On the shores of the Dead Sea, Dorrie Caldicott is coming into bloom. A spoiled graduate of the finest prep schools on the Atlantic Seaboard, she went AWOL during a tour of Israel and put down roots in a kibbutz. Her mother simply won’t stand for this kind of behavior, and it falls to Dorrie’s uncle Theo Bloomer, a retired florist who’s as meek as a daffodil, to bring the girl home. But in the sands of Israel, this gentle flower will be forced to take root or die.
Theo has hardly arrived at the settlement when a pair of murders makes it unlikely he and his niece will ever make it home. Under threat by terrorists, the police, and the attentions of a few dozen intellectual farmers, Theo and Dorrie must find the killers if they wish to escape the Holy Land alive.
Anyone who has envied Nero Wolfe’s orchid collection will find himself right at home with Theo Bloomer, a globetrotting florist who—like Rex Stout’s most famous detective—would prefer to be at home with his plants. Readers won’t want to miss joining Theo in this unique series by Joan Hess, one of the funniest mystery novelists on the planet.
The Night-Blooming Cereus is the 1st book in the Theo Bloomer Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Night-Blooming Cereus
A Theo Bloomer Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1986 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"This is entirely your fault, Theo," came the voice over the telephone. "As you very well know, Dorrie has idolized you since the day she was born, and if you hadn't told her —"
"How are you, Nadine?"
"— about your shady history with that dreadful communist organization, she would never have even considered this crazy scheme. Now what are you going to do about it, Theo?"
"How is Charles? Has he pulled off any quadruple bypasses worthy of the front page?" Theo Bloomer asked in a mild attempt at diversion. Not that it would succeed, he thought gloomily. He could almost see his sister on the distant end of the telephone line, with her hennaed hair, substantial bust, and aristocratic nose. Like an aged racehorse, she was inclined to snort. A particularly loud one brought him back to the conversation.
"Charles is distraught, Theo. As am I. Dorrie has always listened to us and respected our opinions, despite any encouragement to the contrary from her dear Uncle Theo. I just cannot imagine what's gotten into the child. I tried to be understanding but the situation is well beyond understanding now. Do you realize that the fall semester begins in less than three weeks?"
"Did I tell you about my night-blooming cereus, Nadine? I've nurtured it for four and one-half years, and now I do believe it's finally going to bloom."
The ensuing growl gave him a flicker of satisfaction. Nadine Bloomer Caldicott (matron extraordinaire, bridge player of noted viciousness, guiding force of the hospital auxiliary, chairperson of the country club entertainment committee) rarely allowed her well-powdered demeanor to slip. Self-indulgence was, as she was fond of saying in more than one situation, symptomatic of the underprivileged classes. Caldicotts were hardly underprivileged.
Theo made an apologetic (if insincere) noise and said, "What has Dorrie done?"
"Dorrie is living on a kibbutz in Israel — if you can imagine such an absurd thing! She called last night to tell us how utterly fascinated she was with the socialist structure, and how she intended to remain there in order to further observe the social interactions of the community. She said it would make a divine thesis. I told her in no uncertain terms that she was to cease this silly little ploy at once and return to Connecticut on the next flight. I had intended to take her to New York for a bit of shopping before school starts, but if she continues to espouse this radical —"
"Dorrie living on a kibbutz in Israel? Nadine, I do agree that the idea is absurd. Have you taken to martinis before breakfast?"
"No, Theo, I have not." Snort, snort. "She even asked her father to see if he could get a refund on her dorm room at Wellesley. You can imagine how Charles feels, especially now that he's the treasurer of the county Republican party. He would be quite pained if someone were to suggest that we had actually permitted Dorrie to participate in a left-wing variety of lifestyle. I hope you're prepared to bring her to her senses, Theo — and bring her home!"
While the telephone continued to sputter in his ear, Theo gazed at the night-blooming cereus on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Four and one-half years of fertilizer, repotting, and high-spirited conversation. A despondent voice from a corner of his brain told him it was futile to argue with his sister's ironclad determination. Still, it would have been nice to see it bloom. Very nice, indeed.
The TWA 747 hit the tarmac with the squeal of chalk on a blackboard, followed by a series of heart-stopping shudders. A few of the passengers in steerage cheered, but most were too tired and grimy to do more than contribute to a collective sigh that told of preprocessed fodder and unfocused movies. The stewardesses, as disheveled and grim as their unruly charges after the twelve-hour flight, sternly warned them not to unbuckle their seatbelts until the plane reached a complete halt and an appropriate message flashed above their heads. Almost everyone rose to yank canvas totes and bulging plastic bags from the overhead compartments. Crackling threats ensued from the intercom, but the passengers knew it was too late to be evicted in mid-Atlantic or mid-Mediterranean.
Theo cautiously flexed his knees, which had locked into position hours earlier. The knees, sixty-one years old and lately turning rebellious, popped and creaked as they were forced to unbend. His back and neck were no more cooperative, but eventually Theo coerced his body into a functional state and joined the line of passengers jostling down the narrow aisle.
Once Theo was on the tarmac, a wave of heat washed over him with all the fury of an unfettered sauna. Without stopping to analyze the consequences, Theo did something he had never before done in public — he loosened his necktie and unbuttoned the top button of his white shirt. Seconds later, he slipped off his jacket and folded it over his arm.
"The heat, you see," he explained, although no one was near enough to hear his confession and forgive him. He stood patiently as buses arrived to shuttle the passengers to a squatty building in the distance. He was a tall, balding man with the aura of a retired school teacher or an accountant. His blue eyes were faded behind the thickness of round, wire-rimmed bifocals, and his clipped beard was more gray than brown. The beard was his one concession to vanity, grown in hopes it would divert eyes from the creeping pink circle on the top of his head. No one had ever commented on the beard, nor had anyone commented on his receding hair; thus he had not yet been able to determine if the ploy was successful.
Theo was accustomed to being categorized and dismissed, and his mildness reinforced the image. He was not a school teacher or accountant, however. The unmitigated (he could not bring himself to say "bald") truth was that he was a retired florist, a subject he judiciously avoided if ever it threatened to arise. There were no fresh jokes about the coincidence of name and occupation. Everyone seemed to think he would be amused by stories of Dr. Wolfe the veterinarian or Hatchett the IRS agent. Theo had heard them all.
After a brief bus ride, a not-so-brief wait for luggage, and an amazingly brief trip through customs, Theo found himself once again swamped with heat as he was carried with the crowd out of the airport. He waited until most of the throng had hugged, kissed, shrieked messages, and finally dispersed. Then, blotting his forehead with a handkerchief, he found a cab driver willing to take him to Kibbutz Mishkan — for a price. The thousands of shekels mentioned, although initially alarming, computed to less than fifty dollars. Nods were exchanged, and Theo's sole piece of luggage tossed in the trunk. The cab squealed out of the airport much as the 747 had done in New York.
Theo gazed out the window with interest. So this was Israel. Dry, as expected in late summer, and slightly scruffy from thousands of years of use. The traffic had been heavy: nomads from the Fertile Crescent, barbarians from the East, conquering armies from Europe. The Jews had been through several times, driven by an affirmation from their God that they were the chosen people and this their Promised Land. The Egyptians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, and now the Arabs had begged to differ; Theo wondered if the Jews' current hold on the country was any stronger now than it had been two thousand years ago. For their sake, he hoped so.
The basic brownness of the coastal plain was interspersed with irrigated fields. At first cotton plants covered the gently rolling land, the pods heavy with fuzz. Then, to Theo's amazement, the cotton gave way to sunflowers. The blossoms were sere, their heads drooping like despondent children. He made a careful note on the back page of his travel guide. Perhaps the horticulture hobbyists' club at home might be intrigued.
By what was surely divine intervention, Theo's driver had none of his Brooklyn counterpart's desire for incessant chatter as they drove down the highway toward Jerusalem and ultimately the kibbutz on the shore of the Dead Sea. With a silent prayer of gratitude, Theo sank into the upholstery for a much-needed nap. The guidebook slipped out of his hands and fell between two fastidiously polished shoes.
When he next opened his eyes, he saw desert on all sides. It was not his idea of a desert, which included such mundane images as undulating sand dunes and robed Arabs atop plodding camels. Here he saw only uncompromising rock and scattered clumps of dried plants, species unfamiliar. Jagged cliffs that disappeared into waterless riverbeds. Skeletons not of bleached bones, but of rusted trucks, abandoned tanks and tumbled fortifications. It had none of the romance of Lawrence's domain. He spotted a bedouin camp site, but it too was disappointing. The tent was made of burlap bags and bits of printed cotton, with a television antenna poked through one end. The only sign of life was an emaciated goat. No doubt the family was inside the tattered tent, watching reruns of Gilligan's Island. He wondered what they would make of it.
The taxi driver caught Theo's eye in the rearview mirror. "Hot enough for you?" he rasped as he flashed two rows of brown teeth that brought to mind dried marigold pods.
Theo quickly closed his eyes.
He opened them when the taxi stopped. Wincing at the glare, he studied a fence topped with concertina wire and beyond it rows of date palms. The harshness of the desert still lay behind him, but ahead lay an attempt at greenery. The florist in him felt comforted — until he saw a sweat-stained khaki uniform approaching the taxi, a rifle dangling at one side.
The driver conversed with the guard in what Theo presumed was Hebrew, and they were waved through the gate without further ceremony. On one side the rows of palms held formation; on the other, low buildings were surrounded by small areas of grass and flowers. Theo rolled down the dusty window for a better view, but immediately rolled it up as he deduced the unmistakable proximity of poultry houses.
As the taxi swung around a low metal building, Theo leaned forward for his first glimpse of the famed Dead Sea. Beyond two concrete-block bathhouses, a stretch of sand sloped gently to the water's edge. The sea was obscured by a haze that danced above the surface like ghostly ballerinas. In the distance was a hint of mountains, insubstantial silhouettes that seemed to drift above the haze. The water had a curious blank quality, the restrained ripples disturbing no darting schools of fish, no tentacles of algae, no beds of shellfish. The Dead Sea did look dead, he decided, pleased by the punctiliousness of its name.
The taxi once again stopped. The driver climbed out to remove Theo's suitcase from the trunk, while Theo followed more slowly. The heat here, at the lowest area of land on the face of the earth, was worse than he had imagined it would be. At the airport, the heat had been dry. Now he was grasped by blistering, humid arms, his lungs squeezed by searing fingers, his face slapped with a mask of invisible, suffocating heat.
Resisting the urge to take off the last items of his clothing, he dug out his wallet, tipped the driver for his silence, and carried the suitcase toward a low building with the words GUEST HOUSE in English, among other languages, displayed on a wall.
More than five thousand miles away, a petal deep inside the bud on the night-blooming cereus felt a primeval tickle.CHAPTER 2
The lobby was as cool as the storage room of a florist shop, although hardly as colorful. Theo gulped down several lungfuls of the air before advancing toward an unoccupied reception counter. The equipment was standard for a hotel: a cash register, a display of postcards, and several tiers of boxes, all with keys dangling over the lips. Everything but a desk clerk or a round bell with which to summon one.
Not for a second did Theo Bloomer consider barking a demand for service, nor did he presume to bang on the counter to make his presence known. Instead, slipping on his jacket and affixing his necktie, he turned around to study the lobby until someone might find it convenient to accept his money in exchange for temporary lodging.
The room held several groupings of sofas and chairs, all arranged for an optimum view of a television on a high shelf. Beyond those was a padded bar with stools to buffer the selection of liquor bottles and upturned glasses. Alas, there was no bartender to offer advice or a sip of chilled soda water.
On one side of the bar was a shrouded gift shop. On the other side was a set of French doors, curtained to obscure whatever lay beyond them. Theo briefly toyed with the idea of tapping on the door, but instead turned back to the desk to see if there might be written instructions for an unexpected visitor.
As he did so, a face rose up from behind the counter, halting when the chin grazed the edge. Their eyes met with equal alarm; Theo swallowed a yelp of surprise as he stepped back. The face belonged to a young woman, he realized, a young woman on the brink of a blood-curdling scream. The idea was appalling.
"If it isn't too much trouble, I'd like a room," he said quickly. He gestured at his suitcase near the door in hopes its presence might lend credibility to what sounded, even to him, like an improbable request. "If it's not too much trouble," he repeated, feeling increasingly pessimistic about his chances.
The woman's mouth fell open. Her eyes rounded and unblinking, she slowly began to sink, as if her knees were in a pool of quicksand hidden by the counter.
"Please wait," Theo implored. "Are you the desk manager? I'm Theodore Bloomer, from Connecticut. I sent a telegram that I was coming, but perhaps it failed to arrive?"
Only two large brown eyes were visible now, topped by a high forehead and flat black hair. Gradually they too disappeared, leaving Theo to gaze once more at an unoccupied counter. It was extremely unsettling. He supposed he could lean over the counter to see what the mute creature was doing, but that seemed presumptuous and apt to send her into hysterics. Then again, it was disheartening to lose the only person he had thus far seen in the lobby.
As he pondered his options, a door opened and a more substantial woman came into view. Theo eyed her warily, prepared for her to vanish also should he dare inquire about a room.
"May I help you?" she said in a pleasantly husky voice. She smiled as she stepped behind the counter.
After a pause, Theo tentatively said, "I'm Theo Bloomer." When she continued to smile, he decided to throw caution to the wind. "I sent a telegram that I was coming, but I may have preceded it by a day or two. In any case, I'd like a room for a few days."
"I'm Miriam Adler, Mr. Bloomer, and I'm afraid we have not yet received your telegram. However, all but one of our rooms are unoccupied, so we'll be delighted to have you as a guest at Kibbutz Mishkan. A single room?"
Encouraged by her failure to dematerialize, Theo studied her with the same seriousness he gave an unidentified seedling or a yellowed maidenhair fern. Her face was deeply tanned and covered by a sprinkling of honey-colored freckles. Hair that had once been a glowing auburn was now flecked with gray, but neatly done in gentle waves that softened her high cheekbones and straight, elegant nose. Her mouth was generous, curled slightly at each corner in a perpetual smile. Her eyes were dark brown, flecked with tiny arrowheads of gold — and regarding him with amused tolerance.
Redness crept up his neck as he cleared his throat. "Yes, a single room, please. I don't know how long I'll be staying, Mrs. Adler, and I hope that won't cause any inconvenience. I'm here to visit a relative."
"Please call me Miriam. We're all quite informal on the kibbutz, and I hope you'll enjoy yourself and feel at home. I can see that you're more interested in a cool shower and a long nap at the moment, so I'll sign you in and have someone take your luggage to your room immediately. You'll be in the building behind this one."
Theo filled out a form, allowed his passport to be locked in a small wall safe, and agreed to a second-floor room with a view of the Dead Sea. He insisted that he could manage the suitcase without assistance, and accepted a key on a plastic tag.
Excerpted from The Night-Blooming Cereus by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1986 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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