Judy Carrier eyed her reflection in the shiny elevator doors, wondering when mirrors stopped being her friend. Her cropped yellow-blonde hair stuck out like demented sunrays, and her pink-and-blue Oilily sweater and jeans clashed with her bright red clogs. Worst of all was her expression, easy to read on a face as flat as an artist’s palette, with troubled blue eyes set wide over a small nose and thin lips pressed unhappily together.
Judy tried to shake off her bad mood when the elevator halted and the doors slid open with a ping. ROSATO & DINUNZIO, LLC, read the shiny brass plaque, and she crossed the reception area, empty of clients on a Saturday morning. The office was quiet, but Judy knew she wouldn’t be the only one in, because lawyers regarded weekends as a chance to work uninterrupted, which was their version of relaxing.
She heard her cell phone ringing and slid it from her pocket because she’d been playing phone tag with a client, Linda Adler. She checked the screen, but it read “Mom calling,” with a faceless blue shadow. Judy had never bothered to put in a profile picture for her mother because the shadow seemed oddly perfect. Judy had grown up a Navy brat, but her family never developed the us-against-the-world closeness of a typical military family. The Carriers moved, skied, and hiked together, but their activities were a sort of parallel play for adults, and now they scattered all over the globe and emailed each other photos of themselves moving, skiing, and hiking. Judy clicked IGNORE and returned the phone to her pocket.
She rounded the corner to the hallway and brightened at the sight of her best friend, Mary DiNunzio, who turned when she spotted Judy and came hustling down the hall toward her, grinning from ear to ear. Mary had recently made partner, becoming Judy’s boss, but neither of them knew how that would play out over time. Judy avoided thinking about it, and in any event, Mary made the most adorable boss ever in her tortoiseshell glasses, navy sweater, jeans, and loafers, with her little legs churning and her light brown ponytail bouncing.
“Judy, I was waiting for you! I have great news!” Mary reached her, light brown eyes warm with anticipation.
“Hi, cutie, tell me.” Judy entered her office, and Mary followed her excitedly inside.
“Actually, I have great news and even greater news. Which do you want first?”
“The great news. We’ll start slow.” Judy slid her woven purse from her shoulder, tossed it onto the credenza, and went around to her chair. She sat down behind a desk cluttered with a laptop, case correspondence, a Magic 8 ball, ripped Splenda packets, and an empty can of Diet Coke. Law books, case reporters, notes, and files stuffed her bookshelves. She was going for creative clutter, but lately worried she was entering hoarder territory.
“First, I have breaking wedding news.” Mary leaned back against the credenza, flushed with happiness. “You remember I told you about that high-end salon, J’taime?”
“Yes.” Judy was going to be maid of honor at Mary’s wedding, though she’d never been in a bridal party before. She was studying by watching bride shows on cable, but none of them told her that being maid of honor was like being executor of a vast and complicated estate, without the fee.
“They had a cancellation, so I got an appointment next Friday night! How great is that? Can you come?”
“Of course.” Judy had already been to two bridal shops and seen Mary try on a zillion wedding dresses, but they all looked the same to her, like vanilla soft-serve without the cone.
“They have Vera Wang and all the big names.”
“Cool!” Judy kept her smile in place, but wondered why she felt so negative, the Debbie Downer of bridesmaids. She wasn’t jealous that Mary was getting married, but she wished she had what Mary had, which wasn’t the same thing. It was more that Mary was moving forward, already a partner and soon a wife, while Judy got left behind, stuck. Judy didn’t know how to get herself to the next level or what she was doing wrong. She’d always been on top, earned the best grades at school and succeeded at work. But now she sensed she was blowing her lead, at life.
“You don’t mind going to a third shop, do you? My mother will be there.”
“Great!” Judy answered, meaning it, since she was closer to Mary’s mother than her own. The DiNunzios were warm and loving South Philly Italians, so they’d practically adopted her, whereupon she’d permanently gained ten pounds.
“The only problem is that I put a deposit on the veil at David’s Bridal, and I can’t know if it will go with the dresses at J’taime. But if I lose the money, so what?”
“Right, it wasn’t that expensive,” Judy said, though she’d forgotten how much the veil cost. The answer was, probably, a fortune. She’d learned that everything associated with weddings cost the same— a fortune.
“Okay, now to the even greater news.”
“More wedding updates?” Judy braced herself to hear the latest drama with the DJ, the menu, the reception hall, the church, the invitations, or Mary’s future mother-in-law, Elvira Rotunno, whom they called El Virus.
“No, this is about work.” Mary cleared her throat, brimming with renewed enthusiasm. “Bennie told me to tell you, since she’s in trial prep, that she just got a major piece of business and she’s assigning it to you! Girl, you’ll be a partner in no time!”
“Really?” Judy said, but she felt caught up short. She and Mary never referred to the fact that Judy was still an associate, tacitly saving her face, as if she didn’t know her own employment status. “Great, what kind of case is it?”
“It’s not one case, it’s seventy-five.” Mary beamed. “Bennie got them in as referral business from Singer Crenheim in Manhattan. The big league!”
“Why are there so many cases?” Judy didn’t get it. “What are they about?”
“That’s the only bummer.” Mary paused. “They’re asbestos cases, defense side, representing a company called Bendaflex.”
“Oh no.” Judy groaned in dismay. “Nobody likes asbestos cases, even asbestos firms.”
“Judy, these cases will generate millions in fees.”
“But they’ll take two or three years to try.” Judy was trying to process the information, which struck her as lawyer hell.
“They won’t take that long because you don’t have to try the whole case, just the damages phase. The liability was already decided.”
“Even worse,” Judy said, aghast. Mass tort trials like asbestos were often bifurcated, which meant that the question of liability was separated from the question of damages. Evidently, their new client Bendaflex had lost on liability, so there were a slew of individual damage cases that had to be tried. Literally the cases were damage control. “How did Bennie get these, anyway?”
“The cases were consolidated in the Southern District of New York, then remanded back to the various states for damages trials. She got all of the Pennsylvania cases, and most of them came out of the Navy Yard.”
“For real?” Judy didn’t think it could get worse. “My father was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, remember? He used to tell me about how there was asbestos all over those ships, in every shipyard in the country. Anything hot was insulated with asbestos, mainly pipes. Grinders would grind the old asbestos off, and pipe fitters blew the new asbestos on.” Judy remembered her father’s anger, and guilt, when he’d told her the stories, even though nobody knew that asbestos was deadly back then. “These poor guys, they’d be standing in the hull of a ship, sweating their butts off in a snowglobe of asbestos. No masks, no ventilation, no nothing. They’re all dead now of mesothelioma. Johns Manville declared bankruptcy, and other companies, like Bendaflex, are fighting not to pay what they owe, decades later. And I’m supposed to help? Is this why I became a lawyer?”
Mary’s smile faded. “I hear you, but we’re lucky to get that much business in this economy.”
“It’s not worth it. The cases don’t even present a legal question, only how much damages each plaintiff is owed, and since we represent Bendaflex, the answer has to be, as little as possible.” Judy flashed-forward, disgusted. “I’ll have to argue down the value of a man’s life, probably in front of his widow and his children.”
“My argument will have to be that the plaintiff, who’s dead, wasn’t going to earn that much, because, after all, he wasn’t good enough to earn a promotion. And as far as pain and suffering, don’t pay him for that because he died within a year, so he didn’t suffer that long. Too bad he was only forty-three.”
Mary frowned, sympathetic. “You don’t have to try the cases yourself, just supervise them. With the money that comes in, you can hire whoever you need.”
“Still.” Judy fought a rising tension in her chest. “You wouldn’t want to do it, would you?”
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to.” Mary shook her head, her tone turning defensive. “The cases came to Bennie, and she assigned them to you. I can’t countermand her, as her partner.”
Judy felt a twinge that Mary was taking Bennie’s side, but she should have known it would happen, someday. Mary and Bennie were the sole partners of this all-woman firm, and nobody in her right mind opposed Bennie Rosato. Bennie was a worldclass trial lawyer who’d grown the firm to national prominence and she hadn’t reached the top by being a creampuff. On the contrary, the woman owned a coffee mug that read I CAN SMELL FEAR.
Suddenly, there was a commotion outside Judy’s office, and they turned their attention to the door. Judy’s boyfriend, Frank Lucia, materialized in the threshold, flashing the easy, confident grin that was one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him. He’d been out of town last night, and she still got a thrill out of seeing him, especially looking so handsome in his puffy black jacket, tie-and-work-shirt combo, and jeans.
“Frank, what a surprise!” Judy said, brightening.
“I had to stay over in Baltimore and I missed my girl, so I thought I’d take her out to breakfast!” Frank burst into the office, threw open his big arms, and bounded around the desk, gathering Judy up and hugging her. “How you doing, babe?”
“Okay.” Judy felt a warm rush of love, breathing in his familiar smells of aftershave and mortar dust. Frank was a smart, straight-up Italian hunk who owned a successful specialty masonry company, and they’d lived together for the past few years.
“Let’s go eat, I’m starved.” Frank raked big fingers through his thick, wavy hair, the same espresso-brown as his large, bright eyes.
Mary beamed. “What a guy! Frank, you have to teach Anthony to surprise me sometimes. He’s not exactly spontaneous.”
“Ha! Ditch him at the altar, Mare. I’ll hook you up with one of my boys!”
Mary grinned. “How’s your hand? Did you get the cast off?”
“It’s all good, I only have this thing now.” Frank showed his left hand, and a black cloth brace peeked from his sleeve. He grabbed Judy’s arm. “Babe, let’s get out of here.”
“Okay.” Judy let Frank pull her up, but her gaze fell on her desk clock, which read 10:15, and she remembered something. “Wait, how are you in town this early? Did you drop off the dog at the vet’s? You said you would.”
“Ruh-roh.” Frank’s grin turned sheepish. “Don’t worry about it.”
“What do you mean?” Judy stopped. “She had to get fleadipped. Did you take her or not?”
“I forgot.” Frank shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Oh, honestly.” Judy felt disappointed, but not completely surprised. She had been trying to figure out whether Frank was marriage material, and she was starting to worry she had an answer. “I just washed the sheets, the comforter, and the towels I put on top of the couch and chairs.”
“It’s not the end of the world.” Frank glanced at Mary, and Judy knew that he hated to fight, especially in front of anyone. “We’ll get her dipped tomorrow.”
“They’re closed on Sunday.”
“No worries, we’ll do it on Monday.”
“That’s too late.” Judy had explained this to him ten times, but she couldn’t seem to make him hear her.
“Remember, we have to treat the house and the dog simultaneously? There can’t be any delay.”
“Okay, we’ll treat them both, then. What’s the big deal?”
“But you didn’t drop her off, so that means that I have to wash everything all over again on Sunday night, if we want to drop her off on Monday.”
“Would you rather me go home and try to take the dog in now, instead of taking you to breakfast?”
“Honestly, yes. The dog has to get dipped, and I have to work. I would really appreciate that.”
“Okay, fine.” Frank rolled his eyes and waved a cranky goodbye. “We’ll do it your way. See you later. Bye, Mary.”
Judy and Mary held each other’s gaze for a moment then Judy shrugged. “What am I supposed to do? That was the right decision, wasn’t it? Things have to get done but he wants to play all the time.”
“I think he was trying to do a nice thing, but I totally get where you are coming from.”
Suddenly Judy’s phone started ringing, and she slipped it from her pocket in case it was Linda Adler. But it was her aunt Barb calling, and the phone screen came to life with a candid photo of her adored aunt, her mother’s younger sister. “Excuse me, let me get this, it’s Aunt Barb.”
“Tell her I said hi,” Mary said, because everybody loved Aunt Barb. She lived about an hour away, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and they’d all been out to her house for beer and barbecue. Last year, Judy’s uncle Steve, Barb’s husband, had passed, and the whole office had gone to his funeral.
“Aunt Barb, hi, how are you?” Judy answered the call, realizing that she hadn’t seen her aunt in a few months, though they talked on the phone all the time.
“Hello, honey,” her aunt said, and Judy knew immediately that something was wrong. Her aunt sounded grave, when she was usually so warm and happy.
“What’s the matter?”
“Am I catching you at a bad time?”
“No, why? What’s the matter, Aunt Barb?”
“Didn’t your mom call you?”
“Yes, but I was busy.” Judy’s mind raced. She regretted ignoring that call from her mother. “What’s going on? Is Mom okay?”
“Yes, your mom’s fine. In fact, she’s here at the house with me.”
“What?” Judy asked, surprised. Her parents lived in Santa Barbara, and her mother rarely visited her or Aunt Barb, and never unannounced.
“We’d love it if you could come out today, too, if you’re not busy.”
Judy’s mouth went dry. Something was up. “Sure, okay, but why? What’s the matter?”
“We’ll talk about it when you come, sweetie.”
“Tell me.” Judy swallowed hard. “Please.”
Aunt Barb hesitated. “Are you sitting down?”
©Lisa Scottoline 2014