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.
Before leaving the station, I asked Kevin when Jim would be working again. He said Jim wouldn’t be back until tomorrow night’s graveyard shift. I intended to come back and talk with him, though I didn’t seriously consider him a suspect since he’d been at the station when Toews was stabbed. But he might be able to offer some insight about Cecil.
I pulled my bike over to a bench in front of a little grocery store next to the station and dialed Lola’s cell number.
“Hello,” answered the sweetest voice I’d ever heard.
“Hi there, Babe. How about giving this poor old preacher boy a ride to Stephen’s apartment? Don’t think I’m up for riding my bike all the way to Donlyn.” Stephen lived in a neighboring town about a ten-minute drive away, but a much longer bike ride.
She giggled. “The exercise wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Are you implying that I’m out of shape?”
Her giggles became louder and she almost couldn’t talk. “Where do I pick you up, tubby?”
I was afraid her giggles were going to be contagious, and that wouldn’t be appropriate behavior for a minister, or a man. At least not where his lady could hear, since she’d never let me hear the end of it. “I’m at the little market by the station. But I can meet you somewhere if you’re not ready yet.”
“No, that’s fine. We’ve almost finished packing up the booth; I’m sure they won’t mind if I leave. See you in five.”
It only took five minutes or less to get anywhere in Kingsbury, which was something I was glad of considering my mode of transportation. Eventually, I hoped to make enough from my newspaper work to pay for a cheap car but, in the meantime, I really didn’t mind cycling. It helped me keep in shape. Especially with all of the eating I’d been doing lately.
Thoughts of the Kingsbury News reminded me that I should call in. I dialed my boss’s cell number. No-one ever stayed after hours at our little paper unless it was deadline day. We did well just having enough news to put out a weekly issue.
“Yeah,” answered the gruff voice of my boss, Bill Miller.
“Hey there, Bill, I’ll try and have my copy on the parade by tomorrow morning.”
“Who gives a rip about the parade? I want some copy on the murder. You were there, weren’t you?”
Bill was the sort of person you couldn’t help egging on. “I thought you wanted a story on the parade so I just kept watching it. Didn’t want to miss a detail.”
I heard Bill take a long, deep breath. He’d been going to anger management classes at the urging of his wife. I was sure he was counting to ten. I spared him any more worry.
“Just kidding. I can get you some copy on the murder but there’s not much to tell yet. I’m following up on it though. If I can get you a really good story, think you could finagle a bonus of some sort?”
“Didn’t the Mexican kid do it?”
Now it was time for me to take a deep breath. Why was it that so many people referred to Mexican people just by their race, like they were somehow all alike and that was enough of a description? I couldn’t imagine someone describing Toews as that German guy who got stabbed. “The police took Eddie in, but I’m sure he didn’t do it. I intend to prove it.”
“Get some sort of story to run in this week’s paper and a short thing on the parade to go with Andy’s photos.” Andy was our staff photographer. “I think you’re chasing your tail on the other stuff but, if you do happen to come up with something, I might be able to give you some sort of bonus. Sure would be the biggest story this paper’s had in years. Keep me posted, kid. Got it? Don’t want to be left out of the loop. Call me as soon as you have something.”
“Sure thing, Chief.”
His growl seemed to vibrate the phone. I got a kick out of talking to him like Jimmy Olsen on Superman, and he hated it. He’d always grumbled that newspapers weren’t really run that way. I always reminded him Superman was fiction, after all, there weren’t really any supermen flying around in red capes. It there were, I could use one now.
It probably wasn’t very pastorly to tease my boss but it was just too hard to resist teasing a teddy bear that tried to masquerade as a lion.
I hung up just as Lola pulled up in her little white Nissan Sentra. She honked and I pulled my bike over to her car. With a little creativity, we managed to get it into her back seat with the windows rolled down. We dropped the bike off at my apartment by the Kings River and headed over to Stephen’s.
“How did the rest of the Fiesta go?” I asked.
“The park was packed. I’m not sure if they were there for the Fiesta or out of curiosity over the murder. This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day in Kingsbury.”
“I’m glad. Did your booth make any money?”
“Oh yes. We made about ten thousand dollars.”
“Wow, that much for quilts? That’s great.”
“We always do well wherever we sell our quilts. And the lovely thing is that the money all goes to help those in need. The MCC Quilt shop gives all of its earnings to MCC and they spend it to help those in disaster areas.”
“That’s awesome. What does MCC stand for? I know it’s Mennonite something or other.”
“Mennonite Central Committee. I could spend hours telling you about all the wonderful things they do. You should write an article on them.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said as we pulled up in front of Stephen’s place. It was a much nicer and newer complex than mine. He lived in a townhouse on the edge of Donlyn near the River.
We parked and walked past a two-story, baby blue building and its twin that sat behind it. In between the two buildings was a large swimming pool and Jacuzzi. I’d often wanted to take advantage of both, but just never got around to it.
I knocked on the door of apartment 221 B and Stephen quickly opened the door. He had specifically asked for an apartment with that number. We shared a love for Sherlock Holmes, and he had the money to be eccentric about it.
As many times as I had been inside his apartment, it never failed to amaze me how tidy it looked. It seemed more like a hotel suite than a place where someone actually lived. The living room was done in black and white with a big black overstuffed couch and white pillows, a black coffee table and two big black recliners. The carpet was white and the fireplace black, trimmed in gold. The first time Lola saw it, she’d gotten after me for not telling her how elegant it was but, honestly, until she pointed it out, I hadn’t noticed. To me, it just didn’t look lived in.
I wondered if my friend actually spent much time here. But there was a bookshelf that reached to the ceiling and was filled with good old mystery novels by Doyle, Sayers, Christie and Stout, so I assumed he at least did some reading here.
“Come on in, I’ll order pizza. Let’s see if I can remember this.” He smiled and Lola beamed. I was very glad I was secure in my relationship with her — Stephen could be a charmer. “Veggie for Lola, and everything for Mike and me.”
Lola nodded. Stephen always remembered the little details, which was something that seemed to impress women; I, on the other hand, was used to it.
Stephen had changed from his customary work clothes — an Italian suit — into a pair of jeans and an old black Los Angeles Kings hockey shirt. I’d never seen the Kings play and regretted not seeing Wayne Gretzky in action. We’d seen many hockey games when we lived in New Orleans and I was determined to make it to a Fresno Falcons game this season. Fresno was only thirty miles from Kingsbury.
I took a seat on the black couch. Lola sat next to me, adjusting the pillows to suit her. Stephen ordered the pizza then joined us, plopping down in one of the recliners. “Did you guys learn anything of interest?” he asked.
“Most people either hated Toews or thought he was the pillar of the community. I noticed though that the ones who thought he was a great man didn’t really know him. They were either business associates or members of his church,” said Lola.
“The cleaning guy at KKNG thinks Cecil is a good suspect,” I said, still trying to get comfortable on the couch. I preferred something a bit more solid.
“That seems to be a running theme.” Stephen reached over to retrieve his little red notepad from an oak end table and began making notes. “I’ll check on the nephew tomorrow. Anyone else?”
“Jim Barrows had a grudge, but he was on the air,” I offered.
Stephen continued to scribble notes. “Maybe he’s in it with someone else. Worth checking.”
“Chuck, the cleaning guy, did say that Jim and Cecil grew up together. Jim may be the only one to keep his job when Cecil takes over. He may even get moved up to station manager.”
“I’ve heard of worse motives. Is their cleaning guy Chuck Simpson?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s his name.”
He flicked the unruly lock of hair from his eyes with the end of his pen. “Good source of info. He cleans my office too. I’ll check both guys out, and the widow. That woman today did say Toews was an awful husband. Maybe she just couldn’t take it anymore; she was standing right by him when he was stabbed.”
“But how would she get Eddie’s knife?” asked Lola.
“Good question. Mike, why don’t you talk to Eddie and find out what his alibi is. Maybe his family too. It’d come better from you. Maybe you can find out if he’d lost his knife recently.”
Stephen was right. I pulled out my worn black notebook and made myself some notes.
“Don’t forget Alec Stanford and, I guess, Dorian.”
He shook his head and closed up the notebook. “I can’t imagine Dorian killing anyone. She’s one of Alex’s best friends. Alex would kill me if she knew I was investigating Dorian.”
“Alex was a reserve officer for six months, I think she’d understand.” With nothing more to add, I closed my notebook and set it on the coffee table.
The doorbell rang and I was surprised the time had passed so quickly. The aroma of pizza filled the townhouse and my stomach rumbled. We all must have been hungry as the next several minutes were filled with only the sound of chewing.
“When are we going to go through that garbage?” mumbled Stephen with a full mouth.
Lola and I groaned in unison. “Not while we’re eating,” she pleaded.
Stephen laughed. “Not tough enough to handle it, gal?”
Lola glared at him. She never backed away from a challenge.
“Watch it, Heathen Boy. She’ll do it just to prove to you she can.”
We finished the pizza over light chitchat. Stephen shared with us the case he had just wrapped up. He’d found out where a young girl was secretly meeting her boyfriend after school, against her parents wishes. The father had been grateful because the boy was a gang member. I didn’t envy the father’s job of trying to keep his daughter safe. It was a lot rougher being a kid these days than when Stephen and I were boys.
Not wanting to soil Stephen’s off-white carpet, after dinner, we took the garbage bags into the kitchen and sat down on the black and white checked linoleum.
Each of us took a bag and began to sift through it, taking out what looked interesting and putting anything else in another bag.
“Did you find out anything at the Fiesta?” I asked Stephen as we went about our disgusting chore.
He shook his head. “Pretty much just the same as you two. Nothing of any real help.”
For the next hour, we sorted the garbage and each ended up with our own little pile of possibly interesting items. We decided ladies should go first, so Lola placed her things in front of us.
A couple of gum wrappers, a hair ribbon and a parking ticket.
Stephen took out a couple of baggies. “I’ll put the wrappers in here just in case we find one of our suspects chews only a specific kind of gum.” He then picked up the hair ribbon and looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Our killer could be a woman and maybe this ribbon is unique in some way. We did put Mrs. Toews on our suspect list,” Lola argued.
I wasn’t convinced. “I doubt she wears hair ribbons.”
If looks could kill, Lola would have been arrested for murder and I would have been on my way to the coroner’s office in a body bag. I backed off. “Sorry, you’re right. Another bag for the ribbon, Stephen.”
“Maybe our killer is a bobbysoxer who had it out for anyone over forty,” offered Stephen with a grin.
Lola gave him a puzzled look and I laughed. “I think we’re getting old, Stephen. This poor child doesn’t know what bobbysoxers are.”
Stephen stuck the ribbon in a bag and we continued. “I’m not old. I just watch late night movies.”
I picked up the ticket and checked the name. “Pete Potznak. Doesn’t ring a bell for me but I’m new here. Wonder why his ticket was on the ground? Maybe we should return it to the police.”
Stephen shook his head. “I’ll copy it first, just in case that name ends up being significant. Then I can have David run a check on him. What else does the ticket say?”
“A lot. Whoa, didn’t know tickets had so much info. Been awhile since I’ve gotten one. Well, probably because I ride a bike.” They laughed. “He’s five foot ten, blue eyes, blond hair, hundred and eighty pounds. And it even gives his address in New York City. I’ve been told people come a long way for this parade, but this is ridiculous.”
I handed the ticket to Stephen, pointing out the address. Surely, this was more than enough for David to get us any info we might need on Pete Potznak if he turned out to be a suspect.
Next, we went through Stephen’s stack and found more seemingly useless items. We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere unless Lola’s hair ribbon theory ended up having some value or Potznak had come all the way out from New York to kill Toews. Then Stephen held up his last item. A pocket watch with the initials C.T. on it.
“Cecil Toews, maybe?” asked Lola.
“It’s possible. Of course, we already know he was there but, if this is his, it proves he was in the vicinity of the ice cream stand at some point during the day. I was told they had picked up all of the garbage the night before.” Stephen bagged the watch and I made a note that we needed to find out if it belonged to Cecil. It wasn’t much.
The only thing I’d ended up keeping from my bag was a cigarette butt. I held it up for them to see, very proud of my find. My Sherlock Holmes training made me certain it was significant.
They looked at me as if I were nuts.
“It’s a cigarette butt, Mike. Big deal. Lots of people smoke,” said Stephen.
I was deflated, but still determined this was different. It had a smell to it that was distinct. “It’s not an ordinary one, it smells different. See.” I shoved it under Lola’s nose. She pulled back with a look of disgust on her face, this from a woman who’d sat here on the floor with us for an hour going through garbage.
“Are you crazy?”
Stephen took it from my hand and took a whiff. “You’re right, it’s cloves. Just like my dad smoked when we were kids.”
“I knew that scent was familiar. Seems like I’ve smelled it somewhere else recently, too. Oh yeah, the park. I ran into someone when I was getting my bike for the race and they reeked of cloves. Maybe it belongs to that person.”
Stephen bagged it. “What can you tell me about that person?”
“Not much really. He or she was wearing a black hooded jacket and had the hood pulled over their head. I didn’t really think it was cold enough for that, but I guess everyone’s different. I’d say the person was about my height and solid as a brick wall. But that’s about all I can tell you — it happened too quickly.”
“Maybe they were trying not to be recognized. We’ll have to check around and see if anyone else ran into this mysterious stranger,” said Stephen as he took more notes.
“Maybe we can ask around at the frog jump tomorrow at the park,” I suggested.
“Frog jump? I wasn’t planning on going, but I guess I can manage it,” grumbled Stephen.
Lola laughed as she stood up. “Too sophisticated for a frog jump, Stephen? Didn’t they start out in your part of the country?”
“Why Stephen here is a frog jumpin’ champion.”
Stephen blushed, a rare event. “Long time ago.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’ll have to tell me more about that sometime. Right now, I need to get home. It’s late and we have church tomorrow,” she looked directly at me.
“Church. Oh no, I haven’t finished my sermon.”
I jumped up and Stephen walked us to the door. “You better get to work on that sermon. I’ll get started on some background checks tomorrow. David can help me out on the Internet when he gets back from church. Not that we have very much to go on.”
“This could wait if you wanted to do something else in the morning, Heathen Boy. Something like church?”
He patted me on the back. “Naw, this is way too important, Preacher Boy.”
I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I’d been trying to get Stephen to church off and on since we were kids without success. I wasn’t about to give up on him but tonight I was too worn out to fight. And I wasn’t looking forward to writing my sermon. Maybe I could pull something from out of my seminary days and rework it to fit what I wanted to say. I just didn’t have preaching on the brain. Instead, all I could think about was murder and prejudice.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003