Geriatric Chalones

27 Mar

Roosters crow early in Edessa, long before the dawn of day. It reminded Zeno Rion of Saloniki, the metropolis from which he had been summoned. Here he was in this inland city of Macedonia, awakened by crowing that was occurring long before light broke in the sky. It was just like what happened in the great port that he called home. Science had not yet tamed the urban roosters of Greece. He was coming to consciousness in the dark night of another city, not the one he was familiar with.

Instructor of languages in a Soloniki language school, Zeno never ceased thinking of himself as a detective. After having been sacked from the police force a number of years ago, he did not stop sticking his nose into particular cases that gained his personal interest. Language teaching was only a sideline for the sake of obtaining his spending money. The center of his life remained his formerly official vocation, digging into unusual, unsolved cases.

Since he was awake, he sprang out of his hotel bed and prepared for his scheduled appointment with Dr. Stavro Kiron. The latter was the one who had sent him the urgent wire to meet him in Edessa and proceed to the Vodena Geriatric Clinic. Zeno had never met this physician, but knew that his institution was a world-famous center for rejuvenation and the prolongation of life. He had read articles in popular publications about the use of electro-optical devices and synthetic foods to slow down and reverse the process of growing old. The aging from all over Europe and the Middle East came to the Clinic as a mecca for the ailing, frail, or depressed in their later years of life. They believed and trusted that Dr. Kiron could give new vigor, strength, and spirit to the old.

As soon as the spring sun rose, Rion felt its growing power. He knew that he wanted to fall back into bed and finish his sleeping. But Dr. Kiron was to come this morning and drive him out to the geriatric clinic. The cool countryside would be most welcome on what looked like becoming a very warm spring day. Zeno shaved, washed, and put on his almost colorless teacher’s suit. He decided not to wear his round straw hat from the big city. It went back into his traveling bag. He locked his room and went out in the corridor. An elevator took him down to the lobby, where he checked himself out. He sat awhile waiting in the old-fashioned lobby. He studied each stranger who entered from the street, trying to guess which one looked like a gerontologist. Rion spotted and identified Kiron as soon as he crossed the entrance of the Edessa Hotel. Rising with speed, the detective rushed up to the tall figure he had deduced to be the person he was waiting for.

An observer seeing the two shake hands would have noticed how starkly different they were. Rion was short and corpulent, dark of hair and skin. His companion had the body of a mountaineer shepherd, with towering stature and bony thinness, fairness of hair and skin, and sea-blue eyes. One might have wondered what beyond language and culture related them to each other.

The two walked out into the sunny street. Kiron pointed out his red sports car. Zeno Rion had never been in one like that. He opened the right-side door and sat down silently as the doctor started the motor. Soon they were on their way out of Edessa.

“Did you know that I was in psychiatry before I started up in geriatrics?” asked Kiron.

“That’s interesting,” said the passenger. “Are many of the problems of the aged in their heads, then?”

“You would be surprised how many of their ailments turn out to be psychological or psychosomatic.”

Zeno sighed. “I know from personal experience that when a person is labeled as a suspicious, near-paranoid personality, that can cause physical problems in the body. Do you imagine that being treated as old and aged can have physical effects on people?”

“That could be,” replied the doctor. “In any case, was that why you had to leave the Saloniki Police?”

“I was looked upon as hyper-suspicious. My doubts that a certain case I was on was ended and solved led to the end of my career. My superiors in the department said I was perceiving unreal conspiracies to hush up and hide the truth. I discovered important clues that seemed implausible to others. So, I was forced to quit.”

“So now you consult for private clients, I understand.”

“Yes, and I teach four languages in a Saloniki school. I’m like a last resort. Desperate people call me when they have a need for uninhibited detective work. When they don’t care what the police think or imagine.”

“I know what you mean,” nodded Kiron. “The authorities have failed me. I need some imagination applied.”

Three identical deaths from grandular toxins are an unusual case, that’s for sure,” said the detective.

“I am certain that our treatments and diets could not have done this to the victims.”

“I am sure of that too,” the detective assured him.

Olive groves and vineyards alternated as they passed through puce-colored foothills along the Voda river. Ahead of them, rose poplar trees with the beige of Vermion in the background.

As they reached the crest of a hill, the driver spoke.

“Now you see the pure blue of Lake Agra. We will very soon be in Vladova, then the village of Mesimer and my clinic. That is the location of an important hydroelectric station.”

All of a sudden, Zeno asked a question out of curiosity.

“You use particle beams to rejuvenate ailing organs?”

“We are in the forefront of that field. Of course, we do not experiment on our patients. The clinic is not a research center. We are appliers of the best methods in advanced medical optics. I see myself as a healer, not an experimenter.”

“And these deaths from toxins had no connection with your treatments?”

“I would bet my life on that. The optics have no ill effects, only positive results.”

“The dietary regimen is also strictly curative?”

“Neither the food nor the light particle therapy could have done this three times,” asserted Dr. Kiron.

“Nor the combination of the two?”

“No possible interaction effect was in the cards,” responded Kiron with definitiveness in his voice.

Both men fell silent as the car entered the streets of Vladova and the vicinity of Lake Agra.

Kiron introduced the detective to four colleagues whose names the latter forgot at once. Rion tagged them in his mind by the physical trait that struck him as most noteworthy.

The White Head was the first to give a quick report for the benefit of the guest. Particle rays were his field, and he explained the ones used at the clinic.

Pug Nose reported on the synthetic foods she prepared for the special diets of each elderly patient.

The Paunch then talked about the effects of light treatment upon body cells and hormonal chemistry.

Lastly, the Moustache reported on the curative and rejuvenating successes of years of operation of the clinic.

Kiron rose from the conference table to mark the end of the formal introduction. The staff then rose and scattered, each to their activities and tasks.

“Would you like to meet some of the patients?” inquired Dr. Kiron.

“If they are not busy at something,” said Zeno.

“They should be about to sit down and wait for their lunch. Some, the strongest, like to take pre-meal hikes. They often walk quite a distance around the lake.”

“Isn’t the terrain steep and irregular in places?”

“We do have our share of bruises and injuries at times. We think that the good from roving outweighs the accidents.”

“I can imagine how much the fresh air, the sun, and even the forest aromas can improve both mind and body,” commented Rion.

“Some of them see themselves as hikers and trekkers,” remarked the doctor. “Here is our dining room.” The director of the clinic led the way in.

A number of patients were sitting about at small tables. Not one of them was talking to anyone. Kiron went up to a short, spare man in his seventies who was bent over his chair. He introduced Rion to him, then took leave of the two. The old man did not seem willing to talk to a stranger.

“Have you been outside this morning?” asked the detective.

“Yes.”

“This is an interesting lake. This must be the way it appeared back in ancient times. What do you think?”

The old man turned his head and gave Rion an intent, staring glance. Then he turned his eyes toward the giant picture window to his side.

“You are right,” he mumbled. “This lake is like the original world without the human beings.”

“One can do a lot of exhilarating walking all around the lake. I was surprised at how steep the ground is. Does anyone ever lose their balance?”

“When I first went outside I saw some of the women stumble, but not anymore.”

“I can imagine how you hikers become accustomed to steep trails. Does tramping around help the appetite?”

“The food does that for us. It always tastes good. I don’t know how they do it. All my life I never ate such delicious food. And I myself was in the restaurant business for many years.”

A muted bell rang, announcing the start of lunch. Rion and Kiron went to the staff area and took seats at the end of a long table. Soon the kitchen staff rolled out carts with trays of food. Each of the tables of patients came up in turn, located their trays through name cards, and took them back to their tables. Rion went up with the director and found there was a tray of lamb pie prepared especially for him. Although it was a combination of algae and vegetable protein, it tasted better to him than many a restaurant dish back in Saloniki, where tasty food was a rarity. He could see that each patient had a different, specialized course of food for lunch.

Near the end of the meal, Rion and Kiron rose. The doctor introduced the newcomer to the other patients, not revealing the reason for this visit. The visitor was only a teacher doing some research at the clinic.

“Do the villagers around Lake Agra ever come here to the clinic?” Zeno asked no one in particular.

“No. They don’t like us too much. We are mostly big city people,” said a man with woolly white hair.

“When we take hikes up the hills, they are not too friendly to us,” added his neighbor.

An old woman spoke very slowly. “Maybe they fear that our rejuvenation is some kind of threat to them. Our own good health and our strength overwhelm their own enormous aging problems.”

“They are jealous of our vigor. They resent how we look and feel,” said Rion’s original acquaintance.

By now, everyone had finished eating lunch. The soft bell rang once again. The patients placed their empty trays back on the carts. The detective noticed how everyone had eaten their plate clean, signifying a strong group pf appetites. Laughing and joking, the patients filed out of the room.

Rion and Kiron were soon left to themselves.

“How did it go? What do you think of our patients?”

“They are amazing. I marvel at their stamina and spirit.”

“You haven’t seen anything. Come along, I want you to see our gym.”

Patients were occupied in strenuous efforts of push ups, sit ups, chin ups, rowing oars, drawing on pulleys, skipping rope, lifting weights, sparring with gloves on, and operating a series of automated exercise devices. At the far end of this large, high room was the indoor aquatic center, with swimming pool and sauna baths. A large number of patients were swimming or soaking in the heated water. Viewing so much strain and activity, Rion pondered whether he himself would ever be able to do any of this, at any age. He knew that he lacked all traces of the athletic. The muscles for it were not there for him. He was a modern, not an ancient. Rion could nor recall having exercised even once during his life, at any age.

All of a sudden, an uproar broke out. Everyone in the gym looked over in the direction of a sparring pair with boxer’s gloves on. They were going at each other in a storm of brute force. Punching, socking, and bashing each other, the two old fighters were on the verge of seriously bruising and injuring each other. Kiron left the side of the detective and ran over to separate the pair of brawlers, each of whom was snarling and growling in some sort of savage rage. It appeared that the old, too, could know great anger. The doctor, the Paunch, and the White Head all jumped on the combatants and dragged them down onto the floor, where their fire and fury subsided into huffing and panting.

Zeno was stunned. He could not make out what the incident might mean. It would take him a lot of thought to set this in its place. Was it somehow connected with the deaths he had come here to investigate? He was enthralled by what he had just witnessed: old men in primal anger and combat.

Most of the staff had entered the gym during the ruckus. They now helped to restore order and routine. The injured twosome were taken back to their rooms. Kiron told the on-lookers to return to what they had previously been involved in. Then he turned to Rion and addressed him.

“Some of out patients do not realize the extent of their rejuvenated strength and stamina. They possess new vim and begin to fight like street urchins.”

“I was thinking that I was watching young stallions. What did those two grow so angry about?”

“They are restless and easy to provoke after a series of optical treatments. It has made them hypersensitive.”

“What do you suppose irked them into such a fierce battle?”

“Who can say? They were in all probability both on edge. Some of the patients can get extremely testy.”

The exercisers went back to their activities as if nothing had happened. Intense self-concentration returned over the entire gym. The director and the detective headed for the former’s office down the central corridor.

Dr. Kiron had a large, impressive desk covered with a mountain of papers, books, and periodicals. It did not reflect any sense of order or judgment. Rion wondered how such a person could run a geriatric clinic. Kiron did not appear all of a piece to the detective. He was a basket of multiple contradictions.

Zeno often found himself perplexed at such incongruity within a person and his role. The director was not all that he should have been. There was some thing important missing in him, thought the investigator with long experience with many types of people.

Kiron, sitting in a swivel chair, handed over to Rion a large bundle of papers in a folder.

“These are the medical histories and death reports of the three that we have lost,” he said.

“Isn’t death an expected event when people are so old?”

“But not with a rare poisoning of the endocrine system with a particular chalone.”

“A what?”

“A chalone is an internal secretion that depresses and inactivates particular hormones. It slackens, weakens, and can finally stop their production and activity in the body. A chalone can shut off the hormone’s effects far from its chemical source once it enters the blood stream. It is, in fact, the opposite of a hormone. A tremendous surplus of certain chalones can cause death in the aged.”

“Dr. Kiron, let me ask you one thing. In all candor, please tell me why in the world you called me here. I am not a research scientist, nor a medical man. I must conclude that you suspect some sort of foul play by someone. There is a person responsible for what has occurred.”

“You figure correctly. But what kind of foul play, and by whom? That is the puzzle to be solved, if you can.”

Rion thought for a second. “If I knew I would tell you, but I know nothing at all at this time.”

“Do you have any ideas, though?” asked the doctor.

“I have many ideas, all the time, but most turn out to be blind alleys.”

“But you keep on thinking, don’t you?”

“All the time. But I finally discard most of my hunches,” said the detective.

“So you try out a number of theories?”

“Until one of them opens the lock and forces open the door.”

“Well, I hope that you can find the right one.”

“I would like to make myself a special personal schedule for the next several days,” asked Zeno Rion.

“What do you wish to include?”

“I wish to get to know the patients by spending evening hours with them and going out with them on their morning hikes around the lake. Can that be done?”

“Certainly,” said the director.

“Thank you. I think I will go and rest in my room now. Again, I thank you, sir.”

For the following week, Zeno went out with small groups of hiking patients immediately following breakfast. He let the others take their customary routes about Lake Agra, discovering that there was a commonly shared series of paths that the walkers were used to taking.

He was very proud of possessing what is an essential for any investigator: a retentive memory that was good with details. He put it to work as soon as he awoke every morning, memorizing the names of the several dozen patients of the clinic. He planned to make informal inquiries during the hikes concerning the habits and interests of all the numerous fellow hikers.

Some of his best thinking came immediately after awakening early in the morning, he recognized. Being an early riser, Zeno was up and about long before the patients of the staff. One morning, he went out into the hallway to see who might be stirring about. Brilliant sunlight was streaming through the many windows. The lake outside was aglow with solar rays. He was taking slow, soft steps down the hall when he all of a sudden came upon Pugnose.

“Good morning,” said Rion. “I hope that I am not disturbing anyone walking about at this early hour.”

“Oh, no. We try to get the patients rolling out as early as possible. No sleepy-heads around here.”

“I wonder if you would help me. Could I see some medical reference works, if the clinic has them?”

“Of course, sir. We have a small library over there in the records office.” He pointed down the corridor to the room. The two of them walked there. Pugnose unlocked the door for him and then returned to daily routine.

Zion began to hunt for references to chalones and their potential effects on human behavior, as well as the factors that could possibly have an effect on the amounts of each variety in a person’s body.

There was a lot for him to read. He broke off when he heard the breakfast bell sound. The detective headed for the dining room after closing anf relocking the door of the Records Office.

Zeno sat with and talked to a patient from Crete named Manoli.

As he finished his hot porridge, the detective said in a loud voice “I am planning to take a hike down to the village of Mesimer. I hope that some people will accompany me there.”

A silence followed, but then Manoli spoke up. “I was not planning it, but I would like to walk that way with you.”

Immediately, a half dozen others also volunteered.

Soon, breakfast was over and the hiking team gathered on a cement patio facing Lake Agra.

Everyone seemed to realize that it was going to be a hot day. But there seemed to be a happy mood among the hikers. Rion wore his walking brogans for foot relief. Manoli had on old Cretan clodhoppers and held a walking stick in his right hand.

“Shall we start off down the lakeside path?” asked Manoli.

“You can be the guide today,” replied Rion.

The group followed the path for a long stretch, when Manoli suddenly pointed toward the lake with his stick. There was an almost hidden footpath descending toward the lake. “Let’s go down there and have ourselves a look at the falls where the electric station is. I like to watch the water come down and I think the rest of us do also.”

There being no objections, Zeno and Manoli led the way toward the continually sounding flow of water, past the pine and beech trees of the sloping hill they now descended.

The detective came to realize that the clinic patients never tired of seeing and listening to the eighty-foot fall of water that powered the hydroelectric generators of Vladova. He noticed the almost hypnotic serenity enjoyed by everyone, without exception, feeling it himself as well.

The noise of the waterfall was something that a pair of swan had become accustomed to. The members of his group found spots to sit down and enjoy the placid scene on the river called the Voda.

Rion enjoyed the satisfaction of believing that he was very close to a solution of the problem that had brought him to enchanting Lake Agra.

The investigator found the director in his private office that afternoon after lunch.

“How did your morning go?” inquired Dr. Kiron once the visitor was seated.

Zeno looked him straight in the eye. “I think I may have found out what killed your three unfortunate patients, sir.”

The other gave a look of shock and surprise. “What do you think that you discovered?” he asked excitedly.

“I have been doing some reading in medical journals and sources here at the clinic, as well as looking over treatment and prescription records of the residents. Certain connections became visible to me, I finally had to conclude.”

“And what are they?” demanded Kiron.

“It is known from research done in other lands, that intense environments of an electromagnetic nature can have an effect on the production of hormones and chalones in the human organic system. This is especially true of certain obscure, secondary chalones.

“And these malignant effects will be magnified by a number of the medications used here at the clinic. But the most important factor for what occurred here was the continual use of optical treatments on the geriatric patients.

“The combination of electromagnetic charge, biochemical compounds, and laser light was too much for the bodies of the three victims.

“My advice is that in future times you restrict the number of optical treatments, the amount of medications administered, and finally, prevent any more hiking that takes the walkers near to the hydroelectric station on the Voda river.”

“That’s it?” said a still confused clinic director.

Zeno Rion nodded that it was. “I will not be here tomorrow morning,” he told Dr. Kiron. “My intention is to leave for home this afternoon, as soon as possible.”

The director have a reluctant nod.

Within an hour, the detective was packed and heading back to Edessa, driven by Pugnose.

Kiron did not see his guest leave to return home to Saloniki.

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