on his forehead kept slipping down over the bridge of his nose, and he kept pushing them back up as he peered intently at the symbol-filled monitor above the computer keyboard. He wore a white lab coat covered with dirt smudges, and there was dirt under his thick fingernails. I put him in his early thirties, and I thought he looked rather young for the hotshot expert he was supposed to be-but then, I'd met more than my share of young-genius types during my aborted career as a university professor.

'Be right with you,' Zelaskowich called over his shoulder when I knocked on his open office door. 'Please find a place for yourselves to sit.'

We stepped into the tiny office and, at my insistence, Garth sat down on the only chair in the room-a high metal stool which looked as if it might have been appropriated from some ice cream parlor. I leaned against the wall by the door and watched Zelaskowich punch a button on the computer keyboard with one of his thick fingers, activating a printer which began to clatter and spew out paper. The man punched a few more buttons, and a fresh set of symbols appeared on the screen of the monitor.

'I really hate these damn things,' the man continued good-naturedly, darting us a quick glance and revealing a boyish grin. 'Botanists aren't supposed to work on computers; we're supposed to be down on our hands and knees in the dirt. But a few months ago our board of directors got the bright idea that we should take a census of everything we have growing here, and put it all in a computer. It's a bear, let me tell you.'

Garth and I glanced at each other. 'You people don't know what you have growing here?' I asked Zelaskowich.

The botanist's glasses had once again slipped down over his nose. He pushed them back up, looked at me, and shrugged. 'Oh, no, Dr. Frederickson,' he said with great gravity. 'I imagine you must find that surprising, since this is the New York Botanical Garden, but the problem of identifying everything that's here is much more complex than you might think. It's not a matter of simply looking in the records to see what's been planted over the years, but of determining precisely what's growing there now. This census is going to take years, with dozens of us working on our hands and knees-and then we may miss a lot. You see, sometimes an entirely new genus can spring up without anyone noticing. I mean, we have more than five hundred types of hemerocallis alone; we're not certain, but it's possible that we may have more than two hundred and fifty thousand varieties of plants here. You see the problem, of course.'

'Uh. . I'm not sure we do, Doctor.'

'Well, let's take an example. Let's say you plant a dryopteris clintoniana next to a dryopteris goldiana before you know it-maybe in a year or two-you may very well have an entirely new plant growing between them, a sterile hybrid we call a dryopteris clintoniana x goldiana. Now, this isn't a separate species, but for the purpose of our census it is considered a different type of plant from either of its parents. Multiply that example by the thousands of plants we have here, and you begin to see the problem we're up against.'

'You're right,' Garth said dryly. 'It does sound like a bear.'

Zelaskowich tapped a key firmly with his index finger, and the printer ceased its clatter; another tap, and the monitor screen went blank. He spun around on his stool, a satisfied grin on his face. 'There!' he exclaimed. 'Now I can get back to where I belong-with my plants. At least for a little while.' He rose, shook Garth's hand, then mine. 'I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, but I really did have to finish that little bit of mechanical business while the mood was on me. I must say that it's quite a thrill to meet the famous Frederickson brothers, and I'm flattered that you should be coming to see me; botanists rarely get to meet real-life private detectives, especially such distinguished ones, and I must say that it's quite exciting. Now, how can I help you?'

'We appreciate your time, Dr. Zelaskowich,' Garth said as he rose from the stool, reached into his jacket pocket, and drew out the police lab report. He handed the paper to the young botanist. 'This is an analysis of a soil sample. Can you punch that up on your computer?'

Zelaskowich adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, held the computer printout at arm's length as he studied the columns of chemical symbols, grunted. 'I don't need the computer for this,' he said. 'This is incredibly rich soil, teeming with microbial life. It's certain that you didn't pick up this soil sample in New York-not the city, and not the state. In fact, I can't think offhand of any site in the United States where you'd find soil like this.'

Garth said, 'The technicians in the police lab who did that analysis tell me there's only one place in the world where that kind of soil is found: the Amazon rain forest. But we found the traces of soil that were used for the analysis in an envelope, and that envelope had been dropped into a mailbox somewhere in the greater New York metropolitan region. We're a long way from Brazil, Doctor, and it occurred to Mongo and me that there might be one other place where that kind of soil might be found-right here, at the Botanical Garden. We were hoping you might know if there's soil like that here; and, if so, who might be working with the plants that are growing in it.'

Zelaskowich pushed his glasses back up on his forehead, pursed his lips, then shook his head. 'No, Mr. Frederickson,' he said after a few moments. 'I would say not.'

'Are you sure, Doctor?' I asked. 'It's very important. If that didn't come from here, Garth and I don't have the slightest idea where to start looking next. We've checked with some florists, but they tell us that there's virtually no chance that a tropical plant sold here would have been potted in its native soil. This is the only place we could think of that might use it. You yourself said that you don't know how many plants you have here. Isn't it possible that there's some rain forest soil dumped someplace and you don't know about it?'

Again, the botanist shook his head. 'If tropical plants potted in soil like this were left out in the open, they wouldn't survive; and there is no soil in any of our terrariums that resembles this. You see, we just have no need for this kind of soil-and, if we did, we would have a good deal of trouble obtaining it.'

'Why?' I persisted. 'Why couldn't you just have someone over there dig up a barrel or two of the stuff and ship it to you? I can't imagine that there's a shortage of dirt in Brazil.'

'Indeed not, but the very high microbial count would present a problem. The Customs Service would frown on the importation of such soil in even relatively small amounts. In fact, that's just about what happened a few months ago.'

'What happened a few months ago, Doctor?' Garth asked, his sudden excitement and tension clearly evident in his voice even as I felt my own heart begin to beat more rapidly.

Samuel Zelaskowich shrugged his broad shoulders. 'Well, you see, for some years a number of our staff members have served as consultants to a company called Nuvironment, Incorporated.'

I asked, 'Is that normal procedure for you people to do outside consulting work?'

'Actually, it's rather unusual. But this is a rather special circumstance. Nuvironment happens to be owned by a very rich-and, I'm told, very eccentric-man by the name of Henry Blaisdel. I'm sure you've both heard of him.'

I'd heard of him, all right-as had anybody who even occasionally scanned the business pages of any newspaper or magazine, or read the kinds of tabloids that specialize in fantastic stories, virtually all of them made up, about bizarre personalities. According to Fortune magazine's last compilation, Henry Blaisdel ranked in the top ten of the world's billionaires, having just been nudged out of the top five by a couple of members of the Saudi royal family. Blaisdel owned lots of things-corporations, land, and people-all over the world, including a sixty-eight-story skyscraper, the Blaisdel Building, on the primest real estate in America, Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The building, among other things, was the corporate headquarters of the Blaisdel Holding Corporation, an umbrella company that coordinated Blaisdel's global operations. The fact that he hadn't been seen in public for almost a decade only increased the legendary aura that had grown up around him. His aversion to the public obviously hadn't affected his business acumen; his holdings, his fortune, just kept growing..

'Nuvironment, apparently, is Henry Blaisdel's pet company,' Zelaskowich continued. 'It would certainly have to be, considering the tens of millions of dollars he's poured into it over the years.'

'You seem very well informed about the company, Doctor,' Garth said in a neutral tone.

'Well, that's because Nuvironment has been using various members of the staff here as consultants since the company's founding-which was before I got here, but I'm well aware of the importance our board places on cooperating with the Nuvironment people. Henry Blaisdel is our biggest benefactor-as he is for many of the large cultural and scientific institutions in the city. In any case, about six or seven months ago we were asked to allow them to import one hundred tons or more of that particular type of soil under our aegis-using our contacts and knowledge, that sort of thing.'

I asked, 'Why couldn't they just import it themselves?'

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