Shakespeare's Trollop Page 10

I started to switch on the lights, realized I shouldn't. In the choking gloom, I made my way across the kitchen to the familiar double sink, felt the dishcloth draped across the divider. I rinsed it out under cold water and held it across my mouth and nose as I tried to fumble my way out of the kitchen and across the hall to Joe C's bedroom.

I sucked in breath to call the old man, and that breath exploded out in a bout of coughing. I saw flames to my right, in the living room. Smoke, a deadly silent killer, filled the wide hall. I put one hand to the wall to orient myself, touching a picture of Joe C's mother I recalled was hanging about a yard to the left of the door to Joe C's bedroom. I could hear sirens now, but no coughing from anyone but me.

"Joe C!" I screamed, the intake of smoke causing me another coughing spasm. I might have heard something in reply. At least I imagined that I heard a faint answer after I gave a second call. The fire was in the living room, moving closer to the hall, licking at something it really liked. I could feel a sudden escalation in its energy, as if it had eaten a piece of candy. Maybe it had grabbed ahold of Joe C's antique rolltop desk, its wood dry and ready for the flame after a hundred and fifty years of use.

The door to Joe C's bedroom was closed. I didn't know if that was usual or not. I turned the knob, and it opened. I was having good luck with doors tonight, if nothing else.

"Joe C," I called hoarsely. "Where are you?" I stepped cautiously into the bedroom and shut the door behind me.

"Here," came the feeble reply. "I'm trying to open this damn winda."

Since Joe C's bedroom and the kitchen were at the back of the house, away from the streetlight, between the smoke and the natural darkness I couldn't tell exactly where the old man was.

"Say something!" I began groping my way into the room, colliding with the bedpost as I shuffled forward. That gave me my bearings.

Joe C said a few things, none of them repeatable.

Finally I reached him, hearing him begin to cough so violently that I knew he didn't have long to go if we stayed inside. I followed his hands up to the two locks on the window, and I took over the job of twisting them. The right one was easy, the left one very stiff. I wrestled with it, decided to break the glass in about one second if the lock didn't give.

"Damn, woman, get us out of here!" Joe C said urgently. "The fire is at the door!" Then he was overwhelmed by another coughing spasm.

I glanced over my shoulder to see that the door appeared to be cracking, and the cracks had red edges. If I touched that doorknob now, my hands would burn.

As my whole body would if the damn window... there! The lock gave, I reached down to grip the handles, and I heaved up with all my strength. The window, which I had expected to resist, flew up, and I almost lost my footing. I stuck my hand outward to feel, and encountered a screen. Crap.

I took a step back, lifted my leg, and let it fly. The screen popped out of the window like a cork from a bottle, and I said, between bouts of a hacking cough, "I'm going out first, and then I'm getting you over the sill, Joe C."

He clung to me, still no more than part of the choking darkness, and I had to disengage his hands to swing my leg over the sill. Of course the bushes were thick underneath the window, and since the house was raised, the drop-off was at least a foot higher than I'd anticipated. I didn't land square on my feet, but careened sideways, grabbing at branches so I wouldn't end up on the ground. When my footing was stabilized, I turned and felt through the window until I had run my hands under both Joe C's armpits.

"Hold on to my shoulders!" I urged him, and his bony claws dug into my skin. I put my left foot somewhat back to keep me steady, and I heaved. Because of the high window, the angle was bad; I was too short to get a good purchase. I gradually worked Joe C about halfway out the window. He began hollering. I took two steps back and heaved again, my shoulders in agony from the strain. More of the old man appeared on my side of the window. I repeated the whole process. But now Joe C began yelling in earnest. I craned over his back to see that his left foot remained hooked to the sill in some mysterious way.

I had a moment of sheer panic. I could not think for the life of me - for his life - how I was going to extricate him. Luckily, I didn't have to solve the problem. There was commotion all around me now. I was never happier to see anyone in my life than the firefighter who pushed past me to unhook Joe C's left foot and bring it out to join the rest of him. I staggered back under Joe C's full weight, and instantly men were helping me to stand, whisking the old man over to ambulance.

They tried to load me in, too, but I resisted. I'm no martyr, but I can only afford minimal insurance, and I could manage to stand and walk.

I sat on the tailgate of the fire chief's pickup while a couple of firefighters gave me oxygen, which felt sweet to my lungs. They checked me over; not a single burn. I reeked of smoke and didn't think I would ever breathe easily again, but those were minor considerations right now. At least six firefighters told me how lucky I was. They also mentioned that I should have waited for their help in extricating Joe C. I just nodded; I think we all knew that if I'd waited, Joe C wouldn't have had much of a chance.

When they were sure I was going to be all right, the two men who'd been tending to me went to help with the more exciting activity across the street. I didn't know if they'd be able to put out the fire before the first floor collapsed, but it was clear Joe C was not going to get his often-stated wish of dying in his own home.

Gradually, though the hubbub around me continued, I was able to think about something other than how afraid I'd been. I was able to think about what I'd seen.

"You feeling better?" demanded a nasal voice.

I nodded without looking up.

"Then you want to tell me how you came to be here?"

My questioner was Norman Farraclough, Claude's second in command. He was called "Jump" Farraclough, the result of a story I'd never completely understood. I'd encountered Jump several times. He always seemed to be holding any judgment about me in reserve until he'd observed me a little longer. Actually, that was pretty much the same way I felt about him.

Jump was a late-night weightlifter, when his shift permitted. He often arrived at Body Time just when I was leaving karate class. The assistant police chief had a sharp hooked nose, a tiny mustache, and a pumped body that looked awkward in his blue uniform.

The fire chief, Frank Parrish, holding his helmet by one strap, came to stand by Jump, and they both looked down at me with expectant faces.

I explained very slowly how I'd come to be passing Joe C's house. Slowly, because not only was breathing still an act I wasn't taking for granted, but also I wanted to be sure I didn't make any error, any ambiguous statement, in what I was telling them. I told Jump and Frank about seeing someone in the yard, smelling the smoke, and finding the back door unlocked.

Jump's face remained expressionless, but Frank was openly troubled by my story.

"Was it a man or a woman?" he asked when I'd come to the end.

"Couldn't tell."

"Which direction did he go in?"

"Towards the back of the yard, but there's no fence back there. He could've gone anywhere after that."

"And that back door was unlocked?"

I sighed, tried to keep it inaudible. "Yes." It was the third time Frank had asked me.

"You work for Joe C, right?" Jump squatted down to my level to look me directly in the eyes. If this was supposed to be intimidating, it didn't work.


"You and him get along?"

"He's a dirty old bastard," I said.

And that shocked them, me saying out loud what everyone on God's green earth already knew.

"But you went in to the house to get him?"

"Obviously I did." Though I was beginning to regret it.

"That lot is worth a right smart piece of change," Frank observed to the night air.

I had no response to that. I wanted to shower, to get the stink of smoke off me. I never wanted to smell it again.

"I'm going home." I stood and began walking.

"Whoa, just a minute!" Jump got into step beside me. "Listen, lady, you ain't got no privileges now, with your buddy gone."

"You're talking about your boss? The boss whose wedding I just attended? As his bride's best friend?" This behavior wasn't typical of me, but I was going to pull every string I could to get away from this fire, away from the old house and the smoke.

"Doesn't cut any ice with me," Jump stated, but I didn't believe him.

"Your testosterone's showing," I told him. He glanced down before he could stop himself. "I saw a fire, I reported it like a good citizen, and I helped an old man escape death. You can make something suspicious out of that if you want, but I don't think it's gonna fly." And I lengthened my stride, leaving him standing and staring after me with baffled irritation on his shadowed face.

Chapter Eight

I slept late the next day. I must have punched down my alarm button without even knowing it, because when I finally checked the clock, I saw that I was supposed to be at my first Saturday morning cleaning job. I left my bed unmade, my breakfast uneaten, and arrived at Carrie's office barefaced and groggy. There was no one there to see me in any condition at all, so I accelerated my pace and got her office finished, then scooted over to the travel agent's.

I'd gotten my adrenaline pumping so effectively that I actually finished early. When I got home I collapsed at my kitchen table, trying to figure out what the rest of the day held. My Saturdays were usually spent grocery shopping and cleaning my own place. I tried to recall what else I had going.

Well, there was Deedra's funeral. Janet was coming by within the hour to accompany me to that. Then Bobo was coming over for some unstated purpose. And I still had to shop and clean since Jack was driving in tomorrow.

All I wanted to do was sleep, or rent a movie and sit in a silent lump on my double recliner to watch it. But I hoisted myself to my feet and went to the bathroom for a hot shower.

When Janet thumped on my front door forty-five minutes later, I was in my black suit, made up, with hose and pumps making me feel like a stranger to myself. I had just completed my makeup, and as I opened the door to her, I was pushing the back onto my left earring.

"Lily, you look good in black," Janet said.

"Thanks. You're looking good yourself." It was true; Janet was wearing a chestnut sheath with a brown-gold-green jacket, and it brought out the best in her coloring and figure.

It was time to go, so I grabbed my purse and locked the door on the way out.

"Oh, by the way," Janet said, "I told Becca we'd stop by the apartments and pick her up."

I shrugged. Why anyone needed to be accompanied to a funeral was outside of my understanding, but I had no objection.

Becca came out of the big front doors of the Shakespeare Garden Apartments just as we walked up. She was wearing a dark blue dress with big white polka dots, and she'd put up her hair somehow under a navy blue straw hat. With her usual dramatic makeup, Becca looked as if she had a bit part in a film about charming Southern eccentrics.

"Hidey!" she said, all perky and upbeat. I stared at her. "Sorry," Becca told us after a second. "I've got to sober down. I just got a real good piece of news, and I haven't got it out of my system."

"Can we ask?" asked Janet. Her round brown eyes were almost protruding with curiosity.

"Well," Becca said, looking as though she'd blush with pleasure if Revlon hadn't already done it for her, "my brother is coming to see me."

Janet and I exchanged significant glances. Becca had only mentioned her brother Anthony a time or two, and Janet had wondered aloud one time why the apartments had been left to Becca. Why not a fair split between sister and brother? I hadn't responded, because it was none of my business how Pardon Albee had left his estate, but I had had to admit to myself that singling out Becca had seemed a little unusual. Now we'd get to meet the brother, maybe discover why Becca had been so favored.

In a polite voice, Janet said, "That's real nice." We were too close to the church to keep the discussion open.

Distracted by Becca's surprising mood and news, I hadn't noticed that our small street was very nearly in a state of gridlock. Cars were parked on both sides of Track Street and around the corner, as far as I could see. Track Street is the base of three streets laid out like a U tipped on its left side. Estes Arboretum fills up the empty part of the U, and the Shakespeare Combined Church is on the upper bar. It's a fundamentalist Christian church with a pastor, Joel McCorkindale, who can raise money like nobody's business. Joel is handsome and shiny, like a country-and-western star, with his razor-cut hair and perfect white teeth. He's added a mustache trimmed so precisely that it looks as though he could chop his meat with it.

The SCC, as the Shakespeareans call it, has added two wings in the past three years. There's a day care, a preschool, and a basketball gym for the teenagers. I was assuming they found time to have church on Sundays, sandwiched somewhere between Singles Hour, Teen Handbells, and classes like How to Please your Husband in a Christian Marriage. I've worked there from time to time, and the Reverend McCorkindale and I have had some interesting conversations.

The steeple bell was tolling heavily as we three strode up the gentle slope that leveled off in front of the church. The white hearse of Shields Funeral Home was lined up with its white limousine parallel to the curb directly in front of the church, and through the smoked windows of the limousine I could make out the family waiting to enter. Though I didn't want to stare at them, I couldn't seem to help it. Lacey looked stricken and hopeless. Jerrell looked resigned.

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