The latest instalment from Amazing Grace, the former Lehman Brothers fixed income salesperson who went on to become an exotic dancer (and more), is now available online. Scroll down for Episode 7.
'The financial markets are full of hard luck stories these days, so I thought it only right to share my experiences.
I joined Lehman Brothers straight out of college in 2004. Although I didn't really know what I was getting into, a friend of mine worked for the firm, and there was a vacancy in fixed income support, so I tried out for it and lucked out. When it came down to it, however, the job was really nothing more than a glorified PA, as I ran around photocopying things, and undertaking menial tasks like going out to get lunch for busy traders.
After a while, however, I started to get into what I was doing, and learning the lingo. Gradually, I learned what terms like 'ABS', 'MBS' and 'CDO' stood for (although I never really got what they actually were). In time (after 18 months or so), I even found myself on the telephone speaking to clients, who were eager to buy 'top-rated commercial paper' from the firm. Although nervous at first, I soon discovered that as long as the clients thought they were getting investments which would yield good returns, they didn't mind speaking to a young buck, and my confidence quickly grew. Very soon I had my own small portfolio of clients (mostly smaller clients who no-one else had the time to cover). Anyway, although I was never the best salesperson on the block, I closed several deals and walked off with a decent bonus in 2006 (not huge by any means, but substantially more than I ever expected to earn in any one year).
We hit the ground running in 2007, and, in the first-half of the year, our numbers were strong. Then the fixed income markets began to show signs of stress, and concerns started to grow about a sustained downturn in the US housing market. Investors soon became spooked about the true nature of their promised returns, and the safety of their 'risk-free' investments. The likes of Citi and Merrill Lynch started to post losses on huge asset writedowns, and soon the CEOs of both firms had fallen on their swords. We struggled through into 2008, and there were persistent rumours that Lehman (and other firms) had liquidity problems. In March, Bear Stearns fell into the arms of JPMorgan Chase. And, in September, well, you know what happened to Lehman.
In truth, I didn't even make it through until the September. The appetite for asset-backed securities had already dried up, and I was laid-off a couple of months before. At first, I wasn't that bothered - I fell into the markets by accident, so it wasn't as if my dreams had been shattered. But after being knocked back following several job interviews (both in the industry and outside), I started to panic. The financial meltdown that followed the fall of Lehman had spread to Main Street, and it was proving difficult for a young woman who had little by way of transferable skills to find alternative employment. And, to top it all, my severance (such as it was) had run out.
Anyway, I lived on my savings for a while, then noticed a wanted ad in a women's magazine. An out of town 'dancing bar' was seeking an 'exotic' dancer for four night's work each week. I knew that I could dance, and I wasn't bad looking (and, despite working with a group of lardy traders, I had managed to keep my svelte figure). I kept the magazine, and every few days would pull it out and re-read the ad. One afternoon, after receiving another rejection letter from a would-be employer, I called the number listed, and made an appointment to see the manager of the bar.
To say that it was seedy would be a major understatement. The bar was dark, and the carpets smelled of alcohol (and worse). 'Can you dance ?', the manager asked. 'Sure', I nodded. He looked me up and down. 'You'll do. Be here tonight at 10pm. You'll finish at 2am. $120, plus tips. You should do OK'.
That night I joined the group of women in the back (it was described as a 'dressing room', but was really just a large bathroom with a few dressers pushed together). I was really nervous now, and kept eyeing the exit, thinking that the smart thing to do was just to leave. But, despite my reservations, I stuck with it, and, shortly before it was my time to go on, one of the older 'performers' pulled me to one side. 'You're in charge, honey', she said, 'Remember that. The punters will take advantage of you if you let 'em. But there'll be putty in your hands if you show them that you're calling the shots'.
The next thing I remember was that the announcer was calling my name (I was to be known as 'Amazing Grace'), and I was pushed onto the small stage to the cheers of what seemed to be scores of paying clients. Although they could clearly see me, the bright lighting fortunately meant that I could only see the few at the very front. The music started, and I began my first routine'.
'The truth is, I can't remember a whole lot about that first time. I recall my stomach in my mouth as I was pushed onto that stage. I grabbed hold of the pole, closed my eyes tight, and tried to block everything out apart from the beat of the music. The next thing I remember, the music had stopped, and I was being dragged off stage by one of the security guys.
'You should have taken a fortune', one of the other dancers said to me as I passed by, 'The crowd went nuts for you'. I wasn't sure what she meant, but it soon became clear.
'You f.cking idiot', Chad, the manager of the bar said between clenched teeth. 'Didn't you hear us shouting at you ? You're supposed to let go of the f.cking pole and go shake your stuff up close to the punters. How the f.ck else do you think they are gonna get close enough to stick cash in your panties ?'. I had broken the golden rule, and Chad was really angry. 'God knows why, but those guys were loving you. All you had to do was ease to the edge of the stage and we would've done great'. Chad had lost 50% of what he thought I should have taken in tips (my belief that all the tips I made would be mine was very short-lived).
I was gutted. I felt like I did when I first interned at a Fortune 500 company all those summers ago. I felt intimidated, and useless, humiliated. But I had overcome adversity before, after the company told me that perhaps working in a large corporate wasn't for me, and I would do so again now. Although my first thought was to run away, I knew that I had it in me. I was convinced that I could deliver. And it wasn't just the thought of the money - even in this job, I wanted to be a success.
Although the performers could shower and change on the premises, I just couldn't face it. Chad said that I shouldn't do anymore turns that night, and that I should just stay and watch how the older pros did it. But I didn't want to hang around. Telling him that I'd see him the following evening, I slung my coat over my skimpy costume and headed quickly for the exit. When I got home I spent over an hour in the shower, trying to wash off the smell of that place.
'Didn't expect to see you again', Chad said as he looked over at me when I came in the next night, taking his eyes only briefly off the porn magazine he was 'reading'.
'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong, and all that', I replied cheerily. But Chad wasn't interested. He was back to his magazine.
Things were a little better that night, and I went up three times. After a few more evenings, I started to get used to it. And dare I say it, I actually started to enjoy myself. Strange as it may seem, there was power in it. I realised that, after all those years thinking that lap dancers and their ilk were exploited, it was the punters themselves who were the ones being taken advantage of. They came in in packs, were encouraged to drink themselves silly and, before they realised what they had done, had spent a fortune paying for the odd dance, some 'companionship', or drugs (and sometimes all three). And mostly they were taken for a ride. The 'companionship' usually never led to anything physical (apart from the odd shove in the chest if the punter tried to get too frisky), and the drugs were cut so thin that they would hardly have had any affect. Still, the 'clients' seemed to get off on it. At least they kept coming back.
It was a little over a month after I first started, that the unthinkable happened. I had put all thoughts to the back of my mind of ever coming across any former Lehman colleagues at the bar. In fact, one of the main reasons why I thought it would be safe to dance at this bar was that it was a bit off the beaten track. But I was being naive - most firms had banned their brokers and traders from 'adult entertainment' clubs (especially if they had clients in tow), so these guys took their partying as far away from Madison Avenue as possible. And, that night, this already alcohol-fuelled group had decided to head my way.
'They're a really rowdy lot tonight', Jane, one of the other dancers remarked as she came off stage. 'And loaded - in more ways than one', she smiled at me as she quickly took some of the cash from her panties and stuffed it down her bra. It looked like Chad wouldn't be getting his full 50% that night either.
Anyway, these high-rollers intrigued me. I squinted out from behind the curtain, and thought that I recognised a couple of them. It couldn't be, could it ? Jesus, it was some of the old Lehman crew! Panic immediately set it, but I quickly calmed down. None of these guys were from my business unit. The last thing they would expect would be to see a former colleague strutting her stuff on this stage. And they were so drunk, I was confident that they wouldn't recognise me. And, even if I was found out, did it really matter ? When my turn came, I took a deep breath and went on stage to bring in some cash.
By now, I had become much more adventurous. I was able to use all the talents God blessed me with to extract every last dollar from the punters. I was really into it now, and completely forgot about the Lehman crew. Until I came face-to-face with one of them. 'Grace, you old tart', he shouted. 'You've finally found your true vocation!'. Taken aback for just a moment, I quickly composed myself. 'F.ck off back to your wife, you jerk', I retorted, turning around and pushing my rear-end right in his face. At that moment I knew no fear. I had been recognised, but I didn't care. After all, was my current job any more immoral than my last ? At least now I was taking advantage of clients who mostly wanted to be taken advantage of!
'What was all that about ?', Jane asked, as I came off. 'Oh, just some jerk that I used to work with. Alan something'.
'He's quite cute, though'.
'Still a loser', I replied cattily.
It was almost 3am when I finally came out the side door and headed to my car for the short ride home. And I was tired. But there waiting for me was Alan.
'Hi', he said, looking sheepishly down at his Gucci loafers.
'God', I groaned, 'What do you want, Alan ? I'm dead beat, and want to go to bed'.
'I just', he stammered, 'I just wanted to apologize'.
'Fine. Apology accepted. Goodnight', I replied as I slammed the car door closed and fiddled with the key in the ignition.
'Wait a minute, Grace', he said as he indicated for me to open the window. 'Can't I buy you a coffee, or something ?'
'Not tonight, Alan', I replied as his cell phone rang. 'Answer your phone. Your wife will be wondering where you are'.
'My wife left me months ago, Grace. She doesn't call me anymore', he retorted while he fiddled with his cell phone.
'I can't imagine why', I replied cruelly, 'Who did she go off with - your best mate, or your boss ?'.
'The TV repairman, actually', he said as he turned off his cell, cutting off the incoming call. 'I always wondered why the f.cking TV keep going wrong', he laughed.
I smiled. At least he had a sense of humor.
'When you next on ?', he asked, clearly not put off by feeble attempt at giving him the brush-off.
'Two days. Bring some more cash, and I'll make sure you get a good view!', I teased as I drove off into the night.
I looked back at Alan through the rear mirror. He was quite a sight in his rumpled suit and with his dishevelled hair. But he was kind of cute. I wondered if I'd see him again. These banker types are mostly wimps, though. One put down is usually enough to scare them off. I kind of regretted that I'd given him a hard time. But I was too tired to mull on it very long, and the dancing made you hard anyway. I'd already noticed that I was becoming emotionally detached from reality. Guess it was a survival mechanism.
It was a few days later, and I'd forgotten all about Alan. He hadn't been back to the bar, and I can't say that I was that surprised. I got in early that night and, before I'd even had the chance to dump my stuff, Chad called me over.
'Grace, Grace, can you come into my office please ?, he asked. I was immediately on my guard. I'd been at that place nearly two months and the only time I'd heard Chad say 'please' was when he was trying to persuade one of the other girls to let him have his evil way with her. He could beg all he wanted, I thought, as I followed him back to his office. He wasn't getting anything except a turn-down from me.
'Listen, Grace', he began. 'You've been with us a while now, and you're doing really well. You've got quite a following.......'.
'Forget it, Chad', I interrupted. 'I'm not sleeping with you'.
'No, no, Grace. You've got it all wrong. It's not me I want you to sleep with'.
'What the hell are you talking about, Chad ? Are you on something ?'
'Just calm down and listen, will you', he replied, 'Now, how would you like to make some real money ?'
'Are you offering me a raise, then ?', I retorted.
'In a way, I guess I am'.
'Spit it out, Chad. Just get to the point will you'. I was feeling even more uneasy now.
'Calm down, Grace. I've just got a business proposition for you, that's all', he said as he closed the door to give us some privacy. 'Listen, from time to time, I give some of the best girls the opportunity to make some extra money on the side. I just wondered if you wanted in ?'.
'I'm all ears, Chad. But exactly what do I have to do for this extra cash ?'.
'Well, let's just say that I have a few 'special clients'. And I do favours for them every once in a while'.
The son-of-a-bitch was actually offering to be my pimp! 'Don't you mean you get the girls to do the favours, Chad ? Well, you can f.ck right off. I'm no hooker if that's where this is going', I shouted. 'Just because I'm down on my luck doesn't mean that you can take any more advantage of me than you already are. You're just scum', I screamed at him.
'It's $500 an hour', he continued calmly.
'$500 an hour ?', I exclaimed, 'Do your clients take block bookings ?'. Chad had pressed the right button, after all.
'Well, yeah. But then there's my cut. But this client doesn't want you for a hour anyway. He wants you for a whole night. And that's $3,500, split right down the middle between you and me. A cool $1,750 for you just to do what comes natural, babe. I presume we have a deal', he added triumphantly.
'Chad, if you think that I'm going to spend the whole f.cking night shagging some loser, only to give 50% of the fee to you, you can think again'.
'40%, then', he replied, 'Final offer'.
'25% or take a hike', I quickly came back.
'Done', he smiled. Damn, he gave in far too easily. I knew right then that I could have got a better deal.
'But no kinky stuff', I insisted. 'And I get the evening off this place the day after'.
'Of course, Grace. You'll be treated like a princess now'. He was like the cat that got the cream now.
'So how does this work ?', I asked.
'You'll be picked up outside this place tomorrow night. Just make sure that you're clean. And wear something tasteful. And remember, it's just like the dancing. Don't get too involved with the punters. Always remember it's just a job'.
'Tomorrow!'. My heart was in my mouth. I hadn't expected that I'd have to 'perform' quite so soon. But Chad was a fast worker. He had seen his prey, and moved in quickly for the kill.
'What about the money', I asked.
'Don't worry about that', he said. 'I'll get the money and then sort you out'.
'No way, Chad. You must think I'm really stupid. The guy will need to let me have the cash as soon as I arrive. No cash, no sex. And you'll get your cut from me - after I'm happy with the way things turn out', I insisted. 'But let me be clear. No threesomes, no drugs, no more than once in one night. And no S&M!'.
'Relax, Grace. You'll be fine. You took to the dancing like a duck to water. This will be no different'.
No different. Just a few months before I was working for a top US investment bank, was earning a lot of money and was the envy of my friends. Just look at me now, I thought. I had descended to lap-dancing, and then hooking in short order. Did I have no shame ?
'So just who is this guy', I asked as I headed out of Chad's office. 'And how do you know he will like me'.
'Oh, some hedge fund guy. He's got his own fund, or something. He's rolling in it. Very well connected, apparently. And don't worry, he's seen your picture. He's gagging for it'.
'Well he'll be the only one 'gagging', Chad, as I'm not doing that either! And you've got a f.cking cheek taking my picture and showing it around to your dirty 'clients'!
He laughed, and I left to get ready for the evening's show, having entered into yet another sleazy deal with the Devil.
The chauffeur driven car drew up outside the bar at 9pm the following evening. Although I had serious misgivings, I knew it was too late to back out now. Chad would fire me, and I was already out of cash. In truth, I needed this job. I needed the money, no matter how I had to earn it.
And I was, indeed, treated like royalty. The chauffeur doffed his hat and opened the door for me. As I sat in the back of the limo, sipping champagne and watching the old Nicholas Cage film that was playing on the screen, I wondered what this hedge fund guy would be like. I'd had hedgies for clients before, of course, but this was clearly different. Anyway, I wouldn't have long to find out, as, after just a 20 minute drive, my ride pulled up outside one of New York's finest hotels..........'.
'I expected to be shown straight up to a hotel room but, to my surprise, the maitre'd led me to a discreet table in the restaurant. Sitting there, with his cell glued to his ear, was Alex. Another surprise. The maitre'd smiled and signalled for me to take a seat. I sat down and looked around the restaurant, remembering the last time I was there with a client, some 18 months before, under very different circumstances. Alex looked over at me and nodded, but continued talking in a whisper into his cell.
'Delighted to meet you, Grace', he said after finishing his call, 'I've heard lots of good things about you'. He stood up and walked over to kiss my hand. 'Your photographs do not do you justice'.
I smiled hesitantly. Alex wasn't at all what I expected. He was tall and elegant, and fairly in shape. I guessed that he was around 40, much younger than I assumed he would be. And although not traditionally good looking, he had an aura about him. I had seen that aura many times before - it came from the confidence of knowing that you had power. This was clearly a man used to getting his own way.
For once, I was tongue-tied. I nervously played with my napkin, and looked down at the table.
'Relax, Grace', he said in his New York accent. 'I know that you haven't done this kind of thing before. Let's have some dinner and get to know each other'.
I hadn't eaten that evening, and food was the last thing on my mind. But I nodded meekly, and took the menu the attentive waiter held out for me.
'The food's very good here, Grace. You'll enjoy it'.
'Yes, I know', I replied.
Alex looked up quizically from his menu, clearly taken back that I may have eaten there before. 'Have you been here before then, Grace ? My, you are a dark horse', he laughed.
'No' I lied. 'It's just that this place has a good reputation'. The last thing I wanted was for Alex to know anything about me. I planned to keep the evening strictly business. It was the only way that I knew I could get through it. And I thought that Alex might freak if he knew that I once worked for Lehman. It was just too close to home. As Chad kept reminding me, it was my job to ensure that Alex felt comfortable too. And if he wasn't, there would probably be no repeat business.
Anyway, the first part of the evening passed without incident. Alex was clearly educated, had an opinion on most things and appeared to be on his best behaviour. He was clearly determined not to scare me off. And, I have to admit, he was quite entertaining. He even managed to get me feeling slightly more relaxed. The only thing that irritated me was that his cell phone seemed to constantly ring. He must have excused himself from the table at least six times, as he moved to the corner of the restaurant to take each incoming call. And every time he returned, he seemed to be in an even better mood. I'd seen that look before, too. Clearly things were going his way. He was doing what he loved best - making money.
After a couple of drinks at the bar, Alex suggested that we 'retire' for the evening. His hotel suite was amazing, but I expected nothing less. He offered me another drink, and then suggested that I go to the bathroom to freshen up. It was then that it hit me.
I splashed some water on my face, and found myself staring at my reflection in the mirror. Had it really come to this, I thought. Was I about to hit a new low and, for the first time in my life, actually take money for sex ? I thought about my mother. She's British, and typically rather reserved. What would she ever think if she found out what I was doing ? She would never understand (but, then again, she never understood what I did working in an investment bank!) I sat on the toilet seat, and put my head in my hands. This was the big moment. Decision time. If I was going to back out, now was my last chance. I knew that if I went in that room and took my clothes off, that there would be no escape. I'd spoken to one of the other girls about this, and she said that I'd be at my most vulnerable when I was naked. If I was going to duck out, it would need to be while I still had my clothes on. Once I crossed that line, there would be no turning back.
My mind was in a whirl, as conflicting thoughts came in and out of my head. I needed the money, but I was disgusted at myself. And I kept thinking about my mother. I wasn't sure that I could do it. At that moment, Alex knocked on the bathroom door. 'Grace', he said apologetically, ' I need to pop out for a while. Will you be alright here on your own ?'
'Eh, yes', I stammered in reply, clearly taken by surprise.
'I won't be long. I just need to see someone down in the lobby. Feel free to call room service if you need anything'. And with that, I heard the hotel room door close behind him.
I unlocked the door, and emerged from the bathroom. I couldn't help myself, I started to have a good look around the suite. I looked through the hand-made suits hanging in the wardrobe, noticed the designer shoes and the luxury watch Alex had taken-off and left by the side of the bed. Clearly his visitor was unexpected. Alex had treated me like a princess. He had been on his best behaviour. But, when it came down to it, I knew that, no matter what the consequences, I couldn't go through with it. I don't know why, but I felt compelled to leave him a note, apologizing that I had let him down. I grabbed my purse, and slowly opened the door into the hallway. A quick look out was enough to confirm that it was all-clear, and I headed for the stairs, not wanting to run the risk of bumping into Alex in the elevator on his way back up. I was free, but I didn't feel elated. In fact, I felt guilty that I'd let Alex down. I wondered what he'd think when he returned to find me gone. But I smiled when the thought struck me that Chad would go berserk when he found out what I'd done.
It was two days later, when the pounding on my apartment door woke me up. I looked over at the alarm clock. It was almost three o'clock in the morning. What the heck was all this about ? As the banging continued, I got up sleepily and headed for the door, peering through the spy-hole to see who was making all the noise. It was Alan!
'What the Hell do you want, Alan ?', I hissed, without opening the door. 'And how did you get my Goddam address ?'.
'Sorry, Grace, but your boss at the bar gave it me. He knew that I'd been trying to get to see you the last couple of days, and he's been calling and texting you too. He's worried. He wanted me to make sure that you were alright'.
Chad had been trying to get hold of me, it was true, but I had blocked his calls and texts. I'd not been back to work either. I knew it was all over, and I figured that there wasn't much point listening to him sound off.
'Can you let me in, Grace', Alan begged. 'It's freezing out here'.
I looked around my apartment. It was a mess, and, in truth, I was ashamed that it wasn't full of designer furniture and all the nice things I had when I was working at Lehman. That all went months ago.
'Sorry, Alan', I replied, 'I'm going back to bed. Thanks for checking in on me, though. And you can tell Chad that I'm still alive and kicking. Well, alive, anyhow'.
'Oh come on, Grace', he insisted, 'I've a note from Chad for you. For God's sake, just let me in, will you ?'.
What the heck, I thought, as I took the chain off the latch. Alan was inside in an instant. 'Here's the note', he said passing me an envelope. I quickly tore it open and, to my surprise, saw that it was filled with cash.
'Hey, breakfast's on you', Alan laughed, eyeing the money. I swiftly put it in my purse. 'Thanks, Alan', I replied, 'But they'll be no breakfast this morning. I'm going back to bed'.
'We can do breakfast after bed, Grace', Alan came back. 'Nice try, Alan', I said as I opened the door and pushed him out.
'Look, Grace, can I see you ?, he turned and asked. 'How about dinner sometime ? It would be good to catch-up'.
I looked at him. He was a trier, that was for sure. And he was starting to get me interested in him. There was something about him. And I needed a friend. 'OK, wait', I said, before quickly scribbling out my cell number on a piece of paper for him. 'Call me in a few days. We'll sort something out'.
'You can count on it', he beamed. And I knew that I could.
Closing the door behind Alan, I rushed over to retrieve my purse. Opening the envelope from Chad, I counted out $3,000 - more than I was due for the 'overnight'. I hadn't expected anything. In fact, I was convinced that Alex wouldn't have paid at all, bearing in mind that I hadn't delivered on my end of the bargain. In with the cash was a note in Chad's spidery handwriting:
Here's your money (plus a tip from Alex). He is really sorry for what happened the other night, and wants to make amends. Can you call round tomorrow ? There's more money in this if you want it.
'Grace, where have you been ?', Chad asked as if he almost really cared, 'I've been worried sick'.
'About me, or your 'pension' ?', I retorted.
He smiled and indicated for me to follow him into his office.
'Look, Grace, I don't know what that stunt you pulled on Alex was all about, but all is forgiven now. But we do need to know if you are still up for this'.
'Up for what, exactly ?', I interrupted.
'To be honest, Grace, I'm not sure. Alex seems to have a thing for you. He wants to see you again and start over. And what Alex wants he usually gets'.
'Well he didn't last time, did he ?', I laughed.
I wasn't really sure where this was going. I was happy to continue with the dancing, but I had drawn a line on the escorting. And I made this clear to Chad. It was a self-respect thing; I didn't mind using my body to get money, but I wasn't prepared to sell it. But Chad seemed fine with it - as long as I agreed to give Alex another chance by going on a proper date.
'A proper date ? Let's be sure we understand what that means, Chad'.
'Yes, Yes', he cut in before I could elaborate. 'I understand. Sex not guaranteed. I get it'.
'More like 'sex not likely'', Chad, I continued. 'And the most important thing is that Alex gets it too. Otherwise you'll end up with real egg on your face next time'.
'Leave Alex to me', he reassured, 'He won't be a problem'.
'But what's in it for me, Chad ?, I asked.
'You get to keep your job. And you might even enjoy yourself', he laughed.
So that's how I ended up in the hotel lobby again the next evening, waiting for Alex to take me to his 'club'.
'Grace, you look stunning', he said, rather overdoing it, as he swept through the lobby, kissing me on the hand once again. 'I'm so sorry about the other evening. It's just that I get so wrapped up in work.......'.
I wondered just how long he was away after leaving me in that room. In fact, I started to believe that he had perhaps forgotten all about me!
Anyway, before we could engage in anything more than a few minutes of harmless small talk, the limo pulled up in a rather seedy looking street in Lower Manhattan.
'We need to walk the rest of the way, Grace', Alex said in response to my quizzical look, 'Bear with me, you'll understand in a little while'.
He grabbed my arm and we walked a couple of blocks, until we came to a old hotel which had clearly seen better days. The guy on the desk beamed when he saw Alex, jumped up to pump him by the hand, and quickly led us both out back. From out of nowhere, a door opened in the wall, and we ascended a narrow wooden staircase until we reached a second door that literally opened into another world. My jaw dropped.
'Nice, isn't is ?', Alex said, clearly happy that he had obviously impressed me.
'It's...it's like a casino', I spluttered.
'It is a casino, Grace', he replied, 'But a rather exclusive one. Come on, let's go and explore'.
I'd heard about places like this. Some of the guys at Lehman even said that they had visited them, but I doubted it. These were exclusive private clubs where unregulated gambling took place. They were playgrounds for the super-rich, where there were no rules and no limits. Tens of millions of dollars would change hands during just one evening outside the restrictions imposed by New York's gaming laws. To keep one step ahead of the cops (and the Feds), the 'casino' would spring up in a particular location just for one night, before moving on to the next venue several weeks later. And it was all here. Craps and roulette tables, blackjack. There was even a bar and a restaurant area.
We moved quickly to the restaurant, and were escorted to a discreet table in the corner. Alex was clearly a regular at these events, as he was acknowledged by some of the other gamblers, and greeted profusely by many of the staff.
This guy really was a big-shot, I thought, as I sat across the table from him. You had to be worth a mint to get in with this crowd.
'Why did you bring me here, Alex ?', I asked after taking the first sip from the drink that I'd ordered, 'You don't even know me, yet you risked taking me somewhere illegal. For all you know, I could work for the FBI'.
'Grace, my dear, the risk is all part of the fun', he replied. 'Besides I don't know of too many Feds who go in for exotic dancing', he laughed.
I smiled too. He was an interesting guy. And it wasn't just the money or the power. There was something about this man.
'Let's hit the tables, Grace', he said excitedly the moment we finished dinner. 'Roulette is my passion', he gushed, 'Do you have a lucky number ?'.
'Seven', I replied.
He rushed over to the first table, and a place was immediately found for him to sit. I stood behind him, as was astounded when he threw a thick wad of one hundred dollar bills on the table, which he quickly exchanged for chips which were then all placed on number 7.
'It's not that lucky', I cried when I realised what he was doing. In fact, it was not lucky at all, as he lost the lot. Undaunted, he continued to bet on number 7 until his cash ran out. It hadn't come once.
'Just off to the cashier', he smiled. He checked his pockets again and found a few more bills. 'Here', he said, 'have a play with that'.
There must have been three thousand dollars there, which I quickly passed across to the croupier in exchange for some chips. (It's amazing that $3,000 in my new circumstances seemed an awful lot of money. In the old days, of course, it was the cost of a nice weekend away).
I took $100 and placed in across a couple of numbers. 'Sorry, Madam', the croupier said as he pushed the chips back towards me. 'Minimum bet $500'. My face reddened. I was clearly out of my depth. I decided to wait it out until Alex came back.
Alex returned, and we spent the next several hours jumping from table to table as he continued to place large bets on a variety of numbers. He insisted that he had a 'system', but I couldn't work out what it was, and it didn't seem to be a very good system, as he continued to lose throughout the night. At one point he did win big on number 7, and insisted that I take half the 'winnings'. I put up a token fight, but soon relented. I needed the money, and he could clearly afford it. He was soon back on a losing streak, but it didn't bother him one bit. He wasn't here to win - he was just here to play.
It must have been close to 4am when we sat back down in the restaurant to have 'breakfast'. Alex was in an expansive mood, despite dropping a fortune.
So tell me, Alex', I ventured. 'What do you actually do for a living'.
'I'm an investor, Grace', he replied as he leaned back in his chair and drew on his large cigar.
'An investor in what', I continued to probe, doing exactly what Chad had forbidden me to do.
'Equities....Stocks to you'.
'And you clearly do it very well'.
'Let's just say that I'm very well connected, Grace, and those connections help me make money'.
'You mean like insider trading', I asked in as disarming a manner as I could muster.
That unexpected question threw him. He coughed, and for a moment I thought he was going to swallow his cigar!
'Insider trading', he repeated quietly. 'Keep your voice down, Grace. People like me don't talk about things like that, even in jest. Wherever did you get to learn about that anyway ?'.
'Oh, let's just say that I have some interest in the markets, Alex', I replied coyly.
'Now you are beginning to worry me, Grace', he laughed. 'You have me wondering if you really are working for the FBI, after all'.
When the night was finally over, I insisted on being dropped a few blocks from where I lived. I gave Alex a peck on the cheek. He seemed satisfied with that. He had clearly enjoyed himself, and so had I. As I walked back to my apartment I thought back over the last few months. I had come a long way - from Lehman Brothers to exotic dancing. From investment bankers to hedge fund managers. And now into a world where laws were clearly there to be broken, and the biggest crime was getting caught. I went to bed that morning flushed with excitement. I was living on the edge again, and I liked it'.
Chad was full of beans when I got into work the next evening. He was clearly getting some kind of rake off from Alex, and was determined that I carried on seeing him. I didn't mind that he was profiting at my expense though, as Alex was fun and I'd had a really good time the night before.
'He's loaded, Grace. You know that, don't you ?', he said excitedly. 'And he's dead keen to see you again'.
'Relax, Chad', I replied. 'You needn't worry about your retainer. I dare say Alex and I will hook up again soon'.
I'd got the dancing down to a fine art now. In fact, I was a master. I even looked forward to getting up on that stage and strutting my stuff now. It was good thinking time, as I found that while I was turning on the guys in the audience, I was able to tune out and think about other things. And that night, I found myself thinking about Alex. And I kept wondering if he was married.
While I was holding that thought, all Hell broke loose. It took me a while to realise what was going on, but I first heard the shouting, and then some of the audience jumped up on stage to get out of the way. Finally, the music stopped and the lights came up. And there they were - a group of drunken bankers throwing beer bottles and trading punches. I stood back and watched the fun unfold, and realised that, even though times had been tough for me over recent months, I'd rather be on stage than working in an investment bank. These would-be masters of the universe were wound-up so tight that they simply had to blow off steam every now and then. But they were pathetic creatures; overweight, out of condition and out of control. And as the traders tried to knock seven bells out of each other, even more trouble arrived. Someone had called the cops. There were at least 10 of them, all with guns and all chewing gum. Typically, the traders ignored the warnings, and three ended up being hauled off to spend the night in a cell. Another two were booked for possession of cocaine. Two others ended up in a hospital bed.
Typically, we got closed down for the night, and I was heading back home for a long bath and a good sleep when my cell rang. It was Alan. He'd been trying to reach me for a few days, but I'd avoided taking his calls. I still thought he was an amusing guy, but life was becoming complicated enough as it was. The last thing I needed was to get something going with Alan. But he was persistent, so I knew that I had to deal with this before it got out of hand.
'Hi', I answered, perhaps a little too disinterestedly. I didn't want to come across as being rude, just firm. I had to end it with Alan, even though there was really nothing to end. He was clearly keen to start something, but the time just wasn't right for me.
'Hi', he responded, 'You're a difficult girl to get hold of'.
'Just busy, Alan. That's all. I've just got back home', I said, as I locked up the car and headed across the street.
'I know', he said. 'I can see you. I'm just outside your door'.
I looked over, and there he was, waving at me from under the tree that stood just outside the apartment building. And he had a silly grin on his face. This guy was always just turning up!
'So what happened with Lorraine', I asked as we sat down in my living room to drink some coffee. I kicked off my shoes, expecting a long story. I wanted to get Alan to talk, so that I could think through how to put him off without hurting his feelings. 'Did she really run off with a TV repair man ?'.
'No', he laughed. 'It was actually the cable guy. There was me working all the hours to earn the big bucks for our future, and she was screwing the cable guy. And in my house, in front of my kid!'.
'Your kid ?'. I didn't know that Alan had a kid.
'Yes. He's five years old now. And I hardly ever get to see him. She took me to the cleaners when we got divorced. She got the apartment, the car, the kid. And all I got was the fucking bill and limited access!'.
'Oh, I'm sorry, Alan. I didn't know. What happened to the cable guy. Is is still around ?'.
'Nope, he replied nonchalantly, 'He moved on. It was just a bit of fun for him. But I don't blame him. He didn't cause the split. It was all my fault. I never got the balance right. I became so wrapped up in my job that I just forgot about my marriage. It was an accident waiting to happen. I guess I learned my lesson the hard way.'
Alan had more luck with his career, however. He had the good fortune to secure a new job offer just the week before Lehman filed for bankruptcy. Although Barclays Capital, which took over the firm's US businesses a couple of days after the bankruptcy filing, did try to get him to stay on, he went to work for one of Lehman's bigger rivals, and had been there just a few weeks.
'And how's the new firm ?', I asked.
'It's different', he replied. 'It's not Lehman. It's much more corporate. But it's a job'.
'And the market ?'.
'It stinks. In my sector, there's just no appetite for deals. It's not a good time to be in M&A'.
The more he talked, the more I started to feel more relaxed with him. For the first time, I thought that I was seeing the real Alan. The more we talked, the more he let his barriers come down. All the bullshit evaporated, and there before me was just an ordinary guy, as vulnerable and as hurt as the rest of us.
As the night started to turn into morning, Alan and I continued to talk. And we had graduated from coffee to wine. I can't blame the drink, though, for what happened next, for we were starting to feel more comfortable with each out, and soon began to flirt. Alan then reached over and touched my hand, pulling me towards him. In a moment we were locked in a passionate grasp, and quickly moved on into the bedroom.
Alan was asleep now, sprawled across me. I lay on my back thinking. A few hours ago I was going to ditch him, but now things had changed. I wanted Alan, but I wanted Alex too. In fact, I wanted it all.
'Do you think I'm crazy, Jane ?' I asked.
Jane and I had become quite close over the last few weeks. Although Chad told me never to discuss Alex with any of the other girls, I had to tell someone. Jane was around my age, and had been dancing at the club for a good 18 months before me, so she was more experienced and, if truth be told, had a wiser head than mine.
'Life is always complicated', she replied. 'Even a woman with a good husband, a nice house and beautiful children has her complications. I wouldn't worry about Alan or Alex. Just play it by ear. But don't make any promises you can't keep - to either of them. Otherwise it could get nasty'. It was a warning I would later look back on and wish I had taken more seriously.
'Davos! He wants me to go to Davos with him ?'
'It's some banking conference, or something', Chad replied.
'I know what Davos is, Chad. And it's not just some 'banking conference'.
So that's how I found out that Alex wanted me to spend a few days in Switzerland with him while he attended the World Economic Forum. And although it wouldn't be such a grand affair that year (as many top banking CEOs would remain close to home dealing with the unfolding financial crisis), Davos was still the place to be in January if you worked in the financial markets. I'd never been anywhere near the center of such power before, and the thought was intoxicating. My only concern was that I'd have to lie to Alan about where I was going. I'd been seeing him three or four times a week since we slept together, and I had to find an excuse to explain why I'd be out of town for a few days. I was already having to start covering my tracks. Life was indeed becoming complicated, but it seemed a small price to pay to go to Davos!'
Alex was in an ebullient mood as we headed for JFK International, and he kept talking about 'the big one'. But he was also starting to annoy me with his smug attitude. I forget how many times he asked me just how many hedge fund managers I thought were making money at that moment in time. And predictably, he confirmed that he was one of the very few. These guys have egos as big as houses!
Before we checked in, Alex left me with the luggage and told me to get a coffee and wait for him. He had to meet a 'big' contact, who had apparently come to the airport to discuss some business with him.
'This is the one, Grace', Alex said as he returned. 'Mark my words, in a few weeks I'll be a household name'.
He was off on one again when, incredibly, I saw Alan in the distance, just leaving the airport. The bastard must have been following me! He wasn't happy that I was going away, and I'm wasn't sure that he bought my story that June's mother was gravely ill, and that I was going to New Hampshire to help her through what was looking likely to be a very difficult time. Telling Alex that I need to pop to the ladies room, I rushed off to call Alan and give him a piece of my mind.
'You slimeball!', I shouted into my cell. 'How dare you follow me!'.
'What ?!', he seemed taken aback. 'What the fuck are you talking about, Grace ?'.
'Following me to the airport. That's really low, Alan. I never had you down for a loser like that'.
'Calm down, Grace', he replied. 'I didn't follow you anywhere. I went to JFK to meet someone. And anyway, you're in the wrong terminal if you saw me. Domestic flights fly from Terminal 8!'.
I was on the back foot now. 'Oh, I'm sorry', I apologized. 'I just jumped to the wrong conclusion. It's just one of those silly co-incidences. And yes, you're right, the cab driver dropped me off at the wrong terminal. I'm sorry, I've got to rush, I'm late for check-in now. I'll call you when we land'. I couldn't cut him off soon enough. I felt so stupid and, at the same time, scared that he would catch me out.
But as I walked over to where Alex was waiting, my mind started to process what had happened, and it suddenly dawned on me. Was Alan Alex's 'big' contact. Was he feeding him inside information ? If so, what was I to do, and what kind of mess was I now in the middle of ?
Davos didn't go well. And my opinion of Alex had started to change. He was ever the gentleman when he was trying to woo me (although he had yet to get me between the sheets), but I started to see signs that this man might not be quite the catch I originally thought he was. I called Chad to tell him that things were becoming difficult, but he begged me to stick with it. The last thing he wanted was me ditching Alex in Davos.
'The fucking suite hasn't been been cleaned!', he yelled when we returned after a late breakfast that first morning. Alex was straight on the telephone screaming for the hotel manager, who quickly appeared with an army of cleaners.
'I'm sorry, Mr Raban', the manager said as he entered. 'Please just give us a few minutes and all will be sorted'.
'This is a fucking disgrace!', Alex shouted, his eyes staring wildly and the veins in his temple appearing to stand to attention. 'To think that I'm paying thousands of dollars for this room, and I get treated like this!'.
'But Mr Raban', the manager replied, 'You had the 'Do not disturb' sign on the door. My staff clearly wouldn't have interrupted you to clean the suite in those circumstances'.
'Rubbish!', Alex shouted. 'That's a poor excuse for a pathetic service! I demand to be compensated!!'.
But it wasn't rubbish at all. I remembered that Alex had placed the sign on the door the evening before (clearly hoping that he would be having fun with me!). Alex was making a scene, when it was all his own fault. But he just wouldn't back down and admit that he was wrong. And I wasn't impressed.
Alex soon rushed off to participate in the World Economic Forum, and I was left kicking my heels in the hotel, thus setting a pattern that would last for a few days. I was being truly naive when I thought that I would be rubbing shoulders with the great and the good in Davos. But Alex was full of it, returning to the suite each evening with tales of which global CEO he had met, and who he had added to his rolodex. And I just found myself laying in bed for most of the day, drinking alone most of the afternoon and becoming bored senseless with Alex's stories long into each evening.
My thoughts, however, kept turning back to seeing Alan at JFK. Was it really just all one huge co-incidence, or was something going on between him and Alex ? I wasn't sure. Alan wasn't a bigshot. Sure he'd worked on a few high profile deals while at Lehman (as part of a team), but would he really have access to the kind of information that Alex could use to his advantage ? And why would someone like Alex need someone like Alan ? They inhabited different worlds. Indeed, it would have been a truly strange relationship. But I decided to try and press Alex on his 'contacts', to see whether he'd give anything away that might identify just who was feeding him his inside information. And I didn't have long to wait to get my opening, as Alex returned on the third evening slightly drunk, and clearly in an expansive mood. It didn't take much prompting for me to get him to talk about how wonderful he was, and how he was going to rake in millions from his next big deal.
'I shouldn't be talking to you about all this, Grace', he said as he relaxed with his feet up on the sofa, and a glass of brandy in his hand.
'Humor me, Alex', I said, 'I probably won't understand what you are talking about anyway, but I guess I want to learn something about what you do, and what makes you tick'. I was trying to coax him out by appealing to his vanity.
'Well, Grace', he started to pontificate. 'Life is not a level-playing field. There's always an advantage to be had. And my job is to find that advantage and exploit it. And that's what I've been doing for much of my career'. He kicked off his shoes, and continued: 'Don't let anyone ever tell you that being fair will make you a success. Nothing in life is fair; ask the people in countries in Africa what fair is. Explain to them why they and their children continue to die through lack of food and because of disease, while the West lives high on the hog on a diet of fast food, cable TV and prescription drugs. I learned long ago that being fair would get you nowhere. You need to find an edge. And that's what I do well'.
'But does that have to mean breaking the law ?', I asked.
'The law ?', he sneered. 'Who do you think made these laws ? They were made by people simply to ensure that they themselves retained an advantage. Your so-called laws are not there to protect anyone, they are there to protect the status quo. No, those laws mean nothing. Not anymore. And I am proud that I can flout them so easily'.
'And how do you get an advantage ?', I continued pressing.
'Information', Grace. 'Information. I pay well for information that the general public does not have access to. I get ahead of the curve, out front of the information flow. And that gives me my advantage'.
'Insider trading, then ?', I asked boldly.
'Smart trading, Grace', he replied, 'Just smart trading. And I'm so close to making the big kill, I can almost smell it'.
'The 'big kill' ?'
'Yes', I have a reliable new source who has fed me some very good information recently that I have been able to capitalize on. And this same source has given me another sure thing. I'm so confident that this will mean the big time for me, that I've literally bet the bank. I'm practically all in on it! And I won't have long to wait, as the action is due to go down next week'.
But that's as far as I got. He didn't go into any specifics, and I didn't want to arouse any suspicions by pushing it. I was none the wiser about his mystery informant, although I was a lot wiser about Alex; he was just another big-mouthed, self-righteous, arrogant hedge fund manager who thought that he was above the law and free to operate by a different set of rules than the rest of us. I was beginning to despise him. And needless to say that, as I continued to evade his amorous advances, our time together in Davos became more and more tense.
I was glad to get back at the end of the week, and determined that Alex would have to go. Having said that, Alex appeared to be less bothered as the week wore on, becoming bored when his constant attempts to seduce me were thwarted. I planned to tell Chad how I felt, and either he could tell Alex that it wasn't working out, or I would.
It was as I was approaching the apartment that I saw a figure emerge from the tree outside the building. For a moment I thought it was Alan, and my heart started to beat faster. I had missed him. But it wasn't. It was a woman in her late twenties, and she had a young child with her. Dragging the boy along after her, she headed straight for me, stopped in front of my path, and looked me up and down before slapping me hard across the face.
I was too shocked to react. I just stood there, staring at this crazed woman. 'That's for sleeping with my husband!', she screamed uncontrollably. She let go of the child's hand, and launched a new offensive against me, grabbing hold of my hair and kicking me simultaneously. I'd usually have a pepper spray easily accessible for situations like this (although I'd imagined that I'd first have to use it against a drunken or over-sexed man who'd seen me doing my thing at the club). But I didn't think that I'd need the spray in Switzerland, so I was defenseless as this woman continued to try and take lumps out of me. In the end, it was the tears from the young boy that saved me. The sound of her child crying brought this woman back to her senses, and she was distracted just long enough for me to pull away and run up the steps to the apartment building.
'I haven't finished with you', she yelled as she saw me make my escape. 'You've not heard the last of me for what you've done with Alan!'.
Alan! I stopped in my tracks and turned back towards her. 'What's this got to do with Alan ?', I shouted, already fearing the response I'd get. As I walked back down towards her, I saw that this feisty woman was crying too. I then realised that she was the real victim in all this, not me. I approached her slowly, and touched her gently on the arm. 'You've got to believe me', I said, 'I had no idea that you and Alan were still together. He told me that you split up a long time ago, that you were divorced'.
She said nothing, but nodded and looked down forlornly at her young son. 'Hey, it's cold out here', I said rather impulsively, 'Do you want to come up for a coffee or something ?'. She nodded again, and we all tramped up to the apartment for a more civilized showdown.
Lorraine wasn't a traditional beauty, and looked like she'd let herself go a little, probably since she had her son. But I was unable to recognise the picture that Alan had painted of her. She didn't seem to be the money-grabbing fatal attraction that he delighted in describing. And she seemed at her wits end. Her small hands shook as they grasped the mug of coffee. Sitting in silence for a short while, as Thomas played with one of my old teddy bears, Lorraine slowly came out of her shell.
'He's done this before', she whispered, 'He can't help himself. He's a fantasist. He's sick. I keep trying to get him to go to the doctor, but he won't have it. Every few months he goes off the rails and leads this fantasy life. It's like an escape for him, but it does the rest of us no good. I just don't know what to do', she sobbed.
'So how does he keep his job down ?', was all I could think to ask.
'His job ?', she half-laughed, 'That's a good one. I think that's the problem. Since he left Lehman, he's found it tough. The market is so bad, he just can't find anything. Things started to go downhill for us soon after Lehman went bankrupt'.
'I thought he was at JPMorgan now ?', I asked incredulously.
'I wish!', she replied, 'That's where he'd like to be, but he can't even get through the front door for an interview. They're not hiring in his area. In fact, no-one seems to be hiring in his area'.
'I'm sorry', I said rather lamely, 'I truly didn't know. I guess I just fell for Alan's story. There was really no reason for me not to believe him'.
'Don't worry', she replied, 'You're not the first. I think he's stringing along another dumb female too. I found your name and address scrawled on a scrap of paper he left in his wallet. And there's also a cell number for a girl called Alex'.
'A girl called Alex'. It all fell into place now. Lorraine was wrong about Alex's gender, but she had unknowingly confirmed to me that the two main men in my life were in cahoots.
We swapped cell numbers, and agreed to keep in touch. I wanted to try and help, as it was clear that Alan wasn't well. Lorraine hadn't seen him for several days, and I agreed to let her know when I next saw him. In the meantime, we both agreed that neither would say anything to Alan about us having met. And I said nothing to Lorraine about Alex - that would have been far too much for her to have to deal with. I went over to the apartment window and saw them walking off slowly into the distance. I smiled as I saw that Thomas was holding his mother's hand tightly, and was dragging my old teddy along with the other. I didn't mind that he had taken it. He probably needed it more than I did.
Despite being exhausted from the Davos trip, I found it difficult to sleep that night, as I tried to put all the pieces together. Alan remained married, and my relationship with him was a fraud. That had to end, but I had to do it in a delicate way that didn't make life anymore difficult for Lorraine and Thomas. I felt that I at least owed them that. Alan was also clearly Alex's informant. But quite what information Alan was feeding him was unclear. And where that information came from was another question, bearing in mind that Alan appeared to have been out of the deal action for months. But how was I to confront Alan ? And what of Alex ? He was a nasty piece of work, but looked like he was placing huge bets on unreliable information provided by Alan. I had to let him know, not because I cared about Alex's financial well-being, but because I feared what he would do to Alan and his family if he lost most of his money.
But it was too late. Alex called me later that evening. And he wanted to see me again soon - to celebrate. His ship, he said, would be coming in the next day or so. He told me to watch the financial news for details of a really big deal that would soon be announced which would blow the markets away. And he had take a huge stake in the company being acquired (and had encouraged a number of friends to invest as well), and was sitting back expecting a massive killing. But had Alex been set-up for a fall by a fantasist ?
Tune into the next instalment of 'Amazing Grace' next week.
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