New York, New York
The third annual Show-Stopping Cabaret and Vaudeville Competition was not about to let something like a declaration of war interfere with its business. In the summer of 1942 the organizers rented out the entirety of an upscale club and invited the very cream of New York's entertainment talent to light up its stage. Bertram had by then escorted Sugarpuss to enough similar clubs to feel more familiar in their environs than he had when he first made her acquaintance, but he was still dazzled by the Flamingo when he got a look at the front of the house.
"Now, you shake a flipper and get yourself a nice canoodling spot for after my number," Sugarpuss said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek with a butterfly-light pressure that would avoid smearing her carefully applied lipstick. Bertram had found a new level of fascination with the mathematical precision with which Sugarpuss performed her beauty rituals, transforming a naturally beautiful face into one of high glamour through an almost scientific art. And while he would have loved to have given her a more passionate demonstration of his appreciation for the effects, it would have ironically undone all of her efforts. As he headed to the floor to attend to her request for a good spot to canoodle, or otherwise attempt some surreptitious hoi-toi-toi, he was slightly embarrassed to discover that most of the tables had already been claimed by other patrons.
Off to one side of the ballroom he did spy a table set for four or five people which only had one couple claiming seats, and as the performances were about to begin he thought the social exertion of intruding may be worth it. "I beg your pardon," he said as he approached the table. "Due to the distribution of table sizes it appears that I have nowhere to sit and your party appears to have several spare seats. Would you mind if I join you, and also my wife when she is finished performing?"
The couple were a lady in a very attractive outfit with makeup almost as mathematically precise as Sugarpuss', and a gentleman in an Army officer's uniform. They both seemed amused by Bertram's effrontery, though he supposed his use of language, though supplemented by Sugarpuss' patient tutelage, was still formal enough to be amusing to those more fluent in the colloquial New York dialect. "Sure, I don't mind," the man said, "Pull up a chair."
"Thank you," Bertram said, and did just that, leaving a chair between his position and that of the officer. Etiquette impelled an introduction, so he continued, "I'm Professor Bertram Potts."
"Pleasure to meet you, professor," the lady said, leaning forward in her chair. Bertram could have accurately described her as a 'dish,' or several other synonyms, though he would hate for his professional assessment to indicate any passionate masculine attachment to her. "I'm Lily Rowan, and this is newly-minted Major Archie Goodwin."
"Delighted," Bertram said.
"And it's nice to meet you, too," Major Goodwin said. "It's always a pleasure to meet a fellow patron of the arts. You said your wife is performing tonight?"
Bertram nodded. "Sugarpuss O'Shea, though of course it's Potts since the wedding. She wanted to keep her stage name, which is only sensible. My friend Professor Peagram has warned us about the difficulty that marital name changes cause in keeping records straight."
Lily Rowan's eyes appeared to twinkle as she gave Major Goodwin a sidelong glance. "A sensible position to take."
"Sure, I've never held too much with that husband cleaving to wife thing," Goodwin said. "Seems a little permanant, if you ask me, not to mention that I always thought that cleaving was splitting things up."
"That's actually a fascinating subject--" Bertram was diverted from what promised to be a fascinating discussion by the house lights dimming and the follow spots coming to life. He turned toward the stage and joined the general round of applause as Sugarpuss stepped into the light.
She'd started performing 'Drum Boogie' after the previous year's competition, and had been polishing and improving it since. That night was a virtuoso performance of a song he'd come to love increasingly through repetition. And when it was over with a shimmy and a drumroll and a vocal trill, the hearts of the audience seemed to be with her.
Major Goodwin was shaking his head with an expression of warm appreciation. "Boy, she's something," he said. "I remember when she was starting in a dive the size of a shoebox, and now look at her."
"Oh, you knew her before?" Bertram asked, pleased to meet a fellow fan of his wife's stage talents.
"Yes," Miss Rowan said, her voice hitting a keen edge. "Do tell."
Bertram missed the enlightenment of just what that edge to her voice meant and how Major Goodwin was going to meet the engagement by the somewhat awkward entrance of the master of ceremonies to the stage, announcing the next act. Bertram frowned and attempted to recall the man's introduction of Sugarpuss. He didn't always pay the closest attention to people, it was true, but the cadence of his voice had dramatically changed, as had his choice of words.
Goodwin was also peering at the stage. "Wonder what happened to the other guy."
"Oh, no you don't," Miss Rowan said. "You start wondering, then you start snooping, then next thing you know Inspector Cramer's poking around with that rottweiler of his and I'm spotting you bail money. You promised me a night out."
"I object on two accounts," Goodwin replied. "One, that is a cruel and unfair assessment of Sergeant Stebbins, who is fully housebroken and almost never chews on the furniture. Two, Wolfe always provides my bail money. I've only hit you up for sandwiches."
"Next time I'll remember this conversation and I'll leave you to eat your own toenails," Miss Rowan countered, but she was cut off by Sugarpuss shimmying into the chair next to Bertram and planting her elbows on the table.
"Sugarpuss," Bertram said, delighted. "You were wonderful, darling, as you always are, but particularly."
"Thanks, honeysuckle. Say, I didn't know you knew Archie Goodwin."
"I didn't," Bertram turned to the other occupants of their table. "I imposed on Major Goodwin and Miss Rowan when there were no other tables available."
"So you weren't here to check out why the emcee took a sucker roll into the costume rack backstage?"
Major Goodwin and Miss Rowan exchanged a look.
"I did not ask, nor did I snoop," Goodwin protested.
"So you didn't," she said evenly, then turned to Sugarpuss. "I don't think we've met. I'm Lily Rowan."
"Oh, I've heard your name before," Sugarpuss said. "You're the reason I'm only the second best dancer Goodwin's ever danced with." She said it so matter-of-factly that Bertram's heart had no chance for even a flutter of jealousy. "Now, c'mon, do we need to call Mr. Wolfe and make an appointment?"
"I'd like to see you try," Goodwin countered. "He's in a bad mood on account of me enlisting and leaving him no one to sort his mail for him, and you a woman on top of that, he'd just go into a fit. No, you'd better let me take a look, and if he's really dead we'll get the cops on the line and just hang tight 'till they're through."
They slipped around the back and into the backstage area, where Bertram at least was surprised to discover another official inspecting the body of the original master of ceremonies, who had indeed fallen and rolled into a rack full of what could generously be termed costumes. There was a young woman at the costume rack who spotted their party as they approached, and cleared her throat. "Bossman, trouble."
The man stood and lowered what appeared to be some kind of magnifying apparatus. He was almost as tall as Bertram was, which was a statistical unlikelihood, and dressed in something resembling a military uniform. "Please," the man said in a pleasant baritone, "Stand back, for your own sa--"
Which was about when the evening, for Bertram anyway, stopped entirely making sense.
Bertram's field of vision suddenly skewed as his ears were filled with a ringing noise which he later would describe with the onomatopoetic syllable "VWORP," and then the world went entirely black.
A Clotharian Rebel Military Research Vessel Orbiting Earth
"... We've been warpholed into orbit," the same pleasant baritone was explaining when Bertram regained consciousness. He recognized after a few moments that his head was lying in the extremely pleasant location of Sugarpuss' lap, which was a situation he would have been happier to appreciate if his head hadn't been pounding.
"Well isn't this a fine situation," Major Goodwin announced. "And here I was looking forward to being hauled downtown by a particularly well-housebroken rottweiler and interrogated without even sandwiches to ease my pain. Instead we are in some kind of Martian coop thousands of miles above New York, without any idea of what kind of District Attorney we're going to be visited by. Do the Martians have DAs?"
Bertram opened his eyes to see Sugarpuss watching him with concern. "Oh, good," she said, "You got a crack to the noggin when we landed. How's your thinker ticking over?"
"With some difficulty, I fear." He reluctantly moved to sit up, even more reluctantly when the motion sent a stab of pain into his ocular cavities. "Ow."
"You can just stay put," Sugarpuss said, but Bertram had already regained at least a vertical sitting position, and the opportunity to look around a real 'Martian coop' as Major Goodwin termed it was too thrilling to resist.
Unfortunately, the scene was singularly uninspiring, unless you counted the always-inspiring figure that Sugarpuss cut. The six of them, with the inclusion of their new companions, were being held in a featureless gray room, walls and floor made out of the same sort of metal one might use to form a tin of baked beans. There was plenty of room to stretch, but no beds or toilet facilities, and Bertram hoped they wouldn't be in there long. Major Goodwin had taken a seat near the wall opposite Bertram and Sugarpuss, but Miss Rowan was standing, next to the young woman they had alarmed in the corridor. She was not dressed for visiting a nightclub as upscale as the Flamingo, with her hair loose around her shoulders and a shockingly short dress and boots that looked more suited for a day on a ranch than a dance, but there was a lively intelligence in her gaze that reassured Bertram that they were dealing with a perceptive ally rather than a hinderance.
Along one wall was the alarming figure of the supine master of ceremonies, but even more alarming was the fact that his head was detached from his body. No blood or cerebral fluid suggested a violent separation, but silvery tubes and wires led out from the severed joint on each side. "My goodness," he exclaimed involuntarily. "The master of ceremonies was... was..."
"An artificial intelligence, yes." Bertram looked up to see the strange man investigating what appeared to be a large iridescent brooch with the magnifying glass he'd been holding earlier. "And one of Clotharian origin, if I'm not mistaken."
"Okay, sexy bossman," his companion said, "I know that Dub-dub is all up to speed on her Barlow's Guide, but the rest of us could use a refresher."
"And for that matter, introductions were cut a little short back there," Miss Rowan said. "I'm Lily Rowan, and this is Major Archie Goodwin, and our new friends, Professor Bertram Potts and his wife Sugarpuss O'Shea."
The strange man cleared his throat and pulled a wallet out of his pocket. "I'm Special Agent Kane, and this is Special Agent--"
"Lacey Thornfield, confrontational spoken-word performance artist," the young woman introduced herself. "It's a pleasure to meet you all."
Special Agent Kane looked even more discomfited. "Er. Yes." He hesitated, then blurted, "Ribbons of Raggadorr, Lacey, I have to apologize again for getting you involved in this--"
"Hey, apologize when we're back home sharing a cup of soy milk," Miss Thornfield said. "Until then, any idea what these Clotharians wanted with a music festival?"
"And any idea if we'll get back in the next half hour?" Sugarpuss interjected. "I don't mind, only it's that if I don't make my second number I'm out of the running for the grand prize."
"I would never intentionally keep an artist from her work," the special agent said. He looked about to say something else, then suddenly turned to Major Goodwin. "I'm sorry, but are you the Archie Goodwin who works for Nero Wolfe?"
Lily Rowan smirked and before Major Goodwin could answer, interjected, "This is why he gets his picture in the papers, you know. Be careful he doesn't get too swelled a head or we'll to have his last night in New York with no dancing. He'll float off the stage."
Major Goodwin was interrupted in his retort by the far wall suddenly vanishing. Into their company strode a short man in some kind of bathrobe wearing an outlandish hat that could have done for a soup tureen if you'd beaten the dents out of it. If this was a Martian, or a Clotharian, Bertram wasn't too impressed. Even though the vanishing wall trick was a doozy.
Special Agent Kane, on the other hand, did look impressed. "Maximum Aldwin!"
The alien was brought up short. "You flatter me, Earthling," he said. "Obviously you're seeking special dispensation. You won't get it. I am Medium High Aldwin, commander of the Clotharian Rebel Science Fleet. And you have interfered in our experiments!"
"Medium High Aldwin," Special Agent Kane said respectfully, then slapped his arms in a curious pattern. "I invoke the Treaty of Perpulgilliam and ask that you explain--"
Medium High Aldwyn snorted. "The Pentarchs of Clothar V would never sign the treaty of Perpulgilliam, and our forces are not recognized as having signatory authority. Try again."
Special Agent Kane frowned, and looked about to say something else, when Sugarpuss stood up and said, "Could ya let us know because we asked nice?"
Medium High Aldwin's frown deepened. "You are experimental subjects!"
"Yeah? Well, even rats in a maze work better if they know there's a little cheese in it for 'em. C'mon, what's the big secret?"
"Very well," Medium High Aldwin said, then tilted his head back in a maneuver that made him look slightly taller. "The Clotharian Rebel Fleet has been attempting to design new weapons to defeat the warmongering Pentarchs of Clothar V for some time now. We struck upon the remarkable ability of your primate minds to create and direct vast amounts of energy when focused en masse on a single idea."
Miss Thornfield gasped. "Like when Martha got the whole world to focus on the Doctor in the last episode."
"What doctor was that?" Bertram asked, intrigued even through his headache.
"Doctor Who," Miss Thornfield responded.
Major Goodwin smirked and interjected, "Shouldn't that be 'Dr. Whom'?"
Bertram sat up a little straighter. "That's a common oversimplification," he said. "In fact, if it's the nominative or vocative case--"
"Silence!" Medium High Aldwin cried.
They quieted down quickly.
"We plan to use the Show-Stopping Cabaret and Vaudeville Competition as a means to test out our temporal warphole resonator cannon. Your tampering with the self-motivating focusing unit will set us back weeks." He sniffed. "We'll find a convenient black hole to throw you all into and your pathetic interference will be at an end."
Medium High Aldwin swept out of the room and the wall went as solid as it had been at first glance. Major Goodwin gingerly reached out to touch it, and it held fast.
"I don't know anything about black holes," Sugarpuss finally said, "But that didn't sound too good."
Bertram cleared his throat. "Professor Gurakoff called them mathematical curiosities," he said. "But from his explanation, I gather that it is similar to a hole so deep that nothing can escape, not even light."
"That's partially true," Special Agent Kane said. "But in reality the experience would be far more painful than you can imagine." He looked slightly queasy. "Fortunately, Medium High Aldwin neglected to remove the means of our escape."
For a moment Bertram couldn't figure out what he was talking about, then he looked down at the mechanical man at the agent's feet.
"What good is the tin man gonna do us?" Sugarpuss asked.
Major Goodwin got to his feet and came to join the rest of them, so Bertram struggled upright. "Are you saying you can use this... person to escape?"
"Possibly," Special Agent Kane said. "Miss O'Shea, I'm going to need your help. And you, Miss Thornfield."
"I told you, you can call me Lacey," Miss Thornfield said. "What do you need?"
"This module is powered by focused concentration on syncopated rhythm." Special Agent Kane gestured to the feet of the faux presenter. "Can the two of you improvise a performance?"
Miss Thornfield looked up and met Sugarpuss' eyes and smiled. "You were the one singing 'Drum Boogie' earlier?"
"The one and only," Sugarpuss said.
"I think we can handle it," Miss Thornfield said. "C'mon, let's go."
They went to a corner to confer in low voices. Major Goodwin cleared his throat. "My singing might not be up to scratch but my rhythm's all right if you need a dancer or two."
"Actually, your role is vital, Mr. Goodwin," Special Agent Kane said. "You represent a kind of temporal anchor which will allow me to calibrate the warphole generator." He looked up after a second and added, "Though dancing certainly won't hurt."
Miss Thornfield and Sugarpuss turned and struck poses. "We're ready when you need us," Miss Thornfield announced.
Special Agent Kane nodded firmly and pressed the brooch-shaped object he'd been fiddling with back into the neck of the collapsed automaton. "Go!"
Sugarpuss raised her hands and whispered, "Boogie."
Miss Thornfield lifted her chin, and suddenly it didn't matter that she was disheveled and wearing a plain cotton dress rather than a nightclub costume, she was mesmerizing. "Concrete jungle, nature's rhythm stuffed and silenced."
"Boogie," Sugarpuss whispered, sounding like a chant.
"We wrap our feet in souls of sacrificed animals to walk on dry rivers--"
"Boogie!" Sugarpuss' voice got more urgent with each repetition.
"Trapped in steel boxes of our own making, shut off from sunlight--"
"Boogie!" It was unlike anything Bertram had ever heard. Grammatically speaking it was appalling, but from a rhythmic perspective... his fingers scrambled for his pen and paper, but he realized that he'd foolishly left it at home, deciding that any scraps of new language he turned up that night he would remember if they were important enough.
"We must find our animal natures and be free!"
"Cast off our concrete skins and dance our joy to the sky!"
"Boogie!" Bertram felt his own toes tapping, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Major Goodwin and Miss Rowan swaying together to the beat.
"All right," Special Agent Kane said, and even he was speaking to Miss Thornfield and Sugarpuss' hypnotic beat. "Here we go--"
The VWORP noise came again, and Bertram braced himself for blackness.
A Dressing Room at the Flamingo
Blackness failed to appear. In fact, after a brief moment of disorientation, he knew exactly where he was. Sugarpuss' dressing room was a little crowded with six people in it, and they all wound up a bit in each other's personal space, but at least it was a familiar sight.
"Wow, kid, you certainly know your lines," Sugarpuss said, then caught sight of the clock. "Shoot! I've only got three minutes! Out out out, I have to change!"
Bertram was heading for the door when she hooked his collar with a finger. "Not you."
She closed and latched the door, and then turned and snuggled into his arms. "Gosh, what a piece of rotten luck. We didn't even get our canoodling."
"Not even a bit of hoi-toi-toi," Bertram agreed. "We'll have to make it up to each other later."
"Good. Now help me with this zipper."
With fingers that shook a great deal less than he was expecting, he got the zipper undone and then Sugarpuss was back in his embrace. "My dearest," he said, then stopped.
"We can't waste too much time," she said. "Besides, I'm getting cold."
Bertram reached out and picked her next costume off the rack. "Here, let me help you with this."
She shimmied into it and he zipped her up before she asked what they were both thinking. "Do you think they'll be back?"
"I most certainly hope not," he said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. "After all, they can't infiltrate this contest again, not with their robot damaged, or missing, or..." in the end, he hadn't seen what happened to the robot. He pressed on. "So they'll have to go someplace else."
"I didn't like that Aldwin guy. A real fat-headed creep, that one." Sugarpuss flipped her hair back, smoothed her costume into place, and opened the door.
To Bertram's equal surprise, Major Goodwin and Lily Rowan were waiting for them, while Special Agent Kane and Miss Thornfield were gone. "They said to apologize," Goodwin said, "But they had to power their trip back home. And he said not to worry about Aldwin and his robots, it's all taken care of. Say, you gotta run, you don't wanna miss your number."
"No, I sure don't," Sugarpuss said. She turned and kissed Bertram on the cheek and sparkled toward the stage.
"You know," Bertram said, halfway to himself, as they headed back toward their table, "After spending nearly ten years on an encyclopedia, it occurs to me that I could take that practice in writing and turn it toward some other project. Novels, perhaps."
"Well, if you write one about a dinner party that gets kidnapped by aliens," Miss Rowan said, "You can be sure of one sale. Actually, three, I'll buy one for Archie, and for Nero Wolfe, too."
They returned to their table and it was almost as though the entire bizarre interlude had never happened.
"I wonder how Miss Thornfield got to be in the company of Agent Kane, anyway," Bertram mused.
Miss Rowan raised an eyebrow, but it was Major Goodwin who said, "He wasn't any special agent. Did you see that card of his? Pretty slick job, but I don't know any agency that has time to tag everyone with a full-color process picture like that."
"Really?" Bertram shook his head. "That is peculiar. I wonder who he was."
Miss Rowan shrugged. "Some kind of middleman, that's what he told me."
"A middleman, hm," Bertram said. "I wonder--"
And then the follow spot came up, and once again, the rhythm commanded everyone's full attention.