Black Jasmine(5)By: Toby Neal
Pauwela Lighthouse was not a homeless camp for the faint of heart or those with any other options.
They worked their way from tent to tent, hearing much the same story, a big crash at around two a.m. Lei wondered aloud where the campers got their water, and one obliging toothless denizen showed them the former pineapple field irrigation system that had been breached. Water was brought into the central camp area under the biggest ironwood tree via a series of screwed-together garden hoses.
They went to one last tent, a little bigger and set apart from the others, where an imposing Hawaiian woman sat at a table made from an upright cable spool. She was sorting long, sword-shaped hala leaves, which hung, drying, from a line under the tarp outside her tent. Lei wondered what a dignified woman like this was doing at the seedy camp. Usually Hawaiians took each one another in; it was shame to the family for a relative to be in need.
The woman looked up at their approach. Long iron-gray hair was wound into a bun and pierced by a bamboo chopstick, and she wore a drab muumuu and had rubber slippers on her swollen feet. Her eyes were dark, inscrutable wells.
“What you cops stay looking for?”
Lei held up her badge. “Eh, Aunty. Know anything about the crash last night?” She called the woman by the title of respect used in Hawaii by younger people to elders.
The woman picked up a long piece of hala, pandanus used to make basketry, hats, and floor coverings. She worked the long leaf with her fingers, expertly shredding off a row of spines that edged the length of the leaf with a thickened thumbnail.
“I saw someone leaving after the car went off.”
“What? I mean, you sure, Aunty?” Lei’s attention sharpened.
Dark eyes glanced up, a tightening of contempt at the corners. “I know what I saw.”
“What’s your name, Aunty?” Pono had his notepad out.
“Well, Ms. Haulani, tell us more.”
“I don’t sleep so good.” The woman shredded the stripped hala leaf into half-inch sections, each about eighteen inches long. The thumbnail appeared to work as well as any paring knife. “I was awake, and I heard the car drive up to the edge. I came out of my tent.” Ramona gestured. From the door of her tent, she had a clear view of the bluff where the car had gone over.
“I wanted to see what was going on. I knew it was late, the hour of no-good.”
Lei considered asking about that but decided it was more important to keep the woman talking.
“Then, after the engine was off and it had been sitting awhile, it rolled forward and went off the edge.” Lei and Pono darted a glance at each other. This scenario didn’t sound like a teenager driving off the cliff in a suicide.
“It was loud.” It must have been; everyone had mentioned that. “Then I saw a little light, just a flash, like one of those mainland lightning bugs. It would go on and off, moving away from where the car went over.”
“Did you see anything else? Who was holding the light?” Lei tried not to rush her.
“No. It was dark, hardly a moon even. I saw the light—flash, flash—moving down the road.” She gestured back toward the main road. “I thought it must be someone walking, using a small-kine flashlight.”
They pumped her for more information, but that was basically all she had. She hadn’t talked about what she has seen to anyone, and Pono encouraged her to keep quiet.
“I can keep a secret.”
Ramona picked up another hala leaf, slit the edge. The older woman’s nail must have been sharpened, the way it cut through the plant material with a zipping sound that reminded Lei of the body bag closing. Lei found her hand in her pocket again, rubbing the black stone.
“Why you stay out here, Aunty?” Pono asked.
“I nevah like the family tell me my business. I do what I like,” Ramona Haulani said, and the darkness behind her brown eyes hinted at secrets. They thanked her and hiked back to the truck.
Lei drove them to the station while Pono wrote up notes on his laptop. She was still entertained by the sight of his big sausage fingers flying nimbly over the keys. Sunset slanted across the dash, and her stomach rumbled again. Those pretzels hadn’t lasted long.
“We’ll have to meet with the lieutenant in the morning,” Pono said, still typing. “She’s going to want to get up to speed, stat.”
“I know—but I don’t have to like it.” Lei and the lieutenant weren’t fans of each other. “I’m not thinking suicide anymore.”
“It’ll be interesting to meet with the ME and go over the autopsy report. Somebody walking away from the wreck looks bad. More paperwork.” Pono liked to grumble about that, but they both knew he was better at it.