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Authors: Antoinette van Heugten

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller

Saving Max (6 page)

BOOK: Saving Max
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“The goal is to get rid of four of us by January,” she says softly.

Danielle’s heart lurches until she runs the numbers through her head. “Well, at least you and I are in the clear. We’re the top producers of the whole damned section.”

“Exactly—and the most expensive.” Georgia sighs and hands her a piece of paper. “There’s more. I got a copy of the latest musings of the partnership committee yesterday—from the trash can of E. Bartlett’s secretary.”

Danielle doesn’t comment on Georgia’s methods. “And?”

“And…” Georgia draws a deep breath. “You’re up—or you’re out.”


Danielle sits in a battered vinyl chair, jacked up with a hydraulic thing so the flashy hairdresser with the flaming red lipstick can get a good look at her. Country music blares as the woman pops her gum and delivers her verdict.

“Cut.” She wheels Danielle around. “Perm.”

Danielle sees her eyes in the mirror, as large and wild as a religious zealot who shows up on your doorstep to pray for your soul.
Oh, well,
she thinks.
Drastic times require drastic measures.
She nods her assent.

After Georgia left, Danielle worked like a madwoman, making client calls; following up on court and deposition dates; catching up on her billing records. Georgia’s visit struck terror into her heart. She
to make partner. If she doesn’t, there will be no way to fund Maitland’s expenses, much less the special schools and future treatment Max may need.

She is bleary-eyed by the time Marianne shows up at her door and asks if she would like to escape for a while. Danielle grabs her bag and hops into Marianne’s car. They laugh and chat their way across town to a small beauty shop with the name Pearl’s above the door in faded red letters. Danielle so thoroughly enjoys herself that when the pedicures are over, she lets Marianne whirl her in front of a mirror and convince her that it is definitely time to take a serious stab at personal grooming. Besides, Danielle wants to look her best when she has dinner with Tony tonight. She has a brief consultation
with Pearl, drops into a chair and surrenders herself to the process.

The scissors are sweet as they slice through her hair. So true, so simple. The acrid solution on her head is shockingly cold. Under the dryer, she falls into a trance. Pregnant with Max, she sees him through the translucent onionskin that is her stomach. He is a tiny fetus, perfectly formed, eyes closed. Red and blue veins interlineate his little body. He curls around them, waiting to come out. Wine-colored blood and magenta amniotic fluid flow seamlessly from mother to son in primal grace. She rubs her stomach under the warm air.

Relaxed, she lets her mind wander to Tony and their dinner tonight. Will they make love again? A warm blush suffuses her body as she considers the possibility. She lets herself fantasize about a holiday with Tony—on a sandy beach somewhere in the Caribbean, the glistering azure of the waves lapping before them as they lie with their arms entwined like teenagers exploring a first love. After that, Tony will make regular trips to New York, where they will see plays, cook extravagant dinners and eat them in bed while watching old movies on television. Max will adore him, and Tony will happily be the father he has never had. She can almost see the glittering diamond on her finger and the look on Tony’s face as he lifts her veil to kiss her…

“Done!” The redhead raps on her plastic helmet, takes her to the sink and rinses her hair. Plastic rollers plop into the bowl like hard rocks that clack against one another at the base of a waterfall. After a fierce blow-drying, she twirls Danielle around. “Terrific. You’ll love it.”

Danielle looks at the woman in the mirror. Her mouth forms a horrified O. She ignores the fact that her face is the color of powdered sugar and that exhaustion has worn deep ruts under her eyes. She squints at the new, close-cropped
curls that have turned her head into a battleground. After a long moment, she decides they look like the crazy cockscomb of an electrocuted rooster.

“Don’t you worry none, sugar,” says Pearl. “Everybody thinks they’re a little different-lookin’ after a perm.” She pulls an odd tool from her cart. It is some type of flat, metal comb with long spikes. She stabs and picks at the tight curls, her gum snapping nonstop until she reaches the desired effect. She hands the comb to Danielle. “A girl’s best friend! Almost—if you know what I mean, honey!”


Danielle takes a deep breath. She barely caught the early flight out of Des Moines. E. Bartlett’s secretary called her yesterday afternoon to inform her that the partners’ meeting had been moved up a day. She saw Max before she left. He seemed a bit odd and flat, but stable. She also cancelled dinner with Tony by leaving a message at the front desk. She has to focus completely on her real life and, unfortunately, he doesn’t fit into that category—yet.

Danielle hears the
of her heels as they march across the marble floor. Her firm is in one of the oldest buildings on Wall Street, and its cool silence calms her. She takes the elevator upstairs. The receptionist smiles in greeting, her eyebrows rising suddenly as she stares at Danielle’s hair. Nodding curtly, Danielle walks down the hallway and stops to collect herself. She takes a deep breath and opens the door. She takes in the large room on the forty-second floor and the thirty male partners of Blackwood & Price, an old-line bastion of the post–Second World War law firms. She studies the high gloss of the conference table, made of burled wood harvested from a special grove in South America. On top of the table is an impressive floral arrangement, an antique china and silver service for fifty, and a gourmet lunch catered by one of Manhattan’s trendiest restaurants. At this point in the deliberations, stout coffee is being poured—a prerequisite for clear thinking after the wine that was served with the meal.
There is a shuffling of papers and a few blurred coughs, the inevitable flotsam of decision making.

The partners around the table are not so different from those of any major law firm. There are the rainmakers, who expect routine ass-kissing and stupefying bonuses; the worker drones, who grind out hours on cases they are given; the young partners, who do the real work the senior partner has promised the client would be done only by him; the branch-office partners, bastard stepchildren; and the lazy remainder, a minority contingent with no major clients of their own who play resident sycophant to the powerful and, of course, who prostitute their votes on close decisions—like partnership.

A voice rumbles across the room. “Good afternoon, Danielle.”

Danielle looks up and smiles despite her nervousness. It is Lowell Stratton Price III, the head of the executive committee. It is he who was mentored by the great admiralty and international lawyers—the ones who marched off to Europe and Scandinavia after the Second World War and cornered the shipping business. With silver hair and intelligent eyes, he commandeers the firm by virtue of the respect all accord him. Lowell Price will be fair.

“Hello, Mr. Price.”

“Lowell, please.” He gestures to the hot seat at the end of the massive table.

“Thank you, Lowell.” In old-line New York firms, it is an unspoken rule that an associate may refer to a partner by his first name only when he or she has become a partner among the anointed.
Maybe it’s a good sign,
she thinks. She crosses the room and sits, hands folded, as if she were in court, ready to jump and object. She glances at the partners around the room. They look neither pleased nor displeased. No one notices her strange hair. They’re far too self-absorbed.

“Danielle, we have spent the morning discussing the fine associates who are up for partner this year,” he says. “We have interviewed the other candidates and are now opening the floor to partners who have questions they would like to pose to you. I understand you’ve been somewhere in…Idaho, is it? On personal business?”

Danielle stifles a groan. “Iowa. And yes, I have taken a few weeks off to attend to a personal matter, but I plan to be back in the office shortly.”

“Of course, of course,” says Price. She knows he is trying to cushion the glare of white paper—the blank time entries of the past few weeks. She’s had all she can handle just putting out fires on her cases. Even though she has worked as hard as she can, she knows that her concerns about Max have impacted her focus. Because of this, she did not feel justified in charging her clients for much of her time. She can almost read the other partners’ minds. No time, no money. No money, no partnership. This is where E. Bartlett, if he had a shred of honesty secreted away in that monumental ego of his, should step in and sing her praises. She looks at him, but he doesn’t meet her eye. In fact, he is flipping through a magazine. The message is clear: she’s on her own. “I don’t have your numbers in front of me, Danielle, but perhaps you could tell us what they are and some particulars about your practice.”

God bless him, thinks Danielle. He’s giving her an open door to toot her own horn. She sits up straight and puts on her game face. “Thank you, Lowell. I have billed thirty-two-hundred hours this year and believe I have shown sufficient drive and commitment to become a partner in this firm. In addition to my billable hours, my success in the
case resulted in a multimillion-dollar windfall to the firm. I have also generated new, significant clients whose collective
billings represent an additional million dollars of the firm’s gross revenue.”

There is a rustling of paper. Danielle knows the partners are checking her figures.

“You are a very bright, young attorney, and your work ethic is extremely impressive,” says Lowell. A murmur of what Danielle hopes is assent drones around the table. “Well, I am getting impatient looks from some of the other partners, so I’ll let Ted Knox have the floor.”

Danielle stiffens. Knox is a short man—with all of the attendant complexes—and a Lyman toady. Knox relies on Lyman to throw him the bulk of his cases. Without him, Knox couldn’t get a job as a paralegal. What really worries her is that he’s also a drinking buddy of E. Bartlett’s. If Lyman and E. Bartlett are truly in cahoots, Knox is the perfect pit bull. E. Bartlett flips to another page in his magazine. Danielle feels a sharp pressure behind her eyes.

Knox clears his throat and squints at her with his pale, gray eyes. “Thank you for taking time to talk to us, Danielle. We regret that your personal problems—whatever they are—have kept you from the office for so long. Actually, some of us, many in fact, have reservations about your bid for partnership.” He gives Lyman a sly grin. “Now, as Lowell mentioned, no one is knocking your hours. You’re a good producer—a good associate. But I’m sure you agree that it takes more than long hours to be a partner at Blackwood & Price.”

Danielle wants to ask him if the primary criteria include the presence of a penis. She holds her tongue.

“I’ll just lay it out on the table.” His voice is pedantic. “First, we don’t typically consider associates who have been with us less than ten years. You’re only in your sixth year. Second, most of us are not familiar with your work, a problem not of your own making, of course, but a problem neverthe
less. Third, although you have demonstrated some marketing ability, the marketing in this firm is done by partners, and partners alone.”

Danielle grips the side of her chair until her knuckles are white. She wants badly to respond, but has to make sure the little weasel is finished first.

Knox’s voice is now syrup, as sticky as the outdated pomade he smears onto the three remaining hairs on his pate. “Let me move on to one of the most troubling aspects of your proposed partnership.”

“And that would be?” she asks.

“Michael Sterns.”

Danielle’s mouth goes dry, but she manages to speak. “Michael Sterns is my client, as you know. I brought him into the firm three years ago, and the multi-jurisdictional class action I’m working on for him is, and will continue to be, extremely lucrative for the firm. In fact, that case alone has generated almost $350,000 in the past nine months.”

Now heads come up and eyes fix upon hers. Nothing excites a partnership like talk of big fees. Knox leans back in his chair. “Yes, we’re quite aware of what a good client Mr. Sterns is.”

“Then I’m sure you can appreciate how thrilled I am to report that Mr. Stearns told me he intends for me to handle all of his future litigation—even though I’m only an associate.” She can’t resist that last dig. This guy is a card-carrying asshole, and if his clique manages to block a positive vote on her partnership, she wants everyone to know she won’t take it lying down.

“Have you spoken to Michael lately?”

“Well, no—”

“Didn’t he have a significant problem in New Orleans last week?”

Danielle chafes at his cross-examination. She could wring E. Bartlett’s neck. He’s cut her loose to hang in the breeze. Beneath her anger is a crushing panic. If she doesn’t keep her job, if she doesn’t make partner—how will she pay for Max? She looks at Knox with determination. He isn’t going to take this away from her. “I wouldn’t call it a problem. I’d call it a great case.”

“But you refused to fly to New Orleans to accommodate him, despite the fact that his company has fee potential in the millions?” Knox’s words are bullets. “Or that he has made it clear that he wants you—and you alone—to handle his cases?”

Danielle stops. What can she say? That she has neglected her work because she has to find out if her son is crazy? That, having been told that her son is receiving the best possible care, she still won’t come back to work and take care of her clients? She is furious that she’s given this mental-midget ammunition against her, particularly when the deck is stacked in the first place. She meets his cold stare head-on.

“Mr. Knox, as a parent, I’m sure you agree that some things in life take precedence. An emergency arose regarding my son. Michael Sterns had a vessel arrest in New Orleans. I arranged for a senior associate to fly down there and cover it for me. I was in constant touch by telephone. Believe me, Mr. Sterns is aware of the situation and has not complained about the handling of the matter at all.”

“Not to you, perhaps,” says Knox. “As it happens, Mr. Sterns flew up yesterday to let me know that he is, unfortunately, quite upset about your refusal to interrupt your little trip—”

“Ted, that’s uncalled for,” says Price.

“Okay, fine.” Knox’s voice is brusque. “But you know as well as I do, Lowell, that this business is twenty-four hours
a day. They need us; we go. If we don’t, there are fourteen other law firms that’ll jump to take our place. And if this girl doesn’t have what it takes to make that commitment…”

A stunned silence fills the room. Danielle sits back, letting the gaffe sink in. “I’m a damned good lawyer, Mr. Knox,” she says quietly. “And I’ve got the hours and the clients to prove it.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Lowell’s kind eyes match his reassuring voice.

“In fact,” she says softly, “my billings are higher than yours were when you made partner.”

Knox ignores the muffled laughter of a few of the other partners, who catch Danielle’s eye and smile. “Be that as it may,” he says stubbornly, “Sterns told me that he might be willing to let someone else in the firm handle his cases, given your…situation.”

Danielle doesn’t know what to say. Knox is humiliating her in front of the entire partnership, and not one partner has spoken in her defense. E. Bartlett abruptly excuses himself, apparently deciding to leave her to her own devices.

Knox’s voice is cold. “I think it’s obvious that your priorities have nothing to do with your clients or this firm—”

“That’s enough.” Lowell’s voice is crackled frost. “I’m disappointed in you, Knox. We are not here to engage in personal attacks.” He pauses a moment. “Does anyone else have something to say?”

Danielle looks around the table. Stony silence greets her.

“Well, thank you, Danielle,” says Lowell. “Good luck.”

“Thank you.” Her voice is tight. Cinnabar stripes twin her cheeks as she pulls open the heavy, burled door and stalks out. “More like good riddance,” she mutters.

BOOK: Saving Max
7.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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