"The Orchid Thief"

by leviathan [Reviews - 12]

Printer
  • All Ages
  • None
  • Crossover, Mystery

Author's Notes:
This story is told in the style (I hope!) of Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" mystery novels.

One point to bear in mind: The "Nero Wolfe" characters don't age. It was a deliberate choice by the author: From 1934's "Fer de Lance" to 1975's "A Family Affair," published just a month before the death of Stout, Wolfe has remained in his fifties and Archie in his early 30s, while world events stay current and pointed. This is at times very "In your face:" In 1964's "A Right to Die," 50-ish Wolfe and 30-ish Archie are hired by character from 1936's "Too Many Cooks," who explicitly states that they first and last met him 28 years before. That's just the fact of the Wolfe universe, and one I'm adhering to, with an opening chapter set in 1968 before the story picks up in "The Present Day."

If you have enjoyed meeting Wolfe and Archie, I can't put it strongly enough that you should seek out the originals. Pick up Stout's original books: they're still easy to find. I also recommend the recent A&E TV Series "A Nero Wolfe Adventure" starring Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie, and the 1982 CBC Radio dramas with Mavor Moore as Wolfe and Don Francks as Archie. All wonderful, wonderful stuff.

"The Orchid Thief" a "Nero Wolfe" Mystery

The Orchid Thief

A “Nero Wolfe” Mystery

by Leviathan

            You've read an awful lot of these reports, so it might surprise you to learn that there are a lot more that you have never read. I start taking notes and writing things up for almost any case we take, as there's no knowing which ones will be interesting enough to share with you. More than half, though, while earning Wolfe's usual bloated fees, are strictly zilch as far as these reports go, so they sit in the files.

            This one looked like it was going to be one of those, but a month or so ago, that changed, in a most unexpected way, so I dug out the notes I had put aside, and completed the narrative. You probably won't believe it. That's okay. Half the time, neither do I. But here it is, because you can't deny it is interesting enough to make it worth your time.

            AG.


 

1968

            It was a sound I'd never heard before. If I had to try to describe it, I'd say it was a sort of wheezing, groaning howl, on a repeated rising note, that made me think, just a bit, of a bellows. I sat up in bed, scowling as its echoes  faded, then blinked over at the alarm clock on my bedside table. It was 7:54, so the alarm would have performed its objectionable duty in six minutes anyway, so I swung my feet out of bed and stood, shutting it off before it could begin, and let my autopilot steer me through my morning fog to the bathroom.

            Showered, shaved, teeth brushed and hair combed, dressed in a neat enough suit with a brightly-colored tie Wolfe would dislike but I found kind of charming, I made my way down to the kitchen, where Fritz asked me, as he served the griddle cakes, “Archie, did you hear that noise? Was it some kind of siren?”

            I took a long pull at my orange juice, and allowed the fog to start to lift before I answered him. “Yeah, I heard it. Siren?” I gave that some thought. “I suppose it could have been. It seemed a bit wheezy for that. I expect a siren to be able to catch its breath.”

            I finished my orange juice, seven griddle cakes with thyme honey and two cups of coffee, and then went over into the office. I pulled yesterday's sheets off the desk calenders, as yesterday would never be seen again, dusted, cleaned the vases in the small bathroom that the office shares with the front room, and then heard the sound of Wolfe's elevator ascending, bringing him up for his two morning hours, from nine to eleven, with the orchids up on the roof.

            I was sorting the mail when the house phone rang, and even as I picked it up, I heard Wolfe's voice bellowing: “What flummery is this?”

            I don't like being bellowed at, whether by phone or in person, not even by Wolfe, so I paused and counted to ten before bringing it to my ear. “Flummery, sir?”

            “Flummery!” Wolfe replied. “This botanical dissimulation you have placed in my tropical room in some ill-considered puckish frolic!”

            “Puckish frolic is good,” I replied, “and I admit that I might at times be given to them, but I can say quite honestly, sir, I have no idea what you're--”

            “Attend me, then, Archie! Come at once!” The phone was hung up with an angry rattle, and I looked at my receiver, shrugged, and headed for the stairs, since I could count on one hand the times I had ever used Wolfe's elevator, and didn't want to use up another finger for so slight a reason.

            I've said before that anyone entering the greenhouses who managed to pass through all three rooms — the Cool Room, the Moderate Room, and the Tropical Room — without stopping to stare at some element of the riot of color and shape that is Nero Wolfe's greatest source of pride and joy is made of sterner stuff than I, or has something important on his mind, and I paused once in the Cool Room and once in the Moderate. But when I entered the tropical room, that was when I really did stop and stare, walking slowly around the object Wolfe was kneeling before.

            It's hard to imagine, with his seventh of a ton in a yellow smock covering an immaculate suit in brown with yellow pinstripes, and yellow silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up his large forearms, that there could have been a more impressive sight in that room than Wolfe himself, but, by gum, there it was. The blossom was nearly three times the size of any in Wolfe's collection, and that blossom was a deep, flecked purple in color, something a kid might use to paint a hot-rod, but where the sun hit it, it sent off highlights of purest gold. The stem and leaves were British Racing Green, and the highlights they threw back seemed an orange-violet. Grouped around the base, where the stem disappeared into a bright yellow pot, six or seven pods that I would hesitate to call pseudobulbs sprouted from it, these the pale green of a watermelon.

            “I like it,” I told Wolfe immediately. “What is it?”

            Wolfe scowled up at me. “Is there any lower form of drollery than this-- This-- This buffoonish caricature? Is there some hidden bulb you shall squeeze to cause it to stream water into my face? Perhaps when I reach the office, a cushion secreted in my chair will make a sound approximating flatulence?”

            “No, sir,” I replied, a little stiffly. “I like a good gag as much as the next guy, and a lot more if the next guy is Lieutenant Rowcliff, but my tastes run to wordplay, not plastic--” I stopped, registering what I'd already seen, that the rich, dark earth in the pot was disturbed, and Wolfe's fingers were streaked with it. “You've been digging in the pot. Is it a fake?”

            “Yes!” Wolfe bellowed. “No!” He stood, scowling mightily at me. “Though this... This thing... follows many of the general lines and designs associate with orchids, it is no known variety, nor any kind of credible hybrid! Nor could I have forgotten growing such a thing in my Tropical Room!” He looked downward, seeming almost embarrassed, for a moment, before muttering, “But it is not made of plastic, nor any other artificial substance. It has a root system, and is, as far as I'm able to determine, alive.”

            My pulse did, in fact, pick a few beats at that speech, and I glanced around, looking carefully at doors and surfaces. Whether an orchid-man's joke or something more sinister, it had clearly arrived here in the plant rooms during the night, with neither myself nor Wolfe the wiser. A chill ran up my spine. Granted that, had an intruder stepped within ten feet of Wolfe's door, the alarm gong beneath my bed would have sounded, there are plenty of people in New York City who think that Wolfe has used up more than his allotted share of oxygen, and not a few who extend that opinion to me, and if they could get into the Plant Rooms with a strange plant, they could have done so with a bomb.

            There were no open locks, broken panes, bent frames, circles cut in the glass... There was no indication whatever of any entry except through the vestibule where stairs and elevator reached the rooftop. The only unusual thing I found was a square on the floor where it seemed that a large object, perhaps a pallet, five and a half feet on a side, had stood in the potting room. It was just a square with slightly larger square corners, maybe twice the real estate a phone booth would take up, where dust looked a little different, and a clipped leaf had been crushed flat. Wolfe scowled down at it beside me.

            “Preposterous. That mendacious plant, now this cubist footprint? Pah!”

            “It wasn't me,” I repeated.

            “I know that!” Wolfe snapped. “That is what's bothering me! If not you, who? How? I can't think of a horticulturist who could have created that thing, and I must be asked to conceive one, unknown to me, who is not only capable of somehow engineering such a prodigious creation, but spiriting it into my home unbeknownst to me, to you, to Fritz? Pfui!”

            He turned and stalked away, to gaze out through the glass walls toward the city behind the house. He stiffened and his head angled down, and his voice rapped out, “Archie!”

            I stepped quickly to his side, and my gaze followed his pointing finger. Beyond the back gate, in the alleyway, filling it, someone had placed an object, a blue box taller than thin, square at the bottom, with a light fixture at the apex of its roof.

            “Can you read the lettering?”

            Around the rim of the object's roof was signage, white letters on a black background. “Police Public Call Box,” I read aloud.

            “Police, I thought as much. Archie, call Mr. Cramer. I doubt very much, of course, that he is behind this intrusion, but he will likely know what it is. I will place our gaudy vegetable visitor on a shelf, and learn what more I can from it.”

            The flights back down to the office went quickly, and soon I was at my desk, dialing a number I didn't need to look up. I had some luck in that Purley Stebbins answered at Homicide South, rather than Rowcliff, but working my way past him to Cramer was a good deal harder. Since the sound of my voice usually means to that crew that Wolfe is going to lift some case out of their hands and solve it, it's not hard to understand the resentment, but that makes it no less inconvenient to work through and past, and it was almost ten minutes before Cramer's gruff voice was in my ear asking “Yeah, Goodwin?”

            “Mr. Wolfe asked me to call you because we know you, but this probably doesn't involve you directly. We've had a new object spring up in the alley beyond our back gate, and it's blocking access to 34th street. It's marked as police property, so Wolfe instructed me to ask you about it.”

            “There's a prowl car parked in your back alley?” Cramer asked.

            “Certainly not,” I replied. “I know what a prowl car looks like, having seen many and been in several. This looks more like some sort of a phone booth. About the same height, maybe a foot taller, and about twice as wide and deep, painted blue, with what looks like a flasher on the roof, and signs saying Police Public Call Box. Looks like it's made of wood.”

            “Are you clowning, Goodwin?” Cramer asked darkly.

            “No, Inspector, not this time. It's just as I described it.”

            “Balls!” snapped Cramer. “The NYPD has nothing like that, but I'll tell you who does: Scotland Yard. The limeys had those things set up all over England about ten years ago. Phones the public could use to call a cop, and a little cell inside where they could hold someone until a wagon came to pick 'im up. The Bobbies would cuff their man to a railing inside, then call in on the phone, and turn on the flasher on the roof. They weren't really good for all that much, though, and they've been pulling them down again. Not many left on the streets of London these days. So what's the gag, Goodwin? You had to do some research to come up with that one.”

            “It's no gag, Inspector. It's just a big box keeping us from escaping the back way in case of fire.”

            “Fine,” Cramer snapped. “Have it your own way. If you don't want to tell me, don't.” The sound of him hanging up was very loud.

            I was halfway through dialing the Gazette, to ask Lon Cohen if there was a new craze in collecting disused British police phones, when the doorbell rang. I cradled the phone and stepped to the hallway, looking out through the one-way glass panel.

            It was a morning for things that appeared not to belong. The two people on the stoop seemed as out of place in New York as the blue box in the alley and the strange thing growing up in Wolfe's plant rooms. It was a man and woman, but they didn't seem to be a couple. The woman was black — apparently “colored” is no longer the acceptable term — and quite lovely, wearing form-fitting denim jeans and a red leather jacket. I don't read fashion magazines, and who knows what's going to come out of Carnaby Street these days, and it certainly didn't look bad, but I'd never seen an outfit that looked quite like it: it had the look of a costume. The man was taller than me, but also a lot thinner, his hands stuffed into the pockets of a brown suit with fine blue pinstripes, a long brown trenchcoat pushed open and back behind him. He had enough brown hair for a Beatle, but it was messier and less defined, more like a Rolling Stone, and large, intelligent eyes that seemed to stare right through the one-way glass into mine. As I looked at him, he raised his fingers and waggled them as if in a childish wave, grinning broadly.

            I went and opened the door some ten inches, backstopping it with my foot. “Good morning.”

            “Ah, yeah!” the tall man's accent was English, his voice enthusiastic, “lovely morning, really, just lovely! You're Archie Goodwin!”

            “Thanks,” I told him. “I wasn't sure.”

            He grinned even more broadly, looking over between me and the black girl. “See, Martha, what did I tell you? The wit, the wit, the looks-- Not so much the charm, yet, but you have to like the wit!” He turned back to me. “And young! Not that you look much older, but still, there you are, yeah?”

            “Here I am,” I agreed.

            “Oh, yes, you are!” he said. “Yes, you really are!”

            “Well,” I said, starting to close the door, “thanks for stopping by to straighten that out for me--”

            He put an easy hand on the door, his smile somehow chiding me gently, affectionately. “Oh, come on, now, be a sport! Is that any way to treat an, well, someone who will have been an old friend the first time you meet him?”

            I frowned, running through the sentence in my head, and the black girl rolled her eyes and stepped forward, offering a hand. “Hello,” she said. Her accent was also English, which always sounds a little strange to me coming from a negro. “I'm Martha Jones.”

            I took the hand, smooth and soft and very strong, and found myself held by her eyes, sparkling with intelligence and warmth. “Archie Goodwin.”

            “So I'm told,” she said brightly, and angled her head toward her friend, whose gaze back and forth between us seemed proud. “This is the Doctor.”

            “Doctor Who?” I asked, and the tall man grinned again, “I suppose that's one way to look at it. My friend Rose tried calling me Doctor Spock, but...”

            “No babies here,” I said with a grin, finding myself liking this dotty Englishman without necessarily trusting him, or feeling the need to move my foot or open the door wider.

            The Doctor looked puzzled for a moment — “Babe...?” — then that delighted grin spread again over his face like sunrise. “Oh, Right! Doctor Spock, babies! 1968! Sorry.”

            “We're here,” Martha Jones cut in, in a tone that made me think she did it a lot, bringing the Doctor's focus back to whatever was supposed to be on his agenda, “to see Nero Wolfe.”

            I glanced at my watch, and looked back up at them. “He's engaged at the moment, but he'll be--”

            “Down from his Orchids in twenty-three minutes,” said the Doctor, “and you, as a dutiful factotum, need to approve it before I can see him, yes. Shall we step inside, and I can start to tell you about it?”

            I looked back and forth between them again. She was looking at me with openness and interest. He seemed to be shifting his attention this way and that, in a series of sharply-focused stares, like a crow in a tinsel store during a hurricane. After a moment, I shrugged and stepped back, opening the door.

            They happily surrendered their coats to me for hanging in the hallway, and I had to control my face a bit. The top Martha Jones was wearing seemed more like underwear than something a girl would wear in front of a stranger, a sort of red camisole thing with braided, lacy straps. I've certainly seen more of women I didn't know at the beach, and even at some of Lily Rowan's parties, but here it seemed sort of odd, even though she behaved as if she was wearing a business suit. Even more surprising, on her right bicep, like any good Navy man, she had a tattoo — not a mermaid or a fouled anchor, but a butterfly with some sort of foreign writing over it.

            My eyes paused on it, and hers caught that pause, and her eyebrow rose with a bit of challenge, but I smiled, friendly, professional, welcoming, as I turned to the Doctor, whose brown trench coat hid nothing so surprising, except that, beneath pinstriped suit, he wore red-and-white sneakers.

            In the office, I placed Martha in the red leather chair, pleased with the way it went with her top and set off her brown skin, and brought up a yellow one for the Doctor, then took my place at my desk.

            “All right, then, Doctor, Miss Jones. What can we do for you?”

            The Doctor leaned forward, speaking quickly. “I want you to find an Orchid!”

            Martha, in the red leather chair behind him, rolled her eyes, and glanced at me, clearly a little embarrassed.

            “You see,” the Doctor continued, “I'm a hybridizer, and I've bred a new hybrid, it's one of a kind, nothing that's ever been seen before, anywhere on Earth. I'm planning to mass-produce them, so every household on earth can have as many as they like, but my original, the prototype, if you follow, has been stolen. It's absolutely unique, there's never been another, nothing like it in the solar system, er, you know, on Earth, I mean. I can't possibly move forward with the manufacturing without it — the loss to gardeners everywhere! — and it's been, well, sort of stolen. Stolen, yes, definitely stolen. Yes.” He nodded firmly to me. “Stolen.”

            Behind him, Martha's face was buried in her palm, and from the expression with which her eyes closed, I somehow thought it wasn't through being distraught about the stolen prototype hybrid.

            “So you want Mr Wolfe to find the stolen orchid?” I asked.

            “Yes.” The Doctor's tone was very clear now. “Stolen. Find the stolen orchid.”

            I got out a notebook. “Where was it stolen?”

            The Doctor's eyes widened. “Where? Well, yes, where. Naturally. From... From my laboratory, naturally. Yes. My lab.”

            “And just where is your laboratory?”

            “Delaware,” the Doctor said, immediately. Martha winced again. “Street!” the Doctor added. “Delaware Street! 1331489 Delaware Street.”

            Martha was shaking her head, eyes closed yet again, and I nodded slowly.

            I heard the sound of the elevator descending, and stood, and the Doctor and Martha both turned to the door.

            “Excuse me,” I told them, and moved to the doorway. “I'll let Mr Wolfe know you're here.”

            But I didn't get to tell him. I wasn't quite to the elevator when the doors parted. Wolfe had, as he always does, left the smock up in the potting room, washed his hands, and donned his suit jacket. His eyes found me, and he was bellowing before I could speak. “Not content with placing that bizarre creation in my plant rooms, our visitor is apparently a common thief as well, and a clumsy one to boot!”

            He stalked across to the office and paused in the doorway, turning back to me before he could take in the visitors. “They took a common Phalaenopsis, handled so haphazardly as to have broken the pot — I found the pieces and some soil childishly concealed in the refrigerator in the potting room — and appear to have wrapped the plant in an advertising flier for the 1967 Orchid Grower's Symposium, which is missing from the potting bench. That such a bungling dolt could enter and leave unseen and unnoticed is redolent of an Idiot Savant!

            I'd come to the office doorway with him by then, and beyond his shoulder, I saw Martha Jones smirking at the Doctor, whose expression was abashed.

            “We have visitors,” I told Wolfe, indicating the office, and moved around him and through the door ahead of him.

            I pronounced names — or, in the Doctor's case, a title — and Wolfe inclined his head a sixteenth of an inch toward each of them, and then glanced over at me as he maneuvered his seventh of a ton into the only chair in the solar system of which he truly approves.

            I obliged him with an explanation. “Mr. Wolfe, this is the man who swapped your  Phalaenopsis for something new and different.”

            “Oh, I say--” the Doctor began, as Martha snorted with laughter.

            Wolfe's eyebrows rose. “Indeed? Is this flummery?”

            “No, sir.” I didn't bother to consult my notes. I don't mean to boast, but I can repeat, verbatim, conversations between several people lasting several hours from months or sometimes years in the past. The brief colloquy of a few minutes back was simple: “The Doctor, who, if he has a name, doesn't share it, claims that he came to hire you to seek a stolen orchid, a unique, one-of-a-kind hybrid of his own devising, unlike any anywhere in the solar system, but which is a prototype, which, when it's recovered for him, will allow him to mass-produce them by the billions, placing one in every household in the world. It was stolen from his laboratory at  1331489 Delaware Street, which is as far as we'd got when you started down in the elevator”

            The Doctor looked outraged. “Well, of course, you can make it sound rather a load of old cobblers if you're going to take my words and--”

            “Quote them more or less exactly?” I asked.

            Martha snickered again, and the Doctor looked at his sneaker-shod feet. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “that.”

            The corner of Wolfe's mouth twitched upwards a sixteenth of an inch. “It is a bad habit, of which I've been unable to break Mr. Goodwin.” He regarded the Doctor between eyelids a half-inch apart. “There is no shame in dissembling, sir. There breathes no man so bereft of secrets that he will willingly share all he knows and is with complete candor. Still, while a lie is no badge of shame, incompetence always is, and your fabrication is so badly bungled that it beggars the imagination. So badly, in fact, that I must consider the probability that it is intentionally so, and must wonder why. Why would a man with any notion of my reputation think it possible to flummox me into believing him an orchid man capable of producing such a specimen, without my ever having heard of him? Why would he try to persuade me that a plant with no more than certain gross similarities to orchids was a hybrid, when it was clearly related to none? Why would he name, not a nursery, not a greenhouse nor garden, but a laboratory? And lastly, why would he impute a building number in the millions to an address on a street on Staten Island whose length is no more than a quarter mile? The address you named would place it somewhere in the East River. Preposterous!”

            I sat back and grinned. I suppose I could have gone to Shea Stadium and watched Tom Seaver pitch, but this was closer.

            “Well, I...” the Doctor began, then closed his mouth and sat back. “No, never mind.”

            “And to ask me to believe so shoddy a lie of the man—” He nodded toward Martha “— and woman  — who managed to invade my sanctum sanctorum with such stealth and proficiency as to leave myself and Mr Goodwin none the wiser until your leafy benefaction was found amidst my orchids? Pfui!”

            He brushed it aside with a hand. “All of this was apparent in an instant to Mr Goodwin, whose skills as an investigator and witness are not to be dismissed, but who will happily admit that genius is not his contribution to our partnership. It is mine, and that calls for more. So let us examine your fiction to see what we can learn from it: Again and again, two elements are emphasized: The uniqueness of the plant you would place in my care — and it is, I grant with all alacrity, sui generis — and the unworthily crass commercialism with which you purport you would exploit and promulgate it. The former part of the lie, designed to appeal to my cupidity as regards Orchids; the latter, equally crafted to pique my snobbery. Motivating me to keep your botanical rara avis, and to keep it to myself, treasuring it in itself and in its singularity: A secret too great to give other men the opportunity to covet. Very well, then. Tell me what it is that you want of me, and why, in the caretaking of that vegetable.”

            “All right, then...” Something had changed in the Doctor's voice and I shifted my gaze toward him, then froze, feeling the small hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It was something in his eyes,  in the angle of his head. He glanced over at me, his eyes meeting mine for a moment, and in that moment I saw a gulf, deep and black and mysterious, that seemed to reach back through generations, through eons. I know I don't usually wax poetic like that, but those eyes had a charge to them that was hard to explain and impossible to ignore, and that's the best I can do. “I once had a friend,” he said, “all too briefly. She came from a place very far away from here. We'll call it the Forest of Cheem.”

            “Can it not have its own name?” asked Wolfe. “Its own spot on the globe?”

            A smile played with Doctor's lips at that, but not his eyes. “I think I'll stick with the Forest of Cheem,” he said. “It's very far away, and you've never seen the like of what grows there. You won't for twenty th--” he shook his head. “Anyway, she gave me a gift, this friend. A cutting. And I've kept it and nurtured it... But things are happening to me now, and life is getting dangerous. Too dangerous to entrust me with its fate. It needs to be cared for, cultivated, until it can be brought back where it belongs, and I no longer feel I can do that safely. I need to leave it somewhere where it will be raised and encouraged to flourish.” He looked at the ceiling. “There's nowhere better.”

            I glanced over at Martha, and felt a stillness inside me. She was a beautiful girl, and while I hadn't yet had an occasion to miscegenate, I wasn't opposed to the idea, and there was a warmth and intelligence and challenge in her eyes that had made me consider the possibility. But one look at the gaze she aimed at the Doctor told me that I was out of it, with no hope of an inning.

            “And how shall I bring it back — or, more accurately, instruct Archie to bring it back — to its rightful place if the only name you'll vouchsafe is this mythical Forest of Cheem?”

            The Doctor's face brightened again, and he smiled broadly, “Nah, no, no need to worry about that! I'll... Well, no, someone, someday, will come for the plant. You'll know who it is when the time comes.” The smile widened. “Know an extraordinary amount, really! Anyway, as I say, you'll know him, and he'll transport it back... Back home, back to the Forest of Cheem.”

            “And my Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica?” Wolfe rumbled.

            The Doctor looked down at his red sneakers again, his face coloring. He mumbled something too quietly to be heard, and Wolfe barked “Speak up, man!”

            Martha Jones burst out laughing. “It was a souvenir! He was so excited to be in your plant rooms, and he said he didn't get a chance last--”

            “All right, yes,” the Doctor bounced to his feet, paced around the room with nervous energy. “You know your orchids are famous, and I just couldn't resist, and I'm very sorry, really-- I'll pay you for it, of course!”

            “Sit down,” said Wolfe. “I like eyes at a level, and I do not sell orchids.”

            The Doctor was over at the large globe, turning it a little too quickly, grinning down at it like it was a new toy and all his. “At least let me pay for--”

            “Will you sit down? Confound it, sir! My neck is not made of rubber!”

            The Doctor was instantly contrite. “Oh, yes, right, sorry! Sorry! I forgot!” He returned to his seat. “Anyway, there was no more to it than that. A  Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica grown by Nero Wolfe himself? How could I resist?”

            “You have already made a play for my cupidity, sir, and my snobbery. To draw as well upon my vanity is excessive.”

            “What?” The Doctor seemed genuinely baffled for a moment before his eyes widened. If I'm any judge — and if I'm not, Wolfe should fire me, and sit Saul Panzer behind my desk — he was actually surprised and a little insulted at the implication. “No, no! Nothing like that! That  Phalaenopsis is sitting in my console room right now in a pot-- Well, okay, not so much a pot as the shell of an Illurian mountain clam, but those make great planters, they swear by....” His eyes caught Wolfe's impatient expression. “Them...on...” He paused, unable to meet Wolfe's gaze. “Sorry, I'm a bit star-struck, really. The orchids, the detecting, the bellowing, the orchids-- Did I mention the orchids?”

            “You did,” said Wolfe.

            “Well, then,” said the Doctor, then, after a moment. “Yeah.”

            Wolfe regarded him for another moment, then Martha. Wolfe's opinion of women is never high, and Martha's outfit would not be, in his eyes, to her credit, although I'd decided long since to dissent with him on that one. But she was looking at him now with frank interest, neither coquettish nor licentious, as if being female didn't enter into her equation at all, and if I hadn't seen her looking, earlier, at the Doctor, I'd have wondered if she was one of those. Her look was just right, though, and I could see it carry Wolfe over her apparent dishabille. “And you, madame? Do your interests run solely with the Doctor's, or have you a separate motivator?”

            She looked at him a long time. “I trust the Doctor completely,” she finally said, “and if that was all it would be enough for me. But I also believe in this. It's more important than a plant. Much more.”

            “On your arm, you wear the Persian word 'Raha' — 'Free' — and the symbolism of the adjacent butterfly is obvious. The significance is manifest, of course, especially to a negress—” I saw her stiffen at the word, and I admit I bit my tongue — Wolfe's refusal to abandon old words because popular usage has made them unpopular has more than once derailed an important discussion — but the Doctor gave her another look, both calm and warming, and she subsided as Wolfe finished “—but I wonder at the significance of the Persian language.”

            “No need to,” she said calmly. “I'm partly Iranian on my mother's side. Does it matter?”

            “Certainly. You have made the word, the language, the image a permanent part of your body. Surely that tells me something of your character.” He regarded her face-on. “The streets are frequently crowded today with young people like yourself, marching in protest, making their voices heard in opposition to war and bigotry and rapaciousness. From the reports I have seen, England is not exempt. Many scream epithets and vituperate, fewer carry signs, fewer still paint themselves with slogans and flowers. You have marked yourself eternally, a step nearly unprecedented for a woman in the West, and done so, not with slogans for peace or justice — both laudable enough, I don't deny — but with that single word, Raha, Free. A word so much rarer than many realize, something fought for and died for every day in less fortunate parts of the world. And in the language of a nation prosperous but fearful under the rule of a dictator!”

            Martha sat back, looking as good against the red leather of the chair as I had thought she would. “Times change, Mr. Wolfe,” she finally said. “Times change and nations change, governments change and history changes and the roles of people change. Sometimes, the changes people crave make their lives immeasurably worse, and sometimes they make them better, but there's one constant underneath: People have to be free. I never want to forget that, I want to say it with every breath I take.” She shrugged an elegant shoulder, and let the muscles move under the smooth skin of her bicep. “So there it is.”

            The corner of Wolfe's mouth raised a bit, and he spoke a few syllables that I did not understand, then translated: “That king who made me crazy, and with whom My heart, for love of him, has shared a home, Sent a butterfly that signified, 'I am you,' And fanned a hundred candle flames alight.”

            As he spoke, her cheeks colored, the red of her blush combining with the brown of her skin to give an effect like a caramel apple, but she smiled back at Wolfe. “I've always loved Rumi. He devoted himself to his faith and his God without turning away from humanity.”

            The corner of Wolfe's mouth went up another quarter-inch. “Indeed! Very well, then, Miss Jones, Doctor.”

            The Doctor looked up, suddenly, sharply. “Excuse me?”

            “I will care for your rarity, Doctor, and it will remain my — our — secret.”

            The Doctor blinked seeming surprised, and stood. “Well, then! I-- Thank you! Thank you so very much! It's good to know sh-- It will be safe.” He held a hand toward his companion “Martha?”

            She was sitting, regarding Wolfe with an expression of great and pleasant interest, a smile playing with her cheeks. She stood and moved briefly toward Wolfe's desk, stopped, and smiled more broadly. “Thank you, Mr. Wolfe,” she finally said. “It's been a real pleasure.”

            “For me as well,” he grunted, reaching for his current book, “What Became of Jane Austen and Other Essays” by Kingsley Amis, and she turned to take the Doctor's offered hand. I had risen as well, by that time, and preceded them to the hallway, to help them with their coats.

            I had slid the red leather over Martha's creamy brown shoulders, and was holding the Doctor's brown trench coat open for him when Wolfe's voice spoke from the office door. I turned so quickly the Doctor missed the arm and had to try again: Wolfe had actually left his chair and his desk and journeyed all the way to the hallway to bid them farewell.

            “When I was young,” he said, “I let my passions reign, and fought for justice and freedom. Eventually, having survived, I grew out of it. One day, Miss Jones, so will you...but I am gratified that you haven't yet, and the world is a richer place for your fight. I thank you.”

            He turned and strode back to his desk, as the Doctor grinned cheekily over to Martha, telling her, “Martha Jones, you have made a conquest!”

            “Possibly two,” I added with a smile as I opened the door for them. They thanked me and passed onto the stoop, but, before descending the seven steps, Martha stopped and returned to me.

            “He wouldn't accept this,” she said, “so you'll have to.” And she reached up to boost herself by my shoulder, and her lips were very warm and soft on my cheek. “Thank you, Archie Goodwin. I mean that.”

            The door closed behind them, I returned to my desk, and began transferring orchid germination records to cards. It was, perhaps, ten minutes later that I heard it again, that strange wheezing, groaning sound that had awakened me. Wolfe's eyes met mine.

            “I heard that sound in the morning,” I told him.

            “As did I,” he replied, “and possibly during my sleep as well. I wonder...”

            I waited for him to finish, but he apparently preferred that I wonder about his wonder, so he kept it to himself.

            We were just returning to the office from lunch when the phone rang yet again, and before I could finish answering it, Inspector Cramer was bellowing in my ear: “All right, Goodwin, what's the gag?”

            “I don't know, Inspector, I have so many of them--”

            “Aw, nuts! You'd clown on the electric chair! I called over to your local precinct and had them send a prowl car out to look at your English police box. I figured, hell, maybe someone was going to try to use it to pull a fast one on somebody. They were in your alley, all the way to that damned gate, looking in at Brenner as he picked herbs, and there's no damned police box! So I ask again, what's the goddamn gag?”

            “You know me, Inspector,” I told him. “I'm puckish and frolicsome.”

            He slammed down the phone, and when I looked up to cradling the receiver, Wolfe's eyes were on me. “Yes...?”

            I shrugged. “That blue box from the alleyway? I guess it was inflatable or something, because it's gone now.”

            “Indeed?” Wolfe's brows rose.

            “Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe it's still out there. You know Cramer and his puckish frolics.”

            I expected a Pah or a Pfui, but Wolfe instead swiveled his chair a good three inches to look toward the back of the house, the corner of his mouth twitching again.

            “Satisfactory,” he said.


Present Day

 

            When I arrived in Alec Marten's greenhouse, it was easy to see why the police had been called in. The place had been gone over, not carefully. If the culprit had been about three times lazier or more relaxed, you might use the word “Ransacked.” Pots were smashed, sacks of potting soil and fertilizer shredded, and orchids — inferior, trickily-grown orchids, if you should ask Wolfe — brutalized in ways that would have made him weep.

            What wasn't easy to understand was why the cops were standing around staring into an aluminum pail. The uniform at the door stopped me, but Ben Dykes, a detective I know out in Westchester, who had called me, waved me over and the uniform shrugged, as if it was okay with the detective, it was none of his lookout.

            I made my way carefully over to Dykes, wanting to avoid the evidence all over the floor, and Dykes introduced me to the other two detectives, Roger Byrne and Gene Gerber. Byrne was a shortish guy with receding dark hair, a mustache, and glasses. Gerber had sandy hair, going gray, and a rough-hewn face and build you'd expect on a dockworker. After we shook hands, they went back to staring into the bucket, and, as that seemed the thing to do, I joined them, and started in surprise.

            Inside the bucket was a doll. It was maybe eight or ten inches tall, or would be if it weren't lying down, wearing an accurate-looking outfit of blue jeans, sneakers, a flannel shirt open over a gray tee shirt, and eyeglasses. The doll was posed in a very good approximation of violent, painful, writhing death, and its face, which was an excellent likeness to Alec Marten, was contorted in an agonized rictus. I spent a moment imagining the amount of work that had gone into creating it, making doll-clothes, sculpting the head, and thought that as threats went, it was one of the most disturbing and ghoulish things I'd ever seen.

            “I take it Marten has made a run for it?” I asked Dykes.

            “Looks that way,” Dykes said. “No sign of him in or around the house. Can't say I blame him.” We were both still staring down at the doll. “I mean, look at it. We talked with Krasicki — you know Andrew Krasicki, he was helping Marten while his man was away — and he said everything here looked fine when he showed up this morning. Marten sent him to the store to pick up a couple of new trowels and some beer. When Krasicki got back, he found this. The really creepy part? Last time Krasicki saw Marten, he was dressed exactly like that damned doll.”

            “Jesus!” said Gene Gerber, clearly repeating what he'd already said, and we all nodded.

            “Show him the fun part,” said Byrne, and Ben Dykes grunted, and handed me a pair of latex gloves.

            As I was pulling them on, Dykes pointed down at the bucket. “Pick it up.”

            I looked at him expectantly. His expression gave nothing back, so I shrugged, leaned down, and took hold of the handle, tried to straighten and almost fell over. The pail stood where it was.

            “What the hell?” I asked. “Did he nail down the bucket before he dropped the doll in?”

            Dykes shook his head. “Nope. You put enough muscle into it, you can move it. Give it a try.”

            I set my feet apart, and started pulling, giving it a lot more “Up” than a pail deserved. Nothing. I pulled harder and harder and it finally came up from the ground a couple of inches, my arm quivering, and I dropped it with a thud.

            “Okay, I give,” I said. “What's the gag?”

            Dykes shook his head. “Gag is that it's damned heavy. We haven't weighed it yet, but Gerber here thinks it weighs about 200 pounds.”

            “The doll?” I asked.

            Gerber nodded. “Gotta be. That's a perfectly ordinary pail.”

            “Jesus,” I said.

            “Tell me about it,” said Gene Gerber.

            That would have been a great moment for a change of scenes, but reality is not as big a fan of dramatic structures as I am, and that was when my cell phone twitched in my pocket. Wolfe is fairly reticent about new technologies — what happened when we started using a computer for our orchid germination records doesn't bear thinking about — but he likes cell phones, at last far as me, Saul, Fred and Steve having them is concerned. I think he'd sooner eat at Arby's then carry one himself, but having me leashed certainly seems to appeal to him. The necessity of quiet means I have to keep it set on “Vibrate,” which is a shame because there are a number of songs I'd like to assign as a ring-tone for Wolfe. If he ever called me and heard that song about Godzilla playing from my pocket, the amusement would last for weeks or months.

            I excused myself and stepped away  from the pail, and answered the phone, glancing at the display to be sure before I said “Archie Goodwin's pocket, Archie Goodwin speaking.”

            “Puerile,”  Wolfe grunted. Even when he's calling, he doesn't know how to speak properly on the phone. “Have you seen Andy?”

            “No, sir, not yet.” I said. “But I have seen the most disturbing threat I've ever seen in my life. If Marten as an ounce of sense, he's on his way out of the country by now. I certainly would be.”

            “Indeed?” I could hear that Wolfe was curious despite himself. I don't say that was my intention, but I had no objection to it. “Report.”

            “You're sure?”

            “Yes.”

            I looked over at Ben Dykes. “Are you saving that?” I asked, pointing at the pail. “From Wolfe?”

            Dykes considered for a few seconds. “No, I don't see how we can. We can't gag Krasicki anyway.”

            I thought Andy could be persuaded to keep it to himself, but I let it pass, and turned back again, lifted the phone to my ear and described the scene. Wolfe grunted when I mentioned the weight of the pail.

            “Look in the pail again,” he said, so I stepped up and stared down at the hideous little figure again. “You say the homunculus is posed in a posture of one who has died convulsively?”

            “Yes, sir,” I said, looking down at the dreadful little thing. “It's awfully damned realistic.”

            “Indeed? If seen without context, perhaps a photograph against a white background, would you think it an actual corpse?”

            “Yes, sir!” I avowed, with enough feeling that Dykes and Byrne and Gerber all looked over at me.

            “Please look closely at its neck and wrists,” Wolfe told me. “Do you see any joints or seams?”

            I bent down, close to the bucket, and stared for a long time, then got a pen out of my pocket, and reached in. Dykes took a step forward, but it was reflexive. He knows that I know how to treat evidence. With the tip of the pen, I pushed the left sleeve partway up the doll's forearm. I could see that it was marked with a long, thin red line, like an almost miniature scratch. I could see that there were actually tiny hairs in the doll's forearm “No, sir,” I told Wolfe. “No joints or seams that I can see. The damned thing has hair on its arms, though! Imagine the time and--”

            “Indeed? Hair!” Wolfe almost pounced on the next words. “Proportionate to its scale? Of course, or you'd have said. Archie, turn on the loudspeaker. I want Mr. Dykes to hear me.”

            The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I don't say I knew what he was about to say, because it's not the sort of thought I would have, but I somehow had a feeling about it, enough to be genuinely afraid as I hit the button to put the little cellular on Speaker.

            “You're on, sir,” I said.

            “Mr. Dykes, can you hear me?” Even when Wolfe was stepping off into the Twilight Zone, he still didn't trust any machines, especially digital ones like cell phones.

            Dykes almost smiled. “Yes, Mr Wolfe, I hear you.”

            Before Wolfe could speak, another detective I didn't know arrived with Andy Krasicki, who looked shaken, but nodded to me in relieved greeting.

            Then Wolfe's voice rasped from the phone. “Don't delay, Mr. Dykes. Have the contents of that pail taken to the morgue.”

            Dykes' eyes widened. “Is this a joke–”

            “No, sir!” Wolfe's voice was a bellow. I really should tell him at some point that bellowing over a phone is seldom effective, but I'll admit he has a better batting average than other bellowers. “Far from a joke, it is an abomination! It is murder with a weapon and technology unheard of!”

            “It's a doll!” objected Dykes, although I noticed he'd paled, and Gerber was muttering “Jesus!” again.

            “A doll? Made of what? What substance do you know of that would, in that volume, be the weight of a grown man? A doll sufficiently well-articulated to pose in a convincing simulacrum of convulsive death, but lacking joints at neck and wrists? A doll with body hair? A doll wearing a perfect approximation of the outfit that Marten was wearing this morning?”

            I interrupted. “Just a moment, Mr. Wolfe. Andy?”

            Krasicki, his eyes wide and frightened, nodded.

            “Can you look in there again? Look at the left forearm.”

            Andy stepped over and looked down into the pail. “Oh!” he gasped. “That scratch!”

            “Marten had a scratch like that?” I asked.

            “He did it this morning!” Andy told me. “On the rosebush out front.”

            “There!” Wolfe's voice from the phone was triumphant. “Some crazed sculptor and clothier who  could sculpt and dress such a thing within a few short hours? Pfui! One of my forebears once said, 'Eliminate the impossible, and that which remains, however improbable, must contain the element of truth.' Take it to the Morgue, Mr. Dykes.”


            So it never came down to sitting in with Andy while Dykes questioned him, which was why I was invited there in the first place, after all. After Wolfe rang off, Dykes reached into the bucket with one outstretched finger and then recoiled, with a “Jesus!” Gene Gerber would be proud of. He gestured me to do the same, and I did so, touching the tiny forearm. It was dead flesh. It felt strangely smooth, but it was not rubber, plastic, porcelain, silicone, or anything else. It gave stiffly under my fingertip, cool and horrible to the touch, and I Jesus!ed along with the rest of them.

            After that, the circus began, but as we had no case and no client, and, quite frankly, I wanted to get as far away from that pail as I could without actually running in terror, at least not in front of Ben Dykes, I drove calmly back to the brownstone.

            We never discuss business over dinner, but, even with no client, I had no desire to converse — or, indeed, even think — about the tiny corpse as I surrounded Fritz' extraordinary Peafowl in... You know what? I don't know what kind of sauce the Peafowl was in. I only know it was extraordinary because it was cooked by Fritz Brenner, QED. But the way I ate it that night was an insult to Fritz, and to all food everywhere, automatically and without tasting. I stopped half-way through, apologized to Fritz and to Wolfe and went out for a walk.

            I'd wandered around for about an hour when I saw it tucked into an alleyway on 32nd Street, and I slowed to a stop, staring at it for a long moment, before finally breathing, quietly, “Well, I'll be damned!”

            I don't want to talk about how many years it had been since I'd seen it, or one just like it, but tucked there between a Kosher delicatessen and a tailor specializing in zippers was a blue box, perhaps ten feet tall, and five feet on a side, with paneled doors facing into the street. Each door held a six-paned white window, and the one on the left had, in the panel below the window, a small door decorated with a sign reading “Police telephone free for use of public. Advice & assistance obtainable immediately. Officer & cars respond to all calls. Pull to open.” Above the doors was a sign reading “Police Public Call Box,” and I knew from the last time that all four sides of the box had that one. On top of the whole thing was a light fixture in a wire cage. Cramer had claimed that boxes like this were used by British police in the 1950s. I looked them up later, and they were most common between World War I and World War II, but they were phased out during the 60s and all but gone by 1980. I stepped up to it, placed a hand against its surface. It was, as it appeared, painted wood, but vibrated with an odd pulse that seemed almost alive, which should tell you something about my frame of mind at the time. The door behind the sign opened to display an old-fashioned telephone mouthpiece with a separate earpiece. I held it to my ear and got no sound, nor did jiggling the hook produce any results. The main door was locked, and I had not carried my lock-picking kit, not expecting to need to break and enter. I regarded the blue box, thinking for a moment, then stepped back away from it, pulling my cell phone from my pocket, and, since there was nothing much else I could do, I took a picture, showing the box in context. The last time I'd seen one of these, it was in the alleyway behind the back yard of the brownstone, and that day I'd met a strange pair-- But you've just read all that, so you know.

            There was no reason in the world to suspect that the box was related in any way to Alec Marten's miniaturized corpse, but the last time I'd seen one, it had been one of a number of oddities that just had to be somehow related, and here it was again, on a day when-- Well, whatever else you can say about shrinking Marten to death, however you want to phrase that, you have to admit, it's odd. As Wolfe likes to say, coincidences happen, but any one of them is to be distrusted, and here was that damned blue box. I turned and legged it back toward the brownstone.

            I won't say I ran all the way back, but I guess my speed was higher than normal, because I slowed to a walk as I hit the 900 block of West 35th street, and by the time I'd got close to the seven steps, I saw that we had a visitor. An unmarked cruiser from Homicide South was parked against our curb.

            I heard the voices, Wolfe's and Cramer's, neither sounding combative, as I hung my coat and hat, so I was ready when I stepped into the office. Cramer was sitting in the red leather chair, a glass of beer in his hand, and Wolfe was sitting at his desk, regarding him through half-closed eyes, his hands relaxed on the chair-arms.

            “Goodwin,” growled Cramer. It wasn't an unfriendly growl, just a harassed one.

            “Hello, Inspector, Mr. Wolfe.” I went to my chair, sat and swiveled.

            Cramer stared at me for a moment, his small eyes sharp, his brow creased, then spoke. “Tell me, what do you think about Marten?”

            “An inferior and tricky grower--”

            “Aw, nuts!” Cramer spat. “I just asked a simple question, do you have to clown every time your goddamn mouth opens?”

            I raised a hand. “All right, all right. I'm sorry, it's reflex. I come in here, you're in that chair...”

            “Oh, hardy-har-har,” grumbled Cramer.

            I looked over at Wolfe, who nodded at me. I turned back to Cramer. “I've got to admit, it gives me the creeps. It was scary enough when I thought it was just a doll some nut made as a threat. It's even scarier knowing what it was. Who it was. If you're looking for a line on who did it, well, that's harder.” I paused, because something had occurred to me. “Are you so short of your own murders, you have to put in your time on one of Ben Dykes'?”

            Cramer's face bunched into something like a fist. “I've got one, thanks. Christopher Bamford was found dead and shrunk in his plant rooms on Central Park West. Some smart cookie in Dispatch who happened to have heard the squeals from Westchester was still on duty when Stebbins called in about finding a doll of Bamford in the sink, and put two and two together.”

            I glanced over at Wolfe, who nodded grimly at me, his chin dipping and raising almost an eighth of an inch. 

            “Yeah,” growled Cramer. “As far as we can see, we have a serial miniaturizer with a mad-on toward orchid-growers.” He took a swig of his beer. “I wanted to make sure you were being careful with the chain bolt.”

            “Pfui!” said Wolfe. “A killer who can diminish his handiwork to grotesque manikins? For all we can know, he will slide in through the mail slot, or squeeze in between door and doorframe! Perhaps walk through walls with abandon! Why should I believe I can ever be safe from him short of his death? Or can death itself contain him? How should I know? I must commit myself to his capture or destruction, or never sleep easy in my bed again!”

            “That's how I saw it,” said Cramer, looking down into his beer. “I don't suppose there's much use in asking that you leave this to the police.”

            “Indeed? Are you equipped to handle this fiend? Have you supermen on your staff?”

            Cramer grunted. “You're hardly a superman, Wolfe.”

            “No, but I am a genius, and that's the best we can look forward to.” He actually leaned almost a full inch toward Cramer. “Will you share with me what you have?

            “Hell, yes, of course I will,” Cramer's voice was a growl. “We're up a goddamn post on this one. We've been trying to find out from the Feds if this is some top-secret military device, but of course they give us nothing. If they have a goddamn shrink-a-tron, they don't want us knowing it, and if they don't, they want to admit that even less! So we get goddamn nothing.”

            I could sympathize. Even when handling Wolfe for General Carpenter, I'd bumped into the walls of government secrecy, and a huge part of it was often wounded pride.

            Cramer was continuing, “The only known enemies Marten and Bamford had in common were more orchid nuts, like you, and, honestly, even the craziest of you wouldn't kill for your goddamn posies, and it's not like Millard Bynoe or Charles Shanks has what it takes in the casaba to build a shrink-o-matic in his basement. Hell, even you couldn't do that, and you're a goddamn genius!”

            He fished in his pocket, and pulled out a small plastic case containing a cheap USB flash drive. Even Cramer, it seemed, had joined the digital revolution. He stood, crossed the room, and handed it to me. “This is what we've got. Much good may it do you.”

            Without another word, he'd got up and left the office. I followed him to the hallway, again, more by reflex than anything else, since there was no reason for him to forget which side of the front door he belonged on before closing it, and then turned and walked over to Wolfe's desk, getting my cell phone while I was at it, and bringing up the picture I'd taken a few minutes previously.

            I put it on Wolfe's desk. “Guess what I just saw on 42nd street?”

            Wolfe glanced down at the phone on his desk, then back up at me. “Is this flummery?”

            “No, sir. I don't swear it's the same one, but it sure looks like it. It's locked, and the telephone in the door doesn't work, but there's something going on inside it, you can feel it.”

            “Confound it, did he — did they — gull us?” Wolfe's scowl was mighty. “Are they now prowling New York— No. That's fatuous. To work so through a list of orchid growers, with nothing in common but their horticulture? He's looking for something, looking in pots and greenhouses. The Doctor knows what we have, and where. These abominations are not his doing.”

            I thought about the large wooden tub in Wolfe's tropical room, the oddly captivating root system visible in the dark, rich earth. Worth killing over, and killing so horribly?

            It was then that the doorbell rang, and I stepped into the hall and looked out through the one-way glass panel at the villain of the piece.

            I say that, not based on any evidence, but just straight from his appearance. He had sharp features: hooked nose, strong dark brows over intense, piercing black eyes, high cheekbones, a pronounced black widow's peak, and an sharp-lined back goatee. He was dressed in a simple black suit, and a black turtleneck. Those black eyes seemed to fasten on mine, through the one-way glass, and glittered with an electric spark.

            I knew that I should use the chain bolt, to keep the door closed two a two-inch crack, but there was something about his eyes, and I opened the door wide, and stepped back as he came forward.

            His smile at me widened to a wide, charming grin. “Archie Goodwin, my old friend!” His accent was British, his voice deep and resonant. “What a pleasure to see you again!”

            He swept past me, and I followed in his wake, barely remembering to swing the door shut behind me as he glanced into the dining room, then turned left into the office, his smile widening. “Nero Wolfe! My friend, I owe you such a debt of gratitude! It is so good to see you again.” His smile became conspiratorial as he took in Wolfe's frown. “Of course! You don't recognize me. I've changed quite a bit since you saw me last. I am the Doctor, and you will... Please... return to me what I've entrusted to you.”

            He stared down into Wolfe's eyes, and Wolfe looked back up at him, wide-eyed, at first, with his hands slack on the arms of his chair. Then, slowly, I saw the index finger of his right hand begin to describe languid circles on the leather. Then faster and faster, and his eyelids slowly lowered to their accustomed slits.

            “Archie!” he suddenly barked, “The doorbell!”

            I came out of a fog I hadn't known I was in. The doorbell had been ringing insistently for a few seconds. I stepped back into the hall, and glanced through the one-way glass, then stared. Surely the costume party was down the street.

            The man was tall, elegant, his hair white and wild and just barely short enough not to be wind-tossed, and his eyes bright, pale, merry blue. His nose was a prominent beak, and around his eyes and mouth were deep and plentiful wrinkles, the kind that are carved by smiling. He was wearing a red velvet jacket with old-fashioned frog closures — a term I'd learned from Carla Nieder — over a ruffled white shirt, and had a cape over his shoulders. The petite blonde girl standing beside him, miniskirted, striped, with big hoop earrings, had stepped right out of the moddest of the mod, like an extra from an Austin Powers movie, but without the ironic distance. None of her features seemed like they should have been particularly attractive, eyes a bit large, and mouth very wide and full and nose a little oddly-shaped, but it all somehow came together into a package I'd have been happy to sit beside at the theater or hold hands with skating in Rockefeller Plaza. She wore her outlandish, old-fashioned costume like it was just clothes.

            The man's bright blue eyes met mine through the one-way glass, and he unmistakably beckoned me with his fingers.

            As I opened the door, he pushed it in and swept by, saying, “There you are, my good man. Thank you. I'm looking for--” He was glancing into doors, as the last visitor has done, and dove into the office, the pretty little blond following.

            “Hello,” he said brightly to Nero Wolfe. “I'm the Doctor, and this is my assistant, Jo Grant.” His eyes took in the dark form before Wolfe, and he scowled, snarling at him, in perfect unison with what his target was launching in his own direction, “You! What are you doing here!?!?”

            The dark-haired Doctor who'd been the first to arrive turned quickly back to Wolfe, pointing to the white-haired version, even as the latter turned to Wolfe and quickly said, “Don't listen--”

            “That is the--”

            “Every word he tells you will be a--”

            It went on from there, with both “Doctors” talking over one another, and the blonde looked over at me with a sort of embarrassed stoicism. The upshot seemed to be that each Doctor was accusing the other of being someone called “The Master,” which I thought was a bit over the top, who was apparently his sworn enemy, and who was far too dangerous to be allowed to have...something...although neither seemed quite clear what that something was.

            “Enough!” Wolfe's bellow was, even by his standards, deafening. “Both of you, shut up!

            They stood, side-by-side, mouths open, staring at him in abashed silence.

            “You!” Wolfe indicated the first of our two Doctors. “You would have me believe that you are the Doctor? And that he is an enemy of yours called the Master?”

            The dark goatee rose, and the piercing eyes glittered. “Quite so, Mr. Wolfe.”

            Wolfe's eyes tracked to the white-haired version. “And your claim is the reverse?”

            The blue eyes were bright and lips compressed. “My good fellow, you simply don't--”

            “Yes or no, sir!”

            The blue eyes blazed with temper then turned down. “All right, then, yes. That's my claim.”

            “Excellent!” Wolfe's voice was strong and certain. “Now, we're getting somewhere.” he turned to the goateed Doctor. “What was it you left with me?”

            The dark eyes gleamed. “An object of unimaginable power! An object which could change the balance of power throughout the universe!”

            “Indeed?” Wolfe's eyes gleamed. “That seems grandiose. Surely the global balance of power is enough. When I last met you, you were in the company of a personable young woman.”

            “Hah!” cried the white-haired version, and the blonde, who I guess I might as well call Jo Grant, as she didn't have competition for the name, smiled a satisfied smile.

            The dark-haired Doctor smiled sadly. “Yes, I used to travel with companions. But my life is very dangerous. One...a young woman named Cecily...was killed. I've never forgiven myself. It was my fault, and I mourn her still.” He gestured at his dark clothing. “I won't endanger another.” He turned toward the other pair. “You, though--” his voice was contemptuous. “You knew Mr. Wolfe would expect you to have such a companion. Is this some actress you've hired? Or have you hypnotized her into obedience?”

            “Hey!” cried Jo. “You liar! This is the Doctor, and you know it! Stop--”

            “Miss Grant, if you please!” Wolfe's voice was, again, a whipcrack. “The truth is patiently awaiting our arrival. Allow me to conduct us to it, and I will redeem its patience as much as possible.”

            Wolfe turned his eyes back again to the dark-haired Doctor. “This should be simple enough, then, to solve. You told me your appearance has changed since last we met. Very well. What did you look like?”

            The dark eyes blazed, and Doctor Goatee thought for a moment that he was going to reach across the desk and slap Wolfe for having the audacity to ask it. But he realized he wasn't, stepped back, his lips compressing. “I was...shorter,” he said. “with fleshy features and black hair worn down around my head. I wore checked trousers and a frock-coat.”

            “Indeed?” Wolfe's eyebrows rose. “Are you certain?”

            Something in Wolfe's tone put a seed of doubt into Doctor Goatee's mind, and He frowned. “I... No. No, I'm not. I've been...traveling...a very long time. I have changed my appearance more than once. Before that, I appeared older, tall and slender with thinning white hair that came to my shoulders. I was rather, er, tetchy then.”

            Wolfe's head inclined a sixteenth of an inch, and then he turned it an eighth to regard the white-haired one. “And you sir? Will you answer my question? What did you--”

            The wrinkles formed into one of the smiles that had carved their lines into his face. “I'm sorry, old chap, I'm afraid I have no idea.”

            “Because it hasn't happened to you yet,” Wolfe said. “You are an earlier Doctor than the one I met in 1968. My past is in your future.”

            “Very clever, Mr. Wolfe!” The dark Doctor, who I guess we can call the Master, because, well, that was who he clearly was, had a new tone, now, sneering, superior and generally unpleasant. He had stepped back toward the door, and was aiming a black metal tube at us.

            The Doctor started toward him, but a gesture with the black cylinder, as the Master said, “Ah-ah-ah, Doctor,” stopped him where he was.

            The Master returned his sneer to Wolfe. “I can't say I'm sorry. Such posing and posturing, it's beneath us, isn't it?” He indicated the Doctor. “When last you saw him, whenever that will be, he left something, entrusted something to you. A vastly powerful weapon, stolen from our homeland, a weapon called the Hand of Omega.”

            The Doctor looked shocked. “You know--?”

            “About the Hand of Omega? Of course I do, Doctor! You stole it from Gallifrey with your TARDIS. I knew it was too dangerous for you to keep aboard her, so you must have hidden it somewhere, somewhere here on Earth.” He sneered richly as the Doctor stared quietly. “Then, after Devil's End, I found the list in your Coalescence Room, and I knew you would only hide it there if it was of the utmost importance. I knew you had entrusted the Hand to the keeping of someone on that list!”

            “Coalescence Room?” the Doctor seemed to find the idea preposterous. “There's an intermittent chronic displacement in the Coalescence Room. I never use it. I suppose if I placed a hysteresis field on the doorway and reversed the polarity of the neutron flow...”

            “You will use it, Doctor,” the Master sneered, “and when you do, you will--”

            “Grow orchids there,” interrupted Wolfe. “Or, at least, one orchid, a  phalaenopsis Hieroglyphica potted in the shell of an Illurian mountain clam, and whose roots were once wrapped in a list of speakers from the second page of an advertising circular for the 1967 Orchid Grower's Symposium.” He looked to the Doctor again. “This TARDIS the Master refers to, I take it this is your craft with which you travel back and forth through time? Shaped, no doubt, like a Police Call Box?”

            I don't want to tell you I was staring at Wolfe with my mouth open, but these reports are worthless if I fudge, so I'll skip what I was doing with my face, and tell you that the Doctor was staring at Wolfe with his mouth open, until he finally managed to say, “Just so.”

            “And whatever science propels it through time, it must not always be entirely contained. This chronic displacement transports objects through time. So when your future self went to plant the p. Heiroglyphica in this clamshell, he cast aside the paper from my Plant Rooms he had wrapped it in, and it was swept back in time for the Master to find.” Wolfe turned back to the Master. “The list of names was meaningless, sir. You have killed two men to no purpose.”

            The Master's sneer deepened. “I think not, Mr. Wolfe. After all, Mr Bamford was most eager to tell me that, if someone from that list were entrusted with an item of utmost importance, it would be you. And here you are, proclaiming that you have been visited by the Doctor! You will lead me to the prize he entrusted to you.” The Master's eyes gleamed darkly under his heavy brows. “I am the Master, and you will obey me!

            “No, sir!” Wolfe's roar was deafening. “My mind is all that I have that I exercise! It is not so puny as to be cowed by another. I shall not break the trust that has been placed in me!”

            He was a mesmerizing sight as bellowed up at the standing man, but a tiny flicker distracted me, and I looked over to see Jo Grant's brown eyes staring intensely at mine and then flickering over to a metal object, a silver cylinder perhaps an inch in diameter, protruding from the Doctor's pocket. The Doctor stood frozen, hands at elbow height, and the Master's hands kept moving smoothly, sweeping the black device in his hand back and forth like a pistol, keeping all of us covered.

            “Are you certain, Mr. Wolfe, you wish to defy me?” The Master's voice was silk over steel. “You apparently know what became of Messrs Bamford and Marten. Do you have any idea how exquisitely painful that fate is?”

            Jo was biting her lip, looking from me to the Doctor's pocket and its protruding cylinder again.

            “Not painful enough,” Wolfe was replying, “to outweigh the injury to my self-regard if I were to betray the trust placed in me. I will no more bow to your threats than to your will.”

            The same ugly impulse he had squelched before was suddenly clear in the Master's eyes and his sneer and he swung his tube back to Wolfe, and there was a flash, and all hell broke loose.

            Wolfe screamed, a shriek of agony unlike any I had ever heard from him, and Jo and the Doctor both made a jump for the Master, but Jo's foot caught in the edge of the Kerghan rug, and she tumbled into the Doctor's path, tripping him up, and he caught her in his arms and swung her out of his way. As they turned, I reached and snatched the cylinder from his pocket, saw that the far end was a red ring with what was clearly some sort of focusing device in its center, and a button on it that fell comfortably under my thumb when I pointed the focus away from me, and I aimed it at the Master, and squeezed.

            The Master leaped, himself letting out a shriek, and his black device fell from his fingers to the carpet, and the Doctor had finished his spin, and snatched his device from my hand, and spun again to aim it at the black tube the Master was scrabbling for on the carpet, and it exploded in a shower of sparks. The Master was fast, and turned away from his weapon, whether to attack or run, I don't know, but by then I had reached into my desk drawer, and pulled out the Marley .38, which I had decided against wearing out to Marten's place in Westchester because we hadn't been working a murder case.

            By the time I had it leveled at the Master, the Doctor had put away his silver device, and was sneering at me. “A gun. Typical. After all the death and all the violence, the human's first impulse to reach for a weapon!”

            There was something about the way he pronounced the word “Human” that made me want to give him a second look, but the calculation in the Master's eyes told me he needed to have a weapon pointed at him.

            “Archie!” Wolfe's voice had a bit of a quaver to it, and sounded slightly odd, but was strong and healthy enough. “Get Mr. Cramer.”

            “I'm a little busy at the moment, sir, holding a killer at gunpoint. I know you dislike using the phone, but--”

            “Very well,” Wolfe grunted. “What is the number?”

            I told him.


            After he'd called Cramer, Jo had used the phone, referring to a piece of paper she had pulled from her small purse, and by the time Cramer arrived, with Stebbins and two uniforms in tow, she'd spoken to a General named Kramer, which offered much room for confusion.

            She was telling Kramer that someone called Lethbridge-Stewart had held the Master in the past when he began speaking softly. “Come now, Miss Grant. There's no need to call in UNIT. Surely this is--”

            “You've forgotten,” the Doctor told him pleasantly, “that Jo here's learned how to block your hypnotism.”

            The Master didn't even respond, he simply turned his eyes to me. “Mr. Goodwin. Come here. You needn't fear me, you have that fine pistol in your hand. Have you ever wanted to be rich? To be in charge instead of slavishly following orders?” His dark eyes glittered, and I stepped slowly toward him.

            “No, Archie!” cried the Doctor, in a tone of concern so genuine it was hard to remember the way he had sneered at me for pulling my gun. “Don't listen to him!”

            I glanced at the Doctor and my eyes dismissed him as I pulled my necktie from its knot, stepping closer to the Master.

            “You see?” the Master asked, as I reached and pulled the tie loose, sliding the narrow end from my collar. “Listen to me. Listen to me, and you will be the one in charge, you will be the one giving order. Listen to me, and there will be nothing you can't--”

            That was when I stuck the tie in his mouth.  Jo sniggered into the phone, then told her General Kramer to ignore it, as I wrapped the ends around his head and tied them tightly.

            Jo's General had apparently wanted to speak to our Cramer, because she repeated the number I'd given Wolfe, Cramer's cellular.

            When Cramer did arrive, he already had a cigar in his mouth.  He never smoked them, just chewed them as a substitute for Wolfe or me — or, in this case, the United States Government, who apparently were giving him the kinds of headaches he usually got from us.

            “I've had word from On High,” he told the Doctor and Jo, who was now sitting in the red leather chair, massaging her twisted ankle, “that you two are free to go whenever you please, but that I should request your help, Doctor, in making sure that this Master of yours has been rendered harmless.”

            “Oh, he's never that, Inspector,” said the Doctor with a wide smile. “But this should help.” he took his device from his pocket, and spun the bottom of the cylinder before aiming it at the cornered form of the Master. There was a whining hum, and several small pops, sparks and puffs of smoke from within the Master's clothing. “There we are.”

            “Thanks,” Cramer grunted, with little apparent gratitude. “Cuff 'im Purley. The brass are sending in a special military transport to bring him back to prison in England, but in the meantime, we'll be charging him with the murders of Alec Marten and Christopher Bamford.” He turned back to the Doctor and Jo. “Apparently your friends have some set-up where they'll try him on our evidence, plus their own, and, frankly, they're welcome to him.”

            The fun part was watching Purley Stebbins' face when he saw my tie in the Master's mouth.

            “For God's sake, Goodwin!” he cried, reaching for the ends, and the Doctor stood and said imperiously, “Sergeant Stebbins, I promise you, if you remove that gag, you will regret it.”

            Purley spun toward him. “Is that some kind of threat?”

            Cramer's cell phone rang again, breaking the tension, and Cramer grunted into it, then said, “Yes General.” Then “Really?”  Then, “Okay, you're the general, General.”

            He turned to Purley. “Sergeant Stebbins, we're under orders from this General Kramer-with-a-K to gag the prisoner.”

            Stebbins shrugged, went out to the car, and brought back a leather gag of the sort used on violent drug addicts to keep them from biting.

            He removed my Tie from the Master's mouth, then said, “Open wide, Buddy.”

            If the Master had had laser beams in his eyeballs — and with that other damned thing of his, I see no reason why he shouldn't — Purley would have been a puddle of goo.

            After his men had led the Master out, cuffed and gagged and with a harness bull on each elbow, Cramer glanced over at Wolfe. “Are you feeling all right, Wolfe? You look... Odd.”

            Wolfe glowered at him. “I have been subjected to deadly alien radiations from some unknowable device! I am nothing like all right!”

            Cramer rolled his eyes. “This Star Trek stuff is much too far over my head,” he said. “I'm glad to be shut of it.”

            “I, as well.” said Wolfe.


            When Cramer had gone, Wolfe turned to the Doctor. “There is one other thing, sir. Your older self told me that one day, someone would arrive to whom I should give what he gave into my care for safekeeping. It is reaching the point where I am concerned I shall not be able to continue to care for it. Can you take custody of it?”

            The Doctor smiled broadly at him. “Why, my dear chap! What is it?”

            “You told — you will tell me — Confound it, will you sit down, sir!

            I really had to give it to him. He'd been sitting, craning his neck this way and that at standing men since the Master's arrival, and managed to bear it as long as he could. Finally, any man would crack.

            The Doctor looked put out at his tone. “Well, certainly, if you'd like. I don't see the need to be snappish about it.”

            “I like eyes at a level, sir! My neck is not made of rubber!”

            The Doctor shrugged, sitting in one of the yellow chairs. Wolfe started to look at him, frowned, and adjusted the angle of his head, frowning further.

            “As I was saying,” he finally murmured, “your older self told me that it is a plant from what he called the Forest of Cheem. He'd been growing it from a cutting given to him by a friend.”

            The Doctor's blue eyes widened in wonder. “Forest of-- Good Grief, man, are you serious?”

            Wolfe grunted. “Shouldn't I be?”

            The Doctor pushed his hand back though his white curls. “That's extraordinary! That's... If you've had it since...” his eyes focused on Wolfe. “Have the pods-- the six things like pseudobulbs around the base of it — started to merge?”

            “They have.”

            “Then it's urgent!” the Doctor sprang to his feet. “Will you bring me to it? Us to it? Come on, Jo!”

            Jo Grant stood, a little ginger on her right ankle, and I did as well, and Wolfe muttered “Confound it!” and did the same. He took Jo in his elevator while the Doctor and I bounded up the stairs, and we went together into the little hidden alcove in the Tropical room.

            We stood together looking down at the large, beautiful plant, and the Doctor breathed a quiet few words. “I have to get this home.”

            “I thought as much,” Wolfe said. “I will miss it. This has been a thing of never ending mystery and beauty.”

            The Doctor smiled at him. “And it will be still more, Mr. Wolfe. Trust me.”

            As I helped the Doctor carry the pot to the stairs, I noticed that it took Wolfe two tries to press the elevator button. The first time, his finger landed just below it, and he blinked down at it, as if surprised to find it growing from his hand.

            Getting the plant downstairs between us was heavy work, and we were in the front hallway, watching Wolfe and Jo come out of the lift, before I managed to ask the Doctor, in an undertone, “Will that thing the Master hit Wolfe with have any lasting effects? He's putting up a good front, but--”

            “Oh!” The Doctor's eyes widened in surprise. “You mean you don't realize?”

            “Realize what?” I asked, but the Doctor was loping over to Wolfe, looking him up and down. Wolfe stood still, bearing it with what grace he could.

            The Doctor shrugged. “No more than an inch, an inch-and-a-half at most.”

            Wolfe had stepped around him and returned to his chair, sliding in and shifting, as if, for the first time in all the years I had known him, he could not quite get comfortable in it.

            “Sit down, all of you!” Wolfe barked, and the Doctor smiled as he resumed his seat. “Now, what was this blather of inches?”

            “Oh, no!” said the Doctor. “Not inches, surely, certainly not more than one and three-quarters!”

            Wolfe shifted his fundament again. “To what are you referring?”

            “The shrinkage,” said the Doctor. “The Master didn't manage to keep the Tissue Compression Eliminator on you long enough to shrink you more than that, I'm sure of it!”

            Wolfe's face paled and his voice became dangerous. “Shrink.... Me!?!?

            “Well, naturally, my good fella,” said the Doctor easily. “That's what the TCE does! Five seconds is fatal, but in the brief fraction you were under, well... Surely not as much as two inches.”

            Wolfe was aghast. “Two inches? Two inches? In all dimensions?”

            “Of course!” said the Doctor cheerily. “Come on, Jo, we need to get that plant back to the TARDIS!”

            “What is it, Doctor?” she asked.

            “Oh, I'll tell you on the way.” he helped her to her feet, and led her to the hallway.

            “Come back here!” Wolfe bellowed. “What is the meaning of this--”

            The Doctor and Jo exchanged amused glances which I supposed was all right for them, and I opened the door for them as they carried the precious plant, and closed it behind them as they made their way down the seven steps.

            “Archie!” cried Wolfe as I returned to the office. “This is insupportable! My arms, my legs! My neck and head! I am nearly two inches shorter!” He wriggled again in the chair and then sighed. “I'm afraid there's nothing for it, Archie, Your notebook. Four summerweight suits, three pairs--”

            “Oh, no, sir,” I said. “You'll need to come to the tailor. I can't possibly--”

            “Confound it!” snarled Wolfe, and stood again, staring down at his chair as if it had betrayed him. “Call Smith, Wainwright and Sons first thing in the morning. They'll have to come and take measurements. I'll need a new chair by the end of the week. After you've made the appointment with them, you'll fetch the car to bring me to the tailor. This frenzied paroxysm is intolerable!”

            He stalked back out into the hall toward the elevator, and I stood to watch as he tried to stab the call-button and missed.

            “Confound it!” he cried, and aimed again.

The End