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.
As I stood in the back of the church, my congregation filed out without so much as a word to me. The normal handshaking joviality was missing. A few nodded and smiled as they went past, but it was the quietest I ever remembered the church being.
Lola was the last one to pass, and she waited for me to lock up. Once outside the building, Lola smiled at me. “Are you okay?”
“For now, but I may be the first pastor to be lynched by his own congregation. You don’t think I was wrong today, do you?”
“Not at all and most of the people in the church don’t either,” she offered reassuringly.
I sat down on the steps in front of the church. “Then why were they all so quiet?”
She sat down beside me and laid a delicate hand on my arm. “It’s been a long time since this church had a pastor that shook them out of their comfort zone. It will take some getting used to. Some of them may even be afraid. People like Matthews are very influential in this community.”
She squeezed my hand and I forced a smile. I stood up and reached down to help her. “Thanks for the pep talk. I’m going to go see Eddie.”
Being a Sunday, the police station would be relatively quiet. After pressing the intercom button on the outside, I was buzzed inside the lobby.
“Hey there, Pastor Mike. What can I do for you?” asked a perky, dark-haired Hispanic girl who’d visited my church a couple of times. I found myself wondering if she’d felt welcome when she’d come. It made me feel ill to think how she might have been treated without my even realizing it.
“Hi, Patti. I’m here to see Eddie.”
“Sure thing.” She buzzed me through and I followed her all the way to the back of the station, out the back door and across the covered drive to the jail. She used her key to let me in.
“He’s the third one on the right. I’ve got to get back up front. I’ll be monitoring the jail from there, so just wave to me when you’re ready to leave.”
“Thanks. And Patti, I’d love it if you’d come visit our church again.”
She smiled. “I really loved the music at your church when I went. Maybe I’ll come again next week.”
This made me feel a little better as I watched her leave and lock me in. It took me a minute to settle my stomach from the stench of the building. This was not somewhere an innocent man should have to be. I walked down the hall to the cell that Patti had indicated. Eddie sat on a cot to my left, his head in his hands.
He looked up and his eyes widened. “Pastor Mike, I didn’t expect to see you.”
The young man looked worn and afraid. He stood up and walked to the bars, his shoulders drooping. “Of course I’d come to see you. I’m your pastor. It’s my job to be there when you need me. And more than that, I’m your friend.”
His dark eyes lit up. “You mean you don’t think I killed old man Toews?”
“Of course not. And I’m going to prove it too, so don’t you worry.”
Eddie stuffed his hands in his pockets and bowed his head.
“I feel ashamed. I had decided all Christians were a bunch of hypocrites, now you do this for me. I don’t deserve it.”
I leaned against the bars. “Eddie, you’re right. There are a lot of hypocrites out there, but it’s not fair to judge all Christians by a few bad ones anymore than it’s right for people to judge all Hispanics by a few bad ones. Prejudice is wrong in any form.”
He looked up. “Never thought about it like that.”
“You should have heard me scold some of the people in my church this morning for just that kind of thing. They may not let me come back.” I laughed.
His eyes widened. “No kidding? Never would have expected that from you. Ya know, I never really did include you among the hypocrites. I’ve always thought you were a pretty good guy.”
This made me smile. “Thanks. I feel the same way about you. Now, down to business. I need to ask you some questions.”
“Sure thing.” He took his hands out of his pockets and faced me.
“Where were you when Toews was stabbed?”
“On my way back to the booth. It was time for me to relieve Glenda. I was pretty close to the whole thing; wish I could have seen something. There were just too many people.”
“Why did you run?”
“I didn’t. But I sure didn’t stick around. Just walked off into the crowd and headed back to the shop. Didn’t want to get mixed up in anything. I’ve had enough trouble in my life.”
It wasn’t hard to believe that the witnesses had seen some other Hispanic boy running and just assumed it was Eddie, not after what I’d seen and heard lately. They probably thought all Hispanics, and all teen-aged boys for that matter, looked alike.
“How did the killer get your knife?”
He looked down at his shoes. “It was taken when the ice cream truck was robbed. I didn’t say anything about it when the police took the report because I wasn’t supposed to be carrying it. Pop took it away after I got arrested. He said I could only use it in the shop to open boxes and stuff until he was sure I’d gotten my act together. So I didn’t tell him either. He didn’t need to be upset anymore.”
It all made sense, except, why would the thief take his knife? “Tell me about the robbery, Eddie.”
He closed his eyes for a minute, then opened them. “I was doing my normal route right after school, over in the Jefferson Street area. I just finished with some kids when suddenly a man jumped in the truck. He was wearing a mask, jeans and a black sweatshirt. Probably about your size. He pulled a gun out, little .22, but it was big enough to kill. Said he wanted the money. Wasn’t much, maybe fifty bucks? I gave it to him, then he frisked me, found the knife and took it. Then he took off.” Eddie sighed. “Not much to go on, sorry.”
“You never know. How many people know about your knife?”
Eddie looked down at his feet again. “Lots of people. The police for one — I had it taken away from me for a while when I was getting in trouble. Used it in a fight. But Pop finally got them to give it to him. He was supposed to keep it, but he gave it back to me about a year ago when he felt I had learned to be responsible. With certain conditions. I wasn’t supposed to carry it with me outside the store.”
“Who else?” I pushed.
“Glenda, of course, and Chuck at the radio station. Couple of my friends from school. Shoot, really anyone who knew me well.”
“You never showed it to me.”
“I didn’t think you’d approve, being a preacher and all.”
I laughed and reached through the bars and squeezed his shoulder. “You’re probably right. I wouldn’t have liked you carrying it. Too much chance for trouble. But I would like to have seen it. My dad gave me a special pocketknife on my thirteenth birthday. I still have it.”
Eddie looked surprised. “No kidding?”
I nodded. “When did you show it to Chuck?”
“One night a few weeks ago. When I stopped by the station to pick up the application for the job. He’s a woodworker and wanted to see it. But he’d never hurt anyone.”
Chuck couldn’t even bring himself to kill mice, so it was safe to say he’d never hurt a human. He trapped the mice and set them free outside.
“I gotta get going, but you hang in there. Why don’t you spend some time reading?” I handed him a little New Testament through the bars after holding it up so Patti could see what it was.
“There’s a great story about another guy who was arrested when he wasn’t guilty. I think you’d like it. I’ll find out who did this, you can count on it. I’ll be praying for you.”
He took the Bible and gave me a weak smile. “Not like I have anything better to do. Thanks for believing in me.”
“Eddie, I think you should tell the police what really happened when the truck was robbed. Lying never helps anything.”
I looked up at the camera and waved at Patti, then headed for the door.
Calling Stephen was next on my list of things to do. We needed to find out if any of our suspects owned a .22. At least, whether they owned one that was registered. It sounded to me like Eddie was purposely framed. Just too much of a coincidence to be otherwise. Why else would they take his knife? ‘Course, Stephen would argue that the thief could have just dropped it somewhere and the killer found it, but I didn’t really believe in coincidences.
As I stepped out of the station into the afternoon sun, my stomach growled. Lunch. I pulled my cell phone out of my jacket pocket and dialed Stephen.
“Hey there, Heathen Boy, how about some lunch? I have some stuff to talk to you about.”
“Same here. Where are you? I can pick you up.”
“I’m at the police station but I have my bike so I’ll just meet you at Main Street.”
“That’ll do, I suppose.” Stephen had been spoiled by his mom’s Italian cooking and sometimes frowned on the local cuisine. Only Alex could ever get him to darken the door of a fast food restaurant. Of course, if I’d grown up with his mom’s cooking, I’d be pretty spoiled too. But Chinese takeout would always be my favorite. And Main Street was awfully good as far as I was concerned.
Thinking of food made my stomach growl louder so I hopped on my bike and peddled the two blocks to Main Street. As I started to pass the Happy Mouth, I decided to stop. They were just opening up.
Glenda was working the counter, and I wondered if the Martinezes were just too upset to work. “Hi, Glenda.”
She looked up from the soda fountain and smiled, but her red eyes spoke of anything but her normal perkiness.
“Hi, Pastor Mike. What can I get for you?”
“A soda would be nice, and some answers maybe? I’m trying to clear Eddie.”
“Do you think you can?” she asked, as she reached up for a glass and began to fill it with ice. “I know he didn’t do it, but my dad doesn’t seem to agree. Pepsi okay?”
“Sure. You know your dad’s just doing his job. He never really liked Eddie, did he?”
Glenda shook her head. Often, she’d shared with me about her father’s dislike of her dating someone who had been in gang. Typical of a cop, or any father really. I could understand. But Eddie was a good kid.
I’d tried to talk with the chief about it, to intervene for the kids, but he continued to protest. I had managed to get him to let her decide for herself, just couldn’t get him to like it, and Eddie was not allowed in his home. I’d never really thought much about the prejudice against not only Hispanics but youth in general if they’d messed up in the past. It was a disturbing problem. How could we help them if we never trusted them?
I took a seat at the counter. “Glenda, did you see anything unusual when your grandfather was stabbed?”
She handed me my soda then began cleaning off the counter in front of me. “No, I was busy with customers. Didn’t know anything had happened until I heard the scream.”
“He had just been at your booth hadn’t he?” I took a sip of the cool drink.
“Do you know of anyone else who might have wanted to hurt him? Or anyone who would have had a reason to frame Eddie?”
“I could think of a million people who would have wanted to kill my grandfather. He was a hateful, awful man.” Glenda’s face was flushed. She turned her back to me and began to busy herself with cleaning the soda machine.
“Can you think of anyone who felt that way who actually would have acted on it?”
She turned back around and spoke without looking at me. Her fists were clenched, as though she were fighting to hold back tears, or anger. I wasn’t sure which. “No, and I don’t know of anyone who would have tried to frame Eddie, either. My dad didn’t like him, but he’d never do anything like that. Although…”
Her puffy eyes lifted to mine. “He would have been in a perfect spot to do it if he wanted to. But Dad’s an honest guy.”
I agreed with her but wondered how far he’d go to protect his daughter. I didn’t think he’d murder someone, but how could you know for sure? And, while he might not murder, he might frame Eddie if he thought he was guilty and that it would get him away from Glenda.
“Can you think of anyone else?” I took another long sip then pushed the glass away.
“Not someone who’d want to both murder my grandfather and frame Eddie. They ran in totally different circles, so how could they have the same enemies?”
She had a good point. “Thanks, Glenda. Hang in there. We’ll figure this out. How are his folks doing?”
“They just left to go see him,” she answered as she leaned heavily on the counter, most likely a night of lost sleep taking its toll. “They’re taking this pretty hard, but they’re determined to keep this place open. I only hope that whoever takes over as landlord has more of a heart and doesn’t try and evict them.”
“You hadn’t heard? That’s what Grandfather was doing at the booth, giving them an eviction notice. They were two months behind on their rent, but business had been picking up. Besides, he charged an outrageous amount. Just ask others here downtown.”
I started to leave but remembered one last thing Glenda might be able to help me with. “Glenda, do you know Josh Matthews?”
She frowned, a flicker of something I couldn’t quite define in her eyes. “Yes, why?”
“Just watch out for him. I heard him talking in the park, and he has his sights on you. Thought you should be warned. If he gives you too much trouble, let me know and I’ll have a talk with his dad.”
“Thanks, Pastor Mike, but I can handle his type. Besides, talking to his dad wouldn’t do any good. As far as he’s concerned, Josh hung the moon.”
I headed out, late but glad I made the detour. I made a mental note to talk to Chief Harmon and mention the eviction to Stephen. I was afraid it made things look even worse for Eddie.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003