I belong to several writing groups. Each one has from time to time offered up contests for members and outsiders alike to submit a story. Sometimes there's a prompt or guidelines. The common denominator usually is word count. I wrote this one late at night after one of the officers of Sleuth's Ink Mystery Writers called for members to get with the program because only a couple of people had submitted. So about an hour before the midnight deadline I came up with this.
Mystic Voodoo Paraphernalia and Palm Reading
Cherabella opened the door to her grandmother’s Mystic Voodoo Paraphernalia and Palm Reading store for the police. The back alley business was no more than ten feet wide, but boasted a depth of twenty five feet. The neighbors in the upstairs apartment across from Mama Juju, which is what everyone called her, heard arguing the night before, a scream and maybe a gunshot. They admitted it could have been those crazy college boys shooting off firecrackers after a night of celebrating the fourth.
“Why the concern? Mama Juju argues with every customer sooner or later because she jacks up the prices on her black magic medicine and scares the crap out of them with voodoo.” Officer Devaux tried to look unconcerned as the granddaughter rattled the door to make the key turn.
She shifted her chocolate brown eyes to him. “Mama Juju didn’t call me this morning. I left a little early to swing by. By that time,” she nodded at the neighbors standing on a balcony that had seen better days. “Let’s just go in.”
The door swung open, but caught on a rug which forced the bell over the door to tinkle, almost in merriment. Little light made its way inside the large window due to the towering building across from the shop. A hint of mildew and jasmine, mixed with the smoke of extinguished beeswax candles clung to the stale air.
Cherabella loved everything about the shop; the shrunken heads hung on the walls (which were really plastic), the jars of deformed creatures soaking in formaldehyde, the bottles of magic potions that promised to trap a lover or punish an adulterer and the drawing of a palm mounted on the back wall.
“Mama Juju!” Cherabella tried to sound natural, but she couldn’t help but notice Office Devaux unsnap his holster and rest his hand on the handle of his weapon. She decided by the curious examination of his eyes drifting from oddity, to the lifting of brown bottles to sniff, he feared the voodoo more than the possibility of a crime.
“Is all this stuff real?”
“No. Mama Juju makes most of it from various teas, herbs and spices.” Cherabella called again. “Hello!” Walking to the back of the store, she pulled back the lace curtain to peer into a small room her grandmother called home. “Odd.”
The officer quipped. “How would you know?”
Cherabella ignored the insult as a moan lifted from the darkness. “Mama Juju!” Officer Devaux directed his flashlight at the floor. A boney woman pinched with wrinkles across her face, lay in a bloody pool. He pulled the chain on the light bulb that swung from the middle of the ceiling then called for an ambulance on his radio.
“Mama Juju, who did this to you?” Cherabella chocked on her tears as she removed the red bandana from her grandmother’s frizzy hair turned gray.
A hand lifted to Cherabella’s face. “Read the tea leaves.”
Officer Devaux kneeled down. “Mama, did a customer hurt you?”
She whispered. “Tea leaves.”
Paramedics arrived to hurry an unconscious Mama Juju to the hospital amidst the sobs of Cherabella, and police moving back curious onlookers. Officer Devaux led the granddaughter back inside as the ambulance sped away.
“Did Mama Juju read tea leaves to many clients, Cherabella?” He removed his hat to dab at the perspiration. “I’ll wait here for the crime scene team if you want to get to the hospital.”
“Mama Juju seldom read tea leaves. She made teas to treat ailments for older clients. Didn’t believe tea leaves spoke truth, but held cures.” Cherabella shrugged then wiped her eyes. “Tea for colic, headaches, high blood pressure, you name it, she made it.” She moved behind the counter where her grandmother kept the book of recipes. “Oh no!”
Officer Devaux joined her. “Problem?”
“Mama’s recipe book for teas is missing.”
“Maybe she put it somewhere else.”
“No. I know it doesn’t look like it, but Mama is meticulous with placement. People always wanted her recipes so she kept it all secret. Even I don’t know the exact combinations.”
“Why would someone shoot an old woman for a recipe book? That’s just crazy.” He spotted a large bowl on a dusty shelf covered with a piece of burlap. “Would she keep tea leaves in a bowl?” He reached for the burlap and jerked his hand back when a mouse scurried from behind the chipped bowl.
The front door bell tinkled again as a well-dressed man entered.
“I’m sorry. We’re closed.” Cherabella tried to sound polite, but couldn’t resist frowning at Officer Devaux. She motioned for him to move away. “Mama Juju won’t be in for a few days.” He ignored her and lifted the cloth to peer inside the bowl.
“Oh. I’m Carl Higgins. I paid for some medicine. Some tea, I think. I paid in advance.”
What nonsense did Mama Juju use on this man? Her eyes caught a glimpse of the officer lifting a piece of paper from the bowl, then shake tea grounds from the surface. “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything about any tea.”
The officer dropped the paper then drew his gun on the customer. “I think our friend here came for more than tea. Get those hands in the air.”
“Good Lord, Officer Devaux, what is wrong with you?”
“There was a note in those nasty tea grounds. Looks like Mama Juju discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s with one of her teas. Recipe is on that piece of paper with a warning. ‘No give Higgins.’”
Cherabella’s hand flew to her throat. “You’re the man from the pharmaceutical company that took samples of Mama Juju’s teas to test at your lab. What’s the matter? Not in the recipe book you took last night?”
“I work for powerful people.” His voice, although nervous, grew slow and calculated.
Cherabella rushed up to him and yanked out three hairs from his slicked back hair.
“And I know voodoo.”