Flowers and Trees
The unpleasant interview with the Teniente del Policía Nacional and his men had left Lily Rowan fretting about who might be watching her and what dangers they might pose. So, when the police departed, she had checked out of the Hilton, shipped half of her luggage back home to New York, dropped her maid, Mimi, off at the airport, and taken a series of increasingly rattle-trap taxis around Belén in hopes of confusing any possible pursuers. She ended her day by checking into the Hotel Real, an aging establishment of worn luxury whose stuccoed walls and tiled roofs had once hosted the likes of Caruso and Theodore Roosevelt. Lily wasn’t sure how much good all her efforts at confusion would do. She would be the first to admit that, unlike her missing companion, she was no private detective and not much in the way of a conspirator. Her natural inclination was to meet trouble head-on, not to skulk around it.
When faced with a disaster, though, a woman had to do what she could. Before Lily returned to the airport the next day, she raided her suitcases for clothing more suited to a long-term resident of the large American expatriate community than her Manhattan fashions. As a rule, she avoided the Yankee female’s usual outfit of tailored linen slacks and a floral blouse. But Lily knew she was a much richer, freer, and more educated woman than the natives generally encountered, which made her memorable. Today the warm-weather uniform of an American wife abroad gave her what she needed, not anonymity but a familiar flamboyance that inspired contempt and eventual disinterest in the local beholder. After checking her darkened reflection in the tarnished silver of her new suite’s full-length mirror, she decided to shade her features with a pastel silk scarf tied over her hair and hide the tiny lines tension had drawn around her eyes with sunglasses. Housewives meeting beloved older in-laws at the airport did not look panicky any more than they looked glamorous.
Fitting in with the crowd was her biggest reason for straining up onto her toes and waving frantic greetings at the Douglas DC-4 as it taxied towards the Terminal Regional de Belén, props slowly churning the humid seaside air. If she allowed herself to be honest – and honesty was something Lily practiced – there was another, pettier reason for making a scene that not even this crisis could suppress. She knew a fuss would annoy the man who, as certainly as care followed love, was staring out one of the windows of the airplane. His large face would be scowling, his fingers clutching the arms of his seat as he waited for some last-minute disaster to wrench defeat from the jaws of his latest victory over motorized transport. Annoyance, Lily told herself, would give him something else to think about. If she also enjoyed irritating him, that was her look-out.
After he cleared the passport check with an efficiency and speed that would have amazed her without the years of anecdotes about his behavior in a crisis, she took a deep breath. Then she flung herself at him. “Pete!” she squealed in the sort of enthusiastic and cutesy tones that typically drove her mad.
He caught her. It was amazing. Then his heavy arms wrapped around her and his thick lips kissed her cheek, an even bigger cause for surprise. But what really shook Lily were her own tears, even though they were appropriate to the roles they were acting out. Her relief had turned on the waterworks. That, she’d half-expected. What she hadn’t anticipated was the disturbing mixture of sympathy and fellow-feeling that kept them flowing, feelings triggered by considering just what it took to get Nero Wolfe to embrace a weeping Lily Rowan. It had needed a disaster for them to act like this in public.
All the better reason for her to stick to her role. She wielded a lacey handkerchief. “Darling! How lovely to see you! You look wonderful!” He looked like hell.
“So do you, honey-child.” The flat, middle-American accent suited his words, but the suitably revolting pet name still earned him what she did next.
Lily giggled. “Aw, you big ol’ galoot.” Well, he was certainly big, resembling a taller, handsomer Charles Laughton in his current outfit. “Okay, I’ve dried up. You can let loose.” She pulled back in his embrace a little and swatted at him ineffectually until he released her, then switched feminine roles to ask in business-like tones, “Where’s your luggage?”
“Over on the carousel, if these characters have managed to get the plane unloaded yet. In this country, I guess you get to line up twice, just so you’ll have a fighting chance of passing whatever you’ve smuggled in to the friends who’ve come to meet you while you wait. I swear, kid, I’ve never seen anything like this Latin notion of efficiency in my life.”
“You’ll get used to it. And it’s warm here.”
“That it is. I’m sweating already.” He slung one arm around her shoulders and used his free hand to pull out his handkerchief and flourish it across his face. His handkerchief wasn’t the usual yellow silk, but a white cotton that fitted the style of his grey flannel suit.
“Then I hope you brought a hat. Since George is at work, I have the convertible.”
He snorted. It was the first noise she’d heard out of him that sounded like his usual self. “You? Drive? You’d better give me the keys.”
“Uh-uh.” Lily pulled out the keys and jingled them. “You don’t get to drive until you’ve watched the locals at work for a day or two. The Keystone cops were nothing to them. Come along, dear.”
If there had been a chance, she would have wondered where Wolfe got the battered brown suitcases he pulled off the baggage counter and toted without complaint. They were nothing like the exquisite kidskin luggage he normally fancied, the kind with which he had gifted the absent man of whom neither of them spoke. Instead Wolfe passed through customs with a brisk efficiency uncharacteristic of his self-indulgent nature. Lily was fairly sure that money changed hands, but it must have been the correct sum because the handsome, dark features under the custom officer’s peaked cap never altered. After that, the skycap that followed them with the bags prevented any real conversation. Lily laced her arm through Wolfe’s and half-walked, half-towed him through the crowds of travelers, keeping up her own idiotic line of chatter above the lively chorus of voices in Spanish and English that filled the terminal building.
He got into the Cadillac like a lamb and didn’t comment as she threaded the car through the now-familiar narrow and twisted streets of Belén, even though she could tell he was making an effort not to show his terror. His vehicle phobia, worsened by his driver being a woman, was probably all that kept him quiet even after she pulled off the pavement by a small cluster of palms a few miles outside of the city limits. She put up the top of the convertible, cleaned the mud off the license plates, and then turned the car around and got them going back towards her new hotel, all in silence. It wasn’t until after he was ensconced in the living room of her suite, in a wickerwork high-backed chair big enough even for his bulk, that he scowled at her and asked, “Miss Rowan, have you heard from him?”
“Not a word, not a sign.” She started to reach for the sterling cigarette case on the coffee table and then stopped.
He glanced up at the ceiling fan and then towards the French doors that were opened onto the wrought-iron balcony. The lips pursed slightly. “Please go ahead if you feel the need to smoke.”
Her eyebrows arched. “That’s a switch.”
His massive form shuddered slightly in what a certain someone might have called a shrug. Resolutely, she turned her mind away from that someone. Right now, dwelling on those memories and their attendant worries would weaken the concentration she needed for dealing with Nero Wolfe. Wolfe promptly proceeded to try her control by explaining, “I much prefer a female smoking to a female unnerved.”
“Do we have the time to waste on this?” Lily was pleased that the question came out curious. “I mean, I know your views about women, and your particular opinion of me, and mostly I have a lot of fun with them. But now--” Shaking her head, she trailed off and lit the cigarette she no longer wanted. Lily knew better than to expect Wolfe to wield the lighter for her, which was fine. She was quite capable of taking care of herself.
He considered her, eyes narrowed to slits. Then he sighed. It wasn’t really a bushel of air that emerged from him, no matter what the published descriptions claimed. “No, you are right to castigate me. Instead of badgering you, let me proffer my thanks for your telephone call. I disliked learning of this affair at third-hand, but that is no excuse for imposing my opinions within your household, however temporary it may be.”
Lily waved the cigarette in mute acknowledgment. Its smoke arced and curled a signature onto the unspoken truce between them.
“Of course, all of these minor efforts at concealment will be ineffectual if our opponent is either official or--” He paused, assessing her, and then continued, “Archie himself.”
“You could convince me Archie Goodwin would voluntarily disappear during our trip to the Caribbean without telling me, his – traveling companion. You could certainly convince me he would do so and not tell you, his - employer. But to not tell either of us, or Mr. Brenner, or Mr. Panzer, his closest male comrades? No.”
She thought the expression in the brown eyes when he spoke might be approval. “I agree. Therefore, please inform me, to the best of your ability, of what you saw and felt in the days leading up to Archie’s disappearance. Do not try to edit your impressions, although some attempt at temporal organization might help.”
Well, no matter what Nero Wolfe’s opinion of her was, at least he didn’t simplify his vocabulary for her sake. Taking a deep breath, marshaling her thoughts, she began to speak.
Wolfe would later ask me why I didn’t put Lily on a plane to the States before I disappeared. Some genius private detective he was, to ask me that. He’s spent enough time with her down through the years, willing or no, to grasp how much good such a suggestion would have done. Sure, Lily would have gone, but not without explanations and persuasions I didn’t have, not then. She’s not real big on unquestioning obedience in the face of danger since, as she likes to point out, it’s not like she faces danger for a living, the way I do. Come to think of it, danger or no danger, I’m not big on automatic compliance myself, so maybe I’d better leave her attitudes alone. After all, it was a rare example on my part of granting a favor without asking enough questions that caused all the trouble in the first place.
I’d caught Wolfe’s attention that preceding January when I told him where I’d be spending most of my vacation days for 1956. He finished dabbing at his lips, put down his yellow linen napkin on the mahogany table top, and said, “If it will not inconvenience you unduly, there is a place of which I would like a reliable description. The Barlovento archipelago is--”
“—home to some of the world’s most spectacular epiphytic orchids, especially up in the Diagós Mountains on San Rosario. Lily Rowan told me that, but I already knew. You’ve gotten packages of seedlings with Barloventian postage stamps on them seventeen times over the past decade.”
His nostrils had flared minutely when I mentioned Lily Rowan. He’d never forgiven her for getting lipstick on him while providing his alibi during the Zeck affair. We were at the dining room table, though, and Fritz Brenner parading in the main dish interrupted Wolfe before he could vent his ongoing irritation with my favorite long-time lady friend. The way Fritz cooks, duckling roasted in cider with Spanish sauce has a beauty that would soothe any number of savage breasts, even that of Nero Wolfe in a bad mood about a good-looking woman. So, after congratulating a beaming Fritz, wielding a deft carving knife, and cleaning off a breastbone with leisurely relish, Wolfe resumed his interrupted request in a mild enough manner.
“Since you remember the packages, you will have noted that my oncidium barloventia all stemmed from the same source. I recently ordered an interesting variant strain of brassavola cordata from Señor Esteban Vega, as well. The slopes of his coffee plantation encompass a small valley still in its pristine forested state, from which the Señor harvests a number of rare species for collectors.”
“You want me to have a look around.”
“Tropical cloud forests are not as unpleasant for the casual sightseer as jungles. I believe there are access roads. I will write Señor Vega to inquire if a visit from you would be acceptable.”
I snorted. He may have opened the packages of seedlings, but I paid the tab with customs. Given what those orchids cost Wolfe, Vega should roll out the red carpet and lay on the dancing girls ready to mambo. Seeing my expression, Wolfe raised his eyebrows, which goaded me into bringing up the detail he seemed to have forgotten. “Just in case it’s slipped your mind, I’ll be on vacation and spending time with a companion I don’t really want to discommode. Lily isn’t very fond of bugs and snakes.”
It was his turn to snort. “Bah. Whatever her faults, I have never known Miss Rowan to be subject to missishness, merely to freaks of feminine temperament. She is also very fond of orchids if your greenhouse depredations are any indication.” His eyes narrowed. “I understand Miss Rowan owns a ranch in Montana. I know she rides.”
As Wolfe implied, Lily was entirely capable of dealing with the great out-of-doors if it suited her mood. I shrugged. “Okay. If you ask Vega, I’ll ask her. If she says fine, we’ll go.” I really should have asked more questions.
Lily paused to consider her next words. Her voice was already slightly hoarse from talking. “When we finally reached the main house, Señor Vega was brusque but polite. I didn’t much like his wife, but I prefer women with a firmer grip on reality. She thought I was after her husband when I wasn’t even bothering to flirt, not wanting trouble in unfamiliar territory. Besides, why would I bother?”
“Was Señor Vega not worth the effort?” Wolfe was obviously only interested in hearing her answer, not in judging her behavior. One rare advantage of his attitude towards females was that actions others pronounced immoral he thought were natural to her gender and looks.
“No, he was very polished, very handsome in a Latin-bandleader-gone-rustic kind of way. He’s lame from some war wound, but that’s not a drawback. It wasn’t the looks or the attitude. I was traveling with Archie, and we have a deal about either of us collecting scalps while on a trip together. Too complicated. It makes for social awkwardness, we’ve found. I’m sure you understand.” Lily got up, suddenly restless. “Listen, would you like something to eat or drink? We’ve been at this for a while.”
“Yes, but only if it will not disrupt your concentration.”
“It won’t. I have some of the local beer, brewed by members of Belén’s German colony. You can even get it at the American casino. They sell it to the Europeans. It’s supposed to be that good.”
“Thank you. How did Señora Vega strike you?”
“As playing a role. Somebody showed her too many pictures of Lola Montez at too young an age. But she was very good looking and knew how to dress to accentuate her appearance, even given her femme-fatale complex. Also, she was a tall, willowy blonde, which goes over well on this island, as I have every reason to know. I don’t think she had anything much to worry about. She was only being passionate, possessive.” Lily paused for a moment in the tiny kitchenette, wondering where she’d put the church key. Finding it, she opened the bottle of beer and placed it on the painted tin tray next to the glass. “Señor Vega seemed as little interested in her as he was in me. I got the impression he was more preoccupied with his coffee trees and orchid flowers than either of us.”
She carried the tray back into the living room and set it down on the teak coffee table next to Wolfe. “Señor Vega spent most of his time at our early lunch conferring with the foreman, Eugene Rutheford, that he’d hired to take care of the fieldwork his leg makes difficult. Now, Eugene was interested in flirting with me. During our entire ride out to the valle de orquídeas he kept nattering on about his military record and the size of his great-grandfather’s plantation before the late unpleasantness between the states. It did him no good, for the same reasons I applied to Señor Vega. Besides, as a rule I’m not fond of the younger version of the thick-bodied, slab-faced Dixie blond.”
Nero Wolfe poured the beer, tasted it, and nodded brusquely. “Quite palatable. Please continue, Miss Rowan.”
She was too tired to rile him by asking him to call her Lily again, too tired even to go back into the kitchenette and make herself a proper drink. Instead she sat down on the ancient high-backed couch, curled her legs underneath herself, and stared out through the balcony doors at the fat, glossy leaves of the trees planted in the hotel courtyard, trying to muster her thoughts into order.
“While we rode, Archie was concentrating on the countryside. Do you know that look he gets on his face when he’s memorizing something to describe later?” Wolfe’s chin bobbed a little. “He only contributed to the conversation when he wanted to ask questions, mostly about the orchids. They were very beautiful, the ones we saw.”
Wolfe ignored the orchids. “Did you meet anyone else on the road down into the valley?”
“A handful of workers from the coffee plantation, and a patrol of soldiers when the path crossed a paved road just before we started the steepest part of the descent. The sergeant in charge talked to Rutheford for a couple of minutes, but I didn’t catch much of the conversation. My Spanish is poor.”
Wolfe sipped his beer without commenting.
“It was something about outlaws, I got that much. They looked Archie over carefully but didn’t seem to mistake me for anyone dangerous.”
“Not in the legal sense, certainly,” Wolfe agreed politely.
She stared at him for a moment, and then slowly smiled. “A compliment. Wonders never will cease. In any case, we didn’t meet anyone else going or coming.” She paused. “It doesn’t matter right now, but I took a lot of photographs in the valley itself. It’s covered in cloud forest on the top of the slopes and tree ferns farther down. The orchids are everywhere.”
His eyes closed. She wondered what he was thinking. “Thank you. What occurred upon your return to the hacienda?” The weary eyes directed toward her were open again, but narrowed.
She picked her words with care. “Nothing that seemed important at the time. Archie was obviously worried about something. We saw the workers again. Señor Vega asked us to stay to tea. I wasn’t too wild about the idea. Mr. Rutheford pressed us to stay, too, but Señora Vega didn’t look very enthusiastic, so we made our excuses. We got back in the car and returned to our hotel. When I got up the next morning, Archie had vanished.”
At lunch that day, I had a hunch that Vega was uneasy. It was my first clue something was wrong. It wasn’t anything specific I could put my finger on, but he didn’t want us on his veranda, no matter how well prepared for our visit he was. Not a happy realization, given that his plantation, although only about fifteen miles inland from Belén, was well out into the boonies. All personal loyalties aside, everyone around here had to depend on Vega for a paycheck. I knew from the maps that there was only one main road crossing the mountains, which made his spread almost impossible for a foreigner to bug out from. If anything smoky was going on, this wasn’t a good place to be.
I didn’t let any of my thoughts show when I asked, “Do you make much of a profit from the orchids, Mr. Vega?”
He shook his head. The gesture was graceful. “No, Señor Goodwin. They are, at most, an excuse to hold back the valley from clearing and cultivation. I realize the greater part of my income from our coffee trees. The coffee produced from these mountains is quite famous. If you are from the household of Señor Wolfe, I am sure you have drunk our local brew.”
“I probably have. Mr. Wolfe likes the best of everything.”
Vega’s lips quirked in amusement. He must have corresponded with Wolfe, all right. “I grow a few other ornamental flowers as well, for the tourist markets in Belén and for collectors.” He reached out one long hand for the silver coffee pot in the center of the table and tilted his head inquiringly. After all that build-up, I had to nod. “It gives the best workers something to do on the off-seasons, so I do not lose them all to the port towns.” He passed the filled cup across to me with the air of the local lord honoring a visiting vassal. “This is of our plantation’s beans only. What do you think?”
I took a sip and rolled it around on my tongue, the way I’d been taught to work through the taste of a new dish. “Great.”
His nod of acknowledgement was regal. He poured a second cup for Lily and passed it over to her.
“What lovely cups. The pattern is so delicate.” Lily directed her comment across the satinwood tabletop. She was trying to be polite to Mrs. Vega, who stopped smoldering at me long enough to say, “Doulton.” From the expression she turned on Lily, the word should have stopped at “dolt.” I hoped the orchids were well worth this trip. Otherwise, I was going to owe Lily a big one, probably in the form of a visit to yet another Caribbean colonial cathedral. There are only so many domes and columns a guy can take.
“Nice work, I agree, but my grandmother still favored Wedgwood for her demitasse. Her coffee set was one of the few family heirlooms that survived the War Between the States.” Rutheford poured Mrs. Vega’s coffee smoothly enough that I could believe his grandmother favored drinking hot liquids. I’d reserve judgment on both granny’s fancy china and Rutheford’s antebellum heritage.
Rutheford seemed to like helping the ladies. He wanted to help Lily pick her horse, too, but he was distracted, first by Mr. Vega pulling him aside for some murmured instructions about the field workers, and then by Mrs. Vega demanding that he fetch her back a rare orchid or three for her vanity table. I thought about Wolfe’s reaction upon hearing that last order and grinned. Lily, who was checking the girth straps of the saddle on the gelding she’d selected, looked up long enough to sing-song, “I know what you’re thinking.” Ignoring the groom standing next to a mounting block, she swung up into the saddle, gathered the reins into her hands, smiled down at me, and said, “For once, I’d be on his side, too. Now, if Mr. Rutheford would only decide to join us for our journey--”
“Give him time. He’s trying to disarm high explosives over there. It’s a delicate job.”
But he didn’t need much more of our patience. With a final kiss pressed onto the back of her hand, Rutheford disentangled himself from Mrs. Vega and came over to mount his own horse, a roan mare. As we rode out beneath the wide, whitewashed archway, between the curled iron of the open front gates, he said, “Sorry about the delay, folks. These Latin ladies like to make their needs known. She’s all business underneath that high-gloss surface, though. Probably means to lace the orchids into her coiffure to score some point over another guest at the big dinner party we’re attending in Belén tonight.”
Or over her husband, I thought, but I kept that idea to myself. Although Mrs. Vega was obviously looking for romance, I stay away from married women even when I’m not traveling with someone else.
The paths up through the squat green trees of the coffee fields were steep. Over the mountains above us, the mist still hung low even though it was almost noon. We went in and out of the shade of an occasional palm or hardwood tree, survivors from the ancient forests when the slopes were cleared for cultivation. I saw some of Vega’s tame flowers planted in strips bordering the groves: lilies, poppies, rhododendrons, ground orchids. We passed a waterfall. The scents on the breeze were good and the views were better. Rutheford was more interested in telling us about himself than the countryside, but the scenery made up for the gab.
Lily split her time between being polite to our guide and taking pictures, and I divided my attention between the scenic beauties of the landscape and my companion. Still, I had enough attention to spare that I wasn’t caught by surprise by the patrol.
The sergeant leading the band gabbed at Rutheford in Spanish and he yakked back. I settled for trying to decide if the six kids in uniforms toting the automatic rifles had any idea of what to do with all that hardware and decided that they did. I wouldn’t take bets about either their aim or their restraint, though. Keeping a grin plastered on my face, I tried to look like the stupider sort of Yankee tourist. The sergeant still gave me a once-over, but the kids were more interested in twice- or third-overs of Lily. Without much more delay, we got on our way again.
When we finally got into the valley forest proper, I’d never seen so many orchids. They were everywhere, on a lot more of the trees than I would have expected from the detailed reports I’d read every year from Wolfe’s field collectors around the world. While I recognized almost all of the genera and quite a few of the species, a couple of the plants left even me stumped. Wolfe has a bias in favor of the beautiful in his collection, and some of the orchids I was seeing were either homely or just plain strange.
Rutheford’s tone was amiable, his words flowing as slowly as if coated with molasses. “You couldn’t say we cultivate them as much as encourage them, Miss Rowan. They’re parasitic, so it probably doesn’t do the trees here much good. Since the flowers are the only reason the trees aren’t cleared, I guess it’s a pretty fair exchange.”
We might have come and gone in peace, with nothing more interesting resulting from our visit than a chance for me to rag Wolfe about his taste in good looks trumping his interest in a comprehensive collection, if Rutheford hadn't been watching Lily more closely than where we were headed. As it was, when I fell back and dismounted to find a tree that needed more watering than the local rainfall provided, Rutheford was too interested in telling Lily how to adjust the camera she’d owned for three years to pay much attention to me. In a way, it was a pity he didn’t take the time to ask me a simple question.
Lily’s unadorned account hadn't been enough for Nero Wolfe, of course. He’d settled in to dig.
“Did you encounter anyone else on the way back to your hotel, perhaps at dinner or afterwards during some entertainment in the city?”
“Mimi went into Belén to enjoy the Grand Casino, but we ate in my rooms. We didn’t go out afterwards.”
“Indeed. Forgive my bluntness. During the night, did Archie disappear from your suite?”
Lily smiled dryly. Wolfe’s way of phrasing his question wasn’t her idea of blunt. She chose her own words accordingly. “No, from his rooms. As I believe you know, he likes to sleep in his own bed.”
The corners of his lips barely twitched. His even voice contained a faint note of what she chose to read as amusement. “I am aware that Archie usually prefers to return to the brownstone after his Manhattan recreations, Miss Rowan.”
She let it go. “I didn’t start worrying until I’d checked both my rooms and his own and found no note. They hadn't seen him leave at the desk, either, and I made them call the off-duty staff while I was there. Then I telephoned the usual places, hospitals and the local police.”
Lily wasn’t surprised when Wolfe said, “Given your knowledge of Archie, an entirely reasonable sequence of action.” Of course he wouldn’t consider her a panicky female. He understood the roots of his prejudices about women and could master them. Also of course he would never stop to think that she might not need or want his opinion of her actions. The intellectual arrogance went all the way down into his bone marrow.
She narrowed her eyes, but continued. “Later that same morning, I went to speak with the American charge d’affaires, a man from Missouri who, I think, used to be their State Superintendent of Schools before he got this post as a political pay-off. Somehow, he’d already heard all about me. I don’t think whatever he’d heard measured up to the best Rotarian standards because he had a set idea of where Archie had gone, and it seemed to involve a potent mixture of Archie’s dusky skinned maidens and my green-eyed monsters.” Lily sighed. “Given the work I put in strangling possessive impulses that I neither want nor need, I’m sure you understand me when I say his comments hit a sore spot.” Her gaze met Wolfe’s. They both glanced away. “I lost my temper. I’ll spare you a description of that, but, in short, my visit was a waste of three good hours.
“When I got back to my old hotel suite around lunchtime, there was a police lieutenant sitting in my bedroom with two of his men watching the doors. His name was Felipe Rosas y Barragon, and he spends too much time at the barber’s and too little time at the dentist’s. He wouldn’t say what he was doing in my bedroom and I wouldn’t say what I was doing in San Rosario. It took me another wasted hour to ease him out the door, with a lot of vague accusations followed by polite farewells on both sides. My suite had obviously been searched. Nothing else interesting happened during the interview except for one of the cops pinching my maid, Mimi. I sent her off on the evening plane to Miami, both to get her out of official reach and with instructions to phone you. I know when it’s time to call in the cavalry.”
“I’m surprised you considered yourself outnumbered.”
“Back home, I wouldn’t have. But those men of his--” She broke off, shaking her head. “Their lieutenant was smooth enough, I suppose. Still, he had that lean and hungry look about him. He may or may not have been acting in an official capacity. I didn’t wait to find out.” Lily restrained a momentary urge to grind her teeth. “I know when I’m outside my field of expertise.”
“Judicious.” The chin bobbed again. “Since then, you have shifted hotels?”
“It probably didn’t do much good. However, as near as I can tell, either the staff here stayed bought by my money or any anonymous visitors I’ve had in the last day didn’t want to be caught.” She waved a hand. “Please feel free to double-check. None of my possessions were disturbed, but otherwise I have no idea of what to look for, what would tell me if I’ve been searched again.”
He nodded, heaved himself to his feet, and began prowling the room, his tread as he hunted much lighter than she would have expected. Lily almost commented on his vivid resemblance to a fat and furry Tom who ruled the barn on her ranch in Montana but remembered their truce in time and swallowed the words. Instead, she said, “The chef in the restaurant downstairs is really good, the last fading remnant of this hotel’s former glory. It’s the local cuisine these days, though, not cordon bleu.”
“I’m sure his efforts will suffice.” His tone was polite but distant. Through the open door to the bedroom, she could see him running his hands through the contents of her open suitcases. He was taking her word about double-checking everything. She didn’t comment as he deftly unfolded one of her negligees and then delicately brought it to his face. Instead she shook her head before lighting another cigarette.
“Well?” she asked him ten minutes later.
“As you seemed to suspect, searched.” He grunted. “Whoever it was could not resist lingering over one of your courtier’s more ingenious contributions towards the propagation of our species.” So he’d noticed her watching him search her underwear. She wasn’t surprised. “Apparently, your intruder was fond of fish tamales.”
“Joy. More dry-cleaning for when I get home. Do you want to risk the phone?”
“No, Mr. Panzer is also in town, but he will send me messengers as needed. I can telephone him in an emergency, but I am better at judging the reliability of couriers than of telephone lines.” He stared off into the distance for a few seconds before he pursed his lips and then pulled them tight against his teeth. He repeated the gesture. “Let us attempt the efforts of the hotel chef. I have not eaten, and my brain needs fuel.”
Flowers caused all the trouble, of course, flowers and trees. I’d gotten back up onto my horse and was about to return to the trail when I noticed some bright sunshine between the tree trunks a few hundred yards further on. The green canopy around me was high enough, and the leafy undergrowth was thin enough, that I could make headway even on horseback and indulge in a little curiosity. I worked Old Paint forward until I came to the edge of a clearing. It held a large, terraced field hacked out of the forested mountain side, filled with more of Vega’s flowers, some field crops, and one huge tree. I took a long look at the agriculture and then yanked the reins and got the horse beneath me turned around and headed back towards the direction from which I’d come. It took me about five minutes to catch up with Rutheford and Lily, and I could only hope those five minutes weren’t three minutes too many.
“Where were you?” Lily asked.
I knew better than to even try and signal her ixnay. She’s not subtle that way. “Hydraulic pressure.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Sometimes nature is just unfair. I wish I could take such easy advantage of this groundcover. Archie, would you mind taking a picture of me, Mr. Rutheford, and this spray of Dendrobium?
“Nope.” Through the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon, Rutheford didn’t look tense or worried. He didn’t seem much of anything. I wasn’t too happy about that.
He talked all the way back to the ranchero, too. After we left the valley, I contributed to the conversation myself, raking up the names of some of the folks back home who were expecting to hear from us, and soon. Lily gave me an odd look, but played along.
“Sounds like an interesting place, Manhattan,” Rutheford said.
Lily spoke for both of us. “We like it. It’s not for everyone, but it is a good life,” she shot me an amused glance from under her eyelashes, “if you don’t weaken, that is.”
“Not for me, it wouldn’t be. I’m a country boy and proud of it.” Rutheford laughed. “Of course, I’d never seen the type of lady who flourishes in the big city up close before. Maybe I should reconsider.”
“Perhaps.” I saw Lily think about adding Rutheford to her creel one last time, probably just because she could, and I saw her tip him out of her net. At his age, he probably didn’t have enough experience to tell he’d been dumped.
Back at the main house, Rutheford went off to report to his boss while Lily and I checked our mounts, tipped the grooms, cleaned up, and took care of the other little tasks that follow a long ride out of a strange stable. Then we went back up to the terrace to say good-bye to our host and hostess.
Mrs. Vega was leafing through a magazine and barely deigned to notice our presence. Mr. Vega looked up from his reports, smiled, and said, “I hope the valley measured up to your expectations, Señor Goodwin.”
I shook my head. “It will be all I can do to keep Mr. Wolfe off an airplane after I report, and that’s really saying something. I haven’t seen anything like it outside of his greenhouses.”
Vega’s second smile was more than just a display of perfect white teeth. He was obviously proud of his orchids. “I am glad you think so. For generations my family has cared for the valley. It is a matter of pride to me that I am the first to discover how the valley can help care for my family.” He looked over at a servant who had silently come out onto the veranda. “Ah! But I see tea is ready. Would you care to join us, Señor, Señorita?”
Rutheford stirred from where he leaned on the veranda railings behind Vega before adding his signature to the invitation, and the little Mrs. glanced up from her copy of Vogue long enough to let a small wrinkle mar the perfection of her forehead. I didn’t need Lily to give me the hint. “No, thank you. We have to be getting back to town. Dinner reservations.” Our only reservations were for an evening together at the hotel while Mimi, Lily’s maid, got her chance to visit the Grand Casino. But that was neither here nor there.
Vega shrugged. “A pity. Some other day you must return to us, then.” He rose to his feet to see us out, the perfect host. Whatever was worrying him in the morning seemed to have cleared up now. Little did he know what Rutherford would tell him once we left.
I didn’t spot anyone following us back to Belén, and I checked. There wasn’t anyone obvious loitering around the hotel lobby or in the restaurant, either. Still, I was glad we were both at the Hilton and staying there. By the time we’d made it to the rooms, it was too late for the telephone calls I was still debating making. Not being overly familiar with the local laws, I wasn’t even sure if calls were necessary, and I wasn’t going to get sucked into this situation if I didn’t have to. Wolfe, though, would want to know, and he, at least, paid me for my trouble in telling him such things. I decided to consult with him the next morning during office hours. If nothing else, a chance to razz my substitute Orrie Cather, who would probably be putting his feet on my desk while he answered the office phone, was always welcome.
As for the rest of my evening’s activities, suffice it to say I got back to my own suite around one in the morning. I’d locked the door behind me and it was still locked. In all honesty, though, I couldn’t say that, given my busy evening, I was as alert as I should have been. The two of them grabbed me after I was inside but before I got the lights on. One of them went reeling with a bloody nose. It didn’t do me any good. The other one had ether and knew how to use it.
She remembered, of course, that Nero Wolfe refused to talk business at the table, but she’d never before seen him prove that it was a principle and not a taste. Even given his fatigue and fear, he set himself to making conversation with his involuntary hostess. An extended discussion of the current Manhattan literary scene led him to comment, in passing, “Archie has often described your patronage of promising writers to me at some length.”
“In tones colored by annoyance, I’d be willing to bet.” She shook her head slowly, allowing the smile to show. “It is to laugh, although I’d never let him hear me do it. I merely provide the extra money and small luxuries that allow my protégés to produce their best work. And Archie Goodwin protests this? It should arouse a comforting sense of familiarity in his breast.”
Wolfe’s lips quirked, but he only said, “It could be argued that comfort smothers rather than fertilizes. Some plants bloom only when starved.”
“Most men don’t, I’ve found. Women--” Lily let it trail off. Her nerves had been paying for his principles long enough. “Are we being observed?”
“Yes, although probably innocuously. Our waiters, confused by your lack of a wedding band, have debated if I am your husband or your lover. Given my evident absence of immediate charms, they have settled on the former.”
Wolfe spoke Spanish and his hearing was superb. She saw no reason to doubt him. “Hmm. Like most males, they don’t have a firm grasp of feminine psychology.”
Wolfe raised both eyebrows. Before he could comment, the waiters in question brought their shrimp ceveche to the table. Wolfe waited for them to leave and then assessed the dish. He savored his first bite, jaw and lips moving slowly, caressingly, eyes half-veiled by his lids. He had long eyelashes, Lily was amused to note. His chin bobbed. “Excellent. Under other circumstances, I would be gratified.”
“I’m glad. Have you decided how to proceed?”
“I believe,” he tapped one forefinger against his lips, “I believe I will also try the black beans and rice.”
Lily reminded herself that it would be unladylike to douse her dinner guest with the water pitcher. Her temper found another outlet. “That may not be a good idea. Congri is a local specialty, and this chef’s version is brilliant. The level of culinary competition will end up being such that Archie would have to show up in person and without a shirt to retrieve your full attention.”
A fork full of food paused on its way to Wolfe’s lips. He looked at it for a long moment, and then set his fork back down on his plate with some care. “Miss Rowan. Please understand that I correct you only because you are laboring under a misapprehension I find particularly irritating, and the two of us need to work together.” He laced his fingers. “By my count, that was the fourth time today you have implied Archie and I are physically intimate. We are not.”
She didn’t try to control her expression of skepticism. “Mr. Wolfe. Given the circles I move in, I recognize what I’m seeing when I look at you. And I, of all women, have reason to know you’re no priest. Archie’s never provided me with any details, but he doesn’t tell tales out of school. It’s one of his great charms.”
“I am not trying to argue with your intuitions about my preferences and potential.” He badly wanted to bellow at her, she could tell. It was probably the presence of the waiters restraining him. “I merely report the situation as it exists.”
“Look, it’s none of my business.”
He drew a deep breath through his nose and murmured, “Given your mistaken assumption, you have done a fair job of hewing to that belief, especially for a woman. However, you are still in error.”
She leaned back and dabbed at her lips, deliberating for a few seconds. “All right, then. I’m sorry if I’ve been stepping on your toes.” There were a lot more words trying to tumble out of her mouth, and she would always wonder if she would have said any of them. But that was when her eye caught movement over by the arched entrance into the restaurant. An exquisite blonde, dressed in Chanel black with matching high heels and bag, was briskly marching towards their dinner table. Lily made a noise. It must have been a striking noise, because Wolfe actually condescended to crane his neck towards the disturbance.
Without asking either of their permissions, Señora Vega paused for their waiter to pull out a chair, so she could join them at their dinner.
I woke up. As is usually the case after blacking out, I felt nauseous. As is less frequently the case, I had the experience to keep still rather than groaning or thrashing for any possible audience. My hard-earned skill was rewarded by the sound of voices. For a while they talked in Spanish, and I caught not a word while I fought my stomach back into place. But even during that struggle, my brain was beginning to work again. I knew the voices of the two men who were talking: Vega and Rutheford.
I let my senses take inventory. I was hungry, thirsty, and had to go, so I’d been out a while. No damage, aside from a throbbing head, queasy stomach, and bruised knuckles. There was something binding my ankles, though.
The volume had turned up. They weren’t talking, now, they were fighting, and Rutheford had switched over to English.
Vega followed suit. “—growing hemp and opium poppies in the valley. How stupid do you think I am? The workers warned me although they couldn’t do anything about the army patrols. And then, after the luck of the devil kept those soldiers from finding anything, you have to go and let the Yankee stumble over your private garden.”
“It’s only Goodwin. The woman didn’t see anything.”
Vega snorted. “And if she had? You would have taken her too, to dither over until you had no choices left about what to do with her?”
“I did it for you.” Rutheford sounded sulky. “You’re too slow considering your own interests. The ADL’s getting real strong, and they can smell blue blood from ten miles away. With your family background, living up in the mountains like you all do, you need some credit with them. It didn’t cost us much more than a few trees to supplement their medical supplies.”
“The rebels?” The first words were incredulous, but the next were acidic. “Eugene, you - infant. Rosas y Barragon has nothing to do with the Democratic Liberation Army. He and his men work for the same Yankee thugs who run the Casino. I am sure their filthy tourists are very much enjoying the Vega estate’s ‘medical supplies’.”
The silence that followed was thick. I thought I heard Rutheford swallow, but it may only have been my imagination.
“You did it for me, you say.” Vega again.
“Yes.” Rutheford had moved from sulking to uncertainty.
“My God. We will have to burn those fields at once. Why, in the name of all the saints, do I put up with you?” Another silence, one somehow different. Then Vega growled, “Lower your chin.”
“You know why.”
“Yes, I know why.” There was a sound of movement, and then more noises, subtle ones that I knew well enough to risk cracking my eyelids open. The light hurt, but I could see enough to tell it wasn’t some Latin embrace of friendship. Vega pulled back, and I shut my eyes again.
Rutheford cleared his throat. “Barragon’s thugs collected Goodwin for me. I can take care of it. No one will find out.”
Vega didn’t sound so smooth any more. “Of course they will find out! I was telephoned by my friend at the U.S. consulate. Another day and the hunters will be out in force. This is no anonymous field hand, Eugene. He has a patron and a mistress. He will be missed.”
“So I’ll dump him in the harbor. Problem over.”
“No, not over. But yours is probably the easiest solution, I agree. I’ll do it.”
Rutheford made a strangled noise. “You’ll need help cleaning up. Your leg--”
“Those idiots of Lieutenant Barragon can do some work for a change. It will be nothing, by all accounts, that they have not done before.” Vega sounded like he was talking through clenched teeth. “Give me that. Go. You have done enough.”
Rutheford went. I heard Vega sigh, followed by a few seconds of silence. I was just starting to tense when I heard the noise that told me I’d left my move too late. The hammer of a revolver clicked back twice. I froze. Wolfe--
Then Vega spoke. The words were in Spanish, so I didn’t get their significance. But the sounds of the words were engraved on my brain, and Wolfe was able to translate them for me later.
“God. Now I cannot even kill a Yankee, only because he is someone else’s knave. I am unmanned.”
I didn’t need a foreign language to know what the sound of his arm falling heavily to his side meant, or the meaning of the noises of the door closing, the lock turning, and his limping footsteps fading away down the corridor. For the moment, at least, those sounds meant I would live.
Lily studied Señora Vega. The woman’s smoldering attitude had been set to one side like a cocktail frock before a formal dinner party. Instead she was full of tense energy, her small clutch purse locked tight in her grip, her dark blue eyes darting back and forth between Lily and Wolfe.
There was nothing sensual in her tone, either. “This one is your guardian? No, your affianced?”
“This is Mr. Nero Wolfe.” It might have been a correction or it might have been an introduction. Lily thought it best to leave that choice to the Señora.
“No matter. I have come to tell you that, if you want your young man back, you will need to act quickly. It took me until this morning to pry what I needed out of my great fool of a husband and his foreman. They left Señor Goodwin still alive but confined and awaiting the renewed attentions of Lieutenant Rosas y Barragon.” Mistaking Lily’s start of recognition for confusion, Señora Vega added, “Barragon is a policeman, very crude, very violent. Probably he will kill Señor Goodwin, or his men will, if they have not already.” The words were impatient.
Wolfe said, with a calm chill to his voice, “I assume Mr. Goodwin discovered something wrong on your husband’s estate.”
“Yes. When Esteban tried to persuade me to go to my family yesterday, I made him tell me why. It took too long. He never thinks I understand anything, but I am not stupid.” The fine arch of the eyebrows came down, and her temperament showed before Señora Vega mastered herself. ‘Eugene let himself be talked into some nonsense, something involving bad flowers that your Señor Goodwin found out about. Then Eugene panicked and telephoned that scum Barragon, whose men kidnapped the Señor. I am sure Barragon wanted Eugene to kill Señor Goodwin, thinking it would tighten the snare. Unlike me, the police dog does not know when to leave well enough alone.” She shrugged. “Eugene was already frightened about – a thing that Barragon guessed, but he is not that weak, just young. So he ran to Esteban. Poor Esteban.” Her words were both sympathetic and clinical.
For some reason, they seemed to irritate Wolfe, as well. “Why are you telling us all this?” he asked brusquely.
“Why? Because nothing will be helped by Señor Goodwin’s death. I saw how you looked at him, Señorita. And you, Señor, are here the next day. He is one of those men whom others care about, whose death will be revenged. My father and uncle will speak to the President and explain the nonsense about the trees and flowers, but they cannot explain away your Señor Goodwin.” For a moment, something bitter peeked out from behind her eyes. “That is the way of the world here on our little island. One dead Yankee counts more than many dead natives. Rosas y Barragon has over-reached himself at last. You will save, or try to save, Señor Goodwin, and I will do the same for my husband and his foreman. So now I tell you where he is.”
“Wait.” Wolfe’s brusqueness was edged. “How did you know where to find Miss Rowan?”
Señora Vega looked surprised. “Is there another place she would stay? The American hotel? No, the food there is very dreadful. I called the front desk here and asked for the blonde Yankee woman. They knew who I was asking about.” Wolfe glared at her. She returned his look, puzzled, and then shrugged once more and opened the clutch purse she was carrying. “This is where Señor Goodwin is held. I made Esteban and Eugene give me the directions in different rooms, so I know they were honest.” She passed across the slip of paper to Lily. Wolfe’s fingers twitched minutely, but he restrained himself.
“Thank you.” As she took the paper, Lily knew that she was the one who the Señora had been addressing all along. “You didn’t have to do this.”
Señora Vega shrugged, but her eyes were shuttered by her lashes. “Men have their battles, their honor, and we have ours. For all her man’s supposed protection, in the end a woman must still make her own way in the world.”
“Yes,” Lily agreed. Even she could hear the sigh in her voice. “That’s very true.” She sensed Nero Wolfe stir minutely, but she kept talking. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”
“Save Señor Goodwin.” It was repeated as if to a thick student, but this island wasn’t Lily’s school and she only nodded in response. “I must go. There is still my husband and his foreman to worry about.” Señora Vega examined Wolfe briefly and grimaced. “You have your worries as well, I see. Goodbye, Señorita Rowan.” She was on her feet and crossing the dining room almost before the words were out of her mouth.
Wolfe watched Señora Vega click away across the tiles with narrowed eyes. He waited until she had exited before he spoke. “I will give you an emergency telephone number where you can call Mr. Panzer and inform him of what has occurred. He is in the capitol but has a private plane waiting and can be here in about two hours.”
“Don’t be silly. Call him yourself. I’m going with you.”
“What?” It was as flat as an ironed copy of the New York Times.
“This really isn’t my sort of affair, but you have no time and no trustworthy ally close to hand. I’d bet a c-note to a kiss that any help is better than no help at all, given the corner you’re shoved into.”
She was startled to see Wolfe grit his teeth. “I wager you are wrong, but I have no time right now to sponsor a debate between my own prejudices and intuitions.” He took a deep breath and released it. “Very well. Come along, Miss Rowan. Do only what I tell you to since, as you have said, this is not your area of expertise. Please remember, Queen Log is better than Queen Stork. Ineffectual assistance will suffice.” He arose, placed his napkin carefully on the table next to his plate, and stalked back towards the elevator.
She smiled wryly as she paused to sign the dinner check. Usually men worked the other way around, talking a good game about respecting women and then telling you to go away and play whenever the chips were down. Wolfe spoke his worst and did his best. Too bad he would never understand the power of that and apply it. On the other hand, for the sake of the nerves of the females of Manhattan, maybe it was just as well.
I waited for Vega to return, and I waited. After a while, I got tired of waiting, so I listened at the door, instead. Somebody was shifting around in the corridor. I kept it down as I explored the rest of my accommodations. I had a bolted-down bed complete with pillow but no sheets, a sideboard complete with water jug and two cereal boxes labeled in Spanish, and a picture of Jesus with a radioactive heart. I had a bucket in the corner with a lid. I had a high window with lots of fancy iron grill-work clamped across the outside. I also had a set of old-fashioned manacles around my ankles, iron cuffs with a short chain between them. They didn’t inspire nostalgia. They itched. There was a decided air of amateur improvisation about the entire affair that worried more than reassured me.
After considering the door for a while, and deciding a direct approach would be too loud, I used the bucket, ate the cereal, and drank the water. I slithered underneath my cot and was happy to discover it was old. By the time it was dark, I had rough substitutes for the tools I actually needed, but I didn’t have a lamp. Working slowly to keep the noise down, I was able to get the sideboard in front of the door so I’d have some warning if my guard decided to ventilate me in my sleep. But what visited me was nothing but uneasy dreams.
The next morning I shifted the sideboard back into its place. Another meeting between the door and my ear convinced me that my guard had wandered off somewhere. It took me the rest of the day to get the door unlocked with long pauses to check for company. In all that time no one took an interest in me, as the ever increasing smell from the covered bucket in the corner attested, but I couldn’t count on that happy state of affairs lasting forever. So, when the lock did what I told it to at last, I didn’t linger. I took the case off the pillow and tied it around the chain between my ankles to muffle the clanking. Then I eased the door to my room open, checked the corridor outside, and got shuffling.
The corridor wasn’t as institutional as I thought it would be, or as dark. A latticed window let in the last of the twilight. The tiles on the floor were quite tasteful. There was even a framed color print of a Madonna on the painted plaster wall, her eyes rolled upwards in what struck me as exasperation. At first I thought I might be in someone’s house, but the straps and stains on the heavy, high-backed metal chair in the room across the hall persuaded me out of that idea quickly enough. Past the head of the stairs, the next two doors on either side of the hall opened onto piles of supplies stacked high, rooms stuffed with tinned food and camp rolls, agricultural tools and lanterns. This joint was most likely someone’s safe-house in Belén, available for wedding receptions, abductions, torture, and what-have-you on an ad-hoc basis. That was why I hadn't run into a guard or been checked in my cell. The place was probably empty nine-tenths of the time, and lightly manned the rest.
I thought for a moment, then backtracked to one of the rooms I’d checked. No matter what was going on downstairs or outside, I didn’t want to learn about it with these decorations on my ankles. I thought I’d spotted tools. I was correct, too, and they were even ones that could probably have gotten the shackles off of me, given an hour or two. No time. I selected a machete, instead, and kept going.
At the base of the stairs, I still didn’t hear anyone. I waited. Impatience is what gets you caught, three times out of five. The other two times, of course, it’s hesitation that causes the problem. Not this time, though. Nothing. I tried the first door on the lower floor. It was an office. A desk might mean keys; worth a fast check, at least. I went in, shut the door, turned on the desk lamp, and started searching.
When the door behind me opened, I was around and moving towards it with the machete in my hand, but the damn shackles betrayed me. I made three steps before I went over, too busy to curse, right into Nero Wolfe’s arms.
A fast, last-second twist of the wrist kept me from collecting some pot roast with the blade. Being a genius and all, he froze and waited for me to get my machete stowed away before he took a deep breath and set me back onto my feet.
“Are there any guards in this place at all?” The volume was low, but the tone was still petulant. I did him the favor of assuming it was me with a big knife and not an enemy with bad tactics that was annoying him.
“Not that I’ve seen or heard in the past few minutes.”
“Then we must hurry. I left Miss Rowan guarding the front door.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. Now, there was a story I wanted to hear the first chance I got. “I was hoping to remove my jewelry before going out on the town.”
Wolfe studied the manacles on my legs. “For this contingency, I came prepared. Sit down.”
I did, in the wooden chair next to the desk. He produced a set of picks from one of his breast coat pockets, knelt down on the rug in front of me, and got to work.
Too bad he hadn't set Lily to checking the rest of the rooms instead of guarding the front entrance.
Later, much later, Lily would tell me the cat-footing was exactly what had alarmed her about this particular specimen of Lieutenant Barragons when she first met him in her bedroom. Right then, all I knew was that we’d been caught with our figurative pants down. Wolfe surged to his feet as the guy came through the already open door, but the cop’s eyes widened and the Smith & Wesson revolver came out of his holster fast. I let out a shout, meant to attract his attention. He wouldn’t miss at this range—
Lily had stepped through the door right behind him, carrying a heavy metal flashlight. Her face was pale but, without hesitation, her arm arced back and then down with the powerful tennis forearm I’ve admired all these years. With a crunch, just as the cop’s finger tightened on the trigger, she connected with his head. With a crack, the revolver fired, painfully loud in the small office. The cop went down. The bullet missed Wolfe by maybe a foot, excavating a hole in the adobe wall above us.
Wolfe took a deep breath, visibly considered the powdered mud and plaster now dusting his shoulders, brushed at his suit jacket, and said, “You win our wager, Miss Rowan. That was effective.”
Lily licked her lips, and then frowned. “Fine. Wonderful. Can we leave now?”
“Please give me one more minute.” Wolfe knelt back down and returned his attention to the shackles on my legs.
Over his lowered head, I blew Lily a kiss. By counter-example, she’d just confirmed the wisdom of my personal rule number eight: never loiter long with a lady who only stands and screams. Lily stopped checking the cop on the floor long enough to glare at me, but it was strictly an amateur effort. “He still has a pulse,” she reported. “It’s strong.”
Wolfe pursed his lips over his work. I could tell he was thinking rude thoughts about female sentimentality, but he confined himself to saying, “Good. I believe--” there was a click “—we are done here.” I confiscated the revolver and Wolfe heaved the cop up into the desk chair. Then we left.
A few minutes later, keeping her voice down, Lily said, “That was the other, the one who pinched Mimi. I hate this. I’m going to cry, or faint, or maybe both, the first chance I get. And you, Buster Brown, owe me big time for ruining this trip.”
Somehow the idea of yet another round of cathedrals and museums didn’t seem so bad right then. “Okay,” I said. I was stuffing both a newly-arrived but now limp policeman and his bag of take-out tamales into the broom closet under the stairs, which is what had triggered her announcement. “There’s still two weeks left of our vacation during which time you can both react and collect. I wouldn’t do it all at once if I was you.” The machete went back in its sheath again.
During trouble, nerves will take you a lot of different ways. For a miracle, Nero Wolfe sometimes shuts up. He was quiet while Lily and I bantered, and he didn’t even grunt when he finished checking the front door, opened it, and waved the two of us outside. To my surprise, the door opened onto the landing of a steep and narrow flight of stairs that led down into a large plaza. We were two floors up a house built onto the side of a hill, and when we emerged, there was quite the fuss going on down below us. Three or four characters, including one guy who, given his tray, was obviously a tamale vendor, had a hold on some character in a police lieutenant’s uniform and were expostulating with him. It had to be Barragon.
“It seems the policeman you subdued, Archie, didn’t pay for his dinner,” Wolfe had time to murmur.
Just then, Barragon looked up at the door and spotted us. Even in the dim light remaining after the sun set, I could see the shock in his posture. “Halt!” he shouted and hauled out his gun. What an idiot: none of us were moving, including his mercantile witnesses in the plaza.
He came charging up the stairs towards us, handling the Colt automatic like it was a baton and he was the new conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Obviously, our Lieutenant was used to having his men do all the messy physical work of abduction, torture, and murder. It sure was a beautiful set-up. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wolfe’s hand tightening on the iron railing. As Barragon’s approaching head rose to the proper level, Wolfe kicked him in the face, hard. The Lieutenant went over backwards, the gun flew from his hand, and when he ended his trip to the foot of the stairs he wasn’t moving. The vendors looked at him, looked at us, looked at each other, and scooted, leaving us in uncontested possession of the field. Barragon raised our score to three for three, one cop per player. Not bad.
Wolfe made the climb down the steps to check Barragon, which was fine by me. The Lieutenant was his responsibility. Having satisfied himself and picked up Barragon’s gun, Wolfe grunted his way back upstairs and handed the automatic to me. He doesn’t like guns. As I suspected, the safety was still on.
“His neck is broken, which should put paid to all his schemes and guesses. I do prefer it, when the uniformed officials I am dealing with can be assumed to be hopelessly at odds with the authorities,” he commented to Lily, who was staring at him wide-eyed. Wolfe frowned. “However, I may have enjoyed that too much. I don’t wish to slip into self-indulgence.”
Lily had run out of steam by then. She sat down on the landing and laughed helplessly.
After all that, Saul Panzer showing up with the guys from the anti-casino-thug faction of the Policía Nacional was anticlimactic. At least he provided Lily and me with some support when Wolfe decided to get cranky and announce that he wanted to return to the hotel right away. It wasn’t that easy, of course. We all had to repeat our stories four times, to the police, the army, a couple of high-level civilian officials, and some bland, blond character from the American embassy who probably had three letters that weren’t his initials monogrammed on his boxer shorts. I unpacked the entire bundle for all of them, with the exception of exactly what emotions had unmanned Vega. I’m still not sure why I held back that part of the story, since I have no reason to be a fan of fairy tales, but I did. In any case, it didn’t matter. The only ones who could have told them I was editing was my squad from the States, and they wouldn’t talk. The Policía could do their own damn detecting. I was on vacation.
Although she’d shut the French doors behind her to keep the smoke from traveling, Lily lingered with her cigarette on the balcony of her bedroom. She’d certainly earned it, heaven knew. It was why she was taken by surprise when she re-entered the room and found Nero Wolfe inside it. He had left his suitcases there while he searched, she belatedly remembered.
“My apologies, Miss Rowan. I thought you were occupied elsewhere.”
She smiled. “Accepted. Did Archie manage to get you those plane tickets back to New York?”
“Yes. I and Mr. Panzer will be leaving on the last flight this evening.”
“Good. Archie can drive you to the airport and pick up Mimi on the same trip. We may still make our ship when she sails on the late tide.” Wolfe’s chin bobbed. His nerves had obviously unwound. If anything, though, it seemed to make him more wary around her. The unspoken attitude aroused her sense of mischief. “You’d be welcome to stay and join us on our travels, of course, but I know better than to ask.”
His eyes narrowed. “Bah.”
She raised a languid hand to push back her hair. “And Archie would have some choice words to add, as well. I did say I knew better than to ask, Mr. Wolfe.”
“Except for the purposes of provocation, yes.” He assessed her, probably while searching for the best route to flee. “I am sorry your trip to this country was marred by the exigencies of my errand.”
That was his third apology to her in so many days. It had to be some sort of record. “Well, the orchids were beautiful. And at least I won our bet. Not that I’ll ever get to collect, I know.” On an impulse, Lily offered her hand. “I’d settle for a handshake.”
The large face studied her for another second. “I do not think we are quite to that point yet, Miss Rowan. Perhaps one day soon we will arrive there, but for now your first stake is more honest and more honorable.” Wolfe took two quick steps forward, cupped one hand under her chin to hold her still, and kissed her. As she had once hinted to Archie, when Nero Wolfe kissed you, he took his time about it and did the job right. Slowly, leisurely, his big hand moved down to her waist, where it was joined by its partner. His grip was warm through the thin silk of her dress. Yielding to the moment, she wrapped her arms around his neck and savored what he could do with his lips. Given his talent, it seemed only fair to respond with her best efforts.
When, at last, he let go it was with unhurried care. He considered her, a sensual expression on his face she’d neither seen before nor heard Archie describe. Somehow it suited his heavy features. “You are even more skilled without an audience.” The baritone voice was pitched low with a hint of a growl to it.
Fascinated, Lily stroked a forefinger across her lips. “My, my. So are you. I know you’re only a war correspondent in the campaign between men and women these days, but if you ever decide to throw yourself back into the fray, feel free to give me a call.” He grunted. To her, it sounded wary with some overtones she couldn’t identify. She smiled sweetly and added, “Lipstick.”
This time the grunt was of pure annoyance. He brusquely pulled the handkerchief from his suit coat pocket to scrub at his lips, but he hadn't moved quite fast enough.
“So, sir, do you actually remember where you put--” Archie’s question trailed off as he entered the bedroom. Briefly, before the sardonic mask slipped back into place, Lily could read the feelings that raced across his features; Archie had never been the stoic he thought he was. She saw his surprise, the comprehension, a moment of half-agonized resentment. From the fleeting glimpse, it was impossible to say just who he resented. Lily doubted if Archie himself knew. But down through the years, she had learned. She refused to play shuttlecock, not even for these men. Too bad she still didn’t have the sense to walk off the court.
It was her turn to step forward as she laced her arm through Archie’s, turning him firmly back around towards the bedroom door. “Come along, Escamillo. Mr. Wolfe wants his dining room and his orchids, and I’m tired of being the picador to your matador. Mr. Panzer can finish his packing. We have a ship to catch. Let me remind you, we’re already supposed to be in Havana, where you promised to escort me both to the cathedral and to the national museum, you rat.”
Behind her, she heard an odd sound, one last rarity to add to her exotic experiences on San Rosario. Nero Wolfe chuckled. It held no triumph.
You can’t quit while you’re on vacation. I can’t, at least. It didn’t stop me from wanting to try.
You can’t just walk away from your traveling companion without a word, either, not when you’ve used that stunt once already.
I got over it, of course. Although he pitches it too strong, Wolfe is right when he says Lily has the occasional freak of feminine temperament. In any case, Wolfe would never have discussed with me what happened. He was mad enough the first time Lily shared lipstick without having to admit she got him again, let alone explain how. I did wonder, but I wonder about a lot of things that are none of my business. So, instead of explanations, I got to see the rest of our previously chosen roster of the scenic and cultural beauties of the Caribbean islands.
After I was back in Manhattan, the subject only came up once. I was typing up the germination records and said, “The brassavola cordata crosses are doing well. Was that the shipment that tipped you off something was wrong?”
“Yes.” Wolfe looked up from frowning over some novelization of the Loeb-Leopold case. “There was a single raw poppy seed in one of the tubes. I doubted it indicated anything worse than a worker packing while eating his meal and so did not want to bias your initial impressions. I should have known better than to ask you to conduct an investigation, especially when Miss Rowan was involved, and expect anything other than a major ruckus.” He considered me for a long moment. “I once pointed out that my orchids are my concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic, and temperamental. Opium poppies meet none of these criteria. They, along with your follies while on San Rosario, demonstrate why I chose to confine my concubinage to orchids. Flowers that are not insipid and not parasitical are dangerous company, as I well know.”
“Gee, sir, I must have imagined all those odds and ends of other species lurking in the corners of the greenhouse.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth. I paused.
It was a short pause, though. Taking a deep breath, I threw one arm over the back of my chair and swiveled towards him so he could see my face. “If those flowers are too tough, you could always switch to some other branch of horticulture. Over at the Rainbow Room the other evening, I saw some great big rubber trees in pots, nice and inert. They might better suit your temperament.”
“Pfui.” He considered me for another long few seconds. We both noticed that he was tucking the corners of his lips up at me and I was grinning back at him at the same moment. I turned back and bent my head over the pile of index cards. He returned to his book.
Okay, I freely admit willed ignorance had its limits. What I’d figured out was that he’d jabbed at more than Lily with his little floral comparisons. His concubine metaphor isn’t exactly gender specific, you see. Orchids are hermaphrodites, both female and male. He was also referring to me.
Not, you understand, that it’s really any of my business. I just wouldn’t want him to think I’m stupid, is all. Or that I mind.
As a child, Lily Rowan had heard a bishop at her father’s table compare the man and wife in a good Catholic marriage to oak and ivy. She wondered why anyone would want to be a strangling parasite. It had been the first step along the path she still walked, the one that kept her left ring finger bare.
Every decision has its cost, she knew, but hers had come cheap. Life had given her more liberty, for less of a price in loneliness and lust, than the great majority of her female fellows even knew enough to yearn for. It seemed only just that the one man she’d been tempted to gift with her freedom not only didn’t want it, he didn’t even understand why he would say no.
Still, few people truly believed, not in the hungry halves of their hearts, that life was just to them. She didn’t, not all the time, not when the unfettered man at her side turned away from her to pick up a telephone, not when his eyes lit up as the low, rich voice summoned him away from her world back to Nero Wolfe’s. But she was equally sure that Nero Wolfe also pondered life’s injustices late at night, as he lay swathed in his yellow silk pajamas, alone between his black silk sheets. Even Archie, who made pragmatism his religion and introspection a heresy, would pause every now and then, eyes focused on some unseen point in the distance, faintly bemused by half-sensed, conflicting allures that had tempted him in directions he never meant to go.
It wasn’t the life any of them had planned, she knew. Even so, she cultivated her protégées and Wolfe cultivated his orchids, Archie wandered where he would, and they all called themselves content. For her part, for the most part, it was true. Lily had chosen to keep her own name. She preferred being Miss Rowan to Lily; she wanted to burn, to shed her own light and heat, and not just grace the fields. If she took a special pleasure in her dearest allies and noblest opponents, one that occasionally tempted her to gluttony, it was no one’s business but her own. She had made her choice, and she would live with it. As Nero Wolfe had pointed out, some plants had to be starved in order to bloom.
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