The recent news story from Miami about the naked man cannibalizing another man made me do a double-take. Police are suggesting that the perpetrator may have been high on a new designer drug which goes by the innocuous name, “bath salts.” It is a designer drug which may even be legal as it is sold with the label that it should not be ingested. Described as having the worst features of LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and angel dust, the drug apparently gives its user super human powers and elevates his/her body temperatures to extraordinarily high levels. why did I do a double take? I have been working on a segment of my follow on novel to Falling Star that incorporates such a drug for about ten years:
Project Gabriel had started as an ordinary drug interdiction coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the United States Coast Guard. The object of the task force was to stem the flow of a new powerful recreational drug, Alowfin, which induced a euphoric state of mind in its users. Enthusiastically endorsed by its users as a non-addictive high, the drug had quickly spread through the urban drug culture, attracting users from every socioeconomic level. Alowfin was not a “street drug” as the term is commonly used. Dealing was often done discreetly by what seemed to be a loose confederation of users. However, something was not right with this synthetic drug. An increasing number of users would become erratic and often destructive. Most often these episodes would pass quickly and the victim would fall into a deep slumber. When they awoke, it was as though there had been no negative effect from the drug whatsoever.
The report went on to say that Alowfin was very similar to the drug Scopolamine, a tropane alkaloid drug, derived from the fruit of the borrachero tree in Colombia. Scopolamine is considered a powerful drug that causes its user to lose their free will while outwardly acting normal. In this state the victim can easily be directed to do things against their own interests and have no knowledge about the episode thereafter. Alowfin was worse than Scopolamine, it had an edgier effect and could result in a total loss of the cognitive state in the user, an effect denied by those who pushed for this drug.
A more grisly aspect of the Alowfin trade was recently discovered in a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood; a middle-aged professor of antiquities was found murdered in his apartment. The body was artfully displayed by his slayers holding one of his pre-Colombian objects, his robe was straightened up and, for all intent and purposes, the professor looked as though he had fallen asleep while examining the object. The one disconcerting aspect of this tableau was that his throat had been slashed open and his tongue now hung out from the wound. This particular method of execution was called a “Colombian Necktie.” Apparently, the distributors of “Devil’s Breath” as Scopolamine was called on the street, were not going to sit idly while the more up-scaled purveyors of Alowfin encroached on their trade. With this gruesome death of the professor, a firestorm of criticism was launched against the perception that the federal government wasn’t doing enough to stem the violence of Colombian drug lords.
Operation Gabriel was the federal response to this looming drug war between upscale recreational drug users (and distributors) and the street gangs who owned the Devil’s Breath franchise. Started as an initiative of local authorities, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard was brought in to provide marine interdiction.
In the course of trying to contain this new drug threat, certain contaminants were found in drugs seized during Operation Gabriel. These contaminants were microscopic specks of some crystalline-like substance. These contaminants were considered byproducts of the pharmaceutical process that made Alowfin and were summarily discarded as inconsequential by the analysts. The touted benefit of Alowfin was that it did not cause its users to go into a catatonic state according to street talk.
In the rare case, the manic state would persist and the victim had to be hospitalized for observation. Users of Alowfin attributed these rare cases as the price to pay for what seemed to be a “harmless” recreational drug, often attributing the prolonged state to underlying psychological problems.
There was, however, a disturbing discovery in the relatively few, but increasing, cases where the user of Alowfin was accidentally killed while in a manic state. During autopsies of these victims, examination of the brain would yield a small strange mass in the frontal lobe of their cerebrums. While not microscopic, these masses were so tiny that they initially escaped detection in early autopsies. In fact, the masses were initially discounted by forensic pathologists as insignificantly small benign tumors; recorded and forgotten.
One medical examiner, however, was intrigued on finding what appeared to be a benign tumor in the part of the otherwise normal and unremarkable brain that controlled emotions and critical thinking. She decided to find out whether these “tumors” could have affected the victims altered state. Rather than discarding the mass, the medical examiner decided to microscopically dissect the one “tumor.” Her findings were unremarkable and consistent with benign tumors, though remarkable from the standpoint that it was found in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum. She made a note of her findings and closed the file as another drug-related accidental death.
Because of their relationship to Alowfin, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was asked to review the approximately two dozen accidental deaths across the country. A sharp-eyed lab technician at the CDC observed strikingly similar pathologies of the Alowfin related victims. He noted that in each case where Alowfin was implicated, the same small benign tumor was present. When this finding was presented to his department head, the technician was asked to run a statistically controlled sample of accident victims of similar race, age and gender; the results were startling.
The control sample did not have one instance of a tumor, benign or otherwise, being found in the frontal lobe of the cerebrums of non-Alowfin related accident victims.
As a result of this discovery, medical examiners around the United States were asked to look for the small tumor-like mass in autopsies that were related to Alowfin, including ones that were due to natural causes. As the results trickled in to the CDC, it became increasingly evident that Alowfin related autopsies uniformly would find one of these masses. Funds were made available to determine exactly what was the mass or tumor and how was it implicated in the manic state exhibited by its users.
A list of governmental and non-governmental laboratories was drawn up to receive tissue slices of the suspect masses for examination; including the biomedical center at CSAC. The sending of a tissue sample to CSAC did not mean anything more than the fact that the CSAC biomedical center was one of the government’s most advanced laboratories.
When the tissue sample was initially received by CSAC, it was not given any priority as, frankly, CSAC was not in the business of drug interdiction or determining causes of drug-related deaths. But this was to soon change.
Part of CSAC’s protocol was to run a DNA scan of any tissue it received for analysis. This was merely standard protocol. The use of DNA in forensic evaluations was at its early stages in 1996, the FBI was in the process of developing its own system. CSAC, having access to almost unlimited funding had one of the best DNA laboratories in existence. Although the CSAC analyst did not expect anything earth shaking, when he received the report back he dropped everything and literally ran to his department supervisor. Why? DNA analysis of the tissue sample was unlike anything that the analyst or anyone else had ever seen before. Instead of standard chains of DNA or RNA, the report on the Alowfin tissue sample showed new structures. Geneticists uniformly stated that such an occurrence was not just unlikely, but it was impossible and criticized the CSAC analysis.
Within CSAC, there was a more alarming response. The fact that extraordinary and possibly alien elements were found in the tissue sample was enough to alert exobiologists in the agency to drop their other projects to look at these structures. Their conclusion was that the tissue from the strange “tumor” was possibly extraterrestrial in origin and this finding was duly reported to Admiral McHugh.
McHugh’s response was to order a CSAC investigation of the Alowfin situation. He turned to William Johnson, a Level One agent at CSAC and an active duty officer in the Marine Corps. Bill Johnson had graduated from the U.S. Navy Academy in 1980 and had a spectacular rise in the marines, when he was assigned to CSAC to coordinate the Marine Corps role following the epic events of 1993. As with any other trusted CSAC agent, Johnson was given other duties at the pleasure of Admiral Robert McHugh.
The first step was to have Johnson assigned to the marine detachment that was part of the strike force on Operation Gabriel. Colonel Johnson was to be a liaison to the task force, ostensibly from the Marine Corps, and whose assignment was to prepare a report for the Commandant, USMC, on the effectiveness of the marine detachment to Operation Gabriel. In reality, Bill Johnson was to try and learn all that he would about Alowfin, its manufacture, its sources, and its distribution network.
Mike put the secured browser on his computer on pause to get some dinner. All that he had were microwavable dinners in his freezer and he popped one in for nuking and watched as his dinner pirouetted under the dim light. He thought to himself that it would be so much better if the infernal machine would play a song, a waltz maybe, instead of that monotonous drone. With a hellish squeak, the microwave announced his dinner was ready and Mike took the paper tray back into his secured work space.
Apparently the U.S. had enlisted the help from its allies across the pond in its attempts to identify the source of Alowfin, which was snuck into the country through Latin America, but seemed to be too sophisticated for the South American drug cartels. MI-6 had assigned one of its top agents. Clifford Rashkin…
Mike paused on seeing the name of his old friend, Rashkin, in this report. Clifford was an exchange student at the University of Virginia when Mike first met him. They had kept in touch through the years as they each followed their own distinct, yet similar career paths. Clifford’s wife Mirabelle, was a nursing student at the University. She was from Fredericksburg, Virginia, but her parents had emigrated from Britain before her birth.
The report went on to say that MI-6 had been brought in because there were indications that a South African company, iEnzani, was somehow involved in the illicit trade. This was vehemently denied by both iEnzani and South African officials.
Mike made a mental note to have Eric Johanson do some research into iEnzani, Eric joined Smedleys in 1993, during the intense CSAC activity in 1993. Mike had taken a liking to the Minnesota native, a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. In the three years, Eric had worked for Mike, he had matured immensely from the naïve new grad and was now a trusted associate in Mike’s team.