Read an Excerpt
The Cornbread Killer
By Lou Jane Temple
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Lou Jane Temple
All rights reserved.
The street had ghosts. Every once in a while she would see the tail end of one, just a wisp of someone's leftover spirit, out of the corner of her eye. She always recognized them; the apparitions looked like the hepcats who used to play on the street, Bennie Moten or the Count, sometimes Charlie Parker with so much sadness in his eyes. One day she saw a young Duke Ellington, elegant in white tie and tails, stop and look up, then tip his silk top hat at her before disappearing around the corner of 18th and Vine. Sometimes the ghosts brought a sound track with them, short snatches of laughter and music that filled the room and then were gone.
Evelyn Edwards stared out the window of her cramped office. The city had found this space for her to use while she was putting together the big dedication weekend. It was on the second story of a building not yet officially restored; a dusty, old-fashioned billiard hall was still open on the first floor. Next weekend, the Eighteenth and Vine Historical District would be up and running. Where would she go then? Sooner or later someone would ask her when she would have her belongings moved out. If Nolan Wilkins had anything to do with it, it would be sooner.
Why had she burned so many bridges to get here? She was filled with such urgency to sort out her past, she forgot about good common sense and fair play. Nothing seemed as important as this, certainly not the consequences of some of her recent stunts. She had, in the last few days, been compelled by events to admit she might have taken a more prudent path. Some of the things she'd done could be ready to come back and bite her on the ass. But she'd been driven, and now she was here and committed and that was that, however it played out.
Evelyn Edwards looked around at her reflection in the old mirror she had nailed up on the office wall so she could put on makeup. Beautiful? Maybe. Skin the color of coffee with real cream in it. Long hair made longer with extensions. She had three good suits and lots of accessories. Surely he would be proud when he saw her. She looked away from her image, disgusted with herself for such a thought, such a weakness.
Evelyn pulled the telephone toward her. She had some damage control to do if she was going to survive this latest crisis. And survive she must, so she could be here in the middle of things for the dedication. Right in the middle of the action, where he would be as well.
As she fiddled with her electronic address book, looking for a number, the door opened behind her. When she organized her office, she'd debated over whether to be able to see the door or to look outside. Outside won. She continued to dial, not looking around. "Well, big sister, I hope you brought me some of that cornbread you're so famous for."
Mona Kirk stepped up next to the desk. "I don't know who you're expecting, but I haven't brought you anything but a warning." Mona's eyes were blazing with anger.
"Mona, I'm busy here. What's your problem?"
Mona snorted. "You're the one with a problem, miss. You have been dishonest and now you're caught. And I, for one, am steamed about it. You're jeopardizing a project that is near and dear to my heart."
She tried to get up but Mona had her wedged in her chair. "Get off me, woman," Evelyn protested. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Mona pointed her finger at Evelyn and leaned toward her. Evelyn was surprised at the old girl. She'd taken Mona for a widow with too much time on her hands, not a crusader.
"You," Mona declared, "have been demanding kickbacks from the vendors who are helping us with the gala dedication. And that's not right. That's stealing from the people of Kansas City."
"I really don't have time for, this, Mona. I don't know who's been lying about me, but I'm sure there's not a speck of proof that I've asked anyone for money to be a part of your little ol' dedication."
Mona straightened up with a look of triumph in her eyes. "That's where you're wrong, young lady. You better start packing up your stuff, because after tonight, I'm betting you'll be gone from Eighteenth and Vine. You have been found out!"
Evelyn twisted her way out of the chair and stood up to face her accuser. "I don't think so. Now, beat it. I'll see you at the meeting this evening, and you better not be making these silly accusations then. We still have a lot of work to do before next week. You certainly don't have time to fire me and hire another event planner, so if I were you I'd just shut up and mind my own business, which is finding volunteers, as I recall."
"I won't let you take advantage of this town and this committee. We can dedicate this district without you," Mona snapped. "I intend to make sure of that."
"I'm going," Mona said as she swept out and slammed the door.
Evelyn sat back down and fiddled with the pages of her desk calendar. She was so close. It was that florist. She knew she'd made him mad when she asked for ten percent of the gross. But Evelyn didn't intend to stay in Kansas City, so she couldn't very well ask him to landscape her yard or something like that. Besides, she needed the cash.
The door opened again, and Evelyn turned angrily. But it wasn't Mona Kirk, back for a second round. It was a beautiful black woman dressed in vintage clothing. Her hair was marcelled; her platform shoes and gloves and hat all matched her burgundy-colored 1940s gabardine suit. "I didn't know when to expect you," Evelyn said.
"Surprise is always a good weapon, don't you think, sister? And now is as good a time as any for you to explain why you think we are sisters."
"Half sisters," Evelyn amended, still mesmerized by the physical presence of this other woman. She filled the room with her energy. Evelyn thought she saw one of the Eighteenth and Vine ghosts dart into the room and out again. Even the dead were attracted.
Evelyn slipped two photos out of the desk drawer and held them up. The other woman took them in her hand and stared at the images intently. "There the bastard is. One with you and your momma, one with me and my momma," Evelyn said.
"Where'd you get these?"
"Just last year, when Momma passed, I found them in a box, along with some other things that belonged to our long, lost father. He must have left them behind and forgot about them, like he forgot about me and my mother," Evelyn said, the pain of remembering all there in her voice.
"But what brought you to me? That could be any little black girl."
"Don't give me that shit. That's you, and you know it. And I've done my homework. I didn't just call you up out of the blue," Evelyn said with more confidence in her voice than she felt.
"Were there any letters?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"Calm down, Mona," Heaven said. "Haven't I been working on this celebration for months now? I'm not going to leave you in the lurch, not when we're this close to the finish line."
Mona Kirk tugged at her glasses — cat eyes, of course — and sat down beside Heaven Lee. They were at Sal's Barber Shop, across Thirty-ninth Street from Mona's cat gift shop and Cafe Heaven. Mona had put a Be Back in Five Minutes sign on the door and gone across the street when she saw Heaven heading for Sal's. "You have worked like a Trojan, H, but I just want you to be prepared for the meeting tonight. It's getting close to the big gala weekend and everything is all in an uproar, believe you me. The mayor's office is mad at the Ruby Theater people. The Ruby Theater people are mad at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum people, and everybody is mad at the Parks and Recreation people, who are supposed to have had the parking lot paved but it isn't. And don't get me started on Evelyn Edwards."
"What's she done now?" Heaven asked.
Mona pinched her lips together. "You'll find out tonight, and I'm hoping it will be the last act for that little crook. I just can't abide what she's done. After so many people have worked for years to get Eighteenth and Vine renovated, we can't let some party planner ruin it."
Sal d'Giovanni looked up from the sink. Sal kept tabs on his whole shop through the mirrors that covered the walls. He rarely turned toward the person he was talking to. Now he chewed on his unlit cigar and grinned at the same time. "That's what happens when you volunteer for stuff, Mona, you have to contend with the fact that most people are incompetent. Heaven, what's your part of this wingding? Are you catering?"
Heaven rolled her eyes and shook her head, looking embarrassed and proud at the same time. "Of course not, nothing that would actually produce income. I am the volunteer chairman of the food committee for the dedication of the Eighteenth and Vine Historic District."
Mona looked around for something to eat. It was the middle of the afternoon, so there was no thought of drinking Sal's coffee, which was frightening even in the morning. She spotted a bagel in a see-through plastic bag, gave it a poke. It was impervious to her touch, so she put it back on the counter. "Now, Heaven, remember we asked you to cater the fancy party Friday night, the opening gala. And, Sal, she said that the black community should do the catering because this was celebrating the history of the black community. She was right, of course."
Sal started scrubbing his combs and brushes. "So she works just as hard for free. Smart move, H." Sal knew Heaven had been so busy at the restaurant she barely had time to go home and change her clothes. Folks in Kansas City came out of the woodwork in the spring, going out to eat, listening to music, enjoying the good weather that would end when summer and the humidity hit. Now she'd taken on a big volunteer job. Sal would have to ask Murray to keep an eye on her. Heaven never knew when to say no.
"Who's Evelyn Edwards?" Sal asked.
"A smarty-pants party planner who has been hired to coordinate the entire gala weekend," Mona said tartly.
"And?" Sal said. "Don't give me a one-sentence description, especially when I can hear from the tone of your voice that there's more to the story."
"Mona doesn't like Evelyn, Mona doesn't like Evelyn," Heaven chanted in a singsong voice.
Mona got up and looked over at her shop. There was a small gray kitty sitting in front of the door. "Sal, it isn't that I don't like Evelyn. I just don't trust her, and it turns out I'm right. Something's not kosher, and as the chairman of volunteers for the entire weekend, I'm not about to put up with it. Oh, look, a new kitty. I better go feed it."
Sal glanced across the street via the mirror and shook his head. "So you think you can get out of telling us about this Evelyn gal by changing the subject to a stray, do ya? Every cat in Kansas City that no one wants ends up here on Thirty-ninth Street. There must be a sign somewhere: 'Leave all unwanted cats on Thirty-ninth Street, because Mona is a soft touch.' "
Heaven got up and patted Sal on his bald head. "You must be bored today. You're trying to start trouble."
"I don't see a cat blocking the entrance to your place of business, Mr. d'Giovanni," Mona sniped.
Heaven put her arm around her friend and headed toward the door. "We'd better get back to work so we can go to the meeting. Do you want to ride downtown together? The meeting is at six, so I'll have to come back to the restaurant anyway. You can leave your car behind the shop."
Mona smiled. "I'd like that, but you're always late and we have to leave on time, have to, have to. We have lots of ground to cover tonight. I'll come over and get you. Be ready at five-forty." The two women waved to Sal in the mirror and went across the street.
Sal surprised them both by sticking his head out the door of the barbershop. "Heaven," he called across the street. She turned toward him with a question in her look. "It wouldn't hurt you to take a night off, you know. You work too much."
Heaven rolled her eyes. "Coming from you, that's a compliment," she said, and blew him a kiss.
The truth was, Heaven didn't want a night off. Hank was in Houston for two months and Heaven was lonely.
She hadn't planned it this way, but most of her life had been spent in tandem with a man. It certainly hadn't been traditional, one man for life. But when one relationship had gone wrong, another had rapidly taken its place. Years ago she'd walked out on her first husband and childhood sweetheart, Sandy Martin, after a miscarriage left her anxious and skittish. She married her second husband, rock musician Dennis McGuinne, before she realized how impossible it would be to live that lifestyle. In a year she was divorced and back in Kansas City with a baby daughter, Iris. Iris was going to college in England now, spending time with her father. She was the light of Heaven's life always.
But Heaven hadn't stopped needing a man in her life just because she had a daughter. Ian Wolff, the painter, had been the next husband. When he broke Heaven's heart, she found a wonderful man, Sol Steinberg, a uniform manufacturer, to replace him. When Sol died suddenly of a heart attack soon after they were married, designer Jason Kelly came knocking at her door. Then Heaven opened Cafe Heaven, and Jason quickly tired of her late hours and her preoccupation with business. Heaven and Jason divorced, and because of her hours, she was sure that — barring falling in love with the man who serviced the dishwasher and was around far too often — she was through with men.
She was going to concentrate on making money for a change.
But this guy from her neighborhood — he was just a kid, really — wouldn't stop coming around. He was a young doctor in his last year of residency, and he was handsome and funny and wise beyond his years. Huy Wing was his real name, even though most of his American friends called him Hank. His father had been killed execution-style during the fall of Saigon because he worked for the United States. Hank and his mother and sister had been on one of the last planes to leave for the United States and had been sponsored by a Catholic church in Kansas City. Hank had been four when they arrived at their new home. In Heaven's mind, Hank deserved a storybook family that would somehow make up for the heartbreak of his childhood, not a love affair with an older woman.
Heaven told herself this kid would get over his crush. In the meantime he spent more nights at her house than at his own. Hank was very comfortable with their relationship, even though Heaven was always telling him how he would grow up and move on. Hank said that losing his father and his country had given him an understanding of how the world really worked. He lived in the moment better than anyone Heaven had ever known. She was always letting her fear of the future get in the way of their time together; he was always bringing her back to the present.
But this current separation, only ten days old, was giving Heaven time to stew about how she had allowed this guy, who she was positive should be dating someone his own age, to become so important to her. She was glad the Eighteenth and Vine event needed her attention right now. She could certainly use the distraction.
Heaven headed down the alley to the back door of her cafe and opened the kitchen door just in time to put out a spectacular oven fire.
The filling from Pauline's plum tarts had run over, and the sugar and fruit syrup had found some grease that had spilled the night before from the lamb shanks. The result was a mini bonfire that was fed by the oxygen that rushed in when Pauline opened the oven door. She yelped and looked around for the baking soda, which was across the room. Heaven was closest to the baking station. She grabbed the box of baking soda and emptied the contents on the bottom of the oven.
"Thanks, boss," Pauline muttered as she pulled out her tarts. They were fine, golden brown, the bottom of the pan the only thing blackened from the flames. Heaven thought she recognized a plum in the mess below. "This is such a drag," Pauline whined. "Now I have to let the oven cool down so I can clean it out, then heat it up again. I have flan and bread pudding yet to do, and I know Brian will need the ovens for something."
Both Brian Hoffman, the day chef, and Robbie Lunstrum were suddenly very busy on the other side of the kitchen. They were fighting back smiles. It wasn't that they wished Pauline ill, it was just the usual competition of any professional kitchen. When someone was really in the weeds, they usually got help, but not until they'd been teased about it.
"Guess you filled those tart pans too full, eh, Pauline?" Brian quipped. Heaven cleared her throat loudly to warn him he better shut up. The look on Pauline's face was somewhere between despair and rage.
Robbie Lunstrum saved the day, something he was famous for. Robbie was a sixty-something elf, a recovering alcoholic who relished every day of his sober life. He was the day dish washer, shrimp peeler, and handyman. Cafe Heaven couldn't open the doors without him. "Let me handle the cleanup, Pauline. I have asbestos hands. I'll be able to wipe that mess out in ten minutes or so. You do something else," Robbie said.
Pauline smiled. "Thanks, Robbie, I'll fill the flan pans. Heaven, will you please call the produce guy? He wants to know what you need for tomorrow."
Excerpted from The Cornbread Killer by Lou Jane Temple. Copyright © 2000 Lou Jane Temple. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.