SpeakEasy Chapter 17 by Sarah Langley

Speak-Easy chapter 17

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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  • A new chapter by a new Topeka author each week at tscpl.org/community-novel.

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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 17 by Sarah Langley

“Ten seconds and she’s dead.” Miss Banning settled her gun on Julia.

“The real jewels?” Pete said.

Ronni’s clutch on reality was waning, and it took her a second to realize Pete wasn’t really parroting in disbelief – he was sending a code to Ernest.

“No, we wanted fake ones all this time,” Miss Banning snapped. “Now where are they?”

Ronni’s thoughts were tense and fast. What had she been trained to do in this situation? She squeezed her hands together until they hurt. Nothing. She couldn’t think of anything except that she’d been fooled, and now they were all going to die. And there was nothing she could do about it.

No one spoke.

“Ten… nine… eight…” Charles started counting.

Man, he was annoying – narcissist law student or not. Ronni was about to shut him up when she gasped as Ernest filled the doorway, not a second before he let loose with his gun.

Ronni didn’t need an invitation. She was off her feet and running the second Miss Banning hit the floor. Running toward Charles, Ronni heard muted screaming – too much adrenaline pumping blood to her ears. Adrenaline shoved her foot into the crook of Charles’ knee. He was down, an easy target for her heel to bolt down his back. Ronni seized his hair and fisted his head into the cheap carpet. She felt good.

Ronni remembered to gasp air and tried to focus her eyes. Uncle Dallas had disarmed Deborah and was grappling with her. “Get Tyler, get Tyler!” Ronni could hear Ernest yelling, but the words weren’t registering in her brain.

WHAM. Ronni was on the carpet, head hitting first. Her air out so fast her insides felt like a fire pit. Charles still had his hand clenched around her ankle where he’d wrenched her down.

She could see him rising, coming toward her as she lay prone. Her fingernails dug into the carpet as she braced herself to kick. Charles dodged, and her foot glanced off his chest. He lunged and slammed his hands into her chest. Any air left was gone for good. Ronni’s legs pedaled the air, nowhere near hitting Charles. He had her wrists now, and he was pinning her arms to the ground. Charles’ head crashed down into her skull. Pain reverberated like a gun shot, and for a moment all she could focus on was Charles’s spittle bubbling around his teeth in what resembled a death grimace.

Charles reared back to head-butt her again. Instinct jammed her knee into his stomach. She scrabbled her hands to loosen his grip, still honking air back into her lungs. Gravity was on Charles’ side, and she flagged back down to the carpet. Desperation took over as her head lunged to bite Charles’s hands. Out of reach.

Then she saw it. Like slow motion. Charles released his grip from her arm. The stalled blood surged back. His hand was going for his gun. Ronni knew it. But suddenly she wasn’t scared. There was the opening she needed. Her knee chambered up. Charles’s arm came forward. Ronni thrust her leg to drive her heel into his throat. It felt like crushing a honeycomb.

That was all she needed. She was up in a second. Her eyes were sharp, wits tense with eagerness. It only took her a second to assess the scene. Pete was pulling Tyler from the closet, draping him over his back. Ernest had grabbed Deborah and was fighting to haul her out prisoner. Uncle Dallas was rising to his feet, knees cracking. He held the gun out, and Ronni could see his eyes keen on their opponents. He backed towards the door, barking orders.

“Ronni, grab Julia. Pete, get you and Tyler behind me. Let’s go, we’re out.”

Ronni whirled to Julia, but she was already up.

“Wait,” Julia said, crossing to the opposite side of the room.

What was she doing? Ronni felt her blood crawling through her legs in impatience. Julia reached for the jewelry box just before Ronni yanked her away. Julia gasped in pain at her roughness, but Ronni didn’t care. Their lives were on the line, and all Julia cared about was the jewelry box?

The fight was over, but none of them had the adrenaline kicked out of their systems yet. Feet were fast down the stairs.

“Let’s move, let’s move!” Ernest ordered. “Out the door, to the left, into the van!”

“There’s a safehouse about ten minutes from here,” Ernest said once they were all in the van. “But first we’re getting Tyler to the emergency room.”

* * * * *

It felt like hours before they arrived at the house, although it couldn’t have taken more than an hour. But that had been plenty of time for Ronni to stew over her situation. She was angry with everyone who had deceived her and at herself for not seeing any of it coming, for not being in control, for being the biggest loser she had ever met.

Pete led Ronni and Julia into one of the house’s bedrooms. “Just get some rest,” he told Ronni.

“I don’t need any rest,” Ronni snapped.

Pete took Ronni by the arm. “Just relax. If you need anything, I’ll be in the other room.”

“And I don’t need you either,” Ronni said. “Apparently that’s not how it went. You were the one that needed me. Needed me just so I would fit into your little agenda of helping Miss Jewel Hoarder over here.” Ronni’s face was hot. “All your gentlemanliness, all your Mr. Suave Let-Me-Help-You stuff. Well you know what? I don’t need your help. I don’t need help from someone who’s just out to deceive me. Who uses my emotions to get what they want. You go ahead – do what you want. But leave me out of it.” Ronni felt as if she was about to cry, but she was too angry.

“Ronni …” Pete started.

Ronni didn’t even want to hear it. No more of his smooth talk. “Pete, just go. Leave me alone.”

To her relief, Pete turned around and left. Ronni put her hands to her face, trying to decide if now was the time to cry or not.

“He’s not all that bad, Ronni,” Julia said quietly behind her.

“Oh, and you would know?” Ronni whipped around, any sadness suddenly replaced with anger again. “You haven’t been so honest with me either, have you? I don’t recall you being the one to tell me the whole story from the start.”

Julia said nothing. Ronni could hear Ernest and Deborah yelling in the makeshift interrogation room somewhere in the house. Ronni bet she could say a few things that would make her talk.

“And what about those jewels? You know who you are? You’re a thief, that’s who!” Ronni was spitting words fast. “Yes, you and Billy – both thieves. All along you’ve tried to get me to believe Billy was some sort of good guy, and that you were the innocent little lover.”

Julia lowered her head.

“Oh yeah, you expect me to believe you just found them in Billy’s truck? You really expect me to believe you didn’t have anything more to do with it than that? Well, I don’t!” Ronni was yelling now. “You’ve been the one to keep the jewels all the time – you never turned them in. You wanted them. You kept them. You told lies about them. For all I know, you could have even been the one to kill Billy!”

Julia’s mouth snapped open, and Ronni heard a noise of pain she’d never heard a human make. “It was me,” Julia whispered.

Ronni swallowed. “You?” She hadn’t really meant that accusation.

“Oh Ronni,” Julia said, crying, “I killed him – I was the one who killed Billy.”

Ronni knew enough to keep her mouth shut and let Julia keep talking. But it took several moments for the words to come out.

“Hand me the jewelry box,” Julia whispered.

Ronni was fast.

“Now your keys,” Julia said.

Ronni watched as Julia turned the jewelry box to its backside. She fingered the hinges, and Ronni noticed a very large screw. Slowly, Julia turned the screw with the key, her shaky hands constantly slipping the key off the screw head. Ronni restrained herself from grabbing the jewelry box and doing it for herself.

Finally, the screw slid out. Holding it in one hand, Julia used her nails to pop off the head of the screw.

Ronni gasped. The inside was hollow, and she saw a closely curled paper inside. After some working, Julia had pulled out the paper and unfurled it. The paper was small, but Ronni couldn’t believe it had fit inside the screw.

“Read it,” Julia said.

Ronni found her own hands were shaking more than Julia’s as she grasped the paper. It was old, creased, and torn, and somehow Ronni knew it was from Billy. His handwriting was poor, the spelling bad. Ronni was surprised he knew how to write at all.

Sweethart,

I knew you’d find this. I knew it because you love me, because you’re the only person that knows all my secrits. And now I have one last secrit to share with you, because I want you to know the truth. Sure as what you said, Rosie fell like an egg from a tall chicken for that plan to rob the Senator of his jewls. Hal did too. They needed just one more, and that one was me, and I was in. Only, you know I wasn’t in for none of the same reasons they was – I was in to do what the love of my life asked me to do, protect Rosie and the moral upbringing in all of us. Now I’m supposed to send these jewls to Rosie once she gits to France. So far, they don’t know I’m planning on returning the jewls to whose they belong, leaving your Rosie out of the trouble for good. But if you’re reading this, then you know I’m dead, and the jewls are now in your hands. If I could wish, I’d ask you to keep them for yourself. But you know the right thing to do with the jewls. Just don’t let yourself git in any danger because of it. That’s all I care about. And I’ll keep on caring about you long after I’m gone.

Love, Billy

Ronni was speechless. She’d been wrong. Again.

She moved her thumb so she could keep reading. Billy had written something near where it had been torn.

P.S. There’s one other thing. You need to know this, otherwise you will never -

“What?” Ronni cried. The tear in the paper cut directly through the rest of Billy’s sentence. “What was the rest of it?”

Julia pounded her fists down on her knees. “I wish I knew! It’s been driving me batty since the time I found it!”

Ronni sat, fidgeting in thought.

“If I hadn’t gotten him into it, he would have never gotten killed,” Julia said.

So she hadn’t actually pulled the trigger on Billy. That was good news. “Just tell me what happened,” Ronni said, taking Julia’s hand in an attempt to squeeze strength into it.

Julia snagged a couple of breaths and wiped her nose. “Listen, honey, Rosie’d got herself into some sort of trouble, and I knew it.” Julia sighed. “But I loved her. After all, she was my sister, and whether we knew it or not, there was something between us stronger than friendship. So I did what any concerned sister would have done – I tried to get her out of it.

“I shared everything with Billy back then, somehow managing to put it in the little time we had together. When I told Billy about Rosie acting suspicious, I suddenly had the plan to ask him to help get her out of it. Back then I thought Billy was invincible – with the bootleggings and all, he’d outsmarted the police and everyone else hundreds of times.” Suddenly Julia started to cry again. “Until me.”

“It wasn’t you,” Ronni said, but she knew her words were useless against the deep root of guilt. “Tell me the story. You’ll see; it wasn’t you.” As much as she wanted to comfort Julia, Ronni just wanted to hear the whole story once and for all.

“I knew Rosie was loose with the men, especially the powerful or the rich. So of course, the Senator was on her list. But that wasn’t the worst of my worries. I overheard a conversation that now I wish I’d never heard.” Julia’s nails dug into Ronni’s hand. “Some girl came in – maybe a prostitute, definitely a jilted lover. She went and got herself drunk, tried to drown out the bitterness of betrayal, I guess. And then she started talking. She was one of the Senator’s good-time girls – until the next one came along. The girl probably didn’t even know Rosie was one of them.” Julia shook her head. “That was the irony of it. Anyway, this girl wanted revenge, and she wanted it bad. How easy it would be to get to him, she said, how fun it would be to see him hurt. Soon she got Hal into it, and I knew Rosie was onboard too. And Rosie could do it – she was in the Senator’s house frequently enough.

“At the time, I didn’t know what exactly it was that they were planning to do – I never expected such a grand crime as a jewel heist. I found that out in Billy’s letter.” She sighed once again.

Ronni shook her head. This was a lot of information in one day. “But why did you keep the jewels?”

Julia took a few moments to answer. “At first it was because of Rosie. I just didn’t want to see her hurt. And – and I was afraid for myself too.” Julia turned her eyes away. “Who knows who would believe me – or Billy. I couldn’t let his name get dragged through the mud. And after he’d been killed over them, I guess – well, I guess I just couldn’t give them up. It was his last gift to me, the last thing I had to remember him by.” She paused, then spoke up again. Her voice was quivering. “So maybe I was the real thief after all. Maybe what I did was wrong. I don’t know. But I paid for it.” Her words turned bitter. “Billy’s dead, and it’s all my fault.”

“No – no. It wasn’t your fault.” Ronni said, but her mind wasn’t with her words. It was one of those moments in life where the events, the meaning, and the purpose all came together into a message meant only for her.

Chapter 18 will be published next week at http://tscpl.org/community-novel

About Author Sarah Langley

Sarah Langley, life-long lover of words, grew up finding rhyming words for every object she saw. She wrote numerous short stories, all of which were silly, but her young eyes saw them as masterpieces. Now she writes both poetry and novels because she loves the feel of a pen in her hand, the way a nib sinks into handmade paper, and because words (whether rhyming or not) are always stuck in her head like a favorite song. But most importantly, Sarah wants her writing to simplify the ideas of life and thereby inspire her readers to search out all the marvelous complexities and connections in life for themselves.

When not writing, Sarah dons her clown outfit and twists balloons so she can make children smile. She and her brother started their balloon-twisting business (Airheads) four years ago. But whether twisting balloons, helping children, or just living life, Sarah is always searching for inspiration to put those words in her head onto paper.

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.