Brody ate most of the food from the fridge, and then proceeded to fall asleep. This time, he didn’t even make it to the spare room, his room. Instead, he crashed on the couched with his phone, promising Mitch he would get up soon and do the dishes he’d left out.
No doubt, Brody had meant it, but he had fallen asleep within minutes of lying down. Mitch found him, slack jawed and snoring, his phone splayed on his chest. Mitch sighed. Brody was t going to do the dishes. Mitch was within his rights to make him, but he didn’t have the heart.
Gently, he took the phone from Brody, plugging it in for the night before throwing the dishes into the washer. After cleaning the counters, Mitch tidied up the rest of the house and decided he should attempt to sleep as well. He was exhausted, but not tired, and he found himself lingering in the living room, watching Brody sleep.
When that got weird, Mitch grabbed a blanket and tossed it over the kid before lying down in his own bed.
There, he proceeded to not sleep for three hours. After dozing for about another three, he got up early and did the most rigorous workout he could without waking Brody, who was still passed out where Mitch had left him the night before.
By all accounts, Mitch should have been too tired for a morning run, but determination was a strange thing. And no one -- Mitch was confident of this -- was more determined than Mitch. The fact that he had a cause to fight for was one thing. The fact that he had to spend on the sidelines was another. It all added up to endless bounds of untapped energy, ready for his use on trivial tasks since he could not be funneled more effectively.
Ellerbee was ready for him this time, and Mitch didn’t need to slow down for the cop to fall into pace. Mitch made no attempt at small talk. Instead, he handed over Brody’s recording device with a grunt.
In theory, he had covered the movement with a playful shove.
In reality, he just wanted to shove Ellerbee out of principle.
Ellerbee took it in stride, literally and figuratively.
“Not a good night, then?” he asked.
“They’re on a first name basis and he’s now one of her VIPs,” Mitch said sourly.
“Well, that sounds good,” Ellerbee said, sounding confused as to why Mitch did not seem pleased by this.
“The team also hates him,” Mitch said. “I think Summer’s going to break up with him.”
Ellerbee had the sense not to respond flippantly. Still, his words were diplomatic. “I saw him play hero on the news yesterday,” he said. “And it’s not hard to pick up on the rumors when something is amiss at Baywatch.”
Mitch grunted again, running for several paces without speaking. “He’s pulling out all the stops for you and this stupid deal.”
“The boy is getting the job done,” Ellerbee said, as if he was trying to be encouraging. “He’s got his head in the game, that’s good.”
“But at what cost?” Mitch asked. “He’s not going to have any friends left when this gig is over.”
“Dude, I think you know your lifeguards better than that,” Ellerbee said. “They’ll understand when it’s over. This isn’t a long-term op, Mitch. Two weeks. You know that.”
“That’s what everyone keeps saying,” Mitch said, feeting still pounding on the ground. “I think I’d feel better if I had it in writing.”
“I can have the DA review the official wording,” Ellerbee offered.
Mitch laughed at that, a dark, humorless laugh. “Yeah, I’m sure Larsen will be all over that one.”
“Larsen’s an asshole but he’s not the bad guy here,” Ellerbee said.
Mitch ran on several more paces in silence. “I just don’t think Brody realizes what he’s risking here,” he admitted.
“I think you’re underestimating him, man,” Ellerbee said. “I think he knows. I think you just don’t like it.”
Still jogging, Mitch glowered, keeping his eyes fixed ahead. He shook head. “I think I’m the only one who see it,” he said. “Not just the op, but the bigger picture. Brody’s worked to build a life here. He’s worked hard.”
“And he’s doing what he can to save it,” Ellerbee argued.
Mitch drew to a stop, his breathing heavy. “But at what cost? What the hell is the point of saving the life he’s build if he has to give it all up?” he demanded. “Maybe the team understands, but maybe they don’t. Maybe trust is easy to destroy in two weeks but it takes a hell of a lot longer to rebuild. This plea deal is asking for a lot more than it gives, and I know the charges Brody has on his record. And I still think you’ve given Brody something unfair to do.”
Ellerbee sighed. It was obvious that he didn’t want to argue. It was also obvious that he didn’t have to. “You care about him,” he said.
Mitch made a face of disgust. “Of course I care about him,” he snapped. “He’s family now. And you’re asking him to destroy that family. And for a guy like Brody? That’s too much, man. It’s too much.”
“This was Brody’s choice, though,” Ellerbee said. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
It was the same question Mitch kept asking himself. The same question he continually acquiesced to.
Grimly, he shook his head. “The choice was go to prison and lose his family anyway, or take the deal and save them,” he said. “That’s not a choice. That’s blackmail.”
Ellerbee let his shoulder slump. “I don’t know what to tell you, man,” he said. “This op is happening, and the DA’s office couldn’t be happier with the shit Brody’s bringing in.”
Mitch’s lips twisted up into a rueful smile. “I’m sure,” he said. “The DA’s office also doesn’t give a shit what it costs him.”
“And what it costs you?” Ellerbee said knowingly.
Mitch narrowed his eyes coolly. “You know this case better than I do,” he said. “Can you blame me for being worried?”
Ellerbee had to look away at that. He reached into his pocket before offering Mitch a hand to shake. As their hands met, Mitch felt the new recorder pressed into it.
“Brody had a choice, my man,” the cop said. “That’s more than most of us got in this one.”
With that, he withdrew, starting back down the jogging path.
Mitch tucked the recorder into his pocket, watching Ellerbee go on his way.
In the end, he really had no choice about this much.
He had to follow.
Until the end of the road.
Mitch was just going to have to follow for once.
Brody woke up with the heavy knowledge of what he had to do today.
Granted, this had been the case all week. Some people might think that an assignment to go out to a club every night would be easy, but Brody had taken it all very seriously. He’d been methodical and careful in his approach, and every second he spent in the Huntley had been like standing on the pool deck before a race. Nonstop anticipation. Only, on a pool deck it lasted mere minutes. Brody had been at this several days and counting.
To make matter worse, he had to maintain the same determination and focus at work. While his coworkers were under the impression that he was slipping in his commitment to Baywatch, in fact his dedication had never been stronger. It was far harder than most people realized to play the asshole, and Brody had to carefully assess every situation and ask himself what the worst possible response was. Then, despite his own personal feelings, he had to give into that response. He had to sell it.
Of every day.
He talked like two weeks so no big deal, and it wasn’t. It was just a little longer than Brody had probably anticipated.
To say that the adrenaline was fraying him around the edges would be an understatement.
And today, he knew, would be the worst one yet.
Because today was the day he had to come to a definitive conclusions about Summer. Stringing her along for two weeks with meager promising and failed commitments wouldn’t be fair. And there was no way he could actually make nice with her, not while actively maintaining his cover with Anikka at the Huntley.
Which meant, when Brody got to work, he pulled her aside, took a breath, and said, “This just isn’t working.”
She stared at him, as though she didn’t understand what he was saying.
“You and me,” Brody continued. “It’s too much. You’re needy. And clingy.”
“Wait,” she said, blinking a few times as she caught up with what he was saying. “Are you breaking up with me?”
He nodded, as though that should have been obvious. “Yeah,” he said.
A few people passed by, glancing at them.
Summer laughed, looking around. They were in a busy corridor. There were plenty of other lifeguards in the area. Stephanie was holding her clipboard watching. Ronnie and CJ were pulled to the side, trying to look like they weren’t watching.
“You’re breaking up with me,” Summer repeated, sounding increasingly disbelieving. “Here. In HQ. With everyone watching.”
She raised her voice enough so that people who hadn’t been watching before were watching now.
He’d staked a lot on doing this publicly.
And she was going to hold him accountable for it.
Brody could feel their eyes on him, their hatred.
No one could hate him more than he hated himself in this moment.
All the right reasons didn’t make this any better. He forced himself to give an indifferent shrug. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “It’s not like we were serious or anything. I mean, it was fun for a little bit but whatever.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then she shook her head. She was a heartbeat away from crying, Brody could see that, but she forced herself to laugh instead. “Yeah,” she agreed. “Whatever, Brody.”
He made a face. “You’re not going to make this a thing, are you?”
He wasn’t sure why he said it, except that it seemed like completely the wrong thing to say. Insensitive and mean.
Her face hardened and she physically recoiled. Summer recovered quickly, and she reared back, slapping him hard across the face before stalking off. “Screw you, Brody.”
The crowd around them tittered as Brody stood there, hand on his stinging cheek. People averted their eyes from him, but Stephanie stared at him long and hard over her clipboard. CJ and Ronnie had hurried off after Summer.
Brody was still standing there, alone in the hallway.
He’d done what he needed to do. He was keeping Summer safe, and the public breakup would spur rumors up and down the beach. When Anikka caught wind, she’d know that Brody was more vulnerable than ever. More than that, she’d like the thought of Brody not belonging to anyone else but her.
It had been the right thing to do.
He closed his eyes, willing himself not to show how much this hurt. He forged a stoic expression, grabbed his gear and headed out to tower two.
It was just funny how the right thing could feel entirely wrong.
Mitch heard the news before he even reported for duty at tower one. The rumors were already spreading like wildfire at HQ, and by the time he got to his post, beachgoers were already whispering about the massive lifeguard breakout.
“Matt Brody, did you hear?” people whispered as Mitch passed. “I heard he did it in public. With everyone around.”
“What a jerk!”
“I’d still be his rebound.”
“I heard she slapped him.”
“Who cares as long as he’s single?”
“He’s at tower two.”
Needless to say, tower two was the most popular stretch of beach that day. Even Mitch found that he could not keep his binoculars off of it, studying every move Brody made from his post.
Although Mitch could see that Brody was maintaining his beach as well as possible under the conditions, it was also clear that he was playing it up. He seemed keen to give selfies that day, and he helped more girls than he normally did apply sunscreen. He never neglected his duty, but Mitch could see he was working three times as hard. First, to keep his beach safe. Second, to play up the part of a bad boy who’d just ditched his girlfriend. And third, to do all of this without showing how hard it was for him.
And it was hard for him, Mitch was certain of that. He knew Brody too well to think otherwise, and he could see how his flirtatious smile never reached his eyes. He could see the heavy set to his face when he thought no one was watching. Mostly, he could see how Brody kept an eye on tower three, where Summer was posted for the day.
It was easy to miss, the way he covered his concern and his anxiety. It was easy to miss because Brody did such a good job of masking it. He had to wondered if Mitch himself had missed the facade when he first rolled into town.
Brody had the reputation for being dumb but pretty, and while he did play the part well, he wasn’t perhaps quite as dumb as he let others believe. Not that Brody was an intellectual heavyweight -- to the contrary, Brody had clearly never applied himself in school, and why would he? Bouncing around to foster families and training for elite swim races, Brody had had no need to pretend like school was a priority for him.
But his lack of vocabulary skills and his generally dimness around topics other people took for granted didn’t actually suggest that he was a complete idiot. To the contrary, Brody had a good sense of people, and he was almost too aware of himself and his relationship to those people. That, more than anything else, was why Brody had probably taken refuge in drinking -- and even drugs, if the charges from Rio were to be understood in context.
Brody knew his own place too well in this world. Given how much he’d hated it, getting hammered had been a logical alternative.
That was how Baywatch had changed him. For the first time in Brody’s life, he hadn’t wanted an escape from his reality and the people around him. He’d been happy, and that had allowed him to be engaged in a way he probably never had before.
That was what this case was taking from him.
Sure, the plea deal could clear Brody’s record.
But if Brody lost himself in the process?
Then what the hell was the point?
To give Brody credit, he was all in.
Mitch just wasn’t sure if he could stand watching the kid do this to himself. Because Mitch knew what Summer meant to Brody. He knew that it was his first real romantic relationship. He knew Brody loved her, even if Brody hadn’t quite been able to admit it to himself.
And to think, he’d pushed her away. For her own good, probably, but still. He’d broken up with her, and not gently or privately to salvage something from the relationship. But publicly, cruelly. To cement his role in this stupid deal.
He’d pulled it off, too. There were plenty of whispers about the slap that ended it.
Shit, hours later, half a beach away, Mitch felt like he’d been slapped, too.
During his break, he could not stand to wait any longer. He made his way down to tower two. People watched him as he scaled the ramp, and Brody barely spared him a glance, eyes still out on the beach.
“You’re drawing a crowd this morning,” Mitch observed, noting the number of sunbathers who had set up in the shadow of the tower.
“It’s more than I thought,” Brody said, not tearing his eyes from the horizon. “I had no idea how quickly this shit spread out here. These people aren’t even lifeguards.”
“When the gossip’s good, it doesn’t matter,” Mitch said. “Everyone knows.”
Brody shrugged, making his way inside the tower under the guise of doing a quick spot of paperwork. “That’s good, though,” he said. And he dared to look up at Mitch, hope coloring his expression. “Anikka will hear about it.”
Mitch felt his skin crawl. He hated to hear him talk about Leeds. He hated it even more when he addressed her with familiarity. The last time he’d left an investigation about Leeds in Brody’s hands, Brody had done a hell of a job, sure. He’d found the flakka, he’d helped saved Chen.
And he’d nearly gotten himself killed.
If Mitch hadn’t gotten there in time to drag Brody out of the ocean, then they wouldn’t be here. Mitch wouldn’t forget that, not for a second.
But Brody was willfully ignoring it.
“Still,” he said. “You broke up with her?”
He looked a little confused by the question. “You told me I couldn’t have a girlfriend while I did this.”
Sure, but Mitch had hoped that Brody would refuse the deal, try their luck in court, press the DA for better terms. Something, anything.
“But she’s going to hate you,” he said. “I mean, everyone is going to hate you.”
“Right, which was kind of the point,” Brody said. “I can’t be friends with her, with any of them right now. You told me, that’s the only way to keep them safe. It’s the best thing for this case.”
“But your life is more than this case,” Mitch told him. “Other stuff matters more.”
Brody frowned. “Does it?” he said, a little too blunt.
“This is your family, Brody,” he said. “You chose us, and we chose you. If you give that up for a case…”
Brody didn’t back down. From a distance, they would look appropriately confrontational, even if no one would know the real reason why. “And if I go to jail, do you really think I’ll still have a family?”
Mitch sighed; he didn’t want to go into that. He couldn’t bring himself to imagine it as a possibility. “And if Leeds gets her way? If Anikka gets a hold of you?”
“But it’s just for the case, two weeks,” Brody said. “Two weeks for a lifetime, Mitch. I’ve done the calculations.”
“You can’t rebuild every bridge that you burn,” Mitch insisted.
“Then at least I know I did everything I could for them,” he said. He gave a weary shrug. “I’ve thought about this. I know what I’m doing. And you know it will work.”
Mitch clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth together.
That was the rub, wasn’t it?
This was going to work.
Brody’s plan was good, and his execution was nearly flawless. Brody was separating himself from the rest of the team, he was playing up the tensions. This made him the obvious target; Leeds, if she had any sense, would never be able to resist.
And Brody acting stupid? Cocky and arrogant and impulsive?
Would make him even more believable. No one, not even Summer at this point, would doubt that Brody was sincerely willing to throw away his career at Baywatch for some illegal side gig.
Heavily, Mitch put the recording device on the counter between them. “I guess I just want to protect you.”
Brody picked it up. “And I want to protect you, too. All of you, Mitch.”
“At Baywatch, we don’t do this shit alone,” he said, because he’d worked lots of dangerous cases. More than he’d even told Brody about. But he’d never done it alone. Never. Always as a team. “We work as a team. That was how we took down Leeds in the first place.”
“Well, I’m not alone,” Brody posited, not quite allowing himself to smile. “You’re here. And I know if shit gets bad, the rest of the team is still here, too.”
Mitch had his doubts about that.
But Brody’s belief was so innocent, so complete, so raw -- Mitch didn’t have the heart to contradict him.
“Just be careful,” Mitch advised, turning to go somberly. “Oh, and you may not want to try eating with the rest of the team today.”
Brody lifted a finger. “For cover,” he said. “Good call.”
Mitch said nothing as he exited the tower. Brody thought it was for his cover.
That was probably well enough that he thought that.
Instead of realizing that the family he was fighting for wanted nothing to do with him at all.
According to Ellerbee, over the next two days, things were getting better. Brody didn’t have much contact with Leeds, but he had been able to become a mainstay at the Huntley. Soon, he was rubbing shoulders with the elite of Emerald Bay -- and not just the reputable ones. Within two days, Brody had talked to several major suspected criminals, including a few who were connected to the drug trade. The DA was pleased, and Ellerbee sounded increasingly confident that Brody would secure a confession in the coming week.
Based on Mitch’s observations at Baywatch, things were getting worse. Brody had grown steadily more insufferable, and he increasingly made everyone wish he would go far, far away. He actually had to talk CJ out of punching Brody out, incidentally not for his crude behavior toward her but rather his disrespect of Ronnie. Stephanie had to be talked down from approaching Casey Jean about firing Brody, despite the fact that she had an impressive collection of paperwork to justify such a move.
As for Summer, she refused to admit that Brody existed.
The rumors about Brody were moving faster than Mitch could keep them in check. Some people said he was thinking about training for the next Olympics. Others whispered that he must be using drugs again. Everyone agreed that Brody wasn’t long for this job. It was just of matter of how and when he crashed and burned.
Worse, everyone wanted it to be soon.
As for Mitch, things were neither good nor bad. He played his part, his supporting role, as best he could. He ran interference for Brody during the day, trying to minimize the complaints and keeping the rumors from official channels. At night, he waited dutifully, continuing his deep clean of Brody’s new room.
By the end of the week, the room was nearly empty, ready for Brody.
Mitch sat at home, by himself each night, wondering when he’d finally have Brody back to fill it.
Usually, when there was a task to be completed, Brody felt like time went fast. Honestly, everyone asks him about how hard it was to train for the Olympics, but that had been nothing. It felt like the blink of an eye because he’d been so singularly focused that the effort had seemed almost inconsequential.
Of course, Olympic training had been almost mindless for him. It required him to turn all his senses off and to shut down all higher thought in his mind.
This case, however, required him to feel everything. He always had to be thinking, assessing. And not just the physical stuff. This wasn’t about correcting his stroke or perfecting his kick. This was about saying just the right thing at the right time, calculating when his actions would have the desired emotional impact on those around him. It was an endless string of thought, analyzing the depth and quality of the relationships around him.
Which was to say, time moved slowly.
Very, very slowly.
Days on the beach were hard enough. He hated every second of it, lying to his friends and making them feel like shit. He hated stealing saves, and he hated mugging for the camera. He hated the way he had to reduce CJ to a pair of boobs in a swimsuit, and he hated that he made Ronnie feel bad about the way he looked. He hated causing Stephanie to purse her lips and bite her tongue, and he hated, hated, hated the way Summer wouldn’t even look at him anymore. People whispered behind his back, and whenever he entered the room, it immediately cleared. Brody had spent two months building his place at Baywatch.
In two, painfully slow days, he dismantled it piece by piece.
At work, it was slow.
At the club?
It was agonizing.
Basically, it was like torture.
The club scene was one he was familiar with; in fact, a year ago, he probably would have said it was his favorite place to be. Of course, back then, he would have been drinking heavily every night -- or more. As he was quickly discovering, hanging out in a bar all night was way more fun when you were stoned or wasted or whatever.
Hitting it while sober?
Well, Brody had found it tedious to say the least. Around him, people were having a good time, dancing and making out. But all Brody wanted was a quiet night in with Mitch, playing video games, or a walk with Summer on the beach at twilight.
Despite the fact that Ellerbee seemed to think Brody was right on schedule, he felt that after nearly a week of the case, he was going to go crazy if things didn’t move ahead. If he didn’t start drinking -- or worse -- soon, he was probably going to go drown himself in the ocean because anything was better than continuing on like this.
Anikka had been harder to find the last several nights; business, he was told in passing by other security guards or bartenders. He was supposed to enjoy himself, make himself at home.
That was swell, but it wasn’t getting him shit.
So if Ellerbee wanted information on the drug trade, then what the hell. Brody would find it for him any way he could.
Two months ago, when he first went to the Huntley, he’d told Mitch he could find drugs because it wasn’t hard.
Also, because Brody had done it before.
Way more than he’d wanted Mitch to believed.
Brody wasn’t proud of that, but he was also alienating all his friends and trying to hook up with someone who probably wanted to kill him. So Brody was done being cautious.
That was when the VIP access really got him what he wanted. Drug trade was going to be in private rooms more often than not, at least the good stuff. With permission from the security crew, Brody was easily granted access to these rooms, and with a casual demeanor and easy conversation about the latest drug stock, he was quick to make friends with the local buyers and sellers.
Naturally, he was offered more product than he could count -- some of it, even, on the house -- but Brody politely declined. Instead, he made himself a comfortable point of dialogue, making small talk about favorite drug combinations and the best drinks to pair with certain drugs.
When that talk ran dry, Brody upped his game. Soon, he was getting into serious conversations about the possibilities of trafficking in the bay. He was offering advice about the police movement up and down the beach, and how surfboards might be viable since they’re not policed by any actual entity beyond lifeguards.
“Who are nothing more than glorified Barbie dolls, let me tell you,” he quipped.
A pair of major dealers and three suppliers crowed with laughter.
Brody let himself smirk, running his fingers self consciously over the recorder in his pocket. Names, locations, product: Brody had it all.
What he didn’t have, however, was Leeds.
Brody was worried she might never come back, but then, one week into the operation, Brody recognized Caleb at the door. The security guard grinned at him, and proceeded to tail him all night long. Brody made a point to have a beer, smoke a joint and flirt with a very attractive blonde girl.
That was when Caleb tapped him on the shoulder, nodding toward the door.
“Right now?” Brody asked, letting his fingers linger on the girl’s thigh for a second longer.
Caleb shrugged. “Only if you want to live, man.”
Brody didn’t actually care much about living.
But he did want to take Anikka down.
He apologized to the girl, got up and followed Caleb, who led him directly to Anikka’s office. Caleb knocked once, but did not wait for Anikka to reply before letting Brody inside.
Anikka was behind the desk. This time, she actually looked like she might have been working, even if her minidress was hardly work appropriate. Behind him, Caleb shut the door, and he and Terence closed in on either side, effectively blocking Brody’s exit.
That was ominous, to say the least.
But the look on Anikka’s face when she greeted him was nothing short of terrifying. “I hear you’ve been having fun,” she said. “And without me, no less.”
“You were the one who said to have some fun first,” he replied coolly.
“Yes, but not without me,” she said. She wrinkled her nose playfully. “I’m a bit possessive like that.”
A bit was probably a wild understatement. “Well, you’ve been with me in spirit,” Brody offered with a flippant shrug. “That VIP status has been something else.”
At that, she appeared bemused. “You like that, huh?” she said.
“Hell, yeah,” he said. “I haven’t partied like that since Rio.”
Her smile was smaller for a moment. She looked vaguely displeased.
Brody knew how to fix that. “Only one thing that could possibly make it better?”
Her looked was cool now. “Oh?”
“You,” he said. “Party just doesn’t come alive without you.”
Her smile immediately widened again. “Back to flattery, I see.”
“The main reason I keep coming back is you,” he said. “Your friends are nice and all, but it’s a poor comparison.”
She was duly charmed, gesturing to the chair. “You’re sweet, really,” she said as Brody sat down, fighting the urge to run. “Unfortunately, I have had business to attend to this week.”
Brody gave her an expression of concern. “But what about pleasure?”
“Some responsibilities cannot be shirked,” she said. She made a point to stack her papers, putting them out of the way. “But I am here tonight.”
“And?” he prompted.
Her eyes narrowed on him. “And,” she said with a suggestive sidle. “I’m ready for a private party.”
She was on her feet, crossing toward him. Behind them, Terence locked the door.
“A very, very,” she continued, making herself comfortable on his lap, fingers caressing the inside of his thighs, “private party.”
The next hour was a blur.
Shit, Brody drank three drinks and smoked another joint just to survive it. There was music and someone dimmed the lights. In the background, Caleb was laughing, and Terence made some kind of moan of pleasure that made no sense whatsoever. Anikka paid him no heed; she was too busy drawing Brody close into an intimate dance routine that ended with her hand on his crotch and her lips all over him.
When she started to undo his belt, Brody couldn’t do it anymore. With a groan, he locked his fingers on his hand and shook his head.
“Why not?” she said, breathing heavily in his ear.
Her fingers latched on and Brody had to groan again. “No,” he whispered.
“No?” she asked, not quite yielding to him.
He shuddered, shaking his head. “Not yet.”
It was just enough of a concession that she drew back, regarding him with fresh eyes. She was assessing him now, gauging his willingness and determining all possible reasons for this last second rejection.
Brody was still trembling under her touch, thinking about the recorder in his pocket. He didn’t know how much juice it had left.
Shit, he didn’t know how much juice he had left.
“Funny,” she said, sliding off him slightly. “I find your reticence strangely attractive. Normally, I don’t.”
Brody took a deep breath, trying to get himself back under control. “You move fast.”
She laughed outright. “Funny, I was thinking how slow it felt,” she quipped. She traced a finger down his cheek. “It’s kind of cute, however. You being emotionally reserved. It’s not your ex-girlfriend, is it?”
“What? No,” Brody said. “I just...I feel like you know everything about me, but I don’t know much about you.”
“You know I have money,” she said. “And power. And you know that I like you.”
“Sure, but I’ve got nothing,” he said. “My swimming career’s DOA, and now my job at Baywatch is on the rocks. I’m having fun, don’t get me wrong, but I have real world concerns.”
She almost looked sympathetic.
She might have, did she not look so shrewd. She stepped back farther, perching herself thoughtfully on the edge of his desk. “So you want business before pleasure after all?”
Brody pretended that he had no idea what she was talking about. “I just don’t need another loose end in my life.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” she said. “Maybe we can help each other out.”
Brody frowned. “I’ve got nothing I can offer you.”
She laughed maliciously. “You know that’s not true,” she said.
He took her insinuation with a shrug, even as he self consciously fiddled with the elastic on his pants. “So what do you suggest?”
Anikka bit her lip, them seemed to come to a conclusion. “Come back tomorrow,” she said. “But skip the VIP rooms; Terence will see you back here.”
Brody was cautious. “More private partying?”
She smiled coyly. “No, we’ll play it your way,” she said. “Tomorrow is business.”
He wasn’t sure what to say; he just hoped like hell the recorder was still going.
Anikka quirked her eyebrows. “That is what you want, isn’t it?”
“Depends,” Brody said slowly. “What business?”
“What do I care?” she asked. “Any business you like if you can give me what I want.”
At the expression on his face, she rolled her eyes.
“That’s later,” she said. “You have certain skills that can help me in my business as well.”
“I’m a lifeguard,” he reminded her, as if that was nothing. “What could I possible offer a businesswoman like yourself?”
“That’s so funny when you say it like that,” she said. “But honestly, baby, you being a lifeguard is exactly what I want.”
He shook his head, playing dumb. Thankfully, it wasn’t a hard part to play. He did have experience. “I still don’t get it.”
Both amused and exasperated, she tweaked him on the nose. “Baywatch, baby,” she said. “Give me Baywatch and you can have anything you want.”
Brody’s heart skipped a beat. This was why he’d come. This was why his sacrifice had been worthwhile. Right here. Right now. He was more buzzed than he wanted, but her words had crystallized his focus. “Give it to you how?”
“Dirt,” she said, eyes lighting up. He was so glad Ronnie had explained what dirt was in this context so he didn’t look like a complete moron. “I want all the dirt you have so we can take Baywatch down. I want it gone.”
“To privatize the bay?” Brody asked.
“Sure, that, too,” she said. “But mostly I want to destroy Buchannon and his stupid little red and blue minions who think they’re so important. I want them gone, off this beach, forever.”
The vindictiveness in her voice was deep and biting. Brody did his best not to flinch. “Um but Baywatch is my job,” he said.
She shrugged, as if this was a non-issue. “So pick a new one.”
“Remember the part where I have no employable skills?” Brody asked.
With a groan of annoyance, she looked at him like he was a small child that she was coaching. “People here love you,” she said. “A few of your new friends have already asked me about your employment status.”
Brody was a little slow tonight, what with the drinking and the weed. “Wait, you mean the drugs?”
“Surfboard smuggling?” she said. “Genius.”
“You want to get me in the drug trade,” he clarified, extra loud for the recorder in his pocket.
“Well, not just any drug trade,” she said. “I was thinking about mine, assuming that seems like your kind of thing.”
Brody scoffed, too loud, too over the top. The look on Anikka’s face suggested that she loved it. “Outside of swimming and alcohol, it’s really probably my only thing.”
Anikka’s face lit up, and she leaned forward again, caressing his bicep lightly. “Not your only thing, I’m sure.”
With determination, he did not shy away. “The only thing that pays.”
Leaning forward again, she kissed his cheek. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
He nuzzled her ear in return. “I can probably be convinced.”
She sat back with a chuckle. “Then come back tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll hammer out the details.”
“Okay,” Brody said.
Anikka was making her way back around the desk, but paused one more time for Brody’s sake. “But, Brody,” she said, a hint of warning in her syrupy voice. “Business may be first, but you know what I want to follow.”
Brody got to his feet, pressing his lips into the most salacious grin he could muster. “Somehow I’m pretty sure we can both make each other very happy.”
That was the truth, at least. He could make Anikka believe Baywatch was hers.
In return, Brody could collect enough evidence for the DA to nail her ass.
“We better,” she said, nodding to Caleb and Terence, who unlocked the door and stepped away from it. “Or one of us is going to be very, very sad.”
Brody took the warning for what it was.
As he left, he had no doubt about who she intended that person to be.
He just had to hope he had the wherewithal -- and the backup -- to make sure that it wasn’t him this time around.
One week in, and Mitch had stripped the spare room bare. All that was left was the cot and Brody’s bag of things. It was ready for the new furniture. It was ready for Brody.
Wherever the hell brody was at the moment.
Of course, Mitch knew where he was physically. Brody spent all of his time at the Huntley, as a matter of requirement. Mitch knew that.
He was just starting to wonder where Brody was emotionally, mentally.
Because it sure as hell wasn't here.
Sometimes he wondered what would come first, the furniture or Brody.
He hated to think he’d bought the furniture for nothing. Not that he was worried about the money.
Damn it, he was just worried about Brody.
All he wanted was a person to use the furniture, a person to fill the space.
But Mitch sat at home, alone every night, in an empty room.
The nervous energy was gone, and Mitch tried to tell himself it was an improvement. He no longer paced restlessly. He had stopped fretting like a mother hen.
Instead, he waited, the weight of worry like a stone in his stomach. It kept him sitting still on the couch, feeling too nauseated to eat.
When the door opened, he didn’t jump up. He didn’t rush for answers. He’d stopped wanting to hear them anyway.
That night, when Brody walked in a little after midnight, Mitch knew something had changed.
Brody looked dazed somehow, his hair a mess and his face pale. His clothes were rumpled, and when he sat down across from Mitch, he smelled heavily of alcohol, weed and perfume.
Sitting there, Brody said nothing for a moment, staring absently at an undefined point on the coffee table. Mitch held his breath, not sure what he was waiting for.
Still not looking at anything in particular, Brody began to speak. “She, um,” he started, and then tapered off. He seemed to think about what he wanted to say. Nose wrinkled, he continued. “She made an offer.”
That was vague if promising. Mitch sat up a little straighter, not sure if he should be encouraged or dismayed. It sounded like good news. But Brody didn’t look like he felt it was good news.
“She, um, wants me to give her dirt on Baywatch,” he said. “Evidence. Enough to take it down.”
At that, he paused, turning his eyes dully to Mitch.
“Enough to take you down,” he said.
Mitch was still holding his breath, and he could hear his own heart hammering a rapid beat in his ears. “Okay,” he said, not sure what else to say.
“She told me that if I could do that, then she’d let me in on her drug operation,” he said.
This time, Mitch blinked, not sure if he’d misheard. “She really made the offer?”
Brody produced the recorder, which was in his hand. Even from a distance, Mitch could see that Brody’s fingers were shaking slightly. “Yeah,” he said, voice even quieter than before. He put the recorder on the table, looking at it as if he almost couldn’t remember what it was. “It’s all there.”
Mitch looked at the recorder, which by all accounts was everything the DA had wanted it to be.
But then he looked back at Brody, who somehow looked shell shocked by the whole thing. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.
The question almost seemed to startle Brody, and he looked at Mitch in surprise. “I -- yeah,” he said, though he didn’t sound at all convinced. “I mean, she’s going to get me in on the drugs. That’s why I’ve been doing this. So, it’s good. I mean. It’s good. Right?”
The question sounded so uncertain that Mitch found himself hesitating to answer. Part of him wanted to reassure Brody, but he knew that there was something more to this. Something had happened. Something Brody hadn’t anticipated. Something Brody didn’t quite know what to deal with.
He sat forward now, even more intent. “Brody,” he said, waiting until the other man looked at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Not the case,” Mitch said. “You. Are you okay?”
The question hardly made sense to Brody. “It’s just a week left,” he said, not quite answering the question. “I can make it another week.”
Brody had been saying that for a while now, and he’d been sure and confident every time. He sounded less sure now. In fact, he sounded hollow. Determined though he might have been, it was clear that the price might have been higher than even Mitch had anticipated.
Because Brody reeked of alcohol. He was covered in the scent of weed. And Leeds’ perfume was strong enough to almost cover all of it. He knew that Brody was hanging out at a club; he knew that Brody was flirting to maintain Leeds’ attention.
How much further was this going?
How much further could it go?
Brody wasn’t a cop; he didn’t have any training. He didn’t know what boundaries he should push and which ones he should hold. He wasn’t just vulnerable because the DA had his balls over the fire with a plea deal. He was emotionally compromised because he was going to do anything for his family a mere week after his birth mother had reminded him how worthless he’d felt his entire life.
After something like that, Brody was willing to do anything for the family he’d chosen.
Mitch had known that on some level.
But he’d never realized the full extent of it until now.
“Brody,” he said, keeping his voice steady and sure. “We don’t have to do this.”
“I have to,” Brody said.
“We can find another way--”
Brody actually laughed a little, a short and hysterical sound. “This can’t be for nothing,” he said. “I need to finish this, Mitch. I need to.”
He had grown suddenly vehement; the distance had abated in his gaze, and he was more present than he had been all night. The determination was still there, but this time it was grounded in desperation more than anything else.
Brody didn’t care what it cost.
But Mitch did.
Looking at Brody, he cared a hell of a lot.
Brody shook his head, as if he couldn’t bring himself to listen to another word. “Just make sure Ellerbee gets the recording,” he said. “He needs to tell me what he wants me to do, what I need to do.”
Brody was still shaking his head somehow, swallowing so hard that his whole body trembled. “I just need to get some rest, okay?”
“What about dinner?” Mitch asked.
But Brody was already making his way down the hall toward the spare room.
“I just need to sleep,” he said again, and this time, when he entered the room, he closed the door behind him, leaving Mitch alone again in the living room.
He stared after Brody, then he looked back at the recording device.
Picking up his phone, he brought up Ellerbee’s number.
We need to talk, he typed. At my house. Tomorrow morning.
That’s kind of a risk, came Ellerbee’s typed reply.
Screw the risk, he replied. Go on your jog early, and stop by at the end to lift.
Just be here.
Tossing his phone aside, he didn’t wait for a reply. There was nothing Ellerbee could do over the phone, just like there was nothing they could do tonight. They needed answers.
Mitch stared at the recording device, tempted to listen.
“Shit,” he said to himself, picking it up and tucking it in his pocket.
Answers would have to wait until morning.