SpeakEasy Chapter 18 by Holly Mace

Speak-Easy chapter 18

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 18 by Holly Mace

Ronni sat quietly in a chair in the bedroom at the safe house. Her mind was racing. All these years, Julia had been carrying the weight of the world on her now-frail shoulders, blaming herself for Billy the Bootlegger’s death. Ronni empathized with the burden Julia was carrying, After all, somewhere in Topeka her mother was recovering from being drugged by Charles and his crazy mother. If anyone understood the guilt of harm coming to people you love, it was Ronni.

Ronni looked over at Julia. She seemed to be re-reading the letter from Billy, even though Ronni was sure Julia knew it by heart. How much had she understood during the confrontation between Ronni, Charles and Ms. Banning? If Rosie and John Markham Smith did kill Billy, how could they let Julia carry the blame all these years?

Ronni could hear the angry rise and fall of voices as Ernest continued to interrogate Deborah elsewhere in the safe house. Deborah. Ronni thought back to the day she met Deborah at Lakeview Manor. She said that Julia filled in as her grandmother when her real grandmother, Julia’s best friend, passed away. Did that mean that, despite everything that happened with the jewel heist and Billy’s death, Rosie continued on through the rest of her living years as Julia’s close sister and best friend? Did Julia really have no idea what happened? Did no one in Charles’ family really have any idea that Julia had the jewels until Ronni mentioned it?

“Julia …” Ronni turned, poised to ask Julia the questions that were plaguing her, but she was greeted by the sight of Julia sound asleep in her chair, the letter still firmly grasped in her right hand.

The room was a bit chilly. Ronni pulled a blanket off the foot of the bed and wrapped it around Julia’s thin shoulders. She let her hand rest on Julia’s back a moment. Ronni surmised that Billy was so in love with Julia that he would have done anything for her, including whatever it took to get Rosie out of trouble. If Julia had any idea of the danger Billy would have been in, would she still have asked that of him?

The question brought Ronni’s thoughts racing back to the current situation. How did things get so out of hand? Blowing her cover was a rookie mistake – where did she go wrong? What could she have done to prevent so many people she cared about from being right in the path of danger? She said a quick prayer that her mom was safe and recuperating. She needed to find Uncle Dallas somewhere in this house and ask him who was caring for her mom. And Uncle Dallas—he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Even though he loved this kind of danger, was it taking its toll on him? Then there was Donna. What information did Charles have to prove that Donna was leading the cheating ring? What was he planning to do with that information? And Pete—well, Ronni wasn’t ready to deal with him yet.

“Ronni?” The soft rapping at the door interrupted her thoughts. Pete.

Ronni opened the door and hated how, despite her determination to be angry with Pete and suspicious of his motives, her stomach fluttered at the sight of his concerned face and the melodic way he said her name.

“I thought I told you to go away, Pete. Besides, Julia’s sleeping. She needs to get some rest.”

“Can you come down the hall with me then? Please, Ronni? I really owe you an explanation.”

“I’m not leaving Julia alone in a strange house, especially with everything that’s happened today, and still could happen. What if she were to wake up and no one was around? No, Pete, if you insist on talking to me, you can do it here — just quietly.” Ronni glanced over at Julia, who hadn’t stirred, and then turned back to Pete, her arms crossed, daring him to speak.

“Ronni, I …”

“Hal is your GRANDFATHER?” Ronni interrupted. “It’s not until we’re in immediate danger that you decide to share that piece of information? So what was the plan, Pete? What was your angle? Everyone seems to have one different from what I suspected. What’s yours?”

Pete ran his hand through his hair and took a deep breath. Ronni thought he almost looked a little scared to speak. She noticed she was standing with her fists clenched as though ready for a fight. She let herself relax and sat down so that Pete would start talking.

“I didn’t have an angle — at first,” Pete began. “Up until the day you needed a ride to Topeka, I just knew you as my sister’s roommate who seemed to be pretending to be something she wasn’t, but I couldn’t put my finger on the what or why. Then you called Donna that day needing a ride and my involvement just started out as a random act of chivalry. I couldn’t believe my ears, though, when you mentioned you were going to meet this 108-year-old woman named Julia and why. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but I hoped that this short journey of ours would help me find some long-awaited answers to events in my own family history.”

“So you knew who Julia was?” Ronni asked. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“No, I didn’t know Julia. Not personally. I knew of a Julia in my family’s past, but the odds of it being the same Julia seemed too great…”

“Go on,” pressed Ronni.

“My grandfather’s name is Hal O’Neill,” said Pete.

Ronni needed to hear the verification she already knew, “Hal the bouncer?”

Pete nodded. “I believe so. My grandfather has always been a gruff man — loving but gruff. He’s never been very open about his past, never liked talking about himself. So imagine his dismay when his only grandson majors in library science and takes a keen interest in the era when he grew up.”

Ronni smiled. Pete took that as encouragement to keep talking. “I knew he worked in Topeka during the Prohibition. He always told me that he made deliveries. He always loved to hear me play, so I’d visit him often and take my horn. One time he was so caught up in the music that he said it reminded him of a song Julia would perform at the tavern. I stopped and asked him who Julia was and what tavern. All he would say was that it was at a dangerous time, and he couldn’t discuss it. He said everyone was better off not knowing …”

Pete trailed off. Ronni leaned forward, needing to know more. “Better off not knowing what?”

“I didn’t know or even have any logical guesses until I met Julia and started helping you,” Pete said. “Then she mentioned Mike’s Mirage and a bouncer named Hal, and all the pieces started coming together. I still didn’t want to get my hopes up, or hers, so I stayed quiet.”

“This ‘innocent bystander’ story is great and all, but you’re telling me you knew nothing of his involvement in a jewel heist or burying his dead friend?” Ronni demanded, arms crossed again. She wanted to believe Pete was innocent, but she’d already let her emotions cloud her judgment too much up to this point.

“Not until you gave me that journal that Charles hid at the manor,” Pete replied calmly. “John Markham Smith may have been smart enough to organize a pretty major jewelry heist, but he was pretty dumb to write it all down. However, it was later in his life, based on the dates of the entries, so perhaps it was guilt? A long-standing grudge? Whatever the case, he mentioned how he and Rosie, Hal and Billy had pulled off one of the greatest jewelry heists in history, and then Billy botched everything by getting cold feet and wanting to return the jewels. It was almost like he wanted someone to find this journal after his death so that he could be notorious for this crime but could avoid the punishment.”

“Hey, who’s the cop here?” Ronni asked, lightly, forgetting for a moment that she was determined to stay mad at Pete. “And wait, why would they kill Billy for wanting him to return the jewels? Why not let him return them and deny their involvement? It would have been the perfect cover-up to a botched heist — they were all white and Billy was colored. During that era, who would have believed him over them?”

“I think John Markham Smith may have been a bit of a glory-hog and didn’t want to take the chance that Billy would be deemed a hero for returning the jewels,” Pete said. “They probably did have him carry the jewels in case they got caught. That way he could be the scapegoat. However, what they didn’t count on was Billy hiding the jewels with the intent of returning them. Once they discovered what he had done, they likely determined that it would have been easier to kill him and find the jewels themselves, rather than threatening him and trying to force him to hand them over.”

“However,” said Ronni, jumping up and pacing the room, “Maybe Rosie cared more about her sister than I gave her credit for.”

“What do you mean?” asked Pete.

“Think about it — if they really wanted to get revenge on Billy, the perfect revenge was asleep on the floor at Mike’s Mirage,” said Ronni.

Ronni and Pete both glanced over at Julia, still asleep in her chair.

Pete snapped his fingers, “You’re right! They easily could have used Julia as leverage, but Rosie actually cared about her sister — enough to want her alive…”

“But maybe with enough hard feelings to want to see Julia have someone she cared about taken from her, much like Rosie probably felt that Julia did by having their father around as a child,” Ronni said.

“I never thought of that,” said a soft voice from across the room. Julia wasn’t asleep after all. “Do you think she really resented me because of our father?”

Ronni and Pete both moved across the room and crouched on either side of Julia.

“I think her intentions of coming to Kansas probably weren’t admirable,” Ronni said gently. “I think she probably came to wreak havoc on your life, but was torn because she actually started to care for you. Then she sees this man who is head over heels for you, as she moves from one man to another, clearly unsatisfied with her life, and the old jealousies raged again.”

“But what about Hal?” Julia asked. “He and Billy were best friends. If he was there that night, he must have known what they did to Billy, but he didn’t say a thing when I went to get him to help me.”

Ronni looked at Pete, hoping he’d have the answer, or at least a logical guess to this one.

“Why don’t I bring him in and we’ll ask him?” suggested Pete.

Ronni gasped. Julia’s hands flew to her chest.

“Hal’s alive?” asked Julia. “My Billy’s Hal? He’s here?”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” asked Ronni, the edge back in her voice.

Pete held up his hands in defense. “Because he’s almost as old as Julia and I didn’t want you talking to him like you’ve been talking to me,” he said, with a slight protective edge now in his voice.

Ronni fell silent. Pete was right, so far everything on his part had been without some sort of malicious motive. She could back down — a little.

“I’m sorry, Pete,” said Ronni. “If it’s okay with you, I’d really like to meet your grandfather, and I think Julia would like to be reacquainted with an old friend.”

Ronni looked over at Julia who smiled in delight, suddenly looking like a child at Christmas.

“Let me see if he’s awake and get him in his wheelchair,” said Pete.

“Wait!” said Ronni. “Why is he here?”

“Because this is his house,” said Pete.

He left the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

Within ten minutes, the door opened and Pete backed into the room, pulling a wheelchair with him. As he turned the chair around, Ronni could see that the years had been hard on Hal — his hands were gnarled with arthritis, probably from years of fighting and manual labor. However, as he looked up at her, she saw signs of the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes that she often saw in his grandson’s.

Pete wheeled Hal over to the chair where Julia was sitting, “Grandpa, I don’t know if you remember this beautiful lady or not,” he said, winking at Julia. “But she’s pretty anxious to see you.”

“Julia,” was all Hal said, and he looked back down at his hands.

Ronni looked from Julia to Hal and when neither of them proceeded to say anything, jumped in to start conversation.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Hal. My name is Ronni, and I’m a friend of Julia’s and of, um, your grandson’s.” Ronni glanced at Pete and couldn’t help but notice the slight grin at her introduction.

“We’ve been talking to Julia a lot about her past, especially the jewelry heist and the night that Billy died,” said Ronni, placing her hand on Hal’s knee. “Can you tell us anything about that night?”

Hal played with the throw that was on his lap a minute before mumbling, “Don’t imagine it much matters now.”

“Have you and Julia ever discussed the night that you buried Billy?” asked Ronni.

“Never,” said Julia. “After the raid, it wasn’t safe to be at Mike’s any longer, so we all went our separate ways. Rosie and I stayed close, of course.”

Ronni turned to Hal again. “Hal, I know this is probably difficult, but did you know that it was Rosie and John Markham Smith who killed Billy that night that Julia came to you for help?”

Hal continued to fidget with his throw. “I knew. Wasn’t nothing I could do about it though. Would’ve caused more trouble if I did.”

“More trouble how?” asked Pete, stepping forward and putting his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder.

Hal looked up and met their eyes, one by one, finally stopping with Julia.

“If I would’ve said something they would’ve hurt Miss Julia next,” said Hal.

“Rosie would have hurt Julia?” asked Ronni.

“Miss Rosie didn’t have much say after they killed Billy. She said it was a mistake, and that John fellow told her she better keep her mouth shut,” said Hal.

“So you were looking out for your best friend’s girl by not saying anything?” asked Pete, nodding at Julia.

“There was more to it than that,” said Hal.

Before Hal could go any further, Ronni thought of the letter that Billy had written Julia.

“Julia, can we read Hal that letter from Billy? He may know what the missing line is.”

“Can’t hurt,” said Julia, handing the letter over to Ronni.

Ronni read the letter out loud, finishing with the last, mystery line:

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

Ronni stopped reading and looked at Julia. Julia was looking at Hal, as was Pete.

“What did he mean, Hal?” asked Julia.

Hal’s gnarled hands started shaking. “Billy knew he was gonna die, but he also knew that if he lived, the two of you would never be able to have any kind of life together. He said it was you who reminded him of what a hard world we were living in.”

Julia nodded and lowered her head, but not before Ronni saw the tears in her eyes.

“Billy wanted you to have a life — a nice life — with someone he trusted.” Hal took a breath so deep his whole body seemed to shudder. “He wanted me to take care of you, but after everything that happened, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look you in the eye every day knowing that I should have done something to stop it. Plus, I was sweet on you back then, and, even though I had permission, I felt like I would have been cheating with my best friend’s girl.”

“Oh my!” Julia’s hands flew to her chest again and she chuckled. “Imagine, my Billy, a bootlegger and a matchmaker.”

Ronni grinned. When she looked at Pete, he was grinning back.

“Guess we’ll never know what happened to those jewels,” muttered Hal. “Pete, be a good boy and take me back to my room. I’m tired.”

The jewels! As Pete wheeled Hal out of the room, Ronni’s mind was in overdrive again. If Pete and Uncle Dallas brought fake jewels, where were the real ones?

Pete returned to the room. “So am I cleared of all charges officer?”

Ronni, however, wasn’t done with him yet.

“What are you doing with KBI agents in your band?”

“That also was purely coincidence,” said Pete. “I knew they were KBI, but they’re just a couple of guys who have a stressful job and turn to music to unwind. They’re good too.”

“So how did we get to the point where Tyler is in the hospital with a gunshot wound and Ernest is downstairs interrogating Deborah?” Ronni asked.

“Well, I went to them for help when things started happening to Julia and to your mom,” said Pete, looking sheepish. “I know you’re a cop and all, but it seemed like you were too attached to this. Once they went to a superior agent and mentioned the cold-case jewelry heist, they were assigned immediately since they already had an in.”

“Maybe they can help with the case Charles was building against your sister,” said Ronni, still testing Pete, wanting to see his reaction.

“Wait — what case against my sister? What does Donna have to do with any of this?”

“Charles told me that he was working undercover on the cheating ring and that Donna was the target. He started dating me to get closer to her, to keep an eye on her,” Ronni explained, noticing that Pete appeared genuinely shocked and concerned at this revelation.

“Cheating ring? My sister? But now Charles is in deep water of his own, so where’s that information going to go?” asked Pete. “Ronni?”

Ronni didn’t answer. In order for her to be a good officer, the right thing to do would be to turn over the journal with all the information regarding the jewelry heist, expose Julia for hiding the jewels all these years, and expose Donna for whatever information Charles had found on the cheating ring. However, being a good officer meant being a horrible person to those she had grown to care about. And what would Pete think if she turned all that information over, along with Deborah, Charles and their mother. Wait — where WERE Charles and his mother?

“Pete, we need to …”

POP, POP, POP! Something sounding like gunfire drowned out the rest of Ronni’s words.

Chapter 19 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel

About Author Holly Mace

Holly Mace grew up in a small town in Northeast Michigan, with the shores of Lake Huron literally in her backyard. She is a graduate of Central Michigan University where she majored in journalism. She was a staff writer for a newspaper for six years before moving to Topeka. She loves her Detroit Red Wings and her four-legged feline child, Toby. In her free time, in addition to writing, she enjoys photography, paper-crafting, being involved in various activities at her church and spending time with friends and family.


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.

3 thoughts on “SpeakEasy Chapter 18 by Holly Mace

  1. Your chapter was just top-notch, and your dialogue snapped. Reaaallly good !!! Keep up the good work on your own projects, too.

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