Monday, 20 August 2012

Chapter 7.3

Professor Johnson led Sir Henry to BIRD-FLU’s common room whilst Ricky went to store his biohazard suit. Considering the mess that Sir Henry had made and that the janitor was going to have to clear it up, he felt that the fellow was being surprisingly decent about the whole thing. Johnson did not really know the man but that was the reputation he had - calm and unruffled. He just hoped that he wasn't suddenly going to snap and come into work with a shotgun.
  The Common Room was one room that had neither swipe-card access nor a security keypad. The ubiquitous CCTV camera was present, however, but it was not this that Sir Henry noticed upon entering the room. Nor was it the presence of Miss Mabel Middlebottom, which he expected. Sitting next to Miss Middlebottom, in the act of dunking a chocolate hobnob into a cup of tea, was Alec Watson.
  “Oh, Sir Henry,” said Miss Middlebottom as she spotted him. “I took the liberty of inviting your driver in for a cup of tea.”
  Sir Henry frowned. He did not approve of taking liberties. (Not unless it was the liberty of some small third world nation, that is.)
  “So I see,” he said, tight-lipped.
  “I’m afraid we didn’t have any Earl Grey,” Miss Mabel Middlebottom continued, heaping woe upon woe. “I hope Typhoo will do.”
  “That’ll be fine, Mabel,” answered Professor Johnson before Sir Henry could respond, taking the proffered cup of tea from Miss Middlebottom and passing it to the grey bureaucrat. He waved Sir Henry into a seat and almost sat next to him, then remembered that he was not wearing any trousers and decided to stay standing.
  Sir Henry sipped his tea and shuddered. His refined taste buds were not impressed. He was a firm believer that you could judge a man by his tea. (Or a woman. Sir Henry was quite egalitarian when it came to judging people.) If you added sugar, you were weak. If you drank it with lemon, although traditional with Earl Grey, you were too fruity. If, heavens forbid, you drank it black, you were clearly trying too hard to be quirky. (Or, worse, were too disorganised to remember the milk.)
  Unconsciously aware that they were being silently judged, the other three stared down at their cups, desperately trying to avoid both eye contact and conversation. The embarrassed silence was broken only when Ricky the Janitor entered the room. Even without the bulk of his protective suit, he was quite a burly man and sported a thick but well-trimmed face of hair. He loitered by the door for a few seconds before taking the cup of tea offered to him by Miss Mabel Middlebottom and sat down next to Alec Watson, looking equally uncomfortable.
  Professor Johnson watched him sit down and coughed nervously, desperate to break the uncomfortable silence. “You know, Ricky, you should join us for morning coffee more often.”
  Ricky looked at his watch and glanced at Sir Henry. "I'm normally home by 10.30, Professor."
  "Of course, of course." Johnson replied.
  “Ricky works nights,” he followed up feebly, feeling extra explanation was needed. He took another sip of his own tea, wishing it was something distinctly more alcoholic. Sir Henry glared at him and placed his teacup very deliberately onto the low coffee table in front of him, rotating the cup on its saucer to make the handle perfectly parallel to the edge of the table.
  “Yes, I know,” said Sir Henry. “You told me earlier.”
  "Yes, well, I, er..."
  “Tell me what you know about the Director’s disappearance,” Sir Henry commanded in a tone that made it quite clear that he did not really care when the caretaker usually worked.
  The Professor cleared his throat again. “Gee, Sir Henry. I don’t really know what I can tell you. Tony - Professor Greenwood - failed to turn up for work yesterday. Mabel followed protocol and called his home. When she was unable to get through, I tried his cell and couldn’t get hold of him either. Again, Mabel followed protocol and raised the alert.”
  He looked over to Mabel for support and she nodded sombrely. He coughed again. “To be honest, we were hoping you might be able to tell us something.”
  If Sir Henry had any intention of telling Johnson something, he did not show it. “Have you had any problems before this?” he probed.
  Johnson thought for a moment, taking another sip of tea to prolong the cogitation. He tried to hide the grimace. Johnson did not even like tea and usually drank coffee but he felt that he already had enough black marks against his name in Sir Henry’s bad books. Had there been any problems before? There was that one incident months ago but that was just kids.
  Probably best not to withhold information from a man like Sir Henry, though, lest he find himself an unwilling new recruit in the British Antarctic Survey or something. Did they even taken Americans in the British Antarctic Survey? He was not sure about that but was sure that he did not want to find out. He took a big gulp of tea.
  “Professor?” Sir Henry had sounded mildly impatient before but now he was definitely up to a medium or hot level of impatience. Johnson got the distinct impression that he did not want to find out what happened when it reached the top of whatever scale Sir Henry used for these things.
  “Umm, there was one incident,” he explained, “but it wasn’t anything major. Not long after I started, there was a legal case brought against us by a local animal rights organisation - HAVEN, or RAVEN or something. It wasn’t particularly aggressive, though. I think they were just trying to get the name changed. Wanted us to change it to, umm,” he paused. “What was it, Mabel?”
  Mabel looked up from her cuppa. “I think it was the ‘South Wales Murder Death Camp’,” she answered.
  “That sounds about right,” he agreed. “It wasn’t a big deal, though. Our lawyers, Smeg & Butterworth, managed to get them to back down without it even going to court. Professor Greenwood got the whole thing sorted within a couple of days. I’m not sure he would have even mentioned it to the rest of us if he wasn’t so annoyed by the name himself.”
  “Interesting,” said Sir Henry in a flat voice that sounded anything but interested. “Any chance of something similar happening again?”
  Johnson shrugged. “I don’t think so. As we’re not doing any actual experiments at present, it would be an open-and-shut case. Besides, apart from the mice, all our animals are volunteers these days, anyway.”
  “Volunteers?!” Sir Henry did not approve of volunteers. People should do what they were told, not what they wanted to do.
  Johnson nodded. “From Bristol zoo, mostly. Looking to expand their academic horizons.” He glanced about conspiratorially and leant forward to whisper. “To be honest, most of them are rejects from the Bristol University labs.”
  Sir Henry frowned and picked up a dossier from the table. He opened it and turned to the third page. “It seems that Professor Greenwood does not share your confidence. You said he was annoyed by the name of the Centre, himself. According to this report, he has complained several times since it opened. Apparently, he feels that BIRD-FLU is not a very sensible acronym and might attract what he called, the ‘wrong sort of attention’.”
  “Gee, well, it is a rather stupid name,” Johnson told him. “I think we’d all have to agree with that.”
  He looked around the room and felt gratified to receive affirmatory nods from all but Sir Henry himself.
  “I mean, I know we are part of the Brecon Institute for R and D, and this is the Flavivirus and Lentivirus Unit but calling the place BIRD-FLU?” He continued, hoping that Sir Henry himself was not responsible but knowing that he was beyond retreat now. “Really? That’s just dumb. Right?”
  Sir Henry was just staring intently. “Go on.”
  Johnson’s jaw flapped for a moment in surprise before a nervous chuckle escaped. “Umm, isn’t it obvious?”
  “Humour me,” came the humourless response.
  “Well,” Johnson explained. “We’re the Flavivirus and Lentivirus Unit. Everyone knows that Bird Flu is in the Orthomyxoviridae family!”

Chapter 7.4 ☛

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