When I got back to my room, the message light was flashing on my phone. The desk said I was supposed to meet a friend at noon in front of the columns at Quincy Market. That was all there was to the message and I figured it had to be from Mary Tally.
I tried again to call Bev but she was out. I left another message on her machine and then I looked at my watch. It said eleven o’clock. I decided to walk it.
Quincy Market is on Congress Street. The man at the desk told me I couldn’t miss it. He was right. Quincy Market looks like Boston’s answer to Pier 39 or Ghiradelli Square. It is a low-rise watertower if you use Chicago as a point of reference, with jugglers and puppet shows and guys with long hair playing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” on their guitars for spare change.
It is wall-to-wall people at noon on Saturday and I could understand why someone who didn’t want to be found might agree to meet there; it was a perfect place to get lost in a crowd. I had no idea how she would find me but I leaned on a gray concrete column and waited. A guy with a life-sized hand puppet, “Pirate Jack,” shouted friendly witticisms at people in the crowd. It was a pretty good puppet show and I didn’t mind the wait.
At exactly noon, someone tapped me on the shoulder. She wore a black leather mini with a zipper up the front, a lace camisole and a biker jacket. She had that honey-brown hair a la Tina Turner that seems to be enjoying a resurgence on black women. It was tied up in a cloth band. I thought that this was not the outfit I would pick if I were incognito, but then I noticed at least five other women around in roughly the same costume.
“You Beverly Johnson?” she said.
“Yeah.” I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do yet. “Are you Mary Tally?” I asked.
She put her hand on her hip. “Maybe,” she said. “Let’s walk, okay?”
“All right,” I said.
We walked. Mary Tally had a walk that could stop traffic on the turnpike.
“How old are you?” I said. She looked fifteen.
She smiled. “Old enough. Twenty-three. How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-seven,” I said.
“You don’t look it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Sure. So what have you got for me?”
“Are you Mary Tally?” I asked her again.
“Yeah,” she said. “What have you got?”
“How can I be sure?” I asked. “Show me something to prove it.”
She hesitated for a minute then pulled a wallet from the pocket of her jacket. She took a driver’s license out and handed it to me. There was a picture of her in a Boston University sweatshirt and a headband. The name on the license was Mary E. Tally. I handed it back to her and she put it in her wallet. “Satisfied?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.” I was satisfied. “Did you go to BU?”
“I dropped out,” she said. “So what you got for me?”
I took an envelope from my purse. It was a prop; there was nothing in it.
Mary Tally reached for it.
“Not here,” I said. “Someplace more private.”
She shrugged and pointed to a restaurant off the square. “Let’s eat then. You pay.”
We got a table upstairs. It wasn’t the best one they had and I didn’t know if it was because we were two women or two blacks, but I wasn’t in the mood to make waves. Mary had demanded the smoking section before I could stop her. When we sat down she lit up with a lot of attitude. Mary smoked menthols. She offered me one.
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
“Good for you,” she said. “I’m trying to quit. I got asthma.”
The restaurant was nearly empty and the waitress paid us a lot of attention. She looked like a poster child for the Seven Sisters. Mary ordered dessert and a decaf espresso. I had lunch, a hamburger and some beer.
Mary sat across from me with one leg tucked up under the other and her cigarette tucked in the corner of her mouth like the tough girl I didn’t really take her for. Her cigarette bobbed up and down as she moved her lips.
“Now, what have you got for me?” she asked again.
I handed her the envelope. She was noticeably pissed when there was nothing in it.
“What the fuck is this?” she said.
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. I’m not Beverly Johnson, but I’m a friend.” It must have sounded lame.
Mary Tally may have looked like she’d been born yesterday, but she wasn’t. “What exactly do you want?” she said. I could see she was checking out her exit strategies.
“I want to find out who killed Kelsey,” I told Mary. “Seems to me, the way you loved her, you’d want to find that out too.”
Mary Tally relaxed. Something I had said struck her really funny. She put her cigarette down and threw her head back so she could laugh better. She laughed from her chest which was round and firm. I would have found the laugh engaging if she hadn’t been laughing at me. “Whoever you are, you’re misinformed, but clearly you’re harmless and you’re surely not the police.” She took a drink of her coffee and grimaced. “I don’t know whether to set you straight or let you stay this stupid.”
“Why don’t you set me straight.” Mary was starting to piss me off.
“All right,” she said. She had sized me up from my Cole Haan loafers to my college signet ring. She had a chip on her shoulder for people like me and she wanted to make sure I knew she was at least as smart as I was, even if she didn’t have a diploma. “What do you want to know?”
I had about a million questions and they started with why Kelsey was so broke if she was embezzling all that cash and ended with who had killed Kelsey. In between, I wanted to know about her partners and where Bev came in.
Mary ordered another espresso. “Kelsey taught me how to drink these,” she remarked in a way that made me think that Kelsey might not have been so bad. “Let me tell you a story.”
She put out her cigarette and took her time.
When businesswoman Virginia Kelly meets her old college chum Bev Johnson for drinks late one night, Bev confides that her lover, Kelsey, is seeing another woman. Ginny had picked up that gossip months ago, but she is shocked when the next morning’s papers report that Kelsey was found murdered behind the very bar where Ginny and Bev had met. Worried that her friend could be implicated, Ginny decides to track down Kelsey’s killer and contacts a lawyer, Susan Coogan. Susan takes an immediate, intense liking to Ginny, complicating Ginny’s relationship with her live-in lover. Meanwhile Ginny’s inquiries heat up when she learns the Feds suspected Kelsey of embezzling from her employer.
Nikki Baker is the first African-American author in the lesbian mystery genre and her protagonist, Virginia Kelly is the first African-American lesbian detective in the genre. Interwoven into the narrative are observations on the intersectionality of being a woman, an African-American, and a lesbian in a “man’s” world of finance and life in general.
First published to acclaim in 1991, this new edition features a 2020 foreword by the author.
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