First Chapter: Temporary
New York, New York
“Have you seen my MetroCard?”
Later, when I looked back on the whole disaster, I’d settle on this innocent-sounding question as the moment it all began.
“No…” I told my fifteen-year-old sister. “Shouldn’t it be in your wallet?”
“You’d think,” she mumbled.
We spent the next fifteen minutes tearing up our tiny living space. It was astonishing that anything could go missing in four hundred square feet. “Olivia, how much money was on that card?”
“Not sure,” she dodged. “But I’ll find it.”
She didn’t, though. And as the clock ticked forward, I panicked, letting my opinions on her housekeeping and life choices fly as I sorted through the papers on our dining table and searched the pockets of Olivia’s two jackets.
She’d suffered in silence, but I knew I’d pay for it later, in the form of sullen dinner-table conversation.
Finally, I dug my own MetroCard out of my wallet and thrust it at her. “Take this and go.”
“Just do it. I can’t be this late. You know I need this job.” I was only a temp, but I was hoping against all odds that my current assignment would turn into a permanent role.
Sparing more arguments, Olivia took my card, and we hustled out the door and down the creaky stairs of our apartment building. It wasn’t even eight a.m., but my blood pressure was already sky high, and I hadn’t had a sip of coffee.
“Have a good day at school,” I told my sister as we parted ways.
Olivia’s only reply was to shoot me the kind of glare that comic-book villains used to kill people. Then she stomped away, up Essex Street toward the subway stop at Delancey, while I headed west toward the Grand Street station.
“Deep breaths,” I coached myself as I hurried along the sidewalk, hugging my trench coat to my body. The stiff November breeze off the Hudson River sliced right through the thin fabric.
I’d become a New Yorker at eighteen, when I’d started design school. And I’d thought of the city as the brightest, shiniest, most exciting place in the world. Mornings had brought the scent of dark coffee and lemon lavender scones wafting from pristine cafes. Boutique windows were decked with beautiful things that I might someday own—or design.
I’d looked at all the luxury and thought, Why not me? When New York had smiled at me, I’d seen opportunity everywhere.
But these days New York was really good at giving me the stiff arm. I could never stop inside one of the cute little cafes on the way to the subway. Coffee and a scone would cost six dollars, maybe seven. That was money I didn’t have. And my dreams of designing beautiful things were derailed long ago. My college degree took years longer than I’d expected. Even though I’d switched to a more practical field, a good job was elusive.
On mornings like this one, I no longer asked, Why not me? It was more like: What now?
Just before I reached the stairs leading down to the subway platform, I spotted a hand waving to me from across the street. It was Mrs. Antonio, the woman who ran the gourmet deli on the corner. Polite to my very core, I paused to wave back at her before dashing down the stairs.
As I tapped carefully downward, mindful of my kitten-heeled ankle boots, I wondered how long it had been since I’d ducked into Mrs. Antonio’s store. Months, probably. Before my boyfriend had ditched me for a new job in France, he and I used to stop at the deli for last-minute groceries. Marcus would usually pay, and I’d cook. It was one of the little arrangements that made things work between us.
Then he’d yanked the rug out from under me.
It had taken me a long time to trust Marcus, to believe in him. Yet it had taken him less than a day to decide that a plum promotion in another country was more important to him than I was.
Shaking my head, I jumped the last stair and bolted toward the MetroCard machine. This was no time for a pity party. I had sixteen minutes to get to the office in Midtown. Not enough to be on time, but I could come close.
I was working the touchscreen like a champ when I heard a squeal of breaks in the distance. And then I felt the telltale wind of a train pulling into the station. Still, I didn’t panic, swiping my credit card and typing in my ZIP Code so fast my hands were a blur. I could do this.
Why not me?
The train pulled into the station just before I finished my transaction. The doors slid open and commuters began to pour out as I grabbed my new card and ran toward the turnstile. I was so close to victory. But a man in a charcoal suit came storming toward the turnstile from the platform side just as I raised my new card to swipe through.
Now, a good guy would stop. He would clock the panic in my eyes and give me those two seconds that would have made the difference between catching the train and missing it.
But this man looked right at me and levered his briefcase those crucial six inches in front of his body, winning the race and claiming the turnstile first. He pushed through, halting my progress.
And then? He used the briefcase to actually bump me aside as he pushed through the crowd toward the stairs.
“Have a nice day, asshole,” I said under my breath, my heart quivering with aggravation.
Ding dong. The train gave its warning song, and then the doors slid closed.
I watched it pull out of the station without me.
* * *
By the time I finally made it uptown to 60th and Central Park West, I was seventeen and half minutes late for my tenth day of work as an office temp at Walker Holdings. Maybe nobody would notice. There was always a chance that Stephen, my supervisor, came in late on Fridays.
I was hoping to ride this assignment into next week. Walker Holdings was in the throes of acquiring another company and everyone was focused on the deal. I’d been brought in to take care of various day-to-day matters and the workload didn’t seem to be lessening, so I figured I had a chance.
Have I mentioned I’m never lucky at all?
The New York offices of Walker Holdings were a small outpost for a big Australian importer of high-end agricultural products. I’d never heard of them before this assignment, but an internet search had taught me that the Walker family were considered business royalty back home, their wealth derived from one of Australia’s largest and oldest cattle- and beef-producing operations.
It seemed a bit ridiculous to me that a steak from Australia could taste better than a steak that hadn’t been flown or shipped across the ocean. But nobody asked me.
Now, sliding into the chair at the desk I’d been assigned, I found a note waiting for me. It was folded to conceal its contents. Grace, the outer flap read. The note gave me an honest-to-god shiver of anticipation. With each temp assignment, I had two hopes: first that the job would become permanent, and second that an employer would ask me do something creative.
But when I read the note, its contents weren’t very forthcoming. Come to Stephen’s office the moment you arrive, please. Conference call at 8:15.
It was now 8:22.
I jumped out of the chair and skated toward Stephen’s office in the far corner. At least I already knew where to find him. The office door stood open, with Stephen waiting at his desk.
“Sorry!” I gasped. “Should I come in?”
He gestured toward the chair beside him. I sat down and immediately noticed a middle-aged woman’s face staring at us from Stephen’s computer monitor. She wore the expression of someone who’d just tasted something sour. “Is this the girl?”
“Yes, this is Grace Kerrington,” Stephen said with a wide smile that seemed not to fit well on his angular face. “She’s been providing admin cover during the acquisition. She’s been checking warehouse reports for us this week, with good attention to detail.”
“She’s late,” the woman snapped.
And yet Stephen only smiled harder, which threw me because until this moment I hadn’t seen him smile at anyone. “I needed Grace to make some copies for me this morning. She was waylaid. Grace, say hello to Ms. Victoria Walker, the CEO of Walker Holdings.”
My pulse jumped like a frog on a trampoline. Victoria Walker, the boss-lady—the woman I’d need to impress if I wanted a full-time position. “How do you do, ma’am. Is there something I can help you with?”
Her nose twitched in high definition on Stephen’s seventeen-inch screen. She was sitting at an enormous desk, a plate-glass window behind her. Framed by the window was a picture-perfect view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the famous coat-hanger structure gleaming blue-black against the night sky, the water beneath it gold and fuchsia and turquoise from the reflected lights of the city. Impeccably dressed in a black dress with white polka dots, she studied me from half a world away. I felt my face grow warm from her scrutiny.
“My brother died last week,” she said finally.
An awkward silence fell as I tried to regroup from her unexpected opener. “I’m so sorry,” I said a beat too late.
“We weren’t close,” she said, her tone unmistakably dismissive. “He lived in New York, about twelve blocks from where you are now.”
“Oh.” I was still playing catch-up. “How can I help?”
“His apartment is at 125 Central Park West. You’ll want to write this down.”
Stephen thrust a legal pad and a pen at me, and I scratched down the address while I tried to picture Victoria Walker’s brother. He’d have shrewd eyes and an Aussie accent like his sister. For his sake, I hoped there was a vast gap in their ages. Victoria Walker—or Queen Vic as some of the less charitable office workers at Walker Holdings termed her—looked to be in her mid-fifties.
Way too young to die.
“I’m the executor and sole heir,” she went on. “I’ve applied for probate, and in the meantime I want to get a head start on winding up my brother’s estate. Jack had a large apartment, and his personal effects must be dealt with as efficiently as possible.”
Personal effects, I wrote on the paper like a dope.
“Unfortunately, his insurance appraisals are ten years out of date so everything will have to be professionally reassessed. His book collection. His personal wine cellar. His furniture and the artwork on the walls. Stephen will help you find appropriate auctioneers and dealers to provide the valuations. Your job is not to make decisions but to create an extensive inventory, along with appraisals for everything of value, and a short list of dealers and auctioneers.”
“Okay,” I said, still jotting notes. Executor. Appraisals. Dealers and auctioneers. “Yes ma’am.”
“Stephen seemed to think you had studied art at some point. Is that correct?”
“Yes!” I said quickly. “For two years. Then I switched to business at New York University.”
She nodded slowly. “We’re stretched very thinly with the acquisition at the moment. Can I trust you to do a thorough inventory of my brother’s art collection, in collaboration with an auction house?”
“Yes ma’am. I did coursework in accounting. I can make a thorough inventory. It would be my pleasure.”
“All right then.” I saw the faintest glimmer of approval. “You’ll use a Walker Holdings laptop, and all your work will be uploaded to our corporate cloud. Your findings will be checked against the old insurance appraisals...”
She gave me the sort of threatening glare that implied she thought everyone was a thief. It wasn’t easy to smile reassuringly, but I tried.
“I will review your findings at the end of each day,” she continued. “I want to see your notes accumulating—which auctioneers you’ve spoken with, which rooms you’ve inventoried.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said again, because she seemed to like the formality. Hell, I’d call her your highness if it got me a permanent job.
“There’s more,” she said, and I felt hope rising inside me for the first time in months. More meant more paid days and a positive bank balance. And Christmas was coming. I’d been viewing the holidays like a dark cloud on the horizon—fewer meaningful temp jobs, and a little sister who expected against all odds to acquire some of the glittering things her classmates took for granted.
My pen hovered over the notepad.
“My brother ran a small business importing wines from Australia.”
I looked up at her face in the monitor. “And what are your plans for his business?”
“Disposal,” she said immediately. “I believe he has some stock in a warehouse. We already dismissed his three employees. That leaves you to inventory these bottles as well as his personal collection in the apartment. The wine auctioneer can deal with all of it once probate has been granted. You’ll ship all his personal and business files to my offices in Sydney.”
“Got it.” That would cost a mint. But it wasn’t my problem.
“Once the valuables and business are accounted for, you will clean the ordinary things from the apartment, readying it for sale. His clothing and kitchen items can go to charities.”
“Yes, ma’am. Are there sentimental items I should keep an eye out for?”
The woman blinked. “He may have had a wristwatch or other trinkets. You can set those aside for family members.”
She looked at her watch. “That will be all for now. You can access the apartment on Monday. There has been a fuss over the keys—the co-op president did not wish to hand them over without a death certificate. But Stephen has that sorted now, and you can pick them up from him first thing Monday morning.”
The time difference was fifteen hours. It was almost midnight where she was. “Goodnight, ma’am. Thank you for this opportunity. I’ll do a careful job with your brother’s things.”
Her nod was brisk. “I’ll look for your first report on Monday evening, your time.”
The screen went black, and I relaxed at exactly the same time as Stephen.
“You’re late,” he said, scrubbing a hand through his thinning hair.
“I’m sorry about that, sir. The trains were so packed I couldn’t get on the first two.” My neck grew hot at the lie. “It won’t happen again.”
He didn’t say more on the subject, thankfully. “Have you met Taryn in IT? She’s waiting to set you up with a laptop.”
“Thank you,” I said, popping out of my chair. “I’ll find her now.”
“Before you go…”
I stopped halfway to the door. “Yes?”
“I know you’re looking for a permanent role, and there might be something for you here next month if you prove yourself with this project. But Ms. Walker doesn’t suffer fools, so you need to bring your A-game, okay?”
“I will. I promise.”
He studied my face for a beat before nodding his dismissal. I wondered what he saw there. Hope? Determination? Nervousness?
Probably all three. But I left his office with a fire in my belly—I was going kick ass on this project and earn myself that permanent role, if it killed me.