When prominent attorney Alain Girouard is found murdered, and his secretary becomes the leading suspect, Kate Lawrence and her colleagues band together to exonerate one of their own.
Possibilities include the many women Girouard discarded over the years, a horticulturist with an interest in deadly flora, the victim’s wife, who has a surprising lover of her own, and a local clairvoyant.
Each clue puts Kate closer to the truth but further into danger when the murderer decides to put an end to her meddling.
Have you ever wondered what your secretary really thinks of you? I’ll tell you what she thinks of you: If you would just get out of her way, she could run the office far better without you. And that’s on a good day.
On a bad day, her thoughts about you are probably homicidal, and that’s when being a legal secretary could work to her advantage. If you work for lawyers long enough, my new friends tell me, you can easily learn how to commit murder. Even better, you can learn how to get away with it. At least, that’s what everyone thought happened last summer at Bellanfonte, Girouard & Bolasevich, three names so unpronounceable that the Hartford law firm is known throughout New England simply as “BGB.”
Had I been less preoccupied with my own impending death on that steamy Thursday in June, I could have killed Donatello Bellanfonte. Following him reluctantly into the elevator, I tried unsuccessfully to distract my thoughts from the thirty-six stories of empty shaft Donatello had reminded me were beneath our feet. “Actually, it’s a thirty-seven-story drop, counting the cathedral ceiling in the lobby,” he amended as the doors slid shut in front of us, “but anything over six stories, and we’re dead anyway.” He whistled cheerfully as the express car plummeted toward the city street below, and I clung to the side rail, ears popping in the changing air pressure.
If I had suffered from a dread of arachnids instead of heights, I reflected sourly, Bellanfonte would have produced a rubber tarantula from his suit pocket and dropped it down the neck of my dress; but since I had made the mistake of making my new boss, an estate law guru, aware of my lifelong fear of heights, he made elevator jokes. Irrational fears were not to be tolerated in an adult human being, he maintained in true U.S. Army (Ret.) fashion. It was simply a matter of confronting one’s demons, and he had made desensitizing me his personal mission. So far, it wasn’t working.
As cloying as the heat and humidity of a Hartford summer were, I welcomed them as evidence of my survival as, wobbly kneed, I preceded Bellanfonte through the revolving door that spun us into the lunch-hour crowd on Trumbull Street. He lifted a hand briefly in farewell and charged off to his meeting with the editor of the New England Law Tribune, where they would review the periodical’s editorial calendar for the coming year and identify the topics Donatello would cover for them as one of their regular columnists. During the more than twenty years he had practiced estate law, he had written dozens of articles for legal and trade magazines. He had also untangled the snarl of tax regulations for some of the biggest names in the country. And whenever he got the chance, he indulged his passions for golf and racquetball the way he did everything else-aggressively and to excess.
Despite the city’s blast furnace ambience, city workers strode purposefully by in all directions as Bellanfonte disappeared down Church Street into the crowd. He consulted his cell phone for effect, hoping for a message, although we had left the office just moments ago, to prove how indispensable he was to his clients.
Relishing the free hour ahead of me, I considered my lunch options. A little fish at No Fish Today? Salad at Au Bon Pain? But instead of growling happily in anticipation, my stomach roiled. It was barely noon, and my stress level was already over the top. I waited impatiently for a walk light and sympathized with the professional dog walker who was attempting to keep four leashes and the animals to which they were attached under control. Maybe just a glass of iced tea, then. No gastric protests followed this thought, so I headed down the block to where the food wagons were lined up, collected my tea, and took it with me into Bushnell Park, where I sagged onto a bench.
A couple of thirty-ish eager beavers in pinstriped and rolled-up shirtsleeves passed by, earnestly trashing Hartford’s only daily newspaper, the Courant, which one of them waved for emphasis as he attempted to impress his colleague with badly thought-out disatribes about unnecessary sensationalism and the general incompetence of the paper’s publishers. That subject exhausted, he sniffed the air suspiciously and announced, “Somebody’s smoking.” I immediately wished for a cigarette. Ah, the good old days.
I pulled a notepad from my purse, intending to organize the myriad projects and deadlines Bellanfonte had outlined in during our meeting that morning. Instead I found myself reflecting on the events that had led up to this moment on a park bench.
One month ago my business card had read, “Sarah Kathryn Lawrence, Manager of Marketing and Investor Relations, TeleCom Plus.” I had been recruited to TeleCom some three years earlier, when the company was an up-and-coming telecommunications equipment distributor in a burgeoning market. Within a mere two years, however, TeleCom’s management had bungled every opportunity that came their way until the stockholders, weary of watching the value of their investments plummet, openly rebelled. When the price per share dropped beneath half its original value with no bottom in sight, I resigned and went home to review my career options.
When I walked away from my mahogany-paneled office, I was looking at fifteen years to retirement. I had a hefty mortgage on my condominium at The Birches and a car payment. My son Joey and daughter Emma were both self-supporting, but my two elderly cats, Jasmine and Oliver, expected to eat regularly and ran up the occasional astonishing vet bill. Since I had no intention of ruining my five-year relationship with Armando Velasquez, the sexy, Latino comptroller of TeleCom Plus, by marrying him, shared domestic expenses were not in my future. I still had to make ends meet. The only question was, how did I want to do it?
I admitted to myself that I no longer enjoyed schmoozing clients or enticing prospective customers into buying some product or service they really didn’t need. Truth be told, marketing had never really appealed to me. It’s just where my skills had landed me in the booming economy of the ’80s. But in the early days of my career, I had been one hell of a good secretary. What’s more, I enjoyed hands-on work far more than I did the meandering meetings, cocktail hours and client lunches of my ensuing marketing career.
Bearing all of this in mind, I decided to bag the whole management thing and return to my administrative roots as the esteemed aide de camp to a top gun. I would bask in reflected glory, while avoiding the stresses of client handholding and personnel supervision.
On Sunday morning, I snapped open the Courant’s employment ads and saw BGB’s ad for a “seasoned executive assistant” to support a nationally acclaimed estate law expert on a temporary basis. In addition to a thriving law practice, he had a heavy speaking and writing schedule and needed a special assistant for the next six months. Perfect, I thought. I can get my feet wet and walk away with no hard feelings at the end of that time. My workday would be stress free, and at 5:00 p.m., I would leave it all behind.
I carefully stripped down my resumé, substituting phrases like “Marketing Assistant” for my executive titles and striking out most of the supervisory functions I had performed. The result was a still truthful, albeit streamlined, summary of my job experience, guilty only of sins of omission. I faxed it off. By Wednesday, I was chatting up Paula Hughes, BGB’s human resources manager; on Thursday, Bellanfonte himself interviewed me briefly; and when I was offered the job on Friday at a very fair salary, I accepted with alacrity.
“You’re crazy,” said my elderly, outspoken neighbor Mary Feeney. I love Mary, but she’s hardly one to be calling anybody crazy, being more than a little dotty herself. Mary retired in 1985. She now spends her days annoying the Birches’ property manager, who had once been unwise enough to chastise Mary for an oil spot left on her driveway by her disreputable Chevy sedan. “You managed a staff of ten. Now, you’re going to regress to typing and filing? Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” She blew a raspberry and hung up.
“You’re out of your gourd, Mamacita,” stated my daughter Emma, who has never fully recovered from one semester of high school Spanish. “You were a libber, for God’s sake, and you made darn sure I got my paralegal certification. Now you’re telling me you’re going back to fetching coffee?”
“There’s far more to administrative work these days,” I countered stubbornly.
“Uh huh,” she muttered in disgust and disconnected.
“No way, Ma!” exclaimed my long-haul trucker son Joey, when I delivered my news to him along with the spaghetti dinner he had requested for his Sunday-night stopover. “You’re a published author, for crying out loud. Now you’re going to type somebody else’s manuscripts?”
“For the moment,” I said, patting his whiskery cheek, which always startled me a little. “It’s temporary, remember.”
“If that is what you really want to do, then of course, you must do it,” said Armando later that evening in his delightfully accented baritone. “But frankly, mi corazon, it sounds just a little, how do you say it in English, ‘loco’?”
“Loco,” I told him a tad tersely. “It’s loco in Spanish and loco in English. Nuts, crazy, wacko. All the same thing.”
He took my hand in his and brought my fingertips gently to his lips. In the interest of not ruining a perfectly good evening, I allowed him to change the subject.
So, for all the world like a rebellious teenager, I presented myself on Monday, June 16th, to BGB’s training coordinator, Beverly Barnard, for my first orientation session. My training, which I was certain would be a breeze, had been scheduled during one of Bellanfonte’s lecture tours to give me time to settle in, as he had phrased it. Hah! The truth was that the big weasel had slithered off to lie low during what was known throughout the support staff, I later learned, as Hell Week.
After I filled out half a dozen insurance forms, the balance of my first morning was devoted to a mind-boggling introduction to BGB’s word processing and document management software, all of which had been customized to meet the specific needs of a large law firm with offices in multiple states. The training was conducted in spacious, state-of-the-art quarters equipped with ergonomic everything on the thirty-sixth floor. As I enjoyed the comfortable surroundings, it occurred to me that I had never seen my workspace and asked Beverly where I would actually be located. I had a vague notion of a small but nicely equipped outer office leading to a tastefully furnished inner sanctum, suitable quarters for the firm’s biggest rainmaker and his executive assistant. If my office turned out to be a bit smaller than those to which I had been accustomed, well, I would graciously adapt.
Beverly ushered me up an enclosed flight of stairs and down a narrow aisle, stopping in front of one of the offices that rimmed the exterior wall of the thirty-seventh floor. I peeked inside. Piles of paper and Redwell files overflowed a large desk, and cardboard file boxes were stacked everywhere. A credenza behind the desk held books and more files, and a computer workstation filled the gap between the two pieces of furniture. I was surprised that the office hadn’t yet been emptied of the previous occupant’s things, but no doubt that would happen before my orientation was completed. I had noticed a painting crew in an office down the hall. Perhaps this one was next on their list. With fresh paint and some nice floor plants, it would suit me fine.
Beverly consulted a pocket directory, then turned her back to the office into which I had been peering and pointed to a cramped, nasty-looking little cubicle, one of dozens that faced the exterior offices. “This is you,” said Beverly. “See you after lunch.” She disappeared back down the aisle.
For several seconds, my brain refused to engage. The “pod,” as I would soon learn a secretarial workspace was called, was about twelve by six feet and surrounded by elbow-high barriers. Two desks and two chairs, all circa 1950, were crammed against the front of the enclosure. A computer workstation occupied fully half of each desk. A clerical worker tapped away at the keyboard on the right side of the pod. She was possibly the most stunning black woman I have ever seen. Soft, brown curls fell to her shoulders, her skin was the color of milk chocolate, and her figure, what I could see of it, was curvaceous. She looked up and gave me a warm smile, charmingly framed in dimples. “Welcome, podmate! I’m Charlene Tuttle, Victor Bolasevich’s secretary.” Her eyes were pure turquoise and as untroubled as the Caribbean, of which they reminded me.
I can only imagine the picture I must have made with my head swiveling in disbelief from the door of what I now understood was Bellanfonte’s office to the pod and back again. “You’re kidding!” I blurted, and Charlene’s smooth brow furrowed.
I mumbled something about having a headache, blundered to the main elevator lobby, and gritted my teeth during the plunge to the Metro Building’s second-floor cafeteria, where I swallowed two Advils, nursed a cup of tea, and rehearsed how I would confront my new boss at the first opportunity.
Since Bellanfonte was safely on the west coast, however, there was no one to confront for the moment. I reminded myself that however ludicrous my situation might be, it was only temporary. That thought got me through the afternoon training session on the firm’s hellishly complex system for recording each lawyer’s time in six-minute increments, and shortly after five, I slunk home through the rush-hour traffic on autopilot. Two glasses of Pinot Grigio later, I had convinced myself that first impressions were often misleading, I was probably over-reacting blah blah blah, and put myself to bed.
But the next day was more of the same. Training on spreadsheet software. Training on the telephone system. Training on electronic mail and calendar maintenance. Again, my only break was at noon, and I returned to the thirty-seventh floor to take another look at my workspace, determined to be objective. After all, I reminded myself, the firm could hardly be expected to invest in quarters they would soon be abandoning. Had not Bellanfonte himself shown me the plans for the firm’s new offices atop the CityView building on which ground would be broken any day now?
On this day, I took the interior stairs down from the firm’s data processing department on the thirty-ninth floor. As I passed thirty-eight, I gazed wistfully at the elegant reception area in which clients awaited their expensive attorneys, then proceeded doggedly to thirty-seven. This time, I noticed an array of cheesy photographs on the stairwell walls, four eight-by-ten enlargements of old, Caucasian men. The prints were amateurishly framed and hung askew on carpet tacks banged into the walls. Portraits of the founding fathers, no doubt.
The door leading from the stairwell to the main corridor jammed on some duct tape that patched a three-corner tear in the carpeting, so I had to yank it open. Then I turned right and traversed the narrow aisle until I came to the half-empty double pod outside Bellanfonte’s office.
Dismayingly, nothing had changed. Once again, Charlene sat at her computer, typing busily. My “space,” which struck me as an odd term for quarters so small, was still cramped, dusty and surrounded by cartons of files. The cheap veneer on the desk was held in place with tape in several spots. The computer station looked relatively new, but the transcription machine had a headset that would have done the Marquis de Sade proud.
“So how’s it going?” asked Charlene in an attempt to make conversation as I stood there numbly.
How on earth do you stand this? I wanted to shriek, but Charlene appeared perfectly composed. “It’s an adjustment,” was what finally came out of my mouth, and one I have no intention of making, I finished silently, sinking into the antique secretarial chair and holding my leather shoulder bag in my lap like a shield.
“Yes, I remember,” Charlene offered sympathetically. “Listen, I really have to visit the women’s room, and there’s nobody else around to answer the phones. Hey, why don’t you give it a try? These three are Donatello’s lines, and these two are Victor’s. The top two on your console are your lines. The others belong to me, the land analyst in the office next to Donatello’s, and the paralegals behind that partition over there. Just punch this button here whenever you see it blink more than twice, and whoever’s line it is will roll over into your console. I’ll be right back.”
“Wait a minute, Charlene,” I protested. “Answer all these phones? I mean, aren’t there people here who do that?”
Already halfway down the aisle, Charlene looked over her shoulder at me and chuckled, eyes merry. “Why, yes, and now you’re one of them! By the way, call me Strutter. Everyone else does.” She winked and sashayed down the aisle on impossibly curvy legs, leaving no doubt about the derivation of her nickname. Two telephone lines began ringing simultaneously.
By Thursday, my pipedreams of simplicity, reflected glory, and the esteem of a gracious superior had evaporated. Bellanfonte was back in town and popped out of his office continually to bark cryptic orders. He seemed convinced that because it took him ten seconds to outline a task, it should take me no longer to accomplish it. The phones rang incessantly and had to be answered swiftly and professionally. No electronic menus at BGB, nosir. When you paid up to $450 an hour for a BGB lawyer’s services, you got a real person on the phone every time.
Then there were the demands of the legal proceedings themselves, which were extraordinary. Add distraught clients, delicate and competing professional egos, and the unrelenting demand for perfection in the face of each day’s thousand-and-one opportunities to screw up, and you have the antithesis of simplicity. You have a tiptoe through the minefields.
As for the reflected glory of working for a top gun, I soon realized that in a law firm, there is no head honcho in whose aura to bask. The managing partnership is up for grabs every couple of years and moves from partner to partner. You are tolerated by your partners in direct proportion to your billable hours, and the number one question on their lips is, how much new business have you brought in lately?
Esteem? The cramped, ugly workspaces were only my first clue to the low esteem in which the support staff was held at BGB. Every day in every way, it was made clear to me that law firm personnel fall into two categories: Lawyers and Others. Anyone not in possession of a J.D. and a lucrative client roster was an Other, from the HR manager to the office messengers, and of the Others, secretaries were the nameless, faceless krill at the end of the food chain. What keeps these women here? I continually asked myself. Charlene and many of the others seemed to be bright, educated, and exceptionally able. From what I could see, they kept the firm running smoothly in spite of the interference of the self-important blowhards to whom they reported. Surely, they could do better elsewhere.
Ah, well, I thought resignedly, returning my notepad to my bag. It’s only for a while, and the money is good. I hadn’t realized that it was hazardous duty pay when I accepted the offer, but now that I knew the score, I just had to stick it out long enough to find another job. I dropped my empty cup into a trash barrel and headed back up Trumbull, walking slowly in the mid-day sauna. I thought fondly of my air conditioned condo and the juicy porterhouse in my refrigerator awaiting grilling. I drifted into a daydream that featured a cool bubble bath and a large steak sizzling over hot coals.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only fat that would