It had started as part of his work. The Boss had brought in the plants and said to take care of them because they had—what had he said? Oh, yeah: “certain useful properties.” Clem didn’t know what the Boss meant. Nor did he know anything about plants, though an outside observer might have said that he shared his intellectual properties with them.
Clem thought and moved slowly, and didn’t usually deal in much that didn’t involve brute force. To everyone’s surprise, Clem took to the plants. He was in the little greenhouse every morning, watering and pruning. He’d even been heard talking to the plants, in the sort of voice ordinary people might use to talk to a kitten.
Clem didn’t talk to kittens that way. The rumor on the street was that Clem ate kittens for breakfast.
In those half-dozen pots in the min-greenhouse, for the first time in his life Clem found something to love. And love them he did, with a passion that made his fellows vaguely uneasy. When the Boss sent them out on a job, Clem seemed the same as always. He threatened the marks and shook down businesses with his usual mindless menace. But something was different.
“Tommy-gun” Matthews and Bill “The Strangler” Jones talked it over the night after their monthly shakedown of Murphy’s Market.
“There’s something different ‘bout Clem, Strangler,” Matthews insisted, while he cleaned a polished his guns.
“Nuthin wrong with the way he broke that guy's arm last night,” Jones said, with a shrug that rippled his massive shoulders like an afternoon on the San Andreas Fault. He sat on the weight bench, a dumbbell in each hand.
“It’s like his heart ain’t in his work no more,” said Matthews. That made his companion laugh, not a sound you’d want to hear on a dark night in a deserted alley, or anywhere else.
“Clem ain’t got no heart, Tommy-gun. What’n hell are you talking about? He ain’t got no heart nor no brain, but he does his job. What else would he do?”
At that moment, out in the little greenhouse, Clem was telling his plants a bed-time story. The six original pots had been joined by three new ones: a pair of little sundews, and a large and healthy-looking Venus fly trap. He’d found them at the Rainforest Restaurant when they shook it down two nights before, and had picked them up and taken them with him. No one there was going to stop him, not after he’d broken the owner’s arm.
Clem finished his story. “…So the thugs, they beat the snot outta them cops, and lived happily ever after.” He dropped a couple of ants into the sundews, and a fly into the gleaming cup of the Venus fly trap. “Bye-bye, bugs.” He watched the leaves close around the meal, smiling fondly. Then he patted the pots all around, and carefully rotated the Boss’s plants to be ready for the morning sun. Then he went off to dream happily of squishing small dogs and breaking kneecaps.
Tommy-gun Matthews was right. Clem might not have had a heart, but his work no longer held his limited attention. On a job, he was apt to be checking for new plants when he should have been flexing his muscles and looking dangerous. One night the Boss had to remind him three times that he was due to break a kneecap, and when the time came, Clem did the job without even looking. He was staring at a cactus the whole time.
The next night, everything fell apart.
“See,” Boss Hogan said, “We’ve been messing with the small stuff. But I’ve got us a job’ll set us up for good.”
“Oh yeah?” Tommy-gun Matthews was suspicious by nature. “What sorta bank we gonna knock over?”
“No bank, Tommy. It’s,” Hogan licked his lips, wanting this to go over just right, and not sure what his men would think. “It’s a hit.
That got everyone’s attention. Even Clem, who had been wondering if Venus needed a better sort of bug—maybe crickets instead of flies?—turned to look.
“Strangle, crush, or shoot, Boss?” asked the Strangler, flexing his biceps to raise the huge dumbbell from his knee to his shoulder.
“A hit’ll bring trouble on us,” Matthews said. “Cops that ignore a bit of a protection racket will go after murder. At least,” he added, “murder of someone worth the kind of money we’d ask.”
“Nope,” the Boss said. “No trouble on us, because we aren’t going to do any of the usual things. No guns, no strong-arm stuff. The way we do it, no one will suspect us.”
Jones and Matthews looked at him, waiting.
“Poison,” Boss Hogan said. “What did you think those plants were for?” He turned to Clem. “Go fetch in a couple of those plants I gave you. One of the tall skinny ones and one with the big lacy leaves.”
Clem didn’t know what to make of it, but he did as he was told. Clem always did as he was told. While he was out, Boss Hogan explained.
“Replace the carrots in the mark’s salad with the water hemlock bulb, and it’s all over. Just in case, we have the death camas, which looks like onion. It goes in the soup. No one will even know, let alone suspect us.”
“How you gonna get it into the soup?” asked Strangler Jones.
“We—ah, here we are. I’ll just need the roots,” Hogan said. Before Clem could react, the Boss had ripped the camas lily from its soil and snapped off the stem.
Clem went berserk. Boss Hogan never knew what happened. Matthews and Jones fled without waiting to see.
Clem tossed aside Boss Hogan’s broken body, head flopping grotesquely atop a broken neck, and fell to his knees beside the corpse of the plant. He cradled the broken stems in his huge arms, weeping inconsolably.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015