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.
Not sure where to go next, I sat on my bike for several minutes thinking. Since the ice cream was most likely to have contained the poison, we had to figure out who’d had the chance to put something in it. I got off my bike, leaned it up against a pole, and pulled out my cell phone. It was time to call in a favor.
“Smith here,” came the gruff voice at the end of the line.
“Hey, Kevin, it’s Mike. I need some info from you.”
I heard a long sigh. Kevin Smith worked in the coroner’s office. I wouldn’t exactly have called us friends, but we were acquainted enough for me to feel I could ask him for some info that wasn’t confidential. Besides, after I had gone on a blind date with his sister, he owed me.
“What?” Kevin never minced words.
“How long after ingesting cyanide does someone die?”
“Planning on killing off some of your flock?” He chuckled. “It varies. Was it swallowed?”
“As far as we know at this point.”
“Then if it was a toxic amount in a salt form it should be within one to fifteen minutes. It can cause immediate unconsciousness and convulsions. Can I get back to important work now?”
Some people never changed. “For now. How’s your sister?”
“Married with a kid on the way. You had your chance, Preacher.”
I hung up; quite happy I had missed my chance. It wasn’t that Holly Smith was ugly, she just happened to have her brother’s brusque personality. Not good for a preacher’s wife.
So it was still possible that the poison had come from the verinica. For now, I would have to pursue both angles.
Speaking of good material for a preacher’s wife, I called Lola. “Hey there, beautiful.”
Her giggle made me smile. “What’s up, Mike? I’m kind of in the middle of an audit.”
“Just one quick question. Who ran the booth where we got the verinica?”
“It was a combo thing. The Mennonite Brethren Church and the Youth Center. Why?”
“I’ll tell you later. Now get back there and let that auditor have it.”
Youth Center. That’s where I needed to go next. I couldn’t begin to imagine Dorian having anything to do with this, but then again, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to cross her. She was a formidable enemy from what I’d seen. She fought for those kids like a bulldog. Just how far would she go to protect them? I also wanted to question her about Glenda and Josh.
The Youth Center was clear on the other side of town near the river. At least I was working off all of the food I’d been ingesting lately. By the time I arrived, it was almost four. The Center was a big old building that had once been a Grange House. A lot of time and effort had gone into remodeling it. It now housed a big gym with basketball equipment and a pool. The Youth Center also offered classes in little rooms on each side of the gym. Music, writing, crafts, and more. Dorian had her office there as well and was always available for counseling. It was open from eleven a.m. until nine at night.
Originally, they were only open after school, but had found many home-schooled kids wanting to take advantage of the hours during school for P.E. classes.
As usual, the place was bustling with activity. Lately I hadn’t volunteered as much due to the extra load of the newspaper job. But as I looked at the young faces around me, I became determined to carve out time for this place every week. According to the reporter that covered the police beat for the paper, juvenile crime had gone down a lot since the Center opened. I couldn’t imagine Toews having shut it down without a major public outcry.
“Hey, Pastor Mike, long time no see,” called out a young redheaded girl from the basketball court.
“Hi, Ginger. Where’s Dorian?”
“In her office.”
“No prob. Got time for a little one on one?” she asked, holding the basketball out to me.
Not in the shape I used to be, I waved it off. “Not right now, but soon. I promise. Besides, I’m not in the mood to get creamed right now.”
“Okay, later then.” I heard her laughing as she returned to her game. It was so good to hear her laugh. This same cheerful girl had almost committed suicide a few months ago, and the Youth Center and God had changed her life.
I headed towards the back of the building to Dorian’s office. It was a small room decorated in purple and black. Even her desk was made of black wood. Very particular about her surroundings, she had paid for the furnishings herself so it could be just like she wanted. But from what I’d heard, she had scrounged the area thrift shops for most of it. If that was true, I needed to go thrift shopping more often because the room spoke of class.
There was nothing small town about this room nor the woman who sat at the black desk talking on a black 1920s phone. She waved for me to take a seat. I noticed a steaming cappuccino on her desk and found myself wishing for coffee.
She hung up and turned to face me. Her complexion was slightly dark, owing to the fact that she was half Mexican. But according to Stephen, she thought of herself more as French. Her long black hair fell down her back with a few small braids in front. Not one to follow the local crowd that was often a year behind the trends, her eye shadow was a gentle shade of lavender that matched her lipstick. When she stood, she was almost as tall as my own five foot ten. Even the gang members she dealt with knew better than to cross her. Stephen also informed me she was quite proficient in the martial arts.
“What can I do for you, Pastor Mike?”
“I was wondering if you could tell me who from your group was on duty during the parade at the verinica booth. I’d like to see if they saw something relating to the murder.”
“That would be me,” said Dorian, without elaborating any further.
“And did you see anything?” I prodded.
Dorian took a sip of her coffee and appeared to be pondering the question. I waited.
“Mr. and Mrs. Toews came to our booth, ordered some verinica, then left. I can’t say that I saw anything unusual. I assume you know of our problems with Mr. Toews. Let me assure you that I would not have resorted to murder to keep the Center open. Well, not unless I had to.” A slow smile spread across her face.
I wasn’t certain if her last comment was a joke or not. “Who prepared the verinica?”
“That was done the day before by a group of women from the Mennonite Brethren Church. We just helped serve.”
“I need to ask you something else as well. Do you know Glenda Harmon?”
Her face clouded. “Yes, I know her. Why do you ask?”
“Did she come here about a year ago for counseling?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential. Anything else?”
That was enough of an answer for me. If Glenda hadn’t come there, she probably would have said so. I wished she could tell me the father of Glenda’s child. “What about Josh Matthews?”
The dark face remained clouded, but anger now filled her brown eyes. “I’m sure you heard about the fire. Josh is a messed up, spoiled brat. It’s a shame, too. He’s a talented athlete; the kids look up to him. He could really be a role model if his personal life measured up to his athletic achievements. It’s a shame, and something I see all too often in this town.” She stood, and I knew I was being dismissed. I would learn nothing more from this woman.
I stood up, now with an uncontrollable desire for coffee. The air was becoming chilly as the day wore on and the hot dark liquid sounded good. “Thanks. If you think of anything that might be helpful, please let me know.”
Dorian reached out a long, slender hand. The grip was solid and yet gentle. “Thanks.”
Ginger was now playing a game with several other young people. I stood and watched for several minutes and was able to recognize most of the kids. At least half of them had been a part of a gang before they started coming to the Center. Now they were productive kids, doing well in school. This place saved lives. I could understand someone being willing to do anything to keep it open. But had Dorian gone all the way to protect it?
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003