I said, “Hold your horses, lieutenant. If what you want is in here it can’t get out, since I suppose you’ve got the rear and the roof covered. This isn’t my house, it belongs to Nero Wolfe and he’s upstairs. Wait a minute, I’ll be right back.”
I went up three steps at a time, paying no attention to Rowcliff yelling outside. I went in the south room; they were standing there. I said to Clara Fox, “They’re here. Make it snappy. Take Horrocks with you, and if he’s in on this I’ll kill him.”
Horrocks started, “Really—”
“Shut up! Go with Miss Fox. For God’s sake—”
She might have made an adventuress at that; she was okay when it came to action. She darted to the table and grabbed her handbag and handkerchief, dashed back and got Horrocks by the hand, and pulled him through the door with her. I took a quick look around to make sure there were no lipsticks or powder puffs left behind, shoved the table toward the window where it looked more natural, and beat it. In the hall I stopped one second to shake myself. Noises of Rowcliff bellowing on the stoop floated up. Horrocks and Clara Fox had disappeared. I went down to the front door and slid the bolt and flung it open.
“Welcome,” I grinned. “Mr. Wolfe says he wants the warrant for a souvenir.”
They trooped in behind Rowcliff. He grunted. “Where’s Wolfe?”
“Up with the plants. Until eleven o’clock. He told me to tell you this, that of course you have the legal right to search the endre premises, but that the city will pay for every nickel’s worth of damage that’s done if he has to go to City Hall himself to collect it.”
“No! Don’t scare me to death. Come on, boys. Where does that go to?”
“Front room.” I pointed. “Office. Kitchen. Basement stairs. The rear door is down there, onto the court.”
He turned, and then whirled to me again. “Look here, Goodwin. You’ve had your bluff called. Why not save time? Why don’t you bring this Fox woman down here, or up here, and call it a trick? It’d save a lot of messing around.” I said, coldly, “Pish-tush. Which isn’t for you, lieutenant; I know you’ve got orders. It’s for Inspector Cramer, and you can take it to him. The horse laugh he’ll get over this will be heard at Bath Beach. Does he think Nero Wolfe is simp enough to try to hide a woman under his bed? Go on and finish your button-button-who’s-got-the-button and get the hell out of here.”
He grunted and started off with his army toward the door of the basement stairs. I followed. I wanted to keep an eye on them anyway, on general principles, but, besides that, I had decided to ride him. Wolfe had told me to use my judgment, and I knew that was the best way to put a bird Bke Rowcliff in the frame of mind we wanted him in. So I was right behind them going down, and while they poked around all over the basement, pulling the curtains back from the shelves, opening trunks and looking into empty packing cartons, I exercised the tongue. Rowcliff tried to pass it back once or twice and then pretended not to hear me. I opened the door to the insulated bottle department, and kept jerking my head around at them as if I expected to catch them in a snatch at a quart of rye. They finished up down there by taking a look at the court out of the back door, and after I got the door locked again I followed them back up to the first floor.
Rowcliff stationed a man at the door to the basement stairs and then began at the kitchen and worked forward. I hung on his tail. I said, “Up here, now, you’ve got to take soundings. The place is lousy with trapdoors,” and when he involuntarily looked down at his feet I turned loose a hawhaw. In the office I asked him, ‘Want me to open the safe? There’s a piece of her in there. That’s the way we worked it, cut her up and scattered her around.” By the time we started for the second floor he was boiling and trying not to show it, and about ninety-seven per cent convinced. He left a man at the head of the stairs and tackled Wolfe’s room. Fritz had come along to see that nothing got hurt, thinking maybe that my mind was on something else, for there was a lot of stuff in there. I’ll admit they didn’t get rough, though they were thorough. Wolfe’s double mattress looked pretty thick under its black silk coverlet, and one of them wiggled under it to have a look. Rowcliff went around the rows of bookshelves taking measurements with his eyes for a concealed closet, and where the pokerdart board was hanging on a screen he pulled the screen around to look behind it. All the time I was making remarks as they occurred to me.
In my room, as Rowcliff was looking back of the clothes in the closet, I said, “Listen, I’ve got a suggestion. I’ll put on an old mother hubbard I won once at a raffle and you take me to Cramer and tell him I’m Clara Fox. After this performance there’s no question but what he’s too damn dumb to know the difference.”
He backed out of the closet, straightened up, and glared at me. He bellowed, “You shut your trap, see? Or I will take you somewhere, and it won’t be to Cramer!”
I grinned at him. “That’s childish, lieutenant. Make saps out of yourselves and then try to take it out on citizens. Oh, wait! Baby, wait till this gets out!”
He tramped to the hall and started up the next flight with his army behind. I’ll admit I was a little squeamish as they entered the south room; it’s hard for anyone to stay in a room ten hours and not leave a trace; but they weren’t looking for traces, they were looking for a live woman. Anyway, she had followed Wolfe’s instructions to the letter and it looked all right. That only took a couple of minutes, and the same for the north room, where Saul Panzer had slept. When they came out to the hall again I opened the door to the narrow stairs going up, and held it for them.
“Plant rooms fourth and last stop. And take it from me, if you knock over a bench of orchid pots you’ll find more trouble here than you brought with you.”
Rowcliff was licked. He wasn’t saying so, and he was trying not to look it, but he was. He growled, “Wolfe up there?”
“All right. Come along, Jack. You two wait here.”
The three of us got to the top in single file and I called to him to push in. We entered and he saw the elevator standing there with the door gaping.
He opened the door to the stairs and called down, “Hey, Al! Come up and give this elevator a go and look over the shaft!” Then he rejoined us.
Those plant rooms had been considered impressive by better men than Lieutenant Rowcliff—for example among many others, by Pierre Fracard, President of the Horticultural Society of France. I was in and out of them ten times a day and they impressed me, though I pretended to Theodore Horstmann that they didn’t. Of course they were more startling in February than they were in October, but Wolfe and Horstmann had developed a technique of forcing that made them worth looking at no matter when it was.
Inside the door of the first room, which had Odontoglossums, Oncidiums, and Miltonia hybrids, Rowcliff and the dick stopped short. The angle-iron staging gleamed in its silver paint, and on the concrete benches and shelves three thousand pots of orchids showed greens and blues and yellows and reds. It looked spotty to me, since I had seen it at the top of its glory, but it was nothing to sniff at.
I said, “Well, do you think you’re at the flower show? You didn’t pay to get in. Get a move on, huh?”
Rowcliff led the way. He didn’t leave the center aisle. Once he stopped to stoop for a peek under a bench, and I let a laugh bust out and then choked it and said, “Excuse me, lieutenant, I know you have your duty to perform.” He went on with his shoulders up, but I knew the eager spirit of the chase had oozed down into his shoes.
In the next room, Cattleyas, Laelias, hybrids, and miscellaneous, Theodore Horstmann was over at one side pouring fertilizer on a row of Cymbidiums, which are terrestrials, and Rowcliff took a look at him but didn’t say anything. The dick in between us stopped to bend down and stick his nose against a big lilac hybrid, and I told him, “Nope. If you smell anything sweet, it’s me.”
We went on through the tropical room, where it was hot with the sun shining and the lath screens already off, and continued to the potting room. It had enough free space to move around in, and it also had inhabitants.
Francis Horrocks, still unsoiled, stood leaning with his back against an angle-iron, talking to Nero Wolfe, who was using the pressure spray. A couple of boards had been laid along the top of a long low wooden box which was filled with osmundine, and on the boards had been placed thirtyfive or forty pots of Laeliocatdeya lustre. Wolfe was spraying them with high pressure, and it was pretty wet around there.
Horrocks was saying, “It really seems a devilish lot of trouble. What? Of course, you know, it’s perfectly proper for every chap …”
Rowcliff looked around. There were sphagnum, sand, charcoal, crock for drainage, stacks of hundreds of pots. Rowcliff moved forward, and Wolfe shut off the spray and turned to him.
“Do I know you, sir?”
I closed in. “Mr. Nero Wolfe, Lieutenant Rowcliff.”
Wolfe inclined his head one inch. “How do you do.” He looked toward the door, where the dick stood. “And your companion?”
He was using his aloof tone, and it was good. Rowcliff said, “One of my men. We’re here on business.”
“So I understand. If you don’t mind, introduce him. I like to know the names of people who enter my house.”
“Yeah? His name’s Loedenkrantz.”
“Indeed.” Wolfe looked at him and inclined his head an inch again. “How do you do, sir.”
The dick said without moving, “Pleased to meetcha.”
Wolfe returned to Rowcliff. “And you are a lieutenant. Reward of merit? Incredible.” His voice deepened and accelerated. “Will you take a message for me to Mr. Cramer? Tell him that Nero Wolfe pronounces him to be a prince of witlings and an unspeakable ass! Pfui!” He turned on the spray, directed it on the orchids, and addressed Francis Horrocks. “But my dear sir, since all life is trouble, the only thing is to achieve a position where we may select varieties …”
I said to Rowcliff, “There’s a room there at the side, the gardener’s. You don’t want to miss that.”
He went with me and looked in, and I hand it to him that he had enough face left to enter and look under the bed and open the closet door. He came out again, and he was done. But as he moved for the door he asked me, “How do you get out to the roof?”
“You don’t. This covers all of it. Anyhow you’ve got it spotted. Haven’t you? Don’t tell me you overlooked that.”
We were returning the way we had come, and I was behind them again. He didn’t answer. Mr. Loedenkrantz didn’t stop to smell an orchid. There was a grin inside of me trying to burst into flower, but I was warning it. Not yet, sweetheart, they’re not out yet. We left the plant rooms and descended to the third floor, and Rowcliff said to the pair he had left there, “Fall in.”
One began, “I thought I heard a noise—”
I followed them down, on down. After all the diversion I had been furnishing I didn’t think it advisable to go suddenly dumb, so I manufactured a couple of nifties during the descent. In the lower hall, before I unlocked the door, I squared off to Rowcliff and told him, “Listen. I’ve been free with the lip, but it was my day. We all have to take it sometimes, and hey-nonnynonny. I’m aware it wasn’t you that pulled this boner.”
But, being a lieutenant, he was stem and unbending. “Much obliged for nothing. Open the door.”
I did that, and they went. On the sidewalk they were joined by their brothers who had been left there. I shut the door, heard the lock snap, and put on the bolt. I turned and went to the office. I seldom took a drink before dark, but the idea of a shot of bourbon seemed pleasing, so I went to the cabinet and helped myself. It felt encouraging going down. In my opinion, there was very little chance that Rowcliff had enough eagerness left in him to try a turn-around, but I returned to the entrance and pulled the curtain and stood looking out for a minute. There was no one in sight that had the faintest resemblance to a city employee. So I mounted the stairs, clear to the plant rooms, and went through to the potting room. Wolfe and Horrocks were standing there, and Wolfe looked at me inquiringly.
I waved a hand. “Gone. Done.”
Wolfe hung the spray tube on its hook and called, “Theodore!”
Horstmann came trotting. He and I together lifted the pots of Laeliocatdeyas, which Wolfe had been spraying, from the boards, and put them on a bench. Then we removed the boards from the long box of osmundine;
Horrocks took one. Wolfe said, “All right. Miss Fox.”
The mossy fiber, dripping with water, raised itself up out of the box, fell all around us, and spattered our pants. We began picking off patches of it that were clinging to Clara Fox’s soaked dress, and she brushed back her hair and blurted, “Thank God I wasn’t born a mermaid!”
Honocks put his fingers on the sleeve of her dress. “Absolutely saturated. Really, you know—”
He may have been straight, but he had no right to be in on it-1 cut him off. “I know you’ll have to be going. Fritz can attend to Miss Fox. If you don’t mind?”