CHAPTER 1

They would come. The dread, the fear...the chill that ran through Carmen’s body bellowed. Would the police charge her with something? Carmen had told them about her husband’s cheating, the scene she’d made in front of Diana’s two-flat. But, she hadn’t told them everything. They questioned her—inspected her—bacteria under a slide. She wiped her sweaty palms on her pants and held her breath until she saw stars. She didn’t see stars. She saw Diana’s body. Diana and her husband, entangled in her bed like two snakes. She couldn’t focus, couldn’t think. The static in her head. Now they would come to discover what she left out. Charge her? But with what?Obstructing justice or something for not telling them everything? But the chill whispered that there was more.

Five days ago Diana’s soul had been a bright light, a beacon, leading Carmen to the old graystone to confront her. That morning, she’d been blinded by the scorching sun, as if Kedzie Avenue was the fires of hell.

Every day, for the last four days, she awoke before dawn and stared out the window, her eyes burning with sleeplessness. She watched the black sky turn grey, then pastel orange and peach as she imagined her husband with Diana then re-imagined Diana’s dead body.

She’d been talking to herself since she discovered the affair and then the body. At first she whispered, now she spoke in a normal tone, like she needed to make sure she still existed by hearing herself. “No, Carmen,” she whispered to herself this time. “It wasn’t Diana leading you and the police. It was your carelessness clearing the path.”

Carelessness from a careful person. Carmen graded her science papers with reading glasses to be exact, writing the correct answer for every error in her methodical square scientist print. She never missed a credit card payment, never forgot to feed or walk the dog, arrived early to her daughter’s appointments with all the paperwork filled out. Yet, Carmen had let herself into Diana’s two-flat. She’d waited an hour to call the police. Then, she’d left information out during her interrogation. Carmen bit her lip hard. She could blame herself, but the fatigue. The anxiety. The emptiness. She dabbed the blood with her finger, then rubbed it dry between her fingers until it disappeared.

And now, they would come. A fall like Diana’s was not an accident. It was bad luck, random chance, or maybe a curse that she discovered the body, but something--or someone—nefarious had happened to Diana.

Bere, her sister, scuffed into the living room wrapped in a fluffy pink robe and matching slippers. Her long curls cascaded perfectly down her back. Even in the morning, she was beautiful. “Carmen, you look like hell. Have you even brushed your hair?”

For Carmen, spending time with Bere usually meant at least one barb. She was the chuquiraga flower— the bright orange flower of the Andes with fleshy green leaves and spiky flowers— beautiful to look at but painful to engage. Her own sister.

“Good morning. I always appreciate a compliment.” Carmen sighed, pushing her short, straight “mom” hair out of her face. She shivered against the air conditioning, her body drenched from the night of death and despair and tucked her grandmother’s alpaca wool blanket under her outstretched legs. Her mixed breed dog, Chispa, stirred from a light canine nap at Carmen’s feet then closed her eyes again. “It was a rough night. You do remember that Diana is dead?”

Bere softened her voice, not to be gentle, but to avoid waking Lourdes, possibly the only person she cared about. “Carmencita, please. Diana? Five days have passed. She ruined your life alive now she’s ruining your life dead? Goodbye to a selfish, lying piece of—”

“Bere, please. Show a tiny bit of respect.”

“I’m going to make us some eggs and let Lourdes sleep. She was up all Monday night studying for that damned math final. What good does that trigonomo or whatever do anybody? She’ll be upset when you tell her about--” Bere made air quotes, “her godmother. I told you to select me and Gaston as godparents. We are her actual relatives anyway. Scrambled or boiled?” Bere asked, a smirk on her face.

Was she talking about the eggs or Bere and Gaston? Carmen almost curved her lips into a smile, but the image of the dead Diana flashed in her mind just before she did. She parted her lips slightly and exhaled instead, pushing the image out and studying her sister.

Even as an adult, Bere rebelled against Carmen’s attempts to socialize her. Teach her respect. The godparent fiasco from fifteen years before. Bere never forgot any slight. On the contrary, she revelled in it, used it to manipulate people. Still, Bere loved her Lourdes more than anything.

Carmen sighed. “I’m not hungry, Bere. Please let me think in peace.” Now, she had to think about how to break the protective bubble, how to deliver the bad news to her daughter.

“You have to eat something,” Bere said, walking toward the kitchen. She peeked around the corner and whispered. “When are you going to tell Lourdes about Diana? And Ricardo. When are you going to tell her about the affair?”

“I don’t know. Today?” She had to do it today before the police came. Carmen touched her neck again, rubbing it against the tingling.

Lourdes had been so busy with finals and would never notice if Diana didn’t stop by. So, she’d let Lourdes finish the important things first. Nothing had changed. Diana was still dead. Ricardo’s betrayal could wait.

Bere tsked at her older sister. “Look, someone killed that witch. I just want to remind you that I told you she was no good. I’ll make you some toast. It’s homemade anise bread from the restaurant.”

Carmen shook her head. Normally she was obsessed with food, but her stomach twisted and coiled. Bere stepped into the kitchen, clanging a skillet and utensils for a second. Then, the flat filled with a soft sizzle of eggs, the whirring of a whisk against a skillet. Sounds from their mother’s kitchen in the Andes, then in Lima.

Carmen reached to pet Chispa again, but her hand hovered mid-air. The peaceful domestic sounds were broken by rustling outside in the yard, voices over radios.

Bzzzzzz!

It was the faint vibration of the downstairs buzzer. Bere gasped and stepped back into the living room. That was your timbre. “Look out the window. Call the police if it’s that homeless man again. It might be the guy with the blond dreadlocks. Who comes at nine to— ?”

Well, they wouldn’t need to call the police, Carmen thought. Did she have time to tell Lourdes about Diana’s death at least? She shook her head, unwrapped herself from her grandmother’s blanket, put her feet into her slippers, rose, and tied her robe neatly.

They heard another mechanical murmur. Then the distant pounding on Carmen’s door. Or was it her heart? She inhaled deeply, completely, cleanly and waited.

“Oh my God. That guy is such a bastard. If you’re not calling the police, I am. He’ll wake Lourdes.”

Carmen held a hand up. A minute later, Bere’s intercom vibrated. Demanding. Wasps nest, a rabid dog. A saw felling a tree.

She pressed the panel on the wall, opening the downstairs entry to Bere’s upstairs flat.

“Carmen, why would you let people in without even looking down to see who it is?”

“It’s the police. I don’t need to look.”

Bere whispered, “But you already talked to them.”

“I know. But there are some things I didn’t tell them,” Carmen spoke quickly, her head spinning. She tried to inhale, but her chest was too tight.

The world slowed. Below her sister’s front door, on the wooden stairs, heavy shoes echoed like a machine gun. Carmen stood by the door and opened it before they knocked.

A male officer stood in the doorjamb holding his badge out. She’d already met Officer Reyes. “Ms. Carmen Castillo, we need to ask you some more questions.”

Carmen inhaled deeply. “Yes.” There was no fear in her voice. Where had all her emotion drained? She was a robot, moving, doing, but not feeling.  

A young African American woman stood behind him talking on her radio. “Ten-twenty-three.” She snapped it to her belt and stared straight ahead with exhausted eyes.

Carmen nodded and stepped back for them to enter.

Lourdes stumbled down the hall and grabbed her mother’s arm. “Ma, why are the police here?” she asked in a high-pitched voice. Damnit. It was too late to tell it with velvet words, to break it down. Why hadn’t she woken Lourdes up earlier? She knew they would come. Now she had to focus on getting the police to leave, to prevent them from upsetting Lourdes.

It was just a matter of talking to the police, explaining. She whispered to herself, “I was careless, scared, that’s all.” She hadn’t thought things through. She’d already told them rudimentary details, but in her panic, she’d failed to paint a full picture. Who could blame her for panicking? She had been in shock from finding the body. Carmen tensed her jaw, then unclenched it. This had to be OK.

“Amor, I need to talk to the police. There’s been an accident. They need to talk to a lot of people to try to figure out what happened.”

“An accident?”

“Your auntie Di. I need to help the police now.”

“Is she OK?”

Tell her now? How long could Carmen wait?

“She’s not OK, amor. I’m sorry. She died at her house. An accident. She fell.”

Lourdes cried out and covered her eyes with open palms.

Carmen had done the same, covered her eyes and cried when she had told Bere about the body. “The body,” was all she could call Diana in her mind. Saying the name reminded her of the deception and the shock.  

Lourdes looked up at Carmen, still crying. “What kind of accident?”

“We’re not sure. That’s why the police officers are here.”

The male officer stepped forward and showed Carmen a piece of paper. “We have a warrant to search your house for anything connected to her death. Then we’ll go down to the station for questioning.”

They don’t have any leads. So, here they are, digging. Carmen intertwined her fingers tightly. She should have volunteered more. She should have told everything. Careless.

“Search our house? Question you?” Lourdes rubbed her eyes on the fluffy sleeves of her robe.

The officer stepped closer. Lourdes squeeze her mother. Carmen pushed her away gently, whispering, “Amor. Please. Give me a minute.”

She turned to the police. “This is not where I live. I live downstairs.”

“We looked for you there first, but our notes indicated that your sister lives here,” the woman said.

Carmen walked toward the door. Lourdes, Chispa and her sister followed like ducklings. They padded downstairs together, a parade of misery.

Carmen opened the front door and entered. Once inside, they stood in the dark living room, staring at the officers in silence. Carmen opened the blinds and turned on the light.

Reyes said, “The three of you need to sit at the dining room table while we search. Don’t move from the table or touch anything until we’re done. Do you understand? Officer Simpson here is going to start searching your kitchen.”

Her kitchen? What could they want? Knives? Diana looked like she’d died from a fall.

Carmen joined Lourdes and Bere. She leaned her elbows on the woven table cloth made by a neighbor in the Andean town they grew up. The browns and beiges were the same colors as the mountains at sunset. To be back home, in those mountains, a child again. No electricity, no plumbing, but no problems. 

“Ma, why didn’t you tell me? Auntie Bere, you too?” Lourdes narrowed her eyes. Carmen felt like she’d fallen from a height...she forced a smile, but Lourdes knew better. And Carmen still had a secret.

Bere grabbed Lourdes around the shoulders and held her close. She kissed her forehead then held her tighter. “Amor, we knew you needed to focus. Your poor godmother would be just as dead whether you knew or not. We did it because we love you. You can’t redo those final exams.”

One thing she had to say for Bere, she had a way with her niece. Lourdes nodded slowly and nuzzled into her aunt’s shoulder, eyes closed.

Carmen leaned towards her daughter, stroking her long black hair, soft as corn tassels. She grasped her daughter’s hand tightly and rolled out the rest of the story using cotton-soft words, leaving out any details she could. Lourdes stared out the window, unblinking, thin and pale with the stress of the previous days, now sniffing for her lost godmother. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, but I hope you understand why.”

“Sure, Ma,” Lourdes whispered. She had the best characteristics of her parents, her father’s green eyes and sharp humor and her mother’s facility with science and numbers. Her parents had shielded her from all the hardship and bitterness. Soon, Carmen would tell her about her father. Death and divorce in one stroke of the paintbrush.

The police had moved to her small greenhouse off the kitchen where she grew herbs and small vegetables year round. Reyes was calling out plant names to Simpson who was checking a list. She needed to let Ricardo know what was going on. What was going on? Carmen’s heart raced. She squeezed Lourdes’s hand as much for her comfort as her daughter's.

“Are they going to arrest you, Ma?” Lourdes asked, her eyes wide.

“All they have is this stupid fight I had with your Aunt Di, nothing more. They’ll question me, they’ll see I’m innocent.”

“Fight?” Lourdes asked, panic exploding her voice.

“It was a—” How to tell this lie with a hint of truth so Lourdes wouldn’t feel betrayed later. “disagreement we had. But I got too upset. We can talk later.”

Carmen leaned forward, peering into the kitchen where they had returned. The officers’ backs were to the dining room. Simpson stood at the pine kitchen island and scooped Carmen’s home grown dried herbs into clear plastic bags. She stooped to grab a cardboard boot box off a shelf in the kitchen island—Carmen’s botanicas that she sold at her friend Martina’s shop on Fullerton.

Carmen tried to breathe, but she couldn’t find any air. She clenched her fists. Why would they take her herbs? What had they found? But it didn’t matter because she’d go to the station and come home in a few hours. Just a misunderstanding. Organic basil and medicinal plants, for God’s sake.

Reyes asked Simpson, “Wasn’t it something like azalea or—” he pulled out his notepad and flipped it open. He dragged out each syllable, “ro-to-den-drawn?” He looked at the page and then at the bag. “This,” he held up a brown paper bag, “is that plant. It’s labeled, see?”

Why rhododendron? Of course, it was a tea for your skin, used in moderation. Diana had used it a few times, buying it from Carmen's stash. But the last few months, she’d only bought chamomile and nettles. Why would that be in her system?

A year before, Diana had whispered to Carmen, as if it were some sort of secret no one knew. “It’s so good for your hair, amiga.” She’d run her manicured talons through her blonde crown then snatched a brown paper bag from Carmen’s wares with an index finger and thumb.

 The detectives opened her computer and set it in front of her. “Log in so we can see your history.”

Carmen stared at them. Did she have to? Should she? Would they go away if she did?

When they opened it, they’d realize it wasn’t locked. There was never a reason. This was her house, her family, her business. Her life was boring. Her life had been boring.

“Look, prove to us that you have nothing to hide. We have a warrant anyway, so we’ll get it one way or the other, Mrs. Castillo.”

Bere yelled, “Carmen. They need a warrant or something.”

“They have one, Bere.” Carmen gritted her teeth. But, there was nothing there anyway. A betrayal followed by an invasion.

“Sub chronic Toxicity of Erica-c-eous Toxins and Rhodo-dendros.” Reyes read from the history. He stumbled over every syllable, drawing them out like a child learning to read. “A research report she was reading in April on how toxic this plant is. That’s what the medical examiner said we should be looking for. Rhododendrons, azaleas, ericaceous, and some heath or something.”

Carmen groaned and rubbed her eyes. In her exhaustion she’d forgotten about that search. Carmen had wanted to be sure her tea strength was good, that no one was going to get sick. She’d made the tea, made the extracts just like her mother and grandmother showed her, but she was always nervous. There was no way she’d even accidentally poisoned Diana since the directions were clearly written on the back of each bag. It was innocent. Anyway, Diana hadn’t drunk it for months. Even if a person were crazy enough to drink ten cups, it wouldn’t kill you.

“OK, Simpson. Let’s take her in. We’ve got enough to hold her. I’ll call the D.A.”

Carmen had thought obstruction of justice, trespassing, or some fine for not calling the police. The flames of hell were licking at her heels. “Take me in? You said you were questioning me. You’ve got some flowers and an internet search.” She laughed hysterically, her shoulders convulsing. Bad luck and bad choices. The intersection of mala suerte  and mala decisión. Destino. Only the devil could predict what would happen next.