Excerpt from Rivers of the Black Moon (A thriller about the origin of HIV and why some would kill to keep it secret from the world)

December 11, 2021

Edinburgh, Scotland

The apartment had already taken on the putrid stench of death. Ripped open and eviscerated as if someone had dug through the intestinal tract, searching for something within its folds, the contorted body lay surrounded by total chaos: furniture overturned, pillows gutted, drawers emptied, carpeting pulled up. From the looks of it, the ransacking had been desperately thorough but futile.

One blinding flash of a police department camera followed another, then another, as evidence of the grisly scene was gathered and documented. Outside, along the wet cobblestones of Church Street, a crowd of curiosity seekers had gathered around the black-and-white coroner’s wagon and turned as one to watch a tall, athletic man in his early forties exit an unmarked vehicle, enter the building, and bound up the two flights of stairs to the murder scene.

“What do we have here?” demanded Inspector James Macfadden, Special Investigations Unit of Scotland Yard, his voice startling the workers as he strode into the steamy room. He grimaced when the stomach-turning odor of rotting flesh and desiccated body fluids assaulted his nostrils.

“Inspector.” Constable Nigel Brodish, Edinburgh police, was caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a high-ranking official from the Yard’s international branch. “We didn’t expect anyone from intelligence on the case so soon, if at all. We’d been told it was a local matter.”

Macfadden’s steely gray eyes zeroed in on the body. “Afraid not, Constable,” he said tersely.

Eager to probe more but prevented by protocol from doing so, Brodish peered at the body with greater intensity now as if reevaluating its significance. “It’s a nasty one, sir. If you ask me, it was a goddam animal behind this.”

Macfadden lifted a handkerchief to his nose and walked slowly around the body. He had been at Scotland Yard for nearly twenty years, and at forty-two had seen it all. It was inevitable to become hardened by so many years of exposure, he rationalized. By design, every new agent on the force suffered through a period of desensitization, assigned to the most gruesome cases until he or she would become transformed from innocent rookie to a callous professional who could look at a victim’s lifeless eyes and cold flesh and see nothing but a piece of evidence from which to pluck the clues that would lead to a final resolution.

Though Macfadden had learned early on to hide his emotions, at least in public, the violent murders, brutal rapes, and terrorist bombings that indiscriminately tore innocent children’s arms and legs from their bodies were something he could not get used to and was ashamed to admit. And though he pretended to be strong and unemotional at the scene of every crime, in private he would let his rage explode at the pain and suffering human beings could inflict on one another. And there, lying before him like a slab of butchered meat, was yet another example of everything he hated about a degenerate society that had made someone do something like this.

With keen eyes, he outlined the body and stared at the dried, hardened blood that had soaked nearly half the carpet in the room. He spoke softly and deliberately, trying to free his cluttered mind from the sound of needless words as he concentrated. “Aye, an animal it was, Constable; but from the condition of this flat and the poor bastard’s dissected innards, I’d say it was an animal looking for something important . . . very important.”

He made a 360-degree sweep of the room before returning to the body, then leaned forward for a closer look at the stomach, which sat atop the chest in two finely cut longitudinal sections. “Has this body been moved or touched?”

No, sir,” Brodish answered. “Hands and feet are still tightly bound. Mouth gagged to prevent him from screaming. And as you can see, there’s quite a gash on the left side of the head. No doubt the cause of death.”

“I’m not so sure, judging by the amount of blood.” Macfadden drew a wide arc with his index finger, indicating where blood had soaked into the carpet, then pointed to long streams of dried blood that spread outward several feet from the body and where he suspected intermittent pulses of blood must have spurted as a result of pressure from severed arteries. “This bloke may have been unconscious, but he was still alive and breathing when he was dissected. The heart continued to pump blood out into the room until it stopped. And by the contortions of the body, I suspect he might have come to right before he died.”

Brodish took a deep breath and swallowed hard at the thought of it. “Dear God. Poor bastard woke up and realized what was happening.”

“But it’s obvious that whoever did this didn’t find what he was looking for, “Macfadden continued. “No, this was no ordinary animal, Constable. This was a careful, premeditated search for what I’m assuming must have worth digging through someone’s guts for.”


“Perhaps. A piece of paper. A small object. Who knows?”

Macfadden removed his drenched raincoat, took out a pair of latex gloves, and snapped them on. “Look here.” Lifting one of the loose pieces of stomach, he removed thin slivers of glass and several threads of carpeting from the chest, placing them in the palm of his extended hand. “These were stuck to the flesh beneath the stomach by body fluid. They couldn’t have pried themselves underneath the organ on their own, which means the body was the last place the attacker looked. And if he found what he was looking for in the stomach, he wouldn’t have dissected nine feet of intestines, would he? Probably had the bloke tied up while he searched the flat, then in desperation or anger, whacked him across the temple and decided to look inside one final place. No, it’s a safe bet that nothing was found here.”

Macfadden signaled for the body to be taken out and, with his eyes to the floor, maneuvered carefully around the debris that was scattered as if a windstorm had rumbled through. “Where’s the landlord?” he asked, eyes still focused grimly on the floor.

“On holiday,” Brodish answered. “Neighbor says he left five days ago and should be back tomorrow.”

“Did you question any of the other tenants?”

“Only two. Neither heard anything. Of course, they both work and probably weren’t home when it happened.”

“Yes, of course. Anyone having done this no doubt would have seen to it that no witnesses were present. Anything else?”

“They confirmed the name Richard Zarnoff, but not much else. Both agreed he was a strange sort. Kept to himself mostly. Very secretive. They didn’t see much of him during the time he’d been here.”

“What was he doing here? Did they say?” The black body bag moved past them and disappeared through the doorway. Macfadden waited for a response as he walked to the window and looked down at the crowd that was now buzzing with excitement.

“All they know is that he was some sort of doctor or scientist. Exactly what he did, they couldn’t say. Spent some time in Africa, they found out during one of their conversations with him. The Congo, they think. He was planning to attend an AIDS conference or a scientific meeting of some kind at the Hilton next week before going back home to America.”

“Which is where?” Macfadden turned back to Brodish and peered at him from atop the rim of his glasses.

“Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked at the university medical center there.”

“Odd.” Macfadden’s mind, sharp enough to have won him a full Oxford scholarship, was now sifting through bits and pieces of the preliminary evidence, comparing what he had just been told to what he already knew. According to Brodish, an American AIDS researcher named Richard Zarnoff travels to Edinburgh from Africa, rents a seedy room in an out-of-the-way section of the city, and lives in near seclusion for a month until being brutally murdered and mutilated only a week before attending an international AIDS conference.

But there is more to this, Macfadden reminded himself. Such as the fact that a few days before the corpse turned up, Scotland Yard had been informed by FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. that a top American AIDS researcher was missing somewhere in Europe and thought to be carrying data that would turn the scientific community on its head. And what would the researchers name be but Dr. Richard Zarnoff of course. And what better setting to stun the scientific world than at an international conference.

Whoever had done this to Zarnoff was no lone sociopath, Macfadden was certain of it. “Have you talked to anyone else?” he asked Brodish.

“No, but one of the tenants suggested we try the local pub crowd. She’d heard from the regulars that a few pints loosened the bloke up a bit, if you know what I mean.”

“Right. I’ll go down and get a pint myself . . . maybe get lucky. Find out how many scientific societies are involved in this meeting at the Hilton next week. I want everything. Names of organizers, meeting coordinators, speaker coordinators, vendors, everything. If Dr. Zarnoff was going to present some of his work, I want to know exactly what it was.”

“Right, sir. I’ll report to Scotland Yard as soon as I find anything.” Macfadden turned back to the rain-streaked window in time to see the coroner’s wagon pull out and head south on Church Street toward St. Mary’s Hospital, where an autopsy would determine the time and exact cause of death before the remains were to be sent back to the States. He followed the wet tire tracks with his eyes, then looked up at the leaden morning sky that hung over Edinburgh like a shroud, wondering, as always, if it was all worth it: the gruesome bodies, the sickening smells and scenes of death that seemed to live on inside of him, the failed, loveless marriage that early on grew as lifeless as the corpses he examined and finally ended with adultery during one of his investigative trips abroad.

Nothing in his secretive world of intrigue made sense to him anymore, each case more vile and confusing than the last. It was as though his ordered world were losing whatever remnants of civility it had and plunging headlong into a social abyss. In each tortured body, in each terrorist attack and mutilated face, Macfadden witnessed that abyss, and he wondered how much longer it would be before the world finally stepped into it forever. He had always been a dreamer, choosing police work over medicine because he thought it more important to cure the ills of society; an idealist who thought for sure that his generation would be the one to break the growing spiral of hatred and violence.

But as he turned back to face the reality of another, even more horribly cold-blooded murder, Macfadden knew that world did not yet exist; and he, like it or not, was more a part of the violence and hatred than he had ever imagined.

“Will you be needing anything else from us today?” the police photographer asked as he packed up.

“No,” Macfadden answered with a deep sigh. “Just make certain I get a detailed report when you’ve finished.”

“Very good, sir.” The forensic investigative team remained busy, dusting for any remaining prints, combing through every square inch of the apartment, gathering every suspicious piece of evidence it could pluck from the wreckage. Macfadden tiptoed carefully over and around the mess, took a last, cynical glimpse backward, and inhaled deeply the second he escaped into the hallway, though the foul, sewer like air had already polluted his mind and, as if to remind him again of the vile nature of his work, had buried itself deep into the fibers of his tweed jacket.