By William David Baker
Just look at him. Doesn’t look much does he? Slouching, humped over his lab bench. God-knows-what chemicals splattered down his what-used-to-be white lab coat. Snot on his sleeves. Half eaten ham sandwich on the side. Scruffy bastard. Who’d believe he is one of the biggest names in the 21st Century? The whole world wants Professor Mungo Cameron? Yes. He could name his price, his employer, his passport.
Cameron is a chemist, but no ordinary chemist. Cameron is an inventive obsessed genius. And prolific too, churning out successful new drugs and medicines like some people shell peas. Yes, to many, Professor Mungo Cameron is a hero. The many are a particular segment of society: the adolescent, and in particular those adolescents who suffer the angst that usually goes with that most feared of teenage scourges – facial acne.
Cameron is also a fraud. His peers believe his obsession stems from his maybe suffering the same angst when he was a teenager as those who now hero-worship him. They could not be more wrong. They also believe that the miraculous lotions he creates, remedies that actually work, – a rare event indeed in the cosmetic ‘medication’ industry – are the results of deliberate and painstaking research and experiment. They are only partly correct.
True, this gaunt chemist is haunted by obsession. Not with acne, but with his own baldness. His hair began to recede when he was just twelve years old. By the age of thirteen he was left with a tiny wisp of red above each ear, which he stubbornly refused to shave off despite his father’s promise to buy him the best hairpiece that money could buy. When Wayne Rooney was laughed at for getting hair implants Cameron consulted an implant specialist but found he was not a ‘suitable case for treatment’ so he opted for a baseball cap instead, ‘Imagine, Invent, Inspire.’ See, he’s wearing it right now.
True, his obsession drove him to try every hair gain product ever launched on a highly gullible marketplace. He soon realised that the industry was full of crooks and charlatans. Nothing worked. The industry still blossomed. His red wisps did not. All this did was to drive him to become the great undeserving chemist he is now.
After years of study in which, fair enough, he excelled, he was head-hunted by one of the largest of the pharmaceutical giants. They offered him the best research facilities money could buy, staffed with all the help he could ever need. He would have none of it. He asked instead for a small well-equipped lab and insisted he could only work alone. After some debate, the company decided the risk was small, and the benefits potentially massive, so they let him have his way, but monitored him closely. Their instinct proved to be sound as in quick succession he presented them with effective patent medicines for indigestion, heartburn and trapped wind. After that, they felt there was no longer any need for close monitoring and left Cameron pretty much to his own devices. How easy he found it to manipulate them.
He was then able to spend most of his time doing what he wanted to do: find a real cure for male baldness. That is where fate took over. Because, try as hard as he surely did, as great a chemist as he surely was, he failed every time. Failure force-fed his obsession so much that he ran a real risk that his employers would find out what he was actually doing, except that fate again took a hand. There were bi-products from his undercover work, things that he threw out in temper, that others in the company thought might have promise.
Their first reworking of his rejected compounds produced a wrinkle cream that actually appeared to work. The improvements they found in volunteer complexions were small, certainly, but nonetheless measurable. They were also if not quite permanent then very long lived. A new range of creams was launched and, for the first time in their long history, the company did not have to concoct spurious misleading advertising claims, saving them millions. When Cameron found out what they’d done he was furious. How dare they steal his work? How dare they deceive him? They tried to compromise with him. Mungo Cameron does not compromise. He sued them, successfully, and almost bankrupted the company. Hundreds of people lost their savings and their livelihoods. With the proceeds from his successful lawsuit, he bought a sprawling farm in Devon which he let go to rot. But he invested heavily in extending the farmhouse itself and building his own laboratory.
He continued his research into male baldness, but, following his earlier experiences, learned not to throw away potential bi-products of his failures, the first of which was his to-be-famous preparation for teenage acne. This proved even better than the wrinkle cream. It provided an overnight, 100% guaranteed permanent cure. Cameron became famous and very rich. He also quickly ran out of new ideas and became a frustrated lonely recluse. To cure his first problem he became a welcomed Professor of Chemistry at his local university, where, completely without remorse, he stole the best ideas from his more talented students. To cure his second problem, he flew to Thailand and brought back a thirteen year old bride. That’s her, Ha.nhQui, now a young woman. She is taking him drinks on a tray.
Cameron presses the record button on his digital recorder. “December 20th. Sample #7452. Failed.” He smashes the on key off.
Ha.nhQui shuffles nervously over to Cameron’s bench, trying not to look at him. She places a cup of tea, as quietly as she can, close to the dog-eared sandwich.
Cameron looks up. Though he is still unable to grow hair on his head he is sporting a three day stubble. His face is drawn and tired but his dull brown eyes are wild with anger. He sweeps the tea and sandwich from his bench, smashing them to the floor, only just missing Ha.nhQui, who does not flinch.
“Not while I’m in the middle of something, woman,” he screams. “How many times must I tell you?”
He raises his right arm back and goes to strike her with the back of his hand. He stares right through her, looking for a reaction, daring her to defend herself. She does not, and he drops his hand.
Hit him. Hit him. But, she won’t.
“At least have your whisky, and then come to bed. It’s getting late.” She pours a drink from a decanter on the tray and leaves the room.
Cameron picks up a sheaf of papers and reads through them quickly. He stops, and quickly leafs back a few pages and re-reads them, more intently this time. He snatches up a single sheet and leaps up from his chair like he has just been passed the Olympic baton. He downs his whisky in one triumphant gulp. He works in a fury, setting up equipment, measuring and mixing chemicals, and within three hours he produces a blue liquid which he siphons off into a large syringe. He injects the liquid into his scalp, and waits for one hour. He grabs a hand mirror from a drawer, and adjusting it to an angle that works for him, studies his scalp intently. He is sure that his usually downy skin is looking darker. He gets a scalpel and takes a small slice of skin. Strange. I thought it would bleed profusely. Head wounds usually do. But he doesn’t bleed at all. He places the piece of skin under a powerful microscope. Yes, the down appears to be red in colour, but it hasn’t grown any, it’s just got darker. He refills the syringe and injects his head again. Suddenly looking very tired, he falls asleep.
Cameron wakes. He goes to pick up the mirror. He fumbles it. Why is he so bloody clumsy? He realises why. It’s not easy to pick something up when your fingers have disappeared. No, they’re still there. He can feel them. But he can’t see them. He manages to grab hold of the mirror. He looks for his reflection. Great chunks of his face are eaten away. No, not eaten. His fingertips find where the missing chunks should be. He undresses, and puts his clothes in a locker. He is becoming invisible throughout his body, and it’s spreading rapidly. It isn’t curing his baldness, but what a discovery! His body itches all over. He scratches violently at his skin, howling like he’s being stung by a swarm of bees. There’s a gentle tap on the lab door. It is Ha.nhQui.
“Mungo. What is the matter? Are you alright? What is that noise?” She tries to speak respectfully, but finds it difficult to be heard through the shut door, and remain dutifully quiet. His almost empty chair swivels and Cameron snarls like a wounded animal. She gasps.. “Mungo. It’s very late and I’m tired. Can you please come to bed. You are working far too hard, you know.” She again chooses her words and tone with great care. He flings what is left of his head back, and opens his mouth to abuse her but collapses, unconscious, back into his chair.
Morning. Ha.nhQui enters the lab, but stays close by the door. She looks around. Mungo has gone. It’s not the first time he’s turned down her bed for another, I know. He likes to brag about it when he comes back. Every dirty detail. Bastard. She looks confused. She shudders, but she must be happy he’s gone, surely? One less night with him has got to be a blessing. She sees the mess on the floor from last night. She goes to clean it up. The summer sun is heating the lab nicely, but making it feel stuffy.
A dog comes trotting in. It’s Mungo’s. It’s a hound of sorts – allsorts. The animal looks around nervously. Its master is as likely to kick it as he is to roll on the floor with it, and it never knows what to expect. It stops to satisfy an itch on the patch of skin its master has been recently applying chemicals to. It sniffs the air, then trots over to Mungo’s bench. It sniffs the air then stiffens and growls and drops to the floor, flattening out all four of its legs. It growls, keeping its stare on the empty chair. It crawls in a belly-wobble towards Mungo’s chair, staying flat to the floor. After a few moments, its flopped down ears flick up. It sniffs the air again and gets to its feet. Turning its back to the chair, it cocks its leg and pisses on the chair legs. The yellow stream seems to hang momentarily in the air before cascading onto the hard wooden floor, where it pools thinly between the joints in the floorboards. The dog shakes itself and trots off.
Near the chair, a shape forms out of the edge of the yellow pool. It looks a little like a footprint. Tiny waves speed across the pool. The pool is already evaporating in the growing heat. She stares at the drying pool. She clears up the broken crockery and food, and leaves. Later that day, there were visitors.
“Mrs Cameron. Sorry to disturb you but it’s really important we see the Professor. Zoey and I need our data back for our revision.”
“I can’t let you in, Ethan. You know the rules. Professor Cameron sees no-one without an appointment.”
“Sod that. Come on, Ethan. Let’s go get our stuff.” The students brush past Ha.nhQui before she can stop them and they head straight for the professor’s lab. She rushes after them and reaches the door first.
“At least let me check first to see if he’s come back yet.” Ha.nhQui opens the door slowly and looks around. Still no sign of him. Zoey pushes past her and rushes over to Cameron’s desk.
“Hang on, Zoey. There’s no need to push Ha.nh – er, Mrs Cameron like that,” She ignores him and rifles through a pile of papers. Ethan hangs back outside the lab.
“Sorry about this. You know what Zoey’s like. Hard to stop her sometimes, when she gets going.”
“A little like you.” Ha.nhQui pushes Ethan against the wall and kisses him, smothering anything else he is going to say. He can’t stop his hands grabbing her small buttocks. She shudders.
“Not here. She’ll see us.”
“Ethan. Here, quickly. I can’t believe what I’ve found!” He breaks away and joins Zoey in the lab. “Sorry, Ethan. Here, read it for yourself.” Ethan does as he is told.
“I don’t understand. It’s got his name on this, not mine.”
“Exactly. I told you not to trust the bastard. He’s been ripping your work off as his own.” Ha.nhQui joins them.
“Did you know about this?” Ethan is losing it. He is screaming his words. His face is full of pain.
“No, Ethan. I did not.” She does not sound convincing. Ethan is almost in tears.
“I know. I know. Come on, Ethan. We’re taking this to the authorities.”
Ha.nhQui tries to answer but is flustered. The students dash off with a large pile of papers. She stamps her feet and screams. “I warned you, Mungo. I warned you you’d go too far one of these days.”
The empty chair moves almost imperceptibly. She hears it scrape first before she sees it wobble. She is silenced immediately. She looks puzzled. She takes her mobile out and dials it.
“Hi, John. It’s me. Can you talk? Good. No, don’t worry. Wasn’t your fault. I understand it was awkward for you to get out last night. Yes. Me too. Yes. Your loss. I was going to fuck your brains out.” The chair trembles again. She looks up and smiles, looking a little less puzzled. “Listen. Any chance you can get away tonight? Make up for lost time. You can! Yes, come over. As soon as you can. He’s away for a few days. By the way, that stuff you gave me to knock him out last night. Yes, I know it was wasted. No matter. How long was it supposed to last? Well it didn’t stop him from sodding off last night, did it? What would have happened if I’d made a mistake, say I’d increased the dosage? Oh, is that all? Temporary. Perhaps he’s in some brothel sleeping the effects off then. What was that you warned me about? Not to put the stuff in a syringe? What? Permanent loss off motor function. No means of communicating? Good job I got it right then. OK. See you soon. Yes. Can’t wait. I’m keeping it warm for you.”
She walks over to the lab bench and pulls a large syringe from a drawer. She takes a glass bottle from her pocket and fills the syringe with its contents. She turns to the empty chair which trembles again. She pats the nearest arm of the chair and her hand stops, suspended a short distance above it. She pats along towards where a wrist ought to be. She opens her fingers, grasping at thin air, and twists her hand ninety degrees. She feels a little further up with her sensitive fingertips, searching for something. She launches the syringe at the spot she has found. The needle disappears. The chair jumps. She presses the plunger, dispensing its complete contents.
She walks away from the chair then turns and spits at it. “Bastard.” Then she thinks about all the years he’s denied her use of her own language. “Con de hang.”
She leaves the lab and returns a few minutes later struggling with a large duvet and matching cushions. She makes a bed by the side of the empty chair, “Maybe John will find this interesting. Fucking the great man’s wife in his own laboratory.”
I should show some sympathy toward you, Professor, I suppose, but I won’t. I should try to help, but I can’t. Why should I? You did, after all, kill me.
OK, so you didn’t exactly put the rope around my neck. I did that myself, fair enough. But it was you who cost me my job when you sued the company. It was me that couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments on the house. It was me that couldn’t keep my wife and son. And I’ve been waiting all this time just to see you get yours. I only wish the world could see me laugh.