Monday, April 04, 2005

Chapter 10

Schwartz was skipping his 8:30 garage time for this. I was skipping my 8:30 back-to-the-sack-after-breakfast-for-a-few-extra-winks time, but it was worth it. We were in his 1968 NSU Ro80 with the newly detailed fender cruising to the coroner’s office. This was something I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Not because I especially enjoy interviewing coroner’s deputies about the attributes of indigenous poisonous plants. I wouldn’t have missed the chance to watch Lupa Schwartz grovel no matter what else had been happening.

Schwartz had alienated assistant coroner Wanda Corwin a few months back by flirting with her to get her to use the lab for tests on some old metal for traces of insecticides. When she had found out his scheme, she had been hurt, angered and vengeful. But now he needed her help. She was one of the foremost experts in the county on the topic of toxins, and Schwartz had some questions about Phytolacca americana (AKA pokeweed) that he needed answers to.

At about nine we pulled into the employee parking area and waited for Wanda to arrive. “She’s never going to talk to you,” I said. “She was so p...”

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed. “She was very angry with me. However, she’s a professional, and this concerns her professionally.”

“So you’re counting on her professional curiosity to overcome the anger of a woman scorned?” I held back a chuckle. “Are you insane?”

He scratched his chin and stared hard into my eyes. After a moments beat, he said, “I know women.”

I allowed a broad grin to grow as I plopped assuredly back in my seat. “I am a woman,” I said folding my arms across my chest. “You’re going down hard.” A few moments later, Wanda Corwin’s Grand Am pulled into the lot not more than three spaces from where we sat. As she arranged her jacket and unstrapped her seat-belt, Schwartz exited his Ro80 and strode over to await the moment of recognition.

From where I sat, I saw Wanda’s head rise and drop and then pop right back up again. Lupa waved bashfully and stepped closer to the Pontiac. Wanda’s eyes were fixed to him. He reached her door and opened it for her. “Hello, Ms Corwin.”

“Mr. Schwartz,” I heard her say with a steely calmness chilling her tone. “I can open my own door, thank you.”

“May I speak with you on a professional matter?” Schwartz said. “It concerns a murder investigation. Are you familiar with the Overlord case?”


For the first time in months we found ourselves seated in a place I never thought I’d see Schwartz seated again; Wanda Corwin’s office. As it happened, Wanda was a great fan of Overlord, and had been making a study of the case in her own attempt to claim the reward. Truth be told, I think she was doing it in an effort to impress our man Schwartz, but I could never prove that, so don’t expect me to try. “It’s also called American nightshade,” Wanda said beginning her lecture on pokeweed. “Also inkberry and pidgeonberry, but the berries are only mildly toxic. They can kill a small child, but most adults would just become nauseated from eating them.”

“Right,” I said, “that’s what Beverly told us. She knows a little bit about pokeweed. She gardens.” Wanda nodded. “Beverly says the poison most likely came from the leaves.”

“Could be,” Wanda agreed, “but the root is even more toxic still.”

“Well how could they have gotten the roots without being seen by the camera?” I asked.

“You have a point,” Wanda said. “I suppose it would have been easier to acquire the leaves, and the killer wouldn’t have actually had to feed the leaves to the victim either. They could boil the leaves until the poison leached out and then have the victim drink the water.”

I suddenly had a new idea. What if Myron had been planning to kill the other contestants later? I had been assuming that he was the planned victim. What if he had been meaning to kill off Charles or Lance? It still fit into my theory that the three of them were scheming to defraud the game. “Is it possible that Myron took the poison himself trying to build up an immunity?”

“That’s a very interesting question,” Schwartz said.

“Well, I suppose it’s possible,” Wanda said. “However, from what I hear, the dose the victim was given -- or took -- was pretty excessive. I doubt that it was a dose that anyone could have survived.”

“Even if the victim had already developed a tolerance to the toxin?” Schwartz asked.

Wanda shook her head. “No, I’d have to say that a dose that high would be too great for any tolerance level. Now, it is possible to develop a tolerance to pokeweed. Even after only one minor exposure, the body can build up a resistance to the phytolycines, glycoproteins and saponins which make up the toxin. However, not in the quantity that this victim ingested.” Okay, scrap that new theory. Leaving me back to my original surmise.

“What is the treatment for pokeweed poisoning?” Schwartz inquired.

“Gastric lavage,” Corwin said. “But until they knew specifically which poison was involved, they would probably have treated with carbon. At least, that’s what they would have done had they considered poisoning as a cause for the distress. According to the accounts I’ve read, the doctor on site originally felt that it was a flu. The symptoms are very similar to flu, so it was a reasonable assumption. They simply didn’t consider poison until the convulsions began, and by then it was too late for lavage.”

Schwartz placed his hands together, the tips of his fingers flexing like a bellows. “So what you’re saying is that even though they should have known that pokeweed was present on the set, they never even considered the possibility that Myron was exhibiting the symptoms of pokeweed poisoning until it was too late to do anything about it?”

Wanda shook her head disagreeing with Schwartz’s assessment. “The symptoms of pokeweed poisoning are cramps, vomiting, spasms and weakness. Anyone seeing that would automatically think food poisoning or flu. In my professional opinion, it was more than reasonable for the doctor on the set to assume that the patient was at no real risk of death and to simply try to keep him comfortable at first.”

I had my shoulders pulled back and harumphed at Schwartz. “Of course they didn’t suspect pokeweed poisoning,” I said. “They were on camera constantly. Nobody saw Myron eat pokeweed before he took sick, so why would they assume it?”

“I’m simply making sure that all of the questions are considered,” Schwartz said with a wry smile. “Remember, I already know who and how. Most of this is for your benefit.” Then he looked across the table at Wanda. “And because it gives me the chance to make my apologies to Ms Corwin.”


At ten minutes to eight that evening, I found myself seated in a green room at the local network affiliate as Schwartz sat down the hall in studio being strapped into his earpiece and microphone, his hair newly cut, his dark green shirt and tie freshly pressed, and his face recently powdered for that healthy television-glow. Apparently that trip to Corwin’s office had been meant to serve two purposes; first to get Schwartz a date for that Friday evening, and second to bring me up to speed on what Schwartz already knew about pokeweed so that I could try one last time to cipher out by whom and how exactly Myron had been poisoned in front of a live television audience of millions of Overlord junkies.

On the way back to Schwartz’s house after our meeting with Wanda, I had laid out what I had thought to be the solution Schwartz had gleaned from that one viewing of the promo. “That’s an interesting theory,” he had said as he pulled onto the parkway, “but it doesn’t explain how either Lance or Charles managed to poison Myron’s meal without being seen, and it doesn’t tell us which one the actual killer was, and it leaves us wondering which person from the production staff was the insider who helped with the murder or how they managed to make contact with each other before production began. Remember, once the contestants for these shows are chosen, they are carefully watched to protect the integrity of the game.”

“So are you saying that my theory is wrong?” I asked.

“It simply has too many unanswerable variables. If a theory on the perpetration of a crime can’t take all of the necessary facts into account and answer them, then it leaves alibi room for the person or persons you accuse, and it is useless in court.”

“But you have a different theory?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“One that doesn’t leave any wiggle room for the person or persons you will accuse?”

“Correct,” he said. So apparently once again, I was off on the completely wrong tack. I had seen all of the same evidence Schwartz had, and I had even been given background on the poison that Schwartz had considered when making his judgment on the case, and I was still unable to come up with a credible theory of who had killed Myron Lefkowitz. But soon, I and all of America would learn Schwartz’s theory. There was a monitor in the green room, and Overlord was about to begin broadcast in three, two, one...


Dale Martin’s voice and the Overlord graphic opened the show, “Previously on Overlord,” we heard Dale read followed by a brief montage of scenes from the preceding episodes. Clips from the various games and snippets from the confessional as well as brief examples of the interactions of the contestants led to a replay of the final segment from the episode where Myron was taken from the set looking green and dyspeptic. After the montage, the scene moved to a live shot of the staging room inside the compound. The eight remaining contestants sat on a sectional couch arranged in a semi-circle behind Dale Martin. The four members of the red team, Seth, the rather muscular lothario type with a receding hairline; Gwen, the thoughtful mother of three who was secretly playing all sides against the others; Peter, the under-the-radar studious one and Charles, the red team’s best player allied with the blue team's Lance all sat to the left of Martin while Brad, the slim class-clown type who couldn’t even solve puzzles if his life depended on it; Julia, the too gaunt wanna-be swimsuit model; Candace, the elderly retired school teacher and Lance, the nondescript other half of the Charles/Lance alliance who as a group made up the blue team sat to the right.

“Tonight on Overlord, we will be doing things differently,” Dale Martin announced. “As you may know, last week one of our contestants passed away after somehow ingesting some poisonous vegetation. It was a plant commonly called pokeweed which grows wild and is growing here on the compound which houses the Overlord set. We here at Overlord deeply regret this incident, and have decided to dedicate this program to examining how this terrible incident could have happened. We have had our production team as well as members of the police detective division examine all of the video of the area, and we simply cannot find any opportunity for anyone to have gathered the toxin from the plant growing here on the set. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, we’re stumped.

“However, we have offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who can determine how the incident occurred, and to assist our viewing audience in piecing together the facts which might eventually answer these bothersome questions we have invited the very well respected criminologist Lupa Schwartz to interview the contestants who shared this space with Myron.” We were given a glimpse of my friend Lupa, then the scene returned to the Overlord set. “The eight remaining contestants are here on the compound with me, and the contestants previously eliminated are in the adjoining building.” Another switch of scene to the room in the next building where the ejected contestants were debriefed after leaving the compound. The seven contestants who had already failed the quiz and found themselves being asked to leave were reunited.

“It is our hope,” Dale began, “that with the aid of Mr. Schwartz’s unique investigative approach, we will be able to determine exactly how this unfortunate event could have occurred. We’ll be right back.”

It would have been tacky to then go to their usual opening credit sequence and theme music, so instead they faded to black. The next thing we saw was a commercial for a retirement fund. I wondered if the producers had discussed which commercial to place there. Surely they would have known that a loud flashy commercial advertising hamburgers or anything fun would have been out of place. Had they selected this commercial hoping to maintain the sedate mood and to also capitalize on the fact that many home viewers would be thinking about what to do with the $100,000 when they solved the case?

The commercials ran their course, and the production was back. “Joining us now via satellite is Lupa Schwartz,” Dale Martin said as Lupa’s smug countenance nodded. “Mr. Schwartz, welcome. Let me first ask you, in your career, have you ever come across a case quite this baffling?”

“I’ve had many cases where the authorities were baffled,” Lupa injected. “By comparison, this one is not all that complicated.”

“Are you saying that you know what happened?” Dale Martin asked seeming surprised and irritated.

“I’m not allowed to say that,” Schwartz said. “All I’m allowed to do is ask questions until your lawyer gives me the green-light to point a finger. May I continue?”

“Please,” Martin said sweeping his arm in a gesture of generous compliance.

“Thank you,” Schwartz said. “Mr. Martin, you enter the set through the panel in the confessional, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes,” Martin said. “The only other way onto the set is through the front door, and we keep it alarmed in case some fan tries to enter the compound or something. Why do you ask?”

“Did you follow Myron out of the compound the day he died?”

“I escorted him to the confessional. The contestants are sequestered, so they couldn’t escort him. But once they took him out, I stayed behind to wrap the show.” He looked nervous which was uncharacteristic for a television professional. They train themselves to keep their cool no matter the circumstance.

“How long have you been a professional game show host?” Schwartz asked.

“I’ve been involved in a few other shows. All tolled, off and on, I’ve been doing this for about twenty years.”

“Have you ever been involved in a Todd deMarc production before?”

“No,” Martin said. “This is my first one.”

“Do you think this was an accident, or do you think it was deliberate?”

“It had to be an accident,” Martin said assuredly.

“How would you describe the security precautions?”

“I’d have to call them exemplary. This is a very special case. The stakes are very high to assure that everything is kept on the up-and-up. That’s why it is particularly bothersome that something like this was able to happen. All of the precautions, it couldn’t have been intentional. Things are watched too closely.”

“My next questions are for the doctor who treated Mr. Lefkowitz when he was removed from the set. I believe his name is Doctor Hepburn.”

“I’m here,” the doctor said walking into camera range on the debriefing stage.

“Doctor, is there a camera there which can follow you to the panel that opens into the confessional. I believe that is where you first met the victim.”

“Todd?” the doctor called to Todd deMarc in the director’s room.

“It’s okay,” the omnipresent director’s voice announced over a speaker, and Dr. Hepburn strolled to a behind the scenes area of the set. The well lighted walls and uncluttered furnishings gave way to unfinished walls and exposed cables covering the floor. Some of the walls had one way glass through which interiors of the program were shot. “This is it,” Dr. Hepburn announced as he arrived at the panel. “The confessional is on the other side of this wall.”

“Fine,” Schwartz said. “Now tell me, doctor, on the night that Myron was taken from the confessional, why did you ask that he be removed?”

“Well, we had been watching him all afternoon. After the contestants had eaten dinner, he had begun to exhibit symptoms of an illness. We were worried that he might be contagious, and that the other contestants might be at risk.”

“Was this your own conclusion, or had somebody else suggested it to you?”

“Well, we were all concerned,” doctor said. “There is a lot at stake in a production like this one.”

“Yes, but was there one person in particular who seemed concerned? Don’t say who, just was there somebody?”

“I suppose there was. Yes, you could say that.”

“And did this person go with you to the panel when Myron was removed from the set?”


“Just one more question, doctor. Did this person offer Myron a drink of water when he came off the set?”

“Now that you mention it,” the doctor said, “yes. There is a water cooler here around the corner from the confessional near the bathroom the production team uses. There’s a paper cup dispenser on it, and Myron was given a cool drink of water when he came off the set. But that couldn’t have been poisoned. We all drink from it, and none of us was poisoned. Besides, he was already exhibiting symptoms before he came off the set.”

“Thank you doctor,” Schwartz said. “I’d like to speak with the lawyer for the show now if you don’t mind.” The camera in the local affiliate studio widened to a two-shot showing the lawyer for the network seated next to Schwartz, his forehead in his hand and his elbow propping that head and hand on the arm of his chair. “Before we went on the air, I explained a little theory that I had to this man, Mr. Jeremy McDonald, advocate for the network. He said if I could establish a few more facts, I could state my conclusion for the record. Well, Mr. McDonald? Have I done what I set out to do?” McDonald nodded. “I think now would be a good time to go to a commercial,” Schwartz announced, “while Mr. McDonald collects himself. When we come back, I have a little story to tell.”

Continue to Chapter 11