The Orchid Thief
A “Nero Wolfe” Mystery
When I arrived in Alec Martin'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 Martin 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 Martin, 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.”
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!?!?”