By Sandra Feder
Published by Thornwood Publishing Company LLC
December 2000; 1-930-54105-8; 320 pages
Edith Howell didn't recognize the return address on the ivory-colored envelope she found in her post office box. She was tempted to just throw it out; so much junk mail these days was disguised as personal letters. But it might be something important, a nagging voice said. So she sighed and put it at the bottom of her stack of mail, after the AARP bulletin. She would go through all of it when she got to the park.
She was slightly tired by the time she reached her favorite stone bench overlooking the Saugatuck River, in the small park bordering the Westport Library. But the quarter-mile walk had been worth it, both for the view and her sense of accomplishment.
Putting down the cappuccino and biscotti she had brought, Edith went through her mail while she sat in the sun. The first few envelopes she decided were clearly junk mail, and she put them aside without opening them. The next two were bills, which she quickly checked and then put in the pocket of her windbreaker.
There was a letter from her daughter! Edith felt the thick envelope and smiled. It must contain pictures of her new grandson. She put it next to her on the bench. She would save the letter and the pictures for last.
She took the lid off the cappuccino and tasted it: sweet, just the way she liked it. She nibbled on the biscotti and drank the coffee as she went through the rest of the mail.
When she finally reached the ivory envelope again, she frowned. She opened it and slid out the folded letter. It seemed to be stuck, so she moistened her thumb and forefinger with her tongue and pulled the letter open.
Edith began reading, and halfway down the page realized she didn't know what she had just read. I must not be paying attention, she thought, I'm so eager to see the baby's pictures. Maybe I can afford to fly out to visit them next month. She licked some biscotti crumbs from her fingers and started the letter again. Again she couldn't remember what she had just read. Absently, she noticed that her damp fingertips stuck to the letter and left impressions.
Edith began to feel funny. First she felt a slight pain in her stomach. She assumed it was because of the walk, and she unzipped her windbreaker a little. That didn't help. Then the pain got worse and she became alarmed. She looked around to see if there were anyone else nearby, but she was alone. Suddenly Edith started to choke. She coughed until her eyes watered. When her vision cleared, she saw droplets of bright red blood on her yellow slacks.
"Oh, my God!" she whispered, terrified.
As she struggled to stand, she knocked her mail off the bench.
The last thing she did was to bend down to take her daughter's letter from the grass at her feet. Then Edith dropped into blackness, and her body tumbled down the short incline into the river, her hand clutching the pictures of the new grandson she would never see.
Across town, Joel Thomas kissed his wife and dropped her off at the train station. Then he went through his usual routine before he drove to work in Greenwich. He parked, got a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, and walked to the Saugatuck Post Office to pick up their mail. As he slid into his BMW, he gulped down half the sweet black coffee and took a big bite of the roll; he always needed a caffeine and sugar kick to get him going. And this morning he had a big presentation.
Joel went through the mail as he sat in his car. He put the catalogs and junk mail aside, to be thrown out; he tucked the bills in his briefcase. He smiled when he saw Highlights magazine; it was his daughter Jenna's first mail as a big girl.
When he got to the ivory envelope, he paused. He didn't recognize the return address. Wondering who had sent it, he tore open the envelope and took out the letter. His fingers were sticky with icing and stuck to the letter, so he licked them as he read. He was puzzled by the letter and turned it over, trying to figure out why the person had sent it. Finally he gave up and put it with the junk mail.
He backed out of his spot and headed toward the turnoff to I-95. Almost at once he got a sharp pain in his stomach. He berated himself for taking caffeine when his doctor had told him to cut back. He dumped the rest of the sweet roll in the bag and put the coffee in the cup holder.
Joel began to choke on something and started coughing. Liquid splattered his steering wheel, and he was horrified to see that the tiny droplets were red. All thoughts of his presentation went out of his head. He had to get to Norwalk Hospital.
He was about to turn the wheel to the left when an excruciating pain in his gut hit him.
Reflexively, he shut his eyes against the pain. His foot slammed the gas pedal to the floor and the car lunged straight ahead. Joel's eyes were still closed when the BMW slammed into one of the concrete supports of I-95, accordioned into it and exploded into flames.
"Hon, can you reach in my pocket for my keys?"
Both of Herb Rickman's arms were full; in one arm he had a week's worth of mail he had just picked up from the neighbor, and in the other arm he had his baby son.
While Cindy unlocked the door, Herb leaned over and nuzzled her neck.
"Herb!" she said, blushing. "The neighbors could be watching."
Herb followed her into the foyer, grinning, and dumped the mail on a nearby table. He took the baby into the living room and started to toss him up in the air over his head.
"Honey, put him down," Cindy said. "You've been tossing him too much and he is going to return the favor. He is going to spit up all over you and then you're going to be sorry."
"You're a tough little guy, aren't you, Justin?" Herb said, kissing him. But he sat the baby on the floor. "I'll get the rest of the luggage out of the car."
Cindy went through the mail as she kept an eye on Justin. He was teething and seemed a little out of sorts. The poor little guy's gums must hurt, she thought. She got a big cookie out of her bag and put it in his lap. Justin sat looking at it.
"Here's something for you to chew on, muffin."
The mail included the usual bills, which she put in a pile, and junk mail that she threw out without opening. An ivory envelope caught her attention. It was addressed to her, but she didn't recognize the return address.
She had just torn open the envelope and pulled out the letter, when the phone rang. She picked up the receiver and listened. "What? You had to do what?" She dropped the letter and ran to the window, motioning Herb to hurry in.
Justin had the cookie in his hands and was lifting it to his open mouth. But when he saw the letter flutter to the floor, he dropped the cookie and crawled over to investigate.
Herb came through the door, arms full of luggage, panting. "What is it?"
"They just put mother in the hospital," she said.
"But she was fine when we left."
"Well, something happened. Dad can't tell me all the details, but they called the ambulance."
Justin reached the letter and stretched out his chubby little fingers.
"Where did they take her?" Herb asked.
"Not there! That's the worst place. She'll get no care, and they have the highest rate of nosocomial infections in the city."
"You're a doctor," Cindy pleaded. "Get her transferred somewhere good."
While Herb made a call and Cindy watched and listened nervously, Justin tried to pick up the letter. But he didn't have the dexterity. So he got on his tummy and held it down while he chewed off a corner.
Justin was chewing happily and watching his parents when he started to choke quietly. Herb and Cindy didn't notice.
His choking got louder and Herb finally caught sight of him. He turned with terror in his face and ran toward Justin.
The baby was staring at him and turning blue. As Herb reached him, his eyes began to close. Herb leaned over and grabbed him, snatching him up.
For a moment he lost it. He gave the baby a shake. "Justin, Justin!" Herb said, as if trying to awaken him.
"No!" Cindy screamed. "What are you doing?"
As Herb held the baby, he suddenly threw up all over Herb's front, and started crying.
That snapped Herb out of it. He carefully checked the little boy, his mouth, his eyes, his breathing. Cindy stood beside him, her face white, looking from Justin to Herb. Finally Herb decided the baby was unharmed.
"Oh God, baby," Herb said, tears falling as he clutched the baby to his chest. Out of the corner of his eye Herb saw the chewed letter on the floor; he crumpled it angrily and threw it away.
Late that evening she sat in her living room, bent over a beautiful rare wood coffee table, listening to Connecticut's local station on her television. She was folding letters and stuffing them into ivory envelopes. It was slow work because she was wearing rubber gloves. Even though the gloves were thin, they tended to grab the paper and wrinkle it or even tear it. But she couldn't take a chance of getting what the letters contained on her hands.
She lifted her head when the announcer gave the lead story: two deaths, a woman who had drowned in the Saugatuck River, and a man who had lost control of his car and crashed into the I-95 overpass supports.
"Damn," she said quietly, as she made a check next to Howell and Thomas on her list. Then she put a question mark next to Rickman.
Her mouth became a thin line as she looked at another name on her list. I am so close, she thought. So close. She began circling the name with her pencil.
"We'll take everything from you, and you won't even know why," she whispered, pressing the pencil harder and harder with each narrowing spiral. "Your precious drug will go next, and then..." She pressed the lead into the paper until it obliterated the name: Grant Fraser.Copyright © 2000 Sandra Feder
Reprinted with permission.
Have you ever licked your finger to turn a page in a book, or to separate the pages of a letter? A harmless gesture, unless you died as a result of it.
In the opening pages of Side Effect, death is delivered by mail. What did these people do? Why did they have to die? Who could possibly profit from such coldblooded murders?
Side Effect is a thriller, set in the pharmaceutical industry and taking place over just nine days -- a group of ruthless people come up against a brilliant and bullheaded man who will risk anything to defend what is his. Dr. Grant Fraser, who lives and breathes drug research, creates an immunity-strengthening drug that may change the way docters fight disease. When a research on this drug is abruptly stopped by his employer, Altimate Phamaceuticals, Grant doesn't believe the reasons he is given and is determined to know the truth.
Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
"...Side Effect is a gripping, realistic thriller, one of those rapidly paced novels so easy to pick up and so hard to put down." (Five Stars) Midwest Book Review
"A scientist as "hero" in a what is essentially a mystery novel is a bit unusual. There are also plenty of twists and turns in the plot to hold your interest. The scientific material is well done, certainly more detail and more accuracy than one usually finds in works of fiction." - Dr. Michael J. Pikal, Chairman, Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Connecticut; and author.(back to top)
Sandra Feder was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Swarthmore College and the University of Oregon, she worked as a research chemist. She lives in Connecticut, where Side Effect is largely set.