- SpeakEasy is the 2013 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Read more about the project including the premise and behind-the-scenes interviews with the writers.
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 20 by Lissa Staley
Ronni reached for Julia’s wrist.
“Pete, I don’t feel a pulse.” Ronni’s voice sounded calm to her own ears. She’d always been aware that Julia was very old. She’d even joked to herself about Julia dying before she could schedule the interviews. But that was before she knew Julia. That was before she considered Julia a friend. Just a few minutes earlier, Julia had been alive and chuckling about dying happy.
Pete knelt in front of Julia’s wheelchair and slowly reached up to feel for a pulse at her neck.
“I’m sorry, Ronni,” Pete said after a minute. “I think she’s gone.”
Ronni kissed Julia’s forehead and whispered, “Go in peace, my friend.”
Ronni looked at Pete. The muscles in his jaw were clenched, but otherwise his face was blank. Why didn’t men show emotion? Ronni thought. She sniffed, and a tear ran down her cheek.
“Let’s wait in the hallway.” Pete said. He took Ronni’s hand and pulled gently, and she followed him through the door. Ronni slid down the wall on the light hardwood floor, her knees collapsing beneath her. Pete closed the door quietly, and crouched down next to her. He smoothed a lock of hair back from her forehead and tried to meet her eyes. Ronni turned away to stare off into the distance, swallowing hard and fighting more tears.
Ronni’s mind was crowded with all of the things they would have to do next. Getting a doctor to write a death certificate and calling an undertaker. Notifying relatives, some of whom were in police custody. The funeral! Julia’s will, if Julia had been speaking the truth when she mentioned that earlier. Probate and lawyers and challenges from the disinherited criminal relatives. Clearing out Julia’s apartment. Sorting through Julia’s memories. Protecting Julia even in death.
Julia may have found peace, but Ronni’s complicated life was only going to get more messy. Ronni tried to push all of that aside and clear her head. She tried to take a deep, cleansing breath, but she had to choke back a sob instead. She couldn’t control her own emotions, so why did she think she could control anything else in her life?
“Julia wanted us to write the story, you know,” Pete said softly, interrupting her thoughts.
“What story?” Ronni was distracted, her eyes darting to the closed door, then to the spot on the floor she had been studying, then to her fingers, knotted in her lap.
“The story.” Pete nodded his head to the closed door. “The jewels. The heist. Billy. The nursing home.”
Ronni turned to face Pete, focusing on what he was saying. “Like a seedy true crime novel?” she asked.
Pete shook his head. “I’m a librarian. You’re an anthropologist.” Pete flashed his quicksilver grin. “She wanted us to include how the depression and prohibition and racial tension and class issues and politics all played into it, and the ways the actions of the past affect the future generations. The whole story.”
Ronni sighed, wistfully. “Like my dissertation.”
Pete nodded. “Even though we are involved in this story, we have the skills to portray it fairly, to share it compellingly. People love learning about the past, as long as a good mystery plotline can draw them in.”
“I’m not really an anthropologist, yet. In fact, it was all supposed to be part of my cover for these investigations,” Ronni reminded him.
“Well, sure.” Pete shrugged. “But you’ll be one soon enough. Your criminal justice degree is a perfect background for making your fake anthropology degree a real career. All of the coursework you’ve had on observing and studying and researching makes this a logical choice.”
“How do you make things seem so easy?” Ronni asked. The miasma of double dealing and lies had caught up with her. Ronni couldn’t accept anyone else’s motives at face value any more. The chances were too great that the person would be playing her, or trying to manipulate her, or subverting her own motives for their purposes. Ronni wanted to believe Pete. She really wanted to believe Pete. He was so charming.
“Nothing is ever as simple as it seems,” Pete said. “Some things are obvious, or hidden in plain sight.”
The way that Pete was looking at her so intently, Ronni entertained the idea that he was hinting about her. And him. She wanted to believe Pete was hinting, but every time she made an assumption lately, she was wrong. Where was Pete going with this?
“What do you mean?” she finally asked.
“Like Hal,” Pete explained. “He’s refused to discuss the past, and never been flamboyant with money. But he quietly paid my college tuition, has amassed quite a stock portfolio and that stormy painting in his spare bedroom is a late Monet called ‘Thunder over Water Lilies.’ Hal hasn’t had a simple life, but by living simply, he hasn’t drawn attention to himself either.”
“Do you think he palmed his own handful of diamonds when Julia did?” Ronni asked. She wondered if Pete was trying to confess something else he knew. She wasn’t sure if she could handle any more surprise revelations at this point. The secret wealth of Hal didn’t exactly surprise her. She had training in observing details; she had noticed several pieces of furniture and equipment to make her suspect the inhabitant wasn’t living in poverty despite the air of neglect and under-use of the rooms.
“I don’t know where Hal’s money came from originally,” Pete admitted. “He’s always been a closed book. I doubt all of his story will ever be told. Where Julia tells a little fib and keeps on talking, Hal has always stayed quiet.”
“So is Hal going to be a part of Julia’s story that you are writing, then?” Ronni asked.
“I don’t know.” Pete said. “I can’t betray my own grandfather.”
Ronni’s anger was instant. “But you can betray Julia? And you can plan my life out for me, but when I ask you about your plans, I just get ‘I don’t know.’ Everyone I’ve met lately has an agenda and a back pocket full of lies. In my coursework, I was prepared to apprehend criminals, but I didn’t realize that everyone I encountered would be one.”
Pete looked thoughtful, and he didn’t speak for a minute. “Ronni, I think most of the people you have met lately are selfish. And their selfish motivations haven’t served them, or anyone else, well.”
Ronni sat in silence, running through her mind all of the people she met over the course of this assignment. Charles. Ms. Banning. Nurse Lydia. Deborah. Donna. Pete.
“Including you?” Ronni asked.
“My motivations have changed over time,” Pete said. “At first I was interested in you, and then I was interested in Julia and her connection to my family. And then I wanted to protect both you and Julia. And then I wanted to help you with your research, and my own family research. And then I just wanted to save my friends, and Julia, and you from danger.”
“And now Julia is gone and your friend Tyler is hurt and most everyone else is being arrested or will finally be safe,” Ronni said. So much of the drama of the last few months was coming to a close. Why didn’t she feel more relieved?
“I’m still interested in you,” Pete said. No grin. “You’re still so lovely to me.”
“Isn’t that pretty selfish to admit? We’re sitting outside the room of a dead woman, and you want to confess your true feelings? That’s not the confession I was anticipating,” Ronni said. She wanted to be teasing him, but she was too close to tears to pull it off. She was hurt, and it showed more than she liked.
“It seemed timely.” Pete shrugged, his expression rueful.
“Because this is the end of Julia’s story, and that’s our connection,” Ronni said, flatly. After this there wouldn’t really be a reason for her to call him, or for him to stop by. Her connection to him through Donna was mainly a sham. Their other connections were going to be closely investigated. Ronni wasn’t sure what kind of trouble she was going to be in with her boss, but she knew this assignment had not gone as expected. Maybe going back to grad school would be the best option after all.
Pete cleared his throat. “Am I going to see you again?”
“Sure, at Julia’s funeral. We’ll both be called as witnesses when a suit is filed against Charles and Ms. Banning. I’d say we have some solid plans.” Ronni spoke in her best official tone. She was done letting emotion influence her decisions. It was too risky.
“And if I wanted to see you outside of a funeral home or a courtroom?” Pete pressed.
“At the library. If Julia really left notes in her apartment, I’ll need help fleshing out her history into a broader anthropological study…” Ronni trailed off, allowing herself to realize that Pete was asking a different question than the one she was answering. She was grateful when he helped her out, although she felt frustrated that she’d read a situation wrong yet again.
“And if I was famished and parched?” Pete asked, with his trademarked grin.
“Dinner? And drinks?” Ronni smiled, wryly. “You really are asking me out in the hallway.”
“I just wanted something formalized, to state my intentions honestly, in this moment of calm before everything gets crazy again around us.” Pete said.
“What would Julia say about this?” Ronni asked, nodding toward the closed door again.
“She recommended Blind Tiger.”
“Wait, you two discussed this?” Ronni shouldn’t have been surprised. Those two had bonded from the first meeting.
“A while ago. We were talking about the lack of a good speakeasy in Topeka these days, and the modern alternatives.”
“And Julia recommended Blind Tiger?” Ronni was still skeptical.
“Julia recommended I take you on a date. I think her exact words were ‘Stop following that poor girl around and finally treat her right.’ But I’m choosing to remember her in my own way, so as not to speak poorly of the departed.”
“People do that with the dead. Remember them differently. Sanitize things,” Ronni sighed.
“Julia did, most likely. Her memories of Billy, of Rosie, of all of it, changed over time as she told the stories to herself in her head, pretended that certain parts never happened, or tried to protect herself and their memories.”
“And so we’re left with dinner plans but no clear facts about her past. And more questions than ever.” Ronni sighed.
“It’s a better legacy than most people leave.” Pete said. They sat in silence for a few minutes, both watching the closed door, lost in their own thoughts.
“What do you want to do now?” Pete asked.
“How do I even know what I want?” The words came pouring out of Ronni as she tried to sort out her confusion. “My mom pushed the nursing home investigation on me because of my grandmother’s mistreatment. My whole family pushed law enforcement. It’s a tradition. And lately everybody’s been a lot more open about using me to get what they want. How do I decide what I actually want? Anthropology was foisted on me by my supervisor at the police department, and it turns out he had his own motives for that too. And now you’re pushing writing Julia’s story. How do I know that’s the right thing for me to do?”
“I meant, are you ready to report Julia’s death?” Pete said.”But those are all good questions too.”
“Oh.“ Ronni blushed, embarrassed by her own emotional outburst.
“You should take some time to figure out what you want,” Pete suggested.
“Really, take some time? Weren’t you just asking me out?” Ronni countered.
“You know my intentions. I’m not going anywhere. When you’re ready, my offer of dinner will still be waiting.” Pete said.
Four months later
“Hey stranger, can I pour you a drink?” Ronni called out, as Pete came through the back door of the bar, lugging several instruments in cases.
“I’ll come see you on a break between sets,” Pete promised.”And you know I’m a big tipper.”
The bar was already crowded, and the band started their first set quickly. Pete’s band had been playing more of the jazz standards of the twenties and thirties at these weekly gigs, and people were coming out to listen and to dance.
Ronni was kept busy with the drink specials – on jazz night, the bar promoted mint juleps, sidecars, martinis, and gin rickeys. People delighted in ordering the jazz-era drinks for ambiance. Ronni always enjoyed watching the guys play, especially as Tyler had made a full recovery from his gunshot wound. The young woman who sang with the band most weeks was a knock-out brunette with her own local fan following and a flirtatious style, although she was actually dating Ernest.
“So, are you ever going to let me take you out to dinner?” Pete asked, sliding onto an open bar stool across from Ronni.
“We see each other all the time!” Ronni protested. Besides the weekly jazz gig at the bar, they had met several times to sort out the details of Julia’s personal affairs. The week of the funeral was intense, but legal bureaucracy had slowed down everything since then. Pete’s music was their main connection now.
“Donna said to tell you hello, by the way.” Pete said. “I saw her over the weekend.” Without asking what he wanted to drink, Ronni pulled out gin, lemons, and simple syrup to mix Pete a French 75 cocktail, filling the flute with champagne to the top before passing it to him.
“I never run into her, even though we’re both in Lawrence.” Ronni had moved out of their shared housing months ago, into a small studio apartment over the bar. Sometimes she felt like Julia must have felt, living at Mike’s Mirage and never escaping the sounds and smells, but Ronni liked it. She kept things simple these days.
“She’s studying. All the time.” Pete said. “Even though the cheating ring at the law school wasn’t widespread, she thinks the professors are still cracking down on everyone anyway.”
“Speaking of tough enforcers, my mom called last night with good news,” Ronni offered.
“Did she go out and bust some heads?” Pete teased.
“Sort of. She accepted a job at the Bureau of Health Facilities doing inspections of nursing homes.” Ronni was proud of her mother’s new career path and glad her mother had found a way to channel her passion for protecting older adults from those who would take advantage.
“And she’s not worried, after what happened to Lydia?” Pete asked.
“I don’t think my mom expects she will be uncovering many more elaborately organized schemes for bilking the elderly and stealing historical treasures. Now that Charles and his family are out of the business, she can concentrate on normal protections for her clients.”
“And what do you plan to concentrate on?” Pete asked. He reached for Ronni’s hand, but she busied herself tidying up the bar and pretended not to notice.
“Well,” she said, “I submitted my application to the anthropology department at KU, so I’ll probably concentrate on being a student for a while.”
Pete raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That’s great,” he said. “Are you going to keep up with your day job?”
Ronni laughed. “I put in for a leave of absence, but I’ll still be working here at the bar to pay the bills.” She paused, then sighed. “I’m just not sure if I want to stay on that path anymore.”
Pete waved to the guys who were reassembling on the small stage at the back of the bar and finished his drink. He smiled at Ronni as he stood to rejoin his band. He started to walk towards the stage, but then paused and turned back. “By the way,” he said, “I heard that the last two years of drought have caused some wide cracks in Topeka High’s foundation. They’re going to have to jack it up and replace all of those concrete footings.” Ronni’s eyes widened.
“So,” she said, “Julia’s secrets will finally be unearthed.”
Pete nodded. “Have you decided whether or not you’ll tell her story?” he said.
Ronni looked down, chewing her lip thoughtfully. So much had happened, and she wasn’t even sure that she’d sorted everything out in her mind. She knew that telling Julia’s story was going to take a lot of work. Ronni closed her eyes and pictured Julia’s sweet smile. She remembered Julia’s reluctance to start telling about her life that first day at the nursing home, and her delight when Pete had played “Get Happy” on her clarinet. Her faded blue eyes had glowed. Ronni sighed. Julia had waited for so long to let her story out into the light of day. At that moment, Ronni felt her shoulders relax. Her tense muscles felt warm and easy, as if she had lowered herself into a hot bath. Ronni smiled as she looked up at Pete.
“I guess I’d better get ready,” she said. Her smile widened to a grin, and Pete grinned back.
“Sounds like a request,” he said. He reached for her hand and this time she let him take it. They held on for a moment before Pete turned and walked over to his band. Ronni stood behind the bar and watched him settle in with his clarinet and signal to the others. The familiar tune began to rise, and then the words flowed over her. “Forget your troubles, come on, get happy…” Ronni closed her eyes and let the memories come again, a slideshow of sounds and images. She heard Julia humming softly, the warmth in her voice when she spoke about Billy, and her stories of singing and playing at the speakeasy. “Get Happy” had still had the power to uplift and transport Julia, decades after she had performed for the customers of Mike’s Mirage. Now, the lyrics of the song had become an anthem for Ronni’s own life. She sang along softly as the song came near to the end. “You better chase all your cares away!”
Ronni knew that Pete was still waiting for that dinner, still waiting to treat her right as Julia had suggested. She still didn’t know what the future held for her and Pete, or for Julia’s story, but the weight of doubt and indecision that had weighed her down for the last four months had disappeared in that warm moment when she’d imagined Julia’s faded blues eyes. She was ready to reach out and take her happiness into her own hands, and she would do her best to hold on to it.
In a moment of inspiration Ronni grabbed a bar napkin and a pen and scribbled out, “Julia felt blessed beyond words, and thanked God every day. The Great Depression had swept across the nation, and she had a job, a soft bed, and her own clarinet.” Ronni smiled. It was a good start. She folded the napkin and put it into her pocket, then she looked over to the stage. Pete and the rest of the band were packing up, chatting and laughing as they put their instruments away. Ronni took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then walked across the room to ask him out to dinner.
Thank you for reading SpeakEasy. Download the complete ebook or audiobook at https://tscpl.org/community-novel and watch for announcement of future projects.
About Author Lissa Staley
Lissa Staley served as the Project Manager for SpeakEasy, while everyone else did the hard work. She has written ten different first drafts as part of National Novel Writing Month, every November since 2003. The Community Novel Project is the most stressful and wonderful thing she has ever done, outside of parenting. In addition to serving as the NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for Topeka, she also works as a Book Evangelist and Librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Contact her at email@example.com.