Agency, Part Two

05 October 2008

The plan was simple. A week or two before the Adventure Caravan, Bench would start to act distant towards Bryan. She would refuse to hang around with him during mid-afternoon snack breaks. She would stay away from his workstation on the days leading to end of October. This would give everybody hints that Bench was in fact trying to avoid him. Of course, he had reminded her that not everybody would detect the signs at first. True, with the extremely busy days ahead, anybody could guess Bench would have plenty of things to do and wouldn't have any spare time left to loiter in the Creatives' department. She would display a complete reversal of the day-to-day persona her officemates were used to seeing — a persona characterized by aberrant silence and almost infectious lethargy.

Still, Bryan worried that convincing the office people this way was kind of a long shot. Obviously, everybody would be pretty busy too in the days to come and it would be highly unlikely for them to catch in on what's going between Bench and him. He had told Bench about this and she said not to worry — she'll just have to find a way to expedite the process by engineering a "leak," through the one person who is likely to be believed, the one person who is sure to spread the message, the best word-of-mouth conduit in the entire agency — Ellie. Of course, the "leak" will have to happen in a week or so after the Adventure Caravan and Halloween Fashion have wrapped up. Doing so earlier would be overkill.

Despite his uneasiness, Bryan had marveled at her cleverness at the same time spooked by her guts. He still couldn't believe that she would really push through with it. And the worse thing was, Bryan had agreed to it. He could have said no. Now he was kicking himself because he didn't.

Truth of the matter was, he was scared. He was never comfortable with getting away with any fib. He had told Bench that he was never good with things like these. She had told him to grow up. Besides, she had insisted, Bryan won't have to do anything. It would be up to her to do the pretending. Technically, she would be the only one doing the lying. All Bryan had to do was be himself. The only reason she had told Bryan about the whole plan was because she didn't want Bryan to think she really was giving him the big cold shoulder. She said it was a "matter of courtesy" for their friendship. She said it would be unfair to him if she left him high and dry.

Bryan wanted to find comfort in Bench's words. He couldn't find any.


She was true to her word. Since the second week of October, she was never seen hanging around with Bryan. When there came a need to brief Bryan about a certain new project for an account Bench was handling, she would easily find a way to let Ellie or Lisa do the briefing. When Noel scheduled a brainstorming session with Bench or Bryan, she would defer or simply wouldn't show up on the excuse of meeting a client. When asked to do something that involves Bryan's participation, Bench would politely refuse without offering any explanation.

And her attendance has gotten increasingly peculiar and erratic. Fifteen-minute cigarette breaks turn into hour-long trips to only-God-knows-where, sometimes she wouldn't even return to the office for the rest of the afternoon. Bryan had heard Ellie complain loudly that she couldn't contact Bench's cell phone number at one time. When she did get by the office, she would sit with nary a word in front of her laptop all day long, except for the increasingly long cigarette breaks. On certain days, she would come in as early as 6 AM and leave the office before 4 PM. During lunch breaks, she opted to eat out alone in the nearby mall, in restaurants where she was sure no one in the office would go.

When it was time for Bench, Ellie and Ken to fly to Cagayan De Oro City for a few days to handle the Adventure Caravan, Bryan realized he was actually looking forward to Bench's absence. For once, he could go to the office without having to worry about the awkwardness of his and Bench's situation. On any given day, he could probably disregard any officemate's ill-feeling towards him and get on with his copywriting duties without ever giving that person any ounce of thought. But it was way different with the current state of things. Try as he might, he just couldn't ignore the discomfiture and inherent weirdness of being shunned like that and knowing that all of it is one elaborate sham concocted by his almost-deranged friend and colleague. And the fact that he's completely in on it was giving him creeps of the different kind. Conniver's guilt is never easy, he realized.


"Sit down, Bryan," Noel said without looking up from his laptop monitor, his hands busy typing on the keys. Bryan sat down on the chair in front of Noel's desk. The room was chilly. Bryan wished he brought a jacket.

"I wanted to talk to you about Bench," Noel said, still typing. "But let me just finish this."

"Okay," Bryan replied nervously.

Noel straightened up and folded the laptop. Then he stared at Bryan.

"You do know that the Adventure Caravan was a tremendous success. In fact, the client wants to do a Boracay version next year. All thanks to Bench's coordination. I hate her guts sometimes but frankly, I'm very impressed with the way she handled it. And so is the client. They're very pleased with the results and they want to thank her personally. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know where she is."

"She has gone AWOL," Bryan muttered.

"Looks like it," Noel said.

Bryan looked down on his hands.

"Ellie told me you and Bench were pretty close," Noel continued. "Former classmates in school, digs the same stuff Bench likes — Ellie told me you and Bench were practically like best buds."

Bryan remained unmoving.

"My point is — you might be able to tell me just what the hell is going on," Noel pressed on.

"There's nothing to tell."

"Ellie says there's plenty going on. She says you and Bench are — let me put it this way, socializing more than what's appropriate in an office environment."

"It's none of Ellie's business."

"Okay, I'll respect that. It's none of my business. But this agency is my business. And I need to know if there's something funny going on. With Bench currently unreachable and Kyla also missing, I'm bound to —"

"Kyla? What do you mean?"

"Just last week, Anne told me she couldn't reconcile several checks drawn to cash somewhere between the last week of October and first week of November. Anne says she couldn't figure out why those checks were drawn in the first place. She tried to call Kyla but she couldn't contact her."

Bryan sat numb with the news.

"No trace of Kyla," Noel continued. "She just disappeared. Right about the same time Bench went AWOL."

"Are you saying Kyla and Bench — are you saying they both —?"

"I don't know. I was hoping you could tell me."

"It can't be. I know Bench. She wouldn't do something like that."

"I think she already has."


"Back when she had that deejay job. There was some fiasco about funds that Bench was directly in control of. Anyway, short version of the story is, it got blown into such a mess that the station had to let go of many people. Bench included."

"No way."

"Anne, of course, thinks Bench was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Personally, I think she might have been involved. And now she may be robbing my company."

"You don't know that."

"I don't know anything, yet. But sooner or later, the truth will come out. Count on that." Noel stood up and approached the glass window panel.

"I haven't spoken to Bench since, I don't know, early October," Bryan said.

"You had a row with her?"

"Something like that."

"And she hasn't contacted you since?"


"How about Kyla?"


"Are you sure about that?"


Noel turned and sat back in his chair. He gave Bryan a serious stare. "I may call on you again if I have questions," Noel said.

"I understand."

"You may go. And tell Lisa I want to see her now."

Bryan nodded before walking out of the room.


Two days had done little in lessening the impact of what he'd learned in Noel's office. Since that day, Bryan had been in a state of combined confusion and utter numbness. He wanted to be knocked out of this stupid stupor. He wanted to get away, far away from the sight of his workstation, out of the office. He wanted to exist without devoting one iota of energy thinking about this recent mess. But more than anything, he wanted to see and talk to Bench.

He was wont to admit it but it had taken its toll on his work. The copy he wrote barely met his personal standards. Fortunately for him, clients sometimes had the unusual habit of picking the studies that he least liked.

That afternoon, a brainstorming session had gone nowhere. Bryan and Ellie struggled to come up with an event-driven campaign for an agri-feed client and failed miserably. Bryan wearily excused himself and headed back to his workstation to collect his stuff and go home. He unplugged the charger's cord off his cell phone and checked the liquid crystal display: 1 message received. It was an unregistered number. He opened the message and read: "tequila jos 5.30pm. dont b l8 sucker, i wont w8." He glanced at the time — 5:37 PM. Damn.

In three minutes he was at the entrance of Tequila Joe's. Bench was sitting at the bar with her back to the door. Her head was tilted towards the TV screen propped seven feet up on the wall behind the bartender, American Idol was on. The glass of iced tea on the counter was already half-full. Bryan took the stool on her left.

"Don't you wish sometimes you had a TV remote in your brain?" Bench casually remarked without looking at Bryan.

"Why would you wish something like that?" Bryan asked.

"So that I could just press mute in my mind whenever it's Paula's turn to say something."

Bryan laughed.

"I mean, Paula's always saying the same thing to anybody, anyway. She's like the judge on the Miss Universe pageant who always gives an 8 to every contestant. I can't stand her actually."

"Neither can I."

Bench smirked while she sipped the last of her iced tea.

"Bench, Noel has been looking for you. He says — "

"I already talked to him," Bench interrupted him.


"Yeah, last night at their house. We sorted out everything. Well, not everything, but the areas concerning me — it's okay now. Trust me."

"Sure about that?"

"Funny. Who would've thought that Kyla would do something like that. I mean, she's a world-class beeyatch and all that but … Damn, she's got guts, that's for sure."

"How did you find out?"

"Maimai from Camp Cebu, she's friends with Anne. She told me yesterday morning. Naturally, I had to talk to Anne, tell her I didn't have anything to do with what Kyla did. I had some explaining to do to Noel, too. God, you should have been there. Noel was really pissed, I mean really pissed. He was sure I was in on it because I disappeared."

"Well, you did disappear."

"Yeah. But the thing is — I chickened out." She laughed weakly. "That's why I was back in Cebu since Tuesday. I was in Davao the whole time, ever since the Adventure Caravan was done. I was really planning to talk to Anne eventually, to her alone. And then this ruckus just blew up. I could have done nothing. I don't even care a shit if Noel hated me for not showing up ever. But I did show up. I guess I didn't want him to hate me for the wrong reason. I mean I got issues, I know that. But I'm no thief. That's not who I am. That I'm sure about."

"You got me scared. You did."

She burst into laughter. "I got you, didn't I? I got you big time, Bry."

"Not funny."

"I did tell them everything, about my plan to go AWOL. But I didn't tell them that you were in on it, too. That would be unfair to you. Bottom line is now they know how badly I want out of the agency. Anne — I guess she took it rather well. Noel — well, you know Noel. But I'm not scared of him, I never was."

"So what happens now?"

"The deal is, I stay until the end of November, just enough to turn over my accounts to Ellie. That's about three weeks — that should be enough. She's quite a capable lady, that Ellie, although she could use some chillin' out. As for Kyla — well, Anne is going to have to handle the accounting for now. They don't really know how much damage Kyla did to their funds. Anne mentioned about getting an independent CPA to sort it out. I wish him luck. As for me, I don't know. I'm thinking about finding work overseas. Or maybe school. I really don't know. All I know is I want out."

Bryan remained silent. Bench took a crumpled mauve bill out of her pocket and unfolded it on the counter. "I need a smoke," she said, "let's get out of here."

They stood on the paved sidewalk outside the restaurant. Bench absent-mindedly watched the cars whizzing by. Bryan stood three feet from her, staring at a large billboard ad recently put up. Bench took a step towards him and turned her head at the same direction he was looking.

"Advertising has ruined my consumer life," Bryan said.

Bench couldn't be sure if he was talking to her or himself. "Why is that?" she asked.

"I could no longer look at any ad without mulling about how much work has been done in creating that ad — the copy must have been redone and revised many times over, the graphics going through endless changes, the many steps, the arguments. When I look at an ad, I don't see the product anymore. I just see the work behind it. And sometimes, the lie. I'll never be sold by any ad, ever again. Advertising has ruined my consumer life."

"No, it hasn't. You'll be okay, Bry. I know you." Bench took out her cell phone and turned around. "Lex is here to pick me up."

"Lex? A friend of yours?"

"She's my — you know." Bench smiled.

"Oh," Bryan said in comprehension.

"You should get yourself a girlfriend," Bench said.

"Don't need one."

Bench grinned.

"What's so funny?"

"I know something about you, Bry. But I'm not telling. You're just gonna have to figure it out by yourself."

Bryan didn't reply.

"I gotta go. I'll see you around?" Bench said.

He nodded. She punched him on the shoulder before walking away. Bryan watched her walk towards the parking lot, her retreating figure finally getting obscured by the passing vehicles. He stood for a while with his hands in his pockets. He glanced eastwards across Archbishop Reyes Avenue. The skyway was finished. He sighed and walked away.

- END -


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