The Orchard

A Novel

Jeffrey Stepakoff

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

THE ORCHARD

The rain came down in steaming waves, pattering on the fat lush leaves like a tribal drumbeat, but by this point, the six trekkers and their guide were oblivious of it. Night would be here soon, and despite the exhaustion they all felt from hiking since daybreak, they picked up their pace, the trekkers following the guide deeper into the tropical rain forest.

Grace Lyndon, mid-twenties, lithe and tanned in her ripped hiking shorts and tank top, walked directly behind the guide. Grace was the only woman in the bunch, and the only one whose English didn’t have a French accent.

“It’s getting too late,” said one of the men, adjusting his heavy pack. “We should turn around, come back in the morning.”

“The winds are picking up,” said Grace. “It might not be there in the morning.” Peeling some wet hair off her cheek and tightening the straps of her pack against her glistening shoulders, Grace looked around, inhaling deeply, struck by the natural beauty of this place. Damp and roasting, the jungle smelled of vanilla beans and wet leopardwood. This is what it’s all about, she thought. Everything we come up with in the lab is just theory. This is the beating heart of the business, the reason I got in it.

“I think I’ve seen that tree before,” one of the men said, and then swatted at an insect. “Are we sure we’re not walking in circles?”

“It’s just up ahead,” the bare-chested Papuan guide said.

“C’est dingue! Ce type ne sait absolument pas où nous allons,” another man said in very pointed French.

“Les aborigènes vont finir par nous manger!” replied another.

“I cannot lead you if I cannot understand you,” said the guide, understanding enough French to know they were complaining about him.

“They said they’re excited because we are so near,” said Grace, glaring over her shoulder at the two men.

The guide stopped suddenly and pointed to the top of a massive tree. “There!”

Everyone halted and looked up, seeing high in the huge expanse of branches, at the very top of the thick jungle canopy, a large exotic orchid.

“The orchid will close as soon as the light is gone,” said one of the men. “We’ll have to hurry. Get the ropes.”

They all dropped their soaked packs to the ground with a thud.

Grace walked up right under the huge tree. It was nearly seventy-five feet tall, with a thick trunk and without any lower branches.

She looked straight up at the magnificent Angraecum granulosa flower, a rare species whose seeds took flight on tropical breezes, setting root only in the hidden treetops, deep in this singular undisturbed part of the planet. Even from the ground, she could see how beautiful it was, just like the antique drawing she’d studied at her company’s perfumery school outside Paris. It was late, she noticed. They really would have to hurry or this might be as close as they ever got—close enough to admire it, but not close enough to tell the world what it smelled like.

While several of the men pulled ropes and cables of various weights out of their packs, Grace carefully unwrapped a rubberized laptop and an openmouthed Plexiglas globe, about the size of a large fishbowl. She powered up the computer, running thin USB cables from it to the inside of the globe. Then she carefully wrapped it all up and placed the equipment back in her pack, which she zipped and readied. Finally, she slipped a climbing harness around her hips and thighs, snapping it at her waist and pulling the straps tight, so when the rope and pulleys were tossed over the high branches, she could be hoisted up to the orchid along with her equipment.

However, things weren’t going very well with the ropes. After tying a fist-sized lead-filled sack to a long lightweight throw line, the men tried repeatedly to toss the sack and line up and over a high limb, but they kept missing, the sack and line falling short. The branches were simply higher than they could throw.

“The ropes are too heavy,” someone said, wiping wet dirt off his face.

“It’s just too far up,” someone else said.

“We need to come back tomorrow with better equipment.”

The rain and the wind picked up as the sun began to go down.

One of the men marched forward, picked up the sack, and swung it around forcefully by the throw line over his head in a wide circle. Determination apparent on his face, he quickly let out line as he swung, causing several of the trekkers to duck down to avoid being hit by the lead-filled sack. Letting out even more line, swinging the sack as hard as he could, finally, with all his might, the man released his grip on the line, throwing the sack and trailing line hard, up into the canopy—right at the orchid.

“Careful! You’re going to smash the flower!” another shouted, fatigue and desperation perceptible in his voice.

But again, the sack and line missed the branches and fell straight back down, splashing in the mud. This wasn’t going well at all. As the men stood in the pouring rain, arguing about their options in French and English, the shadows growing longer, one of them looked up and saw something, and then did a double take as he realized what he was looking at. “Grace!” he yelled out.

All the men looked up to see Grace, pack on her back, a length of rope dangling from a carabiner on her harness, climbing the tree.

They dashed to the base of the tree, and she was already a good twenty-five feet over their heads. The guide yelled up to her, very concerned, “Lady, it’s too dangerous to free-climb, please, come down. Come down!”

But the other men simply smiled, some more worried than others, and stood by to help if they were needed. They’d all worked with this young woman long enough to know that when she got something in her head, there was no talking her out of it, or in this case, no talking her down. Her colleagues—most of them, anyway—admired Grace. They also thought, all of them, that she was a bit nuts.

The tree trunk was sopping and slick, but Grace climbed it with virtually every sinew of her body. Pack carefully balanced on her back, she dug her boots into the tree, hugged it tightly with her thighs, shoved her fingers into the deep ridges of the furrowed bark, pulling and shimmying upward with her hands and forearms and knees. Staying focused on the flower above, forcing herself not to look down, she moved surprising quickly and smoothly.

This is crazy! she thought. I know this is crazy, but I’ve heard about this flower like some mythical fable for years, studied what little is known about it obsessively for months, finally located one out here in the middle of a jungle, and here it is, just a few meters away, and if this is what it takes to get my chance to smell it, this is what I’ll do.

At the top, Grace unhooked one end of the rope from the carabiner on her harness, threw it around a thick bough just over the orchid, pulled it back, knotted it, and attached it back to the carabiner, securing herself in the treetop canopy.

Then she dropped the remaining rope to the ground and, self-belaying in midair, lowered herself to the orchid. With the men watching fixedly below her, she ever so carefully unzipped her pack and removed the Plexiglas globe, the wires taped to the inside of the globe running to the computer in the pack on her back.

Globe in hand, Grace slowly approached the big orchid, white and fragile and absolutely gorgeous. She very carefully slid the globe over it, and as she was doing so, she put her face into the center of the open flower, smiling as the breathtaking fragrance washed over her—luscious and nectared, candied apricots, airy notes of strange spice. Nothing she had smelled even in the lab back in Paris, nothing in the tens of thousands of little vials, synthetic or natural, was quite like this novel scent. It was thrilling, this discovery. She felt as though she were the first to set foot on a new planet, see a new land. Dangling in the air, looking out above the jungle canopy, the sun setting behind the high mountains off in the distance, she thought about Hillary, the first person to glimpse the world from the top of Mount Everest.

She slipped the globe the rest of the way over the orchid, and she could feel and hear the computer in her backpack buzzing and vibrating as the equipment absorbed, digitized, and recorded the exact chemical makeup of the scent, providing data that could later be used to re-create the fragrance precisely in the lab, all without ever harming the precious orchid.

After a moment, the computer gave one final shake and click as the hard drive finished recording the data, and a moment later, the sunlight waning, the orchid began to close itself up for the night.

As Grace watched the flower rolling itself up, its sepals and petals folding inward and enclosing its delicate inner parts, she put her face close and inhaled one more scent of it. Looking out once again at the clouds above the jungle treetops, feeling strangely connected to them, as though thin cables were now running from her to the clouds above and beyond, she committed the fragrance to memory.

“Grace! What does it smell like?” yelled one of the men at the top of his lungs from below.

What does it smell like? she thought to herself, struggling as those in her field so often did with the imperfect task of using language to characterize scent.

Her body swaying in the breeze, she smiled and yelled down, “It smells like heaven!”

Paris, eighteen months later

There is nothing on earth more elegant, thought Grace as she sipped vintage Veuve Clicquot and surveyed the ballroom, than a launch party for a new perfume. Looking stunning in her treasured backless Dior evening gown, Grace stood before a huge poster for her client’s new fragrance: Heavenly.

The ad, which featured an up-and-coming Czech supermodel smelling a stylized white orchid, would soon be in magazines and newspapers, and on billboards and bus stop benches, all across the world, but mostly in Latin America, where the vast majority of women regularly wore fine fragrances and much of the focus group testing for Heavenly was conducted.

A waiter approached Grace with an open bottle of champagne. “Plus de champagne, madame?”

“Oui. Merci,” said Grace, extending her crystal tulip glass by its stem.

While he poured, Grace took in the room. As much as she loved the far-off corners of the world where novel flavors and fragrances waited to be discovered, she felt equally at home among the opulence here in the Hôtel de Crillon. Grace sipped her thirty-five-year-old champagne, reveling in the bubbly buttered toast flavors, enjoying the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tapestries, gilded furnishings, and works of art all around her. The German high command occupied this very salon during World War II, and today it was filled by the denizens of fashion. In their tuxedos and evening gowns, they meandered and mingled, these rich and powerful people who decided how the world would dress and, now, what it would smell like.

And Grace, too, looked every bit the part—the black dress and black shoes contrasted only by the red flash of her Louboutin soles. She balanced on their four-inch heels with precision, taking in the luxurious scene in front of her. There was a time in her life when she wasn’t even aware one could spend fourteen hundred dollars on a pair of shoes, but this was a guilty pleasure she allowed herself on occasion now, one that was delightfully pleasurable to fulfill in Paris, particularly for a young woman who was too busy working to spend money on anything else besides bistro food and table wine.

As Grace absorbed the soiree, a very stylish woman approached, lifted Grace’s arm, and smelled the underside of her wrist, where Grace, of course, was wearing Heavenly.

Très chic, darling. You wear it well,” the woman purred, and then released Grace’s arm.

“Thank you, Madame Brugière,” Grace said respectfully to the company’s head perfumer. She was in her mid-forties, very pregnant, and looking absolutely stunning in her shamelessly low-cut haute couture gown and diamonds. She looked like what she essentially was: a woman who had the best of everything.

“The UBS analysts raised their rating on Coty this afternoon,” Brugière said. “And a little bird has just whispered to me that Credit Suisse will follow suit tomorrow. They are expecting double-digit growth this year for our client’s entire business, based solely on the new fragrance. Congratulations, darling, your orchid has moved a market.”

“Thank you, Madame Brugière, but it was what you did with the orchid.”

“Well, you are an outstanding assistant perfumer, chérie.” Brugière accepted Grace’s compliment a little too readily, Grace thought, unsure if chérie was meant intimately or condescendingly. Then Madame smiled at Grace in a way that unsettled her. Grace was an outstanding perfumer. She knew that. More than outstanding! This was her life, this company, this job, and she had done more than conceive the idea for the fragrance and go pluck the base element out of the jungle; she had stood by her boss’s side day and night for a year and a half while the woman took credit for her work. Grace understood that this was the time-honored European apprenticeship process, and she was deeply grateful to have the opportunity to study under someone so talented and respected and powerful—this was, after all, the woman who was responsible for creating nearly half the world’s best-selling fragrances—but Grace was doing more than studying lately, she was creating, too, and she was champing at the bit not just to do more, but to get the recognition for it as well. In Grace’s mind, there had been an implicit understanding that this would come, but now there was something in the way Brugière was smiling at her, something patronizing, and Grace did not like it.

Holding up a large camera with flash, a photographer for Vogue approached. “Puis-je?” he asked.

A natural and regular with the media, Madame Brugière found a glamorous smile, not pursed or ostentatious, but perfectly tempered, and pressed her cheek to Grace’s. The photographer shot them a couple times, Grace’s smile stunted by pain as one of Brugière’s multi-carat diamond studs seared into Grace’s face. Then the photographer motioned for Grace to step away, which she did, and the photographer began shooting Madame Brugière alone.

As Grace stood watching—and as other more prominent people, an Academy Award–winning actress and a princess, soon joined Brugière—an easygoing middle-aged American man walked up to Grace.

“She’s quite the rock star, your boss,” the man said.

“Yes, she is.” Grace smiled at the simple truth of that.

“I like your fragrance.”

“Thank you. Madame Brugière worked very hard on it,” Grace said politely.

“I’m sure she did. Though I bet she didn’t free-climb a wet merbau tree to get its base constituent.”

Grace stared at the man. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

The man extended his hand. “Bill Rice. I run a flavor and fragrance shop back in the States. Maybe you’ve heard of us. Southern Compounds?”

“Rings a bell. You all did the new honey scents in Burt’s Bees body care?” Grace posited hesitantly.

“As you know, I can’t discuss our work,” he said. Which Grace did know, just as she knew his response was an acknowledgment that they did do the work.

“I thought your ideas on that account were terrific. You did the new flavors for them, too, in the lip care products.” Grace remembered reading about this company’s out-of-the-box work in one of the trades.

Bill smiled. His was a warm, affable one, and something about it was trusting. “We do both flavor and fragrance for a lot of our clients.”

“I detect a Southern accent,” Grace ventured, but she knew the answer to that, too. It was an accent she knew very well.

“That is because you are observant.” Again, he offered her that easygoing smile. She liked this guy.

“You’re from Georgia.”

“Indeed. Born and raised, just like Southern Compounds.”

“What are you doing in Paris?”

“All the best things. Eating. Drinking. Recruiting talent. What are you doing in Paris?”

“Working for the best company in my field.”

“Not a bad gig to land for a girl right out of a small Georgia college.”

That stopped the conversation. Grace eyed him warily. This guy seemed to know a lot about her.

“It’s information any decent headhunter can get, Grace.” He spoke lightly, trying to put her at ease. “I understand after Agnes Scott you kicked around Burgundy, working in the vineyards for a good while. You must have developed a pretty decent palate before you started your professional training.”

She couldn’t deny any of that, but wondered exactly just how much he knew about her past. So far he’d gotten everything right, from leaving Agnes Scott after graduation, honing her skills amid the lush grapes of the Côte de Nuits—and finally receiving admission into Givaudan’s fabled Perfumery School in Paris. The largest and arguably most influential company in the industry, Givaudan did not advertise or recruit for its elite school, and still the program attracted hundreds of applicants from around the world for the prized two or three places available each year. Graduates were practically guaranteed their pick of choice positions at prestigious companies, though most, like Grace, stayed with Givaudan. Because when it came to perfume, Paris was the center of the universe, and Givaudan was the center of Paris.

They were standing side by side, sipping the toasty old Veuve, as he continued to talk. “You have a great job working here for Givaudan, no doubt. But what if I told you I could offer you even more at this juncture in your career.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Rice, I very much doubt you could offer me anything I can’t get at Givaudan.”

“Really? You see a big promotion coming? Because that would be quite a thing, for an American to move up to a meaningful position in one of the oldest French flavor and fragrance houses.”

Grace knew he was right, and she hated it. Still, she’d always felt that she could do anything, even if there was little precedent.

“Technically speaking,” he said, “I’m looking for a flavorist.”

“I’m a perfumer.”

“Yes, and as I’m sure you know, flavor is ninety percent scent. The other ten percent you can pick up on the job. That’s part of the opportunity I can offer you. I like my senior managers to have a working knowledge of both parts of the field. We’re not a huge shop like Givaudan, so I want the people who present new business to be able to speak to all aspects of it.”

Grace took a sip of champagne, trying to hide her interest—which was difficult to do. The chance to expand her knowledge base was appealing on its own, but the idea of actually getting to pitch new business—now, that was intriguing.

A salesman at his core, Bill went on. “You know, part of what I’m talking about here is the opportunity to come back to the States with something to show for yourself.”

“My parents are gone,” Grace said. “I have no connections to Georgia. Paris is my home.” It tumbled out more defensively then she intended, and that was not lost on him.

“Grace, whether we like it or not, we all come from someplace.” His tone was gentler, caring, like that of a mentor. “And at some point in our lives, we have to make our peace with that place.”

Perhaps it was his manner, perhaps his words, but something about that resonated with her. He seemed to know so much about her, seemed to have prepared for this conversation. And she thought about all of this as she watched Madame Brugière patting her baby bump, posing for more photographers, and waving to someone who looked very much like one of the Spice Girls.

“She may get the credit for the new fragrance design, but did she have the real vision for it?” Bill leaned into Grace as he spoke. “Because if someone works for me, I always make sure that she is both rewarded and recognized when she does good. That’s just smart business, something I know a thing or two about, old Southern boy that I am.”

Grace considered him, and then asked, “What kind of opportunity are we talking about?”

Bill’s smile broadened.

THE ORCHARD Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey Stepakoff