Week 10 and the bodies are really starting to stack up. Thought I had the bloody mess fairly well-contained--and then, during voir dire, Amybeth Berner had to go and drop d' bomb.
"Michael told me he was in the CIA at some point and had point-blank murdered someone while in Vietnam," testified Berner, a neighbor summoned to Elizabeth Ratliff's house.
Beebitybeedebeedeebeebdeeb...(insert flipping-out cartoon sound). "Hold on," says Judge Hudson, "this is all very interesting but I'm not sure what it has to do with the hearin'. " I'm not hearing. Things get kind of shimmery. Interesting? Interesting? Man, this has just about snapped the peg off the weird-o-meter. Gosh.
Part of my job description is "speculation." (Nancy Grace of CourtTV said we could do it, so anyone has a problem, don't hassle me--call New York.) But now that the whisper of the leathery wings of The Company are flapping around in my head, my job has gotten exponentially more taxing. Thanks a lot, Mike.
And then you had to go and try and impress Berner by offering to have a litigious pest, as you put it, "knocked off." Yeah, Mike, that really impresses the chicks. Forget the Ferrari or the eight-ball of coke. Offering to murder someone is always a sure-fire solution. Tough cookie didn't blink, "not my style," she said. (Later, complimented about "rolling over those New York lawyers like a truck over an armadillo," she grinned. "I love hearing them squish.")
The wheels clicked around. I remember Mr. Michael Peterson (not Lieutenant), as he was known in Germany, did in fact pull some fat checks from DoD for some--um--consulting. Uh-oh.
At a break, feeling like an utter heel, I scuttled into this poor woman's shitty day, apologizing profusely up front. I need an answer.
"Yes," she said wearily.
"I've only one question: How did George Ratliff die?"
Straight shooter she is. With a look right in my eye that said it all, Amybeth intoned slowly. "They told me that he went to sleep and his heart stopped."
Whooop, whoop. Warning, Will Robinson. Danger. Danger.
Quite simply, a military aviator cleared for flight duty, tucked in his little bed and dying quietly in his sleep is an event of uncanny rarity. Air Force personnel are subjected to a dizzying (literally) battery of tests: treadmills, ECGs, hell, centrifuges--inspected, injected, deetected, neeglected and seelected.
Here's Captain George Ratliff USAF, training for some spooky bullshit associated with Operation Urgent Fury, (Grenada), dying of what looks a lot like a conductivity failure of the nerve trigger that keeps your ticker clicking.
I have one word.
This is some wicked shit. This extract of the butter mussel, otherwise known as shellfish toxin, is the most diabolically potent poison--period. Developed by the agency whose name I no longer need mention, Saxitoxin is so potent as to be undetectable, and was well covered in the 1975 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as well as in many, many articles, journals and papers.
The reason yo gon' die is via Saxitoxin's unique ability to react "in extremely small concentrations with a critical component of the nerve membrane to block conduction in nerves." You simply switch off.
It's a crowded, noisy place, hard to hear and hard to be heard. He smiles kindly, the laugh lines concealing the scars from a helicopter crash he doesn't talk about.
"CIA killers are pathological. They don't have any feelings about killing someone one way or another--they are working stiffs. They kill people for a job, they don't kill for fun or for some emotion. He sounds like he's borderline.
"From what I've heard, he's too loud and obnoxious to be a wet-boy. They don't blab. If he's actually running around doing people, probably some sort of Walter Mitty thing.
"The CIA is a very complicated bureaucracy. They don't just leave Saxitoxin lying around like Sweet'n'Low; it's under lock and key. You would have to have a mission approval and seven or eight people sign off on that stuff.
"And also, they aren't going to zap some poor schmuck flying out of Rhein-Main just 'cause a piece of shit like Michael Peterson doesn't like him. It's messy. If an agent goes rogue and whacks somebody, they often get whacked. Too many questions.
"Remember they guy who defected in Georgetown? That's the type of thing they reserve that type of sanction for. This is all very careful and sober, very studied.
"Ratliff was probably flying recon. He's not a flyer; it's like a passenger, being a navigator. They don't really whang them around like a flyer. It's rare, but football players do just fall down on the field sometimes."
Whew. OK. Good. Calm down. Occam's Razor. Just another another fine lamella in a purple-ribbon onion of co-inkeedinkees. But I still wish Michael hadn't uttered those three letters. I really, really wish he hadn't, because now everything has to be at some point examined through that gauzy, grim filter.
Quiet on the set. Eye squint please. Rolling. Take one--clap--and ... action.
"So you say she fell, huh?"
"That's correct, Mr. Columbo."
"Had a hemorrhage, fell backwards and hit her head, dat's the story, right? Looks like a lot of blood, but if that's the story..."
Buttons the nasty old raincoat. Turns to leave.
"Oh yeah, one thing's been sort of botherin' me."
"Who knew she'd had a hemorrhage?"
Stephen Lyons, the military's criminal investigator on the scene at Elizabeth Ratliff's death, testified about a man who "seemingly wanted to dominate the interviews" and control the scene. Lyons testified that the man "voiced a belief that Ratliff may have walked to the top of the stairs, blacked out at the top and fallen down them."
Forgetting for a second that this is what Kathleen was said to have done, sure, I'll buy that you can have an aneurysm and fall right over. Happens all the time. But unless you actually saw it happen, amid all the confusion and chaos of that blood-soaked morning, how is it one would come up with this near-telepathic insight on the cause of death, steering the inquiry with the ease of a bull on a nose ring.
And whaddaya know, the German EMTs decide to pull a spinal tap and yup, sure enough, blood in the brain stem. Pack her up, fellas.
"Michael said there was just a little blood behind her ear," Margaret Blair said. Wow. What a strange thing to say. It was nice of Mikey, I suppose, to spare Blair the truth of that snowy morning in Germany, but why that specific detail sending the Rolodex of the mind into full-blown buhbeebbu-bloodbehindherear-dddon'tlike-myheadsometimes-makeits-s-s-stop fingers-inmyearsahhh-ahhh-ahhh-kookconspiracyfreak-nutcase-beedeebu-brainbuboilinglikeapot-roastIlluminatiwarpfactorsixSulu.
This black, scary picture climbing out of my head is a scenario straight out of Assassination 101. Yikes--the old needle trick. Murder Incorporated's Abraham "Kid Twist" Reles, master of the ice pick, was so good that many of his mark's deaths were identified as brain hemorrhage.
What's that? Hey, boys, let yourselves in, I see. Yeah sure, some Sodium Pentathol would be lovely. Love that shit. You're right, fellas, little rest is all I need, yessiree. Set me right.
Peter Eichenberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org