There was a soft chime from the elevator at the far end of the parking lot. The doors slid open, and Ben emerged, briefcase in hand, cigarette between his lips. He lit up and lifted his head to exhale, seeming to spot me out of the corner of his eye as he took his cell phone out of a jeans pocket.
He had seen me, I was sure of it.
He carried on walking as if he hadn't. "Ben!" I said, waving.
He slowed, stared at me for a second, raised a hand half-heartedly as I walked over to him. He stood by his car, a pearl-white Porsche Cayenne with the number plate W1NNR, dressed in that casual-but-not- casual way you get when you spend a lot of money—designer jeans and tailored jacket. He looked at me like I was the last person he wanted to see, taking another drag on his cigarette.
There was a moment of silence, the smoke coiling lazily between us. "Joe," he said finally, putting his briefcase down. "What are you...?
How's it going, big fella?"
"All good. Really good. How about you?"
"Yeah, sound. Business is booming, you know. You still setting the teaching world on fire?"
I had never been good at Awkward Guy Conversations. And Ben had never looked on me as an equal—more a bit of a runner-up, just another public-sector softie who wouldn't last five minutes in the dog-eat-dog world he inhabited.
"Something like that," I said, forcing a grin. "You just had a meeting up in the hotel?"
He opened his mouth to reply, closed it again. Tried to look past me. "Yeah." He took another drag of his cigarette, blowing smoke from the side of his mouth. "A meeting."
"A work thing?"
"Potential client. A lead I've been warming up for a while."
"You didn't see Mel?"
"My Mel. She was just here."
He almost flinched at the mention of her name, but caught himself.
Instead, he just shook his head, dark eyes shifting toward his car. "No, mate. Not seen her."
It was weird seeing him like this—evasive, reluctant, almost shifty—compared to his usual alpha-male demeanor. At the one and only poker game I had played at his house, he had regaled the table with a story about a former employee of his company who had quit to set up on his own, in competition with him. Ben had felt betrayed— so he had made it his personal mission to trash the guy's reputation in the industry, warning potential customers off, until the former employee's new company went bankrupt and he lost his house in the process. Ben had related the story with a trace of pride in a rival destroyed, an air of 'screw with the bull and you get the horns'. It was the kind of guy he was. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of him.
"You sure you didn't see her?" I said. "I thought you were talking to her upstairs. It looked like serious stuff."
"Nope." He flicked his cigarette away. "Look, Joe, I've really got to go." My tie suddenly felt too tight in my collar. He made to move past me, and
I instinctively put a hand on his arm.
"Don't want to make a big deal out of it, Ben, I was just worried about—"
He whirled on me and grabbed two handfuls of my shirt, slamming me against the side of his SUV. He was surprisingly strong for his size, and his anger caught me off guard.
"Just leave it!" he shouted, northern inflection rising to the surface. Cigarette breath close in my face. "Just leave it alone, you big daft bastard! You have no idea! Bloody classic underachiever, that's all you are, all you've ever been."
He had anger, but I had size. At six foot two, I was six inches taller than he was. And at least forty pounds heavier.
"Leave what alone?" I said. "What are you talking about?"
"You're so fucking dense that you haven't seen it, have you?"
He shook his head in disbelief.
"None so blind as those that refuse to see, eh, Joe?"
With that, he pulled me forward so he could slam me back against the big Porsche again, and pain surged at the base of my skull. My hands bunched into fists, but some long-lost playground code said I couldn't hit someone smaller, shorter, lighter than I was. There was no way it could be a fair fight. Instead, I grabbed his hands and prized them away from my shirt, giving him a little shove to put some space between us.