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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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At a closer examination of the nearly bare, dusty room, I realized the strips of paper fixed to the walls were genealogical charts. Some of them were printed really fancy with Gothic lettering, and some of them were dull-looking computer readouts. I shrugged. Not my thing, but harmless. There were a few books arranged on the old student standby of boards and cement blocks; three of them were about a woman named Sally Hemmings. I’d have to look her up at the library. There were stacks of software boxes, bearing titles like
Family Tree Maker
and
Family Origins
. I saw a list of Web sites taped beside the computer, and a list of phone numbers to places like the Family History Library and the Hidden Child Foundation.

But the more I dusted and straightened and vacuumed, the more questions I had about this woman. She’d been living here for at least five weeks, if she’d called me to get on my list right after she’d moved into this house. Why would a young woman like Mookie Preston move to a small southern town if she had no friends or relations in place here? If Mookie Preston was only a genealogical researcher, I was a sweet young thing.

She was gone a long time, which was fine with me. By the time she was toting in her plastic bags of Diet Pepsi and Healthy Choice microwave meals, I had the house looking much better. It would take a couple more sessions to finish clearing up the backlog of dirt and scrub down to a regular weekly accumulation, but I’d made a fighting start.

She looked around with her mouth a little open, stiff reddish hair brushing her shoulders as her head turned.

“This is really great,” she said, and she meant it, but she wasn’t as enthusiastic about cleanliness as she was pretending to be. “Can you come every week?”

I nodded.

“How do you prefer to be paid?” she asked, and we talked about that for a while.

“You work for a lot of the local upper crust, I bet?” she asked me, just when I thought she had about finished chattering. “Like the Winthrops, and the Elgins?”

I regarded her steadily. “I work for lots of different kinds of people,” I said. I turned to go, and this time Mookie Preston didn’t detain me.

AS I WAS
assembling cheese, crackers, and fruit for a quick lunch in my own—thank God, spotless and silent—kitchen, the doorbell rang. I glanced out my living room window before answering the door. A pink van was parked in my driveway, with
FANCY FLOWERS
painted on the side.

It was surely the first time that particular vehicle had been to my place.

I opened the door, ready to tell the delivery person that she needed the apartment building next door, and the perky young woman on my doorstep said, “Miss Bard?”

“Yes?”

“These are for you.”

“These” were a beautiful arrangement of pink roses, baby’s breath, greenery, and white carnations.

“Are you sure?” I said doubtfully.

“‘ Lily Bard, Ten Track Street,’” the woman read from the back of the envelope, her smile fading a bit.

“Thank you.” I took the bowl and turned away, shutting the door behind me with one foot. I hadn’t gotten flowers in…well, I just couldn’t remember. Carefully, I set the bowl on my kitchen table and pulled the gift envelope out of the prolonged plastic holder. I noticed it had been licked and shut rather carefully, and after I extracted the card and read it, I appreciated the discretion.
“I miss you. Claude,”
it read, in a slanted, sprawling hand.

I searched inside myself for a reaction and found I had no idea how to feel. I touched a pink rose with one fingertip. Though I wear plastic gloves when I work, my hands still get rough, and I was anxious I would damage the delicate smoothness of the flower. Next I touched a white ball of baby’s breath. I slowly positioned the bowl in the exact middle of the table, and reached up a hand to wipe my cheeks.

I fought an impulse to call the florist and send some flowers right back to him, to show him how he’d touched me. But Claude wanted this to be a purely masculine gesture, and I would let it be.

When I left to bring order into the Winthrops’ chaos, I could feel a faint smile on my face.

LUCK CONTINUED WITH
me—up to a point—that afternoon. Since the weather was clear, I parked in front of the Winthrop house on the street. I only used the garage when it was snowing or raining, because my car had an apparently incurable oil leak and I didn’t want to spot the immaculate Winthrop garage floor. I’d driven by the garage, which opened onto a side street, and seen it was empty. Good. None of the Winthrops were home.

Beanie, a lean, attractive woman somewhere in her midforties, was likely to be playing tennis or doing volunteer work. Howell Winthrop, Jr., would be at Winthrop Sporting Goods or Winthrop Lumber and Home Supply, or even at Winthrop Oil. Amber Jean and Howell Three (that was what the family called him) were in junior high and high school. Bobo was at work at Body Time, or attending classes in the U of A extension thirty-five minutes away in Montrose. Though the Winthrops were very wealthy, no Winthrop child would consider going anywhere but the University of Arkansas, and my only surprise was that Bobo was going to the Montrose campus rather than the mother ship up north in Fayetteville. The razorback hog, symbol of the University of Arkansas, featured prominently in the Winthrops’ design scheme.

On Fridays, I dusted, mopped, and vacuumed. I’d already done the laundry, ironing, and bathrooms on my first visit of the week on Tuesday morning. The Winthrop kids had gotten pretty good about washing any clothing item they just had to have between my visits, but they’d never learned to pick up their rooms properly. Beanie was pretty neat with her things, and Howell wasn’t home enough to make a mess.

I paused in my dusting to examine the portrait of Beanie and Howell Jr. that had been their most recent anniversary present to each other. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’d seen Howell at home during the three years I’d worked for the family. He was balding, pleasantly good-looking, and perhaps twenty pounds over-weight. The artist had concealed that nicely. Howell was the same age as his wife, but not working quite as hard at concealing it. He spent a lot of time at the even more impressive home of his parents, Howell Sr. and Arnita, the uncrowned king and queen of Shakespeare. Howell Sr., though nominally retired, still had a say in every Winthrop enterprise, and the Seniors still led a very active role in the social and political life of the town.
They
had a full-time black housemaid, Callie Gandy.

As if thinking of Howell Jr. had conjured him up, I heard a key in the lock and he came in from the carport. Following behind him was the man who’d been out walking last night.

Now that I saw him in the daylight, I was sure he was also the man who’d been working out with Darcy Orchard the day Raphael had left Body Time.

The two men were each carrying a long, heavy black bag with a shoulder strap.

Howell stopped in his tracks. His face reddened, and he was obviously flustered.

“I’m sorry to disturb you at your work,” he said. “I didn’t see your car.”

“I parked in front.” Howell must have pulled into the garage from the side street.

“We won’t get in your way,” he said.

My eyes narrowed. “Okay,” I said cautiously. It was his house.

I looked past Howell at his companion. I was close enough to see his eyes. They were hazel. He was wearing a poly-filled vest, deep green, with a Winthrop Sporting Goods sweatshirt under it. The Winthrop sweats and tees, worn by all employees, were dark red with gold and white lettering. The man was eyeing me as intently as I was looking at him.

He didn’t look like I would expect a friend of Howell’s to look. This man was far too dangerous. I recognized that, but I also knew that I was not afraid of him. I nearly forgot Howell was there until he cleared his throat, said, “Well, we’ll be…” and walked into the living room to cross to his study. With a backward glance, the man in the red sweatshirt followed him, and the study door closed behind him. I was left to finish dusting the living room and bedroom, all the while trying to figure out what was going on. It crossed my mind that Howell might be gay, but when I recalled Black Ponytail’s eyes, I jettisoned the idea.

I had to cross the living room one more time, and I saw that the door to Howell’s study was still shut. At least, I thought with obscure relief, I’d already dusted and vacuumed Howell’s study. It was one of my favorite rooms in the house. Its walls were paneled, with bookcases galore. A leather chair was flanked by a reading lamp, Ducks Unlimited prints were hanging on the walls, and a very important-looking desk that was hell to polish stood before the bay window with its window seat.

I didn’t want to look nosy, so I worked hard and fast trying to finish and get out of there before they emerged, but I didn’t make it. The study door opened and out they came, just as I was mopping the kitchen. They were empty-handed.

Howell and the stranger stood in the middle of the floor making footprints I’d have to mop over. I was wearing yellow plastic gloves, my nose was surely shiny, and I was wearing my oldest jeans and an equally ancient T-shirt. All I wanted was for them to leave, and all Howell wanted was to obscure the oddity of the situation by making conversation.

“I hear you’re the one who found poor Del?” Howell was asking sympathetically.

“Yes.”

“You’re going with Marshall Sedaka, I hear? You have a key to Body Time?”

“No,” I said firmly, without being sure which question I was answering. “I opened that morning for Marshall as a favor. He was sick.”

“My son admires you a great deal. He mentions you often.”

“I like Bobo,” I said, trying to keep my voice very small and even.

“There was no indication that anyone was with him when the accident occurred?”

I stood perplexed, unable to follow. Then I made the leap. All the intervening conversation had just been waffling. Howell wanted to know about the death of Del Packard.

I wondered what “indication” Howell imagined there might have been. Footprints on the indoor/outdoor carpet? A monogrammed handkerchief clutched in Del’s fingers?

“Excuse me, Howell, I have to finish here and get to my next job,” I said abruptly, and rinsed out my mop. Though it took him a second, the man who signed so many local paychecks took the hint and hurried out the kitchen door. His companion lingered a moment behind him, long enough for me to meet his eyes when I looked up to see if they’d gone. I kept my gaze down until I heard the car start up in the carport.

After conscientiously mopping up their footprints, I wrung the mop and put it outside the back door to dry. With some relief, I locked the Winthrop house behind me and got into my car.

The Winthrops had irritated me, interested me, been a source of thought and observation for me for four years. But they had never been mysterious. Howell’s sudden swerve from the straight-and-narrow of predictability made me anxious, and his association with the night-walking stranger with the black ponytail baffled me.

I discovered I had feelings ranging from tolerant to fond for the members of the Winthrop family. I had worked for them long enough to absorb a sense of their lives, to feel a certain loyalty to them.

Discovering this did not make me especially happy.

Chapter 3

DRIVING HOME FROM MY LAST JOB OF THE DAY,
I BEcame acutely aware of how tired I was. I’d had little sleep the night before, I’d had a full working day, and I’d observed a lot of puzzling behavior.

But Claude’s personal car, a burgundy Buick, was parked in front of my house. On the whole, I was glad to see it.

His window was rolled down, and I could hear his radio playing “All Things Considered,” the public-radio news program. Claude was slumped down in the driver’s seat, his eyes closed. I wondered how long he had been waiting, since someone had stuck a blue sheet of paper under his windshield wiper. I could feel a smile somewhere inside me as I pulled into my carport and turned off the ignition. I’d missed him.

I walked quietly down the drive. I bent to his ear.

“Hey, hotshot,” I whispered.

He smiled before his eyes flew open.

“Lily,” he said, as if he enjoyed saying it. His hand went up to smooth his mustache, now more salt-and-pepper than brown.

“You going to sit out here or you going to come in?”

“In, now that you’re here to offer.”

As Claude emerged from his Buick, I pulled the blue flyer from under his passenger-side wiper. I figured it was an ad for the new pizza place. I glanced at the heading idly.

“Claude,” I said.

He’d been retucking his shirtail. “Yep?”

“Look.”

He took the sheet of blue paper from me, studied the dark print for a moment.

“Shit,” he said disgustedly. “This is exactly what Shakespeare needs.”

“Yes indeed.”

TAKE BACK YOUR OWN,
the headline read. In smaller print, the text read:

     The white male is an endangered species. Due to government interference, white males cannot get the jobs they want or defend their families.
ACT NOW!! BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
!!! Join us in this struggle. We’ll be calling you.
TAKE BACK YOUR OWN
. We’ve been shoved enough.
PUSH BACK
!

“No address or phone number,” Claude observed.

“Dr. Sizemore got one, too.” I remembered the color, though naturally I hadn’t extracted the sheet from the dentist’s garbage can.

Claude shrugged his heavy shoulders. “No law against it, stupid as it seems.”

Northern Arkansas had hosted several white supremacist organizations over the past few decades. I wondered if this was an offshoot of one of them, one that had migrated south.

Everywhere I went, in the grocery, in the doctor’s office, the rare occasions I worked at one of the churches, people all complained about not having enough time, having too much to do in the time they had available. It seemed to me after reading “Take Back Your Own” that some people just weren’t busy enough.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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