Shakespeare's Landlord Page 2

I'd worked my way out of the arboretum, knowing I was leaving traces but helpless to avoid it. My incoming traces were unerasable; I'd figured I might as well make a trail out, too. I'd emerged from the bushes on Latham and crossed the street there, well out of sight of the apartments. I'd gone from cover to cover until I circled Carlton Cockroft's house, silently crossing his yard to arrive in my own.

I'd found that the cart thief had replaced my cart and reinserted the garbage cans, but not as I'd had them. The blue garbage can was always on the right and the brown on the left, and the thief had reversed them. I'd unlocked my back door and entered without turning on a light, then opened the correct kitchen drawer, extracted two twisties, and lifted out and sealed the garbage bags already lining the cans. I'd relined the cans with the garbage bags that had been used to cover the body, then put the bagged garbage in them, sealing the second set of bags over the first set. I'd figured I couldn't examine the cart in the middle of the night, and wheeling it inside would have created too much noise. It would have to wait until morning.

I'd done all I could do to erase my own involuntary complicity.

I should have been ready for bed, but I found myself biting my lower lip. My bedrock middle-class upbringing was raising its strong and stern head, as it did at unexpected and inconvenient times. The mortal remains of someone I knew were lying out there in dark solitude. That was wrong.

I couldn't call the police department; possibly incoming calls were taped or traced in some way, even in little Shakespeare. Maybe I could just forget about it? Someone would find him in the morning. But it might be the little kids who lived on Latham... . And then it came to me - whom I could call. I hesitated, my fingers twisting and untwisting. The back of my neck told me this was not a smart move. Get it over with, I told myself.

I pulled out my little flashlight and was able to read my tiny Shakespeare phone book by its dimming glow. I punched in the right numbers, listened to three rings; then a groggy male voice said, "Claude Friedrich here."

"Listen," I said, surprised at how harsh and ragged my voice came out. I waited a beat.

"Okay." He was alert now.

"There's a dead man in the park across the street from you," I said, and hung up the phone. I crept across the hall to the room with the punching bag, my workout room. Through its window, I could see the light come on in Claude Friedrich's apartment, which was on the second floor, by Deedra Dean's.

Now I'd done all I could.

With a pleasant feeling of having discharged a responsibility, I climbed out of my clothes and into a nightgown. I heard a car in the street outside, and I padded into my dark living room to look out the window. Friedrich had taken my phone call seriously; he was out there in hastily thrown-on clothes, talking to one of the night patrolmen, Tom David Meiklejohn. As I watched, they started down the same path into the park that the cart thief had taken, each carrying a powerful "skull-buster" flashlight.

Incident closed, I thought, going back to my bedroom and crawling into my double bed. I pulled the fresh sheets up, settled my head on my pillow, and instantly, finally, fell asleep.

Chapter Two

The next day was a Tuesday. On Tuesday mornings, I take care of Mrs. Hofstettler. Marie Hofstettler's son Chuck lives in Memphis. He worries about his mother, but he doesn't worry enough to make the drive over to Shakespeare to see her. So he pays me handsomely to spend time with his mother twice a week.

I always do a little cleaning, channel Mrs. Hofstettler's clothes through the washer and dryer, and occasionally take her to a friend's house or Kmart or Kroger's, if Mrs. Hofstettler is having what she calls a "limber" day.

I walked over from my house to the apartment building, letting myself in the squeaking front door and rapping lightly on the first door to my left to let Mrs. Hofstettler know I was coming in. I had a key. Mrs. Hofstettler was already up, a good sign; on her bad, stiff days, she is still in bed when I get there.

"I didn't sleep at all last night!" she said by way of greeting. Marie Hofstettler, now eighty-five, is as wrinkled as a dried apricot. Her hair is white and silky and thin, and she wears it pulled back in an untidy bun. (I know what pain it costs the old lady to raise her arms to form the bun. In a stupid moment, I had suggested Mrs. Hofstettler have her hair cut short, and I had been treated to a huffy hour-long silence.) This morning, Mrs. Hofstettler's teeth were already in and she had managed to pull on a red-and-blue-striped housedress, so the excitement had done her good.

"I saw there was crime-scene tape across the path going into the park," I commented in as neutral a voice as I could manage. No true Shakespearean would call Estes Arboretum anything but "the park." I'm finally getting the hang of being a true Shakespearean after four years.

"Didn't you hear all the commotion, girl?"

"I didn't hear a thing," I answered truthfully. "I slept real heavy last night." I went down the hall to Mrs. Hofstettler's bedroom to fetch the wash from the hamper.

"Then you are an amazing sleeper," Mrs. Hofstettler called after me. "Honey, there were police cars up and down the street, and people coming and going, and an ambulance, too."

"And I don't know anything about it to tell you," I said, trying to sound regretful. I'm not normally chatty with clients, but I admire Marie Hofstettler; she doesn't whine and she isn't clingy.

"Let's turn on the radio," Mrs. Hofstettler said eagerly. "Maybe we can find out what happened. If that don't work, Pm calling Deedra at the courthouse. She always knows what's going on."

I started the washing machine. All eight apartments, of course, have the same layout, with the east apartments mirroring the west. There are four units upstairs and four downstairs. The building's front door and back door are locked at eleven, and residents aren't supposed to give anyone a key. Marie's apartment is a ground-floor front apartment on the north side. She's had it since the building was erected ten years ago; Marie and Pardon Albee are the only original tenants. In Marie's apartment, as in all of them, the common hallway door opens directly into a living room, with an area to the rear used for dining. Across from this dining area is the kitchen, of course, which is well lined with cabinets and counters for an apartment kitchen. The hall starts where the kitchen and dining area end, and to your right (in Marie's apartment) is the closet containing the washer and dryer and shelves used for linens and cleaners and odds and ends. Almost opposite this closet is the door to the master bedroom, which is a nice size and has a very large closet. On the same wall as the wash closet is the door to the much smaller guest bedroom, and at the end of the hall is the bathroom, with a large frosted-glass window, which is supposed to be the second line of escape in case of fire.

I've always appreciated the fact that the front doors are not centered, so that when a tenant answers his or her front door, the caller can't see down the hall directly into the bathroom.

The builder and resident landlord, Pardon Albee, had had the gall to call these the Shakespeare Garden Apartments because the front ones overlook the arboretum. The back ones at the ground floor overlook only the paved area that lies between the apartment and the garage, divided into eight stalls not quite wide enough for two cars each. The second floor apartments at the back have a scenic view of the train tracks, and beyond them the back lot of a hardware and lumber-supply store.

After I'd turned on the radio for Mrs. Hofstettler, I began dusting the larger bedroom. Mrs. Hofstettler turned up the radio loud so I could listen along, after a conscientious discussion about whom it might bother; no one, the old woman decided, since T. L. and Alvah York next door should be out for their morning walk, and Norvel Whitbread, whose apartment was above, was already at work, or drunk, or both.

The area station, which covered most of Hartsfield and Creek counties, plays so-called classic rock. It is a preprogrammed station. The song that came on first was one I'd liked long ago, before the time when my life's agenda had gotten so ... simplified. I smiled as I lifted the old china figurines on the dressing table and dusted them very carefully. The song ended, I glanced at my watch, and right on cue the local announcer began to speak, her southern Arkansas accent so broad that even after four years in Shakespeare, I had to listen quite carefully.

"In local news" ("In lawcol nyus"), twanged the conscientiously serious voice, "in Hartsfield County, Shakespeare real estate developer Pardon Albee was found dead in Estes Arboretum at approximately two-thirty a.m. by Police Chief Claude Friedrich, who was acting on an anonymous phone tip. The cause of death is not known at this time, but police suspect foul play. Albee was a lifelong resident of Shakespeare and a member of the Shakespeare Combined Church. In other news, a Creek County judge sentenced Harley Don Murrell to twenty years for the abduction and rape of a local - "

"Oh no!" Mrs. Hofstettler exclaimed in real distress.

I carefully put down the shepherdess I'd been dusting and hurried into the living room. "Lily, this is horrible! Oh, Lily, do you suppose he was killed and robbed right here? And who will we pay rent to now that Pardon Albee's dead? Who'll own the building?"

I automatically handed Mrs. Hofstettler a Kleenex, thinking it was very like her to come right to the point. Who indeed owned the building now? When I'd recognized Pardon Albee's ugly green-and-orange plaid shirt last night, that hadn't been what I'd thought of.

The answer would not affect me directly, for I'd bought my house from Pardon, as had my neighbor. And Pardon had sold the lots at the north end of Track and around the corner on Jamaica Street to the Shakespeare Combined Church, a coalition of splinter churches that had thrived most unexpectedly. As far as I knew, the only property that Pardon still owned outright was Shakespeare Garden Apartments, and he'd enjoyed owning it to the hilt. In fact, he'd seen himself as the pivotal character in some kind of television drama - the kindly landlord who helps all his tenants solve their problems and knows all their most intimate secrets.

He'd worked hard on making the last part come true, anyway.

"I've got to call - Lily, I'm so glad you're here today!"

Mrs. Hofstettler was more upset than I'd ever seen her, and I'd heard her fume for two weeks over the altar boy at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church lighting the wrong candle during Advent.

"Who did you want to call?" I asked, putting down the dust cloth.

"The police. Pardon was here yesterday. It was the first of the month, you know. I get a check from Chuck toward the end of the month, and I deposit it, and every first, here comes Mr. Albee, regular as clockwork. I always have my check made out and sitting on the table for him, and he always... Oh, I think I should tell the police he was here!"

"I'll call, then." I hoped Mrs. Hofstettler could ease her agitation with a phone call. To my surprise and dismay, the dispatcher at the Shakespeare Police Department said someone would be right by to listen to Mrs. Hofstettler's story.

"You'd better make some coffee, Lily, please," the old lady said. "Maybe the policeman will want some. Oh, what could have happened to Pardon? I can't believe it. Just yesterday, he was standing right there. And now he's dead, and him a good twenty-five years younger than me! And Lily, could you pick up that tissue there, and straighten that pillow on the sofa? Oh, durn these stiff old legs! You just don't know, Lily, how frustrating being old can be."

There was no safe response to that, so I straightened the room very quickly. The coffee was perking, everything in the apartment was dusted, and I'd given the bathroom a quick once-over by the time the doorbell rang. I was pulling the clothes from the dryer, but I'd become infected by Marie's house-pride, so I hastily carried the clean wash back to deposit in the guest bedroom and shut the louver doors that concealed the washer and dryer on my way back to answer the bell.

I had expected some underling. With a pang of dismay, I recognized the chief of police, the man I'd called in the middle of the night, Claude Friedrich.

I stood aside and waved him in, cursing my conscience-stricken call, afraid anything I said would cause him to recognize my voice.

It was the first time I'd seen Claude Friedrich close up, though of course I had glimpsed him driving in and out of the apartment house driveway, and occasionally passed him in the hall when I was in the building on a cleaning job.

Claude Friedrich was in his late forties, a very tall man with a deep tan, light brown hair and mustache streaked with gray, and light gray eyes that shone in the weathered face. He had few wrinkles, but the ones he had were so deep, they might have been put in with a chisel. He had a broad face and a square jaw, broad shoulders and hands, a flat stomach. His gun looked very natural on his hip. The dark blue uniform made my mouth feel dry, made something inside me twitch with anxiety, and I reacted with anger.

Macho man, I thought. As if he could hear me, Friedrich suddenly turned to catch me with my brows raised, one side of my mouth pulled up sardonically. We locked stares for a tense moment.

"Mrs. Hofstettler," he said politely, transferring his gaze to my employer, who was twisting a handkerchief in her hands.

"Thank you for coming - maybe you didn't even need to," Mrs. Hofstettler said in one breath. "I would hate to bother you. Please have a seat." She gestured toward the flowered sofa at right angles to the television and to her own favorite recliner.

"Thank you, ma'am, and coming here is no trouble at all," Friedrich said comfortingly. He knew how to be soothing, no doubt about it. He sat down gratefully, as if he'd been standing for a long time. I moved into the kitchen, which has a hatch cut in the wall behind the counter, and opened it to stick out the coffeepot behind our guest's back. Mrs. Hofstettler, thus reminded, went into her hostess mode, helping her regain her calm.

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