Herbert Brown’s day had started pleasantly. His new job at MIT was terrific as an adjunct professor in biology. After completing the day’s introductory tour, he caught a lift to the University’s favourite waterhole to celebrate.
He settled into a quiet evening as one by one his colleagues gave their last welcomes then citing early start, left for their homes. Herb had been pacing himself and was mostly sober the last of his companions was keeping him company. James Jamieson, he explained that his parents were a little unimaginative, his speciality was virology. He had selected this speciality as a rebuff for the push to enter the medical profession as his father was a surgeon and mother a GP.
As the night came to a close, a neighbouring table became disruptive. The lead drunk started to transfer his angst towards the pair of academics.
“Whatcha looking at? Aint ya seen a working stiff?” Tuffnut slurred.
“I am only here to celebrate my new job and have a pleasant time,” Herb said, hoping that someone else would receive Tuffnut’s attention.
“Oh a limey, you can shove off and leave our jobs alone,” Tuffnet said, starting to standup egged on by his mates.
James put his hand on Herb’s arm to calm him.
“No need to be insulting, I am an Aussie,” Herb returned.
“Aussie, Limey what’s the diff? Push off before I chuck you out,” Tuffnutt snarled.
“I doubt you could chuck yourself out.”
Herb was just sober enough yet with a buzz giving him a bit of confidence.
Tuffnutt surged forward followed by his two mates to be sat down by James sticking his foot in the way. When the two mates joined in, life started becoming hectic with fists and bodies flying in all directions, the bystanders joining in when bumped by the stumbling drunks.
Emerging from the melee, Herb and James made their escape out the door as the police arrived to settle the riot.
Ushered away by uniforms, the two new friends caught their breath, “Some people are a waste of space,” James said between gasps.
“Yeah, I am sure a trained monkey could replace some so-called workers,” Herb agreed, “Best we head home, eh?”
With a nod, they headed off.
The next morning Herb headed to the refectory for a coffee to start the day; there was a familiar face waiting for his mug of day starter.
With cup in hand, Herb waved towards a table, James sat down in the opposite chair.
“You don’t look too rough; ducking is a useful talent,” James said.
“Grew up in a tough town which wasn’t kind to bookworms,” Herb said, “Seems you have the same skill.”
“The world be better off without some of the blokes who can’t handle their drink?”
“I have often thought that about the jokers who think it is funny to dunk smart kids in toilets.”
“I bet if we put our minds to it, we could assemble a suitable fix.”
“Best we start with the remedy in case the wrong people thought it was a great idea?”
“We should put it on the back burner and concentrate on the job at hand.”
“Yeah, I am working on a lovely virus and its vaccine ready for flu season,” James said, “A tricky little devil. It seems to hide every time I look at it.”
“I haven’t locked in a project yet; I can lend a fresh eye if you like?” Herb said.
“When you have a spare moment, I am in L305 laboratory,” James said.
“I will clock in and see if my boss has something for me, perhaps I can suggest a collaboration as a starter project,” Herb said as he finished his cup and left.
When his new boss left for a meeting, Herb found his way to James’ Laboratory and found him busy with an electron microscope.
“Have a look at that cutie. The sweetest little virus around the planet,” James said with a proud tone.
“Safe? Wouldn’t do to wipe out the campus.”
“As houses in this place.”
“What is your problem with this subject?”
“It lays dormant amongst the cells and reinvigorates when stress depresses the immune system, somewhat like the herpes strains.”
“Perhaps the vaccination can contain a trigger to flush it out, and the active component can then deal with the virus?”
“Good idea, I have another little beauty which causes diarrhea in rats if they drink alcohol. That would work with last night’s friends.”
“I can put a few thoughts on paper, and if you do the same, we may come up with a fix.”
Herb returned to his office and started brainstorming. With the picture of ‘Tuffnut’ in mind, he started writing.
After a couple of day’s work, Herb was ready for the next stage.
“What do you reckon? Combine these,” pointing at a couple of diagrams, “We can then try it with the lab rats?”
“Yep, I will set the Petrie dishes in a row and start work.”
After several failed attempts, they had a working subject to try with the rats, setting three groups; a control which had alcohol available, one exposed to the virus and the last exposed with alcohol.
“Well, it seems it has an incubation of three days, is not fatal, and only when alcohol available does it flows like water. We have a working model.”
“Next repeat the whole deal to duplicate and then move to the next stage,” Herb said.
With the Rhesus monkeys delivering the same results and the vaccination proved useful for the ‘sweet’ virus, which was funding the research to keep the boss on-side.
“Now that we have the gear, should we use it?” James asked, “If it hits the fan, we will be in for the big drop.”
“Just thinking of seeing their faces when the symptoms cut in and having to give up drinking for a week.”
“If we go-ahead, we need a delivery. We can justify by researching transmission prevention for the other sweetie.”
“Up to delivering a ‘live’ virus, we only have a thought experiment. No names, no pack drill.”
“A typical virus remains active on a hard surface such as a bar table for several days, spraying at random may infect non-targets.”
“It is a great idea to target ‘Tuffnut’, but you are right, we can’t have collateral damage and shut down the city.”
“A personal delivery may reveal us as the perpetrators, and he wouldn’t take the dose.”
“Perhaps we can customise the delivery. We would need to observe him and work out his habits.”
“What if he remembers us and gets agro?”
“I doubt he remembers his face in the mirror.”
Herb laughed and resumed researching the delivery method, seeking a short term bait without risking contamination of others. Experiments went so far but trying to narrow the focus was challenging. At a standstill, it occurred to Herb that now, an observation was required.
That night James and Herb found a niche from where they could watch the action without being too obvious.
Over several nights it seemed that ‘Tuffnut’ was a creature of habit sitting at the same table, drinking and nibbling nuts until he became drunk and belligerent. Then he would turn his angst against the surrounding patrons who either left or rose to the bait and scuffles broke out. The barkeep must have been a friend to put up with this behaviour.
“Best bet would be the nuts; he empties the bowl without sharing,” Herb noted, “The problem would be to spike it without being caught or risk hitting the wrong bowl. He would be infectious once he started sneezing, but since he is such an a-hole, no one stays close.”
So with this in mind, Herb experimented with coating a couple of nuts then testing the result. Once he had found the right dose to avoid cross-contamination, it was time to check the delivery of nuts to the bowl.
After a few dry runs, it was found easy to drop an odd nut into the bowl without attracting attention as ‘Tuffnut’ had his table reserved with the nutbowl waiting at least half an hour before he turned up. The barkeep was easily distracted to allow this to happen.
“Now is the crunch time, we can deliver a selective dose to the target. The likely chance of being caught is low,” Herb said.
“He is an absolute turd and deserves the infection. Unlikely but it could sort him out. Worst case he infects the town and the proverbial will hit the fan.”
“We only live once; I am sure it won’t be too bad?” Herb said, “Let’s do it.”
“Okay, let’s go for it,” James said, “Shake on it.”
So with a viable nut in a safe packet, it was dropped off in the bowl ready for the target. Tempting but discretion meant that the pair should leave. After three days, they made the way to the bar to wait for the result.
After a time ‘Tuffnut wandered in and despite looking second hand began his usual routine of eating and drinking. As he finished his drink, dismay covered his face as diarrhea set in, and he bolted for the lavatory. Undaunted, he returned and took another sip with the same result.
The two conspirators struggling to hold their laughter bolted before ‘Tuffnet’ could notice them. Satisfied they went home to resume normality.
No dramas for a week then it hit the news that an epidemic was suspected centred at the Bull and Barley. Details were scant, and authorities were investigating.
“I expect that they will consult my department. Perhaps I can be the hero and come up with a cure?” James said with a grin.
“As long as the chooks don’t find their way home,” Herb said.
As expected, the call came to James’department, and he started the process of formulating a vaccine.
A phone call came through to Herb, “Could I have a quiet word?” James asked.
“I will be right over,” Herb said.
As he arrived, James ushered him into a side room.
“It is about to hit the fan, it has mutated, and the diarrhea is long term. So far there is no connection with us, but if I come up with a cure too soon, the chickens will come galloping.”
“Well, it is a similar beast to what is circulating you have done the work for that one. If you modify it slightly, it will work without drawing attention.”
They began work with the project. But soon the Headlines screamed looming pandemic and the pressure mounted.
“Seems our friend has other contacts, not the loner we expected.”
“Must act out the tough guy to cover up the humdrum home life.”
“Still we now have a problem.”
“I have a useful vaccination, and have started the proof.”
After a few more weeks, James reported progress. The Dean stepped up to the microphone to claim near victory to the press. After the word got around, questions started to emerge when other laboratories added two and two together to come up with five or more missing links.
James and Herb were walking towards the watering hole for a quiet ale. Two black cars ranged up alongside halting either side. Several men in dark suits moved out and bundled our heroes into the back of a third van.
Surprised Herb and James didn’t have time to protest. Before they could think they were seated in a dark room in front of a desk. A lamp illuminated the pair without allowing them to see other occupants.
“Doctor Brown, Doctor Jameson? It has come to my notice that a particular malady appeared at a bar you frequent. If certain facts were presented to the Sherrif, you could be in the deep and smelly.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I believe you do, to avoid unpleasant events you now have a choice. Work with us, and the flack disappears.”
“Speak on. What could happen if we agree?” Herb asked.
“My people have facilities; you go there and disappear for a time. Do as you are told and then emerge suitably rewarded. Otherwise if you walk out it will be into jail.”
“We will be missed; nothing is connecting us with the flu.”
Your faculty has already received notice of your departure. Your apartments are empty, and the rumour that you are on the way to the airport. This information can be handed to the police with enough facts to drop the pair of you in the poop.”
“Yep, two chances Buckleys and Nunn.”
“Okay, we have to trust you you could have just given us a short swim with an anchor for company.”
Back in the van, the pair were on the way with their luggage, destination unknown.