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older but not wiser

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‘I can’t work with this,’ declares Liz, head in hands, once Finn has finished speaking. ‘I’m a consultant, not a miracle worker.’

The beginnings of a smirk tug at the corners of his mouth. She stares down in appal at her notes, scrawled across several pages of notepaper and quickly powers on.

‘From what you’ve told me, the only things he hasn’t committed are crimes against humanity – which coincidentally is the only reason why I’m not referring your friend to the International Criminal Court.’

Finn leans back in his chair; his smirk having reached full gestation. She’d be tempted to kick him over if it wasn’t for the desk between them. She had thought her aggressive streak had mellowed by now. Nothing, it seems, causes it to flare up than an unhealthy dose of Finn Kirkwood.

‘Very amusing, Liz. Shall I tell him or should you?’

‘He’s your friend.’

‘He’s your client.’

She shakes her head and then her hands. Finn’s eyes briefly fall on them before looking away.

‘This is all part of the initial consultation; we haven’t signed anything yet.’ Thank fuck for that because she’d planned to send over the forms on the way to work. She throws them, along with any lingering consideration, into the bin. ‘So, technically not my client.’

Liz braces herself for the inevitable volley of snark coming her way. She gets a shrug instead.

‘Fair enough,’ he says, taking out his phone and punching in a text. ‘He’s technically not quite my friend either; so it’s no skin off my nose.’ When she doesn’t say anything, he glances up. ‘You look surprised. What is it?’

Honestly, where should she start? ‘How and why are you here?’ or ‘Where the fuck do you find these “friends” of yours?’ or ‘Do you really need those glasses or are you just wearing them to look self-important at my expense?’ and ‘Seriously, how the hell are you in my office???’

She settles for: ‘I don’t know, I was half-expecting a scathing, condescending lecture about my perceived fickleness or my jettisoning professional standards.’

‘Like the good old days?’ he scoffs. ‘Don’t make me laugh.’

‘I wasn’t intending to, especially when experience tells me that your laughs are akin to a hissing, humanoid snake.’

He gazes at her through unsettlingly hooded lids. Something knots at the pit of her stomach. ‘Tell me, are the insults normally part of the consultation? Or do you charge extra?’

‘Take them as complimentary additions to our…conversation.’

He lets out another scoff. ‘It’s just as well that I’m freelance, so I’ll be obliged to charge you for lectures. We’re not at the Met anymore, Liz, you can’t expect me to hold your –’

Her eyes widen as his face pales – albeit imperceptibly.

‘Anyway. Yeah,’ he coughs.

‘That’s – that’s good to know.’ Shit, why is she stammering?

Visibly annoyed with himself, Finn sits up in his chair. Liz instinctively mirrors him. They eye each other warily before he allows himself to look around.

‘You’ve set yourself up pretty nicely.’ Her office curiously holds little trace of her Scotland Yard days. He doesn’t know what he was expecting, really. He taps the pastel blue walls behind him, half-ready to see a meaningless still life of a fruit bowl surrounded by coffee beans. Or a black and white stock photo triptych of Tower Bridge or some tired London landmark…

Instead, he inexplicably gets an eyeful of that bloody “Neighbourhoods Working Together” poster. So, he was wrong about the lack of Met material. Weird. What value that holds, he has no idea.

‘PR consultancy,’ he continues. ‘Damage control, putting out fires.’

‘Unlike the armed police, we can also be firemen. And women,’ she smiles, with a hint of teeth. His elbow slips slightly on the armrest. She observes this without comment.

‘In short, the complete opposite of what you were doing fifteen years ago,’ he pronounces after a beat.

‘Funnily enough, I recall you played some part as well, but yeah, since it has been fifteen years, I’ll forgive your early onset of dementia. You should consider getting yourself checked, Finn.’ She smiles again in the face of his glare. ‘Now, since we’ve dealt with your friend –’

‘Your potential-now-dumped-client –’ he insists.

‘– your friend, is there anything else I can help you with?’

She looks at him expectantly, with an expression that says: You evidently know what I’ve been up to, now it’s your turn to share. It’s a logical and anticipated progression, but he’s internally squirming at the thought of having the spotlight turned on him and treading on emotionally volatile territory. Outwardly, he’s putting on his best “I’ve got nothing to hide” face while doing the mental equivalent of dousing every thought, feeling and memory he’s held of her in gasoline, setting them on fire and inhaling in the heady fumes.

For the second time this morning, another awkward silence descends between them. Liz doesn’t know about him, but there’s a fucking ele – no, make that mammoth charging about the room and here they  engaged in small talk. And by “small talk”, you mean “trading barbed comments with someone whom you had a brief but manic exchange of tongue in a darkened corridor fifteen years ago, but then promptly fell off the radar.”

Behind the glasses and the air of languid calmness, she’s certain there’s a nervous glint in his eye. An analogue clock ticks valiantly – because who still has one nowadays? (She does.) – in the close distance. Someone outside drops a pile of binders with a curse.

‘Actually…’ he starts. It’s barely above a whisper, but it takes all her effort not to jump.

Finn unconsciously begins to fidget with a loose thread on his jacket cuff and she watches half-mesmerised, half-wanting to grab a pair of scissors and snip it off.

Then appearing to make up his mind, or unable to deal with the crushing silence, he suddenly starts forward.

‘Liz, I –’

She leans in expectantly, only realising that she’s done so when her ribs collide painfully with her desk.

‘Ow,’ she says, wincing.

Upon hearing her voice, he shudders, recoils and pushes his chair away from her.

‘I – this – bad idea – I don’t know why –’ he manages, standing up. Something falls out of his pocket. Neither of them notice this until much later.

‘Finn –’ she begins, also rising.

‘Sorry for taking up your time. Anyway, see you in...whatever.’

Finn.’

Finn rushes out of her office, forcing every fibre of his being to keep moving. He doesn’t stop until he’s safely in the lift and out of the building, doesn’t stop even when he’s over five hundred metres away and ducking into the nearest Tube station. It’s only when he reaches the platform that he dares to look over his shoulder.

She isn’t there. A wave of vague relief and disappointment briefly wafts over him, just before his phone buzzes so violently that it nearly causes him to fall onto the tracks.

Oh Jesus shitting Christ. She does NOT know my number. How the FUCK did she get my number?

He retrieves his phone with trembling hands. Takes one terrified look at the screen, then he lets out a groan.

‘For fuck’s sake, Charles.’