Read an Excerpt of John Keyse-Walker’s PALMS, PARADISE, POISON
by Severn House on 21 October 2021
In the third Teddy Creque mystery, set on a tiny Caribbean island paradise, the island’s sole constable investigates a locked room mystery with a thrilling supernatural twist.
Read a sneak preview of Chapter One of Palms, Paradise, Poison.
‘A hurricane is like a wanton woman,’ my Dada used to say. ‘You are never quite the same after being in the path of one.’
My Dada thought a lot – correction, thinks a lot – about women. I guess that’s why I, and my nine brothers and sisters, are here. I must confess that I inherited that characteristic from him. Women frequently occupy my thoughts, though less now than in the past. I like to think that my woman troubles are over, having settled down with Jeanne Trengrouse.
But a troublesome, wanton woman has risen to prominence in my thoughts during the last seventy-two hours: Leatha. That name, which I had not heard until three days ago, now occupies all my waking moments, a malevolent danger to me, to my family, to my friends and neighbors. Because, you see, Leatha is a hurricane, a killer of men, a destroyer of homes, a visitation of horror upon the otherwise placid region of the eastern Caribbean. And Anegada, my island home, is squarely in her path.
‘Teddy, Teddy, you got to come look at this,’ Pamela Pickering called from across the hall, her voice elevated far above its usual piercing level to be heard over the din of the weather outside. Even now, just on the fringe of the storm, the skies had darkened to a muddy twilight, copious rain slashed against the walls and metal roof, and a moan like an endless ambulance siren drowned out all other sound with its relentless tone.
I thought about ignoring Pamela’s summons. As Anegada’s administrator and one of only three government officials on the island, Pamela is easily alarmed under the best of conditions. With Hurricane Leatha’s track becoming more likely to collide with Anegada with each passing hour, Pamela’s level of anxiety had climbed exponentially. She was, as my Dada would say, as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
I had plenty to do that morning besides holding Pamela’s hand. As the sole police constable on Anegada, my plate was more than full. With the help of our administrative assistant, Anthony Wedderburn, the last forty-eight hours had been devoted to checking up on some of the old folks in their homes; putting up plywood on the windows of Anegada’s combined police station and administration building; doing the same for my own and Anthony’s homes; making certain there were adequate emergency supplies of food and water cached at three different locations in The Settlement; and doing the thousand and one other tasks that fall to the police when Mother Nature sends one of her nasty daughters to wreak havoc on a tiny island.
In the short hours before Leatha would strike, there was still much to do. I had just slipped into my office to check for messages from Royal Virgin Islands Police Force headquarters in Road Town, on Tortola, before going on to the next must-do job. No messages. Road Town and headquarters must have been too occupied with their own preparations to concern themselves with backwater Anegada. So, we were on our own. That made a moment for Pamela, and, after all, in the past she had made time for me. Hell, she had once saved my life.
‘What is it, Pamela?’ I asked from the doorway of her office, directly across the hall from mine. Anthony Wedderburn, known because of his former ganja habit and dreadlocks as De White Rasta, joined me in the doorway. Pamela was seated at her desk, the otherworldly blue light from her Acer computer screen backlighting her solid frame and shock of unruly curls. She turned and, for the first time in all the years I had known her, I saw terror in her eyes.
‘Look.’ That was all she could muster, with a shake of her lopsided Afro toward the screen. I’d never heard her speak just a single word without attaching it to a long string of others.
De Rasta and I stepped to her side. On the screen of her PC, still the only government computer on Anegada thanks to Road Town’s view that those of us on the sister islands had no need for meaningful contact with the outside world, was a radar shot of Puerto Rico and points east. On the Atlantic side of the Puerto Rican Commonwealth, the sprinkle of islands forming the US and British Virgin Islands was topped on its northern edge by the amoebic shape of Anegada. Cycling out in the great ocean to the east was a helical nebula a hundred – no, a thousand – times the size of our island, with spinning arms thrusting in all directions. The radar pulsed through a time-lapse series of frames, the spiral blot growing with each as it marched west, the arms dark green and yellow, the body orange, red, then purple-black at its twisting core.
‘Teddy, they say it a category three, maybe goin’ to four, Teddy. With winds a hunnerd-twenty, hunnerd-thirty miles an hour, an’ a surge, a storm surge of six feet, eight feet.’ Pamela’s words tripped over one another now. ‘My house, Teddy, that kinda surge take my house under, your house, Anthony’s house. Your babies, Teddy, oh, all the babies!’
‘Whoa, whoa, Pamela,’ I said, placing my hands on her shoulders and looking directly into her eyes. Anthony stepped close, too, and shot me a glance of concern. ‘The storm is not here yet. It could turn. You know how unpredictable these things are. Get a grip on yourself. We need to get ready so if it does hit, we – everyone, everyone’s babies – come out all right.’
Pamela’s eyes had not wavered an inch from my own. I thought I saw the panic depart from them. Her shoulders relaxed, not much but some, beneath my grip, enough for me to take a longer look at the radar screen.
The future track of Hurricane Leatha, in the past few days a harmless wobble through the mid-Atlantic, was projected out as a gray cone, with dates and times marked by hashes along the cone’s edge. A dashed line ran through the center of the anticipated path. The line impaled Anegada along the island’s entire length. If the hashes were accurate, the time of impact of the eye would be noon, less than five hours away. I turned to De Rasta and saw the realization hit. He probably saw the same thing, looking at me. The safety and welfare of the two hundred souls on Anegada were in our hands. And in the hands of God.
God and I had had some rough patches lately. It had started with my admitted straying from both my marriage vows and from attendance at the Methodist Church, the island’s principal house of worship. Unlike the generations in the Book of Genesis, I was unsure which one begat the other, but they seemed somehow linked, at least at the time. Then came the horrible events culminating in the death of my wife Icilda, and the near-loss of my own life. If that hadn’t done enough to sever my relationship with the Big Guy, I had made sure to finish the job with my spiral into booze and dissolution after those misfortunes. I didn’t blame Him. I just didn’t believe in Him any more.
With the help of Pamela Pickering and De White Rasta, I had been able to claw my way back from the drinking and the despair. But there had still been no God in my life.
Then Jeanne Trengrouse came, and filled the cavernous hole in my heart and soul. She, like all good women of the Virgin Islands, is a churchgoer. And if I wanted to be with her, I’d best return to being a churchgoer, too, she had explained to me in gentle, but by no means uncertain, terms.
So now I was back in God’s house every Sunday, with Jeanne, her son Jemmy, and my Kevin and Tamia at my side, Madda and Dada in the pew in front, the slightly effeminate Pastor Lloyd in the pulpit. Some Sundays his sermon was a collection of platitudes; on others it was a spate of fire and brimstone. Neither the former nor the latter had any effect on my estrangement from Him. But at least I was convinced to believe He was there, to recover part of what had been lost in the dark days past.
So I cannot say I said, or even thought, a prayer when I saw the image of that apocalyptic beast headed to Anegada on the radar screen, and heard its brutish howl through the battened doors and windows. Pamela made up for me, dropping from her desk chair to her knees before the angry monster pulsing on her computer monitor, folding her hands and crying, ‘Lord Jesus and God the Father, save us and our homes from this unholy terror!’
As if in answer, the PC screen went blank and the lights went out.