- 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 8 by Stacy Spilker
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 8 by Stacy Spilker
For a moment the car continued its careening path before Ronni wrenched the wheel to the left. Her car shuddered to a stop inches from the bridge. She stared at the cement barrier, her mind barely noticing the red lights of the braking 18-wheeler until her passenger door was yanked open.
Ronni turned her head to meet the trucker’s wide-eyed gaze. Realizing paranoia and panic had been the cause of her near disaster, she forced her fingers to loosen their grasp on the steering wheel. A gasp escaped her as an aching feeling rushed into them.
“I’m okay, I’m okay. Just give me a minute,” Ronni said, staring at her shaking hands and trying to will herself calm. The truck driver’s next words pulled her attention back to him.
“I’m sorry. You were in my blind spot. I had no idea you were there. Thank God you’re a good driver.” He must have recognized her confusion. “Most people would overcorrect and swing back into oncoming traffic.”
Ronni didn’t respond as she let his words sink in. He was right. She had been in his blind spot. She had been driving in a panic, her worry over Julia the only thing on her mind.
“Are you all right to drive, or do you want me to call someone for you?” The man’s words were kind, and Ronni felt a surge of guilt.
“No, no, I’m fine. I’m sorry, I should have been paying more attention. You’ve been very kind. I just need a couple minutes to calm down.” She managed a smile for the man as he closed her door and headed back to his truck.
‘Get it together, Ronni,’ she mentally scolded. Taking a final deep breath, Ronni pulled back onto the highway. Getting to Julia was the most important thing.
Ronni didn’t recognize the girl at the Manor’s reception desk, but she didn’t have any problem understanding Ronni’s breathless inquiry.
“You’re here to see Julia? Oh, she’ll be thrilled. You won’t be able to stay for long. She had a bit of an accident this morning-”
“I know. That’s why I’m here,” Ronni interrupted, the girl’s chipper attitude grating on already raw nerves. She scrawled her name across the sign-in sheet and hurried to Julia’s room, her mind conjuring rapidly worsening images of Julia’s possible injuries.
Images that crunched to a halt when she looked through the doorway of the elderly woman’s room. Julia was in a wheelchair, laughing with a dark-haired woman in her late forties. Ronni watched the two of them for a moment, wondering if the woman was the previously unmentioned granddaughter.
Julia had a dark bruise over one cheekbone and an Ace bandage over her wrist but otherwise looked fine. She was facing the door and paused when she caught sight of Ronni. Her aged eyes obviously couldn’t make out who the visitor was, but she called out a greeting.
“It’s Ronni, Julia. I came as quickly as I could. I heard you had an accident. Are you all right?” She watched the new woman out of the corner of her eye as she spoke to Julia.
“Oh, Ronni, thank goodness you’re here.” Julia said as she reached out her uninjured hand to grasp Ronni’s wrist and pull her closer. “This is my granddaughter, Deborah. Deb, Ronni is interviewing me for her book.”
“For my doctoral thesis, Julia,” Ronni corrected. ‘I wonder if she hit her head in the accident,’ Ronni thought.
“And you’re interviewing Julia?” The doubt in Deborah’s voice was easy to hear.
“Oh, hush, Deb. I learned my lesson.”
Ronni glanced back and forth between the two women, confused by the direction the conversation was taking. She had come here to discuss Julia’s accident, not a past interview the woman had given. She felt a surge of irritation and wanted to blame Deborah, but knew that wasn’t fair. If she was Julia’s granddaughter, then she had more right to be here than Ronni did. Ronni shifted her weight, wondering if it would be rude to sit down, when Deborah stood up.
“Well, Gram, I have to go. I’m glad you’re all right. Ronni, it was nice to meet you.” The woman looked hard at Ronni, then back at the purse sitting by her chair. When Ronni nodded, Deborah turned back to Julia and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
“Be good. I love you.”
Ronni waited almost a full minute after the woman left. “Oh, she left her purse.” Ronni grabbed the article and raced back out of the room without waiting for Julia to respond. Only to stumble to a halt in the hall at the sight of Deborah a few steps away.
“Walk out with me,” Deborah said, and Ronni fell into step beside her. She decided to let the older woman speak first, but found she couldn’t wait after they had rounded the corner.
“I didn’t know Julia had any family in the area,” she trailed off, hoping Deborah would fill her in.
“We aren’t actually related,” Deborah answered with a smile. “She was my grandmother’s best friend. She’s been around as long as I can remember.”
“So you just started calling her ‘Gram’?”
“No, my grandmother died when I was eight. She was my only grandparent, and I was heartbroken. I cried to Julia that I was the only kid without a grandma.” Deborah paused to laugh and shake her head. “It wasn’t true, but I was convinced. Julia, bless her heart, told me not to be silly, I still had a Grandma Julie. I’ve called her that ever since.”
Ronni considered the information as they reached the lobby. The sight of the bubbly girl behind the reception desk triggered another question.
“Do they know you’re not actually related to Julia?” She asked, nodding toward reception.
“I’m Julia’s emergency contact. I don’t think they care too much about anything else.” Deborah shrugged. “Anyway, no one has ever asked.”
“You didn’t seem happy about my interviewing her?” Ronni phrased it as a question, hoping it would encourage Deborah to keep talking, but the other woman made a face and continued to look away. Ronni was about to give up and return to Julia when Deborah finally spoke.
“How much do you know about Julia?”
“Not much.” It was Ronni’s turn to shrug. “I had an article that was written about her, but the first time I came to interview her, Julia told me it was all a lie – that someone had sold her out. Do you know who that was?” Ronni asked. She hadn’t even considered asking Deborah about that mystery.
“Me,” the older woman answered. “I listened to Julia’s stories for years. They were exciting, and no matter what I was interested in, Julia had experienced it first-hand. As a teenager, I wanted to be a writer, and I decided I needed to write Julia’s biography. I wrote down as many stories as I could remember, and asked her to fill in the details. They weren’t quite what I remembered, but I had been really young when I first heard them. I put them all together and entered it in a high-school writing contest.
“I didn’t tell anybody – I was going to surprise Gram with it after the contest was over. I placed third, and was so proud I raced home to tell her.”
“She told you the stories weren’t true?”
“Not exactly. She got embarrassed and tried to hide it, but I could tell she wasn’t pleased. I told my mom that night, and she told me she didn’t think Julia’s stories were real. She pointed out that the stories changed every time Julia told them, and she would have had to live four lifetimes to do everything she claimed.”
Ronni watched as Deborah shifted her purse from one shoulder to the other. “Did she ever tell you about Mike’s or about Billy the Bootlegger?”
Deborah shook her head. “I don’t remember any Billy in her stories. Mike’s, maybe. Is that where she worked during the Depression?”
“Yes. Mike’s Mirage. She said she lived there as well.” Ronni took a deep breath. “You think it might not be true?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to think there’s some truth in all her stories, but I’m not sure.” Deborah’s face showed her sympathy. “What’s your dissertation about, anyway?”
“Alcohol and its connection to women’s roles in society,” Ronni answered. “Especially regarding Prohibition.”
“And you found an elderly Kansas woman claiming to have worked in a speak-easy.” Deborah rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Look, it’s possible. Gram always was an independent old cuss. She certainly could have worked in a speak-easy – it wouldn’t surprise me.”
The two women stood in silence for a few minutes. Ronni was trying to wrap her head around the new information.
“What about today? She said a nurse was killed in a hit and run …”
“But she didn’t hear any brakes squealing,” Deborah finished. “With a lot of traffic outside and a good deal of noise inside, who knows what Gram might or might not have heard? She might be right, but I trust the police to do a full investigation. The staff here probably just didn’t want to cause a panic.”
“What about her accident? She was going into the bathroom to call me so that she wouldn’t be overheard. She definitely got hurt.”
“Yes, she did, but she is also 108 years old. She’s going to fall, and she’s lucky she didn’t break a hip,” Deborah said before her attitude abruptly changed and became businesslike. “Ronni, it was nice to meet you. Good luck with your dissertation, but check your facts as much as possible when talking to Julia.”
Shaken, Ronni stepped back and watched the older woman walk out the door. She wasn’t sure she believed Deborah, but her words had made her doubt herself as well as Julia. Remembering Julia had been alone in the room the entire time Ronni and Deborah had been talking and was the only person who really knew what was true or not, Ronni headed back to Julia’s room.
She again stopped in the doorway to observe the woman in question. Julia was staring toward the window, a wistful smile on her face. She cradled her bandaged wrist in the opposite hand, and – somehow – it was this gesture that reminded Ronni why she had chosen this assignment. Whatever else had happened, whatever else Julia had lied about in the past, those jewels were real, and a woman was dead. Whether those two facts were connected, time would tell, but right now she was going to assume Julia was telling the truth. At least the truth as far as Julia remembered it to be.
Ronni forced a smile onto her face and walked back into the room. “I caught her just in time, Julia.”
“So she’s gone, then?” Julia turned to face Ronni, leaning forward in the wheelchair as she did. “I thought she’d never leave. I love Deb dearly, but the girl has no imagination. Get your facts mixed up once, and she’ll never believe you again.” She beckoned Ronni forward.
“Ronni, we need to be more careful. Someone must have been listening to our conversation and followed me into the bathroom. I know it, Ronni, I know what I felt.”
Ronni hesitated, Deborah’s words running through her head. “What did you feel, Julia?”
“Hands. I felt hands on my back. Someone followed me into that bathroom and pushed me.”
Chapter 9 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel
About Author Stacy Spilker
Stacy Spilker has been making up stories since she was old enough to talk. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a published author, but became discouraged as a teenager. In college, she discovered she preferred editing as it appealed to her perfectionist nature. She earned an Associate degree in English, and joined NaNoWriMo in an attempt to fully understand the writing process (and to finally finish something) and fell back in love with telling stories. This is the first time she has allowed her fiction to be read by anyone else.