Marcia Muller

The Tree of Death

The first book in the Elena Oliverez series, 1983


I stared in disbelief at the ticket under the wiper of my VW Rabbit, then snatched it up. Code 27368. What the devil was 27368? I turned the ticket over and scanned the list of things deemed offensive to the city of Santa Barbara. Failure to register vehicle.

“Maldito!” I hurried around the back of the little yellow car and looked at the license plate. Sure enough, the sticker showed re-registration had been due in April. Today was May second.

I glared at the plate, then tore the ticket into two pieces and dropped them on the ground. Normally I’m a very law-abiding person, but this was too much.

“They could give you a few days’ grace,” I muttered as I walked toward the museum. It was, of course, because of the museum that I’d forgotten to send in my registration fee. The form was sitting on my desk at home, but what with moving and unpacking the exhibits, the upcoming press preview and the opening, I hadn’t been home long enough to write the check.

Still, it was worth it, I thought, feeling a rush of pride as I approached the nineteenth-century adobe that now housed the Museum of Mexican Arts. A month ago we’d been in a storefront in the seediest part of the city; now we were ensconced in a historic building in Pueblo Viejo, Santa Barbara’s Old Town. The museum was young as museums went-five years old-and much too poor to afford such elegant quarters, but the adobe had been an unexpected bequest from a deceased board member.

I stopped in the archway leading to the central courtyard and admired the blue-tiled fountain. It had been plugged up when we moved in, but I’d found a plumber who was willing to donate his services, and now the water flowed merrily, the late morning sun sparkling on it. The courtyards and little gardens that surrounded the building were full of flowers-hydrangeas, azaleas, poinsettias-by virtue of our director’s knowledge of horticulture.

One of his few virtues, I reminded myself as I turned and spotted him standing inside the entrance to the galleries. Frank De Palma was a fat, curly-headed man who, in spite of his custom-tailored suits, always managed to look as if he had just been shopping at the Salvation Army. He stood admiring the colonial gallery in much the same way I’d admired the fountain, hands clasped behind him. There the resemblance stopped, fortunately. Frank’s tie was askew, his shirt bulged over his enormous stomach, and one of its buttons was undone, exposing a roll of hairy flab. I shuddered and looked away.

It wasn’t Frank’s sloppiness that bothered me, though. That I could forgive in anyone, provided he was a competent administrator. But Frank was lackadaisical at best, and since our move he’d been too excited to do a lick of work. We couldn’t even get him to sit down at his desk; he spent most of his time wandering as he was now or regaling his entourage-a group of men I privately referred to as the Mexican Mafia-with tales of his fund-raising prowess. Well, Frank was good at getting people to cough up money, which was why our board of directors put up with him.

When I turned around again, he was gone. I crossed to the door and let myself into the colonial gallery. The centuries-old religious figures from the era when Mexico was ruled by Spain looked especially serene in their new display cases, protected at last from curious hands and the elements. My arrangement of three crucifixes really worked, in defiance of Frank’s contention that it was just too much gore in one place, and overruled him on that one-after all, I was curator here-and I was glad I had. Nodding familiarly at a Virgin Mary, I went on through the galleries, making a final check on placement before I returned to my desk.

In the folk art gallery on the far side of the courtyard, I came upon a stocky young man with an unruly mop of black hair. Jesus Herrera, a local artist and creator of fantastical papier-mache animals. He stood almost in an attitude of prayer, gazing up at one of his brilliantly colored dragons, which hung from the ceiling.

“Hi, Jesse.” I addressed him with the nickname he preferred to the biblical appellation.

Jesse turned, his shoe-button eyes shining. “Elena Oliverez! It’s wonderful how you’ve arranged them.” He gestured at the dragon and then at the iguana with butterfly wings. “My little camaleones have never looked better.”

Camaleon-chameleon-was Jesse’s name for his colorful creations. He claimed the exotic animals changed according to their setting, the angle at which they were viewed, and, of course, the eye of the beholder. I had to agree with him.

“I’m glad it pleases you. The camaleones should get plenty of attention from the press if the preview comes off as planned.”

“Why shouldn’t it?”

I shrugged. “It should. The exhibits are in place. The food’s been ordered. The volunteers have been lined up to serve. The press kits are assembled.”

“So what could go wrong?”‘

“I don’t know, but if something can, it will.”

Jesse grinned wickedly. “Nonsense. The only thing you have to worry about is getting old Frank here on time, without egg all over his tie.”

“Don’t worry about Don Francisco; worry about me. I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. My head aches. I went to the drugstore for aspirin a few minutes ago and found a ticket on my car. There’s a sinkful of dirty dishes at home. If I don’t do my laundry tonight, I won’t have anything to wear to the preview.”

“Poor Elena. You work too hard.”

“Tell that to the boss.”

“No, thanks. The only member of that family I’m interested in talking to is Maria.”

Maria was Frank’s twenty-year-old niece and the museum secretary. “You’re still hung up on her, eh?”

“Hung up?” Jesse assumed a dignified pose. “We are in love.”

“I thought Frank told you you couldn’t be.”

“Not exactly. He said that if we were I’d better forget about exhibiting here.”

“That must have been a heated exchange.”

“Sure was.” Jesse’s shoe-button eyes became hard and flat-looking. “I offered to break his fat neck.”

His cold anger made me uneasy. Jesse, like so many of us, was an emotional person, subject to instantaneous mood shifts. Such shifts could be dangerous.

Apparently he saw the concern on my face because he smiled reassuringly. “Oh, don’t worry, Elena. Tio Taco doesn’t bother me. But it is so sad-Maria De La Cruz, the fairest girl ever to travel north from Mazatlan, in bondage to that fat slug.” Quickly he had slipped into the cadence of his native tongue, rhythms I heard in my own speech, in the speech of all of us who had grown up in Spanish-speaking homes.

I smiled too. “I don’t think Frank exactly keeps her chained up.”

“Ah, they are chains you cannot see. During the day she is handcuffed to that typewriter, for a peon’s wages, which she must return to him for room and board. And on the weekends he forces her to clean the office. But the evenings are worst of all because then she must look after his five gordicitos.”

I laughed. “Little fatties” did indeed describe the De Palma children. Maria’s lot in life was not easy. “And then there’s Robert.”

Jesse clapped a hand to his forehead. “You had to mention him. Roberto De Palma. Fat, forty-five, and dull of intellect. Personally, I think he’s genetically unsound. Does Tio Taco really think he can marry Maria off to his brother?”

“Well, he’s not a relation. Mana’s Frank’s niece on his wife’s side.”


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