Peter: by Pravasan Pillay

“I have been waiting for you the whole morning. Let’s have a look at it,” Professor Viran Moodley said, directing Fazel to sit on the sofa opposite him. They were in the lounge of the professor’s small, isolated home in Croftdene, on the edge of the Silverglen Nature Reserve – which was where Fazel worked as a custodian in the game ranger centre. The house was neat, but it lacked the warmth of a woman’s touch. Professor Moodley was a regular visitor to the reserve for his research and from their previous interactions there, Fazel had gathered that the forty-something academic was a bachelor and lived alone. The walls of the lounge were covered with his various degrees and awards. The coffee table between them was piled high with thick books, all bookmarked extensively. They all seemed to deal with biology and neurology from what Fazel could tell from the titles. Not that he was interested in any of that. He was here for business.

Fazel took out the tranquilizer rifle from his duffel bag and assembled it, as he had seen the rangers do hundreds of times before. He even occasionally helped them with it. It wasn’t difficult to do, but it took practice before you could put it together as quickly as Fazel did.

“This is the top of the line, Prof. The Denson RD-397. German-made, and only available for sale to game parks and zoos,” Fazel said, checking and adjusting the sight on the rifle. “Highly illegal for the general public. If you buy this new, it’ll cost you ten grand or more, and that’s without the sight, the darts, or the tranquilizer. Speaking of which –”

Fazel removed a large hard plastic case from his duffel and tossed it on the table. “There are fifty darts in there and enough tranquilizer for a hundred. You’ll be set for a long time –”

“What about the handgun?” Professor Moodley asked, opening the case and nodding with approval at the contents. The professor had a serious expression on his still boyish face, which was hidden behind black-rimmed glasses. His hair was thinning and he was very slender. “I asked you to steal a handgun as well from the ranger centre. The gun is very important to my task.”

“Relax, Prof. I’m getting to it. I’ve got your handgun as well,” Fazel said, taking out the pistol from where it was tucked in the back of his trousers. He passed it over.

“It’s a Beretta.”

Handguns and tranquilizer rifles. Along with the panga, two of the most important tools of the game ranger. The rifles were for the animals and the handguns for the poachers. The gun had actually been easier to steal than the tranquilizer rifle. It had been laying in the glove compartment of one of the ranger’s bakkies. The rifle, though, had required him to make a copy of head ranger Solly’s office keys. No one would suspect Fazel though. He had worked there for fourteen years as a custodian, and was part of the furniture. That’s why it was so easy to accept the professor’s offer when he approached him two weeks ago.

“Very good, Fazel. I’m pleased. You kept up your side of the deal,” the professor said. He cocked the gun and pointed at one of the walls, getting a feel of it.

“Careful, it’s loaded.”

“I’ve read up extensively on handguns in preparation. Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” the professor replied, putting the weapon down on the table.

“Anyway, as I was saying, the Denson will easily bring down a giraffe from a hundred metres away. It will be out cold in a minute. Not that we have any giraffes in our reserve. I don’t really care about what you’re going to do with the rifle but you should adjust the tranquilizer dosages depending on the weight of the animal that you’re using it on.”

The professor waved away Fazel’s comments. “How much did we agree on? Fifteen thousand?”

Fazel nodded. His mouth was dry. This was easily three months worth of salary. It would pay for a new kitchen, as well as the big, flat screen television his kids had been bugging him about.

“I tell you what, you have more than met my expectations so I am going to throw in another two thousand as a bonus and one thousand on top of that if you keep your mouth shut about everything. If my plans go well, I’ll be needing your services again.”

The professor tossed a fat envelope onto Fazel’s lap. He opened it and with shaking hands fanned through the cash.

Eighteen thousand rand.

Fazel felt light-headed. “Yes, Prof. Yes, sir. This is so generous of you.”

“No need for all that formality. You did well and I appreciate it. I have also been a terrible host. Let me offer you something to drink?”

“I’ll just have a glass of water, before I’ll have leave for work again. I told them I was mending a fence. I should go back before they start wondering where I am.”

“Just water? Suit yourself,” Professor Moodley said, with a warm smile, before shouting towards the kitchen. “Peter, please bring my guest a glass of water – on a saucer!”

Peter? Who was that? Did he have a butler or something working for him? That would explain why the place was so neat. Fazel heard the sound of drawers sliding and a few strange thudding noises, that he couldn’t identify.

“Thanks,” Fazel said.

“No problem. I may be a bachelor but that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about hospitality. Now, Fazel, I am sure you must be curious about why I need these items that I have asked you to secure for me.”

“It’s none of my business. You paid me the money you promised me and that’s all I need to know. You could use them to rob a bank for all I care.”

The professor laughed. “Take my word for it, these weapons will not be used to harm another human being. If anything they’re for the betterment of mankind. I want to ask you a question. What is the biggest day-to-day problem the rangers and yourself face, apart from poachers and plant and bark thieves?”

Fazel didn’t need any time to think about the answer. It was easy one.

“The monkeys.”

Or more specifically, the vervet monkeys. They were pests and the bane of Fazel’s existence, regularly sneaking into the centre and upturning garbage cans, which he would have to clean up. The population was exploding, even with the rangers conducting annual culls. And because the reserve was surrounded by the township of Chatsworth, the monkeys had free rein there as well. Not a day went by without one of the rangers being called out to a house that had been invaded by a troop.

Fazel heard the tap being opened in the kitchen.

“Exactly! I think we can both agree that they are a serious issue and are in need of control. Now, I’m sure you’re aware that I work as a research scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My field of research is primate cognition. For much of my career I have tried to teach vervet monkeys basic problem-solving and I have had mixed results, without any real successes. The longer I studied them, the more I realised that if I wanted to drastically improve their learning abilities I would have to experiment and operate on their brains. Of course, animal experimentation is a big no-no at the university. I couldn’t even bring it up casually in my department without those animals-rights hippies breathing down my throat. So, I dropped the topic at the university, but that didn’t mean I stopped thinking about it. I eventually converted my home garage into a research lab and conducted my secret experiments after work.”

“Experiments?”

“Yes, experiments, and I’m about to introduce you to the crowning achievement of three years of those experiments. Meet Peter,” Professor Moodley said, beaming and pointing behind Fazel.

Fazel swung around and was shocked at what he saw. Standing in front of him on its hind legs was a vervet monkey. It was dressed in what looked to be a pair of children’s jeans overalls, it’s blue-grey fur mostly hidden from sight. The monkey – Peter – was a male and judging by its large size, about five years old.

The top of Peter’s head was shaved and covered in an extensive network of pins driven into his scalp – each had a small coloured tag labelling it. A black tag was attached to the biggest and thickest pin, which was close to the centre of his head. Even more jarring than the monkey’s appearance was the fact that it was confidently holding onto a saucer with a full glass of water resting on it. The glass was steady and the monkey was equally still, nothing like the ones that would run amok at the reserve. Its eyes actually seemed intelligent, as if it understood what the professor was saying.

“Peter, please give my guest his refreshment,” the professor ordered, in a booming voice, full of authority.

Peter stepped forward and, with a very submissive body stance, held out the saucer and glass to Fazel.

“This is incredible. How did you manage to train it to do this?” Fazel asked. He was dumb-founded, even forgetting about his eighteen-thousand rand windfall for a second.

“I didn’t train him. Training is what you do to circus animals. What I did was to teach Peter, as you would a child at school. Do you see those pins on his scalp? The pins with the blue, red and green tags are a kind of acupuncture – if I could put it crudely – to his brain, and in combination with regular electrical stimulation have changed, for the better, Peter’s cognitive abilities. The pin with the black tag is what I call the “off switch”. It’s a fail safe – if for some reason Peter reverts back to his animal self, which is highly unlikely, all I would have to do is pull it out and he would die right on the spot. Anyway, enough of the morbid talk – the good news is that Peter now has the same brain power as any twelve-year-old. I give him daily lessons and he can also figure things out for himself. And I haven’t even come to the best part. He can speak. Can’t you, Peter?”

“Yes, Viran,” said the animal. The words were weirdly squeaky and guttural at the same time, somewhat difficult to decipher but they were words all-right. The monkey dropped its eyes and stood by the side of the coffee table, clearly awaiting more instructions.

Fazel made no attempt to hide his disbelief, shaking his head from side to side.

The professor chuckled. “You must forgive Peter. He’s not very talkative this morning. I guess he must be feeling a little shy. But what you see here today is the result of many years of my hard work – working alone, I must add. Peter might be a success but I have had many failures along the way. My back garden is filled with the graves of nearly forty monkeys that I experimented with earlier before I found the right cognition-altering technique. In the long run that is a tiny price to pay for the great scientific strides I’ve made. And this is why I need the tranquilizer rifle and the gun. Up until this point, I have relied on setting traps for the monkeys in my garden but that’s an unreliable source. I need to access many, many more monkeys and quickly. Before I take my findings public I would like to have at least twenty versions of Peter to prove without a doubt that this was no fluke. This will mean that I will need to go into the reserve in the early mornings when the monkeys are out most and begin to hunt them myself. The gun is just for extra protection in case a monkey gets too close. I don’t have to tell you how vicious they can be.”

“This is amazing, Prof. You’re going to be rich when the world finds out,” Fazel said. He took a sip of his water. He needed it after all of that.

“Money doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in progress. These monkeys have been a blight on Chatsworth ever since this township was built and yet, through science, I have been able to transform this around to man’s advantage. Think of all the applications. Instead of culling the vervet population we can conduct my procedure on the healthiest specimens and reshape them into labourers, maids, waiters even – the possibilities are endless. The best part is that unlike human labour they wouldn’t require compensation. It’s a whole untapped resource and I will be known as the father of this revolution. That’s worth more than all the riches in the world,” the professor said. He had a faraway glint in his eyes.

“Well, if you need anything else from the rangers’ centre, you can count on my help,” Fazel said, raising his glass to the jubilant professor. He would say whatever was necessary to get more money from him.

“I should ask Peter to also get me a glass of – ”

But before he could finish his sentence a thunderous sound filled the lounge.

Fazel instantly covered his ears and ducked down. He glanced up a split-second later and saw Peter standing before the professor, the handgun dropping from his paws to his furry feet. The professor’s brains and blood were spluttered across the sofa, a hole in his head and and a terrifyingly blank face.

Dead.

Fazel couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was only a brief moment that their eyes were off the coffee table where the gun had been laying and that was when Peter must have grabbed it.

The recoil from the gun appeared to have hurt the monkey’s paws because he was clutching them in pain and whimpering, almost like a child. Fazel quickly grabbed the gun from the floor and the monkey began whimpering even more. His right arm was now hanging limply at his side. It was obvious that it was broken.

Fazel pointed the gun at him.

“He was a bad man,” Peter said, in the guttural voice he had used before.

Fazel saw that the animal’s eyes were tearing.

“You don’t know the things he did to me, the pain and torture he put me through. I couldn’t allow him to do that to others like me, to my troop and the other troops. I have been waiting for a moment like this to present itself. I had to kill him. I had to.”

“Listen, I don’t care. I just want my money,” Fazel said truthfully, still in disbelief that he was conversing with one of the creatures who made his work day hell. “You can do whatever you like. Run back to your troop, or whatever.”

Fazel stuffed the gun, rifle, darts and envelope of cash into his duffel bag and began to make his way to the door. Someone would have reported the gunshot and who knew how long before the police would show up.

As he walked by Peter, Fazel felt a slight tug on his trousers. He looked down and saw the monkey stare up at him.

“What do you want? I told you that you can run away.”

“I can’t go back to my troop after what he’s done to me. I have changed. They won’t accept me.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Fazel asked. In truth, he felt a bit sorry for this pitiful, half-animal but he couldn’t afford to waste any more time here and risk getting arrested. Who would listen to him if he told them that a monkey had killed the professor?

“Pull the black pin,” Peter replied.

“Huh?”

“The pin with the black tag on the top of my head. I want you to pull it out. My arm is hurt otherwise I would do it myself,” Peter said, trying and failing to lift his arm up. His dark face grimaced with pain.

“You understand what that will do, right?”

“Yes. It will end me,” Peter said, bowing to Fazel, and giving him a clear view of all the pins. “I have no wish to continue in this state.”

Fazel reached down and took a good grip of the thick pin. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. I have done what I needed to do. I thank you.”

Fazel pulled hard and the pin slipped out, covered in a gooey gel-like substance. Peter fell immediately to the ground, lifeless. In the distance, Fazel could hear police sirens. He picked up the monkey’s limp body, and slung it over his shoulder. He might have been a pest, but he still deserved to be buried in the forest that was his home.

Fazel opened the front door of the professor’s house and then rushed to his car.

 


Pravasan Pillay is a South African writer. He has published two chapbooks of poetry, Glumlazi (2009) and 30 Poems (2015), as well as a collection of co-written comedic short stories, Shaggy (2013). Pillay’s short story collection, Chatsworth, is forthcoming. He is the editor of the micro press Tearoom Books.

Related country: South Africa

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