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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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Today the Drinkwaters went out their kitchen door at a pretty sharp clip, each sliding into a car to begin his/her own workday, and I was able to start my usual routine.

Helen Drinkwater doesn’t want to pay me to do a total cleaning job on the whole house, which is a turn-of-the-century two-story. She pays me for two and a half hours, long enough to change the sheets, do the bathrooms and kitchen, dust, gather up the trash, and vacuum. I do a quick pickup first because it makes everything easier. The Drinkwaters are not messy, but their grandchildren live just down the street, and they are. I patrolled the house for scattered toys and put them all in the basket Helen keeps by the fireplace. Then I pulled on rubber gloves and trotted up to the main bathroom, to start scrubbing and dusting my way through the house. No pets, and the Drinkwaters washed and hung up their clothes and did their own dishes. By the time I rewound the cord on the vacuum cleaner, the house was looking very good. I pocketed my check on the way out. Helen always leaves it on the kitchen counter with the salt shaker on top of it, as if some internal wind would blow it away otherwise. This time she’d anchored down a note, too. “
We need to pick a Wednesday for you to do the downstairs windows
,” said Helen’s spiky handwriting.

Wednesday is the morning I reserve for unusual jobs, like helping with someone’s spring cleaning, or doing windows, or occasionally mowing a yard. I looked at the calendar by the phone, picked two Wednesdays that would do, and wrote both dates on the bottom of the note with a question mark.

I deposited the check in the bank on my way home for lunch. Claude was walking up my driveway when I arrived.

Chief of Police Claude Friedrich lives next door to me, in the Shakespeare Garden Apartments. My small house is a little downhill from the apartments, and separated from the tenants’ parking lot by a high fence. As I unlocked my front door, I felt Claude’s big hand rubbing my shoulder. He likes to touch me, but I have put off any more intimate relationship with the chief; so his touches have to have a locker-room context.

“How was it after I left?” I asked, walking through the living room to the kitchen. Claude was right behind me, and when I turned to look up at him he wrapped his arms around me. I felt the tickle of his mustache against my face as his lips drifted across my cheek to fasten on a more promising target. Claude was my good friend but he wanted to be my lover, too.

“Claude, let me go.”

“Lily, when are you going to let me spend the night?” he asked quietly, no begging or whining in his voice because Claude is not a begging or whining man.

I turned sharply so my face was to the refrigerator. I could feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten. I made myself hold still. Claude’s hands dropped to his sides. I got out some leftover dishes and opened the microwave, moving slowly, trying not to show my agitation with jerky gestures.

When the microwave was humming, I turned to face Claude, looking up at his face. Claude is in his midforties, ten years or more older than I, and he has graying brown hair and a permanent tan. After years of working in dark corners of Little Rock and dark places in people’s hearts, Claude has a few wrinkles, deep and decisive wrinkles, and a massive calm that must be his way of keeping sane.

“Do you want me?” he asked me now.

I hated being backed into a corner. And there wasn’t a simple answer to the question.

He touched my hair with gentle fingers.

“Claude.” I enjoyed saying his name, unlovely as it was. I wanted to lay my hands on each side of his face and return his kiss. I wanted him to walk out and never come back. I wanted him not to want me. I had liked having a friend.

“You know I’m just used to living my own life,” was what I said.

“Is it Sedaka?”

Oh,
hell
. I hated this. Marshall and I had been dating and bedding for months. Under Claude’s scrutiny, I grew even more tense. Without my conscious direction, my hand crept under the neck of my sweatshirt, rubbing the scars.

“Don’t, Lily.” Claude’s voice was gentle, but very firm. “I know what happened to you, and it doesn’t make me feel anything except admiration that you lived through it. If you care about Sedaka I’ll never say another word. From my point of view, you and I’ve been happy in the times we’ve spent together, and I’d like an extension.”

“And exclusive rights?” I met his eyes steadily. Claude would never share a woman.

“And exclusive rights,” he admitted calmly. “Till we see how it goes.”

“I’ll think,” I forced myself to say. “Now, let’s eat. I have to go back to work.”

Claude eyed me for a long moment, then nodded. He got the tea from the refrigerator and poured us each a glass, put sugar in his, and set the table. I put a bowl of fruit between our places, got out the whole-wheat bread and a cutting board for the reheated meat loaf. As we ate, we were quiet, and I liked that. As Claude was slicing an apple for himself and I was peeling a banana, he broke that comfortable silence.

“We sent Del Packard’s body to Little Rock,” he told me.

“What do you think?” I was relieved at the change of topic.

“It’s hard to say what might have happened,” Claude rumbled. He had the most comforting voice, like distant thunder.

“Well, he dropped the bar on himself—didn’t he?” I hadn’t been particularly friendly with Del, but it wasn’t bearable to think of him struggling to get the bar back up to the rack, failing, all by himself.

“Why was he there alone, Lily? Sedaka was so sick I couldn’t figure out what he was telling me.”

“Del was training for the championships at Marvel Gym in Little Rock.”

“The poster, right?”

I nodded. Taped to one of the many mirrors lining the walls at Body Time, there was a poster giving the specifics of the event, with a picture of last year’s winners. “Del competed last year, in the men’s middleweight division, novice class. He came in second.”

“How big a deal is this?”

“To a novice bodybuilder, pretty big. Del had never been in a competition before he got second place at Marvel Gym. If he’d won this year—and Marshall thought he had a chance—Del could’ve gone on to another competition, and another, until he entered one of the nationals.”

Claude shook his big head in amazement at the prospect. “Is ‘posing’ like the swimsuit part of Miss America?”

“Yes, but he’d be wearing a lot less. A monokini, like a glorified jockstrap. And he’d have removed his body hair…”

Claude looked a little disgusted. “I wondered about that. I noticed.”

“He’d been working on his tan. And he’d grease up for the competition.”

Claude raised his eyebrows interrogatively.

“I don’t know what they use.” I was getting tired of this conversation. But Claude was circling his hand in a gesture that meant “Amplify.”

“You have a series of poses you go through, to emphasize the muscle groups.” I rose to give Claude a demonstration. I turned my body a little sideways to him, fisted my hand, arched my arms in pumped-up curves. I gave him the blank eyes and small smile that said, “Look how superior my body is. Don’t you wish you were me?”

Claude made a face. “What’s the point?”

“Just like a beauty contest, Claude.” I resumed my seat at the table. “Except the focus is on muscular development.”

“I saw the poster of last year’s winners. That woman was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Claude said, wrinkling his nose.

“Marshall wanted me to enter.”

“You’d do that?” he asked, horrified. “That gal looked like a small pumped-up man with boobs slapped on.”

I shrugged. “I don’t want to spend the time training. It takes months to get ready for a competition. Plus, I’d have to camouflage all the scars, which I think would be impossible. But that was what Del wanted to do, train and compete. Develop himself to his full potential, was the way he put it.” I’d watched Del stare at one of his muscles for a good five minutes, wrapped up in his own reflection to the exclusion of the other people in the gym.

“I think I could have lifted what he had on the bar,” Claude said, a question in his voice. He rinsed off the plates and put them in the dishwasher. “It came to two hundred ninety pounds.”

I thought Claude was flattering himself, though I didn’t say so out loud. Claude seemed to have a fair body, but he did not exercise and hadn’t as long as I’d known him. “Bodybuilding isn’t exactly like competitive weight lifting,” I said. “Training for a competition, some people use somewhat lower weights and lots of reps, rather than really heavy weights and a few reps. That was probably Del’s highest weight.”

“Reps?” Claude said cautiously.

“Repetitions.”

“Would he be lifting so much by himself? Del wasn’t that big a man.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” I admitted, retying my New Balances. “Del was so careful of himself. He wouldn’t risk pulling a muscle or getting any injury this close to the competition. Surely he had a spotter. He told Bobo he was expecting someone.”

“What’s a spotter?” demanded Claude.

“A spotter is a buddy,” I said, having to define a term so familiar to me I’d forgotten a time I hadn’t known it. “A workout partner. If you don’t have someone to spot for you, you would have to ask whoever was working at the gym…” I could tell from Claude’s frown that I wasn’t being precise. “It’s someone who stands there while you’re doing the hardest part of your workout. That person is there to act as your safety net: hand you the weights, or the bar, take them when you’ve finished your set, cheer you on, grab your wrists if they start to weaken.”

“So you won’t drop the weights on yourself.”

“Exactly. And to help you do those last few you need to finish your set.”

“Example.”

“Like if I was doing forty-fives, and that was my top capability or close to it, I’d lie down on the bench holding the dumbbells, and the spotter would stand or kneel at my head, and when I was pushing the weights up, if my arms started to shake, the spotter would grab my wrists and help me keep them steady.”

“Forty-fives?”

“Two forty-five-pound dumbbells. Some people lift using the bar and adding weights, some people use different-weighted dumbbells. I happen to prefer dumbbells. Del liked the bar. He thought he got better chest development.”

Claude looked at me thoughtfully. “You’re telling me you can lift ninety pounds with your hands?”

“No,” I said, surprised.

Claude looked relieved.

“I can lift a hundred ten or a hundred twenty.”

“You.”

“Sure.”

“Isn’t that a lot? For a woman?”

“In Shakespeare it is,” I said. “At one of the bigger city gyms, probably not, You’d have a bigger pool of weight trainers.”

“So how much would a man serious about training be able to do?”

“A man about Del’s build, under six feet, about one hundred seventy? After intense training, I guess he’d be able to lift maybe three hundred twenty pounds, more or less. So you can see strength wasn’t Del’s sole goal, though he was very strong. He wanted exceptional muscular development, for the look of it. I just like to be strong.”

“Hmmm.” Claude thought about the difference. “So you knew Del?”

“Sure. I saw him almost every morning at Body Time. We weren’t particularly friendly.” I was wiping off the table, since I had to go to work in ten minutes.

“Why not?”

I thought about it while I rinsed out the dishrag. I wrung it and folded it neatly and draped it over the divider between my sinks. I stepped across the hall to the bathroom, washed my hands and face, and slapped on a little makeup for my self-respect. Claude leaned against the kitchen doorframe to watch. He was waiting for an answer.

“Just…nothing in common. He was from here, had lots of family, dated a hometown girl. He didn’t like blacks, he didn’t like the Notre Dame football team, he didn’t like big words.” That was as close as I could come to explaining.

“You think enjoying living in a small town is wrong?”

I hadn’t meant this to be an analysis of my worldview.

“No, not at all. Del was a good guy in some ways.” I looked at my face, put on some lipstick, shrugged at my reflection. Makeup didn’t change the face underneath it, but somehow I always felt better when I’d used it. I washed my hands and turned to look at Claude. “He was harmless.” Right away I wondered what I meant. But I was too taken aback by the expression on Claude’s face to think it through right then.

Claude said, “I’ll tell you something strange, Lily. There weren’t any fingerprints on that bar where there should have been. There should have been lots, where a man would normally grip the bar. Del’s should have been on top. But there weren’t any. There were just smears. And you know what, Lily? I don’t think you’d put on your makeup in front of me if you had any serious interest in me.”

He stopped at the front door to deliver his parting shot. “And, I’d like to know, if Del Packard was in the gym by himself, how he turned out the lights after he died.”

IT WAS A
day that had started out worst and moved up to merely rotten.

I was cleaning in a spirit of anger, and the results were not harmonious. I dropped papers, got paper cuts when I picked them up, slammed the toilet lid down so hard that a box of Kleenex plummeted from a flimsy rattan shelf in the travel agent’s bathroom, vacuumed up a few pushpins at the base of the bulletin board, and developed a full-blown hatred for the poster of a couple on the deck of a cruise ship because they looked so simple. They looked like they could say, “Gee, we really get along well. Let’s go to bed together!” and it would actually work.

I was glad this was my last job of the day. I locked the door behind me with a sigh of relief.

On my way home, I detoured to Marshall’s dumpy rented house. He’d offered me a key when we began “seeing” each other, but I had refused. So he had to stagger to the door to let me in, and stagger right back to the ancient plaid couch he’d scrounged from a friend when he’d separated from his wife. I put his Body Time key ring on the equally dilapidated coffee table, and went to sit on the floor near him. Marshall was sprawled full length and obviously felt lousy. But he wasn’t groaning, and his fever was down, I thought as I touched his forehead.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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