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.
Josh’s statement left me with a chill. Was Scott Matthews using his own son to do his dirty work, or was this something he had done on his own? I feared for the future of Kingsbury if the parents’ bigotry was being passed on to the youth.
From the radio station, I pedaled to the police station downtown, deciding not only to turn in the watch but the traffic ticket as well. Guilt gnawed at my insides for not turning them in sooner. I also wanted to show the note to Harmon.
By the time I arrived at the station I was tired and hungry. Locking up my bike, I looked around for suspicious characters before heading inside. I hoped that the chief wasn’t out to lunch.
“Hey, there, Pastor Mike,” said Harry. “If you came to see that boy, he’s already been sent to Fresno.”
“Actually, I came to see Chief Harmon.”
As if on cue, Harmon came strolling to the window, a sandwich in hand. Apparently, he’d stayed in for lunch. “I hear you’ve been doing your own investigating Pastor. Planning on joining Carlucci as a P.I.?”
“No, just trying to prevent an injustice.”
Harmon frowned, reminding me again of a big grizzly bear. “Eddie was arraigned this morning. He’s being held over for trial. End of story.”
“Kind of convenient for you since you didn’t like him dating Glenda,” I baited, knowing it was dangerous to anger a bear.
He glared and motioned for me to follow him inside. Harry buzzed me in, and I followed Harmon’s retreating figure down the hall to his office. Once inside, Harmon shut the door and put his sandwich on his desk before turning on me. “How dare you!”
“Eddie didn’t kill Toews, and I’m not going to let him go to jail for it. You had as good a reason to kill your father-in-law and frame Eddie as anyone else in town.” I was shocked at my own courage, or more likely foolishness.
The chief slammed his hand down on his desk then suddenly seemed deflated, looking more like a Teddy bear than a grizzly. I felt bad for attacking him.
“How did you find out about what he did to my baby?”
“I can’t say.” It had been in confidence, and as both a pastor and a reporter, I had an obligation to keep that confidence.
“It had to be Lizzie. She’s the only other one who knew. She has always been too trusting of you religious types. I will not allow my own feelings to get in the way of this investigation, and I would never kill anyone except in the line of duty. Besides, if I were going to kill Toews I would have done it as soon as I knew what he had done.”
His story was easy to believe. “I believe you wouldn’t purposely let your judgment be fogged by your feelings, but when it’s been made so easy for you…Eddie is innocent. If you won’t prove it, I will.”
I reached in my pocket for the watch and the ticket and handed them to him. “Stephen and I found these at the scene of the crime. Your men either missed them or thought them unimportant. Cecil admits that it’s his watch, and I think he’s a much better suspect than Eddie. Will you at least check it out?”
The big man sighed and the pain I saw in his eyes hurt my heart. He nodded. I then handed him the threatening note. “I found this on my door this morning.”
Harmon read it, then looked back up at me with his unemotional policeman mask back in place. “Have any idea what this is all about?”
“There are some people in my church who don’t like the fact that I’m helping Eddie. I’m afraid I made things worse by preaching an anti-racism sermon yesterday. My guess is that it’s one of them, though I hate to accuse my own church members. I also found my tires slashed yesterday in front of Main Street Café.”
The frown lines on his forehead deepened. “You should have called us right away. Let me know if anything else happens. And Preacher, be careful.”
I started to leave, but felt led to say more. “I know you’ve been through a lot of hard times with the loss of your wife, Glenda’s problems, and dealing with a hypocrite like your father-in-law. But don’t rule all of us religious types out because of it. A lot of people talk the talk, but don’t live it. They’re only religious, nothing more. Real Christians have Jesus Christ in their hearts and try to follow His teachings with His help. Yes, we make mistakes, but we try. Give us real Christians a chance and you might be surprised at what you find. But more importantly, forget about us fallible humans and give our infallible Savior a chance.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out another New Testament; I needed to replenish my supply. “You’re an intelligent man. Don’t rule Jesus out without going some research first. I believe you’ll find the answers to the questions you feel in your heart in His words.
Hesitantly, he reached out and took the Bible. I smiled, then left him with his thoughts. I had an investigation to continue, and he now had two investigations to deal with—the murder of his father-in-law and his search for truth in his own heart.
I unlocked my bike without really knowing where I was going next, then offered up a silent prayer of thanks that my bike was still intact. As soon as I said amen, my cell phone rang, solving my problem of where to go.
“Hey, Preacher Boy, we need to meet. Hungry?”
“Sure. Where do you want to meet?” Sometimes it seemed all we did was eat. At this rate, we were going to end up fat old bachelors.
“Let’s head over to the new coffee shop. They have decent sandwiches and afterward we can get some real coffee.”
A simple cup of coffee wasn’t enough for him, except in emergencies. A cappuccino was more his speed. “Sounds good, Heathen Boy. I’m at the police station. Meet you there in a few.”
Café Joe was the new coffee shop in town, and the first real coffee shop in Kingsbury. Being primarily a farming community, plain old coffee had been enough for a large part of the population. But neighboring Donlyn was a college town and coffee shops were very popular with younger people, so the time had come at last. None too soon for Stephen.
A couple in my church owned Joe’s and gave me a pastor’s discount, which I was happy to accept. I only hoped this morning’s sermon hadn’t changed that. But the Duerksens were some of the few in our church who tried to help troubled youth, so I was pretty sure I would have an ally there.
Café Joe was housed in an old red brick building that stood on a corner once occupied by a local jewelry store. The store had gone out of business the previous year leaving the building open for the first time in thirty years. Being on the corner, it had the advantage of having a lot of window space, which gave the place a nice open feeling. I locked my bike to a pole, looked around again, then went inside.
The wonderful aroma of coffee greeted me at the door and I inhaled. To me coffee actually smelled better than it tasted. Some went to coffee shops to taste the coffee; I went for the smell and atmosphere. Good coffee was just a bonus.
There were several small, round, glass-topped tables and a couple of larger ones with black metal-backed chairs. Around the corner in a little side room were two couches and a bookshelf filled with and interesting and sometimes odd assortment of books.
At the counter, I found Karen Duerksen. She greeted me with her ever-present smile, her face always warm and friendly. Straight blond hair fell midway down her back and green eyes sparkled with Christian joy. It felt good to actually be welcomed somewhere after the weekend I’d had.
“What can I get for you today, Pastor Mike?”
“Pastrami would be nice, and a cola.”
She tallied up my bill then took off my discount. I paid her but before I went to find a table, I decided to ask some questions. “Did you hear about the murder at the parade?”
Her smiled faded. “We closed up the shop to watch the parade—haven’t missed one since I was a baby. What a shame.”
“Did you know Mr. Toews?”
The frown deepened. Yes she knew him. “He owned this property. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he was an awful landlord. But I’d guess you’ve already heard that.” She went about putting together my sandwich. “You’re doing a story aren’t you?”
“Sort of. Mostly I’m trying to help the Martinez family. I don’t believe Eddie would kill someone.”
“I totally agree. He and Glenda used to come in here a few times a week; they’re a sweet couple. If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know.” She opened the cash register and took out a fifty-dollar bill. “Do you think they’d take this to help with the legal fees?”
I put my hand up and shook my head. “I wish they would, but they’re too proud. Perhaps you can help in other ways. A lot of Kingsbury folks come in here during the week; would you know anyone name Potznak?”
“I know a Peter Potznak.”
This was not the answer I expected after so many dead ends; I had only asked as a process of elimination. “You know him?”
She wiped a stray stand of hair from her face with the back of her hand. “We went to school together. He was in here just before we closed for the parade. Why do you ask?”
I took my soda from her. “We found a traffic ticket of his on the ground near the crime scene. The address isn’t current though.”
“You can rule him out for the murder. I saw him across the street about a block away just before the scream. He waved. The ticket must have been dropped earlier. Do you still have it? I have his new address if you want to return it.”
“We gave the ticket to the police. Maybe you could give them a call and tell them what you’ve told me. Save them the trouble. So we’ve ruled a suspect out, any thoughts on who you think is the best suspect?”
She almost laughed. “Almost everyone in town had a motive. Have you talked to Alec at the bike shop? Toews served eviction papers on him just last week. He was going to lose everything. Not that I can imagine anyone in this town would commit murder—except perhaps Toews himself, if it paid well enough.” There was a bitter edge to her voice that surprised me. It was sad the ill feelings this man evoked. Did anyone morn his death other than Mrs. Toews?
Stephen came in and strolled to the counter. Without a word, Karen busied herself preparing his cappuccino but I had more questions.
“Did you see someone dressed in a black jogging suit with a hood at the parade?”
She handed Stephen his cappuccino before answering. “Hmm, I’m not sure. Sounds familiar.”
“I did,” piped in her husband Jack, who came in from the back with some mugs. “Why do you ask?”
“Where did you see this person, and do you know if it was a man or woman?” I asked, after a sip of my soda. I was thirsty after all of the cycling around town.
“When I was closing up to watch the parade this guy ran into me looking just as you described. He was headed towards the park.”
“Can you remember anything about him?” asked Stephen.
Jack looked like he was thinking it through before he answered; his nose scrunched up just like it did when he was pondering a question at our adult Bible study. “I’d say he worked out. It was like running into a brick wall.”
I took my sandwich from Karen. “Thanks. I ran into him at the park too and he seemed suspicious.” Stephen nodded towards the couches and I followed.
Picking a couch against the wall, I took a seat and placed my sandwich on the coffee table. Stephen joined me. “I’ve dug up some interesting dirt on old Jim boy at the station.”
“I’ve picked up a couple bits of info myself, Heathen Boy. You go first.” Starving I took a bite of my sandwich.
A pleased look that only a great cup of coffee could give a true coffee loved came over Stephen’s face as he took a sip before speaking. “Jim has a police record for assault.”
“Doesn’t make him a killer. Besides, he was at the station.”
“But the hooded stranger you saw was a male that seemed pretty solid and Jim works out every afternoon at the local gym, and you said he smokes cloves. He also had a good motive. Toews treated him like crap and with Toews’ death, he’ll probably be moved up to station manager. People have killed for less.”
I swallowed a bite of my sandwich. “Doesn’t matter, he has a solid alibi.”
“Maybe, but I still like him for it. Could he have known about Eddie’s knife?”
“Eddie showed it to Chuck at the station; it’s possible Chuck mentioned it to Jim, or anyone else there. Even Cecil. I still like him as a suspect. His motive is the best. He recently had a big fight with his uncle, and Toews’ death makes him a rich man.” I took another big bite, too hungry to just talk, and decided to ignore the fact I was being rude by talking with a full mouth. “And the watch is his. He admitted it. I took that and the ticket into Harmon just before you called.”
“Interesting. I still haven’t found our Potznak but it shouldn’t take long. David’s on the computer looking for him.”
“Tell him not to bother,” I said as I swallowed. “Karen knows the guy and saw him across the street at the time of the scream. He’s not our guy.”
Stephen pulled out his notebook and marked Potznak off our suspect list. “At least that’s something.”
“Karen also mentioned Alec Stanford at the bike shop as a good suspect. He got an eviction notice from Toews last week, and I overheard them fighting the night before about the skate park Toews was trying to stop him from building.”
“Interesting that he didn’t mention that earlier. Why don’t we go there next? It’s just across the street. What about the Duerksens?” asked Stephen, as he continued to sip hi cappuccino with a contented look on his face.
I shook my head with vehemence. “Not a chance.”
“How can you be so sure? Did you ask their alibis? Surely they have motives; the whole town does.”
“There are some people you just know couldn’t do something like that.”
Stephen looked annoyed. “You mean because they’re Christians? What about Toews? He was supposed to be one too.”
I sighed. We’d been over this one too many times through the years. Why couldn’t I get it through to him?
But then I didn’t really understand either how people could call themselves Christians and act like that.
But then I didn’t really understand either how people could call themselves Christians and act like that.
“The Duerksens are some of the most devoted Christians I’ve met since getting here. There’s a big different between being a Christian and just saying you’re one.”
“Are you saying no Christian could commit murder?” Stephen asked in between bites of the salami sandwich Karen had brought over to him just moments ago. Apparently he was a regular with a standing order.
“No. But I am saying that I find it hard to believe a real Christian could commit a cold-blooded, premeditated murder like this and frame an innocent boy to boot.”
He seemed unconvinced. Growing up with the Mafia had left its mark. His own father professed a faith in God and attended the Catholic Church regularly, and Stephen knew his father had been responsible for the deaths of many in his younger days. Some by his own hand.
I finished my last bite. “If you insist on an alibi, I’m sure it would be easy to find one. But the better question is, can we find alibis for the more viable suspects? We need to keep narrowing down the list. Every day that Eddie is in jail is more than he should have to suffer through.”
Stephen finished his food and stood up. “Let’s talk to this Stanford guy. We may be able to mark one more suspect off the list if we’re lucky. Eventually, we’ll have everyone marked off but the killer. Then you won’t be able to make excuses no matter whom that turns out to be. Even if it’s one of your precious parishioners.”
I wished I had some clever comeback, but I wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t one of them.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003