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Overseas(3)
Beatriz Williams

“Charlie, for God’s sake.” I said it too sharply. I sensed Charlie’s body locking into place, fingers clenched around the ball.

“Oh, dude”—his voice thinned with dawning apprehension—“you’re not gonna, like, report me or something?”

“No, no. Jeez, Charlie. It’s okay. All fun and games.”

His hand slackened; the ball went back in the air. “You seriously don’t think you’re good-looking, though?” he pressed, relieved, apparently, that he wasn’t about to be hauled up in front of a sexual harassment tribunal. One torturous day of our new analyst orientation three years ago had been devoted to gender sensitivity training, as if we hadn’t had enough of that in college already. Not that most of my colleagues cared much. Anyone who was going to hyperventilate about the crassness of the investment-banking atmosphere did not, ipso facto, have the necessary cojones to kill your career.

“Well, I’m okay, I guess,” I said cautiously, catching my reflection in the sterile blue glow of the computer screen.

“Dude, give yourself some credit. You rock the whole sexy librarian thing.” He leaned back in his chair, propped his oily black shoes on the gleaming mahogany. “I mean, no offense.”

“Sexy librarian?”

He shrugged. “Some guys love that shit.”

“You’re so full of it.”

“Full of what?” He leaned forward, grinning. “Come on. Full of what, Kate?”

The first thing you learn on Wall Street: just play along. “Full of crap, Charlie.”

“Kate! Did you just swear?”

“Crap doesn’t count.”

“Sure it does. It’s like shit for wusses.”

“Deep, Charlie. So Harvard.”

“Kidding, Kate. We all love how you elevate the fucking tone around here.”

“Any time.”

“That prim Wyoming shit…”

“Wisconsin.” I lifted the cup to my lips.

“Whatever. Just remember what I said, when Laurence… Oh, fuck.” Charlie heaved his feet off the edge of the table, nearly toppling in his chair. “Here they are.”

I jerked to attention, with a splash of scalding coffee against the back of my throat. My hand stole up to rip the elastic from the twist at the back of my head, leaving only a skinny tortoiseshell headband to keep my hair in place; not exactly the polished professional, but at least not—thanks, Charlie—librarian manqué. Had I remembered the lip gloss? I rolled my lips together. Slightly gooey. Check.

Alicia entered first, mouth twitching irrepressibly, jacket unbuttoned to reveal an aggressive bronzed cleavage. Her voice cascaded with false regret. “Kate, there you are. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

The strangest feeling: vertigo, as if the entire broad carpeted floor had fallen away beneath my feet. “Leave?” I demanded, in undertone. “What do you mean, leave?”

“I’m so sorry. We had an extra ChemoDerma guy show up.”

“What about Charlie?”

“He stays. He’s just, you know, a little more professional.” She mouthed the last word with relish, hardly bothering to disguise her smile.

I’d had many revenge fantasies about Alicia. My favorite had her going rogue and blowing up the bank in a spectacular career implosion, like Nick Leeson with an industrial-strength push-up bra. Except she didn’t work on the trading floor—no math genius, Alicia—and my joy in her demise would be obscured by the fact that most of my 401(k) was held in Sterling Bates stock. Oh, and I would also be out of a job. Still, her public disgrace had been enjoyable to contemplate in the comfort of my cubicle at three o’clock in the morning: a guilty pleasure for which I usually repented in the light of day.

Not anymore.

I stared at her, only dimly aware of the dark-suited figures streaming through the door, filling the room with affable chuckles. “Okay,” I said. I turned to Charlie. “It’s all here, ready to go. Watch out for the new revenue numbers.”

“Dude,” he moaned.

“Don’t worry. Alicia’s doing all the talking. I’ll be in my cube if you need me.” I picked up my laptop bag and walked to the door—past Banner, with his craggy overtanned face and emollient smile; past the ChemoDerma CEO, frowning quizzically; past two or three men who must have been from Southfield. The last one turned his face as I walked by, flashing me a lightning impression of startled eyes and bright extraordinary beauty, but I didn’t even pause. I could just hear Banner introducing us: And these are our hardworking analysts, Charlie Newcombe and Kate Wilson, who put the presentation together for you folks. Um, Katie?

The door closed behind me, cutting him off.

I WENT DIRECTLY TO MY CUBICLE, as I’d promised Charlie, and kept my phone poised next to me on the desk. I had nothing to do; my laptop was in the conference room two floors above me, delivering the presentation.

I should have been grateful. I had never grown used to meetings like this one, always hovering on the brink of some disaster: six-inch-high spelling errors projecting on the screen, mislabeled graphics, pie charts whose numbers clearly didn’t total to 100 percent. Revenue projections pulled out of thin air, neat and pretty and so completely freaking bogus. Ideal target practice for sharp-witted hedgies.

But this wasn’t much better, this unnerving idleness, this queasy suspicion that I was missing a deadline or failing in some critical responsibility. I reached out restlessly with one hand and traced the edge of the framed photo on my desktop. Nothing too revealing, just Michelle and Samantha, standing in front of Neuschwanstein at some point during our post-college Eurail trip. Samantha’s arm looped around Michelle’s shoulders, pulling her off balance; Michelle’s fingers stuck up above Samantha’s head with the obligatory bunny ears. They were probably hungover. I was pretty sure we’d spent the previous evening at one of the Munich biergartens. Or three. A lifetime ago, it seemed; I narrowed my eyes and tried to recall the laughing Kate who had taken that photograph, compare her to the suit-swathed creature I inhabited now. Manhattan Kate, impermeable investment-banker Kate.

Eventually I rose to use the bathroom; not because I needed it, but because it was something to do, however brief. I lingered as long as I could at the black marble sink. I washed my hands with scrupulous care, chased away each tiny droplet under the hurricane draft of the hand dryer, twisted my hair back into its elastic. My face gazed back at me from the mirror, heavy and troubled, unrecognizable.

I picked up my silent BlackBerry from the counter and made my way back through the maze of identical heather-gray cubicles to my own, where I stopped short.

A tall lean man stood there in perfect stillness, resting one hand on the back of my chair. His curling hair gleamed dark gold in the remorseless office lighting; his back, broad and immaculate, bent forward a degree or two toward my desktop.

“I’m sorry,” I snapped. “Can I help you with something?”

He straightened and turned to me. “Kate,” he whispered.

I flinched in shock. The man was beautiful, unutterably beautiful. His face bore the implausible symmetry of a classical sculpture, almost exotic, with wide vivid eyes that absorbed me greedily. A yellow Sterling Bates visitor’s badge hung from the right lapel of his suit jacket, or I might have thought I was hallucinating.

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