6th May - Downing Street, London
Professor, Sir Michael DeMilvus, gifted scientist, Knight of the Realm for his work on neonatal diseases, and the founder of MDM Research, was in a good mood. There was a spring in his step as he left 10 Downing Street, certainly not one of his usual haunts, but he had been attending a dinner there, as guest of Peter Trent-White, the Minister for Health.
As he reached the waiting limousine, he took a sideways glance at his reflection in the spotless windows. He ran his hand over his thick shock of greying hair to smooth some wayward curls. In the bright glare of the street lighting, his bright blue eyes shone; deep crow’s feet at their corners accentuating his smile.
For a man of 60, he was very good-looking and had a certain charisma about him and something else - charm; the ability to court favour with almost anyone.
Tonight, he had been at his charming best. It had been a great opportunity for some highly productive networking. His viral and biological research desperately needed more funds; they were on the verge of an important breakthrough and the dinner was hopefully going to be a conduit to some highly influential political people.
His priority had been to apply thick layers of charm on Ann French, the Treasury Minister. She held the future of MDM Research in her hands. He needed to impress upon her the importance of neonatal study and he skillfully used her position as a wife and mother as emotional leverage to gain her support.
DeMilvus had dedicated his life to the medical welfare of children, but he never talked about the background to his almost obsessional determination to wipe out infant diseases. No one knew about Thomas, his only child, taken from him thirty years ago by meningitis, before the little lad had reached his first birthday. No one knew that following Tom’s death, DeMilvus’s wife Claire sank into a deep depression and within weeks, had been found dead in her bed after downing a cocktail of drink and drugs. DeMilvus inherited his wife’s fortune and ploughed everything into his new project: The MDM Research Foundation.
Developing antivirals to combat childhood diseases had earned him universal respect and admiration. Unfortunately, MDM Research was also a great big bottomless money pit and eventually, with the bulk of his money gone, DeMilvus had nothing left to give.
Through his contacts in Government he had secured substantial funding, but every year the grants became smaller and smaller.
DeMilvus felt quietly confident as he climbed into the rear of the spacious car and sat heavily. The leather creaked reassuringly as he settled himself and he inhaled deeply, savouring the smell of quality hide.
A movement to his right momentarily startled him. The opposite door opened and a dark backlit shape filled the void. ‘Sir Michael, a pleasant evening I trust?’
DeMilvus recognised the mellifluous Scottish lilt of the Cabinet Minister for Health. ‘Peter, I didn’t see you skulking there. Are you to share my ride?’
‘Indeed I am Sir Michael,’ said the Minister, his usual singsong burr surprisingly even. DeMilvus didn’t notice the furrowed brow and worried expression as Trent-White flopped into the seat beside him.
Trent-White tapped on the back of the chauffeur’s seat. ‘Drive on and put up the dividing screen.’ The screen shooshed up, cocooning the two men in the safe, soundproof cabin.
DeMilvus liked Peter Trent-White. The 62 year-old minister had an avuncular look, and with his kindly blue eyes and smile, he was always a big hit on morning television, even though he was usually being pilloried for some NHS misdemeanor or other.
The car stopped at the gated exit from Downing Street and waited while armed police officers cleared some straggling tourists out of the way. When the gates opened, they swept through into Whitehall and headed toward Westminster. Big Ben boomed out across the city - Midnight.
Peter Trent-White was the first to speak. ‘I’m sorry about the withdrawal of Treasury funding. How did you get on tonight, Sir Michael?’
DeMilvus clasped his hands on his lap circling his thumbs around each other and heaved a sigh. ‘I’m fairly confident that Ann will find me something, but you’ve disappointed me Peter.’ He looked up and fixed the Health Minister with determined eye.
Trent-White shifted in his seat. ‘Then you’re going to be even more disappointed because Ann saw through your schmoozing. There’s no more funding. Full stop.’
A cold chill swept through DeMilvus’s body. ‘Are you sure?’
Trent-White shifted again and turned confidently toward the big man. ’As I warned you last month, there are questions being asked at the Treasury and unless your schmoozing has worked on someone else tonight, there is nothing I can do.
’I’ve been giving you some large slices of NHS funding, but not anymore. There is no more funding.’
‘Then you can blast the Treasury to hell and back Peter.’ he roared, and he thumped the seat with a clenched fist.
Trent-White dropped the formalities. ‘Why not try private investors, Mike? I know you’ve resisted in the past but...’
’Dammit Peter, once the high rollers get in they will commercialise everything. We’ll be all glitz, glamour and profits. Research and development is not about profits. ’
’Like it or not, Mike, it is about profits. If you had been making significant profits, you might not be in the pickle you find yourself in.’
DeMilvus Thumped the seat again. ‘My work is about finding cures, it’s about humanity for Christ’s sake.’ He paused for a second and as Trent-White drew breath to speak he pre-empted the next suggestion, ‘And I won’t go public either. If I do that then I become answerable to shareholders and their whims and fears. There would be too much interference in the work we’re doing. I’m sorry Peter, but it’s unthinkable.’
Now it was Trent-White who was angry. He had been a loyal ally to the amiable professor for many years, but questions were now being asked about ‘favouritism’ and ‘vested interests.’ Trent-White knew that it was prudent to distance himself from the Foundation.
’I’ve worked hard to get you as far as you have and I’ve done everything in my power to support you, Mike, but I’ve gone as far as I can. I might hold you in high regard, but you are also a right-royal pain in the ass. There is no more funding.’
He slumped back into his seat as if the effort of the confrontation had exhausted him. Both men sat in an awkward silence as the limousine whispered along the Thames Embankment. DeMilvus was absorbed in his own thoughts. He always knew that the funding would dry up eventually, but why now? Why now when they were so close?
The silence continued until the car pulled up outside the Tower Hotel, nestling tightly against the magnificent structure of Tower Bridge. It was a beautiful sight, but DeMilvus was in no mood to appreciate it. He climbed from the car and turned to meet the Minister’s gaze.
‘I need that money Peter. I have enough reserves to keep things afloat until the end of the year, but after that...’ He left the sentence hanging.
‘My hands are tied Mike and you know it.’ Trent-White tried his very best to look and sound sincere, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Without even a cursory ‘Good night,’ DeMilvus slammed the door and strode toward the brightly lit hotel lobby. He knew that unless he could find the necessary funds, MDM Research wouldn’t exist this time next year and that didn’t bear thinking about.