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.
After Henry’s visit, I tried to work on my sermon, but the renewed excitement hadn’t translated to the written page. The pile of crumpled paper in the wastebasket was a sign of my frustration. At about five, I gave up, hopped on my bike, and headed for my apartment.
My fervor for my cause was somewhat diminished as I’d had more time for my anger to turn to sadness at such unkind people, not just in my church, but everywhere. So many people had fought so hard for the rights they deserved, and in God’s eyes, we were all equal. So why did this kind of behavior still exist? Weren’t we supposed to be more sophisticated than that now?
I pulled up to my apartment and decided to walk down by the river. The beauty of God’s world always made me feel better. I sat down on the beach and just watched the water rush by. My cell phone rang, breaking the peace of my surroundings, and I almost didn’t answer it, but I had always believed that not answering my phone was a luxury a preacher didn’t have.
“Mike, where are you?” It was Stephen.
“At the river. What’s up?”
“First of all you were supposed to go to Lola’s.”
“Wasn’t in the mood.”
He sighed. “Cecil’s finances are in a mess, or at least they were until his uncle died. His motives keep looking better. Unfortunately, his wife vouches for him during the time of the parade, so unless we can prove she was lying, we’re back at a dead end. I wish Jim Barrows didn’t have such a solid alibi.”
My thoughts went to the CD I’d listened to of the parade. I could think of no way to prove Jim wasn’t there when he was supposed to be, and he couldn’t exactly have been in two places at once. “Do you know if there is more than one place in town to buy cloves?”
“Now why would I know that?” Stephen sounded annoyed. “You know I’ve never smoked.”
“Yes, but you know people who do.” Like your dad, I almost added, but knew better. Mentioning Stephen’s father always brought down his mood.
There was a moment of silence, and I knew him well enough to know his wheels were turning. “You have a point. I’ll see what I can find out. Not sure it will help, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. Now would you get yourself over to Lola’s?”
He hung up, and I walked back to my apartment and tromped up the stairs with my bike. My little place was still fairly empty. I had purchased very little furniture and brought few personal items with me when I moved. Sherlock greeted me with a loud meow.
“All you want me for is food.”
Feeding my companion gave me something productive to do, so I went into the tiny kitchen and opened a can of cat food. Sherlock jumped up on the sink and began to devour his dinner. Dinner was something I had forgotten in my funk. I looked in the freezer and found a chicken and fries TV dinner. It would do.
My living room was furnished with a black futon couch, a TV, a VCR, and a bookshelf filled with my favorite mysteries and books on theology. All the necessities of life. I switched on the TV and waited for my dinner to cook as I pondered the case. It hurt me that poor Eddie was in Fresno. Eddie!
I grabbed the phone and dialed Paul Unruh. “Paul, what happened with Eddie today?”
“As you know, they’re treating him as a juvenile, so he didn’t get bail. He was arraigned today. Now he’s waiting for a court date. I’m just praying you and Stephen are having some luck.”
“So far we’ve only managed to eliminate suspects, but I guess that’s a start.”
He let out a long breath. “Well, I’ll just keep praying and do the best I can to put together a good case for the boy.”
My mood had darkened even further. Food no longer appealed to me, so I dialed Lola’s number. Maybe Stephen had been right about what I needed to lift my spirits.
“Lola, this is Mike. Can I come over?”
“Of course you can. You sound awful. Has something else happened?”
The thought of her beautiful face and sweet nature already made me feel better. My heart raced with the anticipation of seeing her again. “I’ll tell you when I get there.”
“I’ll order a pizza. I bet you haven’t eaten yet.”
She knew me too well. One of these days, I’d have to marry that girl. “Perfect. Maybe seeing you will bring back my appetite.”
I grabbed my jacket and headed for my bike, then decided that since it was dark it would be safer to walk; she only lived a couple blocks away. The walk in the cool, brisk evening proved good for me. By the time I arrived, I was hungry again.
Lola greeted me at the door with a big hug and a peck on the cheek, then took my coat. The smell of pizza already filled the room.
“Your timing is perfect—the pizza just arrived. Would you like to watch the parade video while we eat? Or would you rather talk?”
She reached out her slender hand and looked at me with those big green eyes, and I just let it all pour out. The bigotry, the threats from the board, the lack of good leads, Josh and Glenda, everything.
The woman I was certain I would one day marry, held both my hands and we prayed together about it all, putting everything in God’s hands. Then she led me over to the couch and gave me food.
My grandma would have loved her. Grandma always solved our problems with food, New Orleans style, and she was the best cook I’d ever known.
“You don’t know for certain that Josh was the father of Glenda’s baby, do you?” she asked in between bites of a slice of pineapple and Canadian bacon pizza.
I swallowed a bite of pepperoni pizza before answering. “No, not for sure. I wonder if anyone knew except Glenda. I really doubt she’d tell me.”
“The youth center does counseling too. Maybe she went to Dorian for advice. Of course, she really couldn’t tell you anything without compromising her ethics, but maybe she could at least give you some insight. I believe Josh did his community service there after the fire.”
I shook my head. After all of my running around I could have found most of my answers right here. Small towns were so different from the big city. Everyone seemed to know everyone’s business, though apparently Toews had managed to keep the details of Glenda’s pregnancy from most of the town.
Lola popped in the video of the parade, then sat back down next to me with another piece of pizza.
“I still don’t get what the big deal is. What am I missing that makes this parade something that people just have to go see?”
After wiping pizza sauce from her lips, Lola smiled. “It’s tradition and nostalgia. Everyone who grew up in this town remembers coming to the parade as a kid and eating until they were sick. Everyone is either in the parade or knows someone in the parade. It’s all part of living in a small town. Traditions mean a lot to us. And for those who’ve moved away, the parade is a reason to come home and visit friends and family.”
Now more than one person had said a similar thing to me, but it just wasn’t completely sinking in and it must have shown on my face.
“Okay, think of something in your childhood you used to do every year.”
“When I was a kid we used to get Chinese take-out every year when Mom went on the women’s retreat. Dad and I would take it to his office and we’d have a picnic on the floor. It was my favorite thing to do every year.”
She smiled. “You still have a thing for Chinese take-out, don’t you?”
Finally, I understood. It wasn’t the parade itself that was so special, but the tradition and memories connected to it. The memories of special times together with those you loved every time you went. Just like how I always thought of my dad when I got Chinese take-out. Even now, I had memories of the parade and the Fiesta I’d never forget, though I hoped the rest of my parades in Kingsbury would be less eventful.
We only got through the first twenty minutes of the parade video before I stopped mid-chew. “Wait, where were the sirens? The police vehicles?”
“They had a last minute emergency and couldn’t be there. Why?”
I jumped up, almost knocking her coffee table over. “I have to go.”
“What? Mike, what’s wrong?”
“I may have figured out who our killer is. Can I borrow the videotape?”
“Sure. But don’t lose it or my sister will kill me.”
I grabbed the tape, gave her a hug and a kiss, and left her place, headed home at a run.
When I reached my door, I was gasping for breath and my phone was ringing. I stumbled to the phone and answered. “Hello.”
“Mike, is that you? Are you okay?” asked Stephen.
“Just give me a second to catch my breath. What’s up?”
“You were right. I found the only place in town that sells cloves. One of my dad’s men smokes them.”
“Would you believe George’s?”
I laughed. “Great, have you gone over there? They’re open late aren’t they?”
“See you in five, Heathen Boy.”
I checked my briefcase but was annoyed to see I had left the CD of the parade at my office. I would have to get Stephen to swing by there after we finished at George’s.
Stephen arrived in five minutes as he promised. It was already nine when we got to the market and went inside, but George was there cutting meat behind the meat counter. “What can I do for you boys?”
“I understand you sell cloves,” I said.
He looked at me with a disapproving frown. “Preacher, don’t tell me you smoke. Wouldn’t have thought it.” George walked over to the cash register, reached up behind the counter and grabbed a pack of clove cigarettes.
“The only place in town that sells ‘em, and I only get the best,” he said.
“I’m afraid I don’t smoke them, but we were hoping you could tell us who does.”
A puzzled look crossed the old, wrinkled face. “Stephen, is this part of your investigation into Toews’ death?”
“Well then, I’ll do all I can to help that poor kid. He’s a good boy, and they’re a good family. There are only two people in town who smoke cloves. Carl, who works for your dad, and Jim Barrows, over at the station.”
“I knew it. Thanks, George.”
“Just a minute, Mike,” said Stephen, as he grabbed my arm. “George, I could use a pound of that bologna you were slicing.”
Good old Stephen. He knew George wouldn’t take money for information, but he wasn’t going to leave without purchasing something.
Back in the car, the smell of really good bologna seeped from the package, and I was reminded of how I’d left behind a half-eaten pizza. But there were more important things, and I was getting excited at the prospects. This must be how Stephen felt when he solved a case.
“That would be good info if Barrow’s alibi wasn’t so tight,” said Stephen as he started the car.
“I may be able to do something about that if you’ll head over to my office.”
At my office, I fumbled with the keys as my hand shook with excitement. Once inside, I turned on the CD of the parade. Stephen looked at me and flicked that unruly lock from his eyes, but remained silent.
I listened to the first fifteen minutes, then switched it off.
“Preacher Boy, I’m glad you finally appreciate our parade, but now is hardly the time to be just sitting here listening to that CD.”
A slow smile spread across my face. “On the contrary, Watson, now is the perfect time. I believe we have our killer.”
I refused to explain myself just yet, so Stephen went with me to take the CD and video over to Chief Harmon’s house, stopping on our way to pick up Lola. Glenda opened the door and I asked for her father.
“What are you doing here, Raffles?” he asked.
“Bringing you a killer.” I took the video of “Murder She Wrote” out of his VCR and gave him a questioning look. I pictured him as more of a “Spenser” fan. He merely shrugged, then resumed glaring at me.
“This is a video of the parade that Lola took. Watch the first few minutes, then I want to play a CD of the parade that Kevin gave me at the station from this year’s broadcast.”
He didn’t look happy, but he watched. Then I played the CD and as he listened, realization spread across all of their faces. “This isn’t from this year. Barrows must have played a recording of last year’s, betting on it being the same, not counting on a last minute emergency.”
I also clued him in to the cloves and the dark-clad stranger at the park. He took the CD and tape as evidence and said he’d keep me posted. We stopped by Café Joe for some coffee and dinner on our way home, quite pleased with ourselves for finding a killer and setting an innocent boy free. We definitely deserved some “real” coffee, to use the word of the Heathen Boy.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003