Vinifera
rating: +6+x

"Grapes? What do you mean somebody got me grapes?" Olga asked the Garden Man incredulously.

He removed his hat and scratched his head politely. "A certain Delta-class agent whose got a crush on you, that's who. These grapes are Kaiser-quality, you know. He spent credits unlocking that privilege on his Personal Item Arsenal, just for you."

Olga shook her head, her expression souring. "But why grapes?"

As if on cue, the Garden Man reached into his coat and pulled out a piece of paper. "I believe he told me to read this to you." Olga folded her arms.

"Dear Ms. Nikolyukin, three weeks ago we got assigned on the same task group and you told me about the time you ate the most delicious grapes at Tolkov's vineyard. You may have forgotten our time alone together, observing th-" The Garden Man's mouth turned into a black rectangle, preventing him for a second from speaking. His eyes showed a flash of irritation. "But it was delightful speaking with you. These grapes were grown from the best garden in our region. They're an anomalous variety, one-hundred percent safe. The sweetest and most succulent kind ever. I hope you like them."

"Regards, Václav." He pocketed the letter. "So, Ms. Nikolyukin, here is his present." He offered the basket of chilled grapes again.

Olga's cheeks blushed imperceptibly. She took the basket from the Garden Man. "Tell him… thanks."

The Garden Man bowed and went his way.


He served Director Lambridge another glass of wine. "Fourth one, sir."

Lambridge was busy in concentration, and didn't notice the Garden Man pouring the burgundy-red liquor onto his glass, adding a couple of ice cubes.

"There's treason afoot, agent." The director muttered. The Garden Man raised his brows at being erroneously called an agent. "My Internal Affairs operative thinks it's one of my immediate subordinates. I think so too. They're using their power to lead in the rest of my site personnel. Last night, I visited their offices. I can smell the dissent in the air."
He kept silent.

Lambridge took notice of his drink. He sniffed crisp apples, persimmon, and the unmistakable grape base, and drank in small sips.
——
"Congratulations, everyone! This is our fiftieth Utilized Anomaly casefile for this year! Drinks are forthcoming!" Assistant Director Petrushev announced to three cheers from the throng of R&D department personnel assembled in the cafeteria.

The Garden Man and Agent Paelfang pushed in two wheelbarrows. Each contained an icebox filled with all sorts of beverages, with a majority freshly produced from their garden.

The assistant director clapped his hands together. "Very good, the two of you!" He helped Paelfang carry the iceboxes next to the buffet table. A line of personnel formed and the two began handing out the drinks.

As everyone got into the leisurely mood, the Garden Man sat with Agent Egunov and Dr. Ilyev. The two were familiar acquaintances. He didn't see the need to socialize further at an event like this. They sat down eating their afternoon lunches. His plate had fish fillet a la King, buttered vegetables and a slice of cheesecake.

The Garden Man watched the other tables as he ate. There was Hector and Simoun, sitting together with Vasily Hammond, RTI-918-553/007, floating his spoonful of peas. At another table, Dr. Nikolyukin sat with four other researchers, aloof. The Garden Man noticed a clear plastic box beside her plate, with some grapes inside.

At the end of another, longer table, he saw the assistant director Sokolov. Sokolov was watching the gathering around the rest of his table, regarding the scene with an expressionless, slightly distanced face.

Petrushev was at the center of the gathering, telling jokes and making the researchers laugh loudly. Some were already drunk.

The Garden Man thought he could see a couple of the researchers share looks as Petrushev continued talking. Then there was another pair. One of the researchers had a smirk on her face that lasted only a second long. They applauded the assistant director as he finished saying something apparently important.


It was almost evening when the party finished. Dr. Ilyev and he carried Agent Egunov to a sofa at a third-floor lounging room, where Egunov curled to one side.

Dr. Ilyev wiped his hands on his slacks. As he did, a glimpse of his carry-on became visible.

"I thought you didn't wear your carry-on anymore." The Garden Man remarked. Ilyev's history with the particular firearm, and concealed carry in general, was very unfortunate.

Dr. Ilyev's face darkened. It didn't help that he drank as much as Egunov, so his face was both irritated and intoxicated. People who didn't know the researcher well would have become apologetic at that point, but the Garden Man knew Ilyev would rather they'd let him control his emotions by himself.

"I'm not convinced that this site's security is stable." Ilyev almost whispered in his gravelly voice.

He refused to speak any more than that. They both exchanged farewells, and the Garden Man proceeded back to the hallway.


"Oh, hello there! Good to meet you again."

He turned to his side, where Dr. Morozov stood. "Oh, hello Doctor!" The Garden Man said, smiling. "Your present was delivered this morning. She appears to like it."

"Ah." Dr. Morozov stopped for a second, involuntarily breaking into a smile. "I see. Thank you."

The Garden Man bowed and went his way. He could hear the doctor exhale quite sharply behind him.


"You there. Stop when your Assistant Director wishes to speak with you." Petrushev's voice ordered.

He halted and turned to face the rotund, heavy-set man.
Director Lambridge had been reading in the officers' lounge room. His eyes were raccoon-ish when he peeked to his side to look at Petrushev, suggesting he was reading very important documents.

"Can I help you, Director Petrushev?"

"I have a question for you. Will you answer me honestly?" The assistant director said, huffing with authority.

"Of course, Director."

Petrushev paced forward. As he took his fifth step, a group of uniformed officers poured into the lounge. The Garden Man could count twelve. Everyone's eyes were fixed on the director.

Lambridge rose from his chair and approached his subordinate. He seemed to be ignoring the other officers. "What is the meaning of this, Immanuil?"

The assistant director's smile was venomous.

"A show of the people's power, Director." He stepped forward, glaring at Lambridge. Lambridge stood firmly in place. "All I wish to say is that you will not last in your position. This site should belong to us. Not to you." Petrushev looked at the Garden Man again. "Now, if you would kindly answer me. Who is fit for directorship?"

The Garden Man bent his head low, closed his eyes and breathed out, carefully releasing his irritation as to not turn the small crowd of mutineers against him. Petrushev didn't exactly know what he'd gain with his question but he continued to brood authoritatively at the Garden Man. He snorted confidently.

"My position follows the strongest leader." He answered. He could see Petrushev's eyes narrow in suspense. "Director Lambridge is currently the leader with the most power here."

Long seconds passed for everyone else in the room. He merely counted up to thirteen. Lambridge didn't break his gaze off the assistant director, who looked at the Garden Man dispassionately. The officers he could see all stared at Lambridge. Then, Petrushev spoke.

"So be it." He said, and turned around and walked away.
The rest of the officers watched as the director looked at each one of them, then disappeared to their stations as well.
Seconds later, Lambridge left for his office.


The Garden Man retired to his personal dwellings, shutting the door behind him with care. He knew the locks in place will not matter anyways, but an ounce of prevention…

He stepped into the bathroom. He wiped his feet on the grass mat and entered the shower. Icy-cold water drizzled forth in streamlets as he began to bathe himself.

He barely had a moment of introspection when dull knocking came from outside.

By the time he turned off the water, there was another noise. At first, he thought it was just another hand, knocking in smaller, more erratic knocks than the first. Then he thought it was more likely gunfire.

He covered himself with a towel, opened the bathroom door, and tried to sense if somebody had entered his room. There wasn't a soul there. He got dressed for bed.


The next day, he rose earlier than normal and went outside, carrying only his glasses and a work briefcase.

The hallway lighting was still in its midnight setting.
Down the way, he encountered Dr. Ilyev again. His friend seemed surprised at the sight of the Garden Man, and he straightened his lab coat (was he working the night?). Ilyev ignored him as he walked past. He appeared to be immersed in his thoughts.

After a while, the Garden Man could see the green sign affixed on the ceiling.

"Exit - Garden"


It was a dark, cloudy morning outside the facility, and he waited for the rain to come and water his plants for him. He sat on the bench, holding a worn pouch of seeds in his left hand, and thought of when to plant them. His shovel was propped up against a persimmon tree, waiting for him to use it.

The first fat drop of rain landed on his hat. A cold breeze was in the air, as if it came from the plants themselves, sighing in happiness. He savored the surroundings for another moment, then stood up and went back inside.
Another mood entered the facility's atmosphere as when he left it. The people he'd been passing had been glaring at him coldly. Undoubtedly, it was because of last night. He recognized each one as Petrushev's officers.

Along the way, he encountered a hungover Agent Egunov.

"You are not feeling too bad, are you?" He asked him.

Egunov shook his head groggily. "There's nothing to worry about me. If I were you, I'd worry about Ilyev instead, am I right?" He laughed. The Garden Man replied, "Ilyev looked alright to me when I met him at the hallway earlier."

Egunov's eyes widened as if he began to sober up. "Where was he headed?"

The Garden Man pondered momentarily and replied, "he went left to the hallway ending at the command center entrance."

"He does not have clearance to any of those rooms."

"Except for the armory."

The Garden Man detected a flash of recognition in Egunov's eyes, he was recalling the incident with Ilyev and his firearm.
Egunov patted his pockets, checking for something. Then, he said, "I'll go there now and see if he's still there. You will cover me?"

The Garden Man nodded. "I will do my best."


He was at the officers' lounging room when he correctly suspected an ambush on him. Like last night, the officers of Petrushev, excluding the assistant director this time, surrounded the walkways. He counted twenty of them this time.

In a tense situation like that, the Garden Man drew on his experience of similar scenarios to analyze these officers' goals.

He was very much outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and there was no doubt that he was a meditated target, but they were not showing any weapons. If they were going to surround him like that, they should also be showing him how they were going to kill him. If that was their plan. If it wasn't…

"Come with us." One of them, the brown-haired woman with the turtleneck sweater, Doctor Sudoe, demanded.

The Garden Man turned his head to see the other members of Petrushev's band of mutineers first. Most did not look back at him, turning away or looking down. Dr. Sudoe didn't turn away. She was personally invested in Petrushev's coup.
Putting his hands in his pockets, he dutifully nodded to Sudoe. They quickly converged around him like a protective membrane, leading him into a corridor to the west and deeper into their territory.

They were ten or so paces away from Assistant Director Petrushev's office when Sudoe ordered him to sit on a bench and wait there. The faint noise of an argument on the other side of Petrushev's door was audible to him. Someone else was inside, exchanging vitriol with the director. Half of the other officers dispersed to create a perimeter in the nearby hallways.

Dr. Sudoe sat on a stool, leaning against the railing overlooking the lower floors. She was facing him. There was always a difference in the mannerism of someone who did and did not want to start conversation. Predictably, the researcher broke the silence and asked, "What do you see in Lambridge, that your allegiance is with him?"

The Garden Man answered, "If you permit me to return the question, Doctor, what bothers you that I serve the director dutifully? Am I a concern for Mister Petrushev?"

"No." Sudoe said icily, but it was obviously a farce. "Contrarily, your sense of duty to the director of this facility shall be a compliment when Lambridge is removed. You… will serve the director of this facility, won't you?"

The Garden Man returned the veiled threat with a simple nod. The doctor did not receive this well, judging by her face, and she kept her silence for the remainder of the wait.

Meanwhile, the argument inside Petrushev's office had grown in intensity. There were sounds of glass breaking. The doctor herself was glancing warily at the office door, concerned of the violence. Someone - not Petrushev - was shouting very loudly now.

Finally, the other voice had declared loudly, "Shoot me! Shoot me! Or I'll shoot you first and won't stop!" More glass was broken into pieces. A thrown chair hit a wall. Petrushev was shouting wildly, then there was a loud, continuous booming noise, which he inferred were from a shotgun being repeatedly fired.

When the shelling stopped, a few of the officers came to the front of the door, waiting for someone to call out. Petrushev's voice told them to enter. Doctor Sudoe stood up to join the others. She told the Garden Man to follow her inside.


The interior of Petrushev's office was in chaos. Shattered pieces of a large desk lamp were on the floor. Papers were strewn around. Bullet casing glinted in the light of the last wall lamp. The Garden Man saw the thick leg of the thrown chair pointing to the foot of someone lying down and not moving.

Dr. Ilyev's body was brutally splattered on the wall with just enough of his face remaining to see the anger in his eyes. His right hand was settled over his head, gripping his carry-on.

The Garden Man took one look at his colleague's corpse then turned around to see the assistant director stand triumphantly in front of his desk. He said nothing as Petrushev went around and took his seat, adjusting what was left of his desktop. He looked at his guest intently.

"What do you think will happen if you won't submit to my authority here?" He asked menacingly.

The Garden Man looked behind him and saw two files of Petrushev's agents watching him, wearing their guns visibly. He turned back to face Petrushev. The director was baring his teeth at him. His primitive display of dominance was not lost on him.

"Betray Lambridge. Join my party and we will turn this facility into a powerhouse of anomalous weaponization. Only my forces have the courage to do what must be done."

The Garden Man stepped forward, looking directly at Petrushev, and said, "Very well. You have my support. I will kill Director Lambridge once I return to his office."

Director Petrushev momentarily stood silent before saying. "This is strange. Aren't you going to defend your allegiances to him at all?"

"I told you before that my allegiance is to whoever has the strongest claim over the site. This morning, it was made clear by Doctor Sudoe and her fellow officers that the people are rallied under you. With Ilyev accounted for, Director Lambridge no longer has a strong presence in the research department, and so the scientists will rally under you as well. The rest will join or die as your party sees fit. Is your victory today not enough?"

Petrushev shook his head. "I will see. But!" His face lit up. "I have always regarded you as a tasteful and dependable serviceman. It is a shame that Lambridge does not recognize your value. Come over here and take the wine from my cabinet!"

The Garden Man complied dutifully, opening Petrushev's cabinet. There was an assortment of wines to choose from plenty of their wineries. He took one to his liking, uncorked the bottle, and poured the glasses Petrushev had procured. Doctor Sudoe took a tray of the glasses and gave each officer inside the room one, who took them gratefully.

The director stood up. He made his first toast to the victory of their party. His second toast was a celebration to Director Lambridge's health. The third was to the officers, and the last was to their newest comrade.

The Garden Man smiled, smelled the wine and drank the glass in one sip.

When they were done drinking, the director gave another speech to inspire the officers, with the Garden Man at his side, and afterwards dismissed everyone to carry out the next phase of their takeover. Petrushev bade farewell to the Garden Man, who exited the office with a warm feeling in his stomach.


The Garden Man eyed Director Lambridge with a tinge of sadness. Unsuspecting of any threats against him, the director continued to pore over his desk's contents, occasionally asking him to pour two glasses for themselves.

As Lambridge was typing, he abruptly stopped and sat in silence. The Garden Man noticed this and went to look at his superior's expression. Lambridge's dilated eyes were staring at the desk. He was sweating despite of the air conditioning.

"Is anything wrong, sir?"

The director did not answer.

The Garden Man asked again.

The director's head jerked towards him. He said, quietly, conspiratorially, "I trust you, my friend, that next time, you'll dilute the poison in this wine more carefully. If I'm going to become immune to its effects, I need to taste the poison. Also, less cherries. Your persimmons were a better match."
The director gave a little, delicate laugh.

The Garden Man smiled, saying, "My apologies, Director. You're aware that I'm in short supply of that poison, considering what we just used it for."

"Very well done on that. Thank you." Lambridge gave the Garden Man a gracious look.

The Garden Man bowed. "Of course, sir." Then he lingered in front of him a bit longer, and said. "We didn't expect Dr. Ilyev's actions this morning, did we?"

"No." Lambridge said, ruefully. "He was tortured inside for years. I'll make the reparations to his family tomorrow."

"He was my friend. My thanks, sir." The Garden Man said.


The next morning in an empty spot in the facility's garden, Agent Egunov and the Garden Man finished shoveling the dirt over Petrushev's bloated corpse. They had buried nineteen officers in total, including Ilyev and Sudoe. They put six of Petrushev's officers in each plot, a shallow grave, and dug a proper one solely for Ilyev. Petrushev's corpse was left exposed outdoors the longest, by Doctor Sokolov's - Ilyev's replacement's - orders.

The Garden Man rested against his shovel. Seeing the fresh scar on Egunov's forehead, he carefully asked how he'd gotten it.

"Klaus wasn't in the armory." Egunov said, still upset over Ilyev's death. "I spent a while trying to find him there. Instead, when I turned back I found Agent Paelfang at the door. He was going against Lambridge, too."

"So you fought him? Without a gun?"

Egunov smiled as if realizing just then that it was a dumb idea. "Bare fists. And then he took out a knife."

The Garden Man shook his head. "What an idiot." He squatted down, inspecting the dirt piled on the grave. He then asked the agent where Paelfang was now. Egunov replied that he heard he had deserted the site. Egunov saw him remove a pouch from his shirt pocket. Recognizing the pouch, he stood silently as the Garden Man poked holes in the dirt, and, retrieving the seeds in the pouch, started to drop them on the grave.

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