Encore – Chapter Three – Biff’s Sporting Almanac


Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. In the last chapter, despite not understanding why it was happening, Leo comes to terms with what is going on. He decides to do what most of us would do in this situation… and tries to make a ton of money.

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Chapter 3: Biff’s Sporting Almanac

 

I sat on the worn-out yellow leather couch in the living room, pretending not to be focused on the old cathode TV playing the evening news. I checked my watch again: 8:25, 5 minutes to go. My parents were clearly wondering what I was doing at home watching the news on a Saturday, especially since I had spent all day fidgeting. Usually I would be out for drinks with Hanaa or Cedric by this time.

The last few days had proven that my theory was correct. I still struggled to believe it, and even more so to understand it, but the facts spoke for themselves. I kept living every single day twice, and somehow everyone around me only remembered the second day.

I had cancelled on Cedric and Hanaa by pretending I was sick, as I didn’t want to have to relive the exact same meal at the bowling alley. But clearly, they had only remembered the second April 18th when I wasn’t there, as they called me on the 19th, to check up on my health.

I hadn’t gone to work that day either. Instead, I had taken out my laptop and had opened a word file. I had needed to brainstorm. This was too big of an opportunity to let it go to waste, and I needed to plan this correctly. If I was indeed living every day twice, this changed… everything.

First off, and so characteristic of my French education, I had decided to define the terminology. I needed a way to distinguish the first, technically useless day from the second. Day 1 and Day 2 were too confusing, because the days of the month were already numbered, so I opted for Day A and Day B instead. First day: Day A. Second day: Day B.

Then, remembering how I had cancelled on Hanaa and Cedric because I hadn’t wanted to face the boredom of a conversation that I had already gone through, I typed:

Rule 1: Social events are only to be attended on Day Bs.

That made sense. Better to cancel on Day As than Day Bs. If it wasn’t a meeting of consequence, like the presentation to Alicante, living it once before made no sense. There was nothing to improve, and it would just make all my Day Bs incredibly boring and tedious.

I had tried to think up some other rules, but had come up empty-handed. I couldn’t focus or think straight. My mind was racing in every direction at once. Never mind, I thought, I have other urgent stuff to do anyways. And I had continued to research my most important concern: the lottery.

It turned out that the French lottery organized three weekly draws: on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday nights. I had obviously chosen the closest one, Saturday, but that still meant I had had to endure three full nights of hoping that the Day A / Day B dynamic would hold until the next draw. I woke up every morning desperately checking the date on my phone. Thankfully for me, it had.

And I was now sitting on the couch on a Saturday at 8:28 p.m., waiting for 8:30 when the blonde bimbo would pick the lottery numbers live on T.V. Snuggly held in my wallet, which I could feel in my back pocket, was the lottery ticket I had bought that morning, with the numbers 3, 7, 23, 30, 33, and bonus number 5. The very numbers I had committed to memory last night during Day A, when I had watched her pull them out one by one.

A long day of googling had taught me that the French lottery rolled over winnings when there had been no winner on the previous draws. Unfortunately for me, Wednesday had seen a big winner, so if I were lucky enough to ‘guess’ all 5 numbers and the bonus number correctly, I would only get the minimum pay-out of 2 million euros. Tax-free.

2 million euros. I couldn’t even imagine what I could do with that kind of money.

The evening news finally ended. I couldn’t break my eyes off of the TV. The numbers came out. First 23. Then 7, 33, and 30. Finally 3. As the blonde chosen for her perfect S-shaped body called out the bonus number in her high-pitched nasal voice, I realized I had completely stopped breathing.

Holy shit, I thought, I’m a millionaire.

 

So what do you do with two million euros? Well it turned out I had three full days to think about it, as France being France, everything was closed on Sunday. Including the office where the lottery’s website said I had to go pick up the check from. I had been hoping the money would just be wired to me, but any win over 50,000 euros required players to show up in person at an official payment center. So I had waited for both Sunday Day A and Day B to pass.

It also had made no sense to go on Monday Day A, as I would have just had to do it all over again on Monday Day B. Having to live every day twice was actually turning out to be incredibly boring. I was going to have to find some way to keep both days interesting.

I spent all three days in front of the TV instead. I had tried to read but found myself going through the same page over and over again. I couldn’t focus. On one hand, the fact that I would soon have two million euros on my bank account was unfathomable. I had kept thinking I was dreaming and obsessively checking my ticket. On the other, I was wondering what I would be spending it all on. Gifts for my mom and dad. My friends. A new phone, the most recent one, with a brand new screen. I spent an hour on Orange’s website, the biggest French telecom operator, trying to figure out which phone was best: the latest iPhone or Google’s most recent release? Something a bit more obscure and geeky like the 1+? Maybe I should just get one of each and then decide which one to use?

At night, while I had laid in bed trying to fall asleep, I had started to think of places I had always wanted to travel to but never had the cash for: Greece, Italy, the US, Asia. I should probably do a full week of everything paid for with Hanaa and Cedric. That would be awesome.

When Monday of Day B finally arrived, I sent a text to Thierry explaining that I was sick and wouldn’t be coming in to work that day. I put on a white shirt with jeans that my mom had ironed and neatly hung in my closet, grabbed my keys and drove off.

I chose to take the winding Route de Nice. The road was even more beautiful than my ride to work, as it connected seaside Nice with Grasse, the administrative center of my region and unofficial worldwide capital of perfume. The scenery went from beautiful seaside views on one end to the sliding hills covered with verdant shrubbery on the other. It was also an incredibly historical route, built on what was known as the old Voie Romaine, a stone road set up by the Romans for their invasion of France. 1,800 years later, it was the road Napoleon had taken up to Paris as he broke free of his exile and sought to take over Europe all over again.

But for once, I wasn’t focusing on enjoying the road. Instead, I found myself looking around my beat-up car. I had bought it from a neighbor when I got my license at 18 for 900 euros, and I was pretty sure it was older than me. Originally white, it had faded to a dirty grey after years of neglect. The roll-down windows actually needed to be rolled down, something made even harder by the fact that the knobs had fallen off. The right side mirror had been torn off, and was currently hanging on only thanks to the incredible adhesiveness of multiple layers of duct tape. That’s the first thing I’ll do. I’ll change my car.

I parked in a gravel lot in the middle of Cagnes-sur-Mer, a little town 20 minutes away from home. Despite its name saying it was ‘Cagnes-on-the-Sea’, the actual city center was land-locked between pine-tree covered hills. The beach was a few kilometers away, and rarely frequented by locals as it was a shale beach, not a sand one.

I found the place I was looking for: a heavy wooden door tucked in between a pharmacy with a green neon sign flashing over it, and a small boulangerie from which wafted the smell of fresh baked bread. The doorbell simply read: Centre de Paiement Agence Cote d’Azur – Payment Center of the Riviera.

I rang the doorbell, and an electronic voice hissed through the intercom.

Bonjour?” it asked.

Bonjour, I’m here to collect my winnings…?” I asked tentatively.

The door buzzed open, revealing a small entry hall with a black and white checkered floor made of marble, and a stone staircase winding up in a 180 degree arc to the second floor. I took the steps two by two before arriving in front of a glass door on which was stenciled the logo of the French national lottery, a blue four-leaf clover with a red square.

I pushed the door open and let myself in. A plump blonde secretary with her hair in a bun looked up from her desk. She raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow from behind black-framed glasses.

“Congratulations sir. Might I inquire how much you won?”

“All of it,” I stammered, “I mean, I got all five numbers and the bonus one.”

“One moment please, sir,” said the secretary, immediately picking up her phone and dialing a three-number extension. “Yes, Madame Boisset, he’s here. The winner!” she said, emphasizing the last two words.

Seconds later, the door on my left opened and a tall middle-aged woman with perfectly tanned skin and wavy brown hair marked by blonde highlights walked out. She was dressed in a tailored black suit and her designer high-heels clicked on the marble floor with each step. Extending a hand, she threw me the brightest of smiles.

“Congratulations sir, we’ve been expecting you. You can call me Yvonne. Please come into my office,” she winked, “Your life is about to completely change.”

 

“Alright, first things first,” said Yvonne as she sat down into the plush leather chair behind her desk, “And please don’t be offended that I have to ask this, but can I see your receipt?”

I pulled it out of my wallet, as I had about a hundred times in the past three days. She looked it over, typed in the ID number into her computer, waited a few moments for it to confirm it was the correct one, and turned to me with a wide smile.

“It’s really you! Sorry, we get two or three people each year coming in, claiming to have won but having lost the receipt. We kind of have to do this routine check.”

“I understand,” I answered, slightly relieved.

“OK, so let’s get down to business. I just want to start by saying: Congratulations again. We at the National Lottery couldn’t be happier for you.”

I nodded and couldn’t help a smile from creeping across my face. This was really happening.

“Now the most important thing I need to know,” said Yvonne, “Is whether you want to go public with your winnings or stay anonymous.”

I had been so obsessed with what I would buy that I hadn’t even considered it.

“What do other winners usually do?” I asked.

“Over 90% choose to remain anonymous. You have to realize, this win will change a lot of things for you. If you go public, a lot of people will seek you out for your money. Not just companies or people you don’t know, but family members, friends. There’s an impression that you haven’t earned this money with hard work, and you should share it.”

“A lot of our winners complain,” she continued, “that no gift is big enough for your loved ones when they know you’ve won. You lose a lot of friends. You lose the right to complain – rich people shouldn’t complain, they’re rich and happy. There are definite advantages to anonymity.”

“Well, what are the advantages of going public?”

Yvonne hesitated. “Not too many,” she admitted, “It’s great for us for promotional purposes. Some of our winners use it to bring attention to their personal business. It acts as free marketing.” She paused, and spoke to me in a confidential tone.

“Mostly we don’t recommend it.”

I thought about it. Anonymity might be a good thing, and I could always tell my family and friends about it later if I changed my mind.

“Let’s go for anonymous for now,” I decided. I made a mental note to add a second rule to the document I had at home: ‘Rule 2: Vivons heureux, vivons cachés’. To live happily, live hidden.

“Alright,” answered Yvonne. She opened a drawer from her desk and pulled out a huge stack of books and brochures.

“You are now part of an elite group of people in France. The National Lottery has an entire service set up to accompany you into this new life. It’s called ‘Winner Relations’ and we provide you with financial counsel on how to use, invest and spend your money. There are psychiatrists to help you deal with this, and you get to meet other winners if you want to, to share and exchange on your experience. About 85% of our winners choose to use it.”

“OK…” I said. I had expected this to be a more straightforward affair.

“You don’t have to give me an answer now. This service is available to you at any time during your life. Here is all the information you need,” she said, tapping the pile of brochures, “Look it over and get back to me.”

On the top she added her business card. “You can also reach me directly on this number or by e-mail.”

The next hour went by in a flash. Paperwork to fill out, providing proof of my identity, signatures, waivers, and more. Before I knew it however, I had shaken her hand a dozen times, done the same with the secretary, thanked them profusely, and was standing outside of the payment center with a check made out to my name. Deux millions d’euros et zero centimes, it read. Two million euros.

It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t cash it in. All of my bank accounts were at BNP where I worked. As soon as the money hit my account, my name would appear as a ‘must-contact’ client, and my entire office would know I was loaded. If I wanted to remain anonymous, I needed to be smarter about this. I checked the time: 12:32 p.m. I was in Cagnes, already halfway from my home to Nice. I called Hanaa.

 

With just under 400,000 inhabitants, Nice was the biggest city in the South of France. Instead of growing out from its city center in large concentric circles like Paris, Nice was pressed up against the Mediterranean, sprawling out on a length of seven kilometers from the airport to its historical center in the shadow of a large hill. Over 2,000 years ago, when the Romans first arrived and founded the city, they built a glorified fort on that very hill that they called the ‘Castle’. To the utter confusion of generations of tourists, the name endured but the fort did not.

Hanaa lived halfway between the Castle and l’Ariane, Nice’s dangerous ghetto, so we had agreed to meet in the downtown of the Old Nice, at a café we often went to. I drove down the Promenade des Anglais, the long avenue flanking the sea. Three years ago, it had been the site of Nice’s first terrorist attack when a madman had plowed through the crowds in a truck on Bastille Day. Today however, all past horror was gone, eclipsed by the beauty of the Promenade.

On my right, the sun’s rays rippled off of every wave of the bright blue ocean, creating a myriad of scintillating diamonds. On my left, the prestigious stone hotels that had made Nice famous at the start of the century as a summer destination for the ultra-rich zoomed past. At the Negresco, the neo-classic hotel that once housed Salvador Dali and his cheetah, I took a left and headed off towards Nice’s largest square, Place Masséna.

Nice, just like every large city, was hell when it came to parking. I started to run through the few sweet places where I might be able to find a free spot. There was the dead-end street lost in the shadow of the Castle, the small lane feeding into the port and the not-so-safe abandoned lot near l’Ariane. Not that anyone would try to steal my piece of junk, but one never knew. I suddenly realized that I was thinking about this wrong: paying ten euros for two hours of parking was no longer an issue for me. I drove down into the lot under the plaza itself, and took the pedestrian exit leading up to the entrance of the old town.

All streets in the Old Nice were pedestrian streets, mostly due to the fact that a mid-sized car would be unable to pass between the cramped cobbled streets strangled by 6 story buildings on either side. I exhaled a sigh of relief as I stepped from the beating southern sun into the cool alleys. The twisting lanes were a maze to tourists, crisscrossing with no logic, but having grown up in the region, I was able to dovetail directly to a hidden plaza in front of an old baroque church. As with any plaza in the South, it had been completely taken over by coffeehouses, and I headed towards the one with the sky-blue awning called l’Alouette. I saw Hanaa sitting at a straw-braided table outside, smoking her usual Dunhills.

I kissed her on both cheeks in the traditional French bise, and took a seat opposite her. I ordered an Americano coffee and a tall glass of water, and lighted up one of my Camels.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Pissed,” she said, exhaling smoke, “Have you been avoiding us?”

“What? Of course not!”

“Well first you cancel on the bowling, and then you don’t pick up your phone all weekend…” she let it hang.

“Work has been busy,” I lied, “Did I tell you I nailed the Alicante pitch?”

“No way!” I saw genuine happiness spread over her face.

“Yeah, but actually I’m coming to you for a different reason. I have a client, a really wealthy one, who’s been asking me for some financial advice and I wanted to get your opinion.”

“Dude!” she put out her cigarette, “Aren’t you a banker?”

I gave her an annoyed look. We had been over this before.

“You know I work in Marketing. And I don’t really get all the products. Or care. Anyways, I only take care of clients with up to 300,000 euros in assets. This client is worth a lot more than that. ”

“Who’s the client?” she asked.

It occurred to me that in my haste to cash in the check, I had made a stupid mistake. I should have waited for a Day A, told her the truth, and have it all disappear on Day B. Now I needed to keep digging myself deeper into a lie.

“It’s very confidential…” I said, “He just won two mil at the lottery.”

“Oh wow. Lucky bastard,” said Hanaa. I smiled.

The waiter arrived with my coffee. I opened a pack of sugar, poured it in and stirred it with a spoon, while Hanaa looked at me pensively. I knew she was actually listening in on the conversation at the table next to us, where two young adults dressed in Lacoste slacks were speaking in Arabic. This habit was one we shared, and we had spent many an afternoon at this exact coffee shop spying on the other patrons. Some of our best laughs had come from making up conversations for couples that were too far away for us to hear. For some reason, Hanaa always ended up playing a girl pissed at me for not being able to fully satisfy her in bed.

“Knock it off,” I said, and she laughed.

“Well what do you want to know?” she asked.

“For starters, is there any way to stay anonymous? He knows quite a few people at his bank and he doesn’t want them to be aware of his newfound wealth.”

“Has he considered private banks?” asked Hanaa.

Private banks I knew a bit about. Reserved for ultra-wealthy clients, they were banks that welcomed you with a red carpet. They offered tailored VIP services and were renown for finding innovative tax schemes and investments with guaranteed higher returns. The best private banks were ones whose name the common Joe had never heard: Pictet, Lazard Frères Gestion, and Rothschild Patrimoine, among others.

“I don’t know if he’d be a very good target,” I said, “From what I know, these banks like clients that aren’t just bringing in a big sum of money, but that are connected and can recommend more clients. They’re more of a community. This guy is… well, let’s just say he’s solidly lower-middle class.”

“If he’s bringing in 2 million euros,” said Hanaa, “Trust me, they won’t care.”

“Yeah but I think he wants to keep a big part fairly liquid.”

Liquidity was something that even with my poor financial skills, I remembered well from business school. It basically meant how fast one could draw their money out in cash. A current account was extremely liquid, as money could be withdrawn immediately or used as payment within seconds – provided it remained within the drawing and payment limits authorized by the bank. Owning a house was the complete opposite: although on paper it might be worth a million euros, one would still have to find a buyer, agree on a price, and complete and notarize the paperwork. This process could easily take months, and meant that those assets were very much illiquid. Stocks and investments in things like life insurance were a halfway point: a big market existed to buy and sell them, but it might take a few days to complete the transaction.

I wanted to keep quite a bit of my new earnings as liquid as possible. I wouldn’t be able to splurge or travel if all of it was tied up in investments that would take years to materialize.

“How much?” asked Hanaa.

“Probably about half,” I answered.

Hanaa whistled softly.

“Some of the big French banks offer a private bank service,” she said, “Credit Agricole, BNP, LCL… and they could probably take him in from 500,000 euros upwards.”

“Yeah but then he wouldn’t be anonymous.”

“Just get him to open a new account in Marseille,” suggested Hanaa. Marseille, the only other major city in the South of France, was two and a half hours away by car. Marseille suffered from a bad reputation due to the thick and drawly accent of its inhabitants. It was an accent that branded its people as lacking education, class and culture, and Nice was the first to point it out and distance itself from its awkward neighbor.

“That’s not a bad idea,” I said, “I’ll tell him to do that.”

“Watch out though. I’ve been studying these class actions recently. The big banks tend to force their private banking arms to only sell products from the mother company, even when there are better products on the market.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, say you want to invest in life insurance products. Each big bank offers this right? LCL has one, Société Générale has one, and of course you know BNP has one. Now let’s suppose BNP has the best rates, but you’re a client of LCL’s private bank. They’re going to push the LCL products, not the BNP ones.”

“I really doubt that BNP has the best rates,” I joked.

“Shut up,” said Hanaa in an annoyed tone, “You know what I mean.”

It didn’t sound that surprising at all. I was pretty sure that accounted for half the reason those big banks even owned a private banking arm.

“OK, well what would you recommend in terms of investments? Maybe I can help guide him a bit, show him what to say so the banks don’t take advantage of him.”

Hanaa sighed deeply, apparently readying herself for a monologue.

“Look, with that amount of money, the important thing isn’t going to be what he invests in. It’s going to be how well he dodges taxes. There’s going to be a LOT of taxes.”

She started to rummage through the classic LV tote bag that was on the empty chair beside us. Hanging out with Hanaa had taught me that upper class Moroccans love their bling. She wouldn’t be caught dead without a designer bag, an Hermès scarf and Jimmy Choo or Prada shoes. At any moment in time, Hanaa was usually wearing at least 3,000 euros worth of bling, and that didn’t even take into account the large golden hoop earrings that were her trademark. She took out a Mont Blanc pen and a notepad.

“How familiar are you with income tax rates?” she asked.

“Umm… Enough to know I’m in the lowest bracket?” I laughed. She looked at me with frustration. “Sorry. Not much. Explain?”

“First, is your friend married? Children?”

“No, none.” I was still single and living at my parents. Both of those things weren’t even on my radar.

Hanaa shook her head in disapproval. I was seeing the future lawyer in action. “That means that he’s gonna pay even more. You pay less with kids or a spouse…”

“Anyways, I’m going to round off the numbers to simplify a bit,” she said, creating two columns, one marked revenue bracket and the other tax rate, “If, as a household, you earn a yearly revenue of 9,700 euros, you get taxed nothing. From 9,700 to 27k, you get taxed 0 on the first 9,700, and then 14% on whatever is over that but under 27k. Earn up to 72k euros a month, and anything you earn between 27k and 72k is going to be taxed 30%. Anything over 152k is taxed a whopping 45%.”

“Woah.”

“Yeah, welcome to French taxes right? So let’s say your buddy puts 1 mil in a private bank, and earns 7% a year on that – a decent but not extraordinary return rate for a private bank. He’s now making 70,000 euros a year, right?”

“Right,” I nodded in agreement.

“So that’s,” she said, marking down each number next to the table, “0 euros paid on the first 9,700. The 9,700 to 27k range is taxed 14%, so that’s 2,422 euros in tax. Then the 27k to 72k bracket is 30%, so that’s 16,110 euros. So in total, per year, he’s paying about 18,500 euros in taxes on revenue only. And this doesn’t count the taxes on any other income he might be making from his job, or the local property taxes, healthcare, etc…”

“So he’s making about 5,800 euros per month on the interest alone,” I said, “Which after tax goes down to about 4,300 euros. That’s still not so bad.” I was getting excited. I would be receiving twice my monthly salary every month.

“Yeah, but you forgot about the French wealth tax, the ISF. Does your friend own a house? Any property?”

“No,” I said.

“OK, so that means his total assets are going to be between 1.3 and 2.6 million euros. He’s going to be taxed 0.7% on that.”

“On what? All of it?”

“Yeah. Even if it isn’t making money. Did you forget that France is probably more communist than any self-proclaimed communist country out there? So that’s an additional 14k in taxes a year, or about 1,200 a month. Add in all the extra taxes your buddy is going to pay and of those 5,800 euros in interest, he’ll be lucky to get 2,000 on his account by the end of the month.”

“Wow.” I was stunned. “But with tax rates like these, how has the government not managed to balance a single budget?”

“Because of people like me,” said Hanaa, with a wink of those beautiful eyes, “Tax loopholes. Everywhere.”

She smiled gleefully as she delved into the details of the terribly messed-up world of the super rich. This was Hanaa at her best, and probably the one fundamental point on which she most disagreed with Cedric. Cedric was convinced that the entire system was rigged. He hated his job and his prospects, and had become convinced that everything was controlled by a small cabal of elites. He was deeply suspicious of the government, to the extent where he had adamantly refused to use any social network. It had taken us years to get him to finally install Whatsapp.

Hanaa meanwhile, loved the system. She firmly believed that if someone was smart enough to fully understand it, they would be able to game it. And she wanted to be the one doing just that, bending the rules and finding the loopholes. As she started to list them, I saw that she was in her element. Buy a forest to sell off wood, and that investment got discounted from the total wealth tax charged, and granted an additional 20% tax break. Buy a farm, and all revenue became taxed under the more advantageous property tax instead, not to mention that said revenues weren’t included in the wealth bracket calculation. Invest in companies with under 50 employees, and none of that revenue was taxed.

When I told Hanaa that my friend didn’t plan on buying farms or land, she laughed.

“No one does. You just invest in financial products that do it for you, and still collect the tax benefits.”

She kept going. Constructing a house with the sole intent of renting it out for ten years exempted one of all tax if it was done in the Brittany region. Incorporating a company in Luxemburg and listing all of one’s personal expenses as professional expenses would make them non-taxable. I took so many notes I ran out of paper and had to tear sheets out of Hanaa’s notebook.

Driving home, my head swimming with all of the financial choices I would need to make, I couldn’t help but think back to what Yvonne from the Lotto office had told me. “Your life is about to completely change.” I was starting to think that this big windfall had just made my life far more complicated than it used to be. Changes were ahead, that was for sure.

That, and I should probably either get a lawyer or figure out a way to hire Hanaa. I smiled at the idea. She would probably punch me in the face if I offered.

 

~ End of Chapter 3 ~

 

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