- 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 7 by Janet Jenkins Stotts
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 7 by Janet Jenkins Stotts
Ronni sighed with relief as she heard Charles’ car accelerating out of the parking lot. Of all the things her job required of her, pretending to like Charles was the worst. At first, being back at K. U. and working at the bar had been difficult, but she had quickly adjusted to both. Her classes were more interesting than she expected, and her advisor wasn’t surprised that after a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, she sought a degree in anthropology. It had, however, taken a discreet phone call from her boss to persuade him to let her pursue her research into how society’s attitudes towards women affected the Prohibition movement. Sometimes, it was hard to remember what she had said and to whom she had said it. Each story was basically the same but tweaked to appeal to the listener. Ronni wasn’t always a good liar, but it was just one of the skills she had learned in her three-month crash-course training for this job. However, Charles was a different matter.
It had taken over three months for him to notice her. During those three months, she had had to abandon her well-cut, professional wardrobe for cheap little short skirts and low-cut tops. She had even become a platinum blonde after she observed his preference for blondes. But all those efforts were nothing compared with what it took to hold on to him. She had wasted a lot of time coming up with legitimate excuses for not sleeping with him, but after a brief and awkward attempt on their first date, he had accepted her cover story about “trouble down there” and never tried to get her into bed again. He seemed happy with kisses and cuddling as long as she was willing to stroke his ego non-stop. While she was relieved at first, the relationship was turning into the Chinese water torture with each baseless compliment and self-depreciatory statement wearing on her self-esteem until she became nauseous each time he called.
She had to keep reminding herself of her mission. She kept a photo of her Grandmother Johnson tucked in the corner of her mirror and forced herself to remember the painful reason she had volunteered to do this. Looking in the mirror at her cheap blonde hair and contacts, which turned her ice blue eyes into an unreal baby blue, she felt like a different person. She hated how the extra twenty pounds she had put on to seem less threatening blurred the contours of her face and the lean, athletic grace of her normal figure. She had to focus on why she was here and what she was doing, telling herself that was all that mattered.
So, why did she feel that Pete could see through all her disguises? Probably, because he wasn’t stupid, like Charles. But was Charles really stupid? Lately his actions had been, well, sly. All these ridiculous “study group” meetings and the phone calls he didn’t want her to hear could be something more serious than another love interest in his life. Tomorrow, she would have to find out what he was up to. It shouldn’t be that difficult -after all, it was just Charles. She went to bed and slept soundly, confident that she had everything under control.
The next morning, she baked some brownies, Charles’ favorite treat, to take to his apartment and soften him up. Usually, after stuffing his face with three or four sugary treats, he would get really sleepy and take a nap for at least thirty minutes. During that time, she could get a look at his cell phone to see who he had been calling. As she was leaving, her cell phone rang, and it was Julia calling. “Hi, Julia. How are you today? I’m sorry I had to run out on you yesterday, but …”
“Hush, now, and listen carefully. I’m sure you remember Nurse Lydia. Well, she was killed today.”
“What? You can’t be serious! Oh, no …”
“Now, listen, Ronni. The police say it was a hit-and-run accident, but I don’t buy it. Even these old ears would have heard the squeal of brakes outside. That means – ”
“Whoever it was didn’t try to stop,” Ronni cut in quickly. “Where are you calling from? Can anyone else hear you or listen in on your line?”
“I’m calling from the phone in my room.”
“Then hang up, and grab that Jitterbug phone you have for emergencies. You know how to answer calls on it, don’t you? Go into your bathroom and turn on the water. Give me the number of your Jitterbug, and I will call you back right away.”
“Okay. I guess I know how to answer a call on that contraption. Let me get my glasses so I can read the number. Hold on.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Julia came back on the line. “Okay, I found them over by the bed. What they were doing there, I don’t know. Then I had to find that damned Jitterbug. Anyway, here’s the number: 555-1342. I’m going into the bathroom. You can call me in a minute or two. It will take me that long to get there.”
By this time, Ronni was in her car with a pan of warm brownies on the seat beside her. She watched the digital clock on her dashboard display slowly count out two minutes. Then, she dialed the number Julia had given her. It rang and rang, but no one answered it. Ronni waited another two minutes and tried again, but no one answered. She finally called Julia’s landline again five minutes later, and a voice she didn’t recognize said, “Room 354, Nurse Paula speaking. How can I help you?”
“I would like to speak to Julia, please,” Ronni said with a sinking feeling.
“I’m sorry, but Mrs. Stanford has had an accident. Are you a member of her family?”
“No, just a close friend. Is she seriously hurt?
“I’m sorry, but HIPPA regulations don’t allow the release of that information to anyone, except those listed on her records. Her granddaughter is on the way now, and I will tell her you called.”
“But she doesn’t have a granddaughter living this close,” Ronni sputtered.
“Nonsense. Her granddaughter is listed as her emergency contact.”
“What is her granddaughter’s name??”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how that is any of your business,” Nurse Paula said starchily and hung up.
By this time, Ronni had reached Charles’ apartment complex, and was greeted by a totally unexpected sight. Charles was outside in his shirt sleeves, washing his car. He never washed his car; he had a standing appointment at a detailing service every month, and if it needed a wash before its scheduled appointment, he went to Eagle Car Wash and paid for their most expensive wash and wax. But here he was scrubbing away at the front of his car, and only the front of his car. He tossed the dirty water from his bucket and was heading inside when he saw her. “Oh, hi, Veronica. I – uh – I was just going to get some clean water to do the rest of the car.”
Ronni was sure that hadn’t been his intention, but she didn’t challenge him. She needed to see his cell phone records now more than ever. So she said soothingly, “Charles, honey, I hate to see you get all wet. Why don’t you come inside and have a brownie or two. I baked them just for you.”
This had the desired effect. Charles put down the bucket and unlocked the door to his apartment. Ronni took the bucket from his hand and put it in the hall closet. “You just sit right down here on the couch, and I will bring you some milk to go with the brownies.” She searched for a clean glass in his cluttered kitchen and ended up using a plastic one. She filled it with milk and set it on the coffee table in front of the couch. “Goodness, sweetie, it looks like you need me to give this place a little TLC.”
Charles muttered around a mouth full of brownies, “Yeah, I guess it could use a woman’s touch.”
Ronni picked up a long-sleeved shirt from the clothes that lay scattered throughout the apartment. Out of Charles’ sight, she searched each pocket of each article of clothing she gathered, looking for his cell phone, but to no avail.
Charles called out, “These sure are great, Veronica. I’ll just have another if you don’t mind.”
Ronni said sweetly, “Have all you like, sweetie. I can’t eat them. You know I have to watch my figure.” By this time, she had moved into the bedroom where she struck pay dirt. Charles’ cell phone was charging on his dresser. She tiptoed back into the living room, hoping to find Charles in his typical sugar-stupor, but she was startled to see him standing over her purse with her cell phone in his hand. She walked quickly but quietly up behind him and put her arms around his chest and kissed the back of his neck. Startled, he dropped her phone and knocked her purse on the floor. “Damn it, Veronica. Look what you made me do!”
“Sweetie, I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t resist the urge to show you how much you mean to me.”
“There is a time and place for everything, Veronica, and this isn’t it. I wish I didn’t have to run, but I don’t want to be late for class.”
“I thought your class started at eleven, and it’s only 9:30.”
“I don’t have to explain everything I do to you, Veronica. You know how I hate it when you get all clingy. A man needs his space. I might just have to re-think my big surprise.”
“I’m so sorry; you know how I love surprises. Tell me, pretty please.” Ronni managed to choke out yet another apology. She didn’t know how long she could continue groveling this way.
“Well, okay. Mother wants to meet you, so we are invited to Sunday lunch.” He managed to make it sound as if she had been invited to meet the queen. He looked at her expectantly.
Ronni did her best to appear sufficiently impressed. “Oh, Charles, how lovely! What shall I wear?”
“We will discuss that tonight. You might have to buy something new. Bye.” And with that, Charles left. He seemed distracted. This was the first time he had ever left her alone in his apartment. Not only that, but his cell phone was still charging in the bedroom. She locked the door and picked up her cell phone and everything that had spilled from her purse. Then, she walked quickly back to his bedroom and hung up the rest of his clothes. She was dying to see what was on his phone, but she had to have everything straightened up, just in case he returned and wondered what she had been doing. She made his bed, hating to touch his sheets which felt and smelt like they had been there way too long. Finally, she allowed herself to grab the phone and check its contents.
The first thing she checked were the names and numbers of all the calls he had made or received. She noticed one number dominated all the others – Mother. The pattern was interesting. Mother would call, and it was usually a very brief call, twenty seconds or less; probably just long enough to leave a message. Then, Charles would return the call, and these calls lasted much longer, but as far back as she could check, there was no instance in which he initiated a call to his mother without her calling first. While she scrolled through his call history, trying to guess what this pattern meant, she suddenly noticed that the number his mother called from was very similar to Julia’s number. The area code and the first four numbers were exactly the same – just like in a large business, such as a nursing home. Surely, that couldn’t be a coincidence? She dialed the number and waited as it rang four times. An authoritative woman’s voice said, “Charles, how many times have I told you to wait for my call. Charles…?”
Ronni hung up the phone. That proved that it was Charles’ mother’s phone, but not where she was. Suddenly, she heard feet pounding up the stairs to the apartment, and Charles was alternately banging on the door and fumbling with the lock. Ronni erased the call quickly and completely, going beyond the simple “delete” just in time as Charles burst into the apartment. She forced a relieved smile onto her face and said, “Oh good. You came back for it. I know how paranoid you are about your phone, and I wanted to bring it to you, but I didn’t know where you were.”
Charles’ eyes were wary, but his stance became more relaxed. “I’m not paranoid, merely careful. Why didn’t you leave immediately? You know I don’t like people snooping around my place.”
“Oh, Charles, I never snoop,” Ronni quavered. “I just wanted to surprise you after you gave me such a nice surprise. I was starting to give this place a thorough cleaning.”
“About time, but I have explained to you several times why I don’t want anyone in my apartment when I’m not here. So grab your purse, and let’s go.”
Ronni was happy to leave. She felt an increasing uneasiness over Julia’s accident and the identity of her granddaughter. She knew she had to go to Topeka and try to see Julia today, but first she had to find her. Sitting in her car, she Googled both Topeka hospitals and entered them in her phone’s address book. Then she called each one and asked if Julia Stanford was a patient; they both said there was no one by that name currently a patient. Ronni was relieved; that probably meant that it wasn’t a serious accident. Julia was probably still at the nursing home, and she intended to see her today even if she had to… to… to what? What could she do? Ronni didn’t have a plan, but she started the car and drove to the turnpike entrance. She trusted that she would figure something out between Lawrence and Topeka.
When she collected her ticket and accelerated down the ramp, her mind was still fully occupied with different scenarios she could try to gain entrance to the nursing home and see Julia. The eighteen-wheeler truck entered the turnpike behind her. The truck moved into the left hand lane and pulled up beside Ronni’s car. Charles would have been proud that she noticed the truck had no logo or name displayed either on the cab or the container. He was always chiding her to be more observant. He was clueless about how much she actually observed his activities. The truck inched closer and closer to her car, gradually forcing Ronni onto the shoulder of the road. She fought to maintain control, but she was rapidly approaching an underpass and the end of the shoulder. Ronni slammed on the brakes, and the car began to fishtail wildly.
Chapter 8 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel