Thought Catalog

The Man Who Gave People Cancer When He Shook Their Hand

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Illustration by Daniella Urdinlaiz

If you drove to the middle of nowhere and then kept driving for two hours, you’d wind up here. Brawley, California was a tiny speck of civilization amid the vast, blasting-hot desert wastelands between San Diego and the Arizona border. The whole area was flat, dusty, and curiously lonely. It was so eerily silent that you could almost hear it screaming. Maybe it was the low elevation—nearly all of the Imperial Valley dipped well below sea level—but you could feel the energy being sucked out of you by a giant subterranean magnet.

Brawley had the misfortune of being situated about 20 miles southeast of the Salton Sea, a giant manmade sink pool in the middle of the desert which used to be a tourist resort in the 1950s but was rapidly drying up. The few remaining silver-bullet-style trailers that rimmed the shoreline were rusted-out, chewed to pieces by the relentless heat and salt. Dead tilapia lined the beaches by the millions. And now that the sea floor was rapidly being exposed to the air, the fear around Brawley was that a toxic dust cloud of mercury, arsenic, and selenium was coming their way to kill them all.

About a month ago, a salesman named Rudy Parvo came to town with a suit, a briefcase, and a smile that revealed teeth as white as cocaine. Rudy rented a room at a splintery old sun-bleached motel on the fringes of town and set out on a one-man mission to rescue Brawley’s residents from the cancer cloud that was headed their way.

Pounding the hot pavement to find and close every sale he could, Rudy visited diners, the bowling alley, the local hospital, and even City Hall trying to sell them his patented ULTrex Water Purifying System. And it was always the same pitch word-for-word, because Rudy had written, memorized, and rehearsed it in front of his motel-room mirror:

I’m sure you’ve heard about the toxic dust cloud that’s coming from the Salton Sea, yes? Right, right, horrible tragedy, I agree. Cancer is a serious deal. It can kill you. But what you might not know is that breathing the dust won’t be the only thing that can kill you. Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree that the dust has already invaded the local water supply—and it will only get worse. And water is essential to life. Except for oxygen, there’s nothing the body needs more. Your water is filled with deadly carcinogens, and I’m here to give you the purest water possible. My ULTrex Water Purifying System filters the contaminated water through our patented 7-Step Mega-Cleansing process. It takes the water, removes the harmful elements, and returns ‘just plain water’ the way nature intended it. Perfect, crisp, clean, and cool.

After delivering his pitch, he’d smile, shake their hand firmly, give them his business card, then head straight for the business next door to do it all over again.

Ever since Rudy Parvo arrived in Brawley, people started dropping dead like sand fleas from cancer. And they were all dying from a very rare form—squamous cell carcinoma of the hand. In every case, it was their right hand. In just under a month, fourteen town residents had died from malignant tumors that had suddenly sprouted on their right hand. The deaths were so rapid and suspiciously similar that authorities called in a medical examiner to investigate.

Imperial County Chief Medical Examiner Bob Balzac had never seen a case like this. A huge, rugged, sweaty, and perpetually sunbaked man, Bob had seen gang killings and highway fatalities and infants who’d died in their crib, but how do you even begin to piece together fourteen sudden deaths from a rare form of cancer—and all of them on the right hand? Over the past week he’d logged over eighty hours trying to piece together this morbid jigsaw puzzle. He’d pored over the autopsies—in every case the tumors had come suddenly and killed off their host in mere days. After Balzac grilled the deceased’s family members and loved ones, they all said that none of their dearly departed had recently changed their diet. None had visited a foreign country. None worked at the gypsum quarry in nearby Plaster City, CA. And none showed signs of any lung disorder, much less cancerous lung lesions, that would result from breathing the dreaded toxic dust.

But then he noticed Rudy Parvo’s business card on the coffee table at one victim’s home. And on the computer desk of another victim. And when he started calling around, he found that every one of the fourteen victims had received a sales visit from Rudy Parvo and had shaken his hand.

It was 2PM and the temperature in Brawley was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. After inquiring at the front desk at Rudy’s motel, Balzac was informed that if Parvo couldn’t be found napping in his room, he usually spent the hottest afternoon siesta hours drinking in the motel’s adjacent tiki bar.

And that’s where he found him. Alone and drinking at a small table. There wasn’t even a bartender in sight.

“Mr. Parvo?”

Rudy looked up from his margarita. “Yes?”

“I’m Bob Balzac, medical examiner for Imperial County. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure.” Rudy pulled an empty chair away from the table and motioned for Bob to sit down.

“First off, I want to verify your legal name,” Balzac said while sitting. “My records show a Rudolph Edgar Parvo who lives all the way up in Bishop, CA. Is that you?”

“Yes, but I’m mostly known as Rudy. It sounds friendlier.”

“Mr. Parvo, have you heard about the recent rash of Brawley residents dying from squamous cell carcinoma of the hand?”

“I have, and it’s horrible. I’ve been warning everybody that the toxic dust from the Salton Sea will bring a cancer epidemic here, and I hope I haven’t arrived too late.”

“Mr. Parvo, I have reason to believe that every victim so far received a visit from you, trying to sell them your water-filtration system.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Not only is it horrible, it seems almost mathematically impossible that it’s a coincidence. When you visited these victims, did you always shake their hand?”

“Of course. It’s a sign of good faith.”

“And did you always shake their right hand?”

“Yes, that’s the default hand to shake, even if they’re lefties.”

“Mr. Parvo, I have reason to believe that you’re the one who’s giving them cancer.”

Rudy darted his eyes away.

“Although nothing in the medical annals suggests that cancer can be transmitted, whether manually or otherwise, from one human being to another, I have strong reason to believe that you may have killed fourteen people,” Balzac said.

Rudy gulped.

“You tried to visit the mayor, but you spoke instead with his assistant Verna, yes?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Verna is dead now.”

“This is horrible,” Rudy said, his upper lip beading with sweat. “Horrible.”

“Now, I’ve spoken to other medical professionals, and they’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve also spoken to the legal authorities, and this is where I run into a brick wall. We have no way of proving you were even aware of giving these people cancer, much less doing it intentionally. So I can’t have the police arrest or detain you, even though I believe you’ve killed more victims than most serial killers. There’s no way that we can prove criminal intent.”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“Mr. Parvo, I suggest you pack your bags and all your remaining water-filtration systems and get out of Brawley once and forever. If you don’t want to do that, I know a lot of people who can make your life very uncomfortable here.”

“That’s it? You just want me to leave?”

“That’s not ideally what I’d want, but it’s all that I can legally tell you to do at the moment. Ideally I’d like to see you with a bullet in the head. You came promising a cure, but instead you brought the disease.”

“That’s great,” Rudy said a little too enthusiastically. “It’s no problem. No problem at all. I can leave now. I only have a suitcase in my room, and the filtration systems are all in my car trunk. No, it’s OK—I can leave now.”

Balzac stood up. “Then I suggest you leave now.”

Rudy stood up, smiled, shook Bob’s hand, and was gone. TC mark

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