An EPA agent searches for the origin of a dangerous new plant (written for Screams!)
A shiny turquoise car sped along the narrow dirt road. Behind the vehicle, clouds of dust drifted lazily over the surrounding grassy fields. Wildflowers shook in the wind, shedding delicate petals.
Inside the sedan, a woman groaned as the car spoke over her music. "Delphinia, your boss is calling." On the center console, a screen displayed the options: (Accept) (Voicemail)
The driver chewed on her lip as she considered the consequences of ignoring it.
Better get it over with... She thought reluctantly, drumming bright red fingernails on the steering wheel. A button press later, she instantly regretted her decision.
"Where the hell are you?" Garrett was in one of his moods again, that tone of irritation was all too familiar.
"Well, hello to you too!" She replied with fake bubbly cheer.
"Knock it off," He snapped. "Why didn't you call me before going out on your own?"
Delphinia rolled her indigo eyes. "I didn't think that I needed to check in every hour. Right now I'm having a great time looking for giant weeds."
"Hogweeds." Garret corrected her. "And if you touch any of them, remember to wear gloves. The sap is extremely acidic." This was true, she’d seen it for herself.
A man returned home from vacation to find his lawn had some awfully large weeds among the overgrown grass. A half hour later he was being lifted into an ambulance, shrieking in pain. Delphinia shuddered, recalling the image of waxy skin peeling away from his bloody ankles.
Gripping the steering wheel tightly, she politely informed her boss who wrote the report. Gritting her teeth she tried not to scream.
I'm the one who found it first, dumbass!
"Oh yeah? Well maybe I should write one on how to make a goddamn PHONE CALL." He snarled before hanging up.
Delphinia relaxed as her pop music returned, washing away the tension. Garrett would get over it. After all, he would just target the nearest person and tear them a new asshole.
Scanning the horizon for the giant hog-weeds, she muttered. "The point of origin should be somewhere around here..."
But there was nothing unusual, aside from the occasional sapling.
After a few minutes, something poked up over the grassy horizon. A little house took shape in the distance. Squinting at the building, Delphinia frowned at the large glass structure behind it.
A cottage with its own greenhouse? Things were getting interesting.
Parking the jade car next to a dented station wagon, she squeezed the handle of her service pistol. Ensuring it was concealed, Delphinia straightened her navy blouse as she walked up to the wooden cottage.
It was a charming place, but it felt little antiquated. But the landscape surrounding the house was… utterly alluring.
Enchanted by the decadence, she gazed at lush flowers blooming in vibrant colors. They draped over the stone path, begging for attention. It nearly brought tears to her eyes, witnessing a warm breeze make thousand petals flutter beneath that clear sky.
Bleeding hearts swayed in the hot breeze, pink petals hanging gracefully. Beside it sprouted foxglove, purple bells silently ringing. Red yarrow gently quivered next to lavender heads of oleander.
Then her wandering eyes noticed a familiar dark-blue flower. Smiling, she identified it as Larkspur. My name sake. Having a botanist for a father, it was no surprise he’d named his daughter after a flower. But he preferred using the Latin name: Delphinium.
Exquisite and dangerous. Just like you, he would say.
Delphinia narrowed her eyes at the floral display, realizing each variety was toxic. Most ornamental flowers weren't safe for consumption, but even so... Garrett blamed her hunches on an overactive imagination. She preferred to think of them as woman's intuition.
Reaching the paint chipped porch, she pressed the brass buzzer. Muffled voices mumbled within the house, eventually growing more distinct.
"...just finish that food and watch your show!" A cheery white haired granny opened the door, smiling brightly. "Good morning, young lady. Are you joining us for brunch?"
Laughing politely, Delphinia shook her head. "Unfortunately no, just here to ask you some questions." She held up her badge. "I'm a special agent affiliated with the Environmental Protection Agency. May I come inside?"
Slightly confused, the old woman inspected the ID card before relenting. "Well... of course! I'm not sure what you're hoping to find but you are welcome in my humble home." Swinging the door open, she waved the agent inside.
The living room was a wonderland of tacky collectibles, porcelain dolls and animals crowding tiny shelves. Souvenirs from various states hung on the paisley walls; killer whales from Florida, plastic corn from Nebraska and numerous other cheap trinkets.
On an ancient couch, a little boy sat. His hazel eyes were glued to the TV, watching a cartoon snowman running away from a grizzly bear. In the center of the room stood a glass table, bearing a steaming heap of pancakes.
"Oh don't mind Hunter, he's a crabby-patty today. Would you like some tea? Or would you prefer coffee?" The woman asked her visitor brightly.
Delphinia said that tea would be excellent, thanking the host. She watched the elderly woman totter off to the kitchen as a kettle began whistling.
"I'm Gladys, by the way!" Her voice called out over the clatter of dishes.
Delphinia introduced herself, looking around the cluttered living room as she answered.
"Oh that's a lovely name!" Gladys returned with a wooden tray bearing a delicate tea set. Wisps of steam rose from an ornate porcelain teapot. Beside it, three dainty cups surrounded a sugar bowl and little pitcher of creamer.
"Please, make yourself comfortable." The old woman said pleasantly, gingerly setting the tray on the table.
Delphinia awkwardly sat next to the sullen boy. Hunter ignored her, slowly stuffing forkfuls of syrupy pancakes into his sticky mouth. At least he's fairly well-behaved, she thought. Children had a tendency to make her nervous, as though she might contract some incurable disease from them.
Pouring the hot liquid into several cups, the elder asked her grandson if he wanted some. He nodded without looking, attention never wavering from the flashing screen.
"Kids these days..." She sighed, pouring Hunter a cup. Turning to her guest, Gladys held up some tiny tongs.
Delphinia smiled and nodded. "Just one please."
With a plunk, the tongs dropped the sweetener into her cup. Winking, the old woman put two cubes in the boy's drink. "To sweeten him up." She chuckled and held up the pitcher. "Cream too?"
"No, thank you." Delphinia grasped the delicate vessel and softly blew on the scalding tea.
"My doctor says I should take my tea plain, but a little dairy never hurt anyone." Gladys gave herself a healthy pour. Settling back in the recliner, the elderly lady sighed contently.
"Now what brings you out here?" Gladys cocked a gray eyebrow as she sipped her tea.
Delphinia placed the cup down and clasped her hands.
"We've been investigating a new type of hogweed that's been spreading from this area. Not only does it grow at an alarming rate, but the sap itself is very dangerous. Several homeowners have suffered blindness while weed whacking their yards."
Eyes wide, Gladys stared at the agent in dismay. "Are you serious?! Those poor people... "
Grimly, Delphinia nodded. "The largest one we've encountered was nearly eighteen feet high. Thankfully our field team removed it before the seed pods opened."
“Good lord, why do they get so big?” Her wrinkled face was almost comically horrified. The EPA agent shrugged. “Could be cross-pollination or some other factors, but we don’t know.”
The grandmother leaned forward and asked in a low voice. “Do you think it’s nature fighting back? You know, with all the pollution and global warming?”
It was possible, maybe plants really were evolving to survive extreme conditions. But at this accelerated rate? Delphinia doubted it. “We won’t know for sure until this investigation is complete.”
"Anything you need, just ask. I'll do whatever I can to help." Gladys said, eyes glinting with determination.
"Actually," Delphinia leaned forward. "There is. If it's alright with you, I'd like to take a look at the greenhouse."
Gladys sighed and nodded. "Of course. I'll give you a tour once we finish our tea."
Raising her cup, the EPA agent blew on the drink once more. Casually, Delphinia dipped a forefinger in the liquid and stirred it. "Still a little hot." She lied, smiling.
Glancing at her maroon nail, she waited to see if the color would change. If the solvent detected any toxin, the lacquer would turn black. Even the slightest trace amount of rare poison was enough to trigger it.
"Your flowers outside are lovely," She said innocently. "I wish I was blessed with a green thumb."
Beaming with delight, the old woman shrugged. "Well, my late husband was an avid botanist. He planted them for me, god rest his soul."
"I'm assuming the greenhouse was his as well?" Glancing at her fingernail, Delphinia waited for the telltale sign. A few petals from those shrubs could put her in coma or cause organ failure.
Gladys nodded, sipping her tea. "He loved his plants. I think he would have been married them if not for me." She chuckled sadly.
The boy drank his beverage, completely focused on the hyperactive cartoon. With a roar, the animated bear knocked the snowman's head off. His round body bounced to and fro, looking for the lost body part. From under a tree, the frozen cranium grumbled. "Sheesh, someone sure woke up on the wrong side of the cave!"
Several minutes passed with no change in color. But was it really safe to drink? I need to buy a little more time. “So do you really maintain the entire greenhouse? Isn’t that difficult for someone your age?”
The old woman frowned and shook her head. “Oh I don’t handle any of that. They send someone once or twice a week, he does the watering and trimming.”
Frowning, the agent pressed for more information. “Who does?”
“Why Henry’s company, I think. He ran a big lab and does work for the CIA. They’ve been handling things.”
CIA? What on earth were they doing here? Mind buzzing with questions, Delphinia glanced at her fingernail. This couldn’t be a black site… If it was she’d be dead or in custody already.
Several minutes passed with no change in color. It remained dark red. She gradually relaxed and sipped the lukewarm tea. It was a soothing Earl Grey, lightly sweetened. Before she realized it, the cup was empty.
"Thank you for the drink, it was quite refreshing." She returned the teacup to the serving tray and waited expectantly.
After finishing her own tea, Gladys winced as she extricated herself from the chair. "My old bones..." She grimaced, standing upright.
"The greenhouse is this way." Gladys led the EPA agent through the greasy kitchen, opening a padlocked door. Delphinia fought the urge to pinch herself as she stepped through the narrow passage and into a vibrant jungle.
Exotic plants from all over the world hung from pots, broad leaves creating a living canopy. There were Heliconia flowers, rubber trees and giant water lilies. Passion fruit with intricate buds, creeping monkey vines, slender bromeliads and lush passifloras.
“You don’t need clearance to come in here?” The agent inquired with surprise. Gladys shrugged her bony shoulders. “I don't think so... I’m sure the back way is secured, that’s where the workers usually come in.”
It was extremely warm inside the glass structure, sweat began to trickle down her neck as Delphinia gazed in awe. "These were all his?" She asked incredulously.
The wrinkled guide nodded, pushing aside a Phoenix Palm. "He was a bit eccentric, saying his life dream was to have his own rainforest."
"Well it looks like he succeeded." Delphinia muttered as they wandered further into the dense foliage. "Are most of these from the Amazon? I've never seen some of these species before." She rubbed her eyes, feeling a bit tired from the long drive.
Scratching her head, Gladys shrugged. "I have no idea. He'd bring back seeds from his travels and grow whatever took his fancy."
"Do you know if he had permits for them?" Delphinia took out a notepad, scribbling down some of the potential threats. She didn't see any hogweeds but there were plenty of invasive species. The ink in her pen didn't seem to work. Frowning, the agent pressed harder on the utensil until it began marking the paper.
"Permits for plants?" Gladys scoffed at the notion. She brushed past a plastic curtain, revealing a different section. "Well some exotic ones can be deadly, especially in a new environment." The agent looked up at the skylights, inspecting the meticulous ventilation system. Delphinia nodded approvingly.
Whoever constructed this certainly knew what they were doing. This was far from an ordinary residential job, the handiwork was on an industrial level. Solar panels supplied power to a irrigation system which used filtered rainwater. It was all very… efficient.
The heat made her feel slightly dizzy. Delphinia wished her department uniform had less layers, perspiration was pooling in unpleasant places. Wiping her forehead, she blinked at the surrounding vegetation.
The spiky red pompoms of Palma Christi glistened wickedly beside friendly green pods of Coral Bead. Glossy Black Nightshade grew near the orange berries of a Devil's Apple.
A single milligram from any of these would kill within minutes. Delphinia swallowed, marked each of them on her notepad. Fumbling awkwardly for her weapon, she squeezed the pistol reassuringly. Trained hands felt clumsy as nerves began to fray.
Does Gladys know how dangerous these are? She wondered, making an effort to remain nonchalant. "So what happened to your husband? If you don't mind me asking."
The grandmother sighed. "Henry could never sit still, unless his hands were busy he was never happy. There wasn’t a rare species he couldn’t have. I suppose his greatest dream was what killed him… Henry wanted them all, you see. She paused for a moment, overcome with emotion.
“Have you ever heard of the Gympie-Gympie plant?” Eyes glistening with tears, she looked up at the agent. Delphinia felt horrible for dredging up these memories. Silently, she shook her head.
Gladys sighed wearily. “Ah well. It comes from Australia, you know. They have a nickname for the nasty thing, the Suicide Plant.”
“It’s covered in a million tiny hairs, that Gympie-Gympie. If you touch even one of them, you will experience the most excruciating pain in the world. It can last for years, nobody knows how long exactly. There’s been no way to measure it since every victim chose to end their life after enduring two years at most.”
Delphinia let out a shaky breath. She knew where this story was going, feeling pity as the grieving widow resumed.
“Henry got a dried sample, nearly seventy years old they said. Nobody thought it was still potent, until he got careless one day and the wind blew a small piece onto his arm. Well, I burned that damn leaf... And buried my husband a few months later. They said his poor heart gave out in the night but I know better. He knew what plants would do the trick.”
Awkwardly, Delphinia stood watching bony shoulders quiver as the widow dried her eyes. "I'm sorry, you didn't come all this way just to watch me get all emotional." Forcing a smile, the old woman continued tottering towards the back of the greenhouse.
"I didn't mean to... I'm sorry." Awkwardly, the agent tried to apologize. Gladys waved her attempts away with a wrinkled hand. "I know, dearie. You're just here to do your job."
"So, uh, did he bring back anything particularly unusual?" Delphinia tried to change the subject. Gladys wrinkled her nose and nodded. "He grew some really nasty things."
A horrible odor assailed nostrils with the fetid stench of rotting meat. The agent knew that scent instantly, having experienced it back at the academy. "Seriously, he kept a corpse flower?" Pointing towards a giant green and purple bud, Gladys confirmed it was one indeed.
Coughing, Delphinia covered her nose as they passed the massive blossom. Once they were away from the foul smelling plant, both women exhaled gratefully.
"Told you he was a bit eccentric." Gladys grumbled. "Come on; let me show you his pride and joy."
The heat seemed to rise another few degrees as they moved to the final section. Delphinia could feel the damp blouse sticking to her skin. She couldn't wait to go home and take a long shower after this investigation was over.
Her head felt oddly light. Maybe skipping breakfast wasn't the wisest of choices.
Stopping before a small tree, the old woman gestured to the large yellow buds drooping from wispy branches. A faintly sweet perfume wafted from the open blossoms. But Gladys didn't seem to enjoy the scent.
"The Borrachero." She spat.
Trying to remember where it was from, Delphinia frowned as her memories grew hazy. Perhaps the warmth was getting to her.
"He would make bouquets of these flowers for me, laughing when I smelled them. You see, they emit a hallucinogenic chemical that eliminates free will." Gladys turned to the agent, smiling humorlessly.
The agent attempted to reach for the gun but her hands refused to cooperate. It almost felt like they didn't belong to her anymore.
"You... put it... in the tea?" Delphinia forced the words out as stiff limbs felt strangely heavy.
"Of course not, I happen to be quite fond of tea." The old lady held up a gnarled finger, grinning with yellowed teeth. "I put it in the sugar."
"But I detected... no... poison..." Her vision was growing fuzzy. Delphinia desperately tried to keep her scattered thoughts from clouding over.
Cackling, Gladys circled her victim as she sneered. "Who said it was a poison, my dear? Scopolamine is a harmless drug, but in certain quantities... A hungry lion would be nothing more than a harmless pussy-cat."
Screaming inwardly, Delphinia struggled against the intoxicating effects. If I can just reach my phone... But she was trapped, a prisoner inside her body.
"Come now, let's go see my husband." Gladys smiled sweetly. Her new puppet slowly nodded as the elder laughed gleefully. The grandmother chattered on while she led the agent through the massive greenhouse. Her innocent act long gone, Gladys spoke freely about her troubled marriage.
"He would make me do all sorts of disgusting things. You can't imagine the life I had, it was horrible waking up everyday with no recollection of the night before. I was no better than a slave. If I tried to escape, he would increase the dosage until I was practically drooling." Shaking with anger, Gladys wiped her teary eyes as she recalled the years of abuse.
The agent said nothing as the old woman continued.
"Cruel as he might been, Henry was brilliant. There wasn't anybody that could cross-breed plants the way he did, it was almost an art form. I was his lab assistant, until I foolishly accepted his advances. Henry was so handsome and charming, nobody had any idea of the true face he wore beneath. When I found out... it was far too late."
She stopped walking for a moment, resting against a table covered with Egyptian ferns.
"Sorry, I can't get around like I used to... Where was l? Oh yes... He loved to create mind-altering drugs. An interest acquired from working on some classified project with the CIA. MK Super I think it was called? Anyway, Henry was always cooking up something to test on me. I would eat steak dinners, only to find out I was chewing on dog food. I would wake up to his friends... toying with me. There was nothing he wasn't capable of."
Rubbing her back, Gladys continued tottering towards her destination.
"Thank god for immunity. After years of being drugged, my body began to fight back. I slipped his beloved scopolamine into his whiskey one night. Then I slowly broke his spirit, the way he crushed mine."
Gladys followed the wall until she reached a keypad built into a stainless steel door. After entering the code, she ordered Delphinia to follow after her. "Be sure not to touch anything in here. Even I have no idea what Henry was working on."
This area was full of complex laboratory equipment. A computerized distillation apparatus held strange colored liquids bubbling over gas burners. Clear tubes carried the extracts to a glass flask. Passing by rows of beakers, Delphinia dizzily noted the white powder they contained.
"Henry managed to teach me a few things before he passed. Of course, I had to drag it out of him." Gladys giggled madly. “The CIA wasn’t really a lie, I just don’t do contract work for them anymore.”
Entering a small chamber, Delphinia blinked at a familiar looking plant. Wasn't she supposed to find one of these?
A giant hogweed grew around the desiccated carcass of a man. His features were slowly being eaten away by the acidic green sap that oozed from its base. A pair of corroded glasses clung to the crumbling skull.
"Poor Henry." Gladys mourned with false sincerity. “He worked day and night for me until I got tired of looking at his disgusting face. I made him eat the Gympie-Gympie leaf. Oh the screams he made were so satisfying… I forbade him to die, he couldn’t even move one agonizing muscle."
Her face soured with annoyance. “Pity his heart exploded. Now he's little more than cheap fertilizer for my latest experiment."
She leered at the body. "Who's your little guinea pig now, you bastard?" As Gladys mocked her dead husband, Delphinia stared foggily at a computer screen. The hybrid weeds were displayed on it.
"Admiring my research? I call them angeli devorans, devouring angels. Part of a biological weapons program the Henry was developing. I think there’s some merit to it." Gladys chuckled and motioned for the agent to follow her.
They returned to the little cottage, passing Hunter on the couch. He stared into the television set, unable to do anything else.
"Say good bye to the nice lady!" Gladys commanded him in a sing song voice.
"Goodbye, nice lady." He said robotically.
Turning to Delphinia, the old woman whispered in her ear. "Make a call to the agency. Tell them you found nothing here, that it was a dead end. Then hang up."
Nodding, the emotionless puppet did as she was told.
"Good..." Gladys purred. "Now get in your car and drive home. You'd better go fast; we wouldn't want you to be late."
"In fact," She bared her filthy teeth in a horrible grin. "I wouldn't stop for anything."