Vanessa absently watched the young female receptionist, typing away at a liquid pace on the other side of her fortress of a desk. The tall wooden edge revealed only the top of her head, a perfectly formed bun moving in time with the typing. Trying to suppress the tremor in her voice, Vanessa stood and quietly asked, “Did they tell you what this was about?"
“Like I said earlier, Mrs. Cooper, they just asked me to arrange a meeting with you and the partners.” Vanessa couldn’t help but notice how her typing speed never dipped below a cool and efficient 100 words per minute, eyes locked on the screen as she answered. “Mr. Sutton will be arriving at the helipad any minute now and I’m sure they will call you in then.”
Vanessa took a seat once again, nervously adjusting the hemline of her skirt. Displayed on the table in front of her was a spread of the most recent trade magazines. Practical Accountant. Global Finance Monthly. Accounting Today. Resting on top, gracing the cover of Bottom Line Weekly, was a smiling picture of Mr. Sutton himself. Vanessa reached forward and flipped the magazine over. It was the smile that put it over the top for her; that toothy, knowing smile. It was the very same look she saw him wearing when she imagined him spending the money that was missing from the executive account.
Her cell phone began to ring, a cheerful tone disrupting the emptiness of the windowless room. She rushed to pull it out of her purse to silence it. It was her husband. He was probably just checking to see what time she was coming home tonight. Either that, or her mother had had another accident. If they had been able to afford a hospice, she told herself, everything would be so very different. She silenced the phone, shut it off, and shoved it back in her Coach bag. God, she shouldn’t have bought that bag. It was a gift she had bought herself after having restricted her spending for the past seven months. Yes, it was an expensive gift. A splurge that she knew she didn’t really need but that she had really wanted; a choice that she had made to prove to herself that the money she was earning was in fact her own to spend. She justified the purchase by telling herself that she was simply maintaining an image of success. People wanted to work with and be associated with successful people. Besides, she deserved it. She had told herself that she had deserved it, but lately, every time she looked at it, all she could think of was how much it had cost.
She had sacrificed so much to get where she was today; time with her family, vacations, having a the second child they had wanted. Vanessa had faithfully worked for the firm for the past 15 years, finding tax credits where others had failed, correcting errors that her colleagues had made, all the while being the breadwinner in a home trying to keep up with the emotions of a 17 year old daughter. They had bought her a used car last month, this easier to justify than the Coach bag; still, a splurge they thought they could afford. True, it would make it easier for her to get to school, get to her extra curricular activities, and, more importantly, get a part-time job. But, all of those excuses rang just as false now in this waiting room as the cheery cell phone tone had moments earlier.
Vanessa couldn’t help but question how it was that she came to be here. Her employment in the company had been stellar. She had worked her way up within the accounting firm, gaining more and more responsibilities, all the while managing to maintain a promise she had made when she started to never compromise on her ethics. This was a code she had been told time and time again would have to be broken if she had wanted to succeed in business, especially as a woman. This promise had been tested over her time spent at the firm. The exposure of several smaller clients’ shady accounting discrepancies to her superior branded her with the label of being too straight laced; unapproachable. Either way, she was eventually placed in charge of managing the firm’s internal executive account. What began as a tremendous honor, became a source of anxiety the moment she discovered the discrepancy.
What appeared at first to be a simple accounting error, after some digging, was revealed to be a much bigger problem. A large amount of money was actually missing from the account, not just miscalculated. After several weeks of work, she managed to locate the missing funds, or at least the moment of their departure, through several discreet transfers out of the executive account and into several offshore accounts owned by the firm’s very own Mr. Sutton. She had reported her findings to her supervisor and was met with a cold response; it would be handled.
“Mrs. Cooper. They will see you now.”
It took a moment for Vanessa’s eyes to adjust to the brightness of the boardroom, the floor to ceiling windows revealing an unparalleled view of the surrounding city in midday sun. A table off to the side had been stocked with a variety of healthy refreshments, a departure from the meat and cheese platter she had seen only five years earlier. Seeing a lone chair on one side of the long conference table, she headed for it and sat, finding herself staring into the dour faces of a row of silver haired men in suits; the partners. These were the faces that line this building’s lobby walls in portrait form, that have watched her swipe her ID card at the elevator entrance for the past 15 years, but now without the benefit of either artistic license or low lighting. One of the partners, Mr. Cochran, broke the silence. “Thank you for joining us on such short notice, Vanessa. How is your husband…Kevin, right?”
“Yes, sir.” All Vanessa could think about was how he had been laid off two months ago, corporate downsizing to meet quarterly earnings estimates. It wasn’t as if Kevin hadn’t been looking for new work. In the meantime, he had been pulling his weight at home, keeping the house in order, playing nurse to her ailing live-in mother. But, this wasn’t the response the partners were looking for. These were the types of conversations that were supposed to take place at an arm’s length. “He’s fine.”
Mr. Sutton stood, adjusting his tie as he spoke. “Well let’s cut to the chase. We understand you have been working with us for the past 15 years. That’s quite a run, especially in this economy!” This elicited a few chuckles from the suits around the table. Vanessa found Mr. Sutton’s smile, in particular, to be nauseating. “We have a new position that has opened up within the company. It doesn’t actually involve account analysis, but rather it involves brand management.” On this, Mr. Sutton leaned forward. “We want to offer you a position as a director in this new division. A promotion. A salary increase. Your own corner office.”
Vanessa was shocked.
Mr. Cochran broke in, “You don’t have to answer right now. You can take the night to think about it.”
Mr. Sutton walked over to a bar and started pouring himself a glass of water infused with cucumber and mint. Turning to Vanessa he smiled that smile and said, “But we do enjoy having you with us here at the firm and would hate to see you have to go.”
Later that night, after she had helped Kevin get her mother into bed, she pulled her husband into the kitchen and handed him a familiar glossy brochure. It was for a nearby hospice center that they had all visited before Kevin had been let go. This time, the sacrifice Vanessa was making made her feel good. The center seemed warm and nice, with caring, attentive staff, and now could easily be afforded.