SpeakEasy Chapter 15 by Romualdo R. Chavez

Speak-Easy chapter 15

About SpeakEasy

  • SpeakEasy is the 2013 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Read more about the project including the premise, behind the scenes, and the book launch party.
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 15 by Romualdo R. Chavez

The Darkest Hour

Mike’s Mirage was packed. Everywhere Julia looked, she could see movement. The hustle and bustle of patrons walking to and from the bar, laughing, stumbling, and simply having a good time was something she never thought she’d be so happy to see. A cloud of smoke, thick with the sweet and woody smells from men’s Colorado Claros, settled over the tops of patrons’ heads like a dense fog. Bursts of laughter from tables nearby caught her attention. Men were dressed in their two-button short jackets with whiskey glasses in one hand and their other arm wrapped around their dates’ shoulders, their hands caressing possessively. Julia gawked at how radiant the women appeared. They sat in languid poses with bobbed hair, waist-length pearl necklaces, and knee-length dresses with dropped waists.

The flurry of activity was exactly like Julia remembered. A tall, burly beast of a man stood by the entrance. He appeared formidable and intimidating, but to her, he was simply Hal. He caught her eye and nodded in a slight greeting. She caught a glimpse of a familiar mane of jet black hair. It was Rosie, balancing her tray of drinks and greeting customers as she went. But nothing made her heart flutter more than when she saw Billy hauling coolers of ice to the back of the bar. He handed them off to Mike Ward, who was doing his best to keep pace with the demand for more liquor. The tinkling sound of ice being scooped up and dropped into glasses was like music to her ears. On his way back to the storage room, Billy stopped and turned his head back in her direction. She felt her eyes begin to well up and brought a hand up to shield her face from the crowd, but that’s when she noticed something strange. Her rice-paper skin had been replaced with smooth and wrinkle free pink flesh. Upon a closer inspection of herself, she appeared to have de-aged. Even her hair had returned to its natural platinum blonde splendor.

“We’re ready when you are, Julia,” a voice from behind her said, startling her. She turned around and familiar faces smiled back at her as they fiddled with their instruments and awaited her cue. One player in particular seemed out of place. It was Pete, or someone that looked very similar to him. The lights suddenly dimmed, and at that moment all eyes focused up at the stage where she stood, several decades younger, hair bobbed, and wearing her favorite sheath with a sheer, beaded overdress.

“I’m ready,” she said to the band behind her. The familiar bars of her favorite song burst from each instrument, making her sway to their hypnotic beat. She caught Billy’s eye, and he gave her a big smile. It was all she needed to begin belting out the lyrics to “Get Happy”. Everyone in the audience bobbed to the music. Women pulled on their dates’ sleeves and beckoned them to dance. Julia couldn’t help but notice that the men admired her beauty and natural charisma on stage and couldn’t pull their gazes away from her. I’m home, she thought. All her worries seem to dissipate. She knew it wasn’t real, of course. Had she really traveled back through time, they would not have been this noisy. They had to be mindful not to draw too many people to a club like this. After all, they were participating in illicit activities.

The danger of being caught was the fuel she needed to sing her heart out, to unleash the pent up emotions buried so deeply within herself that she often wondered whether they still existed at all. Tonight, however, she knew they did, and the crowd loved the restults.

A knock at the door startled Julia awake from the dream still laced with the haunting sounds of trumpets and a teasing of strings on bass guitars. When her eyes opened, she swore she could still hear the piano playing in the background of Mike’s Mirage. The familiar tune of Get Happy lingered on the cusp of her thoughts, beckoning her to return to the party. Julia realized she had fallen asleep in her rocker again and found herself back in her room at Lakeview Manor. She glanced at the clock on the mantle. It was 10:00. No one ever visited her room this late.

After Pete’s surprise jazz show in the dining room, she, along with all the other residents, had been escorted back to their rooms for the night. The nurses usually went to all the rooms and assisted in getting them ready for bed. Julia often accepted their help, and then she would get up out of bed and return to her rocker, to either read or look at her photo albums. In this instance, she was still reeling from the nostalgia at watching Pete play, rekindling memories of Mike’s Mirage and repairing fragmented ones.

“Come in,” she said. A familiar figure entered the room dressed in a black pant suit. Her dark brown hair with specks of white had been pulled into a tight bun. She smiled coldly and started to speak, her voice sending chills up and down Julia’s back and arms.

“Hello, Julia,” Miss Banning said. “Sorry for the late visit, but this was the only way I could get you alone.”

Julia rubbed at her arms and pulled her hand-sewn shawl tighter, trying to make the goose flesh disappear.

“Is something wrong, dear?” she asked, curious as to why the owner of Lakewood Manor would be paying her a visit. Ms. Banning made a slight smile and closed the door behind her. She took a look around the room, then moved toward her burled walnut lady’s desk and pulled out the leather-padded chair. Miss Banning sat down across from Julia.

“Does the name John Markham Smith ring a bell?”

Julia thought about this for a moment. “The name is familiar, but I can’t put a face to the name,” she said truthfully. “My memory is not what it used to be, you know.” She chuckled at this, but Miss Banning remained emotionless. “Why?”

“I’m surprised you don’t remember. After years of listening to numerous trips down memory lane, I’m a bit offended you didn’t take the time to remember John.” She looked down at her knee and rubbed an imaginary spot of dust away. Her posture remained rigid, and she kept her voice tone flat with no hint of warmth.

“I don’t recall ever sitting down and sharing my stories with you.”

She smiled. “Of course not, why would you? I bet even now you’re already forgetting half of what I’m saying.”

Julia was taken aback by her abrupt rudeness. “Miss Banning, I’m going to have to ask you to leave my room. I don’t appreciate your tone of voice, and frankly, it’s too damn late in the evening for me to be putting up with it.”

“Does the date January 29th, 1933, ring a bell?”

At the mention of the date, Julia grew still. She was unsure how the woman knew so much about a time period she wasn’t even around for. Instantly she found herself transported back to the last time she spoke to Billy, just two days before she found him dead.

The club had been quiet on the morning of January 27th. Julia remembered a few patrons sitting at the bar, talking in hushed tones and gawking at her as she bent over to scoop up the dirt from the floor with a dust pan.

Rosie was busy cleaning their only bathroom, while Mike manned the bar. It was one of those rare occasions that he actually came in and helped out. Most of the time, he was out and left the day-to-day tasks of the bar in their hands. Julia and Rosie practically lived at the bar most days and took turns sleeping on a single mattress near the furnace. However, they’d managed to scrape up enough money to get them a small studio apartment a block away from the bar, which they rotated using on days when someone needed to be at the bar to help Billy with the shipments.

Julia had nearly completed most of her daily chores when she felt a presence behind her. She whipped around to find Billy standing there with a shipment of whiskey from Kansas City.

“Oh, Billy, you scared me,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Jules,” he said with a smile.

“What are you doing here? I wasn’t expecting you until tonight.”

“This is a special shipment that Mr. Mike wanted brought in right away. He insisted on having it here before he set out for Kansas City, so I had to come all the way back to make sure he gets it.”

“Oh, well, that’s strange. He didn’t mention anything about that to me.”

“Mike wasn’t at the bar, and so I didn’t know where he wanted me to put this new shipment,” he said. Julia was confused. She swore she saw Mike at the bar a few minutes ago.

“He was just there, Billy,” she said, looking around behind him. The only people near the bar were the regulars, and they had suddenly watched their exchange with piqued interests. She knew what that look meant. They assumed Billy was bothering her. It had nothing to do with him being a strong, chiseled man, with a chest you could lay your head against. No, this was strictly about the color of his skin. She had to act fast before the men at the bar approached and caused a scene. Normally it didn’t matter what your skin color was at a speakeasy. As long as you had money and you were willing to spend to your heart’s content, Mike welcomed you with open arms. Unfortunately, not all people felt the same way, especially after they had a couple of drinks.

“What is it?” he asked, noticing the concern etched across her face. She placed a hand on his left shoulder so the men couldn’t see.

“Mike wants those in the storage room,” she said, loud enough for the men to hear. “Please, come with me, and I’ll show you were they need to go.” He nodded and followed behind her. She couldn’t help but glance at his muscles bulging beneath his shirt. She pointed to the storage closet, cater-corner to the bar, and grabbed the keys from her pocket and unlocked it for him. She ushered him in and then quickly ran over to the restroom and got Rosie. She convinced her to entertain the guests for few minutes while she talked with Billy. Reluctant to go out there, Rosie agreed on the condition that Julia remain overnight for the next shipment in two days. Rosie alluded to the possibility that she might need to sneak away to take care of some business. Julia figured ‘businesses’ indirectly referred to a possible relationship between her and Mike Ward, but Rosie never admitted it.

Inside the storage room, Billy had already unloaded most of his shipment and was waiting for her. Once she was inside and the door closed shut behind her, he swept her off the ground in his massive arms and brought his lips down to meet hers. Despite his strength, he held her with the same delicacy as a pane of glass. She felt her face redden and her stomach flutter from their contact. He pulled away slowly and gazed deep into her cloudy blue eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispered. She put her hands on his face and kissed him again.

“We have to be careful during the day, hon. I didn’t like the look of those guys at the bar. They would have tried to start a fight with you, under the false pretense that they were protecting my honor.”

Billy laughed deeply. “They’re scared of me, Jules. One look is all it would take.” She loved his confidence but also felt that he was slightly naïve to think they wouldn’t try other tactics.

“I can’t stay in here long,” she said, caressing his face and kissing his lips tenderly. “If Mike’s back out there, he’ll be wondering where I am.” He sighed deeply.

“Then let’s get out of here. Get a place out in the country away from all of this.”

“Where would we go?” she asked. “No one would accept us — you know that.” It pained her to see the look of disappointment on his face as she burst his bubble. “These are dangerous times, my love. It’s bad enough we operate on the fear that at any moment the police will shut us down.”

“I don’t care,’” he hissed. Billy pulled away and rummaged in his overalls. He pulled out a little black box and placed it in her hands. She looked at it and then opened it, only to find the biggest surprise of her life. Inside was a ring, but not just any ring. She gasped as she gazed upon its size. A dark green emerald stone winked back at her under the low lighting of the storage room. It was flanked by two triangular emerald stones and surrounded by diamonds. She was speechless at its magnificence.

“Billy… it’s beautiful.” Tears welled up in her eyes and ran down the length of her cheek. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. She closed her fingers around the ring and brought it up to her chest. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling the scent of him. He caressed her back tenderly. She pulled away from the embrace and gazed into his eyes.

“How can you afford something like this?”

“Does it really matter?”

“It’s just so gorgeous,” she said, holding up the ring in front of them. The light reflected off the stones and made them sparkle like tiny stars. “‘I don’t know if I can —”

“You would do me a great honor, Ms. Stanford, if you accepted my proposal.” He brought his fingers to her chin, prompting her attention back to him. She felt an overwhelming amount of joy and was practically bubbling over with giddiness. “Well?”

“Of course I accept, Billy Thompson,” she said.

She looked up into his big brown eyes and he leaned down in for another kiss. They shared several more minutes of happiness before Mike started pounding on the door.

“I need more whiskey, Julia,” he shouted, startling the both of them. She nearly dropped the ring.

“Okay, I’ll be right out.” She took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly. Billy kissed the top of her forehead.

“We can talk some more later on,” Billy said. “Are you staying here tonight?”

“Of course! You know I’m always here. Rosie and I are staying here tonight and tomorrow. She mentioned something about possibly having to leave for an hour or two, depending on the crowd. She has to take care of some personal business, so it may just be me here when you return. Someone has to open the door and let the bootleggers in.” She poked him in the side, making him smile.

“I’ll bet Rosie has some personal business to attend to…” he started to continue, but broke off.

Julia looked up at him questioningly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shook his head and tightened his lips. “Sorry, Jules, I can’t say.”

“We’ll see about that.” Julia pulled Billy in for one last kiss. It was deeper this time and she felt herself succumbing to the passion between them. She wanted him, despite what people thought. Another pounding at the door broke them apart. Julia shoved the ring in her pocket and walked over to a nearby crate filled with whiskey bottles and then hurried over to the door.

She glanced back at him. “When do you think you’ll be back?”

“Two days. I’m hoping to be back here some time after midnight on the 29th. After I’m done unloading, I’ll make sure to keep you company by the furnace,” he said with a sly smile.

She giggled and shook her head playfully. “Be careful, Billy Thompson, I may not let you in.” He laughed and watched her open the door with one hand carrying a crate with rattling glass bottles back out into the bar. She started shouting toward Mike’s direction. “Sorry, Mike, I made a mess in the back room and Billy was helping me clean it up…”

Julia sighed. Had she known that would be the last night they were ever going to be together, she would have made Mike wait a little longer.

“Julia! Earth to Julia? Come back to us,” a shrill voice said.

Julia blinked and realized she was back in the room with Miss Banning again. Part of her wished she could delve back into the memory.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I must have gotten lost in my own thoughts. You were saying, dear?”

Her guest grunted out of irritation. “I asked you whether January 29th, 1933 meant anything.”

“Yes, it means something to me. I found Billy dead outside Mike’s Mirage around 3:00 AM that morning.” Her wrinkled eyes welled up. She couldn’t believe what this woman was putting her through. “After that whole ordeal, my feelings for the club changed. A new bootlegger took Billy’s place, and soon he was pretty much forgotten. Those of us managing the bar helped Mike continue the party up until October 29th, even though my heart wasn’t in it on most days. Every time I studied the ring or glanced over at Topeka High, Billy was all I could think about. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”

Miss Banning stood up suddenly.

“Wrong, Julia,” she hissed. “Justice was served that day. Billy had to pay for his sins.”

Julia was outraged and tried to stand, her body shaking profusely. She extended her arm and pointed at Miss Banning. “Speak easy, now, darling. Those events were way before your time. You have no idea what actually happened.” Miss Banning’s right eyebrow raised, her curiosity now piqued at Julia’s statement.

“And you do?” she asked. Julia stopped speaking for a moment and slowly worked her way back down into the seat. The strength it took to stand so abruptly took more out of her than she’d intended. She knew she had to be careful. Another fall could easily do more harm than good.

The fact that Miss Banning was harassing her so late in the evening and completely out of the blue was infuriating. What did she know about Billy? Did she know about the Westfield Heist Ronnie mentioned several days ago? Where was Miss Banning getting all her information? The more Julia reflected on this, the more it became apparent that her room being ransacked was an inside job.

“One hundred and eight years … that’s a long time to be on this earth,” Miss Banning said, “I would think after a hundred years, you’d start questioning God as to why He has forsaken you.”

“You should count me lucky to live that long, Miss Banning. I’ve seen many things in my lifetime and I’m thankful for that every day. So leave God out of this.” Ms. Banning sneered at the lecture and dismissed her with a wave of the hand.

Julia rocked back and forth in the rocker, feeling her heart pounding a little faster. The blood was pumping through her old blue veins quicker than it had in the last three years. To Julia, it felt nice to be able to feel the intensity of emotions again. All too often, even before Ronni entered her life, she spent many days and nights confined to her room. She felt like a prisoner in her own home, waiting for someone to come and rescue her. It was something that she couldn’t escape, and it only got progressively worse the older she became. Miss Banning, despite her tenacity, had a point – but now wasn’t the time for Julia to linger on such thoughts, not when her pride was at stake.

“So what exactly happened, Julia?” Miss Banning asked. She circled the room, gazing down upon Julia’s taste in furniture and knickknacks with a critical eye. “You seemed to know more than you’re saying.”

“First, tell me why you broke into my room and went through my personal items.”

Her guest put a fist to her heart and sighed heavily, her mouth agape. The mockery was not making Julia any more inclined to tell her about anything. “Why would you assume I had something to do with it?” Miss Banning asked.

“Despite what the authorities found or what the nurses say happened, clearly this was an inside job. I may be old, but I’m by no means a fool. Despite what young people may think.”

Miss Banning laughed. “Oh, Julia, I haven’t been called young in years.” She grew serious. “Unfortunately, flattery will get you nowhere with me. It certainly didn’t work with Nurse Lydia. Oops!”

Julia gasped. “Get out, murderer!” Her heart thumped loudly, and she started to feel a shortness of breath.

“I’m sorry, Julia,” she said. “I’m not finished with you yet.”

“Well, I’m done! I’m calling Deborah, and I’m going to tell her to find me a new place to live.”

Miss Banning approached Julia without wavering. She encircled the rocking chair and placed an icy-cold hand upon her shoulder. Julia cringed at the contact.

“This conversation is far from over, Julia. In fact, I agree with you about a change in scenery. I think that’s exactly what we need. This room has become a little stuffy, anyway.”

Julia felt a slight sting in her neck and caught a glimpse of a syringe. The room started to blur, and she felt her eyes getting heavy. The last thing she saw before slumping over unconscious was Nurse Paula opening the door and bringing in a wheel chair.

 

* * * * *

 

The assignment was simple. Get close to Charles Christopher, Administrative Law student and supposed head of the underground cheating ring. Simple enough – or so Ronni thought.

Ronni’s first impression of Charles was that he couldn’t be smart enough to organize something so complex, despite being prone to narcissism. She found evidence of his cheating, kept tabs on his activities, and made notes. She kept in contact with the boss and thought this was an open and shut case. She even joked that she would have Charles confessing to the crime within two weeks after being assigned.

Unfortunately, two weeks quickly became two months and soon she found herself weaving lie upon lie to keep her undercover position a secret. She was not prepared for the layers of crap that would accompany this case.

It started shortly after a week of meeting Charles and establishing herself as Veronica Long, Cultural Anthropology major extraordinaire — student by day and bartender by night. She didn’t bother focusing on a lot of the specifics because she was confident in her abilities to solve the case. When she realized it was going to take Charles longer to warm up to her, she was forced to reexamine her motives. She placed a call one evening to her boss, Chief Richard.

“Has he confessed yet?” he asked. The tone of his voice sounded almost giddy to her.

“Not yet,” she said, with reluctance.

“Really?”

“He’s close, though, I can feel it.” ‘

Richard wasn’t buying it. Ronni could sense the disappointment in the sound of his voice. “What’s taking so long?” he asked. “I thought you said you could handle the case.”

“Chief, I can do this. It’s just that he’s… ” She had to make up something. The truth was, she was nowhere close to solving the case as she thought she would be.

“Well?” he demanded.

“I need to delve deeper into the life of Veronica Long. He’s suspicious of me not attending classes. My roommate, Donna, keeps feeding him information about me. So he’s interested, but not enough.’” The fib sounded good to her and had some truth in it.

“Do we need to step in?”

“No,” she hissed. “Donna’s not the problem. My disguise isn’t good enough. I need more.”

“Dammit, Long, why didn’t you just say that in the first place? I’ll see what I can do. In the mean time, keep working on Charles.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, hanging up shortly after.

It wasn’t too long after that she became more involved in her studies, burying herself in the role of student and drawing less suspicion from those around her. She got so into it, there was a brief moment where she actually started believing she was a Cultural Anthropology major. Before long, she was starting her thesis project and got lost in the thrill of it, nearly forgetting her main objective. That is, until she met Julia Stanford. Now it seemed her boyfriend had taken an interest in her primary source, especially at the mention of jewels. She eventually put two and two together and realized that Julia was connected to history in more ways than one.

The Westfield Heist was an unsolved case she studied years ago out of one of her text books at the Academy. She hadn’t paid too much attention to it, which she regretted now, because she never dreamed would come back to bite her in the butt.

All of a sudden, it became clear to Ronni what was happening. She had become too involved in unraveling the mystery that she completely lost sight of her main objective. In turn, the eighty-year-old case went far deeper than she could have ever imagined – and the cheating ring, kidnappers, and Westfield Heist were all connected. Perhaps, the true villain was someone she completely underestimated.

Ronni watched Charles very closely. He was awaiting her reaction to his proposal. She knew her cover had been blown the moment he uttered the phrase “Will you marry me?” It was a set up. The events of the past several days had put her through the wringer, and he knew it.

“How long have you known?” she asked. Her eyes did a quick scan of the room, observing the amount of people in the restaurant, searching for exits, and keeping an eye out for any lackeys he may have stashed in the restaurant posing as harmless patrons.

“Since you began making idiotic mistakes left and right.”

“Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.”

Charles gave a big smile. “Enjoying all the fun, yet?”

“You’ve been planning this for some time, haven’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

The waiter appeared and brought two long-stemmed glasses and an expensive bottle of red wine. He set them on the table and asked if they wanted to order. Ronni declined, but Charles insisted. His eyes grew dark when she didn’t cooperate. He briefly opened his suit jacket so she could see the small 9mm in its holster. She quickly ordered something so that the waiter would leave. When he left, she leaned in across from Charles and started speaking.

“There are too many innocent people in here,” she whispered. “Don’t be a fool.”

“I didn’t want you to be rude. I obviously wanted you to be here for a reason, and it’s only natural you accept my gracious hospitality.”

“It’s a little hard to be gracious to someone who kidnapped my mother.”

Charles fidgeted with his plate and silverware in front of him. “Yet you managed to get her out safely,” he said.

“Another part of your little scheme, I assume?”

“Of course, just like I planted that phone in your cupboard, so you would think your roommate was involved, too.”

“I knew it was suspicious the moment I found it.”

“I’m sure,” he said with a smile. “It’s funny how you’ve been running around playing undercover cop these past few months, and you’re no closer to solving the case than you were when you first started.”

Ronnie was peeved. She glanced over at the butter knife and then up at Charles. He shook his head.

“So you have the advantage. What is it that you want?” she asked.

“Did you read the journal?”

“The one you so cleverly stashed in the basement?” He nodded. “No.”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“Of course I read it. I get it. You want the jewels.”

“But do you know the connection?”

“Yes. The author is your ancestor, you want revenge for stolen merchandise, and Julia is the key to getting the jewels back.”

“If only it were that simple.”

The waiter appeared with their food and then left. Charles dug hungrily into his meal like a lion on a zebra’s hide. Ronni felt nauseous, and the idea of eating was not on the top of her list. She thought about her mother and how she had hoped she was all right. Her uncle would take care of her, which wasn’t an issue. Ronni’s concern was whether Charles would attempt to use them as collateral again.

Charles watched her like a hawk, insisting that she eat. She took a couple of bites, and her stomach churned. She was tired of this game and wanted to end it. The only problem was — how? When both of them finished their meals, Charles requested the check.

“So what happens now?”

“You’re going to call your contact and have them drop off the jewels to you, and then we’re going on a little field trip.”

“And where are we going?”

“Back to where it all started.”

She swallowed hard. There was no doubt he meant Mike’s Mirage. “If I don’t cooperate, what happens? You can’t use my mother against me again. She’s safe.”

Charles finished paying the bill and stood up. He walked over to Ronni and extended a hand, helping her up out of her seat. He bent close to her ear until his lips grazed her skin. To Ronni, his touch felt like snake skin and made her own skin crawl.

“We have Julia. Her life is now in your hands.”

Chapter 16 will be published next week at http://tscpl.org/community-novel

About Author Romualdo R. Chavez

Romualdo R. Chavez is a graduate of Washburn University. He majored in Psychology and minored in Sociology. His love for the Urban Fantasy genre led him to write his debut novel El Vampiro and the Curse of the Feathered Serpent in 2009. Other works include various short stories. He has contributed chapters for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library’s Community Novel projects: Capital City Capers (2012) and Speak Easy (2013). He has completed his second novel, tentatively titled The Mourning Sage, and is hard at work on the sequel to his first novel. Romualdo resides in Topeka, Kansas, where he is an active member of Kansas Writers Inc. and The Blackbirds Writing Group.

 

Lissa Staley

Lissa Staley helps people use the library. She is a Book Evangelist, Health Information Librarian, Arts & Crafts Librarian, Trivia Emcee, Classics Made Modern book group leader, and frequent library customer, especially with her children. She reads a new book every few days, but recently loved Adorkable by Sarra Manning, Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman and Tin Star by Cecil Castellucchi.