Jackson was a dirty word around the office. He was a partner who'd been fired earlier that year, much to the satisfaction of every other lawyer in Los Angeles, most of whom had hated him for years. I frowned at John and angled my head slightly. "The thing being the way he offered an assistant a gram of coke to show him her breasts? Are we calling that a thing now? It was illegal, it was repulsive, and it was why he got fired and sued in civil court. What on earth does Jackson's inability to do his job have anything to do with Valentina's brilliance at hers?"
"It's not me, Jessica, it's the board. They're worried about how it looks."
I frowned, and bounced my foot. "John, you're forgetting who you're talking to. Please spell out what you mean, because I'm going out of town in two days and I don't have time to parse and reparse what you're saying, looking for clues."
John pretended to consider whether to speak plainly or not, when obviously he'd been working up to this moment the whole time. He'd manipulated me into asking him to do it so he could make me responsible. I think I'm pretty good at directing testimony, but John really is a master.
He turned up his palms. "Look, if you really want me to spell it out..."
I said nothing. Fool me once.
John hesitated, which he only ever does on purpose. "Valentina is a woman. She's..." Again, pretending to be uncomfortable, John continued, "A very attractive woman. The board is concerned if we promote her to partner this year, this soon after the Jackson thing..."
I uncrossed my legs and leaned forward. "Stop calling it a thing, John, like it was an adorable eccentricity. He didn't wear cowboy hats in the office or collect Disney miniatures. He broke several laws, state and federal, traumatized another human being, and cost the firm millions of dollars and untold reputation points."
"Precisely. The board is worried if we make Valentina a partner this year, people will think it's payback for Jackson. That he did something to her, and we're making her a partner to keep her quiet."
I considered this for a moment. It was perfect in its evil, sexist subtlety.
"Let me see if I understand you, John."
He raised his eyebrows at me, and for a split second I saw that he was actually unsure what I was going to say. He doesn't like to be in that position. I put him out of his misery.
"You're saying that a brilliant lawyer, a woman who has worked for the firm for over a decade, brought in major clients and extensive revenue, who regularly speaks on international panels and authors articles in journals, in two languages—"
"I know Valentina is qualified, Jessica."
I raised my hand. "You're saying this person cannot be promoted as she deserves because another lawyer—a male lawyer—behaved like a total pig."
"Well, people might assume..."
"That she only got promoted because she had dirt on Jackson? The implication being that he assaulted her, too, but rather than coldcock him into next week and have him arrested, she would use it to further her own career?"
For the first time in my experience, John genuinely looked uncomfortable.
"You know how people talk, Jessica."
I shook my head. "No, John, I know how male lawyers talk, and how they assume other people think. Valentina deserves to make partner because of her work. That should be the only criterion, John, and would be the only criterion if she were a man." I was steamed. "Let me be very clear. If you don't promote Valentina—and Janet, who also deserves it—I will resign in protest."
John looked at me calmly, and I suddenly wondered if he'd wanted to force me into this position all along. "If you do that, people will think it's because of Jackson, too."
I took a breath. "John, not everyone looks at the actions of women and assumes that somewhere a man is responsible for them. That's you."
He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "My hands are tied on this one, Jess. The board..."
"That's bullshit, John"—I pointed at him—"and you know it."
"I promise I'll make them partners next year. We're pretty partner-heavy right now anyway."