CHAPTER 2

HAPPY FIRST DAY OF SUMMER


Mike Miller stared at the numbers on his computer and drifted back in time. Back then, he was studying to be an accountant, taking the exams and gaining accreditation, and the numbers were exciting to him. They represented blazing profit potential, the hidden secrets of cost efficiencies, the hopes and dreams and lives of the people who built things and bought things and saved things and sold things and made the world turn. The numbers stretched into infinity, and Mike coaxed from them their mysteries of success. The Numbers of Life, he called them.

But with the economic meltdown and the ensuring slog of recovery, particularly in the building sector, they had become The Numbers of Ruin.

"You listening, Mike?" Judd Martin said. He was fifty-five years old and was pacing the floor in Mike's office, expressing extreme displeasure at how those particular numbers on Mike's screen were ruining him.

"You don't like the numbers," Mike said.

"I can't finish the third building," Judd said, angry enough that spittle had pooled in the corners of his mouth. He was a big, loud man with a red-ruddy complexion and was the general size, shape, and color of one of his brick office buildings. He carried construction dirt in on his work boots and left it on Mike's floor.

"Because you drew down the loan on the third building to finish the second building," Mike said, "because you drew down the loan on the second building to finish the first building because you didn't tell the bank your true construction costs up front, so you didn't borrow enough money to complete the project in the first place."

"If I'd told them what it cost, they wouldn't have given me the loan."

"Then you could have and should have redesigned your plans to lower your costs or raised your rental projections. Instead, you lowballed the bank to get the money."

"Your numbers are killing me," Judd said. He had sold his soul and built three office buildings in Studio City and was about to lose them—and everything else.

"They're not my numbers. They're your numbers. I'm your accountant."

"You're an asshole with bullshit numbers."

As Judd paced, the numbers on Mike's computer went away, and his screensaver appeared. It included the time and date, eleven thirty-five in the morning, June 21, with a note that said Happy First Day of Summer, the market reports—stocks and bonds and various interest and mortgage rates—the business world headlines, and the weather.

The weather got his attention because every local and national weather forecaster, The Weather Channel, the National Weather Service, and the Old Farmer's Almanac, had predicted the hottest summer of the century for Los Angeles, with temperatures averaging well over one hundred degrees for the next three months. Today, Tuesday, the first day of summer, it was one hundred five before noon. There was no humidity, sure, but as Mike's mother often said, "There's no humidity in an oven either, but if it's a hundred degrees in there, I'm not going in. Hot is hot."

Exactly, Mike thought. On one side of the table were thousands of climate scientists around the world, with no common language other than the science of weather, who had looked at the facts and agreed that global warming was real and the result of mankind's mad march. On the other side of the table were five guys who denied it. Whether or not you accepted the science, you couldn't ignore the numbers at the table.

"Hot is hot," Mike said.

"What?" Judd said.

"We both know that's not true," Mike said.

"We both know you're going to do something about it," Judd said. He was an asshole and a bully.

"What do we both know I'm going to do?" Mike said.

"Change the numbers so the bank will float me through the summer," Judd said.

Mike turned away from his computer screen and caught his reflection in the window. He was forty years old, but he looked ten years older than that. His hair had thinned, and sitting in a chair behind a desk in front of a computer, day after day for thousands of days, had made him pale and pasty and doughy. Mirrors were murder on Mike these days. He was five eight and one hundred eight-five soft and squishy pounds. Had he really let himself go like this? He had. He was twenty-five pounds overweight and without definition—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

His marriage was twenty-five pounds overweight too. He thought he still loved Marcy and also thought she still loved him, but the two of them together had let their marriage get as pasty and doughy as Mike. Stale and pale is what they were.

This was the summer they were going to change all that.

He had said just those words to Marcy, and they had agreed and conspired to send the girls to the grandparents (Marcy's parents) in Paramus, New Jersey, for eight weeks, the entire summer, so they could work on themselves and their marriage. Mike was going to get back in shape, like when he put himself through UCLA, studying nights while working days for Paul Bunyan Tree Service, clearing lots and removing stumps, pruning healthy trees and cutting down dead ones, all with a badass chainsaw he'd bought from the company when grad school started, partly so he could do tree work later in life but mostly to remember those good old days, when he was tan and happy and in the best physical and mental condition of his life.

His daughters were headed to Paramus, and this was his summer of rejuvenation. When Marcy got back in a week—she was flying the girls there and staying for a visit—they would renew and rekindle their romance while he did pushups and sit-ups, jogged loops around the neighborhood, gave up cheeseburgers and milkshakes and fries, dropped twenty-five pounds, and redefined his body, his marriage, and his life.

"The bank will not float you for the summer."

"They will, if you make the rental income from buildings one and two look like it covers my nut."

"Building one is less than forty percent leased. Building two is less than twenty percent leased."

"I can produce leases to fill both buildings."

"But you can't produce the tenants to fill those leases."

"How would you know? You're an accountant; you never go to the buildings."

After UCLA, when he'd passed the exams and attached the letters CPA to his name, he took a job as a junior accountant at Wasserman and Waddell, a Santa Monica accounting firm that focused on construction companies and mortuaries, a pairing, Mike learned, that had more in common than first met the eye.

This was his fifteenth year as Wasserman and Waddell, and he was a senior accountant, up for partnership. The firm traditionally added partners in the summer, and Stan Wasserman himself had told Mike that, all things being equal, this was Mike's summer. Partnership would mean more money, which he needed just like everyone else in the world, but more importantly it would mean that all his effort and loyalty had been duly noted and appreciated and rewarded, an ego stroke he had earned (and needed) after more than a decade of managing mortuary accounts and real estate developers who might as well be dead.

He had told Marcy what Stan had said about this being Mike's summer and had seen a spark in her eyes, the first such spark in a long time. Partnership was an important piece of the puzzle as far as repurposing his marriage, and Mike had decided right there to record the pending Moment of Partnership on his iPhone as a gift to his wife.

"I've built my career on hard work, accuracy, honesty, and proficiency," Mike said. "I'm not changing the rental income numbers so you can scam the bank on Wasserman and Waddell stationary."

Judd moved to the credenza across the room. Mike had covered it with framed photographs of his family. Judd lifted one, a shot of them all on the Santa Monica Pier, and said, "If you change the numbers so the bank floats me two mil, I will make a two hundred thousand dollar cash donation to the Miller Family fund, and no one will know."

That's a lot of money, Mike thought, definitely enough to overlook his hard work-accuracy-honesty-proficiency credo. His girls, Bethany and Julia, were fifteen and thirteen. College was on the horizon—two tuitions at the same time. Plus, his house needed a new roof and landscaping. And the girls would want cars. Two hundred thousand dollars was close to the exact amount of money Mike needed. Tantalizingly close. Hypnotically close. He could change the numbers. That's how close.

No one will know, Judd had said. That was true. Mike was a master with the numbers. He could massage them in such a way that the two hundred thousand was invisible. He could magically input the rental income from the new leases, and the bank would fund the construction shortfall. Bankers never went to the buildings either. And if anyone every did find out the leases were fraudulent, then that would be on Judd. Meanwhile, the signed leases would be locked in Mike's file cabinet. No one will know.

The problem for Judd was that he had chosen to lift a photograph that included Mike's mother, Linda.

She was seventy-two and still working as the bookkeeper at El Caballero Country Club. She had raised Mike and his brother without any help from their father, who had left town early on to live a nefarious life in New Orleans. She had taught Mike everything he knew about hard work, accuracy, honesty, and proficiency. Her DNA was strong in him. She was a saint. That's how he thought of her. What would she think about Judd's two-hundred-thousand-dollar offer to cheat the books? He asked her in his head and included the part about no one ever knowing. Her answer was: "You'll know, Michael. You'll always know." Saint Linda.

At that exact moment, Mike's assistant, Bonnie, opened the door and stuck her face in the room. She looked like her dog had just died.

"Your mother's in Northridge Hospital, Mike. She had a heart attack. You need to go now. I'll reschedule your meetings. I'm so sorry." And then phones were ringing in the background or somewhere, and Bonnie went to answer them of something.

Mike stood and then couldn't move. He could feel the shock numbing his legs. He know he had to come out from behind his desk, but he couldn't do it.

"Hospitals cost money, Mike." Judd said.

Mike moved around his desk and took the photograph of his family and his mother from Judd's hand. "I'm not changing the numbers," he said, and he left his office, not at all conscious of the fact that he was taking the photo with him, though he was gripping it with both hands as if his mother's life depended on it.