Marie Walters’ dropped the armful of envelopes onto her desk and shook her head at the flashing red light on the answering machine. Another Monday morning in the offices of O Brien and Costello, Solicitors, was about to begin. The light continued to blink, vying for her attention with the unopened post. She sighed and brushed a grey hair from her forehead. There were nine unanswered calls, and these were best dealt with first. She knew, even as she pressed the play button on the machine, what to expect. The weekend was a peculiarly violent one in the city, according to the news reports, and the clients of O Brien and Costello would have contributed to this in so many ways. The first caller was almost incoherent from either drink or drugs.
“I want to see. What his name?” he inquired from someone in the background, then. “Oh yeah, O Brien, that’s it. Hey, let go, I’m on the ‘fuckin’ phone.” His companion giggled. “Fuck it, I’ll ring on Monday.”
Marie heard him struggle to replace the receiver. She deleted the call and pressed for the next. One by one the scum of the city managed to leave their name and ask for an appointment or hung up in confusion. The list of calls she had to return made her stomach turn. The names were always the same and every one of them was filth, human garbage that stalked the city by night, preying on the unwary, the old and the innocent. She looked up as the door to the outer office opened and Rachael; the junior secretary came in.
“Morning, Marie,” she hung her jacket and came to peer over the older woman’s shoulder at the list of names. “Nothing new there.”
“No, dear, there never is.”
“Would you like me to ring them?”
“Would you mind? I have all this to sort,” Marie pointed to the post.
“No, of course not; I know how they bother you.”
“Thank you, dear.”
Marie turned to the pile of envelopes as Rachael began to dial the first number on the list. The envelopes were sorted by size. Legal briefs were in the large brown envelopes and the smaller assortment of multicoloured ones, most with the writing almost illegible and marked personal, would be from Mr. O Brien’s special clients. The women he had helped over the years, and who remained ever grateful.
“Well, get him for me,” Rachael rolled her eyes and pointed at the receiver in her hand.
Marie was glad she did not have that job. Most of the clients would be still drunk or badly hung over, and she hated the foul language of the wives or, as they were now known, partners, and the screaming of children in the background.
Her heart jumped as she picked up the next envelope. It was addressed to Gerald Costello. Although the nameplate on the door proclaimed this indeed was the office of O Brien and Costello, Gerald Costello had long ceased to be. Poor Gerald, she thought, as she put the envelope aside.
“Pack of bastards,” at the opposite desk Rachael slammed the phone down. “You know,” she turned to Marie. “I’m sick of this job. I have applied for others, but so far, no luck. You should leave too. No one has to put up with this.”
“Yes, dear,” Marie went back to reading the letter in her hand.
She knew Rachael was right, but she was too old to change. Turning sixty next birthday, hardly made her a good, long term prospect as secretary. Her boss, Liam O Brien, reminded her of this on many occasions. And as far as Rachael was concerned, well, the poor girl was unlikely to be head hunted. She was employed to boost the boss’s ego, and while the never-ending, mini-skirted legs and large breasts made her a showpiece; she was not office material. Oh, she could make coffee and answer phones, but when it came to the legal work, she was lost. Still, she was not a bad girl, Marie thought, and her heart is in the right place.
Morning, ladies,” Liam O Brien swept through the door and snatched the bundle of post Marie held out to him.
“Morning,” Rachael sang, as she rose to plug in the kettle for his coffee.
Marie took the appointment book from the desk and followed him into his office. She read aloud the list of names and times, as he scanned the post. He deposited a handful of the more colourful envelopes into his briefcase before turning to her.
What time is my first appointment?”
“O.k. leave me alone until then,” he waved her away. “And see that I’m not disturbed.”
“You’re looking the worse for wear, heavy weekend?”
“No, not really.”
“Just old age, eh?” He winked
She managed a tight smile.
“Yes, that’s probably it.”
Her hand shook as she turned the doorknob.
“You know something, Marie?”
She turned back.
“When you finally leave here, I’ll really miss the long, intimate conversations we have.”
“Yes, I imagine you will,” she slipped through the door and pulled it closed behind her.
“You, o.k.?” Rachael asked.
“Fine,” Marie tried to control the trembling in her hands.
“Did he have a go at you again?”
“No, really, I’m fine.”
“I’ll make you some tea.”
Soon a steaming mug was placed in front her. She sipped and grimaced. It was much too sweet, and she was about to remark to this, when she noticed the concern in the girl’s eyes. Ah, yes, sweet tea was good for shock, and she was shocked. She sipped again and wrapped her hands around the cup. The warmth renewed her, and she blotted out the sound of the ringing phone and the voice from the other desk. It was wonderful when Gerald was alive. Her old boss knew how to treat his staff and she had worked for him for over ten years, almost from the start of his career. A lovely man, she was guest of honour at his wedding and been there through the celebrations at the birth of his two sons. Having never married, she regarded him as a son of sorts. Where had it all gone wrong? She looked towards the door to the other office. When Liam O Brien came on the scene, that is when. He was at law school with Gerald and managed to worm his way into a partnership. A rude, inept man, who she had heard, managed to blunder his way through school by a series of staged mishaps and blackmail. Well, what he lacked in brains, he made up for in cunning. He amassed his list of clients through the legal aid system. People, some real, some fabricated and not only the human vermin, but also those who were unable to pay, passed through his hands every day. The good, the innocent, fared far worse than the bad, as he feared those who could hurt him. So the man, who for the first time committed an offence or was entirely without blame, was likely to receive six months in prison, while one of the regulars, who beat and robbed an elderly person, walked from the courtroom with six months probation.
She should leave. She knew she should, but then what; endless days of nothing, but waiting for death? There were no relatives to speak of, just a distant cousin who knew nothing of her existence and no friends. She knew having devoted most of her life to her work and possessing no outside interests, other than her small garden flat, made her appear standoffish. Her thoughts were interrupted by a thud on her desk. She looked up into the wicked eyes she had ever seen.
“He in?” the man rested his tattooed knuckles on her desk and gestured with his head towards O Brien’s door.
Marie’s stomach lurched at the smell of stale beer from his breath.
“I don’t believe you have an appointment, Mr. O Reilly.”
She knew all the clients by sight, but O Reilly was the worst of all. The terror of everyone in the housing estate where he lived, he was known for picking fights. Every woman with a husband or son dreaded him.
“I don’t need a ‘fuckin’ appointment. He told me to call in when I was ‘passin’.”
He is busy at the moment. Would you like to wait?” She could see where a fresh cut had opened on the man’s forehead and the dried blood caked on his eyebrow.
“Fuck that,” he stormed towards the office door and threw it open.
“What the hell is going on?” Liam O Brien replaced the phone and spun in his chair to face the intruder.
“I’m sorry,” Marie gasped. “I tried to stop him.”
“Never mind,” Liam waved the man to a chair and to Marie. “Get out.”
She heard the brute snigger as she closed the door. “‘Fuckin’ stuck-up bitch.”
The rest of the day passed by as normal, with the usual batch of flotsam and jetsam gliding by her desk and she tried to block out their insults and form of greeting. By lunchtime, the office closed from one to two fifteen, both Rachael and Marie needed a break.
“I suppose it’s useless asking you to come to the pub?”
Marie always brought sandwiches and ate them in the small park across the street. Now, looking at her young colleague, she decided it was time for a change.
“Actually, my dear, I’d like a large, sweet sherry.”
“Whoa,” Rachael laughed, linking her arm through Marie’s. “You’re really letting your hair down.”
“You know, I think I am,” Marie thought of the grey tresses she wore in a tight bun. “I may even have it cut.”
She joined in Rachael’s laughter, as they strolled along the street.
Liam O Brien tapped his pen on the desk and stared into space. O Reilly just left with a handful of money he could ill afford, but the man was useful and expected payment for his services. That bloody house was proving to be expensive. If he had known how costly the repairs were going to be, he would not have wasted so much time in conning the old woman out of it. The idea of living in a mansion seemed a dream, but it was bleeding him dry over the past month. Everything from the electrics to the plumbing needed to be replaced. Many of the windows were beyond repair and it had taken a specialised order to replace them. Still, he thought of the fine Italian marble floor he had put in the hall; it was coming along nicely. If only he could complete it without bankrupting himself.
Marie was relishing her first pub lunch. She watched the assortment of people before her as she ate. She often wondered; when she passed by these places, what the cliental was like. Who were these people who delved daily into the dark recesses of the foul-smelling pubs? She found to her delight; they were not so alien, just ordinary workers. From the men in their business suits to the multicoloured women who ate soup and crunched on toasted sandwiches, and the rather dapper gent who’d raised his hat to her as she entered, they were all, well…rather normal. She felt quite the voyeur, as she sipped her second sherry.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you.” Rachael said.
“It’s about the name of the company. Who is, or was, Mr. Costello?”
“Ah, yes, dear Gerald. He was such a nice man.”
“What happened to him?”
Marie studied her for a moment torn by indecision then, brushing an invisible crumb from her jacket, murmured. “It was a long time ago.”
“Tell me,” Rachael pleaded.
“Very well, but I expect you to keep it to yourself.”
“Cross my heart,” she made a sign across her breast.
“Gerald started the company. O Brien did not come on the scene until ten years later, but when he did things started to go downhill. He was not happy with land deals and the like. He wanted money and he wanted it quickly. It was he who started the criminal cases. Gerald disagreed and there were a couple of shouting matches in the office. Well, one-night O Brien asked him to his house for dinner. I heard all this through the intercom. It seemed from the way O Brien spoke, an attempt at compromise.”
“So, to make a long story short, Gerald’s car was found the next morning. It crashed into a tree. Gerald was found unconscious at the wheel and stinking, so I am told, of alcohol. There was worse to come. He was taken to hospital and treated for minor wounds, but when the men arrived from the garage to tow away the car, they found the body of a young boy pinned beneath it.”
“Oh, my God,” Rachael gasped.
“Yes, and of course the newspapers had a field day. Prominent local solicitor put on trial for murder. You can imagine. In the end he was found guilty of manslaughter. Though he professed his innocence, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. I used to visit him, but he was no longer the Gerald I had known. He was broken in body and mind. His face etched with scars from the beating he received from fellow inmates, who despised the law. It was at this time he learned of his wife’s affair. That was the final straw; they found him hanging in his cell.”
“How awful, who was she having the affair with? Was it someone he knew?”
Marie looked at her, not bothering to answer.
“You don’t mean…?” Rachael looked at her wide-eyed. “Not…”
“Yes, me dear, I’m afraid so.”
“The rotten bastard.”
That is the title I have so often given him and it is one I use to excuse his numerous character flaws. Liam O Brien is probably descended from a long line of bastards.”
“It’s so sad,” Rachael’s eyes misted over.
“The saddest part of all was that no one would listen to me when I tried to tell them,” Marie adjusted her neck scarf and fiddled with the contents of her handbag.
“Tell them what?”
“About Gerald, of course, he never touched alcohol.”