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Beard Science(8)

By:Penny Reid

Unless that person wore emotions like a mask, meant to misdirect the true nature of his thoughts.

“You made a copy?” His tone, laden with ice and granite, made me shiver.

He didn’t sound at all like the bumbling but affable Cletus Winston who’d pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. He sounded dangerous.

I cleared my throat before I could speak. “I did. I made a few. Saved in a few places.”

The side of his mouth ticked up, but his eyes lacked humor as he turned them back to me. “That was smart. Otherwise I would have smashed your phone into a quantity of tiny pieces. Then it would have been your word against mine.”

“That’s right,” I said the words on a breath, the good sense of fear wrestling with determination.

But, damn it, I needed his help. And it had to be him. It just had to. He could make anything happen. Everyone in town and the surrounding areas owed him a favor. I'd heard the rumors. I'd paid attention. I'd put the puzzle pieces together.

And now I had the most powerful man in East Tennessee right where I needed him.


“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.”

 Roald Dahl


I needed a minute.

During the minute, I made various and sundry lists. Lists upon lists.

Jennifer Sylvester seemed to understand I was not yet inclined to talk, so she gave me the minute I needed. I appreciated her silence. Eventually, my pulse slowed to a nice, normal range, and the red spots of rage clouding my vision receded. I wasn’t going to lose my temper.

“Well . . .” I cleared my throat, adopting as calm an air as possible given the fact that this feeble puppet was threatening to single-handedly derail months of fastidious—not to mention risky—efforts.

“Well,” she squeaked, also clearing her throat, but then said nothing else. Her eyes were on her long, pink nails, which were digging into the knees of her jeans.

I scrutinized her. She was clearly nervous, afraid even. Her earlier backbone appeared to be disintegrating. The show of confidence had been completely out of character for meek and docile Jennifer Sylvester.

Granted, I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t need to. She was a weak person. Like most who were acquainted with her parents, I felt a degree of pity for her, yet thoroughly enjoyed her banana cake. She also made great sourdough bread, zucchini muffins, and quiche.

Actually, everything she baked—that I’d tried to date—was profoundly delicious. She had a gift. Her multiple blue ribbons and large trophies awarded at the state fair were warranted. But she was also a pushover. She was under the thumb of her ambitious momma and zealously irrational father. Her upbringing plus her frail temperament meant she was a tool, a means to an end.

And that was sad.

It was also none of my business.

How she lived her life—or allowed others to live it for her—was none of my affair. I’d hung up my cape; I’d sworn off rescuing lost causes. People didn’t want to be saved. All my meddling efforts were now focused on my family and their happiness, whether they liked it or not.

Which brought me back to now and the skittish Jennifer Sylvester. Her uneasiness was good news for me.

I prepared to unleash my somber nod. “You know, Jenn,I don’t think you want to do this.”

Her fingers flexed on her legs, she lifted her chin, then she spoke through clenched teeth. “Don’t tell me what I want.”

Okay. Wrong approach.

I tried something else, lowering my voice and making myself sound sinister. “If you give me your word you’ll delete the video, we can forget all about this.”

Two unhappy lines appeared between her eyebrows. “It’s too late for that.” I got the sense she wasn’t talking to me. “And, besides, I don’t trust you to forgive and forget. You’ll take revenge sooner or later, it’s what you do. No . . . I’m going to see this through.”

I stared at her, likely gaping. I was flummoxed.

You’ll take revenge sooner or later, it’s what you do.

How could she know that?

I sat back in my seat and stared out the windshield, much of what I knew about the order of the universe rearranging itself. Perhaps Jennifer Sylvester wasn’t feeble after all. Perhaps Jennifer Sylvester was fierce.

That makes no sense. Nobody is that good at playing possum. Well . . . nobody but me.

I’d often thought in the past that she resembled a neglected puppy, eager to please. This made how her kin treated her difficult to watch. I’d stopped watching.

My eyes slid to the side and I examined her anew. Jennifer’s jaw was clenched with determination, the little point of her chin made sharp by the set of her resolve. Her face was usually sad or shy.

A touch of guilt flared, like an old wound. I quickly extinguished it, suddenly anxious to finish this peculiar conversation and return to a world that made sense.

“All right, what is it that you want?” I asked plainly, dropping all pretense. “Why am I out here? Why did you record the video, and what are you going to do with it?”

She released an unsteady breath and then looked at me. Her eyes were in shadow due to the rim of her hat. Vaguely, I recalled Beau once saying her irises were purple. I’d dismissed this claim because, unless Jennifer was an albino—which she wasn’t—her eyeballs could not be purple.

Regardless, I’d never noticed before, but the shape of her eyes was surprisingly attractive. Now, forced to reassess my knowledge of this woman, I found myself trying to discover the color of her irises as she spoke.

“I didn’t record it on purpose. I was there to record the sheriff for a—well, that doesn’t matter. But I didn’t record you on purpose. When I reviewed the video later, after hearing about what happened at the station, that’s when I realized you were in the video.”

“Okay, fine. I believe you. You didn’t record me on purpose. Now what?”

“I need your help,” she said, her voice softer, timid; her eyes large and hopeful.

This was the Jennifer Sylvester I knew, not the one with grit and granite.

“Hmm . . .” I squinted, disliking the possibility that there could be two sides to this woman. As a rule, I don’t believe in hidden depths, where hidden depths were defined as admirable but previously unnoticed qualities. I noticed everything.

Manufactured depths? Yes.

Disguised depths? Perhaps.

But not hidden depths.

Jennifer swallowed fretfully under my examination. I caught the slight tremor of her hands before she balled them into fists.

“What do you want?” I asked, no use beating around the bush.

She gathered a large amount of air into her lungs, closed her eyes, and then bellowed, “I want a husband.”

I frowned.

She opened one eye.

I blinked.

She opened the other eye.

I parted my lips to request clarification, but then thought better of it and snapped my mouth shut.

“Hmm . . .” I nodded, quite somberly.

Again, she’d taken me by surprise. Jennifer Sylvester wasn’t fierce. She was nuttier than a pecan pie.

“Right.” I continued nodding, turning my attention to the darkness beyond my windshield, then repeated, “Right.”

“You think I’m crazy,” she said in a rush, her hands grabbing my arm and holding on like I was a life preserver.

“Yes. Yes I do.”

A sound of desperation escaped her throat, then she said, “I want a baby.”

Oh good Lord!

I closed my eyes, scrunching my face and shaking my head. “This is a joke, right? Jethro set this up? He’s seeking revenge because I made him tell the Tanner twins story at Christmas.”

“No. This is not a joke. I know I sound crazy, I know I do. I mean, I’m twenty-two and I live at home with my parents. Look at me. I’m a joke. I’m the Banana Cake lady. No one wants to marry the Banana Cake lady. But Cletus, I work seventy hours a week at least. When would I meet anybody I don’t already know? Someone who doesn’t think of me as a joke? Plus my father would never let me leave the house if he knew I was going on a date.” Jennifer’s voice cracked with emotion.


She’s going to cry.

This was a situation that required neutralizing. I placed my hand over hers and gave her a squeeze.

“There, there.” Fruit cake. “Calm down—”

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” she screeched, wrenching her hands away. “I’m always calm. I always do as I’m told. I just want this one thing, this one thing for myself. Doesn’t everybody want to find someone? I don’t need love, just respect would do. And don’t most people want a family? Then why is it wrong when I want it? Why does that make me crazy?”

“It’s not the wanting part that makes you crazy. It’s the blackmailing-me-into-marrying-you-and-giving-you-a-baby that brings your mental health into question.”

Jennifer straightened her spine, her full lips parting in what looked like confusion at first, then horror. “Oh no, Cletus. No, no. I don’t want to marry you. No, not you. You misunderstand, I want you to find me a husband. I would never marry you.”

Uncertain if the situation called for relief or resentment, I stared at Ms. Jennifer Sylvester in abject bewilderment.

She huffed a tired laugh and buried her face in her hands. “I’m sorry, that came out all wrong.”