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.
By the time we finished our lunch, it was nearly dinnertime and the park was beginning to hum with activity.
Ready to take on the task of the food booths, I stood up. Then it hit me that I hadn’t told anyone about the arguments I’d overheard.
“Stephen, I have some info you need and should have Paul pass on to the PD. I overheard Toews threatening Alec Stanford that he was going to put a halt to the skate park if he didn’t make his past due payment on the property. And I’m pretty sure he was serving Dorian with eviction papers for the youth center.”
He pulled out his notebook and made notes as I offered a few more details. When I finished, I bid my companions goodbye and went to investigate. I pulled my Fiesta guide from my pocket and decided to start at one end of the park and go to the other.
The first booth I came to was the Veterans Association hot dog booth. It was more of a food truck with the Veterans Association banner hanging on the side. I walked up to the order window and since I wasn’t in the mood for a hot dog, I just ordered a Pepsi. “So, how’s business since you opened back up?”
“Not bad, but we really lost a lot from having to close down at lunchtime,” answered a man who looked to be in his seventies.
“Did the police question you?”
“Yep. Didn’t have nothing to say though. Didn’t really see anything since I’m way down here, and I really didn’t know Toews. Seemed a nice enough sort though.”
The fact that people seemed to like talking about tragedies was going to make my task easier. People also seemed more willing to talk to a preacher in most cases.
Another man walked up to the booth and I moved aside. It was Alec Stanford. “Heard you talkin’ about the murder,” he offered after ordering a hot dog.
“Yep,” said the older man. “I’ve never been so close to anything like that before. Doesn’t make me feel too good knowing a murderer is lurking around town.”
Stanford took a big bite of the hot dog. “Don’t have to worry about that,” he mumbled. “They caught the kid who did it. Seems Toews was trying to evict his family from their ice cream shop. Not surprised; he tried to boot me out a couple months ago just because I was a week late on my rent payment. Man got what he deserved.”
Curious why he hadn’t mentioned last night’s fight with Toews, I played innocent. “What shop do you have?”
“Bike shop. Just a couple blocks down. I hear you ride a bike most of the time, Pastor Mike. Come on down sometime and I’ll give you a good deal on a new one. Much better than that old thing you ride.”
I was beginning to realize everyone knowing your business was part of living in a small town. “Sorry, have we met?”
He swallowed, and then laughed. “Henry Russell is my uncle. He talks about you all the time and pointed you out to me once when you were riding your bike downtown.” Now that I realized the connection, the resemblance was obvious. Despite the difference in age, Alec possessed the same snow-white hair and twinkle in his green eyes.
“You should come on over and visit us one of these Sundays,” I said.
“You come on over and visit my shop too.”
That actually sounded like a good idea; I was overdue for a new bike.
“I hear you’re building a skate park.”
Stanford’s face lit up and I could tell I had hit on his pet subject. “Come on over to my booth and buy some raffle tickets. The money goes towards the park and the winner gets a new bike.”
“I’ll do that. The park sounds like a good idea — kids around here need more places to go where they can have fun and feel safe. How did Toews feel about the park?”
The twinkle vanished from his eyes as he wiped the last bit of mustard from his equally white mustache. “Toews thought it would bring the wrong sort of people into the neighborhood. The plans are to build it over by Harris Park on the west side of town, right next to the junior high. He lives, lived, in that area.”
“I’ve been over there. Did he live in that section of really nice old homes across from the park?”
Stanford nodded and began to walk towards his booth and I followed, hoping to learn more.
“Who did he think were the wrong sort?”
“Anyone who wasn’t white. Haven’t you heard of the All American Club? He was the head honcho. They’ve been blocking anything they felt might bring down the value of their property and their town for the last forty years. I don’t think they ever heard of the civil rights movement.”
I had heard mention of this club, but only as a civic club that appeared to be involved in charity work. This side of the club surprised me. We were at the bike booth now so he handed me a raffle ticket for which I gave him a couple of bucks.
From there I moved on to the ice cream booth which was of course closed, the cinnamon roll booth, the taco booth, the popcorn booth, and more booths than I wanted to remember by the time I was through. I felt like I was going to be ill.
Every story I heard fit into one of three categories. Some didn’t even know the man, but thought he seemed nice. He was parade marshal twice in a row after all. Others said he was the most despicable man they’d ever known. He cheated people, lied, kicked people out of their businesses without a moment’s hesitation and was just downright awful. This last group included anyone I talked to who had ever worked with or for him. And then there were those who went to church with the man and had been on the receiving end of more pleasant business deals. They thought he was a brilliant businessman and faithful church member. I made a note to myself to never accept someone into our church membership just because they had money, no matter how much my little church needed it.
Those who talked about the Martinez family generally fell into two different categories; those who thought they were the finest, most upstanding people on earth, and those who lumped all Hispanics into one disreputable group. It was all I could do to hold my tongue while listening to them spew bigotry. But I was gathering more and more ammo for my Sunday sermon. Then I would not hold my tongue.
Hearing a now familiar voice by the taco booth, I stopped to listen. Normally, I tried not to eavesdrop but this wasn’t an ordinary situation.
“Not surprised it was one of those Mexican kids that offed old man Toews. You know, that leaves pretty little Glenda without a boyfriend again,” said Josh.
“You don’t want her back, she doesn’t know enough to stick to her own kind. She’s been dirtied,” said another one of the boys in Josh’s group. My skin crawled.
Josh shrugged. “Maybe I can straighten her out. We used to make a great pair.”
I was shocked that Glenda had once dated Josh, but figured he had blown it out of proportion. Perhaps they’d never really gone out at all. I’d have to warn Glenda, perhaps even the chief. She didn’t need grief from someone like Josh, especially now.
From there, I decided to look for Dorian but failed to find her. The young redhead operating the bounce house didn’t provided any helpful information.
Unfortunately, I found no other good suspects, unless of course I wanted to consider half the town suspects. I glanced at my watch. It was already seven. The booths were beginning to close down, so I headed over to the radio station to see what I could learn about Toews’ nephew, Cecil.
Radio station KKNG was only a short bike ride from the park. It was housed in one of the many old brick buildings in town. When I arrived, the place was so quiet it was almost eerie. I went to the back door which always remained unlocked until ten p.m. each night.
Only two cars were still in the parking lot. A little navy blue Ford pickup I recognized as belonging to the janitor, Chuck Martin. The other was that of Kevin Adams who was working the graveyard shift in Jim Barrow’s place because Jim had covered for Kevin when he broadcast the parade that morning. I hoped Kevin had gone home and slept some after the parade.
I went inside and followed the brown indoor/outdoor carpet to the production studio. The red recording light was on which meant that Kevin was on the air, so I went to find Chuck.
The door to Toews’ office was open and I went inside to find Chuck dusting the furniture. He wore gray overalls and a baseball cap proudly adorned with the station’s call letters. Chuck was very proud to be the one who cleaned up around the station. He’d told me often that they were his favorite clients. Not because of Toews but because he had a secret desire to be a radio announcer, and some of the guys let him try his hand at doing little things like pushing buttons and telling the weather at midnight.
A black armband encircled Chuck’s left forearm. The news had apparently made it this far. “Hey, Chuck, how are you?”
He looked up from his work and stuck his feather duster in one of his back pockets. “Fine, Pastor Mike. You?”
“Fine. Like to offer my condolences on today’s tragedy.”
Chuck frowned, turning his gray mustache upside down. “Can’t believe he’s gone.”
“Were you friends with Mr. Toews?”
He shook his head. “Oh no, Sir. In fact, I only met him a couple of times. When he hired me, and once when he had to come out in the middle of the night because everything was going haywire ’round here.”
“Did he seem like a nice man?”
Chuck hesitated, as if he hated to speak ill of the dead. “I… I suppose so.” He turned his attention back to dusting. “But some folks didn’t like him. Never did anything bad to me though.”
I sat down on an old brown leather couch near the door. You’d have thought a man with his money would buy new furniture for his office, this one was quite warn. “Chuck, a young man has been charged with Mr. Toews’ murder, but he didn’t do it so I’m trying to find out who might have had a reason to kill him. I know you don’t like to say anything bad about anyone, but you could save this young man’s life. If you know anything…”
The big man perched on the corner of a large, well-worn oak desk that was covered with scratches and creaked under his weight. I hadn’t noticed the bad condition of this office when I’d come to speak with Toews. “If it helps some kid, I suppose…”
“Suppose what, Chuck?”
“Well, Jim didn’t like Mr. Toews very much. Ya see, he’s kept him on graveyard for ten years. He can’t get no big break buried here. Least that’s what he tells me.”
“Why do you think Toews would do that to Jim?” I knew what Jim had told me, but was curious whether Chuck’s story would confirm that.
“Jim says Mr. Toews didn’t like him because Jim was creative. But I hear tell that Jim was using station equipment for personal use and, one night, Toews caught him. Was madder than a hornet too. Jim’s goose was cooked after that.”
“Why didn’t Jim leave?”
“Radio jobs are hard to come by these days. That’s the only reason I’m still cleaning offices.” His round face lit up. “What I really want to do is be a DJ, did I ever tell ya that?”
I smiled. “Yes, I think you have.”
“Hey there, stop bothering the help,” came a familiar, smooth voice behind me.
“Hey there, Kevin. Thought I’d stop by and see if you had a clue what’s going to happen to this place with Toews gone.”
“Didn’t you know? The brat’s taking over as of tomorrow morning.” Kevin was taking advantage of working the graveyard shift by wearing faded, torn jeans and a faded yellow little league shirt.
“The one and only. I imagine we’ll all be looking for work within the month.”
“You think he’ll close the station?”
“Oh no. It makes money. But he’ll fire all of the seasoned board operators and hire a bunch of punk kids for minimum wage. Make more money that way. That’s one thing I can say for old Mr. Toews, he cared about the quality of what went over the air. We may not be making much but we’re probably getting better than most in the radio business these days. Unless you’re a star of course. Eventually, I’m sure he’ll go automated. Most stations are these days.”
“Wonder if I’ll get to keep my program?”
“Your program has appeal. Young, single minister.” He laughed. “He won’t cut you but he may raise your rates. So watch out.”
“Thanks for the warning,” I said, as I got up from the couch. My stomach was telling me it was time to meet Stephen and Lola for pizza. Couldn’t believe I was hungry again. Perhaps Stephen was right.
“No problem.” Kevin’s laugh echoed in the empty hallways. “Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will do the same thing to Cecil they did to his uncle.”
“Kevin, that’s mean.”
“I suppose, but can’t help feeling that way. I’m afraid Cecil may be worse than his uncle. The only winner in this game is Cecil, and maybe Jim.”
“He and Cecil grew up together. Jim’s probably the only one here who won’t get canned. Who knows, maybe he’ll even be made station manager. Wouldn’t that be a kick after all these years on graveyard?”
“Yes, it sure would.” It’d also make a nice little motive for murder.
“Hey, have you met the new intern?” asked Kevin.
“Just wait until you do.” His peppered mustache turned down in a frown. “He doesn’t do anything. Spoiled brat. Just got the job because of who he is, not because he’s qualified or even interested.”
Somehow, I had a feeling I knew exactly who the new intern was but asked anyhow. “Who is it?”
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003