- 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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Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 19 by Paul Swearingen
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 19 by Paul Swearingen
“Pete – get Julia into the bathroom. She’ll be safe in there – for a while, anyway.”
Pete’s mouth opened and closed, but he jumped behind Julia’s wheelchair, looked around, and pushed it in the direction of one of two inside doors. He pulled it open, glanced inside, and pushed the chair inside the bathroom behind the door. “Lock the door,” he told her. “Don’t open it until you hear one of us.”
“All right, dear.” Julia’s voice wafted through the door. Ronni listened with both ears for a commotion outside, but she could hear nothing but silence. In a moment, she heard a slide bolt click.
“Don’t move, Pete. These old wooden floors are creaky, and we don’t want someone shooting through the door at us.” Ronni glanced down at the worn softwood floors. Why couldn’t they at least have laid some rugs down? But the room was almost bare except for the old metal-frame bed, which had held only a thin mattress over sagging box springs. Plus there was a threadbare, almost colorless coverlet, a pair of wooden chairs stacked in one corner, and a tower of leaning cardboard boxes in another. Obviously the room was used only for storage. She could see a layer of dust on the windowsill, and the cotton café curtain was faded almost to pale beige.
“What about Hal?” Pete whispered.
“Let’s hope he’s safe in his room, too.”
A strong tap on the door made her jump. “It’s me, Ernest.”
He pushed open the door and peered at them. “Better stay in there until we’re sure that everything is secure. Charles and his mommy tried to pay an unannounced visit and shoot their way in, but they ran off when a black-and-white turned the corner and pulled up in front. I guess those idiots just couldn’t stay away, thinking that we had the real jewels here.” He held his hand to an earpiece and grinned. “Well, here’s an update. Mother Banning is being cuffed right now as she lies in a muddy flower bed, and …” He hesitated, listened to his earpiece, and smiled. “Charles is still on foot somewhere, and they’re bringing in tracking dogs. He won’t be running for long.”
“Well, thank goodness.” Ronni let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, Julia.”
Pete nodded and tapped on the bathroom door. “It’s me – Pete. You can unlock the door, Julia.” He waited. No response.
“Oh, jeez. I don’t really want to intrude on a lady in a … Julia? Can you hear me?”
A faint “Yes” floated to them, followed by “Just give me a minute.”
Ernest shook his head. “I’ll be in the dining room, chatting with Deborah. She’s already told me some interesting stories. I’ll tell you when you all can come out.” The door closed behind him.
The slide bolt clicked, and the door opened inward. In a moment, Julia wheeled through the doorway.“I’m sorry. But when you gotta go …”
Ronni tried not to laugh at the sight of Pete’s face. But why was he so embarrassed? Hadn’t he grown up with his sister Donna in his house?
“What was all that commotion, dear?”
Ronni looked down at Julia. “That was Mommy Dearest and Charles trying to break in. But she’s being hauled off to be booked, I suppose. Charles is still on the run, though, so we have to stay here for a while.”
“Oh. That’s good. I’m tired. I’d really like to go home now, as long as she’s not going to be there.” Julia’s face seemed to sag a little.
“Soon. Very soon, I hope.” Ronni pulled one of the chairs off the stack, inverted it, and sat. Rather hard, but better than standing. Pete sat in the other chair and leaned back in it until it creaked ominously, and then he abruptly plopped all four feet – six, with his own two feet, as one of her teachers was fond of reminding high school boys – onto the floor.
“So Hal went back to his room?” Julia asked.
“Yes, Julia. He’s safe.” Ronni returned to the hard chair and squirmed a little.
Julia looked down at her lap and twisted her hands as if she were washing them. Finally, she looked up at Pete, and then Ronni, and took a deep breath.
“I guess you know that I fib sometimes.”
Pete chuckled, and Ronni nodded.
“I wasn’t so glad to see Hal again as you might think. In fact, we’ve avoided each other for all these years, and actually, I figured he’d died long ago. I knew that he was sweet on me, but back then I loved only Billy. Even though I found out Billy was playing matchmaker because he knew that we’d never …” She paused and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Too bad it took so long for times to change,” Pete murmured and looked at Ronni.
She caught his glance and turned to Julia. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, Julia. I know it still hurts …”
Julia sat up straight. “It does, and I’d buried all those memories for so many years. For so long …”
“I’m sorry. And it’s my fault. If I hadn’t gotten a wild hair and decided to interview you, maybe you would have … ah, gone on without being bothered.”
A dry noise came from Julia, and Ronni realized that she was chuckling, or even laughing.
“You mean, I could have died happy, don’t you? Well, let me tell you something, young lady. If I never learned anything else about life over these years, I’ll be happy to have realized that unless you can be sad, you really never can be truly happy. If you’re always on the go, and moving fast like we did in your uncle’s car, you can’t appreciate sitting still. If you don’t have bad times, you can’t appreciate the good.”
Julia pointed at a picture on the wall, and both Ronni and Pete followed the direction of her finger. It was a scene of a storm, dark clouds juxtaposed with a section of white, sunlit clouds over a frantic sea below a flat beach under a cliff.
“Chiaroscuro. See it? It’s just like life. Light and dark. If you didn’t have the dark clouds against the lighter ones, and the water contrasted with the beach and the cliffs, you’d have a really boring painting, wouldn’t you?”
Ronni stared at the painting and tried to imagine just a scene of only the sea, or the beach, or storm clouds. Julia was right. Boring.
“Just like life. You gotta have your dark times to allow you to appreciate the lighter ones. And I’ve had both.”
Pete cleared his throat. “You’ve studied …”
“Art. Life. People. Human nature. Nature. And I’ve had a lot of time to think about life. Lots of changes, too, over more than a hundred years. Some good, some bad. Well …” The last word came out as a sigh.
Ronni couldn’t think of anything to say, and she tried to catch Pete’s eye with no success.
“Okay, about the fibbing. I didn’t really like Hal. He was too involved in my Billy’s death, and I didn’t do enough to stop it. Billy wanted Hal and me to live comfortably from the jewels stolen from the Westfeld heist, but I guess he didn’t stop to realize that we’d have a hard time selling them off. He was right to want to return them. What happened was that after we covered Billy up, Hal and I made a pact to get rid of the jewels, the peacock brooch, the diamond watch, all the pearls and diamonds and other valuables, so we scattered them here and there in the trenches after we buried poor Billy, just kicking a few rocks over them.”
Ronni gasped and glanced at Pete, whose face was rigid. “You mean …”
“They’re somewhere below the concrete footings under the auditorium, and my Billy is guarding them. Any time someone gets too close to them, his ghost is likely to come out of hiding and push the poor soul away from them. I’ve heard many a story about ghosts around the auditorium, and the first time I heard the stories, I knew exactly what was going on.” She nodded her head.
“But to throw away all those valuable jewels, just to bury them … forever, when they could have provided you a comfortable living …” Ronni shook her head. “I can’t understand why you’d do that.”
Julia fixed her with a look. “Oh, my. I guess that was another fib. Who says we threw them all away?” Again, Ronni could hear that same dry wheeze.
“I was young but not stupid. I managed to palm a handful of diamonds that I never told Hal about, and that’s why I broke contact with him. Maybe I was a little selfish. I knew that the gaudy stuff like the peacock had to go because I could never sell them in this country, but loose diamonds wouldn’t be a problem. Too many exact descriptions and photos of the jewelry existed. You’ve probably seen some of them yourself, Ronni.”
She nodded. Yes, she’d seen various black-and-white photos of the jewels, evidently shot by a photographer with a large-format camera to provide the family with images for insurance purposes in case something happened to the jewelry.
Pete cleared his throat. “But the fake jewels. Where did they come from? And why did you bother with them?”
“Oh, Hal managed to filch some photos of the jewels while they were in the house. I guess he knew where to look. And then for some reason he left the photos with me, and years later, when I could still get around but knew that I’d have to go to assisted living, I sent them to a young fellow in San Francisco and told him to make me up some copies. All he knew was that I liked the looks of those jewels in the heist and wanted copies. Cost me enough for those, too. He was good and didn’t come cheap.”
“I still don’t see …” Ronni frowned and glanced at Pete. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Let’s just say it was a little blackmail, or let’s call it a little black fib. I wanted to be sure that I’d be taken care of, and I knew that my niece or whatever she is was managing that nursing home. I also knew all about her connections with John Markham Smith, so one day we had a little talk. I told her that after I died she’d get all the jewels, that I’d leave them to her in my will if she’d take extra-good care of me. I guess I didn’t count on her getting a little anxious, did I?” Again that dry chuckle.
Ronni took a deep breath. “But the handful of diamonds?”
“All gone. Sold the last one about a year ago and closed out the safety deposit box. All I own now is what I’m wearing and what’s back in my room at the nursing home. Oh, and you know what? The day after we had that fun ride in your uncle’s car, I called my lawyer and had him write up a will leaving everything to you, Ronni. I probably need to burn this note from Billy, but I think I’ll just trust you and Pete to take care of that for me. What do I care what happens now, anyway? If I have any relatives left – and I don’t mean that two-faced Deborah, either – they’ll just have to suck eggs.”
“Left your … to me?” Ronni had a hard time making herself look at Pete. Considering what Julia had done behind Pete’s grandfather’s back, it simply wasn’t fair that she should get everything that was left. Or maybe Julia still had some papers left that she could use in her dissertation?
“Yes. Oh, by the way, the emerald ring is real. Take good care of that for me, will you?”
Ronni felt tears well up behind her eyelids, and she blinked rapidly until she could see clearly again.
Pete whistled and leaned back in his chair so far that it again creaked ominously. This time he didn’t bother to bring the front legs back down. “You know, it’s a good thing that I resolved myself to a vow of poverty when I went into library science.”
“Poverty? I didn’t know librarians had to be paupers,” Ronnie tossed at him.
“When was the last time you ever heard of a rich librarian? Okay, let’s just say that I’m perfectly happy living my life as it is. I’m not rich, but I have a good job, and that ring will look good on you.” His steady gaze towards Ronni didn’t need to be interpreted. She blushed.
“But since we’re into confession time here, I have one of my own. Donna’s not my sister.”
Ronni wrinkled her brow. “What?” She glanced at Julia, who didn’t seem to be interested. In fact, she seemed to be taking a nap.
“She’s my cousin. And guess what – she’s involved in that cheating ring, all right. Only she’s been helping the university to try to discover what’s been going on, and I think now with Charles probably facing a beast with fangs and being ready to spill his guts to someone with a tape reorder, she’ll be able to close out her part in the case.”
“She’s a cop, too?”
“Nope. Just a pre-law student who saw an opportunity to help out and learn something about investigation to give her some perspective on her way to becoming a crack prosecution lawyer. Talk about taking a vow of poverty for a few years – she’s going to be stuck working for the state at a set salary for years, but she says that’s what she wants to do with her life instead of overbilling clients who are defendants in tort or medical cases. She just wants to be on the side of the good guys and help give lawyers a good name.”
“Touching,” Ronni sighed. “And you didn’t bother to tell me this why?”
“Oh, you know. I knew it would all come out eventually, and I didn’t want to interfere with what was going on in what either of you were involved.”
“Oh. Well. I guess that’s all right.” Ronni wasn’t sure that anything was all right at this point. It was going to look a little odd that she was going to inherit whatever Julia still possessed. And the conversation that Donna and she would share would be a little awkward, as she didn’t know just how much Donna knew about her activities.
And covering for Julia? Sure, the statue of limitations protected everything that Julia had done, plus most likely nothing of value except information that she could use in her dissertation remained in Julia’s room at Lakeview Manor. And the emerald ring.
Okay. That was settled. All she needed now was a match, or a lighter, to turn the note from Billy into ashes in the bathroom. But no one in the room smoked, that she knew of. She’d have to risk a quick trip outside the room to see if Ernest carried a lighter. She stood.
“Julia? I’ll be right back.”
Ronni glanced at Pete and then reached for Julia’s wrist.
The conclusion of SpeakEasy, Chapter 20, will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel
About Author Paul Swearingen
Paul Swearingen is a retired English/journalism/Spanish teacher who managed to survive 34+ years in public, private, and government schools. He also was a radio newsman and disk jockey, a newspaper editor and photographer, a personnel manager for a large retail store (now defunct), a long-time publisher of the National Radio Club’s magazine, “DX News”, and during a short, dark period was a telemarketer and sold cemetery lots. He lives in Topeka, Kansas, where his main current duty, besides writing, is to keep his garden under close control. Swearingen has e-published seven young adult novels via Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and the usual e-book outlets.