- 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.
Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 6 by A. M. Coffee and BlackRose
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 6 by A. M. Coffee and BlackRose
Ronni arrived in Topeka within the hour and rushed across the manor parking lot, through the door, and finally stood in front of the nurse’s station, breathing heavily. “Where can I find Nurse Lydia?” she wheezed.
The nurse looked up, eyes widening as she took in Ronni’s disheveled appearance. “I’ll page her for you.”
Before the nurse could lift the receiver, Lydia came around the corner, took one look at Ronni, and began to rant. “You know before you came around here Julia was just fine …”
Ronni looked up, shocked, and opened her mouth to speak.
Nurse Lydia folded her arms across her chest. “No. Just leave. I don’t want to hear it.”
“Just give me something to go on. Anything would help,” Ronni pleaded.
Lydia made a harrumph noise deep in her throat. “When the police brought her here to the Manor about fifteen years ago, they say they found her sitting on a bench in Holliday Park.”
Ronni turned abruptly, leaving Lydia’s rising voice behind her, and ran back to her car.
Inside the car, Ronni fished for her cell phone and called Pete’s number, but the standard, “Please leave a message … ” made her roll her eyes. She left him a simple voicemail: “I think I know where she is.”
Ronni slid her phone closed and headed for the highway. She didn’t want to top the speed limit, but even so Charles’ car leaned a bit as she swerved onto westbound Huntoon. Finally, she spotted Café Holliday and slowed down to scan the park across the street. Sure enough, she spotted Julia sitting on a park bench all alone.
She turned left onto Taylor, parked her car, and proceeded towards Julia with caution.
Julia looked up and smiled. “Hi Sweetie!”
Ronni swiped at a wet spot on the bench, sat down beside Julia, and smiled back.
“Julia, why did you leave the Manor?”
Julia looked down into her lap and shook her head slowly. “When I was younger I would have given anything for a sister, as my mother was working and my father was never around. I used to watch my mother leave every morning, and my dad used to spend all his time under the floor boards. I never knew what he was doing until I was much older.”
“Julia, are you ready to go home?” Ronni asked, but silently thumbed her recorder on just in case. She watched Julia’s face.
Julia leaned back and closed her eyes and hummed a few bars of “Get Happy”. She rocked back and forth and slapped at her knee as she smiled and hummed.
“Do you know right there?” She pointed across the street at Café Holliday “That used to be the one and only Mike’s Mirage.” Julia smiled as if she were recalling something beautiful. “I remember when I first left home. My father was mad at me. My mother was distraught over something that my father did – what exactly, I didn’t know at the time. My father simply told me that if I was going to work for Mike, I wasn’t welcome back home. I was disappointed, but I was old enough to make up my own mind. I think I was in my twenties when I first started workin’ for Mike. It was an easy job, if I must say so. I went from cleaning the saloon to actually getting up there with the party-goers and performing. I remember the first time I met Billy the Bootlegger. See – I used to go down to this old freight depot by the railroad, and there he was, loading those kegs onto the back of an old beat-up Model A pickup …” Julia threw back her head and laughed and then wiped her tears. “Girl, that pickup was a mess, let me tell you.” And she continued to laugh.
“I never really paid much attention to him until the night he showed up at the saloon. That’s when we first really laid eyes on one another. He was a strong, young-looking man with arms so large all of us women could hardly wait until he arrived. Between them arms and shoulders of his was the most wonderful chest to lay your head on. We could just imagine him keeping us warm at night. It would sho’ be much better than that ol’ furnace in that old storage room …”
A car drove south on Taylor, and Julia watched it until it disappeared. Finally, she smiled and said, “I’m ready to go home now.”
Ronni flicked off the recorder and helped Julia stand. As Julia straightened slowly, Ronni thought Julia must have been fairly tall in her day. Julia hummed her tune all the way to the car. Ronni secured her in the seat, closed the door carefully, and circled the car to the driver’s side door, glancing north towards Topeka High in the distance to make sure no traffic was coming her way.
* * *
Ronni pulled up in front of the manor and helped Julia stand. They walked in, Julia still smiling and humming the same tune. Nurse Lydia intercepted them and grasped Julia’s elbow firmly.
“Thanks for bringing her back, but you must leave.”
Ronni shook her head, but this time Julia spoke up. “Lydia, hush your mouth – this young lady was kind enough to bring me home. Now move outta the way.”
Leaving Lydia with her mouth open wide behind them, Ronnie escorted Julia to her room. “Let me take your coat. You can sit right there. Are you warm enough? Do you want that throw over your legs?”
Julia nodded and pulled the crocheted blanket up to her waist.
“Okay,” Ronni said, “I’ll be right back after I move my car. I can’t leave it in front of the main door to the Manor.”
Luckily, a parking spot close to the Manor was open, and she pulled into it and grabbed her recorder. Once back inside, Ronni walked down the hall to Julia’s apartment, but she suddenly stopped because she heard Lydia talking on her cell phone around the corner ahead of her.
“Look, I told you Ronni just came through the door with Julia. What do you mean?”
Someone was giving Lydia a good chewing, as Ronni could hear an agitated voice from the phone, but the sound decreased, and she could hear quick footsteps down the hallway away from her. She thought she could hear Lydia mention Charles’ name. Ronni frowned but continued to Julia’s apartment.
Ronni knocked on Julia’s door and pushed it open. “Julia, it’s me, Ronni …”
Julia wasn’t in the living room, so she walked to the bedroom and pushed the door open.
“Julia?” The woman stood bent over a bedside stand with the drawer open part-way.
“What’s wrong?” Ronni asked.
“I can’t find my key!”
“What key, Julia?”
Julia blew out a frustrated breath. “I wanted to show you the engagement ring I received the night Billy the Bootlegger proposed to me. Oh, did I mention that my Billy was a colored man?”
Ronni turned on her recorder at the words engagement ring. “Where did you have your key last?”
Julia pushed the drawer shut and turned towards the door. Ronni followed her back into the living room.
Julia walked to a writing desk, and Ronni suddenly noticed that it was a golden-toned antique 1940’s burled walnut lady’s desk. A matching leather-padded chair was turned away from the desk, and an unusual padded leather footrest that covered the center of the desk’s stretcher was underneath.
Julia pulled out the chair, sat slowly in it, and pulled open the desk drawer and stared inside. Ronni drew near to the desk. She reached out to finger the top of the desk, which also had three sections of black leather covering its top.
“How beautiful it is.”
Julia looked up from the desk. “What is, honey?”
Amazed at its beauty, Ronni rubbed her hand across a well-crafted piece of the desk. “I love this piece. I have always had a fascination for antiques and collectibles.”
“Oh, this old thing?” Julia returned to rummaging around in the desk drawer. “I cannot find that key. I know I put it in here.” Ronni could see that she was growing frantic. “I never take it out of this drawer. Even when I open the box I always place it back in here. Right here in this drawer on the right side. I always do.”
Ronni patted her shoulder to try to calm her down. “I’ll help you look for it, Julia. Why don’t I make you some tea first?”
Julia nodded. “All right. That would be nice. I need to warm up after my little trip outside.”
She stood, and Ronni led her to the nearest chair and helped her sit.
“Here’s your throw.” Julia nodded at Ronni, leaned back in the chair, and closed her eyes.
Ronni glanced at her and then stepped into the kitchen area. She rummaged in the cabinets until she found the carton of tea bags and then she ran some water into the cast-iron tea pot, turned on a burner on the electric range, and sat the pot on it. She walked back into the living room. Julia still had her eyes closed.
“Julia, would you mind telling me more about Billy?”
Julia stretched a little and sighed. Her face took on a faraway look. “Billy was a sweetheart, and it was forbidden for us to be together because he was a man of color. We used to sneak off and go places and sit under the stars and laugh. I use to love to hear that man laugh. On most nights he would come down to the Saloon just to enjoy some good ol’ moonshine. On some nights I use to sing and play my clarinet to my heart’s content, and he would be right there, keeping time by patting his knee with that big ol’ hand of his. Then one day my world came crashing down around me.” She leaned back and closed her eyes again.
The teapot whistled, and Ronni jumped up to tend to it. She found two teacups in the center cabinet. She added sugar to hers and a splash of cream to Julia’s, remembering how Julia took hers from the first visit. She headed back into the living room, placing Julia’s cup on the table in front of her.
“Oh, thank you.” She took a sip, smiled, and continued. “One night while I was up on the stage performing, a young lady walked in. She was beautiful. She had her hair pulled up into a bun. She walked in like she owned the place. Once my session was over, I walked over to the bar, and the bartender pushed a jar of moonshine in my direction. I took a sip and then approached this stranger. She had an air about her that was rather off. I smiled at her and introduced myself. She told me her name was Rosie. She went on to explain that she had just ridden the train in from Chicago, and she needed a place to stay. I told her I would talk to Mike and see what I could do. Rosie hung around all night and flirted with all the available men. I think she had a thing for Mike, but she never made it obvious.” She took a sip of her tea and continued.
“I’ll say, give or take a week, maybe even more, Rosie began to open up to me, saying she never really knew who her father was, but her mother was a well-known scarlet woman in Chicago. She said she left Chicago because she was tired of her mother’s reputation reflecting on her, and so she packed up and left. What made her come to Kansas is something you would have to ask her yourself, but she’s dead now. She died at the tender young age of 78. Later, I found out some years later, after Rosie’s disappearance that she was my sister, and how I found out was through my mother who told me before she passed over. My mother told me that my father would spend his time in Chicago every other weekend, holed up in some speakeasy with some whore named Adeline. Adeline had a daughter named Rosie. The reason my mother had never told me this story was because I never returned home. I didn’t even make it back home for my father’s funeral, but something pulled me to my mother’s bedside instead.” Julia took a last sip of tea, stood up and stretched. “Come on, baby, and help me find this key so I can open this here box.”
Ronni drained her cup and stood. “Where should I start looking?”
Julia waved her hand at Ronni. “Maybe I left it in the bedroom. Why not try there?”
Ronni walked into the bedroom and opened a jewelry chest, not touching any of the items inside but peering carefully at the contents.
She could see nothing but a variety of costume jewelry, mostly necklaces and bracelets that she might have expected to have seen around the neck of a ’20’s flapper, and as she closed the lid, she heard Julia say, “I know I ain’t got the Alzheimer’s. Oh, Ronni, I knew that my sister Rosie was in that room when she woke up so startled. It kind of makes me wonder now, were the men that killed my Billy there to kill me also? Was it my sister who stopped me from being killed that night? I always wondered where she had run off to. I have no idea. Maybe whoever it was ran off with my sister to get at me. Just maybe they were looking for the jewels Billy had given me just a few short weeks before.”
Ronni shook her head and pulled open the top drawer of the chest, lifted an embroidered hanky from the top of a pile of hankies, and there it was underneath – a key! She let out a little squeal and clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, Julia! I think I found it!” She raced into the living room and dropped it into Julia’s lap. “Is this the key?”
Julia squinted her eyes and said, “Thank you, God.” She picked up the key and held it to her bosom. “Ronni, you’re a lifesaver. Now help an old lady to her bedroom so I can show you what lies in the box.”
Ronni helped Julia to the bedroom and into a chair. “Now look over there in the closet on the top shelf, and get that hat box.” Ronni went to the closet as she was instructed. “Now be careful, because it is heavy.”
Ronni slid open the closet door and looked at the many hat boxes inside. “Which one?” Ronni asked.
Julia laughed. “Sorry. The third one from the left.”
Ronni counted and then carefully removed the large hat box, placing it on the bed where Julia could reach it. It tilted slightly, and Ronni steadied it. Julia removed the lid and pulled out a black flapper hat. Julia smiled and said, “I remember when we used to bob our hair and wear cloché caps …” Julia laughed and dug deeper into the hat box. She next pulled out a green crocodile-skin traveling jewelry case. She smiled in the direction of Ronni and then she inserted the key. Julia opened the jewelry box, and she picked up something small, handling it with delicacy. After looking up, she beckoned Ronni over. “The day before my Billy was killed he proposed to me. He told me he had the ring especially made just for me because I was his special girl.”
Julia handed the ring to Ronni, who gasped and held it gingerly in her outstretched palm. Embedded in the center was a deep-green emerald stone, flanked by two other triangular emerald stones surrounded by tiny diamonds.
“Is this real?” Ronni finally pulled her eyes away from the ring and looked at Julia, who smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
“Baby, I really don’t know. All I know is the man I loved and was looking to being my life-long husband presented it to me.” Ronni handed the ring back to Julia, and then she noticed the other jewelry in the box.
Ronni noticed a separate closed compartment at the bottom of the jewelry case, but before she could question Julia about it, she heard her cell phone chime. She did not want to answer. Hesitantly she turned, saying, “Please excuse me, Julia.”
Julia dismissed Ronni with a wave of her hand and closed and locked her jewelry box, and Ronni set it carefully on the bed before she walked into the living room.
“Where are you?”
Ronni cleared her throat. “Charles?”
She could hear him suck his teeth. “Who else do you think it would be? Do you know how late it is?”
Ronni looked at the time on her phone. Well after six. “I’m so sorry. I got carried away talking to Mrs. Stanford.”
Charles’ voice interrupted her. “I need my car now. I had to catch a cab home.”
“I’m so sorry. I’ll be home in an hour.” The line went dead.
Ronni walked back into Julia’s bedroom, staring at the phone for a moment. Julia sat quietly, with her head bowed slightly forward, so Ronni spoke softly. “Julia, I’m sorry, but I have to leave now. There’s an emergency I must attend to.”
Julia slowly raised her head and peered at Ronni. “Well, before you leave can you place this-here box back on the shelf?”
“Of course. Thank you for showing me that beautiful, beautiful ring.” She placed the box on the shelf and turned to Julia. “You still have your key, right?”
Julia unfurled a wrinkled hand and smiled. The key was nestled safely in her palm.
* * *
Once at the car she glanced at her phone again and saw that she had a voicemail. She started the car and gave it time to warm up while she listened to the message. It was Pete wondering if she was still coming to the gig. He was also curious to know if she was bringing Julia along with her. Ronni did not make any attempt to return Pete’s call. She did not want to turn down his invitation, although she had to. Nor did she want to hear the disappointment in his voice over the phone.
Back at her apartment she found Charles sitting on the front stoop, his face a study in fury. Ronni adjusted her purse on her shoulder, sighed, and leaned in to kiss Charles on his lips. Charles pulled away and stood. “I absolutely requested that you return my car to me as soon as you were done.”
She stepped back and raised a finger in protest. “No, you did not request that I return your car as soon as I was done with it, but instead, and I quote, Charles, what you was said was when you are done, I would appreciate that you bring my car back in one piece, no dings, or scratches added.” Ronni tossed the keys into his lap. She pushed her way up the stairs and opened the door to her apartment as Charles followed. “Now who’s being too smart for their own good?”
Charles placed his keys on the counter top, stepped into the kitchen, and pulled a small glass from the kitchen cabinet and a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator.
“I need to change. Be right back.” She headed for the bedroom.
“Would you care to join me in a drink of juice?” she heard him call through a partially-closed door.
Ronni returned from her bedroom where she had quickly changed into her pajamas. “If it’s not too much to ask, I would appreciate a glass of orange juice, Charles,” she replied.
“Okay, Veronica, I apologize. I was a little hard on you, and I usually am when it comes down to my vehicle.” Charles carried both glasses into the living room where Ronni sat and placed them on the coffee table in front of them.
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure how to take that, Charles. You’re being a tad bit unpredictable right now.” She flicked on the television to MTV, knowing that Charles felt any program on television that would not educate the mind was useless.
“So how was your visit with Mrs. Stanford?” Ronni prompted him. He grimaced at the screen.
Charles snapped his fingers. “Okay, how was your visit with Mrs. Stanford?”
“Do you really want to know, Charles, or are you playing around with me?”
“Yes, I want to know.”
“Great. First of all, I should let you know where she was when I found her.”
Charles’ eyebrows rose with curiosity. “Yes, where did you find her?”
“She was sitting on a bench in Holliday Park across from Café Holliday, which used to be the location of the speakeasy where she worked. Later she asked me to take her home.”
“Yes, and do you know what was most amazing? I was at her home the first time I interviewed her, and I hadn’t noticed the amazing antiques and collectibles she had acquired over the years. She also had this beautiful jewelry box in which she had stored the ring she had received from Billy the night before he died.”
Ronni could see that Charles had become more fidgety. “Billy gave Mrs. Stanford a ring? What type of ring was it?”
Ronni drew back from Charles. “What does it matter what type of ring it was? The fact is I found out who Billy was to Julia. He was her lover, the man she loved, and not only was he the man she loved, he was a black man, an African-American man.”
“I understand all of that, but what about the ring? What type of ring was it?”
“Oh, Charles it was lovely.” For a moment Ronni contemplated how Pete O’Neil had described both her and Julia as lovely, bringing a smile to her face.
Charles interrupted her thoughts. “And … ?”
“Oh, and the ring has three emerald stones surrounded by a host of diamonds. It was so beautiful.” Ronni hesitated. “You know I never asked where Billy got the ring from or, for that matter, how he would get such an expensive ring on the profits of a bootlegger, especially being of African American descent and during that time period. I wonder if the stones are real?”
Just then Charles sprang from the sofa, kissed Ronni quickly on the top of her head, and made a beeline for the front door. As he exited, he yelled back, “Sorry, Veronica, I forgot I have a late night study group I must attend right away. See you tomorrow.”
Ronni stared at the closed door. “Yeah, I’m sure you got study group, all right.”
Chapter 7 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel