I leaned hard on the bell next door to Bertha's Beauty Shop as Ruffin paced nervously beside me. It was 4 a.m. 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 reindeer, 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 up!"
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 A.M. 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."
She put down her fork and leaned back in her chair. She closed her eyes and I was amazed at how drawn her face looked even though she was only thirty-six, just four years older than me.
Kendrick was twenty-six years old and so good looking that given half the chance he would put Denzel in the shade. He made you want to holler when he parted that fine mouth to smile at you.
Henderson Laws owned the Half-Moon, and Thea and Kendrick had worked behind the bar.
"You say you were there. Did you see what happened?"
"Well, I mean . . . I kinda saw it and didn't see it."
I looked at her. "What does that mean?"
She moved from the chair and toward the counter where the brushes, scissors, hair oils, shampoos, creams, and color charts lay.
It was still early, barely 7 A.M., but from habit she plugged in the outlet connecting the rack of iron straightening combs. Then she picked up a towel and pointed to an empty chair.
"Listen, I know you don't need it, short as your hair is, but how about a conditioner. I can talk better when my hands are working."
I shrugged and sat in the chair and she fastened the plastic cape around my shoulder. She applied an egg-and-mayonnaise mixture that felt cold but soon warmed up as her fingers massaged my scalp.
"So start at the beginning. You never go to that bar. How come you were there last night? And what happened to your dress?"
"Well, you know--" Bertha stopped talking when the brass bell over the door jingled and two women came in together. Midthirties and well dressed. I had never seen them before and neither had Bertha, judging from her expression. Neither one had an appointment. I glanced at the clock over the mirror.
Seven-fifteen, especially on a Saturday, wasn't too early for a "walk-in," as the beauticians called them. Most small operators-- unlike the major salons--usually accommodated walk-ins, hoping they'd return if they were satisfied with the work.
These women seemed anxious, and after a minute or so I wondered if they were here to find out about Kendrick. Or had they been in the bar, part of the night crowd who decided to drop in for the real deal to take back to their friends.
The taller woman had medium-brown skin with longish hair pulled back in a ponytail held by a wide barrette. The other woman was dark and pretty with wide eyes under a close feathered haircut.
Bertha did not hesitate: "Good morning. What can I do for you?" She placed a plastic cap on my head, not at all gently, and the mirror reflected her annoyance. She was civil but her straight face let them know that today she wasn't ready to handle anything except dead presidents-as many Jacksons as possible and preferably a few Grants.
The two women glanced at each other and it became clear that they were not together. They had simply walked in the door at the same time. The ponytail, the taller of the two, spoke first and wasted no words.
"I want to know why your brother killed Thea."
The silence lasted longer than I expected. It was broken by Bertha's tight whisper. "What did you . . . say?"
"You heard me. I want to know--" Before the woman got the rest of the words out, Bertha was down from the stool, scooping up a blazing straightening comb from the rack.
"Raise up, bitch! My brother didn't kill nobody!"
Bertha was less than five feet three and Miss Ponytail was as tall as I am, five nine. But what Bertha might have lacked in height she made up for in volume.
"You gonna eat them words or eat this heat!"
The other woman, the feather-cut, seemed horrified and backed toward the door but did not open it.
"Wait! Wait a minute," I said, stepping in front of Bertha to face the woman. "Who are you? What do you mean coming in here with a question like that?"
The woman looked at me as if seeing me for the first time.
"I have a right. Thea . . . was my friend."
Her eyes were wide with anger and I could see the tears threatening to spill over.
"Look, you're upset. Why don't you sit down. Then we can talk. We can--"
"Aw no!" Bertha said, pushing me aside. "Bitch come in with attitude and you makin' her at home? Fuck her. Let her get her ass on out my door. Right now!"
"Bert, please. Wait a minute. Let me--"
"Let you nuthin'! Whose side you on anyway?"
A red tinge had spread across her brown face, and I knew the last thing she needed was a stroke.
"Okay. Okay. She's leaving."
I intended to walk outside with the woman, get a phone number, and contact her later. Any information she had might help, but right now Bertha was too angry to see it.
"So what you waitin' for, bitch? Get the fuck on out!"
"Don't you dare speak to me like that!"
"I'll dare the devil if he come on wrong. Now don't you like it, don't you take it. Here's my shoulder, come on shake it!"
I stepped out of the way. Scars have a habit of staying with me, so I wasn't about to connect with Bertha's hot comb. The decibel level was so high that no one heard the bell jingle.
Framed in the doorway was a third woman and we all turned to stare.
"Pardon me. Which one of you is Kendrick's sister?"
The four of us already crowded in the small space now looked at this new person. Clearly she had not come to have her hair done. Even under the deep crown of her straw hat, we could see the pale blond strands pushed to the side. Her thin shoulders were held back as if by a brace and she carried a large straw bag loosely in the crook of her arm. Her blue eyes took in the scene and she seemed undecided about stepping any farther into the shop.
"Who are you?" I asked.
She hesitated for a fraction of a second, long enough for me to know a lie was coming.
"I'm . . . Teddi Lovette. His agent."
She tried to smile but her voice shook.
"Come in," I said, even though I knew she was lying.
Bert still had not shifted gears sufficiently to open her mouth without screaming, and Miss Ponytail used the moment to head out.
"Well, okay," I said to no one in particular and followed like a hostess seeing a guest to the door.
Once outside, I caught Miss Ponytail's arm.
"Just a minute. I want to apologize. Bert's upset."
"So am I," the woman said and continued to walk. My legs are long but the woman moved so fast I had a problem keeping up. I trotted beside her, feeling the egg-and-mayo mixture beginning to ooze down my neck from under the cap.
"Listen, I knew Thea also. She was a sweet person and what happened to her was terrible. An awful thing."
We reached the corner and the light changed.
"I know you're too upset to talk right now, but could I call you?"
She fumbled in her purse. When she finally extended her card, I snatched it before the light changed again.
"How well did you know Thea?" she asked.
I stood there, praying for the light to change once more and struggling for an answer that would sound at least half-truthful.
She nodded her head. "Because you must be mistaken. Thea . . . was not a sweet person."
Then she stepped off the curb, crossed Eighth Avenue, and opened the door to
Excerpted from A Toast Before Dying by Grace F. Edwards. Copyright © 1998 by Grace F. Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.