“The housing crisis in Portland is next up after these ads, so don’t go anywhere, folks. We’ve got real estate experts here to talk all things financing, interest rates, and market availability.”
Grunting, I reached for the radio dial and turned the volume down to zero. “All anyone wants to do is talk,” I grumbled, coming to a stop at a red light and glancing to my left.
A row of three-story townhomes stood proudly on the side of the road, their porch lights illuminating robin egg blue front doors. My company, or rather my employer’s company, had built them three summers ago when people were still rapidly buying up starter homes for their young families. Those buyers had been the lucky ones. Now nothing was available on the market unless you were willing to pay, and to pay handsomely.
The light turned green and I followed traffic to my turnoff, where paved road gave way to gravel, which gave way to dirt. My truck rumbled over uneven terrain as I drove deeper onto the property of our current construction site and came to a stop next to all the other guys’ trucks. Toolboxes spilled out of diamond-plated tailgates and coffee thermoses sat on truck roofs or hoods as they all stood around talking, hardhats in hand, reflective vests draped over their shoulders.
I hopped out of my truck. My boots scuffed in the dirt and kicked up dust.
Garrett, one of the most experienced guys on site, saw me coming and nodded in my direction. “Morning, Nolan.”
“Boys.” I tipped my chin. “Is Bill around?”
All their heads turned toward the office trailer parked half a football field away, positioned right under one of the site lights to deter riffraff from trying to break in during the night.
“How’s he doing this morning?” I asked.
Garrett shook his head and his lips pressed into a thin, wary line. “Not so good, man. Not so good. We tried to tell him we could handle things today, but you know how the boss is.”
Did I ever.
Another one of our guys, Alan Kimber, who went by Kimber, rubbed the back of his neck and pushed off his truck. “Maybe you’ll have better luck than the rest of us.” He put his hardhat on over his unwashed greasy blond hair, shrugged into his vest, and waved for the others to join him. “Let’s get cracking, you lazy bastards. I want to be home in time for dinner. My girl’s cooking up a pot roast that I’m not going to miss out on. You hear?”
“Your girl taking applications for your replacement?” one of the guys joked. “Maybe someone who showers regularly and doesn’t have a fucked-up nose?”
Kimber laughed and honked his own nose. “She loves my busted nose. Broke it in a bar fight defending her honor. And you know what I get as a reward?”
The guys who trailed after Kimber all shrugged. One of them said something foul that earned him a swat upside the head from Kimber, the biggest man on site.
“Pot roast,” Kimber bellowed, “get your head out of the gutter, Johnson!”
Chuckling, I followed them a ways onto the site before breaking off toward the office trailer. It was a modest thing, about a decade old with company stickers plastered on the side and a new set of wooden steps that went up to the front door. I’d built them about six months ago after the old ones began rotting away from the rainy season and poor sealing. Climbing the steps, I paused to survey the site, doing a onceover of the equipment and my crew as they picked up their toolbelts and ducked into unit eight to begin framing for the day.
There’d been a lot of setbacks on the build, most of which were out of our control, but we finally had some momentum. Every single unit was already sold, which was unsurprising in this market, but it meant we had buyers, agents, and other contractors breathing down our necks about deadlines. Bill didn’t need all that extra pressure, so I was trying to step in and alleviate some of the stress where I could. The problem with an old fart like Bill who’d been doing things a certain way for the last forty-something years?
He was damn stubborn.
I shouldered open the office door and stepped inside. Only half of the fluorescent lights were on, which left the office looking rather dismal. The laminate floors were scuffed with dried mud and black stains from rubber-soled work boots. The walls, an off-putting green, looked darker than usual. It smelled like coffee and the old rec room at my community church—musky carpet and dust.
My boss’s desk was empty. His phone sat on top of his calendar, a scratched-up, well-used one full of different classic cars for every month. It was open to June, next month, and the glossy image was that of a 1967 Shelby Mustang.
Frowning, I called for my boss again. I was about to leave and look for him around the site when I heard a racking cough coming from the bathroom. Grimacing, I fell back a few paces as if to give the door wider berth. It didn’t matter. His cough, angry and violent, could not be escaped.
While he hacked up a lung, I went to the mini fridge behind his desk and rummaged around until I found a bottle of water on its side at the very back. I twisted the cap, broke the seal, and walked heavily to the door so he’d hear me coming. He tried to stifle his coughs, but it was no use. They had a firm hold of him.
I knocked. “Bill. Open the damn door. It’s Nolan. I’ve got water for you.”
The door opened, but only a few inches. A trembling hand reached out—not frail like one might expect from a cancer patient going through hell, but big, callused, and still strong—and tried to seize the water bottle.
“No,” I warned like I was talking to a toddler. “Open the door fully.”
Still hacking up a lung, Bill managed to curse me out as he opened the door. “What are you? My mother?”
I relinquished the water bottle and leaned on the door frame. “Someone has to be.”
He tipped his head back, took several big gulps, and crushed the bottle in his hand with a vicious crinkling sound.
“Rough morning?” I asked.
He came up for air and braced himself over the bathroom sink. “You could say that.”
“Anything I can do?”
He shook his head and took steadying breaths. “No, the water helped. Thanks, kid.”
He’d been calling me that since he first hired me when I was an eighteen-year-old rogue without a hope and a prayer of a decent future. He said he saw potential in me—a downright lie, I suspected—handed me a hammer and a bag of nails, and sent me off to work. He had no idea back then how badly I’d needed the distraction, discipline, and purpose. He’d saved me from a home life I truly believed I was condemned to, all because he put me to work. We still did that for kids in Portland, but these days there were more than we were able to put to work. It wasn’t like how it was just fifteen years ago.
Back then, things had been easier.
Back then, Bill had been healthy.
Bill grabbed a wad of toilet paper and dabbed at his mouth. If it came away bloody, he hid it from me. “Freddie Valen is coming in this morning.”
“Fuck me. What does that asshole want?”
“He said he wanted to talk business.”
I rolled my eyes. “Is that why you’re here then? To talk to Freddie? You could have let me handle it, Bill. You’ve only just come back and—”
Bill held up a hand. “I’m well aware of my situation, Nolan. I don’t need you to remind me. The office is better than the hospital for chemo. Believe me.”
Crossing my arms over my chest, I nodded. “Fair enough.”
Who was I to question him? He’d gone through hell this past year, and from where I was standing, he wasn’t halfway out of it.
A knock came at the office door.
Bill straightened and studied his reflection. “That must be him.”
“Let him wait.”
Bill brushed past me, shaking his head and hiding a smirk. I turned to face the door but stayed where I was, leaning against the corner of the bathroom door frame as Bill opened the door and revealed Freddie Valen standing outside in his posh suit and Aviator sunglasses.
“Billy!” Freddie clapped Bill hard on the shoulder before side-stepping him into the office and pulling his phone out of his pocket. He took his sunglasses off, hooked them in the front of his shirt, and stood in Bill’s way as he responded to something on his phone.
Bill looked past Freddie at me with a hopeless shrug and lopsided smile that said, can you believe this guy?
“Hey, Freddie,” I said.
Freddie looked up and spotted me for the first time. “Ah. Nolan. Should’ve known you’d be here.”
“You want to get out of Bill’s way?”
Freddie realized he was blocking my boss and the owner of the damn company from coming back into the office. He moved out of the way, muttered an apology, and shot me a dark look. Bill moved past him to his desk, where he sat down like a man much older than his mere fifty-five years.
Bill gestured at the chair across his desk. “Have a seat, Freddie. What is it you wanted to discuss?”
Freddie eyed me as he moved to the chair. “It’s somewhat sensitive, Billy. Perhaps we could talk in private?”
Bill maintained a polite, professional smile. “Don’t worry about Nolan. He’s privy to all the comings and goings of the company. Speak freely.”
Freddie sat and fidgeted with the sunglasses hanging from his collar. His phone continued to chime as notification after notification rolled in. “Well, it’s about all these delays, Billy. One after another, pushing deadlines back… it’s not a good look, and I don’t want my name tied up in it. You understand, don’t you?”
Bill nodded graciously.
Freddie sighed. “This brings me no pleasure to say, Billy, but I’m going to take over the electrical part of the job on site. I’ll set up shop on the property and oversee my guys. You can focus on other things. This is for the best.”
Bill stared blankly at Freddie, his pleasant smile all but gone.
I cleared my throat and pushed off the door frame. “That’s not how this is going to work, Valen.”
Freddie didn’t even bother turning around in his chair. “Mind your business, Nolan. The grownups are talking.”
“You’ll do what the owner tells you to do,” I managed through clenched teeth, coming to a stop beside Freddie’s chair, looming over him. I wanted to grab him by the front of his fancy suit and shake him. Roughly. Here he was, thinking he could take advantage of Bill because he was sick? A rat always saw a hole to wriggle through, and Freddie was definitely wriggling. “Is there anything else you wanted to talk to Bill about?” I stressed my boss’s name because he had never, ever gone by the name Billy that Freddie always insisted on calling him.
Freddie got to his feet and smoothed his suit jacket, as if he sensed me roughing it up and wrinkling it in my fantasy. “That’s all. For now.”
“Good,” Freddie retorted. He made himself thinner to slip between me and his chair before making his way to the door. He opened his mouth to say something to Bill but met my glare, thought better of it, and stepped out into the sunny morning.
“I hate that guy,” I muttered.
“Really?” Bill chuckled. “And here I thought you two were about to hug and arrange car pools.”
“I thought so, but—” He broke off abruptly as another coughing fit seized him. This one was so sharp, so wicked, that it doubled him over in his chair, and when he removed his hand from his mouth, there was no hiding the blood in his palm.
“Fucking hell, Bill,” I breathed, dropping to a knee beside my boss and grabbing his shoulder to steady him. “Catch your breath. Take it easy. I’m taking you to the hospital.”
Bill tried to shake his head.
“Save it,” I grated, patting my jean pockets to check my car keys were there. “You’re going. I’ll call Brooke as soon as we get there. Don’t worry.”