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JESUS MARY, THOUGHT MAIREAD O'Clare for about the hundredth time since September. I'm in with the assholes.
From her seat, she watched the fat senior partner waddle around the law firm's conference room, the big one on the thirty-eighth floor with a view of Boston harbor through a wall of windows stretching from plushly carpeted floor to acoustically tiled ceiling. His name was Hadley Burgess, a North Shore scion in his fifties with a horsy face and straight hair the color of nicotine except for some white wisps around the ears. Burgess was the head of Mairead's department, Litigation, and he now droned on about the importance of designing formal discovery documents-like Requests for Production of Documents-with the broadest scope possible. Most of the other chairs around the elliptical and polished cherrywood table were occupied by the twenty-some twenty-somethings who were in Mairead's "associate class" at Jaynes & Ward, meaning they'd all been hired in the same year. This was the monthly orientation seminar that all new associates had to attend, and the fact that the firm postponed the Litigation orientation to January-the fifth such Monday-sent a clear message that her department ranked pretty low on the Jaynes & Ward totem pole.
But it also said a lot about the "vision" of the firm's Managing Committee that even Litigation associates who'd spent September through December actually doing basic courtroom work still had to sit through a two-hour orientation on basic courtroom work.
Well, thought Mairead, not exactly "courtroom" work. She herself had yet to appear in a real legal arena. Instead, the junior partners she worked for kept her drafting waves of dense discovery documents in a shared, windowless office. Which reminded Mairead of how far from her bunk bed in the Catholic orphanage any windows had been.
And which should be a lesson learned, young lady,said Sister Bernadette's voice inside Mairead's head. As long as you have to sit here, you may as well enjoy the view.
And a whale of a view it was, too, even if a bit...sterile? The silvery tip of the Custom House tower glowed like a metallic pyramid, its clock finally working again. Across the harbor, Logan Airport hosted constant arrivals and departures of planes in a welcomed, if somewhat monotonous, sequence of genuine activity. And beyond the runways lay Deer Island, its enormous sewage tanks shaped like the antique milk bottles that served as "decorations" on the shelves in the nuns' kitchen back at the-
"Ms. O'Clare?" said Hadley Burgess, now sitting at the head of the conference room table, his thick brows arching and his pudgy lips pursing.
Mairead blinked away the daydream. "I'm...I'm sorry?"
Even without Burgess stressing the "months" part, Mairead would have felt herself reddening in the cheeks, the way she imagined others thought her arms must feel all the time. There were a few coughs and shifting of butts on chairs around the table, but no one else spoke.
Mairead glanced down at her hands, as though the answer to Burgess's question were outlined in the port-wine stain that covered them from the cuticles of her nails to the cuffs of her blouse.
Finally, she said, "Mr. Burgess, I'm really sorry, but I didn't hear your question."
Another closing of his eyes, longer this time. "Was I not speaking loudly enough to reach you?"
The head of Litigation marched his stare a few degrees so that his and Mairead's eyes locked. "Perhaps, Ms. O'Clare, you'd like to excuse yourself for a few moments, regain some composure."
"I'm composed enough," said Mairead, trying to blunt the edge she sensed creeping into her voice. "I was just bored."
Mairead heard several sudden intakes of breath and one squelched male laugh, but from the way Burgess rocketed his glance around the table, the squelcher didn't give himself away.
Then Hadley Burgess hunched stiffly forward in his chair. "Ms. O'Clare, I want you to absent yourself from the balance of this seminar, for whatever reason you prefer."
Using legs strengthened by twelve years of organized ice hockey, Mairead O'Clare pushed her chair back from the table, sorry only that the plush carpeting kept that decisive action from making any noise at all.
"HEY, like, thanks for showing the rest of us how to fuck the duck."
Mairead looked up from her computer screen and into the face of her officemate, a Litigation associate named David Spiegel from Columbia. Tall, doughy, and already stooped, Spiegel wasn't the most pleasant of companions, and Mairead thought he'd probably make a good Burgess in another thirty years.
But right then, she waved him off and returned to the e-mail thank-you she was composing to John Ramirez for trying to bail her out at the orientation.
Even so, though, Mairead couldn't help but notice Spiegel collapsing into his chair, catty-corner from hers, the way all the new associates' offices were arranged. So each could keep an eye on the other. After a year or two, they'd been told, everyone would have his or her own office because more-senior associates "leaving the firm" would result in open singles, some even with windows.
Spiegel said, "You hone those interpersonal skills at New England?"
Mairead just glared at him. She'd afforded New England School of Law by working two part-time jobs, but the reason she'd gone there was its heritage. New England had started life in 1908 as the first institution in the country organized to allow women to study law at a time when the Supreme Court of the United States still deemed it constitutionally acceptable to deny an entire gender any opportunity to enter practice. The place had been called Portia Law School back then, after Shakespeare's female lawyer, but even though its name had changed to reflect a coed student body and regional attraction, Mairead had known about New England from Sister Bernadette, who'd attended before entering the convent. And the Boston law school, like her college before it, had given Mairead that sense of family she'd yearned for but never really found inside the orphanage.
A pity that schools make you graduate, young lady, said Sister Bernadette's voice.
"Hey," from Spiegel, "what're you gonna do, just sit there and wait for the executioner to, like, come for you?"
Mairead realized she'd continued glaring at her officemate without really seeing him for a while. "David, I haven't decided yet."
"Yeah, well, my guess is, somebody's gonna decide for you."
Reluctantly, Mairead felt herself agreeing with him. She'd gotten this job after working her first summer as a research assistant for one of her professors and her second summer as kind of a hospice aide for Sister Bernadette through the nun's final illness. Jaynes & Ward pretty much hired only from the thirty schools that hyped themselves as being in the top ten nationally, and even then just from the class of summer associates who'd auditioned for three months prior to starting their senior year. But Mairead knew that the professor she'd worked for-Susan Gunnarsen-had interceded for her with Hadley Burgess at the firm, and given that Mairead'd been number three in her class, Jaynes & Ward had offered her a shot.
Only now, as David Spiegel had so tastefully put it, Mairead had gone and fucked the duck.
Her officemate gathered up a thick accordion file from the floor by his feet. "Well, I think I'll let you face Jabba the Hutt alone."
Mairead was about to reply when the telephone next to her hand rang loudly enough to make her jump a little.
"MR. Burgess, Ms. O'Clare."
He looked up as his secretary's words were still hanging in the air, the door closing behind the young associate with the oh-so-bizarre blotches on her hands. And forearms, Hadley recalled from the New Associates Picnic at the managing partner's summer house the weekend before Labor Day. Thinking of the picnic reminded Hadley of what a nuisance it was, actually, having to cut short one's own precious vacation.
And for what? No greater purpose than welcoming a devouring horde of overpaid, ungrateful brats to a prestigious firm whose provenance only a handful of them could begin to appreciate and whose providence only two of the twenty-three would probably ever know as equity partners themselves.
But Hadley rather doubted Jaynes & Ward would be reaching that stage with this one. "Take a seat."
He watched O'Clare settle into a client chair. Before Hadley could begin, though, she said, "You wanted to see me, Mr. Burgess?"
Pity, that forthrightness-which might be so effective in appellate argument-coming across as rudeness in an office conference. And that's when Hadley realized he hadn't spoken with O'Clare individually since welcoming her to the firm months earlier. Another pity, though in a different sense. And not just because this one seemed among the few her age to be spared that treacly Valley Girl lilt in the voice. No, it was more the pity because, really, if paper bags were just slipped over O'Clare's arms, she'd teeter on the verge of beauty. About five-foot-seven, weight nicely proportional, including the high-but not huge-breasts. Auburn hair and fair skin, with those freckles the Irish seem to sprout if they even think about the sun. Big, piercing blue eyes, assuming no contact-lens enhancement. Certainly no enhancement to the shapely legs-if rather more athletic than feminine, but what with girls persisting in sports well beyond the point of-
You should never have listened to Susan Gunnarsen, classmate or not. Probably will even owe the pushy bitch the courtesy of a telephone call...afterward.
Hadley glanced at the file in front of him, struggling to recall the overly ethnic name this... "Uh, My-rat, correct?"
"No, sir. It's 'Muh-raid,' the Irish pronunciation."
Burgess frowned. "But my wife has a friend from Canada with your spelling, and she says it-"
"The Scottish way."
"Yes. As though the spelling was M-y-r-a with a-t."
The girl's mouth twisted, but ambiguously.
Hadley cleared his throat. "On to the matter at hand, then." He looked back down at the file for an answer he already knew. "You came to us from New England?"
Best to skip secondary school and college. "And have you been happy at Jaynes and Ward, Muh-raid?"
Another twist to the girl's mouth. "Not really."
Hadley feared he'd somehow misheard her. "What?"
"I haven't been very happy here."
"No." O'Clare seemed to struggle with something. "I worked hard to become an attorney because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives, in a courtroom where they sought justice. And I thought that a large-firm environment would give me the chance to learn from other professionals trying to do those good things."
Hadley felt a grunt of contempt rise in his throat but tamped it down like tobacco into the bowl of a pipe. "Our clients think we do rather a fine job by them."
O'Clare now softened her tone a bit. "And they should, because-technically-everybody at Jaynes and Ward is a fine lawyer. But I'm not talking about professional competence."
O'Clare crossed her legs, and Hadley found himself wishing his desk wasn't in the way of his view. Athletic calves, yes, but still awfully-
She interrupted his reverie with, "I'm talking about personal satisfaction, Mr. Burgess."
For just the briefest of moments, Hadley wondered if a double entendre was being extended, the sort that in the good old days one could pursue without fear of femi-Nazi partners in the firm screaming "sexual har-"
The girl seemed to read his mind. "In the sense of job satisfaction. Being a social engineer, genuinely helping real people."
Good Lord, thought Hadley. How did this one ever get an interview with us, much less an associate's position? Then he remembered that telephone call to him from Susan Gunnarsen, and Hadley realized he was suffering from a wound that had been at least partially self-inflicted.
But one that could nevertheless be stanched, and quickly.
"Mah-reed, I think-"
"I'm sorry, but it's still 'Muh-raid.'"
Very well, no more Mr. Nice Guy. "Perhaps you'd be happier elsewhere."
"I don't think so, Mr. Burgess. Litigation is the only department here that would teach me how to-"
"Actually, I meant elsewhere outside the firm."
A canting of her head. "Just because I didn't pay attention to you talking about things I'd already learned?"
"Your outburst in the conference room would never be forgotten by the other associates." Hadley cleared his throat again. "Nor by me."
The girl finally closed those piercing eyes, if only for a moment. "I have a lot to think about."
"Indeed you do," said Hadley Burgess, launching himself out of his chair less from courtesy and more to get another glimpse at those rather special legs before their owner could rise herself.
MAIREAD O'Clare walked down a macadam path of the Boston Common behind the Park Street subway station. The sixtyish air of a January thaw felt almost like a refreshing breeze, but she still was glad to have put on her coat before taking a break to decompress after the session with Burgess.
And to think, young lady, said Sister Bernadette's voice inside Mairead's head, about who you are and where you're going.
Mairead spotted an empty bench, but it stood diagonally across from one on which a middle-aged man in a rumpled business suit was feeding pigeons out of a white bakery bag in his lap. Several of the birds were up on his thighs, pecking at bread crumbs in the pleats of his pants.
Mairead paused. She could change direction and head for her studio apartment on Beacon Hill, but Mairead really wanted to do her mental sorting somewhere she felt...unfettered. And besides, Pigeon Man looked harmless enough, so Mairead sat down on the curved, wooden slats of the empty bench.
All right, young lady: Life assessment time.
Just like back in the orphanage, where I fended for myself, there not being enough good nuns-or even bad ones-to really match up for surrogate mothering. And each time a kid in my dorm was adopted, I dropped another set of potential parents further away from adoption myself. Until I realized nobody was ever going to choose the now not-so-little girl with the purplish-red skin covering-
No, Mairead, said Sister Bernadette. That's not the road to go down.
Okay, back up and focus on the positives, then. I'll be only twenty-six next birthday. I've survived abandonment by my "natural" parents, who Sister Angelica in a hissy fit once said left me at the convent's doorstep because of the "stigmata" on my hands and arms. Said it loud enough for other kids to hear and to start calling me "Stiggie" to my face. Until I beat them up, after which they still called me that behind my back.
But you survived them, too, Mairead. To play center on the boys' hockey team in high school and a league championship women's team in college. And to graduate law school magna cum laude and land a job with one of the most prestigious firms in Boston.
For four months anyway. But four months in which I've slaved away with that jerk Spiegel in an office smaller than the Supreme Court once held was inadequate as cell space for two prisoners doing life. My "billable hours" are socked to massive corporate clients, maintaining Jaynes & Ward's pyramid of worker-bee associates at the bottom producing honey-money for the rainmaking partners at the top. And all my goals of "helping people" are a laugh-no, worse than a laugh, a parody-of what I attended law school to-
"You don't mind my saying, it's a shame to see somebody so pretty seem so sad."
Mairead looked over to Pigeon Man, not positive at first if he was the one who'd spoken, though the words came from that direction. But, yes, he's staring this way, his lips forming a grin without showing any teeth.
"I'm not sad," said Mairead, unsure why she was even replying. "I'm just...weighing things."
"Must be pretty heavy things."
"Sometimes," said the guy in the rumpled suit, "it helps to talk them out with somebody doesn't know anything about them. Strangers on a plane, you know?"
Mairead had taken only one airline flight in her life-for an interview with a federal agency in Washington, D.C.-so she wasn't sure exactly what the guy meant. But his brown eyes were mournful, like a cocker spaniel's, so Mairead decided to go with it.
"I took this job?" she said. "A big law firm. I thought I'd become a trial attorney, make some difference in people's lives. But all the partners do is bounce me around like a pinball between bits and pieces of obscure corporate litigation."
A nod from the man. "You wanted to be Perry Mason, but instead you're Ally McBeal."
Mairead blinked. In an orphanage, you watch a lot of TV, so she knew the old series with Raymond Burr. What surprised her, though, was that Pigeon Man would be up on a cool new show.
Then Mairead examined the guy a little more closely. He was definitely past forty-and maybe even fifty, more from the lines in his face than the sandy hair with no gray showing. His tie wasn't snugged quite to his collar, and his shirt was nearly as wrinkled as his suit, which actually had cuffs above loafers that looked less polished than scuffed.
Mairead said, "Or maybe I thought I'd be Ally McBeal learning from Perry Mason."
A pigeon landed on the man's shoulder. "Kind of hard to get that in a big firm?"
"Kind of impossible. And the partners think that once you're onboard, you won't leave because of the 'golden handcuffs.'"
"Meaning the money this firm pays?"
"Eighty-four thousand a year."
The guy whistled softly through his front teeth.
Mairead said, "Sounds like a lot, right?"
"I'd say so."
"Not when a lot of the associates are carrying humongous student loans."
"But you aren't?"
"Uh-uh. I worked my way through law school."
"And college, too?"
"Kind of. I was on a hockey scholarship."
The man smiled. "Hockey."
Mairead somehow liked that Pigeon Man didn't say it as a question. "Anyway, I don't owe anybody a dime."
"Even so, though, you don't much like the people around you at this big firm, huh?"
Mairead blinked again. "How do you know that?"
A shrug this time, though the shoulder pigeon stayed put. "You had good friends where you're working, I don't see you talking this out with me."
He's right, young lady. "Well, even that's not going to be a problem much longer."
"They're giving you the old heave-ho?"
"They're firing you?"
"More laying the groundwork," said Mairead. "I daydreamed this morning while a partner was lecturing to us."
"An orientation seminar, the firm calls it. On litigation."
A small frown. "I thought you said that was the kind of work you were already doing?"
Mairead grunted out a laugh. "The reason I was daydreaming."
Now the guy nodded a third time. "I don't see any rings on your fingers."
Uh-oh, though his voice didn't have the smarmy undertone of a pick-up line. "I don't have any family."
"No husband, or no family at all?"
Mairead decided to trust her intuition. "Raised by the nuns in an orphanage."
The man's eyes closed, but more from pain than the way Hadley Burgess had closed his at the seminar, and the shoulder pigeon fluttered away.
Finally, the guy said, "I know what that can be like."
Mairead felt her head canting to the side. "You lost your parents, too?"
"No." The man bowed his own head. "My wife and daughter."
Ohmigod. "I'm so sorry."
"Years ago. It gets a little easier, time goes by."
The guy now crumpled up his bakery bag with one hand and gently shooed the pigeons off his legs with the other. Mairead sensed that the conversation was ending, but she also realized that-however irrationally-she didn't want it to end.
Mairead said, "What do you do?"
The man looked over at her as he stood up-at nearly six feet, taller and more athletic than she'd have predicted. Instead of answering Mairead's question, though, the guy reached into the side pocket of his suit jacket and began walking toward her.
Mairead rose abruptly, instinctively not wanting to be caught sitting down as a stranger-even one with spaniel eyes-approached closely with something in his hand. But all the man fished from his pocket was a business card, which he extended to her, his fingernails clean on what she now saw as hands big enough to palm a basketball, the knuckles kind of lumpy.
He said, "I've got a spare office in my suite, you want to do a space-share."
"A what?" replied Mairead, taking the card.
"Share space with me. I could even pay you something-not what you're getting at that big firm, but I could refer you some cases, and you could help me out on some of mine."
Mairead recited from the card. "'Sheldon A. Gold, Attorney at Law.'"
"I like that better than 'Esquire,' which always sounded kind of phony to me."
She read silently the Beacon Street address, gauging it to be only a few blocks from her apartment. "You're a lawyer, too?"
"Appearances can be deceiving, huh?"
Mairead found her cheeks reddening for the second time that morning. "I didn't mean-"
"You want to learn from Perry Mason? Well, I don't have his track record, but I do mostly criminal defense, so you're interested, just come see me." He reached out his right hand. "Instead of your big-firm golden handcuffs, how about a Shel Gold handshake?"
Mairead extended hers, the fingers disappearing into his palm. Almost like holding a bag of peanuts, young lady. But the big hand felt warm and strong.
As Gold began walking away on the macadam path, Mairead hesitated, then called out, "But you don't even know my name."
Without turning, he called back over his shoulder. "We talked, and I know you. That's good enough."
There were other people on the path now, so Mairead O'Clare didn't say anything else. But she found herself watching Sheldon A. Gold walk-shamble, really-until he was swallowed up in the crowd milling around the subway station.
"MAIREAD!" said Susan Gunnarsen. "What, it's only January and that sweatshop's already letting you out for lunch?"
"I really appreciate your seeing me without an appoint-"
Mairead watched Gunnarsen flick her wrist dismissively. "Appointments are for students, make sure they prepare toward our time together. Alums, now, are always welcome."
Taking a seat, Mairead felt soothed by her old professor's welcome. And by the cornsilk hair and Minnesota accent out of the movie Fargo.
"So, Mairead," Gunnarsen plopping into the highbacked swivel chair behind her desk, "what can we do for you today?"
"I think I just wrecked the chance you made for me."
Gunnarsen frowned. "At Jaynes and Ward, you mean?"
"Yes," and, after her dress rehearsal with Sheldon Gold, Mairead rattled off the situation with Hadley Burgess pretty concisely.
"Bastard," said Gunnarsen.
"Susan, I'm really sorry-"
"Oh, not you, Mairead. I meant Hadley. Thinks he's so 'progressive, don't you know?' That tight-assed snob. Frankly, I was hoping you might have some positive influence on him, while you lasted."
"Lasted. You didn't really think you'd make partner there, did you?"
Mairead's assumed world seemed to be unraveling at a sharply accelerating rate. "Susan, I don't understand."
Gunnarsen came forward, elbows on the desktop. "Look, because of how you spent your first and second summers of law school, Jaynes and Ward is your initial exposure to a large firm. Well, there are dozens more just like it in every major city, the hiring partners and 'recruitment coordinators' wining and dining their twenty or thirty summer associates. For three glorious months, it's ball games and barbecues, pool parties and polo matches."
"Susan, I didn't expect any of that, and I knew I'd have to work hard. It's just-"
"Let me finish, okay?"
"Well, the firm takes its pick of that summer-associate litter, and then hires a few third-year students-like you-to fill out the roster." Gunnarsen leaned back. "And then the marathon begins."
"How good you were-how great you were-at the last round of competition doesn't matter. It's how well you run the next mile, and the one after that after that after that. Then, at the end of this eight-year Olympic tryout, only two, maybe three of the original associate class will be admitted to partnership."
Mairead did the math. "A ninety-percent attrition rate."
Mairead tried to smile. "Did you expect me to stick longer than four months?"
Gunnarsen did smile. "Well, here's my advice on that. Think about all the benefit you conferred on Jaynes and Ward-and its clients-by the quality work you did for them. You don't owe the partners there a thing."
"But I feel I owe you some-"
"Then here's how to pay me back. Take what you learned at the firm and abstract from it some lessons to carry away from the experience. After that, lace up your skates and hit the ice for another team that suits you more."
"I've..." Mairead did a quick ego check, to make sure that her next words weren't just to save face with a mentor. "I've already got another job offer."
"In the past two hours?"
"It was kind of a coincidence. Like serendipity?"
"Like miraculous. Is it a good opportunity?"
"I don't know much about it." Mairead did a quick gut check now. "But I trust the guy who made the offer."
"Well, as I always preached to you: Analyze with the head, but decide with the heart."
"Susan, thank you."
"For what, common sense?"
"For letting me off the hook on your recommendation to Hadley Burgess."
"Hah!" Gunnarsen hoisted herself from the chair and came around the desk. "Probably did the old bastard good, get a little professional enema."
Then a grunted laugh so like Mairead's own in the Common that she wondered if her old professor had taught her that, too.
"MS. O'Clare," said Hadley Burgess, rising from the other side of his desk but speaking more to her legs than her face, Mairead thought.
Then he glanced at his watch. "A third interlude in the same day is rather straining my schedule."
Mairead sat. "I think it'll be our last ever."
Both the fat man's eyebrows went up. "I beg your pardon?"
"I've thought carefully about what you said this morning, and I'm giving my notice now."
Burgess seemed to need the arms of his chair to steady his landing on its cushion. "Your...what?"
"My notice," Mairead said. "I'm leaving in two weeks. Of course, I'll spend the time bringing any associates you designate up to speed on the matters I'm covering for clients."
"You're...leaving Jaynes and Ward, just like that?"
Mairead couldn't understand the apparent shock. "Well, yes."
Something seemed to flicker behind the man's eyes, then burn through them. "And in two weeks, you say."
"Seems fair to both sides."
"Yes, well, fair is hardly the word to use in trashing not only your charitably offered position here but indeed your reputation within the bar as-"
"Mr. Burgess, I just don't want to prolong the agony for either of us."
Mairead, no stranger to blushing, thought the color surging into Burgess's face might just burst through his pores.
"Ms. O'Clare, you are hereby terminated at once. Clean out your office-your desk, your bloody wastebasket-and be gone by five p.m."
"Mr. Burgess, the firm's clients deserve a professional transition, and I promise you I won't sabotage any-"
"Get out! Get out of my office before I throw you out."
Thinking of what the man had said back in the orientation seminar, Mairead O'Clare squared her shoulders and rose slowly from the chair. "Mr. Burgess, I'm afraid that might reach beyond your 'current skill level.'"
From Uncommon Justice, by Terry Devane. (c) April 2001 , G. P. Putnam's Sons, used by permission.