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Does the cliché "diamond in the rough" have an opposite? If it does, it would describe the living room in which I sat. Outside, meticulously maintained brownstones walled off the neighborhood from the rest of Brooklyn. Birds sang, squirrels scurried, and young, white people walked large dogs and larger strollers up and down bright sidewalks.

Yet this apartment rotted like a cavity within an otherwise healthy set of teeth.

But hey: rent-control.

"Why are you looking at this place?" asked Pat, whose name was on the lease. "You could probably afford something in Manhattan."

That was a good question, but it wasn't addressed at me. Pat had double-booked this morning's interview for the roommate share, which would have been awkward had my current hangover not made me too sluggish to give a damn. I should have given several, considering the competition.

The soft-spoken vice president of a prestigious insurance firm sitting next to me replied with a cocky grin, "You know why divorce costs so much?"

"Nope," Pat replied.

"Because it's worth it."

"No frickin' kidding," Pat chuckled. "Want to see the room?"

Mr. Right nodded. I stood up in agreement, mostly because I was on the verge of dozing off.

Pat led the way down a short hallway, opened a door, and gestured. The first thing I noticed when I peeked inside was the soon-to-be-former tenant piled up in the fetal position inside of a sleeping bag. He groaned and waved his hand just a little.

"Hi," I said, "I'm Max."

He grunted.

"Raymond," said my rival.

The tenant grunted.

"That's Sergio," Pat told me. "He's moving out later."

"Pleasure to meet you, Sergio," I said.

Sergio grunted.

As we headed back to the living room, Pat asked, "And what do you do for a living, Max?"

"I don't know yet."

"I see," said Pat.

I may have been only twenty-three and fresh out of school, but I'd heard that phrase spoken with that tone enough times to know exactly he meant. I couldn't afford to scratch this apartment off my list, because it was the last item on it. The good news is, I had no objection to cheating. The better news sat on the bookshelf beside me.

"The Rise of the Son" was a fictional account of the End Times, written by a convicted tax-evader, noted serial adulterer, and beloved pastor named Jimmy Prewitt. A few years ago, while deep in an ironic phase, I'd picked up a copy, because I thought it would be hilarious. It turned out to be spiteful and self-righteous. Right now, it was my salvation. Pointing, I squealed, "I love that book!"

"Really?" Pat grinned. "I've never met anyone who's even heard of it."

"Well," I replied, "you know how the media is when it comes to Jesus."

"No frickin' kidding." He shook his head. "What's your favorite part?"

"That the Surgeon General turned out to be the real False Prophet. I didn't see that coming." I jerked my head toward Raymond with a convincing gasp. "Oh no! I probably spoiled it for you!"

"I wasn't planning on reading it anyway."

"I see," said Pat.

I tried not to smirk.

A few minutes later, Pat escorted us to the door, but signaled for me to hang back. Just as Raymond stepped outside, though, a pair of EMTs shoved their way in. They charged past us a few moments later carrying Sergio, still curled up in the fetal position in his sleeping bag.

Pat didn't blink. He whispered to me, "When can you move in?"

"Um," I replied.

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Something I couldn't quite put my finger on told me that the editor of the newspaper I wanted to employ me wasn't yet convinced I was the person he was looking for.

So that editor put his finger on it. "I'm still not convinced you're the person I'm looking for."

"Tell me, Myron," I started.

"You just met me," he replied. "You're not allowed to call me by my first name."

"Can I call you chief?"

"No."

"Name one celebrity who won't talk to your paper," I told him, "and I can have an exclusive piece in your inbox by deadline tomorrow evening."

"Okay, Mister..." He peered skeptically at my resume. "... Max Fuentes. If you can blow my mind with a story about Gerald Davies, you're hired."

"You won't regret it, chief."

I know that I regretted it, because there was no way a twenty-four-year-old, wannabe journalist could get access to a mega-super-blockbuster-action star like Gerald Davies. Still, my favorite things to do were things I couldn't do, so I spent the night and the rest of the next day looking for inspiration in a bottle of cheap scotch and a plastic bag full of weed.

It wasn't there.

Oh well, there was always blackmail. I opened my laptop, consulted a few search engines, and picked up my cell.

"This is Cheryl," said the voice on the other end of the phone.

"Hi, Cheryl," I replied with an exaggerated twang, "this is Maxwell Fox from the Internal Revenue Service; I was hoping to ask you a favor." Yes, I was aware that impersonating a federal agent is a serious crime.

"You want a favor from me?" Cheryl asked with hesitation.

"Yep!" I whispered conspiratorially, "I wouldn't ask, but I am in such deep doo-doo." I laughed, "Sorry about that. I've got two little boys, and I think I've forgotten how to swear."

"Tell me about it. My girls have kids of their own, and I still say fudge when I'm really mad. How old are they?"

"Two and four." I plucked from my memory the names of my nephew and his best friend: "Luke and Cody."

Cheryl cooed.

"Can you tell me something?" I asked. "When do they stop putting everything in their mouths? There's always slobber on everything!"

She laughed. "Slobber's the least of your problems. Wait until they start driving."

"They grow up too fast."

"Yes, they do." She sighed. "What can I do for you today, Mr. Fox?"

"Please," I insisted, "call me Maxwell."

"Sure, Maxwell."

"As I said earlier, I'm in a bit of a pickle. It says here your firm handles the account of a Mr. Gerald Davies? The big movie star?"

"That's right."

"Well," I told her, "we're looking over some returns--routine government brick-a-brack; you know government."

"Tell me about it …"

"Well, I was supposed to draw up a little report, and I had all of my information on my little laptop, and it busted. You know computers."

"Tell me about it."

"Well, they told me over and over. They said, 'Maxwell, you better back that file up!' And I said I would, but I plum forgot! And if I go to my meeting this afternoon and I don't have that data, well, I don't have to tell you how much trouble I'd be in."

"What can I do to help?" she asked, genuine concern in her voice.

"The information I need is in Mr. Davies's expense accounts for the last fiscal year."

"Oh, I don't know."

"Cheryl," I pleaded, "they're going to boil my potatoes. I wouldn't ask if I wasn't in such a jam!"

She sighed, "Only if you don't tell anyone about this."

"Oh, God bless you!" I gave her a private e-mail account I'd set up for such an occasion, and she promised she'd send the information right away.

"Anytime, sweetheart!" Just before she hung up, she added, "You just be sure to give little Cody and little Luke a hug for me!"

"Sure thing!" I settled back in my desk, gulping down a mouthful of cold coffee to wash out the taste of Midwestern colloquialisms. A few minutes later, Cheryl came through, and I had in my hands every cent that passed through Gerald Davies's hands last year.

More importantly, I had in my hands my new job.

I made a couple of similarly dishonest phone calls and found the number of his publicist.

"Mark Ryan," the publicist answered.

"My name is Max Fuentes," I told him. "I'm an unemployed journalist, and I'm trying to exploit your client, Gerald Davies, to get a job. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask him a few questions."

I could almost hear him blink in surprise from the other end of the line. "What?"

"Hold on," I said, "I'm nervous. That came out totally wrong. What I meant to say, Mark, was, what can you tell me about the Loving Spoonful, located on 103rd Street and Amsterdam?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied after a long pause that indicating that he knew exactly what I was talking about.

"Not ringing any bells?" I insisted. "How about the one on Franklin? Or the one on Avenue C? How about Forty-ninth and Ninth?"

"What do you want?"

"What I want is to understand why a multi-millionaire would spend 35 percent of his net income to open up a chain of soup kitchens and then cover his tracks so thoroughly."

He sighed. "His pastor told him that charity doesn't count if he brags about it. It's that simple."

"How does this sound?" I asked. "Banner headline: 'Action star fights homelessness!' Subhead: 'Davies defeats …' Oh, hell, what's another word for poverty that starts with D?"

"I don't know," he replied.

"Never mind," I told him. "The copyeditors write the headlines anyway. They're really good at that alliteration bullshit."

"Your point, Mr. Fuentes?"

"Let me break this down for you, Mark," I said. "I am going to write an expose of your boss's extracurricular activities, and there's nothing you can do to stop me. In fact, you guys come across better if you give my staff a 'no comment.' Hell, I'll save you the trouble and take that down right now."

"Then why the song and dance?"

"Simple," I replied. "In exchange for all this free character-building publicity I'm about to rain down on Mr. Davies, all I ask is that you reconsider your relationship with me and the paper that's about to hire me."

After a moment of silence, he grunted, "Fine."

I grinned. "Pleasure working with you, Mark."

Forty-five minutes later, my phone went off. Before I could even speak into it, Myron Fogle's voice barked at me. "This e-mail you sent me; is this for real?"

"Have I ever lied to you?"

"I just met you."

"Give it time, then."

"I want to see you in my office tomorrow," he said. "Bring a passport or two forms of ID."

"Thanks, chief!"

Just before I hung up, he added, "And don't call me chief ever again," he said.

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Jeremiah

January 2013

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