Shakespeare's Landlord Page 3

"I'm not being polite," Mrs. Hofstettler accused herself, turning her mild, faded blue eyes on her guest. "Please, have some coffee. Do you take cream and sugar?"

"Thanks," Friedrich said. "I'd love some coffee. Black, please."

"Lily, would you mind bringing Chief Friedrich some black coffee? I don't believe I want any. But you get yourself a cup and come join us. I believe, young man, that I knew your father. ..." And Mrs. Hofstettler was off on the inevitable establishing of connections that made southern introductions so cozy and drawn-out.

Knowing it would please Mrs. Hofstettler, I fixed a tray with napkins, a plate of cookies (a secret indulgence of Marie's - she likes Keebler Elves, chocolate with chocolate filling), and two generous cups of coffee. While I was assembling the tray, I was listening to Friedrich telling Marie about his years as a police officer in Little Rock; his decision to return to Shakespeare when, in quick succession, his father died, he himself divorced his wife, and the position of chief of police became vacant; and his pleasure at rediscovering the slower pace of life in little Shakespeare.

This guy was good.

As I aligned the napkins in overlapping triangles on the brightly painted tole tray, I admitted to myself that I was worried. After all, how long could I go without speaking before it looked just plain peculiar? On the other hand, he'd been asleep when I'd made the call. And I'd said so little, maybe he wouldn't recognize my voice?

I lifted the tray easily and carried it out to the living room. I handed Friedrich his cup. Now that I was close to him again, I was even more aware of how big he was.

"I'm sorry, I don't believe I've actually met you. ..." Friedrich said delicately as I perched on the hard armchair opposite him.

"Oh, you'll have to excuse me!" Mrs. Hofstettler said ruefully, shaking her head. "This awful news has just taken away all my manners. Chief Friedrich, this is Miss Lily Bard. She lives in the house next to our apartment building, and Lily has become the mainstay of Shakespeare since she moved here."

Trust Mrs. Hofstettler not to ignore a matchmaking opportunity; I should have anticipated this.

"I've seen you around, of course," the big man said, with the courtly implication that no man could ignore me.

"I clean Deedra Dean's apartment," I said briefly.

"Did you work in this building yesterday?"


He waited for me to continue. I didn't.

"Then we need to talk later, when you're not working," he said gently, as if he was talking to a shaky centenarian, or a mental deficient.

I nodded curtly. "I have a break between four and five-thirty."

"I'll come to your house then," he said, and without giving me any time to agree or disagree, he focused his light gray eyes on his hostess.

"Now, Miss Marie, you tell me about seeing Mr. Albee yesterday."

"Well," Mrs. Hofstettler said slowly, gathering herself together with a kind of morbid pleasure, "Pardon always comes about nine in the morning on the first day of the month ... to collect the rent. I know he likes the other tenants to stop by his apartment, but he comes to me because I have limber days and I have stiff days, and I never know till I open my eyes in the morning which it's going to be." She shook her head at the vagaries of illness and old age, and Friedrich responded with a sympathetic rumble.

"So he rang the doorbell, and I let him in," Mrs. Hofstettler said, concentrating hard on her narrative. "He was wearing an orange-and-green plaid shirt and dark green polyester pants... kind of bad colors for anyone, but for a fair man, really not... well, that's neither here nor there. But especially if you're kind of heavyset... well ... So he commented on the weather, and I answered - you know, the usual kind of thing people say to old ladies they don't know very well!"

Claude Friedrich smiled at this particular sharp old lady, took a sip of his coffee, then raised his cup to me in silent appreciation.

"Did he say anything about his plans for the day?" the police chief rumbled. His voice was like the sound of far-off thunder; it made you feel quite safe right where you were.

I was really going to have to be careful. I stared down into my coffee cup. I was so angry that I'd embroiled myself in the death of Pardon Albee, I pictured myself hurling the coffee cup against Mrs. Hofstettler's dead-white wall. Of course, I wouldn't; Marie was not to blame for my predicament. I sighed silently, then looked up to meet Claude Friedrich's intent gaze. Damn.

"He just said he had to go back to his place to wait for everyone to come by with the rent. Since you've been living here, Mr. Friedrich, you know how Pardon was about getting the rent right on the dot. He did say something about interesting things on the news. ..."

"Local news? National news?" Friedrich queried gently. He wasn't breaking into Mrs. Hofstettler's stream of thought, I observed. He was more directing it with a gentle insinuation every now and then. It was skillful. And I noticed that somehow he'd managed to make two cookies vanish, without my ever seeing him chew.

"He didn't say." Marie Hofstettler shook her head regretfully. "He was kind of cheerful about it, though. You know, Pardon was - I don't know how to say it, now that he's gone - he liked to know things," she finished delicately, with a tiny contraction of her brows and a little bob of her head.

He had called it "taking a neighborly interest."

That wasn't what I had called it.

"Now, yesterday, did you see any of your neighbors here?" Friedrich asked Mrs. Hofstettler.

She thought, her lips pursed.

"I thought once I heard Alvah and T. L. next door, but they weren't due to come in until late last night, so I must have been mistaken. And I heard people knocking on Mrs. Albee's door - to pay their rent, you know - several times during the morning and afternoon. But I'm almost always watching the TV or playing the radio, and I don't hear quite as well as I used to."

"When you thought you heard the Yorks, do you mean you heard their voices, enough to identify them, or do you mean that you just heard someone next door?"

Again, Mrs. Hofstettler thought carefully. "I believe I just heard movement next door."

"It might have been me," I said. "I bought some groceries for them and put them in the kitchen and was supposed to water the plant."

"Well, I heard this sound about three in the afternoon. I'd just gotten up from my nap."

"That was probably me."

Friedrich made a note in a little hot-pink spiral-bound notebook that suddenly appeared in his hands.

I glanced at my watch. I had to leave in thirty minutes to get to my next cleaning job, and I had yet to put away Marie's clean laundry.

"Excuse me," I murmured, and took the tray back to the kitchen, feeling Friedrich's bright gaze on my back. I quickly washed and dried the dishes, then dodged out of the kitchen and into the guest bedroom. Nothing I'd washed needed ironing, so I was able to get everything put away in a few minutes. I went down a mental checklist; I'd done everything for Marie I usually do on Tuesday mornings, and I'd be coming back again on Saturday. Marie was almost out of Glass Plus. In the kitchen, I left a note affixed to the refrigerator with an "I Heart Grandma" magnet. Marie gets money from Chuck to pay me, too; she'd write me a check on Saturday.

The police chief was gone when I emerged from the kitchen. I'd been waiting to hear the front door close behind him.

"Good-bye, Mrs. Hofstettler," I said. Marie was staring into space, her hands quiet in her lap. She seemed startled that I was still there.

"Good-bye, Lily," the old woman said wearily. "I'm so glad you came in today. This would have been hard to cope with on my own."

"Maybe you should give your son a call today."

"I hate to bother Chuck," Marie protested.

"This is a very awful thing that's happened." I remembered just how awful it had been in the narrow glow of my flashlight, in the dark, in the trees, in the middle of the night. But with a mental exercise as familiar as my bicep curls, I blocked it out. It would surface at another time and place, but by then I would be alone.

Tuesdays are always busy for me. Today was rougher than usual because I hadn't had enough sleep the night before and had endured great stress.

I ran in my house to grab some fruit to eat in the car on the way to my next job.

The garbage hadn't been picked up yet; Tuesday is also garbage day for my part of town. My cart was out in front, the garbage cans sitting in it correctly. No one could know or suspect that the garbage within those cans was double-bagged, that one set contained the traces of human remains. I had lifted the cans quickly that morning to see if any vestige of Pardon Albee's last ride was visible on the cart. To the naked eye, the metal looked quite clean.

As I went out the kitchen door to my carport, I could hear the rumble of the garbage truck coming. I couldn't resist standing there, one foot in the car and one arm propped on the open door, watching the truck approach. A middle-aged black man wearing a blue jumpsuit with "City of Shakespeare" stitched on the back hoisted out the garbage cans, one after another, dumped the bags into the back of the truck, and returned the garbage cans to the cart.

I closed my eyes in relief as the garbage truck moved up the street to the apartments. The clumsy vehicle turned cautiously to navigate the staple-shaped driveway. But it didn't idle long enough behind that building; I heard it moving again much sooner than it should have. I found myself wishing I could see through the privacy fence.

I was willing to bet that on the other side of it, policemen wearing rubber gloves were going through the apartment garbage cans.

It struck me as a sophisticated concept for the Shakespeare police force.

Though I had no way of finding out for sure, my guess was that the idea had originated with Chief Claude Friedrich.

I stood in the doorway of Bobo Winthrop's room and eyed it grimly. Bobo is a husky seventeen-year-old, full of hormones in overdrive, as I'd discovered last summer. He was at school today, but his room was evidence that Bobo had been home at least to sleep and change clothes often during the past week. There was furniture in the room, somewhere, under all the mess, and I remembered it was good furniture, just as Bobo, I had a gut feeling, was a good kid -  under all the mess.

In other words, he didn't leave his room like this to spite me after I'd thumped him in the guts for putting his hand on my bottom. It's just that Bobo has been accustomed all his life to having someone clean up after him.

Days like this, I feel like I'm following an elephant in a parade, armed only with a puppy's pooper-scooper.

But since I am well paid by Beanie Winthrop to clean her house, I shouldn't grumble, I reminded myself sternly. Faced with Bobo's room, it was hard to remember why I'd chosen housecleaning as my means of support.

I was a National Merit Scholar, I reminded myself, dragging the plastic wash basket behind me as I worked my way across the room, tossing in soiled clothes as I went. I was top of my high school class. I finished college. My grade point average was 3.9.

On Tuesdays, that is my mantra.

Bobo had also ordered pizza one evening while his parents were out, I discovered. Probably - I evaluated by the layers of clothing over the cardboard box - about three days ago.

"Yoohoo!" came a light sweet voice from the kitchen, accompanied by the slam of the door leading into the garage. "Lily! I'm just stopping by on my way to my tennis lesson!"

"Good afternoon," I called back, knowing my voice was (at best) grim. I much preferred seeing none of the Winthrops - not Beanie; her husband, Howell Junior; her oldest son, Bobo; or his younger siblings, Amber-Jean and Howell Three.

Beanie's maiden name had been, incredibly, Bobo:

Beatrice ("Beanie") Bobo. The Bobos were sixth-generation Arkansas aristocrats, and I suspected Beanie had a slave-owning gene still in her DNA.

"Here I am, Lily!" Beanie cried with exaggerated joy, as though I had been on tenterhooks waiting for her appearance. And Beanie always makes appearances; she never just walks into a room. She popped into the doorway now like she was appearing in an English comedy: Attractive Lady Beatrice, on her way to play tennis, stops to speak to the parlor maid.

Beanie is undeniably attractive. She's in her middle forties, but her body doesn't know it. Though her face is not actually pretty, Beanie is a past mistress at maximizing what she has. Her long, thick hair is colored a discreet chestnut brown, her contacts make her brown eyes darker, and her tan is always touched up in the winter with a sun-bed session or two a week.

"Listen, Lily, wasn't that awful about Pardon?" Beanie was in her chatty mode. "I went to high school with his little sister! Of course, even then Pardon wasn't the easiest person to get along with, but still ... to be killed like that! Isn't it awful?"


"Ah... well, Lily, if you find Bobo's checkbook, please leave it on my desk. He hasn't balanced it in six months, and I promised him I'd do it. Though when he thinks I'll find the time, I don't know!"

"All right."

"Oh, and Lily - Bobo tells me you take karate. Can that be true?"

"Yes." I knew I was being uncooperative. I was in a bloody mood today. And I hated the idea of the Winthrops discussing me. Most days, I find Beanie amusing but tolerable, but today she was irritating beyond measure. And Beanie felt the same way about me.

"Well, now, we always wanted Bobo to take tae kwan do, but there never was anyone here to teach it, except that man who went broke after six months. Who do you take from?"

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies