A Toast Before Dying

A Toast Before Dying by Grace F. Edwards Read Free Book Online

Book: A Toast Before Dying by Grace F. Edwards Read Free Book Online
Authors: Grace F. Edwards
She’s his sister.”
    “No. I mean she was there and—”
    “Well, okay. We may as well get this over with. When are you available?”
    “Well—right now, if it’s okay with you.”
    “Fine. Come to my office. You have my card.”
    She hung up before I could say good-bye.
    It was 6 P.M. , plenty of time to see Gladys and still get to Tad’s place by 9. That was one date I meant to keep. This no-cal, no-fat love life had me talking in my sleep.

    Gladys Winston worked in a large three-desk office on Fifth Avenue near 125th Street one floor above a fabric store run by a Senegalese couple. The voices of the customers, in English and Wolof, followed me into the adjoining entrance hall and up the stairs to the second floor. Before I touched the bell, Gladys Winston opened the door.
    “Saw you from the window,” she said, motioning me to a large desk in the corner. The office was well furnished with two smaller desks facing each other in the center of the carpeted room and low mahogany file cabinets lining one wall. The beginnings of a western sunset cast a strong orange tint on the plants in the wide window and a vertical fish tank that stood in the corner. Large framed pictures of Harlem brownstones on tree-lined blocks—some of which I recognized were on Convent Avenue—lined the beige walls.
    Gladys’s desk was separated by a waist-high Plexiglas partition. She sat down opposite me and eased her feet out of her shoes. The red Chanel suit jacket that was draped over the chair told me everything I needed to know about her sales commissions. Her ponytail was now twisted into a French knot, and her face, when she wasn’t frowning, was actually pretty. She was probably in her mid-thirties, but right now her drawn face made her appear older.
    “It’s been tough.” She sighed. “I couldn’t work, couldn’t concentrate. Susan and Margie, my two brokers, are out, showing houses, and I’ve turned the machineon because I need this quiet time. Perhaps by Monday I’ll feel like my old self again.”
    She waved her hand toward the computers on the desk. “Right now, I’m completely out of it.”
    She walked over to one of the cabinets, her bare feet soundless on the thick carpet, and returned with a quart of Absolut and a bottle of ginger ale.
    “Sorry. Our ice maker’s acting up. Haven’t seen a cube in a week now. Hope you don’t mind.” She placed two glasses on the desk and poured. “We pull this out on celebratory occasions—a half-million contract, a multiple closing, whatever. We offer a toast.”
    She raised her glass and suddenly put it down. Then picked it up again and closed her eyes. “Well, Thea. We had fun …”
    Feeling like a hypocrite, I sighed and lifted my own glass. But the toast was a good opening.
    “How long had you known Thea?”
    “Let’s see …” Gladys had gone light on the ginger ale and the drink made her cough. She held her breath until the initial burning subsided. “Let’s see. We met at the pageant in 1985. In Albany. She was first runner-up and I was second. She should’ve won, but …”
    “But what?”
    Gladys shrugged, changing the subject as if she had not heard me. “We shared a suite. There were so many chaperones, you wouldn’t believe. We couldn’t smoke, drink, chew gum. Not that we wanted to, you understand, and I think Thea was a little moredriven—motivated—than I was, at least in the beginning.”
    I nodded, not certain if it was the Absolut or the well of memory, but she seemed suddenly animated. Her mouth curved into a small smile and she seemed even younger.
    “Thea was twenty-one and I was twenty-three,” she said, “and we wanted everything to be picture perfect, so chewing and drinking were the least of our problems. I mean we went through all the phases of the competition—talent, swimsuit, evening wear. Every curl in place and the smiles pasted on. We were gorgeous. Here, look.”
    She reached into the bottom drawer and pulled out a

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