Read chapter 2 of Wanda M. Morris' All Her Little Secrets in this exclusive excerpt
This month, EW is offering an exclusive look inside the fall's buzziest legal thriller. Check out the first chapter — and learn about debut author Wanda M. Morris' inspiration for the story — here and stay tuned next week for the final excerpt.
What the hell had I just done?
I rushed off the elevator onto the 18th floor, inside the Legal Department. My body buzzed like someone had slapped me, leaving the sting to rumble underneath my skin. My thoughts were on fire. Blood. Death. This was Chillicothe all over again. And I did what I always did. I ran. My earliest memory is of running. My brother, Sam, hadn't been born yet. My mother, Martha, had me by my hand and we were running, my little legs beating fast to keep up with her. It was nighttime. Cold outside. And she kept telling me to hurry. I don't know who or what we were running from. I started to cry, but she told me if I cried, she would have to leave me behind. So I ran.
I didn't hit the override switch for the reserve lighting; the dim spotlights were enough. I needed the cloak of darkness to cover my shame. I darted through a maze of soft-walled cubicles in the center of the floor that housed the support staff. Attorney offices, tight but windowed, formed a perimeter around the maze. Even though we didn't bill our hours like people did in a law firm, most people in the department still kept law-firm hours — start late, work late. With any luck, it would be over an hour before people would start to trickle in.
Seven a.m. on this floor was like a fire station after a three-alarm call — offices and cubicles empty, things left scattered and unsettled. Each of us, working late into the evening until, realizing there were kids to pick up or dry cleaners to hit before closing, left our desks, files, papers disheveled, waiting exactly as we'd left them the night before.
I made it to my office from the executive suite without anyone seeing me. Thank God. No one really sees me around this company anyway. They see what I want them to see. Smart. Tempered. Ellice Littlejohn, the consummate professional. My legal advice spot-on. Impeccably dressed, a funny quip when needed. I'm the one they admire and respect. That's who they see.
I stood inside the cramped, drafty space that doubled as my office. I'm the only Black person in the Legal Department. I'm not saying one had anything to do with the other, but if an employee's office space reflects their value to the company, Houghton didn't think much of me. I used to dream of becoming the chief legal officer or even the CEO of a Fortune 500. I was supposed to have it all by now — a doting husband, 2.5 bright and gifted kids, and a successful career that others envied — but now, those things were well out of my reach. I was closer to menopause than marriage material.
And all the stupid decisions I'd made before led me to this small gray freezer of an office, the lone Black lawyer working with other lawyers half my age, the majority of whom I didn't like. Their pompous, know-it-all attitudes made it hard for me to settle in and feel like a real part of the "Houghton family," as executive management liked to refer to the company. Michael always paid me so well, I learned to ignore it.
The inklings of a headache nibbled at my left temple. I tossed my coat and bags in one of the guest chairs, scooted around to the business side of my desk, and pulled a small portable heater from behind a stack of folders. I set the knob on "High" and listened to the scratchy hum of the fan blades for a few seconds before collapsing into my chair. Having portable heaters in your office was a violation of company policy. But I'd be damned if I gave up my heater before Building Services installed a better HVAC system on this floor.
Now, there was a dead man two floors above me, and if anyone knew I had been sleeping with him, it would be another disaster. I closed my eyes. A jagged bloody hole in his head. A gun on the floor beside him. My eyes popped open. Suicide? It didn't make sense, although Michael had complained about his wife recently. Maybe something more happened between them. Maybe she found out about us. What would I do now? I would keep my ass in this chair, keep a low profile, and let someone else bring me the awful news about Michael. The farther away from this, the better.
God forgive me. All I had to do was call for help. Surely calling for help wouldn't be enough for anyone to dig through my background. Or would it? Yes. I'd made the right decision to leave his office. He was dead. My sticking around to answer a flurry of questions from the police wouldn't bring him back. And then, in an instant, sadness engulfed me. Michael deserved better.
I stared out at the pink-orange blush of dawn crawling across the city. Long fingers of white clouds slowly inched across the sky. With its constant construction, Atlanta's skyline had shorn its squat brick buildings for the gleaming high-rise look of New York City or Chicago. A Southern mecca for business and industry. The New South. I was still staring out the window when the lights popped on across the floor. My pulse quickened. Someone else was here. I knew there were no security cameras in the executive suite. Michael had told me. Still, I couldn't help but think: Had anyone seen me leaving the 20th floor?
I watched the door and perked up to listen for more sounds. The walls in the Legal Department had the soundproof capacity of toilet paper. But things went silent. I needed to look busy in case someone passed by my office, so I flipped on my computer and stared into the screen. After a few seconds, the company logo of a fast-moving gray truck and tag line popped on the screen. Houghton Transportation — where you're family and family comes first!
"Hey! Morning, sunshine!"
I jumped. Rudy Clifton, one of the senior lawyers in the Legal Department, was leaning in my doorway with a Starbucks coffee cup in his hand and a wide pearly smile. Even though Rudy reported to me, he never had any qualms about walking into my office uninvited and most times without knocking. I tolerated it only because he brought in good work product and good gossip. Rudy and I had worked on several legal panels together over the years and became good friends. When he got laid off from his law firm, I immediately hired him to work at Houghton six months after Michael hired me. He repaid that favor with unwavering loyalty, one of the few people I trusted at Houghton.
"Why are you here so early?" I heard my fragile nerves popping through the cracks in my voice.
"Good morning to you, too." He grimaced. Rudy was handsome and hunky in a college-frat-boy sort of way with his two-day stubble and a mop of dark wavy hair. "Those little people that live in my house — they woke up at 4 o'clock this morning crying for bottles. Couldn't get back to sleep. What dragged you in this early?"
I hesitated for a few seconds, skirting through my brain for some deflection. I feigned a smile. "Haven't you heard? I sleep here now since the settlement fell apart in the Robbins litigation."
"Good luck." Rudy laughed. "Oh snap, you wanna hear the latest?" Rudy, still wearing his overcoat, glanced over his shoulder before slipping inside my office.
"Please, Rudy. No gossip this early, okay?" I rubbed a thumb into my left temple. Morning traffic and sirens echoed up from the ground below.
"I heard Jonathan's having an affair. Guess who the lucky lady is?"
I sighed deeply and settled in. I knew he wouldn't rest until he could unload the latest nugget he'd uncovered. Rudy was King of the Gossip Mill. His friendly nature and the ability to talk to anyone made people tell him their deepest, darkest secrets. And then, he told me. Under any other circumstances, I might have indulged him and pretended to be interested.
I shook my head and shrugged.
"Willow… Willow Sommerville. HR VP."
I signed into my computer and pretended to read something from the monitor. "Oh."
"Oh! Is that all you have to say?"
Rudy got his kicks from being the first to pass along a fresh, tender piece of gossip, and I could tell I had disappointed him greatly.
"What's up?" Rudy said, inspecting me like a pair of Michelin tires on a used car. "You okay?"
"Just a little tired, I guess."
"You sure?" He raised an eyebrow. Rudy had picked up on a scent. "I know you're my boss, but you're my buddy, too. You good?"
"I'm good." I stood from my chair and grabbed my mug, like I was about to head to the breakroom, a subtle cue for him to leave my office. "Seriously, I'm fine. Just a little out of sorts. Didn't sleep well last night." Before I could usher Rudy out of my office, Anita, my administrative assistant, poked her chubby face inside the office door. Damn! I couldn't catch a break.
Anita, a short stout woman with a graying poodle perm, either bought her clothes one size too small or decided she wasn't buying new ones that fit. "Hey, did you guys see the ambulance downstairs?" she said.
Oh God. I glanced at my watch. It wasn't even 8 o'clock. Someone had discovered Michael's body already.
Rudy's eyes grew wide. "Ambulance?"
"Yeah. There's an ambulance and a ton of police cars in front of the building. Jimmy, down at the security desk, said something happened up on 20. But he didn't have any details. At least, that's what he told me," Anita said, the last sentence spiked by the skepticism in her voice.
Rudy and I dashed over to my window and stared down onto the street below. The entire block of Peachtree Street was a blur of red and blue lights. Traffic was snarled all the way up to Seventeenth Street. A few impatient drivers honked their horns in the mounting backup of cars, as if that ever does any good in Atlanta traffic. A heavy sense of dread settled in my chest. I backed away from the window.
"Are you serious?" Rudy said, asking no one in particular. "I'll be right back."
Anita and I watched him hustle from my office and down the hall. I knew he was off in search of his sources to shake them down for information. I already knew what his sources knew.
"What d'ya think happened up there?" Anita said, removing her coat.
I didn't respond. The lingering headache tightened its vise across my forehead. Calm down. I had to keep my wits about me now. Soon enough, everyone in the office, lawyers and admins alike, would be scampering between their offices and cubicles, leaving bread crumbs of gossip and guesswork along the way. That's the way it worked around Houghton. It was protocol for big events in the department that no one wanted to discuss openly like layoffs, demotions, or, in this case, an executive officer's suicide.
Fifteen minutes later, Rudy walked into my office with a grim face and closed the door. "Michael committed suicide."
"Who told you that?" My skin began to buzz again. Had anyone seen me leaving the 20th floor?
"Don't ask. But suicide?" Rudy shook his head. "That doesn't make sense. What healthy, well-adjusted guy gets dressed for work, packs a gun in his briefcase, and says to himself, 'Okay, I'll eat my gun here at my desk right after I finish reading The Wall Street Journal'?"
"Please don't talk like that." I pushed around a couple folders on my desk to quell my nerves.
Rudy slumped into the chair in front of my desk. "I'm just sayin' people don't usually commit suicide at their job, unless it's a workplace shooting, in which case they try to take a few others out with them. It's a private act."
I swiveled my chair and stared out at the fully blossomed winter sunrise now bathing the downtown skyline. Private acts. I thought about my own life. Decades pass and I think I've processed the horror, but somehow it still ebbs and flows. A few seconds later, memories from Chillicothe bubbled to the surface too — an old utility shed, a little boy's tears, and a cavern of fear.
People around here didn't see the real me.
* * *
As expected, I had a hard time concentrating on work. After Rudy left, at least three other people poked their head inside my office asking, Did you hear what happened up on 20? Michael was dead and, slowly, bits and pieces about his death trickled out like the drip-drip of a leaky faucet, laced with the spin and embellishment of every person who shared the dreadful news of Michael's suicide. Michael was depressed. Michael had tried to kill himself before. Michael accidentally shot himself. All of it was so far from the truth and what I knew about him.
I'd had enough. I decided to go down to the lobby for a cup of tea and some clarity. The flashing lights and sirens of the morning's activity had settled down to the normal din of passing traffic outside and the white noise of people milling about inside the lobby, nodding sadly at one another, speculating about why such a nice guy would do such a horrible thing.
I rounded the corner out of Starbucks when I spotted Hardy King, the director of corporate security. Hardy made two of me and I'm not petite. His crumpled suit jacket and shirt had long since surrendered to the girth of his oversize gut, giving him the appearance of a hastily made bed with a pillow tossed in the center of it. Hardy was originally from New Jersey. No Southern accent. I didn't have one either. I ditched my accent 15 minutes after stepping foot on the grounds of Coventry Academy Prep when a girl giggled after I raised my hand during orientation to say I wanted to axe a question. She made a chopping motion and said I probably shouldn't hurt the teacher. I learned the proper way to say the word ask and never made another diction mistake again. My first lesson in code-switching.
Hardy threw both arms around me in a big bear hug. Hardy hugged everyone. "You heard?"
"How you doing? What about the rest of the folks in Legal?" Hardy had served as a witness in a few cases and knew everyone in the Legal Department. Most people in the company considered Hardy a schmuck, an overpaid driver for Nate and other executives on the 20th floor. But, like Rudy, he was a nice guy, always helpful and had the scoop on whatever was going on inside the company. He was also a widower with no kids. I figured he was probably lonely, so I always felt a little sorry for him.
"I think we're all in shock. It doesn't make sense."
Hardy shook his head sadly. "Yeah, Mikey was one of the good guys."
I was nervous, but I had to ask. "Who found him?"
"His assistant. She's a mess now too. For good reason. It wasn't a pretty scene. We had to send her home."
"Oh." Michael's bloody body flashed through my mind again.
Hardy looked at me, all sad and pitiful with the corners of his mouth folded down. "Did he say anything to make you think he'd do something like this?"
"No. That's why everyone's in shock. Michael hated guns. I didn't think he even owned one."
Two women passed by us, laughing about something. They weren't particularly loud, but their jovial behavior seemed out of place in the lobby today. Hardy and I watched them until they were out of earshot.
"Did he leave a note?"
Hardy scratched his graying buzz cut. "Nothing."
A part of me was glad he didn't. Whatever demons Michael wrestled with should remain his own. Less fodder for the gossip herd to feed on. For a fleeting moment, I wondered what part I might have played in his death. Had this been his way out of a bad marriage and a lackluster affair?
"I guess it might not matter now, but was there anything going on in Legal? Some big case you guys were trying that was getting to him? Stressing him out?"
"No. I'm telling you, he was fine."
"This is crazy stuff." Hardy shook his head slowly. "And I think the media is gonna have a field day with all this. Don't forget about the folks outside."
I turned toward the lobby windows facing out onto Peachtree Street. A small group of protesters were carrying placards: HOUGHTON HATES BLACKS AND UNFAIR TREATMENT, UNFAIR HIRING AND DON'T SPEND YOUR $$ WITH HOUGHTON.
"The protesters have been out there for months now," Hardy said. "I can't imagine they'll let up now that the news cameras are around."
"Three months to be exact, but you have to admit, there aren't many people around this company that look like me."
Hardy nodded understandingly. "Yeah, that needs to stop too."
The protests began a few weeks after several Black and Latinx applicants filed an EEOC charge alleging they were denied employment at Houghton despite their qualifications. A few weeks after, several Black employees in Operations joined and alleged they were denied management promotions. The company was bracing for a lawsuit. Over the weeks leading up to the holidays, the protesting crowds had grown smaller. There weren't more than a handful now. But Hardy made a good point. Racial discrimination allegations and an executive officer's suicide could be a recipe for a PR nightmare.
"You don't think the two are connected?" I asked.
Hardy shrugged. "It won't matter if the news guys can spin it the right way. Either way, this is not a good time for Houghton."
Excerpted from the book All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M Morris. Copyright © 2021 by Wanda M. Morris. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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