Saturday, March 17, 2018

Rhesus Factor, Part One

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.
            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.”

1 comment:

  1. That not knowing what they want until they see what they don't want, but asked for? Every. Boss. Ever. Adulting.