Nate's good at denial. He's not an alcoholic or a drunk, or any type of addict, really. Booze, risk... they're just things he enjoys. They're not a problem. Rather, they're part of his persona; quirks, you could say. All part of the fantasy character he's concocted to keep himself away from uncontemplatable truths.
After all, far easier for the con-man to retroactively erase a friendship than to admit to being fooled. Far easier to cast a villain than to play the part himself. The truth, as Sterling recalls it, isn't quite the same story Nate would tell. Only a friend could betray someone the way Sterling did. Only a real friend would have.
And they had been friends, as much as two men in love with the same woman ever could be. Sterling doubts Nate knows that part, or that Maggie does, for that matter. He knows, after all, not to fight a losing war. Nate was always destined to get the girl.
But it wasn't over Maggie, though in some ways it had been for her. Even when she'd given up on them, it was clear she hadn't quite given up on him. Nate's choices were going a long way to ensuring a world of hurt for everyone but himself.
"... is a danger to others, or to himself..." Oh, yes, Nate had been that. The irony Sterling found with Nate's tale of living in his car was that the man no longer had a driver's license, or at the very least a legitimate one. For that matter, there'd been at least one point in time when he hadn't had a car. Sterling knew, because he'd been the one to wake at two-a.m. to answer a phone call, not to mention fronting the cash to get the damn thing out of impound.
That had been it. The deciding moment. Driving through the rain with the music cranked to keep him awake, coffee out the question because it would aggravate his ulcer, he'd made up his mind. This had to stop. Nate had hit rock bottom, all right, he was just too drunk and miserable to notice the impact. Everyone else felt it, instead. Maggie, though she'd stopped taking the middle of the night calls; you could see it in her eyes, every time she overheard someone mention Nate's name. A flash of hope, or maybe remembrance, followed by pain. The way people edged away from him, moments into a conversation, never quite sure of what to say until they were safely away and could whisper behind their hands. And oh, how they whispered. The self-destruction of Nathan Ford was one of the hottest topics at IYS. You couldn't walk past a watercooler or even use the bathroom without someone revelling in the scandal of the company's top investigator swearing and uttering threats even as security escorted him not only out the front doors, but completely off the property.
He'd said nothing that night, just dutifully supporting an incoherently apologetic Nate out of the police station, promising on his honour that Nate would appear for a court-hearing. His honour, because Nate had none. You couldn't trust a drunk. Sterling hadn't needed Nate to teach him that one. He'd just taken Nate home, tucked him into bed and made sure all the blinds were pulled down so the hangover wouldn't hurt so much in the morning. All the while, he planned, only failing to take one thing into account.
He hadn't expected it to be so easy.
"Jim?" Grogginess ruled Nate's voice. "What time is it?"
"Two in the afternoon. I was hoping not to wake you."
"Oh, God." Even over a shitty mobile speaker the sound of a head falling back against a pillow came through. "Last night..."
"It was a good one," Sterling admitted. "Even for you."
Nate groaned. "I am so sorry. Look, how much is it? I'll pay you back, I'll..."
"Don't worry about it." Sterling tried to keep his voice calm, keep the frustration from creeping in. I'll pay you back, I promise. I'm never going to do anything like this again. From now on, it's a new me. I owe you. How many times had he heard variations of that? And it wasn't the money. It was more the fact that Nate didn't even have to ask what happened, he knew there'd be bail involved, or some other kind of debt that Sterling had had to cover.
"No, no, I mean it, I..."
"I'll tell you what. Meet me at the office, we'll work something out." Sterling looked down. It was a long, long drop. Someone could get far more than hurt, walking off this edge. There were no guard-rails, just a nice little ramp into a long fall and then, splat.
"I can't... I'm not supposed..."
"On the roof. You can come up the back way. What security doesn't know, they don't have to worry about."
"Okay, okay. Give me about an hour." Nate hung up.
Sterling closed his phone and then closed his eyes. All according to plan. He felt the reassuring weight of the flask in his pocket and the sharp points of the cut-crystal glass in his hand. Oh, Nate. He'd never see it coming. There was a time he would have. But now, his brain was so fucked up he wouldn't see a train coming if he were standing on the tracks.
It was, in fact, a little more than an hour before Nate huffed his way onto the top landing. The man looked like shit, if you were feeling generous. Sterling was not.
"Funny, I don't remember those being so... long." Nate leaned against the rail for just a moment before stepping out onto the roof itself, his shoes crunching on the gravel.
"Had anything to eat?" Sterling asked, mildly. He already knew the answer. There were more important things in Nate's life than food, right now. He proffered the glass, now invitingly half-full of dark-amber. It was, in some ways, a waste of good whiskey. Nate might claim to care about the difference, but like any drunk worth the description, his only real concern was that there was alcohol in there, and enough that he might actually notice it.
"Thanks." Nate downed the contents in a single, huge gulp and then lowered the glass almost expectantly. Sterling refilled it.
"You're welcome." Sterling studied Nate's face. There wasn't any suspicion in it, and only the slightest hint of guilt. He wasn't even bothering to try, anymore.
"So, about last night..."
Sterling waved his hand. "It's been dealt with. Bygones."
"I insist. I need to do something..."
Sterling walked out to the edge, right up onto the metal grating. As expected, Nate followed. Where the bottle went, so did he. "You know, I can't even pretend to imagine what you're going through, Nate." There was nothing there but pure, honest truth.
"Thank you for being honest." Nate drained his glass again. Sterling filled it.
"I..." Sterling raised a finger, cutting himself off mid-sentence. "Hold on, I need to get this." He fished his phone out of his pocket and handed Nate the flask before he walked some distance away. He watched. Nate seemed content to wait there, out on the edge. He had everything he wanted. Sterling narrowed his eyes. Pathetic.
He spoke into the phone, keeping his voice low so the words wouldn't carry to Nate. The stage was set, the actors on their marks. He eased his way towards the stairs, all the while listening for the sound of shoes on metal. This was the tricky part. Nate didn't move, didn't even glance back. He refilled the glass again. Sterling bit his tongue.
A lone uniformed officer crept up to the landing, probably sent to scout the situation. He'd do. In fact, one was better than Sterling could have hoped for. More, and it would have been more difficult.
"Look," Sterling said, sotto-voce. "He lost his son, recently, and he's just been fired from his job. He's way over his head in debt... and then I find him up here, and he's drinking, and just..." He did his best to play the part of the concerned friend and co-worker.
"Okay, sir, just..."
Nate chose that moment to turn around, and at the sight of a cop, his face changed, hardening into a look of rage. "You son-of-a-bitch."
Sterling held up his hands in the universal plea of innocence. "You need help, Nate."
"You goddamned son-of-a..."
"Sir!" It was clear from the cop's tone that the priming had worked. He now saw the picture Sterling wanted him to see and it would take someone even more convincing than Nate to change what he believed. "Please, sir, just stay calm... can you please step away from the edge?"
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Nate screamed it at him, throwing the flask at the same time. Sterling didn't duck in time and a metal corner caught him by the eye; he could feel the blood starting to pour down his cheek. By now another cop had joined the first, in just enough time to witness the assault.
"I'm sorry," Sterling lied. The truth was, he felt nothing. Same as always. I can't imagine... He never could. Had never been able to. It was the one way Nate had been better at this job than he, Sterling, could ever hope to be. Maybe that, too, was why he'd cut the man so much slack when others couldn't be bothered. He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and started slowly down the stairs. Behind him, he could hear curses and the sound of feet dragging over gravel, though whether they were pulling Nate from the edge or restraining him from chasing Sterling, he couldn't be bothered to check.
By tomorrow, there'd be a new rumour by the watercoolers and in the toilets, how Nate Ford and Jim Sterling weren't friends anymore. People would murmur sympathetically – oh, some would take Nate's side, that was inevitable – but most would see a man who'd done everything he could and just a little bit more to try and save someone who just wouldn't let himself be saved. As for management, well, hopefully they'd see a man who was willing to do what needed to be done to stem the losses. By the time Nate got out of this one, he'd be forgotten. Seventy-two hours was a long time when it came to gossip trends. And with any luck – though to be honest, things had gone so smoothly there probably wasn't any left – a competent psychiatrist might just see what at least half a dozen arresting officers had been charmed out of dealing with. After all, that was true, too. Nate did need help.
At the bottom he rounded the corner, and only when safely out of sight did he pull from his pocket the mobile he'd used to call Nate. He pulled the back out and removed the SIM card before tossing the body into another building's garbage bin. The SIM he'd destroy more thoroughly, taking all evidence of Nate's inevitable claims of entrapment with it. The 9-1-1 call he'd placed from his IYS issued Blackberry, all the easier to trace. The old Nate would have at least had the decency to be impressed.
This one... Sterling listened hard for the faint sound of a hollered threat. This one wasn't even going to call him 'Jim', anymore.