25. The Scales
The crisis team - part of the community mental health team - social services and the police had all been quite helpful when Neil had originally gone missing. The police had quickly discovered that Neil had left his phone, wallet and passport behind. All the services were very concerned about Neil's welfare and had attempted to establish his last known movements as well as searching for him. Because Neil was considered a vulnerable person at risk of suicide, there had been a lot of initial effort, focus and attention on helping Lara, Colin and the family to make sure he was found safe and well.
With all avenues exhausted, there was little more that any of the services could do unless new information emerged. Lara and Colin were main points of contact, liaising with a police detective who was in charge of the ongoing - but parked - investigation.
Frustrated with a lack of progress, two highly regarded private investigators were contacted by Colin. After initial discussions they decided that there was insufficient evidence for them to be able to pursue the case. The truth was that nobody really wanted to touch the case, because of the number of government bodies already involved: National Health Service, mental health services, the police and social services.
Colin had eventually taken matters in to his own hands and gone to the house to look for more clues, when he found the transactions that had led him to the ongoing prosecution of the businesswoman and her associates. Once he'd found the names of the defendants, it was a simple case of searching the register of directors and finding the trading address of their company in the public records.
Now, he was back at the house once again. He regretted involving Lara so closely, but she wanted to play an active role and had discovered vital information that he himself - a grey-haired man in his sixties - would have been unlikely to have been able to extract from anybody embroiled in the court case.
Colin had sounded out friends - retired police officers, solicitors and even a judge - about bringing their own case to court. "Not a hope in hell" were the exact words of one former Justice of the Peace. His sentiments were pretty much echoed by everybody else Colin consulted informally.
"Imagine if a person was selling rat poison as heroin" said Bill, the retired judge. "Now, if that person was to sell rat poison in place of sugar, they might be convicted of murder or manslaughter. But as soon as they sell it as heroin, they'll be convicted for supply of a controlled substance, even though rat poison is not illegal to sell per se."
"But that's insane! Surely the charge of murder should take precedence over the charge of supplying a controlled substance" protested Colin.
"Well, it's about the buyer. If the buyer thought they were buying heroin, then nobody really cares whether that junkie dies. The seller will be convicted as a drug dealer, not a murderer."
"So the law really doesn't care whether you sell a junkie sugar, caffeine, heroin or rat poison?" asked Colin.
"What if the buyer didn't know what they were getting?"
"What did they actually buy?" Bill asked.
"A controlled substance."
"What was it sold as?"
"A chemical for laboratory research."
"There's no chance it could have been confused for a foodstuff? Was it marked as hazardous? Unfit for human consumption?"
"Yeah. It's not like it was sold as sugar or anything" Colin replied.
"Well then, the only conviction you could possibly get would be for supply of a controlled substance."
To make matters worse, everybody advised Colin not to mention the drug use to the police. One whiff of drug abuse and the case would be filed in a dustbin marked 'lost cause junkie'.
Back at the house searching for more clues, he looked high and low before finally he decided to search the attic. Boxes of Christmas decorations and long-neglected exercise equipment, the attic contained very little else except for a disused hot water cylinder and a galvanised metal cold water tank. There was a chipboard lid on the tank and Colin noticed that it was an inch or so out of place, overhanging on one corner. Lifting the lid, there was a green plastic box floating inside with a black plastic handle.
In the kitchen, Colin towelled off the green box so it was clean and dry and took it through to the dining room. Unclasping the two black plastic latches, the lid was stuck tight until the airtight and dust proof seal released the pressure. Inside the box was grey foam to protect the delicate instrument contained within: a laboratory-grade weighing scale.
Normal kitchen scales might tell you the weight of something in grams, but not very accurately. If you needed to weigh 10 grams - approximately the same as a one pound coin - then your kitchen scales would be woefully inadequate. Even fine balance scales with small weights would struggle to weigh anything lighter than a gram. Some digital scales could weigh one tenth of a gram with reasonable accuracy: 0.1g. The scales that Colin had found could weigh at a sub-milligram accuracy. Less than 0.001 grams. Even breathing on the instrument or standing too near the table on a wooden floor would cause measurement fluctuations, so there was a special stand, cover and calibration weights to ensure the readings were accurate. The "quick reference" instruction manual inside the case was a hefty pamphlet.
There were some spatulas and a metal dish inside the green box. A tiny amount of light brownish powder residue was visible on the foam that held the dish and the spatulas. There was also a very small plastic resealable bag which was almost empty except for the tiniest residue of powder in the corners.
Colin spent the whole next day searching the Internet and phoning testing facilities, before he finally located a laboratory that would be able to swab and test the tiny traces of drugs that he had found. Using gas chromatography mass spectrometry, the lab was able to then search the 'signature' of the chemical compounds and to find a match in their database.
After sending the scales by courier to the lab in the Netherlands, it took 3 weeks before he got the results emailed to him. There was no conclusive match, but there were several compounds that were 97% similar to chemicals that were held in their database. He had been warned that a 99% match was the highest that he could expect anyway, so it was a good start.
Searching the Internet, he found detailed online encyclopedia entries for two chemicals, as well as a brief summary of a third. The compounds were stimulants from three different families of drugs. Two had been developed and patented in the 1950's and 1960's, but had never been marketed to the public because of serious side effects. Colin found a shorter acronym form of the full chemical name of each of the three compounds and started to search the Internet for more information.
Quickly, Colin was immersed in a world of online discussion forums. Thousands of Internet users from around the globe were talking about their experiences of self-experimentation with chemical compounds that had been abandoned by pharmaceutical companies or not even patented. Some of the chemicals had only been thought of as theoretically possible, but a laboratory somewhere in the world was cooking up these drugs for people to buy and try on themselves.
He couldn't read any more. What he saw was immediately horrifying. Hundreds of stories of addiction and horrible psychotic episodes, health damage and hospitalisations. Internet users were swapping stories about how awful these chemicals were and that they were the most addictive drugs they'd ever tried. Many lamented the day they ever first experimented. One message stood out as clearly as the obvious warning to never take these substances: accurate measurement was the difference between desired effects and overdose.
Perhaps Neil had two sets of scales, but one set alone was worth almost £1,000. If he had overdosed at home, surely he would have been found there along with his scales?
From what Colin had read, a powerful dose of those drugs was just 0.005 grams. If Neil had half a gram delivered from China, that would be 100 doses. The effects would last well over 12 hours. That meant Neil would have been on a nonstop drug binge for 50 days with just one free sample, assuming he was measuring accurately.
He felt sick. His son had got mixed up with something so dangerous that it had overwhelmed him and taken his life in the blink of an eye. There was no way to sugar coat this. Was there even any point in telling Lara and the family that Neil had been completely consumed by addiction and stimulant psychosis? In less than 6 weeks these powerful Chinese drugs caused him to flee his home to his final resting place.