Shakespeare's Landlord Page 8

I bowed briefly to Marshall without meeting his eyes, then sank into position. After a few seconds of regulating my breathing, I peeked up at Marshall. He raised his dark eyebrows slightly. Marshall always makes the most of his quarter-Oriental heritage by working hard on inscrutability; his triangular face, its complexion somewhere between the pink of Caucasian and the ivory of Asian, remained calm. But the bird-wing eyebrows said volumes - surprise, disappointment, disapproval.

Shiko dachi is a position very like sitting on air, and it is painful and demanding even after long practice. The best way to get through it is to concentrate on something else, at least for me. But I was too upset to go into meditation. Instead, I scanned the line of fellow sufferers reflected in the mirror lining the opposite wall.

Newcomers are always at the end of the line. The newest man's head was bowed, his legs trembling - so probably the class had been in position for a minute and a half or two minutes. I hadn't missed much.

After a few seconds, I began to relax. The pain required my attention and the anxiety of my encounter with the policeman began to fade. I started my meditation on the kata we would practice later. Ignoring the ache in my quadriceps, I visualized the various moves that made up geiki sei ni bon, I reminded myself of mistakes I habitually made, and I anticipated further refining the grace and power of the kata, a series of martial arts strikes, blocks, and kicks woven together in what becomes almost a dance.

"Three minutes," said the first-in-line student, a huge black man named Raphael Roundtree. His watch was strapped to his obi.

"Another minute," said Marshall, and I could feel the dismay, though no one made a sound. "Be sure your thighs are parallel with the floor."

There was a general ripple of movement down the line as students corrected their stance. I stayed rock-still; my shiko dachi was as perfect as I could make it. My feet were the correct distance apart, pointing outward at the correct angle; my back was straight.

I emerged from my reverie for a moment to glance down the line in the mirror. The last-in-line man was in serious trouble. Though he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, sweat was streaming down his face. His legs were trembling violently. With some amazement, I recognized my next-door neighbor, Carlton Cockroft, who had so generously let me know he'd seen me out walking in the night.

I shut my eyes and tried to refocus on the kata, but I was too full of surprise and conjecture.

When Raphael called, "Four minutes," it was as much relief to me as it was to the rest of the class.

We all stood, shifting from leg to leg to shake off the pain.

"Lily! Stretches!" Marshall said, his gaze just grazing me as it swept down the line. He retreated to a corner, where he watched us all for the slightest sign of slacking.

I bowed and ran to face the rest of the class. There were only eight that night. Janet and I were the only women, and we were much of an age, though I thought Janet might be thirty to my thirty-one. The men ranged from twenty to perhaps fifty-five.

"Kiostke!" I said sharply to bring them to attention. "Rai," I instructed, bowing to them. They bowed to me in return, Carlton only a beat behind. He was keeping a sharp eye on the man in line next to him, picking up on his cues. I wondered again why he was here. But the class was waiting for my directions, and I extended my right leg, balancing carefully on my left. "Big toe up ... and down ..." I said. A few minutes later, I was concluding with lunges to alternating sides, my hands extended to the front for balance.

I bowed to Marshall and ran back to my place.

"Teacher's pet," hissed Raphael out of the side of his mouth. "Late, too." Raphael and I pretty much alternate leading the stretches. Raphael is a high school math teacher, so I figure karate gives him a chance to blow off steam.

"First time," I whispered defensively, and saw his teeth flash in a grin.

Marshall told us to take a short break, and after a gulp of water from the fountain in the weights room, I strolled over to Carlton. He looked overdone, rather than edible. His face was red and his hair was wet with sweat. I'd never seen him approach tousled, much less disheveled.

Raphael drifted up behind me before I could say anything to my neighbor, and I introduced them. I consider Raphael a friend, although I never see him outside of class. Now I might get to know Carlton in the same way, after living next door to him for four years. He had apparently rethought something after our prickly conversation.

"So what made you decide to come to class, Carlton?" Raphael was asking with open curiosity. It was obvious Carlton was no workout buff.

"I keep Marshall's books," Carlton explained, which was news to me. "And I've seen Lily heading out for class for four years now, since I bought the house next door to her. She always looks like she is happy to be going. I called Marshall today and he said to give it a shot. What comes next? I barely survived that shigga - whatever."

"Next," said Raphael, with an openly sadistic grin, "comes calisthenics."

"More?" Carlton was horrified.

I looked up at Raphael. We began laughing simultaneously.

I was still lacing up my shoes when the last class member left. I'd deliberately dawdled so I could talk to Marshall without asking him to preselect a time, which would have upset the balance of whatever relationship we have.

"Late tonight," Marshall commented, folding his gi top carefully and putting it in his gym bag. In his white T-shirt, his arms bare, the warm ivory tinge to his skin was more apparent. Marshall's grandmother had been Chinese and his grandfather American, he'd told Raphael in my hearing one night. Aside from his skin tone and his straight black hair and dark eyes, it would be hard to tell. He is a little older than I am - about thirty-five, I figure - and only three inches taller. But he is stronger and more dangerous than anyone I've met.

"Police," I said, by way of explanation.

"What - about Pardon?" Marshall gave me his attention.

I shrugged.

"Something was bothering you tonight," he said.

Marshall had never said anything more personal than "Good kick," or "Keep your hand and wrist in line with your arm," or "You've really worked on those biceps." Because of our long camaraderie, I felt obliged to answer.

"A couple of things," I said slowly. We were sitting on the floor about four feet apart. Marshall had one shoe on and was loosening the laces on the other, and he slipped it on and tied it while I was pulling on my second sock.

Marshall crossed his legs, wrapping them together in a yoga position, and pushed against the floor with his hands. He was suspended off the floor, his arms and hands taking all his weight. He "walked" over to me like that, and I tried to smile, but I was too uncomfortable with our new situation. We'd never had a personal conversation.

"So talk," he said.

I took as long as I could lacing up my shoe, trying to decide what to say. I looked over at him while he was distracted by the faint sound of the telephone ringing in his office. It cut off after the second ring; one of the employees had answered it.

Marshall's face is markedly triangular, with narrow lips and a nose that has been flattened a few times. He has a distinctly catlike look, but he doesn't have a cat's sleekness. He is built much more like a bulldog.

Well, I should either talk or tell him I'm not going to, I thought. He was waiting patiently, but he was waiting.

"Was Pardon Albee your partner?" I said finally.


"So what happens now?"

"We had a contract. If one of us died, the other got the whole business. Pardon didn't have anyone else to consider. I had Thea, but Pardon didn't want to deal with her. So he carried a heavy insurance policy on me, and Thea would get that money if anything happened to me, instead of getting a share of the business."

"So ... you own Body Time now."

He nodded. His eyes were fixed on me. I was used to being on the dispensing, rather than the receiving, end of fixed stares, and it was an effort not to fidget. Also, Marshall was a good bit closer to me than people were in the habit of getting.

"That's good," I said, with an effort.

He nodded again.

"Have the police talked to you yet about Pardon?" I asked him.

"I'm going to go talk to Dolph Stafford tomorrow at the police station. I didn't want them to come here."

"Sure." I thought I could hardly bring up Thea; Thea's slapping the little girl was something I wasn't supposed to know, though if I knew the Shakespeare grapevine, everyone in town was hearing some version of the incident by now. And I couldn't just blurt out a question as to why Marshall and Thea had separated.

The air was getting pretty thick with something, and I was feeling increasingly nervous.

"So... the other thing?" he asked quietly.

I glanced over at him quickly, then back down at my hands, fidgeting with the damn shoelaces. "Nothing else I can talk about," I said dismissively.

"I've left Thea."


We stared at each other a little more, and I felt a bubble of hysterical laughter rising in my throat.

"Don't you want to know why?"

"What? Why what?" I knew I sounded stupid, but I just couldn't seem to concentrate. It was taking an effort to keep still. A private conversation, physical closeness, personal talk - these are unnerving things.

Marshall shook his head. "Nothing, Lily. Can I ask you something in return?"

I nodded rather warily. I wondered if we looked like two of those wooden birds on the stand, bobbing at each other.

"Where'd you get the scars?" he asked gently.

Chapter Five

The room was suddenly airless.

"You don't really want to know," I said.

"Of course I do," Marshall said. "We're never moving beyond where we are now unless I know that."

I looked at the mirror beyond Marshall's shoulder. I saw someone I didn't recognize.

"People never feel the same about me once they know," I said. My mouth was suddenly so dry, it was hard to speak.

"I will," he said.

He wouldn't. It would ruin the unspoken bond between us - a bond with which, evidently, he was no longer content.

"Why do you want me to talk about it?" My hands were clenched and I could see them shake.

"I can never get to know you better until I know that," he said with patient certainty. "And I want to get to know you better."

With one quick movement, I jerked off my T-shirt.

Under it, I was wearing a plain white sports bra. Marshall's breath hissed as he got a good look at the scars. Not meeting his eyes, I turned a little so he could see the ones that crossed my shoulders like extra bra straps; I rotated back to show him the ones that striped my upper chest; I sat up straight so he could see more thin white scars in an arc pattern descending into the waistband of my pants.

And then I looked him in the eyes.

He did not blink. His jaw was fixed in a hard line. He was making a heroic struggle to keep his face still.

"I felt them when I gripped your shoulder in class last week, but I didn't know they were so ..."

"Extensive?" I asked savagely. I would not let him look away.

"Are your breasts cut, too?" he asked, with a creditable attempt at keeping his voice neutral.

"No. But all around. In circles. In a pattern."

"Who did this?"

What had happened to me had cut my life in two, more deeply and surely than the knives that had traced bloody festoons on my skin. Unable to stop, I remembered once again, descending into a familiar hell. It had been hot that June... .

It had already been hot for a month. I had graduated from college and had been living in Memphis for three years. I had a nice apartment in east Memphis and a desk job at the city's largest maid and janitorial service, Queen of Clean. In spite of the stupid name, it was a good place to work. I was a scheduler.

I also did spot checks on site and made courtesy calls to customers to see if they were satisfied. I earned a decent salary, and I bought a lot of clothes.

When I left work that Tuesday in June, I was wearing a short-sleeved navy blue dress with big white buttons down the front and white leather pumps. My hair was long and light brown then, and I prided myself on my long, polished fingernails. I was dating one of the co-owners of a bottled-water supply company.

My worst problem was the transmission of my car, which had already required extensive repairs. When I left work, I began to worry that it was going to eat up more of my money.

The car made it down the freeway to the Goodwill Road exit before I had to stop. There was a service station in sight on Goodwill, and lots of traffic, people everywhere. I walked down the exit ramp, nervous about how narrow it seemed when it had to accommodate a woman on foot and cars. Unexpectedly, a van coming slowly down the ramp stopped beside me. I thought, They're going to offer me a ride to the service station.

The passenger door was thrown open by someone sitting in the back, who immediately retracted into his crouch behind the passenger's seat. The man in the driver's seat was holding a gun.

When I accepted it for what it was, rather than trying to imagine it was something else, my heart began racing, its thud so loud, I could hardly make out what he was saying.

"Get in or I'll shoot you where you stand."

I could jump off the exit ramp and get hit by a car speeding on the road below, or I could tell him to shoot, or I could get in the van.

I made the wrong decision. I got in.

The man who had picked me up, I found out later, was an accomplished kidnapper named Louis Ferrier, called "Nap" by his customers in acknowledgment of his expertise in stealing women and children, most of whom vanished forever. The abducted victims who did resurface were without exception dead, either mentally or physically. Nap had done jail time, but not for his specialty.

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