Read A Toast Before Dying Online

Authors: Grace F. Edwards

A Toast Before Dying

Praise for Grace F. Edwards


If I Should Die
was one of the best mysteries of 1997. Anderson’s second outing … is equally impressive.… What lingers in the memory are Edwards’ perfect evocations of the past and present Harlems.”

—Chicago Tribune

“Fascinating … [Mali] is well worth meeting.”

—The Purloined Letter


“[An] excellent first mystery … Edwards expertly creates characters who leap to instant long-remembered life.”

Chicago Tribune Book Review

“With style, and her wise and elegant sleuth, Grace Edwards captures the mood and bittersweet flavor of contemporary Harlem.”

—Valerie Wilson Wesley, author of
Where Evil Sleeps

“A gripping, raw, and suspenseful introduction to a resourceful heroine and the world she lives in.”

—Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

“You don’t want to miss this lush and riveting mystery.”

Mystery Lover’s Bookshop News

“A gorgeous, sassy heroine and a plot that doesn’t quit. V. I. Warshawski, look out!”

Woman’s Own

Also by Grace F. Edwards

In the Shadow of the Peacock
If I Should Die

This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition.


A Bantam Book / Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Doubleday hardcover edition published May 1998
Bantam paperback edition / March 1999

All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1998 by Grace F. Edwards.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

eISBN: 978-0-307-77902-1

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.


Dedicated to my daughter Perri A. Edwards
and to my granddaughter Simone


My thanks to the members of the Harlem Writers Guild, Inc., especially Bill Banks, Donis Ford, and Sarah Elizabeth Wright for their unwavering love and support.

chapter one

leaned hard on the bell next door to Bertha’s Beauty Shop as Ruffin paced nervously beside me. It was 4
and except for a solitary figure half a block away who slipped into the shadow of an abandoned building, Eighth Avenue was deserted.

Even the twenty-four-hour bodega across the street that dispensed milk, soda, beer, and cigarettes through the narrow slot in its iron shutter had turned off the multicolored strobe light.

One block north, a patrol car turned into 135th Street heading for the precinct. I could hear the thrum of the car’s motor in the quiet.

 … Where is Bertha? She had phoned in the middle of the night, crying. Where is she?

Through the window of the shop, I made out the circular stairway in the rear that led up to her apartment The night-light was on but I could see no one.

Ruffin crouched low on the cool pavement, wagging
his tail, watching as I reached into my pocket for a quarter, snaked my hand through the metal grill, and rapped on the window. The echo sounded as if glass were breaking.

I withdrew my hand and thought again about what brought me here. Bertha had been crying, trying to tell me something about Kendrick. There had been noise and we’d gotten disconnected.

I leaned against the metal shutter and glanced up and down the deserted avenue, trying to keep my thoughts from racing. Maybe she was at the precinct, at Harlem Hospital’s emergency room. Or at the morgue.

Suddenly Ruffin rose to his feet and let out a short growl, low and deep.

“Ruffin! What’s the matter?”

He pressed on the leash and I had to pull back hard to restrain him. He didn’t exactly relax, but there was less resistance and I eased up. If he wanted to, he could have taken off and dragged me for half a block. But he was a well-trained Great Dane.

Still, I held the leash and reined him in tightly when Flyin’ Home rolled up in his wheelchair, being pulled along by his two German shepherds. The dogs were large and reminded me of St. Nick’s reindeers, except they were not in the business of delivering Christmas gifts. They spotted Ruffin and were ready for battle. The barking could be heard for blocks.

“Yo! Shut the fuck
!” Flyin’ Home yelled. “Can’t take you asses nowhere ’thout y’all actin’ up.”

Flyin’ Home was twenty-eight years old, with powerful brown arms and the deceptively round face of
an angel. Up until three years ago, when he’d had the use of his legs, he’d been known as the Artist—as in escape artist (specifically, fire escapes). He’d been known to scale them up, down, and sideways; pop a window gate, and scoop an assortment of what he called “alphabet appliances”—PCs, TVs, and VCRs. And he usually made it back down to the street in the time it took the snoring victim to turn over.

He had worked unarmed, and one night he’d come through the window of an insomniac propped in bed cradling a Mossberg pump shotgun with a twenty-inch-long barrel.

The blast had taken care of the Artist’s lower spine and had left him navigating in a chair ever since. The chair was motorized, but as his legs had grown smaller he’d gotten the dogs because, he said, they moved faster. He traveled at top speed and his girlfriend had stenciled the name Flyin’ Home on the back of the chair.

I waited as he spoke to the dogs again. Then in the sudden silence he nodded to me, but his eyes were scanning the avenue.

“You lookin’ for Bert? She at the Half-Moon. Somebody got capped.”

“What? Who? Who was it?”

“I ’ont know and I ’ont care,” he said quickly, still looking around. “Blueshirts on the scene, bad for my health.” He gave the slightest snap of the leather harnesses and the dogs rose at once.

“Flyin’, wait! Who was there? Did you see anything?”

“Hell, no. And you ain’t on the force no more, so why you wanna know?”

“I’m not on the force, but you and I go back a long way.”

“I’m cool with that, Mali. And since we go back, you oughtta know my motto: When shit go down, I leaves town.”

With that, he clicked his teeth and the chair took off, rumbling quickly over the pavement. It picked up speed, and in a blink Flyin’ Home was a block away.

I watched as he disappeared down Eighth Avenue.

 … Somebody got capped. Shot. And Bert had screamed on the phone, “They got Kendrick, Mali! They got my brother!”

Huge spotlights cast a blue-white glow over the Half-Moon Bar, and the entire corner of 140th Street and Seventh Avenue was cordoned off as if a major film crew had set up operations. The crowd pressing against the barricades was larger than at most parades, and I understood why Eighth Avenue was so deserted. Everyone had run to where the action was.

I couldn’t maneuver into the crowd with Ruffin, so I skirted the periphery. “What happened?”

A man and a woman glanced at me, then at Ruffin, and backed away. “I don’t know. Somebody got killed, is all we know.”

I kept moving, asking, until someone, a slim teenager seated safely out of reach atop a parked car, looked
down at me and nodded. “Barmaid. They just took her from the alley.”

An older woman standing on the other side of the car chimed in. “Today was her birthday. Big sign in the window all week. Somebody said she had just had a birthday toast. Then she got blown away. Ain’t that somethin’? Don’t know from one day to the next what’s in store for you.”

I stood there for a moment, allowing the news to sink in. It was not Kendrick who’d been killed, but Thea. It was Thea, the most popular barmaid in Harlem.

The milling crowd was so thick I couldn’t see beyond the outer edges. Some of the uniformed officers that I recognized on the scene would not have offered me much in the way of information, and Tad Honeywell was not there. I would’ve spotted him. I moved away. Kendrick had not been killed, but Bertha had said, “They got my brother.” Where was he? And where was she? I circled the crowd again, hoping to catch sight of them.

An hour later, only one crime-scene van remained, and the crowd began to thin out. At 5
I left also, turning into 139th Street toward home.

The phone was ringing and I knew it was Bertha before I picked it up. Her voice sounded old.

“Listen, I’m home. Can you stop by later?”

“I heard what happened, Bertha. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

Dad hadn’t gotten in from his gig at the Club Harlem so I propped a note on the piano and left the house again. Dawn was a weak glow pushing against the gray sky and the chatter of busy birds kept me company all the way to Eighth Avenue.

Bertha’s Beauty Shop was two blocks away, situated between a small Laundromat and a store that sold balloons and party favors. Bertha’s shutter was now rolled up.

When she opened the door, tears welled up even before she spoke. “Come on in. You don’t know what I been through. You don’t know …”

“What happened? Thea’s dead. How did it happen?”

I followed her inside. The front of the shop was in semidarkness and the cool air had not yet been sucked out into the July heat by the steady opening and closing of the door. Bertha had come downstairs from her apartment wearing a pink silk dress edged in rhinestones. She apparently had not had time to change. The dress was torn and dirty, her hair was a mass of auburn tangles, and her face was puffed from crying.

“Listen,” I said, “go get yourself together while I fix some coffee. Laura’s Luncheonette is probably open by now. I’ll run out for some breakfast.”

Without a word, she disappeared up the stairs again. I plugged in the coffeemaker, and by the time I returned, the coffee was perking, and Bertha was sitting in the chair by the window in her usual jeans and T-shirt. I handed her a plate of grits, eggs, and bacon.

“So, you heard …?”

“Not everything. I still don’t know what happened.”

“That’s what everybody in the Half-Moon was askin’. ‘What happened?’ Well, Thea was shot dead in that alley back of the bar. Kendrick’s in jail. Henderson Laws, that son of a bitch, heard the shot and come runnin’ out the door sayin’ my brother did it, that Kendrick had shot her. I was there. I know he didn’t do it. But the cops took Henderson Laws’s word, and now my brother’s in jail.”

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