How much do you make?"
"Salary or total compensation?" Jay West asked deliberately. He never disclosed sensitive information until he absolutely had to, even in a situation like this one, where he was expected to answer every question quickly and completely.
"What was the income figure on your W-2 last year? A W-2 is that little form your employer sends you each January to let you know how much you have to report to the IRS."
"I know what a W-2 is," Jay answered calmly, displaying no outward irritation at the interviewer's sarcastic tone. The young man on the opposite side of the conference room table wore a dark business suit, as did Jay. However, the other man's suit was custom-made. It was crisper, was crafted of finer material, and followed the contours of his muscular physique perfectly. Jay had purchased his suit off the rack, and it bunched up in certain spots despite a tailor's best efforts. "The commercial bank I work for provides me certain fringe benefits that don't appear on my W-2, so my income is actually more than--"
"What kind of fringe benefits?" the interviewer demanded rudely.
For a moment Jay studied the unfriendly square-jawed face beneath the strawberry-blond crew cut, trying to determine if the confrontational demeanor was forced or natural. He had heard that Wall Street firms often made prospective employees endure at least one stressful interview during the hiring process just to see how they reacted. But if this guy was acting, he was giving an Academy Award performance. "A below-market mortgage rate, a company match on my 401K plan, and a liberal health insurance package."
The man rolled his eyes. "How much can those things be worth, for Christ's sake?"
"The amount is significant."
The man waved a hand in front of his face impatiently. "Okay, I'll be generous and add twenty thousand to the figure you quote me. Now, how much did you make last year?"
Jay shifted uncomfortably in his seat, aware that the figure wouldn't impress the investment banker.
"Hello, Jay." Oliver Mason stood in the conference room doorway, smiling pleasantly, a leather-bound portfolio under his arm. "I'm glad you could make time for us tonight."
Jay glanced at Mason and smiled back, relieved that he wasn't going to have to answer the income question. "Hi, Oliver," he said confidently, standing up and shaking hands. Oliver always had a sleek look about him, like an expensive sports car that had just been detailed. "Thanks for having me."
"My pleasure." Oliver sat in the chair next to Jay's and put his portfolio down. He gestured across the table at Carter Bullock. "Has my lieutenant been grilling you?"
"Not at all," Jay answered, trying to seem unaffected by Bullock's third degree. "We were just having a friendly chat."
"You're lying. Nobody ever just chats with Bullock during an interview." Oliver removed two copies of Jay's resume from the portfolio. "Bullock's about as friendly as a honey badger, which is what he's affectionately known as around here," Oliver explained. "Badger, for short." He slid one copy of the resume across the polished tabletop. "Here you go, Badger. Sorry I didn't get this to you sooner. But I'm the captain and you're just a deckhand on this ship, so deal with it."
"Screw you, Oliver." Bullock grabbed the resume with his thick fingers, scanned it quickly, then groaned, crumpled the paper into a ball, and threw it toward a trash can in a far corner of the conference room.
"Do you know about honey badgers, Jay?" Oliver asked in his naturally aloof, nasal voice. He was smiling broadly, unconcerned by Bullock's less-than-positive reaction to Jay's resume.
Jay shook his head, trying to ignore the sight of his life being tossed toward the circular file. "No."
"Most predators aim for the throat when they attack their prey." Oliver chuckled. "Honey badgers aim for the groin. They lock their jaws and don't let go, no matter what the prey does. They don't release their grip until the prey goes into shock, which, as you might imagine, doesn't take long, especially if the prey is the male of the species. Then they tear the animal apart while it's still alive." Oliver shivered, picturing the scene. "What a way to go."
"Screw you and your mother, Oliver." But Bullock was grinning for the first time, obviously pleased with his nickname and his tough-as-tungsten reputation.
Oliver put both hands behind his head and interlaced his fingers. "Don't let me interrupt, Badger."
Bullock leaned over the table, a triumphant expression on his wide, freckled face. "So, Jay, how much did you make last year?"
Oliver Mason's appearance wasn't going to get him off the hot seat after all. "A hundred thousand dollars," Jay answered defiantly, staring at Bullock's flat nose. The figure--salary plus bonus--was actually closer to ninety.
Bullock rolled his eyes at the number. "Do you live in Manhattan?"
"Yes." Jay had been prepared for the negative reaction. He knew that Oliver Mason and Carter Bullock earned many multiples of his salary as senior executives at the boutique investment banking firm of McCarthy & Lloyd.
"How the hell do you survive on that in Manhattan?" Bullock wanted to know.
"A hundred thousand dollars is nothing to scoff at," Jay retorted. He was proud of how far he'd come in life.
"Are you married?" Bullock asked.
Jay shook his head.
"Where do you live?"
"Upper West Side."
"Do you rent or own?"
"One or two bedrooms?"
"Got a car?"
"A BMW," he answered, aware that Oliver and Bullock wouldn't be impressed if they knew his real mode of transportation was a beat-up, barely operational Ford Taurus. "A three-twenty-eight."
"Do you park it in the city?" Bullock asked.
Jay nodded again, then flashed a quick glance at Oliver, who was staring into space, probably thinking about a deal that would net him millions.
Bullock reclined in his chair and contemplated the ceiling. "So let's think about this," he said, stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "You make a hundred thousand dollars a year, which, without any deductions or exemptions other than yourself, is about seventy thousand after taxes. I'll be generous and assume that you clear six thousand dollars a month." He tapped the arm of his chair, clearly enjoying the analysis. For Bullock, Jay thought, life came down to numbers and little else. "You're probably paying about four thousand a month for your rent, utilities, car loan, parking, and insurance. I'm sure you have a significant amount of school loans, too." Bullock glanced at Jay for confirmation.
But Jay gave no indication that Bullock was right on target. No indication that each month he was writing a hefty check to slowly repay the forty thousand dollars--plus interest--he had borrowed to finance his four years of college.
"That leaves two thousand a month for groceries, clothes, a social life," Bullock continued, "and to save for the house in the suburbs you'll have to buy when you meet that perfect girl and she wants to start nesting. The problem is that you'll only have enough to buy her a two-bedroom box in Jersey City and not the sprawling mansion in Greenwich she'll require." He snickered. "And at a commercial bank your upside is limited. You'll receive inflation raises for the next forty years, then retire with a gold watch and medical benefits. Maybe." Bullock shook his head. "You're poor, pal. You're a hamster on a treadmill, and there's no way off."
Excerpted from The Insider by Stephen Frey. Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Frey. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.