A Christmas Carol





It wasn’t until the dessert course that I spotted the gun.  Wolfe had some excuse for not noticing it earlier because he was trying to cope with a hotel chef’s ideas about turkey in front of an interested audience.  But I’d had nothing to distract me except for the other three authors at our table, and they weren’t even females.  The organizers of this shindig had known better than to seat distaff intellectuals with Nero Wolfe in public for the entire duration of a meal.

However, I see that I’m getting ahead of myself.  Our very own hard-boiled version of A Christmas Carol had started earlier in the week with a fitting word from Wolfe.

“Bah!”  He had just finished reading the letter on top of his pile of daily mail.

I looked up from my notebook.  “Is that ‘Bah’ as an original comment or ‘Bah’ as a seasonal reference?”  Before he could stem the flow, I continued, “Sure, I know you don’t quote, but I thought you might be making an exception because Christmas draws nigh, and you wanted to get into the holiday spi--”

Wolfe slapped the letter down onto his desk blotter.  He would claim that he put it down, but the spray of Renanthera vibrated in its vase, so I say it was a slap.   I will admit that his voice was even as he said, “There is nothing about this charity fracas that is particular to Christmas.  Calling it a Christmas party is merely an attempt to evoke a sentimental association that will help the Committee raise money.”

I tilted my head to one side and looked thoughtful.  “What about the notion of giving to your fellow men in this festive season?”

“Send them another check.”

“They don’t want another check, they want you.”

“Send them another check and my regrets.”

“Yes, sir.”  I made a note.  “Mr. Wolfe regrets that, although he is both a supporter of and a donor to The National Author’s Committee against Censorship, his desire to imitate Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge in matters of social burden-toting renders him unable to accept your kind invitation to the Committee’s Annual Christmas Banquet.”

His eyes narrowed all through my little speech until they were slits.  Wolfe detests Charles Dickens only a little less than he hates Robert Browning.   “Archie, you know full well that I am an egoist.  I only pretend to charitable impulses when they will somehow calm my liver and aid my digestion.  I can not see how venturing out upon someone else’s summons to eat at a public banquet, followed by speeches and dancing,”  he shuddered so hard that his bulk twitched visibly, “will help me to achieve either of those goals.  No.”

My smile was sympathetic.  “Yes, sir.  It’s too bad about your missing the chance to sit at the same table with Ramsey Isaacs, though.”

Wolfe squeezed shut his lids. When he spoke again, his tone was measured.  “You have achieved your effect, Archie.  I know I expressed a wish to meet Mr. Isaacs.  However, there are limits.”

I kept quiet.  He’d said over lunch a week and a half ago that he’d walk a mile to meet Isaacs, but why rub it in?

“Confound it.”  The words were almost conversational.  “I won’t inquire how the devil you found out that Mr. Isaacs is attending this affray.  I won’t even ask why you reserved that one bit of information to yourself.”  That wasn’t generosity on his part.  Wolfe spends a lot of time reserving information during our cases.  He usually does it for effect, so he was in no position to kick when I pulled the same stunt, and he knew it.

“I’m feeling kindhearted today, so I will admit I have an invitation of my very own,” I picked up the letter and waved it at him, “being, as you know, a big-shot author in my not-so-copious spare time.  And, while I have never suffered under the lash of censorship as have the recipients of the Committee’s largess--”

Wolfe’s eyes had gone to the clock, and he was moving.  Using the kind of force necessary to mobilize a seventh of a ton of genius detective, he was up out of his custom-made yellow leather chair and onto his feet

“--as a matter of duty I am taking up the challenge of eating banquet food, listening to speechifying, and dancing with female authors.”

He paused for a moment in the doorway to the office.  “Are you done?”


“Good.  Send them another check and a letter of acceptance.  I need to consult with Fritz about the veal birds.  When I return, we will deal with the rest of the mail.”

“Yes, sir,” I said and swiveled to my typewriter.  Wolfe wasn’t going to give me the chance to gloat over his changing his mind, not that I would have.  Even though I draw my pay for prodding him into action and don’t mind telling him so, it’s dangerous to keep score where he can hear.  He believes he only does his duty so part of his ego can grandstand for the rest of his psyche, and he’s been known to decide that part of him has been overindulged and get stubborn.  One step in the dance of moving him along is to quit after he does all that can be done.  When the letter was signed, the banquet went off the menu for conversation until the following Friday.

If you are tempted to believe that I rearranged Wolfe’s schedule only to devil him, think again.  Consider the effort it takes to get a lazy eccentric into his overcoat, gaiters, and hat, and out his front door into a Huron sedan on a snowy evening in mid December, and you’ll admit that I was picking up my share of the social burden.  The job was still worth doing.  Nero Wolfe in public is enough of a spectacle that anticipating the sight of him would draw patrons to the Committee’s shindig the way the Wild Man of Borneo draws the summer crowd to a Coney Island sideshow.

Once we got to the Federal Room at the Madison Hotel and I’d unwrapped Wolfe, I checked in with the banquet’s organizer, an interesting brunette of my acquaintance named Wendy Lynn.  She had shapely calves, hazel eyes, scraps of a British accent, and was susceptible both to reason and to dance bands.  I would have talked with her just to enjoy the halter top gown in pale green satin, but I also wanted enough information to remind Wolfe that his presence was valuable.

“All sold out,” she reported.  “Between your Mr. Wolfe emerging from his hermitage, Annette Broderick flying in from Hollywood, and Saxon Delwyn leaving his broadcasting studio, we have enough celebrities of various types to draw more than the usual book crowd.”

I snorted.  “He’s not my Mr. Wolfe, any more than I’m his Mr. Goodwin, although we both suffer from the occasional delusion.  Where are we going to be seated?”

“I’m glad you warned me about that.”  She pushed one errant curl back from her face and consulted her notes.  “In order to provide a clear line of sight for the punters, you’re up in front on the platform, at the leftmost table along with Delwyn, Peter Wardell, and Ramsey Isaacs.  Peter Wardell writes upper-end cookbooks, so he and Mr. Wolfe may find something to talk about.  Mr. Delwyn is as eager as Mr. Wolfe to be seated stag, goodness knows why.  You told me that you needed Mr. Isaacs.”

“If I want to get paid this Friday, yes I do.”  I took her hand.  “I owe you three.”

She dimpled.  “And I owe you two, so that leaves me one ahead.  I’m sure I shall think of some way to collect my winnings.”

“Archie.”  There was a hint of a rumble in Wolfe’s voice behind me.  I took my time shaking Wendy’s hand before sauntering back over to him.  To my mild amazement, he had somehow managed to find a cluster of authors to mingle with and had been socializing like any normal human being until he had been ambushed by Miss Broderick, the film star, and her hangers on.  I would have found that crowd a challenge myself, so I disentangled him and led him off to the assigned seating.

“I don’t know, sir, I think we left too early.  She was showing signs of interest.  I didn’t know Annette Broderick liked them large. ”

“A Bengal tigress would be safer company.”

“If you just grab the ears and don’t let go--”

“Mr. Isaacs.”  Wolfe was bowing to one of the three men already seated around the table. 

Interested, I took the opportunity to add to my knowledge of what geniuses look like.  By 1956 I’d met Einstein, Babe Ruth, Ziegfeld, and Wolfe, so I knew there wasn’t an easy giveaway.  Sure enough, Isaacs was his own man.  He was a small dark guy in his sixties, with wavy black hair, big brown eyes, and a smile that could only be called sweet.  At some point his nose had been broken.  There was a certain air about him, though, which I’d noticed with the other masterminds, as if social interaction meant idling his engine.

Wolfe surveyed Isaacs and his eyes narrowed slightly.  “Have we met, sir?”

“Perhaps.  In Paris, in the mid twenties?”  No trace of an accent, but his English was of the impeccable sort that can mean educated foreigner.  All I really knew about Isaacs was that Wolfe said he deserved every award he’d been given, including the Pulitzer for his second novel, and that all eight of his books were still on the office bookshelves with not a dog-eared page between them.  “I don’t believe we’ve met since I’ve been in this country.”

“No, I would have remembered.”  Wolfe’s shoulders moved up and down a fraction of an inch under his dinner jacket.  “No matter.  We can compare travels at our leisure.”  He sat down and frowned at the table, reading placards.  “Mr. Wardell I know.  You were a friend of my friend, Marko Vukcic.”  Wardell nodded and stretched his craggy face into a social smile.  “I am unacquainted with you, Mr. Delwyn.”

“I am also unacquainted with you, Mr. Wolfe, although I’ve heard your praises sung by Madeline Fraiser.”  Delwyn had the kind of baritone you’d expect from a radio and television commentator.  He also had the looks to compliment his voice, which was not as predictable.  The dark blue eyes probably drove the ladies wild, but I had a suspicion they’d be wasting their fervor.  I wanted the name of his tailor.

Wolfe’s lips twisted a touch in his version of a grimace.  He wasn’t thrilled at being praised by a famous female, even an ex-client.  “Thank you, sir.  You know Mr. Goodwin?”

Delwyn looked me over with some care.  “No, alas, he has escaped me, although we do share a few acquaintances in common.”  He stretched out a hand that, to my surprise, was firm, strong, and dry.

“Your books are very amusing, Mr. Goodwin.”  Isaacs didn’t offer to shake hands, but then he was across the table from Wolfe and me, with his back to the corner of the room.  “I assume they are fictionalized accounts rather than descriptions of your actual cases?”

“To some extent.  A number of the characters in them are real.  I couldn’t make up Mr. Wolfe, for example.”

Wolfe quirked a corner of his mouth at me before turning his attention to the impending appetizer.  After one long survey of the tray being toted by the approaching waiter, he exchanged glances with Wardell next to him, drew a long breath in through his nose, and picked up his fork.  His public ordeal had begun.

The food was about what I’d expected, which, by Wolfe’s standards, made it too grim to discuss.  Instead, he and Wardell started a conversation about local sources for bulk spices, leaving me to sort through café society gossip with Delwyn.  Delwyn turned out to be an okay talker, sharp but fair, so I barely noticed when Isaacs joined Wardell and Wolfe in chewing over censorship.  They went from politics through obscenity to anthropology, which also took them through the appetizer, soup, turkey, and salad.  And then there were speeches.

They could have been worse.  Isaacs’, in fact, was good, lyrical without being sentimental, all about the need to make a public stand against whatever you claimed to detest the most.  I don’t think I was the only one to head for the john before the committee chairman’s report, but I wanted to be ready for the dancing.  I could have saved my effort.  When I was on my way back to the table to rejoin the others for dessert, I finally figured out what was weighing down Isaacs’ dinner jacket on one side.  When I sat down, I signaled Wolfe, who was telling Isaacs about what we’d seen in Montenegro a few years back, beneath the table.

Of all moments, Wolfe had to pick that one to be polite.  He turned to me as if I hadn't just kicked him.  “Yes, Archie?”

“I think Mr. Goodwin has noticed my contrivance.”  Isaacs took the .45 automatic out of his pocket, displayed it, and tucked it back away out of eyeshot.  It was all so smooth that nobody away from our table noticed.  Delwyn choked on his port, though, and Wardell raised both thin eyebrows high before setting down his fork load of mince pie with more care than it deserved.  “He has no need to castigate himself.  I secured this from a package in the cloakroom after my speech.”

Wolfe frowned.  “What trumpery is this?”

“Mr. Wolfe, I am an author.”

I snorted.  “So am I, but it doesn’t make me bring my Christmas presents to the table.”  It might not have been smart, but I was sore.

“I’m sorry, that was poorly phrased.  I have grown used to being an onlooker rather than an actor.  Now that I have to make a decision, I need a script to direct my course of action.”

“You want to shoot someone?”  Delwyn slowly fanned himself with his hand, as if the notion was too tiring to bear.

“No, I am going to shoot someone.  The only question that remains is the name of my target.”

Great.  There were maybe two hundred movers and shakers in that room, and five men seated at our table, but I had not one doubt in my mind as to who the leading finalist for murder was.  Neither did Wolfe.  “We have met before, then.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Wolfe.  Wien, 1913.”

Wolfe pinched the bridge of his nose.  Then he folded both hands together on top of the tablecloth, glanced down, and murmured, “At least I do not have to finish this wretched pie.”  Wardell grimaced sympathy, his rough features wry, but Wolfe ignored him and said to Isaacs, “I remember now.”

“I was younger, quite different in my aspect.”  It was almost apologetic.  “I haven’t forgotten, though.”

“Apparently not.  Why in the world murder in such circumstances, when there is every chance of involving onlookers?”

“They constrain your Mr. Goodwin as much as they constrain me, which would not be the case in your household.  I don’t want to be rushed and shoot him by mistake.”

Wolfe considered him, and then produced an abbreviated version of his earlier bow.  “Very well.  Announcing your intent limits your leverage, so you might as well be direct.  What is it that you wish from me before you decide?”

Isaacs’ eyes flicked over to me.  “Mr Goodwin--”

“Archie!”  Wolfe said sharply.  Then he continued, his voice quiet. “Mr. Isaacs is known for the nuances of his physical descriptions, no doubt based on years of training himself to close observation.  His reflexes have always been good.  I’ve also noted, during the course of this evening, that it is quite difficult to lie to him.”

I let myself relax back a little.  I’d like to think the movement was almost imperceptible.

Delwyn said conversationally, “If Mr. Wardell and I both pile onto you at once, you’re either going to have to do some clever shooting or take the chance of missing.”  Wardell considered and then nodded thoughtful agreement.  Wonderful, it was amateur hour at the Lido.  Without anyone moving, the tension at the table ratcheted up a notch.

“Please, gentlemen.  This is, I believe, between Mr. Isaacs and me.  You, yourself, are the other possible target?”

Now Isaacs wasn’t smiling at all.  “I don’t like jail.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I shouldn’t have been there.  You tortured me.”

Delwyn’s eyes widened, Wardell’s chin went down.  My focus actually flicked off of Isaacs to Wolfe for a moment before, cursing myself, I put it back where it belonged.

Wolfe pursed his lips.  “No, and yes.”  I could tell, without looking, that he also needed to get his focus back to where it belonged.  I felt myself make some gesture although I couldn’t tell you what.  “A waste of time, as it turned out.  The so-called third degree is, by and large, a useless means of interrogation, an opinion upon which my superiors and I never reached agreement.  It is why we quickly, thereafter, came to a parting of our ways.”

Isaacs crouched forwards, his hands moving underneath the tablecloth.  Wolfe ignored him and turned to me.  “Archie, you’ll find the needed instructions in an envelope below the box in my second right-hand desk drawer.  There are also letters for you, Fritz, and a few others.  Tell Lewis I expect interesting results from the Cymbidium crosses we discussed.”

“Yes, sir.”  I didn’t move, even though I had a distinct urge to kick Wolfe under the table again.

“Your heart’s going out on you?” Delwyn abruptly asked Isaacs. 

It was a good try, but Isaacs was still studying us.  “No, cancer.”

Wardell clicked his tongue against his teeth.  “For mercy’s sake, I hope you got a second opinion.”

“Oh, yes.”  Isaac’s smile was still sweet.  “A second opinion and a third.  Pancreatic, they think, and very fast moving.  I’ve already started losing weight and am in a great deal of pain.” 

The last words were delivered in a thoughtful murmur.  We had all lowered our voices and leaned forward.  I’m sure the neighbors were wondering what profound literary secrets were being shared.  Fat chance they had of finding out.  The one adjacent table was emptying, since the dance band had opened up and dancers were taking the floor.  For once, I couldn’t have cared less.  Our table was a small group version of the scene in a western when the gunslingers are staring at each other, perfectly still, eyes slightly narrowed, and hands hovering over their holsters.  When the scene ended, someone would die.

“Well, this will certainly give me something unique to discuss on my next program,” Delwyn drawled.  From his attitude, he probably would have liked to roll his eyes, but he was keeping them where they should be, on Isaacs.

“Mr. Isaacs, you have questions?  You wish to make some speech?”  Wolfe asked.  It was polite rather than sarcastic, but it probably cut deeper because of that.

“No,” Isaacs said.  His eyes narrowed.  “I do hope your instructions specify a small and simple funeral, Mr. Wolfe.  Large, empty churches are so lonesome.”

My own voice sounded distant to me when I said, “Don’t worry.  Mr. Wolfe isn’t religious, and, besides, the house will be packed when he dies.”

“Archie, you know perfectly well I do not want some gaudy memorial service.”  Wolfe was trying to draw Isaacs’ concentration away from me.

“Yeah, and I’ve heard you say that what happens after is for the living, not the dead, since the dead aren’t around to worry about it.” 

Wolfe grunted, using one he doesn’t produce in public, the one that means I’ve made a fair point and he’s feeling nice enough to let me score it without a fuss. 

I kept going.  “Like I said, it’ll be the hottest ticket in town.”  I was keeping my eyes on Isaacs, but I knew, without turning my head, that Wolfe’s face was very still.  “If I had done my job, the cause of death would have been the mince pie, but it won’t need any extra drama to pack in a crowd.  Sure, some of the usual ghouls will show up, along with the boys from the press, but that’ll be because Mr. Wolfe knows what he’s doing, so he’s famous.”

I sensed that Delwyn was going to try something, and hoped Isaacs couldn’t tell it too.  All I could do was keep talking.  “The rest of the chairs will fill up with all the ex-clients, the ones he pulled out of bad trouble for a juicy fee so that he could buy your books.  Over to one side, you’d be able to spot the handfuls of folks he helped on the cheap because his ego got bruised or his digestion needed easing.  Up in front it’ll be me and the other intimates of the deceased.  Fritz, Hewitt, Saul, Fred, Leverson, a few more;  that’ll be a sight to see.  Very affecting.”  My hands wanted to clench, probably around Isaacs’ neck, but I made them stay still.  “I expect I’ll make a spectacle of myself.”

“Give me leave to doubt it.”  Wolfe’s voice was ice, but son of a gun if he didn’t reach over and pat my shoulder, once.

“Maybe.”  I produced a frank and manly smile.  “In any case--”

Delwyn had left it too late.  He started to move but Isaacs struck like a snake.  The automatic clutched in his hand smashed Delwyn’s hand down into the tablecloth and then slid back out of sight again.  Delwyn’s eyes widened and the breath huffed out of him in a quiet, agonized gasp, but he made no other noise.

“That must hurt like the dickens,” Wardell said, dryly sympathetic.

Delwyn swallowed.  “For the most part, what’s aching is my pride,” he said, somehow managing to make it sound indolent.  “I took worse in Korea.  When I have the spare time, I’ll scream a little.”  His chin went up.  “That particular maneuver makes me believe Mr. Wolfe may have had some reason to lock you up, Mr. Isaacs.”

“Maybe so, maybe so.  It was such a tangle back then, during the death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Locking me up, perhaps.  Bullying me, torturing me, making me fear--”

“Inefficient, as I said, except for the last.”

“You no longer use pain, threaten rape?”

Wolfe grunted. “The pain of exposure, the rape of privacy, yes.  As to pointing out the hazards of prison--”  His eyes narrowed.  “I have been in prison.  How do you think I knew what threats to use?”

Isaacs dipped his head, but his dark eyes were hot with something I couldn’t read.  Delwyn was carefully working his hand.  Wardell looked at him, looked to one side, and raised his eyebrows.  “Waiter’s coming.”

We all leaned back, but no one really relaxed.  As the guy with the tray picked up our dessert plates, Wardell’s gaze moved around the table, and then he started talking. “It’s been a hard century for young men who think they know the right thing to do.  History keeps changing their minds for ‘em.  I’m kind of glad I fought in the Big One, myself.”  The thickening twang in his voice was probably due to the tension.  The waiter asked if any of us wanted more coffee, and we all said no.  Delwyn had decorously placed his uninjured hand on top of his injured hand.  Wolfe’s eyes were slits.  He reminded me of a slumbering volcano.  No way to tell if he would blow or not.

“Are you ready, Mr. Isaacs?”  Wolfe said.  I was beginning to get his technique.  If Isaacs wasn’t lying about his problem with taking action, pushing him enough but not too much would make his decision even harder.  It wasn’t something Wolfe could keep up forever, though.  Not even much longer, if the distant expression creeping into Isaacs’ eyes was any clue.

However, the icebreaker was steaming towards us.  Around the edge of the dance floor, pursued by Wendy, Annette Broderick was working her way towards our table, probably to ask Nero Wolfe to dance.  I’d bet she was looking forward to a dramatic scene.  She had no idea how well her expectations would be fulfilled.

Wolfe had to somehow rivet Isaacs’ attention.  I touched his leg with my own under the table, and it must have shifted me a little.  Issacs shifted too, and Wolfe said, “No.”

Everything slowed.  Isaacs’ eyes were intent, decisive, and the hand with the gun was still rising.  I was about to go at an angle, forward, in front of Wolfe.  Wolfe was speaking.  “I beg you, don’t shoot Archie.  Please.”

Isaacs’ eyes got wide and his lips parted slightly, as if he’d heard a girl he’d been waiting for say that she loved him.  The gun hesitated and Delwyn and Wardell were on him.

They were amateurs, sure, but they knew about fighting for their lives.  It was one of those tight, fast messy struggles that happen when everyone involved is equally inept.  I was rounding the table as Delwyn tried to keep Isaac’s gun arm pinned and failed, hindered by his injured hand.  Wardell, who had hold of a shoulder, grabbed and got Isaacs’ forearm.

I saw it clearly.  Wardell could have twisted Isaacs’ arm up towards the ceiling.  He didn’t.  He bent it back, so that the automatic was pressed tight against Isaacs’ chest, angled up.  Their eyes met.  Isaacs pulled the trigger.

It was a dramatic scene, all right.  But, even with all the confusion, I had time for two thoughts.  Isaacs’ lips had moved before he died.  And Wardell wasn’t really an amateur at all.

Wolfe had also gotten up and around the table with the speed he rarely uses.  Looking down at the mess, he said, “Seemingly, Mr. Isaacs believed I was the only one he knew here in Manhattan ruthless enough to either receive or mete out to him the fate he so desired.  It appears he was wrong.”  Wolfe had sorted out the end of the melee, too.

“What did he say?”  I asked Wardell under the cover of the screaming and shouting from the other patrons.

“I would imagine, thank you,” Wolfe said.  Wardell nodded, once.

When the cops asked Delwyn, the newsman among us, what we’d been talking about for so long before Isaacs had shot himself, he said, with no more than a touch of sarcasm, “Sickness, fear, and suicide, of course.  Whatever else would be appropriate?”  He tried to punctuate the remark with one of his usual gestures and winced as he moved his bad hand.

“You need that looked at.  I’ll take you to the hospital, drive you home after you get some pain pills.”  Wardell said abruptly.

“Oh, will you?”  Delwyn looked up from underneath his eyelashes.  “How very, very kind of you, Mr. Wardell.”  He smiled dazzlingly, but the hand must have given him another reminder, because the smile turned into a grimace and he added a pungent four-letter word.

Wardell stretched his own thin lips into his first genuine smile of the evening, and all the crags of his face shifted from the shock.  “Call me Hank.”

It was time for Wolfe and me to get out of there.  The one bright spot of the evening was that the authorities agreed.

I wasn’t surprised that Wolfe didn’t start in on me during the trip back to the brownstone.  After all, he may have spent an hour considering permanent deflation, but cross-town traffic on a snowy night was just as perilous a threat in his eyes.  However, I was surprised that, after we got into the office, Wolfe had rung for beer, reassured Fritz and sent him off to bed, and then drained his first glass without comment.  Instead, he leaned back in his custom-made yellow leather chair, let out the sigh of a ballplayer who’s successfully stolen home in the bottom of the ninth when the score was tied, and said, “An unexpected and interesting evening, Archie.  I feel that I have had a refresher course in human nature.”

I waved my hand, but not like Delwyn would.  “Yeah, sure, the effete gossipmonger was as tough as nails, the classy chef was relentless and from Colorado, the hard-boiled P. I. was soft over his pain in the ass boss, the secret policeman now wears a white hat, and the all-seeing novelist,” at least I could enjoy the finish, “was a dope about the rest of them.”

Wolfe pursed his lips.  “Not a ‘dope’, Archie.  Rather, quite intelligent.”  He took a long draught of beer and meditatively licked the foam from his lips.  “In fact, the lesson I referred to was Mr. Isaacs’.  To know love is to know fear, fear for the beloved.  That was what I taught Mr. Isaacs while I first knew him, to fear.  All he truly wanted was an equivalent confession from me before he died.  Quite a neat revenge.”  The vast head bobbed up and down fractionally.  “He was a genius, I’m afraid.  Would you bring me the copy of his Wrath of Achilles from the third shelf?”

He’d been good all evening, so I didn’t tell him to go to hell.  Instead I got the book, walked around the corner of his desk, and set it down in front of him.  “Fear’s not all there is to it.”

The corners of his lips quirked.  “Which is why, of course, you rushed to embrace the emotion yourself.”

I snorted, and propped myself on the corner of his desk.  “What the hell have I ever rushed to embrace?  Danger?  Women?  You?”

“It is true that you prefer to stroll briskly, rather than rush, whenever you can.”  For a wonder, he reached out and took my hand.  I let him.

“You know I like a graceful approach, sir.  But you also have reason to know that I get to where I want in the end.”

His lips curled up, maybe a half of an inch, in the smile that I never write about.  I gave him one in return, another one I don’t describe.

Outside, it snowed.  Outside, nightclub patrons put on Santa Claus hats, listened to the dance bands play jazzed-up carols, and tried to pretend their fun had something to do with the season.  Kids lusted after presents, Moms hoped the family gatherings would go okay for once, and Dads wondered if a buck was enough money to throw into the charity bucket on the way to work.  Most of the usual number of people went hungry, were angry, and got hurt.  It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Inside, when my breath was free again for talking, I said to Wolfe, “I’ll admit I’m glad to be quits with the ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas yet to come.  I bet you are, too.  Even if it served its purpose, having to beg after a meal like that must have been rough on your digestion and murder on your liver.  The Gazette’s winter clothing fund drive is still running.  Shall I fetch the checkbook from the safe?”

I knew he’d sign the check in the end, but he still couldn’t resist.  He said it, he actually said it.  And, since it was Christmas, I let him have those last words.

“Bah, humbug.”

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