Read (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion Online

Authors: Charlaine Harris

(LB1) Shakespeare's Champion (12 page)

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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By the fourth rep, I wouldn’t have cared if the shirt fell off, I was in so much pain. But I’d promised myself I’d do at least seven. I shut my eyes to concentrate. I whined out loud when I’d achieved the fifth, and dangled from the bar, despairing of finishing my set. I was taken by surprise when big hands gripped me at the hipbones and pushed up, providing just enough boost to enable me to finish the sixth chin-up. I lowered myself, growled, “One more,” and began to pull up again. The hands gave a trifle more boost, enabling me to accomplish the seventh.

“Done,” I said wearily. “Thanks, Bobo.” The big hands began lowering me to the stool he’d shoved back into position.

“You’re welcome,” said a voice that wasn’t Bobo’s. After a moment, his hands fell away, leaving an impression of heat on my stomach and hips.

I pivoted on the stool. My spotter had been the black-haired man. He was wearing a chopped-off gray sweatshirt and red sweatpants. He hadn’t shaved that morning.

He walked away, and began doing lunges on the other side of the room. Picking an exercise almost at random, I hooked my feet under the bar on the lat pull-down machine and did stomach crunches, my arms crossed over my chest. I kept an eye on the stranger as he did leg presses. After he’d warmed up, he pulled off his sweatshirt to reveal a red tank top and a lot of shoulder. I turned my back.

As I was leaving, I almost asked Bobo if he knew the man’s name. Then I thought, I’ll be damned if I ask anybody anything, least of all Bobo. I gathered my gym bag and my jacket and started to the door.

Marshall entered as I reached it. He threw his arm around my shoulders. I leaned away from him, startled, but he pulled me close and hugged me.

“Sorry about Marie Hofstettler,” Marshall said gently. “I know you cared about her.”

I was embarrassed at mistaking his intention, and his concern and tenderness reminded me of the reasons I’d hooked up with him initially. But I wanted him to let go. “Thanks,” I said stiffly. The black-haired man was looking at us, as he stood with Jim and Darcy, who were chattering away. It seemed to me now that something about him was familiar, an echo of long ago, from the darkest time in my life. I couldn’t quite track the trace of the memory back to its origins.

“How’s your hip been?” Marshall asked professionally.

“A little stiff,” I confessed. The kick that I’d taken in The Fight had proved to be a more troublesome injury than I’d guessed at the time. Standing on my left foot, I swung my right leg back and forth to show Marshall my range of motion. He crouched before me, watching my leg move. He told me to raise my leg sideways, like a male dog about to pee, the position the karate class assumed for side kicks. It was very uncomfortable. Marshall talked about my hip for maybe five more minutes, with other people contributing opinions and remedies like I’d asked for them.

None from the black-haired man, though he drew close to listen to the discussion, which ranged from my hip to The Fight to Lanette Glass’s civil suit to some upcoming meeting at one of the black churches.

While I showered and dressed, I thought how strange it was that this black-haired man was cropping up everywhere.

It could be a coincidence. Or maybe I was just being paranoid. He could have his eye on someone else other than me; maybe Becca Whitley? Or maybe (I brightened) the finances of the Shakespeare Combined Church had attracted the interest of some government agency? The church pastor, Brother Joel McCorkindale, had always alerted that sense in me that detected craziness, twistedness, in other people. Maybe Mr. Black Ponytail was after the good brother.

Then why the secret tryst with Howell? The black bags? I hadn’t opened the window seat when I’d been cleaning the day before, because I hadn’t any business in Howell’s study.

Of course, I could be attributing all sorts of things to a regular working guy, who also liked to keep fit, and go to funerals of old women he didn’t know, and have secret meetings with his employer.

What with Mookie Preston, Becca Whitley, and this scarred man with his long black hair, in no time at all I was going to lose my standing as the most exotic imported resident of Shakespeare.

It was a chilly day, almost visible-breath temperature. Though I don’t like to work in long sleeves, I pulled on an old turtleneck I wore when it was too cold to do without. I’d bought it before I started muscle-building, and it was tight in the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the upper arms…I shook my head at my reflection in the mirror. I looked as obvious as Becca Whitley. I’d throw it out after I wore it today, but it certainly would do to clean Beanie’s closet. I pulled on my baggy jeans and some old Converse high-tops, and after checking my mirror one more time to verify that my hair was curling and fluffy and my makeup was smooth and unobtrusive—evaluating Becca’s cosmetics had made me more aware of the dangers of overdoing it—I went out to my car.

It wouldn’t start.

“Son of a
,” I said, and a few more things. I raised the hood. One of the legacies of my gentle upbringing is that I don’t know shit about cars. And since I became ungentle, I have been too busy making a living to learn. I stalked back into my house and called the only mechanic I trusted in Shakespeare.

The phone was picked up to a mind-numbing blast of rap music.


“Who you want?”


“I’ll get him.”

“Hello? Who wants Big Cedric?”

“Cedric, this is Lily Bard.”

“Lily, what can I do for you this fine cold day?”

“You can come find out what’s wrong with my car. It was running smooth this morning. Now it won’t start.”

“I won’t insult you by asking if you got gas in it.”

“I’m glad you’re not going to insult me.”

“Okay, I tell you what. I got this car up on the rack I got to finish with, then I come by. You gonna be there?”

“No, I got a job. I can walk to it. I’ll leave the keys in the car.”

“Okay, we’ll get this problem taken care of.”

“Thank you, Cedric.”

The phone went down without further ado. I sighed at the thought of the expense of fixing the car—again—on a tight budget like mine, detached the car keys from my ring and put them in the ignition, and started walking to the Winthrops’.

Nothing in Shakespeare is really far away from anything else. But it was a considerable hike to the Winthrops’ neighborhood in the northern part of town, especially in the cold.

At least it wasn’t raining.

I reminded myself of that frequently. I promised myself something extra good for lunch, maybe a whole peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with my homemade soup. I deserved another treat, too. Maybe a new pair of boots? Nope, couldn’t do that if I had to pay for the car repairs…

Finally, about nine-thirty, I got to the Winthrops’, the jewel of the most opulent new neighborhood in Shakespeare. This neighborhood, not coincidentally, was farthest away from the southwestern black area and my own slightly-less-southern patch to the east.

The Winthrop lot was a corner lot. Today I used the kitchen door at the back of the garage, which was a wing on the side of the house opening onto Blanche Street, since I didn’t have my oil-spotting car. The front door of the house faced Amanda Street. To compensate for the small trees in front (this was a new subdivision) the landscaper had made the backyard a veritable jungle enclosed by a wooden privacy fence. There were several gates in the privacy fence, always kept carefully locked by the Winthrops so neighborhood children wouldn’t trespass for a dip in the pool or a game of hide-and-seek. The Winthrop house backed up to an equally large home that had employed the same landscape planner, so in the greener seasons their block resembled the tropical bird enclosure at a good zoo. There was a narrow alley in between the back gates of the two houses. It ran the length of the block and allowed passage for the Shakespeare garbage trucks and the lawn service that maintained almost every lawn in the neighborhood.

I stepped into the Winthrop kitchen, for once feeling positively happy to be there. The kitchen was dim and warm, wonderfully warm. For a couple of minutes I stood under a vent, enjoying the rush of heated air, restoring my circulation. I pulled off my old red Lands End squall jacket and hung it on one of the chairs at the round table where the family ate most of their meals. I strolled out of the kitchen, still rubbing my hands together, to the huge family room, stylishly carpeted in hunter green and decorated in taupe, burgundy, and gold. I picked up a couch pillow and fluffed it, replacing it automatically in the correct corner of the couch, which could easily seat four.

Still trying to reach a normal temperature, I stood staring out the sliding glass doors. The backyard looked melancholy in the late autumn, the foliage thinned out and the high fence depressingly obvious. The gray pool cover was spotted with puddles of rainwater. The warm colors of the big room were more pleasant, and I roamed around it picking up odds and ends as I stretched chilled muscles.

The pleasure of being warm made me feel like singing. I’d only rediscovered my voice recently; it was as though for years I’d forgotten I had the ability. At first the memories had wrenched at me—I remembered singing at weddings as a teenager, remembered church solos…remembered what my life once was. But I’d gotten past that. I began humming.

Though it wasn’t my regular cleaning day, from habit I walked through the whole house, as I always did when I came in. Upstairs, Bobo’s room was picked up and the bedspread was actually pulled straight. No such epiphany had inspired Amber Jean and Howell Three, but then they’d never been as sloppy as Bobo. The two upstairs bathrooms were more or less straight. Downstairs, Beanie always made the king-size bed in the huge master bedroom, and she was meticulous about hanging up her clothes because she had paid a lot for them. Beanie’s family had a great regard for money.

I began singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” as I went to the “cleaning stuff” closet in the kitchen to select what I’d need: dust cloths, the vacuum cleaner, glass cleaner and rags, shoe polish.

Twice a year, for extra pay of course, I performed this odd little service for Beanie. I took everything out of her huge walk-in closet, every single thing. Then I cleaned the closet, reorganized her clothes, and checked to make sure all her shoes were polished and ready to wear. Any clothes that needed mending or were missing buttons I put to one side for Beanie’s attention, or rather her seamstress’s.

I had sung my way to the end of the ballad when I took all my cleaning paraphernalia into the big dark bedroom—Beanie kept the drapes drawn—and dumped it on the floor to one side of Beanie’s closet. I opened the mirrored door and reached inside to switch on the light.

Someone grabbed my wrist and yanked me in.

because Marshall had taught me not to hesitate; if you hesitate, if you falter, you’ve already lost psychological ground. In fact, I almost went crazy and lost all my training, but hung on by a little rag of intelligence. I formed a good fist and hit with my free left hand, striking for anything I could hit. I couldn’t place my assailant exactly, had no idea who had grabbed me.

My blows made contact with flesh, I thought a cheek. He grunted but didn’t lessen his formidable grip on my right wrist, and it was only with an effort that I kept the left hand free. I knew it was a man from the sound of the grunt, so I went for his balls, but he twisted to one side and evaded my fingers. He’d been wanting to catch that free hand, and this he finally did; bad news for me. I tried breaking loose by stepping into him and bringing my hands, palms up, against his thumbs, the same move that had worked against Bobo; once I was free, I would slap him over the ears or gouge his eyes, I wasn’t particular, I would kill him or hurt him however I could.

The move didn’t work because he’d been expecting it. His hands slid down from my wrists to hold me right below the elbows. I slammed my head forward to break his nose but got his chest instead. As I threw my head back up I heard his teeth click together, so I’d clipped his chin, but that wasn’t enough to effect any major damage. I tried for the groin again with my knee and this time managed to make some contact because I got the grunt again. Elated, I tried to bring him down by hooking my leg between his legs and kicking the back of his knee. This was incredibly stupid on my part, because I succeeded. I brought him down right on top of me.

He pinned me to the floor with his body, his strong hands gripping my arms to my sides, his legs weighting mine. I lost my mind. I bit him on the ear.

“Goddamn! Stop it!” He never lessened his grip, which was what I was working for, but brought his forehead down on mine, using my own trick against me. He hadn’t used full force, not by a long shot, but I gasped with pain and felt tears form in my eyes.

He moved his head down to my ear, so his cheek was against mine, an oddly intimate contact. I heaved and bucked against him, but I could feel the weakness in my movements. “Listen,” he hissed. And then as I opened my mouth to scream, hoping to throw him off guard for a second, he said the one thing that could have achieved a truce.

“They’re breaking in,” he whispered. “For God’s sake, just shut up and be still. They’ll kill us both.”

I know how to shut up and I know how to be still, though I couldn’t stop quivering. My eyes finally adjusted to the near-darkness of the closet, and by the faint light coming in through the partly open door, I saw that the man on top of me was Mr. Black Ponytail.

After a second, I wasn’t too surprised.

Those eyes were not focused on me, but staring out the closet door as the man listened to the faint sounds that were just now penetrating my tangled state of fear and rage.

He bent back so his mouth was by my ear, his newly shaven cheek again resting against mine. “It’s gonna take them a while. They don’t know shit about breaking and entering,” he said in a voice so low it seemed to come from somewhere inside my own head. “Now, who the fuck are you?”

Through clenched teeth I said, “I am the fucking
.” Every muscle in my body was tensed, and the shivering would not stop no matter how I willed myself to be still. I began to make myself relax, knowing that if I didn’t, I would remain weak and disadvantaged.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
4.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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