SpeakEasy Chapter 14 by Rae Kary Staab & Elizabeth Staab Van Deusen

Speak-Easy chapter 14

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 14 by Rae Kary Staab & Elizabeth Staab Van Deusen

“Weird place for your phone,” said Pete, propping his elbow against the wooden door frame. “Has it been lost for a while?”

“It isn’t mine!” Ronni protested. She waved the phone in Pete’s face. “Look at it. One contact. And it says ‘Mother,’ just like on Charles’ phone.”

“You were snooping through his phone?” asked Pete.

“Of course I was, when I got half a chance. I’m an undercover police officer, for crying out loud. It’s not like I’m just a jealous girlfriend.”

A slight twist of a smile flitted across Pete’s face. “Wow, you’re really dedicated to your work.”

“Anyway, I don’t want to waste my time messing around with some jerk of a law student when my mother is being held prisoner. I’m glad he canceled our date for tonight.”

This time the smile stayed on Pete’s face for just an instant longer.  “So that’s why you didn’t have other plans. Hey, I am really sorry about your mother.” His smile melted into an expression of sympathy and concern. “I’m assuming you don’t want to come to my gig tonight after all. I really wish I could help.”

Ronni’s phone rang, and she almost dropped it in her haste to answer. “Hello?”

“Hello,” said Julia. “I’m afraid I can’t make it to the performance tonight after all. The nurses say that I’ve already had too much excitement for the week and must rest a bit. I am dreadfully sorry.”

“Oh,” said Ronni, in a voice like a bowl of wilted salad. “I’m sorry, too.”

“What happened now?” asked Pete, and Ronni handed him the phone.

“Oh, hi, Julia,” she heard him saying. “Oh, that’s terrible! It won’t be the same without you, Julia. Don’t worry, there will be another chance to hear our jazz ensemble. I’ll make sure of it. You have a lovely afternoon, too, Julia. Goodbye.”  He handed Ronni’s phone back to her. “Now what?”

“I don’t know what,” said Ronni. “Really, I don’t. My boss wants me to keep doing my job and let someone else in the force find my mother. That would be the most practical thing to do. But I don’t feel like being practical. I feel like I’m going insane.” Ronni knew she was leaking sensitive information, but her nerves were at the breaking point, and she just didn’t care.  She sat down in a chair, flopped her head up over the back of it, and closed her eyes.

“Well, I’ve got a plan,” said Pete, getting a glass out of the cupboard and filling it from the pitcher in the fridge.  “Not about your mother – sorry.  About Julia and the music. I bet I can get the guys to have a practice over in the Topeka nursing home so she can hear us rehearse. We don’t have to be at our gig until nine in the evening. There’s plenty of time to drive to Topeka and back.” He handed the glass to Ronni and made a nudging movement with his head.

“That’s a lot of extra gas,” said Ronni absentmindedly, taking a sip of water.

“It’s totally worth it,” said Pete. “She’s a hundred and eight. That makes anything she wants to listen to the coolest thing in Topeka.”  He gave a weird little wink, and Ronni suspected that he was trying to distract her from her worries.  It wasn’t working, of course; she couldn’t just forget when a member of her family was in danger. One part of Ronni was annoyed at Pete for not realizing that, but another part of her appreciated that he had at least tried. She took a deep breath and drained the glass of water.

“I guess I’ll go with you to see Julia,” said Ronni, thinking that at least it would be something to do that didn’t involve Charles.  She briefly considered touching base with Uncle Dallas to see if he knew who had been caught in their impromptu speed trap, then decided not to because she would then have to tell him what had happened to her mother.  At least she could put that off a little longer.

Ronni took a speedy shower and threw some things into her largest purse while Pete went out to tell the rest of the jazz band to get ready to go to Topeka. At the last moment, she put the strange cell phone into her purse with everything else, first switching off the power and then shoving it to the very bottom underneath her wallet and makeup kit. Then she climbed into the dark blue Chrysler van that Pete’s trumpet-playing buddy Ernest had offered to drive everyone in. She politely refused the front passenger-side seat and squeezed into the very back, preferring to sit in a place where she could turn her head aside and hide her face.

Just as the van was about to pull out of the parking lot, Donna got home from class. Pete rolled down his window and told her where they were going.

“Hey, I want to go!” said Donna. “I haven’t met Julia. She sounds like a sweet lady, and I’ve never talked to anyone older than a hundred before.” She adjusted the strap on her backpack a little higher on her shoulder.

“Hop in,” said one of the band members, opening a door for her.

“Great!” said Donna, as the guys moved aside to let her slip past and sit next to Ronni in the back of the van. The backpack got shoved under the seat in front of Donna, since a saxophone, clarinet, drum set, keyboard, trumpet, and bass already filled most of the van.

“Hey, isn’t this exciting?  We’ve got a jazz band, a hundred-plus-year-old lady, and a couple of cute girls. Sounds like a party to me!” Donna said. Recalling that Donna had no idea her mother had been kidnapped, Ronni gritted her teeth and forgave her cheerfulness.

“Hey, who’s the driver?” said Donna, after they’d gone a few miles down the road. “I know all the rest of the guys, but I think he’s new.”

“New at least two years ago, Sis,” said Pete.  “This is Ernest, trumpet player extraordinaire.  You know I told you that Jake was moving away, right?  Back when you were fussing about making it through your first year of law school. Anyway, that left us without a trumpet player, so we got hold of Ernest through Tyler’s church.”

“Yeah,” said Tyler, turning his head so Ronni could see that he was wearing a loud orange and white hat that displayed I Love My Saxophone in big green letters. The word Love was replaced by a fluorescent pink cartoon heart. “Ernest played special music for the service a couple of times, so I knew he was good.”

“Anyway, Tyler knew Ernest from church,” Pete continued, “so we asked if he would play a few gigs with us to see how he fit with the group, and he’s been with us ever since.  I’m surprised you haven’t met him, Donna.”

“I guess I need to get out more and check on what my big brother is up to,” said Donna.  “My life needs a bit more jazz.”

“Amen, sister,” said Tyler, tipping his obnoxious hat to her.

“Hey, let’s sing something fun,” said Ernest, changing the subject.

At the east Topeka toll booth, the van slowed and rolled through without stopping because the van had a pre-paid K-Tag that was read electronically.  In her distress, Ronni’s thoughts suddenly turned to a comparison  between toll gates and heavenly gates. Her mother had once said that knowing Jesus was like having someone else pay for a K-Tag to get through a toll gate for free; the difference was that the toll for the heavenly gates was so high that she could never have paid it on her own.  Ronni hoped that her mother’s faith was helping her in the current ordeal, and she prayed silently, for the first time in years, begging God for her mother’s life and safety.

Ronni thought that it had to be the longest half-hour road trip of her life, with Donna and the boys providing a rousing chorus of “Yellow Submarine” as a background to her anxious thoughts.  Eventually, though, Ernest pulled up in front of the nursing home, and the band started to unload their instruments while Pete went to the front desk to sign them all in. Ronni climbed out of the van as soon as the way was clear.

“Hey, Ronni,” said Donna, poking her head out of the van. “Do you know where there’s a ladies’ room?”

“You know, I don’t think I do,” said Ronni.  “I guess we could go and find one.”  She and Donna went into the nursing home ahead of the guys and went hunting for a public rest room.

“Oh, we’re with the jazz band,” said Donna airily, as she walked past the desk without signing in. “Just going to the powder room.” The nurse furrowed her brow a little but didn’t say anything, since she was still listening to Pete explain what they were all doing there.  Ronni thought she must have walked past a restroom at some point, but she couldn’t think of where. She was about to suggest that Donna politely ask Julia if she could use her bathroom when Donna suddenly stopped at the end of the fifth hallway they’d walked down.

“Hey, look,” said Donna. “It’s a stairwell. I thought nursing homes didn’t usually have basements.”

“I suspect it doesn’t get a lot of use,” said Ronni, shaking her head. “Maybe the building was converted from something else…” Ronni trailed off as she watched her roommate. “Donna, what are you doing?”

Donna had opened the door to the stairwell.  “Oh, just looking around,” she said.

“You’re going to get us kicked out,” said Ronni. And wouldn’t that just round off her day perfectly.

“Well, there aren’t any bathrooms on this floor,” said Donna, stepping through.

“Donna, every room has its own bathroom,” said Ronni.  “Just ask to use Julia’s.”

“I don’t know Julia,” said Donna. “Wouldn’t that be a bit awkward?  Hi, I’m more than eighty years younger than you, nice to meet you, can I use your bathroom? No way.” She started to close the door between her and Ronni, but Ronni stuck her foot in it and followed her.

“You know, they probably have security cameras around here somewhere,” she protested.

“I’m looking for the bathroom,” said Donna, opening her eyes wide and biting her lips in a shocking display of false innocence.

“Donna!” said Ronni. “What are you really up to?”

“Oh, just curious,” said Donna. “And keeping an eye out for anything odd. Outsiders don’t just get in and vandalize nursing homes, you know; their security is too good, even if anybody bothered. Either they’ve got horrible security issues, or Julia’s room getting messed up was an inside job. Maybe both. Either way…”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” said Ronni, following Donna down the badly-lit stairwell.  “But if we get caught and arrested for trespassing, it’s on you.”

Donna didn’t answer that comment and kept walking. At the bottom of the steps was a partly finished basement hallway with a poured cement floor and a flowered carpet runner that was a bit frayed along the edges. It looked like a cheap, ancient hotel, with numbered doors along one side and blank cement-block walls on the other.

“Weird basement,” said Donna. “I wonder what’s behind those doors?”

“That one’s pretty obvious,” said Ronni, pointing at the door that was marked with a peeling black and yellow “Tornado Shelter” sticker instead of a number.  “But they can’t possibly use it for the residents, not without an elevator. They would have special safe rooms on the ground floor instead.”

“Exactly,” said Donna, moving toward that doorway.  “Let’s look in there first!”

“We can’t just go around opening doors,” said Ronni, but Donna had already pushed open the heavy door and peered inside. It was dark as, well, what it was — an  underground room with no windows — so  there was nothing visible until Donna had felt for and found the light switch next to the door frame.  Ronni, who had stepped into the room as well, blinked away stars and looked around. The tornado shelter contained a five-gallon water cooler, several extra water bottles for it, and a stack of cardboard boxes.

“Wow, somebody really is ready for a disaster,” said Donna, pursing her lips. “That’s a lot of bottled water.”

Just then, the girls heard footsteps coming down the stairway behind them. Not knowing what else to do, Ronni flipped off the lights and shoved Donna behind the boxes. She was pretty sure that Donna’s excuse of looking for a bathroom was not going to hold up if challenged, and she had a feeling that they would discover something if they weren’t discovered first.

Heavy yet confident footsteps approached the doorway to the shelter, and the light flicked on again. Ronni hoped she and Donna were well-hidden – they couldn’t see any part of the doorway, so chances were good that they couldn’t be seen, either. If their luck held, the man wouldn’t need to get anything out of the boxes.

“Of all the inconvenient times to have to worry about a police investigation,” muttered a familiar voice. “Well, this is as good a hiding place as any down here.  They won’t search too hard, not with the focus so much on Julia. Poor old fool,” he added. “She can’t possibly know as much as they think. I suspect that the Westfeld jewels will never be found.”  Ronni almost choked when she heard the man step closer to the boxes, but a rustling noise at the front of the pile announced that he hadn’t bothered to bury whatever he wanted to hide very deeply. “Now to check on that ridiculous woman in room fourteen,” he sighed a moment later, and then the girls were alone again in the dark.

“That sounded like Charles,” said Donna.  “Wow, your boyfriend really is a jerk.”

“He’s not really my boyfriend,” said Ronni in exasperation. “It’s a long story. But he definitely is a jerk.”

“Let’s see what he came down here to hide, then,” said Donna, slipping out from behind the boxes and turning the light back on.

“I’m way ahead of you,” said Ronni, who had already pulled open the first box in the area she’d heard the rustling noise. It was full of canned goods, mostly creamed corn and chicken noodle soup.  Nothing looked suspicious, so Ronni opened the box next to it.  This one at first seemed to be full of nothing but flashlights and rain ponchos, but Ronni noticed a lumpy-looking poncho at the back and unwrapped it to find a leather journal that had to be several decades old. “I bet this is it,” she said.

“So let’s take it,” said Donna. “It’ll fit just fine in that giant purse of yours. And if he comes back and can’t find it, he’ll probably just think he doesn’t remember what box he put it in.”

Ronni had her own reasons for appropriating anything Charles wanted to hide.  The desire to finally get some information won out over the fear that taking the journal would put Charles on his guard and hurt her investigation, so she slipped it into her bag. “Let’s get out of here before someone comes looking for us,” she urged. “There’s just no excuse if we’re found here.”

“Worst they’ll probably do is kick us out,” said Donna cheerfully. “I think.”

“And you call yourself a law student,” said Ronni, rolling her eyes. “Donna, you have no idea what we’re dealing with.  These people are deadly.”

“It’s just Charles,” said Donna. “But don’t worry, I can keep my mouth shut.”

Deciding that Donna was more dangerous in her ignorance, Ronni determined to give her enough information to scare her into non-interference as soon as there was a chance. Helpful or not, Donna’s tactics were just too risky.

Returning as discreetly as possible to the ground floor of the nursing home, the girls eventually found a restroom; the door was hidden behind two fake trees.  “I guess it needs cleaning,” said Donna, shrugging her shoulders. “Oh, well, I mostly just wanted to redo my hair, anyway.” She pulled her curly auburn hair out of its elastic ponytail holder and shook it down around her shoulders. “Good enough. Where’s the party?”

The music floating through all the hallways made it easy enough to find the jazz band, and they really did seem to be having a party. They had gotten permission to set up in the residents’ dining room and were entertaining Julia and fifteen or twenty other elderly people who were obviously enjoying the performance immensely. Most of the more lucid-looking residents were smiling at the musicians and tapping their toes or nodding their heads.

“Ronni, darling, this is a lovely surprise!” said Julia when she saw the girls. “I was rather sad to miss out on the concert this evening, but this is really almost as nice. Young Pete has quite an accomplished group.  Everyone is having so much fun.”

“It certainly looks like everyone showed up to listen,” Ronni observed.

“All except that woman in room fourteen,” said Julia, shaking her head. “Poor dear never even comes out to meals. And so young to be in a place like this, too. I saw her once when I happened by as one of the nurses went into her room with medication. I believe she sleeps most of the time.”

“That’s really sad,” said Ronni vaguely, then suddenly remembered that Charles had mentioned a “woman in room fourteen” while talking to himself in the basement. “Does the woman in room fourteen ever have any visitors?”

“I don’t believe so,” said Julia.

“Donna and I will go and pay her a visit,” said Ronni decisively. “Julia, would you like to come along?”  She really hoped that Charles had already come and gone; she certainly didn’t want to run into him.

Julia’s face lit up.  “Of course!  That’s such a nice idea.  I’ll show you where she is.” Julia began to amble down the hallway, followed by the two girls. The band was still playing, and even the nurses were listening so attentively that they didn’t notice Ronni boldly opening the door to room fourteen.

When Ronni saw who was lying in the bed, she almost blacked out again.

“Mom!” she exclaimed, and she was at the side of the bed in a second, putting her hand on her mother’s shoulder. But her mother did not respond. She was in a very deep sleep, obviously drugged. “Donna, Julia, this is my mother. She doesn’t belong here. She was kidnapped this week. We’ve got to get her out of here!”

“How exciting!” said Julia. “An escape!” She rubbed her hands together happily. “Just like the old days of danger and intrigue. I have a wheelchair in my room,” she added. “You can borrow it.”

Julia told Donna where to find the wheelchair, and Donna slipped out to get it while Ronni stroked her mother’s hair and felt her pulse and cried with relief. There was no telling what drugs were in her system, but she was sure that if they could only get her mother out of Lakeview Manor she would be all right before long.  Ronni called up Uncle Dallas again for help.

“You need to break Virginia out of a nursing home?” said Uncle Dallas incredulously.  “I’ll be right there, Ronni.  You get her to the back parking lot, and I’ll get her out of Topeka and to somewhere safe.”

Ronni gave him directions to Lakeview Manor, then thanked him and hung up. When Donna got back, she helped Ronni lift her mother out of the bed and prop her up in the wheelchair. “The band is on the last song,” she announced.  “We’ve got to move.”

Ronni took several deep breaths and then pushed the wheelchair out into the hallway, trying to look as if she were not nervous. Assuming that her mother was not a properly registered patient and would not be recognized by the nurse on duty at the desk, she sauntered right by and smiled at the nurse, saying, “My mother fell asleep listening to all the beautiful music. Is it all right if I bring the wheelchair back after I help her into the car?”  The nurse nodded absentmindedly, still listening to the last strains of thrilling jazz music and not looking very closely at either Ronni or her mother. Donna and Julia had slipped back into the crowd of listeners.

Out in the parking lot, Ronni tapped her foot anxiously while waiting for Uncle Dallas. It was really only about ten minutes, but it seemed like thirty before he pulled up in that same dark green Crown Victoria and hopped out to lend his still-strong shoulder to heave Ronni’s mother into the back seat.

“Sorry for the delay,” he said as he shut the car door. “I took five minutes to lay down some blankets. Any particular time and place you want to meet up again, after I get her checked by a doctor?”

“Gage Park,” said Ronni suddenly. “If you think that’s safe enough. Send me a text message about pancakes when Mom is awake and ready to see me. I hate to let her out of my sight, but I have to stay undercover — I still need to come back here and see Julia.” It was one of the hardest things she could imagine doing not to get into the car herself, but Ronni knew that if she disappeared at the same time, it could make her family even more of a target. She watched reluctantly as Uncle Dallas drove away, then went back inside to return the wheelchair.

“Where were you girls for so long?” said Pete, as they drove away in the van after many compliments from both residents and staff. “It can’t possibly have taken you the whole time to find a bathroom. Is everything all right?”  He had traded seats with Tyler and was sitting directly in front of Ronni.

“Yes, everything is fine,” said Ronni, sighing with relief. “I’ll tell you all about it once we’re back in Lawrence. I think I’ll go to your gig after all.”

Pete turned his head to look at her, raising his eyebrows and shrugging his shoulders. “I guess everything must really be fine,” he said quietly, as the rest of the band continued to talk about the coming performance. “What happened?”

“I really will explain later,” said Ronni, pulling the old journal out of her purse and handing it to Pete as secretly as she could manage. “But here, take this. You’ll probably be able to read it quicker than I will. Let me know what you find out, Mr. Librarian.”

A few days later, Ronni received a text message from Uncle Dallas reading “Hey, Ronni, we should spend more time together. Let’s go out for pancakes.”

Unfortunately, Ronni’s car still hadn’t had the starter fixed, so she decided to depend on Pete to give her a ride.  She was eager to hear what he had found out, too, and she thought he could help her relax after a rather harrowing meeting with Charles’ mother on Sunday.  Between the woman’s expensive clothes, onyx jewelry, and dismissive manners — when she wasn’t on the phone with someone else — she made Ronni feel like yesterday’s watermelon rinds.  And she was indeed Ms. Banning, the same woman who had accosted her at the nursing home once, so Ronni had spent the whole visit being terribly careful not to say anything about Julia or Lakeview Manor, which didn’t leave her much to talk about. Ronni found herself looking forward to a car ride with Pete as an interlude of peace and sanity.

The ride to Topeka was as productive as it was peaceful; not only had Pete read the old journal, he had discovered a most unusual contact list slipped into it as a bookmark. “Not only was there a man on there who’s an examiner for the bar exam,” Pete explained. “There’s also the head of that scam charity that was in the news a couple of months ago. The one that still hasn’t been shut down because they haven’t proved that the elderly folks who donated to it didn’t want their money to go toward buying modern art for hospitals from a woman who is also on the contact list. And there’s a family tree on the back of the same sheet of paper. They’re all related to your boyfriend Charles. The man who wrote the journal was an ancestor of the whole lot — crooked as a dog’s hind leg, as my grandfather used to say. I think this John Markham Smith was from the same time period as Julia’s Bill the Bootlegger … He mentions a big job that was a total bust because one of his partners wanted to back out and ‘return the goods,’ but they fought and the ‘goods’ were never found.  I looked up the dates. That entry was written just after the Westfeld heist — he could have been the third man that the witness saw.  I don’t know how he dared write some of that stuff down.”

“It’s plenty incriminating,” said Ronni, shaking her head.

“It’s just like my grandfather always said when I helped him around the farm when I was a kid,” said Pete. “It’s always easier to know what a man’s about when you know whose kid he is and who his friends are. It’s like a barbed wire fence — if you know how it’s all connected, it’s easy to not get pricked.”

“I’ll remember that,” said Ronni, then startled as her phone rang. She was tempted not to answer it when she saw that the call was from Charles, but she decided it was safer not to ignore him.

“Veronica,” said Charles, in his usual arrogant tone, “I need you to meet me at the Pyrenees restaurant as soon as you possibly can.  It’s of the utmost importance.”

“I’m rather busy at the moment,” said Ronni, annoyed at being interrupted in her conversation with Pete and also impatient to get to Gage Park and see her mother.

“I won’t take no for an answer,” said Charles. “I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Goodbye.” And he hung up.

“Wow, that’s rude,” said Pete, who had sharp ears and had heard most of the conversation. “Do you want me to turn around and take you there? I can’t say I recommend it. Besides, I looked the guy up — he doesn’t need to be in law school, he’s already been admitted to the bar.”

“I’d really better,” said Ronni reluctantly. “Wait — already a lawyer? That doesn’t make any sense — unless he’s in on the cheating scandal, but I thought he was a random choice to get me closer to some law students. My boss must know more than he told me. Maybe I can see what Charles wants and then go on to Gage Park —hopefully it won’t take very long.”

Pete sighed and took the next exit where he could turn around. The ride to the Pyrenees was awkwardly silent, and Ronni was not in the best mood when Pete dropped her off. “Call me when you need a ride,” said Pete, as Ronni stepped out and closed the car door. She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked inside the restaurant.

“Ah, there you are, Veronica,” said Charles, who was dressed in a cream-colored suit with a red rose in the lapel. He ushered her to a table with a dozen more red roses in a vase, and then he stiffly got down on one knee.  “Veronica, I’m a man who knows what he wants and wastes no time in getting it. And you are what I want, Veronica, darling — will you marry me?”

Chapter 15 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel

About Authors Rae Kary Staab and Elizabeth Staab Van Deusen

Rae Kary Staab participated in the community novel project last year and thoroughly enjoyed writing for it She has a B.S. in Geological Engineering and is a certified E.M.T. Rae stayed home to raise her family and now that they are grown she is looking forward to writing and working. She enjoys reading, rope spinning, and sewing. Rae and her husband live north of Topeka. Rae Kary Staab may be contacted at raekarystaab@yahoo.com

Elizabeth Staab Van Deusen lived in Topeka as a small child and as a young adult, spending a year at Washburn University before transferring to Oral Roberts University and receiving a writing degree.  She participated in and won her first two National Novel Writing Month events with the Topeka NaNoWriMo group, and she is particularly proud of having written her 2010 novel draft entirely on the Topeka area group dare–a red sock, which she lost on page one and spent 50,000 words finding again.  Elizabeth is a substitute teacher and currently resides in Oklahoma with her husband and infant son.  This is her first time co-writing with her mother.

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.