Jul 9 2012 4:00pm
Enjoy this excerpt from chick-lit-meets-the-supernatural book This Case is Gonna Kill Me, the debut novel of new author Phillipa Bornikova out on September 4th from Tor Books.
What happens when The Firm meets Anita Blake? You get the Halls of Power—our modern world, but twisted. Law, finance, the military, and politics are under the sway of long-lived vampires, werewolves, and the elven Alfar. Humans make the best of rule by “the Spooks,” and contend among themselves to affiliate with the powers-that-be, in order to avoid becoming their prey. Very loyal humans are rewarded with power over other women and men. Very lucky humans are selected to join the vampires, werewolves, and elves—or, on occasion, to live at the Seelie Court.
As I walked from the subway, I realized I didn’t want to cook. There was a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant just around the corner from my apartment, so I stopped there for takeout. I didn’t bother to check the mailbox in the entryway. I had moved in three days ago. There wouldn’t be any bills yet, and who wrote letters anymore? Then I thought about my foster liege, and his meticulously maintained fountain pens and heavy, creamy stationary embossed with his initials. Okay, vampires still wrote letters, and tried to get you to take notes in longhand, which meant I made a sharp turn and returned to the wall box to ﬁnd a letter from my vampire liege/foster father. I hooked the bag with my dinner over the handle of the roller bag and read the letter as the ancient elevator wheezed its way to the seventh ﬂoor.
Dearest, Linnet, ﬁrst day on the job. I hope it wasn’t too daunting. I was thinking of you, and the entire household is very proud of you. Love Meredith.
I kicked off my heels, dropped the sack of food on the coffee table, and headed to the windows. The July heat made the place stiﬂing. I resolved to get to a hardware store over the weekend and buy a window air conditioner. I had to stand on a chair to unhook the window latch, and while I was up there I paused to take a look at the Hudson River. The rays of the setting sun danced on the water, making it look like a river of glass. The view was why I had rented the apartment, though I had to stand on a chair and cock my head to actually see the river. It was small, but I did have an actual bedroom, and I loved the old ten-story red-brick building that had been erected in the 1920s. It had leaded-glass cabinets in the tiny kitchen, the wrought-iron radiators were heavily decorated, and the ﬂoor was hardwood.
The smell of lemongrass and chili made me remember I was hungry, and I jumped down as the last of the light faded. I located a plate for the pad thai, a bowl for the tom yum soup, and a fork and a spoon, then pulled out my cell phone and called my best friend, Ray. He wouldn’t mind if I chewed in his ear, and he’d want to hear how my ﬁrst day had gone. I knew he’d be home. It was a Monday night, and the show in which he was currently dancing was dark on Mondays.
“Hey, Munchkin,” he said in his soft baritone. “I’ve been thinking about you all day. How was it?”
“Fine. My new boss seems nice. . . .” My voice trailed away. “I hear the paranoia,” Ray said.
“I can’t help thinking I just got the job because Shade knew me.”
“Please—you were third in your class at Yale. You did all that crap good little law students do. . . .”
“Law Review and Moot Court,” I mumbled around a mouthful of pad thai.
“Which is why I cannot take another month of you working through the emotional trauma of getting the job.”
“Hey!” I tried to interrupt, but he was on a roll.
“Last month, you were sure you blew the interview. I had to listen to six days of you replaying all the things you should have said. Then there was the week where you tried to ﬁgure out what you’d do if you didn’t get this job. Then there was ice cream therapy when the depression hit because you just so knew you weren’t going to get this job—”
“And you were no help,” I grumbled. “You kept eating Tofutti while I was pigging out on Ben and Jerry’s.”
“Hey, I have to keep my girlish ﬁgure.” I made a rude noise. “And I’m lactose intolerant. So, come on, tell me there was some moment of joy before you returned to your usual habit of looking for the black lining in every cloud.”
I smiled, relishing a memory. “I did send gloating e-mails to everyone on my law school LISTSERV after I landed the job. And I made damn sure my worst enemies received the e-mail.”
“Now that’s what I like to hear. Petty vengeance is the very best kind.” I heard Gregory, Ray’s partner, calling loudly in the background. “That’s the dinner bell,” Ray said. “Gotta go. Brunch on Saturday?”
I agreed. Ray hung up, and I sat in my dark apartment and realized that right then all my clouds were silver and bright.
By Friday, my clouds had turned into thunderheads. During the past week, I had read through eight years of arbitrations—just nine more to go—and the ﬁles were getting thicker with each passing year. The takeaway from all my reading was that Chip was right: Our clients were crazy. After reading Marlene Abercrombie’s depositions, I decided that if I’d been Henry I would have left her too. And her kids were just as irrational, grasping, and greedy as their mother. I dreaded meeting them in the ﬂesh.
I mentioned this to Chip, and he looked at me with an expression I couldn’t really identify. “Yeah, and we’re trying to put the most powerful private army in the world in the hands of these people. Kinda makes you wonder what we’re doing.” He didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t follow up. One of the ﬁrst things you learn in law school is that the law isn’t necessarily about justice. It’s about process. And you try not to make value judgments about your clients. That’s not your job. Of course, that’s honored more in theory than in practice. We’re human beings, not robots, and we have emotional reactions. We just have to try to keep them under control when we’re in front of a judge.
By the second week, it was clear that Chip was deﬁnitely not in any kind of loop when it came to the ﬁrm. Most lawyers handle lots of cases. It seemed like Chip just had Abercrombie vs. Deegan, because we never talked about, and I never worked on, anything but Abercrombie, Abercrombie, and more Abercrombie.
At ﬁrst I had thought it was because Abercrombie vs. Deegan was so important, but it wasn’t. It was small potatoes when compared to the contract negotiations that McGillary was undertaking on behalf of one of our clients. They were going to be taking over power generation for Argentina. Caroline was assisting Gold on a massive and potentially very lucrative class-action tort case about long-term use of Botox.
And I had the crazy-people case.
It only took a day for me to notice that my fellow associates went off to lunch in groups of three and four. At ﬁrst that level of camaraderie encouraged me. In a lot of White-Fang ﬁrms the competition between the human associates is so ﬁerce that it precludes friendship, and can even tip over into outright warfare. I thought the fact these folks socialized together was great. I took to loitering in central reception at lunchtime, but an invitation was never extended. Instead I “overheard” remarks about “drones,” and classmates who were just wonderfully qualiﬁed and really ought to be working at IMG, followed by pointed looks. Then, on following Friday, Caroline’s bosom buddy Jane had mused about the hiring policies at the ﬁrm. One of the male associates, Doug McCallister, had smirked at me and said loudly, “Every ﬁrm has the legacy or the patronage hire.” Caroline delivered the coup de grâce when she said, “And you just hope they realize they’re out of their league sooner rather than later, and seek their own level.” That was when I stopped hanging around the lobby looking to be included.
My stomach growled. I looked up from the ﬁle, rubbed my burning eyes, and realized it was 1:15. Deﬁnitely time for lunch. I kicked off and sent my ball chair rolling back from the desk. It didn’t have far to roll—the room was tiny. I came up hard against the back wall of my oﬃce and nearly lost my balance on the ball. The framed print from the Santa Fe Opera, a time-lapse photo of stars over the theater, shivered on its hanger. I quickly rolled forward again. The way things were going, the picture was going to come down off the wall and brain me.
I left my oﬃce and headed toward the kitchen on the seventieth ﬂoor. It wasn’t as nice as the one up in teak heaven—the plates were paper and the utensils plastic—but we did have an espresso machine and a big fridge. There was also a sunny and pleasant break room off the kitchen where the secretaries tended to eat. I had eaten there on Wednesday, but it was very clear I was not welcome. I couldn’t really blame them. It was their only chance to dish about the attorneys. After that I had taken to just eating at my desk.
I snatched my brown bag out of the refrigerator, grabbed a plastic spoon, and hurried past the door to the break room. The whispers from the secretaries pursued me. I returned to my postage stamp–sized office. I pulled out an apple and a carton of yogurt from the bag, then found that my appetite had vanished. I stared morosely into the unblinking stare of my tiny wind-up toy Godzilla. He staked out a corner of my desk, ready to ﬁght off any monsters that might threaten me. I wound him up and set him marching toward the tower of Abercrombie folders. He walked into them and promptly fell over. Abercrombie had defeated even the mighty Godzilla.
I pulled back the foil top on the yogurt and thrust in the spoon as the odor of pineapple and banana washed up and crashed against my nose. It was gross. Whatever had possessed me to buy such a disgusting yogurt ﬂavor? I jiggled the little container in my hand, then decided, to hell with it, I’d treat myself to lunch out. I would save the apple for a mid-afternoon snack.
I decided to try to entice Chip to join me, so I stopped by his office. His door was closed, and his secretary, Norma, was in the break room eating. Chip’s basically sweet nature had won me over, and after two weeks we had pretty much stopped standing on ceremony with each other, so after a quick knock I opened the door and walked in.
Chip was on the phone, studying a piece of paper, and I heard him say, “Of course it’s convenient, but there’s one more angle—” He broke off abruptly and muttered into the phone, “Gotta go.” He hung up and quickly shoved the paper deep into one of the piles on his desk.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
He waved off the apology. “No problem.” He grabbed an ice cream sandwich, unwrapped it, and took a bite. “Going out?” he asked.
“Yeah. Want to join me?”
“Nah, but thanks. I bought lunch from the Sandwich Girl,”
he said, making it into a title.
“Well, I guess that qualiﬁes as a sandwich, “I said.
He looked startled, glanced at the ice cream sandwich, then laughed and picked up a white paper-wrapped sandwich from the desk with his other hand. I smelled the greasy, garlicky scent of pastrami.
“Life is short, eat dessert ﬁrst. That’s my motto. Have fun,” he said, and turned back to the ﬁles.
I gathered my courage, and asked, “Chip, do we have any other cases other than Abercrombie that I might work on?” He looked up at me with an expression that clearly said he found the question baffling.
“Well, I just feel like I’m sort of wasting the ﬁrm’s money. I’m just going over the same ground, and I’ll never be as up to date on this case as you. So, I thought maybe I could take some . . . other case . . . off your plate.” I wound down, suddenly, desperately afraid I would discover that he didn’t have any other cases. But he had told me he did, I reminded myself.
“Let me think about that.” Chip crammed the remaining third of his ice cream into his mouth. “Maybe after we get past this latest hearing. That witness dying really screwed us, and I like the idea of fresh eyes on the problem. You may see something I’ve missed. Let’s talk about it after you’ve read through all the ﬁles and helped me prepare.”
I was feeling so low that I almost abandoned my plan to go out for lunch. But another glance into my office, where my ﬁcus was dying from lack of light, made me head for the elevators.
I’d seen this small seafood restaurant a block from the skyscraper that housed our ﬁrm. Seafood was good for you, and more to the point, I liked it. I wasn’t big on sandwiches, and salads always left me starving by late afternoon. Since I didn’t normally get dinner until nine or later, I wanted some real food.
The heat shimmered off the concrete sidewalks as I walked over, and the city was ripe with the aroma of rotting refuse rising off the black garbage sacks set out for collection. Added to that was the smell of exhaust, hot dogs being hocked by street vendors, and sweaty people bustling along, accompanied by the music of blaring car horns, jackhammers, and a thousand conversations in a hundred different languages. It was New York. It was a grand, if somewhat dissonant symphony, and I loved it.
I stepped into air-conditioned bliss and breathed in the smell of lemon, garlic, butter, and ﬁsh. Saliva burst in my mouth, and my stomach gave a loud growl. Then I noticed the table for seven off to one side. Six associates from my ﬁrm sat there, among them Caroline and Jane, and a man with his back to me. Caroline stared at me like I was one of those bags of rotting garbage and leaned over to Jane to share a remark. Jane laughed, and I felt my guts writhing.
There were two options. One: Pretend I was looking for someone, and in a nicely audible voice ask the waiter if So and So (pick sexy-sounding male name) had arrived. When the waiter said no, ask the name of the restaurant and then declare (loudly) that I was in the wrong place. Leave.
Option Two: Slink back out the door like a kicked dog without uttering the cover story. That was probably going to end up being the option, because my mind was a whirling blank, and I couldn’t summon up a single male name.
Then the maître d’ asked, “Are you alone, miss?” in that snotty tone that seems to be reserved for waitstaff in nicer New York restaurants, and which guarantees you are going to get a table by the bathrooms or the kitchen.
Option Three appeared, arriving courtesy of the temper my father had warned me against. I decided, what the hell. My coworkers couldn’t treat me any worse. Wanna bet? the cautious Linnet asked, but I ignored her and went with furious Linnet. I nodded toward the table.
“No, I’m with them. I was just running late. They must have forgotten to mention it. If you’ll get another chair.” I threw the order over my shoulder as I started walking toward them.
The man with his back to me turned at the sound of my heels on the stained concrete ﬂoor. He was a partner. Not one of the named partners, but nonetheless a real, honest-to-God partner. There’s a tension in law ﬁrms between the founding partners whose names appear on the letterhead and the partners added later whose names don’t appear. Some lawyers don’t give a damn, but if you have ambitions beyond litigation—like sitting on the boards of powerful corporations or advising presidents—you like to have your name chiseled into the building and printed on the stationery.
The fact that I was crashing a partner’s luncheon made my steps falter, and I was about to give up on my “damn the torpedoes” approach and fall back on slinking away, but Ryan Winchester gave me a careful vampire smile that didn’t reveal the canines, and said, “Linnet, how lovely, please, join us.”
The waiter, who had been ignoring my order for a chair, now leaped into motion. By the time I reached the table, he’d brought a chair and set another place next to Ryan.
I had met Ryan Winchester a couple of times over the past two weeks, which was the only reason I went ahead and sat down. Ryan had been friendly. He had actually come down to my office to welcome me to the ﬁrm, and two days ago we’d run into each other in the library. I had been standing at the foot of a ladder gazing up at a top shelf that held the book I was seeking. He’d offered to climb up and get it for me, for which I was eternally grateful. Heights were not my friend.
Ryan had blond-streaked brown hair that women spent two hundred dollars to achieve, and blue eyes that he focused on you in rapt attention when you talked. I tried to tell myself it was just a technique, but it really felt genuine with Ryan. Ryan and the four human males all stood up. Vampires are all about the courtesy, and they insisted on the same old fashioned manners from the male humans around them. Ryan pulled out my chair.
“Linnet, I’m so glad you came in today. You’ve just been locked in your office working far too hard. Now I’ll have a chance to get to know you away from school, so to speak.” He gave me a warm smile, and this time I got a ﬂash of tooth.
I noted the frowns from my fellow associates, and I responded with a great big smile. I turned back to Ryan. “Well, I’m trying to get up to speed,” and I heard a muﬄed snort of suppressed laughter off to my left.
I took a quick look, but couldn’t identify who was responsible. My guess was Doug McAllister, who was always making little digs at Chip, to which Chip seemed oblivious.
I met Caroline’s cool gaze. She was above cutting remarks. She just existed, and that was enough to establish her superiority. For a moment, the therapist in the back of my head rummaged through my neuroses.
Why are you so insecure?
Because she’s tall and cool and elegant, and she knows the ropes. I hate not understanding the rules. And she reeks of money.
And you’re from an old New England family with money and respect.
“Hmmm?” Ryan’s face was only inches from mine. It was a handsome face that looked totally normal, and those facts helped push back the involuntary shudder.
“I said, I heard you’re quite the horsewoman,” Ryan said.
“Ah, yes. Have been. Hard to do now. Here in the city.” The words emerged in tiny, disjointed sentences.
“Well, I have a weekend place in the Hamptons, and a stable full of fat and lazy horses. Please feel free to come out and ride any time you like.”
“Tha . . . thank you,” I stammered. “That’s very kind.”
“No, it’s not. I have an ulterior motive.” He smiled. “I was hoping you’d give me some tips.”
“I would be delighted.” I hoped Ryan had a good seat, because that whole predator/prey thing is ampliﬁed with horses. Before cars, most vampires had humans to handle their horses, and they rode in carriages rather than riding astride.
But that was a problem for another day, and one that might never materialize. Right now it was time to savor my triumph. I looked down the table. The men were looking annoyed, but the women’s reactions were very different. Jane was looking down and away, almost hiding behind the swing of her long brown hair. Caroline stared at me. Her expression was harder to identify. I almost thought it was pity, but then it was gone, and I wondered if I’d imagined it. Perhaps I was stepping into a situation I didn’t understand. Maybe Ryan and Caroline had been an item? Though that would have been dangerous, since it’s drilled into a newly made vampire not to fraternize too closely with women. I needed to ﬁnd a source of gossip in the office.
The waiter came by with the others’ orders. It all looked wonderful. The baked seafood that Joseph was having smelled amazing, but I calculated the calories and settled on the bay scallops in a white wine and lemon sauce. Ryan wasn’t eating. The manager came over and leaned down to say softly, “We have a lovely organic-fed host in the back. A swimmer. Very healthy.” Ryan smiled up at him and nodded his appreciation. “Thank you, but I dined rather well last night. I’ll be ﬁne.”
The real money in the restaurant business is made in booze and hosts. Since it was noon, none of us were drinking, and Ryan wasn’t eating. The manager nodded and walked away, looking disappointed.
The kitchen rushed out my meal (though it didn’t taste rushed; it was delicious) so I could eat with the others. The conversation was mostly about the ﬁrm, about cases that could be discussed without violating attorney/client privilege, about politics—we were approaching another presidential election—and Labor Day vacation plans. For the ﬁrst time since I’d started at Ishmael, McGillary and Gold, I felt like I belonged.
As we walked back to the office, the group fell into discrete clumps. Ryan, umbrella unfurled against the sun, fedora ﬁrmly in place, was ﬂanked by Doug and Tom. Jane and Caroline walked together, and the ﬁnal two associates, Sam and Paul, orbited the triumvirate in the front and tried to attract Ryan’s attention. I followed behind, feeling like the sick gazelle trailing the herd and wondering when a lion would pounce.
I thought the guys looked like perfect idiots, capering jesters trying to attract the attention of the king. In some ways I couldn’t blame them. Being male, they actually had a chance to make partner with all the beneﬁts (i.e., becoming a vampire). The few women who made partner only got to hold that exalted position just for their lifespan. They never got their names chiseled on buildings or placed on the stationery.
There were a few wolf whistles from some construction workers on a nearby building. I decided to include myself in the whistles, because construction guys aren’t normally discriminating. I fall into the cute category, and that can be very disheartening when you’re surrounded by beautiful people. My dad says I had charisma, loads of it, but charisma only has practical application if you’re a politician or have power and want to wield it. I’m not the former, and don’t have the latter. All I have is a slim though short physique, jet black hair that I keep at chin length so it’s more comfortable under a riding helmet, and dark gray eyes.
We reached the building. The doorman held the door and nodded respectfully to Ryan. We all trooped in after him, little human ducklings led by a raptor. Ryan closed his umbrella, and there was a scrum of people waiting at the elevators. Clashing scents of Coco Made moiselle and Frédéric Malle and Chrome and even the occasional whiff of tobacco swirled around me. It was just dumb luck that left me alone on an elevator with Doug.
Glances into his office had revealed diplomas from Harvard, and break room gossip had ﬁlled in a bit more. He came from an old Charleston family, and from a long line of lawyers. His suits were all Italian, and he’d been at pains to tell people he had his shoes made in London because he had such narrow feet. He was also going bald and tried to hide it.
He leaned against the mirrored wall of the elevator as we whizzed up seventy ﬂoors and my stomach dropped slowly toward my heels. Just as the elevator began decelerating, he suddenly drawled in his warm molasses accent, “I work for Gold. He blackballed you. You only got in because of your family connections. Have a nice day.”
The doors opened and he stepped out.
I was so shocked I just stood there and ended up riding the elevator back down to the lobby level. I rode up and down three more times while I tried to gather my thoughts and my courage. I fought off the temptation to run home, crawl into bed, and pull the covers over my head. But if you run, you’ ll never stop running, I thought on one of the rides up the length of the building.
You’ve let them push you around too much already, was the thought on the second ride.
The concluding thought on the third and ﬁnal ride was, If you don’t stand up you’re going to end up a smear on the bottom of their shoes.
I got off the elevator and stopped ﬁrst at Doug’s office. I stuck my head in the door, gave him a brittle little smile and said, “You know, I’ve never seen a bald vampire. Better hurry.” He came half out of his chair, face twisting in anger. I waved, left, and headed upstairs to confront Shade.
“I was third in my class. I did Law Review and Moot Court. I passed the bar on the ﬁrst try. Not just the New York Bar, but the Connecticut and Rhode Island Bars too. I petitioned and was accepted to the Federal Bar. What’s wrong with me?” I wanted to sound pissed and proud, but instead it came out as the wail of a lost and hurt child.
“Nothing,” Shade said. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re getting caught up in a battle between two partners. It’s never a good place for a human to be.”
“Gold,” I said, and dropped into one of the high wing-chairs on the other side of Shade’s polished cherrywood desk.
The oﬃce was spectacular, offering a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the sparkling water beyond. All the furnishings were beautiful Art Deco pieces, and the art interspersed with Shade’s diplomas and awards tended toward the soft, pastel, and impressionistic. The only odd note was the prie-dieu in one corner. The purple velvet cushion looked pretty worn. I tried to picture Shade kneeling there praying. It didn’t compute.
Shade pulled me back. “He wants to take the ﬁrm in a certain direction—”
“Would that be backward?” I asked waspishly.
“I suppose you could put it that way. I’m resisting. McGillary is being pulled between us. Blackballing you was just an act of pettiness on Gold’s part. But in an effort to protect you I’ve put you in . . . well . . . a . . . a . . . how to say this? A less than vital position. If I had given you any real authority, it would have made you a target, and it might have ruined your future opportunities.” I gulped and stared at him. “Less than vital? I think this is a total dead-end job. And why are we still messing with this case? You could have told the Abercrombies years ago to accept a rational settlement, or ﬁnd other representation.”
Shade sighed. “This case generates billable hours, works to Chip’s strengths, and helps me fulﬁll a promise I made to his mother. She was my secretary back”—he waved vaguely—“in the day. I have a responsibility to her child.”
“Yeah, okay, I get that . . . but getting back to me. Look, I like Chip, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve as good as said he’s a loser, and this is a dead-end assignment, but somehow you think this is going to help me? I’d hate to see what you’d do if you wanted to hurt me.”
“Trust me, being roadkill in a ﬁght between me and Gold would be far, far worse.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Keep your head down. Work hard. Don’t make waves. And hope I come out on top in the power struggle.”
“And how long might this take?” I asked. “Oh, years. We’re vampires.”
This Case is Gonna Kill Me copyright © 2012 Phillipa Bornikova