“A Rose for Revenge”
by Nancy Hatch
I brush my human hand through the prickly rose bushes, letting the thorns nip at my skin. Clove laces the damp, mossy scent of the conservatory. The nagging ache at the base of my skull eases a fraction. Harvesting the roses gives me something to do that isn’t work, that isn’t tying up the lingering details of my husband’s life and death—that isn’t inescapable despair.
Condensation fogs the glass walls and drips from wrought-iron plant hooks as a steam car rumbles past. I press into the forest of pots and shrubs to collect the last of the peach roses, a hundred tiny claws tugging at the black moiré of my mourning gown. The snags are of no matter; I am used to the petty savagery of thorns. I snap a pair of clippers through the stem of a plump rose with my mechanical hand a bit harder than intended and the rose falls into the abyss between the clay pots. It’s been five years since the surgery, and I still don’t have full control of the monstrosity.
“Mistress Marie?” The maid, Sarah, touches my arm and I flinch, dropping the clippers. She snatches them up, the long, white apron of her uniform dragging on the muddy bricks. Her curly hair escapes its cap in a chestnut halo, frizzed by the damp air. She clutches the clippers in both hands. “I’m sorry, mistress, but it’s time to get ready for the memorial—if you must go.” She bites her bottom lip and drops her gaze to my mechanical hand. Instinctively, I tuck it into the folds of my skirt. “Maybe, maybe you should stay away from that place a little longer. I can send a message for you.”
She sounds almost hopeful. Sarah has never approved of the Military Medical Corps—at least not since Commander-General Rehnquist used me as a guinea pig five years ago. My metal hand clenches. I’d been MMC, body and soul; my duty was to follow orders, not to question, and I’d seen no reason to. My uncanny skill with botanics had given me everything I’d thought I needed; purpose, stability, my research, and a sense of duty. Then I’d met Roger and he’d helped me reclaim a soul I hadn’t known I’d lost.
The commander-general had not approved.
It seems that Roger’s death has changed Sarah too. She used to try and lure me out of the conservatory or away from my research with amusing gossip or minor tiffs with the grocer. She claimed it as a personal challenge. Her exuberance and Roger’s love were the antidotes for my obsession with my work. She watches me now with pity and frets that I spend too much time alone. She doesn’t know how to console me—she doesn’t understand that I don’t want to be consoled.
I wrestle the clippers out of her hand and manage half a smile. “I need to go, Sarah. Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.” I shoo her towards the French doors into the house. “Just give me a little more time with the roses.”
“Of course, Mistress.” She inclines her head toward the fading clumps of yellow floribundas along the south wall then turns with a swish of twill and petticoats, muttering under her breath. “Lord bless that they will do you some good.”
I hold back a laugh that would, no doubt, sound hysterical to her. She doesn’t know—no one knows anymore—that I am completely immune to the effects of my roses. The yellows can’t touch me; none of them can.
The peach blossoms are fat and heavy as I retrieve the dropped rose head and listen for Sarah to reach the kitchen. The spicy scent of peach roses dominates the others this late in the season. They are the last to fade and the most effective of my creations. Their value lies not in beauty but in their essence. When extracted in a tincture, the petals provide a powerful painkiller; the yellows, a blessed respite from melancholy; the lavenders, mixed in a poultice, drain infection; and the reds—a frown pulls my lips down further—the reds, added to alcohol, are a moderate aphrodisiac. Of all the botanics I’ve developed for the MMC, the reds are the most frequently requested and my greatest embarrassment. I had been working toward a rose to ease behavior modification treatment in trauma patients. What I achieved was a lucrative, botanic travesty.
A misty drizzle finds its way through the partially-open skylights. On days like this, I can’t tell the clouds from the soot hanging over London. The skylight hinges squeal as I crank them open wider, letting the tiny drops darken the black of my dress and sprinkle on my face. Roger called this light rain angel’s tears. The memory stabs at my heart, but all it finds is a gaping hole.
My metal hand only shakes a little as I collect the last blossom and push the memory aside. It is a good crop for fall, and the medical staff will be glad of them. These are my cultivars, my own roses—a stipulation I insisted on when I first joined the MMC. The originals have always been more potent than the propagations grown at the MMC greenhouses. I edge through the crowded room along the narrow spiraling path. A wild cane of dusky red roses has come loose from its trellis and grabs my skirt. I jerk the material free, tearing a tiny hole in the material.
The walkway coils through the shrubbery. I find myself in the center—a place I’ve rarely left in the four weeks since Roger’s death. A lush plant billows out of a massive terra cotta pot like an emerald fountain. A single velvet bloom the size of my palm glows snow-white and pure in the dreary light.
The purity rose has no practical use, and I’ve only ever created this one. It isn’t remotely marketable, and heaven knows, it has no place in the military apothecary. It blooms only when a love is pure. Every day in the three years since Roger and I married, it has grown and thrived, one flower—one love—ever blooming. Even death cannot dim it. I touch the bright petals, running the beads of angel tears together, waiting and listening.
Finally, I hear china clattering in the kitchen—Sarah making tea. I glance toward the French doors. Every time I turn around lately, Sarah has been there, worry clouding her face. She is too young for that.
Quickly, I crouch beside the purity rose where another plant struggles in a small, cracked pot. I ignore the mud soaking into my petticoats. It is tantamount to blasphemy that I have hidden Rehnquist’s secret experiment in the shadow of the purity rose. Even Roger didn’t know what it was for; I couldn’t bring myself to tell him.
Sarah has seen the experiment, watered it, no doubt. She believes it is one of my failed cultivars. She doesn’t know what it is or what it can do, and I don’t want her to. I can’t bear to have her think ill of me.
The sparse leaves of the sickly rose are mottled and yellow as if all its energy is spent on the single bud weighing down its one stubby cane. The tightly-wound petals of the assassin rose are black as night and deadlier than nightshade. It is close to blooming.
I reach for the bud with my artificial hand though I know its poison can’t hurt me. There is no response. Tentatively, I switch to my human hand and stroke the soft black petals. They slowly loosen at my touch. Forcing a bloom is a knack I’ve had as long as I can remember, but it gives me chills every time. The rose peels open, layer upon layer of petals revealing an inner surface of purple deepening to red at the center with a crown of black stamens. The colors are wrong. Leaning close, I cup my hands around it, breathing deeply. It has no scent at all. The rose should be black inside and out, and the scent should be sweet with a peppery undertone.
I sit back on my heels and consider the pollination patterns and chemical manipulations I’d used to create Rehnquist’s assassin rose. I can’t recall any aberrations that would account for the colors or lack of fragrance though obviously, some divergence occurred.
I press my eyes shut. I can’t check my notes; I’ve burned them already. The notes I’ll give him tonight are mostly fiction.
I pull two papers out of my pocket. One written on MMC letterhead has a date and one line scrawled across it. I expect your research notes by tomorrow. It isn’t signed, but it needn’t be. It is dated five weeks ago. Rehnquist suspected I was dragging my feet on the assassin rose and that it was Roger’s doing. He’d been only half right.
I hadn’t provided the notes. A week later Roger was dead.
I smooth the other paper, a wrinkled scrap of an MMC manifest from India. Three names are almost illegible in the corner: Rehnquist, Dhawan Singh, Ravi Yadav—the Commander-General, his Indian liaison and a steam car mechanic. This information cost a kilo of powdered reds and every shred of faith and cunning I had left. Rehnquist had had Roger killed to get to me and the assassin rose.
I tuck the papers back into my pocket. It doesn’t matter if the experiment isn’t perfect. I have to go on with my plan or I’ll never be free.
Around me, rose bushes billow in a sea of variegated green. Rain streaks the glass. The sale of the house and my prized roses should give me enough to leave London, maybe establish my own botanic apothecary away from these crowded streets and as far from the MMC and Rehnquist as possible. I hope Sarah is willing to come with me, but I will manage without her. But first I have to face Rehnquist.
With a flick of my metal hand, I snap the assassin rose from its stem. Despite the aberrations, it should be potent enough for a few animal trials, enough to give Rehnquist some positive results before he realizes the notes are faked. Roger would call it deception. I will call it liberty. I hold the dark rose up in the watery light. It is the color of a dying sunset. If the commander-general wants a poison rose, he’ll have to pay for it. And he’ll never have another. Tonight, I will take back what is left of my life.
Big Ben strikes the half hour. Sarah startles, digging a hair pin into my scalp. Neither of us are used to the sound. Halfway through its chime, the grandfather clock in the entry hall joins in. Any minute now, Rehnquist will arrive to take me to Roger’s memorial. I meet Sarah’s gaze in the mirror. Her lips are pressed tight, her face sallow in the yellowish gaslight. She’s only met the commander-general once and has openly detested him ever since. Looking down, I notice my metal hand clutching the leg of my uniform trousers and force it to relax. Sarah has better instincts than I. I never questioned him before Roger came into my life.
We both jump as a loud knock echoes through the house. I motion for Sarah to answer the door, relieved that my hand doesn’t shake. She hesitates and then, grudgingly obedient, leaves the room.
I rise and close the door behind her, listening for the tread of her heels on the stairs. An instant later, I’ve snatched the sunset rose from the pocket of my discarded gown, wrapped it in a white handkerchief and tucked it into my uniform jacket. It leaves a lump in the smooth fit of my uniform. As I toss the gown back over a carved changing screen, I notice the rustle of paper. I fumble through the pockets again and find the memo and the manifest. I stuff them into my pocket beside the rose, hoping they’ll give me the strength to go through with my plans. I toss the gown over the divider again and wonder if it’s in the same position as before. I don’t want Sarah to suspect anything—just in case. I laugh at myself, just in case what? It’s only a resignation and a traceless poison.
I return to the sparsely-covered vanity, my steps silent on the parquet floor. I try to rehearse what I’m going to say to the commander-general, but all I can concentrate on is my pulse pounding at the base of my skull. I have been a follower all my life. The MMC commanded and I complied. I stare at my hands, one cold, one warm, both shaking now. Commander-General Rehnquist wanted to merge flesh and machine; he made me a cyborg. He wanted an insubordinate junior officer dead; he made me a widow. Now he wants an untraceable poison…that he’ll never have from me.
In the mirror, I look like a harlequin. Half my hair is done up; the other half is a dark wave bleeding into the black of my uniform. I look too thin. The severity of the dark collar and gold braid trim make the circles beneath my eyes darker, my cheeks paler. It is a stark look, an efficient look, a look that names me MMC. I suddenly yank the pins from my hair and let it fall. Let this be my first rebellion.
The stairs creak as Sarah returns. Her face is flushed. I’m not sure if it’s from the steepness of the stairs or because Rehnquist has said something to raise her hackles.
“There is a gentleman waiting for you downstairs.” She spits the word between us, her glance straying to my metal hand. The hackles, then.
“I’m sorry,” she mutters. “It isn’t my place.” Her eyes are moist. The last thing I need is for her to cry.
She starts to gather my hair, but I reach up and stop her. “Leave it down.” Her fingers are cold. I give her hand a little squeeze. “Don’t worry, Sarah. I will be fine.”
She holds my gaze in the mirror. “Of course you will.”
For several minutes we wait in silence—an unspoken plan to make Rehnquist wait. When I can’t delay any longer, I stand. Sarah glances at the slight bulge at my hip where the rose is hidden, but I ignore the question in her look. I pull on thin, black leather gloves. I will not have my mechanical hand seen in public, not even at the MMC.
I find Rehnquist making himself at home in the parlor. He casually replaces the gilt-framed photograph of Roger on the marble mantel, flashing a glance at himself in the mirror above it. He has stoked the fire that I’d let die down, but not well. A hint of coal smoke hangs in the air. The salmon damask walls glow softly behind arrangements of portraits and photographs. The only ones I can name are mine and Roger’s parents. The sofas and chairs match as well as the pictures on the walls which is to say, not at all. Next to the conservatory, this has always been my favorite room. Rehnquist taints it just by being there.
“Ah, Captain Allard.” He says, coming forward too eagerly, his smile a bit too quick. “May I call you Marie?” I notice he has the folio open on the oak parlor table. I had left it in the entry hall. My teeth grind at his forwardness.
I turn up the gaslights as an excuse not to salute or answer.
Rehnquist must sense my tension, for he clasps his hands behind his back as if standing at ease. His heavily-decorated white uniform is starched and spotless and tailored to emphasize broad shoulders and narrow hips. His wavy brown hair is just tousled enough to be rakish on a forty-year-old man. He is Adonis to half the MMC, and not just the women. Next to Roger, he is hollow as an empty pot, but he has the well-honed instinct of self-preservation inherent in career officers. Push a little, back away. Push a little more.
“This must be difficult for you,” he says.
I finger a stack of books on the top of the piano just to have something to do with my hands and force my jaw to open and close. “Yes, it is.” I swallow the lump in my throat. “Sir, about the folio…”
Rehnquist waves away my comment and takes a step closer. “There is time for that later. I know you didn’t want a lot of fuss over poor Roger, but he was a major part of my command, a promising officer and field agent. It is only fitting we have a chance to honor him. I appreciate your coming tonight.”
Sarah appears at the bottom of the stairs with my cloak like a guardian angel, sparing me the need to find an answer that wouldn’t betray my contempt. She bites her lip and slips the cloak around my shoulders, making no pretense of civility toward my guest.
A scowl shadows Rehnquist’s face. It flits away soon enough. She’s of no consequence to him. “We shouldn’t be late,” he says, flipping the folio closed. Apparently, he hadn’t noticed my resignation though it was the top page. “I assume you were bringing this for me.”
I manage to nod as he tucks it under his arm and takes my elbow to usher me toward the front door—as if I cannot find my way through my own house. I force myself to allow him to lead me into the rain-darkened evening.
The stench of wet soot coats my nostrils. Even the rain can’t cleanse London’s air. Rehnquist’s sleek black steam car trickles more smoke into the already saturated evening. The boxy interior, gaudily lined with bordello-red brocade and tufted dark leather, is near claustrophobic.
Rehnquist sits unnecessarily close, his leg touching mine. I press against the door and focus on the driver in front of me. The driver’s neck is rigid. His hair needs trimming. He keeps his gaze on the road and out of the rear-view mirror. I find no ally there.
As the car lurches forward, Rehnquist lurches into conversation. His voice grates on my ears. I’ve known mostly silence for weeks.
“Marie. I know this has been difficult for you, but I want you to know we are all eager to have you back to work.” He taps his finger on the folio.
I stare out the narrow window, trying to compose my face and my thoughts. This is my chance.
His leg presses a bit closer. “I’m glad we have this time alone to talk. You must realize what an important member of the MMC you are. Your work is unique. You are unique.”
“About the research,” I say, reaching for the folio.
He settles his arm on it. “This can wait until Monday.”
I hesitate. “And if I’m not there on Monday?”
He glances at me shrewdly. “You will be.”
My hand falls back into my lap; for a moment I despair that I will, indeed, be back on Monday.
He clears his throat. “There have been some, ah, necessary changes at the Corps since you’ve been away, a few things you should know before we arrive. First, your research has been moved into the new Heddinger Wing. You now report directly to me on all projects.”
He wants control of my research. My stomach churns at the prospect of seeing him on a regular basis. I remind myself that that will not be a problem after my resignation. Even so, there would be one positive aspect to the new arrangement. “Colonel Zollinger will be disappointed,” I say as casually as possible. “She won’t be able to look over my shoulder anymore.” The woman is a piranha, always in search of something or someone to feed on. Oh, how she hated it when Roger was promoted over her.
“Exactly. About Zollinger though,” he pauses only a moment. “She has a new command. She’s taking over Roger’s team.”
My fingers curl into fists, fingernails—human and metal—bite into my leather gloves. Rehnquist notices and takes my hand. I’m momentarily shocked by his forwardness then by the realization he’s holding the prosthetic. Heat rises to my face, but I’m not sure if it’s from embarrassment or anger.
“Now Marie. It had to be done. Someone had to assume that command. It’s been a month. The work has lagged. Zollinger will be able to whip the team back into shape, just like Roger did.”
“No, not like Roger at all,” I mutter to the foggy window. Subtlety has never been Zollinger’s strength, neither have propriety, honor, or duty. She possesses other traits, traits the MMC seems to value more than integrity, the least of which is a keen nose for secrets. She’s been digging for information about Rehnquist’s secret project for months. Somehow, she knows I’m involved. I glance sideways at Rehnquist. Is that why he promoted her? Is that why he intends to keep me isolated in the Heddinger Wing? What has she learned?
Rehnquist leans closer, if possible. A hint of pipe smoke lingers about him. “I realize this is awkward, Marie. But I’m sure you understand that the MMC must come first.” He pats my hand. I try to pull it away, but he has a firm grip. “Don’t worry about it anymore tonight. I just thought you should know in case it is mentioned. I also want you to know that I’m here for you, anything you need. After all, I promised Roger I’d take care of you if anything happened when he went back into the field.”
My momentary embarrassment at Rehnquist’s forwardness, at his assumption that I need taking care of in the first place and his proprietary and suggestive attitude in the second, evaporate. I feel Rehnquist’s note crinkle through the stiff twill of my jacket. Roger hadn’t gone back into the field, he’d been sent to his pre-arranged, pre-authorized death by his own commanding officer, and it was only to get to me and my roses.
I clench my jaw. Of course, Rehnquist doesn’t know that I know he is responsible. He doesn’t know that Zollinger had hinted at that little secret to get under my skin or that I’d had the nerve and the know-how to dig out the truth. Rehnquist hadn’t just disliked Roger—my Roger, who understood right from wrong, who took his oaths of service seriously enough to question even the commander-general—Rehnquist had feared him. And when my allegiance had shifted from the MMC to my own conscience? That had been the final straw. I am an asset he is not willing to lose.
I can think of nothing to say. Roger would not have asked this man for a cigarette.
Rehnquist strokes my fingers, sending waves of nausea washing through me. His hand stops stroking, pressing instead along my thumb where the metal seams meet. “This is your cyborg hand, isn’t it? With the glove on, I hardly noticed. I haven’t seen it since the surgery.” He peels my glove off and inspects the mechanical wonder.
He turns it over, examining the joints, bending my fingers back and forth like a child with a toy, listening for the tell-tale whir of the gears. “Such detail. Do you know the original design was mine?”
I doubt it.
He scratches at a smudge of rust on my forefinger. “You’ll need to keep it polished in this weather.”
I retrieve my hand abruptly, slipping the glove back over the metal before I strangle him with it. I grip the leather seat with both hands and stare out the rain-spotted window at the darkening city. I can taste the irony as I welcome the sight of the MMC.
The hall is packed with uniforms. I suppose there are people in them as well, but the names scrawled across the chests of endless ranks of condolences barely register in my mind. My responses are all the same, automatic. Yes, I am well. Yes, we all miss him. Thank you for your concern. No, I don’t need anything. Why didn’t I take Sarah’s advice and stay home? She knows me better than any of these.
The assembly hall is a cavern of too much brick and not enough glass. The gas chandeliers are efficient but harsh. No attempt has been made to soften it. Nothing tempers the din—every surface is hard. I expect nothing more of the MMC. Roger’s memorial is no different than a training session—the brief ceremony little more than a resume. There is nothing of Roger here.
Rehnquist never leaves my side, though I wish he would. I hope it is because he craves the limelight, but I fear it is not only that; his hand is too often at my back or my arm. Perhaps he has misunderstood my acceptance of his offer to escort me here. He still carries the folio. I was a fool not to have forced the discussion in the car—to have been done with it.
Half an hour passes. My head is numb. My speech is mechanical. Colonel Zollinger dashes into a break in the crowd and sidles up to me in a nauseating cloud of musk. The gold scroll stretched across her chest pocket catches the glint of the sconce behind me. Her trousers are tighter than either decorum or regulation allow.
She takes my hand in decidedly mock commiseration and asks the same questions, shares the same sentiment as everyone else. She must have practiced.
“I’m so glad you still have your research to keep you busy,” she says, dropping my hand and moving closer to Rehnquist. She threads her arm through his as if laying claim. “It can be so difficult being alone.”
She looks up at Rehnquist through her eyelashes. There is no real affection there, only calculation. “Commander-General, I haven’t seen you since my promotion. No answers to my memos.” Her gaze lingers on the folio then darts to me.
Rehnquist peels the colonel off his arm. “You’re flushed, Marie. Allow me to get you a drink.” He drags Zollinger away before she can say anything else.
I force my shoulders to relax and wave away the next group of condolences, searching for a quiet corner. The hall is military efficient. One side of the massive room overlooks a cobbled courtyard; the other is lined with small conference rooms. Nooks and crannies are decidedly absent. A lieutenant I don’t know vacates a chair near a pillar, and I claim it.
There are too many people here who never knew Roger, who don’t understand what I have lost—who don’t understand how much I have come to hate this place. They won’t understand how I can walk away; sell every last thorn and petal of the damnable roses and leave, but they don’t have to. They are nothing to me. I take a deep breath and touch the bulge of the rose in my jacket. I just want my resignation signed and to be gone from the MMC.
Rehnquist finds me. “I apologize for the colonel. She can be quite tactless sometimes.” He carries two glasses of brandy. “Here. This will help you relax.”
I take the offered glass and swallow half the brandy though I am not a drinker. I need all the fortification I can get. The alcohol is slightly acidic with a hint of geranium to the scent. He’s dosed the liquor with red roses.
I press my eyes closed for a few moments, fighting back my disgust. “Can we talk?” I ask.
Rehnquist looks across the crowded hall then glances at my half-drained glass. I can almost hear the gears in his warped mind whirring. He knows the roses’ limits, an hour to two at most for the reds. “Of course, Marie.” A smile touches his lips as he gestures to an open conference room. His eyes are the color of rain. If he ever had a soul, it has long since washed away.
The buzz of voices fades then abruptly vanishes as he closes the heavy wooden door and flips the lock. The room is long and narrow, crowded with a long rectangular conference table and a dozen uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs. I set my drink on the gleaming table, but I’m too nervous to sit. Rehnquist glances at my glass, and I know he is counting the five minutes until the aphrodisiac should start working. But Rehnquist is not a man to waste time.
He pulls a chair out from the table, sits, and opens the folio as I turn away to stare out at the car park below. The rain has stopped, but the metal skins of the cars sparkle in the lamplight. A few of the guests are leaving.
I half watch Rehnquist’s reflection in the window. He barely glances at my letter of resignation and puts it aside, dismissed so easily. “So, I assume these are the notes so long overdue.” He flips through the pages of cross-referenced gene-sequencing. He doesn’t know what any of it means; botanics are not his specialty. It took me a week to splice together twenty different experiments—some never seen by another researcher. It will take months to figure them out, even for a skilled botanist. By then, I should be well away from London.
He flips to the end of the notes, squinting at my precise, small writing. It’s a research code he doesn’t know—no one knows. I have taken at least a few precautions. “This is gibberish, Marie. What are you trying to do?”
My hand hovers near my jacket pocket. This is the plan. Offer him the notes, the code and the rose, set the conditions, walk away. “The notes are cyphered. It is a precaution I take with all my research.” It is an almost truth.
He smiles. “I can appreciate that. It makes things easier for me as well.” He glances at the door. “Sometimes it’s necessary to keep things safe.” I guess he’s referring to Zollinger. “Did you bring the code?”
“Not tonight.” I hesitate, my heart pounding, my mouth suddenly dry. I slide the resignation over the notes. “I am leaving the MMC, Commander-General.”
There, I’d said it.
He leans back slowly. “Leaving?” A tiny laugh escapes his throat. “That is just your grief talking. This is your life, Marie, your research, your roses—you can’t just leave it.”
My back stiffens.
“We have so much work to do. The death rose is only the beginning. Your talent has been wasted for too long.” He leans forward and grabs my hand—the prosthetic. “Think of it, Marie, a promotion, your own laboratory, an entire greenhouse under your command. It’s all arranged.”
Five years ago, I would have been flattered, but I am not the same person that I was. Rehnquist has seen to that. I pull my hand away.
He leans back in the chair, hands behind his head. “You do realize that all of your research is the property of the MMC.”
“Not everything. I have an exemption for my prototypes. The MMC only owns the second-generation cuttings.”
“That’s a minor technicality.” He gestures to my mechanical hand. “Come now, Marie. You are MMC; you always have been. You proved it years ago.” His face hardens for a moment. “You can’t leave.”
“I have plans.”
“Perhaps you don’t understand me.” He holds my gaze with those color-washed eyes. “You have no place to go.”
His threat is clear. I have been a fool. He won’t sign the resignation, and he’ll make sure no one will hire me. He won’t let me leave.
“Now, enough of this foolishness, back to the death rose. I expect the notes to be translated by your return on Monday. How close are you to having a sample? I’ll be expecting a projected timetable.”
I barely hear him over the pounding of my heart. He won’t let me leave. He’s taken my hand, my husband, and now he will have all my roses, my research, my life’s work. And sooner or later, he’ll have the assassin rose.
I pick up the resignation and fold it tightly, tucking it into my jacket pocket. I finger the handkerchief around the rose. How will I live? Would I settle for begging on the street? What if I left the country? How long is Rehnquist’s reach? I think of Roger struck down in India and any hope withers. Rehnquist’s reach is very long indeed.
“Marie. I asked how close you were to having a sample.”
I startle back to the conversation. “Samples?” My hand freezes on the rose. I should have left it at home or destroyed it with the notes. I won’t give it to him, not if he won’t let me leave. Suddenly, my subconscious starts putting together pieces of a puzzle. It happens often in my research when I’m close to a discovery.
“No, not yet. There have been complications,” I say almost automatically. My voice doesn’t even shake. “The genome is still unstable.”
“Your complications had better be resolved soon.” He smiles and glances at his watch. “I knew you couldn’t leave your roses.”
The puzzle becomes chillingly clear. If Rehnquist is the only obstacle between me and freedom from the MMC, he will need to be removed. It would not be unlike pruning a diseased cane. He wants a poison rose; who am I to deny him?
I take a shuddering breath and sink into the chair beside his. “You’re right about the roses. Forgive me. The evening has been stressful.” I pull the handkerchief out of my jacket; my hands tremble.
“What is that?” he asks, leaning forward with interest.
“I have had some success with another experiment.”
“Your focus was supposed to be on the death rose,” he snaps. “You’re not the only one with deadlines.” He shakes his head. “On Monday, I will also expect a detailed list of all your other research, in English.”
He rests his elbows on the table, his manner softening. “So, what is it this time, a green rose to cure hiccoughs? A blue rose to stop nosebleeds?”
My hands stop shaking as I unwrap the assassin rose. He doesn’t suspect anything. The black edges are nearly invisible, a thin frame for the drama of purple and red.
Rehnquist’s attention is completely on the flower now. “So, what does it do?”
“It is the first of a new line I’ve been developing to help patients endure physical therapy better. It should make them stronger both physically and mentally. I brought it just in case I needed more stamina to get through the evening.”
“It makes the user physically stronger?”
I am distantly surprised at how easily the lies slide from my tongue. “It could imbue physical strength or just emotional and mental stamina. Genetic engineering isn’t an exact science, Commander-General. It will take months of testing to determine all of the effects and appropriate dosages.”
I pluck a petal and drop it into my brandy. It dissolves, leaching color into the amber liquid, red then purple then black then gone. “I guess this will be the first test.” I lift my glass to my lips, downing the tainted liquor in two swallows.
Rehnquist watches. I must not forget that he is a keen observer in his own right. I have to press my advantages; his pride and my immunity. Lowering my glass, I take a deep breath and fake a tiny shudder. How would a strengthening drug work? I straighten my shoulders and flex my hands. My face is a mask.
“Well?” he asks.
I feel nothing but the burn of brandy in my throat and the taint of reds on my tongue. “It is…invigorating.”
That is apparently enough of a recommendation and a challenge. He will not be outdone. He tugs three petals off the rose and sprinkles them into his full glass. “Two subjects are statistically better than one,” he says. The color of his drink shifts through the sunset to black and then back to the warm amber of the liquor.
The base of my skull prickles with anticipation and fear. There are too many anomalies. I don’t even know what the rose will do—if it will do anything. But with all my soul, I want this man dead.
Rehnquist lifts his glass in salute. “To strength and stamina.” There is more than a hint of suggestion in his smile. He has not forgotten that he’d dosed my drink.
He lounges back, his hands stretched out on the table, considering. “How long will it take to act? Will I suddenly jump up and turn cartwheels?”
I fake a laugh, trying to keep the appearance of being invigorated. ”Probably not.” I mentally note his every movement. His fingertips leave sweaty prints on the table.
He unbuttons the top of his starched shirt, revealing a sandy shadow of hair on his chest. “I think I feel something.” He rubs his left shoulder. “Do you feel a burning in your arm?”
“I feel fine,” I say, folding the handkerchief around the remains of the rose. It is starting to wilt now. I tuck it back into my jacket, fingering the scrap of manifest in my pocket. “I believe the rose is working exactly as you ordered.”
He clumsily wipes sweat off his brow with his right hand, his left seems limp. “I, I don’t understand.”
I drop the manifest in front of him and point to three names, his on the top. “Do you understand this?”
He looks from the note to my face. His brow creases; I’m not sure if he can fully work out what I said. “Who?”
He sags a little lower in his chair; the corners of his mouth twitch. “I’m your commanding officer.” His speech is starting to slur. “Antidote…”
I manage a laugh. Only a hint of hysterics tempers it. “There is no antidote. And you will be my commanding officer for, I estimate, not more than five minutes. There is a breaking point for everyone, and you found mine. I would have lived with my artificial hand. I would have continued my research like one of your automatons. But you took the one shred of decency and joy in my life. You took Roger.”
I lean close to him, holding the scrap of manifest close enough for him to read. His breath is sour, his eyes crossing. “You killed him. And now I’ve killed you. Do you appreciate how that works?” I drink down the rest of his brandy. “And then you tried to take my freedom.”
His eyes bulge. “You…drank too.”
I don’t bother to answer. I close the folio and perch stiff-backed on my chair, waiting for the poison to finish its work. It doesn’t take long.
The parlor windows are the only lights on in the house as the cab wheezes to a stop. I’ve no doubt Sarah is waiting, but I just want to be alone. The streetlights flicker in the raindrops still clinging to the steam car. I ask the driver to wait, pressing a couple more shillings into his hand.
I fight back a wave of nausea. I have killed a man.
I swallow the bile back down and take a few deep breaths. I don’t fear detection. No one suspects anything amiss. They look for the obvious, a heart-attack, a stroke—so tragic for a man in his prime. Even with a thorough autopsy, they won’t find the poison. The assassin rose is exactly what the commander-general ordered. Knowing this does little to quell my revulsion at what I have done.
As I reach the top of the stoop, the door suddenly opens, spilling light onto the wet steps. Sarah hesitates only a moment before pulling me into the house. She is nearly frantic as she takes my cape. “Why are you so late?”
My voice catches, and I can’t look her in the eye. I lay the folio on the hall table and fumble with my gloves. “Rehnquist is dead.”
She stares at me with widened eyes, the damp cloak soaking into her clothes, forgotten. “How? What happened? Pardon my saying, but he won’t be missed around here. But how dreadful to ruin the memorial for you.”
I hand her the gloves, my hands trembling. “Probably a heart attack.” I take another deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about it tonight, Sarah. I had the cab wait.”
“Yes, Mistress,” she says, hanging up the cape. She bites her bottom lip, probably to hold back the questions.
“Goodnight, Sarah.” I unbutton my uniform jacket and pick up the folio as I wander to the light and warmth of the parlor. The portraits watch me with grim faces; I have to remind myself that they are always grim. Sarah has built up the fire; it spits and hisses, casting moving shadows over the damask walls. I take Roger’s picture from the mantel and settle onto the settee, resting my human hand on his cheek. The glass is cold and unyielding. I yearn for his arms around me, his calm voice in my ear telling me everything will be all right. But he is dead—how can anything ever be right again?
The rattle of china startles me as Sarah places a tray of tea and biscuits on the table. I thought she’d gone.
“Sarah, the cab…”
She brings me a steaming cup. “I asked the driver to wait. I won’t leave until you’re settled. I know my duty.”
I grab her arm with my mechanical hand, splashing tea over her skirt. “You don’t owe duty to me or anyone else. Never forget that.”
She stares at me as if I’ve gone mad. I let go, my head spinning. Maybe I have. Duty has ruined my life. I don’t want it to ruin hers. “Forgive me, Sarah. It’s been a hard day.”
“I don’t think you should be alone, Mistress Marie, not like this.”
I gesture to the picture in my lap. “I won’t be alone. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“No, please go. I’ll be fine.” I keep saying that, but I know it isn’t true this time.
Finally, she gathers her coat and hurries to the door.
“Sarah?” I call out.
“Thank you.” I hear the door close softly behind her.
I wait a few minutes then make sure she is gone this time. I need to destroy the notes and the rose, and I don’t want a witness.
The biscuits smell of anise and butter, the tea of chamomile. The lot of it threatens to turn my stomach again.
I kneel by the hearth and rip the notes from the folio. Whoever is promoted to commander-general won’t know about the experiment, and I want no trace of it anywhere. One by one, I feed the pages to the flames. They flare and wither to ash surprisingly quickly. It is a welcome catharsis.
I pull my resignation out of my pocket and unfold it. No one knows about this either, not even Sarah. I’ll write another in a week or two, once the clamor over Rehnquist has died down. I’m not sure I can handle setting foot in the MMC again. I picture Rehnquist, pale and sweating, unable to speak or even follow me with his eyes as I run for the door and called hysterically for help. In the seconds it took for anyone to reach the room, he was dead. Then came the questions.
I shake the memory away. I will have to go back, at least long enough to tender my resignation to whoever becomes the new commander general. A ridiculous question tickles my thoughts. Will I still have my own laboratory in the Heddinger Wing? Maybe a couple of weeks before resigning won’t be unbearable. I toss the resignation into the fire and watch it shrivel.
I decide to brave a little tea. I refill the cup and head for the conservatory. I have one more thing to burn tonight. I notice a piece of paper on the rug that I missed. I start to throw it into the fire with the rest, then realize it’s the torn corner of the Indian manifest. I tuck it into my breast pocket instead.
I leave the conservatory lamps unlit and follow the dim spiraling walkway to the rose at its heart. My trousers soak through as I perch on the rim of the large pot, the purity rose glowing like a soft moon just above my head. I breathe deeply of damp earth and green foliage, giving me courage to confess.
“Roger, I have killed the commander-general. I didn’t mean to…”
No, I did mean to. Just because I hadn’t planned for it, didn’t change my desire. I’d wanted him dead ever since I had learned he was behind Roger’s death. I swallow hard, but my throat is dry. I sip the mild tea tentatively.
“I did it because of what he did to you, to us, and all because of this.” I pull the sunset rose out of my trouser pocket and peel the points of the handkerchief back like white petals. The assassin rose is black and crisp around the edges despite the damp of the evening. I shake it onto the soil beneath the purity rose. “This is his horror, not mine and it dies here. Rehnquist has taken everything…” My voice catches, “and he wouldn’t let me leave.”
I sit in silence with that thought. Had I killed him for Roger or for me?
I manage another sip of tea. Did it matter?
I reach up and tilt the white rose toward me. “It wasn’t what I intended, Roger; you know that, but Rehnquist is dead. I’m finally free.”
I release the purity rose and a leaf falls away in my hand. A chill prickles my skin. The purity rose never drops its leaves. I hold the leaf up to the faint light. Its edges are pale and blotchy. I reach for another one and a handful flutters to the ground. My mind races as I examine one leaf after another. I try to analyze, to reference and cross-reference twenty years of study. I dismiss disease after disease, pest after pest. Nothing could account for such a sudden change.
I hold the beautiful white rose—Roger’s and mine—in a trembling hand as it darkens. I stroke the petals, willing every ounce of magic or skill I possess to force it back to health. The petals don’t fade or wilt, but they change. I am both entranced and horrified by the transformation, as the edges of the petals deepen to black. There is a hint of deep purple with crimson at the center. The tuft of stamens is a black circlet.
It cannot be. The poison shouldn’t affect other plants.
The teacup shatters to the ground as I drop to my knees, clawing through dirt and falling leaves for the withered petals of the assassin rose. My nails break on tangled roots as I scrape them clean with my bare hands. Half the pot is empty now, flung about me on the rough bricks, but the assassin petals are gone.
I sink onto the filthy floor as the last leaves flutter down around me. Only the tainted rose remains. The purity rose is gone.
I cannot think. The world is unfocused. I have lost my mooring—I have lost Roger completely. I bury my face in my arms and weep until the cold of the clay and the mud and the bricks and the loss leach away the last warmth I have. At long last, the void of sleep takes me.
The rumble of a steam car in the street startles me awake as dawn paints the conservatory in shades of watery grey. I flex my human hand stiff with cold, and for a brief, blessed moment, I wonder why I was sleeping on the ground. Cankered leaves litter my uniform, drawing my gaze to the tainted rose hanging over my head. It is black in the dim light—the color of despair and I remember what I have done.
“Roger, I’m sorry.” The words hang lifeless in the still air. I am sure I am the only one listening. I have severed our connection. The horrid rose proves it.
At length, I push myself up and brush off my uniform. The morning is growing, and Sarah will be here soon. I don’t want her to find me like this. Too many questions will go unspoken and unanswered.
I scoop soil back into the pot to cover the roots of the ruined bush. What happened is a question Sarah will ask; she knows how much it meant to me. A quick sweep and everything’s normal—except for the sunset rose and the withered bush. What will I tell her?
I pause as puzzle pieces begin to form a picture.
I won’t tell her anything.
I shiver as the picture becomes clear and pull the manifest out of my pocket. The ink has run a little more, but the names are still legible—not that I could ever forget them: Rehnquist, Dhawan and Ravi. Rehnquist is dead. I push my hair out of my face with a shaky hand. I stare at the other two names as if seeing them for the first time. The commander-general wasn’t the only one responsible for Roger’s death.
I glance around at my life’s work, a few lingering blossoms, wild canes woven into trellises, a conservatory of good intentions. I find no comfort here tonight. The MMC has taken that from me as well.
I hear another steam car and the slam of a door. My skin prickles as I put the broom away and listen for the front door to open, afraid Sarah is back too soon.
A man’s voice barks directions to the driver and the car rattles away. There is a little time yet.
It will take some thought, but the puzzle pieces are still clicking into place. I know it will be hardest thing I have ever done, but I will send Sarah away. I will not let her be a part of this. Let her remain the innocent that I once was.
I slip the manifest into my pocket and notice the rust creeping along the seams of my metal hand. I should keep it polished in this weather. I will have it spotless before work on Monday. There are arrangements to be made. It won’t be hard to get approval for a short field assignment; after all, India has many unique species of rose to research. With my own research wing, will I even need approval?
There is one thing I will need. With a flick of metal fingers, I snap the assassin rose free and add a new ache to the hole in my heart. As I turn away, I notice the ugly, stunted cane of Rehnquist’s experiment shoved into the deep shadow of the purity rose. A new shoot is struggling from the dry gnarled root. I swallow down the bile rising in my throat and leave it.
At the French doors, I catch my shadowy reflection shattered into panes. My uniform is black, the braid at my shoulders and throat is more silver than gold, the rose in my metal hand is a dying sunset. Rehnquist was right; I am still MMC.
A misty rain begins to fall through the open skylights. I wipe the tiny drops from my face with the sleeve of my jacket knowing that, this time, the angels cry for me.
Nancy Hatch was an unpublished author when she sent us this story. She writes primarily fantasy of varying lengths in a variety of categories and some stories that refuse to stay in a pigeon hole. She has an MFA in writing and love a good turn of phrase, but mostly she enjoys a good character and engaging story, and that’s what she tries to write.
Fantastic story, Nancy! I’d love to see more of this world.