Spreading the rumor

852 words

This was like pulling teeth. Had no idea where this was going. Still don’t.  ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Taylor drummed her hands on the desk in front of her. Alex couldn’t tell if she was doing it on purpose, for effect, maybe. It certainly drew attention to her short, blood-red nails. “Talons after a successful struggle with prey,” Alex thought, then realized Taylor was waiting for a response.

“I’m really not sure what you want me to say,” he shrugged. “I’ve pretty much told you everything I know.”

Taylor silenced her nails and flattened her palm on the desk. “You sure about that?” she said. Her eyes, blue and empty, gave Alex no clues. He knew more. A lot more. But from her body language to her blank stare, he couldn’t determine how much she already gathered from his coworkers. He’d love to have her as a poker partner.

He shifted in his chair, uncrossed his legs, and put his feet firmly on the floor. He leaned forward, hands steady in his lap. This was, he thought, a power stance. If she could do it, so could he. She didn’t flinch. “Look,” he continued, showing her his palms in a, “I have nothing to hide” gesture. “I’m guessing I know the same as you do.” There was no response from the other side of the desk. He cleared his throat, and immediately wished he hadn’t. It was an obvious sign of nervousness.

She noticed. Her lips twitched upward almost imperceptibly. “Well then, why don’t you tell me? We could compare notes.”

“I mean,” he continued, “I’ve heard things. But I have no idea if those things are true.”

“What have you heard?” she asked.

“Taylor.” His voice had gone dry. “Don’t make me repeat things I have no business repeating. That would just be spreading the rumor further, don’t you think? Is that fair, when he’s not here to defend himself? It’s not fair,” he said, answering his own question.

“What I have a hard time believing,” Taylor said, sliding one red-tipped hand across the desk toward a manilla folder, “is that you know as little as you say you do.” She slid the folder in front of herself, but didn’t open it. Her nails started their seductive movement again, tapping on the folder in a seemingly absent-minded manner. Alex watched the nails. He was supposed to, he realized. His attention was unwillingly drawn to the folder and its contents.

The folder itself was innocuous. A plain, manilla folder like one would find in any office. He remembered when he was younger—seven, maybe?—he called it “vanilla.” His father, an accountant, worked from his home office back in the early days of the internet, and Alex had helped him by running small errands. He took pride in being his dad’s “go-fer,” and his dad had rewarded him by making him a t-shirt with a little picture of a gopher on it. When called upon to retrieve fresh folders from his supply cabinet, Alex would say, “Here you go! Five vanilla folders.” It was his older brother who finally corrected him with much disdain. “Not VANilla, idiot. MANilla. It’s not ice cream.” Alex’s father didn’t condone such language in their household, and took Alex for ice cream, leaving the older brother at home to think about how he spoke to family members. But Alex never called the folders vanilla again.

“What’s that?” Alex finally asked, nodding at the desk.

“You tell me.” Taylor was giving nothing away.

Alex took another look at the folder. It was about an inch thick with papers. “Old-school,” he thought. Why go through the trouble of printing things out? Whatever she had, it probably came from a digital source. Emails, maybe. He thought quickly. He had been cc’d on a lot of the emails, but he couldn’t remember how he’d received them. Had Brian been fantastically stupid and sent emails through the company server? Even worse, had Alex been equally idiotic and responded to them without noticing? His email program was set up to handle several different accounts, including personal. It was entirely possible he’d been distracted and hit “reply” before scrutinizing an email’s origin.

“Gosh, Taylor. I don’t know,” Alex said, giving her an exaggerated expression of innocence. “Love letters? Fifth-grade valentines? Shopping lists. Your fantasy football picks. Blueprints for your retirement home. How the hell am I supposed to know? What do you want from me?”

“There’s some pretty damning stuff in here,” she said, ignoring Alex’s comments. “Information that, should it get out, could mean investigations. I already know you’re involved. Please don’t deny it. What I don’t know is how deep this goes, and who else is involved. That’s what I need from you, Alex. I can’t promise you’ll come out of this clean. But I can promise I won’t intentionally make this worse for you. And you know I can do it.” She opened the folder and scanned the top page. From where Alex was sitting, it indeed looked like a printout of an email. The pit that had been growing in his stomach deepened.

“So,” she said, closing the folder. “What would you like to tell me, Alex?”