Red Bellied Brown

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Chapter 9: The Rat Pack Foundation

We arrived at the Rat Pack foundation’s open laboratory for new scientists. The outside was hardly as futuristic as the UQ one. In fact it looked quite bland as if it could be a dental clinic. Of course the UQ design was for show. This was probably just the most appropriate building Percival could find. The Rat Pack logo was three rats in lab coats holding beakers. I guess it was cute in a way. We pushed the door open and was immediately greeted by a receptionist. The scene reinforced the feeling that I was at a dental clinic. There were even chairs lining the wall and a pile of magazines. Given that there was also a food and drink dispenser in the room I gathered this was a break room rather than a waiting room.

‘Please fill in the forms,’ she said placing two clipboards on the counter in front of her.

I shook my head.

‘Detectives Johnson and Yoshida,’ I announced, ‘Mr Percival is under investigation as is this laboratory. Is anyone using the facility currently?’

‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘this place is unusually quiet today.’

‘A team of forensics is waiting outside,’ I said, ‘Mr Percival…’

‘Dr Percival,’ she corrected.

‘Dr Percival mentioned there is a list of people who frequent the lab and what they are working on.’

‘Yes, of course, I’ll just print it out for you.’

‘Appreciated,’ I said, ‘how does this place work?’

‘People who want to use the laboratory come and use it.’

‘Yes, but surely they need resources, samples, certain pieces of equipment.’

‘Of course, you can’t run experiments without any of that.’

‘So do you just have a massive store of things people could want?’

‘Oh god no, that would be ridiculous, we do have a lot of basic things but mostly people fill in a form requesting certain things. A lot of it is standard stuff but if anything exotic comes up I’ll pass it onto Dr Percival for permission.’

‘Dr Percival has quite a lot of faith in you,’ I stated surprised that there wasn’t more screening.

‘I’ve got the background for it. I got this job a while back when I started my bachelor of applied science. If it wasn’t for this place I don’t think I would have gotten through that degree. Once I finished Dr Percival gave me some more responsibilities and a pay-rise.’

‘Sounds nice of him,’ I said, ‘I assume that’s all recorded.’

‘Yes, I’ll print that out too, how far back do you need?’

‘At least five years.’

‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘sure, I’ll get right on that.’

As she typed we went back outside to call in the forensics we’d brought with us. They descended on the lab ready to unlock its secrets. The receptionist passed us reams of paper which I in turn gave to the main forensic. I think his name was Bob. The paperwork wouldn’t mean much to me given my lack of knowledge in the field. Personally I doubted Bob had the background either.

‘Find out what they’ve been working on in here,’ I said, ‘cross check it with others work too. They could be all in on it.’

Bob nodded his head.

We pushed through the white double doors leading into the labs. The outside may have seemed ordinary but in here was equipment that looked every bit as sophisticated as the stuff at the UQ labs. A single scientist was working on something.

‘You,’ I said, ‘what are you working on?’

‘Um,’ he said flummoxed by the intrusion, ‘I thought this was a free lab.’

‘It is,’ I said, ‘so what are you working on?’

‘You wouldn’t understand if I tried,’ he said, ‘genetics is the new frontier, the breakthroughs we make now will shape the future of technology.’

‘I’m beginning to see what that may look like,’ I said, ‘are you or do you know the whereabouts of Stanley Fitzgerald?’

‘Stan?’ he said unable to keep up with what was going on, ‘I’m not Stan.’

‘Do you know where he is?’

‘Probably at the UQ lab,’ he said with obvious envy, ‘he’s got it good there.’

‘Have you been working on virology?’ asked Takeshi.’

‘No, that’s not my area,’ he answered.

‘Go talk to those men in the jumpsuits,’ I ordered, ‘tell them everything you know.’

‘I don’t have to take orders from you,’ he answered.

‘Sorry I failed to introduce myself, I’m detective Johnson and this is Yoshida and you will do as we say.’

He flinched and went with us over to Bob.

‘You got this?’ I asked not confident enough that his name was actually Bob to say it.

‘Should be fine Johnson,’ replied Bob.

‘This is a list of missing people,’ said Takeshi passing our list to Bob, ‘tell us if any of them used this lab.’

Bob nodded and we left for the next location hoping the other team was already there.

The Red Bellied

The pub was our next destination. We had to park on one of the back alleys and walk down to Boundary Street. The street we were parked on was lined with the ubiquitous Queenslander. Given West End’s reputation I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see Tibetan Prayer Flags on many of the verandas and could easily smell marijuana in the air.

I could never figure out if West End was a stark contrast to the rest of Brisbane or if it was the epitome of it. It was in one way the most fashionable suburb, but not in any classist sense. There was no snootiness here. The closest thing to snobbery would be in regard to the quality of coffee. Not that there are ever any complaints. You can’t open up a bad coffee shop in West End. The main street was lined with old store fronts as if it hadn’t changed in eighty years. No one wanted this place to become just another part of the concrete jungle. It was the suburb’s collective desire to fight urban spread that prevented development of this area. The words West End meant something to the people of Brisbane. It was a symbol of unity and the fight against corporate culture. West End was really a warzone, the last stand. The people of Brisbane were drawn to it because they knew if West End fell Brisbane culture was lost. Whatever that was.

The Red Bellied Brown was a new building among the old. A rare thing to see on the streets of West End. It was more impressive in the light of day. Rustic outback meets modernity. Perhaps that’s why Percival had been able to do it. It added to West End’s aesthetic. Tables and stools lined the front deck. The place was already crawling with forensics. The place was filled with sofas and couches from any number of eras around coffee tables. Fake bookshelves lined the walls making it feel more like a café than a bar, except for the distinctive smell of yeast and vomit you get at all pubs.

The forensics had a clear goal here. Test the beer for the virus they had found at the place and find where the beer was bottled. It was hard to believe the place was big enough to brew and bottle beer. The place had been emptied of any clientele or staff. I wasn’t exactly sure what Takeshi and I were looking for here. Evidence this was the meeting place of a cult? I wondered what that looked like. It’d be nice if we found a nice simple brochure about it that told us everything. I looked behind the counter and was surprised to see there were no fridges or any sign of spirits. Three different beers were on offer; Red Bellied Brown, Red Bellied Pale, and Red Bellied Black. I paced around the place following Takeshi’s lead. After a thorough search that included the men’s and women’s toilet.

We started going through the backrooms. It was all kegs. There was nothing suspicious about the place except that I had a creeping feeling I was being watched. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was a grunt before I became a detective. On the street you get to know when people are aware of you. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to police presence. Something was off here but I had no idea what.

I found a trapdoor leading to a crawl space underneath the place. It was only about a metre high under the place. I squatted down so my arse was almost touching the dirt. That was interesting in itself. I had expected a cement foundation. Movement was slow and awkward but I eased myself along. Plenty of wiring and plumbing skirted in and out of the floorboards above. It smelt worse of vomit down here. It must drip down between the gaps in the floor never to be cleaned. The ground frequently felt sticky to touch.

The feeling of eyes following my movements was more pronounced here. My instincts told me to get out. A childhood memory came back to me unbidden. I was in my room in the dark testing my courage. Convinced that the darkness held nothing for me to fear I went to turn the light on but couldn’t find the switch, or the door. I searched desperately for the door sure I was in the right place. I yelled out to my parents for help but no one heard me. At that moment I became truly afraid. How could I get out of this impossible situation? I stopped and thought about the situation. Something was in the way. Something that felt like a wall but upon closer inspection was the door to my wardrobe. I laughed at the realisation. At some point I had opened the wardrobe door all the way so that it blocked the door and lightswitch. Perhaps than it was just the darkness unnerving me.

Specks of light flittered between the floorboards from up above. The sound of boots hitting the floorboards and the muffled discussions of forensics filtered down to me. I flashed the light all around me. There were plenty of pipes, wiring and stumps to hold the building up. Something unusual got my attention in one corner but when I moved the light back, there was nothing.

I roamed back and forward for what felt like an hour, although it was hard to tell time in the dark, until I was sure I had checked every corner. The place was empty. I was sure I’d find something down here. All my instincts were saying this was it. I checked my mental map of the building and compared it with what I had seen underneath. I retraced my way naming the rooms looking at the wiring. Something odd caught my eye. Pipes and wires heading into the earth.

I thumped the ground around until I found a spot that sounded hollow. I dug my fingers into the dirt searching for a trapdoor I knew had to be there. My fingers scratched at something much harder than dirt. That was when I noticed a shape move in the darkness. A slightly darker patch in the shadows. A claw came snaking out at me raking my face. I stumbled back as best I could in that dark and cramped space. My hand went to my face instinctively feeling blood. The attacker pressed his advantage reaching forward to claw at me again. I had fallen back onto my bum after the first assault so was able to kick at the hand reaching for me. I still had the torch in my hand. It was one of those big ones with a metal case. Without hesitating I started batting at whoever was attacking me, connecting regularly. In the waving light of my chosen weapon I saw an impossible form. Large teeth protruding from a pointed face. Furred ears shot from up on its head. There was no doubt I was looking directly in the eyes of a ginormous rat. Except that it wasn’t just a rat. Its body was humanoid in shape. I knew then that I wasn’t fighting a beast. I was fighting a man.

It was clear that I had the advantage in this fight. There was no room for manoeuvring. My makeshift club acted well against my opponent. As I swung I spoke. I told the thing I was hitting that I was an officer of the law. That I didn’t want to kill it or beat it unconscious, but felt the need to continue since I was unsure whether the thing would just continue trying to fight me or not.

‘I am just one,’ it replied as it held up its arm to cover its face.

I gathered that meant it wasn’t likely to back down. My arm was starting to get sore from swinging the torch so much. Something latched onto my arm as I swung it back. A sharp pain dug through the skin. The humanoid creature I had been hitting immediately leapt forward aiming a claw at my eyes. My other arm was still free. I swung it up to block the attack. The claws dug into me easily drawing blood. It was better than becoming blind. I kicked at the creature while the other shook my arm until I dropped the torch. At the risk of losing my sight I reached for my gun. As quick as I could I drew my pistol and shot at the creatures face. It flew back from the force banging its head first on the roof than the ground. The other one jumped on top of me pinning my arms to my sides. I squeezed the trigger hitting the creature in the leg. It grunted and loosened its grip on me enough for me to get my gun arm free. I pulled the trigger again this time getting it in the stomach. It went to bite me. I ducked my chin to my neck so that it couldn’t get at my throat. The creature locked onto my jaw instead as if it was a bad kisser trying to suck my face off. I fired another two times into the stomach hoping that would be enough. Blood gushed over my outfit but the creature didn’t look like it was going to let up. I pushed up with elbows rolling over so that I would be on top. Straddling the humanoid, I fired my gun one more time. Blood and brains splattered along the floor. I recovered my torch and searched for any more assailants. There were none. I studied the two attackers. They were shorter than me, the general size and shape of it, if it was a human, suggest a prepubescent teen. It wore dirty torn clothing. Its hands were mostly human except the fingernails were more like claws. My brain tried to fit this new piece of information in with my core concept of reality. It told me this was not a thing. This should not exist.

‘What are you?’ I asked as I covered my mouth in shock. To my surprise the humanoid rat rasped something I could not catch. It wore a t-shirt and shorts far too big for its frame. Fur covered its body seemingly all over. A long hard tail stretched out behind it. The nose and whiskers were still twitching as I leaned in for a closer look. It lunged towards my face. I struggled to get myself clear of it in the cramped area before it could get a chunk of me with its teeth. I let out a cry of pain as I hit my head on the floor above me just getting out of its range. I started beating it with the butt of my gun. It ignored the damage I was doing it and dug at my stomach with its clawed hands all the while keeping its teeth in. I had hoped to avoid killing this creature but it seemed it wanted me dead. Without further thought on the subject I fired my gun right into what I guessed was the temple. The rat being’s body fell limply onto me.

The whole situation had rattled me. I glanced back down at the form in front of me. The being was no less disturbing now than before. Fearing another attack was eminent I decided it was best to get the others.

I worked my way back to the trap door I had climbed down. Takeshi jumped down in front of me.

‘I heard gunshots,’ he said, his own pistol in hand.

‘I was attacked, I killed two but I don’t know how many else are here.’

‘You were attacked?’ he asked in shock.

‘By rat people.’

He actually laughed despite the seriousness of the situation, ‘by rat people?’

‘Giant rats or short rat like people,’ I said a little miffed that I had been fighting for my life and here he was laughing about who had attacked me, ‘either way…’ I paused losing my trail of thought, I must have lost more blood that I had thought.

‘Johnson,’ he said moving towards me as I stumbled to the ground, ‘a little help here.’

We were soon joined by a forensic, I thought Bob was at the laboratory.

‘Takeshi,’ I said, ‘there’s a trapdoor under there.’

Takeshi nodded his head, ‘don’t worry Johnson, we’ll get you to the hospital.’

I laughed, ‘first you then me, this case will probably kill us.’

He didn’t reply, just frowned.

The two of them got me from under the place and onto one of the couches. An unpleasant smell assailed me as my head rolled down putting my nose in contact with the cushion. Takeshi checked my wound.

‘It’s deep,’ he said, ’it went right through to the bone, ‘you said a giant rat did this?’

He did his best to sanitise it with some rubbing alcohol from a first aid kit.

‘This is a mess, I’m taking you to a hospital.’

‘I’m alright, just wrap it up,’ I said although my dizziness suggested that I should probably take his advice. Takeshi had a look in his eye that I’d never seen before. He was worried.

I wasn’t sure which hospital he’d taken me. It had been difficult to keep track of where we were going. It was difficult to focus. The doctor on duty soon had me lying down I missed what happened next as I blacked out.

When I came to Takeshi was by my side. Visions of what I had seen kept flashing before my eyes. It seemed so impossible. They must have been in disguise. A new street gang that wore giant rat masks.

‘Takeshi,’ I said, ‘we found them, they’re under the pub.’

‘I got a call just a moment ago Johnson,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘They found the entrance you had mentioned.’

‘Did we get them?’

‘Three officers went down to investigate. Two were killed in an explosion sealing the tunnel.’

I swore.

‘He said he got out in time because he was the last to go down. He regretted joking that he wasn’t a red shirt.’

‘What did he say about the tunnel?’

‘It was a hallway that sprawled off into other hallways and countless rooms all filled with mismatched bedroom furniture. It reminded him of one of those abandoned buildings the homeless kids squat in.’

‘The place was empty then.’

He nodded, must be standard procedure for them. Probably rigged it up from the get go.’

‘Kind of feel sorry for them now, imagine living your life with explosives in your house should someone find out where you live.’

‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘we’re getting some diggers in, it was pretty smart of them to pick a built up area. It really isn’t easy for us to get at.’

‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t,’ I said.

‘That’s not a very long list,’ laughed Takeshi, ‘get some rest mate.’

I woke up later in the day to see my wife and daughter in the room with me. Both looked very worried. I could tell Elizabeth had been checking over my wounds. Her touch is what had woken me up in the first place.

‘I’m ok,’ I said, ‘just a bite.’

‘It looks infected,’ she said, ‘I may have to get them to pump you with antibiotics.’

‘I’m sure they know what they’re doing.’

‘I’m calling the nurse,’ she said picking up the buzzer.’

A nurse came in shortly after.

‘What can I do for you Mr Johnson?’

‘I’m concerned about his bite, it looks infected to me,’ said my wife.

‘I’ll have a look,’ she said humouring my wife. When she peeped around the bandages I told her my wife was a doctor.

‘That’s nice,’ she replied, ‘it does look a little red, I’ll give him some antibiotics.’

When she left the room my wife suddenly hugged me.

‘What if something happens to you?’

‘I’m insured,’ I replied hopelessly.

‘Life will be boring without you.’

‘I’m not dead or dying,’ I replied, ‘you’re scary our little girl. I’m fine sweetie. How was your day?’

‘Were you really bitten by a rat?’ she asked, ‘that’s what uncle Yoshi said.’

I laughed, ‘a giant rat, if that makes it any cooler.’

She shivered, ‘sounds scary.’

‘It was actually,’ I replied.

The two climbed up onto the narrow bed and hugged me. It wasn’t exactly comfortable but I welcomed it.

‘They said I can get out tomorrow, I’ll probably go straight to the police station. We’re about to solve it I can feel it.’

‘That’s good, but please be safe. I want you home in one piece.’

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