Mary DiNunzio hurried down the pavement, late to work because she’d had to stop by their new caterer and try crabmeat dumplings with Asian pears. Her stomach grumbled, unaccustomed to shellfish for breakfast, much less pears of any ethnicity. Her wedding was only two weeks away, and their first caterer had gone bankrupt, keeping their deposit and requiring her to pick a new menu. She had approved the mediocre crabmeat dumplings, proof that her standards for her wedding had started at Everything Must Be Perfect, declined to Good Enough, and ended at Whatever, I Do.
It was early October in Philly, unjustifiably humid, and everyone sweated as they hustled to work. Businesspeople flowed around her, plugged into earbuds and reading their phone screens, but Mary didn’t need an electronic device to be distracted, she had her regrets. She’d made some stupid decisions in her life, but by far the stupidest was not using a wedding planner. She earned enough money to hire one, but she’d thought she could do it herself. She’d figured it wasn’t rocket science and she had a law degree, which should count for more than the ability to sue the first caterer for free.
Mary didn’t know what she’d been thinking. She was a partner at Rosato & DiNunzio, so she was already working too hard to take a honeymoon, plus it was a second job to manage her wacky family in full-blown premarital frenzy. Her fiancé Anthony was away, leaving her to deal with her soon-to-be mother-in-law Elvira, or El Virus. Meanwhile, tonight was the final fitting for her dress and tomorrow night was her hair-and-makeup trial. She was beginning to think of her entire wedding as a trial, a notion she hated despite the fact that she was a trial lawyer. Maybe she needed a new job, too.
Mary kicked herself as she walked along, a skill not easily performed by anyone but a Guilt Professional. She had no idea why she always thought she should do everything herself. She only ended up stressed-out, every time. She was forever trying to prove something, but she didn’t know what or to whom. She felt like she’d been in a constant state of performance since the day she was born, and she didn’t know when the show would be over. Maybe when she was married. Or dead.
She reached her office building, went through the revolving door, and crossed the air-conditioned lobby, smiling for the security guard. The elevator was standing open and empty, so she climbed inside, pushed the UP button, and put on her game face. She was running fifteen minutes late for her first client, which only added to her burden of guilt, since she hated to be late for anything or anyone.
Mary’s friends knew that if she was fifteen minutes late, she must have been abducted.
She checked her appearance in the stainless-steel doors, like a corporate mirror. Her reflection was blurry, but she could see the worry lines in her forehead, and her dark blonde hair was swept back into a low ponytail because she didn’t have time to blow it dry. Her contacts were glued to her eyes since she’d spent the night emailing wedding guests who hadn’t RSVP’d, which was almost everyone. She had on a fitted navy dress and she was even wearing pantyhose, which qualified as dressed up at Rosato & DiNunzio.
Mary watched impatiently as the floor numbers changed. Her legal practice was general, which meant she handled a variety of cases, mostly state-court matters for low damages, and her client base came from the middle-class families and small businesses of South Philly, where she’d grown up. She wasn’t one of those lawyers who got their self-esteem from handling big, federal-court cases for Fortune 500 clients. Not that she got her self-esteem from within.
Mary was the Neighborhood Girl Who Made Good, so she got her self-esteem from being universally beloved, which was why she was never, ever late. Until now.
“Hi, Marshall!” Mary called out to the receptionist, as soon as the elevator doors opened. She glanced around the waiting room, which was empty, and hurried to the reception desk. Marshall Trow was more the firm’s Earth Goddess than its receptionist, dressing the part in her flowing boho dress, long brown braid, and pretty, wholesome features, devoid of makeup. Marshall’s demeanor was straight-up Namaste, which was probably a job requirement for working for lawyers.
“Good morning.” Marshall smiled as Mary approached. “Where’s O’Brien? Is he here already? Did you get my text?” “Yes, and don’t worry. I put him in conference room C with fresh coffee and muffins.”
“Thank you so much.” Mary breathed a relieved sigh.
“I chatted with him briefly. He found you from our website, you know. He’s an older man, maybe in his seventies. He seems very nice. Quiet.”
“Good. I don’t even know what the case is about. He didn’t want to talk about it over the phone.”
Marshall lifted an eyebrow. “Then you don’t know who your opposing counsel is?”
“No, who?” Mary was just about to leave the desk, but stopped. “Nick Machiavelli.”
“Machiavelli! The Dark Prince of South Philly.” Mary felt her competitive juices flowing. “I always wanted a case against him.” “Machiavelli can’t be his real name, can it? That has to be fake.” “Yes, it’s his real name, I know him from high school. His family claims to be direct descendants of the real Machiavelli. That’s the part that’s fake. His father owns a body shop.” Mary thought back. “I went to Goretti, a girl’s school, and he went to Neumann, our brother school. We didn’t have classes with the boys, but I remember him from the dances. He was so slick, a BS artist, even then.”
“Is he a good lawyer?” Marshall handed Mary a few phone messages and a stack of morning mail.
“Honestly, yes.” Mary had watched Machiavelli build a booming practice the same way she had, drawing from South Philly. The stories about his legal prowess were legendary, though they were exaggerated by his public relations firm. In high school, he had been voted Class President, Prom King, and Most Likely to Succeed because he was cunning, handsome, and basically, Machiavellian.
“Thanks.” Mary took off down the hallway, with one stop to make before her office. Her gut churned, but it could have been the dumplings. The real Niccolo Machiavelli had thought it was better to be feared than loved, and his alleged descendant followed suit. Nick Machiavelli was feared, not loved, and on the other hand, Mary was loved, but not feared. She always knew that one day they would meet in a battle, and that when they did, it would be a fight between good and evil, with billable hours.
Mary reached her best friend Judy’s office, where she ducked inside and set down a foam container of leftover dumplings amid the happy clutter on the desk. Judy Carrier was one of those people who could eat constantly and never gain weight, like a mythical beast or maybe a girl unicorn.
“Good morning!” Judy looked up from her laptop with a broad grin. She had a space between her two front teeth that she made look adorable. Her cheery face was as round as the sun, with punky blonde hair framing her pretty face, with large blue eyes and a turned-up nose. Judy was the firm’s legal genius, though she dressed artsy, like today she had on a boxy hot pink T-shirt with yellow shorts and orange Crocs covered by stuck-on multicolored daisies.
“Please tell me that you’re not going to court dressed like that.”
“I’m not, but I think I look cute.” Judy reached for the container. “What did you bring me? Spring rolls? Spanakopita?”
“Guess what, I have a new case—against Nick Machiavelli.”
“Ha! That name cracks me up every time I hear it. What a fraud.” Judy’s blue eyes lit up as she opened the lid of the container.
“I’m finally going up against him.”
“You’ll kick his ass.” Judy opened the drawer that contained her secret stash of plastic forks.
“Don’t underestimate him.”
“I’m not, but you’re better.” Judy got a fork and shut the drawer. “What kind of case is it?”
“I don’t know yet. The client’s in the conference room.”
“Meanwhile, I thought you were going vegetarian.” Judy frowned at the dumplings. “This smells like crabmeat. Crabmeat isn’t vegetarian.”
“It’s vegetarian enough,” Mary said on her way out. “I gotta go.” “There’s no such thing as vegetarian enough!”
Mary hurried to her office, dumped her purse, mail, and messenger bag inside, grabbed her laptop, and hustled to conference room C.