Jackson studied the shopping mall's long corridor, noting
haggard mothers piloting loaded strollers and the senior
citizens group walking the mall both for exercise and
conversation. Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, the stocky
Jackson stared intently at the north entrance to the shopping
mall. That would no doubt be the one she would use
since the bus stop was right in front. She had, Jackson
knew, no other form of transportation. Her live-in
boyfriend's truck was in the impoundment lot, the fourth
time in as many months. It must be getting a little tedious
for her, he thought. The bus stop was on the main road.
She would have to walk about a mile to get there, but she
often did that. What other choice did she have? The baby
would be with her. She would never leave it with the
boyfriend, Jackson was certain of that.
While his name always remained Jackson for all of his
business endeavors, next month his appearance would
change dramatically from the hefty middle-aged man he
was currently. Facial features of course would again be
altered; weight would probably be lost; height added or
taken away, along with hair. Male or female? Aged or
youthful? Often, the persona would be taken from people
whom he knew, either wholly or bits of thread from different
ones, sewn together until the delicate quilt of fabrication
was complete. In school, biology had been a
favorite subject. Specimens belonging to that rarest of all
classes, the hermaphrodite, had never ceased to fascinate
him. He smiled as he dwelled for a moment on this greatest
of all physical duplicities.
Jackson had received a first-rate education from a prestigious
Eastern school. Combining his love of acting with
his natural acumen for science and chemistry, he had
achieved a rare double major in drama and chemical engineering.
Mornings would find him hunched over pages
of complex equations or malodorous concoctions in the
university's chemistry lab, while the evenings would
have him energetically embroiled in the production of a
Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller classic.
Those accomplishments were serving him very well.
Indeed, if his classmates could only see him now.
In keeping with today's character--a middle-aged
male, overweight and out of shape from leading a sedentary
lifestyle--a bead of perspiration suddenly sprouted
on Jackson's forehead. His lips curled into a smile. This
physical reaction pleased him immensely, aided as it was
by the insulation of the padding he was wearing to provide
bulky proportions and to conceal his own wiry
frame. But it was something more than that too: He took
pride in the fact that he became the person totally, as
though different chemical reactions took place within
him depending on who and what he was pretending to be.
He didn't normally inhabit shopping malls; his personal
tastes were far more sophisticated. However, his
clientele were most comfortable in these types of surroundings,
and comfort was an important consideration
in his line of work. His meetings tended to make people
quite excited, sometimes in negative ways. Several interviews
had become extremely animated, compelling him
to think on his feet. These reminiscences brought another
smile to Jackson's lips. You couldn't argue with success,
though. He was batting a thousand. However, it only took
one to spoil his perfect record. His smile quickly faded.
Killing someone was never a pleasant experience. Rarely
was it justified, but when it was, one simply had to do it
and move on. For several reasons he hoped the meeting
today would not precipitate such an outcome.
He carefully dabbed his forehead with his pocket handkerchief
and adjusted his shirt cuffs. He smoothed down
a barely visible tangle in the synthetic fibers of his neatly
groomed wig. His real hair was compressed under a latex
He pulled open the door to the space he had rented in
the mall and went inside. The area was clean and orderly--in
fact too much so, he thought suddenly as he
slowly surveyed the interior. It lacked the look of a true
The receptionist seated behind the cheap metal desk in
the foyer looked up at him. In accordance with his earlier
instructions, she didn't attempt to speak. She had no idea
who he was or why she was here. As soon as Jackson's
appointment showed up, the receptionist had been instructed
to leave. Very soon she would be on a bus out of
town, her purse a little fatter for her minimal troubles.
Jackson never looked at her; she was a simple prop in his
latest stage production.
The phone beside her sat silent, the typewriter next to
that, unused. Yes, absolutely, too well organized, Jackson
decided with a frown. He eyed the stack of paper on the
receptionist's desk. With a sudden motion he spread some
of the papers around the desk's surface. He then cocked
the phone around just so and put a piece of paper in the
typewriter, winding it through with several quick spins of
the platen knob.
Jackson looked around at his handiwork and sighed.
You couldn't think of everything all at once.
Jackson walked past the small reception area, quickly
hitting the end of the shallow space, and then turned
right. He opened the door to the tiny interior office,
slipped across the room, and sat down behind the scuffed
wooden desk. A small TV sat in one corner of the room,
its blank screen staring back at him. He pulled a cigarette
from his pocket, lit it, and leaned far back in the chair,
trying his best to relax despite the constant flow of adrenaline.
He stroked his thin, dark mustache. It too was made
of synthetic fiber ventilated on a lace foundation and attached
to his skin with spirit gum. His nose had been
changed considerably as well: a putty base highlighted
and shadowed, to make his nose's actual delicate and
straight appearance bulky and slightly crooked. The
small mole resting next to the altered bridge of his nose
was also fake: a concoction of gelatin and alfalfa seeds
mixed in hot water. His straight teeth were covered with
acrylic caps to give them an uneven and unhealthy appearance.
All of these illusions would be remembered by
even the most casual observer. Thus when they were removed,
he, in essence, disappeared. What more could
someone wholeheartedly engaged an illegal activities
Soon, if things went according to plan, it would all
begin again. Each time was a little different, but that was
the exciting part: the not knowing. He checked his watch
again. Yes, very soon. He expected to have an extremely
productive meeting with her; more to the point, a mutually
He only had one question to ask LuAnn Tyler, one simple
question that carried the potential for very complex
repercussions. Based upon his experience, he was reasonably
certain of her answer, but one just never knew.
He dearly hoped, for her sake, that she would give the
right one. For there was only one "right" answer. If she
said no? Well, the baby would never have the opportunity
to know its mother, because the baby would be an orphan.
He smacked the desktop with the palm of his hand. She
would say yes. All the others had. Jackson shook his head
vigorously as he thought it through. He would make her
see, convince her of the inescapable logic of joining with
him. How it would change everything for her. More than
she could ever imagine. More than she could ever hope
for. How could she say no? It was an offer that simply no
one could refuse.
If she came. Jackson rubbed his cheek with the back of
his hand, took a long, slow drag on the cigarette, and
stared absently at a nail pop in the wall. But, truth be
known, how could she not come?
Excerpted from "The Winner" by David Baldacci. Copyright © 1998 by David Baldacci. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.