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       Tripped Out, p.9

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  you and I became a defensive jackass when you asked questions about things that you, as my partner, should already have the answers to.”

  “Apology accepted.”

  That happened much quicker than Liam had anticipated. He almost wished she would’ve made Macon sweat it out.

  “I don’t blame the drop in profits on you. I looked at the number of employee hours in the retail store, which is higher than I’d like.”

  Stirling started to argue.

  Macon held up his hand. “So I agree that we need to hire a manager. His or her salary wouldn’t increase the overall amount of wage payout if we cull other employee hours.”

  Stirling jumped up, went to the window, and pulled the curtain back.

  “What in the hell are you doing?” Macon asked.

  “Seeing if there’s a full moon or a comet or a falling star because you actually listened to me and agreed with me. It’s a rare occurrence.”

  Macon rolled his eyes. “I’m not the bad guy, just the bottom-line guy.”

  “I’ll set up interviews for managers. But if I don’t feel any of the applicants are a good fit, I’d like to hire from within.”

  “Who?”

  “Cheney.”

  Liam frowned. “The girl with gigantic gauges who always wears that ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ T-shirt to meetings?”

  “I’d wear the T-shirt, too, if my parents named me after that vice president,” Stirling said.

  “Instead, your parents named you after silverware. And they misspelled it,” Liam said drolly.

  “For your information, Dr. Geography Fail, I’m named after a city in Ireland,” she retorted.

  “Enough. Jesus,” Macon complained. “Back to the issue. I trust your judgment, Stirling. Hire whomever you like. I’m glad I won’t be around to listen to you two. I will, however, warn the other employees to wear earplugs when you start working together.”

  “Excuse me? Us”—Liam gestured to Stirling, then himself—“working together?”

  “Yes. You’re not the only whiz at research, Argent. Last night I studied the projected output on the supercritical CO2 extraction machine you’re both so gung-ho about and I agree, it’s an excellent sideways step to increase profit. I contacted a dealer this morning. They have a used machine for sale for half the retail price, so I agreed to buy it and the vacuum ovens from him. It’ll all be here Monday. I called in a couple of favors regarding the MIPS—Marijuana Infused Permits—and supposedly we’re on the fast track for city services inspection. But that means construction to bring the room to code will begin Tuesday. After all that is done, the technicians from the company will be onsite to set the calibrations and troubleshoot any issues. So starting next week, you two will be working very closely together.”

  Stirling blurted out, “Absolutely not. No way.”

  Jesus, Stirling, don’t oversell it. This is what we want.

  While Macon said, “Hang on,” and checked his cell phone, Liam willed Stirling to look at him.

  When she did, he gave an imperceptible shake of his head.

  Then Macon jumped back into the conversation. “I have to go. I got a client who landed in jail.” He stood. “Any questions?”

  “Why did you change your mind?” Liam asked.

  “Because you both indicated it was a necessary purchase. I figured if the bickering twins, who never agreed on a damn thing the past ten months, were in agreement about this, then it likely had merit. Keep me informed. After I prevent numbnuts from spending the weekend in the drunk tank, I’m off to a ten-day international law seminar in Geneva.”

  “You’re going to Switzerland?” Stirling aped. “Just like that?”

  “I doubt he was referring to Geneva, Alabama, Miss Geography Fail,” Liam responded.

  Stirling’s hard look warned him not to oversell it either.

  Macon picked up his briefcase. “Last thing. Next Saturday night there’s this thing for London. I agreed to do my DJ spin, but that ain’t happening since I’ll be out of the country. So you have to take over, Stirl.”

  “What? No! I suck at that ‘be witty on the fly’ stuff, Macon.” She glared at Liam. “Not one word of agreement.”

  Why didn’t this woman think she was funny? She always had a quick comeback and she cracked him up. Liam held his hands in the air in silent surrender.

  “I’ll have my secretary email you the playlist. It’s easy. You’ll do great.” Macon came around and kissed her cheek. “Behave, little sis, and maybe I’ll bring you back a Swiss watch.” Macon tipped his chin at Liam and hustled out.

  “I’m expecting a Patek Philippe!” Stirling yelled as the door slammed behind him.

  “I don’t think he heard you.”

  Neither of them moved nor spoke, even though they sat right next to each other.

  Finally Liam got up and grabbed a bottled water. “Want one?”

  “Yes. Please.”

  He said, “Are you okay?”

  “That was one scenario that we hadn’t expected,” Stirling said. “Or maybe Macon has your office bugged and the sneaky bastard knew what we had planned?”

  Liam shook his head. “I regularly sweep the lab for bugs.”

  “Paranoid much?”

  “I’m very distrustful, courtesy of what I dealt with at my previous job.”

  “Will you tell me about it? Maybe…over dinner?”

  He leaned closer. “Are you propositioning me, Miss Gradsky?”

  “Yes. Pajamas and a toothbrush are optional.”

  Seeing that sexy curve to her lower lip and the heat in her eyes, Liam understood he hadn’t stood a chance against her. She had IT. That elusive appeal he couldn’t verbally define but physically affected him like a shot of adrenaline. “Can I just say something first?”

  “If you must.”

  “You are so fucking hot.”

  She released a husky laugh. “Not what I expected, but I’ll take it.”

  “My inner seventeen-year-old boy is in awe that you’re even talking to geeky us.”

  “What is the hot, sexy man I’m staring at right now thinking?”

  Liam twined a dreadlock around his finger. “That I can’t wait to wrap this hair around my hand as I’m fucking you from behind.”

  Stirling’s grin widened. “You’re not prim and proper when the lab coat comes off, are you?”

  “Not. Even. Fucking. Close.”

  “So this persona you present of polite reserve?”

  “Is my professional side.” He tugged her closer by that hank of hair and slid his hand up the inside of her thigh. “I save my dirty talk and filthy fantasies for after working hours.”

  She spread her legs wider and brushed those cherry red lips across his. “Show me.”

  “Are you sure you can handle it? I’ve been told my needs are…intense.”

  “How ironic.” Stirling’s fingers circled his wrist and she pulled his hand right between her legs. “I’ve been told I put the ‘ho’ in boho.”

  He groaned. “Are you always going to try and top me?”

  She smiled against his mouth. “Every single chance I get.”

  “Let’s go.”

  Liam allowed one hard kiss before retreating. He gathered the paperwork he hadn’t needed. “Are you finished for the day?”

  “Yes. How about you?”

  “I have to check on something Artie asked me about. It shouldn’t take long.”

  “I’ll text you my address.” As Stirling sauntered by, she palmed his ass. “Fair warning, hot stuff. The only drooling I’ll be doing tonight will be on your cock.”

  He just sort of stood there like a dumbass as she walked out the door.

  A dumbass with a hard-on about to get lucky, so move it, Einstein.

  Liam locked up the lab and stashed his stuff in his car before he headed for the grow house. He swiped his keycard and punched in his code when the green light flashed.

  Heat and the pungent scent of cannabis hit him as
soon as he stepped inside.

  George was right there, handing Liam a lab apron and gloves. “Hey, Doc. Artie said you’d be by.”

  He donned the protective gear and said, “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

  “Cool. I’ll just be working.”

  Liam opened the door to the stage-one grow and squinted. Not only had humidity fogged his glasses, but the lights were blinding—as they needed to be in this eighteen hours of daylight stage. As soon as his eyes and his glasses adjusted, he scanned the room. It wasn’t filled with plants, which wasn’t right. They’d figured out the amount of useable grow space to the nearest inch. So why wasn’t it all being used?

  Maybe the better question is why don’t you know the answer to that?

  He ducked beneath the plastic flap that separated the chemical and tool room. The two plants were in the corner. Even from here they appeared dehydrated.

  First he examined them with just his naked eye. Then he used a 30X battery-powered magnifier to scrutinize every leaf joint, leaf, and section of the stem from the dirt up. Besides the spots on the lower leaves, no immediate issue jumped out at him, but he had his suspicions.

  Using his phone, he snapped close-ups of the plant and texted them to his friend Dougie. He’d been growing his own for twenty years, in every climate imaginable; he was the real ganja guru.

  Less than three minutes later his cell rang. “Hey D, what’s up?”

  “What am I looking at?” Dougie asked.

  Liam explained. Then he asked, “Any ideas?”

  “My first thought was powdery mildew.”

  Mine too. “But?”

  “But have you checked any of the other plants in the same grow room?”

  “No. Artie said these were the only two.”

  Dougie laughed. “Never take anyone’s word for it. Do a random check and call me back.”

  Grumbling to himself, Liam returned to the grow room and pulled three plants from different areas. Upon closer examination they didn’t look better than the two isolated plants; they looked worse.

  All three of them.

  In a panic, Liam checked the entire first row of plants. The leaves were droopy; the lower branches had leaves covered in spots and white residue.

  How the fuck hadn’t Artie—or anyone else—noticed this?

  He stepped back. Wait a second. With the way the plants were crowded together, and the super bright lights, the spots and white residue were invisible to the naked eye.

  Fuck.

  He snapped more pics and sent them off.

  This time Dougie called back in under a minute. “Dude. That is powdery mildew and that’s bad, bad news. Those spots and the white powder only show up after the plant has been infected for a couple of weeks.”

  “Jesus, I know that,” Liam snapped.

  “They didn’t teach you how to diagnose a diseased plant or how to contain a major outbreak when they gave you that fancy degree, Dr. Argent?” Dougie asked snidely.

  His old-school pothead friend never let him live it down that he’d gone to college to learn to do what Dougie already knew. “I’ve studied it and isolated it on individual plants, but nothing on this level. So yes, you have expertise that I don’t. Has this happened to you?”

  Dougie sighed. “About a year after I increased the number of plants I was growing, I noticed the leaves looked droopy. I assumed I needed to up the amount of water and increase the humidity level. By the time I realized that my solution had fed the disease instead of reversed it, it was too damn late. I lost the entire crop.”

  He slumped against the partition. They were looking at a loss of half a million dollars or more.

  Christ. He wanted to throw up.

  “Liam? Bud, what can I do to help?”

  “Can you come down here? Diagnosis will take half as long with two of us.” And frankly at this point, he didn’t trust any of the employees to help because how had they missed this?

  What’s really eating at you…is how did you miss it? It’s your job. You should’ve caught it.

  “Then what happens? If the entire crop is dusted?” Dougie prompted.

  “I need to call in MED to document and witness us destroying the plants.”

  “Fucking Marijuana Enforcement Division. I’ll help you tonight, but I’m jetting when those nosy bastards show up.”

  “Deal.”

  Liam hung up, cracked open the door to the next stage grow, and yelled, “George!”

  “What’s up, Doc?”

  Don’t snarl at him. “We’ve got widespread contamination in here. Shut this door, lock it, and implement contamination protocol. You remember what that entails?”

  “Uh, yes.”

  “Do it.”

  Liam shut and locked the door from his side. Then he dropped the plastic sheeting down around all four walls and changed the security code so the emergency exit could be used without triggering an alarm.

  Then he made the phone call he was dreading.

  Stirling answered right away. “Hey, are you running late?”

  “I feel like running away.”

  “What’s going on?”

  Without preamble, he informed her of the situation in the detail he was known for.

  It was excruciating to wait for her reaction.

  Finally, she said, “What do you need me to do? Help identify the diseased plants?”

  “No. At this point I think it’s best if Dougie, my…source and I do that part. The less chance for contamination elsewhere, the better.”

  “But Liam, this process will take you hours and hours.”

  “Good thing there’s a coffeepot in here.” He looked at his feet. “Jesus, Stirling. I’m sorry about all of this.”

  “It’s not your fault.”

  “Isn’t it? I’m the cannabis expert. I should’ve been, oh, keeping a better eye on the cannabis, don’t you agree?”

  “Beat yourself up later, Dr. Doom. I’ll be pacing with my phone for the rest of the night, so don’t hesitate to call if you need anything. Okay? Promise me.”

  “I promise. There are a few things you can do for me.”

  “Name them.”

  He closed his eyes and made a mental list. “Do you have a piece of paper handy?”

  “I’ll grab one.”

  Liam rattled off everything that might be an issue in the next twenty-four hours. He probably went overboard, but he knew Stirling would want to deal with the minutiae, not just the major problems.

  “I’ll keep you up to date as much as I can.”

  “Take care. Be safe. I’m a phone call away.”

  He hung up and got to work.

  Well, he wouldn’t have to worry about confessing to Stirling that his contract with High Society was only for a year—because when the lost income numbers rolled in, Macon would fire his ass.

  * * * *

  Late Sunday afternoon…

  Watching half a million dollars burn…the queasiness in his stomach wasn’t from the smoke.

  Two MED officers stood on either side of the barrel. One took
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