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She is twenty, beautiful, dirt-poor, and hoping for a better life for her infant daughter when LuAnn Tyler is offered the gift of a lifetime, a $100 million lottery jackpot. All she has to do is change her identity and leave the U.S. forever.
It’s an offer she dares to refuse…until violence forces her hand and thrusts her into a harrowing game of high-stakes, big-money subterfuge. It’s a price she won’t fully pay…until she does the unthinkable and breaks the promise that made her rich.
For if LuAnn Tyler comes home, she will be pitted against the deadliest contestant of all: the chameleon-like financial mastermind who changed her life. And who can take it away at will…
Table of Contents
More from David Baldacci
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Shirley Watson was madder than hell. In seeking appropriate revenge for her humiliation at the hands of LuAnn Tyler, Shirley had taxed her ingenuity, to the extent she had any, to the maximum. She parked her pickup in an out-of-the-way spot about a quarter of a mile from the trailer and got out, a metal canister held tightly in her right hand. She looked at her watch as she made her way toward the trailer, where she was pretty certain LuAnn would be deeply sleeping after working at the diner all night. Where Duane was she didn't really care. If he was there, then she might get a piece of him too for not defending her against the Amazon-like LuAnn.
With each step, the short, squat Shirley grew even angrier. She had gone to school with LuAnn, and had also dropped out before graduating. Also like LuAnn, she had lived in Rikersville all her life. Unlike LuAnn, however, she had no desire to leave it. Which made what LuAnn had done to her even more awful. People had seen her sneaking home, completely naked. She had never been more humiliated. She had gotten more crap than she knew how to deal with. She was going to have to live with that the rest of her life. Stories would be told again and again until she would be the laughingstock of her hometown. The abuse would continue until she was dead and buried; maybe even then it wouldn't stop. LuAnn Tyler was going to pay for that. So she was screwing around with Duane, so what? Everybody knew Duane had no intention of marrying LuAnn. And everyone also knew that LuAnn would probably kill herself before she would ever walk down the aisle with that man. LuAnn stayed because she had nowhere else to go, or lacked the courage to make a change, Shirley knew that—at least she believed she did—for a fact. Everyone thought LuAnn was so beautiful, so capable. Shirley fumed and grew even more flushed in the face despite the cool breeze flickering across the road. Well, she was going to love to hear what people had to say about LuAnn's looks after she got done with her.
When she drew close to the trailer, Shirley bent low and made her way from tree to tree. The big convertible was still parked in front of the trailer. Shirley could see the tire marks in the hardened mud where something had spun out. She passed the car, taking a moment to peer inside before continuing her stealthy approach. What if somebody else was there? She suddenly smiled to herself. Maybe LuAnn was getting some on the side while Duane was away. Then she could pay LuAnn back even steven. She smiled even more broadly as she envisioned a naked LuAnn running screaming from the trailer. Suddenly, everything became very quiet, very still. As if on cue, even the breeze stopped. Shirley's smile disappeared and she looked around nervously. She gripped the canister even more firmly and reached in her jacket pocket and pulled out the hunting knife. If she missed with the battery acid she was carrying in the canister, then she most assuredly wouldn't miss with the knife. She had been cleaning game and fish most of her life and could wield a blade with the best of them. LuAnn's face would get the benefit of that expertise, at least in the areas the acid missed.
"Damn," she said as she moved up to the front steps and the smell hit her right in the face. She looked around again. She hadn't experienced such an odor even when working a brief stint at the local landfill. She slipped the knife back in her pocket, unscrewed the top to the canister, and then took a moment to cover her nose with a handkerchief. She had come too far to turn back now, smell or not. She silently moved into the trailer, and made her way down to the bedroom. Edging open the door, she looked in. Empty. She closed the door softly and turned to head down the other way. Maybe LuAnn and her beau were asleep on the couch there. The hallway was dark and she felt her way along the wall. As she drew closer, Shirley steeled herself to strike. She lurched forward and, instead, stumbled over something and fell to the floor, coming face-to-face with the decaying source of the stench. Her scream could be heard almost to the main road.
* * *
"You sure didn't buy much, LuAnn." Charlie surveyed the few bags on the chaise lounge in her hotel room.
LuAnn came out of the bathroom where she had changed into a pair of jeans and a white sweater, her hair done up in a French braid. "I just like looking. That was fun enough. Besides, I flat out can't believe the prices up here. Good God!"
"But I would've paid for it," Charlie protested. "I told you that a hundred times."
"I don't want you spending money on me, Charlie."
Charlie sat down in a chair and stared at her. "LuAnn, it's not my money. I told you that, too. I'm on an expense account. Whatever you wanted, you could have."
"Is that what Mr. Jackson said?"
"Something like that. Let's just call it an advance on your future winnings." He grinned.
LuAnn sat down on the bed and played with her hands, a deep frown on her face. Lisa was still in her baby carriage playing with some toys Charlie had bought her. Her happy sounds filled the room.
"Here." Charlie handed LuAnn a package of photos from their day in New York. "For the memory book."
LuAnn looked at the photos and her eyes crinkled. "I never thought I'd see a horse and buggy in this city. It was lots of fun riding around that big old park. Smack dab in the middle of all them buildings, too."
"Come on, you'd never heard of Central Park?"
"Sure I had. Heard, leastways. Only I just thought it was all made up." LuAnn handed him a double photo of herself that she picked out of the pack.
"Whoops, thanks for reminding me," said Charlie.
"That's for my passport?"
He nodded as he slipped the photo into his jacket pocket.
"Don't Lisa need one?"
He shook his head. "She's not old enough. She can travel under yours."
"So I understand you want to change your name."
LuAnn put the photos away and started fiddling with the packages. "I thought it'd be a good idea. A fresh start."
"That's what Jackson said you said. I guess if that's what you want."
LuAnn suddenly plopped down on the chaise lounge and put her head in her hands.
Charlie looked keenly at her. "Come on, LuAnn, changing your name isn't that traumatic. What's bothering you?"
She finally looked up. "Are you sure I'm gonna win the lottery tomorrow?"
He spoke carefully. "Let's just wait until tomorrow, LuAnn, but I don't think you'll be disappointed."
"All that money, but I don't feel good about it, Charlie, not one bit."
He lit a cigarette and puffed on it as he continued to watch her. "I'm gonna order up some room service. Three courses, a bottle of wine. Some hot coffee, the works. You'll feel better after you've eaten." He opened up the hotel services book and began to peruse the menu.
"Have you done this before? I mean, looked after people that . . . Mr. Jackson has met with?"
Charlie looked up from the menu. "I've worked with him for a while, yeah. I've never met him in person. We communicate solely over the phone. He's a smart guy. A little anal for my tastes, a bit paranoid, but real sharp. He pays me well, real well. And baby-sitting people in fancy hotels and ordering room service isn't such a bad life." He added with a big smile, "I've never looked after anybody I had this much fun with, though."
She knelt down beside the baby carriage and pulled out a gift-wrapped package from the storage bin underneath. She handed it to him.
Charlie's mouth gaped in surprise. "What's this?"
"I got you a present. Actually, it's from me and Lisa. I was looking for something for you and she started pointing and squealing at it."
"When did you do this?"
"Remember, while you were over looking at the men's clothing."
"LuAnn, you didn't have to—"
"I know that," she said quickly. "That's why it's called a gift, you're not supposed to have to." Charlie gripped the box tightly in his hands, his eyes riveted on her. "Well, go ahead and open it for gosh sakes," she said.
While Charlie carefully pulled off the wrapping paper, LuAnn heard Lisa stir. She went over and picked up the little girl. They both watched Charlie as he took off the box top.
"Damn!" He gently lifted out the dark green fedora. It had an inch-wide leather band on the outside and a ribbon of cream-colored silk lining the inside.
"I saw you trying it on at the store. I thought you looked real nice in it, real sharp. But then you put it back. I could tell you didn't want to."
"LuAnn, this thing cost a lot of money."
She waved him off. "I had some saved up. I hope you like it."
"I love it, thank you." He gave her a hug and then took one of Lisa's dimpled fists in his. He gave it a gentle, formal shake. "And thank you, little lady. Excellent taste."
"Well, try it on again. Make sure you still like it."
He slid it over his head and checked himself out in the mirror.
"Slick, Charlie, real slick."
He smiled. "Not bad, not bad." He fussed with it a little until he caught the proper angle. Then he took it off and sat back down. "I've never gotten a gift from the people I've looked after. I'm usually only with them for a couple of days anyway, then Jackson takes over."
LuAnn quickly picked up on the opening. "So how'd you come to be doing this kind of work?"
"I take it you'd like to hear my life story?"
"Sure. I've been bending your ear enough."
Charlie settled back in the chair and assumed a comfortable look. He pointed to his face. "Bet you didn't guess I used to ply my skills in the boxing ring." He grinned. "Mostly, I was a sparring partner—a punching bag for up-and-comers. I was smart enough to get out while I still had my brains, at least some of them. After that, I took up semipro football. Let me tell you, that isn't any easier on the body, but at least you get to wear helmets and pads. I'd always been athletic, though, and to tell you the truth I liked making my living that way."
"You look like you're in real good shape."
Charlie slapped his hard stomach. "Not bad for being almost fifty-four. Anyway, after football, I coached a little, got married, floated around here and there, never finding anything that fit, you know?"
LuAnn said, "I know that feeling real good."
"Then my career path took a big turn." He paused to crush out his cigarette and immediately lit another.
LuAnn took the opportunity to put Lisa back in the baby carriage. "What'd you do?"
"I spent some time as a guest of the U.S. government." LuAnn looked at him curiously, not getting his meaning. "I was in a federal prison, LuAnn."
She looked astonished. "You don't look the type, Charlie."
He laughed. "I don't know about that. Besides, there are lots of different types doing time, LuAnn, let me tell you."
"So what'd you do?"
"Income tax evasion. Or fraud I guess they'd call it, at least the prosecutor did. And he was right. I guess I just got tired of paying it. Never seemed like there was enough to live on, let alone giving a chunk to the government." He brushed his hair back. "That little mistake cost me three years and my marriage."
"I'm sorry, Charlie."
He shrugged. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me, really. I was in a minimum security facility with a bunch of other white collar criminal types so I didn't have to worry every minute about somebody cutting my head off. I took a bunch of classes, started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. Really only one bad thing happened to me on the inside." He held up the cigarette. "Never smoked until I got to prison. There, just about everybody did. When I got out I finally quit. For a long time. Took it back up about six months ago. What the hell. Anyway, when I got out, I went to work for my lawyer, sort of as an in-house investigator. He knew I was an honest, reliable sort, despite my little conviction. And I knew a lot of people up and down the socioeconomic scale, if you know what I mean. A lot of contacts. Plus I learned a lot while I was in the slammer. Talk about your education. I had professors in every subject from insurance scams to auto chop shops. That experience helped out a lot when I jumped to the law firm. It was a good gig, I enjoyed the work."
"So how'd you hook up with Mr. Jackson?"
Now Charlie didn't look so comfortable. "Let's just say he happened to call one day. I had gotten myself in a little bit of trouble. Nothing real serious, but I was still on parole and it could've cost me some serious time inside. He offered to help me out and I accepted that offer."
"Kind of like I did," said LuAnn, an edge to her voice. "His offers can be kind of hard to refuse."
He glanced at her, his eyes suddenly wary. "Yeah," he said curtly.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and blurted out, "I've never cheated on anything in my whole life, Charlie."
Charlie dragged on his cigarette and then put it out. "I guess it all depends on how you look at it."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, if you think about it, people who are otherwise good, honest, and hardworking cheat every day of their lives. Some in big ways, most in small ones. People fudge on their taxes, or just don't pay 'em, like me. Or they don't give money back when somebody figures up a bill wrong. Little white lies, folks tell almost automatically on a daily basis, sometimes just to get through the day with their sanity. Then there's the big cheat: Men and women have affairs all the time. That one I know a lot about. I think my ex-wife majored in adultery."
"I got a little taste of that, too," LuAnn said quietly.
Charlie stared at her. "One dumb SOB is all I can say. Anyway, it all adds up over a lifetime."
"But not to no fifty million dollars' worth."
"Maybe not in dollar terms, no. But I might take one big cheat in a lifetime over a thousand little ones that eat away at you eventually, make you not like yourself too much."
LuAnn hugged herself and shivered.
He studied her for a moment and then looked once more at the room service menu. "I'm gonna order dinner. Fish okay with you?"
LuAnn nodded absently and stared down at her shoes while Charlie conveyed their dinner order over the phone.
That done, he flipped another cigarette out of the pack and lit up. "Hell, I don't know one single person who would turn down the offer you got. As far as I'm concerned you'd be stupid to." He paused and fiddled with his lighter. "And from the little I've seen of you, maybe you can redeem yourself, at least in your eyes. Not that you'd need much redeeming."
She stared up at him. "How can I do that?"
"Use some of the money to help other people," he said simply. "Maybe treat it like a public trust, or something like that. I'm not saying don't enjoy the money. I think you deserve that." He added, "I saw some background info on you. You haven't exactly had the easiest life."
LuAnn shrugged. "I got by."
Charlie sat down beside her. "That's exactly right, LuAnn, you're a survivor. You'll survive this, too." He looked at her intently. "You mind me asking a personal question now that I've spilled my guts to you?"
"Depends on the question."
"Fair enough." He nodded. "Well, like I said, I looked at some of your background stuff. I was just wondering how you ever hooked up with a guy like Duane Harvey. He has 'loser' stamped all over him."
LuAnn thought of Duane's slender body lying facedown on the dirty carpet, the small groan he had made before plummeting over, as though he were calling to her, pleading for help. But she hadn't answered that call. "Duane's not so bad. He had a bunch of bad breaks." She stood up and paced. "I was going through a real bad time. My momma had just died. I met Duane while I was thinking of what to do with my life. You either grow up in that county and die there or you get out just as fast as you can. Ain't nobody ever moved into Rikersville County, least not that I ever heard of." She took a deep breath and continued. "Duane had just moved into this trailer he had found. He had a job then. He treated me nice, we talked some about getting married. He was just different."
"You wanted to be one of the ones who was born and died there?"
She looked at him, shocked. "Hell, no. We were going to get out. I wanted to and that's what Duane wanted, at least that's what he said." She stopped pacing and looked over at Charlie. "Then we had Lisa," she said simply. "That kinda changed things for Duane. I don't think having a kid was part of his plan. But we did and it's the best thing that ever happened to me. But after that, I knew things weren't going to work out between us. I knew I had to leave. I was just trying to figure out how when Mr. Jackson called."
LuAnn looked out the window at the twinkling lights etched against the darkness. "Jackson said there were some conditions with all this. With the money. I know he's not doing this because he loves me." She looked over her shoulder at Charlie.
Charlie grunted. "No, you're absolutely right about that."
"You got any idea what the conditions are?"
Charlie was shaking his head before she finished asking the question. "I do know that you'll have more money than you'll know what to do with."
"And I can use that money any way I want, right?"
"That's right. It's yours, free and clear. You can clean out Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany. Or build a hospital in Harlem. It's up to you."
LuAnn looked back out the window and her eyes began to shine as the thoughts plowing through her head seemed to dwarf the skyline staring back at her. Right that very instant, everything seemed to click! Even the massive number of buildings in New York City seemed far too small to hold the things she wanted to do with her life. With all that money.
We should've just stayed at the hotel and watched it from there." Charlie looked around nervously. "Jackson would kill me if he knew we were here. I have strict orders never to take any of the 'clients' here." "Here" was the headquarters of the United States National Lottery Commission located in a brand new state-of-the-art, needle-thin skyscraper on Park Avenue. The huge auditorium was filled with people. Network news correspondents were scattered throughout, microphones clamped in their fists, as were representatives from magazines, newspapers, and cable TV.
Near the front of the stage, LuAnn cradled Lisa against her chest. She wore the glasses Charlie had bought for her and a baseball cap turned backward under which her long hair was balled up. Her memorable figure was hidden under the full-length trench coat.
"It's okay, Charlie, nobody's gonna remember me under all this stuff."
He shook his head. "I still don't like it."
"I had to come see. It just wouldn't be the same sitting in the hotel room watching on TV."
"Jackson's gonna probably call the hotel right after the drawing," he grumbled.
"I'll just tell him I fell asleep and didn't hear the phone."
"Right!" He lowered his voice. "You're gonna win at least fifty million bucks and you fall asleep?"
"Well, if I already know I'm gonna win, what's so exciting about it?" she shot back.
Charlie had no ready answer for that so he clamped his mouth shut and again took up a careful scrutiny of the room and its occupants.
LuAnn looked at the stage where the lottery pinball machine was set up on a table. It was about six feet long and comprised ten large tubes, each one rising above an attached bin of Ping-Pong balls. Each ball had a number painted on it. After the machine was activated, the air would circulate the balls until one made its way through the tiny hatch, popped up into the tube, and was caught and held by a special device inside the tube. Once a ball was thus captured, the bin of balls below that tube would immediately shut down and the next bin would automatically activate. Down the line it would go, the suspense building, until all ten winning numbers were finally revealed.
People were nervously looking at their lottery tickets; many held at least a dozen in their hands. One young man had an open laptop computer in front of him. The screen was filled with hundreds of lottery combinations he had purchased as he reviewed his electronic inventory. LuAnn had no need to look at her ticket; she had memorized the numbers: 0810080521, which represented her and Lisa's birthdays, and the age LuAnn would be on her next birthday. She didn't feel any more guilt as she observed the hopeful looks on the faces surrounding her, the silently mouthed prayers as the time for the drawing drew nearer. She would be able to handle their imminent disappointment. She had made up her mind, set her plan, and that decision had bolstered her spirits incredibly and it was the reason she was standing in the middle of this sea of tense people instead of hiding under the bed back at the Waldorf.
She stirred out of her musings as a man walked onto the stage. The crowd instantly hushed. LuAnn had half-expected to see Jackson striding across the stage, but the man was younger and far better looking. LuAnn wondered for a moment if he was in on it. She and Charlie exchanged tight smiles. A blond woman in a short skirt, black nylons, and spike heels joined the man and stood next to the sophisticated-looking machine, hands clasped behind her back.
The man's announcement was brief and clear as the TV cameras focused on his handsome features. He welcomed everyone to the drawing and then he paused, stared dramatically out at the crowd, and delivered the real news of the evening: The official jackpot, based upon ticket sales up to the very last minute, was a record-setting one hundred million dollars! A collective gasp went up from the crowd at the mention of the gigantic sum. Even LuAnn's mouth dropped open. Charlie looked over at her, shook his head slightly, and a small grin escaped his lips. He playfully elbowed her, leaned close, and whispered into her ear. "Hell, you can clean out Saks and Tiffany and still build that hospital, just with the friggin' interest."
It was indeed the largest jackpot ever and someone, one incredibly fortunate person, was about to win it, the lottery man declared with a beaming smile and a ton of showmanship. The crowd cheered wildly. The man gestured dramatically to the woman, who hit the power switch on the side of the machine. LuAnn watched as the balls in the first bin started bouncing around. When the balls started attacking the narrow pathway into the tubes, LuAnn felt her heart race and her breathing constrict. Despite the presence of Charlie beside her, the calm, authoritative manner of Mr. Jackson, his correct predicting of the daily lottery, and all the other things she had been through in the last several days, she suddenly felt that her being here was totally crazy. How could Jackson or anyone else control what those gyrating balls would do? It occurred to her that what she was witnessing resembled sperm dive-bombing an egg, something she had seen once on a TV program. What were the chances of correctly picking the one that would break through and impregnate? Her spirits plummeted as she confronted a very distinct set of options: travel back home and somehow explain the deaths of two men in a drug-filled trailer she happened to call home; or seek the hospitality of the nearest homeless shelter here in the city and contemplate what to do with the wrecked state of her life.
- "Flat out fun to read...a wildfire of a thriller."—Publisher's Weekly
- "Baldacci has come up with another good one."—New York Times
- "Aptly named...the devilish tale of a heroine who gambles her soul."—People
- "He's hit the jackpot again...Baldacci pushes the pace pedal to the floor and takes the turns on two wheels."—New York Daily News
- "His eye for a cinematic book doesn't waver...Enjoy the ride."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
- "The action in this book is relentless...Baldacci has created one of the more amazing characters you're likely to run across--LuAnn Tyler."—Houston Chronicle
- "It's hard to put the book down."—Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2002
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Grand Central Publishing