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Beard Science(70)

By:Penny Reid

Beau was the first to speak. “What does that mean? Why would you do that?”

“Because a RICO charge requires at least two acts of racketeering activity.”

The room fell silent. Coffee mugs everywhere halted halfway to mouths, and those mouths fell open.

“Oh my God!” Ashley gaped at me: part horrified, part proud. “What did you do?”

“RICO? You’re taking them down on a RICO charge?” Billy looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or shout.

“In this theoretical scenario, the stolen evidence will be found in the possession of low-ranking motorcycle club members along with exceptionally well-organized lists detailing names, places, and events of their racketeering activities. All information contained on these lists is entirely accurate. Just, you know, now well organized.”

“You set them up.” Duane gave me a thoughtful glare. “You organized their chaos, didn’t you? You helped them look better so every member will come under an organized crime charge.”

“That wipes them out.” Roscoe gazed at me with wonder, then huffed a shocked laugh. “That completely annihilates the Wraiths. Anyone associated with them goes to prison, all on the same charge.”

“It’s not the Wraiths. It’s a theoretical motorcycle club,” Beau corrected, smirking. Then he laughed. “I’m so happy you don’t hate me.”

My brothers and sister ended up staring into space, each lost to their own thoughts. I gave them a full minute to think the issue over. But a minute was all I could stand.

“So,” I said loudly, startling them out of their contemplations, “let’s take the vote.”

“What vote?” Duane looked to Beau, as though checking to see if he’d missed something.

“I want y’all to vote on whether I see this plan through. Everything is in place. All I need to do is make a phone call.” I glanced around the room, seeing they understood the situation. “It’s up to you.”

“It’s up to us?” Beau sounded truly perplexed. “Since when? Since when is it up to us?”

“Since he fell in love and realized meddling comes with a price tag.” Jethro set his coffee mug to one side and picked up his knitting. I noticed he was making a baby hat; it was yellow and it looked soft.

“Isaac Sylvester,” Billy said, drawing my attention to him. “You don’t want to pull the trigger because of Isaac.”

I shook my head and answered honestly. “No. That’s not it. He has to take responsibility for his own actions and their ramifications, just like I do. Just like everybody does.” Quoting Jennifer was strangely satisfying.

“That sounded very wise.” Ashley narrowed her eyes on me, heavy with suspicion.

“Then why do we get a vote?” Duane the Distrustful also squinted at me.

“Because I’m doing this because of y’all. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m doing it for me—because I’d like to see Darrell’s face when he realizes everything he ever cared about is destroyed—but I’m also doing it for all of you.”

Six sets of eyes stared at me, but it was Billy who cast the first vote.

“I say yes. Take them down.” He stood, glaring at me, his jaw ticking. His vote was not a surprise.

“I also say yes,” Duane put in, swapping a stare with Billy. “I hope they all burn in hell.”

“I say no.” Beau glanced between Duane and me. “I say let things happen naturally. If the law has evidence against them, let them use it. I don’t want any of us to be implicated. Let them make their own bed. It has nothing to do with us.”

“I agree with Beau.” Ashley nodded. “They’ll shoot themselves in the foot sooner or later. It has nothing to do with us. I don’t like you being involved, Cletus. What if it comes back to you?” The concern in her tone warmed my heart. I loved my sister. She was an angel. A beautiful, infuriating angel.

“I’m against it.” Roscoe finally spoke up. “For all the reasons Beau and Ashley said. Plus, I know some of those new recruits. I went to high school with several of those guys. They’re not bad, they’re just lost. They shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of guys like Razor and Dirty Dave—those two are psychos.”

I nodded, making a mental tally. Duane and Billy were for my plan; Beau, Ashley, and Roscoe were against. Everyone must’ve been counting in their heads because Jethro became the focus of the entire room.

And he must’ve felt our stares because he gathered a large inhale, yet kept his eyes studiously on his knitting.

“Jethro?” I prompted. “How do you vote?”

He shook his head. “I abstain.”

“What?” Duane growled, glancing between our oldest brother and me. “What do you mean you abstain?”

“I mean I abstain. I’m not voting.”

“Why the hell not?” Again, thank you for your input, Duane of sunshine and rainbows.

“Because I’m the deciding vote.” The sharpness and intensity of Jethro’s voice took us all by surprise. He lowered his knitting and glared at Duane, speaking through clenched teeth. “And I hate those motherfuckers more than you. More than any of you.” His gaze swung to Billy and their eyes held. “But I’m not going to allow hate to make my decisions. If I voted, I would vote to destroy them all. So I can’t vote. Because I’m not that person anymore.”

Silence hung like a noose around our necks while Billy and Jethro traded glares. But Billy was the first to look away.

“Fine. You have your answer, Cletus.” He swallowed once, then sat back down in his chair.

“Stalemate means no one wins.” I twisted my lips to the side, considering how to proceed.

“Just leave it where it is.” This suggestion came from Beau and everyone turned their attention to him. “Leave the evidence where it is, if you can. Then, if you need it, if you need the leverage, you have it.”

Jethro huffed a laugh and shook his head. “You know, Beau. You’re a lot more like Cletus then you let on.”

“Thank you.” Beau grinned at me. “In light of recent events, I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Beau’s point was a good one. Insurance against the Wraiths, against their influence and violence wasn’t a bad thing. I still needed to meet with Repo about the unpleasantness with Isaac last Friday. Knowing I was just a phone call away from taking down the entire organization wasn’t a bad bargaining position.

When the time came to make the call—and I felt a level of confidence that sooner or later the time would come—it had to be right. I had other considerations now. I had Jennifer, my Jennifer. I couldn’t keep manipulating people, not caring about the consequences. I didn’t want my machinations to adversely affect her.

She was my priority.

“What was the second thing?” Ashley asked softly, her eyebrows raised expectantly.

The second thing?

The second thing.

I closed my eyes for a moment, allowing the abrupt wave of sorrow to wash over me, and then retreat. But it didn’t retreat. I needed more time to prepare. The first thing—the Wraiths and their downfall—was the easy thing. This . . . this was the tricky thing.

“Cletus?” Ashley pressed, sounding worried.

I didn’t have more time. The time was now.

I opened my eyes. I didn’t lift them beyond the carpet, I couldn’t.

“Darrell Winston had a third family.”

As expected, this news was met with a void of stunned nothingness. The stillness was so complete, it was deafening, and it propelled me to speak.

“Darrell had another son.”

Ashley made a sound, a quick intake of air, but nothing else.

I continued, surprised by how difficult this was to say. “His name was Eric and he died. He died of cancer. I found out two years ago, after he’d passed. I thought y’all should know.”

Curiously, my eyes stung. And this was curious because I’d never shed a tear over the loss of the brother I’d never met. I was not opposed to crying, I just didn’t do it often. I cried when my momma died. The wails and sobs were cathartic, until they weren’t. So I’d stopped.

But Eric, it didn’t feel right to cry on account of his passing. He’d never been mine to mourn. He’d been lost to me, lost to all of us, before I’d known he existed.

Movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I looked up to find Duane walking toward me. Unexpectedly, he pulled me into a hug. After a short moment I moved to pull away, but he held me tighter, squeezed me tighter, and wouldn’t let me go.

Jethro stood next and walked over to us, along with Roscoe and Ashley. Their arms came around us and each other, Ashley burying her head against my neck and breathing, as though breathing me in, and holding me in her lungs as though confirming that I was still here and alive.

Beau and Billy joined soon after, Billy ruffling my hair and squeezing the back of my neck, drawing my attention to him. Our eyes met and I almost lost it because I’d seen pictures of Eric and he’d looked like Billy. He’d looked like Ashley. He looked like my family, like a brother.

Looking at this brother who I loved, no matter how much I tried to ignore and reason away the pain, I realized I’d lost a brother. We’d all lost him.