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18

SO FAR AS she knew, Fiona had only seen Livia Northwood Wheeler once in her life, more than a year ago, shortly after she'd been taken on here at Feinberg. She'd had no idea at the time, of course, that Mrs. Wheeler's father had stolen an incredibly valuable property from her own great-grandfather and his friends, but she'd noticed the woman anyway, because Mrs. Wheeler was God knows noticeable, and she'd said at the time to her cubicle buddy Imogen, "Who's that?"

"Livia Northwood Wheeler," Imogen told her. "She's richer than God. In fact, she pretty well thinks of God as a parvenu."

Fiona watched the woman out of sight, Livia headed toward the area of the associates' offices, following one of the secretaries who, like most of the secretaries here, was dressed much more elegantly than the young female lawyers. This Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler left in her wake an image of someone who might not actually be richer than God, but who certainly looked older than any deity you might care to mention. A very tall, unbelievably thin, ramrod-straight, hawk-nosed, gaunt-cheeked, laser-eyed creature with a helmet of snow-white hair that gleamed like radiation, she was garbed totally in black and walked with a stiff but determined gait, as though here to foreclose on your property and glad of the opportunity to do so.

That time, Fiona had watched her go with a slight shudder and the thought, "I'm glad she isn't here to see me," an opinion which seemed to be confirmed half an hour later when Mrs. Wheeler, led by the same secretary, marched through once more in the opposite direction, looking as though her session with her lawyer had neither mollified her nor increased her rage; so it must be a steady thing, like a sanctuary candle.

Now it was Friday morning, the day after her meeting with Mr. Dortmunder and the retelling of the story of the stolen chess set, and Fiona was graced with her second viewing of Mrs. Wheeler, this one identical to the first. Into view the lady marched, following a different secretary this time (secretarial turnover was much faster than lawyer turnover), and looking as though that sanctuary candle of discontent burned just as brightly in her breast as ever.

Fiona watched her go, this time armed with her knowledge of their secret and surprising link, and after the woman was out of sight it became impossible to focus her mind back on her work. There was this link, and Fiona found it fascinating. It was as though a character from a history book, a George Washington or a Henry Ford, were to suddenly walk by; wouldn't she want to share a word with the person, just to touch, however tangentially, that history? She would.

Fiona did very little to earn Feinberg's salary the next fifty minutes, but kept an eye on that route among the cubicles, knowing Mrs. Wheeler must eventually pass by once more, on her way out of the building. When at last, an eternity later, it did happen, Mrs. Wheeler again preceded by today's secretary, Fiona immediately leaped to her feet and went after them.

There was always a wait of a minute or two in the reception area before the elevator arrived; that would be her opportunity. She knew that what she was doing was wrong, to speak directly to a client with whom she had no legitimate intercourse, she knew she could even theoretically be fired for what she was about to do, but she simply couldn't help herself. She. had to meet Mrs. Wheeler's eye, she had to hear Mrs. Wheeler's voice, she had to have Mrs. Wheeler herself acknowledge Fiona Hemlow's existence.

There they were, standing in front of the elevator doors. The secretary, Fiona noticed, wasn't even trying to make conversation with this gargoyle, nor did the gargoyle seem to expect much in the way of what, in other circumstances, might be called human contact. Well, she was about to get some.

Striding forward, covering her nervousness and insecurity with a bright smile and a brisk manner, Fiona gazed steadily at Mrs. Wheeler as she crossed the reception area, and just at the instant when the woman became aware of her approach, Fiona exclaimed, with happy surprise, "Mrs. Wheeler?"

The distrust came off the lady like flies off a garbage truck. "Ye-ess?" The voice was a baritone cigarette croak, but with power in it; a carnivore's croak.

"Mrs. Wheeler," Fiona hurried on, "I'm Fiona Hemlow, just a very minor lawyer here, but I did have the opportunity to work on just one tiny corner of your case, and I so hoped some day I would get the chance to tell you how much I admire you."

Even the secretary looked startled at that one, and Mrs. Wheeler, flies rising in clouds, said, "You do?"

"The stand you have taken is so firm," Fiona assured her. "So many people would just give up, would just let themselves be trampled on, but not you."

"Not me," agreed Mrs. Wheeler, grim satisfaction almost melodious in that croak of a voice. Fewer flies were in evidence.

"If I may," Fiona said, "I would just like to shake your hand."

"My hand."

"I don't want anything else, " Fiona assured her, and tried for a girlish-chum sort of chuckle. "I could even get in trouble just by talking to you. But of all the people I've learned about since I came to work here, you're the one I absolutely the most admire. That's why — if it isn't too much — if it isn't an imposition — may I?" And she extended her small right hand, keeping that perky hopeful smile on her face and worshipful gleam in her eye.

Mrs. Wheeler did not take the hand. She didn't even look at it. She said, "If, Miss—"

"Fiona Hemlow."

"If, Miss Hemlow, Tumbril sent you after me to butter me up, please assure him it did no good."

"Oh, no, Mrs.—"

But the elevator had arrived. Without another glance at Fiona or the secretary, Mrs. Wheeler marched into the elevator as though it were the captain's bridge and she were usurping command. Silently, the door slid shut.

The secretary said, "I don't think you ought to tell Jay that."

"I don't think anybody needs to tell — Jay — anything about any of this," Fiona said, and went her way, finding herself for the first time brooding on the whole issue of family feuds that go on generation after generation, and doubting very much that her own family, in such a situation against the Northwood family, would ever be on the winning side.


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