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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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“You’re kidding,” I said, deadpan.

“Let’s not joke about this, OK. I came to your house when I was wounded, brought you under more suspicion, maybe. Put you in danger. I made love to you on impulse. I can’t regret that. I’d stay in bed with you for a year if I could. But I was impulsive starting that affair with Karen, and she died.” He turned a little to meet my eyes. “I can’t let my thoughtlessness put you in danger, like it did her.”

“I don’t guess you’ll be able to stop it. And I’m not Karen Kingsland.” There was a certain edge in my voice.

“Lily, listen to me! I know you’re strong, I know you think of yourself as a tough woman, but this is not just one opponent who fights fair. This is a pack, and they would kill you…and maybe not straightaway.”

I stared at him. Somehow I had lost pleasure in the view.

“You’re saying—stop me if I get this wrong, Jack—you’re saying that I only think of myself as tough, I’m really not…that I can only win if my opponents fight fair…that Darcy and Jim and Tom David would rape me if they had the chance. Gosh, why would that occur to me?”

“I know you’re getting mad,” he said, turning around and looking down at me. “And I probably deserve it, but I just can’t let anything happen to you. You just can’t be involved in this in any way, any longer.”

“You’ll just stop by when you have a minute to fuck? Insult my other guests?”

His sculpted lips tightened. He was beginning to get mad, too.

“No. I shouldn’t have said anything about Bobo being here. I had no right. And I told you I was sorry. Hey, I never said anything about the cop sending you flowers, and they were still sitting on your kitchen table with the card stuck in them.”

“Which, of course, you had a perfect right to read.”

“Lily, I’m a
detective
. Of course I read it.”

I gripped my head with my hands. I shook it to clear it.

“Go,” I said. “I can’t deal with you right now.”

“We’re doing this again,” he said helplessly.

“No,
you
are.” I meant it. “You screw my brains out after telling me we shouldn’t be publicly involved. Okay, I admit, I screwed you right back, and I publicly involved us—to save your ass. You spill your guts to me—on impulse—tell me my employer doesn’t trust me, tell me I may or may not be in serious danger, and then tell me not to involve myself in the resolution of this mess.”

“Put that way, I admit, it doesn’t sound like I’m doing the right thing by you.”

“Gosh, no kidding.”

“Why do we get so—so—crossways? I’m trying to do the right thing! I don’t want you to get hurt!”

“I know,” I said. I sighed. “You need to go on now. Come back and talk to me—somewhere public—when you decide what your current policy is.”

He stood. His face was full of conflict. He held out his hand.

“Kiss me,” he said. “I can’t leave like this. This is something real we have.”

Almost unwillingly, I held out my hand, and he pulled me up to kneel on the bed. He bent over and kissed me hard on the mouth. I felt the heat begin to slide through me again. I pulled back.

“Yeah. It’s real,” he said, and dressed. He dropped a kiss on my head before he went out the door.

Chapter 8

CARRIE WASN’T AT THE CLINIC THAT MORNING. IT WAS
the first time in a long time she hadn’t been there on a Saturday. I hadn’t realized how much I’d counted on seeing her until I pulled into the lot behind the clinic and found it empty.

She’d left me a note taped to the patients’ bathroom door, since she knew I cleaned that first.

     Lily—I’m following your suggestion. Today the entire off-duty police department is moving Claude downstairs to the O’Hagens’ old apartment. Becca Whitley’s putting in a ramp at the back door! Knew you would want to know.

I was a little disconcerted by Carrie’s taking charge of Claude. I’d been to see him in the hospital a couple more times, and I realized now that both times he’d talked about Carrie. Maybe the reason I hadn’t worried about the problems of Claude’s homecoming was that I’d absorbed the clues that someone else was doing it for me? Well, well, well. Carrie and Claude. It sounded nice.

I got the clinic cleaned, though I felt lonely without Carrie. As I started work at my next client’s, I brooded about what Jack had told me. It gnawed at me that Howell didn’t trust me. I am very reliable, I keep my mouth shut, and I’m honest. My reputation as a cleaning woman depends on those qualities.

I struggled to recall all the contacts I’d had with Howell recently, trying to pick out one that would explain his sudden lack of faith in me.

By the time I was through for the day, I’d decided to make a call.

After checking the phone book and the map, I drove again into the black area of Shakespeare which surrounded Golgotha Church. I felt a wave of nausea when I passed the damaged structure, now bathed in bright winter sunshine. The cold wind rippled a large sheet of plastic over the hole in the roof, and temporary front doors had been hung. A junked pile of splintered pews lay outside in the grass. A whiff of burning still lingered in the air. Men were at work inside and out. A white man was among them, and after a careful look I recognized the Catholic priest from Montrose. Then I saw another white face: Brian Gruber, the mattress factory executive. And redheaded Al from Winthrop’s Sporting Goods. I felt a little better after that.

My business lay a block or two away, in one of the few brick homes in the area. Tidy and tiny, it sat within a four-foot chain-link fence, with a “Beware of the Dog” notice. The shutters and eaves were painted golden yellow to contrast with the brown bricks. I scanned the yard, didn’t see the dog to beware of. I lifted the gate latch, and a big tan short-eared dog of unfortunate parentage tore around the house. He woofed and he growled, and he ran from side to side right within the fence.

A small black woman came to the front door, she was trim and tidy like the house, and she had picked rose red to wear today, her day off. At her appearance, the dog instantly silenced, waiting to see what the woman’s attitude would be.

“What you want?” she called. She was neither welcoming nor repelling.

“If you’re Callie Gandy, I need to talk to you. I’m Lily Bard.”

“I know who you are. What do we have to talk about?”

“This.” I held up the shabby brown velvet ring box.

“What you doing with Mrs. Winthrop’s ring?”

Bingo. Just as I had suspected, this had never been Marie Hofstettler’s ring.

“Miss Gandy, I really want to talk.”

“Miss Bard, I’m not aiming to be rude, but you are only trouble and I don’t need any more of that than I have.”

I had already learned what I needed to know.

“All right. Good-bye.”

She didn’t answer. She and the tan dog watched me with poker-faced stillness while I returned to my car and buckled up. She closed her door then, and I drove home with even more to think about.

That afternoon I went to the grocery, cleaned my own house, and made some banana nut bread for Claude. He liked it for breakfast. It seemed very sweet, very personal to know that about a friend. That was what I’d missed most, without ever knowing it, in my wandering years and my first years in Shakespeare: the little details, the intimacy, of friendship.

I retrieved one of my homemade individual entrées from the freezer. Claude liked lasagna, I remembered. Feeling like a small-town paradigm of neighborliness, I walked over to the apartments.

The move was complete, apparently, and some of Claude’s cops were still there drinking a beer by way of thank-you. Claude was on his old couch, his bad leg propped up on an ottoman. The door was open, so I just stepped in, self-conscious at having an audience.

“Lily, are you a sight for sore eyes!” Claude boomed, and I noticed he looked better than he had since his injury. “Come on in and have a brew.”

I glanced around at the men lounging in the living room. I nodded at Dedford Jinks, whom I hadn’t seen since the Winthrop break-in, and Todd Picard. He seemed a little more relaxed in my presence than he had been in weeks past. Tom David was sitting on the floor, his long legs crossed at the ankle, a Michelob bottle in his hand. His bright mean eyes scanned me, and his mouth curved in a nasty smile.

Judas, I thought, drinking Claude’s beer when you knew he was going to be in that church. Could you have kept that child from dying?

My face must have become very unpleasant, because Tom David looked startled then defensive. His smile faltered, then increased in wattage.

“Hoo hoo, it’s Miss Bard, tore herself away from her new love long enough to pay you a visit, Claude!”

Claude just smiled, perhaps because Carrie came out of the kitchen at that moment. Carrie was wearing leggings and a University of Arkansas sweatshirt, and she looked—for once—carefree. Her glasses were propped on top of her head, and her eyes were round and brown and warm.

Tom David was taken aback when he realized no one was going to pick up on his cue. Dedford Jinks, the detective, ran a hand over his own thinning hair and gave Tom David a look of sheer irritation.

I smiled at Carrie, bobbed my head to Dedford and a patrolman I didn’t know, a tall black man with a bandage on his arm. I looked at him carefully. I’d helped him up in the church. He recognized me, too. We exchanged nods.

I told Claude, “I figured you wouldn’t be baking anytime soon, so I brought you some bread.”

“Would that by any chance be banana nut? I can smell it from here.”

I nodded. “Some lasagna, too,” I muttered. I wished everyone would look somewhere else.

“Lily, you are sure sweet,” Claude declared. “Without Carrie helping me move and you cooking for me, I’d have to rely on pizza delivery.”

“Oh, of course, no one else in town will bring you meals,” Carrie said sarcastically. And she was right to take Claude’s words with a grain of salt. He’d be inundated with food within days, if not hours.

“Where should I put this?” I asked Carrie, tacitly acknowledging her place in the apartment.

She looked a little surprised, then pleased.

“Come help me unpack the kitchen, if you have a minute,” she invited. She could tell I was uncomfortable. I followed her from the room gladly, giving Claude a gentle pat on the shoulder as I passed him.

Carrie and I were a little old for girlish confidences, but I felt obliged to say something. “This what it looks like?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

She shrugged, trying to look noncommittal, but a little smile curved her lips.

“Good,” I said. “Now, where you think he wants these spices?”

“I’m trying to put everything where he had it in the apartment upstairs,” Carrie said. “I don’t want him to feel like a stranger in his own kitchen. I tried to remember. I even drew a diagram. But it got a little hectic up there with the men coming in and out.”

“Spices were here, I believe,” I said, opening the cabinet right by the stove. I was hoping Carrie wouldn’t take this wrong, and she didn’t, being above all a sensible woman.

Luckily, Becca Whitley (I assumed) had given the apartment a thorough cleaning after the O’Hagens moved out. All we had to do was put things in what we considered a logical place. After Carrie and I had worked a while, we took a break and had a Coke. Leaning against the counters in companionable weariness, we exchanged smiles.

“They carried everything down without a problem, but I guess the unpacking is woman’s work,” Carrie said wryly. She lowered her voice. “What’s this Tom David was trying to start trouble with?” We could still hear men’s voices in the living room, but we didn’t know who’d gone and who’d come in.

“I’m…” To my horror, I could feel myself turning red, and I had to look off into the distance.

“Are you all right?” Carrie asked. She got her doctor look on.

“Yes.” I took a breath. “I’m seeing the new man at Winthrop’s Sporting Goods.” For an awful minute I could not remember Jack’s cover name. “Jared Fletcher.”

“The one who lives here in the apartments? The one with the lips and the hair?”

I nodded, grinning at this description.

“How’d you meet him?”

“I went in to buy some weight-lifting gloves,” I said, sifting through the weeks past to find something believable.

“That’s romantic,” Carrie said.

I looked at her sharply to see if she was teasing me, but she was dead serious.

“Didn’t I see him at the hospital the night of the bombing?” she said doubtfully.

Now, that was before I’d officially met Jack. But Carrie didn’t know that, didn’t know when I’d bought my new gloves. This was so complicated. I hated telling lies, especially to one of my few friends.

“Yes,” I said.

“He came to see about you?”

I nodded, figuring that was a little better than trying to sort partial truth from fiction.

“Oh, wow,” Carrie said, all dewy-eyed.

As if on cue, I heard a familiar voice from the living room.

“Hey, I hear you deserted us upstairs. There must be a secret benefit to living down here!” Jack said heartily.

Claude’s response was less audible, but I heard the word “beer” clearly.

“I just may do that,” Jack answered. “I’ve been working all day and I could use some liquid refreshment. Speaking of which, I picked up this bottle for your housewarming.”

“Thank you, neighbor,” Claude said, more audibly. He must have turned his head toward a moving Jack. “You’ll have to come share it with me when I open it.”

Jack appeared in the kitchen doorway, wearing his red sweatshirt with the Winthrop logo and his leather jacket. He betrayed his surprise at finding me there only by a widening of his eyes.

“Lily,” he said, and kissed me on the cheek. His hand groped for mine, squeezed it hard for a moment, released it. “The chief says you have some loose beer in here.”

I pointed at the refrigerator. Carrie beamed at Jack and extended a hand.

“I’m so glad to meet you. I’m Carrie Thrush.”

“The good doctor Thrush. I’ve heard great things about you,” Jack said. “I’m Jared Fletcher. New man in town.” He was smiling genuinely. He set a bottle of bourbon on the counter, Claude’s homecoming gift, and opened the refrigerator to extract a beer.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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