It was a glorious morning and I enjoyed the brisk ten-minute walk to the office. The crisp sunshine and icing-sugar frost made me feel I could be anywhere. It was one of my secret pleasures, pretending I was walking the streets of Boston or New York. A feeling helped along by the newly arrived Starbucks coffee shops.
I only brought my car to the office if it was particularly foul outside. I had a designated parking space but driving through the city centre was torture. In their wisdom, the city fathers had littered the streets with bus lanes and cycle paths.That might have worked in a European metropolis with a functioning public transport system and slightly more clement weather, but in Glasgow it made the same amount of traffic move even more slowly.
During the previous weeks I had arrived at work later and later. My boyfriend was the cause of my tardiness, which made me furious and pathetic in equal measures. I had been forced to hang back until he looked like he was actually going to set off for work before I could leave.
He had the education, background and good looks required, but severely lacked professional motivation. Bluntly, I had discovered him to be a lazy bastard.
During the initial months when I naively believed he had potential, I had arranged for him to work for one of my many contacts as a recruitment consultant. He wasn't actually trained as a recruitment consultant but, as far as I could tell, there didn't seem much training necessary. You interviewed prospective employees for prospective employers. How hard could that be?
Alex had seemed to settle down but recent reports of fourhour lunches, days off and general piss-taking had been filtering through to me. I was tired of him. The sheen had rubbed off to reveal a very dull interior. And I suspected the feeling was mutual.
I had worked in my grandfather's law firm since graduating but still felt a small surge of pride as I swept up the stone steps, past the gracious Georgian pillars and into the marble reception of The Paterson Building. It was built in 1875 for my great, great grandfather, one of the original Glasgow tobacco lords, and now housed Paterson, Paterson & Co., Solicitors.
William, the concierge, opened the door and greeted me. I returned the greeting as he called the lift. He had worked for us for forty years and knew better than to involve me in small talk. I was busy in those precious moments ticking off mental lists and formulating strategy. It was not an awkward silence - well, certainly not for me, it was reassuring in its ritualised repetition.
My office, which had been my father's before me, was on the top floor beside the boardroom.The lift opened directly on to an open-plan area for the assistants and secretaries. It was already buzzing.
I acknowledged my staff and went straight to my office. Friday was a strange day. The start of a new business day but the end of a business week. The two didn't sit well together; the feeling of wrapping up for the weekend but still the promise of a rewarding day. I knew I was alone in believing that just as much work could be achieved on a Friday as any other day.
I had rather a busy handbag and realised it was due for a clearout when I couldn't find my hairbrush. I liked to be immaculate and was forced to empty the contents into my out-tray.
Naturally, the hairbrush was at the bottom, under my Psion, my wallet, make-up bag, keys for my apartment, keys for my parents' home, keys for my car, keys for the office, and my mobile phone.
After I smartened up I went to the office kitchen to get a cup of coffee. I didn't believe in omens or any of that nonsense, but the window in the kitchen sprung open suddenly and gave me a fright. I splashed boiling coffee on my hand and scalded myself.
As I ran cold water over the burn, my expression set for the day. A grim no-nonsense face that my colleagues had learned to cross at their peril.
I sat back at my desk with my coffee and was shifting through the dross from my handbag when Michael McCabe knocked on my open door.
'Morning, Erin.' He entered my territory and tried to look friendly.
'Morning, Michael.' I did the same but with conspicuously less effort.
'Did you get a chance to finalise the details of the Murphy versus Broadwood settlement last night?'
'It's all in my briefcase.'
'And we're going to go for five hundred thousand?'
I shifted in my seat. Since when was Michael so interested in my cases?
'I believe so.'
'Good, good. They're due at ten.'
'I know.' Of course, I knew. I had arranged the meeting. Michael hovered for a moment more, so I arched an eyebrow.
'Is there something I can help you with?'
'No. No. Good luck.' Michael said with jovial insincerity and left.
Luck had nothing to do with it. I was a good lawyer. Damn good. I did my homework. Michael was acting strangely, but then again around me he was always odd.We tended to keep out of each other's way - as much as two senior partners could who were once lovers. What had once been mutual admiration and romantic interest had curdled to distrust and dislike. He was an ass but he was also a fine lawyer, and, although it would have suited me, I didn't want him to move on. But I did wonder about his sudden interest in the Broadwood settlement, which had been ongoing for three years.
Five hundred thousand pounds didn't seem enough for the loss of a husband and father, but it was the industry standard for a fatal accident of this type. Mr Murphy had died because of alleged negligence on Broadwood Ltd's part.
Purely to reassure myself that I hadn't missed something fundamental, I opened my briefcase and shuffled through the files. Hammersmith versus Duguid & Masters Ltd. Morris versus Donald. McGowan versus Francinelli & Sons. No Murphy versus Broadwood Ltd.
I searched again, slammed my case shut and glanced at my watch. Eight fifty-five. I could get back to my apartment, pick up the file and return within half an hour.
In my haste I knocked my coffee over my desk and keyboard. I breathed deeply, snatched up my keys and raincoat and headed back to the lift.
'Karen, I've got to go out,' I sighed at my PA on my way past, 'and I've spilt coffee on my desk and keyboard. Can you get somebody to clean it up?'
'Certainly, Miss Paterson. When should I expect you back?' Karen called after me.
'Half an hour.'
I realised I was brusque but I didn't have time to exchange pleasantries that morning.
The streets were busy with office workers, shop assistants and hairdressers scurrying to work. I was slowed down by the flow of human traffic and had to jostle past them all the way,mumbling 'excuse me'.
As I reached the far end of my street, I looked up towards my apartment building. The sunlight ricocheted off the windows and toasted the blond sandstone.The whole building radiated warmth and beauty. It was a reclaimed Victorian warehouse overlooking the reclaimed river that ran through the heart of the reclaimed city.
They had done a wonderful job, particularly on the penthouse lofts, one of which was mine. It was an exclusive building with only twelve apartments and fully occupied by other professionals. We steered clear of each other's lives but were civil enough to lend the building a feeling of superficial community.
I reached into my raincoat pocket and pulled out my parents' house keys. It was turning into a perfect day.
I buzzed the caretaker, Mrs McCaffer, but got no answer. Dispiritedly, I buzzed all the other flats until I reached the two penthouses but, as I had expected, everybody was out.
I took a deep breath and buzzed penthouse number 2. Half of me wanted no answer and the other half was desperate to get in.
'Hi. It's Erin Paterson. I've forgotten my keys and Mrs McCaffer is out. Could you buzz me in, please?'
There was an odd pause. It was typical of Paul Gabriel, my immediate neighbour, who saw himself as something of a comedian.
'OK, but the lift isn't working,' he said eventually.
'Thanks,' I muttered, but I checked the lift anyway.Telling me it was out of order was the type of puerile joke Paul might play.
I stared at the stairs. I hated exercise, at any time and in any way. Exercise was rubbish. I would do anything rather than exercise. I had no desire to be down at the gym sweating my pants off, pretending to enjoy it when all I wanted was a glass of wine. To keep my perfect, size-eight figure I used a revolutionary dieting plan. I ate less.
I began the ascent to the fifth floor but needed oxygen by the third. Little beads of perspiration gathered on my hairline. I shrugged off my raincoat, left it on the third-floor landing and made a determined effort to spring up the last two flights. I had discovered that I recovered more swiftly from a quick burst. I had never mentioned the fact for fear that the fitness bores who surrounded me would tell me in tedious detail that it was something to do with cardiovascular recovery times.
I took a deep breath and hammered up the stairs two at a time. It was a big mistake. As I rounded the corner to the fourth, I caught the heel of my left Gucci and tore it clean off. By the time I reached my floor I was singing expletives under my breath. To add to my annoyance, Paul Gabriel was waiting for me.
I couldn't understand why he bothered because I certainly didn't have anything to say to him.
He was leaning against his doorframe in what he probably thought was a casual, debonair manner. Admittedly, he was very attractive. Early forties with a peppering of grey hair, tall - well over six foot - and fit. In every sense of the word.
'Yes. Thank you,' I panted.
He watched as I hobbled past him, as elegantly as I could when missing a two-inch heel. I retrieved my spare set of keys from the large potted fern creation that sat in the corridor between our lofts. I felt obliged to say something, although it was obvious what had happened.
'I forgot my keys.'
He nodded smugly.
Privileged New Yorkers had the right idea: the only downside to this building was that you didn't get to veto prospective neighbours. How a disreputable hack like him could afford an apartment here was beyond me.
'Thanks for buzzing me in,' I said, and unlocked my front door.
'Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?' he asked suddenly.
'Much as I would like to pass the time of day with you, some of us work for a living. Thank you, but no.'
'You're not still angry about that piece in the papers, are you?'
I shrugged. 'Not at all. Freedom of the press and all that.'
He had written an article about dubious compensation lawyers who promised 'no win, no fee', but required you to take out exorbitant insurances. And he had the audacity to cite me personally as a specialist compensation lawyer. He hadn't said I was unscrupulous, but the very mention of my name in his diatribe was enough. I worked for one of the most prestigious and prominent law firms in Scotland.That was certainly not
how we worked. We took a percentage.
He grinned. 'That's not what you said at the time! You called me a vicious, ill-informed, two-bit hack!'
I batted my eyelashes facetiously. 'I'm sorry. I really am behind schedule.'
'Come on,' he urged, 'come in and have a coffee. Let's bury the hatchet.'
Bury it in your head, I thought, but said quite firmly,'I'm sorry. No. I'm late for a meeting. I have to go.'
'One little cup of coffee?'
'What part of "no" don't you understand?'
'Is that hostility I'm sensing?'
'I'm very glad you're sensing something. No. I. Do Not.Want. A. Coffee.'
I marched into my apartment and attempted to slam the door shut. It didn't catch and bounced back open, but mercifully he didn't follow me in.
I went over to my computer station while simultaneously kicking off my wrecked shoes, but didn't spot the Murphy versus Broadwood file.
Irritably, I glanced around my living room.The air smelled stale and almost sweaty.
A wall of French doors ran along the entire south side of my apartment and opened on to a large decked terrace. When I was tired, frustrated or bad-tempered, which was most of the time, fresh air usually helped. I opened a door and stepped outside in my stockinged feet.
From the edge of my terrace I looked across the city, taking deep slow breaths and trying to absorb warmth from the weak sunshine. I glanced at my watch and cursed. It was nine twenty.
Going back inside I searched angrily for the Broadwood file, which I located finally under a magazine on the coffee table. I was sure I hadn't left it there. I carefully put the file on my computer station and hurried to my bedroom for a fresh pair of shoes. The sight that greeted me was astounding.
A naked woman astride Alex jumped off him with a shriek. It was Mrs McCaffer. I stood in the doorway blinking in astonishment as they both squirmed about the bed grabbing sheets to cover their modesty.
'Get out,' I managed to say.
'Erin, it's not what you think . . .'
What? I snorted in disbelief. Mrs McCaffer had accidentally tripped and impaled herself on him?
'Get out. Both of you,' I hissed and reeled into my dressing room.
I supported myself against a shelf until I could concentrate. My heart was thundering in my chest. I was completely stunned.
Find a fresh pair of shoes. Alex and Mrs McCaffer? Who would have thought it? Find fresh shoes. Find another pair of shoes. This was a trick I had taught myself for moments of crisis. I would focus on a mundane task, consciously detaching myself from what was around me.
Dr Eunice McKay, my psychoanalyst, would have turned in her wing-backed chesterfield if she had known about my diversionary tactic.'You must face your emotions,' she warned. But treating them with complete detachment was the safe option because it put me back in control.
My shoes were carefully organised in styles and colours. It was far too easy to locate another pair of black heels.
'Erin, we need to talk about this. It's not my fault.' Alex's voice reached me.
I sat down on the dressing-room chair and put on my shoes. My pulse raced and sweat collected on my lip. I closed my eyes for the briefest moment and focused on poor Mrs Murphy and her two little boys. Focused on how they had been denied their father for three years. They needed me at my best. That's what they paid me for. I had to get a grip of myself. Mrs Murphy needed me.
It had been over between Alex and me for months. I didn't really want to sort this out. How could I? My pride was at stake. He had slept with another woman. It was the excuse I had needed. I marched out of the dressing room.
'Erin, we need to talk.We need to talk about what this is really about.'
'There is nothing to talk about!' I snapped. 'Get out.We're finished. Leave my
apartment. I want all your things gone by tonight.'
'You can't just throw me out! I have a right to be here.'
He threw back the sheet and grabbed his boxer shorts.
Mrs McCaffer looked smug and that really got to me. A lowlife like her daring to look smug at me? Me? Scotland's tenth most eligible woman according to last year's Sunday Herald
I sauntered towards the door with more poise than I felt.
'From where I'm standing, you've blown your rights. Get out or I'll throw you out.'
'You can't make me!' Alex bellowed.
I wasn't used to men shouting at me. And I was well versed in being thoroughly nasty to Alex because I held all the cards. It was my apartment, my car, my money. I wasn't accustomed to him shouting back. Normally, he attempted apologetic conciliation. But that morning he came after me.
'You can't push me around! You can't make me do anything.'
I didn't respond. I simply picked up my keys.
'Erin, you're not leaving.You'd better stay here and sort this out . . .'
He gritted his teeth and barred my exit. I could see he was furious but I wasn't sure whether it was the thought of losing me or the fear of being chucked out.
'This is my apartment. I don't want you here. I want you to leave.'
Annoyingly, my voice was high pitched. Emotional confrontation had that effect on me. I could win a legal argument hands down, but when it came to personal conflict, I was way out my depth. I backed away from him nervously.
'You stupid, conceited, frigid little cow! You can't get rid of me! I've got things on you. You're an arrogant, spoilt, fucking misfit. "Don't touch me, I don't like it!"'
He matched me step for step as I backed towards the terrace. I felt cornered and very scared.
'Alex, it's over. Please leave. I can make you leave if I have to. You don't really want that, do you? A big scene?'
He laughed in my face.
'You'll make me? Will Daddy
sort it out? Will Daddy
make me? Only if the old bastard lives long enough!'
His spit landed in my eye.
going to sort out bad
Alex? Will Daddy
fix it?' he sneered.
'Shut up Alex! Shut up! Don't you dare mention him.'
Triumphantly he smiled down at me. 'You think your father gives a damn about you? He couldn't care less about you.What's left of his fucking brain only cares about fucking ducks! He's history! Is that what's wrong, Erin? Daddy doesn't love you the way he used to?'
Before I knew what I was doing I had picked up the heavy bronze cast of Seated Female Figure
and smacked him across the head with it.
He fell to his knees, clutching the side of his face.
'Jeezus Christ . . . Jeezus . . . Jeezus . . . God . . .' he moaned.
I wanted to smash his skull in. I wanted to bring the statuette down on his soft fair hair. I wanted him to feel the pain my father did. I pushed him on to his back and bent over him.
'You ever mention my father again and I'll kill you.You ever come back here, I'll kill you. I'll bloody well kill you. Do you understand?'
I gave him a hard kick in the ribs and he moaned again. I could see drops of blood ooze between his fingers.
'You had better be gone by tonight.'
I tossed the bronze statuette at him and glimpsed Mrs McCaffer, now decent in some tacky leopard-print dress, gawking from my bedroom.
I ignored her and calmly picked up my file, but found Paul Gabriel blocking my exit. His face was ashen. He stared down at Alex, curled up on the floor.
'I think you'd better call an ambulance,' he said.
'You were trying to cover for them!'
I pushed past him but he caught my arm.
'Erin. I think you should call an ambulance. He's hurt!'
I yanked my arm away.
'Fuck you! Fuck the lot of you!'
On the third-floor landing I picked up my grey silk raincoat and glanced at my watch, but a noise escaped from my throat. Tears filled my eyes. Now I would have to run to be back in time for the Broadwood settlement.
Tears and running. Two of my least favourite things.
Excerpted from Perception of Death by Louise Anderson. Copyright © 2005 by Louise Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.