Tell me what message you’d like on your sign and I’ll print it.”
Mrs. Z patted Molly’s arm. “You’re a good girl. Smart, too. You I trust.”
Molly smiled, touched by Mrs. Z’s confidence in her. “Okay, let’s compose something in your words, something you’d like to tell Mr. Mancini. Let it come from your heart.”
Mrs. Z thought for a moment. “I want to tell him I need a roof on my head. This is my home. Do not take away.”
A thin film of moisture blurred Molly’s vision, and she blinked back the beginnings of a tear. She gave Mrs. Z a quick hug and began to work on the roof idea.
She penciled in a few words in large block letters. When the cardboard was filled, she stepped back to assess the impact of the message.
IS UNDER THIS ROOF
DO NOT TAKE IT AWAY
She read it aloud to Mrs. Z. “Is that closer to what you wanted to say?”
“You are such a clever girl. You told that Mr. Builder exactly how I feel. The others, they can show him the ill will.”
Molly grabbed a black felt tip pen, propped the sign against the building façade and began to trace over the penciled letters. The jagged, uneven wall made it difficult to hold the cardboard steady. Mrs. Z had wandered over to help one of the other women just when Molly needed another hand.
The pen hit a particularly rough spot, creating a squiggle. “Oh, crap.” Molly began to trace a straight line over the squiggly one.
“Do you need help?”
The hand that extended from the cuff of a pale blue shirt sleeve took up a position beside Molly’s. She glanced over her shoulder and up into Nick’s eyes. The vibrant amber had deepened to rusty mud.
“Hello, Nick.” The last time she’d gazed into those eyes, they’d been heavy with sexual desire. Now they looked mad, sad, and anything but glad to see her. A quick glance at her watch showed the time at 7:31. He’d lost little time hurrying to the site.
“This is your idea, I suppose.”
He spoke close to her ear.
“No. Well, sort of no, if you consider I’m not the original source. I’m helping Mrs. Z with spelling and penmanship.”
“Is that your source over there?” He thrust his chin in Duncan Serk’s direction.
“Actually, it’s a lot closer than him.”
“Someone ought to tell him he misspelled doofus. I think it has only one ‘s’.”
Nick stood close enough for Molly to see his hair was still damp. It looked furrowed, as if he’d raked his fingers through it, like he jumped out of the shower and into his clothes and raced to the site. A thick lock fell toward one eye. Her stomach flip-flopped at the mere thought of brushing it back.
He took the pen from her, capped it, and put it in his pocket. Then he moved her hand and the sign slid down the wood façade to her feet.
“The idea came from you, Nick.”
He frowned. “Try something more original.”
He held her hand, the ring finger and pinky, anyway. Did that mean, in spite of the picketing, he still wanted to touch some part of her? More likely, he was afraid she’d bolt before he finished blaming her for everything from the housing crunch to global warming.
“Do you recall the morning you charged into my office? You said you were surprised your tenants weren’t picketing you.”
“So … ”
She told him that at the association meeting someone, possibly her … mentioned a silent protest could, under the right conditions, be more effective than a bunch of people shouting. Picketing seemed like a good example. “I would never have thought of this on my own.”
He shook his head and the frown melted. “You were supposed to stay out of it.”
“I am out.”
He nudged the picket sign with the toe of his shoe. “You keep digging in deeper.”
“Is that what Saturday was all about? Programming me to turn my back on these people?”
“What? Hell no. Is that what you think?”
She shrugged. “It occurred to me.”
“So that’s why you’re here making picket signs?” His thumb rubbed her pinky. Disappointment colored his tone, his expression turned hurt as if his best friend had abandoned him.
“Only one sign.”
“When this is resolved, you and I are going to sit down and thrash this whole thing through.”
“By then, one of us might not be talking to the other.”
“Then let’s go somewhere right now.” He moved a few inches closer.
“Don’t step over this line.” She pointed to the thin ribbon of chipped concrete that outlined the sidewalk squares.
He frowned. “Why not?”
“It’s a boundary line, like at a demilitarized zone.”
“What have you people geared up for here, World War Three?”
She shook her head. “Mrs. Z said the tenants agreed to stay on their side of the line and not cross onto your property.” Molly glanced over his shoulder to where a trio of workmen loitered near the construction site.
“Well, I understand he was resistant. But only at first.”
“That’s city turf they’re on.”
“They have a right.”
“Uh-oh.” Nick dropped her hand. The muscles in his face tightened. He’d gone from abandoned to pissed off in less than a minute.
She glanced behind her. Duncan Serk, whose sign read DIRTY STINKIN, GREEDY, DOOFUSS, TALK AIN’T NO GOOD NO MORE stalked their way, one hand balled into a fist.
“Go back to work, Molly.” Nick lifted her a few inches off the sidewalk and put her down on his side of the line. “Now.”
The construction workers fingered their tool belts and moved closer to Nick. He waved them off and walked toward Serk. Molly stood her ground.
“Do you have a permit?” Nick asked Serk in a calm tone.
“You’re congregating on city property. You need a permit for that.”
Serk frowned. His features compressed into tight lines around his ferret-like eyes. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.
“If you check with the police department, you’ll find that no more than three people can be out here at one time.” He fingered the cell phone clipped to his belt. “If you’d like, I can call the local police station and get clarification.”
Molly had never heard of such a rule except for parades and demonstrations that involved large numbers of unruly people. Or gatherings in countries run by brutal dictators.
“While I do that, I’ll have the cops investigate those studs you’ve stapled your signs to. If those are materials stolen from my worksite, you’ll have to explain that, as well.”
Apparently, Duncan Serk was a man of single words when confronted by someone who stood up to him.
“It’s illegal for this many people to gather. Unless you want the women arrested along with you, they should clear off the street. The men can continue picketing in front of the building. Just don’t cross that line over there.” Nick pointed to what Molly had referred to as the demilitarized zone.
Four or five additional construction workers arrived and stood clustered near Molly.
One of the other male tenants headed over to Nick. “We don’t want any trouble. Right, Serk?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure. We don’t want no trouble, but we’re stickin’ to our demands.”
Serk turned away without waiting for a reply from Nick. The women had already cleared off the sidewalk, except for Mrs. Z who seemed reluctant until Molly caught her eye and motioned for her to follow the others inside.
Only four men remained in front of the building. Nick walked back to Molly.
“Hey, boss. Nice goin’.” One of the construction workers pumped his fist. Another slapped Nick on the back.
“Okay, it’s over. If anyone comes onto this property when I’m not at the site, call me. Don’t get into any hassles with them.”
“Those guys ain’t gonna cause trouble. You took care of that, boss.”
“All right, it’s over. Let’s get busy.”
The workers drifted onto the construction site.
Molly asked Nick, “Did they really need a permit?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“You told them they did.”
“It saved a lot of potential trouble. Good thing the real doofus isn’t as stubborn as you.”
She let that pass but only because she admired the way Nick had dealt with the situation.
“Serk’s a bully. When you show a bully you’re not afraid of him, he backs down.”
“Well, that one certainly did.” She cast a glance at Serk. He leaned against the building and puffed on a cigarette, his sign propped beside him. He seemed to have lost most of his aggression.
“That was nice of you to allow the men to continue picketing the apartment house. You could have made a huge issue when you discovered they’d helped themselves to your wood.”
“Helped themselves? They stole it.”
“Well, whatever. Anyway, you defused the situation. You seem pretty good at that.”
His grin told her he was pleased with the way everything turned out. “Yeah, I’ve always had a knack for handling people.”
“So I see.”
He nodded and his grin widened. “Just so you know.”
“Should I consider that fair warning?”
“Really? How do you plan to handle me?”
He touched the tip of her nose with his finger. “That’s easy. Now that I know what you like.”
“Huh?” Damn, was that the best she could manage? Now she sounded like she’d just channeled Duncan Serk.
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