"Yes?" Sylvia responded to the ceiling's speakers as she juggled three Petri dishes.
"Dr. Merrick needs to speak with you in his office—it's urgent."
"I'll be there in a moment."
Sylvia motioned to her young lab assistant Melanie before taking off, buttoning an additional button of the lab coat she had left undone before smoothing a hand over her high ponytail. Sylvia was nervous. She knew a thing or two about corporate politics. Only the strong survived—along with those who didn't make waves. Sylvia had created a veritable hurricane, and it might have already cost Dr. Merrick his reputation. If he was thinking along the same lines, the young doctor was toast—and she knew it.
Dr. Merrick's secretary ushered Sylvia into his private office immediately. Her eye was immediately drawn to his still form as he sat with his hands clasped on top of the desk.
"You wanted to see me, Dr. Merrick?"
Sylvia smoothed her hands nervously over her skirt and he nodded.
"Please, sit down."
She did so slowly and with great apprehension. He didn't look happy. Maybe he wanted to talk to her about the previous day's disastrous lunch. Maybe he was going to fire her over it. Sylvia's pulse quickened.
"First and foremost I would like to apologize for yesterday. Secondly, I would like to prepare you for the aftermath."
He reached behind his desk and pulled out a large stack of tabloids printed on thin, cheap paper. Fanning them out on his desk like a stack of cards revealed their ugly, bold headlines: "Dr. Merrick's torrid love affair" and "Billionaire Doctor goes wife-shopping." One in particular caught Sylvia's eye and she picked it up.
"Doctor Merrick Dating French Model?"
She picked up the trashy magazine between two fingers and looked at the picture. Sylvia internally cringed. The front cover showed a large photo of Dr. Merrick and herself, each of their faces grim and obscured by sunglasses. Sylvia was apparently clinging to his suit jacket and his hand was resting protectively at her hip.
"Ridiculous, isn't it? I've been getting calls from members of the board all day."
Sylvia nodded dumbly.
"Apparently the press is convinced that you're a French supermodel and we're having some sort of sordid love affair. How they coined that particular story, I'll never know."
An acidic taste rose up in Sylvia's mouth. She knew what was coming next: A polite smile, a stipend, and the "I'm very sorry, Doctor…" spiel before his secretary showed her the door for good.
"I understand, sir," she whispered sadly, "When do you want me to sign the Privacy Contract?"
He gave her a blank stare. For several seconds an agonizing silence reigned in the spacious room before Dr. Merrick blinked and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
"Why exactly do you think I would want you to do that?"
"I—just thought that it would be in the company's best interest"—
"If you remained here," he said firmly, "And continued your research."
Her spirits lifted slightly and she nodded.
"I'll handle the press," Dr. Merrick continued, "And I'll see to it that the rumors cease immediately. I don't want to put you in the spotlight. It's a very tiring place to be."
"I don't want to be in the public eye, sir. Especially for my family's sake."
"Of course. We don't want The Enquirer or PACsnooping around rural Arkansas bothering your relatives, do we?"
"Of course not," she mumbled, looking down at the magazine that was now tightly clenched in her hands.
"Very well. I'll take care of everything. Would you mind disposing of these on your way out?"
"No," she said, picking up the stack of magazines, "I'll put them in the recycler."
"Thank you, Dr. Watson. Have a good day."
"You too Dr. Merrick."
She balanced the stack of magazines in her hands and strode out of his office, her chin held high. As soon as Sylvia reached a sleek silver recycling machine, she put all but one tabloid in the slot.
"I can't believe I'm reading this garbage," Sylvia muttered later, locking herself in a storeroom.
She hopped on a large box of unopened laboratory supplies and opened the tabloid claiming that she was a reclusive French model. Scanning it revealed the standard crap that tabloids had always spewed, but apparently she and Dr. Merrick had been dating for months and trying to hide their relationship with a series of wigs and disguises.
"Don't want your relatives in rural Arkansas…Arkansas…Arkansas…"
There was a sneer in his voice when he said it, but Sylvia knew that Dr. Merrick couldn't help himself—he was a product of the corporate system and Podunk, Arkansas was about as far off the consumer map as a person could get, even though her little city had turned out its fair share of white-collared professionals and powerful politicians.
"I'm a model now, apparently."
Her voice echoed off of the steel walls. Though the press knew nothing about her, they were picking apart every little detail of her appearance and had managed to piece together a story about her being a French model, though she had no French accent and didn't quite think she measured up to French style standards. Vanessa was just a lab rat. She had always been content to be one, and why should that change now? It was her employer they were after, not her. The paparazzi must have targeted her because she was the only female Dr. Merrick went out in public with—all the other Heads of his department were men.
"Yes?" She asked up to the metal speaker in the ceiling.
"Dr. Merrick wants to know if you want extra security around you on your way home."
"No thanks," she replied, "Tell him I'll be fine."
"Very well," the female voice replied coolly, "I'll inform him that you don't want any guards."
It was to be the worst decision of Vanessa's young life.