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Beard Science(10)

By:Penny Reid

Any day now.

Any. Day.

I glanced at him, saw his eyes were squinted as he read the totals. He read them again, then flinched back, his mouth agape. I smiled because I’d never seen Drew gape before.

“Catching flies, Drew?”

He snapped his mouth shut, swallowed, and then pointed at the screen. “What happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what did you do? How’d you do that? That’s got to be a return of, what, ten times the original investment?”

“Just about.” I steepled my fingers and leaned back in the swivel chair. “You know I’ve been dabbling in futures and forecasting for years. You can’t expect this kind of return often, and the original figure was just enough to piggyback on a hedge fund I follow.”

Some might consider my venture strategy risky. It wasn’t. I don’t take risks. The market had made atypical gains over the last ten months, just as I’d forecasted. We were due for a slowdown.

I pointed to the new accounts and the calculated forecast for the next four quarters. “But—see here—I transferred everything to a money market today and for the foreseeable future. Best to hold steady at three percent than take a gamble.”

Drew glared at the screen, clearly having difficulty accepting the figures, then moved his eyes to me. “Does anyone else know about this?”

“Just Jethro. But you know how he is about money.”

“Yeah, I know. It doesn’t interest him much.” Drew scratched his beard. “You’re going to arrange things so none of your siblings will have to work. You’ll be a family of means and leisure.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I think we’d turn bad if we didn’t exercise or exorcise our demons with gainful endeavors.”

Drew’s eyes, which were silver in color, flicked over me. I was being assessed.

Apropos of nothing, he said, “Talk to me about the shop.”

“What about it?”

“Well, with these numbers, I guess I have a few questions about when you plan to buy me out.”

Drew had fronted the original capital for the Winston Brothers Auto Shop, so Duane, Beau, and I could open our own business. He’d astonished me at the time; his leap of faith had been the first time anyone other than our momma had believed in us boys. Drew had since earned my utmost respect and admiration, and was the only man alive worthy of my sister.

So his question surprised me. “You want me to buy you out?”

“Not at all, it’s been a good investment in more ways than one, supporting y’all. But you don’t need the capital anymore. You could close up at thirty with this kind of inheritance coming your way, open that dulcimer and pie shop you’re always talking about.”

I considered this, because I’d always wanted to open a dulcimer and pie shop, but then rejected it. “No. I don’t have anyone to bake the pies. You know I bake crap pies. My strength is sausage and Italian food, as I’m the savory sort. Besides, what would Beau do without me to oversee things? No. Shop stays open.”

“Really?” he pressed, his eyes still assessing, “even with Duane leaving?”

“Yeah. This is what we do. We fix things. We’re tinker-ers. If we didn’t tinker with cars, we’d tinker with people.”

Drew flashed a rare grin. “You already tinker with people, Cletus.”

“You are correct,” I sat straighter in my seat, ready to defend myself, “but only my family. And y’all deserve my tinkering.”

“Don’t get me wrong. You’re good at tinkering. Aside from those revenge plots, people are lucky to have you interfering in their lives.”

I narrowed my eyes on Drew. “Speaking of which, when are you going to ask Ash to marry you? What are y’all waiting for?”

His grin grew wider and he chuckled. “You’ve been asking me that since we became official.”

“That’s right.” I nodded once, leaning back in the chair and peering over my steepled fingers again. “Just what are your intentions toward my sister?”

His smile grew softer, and his eyes lost focus over my shoulder. He was quiet for several seconds, then said, “You’ll know one day, Cletus. You’ll discover what it’s like to find the other part of yourself. You’ll know it’s her, only her, always her. Maybe not right away, but eventually you’ll know. She’ll be your beginning, middle, and end. And your intentions won’t matter. Love brings its own intentions, and all other plans, hopes, and dreams fade to insignificance in the face of love.”

Friday night was my favorite night of the week.

Every Friday evening in Green Valley musicians far and wide assembled. We jammed together at the community center, an old rehabilitated school converted into a general purpose meeting space. I always participated by playing either the banjo, guitar, fiddle, violin, or dulcimer.

I’ve never tried playing a bass or cello, but I’m confident I could if I practiced.

Of the instruments, I prefer the banjo. It’s the most obnoxious of the strings, and can only be played tolerably by a person who’s set his or her mind to tame it. I derived a certain satisfaction in taming wild things or bending them to my will. Instruments, forests, people . . .

Which brings me to why the jam session was my favorite night of the week. I held court at the community center every Friday night. Townsfolk from all over would come to hear the musicians play—a different variation of bluegrass in each of the converted classrooms—while settling business and swapping gossip.

I got more accomplished in a half hour at the Friday night jam session than I did during the whole of the week prior.

“Officer Evans, Officer Dale, just the men I’ve been looking for.” I tipped my head in deference at the two sheriff deputies and sat across from them, shaking each of their outstretched hands in turn. I’d found them in the cafeteria, both with giant piles of coleslaw on their plates. My brother Duane would’ve been irritated as the coleslaw was his favorite. “I hope you boys have been enjoying my sausage.”

Officer Evans nodded, swallowing a bite of the coveted coleslaw. “Yes, sir. That’s some quality meat, Cletus. Do you really go boar hunting with Indians in Texas? And use spears?”

“No, not with Indians. I go with Native Americans,” I corrected. I don’t mind the use of labels, so long as they’re properly applied.

I’d confused Evans with my statement. He blinked and appeared to be deep in thought.

Before he’d recovered, I got to the crux of the reason I’d approached them this evening; lowering my voice, I asked, “How’s our mutual friend doing these days?”

Dale glanced over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t being overheard. Satisfied we weren’t, he took a small bite of coleslaw and shrugged. “He’s healthy, unless you need him not to be.”

I pulled on the tip of my beard, stroking the hair with my thumb and forefinger. It had been a while since I’d asked about Darrell Winston, the man who was technically my father. Puzzle pieces I’d been crafting for years were finally snapping together. The time for action was drawing near . . . but not yet.

“Oh, I don’t mind if he’s healthy. For now.”

Dale gave me a grim smile. “You just say the word, Cletus.”

I tried to mirror his expression. “You know how much I appreciate that, Dale.”

He shook his head. “We both owe you, big time.”

I waved away his words in a show of affability, but he was right. They both owed me, and I was grateful for the favor; it had paid dividends in more ways than one. Dale had tipped me off some months ago that the King brothers had been passing Iron Wraith’s evidence to the sheriff’s office for the last year, which had been the seed for my latest grand scheme.

Evans chimed in, “We’re happy to help, and that bastard has it coming to him—uh, whenever you decide the time is right.”

I’d just released my somber nod and achieved two head bobs when I felt a tentative tap on my shoulder. Dale and Evans glanced at the newcomer, and their expressions softened. One might even say they grew hazy.

“I am so sorry,” a gentle, unmistakably feminine voice interrupted.

I stiffened, knowing exactly who the voice belonged to, and consequently why Dale and Evans had adopted their hazy faces.

“It’s not an interruption.” Dale shook his head, standing.

“Not at all.” Evans also stood, his smile was small and hopeful, his voice coaxing as though she were a skittish animal.

I knew better. Where these two yokels saw a weak, sensitive flower—an angelic pushover, ripe for the pushing—I saw an opportunist in banana-cake clothing. Let the record show, I did not roll my eyes.

Schooling my expression, I glanced over my shoulder, prepared to give the interloper a terse nod. But this plan went awry almost immediately and I executed an involuntary double take.

Jennifer Sylvester’s eyes were purple.

Not blue.

Not green.

Not gray.


And that was impossible.

So I frowned.

The slight smile she was aiming at me fell and she winced, just a touch. Her hand dropped from my shoulder and she backed up a step, lifting her chin.

“Cletus, I need to speak with you.” Her words were loud for her—so a normal volume for everyone else—and deliberate.