If given the opportunity, was I brave enough?
Could I do it? Could I kill a man?
I pulled out a carving knife and began to trim the chicken to get the feel of the blade, of the stainless-steel handle, getting the balance of it in my hand; I tried not to shake.
When it came down to it, it was him or me. I had to.
I threw the chicken in the microwave to defrost; that bought me about fifteen minutes. So I began washing vegetables for the salad.
The time was coming.
Could I do it? Could I really do it?
Could I kill a man?
“What do you do for a living?”
I looked up from my red snapper, dabbing at my lips with my napkin as I studied my dinner companion. Arnold was big money, the type whose name was found on the side of buildings. After salivating over my salmon, which looked delicious, I realized it was instead my duty to respond and feign interest. I beamed at the balding man across the table.
“Me?” I answered enthusiastically, acting flattered, “I’m a corporate attorney.”
“Is that so? For a moment here I was wondering if you were one of the waitresses, joining us out of turn.”
Despite the effrontery, I kept a smile plastered on my face and stabbed my fish with my fork. After years of Harvard Law, long nights studying, and years of being an overworked associate, this was something that I never trained for. Sexism was alive and well in some circles, and if it was the client, I had to learn to take it. I drew in a deep breath to calm myself down. This was an important meeting.
“Oh no, how funny,” I said, that was all I could manage.
Hopefully my tact earned me a modicum of respect.
At least the restaurant was top notch. The dining room was set up like a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens. Vines, roses, and seasonal leaves wrapped around the walls. An atrium and pond with little goldfish swimming around acted as the dining room’s center piece.
My co-worker and support for this meeting, Ryan Grierson, nudged my arm with his elbow discreetly and slyly smiled at me. I was thankful to have him along. He was good at what he did, always able to woo a client. Ryan could sell anyone anything and make him or her think it was their idea in the first place. As part of the good ‘ole boy club he was well liked and listened to, but he never left me out. He gave me a wink, another one of his tricks that he used on clients as well as women.
“Let’s get to business,” Ryan said as I distinctly felt his leg brush against mine. Accident? Maybe not. I didn’t overanalyze it; I just looked down and focused on my dinner, biting back my retorts toward Arnold.
“Okay,” Arnold, the old man said, staring squarely at me.
“She’s been cleared. Elizabeth can stay. She knows the details of your account.”
“I’m not used to working with women like this.”
Another stab at my plate.
Ryan shook his head, still smiling, and scooped up some peas on his plate.
“Well, let me tell you, she’s a lot smarter than I am, so for the sake of business, I keep her around.”
“Ah, well. If that’s the way you play the game.”
“It is,” Ryan responded, the smile gone, the voice stern.
I chewed on my lunch nonchalantly, enjoying the succulent flavor, and Ryan sticking up for me. Which did I enjoy more? That I could not answer.
“One of my companies,” Arnold began, getting on with business, “Cornhusk Foods, wants to advertise our products on television. Sales have been slipping. We’re near bankruptcy. If it goes on like this we will be shutting our doors.”
“Understood. And the product you want to place is?” I cut in.
“We do frozen foods, mainly for airlines, schools, and correctional facilities.”
Ryan’s poker face transformed into one of surprise. He set down his fork and reached for his drink, trying not to choke. Jail food. We were supposed to represent jail food, and sell it to the public. I’m glad I wasn’t caught mid-bite.
“Who would you like to market to? Where are you advertising already?” I asked, covering his hide and my own surprise.
“In men’s magazines. Foodie magazines. I don’t understand why business is dropping.”
Ryan recovered from his shot of whiskey with a quick smile at me. I nodded back, trying not to show just how much I appreciated his appreciation.
“Well, Arnold,” he began, “We haven’t taken on new clients in quiet some time. Our company, Morrison Advertising, is already very busy and we pride ourselves on our customer service and personal attention.”
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes. Whatever personal money I have to spend to save this company. It was my father’s and his father’s before that; I won’t be the one to ruin the legacy.”
Okay then. I leaned in for the kill.
“We’ll need thirty million up front to handle your affairs. After which, for ten years we receive ten percent of your profits and a thirty percent stockholders share. The upfront cost could vary if our expenses rise above thirty million. Beyond that we will come to you for approval should the need arise,” I recited, quoting the major parts of the contract I drafted that morning.
“The brains,” Ryan quipped tilting his head towards me.
Arnold finally regarded me with a nod, “Anything to save my business.”
I slid over the contract and a pen, “Take your time to read over it.”
Like most clients, he took the pen and signed over his life without reading. Morrison Advertising was deceitfully named. It’s much more than an advertising firm; it’s the last resort for a company. Companies that still had the means to run, but were facing an impending downfall or bankruptcy and hired us to dig them out of their graves. We have fresh eyed accountants, advertisers, lawyers, advisors, budgeters, and motivational speakers for their employees, all to try and save them. It comes with a steep price and a demand that they follow eighty percent of our instructions. That was in the fine print he failed to read. He shouldn’t have asked if I was the waitress.
Ryan stuck out his hand to close the deal, “Welcome to Morrison.”
“Did you get it?” Boss Man asked from behind his mahogany desk. Boss Man was really Bosely Morris, full owner of his business, Morrison Advertising. There were no stockholders, no boards, no one but the tyrant himself. It was his, and his alone, and that was how he liked it. Morrison would never go public or be divided into shares, not until he was cold in the grave.
“We did. I deposited his down payment on the way over,” Ryan said as he moved around on the couch trying to get comfortable.
His movement caused me to sink farther and farther down into the quicksand-like sofa. I ran my fingers over the leather, tracing its veins, partially to stay in place, but also to enjoy the piece. Like the other furniture in the office it was imported. The selections spoke of wealth and success, which would hopefully earn our clients’ trust.
Even though I was in a business meeting, as the least senior person in the room, it was my job to stay quiet and offer support only if asked. Ryan was a good co-worker, giving me credit in landing Arnold; he was the one who did the research and the courtship. I had only been brought on in the end to draft the contracts and study the business infrastructure of Cornhusk. Arnold’s notorious distaste for women was well known, and it was fine for Ryan to take lead. I wasn’t out to change the man, just the company.
I stayed half tuned into the conversation in case I was asked a question, but I really had every confidence in Ryan and let my eyes wander around the office. I wasn’t often invited in. The peach and raspberry marble floor was from Italy (so said the office gossips, the secretaries, who always knew more than any of us). I had to admit, I liked it. My heels sounded classy when I walked across the marble.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s shoes were glossy black and wing tipped, but made no sound. He was well dressed today in a three-piece grey suit that was snugly tailored. I couldn’t help but notice that detail as he squirmed around on the sofa. Maybe if he remained still my eyes wouldn’t be constantly drawn in his direction.
“Jail food?” Bosely huffed, “We’re in the business of frozen peas now?”
Ryan shrugged, “Money. Millions of inmates have to be fed. He didn’t flinch at the cost.”
“Money,” The boss conceded, “Alright. I’ve got work to do.”
We were dismissed. Ryan helped me up from the Venus Fly Trap couch by pulling me up with both hands wrapped around my forearms. He was kind enough not to grunt.
Outside of the office his demeanor changed rapidly, as if the confident man I knew before was an act. Ryan paused and tucked his hands into his pockets, leaning against the closed door, not making eye contact with me. All very odd. Nervously clasping and re-clasping his watch; he stood there, silently. This was a tick of his I never noticed.
“What’s wrong, Ryan?” it was rare for the pretty-boy to look out of sorts. In fact, he was pale with a thin veil of sweat dotting his forehead.
“Nothing,” he responded in a knee-jerk fashion.
“We’ve been working together three years. I can read you.”
He gave me a sad smile; his eyes finally meeting mine.
“You’re better off not knowing, but I’ve got to ask something of you.”
“Then ask,” I frowned, “Since when are we not straight forward?”
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, another nervous movement from him that I had not seen.
“Okay,” he relented, “I have this problem, a legal problem, and I need your help. Can we talk in your office? It can’t wait and it needs a bit of privacy. I’ve been debating all day on to get you involved or not.”
Legal problems? Ryan Grierson was the Golden Boy of Morrison and likely of every club he ever joined. He was one of the few people here that honored the morality clause. Last year he refunded money to a client because his campaign was successfully under budget. Men like him did not need help from corporate lawyers like me. I specialized in detecting fraud and corporate restructuring. Years ago I had done a bit of pro bono work as a criminal defense second chair intern, but that was before I decided to do corporate law full time. They were two different worlds and I chose the more business-end of law.
“This about the deal we just inked?” I asked, thinking that was the only thing it could really be, as we fell in step heading towards my office.
“I wish,” he muttered, making it clear nothing would be said till we had that privacy. My office was just down the hall, the mystery wouldn’t last long, so I didn’t press him.
Less than a minute later, I swung open my door and turned on the lights.
I gasped. Stopping in my tracks. Roses.
A plethora of crimson red roses in a crystal vase sat on my desk. I looked to Ryan immediately. From him? We have always been friendly co-workers, gone for celebratory drinks and dinners, but we were by no means at a point in our professional relationship where I might expect to receive flowers from him. Unfortunately, Ryan was known as the office playboy, plowing through secretaries and young associates. Usually making the secretaries mad would have been a really bad move, but the girls were smart, they knew who they were dating, and he always sent flowers. Carnations usually, not roses. He said once carnations were so much cheaper.
So was I next? Was I worth more than the others because of the upgrade to roses? Couldn’t say that would bother me in the slightest. I had the exact opposite reputation around here, which for a woman was a good thing. I was known for working hard and keeping to myself. But for Ryan, I looked up at his smile, maybe I could make an exception? Finally put to rest my silly crush?
Stay professional. He was my co-worker. I was not the type of girl who could have a one night stand and then be okay the next day with flowers and a “you knew this wouldn’t work out” speech. It would be too awkward to work next to him every day.
I was getting ahead of myself. Backtrack. He brought me in here to discuss legal problems, not to show off flowers.
“Someone must like you,” Ryan muttered as he closed the door behind him, “Is there a card somewhere?”
It was already in my hand.
“To my one true love. May our lives blossom together like these roses. Love, Your Secret Admirer,” I read as I settled into my desk chair, trying to look nonplussed.
Ryan merely sat on the couch, but I could tell that he was eyeing those buds with a bit of a glare.
“Who do you think sent them?” I pressed.
“How would I know?” he shrugged, trailing me with his eyes as I inhaled the intoxicating scent of the roses.
Because it was you! Right? I mean, there was no one else. I worked nearly every day and every weekend. The only other males I spoke to were my doorman or my boss.
But that was wishful thinking. What girl didn’t want the office golden boy to dub her “the one” and finally settle down?
“Locker room chat,” I suggested.
He smiled and laughed; quickly I looked away and managed to avoid being drawn in despite myself. If he didn’t send them I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“Maybe Macy would know. They’d have to go through her first.”
Macy was my personal secretary. She had a big heart, and was known for her ability to find out everything about everyone. Her office gossip made for interesting lunches. He was right. My roses would have had to pass her desk to get to mine, and by the next day everyone would know that I had gotten roses from Ryan… That is, if he was the one who sent them.
“You’re right. Let’s go check.”
I was love-starved enough that his legal problems could wait. Luckily, he was equally curious. Either that or he knew he would not have my full attention till I figured this out.
We power-walked, arms pumping at our sides to Macy’s office. She was a full legal secretary and earned a private office to herself, an amazing feat, really.
Ryan was outpacing me.
Flowers for me! How romantic. Secret admirers only happened in romance novels. I told him as much, in a round-about way, letting him know that if it was him-they were a more than welcome gift.
“Or in horror films,” was his response.
Stupid men, ruining everything; Macy would understand and be equally thrilled for me.
I swung open Macy’s door with a smile plastered onto my face. My infatuation immediately gave way to abject horror.
Macy, my good friend, my confidant, was dead.
A knife in her back. Blood on the floor…
Ryan’s comment suddenly seemed a premonition. I tried to speak but words failed me. I looked up at Ryan, mouth agape. He steered me away, hands on my shoulders. It felt like a bucket of ice water was being dumped over me.
“Was that…” he stumbled, not able to form thoughts either, “Let’s…”
I tried to answer his unasked question, but the words stopped short again, somewhere trapped in my esophagus. Shock clouded my vision and confused my thoughts.
Light began to stab my eyes. I opened them, and found myself staring up into the ultra violet rays from the lights in an office. I blinked several times, my pupils adjusting. It was a good minute before I could see clearly again.
What happened? I had no recollection of how I ended up on my boss’s couch. I was here earlier, but I left, right? For a moment I tried to struggle to get up, but a gentle hand eased me back down. I found it hard to move, and every limb felt a few pounds heavier.
“Oh, good, Elizabeth. I was worried.”
I looked over to where the disembodied voice was coming from.
“Ryan! Why am I in here?” I rubbed my temple, full consciousness flooding back, “There were flowers and we were about to discuss your legal problems.”
“Shh,” he shook his head, “Let’s not talk about those now. You mean, you don’t remember a thing?”
“Remember what? I don’t know how I got here,” My voice was getting shrill; I was trying not to panic.
“What about her?”
“Yeah,” he sighed, looking uncomfortable, “You’re going to make me say it?” He paused, pained, waiting for a nod, “Someone stabbed her. In her office. We just saw her body. That’s why you fainted.”
Macy? There was so much blood…Everywhere. Those were my last thoughts when I passed out.
I leaned over the side of the couch and threw up. Yes, I remembered now. The images were flashing through my mind in horrifying stills. Blood. Knife.
Tears flowed down my cheeks, a dam had broken. Who could have done this to her? Why? I bit my lip trying to gain some control but as I shook, my lip bled and I lost all semblance of composure. The two of us had breakfast this morning. I ate a croissant and she chose a couple of donuts. I always brought us treats from my parents’ bakery. She teased I was the one responsible for the extra ten pounds she carried.
“She liked my parents and their bakery, we’d visit there together all the time,” I whispered, “She liked going there more than I did.”
“Shh,” Ryan said, clearly thinking I was crazy, and wiped off the blood from my lip with a tissue as he eased me up into a sitting position. He knelt in front of me, eyeing me, as if I were about to collapse at any moment.
I appreciated and hated the gesture all at the same time. I spent years cultivating the shield of being a poised and strong business woman, and then there I was, crying, sputtering, and fainting while he was calm, cool, and collected. But then again, he only knew Macy in passing. I wouldn’t have been so bent out of shape if something happened to his secretary. Upset, worried, yes, but I’d be able to breathe a bit better than this.
“Macy. Why, Ryan? Why?”
“I don’t know.”
He took my hand and stroked it, remaining on the floor.
“She’s dead. Dead.”
“I know. I’m just as shocked. I saw her this morning in the elevator.”
“We had breakfast together.”
“She’s in a better place, Liz.”
Easy to say. Hard to accept.
And I knew that, Macy was wonderfully religious, but she shouldn’t have had to leave yet. Here wasn’t so bad. Another wave of nausea. I placed my hand lightly on my throat as if that would keep it in.
“I’m going to get whoever did this to her,” I vowed.
“Let the authorities handle that. That’s their job.”
I nodded, only to appease him.
Now that I was feeling slightly better, the urge to fight was back. Anger helped.
“Liz, the police want to talk to us. It’s just a thing to see what was up in the office as a whole. They’re talking to everyone. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me needing your legal counsel. Can we say we were in your office about to celebrate with a nightcap before heading home?”
“Yes, of course.”
Warning bells should have been ringing, but I was already unsteady and unfocused. I was grateful as Ryan wrapped an arm around me and helped me off the couch. We slowly made way towards my office where the police were waiting, limping along like survivors in the aftermath.
“Thank you for being there for me,” I finally said, trying to smile.
“Wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
After losing a few hundred on the horses, Edgar Waxburry was still pretty happy as he stared up at the office complex. Somewhere up there was Elizabeth, smelling her flowers.
I hope she likes them, Edgar thought as he walked slowly away from the building. Soon, she’d be his. A little more money and he could win her over. That was all women wanted, a little security even if they had enough on their own. It was in their nature.
He settled himself onto a park bench. It was along the path she walked home. Maybe he would talk to her. Or maybe she’d approach him. Edgar, after all, did shower and shave in the morning. He put on clean, pressed clothes. It was his daily ritual to watch her from the bench. The pigeons were used to him. They scooted aside and nibbled at the crackers he bought.
Usually she’d walk by, ignoring him and his birds, but he’d be watching through his newspaper, peering over the edge. Elizabeth favored high heels, in cheery colors with some sort of black or grey skirt suit. She’d wear pants and flats only on cold occasions or in bad weather. Like most New Yorkers she walked straight and fast like she owned the place. On the way to work her long, reddish-brown hair was down and flowing, but by the end of the end of the day she had ear-buds in and her hair high in a pony-tail showing off her long neck.
He knew a lot of facts about Elizabeth.
That she used lavender scented lotion, but never body spray. Or that when stressed she preferred hot tea to anything else.
He wondered what she listened to. Maybe if he bought an iPod they could listen to the same music. That would be nice.
By seven o’ clock Edgar was getting restless. “Where was she?” he thought as he stood up and stretched. Keeping his face down and his hands tucked in his pockets, Edgar continued down 4th Avenue. It was okay he didn’t see her today. She must be working late after staring at the flowers so long. He couldn’t stay and wait, oh, no. He had much more planning to do for the next day.
I hated working in the family bakery. Kneading dough at six in the morning was not my idea of a job; it was my idea of torture. Cold, gritty paste oozing between my fingers, clumps of sugar hanging off my nails, flour in my hair, all before a cup of coffee. This was something that I had to do, however. Throughout my life, through every failed test, every break up, this was where I came to pound it out. There was something very satisfying about slamming down dough onto the counter again and again. Other than that, I avoided working at my parents’ bakery. Never managed to avoid it entirely. It was my on and off seasonal job.
Recently, these past few years they’ve had to lay off workers, and I’ve been giving my parents many of my mornings to help them with the baking. This was their retirement and their source of pride. No way was I going to let that slip through their fingers. The recession hit hard. People on a budget or a diet skipped their daily coffee and pastry to save money each week. Ironically, one of the reasons that I became a lawyer was so I could avoid inheriting the family business, and becoming a baker. But, as life, in her cruelty, would have it, I was still here, and my sister, with the degree in culinary arts was not.
Princess Jill-I pounded the dough into the counter- was still in France writing a recipe book or at some culinary institution. She’d practically divorced her family and we mustn’t bother her. My parents still thought she was still really working and very dedicated to her project. I didn’t buy it. She probably folded, and fell in bed with some Frenchman and likely shacking up with him, living off the advance she received from her book deal. It doesn’t take three years to write a recipe book-unless you are a really bad chef.
This place always brought out my insecurities. It was like walking into my shared childhood bedroom and seeing my perfect attendance trophy next to my sister’s first place.
I sighed and pounded the dough again. This wasn’t about me. I had my time. Last night I snuck out early from work and took a taxi home. I curled up in bed and cried. Had some hot tea. Gathered my mess together so I could be strong again, or at least put that carefully crafted shell back together.
This wasn’t about me.
This visit wasn’t entirely just to help out either. I told my family what happened to Macy and they insisted on catering her funeral for free for her family.
Offering baked goods was one good thing about working here. There was nothing like a donut or a cookie or cake pop to put a smile on a person’s face, and they always helped Macy get through a tough day at the office. It was a good way to honor her.
“You better go home and get ready. We’ll have everything ready,” Mom said, placing a steadying hand on my arm.
I looked up at her and smiled, confirming to her I was okay and spry like every Knead Bakery employee should be. Customers would be arriving soon, and they could see the bakery from the front counter. Mom wouldn’t want them seeing a snot-nosed-teary eyed chef behind all her colorful creations. I was going to argue that I should stay, that I’d be okay.
“That sounds good. Thanks for doing this,” I checked my flour smeared watch, “I’ll be back in about three hours to help transport.”
Lying to my Mom was pointless, she’d see right through me.
She clapped the dough I had been working with in her hand and smashed it violently onto the counter. For such a small lady, she had strength. Enough strength to make over two thousand donuts for the starving yuppies of New York City.
“Get on your way,” She smiled at me, “You’ll be okay.”
“I’ll be okay.”
That would be the mantra for today.
I wiped my hands off on the dishrag. Washing flour off only makes it worse.
“I’m gone!” I yelled as I opened the front door and set off the bells.
I think autopilot is how I get through most of my life, or at least how I got from place to place. Headphones in, music up, subway on, subway off, up steps. I couldn’t tell anyone what I did on the train, if I looked right and left before crossing, or if I greeted the doorman at the building on most days. I could tell someone what I was listening to on my iPod. Today was no exception, except somehow I couldn’t say what happened from the time I left the bakery until I arrived late to the office. There was a funeral and a brunch between those hours-according to my planner.
As soon I stepped onto level sixty-three, I was greeted by the usual overstuffed couches and polished marble floors. Morrison was a very plush office to encourage clients to strive for this and make them believe it was possible. I checked myself in the full-length mirror and straightened out my suit. Black skirt, black silk shirt, tight ponytail. The black was the only reminder I’d been to a funeral. I even wore black heels, which was odd for me.
I headed back to my office. I knew I shouldn’t be at work when I was so clearly very in shock. As I passed Macy’s office I turned my head and ignored the crime scene tape. So not ready for that, not today, probably not forever. Head down, I made it to my desk.
My office, my cocoon. Work would put me in the right frame of mind, it always did.
Another hot tear ran down my face. Aha…Yes, the funeral…I believe I cried through that.
I was still reeling. Stuff like that, it just doesn’t happen to people you know out of the blue. It happens on television and in the movies, behind the safety of the screen’s glass.
There was a knock on my door. Ugh. I didn’t feel like seeing anyone.
“Didn’t expect you back so soon,” Ryan said, poking his head in, “Do you mind?” He gestured to come in and I nodded. He was always welcome.
“I have a lot of stuff to get done with frozen potatoes, exciting stuff,” I said, not trying to hide the sarcasm.
“So you don’t mind the interruption?”
He took a seat in one of my chairs that faced my desk and leaned back. Getting even more comfortable he unclipped the buttons on his sleeves and rolled them up. This gave him the freedom to lean in on his elbows.
I tried not to watch.
“Are you okay? You didn’t look so good at the funeral.”
That’s right… I spent the service tucked under his arm with my face buried in his black shirt.
“I’m better,” I smiled weakly, “Thank you for…” I let my voice die off, he knew what I meant without having to elaborate and further embarrass myself.
“It was no problem. We’re all torn up. But, I didn’t come here to talk about that. It’s about that legal problem I’m having. Is it tacky, for me to come to you now about it? I can go; I really didn’t expect you to be here, but I saw you and couldn’t not drop in.”
I held up a hand to stop him, “I’m glad you don’t want to talk about it. I need a distraction. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been framed,” he stated, no hesitation on his part. The seriousness of the accusation explained the necessity of the bad timing.
Autopilot was now officially off.
I looked up at him. There was no smile or twinkle in his eye. No markers of a “just kidding” moment.
“Framed? You mean your picture on the wall, right?”
“Funny. I wish. But, you’re right on one level; I’ve been framed and hung. My brother, he thinks I killed a woman he dated.”
I mean, excuse me, what?
My own secretary got murdered. Was this some sort of epidemic going around? Should I be worried? Usually I washed my hands religiously to avoid catching something, but how did one exactly avoid getting caught and murdered?
“I didn’t,” he added, looking flushed, “But, I’m out on bail. I need a lawyer, someone to defend me. Most of my assets have been frozen. I probably couldn’t afford your rates, but at the very least if you could recommend me to someone. I want you though; I need someone that believes in me, and we’re a good team, we work together a lot.”
“A murder trial?” I reiterated.
Okay. Think. Think and breathe. Luckily the funeral left me emotionally spent and I was too tired over-react. Or even properly react.
“Tell me about this woman.”
“Do we have lawyer-client confidentiality?”
Was I taking the case more out of curiosity than friendship? Possibly.
“Yes, of course. I’ll take your case pro-bono; don’t even think about the cost. I’ll try and bill it to Morrison for kicks.”
Ryan smiled his normal megawatt grin, but I wasn’t melting. In fact, I didn’t know what to feel. A fresh wave of nerves was throttling me. How well did I know him? Should I have opened my office door to him? If Macy could be killed, anything was possible in this world. Anything was possible in this very office…
Did he kill Macy? That investigation was still fresh. So far no leads.