Hello, everyone! Here is a short story from "Maddie's Gone", which is a novel based in Key West. The characters in the short stories (one between each chapter of Maddie) show up in Maddie's main story.
Maddie's Gone is available at http://www.amazon.com. It's also at http://www.absolutelyamazingebooks.com, the new online book publisher based in Key West.
Rose flinched as an arc light above the house filled the room and a lightning bolt slammed just beyond the back fence. Thunder exploded in the trees, rattling windows in their wooden frames.
The storm mirrored the young woman's mood.
"Ritchie … Ritchie … you idiot," she whispered under the rain’s roar.
Rose is a senior honor student at Key West High School. She’s been dating Ritchie since the two were juniors. She’s beautiful like so many young Conch women, lovely with the rare, olive beauty of a Latin movie starlet. She is slim, with elegant arms and small hands that never move far from her sides, even when she’s excited. Her wide, brown eyes are framed by long dark hair, a genetic gift from her Cuban and Bahamian ancestors. Her smile is practiced in delightful reaction to other people’s good news while her voice is designed for soothing troubled friends.
Rose and her 14-year-old sister, Anna Maria—who is a younger version of Rose, though less graceful and far less composed—have a sense of humor tempered by a difficult family life.
Like other children born to Conch families, they live within a protective and lively family circle. Attentive grandparents, conspiratorial and fun-loving aunts, hard-working uncles and a small legion of cousins—all form a world in which the two sisters can safely go about their daily lives.
As for Rose, she is trusting of most young men her age and can love with a maturity beyond her years.
But Rose is no fool.
"Yep, this time you’ve gone too far, Ritchie," she muttered as the breeze lifted the gauze curtains over the sink.
The scent of spices—bay leaf, oregano, cilantro, cumin, chili and curry powders—ride the cool air from the window. Wooden spoons, ladles, spatulas, icing whips and other utensils poke from the top of a jar next to the stove. The small kitchen is where the heart beats in this family.
Misshapen sea turtles Rose made for her aunt when she was in kindergarten stare out from the windowsill. An aging watercolor of a farmer’s market in 1930s Havana is on the wall behind the kitchen table. As the thunder withdrew across the island, Rose prepared for a visit from Ritchie, due anytime. She lit a burner under the teapot. As she rehearsed her conversation with Ritchie, she put out lemons, sugar and milk.
Rose is convinced Ritchie has been trying to sleep with Anna Maria, barely 15. A child! In a few minutes, Rose will see Ritchie and bring an end to this whole charade. Then a new thunder--Anna Maria--hit the front porch and bounded through the front door, gasping for breath. The screen door banged after her.
"Ohmygosh, Rosa! Did you see that lightning? I knew it was going to rain any second when I was at the store so I started running so fast but I couldn’t outrun the rain! Look at me! I’m wet as shit!"
Beaming from beneath a tangle of untidy shoulder-length hair, Anna Maria flicked her arms and hands about, as if shaking off the rain.
"Anna!" Rose gasped, trying not to laugh. "Watch your nasty mouth! You are such a sewer mouth!"
"I know, Rosie, sorry," she pretended to pout. "Rosie, hand me a towel, please?"
Rose snatched the dish towel off the oven door and flung it, hitting her little sister in the face. Rose wore a brave smile as she watched Anna towel her hair and arms.
"How are you big sister?" the little sister asked, not really caring about the answer.
"You know you could get hit by lightning playing out there?" Rose scolded. "But please do me a favor, OK? Go and change your clothes in your room and stay in there? Ritchie is coming over and he and I need to talk."
Anna Maria dropped the towel, kicked off her shoes in the middle of the living room and ran down the hall without picking them up.
"Darn it, Anna! Don’t make me pick up after you!"
As she held Anna’s shoes, Rose noticed they were wet, but not soaking wet as they should be if her little sister had run all that way through the rain. The corner store was three blocks away, plenty of time for her to be completely soaked.
"More proof somebody’s lying," Rose said, worried that she may be too late to stop Ritchie.
Rose’s job is to protect her little sister. When her mother was dying, she made Rose promise to watch out for the child. Her aunts never stop reminding Rose of that duty.
Anna Maria, in spite of her attempts to act like an adult, is much too trusting of what people, especially Ritchie, tell her. Rose knew that little girls grew up too fast in this tourist town of bars, adult bookstores and strip clubs. Keeping children carefree and safe from adult truths wasn’t easy. Last year, 16 girls at Key West High School attended class pregnant and completed their studies from home while nursing and diapering their newborns.
Rose and Anna Maria should be what the experts call "at-risk" teens. Their father, a handsome and cheerful Navy officer, drank heavily every day. From a town in upstate New York, he had been stationed in Key West for a short time when he met their mother. The two had fallen in love and married.
The officer loved his daughters deeply, calling them his "princesses of paradise." Rose remembered him running around the backyard with her on his shoulders; how he kissed her cheek as she slept when he came home from work some nights.
But as their father’s drinking increased, he began to lose his memory, Rose’s aunt explained to Rose when she was older. His memory got so bad he’d forget what time dinner was and more importantly, where his wife and two daughters lived. A few times he even forgot he was married, running about town for days with women who were not his wife.
Each time he came to and returned home, he had been sick with grief, especially after coming off a long, drunken spree--one famously lasted 18 days.
To fight back, mother would call him unmanly, a coward, too weak to care for his family. Mother once accused him of being a "maricon," slang for "gay." That was just a tame sample from her verbal arsenal. He’d yell back, but the war had already been lost.
He’d be wracked with sobs as he knelt before his little girls, trying to explain to their little angelic faces that they hadn’t done anything wrong, that he loved them deeply. Rose knew without a doubt that he had loved them. He just forgot where he lived sometimes.
But the Navy officer couldn’t stop drinking, so Rose’s uncle Virgilio and a couple of his buddies stepped up at the request of mother to teach the wayward Navy man a lesson with their fists.
Lesson learned: Father fled the house, Key West, even Florida, never to return. He had been told not to call or even write his daughters, but Rose hoped one day he would come back to visit. She never hated him but loved him and forgave him everything.
Not too many years after that, mother had become very sick, spending several days a week in Miami at Jackson Memorial Hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Then one day there was just Rose, Anna Maria and Aunt Helen. Though they had a dozen other aunts and uncles, Helen, their Tia, had been the one to feed, clothe and care for them, providing a clean home empty of chaos and fear.
Aunt Helen was now in Miami at Calder Race Track with some of her buddies at this moment. Her vivacious aunt trusted Rose, so as she played the ponies and hit the malls in Dade this week, it was Rose’s job to watch Anna until her aunt returned in a few days.
Rose heard a tentative knock at the screen door. She saw Ritchie peering at her through the screen door. Her heart skipped—not out of love for the blue-eyed, athletic young man—but for the impossible act she was about to perform. Ritchie knocked a second time, but timidly…the sign of a guilty man?
"Hey there Rosie. Mind if I come in?" Ritchie asked as the rain angled under the porch roof, pelting him.
Rose didn't budge. She usually ran to the front door with a big hug in greeting, so Ritchie waited.
Someone had to give in, so Ritchie opened the door, stepped into the house and politely pulled off his shoes. He placed them neatly against the wall inside the front door.
Rose watched him from the kitchen and didn’t offer him the towel.
Ritchie walked into the kitchen and leaned over to kiss her cheek, but Rose pulled away. She stepped over to the kitchen sink and resumed her place there.
"So you are upset at me," Ritchie said. "You didn’t sound happy when you said you wanted to talk."
Rose turned toward him.
"I called you over here because I need to get some things straight between us."
Ritchie sat at the small kitchen table. "What kind of things?"
He knows exactly what I’m going to ask him, Rose thought. The tea kettle began to whistle.
"You and I have been together since last year, when I was 17, when we were juniors ..."
"Who cares how long ago that was," Ritchie said too quickly. "I still love you with all my heart."
"…but we made it work," she continued. "My aunt didn’t like you, but I told her you were being a gentleman. You didn’t try to get in my pants or anything."
"I respected you. I didn’t want to rush things."
"I haven’t ever forgotten that," Rose said.
Rose put a spoon and tea cup in front of Ritchie. Tears formed in her eyes.
Ritchie thinks he knows where this is going. She was dumping him. For good.
"I don’t want us to break up …" Ritchie blurted.
"Shhhhhh," Rose said, looking into his eyes for the first time. "I just want to know, and you have to be honest with me. Are you trying to sleep with my little sister?"
At this, the precisely wrong moment, Anna walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. With her head inside the refrigerator door, Anna turned and looked at Ritchie with a sexually meaningful look. Ritchie snapped his head down and stared at his lap.
Rose saw the little exchange; her instincts and what she’s heard from her are true. Her boyfriend has been having an affair with Anna.
"Anna Maria! Ritchie and I are talking!" she yelled.
"Just a second, Rosie ... I have to get a soda, chill," Anna said, giving Ritchie with what the little girl imagined is a look of romantic longing. Ritchie still refused to look her direction.
"How are you, Ritchie?" Anna tried again.
"OK, I guess," he said, still staring at his lap. "Why don’t you go to your room? Rose and I need privacy."
She smiled at Ritchie as she closed the fridge door, then skipped down the hall to her room. Ritchie cursed under his breath. He was red-faced as he studied his hands.
"Did you give my little sister a ride on your way over here!?"
"I saw her walking in the rain so I gave her a ride," he lied. "She was on her way here from the store when I saw her."
"That’s why her clothes are so dry, even though she told me she ran all the way home through the rain?" He must have dropped her off a half-block down the street. Rose wanted to punch and kick this boy she’d trusted with her body, her love, but she didn’t.
The water on the stove began to boil, a weak whistle building in the kettle's throat.
Rose is not just angry but frightened, too. There’s no telling how long Ritchie and Anna Maria had been alone in Ritchie’s house today—or in his car, or wherever they were doing what she feared they'd been doing. She imagined the worst, picturing Ritchie and Anna ...
She shivered at the thought. Rose yanked the tea canister from the cupboard and slammed it on the table in front of Ritchie. He jumped in his chair.
"Why did you have her act like she had been running home in the rain instead of just telling me the truth? She wasn’t outside in the rain!You didn’t pick her up at the store, either, she has no packages. She didn’t buy anything.You dropped her off up the street and then you waited in your car long enough to make it seem like you had driven here alone."
Ritchie sat silently, embarrassment heating his scalp.
"Elizabeth Spago said she saw you and my little sister getting real hot and heavy at the movies two nights ago.You like minor children, Ritchie?"
He gaped up at Rose: "What are you talking about? She’s your little sister! We were just talking! Elizabeth is just starting her normal shit!"
"Just now, you were with Anna Maria before you came over here, right?"
"I gave her a ride because it was raining!"
"No! I mean you were with her at your house Ritchie! I am not stupid. You have been messing around with my little sister. Are you two doing what you do with me?"
Anna Maria burst into the kitchen again. "I am not a baby!" she shouted at Rose.
Ritchie stood up to leave.
Rose whipped around: "Sit the hell down!" then: "Annie! We are talking! Go back to your room!"
"He just kissed me a couple of times and held me when we were watching TV! That’s all he did! He loves me! You’re just jealous!"
Ritchie died a thousand deaths. He froze in a crouch above the chair, stuck between sitting and fleeing the house.
"Girl, you’re crazy!" Ritchie yelled at Anna. "I never kissed you or touched you! You’re making this up to hurt your sister!"
Their exchange left Rose speechless; her mouth hung open in disbelief. Then she laughed, a hearty, woman's laugh, laughing, laughing at the insanity of it all. She also felt relief that she was doing the right thing. Ritchie was history.
Looking out the window again, she saw that the sky was still dark, but the rain was slowing. She sighed, letting her anger dissipate.
"Anna," she said calmly, "please go back in your room. Everything’s OK.You haven’t done anything wrong."
Anna wanted to say something more, but thought better of it. She retreated down the hall to her room. Ritchie settled back into his chair with his arms on the table. Rose stood behind Ritchie's chair as she put a tea bag into his cup.
Rose turned off the screaming kettle and brought it over to the table.
"I believe you, Ritchie," she lied. "It’s just that I hate it when you don’t tell me the truth, OK? And I have to watch out for Anna, that’s all there is to it."
He leaned back to give her room to pour. He knew silence was the right play here.
Swirling hot water engulfed the tea bag and rising steam caressed Ritchie’s nose and eyes.
She stepped to the other side of the table and filled her teacup. She returned the kettle to the stove. Rose realized she wasn't sad about what she was doing. Not in the least.
Ritchie sipped in silence, adding sugar and lemon. He stirred his tea, unable to look at Rose.
Rose let the silence ride as they sat together in the small kitchen. She will ask Anna Maria exactly what Ritchie has been up to, but now wasn't the time.Today was for mourning. She took a long look at Ritchie and said to herself, "Goodbye, Ritchie. You won’t be coming around here any more."
Ritchie’s cell phone rang.
"Yo! What up?" "No shit? I’ll be right there."
There’s that gangsta talk he does, which Rosa never liked. Ritchie and she get top grades at the high school, but she doesn't employ slang with their friends.
Ritchie closed his cell phone, took a long sip of his tea, and dashed to the font door.
"That was Bobby, Rose. He’s OK, but his car ran off the road," he said as he put on his shoes. "He needs me to pick him up."
Rose was relieved; she didn’t want him falling apart in her mother’s house. She didn’t want Anna to see him destroyed. She wanted Anna far, far away from Ritchie when things turned ugly. This saved her from asking Ritchie to leave.
"OK, Ritchie," she said, not getting up from the table. "Call me later, OK? We need to talk some more. We aren’t done here."
"I know, I am so sorry all this stuff is being said. It’s not true, you know I wouldn’t hurt you …" He ran out the front door and was gone.
Rose dumped the cups in the sink and after scrubbing the basin, let hot water run a long time. She threw the cups, spoons, napkins, and sugar bowl into the trash, and took it out to the curb.
11 p.m. Two men stood before the body of a young man laid out on a stainless steel autopsy table at the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s office. The man on the left, Key West Police Detective Ron Pabon and his friend on the right, the Keys medical examiner, were getting their first good look at the body, which an M.E. assistant had just delivered through the loading dock.
The deceased young man’s face was blistered and his lips swollen like one of those party balloons clowns twist into Dachshunds. The skin was flaking off the upper arms and chest of the man in reddish, paper-thin strips. The eyelids also were swollen nearly closed and skin was flaking off his forehead.
"Good looking kid," Detective Pabon joked.
"How can you tell?" the M.E. asked, turning away from the victim to look at the homicide cop. The doctor was older, with gray hair and thick eyeglasses that enlarged his grey eyes five times normal size. Those giant eyes flapping at him through the glasses’ coke bottle lenses gave the detective the creeps.
"Because you can’t take your eyes off him," the detective said.
The M.E. didn’t laugh. "What do you know about what happened to this kid?"
Pabon cleared his throat and pulled a small notebook from his suit jacket.
"Got a call from some guys, some friends of his who were hanging out on a residential street near White Street Pier," he said.
Pabon’s cell phone rang. He looked at the number displayed on its screen, and ignored the call before continuing.
"One of them had wrecked his car by running into and over a stop sign. They were trying to find a way to back it off the sign, which was bent beneath the oil pan. The victim pulled up in his car, got out, already complaining that his eyes and mouth were burning. Then he starts complaining of stomach pains. He vomited and screamed that his insides are burning. His pals said he was dancing around like he was on fire, scratching at his face and chest. Then he went blind, running into things, screaming that he couldn’t see. He fell into the street and went into convulsions. He did the death kicks, right there on United Street. A young kid like this, he just fell apart and died minutes after joining his friends."
"Any of the kids at the scene on drugs or drinking? Was the driver of the car that hit the sign impaired?" the M.E. asked.
"There was no indication that they had been taking anything or drinking," the detective said. "I interviewed each of them with that in mind. I smelled no alcohol on them and their pupils moved normally, even though they were scared to death of what they'd just seen happen to their friend. One of them said he grew up with the dead boy. Same age."
As the M.E. pushed down on the young man's fingernail beds, Pabon continued.
"Dispatch got a call of a sick person and when the EMTs got there, the boy was down; they got no pulse. They tried CPR, which I don't want to think about, and then I got the call. They said they smelled some possible chemicals on the kid, which is how they think his skin got like this. And his lips and skin … well you can see, doc, he got into something. The EMTs said it looked like some kind of chemical poisoning. Even his scalp is scaling off. Unless it’s the worst bee sting reaction the planet has ever seen, I figure exposure to something. I agree with the ambulance guys, that this kid got hit with chemicals. That’s why I want you to tell me as soon as you figure something out. If it's chemicals, we have to find the source so no one else gets hurt."
"Anyone else there complain about feeling sick, itchy, any of this kid’s complaints?"
"Nope," Pabon said. "They were all fine. Like I said, I took my time talking to them to make sure. They hadn’t been exposed to anything he might have been exposed to. But I told them to call a doctor and then me if they started feeling ill."
The M.E. nodded as the detective spoke.
"It looks consistent with a chemical attack, to tell you the truth," the M.E. said. "I was an Army medic and we studied all this stuff. First Gulf War and all that; we saw pictures of what sarin, anthrax, mustard gas, and those other nasty weapons can do to soldiers. Sick stuff. Blistering agents create results look just like this kid. I'll do an autopsy tonight, make some phone calls in the morning. It wouldn't hurt to contact Centers for Disease Control or Homeland Security in Miami. They’d want to know about this."
The M.E. paused for a moment, then said:
"First I’m going to back away from this kid and put on some protective gloves, a rubber smock, eye protection, the works. He’s like a seed pod ready to explode."
"I thought you already had your goggles on," Pabon laughed.
"Screw you, detective," the M.E. said, his eyes growing in giant irritation behind his thick lenses. "I'll talk to you in the morning."
The next day
10 a.m. Pabon drew the sleeping woman close to him. His wife’s rhythmic breathing was beautiful and it drew him back toward sleep.
His cell phone chirped, ending that idea. His wife stirred and mumbled, "Answer the phone, detective."
"Yes ma'am," Pabon said gently. "Hello Doc .... what, right now? OK, give me an hour."
After a cup of Cuban coffee and a hot shower, Pabon put on clean slacks, a pressed shirt and a suit jacket and drove from Key West to Marathon to visit the medical examiner. It was another beautiful morning.
This time, the M.E. and Pabon wore splash guards over their faces, as well as rubber gloves and aprons as they stood before the young man on the autopsy table. The young man hadn’t moved an eyelash overnight.
"I hope you are a man with an open mind," the M.E. said. "At first I couldn’t believe it, either.
"Believe what?" Pabon asked.
"I have a couple of choices for you, detective, but I’m going to give you the most likely scenario. I haven’t sewn him back up because I wanted you to see this."
Pabon was fighting nausea at the back of his throat. There’s a chemical smell in the air but it’s not formaldehyde, which he has smelled before. The boy's intestines are a jellied mass; his esophagus is peeling; and blood flecks his lungs and other organs.
"Is it something we have to alert the feds to?" Pabon asked, his bile rising. By law, local law enforcement agencies must immediately report any suspected deaths from sarin, anthrax, mustard gas or other weaponized chemical to the Florida Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the FBI, which was part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I am not sure in this case," the M.E. said. "From what I understand, what we're dealing with occurs naturally. The substance that baked this boy’s insides is a local product."
"What are we talking about here?" Pabon asked, irritated at the M.E.'s inability to get to the point. Something that could do this to an otherwise healthy young man’s stomach and organs should not be available to the public. He wanted to find it and get it under control.
"It took me a while to track this thing down this morning," the M.E. said. "I made some calls to internists, poison specialists and gastro-enterologists in Miami and Tallahassee. They all pointed to possible poisoning by a chemical weapons agent. What I described to them over the phone wasn’t something they could pinpoint beyond that. I e-mailed photographs to the CDC and also described the smell over the phone to one of their experts. I also express mailed the CDC tissue samples, but that’s going to take some time to get results."
"How long will it take?" Pabon snapped. "Get to the point, doc. You told me this was something produced locally. Is it something off the Navy base?"
"Could take a month," the M.E. said, ignoring Pabon’s impatience. "But I think we already know what it is. The best train of thought comes from academics, right here in the neighborhood. When I called the University of Miami, a toxicologist at Jackson Memorial suggested I call a botanist."
"Come on, a botanist? Look at this man’s insides, doc! You’re saying a plant or a flower did this?"
"Ever hear of horse madness, detective? I don’t expect the term to mean anything to you because most modern doctors don’t come across it. Few detectives have heard of it, either. It didn’t mean anything to me, either," the M.E. said.
"What do you mean, 'modern doctors?'"
"The term horse madness was coined in the 1600s by an English medical specialist who was familiarizing himself with the plant life of the New World tropics. He was along for the ride with other early Spanish and English settlers who came ashore in the Caribbean Basin. He’s the one who came up with the term "horse madness."
Pabon relented. "Explain this to me, doc."
The M.E. reached behind him and picked up a thick volume laying on the instrument table behind him. "Listen to this, detective, and learn," the M.E. said. "This comes from a tropical plant encyclopedia. I got it from a local botanist who dropped it by this morning."
He opened the book and read.
"When the Spanish, French and Dutch began to explore and settle the Caribbean Islands and South America, the new arrivals hacked down trees and burned jungle to clear land for their settlements," the M.E. read. "A ship’s doctor noticed that the smoke from certain trees caused extreme respiratory distress, and that the smoke also burned the eyes, nose and throats of slaves and settlers. Smoke in the eyes caused blindness for up to six months in some unlucky settlers who tried burning out forest to make a homestead. Chopping down the trees wasn’t much better, because the sap and bark caused skin irritation, boils, blisters and caused the skin to even peel off un-exposed arms, legs and other areas. Even sitting under these trees during a rain can cause blisters and skin burns. Birds that rest in the trees also can be poisoned in heavy rains and fall to the ground mortally poisoned."
"What! So a plant killed our victim?"
"A tree, actually, or its fruit, leaves or bark, if I’m correct. Its scientific name is Hippomane mancinell, the hippo part refers to horse. It’s called Manchinell and it grows right here in the Keys; but it’s found almost solely in Big Pine Key. It grows in the environment between the mangroves and the hardwoods."
"That’s horrible, doc.So this kid must have been walking around the mangroves and brushed up against this tree? I asked his friends where he’d been that day, they said they thought he’d been at his girlfriend’s earlier but his buddies never mentioned that he’d been in the woods."
"He probably wasn’t exposed to this nasty plant in the wild, detective. Here, take a closer look at his throat. You see how his esophagus is destroyed?"
The esophagus was ulcerated, actually melted, and the stomach lining had sloughed off. The digestive tract was corroded from the chin to the small intestine. Pabon shook his head in amazement.
The M.E. continued:
"I called Dr. Stephen Hodges, the botanist at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden and he faxed me a description of what the leaves and fruit of this plant can do to a victim when eaten," the M.E. said. "Guava in this description means jelly made from its fruit or sap, what have you," the M.E. said. He put the book down and pulled a fax from a pocket on his protective smock.
"If eaten, the poisonous guava leads to the dissolution of the mucus membranes from the back of the tongue down, accompanied with massive internal hemorrhaging … sloughing of the gastric mucosa evident. Abdominal pain, vomiting and bleeding of the digestive tract is usual.
The plant contains carcinogens, is water-soluble and contains toxins that Caribbean Indians used to tip their spears for hunting. Animals would drop dead soon after being hit with their arrows.""I still can’t believe this stuff grows around here," Pabon said.
"The tree is actually a self-contained chemical weapons factory designed to protect its leaves, bark and roots from any insects, pests or birds that deign to feed off its fruit, or apparently, rest on it or under it," the M.E. said. "That’s how the tree defends itself in the tropics where insects are lively year round. There’s no frost to kill the burrowing and feeding insects, so the tree came up with its own killing system over the ages. And the result in humans, anyway, is the odorous and tragic situation we see here before us," the M.E. said. "Live and learn. Or die and teach, as this man has done for us."
Pabon was thunderstruck.
"They should teach this stuff in school so people don’t make the mistake this poor kid made," the detective said. "I’ve never heard of this tree before. And it's all around us?"
"Not all around us, but there are patches here and there on Big Pine Key. Most residential areas in the Keys are free of it, thank God. But I think you’re missing my point."
"What point is that, doc?"
"Since we have no indication that he went for a hike in Big Pine or anywhere else, how did he get this poisonous plant inside of him?"
Pabon pointed a finger in the M.E.’s face, and with mock anger, said, "I was thinking the same thing, and since I’m the detective here, I really think you should have let me say that before you did. But I’m going to let that one pass."
"Right," the M.E. smiled. "Someone crushed up the leaves or bark of the plant and fed it to him in a nice red pasta sauce or in a drink."
Pabon pulled his small notebook from inside his jacket and flipped through its pages.
"That is an exceptionally brutal thing to do to a person, don’t you think, doc?" Pabon said. "That takes an extremely sick individual and someone with very little love for his fellow human beings, I’d say. It also sounds like the poison hits fast so the kid must have ingested it not too long before he pulled up to his friend's little car crash. It's time to talk to whoever saw him last. If his friends are correct, it was his girlfriend."
Pabon slapped his friend on the shoulder and walked through the swinging doors to the loading dock and his car, leaving the M.E. with his silent teacher.
1 p.m. Rose lay on her back on the sofa, a tissue in the hand that covered her face. A box of tissues sat on the coffee table next to her. Her eyes were swollen from crying. She had slept little the night before, what with cousins and close friends calling or dropping by at all hours. She was wiped out emotionally and physically exhausted. She was in the world between waking and sleeping.
Anna Maria was in her bedroom, fast asleep after a night of crying. Aunt Helen had called earlier that morning from Miami. Upon hearing the news about Ritchie, she told Rose she would drive and be home by evening.
Rose opened her eyes to the solid knock at the front door, but didn’t move to answer it. She couldn’t take another visitor.
The knock came again, this time much stronger. Rose sighed and put her feet on the floor without rising. As the third knock, a near pounding, filled the house, she heard an authoritative voice on the other side of the door.
"Hello? Anyone home?" the voice boomed. "This is Key West Detective something something …"
She jumped to her feet. She had expected this and thought she had prepared herself. But she now realized there had been no way to prepare for this visit. Taking a deep breath, she walked across the living room and pulled the door open just far enough to peer through it.
Looking out at Pabon from a slice of open door was a beautiful young woman with black hair and deep-brown eyes, eyes swollen from hours of crying. As Rose stared at him, Pabon saw she was wearing fuzzy slippers and a Key West Conchs sweatshirt over a pair of blue jeans. She had a wadded tissue in her hand, but held her head high as she greeted him.
"May I help you?" the young woman asked.
"Miss Lopez? I’m Detective Pabon. May I talk with you?"
"Sure, uh, come in." She opened the door wide, stepped aside and motioned for him to sit in an easy chair near the couch.
"I appreciate you seeing me, especially at a time like this," Pabon said gently as he sat. "I just need to ask you about Ritchie. I understand you and he were close."
"Actually, Ritchie is ... was my boyfriend," she said, sitting on the couch. She tucked her legs under her and let her head fall back on the top cushion. She sniffled and dabbed her eyes.
"This is extremely painful for you," Pabon began, "but I have to go over some things and we can close this case. How much have you heard about how Ritchie … about what happened to him?"
With her head back, staring at the ceiling, Rose answered.
"I got a call from my girlfriends as soon as they heard about it," she said. "They said he was talking to his friends, laughing and stuff and then just started screaming in crazy pain…" Her voice hitched as she stifled a sob. "They said they were calling his name but he wasn’t responding, like he was out of his mind in pain. They said he was foaming at the mouth." Rose sobbed again for the detective.
"Did Ritchie take any drugs, you know, smoke pot, take pills, or …"
"No!" Rose said. "He was an athlete and the football players at school have random urine tests and he could be suspended from playing if they caught him. He drank beer and sometimes mixed drinks, but he never took drugs. Is that what you think happened?"
Pabon ignored the question.
"Does he have a hobby or outdoor activity that might take him into the mangroves?"
"He loves to fish, but he fishes from a boat, detective. This is a strange line of questioning. Can you tell me what you think happened?"
Pabon told Rose what he'd learned from the M.E., that a poisonous plant, a plant that grows in the Keys, could have killed her boyfriend.
"Rose, we think Ritchie somehow ingested something, accidental or otherwise, from that tree. It poisoned him."
Rose’s face blanched. Pabon noticed that her body shook.
"I don't mean to be so graphic but we must be straightforward here," Pabon said. "Yesterday, when he came by to see you, was he eating anything? Did he say if he'd eaten lunch or, you say it's impossible, but did he say anything to you that would indicate he had smoked some plant substance? How about helping someone clear land … has he helped anyone chop down a tree, or clear a yard? We need to know how he got this stuff inside of him."
"He is the kind of guy to help his friends with their yards, helps them paint, that kind of stuff," Rose said. "But I don’t think he’s done anything like that recently for anyone. We were together most of the time."
"I understand he was here with you when he got the phone call to help his friends. I understand he got a phone call from one of his friends while he was here, at your house."
"That’s right, he was here," Rose said, measuring her words. "But only for a minute. He ran out of here pretty fast and I don’t blame him." Rose began to cry again.
"What do you mean, you don’t blame him?"
"We were arguing about something. It wasn’t important, but you know how it is when you’re dating someone. A little argument, that’s all."
Leaning forward to get Rose’s attention, Pabon asked evenly, "I want you to think very carefully before you answer this question, Rose. Did you serve him anything to eat or drink while he was here?" He stared at her, watching her face for clues that she was lying. Rose looked back at him with steady, but weepy, eyes.
"No, nothing, detective. I asked him if he wanted a soda, but he was in a hurry."
Annie has been listening from the hallway, her eyes wide. The tea! Rosie was serving Ritchie tea just before he left yesterday. Just before he died! Could it be that Rose killed Ritchie? The idea was absurd, crazy, but why else would she lie? Anna Maria went to Rose’s bedroom to check something. She found what she was looking for and snuck back up the hall near the living room.
For the 14-year-old, the decision was clear. Rose couldn't go to jail. They were supposed to protect each other; their mother had taught them that. Sisters were more important than boys. Anna listened as Pabon's questions grew more direct.
"You two were arguing? About what?" the detective asked.
"He’d been going behind my back with a girlfriend of mine," Rose lied again. "We had an agreement that we weren’t going to be with other people, and he broke that agreement. Not new in human history."
Pabon nodded thoughtfully. "I have to ask this again. When he was here, did you give him anything to eat or drink? Did he have a soda or a beer in his hand when he came over?"
Rose waited several beats before answering. She knew she would be asked this question. If she admitted serving Ritchie the tea, it was game over. She was going to jail. She had thrown away the cups and washed out the sink, but it wouldn't take much for detectives to find traces of the tea in the trap below the sink. Pabon continued to stare at Rose, waiting as she considered her answer. Rose remained silent, hesitating too long.
Anna burst from the hall and into the living room.
"Nope, he didn’t eat or drink nothing while he was here, officer," Anna blurted to Pabon. "I was here the whole time he was here and he didn’t stick around long enough to have anything. He and Rosie just talked for a few minutes and then he left."
Pabon watched the older sister’s reaction to the little girl's words. Rose kept her eyes on Pabon, fighting a terrible urge to look away.
"Is that right, Rose? You were the last to see him in good health but minutes later he was dead from poisoning?" Pabon snapped. "Does that sound about right to you?"
Rose's heart was pounding. On the outside, she was trying to look calm. Inside, she was teetering on the edge of hysterics. Pabon was leaning far too close to her, like a wolf ready to leap on a rabbit.
"I have no idea what happened to him, detective," Rose finally said after a few moments. "I loved him. Now he's gone and my heart is broken."
With that, Rose began to cry again. This time she wasn’t acting. She was scared. Florida used the electric chair for crimes like this, honor student or no honor student.
Pabon leaned back and looked at length at the two sisters, measuring them. The cogs moved in Pabon's head.They didn’t act like killers, but something was out of whack in this little house.
He also had to consider that Ritchie maybe took something in his car after he left this house. Maybe he thought it would get him high, and he didn’t know what it was.
After all, kids smoke and drank all kinds of stuff these days to get high. Licking the backs of toads for God’s sake. They smoked salvia, an ornamental garden plant related to mint and sold at Home Depot. It has killed some kids, too. At least that’s what the latest U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency missive to local law enforcement agencies said. Lately kids had been smoking spice, a lab-manufactured form of THC they could buy at little corner stores around Key West. Then there was the phenomenon of bath salts, another street chemical high blamed for causing a man whacked out on the substance to eat the face of a homeless man in Miami. Until the M.E. got the lab results from the specimens he sent out for testing, the Big Pine plant was only one possibility as to how Ritchie had died.
At the moment, Pabon knew he had no evidence that these girls had anything to do with Ritchie's death. How would they know about the plant when it took the M.E. several phone calls to experts to learn about it? A half-dozen unlikely steps would have had to occur for this young lady to get the poisonous tree in her hands and get it into the victim. But something was going on here. Their answers didn't sound natural, Pabon reasoned. If necessary, Pabon can return to this house and search it after the M.E. definitely IDs the poison. At that time the detective can pull the trap under the kitchen and bathroom sinks and close the case. Easy enough thing to get a warrant.
"I tell you what, Rose," Pabon said as he stood. "I’m going to leave my card with you and I want you to call me if you need or hear anything."
"Of course!" Rose said a little too quickly.
Pabon stared at her for two beats before continuing. "I am sorry about your boyfriend. Who knows what he got into. If you hear anything or have any other thoughts on what might have happened, please let me know."
"Yes, of course," Rose said through tears of relief. "Thank you, detective."
After Pabon drove off, Rose collapsed onto the couch and let the air rush out of her lungs. She made room for her little sister, who sat down and put her big sister's head in her lap. Rose didn't say anything for a long time. Anna, also lost in deep thought, stroked her sister’s hair.
"I love you big sis," Anna finally said.
"Why did you tell him that?"
"Why did you tell the detective that I didn’t give Ritchie anything to eat or drink? I gave him some hot tea. You were in the kitchen."
"I told the detective that because there’s no reason for you to get into trouble if you didn’t do anything to hurt him."
"Of course I didn’t hurt him," Rose said. "I have no idea what happened to him."
"You and I both know you killed him, but blood is thicker than water, Rose."
Rose gasped. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It all came to me when he was asking you questions," her little sister said, still stroking Rose’s hair. "I was listening in the hallway. I remembered that I saw your textbook, the one you’re using in AP history; on your desk in your room."
"When were you in my room?"
"I borrowed your belt yesterday. The textbook was open to the section on the Indians. There's an artist’s depiction of Indians making a broth and serving it to their enemies. Their enemies were also tied to trees in the book. I put two and two together when I heard the detective describe what happened to Ritchie. Everyone was saying he was like in convulsions, twisting on the ground, grabbing at his stomach, and foaming at the mouth. Then when you were talking to the detective I went back to your room and saw the picture again. I thought about it and your tea is what killed him, there’s no doubt about it."
Rose cringed at her stupidity. All the detective had to do was go in her room and see the text book. Then it would have been over: "Miss Lopez, you are under arrest. Will you please turn around?"
She pushed the thought away. She changed the subject.
"I didn’t give you permission to borrow my belt, Anna.You have your own clothes!"
They both were lost in deep thought.
Anna broke the silence.
"We have had to depend on each other for so long since Dad got kicked out of the family and mother died," Anna said. "We’ve had to fend for ourselves since we were really, young. You mean so much to me, even if we do fight over things, like clothes and guys. You’re my best friend, even if you try to tell me what to do all the time."
"If you concentrated on boys your own age, not older ones who I happen to be dating, we’d be fine," Rose laughed. "You look silly and childish when you chase after these older guys. I’ve told you that before."
"I won’t tell anyone what happened," Anna promised. "I can’t stand the idea of losing my older sister. We’ve been watching out for each other too long."
"You know what, Anna?" Rose said. "You can have my belt. It looks better on you anyway."