Professor Johnny D. Johnson III paced his office nervously. At least, he would have paced his office nervously, were it not for its small size and the various piles of paper strewn over the floor.
Instead, he took two exaggerated steps towards the door – taking great care not to catch one of the precarious stacks with his trailing leg – and glanced nervously at the large clock on the wall. After cursing inwardly that he still had not replaced the battery despite the fact that the clock had stopped two and a half weeks ago, he took two exaggerated steps back to his desk and squinted at the computer. The time was displayed in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. After cursing inwardly that he had forgotten his glasses for the third day in a row, Johnson turned back towards the door and repeated the process.
What was he doing here? This time last year, he was Assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Massachusetts Institute of Infections and Immunity. Now he was Assistant Director of a NATO biological research institute near Swansea, where it rained all the time and you couldn’t even get a decent burger.
The “Brecon Institute for Research and Development - Flavivirus and Lentivirus Unit”, code-named BIRD-FLU, was only a few months old and housed in brand new state-of-the-art facilities. It was not especially popular with the locals.
Now the Director, Professor Greenwood, had disappeared and some top British civil servant was coming up to see him, presumably looking for an explanation that Johnson did not have.
He stopped pacing for a moment and pulled a white cotton hanky out of his left jacket pocket to mop up the beads of perspiration that had formed on his brow. Professor Johnson did not like sweat. (Not unless it was the sweat of the gladiator, glistening on his muscular torso as he fought for his life in the arena of death. Johnny D. Johnson III liked gladiators.)
All this waiting was getting him nowhere. It was time to take action. Gently pushing a pile of folders aside with his foot, Johnson pulled his black wheeled swivel chair out from under the wooden desk and dropped unceremoniously into it.
The top drawer of his desk was stiff but, with a bit of persuasion at the right angle, it eventually yielded to Johnson’s efforts. He pulled it open, sending a rogue sheet of paper skimming out of the drawer into the office. Ignoring the unwelcome laying of a foundation for a new paper stack on his carpet, Johnson pushed the remaining contents of the drawer back in search of a small bottle of whisky. Unable to see it, he reached with both hands to pull the drawer out further for a closer look, and then stopped.
He had never been good at dealing with stress (unless it was the imagined stress of facing sudden death at the hand of another in the arena of gladiatorial combat) but it would probably not be a good idea to meet his boss smelling like a distillery. Instinctively patting his right jacket pocket for his cigarettes, he decided that smelling like a chimney would have to suffice.
Of course, distilleries had chimneys… Quickly, before the desire for alcoholic oblivion could resurface enough to take control, Johnson tried to slam his desk drawer shut again. However, the over-full drawer was now firmly wedged and Johnson merely succeeded in propelling himself backwards across his office. He wheeled out of control through two stacks of papers before slamming into the tall filing cabinet behind him.
The vibrations of the collision set off a domino-type cascade of textbooks, catapulting an unfortunate molecular evolution text (Li and Sharp, 1997) off the end of the cabinet and into the circular wicker waste-paper basket below.
A gentle rocking noise was just sufficient to remind Johnson where he had actually put that bottle of whisky. He looked up just in time to see it topple off the cabinet and hit him square between the eyes,
Half expecting to be blinded by tiny shards of broken glass, Johnson was relieved to open his eyes and see the familiar surroundings of his office. His head hurt from the impact but a quick check with the hanky allayed any fears that he was bleeding. Professor Johnson did not like blood. (Not unless it was the blood of the gladiator, torn asunder by a muscular opponent in one-on-one mortal combat).
It was only then that Johnson realised a dampness spreading across his trousers from the groin. He looked down. The whisky bottle itself was intact but it had landed lid-down on his head, splitting the cap, before bouncing onto his lap, where it had proceeded to discharge whisky. By the time he had righted the offending bottle, it had emptied half its contents over his brown tweeds.
A hasty application of the hanky was far too late to repair the damage. He looked like he had wet himself but at least it would not stain. Professor Johnson did not like stains. (Not unless they were the grimy stains of dirt and blood, worn hard into leather from a dozen life-or-death struggles in the gladiatorial arena.)
Fumbling with the broken cap, Johnson took a big swig and drained the remains of the whisky – he smelt like a distillery anyway. Alcohol was not enough for the current crisis, however. Dumping the empty bottle in the bin without even fishing out the fallen textbook, he pulled out his packet of cigarettes and shakily placed one in his mouth.
Next came the box of matches. The first two matches snapped in half in preference to lighting.
“Bloody safety matches.” Johnson muttered. “You won’t seem that safe when I resort to
using a bunsen burner from the lab cause I can’t get you to bloody light!”
Third time lucky, or perhaps in response to his chastisement, a match flared into life. At that precise moment, Johnson’s phone rang, snapping the final chord of his frayed nerves. Jumping in alarm, the match slipped from his grasp. In slow motion, he watched it tumble end over end, burning, onto his trousers. His whisky-soaked trousers.
Johnson’s lap went up like a Christmas pudding. He had not felt this hot since he was an extra in Gladiator. Not even round Betty Jacowiz’s house when he was sixteen had Johnson’s trousers come off so fast. In fact, by the time the Professor had stamped out the fire, his phone was only entering its fourth ring. Pausing for an extra second to take a deep breath, Johnson picked up the receiver.
It was the Centre’s receptionist-come-secretary. “Professor Johnson, Sir Henry’s car has arrived.”
“Thank you, Mabel. I’ll be along shortly.”
Johnson hung up the phone and then hung up his trousers. There was a mighty big hole where the groin used to be.