“Hello gentlemen.” The zookeeper said with a smile. “How can I help you?”
John Johnson the head keeper in charge of the big cats lent on his rake in front of a pile of steaming dung.
“We hoped you could help us with some information, will that be possible?” Carlos asked.
“Yes of course. Lets adjourn to my office its more savoury than this dug heap.” He smiled at them. “Do you know that people buy the Lions dung to put on their garden. Not only is it good for the roses it also keeps the cats off the plants.”
The keepers office was a wooden shack between the Serval Cat and Margay enclosure.
John went over to a metal filing cabinet in the corner and pulled out a bottle of whisky and three shot glasses. Without asking he poured out the whisky.
“Thank you.” Cord took a sip. He nodded with appreciation at the liquors taste. “Nice drop John.”
Carlo grimaced as he drunk his, much preferring a cold beer.
“An Irish whisky from my maternal uncle.” John was a well set up man in his middle thirties with an open earnest face beneath a blond mop of unruly hair. “Now how can I help you gentlemen?”
“Big cats, a Black Panther in particular?” Cord asked taking another appreciative sip.
“Did you know their no such species as a Black Panther?” John replied with a wicked smile.
“Sorry?” Carlos was confused.
“A Black Panther is a black colour variant, a melanistic version of either an African Leopard or an American Jaguar. Panthera pardus or Panthera onca.
The Black Panther uses its black or dark brown fur to hunt stealthily its prey, usually medium sized herbivores, like Impala.
They are powerful creatures capable of running at 35 miles per hour and can jump around 20 feet. Oh and don’t bother trying to climb a tree to get away from one as it is the best climber of the cat family as well as a powerful swimmer.
A full grown adult can weigh in at around 350 lb and needs up to 88lb of meat a day.”
“I was going to ask how easy it would be to have one as a pet.” Cord observed.
“I’ve heard of people keeping exotic pets and have met one who was keeping a Cheetah. But he had a country pile with acres of space.”
“So you don’t think anyone with a taste for exotic pets would have one?”
“Most people keep smaller things like poisonous insects, large snakes and monkeys. I can’t say to you its impossible but it would be highly unlikely.”
“What about an escapee?” Carlos asked.
“If it was I’d expect it to attack smaller things like cats and dogs, the Roe deer in central park. It would be desperate for food so I would expect there to be more sightings.” John concluded offering them some more whisky.
They both refused.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.” John took their glasses to the sink in the corner.
“No thank you, you have been very helpful.” Cord replied. “Now I remember you. You were with Bruce Boxlighter.”
“You mean all those Bring Them Back Alive Saturday films?” Carlos said obviously impressed.
“Yes that’s right. You were the hunter with him.”
John bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“To my shame I was a hunter but Bruce showed me a better way.”
They shook hands and the detectives took their leave.
Once outside they made their way to the exit.
“Well where do we go from here?” Carlos asked.
“We now know that it is unlikely to be someone in an ordinary house, they couldn’t keep it like you would a dog or cat. But did you know that this zoo is the only one in New England with Black Panthers?” Cord told him dryly.
“How did you know that?”
“It said so on the poster behind his head.” Cord laughed.
“You don’t suspect him do you?”
“He certainly has the right build and has access to the Panthers. I think a little covert observation wouldn’t go amiss.” He grinned even wider. “We’ll give the job to ‘Cats Eyes Cunningham’ it should be right up his street, besides he could do with the overtime.”
“Oh God.” Carlos shook his head in disbelief. “They could take out the whole of the Zoo and he still wouldn’t see it. He’s as blind as a bat. I don’t know how he keeps his badge.”
“Because he catches crooks.” Cord laughed before becoming more serious. “In a way I hope it is him, the zoo keeper, because if it is some hybrid I have no idea how to catch it.”
It was the next morning.
Alan put the phone back in its cradle and sighed.
Ted had phoned to let him know the news from the hospital. Stretch was holding his own and though he was still heavily sedated he wasn’t in any immediate danger.
Ted was going to the gym, Jim was on duty leaving Alan time to do work at Cal Tech.
When Alan wasn’t training or going to lessons he was acting as the lab tech for Professor Ivor Manhattan, a government scientist, in the physics lab.
Alan shrugged on his white lab coat and entered the physics lab. It was a large room dominated by the Coulter Counter that filled the far wall.
The Coulter Counter, or as most students called it, the Counter, was a device that counted and displayed how much radiation a mounted sample radiated in a set time.
To do this the Counter had eight rings of ten tiny lights lined up. The first measured the units, the next the tens of units and so on. At the end was a chart recorder that monitored any fluctuations in radioactivity moment by moment.
Under the Professors guidance Alan had isolated a new radioactive element which at the moment had the name Jupiternium after the planet.
The professor’s argument was that Uranus and Pluto had already got elements named after them but the king of the Gods Jupiter hadn’t.
Alan went to a large lead lined safe in the wall and put of protective gloves, and after entering the correct combination, took out a lead box holding the sample of Jupiternium in a lead test piece.
He relocked the safe and crossed over to the Counter. Carefully he placed the sample piece in to the machines carrier. He boot up the machine and waited till all the indicator lights went green.
Once satisfied he pressed the operate button and the sample slid in. With a high pitched clicking sound the lights were lit in succession in each group of ten. The units were whirling so fast it was an almost hypnotic blur, the tens were slower and the hundreds slower still and so on with the others. The graph showed a straight line as it fed the chart paper through.
Alan crossed over to the chart recorder and checked the pen was still in contact with the paper. As he reached across there was a sudden roar of clicks and a he found himself looking through the skin of his hand to the bones beneath. He staggered back with shock as the pen shot up the paper to draw a peak. Then everything settled back to the steady clicking of the counter.
He was at the chart recorder examining the sudden flair of radiation the chart had faithfully recorded when it flared once again. Alan looked up and found he could looked straight through the outer casing of the counter to reveal the inner workings. He turned away only to find himself looking into the women’s locker room on the floor below.
And then their was silence.
It wasn’t as if the Counter had stopped working.
His eyesight back to normal he found the sample no longer radiated atomic radiation. When he took out the sample holder he found one piece of pure gold. The sample and lead container shone with a bright lustre that took his breath away.
The professor was more than pleased.
“Do you know what we have created Pratt.” The professor said his eyes glinting with avarice.
Professor Ivor Desmond Manhattan was more than pleased as he visualised the objects he could turn to gold with it.
He was quite a nondescript type of person that you wouldn’t look twice at in a crowd, he was tall, quite thin, with a tight short bob of blond hair.
There was a low power spurt of radioactivity that was picked up by the Geiger counter the professor had brought in and the object in his hand reverted back to their original form.
As the Geiger counter suddenly erupted with a deafening roar of clicks Alan reached across and slammed the lid down. Within a split second the Geiger counter reverted to its slow clicks as it detected the background radiation.
“Fascinating.” The professor said the obvious. “What were you thinking of when you were operating the Counter. Come on now I don’t expect you to focus completely on it after all its not the most fascinating of jobs.”
The professor’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“It was wondering whether I should buy the ring and then propose to Mary or propose and then take her out to get a ring. I’d seen a nice gold band with a diamond in its centre.” Alan said reluctantly.
“I see, no I don’t, at least not clearly. Somehow your thoughts effected and possibly initiated the conversion which was followed by the two energy spikes, while I just now was thinking that it could have been a worthless piece of lead. That we had lost our sample. So it changed back.” His eyes glinted fanatically. “By the way its always best to propose first and then get the ring because without doubt it won’t be her taste.
I must study this phenomenon. Take the rest of the day off Pratt, catch up with your training or whatever you do when your not here.”
The professor gave another of his insincere smiles.
“I’ve marked your thesis and sent it to the independent examiner with the advice that anything less than a distinction would be a travesty.”
“Thank you sir.” Alan wasn’t feeling too good but the news cheered him up.
After the Professor had gone Alan picked up the Geiger counter and swept his body with it. Much to his relief it detected no obvious increase in radio activity.
A far more cheerful and settled Alan picked up his personal belongings and made his way to the gym. He skipped along lightly on his feet, too lightly.
Brimstone sat so still he could have been made of stone. A flunky whispered into his ear.
“I see.” He said. “The friend is still alive? Make sure he doesn’t recover will you? No hold that. Is the clans set piece for tonight prepared?”
“Yes Mr Brimstone.”
“Good. While tonight’s set piece is on put Grants father in hospital with his friend. Oh and if he dies he dies. In fact it would be a good idea if they don’t survive.” He laughed a deep belly laugh. “Tonight will be the first of many nights spread across this nation until it is ablaze from coast to coat, from north to south.”
He waved the flunky away before settling back into his chair again and becoming still. As still as death.
He had some charity events to deal with in the afternoon and evening as his alibi but they should be able to see events unfold from the Hilton on the Park hotel, their last venue.
He got up and left to get ready.