Leighton Gage

A vine in the blood

Chapter One

Less than an hour after Juraci Santos was unceremoniously dumped into the back seat of her kidnappers’ getaway car, Luca Vaz crept through her front gate and poisoned her bougainvilleas.

The way he figured it, he didn’t have a choice. And it wasn’t his fault. It was the fault of that lying lowlife, Mateo Lima.

“You’re sure about the color of these bougainvilleas?” Juraci had asked when he was planting them.

“I’m sure, Senhora,” he’d assured her. “Blood red, like you told me.”


“Guaranteed, Senhora.”

“All right, Luca. But you’d better be right. Because, if they flower in any other color…”

She left the threat unspecified. But a threat it was-and he knew it.

Three weeks later, the roof fell in: Luca learned that those new plants of hers were about to flower in a color his wife, Amanda, had described as the palest purple I’ve ever seen on a bougainvillea. If Juraci Santos, a woman known to be as vindictive as she was distrustful, discovered the truth, he’d be in big trouble.

Luca’s advance notice of the situation stemmed from the fact that he’d swiped one of the cuttings and planted it to the right of his front door. Unlike the bougainvilleas along Juraci’s wall, it had been standing in strong sunshine for the last three weeks and Amanda, with her sharp eyes, had spotted the first little bud. She’d taken him by the arm, led him over to the plant and pointed.

“Isn’t this bougainvillea supposed to be red?”

“It’s not red?” he asked with a sense of foreboding.

He wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t told him. Luca wasn’t just color blind; he suffered from the most severe and rarest form of the malady: achromatopsia. He saw the world in black, white and shades of gray.

Six people in the world, and only six, knew about his condition. Unfortunately, one of them was Amanda’s no-good brother, Mateo, who owned a flower and shrub business, and whom Luca blamed for his current troubles.

The truth of the matter was that Mateo Lima was a nasty son of a bitch, and there weren’t many people in Carapicuiba, or the surrounding communities either, who were willing to buy flowers and shrubs from the likes of him.

Nor were there many people willing to hire a guy who was color blind to care for their flowers.

So there they were, Luca and Mateo, stuck with each other.

The survival of Mateo’s flower and shrub nursery depended upon Luca’s work as a gardener. And Luca’s continued employment depended on Mateo keeping his mouth shut about Luca’s condition, which Mateo, the blackmailing bastard, had made clear he’d do only if he became Luca’s exclusive supplier.

It was remotely possible, of course, that Mateo had made an honest mistake about those supposedly blood- red bougainvilleas. But Luca didn’t think so. The most likely possibility was that Mateo was trying to pull a fast one because he had no blood-red bougainvilleas in stock.

The other possibility was that Mateo had been having a joke at Luca’s expense. He found color blindness funny.

Either way, Mateo had underestimated the consequences for both of them. If Juraci saw those bougainvilleas flowering in pale purple, she’d have a fit. And then she’d shoot her mouth off to all of her neighbors. Luca would wind up losing his customers, Mateo would be stuck with his flowers and shrubs, and both of them would soon be scratching to make a living. That was why the bougainvilleas had to go before they brought flowers into the world.

Killing bougainvilleas, as any gardener will tell you, is a tough proposition. The normal technique is to dig them out by the roots. Luca would have to be subtler than that. He’d have to make it appear they’d fallen victims to some mysterious blight.

After giving the problem some thought, he decided on his instrument of death: herbicide coupled with industrialstrength bleach. He mixed up the concoction in a four-liter jug, set his alarm clock for quarter to five in the morning, and by five-thirty on the day of the kidnapping he was creeping through Juraci’s gate. He missed encountering her abductors by about fifty-five minutes, a fact that undoubtedly saved his life.

He, like the kidnappers, had chosen his time with care. One of her maids had mentioned that Juraci was a night owl, and that she seldom retired before two or three in the morning. But Luca always smelled freshly-brewed coffee when he arrived, which was usually around 7:00, sometimes as early as 6:45. That led him to believe that the maids were up and about by 6:30 at the latest.

His plan was a simple one, and he was convinced he’d be able to pull it off without a hitch. The only imponderable was that yappy little poodle of Juraci’s, the one she called Twiggy. He prayed the dog would keep her mouth shut, because if the little bitch didn’t, she might wake up the big bitch, her mistress, and then Luca’s fat would be in the fire.

He’d brought a flashlight, but, as it turned out, he didn’t need it. The moonlight was bright enough to work by. With gloved and practiced fingers, Luca dug down to expose the roots of each plant, severed them with his grafting knife, poured in a healthy dose of the poisonous liquid and packed the earth back into place. With any kind of luck at all, the heat of the sun would cause the sap to rise, thereby drawing the poison upward into the twigs and leaves.

At quarter past six, after a celebratory cigarette, Luca began his normal workday. He went, first, to the shed at the foot of the garden. From there, he took a plastic trash bag and started working his way up the slope toward the house. Juraci’s slovenly guests were in the habit of leaving paper cups, paper plates, and gnawed-upon bones scattered about the lawn after every barbecue-and she gave a lot of barbecues. It was one of his tasks to gather them up.

6:30 passed, then 6:40 without a single sign of life from the house; no yappy little Twiggy running around the garden pissing on the plants; no smell of coffee.

At 6:45, curiosity and a craving for a cafe com leite getting the better of him, Luca decided to investigate. Up to that point, he hadn’t been alarmed. But when he rounded the corner and caught sight of the kitchen, he stopped dead in his tracks.

The door had been smashed-not just forced open, but completely destroyed. Pieces of solid, varnished wood were everywhere, a few of them still hanging from the hinges.

Burglars, he thought. And then: Already gone… or maybe not. He started moving again, more cautiously this time. A rat in the kitchen reacted to the sound of his footsteps by scuttling out of the door to take refuge under a nearby hedge. Luca had no fear of rats. He’d killed dozens in his time. He quickened his pace. From somewhere beyond the dim opening, he could hear the buzzing of flies. When he reached the doorway, he stopped again, letting his eyes adjust to the light, getting his first glimpse of the situation inside.

The flies, hundreds of them, had been attracted by a pool of liquid on the white tile floor. They were over it, around it, some were even in it, trapped, as if they’d landed on flypaper. A few survivors waved their wings, making futile efforts to escape.

Luca, at first, saw the liquid as dark grey. But then, he caught a whiff of the steely smell, saw the two corpses from which it oozed to form a single pool, and realized it must be red.

Blood red.

Chapter Two

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