Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout
The bell rang and I went to the front and opened the door and there she was. I said good morning. “Pliz,” she said, “I would like to see Misturr Nero Wolfe.”
Or you might have spelled it plihz or plizz or plihsz. However you spelled it, it wasn’t Middle West or New England or Park Avenue or even East Side. It wasn’t American, and naturally it irritated me a little. But I politely invited her in and conducted her to the office and got her a chair, and then extracted her name, which I had to ask her to spell.
“Mr. Wolfe will be engaged until eleven o’clock,” I told her, with a glance at the wall clock above my desk, which said ten thirty. “I’m Archie Goodwin, his confidential secretary. If you’d like to save time by starting on me …”
She shook her head and said she had plenty of time. I asked if she would like a book or magazine, and she shook her head again, and I passed her up and resumed at my desk, where I was heading up a bunch of hybridizing cards for use upstairs. Five minutes later I had finished and was checking them over when I heard her voice behind me:
“I believe I would like a book. May I?”
I waved at the shelves and told her to help herself and went on with the checking. Presently I looked up when she approached and stood beside me with a volume in her hand.
“Misturr Wolfe reads this?” she asked. She had a nice soft low voice which would have sounded all right if she had taken the trouble to learn how to pronounce words. I glanced at the title and told her Wolfe had read it some time ago.
“But he stoodies it?”
“Why should he? He’s a genius, he don’t have to study anything.”
“He reads once and then he is through?”
“That’s the idea.”
She started for her chair and then turned again. “Do you read it perhaps?”
“I do not,” I said emphatically.
She half smiled. “It’s too complicated for you, the Balkan history?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t tried it. But I understand all the kings and queens got murdered. I like newspaper murders better.”
She turned off the smile and went and sat down with the book, and appeared to be absorbed in it a few minutes later when, the checking finished, I jiggled the handful of cards neatly together and departed with them, and mounted the two flights of carpeted stairs to the top floor and the steeper flight to the roof level, where the entire space was glassed-in for the orchids except the potting room and the corner where Horstmann slept. Passing through the first two rooms, down the aisles with silver staging and concrete benches and thousands of pots holding everything from baby seedlings to odontoglossums and dendrobiums in full bloom, I found Nero Wolfe in the warm room, standing with his thumbs on his hips, frowning at Horstmann, who in turn was scowling reproachfully at an enormous coelogyne blossom with white petals and orange keels. Wolfe was muttering:
“A full two weeks. At the very least, twelve days. As Per Hansa says, I don’t know what God expects to accomplish by such management. If it were only a question of forcing – well, Archie?”
I handed Horstmann the cards. “For that batch of miltonias and lycastes. The germination dates are already in where you had them. There’s a female immigrant downstairs who wants to borrow a book. She is twenty-two years old and has fine legs. Her face is sullen but well-arranged and her eyes are dark and beautiful and worried. She has a nice voice, but she talks like Lynn Fontanne in Idiot’s Delight. Her name is Carla Lovchen.”
Wolfe had taken the cards from Horstmann to flip through them, but he stopped to send me a sharp glance. “What’s that?” he demanded. “Her name?”
“Lovchen.” I spelled it, and grinned. “Yeah, I know, it struck me too. You may remember I read The Native’s Return. She seems to be named after a mountain. The Black Mountain. Mount Lovchen. Tsernagora. Montenegro, which is the Venetian variant of Monte Nero, and your name is Nero. It may be only a coincidence, but it’s natural for a trained detective –”
“What does she want?”
“She says she wants to see you, but I think she came to borrow a book. She took that United Yugoslavia by Henderson from the shelf and asked if you’ve read it, and do you stoody it, and am I reading it and so on. She’s down there with her pretty nose in it. But as I say, her eyes look worried. I had a notion to tell her that because of the healthy condition of the bank account –”
I turned it off because he was ignoring me and giving his attention to the cards. Reflecting that that was an unusually childish gesture even for him, since it lacked only three minutes till eleven o’clock, the hour when he invariably proceeded from the plant rooms to the office, I snorted audibly, wheeled, and went for the stairs.
The immigrant was still in the chair, reading, but had abandoned the book for a magazine. I looked around for it to return it to the shelf, but saw that she had already done so; it was back in its place, and I gave her a good mark for that because I’ve noticed that most girls are so darned untidy around a house. I told her Wolfe would be down soon, and had just got my notes cleared away and the typewriter lowered when I heard the door of his personal elevator clanging, and a moment later he entered. A pace short of his desk he arrested his progress to acknowledge the visitor’s presence with a little bow which achieved only one degree off the perpendicular, then continued to his chair, got deposited, glanced at the vase of cattleyas and the morning mail under the weight, put his thumb to the button to summon beer, leaned back and adjusted himself, and sighed. The visitor, with the magazine closed on her lap, was gazing at him through long lowered lashes.
Wolfe said abruptly and crisply, “Lovchen? That is not your name. It is no one’s name.”
Her lashes fluttered. “My name,” she said with a half smile, “is what I say it is. Would you call it a convenience? Not to irritate the Americans with a name like Kraljevitch?”
“Is that yours?”
“No matter.” Wolfe sounded testy – as far as I could see, for no reason. “You came to see me?”
Her lips parted for a soft little laugh. “You sound like a Tsernagore,” she declared. “Or a Montenegrin if you prefer it, as the Americans do. You don’t look like one, since Tsernagores grow up and up, not out and all around like you. But when you talk I feel at home. That’s exactly how a Tsernagore speaks to a girl. Is it what you eat?”
I turned my head to enjoy a grin. Wolfe demanded, almost bellowing at her, “What can I do for you, Miss Lovchen?”
“Oh yes.” Her eyes showed the worry again. “I was forgetting on account of seeing you. You are a famous man, I know that, of course, but you don’t look famous. You look more like –” She stopped, made a little circle with her lips, and went on, “Anyway, you’re famous, and you have been in Montenegro. You see, I know much about you. Hvala Bogu. Because I want to engage you on account of some trouble.”
“I’m afraid –”
“Not my trouble,” she continued rapidly. “It’s a friend of mine, a girl who came with me to America not long ago. Her name is Neya Tormic.” The long black lashes flickered. “Just as mine is Carla Lovchen. We work together at the studio of Nikola Miltan on 48th Street. You know, perhaps? Dancing and fencing are taught there. You know him?”
“I’ve met him,” Wolfe admitted gruffly, “at the table of my friend Marko Vukčić. But I’m afraid I’m too busy at present –”
She swept on in front. “We’re good fencers, Neya and I. Corsini in Zagreb passed us with foils, épée, and sabre. And the dancing, of course, is easy. We learn the Lambeth Walk in twenty minutes, we teach it to rich people in five lessons, and they pay high, and Nikola Miltan takes the money and pays us only not so high. That is why, in this foolish trouble Neya has got into, we can pay you not so much as you might expect from some people, but we can pay you a little, and added to that is the fact that we are from Zagreb. It’s not a little trouble Neya has got into, it’s a big one, through no fault of hers, because she is not a thief, as anyone but an American fool would be aware. They’ll put her in jail, and you must act quickly, at once –”