Monday, April 04, 2005

Chapter 11

As the network broke for station identification, I hurriedly tried one last time to figure out what Schwartz had managed to just prove. Obviously, Schwartz had not needed the revelations about the water cooler or that someone had suggested that whatever was bothering Myron might be contagious. He had already known these things before asking about them, or in the case of the contagion, Schwartz had at least surmised that someone had raised cause for alarm that Myron should be removed quickly. These points were obviously crucial to his theory, and he just needed to establish them as fact in order to demonstrate that his theory was more than mere conjecture. But what exactly did they prove?

I had no more of an idea when the commercials came to a close than I did before they began.

“Welcome back,” Dale Martin said. “If you are just joining the program, with us via satellite is Lupa Schwartz,” The screen again showed us Schwartz close-up in a split screen with Martin. “Mr. Schwartz was just about to reveal his theory about what happened to Myron Lefkowitz. By now everybody knows the details of how we lost one of our contestants in an unfortunate poisoning last week. Mr. Schwartz, the stage is yours.”

“Thank you,” Schwartz said, his moment in the limelight arrived at last. “Very well, shall we consider all of the facts. Myron Lefkowitz was a little liked member of the cast of this program. Any of the contestants might have had reason to want him removed from the program, but would any of them have wanted it enough to kill him? It seemed an unlikely possibility. This left two other obvious possibilities. The death had been accidental or it had been suicide. However, even considering the possibility that it had been murder at the hands of one of his cast-mates, with all three scenarios we were left with the same apparently insurmountable obstacle. How had Myron been given the poison without the poisoning having been seen?”

The camera began to slowly pan the contestants for reactions. “To prove a murder, one must establish three things; means, motive and opportunity. It mattered little,” Schwartz continued as one by one the nervous faces of the collection of suspects were broadcast to the world, “that one contestant might have more motive than another to wish Myron dead. And it mattered not at all that all of you had access to the toxin used. If no opportunity could be demonstrated, then no accusation could ever be made to stick. And the fact is that even though all eight of you might have had motive, and all eight of you clearly had means since you were all living just yards from a ready source of the toxin employed, none of you actually had opportunity. The poison was right there, but you simply couldn’t have gathered it without having been observed. Therefore, I ruled out all eight contestants right away.”

The camera had stopped on Candace, who relaxed with an exhale that must have held about a pound of air.

“This forced me to consider members of the production team,” Schwartz announced. “The theory being that perhaps the food had entered the compound having already been poisoned. The problem with that was, how could a member of the production team have poisoned the Mexican food and it only have affect on one of the contestants? I’ll admit that this gave me some difficulty for about ten minutes, but I quickly reasoned it out. Then this morning I had my theory verified through a discussion with the most fetching member of the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office you ever saw. But I am ahead of myself.”

Schwartz shifted in his chair. He leaned in toward the camera and pulled at his lips. “If a member of the production team had indeed been responsible for the murder, we still needed means, method and opportunity. Opportunity does indeed exist. Poisoning the dish before it was brought onto the set was easy enough for almost any one on the production staff. Means also existed. Pokeweed grows everywhere. It didn’t have to be the plant on the set that provided the lethal dose. But what about motive?”

Schwartz tented his fingers and drummed them on one another. “We can get back to motive. First, there remain some issues to resolve with opportunity. Surely, it would be easy enough to place a lethal dose in the tamales, but how could the killer know that the right victim would ingest the poison? The simple answer is that he couldn’t. If he placed poison in the food, he had to know that all of the contestants would probably ingest it. So the simple fact is that he couldn’t place a lethal dose in the Mexican food. However, he could add just enough to cause distress to any contestant who hadn’t already built up a resistance to pokeweed poison.”

Schwartz was smiling in giddy excitement. “That’s what I verified today at the coroner’s office. One can build up a short term resistance to pokeweed poisoning. In fact, I surmise that all of the contestants except Myron had done just that in the lutefisk eating contest.” Schwartz was nodding in fast determination. The camera again panned the contestant gallery exposing us to their shock. “Yes, the lutefisk had been poisoned as well. That’s why you all took ill after eating it. You all ingested a small amount of toxin, and through your illness you developed a tolerance to the bane which rendered you impervious to it at your next exposure during the Mexican meal. Well, you might have developed a minor case of diarrhea, but you would probably have simply chalked that up to the refried beans.” He thought that was funny. The man had the worst sense of humor in America.

“At any rate, one member of the contestant collection would have not built up that tolerance to pokeweed, because he would have been forced to sit out the lutefisk competition due to a catch in the rules. Any member of the production staff would have known this and could have factored it into their murder plan.

“Still, it would not have been possible to place a lethal dose in the Mexican food. A dose that large might have killed more than one person since there would be no guarantee that enough of a resistance had been built up from the lutefisk dosing. Simply put, Myron did not die from the amount of poison he ingested during that last meal of his life.”

“I don’t understand,” Dale Martin interjected. “Are you saying that Myron was given two doses of pokeweed; once at dinner and then at some other time that same day?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Schwartz said.

“By who?” Dale Martin demanded.

“Whom,” Schwartz corrected. “I’m coming to that. But first, I’d like to interview one more person. Is the set designer, Albert Oldman available?”

“I’m here, Mr. Schwartz,” said a disembodied voice which was soon treated to a body as the scene switched to the debriefing stage. There stood Oldman, a lanky man in his forties with a mustache and the kind of hair that always looks like he just removed a ballcap. “What can I do for you?”

“You are the set designer for Overlord, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes,” Oldman announced.

“You choose the furnishings and decide where to place the cameras and what colors to paint the walls.”

“That’s part of it, yes,” Oldman conceded.

“You also decide how to keep the sets fresh from season to season? What changes are made are all approved through you, isn’t that correct?” Oldman again conceded the point. “Was it your idea to plant pokeweed on the set?”

“Nobody decided that,” Oldman said. “Last season we had a problem with poison ivy. When we cleared the crap away, we discovered pokeweed growing wild in its place. I wanted to kill it off and replace it with wheat-grass, but I was overruled. The producer felt that it would take too long for the wheat-grass to take hold, and the pokeweed was a hearty enough plant that it could add some interest to the yard that the wheat-grass couldn’t provide.”

“Did you object?” Schwartz asked.

“Object,” Oldman said. “No, of course I didn’t object. I didn’t agree, but it’s not my place to object to an executive decision.”

“Why did you disagree?” Schwartz wondered.

“Why? Well, because it doesn’t matter that the pokeweed is more interesting. I agree that it’s more interesting, but that’s the problem. On a show like this, the set needs to be subdued. Pretty is one thing, but distracting is another, and pokeweed has those damn berries that you just can’t predict. One day they’re white, then pretty soon they start turning dark purple. People notice. We get emails.”

“So for the record,” Schwartz said, “who was it that decided to keep the pokeweed on the set?”

“Why, Todd of course,” Oldman answered as if he had just named God.

“By Todd you mean Todd deMarc, the executive producer?”

“I’ll answer that one,” a voice announced over the PA. “This is Todd deMarc, Mr. Schwartz, and yes, I approved the pokeweed for the set. I never thought it would lead to this.”

“Mr. deMarc,” Schwartz began, “is there a camera near you? Can we see you?”

We now had a new split-screen. Schwartz in his satellite box took up a quadrant of the picture, but the main image was the gray-haired producer/director sitting at a control panel ordering camera switches. “Jimmy, take over direction. Yes, Mr. Schwartz?”

“I understand you have had quite a career in game shows.”

“We don’t consider Overlord to be a game show,” deMarc said diplomatically. “It’s a reality show.”

“It was certainly real for Myron Lefkowitz,” Schwartz said pouring on the drama like maple syrup. “And I understand that his death has been very good for ratings.”

“Well, there is a morbid curiosity appeal inherent in this kind of thing,” deMarc said his hands stretched out at his sides. “Unfortunately, that can’t be helped. But yes, Internet activity has increased about twenty percent, and we expect the ratings for this program to top our usual share.”

“Convenient timing,” Schwartz said. “I understand that the ratings companies are paying special attention at this time of year. I believe they call it sweeps.”

“Yes,” deMarc agreed. ”February ratings are especially important to networks. They help determine what kind of rates they can set for their advertisers.”

“I also understand that there is often a lot of pressure to save your biggest shows for these periods, and that writers and producers are expected to titillate the audiences more during these weeks.”

“Is there a point,” deMarc asked. “Because you are not being especially titillating right now, and I have to keep this show moving.”

“I just have a few questions,” Schwartz said. “Weren’t you once involved in a scandal involving one of your game shows several years ago?”

“I assume you are speaking of New Deal in 1968,” deMarc said, the agitation showing in his neck muscles. “That was a long time ago. We’ve learned a lot since then.”

“You worked with a magician on that program, didn’t you?”

“He wasn’t actually a magician,” deMarc said. “He was a slight-of-hand artist. A prestidigitator. He knew card tricks and what-not.”

“Did he teach you how to palm a cup?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Dr. Hepburn told us that you gave Myron a cup of water when they brought him out of the set.”

“Did he?” deMarc said.

“Well, he said that it was a producer,” Schwartz conceded. “He didn’t actually name you, but we can always ask.”

“That won’t be necessary,” deMarc said. “I concede that I poured Myron a cup from the water cooler, but if you are suggesting that the water in the cooler was poisoned, I can assure you that other people drank from that same cooler all day.”

“I’m not suggesting that at all,” Schwartz said.

“Good” said deMarc.

“No, I’m suggesting that you switched cups and gave Myron a cup full of water that had been used to steep pokeweed root like so much sassafras tea.”

“Go to commercial,” deMarc said, but Jimmy refused.

“Your ratings were good, but the network wanted spectacular, so you came up with a way to deliver,” Schwartz said. “You know television production better than anyone. You had every detail planned. You had placed Myron on the show because he fit a character paradigm. You scheduled the lutefisk eating contest for just before sweeps so that you could give all of the contestants save one a resistance to pokeweed toxin, and you assumed that Myron would be the odd man out. Then you sent in the Mexican fiesta a few days later having laced all of the food with just enough poison to affect the one contestant who had not had the opportunity to develop an immunity.” This was Schwartz’s favorite part of any investigation; showing off how smart he was.

“Then when Myron began exhibiting signs of gastric distress, you began planting the seed of concern with the doctor. You knew how long the poison would take to manifest symptoms, so you had timed everything to coincide with the broadcast. Finally, you were there to greet Myron when they brought him out through the confessional.” A policeman could be seen moving into camera range next to deMarc. Apparently the lawyer had made a few calls during the last commercial break.

“You feigned concern and drew a cup of water from the cooler, but you had been palming a cup that contained pokeweed residue. That would have been easy enough. You simply had to boil pokeweed until all of the poisons had leached into the water, fill a cup and then wait for the water to evaporate. Then you palmed that cup, pretended to take a fresh one from the dispenser, and when you poured water into it from the cooler, you had reconstituted pokeweed tea. Myron then eagerly swallowed a lethal dose of toxin, and everyone assumed that he had died from the poison the autopsy found in the Mexican food.”

“That’s ridiculous,” deMarc said.

“Is it?” Schwartz asked. “Did the magician from your old show ever teach you how to palm things, or didn’t he? I’m sure he’d be glad to tell us if we called him. After all, he’s probably been waiting years for the opportunity to tell the world again about how he took the fall for you back in sixty-eight.”

Continue to Chapter 12