Although the BIRD-FLU common room was well furnished with comfortable chairs, the atmosphere within was far from comfortable. Sir Henry Montague Ponsenby-Brown did not notice, however, for he was surrounded by uncomfortable atmospheres wherever he went. It was his gift to the world. He flicked through a few more pages of the dossier in front of him, nodded to himself, and then looked up.
“What do you know of the ALF?” he asked with an abruptness that made it quite clear that conversations about the Centre’s name were most definitely over.
“They’re justified and they’re ancient?” hazarded Miss Mabel Middlebottom.
Alec Watson chuckled. “I think you’re thinking of KLF.”
"The Dutch airline?" she responded, confused.
“No!” frowned Sir Henry, flashing Alec a quick look of disapproval for unauthorised expression of amusement. “The Animal Liberation Front. I take it that you haven’t heard of them.”
“I have,” said Ricky. “The Swansea lot are getting quite militant, I believe.”
Johnson looked slightly alarmed but Ricky just laughed. “We don’t have anything to worry about here, though. This place is locked up tighter than a lamb’s sphincter.”
“How, er, colourful,” commented Sir Henry. “I suspect you’re right. The ALF would be unlikely to be able to break into this place. Not without leverage. That’s why they might have opted for more, how shall I put it, indirect methods.”
Johnson’s eyes widened as the penny finally dropped. For the first time since Sir Henry’s arrival, the professor stopped thinking about his lack of trouserage.
“Gee!” he blurted, collapsing into the leather armchair opposite Watson. “You don’t think this has anything to do with Tony’s disappearance, do you?”
Sir Henry inclined his head. “It’s certainly a possibility. The ALF have made several threats against the centre recently. That’s why I was sent to check security. Has Professor Greywood received any personal threats, to your knowledge?”
Johnson and Miss Mabel Middlebottom exchanged looks. The professor shook his head. “Not that I’ve heard about. Ricky? Did Tony say anything to you?”
Ricky shrugged and shook his head. “I’ve heard nothing like that.”
He sipped his tea. “I hope he’s okay.”
Miss Mabel Middlebottom was beginning to look a little upset.
“I’m sure he’s just ill,” she said. “And can’t get to the phone. Maybe he’s bedridden, with a fever.”
She bit on her finger in anguish.
“He’s a bachelor, you know,” she told Sir Henry. “He lives alone. Oh, the poor man!”
“Perhaps you could give us his address,” suggested Watson. “Then we…”
He was silenced by a glare from Sir Henry. It was not Watson’s place to eat biscuits and it was certainly not his place to make suggestions.
“Miss Middlebottom,” said Sir Henry. “Perhaps you could provide us with Professor Greywood’s address, so that we can investigate this matter further. It seems that our records are not as up-to-date as they should be.”
Watson rolled his eyes and took another hobnob. Miss Mabel Middlebottom nodded and wiped a tear from her eye.
“Of course,” she said, standing up. “I’ll go and get it, right away.”
“Thank you,” Sir Henry replied, softly.
Quite out of character, he found himself moved by the woman’s emotion, and it took him a few seconds to compose himself as she left the room. Taking a slow breath, he returned his attention to Professor Johnson.
“In the meantime, Professor, you need to be wary of ALF attack. You should probably move the larger animals off-site, just to be on the safe side.”
Johnson nodded. “We’ll have to close the labs for the cleanup anyway.”
“We also need to consider any other possibilities,” Sir Henry continued. “Any other potential targets for industrial espionage?”
The bare-legged academic blinked and shook his head with a small shrug of one shoulder.
“Not really. I mean, we’ve got biological samples here but, like I said, we haven’t really got the research up and running yet.” He laughed nervously. “The only really innovation since the centre opened is Ricky here’s new air filter design. And that’s not even finished yet.”
Sir Henry sipped on his tea. “Would Professor Greywood have known anything of plans for the new air filter?”
“Well, obviously he was the one that okayed the installation of a new filter but he hadn’t seen the actual plans. Ricky keeps the plans locked away in a safety deposit box in his bank. Ain’t that right, Ricky?”
Ricky smiled and gave a nod, looking slightly uncomfortable about having his work discussed.
“Wouldn’t be any real point in stealing the plans anyway,” Johnson continued. “The system will only work in one of the Level Four labs on site here.”
The pensive silence that followed was broken by the return of Miss Mabel Middlebottom. Sir Henry set down his cup and saucer and stood to meet her.
“I think we have seen and heard enough,” he said, taking the piece of paper offered by Miss Mabel Middlebottom. “The centre will remain open for now, but be extra vigilant. We’ll be in touch soon. I expect an update the moment anything changes.”
“Of course, Sir Henry,” nodded Johnson, rising to see the visitor out.
“Come, Smithers.” He looked at the address in his hand. “We have a missing Professor to find.”