Structural Damage – Chapter 16

Sabrina heard a faint knocking; she wasn’t sure where it was coming from. She slowly lifted her head, realizing she had fallen asleep at her desk; the knock was at her office door.

“Just a second,” her voice was gravelly, barely audible, her throat was dry. She pushed back her chair and tried to smooth down her hair and clothes. She walked over to the door, unlocked it, twisted the handle to allow it to open slowly.

Her assistant, Alice, slowly entered the office, a cup of coffee in her hand, “Good morning, security let me know you had not left last evening. I thought you might need a little something to start your day,” she extended her hand with the coffee toward her boss; Sabrina took the cup, nodding in appreciation. “It’s been some time since you elected to spend the evening in the office, ma’am. What can I do to help you get ready this morning?”

Sabrina stared blankly at her while she lowered herself onto the couch, “What time is it?” She took a sip of coffee, hoping that the caffeine would start to kick in and wake up her brain.

“A little after six, I came in early when I knew you were here all night,” Alice answered as she walked toward the bathroom. She disappeared around the corner, Sabrina could hear cabinets opening and closing and the scraping of hangers. A moment later, Alice reappeared in the doorway, “I have everything ready for you. There were still clothes here, along with toiletries and makeup, so you can take a shower, and no one will be the wiser that you were here all night. Come along, now.”

Sabrina could not believe it, Alice was taking care of her, again. She had to do this after her divorce and the subsequent hours she put in to get over that debacle. She also did this when the project in Seattle was going horribly wrong, and Sabrina had to work long hours to salvage the mess. She pulled herself off of the couch, walking towards the bathroom, Alice took the coffee cup from her hand, offering to refill it for when she exited.

The bathroom door closed, once again, Sabrina was left with her thoughts as her mind began the race that it did not quite finish the night before. She undressed and stepped under the stream of hot water, letting it wash away the built up anxiety. Once her hair was washed and she felt as if she were clean enough, she stepped out, dried off, dressed and prepared herself for the workday. She put her clothes from the previous day in the laundry bag under the counter, checked herself in the mirror one last time, and stepped into her office.

As promised, Alice left a fresh cup of coffee on her desk, along with a copy of her calendar for the day and messages that needed to be returned. She took a deep breath, pulled her chair up under her desk and began working on the stacks of things she had started on the night before. But her mind would not let anything go, she pushed back from the desk, reaching for her purse, grabbing the resignation from Audrey that she had stuffed there the night before. She walked over to the couch, gently unfolded the letter and began to read.

Ms. Burnham,

It is with a heavy heart that I have come to the decision to resign from my position of General Counsel with Burnham Design Group. While I deeply respect you and the work that you do, I feel that I have maximized my potential and no longer offer anything substantive to the company, or its continued growth. It is imperative that I do not encumber your path to success. Therefore, I believe you will be better suited with new lifeblood in the role of General Counsel.

I would like to tender a three-week notice for my departure, although, with the need for discretion in this role, I do understand if you would need for me to depart earlier than that. I do have several recommendations for associates on staff that would be ideal candidates to promote. I would welcome an opportunity to discuss with you if you are inclined.

I appreciate the opportunity you provided to me over the last twenty years. The knowledge and experience have been valuable, and I am forever in your debt.

With immense gratitude,
Audrey Clarke

When she finished reading the letter, Sabrina refolded the letter, setting it on her lap. She was doing well to keep the tears at bay. The letter was formal, sounding as if she was ending their friendship as well as their business relationship, something she had not expected. It took a few minutes for the gravity of everything to settle in, Sabrina stood from the couch, leaving the letter behind, and walked toward Audrey’s office.

She noticed that as she approached, the associates in the area scattered. They didn’t want a repeat performance from yesterday and felt it best to be as far away as possible. Sabrina didn’t barge in, she gently knocked on the closed door and waited for an invitation to enter before she opened the door.

Audrey had no idea who was knocking on the door, so she was taken aback when Sabrina entered the room. She was quiet and respectful upon entry, gently closing the door behind her, not fully entering the office space. Audrey stood, out of respect, this was definitely unusual.

“Good morning,” Audrey quietly said as she walked around the front of her desk, noticing that Sabrina made no effort to move.

“Ms. Clarke, good morning to you,” her voice was tentative and shaky, you could say nervous, at the prospect of talking to this woman who she was once so close with. “I wanted to let you know I have read your letter of resignation, I must say that I am shocked and saddened with its receipt.”

“Please, have a seat,” Audrey motioned to the chairs and couch, hoping to make this discussion less rigid and formal, “I will apologize, Sabrina, I didn’t mean to just thrust it upon you like I did. I believe I let my emotions get the better of me yesterday afternoon.”

Sabrina walked over, taking a seat in the chair farthest away from where Audrey was standing. She didn’t look over at her, but lowered herself into the chair, electing to sit up straight on the edge of the seat. “So, you were going to give me the letter, regardless? You just didn’t intend to give it to me during our rather loud disagreement?” Her voice was flat, no emotion.

Audrey sat down on the couch opposite Sabrina, her eyes were soft, she was trying to connect with Sabrina, even though her friend was avoiding eye contact and maintaining distance. “Yes, I think it is time for me to move on, Sabrina, you don’t agree?”

Sabrina slowly raised her head, meeting Audrey’s eyes, “I’m not sure why you believe that,” she commented but avoided answering Audrey’s question outright. “Where did things go wrong? I guess I just don’t understand, I don’t understand any of it.”

Audrey said nothing at first, she didn’t know exactly how to formulate her thoughts without starting another fight, “No matter how I say this, there will be hurt feelings.”

“And you don’t think a resignation letter provided any hurt feelings? I thought we were friends, so why didn’t you just talk to me?”

“We are, but it’s not so easy to come speak to you about this.”

“Oh, it’s because of Chris, isn’t it? You didn’t come speak to me because of your feelings for him,” Sabrina watched Audrey’s face for a reaction, waiting for her to deny it or at least come back with a quip of some sort. But she said nothing, made no move to deny it. Sabrina stood up, began to walk around the room, stepping behind the chair she had just been sitting in, placing her hands on the back of it and leaning forward, “Dammit Audrey, if you were in love with him, why didn’t you just tell me? Why did you push me to meet him and go out with him?”

Audrey sat silent for a moment before looking up at Sabrina and giving her the truth, “I never expected you would actually fall for him. I thought you two would be friends, I never really thought you’d sleep with him, and I never thought you’d fall in love with him.”

“You kept pushing me towards him, Audrey. For god’s sake, why would you do that? So, because you pushed us together because I fell for him, you’re throwing our friendship away and quitting your job? Do you know how asinine that is?”

“Asinine? Sabrina, do you even realize your fucking history with men? Seriously, you change men more than some women change their bra.”

“And yet you introduced me to your friend and encouraged me to go out with him. I thought, for once, you might want to see me happy.”

“Who are you kidding? You lack the capacity to be happy. Face it, you never fall for any of the men you go out with, Sabrina. You never let them get close enough to you, never let them touch that fucking wall around your heart.”

Her words stung, Sabrina could not believe that Audrey was so vile and hateful. This woman who she thought had been her best friend was slicing her into shreds, “I didn’t realize you hated me so much, Audrey. You’ve felt this way for how long? But yet you say nothing, you act like everything is wonderful between us?”

Audrey was on a roll, ignoring everything that Sabrina just said, blocking it out, “You know you think you are all high and mighty. You pick up these guys who can’t wait to worship your ass, then you use them, toss them aside and treat them like shit. Yet for some reason, they come crawling back begging for more. I can’t sit back and watch you do that with Chris, I just can’t do it,” Audrey was shaking her head, she stood from the couch and began pacing the room. “It’s already bad enough to watch my friend fuck him, but to know you will end up crushing him, too. Nope, can’t look at it or be a part of it.”

“Well, look at you, making yourself out to be Saint Audrey, pretending like you are only thinking about Chris,” Sabrina sneered, she was not holding back, “You’re only hoping I would screw something up so you could swoop in and soothe his broken heart and save the day.” She shook her head and pushed herself away from the chair, “I never thought my best friend would stab me in the back over a man. Honestly, Audrey, I never figured you had this bitchy tendency in you.”

The silence between the two was heavy, weighing on both of them. Sabrina was pacing, she had more that she wanted to say, but knew if she pushed too hard, this relationship might never be salvageable. She actually believed that right now, Audrey was lashing out because she was jealous and for no other reason. The green-eyed monster makes you do and say things you will regret later.

“Yeah, well I never thought you would have stabbed me first, Sabrina?”

“How exactly did I stab you first? I don’t get it, Audrey, what am I missing?”

“You knew I liked him, but you went out with him.”

“Audrey, you met him a year ago, you made a move, he turned you down. News flash, I’m not keeping you from having a relationship with him. You’ve been friends with him for the last year, and you’ve told me you reconciled your feelings. You are the one who told me to go out with him now. So, I was supposed to say no to you setting me up with him? What the fuck?” If you didn’t want me to go out with him, you shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“I told you, I didn’t think you would do it,” Audrey went back to the couch and sat down.

Sabrina wasn’t sure what the hell was happening, this entire fight was ridiculous, “If you want to blow our friendship apart over this, fine. I think you are letting jealousy and misplaced anger guide your decision. But don’t mess up your friendship with Chris, it means too much to the both of you.”

“Oh, if you think he will remain friends with me if you and I aren’t friends, you’ve got another thing coming. Once he is enchanted by the magic that is the great Sabrina Burnham, everyone else falls by the wayside. Hell, he already ignored my messages and calls the last two days.”

“Well he was a little busy,” Sabrina huffed, she began walking toward the office door and then turned to look at Audrey, “You know he respects you, right? He thinks highly of you, says you are one of his best friends and trusts you explicitly,” she paused to make sure her words were sinking in for Audrey. “So like I told you, do what you can and hold onto that, he’s a good man to have in your corner.”

Audrey said nothing, she didn’t know how to respond to that. She watched as Sabrina walked over to the office door, her hand ready to turn the knob. “So I guess I don’t have to ask if you’re going to ask me to reconsider resigning?”

Sabrina pulled her shoulders back, took a deep breath, never turning around, “No, you don’t need to ask! But for the record, I’m still upset that you didn’t handle the Boston RFI. You could have easily sent the binder out, you’ve signed my name before, you knew I wanted to bid on that deal.”

“Yeah, well, I finally got tired of being taken for granted. You figured I would do it, you could go off and do what you want, or who you want, and little lap dog Audrey would handle it for you, just like she always does,” Audrey spit the words out like venom.

This incensed Sabrina, she turned around, put her hands on her hips and glared at her, “My God, Audrey, that’s your job! You’re paid to do those things, did you forget that? Did you let envy cloud your professional judgment?”

“No more than you let love cloud yours?”

Sabrina felt as if she had been slapped in the face. The words alone stung, but the fact that it was Audrey wielding them, made the pain worse. She hated to do this, but there was no way the two of them could continue to work in the same office for the next three weeks if there was this much animosity between them. She quietly asked, “Do you have any vacation time left?”

The question took Audrey by surprise, “Yeah, I have two weeks left, why?”

Sabrina tried to keep the tears at bay, and her voice calm, “Please clean out your office, be gone by the end of the day. You can tell everyone you are taking a vacation, but I’ll pay you for the three weeks. I’ll figure out who I’ll put in the General Counsel seat, but it will be after you’re gone.”

“You can’t do this, Sabrina. You know that one RFI isn’t going to make or break you, you’re overreacting.”

“You’re right, it’s not, but the fact that you just admitted that you were doing it out of spite, well, that’s insubordination. I pay you to do a job, Audrey and whether you have a personal grudge or not, should not impact how that job is done. Your feelings are hurt because I’m dating the guy you like and you want to be petty and childish about it? Fine, but do it somewhere else. But just keep reminding yourself that I’m dating that guy because you insisted on it.”

Audrey walked back to her desk, picked up her purse and pushed the security badge into Sabrina’s chest, “The team should be able to carry on, they know the landscape. Just send my stuff to me, you know where I live.”

As Audrey left, Sabrina did what she could to hold it together. She took a couple of deep breaths then slowly turned and walked back to her office. She sent an email to the legal staff, copying Audrey’s email address for appearances, and announced that due to a family emergency, Audrey had to take vacation time immediately. She would return in a few weeks, in the meantime, all inquiries should go to Sabrina directly.

She then called down to HR, advising that it was Audrey’s last day and how she was to be paid out. She then contacted Security, telling them that the security badge for Ms. Clarke needed to be deactivated immediately, including her parking pass. As she was hanging up the phone, trying to reconcile everything that had just happened, her cellphone began to ring. She looked over at the caller ID, The King was calling, she couldn’t help but smile.

“Hi, Chris,” her voice was soft as she answered, after all, she was holding back quite a bit of emotion. She was not going to tell him what had transpired with Audrey. He was friends with her, and it wasn’t news she wanted to break.

“What’s wrong, baby? I’ve been worried about you, didn’t you get my messages?” He had a tinge of worry in his voice, but there was a touch of anger as well.

“Yeah, look, I’m sorry. I saw you called and texted, but I’ve been cleaning up a shit storm, I just didn’t have a chance to get back with you.”

He could tell that she sounded sincere, she seemed as if she was ‘off’ and he didn’t know if he should push it, “Do you want to talk about it? Is there anything I can do?”

Sabrina shook her head, realizing he couldn’t hear her brain rattle. Also knowing if she started to tell him what was going on, she would break down, something she did not want to do. “No, but thanks for offering. I need to handle this mess on my own.”

“There you go again, thinking you need to slay the dragons on your own,” he knew she was trying to keep him at arm’s length, she had her reasons. His mind went to all the wrong reasons, but that was because he was concerned about this relationship.

“I know, it’s just that you’re in California, not a lot you can do from there,” her voice trailed off.

“I can listen, sometimes that’s all you need, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to bend. I was afraid you weren’t calling me back because you didn’t want to talk to me.”

“No, that’s not it at all, Chris, I swear. When I got back to the office, things were going to hell, and I jumped in and started to take care of issues, I didn’t even take my phone out of my purse.” She began to laugh nervously, wanting to make a point to him, “I fell asleep at my desk last night, Alice had to wake me up when she came in this morning.”

“Seriously? Wow, okay so that is hardcore, please tell me you’re going home tonight?”

“Probably, things are still a mess, though. It might be a long night,” she paused, thinking about what she should say and realized she was making the call about her. “So you don’t want to hear about my problems. Tell me something good. How was your meeting?”

“The meeting went well,” he was hesitant in his answer, not sure how much she might really want to hear.

“So is this for a new role or a new directing project?”

He was surprised she was aware of his previous directing effort, he wasn’t even sure she was aware of the movies he had acted in much less the single one he directed. “Um, directing project, they wanted to see if I was interested, it would be a big studio picture. Lots of pressure but at least there would be a budget.”

“Sounds exciting, where would you film? Any chance you could be in Chicago?” She knew it was a long shot, but she had to at least ask.

“We didn’t get that far into discussions, but if I do the movie, I’ll push for Chicago locations.”

“Ha, I appreciate that. I need to go, Chris, I’ve got to get back to the mess here in the office,” she paused for a minute, deciding whether to tell him what she was thinking; figuring it was best to go for it. “Just know, I’m glad you called, I really needed to hear your voice.”

Those words were ones that he needed to hear, “I needed to hear your’s, too. I’ll talk to you later, promise me you’ll go home and get some sleep, okay?”

“I’ll try,” Sabrina disconnected the call, letting her head fall back on the couch. While it was true that she needed to hear his voice, it only made her miss him more.

~ * ~
Kyle had his head down, working on the preliminary plans for a new building design in some small town that he cared little about. He only had two more days before he could escape Austin and head back to Chicago. Two more days where he was forced to play nice with his co-workers, endure meetings about the new project and lose track of what Sabrina might be doing.

He was brought out of his thoughts by a sharp rap on his door, his head snapped up to see a tall, slender, African-American woman standing there. She was attractive, caramel colored skin, long black hair styled into a ponytail. She was dressed in a business suit, nothing fancy, looked off the rack at Sears, he figured she was a cop.

“Are you Kyle Chapman?” She asked, a hint of a southern drawl, he was going to guess she was from Alabama or Georgia.

“Well, that’s what the door says,” he gave a clipped, sarcastic response, he put his head down and continued working.

“Oh, I see you do have a keen sense of sarcasm,” she let herself in, closing the door behind her. Pulling a chair over to block the door, sitting down and making herself comfortable, “My name is Special Agent Cherie Coleman, FBI out of the Chicago office. We are about to become the best of friends, Chapman.”

He sat back in his chair, folded his arms and looked at her very carefully, “And exactly why do you think we are going to be friends, Special Agent? Oh! And by all means, make yourself comfortable here in my office.”

She crossed her legs, smiling as she began to speak, “See, it’s like this Chapman,” her southern drawl was a little more pronounced, “I know you got away with killing those folks in that building collapse. Really was a miscarriage of justice if you ask me.”

“Let me stop you right there, I didn’t get away with anything. I was acquitted, so why are we discussing this?”

“Oh, I don’t know what gave you the idea that it was up for discussion, because it’s not. It is a fact that you got away with it, Chapman, you’re in bed with the mob and they helped you walk away with an acquittal. But you and I both know you are guilty as sin.”

“I think you have an active imagination. I’m not quite sure what you think you know, but you’ve got the wrong story when it comes to me,” he was trying to sound confident of himself so he could convince her to go away. The truth was, he was worried, she wouldn’t have come down to Texas to see him if she didn’t have evidence, he was smart enough to know that. But then again, she could be baiting a hook and hoping for a bite.

“Well, yeah, my momma always said that. But, when I was a kid, I was better at those puzzles, you know, connect the dots? And being an FBI agent, well I get to do those puzzles for a living, Chapman. And your case has a lot of damn dots. All your contractors, the ones that sold you the cut-rate materials for the building that collapsed, they are all owned by Vincent Saldonna,” she paused to see if he would make a comment or if his body language would shift, but nothing happened. “And your attorney, the one that got you acquitted, well he was paid by Saldonna because you couldn’t afford him. So those dots connect you with him. Hence, you’re in bed with him.”

“I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about,” he swallowed, trying not to make himself look too worried, “I’ve heard his name, but I had no idea he owned all of those businesses. Can’t you just go back to Chicago and leave me alone?”

“I want Saldonna, you’re going to help me get him. So, don’t dismiss me so quickly, Chapman. After all, you’re gonna want to hear what I have to say if you want to keep yourself out of prison. See, the building collapse got me thinking, and I started to piece together some of your other projects. It is amazing how many of the same puzzle pieces fit. You’ve used those contractors before, so how long before one of your other buildings comes down?”

Kyle swallowed hard, he knew what she was getting at. If Coleman were to launch a public investigation into his other buildings, pointing out the similarities between them and the one that collapsed, it would cause panic. Not only that, no one would ever trust anything from him again, even if his work were being double checked by structural engineers like it was now.

“Now you’re worried, Chapman, I see those gears working in your brain. You know if I start poking around it will end your career, even if you got nothing to worry about. But the problem is, you’ve got something to worry about. Saldonna has you in his pocket, you’re in debt to him for getting you out of your legal issues. So, you help me get him, and I help keep you out of jail, it’s that simple.”

“I’m not admitting to anything, but what you’re suggesting is blackmail,” he was going to be bold, after all, what did he have to lose at this point. “And, even if I were to admit to something and help you, if I were in bed with the mob and they knew I was helping you, they’d kill me.”

“Well, Chapman, it goes like this, I get your help and place you under confidential informant status where I don’t reveal my source, and you stay protected. Or, I find the connections with you and Saldonna and throw your name around, and if they think you’re talking, you deal with the consequences on your own.”

“You’re a bitch, Coleman, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know,” she said as she rose from the chair and moved it away from the door, “But I also know that you are an egotistical prick who had an issue with his wife being more successful,” she turned back to face him. “I do my research, I know about Ms. Burnham. I know the building that collapsed was going up while you were separated and going through your divorce, so I am sure there is a connection there. Should I talk to her about this?”

“No!” He was emphatic and quick to respond, “No, please don’t talk to her, she has nothing to do with this at all.”

“So, she’s a sensitive subject, I see. When are you coming back to Chicago, Chapman?”

“I’m not coming back, you’re here with me in Austin, so you know this is where I live.”

“You keep telling yourself that. I’ll be in contact soon to finalize our deal,” and with those words, Coleman walked out of his office and down the hallway.

Kyle noticed she had left her business card on the chair. With her comments, he figured the FBI had him under surveillance, he just never noticed. The question was, did Saldonna’s boys notice? If there were any inkling that he was being watched or even talking to the Feds, he would be a marked man. He didn’t want to help Coleman, but he also didn’t want her making his life any worse. Then again, he hated the idea that he was in debt to the mob and that he had gotten himself into this mess in the first place. If he could get out from under the thumb of Vinnie Saldonna and stay out of jail, well it would be a win-win situation. But to be honest, things never worked out the way he wanted them to, and he was worried about the backlash. The money in the secret account was enough for him to disappear, but that would mean he would walk away from Sabrina, something he wasn’t sure he was ready to do quite yet.

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