Black Jasmine(4)By: Toby Neal
It was a poor excuse for a lighthouse, dreary on a good day and downright creepy in the dark. The spectacular setting of cliffs and restless sea somehow failed to counteract a sense of misery left by a collection of abandoned, rusting cars and the graffiti-scarred broken cement structures that had been bunkers in WWII. The bluff was bare and empty without the emergency vehicles, breeze humming in the twisted brush that hid the tent village, the site of several unsolved murders.
Lei patted the Glock 40 holstered against her side. She made sure her baton and pepper spray were handily stowed in their holsters on her belt and her badge was clipped in plain view. As a detective, she’d come up with her own “uniform”—black jeans with dark running shoes, plain tank tops, and a light blazer to hide her gun, if needed. Today the blazer wasn’t needed. And better late than never, she put on a ball cap her friend Marcella had given her.
“Ready?” Pono slammed the door of the truck.
“As I’ll ever be.” She followed him into the hollowed cave of underbrush, the wind keening in the interlaced branches overhead.
The first tent was camouflage patterned, a still, hunkered shape in the green gloom.
“Maui Police Department. Anybody home? Come out and talk to us, please,” Lei said.
A zipper opened in a slow parabola, and a thin young woman wearing stained jeans, her hair in dreadlocks, crawled out, accompanied by a draft of garlic and urine. She sat in a camp chair beside the tent opening, eyes flashing defiance.
“Did you hear the crash last night?” Pono asked.
“You sure about that? It must have been pretty loud. Shoots, you’re lucky the car didn’t run through your tent here on the way off the cliff.” Lei played bad cop, her favorite role.
“I’m a heavy sleeper.”
“Could be you had some help with that.” Lei nudged an empty Jim Beam bottle near her foot.
“I said no. I never heard nothing.” The woman folded scrawny arms across her chest.
“C’mon. We’re not saying you had anything to do with it. Someone died, though, and we’re trying to at least establish when it might have happened,” Pono said, conciliatory, warm as honey in summer.
“I told you, I was sleeping.”
Lei’d had it. She pulled a pair of rubber gloves out of her back pocket, snapped them on, and reached for the zipper of the tent. “Did you hear my partner tell you someone died? I’m guessing there were some illegal substances in here, helping you sleep that heavy.”
“Hey, stay out of my tent!” The woman scrambled up. “Yeah. I heard it, around two a.m. I know because the kid woke up, was crying.”
Kid? They both leaned forward, and in the gloom of the tent they could see the faint gleam of a toddler’s face through the screen insert of the door, wide dewdrop eyes tracking them like a tiny wild thing in its den. The urine smell must have been diapers.
“Tell us more, or I’ll take that kid straight to Child Welfare,” Lei said. A familiar rage swept over her with white-hot power. There was nothing she hated more than child abuse and neglect. She wanted to grab the baby and run away with it—to somewhere light and clean, where there was no drinking, drugs, or danger.
“You’re right, Lei. We could do that.” Pono redirected his gaze to the homeless woman. “Or we could get you into the shelter.”
Lei shrugged. “Guess it’s up to her, what we do with the kid.”
“Fuck you, cop. It’s not against the law to be homeless, and I never did nothing wrong. I take good care of my baby.” The young mother snarled. On second glance, she probably wasn’t out of her teens, and her eyes welled with furious, terrified tears.
“Watch your mouth. I’m taking that baby.” Lei reached for her handcuffs.
Pono stepped in.
“I’m sure you take good care of your baby. Just tell us what you heard.” His big, warm hand landed on Lei’s arm, both restraining and anchoring her.
“Just heard the crash. And you’re right; it was loud.”
Lei sucked in some relaxation breaths, realizing she’d been too aggressive. But she was still going to call Child Welfare. This tent in the bushes was no place for a baby. Maybe the call would help get the girl some services, a real place to live.
The young mom didn’t have anything else for them. No, she hadn’t come out of the tent. She didn’t go out late at night with the baby. She hadn’t seen anything until that morning when she’d gone out to look at fire trucks and the commotion on the bluff. What did she think? Someone drove their car off the edge—it wasn’t the first time there was a suicide out here. Which was true, Lei remembered. There had also been some suspicious overdoses, and prior to this, a missing woman and a teenager beaten to death, both cases unsolved.