The strip lights burned and keyboards purred as Lina hurried the brief down the hall to Dan's office. Past the heads of the night-shift secretaries floating above the workspace partitions. Past a blinking, malfunctioning copier that sat abandoned, its various doors and flaps left open, awaiting the arrival of some jumpsuited Joe versed in the fixing of mechanical things. Past the coffee station, with its stinky microwave and humming soda machine. Past the row of half-open office doors through which Lina sensed more than saw caffeine-strung associates staring at computer screens or listening on mute to meetings under way in Hong Kong or Houston or Dubai.
At the corner office, Lina stopped.
"Dan?" She rapped a knuckle on the half-cracked door and pushed it open.
Dan sat marooned behind the island of his desk, his face glowing bluely from the computer screen. Floor-to- ceiling windows shimmered behind him, dark as a night sea. He was typing. His eyes shifted from the screen as Lina entered the room but his fingers remained in motion.
Dan was Lina's "mentor partner," a designation handed down by the HR department on Lina's first day at the firm. Lina had heard of him, of course. In the litigation world, Dan was a star. His perfect win record and lack of any obvious social anxiety issues distinguished him from the hordes of aggressively successful litigation partners at Clifton and throughout the city. A photo of two red-haired, pink-cheeked children sat framed in silver on Dan's desk. Lily and Oliver, Dan had told her. Twins. Lina had never met them, nor the wife (Marion) whose photograph hung behind his desk (tan, wan smile, one-piece).
"Sorry the brief is late," Lina said, checking her watch: 12:04. "I got a little carried away with the corporate veil discussion. These facts are just so strong. But here it is."
Dan blinked. With both hands he pushed away his prodigious hair: red, springy, tending to vertical. Some partners cultivated symbols of eccentricity like this, flares sent up from the Island of Same. One wore glasses with thick black plastic frames reminiscent of a Cold War Kissinger. Another practiced meditation in his office every afternoon promptly at four o'clock, the oms echoing down the hall.
"Brief?" Dan asked. "What brief?"
"The brief in the fraud trial?" Lina spoke carefully. Dan often feigned an attitude of happy indifference. He gave the illusion of a laid-back, generally affable person, a person who might, with a smile, service your car and charge you a fair rate or sit on a barstool and buy you a beer. But she had seen him take his blood pressure meds (a colorful assortment, one the size of a horse vitamin), she had seen the throbbing blue vein at his neck. She'd once heard him scream at a paralegal who'd stapled a document in the wrong corner.
Dan paused, then blinked again, faster this time. "Oh, yeah. Thanks, Lina. I rememberthe brief. You're a little late," he glanced down at his watch (gold, glistening). "Throw it here on my desk." He pointed his chin vaguely toward the left. "So how did it come out?"
Lina hesitated, remembering those frozen moments in her office, her sense that something remained incomplete, undiscovered. But here, standing on Dan's expansive carpet, breathing the vaguely fragranced air (mint? licorice?) that seemed to permeate only the partners' offices, she pushed away any hint of uncertainty. "I'm very happy with it," she said. "The argument is persuasive. And I'm confident we've covered all the relevant case law."
"I'm sure it's greatyour work always is." Dan paused, and then half-whispered, "You know, I probably shouldn't be telling you before the others, but we settled yesterday."
"Settled? Yesterday?" A coolness ran through Lina, starting at her eyebrows and ending at her toes, as though something warm and alive were departing her body.
Excerpted from The House Girl by Tara Conklin. Copyright © 2013 by Tara Conklin. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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