Synopsis of The Carib’s Smile
What? No Starbucks?
Jacinta “JJ” Joseph is a tough New Jersy homicide detective, a female Jean-Claude Van Damme, who retires to her native St. Theresa, expecting something of a vacation—sipping fruity drinks with little paper umbrellas—that sort of thing. Instead, she gets involved in solving four murders with the help of a Carib Indian medicine woman. Together they take on the evil, patriarchal forces that dominate the island.
This is a story of romance, mystery and comedy. You’ll enjoy JJ’s struggles to adjust to island life after so many years in the US. From the frenetic pace of New Jersey with a Starbucks on every corner, to a village life of cocoa tea, dogs sleeping undisturbed on the main street, and monkeys who fling feces, JJ slowly comes to terms with her new life, with her true self, finding love and a sense of family in the process.
This is the first of a three novel series. The second novel, The Judge’s Wife, will find JJ digging deeper into the forces that control the island while her family life becomes ever more complicated. The third novel, The Wife’s Turn, will, of course, bring some resolution to the chaos that swirled around JJ in the previous novels. With these novels Ron Frazer continues his love affair with the Caribbean islands where he once lived.
Chapter 1: Tuesday, 10 April, 6:15 PM, Newark
Detective sergeant Jacinta Joseph stared at the clock on her microwave—at the flashing colon between the six and the fifteen. She was angry. She gobbled the last few bites of her dinner, such as it was, just warmed up leftovers from yesterday’s Chinese takeout, then absentmindedly rinsed her plate while continuing to stare at the clock. Desmond, her seventeen-year-old son, had not come home for dinner.
Why hasn’t the little brat called?
She had been trying to teach him to call her if he wasn’t coming straight home, and he was making progress but discovering girls over the last year was proving to be a distraction. She suspected he had his hands on a distraction at the moment. She was going to set him straight about keeping her minimally informed about his escapades.
Jacinta—everyone called her JJ—thought briefly about calling him again; she had tried three times but his cell was turned off. She returned his clean dish to the cupboard and tossed his silverware into the drawer. She found a bottle of Merlot in the refrigerator then poured a full glass, right to the top. She slumped into a chair at the kitchen table and tried to force her thoughts to return to the office politics in the Newark police department, but she couldn’t get past thinking of her missing son.
She was standing at the kitchen table, fishing around in her purse for her cellphone when the front door of the row-house burst open. The pop-pop-pop of an automatic pistol rang through the house.
“Mom!” Desmond screamed as he scrambled into the front room, dropping to his knees as the front window shattered.
Bullets ripped the air. She heard glass breaking all around her. Shards of drywall flew from the wall above the kitchen table as the slugs ripped through the air just above her head. She dropped, rolled, then slid across the linoleum to the doorway between the kitchen and the front room. She saw the sheer curtains in the living room dancing as the slugs slashed glass and plaster from the front wall.
“Bastards! Dez! Get down!” He dropped completely then they slithered toward each other. She grabbed his head and pressed it to the carpet.
The bullets continued slicing through the flimsy walls. JJ could hear the dishes breaking in her kitchen. After what she guessed was twenty or thirty shots, she heard the tires screeching as the car pulled away.
Neither of them moved.
“Are you OK, Sweetheart?”
“Yeah, I’m OK.” Desmond said as he raised his head.
JJ looked in his eyes and held his face in her hands, then pushed it down to the carpet. “Stay down! They may be back.”
She suspected that one of the gangs she had been investigating had found her home address. By taking revenge they had come close to killing her son. She grabbed her gun from the kitchen and her cellphone. At the street door, now an aluminum frame with a few bits of glass hanging from the rubber seals, she looked up and down the quiet street filled with parked cars, trash cans, and electric poles with enough wires to block out the sun, when there was one. Mrs. Nguyen across the street had pulled back her curtains for a quick look. No one else was visible.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Quiet!” said JJ. She dialed dispatch and reported the shooting. Still watching the street, she spoke to Desmond over her shoulder.
“Why are you sorry?”
“It was stupid … I talked to this girl at school today. I didn’t know she was dating this gang dude. So these three guys were waiting for me after school. They been chasing me all over. I thought I’d lost them until I turned onto our street and saw their car coming from the other direction. I just made it to the house …”
“It’ll be OK.” She went back inside and leaned against the doorway to the kitchen, looking at the damage that a few dozen slugs can do to a small house. She had seen it many times before. She called one of the contractors that she regularly used to board up houses after they had been shot up. It seemed strange to give him her own address.
“You know the kids that were after you?”
“Yeah, they’re Latinos. They go to my school but they’re part of a larger gang. Everybody’s afraid of them.”
“Did you see who was shooting at you?”
“No. I couldn’t see anything inside the car.”
“How about the plates?”
Some detectives came, took their statements, collected a few slugs in evidence bags, gave JJ no assurance whatsoever that they’d be able to find the shooter, then left. A squad car would stay outside her house overnight in case the shooters came back.
“Let’s get you some dinner, Romeo.” JJ went into the kitchen and took the leftovers out of the fridge. Luckily the bullets struck higher in the kitchen so the appliances escaped damage. The good china and glassware in the upper cabinets suffered the most damage. She put the leftover cashew-chicken in the microwave.
“That gang isn’t going away, Dez. They’ll get you sooner or later.”
“I know. They killed a kid last year because they thought he dissed them.”
“I remember that. He was another nice kid, and we never found the shooter. … I’m thinking that we need to get you out of here tonight. We could send you to your father in Philly.”
Desmond sat at the table with his head in his hands.
“Aw, Mom! I don’t want to go there. … No Ma. Please!” he said without looking up.
“Don’t give me any crap! We’ve got to get you out of here.”
The microwave dinged.
He looked at his mother as she took the food out. He said, “You know we don’t get along. Besides I don’t like his neighborhood. It’s worse than here.”
JJ nodded her agreement as her mind continued whirring. She put his dinner on the kitchen table and poured him a glass of iced tea. “OK, what if you went to stay with my friend Judy in Phoenix. You liked her son Bill; he’s your age.”
“Yeah, Bill’s alright. But their neighborhood is all rednecks. And there aren’t a lot of black folks out there. How long do I have to stay away?”
JJ sat down and looked him in the eye. “How long will that gang remember you?”
She got up and paced the kitchen.
Dammit! she thought.
Walking to the wall between the kitchen and the front room, she picked off a piece of drywall that was hanging by a thin piece of backing paper. She threw it across the room where it shattered, leaving a pile of white dust at the baseboard. She paced back and forth through the kitchen while Desmond nibbled at his dinner, his eyes on her face. After a few minutes she stopped and leaned against the sink, looking at him.
“Those boys will be looking for you tomorrow. We need to get you out of here tonight.”
She watched Desmond while he picked through the cashew-chicken, eating all the cashews.
“You know—the fastest way to get you out of town would be to send you to your grandmother in St.T1. Then we could figure out what we’re going to do with you after you’re safe. We need time to think.”
She picked up her wine glass to take a drink but there were bits of plaster floating in it. She walked back to the sink.
“St.T is OK,” said Desmond. “but I don’t know anyone but Grandma and Aunt Brigette. I’m going to miss my friends.”
“You’ll get over it.”
JJ dialed her mother in St. Theresa, the Caribbean island where she was born. While it rang she dumped the wine into the sink and poured another full glass.
“Momma. How are you?” JJ asked but realized she shouldn’t have.
“JJ! So good to hear your voice, girl! I’m not well, you know. I’m suffering, suffering.” ‘Dammit!’ thought JJ as her mother continued droning on: “The doctor says there’s nothing wrong, but he’s not a good doctor. We don’t have a good doctor on the island—not one. We used to have, but he’s dead now. Now they have these silly Indian doctors and they can’t be bothered—just give you pills and show you the door. I sure it’s cancer, you know. I read an article about cancer the other day when I was waiting to get my hair done. My symptoms are the same, you know—just the same! O God! I just …”
“Momma! Stop! Excuse me! We got a problem here. Desmond has a gang mad at him and they shot up our house.”
“O Jesus! Are you OK? Is Desmond hurt?”
“Momma, we’re fine … but I’m afraid they’ll come for him again. If it’s OK with you, I want to put him on a plane tonight and send him to you until we can figure out what to do with him. Do you think it’s OK for him to visit?”
“O Lord! Yes, of course! He’s always welcome, Sweetheart. I haven’t seen him for three years. He must be as tall as you.”
“Great! … Look—I’ll take him to the airport tonight and he’ll probably be there sometime tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning and tell you when he’s arriving.”
“Oh, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see him tomorrow. Brigette! Brigette! JJ’s on the phone. Come say hi! Desmond is coming tomorrow!”
After some muffled sounds, which sounded like someone had their hand over the receiver, Brigette said, “JJ! What’s going on?”
JJ gave her an abbreviated version of the story.
“Jesus, I don’t know how you live in such a place, or why the hell you moved there at all, for that matter,” said Brigette. “So neither of you were hurt?”
“No, there’s just broken glass and dishes everywhere. The bullets went through the house above our heads, so it was mostly the stuff in my kitchen cabinets that got broken.”
“Well, it’ll be nice to see Desmond again. So, you’ll call us tomorrow and let us know which flight to meet?”
JJ could hear an icy tone in her sister’s voice. She replied, “Right. I’ll call you tomorrow. I gotta run now. Give me back to Momma.”
“Yes dear?” said Sheila.
“Momma, thank you. Sleep well.”
Desmond was finishing his dinner as his mother said her final good-byes. He put his dish in the sink and stood looking at the damage. He opened an upper cabinet with a bullet-hole in the door and jumped back as pieces of china slid out, shattered on the counter then scattered across the floor.
“Dez, go up and pack two suitcases with light clothes. Remember your toiletries. Take what you’ll need for two or three months. I want to leave in an hour. Don’t worry about the mess.”
Desmond nodded and went upstairs to his room. JJ went outside to tell the cops in the black and white that she would be gone for a couple of hours but she’d appreciate it if they’d stick around. While she paced the front room, waiting for Desmond to pack, she ordered pizza and coffee delivered to the black and white.
Desmond eventually came down with the suitcases and a backpack.
JJ walked over and hugged him longer than he wanted her to. She kissed him on the cheek and caressed the soft fuzz in front of his ears. “I doubt if your friends are watching the house, but just in case, you stay in the house while I put the bags in the car. Wait until I start the engine then lock the door and get in the car as quickly as possible.”
JJ stowed the luggage in her Taurus then spoke to the cops one last time. She started the engine and pulled half-way out of the parking space. Desmond joined her and she pulled away.
As they accelerated onto Route 21 heading south, JJ said, “I don’t know when you’ll get a flight—maybe not until the morning—but I wanted you out of that house. You’ll be safe at the airport. Maybe you can get a little sleep in the terminal.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll stay at a hotel tonight. I don’t want to stay in the house, either. The contractor said he could board up the house in the morning.”
They arrived at the Newark airport and went straight to the short-term parking at Terminal A. JJ carried the backpack and Desmond schlepped the suitcases into the terminal. She bought a ticket for a United flight that got Desmond to Antigua the next afternoon. From there he would take a smaller LIAT plane to St.T.
Since he had almost ten hours before he could board, they went to the coffee shop. It was almost eleven o’clock. JJ bought two bottles of water which they took to a small table. JJ stared at her son; he was looking around the almost empty terminal while sipping from the bottle.
“It seems like there should be something to talk about,” said JJ. “Here you are, about to fly off to another country. I don’t know when I’ll see you. Damn! I’m so tired. I can’t think. It’s just been a hell of a day.”
Desmond glanced at her then nodded. She continued staring at him. They both looked like they were about to fall asleep.
JJ said, “Look, I thought we could talk a little, but I’m beat, and I’ve still got to pack my stuff and find a hotel. So I think I’d better go. We’ll just talk tomorrow after you get to St.T. Call my cell if you need anything.”
“It’s cool, Mom.”
They started walking to the security screening area.
“You’ve got your cell, right?”
“OK. Call me if you have any problems, any questions. I love you, Baby.”
“I love you, Mom. Go get some rest.”
JJ stood and watched him go through security. He waved after he replaced his belt and sneakers, just before he passed out of sight.
JJ sat on a bench across from security. The events of the day suddenly crashed around her, suffocating her with their weight. She cried for a minute or two. She was right at her limit. Her child was gone. Just like that! In a few years he would have left for college but she would have had months to prepare for the shock of that. She was in a daze.
She drove back to her house. The two cops in the black-and-white waved. She went over to see if they needed anything and to make sure they could stay until the contractor showed up in the morning. An hour later she was checking into the Hampton Inn near her house.
* * *
At eight-forty-five the next morning, Desmond called to say he was getting on the plane and everything was fine. JJ, struggling to open her eyes, responded automatically with a series of “OK”s and “I love you”s. It wasn’t until she ended the call that she understood where she was. It had seemed, in her daze, that she was in her own bedroom but with someone else’s furniture.
After she splashed some water on her face, she called her mother to say Desmond would arrive at nine o’clock that night on a LIAT plane. There were only four planes arriving each day to the tiny airport so there would be no trouble finding him.
She went down to breakfast. As she sat in the lobby munching on the complementary waffles, the contractor called to say he’d be there to board up her house in thirty minutes. She gulped the last drops of her coffee, went to her room for a quick pee, put her gun and cellphone in her purse, grabbed her laptop then was out the door.
When she arrived at her house the black-and-white had just left and the contractor was leaning sheets of plywood against the front wall. She went inside to collect a few things forgotten the previous night. By the time she was ready to leave, the contractor was putting the last few screws in the plywood covering the first-floor windows and the front door. He had some cream-colored putty, which almost matched the aluminum siding, so he plugged the 10mm bullet holes. She watched him load his tools into a diesel pickup then pull away in a cloud of black smoke.
As she stood by her car watching the contractor’s truck drive away, she looked up and down the empty street. She waved to Mrs. Nyugen who had pulled back her curtain again to see what was going on. There was only one other car, an older model which belonged to a retired woman JJ sometimes saw walking home from the corner market pulling a folding shopping cart.
JJ looked at the battered front of what had been her home. It didn’t feel like a home any more. It didn’t call out to her to come in, to put her feet up. It wasn’t where she wanted to spend even one more hour.
* * *
Desmond stared out the window after the pilot announced that they were landing on St.T. He put his hand up by his eye to block the reflections from inside the plane. He was sitting just behind the wing so he could see only what was below. The island wasn’t there, only the soft sheen of the moon on the Caribbean. After a few seconds there was a flash of blue-white sand as the plane passed the beach then a flurry of black trees and tin-roofed buildings. The pilot banked then straightened the plane for landing. As the plane neared the ground, clusters of tiny houses became visible, some with a warm glow in a single window. When the runway appeared underneath, Desmond listened for the screech of the tires but the plane didn’t land; it just flew along the runway about ten feet from the ground until it reached the other end of the runway where it gained altitude.
The pilot chuckled over the intercom, “In case you folks are wondering what the hell I’m doing—I’m just scaring the goats off the runway. The airport isn’t fenced so it’s a good idea to make a low pass like that first. We’ll land the next time around.”
The plane touched down and rolled to a stop a few yards from a terminal building the size of a small fast-food restaurant. The dozen passengers were herded into a customs area where their bags were cursorily checked and passports stamped. Then they faced an opening, almost the entire width of the opposite wall, over which the words, “Way Out” were stenciled in three foot high letters.
Desmond laughed. He looked at the sign then around the tiny terminal with only three walls and two openings: the small metal door that they had just come through and the missing fourth wall that led to the car park. He wondered, Did someone ever get lost in the twenty feet between customs and the parking lot?
Almost hidden in the crowd of welcoming friends and relatives, Sheila stood below the Way Out sign, smiling and slightly bobbing up and down in excitement. Desmond saw his aunt Brigette standing behind his grandmother and looking tired. Enduring embarrassing hugs and kisses, Desmond was swept along to Brigette’s silver Mitsubishi sedan.
“Your mother tells us you had a pretty exciting day yesterday,” said Brigette as she pulled out of the airport onto a potholed two-lane road.
“Yeah, it was weird; our house really got shot up; and just because I talked to this girl. It wasn’t like I was asking her out or anything.”
“Well, you’re safe now. We’ll try to make you comfortable, dear,” said Sheila. “You can relax and enjoy yourself. Maybe you’ll make some new friends.”
The airport was a little north of Warrington, the capitol of St.T. They drove south into town then turned east on the Industrie Road, through the blaring bar and restaurant district, past the dark, quiet industrial buildings, then into the foothills where middle class then, a little farther, upper class homes clung to the sides of the jungle-covered volcano that had created the island.
They turned from the main road to the right, onto a single lane pavement that twisted along the slope of the hill. There were stone retaining walls, ten feet high, to their left which kept the front yards of several homes well above the pavement and out of sight. Steep driveways interrupted the walls periodically. To the right was another retaining wall that began two feet above the pavement and dropped down to the parking areas of homes whose road-level rooftops shone in the moonlight and whose driveways dropped abruptly through gaps in the wall. At the end of the retaining wall, the road turned sharply to the left at the first of two switchbacks that would take them up to Sheila’s house, a three-bedroom ranch-style on an acre overlooking the rooftops of Warrington.
Brigette pulled into the carport then popped the trunk. Desmond retrieved his luggage and stood for a moment admiring the view. The blackness of the island below him was broken only by a few hundred lights in the capital, really just a small town of fifty thousand. Beyond the shore, the sea, glistening in the moonlight and stretching to an almost invisible horizon, merged into a cloudless sky of stars. Billions of stars. In New Jersey, one could count the stars in the sky on the clearest nights. But here, as he stared into this sky, as his eyes increasingly adjusted to the darkness, more and more stars appeared. It seemed there were no spots in the sky that weren’t filled with stars.
Sheila ushered him inside then began reheating a pot of rice, peas and chicken while Brigette helped Desmond get settled into their spare room. The single bed with fresh sheets looked great to Desmond since he had only an airport chair for a bed the previous night. The room had once been Sheila’s sewing room but, in the years since her husband died, it was used for storage.
“We’ll clear some of this junk out tomorrow. I’m sorry it’s such a mess,” said Brigette.
Desmond dropped his bags then they returned to the kitchen where Sheila was stirring the pot on the stove.
“Sit down, dear, and tell us what you’d like to do. Brigette, get him something to drink.”
Brigette opened the fridge and held up a can of Coke to which Desmond smiled. She filled a glass with ice-cubes and handed him the glass and the can.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Desmond as he poured the Coke into the glass. “Should I start school?”
“Oh, … I don’t think so dear,” said Sheila. “The school year is almost over. I think we’ll just have to see what happens and how long you’ll stay. Let’s just make it a vacation for now.”
“He could help me at the insurance office; I’ve got some filing backed up that could be done. I’m sure he doesn’t want to lie on the beach all the time.”
“Yeah, I could do that.”
“If you came to the office with me, you could wander around town and maybe meet some people. You’re much older than you were last time. You’ll find some young men your age down at the market square selling coconuts and washing cars.”
“You mean kids my age don’t go to school?”
“These are just village boys—kids that didn’t pass the Cambridge exams to get into secondary school.”
“You have to pass an exam to get into school?”
“It’s the British system. The kids go until they’re eleven or so when they have to pass a test to go any further. If they don’t pass then they usually work in the fields.”
Sheila put the chicken and rice in front of him.
“Tomorrow I’ll call around to the neighbors and let them know you’re here,” said Sheila. “I think the Wilson’s girl is about your age. We’ll see if we can’t find you some friends.”
Desmond smiled as well as he could with his mouth full.
* * *