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My new corner office wasn’t much different from my last one—battleship gray walls, faux-wood furniture, patternless nylon carpet—but at least it was brighter. It had been empty for almost a month, yet I was still picking up whiffs of the previous owner’s cologne. It was one of those vintage brands—Bay Rum, maybe, or Bacchus. I couldn’t tell. My talents didn’t extend to discriminating between specific brands, just between out of date and up to date. All I knew was that I’d have to figure out a way to eliminate the lingering odor. I didn’t look forward to putting in fifteen-hour days under the olfactory pall of Roy Wells’s ghost.
Wells had been a reasonably competent prosecutor, but he’d never made me feel very welcome in the Florida Eighth Circuit State Attorney’s Office. Not just because I was another female interloper in what his right-wing mentality firmly believed should have remained a male preserve, but also because I’d been breathing down his professional neck ever since Sam Grayson had hired me. Sam had fifty prosecutors across six counties to choose from, but he’d made me Felony Division Chief two days after my thirty-first birthday. One notable result of that announcement was the thin-lipped silence I now endured whenever I passed a colleague in the hallway.
Maybe it was the stress of this new order that had dropped Roy Wells in his tracks. Forty-six was a bit young for a fatal heart attack.
I slotted a nail through a metal picture hook.
I laid the hammer on my desk and hung my diploma:
The President and Fellows of Harvard College … in solemn council assembled, have admitted
CLAIRE ALEXANDRA TALBOT …
I was straightening the frame on the wall when I heard Sam’s voice behind me.
“Claire! What are you doing here? It’s after ten!”
Sam Grayson filled my doorway, all 230 pounds of him, with his suit jacket slung over one shoulder and a look of concern on his broad face.
“I guess I could ask you the same question,” I responded. “What does it look like? I’m moving my ego wall to its impressive new abode.”
“Well … it’s a little bigger than my last closet.”
Actually, it was only about thirty square feet bigger.
“Go home, girl! Freddie can do that for you tomorrow.”
I let the “girl” thing pass. Sam was in his mid-fifties, and he’d retained a few old-school habits, but he always backed me to the hilt when it came to the job.
“I’ve started now. Might as well finish.” I stooped and picked up another framed document.
“It’s a career, Claire.” Sam peered at me over his glasses. “Sometimes you act like it’s a race against time.”
“Sometimes it feels that way.”
Sam watched while I marked another spot on the wall. I fished a hook-and-nail combo out of the packet on my desk.
“Just out of curiosity … what is your plan?”
I turned to him. “Plan?”
“Your career plan. You know … the female attorney ‘I can have it all’ plan.”
I stared at him. “Has someone been leaving women’s magazines in the men’s room?”
“No. But my girls leave them all over the house,” he replied, referring to his wife, Diana, and their adult daughter, Suzanne. “Listen, I might be old, but I’m not deaf and blind. Over fifty percent of law school graduates are female, but the way this damned society works, any ambitious girl like you—”
“—woman like you has two choices. You work your ass off, never marry, and spend your nights alone eating takeout, or—”
“—or,” I finished, “I work like crazy, marry late, take a couple of years off to have kids, and then hire a nanny and climb back on board. It’s called ‘You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.’”
“Sounds cheerful, but there’s a downside.”
“Being, when you climb back on board, all the attorneys who stayed in the game have left you behind.” He paused, watching me. “So, which is it?”
“Keep working and wait to see where life takes me.” I lifted the hammer.
He smiled as if he’d just won a bet with himself. “Tell me you’ve eaten since lunch.”
I grinned at him. “No, Dad. I’ll grab some Chinese on the way home to my empty house.”
He gave me another of his funny little smiles and surrendered. “Okay. Don’t forget to set the alarm when you leave.”
He shook his head indulgently and left.
* * *
It was pushing midnight when I finished. I’d hung the remaining certificates and retrieved a couple more from a box in the footwell of my desk. I had my reasons. When you’ve been a qualified attorney for only seven yearsand you’ve just been appointed head of a division and you’re female, you need all the framed evidence of professional gravitas you can bring to bear.
I’d run an errand earlier in the evening, and when I returned, I’d left my car in the Chief Investigator’s space next to the main entrance. As I walked toward it, I thought I caught a ripple of movement across the street. I stopped. In my job, you have to be alert. “Situational awareness,” the cops call it.
Several mature laurel oaks were spaced along the sidewalk on the opposite side of University Avenue, and the glow from a streetlight at the end of the block had transformed their trunks into a colonnade of dark pillars.
But there was nothing else to see.
I unlocked my car, got in, and started the engine. I pulled out of the lot and headed west on University. As I accelerated, a set of headlights flashed across my mirrors. A vehicle swung an arcing U-turn behind me and then sped away in the opposite direction. I hadn’t seen or heard it approaching, and the maneuver startled me. I watched in my rearview mirror as the vehicle’s Euro-style LED taillights flared at the Main Street intersection. Their odd pattern resembled a railroad symbol on a map legend.
The vehicle turned the corner and disappeared.
Feeling slightly uneasy, I drove home.
Home was a rented town house exactly 9.4 miles from my office.
I’d almost gotten caught up in that crazy real estate bubble in the run-up to its collapse. In July 2008, I’d been considering buying a loft in a new development not far from the office. The location had definite appeal, mainly because it was a short walk from work. But then something happened. On the third Friday of the month, I happened to watch Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. I learned that millions of subprime mortgages were resetting, that the foreclosure rate was climbing fast, and that property prices were forecast to crater. On Monday afternoon, I walked into my bank and told the mortgage manager I wanted to reconsider.
“No problem, Claire,” he said. “I got your message.”
“That you’d changed your mind.”
I must have appeared confused because he shuffled through one of the piles on his desk, extracted a folder, opened it, and handed me a typed form.
It was a phone message.
Ms. Talbot’s accountant called. She’ll be in later to cancel her request for mortgage preapproval. Please do not process further.
I handed the message back. “Interesting … since I don’t have an accountant.”
His eyebrows notched up. He rechecked the document. “Hmm … maybe Mrs. Tierney misheard the customer’s name. Good thing, though…”
“Because I was about to register your file in the system. Cancellation would have cost you a seventy-five-dollar fee.”
“I thought preapprovals were free!”
“New bank policy. They’re calling it a ‘commitment fee.’”
“A commitment fee for a preapproval? That makes no sense!”
“The real estate business is booming, and—”
“Not for long, from what I’m hearing!”
“Maybe. But right now a lot of people are going from bank to bank, making multiple applications. Our loan officers are working flat out, and management says we can’t afford to have them wasting time on people who aren’t serious, so it’s seventy-five dollars for bank customers and a hundred dollars, payable up front, for noncustomers.”
“You didn’t mention this fee when I first spoke to you.”
“Oh? Didn’t I?” He didn’t seem too concerned. His mind had moved on. His eyes swept the stacks of paper on his desk. He grimaced, tapped the phone message slip, and said, “Now I’ll have to figure out which file this call was about. There’s no return number.”
I left him to his confusion. The next day I changed banks. Fees for preapproval?
As it turned out, I had actually benefited from the housing crisis because my rent payments were now ridiculously low. A year after I walked out of that bank, I became the proud tenant of a recently renovated two-bed, two-and-a-half-bath end unit in a quiet complex on Magnolia Walk in Haile Plantation. It came with all the features Realtors had been happy to extol when they were seducing the chronically underemployed into signing subprime mortgages: hardwood floors, plantation blinds, blue granite counters, solid mahogany cabinets, and … wait for it … genuine wood-burning fireplaces in both the living room and master bedroom. True townhome luxury at 100 percent financing! How could a buyer lose?
Let me count the ways.
I stepped under the cute little clamshell awning that hung over my front door and slid the key into the top lock.
It was already unlocked.
I always lock the dead bolt when I leave the house.
I put my hand on the knob and twisted. It didn’t budge. The bottom lock was still engaged. I used my key and quietly stepped inside.
The house was silent. I flashed on Sam Grayson’s advice to me during a particularly tense gang prosecution a few months earlier. “Get a permit, girl,” he’d said. “Buy yourself a gun, and learn how to use it.”
Advice I had ignored.
I slipped the machete out of the decorative umbrella stand my mother had given me. I searched both floors, room by room, closet by closet. There was no one there. I set the machete on my bed and started searching cupboards and drawers. I’m not a shopper, and I’m not an accumulator, so the search didn’t take long.
Nothing was missing.
As far as I could tell, nothing was even disturbed.
I descended the stairs and I slid the machete back into the stand. I wandered into the living room. I stood in the middle of the room, thinking … trying to remember my exact movements as I left for work that morning. I was beginning to doubt myself: Did I forget to lock that dead bolt?
Then I noticed it.
It was very faint. Just a whiff that barely registered, and then it was gone.
It was perfume.
* * *
I stood at the bathroom mirror for ten seconds or so before going to bed, just staring at myself.
Here I was, doing it again.
Here I was wondering why the hell I was here … in this place, in this time. Why hadn’t I been born centuries ago? Why now? Why had I been born in 1979 and not in 1479? Why was my name Claire and not some other name? Why was I born in Florida, and not, say, Nairobi or Brisbane or Kiev?
Why do I have this lopsided, watercolor face and not some other face? Why didn’t I have a face that was more … conventional?
I was fairly sure most people would not consider me beautiful, at least not in any classical sense. In fact, not in any sense for which a descriptive word exists in English. In a world obsessed with youthful, gorgeous—and symmetrical—faces, the one looking back at me from the mirror was more likely to be described as “intriguing.” It was a bit narrow, which actually worked for the cheekbone thing, but not so much for the chin. My lips were standard issue, but my smile was wider on the right side than the left. On top of that, I was probably a bit too thin. I’d always figured I had to stay in tight shape if I was going to endure the debilitating grind of jury work without ruining my health.
Bottom line was, for whatever reason—my looks, my manner, my pushiness—after my first few months on the prosecution staff, my male colleagues stopped including me in their Friday-night plans.
It didn’t matter what the lawyers at the office thought about me. I wasn’t looking for a relationship with any of them. The problem was … I had no relationship outside the office, either. It’s not as if a female prosecuting attorney can cruise the happy hours or start dating a defense attorney.
Close observation of my mother had taught me, from a young age, not to expect a romance-novel version of life when I grew up, but for reasons I hadn’t yet plumbed, the only men who ever came on to me were invariably already married.
I sighed, switched off the bathroom light, and took my intriguing self to bed.
Copyright © 2015 by Douglas Schofield