The Orchid Thief
A “Nero Wolfe” Mystery
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?”
“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.