working’ very loosely, mind you — kicked up so much debris. If dust were ghost rock, then she would indeed be wealthy. But it’s just a chill from the drafts and dust in my throat, nothing more.” Lillian concluded with another loud honk into yet another lace handkerchief. She let it flutter to the ground, joining its numerous companions strewn about the room.

Pasteur tsked-tsked in sympathy, but remained adamant. “Madame Morgan, I must avail myself of any opportunity to advance science’s knowledge about this disease. Even if you have a simple case of the “chills,” this will serve as a control for the samples I have just collected from the quarantine tents. Now open wide, tongue out …”

Despite a sour expression and a roll of her eyes, Lillian complied.

“Merci, Madame,” said Pasteur. Turning to Ashbel he said, “Come my good doctor, let us return to the Institute. There is much work to be done.”

* * *

The two men arrived at the three-story Morgan Research Institute. Pasteur led the way down the long hallway towards his laboratory at the far end of the building.

“Fire in the hole!” A loud boom echoed throughout the Institute, punctuated by the tinkling crash of shattered glass. Smoke billowed out of the workroom as Elander Boldman emerged from the smoky haze, hands aflutter in an attempt to dissipate it. Soot blended with his dark features and tinged his white hair. A pair of assistants rushed in with extinguishers to douse the remnants of Morgan’s chief artificer’s latest handiwork in progress. He removed his visor, blinking to reorient himself when he spied Ashbel and Pasteur. “Well, howdy and good day, doctors.” Boldman’s drawl ended in hearty laughter.

Pasteur knew Boldman’s joviality meant well, but the Frenchman found such colloquial speech distasteful compared to the gentle ebb and flow of his native tongue. He gave a curt nod and continued down the hallway. Ashbel remained behind to briefly examine Boldman. Other than a few scratches, he appeared no worse for wear. Ashbel gently cleansed and covered those before catching up to Pasteur.

Once again, an obstacle blocked their path to the laboratory. This time, a noxious red cloud of gas emanated from under a doorway, nearly filling the corridor. Doffing his top hat, Pasteur fanned enough of the gas away to permit the men to scrunch against the opposite wall and pass one behind the other. Sighing relief, Pasteur opened the door to his lab and motioned Ashbel inside.

The laboratory, although cramped, stood out as an oasis of meticulous tidiness amidst much of Morgan Research’s cluttered wires and mechanical gizmos. Pasteur removed the dust cover from his prized Chevalier compound microscope. Illumination came from mirror redirecting light from a Bunsen burner to a second mirror located below the condenser. He opened a glass case, lifting a bell jar and extracting an agar culture plate, then quickly closed the case. Before commencing a detailed examination, he placed the culture plate for observation under the lowest objective. The lens fell and rose as Pasteur attempted to focus on the culture plate. He shook his head. “It is of no use. There is nothing growing here at all.”

He looked over towards the corner where a mechanical bellows stood motionless. Under normal circumstances, it whooshed as it pumped air into the glass tank. “Zut alors, the bellows has been knocked askew. There is no air to nourish the cultures.”

“How could that be?” asked Ashbel.

“Explosions go off around here all the time; any one of them could have jarred the apparatus. But no matter, these are of little use to us now.”

“So the cultures are a total loss, Doctor Pasteur?”

“A loss, yes, but not at all total. Sometimes the absence of information is in and of itself, important.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The cultures were supposed to receive uncontaminated air. Since the bellows did not supply air, there could be no oxygen. There is nothing growing on the agar plates. Ergo, whatever these bacteria are, they are not anaerobic. They require the same air that we do in order to live and grow. But we will need more samples. Let us be off at once to the quarantine tents.”

* * *

Ashbel and Pasteur arrived at the tents that had been donated to the town by Ivor Hawley’s circus, providing a place off the beaten path where the sick could be isolated in order to protect the town. Seeing no one around the outside, the two doctors entered. They paused as their vision adjusted to the dim light and their noses to the fetid smells of the makeshift quarantine. Ashbel squinted and looked into the dark nether regions of the tent and spied someone moving in the back. “Hallooo there,” he said waving an arm. Both the greeting and motion had no apparent effect. He then made a piercing wolf whistle, catching the figure’s attention.

Karl Odett turned from his patient and ambled over to the Ashbel and Pasteur. “Ah, greetings my good doctors. What brings you to the tents today?”

“We are here to collect a few more samples for my experiments,” said Pasteur.

“But where are the patients?” interjected Ashbel. “When we were last here, nearly all of the beds were occupied. Now, I notice quite a few empty ones.”

“But of course, Dr. Ashbel. Sadly, a number have made a turn for the worse, so I had them moved to the Sanatorium for treatment. That’s just what these folks need. My only regret is that I don’t have the resources to take them all at once or everyone would already be cured.”

“You can cure these people?! That is astonishing,” Ashbel said.

“Oh, not I,” said Odett, his voice an offputting mixture of gravel and sugar. “No doubt that the disease is caused by miasma. You know … bad air, of which there is plenty in Gomorra. Our Sanatorium merely provides its patients with rest and isolation away from those noxious vapors so the body can begin to heal itself. As soon as they recover, they are released back to the loving arms of their families.”

“Inconceivable. Could we have the names of a few of them, that we may visit them and see this recovery for ourselves,” said Pasteur.

Odett clasped stubby fingers over his chest. “I do not recall any one person, but when I am not too busy tending to our patients I can look up a few names for you,” Odett concluded with a slight shrug. “Although,” he continued after a brief pause. “There is one man, here right now as a matter of fact.” Odett motioned to a nurse, who scurried over. After whispered instructions, she left.

“Allow me to collect some more samples,” said Pasteur.

“But of course,” said Odett with a sweeping bow towards the main quarantine area.

The nurse eventually returned with a burly misshapen man huffing behind.

“Why, that’s the carny barker. He runs the midway,” said Ashbel. “While no one shouts louder, I did not realize that he had nearly succumbed to this pestilence.”

“Oh, I assure you that Arnold here was knocking at Death’s very door,” said Odett.

Pasteur had returned from his collecting and approached McCadish. “Please allow me to gather some samples then. If he is indeed cured, then there should not be any trace of the disease in his samples.”

“That’s brilliant, Doctor Pasteur … just like with Lillian. It is as you called it then, a ‘control’,” said Ashbel.

McCadish tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, seeking approval from Odett.

Odett gave an affirmative, yet dismissive wave of assent.

Pasteur brought out a tongue depressor and vial. “Open and say ‘ah’,” said Pasteur as the barker obliged. The scientist then sloughed some skin from McCadish’s crooked arm into a second vial. “Merci.”

Ashbel moved up to join the examination. He gently tweaked and prodded McCadish’s limb. “How does that feel?”

“Never better,” came the cheery reply.

“Astonishing,” said Ashbel. “But you are also limping a bit. Muscle loss, I’m guessing?”

“Oh, that ol’ thing? Happened years ago, trippin’ over a tent stake. As for the gettin’ sick here, I was pretty bad off. But a bed at the Sanatorium and a few days off my tired ol’ dogs did the trick. Never felt better, never felt better. I tells ya, I never …”

“These are smart men, Arnold. I think they understand,” said Odett.

“Astonishing. I have never seen such recovery in all my years of practicing medicine,” said Ashbel.

Au contraire,” Pasteur interjected. “We have seen enough. I have what I need. Come along, Dr. Ashbel. Let us return to Morgan Research Institute. I have work to do –” Under his breath, he whispered to Ashbel, “– and you have real medicine to practice.”

* * *

“Dr. Ashbel? The Sovitches need you at once. Their son has taken a turn for the worst,” said an assistant. Ashbel reached for his black bag.

“I will accompany you,” said Pasteur. “It is important to acquire samples from a range of patients.”

“We must go, then,” said Ashbel.

“Indeed we must, but I must ensure that this time the precious cultures receive the air that they require to grow and thrive. Only then, can we determine the nature of this disease.” He plated the last of the acquired cultures and placed a glass bell jar over it.

The French scientist took four stoppered vials and a wooden probe from the desk drawer and placed them in his waistcoat pocket. “Now, we may go.” He spoke to the assistant. “Lead on, my good man.”

They followed the assistant through town, arriving at a dilapidated shack tucked behind a row of shops.

“Mr. Sovitch, Drs. Ashbel and Pasteur are here to attend to your boy,” said the assistant.

“I’m so glad that you’re here. Bryce looks the same as before, but now he no longer moves at all.” He led the men to a cot where a teenage boy did indeed lay motionless.

Ashbel reached into his kit bag and withdrew a small mirror, which he held above the boy’s mouth. The mirror fogged and the doctors noticed the shallow rise and fall of his chest that meant life still remained within the emaciated body. The boy’s scaled skin and boils indicated that, alas, the disease continued to run its course.

Ashbel sighed as he wiped the mirror and returned it to the satchel. “I am sorry; there is nothing I can do. Continue to apply poultices and cold compresses and keep him clean.”

Pasteur unstoppered two of the vials and used the probe to scrape a cheek sample into one and a skin sample from the arm into the other. The boy moaned softly, but otherwise gave no sign of recognition or awareness of his surroundings.

The doctors bid their goodbyes and once again walked back to the Morgan Research Institute.

The men had scarcely set foot outside of the house when an elderly man half-stumbled, half-ran into Ashbel, sending them both sprawling into the dusty street.

Instead of apologizing, the man turned to look behind him. “Molly sweetie, it is me, Mel, your husband,” he implored to a woman running towards him.

His pursuer was likewise elderly, but with emaciated, sallow features. Her tattered clothes no longer concealed much in the way of puss-caked sores covering the loose skin hanging from near-skeletal limbs. Molly’s face contorted as she snarled incomprehensible syllables. She closed the gap between them with a speed belying her advanced years. Panting for breath, Mel turned to face what had been his wife. Dropping to his knees, head bowed and hands clasped in prayer, he beseeched deliverance.

Molly descended upon him, not as a delivering angel, but a devouring beast. Two men leaped up from their draughts game and pulled Molly away before she could end hers and Mel’s decades-long union.

Ashbel stood up and dusted himself off before turning to help Pasteur to his feet. “Good Lord, that woman has been driven crazy.”

“Crazy, perhaps. Driven, I believe you may be correct. But what drives such madness,” Pasteur replied.

As Molly continued her frenzied struggles, a pair of roustabouts from the Fourth Ring circus arrived to whisk Molly off for quarantine.

Pasteur reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out the last of his vials. “Gentlemen, please,” he said. Holding the vial aloft, he followed after Molly and her escort. “I need a sample … for science.”

The pair looked puzzled, but stopped as they considered the scientist’s request. Whether or not they acquiesced mattered not to Pasteur. He had his needed opportunity, and with a quick scrape, sloughed off some of Molly’s arm skin into the waiting vial. Pasteur stoppered the vial, replacing it in his pocket. He doffed his top hat. “Merci! Carry on, gentlemen.” Ashbel huffed up, only to have Pasteur pass him on the way back to the lab. “Come, mon cher, we most definitely have something to investigate back at the lab.”

* * *

Pasteur set up a series of culture plates along the bench. He then placed a slide and its cover in front of each plate. After igniting a Bunsen burner, the scientist then applied a streak of culture to its attendant slide. Grasping the slide with a pair of tongs, he passed the slide through the burner’s flame. Pasteur placed a drop of violet solution on the slide.

“Won’t the dark color make it harder to see the organisms?” said Ashbel.

Pasteur started at the interruption. “Observe, and learn, Dr. Ashbel. This is a technique I acquired from a Danish scientist while visiting a lab in Berlin.”

Pasteur poured off the stain and lightly rinsed the slide before placing a drop of iodine on it. He let the iodine stand for half a minute before also rinsing it away. Next, he placed a drop of ethanol and again rinsed it away. The last step consisted of yet a third solution, this time red tinted and from a vial labeled “safranin.” A final wash and Pasteur set the slide down and placed a coverslip.

Ashbel leaned over and noted that he could see faint blue and pink marks on the slide.

Pasteur repeated the process for the other three cultures while Ashbel sat transfixed by Pasteur’s fluid rhythm of staining and counter-staining the slides. Pasteur took notes and made sketches of each slide. Once done, he handed the sheaf to Ashbel, who after looking at the notes verified for himself the slide still under the microscope.

“What happened to the violet stain? All I see are pairs of tiny washed out pink dots? Almost like tiny pearls.”

“Indeed, my good doctor, indeed. And not at all what I expected. The spherical shape indicates that they are cocci, and consistent with Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Except that those are transmitted by l’union charnelle.

Pasteur looked up to find a puzzled expression on Ashbel’s face. “Oh, uhh … how do you say it? ‘Intimate relations?’ ” Pasteur flushed slightly before continuing. “Besides, they are not associated with the lung or skin lesions that we have observed thus far. This is indeed a puzzlement.”

Pasteur went over to his writing desk and took out a parchment. After scrawling a note, he placed it in an envelope and affixed a wax seal. Pasteur opened the lab door. “Monsieur Archibald,” he shouted.

After a brief pause, the assistant arrived at the laboratory’s doorway. “You called, Doctor Pasteur?” he asked the scientist.

“Indeed. Please deliver this to Madame Morgan,” said Pasteur, handing Archibald the envelope.

The scientist noticed Ashbel’s quizzical look. “I need a better instrument. That was a request for Madame Morgan to authorize funds for a special craftsman in Shan Fan.”

“What could you possibly need? Lillian enticed you to come here by promising the full resources of Morgan Research Institute at your disposal.”

“Indeed she did, and I am most indebted to her patronage. But that was before this horrible scourge began afflicting this town. Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés. Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Pasteur briefly consulted his notes before returning to his lab bench to prepare the samples taken from the sick boy.