It’s about a cat . . . and then it’s about a giant carnivorous plant attacking the neighborhood. Can Tom Jurgen and Rachel survive the assault of a new generation of Triffids?
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Devon Hatler sat in his backyard at dusk, texting on his phone while his dog Hodor ran around the back yard.
Too many business deals. One day he was going to have to scale back. And this damned lawsuit . . .
Hodor bent down at the fence, digging in the dirt.
“Hodor!” Hatler swung his feet down from the opposite chair. “No!”
The other side of the chain-link fence was covered with vines rustling in the breeze. The old lady who lived in the house behind him complained whenever the dog tore one of them. She was a nice enough neighbor, but a little kooky when it came to her plants. She had two gardens in her front yard and a greenhouse in her back yard, though Hatler could only see the top over the fence and the throng of vines.
Hodor kept digging, whining. Hatler set his phone down on the picnic table and stood up, clapping his hands. “Hodor! Here!” He walked across the lawn in his bare feet.
Hodor suddenly jumped up and ran to Hatler’s side. Then he darted away, heading for the house.
What the hell?Hatler bent over to inspect the ground next to the fence. Hodor hadn’t done much damage. In the morning he could—
Then it burst from the ground, scattering dirt and grass in high in the air.
Long and thick, it had a gray wormlike body with hairy stalks sprouting from its trunk everywhere, spiky triangular fronds that seemed to reach forward, looking for prey. A cluster of blood-read petals rose from its head.
The top of the head split open, revealing a wide star-shaped maw. Yellow gunk dripped from the lipless opening onto the grass, turning it to ash.
Hatler jumped back. This isn’t—what is it?
The thing bent forward. Part of its body stayed rooted in the ground, but it lurched toward Hatler like a slow snake.
Hatler stood frozen. I should run.But his legs wouldn’t move.
He could peer into the thing’s maw. Its throat seemed to sink all the way down its thick gray body. The yellow bile seeped from folds all around.
He managed one step back, and then the red petals began popping in his face.
“Ahhh . . .!” The stinging in his eyes felt like acid. He clawed at his face. “Hodor! Hodor!”
He heard the dog barking from the picnic table. Too scared to even come to help.
Pain speared his arms and chest. The spiky fronds? He waved his arms and tried to fight them off, but they were all over. Tears streamed from his burning eyes.
Then he couldn’t breathe. It felt like a bag over his head—a slimy bag that smelled like a sewer.He tried to push, choking against the putrid stench invading his throat, but then it stretched wider, sliding down his shoulders and trapping his arms. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t breathe . . .
“It’s my cat. And that weird old lady next door.”
I nodded. Private detectives don’t get too many cases involving cats, but I could tell that José Dukes was upset. And it was a murder case—sort of.
We stood in his backyard in suburban Glen Ellyn, next to a tall white picket fence shrouded in thick green vines that blocked any view of the house and yard next door.
Dukes pointed a foot to a spot next to the fence. “I found her there. What was left of her.”
He’d emailed me the pictures—a few bones and snips of flesh on bloody grass, and a leather collar with a brass tag. Like something had chewed Precious up and spit her out.
I folded my arms. The air was warm—early summer. “And you think it has something to do with your neighbor?”
“Look over there!” He jabbed a finger at the fence. “She’s got a jungle there! I don’t know what kind of plants and animals she’s raising there, but there’s something wrong. That’s why I called you.”
Me? Tom Jurgen, ex-reporter and now a private detective with a reputation for handling weird, supernatural cases. I don’t chase them, but they keep catching me.
We went inside Dukes’ house, a small Cape Cod design. The blocks around the place were snug, with small front yards and houses planted close together. Dukes poured me a cup of coffee.
“Have you talked to her?” Good coffee.
“I moved in two years ago. Just me.” Dukes was in his early thirties, with a short brush cut and thin glasses over bright blue eyes. “I went over to introduce myself. She wouldn’t come out of the house, just looked at me through her screen door. I brought her a pie.” He shook his head. “Her name’s Lillian Floria. I just left the pie on the front porch.”
It was almost lunchtime. The thought of pie made me hungry. “What do your other neighbors say?”
“She doesn’t talk to anyone. I brought pies or cakes to almost everyone on the block.” He looked embarrassed. “I live alone. I like to bake.”
“But you’re pretty sure she’s somehow responsible for your cat’s death?”
“I know it sounds crazy.” He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. “But I found Precious right there, next to the fence . . .” He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” I waited as Dukes blew his nose. “I’ve got to say, I’m not sure how much I can do. Trying to prove that she killed your cat is likely to be—difficult.”
“Just find out what she’s doing over there!” He pointed a finger. “Other people had pets disappear. And just the other night, some other guy just—vanished. They found his barking dog, but nobody has any details. I just . . . miss . . .” He started crying again.
I remembered my dog, Spooky. He’d died when I was 11. I’d cried for a week.
“Sorry.” Dukes blew his nose again. “Do you want some pie?”
“No, thanks.” Although I wanted to ask what kind. “The thing is, I can only invade her privacy so far. I can run checks online, but realistically, I’m going to have to talk to her. Is that okay?”
“That’s fine.” He nodded. “I just—I can’t move, not for a few years. But all those vines and plants? That place next door spooks me.”
I stood up. “I can’t make any promises. I’ll do what I can.”
“All right.” He wrote out a check and shook my hand. “Thanks.”
Out in my Honda I did a quick check on Lillian Floria using my phone. She’d owned the house for 30+ years. All her taxes were paid up. No social media presence.
Then I checked the local news media websites. And yeah—there’d been a disappearance in the neighborhood.
Devon Hatler, 67, around the corner from Dukes’ house, but—if I read the map accurately—right behind the Floria house. His barking dog had alerted neighbors and the police. They hadn’t found any trace of Hatler’s body, just some torn-up grass and dirt.
I have some sort-of friends on the Chicago Police Department who could probably hook me up with someone in Glen Ellyn, but it didn’t seem worthwhile for a case involving a cat. At least right now.
The next obvious step was to go next door and ring Lillian Floria’s doorbell. Being a reporter for years before I became a P.I. had taught me not to be shy about talking to strangers.
The front yard had a short patch of green lawn overshadowed by two wide flower beds. A riot of colors and aromas—lavender, jasmine, honeysuckle, and some I couldn’t name.
I wanted to literally stop and smell the flowers, but I had work to do. I walked up the steps separating the two beds. Plants inside of the house covered the windows—big, green, leafy plants with long twisting stalks and thick leaves.
I pressed the doorbell. Waited. How long until I should press it again? It doesn’t pay to seem impatient. Especially with an older person. So I waited,
I was about to push again when the door inside opened. “Yes?”
The woman who peered at me through the screen door was in her 70s, with gray hair, short but wiry. She wore wire-rimmed glasses, a green T-shirt, jeans, and garden gloves.
“Ms. Lillian Floria?” I held up my business card. “Tom Jurgen. I’m a private detective. Could I speak to you for a moment?”
She stared at me over her lenses. “What about?”
I had to say it. “Your neighbor’s cat. Precious.”
“The one that’s always chewing at my vines?” She stepped back to close the door. “He should keep it inside.”
She was ready to slam the door in my face. “She’s dead. It looks like she was eaten by something. Do you maybe have a dog or—”
“What?” The idea seemed to make her nauseous. “I only have plants. Dogs and cats are pests, like rats and bats and mosquitos.” She pushed the screen door open. “Come in and see for yourself.”
Lillian stripped off her gloves and dropped them on a table next to the door. “This is my house.”
Two tall rubber plants flanked the door, like guards at the entrance to a palace.
A big room to the right was filled with plants in pots and planters. I smelled herbs—oregano, basil, cilantro and more, making me more hungry than before. More potted plants waited on every step on a staircase to the side of a long hallway.
Lillian led me down the hall. Vines dangled from the staircase railing. My shoulder nudged an aloe plant almost as tall as me as I followed her into the kitchen.
Bonsai trees sat on the counter. Lillian stopped to examine one, plucking off a few dead leaves, then spraying it with a bottle from the sink. Near the back door a dwarf orange tree grew in a pot, its fruit not ripe yet but the citrus smell filling the air. Now I was thirsty.
Lillian opened a door into the back yard. “Take a look, Mr.—what was your name again? Take a walk around. Tell me if you see any dogs.”
“Jurgen, Tom . . .” I stopped.
Trees and plants filled the yard, big and small. The scent of avocados, limes, and apples filled my nostrils, along with a few other fruits and veggies I couldn’t identify. Plus fertilizer.
The yard looked like the jungle from Apocalypse Now. I half expected snakes, a tiger, and an overweight Marlon Brando lying in the shadows.
A wide greenhouse stood in the middle of the yard, its windows fogged with moisture.
“Do you see?” Lillian leaned on the railing, smiling as she inhaled the aroma around us. “No dogs here. Just me and my plants.”
I nodded. “So what’s in there?” I pointed at the greenhouse.
“More of my plants.” She crossed her arms. “I cross-breed different types. They’re very delicate. You can’t go in.”
I saw leafy fronds shaking near the foggy windows. But a few open slats at the top of the greenhouse were letting the afternoon breeze in. So maybe they were just trembling in the fresh air.
I looked around the yard. Duke’s big picket fence on one side. Some of the ground seemed torn up, along with the grass next to a tall chain-link fence at the back.
The greenhouse door opened. “Ms. Floria? I need some help with the—oh.”
A young black man, maybe 19, in jeans, cargo shorts, and long-sleeved glove stared at me. “Uh . . .”
“It’s all right, Erick.” Lillian foldered her arms. “Mr.—Jurgen? Was just leaving.”
“What are you growing in there, Erick?” I had to ask. I was a reporter before being a private detective. Asking impertinent questions is in the job description.
He didn’t take the bait. “Just—stuff.”
Lillian stared at me, waiting.
“Well, thank you for your time.” I left a business card on the tailing. “Call me if you think of anything. I can find my own way out.”
That worked. “Good day, Mr. Jurgen.” Lillian walked down the back porch steps into the yard. “Let’s take a look, Erick.”
I walked back inside the house. I didn’t plan on trying to search everywhere—that would be time-consuming, as well as illegal—just checking a few things out.
Mostly I took pictures of plants I didn’t recognize, and a few I did. In the living room next to the front door I found a row of carnivorous plants—Venus flytraps and others I couldn’t name. At the front door I leaned up and took a photo of one of the rubber trees, its upper leaves skirting the ceiling. Then I turned to the door—
And jumped. “What?” Something had touched my shoulder.
I staggered around—“whirled” would be a little too athletic—and saw one rubber frond swing back and forth.
Maybe it was a breeze I couldn’t feel. Maybe I’d somehow brushed against it from three feet away. Maybe I was losing my mind.
Whatever. I left before Lillian Floria could come to check up on me.
Back home I made myself a sandwich. Rachel, my girlfriend, came into the kitchen for a bottle of water. “So how’d it go? Catch the cat-killer yet?”
Rachel’s got red hair, hazelnut eyes, mildly psychic powers, and a mean punch. I swallowed. “You’ve heard of cat ladies? I met a plant lady.” I showed her the pictures on my phone. “This is maybe two percent of what she’s got in her house, and she’s got two gardens in front, an orchard in back, and a greenhouse I couldn’t see into. Plus, a rubber tree tried to fondle me.”
She sighed. “On the one hand, it’s not vampires. On the other hand—I’m starting to see why your mom wanted you to be an accountant.”
“You’d be bored with me as an accountant.”
Rachel punched my shoulder. “If you were an accountant we’d never have met. I like it better this way.” She kissed me.
I finished my sandwich, open a Coke, and went to the office I share with Rachel. She’s a web and graphic designer, and she was working on yet another landing page for her client’s latest conference. I went digging deeper into Lillian Floria—her property, her career, anything I could find.
I found several people with her name, but I couldn’t narrow the list down beyond a romance novel writer, a social worker, and a retired high-school biology teacher. Well, maybe the biology teacher, but I couldn’t find anything to confirm it—no photos, no information except for the Chicago school where she’d worked for 30 years—up until 10 years ago, so the chances of anyone there remembering her seemed slim.
I was starting to think this case was a road trip to nowhere.
My phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Mr. Jurgen? This is Michael Floria. I want you to stop bothering my mother.”
Okay . . . “Hello, Mr. Floria. I apologize if I’ve done anything to upset your mother, but all I did was ask her some questions—”
“You accused her of killing a cat! You went into her house and—”
“Sir, I didn’t accuse her of anything. And she invited me in. I was only asking questions.”
“Fine.” He took a breath. “Stop asking questions and stay away from her.” Floria hung up.
“What was that?” Rachel swung around in her chair.
“Lillian’s son.” I set my phone down. “Ordering me away from his mother.”
“Ohh.” She grinned. “Does that get your spidey-senses tingling?”
“Maybe. Or maybe he’s just overly protective.” Still, it gave me something to look into for a few more minutes before I called my client and told him there was nothing I could do. Michael Floria . . .
“Uh-oh.” It took me less than five minutes to realize I might be in trouble.
“He’s, uh, uh—mobbed up.” I pointed at my computer screen.
“What?” Rachel stalked over to my desk. “Vampires and demons we can handle. You’re not getting mixed up with the Outfit!”
“He’s a lawyer. He’s represented Outfit guys in court. Okay, maybe he just believes that everyone deserves the best defense—”
Rachel snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“It gets worse.” I clicked to another page. “Devon Hatler was suing one of his clients. The guy who disappeared?”
“Oh.” She leaned down. “What for?”
“Some kind of real estate deal.” I skimmed the page. “Hatler invested in a condo development and lost a hundred thousand dollars. He was suing the other investors, who he said didn’t lose anything.” I shook my head. “I don’t understand real estate.”
She frowned. “What does that have to do with the cat?”
“No idea.” The question was—what did it have to do with me? “I have to quit.”
Rachel nodded. “Yeah.”
I know, I know—private eyes in novels and on TV never quit. And I’ve stayed on some pretty dangerous cases out of sheer stubbornness and stupidity. But this was the Chicago mafia. And the case was about a cat.
I pulled Dukes’ check from my wallet. I didn’t tear it up. Yet. But depending on how mad he got at me, I might have to. I took a deep breath and made the call.
“Mr. Dukes? Tom Jurgen here.” I hesitated. “I’m sorry. I’ve talked to Ms. Floria, and honestly, I just don’t think there’s anything I can do for you. I’m happy to return your check. Sometimes these things just don’t work out.”
Dukes sighed. “Yeah. I understand. It was just—I get it, it’s just a cat. Okay, tell you what, why don’t you come out to the house tonight and I’ll give you a pie, and we call it even. Would that work?”
Pie? I looked at Rachel. “Can I bring a friend?”
We parked in front of Dukes’ house at dusk. Rachel unsnapped her seatbelt. “How old is this car?”
“Uh . . .” I drive a Honda. “Fifteen years? It still runs fine.”
“You still use a key to start it.” She opened her door. “Maybe it’s time to enter the 21stcentury.”
We walked up the sidewalk. “So I’m here to sniff out evil? Again?”
“Well, yeah.” I was still curious. “And to get pie.”
Dukes opened the door in a T-shirt and jeans. He smiled. “Come on in. Sorry to drag you out here, but I didn’t think sending pies FedEx would work. And I like to bake.”
In his small kitchen two pies sat on a hardwood table. “One’s apple, and the other’s blueberry. I figured since there’s two of you . . .” He shrugged. “Hope you enjoy.”
The aroma made my stomach feel warm. I set his check on the table. “Deal.”
“Do you have pictures?” Rachel looked around the kitchen. “Of Precious?”
Dukes seemed embarrassed. “Here.” He held out his phone.
Rachel peered. “She’s gorgeous. I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll get someone else someday.” He put the phone away. “But you can’t just replace a cat like that right away.”
Rachel nodded. “Of course not.”
I looked up from the pies. “Mr. Dukes—”
“José is fine. I’ll get a box.”
“Before that, I just wondered—could we get a look at Lillian Floria’s house from your yard?”
He blinked. “Of course. What—I mean, it’s fine. This way.”
Out his side door. We stepped across the grass toward the white picket fence.
Shadows covered the yard as the sun set. I looked up at the peak story of Lillian Floria’s house. Then I looked over the fence at the top of the greenhouse.
“Rachel is . . . kind of psychic.” I checked to make sure Dukes actually believed me. He only nodded. “I just thought she might be able to sense—”
“Whoa!” Rachel staggered back. I caught her shoulder. “Something—I don’t know what. Something’s in there.”
Dukes looked at me. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.” I grabbed her hand. “Rach? What is it?”
She looked at the fence. “I don’t know. But—something’s coming.”
The dirt started to shake at the base of the fence. All three of us took two long steps back. Before I could even suggest heading back into the house for some pie, dirt and grass erupted next to the fence, and a huge, wormlike creature burst from the ground.
I jumped back, almost knocking Rachel to the grass. The thing rose up. Its gray body was covered with hairy stalks jutting from its trunk, each stalk ending in triangular barbs that looked sharp enough to draw blood. The top of its body was covered by clusters of red petals surrounding a wide mouth shaped like a starfish, opening and closing as if sniffing the air.
Then it lunged at us.
The petals began to pop, shooting a crimson mist in the air. Dukes was closest, and it caught him first. He screamed, clawing at his arms, and sank to his knees on the ground.
The mist spread. I was wearing a jacket, and so was Rachel, but it stung my hands and my neck. Dukes tried to stand up, but the thing darted its body forward and caught his arm in its star-shaped jaws, pouring more mist into the air. Fortunately Dukes’ glasses protected his eyes as he screamed again.
I looked around, trying to overcome the instinct to just run away. I spotted a rake leaning against the fence.
I staggered for it, my legs shaking, but Rachel reached into her back pocket and pulled out the stun gun she always carried. She swore as the mist stung her hands and face, covered her eyes with one arm, and jammed the gun against the thing’s body with her other hand. She pressed the stud down hard.
The creature shuddered. More petals popped, but Dukes was able to pull his arm free and roll on the ground, yellow bile dripping from his elbow down. Rachel jabbed another charge into the thing’s body, and I danced around her and pushed the handle of the rake down its throat.
It didn’t quite roar, but the stench from its maw made me want to vomit. I pushed the rake as deep as I could before jumping back, and Rachel gave it one more jolt from the stun gun. I helped Dukes up, and we ran for the house.
“What the hell?” Dukes gasped, almost choking, as we paused at the side door.
The creature was sinking back into the ground. Somehow it managed to spit the rake out, but writhed back and forth as it descended down the hole, still spurting mist into the air.
“Oh god,” Rachel breathed. “Tom, are you all right? José?”
“Let’s get inside.” I pulled on the door.
We scrubbed our hands, arms, and every inch of exposed skin for about 15 minutes before the stinging subsided and the yellow gunk was gone from Dukes’ arm—although it left burns. Then Dukes found us some spare shirts and sweatpants to change into. Rachel and I changed in a bathroom and stuffed our clothes into plastic bags. Maybe I’d get them analyzed. Maybe I’d just burn them.
When we emerged from the bathroom, Dukes was pouring himself a glass of vodka. “Drink?”
“No, thanks.” I wasn’t sure I could drive home even if I was sober. Dukes brought us glasses of ice water.
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head and poured himself another drink. “I had no idea.”
“Not your fault.” I gulped some water. “Rachel?”
She glared at me. “It didn’t have any mind to read. Just—instinct. It wanted to feed. On us.”
“On me.” Dukes downed some more vodka.
I sighed. “It can’t be a coincidence. Not after I asked Lillian Floria about your cat.”
“She tried to kill me over a cat?” He pounded the table, almost knocking over our glasses. “She really must be crazy.”
This was getting a little too serious. “You have a neighbor named Devon Hatler. Did you know him?”
“Yeah, I met him a couple of times when he was walking Hodor. His dog. Didn’t he . . .” Dukes blinked. “Wait, are you saying—”
“He disappeared. And his house is right next to Lillian’s.”
“Huh.” He looked at the vodka bottle, then screwed the cap back on.
“So what now, Sherlock?” Rachel kicked me under the table.
“Hell if I know, Watson.” I wasn’t up to confronting Lillian tonight. Maybe not ever. I stood up. “Let’s go home and sleep on it.”
Dukes stood up and shook Rachel’s hand, and mine. “Thanks. Don’t forget your pie.”
We had pie for breakfast the next morning.
“This is good!” Rachel swallowed a forkful of blueberry. “Forget the check, he can just pay us in pie.”
“I’m still not sure what I should do.” I was eating the apple pie.
“Yeah, even Anita wouldn’t believe you on this one.” Detective Anita Sharpe and I wor together with the Chicago Police Department on vampires and other supernatural problems. But a giant carnivorous plant that shot up from the ground? I didn’t need Rachel’s psychic powers to hear her laughter.
But Lillian had apparently killed Hatler. Or maybe her son had sent the plant after him. Getting mixed up with a mob lawyer wasn’t exactly on my bucket list. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to do something. I just didn’t know what.
After breakfast we went to our office to do some work. I had some background checks on my to-do list—not as exciting as fighting giant man-eating plants, but much more relaxing.
After an hour my phone buzzed. “Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Mr. Jurgen? It’s Erick. Erick Dennison? I was at Ms. Floria’s house yesterday.”
Uh-oh. “Yes, Erick. What can I do for you?”
“I, uh, I need to talk to you.”
Double uh-oh. “What about?”
“Can you come out to my house? Around one o’clock? I live a few blocks away from Ms. Floria.”
I stifled a sigh. “I’ll be there.”
“Now what?” Rachel turned as I hung up.
I shrugged. “This kid who works in Lillian Floria’s greenhouse. Wants to talk to me about something.” Great—another drive out to Glen Ellyn. I wondered if I should start charging for mileage—except I’d already officially quit the case.
“You want me to come?”
I checked the time—9:57. “I have to leave by noon. If you’re ready, sure. Otherwise, no problem.”
She snorted. “Two hours? Let me show you how fast I can work.”
Rachel drove us in her Prius. “This is the kind of car a hotshot private eye should drive. Check out that mileage!”
I eyed the traffic. “Yeah. Watch out for that truck—”
We made it to Erick’s house in one piece. Three blocks from Lillian Floria’s house, it had two stories, a big front yard, and no garden in front. We parked on the street and walked up to the front door.
Erick opened it, looking around nervously. “Hi, Mr. Jurgen, thanks for—uh, hello.”
Rachel wore jeans, boots, and a denim jacket over a black T-shirt. I couldn’t exactly blame Erick for temporarily losing his ability to use words.
“Hi, I’m Rachel.” She smiled and held out her hand. “I work with Tom.”
We went into a small living room with a piano and so many family photos on the walls I could hardly see the wallpaper. Erick sat down in a worn easy chair. “My mom’s at work. She’s a nurse.”
We sat on a comfortable, well-used sofa. “So what can we do for you, Erick?”
“I went by the house this morning. I have class in the afternoon, but I’m skipping it today.” He looked vaguely ashamed. “Please don’t let anyone know.”
“He can keep a secret.” Rachel nudged my shoulder.
“Anyway . . .” He looked at the floor. “The greenhouse is where she keeps her big plants. Her . . . experiments.”
“What kind of experiments?”
He ignored the question, as if trying to tell the story as fast as he could before he lost his nerve. “The ground was all torn up by this one plant. She calls it Tanya. And anyway, it looked hurt, like something had burned it, and most of its petals were gone, which shouldn’t happen. At least not in the greenhouse, and it didn’t happen there. And its throat was injured.”
He looked inside the thing’s throat? Braver than me. “What kind of plant is it?”
“Then I looked outside, and there was dirt turned over in the yard. It went right up to the fence—Mr. Dukes’ house, I think? I fixed it the best I could. Then I did what I could for Tanya, and took care of the rest of the plants. Ms. Floria was inside. So I called you.” He shivered.
“Does she know what you saw?” Rachel peered at him. But even I could see that he was telling the truth.
Erick nodded. “I told her about the petals and the throat. And how I cleaned up the yard. She just put on her gloves and said she’d take care of Tanya the rest of the day. I don’t need to go back. She paid me.” He shuddered. “I don’t know if I want to go back. But we need the money.”
“Okay.” I leaned forward. “Erick—what kind of plants is she breeding in there?”
He took a deep breath. “She calls them Triffids. From some oldor something. But what they are is—they eat things. And they can, you know, move around.”
Like the rubber plant inside her front door that had touched me. “What do they eat?”
“I have to feed them—live rats.” He shuddered again. “Every two, three days. But like I say, they move around, so we keep them tagged. I mean, most of the time they stay put, but they can burrow in the ground. Mostly they stay in the yard, but other times I can’t tell where they go.”
He looked at us. Then he looked away. “This is crazy, right? But I looked up your website. It says you—”
“Crazy is my business, yeah.” Maybe Rachel and my mom were right about me becoming an accountant. “Erick, how long has she been doing this?”
He leaned back. “I’ve been working for her two years. They were small enough for pots then. I had to plant them in the soil when they got big enough. She’s got this book, but she won’t let me see it. And she does a lot of the plant work herself, I just help with the heavy lifting. You know?”
I tried to think. “Erick, I believe you. Let me just ask a few more questions, okay? Was Tanya tagged when you looked at her this morning?”
Erick shook his head. “No. She was back where it usually is, and the others were sleeping.”
“Where does Ms. Floria keep her book?” That came from Rachel.
“Locked in a box inside the house. I can’t get into it. I never tried.”
She nodded. “That’s smart.”
Yeah. I scratched my nose. “Okay, thanks, Erick. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but you’ve been a big help.” I stood up.
“Don’t go back there.” Rachel stood up too.
Erick blinked. “But—what do I tell my mom?”
“Anything. An allergy, maybe?” She smiled. “Look, Erick, I’m not just Tom’s assistant, and I’m not just his girlfriend. I can sense things. I’m sort of psychic. And I know that place is bad. You should stay away. Is there a Starbucks in town?”
“Uh—okay.” He looked at a clock on the piano. “Maybe I can still make my afternoon class.”
“What are you majoring in?” I asked.
“Biology. That’s how—anyway, thanks for coming out. And listening to me.”
We shook hands again. “Sure thing.”
“What are we looking for again?” Dukes shoved a shovel into the dirt. The sun was hot overhead.
“Some kind of tag.” I was on my hands and knees in the back yard, searching the grass with my hands, Rachel right next to me. “It fell off the thing last night. If we could find it—”
“It might be buried underground.” He stared at the fence. “I didn’t see any tag. I didn’t see anything.”
“I know. It’s worth looking.” I stood up. “I’ll dig if you want.” He was the client, after all.
“No, it’s okay.” He pushed his foot against the shovel. “That thing last night—”
“Wait.” Rachel leaned down. “I think I’ve got it.”
“Thank god.” Dukes dropped his shovel and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
She sat up, sweat running down her arms. Psychic powers or luck? I didn’t care. The tag was blue plastic, attached to a thin metal link. After spitting on it and rubbing the dirt off I could see a few numbers—and the word TANYA.
“She names them?” Dukes looked over the fence. “Well—we name our pets, I guess. It’s just—weird.”
“More than weird.” I slid the tag into my back pocket as Rachel picked up her jacket.
We went inside. “So what now?” Rachel flicked water at my face in the bathroom as we washed our hands.
“I don’t know.” The only thing I could think of was the one thing I didn’t want to do. I dried off. “Maybe we should just go home.”
Dukes poured us ice tea in the kitchen. “Look, it’s just about a cat. And she’s just an old lady. How about I make a pie?”
“It’s not just the cat.” I sat down and gulped from the glass. “Thanks. I mean, I’m sorry about Precious, but Lillian Floria tried to kill you—us—last night. And she probably killed Devon Hatler. If she’s using those things as weapons, for herself or for—” I hadn’t told Dukes about her son’s Outfit connection—“anyone else, she has to be stopped.” I rubbed my head. “But I don’t know if we can call the cops about this.”
Rachel sipped her ice tea. “So what do we do? Do we burn the place down?”
Tempting. But arson was outside of my comfort zone. I pulled the tag out of my back pocket. “This might get her talking.”
We managed to talk Dukes into staying home, with instructions to call the police with a story if we didn’t call him in an hour. Then Rachel and I rang the bell on Lillian Floria’s front door. “She may take a while,” I warned.
The door opened two seconds later. Lillian held a potted gardenia in her hand. Her blouse and jeans were stained with dirt and sweat as she glared at us. “Yes? What?”
I held out the tag. “Is this yours?”
She peered at it. Then she looked at Rachel. “Who are you?”
“Rachel. I work with Tom.” She patted my arm.
Lillian opened the door. “Come in.”
I checked out the rubber plants next to the door, but they didn’t reach out for me this time. Lillian led us through the jungle of her front hall, past the stairs and into the kitchen. We could see the greenhouse through the window.
“Where did you get that?” She set the gardenia on the table and crossed her arms.
“Next door.” I tossed it on the kitchen table, next to a potted cactus. “It belongs to one of the Triffids in your greenhouse, right?”
Lillian frowned. “Erick. I thought I could trust him.”
I’d probably just gotten him fired. But I had a feeling he was going to quit anyway. “So it is yours.”
She slapped the edge of the table. “Why can’t you just leave me alone? Is it because of that stupid cat?”
“And Devon Hatler.” Rachel leaned back against the sink counter.
“Troublemaker.” She shook her head. “All right. You want to see? Let me show you.”
Outside, we went down the back porch steps into the yard. On the path to the greenhouse, Lillian stopped and pointed to a plant. Four feet tall, it looked like a sunflower with large red petals. “That’s one of my favorites. It took years to breed.”
I glanced at Rachel. She shrugged. “Pretty.”
Lillian put a delicate hand on the stalk and pulled it closer. “Smell it.”
A faint perfume drifted from the flower. I wasn’t going to sniff it—
But a puff of pink mist unexpectedly spurted from the head of the flower. It smelled like lilacs mixed with ammonia. I turned my head away and sneezed, and Rachel lifted a hand to cover her mouth.
Too late. The mist coated my face. I closed my eyes and tried to wipe it off, but with my eyes shut I realized I couldn’t stand up straight. I staggered, moaning, and reached for Rachel’s arm. Then my knees gave out, and I dropped to the ground.
I didn’t feel the grass as I hit it.
Damn it. The old “knockout flower” trick again, eh?
I opened my eyes. I was in a folding plastic chair, my hands tied behind my back with clothesline, and my feet bound together in front of me. Rachel was next to me, similarly tied up. We were in the greenhouse.
The humid air smelled like flowers, fertilizer, and damp dirt. I blinked, trying to focus my eyes as sweat dripped down my face.
Lillian Floria stood at a small garden table, wearing her garden gloves and holding a spray bottle.
Behind her I saw Tanya. Or something just like her. Along with four others.
Five or six feet high, their bodies were covered with shaking triangular leaves. The star-shaped maws at the top were closed, but they were clotted with the red berries that had almost blinded us last night.
“Uhh . . .” Rachel rolled her head and opened her eyes. “Tom? Never buy me flowers again.”
I struggled to sit forward. “Your neighbor is waiting for a phone call from us. Otherwise he’ll call the police.”
She shook her head. “They won’t find you. After I spray you with this—” She shook the bottle up and down. “They’ll get rabid to eat.”
I eyed the bottle. The liquid inside was a dirty yellow, like the bile that had spilled out on Dukes’ arm last night. “Is that how you killed Devon Hatler? Spraying him?” Asking questions was still my first instinct. Plus, I figured the longer I could keep her talking, the less time the triffids would have to eat us.
“I have a spell book for controlling them. This is just easier. They’re hungry.” Lillian started spraying us, squirting my shirt and Rachel’s. The liquid smelled like maple syrup.
Spells. Magic. Of course. None of this was natural.
“What about—” Rachel kicked her boots. “The cat? Did you send them after Precious?”
“Who cares about the goddamned cat?” She sprayed Rachel in the face. “They get hungry! It’s just a cat!”
I lurched forward, furious as Rachel coughed violently. “And Devon Hatler was just—what? A troublemaker?”
“For my son, yes.” She rammed the bottle down on a table. “Who needed him? All he was after was money. Feeding my plants was a better use for him.”
She stripped off her gloves. “A better use for you, too. I’d better leave now. I want my plants to know just what to eat.”
Oh god. This was like a bad James Bond parody. Get the villain to monologue, and then have him or her leave the heroes to their demise instead of just shooting them in the chest.
Not that I wanted to be shot in the chest, of course.
The plants were starting to rustle and move as Lillian closed and locked the door.
Rachel kicked her bootheels on the floor planks. “This is another fine mess.”
“If you’d only stay in the car just once.” I started struggling.
The clothesline was slippery, and it wasn’t very tight. And Lillian Floria had probably never learned Boy Scout knots. Rachel got her feet free by kicking her way out of her boots.
But the plants were leaning forward. Reaching out. The mouths opening.
“Get out.” I almost had my hands loose.
Rachel reared up from the chair in her socks, hands behind her back. One of the plants lunged at her. She twisted away and then
curled up on the floor in a fetal position, still pulling at her wrists. The clothesline loosened, and eventually she slipped it off just as I managed to pull my own hands free—
And them the plants surrounded us.
The red petals started bursting like tiny Molotov cocktails. Rachel pulled her T-shirt up over her head. I closed my eyes, kicked my chair over, and lunged for the table where Lillian had left her spray bottle.
Rachel swore viciously as the red mist stung her skin. ”Son of a—mother—goddamn bitch of a—”
I cursed, not quite as colorfully, and for the bottle, my fingers numb. It was the only thing I could think of.
My eyes closed, protecting my face with my arm, I blasted the maple-syrup smelling liquid blindly and randomly around the room.
One of the plants brushed my shoulder. I risked a blink to aim, and then shot a spray straight down its throat.
The same horrible stench burst from its maw. I closed my eyes again, pumping the spray bottle back and forth until it felt close to empty. Then I lost my nerve and fell to the ground, crawling next to Rachel.
She was gasping. I tried to cover her. “Sorry.”
“That’s what I get for hanging out with you. Jerk.” She grabbed my hand.
Then I heard the greenhouse door slam open.
“What the hell?” Lillian’s voice boomed. “What did you do?”
The plants were spewing their deadly crimson mist at each other. Two of them were twisting their bodies together, grappling like wrestlers. Another one just stretched up, almost hitting the glass ceiling of the greenhouse. The last one drooped over like—well, like a dying plant.
I pushed Rachel toward the door. I thought about grabbing the bottle and spraying Lillian with the stuff, but it was out of my reach and almost empty. Plus, I didn’t really want to kill her. I just wanted to get out.
Rachel pushed her. Lillian stumbled back and almost tripped, but I caught her shoulder as I plunged through the door. Lillian pounded my chest with her fists. “Stop it! Stop it!”
I kicked the door shut. Outside, Rachel knelt and pulled her T-shirt off, gasping as if about to throw up. Fortunately she was wearing a bra.
Lillian sank to the ground, her body shaking.
“Where are our phones?” I needed to call Dukes before he called the police.
She just shook her head. “I can’t . . . you . . . my Triff—Triff—Triff . . .”
Then she closed her eyes and fell over onto the ground.
Back home we opened some beers and dug into the latest pie Dukes had given us.
I’d called an ambulance for Lillian Floria. She was awake but incoherent when the paramedics showed up. They took her away, and some cops questioned us. Mostly they checked out Rachel in her bra before Dukes brought a shirt over for her, but when they peeked in the greenhouse, they decided not to arrest us.
“I need to a shower.” I stood up from the table, my legs still shaky. Dukes had given me a fresh shirt, too, but the smell of Lillian’s spray was still on my skin. I hoped we had enough soap for me to scrub it away.
“Me too.” She cut another slice a pie. “Can you add pies to your invoice?”
Before I could think of a snappy answer, my phone buzzed.
Michael Floria. Oh hell. We who are about to die . . .
“Mr. Jurgen? It’s Michael Floria.”
I tried to speak through a dry throat. “Yes, Mr. Floria. How is your mother?” It seemed the polite thing to ask an Outfit guy.
“They say she’s had a stroke. At her age . . .” He sighed. “She’ll probably have to go to a facility.”
“I’m sorry.” How soon would he be sending the hit men? How many more locks could I put on the door? Maybe we should just move out of town, make up new names, and get plastic surgery.
“Look, I knew my mother was involved in some—strange stuff. With her plants. I didn’t know how weird until I went to her house. I’m here now. This is—unreal.”
“You didn’t go into the greenhouse, did you?”
“I looked inside. Just for a second. I’ve seen a lot of things, Jurgen, but this—I’ll probably have to destroy it all.”
He probably knew people who could set fires. “I’m sorry.”
“Just stay away from her, and we’ll be done with each other. That’ll be it. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly, sir. Thank you.” I gulped some beer as he hung up. “I think we’re off the hook with the mafia.”
“Thank god.” Rachel took another bite of pie and stood up. “Let’s take a shower.”
# # #
[Of course, one should read the originalThe Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham. It’s great.]