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.
Stephen was already at a table perusing a menu when I arrived at Main Street.
“Find anything that suites your picky palate?”
He looked up and frowned. “I think I’ll try the spaghetti. I’m sure it’s just as good as Mama’s,” he said sarcastically.
If I had something I could have thrown at him, I would have. Main Street had some of the best food in town and he knew it. He was just in a difficult mood. I took a seat across from him and peeled off my jacket, hot after the bike ride despite the chill in the air.
Candy bounced up to our table, order pad in hand. “Ready boys?”
There was no need for me to look at the menu — I knew what I wanted. “French dip and cola.” The best thing about this place was that all the bread was homemade.
“And you, Stephen?”
“Make it two, except I want an OrangeUp.” He put the menu down and she started to leave, but I touched her arm and she stopped.
“I have a question. I imagine you’ve heard about the murder at the Fiesta?”
She stuck her pencil behind her ear. “Sure, I was there. Scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
My mind filled with hope. Maybe she’d seen something. “Did you see anything?”
“Sorry, I was too scared to look.”
“Do you know who might have wanted Toews dead?”
Candy started laughing so hard I thought she was going to pass out. She finally got herself under control after attracting the attention of the entire restaurant.
“Are you okay?” Stephen handed her a red silk handkerchief.
She dabbed at the tears in her eyes. “I’m fine, thanks. Sorry, that question just struck me so odd. Everyone hated that man, even if they’d never admit it. Why even Hank has had his trouble with old man Toews. He owns… owned… this building too, ya know.”
Stephen pulled out his notebook. “No kidding? How bad were Hank’s problems with Toews?”
“They nearly came to blows about six months ago. But I think the fact Hank stood up to Toews put him in his place. He knew the town wouldn’t stand for it if this place closed down. Hank had him in a spot.”
“What did they fight about?” I asked.
“The heater blew up last winter. ‘Member that really cold spell? You were here by then weren’t you?”
“We couldn’t serve customers when this place was as cold as a meat locker. Toews kept putting off getting someone out here to fix it. Finally, Hank got him on the phone and called him all sorts of names. Toews stormed over here as mad as a hornet. Almost hit Hank, and Hank was plenty ready to hit him back. But they finally worked it out. Heater man was out that afternoon. It was almost funny seeing men their age nearly come to blows.”
“Where’s Hank now?” I asked. “I’d like to talk to him about this.”
Candy shook her head. “Hank couldn’t have killed Toews if that’s what you’re thinking. He’s been in Memphis for about a month. His mom was ill. Just passed away this weekend so he’ll be back later this week.”
I was sad to hear about Hank’s mother and made a mental note to pay a condolence visit. At least we could eliminate another possible suspect.
Candy bounced off to place our order.
“So what happened to the spaghetti?”
Stephen shrugged. “Changed my mind.”
“Hey, Heathen Boy, I have some things I need you to do.” I filled him in on the knife and the gun.
“Sure thing, Preacher Boy,” he said with a grin.
“Have you found out anything yet?”
“Too soon. I’ve got David working on some background checks and trying to locate Potznak. He’s not at the address on the ticket anymore, but the ticket was old.” He laughed. “He must be a packrat like you.”
Candy brought out our food, then left without a word. Probably a bit embarrassed about her laughing fit.
“Thought we could talk to people at the frog jump,” I said after she left.
Stephen flinched. This small town stuff just wasn’t his style. He was much more Broadway and Fifth Avenue than Green Acres. I wondered why he stayed. Maybe it was that pretty little girlfriend of his that kept him here. Or perhaps it was his parents living nearby. While he hated his dad, he adored his mother. Myself, I loved the homey feeling of a small town. Too bad it hadn’t been feeling so homey lately.
We headed out and I was shocked at what I found. Both of my tires were slashed. I had little doubt what group was likely responsible. I put my bike in the back of Stephen’s latest car and we headed for the park. He didn’t say anything but I was sure he knew who slashed my tires just as well as I did.
In front of the Kingsbury police station, I saw a sight one would never expect at a police station. Ten long-legged, green reptiles lined up ready to hop. Children and adults knelt by these creatures ready to prod them along, and people lined the street ready to cheer. It was like stepping into the middle of a Mark Twain story.
The mayor waited to award the winner. Stephen stood next to me and just shook his head. I would have given anything to know him when he was frog-jumping champ back in Louisiana. But it had been just before we met.
“Get, ready, get set,” I could feel the anticipation as everyone waited for the next words. “And hop!”
Off they went, down the street. It was a sight to behold. Made me think of one of the plagues in Egypt. I couldn’t imagine my town being overrun with frogs. Wasn’t that I didn’t like frogs, I just preferred a pet with fur.
It was over in a flash. One particularly large, lean-looking frog had triumphed. His middle-aged, balding owner held him up proudly, a big grin on his face. The mayor pinned a blue ribbon on the man and the crowd cheered. That was it. All that preparation and it was over in a matter of minutes. I wondered if frogs had to train.
The excitement over, it was time to start asking more questions. We started with what was left of the food booths. All of the craft booths had been removed the night before and only a handful of the food booths were left. Mostly snack things like popcorn, cinnamon rolls and pretzels. Conspicuously missing was the ice cream booth. I looked around; the Martinez family wasn’t there. People were milling around and the park was filled with happy chatter. You’d never known someone had been murdered there a little over twenty-four hours ago.
“I’ll ask around about Potznak,” said Stephen, who disappeared into the crowd.
I headed for the soda stand, not for any real reason other than I was thirsty. I was shocked to find sweet little Lizzie Toews running the booth for the Mennonite Ladies Missions Group.
“Mrs. Toews, I didn’t expect to see you today.”
She smiled feebly. “Thought Mr. Toews would want me out here helping instead of at home moping around.”
Odd that she referred to him as Mr. Toews, but I didn’t say anything. “I’d like to offer my condolences.”
“Thank you, Pastor Mike.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a minute to take a break and talk with me?”
Mrs. Toews looked around, held up her hand, and went to speak with another older lady in the back of the booth. Then she returned, a soda of her own in one of her tiny hands. “Why don’t we go over to one of the picnic tables to chat? I don’t last long on my feet these days. Thanks for the excuse for a break.”
I led the way to the farthest table, hoping for some privacy, but she walked so slowly I wondered it if would have been wiser to pick something closer.
“What can I do for you, son?” she asked as she took a seat.
“I don’t believe Eddie is guilty but, to prove it, I have to find out who is. I was hoping you could help. I wouldn’t bother you with this now if it wasn’t important.”
“You want me to tell you who might have wanted to kill my husband.” I was surprised by her candor.
“Pastor Mike, most people think I’m just a silly old woman who was blind to her husband’s faults but they’re wrong. I know he did some awful, hateful things. I know he loved money more than anything else. Anything, that is, but me. I found myself overlooking his faults because he was always so devoted to me. Sometimes I even talked him out of doing something really awful when I knew about it. But I only did that when it was really important because there was a limit to my influence.”
She paused to take a deep breath and a sip from her soda, as if this was costing her a great deal. I was in too much shock to fill the silences and felt for this woman who had likely endured a great deal in her life.
“You want to know who wanted my husband dead?” Lizzie Toews laughed. “Half the town, my boy. All I can tell you for sure is that I was probably the only person who didn’t. Even his own family. Why, if I’d known in time to save poor Glenda…” She shook her head, deep sadness in her eyes. And regret.
“Save Glenda?” I asked, but then wondered if perhaps it was none of my business.
Lizzie looked straight into my eyes for several minutes. I knew I was being judged as to whether I was worthy of knowing this dark secret. Whether she could trust me.
“Because you’re a preacher and I know you’re a good man, I’ll tell you. I trust you not to use this to hurt my poor granddaughter. But, be careful with this knowledge. This could make it look even worse for Eddie because he loves my Glenda very much.”
My stomach tensed as I waited for her to continue, not certain I wanted to hear what she was going to share. A tear slid down her wrinkled cheek and I reached out to squeeze her hand. She smiled.
“Before Eddie, about a year ago, Glenda got in with a bad crowd. She… she got herself in trouble. Mr. Toews thought it would look bad on the family name if anyone found out and rushed her out of town to ‘take care’ of it.”
It took a moment for it to sink in. What Lizzie was telling me in her delicate way was that Glenda had gotten pregnant and Toews had forced her to have an abortion. The anger I felt towards this man I had barely known was growing stronger as I learned more. I needed to pray for a better attitude.
Who might the father of Glenda’s baby have been? Could this person have had a motive for murdering Toews as well?
“How did Glenda take this?”
Lizzie looked down at her hands that were shaking ever so slightly. “She’s hated him ever since. She only tolerated him for my sake.”
Again, I was startled by her honesty. Indeed, this was not the weak woman everyone seemed to think she was.
“Does anyone else know?”
“Her father. He nearly came to blows with Mr. Toews when he brought Glenda back. She may have told Eddie — they are very close.”
This didn’t help Eddie’s case, but it did give Glenda’s father an even stronger motive. And Chief Harmon was a man in a perfect position to frame Eddie. I hated to think he would stoop that low though.
Not sure whether I should push things further, yet knowing I needed as much information as possible, I asked the question that was on my mind. “Who was the father of Glenda’s baby? Could this young man have wanted revenge against your husband?”
A sigh shook her fragile looking body. “Glenda never told anyone that I know of. But it was most likely someone from Kensington, as she was attending there at the time.”
This was a shock to me. I couldn’t imagine sweet Glenda attending the snobbish, private school; it had to have been her grandfather’s idea. No wonder she knew Josh. And it was no wonder she had not returned to that school after the abortion. I wondered if there had been rumors at the school as to the name of the father. I doubted Glenda would share that information herself and I was hesitant to ask. I would have to find out some other way, though I would have preferred to leave it alone. Someone knew, of that I was sure. Nothing ever stayed a secret in Kingsbury.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003