The Garden Party (Part One) by Denny S. Bryce

Then there was the Garden. Dark and hot, it smelled like jungle or what Shayna Marigold imagined jungle smelled like when jungles still existed.

A steady stream of wet fell from sprinklers planted in the glass ceiling. Fake rain, they spewed a hot clingy mist that seeped into Shayna’s every open pore. It made her skin itch as if tiny wet ants marched over her flesh. Then the wind, blown by propeller-sized fans tossed fallen leaves and dirt in her face. Thankfully, there were no fake bugs or neon sunlight. She scratched her nose and wondered why scientists bothered to create keepsake gardens for the wealthy anyway. When a world collapsed might as well let the soon-to-be extinct things die. Better to wallow in reality than make-believe.

Washington, DC, was a sea of broken concrete, cracked monuments, and pools of black mud. The earthquakes, volcanic ash and acid rain had made a mess of the city and the rest of the continent, leaving a killer atmosphere, no plant life and little food. Shelter was bleak, too, unless you had a government job. Just wasn’t much left worth its weight other than what the well-to-do and the scientists stowed away in mausoleums like the Garden.

The domed building with a half dozen rooms, or chambers, overflowed with exotic plants and other remnants of extinct ecological systems. The rich and powerful kept their newest version of antiquities, the plants that no longer grew outdoors, safe and secure in the Garden. So yeah, it might look like a jungle, smell like a jungle, but it was Noah’s Ark without a sea to sail.

Shayna, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Environmental Crimes Task Force, walked into the middle of the Garden’s atrium, wiped the water from her brow and looked around. A short janitor in a gray jumpsuit, with a bulging gut, rushed to the nearest wall and a metal switch box. Opening it, he flipped the switch up, then down, and an instant later the water and wind stopped hitting her in the face. She sighed, relieved, and gave him a nod of thanks.

Shayna then shrugged out of her heavy overcoat, but a last morsel of dust flew into a nostril, and she sneezed so hard her eardrums popped. She hated working the Garden beat. The moist heat, flying bits of dirt and indoor plant life pushed her allergies into overdrive. She should be at home, comfy in her hermetically sealed apartment, hiding out for the weekend, safe from the atmosphere, beat cops and dust.

But she drew the short straw—supposedly—and forced to work the crime scene of the biggest heist attempt in the Garden’s history. She also got to interrogate the primary suspect, currently handcuffed to a banister in the Orchid room. She smiled smugly. No way was she going to miss out on this chance, not for all the Benadryl in the District.

After a quick swipe of her itchy nose, she handed her coat to the closest beat cop. He guarded the tapeline in front of the Jungle, the largest chamber in the Garden.

“I’m FBI Special Agent Marigold,” she said to the officer.

“Wow, ma’am, you got here fast.” The cop, a bald-headed boxer-type in a poorly fitted uniform, tucked her coat under his arm as he lifted the yellow tape.

Shayna slipped beneath it. “Headquarters called me on my PDA. I live up the street.” Answering his question fast was best. She didn’t want him treating her silence as an opportunity to chitchat.

They stood in front of the unmoving electronic doors without speaking for a long moment. The doors weren’t working. Shayna glimpsed the handyman in the jumpsuit dash around a corner, searching for a different wall switch to jimmy the doors open. She hoped.

Waiting not so patiently, she gathered her locks into a ponytail and stretched her neck to the side to relieve some of the tension. Faced with another opportunity to go head-to-head with this particular thief thrilled and disturbed her all at once. He was the architect behind more than a thousand successful cons up and down the Atlantic Coast and in the Midwest. Now here he was a hundred feet away on the other side of the sliding glass doors in handcuffs.

It was about damn time.

Shayna had chased Joshua Monroe Washington Smith from Chicago to Washington, DC to New York City and back for two years to date. It had been a month since her last almost-had-him-in-her-grasp encounter. Part of her—most of her—couldn’t wait to get him behind bars for good. The other part couldn’t forget what had happened between them four weeks ago.

On the rooftop of The Art Institute of Chicago he caught her, tied her hands behind her back and chained her to a pole. Unable to move, she was forced to watch him escape. Except before strapping a parachute harness on his back and jumping off a rooftop, he walked over and gave her a long, wet, unforgettable kiss. The old-fashioned movie kind of kiss where she swore her toes curled and her heart skipped a freaking beat. But as troubling as that memory was what really fucked her up was that she’d kissed him right back.

The electronic doors slid open finally. “Lead the way, officer,” she instructed.

The cop strolled down the stone steps, then turned and winked at her. “Yes, ma’am, you sure must be looking forward to this interrogation.”

She jammed her hands into her pant pockets, pissed off about the rumor mill surrounding her and her adversary. How dare this beat cop open his trap to judge her? She’d gotten closer than any lawman in the continental US to bringing in Joshua M.W. Smith, including that damn night in Chicago. So gossip if you must. All that counted was that Joshua was in custody. And no matter who caught him it was still her case. Still her interrogation. Still the con man she got to throw in a jail cell for the rest of his life.

Ahead, the beat cop jockeyed through the Medicinal Plant room and then took a sharp left toward the Desert. Raising her hand, she begged him off. “It’s this way.” She pointed in the other direction.

The cop glanced left then right. “Sorry, I get confused. This place looks the same to me, just green and greener. And I sure don’t get why someone would want to steal a plant.” He stumbled over a stone step near a string of large-leafed palms and laughed. “I guess this flower was like, you know, stealing the Hope Diamond.”

Shayna frowned. “To Joshua Smith, it is the Hope Diamond…of orchids.”

They arrived outside the Orchid room, which wasn’t a room, so much as a sweeping passageway with orchids hanging from vines and growing out of the dirt and stone walls. The chamber also included a bench and a wooden bridge and a railing. The bubbling sound of a faux-waterfall echoed off the high-dome ceiling.

Shayna checked the exits. Another cop stood at the opposite door, looking reasonably alert, and at the end of the path another officer slouched, his back facing an anterior room. Then Shayna saw the last guard, poised off to the side.

A plump, middle-aged woman, pretty, with desperate-to-please-eyes and a broken smile was doing a nervous jig. Even money, Shayna wagered, she was the guard Joshua conned to get into the Orchid chamber. Shit, all he had to do was bat an eye. He did have beautiful eyes, treacherous, intelligent, and untrustworthy eyes, but nonetheless beautiful. Locked in his gaze, most any woman would do what he wanted.

She stepped into the Orchid passageway, and didn’t look at Joshua right away. “Where is the plant?” Shayna asked a cop near the entrance as she ducked beneath a low hanging branch.

“It’s still there on the back wall in the dirt,” he replied. “Hasn’t moved since we caught him an hour ago.”

Shayna placed a hand on her stomach. It flip-flopped with excitement and anticipation. She was about to interrogate the mastermind of more than fifty thefts this year alone. He had pilfered some of the world’s most precious antiquities in the USA. Nerves or not, she had to keep it together. Tough this shit out.

Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slow and then faced him.

Joshua leaned against the wood rail, his trademark vintage Stetson Fedora titled over his right eye.  He wore a flower print shirt, unbuttoned, with a white T-shirt, clinging to the hard lines of his chest, and a pair of khakis. And where in the hell did he find khakis? The broadness of his shoulders, the breadth of his physique, made her want to wrap her arms around him and hang on for the ride. A smirk curled the corners of his mouth and she wanted to slap him, or damn it, kiss him. Again. Shit. Shayna shook her head to rid her mind of the bad thoughts. “Focus, girl,” she whispered under her breath.

She walked up to him, stopped close, but not too close, and tugged on his handcuffs to make certain they were locked securely behind his back.

“I knew they’d send you.” He smiled, an annoyingly attractive smile.

“It’s my jurisdiction and you are my case, the criminal that I’ve been chasing…”

“For two glorious years.” Now he grinned broadly, which she found less attractive, but not unpleasant.

She shifted her gaze away. Not a good idea to look him dead in the eye when he was acting cool as an iceberg and about as worried as the last living turkey the day after Thanksgiving. That is if there were any turkeys left on the planet or Thanksgiving.

Damn, it just upped her frustration to see that glint in his eye. “I’d think you’d take getting caught seriously. You are going to prison for a very long time, Joshua.”

“Will you miss me?”

***

Come back tomorrow for part two of The Garden Party by Denny S. Bryce.