IT TOOK FIONA two full days, until late afternoon on Wednesday, burrowing into other people's files and records, to compile the list of all the litigating Northwood heirs requested by her grandfather. During this time, her own work suffered, of course, so when she finally had the list printed out and safely inside a manila envelope inside her shoulder bag under her desk, she turned immediately to the concerns and hungers and unfulfilled dreams of another enraged family — oil — but had only been at it for twenty minutes when her desk phone rang.
Oh, what now? She didn't have time for this, she'd be here till midnight, and what would happen to Brian's dinner, would he prepare some exotic cuisine and then just sit there and watch it congeal, hour after hour? Why would people phone her at a time like this?
No choice; she had to answer. "Hemlow," she said into the phone, and a clipped British female voice said, "Mr. Tumbril wishes to see you in his office. Now."
Click. Stunned, Fiona put down her phone. Why would a partner in the firm want her in his office? And why, of all the partners, Mr. Tumbril? In New York, a city known for fierce litigators the way New Orleans is known for overweight chefs and Los Angeles for fanciful accountants, the name Jay Tumbril was in itself very often enough to make mad dogs settle and homicidal maniacs run screaming from the room.
Well, she'd soon find out what it was about. She made her circuitous way across the Feinberg domain to Mr. Tumbril's corner — of course — office, outside which Mr. Tumbril's British secretary, as lean of head and body as a whippet, accepted her proffered identity, spoke briefly into her phone, and said, "Go in."
Fiona went in, closing the door behind her. She had never been inside Mr. Tumbril's office before, but the office itself wasn't primarily what she immediately saw and reacted to; it was Livia Northwood Wheeler, seated at attention on a pale green sofa along the windowless side wall and gazing at Fiona with an extremely complex expression on her face, appearing to combine apprehension, expectation, doubt, defiance, arrogance, and possibly a few additional herbs for flavor.
Her master's voice. Reluctantly, Fiona turned away from that bouillabaisse of an expression to the much clearer and sterner expression on the face of Jay Tumbril. A tall, large-boned man in his fifties, with a small ferret-like face, he was not quite so fearsome when seated behind his large neat desk, flanked by large clean windows showing views of the jumble of Manhattan, as when he was on his feet, pacing and stalking in front of a jury, but he was still quite fearsome enough. In a smaller voice than any she'd known she possessed, Fiona said, "Yes, sir."
"The last time Mrs. Wheeler visited these offices," Tumbril said, "you approached her as she waited for the elevator. You said I had sent you."
Shocked, Fiona cried, "Oh, no, sir!" Turning in horror toward Mrs. Wheeler, she said, "I didn't say that. I didn't say that at all."
Mrs. Wheeler was no longer looking at her, but at Tumbril instead, and her expression now was a simple combination of surprise and offense. "Jay," she said, "you're misrepresenting me. It was my conclusion you'd sent her after me. She denied it at the time."
Tumbril didn't like that. "Why would I send her after you?"
"There was a certain amount of rancor in this room at the time of my last visit," she said, apparently unafraid of Tumbril, no matter how much he glared at her. "I thought perhaps you were trying to make peace."
"Why would I do that?" Said with more impatience than curiosity, as though he didn't expect there could be an answer.
Nor was there one. "My mistake," Mrs. Wheeler said.
Accepting victory as his due, Tumbril turned his scowl back on Fiona. "Since I didn't send you to speak to Mrs. Wheeler," he said, "who did?"
"No one, sir."
"It was your own idea."
"Miss Hemlow," Tumbril said, "do you know the firm's policy with regard to young assistants such as yourself making direct contact with clients?"
"Yes, sir," Fiona said, in a voice so small she could barely hear it herself.
"And what is that policy, Miss Hemlow?"
It was one thing to study cross-examination technique in law school, but quite another to undergo it. Fiona said, "Sir, we're not supposed to deal directly with a client unless a partner or associate requests it."
"Jay," Mrs. Wheeler said. "I didn't mean to get this girl in trouble."
"She got herself in trouble, Livia." Tumbril made a little sweeping-away motion toward Fiona, as though she were dust, and said, "She had no excuse to speak to you. She never even had work assigned to her to do on your affairs. Why would she speak to you?"
"Well," Mrs. Wheeler said, "she said she admired me."
"Admired you? For what?"
"For the stance I was taking in my suit."
Tumbril sat well back in his large leather chair to gaze with thorough disapproval at Fiona. "You went into the files?"
"Of a case toward which you had absolutely no responsibilities?"
"You searched through matters that were none of your concern," Tumbril summed up, "and then you went to the principal in the matter to toady up to her."
"No, sir, I just—"
"Yes, sir! Well, young lady, if you thought you might be advancing yourself with this behind-the-scenes rubbish, you've done quite the reverse. You will go and clear out your desk and wait for security to escort you from the building."
"I know what I'm doing, Livia. Miss Hemlow, the firm
will mail you your final compensation. You will understand
we will not be able to give you a reference."
"Good-bye, Miss Hemlow."
Stricken, not yet able to think about what was happening to her, Fiona turned toward the door.
"Young lady," Mrs. Wheeler said, and when Fiona turned her heavy head the older woman had leaned forward to hold out a card. "Phone me," she said.
Hardly knowing she was doing it, Fiona took the card. She couldn't think of a thing to say.
Tumbril could. "You're making a mistake, Livia."
"Not the first one I've made in this office," she told him.
Tumbril threw one last scowl at Fiona. "You may go."
The envelope! If security found that envelope, with all that information on all the Northwood heirs, she'd be worse than fired, she'd be charged with felonies, her reputation would be destroyed forever.
Trying not to look in a desperate hurry, Fiona walked faster than she'd ever walked before through the maze of cubicles to her desk. She pulled the envelope from her shoulder bag, slapped a mailing label on it, wrote her grandfather's name and address on the label, and carried it away, to drop it in an absent person's out basket on her way to the ladies'.
Once in there, she realized she actually did need a stall for a moment, which was just as well because, when she stepped out, security was standing there, frowning at her, a heavyset severe woman in a uniform of brown. She said, "Fiona Hemlow?"
"You're supposed to be at your desk."
"When you're fired," Fiona told her, "it makes you need to go to the ladies' room. I'll just wash my hands."
The security woman followed her back to her cubicle, where her neighbor Imogen widened her eyes but knew enough not to say anything. Fiona took her few personal possessions from her desk, permitted the security woman to search her bag, and then they headed off for the elevators.
Fiona looked at it all, so familiar, so much of her life. All those hunched backs, those computers, telephones, stacks of documents, all of these creatures pulling steadfastly at the oars of this galley while their betters sat out of sight, next to windows.
Fiona smiled. Suddenly a weight had lifted, and she hadn't even known she was carrying it. "You know," she told the security woman, "I'm a very lucky person."