From the author: A fairy tale retelling this week, What's in a Name? is a modern twist on Rumpelstiltskin with Ebola and exploitation thrown in because what's a fairy tale without some of that?
Michelle Miller was in a panic. Pacing the lab like a caged animal she knew it, knew she was giving her fear away, but her heart was trapped in her throat and she could barely breathe.
"Why is he coming today?" huffed Laura, Michelle's ever suffering research assistant. Laura was pale as her lab coat but lovely, short bob always slipped behind her ears and red lips reflecting the strip lights.
"I don't know. We don't have anything scheduled; this whole week is clear for the presentation." Michelle sighed, loosening her bun only to retie it again. It was a nervous habit, blonde hair dropping and rising in the staccato rhythm of her anxiety.
"Maybe he wants to see it first, get the inside scoop? You said he made his money in magazines," Laura said with an unenthusiastic shrug.
"I don't know, but it can't be good. Adalric Bauer doesn't just drop in for tea. Speaking of which will you make me a cup?"
"Yes, boss." Laura smiled, indulgent, sliding from the bench and rescuing Michelle's mug from the hectic desk.
Adalric Bauer was a millstone around Michelle's neck. At least that's how it felt now, so close to the conference.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of doors slamming. She span round, following the noise, and her stomach dropped.
"Aladric!" she squeaked, trying her best to pull a natural looking smile to her face. It froze about halfway. That would have to do.
"Michelle, my dear, so good to see you," he called, opening his arms for a hug. She made herself lean into him, the embrace longer than she liked.
Aladric was attractive, taller than her six foot and broad across his chest. He half filled the lab with his presence, never mind the shoulders. For an older man he obviously took pride in his appearance; his coat more expensive than her research grant and the suit matched too.
"I hadn't expected you," Michelle said as they separated, trying to spot Laura.
"Apologies, it's a busy day. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course, I know you're busy," she said, spotting a heavy set man in black now blocking the door. Not good.
"Indeed. I know your presentation is tomorrow, and you'll be showing your years of hard work to the world for the first time. It will be momentous." He grinned, a predatory thing that sent Michelle's spine rigid.
"Yes, we're showing the results of the test groups. The vaccine is over eighty percent successful, up to a hundred in some of the larger primates."
"I know. I've seen your results."
"They're only available to our funding group," Michelle said, uncertainty curling in her gut.
"You know I have certain connections," Aladric said, his eyes hard.
"You never mentioned it."
"I didn't want you to feel I was keeping tabs."
"You were though," she said, voice dying in her throat.
"Of course: you're an investment, Michelle. I didn't save you from that horrid professor Connelly just to lose you in the scrum of research."
"I didn't think our agreement amounted to an investment," she began, her words stalling as he pulled an envelope from his suit jacket.
"This is a record of all the payments I made to your research."
"Which I paid back," she countered.
"Except the donation made to your university, to release you from the clutches of the good professor."
"That wasn't a payment to me: that was just to get you on the board."
" Michelle, did you think I wanted to be on that board for any reason except you?"
"You were interested in the department," she stuttered, ice in her veins.
"Just your work." Alardic chuckled. "I couldn't see you wasted on that silly fool and his office couch."
"What do you want, Aladric?" Michelle asked.
"I want your research to be specific to my organisation. The vaccine will be produced by us and we'll set the market rate."
"That would kill it: I'd never be able to take it through further research, funding would be barred."
"You wouldn't, no. Others will though, and don't you think it's more important that the research continues, rather than languishes in the dregs here?"
"The dregs here have taken the vaccine to almost peak development. We're able to do clinical trials," Michelle shouted, glancing around her lab. "This is the best shot we've had at an Ebola vaccine in ten years Aladric, ten years of my life!"
"I know, you have worked so hard and have such a good team. I'll certainly look at them if they wish to apply."
"You can't do this," she hissed, furious.
"What does it matter whose name is attached it if it's helping the world? I've had the announcement prepared, to be released after your presentation tomorrow. If you don't agree, I'll simply take you to court for refusal to enact a contract."
"We don’t have one."
"Not yet, but we will. You wouldn't want your peers to know that you bribed your way out of a difficult superior would you? Take the evening to think it over. I'll see you at the venue at nine."
"There must be something else, Aladric," she said, her anger and fear tripping over each other.
"I can't think of anything I want more than my name attached to the cure for Ebloa. Do let me know if you think of something better."
He blew out, and Michelle saw the embers of her dreams swirling after him.
Aladric had been a saviour to Michelle once, had gotten her out of a residency that risked exploitation and her integrity.
And none of that mattered, because now he would steal her work.
She slumped onto one of the benches, head between her hands. She heard the echoing noises of him leaving and slammed her fist into the wood, biting back an angry sob.
"So what the hell was that about?" Laura asked from the door.
"That was Aladric giving me the courtesy of telling me in person he's stealing my research, and if I don't agree he'll leak about Connelly. Or sue me into crippling debt. Maybe both, I started to zone out into a red haze at the end there."
"He can't do that, it's your baby," Laura said, passing Michelle a cup of tea.
"There's no real choice. He said if I could think of anything better than having his name attached to the cure of Ebola then to let him know. I won't be taken seriously if he leaks about Connelly. I can't afford court. "
"A good thing I got the number for his hired goon then." Laura smirked, holding up a slip of paper.
"What do you mean?"
"I'll ask him out; see if I can get you leverage."
"There's none, I looked before I got on board with him."
"There's always something, Michelle. Let me see what I can find, I'll fill you in tomorrow. By hook or by crook I'll get him."
"You can't waste that time, Laura, we have prep to do." Michelle sighed, hands going to her hair again.
"Grab one of the interns. I'll be more use at this, promise."
Laura dashed off, leaving Michelle with her tea and questions.
Michelle hardly slept, her stomach in knots as she ran through her presentation. She gave up at five am and tried to counteract the worst of it with makeup.
At the lab she discovered Laura perched on a stool, still in a sparkling dress from the night before and with a red lipped grin like a shark. A childs fairy wand, replete with glittery star and tufts of feathers, sat discarded across one bench with a flimsy golden tiara curled over it.
"Why are you here this early?" Michelle asked, passing Laura her coffee and going to make herself another.
"I was just finishing off an email about your good benefactor."
"Because Aladric Bauer has been lying. A lot."
"What are you on about, Laura?"
"It's a fake name – the reason you couldn't find any dirt on him is because he didn't exist."
Michelle paused, kettle in hand.
"Who is he then?" she asked, adding an extra spoonful to her coffee.
"Before he was Aladric Bauer he was William Moses Kamara, diamond seller, corrupt journalist and eventually military leader. All mention of his first name stops just before the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone. Probably best not to ask why."
Michelle sat down, coffee close to her chest.
"Why go for my work then?" she eventually asked, watching Laura stretch and curl a leg under herself. The sequins of the dress rippled like a golden wave with the movement.
"That meat-head from yesterday was one of the older security staff, has been all over with Aladric. Says the boss is obsessed with family and his legacy. Turns out junior is a trust fund waster currently finding himself somewhere in India. Aladric thinks he'll burn through the family fortune and become some lay about."
"So he wants to be remembered for this instead."
"Well he certainly won't want his real name thrown about anywhere: I bet the UN could have some queries about the proceeds of sale of conflict diamonds, never mind the war crimes."
"Alright – gather it up and come with me to the hall. How did you get all of this anyway?"
" I spent the night at Aladric's mansion: lots of data."
They arrived early and found Aladric there, orchestrating.
"Michelle, so good to see you. Have you thought about our discussion yesterday?" he asked, hugging her again and winking at Laura, still in her dress.
"I have, thank you, Aladric," Michelle replied. "I wondered if we could have a chat privately? Laura will be joining us."
"Of course, this way," he said, steering them towards a small office. Laura tucked herself into one side of the table, fiddling with her phone.
"I was thinking about what you said yesterday," Michelle began, holding her folder close. "You made an excellent point, what does it matter whose name is attached to progress?"
"I'm glad you can see the benefit to everyone." Aladric smiled, chest puffing out.
"But I would hate if the wrong benefactor were credited with helping the world in such an important way. Laura here was kind enough to get a selection of your achievements for me, so they're noted publically at the joint announcement. Have a look: I think we got the best ones."
Laura hummed her approval as Michelle passed him the file. He pursed his lips as he took it, then his face went carefully blank as he read over them. He threw the file on the table, shaking as he turned to the women.
"I don't know what you're trying to prove here, but none of that information is pertinent," he barked.
"It's pertinent to war crimes investigations," Laura provided, tilting her head to look at him. "And it would be such a scoop if the missing William Moses Kamara were to make an appearance at such a high profile event. Can you imagine the coverage? I bet it would be worldwide."
"I'll ruin you both!" he spat, stalking forward.
"Careful there, William," Laura held up her phone, "This video could get sent to all sorts of people." Alardic stopped, hand hovering at Michelle's collar bone.
"Let me explain our position," Michelle said. "You go away, you don't come back, and if you're very lucky I might even mention you in the dedications. You try to influence, or steal, my research again and I'll make sure this goes to the university board and anyone else I feel might have an interest in reporting you."
Aladric brought his hand down, brushing his jacket off and straightening his tie.
"I'm leaving, and taking my staff with me. One journalist will stay to cover your conference. I don't plan to hear from you again."
He flew out of the room, the door banging behind him.
"Right, Laura, let's get on with sorting this place out," Michelle smiled, plucking the folder up.
"Yes boss." Laura smirked, uploading the video to their shared account.