I can hear the ice cubes crack in the glass as I pour myself a large measure of whiskey. I take a moment to savor the sting of the alcohol on my tongue, and press the record button on my handy-dandy tape player.
“Barbara Robinson speaking,” I say. “The date is July 9th, 1976, and the time is 9 AM. I glance at the generous measure of scotch I’ve just poured and think: What the hell, it’s 5 o’ clock somewhere. There is a loud knock at the door and I sigh. "Please God," I say. "Don't let it be an asshole."
“Why, hello Barbie,” says my ex, Frank. “What’s a gorgeous lady like you doing here, at this hour of the morning? Did you forget you’re supposed to be working with Vice tonight? You know, to catch all the perverts."
“Fuck you, Frank,” I say. “Vice is welcome to dress you up in a two dollar dress, so they can dump you on 32nd street to catch all the degenerates. All you need to do is shave your legs."
“Alright,” says Frank, “I get it. You are woman, hear you roar. I won’t tell the old man that you’re here, on your own time, drinking cheap bourbon and working on a case that clearly doesn’t belong to you.”
“Get out,” I say.
Franks entire face drops, and for a moment I feel sorry for him.
“For what’s it’s worth, Barb, I’m sorry,” he says. “I just got cold feet.”
“You just got cold feet?” I echo. “That’s bullshit and you know it.”
Frank shakes his head, smiling. "That’s what Dad thought you’d say.”
“He’s a smart man,” I say, turning back to the file on my desk.
“Anything I can help you with?” says Frank, leaning over my shoulder, and invading my space. "Also, don't you think it's a sign that you and I just happen to be here at the same time?
"What sign?" I say, totally confused.
Franks grins. "That you and I are meant to be, my adorable little alcoholic."
“You left me at the altar,” I say, taking another swallow of red-eye. It burns all the way down, and I wince. “I don’t need you, and I definitely don’t need your help.”
“Fine,” says my ex. “I’m telling my father exactly what you’re doing. I’m sure he’ll be very interested, and he definitely won’t have another stroke."
I sigh. “What do you want, Junior?”
Frank grabs my drink, and takes a sip. “I just want your help with the case. If you help me, I won’t tell the Chief of Police that you’re playing amateur detective. Also, please don’t call me Junior. You know I hate that.”
It’s my turn to sigh. "Give me back my drink.”
Frank smiles. “So, you’ll be my partner?”
I roll my eyes. “No, let’s call you my partner. Also, don’t call me Barbie. Barbie is a horrible role model to young girls, and she has unrealistic measurements.”
My new partner pats me on the back. “You’ve got it, Barb. I won’t say a word to my father, or the other clowns in Homicide. Scout's honor."
“Groovy,” I say. “Now go away.”
“Sure,” says Frank. “Only, can I say one last thing?”
I crack my knuckles. “Shoot."
“You have the perfect measurements,” he says.
“What?” I say.
“You know, according to Hugh Hefner. 36-24-36.”
“Thank you?” I say.
“You’re welcome,” says my ex. “Judging from your face, I’m guessing I should go?”
I down the rest of my drink. "Yes,” I say. “And while you’re at it, go to hell.”
Frank smiles again, and I suppress the desire to punch him in the face.
“See you later, Barb,” he says.
“Go fuck yourself,” I say.
“Sure thing,” calls my ex, as he ambles away. “I’ll call you later.”
According to the reports in the file, James Edwards was bad news.
“Alcoholic, womanizer, cokehead,” I say into the recorder. “Found strangled at 401 Euclid Avenue, in the part of town in that most people speed through. Discovered in the bathroom, blood all over the walls.” I take a deep breath and stretch.
“Fourteen stab wounds to the torso, but cause of death was suffocation due to strangulation with fishing wire.” I stop the tape. Fishing wire?
I run my hands through my hair, and stare blankly out of the window. I can see Lake Erie in the distance, and the water looks especially polluted. My desk phone rings, and I pick it up.
“You’ve reached Barb Robinson’s desk,” I say.
“Hello doll, what’s shakin’?” says Frank.
I open my top desk drawer, and pry open a large bottle of aspirin.
“Care to try again?” I say, as I pop a couple of pills, and swallow.
“Dearest Barbara,” says Frank, “would you accompany me to the finest cafe that Euclid Avenue has to offer?”
I sigh. “Why are you on Euclid Avenue, Frank? Are you smoking a joint with Tom again?” I hear a familiar laugh.
“Barb, why don’t you come and join us at Twila’s Cafe?” says Thomas, my husband's best friend. “It’s amazing here, and I insist that you join us. My treat. The brownies are to die for.”
“Far out, Thomas,” I say. “Would you put Frank on the phone?”
Thomas blows his nose. “Okay, but don’t, like, kill the vibe.”
“Hi Barb,” says Frank. “Would you get your keister down here? Thomas has info about the case.”
“What case?” I say.
“Spare me,” says Frank. "I may be a grade-A jerk, but I’m not an idiot. Why do you think I left the Edwards file on my desk? I really could use your help on this one, and I know you can’t resist the lure of the forbidden.”
I quickly button up my coat. “You know, Frank, that is actually kind of sweet.”
“Am I off the hook?” says my ex.
“Never,” I say. “But I will meet you at Twila’s in five.”
“Okay,” says Frank. “I can dig it."
“Minimalism,” says Thomas as he bites into the Sunday special, a foot-long hotdog with chili sauce. “That’s what life is all about.”
“Oh, absolutely,” I say, as I squirt a thin stream of mustard onto my hotdog.
“Stop talking out of your behind, Thomas,” says Twila, as she places an enormous hamburger in front of Frank. “Also, get off the dope."
I smile as Thomas turns crimson.
“Is it that obvious?” he says. “Does everyone know? I feel like people are looking at me.”
“Just get off the coke, Thomas,” I say.
“Damn straight,” says Twila. She carefully cuts into a banana cream pie, and arranges a slice on a plate. “Now eat this pie and be quiet, like a good little rich boy.” She places the pie in front of Thomas, and winks at Frank and I from behind the counter.
Thomas devours his dessert in four bites. "Thank you, Twila,” he says. “You’re an angel.”
“I know,” she says.
“Thomas,” I begin, “would you tell us what you know about James Edwards?”
“Who?” says Thomas. His pupils are dilated, and I suspect that his heart is beating as fast as a hummingbird’s.
Frank thumps the table with a fist, and Thomas jerks in his chair.
“Earth to Tom," says Frank. "Tell us what you know about the dead guy in the apartment." He winks at me, and I roll my eyes.
“Oh,” says Thomas, frowning. “I’m actually remembering too many details. Does anyone have any Valium? I think I’m having a bad trip.”
“No,” I say.
“Yes,” says Frank.
I drum my fingers on the table. “Just talk, Thomas.”
“Right on,” says our companion. “Well, James loved the ladies, and his wife didn’t like that.”
I take out a notebook, and Frank leans forward.
“What else?” says my ex. “Did James have any drug connections? Was he a dealer?”
Thomas begins to scratch his arm. “No, he just really dug the white stuff.”
I tuck my notebook into my handbag. "Were you his dealer, Tom?”
“Of course not,” says Thomas. “I can’t believe you would ask that.”
“Frank?” I ask. “What’s the minimum sentence for dealing coke in the great state of Ohio?”
Frank chuckles. “Twenty years.”
It's my turn to lean forward. “Thomas,” I say, “I’m going to ask one more time, and I want you to think carefully before you answer. “Were you James’ coke dealer?”
Thomas continues to itch his arm. “Okay, fair enough, you’ve got me by the balls. I was James’ dealer, but I didn’t deal to anyone else."
“Why?” says Frank.
Thomas loosens the buttons at the top of his shirt, and begins to massage the top of his chest. “Do you promise you won’t tell a soul?”
“I promise,” I say. “And I always keep my promises. That’s more than I can say for Frank.”
“Hey,” says Frank. “What did I do?”
“Oh yeah,” says Thomas. “I remember. Frankie left you at the altar on the big day. What a dumbass.”
“Amen,” says Twila.
Frank rubs the back of his neck. “What is this, pick on Frank day?”
“Apparently,” I say. “Tom, what’s the big secret?”
Tom fiddles with a St. George’s medallion that hangs around his neck. “I was James’ lover.”
A dish breaks, and I can hear Twila swearing.
“Did you kill him?” says Frank.
“No way,” says Thomas, as he begins to cry. “The guy was a shithead, but he was my shithead, you know? I loved him.”
“Do you think his wife killed him?” I say.
Thomas blows his nose on a monogrammed handkerchief. “I don’t know. Frank was always bitching about her, but I don’t know if Helen had it in her to kill the guy.”
“Where is Helen, now, Tom?” says Frank.
“She’s in church,” says Twila.
“How do you know?” says Frank.
Twila flips the open sign to closed. “Because she’s in my Sunday school class every week," she says. "If you all hurry to help me clean up, we’ll be just in time for first service.”
Frank raises his eyebrows, and Thomas groans.
“Well, you heard the lady. The faster we clean, the faster we can make like a banana and split,” I say.
“Banana?” laughs Frank. “Really?”
“What?” I say. “I don’t see you coming up with any snappy similes.”
Thomas rests his head on the table. “Can I have that Valium now?” he says.
“Jesus is all the Valium you need,” Twila says. “Now grab that mop and get to work.”
The Euclid Avenue Christian church is located at the intersection between Euclid and 96th street, so we don't have far to go. However, as we hurry down the sidewalk, we hear the clanging of the church bell, and end up having to run as fast as we can, just to make it in time for the first service.
“Ow,” says Thomas, clutching his head. “Can someone stop that bell?”
“Afraid not, Thomas,” I say. “I do have some aspirin, though. Do you want some?”
Thomas nods, and I pass him the bottle. As we enter the foyer, a lady with horn-rimmed glasses shakes her head.
“Youth these days,” she says.
Twila sighs. “They’re just aspirin, Margaret.”
Margaret puts a finger to her lips. “Shush. Reverend Williams is starting his sermon.”
“Wow,” says Frank. “How can that lady walk with a stick shoved so far up her a--"
“Be quiet,” I say. “Is nothing sacred to you?”
Frank leans in close, and I suddenly can’t breathe.
“Don’t start,” he says. “Just don’t.”
I narrow my eyes. “Or what?” I say. “What are you going to do?”
Frank smirks. “I’d like to do a lot of things to you,” he says, “and all of them are X rated.”
“Well done,” I say, beaming. "Congratulations. Nothing is sacred to you.”
“Jesus,” says Thomas, as all of us slide into a pew at the back of the church. “Would you two shut up?”
“I wish you wouldn't use the Lord’s name in vain,” says the old man behind us, “but amen to the shutting up part.”
“And now,” says the woman behind the podium at the front of the church, “it’s time for the Reverend Wayne Williams to bless us with a message from 2nd Corinthians.
“Thank you, Sister Helen,” says the old man behind us.
“Apologies, Reverend,” whispers Twila.
“No need to apologize,” says Reverend Wayne. “Nice to see some new folk in the pews today. I do tire of preaching to a church full of the same sour, dour country club faces every week.”
Reverend Wayne strolls to the podium, and smiles at the congregation. “If you would, open up to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 4," he says.
He waits for a beat, and then reads: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. Can I get an amen?”
“Amen,” says Sister Helen, and Twila hands me her church bulletin. That was your Helen, is written across the top.
“Amen,” I second, and take a moment to study Helen. Seated in the pew across the aisle, she has ash blonde hair, brown eyes, a crocheted sweater vest, and bellbottom pants. Very Shirley Partridge from The Partridge Family.
Helen smiles at me, and I smile back. She doesn’t seem like someone who would brutally murder anyone, but then again, neither did Ted Bundy.
“As we all know," says the Reverend, we are living in some dark times. Sinful times.”
Frank passes me his bulletin. When do you want to interview the suspect? is scrawled across the inside.
As soon as the service is over, I write.
Frank gives me a thumbs up. I glance at Thomas, who is snoring. Frank meets my eye, and we both grin.
“However,” continues the Reverend, “I want to talk about love.”
“Far out, man,” calls a random voice, and the congregation laughs.
“Indeed,” says the Reverend with a smile. “But I’m not talking about romantic love today; I’m talking about the love of God that overcomes darkness.”
“Preach it!” says Twila, as she raises a gloved fist in the air.
“Thank you, Twila,” says Reverend Wayne. “My friends, if it’s acceptable to you, I’d like to end today’s message early."
I raise my eyebrows and look at Frank, who shrugs his shoulders.
"You see," says the Reverend, "the Lord has laid it on my heart that there may be someone, here, who is in special need of God’s love and grace. If this is you, it is my pleasure to tell you that no matter what you’ve done, Jesus’ love erases all sin, and he loves and accepts you just as you are.”
Thomas wakes up and yawns, loudly. Twila beams at me, and sits up a little taller.
“Sister Twila,” says Reverend Wayne, “Would you lead us in a chorus of Amazing Grace?”
Twila rises from her seat, and stands beside the Reverend.
“As our dear sister sings this morning,” the Reverend Wayne says, “I’d like to issue an altar call. If you need to be forgiven of something you’d done this week, this is your opportunity."
As Twila begins the first few notes of Amazing Grace, I see an empty space in the pew where Helen was sitting. Frank begins to walk down the aisle, toward the the front of the church, and motions for me to follow. I shake my head. It's too soon.
"The prison of sin and darkness weighs us all down," continues the Reverend. "It’s never too late to repent, and for those scales to fall from your eyes, just like the Apostle Paul.”
“Hey,” says a bleary-eyed Thomas. “What the fuck is Helen doing up there?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I say.
“Would you be quiet?!” shouts Margaret from the pew in front of us. “Honestly, swearing in church! Some of us are trying to enjoy the service!”
Thomas reaches in his pocket and takes out some Valium. “Here lady,” he says, handing her a packet of blue pills. “Take some of these. You need them more than I do.”
Margaret’s mouth pops open in shock, but she quickly recovers. “Reverend Wayne!” she shouts, rushing to the front of the church, and pointing at Thomas. "I have a confession to make."
“Get in line, lady,” says Frank, waving toward Helen. “She was first.” Streaks of mascara have run down Helen’s cheeks, leaving behind thin charcoal streams, and I see that she is visibly shaking.
“What is it, Sister Helen?’ says Reverend Wayne, holding out his hand. “Won’t you tell us?”
“I killed my husband,” Helen says. A hush falls over the crowd, and it’s so quiet that I can hear the ticking of the clock at the back of the church.
“I told James we were going to have a baby,” Helen says, “but he didn’t want it. He said to get rid of it while he went fishing. He was drunk when he came back, and I told him I had gotten an abortion at the new clinic." Helen starts to sob, and Twila hands her a handkerchief.
"Just breathe, honey," says Twila.
Helen nods, but keeps talking. "I told him to lie down on the couch to have a nap, and I saw the tackle box. There was some wire and one of his hunting knives. I was so angry, and I didn’t want him to hurt the baby! So I strangled him, and then--"
Frank clears his throat, and flips open his detective badge. “I’m sorry, Reverend, but I’ll have to take over from here.”
The Reverend bows his head, and nods. “I’m so very sorry, Sister Helen.”
“That’s okay, Reverend,” says Helen, beaming. “The scales have fallen from my eyes, and I feel much better. I was blind, but now I can see."