Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala: New Excerpt
By Crime HQMay 4, 2021
“Dude, that’s not funny. Quit it.”
My first instinct said Derek was playing around. He’d been an infamous prankster when we were in high school, and this looked like another one of his unfunny jokes. I was too annoyed about the mess he’d made, with gobs of coconut milk splattered all over the table, not to mention my apron, to take him seriously.
But when Derek didn’t immediately pop up and grin like I thought he would, I looked over at Mr. Long. He stared at Derek, facedown in our chipped ceramic bowl, with an odd mix of horror and some other emotion I couldn’t quite place.
The hair on the back of my neck rose as I leaned over Derek and started shaking him. First gently, then harder and harder as he refused to respond. Did he pass out? Have an allergic reaction or something?
With effort, I pulled him up and leaned him against the back of the chair so he could breathe easier. Not that I could actually see him breathing. Oh, dear Lord, was he dead?
I hadn’t even noticed Ninang June making her way over till she shoved me aside. “Call an ambulance!” she yelled as she felt for his pulse. I shook myself. She was right. He could still be saved and my standing around gaping at him wasn’t helping anyone. I whipped out my phone and called 911, giving them the restaurant address and explaining what happened. As I talked to the operator, Ninang June wiped off Derek’s face to clear his airways, had Mr. Long help her lay Derek on the ground, and began administering CPR.
As I gave the 911 operator the play-by-play of what was going on, Derek’s chest moved up and down ever so slightly on its own, and Ninang June was able to lean back and observe his condition.
The immediate danger now over, I tried to hang up, but the operator insisted on staying on the line until the ambulance showed up. I put her on speakerphone and laid my phone on the table, then looked around, taking in the shocked faces and heavy atmosphere filling the room. Luckily, it was an odd time of day and we were mostly empty, just the aunties and two other tables of our regulars.
I rushed over to the door and flipped the sign over to say closed and locked the door. I took two steps before remembering the EMTs would need to get in, so I propped the door open and ran back to the kitchen to get my aunt and grandmother.
Tita Rosie shot out and headed straight toward Ninang June, who was still kneeling by Derek’s side. Before she could say anything, the wail of an ambulance siren filled the room and two EMTs burst in with a stretcher. Lola Flor stayed over by the other members of the Calendar Crew, who were no doubt filling her in on everything that had happened.
I was so focused on calming down the other customers that I wouldn’t have noticed the emergency workers hefting Derek onto the stretcher if I hadn’t heard him vomit as they rolled him out, Mr. Long following in their wake.
As the door swung shut, a heavy silence descended on the restaurant. My aunt stood stock-still, staring out the door long after the ambulance pulled away. Remembering the operator still on the line, I thanked her and hung up, pocketing my phone.
I looked around, not sure what to do. Comfort my aunt? Clean the table? Start ringing up the customers? My thoughts were broken when a child at table four started wailing, and my grandmother met my gaze across the room. With an imperceptible nod toward the table, she instructed me on what to do. I hustled back to the kitchen to prepare some salabat. The hot ginger tea would cure anything that ailed you, and I’d made a few modifications to boost the flavor and health profile.
I set the electric kettle and pulled out the jar of ginger, turmeric, honey, cayenne, and calamansi, the last ingredient adding a refreshing hit of citrus tang. While waiting for the water to boil, I filled mugs with a few spoonfuls of the ginger concoction and then topped them all off with the boiling water. I hefted the tray up to my shoulder and entered the dining room, where no one was speaking above a whisper.
My lola had set out plates of her homemade lengua de gato, the thin, crispy butter cookies matching well with my spicy-sweet brew. Everyone sat around sipping and munching, and I watched as the color returned to their cheeks and the tension left their bodies. Once the cups and plates were emptied, the customers all wiped the crumbs from their mouths and left money on the table, ignoring my aunt’s insistence they didn’t have to pay. When she tried to hand the money back, everyone fled, leaving her standing with a fistful of cash and a bewildered expression on her face.
Finally, everyone was gone.
Well, everyone but the Calendar Crew.
“Lila, don’t you have anything stronger?” Ninang Mae pointed toward the counter with her lips, gesturing to the bottle of Tanduay Gold Rum we kept for “emergencies.” These emergencies were usually nothing more than an impromptu karaoke night, but for once I agreed with her and broke out the bottle.
I poured a generous shot in each mug except for my aunt’s. She’d seen enough of the problems that alcohol could cause to drink it herself, but she let us imbibe in her restaurant as long as we were never foolish enough to try to drive home drunk.
I gulped down my drink, welcoming the fire as it coursed down my throat and burned my stomach, bringing tears to my eyes. As I dabbed away at the moisture, the phone rang. I started towards it, but my aunt waved me away, picking it up herself.
“Hello? Mr. Long! How is . . .” She paused, listening to the man on the other end. “I see. Sir, I’m so sorry, I . . . what?” More silence as she listened. “Mr. Long, we had nothing to do with it! We—”
He must’ve hung up on her because she suddenly stopped talking and put the phone down. Lola Flor stood up, and so did I.
I reached out to her. “Tita Rosie? Are you OK?”
She hadn’t moved, hand still on the cradled phone. “Derek’s dead. He’s dead and . . . and the police are heading this way.”
Copyright © 2021 by Mia P. Manansala.