The gate in the security fence that protected the corner site was rolled aside to reveal a gaping hole that had been gouged into the side of the apartment house at ground level. A heavy steel beam protruded from it. Long jagged splints of wood littered the empty space between the condo site and the occupied building. Three streamers of yellow police tape cordoned off the hole and the front door as well. Wooden sawhorses closed off the sidewalk. An emergency medical technician administered oxygen to one of the tenants, the arthritic lady. Another woman sat at the curb, dazed. Duncan Serk paced in the street and puffed on a cigarette. Other tenants milled around near Nick’s trailer. He stood by a squad car talking to a couple of policemen.
As Molly slipped around the sawhorses, Mrs. Z rushed toward her.
“Molly,” she panted. “They said not to go back inside. The whole place can crash down on our heads. Didn’t I once tell you?”
Mrs. Z pulled Molly closer to the construction site. “You see that.” She pointed to the steel beam that poked into the building. “It flew from somewhere in there where they make the condos. The gas, you should have smelled it. Some people are still dizzy.”
“When did it happen?”
“I was asleep. It was dark. I only had time to throw on some clothes.” She smoothed the skirt of a faded purple and black print cotton housedress. “Mr. Sanchez helped me get out. Someone called the police, and all these people came.”
“Are you all right?” Molly put her arm around Mrs. Z. “Did you speak with the medical technicians?”
“I had the oxygen. I told them I don’t need it, but … ” She waved her hand as if swatting away a mosquito. “I took a sniff to make them happy.”
Molly stared at the jagged hole in the apartment house wall. Apparently, as the beam had crashed through the wooden siding, it ruptured the gas line. Although she figured a PG&E crew had capped it by now, the air still smelled faintly gaseous. She didn’t need a blueprint to figure out how it happened. A rough wooden floor had been laid across two thirds of the condo’s second story. Steel, probably meant for use on an upper portion of the structure, was stacked there. Several other beams were visible from the street. Somehow, one of them slid loose — or was dragged to the lip of the floor and given a push. It then flipped down over the edge and crashed into the apartment building. A sick feeling settled in Molly’s stomach at the thought that it could have killed someone.
While she comforted Mrs. Z, she glanced at Duncan Serk. He leaned against a police car and clutched an ever-present cigarette in his paw. She’d never really taken a good look at his hands before. They appeared beefy and strong enough to lift heavy objects. His arms — the size of small tree trunks — bulged with muscles visible where he’d chopped the sleeves off his T-shirt. He could wrestle with a steel beam, especially if he had help. Was he responsible? It left him momentarily homeless, but she supposed someone like Serk wouldn’t think that far. Maybe he thought if he destabilized the building, it’d fast track a payout from his landlord. He didn’t have the smarts to follow his actions past the initial idea. Nick could have the building condemned and — voila — no more tenants. Yes, Serk was stupid and disgruntled enough to cause serious damage.
Then there was the mystery man, the one Nick had chased the previous night. Then, too, there was Nick. He came out a winner. God, she hated herself for even thinking it. Still, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel some relief if the building wound up condemned.
“We can’t live here anymore,” Mrs. Z said. “It isn’t safe. You talk to that Mr. Builder. You tell him we need our money now.”
Molly glanced over at Nick. Stress dug deep furrows into his brow and pulled his clenched jaw into a tight line. She couldn’t think of a single reason why he should listen to her. A night of great sex only bought you so much influence. The building was off limits, and the tenants would soon be dispersed. He no longer had to concern himself with pickets, leaflets, and demands for money. Who was going to make him dig deep into his wallet? Duncan Serk? He could threaten all he wanted. Nick could probably have him arrested for harassment.
“Now we have to move — to what and where I don’t know,” Mrs. Z moaned.
Two women, who Molly recognized from social services, spoke with several of the tenants. They’d make temporary arrangements and perhaps use the Good Samaritan occupancy law, the one recently enacted by the mayor. Its purpose was to find temporary housing at the same rental rate for tenants whose homes became uninhabitable after a disaster. Since occupancy was limited to twelve months, Mrs. Z and the others would eventually have to locate permanent housing. Even those temporary arrangements would take time. Social workers needed to be assigned and rental units made available. None of it would happen quickly. She hated to think any of them might have to spend even a few nights in a shelter. When Molly had worked in social services, the long line of people who were waiting for the city to find them affordable apartments had seemed endless.
Molly suggested Mrs. Z talk to the women from the city’s services. “They’ll help you get settled.”
“You’ll talk to him?” Mrs. Z pointed to Nick.
“Yes, I will.” Although she could promise nothing.
Molly stood alone on the sidewalk and watched the surreal scene. How long would she have to wait until Nick was free? One thing was certain: She refused to leave until they spoke. He’d glanced at her a couple of times, but looked detached, as if they hadn’t just shared a night of intimacy. Finally, when the policemen dispersed, he walked over to her.
“Molly.” He put his hand on her arm, then let it drop to his side. He looked wrung out, as if he’d just speed-climbed Half Dome in Yosemite. Of course, he hadn’t slept much last night, either. His eyes lacked their usual spark. His voice rasped. She wanted to ease the lines that chiseled his brow.
“Hello.” Last night, he’d touched every part of her body. He’d brought her to heights she’d never experienced before or ever expected to reach. This morning, he seemed like a stranger.
He gestured toward the building. “I never imagined anything like this could happen. Not when the construction site was the target.”
“What do the police think?”
He shrugged. “They wrote it up as an accident. No one was hurt. It’s a low priority.”
“Not for your tenants.”
“The police are aware of that. I’m aware of it, too.”
“Do you have any ideas how it happened … who could have … ?”
He glanced toward Duncan Serk, who’d resumed pacing and sucking on yet another cigarette. “I have one or two.”
“You think it was him?” Serk’s eyes had folded into slits. A scowl furrowed the loose, jowly skin on his face. He looked as volatile as a lit fuse.
“Let’s say he’s a candidate.”
“Then why damage the building? Why would anyone do something to make themself homeless?”
“Maybe he didn’t expect the beam to land where it did. He could have levered it to crash down through the ground floor and take most of it into the foundation. That would destabilize the walls. We would have to rebuild almost from scratch. The angle was off, though. It flipped over the side and through the apartment house wall. That wall is nothing but flimsy wood. A man couldn’t have done it alone.”
“I know how you must feel.”
“What about you?” What better time to broach the subject of compensation? The only circumstance that could make such a disaster worse was if a section of the building had collapsed and seriously hurt someone. “What do you plan to do about your tenants?”
He frowned. “I can’t answer your question right now. I’ll need time to work it out. It’s a hell of a mess.”
Molly nodded. “It is for them. I guess you got lucky, though.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This is what you wanted all along. They’re out. Now you can tear down this old wreck and finish your project.” Anger mixed with accusation in her tone. She was tired and upset and needed to rail at someone. Last night she’d felt like a lottery winner and this morning, like she’d lost the winning ticket.
“Is that what you think? I’m happy about this situation?”
She let a few seconds pass. “I’m not sure how you feel about it.”
“I feel like shit.” He raked his hand through his hair. “What are you saying, Molly? You think I’m responsible?”
Tears built behind her eyes and she blinked furiously to keep them from spilling over. Her imperfect little single-night love affair was about to combust.
It was as if he’d taken her hesitation for consent. “Do you think that after you pulled out of my garage, I jumped into my car, tore down here, and shot a steel beam into the building?”
In the time it took him to hurl the accusation at her, she managed to get better control of her emotions.
“I’m not blaming you. What does it matter? Unless they have family or friends who can take them in, your tenants will probably end up in shelters until they can be placed in temporary housing. Or, if there are any vacancies, some will be lucky to move into a single-room occupancy building. Do you know what it costs to rent a room that’s about half the size of your trailer? Six hundred to a thousand dollars a month. That’s without a kitchen or a private bath. You can’t squeeze in much more than a bed, a chair and someplace to hang a few clothes. They’re infested with roaches and mice … ”
“I know about SRO buildings.”
“Have you ever been inside of one?”
“Then you have no idea how really awful they are.” When she’d worked in social services, it had sickened her every time she’d had to direct someone there.
“Molly … ” He brought his hands up and she thought he was going to touch her.
She backed away. Any contact was out of bounds if she was going to hold him responsible for his tenants’ welfare. Her willpower wasn’t forged from iron, after all, and she obviously didn’t have much of it when it came to Nick. She’d never felt so vulnerable.
“Look, somehow I’ll make it right.”
Today, “somehow” didn’t work for her. “How … when?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I can’t do anything right now, but I’ll do whatever I can as soon as I can. Only I can’t put a million bucks on the table. You need to understand that. It’s not by choice. It’s through necessity. I won’t promise what I can’t deliver.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Fine, we’re in agreement there.”
“You have to figure something out.”
He glanced around at the remaining squad cars and emergency vehicles. “This isn’t a good time to talk. A city housing inspector is on the way. They should have condemned this building a long time ago. It was never earthquake proof. It’s too late now. It has to come down. I’ll call you … ”
“There’s nothing to talk about. We’ve stomped this into the ground how many times? Your tenants need you to rescue them. Now more than ever.” Her strong passion for justice superseded her anger. “You told me once you were one of the good guys.”
“I am. How often do I have to prove it?”
He’d already proved he could take her safe little world and crash it down on her head.
“You don’t have very much faith in me.”
Her emotions were so raw it would take very little for her to lose control. Couldn’t he see anything from her point of view? Her backing his tenants didn’t mean a lack of faith in him. He stepped back and started to turn away from her.
“I do, Nick. I trust you.” Her voice came out weak and shaky, without the conviction she felt.
He turned to face her. His expression held a mixture of hurt and disappointment. “No, you don’t. Why should you?”
Why should she?
“Because I … love you.” She had only mouthed the words, didn’t dare voice them.
Except for the twitch in his lower lip, he stood perfectly still.
A shock wave tore through Molly. Was she crazy to admit something so important to a man who, aside from taking her to bed, had in no serious way returned the sentiment? Seconds ticked by, but he still hadn’t moved or worse, spoken. Okay, to be fair, she’d taken him by surprise. How much time did he need to tell her he shared her feelings? He remained mute. She shook her head. “Forget about what you think I said.”
She nodded so vigorously, her neck snapped.
He gave a low, strained laugh, as if it were all a big joke. “Whatever you want.”
She felt worse than a fool. One more confession and someone might come along and cart her off to Napa. Not to Nick’s house, but to the state hospital where they housed people who proved they couldn’t think straight.
“I have to go.” Last night she’d stuck to him like a Velcro strip. Now she wanted the sidewalk to open up and suck her down to Hades.
“Sure.” Nick looked resigned to their parting. Did she sense a little relief there, too? “I’ll be in touch, or you can call me. Whatever.” He turned and walked over to where his crew waited.
I’ll be in touch. The kiss of death for a woman, trumped only by I’m very fond of you. Would he call? Why should he when she’d just told him there was nothing to talk about?
Molly clenched her jaw and ran as fast as her wedge heels allowed back to her car. At least she’d dodged a ticket, probably the only good news she’d have for the rest of the year. She yanked open the door and slumped behind the wheel. From the start, a chasm separated her and Nick. It had eroded into a Grand Canyon-sized space now. She loved him, and he didn’t love her back. What he felt for her was a sexual urge and nothing more. Sure, he wanted her, and because she wanted him so much, she’d broken her rule on casual sex. Only, for her, there was nothing casual about the sex with Nick or her feelings for him. They were the real deal.
She pulled out into traffic and another thought jammed her brain. Had last night been part of a plan, about more than just the desire to take her to bed? Had he used her, as well? What better way to get her to back off from his tenants than a night of incredible sex and a promise for more? Maybe it built from the day in Napa when she’d let him touch her just about everywhere. She’d bet her knock-off Jimmy Choo wedge heels he had an infallible instinct about women. He knew she wanted him. He knew the sex would be more than casual for her. He knew she’d want a lot more. Maybe the only way for her to stay in his orbit was to convince his tenants to accept his offer. She banged her fist on the steering wheel.
Tears welled in her eyes. This time she didn’t hold them back. If he’d planned that all along, he’d wasted his time. Thanks to the mystery saboteur, he’d been handed exactly what he wanted: a vacant building. And it hadn’t cost anywhere near a million dollars to accomplish, either.
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