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The gossip recently has been as juicy as a papaya, one that gives just slightly under our fingertips and is fragrant on the inhale, the inside a brilliant coral color, bursting with seeds like so many ebony beads. If you don’t fancy papaya, think of a mango as we crosshatch the ripe flesh of the cheeks with a sharp knife or a freshly picked pineapple from the fertile fields of St. Croix, deep gold, its chunks sweeter than candy. Like these island fruits, the talk around here is irresistible.
The drama began on New Year’s Day with tragedy: a helicopter crash a few miles away, in British waters. One of our own was killed, Rosie Small, whom some of us remember back when she was in LeeAnn’s belly. Because LeeAnn’s first husband, Levi Small, left the island when Rosie was a toddler, we’d all had a hand in raising her. We sympathized with LeeAnn when the cute Rosie girl we doted on turned into the precocious Rosie teenager LeeAnn couldn’t quite control. At the tender age of fifteen, Rosie dated a fella named Oscar Cobb from St. Thomas who drove the Ducati that nearly ran our friend Rupert off Route 107 right into Coral Bay. We were all overjoyed when Oscar went to jail for stabbing his best friend. Good riddance! we said. Throw away the key! A group of us took LeeAnn out for celebratory drinks at Miss Lucy’s. We thought we’d dodged a bullet; Rosie would not waste her life on a good-for-nothing man with shady business dealings like Oscar Cobb.
The man Rosie ended up with was far more dangerous.
After LeeAnn died, five years ago now, Rosie took a secret lover. We called him the “Invisible Man” because none of us had ever caught more than a glimpse of him. But while Paulette Vickers was under the dryer at Dearie’s Beauty Shoppe, she let something slip about “Rosie Small’s gentleman.” Then Paulette clammed up and it was the clamming up that made us suspicious. Paulette was a little uppity because her parents had started the successful real estate agency Welcome to Paradise. She liked to talk. When she stopped talking, we started listening.
The Invisible Man’s name was Russell Steele. He was killed in the helicopter crash along with Rosie and the pilot, an attorney from the Caymans named Stephen Thompson. They were on their way to Anegada. The callous among us commented that they should have taken a boat like normal folk, especially since there were thunderstorms. The perceptive among us noted that, while there were thunderstorms on New Year’s morning, they were south and west of St. John, not northeast, which was the direction the helicopter would have been flying to get to Anegada.
Both Virgin Islands Search and Rescue and the FBI had reason to believe that the helicopter exploded. Maybe an accident—an electrical malfunction—or maybe something else.
If you think this is intriguing, imagine hearing of the arrival of the Invisible Man’s family. For, yes indeed, Russell Steele was married, with two grown sons and one grandchild. And did his wife and sons stroll right down the St. John ferry dock on January 3 and climb into the car belonging to Paulette Vickers, who then
whisked them off to whatever grand, secluded villa Russell Steele owned?
Yes; yes, they did.
Would the family of Russell Steele find out about Rosie?
Yes; yes, they would.
It was one of the taxi drivers, Chauncey, who witnessed a determined-looking woman marching down the National Park Service dock calling for Captain Sam Powers (we all know him as Huck), LeeAnn’s devoted second husband and Rosie’s stepfather, and then talking herself right onto Huck’s boat, the Mississippi. Chauncey remembers whistling under his breath because he had seen women on a rampage like that before and they always got what they were after.
The two sons appeared out and about in Cruz Bay, going to the usual places tourists go—La Tapa to enjoy the mussels, High Tide for happy hour. We saw these young men (one tall and clean-cut with a dimple, one stocky with bushy blond hair) in the company of two young women we were all very fond of (charming and lovely Ayers Wilson, who had been Rosie’s best friend, and Tilda Payne, whose parents owned a villa in exclusive Peter Bay), and that set us speculating, even though we knew that beautiful young people find one another no matter what the circumstances.
When we learned that one of the sons, Baker Steele, took his child on a tour of the Gifft Hill School and that the other son, Cash Steele, had joined the crew of Treasure Island, we began to wonder: Were they staying?
When we discovered that the Invisible Man’s wife, Irene Steele, was working as the first mate on Huck’s fishing boat, we thought: What exactly is going on?
We couldn’t run into one another at Pine Peace Market or in line at the post office without asking in a whisper: You heard anything new?
Sadie, out in Coral Bay, was the one who learned that the FBI had come looking for Paulette and Douglas Vickers, but Paulette and Douglas had taken their six-year-old son, Windsor, and fled by the time the FBI arrived. They went to St. Croix to hide out with Douglas’s sister in Frederiksted. Did one of us tell the FBI where they were? No one knew for sure, but Paulette and Douglas were arrested the very next day.
We’d barely had time to recover from this shocking news when the FBI sent agents in four black cars along the North Shore Road to whatever secluded villa Russell Steele owned to inform Irene Steele that the villa and the entire hundred-and-forty-acre parcel we called Little Cinnamon was now the property of the U.S. government, since it had been purchased with dirty money.
Whew! We woke up the next morning feeling like we had gorged ourselves. We were plump with gossip. It was, almost, too much.
We feel compelled to mention that this kind of scandal isn’t typical of life here in the Virgin Islands.
What is typical?
“Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good evening” at the start of every conversation.
Sunshine, sometimes alternating with a soaking rain.
Wild donkeys on the Centerline Road.
Sunburned tourists spilling out of Woody’s during happy hour.
Silver hook bracelets.
Swaying palm trees and sunsets.
Hikers in floppy hats.
Turtles in Salt Pond Bay.
Full-moon parties at Miss Lucy’s.
Mosquitoes in Maho Bay.
Long lines at the Starfish Market (bring your own bags).
Cruise-ship crowds on the beach at Trunk Bay.
Steel-drum music and Chester’s johnnycakes.
Snorkelers, whom we fondly call “one-horned buttfish.”
Driving on the left.
Nutmeg sprinkled on painkillers (the drink).
Captain Stephen playing the guitar on the Singing Dog.
Eight Tuff Miles, ending at Skinny Legs.
A smile from Slim Man, who owns the parking lot downtown.
Nude sunbathers on Salomon Bay.
Rum punches and Kenny Chesney.
Afternoon trade winds.
St. John has no traffic lights, no chain stores, no fast-food restaurants, and no nightclubs, unless you count the Beach Bar, where you can dance to Miss Fairchild and the Wheeland Brothers in the sand. St. John is quiet, authentic, unspoiled.
Some people go so far as to call our island “paradise.”
But, we quickly remind them, even paradise has its troubles.