Elizabeth Russell is a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards National Award Winner!
Katie Nelson, a program officer at Atlanta’s largest charitable foundation, has the job everyone wants: giving away other people’s money. But when her latest grant recommendation literally goes up in flames, killing a nameless Latina woman, suddenly everyone becomes a suspect. Was it a hate crime, an inside job or something more insidious? She enlists the help of foundation trustee Jim Hunter, but as they begin to unravel the mystery, they discover a burgeoning romance growing between them that complicates their investigation. As Katie unearths more evidence, Jim becomes less cooperative and more distant. When Katie accidently discovers that Jim is not who he claims to be, she has to choose between trusting him or giving up on their relationship. As she struggles to find the culprit and trust her heart, headstrong Katie unwittingly places herself in mortal danger. But who’s looking out for her and who’s trying to do her in?
Even in the hands of someone who’d never done this before, someone who didn’t really understand the nature of fire, nothing would remain but smoke and ashes in half an hour. It wasn’t much of a structure anyway—just a wooden frame inside a shell of ancient brick and crumbling mortar. It didn’t even have a sprinkler system. I’d checked.
The man paused before leaving his car. Maybe he had a sudden attack of nerves. But no, he was just struggling with a black ski mask. He pulled it over his head and emerged without a sound. He wore only black, but I’d know him anywhere. His loafers whispered across the pavement as he made his way around to the back of the old building.
The rest of the block consisted of abandoned warehouses, decaying factories and vacant lots strewn with trash; there wasn’t another soul in sight. Only the homeless and the junkies hung out in this part of town, and they were all sleeping it off or out committing crimes. No one saw him but me, and that’s the way I wanted it. Not that I gave a rat’s ass what happened to this guy. The building was all I cared about. It took some doing to get to this point, some intricate negotiations. There were a million reasons that this building had to go. I just happened to know the best one, and in a few minutes, the plan would ignite, if you’ll pardon the pun.
He stood at the back wall by an old, single-pane window. Whoever renovated this piece of crap did it on the cheap. Or maybe they were going for “rustic.” Whatever. It would burn all the faster because of it.
He glanced around, nervous as a middle school shoplifter, but I knew he’d never spot me. One quick overhand hurl and the first bomb crashed through the window, followed swiftly by a second. The sound of breaking glass gave way to a muffled bang and then a whoosh as fire raced along the floor and worked its way up the walls. If the strikes were as true as they sounded, nothing would survive.
The explosion itself disappointed me, but a louder bang would’ve attracted unwanted attention. The fire spread, visible now through the windows, mesmerizing to watch. The man stood there, frozen. The awe of fire can do that to you. But he needed to get a move on, get out of there before the cops came. I threw a rock—not a big one—at his back to shake him out of his trance. He glanced around, but I ducked away, out of sight. Maybe he’d think it was a projectile from one of those little explosions that kept coming from inside. Pop! Pop! Pop!
He looked uneasy, though, as he scurried back to the car. He started the engine and silently drove away, slicing through the early morning darkness until even the trace of taillights disappeared.
I wanted him gone so I could watch in peace as the whole thing unfolded. I like the progression of destruction as a fire chews every bit of fuel it can reach, eating its way to its own death. First the ceiling, then the walls and then…well…then she screamed.
I was the only one who heard her, the only one who pictured her trapped inside, the only one who heard her life end as the heat and smoke stripped the air from her lungs. I was the only one who wondered if, mercifully, she suffocated before the flames found her flesh.
When the fire began to slow, I heard the sirens as the first fire engines approached. I knew before the firemen did what they’d find. A charred body of some nameless immigrant. Some clues about how that fire had started, but not enough to trace. He might get away with it after all, that lucky, stupid bastard.
I could just picture him. By now he’d have a glass of wine in hand, toasting his night’s work. In his mind, the task was all done, the hard part over.
But I knew better. It takes time to learn that setting a fire might end one thing, but it always starts something else, sets something else in motion. The minute he lit the first fuse, he unleashed something he couldn’t control. He didn’t know that, but I did.
That’s why I was there—to make sure that whatever this fire set in motion moved in the right direction. I didn’t start this, but I was pretty sure I would have to finish it.
Katie Nelson pressed her trembling palms against her 14th story office windows, almost willing the thick glass to dissolve so she could fly away. Outside, rain streamed down onto Midtown Atlanta. She blinked back the hot tears that wanted to fall as well.
Her face still burned with the sting of what had just happened in the foundation boardroom. Guy Porter, a foundation trustee, hadn’t slapped her physically, but his verbal assault hurt every bit as much. She reached up with her left hand to grab a wavy strand of her long brown hair, pulling it over the front of her shoulder and threading it over and over, over and over, through her fingertips, pausing only to wipe a threatening tear with the back of her hand.
“Katie, it happens to everyone. Eventually.” Chris Montez, her only fellow program officer on the Hartwell Foundation staff, offered an explanation.
She knew he meant to help, but it just made her tears more difficult to contain. She swallowed hard and with her back still turned away from him, spoke to his reflection in the floor-to-ceiling window. “Really, Chris? Can you honestly tell me that you’ve been skewered by Porter like that?”
Chris glanced at the floor for a moment before meeting Katie’s reflected gaze. “The board has turned down my grant recommendations plenty of times…” he started, then stopped as Katie cocked at eyebrow at him. “But no, not like that.”
Of course not like that. For almost a year now, the board had trusted her judgment as a program officer for the city’s largest charitable foundation. Katie rotated her fingers faster, twisting the strand of hair to a point just shy of knotting. The board never shot down Chris’s proposals unless funds just weren’t available. They practically ate out of his hand, approving his solid, safe…and boring proposals with hardly any discussion. Like Chris, some of Katie’s grant recommen-dations didn’t end up getting approved because of limited funds. Unlike Chris, Katie intentionally pushed the envelope sometimes, hoping to open the board’s minds and their hearts to new ideas. She considered it her mission, the value she brought to her work. After all, she’d been in the trenches, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to beg for funding to provide services to those who needed them so desperately. It was a lot harder than writing a damn check.
“Look,” he said, “you tackled a difficult issue. Not everyone feels the same way you do about immigration and illegals. You have to admit, even if you don’t agree with it, even if he didn’t express it well, Porter has a right to his opinion.”
Katie’s mouth tightened at the irony in his words. Chris, the one Latino on the foundation staff, was trying to defend the board’s biggest bigot on his anti-immigration stance. She spun to face him, the words exploding out of her mouth before she could even think. “Really, Chris? Do you think he has a right to scream at me like that? Does he have a right to tell everyone I should be fired?”
“That’s not exactly what he said. But even if he did, it’s not what he meant. At least not about you.”
“Why the hell did I leave the food bank? It didn’t pay worth a damn, but at least people didn’t attack me when I was doing my job!”
She glared at her colleague, then looked away as the harshness of her words echoed between them. Unlike Porter, Katie rarely cursed, and she knew that while he could get away with being a brash, knife-tongued bully, the rest of the board and staff frowned upon such outbursts. A fresh wave of shame poured over her. The swell of water building behind her eyes threatened to burst, and she’d rather die than cry in front of a coworker. Especially here, in the esteemed offices of the Hartwell Foundation, where calm always prevailed. Unless you’re Guy Porter, she thought, clamping her teeth down on her bottom lip. Then you can rant and rave all you want.
“Hey, you know we don’t all think like that. Just chill for a bit and then let me know if you want to talk.” Chris shot her a sympathetic look, then disappeared down the hall.
Katie crossed her office to shut the door as the tears began, silently thanking Chris for knowing when to leave her alone. It was embarrassing, really. She could watch the saddest movie ever made and not shed a tear. She hadn’t even cried when her beloved grandmother passed away last year. But when she got angry? Frustrated? The waterworks began. Ridiculous.
The tears came now. Her head whirred as she replayed Porter’s harsh attack in front of the entire board of trustees, all because of her request for grant funds to the Viva Latina Health Clinic. Okay, so maybe sometimes she’d pushed a little too far with this proposal, but no trustee had ever attacked her so viciously, or personally. In a matter of minutes, he’d ripped her professional reputation to shreds, pummeling her like a school yard bully while the rest of the room looked on in silence, cowed by the raw juxtaposition of unbridled aggression and naked helplessness.
“This is the most irresponsible recommendation I’ve ever seen!” he shouted across the polished oak table at his fellow trustees. His gaze snapped to Katie, shooting daggers across the room to where she sat next to Chris along a side wall. “If this is the kind of suggestion we’re going to get from our program staff, why the hell do we pay their salaries?” His piercing look left no doubt whom he meant by “program staff.”
“This clinic will attract nothing but illegals, and I don’t see how we can justify that when we already can’t do enough to help care for our own citizens. We’ve already funded programs for immigrants at the charity hospital. Why the hell do we have to keep supporting people who keep breaking the law?”
As a well-known corporate attorney, Porter never hesitated to say whatever he wanted. But Katie had never seen him attack anyone else on the Foundation’s staff so vehemently. None of the other six trustees volunteered an opinion one way or the other. Maybe they too didn’t see the value in her work.
Worst of all, the outburst caught Katie completely off guard, giving her no time to prepare a defense or even guard her own countenance. She kept her eyes on Porter’s hands as he talked, trying in vain to stop the wave of heat surging up to her face. If she tried to meet his gaze, the knot in her stomach would have risen to join the one in her throat and she might have lost her composure, so she simply sat there, expressionless and paralyzed, watching Porter’s hands jab back and forth like a boxer’s as his barrage of words surged over her.
“The sheer idiocy of this proposal puts me in shock, in shock! And I thought I was a pretty tough guy to rattle.” Porter stood up as he levied these words at Katie, his large frame demanding her acknowledgment. “If you’re not going to give your work any more thought than this…”—he waved the proposal in the air with one hand and smacked it hard with the other—“…then I think you’d better go back to the soup line!”
If anyone in the room had doubts left about whom Porter was attacking, then his final outburst left no doubt.
In the end, the trustees denied the recommendation without further discussion.
Now, alone in her office, Katie glared out the window as a new wave of indignation replaced her tears. No one had defended her in the meeting. Not Chris, not any of the other trustees. Why would they? As a close cadre of white men, long past their sixtieth birthdays and steeped in tradition, they set the tone for all things Hartwell.
But damn it, the proposal was solid! All of her work was solid! Katie always dotted every “i” and crossed each “t” with care. It took her months to examine every piece of each proposal she brought forward to the board. Viva Latina was no different. Every penny of the proposed grant would go toward saving lives and curing the sick. Wasn’t that the purpose of the Hartwell Foundation? Wasn’t that her job?
Maybe Porter is right. Maybe I should be somewhere else. She closed her eyes as she pressed her forehead against the cool glass, forcing herself to take deep breaths that fogged the thick pane.
Did I miss something? Anything? She cast about for an answer as she rolled first the backs of her hands, then her wrists against the cooling window. Viva Latina provided a much-needed service to an underserved population. The organization had a strong, committed leader and an impressive track record. It had decent finances, but was hard-pressed to continue, much less grow, without an influx of cash. The foundation most definitely would have seen a positive social return on its charitable investment. Other than Porter being a complete jackass, she hadn’t missed a thing. She had vetted that proposal well, maybe even better than usual.
Thinking about the Viva Latina proposal, she felt a fist tighten in her stomach. More than one casualty had emerged from that board meeting.
How am I going to break the news to Jorge? she wondered.
Winner of a 2015 Independent Publisher National Silver Medal
"Elizabeth Russell has crafted a compelling and most intriguing narrative sure to make the reader smile with satisfaction and delight."
Mark Constantine, author of Wit and Wisdom: Unleashing the Philanthropic Imagination (EPIP, 2009)
"Foundations need not be mysterious, but this novel about grantmaking by someone who knows foundations well clearly belongs on the mystery-lover's bookshelf."
Dorothy Ridings, Former President, Council on Foundations
"Exquisite! There is an honesty and humanness about these characters which is enormously refreshing."
Janine Lee, President, Southeastern Council of Foundations
Read more reviews here
Other People's Money is very well done! Elizabeth Russell does a great job of weaving foundation culture into a suspense novel, which is not an easy thing to do. Her twists and turns kept this reader riveted. Kudos!
- Peter Long, President & CEO, Blue Shield of California Foundation
This book is published by Moonshine Cove Publishing — Books That Bekon — an independent publisher
Elizabeth's local bookstore is Malaprops in Asheville, NC. Support your local bookstore.
A big thanks to Octavia Books in New Orleans for selling at the Southeastern Council of Foundations 2014 Annual Meeting
You can find me now at Park Road Books in Charlotte!