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The Short Straw
Mari Tucker perched on her truck's tailgate, watched her boss pick up his clipboard, and prayed.
Any crew but Wyatt's crew.
She'd volunteer for the concrete pouring team with their lecherous inspector, or the choking dust of checking in front of the bulldozer, or even monitoring the yard where they kept all the dirty porta potties. Anything.
Any foreman but Wyatt.
Mari turned up the camp stove sitting next to her so the water would boil faster. Maybe a little fresh coffee would keep her on her boss's good side. It had worked so far-she'd been on this job for weeks, passed out more free coffee than she could afford, and had somehow avoided coming face-to-face with the infamous Jack Wyatt.
"Let's stick Rajni on the porta potty yard," Marcus decided, and marked it on his clipboard. Snickers came from the other biologists all standing in a loose circle, chatting while they waited for their assignments. It always tugged like a stitch in her stomach to watch them, so she parked her old Toyota just a little away from the main group.
She shivered in the predawn bite of the air and edged closer to the warmth of her stove, where the pot was starting to steam. All the chitchat during the morning meeting may not have been her scene, but her extra-large coffeepot was always popular.
In the next truck over, Rajni had been tightening bolts that had rattled loose on her truck's solar panel, but she stopped long enough to flip their boss a middle finger.
"Wyatt last week and now keeping critters out of the shitters? Love you, too, Marcus."
"I live to please." He laughed. "Lisa, you're with Junior's tower assembly group. Hotaka, you scored the concrete pouring crew because they get male bios only until their inspector learns to behave."
With every assignment given, Mari's shoulders cranked a little tighter. She glanced over at the construction yard, its floodlights blaring brighter than the sun that had just started to come up. Men bustled inside the chain-link fence, the reflective stripes on their safety vests flashing. The biologists always parked just outside the yard, like party guests nobody would let near the chips and salsa.
"Mari . . ." Marcus paused, tap-tap-tapping his pen, and gave her a pained look.
Nausea kicked up into her throat, and her fingers froze on the knobs of the stove. He hadn't said it. Maybe he could still mean she was on bulldozers.
"I had one more guy who was up for a rotation," Marcus explained, "but Wyatt said, and I quote, 'If you send that sunshiny mother-effer back here, he's going to end up stuck where the sun don't shine.'" A dry smile lifted her boss's beard. "End quote."
"How's the whole HR mess with those two?" Rajni asked, popping her wrench back into her bulky toolbox.
"They're still on company-mandated five hundred meters' distance from each other until the suits determine whether locking somebody in the back of a truck in the desert is assault, or if can be ruled accidental."
"It was 102 that day!" Lisa glared from the tailgate of her purple Toyota. "It could have been murder."
"Wyatt did say he left the windows cracked."
"We should change out the rotation criteria," Rajni put in. "Instead of one week at a time, it should be three strikes, you're out-if he makes you cry three times, you get to skip your next turn."
"Which would disqualify pretty much everyone," Marcus said. "Nice try."
Mari turned away so she could tuck in the end of the sheet on the bed inside her truck camper shell, and hoped everyone's attention would turn to something else. It wasn't like she couldn't endure a guy with a temper. Whatever he pulled, she'd seen worse. But these days, she'd rather just . . . not.
She didn't want much-just the chance to pull on her sun-faded safety vest and disappear into the sea of other sun-faded safety vests. Some of the biologists got bored being on the sidelines, but she sort of liked dogging the edges of the construction site while they built their power lines. It felt like playing patron saint to desert creatures, only dashing in to scoop vulnerable animals out of the way of the bulldozers and hungry truck tires.
For an instant, the memory of the little yellow cottage flashed into her mind, with buttery light pouring from the windows and its small porch beckoning. She shoved it away. This job, this life, was a blessing, and she wasn't greedy enough to ask for more. Not even this week, when she'd just drawn the stubbiest of short straws.
"I'll make it up to you," Marcus promised.
She nodded and gave him a quick, reassuring smile. She'd keep it polite and professional, and as soon as she could, she'd fade back into the desert. For the sake of the rare animals they protected, she could force herself not to back down. Not even from the temper of the infamous Wyatt. Her fingers tightened on the edge of the dusty tailgate.
"And if he gets to be too much, call it in," Marcus said. "I'll juggle some things and staff it myself if I have to."
"Oh, and have his crew break up another fistfight between the two of you?" Lisa gave him a pointed look. "Last time, you barely made it to eight a.m."
Marcus glanced down. "I shouldn't have tried to punch him. It was unprofessional."
"Jack Wyatt ought to be fired," Lisa grumbled. "He has a blatant disregard for the Endangered Species Act, and who gets away with treating other people that way?"
"The foreman who builds towers twice as fast as anyone else," Marcus said. "That's who. They're so over budget and behind schedule that Wyatt is the only thing saving their balance sheet from going pure red. Until he starts hitting crew members instead of just yelling at them, or kills an endangered species, he's staying."
"Which won't be long, considering he ignores half our rules," Lisa muttered.
"Coffee, anyone?" Mari called. She didn't want the debate to drag on any longer and make her look like she was trying to dodge her turn. Her coworkers crowded in and she hopped off the tailgate so they could get to the coffeepot, taking a few steps away and stuffing her hands in her pockets. The spring sun was already burning off the morning's chill, its heat ferocious even in the first moments of dawn.
Behind her was the busy construction yard full of yellow-painted heavy equipment and construction workers. But looking this way, the Mojave Desert rippled out around her in miles of empty, beautiful safety. Joshua trees waited in patient, spiky silhouettes, and creosotes stretched toward the sky, their simple leaves lacy in the low morning light.
Mari pulled her hair over her shoulder, smoothing it and beginning a braid. She needed to chop off the last few inches. They were all dead ends and two-year-old dye in a brown so cheap that it had never really matched her natural color. She preferred the naked streaks of gray. At least they were honest, and they weren't trying to please anyone.
At the thought, her fingers twitched, then slowed their braiding. After Mari's mom had remarried, she had always curled Mari's hair on the weekends. Dolling her up in her best dresses like a good little girl who wouldn't upset her stepdad. It never really worked. Her mom's personality was soothing, as creamy as her unmarked skin. Whereas Mari always set him off, and by Mondays she was usually smudged with the angry red and bruised purple marks of her failure. Still, his backhands never hurt for as long as the tiny burns from when she squirmed in her seat and brushed her mom's relentless curling iron.
She abandoned the half-done braid and stuffed it into a careless ponytail instead, irritated to catch herself guided by the echo of her mother's desperate placating tactics from a lifetime ago.
"Ready for some good news?" At the sound of Marcus's voice, she turned around, and he gave her a hopeful smile. "Payday." He handed over her check, and her pulse jumped at the bold type across the top line.
"Thanks." She quickly folded it in half. Seeing her real name on anything always gave her a jolt. She used a fake name for hotels to make it harder to track her down, but she didn't dare lie on legal documents that would be linked to her tax return. Still, she figured as long as the only address her real name led to was her truck and a PO Box, nothing could be traced back to her. He couldn't find her.
She must not have hidden her disquiet very well, though, because Marcus looked worried enough to attempt an awkward shoulder pat. "You only have to stick it out with Wyatt for a week," he said. "Just a week."
Jack Wyatt roared off the dirt road and onto the construction site and jammed the work truck to a dust-billowing stop. He was already in a foul mood and twenty-two minutes late, because his Cheetos-for-brains crew couldn't remember their tools from the construction yard. He needed to pack their trucks for them like a bunch of babies' diaper bags if he wanted to get to work on time.
He grabbed a metal clipboard out of the back seat, scrawled his name on the top of it, and then chucked it onto his hood with a clatter as the other crew truck crept up to park next to his.
"Sign the damn safety form," he growled. "If you're too stupid to keep yourself alive, you don't deserve to be."
That was the only safety speech his men were going to get, and he was flat serious about it. He'd seen foremen talk about every little bitty thing that could go wrong, repeating it every morning, and he'd still seen linemen plunge to their deaths off the metal lattice towers they were erecting. There wasn't anything that could keep a man from falling but his own hands and his own brains.
Talking wouldn't do crap.
He spat in the dirt, a sourness clinging to his tongue that came from more than the rapidly cooling coffee in his travel mug. A guy like him was better off alone, so it was too bad he couldn't just build towers by himself. It'd be safer, not to mention quieter. He'd never played well with other people. He'd only ever cared for two people in all his life, and one was an asshole, and the other got himself killed.
His thoughts were interrupted when he spotted something in the scene that didn't match: a slender figure picking her way around the edges of the bulldozed dirt of the tower site. She walked lightly, as if there was hardly any weight to her steps, her wisp of a safety vest lifted by the curve of small breasts.
He blinked and looked away, not wanting to gawk at her like his shitbag brother always did to women. But once he did, he spotted a parked truck that he hadn't noticed before. It was tiny compared to their work rigs, one of those foreign-made trucks with the bed of it closed in with a metal camper shell. He'd heard the desert biologists lived in them, eating and sleeping and everything in a little truck bed.
He didn't really believe it.
In the Mojave Desert, 117 degrees in the shade, where metal got hot enough to burn straight through his thick leather gloves? Nobody was stupid enough or tough enough to live in a pickup truck.
Low murmurs caught his ears, and he squinted back to find his crew done signing the safety sheet and just standing around, smirking as their eyes bounced between him and the approaching woman. Women rarely showed up on construction sites, but on this job, they had a lot of female biological monitors, so it wasn't that goddamn remarkable to see one. Even if there was something about the way this one moved that made him want to stare.
"Haven't you ever seen a biologist before?" he said, furious that they were all gawking at her. "Why don't you grab an impact wrench and act like you can do an honest day's labor around here?"
"Just wanted to watch you meet the new bio, boss." Kipp snickered from under his enormous waxed mustache.
Jack sent a furious look toward Kipp, who jumped into motion, yanking his tool belt on so fast he nearly buckled it to the belt on his pants.
Jack took off his hard hat and shoved his shaggy hair back, planting the helmet back on. "Infested with tree huggers," he muttered. "In a land with no fucking trees."
He strode forward, wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. Twenty-eight minutes late getting started now, and if they didn't get this next section bolted into place by quitting time, no way was his boss approving overtime. Which would mean his men would have to work for free to get it finished. It wasn't like they could just leave a giant tower half-screwed together like a forgotten Lego set on the living room floor.
"Um, hi," the woman said. "I'm Mari." Her quick, polite smile faded so fast he wasn't totally sure it had ever been there. "I'll be your biological monitor this week. I just need to check in with you about one or two things we have to do to keep our native endangered species safe while you work."
Safe. Jack snorted. If only this company spent half as much on its own men as it spent protecting mythical animals nobody ever saw. His safety ropes were frayed, harnesses faded and brittle, the work trucks' tires so bald and cracked they flew apart on the freeway a couple of times a year.
The corners of her mouth twitched down at his derisive sound, and he tensed, waiting for the holier-than-thou speech all these bios seemed to have at the ready.
"It's just a power line," she offered instead, her soft voice wavering a little. "Nothing should have to die for it."
The sound of cracking bone rang through his memory. Vernon had died for it. Not this power line, but another. Jack ran a hand over his face to cover the twitch his shoulders gave in response. "I ain't hurting any animals."
It was plain old desert, all cactuses and squat, ugly bushes. Wasn't like there were herds of white rhinos parading around. He'd been out here for months. You'd see a lizard, sometimes a bird, that was it. It wasn't like he was holding them down and running screws through their feathery little wings.