Carnivore by Carmen Jaramillo

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.

Kyle?”

She smiled at me.

“There are more where he came from.  Have a good trip.  Remember to be careful.”

Corte de Agua by Carmen Jaramillo

Belén strained her tongue around the inside of the water bottle, mopping up the last drops. She smacked her lips together to suck at the moisture.

She’d tried. She just wanted to build better communities for all Panamanians, rich and poor. It was why she’d moved to the stunted, forgotten little town of San Juan Berenguer. Wasn’t that what made you a loyal, patriotic civil servant?

She pressed the phone harder against her sweaty cheek.

“Alberto? Alberto, for christ’s sake, I’ve been calling you for a week!”

Patriotism made her convince Luis Oriol to donate a neglected plot of family land back to the town. He had already had his family’s entire fortune; he didn’t need more money. Wouldn’t he rather be a good citizen, and drive down Avenida Oriol one day? Assuming he ever bothered to come back to town?

She rasped into the phone through a locked, crunching jaw.

“Your asshole brother changed his mind! Where the hell are you?”

Heavy winds cut through Alberto Oriol’s voice.

“Reception’s not great, sorry…is the water still out?”

From her crouch on the kitchen floor she glared up at the sink, dry for eight days. During the piping installation for the Valle del Sol condominium complex, water on the west side of town had been cut off.

“Of course it is…listen to me! Luis called me last week, he said he wants the full price. Then he ran off to the casino in Bocas and I can’t get a hold of him!”

She scraped her fingers over the itch on her neck, more oil and dust sticking to her nails. She was desperate for a real shower.

“Really, huh? Well, I haven’t talked to him either…But now you know what it was like for me, right? Growing up with that irresponsible selfish bastard? Now you understand how much shit I catch every day because of him.”

Belén whipped her empty bottle at the wall. No matter how much water she drank, sucking in angry lungfuls of air kept drying out her mouth. Her reward for caring more about civic pride than money.

“You have to talk him back into this. When he finds out the deal’s already done and he’s not getting a check, I’ll go to jail, Alberto…are you laughing at me?”

“No, no…but, that’s your own fault, isn’t it? If you hadn’t been in such a big crazy hurry…I’m just saying, you shouldn’t have forged his signature.”

She swallowed her sobs and drove her fingernails into the floor tile.

Alberto kept musing over the phone.

“Of course as long as he doesn’t find out, nothing can happen to you.”

“Then talk to him, please…I’m going insane, my hair is falling out!”

With her other ear, she could hear the news on the television.

“Oh jesus, they’re saying the water’s back. A couple of hours ago…maybe the tank is already full.”

“The water’s back? Belén—”

She dropped the phone to the floor as she jerked upright.

Out the window, men in chemical-orange vests crawled over her squat building’s water storage tank. She twisted the sink handle, heard gurgling up the faucet, and clamped her chapped lips over the tap.

A gush of thick gunk splattered her mouth.

Belén reeled back from the sink. She wailed, her coated tongue writhing through her teeth, and clawed at the countertop for a towel. She seized another open water bottle and doused her face, scrubbing off the blackened water and sludge, the taste of rot and iron.

Rot and iron. Like old blood.

She turned to the window and watched two of the workers, bandanas tied over their faces, hoist a rigid, blood-spattered body from the inside of the tank.

She gripped the counter. Where was the perfect place to stash your brother’s body for eight days? While you siphoned his fortune, probably—and disappeared?

Sure, the police would figure it out eventually, when you were long gone; and the town government could just go right ahead and repossess your land.

Her phone vibrated. Belén crouched and swiped the screen with a trembling finger, reading the text from Alberto.

You’re welcome!