Red Bellied Brown

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Chapter 3: Genetics Lab

University of Queensland was a series of grand old sandstone buildings intermixed with more recent brick edifices and even more recent cement towers. It was the oldest in the state although it missed out on being oldest in the country by fifty years. It desperately wished it was as venerable as Oxford or Cambridge. I knew it was in the top one hundred universities around the world but somehow it being in Brisbane made it hard to believe it could match those other illustrious establishments. Maybe those living in Oxford or Cambridge felt the same. It was a spacious campus with plenty of greenery and extensive enough to be considered both on the river-side and inland.

After a good ten minutes of driving around we ended up parking the car in a lot near the tennis courts. Thankfully the city would be picking up the bill. I couldn’t imagine the students affording it so easily. Talk about milking them dry. Most of the cars didn’t even look road worthy. Plenty of rust buckets. We wound our way through the campus until we found the genetics faculty in a red brick and cement building that hardly struck me as being where the keenest minds worked.

The staff offices looked no different to any other office building layout. A long hallway with a lot of doors proclaiming who was behind each one. There was something almost comical about it. I laughed as I imagined a game show host calling out, ‘and who’s behind door number three?’ The one key difference between this place and a regular office was the near overwhelming smell of old books. I suspected any book I took off the shelf in this building would induce a sneezing fit in me. Takeshi and I went up and down the hallway searching for Professor Hawthorne’s name plate. For a moment I thought we were on the wrong floor until Takeshi pointed out a door that said ‘The Hawk,’ where the name should be.

‘Nickname?’ I asked not really sure how they managed to get a k from th.

‘It’s a football team,’ replied Takeshi shaking his head at me for my shameful display of sports knowledge.

‘Soccer?’ I asked since I didn’t think it was a rugby team.

‘Nah, AFL, it’s a team down in Melbourne, Hawthorn Hawks.’

‘Reckon he’s a fan?’

Takeshi shrugged his shoulders, ‘maybe, could be that he just likes them because they have the same name as him.’

The man who opened the door wore grey trousers, a short sleeve white shirt, red rimmed glasses and sported a rough red going to grey beard. I guessed he was in his late forties going on to fifty. The most remarkable thing about his facial features was his large hooked nose. It was distinct enough to make me question Takeshi’s sports theory.

‘Detectives Johnson and Yoshida.’

‘What can I do for you detectives?’ he asked with an almost comically perplexed expression on his face. Everything about him screamed professor. The way he held himself and the way he spoke suggested he was used to not only imparting knowledge but also fighting other learned men. He even listened as if waiting for a point he could tear to ribbons with logic.

‘We’re investigating the death of Daniel Bailey.’

‘Oh,’ he said furrowing his brow, his esteemed mind seem to have no response to the news, ‘well certainly come in.’ he added as if in the face of the unknown he fell back on civility. His office had room enough for not only the usual workstation and bookshelf but a sofa, arm chair and coffee table. On the top of a hip high bookshelf was a terrarium with a rat in it. He seated us down on the sofa.

‘Coffee, tea?’ he asked.

‘Coffee,’ I replied. Takeshi shook his head.

‘I don’t know a Daniel Bailey so you’ll have to forgive my confusion. Why do you want to speak to me?’ he asked puzzled by our presence.

‘Actually it’s in regard to Daniel’s flatmate, Stanley Fitzgerald.’

‘Stan?’ asked the professor, ‘I’d hardly think he’s likely to do it.’

‘We haven’t reached that conclusion, we’re looking for him.’

‘Ah,’ said the professor, ‘well I haven’t seen him today but then I haven’t been down to the lab yet. When did the accident occur?’

‘We strongly believe it was no accident,’ I corrected, ‘it was last night.’

‘I think I have his phone number around here, have you tried that?’

‘Yes, yes, with no success,’ I said, ‘what can you tell us about Stanley Fitzgerald?’

‘Stan?’ he said looking over his shoulder while he poured the coffee, ‘he’s one of my doctorate students slaving away in the labs. He’s here most hours. I have high hopes for him actually. I’m sure he’ll become our youngest professor in the university’s glorious history. He’s known to stay overnight. Has a wall of energy drink cans lining his work station which I tend to overlook since it adds character to the place. Never throws them out. He often jokes that he’s conducting an experiment to find out how many energy cans it takes to kill someone,’ the Professor chuckled, ‘very reliable lab assistant as well as scientist in his own right.’

He passed me my coffee which I sipped at appreciatively.

‘The case we’re working on,’ I said, ‘it’s quite odd. The coroner described cause of death as a spontaneous physical mutation.’

‘Spontaneous physical mutation?’ he asked, his curiosity peeked.

‘Yes, I’ve never seen anything like it, the policeman who saw it happen said the man was changing before his eyes.’

‘Define changing.’

‘Um,’ I stumbled not sure I could define changing any other way than the usual one.

‘His physical shape and bone structure changed in a quick and sudden way as to kill him.’ helped Takeshi.

‘That’s something straight out of science fiction. I’m afraid I don’t know anything that could do that. I would be very interested to see the body though. I’m sure the account has been exaggerated and that I can find a simple explanation.’

‘Our coroner is having difficulty,’ said Takeshi, ‘perhaps if you have knowledge in this field you could be of assistance to him.’

‘I’m not sure what the field is until I see the body and getting a proper account from this coroner of yours,’ he replied.

‘What’s with the rat?’ I asked pointing to the terrarium. It had been bugging me ever since I entered the room.

‘That’s my pet rat Titus,’ he said lifting the creature out of its enclosure.

‘I would have thought being a scientist you wouldn’t want a pet rat,’ I said quite perplexed at the contrast

‘And why would you think that?’ he asked clearly amused, ‘you clearly haven’t seen many laboratories or met many scientists. I assure you that many of us in the community are quite fond of rats for the very reason that we work so closely with them. They are marvellous creatures.’

‘Sorry if I offended you,’ I replied although I still felt it was odd.

‘Could you take us down to the lab?’ asked Takeshi never one to want to go off on any tangents.

‘Certainly.’

He led us down to the laboratory which, much to my surprise was in a completely different building. We left behind the dusty shelves of the faculty offices and soon arrived at a smooth egg shell white building devoid of any corners or windows. It was a lot larger than I thought it’d be. My image of universities was cheap and out of date. In contrast I felt I was about to walk into a colony on Mars. The pathway led us down to what looked like more wall. I could just make out a faint line possible marking out the location of a door. The professor flashed his identification card at a single red dot to the side of the faint line. I assumed this would have to be some kind of reader. An audible click told me the door was now unlocked. The wall let out a sound as if it was pressure sealed again making me feel like I was entering a space station. I looked over to Takeshi to see what he was making of all this but he didn’t give any indication that he was seeing anything unusual. Perhaps this is what he figured a lab should look like. The wall/door slid automatically to the side. Inside, was a laboratory far more advanced looking than that of our forensics lab. I imagined the look on those in forensics’ faces at seeing such a layout. The Professor announced who we were and stood at our side expectantly. I gathered that he was a little excited to have detectives there alongside him. I scanned the faces of those present. There was a strange tension in the air I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A detective should always be able to read the room. Especially when said detective’s presence wasn’t welcome. Shoulders were hunched. Heads turned away. Jaws clenched. The room was quiet, but not because of the hard work of its inhabitants. The big question was why? I tried to make a mental note of everyone who didn’t want us there. I gave up and started looking for faces that were indifferent or curious. They were in the minority.

‘Is Stanley Fitzgerald here?’ I asked.

There was no verbal response. The closest student to me shook her head. ‘Does anyone know his whereabouts?’

Again we got a mute denial from the students.

‘Where is his desk?’ I asked the professor.

He led me to a workstation that looked much like any other except the wall of energy drink cans that decorated the place. When the professor had mentioned it I didn’t think it would be this high?’

‘Isn’t this against health and safety?’ I asked.

‘Oh we let it go, he assures us he’s set up some kind of system so that they won’t fall. It’s just his little joke,’ laughed the Professor.

‘Looks like a cry for help to me,’ I insisted.

‘Cry for help? Rubbish,’ replied the professor. The rest of the lab remained silent.

The wall was practically shouting at me that this kid was overworked. It struck me as another piece to the puzzle.

‘We’ll probably have to get forensics down here to look around and tech to look at this computer,’ I said hating myself for not taking a course in whatever I needed to allow me to just sit down and get information. Instead Takeshi just sat down at the computer and nudged the mouse. A login screen appeared.

‘Do you have his login information?’ he asked the professor.

‘No, but you could probably get that from admin.’

‘Has anyone seen Stanley today?’ I called out above the hum of computers and equipment, when they didn’t respond I tried another approach, ‘is there anyone that works closely with Stanley?’

‘That’d be Celia Marshall,’ replied the professor.

That cracked the silence. Even the ones making a point to get back to work had stopped at that.

‘She’s in the next room,’ said a student near us.

The professor led us out of the main area down a hall past several smaller rooms each with glass walls leading into them with much more elaborate looking equipment. Nothing looked familiar in these rooms. I was beginning to wish I had paid more attention in my science classes. We soon arrived at a room that look much the same to me as the others. I could see a woman hunched over a computer peering closely at the screen as if she were struggling to read it. The professor announced us and then went to follow us in but I stopped him at the door requesting some privacy. Giving the cold reception we had received I was beginning to think something was up with this laboratory.

‘Celia?’ I asked.

‘Busy,’ she said not looking up from her work.

‘Detectives Johnson and Yoshida.’

She immediately turned around to face us, a calculating look on her face. I got the sense that in that very moment she had assessed every possible reason we could be in that room. The same tension from the other room was not present here though. She was in in her late twenties wearing jeans and a white shirt underneath a lab-coat. Her hair was cut short, probably so it didn’t get in the way. Everything about her stance and body language said you are wasting precious work time.

‘Sorry, I assumed you were one of the others in this dump. What can I do for you?’ she asked.

‘We were told you work closely with Stanley Fitzgerald,’ I stated

She blinked a few times processing the new information.

‘Yes, that is generally the case,’ she said.

‘Have you seen Stanley at all today or yesterday?’

She stared in the direction people look when they are trying to recall something. After a few moments she shook her head.

‘Now that you mention it I haven’t seen him around,’ she said as if that were an odd thing.

‘If you don’t mind me asking,’ started Takeshi, ‘what are you working on?’

‘Put simply, I’ve been furthering the field into understanding the differences between the rat and human genomes. Trying to understand what these differences do.’

‘Oh,’ I replied.

‘Do other people use this room or are you the only person?’ Takeshi asked.

‘I prefer working away from the others. Every workplace has three or four people who just want to gab away. Worse are the people who talk to think. They’ll always apologise about how they’ll just keep on talking knowing full well how annoying they are but never stop.’

‘So you aren’t the most social of people?’ I asked making a mental note of it.

‘I am very social thank you very much, you are making an all too common an assumption. The lab is for working in, the café is for talking in,’ she replied curtly.

‘When was the last time you saw Stanley?’ asked Takeshi changing the topic.

‘That would have been yesterday here at the lab,’ he replied, ‘it’s a rare day that he isn’t here.’

‘So you’d say his absence is a cause of alarm?’ I asked.

‘People do get sick,’ she said shrugging her shoulders, ‘I’ll be more alarmed I he doesn’t come in tomorrow.’

‘I was just wondering something that maybe you can answer,’ I said, ‘why aren’t the people in this lab happy to see us?’

She smiled, ‘You really haven’t been to many labs have you?’

‘No,’ I replied.

‘Every student here gets grant money they can use to get the resources they need. Some don’t get the amount they thought they would, others overspend what they had, or make errors and have to start over, and any number of other reasons that mean they have no money to get the resources they need to continue. In that situation, almost all of them start stealing. I almost always have money since I’m smart in terms of my resource management and ability to state my case. I also tend not to make mistakes. Since coming here I’ve learnt it’s very important to guard my materials.’

‘Things often go missing?’ asked Takeshi.

‘All the time.’

‘Has anything gone missing recently?’ asked Takeshi.

‘Not of mine, they all know I’ll find out who it was if they try to steal off me. I got one student booted from the University for stealing off me. They know I won’t cut them any slack.’

‘How do you find out?’ I asked.

‘Dogged determinism,’ she replied, ‘that and my first degree was in forensics, I probably would have been working alongside you but I got really into the genetics side of the course and ended up going in this direction.’

‘I’m sorry to doubt you but I can’t imagine your skills are that good,’ I said.

‘I also have a camera trained on my stuff,’ she said sheepishly, ‘they don’t know that though so if you could keep that between us I’d appreciate it.’

I genuinely laughed. It was then that I noticed she’d been writing something down on a piece of paper. I peered over at it to see what it was. She smiled and slid it over to me.

‘I really must get back to work, I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything about Stanley Fitzgerald.’

I moved swiftly concealing the paper in the palm of my hands. The paper had two words written on it.

Jeremy Walters

‘Good luck with your investigation,’ she said.

We took the hint and gave the usual exit asking her to call us if she remembered anything.

I slipped the note into my coat pocket as we re-entered the main part of the lab.

In the main lab I asked once more who worked with Stanley, more to give our informant some breathing room than anything else. Everyone we interviewed were so tight lipped that I began to question Celia’s explanation. Then again she hadn’t confirmed it and she’d slipped us a name without us prompting her. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume Jeremy was the one that had this lab so spooked. If that was the case mentioning his name was probably not the best course of action for her. That perhaps she was going out on a limb by doing so. That Stanley wasn’t here bothered me the most. I was now certain that he was indeed missing.

The professor saw us out. Figuring Jeremy had to be one of his students I decided to make an enquiry about him.

‘Do you know where I could find Jeremy Walters?’

‘Jeremy?’ he asked, ‘He’s a professor here, I saw him this morning at the faculty meeting but I believe he went home soon afterwards.’

‘Do you know where that is?’ I asked.

‘I know he has a place here in Saint Lucia somewhere but I can’t tell you where.’

Once out of earshot I asked Takeshi for his thoughts.

‘No Stanley; his flatmate dead, and we’ve been handed a person’s name apparently in relation to why everyone in that lab doesn’t want to talk to us.’

‘So we should check out the name right?’ I asked unsure what else we could really do.

It was getting on midday. I was starting to get very hungry. Whenever I was on a case I always felt guilty about stopping for food as if I wasn’t acting with enough urgency. Fortunately Takesi asked ‘Should we grab some food first?’

I nodded coolly and led him up towards the food court. Once we had our sandwiches in hand we headed to the student centre. It took us longer than I would have thought but we finally found a desk manned by several people and a line of students. Without any apologies we jumped the queue and put our question to the man behind the counter. He started tapping away at the computer on a desk just below the counter. After a few apologies at regular intervals he finally found something and read it out loud. Takeshi quickly pulled out a pen and paper as the man rattled of the address and phone number. It was nice to find out Jeremy Walters lived nearby in a house in Saint Lucia not far from the university.

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