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Burn (Chapter Five)

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SHE WAS LATE. SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO MEET MICHELLE at seven and it was already eight thirty. Still, though walking the distance to Bird's would make her even later, Jenner parked her new car a block away from the bar – she didn't want any dings marring it. So what if it wasn't a luxury car? It was a Camry – loaded, but still a Camry – because she couldn't get her mind around paying two years' worth of her former salary for a car. She'd had the Camry only a couple of weeks, and she was proud of it. She still inhaled deeply every time she got in it, drinking in the delicious new-car smell.

She was tired. She sat in the quiet car for a few minutes, her eyes closed. If she hadn't promised Michelle she'd meet her tonight, she'd have gone home, which was still the duplex because finding a new place to live was taking much longer than picking out a new car, and crashed. Who knew that managing a shitload of money would turn out to be damn near a full-time job?

Al was great – and was in the process of moving into a better office already – but Jenner insisted on being involved, which meant she spent a lot of time at Payne Echols. She wanted to understand what was going on, why Al was doing what she was doing, and what all the headache-inducing terms meant. She trusted Al, but Al might not always be around, and Jenner didn't want to be forced to rely on someone else. Her instinct was to get educated, and get control. For too much of the time since she'd picked that winning ticket, she hadn't had any control over events. Now she did, and the relief was almost staggering.

The money was hers, now. She'd gone through an excruciating ceremony where cameras flashed in her eyes while she smiled until her facial muscles screamed, and her hand cramped from holding one end of a huge cardboard check – which the lottery people had been careful to tell her wasn't real and couldn't be cashed, as if she were the village idiot and couldn't have figured that out on her own – but at last it had been over and the paperwork finished, and she'd begun stepping back into anonymity … she hoped. The media had gone away, of course. Now, if she could just get settled in a new place and get on with life, she'd be a lot happier.

Parts of it had been fun. She and Michelle had gone on a great shopping binge, and she'd not only replaced her own wardrobe, but Michelle's, too. Purses, shoes, good jewelry, silk blouses, sharp and sexy dresses … it had been great. But one of the most disconcerting things she'd learned was that, after a few days, she got bored with shopping. She would never in a million years have thought that would have happened, but there it was. Being able to spend money was great. After the initial glee and spree, though, she hadn't seen anything else she'd wanted, and boredom had set in. That still felt like some kind of betrayal by the universe.

Her life had definitely changed. Most of her old friends had fallen by the wayside already, while she'd become very friendly with her lawyer, William Lourdes. He was a shark, but he was her shark. He'd smiled when he'd read the suit Dylan had filed against her. In short order, after Lourdes had filed a countersuit, with prejudice, against Dylan that would have taken everything he owned, Dylan had dropped his suit and dropped out of her orbit. Bill, as Lourdes insisted she call him, had then set about setting up her estate to protect it from all the human vultures who would try to get a piece of it should something happen to her.

Sitting there in the dark car, Jenner felt a tiny smile move her lips at the very idea that she, Jenner Redwine, had an estate. Wow.

She also had both a savings account and a checking account at a bank – a bank where the tellers and managers called her by name, and where she was always treated with both kindness and courtesy. A mere two months ago, having even a small checking account hadn't been on her radar. Now she seemed to spend a lot of time at the bank, moving things in and out of her safe-deposit box, because she couldn't leave any type of paperwork at the house, not with Jerry still hanging around.

He hadn't given up, but then she hadn't really thought he would. She'd bought him some clothes, even given him a hundred here and there, but without any real hope that he'd leave. She knew her dad. He would play it straight for a while, try to ease her suspicions, then he'd come up with a good reason why he needed a new car, or try to talk her into buying him a condo, or something like that. A few hundred dollars wouldn't even make a dent in Jerry's ambition.

Finally she gathered her energy and climbed out of the Camry She didn't have to shove her shoulder against the door to force it open, the way she had with the Goose. She hadn't firebombed the Goose, though she'd thought about it. The poor thing looked like crap, but the motor was dependable, so she'd donated it to a charity. There'd been a time when she'd needed that ugly car; someone else needed it now. Thank God that someone wasn't her.

Her energy level picked up as she slung her new, expensive purse over her shoulder and walked toward Bird's. An evening of laughing and dancing was just what she needed; she'd feel better after a beer. Michelle would already be a drink or two into the evening, and a dance or two – or three – ahead of Jenner, but that was okay, because Jenner didn't think she'd be able to keep up with her tonight.

The bar was packed and incredibly noisy – it was a Friday night, after all – so she had to look around the milling bodies for a while before she spotted Michelle, sitting at a table with three other regulars. From the number of glasses and bottles on the table, Michelle and the others had more than a two-drink jump on the evening.

Jenner was almost at the table before Michelle spotted her. "Woohoo!" she yelled. "Love the hair!"

Jenner resisted the urge to touch her hair, which was now black, with spiky little strands on top. She had gotten it done just that morning. The new style was elegant and sexy and edgy, but most of all, it made her look so different that few people recognized her. After the last couple of months, she figured that was a good thing.

She pulled up a chair and sat, looking around for a waitress. "I'm wearing the shoes," Michelle announced, turning so she could lift her foot high enough for Jenner to see. The shoes had been outrageously expensive, over five hundred bucks, but seeing the undiluted delight on Michelle's face as she'd tried them on had made Jenner think they were well worth it. But then Michelle had been oddly terrified to wear them, afraid they'd get scuffed or she'd break a heel, or something. She had often tried them on at home, then put them safely away. This was the shoes' first outing, and Jenner clapped her hands.

"About time," she said.

"Are they hot, or what?" Michelle asked, turning her foot this way and that as she admired the rhinestones on the delicate straps. She lifted her foot even higher, so the two men and woman who also sat at the table could see. Across from the table, a man whistled as Michelle's lifted foot maybe gave him more to admire than just a shoe. She laughed, stuck her tongue out at him, but put her foot back on the floor.

"Next time," she said to the other three, "I'm going to get the matching purse. It was amazing. The leather felt like butter, it was so soft."

Before Jenner could say anything, the cocktail waitress arrived with a loaded tray. As she began passing out the new round, she glanced at Jenner. "What'll you have?"

"A beer," Jenner said. As tired as she was, she was wary of drinking very much; she'd limit herself to the one beer and go home in an hour or so.

"Your tab's up to ninety-four fifty," the waitress said to Michelle, her tone saying that she wanted to see some cash or a credit card before anything else was ordered.

"Put it on her tab," Michelle said carelessly, picking up her colorful drink and tipping the glass in Jenner's direction. "She'll take care of it. That's what she's food gor. I mean, good for." She laughed at her silly mistake, waving her hand so that the contents slopped over the edge of the glass; she stopped to swipe her finger over the rim before sticking it in her mouth. "Oops," she said.

Oops? Was Michelle talking about the spilled drink, or what she'd just said?

Jenner blinked, sitting back in her chair. She almost didn't believe what she'd heard – almost, but not quite. Maybe a tiny part of her had been waiting for it, but then again, maybe not, because this hurt. Michelle, too?

She probably should have seen it coming. Not that she minded always picking up the check now, it was just that she was always expected to do it even when, as now, she hadn't even had a drink yet. And the other three people … she knew them only because she'd often seen them here, but very casually; she didn't even know their last names. Why should she buy their drinks, too?

The prospect of fun had faded like a cheap T-shirt, fast and ugly.

"Actually, cancel that beer," she said to the waitress. "I can't stay." She readjusted the shoulder strap of her purse as she stood. "I just wanted to stop by and let you know, since you were expecting me," she said to Michelle. "I knew it'd be so loud in here you'd never hear your cell phone ring."

Michelle stared at her, the smile sliding from her face. "What the hell?"

"I'm tired," Jenner said.

"Yeah, because shopping and counting money all day is so exhausting." Michelle laughed at her little joke, and so did the others at the table.

Jenner didn't laugh. "I gotta go," she said, turning on her heel and trying to escape before she said something she wouldn't be able to take back. She and Michelle had been friends a long time, but she could sense that relationship was suddenly teetering on the point of no return, and she didn't want it to tip over. Michelle was half-drunk – maybe three-quarters – and tomorrow she would apologize and they'd go on as before. Jenner hoped that was what would happen, anyway.

She made it to the door and stepped out, into relative coolness and quiet, before Michelle caught her and grabbed her shoulder. "You can't go," Michelle said, no longer laughing, and not sounding quite as tipsy. "I didn't bring any cash with me. You have to pay for our drinks."

Reluctantly Jenner turned and looked Michelle in the eye. Michelle tossed her dark curls, her expression defiant. Behind them, bar patrons were drinking, talking, laughing, dancing. A few squeezed out past them, and some people squeezed in to take their places. Finally Jenner said, "You just expected that I'd be here and that I'd pay for everything."

Michelle's expression changed to incredulity. "Well, yeah," she said, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.

Fatigue slammed down on Jenner's shoulders. Was what Michelle expected really any different from her dad, and Dylan, and the endless parade of charities and cons that had stopped calling her only because she'd disconnected her landline? At least Michelle had been there for her in the past, which the others hadn't been. That counted for something. She opened her purse, intending to give Michelle enough cash to pay for her evening. Maybe tomorrow they could get things straightened out. Maybe when Michelle hadn't been drinking she wouldn't be in such a bitchy mood.

"You know," Michelle said, her full mouth twisting in a little sneer, "you've changed since you won that damn money. You used to be fun. You used to think about something besides money, money, money. Now you're just – "

"Your personal ATM machine?" Jenner shot back, her tone scorching as she pulled a stack of bills from her wallet. She had changed? Sure she had. Everyone around her had changed, so was she supposed to remain the same, untouched by what was truly a gigantic shifting of her world? She had to deal with them, so damn straight it had changed her.

Michelle's expression hardened, and her eyes narrowed. "I don't like you very much, anymore. The people who used to be your friends aren't good enough for you now, just because you can buy things."

"You liked me and my money fine when I was spending it on your shoes and jewelry, and your new couch," Jenner pointed out. "You liked me when I bought every single meal we ate out, when we went on vacation together, and when I paid for every round we drank in this place." She took Michelle's hand and slapped the bills into it. "Well, here it is, all I have on me. Have fun."

Michelle's fingers clenched around the money, but the sneer didn't leave her face. "Bitch," she said.

The word stunned Jenner. Even though she'd stood up for herself, she had still been expecting that, tomorrow, she and Michelle would make up. Now, staring at the venom in Michelle's face, hearing it in her tone, something in her realized there was no apology coming tomorrow.

"Good-bye," she managed to say, a choking sadness keeping her tone oddly gentle, then she turned and headed down the sidewalk. She heard the door bang as Michelle went back inside. The immediacy of the sound told her Michelle hadn't paused, hadn't even looked back.

That was that, then. Hurt congealed in her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Michelle had been there for years, always ready to laugh and party. They'd consoled each other through breakups with boyfriends, head colds, and past-due bills. They had lived in the same world, but now they didn't.

She unlocked the Camry with the remote and slid into the driver's seat. Her hands trembled as she tried to fit the key into the ignition. She was so tired she wanted only to go home, but she'd just given Michelle every cent she had and she needed to get some cash. She didn't like not having any cash on her. In the past she'd been broke plenty of times, and she didn't like it. She'd very quickly grown accustomed to never being without some money.

There was an ATM in Bird's – very handy for the bar patrons – but she didn't want to go back in there. Sadly she realized she'd probably been to Bird's for the last time, another touchstone in her life that was sliding away into the past. Mentally she searched the area. There was another ATM just a few blocks away, but she didn't like the neighborhood. Instead, because it felt safer, she drove to the nearest branch of her bank – she didn't like paying user fees, either, so she preferred using the bank's – and pulled up to the ATM.

A cool breeze whipped around her as she got out of the car and approached the machine. She'd withdraw a couple of hundred to replace what she'd given Michelle, and that would be more than enough to tide her over the weekend. She tapped in her account number, and PIN.

INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

She stared at the little screen, blinking at the words as she tried to make sense of them. She knew, roughly, how much she had in her account, but she hadn't balanced it in over a week. Still, there should be around twenty-five thousand, give or take a few hundred.

She was tired, though, and upset; she'd probably punched in the wrong number. She tried again, and this time she was very careful, making certain every number was correct.

The same message flashed on the screen: INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

At this hour, the bank was dark and there was no one to help her. She thought a moment, then entered a different request, this time to see her account balance. Probably this machine was malfunctioning, and was giving the same message to everyone who tried to get money from it. For that matter, maybe the machine was empty, and it was telling her it had insufficient funds. The idea was almost funny, and she smiled a little, but then the smile froze on her lips.

Three dollars and twenty-two cents?

She stared at the impossible number. She knew she had more than that, thousands more than that. What had happened?

Automatically she got back in the car and started it, put it in gear. All the way home she turned the situation over in her mind, feeling sick as she worked through details.

Someone – and she had only two someones whom she suspected – had gotten his hands on her checkbook and written himself a check for twenty-five odd thousand. Dylan, or Jerry? It had to be one of them. They knew where she lived, and they were both determined to get something from her. They both wanted their cut of her good fortune, their fair share for – what? Breathing?

She'd tagged Dylan for a moocher, but she wasn't sure he'd steal. Even if he did, he wouldn't be bold enough to take it all. He'd steal a few checks, write one here and there for a couple hundred dollars, hoping she wouldn't notice, and if she did then he'd hope she'd cut him some slack instead of going to the cops. That was Dylan.

But her dad … Jerry Redwine would take all he could get and then he'd run.

She felt that inner door slam that signaled yet another end. She wouldn't hear from him again. He wouldn't call. There would be no more awkward lunches, no more offers to get in on the ground floor of some great opportunity he'd dreamed up. Her latest refusal had evidently convinced him she couldn't be fleeced, so instead he'd stolen from her. He was gone for good this time, because he'd known there was no getting past this.

The certainty that he was the culprit ate through her like acid. How had he done it? He couldn't have gotten her ATM code –  and besides, ATMs would dispense only a limited amount of cash from an account – but somehow he must have gotten his hands on her checkbook.

She'd been so careful whenever he was in the house, always taking her purse with her if she went into another room, or locking it in the trunk of the car if she'd known ahead of time that he was coming over. But what if she hadn't known he was there? What if he'd lurked outside, waited until she was in the shower or even in bed asleep, then quietly slipped the lock and let himself in? She could easily see him doing that. In hindsight she realized she should have installed an alarm, but she hadn't wanted to spend any money on a place where she wasn't going to be living much longer, and she'd let it slide. She was still in the habit of avoiding relatively small expenses, because they were outside her experience, and now it had cost her big time.

When she got home she took out her checkbook and carefully went through it, looking at the numbers to make sure none were missing. The books each had twenty-five checks in them, and she kept only one book at a time; the others were in the safe deposit box. She knew what checks she'd written, because she kept a careful record. The blank check on top was the next one in sequence. They were all there … except for the very last one in the book.

She looked up the last time she'd balanced the account, and carefully began subtracting the amount of each check she'd written. The total was more than she'd thought. She'd had a balance of twenty-seven thousand, four hundred three dollars and twenty-two cents. Jerry had even taken the four hundred. Heck, he'd evidently even done the math himself, to see how much he could write the check to himself for. If he hadn't, if he'd left her a few hundred, it might have taken her days longer to realize what he'd done.

And this was it. He'd finally done it, finally gone past her limit. This was turning out to be a hell of a day. First Michelle, and now Jerry, though actually Jerry had made his move first, even though she'd just found out about it. She hadn't seen him since Wednesday. Two days, then. He'd have left immediately because he wouldn't be certain she wouldn't turn him over to the cops for forgery.

She wouldn't. Let him have the money. Let this mark the complete end. She'd been waiting for this moment from the second she realized she'd won the lottery, wondering how much it would cost her, and now she knew: twenty-seven thousand, four hundred dollars.

She sat in the silent duplex, feeling exhausted and empty, and suddenly she had a moment of clarity. She'd known all along that winning the lottery would change her life, known that some of the changes would be jarring, but she hadn't expected how complete the change would be.

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