Burn (Chapter Two)
What was she supposed to do with that kind of money? Five thousand, yeah. She could handle five thousand. She knew exactly what she'd do with it: pay off the Goose, buy some new clothes, maybe go to Disney World or something like that. She'd always wanted to go to Disney World, no matter how hokey that sounded. Five thousand bucks would be easy.
Even twenty thousand, she'd have no problem with. Fifty thousand … she'd buy a new car, sure, maybe find a small house that was fixable, but run-down enough that she could afford the payments, and use the rest of the money as a down payment. She was okay with renting – she didn't have to do any repairs, though getting the landlord to do anything was a pain in the ass – but owning her own place would be kind of nice, too.
Beyond fifty thousand, though, was scary territory. She didn't know anything about investments or crap like that, and while she didn't have any experience with extra money, real extra money instead of just a twenty here and there, she was pretty sure she wasn't supposed to stick it in a bank and just let it sit. She was supposed to do things with the money, move it around according to the mysterious ways of the market, put it to work.
She didn't know how to do any of that. She knew what stocks were, sort of, but had no real idea what a bond was or what it did. Scam artists would be waiting in line to take advantage of her – good old Jerry, her dad, would be first in line – and she was lost as to how she could protect herself.
After yet another look at the ticket, nausea overwhelmed her and she ran to the bathroom, hanging over the cracked old toilet for a long time even though nothing except hot water came from her mouth. Finally she took some deep breaths, and bent over the sink to splash cold water on her face. Then she braced her hands on the cool porcelain and stared at herself in the mirror, knowing that the reflection she saw was a lie. According to the mirror, nothing had changed, yet she knew that everything had changed, that the life with which she was comfortable no longer existed.
She looked around the bathroom, at the dingy tile on the floor, the cheap fiberglass shower, the flyspecked mirror, and she almost collapsed under the overwhelming sense that what she saw wasn't real. All of this stuff suited her fine. This was where she belonged. She was comfortable here, in a run-down, aging duplex in a going-downhill neighborhood. In another ten years this area would be a slum, and she'd have moved on to some place that was pretty much on the same level this one was now, and she'd have been okay with that. This was her life. She scraped by, she managed to pay her bills, and she and Michelle had the occasional blast at Bird's. She knew where she fit in this world.
But this was no longer her world, and the sickening realization was enough to make her bend over the toilet once more, her stomach heaving. The only way she could keep things the same was to never claim the winnings, and, yeah, like that was going to happen. She wasn't stupid. Nervous and nauseated, maybe, but not stupid.
She would be saying good-bye to almost everything from this life. She thought of all her friends, both casual and close, and of them all she thought only Michelle would stick. She and Michelle had been friends practically from the day they'd met, back in high school. She'd spent as much time at Michelle's house, probably more, than she'd spent at her own home – wherever that had happened to be, with Jerry dragging her from place to place and always leaving behind a couple of months of unpaid rent. The way he figured it, he paid rent for only two or three months out of the year, and the rest of the time he got to live in a place for free because it usually took the landlord a couple of months to kick them out. In Jerry's world, only fools paid rent every month.
Jerry was going to be a problem. It wasn't a question of if he'd cause trouble, but how much.
Jenner had no illusions about her dad. She hadn't seen him in months, didn't even know if he was still in the Chicago area, but as sure as the sun rose in the east he'd turn up as soon as he heard about the lottery, and do whatever he could to get his hands on as much of the money as possible. Therefore, she had to take steps to protect the money before she claimed it.
She'd read about people setting up plans and stuff that sheltered the money, sometimes waiting weeks before going public that they'd won. That's what she would do. She'd keep working at Harvest until she actually got the money, but as soon as possible – today – she'd find someone whose job it was to know what to do with this kind of cash.
By three a.m., she was exhausted, both physically and mentally. She stripped down and climbed into bed, then set her alarm for eight just in case she was able to doze off. She had too much to do to risk oversleeping. Around dawn, she fell into a fitful sleep, waking often to check the clock, and finally getting up before the alarm went off. After taking a shower, she nuked a cup of instant coffee and sipped it while she blow-dried her hair and put on makeup.
At eight thirty, she was watching the clock as she flipped through the phone book's advertising pages. There was nothing under "money handlers," which was frustrating, because how the hell else would it be listed? Maybe there was something under "banks." What she learned was that there were a lot of banks in the Chicago area, and most of them advertised themselves as "full service" banks. What was that? Maybe they pumped gas for your car and checked the oil. Banks cashed checks, right? What else was there? Unfortunately, the ads didn't say what those services were, so she was still in the dark.
She slammed the phone book shut and angrily paced the kitchen. She hated feeling ignorant, hated that she couldn't look up what she wanted in the yellow pages, because she didn't know how things were listed. But she'd never had a bank account, mostly because she never had much money and a bank account seemed stupid. She paid her bills either in cash, or by money order. That wasn't the wrong way to do things, was it? Lots of people handled their bills that way – most of the people she knew, in fact.
Already she was running into that wall she'd sensed – the wall between the life she knew and the life all that money would automatically bring with it. Other people had managed, and she would, too. She could figure things out.
Opening the phone book again, she looked up one of those full-service banks, checked that the clock had ticked past nine, and dialed the number. When a woman answered in a modulated, professionally friendly tone, Jenner said, "I saw your ad in the phone book. Exactly what does 'full service' mean?"
"It means we offer financial planning and investment services, as well as financing for home, autos, boats, unsecured personal loans, and a variety of checking and savings plans that can be tailored to your needs," the woman said promptly.
"Thank you." Jenner disconnected, having found out what she needed to know. Financial planning. She should have thought of that. She heard the term on television all the time. The financial markets were always doing something, going up, going down, spinning in circles and evidently doing everything except kissing its own ass.
Lesson number one: What she thought of as "money," people with a lot of money thought of as "finance."
Going back to the advertising pages, she looked up "Financial Planners." There were a number of listings, including some she'd seen in commercials. There was also several subcategories, for mutual funds, stocks and bonds, investment and brokerage firms.
She read the listings under "Financial Planning Consultants" three times, then chose Payne Echols Financial Services. Their ad was more than a simple listing, but less than a full page, which she figured made them established but not the biggest firm in town. The big boys might secretly make fun of her, or, worse, take advantage of her. A midsize firm would be more likely to count its blessings, and treat her better.
Choosing a firm was just one decision, but that one small step made her feel better. She was in control of this. She didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do. If she didn't like the people at Payne Echols, she'd choose another investment firm.
She blew out a small breath and dialed the number. On the second ring, another of those professionally modulated voices said, "Payne Echols Financial Services. How may I direct your call?"
"I don't know. I want to make an appointment with someone, as soon as possible."
The woman paused briefly. "May I ask what sort of services you require? Then I'll know which of our financial planners have the proper expertise."
"Ah …" Jenner thought quickly, wary of blurting out the truth. "I've received an inheritance, about fifty thousand, and I want to invest it." She plucked the number out of midair, but it seemed like a good number, big enough to need advice but not big enough to attract attention.
"Hold, please," the woman said, returning to her smooth tone. "I'll connect you."
"Wait! Who are you connecting me to?"
"Ms. Smith's assistant. She'll book your appointment."
There was a half-second of dead air, then some generic tinny music began assaulting her eardrums. What were they trying to do, bore her into hanging up? Why didn't companies play lively music, something interesting?
She waited a few minutes, trying her best to ignore the awful music. How long did it take to switch a call? She tapped one toe, growing vaguely annoyed. Just as she was beginning to think about hanging up, there was a faint click and another smooth female voice said, "Ms. Smith's office, how may I help you?"
She was getting tired of all these impersonal, perfect voices. Would these people be fired if they ever revealed anything as mundane as interest? "My name is Jenner Redwine. I'd like to make an appointment with Ms. Smith."
"Certainly, Ms. Redwine. When would you like to come in?"
"As soon as possible. Now."
"Now? Well … Ms. Smith does have an opening in forty-five minutes. Would it be possible for you to be here by then?"
"I'll be there."
Jenner hung up, then securely tucked the lottery ticket and scrap of newspaper in her wallet, dropped the wallet back in her denim purse, then went outside and unlocked the Goose. The driver's door stuck, as usual, and she swore under her breath. Forty-five minutes wasn't very long, in Chicago traffic, and she didn't have time to wrestle with the door. Gripping the handle, she gave it one more tug and the door flew open, almost knocking her butt on the ground.
"The first thing I do," she muttered, "is get a new car." It didn't have to be a fancy car, just something new, without a single ding, and with nonsticking doors. And after that … she didn't know. She couldn't think much about "after that." One step at a time, and the first step was getting the money organized and settled.
As she drove she thought about calling Michelle, telling her what was going on. She even fished her cell phone out of her bag, thumbed in the first couple of numbers, before she hit the End button and dropped the phone back into the bag. Michelle would think she was just joking around, but … what if she didn't? That wariness surfaced again. Jenner wanted everything settled and protected before the news got out.
The Payne Echols offices were downtown, where parking was at a premium, but when she drove past she noticed the firm had a private parking deck attached, and watched over by a guard to keep the general public out. She pulled up to the orange barricade arm and rolled down the window. The guard looked at the Goose and she could almost see the doubt running through his brain. "I have an appointment with Ms. Smith."
He punched a few keys on a small computer, evidently confirmed that her name came up on the approved list, and raised the barricade. Jenner drove though, parked in the first empty slot she came to, and hurried to the entrance.
As soon as she opened the door, a sense of uneasiness rippled down her spine. The Payne Echols offices were cool, austere, and so quiet she could hear herself breathing. The main colors were gray and brown, as if the decorator had been deathly afraid of color. The abstract paintings on the walls each had a touch of blue, but even that was subdued. There were a lot of very impressive plants, so perfect they couldn't be real, but when she poked her finger into a planter she found dirt. Hurriedly she stuck her hand behind her back and tried to dust the dirt from her finger as she crossed to a desk half-hidden behind more plants.
Behind the desk was a slim, business-suited brunette, who lifted her head at Jenner's approach and said, "May I help you?" Her tone was perfectly neutral, just like her surroundings, but once again Jenner had a sense of being sized up and dismissed.
Keeping her own voice as blank and calm as the receptionist's, she said, "Jenner Redwine. I have an appointment with Ms. Smith."
"Please have a seat. I'll notify Ms. Smith's assistant."
Jenner perched on the edge of an uncomfortable gray sofa. Straight ahead of her was one of the abstract paintings, which looked to her as if a blind monkey had painted it. How hard could it be? All that was needed was a couple of paintbrushes, a canvas, and whatever colors happened to be lying around. Haphazardly apply the colors, and presto, one big ugly painting.
Some men in suits walked past, and she could spot a few people in the offices that were within her limited field of vision. They were all busy, focused, on the phone or poring over papers, or tapping on a computer keyboard. She didn't see any women.
Evidently Ms. Smith wasn't in any hurry to greet her new client. Uneasily Jenner wondered just how trustworthy financial planners were. She'd have to trust her instinct when it came to deciding whether or not to use Ms. Smith, because no one she knew had enough money to know squat about investments and taxes and stuff like that. She had only the yellow pages and her common sense to guide her.
Finally a stick-thin woman appeared from a carpeted hallway and approached. "Jenner Redwine?"
"Yes." Jenner quickly stood, gripping her bag.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting. I'm Ms. Smith's assistant. If you'll come this way …?" She indicated the hallway, and led Jenner at a brisk pace down the long expanse.
They walked past large, slickly decorated offices, visible through open doors. Other doors were closed, so Jenner had to use her imagination about their appearance and inhabitants. As they went down the hallway, the offices became smaller in size, the furniture plainer. She began to think she should have picked a number larger than fifty grand for her white lie, because evidently Ms. Smith wasn't very high in the Payne Echols pecking order.
The assistant stopped in front of a door, tapped lightly, then turned the knob. "Ms. Redwine to see you," she said, stepping back so Jenner could enter the small office, then closing the door and presumably returning to her even smaller cubbyhole.
A somewhat stocky woman with too-short hair stood up behind a slightly battered desk and with a tight smile extended her hand to Jenner. "I'm Al Smith."
"Al?" Jenner repeated. Maybe she'd heard wrong.
The tight smile widened the barest bit. "It's short for Alanna. No one calls me that." From the complete lack of humor in the comment, Jenner suspected no one dared. Al Smith continued, "I understand you have a small inheritance you're interested in investing."
Small? No one Jenner knew would call fifty grand "small," but in a place like this, even to the inhabitants of the less-than-lavish offices, it was probably chump change. Again she perched on the edge of her seat, and studied Al Smith across the expanse of desk.
Ms. Smith couldn't be called a pretty woman. Not only was her dark hair too short, she didn't wear much makeup – if any – and the gray suit she was wearing made her look boxy. If her lack of wrinkles was anything to go by, she was probably not much older than Jenner, but the image she projected added ten years to her age. Her eyes were disconcertingly pale, her gaze direct, and she didn't look as if she laughed very often.
Jenner didn't trust easily. Just because this woman worked for a top-notch financial planning firm, didn't mean she was reliable and honest. She did like the no-bullshit attitude, though.
"Can I ask you a question?" she finally said.
Ms. Smith looked faintly interested. "Of course, but I might not answer it."
"Fair enough. How long have you worked here?"
"A little more than two years." She didn't seem surprised by the question. "It's obvious I'm low man on the totem pole here. That doesn't mean I'm not good at my job. I'll work my way up."
"How old are you?"
Ms. Smith gave a bark of laughter. "That's more personal than I expected, but I don't mind telling you. I'm twenty-seven. Yes, I'm young. I understand your concern. But I'm here to help, and I won't always be in one of the back offices."
The straightforward ambition appealed to Jenner more than any generic, diplomatic reassurance would have. She glanced around the small office, thinking that Al Smith might be leaving it sooner than she'd expected. Her gaze fell on the shelf behind the desk. There were a couple of plants, smaller and less perfect than those in the lobby, and some simply framed snapshots of Ms. Smith and another woman smiling into the camera, their arms looped around each other's shoulders. The pose struck Jenner as somewhat romantic, and she stared at the photos a moment too long.
Ms. Smith glanced over her shoulder at the photos, and her mouth tightened. "Yes, Ms. Redwine, I'm a lesbian – but don't worry; you aren't my type. Skinny little blondes don't appeal to me."
Judging from the photographs, Jenner would say Ms. Smith preferred tall, curvy redheads. To each his – or her – own.
Jenner smiled, relaxing. She liked this plainspoken, up-front woman. "I don't have an inheritance," she admitted, digging into her bag and pulling out her wallet. Opening it, she pulled out the newspaper clipping and laid it on the desk in front of Ms. Smith. Next she took out the lottery ticket and placed it beside the piece of newsprint.
Ms. Smith gave her a curious look, then picked up a pair of glasses and slid them in place. She looked down at the two pieces of paper, and Jenner watched her expression change as she realized what she was seeing. "Holy sh – Excuse me. Is this what I think it is?"
Al Smith abruptly sat back. With one finger she adjusted her glasses, as if to make certain she was seeing properly. She looked back and forth from the newsprint to the lottery ticket, comparing each number much as Jenner had done. Finally she lifted her head, and looked her new client in the eye. For the first time there was a twinkle there as she said, "I think skinny blondes just became my type."
Jenner was surprised into a snort of laughter. "Sorry. My type comes with a penis. Besides, your redhead could probably beat me up."
"She could," Al admitted. She and Jenner grinned at each other, two tough-minded young women who recognized similar qualities in each other. They were both used to working hard for what they had. Al no doubt made way more money than Jenner did, but she was still fighting and clawing her way up the career ladder.
Jenner didn't know anything about investments, but she understood people, and how the pecking order worked. That lottery ticket represented a huge stepping-stone to Al, just as it did to her. By bringing in this size of an account, Al would leapfrog over everyone else on her level, and would quickly move into one of those larger offices. With her added influence, she would gain other accounts, and the effect would snowball. If she was half as good as Jenner thought she might be, Al Smith could one day have her own investment firm, or at least be a senior partner at Payne Echols.
Al sobered, surveying Jenner over the top of her glasses. "Most lottery winners are broke within five years, no matter how much they win."
A chill rippled over Jenner's skin. She couldn't imagine how she could possibly lose that much money, but the possibility made her feel a little sick to her stomach. "That's why I'm here. I don't want to be broke in five years."
"Then you'll have to be very careful. The only way to completely protect the money is to set it up in an irrevocable trust that will pay you X amount every year – or every month, however you wanted to set it up – but you'd lose control of the principal, and you don't strike me as the type of person who would like that."
Everything in Jenner rebelled at the idea of letting someone else have control of her money, even though the act would be voluntary. Irrevocable. She didn't like the sound of that.
"That's what I thought," Al said drily, reading Jenner's expression. "So … whether or not you're insanely rich in five years, or broke and working a dead-end job, is entirely up to you. If you can't turn down the moochers, you'll go through this pretty fast. I'd strongly recommend either an irrevocable trust or getting the winnings in a yearly payout rather than lump sum. Lump sum is the smartest choice, if you can leave it alone."
"I can leave it alone," Jenner replied, thinking of Jerry. "I want it protected, invested, where no one can get to it without my in-person say-so. My dad – " She stopped, her expression wry. "He's the main one I'll have to watch out for. Let's just say he doesn't believe in working for what he has."
"All families have one like that," Al observed. "Okay, let's start working out a plan. Lump sum, you'll probably get about" – her fingers danced over a calculator – "a hundred and fifty million dollars."
"What?" Jenner sat up straight. "What happened to the other hundred and forty-five million?"
"Taxes. The government gets what it wants before you get anything."
"But that's almost half!" She was outraged. Yeah, a hundred and fifty million was still an incredibly hefty amount of money, but … but – she wanted the rest of it, too. She'd won it, fair and square. Yeah, she'd known, vaguely, that she'd have to pay taxes, but she hadn't realized the hit would be that big.
"Sure is. If you add up all the taxes – income, social security, sales taxes, the taxes on gasoline and the phone bill and everything else, it isn't unusual for people to end up paying over sixty percent to the government, but a lot of it is hidden. If the average guy realized how much Washington is sucking out of his pocket, there'd be riots in the streets."
"I'll carry the pitchfork," Jenner muttered.
"I bet you would. Still, we can put a hundred and fifty million to serious work." She put some more numbers into the calculator. "A return rate of four percent would give you an annual discretionary income of around six million, without ever touching the principal. And four percent is a low estimate. You should make more."
Okay. Wow. Six million a year, without drawing down the principal at all. She didn't need six million, she could live on a lot less, so that much could stay in her investments, working and earning. The more she had, the more interest it earned, and her worth kept growing. She felt as if a door had just opened, and she could see what was inside the room. She got it.
All she had to do was be smart, and not blow it.
Al launched into a mini-lecture about the variety of investments available – stocks and dividends, Treasury bills, and high-level debt. Jenner didn't pretend to understand it all, but she absorbed what she could and asked a hundred questions. She set her own requirements: no one would be moving her money around without her permission. She didn't want to find that Al or anyone else at Payne Echols had decided to invest her money in a risky stock or whatever, and she'd lost everything. She wanted to be the final word on every decision. She also didn't want anything at her house that would leave her open to theft. She wouldn't put anything past Jerry. He'd do whatever he could to get his hands on the money. People like him were a big part of the reason most lottery winners were broke within five years.
Al set to work formulating a plan. A small part of the money – a hundred thousand – would be put in a bank for Jenner's immediate use. Most of it would be in a savings account that she could easily access, moving money to checking as she needed it. She would also need a safe-deposit box where she could keep all her papers, and no one else could get to them unless she personally granted that person access. Al would work up an investment plan, and when Jenner claimed her winnings she could have the money transferred directly into those accounts.
Jenner breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn't claim the money until everything was in place, but Al said she'd put everything else on the back burner and get all the paperwork prepared. In another week, at the latest, she'd be ready.
Once the plans were hammered out and she was back in the Goose, Jenner blew out a huge breath. She'd walked out of Payne Echols somehow … changed. She was part of the financial world now, and it felt strange, but exciting. Her heart was beating faster, and she felt like laughing and dancing. She wanted to celebrate. She was a multimillionaire! Well, almost. Soon. A week at the most.
She glanced at her watch. Michelle would be at lunch. Grabbing her cell phone, she paused for a split second as she considered how expensive cell minutes were – maybe she should wait until she was home, and use the regular phone – then reality smacked her in the face again and she laughed. Her cell phone bill didn't matter anymore. She dialed Michelle's number.
Michelle answered with a crisp, "What's wrong?" because Jenner almost never called during the day.
There was no easy lead-up, no way other than to blurt out the truth. "I won the lottery."
"Yeah, right. Seriously, what's up? Is Dylan pestering you? Has the Goose died?"
"No, the Goose is fine. I won the lottery," Jenner said again. "The big one. Two hundred and ninety-five million, though I've just met with a financial consultant and she says after taxes I'll end up with a lump sum of about one-fifty Million."
A long moment of silence stretched out. Finally Michelle said, in a small, faint voice, "You're serious."
"As a heart attack."
The next sound was a piercing scream. Jenner laughed, then screamed along with Michelle. She sat in the Goose, cell phone to her ear, and laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Her life had changed and she knew it, but at least Michelle was there for her.
"If you're pulling my leg, I'll kill you," Michelle finally choked out.
"I know. It's hard to believe. I just checked my ticket last night, and I've been scrambling since then to get things set up. You're the first person I've told – well, except for the financial person. Don't tell anyone else yet."
"My lips are zipped. Oh my God. I can't believe it. You're rich!"
"Almost. Soon. Maybe next week."
"That's close enough!" Michelle whooped again. "Girlfriend, we are going to celebrate big time at the Bird tonight, and drinks are on you!"