Today's Reading

He popped open the antique clamshell he'd been using ever since he fell behind on the payments for his iPhone.

A text from his father waited: your cousin grant was killed last night. figured you should know.

Max lowered his face, took a few deep breaths, his hand clammy around the phone. Then he shoved the truck into gear, the transmission complaining, and headed into whatever the day held.

As Max drove up to his apartment on the last street in Culver City still unclaimed by gentrification, he reminded himself: He didn't know anything about anything.

This seemed true in general. But specifically it meant that he didn't—shouldn't—have to worry about the nonsense that Grant had saddled him with two months ago.

He recalled the scene with the clarity reserved for painful memories. Golden Boy Grant, the pride and joy of the Merriweathers, paying his first visit to Max's shitty second-floor apartment, standing on the worn carpet in a thousand-dollar suit so he wouldn't have to sit on the stained couch. Grant, whose exploits and accomplishments Max heard about at every infrequent brush with a family member. Grant, the forensic accountant, certified in internal auditing, business evaluation, fraud examination, financial forensics, and God knew what else, the licensure initials appended to his signature even on the family fucking Christmas card. Grant, caped investigator of misfeasance, who scoured the books at the behest of insurance companies, police departments, attorneys, banks, courts, government regulatory bodies, and the occasional private citizen. Grant of the rugged good looks, the strong chin, of the spit-shined wingtips and high-precision haircut. "Exactitude is my business," he'd told Max on more than one occasion. And indeed, sprawled on his inferior couch, Max noted that he could probably cut himself on the crease of his cousin's slacks.

Grant had handed him a canary-yellow envelope and said, "If anything ever happens to me, call the number inside."

Max said, "You serious with this Hitchcock routine?"

"Dead serious."

Max swallowed dryly and said, "Whose number is it?"

"A reporter at the L.A. Times. Don't trust this to anyone but her. Promise me."

"What's up with you, Grant?"

Grant laughed. "Nothing. Nothing's gonna happen to me. Look, I deal with some heavy hitters. And I've taken down my share of shady characters. I just want to make sure I have..." He paused, no doubt selecting his next word with that legendary exactitude. "Insurance. In case one day I kick over the wrong rock. It's not the kind of thing you'd come across in your..." Another exactitudinous pause. "Line of work. But as you said, you've seen stuff like this before in the movies."

In the movies, Max thought, this shit always worked out. The hero prepares his in-the-event-of-my-death file to disincentivize anyone from whacking him in a dark alley. Then he wades brashly into the conspiracy and outs the bad guys, saving the day. And no one has to waste a single thought on the schmuck holding the insurance envelope.

But this wasn't the movies, and if Max had learned one thing from real life, it was that it didn't go as well as cinematic bullshit. He looked down at the holes worn through the knees of his jeans, sawdust still caught in the white harp strings of denim. "I don't know, man. This cloak-and-dagger stuff isn't really my thing."

"Come on, Max," Grant said, like he was talking to a kid or a dense customer-service specialist. "For once in your life, maybe step up, shoulder some responsibility."

A stiletto to the gut. It took Max a few seconds to breathe again. He kept his eyes lowered, not wanting to let Grant see how devastatingly effective his neat little salvo had been. He imagined that Grant had rehearsed it a time or two in the mirror at his health club.

Max studied his hands. "What about Jill?"

"My wife's not exactly a safe distance removed from me. Or my family. The thing with you is, no one will ever know. I mean, no one would ever think of you."

Max said, "Right."

"You know what I mean. Now, please, Max." Grant considered his Breitling. "I have to get back to the office. Can I count on you?" Max picked at a ragged edge of thumbnail where he'd nicked it in a band saw. Without looking up, he held out his hand. "I promise."

"Great. Thanks so much." Grant almost seemed sincere. "Thanks, Mighty Max."

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