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Chapter 1 The Mount

“I was told that you are a seismologist. So then, how did you get into forensics?”

Ferg thought about it for a minute and answered in his slight Scottish accent “SEE OOO TWO” he drawled. “Carbon Dioxide. We had a murder by carbon dioxide and we managed to solve it!”

“And you used geology?” Pav looked puzzled.

“No. It was Chemistry. We created a device for analysing gases and their chemical composition down to very low concentrations. Or rather my partner Saffy did.  It was Kanjin and Truscott Enterprises to be precise. Safrina Kanjin and Simon Truscott that is. Ferg is just a nick name, but that is another story. We were able to determine the gas composition very precisely and could say that death was by carbon dioxide poisoning.”

“You mean carbon monoxide don’t you. Carbon dioxide isn’t toxic. Or that’s what they keep telling us. It’s just bad for the environment!”

“No it was definitely See OO two, not See OO. If you breathe enough carbon dioxide, you die. The problem is getting someone to breathe enough of it.”

“Go on. Sounds like an entertaining story. Best grab a new beer. Want one?” Pav did not wait for a response but walked straight off to the bar.

Ferg sat back, swallowed the last mouthful of his beer and gazed around without really looking. He had arrived in Mount Gambier a few hours before and agreed to meet the local detective Bobby Chekhov, better known as Pav. The detective was aware of Ferg’s reputation and had asked to meet with him. It was late evening, so it was more convivial to get to know each other at the pub rather than starting with the official meeting planned for the following day.

The trip on the fast train service from Adelaide took a little over an hour. It was easily the most effective way of doing the distance. He had used the service many times, particularly as it now went from Port Augusta though to Cairns, pretty much all along the coast.

The rail line was originally planned to be electrified and powered by nuclear energy, but after years of protests, political wrangling and scientific breakthroughs, it was finally built as a low resistivity, super-fast track, powered by gas. It could run on any energy rich fluid – methane, hydrogen or ammonia were all possible, with the latter two having the advantage of being carbon free.  It was simply a matter of swapping out the engine and fuel carriages for the currently preferred gas.  Anhydrous ammonia was the best available technology, mixed with a small percentage of biodiesel.  Japan had gone the whole hydrogen / ammonia route for most of their transport over the last twenty years and Australia eventually followed suit.

The old geothermal experimental plant near Innamincka in the far north of the state had been converted to a hydrogen facility. Methane was converted to hydrogen using geothermal heat and the by-product carbon dioxide reinjected in the many local abandoned gas wells. Keeping the gas pressure from the well meant little energy was expended pumping the CO2 back down.

The hydrogen was then converted to anhydrous ammonia by adding freely available atmospheric nitrogen and shipped via pipelines to Adelaide and the east coast. Anhydrous ammonia was now being used as a replacement for diesel for farm and most transport use. It was easier to handle than hydrogen gas. Batteries had never really taken off for large machinery.

Ferg’s thoughts were about the growing ammonia business out of Innamincka. When he had first visited the town, it was a dusty, one horse establishment on the edge of Sturt’s Stony Desert, a flat red gibber plain with the occasional sand dune. The huge new solar PV farms in the area had changed the hydrogen / ammonia market. As the methane production was running low, hydrogen was now being produced from water.  It required about four times the energy but was more sustainable.

Solar energy produced electricity directly and this was used to electrolyse water into its component oxygen and hydrogen atoms, which readily fused into their stable molecules. Innamincka was now a busy, small outback town with quite a tourist industry as well.

Pav returned with two large beers.

“Looks like you’re planning a big one!” Ferg ventured with a small, whining edge to his voice. “Not sure I have the stamina for that!” He was now in his early sixties and starting to feel the effects of a hard life. He had the look of a leather skinned bushy, with a well tanned, but ruddy appearance. His red hair was thin and wiry with deep widow’s peaks. “Might have to move on to a single malt next.”

“I thought we had better celebrate the New Year. Not sure that we will survive 2038 if the Unix bug gets us!  There are only a couple of weeks to go!” Pav smirked. “So go on. How do you murder someone with carbon dioxide?”

“You could just pump it into the atmosphere and wait a few hundred years! But luckily we have largely stopped doing that, once the Americans got on board. No, this was much simpler. About twenty years ago we were called in to do a gas analysis after a domestic death. I don’t think anyone really thought it was suspicious, so it was lucky that someone high up pushed to have it analysed. A guy in his fifties died in his sleep. One Josip Suvic.

Cause of death seemed to be a heart issue of some kind. They said it was Atrial Fibrillation. The thing was, that he was on one of those breathing machine gadgets they used to use for sleep apnoea. They were called CPAP machines. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure was the idea and it kicked in when the guy stopped breathing during his sleep.”

“Like oxygen you mean” Pav interrupted.

“No, not oxygen. It just upped the air pressure until he took a breath. It’s called an apnoea when you hold your breath for longer than normal.  Apparently it causes all sorts of problems when you snore a lot and stop breathing. People can stop breathing for a couple of minutes at a time and it prevents them taking in enough oxygen which makes the heart work like crazy. Anyway, he was using one of these machines when he died and it was all recorded on a computer chip.”

“You mean there was a video?”

“No, just data. Like, how much he was breathing, when he stopped, that sort of thing. He had a system that recorded all sorts of information including blood pressure, blood oxygen levels and I think one of the medicos decided that the heart attack was a little unusual. Anyway a detective named Gibson called us in to go over all the equipment and analyse it all thoroughly. They really wanted to know if any gas had been introduced and maybe killed him.”

“Yes, I worked with Gibson for a while. He was very thorough. I spoke with him the other day and he suggested that I should meet up with you when you came to town. I might learn a thing or two.”

“I still see him now and then. He is still keeping himself busy in retirement. Anyway, the CPAP machine had sat exposed for a few days so they thought nothing would come of it. But Gibson had recently read about our gas sniffing system and its ability to measure very low levels, so he contacted us.

We were getting lots of work sniffing out very minor gas leaks around natural gas wells and gas reticulation systems with the system Saffy had invented. Not only that, but we could also analyse all of the component gases down to molecular levels. It was about the time our operation was beginning and we had a big write-up in the newspaper.  Gibson had obviously read the article and he thought we might be able to analyse the CPAP gear and come up with something.”

Ferg sat back for a minute and looked at Pav’s drink “Ready for that whisky yet?”

“Tubby Shaw” replied Pav with a cheeky smile. He had a bit of that Irish demeanour, but his family originated from the eastern Ukraine. His dark, wavy hair and penetrating, mahogany eyes gave him a somewhat smouldering, movie star look rather than that of a more formal, serious detective.

“That’s Irish. I’m from Edinburgh!” Ferg scoffed. “And that Unix bug.  Not a problem.  Just like with the Millennium bug all the code is already fixed! No one is going to suffer.”

Ferg was a traditionalist and when he approached the bar he searched the top shelf for a good Scottish Single Malt, imported and not produced artificially. There was an array of Japanese and Australian malts that seemed to be the most popular but he eventually found a bottle of Talisker and ordered two doubles with a small jug of iced water.  The ice was a capitulation to the Australian weather in January – bloody hot!

The bar had emptied out. Just a few stayers left. A young couple in their own little world were being a little frisky at the end of the bar.  At least they looked as though they thought that they were in private. Her very skimpy, braless top meant that the other customers did not.  Fashions kept returning to the same old clichés.

When Ferg returned, they dabbled a little water in their whiskies and each took a tentative sip.

“The CPAP machine had an inlet filter, a humidifier and a heated tube leading to a mask worn by the guy who died. We tested the filters and found nothing unusual. He had been breathing in regular air.  We tested samples from the room and could find nothing unusual.  It had the normal nitrogen levels at around 78%, oxygen 20% and argon about 1 %.  CO2 was the usual 0.04%.  But then again the room had been open for a few days when we got there, so we did not expect anything different. We could detect no trace of any toxic substance.”

“What about the machine itself?”

“The humidifier compartment had exactly the same gas composition as the room atmosphere, but when we tested the tube we found a slightly raised CO2 reading. At first we put this down to him breathing out and some of the CO2 ending up in the hose pipe. Again no sign of any toxic gas.

Anyway, we tried all sorts of arrangements with different people using the device, but could not easily get any raised CO2 levels back into the hose. The positive pressure always kicked in, not allowing any back flow. All of the exhaled breath passed through the outlet filter instead.”

“So how did you come up with a murder diagnosis from that?”

“That’s where the geology comes in. But first the chemistry.”

“Back to my earlier question, aren’t you the seismic guy?”

“That’s true, but we can get on to the seismic business at the meeting tomorrow. One needs to be a bit of everything these days. The seismic industry was in a slow-down back then. The oil price had dropped when the US first started producing shale oil and that killed the Australian gas market. Little exploration was happening, which led to mass sackings and so I had to get into other things. That’s where the gas sniffing came in.  Anyway, where was I?”

“About to tell me about chemistry, I think. So this Saffy is your partner.  Do you mean business?”

“Yes she came up with the product, but there was definitely chemistry between us as well. She is my partner and my partner.  Safrina is currently in Bangladesh helping with the recovery.  She left yesterday.  Her skills are pretty useful there at the moment. Saffy has been going back and forth for the last eight years. Things haven’t improved very quickly since the war.”

“Yeah, bad business that! China and India. Who would have ever guessed?”

“Wars begin for the weirdest of reasons. Battles over resources have often been the cause. So back to the story, and chemistry. Carbon dioxide is made up of carbon atoms and oxygen atoms and can be stable for many millions of years. A normal carbon atom has an atomic number of six meaning it has 6 protons and 6 neutrons in its nucleus and six electrons floating about. It is called carbon 12, because of the total number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. But a carbon atom can also have additional neutrons without changing its properties. It’s still carbon. So carbon naturally comes in at least two other isotopes, C13 and C14.”

“Yeah, I have heard of isotopes, I think. Aren’t they to do with radioactivity?”

“As in Uranium 235 and 238. Yep. It’s all to do with the extra neutrons in the nucleus. For all intents and purposes the 3 naturally occurring isotopes of carbon look just like carbon and interact in exactly the same way with other elements like oxygen.  Oxygen also has many isotopes.”

“Starting to get a bit complicated. What’s this got to do with anything?”

“Well the chemistry bit is how we could identify the relative abundance of all of the carbon and oxygen isotopes in the carbon dioxide that we found in the hose. And the geology bit is that when carbon dioxide forms, it takes up the particular abundance of isotopes that are present in the system at the time. In different locations and different geologic eras the carbon dioxide will have different abundances of isotopes.”

“So you are saying that you can tell where the carbon dioxide came from?”

“That’s right. To a degree. We can tell where it’s not from and this CO2 was not twenty first century atmospheric CO2. When carbonate reefs form in the ocean they take up particular ratios of Carbon 12 and Carbon 13. Carbon dioxide released from theses carbonates keeps that ratio.  Similarly, carbon dioxide cooked up by hot volcanic rocks has a different signature again. And carbon dioxide produced by recent burning or photosynthesis, uses current atmospheric oxygen in the process.”

“Wow, that is an exciting prospect. Must remember that one.”

Ferg smiled in appreciation of the compliment. “We could actually type that ancient CO2 that we detected, to this particular area, most likely from the old Caroline 1 well. For about fifty years, from 1967 until 2017 pretty much all of the CO2 used commercially in South Australia came from the Caroline 1 well, located just south of here. That Caroline CO2 came from a hot magmatic source which gave it a particular chemical signature. The well ran out of gas in 2017.  After that all the CO2 used commercially was from recently created carbon dioxide.  Not ancient stuff. But this CO2 most likely came from the Caroline 1 well, and this was about 4 years after it was shut in!”

“So how the hell did it get in the hose?”

“Hey Pav, what are you doing up this late?” The young couple from the bar walked past on their way out and the bloke was obviously a mate of Pav’s. They were both sporty, well-muscled types, but while Pav was nearly two metres tall, this guy was quite a bit shorter with blonde, straggly hair.  He looked like a typical surfer.

“Hey Nat, meet Ferg”. The introductions were made. The girl was introduced as Stella. Apparently Nat and Pav played footy together.  This was the real deal – AFL, not one of those newfangled sports.  Nat had moved to Mt Gambier to try out with the expansion Mt Gambier franchise a few years back. AFL had now grown to thirty teams, with many of the new teams located in growth towns.

The footy was now an old dream but Nat had stayed around and the two had become mates.   Nat cheekily explained that Pav was named after the Star Trek navigator as they teased each other and horsed around for a few minutes. Stella looked bored.

Nat eventually took her hand and walked out as he told everyone “we’re off to check out the stars”.

“Another whisky?” Pav suggested as they moved to the bar. “And I need a beer chaser. The bar will be closing up shortly.  So where were we?  Your murder victim was killed by carbon dioxide in his breathing machine thing and the carbon dioxide came from Mt Gambier, even though the murder was in Adelaide? And if carbon dioxide is not poisonous how does it kill you?”

“That’s about it. CO2 can kill you if there is enough of it.  It replaces the air or oxygen that you breathe. Ten percent CO2 is enough to kill you if it’s in a Scuba tank for example.  So we had to work out how the CO2 got there and where had it been since it was produced from the well.  One possible means was by way of a fire extinguisher, but our problem was how to hook that up to a CPAP device without being noticed.  It didn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Couldn’t they just open up the fire extinguisher in the room and leave it there.”

“We would then measure additional CO2 everywhere and would have traces of ancient CO2 everywhere. So we had now figured it was a suspicious death but how to prove it was a deliberate act? After going through it all with Gibson we got permission to pull the device apart and have a closer look at everything.

Nothing else suspicious in any of the electronics, filters or mask. Then we inspected the humidifier under a microscope and things started to come into focus. The humidifier is a plastic tray that holds water.  It has its own heater which then supplies warm, humid air to the user.  There were a series of micro fractures in the inside of the plastic base and after further tests we could determine that the plastic had been frozen.”

Pav looked quizzical “too many drinks I think. How does that make any sense? He wasn’t frozen to death?”

“No, that’s not how it worked. Someone had put frozen carbon dioxide into his humidifier. Dry Ice. They had likely come in while he was asleep, opened the humidifier compartment, tipped out the water and replaced it with a block of dry ice.  The heater in the humidifier would have kept producing a constant stream of CO2 gas.  He wouldn’t have known a thing. He would have gone into a coma pretty quickly, had heart palpitations and died in the space of about forty to fifty seconds.

Carbon dioxide goes straight from solid to gas, no liquid stage at normal pressures. They call it sublimation. It would have been all gone in a short amount of time, leaving just an empty humidifier, and a dead body.  The CO2 would make him breathe harder to try to get oxygen and the machine would put up the pressure giving him more CO2.  It was death by sublimation”

“Wouldn’t the carbon dioxide show up in the dead body?” Pav asked

“Well it did to a degree. The problem is that you end up with additional CO2 in your blood stream when you die anyway. It is a difficult one to pick without other information.

So we thought we had to find someone with commercial freezing gear in order to keep dry ice for over four years. Or someone had to be freezing CO2 that had been in storage somewhere. The wife was a perfect suspect but she wouldn’t have the access to equipment like that.”

“So how did you find the killer?”

“Saffy, the chemist. She suggested that you could make your own dry ice.  Just get a fire extinguisher, a carbon dioxide one of course.  Attach a plastic bag over the outlet.  Put some holes in the end of the bag and then turn it on full blast.  The gas rushing out condenses and freezes, leaving dry ice around the outlet and caught in the bag.  You can then collect this up and put it in the humidifier.  Back to Maria, the wife.”

“Hey, that’s pretty cool. So did they catch her?”

“That was the thing. By the time we had it all figured out, she had disappeared.  They did find her a few days later in a country motel room. She was found dead attached to a CPAP machine, with an empty CO2 fire extinguisher outside the room.  She had apparently suicided in the same fashion.”

“Wow, that’s pretty spooky. It would have taken a bit of an effort not to just rip the mask off, though. How did she manage that?”

“We figured the same, but apparently she had quite a bit of Valium in her system. She self-sedated and then suicided, was the official determination. All pretty creepy and no one has any idea what it was all about. Divorce might have been easier!”

“He should have put a lock on his breathing machine thing! Sounds a bit scary.”

“There have been a couple of similar cases since but nothing recently. The machines went out of fashion.  I don’t think anyone uses them anymore! I think they came up with a way to zap the part of your brain that makes you breathe, with an electric current.  That seemed to fix most people”

“No wonder they got rid of them. It sounds like they are way too dangerous.”

Pav was looking like he might want another. Ferg decided this was a good time to escape. “Best be heading off to bed. I need to ring Saffy in the morning. We have some things to sort out.  I’ll come into the station about mid-day and we can go through all the issues with the surveys. See you tomorrow.”

 

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