Almost two weeks passed before Molly dredged up the courage to drive down the street to where Nick’s construction site loomed. Rather than sit home and brood, she preferred to stay late at the clinic and work on her next event. She didn’t need the pain that crimped her heart every time she thought about him. Still, she couldn’t totally crush her desire to be close to the place where he spent so much time. Dominique would have called it spirit transference — if you can’t be with the one you love, then hover in his shadow. She used to think it all a bunch of nonsense. Yet, here she was, cloaked in the fast-approaching dusk, seeking out his aura. Even in her teens, she’d never done anything so sappy.
Chances he hung around this late were slim to zilch, so she felt confident her little foray would go unnoticed.
Dusk slid into night as she approached the site. Nick’s car was parked at the corner across the avenue. How odd. He’d always used the slot alongside his trailer. She crossed the intersection, skulked down in her seat like a spy, and cut a sideways glance at the hybrid in the rearview mirror. The last time she’d played detective, she’d followed him home. Tonight nothing could make her stop. Well, maybe if he waved a white flag and vowed to surrender his heart. He’d also have to furnish proof he’d found safe housing for his tenants and planned to hand over a big payoff. That had about as much chance of happening as the Niners winning the Super Bowl. If she had to choose, she’d put her money on the Niners. Anyway, the car was definitely unoccupied.
She went around the block again and returned to their street and crawled along at a speed slow enough to make a snail happy. Nick no longer had his trailer parked in its usual spot. He’d moved it out onto the street. Since no light showed through the two small windows, she had no way to determine if he was inside. Work at the site had stopped for the day, so she couldn’t imagine why he’d hang out in the trailer. Unless he still kept tabs on his building site to forestall any future “accidents.” She pulled in front of the trailer and cut her lights. She let the engine idle.
Ever since the foundation had been dug in the vacant lot that comprised the third parcel of Nick’s project, work had progressed on the condo units above. Wood and steel beams outlined five floors of lofts. Dead center, where the apartment building once stood, a gaping hole scarred the earth. Everything had been totally obliterated. Molly sucked in her breath and didn’t release it until her head buzzed from lack of oxygen. It didn’t seem possible. The building was gone, expunged like a tumor. Sadness enveloped her.
She put the car into park and leaned back against the headrest. The corner condos showed even more progress where once there had been only naked wood and steel. They climbed five stories above the street. Metal screens sheathed the front section of each unit. Reflected in the glow from the streetlamps, they shimmered like silver. What she imagined would become clear glass walls waited to be installed behind them. The design was innovative, the form simple. She had to give Nick credit. When all the condos were finished, they’d add something new and interesting to the area.
Across the street, the Blackstone Group had made progress on their project, too. They’d advanced well into the demolition stage. Eventually, their buildings and Nick’s condos would change a seedy area into something exciting. Molly ached for the tenants — her tenants. She’d heard nothing from them. She could only hope that Nick would keep his promise to somehow make it right. She drove away in a funk.
That night, she slept fitfully. Her dreams were a tangle of confusion and, as usual, revolved around Nick. In one, he stood in the middle of the street. As she drove toward him, he shouted something and waved her away. In another, a platform stretched across the yawning hole. Music, sweet and muted, drifted on the air. She and Nick stood together on the sidewalk. She wondered why he’d brought her there. When she asked, he took her hand. Then his image faded as if he stepped into fog.
She was drained and listless all morning, and doubted she’d ever excise Nick from her heart.
Ten days later, the same thing. She was drawn again to the construction site. Like a magnet sucks iron to its core, she made the turn from the parking lot around the corner and headed away from home and toward Nick’s aura. Lately, she’d become more invested in Dominique’s hocus pocus. Dark clouds clustered under a dusky sky. It would be full-on night in minutes.
Once again, his car was parked across the avenue and away from his office trailer. Molly slowed to a crawl, slid into her spy slouch, and continued on. He wasn’t inside the vehicle. Weird. Why did he park here at night? Was he somewhere nearby? If so, where? Except for a down-on-its-heels residence hotel, an all-night bodega, a laundromat, and two low-rise claptraps on the next street, everything else was shuttered for the night. Her head began to throb from playing detective.
She continued down the street, hooked a right, then three more, and pulled in behind his trailer. She glanced above the security fence that stretched across the front of the property and gazed at the spot where once the apartment building stood. In only a week and a half, beams had formed new doorways, walls, and ceilings. They rose five stories and ended under a flat roof. No complete facade yet. Brick sheathed the first three floors around openings where, eventually, glaziers would insert the glass. Also, no sign of Nick. Frustrated, she fought the urge to slam out of her car and bang on his trailer. Except a sixth sense — another newly found awareness — screamed it was vacant. Her hands clenched the steering wheel. She worried about him. She cut the engine and flicked off her lights.
She opened her purse and rummaged inside until she found her cell phone. There was no need to check his business card for either of his numbers. She’d memorized them from all the times, late at night, she’d tried to convince herself to call him. She dialed his home number even though she didn’t expect an answer. She had to do something besides sit out here in the deserted street.
After the fourth ring, his voice came over the line.
“This is Nick. Leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you.”
Molly pressed the phone to her ear. She hadn’t heard him speak for over three weeks. She missed the sound of him almost as much as she longed for the sight of him. She jumped when the message signal beeped in her ear.
“Nick … I saw your car … It’s Molly … I’m worried about you … I … oh, hell.” She slammed the phone shut. What was that all about? Why leave a message? How would that locate him? She sounded worse than a fool. She slumped down in her seat.
The site loomed dark and deserted, eerie, like an abandoned property left for time and the elements to devour. At least she supposed it was deserted. Unless Nick was concealed somewhere inside. The silvery screens that sheathed the almost-finished front of the corner building made it impossible to tell. He’d fired the security guy, so maybe he’d set a trap for the person bent on sabotage.
She leaned across the console and peered out the passenger window. Misty fog turned the night gray. Silence deadened the air as if a great cosmic shroud blanketed the earth.
She snapped open her phone and dialed his cell. No answer. She closed her phone and shoved it into her purse.
“Where are you, Nick?”
She clenched her teeth in worry and frustration. She’d even welcome the yowl of a cat if it livened the bleak night. Her concern deepened. What if he encountered an Incredible Hulk wannabe, the kind who could separate a man’s body into a hundred pieces? What if the Hulk caught Nick off guard? A whack with a tire iron and he’d be blotto, or worse. She pictured him crumpled on the floor, comatose, bloody, his body hidden under a tarp in some dark corner. He’d lie there until the workmen arrived in the morning. She bit down on her thumbnail. The question was: Should she take a quick peek? She knew the answer. Of course she shouldn’t. Then, again, she couldn’t not. She loved him that fiercely. Women in love did all kinds of stupid things. Just look at Helen of Troy. She’d started a whole war.
She popped the lever that unlocked her trunk and slid out of the car. The streetlamp across the way should have cast a glow but didn’t. Had the bulb burned out? Had someone tampered with it? Using the light inside her trunk, she rummaged through her purse and checked for her can of mace. She worked late some nights and never knew who she might meet on the way to her car. The small spray can provided an extra measure of safety. She jammed the mace into her pocket.
She raked through the box of earthquake supplies in her trunk until she found a flashlight. Since she never thought to check the batteries, she muttered one of those quick, “Oh God, please let it work,” prayers and clicked the button. A pale yellow circle, little bigger than a drink coaster, illumined the ground. Not great but doable.
She combed through the box and found a worn black cotton hoodie and a pair of running shoes. She traded in her heels and suit jacket, slipped into the hoodie and pulled on the hood to conceal her hair. Her chocolate brown linen trousers, along with the hoodie, made her inconspicuous. She tossed her purse into the trunk. Quietly, she closed the lid and headed for the chain link fence, thankful Nick had kept the combination to the gate lock simple. She clamped her ridiculously inadequate flashlight tightly between her teeth and put in the numbers. The lock opened and she rolled the gate aside just enough to squeeze onto the site.
She moved over uneven ground and loose stones. When she approached the central area, the one where the apartment building once stood, she shone her light into the void that eventually might serve as a lobby. An indentation along each side suggested housing for an elevator. With five stories, that was a necessity. A ladder led to the second floor. She bypassed it. Her plan didn’t call for a broken neck. Plan? Did she even have one? She paused for a moment. The most logical place for Nick to stay concealed was on the ground floor behind the screens that sheathed the partially finished condos. She had to walk across the central area to gain access. She headed there.
• • •
Nick sat on an air mattress in the dark and watched and listened for the saboteur. The condos had risen fast, thanks to the overtime the guys put in. The cost to keep his crew on the job from early morning until dusk, including weekends, ate up profits. It was worth the expense, though. That compressed the timeframe for whomever was set out to ruin him. It compelled that person to make another move. So, just like he’d done for the past few weeks, Nick waited, primed to catch the son of a bitch.
That first night, when he’d hunkered down in this ground floor unit, there was nothing between his butt and the bare wood floor but the seat of his pants. Intent to begin surveillance, he hadn’t taken the time to plan ahead. He figured he’d give himself away if he moved around, so he’d stayed in one position too long. His joints had become stiff and his muscles knotted from the cold. The following morning, he’d hit a store that specialized in equipment designed for camping and extreme outdoor adventures. It didn’t matter that he had a ceiling and wall board for shelter. He considered his adventure extreme enough. Blasts of cold air whistled through openings, and his perch in the urban wilderness was about as isolated as any in the real world.
He’d purchased an air mattress, a small battery-run heater, and a super economy-sized thermos. They made the next few nights more bearable. He’d also eyed a down-filled jacket but passed on it. Bulky clothing would impede his ability to wrestle down the creep if he ever went mano-a-mano with some burly thug. He’d settled for a down-filled vest that he could shrug off in seconds.
He leaned against a back wall and uncorked the thermos. The aroma from the blackest, strongest coffee available at the nearest all-night bodega diminished the smell of raw wood and night mists. He poured a cup, took a deep swallow, and waited for the first jolt to hit him. Half a thermos of the stuff usually kept him wired for hours. The only chance to catch any sleep was when the sun rose and the neighborhood started to hum with life. After an uneventful night, he’d drag the air mattress into his trailer and crash until his foreman banged on the door and another day began. He’d considered hiring another security guard, but faced with the possibility of serious bodily harm — to the guard, not a determined saboteur — he’d chucked it. Since the danger had escalated, he believed only he should deal with it.
He became a night creature, which made him acutely sensitive to sound: footfalls, the close of a car door, the flap of a bird’s wing, the whir of the wind. Once, when he’d heard action out by the security fence, he’d crept to where he had a better view of the sidewalk. It was a man walking his dog. When the animal had raised its leg, it had made contact with the fence. A month ago, he’d never have heard such an indistinct sound. Now his hearing was acute.
Boredom set in as he sat and waited. He no longer tried to read in the miniscule light thrown off by the heating coils. Most nights he had only his thoughts for company. The fate of his project was uppermost in his mind but ran neck and neck with Molly.
He shifted on the air mattress so the blood circulated in his butt. To sit for long periods made him restless. Thoughts bounced inside his head. He poured another cup of coffee. One sip and he put it aside. He was already too wired. He got up and paced off five steps, turned, and repeated it. If he calculated correctly, in less than a month the initial units should be ready for occupancy. He’d already earmarked one ground floor loft — the one in which he squatted — as the furnished model. His goal loomed within reach. At least, he hoped it did.
He was about to sink down on the air mattress when he heard a faint sound. Quickly, he turned off the heater and moved close to the side wall. If anyone came through the adjacent doorway, he’d let him get a few feet inside, then step in behind and block the exit. Surprise was paramount, along with a quick one-two punch to the jaw. He shrugged off his vest and kicked it aside.
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