Even after four months, walking through the marble and stainless steel atrium thrilled me every single morning. With so many recent grads still hunting for work and being passed over, having a trader’s desk at Wellborn and Sand was a real coup. I made sure to look the part, even if it ate up a good chunk of my fat check making sure I didn’t wear the same outfit twice. Even if I’d been out until three the night before, I was a slave to my alarm and always set it to have enough time to make sure I’d not have a hair out of place. You could smell the money and power in that place, and I wanted that world so badly I could taste it.
The interview had been grueling. Not only had Mark and Kent Wellborn asked me a series of increasingly challenging questions at warp speed, alternating like cops in an interrogation room, they’d actually sat me down at a desk and had me make practice trades on a dummy account for an hour before making their decision. When I got the call, I knew it meant I was one of the best. They could afford the best. They’d made that clear.
The Wellborn brothers were something of a legend. Their initial stake had come from Daddy, and how exactly Daddy had come by his pile was debated in some circles–some shady doings were more than hinted at–but no one could argue the fact that Wellborn and Sand was consistently making news and breaking records.
Their Midas touch only fueled the hunger of the paparazzi and the rumor mongers, who panted after any gossip concerning the “Brothers W.” Both unmarried in their thirties, they had an air of mystery and unconcern about them that simply fueled the fire. Occasionally, one or the other would be spotted at some society thing. Mark was a supporter of good causes, Kent was fond of skydiving and scuba.
Generally, though, they flew under the radar–the tabloids had never unearthed even the whiff of a scandal, which made them practically reclusive by modern standards. And on the business pages, it had been noted that they ran W and S with iron hands on the reins. In the bars and cafes where traders gathered, they had a reputation as exacting employers, fair but ice-cold when displeased.
I told myself it was the greatest–having this job–that at twenty-three, I’d finally Grown Up. But when I was honest with myself (who has time for that, these days?), I had to admit that a big part of the thrill in my belly when I walked through that ultramodern atrium was sheer terror. One screw up, the talk went, and you were history here–and people would hear of it. Screw ups with W&S seemed to wind up disappearing from the Street entirely; rumor had it that one particular insurance brokerage in South Jersey had become something of a postmortem Limbo where several exiles had gone and spent coffee breaks bemoaning their lost glory.
Besides the fat checks and feeling of being bathed in reflected glory, getting to know Elena had been the only real bright spot. She was a lot more like me than most women our age. Neither of us wanted to find Mr. Perfect and have him spoil us rotten. Both of us wanted to be Ms. Perfect ourselves, building up piles and piles of lovely fuck-you money of our very own so that no man could trade us in for a new trophy and leave us scrambling.
Neither of us wanted to think about what would happen if we ever had to compete for the same prize–Elena was the only woman I knew who was just as driven and ambitious as I was. Since we weren’t competing directly, it was a friendship made in paradise. That was, until yesterday, when I had found Elena sobbing in the powder room lounge.
I’d nearly fainted. She’d jumped like a startled deer when the door opened, and my presence forced her to pull herself together enough to choke out an explanation. “I’m done,” she’d said. “I screwed up, Lori. Big time. It’s going to hurt their bottom line.”
“But Mark likes you,” I offered, trying to be hopeful. “Not after this,” she insisted. My attempted words of comfort did ring a bit hollow in light of the firm’s atmosphere and reputation. Mark was the “good cop” half of the pair, but only as long as an employee was an asset did that factor come into play. Stumble, and you were in Kent’s cross hairs–and then, presumably, in South Jersey.
And today, it would seem, Elena’s execution had come to pass. I made up a reason to walk through her division–not that anyone asked why I was there; they were all glued to their monitors looking busy as hard as they could–and her desk was empty. Blank. Anonymous, as if she’d never been. No one raised their eyes to meet mine.
The icy rock of terror in my abdomen grew and began to throb. And once I returned to my own cubicle, the columns of swiftly moving data that, just yesterday morning, had danced at my command and fit neatly into my calculations seemed to blur, to shimmer. I had to force myself to think. I had Elena’s cell number, and on my first break, I tried it but got only the recording. Not available. No further information.
I pictured her wandering, despondent. I knew how much this job had meant to her. She’d made a sardonic joke yesterday about her future as a bag lady, but I knew she’d throw herself on the train tracks first. My mind was spinning in trapped circles.
Suddenly I got the distinct feeling I was being watched. I glanced around and saw that Kent Chapman, GQ elegant and expressionless as ever, was gazing straight at me from the doorway with a slight frown. Flustered, I let my eyes meet his. Aside from not looking happy, his expression was unreadable. His gesture was crystal clear, though, when he raised his chin and jerked his head toward the corner suite where his office lay. I was summoned, and somehow I doubted the news would be good.
By the time I got up from my chair, Kent had vaporized. To my horror, I realized that the knot of apprehension in my gut had been joined by a new and astonishing sensation–a shiver of heat that tingled right between my legs. I tried desperately to think it away, but the only effect that had was that my mind was all the more intensely focused there as I entered the insanely posh executive suite.
There was a seating arrangement obviously intended for friendlier gatherings, with a buttery leather couch and glass-topped table, but I knew damn well that wasn’t where I was supposed to go. Another head gesture directed me to the simple straight chair directly in front of Kent’s vast and gleaming desk.
“Lori,” he said, his voice ice. “We aren’t paying you to keep your chair warm. You haven’t made an actual trade all morning.”
“I was- um- I have a-”
“You have a fiduciary and ethical duty to this firm that was made explicit in the hiring process. I could not be less interested in the reasons for your nonperformance. I called you in here simply to inform you of the changes that will take place after lunch.”
Oh man. I was toast. History. Put me on a PATH train, I was Jersey bound. “D-d-do you want me to clean out my desk now?” I stuttered.
“No,” he said shortly. “Everything will be attended to. But when you come back from lunch, you won’t be coming back here. Take the elevator all the way up and wait for further instruction. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” This was a statement, not a question, reinforced as he turned away from me and opened his phone.
My cheeks felt as though they were flame-red and my knees were weak. I barely knew how but found myself back in the corridor. Why even have me come back from lunch at all? It would have been so much kinder to let me creep off into oblivion.
I couldn’t eat, of course. I bought a pack of Parliaments for the first time in a year and smoked three, sitting on a bench and staring blankly. Wrapped in fifteen hundred dollar’s worth of next month’s hottest fashion, manicure and makeup, I already felt my inner bag lady whispering her gibberish.