Cynthia Reeves, a pretty if slightly overweight secretary with a corona of blonde hair, stood just inside the door of my office, one hand on the doorknob, tears streaming down her face. I was at my desk, my laptop open on the corner of the desk, a pen in my hand, a legal pad in front of me. As I sat gazing up at her, I probably looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
“It was so demeaning,” she said, gasping between sobs so she’d have breath enough to speak. “Nobody’s ever talked to me that way before.”
I hated to ask. On the other hand, she was in my office for help or sympathy or…Actually, I didn’t know what she was there for. Both of us were women. I figured that had something to do with it, even if the lawyer-secretary divide was between us. “Who?” I said. “Who talked to you that way?”
“That Steve Kelley.”
One of a dozen associate attorneys, this one a couple of years behind me. “Steve Kelley said something demeaning?”
“He called me…” She paused for a loud sniff, retracting a wad of snot that had blossomed briefly in one nostril. “He called me a fixed unit of labor.”
This was one of those moments when I resented the glass wall between my office and the corridor. Even with the door closed, I had nowhere to hide.
“A fixed unit of labor.”
I hadn’t misheard. “What was this about?”
“Coffee. When he got to work this morning, the pot in the lounge was empty.”
Cynthia’s desk was probably the one closest to the lounge, which may be the reason she had gotten the first blast of Steve’s pique. “So he came running out of the lounge and called you a fixed unit of labor?”
She nodded, red-faced and sniffling. “I’ve never been called anything like that before.” She drew herself up to her full height, which was somewhere around five-four. Her dark skirt and contrasting pastel top made her look shorter—and a bit thick about the middle. “I will not stand for it,” she said.
“No, I guess not. He thought you should be monitoring the coffee pot, I take it.”
The snot-blossom had reappeared, pulsing distractingly in her right nostril. “Yes. I don’t have anything better to do, he said. I’m just a fixed unit of labor.”
The pen in my hand began to beat a tattoo against the blotter on my desk. I put it down, pursing my lips to hide the grin I felt tugging at the corners of my mouth. “Do you ever make coffee?” I asked.
“Sure. When I want some. Or I ask one of the gofers to do it.”
“You’re too busy to make a pot around eight-thirty every morning?”
Her breasts began heaving, not quite in sync with the throb of the snot-blossom. She was beginning to hyperventilate.
“I’ll talk to Steve,” I said hastily.
“Tell him he can make other arrangements for his coffee.”
“I will.” Though, of course, there was no particular reason he should listen to me.
“Thanks, Robin.” She opened the door and went out. “Wouldn’t hurt him to make a pot himself every once in a while,” she muttered just as the door swung shut behind her.
I slumped in my chair. Some days it just wasn’t worth coming to work, I thought. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling it puff my cheeks. As I picked up my pen and straightened up, a woman I hadn’t seen in ten years strode past my office. I blinked and looked again.
The woman was still visible through the wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, but all I could see was a tailored suit and the dark mass of hair that fell past her shoulders. She darted a glance over her shoulder as she turned a corner, and I was sure.
It was Wendy Walters, her face beautiful and not much changed, though it was not one to fill me with warm fuzzy feelings. We’d had a falling out over a guy once, a pretty bad falling out—to be entirely forthright, something of a catfight.
I staggered as I got out of my chair to go after her, and, as I recovered my balance, mentally cursed the unaccustomed three-inch heels. What some women will go through to please a man, I thought. By the time I got to the corner, Wendy was nowhere to be seen, but Steve Kelley, that coffee-loving harrier of secretaries, was coming toward me.
“Did you pass a woman just now?” I asked him.
He stopped, frowning slightly in apparent contemplation. “What did she look like?” he asked.
“She looked like a woman. Did you pass one or not?”
“About your height, a lot of dark hair, legs up to here?” He raised his hand, palm down, to the level of his neck. His jacket was off, his sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms to expose a gold wristwatch and thick, blond wrist hair.
He had seen her. “I’m surprised you’re not trailing after her with your tongue cleaning lint from the carpet,” I said. I turned and headed back toward my office.
“I have some self-control,” he called after me. “Otherwise I’d be trailing after you.”
I glanced back over my shoulder in time to catch his wink. I rolled my eyes and went through the door into my office, where I dropped into my chair just in time to see Wendy Walters going by again.
“Wendy!” I called as I lurched to my feet again on those treacherous heels. Why I’d let John Parker talk me into wearing heels to work was beyond me.
Wendy’s shoulders hunched as she turned her head, but they relaxed when she saw me. “Robin,” she said, coming to the door. “I was looking for you.”
Not so I could tell it. “It looked as if you were escaping from someone.”
Her eyes darted left and came back to me. “That, too. You got a minute?”
“Sure. Come in and have a seat.”
She hesitated in the doorway. “The last time I saw you, I believe I slapped your face,” she said.
I allowed one corner of my mouth to rise as I sat behind my desk. “No, you tried to slap me, but missed and then spit on me.”
“Gross. You sure?”
“You don’t forget a loogie like that one.”
“I almost feel like I should apologize.” She sat, finally, in one of the client chairs and tugged at a skirt that was really too short for office wear.
“Don’t apologize,” I said, waving it off. “I had it coming.”
“That’s true. You knew Cody and I were together.”
Cody. That was his name.
Her gaze slipped past me to the framed diplomas and law license hanging on the wall behind me, then returned to meet mine. “And I found you in the gym with your tongue down his throat,” she said. “It almost broke us up, you know.”
It was hard to remember passion so great that when it swept over you in a gymnasium hallway, its current was irresistible.
“You’re still together?” I asked.
“No. I guess it did break us up eventually. At least it was a precipitating factor. Hard to believe, isn’t it? One kiss.”
I felt my lip curl. “Is that all he admitted to? The kiss you caught him at?”
She studied me a moment. “Crap,” she said. “And I believed him. You slept with him, didn’t you?”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “Men are such liars,” I offered.
“I’ll give you that.”
I said, “If it makes you feel any better, I felt really guilty about it for a really long time.” Still felt guilty, if it came to that. What do you do with guilt, other than wait for it to fade? I thought it had faded, but after ten years, here it was, buried deep but solid as bedrock. “What ever happened to Cody anyway?”
“Last I heard he was coaching middle school football down in Blacksburg. That was a while back.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Ah,” I said. She’d been an accounting major when I’d known her.
“I saw your name in the paper a few months ago,” she said.
Double-Ah. I’d wondered to what I owed the pleasure.
“It was quite a piece. Robin Starling, taking on the tobacco industry,” she said.
“Not exactly. Representing one tobacco company and suing another.”
“Playing with the big boys, though. How long have you been doing it?”
“I’ve been in commercial litigation six years. Give or take.”
“I didn’t even know you were in Richmond,” I said.
“I started off in Alexandria. I’ve been back three years now.”
I waited. She took a breath and looked back over her shoulder. “Do you mind?” She gestured toward the door.
“No, go ahead.”
“Thank you.” She went to the door and shut it, then came back and pulled the client chair closer to the desk.
It was all beginning to seem a little weird to me. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She moved her head equivocally, the overhead fluorescents glinting in her dark brown hair. She’d always had nice hair. I myself have straight blonde hair without a lot of body, and hair envy comes naturally to me.
She opened her mouth, then hesitated. “Can we go somewhere? I don’t want to talk here,” she said.
“It’s the glass walls. They take some getting used to, but no one can hear us.”
She looked through the floor-to-ceiling glass into the interior hallway and did not seem reassured. I didn’t blame her. There’s something psychologically oppressive about doing business in a fishbowl. The partners of the firm have offices along the outer wall of the building with solid interior walls and exterior walls of floor-to-ceiling glass and spectacular views of the city or the James River. We associates have offices in the interior of the building, and they all have glass walls.
“It’s worse than you think,” I said. “The overhead lights are motion-sensitive. If you fall asleep at your desk, they go out.” I smiled. “Don’t ask me how I know.”
Her mouth twitched, but not in response to anything I was saying. Her breathing was getting rapid and shallow as her eyes tracked one of our gofers who was walking down the hall with a manila envelope in one hand and a diet Coke in the other. He looked in at us as he went by, turning his head further and further as he walked. Fortunately, he passed out of sight before his neck snapped.
“He can’t hear us,” I said.
“I’ve seen him before.” Her tongue passed over her lips, and she continued more strongly, “Downstairs, when I was getting on the elevator. He was watching me.”
I laughed. “Horny Hal?”
“His name is actually Harold Hornsby, but if he tries to stand close to you when you’re wearing a dress, you want to check the tops of his shoes for mirrors.”
“So you think…”
“I think you in that outfit would draw Harold’s gaze like a magnet draws steel.”
She smiled, but only faintly. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but she closed it again as her gaze went back to the empty hallway.
“We could go down to the food court,” I suggested. “Have a latte or something.”
She shook her head. “I really don’t want to be seen with you.”
That set me back. “I could freshen my makeup. Fix my lipstick or whatever.”
“You’re okay. I don’t want to put either of us in danger.”
The paranoia was beginning to freak me out. “It’s okay,” I said. “Let’s go down.” I stood and reached for my purse.
“Is there a back stairway or something? I don’t think I was followed, but just in case someone is watching the elevators…”
We passed John Parker on our way past the elevators. Another one of the firm’s associate attorneys, but good-looking enough to grace the cover of GQ, he was the man responsible for the most uncomfortable pair of shoes I could remember wearing. He was coming back from somewhere with a leather portfolio tucked under his arm, and his eyes cut automatically to Wendy’s legs, his eyebrows lifting appreciatively.
The son of a gun. John had been dating me the past nine months and sleeping with me for three, and he had me teetering around in a pair of pumps that was supposed to make me look statuesque, but probably, given my height, made me look Amazonian. I planted a heel on his instep as we went by him and grimaced in satisfaction when I heard the swift intake of breath. When I looked back at him as we turned the corner, he gave me a wince and a shrug that I took to be an apology.
Magnanimously, I nodded my forgiveness.