Clara once got accused by Harry of being part of a gay legal mafia, which was ironic. Because if anyone needed to have a horse's head left in her bed as an awful warning, it was Harriet Watson. Maybe if she'd been tougher with Harry, she might have respected her more.
What Harry meant, of course, was Clara belonging to the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association. Not that she went along to their events now, but she was still officially a member, and she even had one of their old T-shirts to prove it. From the old days, when being out had been a real struggle, when you needed to know which chambers, which instructing solicitors to expect trouble from. She'd paid her dues in all senses back then.
But now she was pretty much mainstream. Who cared what a barrister's home life was like any more, as long as she won enough cases? No-one in her chambers had batted an eyelid at her civil partnership five years ago. Or its dissolution four years later. Her colleagues had just sighed and swapped cynical stories about their own dysfunctional relationships.
The old connections hadn't entirely vanished, though. When Harry had started talking about a separation, Clara had surreptitiously phoned Jane Fenton, asked her for a bit of friendly advice. And now Jane was phoning her up, doubtless going to collect on the deal. You didn't get to be the shrewdest matrimonial solicitor in London without knowing how to negotiate.
"I've got a problem, Clara," Jane announced on the phone. "I wondered if you could help me out."
"What do you want me to do?" No point wasting time on these occasions. Jane's bluntness was a front, just as much as her politeness was; carefully tailored for the recipient.
"A woman contacted me yesterday about an employment law issue. I said our firm didn't handle that, but she said she particularly needed someone...sympathetic."
That probably meant some tricky discrimination issue. Transphobia, perhaps – she'd seen a lot of that recently. Well, Clara had won several of those kind of cases over the years.
"OK. If you pass her onto Hopkins Parsons, that's probably best. They can steer her my way and Karen Parsons is very discreet."
There was a long, significant pause. At Jane's charge-out rates, probably at least ten pounds worth. Clara recognised the tactic, even as she succumbed to it. She was expected to make the first move.
"Our chambers doesn't accept public access work," she said into the silence. And then remembered that of course, Jane would have checked that.
"Are you saying that you want me to give this woman some unofficial help?" she added after another pause, because she might as well get things clear. "Free, unofficial help?"
"She contacted me because she knew one of my former clients. She almost certainly knows extremely confidential information about that client. She's also young, broke and in trouble," Jane replied promptly. "I don't want her either getting ripped off by some dodgy claims firm or deciding to sell what she knows to raise some cash. If you could just talk to her, please, Clara, get an idea of exactly what her situation is, that'd be a big help. I'd be grateful."
Her chambers needed more work. Her chambers always needed more work and Jane was a senior partner in a firm that could provide that.
"OK," Clara said, "send her along."
"Just so you're aware," Jane said, "the former client this woman knows about is Rebecca Trent. And I did not tell you that. Thanks. Goodbye."
Clara didn't buy newspapers for the scandals, but the Trent divorce case had been hard to avoid. It had insinuated itself into the broadsheets; almost every section, it seemed sometimes. When you got a novelist and a media-friendly academic divorcing, of course they both wanted to write about it. And when you got them divorcing because they'd both had an affair with the same woman...
She read rapidly through the articles online, trying to strip out the facts from the hype and the overwrought metaphors and the cleverly thought-out cultural parallels. It was still pretty racy stuff. Jonathan McGuire had been spending not only his money but his wife's on frequent BDSM sessions with Irene Adler. Rebecca Trent had gone to confront the woman, and been seduced by her. And this warped triangle had continued for three months and ended with McGuire having some kind of a breakdown during a late night arts discussion on Radio 3.
It reminded Clara again of why she'd not wanted to read about any of it. Not just the vicarious embarrassment of seeing supposedly intelligent people pull apart their private lives in public. But how angry she'd felt about Irene Adler's behaviour. Playing to the life every nasty cliché about untrustworthy bisexuals and predatory lesbians and femmes fatales, as she'd broken up a perfectly good marriage for fun.
No , she told herself firmly, the relationship couldn't have been so wonderful in the first place if that happened to it. Irene Adler was doubtless a symptom, not a cause. Maybe everyone's marriage had those kinds of fault lines. What was it Jane had said, when Clara had phoned up furiously complaining about Harry asking for the dissolution order? That with any relationship, if you were determined enough, you could make a claim for unreasonable behaviour on both sides.
That had been almost the worst bit of the breakup. The distorted mirror of their partnership in Harry's petition. The Respondent has belittled the Petitioner by constantly making critical remarks in front of her colleagues. The Respondent has placed obstacles in the way of the Petitioner socialising with her own friends. The Respondent has displayed a lack of interest in and affection towards the Petitioner.
"The Petitioner is a heavy drinker who is a bloody nightmare for the Respondent to take anywhere," she'd protested to Jane. "If I ask her about her day, I'm trying to cross-examine her and if I don't, I'm not showing interest. And-"
"And you should have walked out on her several years ago," Jane replied. "But you're too reasonable. Clara, ask yourself one simple question. Was the relationship good for you?"
She made inarticulate noises down the phone, because weren't divorce lawyers supposed to show some tact? Though perhaps only to their paying clients.
"The important thing is that you get out with your health and the majority of your assets intact," Jane went on remorselessly. "I'll give you the name of a solicitor you can afford, because mediation is no bloody use when the other party is someone completely unreasonable. It will be hell, but with the right lawyer it will be smoothly managed hell, and then you can go off and find yourself someone better."
"Just like that?" Clara protested.
"As I tell my clients right at the start, I am a solicitor, not a therapist. You know the difference, Clara. And you also know what you have to do. So do it now."
Officially it had been a clean break between Harry and her – no children to complicate matters, no ongoing financial commitments. Unofficially, here she was a year on with her stomach knotting just reading about someone else's divorce. Jane would doubtless say Clara needed to toughen up. But then if she was as tough as Jane, she probably wouldn't have been willing to help a woman just because she was "young, broke and in trouble". Or at least she'd have negotiated harder.
The woman had been employed by Trent and McGuire, presumably. No, not necessarily. She could be a colleague of McGuire's from his university, who'd been involved in some previous relationship with him. Or maybe this mystery woman was connected to Trent's publisher or whatever PR firm she was using. Too many possibilities to worry about. She needed to wait till the woman turned up, and then she'd find out the truth.
The woman's name was Kate Winter and she was coming to the chambers at 6.30 pm on Friday. Late enough that there wouldn't be many other people around to ask awkward questions; early enough that Clara could go on somewhere else afterwards. In theory. In practice, she had nothing on this weekend, like most weekends. There were...there were too many drunk people in London at weekends. Too many drunk women. And the sound of a blurred voice, the sight of someone stumbling round in high heels was still hard to take. She felt horribly tempted to lecture complete strangers: Do you know what you're doing to yourself? It's all fun now, but is it going to be fun when you can't stop? When it's not one night, but every night? When you endanger yourself, hurt others just because of the booze? She had to get a sense of perspective, she knew. But when you'd lived with disaster so long, it was hard not to imagine that everyone was heading for the same place, but just hadn't realised it yet.
Kate Winter didn't look like she had a problem with drinking. She didn't look like she should have any problems at all. Jane had said "young," of course, but not mentioned anything about "incredibly tall" or "unbelievably beautiful." And she didn't look broke either. The brown tailored jacket and skirt she was wearing were clearly chosen to complement her auburn hair perfectly, and they looked horrendously expensive. But maybe that just proved that Clara didn't know enough about high street fashion chains.
"I gather you need some free legal advice about an employment matter, Ms Winter," Clara said, thinking how incongruous the woman's polished style looked in her slightly ramshackle office.
"Call me Kate," the woman replied quietly. "Yes, I'm owed some wages by my employer."
"I haven't been paid since the end of November."
Well that explained both the smart clothes and being suddenly broke. A couple of months with no salary could drive most people to the brink of disaster.
"You certainly need to do something about that. What's your job?"
"I'm a personal assistant," Kate said. "To Irene Adler."
Clara tried to hide her surprise, but she obviously wasn't quite quick enough. Kate's chin went up and she added, defiantly: "The dominatrix."
"Right," Clara said hastily and decided it was best to stick to neutral questions. "How long have you been working for her?"
That was a surprise as well. Surely eight years ago, Kate would only just have left school. And Irene Adler would have been young as well. But again, not a helpful comment to make.
"Do you have a written contract?" she asked instead, and Kate nodded. "So does that say how you're paid and how often?"
"Monthly," Kate replied. "Irene pays me in cash. But it's all above board."
"You're paying tax and she's paying national insurance for you?"
"All the paperwork's in order. We have a very helpful accountant." Kate was smiling now, but there was a hint of defiance about the smile. The accountant probably had his own reasons for helping Irene, but it wasn't Clara's job to worry about that. She smiled back reassuringly at Kate.
"So you should have been paid next in December? What date?"
"The 31st. Irene said it'd have to be after Christmas; things were a bit tight. Some years, she's been able to give me a Christmas bonus beforehand, but not this year."
"But she didn't pay you on the 31st? Did she give you any explanation for the delay?"
"No," Kate said, and her voice sounded strained now. "I haven't seen her since Christmas Day."
Christmas Day abruptly added up with eight years in Clara's mind and came to something that was far more than just an employment problem. Kate was one of Irene's victims too, wasn't she? Well, not all women treated others like shit. If she was being an unpaid legal advisor, she supposed she might as well also be an unpaid therapist.
"It sounds like you've had a rough time," she said. "Do you want to come and have a drink and tell me about it?"