February 12, 2023

Double Bubble Chapter 11: A Stroke of Luck

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This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Double Bubble

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Dr. Patton Collis is an emergency room physician and professor at the University of Ottawa and the nearest thing I have to a coroner or a pathologist. If I were taking this case to a jury, Collis is not the guy I would hire. But I’m not, and he’s all I can afford. He insisted on speaking to me in person, and I insisted on speaking with him today. He didn’t seem keen. But I don’t care. I don’t have time to wait for his personal invitation to arrive.

The Uber driver covers the distance between my office and the Ottawa hospital in the time it takes Terrence to send me four emails. My phone buzzes like a mosquito in my pocket with each successive email. I ignore it. The Terror is incensed by my decision to proceed by application instead of a traditional lawsuit. Or at least I assume he is judging by the number of emails arriving daily from him in my inbox. I don’t read most of them, and those I do, I skim.

Lawyers like Terrence wield email like a samurai swings a sword, flinging them out rapidly like tiny daggers and hoping one or two will hit their mark. The emails serve no purpose other than to terrorize his enemies and to force them to take time to respond to his emails instead of taking time to prepare for the hearing.

It’s intentionally exhausting. All the more so since every response triggers more emails. And no response to his emails ever pierces the armour of bluster, blather, and bullshit that he has forged in the fire of his own ego. He simply goes on bombarding you. Email after email. He does it because he knows an ethical lawyer will feel obligated to read his messages and to respond. I’m not one of those lawyers. Hell, most days, I barely pass for a lawyer at all. So I don’t read, and I don’t respond because I don’t care. Fish swim, birds fly, and Terrence talks. That’s just how it is. I’ve learned to never litigate by email with guys like Terrence because I will never care half as much as I should and never as much as he feigns. Since I can’t win, I don’t bother. I simply ignore him instead. The strategy seems to be working.

But Terrence is now only half my problem. The other half is Eddie. He’s a horse of a different colour. A different kind of terror. Until yesterday, I had naively assumed he was harmless. A guy playing gangster instead of being a gangster. But now I don’t know. And I don’t want to know, but I don’t know how I can avoid it. Sooner or later, Eddie the Fixer and I are going to have a problem.

And it isn’t only that I’ve thrown my lot in with Katrina and won’t see a nickel if she’s a murderer, though I do like getting paid. Or that Eddie has thrown his lot in with crazy Jean and won’t see a nickel if her theory about murder is bullshit, though I know he likes getting paid.

It’s that I have gone over the police file and coroner’s records a hundred times since I got them yesterday afternoon, and there isn’t anything in the file about murder.

Other than some notes from the police officers who responded and the photos I’ve already seen, the police file is empty. Twenty pages of nothing. Danny was found dead by Vivian. She told the police she went to his place after he failed to turn up at work or answer any of her calls. Perfectly plausible. The cops interviewed her, but the interview didn’t result in any meaningful information about Danny’s death. There’s a note of Jean having turned up at the police station complaining about her son being murdered, but it’s apparent that the cops dismissed her story as bullshit and didn’t bother to investigate further. My impression is that the cops jumped to a conclusion about suicide, but there is nothing to suggest that it was a sloppy investigation or that anything was manipulated or altered. It’s a whole lot of nothing.

And there is fuck all about Danny’s death being murder. Nothing. Not even a hint of it. And if a bunch of smart people with years of medical and forensic and police training found nothing, there is no chance I will.

Of course, I’m more Scooby-Doo than fucking Nancy Drew, and until this case landed on my desk, you could fit my paper-thin knowledge about death investigations into a letter-sized envelope and file it under blissfully ignorant. In my defence, most fights over life insurance tend to be about exclusions, not dead bodies.

Fortunately, I can type, and I can read, and most of the time, those are all the knowledge I need when I start.

Turns out, in Ontario, any death that occurs suddenly and unexpectedly or that appears to be the result of an accident, suicide, or homicide has to be reported to the coroner’s office. The coroner is then tasked with determining the who, when, where, how, and means of death. And it’s the coroner who decides whether an autopsy is required but isn’t the person to perform it. That unfortunate job is assigned to a pathologist with the Eastern Ontario Regional Forensic Pathology Unit.

According to the Coroner’s file, Danny died of some kind of subarachnoid hemorrhage. I looked it up, and from what I can tell, that’s fancy medical jargon for: he had a stroke and died. I laughed when I read that. The fucking jokes just write themselves in this case. The report also lists the means of his death as a self-induced and intentional overdose of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, which Dr. Google tells me is ecstasy.

And that’s it. That’s what I know. Not much more than what I started with, except that I now have some hope of proving it was an accident. Despite the coroner’s conclusion of suicide, my new working theory is that Danny was abusing street drugs, took a bad hit, and died. And since ecstasy apparently induces sexual arousal, that theory also fits with the panties on his head and the tube around his balls.

It’s a nice theory. A simple theory. Not a slam dunk theory. Not a theory that invalidates Terrence’s theory of suicide but better than what I had when I started. While I can’t prove it yet, I’m guessing First National or Terrence put pressure on the coroner’s office to draw suicide as the conclusion. Frankly, I don’t know why else the coroner would have drawn that conclusion. I can’t find any report in the files detailing how much ecstasy Danny had consumed, so it seems to me that his having had a bad hit from a single pill is just as plausible as his having overdosed on a whole bottle. The fact that Danny died from ecstasy means it is at least arguable that the coroner’s conclusion of suicide is speculative and predicated on motive, not physical evidence. And that is the best news I could ask for.

The coroner’s file also explains why Terrence had been in such a rush to get Katrina to sign a release last week. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone got the coroner’s findings and figured out that maybe Danny’s death was an accident after all. He’s such a fucking asshole. His plan might have worked too if I hadn’t been there. But I was. And now I feel almost hopeful. Like maybe I can win. When I told Katrina, she still seemed surprised by the drugs but relieved to know that maybe it wasn’t suicide. Her reaction was muted. I guess that makes sense. Danny is still dead, and money won’t bring him back.

I thought about reaching out to Terrence to tell him the good news, but I haven’t. I want to play my cards close to my chest. I still need to make a causal link between a bad hit and the stroke. And since I don’t know how much ecstasy was in Danny’s system when he was found, I just have to hope that one pill was enough to trigger the stroke. If not, I’m back to zero again.

That’s why I’m meeting with Dr. Collis out at the hospital. I sent him the files as soon as I got them, and I’m hoping he’s going to confirm that one bad hit of ecstasy was enough to trigger Danny’s stroke. I would have preferred a telephone call or a video conference, but experts are like divas, they claim to be normal but expect to be treated like royalty and charge like loan sharks. And that means a trip to the hospital to see this prick. I wouldn’t mind so much, but I hate hospitals — antiseptic spaces infected with human emotion and festering with life and death. Hospitals are like an inter-dimensional taxi stand constantly shuttling life in and out, and up and down; a schizophrenic environment where you can witness life begin in a room on the 8th floor and life end in the morgue in the basement. But I think the part I hate most is the gnawing realization that I have no control over how long it will take me to get from the top floor to the basement, might be decades or could be minutes. It’s an unsettling place for an unsettled mind.

I make my way inside and work my way through the maze of the hospital and eventually find Collis in a small office on the main floor near the critical care wing. He has the air of a busy man between shifts. Or the sort of man who’s stuck between laconic and lanky in the dictionary. A compendious sort of man in black square-framed glasses with a heavy bridge, perched on a hooked nose, attached to a rectangular face. He eyes me suspiciously from his desk as I push open his door.

“Dr. Collis,” I say. “I’m William Frost. I’m sorry to intrude but wonder if I can have a minute.”

He’s still eying me suspiciously like I’m a vagrant who has just stumbled into his office. He doesn’t bother getting up. He has a fork in his hand and a nearly empty salad container on his desk. He clears his throat, a wet wheezing sound that fills the small space.

“Yes, yes,” he says, going back to his monitor and whatever he was reading when I walked in. “My shift doesn’t start for an hour. I was eating lunch, and now is not really a good time?”

“I understand,” I say and step further into his space. “It’s rather urgent. It’s about the Daniel Piggott case.”

“Yes, yes,” he says. “I know who you are. I’ve read the files you sent over.”

He jabs a fork into the remnants of his salad, he’s harpooned a small garden tomato. He pushes it around a bit in the container before shoving the last of it into his mouth. I breathe a quiet sigh of relief that I won’t have to endure yet more eating. I’m about to open my mouth to ask him a question when he picks up the container and starts working his fork back and forth in a scraping motion in search of something more. But there isn’t any more to get. Still, he persists. The noise of the fork scraping the container is loud and irritating. It’s the kind of noise that makes me want to strangle someone. I grit my teeth and seethe in silence, watching him and waiting for him to be done. Just when I think I can’t take the sound anymore, he lifts his fork to his tongue and starts licking it like a cat washing a paw after a meal. This goes on for another minute. He still isn’t looking at me. His eyes are fixed on his computer screen, and all I can do is stand silently and wait. Once satisfied that the fork is clean enough to part with, he turns, pitches everything into the garbage bin behind him and looks over at me. Important people are always wasting my fucking time.

“Do you mind if I sit down,” I say and take a seat in the chair across from him? “I have a few questions I am hoping you can answer.”

“Yes, yes,” he says again, still eying me with annoyance. “An interesting case. A very interesting case.”

I’ve been around enough doctors to know that when they say you have an interesting case, you probably aren’t going to be happy. Interesting to a doctor is a death sentence to a lawyer.

“Interesting?” I ask.

“Quite,” he says. He looks down at his watch. “Yes, a very interesting case but I’m pressed for time, perhaps if you had made an appointment—“

“I understand Doctor but as I mentioned on the phone, this case is pressing. It’s urgent. It can’t wait. I need to get some answers as soon as possible. So when you mentioned that you had something you wanted to tell me, I jumped in a car to see you.“

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I understand but—“

“Listen, Doctor. I’m sorry for throwing off your day. But time is of the essence. I really need to know if the coroner’s conclusion was right? I—“

“She most certainly was not,” he says, any pleasantness evaporating from his voice. “Her conclusions are entirely unsupported by the available facts.”

“So not suicide, then?” I say.

He stares at me. His eyes are fixed. Unmoving.

“Did you read the reports,” he says.

“Yes,” I say. “I mean I—“

“So you understand that this man, Daniel Piggott?”

“Yes, Danny,” I say.

“He died from a subarachnoid hemorrhage?” he says.

“A stroke,” I say.

He gives me a disappointed look, the kind reserved for parents and children and professors and students when they fail to grasp some obvious fact. I ignore it and soldier on.

“So you don’t think it’s possible that ecstasy triggered the hemorrhage?” I say.

He frowns. His eyes squint like he can’t believe his time is being wasted by someone so dumb. There are large wrinkles on his face. I suspect he frowns a lot.

“Don’t be absurd,” he says.

“So it’s not possible?” I say.

“Anything is possible. An earthquake might knock down this building today. I might even win the lottery. Both are possible, but improbable. Do you understand what I am saying?”

I nod my head and take a breath.

“I’m not trying to argue with you, Doctor,” I say. “I don’t think it was suicide either. But I need to understand why.”

He looks over at his computer, fiddles with the mouse, and looks back at me.

“To begin with,” he says impatiently. “In thirty years of medicine I have never encountered a single case of a person committing suicide using this type of narcotic. It simply isn’t—“

“But in fairness, Doctor,” I say, trying to disrupt a lecture, “if someone successfully killed themselves with ecstasy, they wouldn’t be arriving in the ER, right?”

He isn’t happy with the interruption or my comments.

“That may be,” he says. “But I can assure you that it is not a common practice for middle aged men to kill themselves with this type of narcotic.”

“But it’s possible?” I say.

His lips twitch. He frowns again.

“Possible but improbable,” he says. “I have only found one or two cases where it was even considered, and in all cases Mr. Piggott did not meet the appropriate profile.”

“Meaning?” I ask.

“Meaning, that in cases involving suicide, the profile of someone using this kind of narcotic to kill themselves is a twenty something female with a history of depression. Did Mr. Piggott have depression?”

“I have no clue,” I say. “But let’s assume he didn’t for now.”

“Right,” he says. “And did Mr. Piggott leave a note?”

I shake my head. If there was a suicide note, it hadn’t been found.

“Right,” he says. He goes back to clicking on his computer. “As I said, if you ask me if it is possible to kill yourself with this narcotic, I’d have to concede it as a general possibility. But if you ask me if Mr. Piggott did so, I think it is highly improbable.”

I grab my iPad and start making notes. He isn’t happy with me, but I don’t care. I need to get this sorted out, and I’m likely to forget if I don’t take notes.

“Because he didn’t fit the typical profile,” I say.

“Among other reasons,” he says.

“There’s more?” I say.

He raises his eyes to look at me. He’s disappointed again.

“I thought you said you had read the file?” he says.

I try not to react defensively.

“I did,” I say.

“Then I am sure you realized there was no toxicology report in the file?” he says.

“You mean like a report about the drugs in Danny’s system,” I say.

He looks at me like I’m an idiot, which, again, I probably am. He sighs heavily.

“Listen,” he says impatiently. “I really don’t have the time to educate you. I don’t know how much experience you have dealing with these types of cases—“

“Assume I have none,” I say.

“Yes,” he says with another frown. “I concluded as much.“

“Ya,” I say, trying to contain my irritation. “I get it. I’m not happy to be here either. But let’s assume I know fuck all, and I need you to take a minute to educate me, right?”

His head snaps up. He doesn’t like my vulgarity. But I don’t give a fuck.

“Fine,” he says, looking at his watch again. “I—“

“Look, Doc,” I say. “I get it. Believe me, I wish I had gone to medical school too. I didn’t. They don’t teach medicine in law school and even if they had, it’s been a while since I attended class. So I’m a bit fucking rusty on my anatomy and hemorrhages and drug lingo. I appreciate it may be a pain in the ass to you but I really want to help my client and to do that I really need your help, alright? I’m happy to pay you for your time but let’s just assume I know nothing. Explain it to me like I’m five, ok?”

He stares at me for a minute and finally shrugs. Ignorance wins over vanity yet again.

“Fine,” he says. “I was saying that there is no toxicology report in the file you sent over.”

“A drug report, you mean?”

“That’s right,” he says.

“And you’re saying it should have been in the file?”

He nods.

“Because a toxicology report wasn’t prepared or—“

“I have no idea,” he says. “But if it wasn’t, I don’t see how the coroner could definitively conclude that Mr. Piggott killed himself with this narcotic.”

“Because…” I say, trying to catch up.

“Because,” he says, waving his hands. “If you are going to claim that a subarachnoid hemorrhage was triggered by an illicit drug, it would probably help to have a toxicology report to confirm it was in this man’s system.”

“You’re saying—“

“— that there is no evidence in the file that Mr. Piggott had consumed any narcotics at the time he died,” he says.

“But the pills,” I say.

He shakes his head at me, takes his glasses off, rubs his eyes, and puts them on again, only this time at the end of his nose so he can peer out at me over the tops of them.

“Yes,” he says. “I saw the photos. There were definitely narcotics at the scene, but so what?”

“You’re saying without this toxicology report, the coroner was only guessing that the pills caused this hemorrhage?”

“Guessing…” he says as if the word is problematic. “I wouldn’t go that far. But it is definitely speculation.”

“But if it wasn’t ecstasy that killed him, what triggered the hemorrhage?” I say. “Was it natural causes?”

He laughs dryly. Like he is embarrassed for me.

“Hardly likely I should think,” he says.

“So if not natural causes, it was the ecstasy,” I say, growing more and more frustrated.

“No,” he says, frowning again.

Fucking hell. Why doesn’t this man just get to the fucking point?

“Listen Doc,” I say. “I know you’re busy and I’m trying not to go in circles. First you tell me it isn’t the pills because there’s no lab report. Then you say—“

“I didn’t say it wasn’t the pills. Methamphetamine abuse can trigger a subarachnoid hemorrhage—“

“You just finished—“

He holds up his hand irritably.

“I just finished telling you that there is no toxicology report to confirm that there were methamphetamine in this man system. But there were drugs at the scene so I can’t rule it out.”

“But—“

“But,” he says, eying me over his glasses. “Without the report, the coroner made a speculative conclusion. One that is simply not supported by objective testing.”

Fucking hell. I’m back to nowhere.

“So the pills could have killed him but didn’t?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Without a toxicology report I can’t rule out narcotics as the cause of this man’s subarachnoid hemorrhage but I suspect there are more probable and reasonable explanations.”

“Like,” I say.

I want to strangle this fucking guy with his stupid fucking keyboard. He has gone back to looking at his monitor.

“It’s in the photos,” he says.

I have no clue what he’s talking about or what it is I’m supposed to have seen in the photos. I’m about to yell at him when he turns to look at me again. His face stony.

“Am I right that this man engaged in chronic and compulsive onanism?” he says.

I look at him blankly. He frowns again. His face sour.

“Masturbation,” he says. “Was Mr. Piggott prone to engaging in…chronic and compulsive self-stimulation?”

“I guess. I mean it isn’t like the two of us hung out with our pants around our ankles, watching porn and pleasuring ourselves. I didn’t know him well enough to comment on his personal preferences. But he did make a living at it, yes.”

“Yes, yes,” he says. “A man who engaged in chronic and compulsive onanism,” he says.

It’s my turn to frown.

“Doc, look, I’m not any kind of expert. I don’t know if it was chronic or compulsive or just regular good old fashioned masturbation, but what possible fucking difference does it make,” I say, losing my patience. “I’m not trying to be rude, but I’ve never heard tell of anyone dying from masturbating.”

“Not true,” he says, and he actually smiles this time. The fucker smiles so wide I can see a green piece of salad stuck to his tooth. “You see,” he says in that voice experts get when they are about to start a lecture. “There are several reported cases of people suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage while engaging in onanism.”

“Really,” I say.

“Yes, yes,” he says with so much enthusiasm I’m starting to wonder if he might be a deviant himself.

“I was able to find at least two reported cases. The first was a Japanese man who was seen in a hospital after prolonged onanism. According to the report, after ejaculating, he experienced a severe headache. The case came to my attention because of its unusual facts and relevance to the acute critical care I provide.”

“I see,” I say. “And the other?”

“A woman,” he says. “39 years old found dead on a couch with a wooden handled whisk lodged in her rectum. There was no foul play. She had been engaging in anal onanism, which triggered a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage, like the kind that killed Mr. Pigott.”

“So you think Danny masturbated himself to death?” I say.

He grimaces. My vulgarity doesn’t agree with him.

“I suppose that is one way of putting it,” he says. “And unlike the overdose suicide theory advanced by the coroner, this man’s chronic and compulsive habits, combined with the rubber surgical tube tied around his testicles, leads me to conclude that he was in the midst of a prolonged session of onanism when he suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage and died. That is far more consistent with the physical evidence than the coroner’s conclusion of suicide.”

Now I’m smiling too.

“And that explains the panties, too, right?” I say. He frowns at me again. Apparently, he would prefer not to talk about that. “A guy wouldn’t put panties on his head to kill himself, am I right?” I say excitedly.

“I have no idea, sir,” he says. “That is not in my realm of expertise. But, as you say, that seems improbable.”

“It’s the truth though isn’t it?” I say.

“Yes,” he says with a shrug. “It seems evident that Mr. Piggott was dressed up, as you say, while engaging in onanism and I think it probable that doing so triggered the subarachnoid hemorrhage that killed him.”

“So it was an accident?” I say.

“In my opinion, that seems most probable,” he says.

“Are you prepared to put that in writing?”

He frowns. Doctors never like to commit anything to writing until they have a high level of certainty.

“Is that really necessary,” he says.

“Yes,” I say. “It is. The insurance company says it was a suicide because the police and coroner say it is a suicide. So—“

“Yes, yes,” he says. “But as I already told you, their conclusion is wrong.”

“I heard ya, Doc. The absence of a toxicology report and—“

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Without that report, any conclusion about the use of narcotics as a means of suicide is speculative.”

“Exactly. But if it wasn’t drugs, a judge is going to want me to provide some other explanation. That’s why I need a report,” I say.

He looks back at his computer as if considering his options.

“While I think it probable that Mr. Piggott’s subarachnoid hemorrhage was caused by onanism, I’m not able to say it to a medical certainty. It’s a hypothesis,” he says.

Ah, yes, that old saw. The tedious and time-consuming fight between doctors and lawyers on the meaning of causation. As far as doctors are concerned, lawyers draw causal inferences far too casually and are not nearly rigorous enough about ruling out fanciful theories. Doctors prefer to think of things in terms of certainty, and most doctors prefer to avoid expressing an opinion on causation unless it is to a medical certainty.

“Sure,” I say. “Sure Doc, a theory. But what I hear you saying is that you think it unlikely that Danny overdosed on ecstasy and probably jerked himself to death—“

“To cause a sudden and spontaneous subarachnoid hemorrhage like that, it is my opinion that his lifestyle was the root cause, yes.”

“Sure,” I say. “The point is that you are satisfied it had to be an accident, right? Not a suicide?”

He frowns again.

“I don’t know that I would say it had to be anything. I’m saying it is improbable that it was suicide.”

“Right,” I say. “That’s what I am saying.”

“No,” he says irritably. “It isn’t. You want me to say it was an accident. I can’t say that. What I can say is that it is not likely a suicide.”

Fucking hell. Fucking doctors. And me without a fucking gun.

“Yes,” I say. “Sure. Whatever. I’m saying I need you to write a report and I need to attach it to an affidavit.”

“Affidavit,” he says in alarm. “You didn’t say anything about an affidavit?”

I shake my head.

“I don’t see how that matters, Doc? You aren’t lying to me are ya?”

He’s angry.

“Of course, not,” he says. “I’m a licensed physician, I—“

“I get it, Doc. I get it. On the bright side, you won’t be called to testify in court,” I say.

“So I won’t be cross-examined,” he says with some relief in his voice.

“No, no,” I say. “I’m sure you will be cross-examined. Just not in court.”

I shrug. He frowns. He pushes his glasses up on his nose. He isn’t happy.

“Fine,” he says after a minute. “Fine, if I have to swear an affidavit I guess I will do so. But as long as we are clear that I can’t certify that chronic onanism caused the hemorrhage.”

“Understood, Doc. Understood.”

“Well,” he says, looking at his watch. “If that’s everything. I have to start my shift.”

I stand up and start toward the door.

“Actually,” I say. “I do have one last question.”

“Yes,” he says, looking at me.

“Did you see anything to suggest Danny was murdered?”

“What?” he says, his eyes beady and alert. “Homicide?”

“Yes,” I say. “I have to ask Doc. I have to rule out all theories. I want to be sure that the only option left is accidental death. You understand, right?”

He shakes his head at me. He’s irritated.

“There was nothing in the files you sent me to suggest that Mr. Piggott was murdered,” he says. “The police didn’t see it that way either.”

“That’s what I thought,” I say. “But I had to be sure.”

I see myself out of his office before he can respond.

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