Authors: Kelly Jamieson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
She found her leather bag near the front door with her rollerblades and dug around for a hairbrush, a tube of mascara and lip gloss. By the time she felt somewhat presentable, Zach had the coffee and some toast waiting for her.
He kissed her again, placing the food and coffee in front of her as she slid onto a stool at the counter. Gratitude swelled inside her. “You are so sweet,” she said, regaining some ability to speak. “Thank you."
He grinned warmly at her, his gaze moving over her, and she was aware that she wasn't looking her best. “I look like hell,” she muttered, lowering her eyes as she sipped her coffee.
"You look gorgeous,” he said softly. “You have a sexy glow—as if you've been well-fucked."
She gasped at his words, and her gaze flew up to meet his. He grinned wickedly.
"That's not exactly how I want to look to go meet my father,” she complained. Zach laughed, but then looked a little uncomfortable.
"He won't punch me or anything, will he?” He picked up his own coffee.
She grimaced. “I don't think so. But maybe we should just kind of play it cool when we get there."
"Going to be hard to explain why we're together."
Yikes. Oh well.
"I'm sorry again, Ash,” he said genuinely. “I shouldn't have put you in this position."
She snorted. “Like I wasn't going along with it. This isn't your fault, Zach."
"I'm just so impulsive sometimes,” he said harshly. “I don't think things through."
She smiled softly. “It's not the end of the world,” she said. “I'm a big girl. I could have gone home if I wanted to. Don't worry, I'll handle it."
She was good at dealing with whatever situations arose, flying by the seat of her pants, improvising. She'd used those skills many times in her job, even with Zach when he kept surprising her by showing up in her life.
Connor had left a note that he'd already left for the brewery, and when they arrived, Ashlyn's dad, Connor, Ralph and John all waited for them. Perfect; they had to make an entrance together in front of everyone.
Ashlyn tugged her wrinkled shorts down as they walked in. The brewery was in an industrial area, an old red-brick building with the Rocky Harbor Brewery sign out front, the smiling face of their dog logo reminding her of Rocky.
"I wanted to build a spanking-new, state-of-the art brewery,” Zach told her as they walked into the building. “But Connor talked me out of it. He knew this building was so cheap and perfect, and even though it's ugly, we were way better off financially. And he was right. We would never have started turning a profit so quickly if we'd done what I wanted."
Ashlyn glanced at him. “Sounds like you two make a good team."
He looked back at her, surprised. “Yeah, you're right. I've got the vision, the crazy dreams; and he keeps me real."
They walked into the office where the men all stood talking, holding cups of coffee.
"Morning,” Connor said. Ashlyn felt her dad's eyes sweeping over her and forced down her feelings of embarrassment and guilt. She was a grown woman, for heaven's sake, there was no need to be ashamed of having sex. Really good, really hot sex.
She smiled and greeted the men. Thankfully, nobody was stupid or bold enough to ask why she and Zach were together.
"I made coffee.” Connor gestured toward the coffeemaker. “Anyone want some?"
"Yes, please,” Ashlyn said fervently, the one cup she'd gulped down at Zach's place not nearly enough to get her going. Zach went over and poured cups for her and himself, even added milk to hers, and when he handed her the cup, their fingers touched and their eyes met and something sizzled between them. She quickly looked away from him and asked her dad, “Did you bring the equipment?"
He nodded and pointed to the computer equipment she would need to copy hard drives.
"We'll take you on a quick tour of the brewery,” Connor said, standing up straight from where he'd been leaning against a desk.
"This is the office, as you can see,” he began. Six cubicles surrounded a central area that contained a table, chairs, a small fridge, microwave, and coffeemaker. He waved a hand. “Those are our offices over there."
Ashlyn peered into each office, noting the computers on the desks in each cubicle. Connor's bare, neat office contrasted Zach's clutter: posters of snowboarders, skateboarders and vintage beer advertisements on the walls, papers and folders strewn over the desk, and an assortment of beer memorabilia on a shelf.
"Let's go into the brewery,” Zach suggested, and they all followed him into a big manufacturing area with huge, gleaming stainless-steel tanks. The size of the space, its cleanliness and industrial appearance all amazed Ashlyn. For some reason she'd pictured a brewery as a small place with people stirring vats of liquid. It was nothing like that.
The moist, steamy air in this part of the building smelled sweet-sour, kind of like beer. She wrinkled her nose.
"Outside there's a silo where we store the barley, which is the grain we use the most.” Zach stopped just inside. “The barley is malted, which means it's allowed to begin germinating, and then dried. Some of the malt is roasted to use in different beers. The malted barley and specialty malts are crushed in the mill and then moved back to the grist case, where we weigh them out for each batch."
He moved over to a large tank. “The grist is mixed with hot water in the mash tun.” He gestured. “The mash is basically like porridge, with a lot of fermentable sugars. Enzymes from the grain become activated and convert the grain's starch into fermentable and non-fermentable sugars."
Ashlyn trailed along behind, taking everything in, now wide-awake and interested. She was also fascinated by Zach. His professional knowledge impressed her, and she was shocked at how his expertise turned her on.
"After conversion,” he continued, walking on, “we begin lautering, which is basically rinsing grain and extracting all the liquid, which is called wort."
They walked on. “The wort is drained off through the bottom of the mash tun and goes into this big tank called the brew kettle."
"What happens to the grains?” Ashlyn asked curiously.
"Good question,” he said with a quick, warm smile for her. She smiled back. “We get rid of ours by selling it as cattle feed."
"The wort is boiled for about ninety minutes and as we do that, we add hops at different times. The hops give the beer bitterness, character, aroma. Near the end we add finishing hops that smooth the flavor out. Then the hopped wort is sent to the whirlpool ... “—they moved on—"which clarifies it by settling out the hops and the trub...” He paused and then explained, “proteins that coagulate during the boil. Then it's cooled to room temperature through this heat exchanger and moved to a fermentation tank."
"This is where the yeast comes in,” Ashlyn said.
He grinned, pleased. “Yeah. The yeast is pitched, and now it's beer. Over a period of days or weeks, the yeast feeds off the sugars and gives off ethanol—alcohol—and carbon dioxide. Then it's filtered and goes into the bright tank. We bring up the CO2 levels by injecting carbon dioxide. A lager is ready in about thirty days, while some ales take only two or three weeks."
He led them through to another area where the beer was bottled, capped and labeled. “When we started, we only produced draft beers,” he told them. “We still do, but then we added the bottling line. Some beers we age in barrels."
Then he took them to a freezer where hop pellets were stored, and lastly to the locked yeast lab. The small room very much resembled a medical laboratory. Ashlyn looked about her in wonder at the equipment, including a microscope, flasks, and various objects she vaguely remembered from high-school chemistry class. She glanced at Zach, even more impressed and amazed at his extensive knowledge. She also noticed another computer.
"I know it sounded weird when we talked about our yeast,” he began. “But yeast is so important. When European monks started brewing beer in the eighth century, they had no idea how yeast worked. All they knew was that when they exposed their liquid of malted barley and hops to the heavens, a miracle happened. ‘God is good,’ they said.” He grinned. “And that's what they called yeast in the early days. ‘God is good.’ Yeast is everywhere. On your skin, in your gut.” Ashlyn recalled her one uncomfortable experience with a yeast infection and grimaced. “It's in the air,” he continued. “Wild yeast. They just didn't understand what was happening. At one time, it was believed that yeast was a by-product of alcohol, rather than alcohol being a by-product of yeast. It was Louis Pasteur who discovered that yeast causes fermentation, and then a chemist with the Carlsberg Brewery in Denmark discovered various species of yeast. There are two main species used in brewing—Saccharomyces Cerevisiae is used for ales, and Saccharomuces Uvarum in lagers."
"What's the difference?” John asked with interest.
"Lager yeast doesn't clump and congregate as well, so it floats in suspension deeper in the wort. When it's done fermenting, it goes dormant and settles out at the bottom of the fermentation tank. That's one reason lagers clear more easily than ales. It also ferments at lower temperatures, so, until modern refrigeration methods, it was a lot more difficult to control. Lager yeast metabolizes more of the sugars in the wort more efficiently and with fewer by-products. That creates the difference in taste. An ale has more residual sugars and by-products that give it its more complex taste."
"So tell us about
yeast,” Dave said. Everyone seemed fascinated, including Ashlyn, to her surprise.
"I brought our yeasts back from Europe,” Zach said. Again, he grinned.
"Where did you get them from?” Ashlyn asked.
"I could tell you that, but then I'd have to kill you.” Zach flashed that sexy grin, and everybody laughed. “That's
secret. Anyway, I didn't know much about yeast back then, but I took some courses and hooked up with Jack Briggs. He really helped me a lot, teaching me how to propagate and store the yeast so we can continue to use the same yeast over and over again. Yeast mutates over time, so we need to be continually on top of it, testing it to make sure it's the same yeast. Although yeast is everywhere, it's very technically difficult to grow pure single-strain yeast.
"Our yeast is what gives our beers our signature tastes,” Zach continued. “That's why it's a trade secret. That's why this room is locked."
"How about the computer?” Ashlyn asked. “What's stored on there?"
"Everything,” he said. “Recipes, yeast tracking."
She nodded and prepared to copy the hard drive of the computer in the lab.
"Okay, time for us to get to work,” Dave said. He, John and Ralph had been taking everything in and now wandered back into the brewery area.
"I want to copy the hard drive of this computer,” Ashlyn told Zach.
He frowned. “But this information is highly sensitive."
"I realize that,” she reassured him. “It'll be safe with me. But I'll need to take a copy back to the office to start examining it. I may be able to tell if someone else has accessed it beside you. I take it you're the only one with access?"
He nodded. “Even Connor doesn't know the passwords."
She headed back to the office where all their equipment had been left, thinking about what other computers she wanted to copy.
"What exactly are you doing?” Zach asked, following her.
"I'm taking an exact copy of the hard drive,” she explained. “I'm using a bit-by-bit acquisition process. That ensures the integrity of the data is intact, and evidence is preserved. Then I work only with the duplicate copies, to make sure the original data isn't contaminated, in case this ends up going to court."
"Jesus,” Zach said.
She nodded. “I know, hopefully not—but just in case, you don't want to have your evidence tainted. The hard drive has to be exactly like it was."
"And how do you find stuff?"
"I use a program called Safeback to recover hidden or deleted files. Sometimes people delete things or reformat the hard drive, but the computer actually just stores them in different places. I can also decrypt encrypted files, identify all the web sites that have been visited, see what files have been downloaded and when files were last accessed or deleted, look at any faxes sent or received on the computer, and look at e-mails and attachments, even if they've been deleted."
"Wow,” he said, shaking his head. She grinned.
They'd talked about the staff and in her mind, the prime suspect was Emma Smith, who had started working for them around the time of Steinbrau's offer. If Ashlyn only had time to copy two or three computers today, she would pick Emma's. As for the second and third, she had no clue at the moment.
She got to work. Zach and Connor hovered around the team as they set up hidden cameras and phone taps, and Ashlyn removed hard drives from computers.
Hours later Ashlyn was running on adrenaline and caffeine. Her stomach grumbled with hunger, and she was exhausted. She'd only had a few hours sleep last night; she shivered a little, remembering why.
"I have no idea who else's computer to look at,” she told her dad quietly. “Have you got any ideas from what you've seen?"
"Yes,” he said, just as hushed. “When we did some asset tracing, their sales manager, Ava Cooper, had some activity. It's kind of strange but raises a flag. Why don't you do hers?"
Ashlyn nodded and copied that hard drive too. While she was working on that, Zach arrived back with a whole stack of sandwiches and drinks. She hadn't even realized he'd left.
"Thank you, thank you,” she said fervently, unwrapping deli pastrami on deliciously squishy rye bread. She bit into it hungrily and saw him watching her.
"I have to keep you well-fed,” he remarked softly, and she glanced around to see if anyone else could hear, flashing a scolding glance at him. He smiled wickedly. “Gotta keep your energy levels up."
"Sshh!” She forced back a smile and took another bite.
When they finished later that afternoon, Zach drove Ashlyn home. He dropped her off and helped her carry her things inside, her rollerblades from yesterday and some computer equipment.