Skip to content
The world's leading Mystery magazine

Story Excerpt

Art from

Murder Can’t Stop De Carnival
by Ashley-Ruth M. Bernier

My Grandma Lolo keeps a framed photograph in her kitchen of the very first St. Thomas Carnival—the one where the revelers, consumed by glitter and sequins and the thrill of pageantry and rum, met with an unexpected rainstorm. She’s an octogenarian now, but Lolo still tells that story like she’s devouring the plumpest mango from her tree, savoring each word like it’s a juicy bite. The year was 1952. The island was growing into its place on the global stage, taking its first tentative step into the kind of cultural extravaganza that islands like Trinidad had been pulling off for years. Lolo was little then, but she remembers the dark clouds rolling in and the downpour they’d unleashed on the parade. It had washed away makeup and destroyed hairdos, turned the festive streets of downtown Charlotte Amalie into a soggy mess.

The people danced anyway.

The music never stopped. The laughter never died. Lolo’s favorite part of the story was when the Duke of Iron—a calypsonian with a stage name, she’s always quick to point out, not an actual duke—began to belt out song lyrics he made up right there on the spot: “Rain can’t stop de carnival!” He was right. The rain couldn’t stop the carnival from becoming the Virgin Islands treasure it was destined to be. It couldn’t stop the people from coming together for something greater, a celebration that linked every one of us through time and generation. Nothing could stop that. Not rain. Not excessive heat. Not hurricanes, and surely not a global pandemic . . . although, I’ll admit, that last one was maybe just a little problematic.

Nothing could stop de Carnival. Nothing at all. And, as I learned one year when our celebration rolled around, not even murder.


Imagine this: the blazing Caribbean sun, April humidity, and the heaviest, glitziest evening gown you can picture, complete with wrist-length sleeves and a whole damn train in the back. Imagine accessorizing that heat box with additional torture devices like pointy sequined pumps with four-inch heels and a thick mask of makeup duking it out with perspiration. Imagine the attire wasn’t even the most irritating part of the morning. Thirty minutes into our wait in the crumbling asphalt parking lot of Dorothea Upton’s convertible-rental agency, and I wished it was all something I was imagining, wished I wasn’t living through every overheated, pinchy, sweaty, yappy second of it. Nope. Here I was. Carnival Princess Charlotte Caviness, twenty years after a reign that had started when I was in fourth grade, wishing with every ounce of my being to be literally anywhere else.

My grandmother whips her head in my direction fast enough that her tiara nearly tumbles off her elaborate gray bouffant. “Charlotte Christiana!” she snaps. “Some words have no place in a lady’s lexicon, and I believe I heard at least three come from your mouth jus’ now.”

“This kin’ of situation calls for a more expansive vocabulary, Lolo,” I grumble. I’m too hot to even apologize the right way. “This dress can only be described as tailor-made suffering.”

“Well, if you spent more time dressed for elegance instead of comfort, dahlin’ . . .” Lolo trails off. Her tone’s auditory side-eye, and the rest of the sentence doesn’t even need to be said.

I begin some kind of an explanation, but swallow it back at the last second. My grandmother—who’s always been Lolo, never “Grandma” or “Granny”—already knows shorts and sneakers are my literal daily uniform and that as a middle-school gym teacher, they’re the only kind of clothes that make sense. I already know she disapproves. There’s no need to budge from an impasse we’ve been comfortably grumpy in for the past eight years. The only need I have right now is to get out of the dress, and in order to do that, I have to get through the parade. “Any idea about how much longer this will take?” I snap. “It’s been almost an hour. Shouldn’t we be on the back of a convertible right now?”

I haven’t addressed it to anyone in particular. It’s more like a wail to the universe, to whatever the “Spirit of Carnival” might be. Lolo nods sullenly in agreement, but Miss Genie looks over at me, wringing her plump gloved hands in sympathy. “It has been awhile, eh?” She asks in her usual hesitant voice. “We could go wait in the shade, but I’m sure if we continue to stand here, someone should notice a car hasn’t been assigned to us yet—”

“But what sense dat makes, Genie?” Lolo interrupts. The two of them have been best friends for seventy-odd years, which makes me question Miss Genie’s sanity on a regular basis. Miss Genie was the second-ever St. Thomas Carnival princess. I’ve seen pictures of her from her parade back in the fifties, when she’d walked down the street in pastel-green frills and ruffles and patent leather. There are still traces of those round, dimpled, mahogany-brown cheeks and twinkling eyes in the rotund, bespectacled woman standing across from me. My Lolo, though, was the first St. Thomas Carnival princess. She never lets anyone get close to forgetting that.

“I’m just saying, Lorette, that Dorothea mus’ already know we been waiting for a convertible for quite some time now,” Miss Genie says with way more patience than I could ever manage. “I imagine she’ll have a car and driver ready for us soon so we can join the parade line.”

“Dorothea Upton can barely drink water and swallow without having to think about each step of the process,” Lolo mutters.

“Well, she’s also down a driver, isn’t she? The man they found dead yesterday morning on the waterfront—I thought I heard he was employed here for—”

“Yes, yes,” Lolo cuts her off again. “I heard that too, but that doesn’t negate the fact that las’ I spoke with her, at our sewing-club meeting the other day, she was looking for the glasses sitting right there on her nose. Trus’ me, she has no idea we’re out here. Someone needs to go say something.” There’s a look, a tone, something in the head tilt and the slight purse of her lips. Yup. “Someone” is me.

“I’ll go see what I can do,” I say, hoisting up my dress.

“Chari,” Miss Genie calls after me as I teeter in my heels toward the Upton Convertible Empire office. “You don’t want Florian to come wid you too?”

I know that if I turn around, they’ll all see it—the spike in my already skyrocketing irritation, the eye roll and mouthed curse word I can’t hold back. With my back to them, I only have to fake the graciousness in my voice. “Oh—no, but thanks, Miss Genie. I think I can manage this on my own,” I say into the wind.

It’s Lolo’s voice I hear next. “Right, Charlotte, but don’t you think it would be prudent to—”

“Thanks, Miss Lorette. But I’ll jus’ wait outside with you and Granny,” comes the quietest, most timid interruption I’ve ever heard. “Like Charlotte said—she’s perfectly capable of handling this on her own.”

They’re the first words I’ve heard Florian Milliner speak all morning, other than a mumbled hello when I’d hiked out into the parking lot. Twenty years ago, our grandmothers had put their heads together and hatched a plan for us to continue their legacy as carnival royalty. We were nine years old and at the complete opposite ends of the personality spectrum, and yet they still thought it would be great fun to dress us up, make us a team, and throw us into the Prince and Princess Pageant together. Lolo still has a photo of our crowning moment hanging up in her living room. I try my best to ignore it whenever I walk past. But all the ignoring in the world can’t erase the fact that our generational carnival royalty is a sweet story everyone loves—and that every five years, the four of us are asked to ride through the parade on a convertible together. It’s a hell of a big ask.

I turn around and look at the three of them—Lolo, all glittery and glamorous in her scarlet sequined gown, Miss Genie, soft and round in pale peach silk, and then Florian. He’s grown into the kind of slim, tall, cinnamon-colored man I’d probably find somewhat attractive if I wasn’t ninety-seven percent sure his grandmother still picks out his suits. He’s staring down at his shoes, also probably curated by Miss Genie, and I let out a long, haughty breath. I want to answer him honestly. I want to say that given our particular history of working together, handling things on my own is somewhat of a given. But instead, I gather up the voluminous folds of rose-gold tulle and silk and lace so that none of it is dragging on the dusty asphalt. I nod tightly in their general direction to keep my crown in place. And then, I whirl around and charge toward the office to find us a spare convertible. It’s no different from seeing my hoop at the other end of the basketball court or the finish line at the end of one of my triathlons. It’s a goal, and I need to get there. It’s the first step in getting this all over with, and no linebacker in the world’s got anything on me.


Dorothea Upton’s barrelling out of the office at the same time I’m moving at my own hasty pace to get in. We nearly crash into each other.

“You watchin’ where you goin’, Queenie?” she begins, and then takes a second glance at the white sash pinned across my body. “Princess, I mean. What year . . . ? Ah. Legacy year for you. Oh,” she says, as realization strikes. “You’s the VanSchyler girl, right? Lorette’s granddaughter?”

“Chari Caviness,” I introduce myself. There’s a pause while Mrs. Upton’s face goes through twists worthy of a majorette’s baton, and I sigh and get ready to clarify. “Yes, I’m a VanSchyler. And Lorette’s granddaughter.”

“That’s what I thought,” she answers. “Your father’s name, but yuh grandmother’s face.”

“I’ve heard that before.” I’ve always been told I’m a miniature version of Lolo. Same warm-brown complexion, same slim build, same imperious attitude. I’ve been trying to work on that last one for years. In that spirit, I shoot Mrs. Upton my sweetest smile and roll out the saccharine tones that had worked on the stadium stage for me twenty years earlier. “You know, Lolo’s always been so impressed with how efficiently you run your business.”

There’s the tiniest flicker of something. Suspicion, but perhaps also pride. “Has she, now?”

“Absolutely! Jus’ now, during our . . . uncharacteristic wait outside for a car, Lolo was saying that you mus’ be swamped with dignitaries and carnival royalty. Everyone riding through the parade probably booked a car with your Convertible Empire.”

“You’re waiting?” Mortification floods her face. “Well, we can’t have that, honey. Let me see what I can do for you—”


I recognize Lolo’s voice behind me and cringe. Recognize the tone too. Dorothea Upton’s about to get verbally wrought up. “Lolo, wait,” I begin, but just like de carnival, nothing can stop my grandmother’s tirades once she gets going.

“How long you plan to have us waitin’ outside in that heat? Genie and I have no intention of looking like drowned rats when we drive through Post Office Square,” she snaps.

“I’m doing the best I can. Everybody needs a car. You don’t see the lines in there?” Mrs. Upton shoots back. She turns up the drama in her own voice, and her face becomes a mask of pain and suffering. It’s about as real as the sugar in my voice a few moments earlier. “And I don’t know how much of the news you follow, but maybe you’ve heard we’re down a driver. That terrible murder on deh waterfront? You know it was Roland, right?”

Miss Genie wrinkles her nose in confusion. “Wait, Roland? The one for Leah?”

My grandmother’s confused too. Well. What I see on her face isn’t confusion as much as suspicion. “He was still working for you?”

I look at Florian to see if he’s as lost as I am, but he’s busy fiddling with his professional camera, conveniently inspecting something on the lens so he doesn’t have to participate in the conversation. He misses my eye roll in his direction also.

“Deh attorneys dem said I couldn’t fire him until the divorce was final,” Mrs. Upton says. “He was a miserable husband to my Leah, but I appreciated him as a driver and worker. I am, after all, a professional.”

Lolo opens her mouth, and I’m one hundred percent sure it’s to refute that last point. I see an opportunity and seize it. “Mrs. Upton, what if we drive the convertible ourselves instead?” I ask, the words falling out of my mouth as they enter my head. “Lolo and Miss Genie have parasols. They can sit together on the top of the convertible.”

Mrs. Upton’s not saying no, but she doesn’t look particularly enthusiastic about the idea either. She gestures to Florian. “He’d be driving the—”

I jump in to clarify as Florian looks up from his camera with his usual bewildered expression. “Oh—no, Mrs. Upton. I’d be driving. You know Florian’s a photographer. I’m sure he’d be happy to sit shotgun and take pictures for the whole route.”

Everyone looks over at Florian. He shrugs. “I’m fine with that,” he mumbles. There’s kind of a half-assed smile, a flicker of the cutie-pie he was that Carnival Prince year. Grandmothers, church aunties, and teenage babysitters thought he was the sweetest little guy who walked the earth back then. Pretty sure his current fan club consists of the same demographics. “If anyone will get us there in one piece, it’s Chari. Um. Charlotte.”

Mrs. Upton glances back at the tremendous line in the Convertible Empire office. And after ten minutes and dozens of signed waiver/liability rental forms with my signature, we’re back in the lot, this time looking for a convertible.

“They’re all exactly the same,” Lolo says. “Jus’ give us the first one, Doro. We need to get on the route. Everyone always expects the first carnival princess to be close to the beginning of the parade.”

“They’re not all the same,” Mrs. Upton insists as we walk through the rows of identical white BMWs. “Remember? The license plates?”

They’re all plays on the Upton last name, the license plates. Each one features an “UP” phrase in it—SunsUP, JumpUP, BlessUP. Lolo pauses and points to the one behind her. “I remember. Let’s jus’ use this one, no?”

Mrs. Upton whips around. “Which one is that—WakeUP? No, no, that can’t work. Cal said WakeUP was low on gas. And we’ve all been so busy these past few days with carnival and Roland’s unfortunate passing that we haven’t been able to refill yet.” She turns to me, and a sly little smile sneaks onto her face. “Do you know Cal, dear? My grandson? He drives for me here sometimes when I need some help, but he jus’ now got a big job down at deh TV station. Bet you’ve seen his handsome face every night on the news.”

“Oh, Charlotte knows Cal. For sure,” Florian volunteers before I can say anything. “I’ve taken—”

“Just a little. I’ve . . . run into him here and there,” I interrupt. Mrs. Upton’s eyes widen gleefully, and I point to the car behind me before she jumps any further down the conclusion road. “So WakeUP won’t work. Got it. Can we take this one instead?”

This is how I wind up rolling out of Upton Convertible Empire’s parking lot with Florian silent and shuttered beside me and our grandmothers sitting behind us on the trunk, under the lacy parasols that match their ornate dresses. As I make my way slowly up the alley between the historic graveyard and the hulking yellow office building to enter the parade route, I hear Lolo complaining behind me.

“She could’ve given us a car without this particular license plate,” she’s griping. There’s a loud schuups as she sucks her teeth in annoyance. “Just imagine how it will look when this much carnival royalty and regality pulls into Post Office Square in a car that says WukUP.”

“Calm down, Lorette. The judges and cameras in Post Office Square have seen plenty of wukkin’ up and bouncing bottoms today,” Miss Genie chides her. “Jiggling bosoms, thunderous thighs, winin’ waists . . . I mean, it’s carnival, right?”

Lolo’s sputtering something, trying her best to sound scandalized. I stifle a giggle from behind the wheel and look over at Florian, who’s hiding a snicker of his own behind his camera as we pull up to the intersection. A parade official indicates that we can join the parade route after the current troupe, a flurry of feathers, bikinis, and skin doing plenty of wukkin’ up, moves further up the road. I feel more forgiving in the cool shadow of the office building beside us and the breeze up the Gade. I take a moment to catch Florian’s eyes.

“Hey, you hadn’t wanted to drive, right?” I ask him. “I didn’t mean to speak for you back there at the car lot. I just thought it would be easier to—”

He’s already shaking his head. “Nah, Charlotte. I’m good. It’s fine.”

I cock my head to the side, nearly causing my own tiara to tumble off my drop curls. “Why you insistin’ on callin’ me Charlotte today? I never stopped being Chari. You sound like Lolo when she’s angry.”

Florian sighs. Looks down at his camera. “I dunno. Maybe because . . . sometimes people change. Sometimes people grow, and I didn’t want to assume that you—”

“Don’t drive forward so fast, Charlotte! My shoe—my heel is stuck in the damn seat,” Lolo cuts him off as I slowly make a right onto the parade route. I glance over my shoulder. Sure enough, Lolo’s somehow gotten her high heel wedged in the fold of the backseat, and she and Miss Genie are in a tussle worthy of a comedy sketch trying to pull it out. I slow our roll just a little bit.

“You got it, Lolo?” I ask as I inch forward. The noise in the backseat has stopped.

“Oh, I got—something,” I hear Lolo mutter. “What is this? It looks like—like some kind of cloth?”

“No, it’s a shirt, Lorette. It’s a madras shirt,” Miss Genie corrects her.

“Lord in Heaven. Took long enough for Dorothea to find us a car, and she couldn’t even give us a clean one? And it looks like there’s something inside—”

There’s some rustling. Some more complaining. And then—a scream. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024 Murder Can’t Stop De Carnival by Ashley-Ruth M. Bernier


Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop