Read an Excerpt
A homeless man found the body.
It was New Year’s Day, and George Lawrence Fullerton IV was up early, rooting through a Dumpster in an alley near the Cambridge Common, searching for any item of value that could be exchanged for a nip of something to seal out the cold. He generally stuck to the tonier neighborhoods across the river in Boston for his treasure hunts -- Beacon Hill, Back Bay -- but he made a tradition of starting the new year in Harvard Square, close to the familiar red bricks and cupolas of his alma mater.
He poked through the trash using an elegant ebony walking stick. The stick had been an exceptional find, requiring only minor repairs to make it whole. He had reattached the handle with black electrical tape, a neat fix that was barely noticeable to the casual observer.
Skillfully, he swept the top layer of trash over to the side of the Dumpster, revealing a woman’s foot, shod in a red high-heeled sandal, protruding from a heavy-duty brown garbage bag. The lifeless flesh was so pale it looked blue. The toenails were painted gold, but the chipped polish needed touching up. Tacky, tacky, tacky, George remarked to himself. His nanny had always said that good grooming was a mark of good breeding. The garbage bag was nestled between a pizza box (empty) and the shell of an aged television set (worthless).
George stopped his digging to consider the foot. He was not shocked -- years spent sorting through other people’s rubbish had schooled him well in the seedy ways of the world. He often thought that he could write a book about the things people discarded. A modern anthropologist. He imagined himself holding forth from a lectern, an audience of students entranced by his brilliance. And, of course, his dapper demeanor and flashing wit.
He used the tip of his walking stick to lift the edge of the bag and peer in for a better look at its contents. The bright winter sunshine illuminated a woman’s body, folded at the waist and clad in a small dress of one of those synthetic materials that George refused to have anywhere near his own skin. Her head was pushed against her knees, and George wondered at the dead woman’s flexibility. He couldn’t even touch his fingers to his toes when he did his morning calisthenics. Her platinum-blond hair gave way at the roots to a coarse brown, and the sliver of profile George could see was garish with makeup.
George cast an indignant look around him. No matter what he did, this body would be the cause of great inconvenience in the neighborhood, inevitably disrupting his routine as soon as the sanitation men came around. The police knew him and the handful of others who made their livings from the area’s refuse. He would be an obvious first step in their investigation. After all, the others had neither his degree of intellect nor his well-spoken manner.
The discovery of this body was likely to attract even greater attention than sordid events like homicide usually did. It was the seventh body of a prostitute to be found in a Dumpster in Cambridge in the past year. And there were rumors that the responsible party was connected to the Harvard community in some way. The bodies found previously had been strangled, as had this one judging by the bulging eyes and protruding tongue. He wondered if the forensic team would find the telltale crimson-and-white fibers from a striped wool Harvard scarf around the neck of this victim, as well.
George mulled over his options. In such situations, he generally thought it best to go on about his business and let the police come find him when they got around to it. But on a bitterly cold day like today, a trip to the police station to answer some questions might not be so unpleasant. Some warm coffee, maybe a couple of doughnuts (a plebian treat in which George occasionally indulged), some quasi-civilized conversation. Indeed, the police would be around eventually to see if he or any of the other local residents had seen anything of interest. He might as well make the most of the misfortune.
He straightened up, brushing off his coat (cashmere from Brooks Brothers -- the lining was ripped and the elbows quite worn, but it had still merited rescue from the garbage of Beacon Hill). He adjusted his hat (a perfectly good deerstalker that he’d found in a trash bin the day after Halloween) to its customarily jaunty angle. With purposeful steps, he ventured forth to the nearest police precinct.
He did have a soft spot for doughnuts.
I live a very glamorous life. At least, that’s what you would think if you didn’t know any better.
You’ve probably seen my type before -- striding briskly through airports with a cell phone clasped to my ear, settling into first class as the gateway doors shut. Power breakfasting at New York’s finer hotels with men in expensive dark suits and silk ties. Or perhaps reading the Wall Street Journal in the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car, heading south on the FDR Drive toward Wall Street. You may even have seen me on a recent cover of Fortune magazine, posed in a crisply tailored black Armani with several other Yuppie-types under the caption "Wall Street’s Next Generation: They’re Young, They’re Hungry, and They’re Women."
My father had a copy of the cover blown up to poster size and framed; it hangs on the wall of his office, incongruous next to his numerous academic degrees. The article also inspired a long-distance lecture from my grandmother titled "You don’t want to be one of those career girls, now, do you?" This was actually a welcome change from her usual repertoire, which includes such popular hits as "Have you met anyone nice?" "My dentist has the most handsome new associate," and (my personal favorite) "I just want to go to a wedding before I die."
I am an investment banker for the new millennium. Forget the movies you’ve seen -- Michael Douglas with his hair slicked back in Wall Street or Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. This is a kinder, gentler era. We talk to our clients about managing the transition to a global economy and relationship- driven banking. The partners at Winslow, Brown, the firm I’ve called home for the better part of a decade, espouse diversity and teamwork.
This doesn’t mean that it’s all fun and games. My life is far less glamorous than it appears. I have worked into the early morning hours on more nights, canceled more weekend plans and slept in more Holiday Inns in small industrial towns than I care to count -- standard practice in the business of mergers and acquisitions. Entire months of my life have passed in a fog of caffeine, numbers, meetings and documents.
So why, one might ask, do I do this?
Fresh-faced, newly minted MBAs ask me this question frequently, and I tell them how rewarding it is to counsel top executives on issues of critical strategic importance and to work with sharp, highly motivated people in a collegial environment.
These might be the reasons I joined the firm when I was a newly minted MBA. Why I’m still here, despite the grinding work and red-eye flights, is much simpler.
I know it’s not an attractive answer, but the oversize year-end bonus checks and their promise of financial independence are the only thing that can make hundred-hour work weeks palatable. For me at least. There is the occasional deranged individual who truly loves finance, the thrill of closing a deal and the illusion of power it bestows.
One such individual is Scott Epson, a Winslow, Brown colleague who was sitting next to me this Wednesday afternoon in early January. We were on the Delta Shuttle, bound from New York to Boston, on our way to participate in an annual ritual at Harvard Business School known as Hell Week, when all of the major investment banks, consulting firms and other corporate recruiters compete to lure the most promising students to join our respective companies upon graduation. An advance team from Winslow, Brown had completed an initial round of interviews during the first half of the week, and second rounds were to take place on Thursday and Friday.
I was not sitting with Scott by choice. I had seen him in the waiting area, gesticulating wildly on his cell phone with his customary air of self-importance. I thought that I had crept by unseen, but I was only a few feet down the gateway when I heard his nasal voice behind me. "Rachel! Rachel! Hey -- wait up!"
For a split second I’d toyed with the possibility of playing deaf, but remembering my New Year’s resolution to be a nicer person, I turned around, feigned surprise and gave Scott a big fake smile and wave.
He was weighted down by a bulging briefcase in one hand, a stack of file folders under his opposite arm and a garment bag suspended from his shoulder. His suit jacket hung loosely from a scrawny frame, and his striped shirt was almost completely untucked. If it weren’t for the rapidity with which he was losing his mouse-brown hair, it would be easy to mistake Scott for a high-school student dressed up in his father’s clothing. I knew from a good source that he needed to shave only a couple of times a week.
"Hi," I greeted him when he’d caught up to me. "How are you?" I gave myself a mental pat on the back for the warmth I’d mustered in my tone.
"Busy, busy, busy," answered Scott with an exaggerated sigh. "We were up all night running the numbers on Stan’s new deal. The client has completely unrealistic expectations as to how quickly we’ll be able to close, but of course Stan told him we could get it done."
Stan Winslow is the head of Winslow, Brown’s Mergers and Acquisitions department, or M&A. Scott spends a great deal of time trying to ingratiate himself to Stan. This can be highly amusing to watch, because our trusty leader is largely oblivious to much of what goes on around him. His attention is usually focused on his next golf game, his next martini and his new, significantly younger wife. The primary value Stan brings to Winslow, Brown is his surname (which is, in fact, related to that on the firm’s letterhead) and his overstuffed Rolodex, the product of an adolescence enrolled at an elite New England prep school and a young adulthood engaged in drinking, puking and otherwise bonding with future leaders at Yale.
Scott and I advanced down the gateway together, and he blustered on about his incredible deal and how incredibly pivotal his role in the entire endeavor truly was. I prayed that the flight would be too full for us to possibly sit together. Alas, an empty row beckoned right up front. I slid into the window seat and Scott took the aisle. We put our coats and briefcases on the middle seat as a silent deterrent to anyone who might be interested in sitting there. Not that I would have minded a buffer between us in the form of a disinterested third party, especially since Scott was all ready to settle in for an amiable chat.
"So, Rach," he asked, "how goes it with you? What have you got in the hopper?" I hate being called Rach by anyone but a close friend, and even then I’m ambivalent.
"Oh, the usual." Unable to resist the opportunity to prey on Scott’s insecurities, I mentioned a couple of high-profile deals in progress. "And then there’s the entire HBS effort. It’s a big time commitment but Stan did ask me to take it on -- I couldn’t say no. You know how it is when the partners really want you to do something." I gave Scott my most winning colleague-in-arms smile.
Winslow, Brown was growing rapidly, and to fuel its growth we had intensified our efforts to recruit new MBAs. When Stan asked me to head up the process, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a prestigious role that offered significant exposure to the firm’s partners. On the other hand, I resented that it seemed always to be the few female bankers at the firm who were asked to spearhead such activities as recruiting and training. However, I knew that Scott had been angling for the honor himself, probably because he derived so much of his identity from his own Harvard MBA. It didn’t help matters that Stan seems to enjoy setting the two of us up in competition.
He eyed me with an expression that was either jealousy or indigestion and straightened his tie. It was a nifty little number featuring white whales on a navy background. "Well," he harrumphed. "I guess women have a special knack for that sort of thing, what with all of this emphasis on ‘diversity.’" The way he said diversity made it sound like a curse word, which I guessed it was if one had the misfortune to be born a white male.
"Oh, definitely. We really do have a knack for these things," I agreed innocently. "Well, I wish I could spend the whole flight talking, but I need to catch up on a few things. Do you mind?" I asked, indicating my briefcase.
"Oh, me, too. I’m just incredibly busy. Just an incredible amount of stuff going on."
I pulled some papers from my black leather portfolio, hoping that he didn’t notice the copy of People poking out from the inside pocket. Eager to demonstrate his equal if not superior level of busyness, Scott started punching numbers into his calculator.
I began flipping through my papers, but it was hard to concentrate on facts and figures, much less a stack of student résumés. I had more on my agenda for this trip than recruiting. The best part was Peter, my boyfriend of nearly five months. Peter ran a start-up in San Francisco, but he would be joining me in Boston to attend a high-tech conference. To my utter amazement, not to mention that of my friends and family, I seemed to be in a successful relationship for the first time ever. The New Year’s we’d just spent together had been pure romantic bliss -- a remote ski cabin, very little skiing and lots of snuggling in front of roaring fires. This was in stark contrast to New Year’s with boyfriends past, particularly the New Year’s Eve Massacre three years ago, when my date had taken me to a nightclub and forced me to listen to live jazz as he explained that he’d decided to marry his college girlfriend. Of course, the Valentine’s Day Massacre of two years ago completely trumped the New Year’s Eve Massacre. My date had shown up with his mother, whom he’d surprised with a dozen red roses and a Tiffany heart on a delicate chain. He gave me a pair of mittens.
With Peter, I’d finally stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’d even stopped worrying that I’d jinx everything by referring to him as my boyfriend and making plans more than a week in advance. And I had an elaborate theory of jinxing, one that wasn’t easily discarded. To feel secure, particularly in a relationship with an attractive man, was to invite the wrath of the Jinxing Gods, a nasty pantheon watching from above, taking note of any occasion on which I became too sure of myself and gleefully ensuring that I was punished with an appropriately confidence-depleting blow.
But Peter was honestly what he seemed to be -- smart, funny, handsome, considerate. He even smelled wonderful. The time I’d spent with him had thoroughly vanquished the Jinxing Gods. I’d sent them packing, assured that I was no longer their plaything. The only drawback -- there had to be one -- was that Peter lived on the opposite side of the country. I’d managed frequent trips to San Francisco for work, and he had made a number of trips to New York. We’d spent the holidays together -- Thanksgiving with my family and Christmas with his -- and everyone had gotten along wonderfully. Still, being with him was bittersweet, always knowing that it wasn’t long before one of us would have to get on a plane.
At least this time I’d have him with me for the better part of a week. He was due in Boston that night and would be staying on after the conference for my annual reunion with my college roommates, which we always held on the second weekend in January. This year Jane, who lived in Cambridge with her husband, Sean, was the designated host. It was convenient for me since I already had to be in the area. Emma purported to live in New York but had been spending most of her time of late with Matthew, a doctor who worked in South Boston, so it suited her nicely. Hilary, a journalist, didn’t really live anywhere, but she was working on a new project and had said that Boston was exactly where she needed to be for her research. Luisa would be flying up from South America and had recently ended her relationship with her girlfriend of three years; she seemed eager for an excuse to flee any continent on which Isobel lived, regardless of the distance she’d have to travel.