This is Part 2 of The Night Train. Read Part 1.
He smiled at her, a slow smile that lit the shadows in his eyes. He introduced his name and asked what she was doing so late in the train.
“Work, you know,” said Katherine briskly.
Who the hell was this stranger? And why was he talking to her?
He gave her a reassuring smile and said he didn’t mean to scare her, but thought they might strike up a conversation during the long train ride.
“I’m fine, really. Thanks,” said Katherine.
This was Malaysia. People didn’t go around talking to strangers in the train. They either kept their noses stuck in a book or had their ears plugged with earphones, looking down in obvious irritation as crowds squeezed in the train during rush hour.
But the young man dressed in a well-fitting shirt over jeans seemed harmless enough. His smile was warm and inviting without the slightest hint of malice. Katherine’s antenna for dangerous men did not go up. In fact, she had never felt as comfortable with anyone as she felt with him. She did not know him but he made her feel like they had known each other for years, and they could have been sipping coffee on comfy chintz sofas amid soft jazz music as they related the stories of their lives.
He looked about the same age as her – early thirties – though she couldn’t be sure. His eyes hinted at knowledge beyond his years, dark, potent but restrained behind a guise of civility. He maintained a respectable distance from her as he gently probed her about her work.
“I’m a lawyer. It wasn’t something I wanted to do as a kid,” said Katherine. “I kinda fell into it, but I can’t picture doing anything else now.”
His eyes crinkled into a smile and he remarked how rare it was to find people who loved their jobs. He asked her more questions and Katherine related her journey to becoming a senior associate in her law firm. Her mother had wanted her to be a doctor and join the illustrious ranks of surgeons in her family, all of whom were scattered across the globe.
Her mother was a petite but strict woman who was very set in her own ways. So it was a miracle when Katherine managed to persuade her to take up law along with her friends. It was not her first choice; when Katherine was ten and still had an ambition, she wanted to spend her time with the stars as an astronomer, documenting their explosive births and deaths millions of years ago. Whenever her parents argued in loud tones that always ended with smashed crockery on the floor, she would flee to a nearby park and look up at the ancient twinkling lights in the night sky.
It was because of peer pressure, really, that Katherine studied law. But once she did, she never looked back. If she continued to maintain her record, she knew she would be offered partnership very soon. Sleeping with Jon might derail that; she didn’t want people to say she won the partnership on her back. She could imagine Sue Ling delightfully sharing the juicy gossip to attentive listeners, reveling in her social destruction as the bitch imagined herself to be the first woman to break the glass ceiling in the male-dominated firm. But Sue Ling didn’t have Katherine’s acute logic or aggressive questioning tactics. All she had was an annoying ingratiating attitude that Katherine wondered how long it would take to pull Sue Ling’s nose out of the bosses’ ass.
“I have to go now,” said Katherine.
The young man nodded and told her to take care of herself as the doors opened. She felt his dark eyes upon her as she walked out into the dark empty station.
Katherine was exhilarated. She had won a huge case and her client, Mr Tan, was free to go. It didn’t matter that he amassed millions through insider trading. The point was, the evidence of his incriminating phone conversations, was illegally obtained. Katherine played the judge like a harp and convinced him to dismiss the evidence. She didn’t have to do much arguing. People failed to realise that the courtroom was like a drama most of the time. It wasn’t so much about making careful, articulate arguments, but about acting the perfect role that best suited your judge and witness. Versatility was key. Reading the judge like an open book was crucial.
“Congratulations,” Chan said.
“Thank you,” replied Katherine, beaming at her firm’s managing partner.
“Let’s celebrate with a drink tonight. I’ll call the boys along,” he said, drawing deep on a cigarette.
Katherine could smell his expensive aftershave as he stood near her, dressed in a sharp tailor-made suit. Chan exuded power without being conspicuous. That was what she liked about him. He was smooth without being smarmy; elegant without trying too hard. She nodded.
He grasped her hand and left in a cloud of smoke.
Sue Ling watched him leave before turning to Katherine.
“Congrats,” she said, with a tight smile.
“It was a great break.”
“I know. You’ve just shot up right next to the partnership rung. Good job.” Sue Ling leaned back against the balcony that overlooked the open air carpark at the courthouse.
“Thanks. I do my best.”
“And how long have you been here?”
“Four? Shit. I’ve been breaking my back at this mother-fucking firm for 10 years!” Sue Ling fished a cigarette out and lit it.
Katherine shrugged. What could she say?
“These people don’t respect hard work and dedication. They don’t give a damn about those who are willing to die for the company.” Sue Ling stared at her expectantly, as if waiting for her to agree.
Katherine said nothing. Sue Ling’s face coloured and she stubbed out her cigarette on a nearby dustbin, pressing it hard into the grainy sand.
“I’ll see you around,” said Katherine.
She felt her colleague’s eyes bore into her back. She and Sue Ling used to be good friends in law school. Sue Ling even used to score better grades than her, spurring her on a silent competition to best her friend but always failing. When they entered the law firm together, she swore that she would get to the top. It wasn’t so much as trying to defeat Sue Ling; the rivalry disappeared when they left university. It vanished along with the acid trips that she began to associate with raw, purposeless angst. She found them meaningless. The real world beckoned and she saw how high she could rise as Sue Ling shrank below, content with her careful little talent.
Katherine was lucky, in a way. She met all the right people and her easygoing nature, coupled with her sharp knack of spotting loopholes in arguments, propelled her up the ranks. It was an old boys club, she knew, with the endless cigarettes and whiskey amid male banter. They were still cautious in letting her in. But this case seemed to have broken their reservations.
She didn’t have to sleep with anyone to get to the top. Katherine had heard some stories about her colleagues; of furtive affairs after office hours, tears and rage as the affair inevitably ended with the woman usually quitting. She would comfort the sobbing woman and say the right things, but inside, Katherine was filled with disdain at such foolishness.
She suspected Sue Ling of sleeping with one of the senior associates, an acerbic lawyer who was nicknamed “bulldog” for his fearsome questioning in court. But no matter how wide Sue Ling spread her legs, it would not propel her into the boys club. Katherine already had her foot in the door, and she had no intention of letting anyone else in.
Jon sent her a congratulatory text message and asked her to meet him at a hotel in the city. The train lurched when she read it, almost causing her to drop the phone. For a moment, Katherine hesitated.
The final part of The Night Train continues tomorrow. Read Part 1.