Red Bellied Brown

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Chapter 8: Mr Percival

Two late nights in a row was starting to catch up with me. My sleep deprivation made me an unresponsive zombie all the way into the station past my colleagues and straight to the coffee machine. The process of fixing my coffee having some measure of calm on me but not much. Takeshi soon joined me in the room. I could never figure out how he was always able to be bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning.

‘When you’re ready,’ he said to me and left the break room.

I savoured my first sip before heading after him.

Takeshi had laid out a bunch of files and newspaper clippings on a table in one of the meeting rooms.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

‘Everything I could find on Charles Percival,’ he announced.

‘So what do you know?’ I asked.

‘Charles Percival formerly of the United States currently living in Brisbane. Owner of a pub in West End serving his own speciality microbrew.’

Nothing about what he’d just said jumped out at me.

‘What’s with the newspaper clippings?’ I asked. Takeshi smiled.

‘His name appeared pretty regularly in the newspapers about twenty years ago.’ He pointed to a few he’d laid out.

Rising Son of Stamford University Makes Startling Breakthrough

Newest member of Stamford University Faculty Awarded with the Edward Novitski Prize for Creative Problem Solving

‘They get less positive he remarked.’

Student Hospitalised after Dangerous Experiments at Stamford University

Stamford University Professor Accused of Experimenting on Students.

Professor Percival Denies Wrongdoing

Percival Insistent that Consensual Experimentation is the Way of the Future

Percival Dismissed by a Council of Peers

‘So have you read these or just looked at the title?’ I asked.

‘Read them of course,’ he said wounded by my words, ‘the articles weren’t very detailed in regard to what he actually did. Those that did go into it often conflicted with other accounts of it. I gather it had something to do with genetics as that is his field and that at that time there was a lot of fear on the topic.’

We tried his residence first. His house was a glorious old Queenslander in New Farm with a high wooden fence surrounding the property. It was a Queenslander you’d expect to find on a wealthy farm property in the darling downs or up north. While it wasn’t a mansion it was still a desirable house in a desirable location. Evidently Mr Percival was well off. The street was lined with great big jacaranda trees hiding the area from the sun. Every house on the street seemed worth a million at least. From the outside, I could see a veranda went all the way round the house. There were wooden blinds on them to keep it shady and possibly to hide what was going on inside. The house was painted a dark army brown while the roof was corrugated iron painted red with several turbines taking the hot air out of the building. A tiled walkway ran from the gate to the entrance. We climbed the wooden steps finding a wooden door done up in slates.

‘Detective Johnson,’ I called out as I rattled on the wooden door. The inner door was wide open. Peeking between the slates I could make out wood panelled flooring leading off into a much larger room. The walls were white. A shoe rack and coat hanger that looked old enough to be in an antique store stood by the door. A man I assume was Percival came to see us. The man was in his late-fifties, perhaps even sixties. His greying hair puffed out at the back as if he either didn’t know about it or he couldn’t contain it. At the front his hair had receded far enough back that he hadn’t bothered trying to do a comb over. His facial features were reasonably unremarkable. Everything about him suggested pleasant and accommodating except for his eyes. They betrayed the keen calculating intellect that reminded me of the way Takeshi looked when I played chess with him.

‘Detective,’ he greeted me, ‘what is this about?’

‘Could I come in?’

Just by looking at him I could tell he didn’t know why we were here. Of course people could surprise you with their acting skills.

‘Yes, of course Come on in,’ he said and opened the screen door. He led me to the lounge room. There were no doors between the entrance and the living room giving the place an open feel to it. The floors were of polished hard wood. Wooden display cabinets and silver framed mirrors contrasted well with the bare white walls. I was directed to a brown leather arm chair. Everything about the inside suggested that Mr Percival was as rich as the exterior had implied.

‘Tea? Coffee?’

‘Coffee,’ I requested. I hoped that since he was clearly well off he’d have a good brew. Much to my disappointment he wasn’t long in making it. As he brought it to me I desperately hoped that he’d already made some coffee before I came. I sniffed the coffee to verify which it was. He’d given me instant. I already hated the man.

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

‘I heard you were once a world class geneticist,’ I stated, letting him fill in the question.

‘Yes,’ he laughed at the foolish dream of his younger self, ‘as a child I was fascinated with the idea of making people better.’

‘Better?’

‘Yes, ween out genetic faults, make people smarter, stronger. Imagine the society we could have if everyone was equal in terms of intelligence and athleticism.’

I could hear the old passion in his voice even though he was trying hard to play it down. I leaned forward.

‘Aren’t we all born equal?’ I asked baiting the man.

‘That’s what we’re taught isn’t it?’ he said smiling at the joke, ‘that we’re all special. It’s not true though is it? Some people are born smarter, others more athletic. Some lucky few, both.’

‘Isn’t that just part of nurturing?’ I continued.

‘There is a line, a very blurry one. In a few decades that line will probably be quite distinct. We’ll be able to say you were born with this, you were raised to be able to do that. Even so there’ll be a great many things that overlap. A person can be born with sports ability far greater than any of his peers but that person may very well end up never utilising his natural skills because the nurturing wasn’t there. If you want proof that we are not born equal think of that archetype Australian culture glories, the Aussie battler. The one who thrives despite their original destitution. A success story against all odds. If we were all born with equal ability there should be a great more who rise above.’

‘They realise they are living a lifestyle they don’t want.’ I suggested.

‘And how can some realise that and not others? We are not a species of equals, but we could be.’

‘Would you change our form as well?’

‘Change us physically you mean?’ he asked. ‘Of course, ensuring that we are all genetically athletic and intellectual if that is what you mean.’

‘I mean, would you change the human form itself?’ I needled

‘It’s not beyond the realm of fiction to assume that we would start doing modifications of the human form for specific purposes. Some people are better at sports then other purely for physiological reasons. They say Michael Phelps has a longer wingspan than his height would usually account for and he’s double jointed at the ankles. Could be what puts him above the rest. I wouldn’t be surprised if you start seeing genetically altered sports stars within the next few years considering the pace at which we are making advancements. I wonder if they’ll ban it the way they banned performance enhancing drugs,’ he smiled at his little joke.

‘You sound like you’ve been keeping up to date,’ I stated.

‘It was a significant part of my life. I still read the journals. Sorry detective, but I don’t believe you told me what this is about? If you are wondering about the time I lived in America I assure you all reparations have been made.’

‘This is about the present day Mr Percival,’ I said wondering where exactly a good place to start was, ‘we would like to know about the Rat Pack if that is ok with you?’

‘What would you like to know?’ he asked.

‘Just a couple of things,’ I said innocently enough, ‘for one thing we’d like to know where such a significant amount of money has come from.’

‘When every University I tried rejected me I ended up turning to my other passion, brewing beer, and it’s made me very happy and quite well off for that matter.’ For a second I thought he was going to burst into a monologue about beer. I decided to cut him off before he got there.

‘You’ve certainly made well for yourself,’ I said looking around the house, ‘but you only own one pub and the amount of money to your name is significant.’

‘It’s a very popular pub in a large city in a central location serving a very good beer,’ he explained, ‘but you are right, originally the Rat Pack was entirely funding by the profits from my pub. Through my funding and assisting of young scientists there have been one or two breakthroughs that added to the fund. Recently, we have been getting a lot of donations. All small amounts but at a great enough quantity that we’ve been able to greatly increase our assistance to the minds of tomorrow.’

‘I’m sorry, what is the purpose of the Rat Pack?’ asked Takeshi taking notes.

‘I support those keen minds working in genetics. I know from experience how hard it can be to get funding especially when you haven’t published anything yet.’

‘So you have been funding experiments?’ I clarified.

‘More than that, thanks to all the donations coming in I’ve been able to set up a lab and invite promising minds to conduct experiments they’re interested in rather than the typical way of conducting experiments based on the amount of money they can net. It’s all legal I assure you,’ he said, ‘you can check the accounts and paperwork yourself.’

‘That would be appreciated,’ said Takeshi, ‘we’d particularly like to see your donor list.’

‘Of course,’ he said moving to one of the back rooms. He joined us again passing a thick folder to Takeshi who immediately began comparing the list to our own table of missing persons.

‘What’s this all about anyway?’ asked Percival.

‘A surprising number of missing people have seemingly donated all their money to your non-profit organisation.’

‘Are you suggesting that I’m kidnapping people and forcing them to donate to my NPO?’

‘We’re not suggesting anything yet.’

‘The names match,’ said Takeshi shortly after.

‘Match what?’ he asked.

‘Our list of missing people,’ I answered.

‘I don’t know anything about missing people,’ he said, ‘I accepted their donations on good faith.’

‘Why are they donating to you though?’ I asked.

‘A coincidence I’m sure,’ he said genuinely puzzled by our findings.

‘One or two would be a coincidence,’ said Takeshi, ‘I’ve counted fifty so far which means I have good reason to believe all two hundred and forty-three names will be here.’

Percival was lost for words, he looked from me to Takeshi and back again completely stumped.

‘So the question is why are they donating their money to you?’

‘I’m as flummoxed as you,’ he replied, ‘honestly the only reason I can think of is if my organisation benefits this group of people. Are they truly missing?’

‘None of them have been seen by family members or friends since they disappeared,’ explained Takeshi, ‘in every case a messages in some form or another was left saying they are ok.’

‘We suspect a cult,’ I added.

‘And think because of this money connection to me that I am what? The cult leader?’ he said laughing at either the absurdity of his situation or to hide his guilt.

‘To be blunt, yes,’ I responded

‘That’s ridiculous, I am a respected business owner and a philanthropist not some religious nut.’

‘We’re are just pointing out what we know, your foundation to assist budding scientists has received the same amounts of money withdrawn from the bank account of missing people. You must see why we are here and how suspicious it looks?’

‘Of course I see how suspicious it looks,’ he blurted out, ‘but I have no idea what you are talking about.’

‘So you have never met any of the people on this list?’ asked Takeshi passing him the list we made from the archives. Mr Percival made took the sheet in his hand and read through the names.

‘Bah,’ he shouted in frustration, ‘they are just names, of course I don’t know who they are.’

‘Have you ever met any of your donors?’ I asked.

He shook his head, ‘I never see them in person. Usually they are just a name coming out of the woodwork. I’ve never sort these donations.’

‘You didn’t think that was odd?’

‘Why should I?’ he said, ‘they are donations to a charity group. People often give to charity without ever talking to anyone in person.’

‘Why you?’ I asked starting to believe maybe he was innocent in all this.

‘Why me indeed,’ he said distraught.

‘If you truly know nothing of this then whatever it is your foundation does indirectly benefits these people,’ said Takeshi, ‘tell me exactly what your foundation does.’

‘I give a free lab space for anyone to use. The only condition is that they write their name in the log and keep the place clean.’

‘Is that enforced?’

‘Of course, I have a receptionist who insists everyone fills in a form, shows ID and lists what they are doing.’

‘That would be a very handy list to have,’ I said.

‘It’s yours,’ he said, ‘anything to clear my name in this.’

‘Do you know this man?’

He examined the photo I had pulled from the system.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘this is Stanley Fitzgerald is it not?’ he said taking me by surprise, ‘is he one of the missing too?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘he’s been missing for two days. How do you know him?’

‘He’s a very promising scientist. My foundation is for people like him, and you say he is missing?’ he asked looking deeply troubled.

‘We traced him to an abandoned van in West End, a street away from your pub.’

‘Are you suggesting that I kidnapped him? I repeat the offer I said before. I have nothing to hide, you can do a complete search of all my properties. I give you complete transparency.’

‘Thank you,’ said Takeshi, ‘we will need a complete list of all your properties as well as your records. We will have our forensics and tech specialists sift through the data.’

‘Very well,’ he replied as he stood up. He went over to a stand near the door and retrieved a pouch. When he returned to us he passed us three business cards from a card holder. Each one had a different address, ‘I can’t help think that I am being set up.’

‘Why would anyone set you up?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, ’I have only ever tried to do well by my adopted town.

‘Since we’re being so candid here,’ I said, ‘there is another detail to this case.’

‘Oh?’ he said, ‘how could this get any worse?’

‘A body was found two days ago in Toowong.’

‘A body? Now you are accusing me of murder too? Just my day. Pray tell how you think I killed this person and why?’

‘We never said you did,’ replied Takeshi.

‘Not that we haven’t ruled it out either,’ I interrupted.

‘Yes,’ said Takeshi, ‘The person died by spontaneous physical alteration.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘He mutated,’ I answered.

‘Mutated?’

‘Yes, his body changed in such a drastic way that he died from it.’

‘That is impossible,’ he replied slowly.

‘Regardless of possibility it happened and we want to know why and by who and how we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

‘But it is truly impossible,’ he said, ‘if I understand your assertions correctly you are suggesting a person underwent a rapid life threatening mutation. Nothing can do that . . . unless,’ he paused, ‘am I able to see this body?’

‘Considering you’re a suspect, no we can’t risk letting the murderer tamper with the body’

‘Well can I get a blood sample or something I can run DNA tests on.’

‘I thought you were out of the game.’

‘Out of it but not incompetent,’ he said.

‘You have a theory,’ said Takeshi.

‘No,’ replied Percival, ‘it’s a hypothesis, one that I wish to dispel as soon as possible because I do not like the implications of it.’

‘What is your theory?’ I asked.

‘My hypothesis is that the only thing that could cause such a significant change in the structure of a body, again assuming that I understand you completely in this, would be a virus.’

‘The coroner did suggest it could be a virus but he found no sign of one.’

‘Well of course he wouldn’t, it’s probably dead. Viruses don’t want to kill us. Plagues occur when a virus leaps from one animal to another. Most of the European plagues came from cows which can handle viruses much better than us. Viruses want us to stay alive if not healthy.’

‘Sorry what’s all that got to do with it?’

‘I’m saying your coroner didn’t find a virus because it died along with its host.’

‘Right,’ said Takeshi, ‘but there aren’t any viruses that do what this did.’

‘No, but they have the potential to. Viruses are an amazing building block. I mentioned genetic modifications of athletes, well viruses will be the means to do it. Viruses can hack DNA, change it, and make the body create something different. I had one student who wanted to create a virus that ordered your body to create and release serotonin in the brain.’

‘Meaning?’ I asked.

‘It’d be a happy virus. You get it and it makes you very happy.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Well that’s small scale compared to getting the body to completely rewrite itself, which is what I suspect could be happening here. Of course I could be wrong because I am only going off information you have given me.’

‘You said you don’t like the implications,’ Takeshi said.

‘The implications is that this virus would have to be designed to achieve such significant change that you are suggesting. The other implication is that it was designed poorly if it caused a person to die. What’s more if it was designed poorly then more people could die.’

I nodded my head getting the logic. Either he was an incredibly good actor, a fantastic chess player or he was genuinely innocent. If he was guilty and this was the way he was going to try and clear himself then we may as well milk as much information as possible.

‘We’ll take you to the body,’ I said, ‘are you free now?’

‘Now?’ he asked, ‘well yes if I must.’

‘Great, come with us,’ I said and led him out to the car.

Once at the station we directed Mr Percival to the morgue. The coroner was working on some other case when we arrived. As usual he was so immersed in his work that he failed to notice our entrance.

‘Dr Fillibert,’ intruded Takeshi drawing the coroner away from the body he was working on. I mouthed the name to myself trying to figure out if I had known that was the coroner’s name. It didn’t seem familiar.

‘Ah detectives,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry I don’t have any new information for you if that is why you came down.’ He then paused looking over at Mr Percival. Leaning towards us he whispered, ‘and who’s this?’

‘This is Mr Percival,’ I announced.

‘Who?’ he asked.

‘Mr Percival is a former professor at Stamford, at the mention of the case he immediately wanted to see the body.’

‘This isn’t a side show for you to make a bit of extra cash. I’ve had enough trouble from the people in this station wanting to take a peep. Honestly I’ve barely been able to get any work with all the interruptions.’

‘You misunderstand,’ said Percival, ‘I’m here as an expert. I have a hypothesis I wish to try and need to see the body to verify it.’

‘This is highly unorthodox especially considering he isn’t even a doctor.’ stated Fillibert.

‘I am actually,’ said Percival.

‘Oh, well it’s still unorthodox.’

‘He may be able to help,’ I argued.

‘You’re my witness,’ he said pointing to Takeshi, ‘I was against this. All responsibility is on your heads.’

‘Witnessed,’ said Takeshi. Satisfied Fillibert led us to the body. I still hadn’t seen it enough to be able to look at it in a rational objective way. The alien aspect of the features while still holding their original humanity disturbed me on a level no other case had.

‘Astounding,’ said Percival, ‘this is something new.’

‘Something new?’ I asked feeling queasy.

‘Yes, you’re description hardly did it justice,’ he said, ‘sure I assumed an irregular case but this is remarkable.’

‘How so?’ I asked.

‘It isn’t random for starters,’ he said, ‘look at the non-human features. He was transforming into something and for whatever reason it didn’t go through to completion.’

‘He died,’ I stated, ‘that’s the reason it didn’t go to completion.’

‘Yes, yes,’ he said waving his arms as if swatting flies, ‘I mean the bigger why. I told you before viruses don’t want to kill. Don’t get me wrong, millions of people have died of disease but it was never the virus’ intention.’

‘You make them sound more like inept doctors,’ I joked.

‘Not a bad analogy,’ he replied, ‘if I ever get back into lecturing I’ll steal that.’

‘You’re welcome to it,’ I smiled we were seeing the real Percival now, the person he was at Stamford, not the defeated man we met earlier. I was starting to like him. A dangerous path for any detective considering Percival was our number one suspect. Worse since he was actually our only suspect.

‘So the big why here is; why did the virus kill him?’ he said, ‘where’s your lab?’

‘Just through here,’ I said indicating a connecting door to the forensics lab. He walked in looked around and frowned.

‘I suppose it’ll have to do,’ he said, ‘you boys really need to update this place, maybe after all this my foundation can see what we can do about it.’

The forensics all stopped what they were doing at the sound of the boisterous American accent disparaging their workplace. I’d say most of them heartily agreed with the sentiment.

‘Sorry detectives,’ said one of the forensics, ‘who is this?’

‘Doctor Percival of the Rat Pack foundation,’ I said deciding to bypass all the questions with the most respectable sounding title, ‘he is here to assist with the case.’

‘Oh, of course, what can we do for you,’ the forensic immediately said as if royalty had stepped into the room.

‘I need blood, I need DNA samples and whatever equipment you have in here to analyse it.’

‘Yes, right away,’ he said, ‘it’s just that well we haven’t had any luck with the DNA samples, they all seem to be contaminated.’

‘Contaminated?’ he asked.

‘Well it’s always damaged, it’s missing a lot of the markers for the human genome.’

‘There’s a simple explanation for that,’ he said, ‘that man isn’t human.’

‘But he is,’ the forensic replied.

‘Not anymore he isn’t,’ he smiled a grin of big white teeth. I always thought it was funny how much bigger American smiles seemed. As if their lips were wider, ‘and that’s exactly what I want to find out, why isn’t he human anymore? And what exactly is he if he isn’t?’

‘We’ll leave you to it then,’ I said, ‘this doesn’t really sound like we can be of any help to you.’

‘Keep an eye on him,’ I announced to the forensics as I left the room, ‘he’s still a civilian and shouldn’t be allowed to take anything home.’

Once out of earshot of the room Takeshi and I started debriefing.

‘Thoughts?’ I asked.

‘Everything points to him,’ replied Takeshi, ‘which is puzzling since he is being so helpful right now.’

‘He could be trying to throw us off,’ I said.

‘You think that and are still happy with him in the lab?’ he asked.

‘You were too,’ I replied defensively.

‘Only because I thought you trusted him,’ he accused, ‘I didn’t know you were calling his bluff.’

‘Exactly, I called his bluff and he didn’t back down.’

‘So you don’t think he’s playing with us?’ asked Takeshi confused.

‘There are two scenarios, first; he is in on it in a big way and he is trying to show us how innocent he is by helping us. Second; that he has no idea about this and he is trying to show us he is innocent by helping us.’

‘So you’re thinking we let him help us and he reveals what he knows and whether or not he is complicit in this.’

‘Basically, yes,’ I said.

‘Doesn’t that mean that we should be watching his every move while he’s here?’

‘We wouldn’t know what to look for. The forensics will though. I bet they’ll notice when he tries to throw them off the scent.’

‘If,’ said Takeshi, ‘if he tried to throw them off the scent.’

‘That’s what I said right?’

‘You said when,’

‘Oh, yeah, if.’

‘He seems pretty adamant it’s a virus,’ said Takeshi, ‘he also suggested it was man-made.’

We heard footsteps banging down the hall after us. I turned around to see one of the younger forensics catching his breath.

‘We got something,’ he said.

‘That was quick,’ I replied looking over at Takeshi who just looked thoughtfully down the hall.

Back at the lab there was an electricity in the air. Everyone rushed about doing something while Percival seemed to be in the middle of it owning it all.

‘Detectives?’ he asked, ‘we haven’t found anything yet.’

‘I found the virus,’ announced the kid that had brought us back. Everyone who heard him immediately stopped what they were doing and came over.

‘I figured it was a long shot but since it hadn’t turned up and since the coroner had said it was probably a virus I’ve been testing everything,’ he explained, ‘I had no such luck, and well I had been dismissing the idea that bear would contain the virus since it’s far too acidic for most viruses but I tested it anyway and the results are positive.’

‘The beer?’ I asked incredulously as the kid led us over to his area of the lab. A glass bottle stood on the table. The label read Red Bellied Brown and had a picture of a red bellied snake with brown scales wrapped around a beer keg. It was odd to see since usually a red belly was black on top. Percival had come over. He was surprisingly quiet.

‘Red Bellied,’ said Takeshi, ‘that’s the name of your pub isn’t it?’

‘Yes, but I don’t bottle my beer,’ he said staring at the familiar label. The look in his eyes reminded me of someone trying to remember if they had done something. He shook his head, ‘You can only buy it on tap at my pub. That’s part of the charm, that’s the business model.’

‘The evidence is staking against you,’ I said, ‘the money going into your foundation, a bottle of your beer containing a virus.’

‘Wait, no I am being set up,’ he said.

‘By who?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I wish I did but I don’t.’

‘We’re going to have to arrest you,’ I said with regret, I had hoped it wasn’t him.

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