"'Poet,' it says, "'died from stab of rose.' Must be a thorn that stabbed him. Who do you suppose that is?"
Richard Jury looked up and across at Sergeant Wiggins. "Rilke. What is that, the crossword? Rilke, if memory serves me." Memory served up entirely too much. Jury sat reading a forensics report while Detective Sergeant Wiggins, seated at a desk across the room, was stirring up ever more esoteric means of dying. Wiggins was really into death, Jury remarked not for the first time. Or at least into the ills that flesh is heir to. Wiggins was heir to the lot, to hear him talk.
"Rilke?" said Wiggins. He counted the spaces. "That'd fit all right. You'd be a whiz at crosswords, knowing things like that." He poured out the tea.
"That's the only thing I know like that."
Wiggins was spooning in sugar, and, having dumped four teaspoonfuls into his own tea, started in on Jury's.
"One," said Jury, not even looking up from his folder. Tea making in this office had achieved the status of ritual, one so long undertaken that Jury knew where Sergeant Wiggins was at every step. Perhaps it was the spoon clicking against the cup with each teaspoonful that sent out a signal.
"Was he hemophiliac, then, this Rilke?"
"Beats me." Trust Wiggins to put it down to a disorder of blood or bone. A lengthy silence followed, during which Jury did look up to see Wiggins sitting with his hands wrapped around both mugs as he stared out of the window. "Is my mug going to grow little mug legs and walk over here on its own?"
Wiggins jumped. "Oh, sorry." He rose and took Jury's tea to him, saying, when he'd returned to his own desk, "I just can't think of other blood conditions that would result in death from a rose-thorn prick."
Lines of a poem came unbidden to Jury's mind:
O Rose, thou ar't sick.
The invisible worm...
William Blake. He wouldn't mention this to Wiggins. One rose death was enough for one morning.
Wiggins persisted. "A prick could cause that much blood to flow? I mean, the guy could hardly bleed out from it." He frowned, drank his tea, kept on frowning. "I should know the answer to that."
"Why? That's what police doctors are for. Call forensics if you're desperate."
That flies in the night
In the howling storm...
Jury closed the file on skeletal remains and watched the slow-falling snow. Hardly enough to dampen the pavement, much less a ski slope. Well, had he planned on skiing in Islington? He could go to High Wycombe; they had all-season skiing around there. How depressing. In two weeks, Christmas would be here. More depressing. "You going to Manchester for Christmas, Wiggins?"
"To my sister and her brood, yes. You, sir?"
"You mean am I going to Newcastle? No." That he would not go to his cousin (and her brood) filled him with such a delicious ease that he wondered if happiness lay not in doing but in not doing.
Wiggins appeared to be waiting for Jury to fill him in on his Christmas plans. If Newcastle was out, what then? When Jury didn't supply something better, Wiggins didn't delve. He just returned to death and its antidotes, a few bottles and vials of which were arranged on his desk. Wiggins looked them over, hit on the viscous pink liquid and squeezed several drops into a half glass of water, which he then swirled into thinner viscosity.
He said, "But we're on rota for Christmas, at least Christmas morning. I won't get to Manchester until dinnertime, probably."
"Hell, just go ahead. I'll cover for you."
Wiggins shook his head. "No, that wouldn't be fair, sir. No, I'll be here. Christmas can be hell on wheels for people deciding to bloody up other people. Just give some guy a holiday and he goes for a gun."
Jury laughed. "True. Maybe we'll have time for a bang-up lunch at Danny Wu's on Christmas Day. He never closes on holidays." Ruiyi was the best restaurant in Soho.
Then came silence and snow. Jury thought about a present for Wiggins. Some medical book, one that might define Rilke's "disease of the blood," if that's what it was. A thorn prick. O Rose, thou ar't sick. He tried to remember the last four lines of this short poem, but couldn't.
Wiggins had gone back to the newspaper. "They're starting to clear the old Greenwich gasworks. To put up the dome, that millennium dome they're talking about."
Jury didn't want to hear about it or talk about it. Wiggins loved the subject. "That's years away, Wiggins. Let's wait and be surprised."
Wiggins regarded him narrowly, not knowing what to make of that runic comment.
Jury got up, pulled on his coat and picked up the folder which held Haggerty's report. "I'm going to the City; if you need me I'll be at Snow Hill police station with Mickey Haggerty."
"All right." Wiggins drank his pink stuff and turned toward the window. He said, as Jury was going out the door, "It sounds like something out of a fairy tale, almost."
"What does? The millennium dome?"
"No, no, no. It's this Rilke fellow. It's like the princess who pricked her finger spinning, falling asleep forever. Dying from the prick of a rose thorn." He looked at Jury. "It's sort of a breathtaking death, isn't it?"
"I guess I don't want to be breathtaken, Wiggins. See you."
From The Blue Last: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes (c) September 2001, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.