Equivocal Death: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview

Just out of Harvard Law School, Kate Paine is on the fast track at Samson & Mills, the nation's richest, most powerful law firm. Assigned to assist the charismatic managing partner in a high-profile sexual harassment case, Kate can hardly believe her good luck. But with the brutal murder of Madeline Waters, a beautiful female partner, Kate's carefully constructed world begins to collapse. A mysterious warning from the dead woman just hours ...
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Equivocal Death: A Novel

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Overview

Just out of Harvard Law School, Kate Paine is on the fast track at Samson & Mills, the nation's richest, most powerful law firm. Assigned to assist the charismatic managing partner in a high-profile sexual harassment case, Kate can hardly believe her good luck. But with the brutal murder of Madeline Waters, a beautiful female partner, Kate's carefully constructed world begins to collapse. A mysterious warning from the dead woman just hours before her death leaves Kate terrified and confused -- could she be the killer's next target?

Kate finds herself in a race against time to unlock the secrets of Madeline's violent death. Delving far beneath Samson & Mills' smooth veneer, Kate discovers a shocking legacy of abuse and betrayal -- a legacy that may hold the key to solving the murder, as well as to Kate's own survival.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Move over, John Grisham, and make room for Amy Gutman, the latest former lawyer to trade in the 90-hour workweek for the writer's life. With her impressive debut novel, Equivocal Death, Gutman has definitely proven herself worthy of comparison to the reigning masters of the legal thriller genre.

The heroine of Equivocal Death is fresh-faced Harvard Law graduate Kate Paine, a junior associate at New York City's most prestigious law firm, Samson & Mills. Intelligent and hardworking, Kate has suffered a fair amount of hardship in her life, from her mother's untimely illness and death to her law school boyfriend's betrayal. But when she lands a job at Samson & Mills, Kate -- awestruck by the power, the work ethic, and the decorum of the distinguished firm -- finally feels like she's found an organization that she can believe in and a community where she belongs.

After a year at the firm, Kate can hardly believe her luck when her mentor, Carter Mills, the dignified managing partner who hired her out of Harvard, plucks her from the masses of qualified junior associates to work on an exciting, high-profile sexual harrassment case for one of Samson & Mills's most important clients. Also working on the case is the beautiful and brilliant Madeleine Waters, one of the only female partners at the firm -- who, rumor has it, once had romantic relationships with both Mills and his in-house archrival, partner Martin Drescher. Shortly after they begin their work on the case, Madeleine calls Kate into her office for a meeting, during which she cryptically warns the young associate to "be very careful."

Baffled, Kate ponders this warning and resolves to question Madeleine about it further. But before she has the opportunity, the female partner is brutally murdered, rocking the genteel world of Samson & Mills and setting off a series of frightening criminal events that, filtered through Gutman's assured prose, make Equivocal Death an absorbing read. As Kate tries to unravel the mystery, sifting through the evidence with her well-trained, analytical mind, Gutman throws in tantalizing glimpses of the culprit. In a technique equivalent to watching a figure lurk in the shadows without seeing quite enough to determine his identity, Gutman reveals much of the perpetrator's background and motives before the reader actually learns who he is. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion is still a surprise for both Kate and the reader, making Equivocal Death an extraordinarily successful first novel. Let's hope that Amy Gutman is already hard at work on a sequel.

--Stephanie Bowe

People
...[Gutman] expertly propel her reluctant sleuth through many...hair-raising moments...a compelling portrait of what passes for life in the golden ghetto...Readers are likely to...hope for an encore...
Library Journal
...a well-paced legal thriller...
Deadly Pleasures
'Amy Gutman has made an auspicious debut...look for EQUIVOCAL DEATH to be one of the best books of next year...
Harvard Crimson
"...definitely worth reading...the...facets of the plot...are expertly woven together and make for a fast-paced and involving story...
Sunday Oklahoman
...offers powerful suspense in the dangerous fast lane of a big law firm...the climax is a shocking chiller...
Jackson-Clarion Ledger
...a message that thumps with a pulse...the stuff of which fascinating novels are made.
MA Daily News
"...riveting twists and turns...the author clearly knows the inner workings of a prominent law firm...Gutman spins the tale deftly...a suspenseful plot that gains momentum with each page...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gutman's debut woman-in-peril crime thriller set amid the skullduggery of a prestigious New York City law firm provides doses of good, light entertainment but suffers from a serious case of plot overload and red herringitis. Weaving her way through the tangle is Kate Paine, a rising star at Samson & Mills and a favorite of the firm's managing partner, Carter Mills. Soon after immersing herself in an important sexual harassment case, Paine is taken aside by Madeleine Waters, one of the firm's few female partners and Mills's former lover, and is cryptically told to be careful. Before Paine has time to ask for an explanation, Waters's body is found in the Hudson River. Paine, horrified but intrigued by Waters's death, starts poking around and uncovers sinister evidence of bitter rivalries, sexual affairs and a billing scandal at Samson & Mills. When she is sexually assaulted one night in her office, she begins to fear for her life. Is it coincidence that she resembles Madeleine Waters? Then Carter Mills is shot. Did he commit suicide? In between these breathless twists and turns, Gutman, an attorney, colorfully describes what life is like for young lawyers in high-powered law firms. Her story, despite its many unnecessary sidelights and extraneous characters, maintains a measure of suspense until the end. Paine, however, disappoints as a marquee player. Weak-willed and prone to flee from trouble, she's hardly the take-charge type truly prepared to battle evil. Agent, Nick Ellison. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Harvard law graduate Gutman debuts with lawyer heroine Kate Paine in this well-paced legal thriller. In her first year at the prestigious firm of Samson & Mills, Kate is thrilled to be working on an important sexual harassment case with Carter Mills, whom she looks up to as a father figure. Suddenly, partner Madeleine Waters, whom Kate resembles, is savagely murdered, and Carter Mills commits suicide--or was he murdered as well? As Kate tumbles into the middle of the action, the emotional content of the novel picks up. Gutman introduces suspects with believable motives and skillfully serves up pieces of the crime puzzle, allowing the reader to move them around until they fit. The ending, if a bit too melodramatic, is still a surprise. Gutman's writing is clear but prosaic. She has the attorney dialog down perfectly but intrudes with points of law her reading audience can figure out. If she is to give legal thriller writer Lisa Scottoline a run for her money, Gutman will need to invest her bland heroine with offbeat personality traits, lovable foibles, and more psychological depth. Recommended for large fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/00.]--Molly Gorman, San Marino, CA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780759528055
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 6/1/2003
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,228,674
  • File size: 693 KB

Meet the Author

Amy Gutman is an honors graduate of Harvard-Radcliffe College and the Harvard Law School. She practiced law for four years at a top law firm in New York City and has worked as a journalist in Washington D.C., Tennessee and Mississippi. She is the author of Equivocal Death.

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Read an Excerpt



Excerpt

Wednesday, December 23


Ice cold. He pressed his hand to the window and watched the frost dissolve, felt the moisture collect on his palm. He'd switched off the lights, and the interior darkness mirrored the inky void outside. Standing immobile, he could almost imagine that he was alone in the world or better yet that he did not even exist, that he was simply a part of this floating emptiness, transported by waves of black snow.

But his lungs filled with air. He felt the rhythm of his breath, stark and fatal as an accusation.

He was alive.

And there was work to be done.

Moving away from the window, he switched on a Bestlite floor lamp, acquired from a British import company during his last year of school. He liked things to be well made. He surveyed the scene before him. The space where he stood was cavernous, at least thirty feet long and twenty feet wide. Part of a former warehouse, it was isolated enough to meet his needs. His desk faced a sweep of tall windows, while his clothes—Brooks Brothers suits, several shirts, a tux—hung neatly on a portable chrome garment rack. A Bose CD player sat on an antique table.

He was pleased with the space. Everything was just as he liked it. The barren surroundings only underscored the beauty and fineness of his few selected possessions. His eyes traced the narrow confines of his life.

Then, decisively, he made his entrance.

Moving to the CD player, he pushed Play. Instantly, the room filled with the opening chords of Cherubini's Medea. A 1959 recording. Remarkable music. Potent. Full of a terrible rage. He glanced down at the CDcover, at the diva Maria Callas. Arched nose. Raven hair. Hands splayed like claws. What was it he saw there? A passion for vengeance—for justice—that matched his own. The promise of its fulfillment. And with this, an unflagging sense of order, of timeliness, of fate. It was this he needed above all else. For even as the time for action grew closer, his confidence had started to ebb. Why had he waited so long? The plan that had seemed so brilliant when he first conceived it could at times seem almost absurd. Again, he tried to push back these thoughts. It was dangerous to think this way.

Sitting down at his desk, he turned on his laptop computer. The screen flashed bright. From here on, it was almost too easy. The most profitable law firm in the country. Thirty-seven partners who counted themselves among the most respected lawyers in the world. Power brokers and advisers, they counseled governments, corporations, and the rare private individual with sufficient wealth to pay their fees. And yet cracking their computer safeguards had been child's play.

Strange, the unerring detection of their clients' vulnerabilities and the utter disregard of their own. Samson's computer network had just been overhauled at huge expense. The mere fact of this investment had seemed to assuage their concerns. There was something touching in this naïveté, the almost childlike belief in money. Their computer network was top of the line. Nothing more need be said.

Besides, the elder statesmen of Samson disdained technology, the proliferation of desktop computers. They yearned for the days of dictation. Of pretty secretaries, heads bowed, recording their every word. But in the end, even Samson had been forced to submit. The firm's quaint refusal to communicate by e-mail, once seen as a charming relic of its patrician past, had begun to interfere with business. And Samson was, first and foremost, a business. Bowing to the inevitable, the firm edged its way into cyberspace, a territory as alien to its rulers as the planet Mars. E-mail. The Internet. Standard issue for more than a decade in the modern business world but still suspect intruders at Samson.

And so he found himself in the happy position of breaking and entering an unlocked house. The attorneys' "secret" passwords gave the illusion of privacy but none of its substance. Remarkable, really, the faith placed by these brilliant men and women in a technology they didn't understand. Hubris. The fatal flaw.

He typed in her user ID, mwaters. Then came the password prompt. He grinned as he typed in the response: password. That was it. The same word for everyone. Something easy to remember. She could have changed the defaults, of course. It would have taken only a minute. But she hadn't taken the time. Like the others, she couldn't be bothered.

A few more clicks, and he was scrolling through a list of her files. Luckily for him, she was one of the new breed, treating her hard drive like a filing cabinet. He'd dipped into these files in the past, not out of any real interest, but for the thrill he took in the fact that he could. Confidential memos outlining trial strategies for lawsuits worth tens of millions of dollars. Clinical dissections of the odds of success. Privileged information that, if leaked, would mean the loss of fortune and career. If blackmail were the goal, he'd have had it made.

But he had other things on his mind.

Exiting WordPerfect, he clicked on the Calendar icon. In an instant, it appeared before him, everything crystal clear. The perfect map. Madeleine Waters's anticipated movements for the next twelve months. He felt an adrenaline surge, stiff heat in his shoulders and neck. The room was growing colder as the night chill deepened, but he barely noticed. He had work to do, decisions to make.

He reviewed the recent additions. December 23. With Christmas approaching, the week had been slow: the usual assortment of professional engagements, lunches, meetings, the occasional benefit or awards banquet in support of a worthy cause.

And then a single entry struck his eye.

Dinner with Chuck Thorpe. At Ormond. January 5. He knew the restaurant. Had in fact eaten there when it opened last year, unable to absent himself discreetly from the Civil Rights Forum's annual dinner. Such occasions always left him aching with hatred for the world he'd been forced to inhabit. The smug corporate sponsors. The self-satisfied attorneys who came to be feted, confident that their brief forays into pro bono work conferred a sort of secular sainthood.

But this miserable dinner had finally proved a gift in disguise. He remembered the restaurant clearly, the low lights, the widely spaced tables. Yes, it was almost ideal, better than he could have hoped. A sense of euphoria swept through him.

Then, without warning, it was gone, and he was spinning, spinning down a cold black chute.


No. Make it stop.

He pressed his teeth together, already knowing what would come. Dizzy, he grasped the table's edge. A sour sweat leaked through his pores. The smell of fear. The smell of death.

I'm moving as fast as I can.

He tried to fight back, to win a reprieve. But it was no use. He was already tumbling back. Back to where it all began.

A dark room. And everywhere the scent of fear.

She's sprawled across the floor. He looks down at her from above. It feels strange to look down. He's always looked up at her face, her beautiful, smiling face.

It's so dark. For a long time, now. Why is she lying so still?

He sleeps.

And then it's light. She's still there, sprawled and broken in ways that he can't comprehend. She's floating in a sea of red.

He wants to get up, to go to her. But he can't stand up, can't seem to move at all.


He cries out, but there's something in his mouth.

At first, he thinks she's asleep. But not really. Really, he knows that she's dead.

He's hungry. He's thirsty.

And, even then, he knows that she's dead.

She's dead, and it's all his fault.

And then it was over. Slowly, the vision faded. Still trembling, he stared at the wall. He felt weak, depleted, as if he could sleep for days. But he couldn't give in to these feelings. Not with success so close. He had to think of the plan. He had to think of the plan. Soon, it would all be over.

And he was finally ready to begin.


Monday, January 4

Monday morning. 7:05 a.m. A gray fog hung over the ice-glazed spires of Manhattan. Pulling her red cashmere cape tight against the winter air, twenty-six-year-old Kate Paine walked purposefully across Fifth Avenue. The snow-dusted sidewalks were still sparsely populated. A good two hours remained until the explosion of rush hour, with its shrieking horns and screeching tires. In the relative quiet of the morning, lulled by the city's dull roar, Kate clutched her cape close and smiled.

The holidays were behind her. She was home.

Approaching the plate-glass doors of Samson & Mills, Kate felt a swell of excitement. After more than a year at Samson, she still could hardly believe that she'd been hired as an attorney at this legendary firm. That of all the thousands of law school graduates who poured into the workforce each year, she'd been one of the chosen few. Just out of Harvard Law, and she'd already worked on cases that most lawyers only dreamed about, cases that routinely figured on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Fascinating cases of first impression that stretched the limits of the law. And even more important, she had the chance to hone her skills with the nation's most formidable attorneys.

Kate passed through the revolving doors and into an enormous lobby. Tossing off greetings to the security guards, she slipped her card key through an electronic scanner. Then she moved toward the elevator, high heels clicking on the marble floor.

Four days into the new year, the lobby was already stripped of holiday decoration. The scarlet poinsettias, with their incongruous shock of color, had been whisked away. As had the majestic Douglas fir and the electric menorah. Once again, the stately entry stood sober and unadorned. Kate relaxed into the familiar space, felt its timeless weight enfold her.

Thank God, the holidays were over.

The elevator was already waiting. Kate stepped on, and the doors slid shut. Twenty. Thirty. The floors flashed by. As she'd hoped, Kate was the first person to arrive on fifty-one. Making her way down the deeply carpeted hall, past a row of identical doors, she flipped on lights as she passed. Her own closed door was the next to last. As she rummaged in her purse for the key, she studied a small brass plate. Katharine T. Paine. The T stood for Trace, her mother's maiden name. On impulse, she ran a finger across the engraving, the metal cold to her touch. Then she turned the key and pushed open the door.

Stepping into the office, Kate inhaled its familiar smells, furniture wax mingled with Chanel No. 19, a fragrance she sometimes wore. She cast an approving eye around her ordered domain, with its panoramic views of the Hudson River and beyond. Even in the morning haze, she could make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance, a tiny, brave figure engulfed in mist. The room was just as she'd left it. Neat stacks of paper lined her desk. Cartons of documents were stacked against the wall. The preholiday cleanup. She'd try to enjoy it while it lasted.

Kate pulled off her cape and hung it in her office closet. Before closing the door, she paused to take stock in a mirror affixed to its back. She looked healthy and rested, her skin lightly browned from a week of sun. She quickly ran a comb through her dark brown hair, cut in the jaw-length bob favored by Samson's female lawyers, then straightened her horn-rimmed glasses. The glasses were a recent addition, acquired when she started work. Studying her face in the mirror, Kate decided that she liked the effect. Professional. In control. A woman to be reckoned with.

How different she looked now from two years ago, when she'd roamed the Harvard campus in ratty jeans and a backpack. Yet one thing remained the same. Her reflected image inspired the same sense of dislocation that it had since she was a child. Who is that woman? Me but not me. She didn't dislike what she saw. To the contrary, she knew she was pretty. Clear skin, high cheekbones, a fine straight nose. Her eyes were a deep shade of blue. "Stormy," her mother used to call them. A full-length mirror would have gone on to show the strong but delicate form: shoulders broad enough that she always cut the pads out of her suit jackets, a sweep of breast not entirely concealed by her black-and-gray Tahari suit, narrow hips tapering to long, slim legs.

So why couldn't she see this person as herself?

It was an old question, one that she'd long tired of considering. She shut the closet door and turned toward her desk.

I'm proud of myself, Kate thought, surveying the well-appointed office. I did this all on my own. I could have fallen apart. But I didn't. In the end, Michael did me a favor....

But Michael belonged to the past; he had nothing to do with her new life. Pushing the memories aside, Kate sat down and turned on her computer. The screen flashed on. Responding to computer prompts, Kate quickly typed in her user ID followed by the word password. Then it was on to e-mail. Among the usual clutter of junk e-mails—a paralegal looking for a downtown sublet, a secretary with free kittens, an associate seeking a financial planner—she culled the few messages that demanded immediate attention. From Justin Daniels, her old friend and Harvard classmate: "Welcome back! We missed you and we know you missed us. Let's shoot for drinks later this week. Cheers. J. D." From Andrea Lee, her friend and comrade on countless late nights: "Can't wait to catch up. Call me ASAP." There was also a plaintive note from Jonathan Kurtz, a Harvard classmate who'd occupied the office two doors down until a few months back, when he'd been shipped off to Kansas for a trial. "I fully believe that I will be here in Wichita from now until the end of time. I will never perform any task other than the preparation of cross-examination books that will never be used at trial or anywhere else. I will never see any of my friends or family again. On the upside, I will never have to pay for another meal as long as I live."

Kate laughed. Again, she felt a glow of pleasure, happy to be precisely where she was. But the sense of satisfaction was short-lived. Soon, she sat staring at an e-mail from Peyton Winslow, a senior associate at the firm. "Greetings. I hope that you enjoyed your vacation. Please prepare for a meeting this morning at 10 a.m. with Carter Mills regarding a new matter. The Complaint (which we believe will be served on January 13) and related papers are in distribution. Please review and be ready to discuss."

Kate glanced at her watch. Already after eight. Quickly, she thumbed through the mountain of mail that had piled up during her vacation. "Will someone just shoot me?" she muttered. Still, beneath the anxiety, she felt a burgeoning excitement. A new case. And a matter significant enough to involve the illustrious Carter Mills. To get in on a case like this at the very start—what a coup! So many of Samson's massive cases had been gathering dust for decades. There would be nothing for years and then a brief flurry of activity when the current crop of Samson underlings would try to make sense of what their predecessors had done. The work often seemed more archaeological than legal. Now she'd be in on things from the start, positioned to watch the strategies unfold.

The phone rang, but Kate let voice mail pick up as she continued to search through the mail. She finally found what she was looking for. The complaint, stamped "Draft" across every page, was captioned for the Southern District of New York, the federal trial court of Manhattan. The plaintiff's attorneys must have sent over a draft in hopes of an early settlement. It was often done, the draft complaint serving as leverage, proof of the seriousness of plaintiffs' intent and the prima facie strength of their case.

The draft complaint was twenty-three pages. Kate quickly skimmed its contents, trying to get the gist of the claims.

And then paused to let it all sink in.

This was, in no uncertain terms, a sexual harassment suit charging Chuck Thorpe and WideWorld Media with violations of both state and federal law.

Chuck Thorpe.

WideWorld Media.

Kate grappled with the implications.

WideWorld was one of Samson's largest clients, a sprawling communications behemoth with a seemingly insatiable appetite for new acquisitions. Its recent purchase of Catch—a "relentlessly provocative" men's magazine edited by Thorpe—had sparked a firestorm of protest among stockholders. If they had been upset before, this would send them over the edge. While the controversy might be good for circulation—further enhancing Thorpe's status as publishing's reigning enfant terrible—it would not play well with the board of directors.

A tentative knock on the door broke into her thoughts.

"Come in!"

"Hi, Kate. Welcome back!" In the doorway stood Jennifer Torricelli, her unflappable nineteen-year-old secretary. Jennifer's dark fantasia of a hairstyle gave new meaning to the phrase "big hair," but there the stereotype ended. She typed ninety words a minute, kept flawless tabs on Kate's ever-changing calendar, and managed to be nice as well. In theory, Kate was supposed to share her services with a first-year associate named Terry Creighton. But for the past six months, Creighton had been in Nebraska, where he spent his days in an unheated warehouse, poring through corporate files. Kate could barely remember what he looked like.

"You must've had a good vacation," Jennifer said. "You look great!"

Kate gave her a distracted smile. "It was fine. Relaxing. But it's good to be back."

Jennifer looked at her, incredulous. "I don't believe you guys. The hours that you put in here. And then you don't even like vacations. Boy, if I ever went to the Caribbean, I don't think I'd ever come back."

Kate glanced anxiously back at the papers on her desk. "I'll tell you about it later. Right now, I have to get ready for a ten o'clock meeting with Carter Mills."

Jennifer's eyes widened at the mention of Samson's presiding partner. "Wow. Good luck. Listen, I just wanted to say that there's a message from Tara on your voice mail."

"Thanks," Kate said. She'd been right not to pick up the phone. Tara was her best friend and college roommate. It would have been hard to cut short the conversation.

"Let me know if you need anything," Jennifer said, closing the door behind her.

Returning to the complaint, Kate glanced back at the caption to find out the plaintiff's name. Stephanie Friedman. Briefly, Kate wondered what she looked like, this woman behind the lawsuit. But her thoughts quickly moved on. Where would things go from here? Of course, everyone knew that sexual harassment cases were notoriously easy to file and hard to get rid of, making them a frequent weapon of choice for disgruntled employees. In her year of legal practice, Kate had already seen more than a few such suits filed on tenuous facts in hope of a speedy and substantial settlement, a sort of legal blackmail. Who knew what had really happened? Still, it didn't take hours of research to know that Thorpe and WideWorld had a mess on their hands. There was nothing subtle about the allegations.

Thorpe routinely referred to women as bitches, cunts, whores.

He demanded that the women who worked for him wear short skirts and tight sweaters.

He interrogated female employees about their sex lives, demanding detailed descriptions and subjecting them to elaborate dissections of his own encounters.

He'd threatened to fire several women if they refused to sleep with his music producer pal Ron Fogarty.

It went on from there.


Kate tried to remember what she knew about Thorpe. With her eighty-hour work weeks, she had scant time to keep up with current events. But it would have been impossible to miss the media frenzy that broke out several months back when Catch weighed in on sexual harassment. The magazine's glossy cover featured a parody of Hustler's famous meat grinder shot, a woman's legs thrust high in the air as her body disappeared in the utensil's gears. But on the Catch cover, the head disgorged by the grinder was that of feminist icon Anita Hill. Smaller photos inside paired head shots of prominent female activists with bodies from lasciviously positioned porno pix.

By all accounts, the credit for the uproar was entirely due to Thorpe, a flamboyant entrepreneur whose editorship of Catch had made him a household name. A North Carolina native, Thorpe had started Catch straight out of college with money raised from wealthy classmates. Kate recalled him from television interviews, a compact, powerful figure who pulsed with contained energy. He seemed to take a grim delight in baiting the talking heads who grilled him. "I respect women," he said repeatedly, in an exaggerated Southern drawl. "In fact, my mother was one. My sister, too."

Intriguing legal issues, celebrity scandal—what more could a young lawyer want?

She couldn't wait to begin.

Rounding the corner outside Carter Mills's office suite, Kate slammed into the portly figure of Bill McCarty, who was charging in the opposite direction. Her notebook and pens scattered to the floor.

"Excuse me," she gasped, bouncing back from the impact.

McCarty, red-faced and breathing hard, responded with a short grunt and continued full-speed down the hall, his short arms joggling at his sides. As she gazed after the stout, balding figure, Kate rubbed her shoulder and wondered what had him so upset. While she'd never worked with McCarty, she knew him by reputation as diffident and unassuming. McCarty was a workhorse, not a show horse. Rumor had it that his election to the Samson partnership stemmed from his willingness to endure crushing workloads without complaint. Fits of temper seemed entirely out of character.

Kneeling to pick up her things, Kate heard a clipped British accent behind her.

"No need to bow before entering. They did away with that years ago."

Kate looked up to see Peyton Winslow. Not that she'd had any doubt who was speaking. Despite three years at Yale Law School and six at Samson & Mills, Peyton's Oxford intonations only seemed to grow stronger with each passing year. Today, he sported a large pair of red-framed glasses. The glasses were Petyon's signature; he had a wardrobe of different styles, all slightly eccentric by office standards.

"Very funny," said Kate, clambering back to standing position and smoothing her gray wool skirt. "I was just cut off at the pass by Bill McCarty, and everything went flying. He seemed furious about something. Any idea what?"

Peyton gave her a skeptical look. "Interesting," he said. "I thought he was computer-generated. It never occurred to me that emotions were part of the package."

Kate grinned. She was always surprised by Peyton's bouts of irreverence. A rangy figure in his early thirties, Peyton often seemed younger than his years, all eager legs and feet. But appearances could be misleading. Everyone knew that Peyton was a rising star. He was, in the Samson vernacular, "highly regarded." Affectations aside, he was incisive, hardworking, and an excellent manager. He'd be up for partner in two years and was widely viewed as a shoo-in.

Together, they proceeded into Carter Mills's reception area. His secretary, Clara Hurley, was immersed in dictation, her fingers flying across the computer keyboard. She jumped when Peyton tapped her on the shoulder.

"You scared me," she said reprovingly, pulling the Dictaphone headset off her tight gray curls.

"Sorry 'bout that," said Peyton. Clara visibly softened. Peyton had clearly gotten on her good side. Smart move, Kate thought. When you were trying to get a brief out on time, a good relationship with the person typing it was at least as important as your legal skills.

"Have a seat, and I'll see if Mr. Mills is free," she said. Clara's use of Mills's last name sounded quaint to Kate's ears. Except for the most inveterate old-timers, everyone at Samson was on a first-name basis. But of course, Clara had been with Mills for decades.

Waiting outside the closed office door, Kate felt shy and very young. She could feel her heart beating faster. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Peyton was working. His features were locked in concentration as his pen flew across some junior associate's draft. Kate envied him his seeming calm.

For what felt like the fiftieth time, Kate turned back to her notes. If even a fraction of the allegations were true, Thorpe and WideWorld had a major problem. And even if they weren't true, the case had all the earmarks of a public relations nightmare. The timing—right on the heels of Thorpe's splashy attack on the very laws under which he was sued—couldn't have been worse.

"Come in, come in." Carter Mills was standing in the doorway. As she jumped to her feet, Kate felt a subtle change in the atmosphere, a sort of electric charge. Up close, Mills was even more imposing than she remembered. He was tall, well over six feet, with penetrating slate-blue eyes. Despite gray streaks in his thick dark hair, he gave an impression of youthful vigor. Everything about him—his voice, his bearing, the aristocratic cut of his features — seemed to exude authority. Mills's grandfather, Silas Mills, was one of the firm's two founding partners. Yet family connections were the least of Carter Mills's credentials. He was widely regarded as one of the nation's leading trial lawyers, the subject of countless feature stories and news reports and a perennial fixture on top-ten lists. Mills was, Kate thought, a rare blend — a scholar who could still woo a jury, a $600-an-hour mega-lawyer who could roll up the sleeves of his $300 shirts and speak directly to the people.

Mills gestured them into his office. Peyton slipped into a chair. Kate sat down beside him. As Mills returned to his desk, Kate took a quick look around. Several large abstract paintings. A black leather sofa. The decor took Kate by surprise. There were, to be sure, some traditional touches. Family photographs. Harvard diplomas. An impressive grandfather clock. But it was not what she would have expected. She was intrigued by the room's appearance, intrigued and also pleased. It seemed to affirm Mills's uniqueness.

"Madeleine Waters will be joining us shortly," Mills said, after buzzing Clara for water. "If you'll excuse me for a moment." He was already back at work.

The words pulled Kate back to the present. Another intriguing surprise. Madeleine Waters, the acknowledged beauty of the Samson fold. Madeleine wasn't the first female partner at Samson & Mills—there was Karen Henderson in the tax department and Michelle Turner in trusts and estates—but she still stood in a class by herself. The first female partner in the litigation department, a club within a club at Samson, she was a role model for younger women. She seemed to embody a bright new world, a place where power and femininity could coexist.


Kate briefly wondered if Madeleine could be working on this case and then rejected the thought out of hand. Madeleine Waters working with Carter Mills? No way. While Mills had once been Madeleine's mentor, they were now said to be barely on speaking terms. Something to do with a failed love affair, if firm gossip was to be believed.

A rustle at the door. Clara Hurley appeared with a crystal water pitcher and glasses. The perfect secretary of the old school. Carefully setting down the tray, Clara poured water for Mills, her stolid features suffused with a maternal glow.

Without looking up, Mills accepted the glass.

"Clara, could you see what's keeping Madeleine. Tell her we're ready to meet." Beneath the sonorous calm of his voice, Kate sensed an edge of irritation.

"Yes, Mr. Mills."

And then Madeleine was standing in the doorway, a slim figure in a jade silk dress.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said. Her voice, slightly breathless, was lower than Kate had expected. Madeleine sat down on the black leather couch, a little apart from the group.

Peyton jumped up and motioned toward his empty chair. "Would you —"

"No. I'm just fine here. This is perfect." Catching Carter Mills's eye, Madeleine gave him a faint smile. "Perfect."

The smile seemed familiar. Then Kate realized where she'd seen it before. On a sphinx at the Metropolitan Museum. The so-called archaic smile, mysterious and ever watchful. Again, Kate studied Madeleine's face. She really is lovely, Kate thought. Up close, she'd expected to discern flaws, a harshness of expression or tone. What she saw instead was an utterly harmonious play of feature: a tumble of dark hair tamed by a velvet band, high cheekbones, clear skin, wide-set eyes that seemed to match the vivid green of her dress. Madeleine must be in her late thirties by now. However, hers was the sort of beauty that lasts, defiant of the passage of time.

Carter Mills drew a pair of reading glasses from the pocket of his starched white shirt. After placing the glasses on his nose, he clasped his hands on his desk. "I assume you've all read the draft complaint. Based on the facts alleged, I don't see much chance of dismissal or summary judgment, though we'll certainly want to examine those options. Assuming the complaint's actually filed on the thirteenth, when is our answer due?"

"Under Rule 12, we have twenty days," Peyton said. It was the sort of critically important yet mundane fact that associates were charged with tracking. Failure to meet a deadline could result in dismissal of a case. "So if the complaint is actually served next Wednesday, the answer would be due on February second."

"Fine," Mills said, making a notation in a leather-bound appointment book. "In the meantime, we need to get straight on the facts and law. I've scheduled a meeting on Wednesday at one with Chuck Thorpe and Jed Holden. Please plan to be there. After that we'll be in a better position to devise a game plan."

Again, Kate felt a thrill of excitement. Jed Holden. WideWorld's CEO. One of the nation's most powerful businessmen. The closest most Samson associates would ever get to someone of Holden's stature was preparing an affidavit for his signature. For an associate, and a junior associate at that, to attend a meeting with Holden present—it was almost unthinkable.

"Are there any questions?" Mills said.

"I have a question, Carter." Madeleine's low voice seemed to linger in the office air. "Would you agree that we can't represent both WideWorld and Thorpe without a conflicts waiver from WideWorld's board?"

Mills looked at her, his face impassive. "No," he said. "I would not."

The two partners locked eyes. Sensing the tension, Kate found herself staring at her lap. There was something unsettling about the scene. She was curious, of course—who wouldn't be—but also strangely disturbed. It was almost like she was very young again, listening to her parents argue.

Seemingly oblivious to the younger lawyers, Madeleine pressed ahead, her tone deceptively light. "You can't ignore the fact that WideWorld has potential claims against Thorpe. When WideWorld agreed to buy Catch, Chuck Thorpe was fully aware of Ms. Friedman's sexual harassment claims. He'd already been informed that the EEOC would investigate. Yet he failed to disclose the potential liability—something the stock purchase agreement clearly obligated him to do. If there's an adverse judgment in this case, WideWorld may have to consider asserting claims against Thorpe. WideWorld's stockholders can't be expected to foot the bill for Thorpe's —"

"We'll talk about this later, Madeleine." There was a warning note to Mills's voice.

Madeleine shrugged, and settled back in her seat. The same faint smile Kate had noticed earlier again played on her lips.

Kate tried to make sense of the exchange. What Madeleine had said seemed logical, obvious even. Samson's duty was to its client, WideWorld. You didn't need to be a specialist in legal ethics to know the dangers of dual representation in a situation like this. But simply thinking this through felt somehow disloyal. After all, Kate chided herself, without actually reading the purchase agreement, it was impossible to know anything for sure. And even if Madeleine did have a point, why raise the issue like this—why pick a fight with Mills in front of two associates? Only one thing seemed clear: if Carter and Madeleine had ever been lovers, the affair had not ended well.

For a time, Mills seemed lost in thought. Then, he suddenly resumed command, as if the previous exchange simply hadn't occurred. "That's about it for today." He was speaking directly to the junior lawyers, as if Madeleine wasn't there. "Madeleine will be overseeing your work on this case. Of course, you're free to come to me with any questions."

Surprised, Kate glanced across the room. Her eyes met Madeleine's. There was an appraising glint in the other woman's eyes. For a confused moment, Kate wondered if Madeleine had been watching her. But before she could be sure, it was over. Madeleine was studying her folded hands, and Carter Mills was winding up the meeting. "I want a legal memo by the end of next week. I'd like Kate to start in on that. If there aren't any other questions, I'll see you all Wednesday afternoon."

After the two associates left the room, Madeleine Waters remained seated on the leather couch. Still smiling, she studied Mills. But when she spoke her voice was cold.

"I can see that the magic hasn't faded."

He returned the gaze but said nothing.

"In any case, that was quite a demonstration. Make them feel like they're part of your world. The quickest path to loyalty and devotion. Not to mention endless billable hours. That's what you taught me, isn't it? Well, congratulate yourself. It worked like a charm. You could see it in their faces."

Mills had assumed an air of calm detachment. "You see what you want to see," he said. "You always have."

Madeleine paused, as if contemplating the next maneuver in some delicate game of chance. "How comforting to find that nothing has changed," she finally said. "It's been quite a while since we've worked together. Closely, that is. And you always wonder"— and here she pronounced the words with odd emphasis — "if—something—might—change. And then you realize that nothing ever does."

A smile flickered across Mills's face.

"It sounds like you've got it all figured out, Madeleine. Let's be clear about this. Neither of us is happy with this arrangement. Unfortunately, Thorpe has demanded that you work on this case. Obviously, we have no choice. You have no choice. I'm sure you understand that."

But Madeleine was barely listening. Her mind seemed to be somewhere else. "That associate. Kate Paine. You hired her, didn't you? It's because of you that she came to work here."

Mills's expression didn't change. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

And now it was Madeleine who was silent as her eyes roamed Carter Mills's face. Then, abruptly, she laughed. When she spoke her voice was heavy with scorn.

"You're so obvious, Carter. It would be fascinating if it weren't so pathetic. Are you wondering how I knew? Just look at her."

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2001

    NO THRILLS...IN THIS LEGAL THRILLER

    Kate Paine is a twenty six year-old Harvard Law graduate, she thinks she has a great job...she is wrong. Hand picked to defend sexual harassment charges against the editor of a controversial men's magazine, this high profile case will become an absolute nightmare. Working along side senior partner Carter Mills, and another partner Madeline Waters, Kate feels this is the case of a lifetime, but when Madeline is found murdered, and a letter of warning to Kate from the victim surfaces, Kate wonders if she could be the next victim. With suspects all around her, Kate, must work quickly before anymore bodies turn up. 'Equivocal Death' had the makings of a good book, but it just doesn't work; the author spends too much time trying to create a high profile atmosphere, and in the process bores the reader by wasting sentence after sentence of describing designer brand names of all products-from food, to home furnishings-to clothing. Amy Gutman has the ability to tell a good story, but next time she should concentrate more on the thrills, and less on the bright lights of Manhattan. Nick Gonnella

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Exciting legal thriller

    At twenty-six, Harvard law graduate Kate Paine feels she is heading to the big time after just one year at the prestigious Manhattan law firm, Samson & Mills. She knows that company big shot Carter Mills likes his young protégé that he is mentoring for the future. Still, another partner, Madeleine Waters warns Kate to watch her butt because things are not quite what they seem at the law firm. <P>Kate plans to ask Madeleine to explain, but before they meet again, someone murders the older female attorney. A dismayed Kate begins to look beneath the cosmopolitan veneer of the company¿s surface. She soon uncovers acrimonious rivalries and the use of sex to gain an edge. Kate fears for her own life when she realizes how much she resembles a younger Madeleine. <P> EQUIVOCAL DEATH is excellent when the subplot deals with the trials and tribulations of a young lawyer trying to make a name in a distinguished law firm. When the tale turns to a well-written legal thriller it loses some of its oomph because Kate seems out of character as an amateur sleuth. She is a wonderful tyro attorney struggling to float in a sea of piranhas and even retains that fresh exuberance of the newcomer while conducting the investigation of her superiors. Amy Gutman is clearly a talented author, but needs to decide between a legal thriller and a legal expose. Hopefully, she chooses the latter starring a maturing Kate. <P>Harriet Klausner

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