Amanda Martin didn’t believe in casual Fridays.
Sloppy dress, sloppy work, she thought as matching golf-shirt-clad tellers ignored the growing line.
Amanda paused at the door as she weighed her options. How long would it take her to deposit eighty hundred dollar bills into the ATM? Why didn’t Josh have HR cut her a check? Should she just wait it out for a teller? Why did Josh clean out his office? What is in El Paso? Or, who? And, what’s her bra size? The thumping headache from polishing off a bottle of wine alone jumbled her usually decisive thoughts.
“Dammit, Josh,” she murmured.
The line curved back on itself twice and each of the three tellers had four customers before it would be her turn at the window. The envelope of money poked at her collarbone from its haven in the interior pocket of her coat. No matter how she tried to maneuver it to a more comfortable position, the corner of the envelope continued to jab her.
She sighed, it’s probably a sign. Quarterly bonuses were standard for her at the mid-sized investment firm where she worked. But, this was different. It felt like a payoff.
After days of being avoided by Josh in every sense of the word—text messages unanswered, emails neglected, voicemails unreturned and his assistant running interference for him—Amanda strode into his office the previous evening ready to end their relationship. As CFO, Josh kept their office relationship professional, but Amanda found it difficult keeping his behavior at the office from bleeding into the bedroom.
“Who is she?” Amanda didn’t bother knocking; she wanted the element of surprise to catch him with his pants down, literally or figuratively. Instead of finding Josh, either with or without a junior trader, Amanda found his office devoid of the stacks of files that reminded her of a childhood fort. She often teased that he used the piling system, with his desk stacked with an endless amount of paper. It looked naked now. The top of the heavy wood desk sat empty except for a single manila folder that looked out of place without its brethren, like a lost sheep left for the wolves.
Amanda was just able to read that the top sheet was a boarding pass for a flight to El Paso before she heard Josh’s voice outside his door. She snapped the folder shut and marched to the door just as he hurried into his office. No matter how mad she felt, the first sight of his wavy blond hair and light green eyes made her feet go cold.
“Eh, Amanda, what are you doing here? How long have you been waiting?” He pushed past her to his desk and put the folder in his briefcase.
“I just got here. So, what’s in –” Her question about El Paso was smothered by a sudden kiss.
“I owe you an apology,” he said. Amanda glanced behind her shoulder to check his open door for snooping colleagues, but he gently turned her face back to him. “Don’t you think everyone here already knows about us? Anyway, I’ve been distracted with a problem client and haven’t been attentive. Why don’t you pick up some wine and take-out? I’ll be over in a couple of hours.”
Amanda nodded. I’m just being paranoid. He wasn’t avoiding me, he was just dealing with work.
“One more thing,” Josh said, going back to his briefcase. “I almost forgot to give you this. Go buy some shoes and lose the receipts.” He handed her a bulky envelope. She knew without looking that it was filled with cash, lots of it.
“What?” She couldn’t get her question out before his phone rang.
“I’ll explain later. Oh Amanda, please close the door behind you. Thanks, babe.”
After midnight and a bottle of wine, Amanda went to bed with no word from Josh despite the numerous calls to his cell and office. She woke up hung-over and ready to give him her iciest treatment.
Amanda stepped towards the ATM, the line for the tellers having grown in her moment of indecision. Her BlackBerry buzzed as she reached into her purse for her debit card. With her throat cleared, she put on her best professional voice.
“Amanda Martin,” she answered.
“Hello, love, Roland Burrows here with Financial News.”
The smooth British accent of her favorite reporter put her at ease. Her shoulders drooped as she dropped her act. The envelope jabbed into her collarbone.
“How are you darling?” Her animated voice echoed in the cavernous bank lobby. “We need to meet up for martinis soon.”
“Listen, Amanda,” he started, but she was distracted. She loved the way he pronounced her name ending in an ‘er’ rather than an ‘a’ and launched into a catnap of a daydream imagining herself with a British boyfriend after Josh. Her trance soon ended, catching only his last sentence. “So that’s why I was calling, to see if you had any comment.”
Her heart thumped against the envelope when she realized this was a serious business call and not their usual banter.
“I’m sorry Roland, can you say that again? I’m getting horrible reception in here.”
“Right. I just got a tip from someone inside the SEC that they’re pursuing indictments against several executives at Jefferson Williams Investments: chief legal counsel Keith Cooper, CFO Josh Williams and you, Amanda.” He paused. “I’m breaking this story in a few minutes and wanted to see if I could get a comment.”
Amanda tried to breathe, but her throat closed as tight as her French twisted hair. “Roland, I’m going to have to call you back.”
Amanda didn’t wait for a response. She ended the call and dashed out the front door.
The late March freeze accosted her with a burst of cold air as she pushed through the door. BlackBerry still in hand she dialed Josh’s number while navigating the busy sidewalk. The line didn’t ring—it went straight to voicemail. She tried it again. Same result. Third time was no different. Amanda didn’t leave a message. I’m not giving him any opportunity to come up with excuses. I want to hear his reaction. She dialed her office number.
“Diane, it’s Amanda. Transfer me to Josh,” Amanda said, cutting off the receptionist during her greeting.
As soon as the receptionist transferred the call, Josh’s voicemail picked up. Amanda looked at her watch. It was past nine in the morning; Josh was always in early to get a start on the day.
“Dammit,” Amanda screamed at her phone, punching the end button with such force it lodged in the down position for a few seconds before popping back into place.
She moved out of the flowing traffic of pedestrians and leaned against the side of an office building. The smooth granite chilled her through her cashmere coat, the cold reassuring and frightening.
“Think, think,” she whispered. “Ten … nine … eight …” she counted backwards, a trick her anesthesiologist father taught her as a child when thunderstorms scared her in the middle of the night. The raw power from above and the inability to control her surroundings terrified her as a young girl, and even now as an adult, a particularly booming shock of thunder caused a pulse of fear down her spine.
When Amanda got to one, she still faced a catastrophic news story and indictment, but she could breathe. Her BlackBerry buzzed with her office number flashing on the display.
“No, it’s Liz. What is going on? Roland Burrows just called me, something about indictments. Where are you?”
Liz was going to be her next call, but it would also be her toughest. Friends since college, Amanda recommended Liz for a job in the legal department. “I’m on my way in. Can we talk? I’m going to need some help.”
“You’re going to need some help? What the hell is going on Mandy?” Amanda winced at her nickname. “I’m sorry. You’re on your own with this one. I have to comply with investigators. I can’t risk going to jail, especially now that I have Jackson to think about.” Amanda couldn’t fault Liz; the woman threw herself into motherhood the same way Amanda did her career. “I’ll give you the names of good attorneys. I can do that for you, but nothing more. I can’t risk getting dragged into this,” Liz added, softening her voice as if sensing her friend’s defeat through the phone. Amanda heard someone speak rapidly to Liz in the background. “Crap. The story posted.”
“Dammit,” Amanda said, letting her body fall back against the side of the building once again. She wished the building wasn’t there, that instead it was just a gaping abyss that allowed her to fall into nothingness. “What is it I’m being accused of?”
“You manipulated the market through media announcements with false information. A lighter offense than Keith and Josh, but nonetheless, you’re in trouble.” Amanda heard the phone shuffle in Liz’s hand. Her voice was a whisper when she spoke again. “I shouldn’t ask you this, but I need to know. Did you know what you were doing?”
If bad judgment was a crime, I would be guilty as charged. Amanda knew better than to get involved with her boss, but they were a classic power couple; attractive, blond, wealthy and successful. Three years earlier, when her former boss abruptly quit and Josh asked her to dinner to offer the vice president job, she thought her life was on the fast-track she longed for. There she was, at the tender age of twenty-four, given the responsibility heading communications for the company. Initially, she thought Josh’s dinner request was simply a professional courtesy, but after his second invitation she realized it was much more.
Only recently did Amanda suspect something was amiss with the investment firm’s business practices. She remembered innocently asking, “How is it the firm and our clients continue to turn a profit when our competitors are losing money?” She shuddered at the memory of his enraged reaction, “You should never question me, as my girlfriend or my employee. You got that?” he yelled. By the end of his outburst, she feared he would fire her or break up with her, or both.
“I trusted Josh.”
For the remaining ten minutes of her walk, Amanda tried to reach Josh on his cell phone, but each call went straight to voicemail. She left no message, but composed one in her head. What the hell did you drag me into? Is it true? Why did you do it? Where the hell are you? When I find you, I am going to kill you.
Rather than board the elevator to her office, she sank into one of the fashionably uncomfortable, contemporary armchairs in the building’s spacious lobby and stared out the soaring glass wall. The weather outside was clear and bright, completely wrong for the way she felt.
Her ringing cell phone alternated between displaying her office number and various media outlets. After sending the twelfth call to voicemail, she shut her phone off. What did I do? Amanda went over her press releases and statements in her head. All the information came from Josh. Keith had the final approval before she sent out anything over the wire. The long hours she put in to get everything right, the dinners with friends and family she canceled to answer to the media’s beck and call, and the lies she inadvertently told—they only lined the pockets of Josh and Keith. And, mine. That’s the reason for the bonuses, to keep me happy. No amount of blinking could stop the fresh tears from springing.
Unable to sit there any longer, she boarded the elevator for her solitary ride to the forty-second floor. When the door opened, she saw a flurry of activity, but Amanda couldn’t become part of that. Her colleagues were accustomed to the unflappable Amanda Martin, the one who could handle the toughest question from the harshest reporter. Not the woman standing outside the office with mascara running down her face.
Inside the ladies room, Amanda stared at her reflection. Her normally porcelain skin was gray, her hazel eyes were bloodshot and her carefully applied makeup was gone. Before Roland’s call, she was an average ambitious businesswoman who was dating, or maybe just sleeping with, her CFO. She felt untouchable as one of the highest-ranked executives at the firm. Now, she just saw a haggard-looking criminal. Her eyes fell to the brown roots fading into her straight blond hair flawlessly twisted back. No need to keep her hair appointment for that afternoon. Chances were there would be no salon services in the federal penitentiary.
Leaning against the bathroom wall, she heard the elevators on the other side whooshing past her. The mechanical whir of the motors and the hum of the cables put her in a trance only interrupted when a ding sounded on her floor. “Josh. Finally,” she whispered as she hurried to catch him.
Amanda stepped through the heavy glass door of her office lobby just as she heard a man ask for her. Instead of Josh, she saw the back of an older gentleman, clad in khaki pants and a windbreaker standing in front of the receptionist. With a backpack slung over one shoulder and a baseball cap covering his white hair, he looked as though he should be heading to college instead of a retirement home. The woman motioned to Amanda’s office as she tried to answer the constantly ringing phones.
He thanked the receptionist, pulled a pistol from inside his backpack and shot her in the head. The phones continued ringing as though nothing happened. Some of the traders in the cubicle area stood up at the sound of the gunshot, and he emptied his magazine on them as though they were ducks in a video game.
Amanda’s office door swung open and Liz froze in the threshold.
“Amanda Martin?” the man asked, casually reloading his gun.
Amanda could see the fear in Liz’s eyes ten feet away. Liz shook her head, “I have a son.” Her voice was soft and weak.
The man was unflinching. “I have a wife who is very sick. My retirement fund was going to make her better, until some greedy bastards stole it all. She’s going to die and so are you.”
“I’m Amanda Martin,” Amanda shouted at the man’s back, but her voice vanished in the thunder of his gunshot. She watched Liz crumple to the floor. Amanda felt her own body go numb as she released the death grip on her purse and phone. She covered her mouth to stifle her scream.
The man reached into his backpack and pulled out a grenade.
“A few weeks ago, I called Williams about cashing out my retirement fund to pay for my wife’s cancer treatment. He gave me the runaround: forms, taxes, bullshit. I knew something was fishy, and I was on my way down here to have a little chat with Mr. Williams when, guess what, my wife called to tell me he’s been indicted for stealing people’s money,” his commanding voice presided over the screams. “I’m not here to hurt everyone. I want Josh Williams and Keith Cooper. If you can point me in their direction, I’ll finish what I came to do and leave.” While he said this, he tossed the grenade up and down in his hand, toying with it like a tennis ball.
Liz’s outstretched hand beckoned Amanda, but she would be shot if she moved in plain sight. She edged over to the receptionist desk and sought cover under the heavy brown wood.
The man quizzed her colleagues as to the whereabouts of her co-conspirators, but she couldn’t register what he said. With each blast from his gun, her ears rang louder, muffling his voice. She didn’t see him pace the office; instead she focused solely on the body of her friend.
Please be alive, please be alive … Amanda mouthed silently.
“It’s clear you are all in this together and therefore, all guilty. You have until the count of five to tell me where they are, or we’re all going up together. I’ve got a bag full of grenades, and I’m not afraid to use them all. Got that?” the man bellowed over the startled silence of the office.
Amanda got up on her haunches to make her way to Liz, but a rush of blood to her head made her dizzy. No matter how much Amanda commanded her body to take deeper, slower breaths, it wouldn’t comply. She steadied herself.
“Ten … nine … eight …,” her quivering lips barely moved.
The man began his count much louder. “One,” he boomed, the pin of the grenade clicked out of place. “Two … three …”
They reached “five” at the same time. When the grenade went off, it knocked her backwards against the swinging glass door. A second blast forced her against the door again and this time pushed her all the way through. When she opened her eyes, fire blazed through what used to be her office, and a heavy breeze blew through the blown-out windows of the forty-second floor. Papers floated like soft snowflakes. The piercing screech of the fire alarm joined the ringing in her ears. Her hand automatically felt her body, acting purely on instinct to make sure she was still in one piece. When her right hand moved over the breast of her coat, the envelope inside gave a little jab signaling it was okay. Amanda decided to move.