Shakespeare's Trollop Page 20

After I'd written a brief list of needed supplies and stuck it to the refrigerator (the granddaughter would pick it up and take it to the store) I perched on the edge of Laquanda's chair set close to the bed. She'd carefully angled it so she could see the front door, the television, and Mrs. Jepperson, all in a single sweeping glance.

I'd thought Mrs. Jepperson was still asleep, but after a minute she opened her eyes. Narrowed by drooping, wrinkled lids, her eyes were dark brown and cloudy, and since her eyebrows and eyelashes were almost invisible she looked like some old reptile in the sun.

"She's really not so bad," Mrs. Jepperson told me, in a dry, rustling voice that increased her resemblance to a reptile. "She just talks to keep her spirits up. Her job is so boring." And the old woman gave a faint smile that had the traces of a formidable charm lingering around the edges.

I couldn't think of any response.

Mrs. Jepperson looked at me with greater attention.

"You're the housecleaner," she said, as if she'd just slapped a label on my forehead.


"Your name is ... ?"

"Lily Bard."

"Are you married, Lily?" Mrs. Jepperson seemed to feel obliged to be social.


My employer seemed to ponder that. "I was married for forty-five years," she said after a pause.

"A long time."

"Yep. I couldn't stand him for the last thirty-five of them."

I made a strangled noise that was actually an attempt to stifle a snort of laughter.

"You all right, young woman?"

"Yes ma'am. I'm fine."

"My children and grandchildren hate me talking like this," Mrs. Jepperson said in her leisurely way. Her narrow brown eyes coasted my way to give me a close examination. "But that's the luxury of outliving your husband. You get to talk about him all you want."

"I never thought of that."

"Here I am, talking," she said undeniably. "He had an eye for other women. I'm not saying he ever actually did anything about it, but he looked aplenty. He liked stupid women."

"Then he made a mistake."

She laughed herself, after a second of thinking that through. Even her laughter had a dry and rustling sound. "Yes, he did," she said, still amused. "He did right well in the lumber business, left me enough to last out my lifetime without me having to go teach school or do some other fool thing I wasn't meant to do. 'Course, I had to run the business after he died. But I already knew a lot, and I learned more right smart."

"I guess you know who owns all the land hereabouts, since you were in lumber." It occurred to me I had a valuable source of information right here in front of me.

She looked at me, a little surprised. "I did. I used to."

"You know Birdie Rossiter, widow of M. T. Rossiter?"

"Audie Rossiter's daughter-in-law?"

"Right. Know where she lives?"

"Audie gave them that land. They built right off of Farm Hill Road."

"That's right."

"What about it?"

"There's a few acres of woods right outside the city limits sign, just south of the road."

"Hasn't been built on yet?" Mrs. Jepperson said. "That's a surprise. Less than half a mile past the city limits, yes?"

I nodded. Then, afraid she couldn't make that out, I said, "Yes."

"You want to know who that belongs to?"

"Yes, ma'am. If you know."

"You could go the county clerk's office, look it up."

"It's easier to ask you."

"Hmm." She looked at me, thinking. "I believe that land belongs to the Prader family," she said finally. "Least, it did up until maybe five years ago."

"You were working up till then?" I figured Mrs. Jepperson was in her late eighties.

"Didn't have nothing else to do. I'd make those men I hired ride me around. Let 'em know I was checking on what they were doing. You can believe I kept them on their toes. They need to keep on earning money for those worthless great-grandchildren of mine." She smiled, and if I needed another clue that she didn't really think her great-grandchildren were worthless, I got it then.

"Joe C Prader owns that land?"

"Sure does, if I remember correctly. He lets his family and friends hunt on it. Joe C's even older'n me, so he may not have any friends left. He didn't have a whole lot to start with."

Mrs. Jepperson fell asleep without any warning. It was so alarming that I checked her breathing, but she was fine as far as I could tell. Laquanda came in soon afterward and checked on the old lady too. She'd dropped her daughter off at home with instructions to take some Emetrol and ginger ale and go to bed.

"She okay while I was gone?" Laquanda asked.

"Fine. We had a conversation," I reported.

"You? And Miz Jepperson? I wish I coulda heard that," Laquanda said skeptically. "This lady knows everything, and I mean everything, about Shakespeare. At least about the white folks, and a lot of the blacks, too. But she doesn't share it, no sir. She keeps her mouth shut."

I shrugged and gathered my things together. If I'd asked her about old scandals and personalities, I wouldn't have gotten the same cooperation I'd gotten in asking about land. Land was business. People weren't.

When I got back to my house to eat lunch, I had a message on my answering machine from Becca. She'd thought of a couple of bills that would come due while she was gone, and wanted to leave checks with me to cover them. After I'd eaten a tuna sandwich, brushed my teeth, and checked my makeup, I still had thirty minutes until my next appointment, so I decided to oblige.

There was a pickup truck backed in toward the rear door of the apartment building. It was half-full of boxes. Separated from Lacey or not, Jerrell was helping to empty the apartment. He wasn't anywhere in sight, so I assumed he was up in Deedra's place.

Anthony answered Becca's door. He looked as though he'd just stepped out of the shower and pulled on his clothes.

"Becca here?" I asked.

"Sure, come on in. Pretty day, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"She'll be right out. She's in the shower. We've been running," he explained.

I finally sat down to wait when a moment or two didn't produce Becca. I thought I heard the bathroom door open at one point, but if she'd peeked out she'd gone right back in. Becca was a high-maintenance woman. Her brother kept up his end of the small-talk convention with considerable determination, but I was glad when Becca showed and we could both give up. Anthony didn't seem to want to talk about anything but his experiences with the prisoners he counseled. He was on the verge of sounding obsessed, I thought.

Becca emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a robe. Even fresh from the shower, she was groomed.

"Lily," she said, surprised to see me. "When did you get here?"

"About ten minutes ago," I said.

"You should have called me," Becca told Anthony, punching him in the shoulder. "I could have hurried."

I waited for her to work her way around to the reason she'd wanted me to come over. She had arranged for the bank to send me a check for the building maintenance, and she assured me the checks would keep arriving until she returned to town and rescinded the order. She'd arranged for the utilities to be paid by automatic withdrawal, and she'd included extra in my check to pay for unexpected repairs.

Then I noticed that Anthony Whitley was looking at me a little too long, making more of a response to everything I said than it was worth. Could Becca have asked me to come over because her brother had an attraction to me? Could that have been the reason for her prolonged stay in the bathroom? The idea made me very uneasy. Some women enjoy all the male attention shown them. I am not one of those women.

I gradually worked my way out of the conversation and closer to the door. I had it half-open when Becca asked me if I had the tapes from Deedra's apartment. I nodded, and kept right on inching out of the apartment.

"If you come across a tape I'm in, would you please let me know?" Becca asked.

I stared at her, thinking of the kind of home movies Deedra had made. "Sure," I said. "But I've almost finished looking at them, and you weren't in a one. Remember, I had to go through them for Marlon?"

Becca looked puzzled. "That's funny. I borrowed Deedra's camera to tape myself doing the first five katas so I could see what I was doing wrong. When I returned it, I'm afraid I left the tape in the camera. I wondered if it was up there."

She looked so sincere. I was perplexed. Was she covering up in front of her brother, not wanting to say that she and Deedra had engaged in some girl-girl activities? Or was she serious about filming her katas so she could improve her form?

"The sheriff opened the camera and it was empty. If I come across a tape featuring you, I'll bring it over," I told her, covering all the bases. That made a good closing line, so I shut the door and turned to leave the building. I glanced down at my watch. I would be late for my next appointment if I didn't hurry.

When I looked up, there was a large, angry man standing in my way.

Jerrell Knopp looked twice as big and three times as mean when he was angry, and he was very, very upset.

"Lily, why you stickin' your nose in somebody's business?" he asked furiously.

I shook my head. This was my day for confusion. What could I have done to Jerrell?

"You gone and told the police about that day I fought with Deedra, that day the boy wrote on her car."

"I did no such thing," I said promptly.

Jerrell didn't expect that. He looked at me suspiciously.

"You shittin' me, girl?" He'd certainly taken off the polite face he wore around his wife.

"I would never," I told him.

"Someone told the police that I fought with Deedra. Would you consider that morning as fighting? I told her a few home truths that she needed to hear from someone, sure enough, but as far as fighting... hell, no!"

That was true enough. He'd told his stepdaughter quite bluntly that she needed to keep her pants on, and she especially needed to be discreet if she was sleeping with a man of another color. He'd also, if I was remembering correctly, told her she was nothing but a whore who didn't get paid.

"I didn't tell anyone about that morning," I repeated.

"Then how come the police know about it? And why the hell did Lacey just pack my bag and tell me to go to a motel?" Jerrell's face, rugged and aging and handsome, crinkled in baffled anger.

The sheriff's department could only have found out from someone else who'd been in the apartment building at the time the quarrel had occurred. My money would be on Becca. Voices had been raised, and she lived right below Deedra. But I had my own idea about why Lacey had told Jerrell to move out. "Maybe Lacey'd heard that you slept with Deedra before you started dating her," I suggested. This was strictly a stab in the dark, but it looked like I'd hit an artery. Jerrell went white. I saw him sway as if I'd struck him. If he got any shakier, I'd have to grab hold of him so he wouldn't fall, and I didn't want to do that. I just plain didn't like Jerrell Knopp, any more than he liked me.

"Who's been saying that?" he asked me, in a choked voice that made me more worried about him than I wanted to be.

I shrugged. While he was thinking of more words, I was walking away.

I was sure he wouldn't follow me, and I was right.

There was a message on my answering machine when I returned home about five o'clock. Jump Farraclough, Claude's second-in-command, wanted me to come to the police station to sign my statement about the night I'd pulled Joe C from his house, and he wanted to ask me a few more questions. I'd forgotten all about signing the statement; too much had happened. I replayed the message, trying to read Jump's voice. Did he sound hostile? Did he sound suspicious?

I was reluctant to go to the police station. I wanted to erase the traces of Deedra Dean from my life, I wanted to think about Jack coming to live with me, I wanted to read or work out - anything, rather than answer questions. I performed a series of unnecessary little tasks to postpone answering Jump's summons.

But you don't ignore something you're told to do by the police, at least if you want to keep living and working in a small town.

Shakespeare's police station was housed in a renovated ranch-style house right off Main Street. The old police station, a squat redbrick building right in front of the jail, had been condemned. While Shakespeareans balked over raising the money to build a new station, the town police were stuck in this clumsily converted house about a block from the courthouse. This particular house had formerly been the perquisite of the jailer, since it backed onto the jail.

I came in quietly and peered over the counter to the left. The door to Claude's office was closed and the window in it was dark, so Claude hadn't yet come back to work, or maybe he'd left early. I didn't like that at all.

An officer I didn't know was on desk duty. She was a narrow-faced blonde with crooked teeth and down-slanting, tobacco-colored eyes. After taking my name, she sauntered to the partitioned rear of the big central room. Then she sauntered back, waving a hand to tell me I should come behind the counter.

Jump Farraclough was waiting in his own cubbyhole, marked out with gray carpeted panels, and the fire chief was with him. Frank Parrish looked better than he had the last time I'd seen him in his working clothes, sweating in their heat and streaked with smoke from Joe C's fire, but he didn't seem any happier. In fact, he looked downright uncomfortable.

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