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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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“That’s better. We’re on the same side,” whispered the man as he felt my body soften and still beneath him.

“Who are you?” I asked him.

“I,” he told my ear, “am the fucking
detective
.” He shifted on top of me. He wasn’t as calm or cool as he was trying to sound. His body was reacting to its proximity with mine, and he was getting uncomfortable. “If I let you go, are you gonna give me any trouble? They’re much more dangerous than I am.”

I thought about it. I had no idea if he really was a detective. And whose detective? FBI? Private? ATF? The Shakespeare police force? Winthrop County?

I heard glass shattering.

“They’re in,” he breathed into my ear. “Listen, the game plan has changed.”

“Huh,” I said contemptuously and almost inaudibly. I hated sports metaphors. I felt much better almost immediately. Angry is better than scared or confused.

“They’ll kill us if we’re caught,” he told me again. His lips, so close to my ear, suddenly made me want to shiver again in a completely different way. His body was talking to mine at great length, no matter what his mouth was saying.

“Now, what I want you to do, when they’re all in the house,” he whispered breathlessly, “is start screaming. I’m going out the front door, circling around to the alley to get their license plate number, identify the car, so I can try to find where they go after this.”

I wondered what his original plan had been. This one seemed awful haphazard. His hands, instead of gripping my arms, were rubbing them slowly.

“They’ll know it was me and come after me.”

“If you’re never in their sight, they won’t believe you saw them,” he breathed. “Give me three minutes, then scream.”

“No,” I said very softly. “I’ll turn on the vacuum cleaner.”

I sensed a certain amount of exasperation rolling off Mr. Ponytail. “OK,” he agreed. “Whatever.”

Then he slid off me, and rose to his feet. He held out his hand and I took it without thinking. He pulled me up as easily as he’d helped me do chin-ups that morning. He gave me a sharp nod to indicate the clock was running, and then he was gone, easing himself out of the closet, through Beanie’s bedroom, and presumably down the little hall that led to the foyer of the house. His exit was much more subtle than the burglars’ entrance.

I peered at my big-faced man’s watch, actually timing the self-proclaimed detective, trying not to wonder why I was doing what he said. At two and a half minutes, I risked stepping out of the closet. I could hear the intruders clearly now. Once they’d gotten into the house, they’d abandoned all attempts at silence.

After plugging in the vacuum cleaner, I suddenly began belting out “Whistle While You Work.” Without waiting to assess the reaction, I stepped on the “On” button and the vacuum cleaner roared to life. I was careful to keep my back to the bedroom door as I began industriously vacuuming, because I could see in Beanie’s dressing table mirror if I was being stalked. I caught a shadow swooping across the mirror, but its owner was in the act of departure. I’d spooked them.

When I felt sure they were gone, I turned off the vacuum cleaner. Watchfully, I once again toured the Winthrop house. One of the sliding glass doors leading to the pool area was broken. Looking across the covered pool, I saw one of the wooden gates standing ajar. The Winthrops needed a full-fledged security system, I thought severely. Then I realized I would have to clean up all the glass, and I found myself irrationally peeved.

Also, I had to call the police.

There was no way around it.

Should I tell them about Black Ponytail? If it weren’t for Claude, I’d lie in a jiffy. All my contacts with the police had been painful. But I trusted Claude. I should tell him the truth. But what could I tell him?

I was fairly sure Howell Jr. must have admitted Black Ponytail to the house or given him the keys. My doubts about their relationship recurred. But no matter what that relationship was, it seemed to me I’d be violating whatever loyalty I was supposed to have to the Winthrop family if I told the police Black Ponytail had been already concealed in the house, anticipating this very break-in.

This was knotty.

I called the police station and reported the break-in, and had a few moments to think hard.

The safest thing was a straight break-in. I don’t know nothin’, boss.

It helped immensely that Claude didn’t come. Dedford Jinks, the detective who’d so frightened Bobo, and two patrolmen responded to my call. Claude was in a meeting with the county judge and the mayor and had not been told about the incident, I gathered from listening to the patrolmen.

Dedford was a good ole guy with a beer gut hanging over a worn belt buckle he’d won in his calf-roping days. He had thin graying hair, a thin compressed mouth, and a ruddy complexion. Dedford was nobody’s fool.

My story was this: I’d heard little noises, but thought that a member of the family had come in. From then on, I told the truth: I’d plugged in the vacuum and turned it on, I’d heard a big commotion, I hadn’t seen anyone.

After they’d checked out the backyard and found a gate unlocked, and many footprints in the flower beds, the police said I could go.

“I have to clean up,” I said, gesturing to the glass on the Winthrops’ thick hunter-green carpet. They’d gathered up the biggest pieces for fingerprint testing, but there were lots of fragments.

“Oh,” said one of the patrolmen, disconcerted. “Well, OK.”

Then Howell burst into the house, moving faster than I’d ever seen him move. His face was red.

“My God, Lily, are you all right?” He actually took one of my hands and held it. I reclaimed it. This was strange. I could feel the policemen looking at each other.

“Yes, Howell, I’m fine.”

“They didn’t hurt you?”

I gestured wide with my hands to draw his notice to my uninjured body.

“But the bruise on your forehead?”

I touched my face carefully. Sure enough, my forehead was tender and puffy. Thanks, Mr. Ponytail. I hoped his ear hurt.

“I guess I ran into the doorframe,” I said. “I got pretty excited.”

“Well, sure. But one of the men didn’t…”

“No.”

“I had no idea you were going to be here today,” Howell said, taking his snowy white handkerchief out of his pocket and patting his face with it. “I am so glad you weren’t harmed.”

“I came to do your wife’s closet. It’s just a twice-a-year thing,” I explained. For me, I was talking too much. I hoped no one would notice. I was rattled. I knew now that Howell was directly involved in this day’s peculiar doings. At least it was Howell who had let Ponytail in, so he had been here legitimately. I guessed Howell was now wondering where the hell his man was and what part he’d played in this fiasco.

“I’ll just clean up this mess and go,” I suggested again.

“No, no, you need to go home after this,” Howell exclaimed, his handsome, fleshy face creased with anxiety. “I’ll be glad to clean it up.”

Definite glances between all police personnel within earshot. Shit.

“But I’d like to…” I let my sentence trail off as Dedford raised an eyebrow in my direction. If I insisted longer, so would Howell, drawing more attention to his unusual preoccupation with my condition. He was obviously guiltstricken. If he kept this up, everyone present would figure something strange was going on, and they might think it was more than Howell having an affair with his maid, which was bad enough.

“Where’s your car?” Howell asked suddenly.

“It wouldn’t start this morning,” I said wearily, by now tired of explaining myself. “I walked.”

“Oh my God, all that way! I’m sure one of these boys will be glad to give you a ride home!”

One of the “boys,” the older paunchier one with a disbelieving mouth, said he sure would be glad to do that.

So I got delivered to my house in style. My car was still in my carport, but with a sheet of yellow legal paper stuck under the windshield. It read,
“I fixed it. You owe me $68.23.”
It was a lot more direct and honest than the blue sheets that were suddenly papering the town. I turned to the patrolman, who was waiting to see me enter my house safely. “Do you know anything about those flyers that are turning up under everyone’s windshield wipers?”

“I know they ain’t no ordinance against it,” he replied, and his face closed like a fist. “Likewise they ain’t no ordinance against the blacks meeting to talk about it, which they aim to do tonight.”

“Where?”

“The meeting? At the Golgotha A.M.E. Church on Castle Road. We got to maintain a presence, case there’s any trouble.”

“That’s good,” I said, and after thanking the man for giving me a ride home (and being willing to part with information without asking any questions) I sat in my recliner and thought.

Chapter 5

I DON’T KNOW WHAT I EXPECTED OF THE REST OF THE
day. I think I expected the man in the closet to pop up any minute; to tell me what had happened when he left, to ask me if he’d hurt me in our struggle, to explain himself.

After seeing him everywhere I turned, now he was nowhere. I passed through being worried, to being angry, and back through worried. I made my feelings cool down, concentrated on chilling them; I told myself the fear and rage engendered by our silent struggle in Beanie Winthrop’s walk-in closet—what a location—had nudged me past some internal boundary marker.

Out of sheer restlessness, that night I attended the meeting at Golgotha A.M.E. Church. I found it with a little difficulty since it was in the center of the largest black residential area in Shakespeare, which I seldom had reason to visit. The church itself, redbrick and larger than I expected, was set up on a knoll, with cracked concrete steps bordered by a handrail leading up to the main doors. It was on a corner lot, and there was a big streetlight shining down those steps. Golgotha was so centrally located that I saw many people walking to the meeting despite the gusty cold wind.

I also saw two police cars on the way there. One was driven by Todd Picard, who gave me an unhappy nod. It was easy to tell that every time he saw me, I reminded him of something he wanted to forget. I felt the same way about him.

I went up the steps of the church at a fast clip, anxious to get out of the wind. It seemed to me I’d been cold all day. There were double doors at the top of the steps, and inside those, a large foyer with two coatracks, a table spread with lots of free literature on Planned Parenthood and Alcoholics Anonymous and the practice of daily prayer, and the doors to two rooms, one on each side, that I guessed were vesting rooms or perhaps served for choir practice. Ahead, there were two sets of doors into the body of the church. I picked the right set of doors and followed the flow of people into the sanctuary. There was a long center set of pews and a shorter set on each side, with wide aisles in between, the same conformation I’d seen in many churches. I picked a long central pew at random, and scooted toward the center to give later arrivals easy access.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at seven, and surprisingly enough it did. The high attendance on a cold school night was a measure of how strong feeling was running in the African-American community. Mine was not the only white face in view. The Catholic sisters who ran a preschool for disadvantaged children were seated some distance away, and Claude was there: a good public relations move, I thought. He gave me a curt nod. Sheriff Marty Schuster was sitting beside Claude on the dais. To my surprise, he was a small wizened man you would’ve thought couldn’t arrest a possum. But his appearance was deceiving; I’d heard more than once that Sheriff Schuster had cracked his share of skulls. Schuster’s secret, Jim Box had told me one morning, was to always strike first and hardest.

Claude and Marty Schuster shared the platform with a man I supposed was the church’s pastor, a short, square man with great dignity and angry eyes. He was holding a Bible.

Another light face caught my eye. Mookie Preston was there, too, sitting by herself. When Lanette Glass came in, the two women exchanged a long look before Lanette sat by another teacher.

I saw Cedric, my mechanic, and Raphael Roundtree, who was sitting with his wife. Cedric gave me a surprised smile and wave, but Raphael’s greeting was subdued. His wife just stared.

The meeting went like many community meetings with an ill-defined goal. It opened with a prayer so fervent that I half expected God to touch everyone’s heart with love and understanding on the spot. If He did, the results were not immediate. Everyone had something to say, and wanted to say it simultaneously. They were all angry about the blue pieces of paper, and wanted to know what the chief of police and the sheriff were doing about them. At tedious length, the lawmen explained that they couldn’t do anything about them; the handouts were not obscene, did not contain a clear and overt incitement to violence. Of course, this was not a satisfactory response to most of the people in the church.

At least three people were trying to speak when Lanette Glass stood up. There was silence, gradually; a deep silence.

“My son is dead,” Lanette said. Her glasses caught the harsh fluorescent light and winked. Darnell’s mother was probably still in her forties, with a pleasant round figure and a pretty round face. She was wearing a brown, cream, and black pantsuit. She looked very sad, very angry.

“You may talk about ‘we don’t know this’ and ‘we can’t guess that,’ but we all know good and well that Darnell was murdered by the same men that are passing around this paper.”

“We can’t know that, Mrs. Glass,” Marty Schuster said helplessly. “I sympathize with your grief, and your son’s is one of the three homicides the city and county police are working on—believe me, we’re working on it, we want to find out what happened to your son—but we can’t go haring off and accuse people who don’t even have an identity.”

“I can,” she said unanswerably. “I can also say what everyone here is thinking, blacks and probably whites, too: that if Darnell hadn’t been killed, Len Elgin would not have died, and maybe Del Packard, too. And I want to know what we, the black community, are supposed to do about these rumors of armed militia in our town, armed white men who hate us.”

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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