Thriller / A frozen river / A teacup / 951w
Toph had never intended to actually meet Mrs. William Bainbridge. The transaction was to have been done through various middlemen. He cursed himself for his trust, his lack of suspicion. After being back in London for nearly a year, he was clearly losing his edge, the sense of self-preservation that had served him so well in the Oriental jungles.
The three of them – Toph, a craggy bodyguard, and Lakshmi Bainbridge – stood in the cabin of a small private barge. They formed an odd triangle: Lakshmi at the farthest point, seated, with a fur blanket in her lap; the bodyguard, arm raised, knife held so still it was almost violent in its stillness; and Toph, sweating, feeling the prick of the knife tip at the tender spot below his ear. The air in the tiny cabin was thick, perfumed, warmed by a brazier heavy with coal and juniper needles. Outside, the city was chilly in the pre-dawn. The vessel was slowly crunching its way through a thin layer of ice that had formed overnight, the first frost of the season.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?” he demanded of his captor. Lakshmi Bainbridge sipped sedately from her teacup. “I brought you the bloody thing.”
The cattleya specula, rooted delicately in its porcelain pot, sat on a stool by Lakshmi’s right arm. It was not too impressive at first glance, nothing like the showy paphiopedilums or hybrid dancing-ladies, coaxed into riots of color, that were so in favor those days. A tangle of grey roots and a single flower on a curving stem, the petals so thin and fragile and immaculately white they were nearly translucent. Hence its name: glass orchid. One of two in the known world.
The specula had recently been burgled from the home of James Callaway, Lakshmi Bainbridge’s chief rival in the world of orchid collection. Toph, who had never thought turn from explorer to common thief, had not realized that common thievery could pay so well. But he had not expected this price to be exacted in return.
“I know your type,” Lakshmi said, in her bizarre Indian English. Oh how London society had tittered when Duke Bainbridge had married a brown woman from a colony. Now, the widowed brown woman ran an underground empire. “What’s to stop you from carrying out this crime again, with I the victim?”
It was a blow to Toph’s pride, damaged already. With no recent commissions and a growing ledger of debts, he had stolen a plant that he himself had collected from the East Indies and sold to Callaway five years previously. That voyage, that venture, would never leave him. Men, men like him, spent years risking and losing their lives to hungry jaguars, burning poisons, and merciless diseases to comb the jungles for rare specimens. To be an orchid hunter was to live without a family or home, to spend months or years in a strange land, eating strange foods or no food, alone with the elements high on slick mountain reaches or beating back humid canopies teeming with ants. Toph and the little glass orchid had weathered much together, and even through all the debauchery and desperation, he had never felt so small before it as he did now. He couldn’t imagine fouling it further with another burglary.
Lakshmi seemed to know his thoughts. She reached out and picked up the specula, which seemed to tremble in her palm. “Oh, no. Not this one. There’s only one of these in existence, and you don’t even know where I keep it.” Then she dropped the orchid into the brazier by her feet, where it caught flame with grotesque speed. Toph watched in horror as the fragile looping roots, the curving feminine stomata, the fringed glasslike petals blackened into ash.
“Wh—why…? How could you have…?” His voice cracked.
“Why so dismayed? I paid you for it.”
The heavy bag of gold, the last of three installments, weighed at more than just Toph’s waist. Sickened, he untied it and flung it on the floor. Bainbridge and Callaway and all the rest always believed it was about the money for the hunters like him. Those rich pretentious bastards didn’t understand. It was about the freedom to find. His outrage flared, but before he could say anything, the guard dug the knife half an inch into his flesh, and he yelped in pain.
“So easy to slip a body into this canal.” Lakshmi rose, impressively tall, to step from her chair, over the brazier and the remains of Toph’s specula. She bent to gaze closely into his face, her plum-dyed lips worked into a frown. “But I know value when I see it.”
A glance from her and the guard dropped his arm. Lakshmi stared at Toph, again with that stillness of the poised knife, a stillness that suggested chaos.
“Here is the commission you have been seeking,” she finally murmured. “Leave London. Go to the Americas, the Indies, the Orient. I don’t care. Bring me an orchid that is truly without peer. I don’t want any more duplicates. And if any of my associates see you in the city before returning to me with what I am asking for, you will die.”
Toph nodded. He was finding it difficult to breathe. How had it come to be that this, here, was his most terrifying moment?
“Take that gold. You will need funds,” she said.
Again he nodded. He had realized what was happening. He was a threat. He knew too much and had too many skills, skills that others could hire. She could not force him to return, and she did not care.
He was not supposed to ever come back.
Bit of a delay in posting this one, because of some other professional and personal activities this past week. Apologies!
This gave me a chance to experiment with characters from my novel, which was beneficial, I think. This wasn’t particularly fast-paced, but I think I got the tension in, and my second draft got me the complexity that I wanted in Toph’s response to everything.
I’m fascinated by the orchid hunting craze (“orchid fever”) that seized much of western Europe and North America during the mid-19th century. Wealthy collectors would pay adventurous young men to go out and gather wild orchids, and other exotic plants, from distant places, while they stayed home and spent huge sums on state-of-the-art greenhouses and lavish parties to show off their plants. Susan Orlean wrote an interesting book about it.