- 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 9 by Marian Rakestraw
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 9 by Marian Rakestraw
Whatever reaction Julia had expected, it was a long time coming. Ronni sat down on the floral sofa and spent a long moment staring at Julia’s cupped hands. The skin of the non-bandaged one was as thin as rice paper. Raised blue veins twined across it like faded hair ribbons. Images and snippets of conversation flittered through Ronni’s head, slowly settling until each piece slotted neatly into place; the truth, the lies, the white noise that clouded what was important.
Ronni met Julia’s gaze squarely. “Deb says you’re a liar.”
The words hung between them, but Julia’s eyes turned away for only a moment. “I suppose I’ve told my fair share. What do you think, Ronni? Am I a dotty old lady or someone you want to believe?”
“The first time we met you said the same thing. ‘People believe what they want to believe, the truth becomes unimportant and lost in the haze.’ That may be true. Maybe the truth is a malleable thing.”
“So you do think I’m lying.”
“No, I think nearly everything you have told me is the truth. I also know that you have told some big lies to Deb. People tell lies for lots of different reasons. Fun. Fear. I don’t see you as someone who would lie for fun, which leaves me wondering what you have to fear or hide. I need to tell you something, Julia, but first I want you to look at me and tell me what you really see.”
The cloudy eyes brightened a little as Julia took her time looking Ronni over. Ronni wondered if it was a conscious effort to make her wait, to make her experience the same discomfort she had made Julia feel. “You need to spend money on a better hairdresser. That dye job looks cheap.”
“Good,” answered Ronni. “Anything else?”
“Your clothes are too tight. You don’t look like you’re very comfortable in them.”
“Absolutely right. I hate them, and the hair. You may call them lies if you like, because I did all of it to hide the truth.” Ronni took the fragile hands in her own. “I need you to understand this, Julia. I’m a cop. Not a student. When I first came to interview you, it was all part of my cover story.”
Julia pulled her hands away. “Everything you’ve told me is fake?” She sounded hurt.
Ronni knew that Julia’s trust in her could melt away, and once it was gone she wouldn’t get it back. She needed to mend things now. She felt herself starting to panic again, just as she had when her car had failed her. It was so odd; usually she could stay detached from things.
“Give me a minute, okay? I can explain. I’ve been undercover working on a suspected cheating ring at KU. An ex-professor tipped us off about systematic cheating on the bar exam. I needed a way to get in close to one of the students without seeming to suspect him of anything. His name is Charles. You’ve never met a more self-involved guy. The hair, the clothes, all of it is for him. No way would he ever suspect his bimbo girlfriend of being a cop, particularly if that girlfriend is studying anthropology. I’m sure it ranks right up there with underwater basket weaving on his list of useless subjects.
“Yes, I came here and interviewed you for completely false reasons, but then something interesting happened. I got involved in your story, involved enough to tell it to Charles. And he was much too interested in it. Normally he’s only interested in telling stories, not hearing them. There is something in your past that is interesting to him in the here and now, but not in a good way. I’m telling you all of this because I need to set things straight with us, Julia. I need you to trust me.”
Ronni got up and went quickly to the bedroom. The key was right where she had left it, and the jewelry box lay undisturbed in the hatbox. She brought the box back, unlocked it, and laid it open on the table between the sofa and Julia’s wheelchair. The emerald ring twinkled dully in the light. The stones were so dark a green that they seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it. Ronni picked up the ring, tempted to try it on. She held it up and looked inside where the words Cartier, Paris were neatly etched.
“A good cop pays attention when a case presents itself, and I’m a good cop. I don’t know yet how it’s all connected – Mike’s Mirage, Billy’s death, this ring, Charles, Nurse Lydia’s death, the person who pushed you. But they are. I’m sure of it.” Her eyes pulled away from the ring and looked Julia fully in the face. “You are the key to everything, the only one who was there then and is still here. I want you to tell me everything. Please.”
Julia curled into herself, feet drawing together, chest in. Ronni thought she might not say anything, that whatever value there was in her story might remain locked away in her memory.
Finally, she seemed to come to a decision. “Over on the shelf is a scrap book, a large blue one. Will you bring it to me?”
The cover was battered cardboard with the word Memories embossed on it in gold. A frayed leather thong passed through two holes in the cover and were tied into a bow, holding the pages inside loosely together. Julia leafed through the book, rejecting playbills, newspaper articles, and faded letters until she came to a page with a few photographs tipped with black paper corners. In one, a young black man leaned against the door of a truck. He was relaxed, robust, and smiling for the camera. “That was Billy,” said Julia.
“Yes. That’s the first thing I need to know, Julia. What did you do with Billy’s body?”
“I know you must have been frightened,” prompted Ronni. “Alone at night with a dead man on your doorstep. I can deal with Charles and read the police report about Lydia, but the past is only yours.”
“The thing that has stayed with me, all this time,” began Julia, “is how quiet the night was. Not even the dogs were barking. It was as if even the tiniest noise would shatter the whole world. I stood and looked at Billy’s body for too long. There was no blood, but there were bruises blooming on his face. He’d been badly beaten. His truck wasn’t there, so he must have come to me on foot and not quite made it. That, or someone brought his body there.
“I knew I couldn’t leave him, and we couldn’t have the police nosing around. Billy was too much for me to carry all alone. I needed help and a car to carry the body away from the Mirage. It was Hal, the bouncer, I called. He was big, he knew how to keep his mouth shut, and he had a car. That’s a good friend to have at four in the morning.”
“Why didn’t you wake up Rosie?”
“She wasn’t there. I don’t know where she was. Off on business of her own, I guess. Hal lived alone in an apartment upstairs, so I was only gone a few minutes to fetch him. We carried the body to Hal’s car, and the impression it had left in the snow was already erased before we figured out a place to drive.
“The roads were so foul,I thought we would be lucky to get anywhere in town. Going out into the country to bury Billy was impossible. Even if we had been able to, the ground was so hard, so icy, that we would have needed more than just a shovel to dig a grave. It was Hal who thought of the solution to our problem. I just sat on the running board of his car and stared, trying so hard to understand that Billy was gone.
“It only took a few minutes to drive there, even in that weather. I was cursing the snow then, but I’ll tell you, there were years coming up when I would have been happy for it. Hal pulled the car over just at the edge of the site. The trenches snaked away from us, stretching and crossing. It reminded me of a newsreel from the Great War, those awful trenches where so many of our boys were lost. Hal was looking sick by then; I thought he might be remembering his own days in France, but he never faltered. He slipped Billy’s body into his arms and carried him right into the heart of the maze.”
“I’m sorry,” Ronni said, “I don’t understand where you took him. What maze?”
“Topeka High. It was only a couple of blocks away. They were building it then and had dug what seemed like miles of footings. We picked a good spot, cleared away the gravel in the bottom, and then shoveled it back after we laid Billy down. When they poured the concrete, it was chaos. Herds of men pouring those foundations as fast as they could, right over the top of my Billy. It worked. Billy just disappeared. No one but Hal and I ever knew what happened to him.”
Julia took the ring from Ronni’s hand. “I thought about throwing this in with him, but I just couldn’t do it. Think of it, engaged for one day, and then he was gone.”
“Where do you suppose Billy got a ring like this?” asked Ronni. “It’s more than a little spectacular for a local bootlegger.”
“When your beau works on the shady side of the law you don’t ask questions. Still, I put it away and never wore it in public. It was our secret, Billy’s and mine. I never told a soul about it until I told you.” Julia withered with the ending of her story, sad and defeated. “I still don’t see why this matters now. And what if my memories aren’t enough? What if there are things I can’t remember or never knew?”
“You will remember enough, I’m sure of it,” Ronni said, trying to sound confident. “And if we need to fill in the blanks we have another resource we can use. You remember Pete, who came with me the first day? He’s a librarian; if we need research he’s our go-to guy.” Ronni pulled out her cell and dialed the first digits of Pete’s number. It was going to be so good to be able to talk to him without having to pretend to have a boyfriend. Almost too good for comfort.
“Wait,” Julia reached for Ronni’s arm. “Before you do that, I need to show you one more thing. Since we’re trusting each other.” She leaned over and opened the compartment in the bottom of the green crocodile jewelry box.
Chapter 10 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel
About Author Marian Rakestraw
Marian Rakestraw is a relative newcomer to Topeka, having previously lived practically everywhere else. She joined NaNoWriMo and took up the isolating, nerve-fraying, confidence-rattling task of writing fiction as a fun way to meet new people. It worked wonderfully. She compulsively seeks education and has multiple academic degrees. Her husband is notably spectacular and together they have two charming children and a zaftig dog.