DEATH CAN BE BEAUTIFUL
Death can be beautiful. Ask any oyster shucker. And Ramsey Nugget has seen both the sacred and the profane aspects of it. He is a private eye by day and an oyster shucker by night. When he was offered the gig to shuck oysters at Maison Andre he thought it would be all pleasure and no pain, until things went terribly wrong.
Ramsey is not the man you would normally invite to a glamorous party. So his skill as a shucker makes all the difference. He is small in stature with a crew cut and has seen too many after-event kitchen leftovers to be svelte. For a casting call in a James Bond movie he would apply for the role of Goldfinger or his accomplice. His knowledge of oysters usually gets him the work. He shucks a beautiful oyster. As a P-eye, his knowledge of knives makes his weapon of choice a Galveston style jabber. He can juggle four of them in the air simultaneously and stick one in a bullseye at thirty feet like another man might throw a dart.
Maison Andre invited ten prominent customers to a special midnight oyster tasting event in the Bonzai Room. Nugget’s job was to shuck the oysters. The people in attendance were all strangers to him and all of them came clutching a small folded invitation. The piece of embossed paper was the only common denominator. They were a bizarre collection of humanity.
Nugget had arrived early to set up the trays of crushed ice and scrub down the oysters. He tied a white apron snuggly around his ample belly. Due to the time of day, traces of a reddish beard were showing on his round face. He eyed the invitees with his normal combination of P-eye detail and curiosity. No one seemed to notice him. They all wore elegant nametags.
Darlene Brandy was the first to catch his eye. She was a sparrow of a woman with a tattoo of a butterfly between her shoulder blades. She wore a black satin off-the-shoulder evening dress so that the tattoo could be seen by everyone but her. She looked like a retired Olympic gymnast -very limber and walked like a cat. Nugget made a note to talk to her.
Boris Natchez was the largest man in the group. He might have played collegiate hockey. He seemed uncomfortable in a tie and kept reaching for his collar as if to loosen the noose it made around his ample neck. He responded to Nugget’s gaze with idle disdain. Natchez wore a black suit and tie – like a funeral director.
Constance LaGuerre was dressed in gray for the occasion. Her hair was silver and straight. She looked like a sixty year old version of Joan of Arc – a woman of will and determination. She stood apart and kept fumbling in her purse as if to seek temporary refuge there.
Nugget was awakened from his idle reconnaissance by the crisp pinging of butter knife blade on empty wineglass. “Welcome, one and all” it was Oscar Crunch speaking. “I will serve as your host for this evening. Thank you for coming.” Crunch’s baritone voice instantly put everyone at ease. “Maison Andre has prepared a special evening for you.” He cocked his hand in the direction of Ramsey Nugget. “Mr. Nugget will shuck for you tonight. And I will pour the wine.” The corkscrew squeaked in protest as he briskly twisted its curled weapon home. He sniffed the naked cork and poured the first glass in a single sweeping motion. “Enjoy. This is our special house white wine, a Souvignon Blanc.”
“I hate oysters!” Nugget looked up from shucking the first oyster. A couple was standing before him. The woman was speaking. “I am just messin’ with you!” She was amused and petted his shoulder. Her partner winked. The nametags read Carl and Bebe Knox. “I was raised on oysters in Louisiana.”
“Well that is a Cape Cod oyster.” Nugget tried to be friendly. “It is the same species as the wild Gulf oyster, but it is farmed.”
The couple each sucked down their oyster with a sound like a shuttle cock hitting a badminton racket. “Whuthup … whuthup. Mmmm.” They nodded their approval. Carl Knox folded a $20 bill and stuffed it into Nugget’s free hand.
Bridget Linkletter was now leaning over the shucking table and whispering into his ear. “Shuck mine without killing it.” She smelled like fresh lime and was already past sober and working on a wine buzz. Nugget’s knife blade responded. He placed the animal in its half shell in her open palm. She lifted it with two manicured finger tips. It slid from its shell into the fleshy opening between her lips. Her eyes closed.
“Would you care for an oyster sir?”
“I’d love one.” It was a polite man with a kind face named Barney Kant speaking. Nugget placed him as someone's grandfather - good with little kids.
The next voice was scratchy and softened by age. “I have been eating oysters since I was a little girl.” The woman hardly noticed Nugget but watched as his knife blade pried open and released the flat top shell of his next oyster. “My father took me shellfishing. He loved them so.” Her eyes sparkled with anticipation. She looked to be eighty something going on nineteen. Her nametag read “Gloria Rose.”
Only two people remained mysterious to Nugget as he worked his knife magic. They were a couple and were concentrating only on the wine. The man held the wine glass up to the light, swirled its contents, then sniffed it before he drank. The woman held her glass motionless like she was afraid it would be her last.
George Rothchild looked up from the open paperback in his lap and out the window of the commuter train at the lush green salt marsh speeding by. A lone Blue Heron caught his eye in the distance standing arched and motionless ankle deep in a pond of water left by the morning tide. This stretch of wild land was his favorite part of his morning commute. He always chose a window seat on the side of the train that provided the view. Two Great Egrets unfurl their wings and head off into the waiting sky like passenger airplanes following some eternal schedule. The sight of such lush natural beauty was in stark contrast to the tiny written words on the white pages of the book.
The train was full of baseball-hatted heads and hairdos knock-bobbing with the rhythm of the seatbacks in front of him. It was the people who brought him back to the book in his hands. The people on the train and the people in the story were pretty much the same. The difference was that the people in the book were destined to die in a series of tragic deaths, one by one. The book review in the Globe that had caught his attention compared the story to Ten Little Indians, the famous Agatha Christy story about a group of ten people who were invited to dinner and then were killed off “one by one, until there were none.”
The book review had already telegraphed the cause of death. It was the reason George chose to read it. The story was about a part time oyster shucker whose day job was a Private Investigator. The cause of death was Red Tide. Death by Red Tide is very rare in the United States. In New England it “blooms” into the water every Spring in the Gulf of Maine and moves with the current and climate southwards. It often stays far out to sea but occasionally comes close enough to land to be ingested by shellfish in tidal areas. When a filter feeding shellfish eats the phytoplankton that cause Red Tide, it does not hurt the shellfish, but can cause paralysis and death in the humans who consume it. Scientists call it Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning or PSP. Death takes about six hours. The toxin is powerful but, if the paralytic symptoms are recognized in time, PSP can be successfully treated by a doctor. Hundreds of people monitor the presence of Red Tide from May through October in the waters off the Gulf of Maine. Shellfish beds are closed immediately, if the numbers in the water are concerning. Even cooking cannot kill PSP.
In the book, one of the ten people who attend the midnight event at Chez Andre is secretly a marine biologist who specializes in testing for toxins in shellfish. For years the person had been warning people about the dangers of PSP. If it were up to the villain, no one would consume shellfish from May through October, raw or cooked. The situation prompted a change of career out of frustration. Testing laboratories have access to the PSP toxin in quantities sufficient to use to poison someone. The deranged scientist has brought a quantity of PSP toxin to the party and hopes that the resulting carnage will finally convince people of the seriousness of the PSP problem. Obviously, the intent is to poison everyone but one of the attendees. Only the villain survives.
George Rothchild expects Ramsey Nugget to somehow find the killer in time to save the day. So the book becomes a puzzle – like so many paperback thrillers. He hopes that Nugget will attach himself somehow to one of the beautiful women who are endangered. The cover of the book pictures a gorgeous woman with a butterfly tattoo on her back just below the nape of her neck. But Ramsey could instead fall for the tipsy lady with the scent of lime. The oyster lovers also perhaps expect some kind of Casanova-like oyster antics. It is a hot story.
The computerized audio message interrupts George Rothchild’s morning reading “NEXT STOP NORTH STATION”. He dog ears the page, closes the book, and tucks it in his coat pocket. He notices the passenger in the aisle seat for the first time. It is an attractive young student in her twenties who has been reading the morning paper. Her earphones are clamped to her head. An aria from an Italian opera is sifting into her brain. Rothchild recognizes the aria and awaits an opportunity to say so. The back page of her newspaper catches his attention. A headline causes fact and fiction to collide: “BACTERIA CLOSES SHELLFISH BEDS.
”Rothchild later had no memory of the journey from his train seat to the newspaper stand in North Station. He bought the morning Globe and breathlessly read it. He folded it, tucked it under his arm, and headed out into the morning mix of traffic and pedestrians. Strangely, he had a smile on his face.
The article described a strain of bacteria called Vibrio parahaemolyticus that was somehow transported from the West Coast to the East Coast. It had also been traced to outbreaks in Spain. While Vibrio bacteria is often identified as a cause for shellfish bed closures in other parts of the U.S., it is almost unheard of in New England. The bacteria is not deadly like PSP. Cooking shellfish can destroy the danger. But like PSP, it only appears as a danger to raw consumption by humans in months when the water temperature triggers its proliferation. The warmer the water, the faster it multiplies. Eating an oyster with sufficient Vibrio bacteria in its body, can cause stomach pains and diarrhea in humans that can last for days. The specific bacteria mentioned in the article had only been identified in certain specified waters. There are dozens of bacteria that are grouped as Vibrio. Only certain ones will make humans sick. These virulent ones have been successfully controlled in the past by cooling and refrigeration from the moment the shellfish are harvested until they are consumed.
People who consume raw shellfish can control their consumption of shellfish in the summer months by simply selecting their oysters from waters where the new Vibrio is not found and where the normal methods of cooling shellfish have been proven to be effective.
The biggest problem is not for consumers. It is the serious economic problem for shellfish farmers, distributors, markets, and restaurants who could possibly unintentionally serve shellfish that is tainted by the new strain of Vibrio. Farmers can “wait out” their harvest until the waters cool down and the Vibrio is effectively controlled on the farm. Even the shellfish that has been found to be tainted can be placed back into the water on the farm where it will naturally rid itself of the danger with time. Vibrio is not harmful to shellfish – they eventually flush out the harmful bacteria. A small farm might risk financial ruin if it gets the reputation of harvesting tainted shellfish. How is the information transmitted? By the newspaper now folded neatly under George Rothchild’s arm.
Why is George Rothchild smiling? He read the article and found that it was accurate. It accurately prepared the consumer for the possibility of food poisoning and explained the pitfalls, safeguards, and real hazards. Every place that serves raw shellfish is required to warn consumers about the hazards of eating raw food. Certain people are responsible for regulating the consumption of food at a government level. If shellfish beds are closed, these guys do it. George Rothchild arrived at work. He found a door with his name on it and a desk he recognized. He relates to all of the people who consume oysters raw in the fictional story and those real ones that he just road to work with on the train. He works as a health official for the government. Be right, George.