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Beard Science(9)

By:Penny Reid

“No, it came out right. I wouldn’t want to marry me either.”

She laughed again, this time sounding a touch hysterical. “You know, you’ve always been really funny.”

“How would you know?” I gave her the side-eye. It was a serious question. “As far as I can recall, we’ve never spoken to each other directly before now.”

“Yes, but I listen.” Her response was muffled from behind her fingers. “No one talks to me, so I listen.”

“Jennifer, you’re not helping your case here, unless you’re trying to come across as a crazy creeper.”

She laughed again, less hysterical but maybe more desperate, her head falling back to the headrest. “Maybe I am a crazy creeper. Maybe it’ll never happen. Maybe I’m a lost cause. And if that’s the case, that’s fine. But I need to try.”

Jennifer brought her eyes back to mine; even under the shadow of her hat, the depth of sadness and resolve there startled me. “And you’re going to help me do it.”


“I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better . . .”

 Helen Keller, The Story of My Life


“I don’t like her.” Beau’s announcement was punctuated by the office door clattering against the wall. He’d just burst through it.

I surmised my brother expected me to react to his declaration. I did not react. I was too busy booking a trade through eTrade Pro and had just ten seconds to finalize it.

“Cletus? Did you hear me? I don’t like her. She can’t work here.”

I confirmed the limit order, waited for the verification screen to load, then grudgingly presented Beau with my attention. “It doesn’t matter if you like her or not, Beau. What matters is whether Shelly Sullivan is a good mechanic. She is a good mechanic. Furthermore, thus, as such, vis–à–vis, and so forth. Fill in the blank.”

He’d caught me on the wrong day. Actually, the wrong week. I wasn’t inclined to field complaints. Though it was Thursday, four days after my uncomfortable encounter with Jennifer Sylvester, I was still fixating on it. I’d been distracted since Sunday.

The morning after Jennifer had made her demands, I’d neglected to introduce Beau—who’d returned from a work trip to Nashville that same morning—to our newest mechanic. He’d walked into the shop, they’d spoken, and he’d instantly disliked her. Akin to today, in an atypical exhibition of anger, Beau had stormed into the shop’s office, demanding she be let go.

I didn’t know what had passed between them. I didn’t care. I wasn’t firing her.

“She might be a decent mechanic, I’ll give you that. But she’s as prickly as a porcupine.”

“No, Beau. She’s not a decent mechanic. She’s a great mechanic.” Beau opened his mouth to protest, I spoke over him. “Duane is leaving before Thanksgiving. We have too much work as it is. We need the help. Now leave me be. I need to finish this up before my meeting with Drew.”

Things decided, I returned my attention to the laptop and scrolled through the stats of the principle trading account.

Meanwhile, my younger brother was attempting to drill a hole into the side of my head with his eyeballs.

“I’ll kindly ask you to stop trying to penetrate my brain with those laser beams you call eyes.”

“I’m not done talking about this.”

These stubborn people and their demands were like cracker crumbs in my beard: irritating and flaky.

I exhaled, frustrated, and twisted the swivel chair to face my brother. “Why don’t we talk about something else, like the preparations for Jethro’s bachelor party? Did you finish the scavenger hunt?”

“Yes, I did. Two weeks ago. Stop changing the subject.”

“Fine then.” I gritted my teeth. “Go ahead and talk about Shelly.”

“She’s rude. Not just to me. She’s rude to the customers.”

“Why’s she talking to customers? That’s your job.”

“What do you want me to do? Hide her under a car? She’s impossible to miss, Cletus. She looks like one of those- those . . . those models from the magazines.”

“Which magazines are these?”

Beau only read two kinds of magazines. Both had pictures of headlights. Only one was about cars.

He threw his hands in the air before bringing them to his hips. “You know what I mean. People catch sight of her, they want to talk to her.”

“You mean men catch sight of her and want to talk to her.”

“Fine. Yes. Men. Men want to talk to her. And then she insults them. Do you really think that’s a good business strategy? Hiring a gorgeous woman to insult our male customers?”

“No. No, I do not,” I said solemnly, but my mouth twitched before I could stop myself. It wasn’t good business, but it was amusing.

“Oh, is this funny?”

My shoulders shook because I was laughing.

“Are you laughing?”

“Nope,” I said through my laughter.

Beau made a sound of disgust and frustration. Then he knocked a cupful of pencils and pens, a stack of invoices, and the incoming mail off the file cabinet with an angry swipe. I ceased laughing.

“You’re going to pick that mess up, Beau Fitzgerald Winston.”

His laser-beam eyes narrowed into slits and he pointed his index finger at the mess. “I will pick it up when I’m good and ready to pick it up.”

Beau turned, slammed the door, and stomped down the stairs.

I stared at the spot he’d vacated, then I stared at the untidiness he’d left. If it had been any other week, I’d already be cooking up a quality idea for revenge. Something to both piss him off and make him laugh. I liked to keep my family on their toes, as it’s what they expected of me.

But not today.

Today I was tired. I was fixating. And I was tired of fixating.

It wasn’t the blackmail setting me on edge, not at all. I’d already neutralized the video—or rather, I’d already taken steps to neutralize the video.

I have very few friends. But one of my friends, who shall remain nameless, was an exceptionally talented hacker. He lived in Chicago and we corresponded every Sunday via the classified section of the Chicago Tribune. We’d been playing a chess match for three months using coded messages in the newspaper.

This week, I’d changed my usual message from a chess move to a request for assistance instead: he would hack into Jennifer’s computer, phone, and cloud account (or anywhere else she might be harboring the video), remove it, and leave no trace.

Thankfully, this friend shared my view of the law. He wasn’t the sort who believed in strict adherence. I just had to wait until Sunday. I would then schedule a rendezvous with the misguided young baker woman and explain that she was no longer in possession of the video.

And then I will . . .


Well, darn.

I didn’t know what to do. Which was why I’d been discombobulated all week.

“What happened in here?”

My attention refocused outward. Drew hovered in the doorway, having opened the door without my hearing. He donned civilian clothes rather than his federal ranger attire. This was odd because it was the middle of the week.

“Beau had a temper tantrum.”


I nodded once.

Drew’s eyebrows lifted high on his forehead; he stepped inside and closed the door. “That’s unlike him. What’s got him worked up?”

“Our new hire.”

The big man’s mouth curved briefly, his smile elusive. “Shelly? Quinn’s sister?”

“Yes. He doesn’t like her.”

“Sure he doesn’t. Anyway, why’re we meeting?”

I liked this about Drew: always to the point when talking about business, but always philosophical when talking about life. Attending his birthday party had been a priority since I met him four years ago.

I turned to the computer screen and pulled up QuickBooks. “Momma’s accounts. I’m making changes you should know about.”

When my mother passed last year, she’d left the management of her family’s money to Drew as he was a good family friend. She didn’t want our malefactor of a father to get his hands on it.

Drew had asked me to help manage the primary investment; he’d been impressed with my day-trading returns. I obliged. Each of my siblings would receive their portion of the inheritance upon reaching their thirty-first birthday. So far, only Jethro was eligible to cash out and he’d opted to leave his money where it was, having no present use for it.

Drew grabbed a chair and turned it backward, straddling it with his arms resting on the back. He was too tall for most chairs. His legs were too long. Consequently, he was always straddling them.

“Cletus, you don’t need to give me any updates.”

“Nonsense. Momma appointed you as the executor of her estate and the trustee for our accounts. This is your business.”

He shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable, and not because the chair was too small. “You know why she did that, and I was happy to help. But you’re better at fund management than I am.”

Drew Runous might not have been related to us by blood, but I considered him a brother. We all did. Except my sister, Ashley, of course. They’d been together since last Christmas and we were expecting a proposal any day now.