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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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Carrie shook her head. “Rough waters ahead. Think you and Claude can weather it as friends?”

I shrugged.

Carrie’s smile was wry. “It’s uphill work being your confidant, Bard.”

I sat silent for a minute. “I expect that’s from being Victim of the Year after I got raped. Too many people I talked to, people I’d known all my life, turned around and told everything I said to the press.”

Carrie looked at me, her mouth slightly open in surprise. “Gosh,” she said finally.

“Got to work.” I got up and pulled on my yellow rubber gloves, prepared to tackle the patients’ bathroom first, since it was always the nastiest.

When I left the room, Carrie was bending over her paperwork with a little smile on her lips.

ANOTHER FAVORITE WOMAN
of mine was Marie Hofstettler, and I was sorry to see today was not one of her “limber” days. When I used my key to enter her ground-floor apartment, I could see at a glance that she wasn’t in her usual chair. Marie had been living in the Shakespeare Garden Apartments, next door to me, for years. Her son, Chuck, who lives in Memphis, pays me to clean once a week and take Mrs. Hofstettler wherever she wants to go on Saturdays.

“Mrs. Hofstettler,” I called. I didn’t want to scare her. Lately, she’d been forgetting when I was due to come.

“Lily.” Her voice was very faint.

I hurried back to her bedroom. Marie Hofstettler was propped up, her long silky white hair in an untidy braid trailing over one shoulder. Somehow she seemed smaller to me, and her myriad wrinkles looked deeper, chiseled into her fine skin. Her color was bad, both pale and gray-tinged.

She looked like she was dying. The effort of calling out to me had clearly exhausted her. She gasped for breath. I picked up the phone on the bedside table, jammed between a framed picture of her great-grandchild and a box of Kleenex.

“Don’t call,” Marie managed to say.

“You have to go to the hospital,” I said.

“Want to stay here,” she whispered.

“I know, and I’m sorry. But I can’t…” My voice trailed off as I realized I’d been about to say “be responsible for your death.” I cleared my throat. I thought about her courage in the face of the pain she’d endured for years, from arthritis and a bad heart.

“Don’t,” she said, and she was begging.

As I knelt by the bed and held Mrs. Hofstettler’s hand, I thought of all the people in this apartment building I’d seen come and go from its eight units. Pardon Albee had died, the O’Hagens had moved, the Yorks were gone, and Norvel Whitbread was in jail for forging a check: this, out of the tenants that had been in the Garden Apartments this time last year. And now Marie Hofstettler.

SHE WAS GONE
in an hour.

When I judged the end was near, and I knew she no longer heard me, I called Carrie.

“I’m at Marie Hofstettler’s,” I said. I heard paper shuffling around on Carrie’s desk.

“What’s up?” Carrie knew something was wrong by my voice.

“She’s leaving us,” I said very quietly.

“I’m on my way.”

“She wants you to drive slow.”

A silence. “I hear you,” Carrie said. “But you have to call nine-one-one to cover your ass.”

I put down the phone with the one hand I had free. I’d been holding Marie’s thin bony fingers with the other. When I focused on Marie’s face, she sighed, and then her soul left her body. I gave a sigh of my own. I punched in 911. “I’ve been here cleaning Marie Hofstettler’s apartment,” I said. “I left the room for a while to clean the bathroom and when I checked back on her, she was…I think she’s dead.”

Then I had to move quickly. I grabbed some glass cleaner to give the bathroom a very quick once-over. I left the spray bottle and some paper towels by the sink and I stuck the bowl brush in the toilet, hastily pouring some blue cleanser in the water.

Carrie Thrush knocked on the door, and she was barely bending over Marie when the EMTs got there.

As I let them in, the door across the hall and to the back opened, and Becca Whitley looked out. She was dressed to kill, in tailored red slacks and a black sweater.

“The old lady?” she asked me.

I nodded.

“She having a crisis?”

“She died.”

“Should I call someone?”

“Yes. Her son, Chuck. The phone number is right here.” While Carrie and the EMTs consulted over Mrs. Hofstettler and then loaded her onto a gurney, I fetched the pad of telephone numbers the old lady had kept by the living room phone, and handed it to Becca Whitley.

I was relieved beyond words to be spared calling Chuck, not only because I didn’t like him but because I was feeling guilt. As Marie was wheeled out to the ambulance, I thought of the things I should have done; I should have called Carrie, or 911, immediately, called Marie’s best friend—the older Mrs. Winthrop, Arnita—and then talked Marie into wanting to go on. But Marie had been in more and more pain, more and more dependent, the past few months. There’d been many days I’d had to dress her, and times I wasn’t scheduled to come and found later she’d stayed in bed all day because she couldn’t do otherwise. She’d refused her son’s proposal to move her to a nursing home, she’d refused to have a nurse in the apartment, and she’d made up her own mind when to let go.

Suddenly I realized how much I would miss Mrs. Hofstettler, and the impact of witnessing her death hit me broadside. I sat down on the stairs up to the second floor’s four apartments, sat down and felt the wetness on my cheeks.

“I got Chuck’s wife,” Becca said. She was in her stocking feet, I noticed, trying to figure out how she’d crept up on me. “She didn’t exactly sound torn up.”

I didn’t look up at her.

“They wrote her off a few years ago,” I said flatly.

“You’re not in her will, are you?” Becca asked me, her voice calm.

“I hope not.” And then I did look up at her, and she stared back at me with her contact-blue eyes, and after a minute she nodded and went back into her place.

I WAS SCARED
to finish my work in Mrs. Hofstettler’s apartment without permission. If anyone came asking me questions about her death, I didn’t want my staying to clean afterward to look suspicious, as though I was clearing away evidence or stealing valuables. So I locked the door behind me, and turned my key over to Becca, who took it without comment.

As her own door closed behind me, I heard another one above me slam shut. I looked up the stairs. Down came the man who’d rented Norvel Whitbread’s apartment, the man who’d come into the Winthrops’ with Howell the day before. He was maybe my age, I now conjectured, about five foot ten, with a prominent straight nose, straight black brows over those hazel eyes. Again, his hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He had narrow, finely chiseled lips and a strong chin. There was a thin scar, slightly puckered, running from the hairline by his right eye down to his jaw. He was wearing an ancient leather jacket, dark green flannel shirt, and jeans.

I was able to take all this in so minutely because he stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at me for a long moment.

“You’ve been crying,” he said finally. “You all right?”

“I don’t cry,” I said furiously and absurdly. I met his eyes. It seemed to me I was full of fear; it seemed to me I could feel something inside me cracking.

He raised his straight brows, stared for an instant longer, and then went past me, out the back door to the tenants’ parking area. The door didn’t sigh shut for a long moment. I could see that he sat in his car for a beat or two before he pulled out of his space and drove away.

MRS. HOFSTETTLER’S FUNERAL
was Monday, quick work even for Shakespeare. She’d planned the service two years before; I remembered the Episcopal priest, a tiny man almost as old as Marie, coming by to talk to her about it.

I hadn’t entered a church in years, so I had a long struggle with myself. I’d already said good-bye to Marie, but it came to me very strongly that she would have wanted me to be at the funeral.

Stiffly, reluctantly, I called two of my Monday afternoon regulars to reschedule. I brushed and pressed my long-stored expensive black suit (which I’d retained from my former life as being all-purpose). I’d bought a pair of pantyhose, and now I wriggled into the nasty things. Grimacing with distaste, I slid my feet into high-heeled black pumps. Two of my scars were visible, thin and white, because of the square neckline of the suit. I was so pale that the scars weren’t conspicuous, I decided; anyway, there was nothing to be done about it. I wasn’t about to buy another dress. This one still fit, but not exactly the way it used to. Working out so consistently had resculpted my body.

The black suit seemed dreary unadorned, so I put my grandmother’s diamond earrings in my ears, and added her diamond bar pin to the ensemble. I still had a good black purse; like the suit, it was a relic of my former life.

Shakespeare police always escort local funerals, and one of the cars is always stationed at the church. I hadn’t anticipated this, especially that the police car attending to the church traffic would be manned by Claude. He watched me get out of my Skylark, and stood drop-jawed as I came down the sidewalk to enter the church.

“Lily, you look beautiful,” he said, unflatteringly amazed. “I’ve never seen you dressed up before.”

I shot him a glance and passed in to the warm dimness of tiny Saint Stephen’s. The dark old Episcopal church was absolutely jam-packed with friends and connections from Marie Hofstettler’s long life; her contemporaries, their children, other members of the church, volunteers from her favorite charity. Only two pews had been marked off at the front for the family. Chuck, now in his late fifties, was Mrs. Hofstettler’s only living child.

It was obvious what sitting room there was left should be saved for the older people who formed the majority of the mourners. I stood at the back, bowing my head as the coffin was brought in draped with the heavy church pall, staring at the sparse hair on the back of Chuck Hofstettler’s head as he followed behind the coffin. He was looking at the embroidered pall with a kind of grieved fascination. To me, the container and its contents were uninteresting. The essential Marie was elsewhere. The casket was only there to provide a focus for grief and meditation, the way a flag provided a focus for patriotic upswelling.

Marie’s best friend, Arnita Winthrop, was seated near the front of the church with her husband, Howell Sr., her son, and his wife. Old Mr. Winthrop was holding his wife’s hand. Somehow I found that touching. Beanie, chic as always, had lightened her hair a couple of shades, I noticed. Beanie and Howell Jr. were not holding hands.

The unfamiliar service progressed slowly. Without a prayer book, I was at a loss. There were quite a few of us standing, and more people crowded in even after the service began. It took at least five minutes for me to realize who was a little behind me. As if some inner radar had blipped, I turned my head slightly to see the man who’d come down the apartment building stairs the day Marie died, Howell’s mysterious friend.

He was as duded up as I was. He was wearing a suit with a vest, a navy-blue pinstripe. Instead of Nikes, he was shod in gleaming wing tips. His shirt was white and his tie was a conservative navy, green, and gold stripe. The black ponytail and the puckered scar contrasted oddly with the banker’s costume.

As I located him, he turned his head to look at me. Our eyes met. I looked forward again. What was he doing here? Was he some long-ago army buddy of Howell’s? Was he Howell’s bodyguard? Why would Howell Winthrop need a bodyguard?

When the interminable service was over, I left the church as quickly as I could. I refused to look around me. I climbed back into my car and went home to change and go to work. Even for Marie, I wasn’t going out to the cemetery.

When I went in to Body Time the next morning, Darcy Orchard greeted me with, “Is it true you’re working for a nigger?”

“What?” I realized I hadn’t heard that word in years. I hadn’t missed it.

“You working for that gal who rented the house on Sycamore?”

“Yes.”

“She’s gotta be half black, Lily.”

“OK.”

“What’s she doing here in Shakespeare, she told you?”

“No.”

“Lily, it’s not my business, but it don’t look right, a white woman cleaning for a black.”

“You’re right. It’s none of your business.”

“I’ll say this for you, Lily,” Darcy said slowly. “You know how to keep your mouth shut.”

I turned to stare at Darcy. I’d been doing lat pull-downs, and I didn’t rise, just swiveled on the narrow seat. I looked at him thoroughly, from magnificent physique to acnemarked cheeks, and I looked beyond him at his shadow, Jim Box, a darker, leaner version of Darcy.

“Yes,” I said finally. “I do.”

I wondered what Darcy’s reaction would be if I told him that the last time I’d cleaned at Mookie Preston’s house, I’d found a rifle under her bed, along with a bundle of targets. Nearly every target was neatly drilled through the middle.

THE NEXT DAY I
stayed at Body Time longer than I usually do. I keep Wednesday mornings open for cleaning emergencies, and the only thing I had scheduled was my semiannual turnout of Beanie Winthrop’s walk-in closet.

Bobo was working that morning, and once again he seemed depressed. Jim and Darcy were attacking triceps work with determination. They both gave me curt hellos before diving back into their schedule. I nodded back as I stretched.

Jerri Sizemore fluttered her fingers at me. I decided it must be the effect of my new outfit. I’d unbent enough to buy a pair of calf-length blue spandex workout pants and matching sports bra, but I’d mitigated the bare effect by pulling on an old cutoff T-shirt.

I finished my regular routine and decided to try some chin-ups, just to see if I could. I’d turned to face the wall instead of the room, because the T-shirt came up when I raised my arms, exposing a stretch of scarred ribs. I’d pulled over a stool to help me grip the high bar initially, but after that I’d shoved it away with a dangling foot so I wouldn’t be tempted to cheat.

The first chin-up went fairly well, and the second and third. I watched myself in the mirror on the wall, noticing with irritation that the T-shirt certainly did expose a lot of skin. I should never have listened to Bobo’s flattery.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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