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Authors: Charlaine Harris

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BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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I crumpled the thing in my hand, turned and went up the stepping stones to my front door, my keys already out and ready to turn in both locks. Claude stretched. It was a large stretch for a large man.

He followed me in. I tensed, thinking he’d try to kiss me again, but he just began a rambling monologue about the trouble he was having scheduling enough cars on the streets during Halloween, when the fun tended to get too rowdy.

I was occupied in emptying my pockets onto the kitchen counter, a soothing little ritual. I don’t carry a purse when I’m working—it’s just one more thing to tote in and out.

“Thank you for the flowers,” I said, my back still to him.

“It was my pleasure.”

“The flowers,” I began, and then stopped to take another deep breath. “They are very pretty. And I liked the card,” I added, after another moment.

“Can I give you a hug?” he asked cautiously.

“Better not,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact.

On the card, he’d written that he missed my company. Of course, that wasn’t true. Claude might enjoy my conversation, but his fundamental goal was getting me in bed. I sighed. So what else was new on the man/woman front?

I was more convinced than ever that intimacy wasn’t a good idea for either of us.

I didn’t say so, not just then; and that wasn’t normal for me. But that evening, I wanted a friend. I wanted the company of a person I liked, to sit with me and drink coffee at my table. Though I knew it would prolong Claude’s expectations, I temporarily bought into the illusion that it was only my companionship he wanted.

We did have coffee and a piece of fruit together, and a casual sort of conversation; but maybe because I was being in some sense deceptive, the warmth I’d hoped to feel didn’t come.

Claude objected when I changed for karate class, but I never miss it if I can help it. I promised him that when I returned we’d go to dinner in Montrose, and I invited him to stay at my place and watch the football game on my TV while I was gone, since it had a bigger screen than his little portable. As I got in my car, I had a weary conviction that I should have told him to go on home.

I strode through the main room at Body Time, trying to look forward to the stress-reducing workout I was about to get. But mostly I felt…not very pleased with myself.

Though I’d been in there many times since Del had died, I always glanced at the corner where Del’s body had rested on the bench. A smaller copy of Del’s second-place trophy from the Marvel Gym competition the year before was still in its prominent position in the display case by the drinks cooler, since the gym where a winner trained was always recognized along with the winner.

I stopped to admire the shiny cup on its wooden stand, read the engraving. In the glass front of the display case, I could see the reflection of other potential champions as they went through their evening routines. I moved my hand up and down slightly to make sure I was there, too.

I shook my head at my reflection and continued down the hall to the open double doors of the aerobics/karate room. I bowed in the doorway to show respect, and entered. Janet Shook was already in her gi, its snowy whiteness setting off her dark hair and eyes. She was holding on to the barre, practicing side kicks. Marshall was talking to Carlton Cockroft, my next-door neighbor and my accountant, whom I hadn’t seen in at least a week. There was a new woman limbering up, a woman with very long blond hair and a deep sun-bed tan. She was wearing a gi with a brown belt, and I regarded her with respect.

Raphael, who hadn’t set foot in Body Time since the morning he’d left in a huff, was practicing the eight-point blocking system with Bobo Winthrop. I was glad to see Raphael, glad that whatever had eaten at him had eased up. As I watched the two spar, I noticed for the first time that Bobo was as tall as Raphael. I had to stop thinking of him as a boy.

“Yee-hah, Lily,” Bobo called cheerfully. I hadn’t thought Bobo’s naturally sunny nature would keep him down for long, and it was reassuring to see him smile and look less troubled. He and Raphael finished, and Bobo walked over to me as I finished tying my obi. I had time to think that Bobo looked like an all-American action hero in his white gi, when he simply reached over to place a large hand on each side of my waist, squatted slightly, and picked me up.

I had not been handled like that since I’d become an adult, and the sensation of being lifted and held up in the air abruptly returned me to childhood. I found myself laughing, looking down at Bobo, who was grinning up at me. Over his shoulder, I glimpsed the black-haired stranger, standing in the hall. His eyes were on me, and he was smiling a little as he patted his face with a towel.

Marshall, nodding at Black Ponytail, shut the double doors.

Bobo put me down.

I made a mock strike to his throat and he blocked me too late.

“Would’ve gotten you,” I warned him. “You’re stronger, but I’m quicker.”

Bobo was grinning at the success of his horseplay, and before I could move away, he gripped my wrists with his strong hands. As I stepped closer to him, I turned my palms up, bringing my hands up against his thumbs, and was free. I pantomimed chopping him in the neck with the sides of my hands. Then I patted him on his big shoulder and stepped away before he had any more ideas.

“Someday I’ll get you,” Bobo called after me, shaking his finger.

“You get Lily, you’re going to be sorry,” Raphael remarked. “This gal can eat you for breakfast.”

Bobo turned dark red. I realized he’d read a double entendre into Raphael’s remark. I turned away to hide my grin.

“Line up!” Marshall said sternly.

The blond woman was the highest-ranking student present. She took her place first in line. My belt is green, with one brown stripe. I took a deep breath, warned myself against unworthy feelings, and prepared myself to be pleasant.

“Kiotske,” Marshall said. We snapped to attention, our heels together.

“Rei.” We bowed to him, and he to us.

We worked through the familiar pain of three minutes in the shiko dachi position—pretty much like sitting on air—and calisthenics. Marshall was in a tough mood tonight. I didn’t want to be petty enough to think he was giving us extra work because he was trying to impress the new class member; but he extended our sit-ups to one hundred. So we also did a hundred leg lifts and a hundred push-ups.

I was paired with the new woman, instead of Janet, for sit-ups. Her legs, hooked with mine, felt like bands of iron. She wasn’t breathing heavily after eighty reps, though the next twenty were a little work. She broke into a light sweat after leg lifts, and was breathing a little hard after a hundred push-ups. But she had the energy to smile at me as she rose to her feet. I turned slightly to Raphael and gave him a look. He wiggled his eyebrows at me. We were impressed.

“Sanchin dachi blocking posture for jodan uki,” Marshall instructed. “Komite!”

We assumed the correct position, right foot sweeping inward and forward, stopping when its heel was parallel with the toes of the left foot. I watched the blond out of the corner of my eye, wondering if she was from another discipline. She was, but she was also a quick study; watching Marshall intently, she swept her right foot in the correct half-arc and turned her toes in at a forty-five-degree angle to her body, her knees flexed slightly. Her left hand moved into chamber by her ribs, and her right formed a fist, as her right arm bent so that the fist faced her body at shoulder height.

As we went through kihon, practicing our strikes and blocks, I found myself distracted by my new neighbor. I made a determined effort to block her out of my consciousness. From then on, I felt more comfortable, and class went better. Marshall paired me with Carlton for practice. Between breaking free from each other and restraining each other, Carlton and I exchanged neighborhood news. He’d heard we were going to get new streetlights, and that the ownership of the empty lot at the corner—which I’d always thought was waste ground—had been decided among the five children of an elderly lady who’d passed away four years ago. What the new owner would do with the area, which would certainly be a challenge to fit a house on, Carlton hadn’t yet discovered.

As I used one finger to jab the pressure point in Carlton’s upper forearm, the one that made his knees crumple, he told me that he’d found a sheet of blue paper on his car when he’d come out to get his mail that afternoon. “Nuts,” he commented.

I hoped everyone would dismiss the flyer so thoroughly. Then Carlton took his turn and pressed too hard, and from my position on the floor I looked up at him with my eyebrows raised.

When we had been dismissed, the blond drifted over to Marshall. Her hair flowed down to her butt, thick and straight, and though the youthful style didn’t exactly match her apparent age, the effect was definitely enough to attract lots of attention. Janet was scowling as she sat on the floor to tie her shoes.

I was ready to go, having grabbed my gym bag and keys, when Marshall beckoned me over.

“Lily,” he said, with a broad smile, “this is Becca Whitley, Pardon’s niece.”

Pardon Albee, the owner of the apartment building next to my house, had passed away the previous spring. Becca Whitley had taken her own sweet time in coming to check out her inheritance. One of the tenants in the apartment house, Marie Hofstettler, a very old woman who was one of my favorite clients, had told me the same lawyer who’d hired me to clean the halls had been collecting the rent for the past few months. And Deedra had told me that when her lease had expired her rent had gone up.

“I know I’ve been slow to get to Shakespeare to see to settling Uncle Pardon’s estate,” the blond said, chiming in on my thoughts in a way that focused my wandering attention firmly. I looked at her directly for the first time. She was narrow-faced, with strong but scaled-down features. The deep tan was freckled. Her eyes were a bright I-wear-blue-contacts sapphire, and heavily made up. She also wore candy-pink lipstick and lined her lips with a darker shade. The effect stopped short of vampiric; but it was definitely predatory.

Becca Whitley was saying, “I had a divorce to settle in Dallas, and an apartment to clean out.”

“So you’re moving to Shakespeare?” I asked, hardly able to conceal my amazement. I took in her long mane of Lady Clairol hair, and the cone-shaped breasts bulging at her gi, and thought she would surely stir the local roosters up. Marshall was strutting around practically wiggling his crest and crowing. No wonder tonight he’d spared me most of those wounded looks he’d been casting me the past two weeks. I had to repress an impulse to snort.

“I think I’ll just live in Uncle Pardon’s apartment, at least for now,” Becca Whitley was saying. “It’s so convenient.”

“I hope Shakespeare isn’t too quiet for you after such a big city,” I said. I realized that when I thought about Marshall’s interest in Becca Whitley, the pang I felt was very small, almost negligible, which was only right.

“Oh, I’ve lived in Austin, which is really just a big town,” Becca said. “But the past few months I’ve been in Dallas, and I couldn’t stand the traffic and the pressure. See, I just got divorced, and I need a new life for myself.”

“Any children?” Janet asked hopefully. She’d come up behind me.

“Not a one,” our newest Shakespearean responded happily. “Just too busy, I guess.”

Marshall was trying to conceal his relief just as hard as Janet was trying to conceal her chagrin.

“I’ve been cleaning the apartment halls since Pardon died,” I said. “Do you want me to keep on, or have you made other plans?”

“I expect I’ll be doing it,” Becca said.

I nodded and gathered my things together. The extra money had been pleasant, but working late on Saturday hadn’t.

Our sensei was still telling Becca how much we wanted her to come back to class as Janet and I bowed at the door on our way out.

“Screw her,” Janet said quietly and viciously after we’d reached the parking lot.

It seemed to me it wouldn’t be too long before Marshall tried to do just that, and Carlton, longtime most eligible bachelor in Shakespeare, had seemed interested, too.

I liked Janet pretty well, and I could see she was chagrined at the sexy and striking Becca Whitley’s appearance and Marshall’s obvious approval. Janet had been waiting for Marshall to notice her for a couple of years.

“She’ll never last in Shakespeare,” I told the disappointed woman. I was surprised to hear my own voice.

“Thanks, Lily,” Janet said, sounding equally surprised. “We’ll have to wait and see.” To my amazement, she gave me a half-hug before unlocking her Trooper.

When I came in through the kitchen door, I could hear my television. Claude was parked in the double recliner watching a football game. He looked unnervingly at home. He waved a casual hand when I called “Hello,” so I didn’t hurry as I showered and dressed. When I emerged, once again made up and polished, Claude was in the kitchen drinking a glass of iced tea.

“What do you think of your new landlady?” I asked.

“The Whitley woman? Looks like a raccoon, don’t she, with all that eye makeup?” he said lazily.

I smiled. “Ready to eat?” I asked.

Soon we were driving toward Montrose, the nearest large town. It lay west and slightly north of Shakespeare, and it was the retail hub for many small towns like Shakespeare. Montrose, which boasted a population of around forty thousand year-round, more during college sessions, was where Shakespeareans went when they didn’t want to make the somewhat longer northeast drive to Little Rock.

I’d never been enthusiastic about Montrose, a town which could have been dropped anywhere in the United States without its visitors knowing the difference. Montrose had no character; it had shopping. There were all the usual fast-food places and all the usual chain stores, and a five-screen movieplex, and a Wal-Mart Super Center. In my view, the main attractions of Montrose were its superior library, its one good independent bookstore, and perhaps four fairly good nonchain restaurants. And a couple of decent chain ones.

In the months I’d been seeing Marshall, I’d spent more time in Montrose than I had in the four years I’d lived in Shakespeare. Evenings at home had little charm for Marshall.

BOOK: (LB1) Shakespeare's Champion
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