1. The Terror
The industrial sliding doors heaved open to a burst of bitter alpine air, a dizzying flurry of snow, and a barrage of hoarse cries. ‘Hello – goddamn it – somebody help! He’s bad. He’s really – Oh, Jesus, wake up, Grant. Please, just – Someone help!’
From the blurry white, Terzian emerged, lugging his injured companion into the waiting room. Grant’s head lolled to one side, and the arm slung over Terzian’s neck was limp. The toes of his rubber boots dragged across the hospital tiles, squeaking at intervals.
The intake nurse bolted off her stool, already reaching for the intercom to rouse Dr Patel from her cot in the on-call room. The urgent-care facility was a one-doc shop – six beds, two nurses, a single ER physician now at the midpoint of her forty-eight-hour shift. Strategically positioned on the steep mountain road between the lake resorts of Big Bear and Arrowhead, the skeleton-crew operation serviced adventuresome souls damaged by the vicissitudes of weather or their own basic human stupidity. Torn ACLs from unyielding skis, ulnas shattered by lost footing on black ice, collarbones obliterated against steering columns – these were the bread-and-butter afflictions mended within the facility’s weather-battered walls.
Grant’s injury looked much more severe.
The intake nurse flew out from behind her station, and Jenna, the staff nurse, was running up the hall toward them with a gurney. Dr Patel jogged behind her, flattening her stethoscope to her chest with a palm to keep it from bouncing. Though her eyes were heavy with sleep, she looked ready to work, her teal scrub sleeves hiked up over her shoulders.
‘Let’s get him horizontal now,’ she said, digging in her breast pocket for a penlight.
The nurses stepped to the patient, and he slipped from Terzian’s shoulder into their arms. They puddled him onto the gurney. Though the doors had slid closed again, November air still swirled in the lobby, tasting of pine.
Dr Patel rapid-fired questions: ‘What’s his name?’
‘Grant. Grant Merriweather.’
‘And you are?’
‘Terzian. His friend.’
‘He was driving, lost control – the slush – and . . . and . . . next thing I knew, we were over the edge, right out there –’ With a wobbly finger, he pointed through the wall. ‘We hit a tree, and he was like this. I had to pull him out. Thank God you were so close. It’s like a miracle.’
‘Left pupil blown and unreactive.’ Patel clicked off her penlight. ‘Epidural hematoma.’
‘Wait – what? What’s that mean?’
‘He’s got a bleed in his brain. There’s too much pressure. We need to CT him – now.’
‘You have to save him. You have to save him.’
The gurney wheels rattled as the three women, trailed by Terzian, sprinted into an adjoining room and fed Grant Merriweather’s body into the massive white tunnel. He started posturing, his muscles stiffening, limbs straining. His dilated pupil looked unhuman, the halved marble of a stuffed animal’s eye.
As the machine whirred calmingly, Terzian tore off his jacket. Sweat darkened the cuffs of his long-sleeved T-shirt. He stomped from foot to foot, yanking at his sleeves, his untucked shirt swaying. Sweat filmed his forehead, and he was breathing hard, the air thin here at seven thousand feet above sea level.
Jenna placed a hand on his back. ‘We’re gonna take good care of him.’
Dr Patel was over by the monitors, reading the images. ‘We got midline shift, the brain pushed to the right side. Sheila, call for a medical airlift. We have to get him to a brain center – Cedars or UCLA.’
‘Wait, you can’t take him,’ Terzian said. ‘You can’t just take him.’
Patel ignored him. ‘Jenna, get me the surgical drill.’
Jenna hesitated. ‘You’re gonna drill a burr hole? Are we set up for that?’
‘No. But if we don’t get some of this pressure relieved, he’s not gonna make it to the city.’ Patel’s dark eyes darted to Terzian. ‘And get him outside. Sir, I need you outside.’
But Jenna was already gone.
‘Is this gonna wake him up?’ Terzian asked.
‘It might. Outside, please, sir. We have to take care of your friend.’
Terzian backpedaled through the swinging door as Jenna rushed in with the surgical drill. She handed it off and then slid trauma shears up the front of Grant’s sweatshirt, getting access to his chest in the event they’d have to jump him. She pulled up one leg of his jeans before Patel said, ‘Wait. It’ll have to wait. Hold his head.’
The doctor readied the cranial perforator, then placed the drill bit three centimeters above the left ear, revved up the motor, and punched a hole through the parietal bone.
Blood drooled out, and then Grant’s eyelids fluttered. He moaned and moaned again. ‘P-please . . .’ he mumbled.
Jenna peeled back Grant’s shirt, and her hand went to her mouth. ‘Doctor? Doctor?’
Patel looked down at the wounds puckering Grant’s chest and stomach. More knots of shiny, angry flesh dotted the visible part of his thigh.
They heard the rasp of the door, and then Sheila breezed in. ‘The medevac’s en route from –’ She read Patel’s face, went up on tiptoes to peer at the patient, the words sucked from her mouth.
‘This man wasn’t in a car crash,’ Patel said slowly. ‘He was tortured.’
‘Please,’ Grant mumbled again. ‘M-make it stop.’
The door rasped again.
A shadow darkened the air at Sheila’s shoulder.
For a split second, the women remained frozen, afraid to move. Then they turned in concert.
Terzian’s suppressed pistol pipped three times.
A hat trick of head shots.
The women collapsed, jerked down as if pulled by unseen hands. They hit the floor at once, clearing Terzian’s view to Grant Merriweather.
Terzian’s affect had changed entirely. Not a ripple of distress stirred the surface of his face. He held the barrel steady, sighted now at Grant’s groin. Half-moons of sweat darkened his shirt beneath either arm; controlling a grown man while wrangling electrical cables and clamps required a fair amount of exertion.
Terzian’s cuffs had ridden up past the bulges of his forearms, revealing where he’d carved patterns into his skin, the scarification process leaving his flesh textured elaborately. Rose-colored divots scalloped the rich brown skin where Old English lettering spelled out his nickname: THE TERROR.
He spoke now with his true voice, the accent seeping through, rounding the vowels, rolling the r ’s.
‘Give me the name,’ he said calmly. ‘Or it begins all over again. But worse.’
Grant cupped his hand to the side of his head with disbelief. He looked at his palm, sticky and dark.
‘The name,’ Terzian said once more.
Grant blinked against watering eyes. A shuddering breath left him, the sound of defeat. ‘My cousin,’ he said. ‘Max Merriweather.’
Terzian put a round through the hole Dr Patel had conveniently drilled for him.
Unscrewing the suppressor from the threaded barrel, he pocketed it. Then he stooped to pick his jacket off the floor. In the far distance, the sound of the medevac came barely audible over the moan of the wind.
Pulling on his jacket, he stepped over the bodies and shouldered out through the swinging door.
2. Puzzles He Didn’t Know How to Solve
At the Fuller Street trailhead of Runyon Canyon, Max Merriweather stitched his hands together behind him and leaned forward to stretch out his lower back, where thirty-three years of wear and tear had taken roost. Hikers were out in force, gay couples and aggressively fit moms, dog walkers and the occasional celebrity in oversize sunglasses and a don’t-notice-me slouch beanie. To the west the sun coasted down behind a bank of clouds, fuchsia embers warming up into a sunset.
The older he got, the more life seemed to present him with puzzles he didn’t know how to solve. Holding down steady work. Stashing away money. And Violet.
Two years and seven months later and he still couldn’t think of Violet without feeling it in his chest, a ping to the soft tissue.
He knew he wore the weight of it in his face, in the knots of his shoulders, in the stiffness of his back. These days people looked at him like they didn’t want him to rub off on them. He couldn’t blame them. He didn’t want to rub off on himself.
Oh, well. As his old man said, A whole lotta folks do better with worse.
The breeze blew sage and chaparral, the dusty scent of the Santa Monica Mountains when you got away from the asphalt and car exhaust. Max started up the trail, nearing a homeless guy five layers deep in rags. The man seemed to grow out from the base of the fence, an organism composed of tattered cardboard, scraps of bedding, and dirt-caked flesh. Swollen legs protruded from a shabby blanket, the skin the same color as the fabric, the dirt. His feet were bare, the soles cracked like shattered plastic. A pit-bull mix was curled up beside him, his snout scarred like the hull of an old ship – probably a dogfight rescue.
The man rattled some coins in a chewed Fatburger cup. ‘Help a guy out?’
Max said, ‘We all got it rough, pal.’
The man nodded sagely. ‘Ain’t that the truth.’
Max jogged up the trail, weaving through the post-workday rush. Designer mini-dogs trotted on bejeweled leashes. Rihanna blared from Beats headphones. A few young guys moved together like a pride of lions, their hair cut in Mad Men parts, negotiating deals too loudly on their phones. A silver-haired husband and wife held hands and looked as content as anyone Max had ever seen outside a TV commercial.
He reached Inspiration Point and took in the downtown skyline miles to the southeast. The scrubby trail brush in the foreground framed the urban sprawl beyond, a snapshot of Los Angeles in all its rangy glory.
Violet had always loved this view. And now this was the closest to her he could get.
A mom nudged up beside him with an off-road stroller rugged enough to have been designed by the United States Army. Behind dark mesh a baby cooed, and Max turned quickly away.
He ran back down even harder.
As he passed through the gate, he heard the homeless guy rattle his few coins and call out to the pride of young men.
The loudest of the bunch muted his phone against his chest. ‘Quit bugging everyone, dude. You’re a joke.’
The homeless guy said, ‘Then help me not be a joke.’
The young man laughed, white teeth flashing, and pointed at him. ‘Nice try, bud. Nice try.’
Max walked up the street to where he’d left his truck, a TrailBlazer with rust patches eating through the wheel wells. He had to climb in across the passenger seat because a tap-and-run months back had dented in the driver’s door.
He sat for a moment, hands on the steering wheel. He thought of the homeless guy back by the fence, those painful deep cracks running through the soles of his blackened feet. Help me not be a joke.
He turned the truck on but couldn’t bring himself to tug the gearshift into drive.
A whole lotta folks do better with worse.
Defeated, he cut the engine and climbed out over the console. He headed back toward the trailhead.
Three minutes later he returned.
From the truck bed, he pulled out a dirty pair of socks and his work boots, worn from his by-the-day construction gig. When he crawled back behind the wheel, his phone chimed in the glove box.
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?’
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.’
That brought him back. Five years old at a family picnic at Point Dume, and Max had built the tallest sandcastle. Then he’d Godzilla-stomped his way through it, and everyone had laughed and pointed, even his old man, and Grant had bestowed on him the nickname. A brief, shining moment when he’d been the pride of the Merriweathers.
Grant stepped forward and slapped the stiff canary-yellow envelope into Max’s palm. Something jangled inside, small but solid.
A waft of expensive cologne and Grant was gone.
Nothing’s gonna happen to me.
Parked at the curb now, Max recalled how long he’d sat there holding the envelope. How he’d duct-taped it behind his toilet tank before leaving to line up with the hardworking Hispanic day laborers outside Home Depot, hoping to be picked.
He pulled out his clamshell phone and read the last text exchange once again in case it had magically rewritten itself in the past fifteen minutes.
ME: how’d he die?
DAD: guess he was shot. prob’ly one of the bad guys he had under the magnifying glass. a damn shame. always the good ones who go young.
Pocketing the phone, Max started to climb out of his truck, but then he looked up and halted on all fours on the passenger seat. Up on the second floor of his building, the perennially unshaven and surnameless Mr Omar had just emerged from his apartment to head to Max’s place next door. He shuffled through the jaundiced beams thrown from the outdoor hallway’s overhead lights. When he reached Max’s door, he knocked with considerable force.
‘Max, Max, Max. You’re late again. Max? I can hear you in there. Don’t make me keep being a bother, my friend. I have more important matters to handle, believe me.’
Mr Omar rapped a few more times, sighed audibly, and returned to his apartment. Through the big front window, Max watched him settle back into his Barcalounger, bathed in the aquarium light of his television.
Tomorrow’s shift would put Max over the top for this month’s rent – he’d beeline straight from work to Mr Omar and settle up then.