Issue 4‎ > ‎

The Bribe

    Clara did her best not to breathe in the heavy smoke, sickly sweet and smelling of flowers. She pressed her handkerchief to her nose and mouth as her skirt swished back and forth, brushing against the feet of her patrons lounging on their couches and pillows, their pipes clutched in their hands. Unconscious to the world around them, the euphorias of the drug coursing through them. They needed cleaner air down here, her instincts screamed at her to give it to them somehow, but she couldn’t.
    A man dressed in scraps slumped against a wall midway through the room. His pipe cradled in limp fingers, his head resting at an unnatural angle. She knelt beside him. What had driven him to spend his coin on the drug? What had he been trying to escape?
    She produced a small, round mirror from the sleeve of her dress and pressed it gently under the man’s nose. No fog appeared on the glass. Gone.
    Clara slid the mirror back into her sleeve. There was nothing she could do now, no nursing could help. Maybe if her husband were here, a real doctor. Maybe he could have done more.
    Slipping a hand into the pockets of the man’s trousers, she felt around for money, something she could sell. Anything of the corpse’s that might be of value to her. That’s all he was now.
    She managed to find a few cents in one of his pockets and she clutched it in her gloved hand. Clara swiftly stood up and made her way out of the smoky den, putting as much distance between her and the corpse as she could. She would send for her undertaker later.
    The little room just outside was dimly lit, the rich red fabrics she’d purchased adorning the walls absorbed much of the light from the oil lamps. It was musty, smelling of damp packed earth with just the trace of flowery smoke on the air. On a shelf by the door pipe upon pipe was stacked, waiting for other lost souls to pick them up.
    Out here she had a small wooden desk and padded chair. In the drawers of the desk were her tools for preparing the drug. She imagined she was one of the very few dens in the city not run by the Chinese. Then again, she’d had an advantage. As a nurse, she knew how to prepare the opium.
    Clara passed through the alcove and out a door on the other side into an opulently decorated stairwell. Red velvet draped the walls, golden ropes tied around the railing. She climbed out of the basement to the main floor of her husband’s medical practice, emerging into another richly decorated hallway, more red velvet and golden accents, leading out to the front door. A guide for her patrons to find the den.
    She moved beyond the lavish hall and to her husband’s old office. With warm wood paneling and a plush carpet, it was a stark change from the dark, oppressive basement. Clara preferred it. Her husband’s desk sat in the middle of the room, the bookshelf behind it filled with some of his medical books and glass decanters filled with his various amber-colored drinks. There was bottle upon bottle behind that glass.
    Clara sank into the chair behind the desk. Her hands drifted to her neck, where she slid a chain off over her head. A key and a golden ring dangled at the bottom, weighing the chain down in her hand. The key fit into the lock on the top draw on the desk, the ring fit onto the finger of her left hand.
    She fingered the ring mournfully for a moment. She had to keep it off. It was hard enough running an opium den as a woman, being a married woman just lessened her prospects. She let the ring slide from her hand and picked up the key instead.
    Clara opened the top drawer and tossed the coins in. They landed with a soft thud on top of the paper notes held in the drawer. Counting the contents, her heart clenched a bit. She was so close to having enough. Just a little more and she could free her husband. Had it really taken her months to get this much?
    Her husband’s last letter to her sat in the drawer with the money. It didn’t sit completely flat on the bottom of the draw. It was wrinkled, small tears forming at its weaker edges, from the times she’d crumpled it in her anger and frustration. She didn’t need to read the words to know what it said. How he’d lost himself in his drink again one night and done something to offend a military officer. How the officer had thrown him in prison. How the corruption ran deep in the military on the western frontier. How a substantial bribe could get him his freedom.
    When Clara had first read the letter, it was if her husband had poured molten lead into her veins. How did he expect her to get him that bribe? He’d used almost the entirety of their savings to travel to the frontier. Said he’d wanted to help the people out there, see the country. Had she been with him, he wouldn’t have gotten himself thrown in jail. But no, she couldn’t come with him. It was too dangerous for women, what with the savages running about. Not that the war had been any less dangerous. No, the day she met him the damn Confederates charged their encampment and she thought for sure she was going to die. The number of bodies that had come into the medical tent that night, she could have handled whatever danger was out West. Burning with anger she had almost torn the letter in two, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. There was still love for him in her heart, despite the number of times he’d done something like this. And as always, Clara would get him out of his mess.
    At first, patients continued to come to her practice and she would treat them. Though her husband had never charged much for his services, he believed that medicine should be made available to all, she subtly raised the prices in the hopes she could make the bribe money quickly. Slowly, though, word spread that her husband was no longer in the practice, and one by one people stopped coming. No one believed a woman could offer them the same care.
    All that was left to her were the trades of the underworld. Clara refused to resort to prostitution, despite the money that she could make as a woman of some class. Nothing would make her unfaithful to her husband, and she always kept her wedding ring on her as proof of that.
    Little by little, she saved the money her patrons paid her for access to the den and the opium. Much of the money went towards procuring the drug and the bribes necessary to maintain the silence of various people. But now she was almost there, and though she’d degraded herself and allowed herself to harm others with her opium, she was still faithful.
    The sound of the hall door opening and closing brought Clara to her feet. A patron. She shut the drawer and locked it, throwing the necklace back around her neck and tucking the key and ring under the hem of her bodice.
    She left the office and entered the opulent hallway once more, descending the stairs to the basement. On the bottom step, her heart stopped. A navy-clad man stood in the entry between the alcove and the den.
    He turned at the sound of her descent. “Officer,” Clara found herself saying.
    The police officer regarded her. “You seem to be focused and in your right mind. May I assume you are the purveyor of this… establishment?” His voice was gruff, it seemed to compliment the man’s attractive features.
    Clara’s heart pounded. “You may,” she simply said.
    “I could turn you in for this, have the whole place raided,” the man said.
    She started to sweat a little. This wasn’t the first officer who had stumbled upon her den, but no matter how often it happened the fear was the same. “You could,” she said, her voice steadier than she actually felt. “Unless we could come to some arrangement.”
    This seemed to pique the man’s interest. The corruption her husband had spoken of wasn’t confined to just the military. “An arrangement?” he said, feigning coyness. Clara was certain he already knew what she would offer him.
    “If you like, sir, I can offer you free access to my establishment. The opium is prepared well and the lounge spaces are of high quality,” she said, gesturing to the room just outside the alcove.
    The man snorted. “I do not partake in that Oriental drug, ma’am,” he said.
    Clara winced. “Then perhaps I can offer you some monetary compensation for your silence,” she said quickly, perhaps too quickly.
    The man regarded her, his eyes trailing up and down the length of her. His eyes sent a chill through her. “No, I don’t think your money could buy my silence.”
    “Are you sure sir?” she aasked, heart falling. Her mind went to her stash of money in the top drawer of her husband’s desk. She could earn it back. She needed this man’s silence, or she could go to prison and her husband’s chances of freedom would be gone. “I have much I could offer you in the way of money.”
    The police officer stepped close to her, closer than she felt comfortable. Clara tried to take a step back, but the man had an arm around her waist holding her in place. He brought the other hand up and caressed her face. “My, but you are heavenly,” he said, and she found that his breath stank of mint.
    “Act- actually sir,” she stammered, “I’m happily married.”
    “Makes no difference to me.”
    Clara tried to push him away. “Please sir, I can offer you anything, all my money,” she practically begged, her heart racing and tears forming in her eyes.
    He backed her up against the wall. “If you want my silence, then you’ll give me what I want, whenever I want,” he said, his hand bunching up her skirt in a fist. “You’ll be cheaper than the brothels and prettier than any of the whores there.” 

*

    She crumpled to her knees when he was finished. “I’ll be back again for my payment,” the man said. He tossed some coins onto the floor, casting her one last look of contempt. “For your trouble,” he said. A cruel joke. He laughed as the coins clinked onto the stone floor. In the light of the oil lamps, his handsome features had become monstrous.
    Clara clutched at the ring around her neck but it brought her no comfort. She was empty, there was nothing left. She’d given the last shred of herself.
    She slowly collected the money the officer had left for her. She counted it, something to focus her mind. Her stomach churned with a sickening realization.
    She had enough.




Rebecca Hane is currently a sophomore pursuing an English degree with a concentration in Creative Writing. She typically writes fantasy and science fiction, but you'll occasionally find her dabbling in other genres. In her free time when she's not in class or writing she likes to read, play her violin, and watch her favorite TV shows.
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