The Orchid Thief
A “Nero Wolfe” Mystery
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.
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...”
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, them,” 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!”
“Two conquests,” 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 from 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.