Inspector Lee spent his weekends doing what he called “Sherlock Expert Exercises” or SEE. He would sit down for hours in one of the sidewalk benches in Universal Studios on Sentosa Island and watch adult tourists taking selfies beside Sesame Street characters. He would pick out a number of these tourists in his mind and guess their nationalities, ages, occupations, and hidden desires. Of course, he could never confirm the correctness of his deductions, but it was good practice in case he had to use his observation and reasoning skills as Singapore’s version of Sherlock Holmes to solve some intriguing case that no one else could solve.
This morning, however, he could not focus on his SEE. He kept thinking of the woman who did not belong and, therefore, of the green jeepney driver. Instead of looking up and around, as he would usually do, he looked down at his computer tablet and started surfing “Green Skin.”
His search turned up quite a number of things that had been missing from his education.
There were old beliefs, for example, that identified green skin with female virgins. The misogynist prejudice was so widespread that, as late as 1887, male physicians in England believed that adolescent girls having their very first menstrual period turned green. They offered what at that time looked like a rational scientific explanation: the loss of menstrual blood caused a deficiency in iron, which would then turn the color of blood from bloody red to something more or less green.
It wasn’t too implausible, Lee thought, recalling the lectures in forensic medicine that he had to attend to qualify for inspectorship. The color of blood came from a protein called haemoglobin, found in red blood cells. The cells contained iron atoms. Iron, of course, was colored red, and therefore gave normal blood its color. The color had something to do with the wavelength of the light that illuminated the skin, but physics wasn’t his strong suit. He didn’t really understand what a wavelength was and how it determined color. He preferred intuitive but intelligent guesses to the mechanical though exact formulas of physics.
He knew, nevertheless, that the medieval physicians and physicists were pretty good in optics. That was, after all, long before Einstein or computers ruined the blind faith of scientists in their neat models of the universe and the human body. When light hits the skin at a certain angle, the red color of the blood changes to blue or blue-grey. That theory of the medieval physicians he knew to be accurate because he had seen blue blood himself during his training sessions in Europe. He smiled to himself when he remembered how naïve he had seemed when he asked a question during a seminar about blue blood and nobility. The instructor, a German academic with no sense of humor, very much unlike the friendly German cops he drank blue-labelled Rachmaninoff with after the seminar sessions, answered him gruffly, “Everybody has blue blood if seen from right angle. Nobility just a myth.”
What about green blood, Lee wondered. Was there such a thing? To his delight, he discovered that, indeed, there was green blood, but not in human beings. Some worms and leeches had something very similar to haemoglobin, but it wasn’t red but green. It was chlorocruorin. He loved the word. It was a word you could read but never speak, because it was unpronounceable, at least as far as he was concerned, despite his facility with different languages.
The skink lizard in New Guinea also had green blood. Human livers routinely recycled haemoglobin into green biliverdin and red bilirubin, but the skink lizard couldn’t handle bilirubin, causing their blood to remain green. Lee regretted that he didn’t pay enough attention in his high school zoology and chemistry classes. He preferred reading detective fiction to figuring out why the whale is not a fish or which elements had valences that were negative. He spent his book allowance on books by Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie, not on books about Madame Curie and Rosalind Franklin. He thought that the questions his chemistry teacher asked were as inane and useless as the questions his philosophy teacher would ask whenever the class would get unruly, which was how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
Maybe, just maybe, Lee thought, it was possible for someone’s liver to stop processing biliverdin and, therefore, have green blood, which would then show through the skin. He made a mental note to ask a chemistry professor at the National University of Singapore about the possibility.
Lee kept surfing. The mainland European male physicians were more upfront about their prejudice against – or desire for – female virgins. In the sixteenth century, they thought that green skin was a condition due to lack of sexual intercourse. That bias persisted all the way to the nineteenth century, when the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, defined “green sickness” as “the disease of maids occasioned by celibacy.” The cure for this alleged disease was, needless to say, sex. Lee could not help smiling at the not-so-hidden agenda of the male physicians, who must have been obsessed with being the first to penetrate young girls.
Lee discovered that there was an even more sexist interpretation of green skin. Some male physicians thought that, being virgins, adolescent girls masturbated excessively, causing their iron levels to decrease and their skin to turn green.
Although he had momentarily given in to his basic instincts in Manila, when he had hoped that he could finally experience orgasm that he had not himself caused, Lee was not convinced of the curative value, nor even the sheer pleasure, of sex with women. He had enough gender sensitivity sessions to realize that many of the so-called diseases of women were nothing but manifestations of the male fantasy that women lacked penises and, therefore, craved for them.
He was fascinated, nevertheless, with the etymology of the word chloris, which was from the Greek term for green. Chlorosis was the name given by the Renaissance to what they thought was the disease of adolescent girls. The scientific name of the condition, which after the First World War was finally no longer considered a disease, probably because too many male soldiers having their Rest and Recreation realized that asking young girls if they were virgins was not the best way to get laid, was hypochromic anemia. Lee learned that the condition was demythologized by, he should have guessed, the Harvard Medical School.
Lee looked up from his tablet just in time to see a group of schoolgirls walking towards the entrance of The Lost World. He stared at the girls. They were just at the right age to be having their menarche. But he couldn’t see any tinge of green in their faces. He kept watching young girls and even older girls as they filed past him. He did not see a single one with any touch of green on their skin at all.
He went back to his tablet. There really was such a thing as hypochromic anemia and it was indeed due to iron deficiency. So the medieval doctors with their dirty minds were on the right track, Lee thought. They were just wrong in their attribution of the cause. Green skin was not caused by having sex alone or by not having sex with a man. It was caused, Lee discovered from a medical website, by a variety of possible causes – bacteria, heat, injury, radiation, exposure to heavy metals, and yes, of course, changes in hormonal levels.
Since the jeepney driver he saw was male, that ruled out menarche and hormones. It was certainly hot in Manila, but if heat were the cause, then everybody, including himself, would have turned green. Radiation had to be ruled out, because it would not have been limited to the driver, but certainly would have affected the passengers sitting beside him. Bacteria could have caused it, but Lee did not have the results of the autopsy, and he even doubted if an autopsy had been performed, because as far as he knew, autopsies were not routinely done in the Philippines. Anyway, bacteria would have spread just like radiation. As for injury, he had not seen any wound on the driver that he examined.
That left only heavy metals.
Lead was well known for poisoning little children; a concentrated amount of lead could kill an adult. Other heavy or almost heavy metals could also be the cause, such as arsenic or mercury. The metal – and it didn’t have to be heavy – could have been capable of incapacitating the liver, making the body retain biliverdin. But the driver was in full view of everyone, including him. Nobody could have injected the driver with any metal, heavy or not heavy, without someone noticing it.
Lee had eliminated all the possibilities. It was time, he realized, to apply the dictum of Sherlock Holmes to accept the implausible. Now, what exactly was implausible now that he had eliminated everything as impossible? There was nothing that remained!
One of Lee’s mobile phones rang, interrupting his thoughts. This was the mobile phone dedicated to the AIP.
“Lee,” he said.
The voice on the other end of the line was frantic. “You need to go now, okaay. Fugitive heading Singapore.”
Lee said, “Han nah han nah. So what?! Like that also want to see.”
The voice said, “Very jialat. Suspect in serial murders in Philippines. Victims turn green. Fugitive name Grace King.”
Lee stood up. “Har? Kanna sai. I go airport den call you.”
Lee went at once to Chiangi Airport, wondering if duty and pleasure were about to mix.