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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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After another long time I heard him move. He sat behind me, his legs spread, and pulled me back against him. His arms crossed in front of me, holding me to him, but gently. Gradually I calmed, stopped shaking.

“We’re okay, Lily,” he said. “We’re okay.”

“Can this poor sense of timing be why you have such a—checkered career—as a lover?” I asked.

“I—am—sorry,” he said between clenched teeth.

“That helps.”

“Really sorry.”

“Good.”

“Can I—?”

“What? What do you want to do, Jack?”

He told me.

I told him he could try.

Later, in the quiet of my bed, he began to talk about something else. And all the pieces began to fall into place.

“HOWELL WINTHROP, JR
., hired me,” he said. We were lying facing each other. “He told me a week ago not to trust you.”

I could feel my eyes open wide as I absorbed all this.

“You saw the men last night. You have to have figured it out.”

“I guess Darcy is involved. All the others?”

“Yes, and a few more. Not the whole town, not even a sizable proportion of the white males. Just a few mental misfits who think their dicks are on the line. They think their manhood is tied up in keeping blacks, and women for that matter, in their place.”

“So they meet at Winthrop’s Sporting Goods.”

“The group evolved that way. Most of them are passing through there to buy things pretty often anyway, so it just happened. Ninety-eight percent of the people that patronize Winthrop’s are just regular nice people, but the two percent…Howell didn’t know anything about it until he noticed that guns were being bought through the store accounts that didn’t show up in the store. And it wasn’t even Howell that noticed it.”

“Oh no.” I thought for a moment. “It was Del.”

“Yeah, Del Packard. He went to Howell. Howell told him not to tell anyone else. But he must have.”

“Poor Del. Who killed him?”

“I don’t know yet. I don’t know if Del knew more than he told Howell, or if they were just scared of him telling it to the police—maybe they even asked Del to join them and he refused—but one of them took Del out.”

“Surely not all the Winthrop employees are in on it?” So many people worked at Winthrop’s, at least twenty men and four or five women who did office work. Added to the staff of the Winthrop-owned lumber and home supply business right next door…and there was Winthrop Oil…

“No, not by a long shot. Only three or four men at the Sporting Goods place, that I’ve been able to make sure of. And a couple, maybe three men from the place next door. Plus a few guys who just joined in, like Tom David and the one you told me was Cleve Ragland. The day they came to steal back the bags at the Winthrops’ house, they were in Cleve Ragland’s car.”

Since Jack was in a tell-all mood, I decided I would ask as many questions as I could.

“What was in the black bags?”

“Guns. And rifles. For the past four years Jim Box has been the man who ordered for the store. Someone got the bright idea for Jim to order a little more than he thought Winthrop’s could sell. Then they were going to stage a robbery and list those arms as stolen, which is why that excuse popped into their minds so quickly last night, I guess. They’d figured if they set up a robbery, no one could blame the store—Howell—if the guns were used for illegal stuff. Instead of walking out with one weapon at a time, they began stockpiling what they wanted in the storeroom at the back of the store in two black bags, waiting for the right moment to stage the break-in. They should’ve gone on and moved their pile after Del died, but we’re not talking big brains here.”

“Then you and Howell took the bags.”

“Yeah, everyone in on it was gone to lunch, so we loaded them into Howell’s car and drove out to his house.” He kissed me. “The day I saw you there. You had the strangest expression on your face.”

“I couldn’t figure you two out. I was thinking you and Howell were maybe—thataway.”

Jack laughed out loud. “Beanie’s safe.”

“Why did you put them in Howell’s house?”

“We wanted to see who’d come after them. We knew by then who on Howell’s payroll was involved, but not the names of the rest of the group. I also figured lying concealed in Howell’s house would be safer than hiding at the store every night, waiting for the staged burglary to take place. So Howell told Darcy about this strange cache of arms he’d found in the store, how he thought he’d keep them at his house until he decided whether he should call the police or not.”

“Wasn’t that just a little more dangerous for Howell and his family?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even.

“Well, I knew the day they were going to try. And Howell has this conviction they won’t hurt him or his family. He has this weird sense of—like he owes them, because they work for him. He doesn’t even seem to want to turn them in when he finds out who it is…and he wants to know exactly. It’s strange. He doesn’t want anyone falsely accused, and I can respect that. But it’s like there’s something he’s not telling me.”

I should have listened to that sentence harder, mulled over it like I mulled over so many things. But I was still trying to understand Jack and Howell’s plan of action. So far, frankly, it didn’t seem that much better than the thieves’. “So you hid out in Beanie’s closet. To wait and see who came to call.”

“Yeah. And you came in. I knew who you were the minute you hit me, but I didn’t know your name.”

“You hadn’t heard the men talk?”

“I’d heard people mention Lily, but I didn’t know that was you. You didn’t look like any maid I’d ever seen, or any karate expert, either. Or any weight lifter.”

“What did I look like?” I asked, very close to his face.

“Like the most exciting woman I’d ever seen.”

Every now and then, Jack said exactly the right thing.

He whispered, “I wanted to touch you. I just wanted to lay my hands on you.” He demonstrated. “When Howell heard about the bomb he called me and told me to go down to the hospital to verify how many hurt and dead there were. He knew it would seem strange if he did it. He’s sure one of his employees set the bomb, and he wanted to know if one of them had been brought in hurt. He thought maybe they’d hang around to see the explosion, get caught in it. So I went down to the hospital. It was eerie. I just walked in, and strolled through the halls looking. No one stopped me, or asked me what my business was there. The idea was a good one, but it didn’t pan out. No one associated with the group was brought in injured. But I saw you on the gurney.”

“You were at the hospital! I thought it was a dream.”

“It was me. I wanted to stay, but I knew that would look strange.”

“You asked me if there was anyone you could call for me.”

“I wanted someone to come take care of you. And I wanted to know if there was anyone ahead of me. Everyone had told me you were with Marshall. I felt he was pretty formidable competition. If you’d asked me to call him…”

“What would you have done?”

“I would have called him. But I would have tried to find some way to pry you loose when you were feeling better.”

We didn’t talk for a while.

I got up to get a drink, came back.

“Why do you think Howell doesn’t trust me?” I asked. That stung me. I had kept faith with the Winthrop family over and above the demands of my paycheck.

“I don’t know. When I was asking him who had keys to the house, as a matter of routine, he said, ‘The maid,’ and he said you’d worked for him for four years and he was sure you were absolutely reliable. But then, about a week ago, he called me into his office first thing in the morning to tell me to avoid you, that he thought you were in on something.”

He kissed me to show me how little he’d listened.

“I can’t think of what I’ve done to earn Howell’s mistrust.” I stowed that away to think of later. “What’s their goal in stockpiling all these weapons?”

“From what I’ve pieced together, their goal is to start a white supremacist militia group here, using Cleve Ragland’s hunting camp as a training base. They want to be a big-time organization rather than a few bastards who grouse and murder children in bombings.”

“Have you heard anything about Darnell Glass?” I asked.

Jack lay back, pushed his hair back with his fingers. “It’s strange,” he said finally. “It’s like there were two things going on. After meeting most of the men who are involved in this, at least I think I’ve met most of them, what I’ve been impressed with most is their stupidity. Keeping the arms they were stealing at the store: dumb. Trying to steal them back from Howell’s house: dumb. Spraypainting Deedra’s car, and that was the boy who works at the loading dock at the Home Supply store—I actually saw him do it—there again, dumb. I think Deedra snubbed him when she went in the store to get a new curtain rod, so he got her back. Then the bomb. The day after the bomb went off, when they’d heard Claude Friedrich and you were hurt and Sheriff Schuster was killed—they were all hangdog as hell. I think it bothered them about the little girl, too. You know why that all happened? The bomb didn’t go off at the right time. That I did overhear, directly, Jim and Darcy venting their guilt. They were trying to shift the blame to the victims—you shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Sheriff Schuster shouldn’t have gotten out faster. The little girl should have been home doing her homework. Crap like that.”

“They killed those people out of incompetence.” I closed my eyes. I remembered the scene inside the church.

“There are groups that like to kill as many black people as they can, Lily, and don’t care what age they get. These guys, no…they hadn’t ever built a bomb before and they got it wrong.”

“How’d they get it in the church before the meeting?”

“The church is unlocked during the day. Jim just chanced it, best as I can piece it out.”

I felt sick.

“But Darnell, they haven’t said anything about him?”

“No, but your name has come up a bunch of times.”

“Wait.” The most important question of all hadn’t even occurred to me until now. Jack was new at the store. Why would they trust him to keep silent? “How can you overhear all this?”

“Lily, I put a bug in the employee lounge.”

“Is that legal?”

“Well…”

“Hmmm.”

“It’s not exactly true to say they haven’t talked about Darnell’s murder,” Jack said, perhaps to distract me from wondering about how much illegality he’d put up with. “They all feel like he got what was coming to him. Don’t ask me to explain their thinking, because that’s impossible. And then they mention you, because I gather that was a real brawl. Did you have to pitch in?” He turned me to face him and looked me in the eyes. His own eyes were serious. I ran my finger down his cheek, down his scar, traced his neck to his collarbone.

“Don’t think I haven’t had regrets that the whole thing happened, that I happened to be there, even. I’m no activist. I want to be left alone. But I was there, and he was outnumbered, and those boys would’ve beat the shit out of him.”

Jack absorbed that, accepted it. “But you see, from their point of view,” he said, very quietly, “you defended Darnell, and you were there at Howell’s when they came to reclaim the rifles, and you were in the church when it blew up. That’s too many coincidences for them, no matter that you were minding your own business in every instance.”

“Do they think I’m you? Do they think I’m some kind of detective?”

“They think you like black people too much and they do think you might have something to do with their not being able to get the guns back. Then I spend the night with you on the very night they’re trying to find out who was spying on them. So they wonder about you, a lot. At the same time, it seems like they have a weird kind of respect for you.”

“How did they come to chase you last night?”

“I was hidden in a sort of niche I’d made. If you think the customer part of the store is overwhelming, you should see the back of the store. Someone could live back there for a week and no one would ever know. Anyway, I knew they were going to be meeting after hours in the storeroom, and it’s not bugged. I wanted to know what they were planning.”

“How’d they know you were there?”

“You’re going to laugh,” he said gloomily, and I had a feeling I really wasn’t. “The boy, Paulie, who works at the Home Supply store, brought his dog with him. He’s real proud of that dog, talks about it all the time. It cost some ungodly amount. A bluetick hound, I think. The dog sniffed me, started barking. It seemed smarter to run for it than to wait until they came to investigate.”

I was right. I wasn’t laughing. “They would have killed you.”

“I know it.” He lay staring at my ceiling, thinking about that real hard. “I don’t think all of them were in on Darnell’s murder, but they would have killed me last night because they were all together and they were scared.”

“Do you think they’re suspicious now?”

“Maybe. I got a phone call today from Jim. He said he’d heard from Darcy that I was courting Lily Bard. He suggested I’d be better off with some more traditional girl.”

“Courting, huh? That what this is?”

“Damn if I know. But I like it, whatever we call it.”

“And I’m a girl,” I said thoughtfully. “A nontraditional girl.”

“Screw tradition, in that case,” Jack murmured.

“So what are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to keep on like I have been, as long as I can. Collecting the tape every night, listening to it, copying it, phoning Howell with any information I can glean. Waiting for him to decide what he’s going to do; after all, he’s my boss.” Jack put his arms around me. “Lilly, I get stubborn and mad and do the wrong thing sometimes. If I was really a great detective, I’d tell you I can’t see you until this is over. Maybe I’m putting you in even more danger than you’re already in. But maybe somehow, since they still believe my cover, I’m giving you a little credence with them. If a bad boy like me is interested in you, you can’t be a snitch, they figure—I hope. But I just don’t know.”

He sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed. I was treated to a view of his bare back and bottom. I enjoyed it very much. I traced his spine with my finger, and he arched his back. “You can tell,” he said, not looking at me, “that I have a real problem with impulsiveness.”

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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