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Under Cover Of Darkness
By Elizabeth White
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Elizabeth White
All right reserved.
Fort Worth, Texas
"Oh no, not again!" groaned Meg St. John. She dropped her forehead onto the steering wheel of her company truck.
"Please tell me this is a heat mirage."
She was alone in the truck, but as a little girl she'd developed the habit of talking out loud to Jesus. She'd never seen any reason to abandon it. Meg lifted her head and looked again, letting the air-conditioning blast her in the face. It might be ninety degrees in the shade today, but she definitely wasn't seeing things. Or not seeing things, as the case may be.
"Lord, this is not funny," she muttered, rubbing her temple. Then she sighed. "Well, maybe it is."
Just over an hour ago she had left an eight-man crew preparing the new Fort Worth Savings and Loan site for planting. All but three of them had disappeared, leaving rakes abandoned midswipe and shovels stuck here and there like old grave markers.
Appropriate, she thought, for the direction my career just took.
Crew leader Manny Herrera stood on the front sidewalk, shoulders hunched and hands deep in his olive-drab uniform pants. His younger brother Tomás and their uncle Diego hunkered down in the meager shade of the little Bobcat dirt-mover that was parked, engine still running, near the drive-through. The Herrera family, loyal to the end.
With a deep breath for fortitude, Meg hopped out of the truck. As a licensed landscape architect, she was the official crew chief responsible for interpreting the design blueprints. Manny, however, was vital, because he oversaw most of the practical aspects of the job and served as translator for the Spanish-speaking crew.
"Manny!" She got his attention by waving her cap. "How many got caught?"
She didn't have to ask what had happened. The last time border patrol came by, five members of her crew had been bused back to Mexico. The job had been pushed several days behind while a new crew was hired and trained.
"Two." Manny gave one of the shrugs that accompanied almost every sentence out of his mouth. "Cruz and Rivera ran away when they saw the truck coming. Vega had good papers, but he left anyway. Said he'd be back Monday." Manny removed his black plastic sunglasses, revealing the anxiety on his thin, scarred face. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I tried to stop them."
"Good grief, it's not your fault." Though it wasn't her fault, either, she still felt responsible. Meg looked in despair at the six-foot trailer still loaded with crape myrtles, dwarf nandinas and begonias. Somehow she had to pull things together and finish the task. "The main problem is," she said, "the savings and loan is supposed to open on Monday."
Manny's expression tightened even more. "You better call the office and ask for help."
Meg gulped. If Kenneth Warner got wind of this, he'd find some way to blame it on her. "No, let's just install what we can by five o'clock. Maybe I can come back tomorrow and finish it myself." Her day off would be blown to pieces, and salaried employees weren't paid for overtime. But less than her best was out of the question.
According to some cultural custom she didn't understand, the Mexican men rarely met her eyes. But now, Manny's dark gaze lifted and held hers for a long moment. Meg saw that he understood exactly what she was afraid of. She felt an odd kinship with this quiet, sad-eyed man.
"Okay, ma'am," he said, "we'll do what we can." He turned and beckoned the other two men. "Tomás. Tío. ¡Ven!"
The four of them settled into a frantic teamwork that Meg would have enjoyed if she hadn't been aware of the sun moving over relentlessly, notch by notch, in the hard-baked blue sky.
Shortly after noon, she and Tomás were crouched in the center of a curved bed on the north side of the brick building. Meg's stomach had been rumbling for quite some time. Her bowl of Lucky Charms had been scarfed down at dawn while she stood on the porch waiting for Gilligan the Wonder Dog to sniff around the yard. She'd brought an apple with her, but had given it to Tomás. Yesterday he'd fainted, claiming it was the heat, but Meg suspected he couldn't afford more than one meal a day. She was going to have to call a break soon, before they all passed out from dehydration.
For nearly an hour she had been marking shrub spacing, Tomás following with the plants. They worked in quiet companionship, making steady progress, with little need for conversation. A bluegrass CD blasted from a boom box on the porch rail. Tomás had initially wrinkled his nose at Meg's choice of music, but during the last few minutes his bony shoulders had been rhythmically moving.
"Tomás, do you play an instrument?" She glanced at him and saw his dark eyes widen. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a red BMW sedan gliding up beside her truck.
"Okay, I see absolutely no humor here." She sat right down in the dirt, looking up.
"¿Señorita?" inquired Tomás. "¿Está usted bien?"
Was she all right? No. In that car was the one person who consistently made her life miserable.
Realizing the boy felt her anxiety, Meg took a stab at a smile and touched his shoulder. "Sure I am. Sí." Stomach flipping, she got to her feet.
After her junior year of college, Meg had spent the summer in her hometown. Sunset Landscaping, owned by cattle baron, artist and entrepreneur Theodore "Ted" Crowley, had offered her a much-coveted internship. Discovering that she actually enjoyed the practice of what she'd been studying, Meg pushed herself hard and graduated at the top of her class with a master's degree in landscape architecture. To nobody's surprise, her old employer recruited her to come back, and Meg accepted the job with delight.
Then reality hit. The company's new financial officer took one look at Meg and decreed that she was too inexperienced — and too female, Meg secretly suspected — for a management position. He'd convinced Mr. Crowley that she needed another year of in-the-field "seasoning" before moving into the design office.
Hurt and confused, Meg had considered looking elsewhere for a job. But after a week of prayer and fasting, she regrouped, took her career delay in stride, and began to learn the landscaping business, quite literally, from the ground up.
The year would be up next Friday.
Unfortunately, Kenneth Warner could extend her probation for as long as he chose.
Meg yanked off her gloves and wiped her sweaty hands on the seat of her pants. She knew she had to show at least outward respect for this wretched man.
Scowling, Warner stepped out of the BMW and picked his way up the sidewalk, which was still littered with flats of monkey grass. In spite of the heat, he wore a red silk tie Windsor-knotted at the throat of a crisp blue-striped Oxford. His dark-blond hair was carefully combed back to disguise its thinness. He was a smart, handsome man, and had a knack for dropping into conversations the fact that he'd put himself through college by modeling for Neiman's.
Excerpted from Under Cover Of Darkness by Elizabeth White Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth White. Excerpted by permission.
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