Shakespeare's Landlord Page 1

Chapter One

I gathered myself, my bare feet gripping the wooden floor, my thigh muscles braced for the attack. I stepped forward on the ball of my left foot, pivoting as I moved, and my right leg swung up, bent at the knee. My foot lashed out, returned instantly. The black Everlast punching bag rocked on its chain.

My right foot touched down, and I pivoted lightly on the ball of that foot, my body oriented this time facing the bag. My left leg came forward to deliver a longer, harder, thrusting mae geri. I continued the kicking, the pivoting, alternating the side kicks with the front kicks, practicing my weaker back kicks, my breathing growing deeper but never losing its rhythm - exploding out with the kick, coming in deep with the retraction.

The bag danced on the end of its chain, swinging back and forth, requiring more and more concentration on my part to plant the next kick accurately. I was tiring.

Finally, I lashed out with my stronger right leg, using all my power, dodged the backswing, and struck seiken, my hand in a smooth line with my arm, my knuckles driving into the bag.

I had finished my exercise. Automatically, I bowed, as I would have if I'd had a live sparring partner, and shook my head in disgust at my own foolishness. I reached for the towel hanging on its appointed hook by the doorknob. As I patted my face, I wondered whether my workout had been enough; if I took a shower now and got in bed, would I sleep? It was worth a try.

I washed my hair, soaped and rinsed, and was out within five minutes. After I dried myself, I put mousse on my hair and stood before the mirror to fluff it out with my fingers and a pick; I had tucked the towel around me so I couldn't see my chest in the mirror.

My hair is short and light blond now. One of my few extravagances is getting it colored, permed, and cut at Terra Ann's, the fanciest hairdressing salon in Shakespeare. Some of my employers get their hair done there; they never know quite what to say when they see me.

Most bodybuilders consider a deep tan part of their regimen, but I'm pale. The scarring doesn't stand out so much that way. But I do get rid of excess hair; I pluck every stray eyebrow, and my legs and armpits are shaved smooth as a baby's bottom.

Once upon a time, years ago, I thought I was pretty. My sister, Varena, and I had the usual rivalry going, and I remember deciding my eyes were bigger and a lighter blue than hers, my nose was straighter and thinner, and my lips were fuller. Her chin was better -  neat and determined. Mine is round. I haven't seen Varena in three years now. Probably she is the pretty one. Though my face hasn't changed, my mind has. The workings of the mind look out through the face and alter it.

Sometimes, some mornings - the ones after the really bad nights - I look in the mirror and do not recognize the woman I see there.

This was going to be one of those really bad nights (though I had no idea how bad it was going to get). But I could tell there was no point in going to bed. My feet itched to be moving.

I dressed again, throwing my sweaty workout clothes into the hamper and pulling on blue jeans and a T-shirt, tucking in the T-shirt and pulling a belt through the belt loops. My hair was only a little damp; the blow-dryer finished the job. I pulled on a dark windbreaker.

Front door, back door, kitchen door? Some nights it takes me a while to decide.

The back. Though I keep my doors greased so they swing back and forth almost noiselessly, the back door is the quietest.

The back door is directly opposite the front door, making my house a shotgun house; from my back door, I can look down the hall and through the living room, which occupies the width of the front of the house, to check to make sure the dead bolt is shot.

It was, of course; I am not one to neglect security. I locked the back door as I left, using another key to turn the dead bolt from the outside. I pushed the key down to the very bottom of my front pocket, where it couldn't possibly fall out. I stood on the tiny back porch for a minute, inhaling the faint scent of the new leaves on the climbing rose vines. The vines were halfway up the trellis I'd built to make the little porch prettier.

Of course, it also obstructed my view of anyone approaching, but when the first roses open in about a month, I won't regret it. I have loved roses since I was a child; we lived on a large lot in a small town, and roses filled the backyard.

That yard of my childhood was easily five times as big as this backyard, which extends less than twenty feet, ending abruptly in a steep slope up to the railroad tracks. The slope is covered with weeds, but from time to time a work crew wanders through to keep the weeds under control. To my left as I faced the tracks was the high wooden privacy fence that surrounded the Shakespeare Garden Apartments. It's slightly uphill from my house. To my right, and downhill, was the equally tiny backyard of the only other house on the street. It's nearly an exact copy of my house, and it's owned by an accountant named Carlton Cockroft.

Carlton's lights were off, not too surprising at this hour of the night. The only light I could see in the apartment building was in Deedra Dean's place. As I glanced up, her window fell dark.

One o'clock in the morning.

I silently stepped off my little back porch, my walking shoes making almost no noise in the grass, and began to move invisibly through the streets of Shakespeare. The night was still and dark - no wind, the moon only a crescent in cold space. I could not even see myself. I liked that.

An hour and a half later, I felt tired enough to sleep.

I was on my way home, and I was not trying to conceal myself anymore; in fact, I was being sloppy. I was using the sidewalk that borders the arboretum (a fancy name for an overgrown park with some labels on trees and bushes). Estes Arboretum takes up a block of definitely unprime Shakespeare real estate. Each of the four streets edging the park has a different name, and my street, Track, on the park's east side, is only a block long. So there's little traffic, and every morning I get to look out my front window and see trees across the street instead of someone else's carport.

I rounded the corner from the south side of the arboretum, Latham Street, to Track; I was opposite the little piece of scrubland that no one claimed, just south of Carlton Cockroft's house. I was not careless enough to linger under the weak streetlight at the corner. There is one at each corner of the arboretum, as Shakespeare's budget can't run to putting streetlights in the middle of the block, especially in this obscure part of town.

I hadn't seen a soul all night, but suddenly I was aware I was not alone. Someone was stirring in the darkness on the other side of the street.

Instinctively, I concealed myself, sliding behind a live oak on the edge of the park. Its branches overhung the sidewalk; perhaps their shadow had hidden me from the presence across the street. My heart was pounding unpleasantly fast. Some tough woman you are, I jeered at myself. What would Marshall think if he saw you now? But when I'd had a second to calm down, I decided that Marshall might think I was showing some sense.

I peered around the oak's trunk cautiously. In the middle of the block, where the person was, the darkness was almost total; I couldn't even tell if I was watching a man or a woman. I had a flash of an unpleasant recollection: my great-grandmother, in the act of saying, "Blacker than a nigger in a coal mine with his mouth shut," and embarrassing everyone in the whole family quite unconsciously. Or maybe not; maybe that little nod of satisfaction had not been over a well-turned phrase but over the pained looks she'd intercepted passing between my parents.

My great-grandmother would have stomped out to the middle of the street and inquired what the person's business was, quite assured of her own safety in doing so, too.

But I know better.

The person was pushing something, something on wheels.

Peering intently into the darkness, I tried to remember if I'd ever seen anyone out on my street before when I was up and wandering. I'd seen a few cars go by, residents or visitors of people in the apartment building, but I couldn't recall ever meeting up with anyone on foot in the past four years - at least in this part of town.

On the bad nights, when I ghost all the way downtown, it is sometimes a different story.

But here and now, I had something to worry about. There was something furtive about this odd incident; this person, this other inhabitor of the night, was pushing what I could now tell was a cart, one with two wheels. It had a handle in the middle of the longer side, and legs on it, so that when you let go of the handle and set it upright, it would be steady and straight. And it was just the right size for two thirty-gallon garbage cans.

My hands curled into fists. Even in the dark, I could identify the familiar shape of the cart. It was my own. I'd bought it at a yard sale from some people who were moving; the man of the house had made it himself.

It was loaded down with something wrapped in dark plastic, like the sheets you buy to put in flower beds to keep weeds down; I could see the faint shine off the smooth plastic surface.

I felt a rage I hadn't experienced in a long time. Something illicit was happening, and the cart thief was trying to involve me in it. The peace that I'd worked so hard to achieve was going to be ripped away, through no fault of my own. I could not confront this thief directly; that wouldn't make sense - the thief might be armed, and was obviously in the middle of doing something he or she wanted to conceal.

So I clenched my teeth, and watched and waited.

Across the rough surface of neglected Track Street, the thief trundled the garbage-can cart with its heavy burden; I could tell it was heavy because of the strain in the cart thief's posture.

This was absolutely eerie; I found myself shivering. I pulled the sides of my dark windbreaker together and, with a tiny sound, zipped it shut. With deliberate movements, I pulled a thin dark scarf from my pocket and tied it over my light hair. All the while, I was tracking the cart thief's laborious progress. The thief was heading for the park; I felt my lips twitch up in a smile as I observed the thief trying to get the cart from the pavement up onto the sidewalk. Wheelchair accessibility had not been a priority when those sidewalks were paved many years ago.

Finally, the cart bumped up onto the sidewalk and across it. The thief's feet had to hurry to catch up. Into the darkness of the arboretum, following one of the narrow paved paths, the thief rolled the loaded cart. I began to count seconds. In three minutes, the thief returned, still pushing my cart.

Now it was empty.

My anger was taking second place to curiosity, though that would only be temporary.

I watched the thief roll the cart up my driveway, barely making it through the narrow walk space between my car and the carport wall. The thief reappeared from the back of my house, walking quickly, and had to go down my driveway to the curb and then walk around the end of the fence to walk up the apartment building's south driveway. The thief circled around back; he or she would enter the building through the quieter back door; the front door squeaked. I always remember things like that.

I am in and out of that apartment building quite a lot.

Sure enough, the thief didn't reappear at the other side of the apartment building. It was someone living there, or the overnight guest of someone living there. With one single woman and four single men living there, overnight guests are not infrequent.

For a few more seconds, I hugged close to the trunk of the tree, waiting to see if a light would come on. From where I was, I could see the side windows on the south side of the apartment building and the front windows, too; no lights came on in any of them. Someone was being extra careful.

Well, I, too, would be careful. I waited five minutes, according to my digital watch, before I made a move. Then I went deeper into the arboretum, following no trail, moving as quietly as possible in the darkness. I'd estimated where I'd intersect the path; I was as familiar with the layout of the arboretum as I was with the floor plan of my house. I'd spent hours wandering Shakespeare by night.

It was so black in the thick of the trees that I wondered if I would even be able to find what the thief had dumped. If my jeans hadn't brushed the plastic, which emitted that typical dry rustle, I might have groped around the path for another hour.

But the second I heard that rustle, I dropped to my hands and knees. Patting around in the darkness, I discovered the wrapping was not plastic sheeting but two large garbage bags, one pulled from the top and another from the bottom to overlap in the middle covering - something soft and big. I poked the bag; there was something hard under the softness. Something bumpy. Something an awful lot like ribs.

I bit my lower lip to keep from making noise.

I struggled silently with an almost-overwhelming urge to jump up and run. After several deep breaths, I won. I steeled myself to do what I had to do, but I couldn't face doing it in the dark.

I reached into my windbreaker pocket and pulled out a narrow, lightweight, powerful little flashlight that had caught my fancy at Wal-Mart. I shifted in my squatting position so that my body was between the apartment building and what was on the ground. I switched on the flashlight.

I was angry at myself when I saw my hand was shaking as I separated the bags. I fumbled them apart some four inches and stopped. I was looking at a torn, rather faded shirt, a man's plaid shirt in green and orange. The chest pocket had caught on something; it was partially ripped from its stitching and a fragment was missing.

I recognized the shirt, though it hadn't been torn when I'd seen it last.

I worked the bag up a little at the side and found a hand; I put my fingers on the wrist, where a pulse should be.

In the chilly Shakespeare night, I squatted in the middle of the trees, holding hands with a dead man.

And now I'd left my fingerprints all over the plastic bags.

About forty minutes later, I was sitting in my bedroom. I was finally tired to the bone.

I'd taken the bags off the corpse.

I'd confirmed the corpse's identity, and its corpse-dom. No breath, no heartbeat.

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