Red Bellied Brown

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Chapter 7: Professor Stern

Jeremy was pacing back and forth outside the lab when I found him. He looked thoroughly miserable.

‘Bad news Jeremy?’ I asked him.

He shook his head.

‘He sounded a little more paranoid than usual.’

‘May have seen us at the lab earlier today,’ I guessed.

I snuck into the garden next to the lab. It was dark enough that no one could see me. At least so I hoped. Midnight came round and went. Jeremy desperately looked at his watch every five seconds. I wondered why he was so worried, him being here suggested there really was a mysterious stranger.

Jeremy’s flood of relief was so evident that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the man run away and never come back. Fortunately, everything went as planned. Jeremy led Stern to the lab without fuss and swiped him in. The doors slid open and in Stern went.

I left my hiding place in the garden and came over to meet Jeremy as he exited the lab. He made a little gesture telling me he was all mine and immediately got out of there. I went in after the visitor locating him with ease. He put up no resistance absolutely stunned that I was there.

‘Professor Stern?’ I asked.

The man didn’t speak straight away obviously trying to think as quickly as he could.

‘Professor Stern,’ I said again, ‘why are you sneaking into your own lab?’

‘It’s not what it looks like,’ he said.

‘Two questions,’ I said, ‘what do you think it looks like? And, what is it?’

‘Look, I know you’re investigating something around these labs, but I have nothing to do with that.’

‘You knew we were investigating and still came?’

‘Any chance I can to ruin Hawthorne.’

‘Hawthorne mentioned something about that,’ I recalled putting two and two together, ‘you’re lucky he’s not a more suspicious man, he genuinely thought you were publishing those results on your own prowess. Why are you doing this though?’ I asked him puzzled at what Hawthorne could have possibly done.

‘I was here when a Mr Percival came in off the shore begging for a job, I was against hiring him. Hawthorne for it. During the debate some pretty heated exchanges occurred in which he accused me of being a close minded dinosaur, well my views won out and I’ve been publishing cutting edge findings every year while he’s floundering around with nothing.’ The man actually gave an evil laugh.

‘Ok, so who was Mr Percival and why didn’t you want him to enter the university?’

‘Mr Percival was unethical pure and simple,’ he declared, ‘no one experiments on humans.’

‘Correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t you breaking into a lab to destroy a colleague’s work?’

‘That’s just part of the game,’ he said, ‘everyone does it.’

‘I’m sure that isn’t true,’ I said deeply concerned that it may very well be true.

‘A naïve detective, how sweet,’ he said.

‘What do you have on Jeremy that he’s willing to do this for you?’ I asked.

‘That what he say huh,’ he laughed, ‘this was Jeremy’s idea. I don’t know what Hawthorne did to him but he seemed eager to help me destroy him.’

‘So you have absolutely nothing to do with a murders, missing persons and a cult possibly linked to this lab?’ I asked as casually as I could.

His jaw dropped and he immediately spoke a hundred kilometres an hour. From which I gathered he couldn’t have been more surprised if I had told him his family had been kidnapped. I rubbed the bridge of my nose between my thumb and pointer.

‘If you are telling the truth,’ I said quite annoyed at the way things played out, ‘then you’ve completely wasted my time and considering just earlier my partner was shot at and I chose to be here instead of by his side in the ambulance you can bet I’m pretty pissed.’

‘I’m sorry to have caused you such stress,’ Mr Stern replied meekly, ‘it was not my intention.’

‘Of course not, because you thought no harm would come of trying to destroy someone’s career. I think I have enough to bring you in.’ I added in outright disgust

‘No, no, you can’t,’ he said, ‘I’m allowed access to these labs.’

‘That’s not how the law works,’ I said repeating something Takeshi had said earlier that day.

‘No, you can’t tell anyone,’ he begged.

‘I don’t see why not,’ I said, ‘if what you say you’ve been doing here is true you’re responsible for the languishing career of Professor Hawthorne. Of course if what you say isn’t true. If say you’ve been cooking chemicals in here that can trigger rapid physical growth in humans, well then you may very well be the guy we are looking for.’

‘What?’ he asked, ‘no, what you just said is impossible, rapid physical growth caused by chemical consumption? Impossible.’

‘Says the guy who probably made it,’ I responded.

‘No,’ he declared, ‘are you so hypocritical? You criticise me for destroying another’s career and yet you will do that to me.’

I sneered at him, ‘You have destroyed your own career, not me.’

I twisted his arm around his back and threw my cuffs on him dragging him off back to my car.

‘Fucking waste of time,’ I curse into the night.

Paper Trails

I waltzed into the hospital room they’d put Takeshi in with an armful of folders under each armpit. Things hadn’t gone so well last night but I had a good feeling about today.

‘How’re going?’ I asked Takeshi.

‘Did we find them?’ he replied.

I shook my head, ‘they were too late, missed a turn and never found the van again. Well not until about nine this morning.’

‘They found it?’ he said sitting up.

I frowned, ‘found a burnt out husk.’

‘The destroyed it?’ he checked.

I nodded, ‘they knew we were onto them.’

‘We lost our lead,’ he said defeated. I guess I couldn’t blame him for looking so downtrodden. He did take a one in the arm after all.

‘No,’ I said smirking down at him.

‘Why are you in such a good mood?’ he asked, ‘what do you know?’

‘I’ve got some work for you,’ I said, ‘I know you wouldn’t want to be sitting on your arse doing nothing.’

‘You know me so well,’ he said, ‘come on. What is it?’

‘Something you said yesterday actually,’ I explained, ‘where is it all going? The stuff they clear out. Most of the household stuff is probably wherever their hideout is but there are two things we can track.’

‘Two?’ he asked

‘Money and cars,’ I replied.

‘That’s promising,’ he said, ‘that what’s in the folders?’

‘I’m building to that, gotta explain why I haven’t been in to see you until midday,’ I laughed, ‘first thing I looked at was bank accounts. All those missing people also had money in accounts, emphasis on had money. All of the accounts were emptied at about the same time their rooms were.’

‘How much?’ he asked.

‘Given the age range of the victims, most of them didn’t have a whole lot of money but it adds up.’

‘I bet,’ he replied grinning, ‘so we’ve got them.’

I shook my head, ‘not yet, they always completely withdrew it and shut the accounts down never opening a new on in their name again.’

‘They covered their trail,’ he said, ‘but you don’t just hide that much, you spend it, invest it, or even put it back into the banking system.’

‘My thoughts exactly. They didn’t transfer the money but they would have put it somewhere. That’s not all.’

‘What?’

‘The cars, most of the victims had cars,’ I said slowly egging him on to have the same epiphany I had earlier that day.

‘Like John Edwards’ van,’ he said.

‘Exactly like that.’

‘They’ve got a fleet of two hundred or so cars?’ he asked.

‘Better than that,’ I said, ‘at least for us. They’ve got a fleet of eight cars. All the others were sold within the year the person disappeared.’

‘Why is that better?’ he inquired.

‘Come of Takeshi,’ I said, ‘use your brain.’

‘They didn’t need the other cars, the only needed eight,’ he said, ‘we know where the eight are don’t we?’

I smiled, ‘all vans, all in West End.’

‘West End again, are they all in the one place?’

‘Not that lucky, scattered about, we’ve got cops on each one waiting to tell us if they move or see anything suspicious.’

‘What about the other cars?’ he wanted to know.

‘All sold,’ I said, ‘you know the market. Even bombs can fetch you a descent price.’

‘More than the accounts would have in,’ he whistled, ‘so whoever these guys are have a lot of money.’

I nodded.

‘So what’s your plan for finding it?’ he queried.

‘All the amounts were exact amounts. No round figures.’

‘They’ve been smart so far they may have already thought of that.’

‘Here’s hoping they thought they were already clever enough,’ I said raising my hand in mock cheers.

‘They probably invested though. That’s going to be impossible to trace.’

‘It would have started small. Nothing worth investing.’

‘Ah,’ he said.

It seemed so easy at first. We started with arithmetic from case by case, to monthly amounts, to quarterly, to annually, to every financial year and so on until we had every variation of amounts we could think of. Then we each picked up a list and went down the column ringing up each financial institution. Once on the phone I had to explain who I was. String off a number of numbers for them to search along with various dates and years. Wait hopefully for a confirmation. Each call I held my breath while a nagging voice in my head said the culprits had spent it or stuffed it under the bed. After about the sixteenth phone call the exuberance I had shown was all but gone. Instead, a dull throbbing sensation that I was some machine rattling off numbers while humans desperately sought meaning in them. I rubbed at my nose sighed and decided if I didn’t walk down to the café on the first floor I’d go insane. The trip down was with a headful of zombie. I came back with what was probably a flat white and went back to my list.

‘Johnson,’ I heard Takeshi through the boredom induced haze. At first I barely registered that he’d called my name out. In fact I couldn’t even say I recalled what the last phone call had been like.

‘Johnson,’ he called again, ‘you don’t need to keep on phoning people.’

‘What?’ I struggled to say amazed that anyone could work at a monotonous job.

‘I found it.’

‘Found what?’ I replied.

‘The money,’ he said, ‘I found it.’

The fog lifted. My brain pulsed back into life.

‘You found it?’ I near shouted in shocking disbelief.

‘Yeah, some group called the rat pack,’ he said, ‘they probably thought they were being anonymous but they still needed to put a real person’s name to it.’

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Charles Percival,’ he said smugly.

‘Who?’ I repeated disappointed it wasn’t anyone we’d already met but my eyes lit up, ‘I’ve heard that name. Professor Stern mentioned him. It’s why they hate each other.’

‘Sorry I don’t think I was there for any of that,’ said Takeshi confused.

‘Oh, um, Professor Stern at UQ mentioned why he wanted to destroy Professor Hawthorne. Something about Hawthorne wanting to hire Mr Percival.’

‘That’s interesting,’ said Takeshi, ‘when did all that happen?’

‘Last night, after the stake-out.’

I looked out the window and was shocked to see the sunlight was fading. We’d been at it all day. Takeshi looked ok to me so I called over a nurse to see if he could get out. One came fairly quickly, checked the bandages and said he could go but he shouldn’t move his arm about for a few days. I smiled glad he’d be alright.

‘May as well come back to my place, rest in the spare room,’ I suggested.

‘Probably should just go home,’ he replied.

‘Come on mate, we’ll feed you up. Can’t have you living off convenience store food. It’s only a rung above living on Maccas.’

‘They’re a bit overpriced,’ Takeshi relented, ‘and the food at the convenience stores here are awful. I suspect you’re wrong, living on Maccas is probably better. Is it so much to ask for something cheap that doesn’t make me feel like shit.’

‘You should learn how to cook,’ I said, ‘it’s much cheaper.’

Takeshi was a regular at our house. I could hear my daughter’s feet pounding the wooden floor boards before I even opened the door. A huge smile planted on her face. I opened my arms up and caught her as she launched herself at me. After the hug she went to give Takeshi a similar treatment shouting, ‘Uncle Yoshi,’ but I intercepted her pointing out the bandages on his shoulder. She immediately wanted to see what was under it and insisted I tell her the story straight away.

I told her about the stake-out not bothering to leave out any details. I figured she should know the risks we took and never pulled any punches when I told her about my days. Once I finished Takeshi pulled her up on his good arm.

‘How’s my princess going?’ he asked.

‘God I had such a dull day,’ she said with exaggerated drama, ‘today we studied the alphabet for an hour, an hour!’ she shook her head as if the alphabet was easy enough to do in a couple of minutes. She quietened her voice in what I had come to know as her gossip voice. ‘Can you believe that Jory didn’t even know the alphabet?’

‘Jory? Is that a boy or a girl?’ replied Takeshi to which the princess giggled and slapped him on the shoulder.

‘Jory is a boy,’ she replied as if anyone who didn’t know otherwise was clearly an idiot. She then squirmed out of his arms and dashed away without looking back. Takeshi sighed as if to say what is a man to do? And ran after her making growling noises.

My wife, Catherine, came in from the office moments later. We hugged, kissed and I asked her about her day.

‘Same old same old, had the usual burst of elderly men and women coming in for various complaints. Honestly, I think they just come in for a chat. The waiting room is always full of them chatting away about this and that ailment or how the grandkids are going.’

‘That’s a nice thing though right?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she admitted, ‘and the more that come in the more money we get. Well, you know, it’s just a bit silly. It’s cheaper for them to go to a café or something.’

I shrugged.

‘Do they have genuine complaints?’ I asked.

‘Sure, most of the time.’

‘There you go then,’ I replied, ‘they’re just enjoying the atmosphere you’ve provided them as they wait.’

‘You know I wasn’t asking for a pep talk,’ she smiled ruefully, ‘just trying to say more than just nothing special happened.’

‘Fair enough,’ I replied, ‘mind if Takeshi eats here?’

‘Of course not,’ she said.

‘How was yours?’

‘New case,’ I said, ‘quite a doozy.’

I went on to give her all the details of the case I could think of as the sound of dashing feet and wild laughter echoed through the house along with Takeshi’s best dinosaur impersonation. I hoped he wasn’t using his right arm.

‘A cult is kidnapping people?’ she asked once I was done.

‘To be honest we don’t know if they are kidnapping people but it seems that way,’ I replied.

‘That doesn’t sound like the usual way to get followers.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m sure there’s more to it but we haven’t figured it out yet.’

‘You’ll get it,’ she assured me.

During dinner my wife put a beer in front of me. I immediately started reflecting on the case. I swirled the beer around in circles as I watched the bubbles fizz to the top. What was it that caused the transformation? If Takeshi was right and it was something they consumed. I shuddered at the thought. One moment happily eating pizzas, drinking beers, and playing games with your mates. Next moment you’re screaming in agony. It was a grim thought.

After dinner I sat down with Takeshi for a game of chess while Tessa perched herself on a chair overwatching the game with an intensity only she could have. She regularly commented on our moves if she thought it was a good one or not. About halfway through Catherine called Tessa off to have a bath. She whinged and complained about it, but went off never the less. It was a gruelling match going on for another half hour or so. The end game came down to a few pieces. As usual Takeshi came out on top. We packed up and I told him one day I’d get him. Tessa came dashing into the room still dripping wet and completely naked.

‘Cover up you little nudist,’ I scowled just as Catherine caught her with a towel, wrapping the wiggling kid up in it.

‘Uncle Takesh, can you do your detective face?’

Takeshi smiled and for the next half hour we entertained Tessa with our various detective expressions. Allowing her to act as judge. She awarded Takeshi higher marks. Probably because she’d seen all my best scowls before. I feigned disappointment and used my loss as an excuse to buddle the little one off to bed. She complained mightily and tried to engage me in a wrestling match but she eventually accepted the inevitable. I set Takeshi up in another room and took myself off to bed. My eyes were wide open though as I tried to figure out what was going on with this case.

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