SpeakEasy Chapter 10 by Diana Marsh

Speak-Easy Chapter 10 Diana Marsh

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.
  • Read online, download to your ereader or listen to the audiobook version.
  • A new chapter by a new Topeka author each week at tscpl.org/community-novel.

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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 10 by Diana Marsh

Ronni couldn’t hold back her sharp gasp as Julia unveiled the contents of the bottom compartment. A small fortune in jewels laid in a haphazard tangle, strands of pearls wound around chains dusted in diamonds. There were more rings – though none of them as extravagant as Julia’s engagement ring – and a small cache of bracelets and pins. A flash of blue and green near the bottom of the tangle caught her eye, and Ronni leaned forward.

“May I?” she asked. Julia nodded, and Ronni dug through the tangle to extract the source of her curiosity. Ronni had never seen anything as fantastic as the brooch she held in the palm of her hand. Someone had painstakingly crafted the body of a peacock out of silver and a dozen emeralds, sapphires, and amethysts. The colors of the stones danced and melted into each other with every dip and turn of the brooch and shift in the light. At the center of the body sat a small, delicate watch face surrounded in small white diamonds. It didn’t tick, but Ronni felt sure that if she reached for the fob on the side and gave it a few turns, the gears would start to turn again.

Realization came as she brushed a finger along one of the sculpted feathers. She was wrong; she had seen it before. She snapped her fingers to help drag the information up from the foggy bottom of her memory. “The Westfeld heist.”

“The what?” Julia asked.

“The Westfeld jewelry heist. We studied it at the academy. Senator Joe Westfeld was a big-shot Senator here during Prohibition. He liked to publicly rail against the evils of alcohol, but rumor had it he spent his off hours frequenting speakeasies and tying one on at the penthouse at the Jayhawk Tower with the other city bigwigs.” Ronni looked up from the peacock in her palm. It felt so much heavier than its size, and she knew that was just her own excitement. “His wife had an infamously over-the-top collection of jewelry that she liked to show off whenever they went out. Not that he took her to speakeasies or the Jayhawk. He had a collection of good-time girls he took to those places. Anyway, one night while he was out painting the town, someone broke into his house and cleaned out his wife’s entire collection. Including …” She held up the peacock.

“Oh, my.” Julia clutched a hand over her heart. She didn’t look pale or on the verge of fainting, so Ronni didn’t call out for the nurse, but she did lay a hand on the older woman’s shoulder.

“The case was never solved, and the jewels were never found.” Ronni laid the peacock back amongst the other jewels and watched the light play over the stones one last time. When she looked back up, Julia was studying the ring in her hand, looking at it like she’d never seen it before. Likely hasn’t, not in this light, she thought.

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked, without looking up.

“A neighbor that heard a commotion got a knock on the head, but the Senator was gone, and Mrs. Westfeld was visiting family in Lawrence. Nobody was home.”

Julia nodded. The answer must have reassured some worry of hers, because the deep lines around her eyes softened, and she let out a shaky breath.

Ronni stood and went to the kitchen. She came back with a glass of water and handed it to Julia, who took it with a soft smile. “Julia, can I ask you how you ended up with them?” she asked as she retook her seat.

“A few days after … after I found him …” She paused to take a drink from the glass and then clasped it tightly in both of her hands. “I went to the rail yard to think. His Model A was there. It looked like someone had torn it to pieces – not that you could tell the difference in some respects, wreck that it was. Whoever’d done it didn’t know Billy so well, though, because they missed a compartment he built in to hide a pistol he kept, in case someone decided to get in his business. Bootlegging was rough business, you know.” She nodded at the collection of jewelry. “I found that all there, just like that. Didn’t know quite what else to do with it, so I gathered it up, took it back to Mike’s, and hid it.”

“You never thought about turning it in? Or fencing it? That is a lot of hot ice – pardon the crime novel parlance – and it could’ve softened life for you.”

The notion was dismissed with a brisk shake of Julia’s head. “I wouldn’t get Billy in that kind of trouble. Even dead, I wouldn’t turn him in.” She took another drink from her glass, then sighed. “So you think Billy was involved in the robbery?”

“Looks like it. Either directly, or as an accomplice after the fact. It might even be why someone decided to kill him.” Her phone took that second to decide to ring. She didn’t recognize the number, but something told her to answer it anyway. At least it wasn’t Charles. “Hello?”

“Tell me you adore me,” the voice on the other end said. It said “adore” the same way it said “lovely” and “jazz,” in that way that made her smile despite herself.

“Why do I adore you exactly, Pete?”

“Because have I got a story for you. I’ve been doing a little research, and I think I found Julia’s Billy the Bootlegger.”

Ronni chuckled. “You aren’t the only one with a story, but I need a few more details. Could you do a little digging for me? Then you could bring that and your story by Lakeview, and we’ll spring Julia for a bite somewhere and compare grand discoveries?”

“Think I can manage that. What’ve you got?”

Ronni rattled off the topics she wanted researched. She heard the scratch of pen over paper and wanted to roll her eyes. Of course. Mr. Throwback would still use a pen and paper. It was almost cute.

“All right,” Pete said. “I’ll poke around here, and then I’ll swing by to pick you up at three?”

“You think you can manage all that and get here from Kansas City that fast?”

A warm laugh rolled down the line. “Of course I can. I’m Super Librarian. My fingers are faster than a speeding bullet, and I can leap tall microfiche readers in a single bound. See you in a bit.”

True to his word, Pete pulled up in front of the manor at precisely three o’clock. It had taken Ronni almost that long, and a call to next-of-kin Deb, to get Julia checked out for an afternoon field trip. Pete met them at the door and went through the mannerly process of guiding Julia into the front seat under the watchful eye of three nurses.

“We’re still not entirely sure about this,” one of the nurses kept saying as Ronni watched as well.

“We’ll have her back, unharmed, before bed check. Promise.” She adjusted the coat hanging over her arm to better hide the green crocodile case. She didn’t feel right leaving it there, despite the fact, to her knowledge, nobody else knew of its existence. Something, some bit of instinct, made her grab it on the way out the door.

As he shut Julia’s door, Pete waved her over. Ronni smiled to the nurses and offered her farewells and then met Pete at the passenger-side door. He opened it with a flourish and bowed. “Your chariot awaits.” Out of the side of his mouth, mid-bow, he asked, “They going to call the cops on us?”

Ronni decided not to chuckle at the irony. “No, we’re good.”

“Fantastic. No reason to take off at a dead run and show off my ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ skills.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if he actually possessed the aforementioned skills, but Ronni decided to keep that to herself, too. To be on the safe side, though, she fastened her seatbelt and made sure it was snug and secure before Pete slid back behind the wheel.

“All right then. We’re going to …”

“Weller’s. Just hit Topeka Boulevard and head north over the bridge.”

Ronni took the opportunity of the drive to catch Pete up. He took the news that she was an undercover cop with less-than-encouraging silence, but she didn’t have time to worry much about that, not when her attention was split between the conversation and a dark sedan she kept spotting out the back window that seemed to make every turn and lane change they did. It stayed three cars back at all times, and while Ronni tried to tell herself she was just being paranoid, that same feeling that made her grab the case on the way out the door made her suspicious of the dark sedan. So suspicious, that when they approached the stale yellow light at Sixth and Topeka she leaned across the seat and said, “Run it.”

“Excuse me? You want me to …”

“Run the light. Right now.”

“You’re going to get this ticket taken care of for me, right?” he said, but jammed his foot on the gas all the same and sent the car careening through the intersection just shy of the traffic heading east on Sixth. Ronni looked out the back window and let out a sigh when she saw the sedan stuck behind the light.

“Turn right on Fifth. We’re taking a slight detour.”

Just shy of four o’clock on a weekday, Weller’s Bar and Grill was not the bustling, noisy sports bar it sometimes resembled on game days or after five on Fridays. The bar was nearly empty, and the tables off to the left and back held only scattered parties, clustered around appetizers and sweating glasses. Ronni nodded to a server she knew, who held up a bottle of Bud Light and pointed to it in question. She shook her head, mouthed “water” and held up three fingers. The server rolled her eyes but nodded. Initial order received.

With Pete at one elbow and Ronni at the other, they got Julia situated up into a chair at the high table in the far corner, beneath a flat screen playing Sports Center on mute. The server brought over the water and three menus, and while Julia perused the latter, Ronni set the case in the empty fourth seat and unearthed the bottom compartment’s contents for Pete’s examination.

“Shut the door!” At Ronni’s sharp “shush,” he gave a sheepish smile and leaned closer. “Are those puppies real?” he asked in a whisper.

“I’m no gemologist, but I’d hazard a guess they are.” She closed the case and folded her coat over it, carefully eyeing the other patrons to make sure none of them were paying their table too much attention. “Someone thinks they’re real enough to kill over, anyway, if nurse Lydia’s ‘accident’ is anything to go by.”

“So we’re definitely thinking non-accidental accident, then?”

Ronni nodded.

Pete reached for his water with one hand and dug a collection of folded sheets of paper out of his pocket with the other. “Okay. Well, if what you had me look up is any indication, it’s probably not just a case of job-related paranoia.” He gave her a wink that earned him an eyeroll and inspired a chuckle from the seemingly otherwise focused Julia. Ronni sighed. Great, she thought. I’m outnumbered. “Anyway, I did some research on your jewel heist. You had the basic details right. The house was empty, neighbors heard a commotion around midnight, one decided to investigate since he knew the occupants weren’t home. Apparently, he thought it was likely just the senator coming home too soused to get himself to bed, which was a common enough occurrence. He found the robbers instead and took a blackjack to the back of the head for his trouble.”

Julia tensed and looked up from the menu. Ronni thought the word “blackjack” had inspired the reaction, but couldn’t be sure. Julia asked, “He was all right, though? The neighbor?” She seemed anxious.

Pete reached across the table and patted one of the older woman’s pale, thin hands. “By all accounts, he lived to a ripe old age.”

Ronni expected her to relax at the reassurance, but she didn’t, which just reinforced something about her initial suspicion. ”So there were three men on the job?” she asked, turning her attention back to Pete.

“The neighbor swore up and down he saw three men in the house. Other neighbors claimed to have spotted a beat-up truck parked in front of the house with its engine idling and a woman behind the wheel about the same time.” Pete smoothed out the folds in one of the printouts and laid it in the middle of the table. It was an article from The Topeka Daily Capital about the robbery. “It was dark, but they gave a basic description of a young woman in her early 20’s with dark, curly hair.”

“That could have been Rosie,” Julia said. In the next breath, she smiled and set her menu aside. “I think I’d like the loaded baked potato, please.”

Ronni watched her for a moment before letting her eyes move back to the article. “It says here that the witness thought one of the men was ‘colored’ and another was ‘a big stocky mule of a thing.’ Could this be your Billy and that bouncer, Hal?” That bouncer, Ronni thought, who might make proficient use of a blackjack in his day to day activities keeping the peace at a speakeasy. Julia looked down at the table like a small child caught telling their parent half of a story.

“It’s possible. They were tight, Billy and Hal. Thick as thieves in the days right before I found him.” She laughed, though it wasn’t the most amused of sounds. “Guess that’s an apt enough description there. Since they were thieving.”

The server stopped by to ask for orders. Ronni grabbed the article and folded it in half before putting in Julia’s request for the baked potato and her own for burger and fries. Pete ordered the same, and they sent the girl off before all three leaned over the article once more.

“What about the third guy?” Ronni asked in a low whisper. “The neighbor didn’t see him too well, and there’s not much about him in the article.”

“Billy had so many friends,” Julia said with a sad sigh. “It could have been anybody. Or somebody I didn’t know at all, who got him and Hal both involved in this craziness.”

The comment made Pete jump in his seat and dig out a second piece of folded paper. He unfolded it with care and slid it across the table to Julia. “Mrs. Stanford, is this your Billy?”

The photo was old and grainy even before it had been photocopied. Age had left cracks in the paper and made it curl at the edges. Four men stood in front of a brick facade with the sort of free, careless smiles typical to young men assured of their own immortality. Two of the three were African-American. A tear on one corner had obliterated part of a sign in the background, but most of the letters in “Mike’s” still remained. As she stared at the photo, Julia’s cloudy eyes began to fill with tears. She reached out and tapped a shaking finger just above the tallest of the two black men.

“That’s him,” she said with a small, unsteady voice. “That’s my Billy.”

“Billy Thompson, according to the writing on the back of the photo.” Pete smiled. ”We had it in the archives. Somebody had donated it to the collection.

“Can I …?” Julia looked up from the photocopy with a watery smile. Pete nodded.

“It’s all yours. I can even make you a better copy if you want.”

Ronni wasn’t immune to the emotion of the situation, but she was more focused on the other men in the photo and whether one of them was the mysterious third man. She was still pondering that notion when her phone rang. She recognized Lakeview Manor’s number and frowned as she answered.

“I promise, Mrs. Stanford will be back in just a …”

“There’s a situation here that Mrs. Stanford should be aware of,” the crisp voice of the nurse said, interrupting Ronni’s lament. “Her room has been vandalized.”

Chapter 11 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel

About Author Diana Marsh

Diana Marsh spends her days as an administrative assistant with the State of Kansas, and her nights plotting the torment and agony of fictional characters. She has put the latter skill to use as a participant of National Novel Writing Month since 2003, an activity that has given her ten years of fun and five completed novels. If only that pesky first drafts from 2010 and 2012 would end.

Lissa Staley

Lissa Staley helps people use the library. She is a Book Evangelist, Health Information Librarian, Trivia Emcee, Classics Made Modern book group leader, NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison, Community Novel Project leader, HUSH podcaster, and frequent library customer. She reads a new book every few days, but recently enjoyed Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley.