A Diamond in the Cabbage Patch
October 28, 2016
“I apologize for the subterfuge, but it is difficult for me to get an honest first impression of people if they know who I am. And this is a delicate matter that I would prefer not to let anyone know I am even investigating.”
Evie sat completely still. Her spine was straight, shoulders back, ankles crossed. She forced her hands to remain resting casually on the portfolio in her lap. She had guessed this was coming and had taken a moment to prepare herself. Her first indication had been when she called the number the friendly jogger had given her. The man who answered the phone was polite, professional, and helpful. Too helpful for someone who was doing a friend a favor. Not friendly enough either. Then the meeting at Stark Industries was scheduled far quicker than expected. Evie had known people interested in her work – and then people interested in it. Root Industries and their new private funders fell into that second category, and Evie had no intention of getting into bed with any organizations that interested in both genetic research and NDAs that included travel to non-extradition countries.
The blazing red, practically on fire, flag came as the lobby security summoned a middle-aged woman in a designer label suit sheath to escort her to her meeting. The woman had to make more in a year than Evie had paid – was still paying – for medical school. She let Evie to Carl Geoff, Executive Assistant to the CEO and Evie tried desperately to recall what that CEO looked like. A woman, she knew. With an unusual name. It was times like this that made Evie wish she had paid more attention to celebrity gossip magazines or Forbes and a little less to research journals.
She didn’t have long to wait and stress. Mr. Geoff, please call me Carl, had inquired on her preference for tea or coffee and promptly announced her to the inner office. The other shoe dropped. Seated on a white leather couch in matching slacks and a pale pink blouse was the helpful jogger. Pepper. Pepper Potts. CEO of Stark Industries. Standing behind the glass desk and fiddling with a paperweight was none other than Tony Stark himself. Even without reading the tabloids at the grocery checkout Evie recognized him. She had never felt so embarrassed. So completely well played.
Evie had taken the indicated seat, and remained silent. As Pops had always said – they may think you’re an idiot, but don’t open your mouth and give them proof. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Abuela would say, you can’t know if you don’t listen – y te sentirías mal si cortaras a un hombre inocente. She sat, and Ms. Pepper Potts filled the silence.
“I am certain, in your line of work, that you have dealt with numerous such matters,” Ms. Potts continued. Evie searched her memory for any indication that Stark Industries was interested in genetic research. There had been some rumors a few years ago that Tony Stark was interviewing geneticists – potentially to work with Dr. Bruce Banner – but they had died down. Her work seemed a better fit for Pym Tech than SI, considering Mr. Stark’s strong preference for mechanics, software, and energy development. And the way she had been approached – by the CEO no less – spoke of less than aboveboard intentions. What eluded her was why a company that had made such a tremendous shift towards being a force of corporate good would want with clandestine genetic research. Research on embryonic gene therapy, specifically. While eliminating Ty Sachs or Cystic Fibrosis would certainly help thousands, it was nothing on the scale of green energy or eco-friendly cell phone batteries.
“Our first order of business, of course, will be your computing needs. I have had legal prepare a contract – already signed by me – which is in no way contingent upon your agreement to any further involvement with us.” Ms. Potts used one manicured nail, painted in an opalescent ivory that complemented her suit, across the low coffee table. “Ah, and it looks like refreshments have arrived. We can take a small break while you look that over.”
Evie skimmed the contract, simple, short and boilerplate, then glanced back at her host. Nothing about the meeting was happening as anticipated. Potts poured them each a cup of tea, leaving Evie’s on the table, then took her own and an espresso cup over to Stark. He threw back the contents like a shot and continued to play with the crystal weight in his hands, glancing out the window, at Ms. Potts, her desk, the artwork – anywhere in fact but at Evie.
She double checked the reciprocation clause, and found that, as promised, it contained no financial payment to SI or percentage of future profit from her work. Nor did it require SI have access to her research in any way. In fact, it provided a modest stipend if she was willing to sign an optional clause acknowledging in future publications that her work had been made possible with assistance from Stark Industries. It was highly irregular and suspiciously generous. She studied the couple at the window again.
They were a couple – she recalled that vaguely. Pepper’s comments about her infuriating boss and the stress he caused made more sense now. Stark was nervous – or perhaps just a touch manic, it was difficult to tell since he hadn’t said a word since she arrived. Potts was speaking to him in a low voice, her head bent to his. But while she was trying to calm him, her free hand was twitching with the collar of her blouse, touching her hair, and smoothing the line of her lipstick. She was nervous.
Evie had only one clear thought, que diablos?
“Have you finished with that, Dr. Vivas?” Potts inquired.
Evie took a steadying breath and set the folder down. She needed that computing time – and the stipend would go a long way to making up for what she was losing from Root Solutions, but she had to be realistic. Nothing comes for nothing.
“Perhaps,” she began, “you could explain to me what this is really about? Or would you feel more comfortable going for a jog first?”
The office fell silent, and Ms. Potts sighed inaudibly. After a long beat she picked up a second, much thicker folder from her desk. “I deserved that.” She returned to the couch and handed over the folder. “Before we have that discussion, I will need you to sign an NDA that covers this conversation. Anything else said during this meeting will be strictly confidential. Once you sign, should you break that confidence, not only will SI prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, but Mr. Stark will personally seek recompense for the lost of trust.”
Evie blinked. That was…not what she expected. At all. She took the folder reflexively and stared into lovely blue eyes. Ms. Potts was deadly serious. A thrill of interest, of excitement, made Evie’s stomach twist in a not unpleasant way. This could be another Root Solutions, trying to sell her work out to shady international corporations. Or, it could be something far, far more interesting.
It only took a few minutes to read the fine print and sign the NDA.
“Go ahead.” Evie picked up her still warm tea and listened.
“Well, I think that was a success, don’t you?”
Pepper tipped back her head and stared at Tony incredulously. “Are you insane?”
He looked affronted. “What? She didn’t freak out or demand a demonstration or anything. That’s pretty good in my book.”
“In your book, people regularly turn into giant green wrecking balls or get bitten by radioactive spiders. Not to mention all the freezing and/or returning from the dead. Your book is not a good baseline.”
“Hey – those are my friends! Well, most of them. Some of them. I have friends you know! And they are better than average. Some of my favorite people are better than average.” He raked his gaze over her obviously.
“I know, Tony,” Pepper responded with a smile. She slumped further into the couch and rubbed the space between her eyes. She had really wanted Dr. Vivas to be the one. Pepper had a good feeling about her. And she seemed nice. Normal. Her life was so decidedly not normal, but wanting a baby was, so she wanted a doctor who was normal too. And she did want a baby. A baby with Tony. And they could be a family. Not that they weren’t already a family but they could be more and life was so short. So precious and fleeting and- she could feel tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.
“Did you notice how I kept my mouth shut?” Tony said quietly. His hands came to rest on her shoulders and he began to knead firmly. Pepper moaned. Tony had very strong hands and he knew just where the tension knotted up.
“I am so proud of you.” She let her eyes drift closed.
“Hm. Yes. I deserve a reward. You will let me take you to lunch before I go back to New York. And you will listen to my highly articulate reasons as to why SI HQ needs to be on the East Coast. I am going to dazzle you with my brilliance and logical arguments. Don’t be surprise if you just fall into my arms before desert.”
“Oh, yes.” He paused the massage to send a quick text. “And if you aren’t convinced, I’ll just have to seduce you. That’s the kind of dedication you get from Tony Stark. One hundred percent focus.”
“Can we get pasta delivered?” If there was an upside to Extremis, it had to be that carbs had no effect on her waistline.
“How long can you make this lunch? Do we have time for a glass of wine and some intense negotiations?”
Pepper smiled. “We’ll see.”
Two hours later Tony was looking for his cufflinks and Pepper was back behind her desk, hair once more in a classic ponytail, scrolling through her email. A perfunctory knock was the only warning she got before Geoff entered. Pepper raised her eyebrows. Geoff knew better than to interrupt a lunch with Tony without permission. He had seen more than he wanted to before.
“Pardon me, Ms. Potts.” Geoff looked a little flushed, an actual smile threatening his firmly expressionless face. Geoff knew all of her secrets. All of them. And he was the perfect assistant to keep them. “The front desk delivered this.” He held up the folder she had sent with Dr. Vivas. Pepper held her breath, her heart beating too quickly. “She signed. Both of them.”
“Thank god.” Tony flopped onto the carpet like a land-locked starfish. Butterflies erupted in Pepper’s stomach. She was doing this. They were doing this.
“Thank you, Geoff.”
“She put in a note too.” He quickly crossed to her desk, left the folder with a brief grin, and retreated to the door again. “Congratulations, Ms. Potts. Mr. Stark.” As soon as they were alone again Pepper flipped open the folder with a shaking hand. Inside was a single sheet of lined paper. The message was in dark blue ink.
I recommend an examination facility in your building, preferably adjacent to the research space we discussed. Please let me know when it would be convenient to schedule full initial work-ups for both parties. Sooner is preferable.
Thank you for considering me, and for your trust.
-Evelyn Vivas, M.D.
The next evening, Pepper and Tony attended a benefit at Los Robles Hospital. Tony accidentally spilled a drink on a young woman who Pepper insisted on escorting to the ladies room to help clean up. They spent the rest of the night chatting animatedly about the potential benefits of early intervention gene therapy. Several paparazzi noted that the women seemed to become fast friends, trading fitness tips as well as professional talk. No one in the medical community was surprised when the young woman, Dr. Vivas, was offered a research opportunity in a new, small division of Stark Industries.
It was certainly a lucky coincidence.
*y te sentirías mal si cortaras a un hombre inocente: and you’d feel bad if you cut an innocent man.
que diablos: what the hell?