Authors: Isabelle Lafleche
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #General
A NOVEL OF HAUTE COUTURE AND THE CORNER OFFICE
To my parents and to Patrice
Edwards & White is one of the leading global law firms, with forty-five offices across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas.
Our New York City office is our most dynamic, with more than five hundred lawyers, and is the cornerstone of our international network.
We are seeking talented and ambitious associates from our international offices to transfer to our ever expanding team in New York. These positions offer the opportunity to work on high-end transactions with the world’s leading corporations, financial institutions, and governments. The New York office enjoys a collegiate and partner-directed, not partner-dominated, work environment, which offers excellent career development opportunities. You will receive a highly competitive remuneration, including a generous relocation allowance.
ASSACHUSETTS! Where’s the goddamn paperwork for Massachusetts?” A tall man holding his suspenders with both hands is taking long strides down the hallway, punctuating each step with the name of a state. “New Hampshire!” He stops in front of a boardroom where associates are furiously stuffing envelopes with piles of paper. “Maine! Are we friggin’ ready in Maine?” He continues his pacing, mops his brow with a handkerchief, and pokes his head into another conference room where it looks like other associates are about to drop dead from the stress.
I peer into the boardroom, spying on the chaos while I wait for the office administrator. Six young lawyers are sitting around a large mahogany table littered with polystyrene cups. The men have their shirt sleeves rolled up and their ties loosened and the women have removed their suit jackets. They look as if they haven’t slept in weeks.
The man in suspenders looms in the doorway. “F
OR CHRISSAKE, WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE PACKAGES FOR
The associates nervously scramble to fill the envelopes under his watchful gaze.
“What’s going on?” I ask a light-haired man sitting next to the door after Mr. Suspenders has moved on to his next group of victims.
“Major investigation. We’re filing applications with the regulators in all fifty states. One of our biggest clients is facing jail time.”
“Who’s the guy in suspenders?”
“Harry Traum, head of litigation. He specializes in white-collar crime defence.”
“A former army general and a tough man to please,” he adds under his breath. “I’m Alfred, by the way. Who are you?”
“Catherine. Just transferred from the Paris office.”
“Great, welcome aboard,” he says to my chest.
“Thanks.” Relieved that I accepted a transfer to the firm’s corporate group, I walk back to the reception area where a middle-aged woman with a perfectly coiffed head of fire red hair and matching nails is waiting for me holding a box of business cards.
“You must be Catherine. Welcome to New York. I’m Mimi, the office administrator. You’ll be sitting in that office over there in the corner.” She says, pointing, her arm glittering with gold bangles.
“A corner office?”
“It’s only temporary, hon.” She pats me on the shoulder. “Until the new partner moves in and your office is finished. No one gets a corner office until their tenth year at the firm. But don’t you worry, in time you’ll get yours,” she adds in a conspiratorial tone.
I kick myself for being so wide-eyed. In big law firms, a corner office represents the ultimate symbol of success, the carrot dangled before the most ambitious associates who believe that years of sweating it out are worth it to obtain a corner view, which in reality is nothing more than another space in which to bill more hours. Is this ridiculous?
Do I want it?
We walk side by side and other than Harry Traum’s voice reverberating in the background, a tomblike silence pervades the hallway. The minimalist decor, marble floors, and contemporary art give the office a cold, impersonal feel.
“Anything you need, you get,” Mimi advises while giving me the grand tour. “We ranked first in law.com’s annual survey of best places to work,” she boasts with a radio announcer voice. “There’s a full breakfast every morning, the car service is paid for around the clock, all lawyers fly first class.”
She glances over at me to make sure I’m impressed.
I nod with a smile, having enjoyed similar perks in Paris.
“I almost forgot to mention that we’ve recently added a few items to the list, including concierge services and pet insurance.”
Pet insurance? What lawyer at this firm has time to take care of a pet? Isn’t that like offering child-care services to a group of monks?
“And we recently initiated a new Friendship Program where partners and senior associates are encouraged to say hello, thank you, and good night to junior associates. Isn’t that sweet?” she exclaims, her eyes flashing with excitement, as if such gestures were extraordinary.
It’s obvious that I’ll need to adjust to a new set of social rules here.
“Well, here’s your office. Let me know if you need anything. I love your French accent, by the way—it’s adorable.” She shakes my hand warmly.
As soon as I put down my handbag, I hear a knock on the door.
“Catherine, dah-ling, welcome to New York!” As I look up, a striking Indian man dressed in a slim-fitting black suit is standing in the doorway. He has a radiant gold-coloured complexion, a tall, slender physique, and speaks with a sultry English accent. I instantly recognize Rikash; we had spoken several times while I was working on a mandate for the New York office. Given his penchant for French haute couture, we had instantly bonded over the phone, and I was ecstatic when I found out he would be my assistant in New York.
“Rikash! I can’t believe we’ll be working together! I’ve never had a male assistant before, especially one who has better skin than I do.”
“I know, isn’t it fantastic? I can’t wait to take you out on the town. You’re in my shopping territory now.”
“I can’t wait either. You have such great taste.”
“I won’t disagree with you on that front.”
“Remember that limited-edition Goyard suitcase you had me pick for you a few years ago when it first came out? I’m still jealous you got one. ”
“That old thing? You can have it, sweetie. It’s so passé. From now on, what is mine is yours, except for the men, of course.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. How’s your documentary coming along?”
“Which one? I’m working on a few at the moment.” He lights up, obviously thrilled I remembered. I’m thrilled too—I’m going to need him on my side to survive here.
“The one about child labour in India.”
“I’m hoping it gets selected by an independent film festival in Mumbai.”
“With your talent, I’m sure it will.”
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Anyway, if you need anything at all, I do mean anything, just let me know. I’m always happy to help. Talk to you later.” He twirls on his feet and sashays back to the reception area.
The excitement of being here tingles through every inch of my body. I had been waiting for the perfect moment to request a transfer to New York and it had finally arrived. Out of thirty applicants from international offices, only three candidates had been chosen, and I was the only one assigned to the corporate group. I’m determined not to disappoint.
An attractive woman in her late forties oozing power marches in. She has a luxuriant mane of chestnut hair cascading down to her shoulders and is wearing a gorgeous fuchsia
wool bouclé suit. The impeccable cut of her jacket follows her svelte silhouette, while the hemline of her skirt is about ten inches higher than mine. On her feet are a pair of black patent-leather Christian Louboutin’s with a three-inch gold heel that I had drooled over while window shopping in Paris before I left.
“Hello, Catherine,” she says, looking me up and down. She strides toward my desk and shakes my hand with vigour, nearly breaking my pinky. “Welcome aboard. My name is Bonnie Clark. I’m the partner in charge of mergers and acquisitions. I do most of the
legal work around here. So you worked in our Paris office?”
“Yes, I did,” I answer, my hand still throbbing.
“What were you doing there?”
“A variety of different things: securities law, corporate—”
“I hope you have some experience dealing with M&A matters,” she cuts me off. “I need you on a deal right away.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good, I’ll get you started on it.”
She marches out of my office without saying goodbye. The strong scent of her Joy de Patou lingers in the air.
“How fast can you get to the airport?”
“To go where?”
“Don’t ask any questions, Catherine, I’m the one doing the asking,” Bonnie hollers through the intercom not two minutes later. “I need you to conduct a due diligence review on a deal.”
“No problem. I’ll just pop home to pack and head straight for the airport.”
“There’s no time for that,” she cuts through my voice impatiently. “The Town Car is waiting downstairs.”
I glance down at my grey tweed Tara Jarmon suit and black patent Roger Vivier pumps and realize this is what I’ll be wearing for the next forty-eight hours. Oh well, I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again.
She hangs up without providing any more details.
ND BY THE WAY, THIS IS MY BIGGEST CLIENT, SO DON’T SCREW THIS UP, OKAY
?” Her voice comes back through the intercom to hit me one more time.
Rikash rushes into my office with a travel itinerary, a BlackBerry, and a look of desperation.
“You’re going to Booneville, my dear. Nutron is the largest steel producer in the country and is one of the firm’s biggest clients. They’re looking to acquire a company called Red River Steel Mills. Here are the details.” He drops a thick black binder on my desk.
My fingers flip swiftly through the tabs and I feel fuelled by the challenge. I always get a major adrenalin rush from working on high-profile acquisitions and this sounds like a deal I can sink my teeth into. It wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend my first day in New York, but it’s the perfect chance to prove myself.
“Honey, you need to a-cce-le-rate, you’re going to miss your flight. It’s in less than two hours and this is rush hour. G
He orders, pushing me out of my office as he hands me a black canvas toiletry bag.
“It’s the firm’s last-minute travel kit.”
I take a peek: it’s filled with travel-sized Kiehl’s deodorant and cream; Tom’s of Maine natural toothpaste and mouthwash, Bulgari shower gel and shampoo, and Jo Malone Grapefruit Cologne.
“I don’t have any clean underwear to take with me.”
I cringe at the thought of buying underwear in a place called Booneville; I never buy lingerie in a store where I can also find toilet bowl freshener, dog food, or canned tuna.
“I say go without. You’ll be the most popular woman in town,” Rikash shouts as the elevator doors close.
I rush down to 42nd and don’t see any available Town Cars so I opt for a cab. As I climb into the first available one, a woman gets in on the other side.
We both sit staring at each other.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Get the hell out of my cab!” she screams, her face menacingly less than two inches from mine.
What lack of class! Outraged, I wipe off some of her spit from my cheek and rush out onto the sidewalk.
A black Lincoln sedan stops in front of me. The driver nods and stands to greet me but doesn’t say a word as he quickly opens the door and I climb in. Classical music is playing on the radio and there isn’t a single trace of the previous occupant. I breathe a momentary sigh of relief and then dive into the binder on my lap.
I can just see the sign announcing the entrance to the Holland Tunnel when the car comes to a screeching halt.
“Excuse me, lady. I think I have a flat tire.”
“What? Are you serious?” A wave of panic washes over me. I nervously look at my watch and I’m already flirting with missing my flight. My heart racing wildly, I take several deep breaths to calm down.
Don’t fucking screw this up,
I replay Bonnie’s words in my head. There’s no way I can face her dramatic reaction when I tell her I missed the one flight to Booneville. Despite reciting to myself
Be calm, be calm,
I can feel the sweat seeping through the only blouse I’ll have to wear in the foreseeable future.
“Yes, lady, I’m very serious.”
He opens the door and tiptoes along the curb to check out the tire situation.
“It’s totally flat. Sorry, miss. Maybe you can get the next flight?”
“There isn’t a next flight to where I’m going.”
I grab my overflowing briefcase and laptop bag and rush into the oncoming traffic in three-inch heels.
“Are you crazy? You’ll get killed!”
I’d rather die from being run over than from humiliation.
I lift my arm and flag down a taxi in the fourth lane over. The cabbie waves and barely avoids colliding with seven cars to get to where I’m standing, creating a cacophony of honking that forces my driver to cover his ears with both hands.
“Newark airport. Please hurry, I’m
“No problem, dear, hang on.”
The cabbie slams on the accelerator and I grab the passenger handle next to the window. He aggressively dodges traffic
and cuts in front of every car via the right lane, causing even more honking. I close my eyes and try to control my angst. Is a flight to Booneville worth dying for? At this second, it feels like I just might. Overcome by a mixture of panic and nausea, I open the window to get some air while I cover my mouth to help keep the motion sickness in check.
My heart pounding, I arrive at the check-in counter with thirty minutes to spare. The airline attendant advises me that the flight is closed.
“Aren’t you aware of travel regulations? You’re supposed to be here at least two hours in advance.”
“I’m very aware, but my taxi got a flat tire on the highway and I
to get on this flight, please.”
“I’m sorry, you’re being bumped to the next flight, which is tomorrow.”
I spend five minutes begging, pleading, and (barely) faking a nervous breakdown. I’ve never actually committed an act of air rage, but in those three hundred long seconds, I clearly envision myself hitting the attendant with my two-ton litigator’s briefcase while yelling, “Let’s see who’s bumping who now!”
After what feels like an eternity of major theatrics, she hands me a boarding card.
I sprint to the security checkpoint and the first guard I meet confiscates my new bottle of J’adore by Dior, a gift my mother gave me before I left Paris. Although I have a tendency to be heavy-handed in the eau de toilette department, I’ve never heard of anyone actually being spritzed to death. Fuming, I hand it over.
The second security guard gives me a suspicious evil eye after glancing at my French passport. Ignoring him, I put my laptop on the security belt while struggling to hold my briefcase in one hand and my can-be-reached-at-all-times gadgets in the other. I must look like a complete disaster.