Jatra Leaves, by Kidd Wadsworth
Exhausted after a fourteen hour day, I step into the kitchen and my breath turns to fog. I touch the radiator, it’s barely warm.
Grann, in her slippers, robe and winter coat, clues me in. “Frank just left. He got the boiler working. I figure it will be another hour before the house warms up.” She’s standing by the ancient stove, only two of its four electric burners work, those are both fire engine red. The cracked chartreuse linoleum floor, the avocado colored refrigerator struggling in the corner and a hole where the dishwasher should be—I’m the dishwasher—reveals our kitchen’s vintage. With age has come dementia, every mechanical contraption from the coffee maker to the ice maker periodically forgets how to work. At least the sink doesn’t clog. No, that would be the sink in our bathroom. And just in case you’d like to take a shower, be advised when you pull the tab on the tub spigot only about forty percent of the water will meander on up to the shower head. The rest just keeps pouring out the spigot and goes right down the drain. Wanna hear about the rats?
I hang my keys on a hook, kick off my shoes and head to my bedroom. In three minutes, I’m back.
Grann looks at the huge book in my arms. “It’ll go wrong on ya.” She shuffles over to the coffee maker and pours herself a mug of Columbian dark roast. “Always does.”
Struggling to hold the tome in one hand, I put Grann’s medications, the napkins, the sugar, the salt and pepper, and the hot sauce on the side counter next to Grann’s landline, and lay Mom’s leather bound book with a skull on the cover on our small kitchen table. As I head down to the basement, Grann’s voice echoes after me. “Leave that poor thing alone.”
In a corner under fourteen grow lights, in a beat-up pumpkin-orange pot is Mom’s Jatra tree. Barely four feet tall and not as wide, I know I’m going to hurt it, so I give it a drink of fertilizer laced water. Not for the first time I mumble something about leaving and planting us both in the tropics.
I harvest four of its pathetically small leaves. On the floor beside the pot is the jawbone of a large human male. Yup, I’m gonna need that too.
Back in the kitchen I place the leaves in the jawbone and the jawbone beside the book.
Grann bangs shut the cabinet door. “You’ve been working that Ju Ju all your life. You know it only brings trouble.”
“I should have gotten the promotion. I should be a lieutenant. It’s gender bias and you know it.”
Her old eyes reach out toward me. “Sweet thing please—”
I cut her off with a single look.
As her bedroom door shuts, I gaze up at the photograph of Mom on the wall. She’s wearing a bright red turban and a white ruffled linen top pulled down to leave one shoulder bare. Celadon green sea glass earrings dangle from her earlobes. I remember her laugh, the twinkle in her eyes, the sway of her hips when she walked. “Shhh,” she’d whisper, “they don’t need to know what’s coming. Let ‘em think they’ve won.”
I rub my forehead trying to erase the pain that lives between my eyes. I’ve already taken the holy trifecta of headache medicines: two Tylenol, two Advil, and half a coke, but my head is still pounding.
I’ve got more collars, fewer complaints, more years on the job…
A tear slips down my cheek, splashing onto the dry, cracked cover of the book. With my finger I smear the liquid watching as it darkens the old leather. Outside lightning flashes across the night sky. Inside—inside me—rage crackles deep in my gut. My voice is whispered thunder. “They promoted that moron over me?”
I open the book, breathing in the dust and mold that floats up from it, and close my eyes. The rain, the lightning, even the incessant hum of Grann’s old fridge fads into silence. I chant the cursed, hungry words, inviting them in, knowing they will eat a part of my soul.
When I open my eyes, a voodoo veil covers my face. I see the kitchen through a black shroud. With a scratch, I ignite the match and touch the yellow flame to the Jatra leaves. A harsh, cruel scent fills the kitchen, burning the delicate tissues of my nose. Recoiling, I reach forward to snuff out the leaves when the fog comes, like oxycodone. Yes, yes, the sweet fog, the no-one-will-ever-know fog, envelopes my mind.
“You’ve got to have a special place,” Mom taught me. “Choose well. There the Ju Ju will come.”
What can I say? I was five years old. I liked story time at the library.
Three days later my cell rings at 5am in the morning. This is the case I’ve been waiting for.
The next day I walk into the south side branch of our public library. Their daily schedule hasn’t changed in fifteen years. At 10:30 the quilters meet. At noon, the diehard readers show up to turn in their books and hastily check out more, all on their lunch hour. At 3:45pm, the after-school tutoring program begins. But at 1:30 in the afternoon, the lunch “crowd” is gone, the students haven’t arrived, and at least two of the staff are on break. I walk into the empty lobby, my police notebook in my hand. The librarian, busy at the computer, barely looks up.
The murder mysteries are shelved along the back wall. I stand at the end and whisper.
“Victim: male, white...”
About fifty books slide halfway out.
“fifty-three years old, stockbroker, rich”
Half of the books reshelve themselves.
“murdered with a knife in the back at approximately 1am last night.”
More of the books whisper back into place; I count eight still sticking out.
“The son was home from college.”
Two books slide back.
“The daughter left after dinner but could have returned later.”
One book reshelves itself.
“The divorced wife was in Barcelona.”
Another book slides back.
“The family has two live-in servants, a butler, and a cook.”
Three books glide back into place, leaving only one remaining. I grab it, check it out, and leave, clutching it to my chest.
Back in my car, I call the precinct. “Travis, I’m running down a lead, I won’t be back in today.”
“Ty’s not going to be happy—”
I interrupt. “He won’t say a thing, when I solve this.”
“What have you—”
I hang up. I park under the Oak Avenue bridge—no cameras—and begin to read. Five chapters later, I can’t keep the grin off my face. Every detail is the same, as if the author had written the book while standing beside me, staring down at the knife sticking out of the guy’s back.
Flipping to the back of the book, I eagerly read the last page.
The old butler, a purple bruise swelling his left eye, limped into the visitor’s area, his once perfectly erect posture, stooped. He’d aged ten years. His face brightened as he saw the kid. He sat and picked up the receiver.
“Why did you do it?” the kid asked, a tear quivering and spilling down his face. “Why did you do it?”
“I did it for you. I was there when the Misses brought you home from the hospital.” He looked down at his battered hands. “All these years. All these wasted years.” Raising his head, with his tired eyes he asked for forgiveness. “After his cruelty drove your mother away, he turned on you and little Elizabeth. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The kid put his hand on the glass, openly crying.
The butler mimicked his gesture. But for the glass, they were palm to palm. The butler’s voice was ragged as if rubbed raw from years of swallowing his own words. “I love you. I couldn’t love you more if were mine. I just wish I’d done something, anything, sooner. I did it for you, son.”
What? The butler did it?
Riffling through my notes, I find the single word “son” underlined. Beside it I’d written: Nervous. Doesn’t make eye contact.
When I’d asked, “Who inherits all this?” and pointed to the room and the crystal chandelier, he’d said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Ahh...no. How could I know? Well, I guess it’s probably me and Liz. Yeah, that’s right. But really, I’m not thinking about that right now, because my dad’s been murdered.”
As a chill creeps into the car; goosebumps race up my arms.
“I could have sworn it was the kid.” I say, talking to nobody. “This can’t be right.”
Flipping back a few chapters from the end, I start to read when a single bolt of lightning flashes across the night sky. Inside the car, the smell of Jatra leaves has my head spinning. I pull a lever and the seat falls back. For the first time since Bill stole my promotion, the tension leaves my neck, my headache vanishes. Whoa does this feel good.
The next day I bring in the butler for questioning.
“Did you kill Mr. Wellington?”
“What?” He looks confused. “No.”
“You know, I thought it was Robert Jr.”
His head jerks back; his eyes open wide. “No, it wasn’t him. He’s a good kid.”
“Really? Suspended twice. That’s hard to do when your father is an alum and a major donor. I hear the new economics building is named after him.”
The guy turns puke green. A little more yellow and his complexion would’ve matched my kitchen floor. With my foot I scoot the trashcan over, within vomit range.
He bangs his fist down on the table and shouts, “He...Did...Not...Kill...Mr...Wellington!”
I stare at his wide, frightened eyes, his shaking hands. The day of the murder, this man had greeted me at the door at 6am with, “It really is kind of you to come out this early, can I make you an espresso?”
“And how exactly do you know he didn’t do it?” I ask. “Maybe, I should haul Punk Jr. in. I’m thinking he won’t last five minutes.”
I walk to the door. “Yup, not five minutes.” I turn the knob.
“I did it.”
I grin. Tingles run up my spine. “Why?”
He looks at his hands clenched into fists on the table in front of him. “Mr. Wellington mistreated those kids, belittled them, never gave them a chance. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. He was threatening to disinherit Bobby.”
The butler pleads guilty. He gets thirty years; I get promoted. Some months later when I’m cleaning out my car, I find the murder mystery I’d checked out from the library. I take the book back. As I hand the librarian a ten—yeah, I have a hefty fine—she says, “That was a good one.”
“Yes, it was.”
She hands me my change. “I mean, the cop was so sloppy. You just knew it was the son that did it. What a brat! But the old butler loved him, and the cop, that stupid idiot, was just looking for a promotion.”
“Are you going to read the sequel?” she asks.
The pungent scent of Jatra leaves wafts by my nose.
She leans forward, her eyes twinkling. “All I’ll say is this: that cop, she gets what’s coming to her. Afterall, the killer’s still on the loose.”
Kidd Wadsworth has people in her head and likes to work in her pajamas. Her career choices were limited: write or commit herself to an asylum.
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