[November Breaks] THEN | 07 | Brett

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MONDAY 6TH NOVEMBER 2017

Stefan’s downstairs, hands in pockets, staring directly into the camera outside, and I don’t have the patience for him. “Why are you here?”

“Hey stranger. Can I come up?” He’s obviously trying to sound more relaxed than he is, but he’s still too awkward and it’s not like him. The absence of his usual swagger is making me nervous. Not many things have the power to do that.

“I’m busy, but whatever.” I let a few seconds pass before I buzz him in and I bet those seconds are longer for him than they are for me. I’m slouching, leaning an arm against the door frame, blocking his way when he gets to my front door. “Why are you here? You never just show up. What’s wrong?”

He looks around even though there’s no-one to hear anything. “We need to talk about work.”

“OK.” Two letters, drawn out and slow, syrup or crude oil. Quicksand. I take half a step back. If he’s going to walk past me, he’ll have to walk close. “Are you hungry? I can order take-away.”

“Don’t you ever buy food?” His smile is forced, uncomfortable.

“I can order take-away?”

“No, I mean like actual food. Ingredients.”

“What for?”

“Fuck, Brett. You never change.”

“You’re saying that like we didn’t talk two days ago.”

“But we haven’t been in the same place at the same time for weeks. It’s different.”

“Is it?”

“It is to me.”

“It isn’t to me. I could go a few more weeks and not feel like I was missing out on anything.” I lead the way down the hall to the living room and he follows, shuffling, literally dragging his feet.

“See why we didn’t last as a couple?” he says.

“We weren’t a couple. And we didn’t last as whatever we were because I am, to quote you exactly, ‘a manipulative, self-centred time bomb of repressed emotional issues’. But you were still happy to work with me.”

“Do we have to have this conversation again?” He looks at his hands, the floor, the window. Anywhere but at me.

“I didn’t deny it then and I don’t deny it now. Besides, you started the conversation. Don’t begin things you aren’t equipped to finish. Do you want food or not?”

“No, it’s OK. We really need to talk about work.” He walks to the window and back, then to the window again.

Tension crawls into my knuckles. Not the good kind of tension, either. I settle into my desk chair. “Do you want to sit, or are you going to keep pacing?”

He lowers himself onto the couch, trying to lean into it casually but not quite managing to. “So the latest thing…” He looks around again.

“No-one’s recording anything. You’re not that interesting.” He wishes he was that interesting. He always has.

He exhales heavily, one of those breaths that comes before shitty news. “I know, it’s… fuck. OK. So, that thing. I think someone knows.”

“You think? Does someone know or not? Because there’s a big difference between those two scenarios.”

“Someone at Allegra—”

“Allegra?” Everything goes dark around the edges and I swear to god I feel the fingers of the void reaching into my head. “That is where I fucking work, Stef. I don’t play both sides of that.” Technically, I do, but only for my personal projects. Never for anything Stefan’s been involved with. “I might be more risk tolerant than the average person, but I’m not fucking stupid. Do you think I’m fucking stupid?”

“No. No, I don’t. I know. I’m sorry.” He swallows, and it sounds like he’s about to choke on his tongue. If only.

“You’re sorry? What did you do? And if you leave out any details, I will trail them out of you in the worst possible way and you know I mean it.” There’s a glass on the desk that may contain water or vodka. I tip it down my throat in one go. Half full to completely empty in two seconds. It’s vodka.

Stefan scrubs his hands over his face like he’s trying to buy time. He can’t afford time. “I didn’t do anything. That’s the problem. I think I should have. Ollie brought someone in and—”

“By herself? Without your approval? Without my approval or anyone else’s? There’s a good fucking reason none of us make those decisions solo, and this is it. Is that what we’re doing now?”

“No. It was with my approval, kind of. I should’ve checked deeper, but it was a onetime thing, a couple of hours’ work. We thought he knew what he was doing and it would be all right, but he fucked up and I didn’t realise straight away. Neither of us did.”

“He fucked up, and you didn’t realise? What are you even doing anymore? You had one job, you lazy, arrogant shit!”

“Ollie said—” There’s a tremor in his voice.

“I don’t give a fuck what Ollie said. Fuck Ollie. You put us at risk. Us, the project, everything. And most importantly, you put me at risk in the most catastrophic fucking way. How long do we have to fix this? When did it happen? FUCK!”

My hands clench themselves into fists. I always wondered when this day would come. I knew it would, and I figured it would be Stefan’s fault somehow, but it still feels surreal. I’m ready for it, though. I’ve been ready for a long time. I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to drop this particular tonne of bricks yet, but it’s happening.

He shrinks into the couch, bracing himself for whatever comes next. He knows me too well. “Today. Just there now. I mean, as long ago as it took me to get here. I didn’t want to do this over the phone, for obvious reasons. I put everything on pause immediately and came straight here. Brett, I’m—”

“Shut up. I mean it. Sit there and shut up. Give me a minute.” There’s half a joint in the ashtray on the desk from earlier so I light it, take my time smoking it almost down to my fingertips, then walk over to him, lean one knee on each side of his legs and start undoing his shirt. This is exactly the minute I need.

“What are you—” There’s a convergence of confusion and fear in his voice, with a hint of something else.

“I told you to shut up.”

I slide his shirt from his shoulders, and he lets me. He fucking lets me. Then I take one more draw from the joint, leave the tip glowing, and press it against his chest. It smells like meat cooking. I guess it is meat cooking. I should be enjoying this more than I am, mostly because of the novelty of being on this side of things, but also because he deserves it.

His breath catches in his throat and he bites down hard, back teeth grinding. He doesn’t move. Still, he says nothing. I drop the burnt-out joint in his lap. He’s lucky I didn’t put it out in his eye.

I sit back down in my chair. “Right, I’m out. As of now, I’m done.”

“You can’t be done.” He sounds like he’s trying to talk through being strangled. The thought of strangling him myself doesn’t hit the right spot. Still, watching someone else slowly destroy him in precisely that manner would be perfection right now.

“Fucking watch me,” I tell him. “This is your fault, your doing. You deal with the consequences, you careless fuck.”

“No, I mean you can’t. You actually can’t. You can’t extricate yourself. It’s too late. It goes too deep.”

He doesn’t get it. Tonne of bricks at the ready. “You think so? You’ve known me this long and you really think I haven’t had an exit strategy in place the entire time?”

“I know, I’m sure you have, but—”

“Someone at Allegra might think they know something now, but they’re not going to be able to prove anything about me by the time you walk out of here. Which is good, because I know for certain they’ll get onto it as soon as there’s a hint of anything untoward and if there’s anything to find, they’ll find it. And I know that because it is my fucking job to train them to find that shit when people like you are too stupid to run the appropriate fucking checks.”

His fingers find the burn on his chest and he looks like he’s going to throw up. “But you can’t do it without leaving holes. You can’t patch everything. They’ll see the gaps and it’s only a matter of time before—”

“Before they know it was you.”

“What?” His pupils flare in pure horror and it’s beautiful.

“Welcome to my exit strategy.”

“But there’s evidence. There’s proof. The others—”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Shit, Brett, you’re threatening me! You’re going to fucking ruin me!”

“I’m not threatening you. I’m telling you how it’s going to go. In fact, I’m giving you a choice. The first option is you sit there quietly while I shut the whole thing down. Cut your losses. Cut your fucking wrists for all I care. The second option is you keep spitting shit out of your stupid mouth, in which case it’ll take me all of five minutes to make sure you can’t shut anything down and your name will be all over what’s left. If you’re half as smart as you like people to think you are, you’ll make the right decision quickly. Either way, I come out spotless and it won’t matter what you or anyone else says. No-one will be able to prove I was involved in any of it. As far as ruining you goes, that’s entirely up to you.”

Now he looks like he’s on the verge of a heart attack, which would actually make things a lot easier. I wait for a moment, just in case. He stays irritatingly alive, but silent. Decision made.

“Unlock your phone, remove any security, and put it on the table.”

The colour drains from his face as he changes some settings with shaking hands. “But we’ll lose everything.”

“I won’t. And you didn’t have to. These are consequences, Stef. This is your doing.”

He sets his phone on the coffee table and winces at the sound it makes on contact. Glass against glass. It’s harsh, jarring.

I revel in it.

TUESDAY 7TH NOVEMBER 2017

I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours, with only three and a half hours sleep the night before. This is bad, even for me, but I couldn’t wind down after Stefan left yesterday. I’d been over and over the exit strategy countless times since forever, but doing it for real felt like juggling chainsaws on a tightrope and it shit in my brain.

But the facade is flawless. Everything’s normal, on the surface anyway, and I’m actually working when Byron arrives. He walks into my office without knocking, with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. My heart starts beating like machine gun fire, but my face gives away nothing when I look up. Casual. Calm. Unsuspecting. Fuck.

“Listen, Archer, I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure of what I could say, but I heard some potentially disturbing information…” His voice is quiet. I didn’t know he could do that. “About you.”

“Isn’t most information about me potentially disturbing?” I know I sorted everything. I know I didn’t fuck up. I know my hands are clean. I know. I know. But it was sudden and huge and anxiety is a new feeling for me. I don’t know what to do with it, where to put it, how to read it, and it’s wrecking me at a cellular level. This is why I’ve never taken on any other collaborative projects and I shouldn’t have taken on this one. I should have known better. I did know better, and I did it anyway because—

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I.” It’s OK. It’s fine.

“Word reached me yesterday late afternoon that your name may have been connected with some activities that violate everything we stand for here. The kind that could have landed you behind bars had there been any substance to it.” He sounds so fucking formal.

“Shit.” I suck air through my teeth. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about the possibility of incarceration before, but it never felt as real as it does right now. “Who brought this to you?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me.” It’s fine. This is fine. Everything else is fine too. All my other sidelines are clean and untouched. Stefan didn’t know about them. No-one did. No-one does. Every piece of available information about me anywhere, anything Byron could get his hands on, is spotless. Nothing is falling apart. I am not falling apart.

“That was a polite way of saying I’m not going to tell you. But you’ll be glad to hear that after immediate and significant investigation, no evidence of any wrongdoing has been found.” Still with the formality.

Thank fuck, though. I know I look terrified now and only half of it’s an act. It’s one thing to execute a contingency plan, but it’s another thing entirely having to face up to this shit so soon afterwards. Overnight can be a blink or an eternity. Sometimes both at once. I close my laptop. “What was my name maybe connected with? I feel like someone’s walking over my grave.”

“I can’t give you any details. It’s policy. You know that. But I dug deep. I had a team of people digging deep.”

I drag all the innocence I can muster to the surface. “Not that I’m doubting anyone’s ability to do their job, but how deep could you, they, whoever, have dug in the space of less than a day for the results to be conclusive enough that you’re standing here talking to me now? When I’m on the other side of things like this, it takes weeks to say for certain what actually happened and I’m pretty sure I’m more efficient at those investigations than anyone you had on the job. How is this done and dusted already?”

I can almost hear the cogs turning in his head, trying to figure out what to tell me when, technically, he can’t tell me anything. “The allegations were serious enough that I expected it to take a lot longer, but it became obvious very quickly that the whole thing was completely unfounded. We had to go through the motions anyway—you know how it is—but there wasn’t even evidence to suggest anything had been hidden or covered up. There was nothing. A mistake somewhere along the way. Someone fucked something up, read the wrong name somewhere, made a connection that didn’t exist. It happens. Not often under my roof, but it does.”

He’s telling the truth, or as much of it as he can tell. This is not going to surface again later. It’s done. It is. It has to be. I have to be satisfied with this conclusion or… there is no or. “Which one was it? A mistake or an allegation? Those are two very different things.”

“First one, then the other. I don’t get to decide not to believe something just because I don’t want to, but I’m relieved it went the way it did. You’re an asshole, but you’re not that kind of asshole.”

“Thank you. I think.” I am exactly that kind of asshole. “And it means a lot that you’re telling me what you can about it now. I know you didn’t have to.”

He looks like he’s about to short circuit. “I don’t know what to do with you when you’re polite.”

I add ‘unexpected politeness’ to the ‘Byron, things to use against’ file in my head. “Don’t get used to it. I’m pretty shaken, to be honest.” I am shaken. I am being honest. “I didn’t exactly expect this when I came into work this morning.” I completely expected this when I came into work this morning and it’s been devouring my sanity with an intensity I can’t put into words.

“Try not to let it fuck you up too hard. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s over and you’re fine. I almost didn’t say anything to you about it, but I figured you’d find out somehow.”

“I hope you know I would never put my position here at risk. I would never put Allegra at risk.” That’s actually true. The resources are convenient, providing I maintain a sensible separation between my job and my personal projects.

“I know.” He seems so sincere, I almost have an emotion about it. “I’m sorry this happened. I didn’t think for a moment there was any truth to it, but it made my blood run cold.”

“Mine too. It still is. I think I need a minute.”

“Of course.”

He goes and I swivel my chair around to face the window. A minute is both not long enough and a fucking lifetime. I crack my knuckles and buzz Jordan to bring me a coffee. I need to look at his hands. I need to be distracted. I need to not be here. I need—