THE TREE OF DEATH STANDS ACROSS THE alley and down the block from the Jessup place, in the backyard of the Ying residence.
In the summer and autumn, the thirty-five-foot brugmansia is festooned with pendant yellow trumpet flowers. At times, more than a hundred blooms, perhaps two hundred, each ten to twelve inches long, depend from its branches.
Mr. Ying enjoys lecturing on the deadly nature of the lovely brugmansia. Every part of the tree—roots, wood, bark, leaves, calyxes, flowers—is toxic.
One shred of its foliage will induce bleeding from the nose, bleeding from the ears, bleeding from the eyes, and explosive terminal diarrhea. Within a minute, your teeth will fall out, your tongue will turn black, and your brain will begin to liquefy.
Perhaps that is an exaggeration. When Mr. Ying first told me about the tree, I was a boy of eight, and that is the impression I got from his disquisition on brugmansia poisoning.
Why Mr. Ying—and his wife as well—should take such pride in having planted and grown the tree of death, I do not know.
Ernie and Pooka Ying are Asian Americans, but there’s nothing in the least Fu Manchu about them. They’re too amiable to devote any time whatsoever to evil scientific experiments in a vast secret laboratory carved out of the bedrock deep beneath their house.
Even if they have developed the capability to destroy the world, I for one cannot picture anyone named Pooka pulling the GO lever on a doomsday machine.
The Yings attend Mass at St. Bartholomew’s. He’s a member of the Knights of Columbus. She donates ten hours each week to the church thrift shop.
The Yings go to the movies a lot, and Ernie is notoriously sentimental, weeping during the death scenes, the love scenes, the patriotic scenes. He once even wept when Bruce Willis was unexpectedly shot in the arm.
Yet year after year, through three decades of marriage, while they adopted and raised two orphans, they diligently fertilized the tree of death, watered it, pruned it, sprayed it to ward off spider mite and whitefly. They replaced their back porch with a much larger redwood deck, which they furnished to provide numerous viewpoints where they can sit together at breakfast or during a warm desert evening, admiring this magnificent lethal work of nature.
Wishing to avoid being seen by the authorities who would be going to and coming from the Jessup house during the remaining hours of the night, I stepped through the gate in the picket fence at the back of the Ying property. Because taking a seat on the deck without invitation seemed to be ill-mannered, I sat in the yard, under the brugmansia.
The eight-year-old in me wondered if the grass could have absorbed poison from the tree. If sufficiently potent, the toxin might pass through the seat of my jeans.
My cell phone rang.
A woman said, “Hi.”
“I think you have the wrong number.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“I’m disappointed,” she said.
“You know the first rule?”
“Like I said—”
“You come alone,” she interjected.
“—you’ve got a wrong number.”
“I’m so disappointed in you.”
“In me?” I asked.
“Very much so.”
“For being a wrong number?”
“This is pathetic,” she said, and terminated the call.
The woman’s caller ID was blocked. No number had appeared on my screen.
The telecom revolution does not always facilitate communication.
I stared at the phone, waiting for her to misdial again, but it didn’t ring. I flipped it shut.
The wind seemed to have swirled down a drain in the floor of the desert.
Beyond the motionless limbs of the brugmansia, which were leafy but flowerless until late spring, in the high vault of the night, the stars were sterling-bright, the moon a tarnished silver.
When I checked my wristwatch, I was surprised to see 3:17 A.M. Only thirty-six minutes had passed since I had awakened to find Dr. Jessup in my bedroom.
I had lost all awareness of the hour and had assumed that dawn must be drawing near. Fifty thousand volts might have messed with my watch, but it had messed more effectively with my sense of time.
If the tree branches had not embraced so much of the sky, I would have tried to find Cassiopeia, a constellation with special meaning for me. In classic mythology, Cassiopeia was the mother of Andromeda.
Another Cassiopeia, this one no myth, was the mother of a daughter whom she named Bronwen. And Bronwen is the finest person I have ever known, or ever will.
When the constellation of Cassiopeia is in this hemisphere and I am able to identify it, I feel less alone.
This isn’t a reasoned response to a configuration of stars, but the heart cannot flourish on logic alone. Unreason is an essential medicine as long as you do not overdose.
In the alley, a police car pulled up at the gate. The headlights were doused.
I rose from the yard under the tree of death, and if my buttocks had been poisoned, at least they hadn’t yet fallen off.
When I got into the front passenger’s seat and pulled the door shut, Chief Porter said, “How’s your tongue?”
“Oh. No. It stopped. I hadn’t noticed.”
“This would work better if you took the wheel, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah. But that would be hard to explain, this being a police car and me being just a fry cook.”
As we drifted along the alleyway, the chief switched on the headlights and said, “What if I cruise where I want, and when you feel I should turn left or right, you tell me.”
“Let’s try it.” Because he had switched off the police radio, I said, “Won’t they be wanting to reach you?”
“Back there at the Jessup house? That’s all aftermath. The science boys are better at that than I am. Tell me about the guy with the Taser.”
“Mean green eyes. Lean and quick. Snaky.”
“Are you focusing on him now?”
“No. I only got a glimpse of him before he zapped me. For this to work, I’ve got to have a better mental picture—or a name.”
“We don’t know for certain that Simon’s involved.”
“I’d bet my eyes against a dollar that he is,” Chief Porter said. “The killer beat on Wilbur Jessup long after he was dead. This was a passionate homicide. But he didn’t come alone. He’s got a kill buddy, maybe someone he met in prison.”
“Just the same, I’ll try for Danny.”
We drove a couple of blocks in silence.
The windows were down. The air looked clear yet carried the silica scent of the Mojave vastness by which our town is embraced. Scatterings of crisp leaves, shed by Indian laurels, crunched under the tires.
Pico Mundo appeared to have been evacuated.
The chief glanced sideways at me a couple times, then said, “You ever going back to work at the Grille?”
“Yes, sir. Sooner or later.”
“Sooner would be better. Folks miss your home fries.”
“Poke makes good ones,” I said, referring to Poke Barnett, the other short-order cook at the Pico Mundo Grille.
“They’re not so bad you have to choke them down,” he admitted, “but they’re not in the same league with yours. Or his pancakes.”
“Nobody can match the fluff factor in my pancakes,” I agreed.
“Is it some culinary secret?”
“No, sir. It’s a born instinct.”
“A gift for pancakes.”
“Yes, sir, it seems to be.”
“You feel magnetized yet or whatever it is you feel?”
“No, not yet. And it would be better if we don’t talk about it, just let it happen.”
Chief Porter sighed. “I don’t know when I’m ever going to get used to this psychic stuff.”
“I never have,” I said. “Don’t expect I ever will.”
Strung between the boles of two palm trees in front of the Pico Mundo High School, a large banner declared GO, MONSTERS!
When I attended PMHS, the sports teams were called the Braves. Each cheerleader wore a headband with a feather. Subsequently, this was deemed an insult to local Indian tribes, though none of the Indians ever complained.
School administrators engineered the replacement of Braves with Gila Monsters. The reptile was said to be an ideal choice because it symbolized the endangered environment of the Mojave.
In football, basketball, baseball, track, and swimming, the Monsters haven’t equaled the winning record of the Braves. Most people blame it on the coaches.
I used to believe that all educated people knew an asteroid might one day strike the earth, destroying human civilization. But perhaps a lot of them haven’t heard about it yet.
As though reading my mind, Chief Porter said, “Could’ve been worse. The Mojave yellow-banded stink bug is an endangered species. They could’ve called the team Stink Bugs.”
“Left,” I suggested, and he turned at the next intersection.