It all started with orchids. It ended with orchids too, and there were orchids in the middle of it, but the whole thing started on a June evening when Wolfe was expecting company. He had been corresponding with Adalbert Whitaker about Laeliocattleyas, and whether they grew better at Whitaker's place or his own. Whitaker was one of those rabid neophytes that Wolfe generally disliked, but the man read books and took his advice about breeding and germination, so he wasn't all that bad. I'd gotten to like the tone of voice Wolfe used when he dictated Whitaker's letters. It was still pompous, but not as brusque as usual. Almost, and this might be stretching it, human.
The problem came at eight o'clock when the doorbell did not ring. That night we had Black Angus beefsteak with peppercorns and some exotic mushrooms Wolfe had flown in from a cave in France. Fritz brought our coffee to the office, where we were awaiting Whitaker's arrival. Wolfe and I were arguing about modern convenience. I was for all for it. Wolfe, of course, was against it on principle, but obviously not in practice because he wouldn't be in his present shape if not for modern convenience. I challenge any genius to weight a seventh of a ton and not rely on convenience. In fact, Wolfe had two employees who also relied on modern convenience, and I was about to bring up the fact when the telephone rang. Wolfe stared at it like a snake about to bite him.
"Nero Wolfe's residence–" was what I liked to say after-hours, but as it turns out we had to open the office again, because it was Whitaker.
He wasn't coming, he said, because the police had detained him and his family after his discovery of his greenhouse apprentice, Nathan Ross, dead in a mound of wet sphagnum moss with a crack in his skull. Now, Wolfe can smell a paycheck if there is one to be had, and he wasn't more than five minutes on the telephone with Whitaker when he'd agreed to investigate, and sent me out on the case.
It was trouble, and I should have guessed it when I met the Whitakers. Mr. Whitaker was genteel enough, considering the police were regarding him as the prime suspect. They didn't dare arrest him, though, partly because of his status, but also because it would make Mrs. Whitaker cry. The daughter, Cynthia, was well-groomed and pretty in a fairly vacuous kind of way. Her fiancé was Jonathan Cadell, and he was the real trouble. I think he thought I was trying to horn in on his territory, and everything Cynthia said was cut off by him.
I should have read him better, but at the time I was busy dodging Rowcliff's growling and Cramer's raging, and the plot seemed centered around a fight that Ross had with the greenhouse keeper, Paul Lammert. The police took Lammert downtown for questioning and when I called to report to Wolfe, he already had Saul in the office taking instructions. He took my facts, passed them on, and told me to come home. He was not behind his desk by the time I got back; the genius had gone to bed.
The next morning, before going up to the plant rooms, Wolfe told me to bring everyone to the office that night. I spent two hours on the phone. Then I had lunch, arranged the chairs, monkeyed with plant records, and waited until everyone got there.
It was a large group, but there were enough chairs for everyone. When the Whitakers filed in, I steered them to the appropriate seating. Cramer staked out a chair right away, but Rowcliff prowled along the back wall. When Wolfe came in, everyone was looking quiet and nervous, just the way they should have been. Saul followed him to the office, but hung in the doorway, being invisible.
"The investigation has been short," Wolfe pronounced after settling himself in his custom-built desk chair. "But most satisfactory. I have determined with certainty who murdered Mr. Ross, and the murderer's motives."
My jaw hung open briefly, before I snapped it shut. Saul must have had a field day, if this was the result. I bit back the comments I could have made if company wasn't present, and concentrated on my notebook. I should have gone to the gunbox we kept in the safe, and gotten my sidearm, but I didn't. Then things deteriorated.
"Ms. Whitaker," Wolfe addressed Cynthia, "I have obtained information that intimates you were not entirely faithful to your fiancé. In fact, Mr. Saul Panzer has determined, through several interviews with staff at certain establishments, that you were seen in public with Mr. Ross. That you dined and danced at several clubs regularly, clubs that were different than those you frequented with Mr. Cadell."
Cynthia jumped to her feet and squealed, and everyone started yelling. Wolfe bellowed for attention, and got it.
"Mr. Cadell," he said smoothly, and I could see Cramer and Rowcliff shifting anxiously in their positions, "Why did you lie to the police about an argument you heard between Mr. Lammert and Mr. Ross? There was indeed an argument, to be certain, but Mr. Lammert was not the second party. I posit that you were."
"Preposterous!" Cadell was pale and tense in his chair, his hands grabbing nervously at his knees. Cynthia turned on him.
"John, how could you!"
"What did he have to offer you, Cynthia," he said tightly, "orchids?" He laughed bitterly. "You fool."
"Mr. Cramer," Wolfe turned his head half an inch towards the Inspector, who was staring amazedly at Cadell. "You may detain Mr. Cadell and release Mr. Lammert."
Cramer started out of his chair, but Cynthia had more fight in her than I'd thought. She launched herself at him, screaming and biting. Then Cadell leaped up with a pistol in his hand and went for Wolfe. I started towards him to disarm the situation. I should have remembered that murders can get pretty desperate once Wolfe exposes them to the authorities, and they don't often listen to reason.
Saul must have known what was coming, because I saw him step out from the wall with one hand inside his coat. There were two gunshots in quick succession, Cadell's and then his. Something ran through me like a red-hot poker and I sagged back against the corner of Wolfe's desk.
I tried to keep my balance but I slipped across the desk, knocking over Wolfe's vase of Cattleyas with the marble paperweight. Wolfe can move pretty fast when he puts his mind to it, and he was up and around the side of his desk by the time I was on my knees in the puddle.
There was a small, neat, red-ringed hole in my suit jacket over my right breast. Wolfe knelt with me and helped to pull it off. My arms were numb, like lead, and something was funny with my breath. I wheezed and saw a bright red bubble snap between my lips. My whole side was going soft. Wolfe laid my head on my jacket. There was an expression on his face that I had never seen before. Fear perhaps, or ferocity; the way a lioness guards her cubs. I couldn't have guessed.
The puddle underneath me spread, soaking into the back of my shirt. My face was damp from the water droplets spattering off the overhanging flowers on the desk's edge. I put my hand to my chest and Wolfe caught it halfway. He shook his head and tsked me as he tore at the buttons of my shirt. The air on my skin was cold, but the wound burned. I don't remember if I said anything or not, and if I cried then I don't recall. I was watching the orchid tremble above me, and Wolfe's face getting redder, but my eyes slid closed on their own account and I couldn't make them open. The noises in the room faded to a hiss. The droplets on my face tasted of salt. I was lying in the surf as the tide came in. There was a rush of water in my ears. Then a wave went over my head.
The things I remember after that are muddled, and the brain wouldn't make sense of them at the time. I thought that I drifted out to sea, and that little fish were nibbling on my fingertips and eyelids. A harpoon fell straight down through the sea and staked me straight through to the sand underneath my body. An eel swam in my open mouth and made its way into my belly where it peered out and waited for its prey.
It sounds corny now, it's true. But I watched all the undersea action and wondered if this was what it was like being dead. It wasn't too bad, just awfully wet and a little ticklish. The harpoon didn't hurt so much after a while, but it let the water in and made me shiver. It was also getting pretty lonely at the bottom of the ocean. I waited, and wondered what would happen next.
The waves receded a little, enough that I could catch my first breath. It was shallow, and quick, and gurgled as the waves do when they hiss along the sand. I blinked grit from my eyes.
Wolfe was sitting at my bedside, worry lining his face like a gargoyle's. At first I didn't understand anything he said. He might as well have been speaking Serbo-Croat. Maybe he was. But eventually I got the impression he was relieved, and he wasn't about to fire me for dereliction of duty.
My body was waterlogged and heavy. I strained hard and got my hand to move across the sheet about three inches towards Wolfe's hand. I didn't quite make it, and after the initial effort proved too much, I faded.
Then I dreamed Wolfe wasn't sitting beside me, but that he was lying beside me, in the same bed. One hand was on my chest, covered in blood up to the elbow. Then his hand wasn't on my chest, it was inside, his hand around my heart. I tried to tell him to be careful, but my throat was full of blood. There was no end to the torrent, and in the end I shut my mouth. He was gentle, but the feeling was curious. He started to draw his hand out through the hole in my chest, and then it started to hurt. I squirmed and tried to pull away from him. The dream started to tear like wet paper.
I was drugged and nauseous when I started out of it, and a doctor and attendant were leaning over me, working on something. Their fingers burned my skin and I cried out. The attendant reached to a tray for something, an enormous hypodermic needle, and stuck me with it. The doctor's hands had blood on them. The morphine hit me like a brick and I was gone again.
The funny thing about morphine is that when you get it and you're awake, you see things that aren't there. If you get it and you're asleep, you become aware of things that have always been. I wondered when it changed, then, when Wolfe became more than just a genius who paid my salary. Surely he must have been keeping me around for something, and not just as impetus to pay the bills. Anyone could do that. Accountants are paid to do it. I'm good at nagging, it's true, and nagging Wolfe is a task at which I excel. Even though Saul Panzer is the best out-of-doors operative in the city, Wolfe would be hard pressed to replace me with anyone.
My brain wasn't co-operating, though, and the thoughts that came after are hard to put into words. They were pictures; of orchids, of a seeping tide, of sand running through my fingers. Was I losing? Had I lost something I was trying to recall?
Then, I think a million years passed, and the climate changed. The ocean dried up and the sand baked out, and cactus sprouted around me. There were spines in my mouth and in my throat. I could hardly open my eyes against the sun. Crabs came out of their burrows and cut off tiny pieces of my flesh to eat. I did not sweat, I roasted, as the cactus pressed down and the crabs burrowed under my ribs.
Maybe the first circle of hell was water and the second was crabs, I thought. Maybe I was going through all the circles until I ended up with the sinners and the murderers. I know I'd done enough of both to justify anyone's choice to put me there.
If I hadn't been such a sinner I wouldn't have ended up in New York in the first place. A sinner is not a murderer but where I grew up, he may as well be. Some folks aren't as free with their minds as they are with harsh words or a closed fist. Chillicothe hadn't been easy; New York City was just as tough. You had to fight to survive.
Wolfe told me once that violence is an unnecessary way to gain co-operation. I had learned from experience that it was a welcome tool, but a last resort. Sometimes my anger got the better of me, though, and when Wolfe was around to stop me, things stayed level. If it hadn't been for him, well, no doubt some small-time crook would have gotten me in a dark alley and left me there with holes in my head.
I dreamed a thousand deaths. Every man that had ever struck me with a bare hand came back to finish the job. Every woman I'd run away from came back with poisonous knives and piano wire. I got a wire around my neck, and tore at it with bleeding fingernails. It pulled tighter and tighter, choking me and cutting at my throat. Red bubbles were bursting in front of my eyes.
Then something strange happened, in those deaths. A black figure appeared and my murderers shrank back in fear. It reached out and tore the knives from my body and the wire from my throat. Big, gentle hands picked me up and set me on my feet. They faced me toward the desert horizon, where the sun was setting. I tried to look behind me, but the darkness was growing and I couldn't see. I stood naked and alone.
Gradually, the sun went down and the crabs crawled away to wherever crabs go when you don't notice them. After the painful, thick, dead silence, noises were beginning to seep back into the landscape. A hiss was coming from somewhere not far off, but it didn't sound threatening. It took all my effort to crack my eyes open.
The desert was gone, and so was the sea. I was in a small, blurry, white room. I racked my brain for answers and didn't come up with any. It occurred to me that maybe I had finally reached the circle of hell I was supposed to be in, but another blink showed me I was wrong. An empty chair was standing by the bed.
Gone. Wolfe wasn't there. It was Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, come back to carve the rest of me away, and feed it to the crabs in the desert. Something started deep in my chest and by the time it got to my throat, I knew what it was. It had been a while, but I still recognized a sob when I heard one, especially when I made it. I think I cried because the world was ending, because the surgeon had raped and pillaged, because being under water was so damn lonely. I cried because no one was holding my hand.
And then, abruptly, I snapped awake and realized I really was crying. Wolfe had moved from his sentry post and was leaning over me. He was either trying to smother the noise, or my mind was cracked completely, and he was trying to comfort me.
The feel of his shoulder, warm and solid against my cheek, couldn't have done more for me. I grabbed hard onto it and wouldn't let go.
"Archie –" his muffled voice grunted. Still, I clung, the tears soaking into his shirt. I would have held on forever but he let me know my time was up by rubbing a hand on the back of my neck. My arms were weak. Gingerly, he pulled back.
"You should not exert yourself too much, so soon after surgery," Wolfe said. His eyes were as bright as I'd ever seen them. Maybe he had been crying as well. Heaven forbid. I sniffed miserably. He handed me his pocket handkerchief and at least I took it from his hand, but then my muscles failed me. I got it halfway to my face and ran into a strange paralyzed feeling, down my arm and across my chest. Wolfe took the handkerchief and patted my cheeks with it. Maybe the sight of my tears had affected him.
"What'd they do to me?" I croaked. My lips were dry and I could feel them cracking.
"The doctors saved your life," he said solemnly. I cast my mind back, what seemed like millions of years.
"Saul got Cadell?" I asked then, coming to the full and complete sense of my surrounding.
"A most curious reaction," Wolfe said, settling back into his chair. It was not built for him, and couldn't have been comfortable, but there it was. "Cadell's response to being exposed as a murderer was to try to prove it again. I can only thank heavens that his aim with a revolver was less deadly than a flowerpot. At least –" and here he paused to lick his lips. I think he was stalling. "At least he did not shoot you dead. Saul was able to wound him and bring an end to the confrontation. Still, you were badly injured and the prognosis was not favorable when you arrived."
I felt like someone had taken all the bones out of my body and replaced them with gelatin. Even breathing was a chore, swallowing, blinking my eyes. No wonder I'd had to give up on the hankie.
"Where'd he get me?" This was for my own satisfaction because I had a fair idea already; the shortness of breath and the blood had signified it.
"In the upper chest," Wolfe let out a gust of breath that he'd probably been holding for days. "The bullet struck a rib and punctured a lung. That in itself was damaging enough, but you aspirated blood and 24 hours after surgery you developed a high fever."
"That's when I was talking to the crabs," I said, dazed. Just waking up had cost me far more energy than I'd anticipated. My eyelids were fighting gravity and losing. Wolfe hesitated, then laid a hand on my forehead.
"Rest, Archie, there will always be time for talk."
I protested, but what came out of my lips was nothing but empty breath. Wolfe nodded and I gave in and let my eyes close.
I was dreaming. If they made my life into a film, it would be censored. I was at a club, or something that was equipped for dancing, and a group of girls were dancing around me, swirling in circles and laughing. I tried to dance with them but they giggled and spun away. Then someone big grabbed me and started dancing. I realized that it was supposed to be Wolfe, even though it didn't look much like him aside from the size. It could have been a walrus or hippopotamus.
We danced lightly around the floor, and then I started to get a funny feeling running through my body. I looked down and knew I was entirely naked, and the big man, who didn't look like Wolfe but was, had his hand between my legs. But it felt good, and it was supposed to, and the man didn't take his hand away. I bucked at his touch.
I was a pretty good kid when I was younger, but a typical boy. Every boy discovers that feeling sooner or later, and what it leads to after waking up. When I had those kinds of dreams and the accidents that went with them, my aunt would make me wash the sheets. My uncle would do his part by taking the switch to me. I hadn't forgotten all that, but I'd pushed it back into some disused cubbyhole of my brain. Why this came to mind I couldn't tell.
I said something like "more" or "harder" though the pseudo-Wolfe gave no indication of having heard me. At this point, the dream started to dissolve and a frantic need took over – he was going! I yelled after him and on my yell, all the sensations took over and I woke myself by yelling out "Wolfe!" and jerking my hips; and realizing with horror that there was a hot, sticky mess between the sheets with me.
To top it off, of course Wolfe was at the bedside, with a sleepy look on his face. If I could have gotten up then and jumped out the window to escape, I would have. Wolfe blinked at me and pursed his lips.
"Yes, Archie?" He had a curious air, but I chose to ignore it. My mind was racing, trying to solve the conundrum. My head felt like it was packed full of cotton lint. So did my mouth, when I opened it to start trying to lie.
At least, I intended to lie, but the first words out of my mouth were "... need a towel."
And then he looked a little concerned, but there might have been and edge of amusement to his question when he asked "Right away? Whatever for?"
I glared at him with all of the fury I could muster, and gritted my teeth.
"I'm afraid I, uh," I moved my hand over the sheet and decided to bite the bullet. "Well, I made a mess. Maybe you don't remember what it's like being young, but I do and when the nurse comes back she's going to make me blush and you'll hate that."
He sighed and levered himself out of the chair. When he returned two minutes later he had a towel, a wash cloth and a pair of striped pajama bottoms in his arms.
"You know, Archie," he said when he returned, "there is very little that a nurse has not seen. I expect you would have nothing to blush about in that eventuality."
"Where I come from the only woman who's supposed to see this is your wife," I said tightly. Wolfe put the towel and pajamas down on the bed. He handed me the washcloth. "At least, that was the sense my uncle tried to knock into me."
Wolfe scowled and expelled a breath of air. "No lessons are learned when they are forced," he muttered.
"Are you planning on overseeing this procedure?" I looked down at the sheet, then back at him.
"Your talk indicated a revival of your spirit, but you are not yet as hale as you think. You will require assistance." He shrugged placidly.
And, damn him, he was right. I tried by myself, but one-half of me was out of commission and I had to swallow my pride. I nearly choked on it as it went down.
It wasn't as bad as I thought. Only the pajama bottoms needed changing, not the sheets, and Wolfe took that to task. He peeled them off me without straining anything. At least he let me wipe up. In modesty he pretended to be very interested in folding up the old pajamas for the time it took. I glanced his way a little as I finished, though, and I was pretty sure he sneaking glances.
A roomful of architects couldn't have engineered it any better. I was busted up, so Wolfe was delegated to pull on the fresh pajamas, and he did it and didn't make remarks or touch any part of me that hurt. He even pulled the sheets back over me when he was done. When I thanked him he shrugged and shook his head.
"I vividly remember what youth is like, and most times I am glad I am past it. The wants and desires are often perplexing and unsatiated. But it is nothing to be ashamed of, Archie. That is how the body works and we cannot change it."
That impressed me, and he gave me one of the rare smiles he only uses about six times a year. I gave him one back, and thought it wasn't quite enough.
"I thought I was past it but I still surprise myself."
"There are compulsions that we cannot resist.," he sighed, reseating himself, "whatever compels us to act."
"I was lucky." I had an itch at the back of my mind that we weren't just talking about what had just happened, or what had gotten me into the hospital before that. Wolfe's face was placid, but there was a hitch to his voice. If anyone else had been listening, they never would have caught it, but I did.
"I dare not call it luck, but perhaps youth will suffice. You are young and strong, Archie, and that bullet would most likely have killed any other one person in the room. I, surely, would be dead but for your actions." His finger began moving clockwise in a small circle on the wooden arm of the chair. I watched it betray his complacency. "I fear this debt can never be repaid. I have the will, the spirit, but I am not as hardy as I once was."
I watched the finger move, around and around. A thought was nudging around inside my head. He didn't dare leave me here alone, not while I was asleep or awake. He had been sitting in the same chair for days, perhaps weeks, waiting for me to wake up so he could say this.
"I wouldn't ask anyone to step in front of a bullet. Not for me, not for anyone. It's lousy."" I said. I was hoping I sounded stern, but to my ears I still sounded like a sick calf. Wolfe hadn't finished.
"There are few people for whom I would make that sacrifice," he said solemnly, his hands gripping the chair arms in conviction. "Very few."
That might have stopped anyone, no matter what they were about to say, but nothing had sprung to mind so I kept quiet. I looked at him, trying to divine what was going underneath his thick skin. He'd kept silent about a lot of things, and it was a change to have him on a spit for something. He fell silent and glared at his knuckles.
"So maybe we'll find out some other time," I said. It sounded callous. My fingers twitched on the cover. "Maybe you'll prove yourself, but even if you don't it doesn't matter. You can make it up to me with a Remington .38, and when I resume my office duties you can give me a raise. "
He raised his head and looked at me with dark eyes. I never noticed how dark they were before that moment. I swallowed past the frog in my throat, and met his gaze.
"Archie," he started. Then something happened that I hadn't seen before. I might have been woozy, but I wouldn't chalk it up to the morphine. Words actually failed Wolfe. Instead, his eyes screwed up and he wheezed; I think he would have called it laughing. I grinned along with him, and when he'd recovered, I put on a serious face.
"Jackanapes. No doubt you will recover expediently to badger me further." He wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, even though I was pretty sure there was no moisture there.
"So, it's decided," I said, smirking. "Are you taking me home now, or later?"
I think Wolfe was so relieved I was on the road to recovery that he lost himself again, and that time he lost control of his eyes. It wasn't crying, but it was definitely something, and I knew I'd be back in the brownstone before I knew it.
The last two weeks were the hardest; now that I wasn't going to die, Wolfe could spend four hours a day with the orchids without mentally planning my funeral. By the time he came to get me, I was sitting up and eating the whole tray at mealtimes, though it was nothing like Fritz' cooking and my stomach resented it.
Doc Vollmer came to the brownstone the day I came home to take out the last of the stitches. I had a scar across my chest that any boy would be proud of. There was a smaller one, lower down, that Vollmer said was a drain, but the whole thing made me nauseous to think of, so I smiled and nodded. Wolfe hovered outside the bedroom door while Vollmer worked, and tried not to look anxious. He only ventured inside after the Doc had grabbed his bag and left; as always, he had an excellent sense of timing.
I was laying back against the pillows on my bed, and he came the whole way into the room to stand near the edge of the mattress. I pulled the sheet down over my ribs.
"Can't wait to go to the beach with this little beauty," I said. Wolfe smirked and tried to look sour.
"It is remarkable it did not permanently cripple you," he said, ever the pragmatist. His eyes shone intently. I twisted slightly to face him.
"So, about my raise," I started, but didn't get to finish. Wolfe was a man of action. He bent down and parked his behind on the edge of the bed. One hand hovered close to mine on the covers.
"As much as I dislike guns, there is a package downstairs on your desk, to be opened when you are well enough to undo the wrapper."
I put my hand out on top of his, and he didn't pull away. Instead, he stayed frozen, looking into my eyes. Part of his expression reminded me of a deer caught in the headlights. Part of it sent a shiver up my spine. I swallowed.
"I feared for your life, Archie, but that fear is gone. He took my hand and clasped it between both palms. "I am glad you're home."
There isn't too much you can do with busted ribs, but I'd been thinking about it all morning; I pulled him off balance and planted a kiss smack on the lips. It was spontaneous, and I thought he'd pull back, but after the initial shock, he relaxed. I was distracted by his lips moving, and then I realized his hand had strayed to my shoulder. Then he leaned away, breathless, his eyes wide. I grinned, feeling more like myself again.
"You're better than you let on," I told him. He huffed a little, but it was only for show. "Don't let me catch you dancing or you'll have more to explain."
His expression changed minimally, but I could see it shift. He patted my hand and I let him. Then he rose from the edge of the bed and tried for the door. I added:
"Of course, if you're up for lessons, give me a couple weeks and I can teach you."
He turned back with a curious half-smile on his face.
"I believe I have learned more from you in the past while than I ever thought possible." A scowl crossed his face and he pulled out his pocket watch, double-checking it with the clock on my bedside table. He wrinkled up his face. "I am late. There are several dendrobium in bloom and they must be pollinated."
He hustled to the elevator and I heard it start upstairs to the roof. The fat genius had done it again. I put my head back down on the pillow and looked at the big spray of Phaelanopsis in water on my bedside table. Part of me was wondering what would happen when Wolfe came downstairs from the orchids, whether he'd be in a pollinating mood or not, and I tried to laugh at the joke. Even a giggle pained my cracked ribs, so I had to pass on it. But a smile kept twitching at my lips until I drifted back to sleep. The dreams were good, but I was hoping the next few weeks would be even better.