Evie stands on the corner of Eighth Avenue, surrounded by the skitter and hustle of a Midtown New York morning, uncomfortably aware that she is looking at her last best chance. She’s wearing a thousand-dollar dress she got for seventy-five bucks, only slightly shopworn, and her shoes and bra both pinch but she could conceivably belong among the neatly attired office workers flowing into the glass tower over the street from her. The little voice that tells her that she’s a fake, she’ll never belong, keeps her teetering on the curb until it is drowned out—first by the scream of a passing ambulance, then by the grumble of her own stomach. Breakfast is for people who can pay rent, and Evie is not one of those people.
The tourists milling behind her stare at their phones and quarrel over reviews of local diners, on a mission to find the most authentic New York bagel experience (good luck); they’re shocked into silence as she flings herself into the street. Real New Yorkers don’t wait for the light, and this is still, tenuously, her city. She jaywalks around a taxi and dodges the messengers in the bike lane and then she’s across, feet on the curb and heart in her throat. She slips, an impostor, into the flow of the fully employed, spinning through the rotating golden doors of One Worldwide Plaza.
She’s young, smart, on time, and vastly overqualified, and she manages to maintain her sense of optimism all the way up to the seventeenth floor, and Meserov & Co’s small office suite. But there’s another candidate already waiting, perched on a white sofa under a big, abstract black and white painting that could almost be a Franz Kline. While Evie understood that this wasn’t her usual temp gig, that she’d have to interview, it didn’t hit home until the competition was sitting right there in front of her. The girl glances up at Evie, brief and disinterested, before returning to scroll through her phone. She’s got blonde highlights and fake eyelashes and a perfect manicure, and looks like she weighs 120 pounds soaking wet. Evie looks down at her own messy drugstore nail polish and feels her hopes founder in the storm of the other girl’s perfection.
The HR woman, Abi, is wearing headphones and making quiet mmhmm sounds at a laptop balanced on the arm of her chair, presumably in the middle of a video call. She catches Evie’s eye, smiles, and mouths we’re running late, have a seat before returning to her meeting. Her braids are lavender this week.
Evie was used to temping. The agency calls you up, sends you out, you work one day to six months, rinse, repeat. It was an ideal gig for a girl who just needed to meet expenses while working on her freelance career. Or it was, until Evie blew it by walking out of a more than usually terrible assignment, and the agency stopped calling her all spring in retaliation. They probably wouldn’t even have called her for this if Abi hadn’t been handling the selection on the client side. The job was listed through Meyer, Luchins & Black, the big law firm that took up about five floors in the tower. Evie had temped there for three whole months over the winter, covering someone on maternity leave. She had hit it off with Abi, the law firm’s bubbly HR person whose shoulder-length hair was an ever-changing rainbow of yarn braids. Part of Evie—the part that had student loans and rent and a maxed-out credit card—had hoped that the gig would be located on one of the law firm’s floors. They always had leftover sandwiches from catered lunch meetings, and free sodas in the fridges. If a girl was careful at a job like that, she didn’t have to buy food for the whole time she was temping.
But the consultancy is on a much lower floor, one comprised of hallways lined with the closed doors of mysterious small office suites. The Meserov office is tiny, just an outer foyer with a reception desk covered in paperwork that had clearly been dropped there on the way past never to be touched again, and closed double doors to the principal investigator’s office. Which, presumably, had a window, unlike the outer office. There is a leather sofa and an armchair, but the blonde has the sofa, and Abi has the armchair. Evie is left to perch against the reception desk, trying not to dislodge the Matterhorn of folders and expense reports tossed haphazardly on it. Her stomach grumbles loudly. She’d been told to arrive at 10:30, and it’s now 11 with no sign of a start in sight.
She touches her hair to make sure it’s behaving, and tries to ignore the rapid spiral of her anxiety. The ad specified executive assistants with a track record of confidential work. The pay is good, enough to survive (and wasn’t it pathetic that it had come down to that, anything to survive in New York, so different from five years ago when she’d arrived fresh out of college, planning to set the city on fire with her dreams). But the business had called itself a “small investigative consultancy” associated with Meyer, Luchins & Black, a description that would usually be anathema to career executive assistants like the blonde on the sofa. Those women wanted name-brand firms with cachet and fabulous benefits and biannual paid retreats where they could bat Sephora’s best eyelashes at newly divorced managing directors. What was left for jobs like this was usually girls fresh off the plane from somewhere else; moms and misfits and back-to-workers with a hint of desperation in their eyes; and folks like Evie, who were still telling themselves this was the day job.
Still, she’d temped for enough law offices and venture capital firms that she qualified under the confidentiality angle. Hell, back when she first arrived, her journalism degree still shiny and new, she’d run back office at a strip club, and not a classy one, because it was colorful and maybe she’d get a book or a column out of it. But all she’d got was exhaustion migraines and a ferocious hatred of loud pop music. And investigative work? She was beyond qualified for that. And god, wouldn’t that be better than booking flights and running expense reports and making PowerPoints and collecting dry-cleaning? It was still a day job, of course, but maybe it wouldn’t be an incredibly shit day job.
Out of the corner of her eye, Evie sees Abi take off her headphones and close her laptop. “Sorry about that,” Abi sighs, shaking her head. “This week’s been a disaster. Thank god it’s almost over.” She leans back to peer at the closed wooden doors, as if she could see through them. “He’s finishing up with the previous candidate, and then it’s you, Gemma, and Evie, and that’s it. So not too much longer, I hope.”
Gemma, the blonde, looks up. “I’m happy to go last. I took the whole day off.” She smiles at Evie. It doesn’t reach her eyes. “You look like you’ve got places to be.”
Evie doesn’t have anywhere to be. She doesn’t even have anything to take the day off from, and she knows exactly what Gemma is doing: angling for the last interview slot so she’s the one who’s freshest in memory when it comes to the hiring decision. But Evie smiles back, nonetheless, and tells Gemma that she’d prefer to keep their existing interview order. Then she turns to Abi and says, “So, can you tell us anything about”—she sweeps her hand around to encompass posh sofas, painting, paperwork—“this?”
“Well.” Abigail clears her throat. “Meserov is an investigative agency frequently used by Meyer, Luchins & Black, mostly by the Family Law division. As you can see,” she continues, indicating the messy reception desk covered in badly stacked paperwork, “its principal, Misha, needs—”
She is cut off by the sound of the inner doors opening, and the click of heels on thin carpet. An Asian-American woman in a sharp black cardigan and wide-legged trousers strides out, jaw clenched. She doesn’t meet anyone’s eye as she stomps out of the office suite and into the hall leading to the elevators.
“I guess that’s a no, then,” Abi says to the woman’s retreating back.
“Next,” sighs a low, husky male voice from the doorway, the sort of voice that sounds like it should be whispering lazy secrets across linen sheets. There is the smallest hint of another, older accent behind the cool, received-pronunciation British vowels; something from considerably further east.
Evie doesn’t know what she’s been expecting the principal of a small investigative consultancy to look like. Maybe a nervous, tired-eyed woman who washed out of Kroll for something quietly scandalous, and is still a little paranoid people will find out. Or a character out of an old film noir: middle-aged white guy with a shirt that smells like bourbon and a face like an unmade bed. Or, more realistically, an ex-FBI lifer trading up to private-sector pay to afford a house in a good school district on Long Island.
She is in no way prepared for the tall figure who slopes out of the inner office like a bored, hung-over panther.