Home > Under the Whispering Door

Under the Whispering Door
Author: TJ Klune

 


CHAPTER

 

1


Patricia was crying.

Wallace Price hated it when people cried.

Little tears, big tears, full-on body-wracking sobs, it didn’t matter. Tears were pointless, and she was only delaying the inevitable.

“How did you know?” she said, her cheeks wet as she reached for the Kleenex box on his desk. She didn’t see him grimacing. It was probably for the best.

“How could I not?” he said. He folded his hands on his oak desk, his Arper Aston chair squeaking as he settled in for what he was sure was going to be a case of unfortunate histrionics, all while trying to keep from grimacing at the stench of bleach and Windex. One of the night staff must have spilled something in his office, the scent thick and cloying. He made a mental note to send out a memo to remind everyone that he had a sensitive nose, and that he shouldn’t be expected to work in such conditions. It was positively barbaric.

The shades on the windows to his office were pulled shut against the afternoon sun, the air-conditioning blasting harshly, keeping him alert. Three years ago, someone had asked if they could move the dial up to seventy degrees. He’d laughed. Warmth led to laziness. When one was cold, one kept moving.

Outside his office, the firm moved like a well-oiled machine, busy and self-sufficient without the need for significant input, exactly as Wallace liked. He wouldn’t have made it as far as he had if he’d had to micromanage every employee. Of course, he still kept a watchful eye, those in his employ knowing they needed to be working as if their lives depended on it. Their clients were the most important people on earth. When he said jump, he expected those within earshot to do just that without asking inconsequential questions like how high?

Which brought him back to Patricia. The machine had broken down, and though no one was infallible, Wallace needed to switch out the part for a new one. He’d worked too hard to let it fail now. Last year had been the most profitable in the firm’s history. This year was shaping up to be even better. No matter what condition the world was in, someone always needed to be sued.

Patricia blew her nose. “I didn’t think you cared.”

He stared at her. “Why on earth would you think that?”

Patricia gave a watery smile. “You’re not exactly the type.”

He bristled. How dare she say such a thing, especially to her boss. He should’ve realized ten years ago when he’d interviewed her for the paralegal position that it’d come back to bite him in the ass. She’d been chipper, something Wallace had believed would lessen with time, seeing as how a law firm was no place for cheerfulness. How wrong he’d been. “Of course I—”

“It’s just that things have been so hard lately,” she said, as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “I’ve tried to keep it bottled in, but I should have known you’d see right through it.”

“Exactly,” he said, trying to steer the conversation back on course. The quicker he got through this, the better off they’d both be. Patricia would realize that, eventually. “I saw right through it. Now, if you could—”

“And you do care,” she said. “I know you do. I knew the moment you gave me a floral arrangement for my birthday last month. It was kind of you. Even though it didn’t have a card or anything, I knew what you were trying to say. You appreciate me. And I so appreciate you, Mr. Price.”

He didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. He hadn’t given her a single thing. It must have been his legal administrative assistant. He was going to have to have a word with her. There was no need for flowers. What was the point? They were pretty at first but then they died, leaves and petals curling and rotting, making a mess that could have been avoided had they not been sent in the first place. With this in mind, he picked up his ridiculously expensive Montblanc pen, jotting down a note (IDEA FOR MEMO: PLANTS ARE TERRIBLE AND NO ONE SHOULD HAVE THEM). Without looking up, he said, “I wasn’t trying to—”

“Kyle was laid off two months ago,” she said, and it took him longer than he cared to admit to place who she was talking about. Kyle was her husband. Wallace had met him at a firm function. Kyle had been intoxicated, obviously enjoying the champagne Moore, Price, Hernandez & Worthington had provided after yet another successful year. Face flushed, Kyle had regaled the party with a detailed story Wallace couldn’t bring himself to care about, especially since Kyle apparently believed volume and embellishment were a necessity in storytelling.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said stiffly, setting his phone on the desk. “But I think we should focus on the matter at—”

“He’s having trouble finding work,” Patricia said, crumpling up her tissue before reaching for another. She wiped her eyes, her makeup smearing. “And it couldn’t come at a worse time. Our son is getting married this summer, and we’re supposed to pay for half the wedding. I don’t know how we’ll manage, but we’ll find a way. We always do. It’s a bump in the road.”

“Mazel tov,” Wallace said. He didn’t even know she had children. He wasn’t one to delve into the personal lives of his employees. Children were a distraction, one he’d never warmed to. They caused their parents—his employees—to request time off for things like recitals and illness, leaving others to pick up the slack. And since Human Resources had advised him he couldn’t ask his employees to avoid starting families (“You can’t tell them to just get a dog, Mr. Price!”) he’d had to deal with mothers and fathers needing the afternoon off to listen to their children vomit or screech songs about shapes and clouds or other nonsense.

Patricia honked again into her tissue, a long and terribly wet noise that made his skin crawl. “And then there’s our daughter. I thought she was directionless and going to end up hoarding ferrets, but then the firm graciously provided her with a scholarship, and she finally found her way. Business school, of all things. Isn’t that wonderful?”

He squinted at her. He would have to speak to the partners. He wasn’t aware they offered scholarships. They donated to charities, yes, but the tax breaks more than made up for it. He didn’t know what sort of return they’d see on giving money away for something as ridiculous as business school, even if it too could be written off. The daughter would probably want to do something as asinine as open a restaurant or start a nonprofit. “I think you and I have a different definition of wonderful.”

She nodded, but he didn’t think she was hearing him. “This job is so important to me, now more than ever. The people here are like family. We all support one another, and I don’t know how I’d have made it this far without them. And to have you sense something was wrong and ask me to come in here so that I could vent means more to me than you will ever know. I don’t care what anyone else says, Mr. Price. You’re a good man.”

What was that supposed to mean? “What is everyone saying about me?”

She blanched. “Oh, nothing bad. You know how it is. You started this firm. Your name is on the letterhead. It’s … intimidating.”

Wallace relaxed. He felt better. “Yes, well, I suppose that’s—”

“I mean, yes, people talk about how you can be cold and calculating and if something doesn’t get done the moment you want it to, you raise your voice to frightening levels, but they don’t see you like I do. I know it’s a front for the caring man underneath the expensive suits.”

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