The first day in the New Year the Top 5 Producers board on the trading floor was wiped clean, ready for another year's of intense competition. Willow got back to business straightaway, accounts whose activities had slowed down at year end were gearing up again. January was also an important month for bankers as it was when they received their bonuses. The media had whipped themselves into a feeding frenzy with headlines like how many $100m bonuses would be paid; how BMW opened a showroom on Wall Street so the rich bankers would only need to walk a few steps to spend their hard earned cash; and how Manhattan real estate prices rose 3.2% in one quarter when the rest of the state dropped by the same percentage.
Willow's contribution to the economy was modest in contrast. She had wanted to splurge out on Tara, but her lover refused. Tara pointed out that she'd had enough of business dining at upscale restaurants and $3,000 bottles of Pétrus was not her style. If they were to celebrate, she wanted someplace cozy where they could be themselves.
"I have a better idea," Willow said.
"As long as it isn't one of those boot camp places where they serve you one slice of pineapple for breakfast and expect you to drink ten liters of water the rest of the day."
"No, the only whipping in these parts are done by me."
There were benefits to having the right connections. Tara made one phone call and in the morning they were on their way to the Hamptons, an overnight stay at a spa resort arranged. Over the next two days they were oiled, kneaded, stroked and pampered. In the evening they would retire to their room, with its own spa facilities, and repeat the experience - with each other.
Invigorated, Willow returned to the office early on Monday to catch up with Simon on the Tokyo desk. The floor was empty at 6am, most of her co-workers didn't start filtering in till 7am. She was concentrating on work, but gradually the sounds of sharp voices could be heard from one of the private offices. At first she let the words drift over her, but they grew louder she couldn't ignore them.
"I think we're finished here," Patrick's angry voice suddenly pierced through the quietness when he opened his door.
"Oh, I'll be back," his visitor replied coldly. At the corner of her eye Willow made out the form of the divisional chairman, someone who she thought played a figurehead role rather than get involved in day to day operations.
After the silver-haired man left, Patrick savagely slammed one hand against the wall, and Willow thought she heard bones break. Only when he turned around did he see her, his flushed face easily betraying the level of his frustration. Willow merely raised one eyebrow in a silent question of concern. He acknowledged that with a small nod of the head and mouthed one word, "Politics."
They had worked together long enough to understand each other. Willow knew he would tell her if and when the time was right, just as he knew that she would not mention the incident to anyone that could compromise him in a professional capacity. She was the least manipulative trader he had ever encountered and would not think of utilizing potential embarrassing indiscretions for her own personal gain.
He returned to his office, not to emerge for a whole day; she returned to making markets.
Trouble was, trouble, like buses, never came in single doses.
A letter concerning Richard Wilkins' account arrived on Willow's desk. After careful perusal of the legalistic and jargon-filled document, she concluded that it related not to his personal account with her, but was meant for his holding company. Another bank's jurisdiction. By that time, she couldn't forget that it confirmed the sale of the GlamKat by Spike B for the princely sum of $1, which was transacted before his demise and was done through the parties' respective companies. It was not unusual for sales to be transacted for nominal amounts, but Willow couldn't quite see the logic or reason behind the sale. It wasn't her business though, and wasn't suspicious enough for her to report it to the appropriate authorities.
A few days later, a deposit of $375,000 was made into Wilkins' account from his holding company which was also his official employer, being "bonus for the purchase of GlamKat Inc." Again, the amount of the bonus was not overly suspect, however she couldn't shake off the feeling that something wasn't quite aboveboard. She couldn't ask him about it since it would reveal that she had knowledge of the GlamKat sale.
Over the next few weeks, she kept a vigilant eye on the transactions in his account. Individually none of them stood out, considering his wealth and his having declared to be an experienced investor. The sum of all parts though, painted a spurious picture. There were irregular deposits of varying amounts, cash or money order. When a particularly large amount came in, she took the opportunity to call him on the pretext of asking what he wanted to do with the sum.
"Nothing," he answered.
"At least put them in T-bonds, Mr Wilkins," she said. "All this cash sitting idle, it's not generating any income for you."
"I may want the money quickly. I'm looking at a few things, but nothing strikes my fancy at the moment."
"In which case I'm going to suggest weekly time deposits. At least you're getting some interest."
"If a deal comes up, I'll need the funds sooner than one week."
He was reluctant to agree to the vehicles she suggested, so she backed down. But the incident was noted at the back of her mind.
When he finally instructed her to move the millions, it was to purchase bonds originating from Eastern Europe. A high risk region though, in the game of risk vs. return, becoming increasingly popular with investors. Some countries emerged from the remains of the Soviet Bloc better than others, but not the two countries he was interested in: Bulgaria and Albania. She agreed to the Bulgarian holdings, but politely informed him that the Bank could not hold the Albanians. She also informed him that due to the increased risk exposure, there would be additional transfer fees, but he was so unconcerned about the cost that it triggered more alarm bells in her head. One of the red flags in her Anti-Money Laundering manual was a client who never questioned fees. Though many individuals were money insensitive, it could also be a sign that more importance was placed on enabling the flow of funds rather than the costs associated.
Two weeks after playing the bond market, he came up with another slightly unusual investment angle. Several wires were made to art galleries and auction houses. Again, not unheard of, for a wealthy individual to purchase art; but these wires were made to and from the galleries within a short timeframe. Another reason to call him.
"It's the newfangled thing, Willow. Investing in Art. I'm a long term collector, and I've just been invited to become a partner in an art gallery. Have to get your foot in the door before they get too famous or die! Well gosh, I don't want them to die, although we all die eventually; but that's when their worth goes up." She didn't know if his jovial uncle act was deliberate; she suspect it was to hide a shrewd and calculating mind.
"Yes of course. We have a small team based in Switzerland looking after that area. Do you want to get in touch with them?" Investing in fine art and vintage wine was indeed a new trend, it was also one of the best way of laundering money.
"No, I don't want that. I want to stay closer to home. I've been asked to sponsor the works of some talented artists - local, American artists," he emphasized. "Nurture talent, be a patron to the arts, may be help a philanthropic foundation or two, I can't ask for better publicity."
She couldn't find fault with that.
On the home front, things couldn't be better if she were a character in a romance novel. They didn't make big plans for Valentine's Day, since it was a weekday and, like all holidays, a busy time at the club. On a practical level, restaurants and florists took this opportunity to jack up prices, and there was nothing romantic about the blatant commercialism that assaulted them in the run-up to that day.
"If everyone contributed what they'll be spending on flowers and chocolate and fancy meals to charity, the world will be a better place." Tara was in a wistful mood as she was dressing for work.
"My world is a better place with you in it." Willow sensed Tara's melancholy and had quickly stepped in behind her. She was relieved that Tara relaxed as she put her arms around the blonde and rested her head on tense shoulders.
"How did I live without you for so long?" Tara sighed.
Willow kissed the answer into Tara's skin.
Later, she waved to Forrest and stepped into the dark club, already heaving with activity. There was a sensual air in the atmosphere, because of the day's theme. She hadn't told Tara that she was coming, wanting it to be a surprise.
"Willow!" Kendra, who was working reception, shouted a greeting. She was dressed like a early twentieth century cigarette girl, in a short skirt and fishnet stockings. Around her neck was a tray selling candy tobacco. They were doing Casablanca night, with hostesses in either raincoats, fedora hats and very little else or skimpy versions of Ingrid Bergman's suits. Willow had gotten used to the racy outfits; once she got to know them personally the costumes became just that - uniforms required for a job.
Perhaps infected by Tara's earlier pensiveness, but she felt cold and alone. Suddenly there was too much seduction, too much debauchery, too many liberties being taken. When she saw April sitting on the lap of a very drunk, bloated man and smiling emptily while he fondled her, she had to fight back nausea and the urge to pull her off him. Wrong night to come to this place.
The club was filled to the brim with revelers. She waved to the bartender who magically produced a stool and managed to squeeze her into a space at the corner of the bar. A heavy tumbler containing a double shot of Laphroaig was placed within easy reach.
She felt the same cold chill she felt before, one that she hadn't experienced for a long time. Since the time I saw Tara on stage and we danced in the Garden of Eden. Oh shit.
Tara had practically stopped working 'front of house' since they became a couple. It also coincided with Katrina's death so Willow wasn't sure if that was also a contributing factor. They had been so happy enjoying the beginning of their relationship that she hadn't had time to reflect on how she now felt about Tara's job. A part of her still regarded being a hostess-dancer as degrading and one step short of prostitution. Somehow in her mind Tara was excluded from that category, which was a dichotomy. How could she love Tara as Tara; yet feel disgust over Tara's job? It was more than jealousy - she didn't want to stop touching Tara because someone else had touched her; she didn't want to think that Tara had any reciprocal feelings toward the clients she interacted with. It was ridiculous, but these misanthropic thoughts did occasionally float unchecked from her subconscious.
"Hey, love. I wasn't expecting you," Tara had come up to her side without her noticing, looking lovely in an elegant vintage evening gown with her hair up and a sapphire pendant nestled in the hollow of her throat.
"You look beautiful." Willow ran the back of her hand over the silky fabric. "Are you on stage tonight?"
Tara smiled. "No, I don't like working on the floor anymore. Doesn't seem ... right. But there's a stomach bug going around and I'm on standby."
Willow kept her eyes on her drink, not trusting her initial reaction to Tara's statement. It was perfectly reasonable, and yet ... "Say no," she said suddenly.
"I don't want you to go on the stage. Not tonight. Not ... ever."
"Why? And why now?"
"Will? Talk to me."
Willow suppressed the tears and queasiness of a mad panic building from the bottom of her gut. "I don't want to share you. They look at you, I can't stand it."
"We've talked about this before, I didn't realize it was a problem."
"I know it's wrong and I'm being selfish and totally unfair! It hit me tonight, that I love you too much, it hurts. I was sitting here, and I couldn't breathe, like the whole room was closing in on me."
Tara's eyes narrowed, then her expression softened. "Wait here," she instructed.
"I'm sorry," Willow sniffed.
"Don't move. I'll be back in a minute. And Willow? Don't you dare touch that drink."
Willow's heart didn't stop pounding, not until Tara came back a few minutes later, her coat on her arms.
"Let's go home, Willow Rosenberg."