That night, Mitch went through the motions of sleeping, but he was still up early. Anxious about Brody’s closed door, Mitch made a large breakfast spread, knowing that the younger man had skipped breakfast the night before. With a close eye on the time, Mitch roused Brody just before Ellerbee was due to report, and he plied the kid with coffee, sausage and pancakes by the time there was a knock on the front door.
As requested, Ellerbee was there, sweaty and tired from an extended morning jog. “I happened to be in the neighborhood,” he said.
Mitch let him inside, sparing a second to glance surreptitiously around the neighborhood. He hadn’t gotten the impression that he was being watched, but after last night, he had a sense that things might have changed in more than one way.
Inside, Brody looked shocked to see Ellerbee. “Dude, is this safe?”
“The house seems clean,” Ellerbee assured him. “She’s got plants down at the beach, but we’ve seen nothing to say she’s started following you full time or anything.”
Brody, reaching for more pancakes, did not seem overly convinced. “Is everything okay? Am I doing it wrong?”
“Hell, no,” Ellerbee said, accepting a plate from Mitch and helping himself to a little food. “From where I’m at, you’re doing a great job.”
Brody was disconcerted. “But then why--”
“I called him,” Mitch said. He handed over the recording. To Ellerbee, he said, “She made the offer last night.”
Ellerbee looked shocked, glancing to Brody.
“She wants me to get dirt on Baywatch,” he explained. He sounded somewhat more confident this morning; at least, the dullness in his expression had faded from the night before. “She told me that if I could do that, she’d let me in on the drug operation.”
Ellerbee looked at the recorder in awe. “Does she mention where and when?”
“Nothing specific yet,” Brody said.
“So you haven’t seen her with the drugs,” Ellerbee clarified.
Brody looked somewhat crestfallen. He understood the implications of what Ellerbee was saying. “No,” he admitted. “But she definitely made a job offer.”
Ellerbee put down his plate, and Mitch was already bracing himself. “Legally speaking, you need a hell of a lot to convict on,” he said. “Especially with this kind of operation. We need to see the drugs.”
Brody had gone pale again, fork frozen in midair.
Mitch felt his own stomach roil. “So, you’re saying that Brody has to be part of an actual drug deal before this is over.”
Ellerbee’s mouth opened to protest, but the words couldn’t quite come out. He closed his mouth again with a small frown before finding the words. “The closer we get Leeds to the drugs, the better our chances are. The DA wants--”
Mitch sat back with a huff, rolling his eyes. “Oh, this should be good.”
Ellerbee sighed. “It’s just that we only get one shot at this.”
“So you thought, gee, let’s not put an actual cop on it,” Mitch shot back.
“Brody’s gotten further faster than anyone else could have--”
“And now you want him to go through with a drug deal,” Mitch reminded him flatly. “How the hell is he supposed to do that?”
Ellerbee didn’t flinch at the anger in his voice; nearby, however, Brody did. The younger man cast his eyes down as Ellerbee straightened himself to reply.
“Look, the case is moving ahead,” he explained, obviously trying to be patient. “Obviously, we’re not going to send anybody into a drug deal unprepared. I just have to talk to the DA, see what protections we can get in place.”
“And how long does that take?” Mitch asked, unable to keep the accusation out of his voice.
“Not long,” Ellerbee said.
“And until then?” Mitch pressed. He gestured to Brody, who was still looking down at his half eaten breakfast.
“He can just keep going what he’s doing,” Ellerbee suggested, as though that were the easiest thing in the world.
Mitch could see more color drain from Brody’s face, and he shook his head. “She wants him to take down Baywatch,” he said. “To give her dirt.”
“He’s been handling it great so far,” Ellerbee said.
Brody’s shoulders slumped, and he looked up miserably. “She’s going to need more,” he said. “If she’s going to get me in on the drugs, then I’m going to have to take it further.”
“And what the hell does that look like?” Mitch asked, and he wasn’t sure who he was talking to anymore. “You’ve already alienated the whole team. You’ve stolen the press cycle and talked smack all up and down the beach.”
“I don’t know,” Brody admitted. He looked toward Ellerbee, a little lost. “I don’t know what else to give her.”
Ellerbee collected a breath. “I get it, I do,” he said. “Just do what you’ve been doing. Let me talk to the DA and the investigative team. We’ll have answers for you. Tomorrow.”
Brody turned his eyes down again, and Mitch stepped toward him defensively.
Ellerbee sensed this, and he put his own plate down, hands up. “This operation is going great,” he said with conviction. “Brody, man, you’re doing great. Better than we could have hoped. I promise, I am not leaving you out to dry on this one. No matter what the DA says, I’m not.”
Brody showed no signs of being encouraged. He was done with the conversation, even if he couldn’t be done with the op.
Frustrated at the lack of progress, Mitch decided that enough was enough.
Answers were what he’d wanted.
He just didn’t like the ones he’d gotten this morning.
“Fine,” he said, a little terse. “We should hit the weights, then. Keep the cover.”
Ellerbee glanced at Brody, uncertainly.
“You good, man?” Mitch asked for them both.
Brody looked up, mustering a meager smile. “Yeah,” he said. He pushed his plate away. “I, um. Should probably go jogging.”
“We’re going to go lift,” Ellerbee said.
Brody was on his feet. “Wouldn’t be good for the cover, right?” he said. “Working out with a cop.”
“Probably not,” Ellerbee agreed, though he sounded disappointed.
“You sure you’re okay, man?” Mitch asked him.
The hollow expression from last night was back, even if Brody was clearly trying to control it. “The operation’s going well,” he said, parroting Ellerbee. “I just have to keep it up.”
With that, he was out of the room, and Mitch cast Ellerbee a deadly look. Ellerbee had the good sense to be cowed, but neither of them spoke until they were out in the garage, lifting the weights.
“Do you see why I called?” Mitch asked, working on his arms.
Ellerbee was at a machine, doing his legs. “You’re worried about him.”
“He was worse last night,” Mitch said. “Whatever he’s been doing, he won’t tell me exactly. But I don’t think he can keep it up much longer.”
“This work is never easy,” Ellerbee started, but Mitch gave him a look that silenced him.
“And he’s not a cop,” Mitch reminded him. “It’d be one thing if this was just a plea deal and he was doing it to save his own ass--”
“Which, he is, technically--”
Mitch shook his head. “He’s not doing this for the plea deal,” he said. “He’s doing this because you told him it was the best way to save Baywatch. It’s too much.”
“But he’s doing great,” Ellerbee said, as if that still meant something.
“On the case, maybe,” Mitch conceded. “But personally? You saw him. He’s a mess. We’ve cut him off from the only support system he’s ever had that’s worth a damn, and we’ve asked him to plunge headfirst into the world of alcohol and drugs. You know his record better than I do. That’s not fair to him.”
“You think he’s using?” Ellerbee asked.
Mitch rolled his eyes. “Nothing serious, but he shouldn’t be in that position,” he insisted. “The point of hm being at Baywatch in the first place is to clean up. Now we are setting him up to undo in two weeks what he worked to established for two months.”
“He seems to be dealing okay,” Ellerbee said, but he sound d a little hesitant.
Mitch was unrelenting in response.
“No, he really doesn’t,” Mitch argued with it apology. “He won’t tell me what he does, but Leeds is all over him.”
Ellerbee was frowning now. “Like suspicious?”
“Like she wants him as her own personal toy,” Mitch said.
At this, Ellerbee looked concerned. “You think she…”
“I have no idea,” Mitch said. “Brody won’t tell me shit. But you can see it. His enthusiasm is waning.”
“Does he want out?”
“No,”Mitch hissed. “And that’s what worries me. He’s willing to do whatever it takes. And he won’t tell me everything Leeds is asking from him, and he’s so convinced that he has to get results that he’s got no common sense to tell us when something is out of bounds.”
Ellerbee listened, as intently as Mitch could hope. He was taking Mitch’s concerns seriously, at least. Ellerbee got up from the leg machine. “I’m going to get answers,” he promised. “We will have a plan going into this last week here.”
Mitch let his own dumbbells drop to the floor with a clatter. “We better.”
“We will,” a Ellerbee promised. “I should get going here. Start reviewing the recording.”
Mitch let him go, making no further attempt to convince him. Ellerbee understood, he thought. And Mitch had to trust that he’d come up with something.
Because on his own. Mitch had nothing.
Brody made a point to leave before Mitch came back inside. That meant his breakfast was still half finished, and he’d left the dirty plate on the counter, which was something Brody knew Mitch hated. But he’d had no choice.
There was no way he could face Mitch again. Not if he was going to finish this.
In truth, his resolve was shaky. His belief in what he was doing was no longer as firm as he’d hoped. His conviction was muddled, and not even the sober light of day could restore Brody’s perspective to what it had been before Anikka had made the offer.
Before she’d taken the offer from him.
He’d said yes, but this morning, he had no idea what that meant. He wasn’t sure anymore what he’d sacrificed.
Much less if he could ever get it back.
He couldn’t face Mitch like this. The only reason he could face himself was that he’d never been that good of a guy to begin with. He probably deserved all this. And more.
That was the solidifying thought, the thing that allowed him to don his trunks and face Baywatch another day.
It was the only thing that made the hated of people he cared about have any meaning at all.
He deserved it.
And they deserved better than him.
In one week, they’d all get what they wanted.
Brody just wasn’t sure what that would look like anymore, if this happy ever after would even have a place for him.
It didn’t matter Brody resolved.
He couldn’t let that matter.
That didn’t make it any easier actually going to work. His mere presence cleared out a room, and Stephanie wouldn’t even look at him when she read out his tower assignment for the day. He had to watch as other lifeguards joked and laughed with each other, and he knew he deserved it when they turned away from his coldly the second he approached.
Given his loose lips with the press, he was spoken to as minimally as possible, which meant that only Stephanie managed to speak to him at all, and only in a strictly professional setting. When he asked an honest question, she didn’t even pretend like she didn’t hear him. She simply ignored him and went about her business.
On duty, this wasn’t so bad. He was still the most popular lifeguard on the beach due to his recent publicity stunts. He’d always been good at making headlines, and while he could hear the whispers about whether or not he was a dick or a savior, it still meant that people flocked to him all throughout the day.
The best Brody could do was play that up. He patrolled more often; he helped with sunscreen more than was strictly necessary. And when he did make a save, he made sure the victim was safe before milking the photo op.
He knew that the hashtags would be going viral. #BaywatchSaves and #AnotherDayAnotherHero were his favorites. But he knew that #VomitComet was still the most prevalent.
For the case, it worked.
Even if it did make him feel like absolute shit.
At lunch, everyone was gone by the time he clocked out. It was just as well. Brody didn’t feel particularly hungry anymore anyway.
However, sitting there sulking wasn’t going to get him ahead with Anikka.
She wanted dirt.
That was a simple enough request.
The problem was, there wasn’t any dirt, not that Brody knew. Baywatch was a legitimate organization. Everything Brody knew about was on the up and up, his public and overblown criticisms aside. Ellerbee said Brody needed to get in on an actual deal in order to wrap this case up, but in order to get in on a deal, he was going to have to give Anikka something.
But what? What could possibly bring Baywatch down?
Brody poked at a bag of chips he’d bought at the snack machine, trying to come up with something. It was one thing to sour public opinion. Obviously, if Baywatch was publicly funded, a falling out of PR could put Baywatch’s funding requests on the chopping block. Anikka would like that as a general notion, but he knew it’d be too slow for her. She wasn’t going to wait an election cycle -- for that matter, neither was Brody. He’d never make it that long.
Which meant there had to be something more pressing.
Brody was a lifeguard; he had no real authority within the organization. And even during his short stint as lieutenant, everything had seemed to be in order. The staffing matters were handled efficiently. Finances were well documented. And even if there were coverups in those areas -- which Brody could not imagine -- it’s not like he had the wherewithal to figure them out. Maybe, if he has Ronnie’s help -- but he didn’t have Ronnie’s help. Brody had no one’s help. He was all alone here.
So, what was he going to do? How was he going to save Baywatch? Could he really find a weak spot to exploit? And what would it be?
These were good lifeguards. More than that, they were good people.
Ellerbee and the DA had no idea what they were asking from Brody. It wasn’t just about the personal risk or the alienation from his team. It was the simple fact that Anikka wanted Baywatch’s funding on a platter, and Brody was expected to find the means to make it possible.
It wasn’t though. Mitch had designed all the procedures and protocols himself. Stephanie enforced them to the letter. They were protocols that were streamlined to save lives. And they worked.
Brody stopped chewing his chip and tilted his head. Chewing and thinking was too hard to do at the same time, and Brody needed to get this one right. Baywatch was a way of life; it was family. But it was also a series of protocols and procedures that bound every team member together. The team was unshakable, Brody knew this.
But the procedures and protocols.
Those might not be completely unimpeachable.
Brody only knew this because Summer had finally been his study buddy. He’d learned the rules, memorized them, internalized them, all that shit. He’d been so intent on learning them, that he’d never taken the time to question them.
Sure, he’d had stupid suggestions at first. He’d wanted video coverage for cell phone monitoring and dumb shit. Those ideas were terrible, and he knew that now, but the old school tactics Mitch used on the beach were not beyond reproach.
As in, even if they worked, Brody could easily make a case that they were limited. He could talk his way into modernization, pointing out that the manual had not been sufficiently revised in more than 10 years. In fact, the original copy of the text was extremely similar to the current version.
He knew this because Summer had made a point to explain it to him while trying to relay the importance of the guidebook to him. She’d wanted to show him that these tactics were tried and true, tested with time.
Brody had believed it; honestly, he still did.
But this wasn’t about personal belief.
This was about public opinion.
Brody didn’t need to just make Baywatch look silly.
He needed to make it look out of touch.
Mitch banked most of his marketing on the fact that they were an elite squad of the best. Good PR made it easy to overlook any possible limitations.
All Brody had to do was back up the bad press he’d been drumming up with concrete facts about Baywatch’s policies. The public didn’t care how old the policies were when people were being saved. When people were almost slipping through the cracks, though? When danger seemed to be too pressing?
Then Brody could turn the conversation to those potential limitations with ease.
If public safety was at risk, they wouldn’t have to wait for another election cycle. There could be a referendum on it within a week.
At least, Brody thought that sounded reasonable. In truth, he didn’t know what a referendum was, but it sounded more plausible than Mitch being voted out of office. He was pretty sure that wasn’t a thing.
That wasn’t the point, though. The point was that Baywatch, as a team, couldn’t be touched. Mitch, as a leader, wasn’t someone they could take down. Because Baywatch was a family, a way of life -- he had to attack it from a more technical angle. The procedures, the policies -- the boring shit that everyone took for granted -- that had to be Brody’s target now.
When this was over, he was going to have to thank Summer for helping him study.
Assuming she was still talking to him.
And assuming that Brody was even still alive.
Brody threw away the bag of partially eaten chips. Lunch wasn’t much of a respite for him, so what the hell? Why not jump out of the frying pan, right into the fire?
He armed himself with a copy of the schedule, making note of the assignments. Summer was scheduled for tower three all day. However, Brody knew because he’d watched for her all morning out of habit, she hadn’t been on tower three. She’d traded with Ronnie, and had taken up residence in tower five instead.
Trading was a normal thing -- Brody had done it plenty of times himself -- but it wasn’t official. Strictly speaking, it did create some gaps in coverage that might not otherwise be anticipated. It was the easiest example of an unofficial procedure that didn’t actually jive with protocol.
Brody could work with that.
He was really good at making shit out of nothing, after all. He was the only person he knew that turned a two-gold medal experience into a losing proposition. It was time to apply that poor luck and horrible decision making to a much better purpose.
He was waiting for the others when they got back. As expected, they tried to avoid him, but Brody carried the schedule toward Stephanie, who had no choice but to acknowledge him.
“So, I had a question about the schedule,” he said.
“You’re tower two,” she said curtly, not stopping to actually look at him. “You get off at 5. Even you can handle that, I think.”
“Sure, yeah,” Brody said. But then he pointed at the sheet. “But Ronnie’s at tower five.”
“So?” she asked.
“So, he’s been at tower three,” Brody said.
Stephanie sighed. “He probably traded,” she muttered indifferently.
“But it’s not officially logged,” Brody pointed.
“And your point it?” she said.
Brody blinked, feigning sincerity. “It’s just that the rules. They say that legal responsibility is tied to the lifeguard assigned to duty,” he said. “So if something goes wrong on tower three, and Ronnie’s not officially on duty, then couldn’t there be a problem?”
Stephanie looked annoyed at this, snatching the sheet from him. “You know that’s how we do it,” she said. “We’ve done it that way for years.”
“But that doesn’t make it right,” he said. “There’s a lack of accountability--”
She shook her head in disagreement, looking agitated now. “Only if you’re not responsible about it,” she said. “Are you suggesting that you’re not responsible? Because we can refer you to HR to look for a new job if you like--”
Brody didn’t rise to her bait. “I’m suggesting that Baywatch is running on a reputation that’s ten years old,” he said. “I’m suggesting that the policies we keep on the beach aren’t necessarily the policies we’re supposed to keep. I’m suggesting that you’re putting a lot of faith in your lifeguards at the expense of public safety.”
Indignant, she stepped closer to him now. As it was, she was taller than him, even if he had more muscle mass. She knew how to be imposing when she wanted to be.
She wanted to be now. “We hire the best for a reason,” she said, voice dripping with venom. She gave him a hard look over. “At least, we used to.”
A few other lifeguards were listening in now, all but gawking because Brody no longer warranted anything such as privacy.
“You know, using intimidation to keep your employees in line?” Brody said. “Also not part of the rules.”
“I really recommend you stop talking about the rules,” she said.
He didn’t back down now. “And maybe I would,” he said. “If you didn’t pick and choose which ones you wanted to follow. Makes it easy to keep Baywatch the way you want it, not the way it needs to be.”
It was a crowd now, most of the afternoon staff. Brody’s only regret was that he didn’t make this stink on the public beach. Still, if this went as poorly as he thought it would, he was pretty sure word would still get out. Fortunately, someone even had out their phone and seemed to be recording. Because of course they did.
“If we had our way to pick and choose, you wouldn’t be here,” Stephanie said caustically. “You were forced onto this team by Thorpe, who was a lying, cheating son of a bitch. So I don’t think you have any room to talk.”
Brody shook his head. “Threaten and mock all you want, Stephanie. It doesn’t change the fact that I have a point. You want to be an elite team, but no matter how difficult your tryouts are, the fact is that you’re still an organization run with outdated rules that are haphazardly applied.”
She was livid. As she took another step toward him, her fists were actually clenched. He thought he might as well let her hit him. He deserved it, to say the least, and it would make for a hell of a twist on the rumors. Another person had their phone up, and Brody could only hope that this was a live feed.
“You’re an entitled bastard, Brody,” she seethed, because unlike Brody, she hadn’t taken her attention from the confrontation to see that it was being recorded. “And I ought to have you fired.”
“Why?” he challenged, puffing out his chest. “Because you don’t like me? There’s no policy against being an asshole!”
“And what about punching out a coworker?” Stephanie asked.
“Pretty sure that goes under physical harassment,” Brody told her.
She actually growled. Like, really growled.
But before she lunged at him -- and she was going to, okay -- Mitch came into the room. “Whoa, hey,” he said, sensing the tension without having to ask what was going on. He stepped neatly between them. “I’m pretty sure we all have work to do.”
He looked around, first at Stephanie, then at the others. He waited until the others had lowered the phones and shuffled away sheepishly.
Stephanie was still standing stockstill, and she shook her head. “I know you think he’s earned his place, but I can’t keep doing this,” she said, staring at Mitch hard. “If you want to keep him on staff, then I’m not sure I know what this place is really about.”
“Step back and cool down,” Mitch instructed.
“And him?” Stephanie asked, jabbing her finger vitriolically at Brody.
Mitch turned a serious look at Brody. “I’ll talk to him,” he said. “My office. Now.”
Stephanie was still fuming when she stalked away. Brody turned to follow Mitch, and even if he knew that he wasn’t in real trouble, he knew that he was in trouble enough.
Probably a lot more trouble than he actually knew what to do with.
The thing was, the case with Brody notwithstanding, Mitch actually had a job to do. And not just any job. This wasn’t like working 9-5 in a cell phone store. This was Baywatch. The most active, most elite lifeguarding team on the entire California coast. Contrary to what people thought about lifeguards, Mitch’s job was actually quite demanding.
As lieutenant, he had even more duties to contend with. He had schedules and requisition forms and complaints and incident reports.
Shit. He had a lot of shit.
None of this was shit he minded. He liked his job, even the boring parts of it. He knew it was all important, and he’d always given himself to it, nothing held back.
The problem was, of course, that the case with Brody couldn’t be notwithstanding. Brody was not only causing numerous problems on the beach and amongst his staff, but Mitch was also solely responsible for Brody’s continued well being, both on the team and in Leeds’ company after hours. This job was also becoming a full time job.
Except Mitch couldn’t possibly work two full time jobs.
Especially when skimping on either would lead to a forfeiture of lives.
So when he let Brody into his office and closed the door, he really did want to yell. He wanted to scream, actually. Even if it wasn’t Brody he was particularly mad it.
He walked around to his chair behind the desk and sat down to face Brody, who had taken up a chair across from him without being ordered to.
Okay, so Mitch was a little mad at him.
He knew this wasn’t technically Brody’s fault, but Brody played the part really, really well. And Mitch was tired. There was no denying that Brody made an easy scapegoat.
Having a scapegoat didn’t solve the problem, however.
And Mitch did have a significant problem.
“This isn’t working,” Mitch announced to him gravely.
Brody sat forward, somewhat intent. “But I think it is.”
“No, I’m not talking about with Leeds or Anikka or whoever,” Mitch replied. “It’s not working here.”
Brody’s face froze, then fell as he slumped back. “I know,” he said. “That was the point, though.”
“This isn’t just about whether or not Stephanie hits you, which she will next time, and no one will stop her on your behalf, not even if she strangles you,” Mitch warned. “This is about whether or not they file a formal complaint against you.”
Brody blinked; he’d clearly not considered that. “But you can stop it, right?” he said. “Or, like, put it off. I mean, we’ve got a week, Mitch.”
“And I’m doing what I can,” he said. “But the team is not going to be placated forever, and if they go over my head--”
Brody shook his head. “But I have to be Anikka’s inside man.”
“So tone it back,” Mitch said.
“I can’t!” Brody said. “She wants dirt!”
“So you started picking fights?” Mitch asked.
“No,” Brody argued. “I’m building a case. It’s a PR thing. I need to showcase Baywatch’s weaknesses.”
“We don’t have weaknesses,” Mitch said.
“I know that, I do,” Brody assured him. “But you can make a case for anything.”
Warily, Mitch shook his head, massaging his temples to assuage the throbbing there. “No, you can’t,” he said. “Because I’m running out of a case to keep you around.”
Sitting back again, Brody actually looked hurt by this. “Mitch. I. The team. I’m doing this for them.”
“Yeah, they don’t seem very happy about it,” Mitch said.
“Because they don’t know,” Brody argued.
“Because you made the choice to do this alone,” Mitch shot back.
“I’m not alone,” Brody insisted. He tilted his head, as if considering this for the first time. “Am I?”
The question was like a knife to Mitch’s heart. “No, of course not,” Mitch said. “I just -- you can’t destroy the team to save it, okay? You can’t.”
“It’s just one more week,” Brody said, and he was pleading a little now.
“A lot can change in a week,” Mitch warned him.
That much at least Brody seemed to take to heart. Then, he seemed to come to some kind of conclusion. “Yeah,” he said. “It can.”
Mitch was skeptical of this turn. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing, just that you’re right,” Brody said. “I have to tone it back at work.”
The acquiescence made Mitch even more hesitant than before. “What are you thinking?”
Brody smiled, getting to his feet. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
That was the best thing Brody could say.
And it was a surefire way to make Mitch worry more.
And worry a lot.
Shit, all he could do anymore was worry.
In some ways, he was glad that he wasn’t on duty in the afternoon. The idea of patrolling the beach in his current mindset was daunting.
Then again, sitting sequestered in his office all day wasn’t much better. Sure, the public was probably safer without his muddled mind. But he sure as hell could have used a distraction.
When there was a knock on his door at the end of the shift, he was almost relieved.
But then Stephanie entered, looking dour as she closed the door behind her. She turned to face the desk, shoulders squared and face set sternly.
He didn’t want to ask what she wanted.
He knew what she wanted.
At any rate, she didn’t wait for him to ask. “I know Brody is your pet project, okay,” she said. “I know you live with him, you like him. And up until three weeks ago, it was clear that you were a good influence on him. But you can’t keep playing favorites.”
“I’m not,” Mitch said, but he was too tired to muster much enthusiasm on this point. “He’s worked hard to get to where he is.”
“Sure, but that’s not a free pass,” she said. “We all have backgrounds and baggage. That doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want.”
“I’m managing the situation,” Mitch told her. “There are details you’re not entitled to know.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “But I am entitled to a work environment that is positive.”
“It’s a balancing act, Stephanie, you know that,” Mitch said. “Brody’s been here long enough. He’s proven himself enough times. He deserves time to work through this issue, just like every other person on the team.”
“Well, until three weeks ago, I would have agreed with that, too,” she said. “But this is more than a bad day, Mitch.”
“I told you, there are details you don’t know,” he told her. “Brody’s situation is more complicated than you realize.”
She simply appeared incredulous. “So, what, then?” she asked. “You’re putting Brody’s needs, or whatever you want to call this behavior, ahead of the needs of the team. And I’m just supposed to be cool with that?”
“But he’s part of the team,” Mitch reasoned.
“Is he?” Stephanie asked, sounding completely unconvinced on that point.
Mitch drew himself straighter, feeling sober. “He’s still on the roster. He’s still wearing the uniform.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And that’s the problem. I don’t think he should be.”
It was blunt, even for Stephanie. She was the type of person who spoke her mind, but she also knew the pecking order. Mitch respected her opinion and had often asked for it, taking it seriously into consideration. But this? This was outright subordination.
Stephanie wouldn’t normally resort to such tactics.
Not unless she felt very strongly about the subject.
He couldn’t help it; he bristled at the confrontational attitude, even if it was probably warranted. “It’s not your call.”
“And so it’s yours,” she assumed, the irony rich in her voice. “Because you’re certainly not biased at all.”
It wasn’t that she was wrong to think it. It was, however, that she was wrong to say it. Even if she’d lost her patience with Brody, even if she was ready to cut Brody loose without a second thought -- Mitch had earned more credibility than that. Mitch didn’t even have to be her boss for this one. Mitch just had to be her longstanding mentor and friend.
That went show, Mitch knew somberly, just how out of control this situation had gotten in the last week.
Mitch couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen if they had to endure another week of this.
Still, Stephanie’s tone brokered no sympathy. If she was going to challenge him, he wasn’t going to give in. This wasn’t some machismo crap. No, this had everything to do with keeping the team together -- with keeping Brody safe.
Stephanie couldn’t see it now, how those two things were intricately intertwined.
“I have my reasons,” he said shortly. He was done with this argument. He had to be done with this argument. “And you’re going to have to trust me, even if you don’t trust Brody anymore.”
Scoffing, she shook her head. “Whatever, Mitch,” she said, turning to leave.
“Stephanie, we’re a team,” he called after her.
She turned back at the door. “I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention for the last week, Mitch,” she said. “Because it sure as hell doesn’t feel like a team these days.”
She left in a huff, not waiting for a reply.
This was for the best since Mitch did not have one.
When Brody arrived at the Huntley, he was a little relieved that Terence was waiting for him. The mixing and mingling on the bar floor was exhausting, and pretending to drink while everyone around him got smashed was proving increasingly difficult for Brody. When he’d started, he’d pledged to remain entirely sober. A week in, having a few drinks seemed necessary.
Much more than that, and this whole two-week timeframe would be lost to him. Brody was many things when he was drunk, but committed to a task was not one of them. All you had to do was look at his performance in Rio to see that.
His relief, unfortunately, was short-lived. Terence let him into Anikka’s private office, where he was quickly greeted by the smell of smoke and Anikka’s laughter. Caleb was in one of the chairs to the side, but his tie was undone and he was giggling like a school girl.
“Oh! Is it that time already!” Anikka crowed, putting her drink down and crossing toward Brody to usher him inside. She was grinning. “Sorry, we got a bit carried away.”
Caleb giggled again while Terence resumed his position by the door, which was now closed firmly. Brody glanced at him uneasily, before looking at Anikka again.
She actually looked a little embarrassed. “I like to be hands-on,” she said with an air of confidentiality. “I don’t sell anything that I myself have tasted.” She winked at Caleb, who cackled in response. “And as you can see, I like to get second opinions as well. Do you want some? This is a sample from the shipment I’m arranging for next week.”
Brody perked up, remembering to turn on his recorder. “A sample?”
“Sure, forwarded in good faith,” she said. “I’m making a hell of investment in these things; I should think I deserve a taste.”
Brody shrugged. “It’s tempting, but when I do something, I go all the way. If we do this, there’s no way we’ll talk business.”
She inched closer to him, brushing against him suggestive. “That’s not all bad, is it?”
It was obvious that she wanted him to agree. But Brody couldn’t agree. Not if he was going to finish this op. Not if he was going to survive this op. “I’m going crazy at work,” he said. “If I can turn this, what we have, into something more permanent, I need it. Now.”
She straightened, moderately sobered. “Discipline, that’s a different idea,” she observed. “I like it, but you can tell that my boys only have it in turns.”
To prove her point, Caleb giggled again. Terence solidified his stance in the doorway.
“You should totally take the job,” Caleb advised in some weird attempt to be serious. “Working for Anikka has its perks.”
Despite the fact that Caleb sounded ridiculous, Terence nodded resolutely from the doorway.
Caleb beamed at Anikka like he was in love with her. Or, at the very least, in love with her drugs. “Real perks.”
Anikka, for her part, beamed back at him fondly. “I do try to be a fun boss,” she said lightly.
“I do like the sound of that,” he said. “But I wasn’t under the impression I had the job just yet.”
“Right, right,” she said, sounding a little weary by the suggestion. She made her way back around the desk, sitting down somewhat dramatically. “I did promise you a business discussion.”
Easing himself into the chair across from her, Brody tried to look like this wasn’t the last place he wanted to be. “Business.”
She raised her eyebrows at him, expectant. “So. You first.”
That was a bit more open ended than Brody had wanted. With Leeds, there had never been any questions. She’d had a clear plan and wanted no feedback. Anikka, by contrast, seemed to be making this up a little as she went. Not that she didn’t have goals, but her way of achieving those goals was decidedly not as clear.
Or, given the amount of smoke and alcohol in the room, clear at all. “Um,” Brody started, spreading his hands on his legs, not sure where to start. “Where do you want me to start.”
She slammed her hand on the table. “Dirt!” she declared. “You promised me dirt, remember?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, gauging her mood and trying to temper himself accordingly. He’d invested too much into this process to get it wrong now. “Did you see any of the local news today?”
She was trying not to look too interested. Or too impressed. She wasn’t as accomplished as Leeds, however. “I did,” she said. “And I have to admit, I’m impressed. I spent a month here in the bay trying to drum up this kind of negative publicity, and you’ve managed to do it within a week. Almost like you’re not even trying.”
It was praise, and that was good. Brody could work with praise. He needed her to be happy. Happy and preferable not homicidal, but Brody wasn’t sure if those two things could be separated for people in this family.
At the very least, he didn’t want to find out.
He wasn’t going to get near a boat with this lady, that much was sure.
However, he had to get somewhere with her, and not probably where she wanted him to be. Whatever the case might be, she wasn’t pushing the topic as strongly as he might have expected. In this case, she wanted him to take the lead. Maybe she didn’t have any ideas. Maybe she just liked his ideas.
The latter seemed unlikely. Brody never had ideas people liked. Ever.
It was possible that her ideas all revolved around getting his clothes off, so maybe she was too distracted to properly plot death and destruction at the moment.
Brody couldn’t exactly wait for her to figure it out.
So, taking the lead it was.
It wasn’t like he was actually doing this alone.
Mitch had his back. He always had Brody’s back.
Family, right? That was what this was?
And Mitch had given Brody the advice he needed just this afternoon. Sure, it wasn’t clear that Mitch was aware that he’d given this advice, but Brody was sort of out of options here and under pressure, he had the tendency to sink or swim.
This time, for a change, he thought he might try swimming.
He was, after all, kind of good at it.
“It’s not as hard as you think,” he said. “But really, I’m not sure it’s going to be good enough.”
Her eyes narrowed. She liked hearing about success. She was not so fond of hearing about things that weren’t successful. That was probably true about most people, but she seemed to take mediocrity personally. Which was funny because she seemed to lack the desire to be proactive.
Also, she was probably a little high and a little drunk. She seemed to be trying to think about what he was saying -- and coming up a touch on the blank side. “What do you mean?”
It was a novel concept for a guy like Brody. Not being the biggest idiot in the room.
Shit, he had to be careful or he was going to start getting cocky.
“Look,” Brody said. “Mitch, no matter how much we all hate him, he’s legit, okay. And all the bad press in the world can’t change the fact that Baywatch is still the best lifeguarding team on the coast. No matter what dirt I managed to find, you’re not going to get them defunded fully. And Mitch will pull this shit out of his ass, he’ll operate Baywatch on a shoestring budget and passion alone if he has to. And he’ll pull it off, okay. He’ll pull it off.”
This, as expected, did not make Anikka very happy. She was looking increasingly cross -- and there was a spark of danger in her annoyance. “Then what the hell are you good for?” she asked.
Brody quickly supplied her with an answer. “I’m saying we stop looking for dirt. Anything we find will run for a news cycle and be forgotten,” he said, letting himself sound enthusiastic about this notion. “Instead of looking for what isn’t there, we just make what we want to be there.”
It wasn’t such a crazy idea, and Brody knew that it would help take the burden off individual team members and instead create a false target for Anikka to fixate on.
He just had to hope she wanted revenge badly enough to go for it.
Chewing the inside of her lip, she was thoughtful for a moment. Even Caleb had stopped giggling in the corner. “What exactly did you have in mind?”
Shit, she really was letting him take the lead. No one had virtually ever asked Brody what he thought -- at least, not seriously. Mitch had started to trust him in the field, and he had had that one hurrah where he led the charge against Leeds, but that had ended with him nearly getting killed while everyone successfully escape, so he probably hadn’t earned that much credibility as a criminal mastermind.
(His unsuccessful attempt to smuggle drugs into the country was notwithstanding. He was, in fact, a complete idiot. This was going to be a disaster if he wasn’t careful. It could be a disaster anyway.)
But, here he was.
The team’s well being and safety depended on him. What choice did he have except to go for it. “You know that thing,” he started. “That saying about the snake and its head or whatever?”
She looked confused for a second. Then, she tilted her head. “You mean cutting off the head of the snake?”
Brody snapped his fingers. “Yes, that!” he said. “We need to go after the head. We can only kill Baywatch from the top.”
She shook her head, following his train of thought somewhat. “You’re talking about Mitch?”
“Sure,” Brody said. “I know he’s not technically the head, but trust me, he’s the heart of it. He’s the thing that makes Baywatch Baywatch You get rid of him, and the whole thing will just collapse.”
This wasn’t exactly true. Mitch had been fired once and they’d all rallied in his honor. But that had only been with Brody’s specific efforts -- and it had been short lived. Was it possible for Stephanie to fill Mitch’s shoes? Probably; she was good. But if Mitch was disgraced? If all he built was tainted?
Well, that would damage the morale more than any of them could prepare for. Brody could only speak for himself, in the end. Without Mitch, he’d be completely lost.
“But you said Mitch was legit,” Anikka pointed out.
“Sure, but you’re talking about what’s easier -- going after a whole organization or a single person,” Brody reasoned. What a funny concept: Brody being reasonable. “I mean, right now, Mitch’s is the strength of Baywatch. But if you plant the right evidence, you can turn him into the weakness.”
By now, she was nodding along. At least she was with him at this point. “So, we take him out, and the rest of the organization comes falling after,” she said, almost looking to him for confirmation.
Brody nodded emphatically. “Exactly.”
She hesitated. “And you can do that? You can take out Mitch Buchannon?”
Sitting back, Brody decided to play it cool. It was probably the first time in his life that such a tactic had actually worked for him. Either he was getting better at this or Anikka was more hammered than he’d thought. “Maybe,” he said. “But I mean, it won’t be easy. This isn’t starting rumors. I’m going to have to get my hands dirty, and I need some kind of assurance.”
Her eyes were bright again; she liked the way this was going. “Baby, you give me Mitch, and I’ll give you anything you want,” she said. “What assurance do you need?”
Here it was. She’d made the pitch yesterday. He needed to hit it out of the park tonight. Or, you know, at least get on base. “Well, you did mention being part of your operation.”
“The drugs?” she clarified willingly, and Brody tried not to be too excited at home explicit she was being. “Sure, I can cut you in. I mean, if you can really do this -- really, truly do this -- I’m happy to make you a partner. 30 percent.”
Brody tried not to gape. He’d been willing to lobby for 20 percent and settle for 10. What the hell was she thinking, offering 30 percent? That was a lot, right? It had to be a lot. But what did Brody know? His one drug deal had been an epic failed disaster.
Still. He had to play it cool.
He’d walked into this office feeling depressed, shell shocked and despondent.
He was about to walk out feeling the complete opposite. His energy levels were rising; his tenacity was finding its footing again. He was in control, unbelievably. He was pulling this shit off.
“Okay, then,” he said. “That’s a deal.”
“Excellent!” she said, and she bit her lower lip in excitement. “Now that business is over…”
Brody held up his hands, chuckling in a self deprecating fashion. “I probably shouldn’t.”
She started to pout. “But why not!” she asked, half whining now.
“Because Mitch Buchannon is like a force of nature,” he said. “I’m going to have to get creative if I’m going to take him down.”
“But I want to have some fun,” she said, sulking in earnest now.
“I just need a week to pull this off,” he said.
“And then we can have fun?” she asked, almost childish in her demeanor.
“Then I’ll be on your payroll,” he said. “And you can do anything you want with me.”
She started smiling again. “I like the sound of that.”
“I thought you might,” he said, and then he got to his feet. “In the meantime, though…”
“You’ll check in, though, right?” she asked. “I mean, I want regular updates about your progress.”
Brody pretended to be offended. “You don’t trust me?”
This time, she laughed out loud. “I trust what I can see,” she said. Her smile took a suggestive turn. “I like what I can feel.”
“Well, then,” he said, trying to sound like that notion turned him on and not like it scared the shit out of him and made him want to vomit. Excessively. Even in a pool. “Maybe we’ll both get what we want.”
“We better,” she said, then she nodded absently to Terence. “Good luck.”
He grinned at her confident. “I’m not going to need it,” he promised, giving a Terence a small salute as he left the room.
When the door closed behind him, it was all he could do to keep walking.
All he could do not to scream.
Because what the hell?
All his big talk, all his bravado, all that adrenaline from being asked to take the lead on something super important?
He wasn’t going to need luck.
He was going to need a miracle.
Because talk, bravado, adrenaline didn’t change the fact that he was still Matt Brody, perpetual screw up and perennial moron.
And he was caught between Anikka Leeds and Mitch Buchannon.
One more week, he coached himself as he walked out of the club. Just one more week.