Changing Direction: Story Cubes Challenge Week 1 response

Prompts: Lightbulb, Halloween/ghosts/ghoulies, skyscraper/office building, sleeping/alarm clock ringing, turning, rocket crashing in space, sunrise/sunset, sheriff’s badge/star, bowl of steaming something

Changing Direction

May 2008

Ellie stood at the entrance to the site and looked up at the girders rising high above the ground, the sunrise painting the steel in pinks and purples. Except the places where red and black spray paint marred the office building’s skeleton. She turned to look at the Fairfax County sheriff’s deputy.

“It looks like a Halloween prank a few days early,” she said, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her lightweight jacket. “You’re sure it’s gang-related?” She tried to remember the deputy’s name. Bettencourt, she thought. “Sgt. Bettencourt, isn’t this a little far out in the county for gangs?”

Bettencourt shrugged. “We’ve been seeing it more and more on the eastern side of the county, spilling over from DC.” He paused as the radio on his shoulder crackled. “They’ve even had a rise in gang activity in the Shenandoah Valley the past few years,” he added. “It’s not just the cities any more.”

“Why here, though?” Ellie scanned the development, sandwiched between two townhouse complexes, located off a main road in the fast-growing county. “I expect irate neighbors, not gangs.”

“If Fairfax County was a city, it would be one of the 25 largest in the country,” Bettencourt said. “All sorts of outsiders coming in these days.” His sneer made Ellie conscious of her own accent, the Boston flavor a far cry from the softer syllables commonly heard among native Virginians.

“Can the crews clean up the damage?” She looked over at Bettencourt, who had a good five inches on her, despite the modest heels that took her within an inch of six feet.

He nodded. “We took some photos after we got out here, got a few more from the neighbors who called it in.” The sergeant tipped his head to the southwest. “They have a strong Neighborhood Watch program over there. You might just have been a handy, unguarded target.”

Ellie stepped back so she wasn’t so conscious of looking up at the man. “But you don’t think so.”

“I think a lot of folks out here were pretty angry about this project of yours,” he said.

Ellie nodded. “Thank you, Sergeant.” She pivoted on one heel and headed for her car. Once inside her small Toyota, she let her shoulders slump with the fatigue she knew would now dog her all day. Her alarm clock wasn’t set to go off until a full two hours after her phone had rung this morning, and those were two hours of sleep she desperately needed. But this incident had sent her morning plans askew. Now instead of the oatmeal she’d planned to make this morning, she would have to grab something on the way to her morning meeting in Alexandria. She should cancel the meeting, she really should. She didn’t need to take on the project. Her company already had more than enough to keep everybody working at full capacity and then some. But old habits died hard. If she could get the work, she wanted to have it, to bank that money. It was prudent, that was all. Sooner or later, everything would crash to earth when all the easy money stopped flowing, and she was too much her father’s daughter not to be prepared for the worst. The phrase made her wince even as she thought it.

Ellie turned the key in the ignition and flicked on her headlights, piloting the car out back onto Fairfax County Parkway. She would worry about the gang graffiti later, after she had some coffee. The idea that a man who wasn’t biologically related to her could have as big an influence on how she lived her life was something she wasn’t going to worry about. She’d been pushing that particular thought aside since shortly after she’d found out she was adopted. It had waited 16 years. It could wait some more. Gangs targeting her latest development were a much more pressing issue.

By the time she’d found a parking place in Old Town Alexandria, she’d evaluated and discarded several possibilities. She made a mental note to research the rise in gang activity in the region when she finally made it back to her office. For now, time to see if this landowner’s idea was worth tackling.

Her stomach grumbled as she locked the car. Ellie hoped this was a short meeting.

It wasn’t. Interesting, almost enough so for her to ignore the hunger gnawing at her stomach, but not shot. Ellie finally made it back to her office by lunchtime, a carton of Thai takeout in hand.

“Hold my calls, Derek,” she told her assistant.

Firmly sequestered in her office, Ellie kicked off her heels and flexed her feet, working them back and forth until she could feel her Achilles tendons begin to loosen. She pulled two tennis balls from her desk drawer and dropped them to the floor, rolling one foot across each until the firm massage eased the ache in her feet from yesterday’s 14-mile run.

Ellie opened the container of pad Thai and dug in, pausing only to drain first one water bottle from the small refrigerator in her office, then a second in short order. Once her stomach stopped feeling like it was hollow, she cracked her neck and let her thoughts drift back to her morning meeting. Both meetings, she corrected herself.

The scheduled one had been interesting — a redevelopment project rather than building new. Usually those were tackled by firms who specialized in that type of work, but for some reason, the owner of this block of rowhouses had asked for her.

Ellie couldn’t deny she was fascinated by the project. She’d supervised most of the work on the house she and Will shared near Catholic University, and it had been a lot of fun seeing the old house return to its previous glory. But it had been difficult because all of her contacts were companies that did bigger jobs and did new, standardized installations rather than the custom rehabilitation the project required. This would be much of the same. Nobody in her firm really had the right skill set, though. Ellie even doubted her own ability to pull this off.

She forced herself to set that doubt aside for the moment. But that only led her thoughts back to the way her morning had started. She logged into her desktop and started searching for news of gang activity in the region. As she read, she noted the similarity between the images she saw and the tagging done on the Fairfax project. Sighing, she made a note to contact the company’s lawyer. Maybe she should take the rehabilitation project. At least that wasn’t likely to be a gang target, unless the property owner knew something he hadn’t mentioned this morning.