The Afrin Affair

Was Dr. John Linner a mad scientist bent on murder or a victim of academic skullduggery?

That Monday in early April, the humidity swept over the forests north of Houston like a soggy blanket. The eminent cell biologist Dr. Barry Van Winkle was not pleased. Humidity always gave him a stuffy nose, and he had no time this morning for such matters. There was an important paper to finish for the Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry and an experiment to perform involving a heart-cell membrane. Van Winkle was an ambitious, impatient man. The advancement of modern medicine depended on the research of biologists such as he. As soon as he parked his car, he headed straight for his office, where he kept a bottle of Afrin nasal spray.

Van Winkle worked in a small one-story building called the Cryobiology Research Center 27 miles from downtown Houston. Established by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the cryobiology center was tucked away in a thickly wooded, little-known tract of land known as Research Forest. Home to a cluster of small biotechnology companies and obscure laboratories, Research Forest is a quiet, mysterious place where, under shadowless fluorescent lighting in windowless labs, scientists carry on their inquiries uninterrupted. “We never have any idea what they do there,” said a nearby resident. “Every time we see something strange in the back yard, like a squirrel without a tail, we say, ‘Uh oh, here comes another experiment from Research Forest.’”

It was there that Barry Van Winkle worked tirelessly toward a breakthrough in cell biology. He quickly said hello to the center’s secretary, Lillie, walked to his office, grabbed his Afrin, put it to his nostril, and squeezed.

From down the hall, Lillie would later tell the police, she heard a sharp cry and then saw Van Winkle rush to the bathroom. He had apparently snorted something up his nose that felt, he said, like battery acid. There was an explosive, burning sensation and a sharp, pungent smell.

After he washed out his nose, the scientist quickly performed

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