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.
We crossed the street and went inside the bike shop. Alex was leaning over a bike with a young boy, and I was once again struck by his resemblance to his uncle Henry.
“You see, Manuel, if you keep skidding to a stop with your bike you’re going to go through a lot of tires. I don’t think your mom will be thrilled with that.”
The young boy frowned, then noticed us and smiled. “Hi, Pastor Mike.”
“Having bike trouble there, pal?” Manuel attended the new Wednesday night kid’s program we had started a couple of weeks ago, despite protests from some of my parishioners that I didn’t understand at the time.
His parents were farm workers from Mexico, but his English was good after attending school here in the U.S. for several years. I feared his parents couldn’t afford the new bike tires that he desperately needed.
“Manuel, you’re just the kid I’ve been looking for. Do you know how to use a lawn mower?”
“The church lawn needs mowing something awful and I’m just no good with those things. Could you find time to lend a hand? The job would pay.”
Manuel looked skeptical. “How much?”
“Oh, I’d say you could easily make enough to pay for some new tires.”
Alec smiled, and winked at me. “And Manuel, you may not know this but people who work for a church also get a discount here,” he said. I decided right then that I was going to like this man. He had won my support the moment I heard about the skate park, and now he had earned my respect. It was men like him and Mr. Martinez that helped make up for the bigots in town. But I still wondered why he hadn’t mentioned the eviction the other day.
“Yep. So if you take this job I’ll go ahead and let you have the tires on credit and you can come over and pay for them as soon as you get paid. After all, how are you going to get to the church with those tires?” Alex asked as he point to Manuel’s bike.
The boy’s eyes lit up.
This exchange lifted my failing spirits so much I hated to bring murder up again, but it was necessary. As soon as Manuel had left with his new tires, we turned our attention to Alec.
“Decide to get that new bike, Pastor Mike?”
“Not yet, but one of these days.”
Stephen stepped in and turned things to the business at hand. “Alec, I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Toews.”
The smile left the weatherworn face, making him appear much older than his forty-some years. “What?”
“I understand you received an eviction notice just last week. That gives you a pretty good motive. And I find it a bit odd you didn’t mention it when Pastor Mike talked to you the other day.”
Alex clenched his fists and I hoped he wasn’t about to pop one of us. I had never punched a man in my life and hoped I never would. “You’re accusing me of murdering Toews? I’m not an idiot. Going to jail wouldn’t solve my problems. Besides, didn’t they arrest Eddie?”
“Do you think Eddie could have done it?”
He shrugged, and his hands relaxed. “He’s a good kid most of the time, but he has had some trouble and he can be a hothead. I would hope he couldn’t do it but couldn’t say for sure. And as to the other day, I really didn’t feel my eviction notice was anyone’s business but my own.”
“Where were you at the time of the murder?”
“Sitting with my family watching the parade. The kids were jumping in the street after the candy so I was keeping close watch, didn’t even notice the scream. But my wife told me about it. If you need proof, I was sitting with my whole family, even both our folks. The parade is a Stanford family tradition.”
Tradition. That was what Kevin had said about the parade as well. I knew there still had to be something else about the parade I was missing. Maybe after I’d lived here twenty years I’d get it. What little I had seen hadn’t seemed that thrilling. I’d have to watch Lola’s video. Maybe that would help me understand the huge appeal.
Stephen made notes, then slipped the notebook into the pocket of his slacks. “If you think of anything that could help, please call.” He handed Alec his card.
But I wasn’t finished. “I understand you had a fight with Mr. Toews at the park the night before.” I didn’t want to admit I’d been eavesdropping.
He shook his head. “It was about the skate park. I think I mentioned to you that he was fighting us, but I was determined not to let him win.”
I wondered how determined, but was glad Alec had been honest and he did have an alibi.
“Do you know of someone who could have killed Toews?”
“I hate to think anyone in this town is capable of murder, but his nephew would be where I’d look. They never got along, and Cecil is too much like his uncle for my taste. Thank goodness Lizzie gets the property instead of him.”
“Do you know Jim Barrows?” Stephen asked, and I wondered where he was headed with this since Jim had an alibi.
“Actually, we went to school together. He’s always been a little bit of a rebel, but never anything too serious. At least when we were kids. Since he’s been working nights forever we really don’t travel in the same circles anymore.”
“Did you know he had been in prison?”
Alec looked down at his feet and was silent for a couple of minutes, then answered. “It was a long time ago. This farm worker was moving in on his girl and Jim lost it. Beat the guy up pretty bad. Always was a hothead. And the fact that the guy was a Mexican didn’t help any.”
This surprised me somewhat, but nothing was going to surprise me as much as it had before all of this. My naiveté about small towns was fading fast. “Is Jim prejudiced?”
Now he looked puzzled. “Jim’s dad helped found the All American Club. To Jim it was a slap in the face that a girl would pick that kind of person over him.”
“You mean someone who wasn’t white, don’t you?”
Alec frowned, then turned his attention to a new customer who had just walked in. I was puzzled by Alec and not sure if he agreed with Jim or not. He seemed like such a nice guy, and he had been so nice to Manuel. Had that just been for my benefit? I had gotten the impression in the park that he didn’t like the All American Club, but maybe many people had their own lines of prejudice even when they weren’t as obvious as those of the Club. And it was possible that he was one who felt that races shouldn’t mix—a belief held by far too many Christians even in this day and age, and something I could not understand.
But Stephen wasn’t ready to let Alec get away this time so he waited until the new customer had left, then spoke again. “Speaking of the Club, do you know Scott Matthew’s son?”
“Josh? Yeah. Why?”
“What do you think of him?”
“He’s a great athlete. We get creamed every year when we play Kensington. I sure am glad we’re not in the same league.”
“So you’re a Kingsbury High supporter then?” asked Stephen.
Alec leaned back against one of his bikes. “My son goes to Kingsbury. I wouldn’t put a kid in Kensington if you paid me. Most of the kids are fine, but the board is filled with people like Scott Matthews, and that’s where all their kids go. I don’t let my son associate with boys like Josh. He’s nothing but a spoiled brat and a troublemaker. Did you hear about the fire that broke out at the youth center last year?”
“I wasn’t living here yet. What about it?”
“Dorian caught Josh and some of his friends trying to stash the gas cans. If she hadn’t been around the place would have burned to the ground and they wouldn’t have gotten caught. Of course, being a Matthews, he got off with just community service. That boy could get away with murder.” Alec blushed when he realized what he had just said, which looked odd against his white hair.
We left Alec alone with another customer and headed out. Once on the sidewalk, I headed for my bike and Stephen followed.
“That was interesting,” said Stephen.
“Shows Jim had a motive to frame someone like Eddie if he was the killer. But we can’t get around the fact he has a solid alibi.” I unlocked my bike. “I still can’t believe this kind of prejudice still exists, and in the church no less.”
“Told you church people were a bunch of hypocrites. Love thy neighbor as long as they’re white.” Stephen’s voice had a bitter edge.
“I know I keep saying this, but we’re not all that way. And you’re supposed to be looking at Christ, not the mere humans who follow Him.”
Stephen didn’t seem convinced and I knew this case wasn’t helping me change his mind. I wished I could handle this case without him, but I couldn’t. He had access to information I didn’t.
“I’m liking that Matthews kid for the job more and more,” said Stephen.
Before I could say anything, his cell phone rang. “Carlucci. Really? Thanks for letting me know.”
“Well?” I asked after he hung up.
“No prints on the knife. Doesn’t prove Eddie is innocent, but it makes you wonder, and it could be enough to create reasonable doubt. If it’s Eddie’s knife, why would he wipe the prints clean? Everyone knew it was his knife, so if he used it to kill Toews he couldn’t have been thinking this out. His prints would have been on there.”
Discouragement twisted my stomach up like a pretzel, but I had to trust God to work this all out somehow. “Now what?”
“Is there something you’re not telling me, Preacher Boy?”
He knew me too well. I told him about the note, and he was steamed.
“I’m going to have to talk to those creeps. Would you like me to get one of my dad’s men to be your bodyguard?”
“Oh yeah, a preacher with a Mafia guy for a bodyguard. That’ll look great. Thanks, but no.”
He frowned, then laughed. “I suppose that does sound a bit absurd. Be careful. I’m going to find out more about Cecil, and you go visit that pretty girl of yours. You sound like you could use your spirits lifted, and I know she can protect you.” Stephen grinned and patted me on the back before heading for his car. I just stood there like a dummy. I went against my male ego to think of a woman protecting me, but it was better than the Mafia and Lola did know karate.
Lola would be busy at work for a while yet, so I decided to head for the church and work on next week’s sermon. I was itching to continue in the same vein as this past Sunday, and determined not to let the threats bother me. Besides, they couldn’t get away with doing any real harm, could they?
Once there I put in the CD of the parade while I worked so we could definitely confirm Jim’s alibi and I could learn what I had missed.
It was five o’clock when I heard a knock at my office door. “Come in.”
I wasn’t surprised to see Henry Russell walk through my door. He lived next to the church and often visited, usually bearing some sort of treat. This time was no exception.
“Pastor Mike thought you could use a snack. Hope this won’t spoil your dinner,” he said with a mischievous grin on his face as he handed me a plate of brownies. Henry had been a cook before retiring, and a very good one. His house was one of my favorite places to be invited over to for Sunday supper.
“Thanks, I’m starved actually. Why don’t you have a seat? I just made a fresh pot of coffee would you like a cup?”
“Sure thing. Sounds mighty good. There’s just starting to be the slightest chill in the air.”
He sat his substantial frame down in one of the old wooden chairs in front of my desk and it creaked. Every Christmas since he’d retired he had played Santa for all of the local schoolchildren. He’d never had to add any padding or change anything but his clothes. His full white beard and thick head of hair made him perfect for the role.
As we settled down to our brownies and coffee, I felt relaxed for the first time since this ordeal had begun. Henry was a good man. But apparently, I relaxed a bit too soon.
Henry cleared his throat and I began to worry that there was something more to this visit. “Is everything all right, Henry?”
“Well, now that you’ve asked, actually, no. You see I’ve received a few disturbing phone calls from other members of the board.” Henry was the head deacon. I sat up straight in my chair, prepared for the worst. Perhaps they had decided they couldn’t afford me anymore.
“You see, they’re concerned about your sermon on Sunday, and about the fact you’re involving yourself with this Martinez boy. They don’t think it’s fittin’ for a preacher to be involved in this sort of stuff.” He cleared his throat again as my anger began to mount. “And they think you were a bit too hard on people with that sermon.”
“What you mean is, they don’t want me helping a minority boy, isn’t that true? And they don’t want me making them feel guilty about their prejudices.”
The big man sighed, and I could see this was hard for him. My anger softened a bit.
“This isn’t the way I feel, Pastor Mike, but I thought you should know what’s going on. If you don’t stop, they may move to temporarily suspend you without pay while they determine whether to terminate you. I may be head deacon, but I’m outnumbered on this one, and I thought you should be warned. They’d be fit to be tied if they knew I was telling you.”
He stood up, leaving his coffee untouched. “I think you’re a good man, and that they should be the ones to leave if they’re going to be filled with bigoted hatred. It’s just wrong and not according to the Bible.”
“I know it’s not your fault, Henry. Thanks for warning me. But you know it’s not going to change anything. Bigots won’t push me around, even in my own church. Jesus wouldn’t stand for it why should I?”
The big man grinned. “I was hopin’ you’d feel that way. I’ll stand behind you one hundred percent for what it’s worth. If they insist on doing this to you, I’ll threaten to resign. Why, without my tithes this church wouldn’t be able to keep the lights one. I don’t like to use that against them, but this is madness.”
I reached out a hand to him, and he took it in a firm grip, which never failed to surprise me at his age. “Thanks. I don’t suppose you have any insight into this whole thing?”
“Afraid not. There wasn’t a soul in town that really liked the man. Best of luck, and God be with you.”
“He always is.”
Henry left and I felt oddly rejuvenated. I wasn’t going to let this kind of attitude beat me, even if it meant my job. I had no desire to be a pastor of a church at that cost. I returned to my desk and finished my sermon for the next Sunday with renewed excitement. And they thought I’d been hard on them before!
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003