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13

BEING A WEE beastie in a huge corporate law firm in mid-town Manhattan meant that one did not have very many of one's waking hours to oneself. Again tonight it was after ten before Fiona could call her home-buddy Brian and say, "I'm on my way."

"It'll be ready when you get here."

"Should I stop and get anything?" By which she meant wine.

"No, I got everything we need." By which he meant he'd bought wine on his way home from the studio.

"See you, hon."

"See you, hon."

The interior of Feinberg et al maintained the same lighting twenty-four hours a day, since only the partners and associates had offices around the perimeter of the building, and thus windows. In the rest of the space you might as well have been in a spaceship far off in the emptiness of the universe. The only differences at ten p.m., when Fiona moved through the cubicles to the elevator bank, were that the receptionist's desk was empty, the latest Botox Beauty having left at five, and that Fiona needed her employee ID card to summon and operate the elevator. It wasn't, in fact, until she'd left the elevator and the lobby and the building itself that she found herself back on Earth, where it was nighttime, with much traffic thundering by on Fifth Avenue.

Her route home was as certain as a bowling alley gutter. Walk across Fifth Avenue and down the long block to Sixth and the long block to Seventh and the short block to Broadway. Then up two blocks to the subway, where she would descend, swipe the MetroCard until it recognized itself, and then descend some more and wait for the uptown local, riding it to Eighty-sixth Street. Another walk, one block up and half a block over, and she entered her apartment building, where she chose a different card from her bulging wallet — this was three cards for one trip — in order to gain admittance, then took the elevator to the fourth floor and walked down the long hall to 4-D. That same third card also let her into the apartment, where the smell of Oriental food — was that Thai? the smell of peanuts? — was the most welcoming thing in her day.

"Honey, I'm home!" she called, which they both thought of as their joke, and he came grinning out of the galley kitchen with a dishtowel tucked in around his waist and a glass of red wine in each hand. As tall as she was short, and as blond as she was raven-haired, Brian had wide bony shoulders but was otherwise as skinny as a stray cat, with a craggy handsome face that always maintained some caution down behind the good cheer.

"Home is the hunter," he greeted her, which was another part of the joke, and handed over a glass.

They kissed, they clinked glasses, they sipped the wine, which they didn't know any better than to believe was pretty good, and then he went back to the kitchen to plate their dinners while she stood leaning in the doorway to say, "How was your day?"

"Same old same old," he said, which was what he usually said, though sometimes there were tidbits of interest he would share with her, just as she would with him.

Since he worked for a cable television company, Brian actually had more frequent tidbits to offer than she did. He was an illustrator there, assembling collages and occasionally doing original artwork, all to be background for different things the cable station would air. He belonged to some sort of show business writers union, though she didn't quite see how what he did counted as writing, but it meant that, though his income was a fraction of hers, his hours were much more predictable — and shorter — than hers. She thought wistfully from time to time that it might be nice to be in a union and get home at six at night instead of ten-thirty, but she knew it was a class thing: Lawyers would never stoop to protect themselves.

Brian brought their dinners out to the table in what they called the big room, though it wasn't that big. Even so, they'd crowded into it a sofa, two easy chairs, a small dining table with two armless designer chairs, a featureless gray construct containing all the elements of their "entertainment space," two small bookcases crammed with her history books and his art books, and a small black coffee table on which they played Scrabble and cribbage.

They'd been a couple for three years now, he moving into what had been her place after he broke up with his previous girlfriend. They had no intention of marrying, no desire for children, no yen to put down roots somewhere in the suburbs. They liked each other, liked living together, didn't get on each other's nerves very much, and didn't see too much of one another because of the nature of her job. So it was all very nice and easy.

And he was a good cook! He'd had an after-school restaurant slavey job in his teens, and had taken to the concept of cookery as being somehow related to his work as an artist. He enjoyed burrowing his way into exotic cuisines, and she almost always relished the result. Not so bad.

Tonight, as her nose had told her, dinner came from the cuisine of Thailand, and was delicious, and over it she said, "My day wasn't exactly same old same old."

Interested, he looked at her over his fork. (You don't use chopsticks with Thai food.) "Oh, yeah?"

"A man I talked to," she said. "The most hangdog man I ever met in my life. You can't imagine what he looked like when he said, 'I'm going back to jail. "And she laughed at the memory, as he frowned at her, curious.

"Back to jail? You're not defending crooks now, are you? That isn't what you people do."

"No, no, this isn't anything to do with the firm. This is something about my grandfather."

"Daddy Bigbucks," Brian said.

She smiled at him, indulging him. "Yes, I know, you're only with me because of my prospects. Money is really all you care about, I know that."

He grinned back at her, but with a slight edge to it as he said, "Try going without it for a while."

"I know, I know, you come from the wrong side of the tracks."

"We were too poor to have tracks. What I've done, I've shacked-up up. Tell me about this hangdog guy."

So she told him the chess set saga, about which he had previously known nothing. He asked a few questions, brought himself up to speed, then said, "Is this guy really going to rob a bank vault?"

"Oh, of course not," she said. "It's just silly. They'll all see it's impossible, and that'll be the end of it."

"But what if he tries?"

"Oh, the poor man," she said, but she grinned as she said it. "In that case, I think he probably will go back to jail."


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