For a woman who’d probably killed her traitor business partner, Julieta didn’t seem too ruthless. Everyone warned me about her, but she mumbled and barely looked at me as she set the box of potted plants in my passenger seat and gave me my instructions.
“…part of a…limited-edition strain. My clients are paying over twice the usual price, so I need you to drive extra careful.”
“Oh, sure, got it.”
Each pot held a little tangle of very thin, slick vines and radioactive orange flowers, the petals floppy and pointed, like a jester’s cap. Connoisseurs would dump money to get Julieta’s homegrown carnivorous plants, the trendiest illegal collectible on the West Coast.
She kept pawing at the vines as she murmured. I wasn’t actually sure she’d killed anyone; all anyone ever warned me, when I told them I’d become her new delivery girl, was that Julieta couldn’t be intimidated. Don’t try to strongarm her, she’s not afraid.
“So…d’you understand all that?”
But still I felt like I could berate her into any arrangement I wanted, with enough time. I sure wasn’t afraid of the trophy boyfriend I’d heard about—Kyle, her gorgeous little lapdog. And I only assumed she’d killed her partner because I kept hearing that the partner hadn’t been seen in San Fran for weeks.
“Yeah, but…I’m wondering, you used to have a partner who helped you grow, right? Amber?”
“She used to help me find buyers…though I’ve been doing that myself for a while now. But she never helped me with cultivation.”
I could picture muttering Julieta hunched in a swampy greenhouse, feeding the plants freeze-dried maggots with a tweezer.
“So, what happened to her? She still around?”
Julieta still wouldn’t look at me.
“Amber felt jealous that I told Kyle exactly where my growing shed is, but that I wouldn’t tell her. And when I admitted to her I didn’t need her anymore, she threatened to sell me and my plants out to some other unit in LA. So no, she’s not around anymore.”
That confirmed my theory, though it still didn’t explain all the warnings I got. It might be crazy if you ran an Etsy shop selling homemade cat collars, but if your line of work was hawking illegal carnivorous plants, killing your traitor partner just made good business sense.
What else did I know about Julieta? Another friend once showed me a picture he’d taken at a party of hers. A golden dream of a twenty-year-old with his marble-sculpture arms clung to her scrawny shoulders. Amber must’ve been jealous of the money and pretty Kyle, who Julieta showed off like an Olympic medal.
I thought Californians must be soft. Afraid of a dinky, scrunch-faced gardener woman just because she came to the coast with nothing and made a hot pile of money with her plants. Well, not me. I let some ideas turn in my head and smirked at her, reaching for the ignition.
“Right, yeah. Okay, so—”
“It’s hard to keep people from pushing you around when you operate alone.”
She’d cut me off. Her voice came a little clearer.
“You need to send a message. Let everyone know threats have no effect on you. Show them nothing else matters.”
She caressed the edge of a petal with a fingertip, gazing at it with soft eyes.
“That’s the importance of this special strain. A message, for everyone who needs to know.”
Those flowers on the meat-eating vines were the gooiest nuclear orange I’d ever seen.
“Did…you feed those plants with Amber’s body?”
“Of course not. I gave her a few thousand and sent her back to Tulsa. She’s never been a threat to me anyway…she’s never actually known where I store all the plants. So no, not Amber’s body.”
Julieta looked straight at me for the first time.
“Like I said, you have to send a message. Just so we’re all clear on what I’ll do to protect my plants, I fed them the one person who knew where I keep them.”
I gave her a withering croak.
She smiled at me.
“There are more where he came from. Have a good trip. Remember to be careful.”