Here’s a new Short Story. “Potassium Hydroxide”.

Potassium Hydroxide

Copyright 2020 – Clemens P. Suter

Kim called in the afternoon and apologized. His wife had a toothache and they couldn’t come to dinner. I tried to convince him that at least he himself should join, but he declined adamantly. I was slightly disappointed. Instead of ten we would now be with a smaller circle of eight: Mike and Karen, Prasaad and Prini, Bibi and Bill, and my wife Andrea and me.

I gave the caterer a quick call to adjust the order, which wasn’t an issue. However, Andrea wasn’t pleased, when I told her the news. “I wanted Kim and Paula to be there, they bring balance to the group. Now Mike and Bill may go off on a tangent again, you know how they can highjack the conversation.” I knew what she meant. At the last dinner party, Mike had started to explain that the dust in the average home consists mostly of human skin. As he described it, we humans shed our entire skin every three weeks, more than a gram of skin flakes every day. He and Bill had discussed this unappetizing topic at length, and not to the amusement of the other guests. Or the two would discuss a little-known movie, or a book that nobody had read or ever wanted to read. Kim, with his academic attitude and almost boring personality, had on several occasions brought some necessary grounding to the conversation. He had managed to rescue many an evening; although I doubt that he himself was aware of this.

Nonetheless, it couldn’t be helped. Around came Friday night, eight o’clock, and the guests arrived.

In retrospect the evening was pleasant. The Lebanese food was fine, accompanied by a rather good red from the Domaine du Grand Fontanille. The conversation was OK, touching on politics, art and movies, but without too much flux in topics or the threads becoming too lengthy. We had all known each other for many years, some of us had been neighbors in the past, some friends of friends. Some of us saw each other every few weeks, but on the other hand I hadn’t seen Mike and Karen for months.

Great company. I was rather silent that evening, due to the continuing pressure at work, and an argument with Andrea just before the guests arrived. Both increased my sense of stress, and when I get stressed, I get distracted. In silence I observed the guests as they talked. As always, Mike and Bill were the most talkative; on the other extreme Bibi was very quiet. Bibi never spoke much, but in retrospect I think that this evening she was even more quiet than usual. Prini got a bit tipsy, which, as always, made her slightly cross-eyed.

The conversation moved from current politics (“The new housing bill will quickly turn into a hidden tax bill”), to the crisis in the Middle East (“Christ, it’s been going on for more than 70 fucking years now.”), to space travel (“In 20 years you can buy a ticket to the moon. Sure, they said that 50 years ago too, but…”), and from there, somehow, we landed at death and burial. It reminded me of the dust and skin discussion, and I threw a concerned glance towards my wife. She ignored me. I don’t know who brought up the topic, but Mike had apparently read an article about the ecology of burial, and he used the queue to his benefit: “We have a dramatic crisis on our hands.” He paused for added effect and looked at each of us. The alcohol had started to take effect, so we all just stared back.

“I read an intriguing article, which stated that burial, as we know it, simply isn’t sustainable anymore: due to a dramatic lack of space. Most towns and counties have reached the limits. So, they are ramping up cremation, but that is a blight on the environment… the mercury, you know. From the teeth. And it generates far too much carbon dioxide.”

He paused. Prasaad nodded but didn’t say anything. I guess it was just a polite, confirming gesture and that he hadn’t read the article.

Karen pitched in: “Sounds like an unsolvable problem, then. We can’t start composting bodies, can we?” General laughter from around the table.

“Well…,” said Mike, and I realized that he was on to something, “The article did offer an option that reduces toxic emissions to zero and cuts the carbon dioxide emissions down to 15%.”

“How’s that achieved then?” asked Bill. There was continuous, covert competition between Bill and Mike, and it showed on Bill’s face: he had already made up his mind that Mike’s story was humbug.

“You’ll never guess,” said Mike cleverly.

We all looked at each other, and I could see the brains and alcohol work.

After a few lengthy seconds my wife said, with some finality in her voice: “No, we will never guess.” I assume she was getting worried that an unappealing contest for the best carcass disposal method might be initiated.

“Potassium hydroxide,” said Mike, as if that explained everything.

Bill looked thoughtful. “Isn’t that lye?” he asked. “Didn’t the mafia use that, to get rid of the bodies of their opponents?”

“How does that work then?” inserted Prini.

Mike took a breath, a small smile on his lips. “The corpse is put into a metal pressure vessel, prefilled with a potassium hydroxide solution, which is then heated to above the boiling point of water, at pressure, preventing actual boiling. As a result, the body breaks down into its chemical components.”

Prasaad frowned. “So, no burial anymore? I mean: there won’t be any ashes… just liquid?”

“In the beginning, the mixture is strongly basic. In the end you are left with a green-brown liquid, and soft white bone, which can be crushed easily. You could call this ash, and it can be handed over to the family.”

Karen pulled a face. “And what happens to the liquid?”

“Simple! A valve is opened to allow the liquid to flow into the sewer.”

By now, everybody looked rather solemn. We all imaged our liquefied bodies disappearing into a grate in the floor of a tiled, lab-like room. Bill took a breath to ask a question.

“Desert anyone?” called my wife, as she got up from her chair. There were one or two sighs of relieve. My wife disappeared into the kitchen. I called after her whether she needed help, but she didn’t answer. Prini turned to Bibi and asked about Bibi’s work. The conversation turned to different topics, and in smaller groups. After a while, my wife returned with the mousse-au-chocolat and tarte-aux-pommes, and after the obligatory “ohs!” and “ahs!” we enjoyed desert.

“How does this hydroxide work then,” asked Bibi out of the blue. “Is it like an acid?”

Everybody stared at her.

“Well, no,” said Mike. “Potassium hydroxide is the opposite; it is a base. It accepts hydrogen ions, whereas an acid donates hydrogen ions. That means that a hydroxide is especially suited to destroy organic substances, which abound in hydrocarbons; the hydroxide steals the hydrogen atoms from the complex organic substances. In the end… only the simplest molecules remain. Atoms, if you wait long enough.”

“Does potassium hydroxide have any other uses?” asked Bibi.

“You mean, except from helping the mafia make bodies disappear?” threw Bill into the round, and everybody laughed.

Mike remained impassive: “It is used in cleaning agents, soaps and so on. Perhaps you know the alternative name: caustic potash. You may know sodium hydroxide, its slightly weaker brother.”

“Ah yes,” interjected Karen, “That’s used for unblocking drains.”

“Exactly. Same principle. It eats away the organic compounds: remains of soap, hair, …”

“Coffee?” said my wife, quickly getting up from her seat. Prasaad and Karen got up too and helped clearing the table and preparing the coffee.

Mike and Bill talked about the stock market. Prini had put on her reading glasses and was leafing through a magazine.

Bibi sat staring at Bill.

I caught myself staring at Bibi. She licked her lips every few seconds, and blinked her eyes, as if her thoughts were someplace else altogether.

It was one in the morning when the last of the guests had left. My wife and I spent some time cleaning up the kitchen and sorting the cutlery and plates, which the caterer would pick up in the morning. We were mostly silent.

Later, in our bedroom, I pulled off my trousers and hung them over the back of a chair. “How is Bill and Bibi’s marriage? Any idea?”

Andrea pulled her dress over her head and put it on a hanger. “Quite OK, I would say. Why?”

“I’m not sure. Something about how they interacted tonight. Or how they didn’t interact.”

Andrea was silent as she pulled on her nightgown. “Hm, yes, I see what you mean. Bibi was quite silent, and she certainly didn’t talk a lot with Bill. On the other hand, every marriage goes through its ups and downs. Not as if you kissed me a lot tonight or paid me a lot of attention.”

“Grrr,” I said and crept into bed.

 

Weeks passed by, and all of us went after our own business. Then, one day, I heard Andrea come home. She dropped her shopping bags at the door, ran up the stairs and stepped into my office. “I met Bibi, at the supermarket,” was all she said.

I’ve been working as a private investor from home for many years, managing to strictly separate work and private life during the day, so I didn’t look up immediately from the article that I was reading. “Ah yes?”

“Yes, I did. Bibi. At the supermarket.”

Now I looked at her. She still had her coat on and looked a little flustered. “So what?”

Andrea pursed her mouth. “First she pretended not to have seen me. Then we bumped into each other in one of the isles – and she had to acknowledge my presence.”

I was slightly confused, still partially concentrating on my work. “So, what? Did she act unkind or insulted? Was she sick?”

“Oh no, she acted normal enough… up to a point. We chatted about work and so on, the usual… but then I inquired about Bill. True, it may have been my imagination, but she got a very shifty look and didn’t give a clear answer. Something about him traveling a lot, for his work. Just then I looked into her shopping cart…” She let the sentence dwindle.

“Yes?”

“You remember when they were here, at our dinner party? When Mike started talking about novel ways of burial, the hydroxide story?”

“Ah yes. An unappetizing topic. Sure.”

“Well… she had six containers of DrainEx in her cart!”

“Six?”

Andrea managed to look victorious and determined at the same time. “Six! I checked later, after we said goodbye. I went to the shelf in the store. That is three kilograms of sodium hydroxide. Mister, you can unblock a pretty big drain with that quantity.”

I was quiet for a moment. “OK, so she bought six bottles of the stuff. Perhaps she needed them for the office or for their apartment, some people stockpile stranger things… what are you trying to suggest?”

Andrea looked at me for twenty long seconds.

“I haven’t seen Bill in ages.”

I raised my hand. “Ho, wait. Are you trying to suggest that she has killed Bill and is using sodium hydroxide to dissolve his body? Is that what you are implying? No way. You have no evidence for that. For all we know, Bill may be at home this very moment, sitting on his sofa.”

“You yourself mentioned that their marriage may not be in top shape, after our dinner? And Bibi was behaving really weird, today. I don’t trust it at all.”

I wanted to interject additional push-back about this theory, but I think I saw another emotion passing over her features: one of concern. I kept quiet for a moment and tried to collect my thoughts.

“Ok, here is what we’ll do,” I said finally. “Let’s approach this scientifically. I must finish my work; I have a call in 5 minutes. In the meantime, we can make sure Bill is alive and well. You should do that. Give them a call, under some pretense. Ask for Bill. Then, later, during dinner, we will discuss whether more action is needed – which I am sure there isn’t. Does that sound OK?”

Andrea nodded, and left the room. I returned to my work, which took longer to finish, so we could only reconvene at eight in the evening. I entered the kitchen, having forgotten all about our conversation.

Andrea was sipping on a glass of wine. “He’s not in. I couldn’t reach him.”

I was lost for a few seconds, but then realized she was talking about Bill. “Did you manage to talk with Bibi?”

“Yes, she answered the phone. I claimed that I wanted Bill’s advice about a scientific book to read; you know how he always brags about his scientific library?”

“What did Bibi say?”

“She repeated he was on a business trip. I asked when he would be back.”

“And?”

She threw her hands in the air and hit her hips. “She didn’t commit in any way. I tell you: something fishy is going on.”

Andrea suggested we should involve the police, to which I disagreed. To make a long story short, the two of us entered an extensive argument, which went on until midnight, after which Andrea, quite upset, retired (again) to the guest room.

I had this weird nightmare. I was soaking in the bathtub, a cold beer in my hand. My wife snuck in, and started to pour black granules into the water, from a gigantic black bag. I screamed, and she pulled the plug and I disappeared down the drain. My head wasn’t dissolved yet, so she used a hammer to beat it into the pipe.

Only fight about truly relevant topics with your wife, give in to all the rest, that’s my motto. So, the next morning at 11:00 I found myself, per Andrea’s bidding, in front of the house of Bibi and Bill.

I rang the bell. Their dog started barking, but there was no other reaction. The street was empty. This was a quiet neighborhood, the houses far apart and with high fences. There weren’t many parked cars. I rang the bell again and waited. Finally, Bibi opened the door. She obviously was surprised to see me. “Alan. How are you?”


Did Bibi murder Bill? Find out by reading the full story as eBook ! This mystery is part of Clemens P. Suter’s collection of “Short Stories.” Get a copy at Smashwords (any format for any device), or directly on your device, for example for your Apple deviceAn ever growing set of exciting stories by the master storyteller! Buy it today, download additional stories for FREE as they become available!

Cover_Short_Stories_1

Cover page of “Short Stories”

Collected short stories by the master storyteller! Read about the young man who finds a mysterious tunnel beneath his garden; mysterious goings-on set in a French forest; a robot reporting about its visit to Earth, or the tale of the watermonster from Hockenheim, which kidnapped numerous children: these stories will keep you on the edge of your seat. Clemens P. Suter, established author of visionary SciFi that predicted the corona pandemic in 2010, lets his imagination run wild with stories full of surprise, humor and action.

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