A scientist is missing from a lab experimenting on rhesus macaque monkeys. Tom Jurgen’s search leads to some terrifying revelations about what the research is really about.
Saturday, March 17, 2018
The monkeys howled in fury—or maybe pain. Rhesus macaques, tormented by experiments. They circled around me and the woman, squawking, glaring, beating their hands and feet on the soiled straw.
I sat up. I could barely breathe through the stench of spoiled food and fresh monkey poop. The woman next to me was unconscious.
One monkey approached, growling. He—or she—reared up, arms spread, and let out a shriek that shook my battered bones.
I held up my hands. “Good monkey. Nice monkey. Friend. Friend?”
The monkey almost seemed to laugh. Then it crouched down, watching me as if wondering what part of my body to rip off first.
* * *
A red-eared monkey bounced on a net hanging down from the ceiling, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Another monkey ran around in circles, squealing excitedly as if chasing a phantom. Two more sat by a pool of water, grooming each other like teenagers on a date.
“They’re rhesus macaques. From Florida.” Dr. Lewis Averill was head of the facility that maintained the habitat. In his 50s, he wore sturdy glasses and a gray blazer.
We were in the back of a suburban zoo. Hundreds of people visited every day for a look at the dolphins, bears, birds and butterflies.
This facility was a secret. I‘d had to sign a nondisclosure agreement just to get an advance on my fee.
I nodded. “I read about the feral monkeys down there.” Many of them had escaped from zoos damaged in hurricanes, and they were becoming a big problem in populated areas.
“Some of them spread herpes-like viruses.” He pointed at the reinforced window. “These are disease free, but we’re studying them to find ways to prevent them from spreading infection to humans.”
Averill led me to his office, cramped and crowded in a corner of the building. “One of our researchers, Chuck Tillers, disappeared three days ago. We’ve talked to his wife and the police, but there’s no trace of him.” He seemed annoyed, as if the situation was an experiment gone awry and he’d been forced to call in a specialist to clean things up.
“Right.” I’m Tom Jurgen, ex-reporter and private detective. Averill had hired me over the phone this morning. I’d had to sign in and get a special pass at the zoo’s administration office, then find this building, tucked away next to a warehouse decorated with pictures of hippos and lions. “When you say disappeared—”
“He left his locker open with his ID inside.” Averill patted the badge clipped to his collar. “He was working Monday night. One of our staff noticed it Tuesday morning. No answer on his cell phone. We called his wife, and she said he never came home.”
“Did he take anything?”
“He could have taken data. That’s what we’re worried about.” Averill nervously tapped his keyboard. “The information on our work here is sensitive.”
I nodded. “Okay. So I’ll need to talk to everyone working here.”
Averill stood up. “I’ll find a conference room.”
While Averill set up the meetings, I looked through Tillers’ desk. He shared an office with another scientist, and his desk was small, crammed into a back room that might have been a supply closet in a former life.
The desk had the usual desk stuff—pens, notebooks, scissors and rubber bands, and a half-empty jar of peanut butter next to a box of Wheat Thins. The notebooks held sketches of the macaques and occasional scribblings.
I turned on his computer, but was blocked by password protection. So I called Averill, who tracked down the password and told me the conference room would be available in 15 minutes.
A few minutes later I was looking at Tillers’ home on the system. A profile photo in the top corner showed a man with a thick beard and a thin nose. I couldn’t actually see much of his face.
A quick scan through the computer didn’t get me much. No airplane tickets or hotel reservations, just a lot of stuff about macaques, along with feeding and cleaning schedules, observation notes, and hundreds of monkey photographs. Not even any porn.
One file was mildly interesting: a series of photos of macaques over time. One of them, named Arlo, seemed to grow quickly, sprouting more gray fur ever few days or weeks.
He also had six fingers on his hands.
Then Averill texted me. The conference room was free.
The facility had 19 workers, including Averill—16 men and three women. First up was Tina Waller, a biochemist. “I don’t know Chuck really well.” She flicked a strand of blond hair away from her eyes. “We eat lunch together sometimes—with others,” she added quickly, as if nervous about giving me the wrong impression.
“Does he seem happy here? Any complaints?”
“He argued with George about the monkey’s medicine. George is a vet. Chuck seems to think he knows what’s better for them.” She shrugged. A necklace dangled from her shoulders. “I don’t think it ever got out of hand.”
Next came Martin Kell, a primatologist like Tillers. In his forties—my age—his head was balding and his hands were huge. “Chuck’s brilliant. And he really cares about those monkeys. He worries that they’re not getting the right food, or that the habitat isn’t clean enough, stuff like that.”
A trend seemed to be emerging. “Was that a problem for him?”
“He wanted to be here.” Kell shook his head. “He likes working with the monkeys. And he knows more about rhesus macaques than anyone. Even Lew.”
“So does he clash with people about their treatment?”
“Not clash.” He shook his head again. “He can be blunt, but everyone’s gotten used to that. It’s not like anyone hates him.”
The rest of the staff mostly backed up what I’d already learned. Even George, the vet—who turned out to be an African American woman whose badge read “Georgette Johnson”—didn’t have anything against Tillers. “He’s never rude. Brusque, maybe, but you always know he only cares about the monkeys. I hope he’s okay.”
By 3 p.m. I’d interviewed everyone except for two staff members who were off that day. I checked in with Averill on my way out to visit Tillers’ wife, and stopped to peek in on the habitat again.
Two of the macaques were swinging from the net, fighting or playing with each other—I couldn’t tell. One chewed on some food from a plastic bowl. The rest prowled around, restless. Some slept.
Suddenly the red-eared monkey reared up and pressed its face against the reinforced glass. In a horror movie, it would have been a jump-scare. And I jumped.
Behind me a voice chuckled. “They do that sometimes.”
A janitor. In an orange uniform, with a loose MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap on his head and tucked down over his ears. A mop in one hand.
“I wasn’t scared.” I caught my breath. “Just—all right, I was scared.”
“They’re harmless.” The janitor smiled. “As long as they get fed on time.” He started swishing dirty water over the tile floor.
“Do you know Dr. Tillers?” I’d been interviewing scientists. Sometimes the support staff knows more.
“Chuck?” The janitor scratched his head. “Sure. Kind of an asshole.”
“What do you mean?”
He hesitated. “Not a bad guy. Kind of pushy. Spends a lot of time watching the apes.”
“Does he have any problems with anyone here?”
A snort. “Everyone. They all hate him. They all talk about him behind his back.”
“Thanks.” He wore a security badge was clipped to his pocket. I could barely make out the name on it. “Rafael?”
“That’s me.” He plunged his mop into the bucket. “And I’ve got this floor to do.”
I got out of his way.
The air outside smelled smoky as I hiked out to the employee parking lot in the rear of the zoo, as if someone was burning leaves in a back yard somewhere. I pulled out my phone to call Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor and my girlfriend, and things had been going great lately. I like to let her know where I am.
Before I could hit her button on my phone, I noticed a slip of paper underneath the windshield wiper of my Honda.
I looked around. People were getting into and out of their cars, and one couple was making out against the back of a pickup. Nobody I recognized.
I pulled the paper free and unfolded it.
LEAVE THE MONKEYS ALONE.
That was ominous.
I took a picture with my phone, put the note in my glove compartment, and called Rachel. “It’s about monkeys.”
“Ooh, I love monkeys!” Rachel clicked keys on her computer. She does graphic design when she’s not helping me out with her somewhat psychic powers. “Do I get to pet them?”
“Maybe if you wear a hazmat suit.” I told her everything I’d learned so far. And about the note. “Right now I’m going to talk to Tillers’ wife.”
“Just don’t let her seduce you. I’ve seen those movies.”
Like I said, our relationship has been going well lately. “I’ll call you.”
Natalie Tillers offered me coffee and homemade cookies. Peanut butter, with chocolate on top. “Where the hell is he? I’m going crazy here.”
She had short brown hair and thin, dry lips. Her arms trembled. She wore blue sweatpants and a loose sweater, arms pushed up to her elbows. “He didn’t come home. And those monkeys . . .”
Her head drooped. “Sorry. I’m just so worried.”
I tasted a cookie. Wow, it was good. “What about the monkeys?”
She jerked her face up. “He cares more about those monkeys than he does about me! He spends all his time there—it’s all he talks about! Where is he? I just can’t . . .”
She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry. What do you want?”
“Was your husband dissatisfied? At work?”
“At work? No. He loves it there.” She pointed to a bookshelf filled with framed photos. “Look at that.”
A few pictures showed Tillers and his wife, but only one on their wedding day. Most others were images of chimps, monkeys, orangutans, and other apes, along with the heavily-bearded Chuck, smiling at the camera.
Natalie Tillers snatched a cookie. “He loves working with monkeys, whatever kind. Chimpanzees, those macaques, he even spent a few months with gorillas in Kenya. I had to live in a tent while he went off and—did whatever. But he liked it, and I was okay with that. I just thought when we came back, things would be different.”
I tensed for my next question. But I had to ask. “So could he unhappy at home?”
She munched another cookie. “How should I know? He doesn’t talk to me anymore. All he does is go to work and come home, and sleep, and sometimes . . . well, sometimes.” She sat back on the couch. “Are you married?”
A long time ago. “It didn’t work out.”
“Maybe it doesn’t matter.” She leaned forward and seemed to be pulling herself together. “I just need to know. Where is he?”
“Has he called you? Did he call you the night he didn’t come home?”
“He left a message. I told Lew about it.” She stood up, her legs wobbling. “Let me find my phone.”
It was in the kitchen. When she came back, Natalie played me the message.
“Hi, Lee.” The voice was hushed. “Why aren’t you there? The monkeys are acting up. I have to . . . I may not be home for a while. I’ll call you. Love you.”
Hmm. Many questions. “Has he called you since?”
Natalie shook her head. “No.”
“What do you think he meant about the monkeys?”
She rolled her eyes. “They always jump around. I don’t know. I teach fourth grade. He’s the monkey scientist.”
I saved the best—or worst—for last. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
Natalie’s shoulders tensed. “It was in my drawer. I didn’t hear it.”
“You were asleep?”
“Yes.” She nodded fast. “I go to bed early.”
I picked up her phone and checked the message. It had come in at 9:14 p.m. Early to bed, early to rise? Maybe, depending on what time her school started.
I picked up my phone. I’d already put Tillers’ number in my Contacts list. I hit the icon.
Natalie’s phone blared—“Ping! Ping! PING-PING-PING!”
“Pretty loud.” I cut off the call. “But you didn’t hear it.”
Natalie stood up. “Call me when you know something about Chuck.” She pointed at the door.
I rose. “Thanks for the coffee.”
I felt bad walking from the house. I’m not really a tough guy. As a reporter I’d learned that being friendly gets you better information than being hostile. But as a P.I. I’d figured out that sometimes I had to push—and push hard.
I sat in my car and called Rachel. “I’m coming home.”
“Get anything? Oh, wait, I’m killing zombies here . . .” Her voice came through gritted teeth. “Got him. Okay, I needed a break from programming websites for assholes who don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want. Take that, zombie scum!”
I laughed. “Just have a Coke ready for me.”
Back at my apartment I showed Rachel the note from my windshield. “Can you get anything from this?”
She paused the game on her laptop. “I don’t get a kiss?”
Rachel has red hair and hazelnut eyes. She’s my upstairs neighbor. She’s kind of psychic, and she’s definitely my girlfriend. After a rough patch, we’d been doing better than ever in the past few weeks.
So a certain amount of time elapsed before I could get back to business.
Afterward, sitting on the couch with the latest episode of The Crown streaming on my TV, Rachel picked up the note. “Oh, wow.”
“What?” I tried to focus.
“Someone’s scared.” She rubbed her fingers over the paper. “I can’t tell who, or what they’re scared of. But it’s all over this.”
“Huh.” I took a sip of coke. “I guess I’ll have to find out.”
I spent the next morning researching the researcher online. Chuck Tillers had multiple degrees, two books, and dozens of articles, all dealing with apes. He’d been born in England, spent years in various African countries, and been a contestant on Jeopardy!
For the heck of it, I looked up rhesus macaques. According to Wikipedia, the first monkeys were set free in Florida by a tour boat operator in the 1930s who wanted to make his “jungle cruise” more authentic. According to one myth, monkeys were also released for filming of a Tarzan movie. And many of them had indeed escaped from zoos damaged or destroyed by hurricanes.
One interesting fact: Their fur tends to be gray or brown. But the monkey who’d startled me had red fur, at least around its ears. I’d have to ask someone if that was normal.
I made a few phone calls from my other cases, ate a quick sandwich, and drove back out to the zoo.
I interviewed a few different researchers who hadn’t been around yesterday. They mostly said the same thing: Tillers was smart, devoted to the monkeys, and an occasional prick.
One of them, a young woman named Janet Polk, told me that red fur on macaques was unusual but not unknown. I asked her how many fingers the monkeys typically had, remembering the photo of six-fingered Arlo.
“Just five.” She cocked her head, puzzled. “Why?”
I went back to Tillers’ office and turned on his computer. The password had changed. I texted Averill.
He called me back 30 seconds later. “I can’t give you access to the computer system.” He sounded annoyed with me. “There’s confidential information on there. I shouldn’t have let you see it yesterday.”
Great. “This could get in the way.”
“If there’s anything specific you need, we can take it on a case-by-case basis.”
If I was looking for anything specific I wouldn’t need to search the computer. I decided to save that argument for later. “Has Tillers’ locker been cleared out? I’d like to take a look there.”
“We’re still expecting him to come back.” But Averill told me he’d send someone with a key.
The locker room smelled like lemony disinfectant fighting the odor of stale cigar smoke, and almost winning. A janitor—not the one from yesterday—unlocked Tillers’ door.
I found a spare set of clothes, a brown paper bag with a sandwich and a banana, both going bad, and a few books. Paperback thrillers, not scientific tomes.
Half the lockers were open and empty—there were 26 in all. A shower stall sat at the end of the room, next to a sink and toilet. I walked down the row of lockers, running my hand along the dented metal.
Then I sat down on a red wooden bench to count. Sixteen men worked here, and three women. If they all shared the same locker room—which wasn’t likely—there would be 19 locked doors. But I counted 17 doors.
Sixteen men, 17 locked doors? I went to find the janitor.
He had to call Averill for permission, but in a few minutes he slid the key in the lock and yanked on the door.
A dead, mutilated macaque tumbled out onto the floor.
It was wrapped in a blood-soaked thermal blanket, which had probably kept the stench from seeping through the locker vents. Now that it was free, the smell permeated the room. The janitor threw up—although just the sight of the corpse was enough to make me regret eating my lunch two hours ago. But I managed to get a few pictures on my phone.
Averill came, along with Martin Kell and the veterinarian, Georgette Johnson. Other researchers crowded the door outside the locker room.
“What the hell?” Averill pressed a checkered handkerchief against his face. “What’s that doing here?”
“It’s Arlo.” Johnson knelt next to the body, apparently immune to the odor and the sight of blood.
Yeah. I’d noticed the sixth finger on each paw.
Kell stood near the door. “Where did he come from?”
I pointed at the locker. “In there. Why didn’t anybody notice he was missing?”
“There’s no tag.” Johnson was examining Arlo with heavy gloves. “If it fell off, it might have still showed up on the system. Maybe one of the other macaques took it.”
That didn’t make much sense to me, but I wasn’t going to argue right that right now. “What happened to him?”
“It looks like he’s been dissected. Or autopsied.” She stood up and backed away. “Everyone should get out of here. We’re going to have to suit up to get him into the med center.”
Averill waved everyone back. Kell retreated with the rest.
I followed Averill down the hall until he got to his office door. Then I leaned forward. “What kind of research are you doing here, anyway?”
Averill reached for the doorknob, his arm shaking. “Studying the macaques. Trying to prevent them from spreading disease.”
“Why does Arlo have six fingers?”
He blinked. “What? That can’t be right. You must have—”
“I saw it on Chuck’s computer. Before you locked me out of it. And I saw them just now. Is Johnson really going to examine Arlo, or just cover this up?”
Averill shook his head. “Your job is to find Chuck Tillers. Not to investigate our work. Which is very sensitive. If you can’t do that, send me a bill and go home.” He opened his door. “That’s all, Mr. Jurgen.”
He didn’t quite slam the door, but it closed with a firm click.
So now what? I was no closer to find Tillers than I had been yesterday when I’d walked in the door. But I had a lot more questions.
I wandered around and found the med center. The door was locked, but it had a small square reinforced window, so I peered inside.
Johnson and someone else in a hazmat suit had Arlo on a cot. I couldn’t see what they were doing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but I saw one of Arlo’s arms hanging off the bed, and I made sure to count his fingers. Six.
I went back to look at the habitat. Two scientists in protective gear—not full hazmat suits—were walking around, examining the monkeys as well as they could. They had to wait for a macaque to come to them, and then they stroked furry arms and offered treats. Other monkeys prowled around, jealous or bored. I looked for the one with red ears.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
It was Tina Waller. Young and blond, in jeans and a loose blue blouse. A silver ankh dangled from a necklace across her chest. I moved to give her a better view. “They’re quiet now.”
“It happens in late afternoon. They’ll get more active, then they’ll sleep.” She peered through the reinforced glass. “Have you found Chuck yet?”
I felt her hand inside the pocket of my jacket. “Call me. And keep an eye on Marty.” She turned and headed up the hall.
Outside a breeze blew the now familiar scent of smoke through the air. Sitting in my Honda I searched my pocket. A scrap of paper had a phone number in neat letters.
Okay. I added it to my nearly endless list of contacts from previous and current cases, stuck the paper in my wallet, and turned the ignition key.
Then I spotted Kell, unlocking a green Subaru.
Keep an eye on Marty, Waller had told me. Well, I had nothing else to do.
Kell drove to Tillers’ house.
I parked up the street and called Rachel. “So there’s a dead monkey, a scientist who wants me to call her, and maybe a cheating wife. Where do you want me to start?”
“The scientist—is she cute? Why does she want you to call her? Is she cute? Wait, I asked that already, didn’t I?” Rachel gets territorial sometimes.
I chuckled. “Yes, I don’t know, yes, and yes. I assume she’s got information, not because I’m devastatingly handsome.”
“You’re fishing for an argument, aren’t you? Wait—a dead monkey?”
“Yeah.” I spared her the most gruesome details. “I’m not sure if it fits into this. Or the maybe affair, or anything else. But they’re trying to cover something up.”
“Is that your Spidey-sense tingling?”
I sighed. Too many of my cases veer into strange, supernatural, paranormal territory. I’m like a magnet for the weird. If I’d become an accountant like my dad—and like my mom wanted—I’d probably be dealing with angry ghosts moving debits and credits around on a balance sheet.
“The dead monkey had six fingers. They’re not supposed to. Something’s strange at that lab. They locked me out of the computer system. They’re worried about sensitive information. What kind of information?” My reporter’s instincts were kicking in. But I had more questions than answers. In a way, that was good. It gave me more leads to go on—until one or more of them dried up.
“Well, be careful, okay?” I heard loud punk music in the background. “I’m making vegetarian lasagna. I’ll save you some.”
I sat and watched the house, feeling hungry again.
I couldn’t exactly sneak up and peek through the windows. Kell visiting Tillers’ wife wasn’t exactly solid evidence of an affair, but putting that together with the fact that Natalie had ignored her phone the night her husband disappeared . . . well, it wasn’t conclusive, but it made the case for hanky-panky a little more substantial.
Still, staking out houses, motels, and the occasional parking lot tended to get boring fast. After an hour I gave into temptation and called Tina Waller.
Waller picked up her phone after two rings. “Yeah?”
“Ms. Waller? Tom Jurgen. You gave me your number today.”
“Oh. Right. Hang on.” I waited until she came back. “Sorry. I’m driving home. But I’m parked now. Can I trust you?”
What? I checked the rearview mirror. “Well, you told me to call you.”
“Yeah. I recognized your name the minute we met. We’ve been keeping an eye on you.”
Uh-oh. “What are you talking about?”
“Red Watch.” Waller sucked in a breath. “Recognize it?”
Red Watch was an animal rights activist group. I’d run across them years ago. They’d shut down a facility experimenting on humans turned into zombies. I’d helped—sort of. More recently, a Red Watch member had infiltrated a farm breeding giant mutant ninja chickens for cage fights. I’d been part of breaking that up, too.
They weren’t just activists. Red Watch broke into testing facilities, destroying data and freeing animals into the wild. The police considered them terrorists.
I didn’t want anything to do with them. But Waller was a source. She had information that might help me find Tillers and figure out what was really going on at the zoo.
“Not over the phone.” Cars whooshed by her ear. “There’s a bar on Clinton. O’Reilly’s? Meet me there in 45 minutes.” Waller hung up.
I checked the address. I’d barely make it in an hour. Then I called Rachel. “Red Watch is in this.”
“Oh, hell.” Disgusted. “How?”
“Not sure. That scientist belongs to them. I’m meeting her in a bar called O’Reilly’s on Clinton in an hour.”
“Her?” Suspicious. “The cute one? Where is this place?”
“She’s not that cute, and it’s called O’Reilly’s on Clinton. I’ll call you when I know anything.”
Rachel groaned. “Did I mention lasagna?”
I started the car. “Keep it warm for me.”