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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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I went on alert. Not because Deedra had company; that was no surprise. Deedra believes in the joy of indiscriminate giving. But scuffling, harsh words, these weren’t things she was used to. As Deedra yanked open the door and stepped back, I saw that her guest was her stepfather, Jerrell Knopp. Jerrell had married “up” when he wed the widowed, well-to-do Lacey Dean. Jerrell was attractive—lean, gray-haired, with dazzling blue eyes—and he treated his wife with courtesy and tenderness, if the little interaction I’d observed was the norm. But Jerrell had a mean side, and Deedra was bearing the brunt of it now. She had a bright red mark on her arm as if Jerrell had been holding her with a squeezing grip. He wasn’t too pleased she’d let me in. Tough.

“The chief is right on the other side of this wall,” I lied. Claude was sure to be at work by now. “He can be here in a split second.” I looked from the red mark to Jerrell. I’d cross him if I had to, but I didn’t look forward to it.

“This here’s a family talk, Lily Bard. You just butt out,” Jerrell said, very firmly. I thought it would make me feel pretty good to hit him.

“This is Deedra’s apartment. I think she gets some say in who stays and who goes.” I was always hoping Deedra would show some backbone—or some sense—and I was always disappointed. This morning was no exception.

“You better start in my bedroom,” Deedra said in a small voice. There were tears on her face. “I’ll be all right, Lily.”

I gave her stepfather a warning look and carried my caddy of cleaning materials into Deedra’s bedroom. It had a dismal view of the parking lot, and beyond that the embankment and the railroad track, and a bit of the Winthrop lumber-and-hardware business that backed onto the other side of the track. The most interesting thing about the view this morning was Deedra’s beautiful red Taurus in the parking lot, halfway out of its stall. Someone had taken a can of white spray paint and carefully scripted,
“She fucks niggers”
on the hood.

I felt sick and old.

Deedra had apparently pulled out of her parking spot before she saw the writing. Then, I supposed, she’d run inside to call Mom, but Stepdad had come instead.

A tide of rage and fear rolled over me. My primary rage was directed at the bastards who’d ruined Deedra’s car, and most likely her life. The story would be all over town in no time, and there wouldn’t be any discreet lid on it, like there was on Deedra’s bad reputation.

And then, less to my credit, I was angry with Deedra. She
had
been sleeping—from time to time—with Marcus Jefferson, who also lived in the apartment building, across the hall from Claude. And she’d told me it wasn’t for any noble reason, such as love, or even a bizarre reason, such as a desire to cement race relations. She was screwing him for the fun of it.

You couldn’t do that in Shakespeare unless you stood willing to pay the price. Deedra had received the bill.

I pointedly crossed through the living room a couple of times as Jerrell and Deedra continued their encounter. I couldn’t call it a dialogue, since what one said made no difference to what the other responded. Jerrell was bawling Deedra out, up one side and down the other, for dragging herself (and her mother) through the mud, for polluting herself, for exposing all of them to the glare of gossip and the threat of danger.

“You know what happened to that black boy not two months ago?” Jerrell said hoarsely. “You want something like that to happen to you? Or to that man you’re going to bed with?”

I was polishing the mirror over Deedra’s nine-drawer dresser when Jerrell said that, and I saw my reflection in the mirror. I looked sick. He was referring to Darnell Glass, who’d been beaten to death by person or persons unknown. I’d known Darnell Glass.

“But, Jerrell, I didn’t do it!” Deedra persisted in stonewalling. “I don’t know where anyone would get that idea!”

“Girl, everyone but your mother knows you’re just a whore that don’t take money,” Jerrell said brutally. “Lacey would kill herself if she knew black hands had been on your body.”

I made a face into the mirror as I dusted the top of the dresser. I dropped a pair of earrings into Deedra’s earring box.

“I didn’t do it!” Deedra moaned.

Childlike in many ways, Deedra believed that if you denied something often enough, it actually hadn’t happened.

“Deedra, unless you change your ways right now, I mean this minute, worse things than that paint job are going to happen to you, and I won’t be able to stop them from happening,” Jerrell said.

“What do you mean?” Deedra asked, sobbing. “What could be worse?”

Childlike and stupid.

“There’s lots worse things than a little bit of white paint,” Jerrell said grimly, but with a somewhat milder voice. “There’s people in this town that take a situation like yours so seriously, you wouldn’t believe it.”

He was threatening her.

Contrarily enough, I was all for it. As much as I now found I disliked Jerrell Knopp, any method that would scare Deedra into dropping her risky lifestyle was okay with me. The woman (and she was a woman in her twenties, though she often seemed much younger) would either contract HIV or another disease, or bring home someone who would brutalize her, if she didn’t alter her ways.

“Now,” Jerrell was winding down, “I’ve already called the car place to get your paint redone. Just drive it down there. Donnie’ll give you a lift to work, I’ll drop by to take you home, and your car’ll be done in a couple of days.”

“I can’t drive it down there,” Deedra whined. “I’d die.”

“You may die if you don’t stay away from black men,” he said, and there was stark warning in his voice. Jerrell wasn’t just theorizing. He knew something.

I felt the hair on my neck stand up. I stepped into the living room, my dust cloth in my hand. Jerrell and I had a good ole look at each other.

“Would you drive my car to the paint shop?” Deedra asked, that little-girl look on her face that said she knew she was asking a lot, but it would be too much for
her
to do that thing.

“No,” I said briefly, and went back to work.

I don’t know how Deedra and Jerrell settled it. I buckled down to cleaning, thinking hard thoughts about everyone involved, including Marcus Jefferson. I was willing to bet Marcus was running scared by now. He worked at the same factory as Jerrell Knopp, and if he hadn’t seen Deedra’s car when he left for work that morning, someone at the factory would let him know about it. I figured Marcus was going to be anxious, if not out-and-out terrified.

My oldest client, Marie Hofstettler, had told me it had been seven decades since Shakespeare had suffered a racially motivated lynching. If I’d been Marcus Jefferson, those seven decades would have seemed like yesterday.

Deedra and Jerrell cleared out without speaking to me, which was just fine. I finished my work in peace, or in the little peace they’d left behind them. The apartment still echoed with various gradations of anger and fear. It seemed to me that currents of bad feeling were drifting like smog through Shakespeare. My little adopted town had generally been quiet and predictable and pokey. I liked it like that. I loaded my arsenal of cleaning aids back into my car, trying to stave away a gnawing worry.

My new client, Mookie Preston, was next on my schedule, and I was able to feel a little more cheerful as I drove to her house.

I’d never worked on Sycamore Street before. It was lined with small white houses with neatly raked yards, in a neighborhood that had sprung up in the fifties, a neighborhood generally considered a starting-out point for newlyweds or an ending-up point for seniors.

The house Mookie Preston rented was in the middle of the block and indistinguishable from the others. A green Toyota was parked in the driveway. It had an Illinois plate. If the car was any indicator of the condition of the house, Mookie Preston needed me. Badly. The Toyota was dusty and mud-streaked on the outside and littered with papers and fast-food debris on the inside.

I knocked briskly on the back door, and the same rich, fruity voice I’d heard on the phone called, “Coming, coming!”

After a minute or so the back door opened and the woman on the other side of the screen door stood staring at me. She didn’t speak. We examined each other.

Mookie Preston was younger than me, putting her somewhere in her midtwenties. She had very coarse, straight reddish hair skinned back into a ponytail, golden freckled skin, and big, dark brown eyes. Her face was round, and her teeth were perfect and white. If she was wearing any makeup, I couldn’t see it.

And despite the fact that she was pretty, very pretty, and smiling in the friendliest way possible, this woman had thrown me off balance.

If her fading smile was any indication, she was feeling the same way about me.

“You’re Lily Bard?” she said cautiously.

“I am.”

Slowly, she pushed open the screen door. She extended a plump golden hand. I shook it.

She stepped aside and I went in the house.

She began dithering around the filthy little kitchen. “I should have been expecting you but I got caught up in my work,” she said over her shoulder, stacking plates by the sink in an effort to pretend she’d actually been engaged in doing so when I knocked.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a genealogist,” she said, her face turned away, which I thought was a lucky thing.

“Umm,” I said, which was the most noncommittal noise I could manage. “You don’t have to clean up for me. I’m the cleaning woman.”

She looked down at the plate in her hand as if she hadn’t realized what she was doing, and very carefully deposited it on the drain board. “Right.”

“What did you want me to do?” I asked.

“Okay.” That calmed her, as I’d intended. “I want you to change my sheets—the clean ones are in the bathroom closet—and dust the house, and vacuum. There’s only one bathroom, and it’s in pretty bad shape. Clean the sink and tub, and wipe the kitchen counters. Mop the linoleum floors.”

“Okay. Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of right now.”

We discussed my pay, and my hours. She thought the house might take me until twelve-thirty to get in shape, and if the kitchen was any indication I agreed it would. I got to the Winthrops’ at one, usually, so that didn’t leave me much leeway. I figured I could stop by my house and grab a piece of fruit on my way to the Winthrops’.

I examined the house first, to plan my work. Mookie had retreated to the living room at the front of the house, which she had turned into a workroom. There was an old couch, an old chair, an old television, and a huge desk. She hadn’t hung any curtains, and the blinds on the big windows were coated with dust. The wastebasket was overflowing, and cups from various fast-food places dotted the desk, the arm of the couch, the floor. I kept my face blank. I’ve learned to do that.

As Mookie sat down at her computer, I wandered down the hall (filthy baseboards, fingerprints on the paint) to the bigger bedroom. I wrinkled my nose. The sheets certainly did need changing, and the bed had probably never been made since the sheets had been put on. There was a thick layer of dust on every surface—every surface that wasn’t already covered with something else, like paperbacks, makeup, snack wrappers, tissues, jewelry, hairbows and brushes, receipts. I could feel that little contraction between my brows that meant I was perturbed. Then I examined the bathroom, and I shook my head in disbelief.

The second bedroom was almost empty, only luggage and a few boxes strewn about the floor…at random.

Now I wondered if the allotted time would be enough.

I went out to my car to get my supplies, wondering how far I could get. I’d start with the bathroom, for sure…then the bedroom.

Cleaning is work that doesn’t occupy your whole mind, which is something I occasionally enjoy. I was halfsmiling to myself as I began scrubbing the bathtub. I’d expected Mookie Preston to be completely white, and she’d expected me to be black. We’d both been astonished.

In a better world, we wouldn’t have even noticed that we were of different races—maybe if we’d even met each other in a big city, we would just have celebrated our ethnic diversity. But it wasn’t a better world, at least not here and now. Not in Shakespeare. Not lately.

My astonishment about my new employer faded as I concentrated on the task at hand. After some determined scrubbing and mopping, I had the bathroom looking very respectable. I gave it a sharp nod and turned to start work in the bedroom. To my surprise, Mookie Preston was standing right behind me.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” she said, looking rather shocked herself as my hands fisted.

I relaxed with an effort. “I didn’t hear you,” I admitted, not happy at all about that.

“It looks great,” she said, looking past me into the small room. “Wow, the mirror especially.”

Yeah, you could see your reflection now. “Good,” I said.

“Listen, are you put off by my being mixed race?”

“What you are is none of my business.” Why did people always want to talk about every little thing? Even before a gang had held me down and drawn pictures on my chest with a knife, I hadn’t been one for chatter.

“I didn’t know you were going to be white.”

“Yeah.”

“So, can we make this work?” she persisted.


I
am working,” I said, trying to make a point, and began to strip the sheets off her bed. What I wanted Mookie Preston to get out of this was that if I’d seriously objected to her parentage, I would’ve hopped back in my Skylark and gone home to try the next name on my standby list.

Whether she got the point or not, I don’t know. After waiting for me to say something else, she drifted back to her computer, to my relief.

She left once, to go to the grocery store. Other than that one period of peace, my new employer was in constant motion, jumping up to go to the toilet, drifting down the hall to get a drink from the refrigerator, always making some passing remark. Apparently, Mookie Preston was one of those people who can’t be still when someone else is working. When she told me for the third time she was leaving for the grocery, I decided it would be a good opportunity to clean the office area without her hovering presence.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
3.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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