Retired travel writer Natalie Seachrist has had visions since childhood. But the sight of a girl's lifeless body draped over a vintage Mustang shatters her personal world when she learns her vision has been prescient. The horrible truth is that her twin's granddaughter Ariel is dead!While the Honolulu Police Department conducts its customary investigation, Natalie decides to move into the Makiki apartment complex where her grandniece died. Aided by her friend Keoni Hewitt, a retired police detective, and her fleet-footed feline companion Miss Una, Natalie begins her very personal on-site sleuthing.She soon discovers the fascinating Shànghai origins of apartment owners Pearl Wong and her sister Jade Bishop…and more than a little discord. Will Natalie be able to solve the riddle of Ariel's death before the police close their investigation without an arrest? Or has Natalie put herself in the way of a killer who's willing to murder again to hide their secret?
About the Author
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson draws on a multi-faceted background in the performing arts, education and marketing. The well-researched elements of her Natalie Seachrist mystery series invite the reader and listener into the sensory rich environs of Hawaìi, where she lived for over twenty years. Like her heroine, she and her husband enjoy feline companionship in an environment featuring dynamic skies, landscapes and characters. Academically, she was accepted for membership in Phi Beta Kappa while completing her Bachelor's degree in History at the University of Hawaìi. During graduate studies and a teaching assistantship, she became a member of Phi Alpha Theta. She is also a Lifetime Member of the British Association of Teachers of Dancing, Highland Division.
Read an Excerpt
Great ability develops and reveals
itself increasingly with every new assignment.
Balthasar Gracián y Morales [1601-1658]
It came againmy vision from that first day of summerwhen I learned my grandniece Ariel had died. My awareness of the realm of the paranormal began when I was a small child. Since losing an hour sitting against a wall of the oldWaikīkīNatatorium as a preschooler, the edge between life awake and vivid dreaming or visioning has remained blurred. As for most people, the majority of my dreams and visions are nocturnal and predictably focused on my personal journey across the world stage. However, some scenes arrive without the benefit of sleep. Like viewing Ariel’s body in grotesque deathly repose, they depict moments I have not experienced, or ever contemplated.
Today’s newsreel-like scenes swept in while I was taking a break from research at the Hawaìi State Archives. After taking early retirement, I am fortunate to supplement my income with occasional research and writing projects. My current assignment is on behalf of my friend Keoni Hewitt, a former homicide detective turned private eye. When he called with an unexpected request the night before Ariel died, I had no inkling of the complications that were about to overtake my life.
“So what’re you doing these days, Natalie?” he began.
“Not a lot, really,” I said, petting little Miss Una, my new feline companion of the tortoise shell variety. “I’m enjoying my personal leisure after all those years of reporting on other people’s travels, as well as events of actual newsworthiness.”
He laughed and said, “Well, if your schedule can handle it, there’s some research I’m hoping you’ll consider doing for me.”
I have always enjoyed listening to Keoni’s rich baritone voice. I could picture him savoring the day’s sunset from the coveredlānaiof his cottage inMānoaValley. Since he has announced he is cutting down on alcohol, he was probably stretched out on his favorite recliner sipping a tall glass of iced tea.
We are both past the half-century mark, with deepening age lines and more gray than blond in our hair. Nevertheless, Keoni still wears his signature wardrobe of crisp walking shorts, leather sandals and classic 1950s aloha shirts with great style. I could almost smell the exotic notes of his aftershave and jumped at the chance to see him again.
“I said I was getting spoiled, not bored. But what’s on your agenda?”
“Oh, let’s say circa 1905. I’d like you to see if something significant occurred in the last century that would convince my relatives to halt their plans to demolish the old family home inKaimukī.”
I mulled over his proposal for a moment. “I seldom decline an assignment, but I don’t see what I can do to halt perceptions of progress in the twenty-first century.”
“I’m hoping you might find some social connection or historical event to reinforce my pitch. I’m trying to get my relatives to opt for architectural preservation, rather than this year’s interpretation of suburban renewal,” he pleaded eloquently. “I could justify it, if something significant has happened there. You know, like royal princesses having tea with my aunts. Or maybe studying with my grandmother, who was a recognizedkumuhula. Depending on what you learn, you could write one of your colorful articles for the newspaper orHonolulu Magazine.
“I’d be happy to pay for your time and any expenses you incur. You have a flair for sharing an event that makes readers feel like they’re experiencing the moment you’re describing. Applying that talent to my project could make all the difference in achieving my goal.”
I certainly possessed the skills to do the research. But that did not mean that anything I learned would alter his family’s desire for a cash saleunless something truly noteworthy had occurred on the premises to fill them with pride, or allowed them to charge admission to history-hungry visitors. My mind wandered through the possibilities for a couple of moments. I doubted Keoni’s family had hosted any gala events attended by royalty and almost laughed at the image of elegant horse-drawn carriages pulling up to what I envisioned was a modest bungalow.
The bottom line was that Keoni was offering to pay me and I was delighted to accept his job. “Well, I’m already familiar with that era and the task seems straightforward. You’ve got a deal. I’ll be happy to spend a several hours nosing around the neighborhood’s history during the last ten decades or so.”
“That’s great,” responded Keoni. “I look forward to seeing what you find. Besides, we haven’t seen each other for a while and it’ll be good to catch up.”
I concurred. Before hanging up, I asked a few questions about his family’s property and its sequence of owners. I then checked the lock on the front door, closed several windows, and carried Miss Una into the bedroom. After setting her on top of the velourcatsackbeside my pillow, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Staring into the mirror, I thought about the passing decades ofmylife. While I may chemically enhance my hair, I have never considered plastic surgery. But I would bet my friends with eyeliner tattooing look great in the morning.
With gratitude for many things in my life, I pulled back my bedspread and snuggled down next to Miss Una. It was time for our nightly exploration of the world of classic fiction. Tonight I was finishing a re-read of one of my favorite J. A. Jance novels. As her heroine turned to kiss her new husband goodnight, I found myself entertaining a warm curiosity about where my relationship with Keoni might be going. I realized I had been a widow for over three decades. Although I date occasionally, there has not been anyone interesting on the horizon recently.
The next day was a Friday. I awoke with a renewed sense of purpose. Everything started normally, with no hint of what was to come. At the launch of every new assignment, I begin by organizing my personal life. As I tidied my home that morning, I contemplated the parameters of the work I was about to undertake. After cleaning out the refrigerator, I shared a lunch of mystery leftovers with my four-legged roommate.
I carried my cup of mint tea and a ginger cookie into the living room and sat in my reclining wingback chair. Grabbing one of the steno pads I always keep at hand, I leisurely began noting the resources I would tap for Keoni’s project. Just as I ran out of ideas, I began to feel drowsy and decided to have a nap. I laid my notes and reading glasses on the coffee table and rose to stretch my back and fingers. After clicking on the ceiling fan, I sank onto the welcoming cushions of the oldkoawood framedpunèemy mother had upholstered repeatedly.
I glanced up to find Miss Una regally washing her disproportionately long white whiskers in her favorite daytime roost on the sofa’s back. Lying on my side, I slipped my right hand under a pillow and turned my face toward the open patio door. I felt refreshed by the cool breeze off the ocean and quickly slipped from consciousness into the fate-filled vision of Ariel’s ghastly and improbable death.
When I awakened to the urgent ringing of the telephone, I knew the call was from my twin Nathan. With shaking hands and a heart rate far above normal, I put the receiver to my ear. After the horrifying confirmation of his granddaughter’s death, my life devolved to one of its lowest points.
Between sketchy news reports and the lingering impact of my vision, I was too stunned to do much for a couple of days. I knew there was no need to rush over to Nathan’s home on the shoreline ofKānèohe, as his friends and neighbors would be supplying him with a world of provisions he would barely touch. We were both in a state of shock and it would not have helped to overwhelm him with my own tears and expressions of grief.
As Nathan had done when my husband died, I served as my sibling’s emotional lifeline. Each day I listened with compassion to his emotional outbursts that followed hours of conversations with the police, friends and neighbors. With an unattended death, we could plan elements of Ariel’s Life Celebration, but we could not schedule a time for it. More importantly, since we did not know if foul play was involved in her sister’s death, we insisted that Ariel’s identical twin Brianna remain at her college on the mainland, despite her pleas to return home.
For the benefit of Nathan as well as me, I tried to remain composed. I was glad our conversations were over the phone. At the least, Nathan could not see the empty tissue boxes piled around me, or the state of my personal disarray. Unfortunately, during my own discussions with Honolulu Police Detective John Dias, I broke down and could not conceal my tears. I was grateful the man was compassionate and gentle in asking the questions he needed me to answer.
Aside from calls to Nathan and suppliers of funeral products and services, I spent most of the weekend sitting on my balcony going through photos and other memorabilia. I savored the significance of each item. For decades I was gone for months at a time and therefore did not appear in many of the pictures. But even when I was on assignment out of the country, someone always made sure I knew about our family’s celebratory moments. Perhaps that was why Ariel’s death was so devastating to me. I had thought life would slow down eventually and I could catch up with everyone’s lives. But there would never be an opportunity to fully know the bright young girl whose life had been cut off before she could fully blossom.
Throughout the turmoil, Miss Una remained at my sidesympathetically studying the pain on my face and periodically mewing apt reminders of mealtimes. To be honest, my primary nutritional sustenance was liquid. I consumed untold pots of tea during daylight hours and several bottles from my small wine collection between sunset and midnight.
On Monday morning, I rose from a third nearly sleepless night. I looked around the condo and knew I could not bear another day within its restrictive walls. I dreaded the likelihood of a continuing stream of disturbing thoughts and uninvited images. Although I had no idea what I would do, I showered quickly, put on a shortmùumùuand fluffed my graying strawberry blonde hair. Knowing the puffiness of my usually bright green eyes would call attention to my sorrow, I applied a bit of makeup.
I doubted my body would tolerate even mild Kona coffee, so I brewed a pot of Earl Grey tea. I was not in the mood to eat but knew I needed some nourishment. There is nothing like a quick granola bar to solve that dilemma. Sipping my heavily sugared tea, I flipped through pages of notes detailing plans for Ariel’s memorial. There were a multitude of arrangements to be considered before her body was released by the Medical Examiner’s office. Although hard news had not been my specialty, my colleagues had taught me that while an initial autopsy report may not take long, completion of the toxicology tests and reports could not be predicted.
Hurry up and waitseemed to be the directive for our schedule. To accommodate everyone who wanted to help us celebrate Ariel’s life, Nathan and I were planning two memorial events. As we considered the participants, we noted the sad fact that there were only four family membersthe two of us, Brianna, and Auntie Carrie, our mother’s sister. That number dropped to three when we realized that with her advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Carrie would not even be aware of Ariel’s passing.
The first part of our celebration would be a memorial service at Kailua Beach Park. For this public occasion, we had found a non-denominational minister to officiate and Ariel’s former outrigger canoe club had volunteered to scatter her ashes at sea. Our second event would be a sunset gathering of family, friends and classmates from high school and college. Nathan’s immediate neighbors (retired restaurateurs) would handle the food and beverages. Beyond refreshments, there were musicians to book, photographs to assemble, floral decor to select, and.…It all sounded more like a wedding or birthday party, rather than recognition of the tragic conclusion of a young woman’s life.
Despite my own weekend of sorrowful reflection, I could not grasp the breadth of what Nathan was facing. Not only did he love her deeply, but he had been Ariel’s primary legal guardian since she and Brianna were orphaned at twelve. And although I was listed as co-guardian on official paperwork, every aspect of the twins’ lives had been his responsibility. If there had to be a funeral in our small family, it should have been for Nathan or me.
I finished my tea and thought of the red tape involved in any death. I resolved that once the official minutiae of this sad chapter in my life were concluded, I would make certain my own legal affairs were in order. Picking up my day planner, I leafed through the previous week. As I glanced at my notes on Keoni’s research project, I realized this was the ideal alternative to another day of long, empty hours.
Before leaving home, I set out bowls of fresh water and dry food for Miss Una. I then cracked thelānaidoor open to afford her a sniff of the greater world, and positioned the security rod to prevent the entry of any “Breaking & Entering” artists. Without the joy that normally accompanies the launch of new work, I woodenly gathered my laptop, miscellaneous supplies and a handful of my favorite, almost calorie-free snacks. Then I grabbed a banana leaf sunhat from the coat rack and headed out the door.
My journey began with a short, post rush-hour ride on “Da Bus,” as our local transit system is sometimes called. It took less than half an hour to travel from my Waikīkī condominium to the business hub of downtown Honolulu. Feeling better, I set aside my resolution to curb calories and stopped for a cup of mellow-fragranced Kona coffee and one of my favorite baked delights from Cookie Corner. Enjoying my snack, I meandered toward the municipal buildings and museums that line King Street.
At another time, it would have been a great day to laze in the sun, but my current assignment demanded spending a few hours indoors. After disposing of my garbage in one of the plentiful cans markedMahalo, I entered the archives. I checked my pockets for my camera, pencils and the maximum three sheets of paper. Then I selected a locker and crammed in my purse. Queuing up to inquire about the availability of several historical materials, I smiled at sight of the sole man on the research assistance team.
“Hey, Natalie. I really liked your last article in theHonolulu Magazine,” welcomed Henry Au, who stood at the check-in counter. “We got a lot of calls and some new visitors after your reference to our holdings. And that always helps our pleas for funding with the legislature.”
“Great. I’m glad to help ensure the infusion of a few extra tax dollars for my favorite research institution!”
Nodding, he inquired, “So, what are you pursuing today?”
I hesitated for a moment. Did I want to mention that death now permeated my personal life? That I was planning my grandniece’s funeral? No. Avoidance of these issues was my reason for being here.
“Oh, losing myself in days of yesteryear. I’m hoping a few of these materials are available,” I said, handing over request slips for reference books that might touch on the history of Kaimukī and some microfilm from the long-defunctPacific Commercial AdvertiserNewspaperto cruise for other potential points of interest.
“Give me a few minutes, and I’ll see what I have for you,” smiled Henry.
His friendliness beckoned me into old routines and I began wandering the public rooms of the squat old building. With the expectation I felt at the start of a new project, I leafed through numerous finding aids. From there, I would move on to the leather-bound friends waiting to present their varied tales dating from the age of Victorian Island splendor. Due to problems with mold, the books themselves are stored beyond the public’s reach. Checking back at the counter, I found that most of the biographical books I sought on leaders of the Territory of Hawaìi had been claimed by other researchers. Other items I had requested from the closed stacks were checked out or in the shop for repair, as well as control of mildew and dust mites.
I took the two reference volumes Henry had found for me and sat down to think about how I would approach this project. As I perused their tables of contents, text and indices, I periodically added notes to my personalized timeline of Hawaiian history. After returning the books, I sat at my work table and considered the notable men and women from politics and commerce who might have graced Keoni’s corner of Kaimukī.
With a vague restlessness, I glanced out through the old wood casement windows. Undulating shadows cast by the branches of banyan trees beckoned me to escape my drudgery for a while. Inspired, I returned to my locker and shoved in my laptop. I then grabbed my phone, a can of orange-passion juice and a few nibblies before exiting the building.
After the cool temperature of the archives, the sultry atmosphere of a bright Hawaiian summer day was a welcome change. Munching bites of fragrant, dried pineapple and sweet mochi, I sauntered across the grounds of 'Iolani Palace. For a few minutes, I watched as tourist couples in matching aloha shirts and dresses disembarked with joyous laughter from a bus across the street at the Mission Houses Museum. I set my bag on a shaded bench, shook the remains of my snack from the front of my dress and sat down. Pushing back thoughts of Ariel’s perplexing and gruesome death, I slipped beyond consciousness to that state beyond normal dreaming.
With the repeated coo of a dove overhead, my eyes opened. I looked around in a daze. Now that I am retired, I do not wear a watch. Often too lazy to pull out my cell phone, I use the lack of a watch as an excuse to chat with bus drivers and strangers on the few occasions I need to keep to a schedule. Noting that the shadow of a nearby garbage can had shifted and lengthened, I realized that more than a few minutes had passed while I was lost in the less-than-pleasant scene in which Ariel had died. I sat up and stretched my neck from side to side, trying to focus my attention outward as I was still immersed in the numbing vision from which I was struggling to emerge.
* * * * *
I am trapped in the expanding scenes of my home movie of personal horror. This time I face the unfolding story from the front row. Again, I cringe at the sight of the young woman face-down across the hood and windshield of a vintage car I now see is a Ford Mustang coupe. Counter-balancing the car’s metallic aquamarine paint, her bright red hair is splayed out across the back of her classic white tennis dress.
Today, I observe a gathering of onlookers casually restrained beyond a sagging perimeter of yellow plastic tape. Ambulance personnel speak quietly, awaiting instructions beside their two trucks. As before, a uniformed police officer interviews a petite, elegantly clad Chinese woman in front of an aging, four-storey building. The tall young man’s shiny name badge reads, “Yamato.” He scratches his pen across a blue notepad. He then nods, striving to show respect to the elderly woman I somehow know is the manager of these apartments. I now realize there are two cement block buildings in the complex. Surrounded by parking spaces on three sides, they face each other across an unkempt courtyard.
The now familiar sequence of scene processing and incident report writing fades again to sepia and then disappears. A new scenario opens silently in full color. I watch the manager smile as she opens the door of a top floor apartment. Turning, she ushers the now-vibrant girl into an unfurnished unit, with white walls and terracotta colored vinyl floor tiles. They both remove their shoes at the door. Brushing a strand of black hair behind her jade-studded ear, the manager pulls a pen from her pocket and poses with clipboard at the ready while they glance around.
I feel as though I am watching the video of a stranger’s first adventure in real estate…not the last moments of my dear Ariel’s life. In tandem, the old woman and girl move through a two bedroom, two bath apartment. I notice that the doors, closets, and refrigerator stand open. I smell cleaning solvents and fresh paint. The angled light coming through screened, west-facing windows foretells the heat of the day’s end.
The property manager closely examines the beautiful girl in front of her. I know she is evaluating her suitability as a tenant. The girl is polite and respectful in demeanor and speech. The elderly woman nods periodically. She is pleased the girl is a local student on scholarship at the University of Hawaìi. The girl smiles with expectation and says she will be sharing the apartment with a roommate, who will arrive soon. As the image freezes, I smell dead flowers.
* * * * *
Slowly, this new scene in my vision receded. My mind’s eye struggled to withdraw from the jarring pictures now permanently etched in my mind and heart. Hearing the intruding laughter of elementary students on early-release from school, I blinked. I was not surprised to note the traffic on downtown Honolulu’s King Street. I was back. From where and by what mechanism, I did not fully understand. The one thing I knew for certain was that the girl, my dear grandniece, was dead.
There was no going back for Ariel.No chance to alter her journey. No opportunity to say farewell to anyone: not to the woman who was to rent her this first taste of social freedom; not to her friends at the University; not to her sister in distant Oregon. Worst of all, there had been no parting words to her grandfather. A man who now sits with memories frozen in time since calling to tell me of the shattering ofhisvisions for our family’s next generation.
My reverie ended abruptly with the shrill ring of my cell phone. One of the biographical books I had requested was ready for pickup at the archives. Returning to the demands of the day, I tried to set aside my anxiety over the latest revelation about my grandniece’s unexpected death. I debated whether to call Nathan to ask what he knew about the friend who was to have rented the apartment with Ariel. But that would mean revealing my visions.
Currently, Ariel’s death is an open case. Homicide Detective John Dias has told Nathan that, so far, nothing has ruled it as suspicious, nor has it been declared an accident. While the official autopsy report is not yet available, a preliminary examination of the site of her fall and the balcony of the apartment she was previewing did not reveal any signs of a struggle. But then, there is no explanation of how a healthy young woman with a lot to live for, ended up face down on the hood of a car. And no one has mentioned why a homicide detective is in charge of the case if there is no clear evidence of murder.
I re-entered the archives and retrieved my laptop, then queued up at the counter. In a moment I had one book and two reels of microfilm in hand. With my emotions still submerged in a land of non-enchantment, I focused on the work before me. The vinegar scent of the microfilm helped to keep me in a detached operational mode. For a couple of hours, I numbly went through the motions of examining the social doings of the rich and infamous of Kaimukī during the early twentieth century. Viewed through weddings, births, christenings, anniversaries, divorces and deaths, the details of lives from that era reminded me of the diversity of our Island culture and the blending of more than food at any social gathering.
Looking up at the clock on the wall, I considered whether to initiate analysis of Honolulu’s newspapers. Like most cities, our papers have changed names almost as often as their ownership. And although I could read the last decade of recent publications on-line, I would have to go next door to the main library for comprehensive files for theHonolulu Advertiserand theHonolulu Star Bulletinnewspapers.
Uncertain of my next move, I input a few notations in the computer file for Keoni’s project. Next I checked the Internet for media updates on Ariel’s case. Nothing new had been reported. It was only mid-afternoon, so I decided to take an unscheduled trip into lower Makiki. Within a half hour and a single bus transfer, I was speeding along the road that passed near to what could have been Ariel’s home. I leaned against the back of the bench seat, and sank again into that indefinable point between time and space that my brother and I have shared throughout our lives.