So, the morning hadn’t turned out quite as well as expected. He had spent so much time trying to piss off his workmates that it probably shouldn’t have surprised him. When Brody gave something his full attention, he could usually pull out an impressive performance.
This case was something he had given his full attention. The only thing he had ever worked harder at was the Olympics -- the last night notwithstanding.
He wasn’t going to let that happen this time. He wasn’t going to get this far just to screw it up now. Brody still had a plan. It wasn’t a plan that had involved getting fired but whatever. Brody could improvise.
He was suddenly regretting his words to Mitch last night, when he had insisted that he could do this alone. It wasn’t that he hadn’t believed it or meant it or whatever, but it was just that being fired made it super literal.
He had been fired.
He didn’t have a job at Baywatch anymore.
In other words, Brody didn’t have Baywatch.
He didn’t have a place to belong.
He didn’t even have a family anymore.
Now, Brody was used to rejection. Honestly, his life story was all about rejection. That was a little cliche, him being a foster kid, rejected by his birth mother, but it was a theme that stuck with him no matter what he tried to do. Brody had been dropped by coaches and sponsors. He’d lost races. He’d been passed over by foster families who said he just wasn’t the right fit.
If you had asked him yesterday, he would have said he was an expert at rejection. It was all old hat to him.
Today, however, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
Losing Baywatch hit him hard.
Like, harder than anything.
Brody had been fired from Baywatch.
When it happened, in Casey Jean’s office, he hadn’t known what to say. What was he supposed to say? He had kind of wanted to laugh, actually. That had been his first and more reckless impulse, which he’d barely managed to keep in check. Then he had wanted to explain. He had wanted to talk her out of it. He’d considered asking for a second chance, just one more chance, a few more days.
But, instead, he had found himself dumb. Like, physically dumb. Unable to speak. That was a thing, he was pretty sure. It happened to him before, like when his case worker would sit him down and tell him that it was time to try a new place. Or when his sponsors had said he wasn’t good enough to represent their brand anymore. He never had words in those situations. He never had curses or witty comebacks or graceful acceptance.
Nope, when faced with rejection, Brody was just a dumbstruck idiot.
He had always figured nothing he could say would help. This time, he wasn’t so sure that was true.
If he told Casey Jean the truth -- and Ellerbee would back him up -- it might save his job. Brody knew that. He did.
But it could also hurt the case.
This was about the case.
Brody had gotten this far for the case.
He needed to duck his head, hold his breath, and go to the finish line.
He had to take it all in stride, even if it meant getting fired.
Still, being escorted from HQ by security with strict orders not to come back was weird. Surreal.
He wasn’t on Baywatch anymore.
Yeah, he needed to process that.
Not sure what to do next, Brody had started up the beach, winding a trail behind the towers, thinking about how much it meant to him. How much he wanted to still do this. How much he needed to save it. If not for himself, the. For everyone else.
He made a full circuit up and down the bay, watching as people started to stake their claim on the sand. The towers started to be filled, and Brody kept to the edge of the beach. He hadn’t been banned from the beach, just HQ, but he didn’t think he could bear to face any of his friends right now.
By the time he ended up back where he started, Brody was no closer to making sense of what had happened. Mitch had said it could cost him everything. Brody should have known he would be right.
Mitch was probably inside right now, going over the paperwork needed to hire Brody replacement. Everyone would know what had happened by now. Mitch would have no way to mitigate this fallout, even if he wanted to.
Did he want to?
Brody was tempted to call him, but Mitch had made his position clear last night. Brody would respect that choice.
He was on his own.
Shit, he was on his own.
Would it even work if he were fired? Would he still be viable? Did it mattered? Could he somehow keep this from Anikka? A few days left. All he had to do was force this through a few more days. He had set up his end of the deal. All he had to do was convince Anikka to finish it.
Besides, he told himself, moving back up the beach, leaving HQ behind him, he wasn’t technically alone. Even without Mitch, he still had backup. Ellerbee was on his side. Even the DA, who didn’t give a shit about him, was behind him. They had to provide for these contingencies.
He was pretty sure, in fact, that this was the sort of development Ellerbee would want to know about. Because it kind of was pretty significant, and Brody had no way of knowing for sure whether or not it would affect the outcome of the case.
The stakes were too high to take the chance.
Brody’s reckless instincts told him to go after it alone.
But Brody had learned a little bit over the last few months. He wasn’t going to run around putting his forehead to gunpoints anymore. Not if he could help it.
Behind HQ, he started up back toward the boardwalk, where the throng of people was starting to build in the late morning sun. He had just gotten his phone out of his pocket to pull up Ellerbee’s number when he was stopped by a familiar -- by not friendly -- face.
“Shit,” he said, startled out of his reverie in the worst possible way. He hastily put away his phone. “Terence. What the hell, man.”
This response seemed to amuse Terence, who had always been the more controlled of Anikka’s personal bodyguards. “You’re not at your post.”
“What?” Brody asked, stupidly. Because he was stupid. Then, it occurred to him: not everyone probably knew that he’d been fired. When he’d been an asshole all week, he’d done it as publicly as possible. Casey Jean had afforded him more benefits that that; she’d kept it private. Which mean, Brody could still need to keep his cover. “No, um, schedule was, uh, rearranged.”
He made a gesture over his shoulder toward nothing, as if that was going to help somehow.
Fortunately, Terence didn’t seem to give any kind of shit. “Just as well,” he said. “Anikka wants to see you.”
That didn’t seem right.
Well, it did. Anikka always wanted to see him, and a lot of him, but still. During the workday, Brody was generally working and though he questioned what Anikka did all day, she seemed to at least respect the fact that he had a job.
Or she just needed that job for her own ends.
“Now?” Brody asked. “It’s kind of early, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but she’s getting things ready,” he said. “And she had a few questions for you to clear up. We were going to wait until your lunch break, but this is a fortuitous turn of events.”
In truth, Brody wasn’t sure what fortuitous meant, but he nodded anyway. “Yeah, I guess.”
Terence was waiting for him. Finally, he gestured toward the club. His gesture actually made sense. “You want to come?”
“Now?” Brody asked. He thought about making that call to Ellerbee. He thought about the fact that he didn’t have any recording device on him at the moment.
“If you must know, Anikka’s pretty anxious about this whole thing,” he said with an air of confidentiality. “She’d prefer it if we got this done with.”
“Well, the deal’s not until tomorrow,” Brody said. “Right?”
“It’s really best if she explains it,” Terence said, and he gestured again. This time, it seemed less like a suggestion. More like an order.
Brody glanced back toward HQ, wondering if there was still some way to notify Mitch for backup. Mitch’s choice was made, however.
Come to think of it, so was Brody’s.
He turned back toward Terence and smiled. “As long as we can keep it kind of short,” he said. “I had a few things I still wanted to do today.”
Terence chuckled. “We’ll do what we can for you, my man,” he said, leading back toward the Huntley. “You know that none of us care for business all that much, so I don’t think we have any plans to drag it out.”
“Well, that works for me,” Brody said, keeping pace. Because something really needed to go according to plan today.
When they got inside the Huntley, it probably should have been a relief to see it quiet and sedate. It looked much less impressive without the lights and the music and the people.
At the same time, it was sort of creepy to see it emptied out like that.
With just one person, sitting at a table by the pool, a neat stack of papers in front of her.
Anikka’s smile had never looked more predatory when he came closer.
She should have been surprised.
“Terence told me he’d seen you out and about this morning,” Anikka said as Brody approached. She nodded toward a seat across from her. “And I could not believe my luck. All we have to prepare, and you just happen to have the day off? It almost seems too coincidental, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Brody said, easing slowly into the chair. “Mitch is being a son of a bitch at work. Apparently, no one is happy about what I’ve been saying. He cut my hours back without telling me.”
Her sympathy looked forced. Although, almost all sincere emotions looked forced from Anikka. “I had worried that you were pushing too far too fast,” she said. “You can only pull off that kind of behavior for so long before they start fighting back.”
“Oh, yeah,” Brody said, quickly and dismissively. “But I mean, it’s a sign I’m doing it right, I think. I mean, we’re getting to Mitch.”
She made a small sound, a little dismissive in its own right. “You do realize, however, that your value is as an inside man.”
“Sure, but I mean, we’ve got, what, two days? Then I’ve got an exit plan all laid out,” he said, doing his best to sound excited about that.
“Yes, an exit plan,” she agreed. “Though I was thinking about our timeline.”
Brody’s stomach dropped. He couldn’t do a delay. He simply couldn’t.
“I’m finding the process tedious, honestly,” she said. “All this planning and rearranging and nuance. I’m just ready for it to be done.”
Brody waited, not sure what kind of response she was looking for.
Anikka shrugged carelessly. “So I talked to my supplier; talked to my buyer; and I thought, what the hell,” she said. “Let’s finish this thing tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Brody repeated.
She blinked at him with false earnestness. “I assume all the pieces are in place on your end?”
“Yes,” Brody said, sitting forward with a sudden surge of excitement. Tomorrow was the best possible scenario. Tomorrow wasn’t even a few days. Tomorrow was tomorrow. By the weekend, his friends could know the truth and Mitch could get him his job. Brody loved tomorrow. “I mean, of course. I laid out the evidence this morning, and starting rumors about the drugs with Mitch -- I mean that’s cake. I don’t even need to be on duty for that.”
He was telling the truth, which made this much easier.
He was surprised, therefore, when Anikka did not seem as excited as before. She also didn’t seem quite as motivated.
Sitting back, he hemmed himself in. “Unless you had something else in mind,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t read the news yet today or anything.”
“Oh, me neither,” she said, and her smile widened again. “I actually woke up not that long ago. I’m not particularly a morning person, and this morning just work! Do you know how much it takes to get a drug deal going?”
“Well, I know how much it takes to frame someone for a drug deal,” he quipped. “But I think we’ll have fingerprints, DNA, other shit. Oh.” He said, rooting around in his pocket. “Also, keys. Mitch’s set no less. So there’ll be no signs of forced entry.”
As a sign of goodwill, he tossed the keys on the table.
Anikka looked at them keenly before narrowing in her vision on Brody again. “So I guess there really isn’t anything holding us back now,” she said.
Brody perked up again, but did his best not to appear too eager. He wished like hell he had his recording device on him. “So we’ll set up the drug deal?”
“Oh, yes, the deal is happening,” she said, tapping her fingers on the stack of papers. “And we have our perfect little scapegoat, thanks to you.”
Brody nodded along. “So, do you need me to get Mitch somewhere? Are we going to try to get him at the scene?”
“No, no, that’s just too messy,” she said. “I mean, the only way to have him on the scene is to incapacitate him, and with a guy like Mitch, I just don’t think it’s doable. The store room is sufficiently prepared, as per your word, so we’ll just make sure the shipment is planted there.”
“We’ll have to call in a tip,” Brody said. “If Mitch finds the drugs, he’ll do it himself.”
She tapped the side of her head. “Smart thinking,” she said. “I do believe we can get someone to make an anonymous call.”
“How are we going to get your suppliers into the scene without being noticed?” Brody asked.
“Well, this is a farce, right?” she said. “So my thought is that we’ll take the real shipment in elsewhere and then merely place a portion in the storage room to frame Mitch. If we do this at night, there will be a lot less traffic on the beach, minimizing our chances of getting caught. This allows us to take out Mitch without putting the supplier at risk and without forfeiting the entire lot.”
Brody considered these details, trying to commit them to memory. He really could have used that recorder right now. “You have to make it enough,” he cautioned. “It has to look like a real deal otherwise they’ll just get him for possession.”
“My, you really do know your drugs,” she observed.
“My limited skill sets, remember?” he joked.
She chuckled. “You undersell yourself,” she said. “I have found your skills to be unexpectedly diverse.”
It was a compliment in theory, but somehow she didn’t make it sound like one. In fact, this whole conversation seemed off. Different.
Then again, it was off. It was midday and the sun was out. Plus, no one was drunk or even a little tipsy. Even Caleb, seated at the next table, looked stone cold sober.
It was obvious why Anikka like pleasure over business. She looked like making it until noon would be a monumental effort for her.
“So what else do you need me to do?” Brody said, deciding that his best tactic was to push ahead. At all costs, reach that finish line. Get the gold.
“You will be working with Caleb to set things up over at the storage shed,” she said.
This news was not exactly what Brody had been hoping. The point was to catch Anikka in the act. That was what the DA wanted. That was what Ellerbee was holding out for. She needed to be on the scene, linked to the drugs, when the cops made the bust. “But what about you?”
“I’m managing the actual deal with Terence,” she said.
“But they’re not at the same time,” Brody argued.
“Well, sure,” Anikka said. “But I thought if we divide and conquer, no one has to miss much sleep.”
Brody was shaking his head, desperately trying to come up with a reason why he was shaking his head. He thought quickly, going through the options before settling on the one that made the most sense. “Well, at least let me come to the actual deal,” Brody said.
Her eyebrows arched. “That seems quite ambitious of you.”
“Uh, no,” he said. “Pragmatism, remember? This is my swan song ab Baywatch, but it’s just an opening act for you and the Huntley. I mean, you want me to be a large partner in the drug trade. I can’t do that if I’m not involved in every part.”
“My,” she said, sitting back with a cool look. “This is ambition.”
He was losing her, somehow. He wasn’t sure how; he wasn’t sure why. “You offered me 30 percent,” he said. “That’s not chump change. I intend to earn my keep.”
“I do appreciate this upstart attitude,” she said. “My sister was much the same way, and she was always after me for not taking after her. I didn’t have enough drive, she said. I didn’t try hard enough.” She bite her lip for a second. “But she was never hands on enough. She liked to delegate. But I like to be there. Even when the job is onerous, I want to do it.”
“So come with me to plant the evidence, too,” Brody offered. “We’ll make a night of it together.”
“A business date?” she asked, sounding skeptical.
Brody tipped his head. “You could think of it as foreplay,” he said. “Once we cement our working relationship, we can celebrate after. Together.” He shrugged one shoulder, letting her imagination do the rest. “Privately.”
She looked intrigued.
“Unless you want Caleb and Terence to join us,” Brody offered.
At that, Anikka laughed. “It figures that now you start thinking of the fun ideas!”
“It figures?” he repeated, not sure what she meant.
She shook his head, as if wiping away the thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Just all this time I’ve been making the play, and today, the one day we can’t do anything, you decide to lob one like that at me.”
This was what she wanted. Not business; Brody needed business, sure. But pleasure. Anikka wanted pleasure. If he could give Anikka pleasure, then he could give Ellerbee the drugs. Then he could give the DA a conviction, and ultimately, he would give Mitch his team back.
And all he had to do was keep this up for one more day.
Not even 24 hours.
That was an invigorating thought.
Brody postured accordingly. “I cannot tell you how hot you are right now.”
“Oh, but I think you can,” she said, knowingly. “In fact, I think you are.”
“It’s just, seeing you like this, so close to finishing. Close to getting what you want -- if I thought I could keep my focus, we’d celebrate early.”
She sat forward. “And why can’t you?”
“Eh,” Brody said. “I’m not much of a multitasker. I have one thing on the brain, and I got to go with it.”
“Yes, I can see that in you,” she said. “Single minded when you’re driven. You miss all the other obvious things because you’re so focused on your end game.”
“Which is why I can’t screw it up now,” Brody reasoned. “I know how much this means to you, taking down Mitch, getting rid of Baywatch.”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” she mused. “It’s like you care about me.”
“Of course I do,” Brody said, and it actually didn’t sound like a total lie. He really was getting better at this. “So I promise you, I’m going to bring this home for you.”
“I know, baby,” she said, reaching across the table to stroke his hand. “And I do find it very attractive. I like getting what I want. I can stand being bested.”
“You haven’t been,” Brody assured her, taking her fingers in return. “I mean, it was your sister who screwed this up. You’re going to make it right, and Mitch won’t even see it coming.”
She withdrew her fingers, bopping him playingfully on the arm. “Revenge is another turn on, I must admit,” she said. “I love it when people get what’s coming to them. Admittedly, this isn’t playing out exactly the way I envisioned, but after our little talk here, I’m very confident that we can still work this out in a way that pleases me.”
Her confidence was a good thing. This was all a good thing. It just all felt a little fast, a little out of Brody’s control. Up until last night, he’d been the one calling the shots on both sides of this game. Now, he felt like he was desperately playing catch up. Honestly, this was the more familiar role for Brody. He was typically the one who was always one step behind. So it wasn’t like he didn’t have practice.
And really, all his doubts could be summed up with this: one more day.
“However it goes, you’ll get Mitch,” he promised her. “You’ll get Baywatch.”
This pleased her, but no quite as much as he thought it might. “Among other things, yes.”
Maybe she was always this moody in the morning. She’d said it herself; she wasn’t a morning person. Brody also knew from experience that some people just weren’t the same sober. He imagined a lot of his previous coaches and teammates might say that about him.
“One more day,” he told her, in an effort to buoy her spirits. While this subdued version of Anikka was less likely to assault him, she also seemed less susceptible to his influence. “And then you win.”
She made a small, bemused sound. “Less than that, really,” she said. “But I would like winning. Especially where my sister has lost.”
Brody hit the table lightly with his hand before pushing his chair back. “I’ll let you get to it, then!” he said. “Less than a day’s not very much time!”
It was a very convenient exit, and an exit would definitely make Brody feel better. It wasn’t just Anikka’s sober behavior that made him uneasy; it was the fact that none of this was on the record. Even if Ellerbee’s recording devices weren’t live, they provided a testimony to what he was doing. He knew better than to think anyone would take his word for this shit. He knew the DA wanted evidence to convict. Brody just wanted evidence to show that he wasn’t the same asshole everyone thought he was.
Anikka, however, looked disappointed. She tutted. “You’re leaving? Already? We haven’t even eaten lunch.”
Brody glanced around the empty club. “I didn’t realize you ran a lunch scene.”
“We do, as a matter of fact,” she said. “I’ve never been here for it, but I’ve heard we do quite well.”
She looked to Caleb and then to Terence, who both nodded their agreement.
Brody gave the club another look. “So today….”
“Today I reserved the facility for my own private purposes,” she said. She gave her eyebrows a waggle. “Our own private purposes.”
Brody laughed, trying not to sound nervous. Or terrified. He wasn’t sure he succeeded on either count. Because all that had happened, he was decidedly nervous and terrified. He’d done shit on his own his whole life, but the last few months had made him almost forget how completely hard it was. “Well,” he said, offering up what he hoped was a self deprecating chuckle. “Business before pleasure, remember?”
“I know, I know,” she said impatiently while rolling her eyes. “But you need to eat, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Brody said. He tapped his very empty pockets, too empty pockets. “I’m short on cash.”
“Baby, I’m offering you 30 percent for the drugs,” she said. “You really think I’m going to get stingy about a lunch tab?”
Brody was rapidly running out of viable excuses. “Well,” he said. “I do have a few things to finish this afternoon.”
“After lunch, I promise,” she cajoled, more determined than ever. “We’ll have the chef throw on the best meat, have him whip up some sides. Do you liked mashed potatoes? Or macaroni and cheese? We have an exquisite macaroni and cheese. Victoria would be mortified to know I added to the menu, but I see no need to be pretentious.” She pressed her lips into a smile. “We all like what we like, don’t we?”
Anikka liked what she like, and she had no reason not to pursue it.
This whole damn case wasn’t about what Brody liked, however. He was the idiot with two arrests and a plea deal. He was the selfish bastard who owed his team everything.
He wasn’t foolish enough to think he didn’t have a choice here.
He was just smart enough to recognize that this choice he was making wasn’t going to be about him.
For the next 24 hours, he would give everyone what they wanted.
Even Anikka Leeds.
His hesitancy could at least pass as coyness, if he played it right. “Well,” he said, drawing the single syllable out as long as he could. He almost smiled, enough to hint at it. “Maybe a quick bite.”
This much seemed to please her. “And a quick drink, of course!”
“Well,” Brody said, offering resistance that he hoped would seem charming and not as desperate as it was. “I don’t know about that--”
She came over to him, pulling him up by the arm. “Well, I do,” she said brightly. “I perform better when I am relaxed, and I don’t know about you, but this morning has been difficult and unexpected to say the least.”
He could not affirm to her just how true that was. Instead, he allowed himself to be led around the table, both Caleb and Terence in his wake. “Just one, though,” he said. “To take the edge off.”
“Your dedication is admirable,” she observed, almost fondly now. She used the hand that was pulling Brody along to trail her fingers suggestively up his arm. “But I do like to think that you’ll make an exception for me.”
There was really no way around it, not at this point. If he agreed to a lunch and a drink, he could insist on business afterward. That would give him time to head back home and check in with Ellerbee to see what other equipment he needed. He should also have time to at least give Mitch a head’s up about what was happening -- at the very least, Mitch could keep clear of the scene, and make sure no one else accidentally got in the way, either.
“For you, of course,” he agreed, putting up less resistance now. “But just for lunch. I still have a few things I want to take care of, especially since we’ve moved up the timeline.”
She flashed him a winning smile, before leading him back toward her office. “Don’t worry,” she said. “My plans for you are very to the point this afternoon.”
Step by step, Brody ignored the doubt inside him. He ignored his instincts to run. One more day, he told himself.
Step by step, he could follow this path for one more day.
No matter where it ended.
Mitch had been ready to be done with this case. Therefore, Casey Jean and her decision to fire Brody shouldn’t have been so bad. That certainly meant that things were over.
Mitch honestly had no idea. He had taken the news with such shock that he hadn’t been able to think about it properly. After all, none of this was actually real. All those reports and complaints. They would be rescinded when people knew the truth. There was no way Casey Jean would fire Brodh if she knew everything h3 was doing for the team.
His first instinct, really, his only instinct, was to call Ellerbee. He was spearheading this operation from a legal perspective. He would know what to do. Mitch didn’t usually rely on other people to make decisions for him, but he had already given up too much. This time, he wasn’t in control.
As if he needed any more reminders.
Reaching for his phone, he was surprise when it rant.
He was even more surprised to see Ellerbee’s name on the caller ID.
“Hey,” Mitch said, putting the phone to his ear. “I was just about to call you.”
Ellerbee made no pretense at small talk. “Did you know? Did you know about this?” he all but demanded, sounding close to panicked over the phone.
“Know what?” Mitch asked, not sure what was going on. The tone in Ellerbee’s voice, however, was enough to make his own heart skip a beat. It probably wasn’t a good sign when the cop in charge of a sensitive and dangerous undercover gig called you in a panic. Especially when that gig involved your best friend. “What happened?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me,” Ellerbee said, voice distressed. “I thought you had his back at work!”
Mitch felt his cheeks redden at the insinuation. “I do,” he said, despite evidence to the contrary. “I’m doing everything I can.”
“Then why the hell did they fire him!” Ellerbee almost roared this time. He cursed loudly. “Why did they fire him with a few days to go?!”
Mitch found himself at a loss. The ofcourse, this wasn’t exactly news to him. But it was news that Mitch hadn’t guessed Ellerbee would know yet. “Casey Jean just told me,” he confirmed. “I was going to check in with you, see what you thought. I think we can bring Casey Jean in, which might help us buy some time to finish the op.”
The words sounded totally reasonable. He was surprised then that Ellerbee sounded so mad. “Sure, that might have worked,” he said. “If you hadn’t let it leak to the news!”
Mitch was back to being dumbfounded again. It was not a pleasant sensation. But it was one he was rapidly becoming familiar with. “What?”
“The news, man! It’s all over the local news!” Ellerbee pleaded.
Mitch shook his head, swiveling to his computer to check. “That’s impossible,” he said. “Casey Jean literally just left my office.”
Even as he said it, the words were being strangled in the back of his throat. The first local news site he hit, there it was listed as breaking news.
“They must have told you last,” Ellerbee said grimly.
Mitch tried another website. The leading story was the same. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “These things never make the news.”
“Brody was a publicity stunt from the start. That was why the DA thought he could pull this off,” Ellerbee said, words in a rush now, like he was moving. “And Brody has done nothing but make headlines over the last few weeks. Of course the oppress are going to run with this.”
“None if these have it confirmed yet,” Mitch said, eyes quickly skimming the articles. “If I go to Casey Jean, tell her the truth, we can issue a statement,” Mitch offered.
The sound over the line was hard to place. It dripped with incredulity, though. “Saying what? That this is an undercover op?”
Mitch clamped his mouth shut, stewing.
“Besides, man, it don’t mean shit now,” Ellerbee said. The rustling on the line was pronounce now. Like he was moving. Fast. “It won’t need to be confirmed.”
“What? To the DA?” Mitch asked. “They won’t take back the deal, will they?”
Ellerbee started to curse again, but stopped himself. “I’m not even worried about the DA,” he cried. “It’s Leeds we have to worry about.”
“Leeds?” Mitch asked, even as his mind came to the realization a second later. “Brody’s been relying on her to follow the local news this whole time.”
“It’s basically been his entire approach,” Ellerbee confirmed, and he almost sounded like he was running now. “Ain’t no way that girl hasn’t seen it by now.”
Mitch got numbly to his feet. “Brody was on his way out, as far as she knew,” he said. “Maybe it won’t make a difference.”
“Brody’s an asset to her because he’s part of Baywatch,” Ellerbee grunted. “I mean, maybe she doesn’t give a shit, maybe. But maybe she gives a lot of shits, and decides to pull out.”
“We still have the evidence Brody’s collected so far,” Mitch suggested.
“And maybe the DA builds a case, maybe not,” Ellerbee said. “But what do you think the sister is going to do with Brody? If he’s not an asset--”
Mitch closed his eyes, trying to remember how to breathe. “He’s a liability.”
“We got to pull him, man,” Ellerbee said.
“So do it,” Mitch said, eyes open again.
“I’m trying!” Ellerbee said. “But he’s not answering his phone, and I need a court order to track his GPS. Have you seen him? Is he there?”
“No, they escorted him out,” Mitch said, feeling his heart start to race a little faster now. “He’s not allowed back in HQ until there’s an internal review. Did you try the house?”
“Where do you think I am now?” Ellerbee said. “No one’s answered the phone, and no one’s answering the door. I could break down the door--”
“Do it,” Mitch ordered, not even hesitating. “Make sure he’s clear.”
“Would he go to Summer’s?” Ellerbee asked, starting to huff now.
“She’s not talking to him, so even if he went, she’d turn him out,” Mitch said, looking down the beach to see if there was anything there. He could see his lifeguards: Summer on tower 2, Ronnie down on tower 5. CJ was out of sight on tower 7, and Stephanie was poised at tower 1. None of them showed any signs of distress. They had no idea. “I don’t think he has a key.”
There was another grunt over the line. “What is your door made of?” Ellerbee said.
“Go around back, look for the rock near the grill,” Mitch said, still scanning the beach. Maybe Brody was there somewhere, milling around, killing time. Killing wasn’t the best choice of words.
There was movement over the line, then a curse. “You couldn’t have told me this was here until after I dislocated my shoulder?”
“Well, you just implied that Brody was in danger,” Mitch said back, feeling more anxious as there was no sign of Brody among the beachgoers. “It kind of put my mind on other things.”
There was rustling, and Mitch heard Ellerbee call Brody’s name. Once, twice. A few doors opened.
Mitch squinted, looking as far as he could for any hint of Brody. The beach was busy; packed, even. But there was no sign of Brody.
“Damn it,” Ellerbee said. “Where the hell would he be?”
“If he’s not at home, he’s at work or with Summer,” Mitch said.
“Both of which we managed to get him to kill this week,” Ellerbee grumbled.
“Beyond that,” Mitch said, turning his gaze up the beach toward the boardwalk. At the edge of his window’s range, he could just make out the Huntley. “He’s spent all his time at the Huntley this week.”
“He wouldn’t still go there,” Ellerbee said, but he sounded wholly unconvinced. “Would he?”
“It never occurred to me this would hit local news; personnel issues are generally private,” Mitch said, turning back toward his office with his heart in his throat. “He’d have no reason to think it’d be breaking news.”
“Still,” Ellerbee said, sounding less confident with every word. “You don’t think he’d go there. Do you?”
Mitch tried to take a steadying breath. It did nothing to steady him. If anything, it only made him feel sick.
Gravely, he turned back to look at the Huntley’s foreboding figure. “I don’t know,” he admitted.”
“Shit,” Ellerbee said. “We have to find him, Mitch. We need to pull him off this case.”
“Okay,” Mitch said. “Um, can you get the court order to track his phone?”
“I can try, the DA might streamline it if I can convince them that it’s vital to the case,” Ellerbee said.
“Great,” Mitch replied, taking long strides to the door. “I’ll start looking for him, up and down the beach, any bars or restaurants in the area. We’ll find him.”
Ellerbee was clearly on the move, huffing as he spoke. “We better.”
“We will,” Mitch vowed as he hung up the phone.
Because Mitch had made a choice.
And there was no way in hell he was going back on it now.
Brody had spent a lot of time in Anikka’s office over the last week and a half. While it was familiar to him, it certainly wasn’t comfortable. In fact, his first impulse was still to run every time he was asked to sit down. This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that there was literally a guard by the door every time.
To make matters even more interesting, today both Caleb and Terence were on duty. Anikka seemed to have planned it this way; she invited him over to the couch, where a large coffee table was sprawled with magazines, drug paraphernalia, and empty shot glasses.
“Sorry for the mess,” she said. “We’ve been a bit rushed here. No time for house cleaning yet.”
Brody chuckled awkwardly. “No problem,” he said. “If I didn’t live with Mitch, this would probably be what my decorating style would look like.”
She smiled. “Well, it is about time for you to move out,” she said. “At 30 percent, I should imagine real estate will finally be within your reach.”
“Yeah,” Brody said, because he honestly hadn’t thought about that. But then, why would he think about a job offer he didn’t intend to take for an employer he intended to get arrested. “Good point.”
“Still,” Anikka said. “What do you think? I feel a bit like something bloody. Steak?”
“I like steak,” Brody said, and that was true, though he would have said he liked anything at this point. He just wanted this to be done.
“Caleb,” she said to the smaller goon. “Tell Julia in the kitchen that we want steaks, rare. She can surprise us with the sides, but do remind her how much I crave her potatoes.”
“And the mac and cheese,” Caleb said with a wink.
Caleb was weird.
Terence was weird.
At least with Leeds, her goons at made sense. They were employees. Anikka treated hers like groupies.
But Anikka did a lot of things different. For what she had in passion, she lacked in focus. She chided her sister for being hands off, but Anikka’s willingness to get her hands dirty didn’t even make sense most of the time. Brody still wasn’t sure she was actually a criminal mastermind. She really might have been a rebellious little sister trying to succeed where her sister had failed.
Not that that didn’t make Anikka dangerous.
Brody wasn’t an idiot.
There was a reason, after all, that he was flat out terrified of her.
Because her decision wouldn’t be careful or thought out.
It was all impulse.
Shit, she was a female version of himself. No wonder he was creeped out.
He tried to stop thinking, because thinking wasn’t going so well for him right now. Instead, he tried to smile. This was a celebration, he reminded himself. They were celebrating. Kicking back. Relaxing.
“Good!” Anikka said, and she got to her feet. Leeds had dressed for glamor at parties, but she’d been all business during the day. Anikka tended to opt for sexy all the time, and her entire wardrobe seemed to consisted of mini dresses that were encrusted with shiny things. Today she was wearing a small red dress with deep heels that didn’t fit the situation at all. She didn’t care as she went to the wet bar. “Now, that drink!”
“Right!” Brody said with forced enthusiasm. “We don’t want to forget that.”
Because, sure, Brody was trying to think about his job at Baywatch, his friends, the girlfriend he dumped. He was trying to think about the DA and the plea deal, the first one and the second one, and the threat of actual incarceration if this whole thing went belly up. And he was thinking about how sad Mitch looked last night, how much offering Brody a place in his life had cost him, how Brody wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.
And, inexplicably, he was thinking about bedroom furniture. His bedroom furniture. For his room.
That was, if he could get through the next day.
Shit, maybe he needed that drink after all.
“Let’s see,” Anikka said, ostentatiously perusing her selection. “You know, my sister always had a flare for picking nice drinks. She could talk about wines that were well aged or scotch that was brewed in wood barrels.”
Brody had better knowledge of this than he cared to admit. He could still taste the bottle of alcohol he’d drunk by himself when he’d first let down his team.
That didn’t exactly make him want to accept another drink from a crazy woman in the family. Not when so much of the team’s future was riding on him.
“Me, on the other hand, I just like something to take the edge off,” she said. Then her fingers rested on a bottle, pulling it away from the others. “All the same, I do think this is a special occasion.”
She was already holding a glass for herself, one she had taken from the table. She poured something for herself hastily, before rooting around for another glass.
“Where did we put those new glasses?” she asked, glancing toward Terence.
“I washed them for you just this morning,” Terence said. “They’re chilled.”
“Right!” Anikka said, opening the fridge door. She pulled out a glass that looked rather unexceptional for all the care Terence seemed to have invested in it. She poured a large portion for Brody, carrying it over and handing it to him. “There you are.”
Brody, for the lack of any other option, took the drink, fiddling with it anxiously. He waited for Anikka to collect drink, but she stared at him readily.
“So?” she asked, almost eagerly.
“Uh, so?” he replied.
She sighed, and Brody couldn’t tell if her exasperation was playful or genuine. “The drink!” she said. “You have to try it! I want to know if my ability to pick a drink rivals my sister’s.”
With her eyes readily fixed on him, Brody really had no choice. Meekly, he lifted the glass to his lips, taking the smallest of sips.
“No, no,” she cajoled. “Come on! Or I’m going to be offended!”
She was still watching him -- starting at him, actually -- so Brody took another drink, a larger one. Enough to show that he’d done it. With a quick swallow, he nodded. “You definitely know how to pick them,” he said.
Only at this affirmation did she seem truly pleased. She went back to collect her own drink, making her way back to the couch to sit beside him. When he made to put the drink discreetly back on the table, she held her own glas out. “A toast,” she suggested.
With no alternative, Brody held his glass out to her.
She lifted hers. “To secret allies,” she said.
Brody tapped his glass to hers. “To the next 24 hours.”
They drank together, and Brody had no choice but to suck down half of his. As it was, Anikka had already downed hers.
“Whew!” she said. “It has a kick!”
“It does,” he agreed, again going to put his on the table.
She took that as an invitation. “Should we top it off?”
“Oh, we said just one--”
She scoffed at him, already on her feet to bring the bottle to the table. “That one barely counts,” she said, pouring him more before he had the chance to put the glass down.
“Uh, well--” Brody started.
Anikka had refilled her own glass, too. Oddly, Brody noticed that neither Caleb or Terence were offered any. He wondered if they were both on duty today because of the deal. It was a little disconcerting, but Brody had other things to worry about.
Like the not so subtle way Anikka was trying to get him drunk.
Carefully, he took another sip, making it last a long time while taking in as little as he could. “Thank you,” he said.
Sitting down again, she actually pouted. “You’re just saying that,” she said.
“What?” Brody asked.
“You’re just humoring me,” Anikka pressed. She sat closer to him. “We’re almost done with this. Can’t we just have a little fun?”
“Anikka,” he said. “We are. This is -- we’re -- fun.”
He was screwing this up.
Baywatch was at risk. His team was at risk.
He had to sell this.
To prove his point to Anikka, he took another drink. This one was a little bigger. “See?” he said. “We’re good.”
This seemed to placate her, if only slightly. She took another drink from her glass, and then bit hit lip. “You should finish it.”
“Why?” he asked with a small laugh that masked how uncomfortable he was.
“Because,” she said. “I want to tell you something.”
“You can tell me,” Brody said, reaching his hand out to set the glass down and inch closer to her.
She rebuffed him, however. “I do better telling secrets when the tongue is loose,” she said. “But it’s no fun to drink alone.”
“You have a secret?” Brody asked, wishing again he had a recorder on him.
Anikka’s nod with suggestive. It was a tease, but she didn’t tease without substance.
“Well, I can get you another drink--”
“Uh uh,” she said. She reached over, plucking up his glass and putting it back in his hand. “Together.”
Brody looked at the glass -- still half full.
He looked at Anikka -- still very full.
It was time to go big.
So he could finally go home.
Smiling, he raised the glass to hers. “Together, then.”
This time the alcohol burned down his throat, and he could feel it gurgling in the pit of his stomach while his eyes watered. It took a second to clear his head, and he found Anikka watching him with a smile.
That had to be a good thing.
Why didn’t it seem like a good thing?
“Do you want to know then?” she asked.
He had to blink, but even then, his vision wouldn’t quite clear. Brody had wanted to stay sober, but a drink and a half shouldn’t have messed with him this much. Maybe it was too much, too fast. Maybe he just wasn’t used to drinking anymore. “What?” he asked.
“My secret,” she said, and she sat a little closer to him, fingers brushing against the top of his hand.
The touch was soft, but somehow it was electric. It was like his skin was on fire, and his senses surged with intensity even as his brain turned sluggish. His head was starting to swim. “Yeah,” he said, working harder than ever to keep his focus.
She leaned forward, so as to whisper in his ear. “The drugs are already here.”
Brody had expected something different. Maybe he’d expected her to tell him that she had a crush on him like they were in middle school. Maybe he thought she’d confess to not knowing shit about running a business. Maybe she was going to confess her secret love for Terence.
Yea, he hadn’t expected something legit.
Had he hard that right.
Blinking, he tried to bring his eyes back to focus on her. “The drugs?” he asked, barely managing to get his mouth to form actual, coherent words.
She nodded, the excitement in her eyes made her look like a kid in a candy store. “I got them in last night,” she said in a sing-song voice.
Brody wondered if he was having a delusion. He looked at his empty glass again, wondering how big the glass was and what proof the alcohol had been. He’d drunk all night before and never felt this out of it. “Last -- night?”
“It was going to be a surprise,” she said. “Sort of a thank-you and a welcome-to-the-team.”
That didn’t make sense.
None of this made sense.
“Well, I’m surprised,” Brody assured her, but his words were slurring now. And not a little. A lot.
Her smile turned a little sad. But not a real sad. Like she was acting sad. “It’s just,” she started and cut off with feigned regret. “It’s just not quite going to be the surprise I intended. I want you to know that. My intentions with all of this were, like, so sincere.”
She sounded like she was apologizing
Brody had no idea why she would be apologizing.
Well, obviously, she was a crazy person who had tried to squeeze his dick all week while sh plotted the downfall of innocent people. And, like, she was an aspiring drug dealer. S o, she had a lot of reasons to apologize in reality.
But Anikka didn’t exist in reality.
That made her apology even harder to make sense of, even if Brody’s brain were functioning properly at the moment.
She sighed, loud and melodramatic. “See, I got it, why my sister wanted to use you,” she said. “Only I thought she’d underestimated you. I thought she should have recruited you from the start and she’d still be alive and Baywatch would already be dead. I thought for once, I was the smart one who had figured you out better.”
Brody’s head was buzzing now. Actually buzzing like there were bees up there or something. His stomach felt unsettled; his head was light.
“But then, it was horrible,” she said. “Because then I realized I was making the same mistake she was. You were never going to be an asset. So I finally figured out why she tried to kill you.”
Was Anikka saying it was a good thing killing him? Or a bad thing? Was Leeds right about him or wrong? Which option was actually better?
When did the lights start to get so bright?
And why was it so hot?
“I, um. I don’t--”
She reached out, stroking his face for a moment. “I know, baby,” she cooed. “It’s just, you got fired today.”
He opened his mouth, not sure if he was going to deny it or explain it but no words came out.
“I know you probably didn’t want me to know, not before we’d finalized the deal,” she said. “And I do feel kind of bad about this. I mean, you got fired from one job and now you’re going to lose out on a second. It sucks. It does.”
What was she talking about? Brody shook his head, tried to shake his head. “It doesn’t change anything,” he said, but the words were all slurred and wrong.
She laughed, as if he were possibly the cutest thing ever. “I thought the headlines were trash at first. You know, rumors like all the rest,” she said. “But Terence saw you, baby. Escorted out by security. They’re not going to let you back in. Not today. Not tomorrow.”
He made every effort to be calm and in control. He could be smooth when he wanted to be. He’d to tally handled Anikka from the start of this one. He could still do it.
Though it’d be easier if his mouth was working and he wasn’t seeing double. “No, I have the keys--”
“And you’ll be spotted,” she said. “Please, baby, be reasonable about this. You can’t possibly pull this off as an outsider. And even if no one did see you, do you really think anyone will believe that Mitch was the one? You’re going to be the only suspect. And now you have motive, seeing as they fired you.”
Brody shook his head, but the effort was increasingly uncoordinated.
Anikka sighed, like she might actually be disappointed about this. “And as for my job, well, I’m sure you can see that it’s quite impossible now,” she said. “I mean, if I hire you the same day you’re fired and drugs show up? Then I’m implicated right alongside you. And you’re cute, baby, very cute, but no hot guy is worth prison.”
Shit, he thought. It was about his only coherent thought.
This was going, like, badly.
Like, puking in the pool at the Olympics badly.
Even smuggling drugs into the United States badly.
Shit, birth mother trying to exploit him for money badly.
He needed to get out of here.
Staggering, he tried to get to his feet. “No,” he said, and he would have protested more, but he had to use all his concentration not to fall down again. “No--”
Anikka watched as he tried to walk, tangling his legs somehow on the coffee table. “It’s not personal, for what it’s worth,” she said. “I really do like you. My sister, I don’t think she cared about anyone, but I wanted this to work. For us.”
Brody all but kicked the table, stumbling around it as he made a blind lunge toward the door. This was going wrong; this was going very wrong. This was going to a place Brody would never recover it. And he wasn’t wearing a wire, he didn’t have a recorder and he’d turned his phone off.
He didn’t get more than a step before Caleb and Terence stepped forward to intervene, catching him neatly as he tried and failed to reach the handle. He struggled, but it was ineffective. He was too weak, too disoriented, too far gone.
She’d spiked the drink.
It was the drink.
And Brody was done.
Less than a day to go, and Brody had come up short.
Only this time, he wasn’t just going to lose sponsors.
He wasn’t even just going to lose his team.
He was going to die.
Caleb and Terence hoisted him up, turning him back around to face Anikka, who had crossed over to him. “You’re a liability now,” she crooned, running her fingers through his hair. “A really hot liability, but still one I have to deal with.”
Eyes watering, he felt a surge of desperation. “Please,” he said. “We can -- I can--”
“No, babe,” she said. She ran her fingers down his face, down his chest. She cupped his crotch and squeezed. “Believe me, I’m disappointed, too.”
He gasped, a mewl of protest escaping his lips.
She edged forward, mashing her lips against his, one hand roughly gripping him by the hair. When she pulled back, he was breathless and she shrugged. “Oh well,” she said. “You were the one who insisted: business before pleasure.”
That that, she let his head drop, and Brody’s equilibrium failed him. He felt himself go limp, and for one last horrible second, he thought about how close he’d come.
And how badly he screwed up.
At least it was over, he thought as his vision faded.
He sagged, unconsciousness descending now.
It was over.