by Lorie Lewis Ham
Lorie has been singing gospel music and writing since childhood. Her first song and poem were published when she was 13 and she has gone on to publish many articles, short stories and poems throughout the years as well as write for a local newspaper. Lorie continues to sing and her mystery novels are set here in the San Joaquin Valley, with five of the six featuring gospel singer Alexandra Walters.
Police and reserve officers cleared the scene and enclosed the area with police tape. Detective Reagan knelt beside the body, his large frame shadowing Toews. Off to the side, a female officer was trying to comfort the widow. The parade, to my surprise, seemed to be continuing. Only those in the park knew that anything had happened. Reagan stood up, looked around, then waved us over.
Stephen and I ducked under the tape.
“What’s up, Bill?” asked Stephen.
“Looks like a stabbing. We’ve called the coroner. Our office isn’t equipped for this type of emergency in a crowd this size and we could use some help. I’m going to have a couple of my officers take statements in the ice cream booth.” He took a deep breath, then continued, obviously overwhelmed. Murder wasn’t common in this small town.
“Stephen, could you round up the group in the immediate area and herd them over to those picnic tables over yonder there? Mike, I need you to go to the P.A. booth and ask anyone who might have seen something to please report to the ice cream booth to talk to the police. Parade should pretty much be winding up now. And ask that anyone not involved please go home. Then maybe you can help take statements — use what I taught you in that investigation class at the college this summer.”
Bill taught a class in Administration of Justice now and then at the local college. Out of curiosity, I took one. It was fun; I’d always had an interest in police work and loved mysteries but never thought I’d be putting that knowledge to use.
We nodded in agreement, then set about our duties. I walked the block to the grandstand and climbed up. The end of the parade was just going past and I wondered what I had missed. Surely, there had been something more exciting than what I’d seen.
“Hey, Kevin, I need to announce something. Police matter.”
Never one to let anything shake him, he nodded and handed me the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Pastor Mike Raffles. I need your attention please.” Suddenly there was silence, and I felt butterflies in my stomach. Being a small church pastor, I’d never had such a large audience.
“There has been an accident in the park over by the Happy Mouth booth. We need anyone with any information to report to the ice cream booth to speak with the police. Everyone else, please go home, as orderly as possible. No one is in any danger, but the Fiesta must close down for the investigation. You can check back later today to see if they are allowed to reopen.”
Most of the people were remarkably calm and began to walk towards the various parking areas around downtown. I gave the microphone back to Kevin.
“Wonder if Jim got all that on the air? Bet the listeners didn’t expect anything like this. What happened?”
I hesitated, then decided it couldn’t do any harm. “I’m afraid your boss has been murdered.”
At this, Kevin merely raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and said, “It was bound to happen one of these days.”
That had been one of my first thoughts too, though I hated to admit it. “Why would you say something like that?”
“He was a tyrant to work for, a horrible landlord — even most of his family either despised him, were afraid of him, or couldn’t wait for him to croak so they could inherit.”
“Anyone in particular?”
Kevin shook his head, and reached for his headphones. “Not really. I wish the police luck. They’ll have a difficult time narrowing the list of suspects.”
Kingsbury was a nice, quiet town. It didn’t need a long, drawn out murder investigation to tear it apart, so I hoped he was wrong. I found myself in the unenviable position of having information about possible suspects but I couldn’t believe Dorian, Alex, or the Martinezes would be capable of stabbing someone in the back.
My main job done, I headed to the ice cream stand where Stephen was helping with the interviewing. I stood back and listened, hoping to hear something that would be of help. Not that I doubted Stephen’s abilities, but a second brain couldn’t hurt. I didn’t feel one class made me qualified to actually do the interviewing at such a crucial stage of the investigation.
“Well, I think your best bet is that Martinez kid. He’s been arrested before you know, nothing but a troublemaker. I’m surprised he hasn’t robbed our offering plates yet. Don’t know why Pastor Raffles brought him to work at the church.”
It took all of my self-control not to share a few choice words with Mrs. Jacobs, one of my parishioners. I knew there had been some resistance to the church helping out troubled kids, but I had no idea they’d be this petty. Eddie had never done anything wrong since working for us. He was a good kid who’d just let himself get led astray by his peers. The prejudice in this town was really beginning to get to me.
I glared at Mrs. Jacob’s back as she walked away. I could just imagine the smug look she probably had on her round face. Another of my parishioners took her place. I felt certain this gentleman would have kinder words; after all, he was one of my deacons. I strained to listen to Mr. Matthews’ soft voice as he leaned closer to Stephen.
Before speaking, Matthews looked around and I wondered why. “I think it’s the Martinez people. Heard them arguing with Mr. Toews last night.”
“Did you hear what it was about?” Stephen queried, copying Matthews’ whisper.
Matthews shook his head. “Nope, I just know they didn’t look too happy with each other. And I think I saw a Mexican running off after Toews got killed.”
“Was it Eddie, or his parents?” prodded Stephen as he scribbled notes.
“Don’t know for sure, they all look alike.”
I cringed and felt ill. At that moment, I wanted to kick my congregation to the curb and start over. Now I knew where Josh got his attitude. I had no idea such bigotry was practiced right in my own church. But I did have the beginnings of a dandy idea for Sunday morning’s sermon stirring within me.
“After you give an officer your name and phone number you can go home. We have the murderer in custody,” I heard Reagan say to Matthews before walking back toward the body.
Straining to see over the crowd, I wondered if I knew the killer. My heart sank as I saw Eddie, with his hands cuffed behind his back. I just couldn’t believe it.
I pushed my way through the crowd and stopped in front of Detective Reagan. “Why are you arresting Eddie? He’s not a killer.”
Reagan frowned and held up an item in a plastic bag. “This was sticking out of Reagan’s back. Recognize it?”
My heart sank. It was Eddie’s knife, no question about it. His father had made it himself and given it to Eddie when he turned sixteen. Pretty much everyone in town who knew Eddie knew about the knife. I’d seen him use it for opening boxes in the back of the ice cream shop.
“I’m going with him.”
“Suit yourself,” said Reagan.
I made my way to the patrol car they were putting Eddie into. “Eddie, I’ll get you a good lawyer. This will all be okay.”
Eddie didn’t look up and I was ashamed that the slightest bit of doubt entered my mind. Surely, I couldn’t have been wrong about the boy. But then, what better motive than to protect his family from losing the business they’d worked so hard to build.
“Help me know how to help him, Lord,” I whispered as I went to find Stephen. In his line of work, he must know a good criminal lawyer. I planned to take up a special offering on Sunday to help pay the attorney fees. I refused to believe my entire congregation was made up of bigots.
I scanned the crowd but didn’t see Stephen so I pulled out my cell and dialed his number.
“Hey, Heathen Boy, they arrested Eddie and I need the name of a good lawyer. And where are you?”
He laughed. “Got a call on a case, had to run as soon as Reagan was done with me. Sorry, was going to text when I got a chance. Hang on a minute. Got a pen and paper?”
As a preacher and a reporter, I always had paper and pen. “Let me have it.”
“His name is Paul Unruh. Best criminal lawyer in town and a good man.”
Stephen gave me the number, and I scribbled it down before speaking again. “You coming back to the park?”
“Yep. Thought I’d poke around a little and see if the cops missed anything important in this mess.”
“Thanks. Keep me posted.”
“Will do, Preacher Boy. Now go get that boy lawyered up.”
I called Unruh and was surprised that he answered himself. Not surprisingly, he’d been at the parade and already knew a little about what had happened. “I’ll head right over to the station. I’m just a block away.”
I hung up and decided to go on over myself, but it took me longer than I liked to make my way through the booths and the thinning crowd. When I entered the lobby, Eddie’s parents were waiting inside.
“Pastor Mike, thank you for coming,” said Miguel as he took my hand in both of his and squeezed it tightly.
“Of course I’m here. Has the lawyer shown up yet?”
Miguel’s hands dropped to his side and he looked down at his worn, leather boots. “We can’t afford a lawyer, Padre.”
Before I could argue with him, a man burst through the doors. He was small, bald, and just a bit chubby. He wore an old brown suit that looked as though he’d purchased it right out of the Sears catalog twenty years ago. This couldn’t be Stephen’s great lawyer.
“You must be Pastor Mike. Paul Unruh here.” He reached out a hand and I took it. His grip was surprisingly firm.
He turned his attention to the Martinezes before I could say anything. “Don’t worry about your son. I’ll take good care of him.”
Before they could protest, Unruh brushed past us to the front desk. “Harry, I understand you have a client of mine back there. Hope you’re not questioning him without representation.”
“Only one back there, Paulie, is a Mexican kid. Killed somebody at the Fiesta.”
I was now at Unruh’s side and noticed him frown. “That young man is Mr. Eddie Martinez and he is my client. Buzz me through.”
Harry obeyed instantly. I was impressed; perhaps there was more to this man than it appeared. Now I was back to waiting.
“Can I get you some coffee or something? Or better yet, why don’t we all go to Na Vanilla?”
“That would be nice,” said Mrs. Martinez. She looked glad for the distraction.
Miguel seemed to hesitate. “We should be here when the lawyer comes back.”
“I’ll give them my cell number, and we can be back here within minutes.”
The Na Vanilla was a coffee shop just around the corner. It was a converted Southern-style home with a big front wrap-around porch. On warmer days, the porch was covered with picnic tables so customers could enjoy the weather with their coffee.
We ordered house coffee and took a table next to a brick fireplace in the back corner. A fired crackled in the hearth, which felt nice since the sky had begun clouding up and there was now a slight chill in the air.
Mrs. Martinez cradled her cup in her hands and tears began to slide down her cheeks. “Do you think they’ll let him go home?”
I desperately wanted to comfort her but couldn’t lie. “I honestly don’t know. But Mr. Unruh is supposed to be very good at his job.”
“My poor baby.” She wiped the tears away with the back of her hand as Miguel reached out to take her other hand in his.
“He is a strong boy.”
My cell phone rang, breaking the ensuing silence. “Hello.”
“You still at the coffee shop?” asked Unruh.
“Yes, but we can come back over.”
“No, you stay there. I’ll come to you.” He hung up before I could say anything more.
I slipped my cell phone into my pocket. “That was Mr. Unruh. He’s on his way over here to talk to us.”
They tried to smile, but barely turned up the corners their mouths. I admired them. They had come to Kingsbury from Mexico ten years ago and spent many years working in the fields until they had enough money to open the shop. They even learned English and obtained their U.S. citizenship.
Unruh bustled through the door and took a seat at our table, a smile lighting up his face. “First off, Eddie is fine. I’m hoping I can get him out tomorrow, but only if they don’t charge him as a juvenile because of the seriousness of the crime. It would be bad for him if they charge him as an adult and he is found guilty, but good for us now because he’d get bail. Either way, I have no doubt we’ll prove him innocent,” said Unruh with a confidence that was comforting.
“If charged as an adult,” he continued, “bail is automatically set in California. It’s high but, if we get lucky enough to get bail, I’ll cover it. I know he’s not going to run.” Unruh’s gaze didn’t waver as he said this; he truly believed in Eddie.
He got up briefly and got a cup of coffee, then returned to his seat. “You have an excellent reputation in this town and you can’t discount how much difference that makes. If I get him released, it will be into your custody and you have to promise me he’ll stay with you until this is straightened out.”
“Good. Sometimes young men get all worked up about things and get themselves into more trouble. The police have his knife, but right now that’s all they have. I’ve hired Stephen Carlucci to investigate for us. Hope that’s okay.”
Miguel shook his head. “We already told Pastor Mike that we couldn’t afford all of this.”
Unruh seemed to study on that for a minute. “Tell ya what. The lawyer business is getting pretty old. I need something new. Give me twenty percent ownership in your shop, with the provision that I’ll be a silent partner but can have all the ice cream I can eat, and that should cover my fees just fine. Deal?” He reached a hand out to Miguel.
For the first time since the police had taken Eddie away, they really smiled. Mr. Martinez took the offered hand and shook it with vigor. “You have a deal, Senior Unruh.”
I was amazed. This man was not only helping them at his own expenses, but he’d managed to save their pride. I prayed he would be just as good at proving Eddie’s innocence.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003