Brody actually didn’t dread going to the Huntley that night.
Not that he would ever love it -- drugs, alcohol, women, crazy people who wanted to destroy Baywatch -- but he at least had a plan tonight.
Like, a real plan.
He just had to hope this plan ended up better than his last plan. The one that got him knocked out and pushed to the bottom of the bay in a cage. That plan had seemed good at the time, too, and it really hadn’t turned out quite the way Brody had expected. But what were the odds of that happening twice? At least this time he wasn’t on a boat.
Plus, in addition to a plan, he had a timeline. He was down to less than a week.
Brody could do this.
Brody would do this.
With Mitch’s support, this was totally something he could pull off. He wasn’t alone. He was part of a family. That, more than anything else, made all the difference. It kept the despondency at bay. It kept his temptation in check. It kept the fear of failure within reason. It changed him.
So, when he walked into the Huntley, he did so with pizzazz and confidence. He neatly bypassed the bar with a wave to the regulars and marched straight back to Anikka’s office and knocked.
Did it work?
Caleb answered the door, and tonight he looked readily sober. He stepped away from the door, letting Brody inside. Terence was sprawled out in a coach along the way; clearly, it was his night off. He at least was not a giggly person when he got high. In fact, he appeared to be asleep.
Anikka was also less giggly tonight.
Despite the drink in her hand, she looked relatively in control of her senses. She also seemed to liked Brody’s forwardness this evening.
“You’re a man with a purpose tonight,” she observed, sounding impressed. And it wasn’t just affectation to stroke his ego. She really did like it.
Brody sat down, primed and ready.
That was the only thing that Anikka wouldn’t like.
Brody was still all business.
She primed herself accordingly, at least under the pretense of business. “So, I saw the news,” she said. “You really weren’t kidding, were you? I mean, that attack was vicious.”
“Well, I told you I was ready to get down to business,” he said, maintaining a cool demeanor. Like he was legit in control his faculties at the moment. He knew he had her on the hook right now, and if he knew anything about fishing, he’d be able to make that fishing metaphor more interesting. All he knew for sure, however, was that he had to take things to the next level -- and fast. Anikka’s attention span seemed to be about as long as his was. “It’s a good groundwork. People will have doubts now, which means we need to take things further.”
She put her drink down, rocking back her in her chair. Terence was still sleeping; Caleb had closed the door, and he was manning it dutifully. “I’m not disagreeing,” she said. “But so far all you’ve got is talk, baby.”
“So we make it concrete, then,” he said, matter of fact, to the point, wham, bam, thank you ma’am. He turned on the recorder inconspicuously in his pocket.
Lifting her eyebrows, she seemed to be pulling back on her enthusiasm. She had some negotiation skills. “You still haven’t told me your plan for that.”
“Sure, you do,” Brody said, acting like the answer was totally and completely obvious. He wanted it to seem like her idea. That way, she’d be sure to love it. “I mean, you basically told me the answer last night.”
It was plain that she didn’t want to look like she had no idea what he was talking about.
But yeah, she had no idea what he was talking about. “Enlighten me,” she said, trying to sound bored by him.
“Think about it,” Brody said. “I’ve already told you, I have limited skill sets.”
His self deprecation amused her. “Yes, swimming, alcohol, drugs,” she recited from memory. She grinned at him in a predatory fashion. “And, I’m hoping, other things.”
“Right,” Brody said, ignoring her overt attempts to hit on him. “And of those things, only one can possibly be used against Mitch.”
The predatory gleam in her eye lessened as she thought about that. She hesitated for a moment, cocking her head. “Drugs?”
“Exactly,” Brody said, making it sound like a revelation. “I mean, honestly, I don’t know why we didn’t think of this off the bat. You’re looking to set up a whole network of drugs in the bay, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, a little slowly. She was hedging while she mentally caught up with Brody.
It was a weird thing, not being the dumbest guy in the room. “Well, everyone worries about the cops and whatever, but that’s not your biggest risk.”
“It’s not?” she asked, a little bemused.
“No,” Brody said. “The cops have too much other shit going on to watch for every little drug deal. But Mitch? Lifeguards? All they do is sit around and watch all day. The only reason Mitch figured out your sister’s plan is because he has nothing better to do with his life than watch the bay.”
The mention of Anikka’s sister had the desired effect. She grew increasingly serious.
“You need to undermine Baywatch -- undermine Mitch -- in order to get your drug operation up and running,” he said.
She shook her head. “But why does that mean we need the drugs to get to Mitch?”
“Well, you don’t need it, but it is the easiest option,” he said. “Think about it, you set up a drug sale, your first one, only you don’t try to hide it. You make it obvious so that everyone is talking about it, even the cops. And you make sure that all the talk links back to Mitch. The rumors will spread like wildfire.”
“But I don’t want rumors,” she said. “We need him to actually be framed for drugs. We need him arrested and fired.”
Brody went with it. Shit, at this point, everything was fair game. “So put the sale on the beach,” he said. “Hell, do it in the damn storage room behind tower one. Only the Baywatch brass, lieutenants and above have access to it. It’s right in his backyard, and Mitch is the only one who uses it. His prints and stuff would be everywhere.”
She tapped her foot, thinking. “That’s all mostly circumstantial evidence.”
“So? Even if you can’t get a conviction out of it, you’ll still get him fired,” Brody said. “You’ll get his ass off the beach, and once he goes down, the whole thing will fall apart. Baywatch can’t stay together without Mitch, and we’ve already put enough doubt in the public that the rest of the leadership team won’t have a choice but to pull their support of him for fear of the public’s response.”
“But we’re still short on motive,” she said, sounding more and more like a teenager.
That was a little funny to Brody; she still scared the hell out of him, but it was clear that she was out of her depth with this just as much as Brody. How she had managed to run the Huntley at all was becoming a bit of a mystery to him. She was relying on her sister’s wealth and name, mostly. And her own instincts to party.
“It’s not so hard,” Brody said, because suddenly he was the adult in the room. That was a bit terrifying. “Think about it, Baywatch’s funding has been cut back over the years. Mitch has always been really vocal about how they need more money to serve the bay properly. So why wouldn’t he try to look for outside funding? Drugs would be a fast way to make extra cash to protect his program.”
Her face brightened. “And with your attacks recently, he’d need the extra cash to counter public opinion,” she said. “He could have been forced into looking for a safety net, whereas a year ago, he’d never had had to go that route.”
Brody snapped his fingers, pointing at her in proud agreement. “Exactly,” he said soundly. Then, he pulled himself back a little, pretending to be let down with his own thought process. “That’s where I’m hung up, though. I mean, I can work the Baywatch angle, sure. I can plant evidence and set things up or whatever. But I mean, I don’t know anything about your drug operation. I can’t coordinate it.”
He was all sheepish and aw-shucks, just like you would expect from an Iowa boy.
That was probably ironic or something. Brody had never been confused as an Iowa boy. Ever. Because apparently good Iowa boys weren’t bastards.
(He was confident that this stereotype was made up by idiots who had never actually been to Iowa. They also probably had a weird romantic vision of corn stalks and pigs.)
Still, Anikka took to the idea. She totally took it. Her eyes lit up like she’d just had the best idea ever. “So maybe it’s time you did?”
Now, Brody got to play stupid. This was a role he was much better at playing. Since most of the time, it wasn’t a role. Despite all he’d done at Baywatch, he still was known as the pretty but dumb one. Sometimes the fast but dumb one. But mostly pretty with dumb.
Brody was fairly certain it did not speak in his favor that it was a distinction he didn’t always mind. People put way too much on being smart. Being pretty was good too.
Though, to be fair, smart was working out pretty nice for him right now.
And, as it turned out, he could act.
Who even knew the shit Matt Brody was capable of?
“You mean….?” he ventured, almost like he didn’t dare finish the statement out of sheer excitement. He was getting at this. His skill might soon be expanding to include undercover work.
“Set it up, arrange the location, plant the evidence -- and I mean, serious evidence, DNA, fingerprint all of it -- and I’ll let you in on the rest,” she said.
Shit, Brody was being offered part of a drug deal.
Shit, this wasn’t a skill set he wanted after all.
He blinked, not sure what to say. “I’ll be in?”
“Tomorrow, if you do it right,” she said. “I want this done this weekend, if we can.”
Brody was all over that one. “We can. We totally can,” he promised.
Her smile widened. “Then we’ll manage to take out Mitch and give you a new business venture that gives me intimate access to you,” she said. “Two birds, one really big stone.”
He should have been terrified. He was a little terrified. But he couldn’t feel it; he couldn’t feel anything. Before, the numbness had probably been shock. Now, it was just, like, adrenaline. Pure, unfiltered adrenaline, flooding his system with the force of a bulldozer. This was the kind of adrenaline he felt during a race, that surge you got when you saw the finish line. That last bit that spurred you on, made you forget how you feel. It didn’t matter if you were tired. It didn’t matter how much it hurt. It didn’t matter how much it would suck tomorrow.
All that mattered was crossing that finish line.
Preferably, this time, without hurling.
It was enough to make him forget about how much he’d struggled with Anikka. It made him forget about the feeling of her lips on his skin and her hand on his butt. It made him forget the taste of alcohol and the smell of weed. It made him forget how lonely he was, how guilty he felt, how his heart was being ripped into a thousand little pieces.
Because the end was in sight now.
And Brody knew how to finish.
“Awesome,” he said. “Then I should probably get to work.”
He got up, and she didn’t quite stop him. But when he reached the door, she called to him. “Work hard,” she advised. Her lips tugged up at the corners. “And then we’ll play even harder.”
Brody offered her a salute, nodded to Caleb and then turned out, making his way into the club and all the way home.
Mitch actually couldn’t remember how he got home. He remembered how each team member had left, each more withdrawn and angry than the last. He’d sat there, in his office, for quite some time, wondering how in the span of less than two weeks he’d ended up alone.
It wasn’t that Mitch didn’t know how to be alone. He was a self sufficient person. But he had prided himself on how he built a team, how he took care of a team. He had always been proud that his team was a family.
At least, it had been.
Brody had gone out, gotten drunk, been arrested and offered a plea deal to save his life. He’d taken it, but not for himself. For the team.
Mitch had agreed, with reservations.
For the team.
Neither of them had anticipated that it might be at the expense of everything that made Baywatch special.
It was falling apart.
Sitting alone at home, Mitch couldn’t eat. He couldn’t clean. He could just, stare and think.
He’d counted on being able to reveal the truth to them, and trusting it would transform their understanding. They’d understand; they’d forgive; they’d move on.
Now, Mitch wasn’t so sure.
Summer wasn’t talking to him. Ronnie and CJ were on the rocks. And Stephanie had threatened to quit. This wasn’t a problem Mitch could manage.
This was like trying to use bubble gum to stop a dam from bursting open.
No matter how good Mitch was, no matter what Brody’s reasons were, it was going to burst.
And probably drown them all.
To make matters worse, Brody came home in a good mood.
“Hey!” he said, dropping off his keys. He pulled out the recorder, throwing at him with anticipation. “She’s totally buying this! She’s going to get me in on the drug trade. Tomorrow!”
Mitch blinked at him, looking at the recorder he had somehow caught in his hands. Staring at it, he was trying to parse what was being said. He knew that the news was good, but Mitch didn’t feel good.
Brody went into the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of water and a banana. “Yeah, I mean it might take a few more days to set up the actual deal, but I don’t know,” he said. “I really think we’re going to do this. I think we’re going to pull it off.”
Mitch sat there, wondering if he somehow misunderstood. Mitch had spent the whole day realizing how this was falling apart.
Here Brody was, telling him how it was coming together.
It didn’t make sense.
None of it made sense anymore.
Brody started in on the banana with some vigor. “I mean, it’s a little more complicated, sure,” he said, as if these complications were nothing. “But the plan is all in place. I think we get through the set up tomorrow, then we coordinate with Ellerbee.” The slapped his hands together. “And we wrap this thing up by the weekend.”
Mitch wanted to scoff, but it took too much energy. Minutely, he shook his head. “The plan?”
“Yeah,” Brody said, far too credulous. He took a quick drink. “See, I figured it out. All the shit I talked about today on the beach, that was enough to start the doubt, you know? People start thinking, what is up with Mitch Buchannon?” He sat forward, as if this was a really exciting detail he wanted to share. “Then, I convinced Anikka that we had to really go for it. So, she agreed to set up the drug deal on the beach, in your backyard.”
“My backyard?” Mitch parroted back, feeling slower than he should.
“Yeah, behind tower one,” Brody said. “In that shed thing with equipment. It’s only got special key access, but you know, I can borrow your keys and get it set up. Next thing you know, there’s a drug bust on the beach and guess who it implicates?”
Mitch took a minute to process this. He made a face. His backyard; his key; his tools. “Me?”
“Yes!” Brody said, almost bouncing in his seat.
“Wait,” Mitch said. He’d been so preoccupied with the team that he’d hardly considered his personal implications. “You’re going to frame me?”
“Well, Anikka is,” Brody said. “But while she’s framing you, we’ll get all the evidence we need to nail her. She’ll have to expose herself to me to set up the drug deal. There’s the evidence we need. There’s my out. This case will be closed.”
It was almost impossible, how utterly sure Brody sounded. At some point over the last few days, Brody’s confidence had been restored. That should have made Mitch glad, but Mitch’s own confidence had fallen.
Brody was sitting there, telling Mitch the way this would go right.
All Mitch could think of were the many ways it could go wrong. He almost couldn’t envision an outcome that would take down Leeds, save Baywatch, clear Brody’s record and reunite the team. Mitch had always believed in the impossible, but only when his team was behind him.
Without that, Mitch felt a little like he was lost at sea.
It was a strange feeling for him, a bad one.
A feeling he didn’t know how to rectify.
Brody seemed to sense this hesitation for the first time. Or, at the very least, he finally allowed himself to acknowledge it. “She’s just going to think she has you,” Brody explained, as if Mitch might not realize it was a reverse set up with secret allies on all sides. Brody nodded at him earnestly. “It was my idea, okay? I know what I’m doing for once.”
Brody was trying his best to be the reassuring one this time, but Mitch just couldn’t do it. He’d had to many things he thought to be bedrock start to crumble. Stephanie had tried to quit. And here Brody was, taking responsibility.
Mitch knew that was a sign of Brody’s growth.
But all he felt was frustration. “Yours?” he asked, even if he didn’t need, didn’t want an answer. The question was almost masochistic. “This is your idea?”
Brody, too earnest, didn’t catch Mitch’s implication. “Yeah,” he said instead. “You inspired it, though. You wanted to take the focus off the team. I still needed to give Anikka a target, so I thought why not give her one that knows what’s what. You know why I’m doing this, which keeps everyone else out of the fire and since you know the truth, you’re not going to get burned. And, really, you’re the one Anikka wants, so it’s not like it was hard to talk her into it.”
Brody was trying to make it sound like this was a win win. Except for this small problem: “But you’re tying me to drugs.”
“But it's a set up,” Brody said. As if to remind him. “It’s not like Ellerbee will arrest you.”
Mitch almost laughed at home simplistic Brody made it sound. The irony was that Mitch had been the one to make him believe, in family, in himself. And now Mitch was the one doubting everything. “That won’t make the rumors go away.”
His banana mostly forgotten now, Brody was confused. “Since when do you care about rumors?”
It wasn’t like it wasn’t a fair question; Mitch had never been one to cow to public opinion. But the circumstances had changed, and he was used to being sure that he was doing the right thing. Nothing was sure about this case anymore. “Doubt is a pervasive thing,” he clarified. “Once you build it, it’s hard to shake.”
“Is this about people on the beach?” Brody asked. “Because I’m sure once the story breaks, the press is going to paint you as a hero, too.”
Mitch groaned a little. “It’s not just the public,” he snapped. “It’s the team. These rumors snake their way into the very fabric of who we are, and it weakens the bonds of trust. You haven’t seen what this past week and a half has done to them. I’m worried about them.”
Brody put down his bottle of water, shaking his head. “Dude, if Baywatch can be destroyed in two weeks, then it’s not the team I think it is,” he said.
Mich felt his defenses flare. “You’re not there,” he said. “You don’t know what an impact you’re having.”
Brody did not back down. “Uh, yeah, I do,” he said. “I’m the one being kicked out.”
“Which is why I thought you’d get this,” Mitch said. “I’m worried about the team.”
“And so am I!” Brody exclaimed loudly. “Mitch, you know why it has to be done like this.”
“I know why we started it, sure,” Mitch said. “But we’re keeping them in the dark--”
“To reel Anikka in,” Brody said. “It’s an undercover operation. I have to be your secret ally or whatever. The team is safer this way.”
“I’m really not sure that it is,” Mitch said. “I mean, you’re setting us up. You’re framing us. The whole thing is falling apart, Brody.”
Brody scrunched his face up. “The operation is solid--”
Mitch glared. “The team,” he said. “The team is falling apart. Summer walked out. Ronnie and CJ are fighting. Stephanie almost quit. No one trusts each other anymore.”
All that Brody had been confident when he walked into the house, this wasn’t something he’d been expecting. It was unclear whether it was the revelation that the team was fighting or Mitch’s resistance in general. Probably both. “But you said, you said just today, that we were in this together. You and me. You told me we could do this.”
That one hurt, and Mitch couldn’t hide that fact. He’d meant what he said. But he meant what he said now, too. He was facing the unenviable reality that you couldn’t always force things to turn out the way you want. Not even if you’re Mitch Buchannon. “You’re outside the team now,” he explained softly. “As bad as that is for you, it’s just as bad on this side. Honestly, I’m not sure we’ll have a team left when this is done. You have no idea how bad this has gotten.”
Brody stared at him, before giving a short, incredulous laugh. “You don’t think I know how bad it’s gotten?” he repeated. “Like, did you miss the part where I broke up with my girlfriend? Or where Stephanie nearly kicked my ass? And that’s just the part you know about. I mean, at the Huntley, I’m around drugs and alcohol every night. Every night, Mitch. And I have to manage to stay sober while convincing everyone that I love being there. And don’t even get me started about Anikka. You have no idea what she does to me, Mitch. You don’t have a freakin’ clue. So I know how bad it is, okay? I know better than you ever will.”
It was anger that Mitch had known was there; anger that Brody had kept in check. It wasn’t directed at Mitch exactly, but Mitch had made himself the prime target tonight. The hard part was that they weren’t at odds in this; they both knew how terrible this was.
The point was they both wanted to address it differently.
Mitch wasn’t typically a quitter.
Brody, he would wager, was.
So how they hell had they ended up on opposite sides this time?
How the hell was this ever supposed to work?
Mitch didn’t want to argue, not with Brody and not about this. This wasn’t a contest for who was suffering more. He just wanted Brody to understand. “All that shit you’re going through, we’re going through, that we’re putting the team through,” he said. “And you just want to keep at it?”
Brody’s face turned scarlet. “I have to!”
“Why?” Mitch asked. “To save your own ass?”
It was a mean thing to say; it was the wrong thing to say. He hadn’t meant it, not really.
Brody’s scarlet face hardened. “You know that’s not true,” he said, seething slightly now. “You know it.”
Mitch had known it. But Mitch had known a lot of things when this started. He wasn’t sure he could remember all them now.
Wearily, he shook his head. “I can’t do this.”
Still red in the face, Brody made a wide gesture, the half-eaten banana still in his hand. “Do what?”
“Run interference for you while you destroy this family I’ve taken years to build,” he said.
“I’m doing this for the family, Mitch,” Brody was yelling now. “I’m doing this to protect them!”
“Oh, and you’re doing such a great job!” Mitch shot back, his own frustrations reaching their breaking point now. “Baywatch is falling apart!”
Brody groaned, leaning forward, almost begging Mitch now. “Less than a week,” he implored. “Days.”
Mitch was not moved. He couldn’t be. Not with the memory of Summer, CJ, Ronnie and Stephanie still fresh in his mind. If he had to make a choice between saving them all or saving just one, he knew the choice he would have to make.
That didn’t make it easy.
None of this was easy.
“Brody,” he said, voice quieter now. “I don’t think we’re going to make it. Not even a few more days.”
This much Brody at least seemed to hear, although he had no idea what to do with it. It was almost as if it didn’t parse -- Mitch could have been speaking a foreign language for as perplexed as Brody now looked. “With you, we can,” he said, the words sounding as if Brody believed this to be a self evident truth. He shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around what Mitch was saying. “You can get this team through anything.”
It was only then that Mitch realized that offering Brody a family had had some unintended consequences. Brody was so changed by the choice that he now believed that Mitch was capable of anything. After all, for a guy like Brody who had spent his whole life looking to belong, a sudden family probably felt like an impossibility. Mitch had made that impossibility a reality, thus fundamentally altering how Brody understood the world.
Not to mention altering his perception of Mitch.
Mitch was no longer a friend or mentor or roommate.
He was as much a father figure as Brody had ever known, and he was taking to Mitch’s leadership like a small child. He believed Mitch to be infallible. Not in everything, of course, but in the big things, the important things.
In family things.
It was a burden that Mitch might have been ready to embrace a week and a half ago when he made Brody the offer.
It was a burden he wasn’t sure he could carry anymore, not without sacrificing more than he was willing.
Mitch couldn’t be there the way Brody needed.
Not if he was going to be there for the rest of the team the way they needed.
He had to think of Summer and Ronnie and CJ and Stephanie and everyone else.
Not just Brody.
His guts were twisting painfully, and Mitch’s throat felt tight. He gritted his teeth, inhaling deeply to find his voice again. “And if I’m out?”
The shock on Brody’s face took a second to register. He blinked, as if he didn’t understand the words, but as he stared at Mitch’s unmoving expression, he slowly began to grasp what was being said.
The shock turned to hurt, and Brody grappled visibly for a moment with what to do with that. There were flashes of anger, but he drew himself up with a resolution that he wouldn’t have had three weeks ago. “Then I’ll do it by myself,” he said, and the slightest tremor in his voice nearly gave him away.
“Just ask yourself about the cost,” Mitch warned, hoping Brody would understand. “Ask yourself who will still be there when you’re done.”
He didn’t want to be cruel. He didn’t want to plague Brody with doubt. But he wanted him to consider another way, any way.
But Brody had made his choice.
It was the choice he’d made a week and a half ago.
For better or worse.
All or nothing.
“This is the safest way to protect Baywatch. I’m the only one who can do it now, who can do it fast, who can do it with minimal risk to everyone else,” Brody said, more fiercely than Mitch had probably anticipated. “If you need to protect the rest of the team, then do it. That’s what you should do. Keep them together; keep Baywatch together. I’ll take the rest of the risk. I’ll do it without you.”
Mitch sighed. “That’s not what I want,” he said.
Brody’s defiance faded, but only slightly. He still sat, poised and rigid in the chair, even as a small, tight smile pulled at his lips. “None of this is what we wanted,” he said, and he got to his feet, the half eaten banana still in his hands. He lifted on shoulder in a meager attempt to be light. “But that’s my fault, too. You’ve done enough, Mitch. I’ll do the rest.”
Brody turned to leave, and Mitch felt himself deflate. “Brody--”
Brody shook his head, tossing the rest of the banana in the trash as he passed through the kitchen. He didn’t turn around.
“Brody!” Mitch called, a little louder now.
But the only answer was the sound of the door closing in the spare room.
Mitch didn’t sleep well again. It occurred to him, as he stared restlessly at the ceiling in the dark, that this shouldn’t be surprising to him. All these secrets, lies, they ran counter to everything Mitch valued. He lived his life with integrity. Being honest, being truthful, that was the right way to be.
It also helped you sleep better, a fact Mitch had taken for granted until the last week and a half.
The fact that Brody was sleeping soundly had implications he did not care to consider right now.
The morning did not help matters. In fact, it only made Mitch doubt himself more. Yesterday, in his office, the threat of his team falling apart had been overwhelming and terrifying all at once. It had seemed like the most insurmountable thing in the world, the only priority.
The new day was a hard reminder that it wasn’t so simple. Mitch wanted to protect his team: all of his team. His conviction that it was better to protect the group rather than the individual had seemed pragmatic yesterday. Now it seemed like a compromise he wasn’t willing to make.
Could he really sacrifice Brody if it meant saving the team?
The answer was, of course, no. He could no more sacrifice Brody than he could the team.
But what options did that leave him?
Did he have options?
Mitch was used to coming up with plans, executing plans. He was used to being in charge. That was his role, on the beach and off. He couldn’t deny that the fact that he was taking a backseat role in this one was presenting its own challenges. It was entirely possible that his plans always sounded this crazy to others; maybe Brody’s reluctance on the first case with Leeds had been much like his reluctance now. Because coming up with a crazy ass plan made sense. Following someone else’s crazy ass planned felt a little bit like suicide.
Or, at the very least, a game of Russian roulette.
Mitch wasn’t sure how many loaded rounds were left in this one. He also wasn’t sure who was going to take the unlucky shot.
Not sure what he wanted to do, Mitch headed out on his morning run as planned, tucking Brody’s latest surveillance recording into his pocket. When he reached the spot where Ellerbee was doing his stretches, he came to a stop under the pretense of working out a muscle cramp in his leg.
Ellerbee kept stretching, eyeing him with concern. “Everything okay?”
Mitch grunted, offering a hand to shake. He handed over the recording when Ellerbee grabbed it. “This is getting harder than I thought it would.”
“Did Brody have problems last night?” Ellerbee asked, his mind immediately going to the case.
“No, not at all,” Mitch said. “According to him, it went great. Leeds is going to set up the drug deal to frame me.”
Ellerbee thought about this for a second, switching his stretch offhandedly. “That would work,” he reflected finally. “I mean, in her setup for you, it’d required an actual seller with actual drugs. Naturally, she’d be intending to have both herself and the seller clear by the time any bust was made, but with Brody on the inside, it’d work just as well.”
The delineation made it sound so simple. So clean and obvious.
Mitch massaged his calf a little longer, feeling grave. “Seems risky.”
“Well, no riskier than anything else,” Ellerbee observed with a small shrug as he started to stretch his shoulders and biceps. “In some ways, if she thinks she’s the one doing the set up, it’ll make her less likely to sense a trap. Because all the weird shit could be traced to the trap she thinks she’s setting.”
Mitch straightened, flexing his leg in a new direction. “And if we miss her?”
Ellerbee switched arms. “It’s not like you’re at any risk, or Baywatch for that matter,” he said. “I mean, it’d screw the op over and we’d run out of chance with Leeds Jr., but if you’re worried about getting arrested or something--”
Mitch shook his head. “I’m worried about everything,” he said. “If we blow this, then what? Brody’s cover’s toast, and then he’s out with Leeds and her new target? She’ll keep coming after Baywatch.”
“But that’s why we’re going to get her,” Ellerbee said. “Man, it’s not like we’re going to go into this blind. Brody will have the details. As long as we’ve got Brody as our inside man, we can’t miss this.”
“An awful lot of this relies on Brody,” Mitch said tersely, flexing his foot again.
Ellerbee looked a bit taken aback. “You don’t think he can do it?”
“Hey, I’m not doubting Brody,” he snapped back. “I’m just doubting any plan that puts everything on one guy. You and your team, you have jurisdiction and rules and limitations. You and I both know that that leaves some room for error.”
Ellerbee dropped his pretense of stretching. “So, that’s why we’ve got you,” he said, matter of fact. “You’re his first line of defense.”
Mitch dropped his pretense as well, his frustrations welling up anew. Why did everyone seem to think he could hold this all together? Why did it suddenly seem so hard for him to be the rallying point that everyone expected him to be? “I’m trying to be, but I’ve got a whole beach to protect, a whole department to run,” he said. “This whole case has taken its toll. My team is ready to mutiny, which means their focus is not on the beach, which is where it needs to be. There are consequences to this, consequences that the DA doesn’t give a shit about but that matter to me.”
Ellerbee took his complaint seriously, at least. Even if he wasn’t ready to concede anything. “I get it, I do,” he said. “But, from the police standpoint, this case is nearly perfect. Brody’s doing a hell of a job, man. We’re so close to wrapping it -- and this time for good. Once Brody can place Anikka with the drugs, in person, then it’s cool. It’s done. And when did he think that’d be?”
Mitch sighed. “End of the week,” he said. He nodded toward the recorder tucked into Ellerbee’s pocket. “Should be on there.”
“That’s a few days,” Ellerbee said. “All you have to do is keep shit together for a few days.”
That was all.
Everyone kept saying that.
They didn’t know shit about what it actually meant, though.
That said, Mitch had made a choice. He could regret that choice now, but he couldn’t un-choose it. Not now.
He studied Ellerbee in the early morning sun. “Tell me it’s worth it.”
“Man, you know it is,” he said. “You’re doing this for Brody. For Baywatch. For your beach. A few more days for all of them.”
This time, it was Ellerbee who held out his hand. Mitch hesitated to take it. Both as a sign of agreement and because he knew what was going to be passed between them. If Mitch took the hand, he was agreeing with Ellerbee. More than that, he was committing himself to Brody.
This was still his choice.
And his decision was still the same.
Chest tight, he reached out his hand, taking Ellerbee’s in turn. The device passed to him, but Mitch squeezed hard a moment longer, just for the sake of solidarity.
Also so Ellerbee understood that Mitch was making this commitment despite his misgivings.
Ellerbee nodded back at him before they released the handshake.
“We’ll be in touch,” Mitch said, starting off at a job again.
“Stay safe, my man!” Ellerbee called after him.
Mitch picked up his pace grimly.
At the very least, he was going to try.
Brody was ready to do this.
He had the DA’s directive. He had Ellerbee’s backup. He had a moral imperative. And mostly, he had, like, two says people left. Three tops.
He was ready for this shit.
He could take the disdain from his team. He could deal with Anikka hitting on him. He could manage the drugs and alcohol. He could even cover for Mitch’s sudden reluctance. Because he made this choice. Because this was family. Mitch could drop a few grand on furniture. Brody could finish this case.
With this resolve, Brody went to work early, arriving well before most of the crew. Having snagged Mitch’s spare keys, he easily let himself into the storage room to get started. Planting evidence was a new thing for him, but he had to think that doing it with fewer witnesses was probably best. This way, he could get in and out of the storage room before anyone else ran the risk of seeing him.
As for the actual planting, Brody didn’t make it too complicated. Mitch was in this room often, him more than the other lieutenants and captains. Therefore, it was already set up to his personal specifications, and his DNA had to be everywhere.
Brody decided not to take any chances, however. He used a cloth when he entered, careful to touch as little as possible. Then he left a few of Mitch’s items inside. One of his bags, filled with clothing and all the cash Brody could scrounge up from around the house. For good measure, he put all the extra drugs he’d managed to accumulate during his week and a half undercover. It was mostly leftover weed and a lighter, but he had been given a few other paraphernalia that he hadn’t felt able to refuse and saw no need to turn over to the police. He wiped them down first, before leaving them in the bag with the rest.
Was it a good job?
How the hell was Brody supposed to know?
But he didn’t have to actually convince the police. All he had to do was convince Anikka that he’d done his part. By all accounts, he had. Short of actually putting the drugs in Mitch’s hands, this was the most Brody could muster.
Feeling satisfied with his efforts, Brody let himself out. Sneaking back into HQ, he was relieved that it was still mostly deserted. He’d just gotten changed when he headed out to check the morning announcements.
He only made it a little way down the hall when his name was called.
The fact that the person used his first name meant that it wasn’t any of his friends. Though, he remembered belatedly, he didn’t exactly have any friends at the moment.
Still, when he turned around, he was surprised.
Standing behind him was Casey Jean.
Captain Casey Jean.
Brody stopped, cold in his tracks. She wasn’t smiling, and for a horrible moment, Brody worried that she’d seen him in the storage shed, that she knew what he was doing.
That was ridiculous, of course.
On, like, every possible level.
She studied him a long moment then inhaled. “I need a word with you,” she said, her tone brokering no argument. “Now.”
“Oh,” Brody said. He pointed behind him. “I was going to check the duty roster.”
She turned primly on her stiletto heel, leaving no question that he was to follow. “That won’t be necessary.”
Brody, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, followed her down the hall.
By the time he got to work, Mitch didn’t feel a lot better, but he was at least operating under the general notion that he could make it through one more day. That was how he had to think about it. Just one day at a time. He could make it through today.
After all, given how disastrous yesterday was, he had to hope this one couldn’t possibly be worse.
The problem was that, contrary to popular belief, Mitch wasn’t some undying optimist. It was true, he believed in positive outcomes most of the time, but that was because he knew his own skills. In the end, he’d always been a realist.
This morning, as it turned out, was going to teach him why.
It started out without much fanfare. After his jog, he ate some breakfast and got ready for work. When he got to HQ, he was just settling into his office when someone knocked at his door. Worried that it might be Summer, Ronnie, CJ or Stephanie, he was actually a little relieved when he saw his captain instead.
Casey Jean had been an excellent captain since stepping in for Thorpe several months ago. Unlike Thorpe, she had ample experience in the field, and she respected the way that Baywatch operated. She knew that saving lives was a multifaceted process, and she’d always given Mitch leeway to do his job the way it needed to be done.
That said, she wasn’t an easy captain. She had high standards and impeccable judgement. Her decisions were made with input, but they were always final. He’d liked that about her. He considered her a friend.
She didn’t look friendly when she let herself inside, a manila folder in one hand. “Mitch,” she said, sounding very serious. “We need to talk.”
She sounded even less friendly as she closed the door behind her.
Confused, Mitch watched as she gestured for him to sit down. As she made herself comfortable across from him, he found his numb legs giving way and he was in his seat before he realized he’d obeyed.
“Mitch,” she began with obvious care. “You know that I have always respected your decisions, and you know that I have allowed you to oversee your team because of that respect.”
“Of course,” Mitch said. “And I’ve always done my best to live up to the standards that best protect this bay.”
She inclined her head in agreement, fingers still holding the manila folder. “And you do a remarkable job,” she told him. “Really, I couldn’t ask for more. Of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, none have been as dedicated as you.”
This was a compliment.
It wasn’t spoken like a compliment.
Her tone wasn’t complimentary. Her tone was diplomatic. This compliment, while he didn’t doubt its sincerity, had an ulterior motive.
“All of us, even the very best, have weaknesses, however,” she continued, almost without hesitation. “Blind spots, if you will.”
Mitch didn’t understand now. He shook his head. “Blind spots?”
Her expression was entirely composed and professional, and her words were completely devoid of accusation. “Things that we’re just too close to, things that we can’t judge fairly,” she said. “We all have them.”
She was trying to tell him something in the nicest way possible. Mitch just had no idea what. “What exactly are you talking about?”
She almost looked sorry for him now. “Matt Brody.”
It was probably obvious, but Mitch did feel blindsided. “What?”
“You should have come to me sooner about him,” she said. “You should have told me that he was causing so many problems among the staff.”
Inside his chest, Mitch’s heart skipped a beat. His intestines clenched. “I was handling the matter.”
Her patience persisted. “I know you were trying,” she said. “But that’s what I’m talking about. I know that Matt Brody is a special case to you. I know that you’ve invested a great deal of time and energy into his training. You’ve taken a personal interest in his rehabilitation, and that is admirable.”
“His current behavior issues are being addressed,” he continued hastily. “Trust me, I’m not overlooking them--”
Her smile was pitying. “Mitch, I’m not sure you have enough distance to see this situation clearly,” she said, and she placed the folder on the desk, opening it. “These are the formal complaints and incident reports that have been filed over the last week and a half.”
Mitch stared dumbly at the top sheet, made up by Stephanie.
“These reports are not from a single person, as you can see,” she said. “And they reflect a wide range of disruptive, unprofessional and ultimately unacceptable behavior.”
Mitch turned the sheets, one by one. A report from Ronnie. Another from CJ. A few other lifeguards on duty. One last one from Summer, and a handful from Stephanie. Protocol violations. Tardiness. Using his phone while on duty. Lewd commentary. Divisive behavior.
“And don’t think that I don’t see the news,” she said. “I know he was arrested just over a week and a half ago. I know he’s been in the news, making statements nonstop.”
“There’s nothing against protocol for talking to the press,” he said, and his defense sounded feeble, even to him.
“No, but you have to admit, his actions are damaging to Baywatch,” he said.
Mitch sighed, not sure what else to say. “I know it looks bad.”
“Mitch, it is bad,” she said. “I’m sure there are reasons. Stephanie has indicated to me that you might know why some of this behavior is happening. Given his history, I think it’s possible that he struggles with substance abuse, in which case, I think your support is absolutely essential. He does need help right now.”
“And I promise, he’s getting it,” Mitch vowed.
“That’s good,” she said, though she didn’t sound like it was good. “But you also understand why it was not acceptable behavior from an employee.”
“He knows that,” Mitch said readily. “He--”
She held up a hand. “Mitch, of course he knows,” she said. “He knows because I explained it to him just this morning.”
Now Mitch actually felt ill. Physically ill. “What?”
Collecting the folder, Casey Jean still didn’t flinch. “I made sure he was fully aware of all the reports and my full justification. I have it all documented quite thoroughly,” she explained.
“Documented for what?” Mitch asked hollowly.
“His firing,” she said. “I told him the news this morning and had him escorted out by security. He is not allowed back in the building while we investigate several of the claims for criminal content. Right now I don’t think it’ll be necessary to involve the police, but several staff members have expressed concern about him being allowed on the property for some time.”
She was speaking. She was using words.
None of them made sense to Mitch.
He didn’t want them to make sense.
Reeling, he shook his head. “You fired him?”
“Of course I did,” she said. “You should have fired him a week ago by all accounts. However, I know that it must be hard for you. That’s why I am not disciplining you for your complicity, and it’s also why I’m here to tell you the news before it gets around to the rest of Baywatch.”
Mitch let out a breath, and drew in another. He shook his head again. “But you can’t fire him,” he said stupidly. Not with days to go. “Not now.”
“It’s not something that’s up for debate,” she said. “I do understand, however, if you need some time to process this. Maybe you’d like to take the day off. You could try to find him, talk this through with him to come to terms with it together. I’m not heartless, Mitch. I don’t wish him ill. If you can help him, then that’s something we all want. He just can’t wear the swimsuit. Not now. Maybe not ever.”
Now she was on her feet, and Mitch watched her, not sure what to say, what to do, what to think.
“If you have any questions, you know where to find me,” she said. “If you need more than a day, you can let me know.”
With that, she was out the door, and Mitch was alone.
He thought about Brody, fired from his job.
He thought about his team, with one person ripped out.
He thought about his spare room, which was due to get furniture any day now.
He thought about the case, with just a few days left.
He’d tried to tell Ellerbee. He’d tried to tell Brody. He tried to tell them that he didn’t think they were going to make it.
It was a hell of a time for Mitch to be right.