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The Winner, Page 2

David Baldacci

  truck stop at all. That came to twenty-five dollars per hour. No one she knew had ever earned such money. Why, at a full year that was twenty-five thousand dollars! And really, she would only be working half-time. So the rate was more like fifty thousand dollars per year! Doctors, lawyers, and movie stars earned such gigantic sums, not a high school dropout mother residing in the hopeless grip of poverty with someone called Duane. As if responding to her unspoken thoughts, Duane stirred for an instant, looking at her through brick-red eyes.

  “Where the hell you going?” Duane’s voice was thick with the drawl of the area. It seemed that she had heard those same words, that same tone, all her life from a variety of men. In response she picked up an empty beer can off the chest of drawers.

  “How ’bout another beer, bay-bee?” She smiled coyly and arched her eyebrows wickedly. Her thick lips dangled each syllable seductively. It had the desired effect. Duane groaned at the sight of his malt and aluminum God and slumped back into the grip of his coming hangover. Despite his frequent drinking binges, he never could hold his liquor. In another minute he was asleep once more. The baby-doll smile instantly faded and LuAnn looked at the note again. The work, the man had said, involved trying new products, listening to some ads, getting her opinion on things. Sort of like a survey. Demographic analysis, he had termed it, whatever the hell that was. They did it all the time. It was connected to advertising rates, and television commercials, things like that. A hundred dollars a day for just giving her opinion, something she did for free just about every minute of her life.

  Too good to be true, really. She had thought that a number of times since his phone call. She was not nearly as dumb as her father had thought. In fact, housed behind her comely face was an intellect far more powerful than the late Benny Tyler could have imagined, and it was coupled with a shrewdness that had allowed her to live by her wits for years now. However, only rarely did anyone go beyond her looks. She often dreamed of an existence where her boobs and butt weren’t the first, last, and only thing anyone ever noticed about her, ever commented on.

  She looked over at Lisa. The little girl was awake now, her eyes darting around the bedroom until they came to rest with much glee upon her mother’s face. LuAnn’s eyes crinkled back at her little girl. After all, could it be worse than her and Lisa’s present reality? She normally held a job for a couple of months or, if she was really lucky, half a year, and then a layoff came with the promise of a rehire when times got better, which they never seemed to do. Without a high school diploma she was immediately categorized as stupid. By virtue of living with Duane, she had long ago decided she deserved that label. But he was Lisa’s father even if he had no intention of marrying LuAnn, not that she had pushed him on that. She was not overeager to take Duane’s last name or the man-child that came with it. However, having grown up in something less than the embrace of a happy, caring household, LuAnn was firmly convinced that the family unit was vitally important to a child’s well-being. She had read all the magazines and watched numerous talk shows on the subject. In Rikersville, LuAnn was one step ahead of the welfare rolls most of the time; there were about twenty people for every lousy job. Lisa could and would do far better than her mother — LuAnn had dedicated her life to making that a reality. But with a thousand dollars, perhaps LuAnn would do all right for herself. A bus ticket to somewhere else. Some money to live off until she could find a job; the little nest egg she had so desperately wanted over the years but had never been able to accumulate.

  Rikersville was dying. The trailer was Duane’s unofficial sepulcher. He would never have it any better and probably would have it much worse before the ground swallowed him up. It could be her crypt too, LuAnn realized, only it wouldn’t be. Not after today. Not after she kept her appointment. She folded up the piece of paper and put it back in her purse. Sliding a small box out of one of the drawers, she found enough change for bus fare. She finished with her hair, buttoned her dress, swooped up Lisa, and quietly left the trailer, and Duane, behind.


  There was a sharp knock on the door. The man quickly stood up from behind the desk, adjusted his tie, and opened a file folder lying in front of him. In the ashtray next to him were the remains of three cigarettes.

  “Come in,” he said, his voice firm and clear.

  The door opened and LuAnn stepped into the room and looked around. Her left hand clutched the handle of the baby carrier where Lisa lay, her eyes looking around the room with obvious curiosity. Over LuAnn’s right shoulder hung a large bag. The man observed the vein plunging down LuAnn’s long, sinewy biceps until it connected with a maze of others in her muscular forearm. The woman was obviously strong, physically. What about her character? Was it as strong?

  “Are you Mr. Jackson?” LuAnn asked. She looked directly at him as she spoke, waiting for his eyes to take the inevitable inventory of her face, bosom, hips, and so on. It didn’t matter from what walk of life they came, in that regard men were all the same. She was thus very surprised when his gaze did not leave her face. He held out his hand and she shook it firmly.

  “I am. Please sit down, Ms. Tyler. Thank you for coming. Your daughter is quite beautiful. Would you care to put her down over here?” He pointed to a corner of the room.

  “She just woke up. The walk and the bus ride makes her go to sleep every time. I’ll just keep her beside me, if that’s okay.” As if in agreement, Lisa began to jabber and point.

  He nodded his assent and then sat back down and took a moment to peruse the file.

  LuAnn put Lisa and the large bag down next to her, pulled out a set of plastic keys, and handed them to her daughter to play with. LuAnn straightened back up and studied Jackson with considerable interest. He was dressed expensively. A line of perspiration was strung across his forehead like a miniature set of pearls and he appeared a little nervous. She ordinarily would put that down to her looks. Most of the men she encountered either acted like fools in attempts to impress her or shut down within themselves like wounded animals. Something told her that neither was the case with this man.

  “I didn’t see a sign over your office. People might not know you’re even here.” She looked at him curiously.

  Jackson smiled tightly at her. “In our business we don’t cater to foot traffic. It doesn’t matter to us if people in the mall know we’re here or not. All of our business is conducted via appointments, phone calls, that sort of thing.”

  “I must be the only appointment right now then. Y’all’s waiting room is empty.”

  Jackson’s cheek twitched as he formed a steeple with his hands. “We stagger our appointments so as not to keep people waiting. I’m the only member of the firm at this location.”

  “So you got other places of business?”

  He nodded absently. “Would you mind filling out this information sheet for me? Take your time.” He slid a piece of paper and pen over to her. LuAnn quickly filled out the form, making short, tight motions with the pen. Jackson watched as she did so. He reviewed her information after she finished. He already knew everything on it.

  LuAnn looked around the place. She had always been observant. Being the object of many males’ desires, she typically studied the configuration of every place she was in, if only to determine the fastest exit.

  When he looked up he noted her scrutinizing the office surroundings. “Something wrong?” he asked.

  “It’s kinda funny.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

  “You got a funny office, is all.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Well, there’s no clock anywhere, no trash can, no calendar, and no phone. Now, I ain’t worked in any places where people wear neckties on the job, but even Red over at the truck stop keeps a calendar, and he’s on the phone more than he’s not. And the lady out front, she don’t got a clue as to what’s going on. Hell, with those three-inch nails, using that typewriter would be mighty hard anyway.” LuAnn caught the stunned
look on his face and quickly bit her lip. Her mouth had gotten her in trouble before, and this was one job interview she couldn’t afford to blow. “I don’t mean nothing by it,” she said quickly. “Just talking. Guess I’m a little nervous, is all.”

  Jackson’s lips moved for an instant and then he smiled grimly. “You’re very observant.”

  “Got two eyes like everybody else.” LuAnn smiled prettily, falling back on the old reliable.

  Jackson ignored her look and rustled his papers. “You recall the terms of employment I gave to you over the phone?”

  She snapped back to business. “One hundred dollars per day for two weeks, with maybe some more weeks at that same pay. I work until seven in the morning right now. If it’s all right I’d like to come and do this job in the early afternoon. Around about two? And is it okay if I bring my little girl? She takes her big nap around then, she won’t be no trouble at all. Cross my heart.” With an automatic motion LuAnn reached down and picked up the toy keys from the floor where the little girl had flung them and handed them back to Lisa. Lisa thanked her mother with a loud grunt.

  Jackson stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “That’s fine. It’s all fine. You’re an only child and your parents are dead, correct?”

  LuAnn jerked at the abrupt change in subject. She hesitated and then nodded, her eyes narrowing.

  “And for the better part of two years you have lived with one Duane Harvey, an unskilled laborer of sorts, currently unemployed, in a trailer in the western part of Rikersville.” He looked at her as he recounted this information. He was not waiting for affirmation now. LuAnn sensed that and merely stared back at him. “Duane Harvey is the father of your daughter, Lisa, age eight months. You quit school in the seventh grade and have held numerous low-paying jobs since that time; all of them I think would be accurately summed up as dead-ends. You are uncommonly bright and possess admirable survival skills. Nothing is more important to you than your daughter’s well-being. You are desperate to change the circumstances of your life and you are just as desperate to leave Mr. Harvey far behind. Right now you are wondering how to accomplish any of this when you lack the financial means to do so and likely always will. You feel trapped, and well you should. You are most assuredly trapped, Ms. Tyler.” He stared across the desk at her.

  LuAnn’s face was flushed as she stood up. “What the hell’s going on here? What right do you have—”

  He impatiently broke in. “You came here because I offered you more money than you’ve ever earned before. Isn’t that right?”

  “How come you know all those things ’bout me?” she demanded.

  He crossed his arms and studied her intently before answering. “It’s in my best interests to know everything I can about someone with whom I’m about to do business.”

  “What does knowing about me have to do with my opinions and surveys and such?”

  “Very simple, Ms. Tyler. To know how to evaluate your opinion on things I need to know intimate details about the opinion maker. Who you are, what you want, what you know. And don’t know. The things you like, dislike, your prejudices, your strengths, and weaknesses. We all have them, in varying degrees. In sum, if I don’t know all about you, I haven’t done my job.” He came around the corner of the desk and perched on the edge. “I’m sorry if I offended you. I can be rather blunt; however, I didn’t want to waste your time.”

  Finally the anger in LuAnn’s eyes passed away. “Well, I guess if you put it that way—”

  “I do, Ms. Tyler. May I call you LuAnn?”

  “That’s my name,” she said brusquely. She sat back down. “Well, I don’t want to waste your time either, so what about the hours? Is the afternoon okay?”

  Jackson abruptly returned to his seat and looked down at the desk, rubbing his hands slowly over its cracked surface. When he looked back up at her, his countenance was even more serious than it had been seconds before.

  “Have you ever dreamed of being rich, LuAnn? I mean rich beyond all your wildest fantasies. So wealthy in fact that you and your daughter could literally do anything in the world you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? Have you ever had that dream?”

  LuAnn started to laugh until she caught the look in his eyes. There was no humor, no diffidence, no sympathy in their depths, merely an intense desire to hear her answer.

  “Hell, yes. Who hasn’t had that dream?”

  “Well, those who are already filthy rich rarely do, I can tell you that. However, you’re right, most other people, at some point in their lives, have that fantasy. Yet virtually no one ever makes that fantasy a reality. The reason is simple: They can’t.”

  LuAnn smiled disarmingly. “But a hundred bucks a day ain’t bad either.”

  Jackson stroked his chin for several seconds, coughed to clear his throat, and then asked a question. “LuAnn, do you ever play the lottery?”

  She was surprised by the inquiry but readily replied. “Now and then. Everybody around here does. It can get expensive, though. Duane plays every week, sometimes half his paycheck — that is when he pulls a paycheck, which ain’t usually the case. He’s all-fired certain he’s going to win. Plays the same numbers every time. Says he saw them in a dream. I say he’s just dumber than dirt. Why?”

  “Have you ever played the national Lotto?”

  “You mean the one for the whole country?”

  Jackson nodded, his eyes fixed on her. “Yes,” he said slowly, “that’s exactly the one I mean.”

  “Once in a while. But the odds are so big I got a better chance of going for a stroll on the moon than I do of winning that thing.”

  “You’re absolutely right. In fact, the odds this month are approximately one in thirty million.”

  “That’s what I mean. I’d rather go for the dollar scratch-offs. At least then you got a chance to make a quick twenty bucks. No sense throwing good money after bad, I always say, particularly when you don’t got none to speak of.”

  Jackson licked his lips and leaned his elbows on the desk as he looked at her. “What would you say if I told you I could drastically better your chances of winning the lottery?” He kept his eyes trained resolutely on her.

  “Excuse me?” Jackson said nothing. LuAnn looked around the room as if expecting to see a surveillance camera somewhere. “What’s this got to do with the job? I didn’t come here to play no games, mister.”

  “In fact,” Jackson continued, ignoring her queries, “what if I could lower your odds to one in one? Would you do it?”

  LuAnn exploded. “Is this some kind of big joke? If I didn’t know better I’d think maybe Duane was behind this. You better tell me what the hell’s going on before I really get mad.”

  “This is no joke, LuAnn.”

  LuAnn rose out of the chair. “You durn sure got something else on the burner and I don’t want no parts of it. No parts! Hundred bucks a day or not,” she said with deep disgust, mingled with deeper disappointment as her plans for the thousand-dollar payday rapidly faded away. She picked up Lisa and her bag and turned to leave.

  The quiet tones of Jackson’s voice rippled across her back. “I am guaranteeing that you will win the lottery, LuAnn. I am guaranteeing that you will win, at minimum, fifty million dollars.”

  She stopped. Despite her brain’s telling her to run as fast as she could out of the place, she found herself slowly turning to face him.

  Jackson had not moved. He still sat behind the desk, his hands clasped in front of him. “No more Duanes, no more graveyard shifts at the truck diner, no more worrying about having food and clean clothes for your daughter. Anything you want, you can have. Anywhere you want to go, you can go. Anyone you want to become, you can.” His tone remained quiet and steady.

  “You mind telling me how can you do that?” Had he said fifty million dollars? Lord Almighty! She placed one hand against the door to steady herself.

  “I need an answer to my question.”

  “What question?”

spread his hands. “Do you want to be rich?”

  “Are you a crazy man or what? I’m strong as all get out so if you try anything I’ll kick your little butt all the way down the street and leave you with half the brains you started the day with.”

  “Do I take that as a no?” he said.

  LuAnn tossed her hair to one side and switched Lisa’s carrier from her right to her left hand. The little girl was looking back and forth at them, as though absorbed in the heated conversation. “Look, there is no way in hell that you can guarantee me something like that. So I’m just gonna walk on out of here and call the nut house to come get you.”

  In response, Jackson looked at his watch and walked over to the TV and turned it on.

  “In one minute the national daily drawing will be held. It’s only a one million dollar payoff; however, it will serve to illustrate a point nonetheless. Understand, I do not profit from this, it’s used only for demonstration purposes, to quell your quite understandable skepticism.”

  LuAnn turned to look at the screen. She watched as the lottery drawing began and the ball machines fired up.

  Jackson glanced over at her. “The winning numbers will be eight, four, seven, eleven, nine, and six, in that order.” He pulled a pen and paper from his pocket and wrote the numbers down. He handed the paper to LuAnn.

  She almost laughed and a loud snort did escape her mouth. It stopped just as quickly when the first number announced was eight. In rapid succession the four, seven, eleven, nine, and six balls were kicked out and announced as the winning combination. Her face pale, LuAnn stared down at the paper and then at the winning numbers on the screen.

  Jackson turned off the TV. “I trust that your doubts about my abilities are now satisfied. Perhaps we can get back to my offer.”

  LuAnn leaned back against the wall. Her skin seemed to be humming against her bones, as though a million bees had plunged into her body. She looked at the TV. She saw no special wires or