Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Science Fiction: Story 8: THE MYSTERY OF THE SLAIN GENERAL



-Dr. Anil Aggrawal

When the phone started ringing incessantly, I was deep asleep, and was dreaming some good things of life. Wearily I tried to rub sleep off my eyes and looked at the clock. It was 2 am. Who could it be?

"Hello, is it Dr. Aggrawal?", a faint voice came from the other side.

"Yes, who is it?", I asked with a little bit of irritation.

"Sir, are you the forensic pathologist working in Maulana Azad Medical College?"

"Oh, yes. Come on. Now who are you, and what do you want from me?"

"Sir, I have a bad news to give you", he said, ignoring my question completely, "The President of Malibotu has been assassinated, and you are required to attend immediately."

Malibotu? Malibotu?? Now where in the world is Malibotu? I started thinking. I had been somewhat of a quizzer in my college days, and at that time reveled in quizzing on such subjects. But age is now telling on my brain, and I really couldn't remember where it was. All I could recollect after some quick thinking was that it was a small principality somewhere in the middle of Africa, probably near Congo. Yes, I got it. It indeed was. Its capital was Rwandanu, and General Oshonga had recently staged a successful coup, replacing the democratically elected President. Oshonga had said that the economy had gone down, and it had become absolutely important for him to stage that coup, in order to take that nation fast forward. To the best of my knowledge all army generals said that after staging a coup.

"Are you there doctor?" the same faint voice broke my reverie.

"Yeah. But who are you, and where are you calling from? And what am I supposed to do?"

"Sir, I am Ngunmah, the first Secretary in the Embassy of Malibotu. Right now I am speaking from the Embassy itself. You are required by our Government to take a flight immediately to our country, and conduct a post-mortem examination on the General. Of course you have to tell the police all you can. It is very urgent. Don't worry about the Government clearances. They have all been taken. Please get ready in an hour. Our man is coming to your residence with the ticket and the necessary papers."

Now, it isn't exactly a pleasant exercise visiting a country ruled by the military, but obviously it could not be avoided, because as soon as I hung up, I received a phone call from someone high up in the ministry asking me to do the same. I was told that necessary papers from the Ministry were reaching immediately to my residence, and I was to take the 6.35 am Air India flight to Rwandanu, the capital of Malibotu.

My wife wasn't exactly pleased when I told her that she had to pack my luggage in about an hour. We both struggled and when the man with the tickets came to our house, I was reasonably well dressed, and ready with a quickly assembled luggage.

I will skip the details, and now tell you straightaway what happened when I reached Rwandanu. All army officers gathered round me, and started telling me the story. The gist of the story was this...

General Oshonga was overlooking a routine army parade on 23 March 1996, at about 10 am, when suddenly he dropped down. In the first instance it appeared as if he had had a stroke. On closer examination however, a big gaping hole was seen at his neck, which was bleeding profusely. Obviously someone had tried to assassinate him. His army guard, a man named Bishounga, was standing closeby with a gun. Nobody saw him firing at the General, but since there was no other person with a gun in the vicinity, the suspicion immediately fell upon him. Some army officers immediately pounced upon him, starting hammering him with all their might. In the melee that ensued, somebody took away his gun, and nobody knew where it was. I am saying this, because in my investigation it was very important to have his gun. We all know that all guns leave their tell-tale markings on the bullet. There are the primary markings, which are the characteristic of a particular make, say a Colt or a Smith and Wesson. But what are really important are the secondary markings, which are caused due to idiosyncrasies within a particular gun. Thus two different Colt guns would leave the same primary markings on the bullet, but different secondary markings. Secondary markings can in fact be called the fingerprints of the gun left on the bullet. If you give me a bullet fired from a particular weapon, and give me 100 weapons, I can tell you positively which weapon out of those 100 was the bullet fired from. What I would do to determine this would be to fire a bullet from each of those hundred weapons, recover those bullets, and compare the markings on each of them with the bullet you gave me. The weapon whose markings match exactly is the gun in question. For this we need a special microscope called the comparison microscope, in which we make the comparisons.

I wouldn't bother you with any more scientific details, and get on straightway with the story. Well, I received the phone call on 24 March at 2 am, as I already told you in the beginning. I took the 6.35 am plane the same day, and reached Malibotu the same day at 9.30 am local time. Well, the journey lasted almost 6 hours, but since Malibotu - as we all know - is 3 hours behind Indian standard time, it was 9.30 am local time. In other words, I was there in Malibotu, exactly one day after the General was slain.

When I conducted the autopsy, I didn't have to exert much on finding the cause of death. The bullet had entered the left side of General's neck, lacerated both the left carotid artery and the left jugular vein, then pierced the trachea, and then had come out from the other side of his neck. The death was clearly due to hemorrhage and shock consequent upon excessive bleeding from the neck vessels. However the most notable feature was that the entrance wound showed tattooing. There was very little blackening, but I could understand that, as modern ammunitions don't have black powder. They mostly work on the so-called "smokeless powders" which comprise of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. Tattooing around the wound, in cases of hits by hand weapons such as revolvers, means that the gun was fired from a fairly close range. And that put a very strong finger of suspicion on Bishounga.

A word about burning, blackening and singeing before we move on. When any gun is fired, lots of gases come out along with the bullet. This is because gun powder in the cartridge is burnt, with resultant formation of gases which actually push the bullet forwards. Some gun powder gets converted to smoke, while some remains unburnt. The smoke travels for some distance along with the bullet, and then it tends to dissipate away. Unburnt powder travels somewhat longer but ultimately it too dissipates. If the victim's body happens to be within these distances, the smoke and the unburnt powder gets deposited on the victim's skin around the bullet entry wound, causing blackening and tattooing respectively. The flame from the gun also leaps forwards from the muzzle, but for really a very small distance. If the victim's body happens to be within this distance, there would be burning too around the bullet hole. The whole subject is very complex, and I wouldn't bother you with details. Suffice it to say, that in cases of pistols and revolvers, burning is seen if the victim was within 3 inches of the gun, blackening, if he was within 6 inches, and tattooing, if he was anywhere around 12 to 18 inches from the gun. To take an example, if I see only tattooing, and no burning and blackening, I can say that the gun was fired more than 6 inches but less than 18 inches from the victim. And similarly by looking at the appearances, I can opine on any distance.

Bishounga was obviously in trouble because I had seen tattooing on the General's body. I could not see any signs of burning or blackening. This means that the gun was within about 12 to 18 inches from the General, and who else could fire a gun from such close quarters except Bishounga.

I talked to Bishounga for some time. He was very terrified, and told me he was innocent. He said he really did not know what had happened. According to the version given by him, the General suddenly fell down, and he was as surprised as any other. He however gave me a very important piece of information that there was a conspiracy to finish the General among some army higher-ups. After talking to him for some time, I was convinced that Bishounga had not fired the gun.

You may ask, how could I be so sure. Well, I am a serious student of a new branch of forensics called forensic psychology, in which we can talk to a suspect and can know a lot about him. I was very sure after talking to him, that Bishounga was being framed in a very sinister plot.

But if he hadn't fired the shot, who had? And how could I explain the million dollar question - the tattooing?

Gradually I realized, that my whole exercise of proving Bishounga innocent boiled down to just one thing: to explain the tattooing. If for instance, I had not seen any tattooing, I could have confidently said that the wound was caused by some gun fired from a distant range, but the very obvious tattooing was preventing me from saying that. And that was putting Bishounga in a very tight spot indeed.

I went to the place where the General was killed and looked around. There were some tall buildings around 200 yards from where the General was standing. I counted the floors. Most of them had more than 10 floors. It was very easy for some one to take a position there and kill the General with a rifle. Had I got the bullet or Bishounga's gun, I could have solved the problem easily, but neither the bullet, nor the gun was available. The gun as already mentioned had been taken away by someone, and was untraceable now. Similarly, the bullet had pierced the General's neck through and through, had probably fallen on the ground and had got lost in the melee. Now the only lead I had was the appearance of the wound.

After the autopsy there was a lot of pressure from the Army higher-ups to dispose off the body of the General after doing the last rites. But I was not sure if that would be the right thing to do. Perhaps the General's body had more clues than I had been able to detect. And perhaps I might have to have a look at it later. So I advised them to keep the body in the cold room for another day.

There was no way- I told myself- that a gun firing from such a great distance could cause tattooing, and yet my mind was saying that Bishounga was innocent. How could I prove that?

I slept a very disturbed sleep in my hotel. Next day a vague thought crossed my mind, and I went back to the mortuary where I had preserved the body of the General. I examined the wound closely again. The tattooing was unmistakable. Now we know that the tattooing is due to the unburnt particles. There are ways you can see the unburnt particles actually under the microscope if you do a histology of the skin around the wound. I decided to snipe off some skin from around the wound and do the histological analysis.

When I was putting the piece of skin in the formalin bottle, a Geiger-Muller counter which was lying there gave a loud beep, and I must say, it surprised me no end. Generally Geiger-Muller counters have no business being present in a mortuary until and unless you are doing a post-mortem on a radioactive body. I asked the mortuary attendant why they had kept this in the mortuary, and he told me a very strange reason. The biophysics department of that hospital was undergoing renovation, and they had kept all their instruments in other departments. By sheer chance the Geiger Muller counter, which the biophysics department was using for their experiments had come to the Forensic Medicine department, and they had found no better place to keep it than their mortuary.

To come back to our serendipitous finding. To make sure, it was not an accident, I took the piece of skin away from the counter, and then brought it near again, and again it gave a loud beep. I was almost sure now that the General's body was radioactive. But how did it acquire radioactivity? I wasn't really sure. The whole of Malibotu did not have a single nuclear reactor, and I could not explain the reactivity in any way.

To make myself sure, this time I cut a piece of skin from his foot and brought it near the counter, and was surprised again no end to find that the counter stayed quiet. I brought the piece of skin around the wound again near the counter, and again it gave a loud beep.

Were they making the bullets with some radioactive substances? Did this radioactive bullet - which was lost anyway - rub off some of its radioactive material around the skin of the general. Radioactive bullets should be no better than ordinary lead bullets as far as their killing power is concerned, but just to make sure, I went to the ammunition factory of Malibotu and asked the Chief Engineer there. He told me that they were making bullets from an alloy which contained iron, copper and lead. Sure enough this did not help me in any way.

The next day, I was talking to some Army Generals and I was amazed by an interesting piece of information regarding the General. In his youth, the general did stunts like eating whole iron nails. In fact he reveled in eating things made up of iron. He had once eaten the iron parts of a whole automobile in a single week. This is a phenomenon which many people can do in our country too. This is a very rare gift to people, and nobody really knows how they can do that, and why the nails don't hurt their guts. Well, doctors had wanted to know more about this interesting curiosity, and had asked him to undergo a stool test, but he had never agreed for that. Then finally he joined the army, and his spate of stunts ended with that. However insiders told me that while in Army, he still reveled in showing off these stunts privately off and on. People also told me that when he ate nails, he rarely had the need to eat regular food. In biological terms this meant that he was deriving all his energy from the iron nails that he ate.

This set me thinking. A vague idea had started forming in my mind. Now I changed my plan, and instead of doing a histological examination, I sent the skin around the wound for chemical analysis.

I really do not know why I did that. All that was sufficient for me to do was to have a look under the microscope. But perhaps I wanted to know the composition of the gunpowder they were using. I really can not say, why I sent the skin to the chemistry lab, but certainly I had a hunch I would get something there. Perhaps the look of the tattooing was somewhat different, and I wanted to know what it was. But most probably I was disturbed by the radioactivity found in the General's skin. I can not say, how that justified my sending the skin for chemical analysis, but all the same I did send the skin.

My worst fears were confirmed, when I was told that they had not found any unburnt gunpowder in the skin. Instead they had found Uranium-235. In other words, there was U-235 in General's skin. And that was the cause of General's tattooing. Before proceeding further, I consider it my duty to tell that freshly precipitated Uranium is almost black and can certainly mimic tattooing very much.

Now where did this U-235 came from? Were the Malibotuans using uranium in their guns? There is no way they could use that even if they wanted to. There simply was no Uranium in their small principality. Then how do I explain U-235?

I thought endlessly, but couldn't think of anything plausible. There was no way left for me except to put an Overseas call through to India to my good old friend Dr. A.K.Jain of the Department of Physiology at our college. And sure enough next day he was there with me, of course at the expense of the Malibotuan Army. The Jolly Good Fellow was careful to bring some samples of his newly written Physiology books for Army Higher Ups! The Army officers appeared pleased when they received his books, although I doubt they made much head or tail out of them.

Well, coming back to the point. As I told you earlier, a vague idea had started creeping in my mind. I now froze some pieces of General's skin. I had taken them from around the bullet wound, from his forearms, from his belly and from his shins. I asked Dr. Jain to go through the pieces, and tell me if he could find something unusual. Of course he had the facility of a very good lab provided by the Army General Hospital.

Dr. Jain struggled with the pieces for some days, and then told me he had found a very strange enzyme in those tissues. He liked to call it iron-uranium convertase for want of better terminology. It was diffusely distributed throughout the cytoplasm of the cells, and what it did was unique. It somehow combined five atoms of iron into a single atom of uranium. Now before you throw up your arms in despair, let me tell you this is not entirely impossible. An atom of Uranium-235, if you recall your physics, contains 92 protons and 143 neutrons. So the total number of nucleons add up to 235. Iron on the other hand contains 26 protons and 30 neutrons. A single atom of iron thus has only 56 nucleons. We know that all nucleons are almost similar in weight. You would immediately interrupt me and inform that a neutron is slightly heavier than proton, and that it consists of one proton, one electron and one antineutrino. Well, I know all that, but since I am not talking of physics details, let us discuss this point at a macro level.

Five atoms of iron thus have 280 nucleons in all. An atom of U-235 has just 235. Now if an enzyme converted five atoms of iron into a single atom of Uranium, about 45 nucleons (and some electrons) would have to be taken care of. Well, 40 of these nucleons (with an appropriate number of electrons) were converted into calcium and the remaining five nucleons were converted into energy. To sum up the equation which Dr. A.K. Jain gave me...

5 Fe56 -> (Using Iron-Uranium Convertase as an enzyme)->U235 + Ca40 + energy


This calcium was deposited in the bones.

Are you getting the point now? Do you remember the general eating the iron nails and getting away with it? He actually had a remarkable enzyme in his cells, which could convert iron into Uranium and calcium, and the fellow was getting energy from that. That explained why he did not have the need to eat regular food when he was eating iron nails. I now sincerely believe that all these stuntmen who eat these iron things have this enzyme in their bodies. This has to be investigated however.

How did this enzyme come to be in the General's body. Well, to tell you the truth, I do not have the vaguest notion. But I feel it was a very interesting mutation in one of his cells, when he was still in the embryonic stage, and this brought about the existence of this enzyme.

Bishounga could easily be cleared now. I will tell you once again what had actually happened. There was someone hiding in those tall buildings which I mentioned earlier in my story. At an appropriate moment, he fired the gun from a distance and killed the general. He as well as the Army higher-ups who were supporting him thought that they could easily make Bishounga a scapegoat and get away with murder. But very strange things happened.

The bullet which was made from an alloy containing iron passed through the neck, and in the process some iron was rubbed in and around the skin of the wound. This iron diffused into surrounding skin for a distance of about 5 cm, and was immediately converted into U-235 by the enzyme present within his skin cells, and the skin came to the laden heavily with U-235. This gave somewhat darkish appearance to the skin, which I confused with tattooing. In fact, so convincing was the appearance that any forensic pathologist would have made the same mistake. Had there been no Geiger-Muller counter in the autopsy room on that day, this discovery might never have been made.

To this day, the real killer has never been found. Nor did I expect him to be found, as he was obviously a stooge of some Army higher ups, who actually staged the whole show. In fact, had they thought I would have found out the truth so quickly they would never have called me, and had got the autopsy done from their own doctors. They probably thought they had done a neat job, and wanted to prove to the world that they had left no stone unturned by calling a forensic pathologist from a neutral country. Anyway, what satisfied me most was that I could exonerate Bishounga with full authority and conviction. The poor fellow had a very beautiful devoted wife and three young children, and all of them knew no words to thank me when they came to know that Bishounga had finally been exonerated.

My problem was solved, but I asked Dr. Jain if he could isolate the gene responsible for coding such an interesting enzyme. He showed his inability to do this, and I again had to put another overseas call - this time to my good old friend Dr. Lalji Singh of the Center for Cellular and Microbiological Research at Hyderabad. He is a world renowned geneticist, and he immediately agreed to come. Malibotuan Army would of course not pay for his visit, but the devil is so influential, he could arrange the funds immediately on his own, under the garb of a research scheme. He was not entirely wrong, I think.

I will skip the details, but would say that he was ultimately able to isolate the gene. It was sitting on the p-arm of chromosome 16. He not only decoded the gene successfully, but could also insert it in a bacteriophage. To our surprise he could culture that bacteriophage on a medium rich in iron, and get trace quantities of U-235. He had in fact found a noble way to generate U-235.

He is developing the technique further and is sure to be able to make U-235 in commercial quantities very soon. Sure enough he is travelling round the world lecturing on his new technique. As for Dr. Jain, he has written several research papers on this new enzyme, and I believe is mentioning it even in the next edition of his physiology book. As for me, I am being burdened with more dead bodies. Everybody conveniently forgot that it was I who was responsible for all these developments. Well, who cares, as long as I have more dead bodies to care for!


This story appeared in Spandan 2000 , (a Maulana Azad Medical College inhouse magazine) on pages 12-15.



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to "Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Science Fiction Page" since July 31, 1998, when this page was first posted
This story was posted on the net on 28 October 1999