Finley Blake wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked through the doors of the nondescript brownstone on West 23rd Street that housed the offices of Traveler’s Tales magazine. She had decided after six years of fifteen-plus hour days at that major league consulting firm that she had had enough and needed a break. Being a partner had its benefits, but it wasn’t worth the burnout she was experiencing. Maybe it wasn’t burnout, just boredom.
So, there she stood, looking at a sea of cubicles surrounded by a wall of glass-fronted offices. She prayed that she would be given an assignment soon. Living in a cube wasn’t her style. She signed heavily. From the frying pan into the fire, as her granny used to say.
“Excuse me, I was looking for Dan Burton,” Finley asked tentatively of the only person who wasn’t screaming into a phone or deep into their headset.
“Sarah should be back in a minute,” replied the smartly dressed woman in her late twenties who walked by without a backward glance.
After ten minutes or so, the receptionist—or the person Finley thought might be the receptionist—returned to the stark Formica barricade that was her desk.
“May I help you?” she asked in a voice that could barely be called a whisper. The smallness of her voice was surprising given that the woman from whom it came rivaled Finley’s five-foot eight-inch height and had at least a twenty-pound advantage on her in size.
“I have an appointment with Dan—” Before Finley could finish the sentence, she was wrapped in a hug from behind by a giant of a man who towered over her.
“Finley, kid, what have you been up to? Come on back. Sarah, can you get us some coffee? Finley likes hers strong and black if I remember correctly. And I will have my usual. We’ll be in my office—and hold all my calls for the next half hour or so!” he called out in a staccato voice as he led to the offices along the hallway to the right.
“So, fill me in on your life. You said that you were looking for something different, daring. Well. Here it is. Travel. Adventure. You’ll have it all!” Dan continued in an over-enthusiastic voice that made her feel like she was listening to a snake oil salesman, and she wasn’t buying the schtick.
Dan’s sandy curls flopped over his eyebrow as he rounded a doorway and turned to show her a chair in his over-stuffed office. He was a big guy, well over the six feet, three inches he claimed when asked his height, with a barrel chest and arms that were well-muscled. He had been a rugger in college and must still be playing. If not, it was a waste. An affable man with a quick wit and a machine-gun mouth, he was also one of the brightest people Finley had ever met.
The two had met in law school that first week and had often sat side by side over the first year because of their last names, Blake and Burton. But after that, their paths had diverged. She had focused on international corporate law and he on First Amendment issues. Yet, somehow, they had kept in touch, running into each other at friends’ houses or professional events over the past decade.
He was one of the first people she had called when she decided to leave the firm. He had left the law behind, as had she, but he had managed to recreate himself a couple of times professionally before settling into journalism. She thought he might share his experience making those transitions.
Besides, he always seemed to know how to lay the issues out, evaluate the options, and move to a decision quickly. And she needed “quickly.” She had some money tucked away that would last her for a while, but the indecision and uncertainty that surrounded her change of career made her antsy. She was afraid that she would back out and rescind her resignation, going back to the familiar because it was familiar, not because she liked what she was doing.
“So?” Dan’s question was hanging in the air when Finley finally rejoined the conversation.
“I need a change. Life is too short, and I feel like I’m coasting. So, I am ready to travel to far-off places, do interviews, take pictures,” Finley started. “Tell me what you need. What angles work best with your audience?”
Finley’s time writing for Vanity Fair right out of college, before the law school bug had bitten, was what had gotten her the interview, but it had been a tough sell, even as a freelancer. She would be on six-month probation: bring in sellable stories in that time or get cut. Dan had been honest. Her background was impressive, but all his magazine cared about was a story that readers liked. Give him that, and she might find a regular outlet for her work.
“Look, we had a staff writer pull up sick for an assignment in Morocco. We could cut the story and put something else in, but this might be a good one for you to cut your teeth on. Small story, so small budget, but see what you can do. I managed to find you an advance—not normal for freelance, so don’t expect it next time,” he growled good-naturedly.
“What’s your deadline? And when do I leave?” Finley asked, gently touching the passport that was always in her handbag. Past experience had made its presence necessary—as was the case with the bag she kept packed in the front closet, ready for the client who demanded that she be in Zurich or Hong Kong the next day.
“Will two days be enough for you to make arrangements and get over there?” He pulled out the file that the Tales’ writer had compiled with ideas, background, possible interview subjects, and regular contacts. Things to get her started, and she could take it from there.
“Morning, Miss Blake.” The doorman, Mr. Byrne, a middle-aged man of fifty or so with a strong Brooklyn accent, pulled open her building’s large brass door. He had been the doorman for as long as Finley had been in the building, almost five years now. “Finally stopped raining. Looks like it might be a nice day after all.”
“Indeed. Morning, Mr. Byrne. Mail here yet?” Finley asked.
“Mailman’s putting in the boxes right now,” Byrne replied.
“Good deal. By the way, I'll be away for a while, so I'm going to ask that my mail be held. If anything else comes, can you be sure that you keep it behind the desk?” she asked.
“Where are you off to now, Miss Blake? If you don’t mind me asking,” the doorman queried quietly. He knew that she had traveled a lot for her previous job, but he also knew that she had made a career change and wasn’t sure what this new path was yet.
“Morocco!” Finley replied. “It's been a while since I've been there, and I'm looking forward to going back.” Her thoughts were drawn back to a time not too long ago when Morocco—and a certain gentleman there—had held a special place in her heart. But that time had passed. “You would really like it there, I think, Mr. Byrne. Good coffee. Great food. Warm sun.”
“Morocco. Makes me think of Arabian nights and all that exotic stuff,” replied Byrne, shaking his head. “I think I'll just stay right here in good old Manhattan.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing. See you later.” She headed across the lobby to the elevator.
Byrne skirted around the desk and hit the elevator button, holding the door back once it had opened. Finley stepped into the elevator and pushed number 9 for her floor.
The apartment was warm; sunlight poured in through the bank of windows that ran down the street side of the wall. The adjacent wall, which faced the alley, had fewer windows but more wall space for the artwork that Finley had collected over the years, art that held memories of places and people. She walked to the dining table and dropped her bag and the junk mail that had been in her mailbox on it. She looked around and sighed. She was going to miss the comfort of the place, even as she looked forward to this new adventure.
While she pulled her suitcase from the upper shelf of the front closet, Finley asked Alexa to call her sister. Whitt, her baby sister by six years, lived in Manila, working in development banking. The two saw each other a couple of times a year, more when they figured out how to arrange their work assignments so that at least part of their projects were in some part of the world that was proximate enough for them to wrangle a weekend in a spot between their respective locations.
Sometimes it was Dubai for a couple of hours during a layover, or better still, London where the stop could give them as much as twelve hours to catch up. Last time, it had been a whole three days in Istanbul, a city that Whitt loved and knew well. Finley was hoping that Whitt might have a trip planned that would take her near enough to Tangier so that they could grab a few days of girl talk.
“’Lo!” came a dusky voice, muffled by sleep.
“Sorry, kid! Hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Nope, it’s only eleven here. I must have nodded off.” Whitt yawned into the phone. “Sorry. What’s up?”
Finley explained the Moroccan assignment with Traveler’s Tales and the timing. She had already told Whitt about her need for a career change, the opportunity—however temporary—that Dan had offered, and her concerns, her uncertainty. Whitt had been encouraging, assuring her about her ability to make the change and talking about all the places they could travel together.
“So, you stuck in the office, or are you on the road?” Finley asked.
“I head to Tbilisi week after next for meetings with the Central Bank. When are you heading out?”
“Day after tomorrow. I need to book my flight and hotels today and see if I can set up a few calls for as soon as I get there. The person I am standing in for has done a lot of the grunt work, so I think I am good to hit the ground running,” Finley ventured hopefully. “You up for a little adventure? A bit out of the way, but still good fun.”
“Let me see what I can do,” Whitt answered, now wide awake. She was up for the challenge. It would mean that she would have to do all the preparations for her trip to Georgia as well as book a flight to Tangier in the next day or so. Her meetings weren’t for another ten days, so she could use some of that vacation rollover that was accumulating. It would be great to see her sister after five months apart. More importantly, it gave her a chance to be sure that Finley was doing okay and that the decision to leave consulting was a good one.
“I’ll shoot you a message with my flight info. I think it will work,” Whitt relayed, before dropping off the call and pulling up Expedia. “This is going to be fun.”