Chapter 2: Any rough times are behind you.

{Author’s Note: As one of you keenly observed last week, Luke Wilson is the name of an actor. To avoid confusion, I’ve changed the character’s name to Beau Wilson.}

 

“What am I doing Murdoch? It’s not like this is a date.”

Pepper exhaled loudly as she tried on another potential outfit. She never knew what to wear in Walbash County. She adored fashion. Her closet stuffed with vintage finds, designer foundation pieces, and more shoes than she cared to admit buying but it all felt like too much back home in this small town.

The cat, who came home with her each night and on weekends, licked his back leg in response.

“Shit,” she hissed as she glanced at the clock. “Shit, shit. I’m going to be late.”

Frustrated, Pepper slid on her well-worn Levi’s, a Rolling Stones t-shirt, and her favorite low top Converse. Then, she threw her strawberry blonde hair into a messing bun, reapplied mascara, and checked herself one last time in the bathroom mirror.

“Understated. That will work,” she said as she rubbed the cats head on the way out the door.

Ruby’s sat on the northeast corner of the historic Walbash Square. The peeled paint exterior and faded sign adequately captured the equally broken in interior. Ruby Mae Preston, a local widow, established the local watering hole the day after the city council approved liquor-by-the-drink by a one-vote margin back in 1982. Not much had changed since.

As Pepper opened the front door, four local men turned to greet her. The same four men could be found here each day at happy hour and sometimes beyond. It was rare to find them all there on a Wednesday night … church night for most fold in Walbash County.

Sensing her confusion, Ruby nodded toward the TV, “Predator’s playoff game.”

Pepper nodded back in understanding then spotted Beau in the far back corner near the pool tables.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said as he cut the four ball in the corner pocket.

“Oh, are you?” he said never checking up. “I just got here myself.”

“Is that why you’ve only got three balls left on the table?” she quipped.

“”I play quick,” he said as he drained the last of his longneck.

“Apparently you drink quick too,” she said as she lifted the bottle to check its contents.

“I’m buying,” he said, ignoring the jab. “What’ll it be?”

“I’ll have what you’re having,” she demurred, instantly kicking herself for being such a wuss. Beer wasn’t really her thing. Why didn’t she order the cocktail she wanted instead?

“No tequila tonight,” Ruby asked from behind the bar.

“Really?” Beau said, raising an eyebrow.

“No ma’am, not tonight, this is business not personal.”

Take that, she thought as she turned back toward the pool table.

“Do you play,” Beau asked.

“I used to play quite a lot in college.”

“Fancy a game while we chat?”

“Why not?” Pepper smiled. “I brought a recorder. Do you mind if I turn it on?”

“I’d like this to be just between us for the time being … if that’s okay,” Beau said.

“Then you’ll want to ask me to keep this off the record,” she said.

“Can we do that?” he said.

“Sure,” she said as she slid the small Dictaphone back in her purse.

“Wanna break?” he asked.

“No, you go ahead.”

Beau leaned over the table and aimed the cue ball slightly off center and to the right. The cue ball slammed into the one ball with a fierce “crack.” Balls ricocheted around the rectangle but nothing fell.

“Open table?” Pepper asked and Beau nodded.

“One ball, right corner,” she said as she walked the yellow ball slowly down the right rail. “Seven, three combo,” she continued and the red ball rolled into the left pocket. She left the seven ball in place, diverting her attention to six ball in the middle of the table instead.

“Six ball, side pocket,” she said as she barely skimmed the right side of the ball. It clinked as it fell.

“Ruby, I’m being hustled,” Beau yelled toward the bar as he grinned broadly.

“I could have predicted that,” Ruby said. “Girl never loses a game. Hope you didn’t bet money … not that gambling is allowed in the establishment.”

“You sucker punched me,” Beau grinned.

“No, I didn’t correct your pre-conceived notions. No deceit. I told you I used to play a lot in college. I just failed to mention that I played for the Tulane Women’s Billiard Team.”

“Aren’t you just full of surprises, Miss Pepper,” Beau said.

“My name is Pepper. You can drop the Miss.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied.

Pepper winced like she’d taken a bullet.

“Wait, is ma’am worse?” he replied – knowing the answer.

“A little bit,” Pepper shot back as she sunk the two ball in the right corner pocket. She couldn’t change her age but she could kick his ass as pool and that made it a little better.

“Mama, always told me to be respectful of my elders,” he volleyed back.

Ruby grinned as she cleaned a clear beer mug from the corner of the bar while pretending to look the other way. Instead, she watched the two from the wall-length mirror and enjoyed the verbal jousting.

“Five, seven combo corner pocket,” she said … ignoring him. The five fell instantly and the seven slowly followed.

“You gonna let me shoot?”

“Nope,” she said as the eight-ball dropped into the side pocket.

“Okay, I don’t think my fragile, male ego can handle anymore pool. Let’s sit and chat.”

“Okey dokie,” Pepper laughed, quite pleased with herself. She and Ruby exchanged knowing grins.

“So we’re off the record. You can’t use this in an article, right?”

“Well I can’t unknow facts but I won’t quote you or reference this conversation in an article. Anything I learn, I’ll have to independently verify with a second source.”

Beau paused for a moment carefully considering what she’d just said. Sensing his unease, Pepper continued.

“Look Beau, I’m not a cable news network or tabloid magazine. I’m not interested in gotcha journalism. This is a small town. I’m serious about telling the truth but the people I cover are my friends and neighbors. I only report what the public needs to know. I try not to be intrusive. I don’t spread gossip. Whatever this is, I can tell it feels big to you. You can trust me to handle it accordingly.”

“Okay,” he said deciding to trust her. “Ruby can we have two more beers please? I’m gonna need a little liquid courage.”

“Good luck,” Ruby said, misinterpreting his meaning, as she grabbed two fresh longnecks from the cooler.

“So, some of what you know about the Sterling deal is true. Yes, he offered well above market value for the property. Yes, he and my dad agreed to terms over a handshake deal. But the truth is my dad doesn’t remember any of it. He sun downs.”

“Like with Alzheimer’s Disease?” Pepper replied as she did the math in her head. “What is he fifty, maybe fifty-five?”

“Fifty-two to be exact,” Beau said. “My mom and I think he’s suffered with it off and on for a couple of years now. About three years ago, he started crashing farming equipment into random things … fence rows, trees, the side of the barn. Dad’s been farming for over 30 years. It didn’t make sense. Then, his personality changed just out of the blue. He’s been a happy-go-lucky guy my whole life. About a year ago, he got really angry during the winter. The least little thing just sent him into a rage. Mom finally convinced him to see a doctor three months ago. We got an official diagnosis two weeks ago … Early Onset Alzheimer’s. Apparently, his grandfather suffered from it too.”

“Okay, and I’m sorry about that, but if he wasn’t mentally competent to agree to the deal, that’s an easy fix. Just take it before Judge Jenkins.”

“Pepper that would devastate my father. His father … never mind, I don’t want to go into that.”

An awkward pause lingered in the air. Pepper decided not to push.

“Okay, well then can you live with the deal?”

“We could if Sterling would honor the easement. That tobacco field sits five miles back on the northwest corner of the property. It’s surrounded on three sides: corn field to the west, quarry to the north, and the lake to the east. The frontage road on the south side is the only way in or out. Without it, we can’t get equipment in or out. That’s 150 acres of tobacco represents about $250,000 in income, Pepper. Less when we rotate it, but still. That’s a lot of money.”

“Wow, I had no idea,” said Pepper. “I mean, I’m from the country obviously, but I’m not really a farm girl.”

“You don’t say,” Beau shot back, dripping with more sarcasm than he intended. He did that when he was nervous. “Sorry, anyways there’s something else. A year ago, without our knowledge, Dad took out a line of credit on the farm. He used the house as collateral.”

“For how much?” Pepper asked.

“Half a million.”

“Jesus, for what purpose? Where’s the money?”

“That’s just it. We don’t know. The bank says he took it out in cash. Told Mr. Whitaker the bank president that he was buying farmer equipment from a guy in Bailey County that would only deal in cash. But he didn’t buy anything. The money’s not sitting in any of the farm accounts … not in my parent’s personal accounts … poof, it just disappeared. And …”

“Jesus, there’s more?” Pepper half whispered a she drained the longneck and nodded toward the bar.

“I’m on it,” Ruby yelled back from the bar. She couldn’t overhear all of the conversation but she sensed the tension coming from the table. Pepper and Beau’s body language spoke volumes.

“There’s also a health rider on the line of credit. My dad becomes disabled, or incapacitated in any way and the bank can call the loan.”

“Is that legal?” Pepper asked.

“Beats the hell out of me,” he said. “I just found out about all of this two weeks ago when mom and I were moving some furniture in Dad’s study and found the paper work stuff behind a bookcase. I drank myself into denial for a week after that. The zoning meeting sort of woke me up. Mom’s the definition of a hot mess. My sister’s away at UT. It’s up to me. Just me. That’s why I need you … I need you to tread lightly here. I’m not asking you to not do your job. I know that’s not fair. I just want you to have all the facts, I guess.”

He paused and looked up at her, his eyes pleading. He seemed vulnerable. Pepper felt herself soften as he spoke. Beau Wilson was just 25 but he’d been walking around with the burden of a much older man. She glanced up and noticed Beau staring at her intently … as if she were a puzzle he needed to solve.

“Now you understand my … he searched for the right word … intensity at the meeting the other night?”

Before she could answer, a noise got their attention. They both turned as the front door swung open and trio of young girls walked in. One, a leggy brunette wearing cutoff jean shorts and a halter top, grinned widely at the sight of Beau. He smiled back and then turned back to Pepper, suddenly all business.

“Anyway, some of my friends just came in, if we’re finished, I need to join them.”

“Oh yeah, of course. I’m meeting a friend back at the cabin for a late supper,” she lied. “Listen, let me do some research and we’ll talk next week.”

“Cool,” Beau said as he stood up from the table.

“Cool,” Pepper replied as she stood up to leave. As she walked past the girls, the brunette whispered something and they all giggled in unison.

Pepper stopped dead in her tracks and turned to address them … the brunette in particular.

“Nikki, high school is over. You aren’t the captain of the cheerleading squad anymore. That was two years ago. You’re now the chick who failed out of community college and bags groceries at Nelson’s Market. The “mean girl” act is getting a little old. Grow up.”

Beau eyes went wide and he laughed under his breath. The brunette shot him a sharp look as Pepper left.

With a slight three beer buzz, she decided to walk to the newspaper office and research for a bit before risking the drive home. It was only five miles but the road to the lake curved up and down steep hills. She’d hate to have to print her own name in the weekly arrest reports.

She made a pot of coffee then settled in behind her desk with a fresh legal pad. As she typed the name into the archives database and hit enter, the screen suddenly filled with results.

“Well I’ll be damned,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 2: Any rough times are behind you.

  1. Can’t wait to see what Pepper found in her research.
    Got to reread the second chapter. It had been awhile since I read Chapter 1. I went back to catch up. The direction is good and the struggle I feel like Pepper will have trouble deciding on reporting the story but keeping compassion for Beau and his family.

    I felt like the pool hustle needed a little more development to escalate the tension of the attraction that should be present between Beau and Pepper, at least for Pepper. Beau seems comfortable in his skin. Somebody has to be a little skiddish.

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