The Garden Party 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 rain fell from the glass ceiling, fake rain, the water pushed out by sprinklers, sprayed a hot clingy mist into every open pore. It made her skin itch as if tiny wet ants marched over her flesh. Then the air blown by propeller-sized fans tossed fallen leaves and dirt in her face. Thankfully, there were no fake bugs or neon sunlight.

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 was stored in a few sturdy old museums and in the Garden.

The domed building with a half dozen rooms, or chambers, overflowed with exotic plants and other remnants of endangered, or might as well call them extinct, ecological systems. The rich and powerful kept their antiquities and 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.

FBI Special Agent Shayna Marigold, Agent in Charge of the New Environmental Crimes Task Force, walked into the middle of the Garden’s atrium and looked around. A short janitor in a gray jumpsuit with a bulging gut rushed toward a nearby 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 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 in August. The moist heat, flying bits of dirt and indoor plant life pushed her allergies into overdrive. She should be sitting at home in her hermetically sealed apartment, hiding out for the weekend, tucked safely away from the atmosphere, beat cops and dust.

That evening, however, the biggest heist attempt in the Garden’s history had taken place, and the primary suspect was handcuffed to a banister in the Orchid room. Shayna wouldn’t miss interrogating this master thief for all of 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 of the government-run storage facility.

“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 at home. 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 thief thrilled and disturbed her all at once. The architect behind more than a thousand successful cons up and down the Atlantic Coast and in the Midwest was in handcuffs only a hundred feet away in the Orchid Room.

Shayna had chased Joshua Monroe Washington Smith from Chicago to Washington 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 in 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. 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. Then he 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, she thought hotly.

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 next 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. 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?”

Jeesus. Guilty as sin and still he flirted. “Nope, won’t miss you one damn bit. I will, however, get a full weekend of sleep for the first time in two years.” It was her turn to grin at him. “I told you not to come back here, but your ego made you careless. You think you can steal from the Garden as if it was your neighborhood candy store.”

His half-gaze followed her as she paced compulsively for a moment. The Fedora still draped at the same angle showed only one smart-mouthed eye. Suddenly she couldn’t resist the urge and flipped the hat off of his head.

He sucked in a breath. “Why’d you do that?”

She reared back. “Do what? Tell you the truth. Too tough to hear? Or are you threatening me? That’s not a smart move considering you’re cuffed to a rail in a storage museum surrounded by a dozen armed guards, and at least a dozen squad cars parked outside, hoping you try something stupid?”

“You talk too much when you’re mad. That’s how I caught you in Chicago.” He winked, devilishly, and leveled his gaze. “Or are you mad because I let myself get caught?”

Shayna refused to fall for his nonsense. A penetrating gaze wasn’t going to make her suddenly dumbfounded. “Stop with the flirting and the sexy voice and the hard body. What did you do? Crunches until I walked in so your abs would pop through your T-shirt?”

He licked his lips; fighting the grin she saw threatening the corners of his mouth.

“Shayna, I haven’t been doing crunches. I swear.” He shrugged a shoulder at his cuffed wrists chained to the bannister. “Not that motivated.”

She pulled out her PDA, raised it eye level and took his picture.

“What are you doing now, Shayna?”

“My name is Special Agent Marigold,” she snapped back. “You can call me Special Agent or Special Agent Marigold.”

He cocked his head wearily. “We’ve known each other two years and no way am I going to start calling you Special Agent Marigold.”

She dropped her jaw. “We don’t know each other. You are a thief and I’ve been chasing you for two years. That does not make us friends on any planet. Even this screwed up mess we live in now. We aren’t friends.”

His expression changed from cocky to uncertain and she realized she might have hurt his feelings. But his armor was back in a heartbeat and with a vengeance.

“I know why you’re mad at me,” he said. “It was the kiss.”

“I forgot about that kiss the second you jumped off the building.”

He sighed, a look of feigned distress in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to offend or take advantage, but you are a gorgeous woman. Smart, persistent, unwavering in your commitment. Pretty close to damn perfect…well, except for, you know, being an FBI agent.”

“Let’s stay on track. I need to record your confession.” She waved the PDA.

“You know those photos can’t be used as official crime scene photography.”

“Don’t worry about the pictures.” He was right. They weren’t official. She intended to put them in a scrapbook. “We don’t have all night.” She gestured at the orchid draped over a branch behind him and pushed the audio record button on her phone. “Confess.”

He laughed and kept laughing.

“Come on, Joshua. Do the right thing, here. Tell me why you wanted to steal a damn plant. I know they are extinct and to one of your rich clients, important, but the Garden is the most secure storage facility in the nation. What were you thinking?”

“As you said a few minutes ago, it’s my candy store. I rob it because I can.” Then his expression became somewhat mystified. “Do you even know what this plant is?” He nodded at the orchid rooted securely to its spot in the Garden’s dirt wall.

“I know exactly what it is. I’ve read all about it.” She punched the mail icon on her PDA, and opened the attachment to an email she’d requested from one of the researchers at the office.

Clearing her throat, she read aloud. “It’s called Rothschild’s Slipper and is an orchid that can take up to fifteen years to flower. It can be identified by its petals, which it holds horizontally, and it produces up to six large flowers, and is the world’s most expensive orchid. A single stem is worth…” She looked at Joshua, blinking. “Damn, a half a million dollars.” Then swiftly getting beyond the sticker price, she added, “But I don’t get it. Why risk your freedom for a flower that could take more than a decade to flower or might die before you get it out of the building?”

“You ever heard of Malaysia?”

“Don’t be rude, of course I’ve heard of Malaysia.”

“Ever been there, Shayna?”

“Been no further west than Chicago and north than New York City, which you already know.”

He closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts for some elaborate lie, she imagined. But when he opened his eyes, the smirk had vanished from his face. He looked at her straight on, without any ranker or mischief visible that she could find.

“Okay, tell me why you wanted to steal a orchid,” she said.

“Decades ago before the volcanoes erupted and the atmosphere collapsed, there was a very special town in Malaysia and in it the ‘Gold of Kinabalu’ blossomed every fifteen years. It was recognized around the globe as the most exquisite and expensive orchid in the world.”

“Yeah, I just read that. It’s why we upped the security when it arrived, but it’s still an orchid.”

“Take a look, a very close look.”

She stepped to the railing to peer at the plant hanging over the branch. How lovely she thought. Purple and white and slender petals with a sweet scent she could taste on the tip of her tongue.

“A rare flower for centuries, this is the last one on the planet, and it will always be the last one. And I wanted you to see it, but more than see it, I wanted you to appreciate it.”

That wasn’t fair.  Why would he think she never took time to smell the roses? She smelled stuff. “I appreciate things.”

Joshua tilted his head at her. His eyes softened, his voice whispered. “I know, but sometimes we all need to be reminded.”

“So you tried to steal an orchid to remind me?”

“Yes, and no. It’s a gift.”

“Huh?”

He wrinkled his brow at her, and she sensed his frustration. “It’s our anniversary.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s two years today since the first time I almost caught you.”

He chuckled. “Philadelphia. Behind the Liberty Bell.”

“How did you get away?”

Pondering her question, he licked his lips and her stomach flopped again. Damn, why did she keep noticing these things. “Just tell me how you escaped?”

“I have skills,” he said, his voice barely audible.

She stepped closer and when he leaned forward, she could feel his breath on her cheek. His breathing wasn’t even. It came in spurts, or exhales. As if he’d been running and suddenly stopped except all he was doing was standing and looking at her mouth. For some unexplainable reason, she reached out and her fingers touched his chest then slid down to just above his belt. Her flat palm rested against the firm hard muscles of his abdomen.

His mouth was inches from her mouth.

When the kiss started, the tender coolness of his lips made her shiver. Then their tongues intertwined, and the heat spilled off of him in rough waves. She prayed she wouldn’t collapse from the sheer weight of his touch. He placed a hand on her hip and his other hand splayed against the small of her back. It slid down over her ass, the pressure increasing. When he removed the hand from her hip he grabbed hold of her ponytail. Then his lips released her and he tilted her head back so she could see his eyes. Except she wanted his mouth, his lips, and she strained against his hold to reach them. When she did, she kissed him harder and longer than he’d kissed her.

Then she stopped to take a breath and asked him a question. “How’d you get out of the handcuffs?”

He cupped her face with both hands and kissed her on the forehead. She didn’t care really how he got out of the cuffs. Or how the vine reaching up to the ceiling turned into a rope, or how he used it to scale the walls. Within seconds, he was out an opening in the glass dome’s ceiling, and was gone.

She took a long look at the orchid, the most expensive in the world and smiled. The master thief didn’t take it with him. He wanted to teach her a lesson about beauty and appreciation.

“Beautiful things should be seen,” he’d said just before he let her go and grabbed the rope. “Not hidden inside walls where only the rich can enjoy them. I’m blessed, Shayna. In an ugly world, I still recognize beautiful things, and the most beautiful woman in the world is chasing me. What more can a man want?”

Shayna had no doubt she would catch Joshua one day and put him behind bars for the rest of his life. She would do her job, always. And nothing would stop her, not his smile, his warm brown eyes, or the touch of his lips on her mouth or his hand caressing her body. Nothing would prevent her from doing her job.

Then again maybe, okay, definitely, she just wasn’t going to be in such a hurry to catch Joshua M.W. Smith for a very long, long time.

Besides, she liked the chase. It came with gifts and surprises.

 

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