Crystal Van Horn sat emotionless as Dr. Travis Holder detached the blood pressure cuff. "One -sixty over eighty, Crystal. Taking your meds?"
"Not so much, Dr. Holder," she replied, without looking up
Her affect got his attention. "It seems like something's bothering you. Anything going on?"
Crystal remained silent, and Holder decided to give her a moment. Then, he moved to his computer.
When he looked back, she was watching him. "I'm having a problem with something I did. I mean something I didn't do but should've. And I can't make it right. It was really bad. When I retired, I thought it would help, but it didn't."
Surprised by the urgency in her voice, he moved closer. "Tell me what you can."
"I want to give you something that'll explain it. Will you take it?"
"Of course, I will. But is there anything else you can tell me?"
Crystal handed him a flash drive. "There's a file on this. It's a video I recorded last year at KnowPharma, the company where I worked. This is all you need. I don't want to talk about it right now."
Holder knew Crystal once worked for the pharmaceutical company, and he recalled news reports of a KnowPharma product causing some deaths. "You want me to watch the video and help you decide what to do? Sure, but after I watch it, I might have some questions."
She nodded and stood up. "You can get back to me, but the video is pretty clear. Thanks." She shook his hand and left.
He immediately left the examination room and launched the video in his office. It appeared to be a meeting of several people at KnowPharma. For the first few minutes, nothing seemed unusual as the group discussed routine business. Eventually, the conversation moved to opioids which triggered Holder's memory. KnowPharma suffered a major fiasco that led to a bunch of overdose deaths.
Seconds later, he jumped to attention. "This can't be." Shaking his head in disbelief, he paused the video and sat back. "Oh my God!" Overwhelmed with anger, he picked up a coffee cup and hurled it across his office. It burst into pieces against the wall. "Donovan Knowland, you bastard!" he screamed.
Later that afternoon, Holder learned one of his patients, Crystal Van Horn, committed suicide.
Ray Krug poured a cup of coffee and sat on his back porch. The birds and flowers were full of brilliant colors this morning. He put his feet up on a table and admired the beauty. Just for a moment, Krug forgot he was alone.
The scene missed his wife, Judy. She would spend most of her free time here, tending to the plants and animals that depended upon her. She loved their home, and the years they spent here could not provide Krug enough memories. He wanted more. But she died, and the core of Krug went with her. He would join her shortly. At age fifty-nine, he was by himself and not finding satisfaction anywhere. His work would be finished very soon. There was one investigation to complete this morning and nothing more.
He looked at his watch, took a final swallow of coffee, and grabbed his favorite old revolver. Molded by decades of target range practice, the gun was part of his hand. "Let's have a talk with Donovan Knowland at KnowPharma."
As Krug climbed into his car, Donovan Knowland awoke and headed downstairs for a workout in his basement. He showered, dressed, and found his breakfast ready. However, he was late and ignored it. He also ignored Lucinda, his housekeeper, when she asked about dinner. Instead, he picked up the newspaper and quickly checked stock prices.
"Where's my lunch," he asked? Lucinda gave him a worried look.
"I believe you told me you were having lunch with some others today, Dr. K."
"Yes, in my office, but I wanted a lunch," he said, sounding much too upset. "Never mind, I'll have something sent in. From now on, just make a lunch, and I'll take it if I need it. I thought that was the usual plan."
"I must've missed that, Dr. K., I'm sorry. I'll have a lunch ready every morning for you."
Donovan was not listening. He took a swallow of juice and got into his Porsche. He drove to Knowland Pharmaceuticals, more commonly called KnowPharma, the business he started ten years ago.
He entered his office through a back stairwell, rather than passing by the staff who always needed to talk and waste his time. Around his office were framed images of chemical structures, conference announcements, and his degrees and awards. Fifteen years past his Ph.D., with many millions in the bank, he lamented it was not more. There was a knock.
It was his assistant, Ted. "Donnie, we need a schedule change this morning. I've got a detective in my office who says it's urgent he sees you. Says it won't take long. I can move your other meeting back to eleven."
"What's this about?" Donovan asked. "A detective? Are you sure? Did you check this guy out?"
"Of course, I did. His name is Ray Krug. I found some photos of him in news articles. It's him. He's legit."
Donovan looked at his watch. "Okay, I'll see him right now, but tell him we're squeezing him in. It has to be fast."
"I'll let him know," Ted said as he exited.
Donovan typed Krug's info into a search. But just then, there was a tap at the door, followed by Ted and the detective. Krug appeared out of shape and dressed in an old suit that probably fit him better ten years ago. Donovan greeted him with a handshake.
Instinctively, he pulled back as Krug's stare disturbed him. A feeling of déjà vu flooded him. Donovan was momentarily back in graduate school twenty years ago. He sat in a meeting with another student, Josh, and their research director. Donovan shamelessly stole Josh's ideas and proposed them as his own that morning. Josh's facial expression was chilling. Donovan's unease when he met Krug seemed eerily reminiscent of how he felt when Josh stared him down.
Dismissing the thought, he smiled and pointed Krug to a chair but decided he wanted more information. "Detective, I need a cup of coffee. Can I get you one?"
"No thanks, maybe a water." Krug surveyed the room, noting the wall-hangings. Many were accolades.
Donovan left and found his assistant. "I need you to search right now for anything weird on this guy. Text me when you're done." Donovan grabbed the drinks and handed a water to Krug. "Busy morning, what do you need?"
"I have some questions on a case that involves you."
"Involves me, really? Let's see if I can help."
"Dr. Knowland, you're CEO of KnowPharma, which supplies drug delivery products intended for urgent uses, correct?"
"Right, we supply drugs in delivery systems for critical health situations, including asthma and anaphylaxis."
"And systems for opioid overdose," Krug interjected. "I believe these deliver Naloxone?"
"Yes, that's a part of our business."
"So, one question concerns the shelf life of Naloxone."
"Detective, the shelf life was once thought to be around two years. But careful analysis showed it was more stable so that delivery system inventories could be used for several more years."
Krug leaned forward in his chair. "I know it appeared Naloxone was very stable. But in some delivery systems, the drug potency dropped off more quickly. And those products needed to be recalled. They were dangerous."
"That's true. In some delivery systems, it degraded faster than expected. In fact, it was one of our devices that showed the problem first, and we did everything we could to recall those units immediately. But unfortunately, a number were used in the field before the recall was completed, and there were some opioid overdose deaths. I was devastated. But this was more than a year ago, and we thoroughly addressed all the inquiries. Is there a problem?"
Krug, clearly upset, paused and gulped some water. "There was a cluster of overdose deaths in various counties in Florida, and I believe they all involved these units. You refer to this as 'some deaths', but most people called it a tragedy. Over a hundred died in one county alone. So what delayed the recall of the defective devices?"
Donovan was about to speak when his phone beeped with a text from Ted. It was a single word: "Nothing." Though still tense, he was relieved by the update. He looked back to Krug.
"As we showed during the inquiries, there was an error in the lot number ID assignments. As a result, a large number of the faulty units shipped to the Southeast, including Florida, were mistakenly linked to an incorrect ID number in our home files. Unfortunately, this error indicated they were from a manufacturing run date that produced safe units. Because of that, many defective units weren't recalled until the Florida deaths alerted us something was wrong."
"Did Crystal Van Horn think this was accidental?" Krug asked.
Caught by surprise, Donovan's heart rate accelerated, but he was certain his facial expression remained calm. It was a talent he mastered through many brutal investor grillings. "Detective, Crystal Van Horn was a first-rate financial officer for our company. The deaths disturbed her as much as anyone. Yet, crystal never hinted she suspected anything more than a glitch in our inventory system."
"Apparently, she suspected something. She made a video of a meeting with you and some other employees of KnowPharma, back when this was happening." Krug picked up his phone and tapped it. "Let's watch part of that video. The interesting stuff starts around seven minutes, right here." Krug put the phone on a table and pushed it forward.
Donovan, in a state of disbelief, picked it up. In the video, there were several people in a room, and he was speaking.
"Look, we may never figure out why these units failed. Probably some contaminant got in and accelerated the degradation of the Naloxone. We've been over this a hundred times, and I want to move on. We need to minimize our losses. The Feds will eventually provide even more grants to states to fight the epidemic. Our market will diminish. We can't layer this large a loss of product on top of that. So, here's the plan. I don't want to recall the units in the Southeast. I've done the calculations. Most of the defective ones will be used for overdose cases before the Naloxone has completely degraded. They should still rescue overdoses. But if my calculations are wrong and the units begin failing in large numbers, we can make it appear to be an error in our inventory backup systems here at home. We'll claim the bad units were mistakenly linked to an incorrect production date. That date will match an earlier production run that has no stability issues. It'll appear we didn't recall those units because we thought they weren't defective."
"What about overdose deaths, Donovan? Could you live with that?" someone asked.
Donovan turned and faced the questioner, clearly unaware they were recording the meeting. "Crystal, we'll deal with that later if need be. I think we can get through this with most, maybe all, of the bad units being used before they become a problem. I've done the numbers, and it's worth the risk. The inventory ID number changes at our end will not be traceable. At worst, it'll look like some sort of file backup error. We say it was an accident and apologize."
Krug's voice no longer hid his anger or disgust. "Too bad for those people in Florida, Donovan. Your failing units didn't have the Naloxone levels needed to handle the more potent opioids that hit the counties around the same time. So you rolled the dice, and they lost, their lives."
Donovan, unable to focus, heard a thousand voices speaking to him at once. He saw everything he worked for vanishing. He looked up at Krug. "You're here to arrest me? You have no evidence anyone actually did this. It's not a crime to discuss committing a crime."
Krug laughed loudly, which surprised Donovan, given the circumstances. "I'm not here to arrest you, Dr. Knowland. There's no court in this country that could give the CEO of KnowPharma the punishment he deserves."
Donovan stood up. "Okay, I have no idea what you want, but I'll call my lawyer, and we go from there." He looked at Krug and motioned towards the door.
Krug, still seated, pulled out his revolver. He quickly took aim and fired a shot into Donovan's right thigh. The blast echoed loudly in the large office as Donovan fell to the ground screaming and cursing. A moment later, his assistant burst into the room. He saw Donovan on the floor and Krug holding the gun. Ted raised his arms and froze.
"Call the police and an ambulance," screamed Donovan. Ted looked at Krug and remained still.
Krug waved the revolver in the air. "You heard him. Call the police, and clear the offices. Get everyone out of here, now." As Ted ran from the office, Krug locked the door. "Donovan, is there anything you want to tell me?"
Donovan gasped for breath. "Yes, Detective, I caused those deaths. I never believed so many could die. It was impossible to know more potent opioids would start circulating."
Krug shook his head. "Do you understand what you've done? These were children and parents. Addict did not define them. They just needed more help. You killed a hundred and fifty people just in Florida. Can you live with this?"
"I didn't kill anybody, they killed themselves!" Donovan yelled. Then, he looked up and saw Krug's disturbing stare again. Once again, it brought back Josh's chilling glare. Donovan now vividly recalled fearing Josh might kill him that day. "Can I live with this, Detective?"
"No, you can't," Krug said as he pressed the gun against Donovan's forehead and pulled the trigger.
Krug placed his gun on the desk, along with a gold shield and wallet, and opened the office door. Nobody was around. He removed a pair of handcuffs from his jacket and locked his wrists. Then, he lay down on the floor with the cuffs facing the open door.
Krug heard sirens and closed his eyes. He thought back to the conversation with his physician, Travis Holder, two weeks ago.
"Okay, Ray, I hear you. You're declining treatment."
"Yeah, Doc, I'll just take the time I have."
"A few months from now you'll be feeling even more tired and sick, and the pain will be worse. What will you do with that time?"
"Maybe I'll head over to Vegas and lose some money. Judy liked it there." Ray noticed a newspaper on Holder's desk and picked it up. "What's this, another murder?"
Holder leaned forward. "Take a look at the date."
The paper was three years old, and the headline concerned the murder of a seat belt company executive. He looked at Holder, confused. "Why do you have an old paper on your desk?"
"I'll tell you in a minute, but first, let me ask you something about your work as a detective. Could you always make a difference? Or were too many let off the hook?"
"Strange question, Doc. It was a mixed bag. Some cases ended well. Others, we blew it or couldn't get the evidence to bring it home. Tough, maybe like your job when you lose a patient."
Holder smiled. "Fair enough. But were there cases where you were certain of guilt, something really bad, and they got off?"
"Of course," Krug said, obviously disgusted. "Those were the worst. One still haunts me. A real low-life named Ramsey Bradshaw. Abused his family, and I found out he paid to have his wife killed. But there were problems, and the court threw everything out. I try not to think about that case. I was obsessed with it. I drank too much back then, and it was very hard on Judy. She died one night, her heart, and I think it was because of me. I wasn't there for her." Ray stopped and sat quietly for a minute. "What's this all about, Doc?"
"I sometimes wonder what police or detectives think about cases like that. I also wonder if business is ever taken care of outside the law."
Krug paused and stared. "Okay, yes, it's rare, but it happens. I know some guys who took matters into their own hands. I thought about it myself a few times, especially with Bradshaw. Sometimes wish I'd done it. I would've been a happier man the last ten years. But we've known each other for years. So why are you asking me this now?"
"First off, anything you say here will be confidential," Holder replied. "But I need to know this goes both ways. Things can't leave the room. If you feel uncomfortable, let me know, and it ends here."
Krug thought for a moment. He liked and respected Holder, and he was curious where their conversation was going. "I'm in, nothing leaves the room."
"Good. Do you remember the news a few years back, where the CEO of a seat-belt company was murdered? It got the headline in the paper you're holding."
Krug nodded. "It was broadcast all over. He was the fucker who used lousy quality materials for belts in some cheap cars. The Times published some company memos written by an engineer who blew the whistle."
"That's right, the CEO was Randall Cronister, and the memos nailed him. He wrote off lives for profit, and after the memos were made public, he was murdered. I was happy to hear it. I'm wondering what you thought."
Krug laughed. "Now I see where you're going. Definitely, I thought he deserved it. Would a cop or detective ever murder a dog like that? Maybe. But the guy who killed him surrendered, and I don't recall him being a cop." Krug scanned the article. "Right, says here he was an ambulance EMT, no family, kind of a loner. His name was Lenny Briscoe."
"Lenny was a patient of mine. He had a terminal disease diagnosis shortly before the murder. He died while serving his sentence."
Krug tossed the paper onto the desk. "Wait a minute. One of your dying patients decides to kill a slime dog, and you're worried I may do the same because I carry a gun?"
"Ray, I asked Lenny to kill Cronister, and he agreed."
Krug glared at him. "What?"
"I knew Lenny well, and we discussed the Cronister memos many times before I asked him. I don't ask every terminal patient I have to commit a murder."
"Whoa," Krug replied. "Are you saying there've been others?"
"Jesus, Doc, how'd you come up with this crazy idea?"
"Interesting question. Started when I was in high school. My younger sister told me about a classmate who bullied kids during recess at her school. It happened a lot. One afternoon I decided to watch the prick, and it was just like she said. My anger surprised me, so I ambushed him one day before he got home. I grabbed him in a wooded area, covered his head, and held him down. I told him I saw what he did to other kids. Then I pressed a knife against his throat and said if he ever bullied another kid, I'd cut it."
Krug sat back in his chair. "Holy shit, I can't believe what I'm hearing. And now you're a doctor."
"The kid never bothered anyone after that, and it stuck with me. I realized I could step out of bounds sometimes and make good things happen. Since then, I've taken some risks. I don't always play by the rules. And some things still trigger the same rage in me. Cronister did. Ray, we both know the bastard wasn't going to get the punishment he deserved, and so did Lenny. We made sure he did."
An astonished expression appeared on Krug's face. "You're trying to recruit me to your crew. Aren't you?"
"Yes, but just say no, and we stop talking. If you want to think about it, I'll fill you in with some background, and there's a video I'll show you."
Krug sat silently for several minutes. Eventually, he picked up the old newspaper and reread the article.
"Doc, I think you got Cronister right. What would my case concern?"
"Opioid overdose deaths, for profit."
Krug looked up and grimaced. "Shit! Do you have any Scotch in your desk?"
Holder nodded. "Yes."
"Let's have it. And the video too."
Travis Holder entered the hospital at midnight. He'd been there every day since Krug's transfer from the prison infirmary. It was four months since the death of Donovan Knowland, and Krug had only a short time. In his jacket, Holder carried something Krug requested. He found him with his eyes closed, breathing uncomfortably. Holder touched his arm gently, and he opened his eyes.
"Hey, Doc," he said weakly.
"How's the pain?"
Krug shook his head. "Looking forward to ending this."
Holder gave his shoulder a squeeze, then shut the door and took out a syringe.
Krug pressed a button on his bed control to elevate his head. "Look, I want to be sure you're okay with this, Doc?"
Holder smiled. "Relax. Like I told you, you're not my first. I help people when they know they're ready. Now, I want you to think of your best times, back with Judy. And thanks for doing what I asked you."
"I need to tell you something, Doc. Though I'm sick these last few months, I've felt better about myself than I have in years. I found peace like there was work to get done, and it got done. Thank you for everything you've done for me, and even more."
Holder was puzzled by his last comment but let it go. "I appreciate that, Ray."
"Just one more thing. I have something for you." Krug handed him an envelope labeled: For Dr. Travis Holder after the death of Ray Krug.
"Okay, any hints?"
"Have patience. It'll just be a little while. How about that shot?"
Holder held Krug's hand and injected the solution into his IV. Then, he sat in a chair next to the bed and waited for the eventual slowing of his breathing and finally its cessation. There would be no questions. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
He picked up Krug's phone and found Crystal Van Horn's video file. He attached it to an email from Krug's account and sent it to The Times. Krug wanted the video made public since it would help explain his actions. Holder placed the phone in Krug's hand and left. He sat in his car for a while, trying to regain composure. Krug's image filled his mind, and the inevitable regret and questions inundated him. Why did he put such a heavy burden on a good man in his last days?
Finally, he opened the envelope. It was a summary of an old case. As he read the name Ramsey Bradshaw, he recalled it was the case that haunted Krug, involving terrible abuse and murder, but no conviction. Krug also felt the case cost him Judy. He read the entire file. It included disturbing photographs. As Holder read, his anger grew intense. Finally, he threw the file down on the passenger seat and leaned back. The meaning of Krug's vague comment in the hospital was now clear.
"Thank you for everything you've done for me, and even more," Krug said.
Holder smiled. "Even more, Ray? You bet, and you're welcome." Then he gazed over to the file again. "Ramsey, you bastard."