I found Daddy in the front parlor, which served as his private practice three days a week. Inside was a couch and two chairs. Against one wall an exam table waited, and at the back of the room a small secretary desk waited next to a filing cabinet.
Daddy dropped a small stack of files onto the open desktop, gently depositing a box on top. Glass rattled softly inside.
“How were things at the hospital?” I asked, leaning against the doorframe.
He glanced up at me, then shook his head. “We had two admitted last night with methyl alcohol poisoning. I got their files this morning. One of them may not pull through.”
“Are those the samples?”
“These are some of the bottles the police have confiscated recently. I told Chief French I thought I could determine if they came from the same source.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“Well, every bootlegger uses a different recipe, a slightly different method of redistilling their alcohol. Some use industrial alcohol, others brew their own. Some use a combination of techniques. I think, if we run some tests and determine what levels of methyl alcohol are present, as well as the other ingredients, we should be able to determine which bottles came from the same batch, which might, in the end, lead us back to the person who made them in the first place.”
It was a sound theory. I knew Daddy had been reading all kinds of journals and papers out of New York, where their medical jurisprudence office was revolutionizing the way science and police work intersected.
“We’re lucky Chief French has done so much to clean up the city in the past two years,” Daddy continued, taking off his jacket and rolling up his shirtsleeves. “We’re likely only dealing with a small pool of suspects, rather than the hundreds or thousands a city like New York or Chicago would have.”
Chief French took over the police department two years earlier. Since then, he’d shut down almost every speakeasy, gambling den, and brothel in the city. Autocratic and a staunch teetotaller, Mother didn’t like him much, but he was very popular with the churches and temperance groups. And really, in Columbus that was all you needed.
Daddy pointed to the box. “Take those downstairs, would you? And start measuring out some samples. I’ll be down in a minute.”
I did as instructed, carrying the heavy box down to the makeshift laboratory Daddy set up in the basement.
The lab was the main reason Daddy insisted our house be the first on the block to convert from illuminating gas to electricity. “Some of these chemicals are very hazardous,” he said as we sat at the top of the basement stairs, watching the workman connect the tangle of wires to the wall. “I don’t want any accidents.”
Rose still worried that one day, Daddy’s experiments would blow us all sky high, but she mostly kept her worries to herself, only voicing them at times of extreme stress or when he brought home some particularly pungent sample for testing.
While the sheets were soaking, Elizabeth joined me, helping me measure out precise amounts of each liquor into glass tubes, labeling each one.
“Oh, wow! How could anyone drink that?” she gasped, holding out a suspect brown bottle.
I coughed a little covering my mouth. “Jeeze! No wonder people are getting sick. That smells like it could eat right through your insides!”
“It probably could. The boys at the hospital are calling the latest round of bootleg whiskey to go around ‘the Devil’s due.’ It’s the most toxic thing we’ve come across yet. Damn this prohibition. As if homemade liquor weren’t dangerous enough, now we’ve got speakeasies selling industrial alcohol, and our own government adding poison to it!” Daddy spat, appearing at the bottom of the staircase. He had an unlit cigarette in one hand, the other in his pocket.
“You’re not planning on lighting that, are you? This stuff will send us all to the moon if you get a match anywhere near it!”
He smiled, plucking the bottle from Elizabeth’s fingers. He sniffed it suspiciously, making a face, then covered the opening with his thumb, quickly flipping the bottle upside down to smear some of the liquid across the pad. Sucking the tip of his thumb, he nodded. “Yep, that’d do it all right. Potent stuff.” Setting it aside, he reached for the next bottle. Most of them hadn’t had labels, so Elizabeth pasted numbers onto each one so the samples could be identified later. The one he picked up, however, had a ragged, yellowed label with dark blue ink. Curling script identified it as Hudson Castle Whiskey, Canada, with line illustration of a crumbling castle.
Daddy took a sample of it as well. “Bleh!”
His expression reminded me of a dog George used to have when it stole a lemon from his mother’s kitchen table. “If that’s whisky, I’m the queen of England!”
Elizabeth and I both laughed. Daddy thrust the bottle in my direction. “We’ll start with that one. God only knows what they put in it.”
For the rest of the afternoon I measured and labeled, and helped Daddy set up the various pieces of equipment he would need to distill and redistill the samples, individually testing the potency for each and attempting to tease out traces of methyl alcohol and any number of other substances that might be toxic to humans.
Our work finally stopped just before dinner, when Rose came to tell me I had a phone call.
“Go on. I’ll finish up here. I imagine your mother will be home soon,” Daddy said, shooing me up the stairs. I smiled, gave him a quick, one-armed hug, then ran up to the first floor where the telephone waited in the hall.
“Hey, there doll!” a cheerful voice crackled over the line.
“You didn’t get into too much trouble, did you? Archie said he saw you getting hauled away, putting up a fight like a regular bearcat!”
“Oh, no! It was nothing like that. Though Mother was waiting outside,” I lowered my voice so no one would overhear.
“Oh! That’s terrible. Did she lock you up and throw away the key?”
“Not quite. Though I don’t know when I’ll get my driving privileges back.”
“Well, no worries there. Archie and I’ll take you out. Say, that’s what I was calling about. There’s a bit of a party tonight, down by the university. We can pick you up at the end of the block, and no one will be the wiser.”
“I can’t, Alex. They may not have thrown away the key, but I’m still in trouble.”
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me. It’s a little place off of Fifth; some swell’s got a real big house. He’s supposed to have some top shelf stuff, if you’ve decided not to be a teetotaller.”
Suddenly remembering the bottle of doctored booze Daddy was still testing, I opened my mouth to warn her, but there was noise at the other end of the line. Alexandra turned her head away from the telephone; I could just make out the sound of her brother’s voice.
“I’ve gotta get a wiggle on, doll. We’ll see you tomorrow at the contest, then!” She hung up before I had a chance to respond.
Sighing, I set the earpiece back on the hook. “Is something wrong?” Elizabeth asked, looking up from the dining room table, where she was setting out silverware.
I shook my head and went to help her set the table for dinner. “It’s nothing.”