The Mama Tree lives in the Thicket, a place so wild it hides all kinds of creatures who don’t want to be seen. Prayer bundles and gris-gris bags dangle from its matronly branches like ornaments on a mother goddess. It has hidden Kenya and her disfigured face until, healed by the loving care of her grandmother, she emerges again, morphed into Chantal West, the sexy R&B Princess of Memphis. Her triumph is shattered when the body of her childhood friend Holly Simpson is found in a dumpster. Could the fresh tattoo on the body possibly be a caricature of her killer? Kenya has hit many bumps on the road of life, and even some ditches, but there are no air bags for this one. Detective Grover Moss knows in one millisecond that this crazy, beautiful woman is the love he is looking for and, in the next millisecond, that she will be the cartoon killer’s next victim unless Moss finds him first.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Mama Tree by Trisha O’Keefe, we go back to Julia Springs, Georgia, with Kenya Jones, all grown up now and singing for a living. In fact, she is now Chantel West, the current R and B princess of the South, singing up and down the East Coast and even out in Las Vegas. But Kenya’s life turns upside down when her friend Holly is murdered and Kenya’s own life is threatened. She finds a protector in Memphis Detective, Grover Moss, who follows her down to Georgia and even to Switzerland, attempting to keep her safe from a maniacal killer, who’s trying to kill everyone she cares about.
O’Keefe’s character development is superb, her plot strong, and the tension builds with every page. This is a good book for when you can’t sleep, as you won’t want to put it down until you get to the end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Mama Tree by Trisha O’Keefe is her second book about Julia Springs, Georgia; the swamp called the Thicket; and the strange characters who reside there. In this episode, Kenya Jones, who was fourteen in the last book and killed her pedophilia stepfather in self-defense, has grown into a lovely young woman with a voice like an angel, becoming Chantel West, a rhythm-and-blues diva. Her friend Holly Simpson calls her right before a performance asking for money or someone is going to kill her. Kenya knows that Holly wants the money for alcohol or drugs, so she tells her to call her tomorrow and hangs up to go and perform. But the next morning she finds out that Holly’s body was discovered in a dumpster, and the guilt Kenya feels is outrageous. She vows to find out who killed Holly and make them pay. But when she gets a call threatening her life and that of her six-year-old son, she panics, and calls the detective who had informed her of Holly’s death, Grover Moss. He takes his vacation time and drives south to Georgia, both because he doesn’t want anything to happen to her or her son, and because he can’t get her out of his mind.
What follows is a hilarious, harrowing, suspenseful escapade that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you chew your fingernails. A wonderfully entertaining read.
“Seven minutes, Miss Chantal.”
“I hear you, Jimmy.”
In her dressing room at the hotel two blocks from the Mississippi, Kenya was spinning a cocoon round her fragile ego. When she emerged from its nurturing threads, she would be Chantal West, The R & B Princess of Song.
It was a ritual she had gone through nightly for ten years, morphing into someone else until she almost believed the hype her agent put out in almost every form of media imaginable. Her face had even appeared on the little cocktail napkins and coasters in the hotel bar where she performed until Kenya herself had put a stop to it.
“I’m not a parking place for some drunk’s drink,” Kenya had told her agent. “Or a place to wipe his mouth.”
To make sure the name, like the face in the mirror, belonged to Chantal West, she studied her reflection for any clue the plastic surgeons had left behind. The R & B Princess sounded like she was some kind of royalty, not a girl who had helped kill a man and bury him in quicklime. A girl so disfigured that pregnant women used to make a cross with their fingers and spit as she passed. Not a girl who had been beaten, burned, and then turned out of the house by her own mother.
Just like in the old horror movies where ordinary people turned into werewolves and vampires, Kenya Jones morphed nightly into Chantal West. It was so ridiculous–no, her life was so ridiculous, Kenya burst out laughing. Ridiculous, but awesome. Somebody, a lover or a friend, had said it and she owned it–everything that went with being Chantal West.
“Hello, baaaby…” Her alarm snapped her back to her showbiz self. Five minutes until show time. No time to feel sorry for the little girl she used to be. She was billed as the hottest act in town. And with Memphis being the town, that was some kind of hot.
With a steady hand, Kenya added another coat to the eyelashes of Chantal West, The R&B Princess. To make sure her eyes didn’t crinkle at the corners, she showed her perfect teeth in a wide smile. Sexy, sultry, provocative–the adjectives used to describe her skittered through her mind like dry leaves across ruts in a dirt road.
Despite the hype and the perfect smile, she thought of her mind as looking like an empty house–the echoes of children’s laughter lurking in the dark corners of rooms with gaping closets No life inside, no fire.
‘Listen!’ A familiar voice rumbled like thunder inside her head. ‘And be warned, baby girl.’
Despite the urgency of the moment, Kenya froze, mascara brush in midair, practiced smile frozen. In the mirror, her own image was being replaced by tall, ghostly ferns, arching up from a forest floor where a tree cast a shadow as big as God’s hand. A tree where, across decades, people hung their prayer bundles or the gri-gri bags, curing them, dangling from its matronly branches like ornaments adorning a mother goddess.
She knew that tree very well. The Mama Tree embodied all that was natural and sane–the tree and Root Woman, her Aya. The Mama Tree lived in the Thicket, a place so wild, it hid all kinds of creatures who didn’t want to be seen, even herself as a child.
The Mama Tree had soothed her wounds and sheltered her until Aya had found her, cradled in its roots, thick as arms. Aya told her all the smaller trees around were The Mama Tree’s children because they had sprung from her seeds. Like a good mother, The Mama Tree protected them with her branches until they grew up and got sassy. Then they were on their own. But since she was strong with years and wisdom, the kids didn’t roam very far away. They always came back to be family again–and so the forest grew.
Kenya really had to smile at the thought. Aya was big on family, especially put-together families like hers. They made the world go round, families did. That’s what her Aya, the Root Woman used to say. She was a healer whose medicine was found in the natural world of South Georgia. A hoo-doo priestess who mixed Christianity and paganism with the same care that she mixed poultices and potions, knowing the individuals they were meant for.
Early on, sometime after the Great War, Aya had wandered from the coast inland, from village to hamlet, until she had settled not far from Julia Springs in a remote place called the Thicket. The Mama Tree was already there, presiding over her extended brood. Aya knew right away that’s where she wanted to build her church, sheltered by The Mama Tree.
Kenya sensed Aya was watching her from afar, wherever that was. ‘Is that you, Aya? What you want? What’s going to happen?’
The familiar voice said, ‘You never know what life’s going to bring.’
Her cellphone played a riff from Blueberry Hill, shattering the vision. Kenya put down the mascara brush and shook off the presence of Aya before pushing the speaker button. She already knew by the ringtone it was Holly. Holly always meant trouble.
“Hey, girl, you’ll never guess what I heard today.”
No matter how far from the Thicket she came, even here in Memphis, Kenya had always dragged the past with her–in memory and the person of Holly Simpson. Holly was one of those remnants of the past Kenya had tried to cover just as she did her own scars.
Slightly dazed, she fumbled among the jars and bottles, not wanting to deal with the mess Holly inevitably brought when she called–drugs, always money, her probation officer, pimps–not now, when she was getting psyched to go on.
With a sigh, she pressed the speaker button. “I never will so tell me, but make it fast. I got to go on in a minute.” She had to sound too busy to deal with her friend’s messes. But Holly qualified as family, so that meant Kenya had to take time for family, especially when Holly was about all there was beside Freddy and Sheldon.
“You remember back home? Where your grandma used to live? The Thicket they used to call it.They’re going to make it a shopping center. Put an All-4-A-Dollar store in there and everything. Can you see that? All those little yellow plastic bags they got floating all over the place? Your grandma would have a fit. She’d slap a curse on them so fast, they wouldn’t know what was what.”
Kenya felt like somebody had grabbed her by the throat and was choking the air out of her. That is sacred ground, only yards from The Mama Tree. “You mean in the Thicket?” Her voice sailed up a few octaves. She wanted to tell Holly what she had just seen in the mirror, but there wasn’t time. “They can’t do that. That’s swamp ground, girl, an All-4-A-Dollar store’ll just disappear overnight. Sink into the mud.” She emphasized by snapping her fingers with their painted fingernails. “Gone!”
“Not going to be swamp any more. They’re going to drain it and pave it over. Some ol’ crazy developer!” Holly was high. That wasn’t news. Holly usually was.
“Three minutes, Miss Chantal.” Her grip stuck his head in the door and closed it like a cuckoo on a German clock.
“Who’s that? Chantal, who?”
Kenya picked up the phone. Taking the speaker off, she said urgently. “My grip. Listen, I’ve got to go pee. Later. Call me tomorrow not too early, okay? I got a late night tonight.”
“I heard him say Chantal. That what you call yourself now? Chantal?” She could tell Holly was playing with her, holding out the approval she knew Kenya yearned for. “Mmmm, yeah. I like it. Kinda got sizzle to it.”
Kenya rolled her eyes. “They called me that a long time now, Holly.” Why didn’t the girl take the hint? “Yeah, listen, I got to go on. Call me, ya hear?”
Here it comes, the touch. Every conversation with Holly ended with hitting her up for fifty dollars here, two hundred dollars there, then a thousand. Now, the desperation in Holly’s voice told her it was going to be more. “Kenya, baby, I need to borrow some money real bad. I swear I’ll pay you back. Maybe I can sing backup like we used to, remember those days? When we first started out with Reverend Jeremiah?” Her voice skittered upward like joint smoke toward the ceiling. “’Member how we did ‘Wading in the Water’? Got us a couple of gigs.”
“We did that. I remember. But you got so you didn’t show up. You still got the habit, Holly. I know that’s why you called. You need money. We’ll talk tomorrow. I got to go now. Call me tomorrow, okay?”
The weedling grew to a whine.“But I need the money right now, Kenya. A whole lot of money or they’ll kill me.”
Kenya sighed with growing impatience. With Holly, it was always life or death. That was the world she lived in. “I’ve got to go, Holly. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay/”
Clinging to the phone call like it was a rope and she was drowning, Holly asked. “How’s Sheldon?”
“Growing like a weed, eating like a horse. Bye, Holly.”
The voice on the other end grew plaintive. “Kiss him for his Auntie Holly, ya hear?”
“We’ll talk later,” Kenya said, knowing already what she was going to say. You need help, Holly No amount of money’s going to save you.
She heard the Shades of Grey warming up with “Lullaby of Birdland,” and she was out the door before she realized she still had the phone in her hand. Rick, the owner of the Jazz Club, was saying. “Please welcome the glamorous Miss Chantal West and the Shades of Grey.” She threw the phone to a stage hand and walked on under the spotlights, half Kenya Jones, half Chantal West. The morph had been interrupted by Holly’s phone call, reminding her what reality was about.
The spots from the disco ball danced over her lithe body, her blue sequined dress clinging to her, poured on as a second skin. But behind the whistles and admiring eyes, she felt the threats of a well-known predator. Man. She knew him well–in her dreams, her nightmares, invading the sanctuary of her body, choking the life out of her.
Chantal West could face them boldly, with fierce eyes, a sultry voice, and words sharp enough to draw blood. She showed them lots of leg, deep cleavage, drooping blue-shadowed eyelids, everything but her scars, now papered-over by layers of her inner thigh and makeup to hide the difference in skin tone.
Miss Chantal could do it all, even give encores, receiving notes with hundred dollar bills tucked in bouquets of roses with suggestive questions: Would she spend a few hours with an admirer? How about a whole night? Chantal West scribbled “Go to hell!” on each card and sent them back. It was all the same to her if they never received it, and the stagehand split the hundred with the doorman, dumping all those roses in the trash can.
The stagehand had put the phone back in her dressing room, but Kenya had gone home without it, thinking it was in her purse where she usually kept it. That was why she didn’t find it until late the next afternoon when she went in for rehearsal.
When she located it, there was a call from Holly, and also a one from another number, a strange number. So she called that one first, thinking someone at the school might be calling about Sheldon’s afterschool program, where he stayed until Mrs. Bradley picked him up. Knowing Sheldon, he was probably in trouble for something.
Instead, a man answered. “Moss here.”
“You called me? Name’s Chantal West.”
There was a pause while he fumbled through some papers. Finally, he said. “Miss West, do you know somebody named Holly Simpson?”
“Why? Who wants to know?”
There was a tired sigh at the other end. “Miss West, I’m a detective with the Memphis Police Department. I’m calling regarding a one Holly Simpson. You know her or not?”
“Is she in trouble again?” It was the usual story: Holly was in jail and a detective was calling, which usually meant a felony. Already, Kenya’s mind was mentally thumbing through the pages of attorneys she knew.
“I’m afraid she’s dead.”
Detective Moss had just dropped a bomb on the world of Miss Chantal, the R&B Princess. She listened as Moss read off the grim details from the police report. Holly had been found in a dumpster by the river, her throat cut. Her hands tied with wire, her mouth gagged with a bloody rag. She had been beaten so badly about the face and head that it was only by the rest of her that Kenya identified the friend who loved her like a sister.
There was a childish tattoo on her upper right arm–a crude heart with H.S. loves K.J. done with an ink pen and needle long ago. Kenya knew it well. She had it put there when they were on the road with Reverend Jeremiah’s Gospel Choir. As she listened, Kenya Jones rubbed her own upper arm as it tingled in sympathy with her friend’s pain.
Detective Moss droned on as if he was reading a car manual on how to change a spark plug. “The body was covered in needle tracks,” he said, “and an artful tattoo of a shark riding in something with wheels–a skateboard or a scooter.” Detective Moss didn’t recognize the tattoo artist. He was familiar with most of them, but it was fresh. He put out the word at all the tattoo parlors in Memphis to find out who did it. He knew some guys, he assured her. Everything he said sounded like the TV news from another room, just noise. All Kenya could see was her friend’s golden arm, the one she had felt around her at the worst times in her life, sticking out from beneath a sheet as if it were detached.
“She had a habit, I take it,” he said, jolting her back to reality.
“Sorry, what’s that?”
Moss repeated the question. He sounded tired, as if he’d been up all night the night before and every night before that.
‘Don’t speak ill of the dead. They been through a lot just living.’ Kenya ignored the warning. “She had a lot of bad habits. You name it, Holly did it. She had so much to give, so much love, but she just wasted it, just threw it away. Alcohol, pills, mainlining, Holly did it all.”
In the end, reluctantly because it was the last thing on earth that she thought she would ever have to do, Kenya agreed to identify Holly Simpson so they could get on with their investigation.
When Kenya walked into the Memphis Central Law Enforcement Center, heads turned in her direction, heads that usually didn’t turn unless somebody was holding a weapon or throwing something.
The young woman in uniform behind the front desk fumbled for a pen, her face lighting with a wide smile. “You’re Chantal West, aren’t you? Me and my boyfriend caught your act at the Hilton the other night and thought you were really awesome. Can I have your autograph?” She pushed a notepad and pen through the window in the bulletproof glass.
Detective Moss looked just like he sounded, big and tired, and there were bags under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept more than three hours consecutively for years. And he was wedge-shaped, like he had been breaking down doors on nights when he should have been grabbing Z’s.
Something happened in his eyes when he saw her. It was as though, just for that moment, he saw her standing in his doorway in a floaty, yellow dress. Grover Moss was aware of winter turning to spring in the drab city around him. “Miss West, I’m Detective Moss. Come in and sit a minute. I know this is a hard time for you.”
She sat down because, all at once, she didn’t want to be there, and if she remained standing, she would run out the door. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Kenya had always been afraid Holly would end up the way she had, murdered, her body thrown in a dumpster. But dealing with it was something else entirely.
She sat on the hard edge of her chair, holding onto the purse in her lap as if it were going to take flight. Detective Moss’s deep voice kept coming from far away, as if she was drowning and he was trying to throw her a rope. But she kept slipping farther and farther down inside her mind, seeing Holly’s face, hearing the funny way she used to talk, telling jokes, laughing…
When she snapped out of it, Moss was there in front of her, lighting a cigarette and giving it to her.
“I don’t smo–” she started to say and then took a drag. “Thank you. When can we go? Identify her, I mean.” She couldn’t even say the word “body.”
“I’m sorry I had to ask you to come down here, Miss West. I know it’s hard, but I found your picture in her purse. You’d signed the back of it.”
He fished in a manila envelope and brought out a wallet-sized photo of her taken during the time they were in Reverend Jeremiah’s Gospel Choir. Her hair looked awful–kind of a fro with bangs. It was just after her first plastic surgery to fix the damage to her eye, and she thought at the time that she looked beautiful. Holly must have, too. Fifteen years ago. Sweet Holly had still kept that picture instead of all the glamorous publicity shots Kenya had given her. It was as if someone had handed Kenya back her teenage years.
Moss droned on, unaware of the memories the picture had resurrected. “There was nothing else in it. They took everything valuable, I’m afraid, phone, wallet, but I found this one scrap of paper with your number on it. It was tucked in a zipper pocket with the picture. Funny how the thieves didn’t even bother taking it. The things that are most precious to us are not the things they steal.”
With numb fingers, Kenya took the crumpled scrap of paper from him. It was from her kitchen notepad. She had scribbled her private cell phone number, available only to the school and a select few. Holly had been one of them. Kenya wiped tears away quickly, afraid there were more she couldn’t stop. “She called me last night, just before I was to go on. Wanted money.”
“She say what for?”
“Didn’t say exactly what for. Usually drugs or bail. But she sounded scared, said they were going to kill her. Could I please have a drink of water?”
“I’ve got something better.” Detective Moss went around to his desk and came back with a small bottle of vodka. “Do you mind if I don’t have ice?”
She felt better after a long drink from a Styrofoam cup. “I believe that will do me ’til I get home. Thanks for the drink, Sergeant Moss”
“It’s Detective. Did she say who was going to kill her? Who she was going to pay? A dealer, her pimp, maybe?”
That was the first time she knew Holly was into prostitution. Kenya stood up, then sat down again. “No, she didn’t mention names. Kind of crowd she hung around with doesn’t go by names. If they have names, I don’t want to know. Can we go get it over with now?”
It was bad, so bad that, even though they kept Holly’s face covered with a sheet, Kenya retched up her lunch in the morgue drain. The only way she could identify her childhood friend was by the pen and ink tattoo on her upper arm, H.S. Loves K. J.
“Can I drive you home or get somebody to give you a lift? Your husband? Boyfriend?”
Is he hitting on me? “No, thank you, Detective.” She hoped the ice in her voice would put him off, but not too far off. Kenya knew then she needed Detective Moss more than she had ever needed anyone in her life
Kenya, aka Chantal, had hit many bumps on the road of life, and some ditches. There were no air bags for this one. It was as if part of herself had ended up in that dumpster, part of her life.
The detective whose name was Grover, first or last she couldn’t remember, said she could have the body when the coroner was finished with it. It sounded like she was having her car repaired.
“I’ll be wanting to ask you some questions, but not now.” He was making an effort to be kind–she sensed that. Her body felt rigid, hardened like the shell of a turtle. Inside was the silent scream of a living creature without a voice. “We’ll find whoever did this and make him pay.”
“Yeah, right,” she burst out, wanting to hurt him, the man who had delivered this blow to her life. Like the many men before him who had inflicted so much pain. “Like you give a rat’s ass about somebody like her. Well, let me tell you something about Holly you never knew, okay? She was a good person and she loved my son and me. She loved us. Her daddy was a rolling stone, you know what I mean? Her mother was a druggie, usually in prison for dealing. What kind of chance would you stand with a druggie for a mother, huh? She never had a chance, never.”
Spring changed back to winter in Detective Moss’s eyes. A winter night, in fact. “I know. I see way too many of them. Way too many. But it’s also nice to see someone who’s made a success of her life. Like you, Miss West. I’ve heard you sing around town. Nice to meet you at last. Sorry it had to be under unpleasant circumstances.” Moss winced, knowing he had said the wrong thing by the look on Kenya’s face.
She got up, a slender beautiful lily in her yellow dress, which she would go home and burn in her marble fireplace. “I’ll see myself out. Goodbye, Mr. Moss.”
Moss could have kicked himself for always saying the wrong thing to pretty women. He had compared the dead girl and Chantal West as if they were equals. Chantal had everything going for her–beauty, talent, charisma, dedication.
Her friend obviously had little in the way of resources, a fact the unapproachable Miss West had pointed out herself.
Still, he stood in the doorway to his office, watching her go, thinking some lucky man was going to comfort her tonight.
Kenya managed to drive herself home, burning the dress while belting lime-flavored vodka, then crawled up the stairs to Sheldon’s room. She awoke to find him snuggled beside her in his narrow bed, smelling of soap and barbeque chips.
Her son stroked her cheek with little-boy fingers. “You sick, Mommy?”
“Your mama’s just sad, baby.”
“Why? Why you sad?”
“’Cause your mama gotta go home, my baby. Just ’cause she’s gotta go home now, and she hates to leave you, is why.”
“But surprise! You are home now. You’re home, so sing me a lullaby, okay?”
“Okay.” She sang with tears running down her cheeks as she cradled the child that had become hers tonight.
© 2016 by Trisha O’Keefe