The days turned warmer and Cassie’s pool garden grew. Each morning she walked the rows, rejoicing in the green sprouts poking out of the soil. She and her dedicated gardeners devised a soil-building area where they added waste and worms, turning the soil as needed to prepare it for when the new boxes would be built, so there would be enough good soil to fill them.
She consulted her latest gardening book, trying not to worry that they were planting many of their seeds too late. Anything was better than nothing and they had to make the effort. The new solar cookers on the far side of the deck were an asset to their garden, since scraps from meal preparation could be added to the compost pile and used to enrich the soil.
Of all her plants, Cassie treasured her potted roses the most. Dug up from the zoo gardens and planted in plastic buckets along a patio railing, they were starting to bud again after Cassie had pruned them. She remembered the look of disgust on David’s face as he deposited a rosebush at her feet, saying, “This is so we can grow Vitamin C, got it? Chicks don’t get flowers from me.”
“Of course,” Cassie said, having heard from Leila what David would and would not give.
Galahad had given her a rose bush too, its roots and bundled soil wrapped in a scrap of plaid flannel. “Feel free to enjoy mine when they bloom,” he said. “In fact, I’d be insulted if you didn’t.”
That plant had become her favorite. It was the first she checked on in the morning, it was the one that got extra coffee grounds or fertilizer when she had it to spare, and it was the last one she looked at before cleaning up for dinner, touching a leaf for luck before going inside.
But this morning, the carrots were of greater concern than the roses. Cassie drew some of the younger gardeners to the planters on the deck and tried to show them the difference between carrots and weeds. “We need to thin them out,” she said. “Otherwise there won’t be room for the carrots to grow big.”
Cassie looked up at the sound of footsteps on the wooden deck, but it was only Leila, her new earrings of silvered glass glittering in the morning sun. David wasn’t one to give gifts, but he occasionally allowed Leila access to foraged goods and she took them in trade to May for new jewelry. As always, though, Leila wanted more.
“I’m ready whenever you are,” she said. She looked at the planter and the children crowded around it. “Shouldn’t they be practicing their reading or something?”
Cassie wiped her muddy hands on her new gardening smock. “I’m beginning to think this sort of thing will be a lot more useful to them. They only need to read well enough to understand how-to books. Shakespeare and Tolstoy won’t be much help.”
“What about perpetuating our ‘great civilization’ as you and Galahad like to talk about?”
“There will always be a few scholars to keep the higher knowledge alive, just like in the Middle Ages. But if everybody starves to death….”
Leila tossed her head and her earrings jingled. “Right. That’s why we’re taking May a solar cooker—so she won’t starve or poison herself and deprive us of the civilizing influence of art and jewelry.”
* * *
At Cassie’s insistence, they took a utility cart as well as some shovels and bags for collecting dirt. “It would be stupid to go halfway to the park and not bring back soil for the garden,” she pointed out. “Besides, we can hide the box cooker under the empty sacks on the way to May’s. That way no one will try to steal it from us.”
“Like any of those street kids would know what a box cooker was,” Leila said. But she agreed to the plan and soon they were off.
The streets were quiet but the stench of rot and sewage was stronger than usual. “We may have to move to higher floors of the hotel,” Cassie said. “To get away from the smell and the flies.”
“David says they still plan to burn some of it.”
Cassie gave Leila a skeptical look. “If they do, I hope it’s on a day when the wind will blow the smoke away from us. The smell of burning trash and bodies is disgusting.”
“At least it would only be for a day,” Leila pointed out. “Unlike letting everything rot forever.”
When they arrived at May’s shop, they found it in disarray, with May pacing the floor, cursing. “I was only gone half an hour!”
“Who did it?” Cassie asked. “And what did they take?”
“It’s not so much what they did out here.” She gestured at the shop, which was untidy but didn’t appear to be missing much. “It’s what they did in back.”
“Did they take your acids?” Leila asked in concern.
“The acids, the bases, some of my catalytic metals, and what they didn’t take they tried to destroy.”
“Who are ‘they?’” Cassie asked, but Leila shushed her and took May by the arm, speaking in reassuring tones.
Cassie followed them into a back room that was equal parts laboratory and art studio. Shattered glass lay everywhere and strange chemicals spilled over the counters and onto the floors. One of the liquids had flowed into contact with a gray powder and together they were fizzling into the countertop. Leila and May were talking chemicals with an earnestness that Cassie found dizzying. It was the first time since the Telo that she had seen Leila use her brain for anything more than fashion, bitterness, and trying to find a boyfriend. And until now, Cassie hadn’t fully grasped the depth of May’s knowledge of chemistry.
On the other side of the room were half-finished art projects, including jewelry, paintings, and an attempt at a sculpture. Cassie was staring at a mosaic of shattered traffic lights, trying to make these disparate clues about May’s character fit together in her mind, when she heard the word “Pharms.”
“I told you they weren’t reliable,” Leila said. “David says a lot of them are former KDS—Kevorks. They’re only out for themselves, so if the Obits are offering a better deal—”
“No,” May said. It’s not like that. The Pharms aren’t deserting to the Obits, they’re working for them. Gang for hire sort of thing.”
“Well what they’re offering must be pretty good,” Cassie said, trying to pick up the thread of the conversation. “You make basic meds for them to sell, and you’d think they’d find that valuable enough to protect.”
“Only thing I can think is that the Obits have a drug connection of some sort,” May said. “Maybe they’re large-scale dealers.”
The girls pondered, looking glumly at the shattered vials and broken equipment.
“So who do you think did all this?” Cassie asked again. “What were they after?”
May shook her head in dismay and Leila patted her shoulder.
“Could’ve been anyone,” Leila said.
“But crimes don’t happen for no reason. Who knew there was no guard today?”
“No one I can think of,” May said.
“Maybe one of the Pharms tipped off a friend,” Cassie suggested. “Or maybe they want to scare you.”
“Maybe,” May said. “I think someone just saw an opportunity.” She rubbed her painted cheek, smearing an artistic butterfly into a blob. “I guess I’ll find out if the Pharms were involved when they come back from their mission.” She gave Leila and Cassie a weak smile. “If they care about the work I do for them, they’ll give me back my guard.”
“Where did they go, anyway?” Cassie asked, already suspecting the answer.
May gave a resigned shrug. “They’re kidnapping children for the Obits.”