HOPE


By Richard Ciciarelli



Charles Blake III waltzed into the living room and plopped onto the sofa next to his grandfather.

"Did you ever get the polio vaccine, Gramps?"

Charles Blake the First looked over in surprise. "Yes. What brought on that question?"

"We're studying the 1950s in history class and our teacher told us about it."

"I was about ten when Jonas Salk's vaccine was declared effective," the elder Blake said. "A year later our town held a clinic for anyone who wanted to get vaccinated."

"Our teacher said that pretty much wiped out the disease. Do you think anyone will ever come up with a vaccine against cancer?"

"I don't know," Charles the First said, rubbing his chin. "Cancer is a much trickier disease. You know, I worked on a case once that involved cancer research."

"Really?" The younger Blake wriggled in his seat. "Tell me about it."

* * *

I think it was 1975. I had been on the force for about eight years. Because of my success solving several murder cases, the Captain suggested I take the test for detective. I passed easily and right away got assigned to a murder case in a research lab.

It was a tricky case because all the suspects had similar names, so it was tough keeping them straight.

I remember walking into the building and thinking how clean and sterile it looked with its white walls, ceilings and floors.

The man in charge of the facility, a Michael Harris, met me at the front desk. He was a big man, well over six feet tall and probably two hundred and fifty pounds.

"Detective Blake? I'm Mike Harris. I'll show you to the crime scene." He led me to a bank of elevators.

"Who is the victim?"

"One of our cancer researchers, Lou Felcher."

"One of?"

"Yes. We have four men here, all working on a cancer vaccine. Unfortunately for us, Lou's work seemed the most promising. His test results were much better than the others'. Now he'll never be able to finish what he started."

"So the four men didn't work together?"

We had entered the elevator and Harris pushed the button for the fourth floor.

"Oh, no. Each man was working on his own. The competition among them was fierce."

"Would there be any money involved?"

"Yes, but if a cure was discovered, the company would get all the proceeds. After all, we're providing all the equipment and supplies. The man who discovered the cure, though, would get international fame. Probably even a Nobel Prize."

The elevator doors opened onto a hallway as white and antiseptic as the room on the ground floor. Harris pointed to three doors on the wall opposite.

"Room 4009 is where Tom Sanders works. Bill Sanderson is next door in 4011, and Joe Sandburg is in 4013."

"What about our victim?"

"Lou's room is on this side of the building, room 4012. That's where his body was found."

Harris led me down the hall to the right and opened a door with FELCHER on it.

If it was at all possible, this room seemed even whiter and cleaner than the hallway. Harris pointed to a lab table covered with beakers and vials.

"Lou's body was found on the floor behind that table."

I headed for the spot he pointed to. "Who found the body?"

"Two of the others, Tom Sanders and Bill Sanderson. They were coming here to invite Lou to join them for lunch."

"I thought you said competition was fierce among these men."

"It was, but they were still friends. They were all after a common cause." Harris hesitated. "Well, at least three of the men were friends. Felcher kept to himself a lot. Didn't socialize with the others. In fact, I don't think he knew them very well at all."

By this time I had walked behind Lou Felcher's lab table. The sparkling white floor was marred by a dark blood stain.

"How was Mr. Felcher killed?"

"His attacker broke a piece of glass piping and stabbed him with it. I think I heard your police examiner say it was still in his neck when he was found."

"What's this?" On the floor, very close to the bloodstain was the word HOPE printed in blood.

"That was there when Lou was found," Harris said. "No one seems to know what it means."

"Looks like Mr. Felcher was trying to tell us something," I said. "But what?"

Harris shrugged. "If it was me, I'd have written my attacker's name."

"Which one? Sanders, Sanderson or Sandburg?"

Harris raised his eyebrows.

"Are those three men here now?" I asked. "I'd like to talk to them."

"They should each be in their labs. If you don't need me any more, I'd like to return to my office."

I waved Harris away. After he left I did a quick sweep of Felcher's lab room. Since our forensics crew had already done their job, I didn't expect to find anything. And I didn't.

I left Felcher's room and headed back up that antiseptic white hallway to room 4009. A nametag on the door said SANDERS. I knocked on the door and walked in.

"Don't touch anything!" a man in a white lab coat practically screamed. "I don't want anything contaminated."

I raised both arms.

"I'm from the police. I'm investigating Lou Felcher's death."

"I don't care. Just don't touch anything. And stay right where you are."

"I understand you found his body?"

"Yeh. Me and Bill."

"Why did you go into his lab?"

Sanders could see I wasn't going to go away, so he took a deep breath.

"We're all working on a cure for cancer," he said. "Three of us shared our findings and what kind of tests we were running. Felcher wouldn't. He was a loner. Didn't talk much, never shared anything. And rumor had it he was making better progress than the rest of us."

"Who told you that?"

Sanders shrugged. "This is a small company. Word gets around. Anyhow, we thought maybe if we could get Felcher to come to lunch with us and we started talking about our work, he might open up a little."

"So you went to invite him to join you?"

"Yep. But when we walked into his lab, we couldn't find him. We called to him but got no answer. Bill and I thought maybe we'd snoop around a little, and when we went behind his lab bench, we saw him lying there with a piece of glass piping in his neck and a pool of blood around his head." Sanders shivered.

"So what did you do next?"

"We were frozen in shock for a few seconds and then Bill told me to call downstairs for help."

"Did you?"

"Yes. Every lab has an emergency phone by the door." Sanders pointed to his. "Then we both backed up to the doorway and waited for the security team to come. That's the last time I was in Felcher's room. The security guys shooed us out."

"Did you see anyone going into or out of Felcher's room on the day he was murdered?"

"You've got to be kidding," Sanders said. "If you hadn't knocked I wouldn't even know you were in my room. I'm so absorbed in my work I'm oblivious to anything that happens outside here."

I thanked Sanders for his time, left his lab room and went to the next door down the hall. The nameplate SANDERSON was on this one.

This time after knocking I edged into the room and stood next to the door.

"Mr. Sanderson? I'm from the police. I understand you were one of the men who found Lou Felcher's body."

"Lou? Was that his first name? Yeh. Tom and I found him."

"You went there to ask him to join you for lunch?"

Sanderson made some notes in a binder, then turned to face me.

"Well, that's what we used as our cover story. We really wanted Felcher to let us in on his findings. We had heard his test results were encouraging and we wanted in so we could attack the problem better."

"So he wasn't very sociable?"

"No. He was pretty secretive, but we thought we could appeal to him on a social level. But we never got the chance."

"What happened when you went into Felcher's lab?"

"Tom and I knocked and walked in, but Felcher was nowhere to be seen. I think Tom called his name, but there was no answer. That's when I got the idea to snoop around a little and maybe see what Felcher was on to. We saw him on the floor behind his lab bench."

"So Sanders called for help?"

"Yes. I checked Felcher's carotid for a pulse, but there wasn't one. Then I joined Tom by the door until security came and chased us out."

"Did you see anyone go into or out of his room that day?"

"Just Tom and me and the security guys. I'm pretty busy in here, so I never know what goes on in the hall or other labs."

I thanked Bill Sanderson and went to the final lab room, the one with SANDBURG on the door. I knocked, entered, and introduced myself and told Joe Sandburg why I was there.

"You're asking the wrong guy," he said. "Bill and Tom were the ones who found Felcher. I've never even been in his lab."

"I thought maybe you heard or saw something."

"Sorry. These rooms are almost soundproof. A parade could go by outside that door and I wouldn't hear it."

"Were you part of the plan to wheedle information out of Felcher at lunch?"

"Guilty. We heard the guy was making great strides in finding a serum, but he was too selfish to share with the rest of us. Tom and Bill and I figured we were all in this together, but Felcher kept himself apart from us. We didn't think it was fair of him to keep his knowledge to himself."

Sandburg held up a notebook. "I figure whatever is in here belongs to all of us. Tom and Bill felt the same way, but not Felcher. He was selfish."

"When did you find out about Felcher's death?"

"At lunch time when I went to meet the other guys and found the hallway full of security guards. Tom and Bill were out there and told me about finding Felcher's body."

"Is there anything else you can tell me about Lou Felcher or the day he died?"

Sandburg didn't hesitate. "Nope."

I thanked him and left, taking the elevator back to the ground floor. After asking for directions, I was shown to Mike Harris' office.

"I assume your security here is pretty tight?"

He nodded. "Why?"

"Is there any way someone from one of the other floors could have gotten to the fourth floor unseen to kill Lou Felcher?"

"We have cameras in the elevators, but none in the stairwells. I suppose somebody could have gone up or down unseen. But who would want to?"

I sighed and left the lab building, heading back to the station.

When I got there, I found a note on my desk from the Captain.

"Well?" he asked when I entered his office. "What have you got?"

"Not much. I haven't seen the ME's report yet, but I didn't find anything at the laboratory. The other researchers were in their rooms working and didn't see or hear anything. Of course, one of them may have killed Felcher out of envy. Or maybe to get his notes for himself. The manager said this was Nobel Prize stuff."

"We've got his notebook in evidence," the Captain said. "We'll have an expert examine it. How about Felcher's room? Any clues there?"

"I doubt it. If the forensics team didn't find anything, that room will be a dead end, too."

"What about the message I hear the dead man left?"

"I saw that. It was the word HOPE. Right now I have no idea what it means."

"If Felcher was going to leave a clue, why didn't he just write his killer's name?" The Captain pulled out a cigar, unwrapped it, and stuck it in his mouth.

"There's an unusual situation here," I said. "I'm not sure Felcher knew many people's names. Everyone at the lab said he was a loner, and the other researchers called each other by their first names but always referred to Felcher by his last name. I get from that that he probably didn't know them very well."

"He must have known their last names. Why didn't he write that?"

"That's part of the unusual situation, Captain. Felcher's fellow workers are Sanders, Sanderson, and Sandburg. Felcher probably knew he didn't have much time, and if he managed to write only the first few letters of his attacker's name before he died, we'd have suspects, but no way to know which one he meant."

The Captain bit hard on his cigar. "When the ME's report comes in, go over it carefully. And see what the forensics report has to say. We need an opening somewhere."

"Right." I got up and left the Captain's office. Since the two reports wouldn't be ready until the next day, I went home.

As I often did, I told your grandmother about the case I was working on.

"HOPE?" she said. "Why would a dying man write HOPE?"

"If I knew that, this case wouldn't be such a problem."

"Well, that's just nonsense. It sounds like something out of a mystery book. Normal people don't do silly things like that."

"Apparently Lou Felcher did."

"Then he wasn't normal. Did he like riddles or codes?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Maybe he was afraid his killer would come back, so instead or writing his name, he wrote some sort of code. Maybe HOPE means something."

"Everyone on that floor was working on a cure for cancer," I said. "Could that be what he hoped for?"

"Don't be silly. How could that kind of hope lead you to his killer?"

I shrugged. "I have to admit, I'm totally lost."

The next morning when I got to the station I found both the medical examiner's report and the forensics team's report on my desk.

The ME's report stated that Felcher's death was due to exsanguination cause by a glass pipette that had sliced his carotid artery. It also punctured his larynx, so he couldn't speak.

"That explains the word HOPE," I thought. "Felcher couldn't cry out, so he wrote something down. But why HOPE?"

The forensics report noted there were no fingerprints to be found anywhere in the area of the body. But that wasn't unusual since everyone on that floor wore surgical gloves. It also noted that the right forefinger of Felcher's glove had his own blood on it. Presumably it got there when he wrote HOPE on the floor.

There were also pictures of the crime scene: Felcher's lab table, his body, a close-up of the word HOPE. I looked them over and noted for the first time the H and O in HOPE were fairly neatly written, considering the man was dying, but the P and E were crammed together.

"What did you expect?" I asked myself. "Perfect penmanship?"

But perfectly printed or not, the question still remained: Why did Felcher write HOPE at all? Why not something that would help more?

I was beginning to think your grandmother was right. Felcher's message was some kind of code. But a one word code would be awfully hard to break. And could a dying man think clearly enough to create a code?

Did the whole word stand for something, or did each letter represent something else? And what could that something else be? Words? Chemical symbols? Numbers?

Numbers. The idea jumped out at me. Could it be? I studied the forensics photo of the word HOPE again. A thought went through my mind.

"That would explain the scrunched up P and E," I mumbled. "And if I remember the sequence of events properly, this can all be explained."

I grabbed a clean sheet of paper and a pencil from my desk and took them along with the forensics photo to the Captain's office.

"I have an idea," I told him. "It doesn't prove anything, but it explains a lot, and we may be able to get a confession with it."

The Captain leaned forward. "I'm listening."

"We've been going on the assumption that as Felcher was dying, he wrote the word HOPE on the floor."

"Didn't he?"

"Maybe not. Remember, Felcher didn't know his fellow researchers very well and they didn't know him. Whenever they spoke of one another they used first names, but when they spoke of Felcher, they used his last name."

"So?"

"So Felcher probably didn't know their first names, either, or he'd have written BILL or TOM or JOE. And since their last names are so similar, he didn't want to try writing them in case he didn't get the name finished."

"I repeat: so?"

"So Felcher wrote down what he did know: the room number of his killer. 4011."

"But..." the Captain began.

I held up a hand to stop him.

"Who works in room 4011? Bill Sanderson. Who found Felcher's body? Bill Sanderson, along with Tom Sanders. Who knelt over Felcher's body to feel for a pulse? Sanderson. So he probably saw the 4011. And what did he do next? He sent Sanders across the room to phone for security. And while Sanders wasn't able to see, Sanderson used Felcher's dead finger to change the 4 into an H and the two 1s into a P and an E. That's why the P and E are so close together. They weren't letters originally."

As I was explaining, I was writing 4011 on the sheet of paper I had brought in and then changing the numbers to HOPE.

"Could be," the Captain said, rubbing his chin, "But you're right about this not being proof. There's no way you can prove this is what happened."

"I know. But are you willing to take a gamble? We confront Sanderson with this and tell him the forensics team can prove the message Felcher left was tampered with. Then we see if he cracks."

"And if he doesn't?"

I shrugged. "We're no worse off than we are now."

The Captain took a deep breath. "Okay. Go for it."

* * *

"We called Sanderson in and tossed my theory at him. Of course we made it sound like there was no doubt and the forensics team could prove it."

"What happened, Gramps?"

"The bluff worked. Sanderson caved."

"So you caught the killer. What about Mr. Felcher's research?"

"That's the saddest part of all. Felcher was killed for his notes and the great strides he was making, but it turned out he was fudging his data to get more money out of the company. Sanderson killed him for nothing."

"He lied?"

"Yes. Ironically, for all his research, Felcher had no hope at all. What a waste, huh?"


Richard Ciciarelli has published nearly 100 stories. In addition to the Charles Blake III series, he also writes the Mildred Bagshaw series and the Sheriff Sam Hartnet series.


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