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Just Pretend by Banks, R.R. (1)

Colin

“Oh shit,” I mutter to myself.

I pull my car to a stop near the site and stare at the gathered crowd of protesters. It doesn't take me long to spot the ringleader – the one who always whips these degenerates up into a frenzy. With her raven-black hair, alabaster-colored skin, and seemingly boundless energy, she tends to stand out from the crowd – and piss me off.

Mason, the foreman on my project, opens the door of my BMW, his face taut with tension. He's clearly as annoyed as I am about the riff-raff cluttering up our construction site.

“They were here before we even showed up. Chained themselves to fences and the equipment,” Mason says, his voice as tight as his face. “We haven't been able to do shit.”

I grumble under my breath, feeling my irritation ratcheting up a few more notches. I'm really close to redlining already.

“Have you called the cops?” I ask, as I get out of my car.

Mason looks a little uncertain. “N – no, not yet,” he stammers. “I wasn't sure if you'd want me to.”

“Use your damn head, Mason,” I snap. “I put you in charge here for a reason – I thought you could handle it and deal with bullshit like this. Was I wrong to believe that?”

He shakes his head vigorously. “No, Mr. Anderson,” he says. “You're not wrong. I can do this –”

“Then go do it, damn it!” I roar. “Get someone out here to clear up this disturbance.”

Mason scurries off to do as I command. I don't like coming down on him like that, but he needs to understand that you need to be hard when it comes to dealing with these sort of people. You can't afford to show any weakness. Like the old saying goes, give them an inch, they take a mile.

Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of business or progress. Period.

Knowing I need to put an end to this mess, I stride over to the ringleader – Bonnie, or Betty, or something. She sees me coming and turns on her heels, walking toward me with a determined look on her face, and a gleam in her eye. One thing I can say about her is that she's tough, and not easily intimidated.

But, she’s also young. Naive. Idealistic. That sort of bright-eyed idealism and optimism would be cute, maybe even admirable, if it wasn't so goddamn annoying, and standing in the way of getting work done.

As she approaches me, boos and jeers rain down on me from the crowd behind her. They start chanting some ridiculous catchphrase about gentrification they think sounds snappy and intellectual.

“Mr. Anderson,” she says. “Lovely to see you again this morning.”

“Wish I could say the same, Betty,” I say, rolling the dice on getting her name right.

Her eyes narrow and a feral, dangerous smirk touches her lips. “It's Bailey,” she says. “My name is Bailey.”

“Right. Bailey,” I say, and take a sip of my coffee. “Sorry. My bad.”

“Has anybody ever told you that you're an arrogant, dismissive, condescending jerk?” she asks.

“Actually, yeah,” I reply. “I think it was the last time I saw you, in fact.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at me. “You can remember a specific insult, but not something as simple as someone’s name?”

I shrug. “Insults tend to stand out to me more,” I respond with a smirk. “Especially the more creative ones.”

Her grin is more amused than anything, but she tries to mask it behind an expression of righteous indignation. Bailey is a very pretty girl. Her midnight black hair – pulled back into a braid that reaches the middle of her back – seems to perfectly compliment her smooth, flawless, pale skin. There is a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and her big, doe eyes are as dark and fathomless as her hair. Her body is soft, feminine, with generous curves in her hips, and full, round breasts.

I give my head a small shake, trying to pull my thoughts out of her panties, and put it back on the issue at hand. And that issue, of course, is the fact that her people are blocking access to my site. I've got dozens of men sitting around, being paid for nothing, because these goddamn social justice warriors won't get the hell out of the way.

“So, what's the issue today, Bailey?” I say, stressing her name for some added emphasis.

“The same thing it is every time we picket one of your evil, profits-over-people work sites,” she says. “Your continued gentrification of this part of town is displacing a lot of people. Kicking them to the curb with nowhere to go, and no idea what to do.”

“While I sympathize –”

“Yeah, like hell you do,” she spits.

I roll my eyes and decide that I don't really need to be polite, or political with this woman any longer. Who in the hell is she? Or maybe more importantly, who in the hell does she think she is? She positions herself as the voice of the poor. A champion of the people. Yet, she’s full of youthful idealism and arrogance – the same arrogance she keeps accusing me of. The irony of it all is baffling.

“Ok. I don't sympathize. Honestly, I don't care. I'm just a guy trying to do a job,” I snap. “I've got enough shit of my own to deal with, and I don't have the time or inclination to worry about other people’s problems.”

She looks at me for a long moment. “Wow, what a true humanitarian you are.”

“My job isn't to be a humanitarian,” I growl. “My job is to build better communities.”

She points to the construction site behind her. “And how is this building a better community?” she asks. “You displaced at least thirty people. Honest, hard-working people who'd lived here for years and years. It's the only place they can afford, and you still come in and pull it right out from under them. You sent them packing without a single care about what happens to them.”

“Again, that’s not my job or my responsibility,” I say. “I'm running a business. Not a charity, and certainly not a homeless shelter.”

“How can you possibly be this cold and unfeeling?” she asks, the contempt plain on her face.

I shrug. “I guess it's just part of my charm.”

She snorts and shakes her head. “Unbelievable,” she says. “Just another greedy corporate pig.”

I chuckle. “If you say so.”

“You really are a son of a bitch,” she spits. “Gentrification of these working class neighborhoods –”

“You mean neighborhoods full of drugs, violence, and crime?”

She gives me a long, level look. “There are good people in these neighborhoods that you're so callously carving up,” she fires back. “You're driving them out.”

I sigh, my breath coming out in a plume of steam. I pull my coat tighter around me as a gust of cold wind buffets us. Bailey is only wearing a light sweater. Her cheeks are flushed, but other than that, she doesn't seem to be affected by the cold. It's probably her anger keeping her warm – righteous indignation can be a hell of a personal heater.

“I do admire your dedication to the cause,” I say. “I don't know of many people who are capable of getting a group of folks to chain themselves to construction equipment on a cold November morning in Boston. That's impressive. My hat's off to you on that, Bailey.”

“Some of us feel the need to take a stand against corporate pigs,” she sneers. “People before profits.”

“Your charisma is also undeniable,” I say. “Now, imagine what you could do if you channeled that energy and charisma into something important or useful.”

“Oh, so caring about people isn't important?” she asks, planting her hands on her hips, a serious look of disapproval on her face.

“I'll tell you what's not useful. And that's trying to block a deal that's already done,” I say. “You're not going to stop us from developing this land. The contracts have been signed, the permits approved, and we're ready to break ground. All you're doing is putting yourself and your people in harm's way.”

Her eyes narrow and her jaw clenches. “Are you threatening us?”

“I'm not doing anything of the sort. All I'm saying is that when you and your people do stupid shit like this, I'm forced to call the police to clear you out. And as I'm sure you know, when the police are involved, tensions sometimes escalate, and...”

I let my voice trail off, not needing to finish the statement. We've had clashes with Bailey's group before, and a couple of them have gone very sideways when the police show up. More than a few of her group – and a couple of my guys – have ended up in the hospital when tensions overflowed. Nothing serious. All of the injuries were minor, thank God. But, it's an unnecessary delay, and a headache more than anything.

“Some of us are more committed to the cause than others,” she says.

“The cause,” I say, a wry laugh escaping me. “And what exactly is the cause, Bailey?”

“Ensuring justice and equality for all people,” she replies, like it's the most obvious answer in the world.

“You know what you could, and probably should, be doing?”

She rolls her eyes. “I'm sure you're going to tell me whether I want to hear it or not, so go ahead.”

“You should be helping these people get jobs. Learn a skill. A trade,” I say. “You should teach them how to be self-sufficient, useful members of society, rather than lazy assholes sucking off the government’s teat.”

Her eyes grow so wide, I'm half-afraid they're going to pop right out of her head. She looks at me like I've suddenly sprouted four arms or a second head or something. The look of shock though, quickly disappears – and is replaced by a dark shadow that flickers across her face before morphing into an expression of barely controlled rage.

“You are such an elitist asshole,” she says, her voice low, and tight with anger. “You arrogant son of a bitch. How dare you generalize people like that. Do you even know that seventy-five percent of the people who live in this neighborhood are blue collar workers? Sixty-two percent have families they're working to support –”

“Oh, here we go,” I cut her off. “It's the statistics portion of our program.”

“Well, somebody clearly needs to educate you, Colin,” she hisses. “Because, you have some really screwed-up perceptions of the working poor.”

“Well, since we're going to educate one another,” I say. “Let me lay a little knowledge on you. Last year, in this neighborhood, seventeen people were shot and killed. Two more were stabbed to death. There were three hundred and forty-three drug arrests on this street alone. So, tell me again, that this neighborhood isn't a cesspool, and that the people of Boston have no right to demand it be cleaned up.”

I'd read that somewhere, and it stuck with me – but I honestly can't remember if they were talking about this exact neighborhood. I'm just hoping Miss Sparkly Rainbows and Sunshine over here, is too busy living in her self-righteous fantasy world to actually look up the crime statistics.

The bottom line is that I have a client who purchased this land and wants to construct luxury condominiums. He's wealthy and connected, and he has big plans to develop the entire surrounding area, making it not just safer, but more profitable as well. Which means that I need to have this project done on time, and under budget.

If I can do that, if I can impress the client, I'm in line to make an absolute killing. He has plans to take this area, and build it into a thriving center of nightlife and commerce in the city.

And I'm all on board with that.

“The point, Mr. Anderson –”

“Oh, we're back to Mr. Anderson? We were at Colin not that long ago. And here I thought we were making progress with our burgeoning friendship,” I say, clearly amused – she's not.

“The point is,” she says, her voice firm, “that you are putting profits over people. You are valuing your business more than human life. You're driving good, hard-working people out. You're treating them like the criminals and drug dealers you're complaining about. You're just lumping them all together and throwing them out in one swoop, just so you can make way for some rich hipster douchebags to come in and take over the neighborhood.”

“Well, to be fair, with this development, we're targeting the upper-middle class family,” I retort with a smug smirk. “The hipster douchebag demographic, we're trying to keep down the road about a mile or so.”

Bailey looks like she wants to punch me. And if she'd been standing on a ladder, or something that would put her up closer to nose height, I think she actually might have taken a swing. She's feisty. Fiery.

As we stand there having a stare-down, the sound of sirens in the distance fill the morning air. She looks back at her people, then at me.

“Yeah,” I say. “We had to call the cops again. But, you still have time to get your people unchained and out of here.”

“What kind of monster are you?”

“The kind with a job to do,” I say and gesture to the crowd behind her. “Unlike most of your friends, apparently.”

“You know, with your money and influence, you could be doing so much good – actual good – for this community,” she says. “Instead, you choose to tear it all down in the name of profit.”

“One of these days, you're going to have to grow up and learn how the world really works, Bailey,” I say. “I admire your passion. I really do. But, your anger is misplaced. I'm not the bad guy here. I'm just doing my job.”

The sound of glass shattering and the shrieking of metal draws my attention. I turn around to see a couple of the protesters taking a hammer and a shovel to my car. I cast one contemptuous glare at Bailey, who seems positively stricken.

“Son of a bitch!” I curse.

Without giving her a chance to respond, I stride over to the men thrashing my car. The first one sees me coming, and comes straight at me, swinging the shovel viciously. I sidestep it easily enough and drive my fist into his face. He's out cold before he crumples to the ground with a meaty thud.

By then the second guy is on me, delivering a hard shot to my kidneys from behind. I grunt as the air is driven from my lungs, and when I turn around to square up, he catches me with a shot to the jaw. It's a glancing blow, but it stings like hell.

The rage within me is at critical mass, and I'm dimly aware of the screaming and shouting going on around me from both the protesters, and my crew. I catch a glance of Bailey, who's staring wide-eyed at me, her hands up on her head, clutching and pulling at her dark hair, a look of absolute shock and dismay on her face.

The man wades in again and throws another punch. I'm ready for him this time though, and deflect the punch, driving my knee upward into his gut. The man lets out an “oomph” sound as he doubles over. He gasps and wheezes as he collapses on all fours.

He’s gasping for air. I manage to quell my rage and restrain myself from literally kicking him while he’s down. As the cops start to hassle the crowd, there are shrieks and jeers from the protesters, and cheers from my crew.

I turn and stare at my car, shaking my head in disbelief. The body is dented to hell, tires slashed, and most of the windows shattered. One of those assholes keyed the word, “pig,” on one side of the car in giant, crooked letters.

As the police move in and around, taking some of the protesters into custody, I stand there, staring at my car. It's an older model BMW –not a top of the line car in any way, shape or form. The vehicle itself can be easily replaced. That, I'm not at all worried about.

What isn’t replaceable is the sentimental attachment I have to this car. I doubt many would understand it, given the fact that I grew up pretty privileged, but this car is all mine. It's the very first thing I purchased, totally on my own, without a dime of my family's money. The money for it was earned through hard work and determination.

And now it's ruined. Destroyed. Just like that.

On the one hand, it's just a car. I realize that. On the other, it's a symbol to me. It's a reminder of the taxing labor and sacrifices needed to achieve my goals. People might scoff at the notion, given my background, but that car keeps me grounded. Perhaps, even humble. I know people like Bailey would dispute the notion that I have any humility to me.

Whatever. They don't know me. She doesn't know me or what I've been through. Fuck that and their judgment.

“I am so sorry,” she says softly from behind.

I turn and face Bailey, my face burning with anger. Tears well in her eyes, and she looks genuinely stunned. I can't blame her for the actions of those two assholes – but, it never would have happened, had she not brought them down here. Had she not worked up the crowd with her anti-corporation rhetoric.

“These are the good, decent people of the neighborhood, huh?” I spit.

“You can't blame everyone –”

“You're right,” I say. “I can't blame everyone. So, I'm blaming you. I'm holding you personally responsible for this. For all of this shit.”

A large, burly cop comes over and puts his hand on Bailey's arm. Fear flashes across her face as she looks at me. I just stare back at her, my expression hard, too consumed by anger to feel anything else. Maybe spending a day in jail will give her some time to reflect on the reality of this world. Maybe, it'll take her down a couple of notches and give her a much-needed lesson in humility.

I'm betting not though. I'm betting this will only stoke her fires even more. She'll most likely see it as a form of persecution. Just another way the rich and powerful are crushing the little guy. Stifling them.

“Come with me, ma'am,” the cop says.

Bailey looks at me like she's hoping I'll interject on her behalf. Say something that will get her off the hook. That's a train that's never coming. My fury towards her and her group made sure of that. I simply stare at her, making sure to hold her gaze, as the cop hauls her away.

She organized this fiasco – it's only right she pay up when the tab comes due.

After she's loaded into the back of a squad car, I slip my phone out of my pocket and make some calls. I need to have my car taken somewhere until I decide what to do with it, and I'm going to need a replacement vehicle brought to me.

With those tasks done, I glance at my watch, and see that it's just past nine. Great. It’s not even close to lunchtime, and my entire day has already gone to shit.

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