After Midnight


Jennifer Lon


Stave One

I admit I didn't have much Christmas spirit that year. In fact, I was pretty down on the whole human race. I'd been working for Nero Wolfe for about a year and a half, and things weren't going the way I felt they should. I thought the job would be exciting, fighting crime, catching killers. Instead, I spent most of my time running errands and doing office chores. When I did get out in the field it was usually with Saul Panzer, who took it upon himself to teach me how it was you could tell the balance of a man's bank account by the condition of his clothes, among other helpful advice. When Saul wasn't lecturing me, Wolfe was. If I thought I was escaping higher education by dropping out of college, I was kidding myself. Wolfe's dinner time lectures covered enough ground to qualify me for several degrees.

The trouble was, I didn't have a lot of options. The stock market crash had played havoc not only with the fat cats, but with all of New York, and the rest of the country, too. I would have been a fool to give up a job that included a warm bed and three squares every day. So I filled in germination records and typed letters, and listened as Wolfe expounded on the most unlikely of subjects.

That particular evening, it had been the Etruscan influence on American Christmas customs. Who knows where he comes up with this stuff. I sat through the lecture, eating my fill of oyster stew, poached salmon, and lemon torte, and afterwards, saw Wolfe settled into his chair in the office. Before he could lose himself in his latest book, I asked if there was anything else he needed from me that evening. I could tell he hated to say no, but being a mostly truthful man, did.

"I think I'll go out an find some Christmas cheer, then," I said.

Wolfe inhaled most of the air in the room and let it out slowly.

"Fine." His tone said that if he had any control, I wouldn't be going anywhere. He knew where I was headed, and he didn't approve.

Adino's hadn't been a swanky joint when speakeasies were at their peak, and now that they were going down hill with the rest of American business, it was a dive. Fred Durkin introduced me to the place a few months after I had started at Wolfe's, and had probably regretted it ever since. He'd earned himself a black mark in that big book Wolfe keeps in his brain, right next to the one he earned for that vinegar trick.

On Christmas Eve, it was filled with unhappy men, lamenting that they weren't going to be able to live up to their loved ones' expectations the next day. Just one more reason to avoid the situation altogether.

I drank my fill, and then a couple more, watched the middle-aged men who no longer had the price of a fur coat or a haute couture creation stock up on fortitude, and then headed out myself.

It was after midnight when I reached the brownstone, and every window was dark. Not that I was expecting anyone to be waiting up for me.

Making my way up the stairs as quietly as possible given the circumstances, I stumbled into the bathroom for some much needed relief and a splash of cold water. I was surprised to see my cousin, Eddie standing in the doorway when I lifted my head from the sink. Even more so when I recalled that Eddie was dead.

"Hey, cuz, looks like you've been out having a good time."

I opened my mouth to say something, and thought better of it. It's one thing to have hallucinations, it's another to talk to them. I gave my face a scrub with one hand and pressed my eyes shut hard. When I opened them, he was still there.

"Problem, cuz?"

It didn't look like I was going to be able to avoid having a conversation with him, after all.

"Yeah, well, my pink elephants usually disappear if I ignore them."

"What, you don't believe I'm here?"

"Not really. You see the joint I frequent doesn't sell the best hooch. Sometimes they add things to it. Sometimes those things make you see other things. Maybe I'll stay out of there for awhile."

"Well, that's something."

"I think I need to sit down."

Eddie stepped back from the door and spread his right arm in a sweeping gesture.

"Be my guest."

I inched by him and planted myself on the edge of my bed. He settled into the chair I use for reading.

"Nice place you got here."

"Yeah, I like it some. So, you just decide to disturb your eternal rest to come for a visit on a whim?"

"Eternal rest. Yeah, well, here's the thing. Remember how we used to kid around about the family being like chains around our necks?" He shifted in the chair and pulled something from under his jacket I hadn't noticed before, a long, heavy looking chain. "Seems like we were right." He fingered one of the links. "Each one of these represents someone for whom I had significance. If I'd played it right, they'd be as light as a feather. Instead, they're as heavy as lead. When I wrapped the old truck around a telephone pole that Spring night, I didn't just deprive my dad of a farm implement and my labor, I deprived my whole family of their hopes. I was going to be the first one on my side of the family to graduate from high school. Not like your side, your dad and all. They were proud, looking forward to seeing the two of us up there on that stage. And then there was you. Your graduation party wasn't near what it would have been if I hadn't killed myself."

"That's okay. It's water under the bridge." I shrugged.

"No, it's not. There's no such thing. Everything counts. I have to try to put things right. It's what I'm fated to do. I'm told, if I get you going on the right path, it may put me in good with the powers that be."

"Put me on the right path?"

"Yeah. That chain of yours was almost as heavy as mine when you took off for New York two years ago. Now it's longer, and heavier, too."

"Right. Like I'm significant to anyone. I don't think I'll be needing your help."

"You think not? What about your family? What about the people in this house, and Saul and Fred? "

"None of them would miss me if I disappeared tonight."

"And you think you're going to be a detective. Well, if you won't do it for yourself, will you do it for me?"

"If it will make you go away, I'll give it a try. What did you have in mind?"

"The usual. You know the bit. Three spirits, your life on review."

"So, this is a Dickensian thing?"

"He had to get the idea somewhere, you know. People don't just make stuff up and write it down."

"Sure, sure. Okay, I'll bite."

Eddie tucked his chain back into his jacket and headed for the door.

"You're not going out the window?"

"Nah, too flashy. See you in the funny papers, Archie."

He was gone in an instant. I shook my head to clear the last of the rotgut fumes. I really needed to get some sleep.


Stave Two

I really hate waking up before I get in my full allotment of sleep, especially if I've preceded that sleep with too much bad booze, so I can't say I was pleasant to the little man who bent over my bed. I had convinced myself that Eddie was just a figment of my imagination, a product of rye mixed with God knows what, and gone to bed, happily anticipating a whopper of a hangover.

"Let me guess, the Ghost of Christmas Past," I sneered.

"If you like." The voice sounded familiar, and if I looked at him at just the right angle he had a strong resemblance to Saul. I half suspected some sort of prank, but I figured Saul had better things to do at one on Christmas morning.

"So, what's the plan? We go back to take a look at my past transgressions?"

The spirit tilted his head to one side and held out his hand. I figured he was offering to help me out of bed, and in my condition I could use it, so I took hold. The next thing I knew I felt a sensation like I was dissolving away, and then another like I was becoming solid again.

We were standing in a field, overlooking a pond. A small boy tottered around it on skates, led by a man in a muffler and overcoat.

"That a boy, Archie. Just keep moving your feet. Don't look down. You can do it." I watched as the boy grinned at the man, joy written on every feature, and the man grinned back, love written on his.

"Your father was very patient. He loved you very much."

"He died."

"The influenza was bad that year. He wouldn't have left you willingly."

The next moment we were in my Aunt Margie's living room.

"I don't know, hon. A suitcase. Aren't you just encouraging him to go?"

"He's going to leave anyway, Margie. He's so unhappy here, and I just don't know what to do. Maybe, if I give him a suitcase, he'll know that I understand. I do so wish he'd just slow down and take a look around. I think he'd be happy here if he just wasn't so set against it."

The suitcase at her feet was made of pressed cardboard, with a shiny finish and tin fittings. I felt a blush spread across my cheeks as I looked at it.

"Not quite what you wanted?"

"No, it's not that. A suitcase was a fine gift."

"Still, your idea of a suitcase was a little different. Leather maybe, engraved initials, brass fittings?"

"Yeah, well. Mom couldn't afford that. Besides, it got me to New York, didn't it?"

"Yes, it did."

He touched my hand again, and we were back in New York. It was a cold night, and the dock was almost empty.

"Got a light, sweet boy?"

I watched myself cross over to the b-girl and light up her cigarette.

"I'd give you some Christmas cheer, sweet boy, but I don't think you'd like what I have to offer."

I shrugged. "I don't think your boss would like you giving out free samples," I replied, "and if I had the money to pay, I wouldn't be out here on Christmas Eve."

"You shouldn't be out here at all. You're young. You can still get out. Go back to Momma and Daddy."

"Can't. I'm an orphan, just like poor little Annie." It was a lie that slid easily off my tongue, made all the worst by the finif that lay in my wallet, a gift from my mother, received just that day.

"All right," I said, turning to the spirit. "So, I'm a jerk. And an ungrateful one at that. It's not like I'm some miser, hoarding away money while people around me starve."

"There are many forms of starvation. And many ways to be a miser."

As he pronounced those words, I felt the world dissolve around me. The next thing I knew, I was back in my room.


Stave Three

You'd think they'd arrange these things so there wasn't any waiting, but maybe Christmas Eve is a busy night for the spirit world. I had decided on staying awake until morning, convinced that the specters were just dreams, resulting from bad booze and my vivid imagination. It wasn't to be. When I woke up again, there was a large man in my chair, reading a book. For a moment I thought it was Wolfe, and then again maybe Durkin.

I cleared my throat.

"Ah, you're awake."

"What, no 'Arise and know me better, man'?"

"It was `Come in! and know me better, man!' and I fear such literary virtuosity would be lost on you."

"Right. So you're the Ghost of Christmas Present. I always thought that was a great pun. Christmas. Present. Christmas present."

The spirit gave me the same stare Wolfe does when I say `yeah' instead of `yes, sir', so I just let it drop. He got up and started for the door, so I scrambled out of bed after him.

"No dissolving into thin air and reappearing, either?"

"We're just going downstairs."

By the time we got to the office door, the dark of night had fallen away, and it was the well into the morning. Wolfe was at his desk, a box in front of him. Fritz stood by his side, peering down.

"Do you think he will like it?"

"It is very elegant. Quite beautifully made."

"I fear he would prefer a gun."

"We had guns, when we were his age."

"That was different. There was a war, there were reasons. If it were in my control, I would assure he never know the atrocities we have known. As it is, I am trying to give him choices, to show him he can meet the challenges presented him with something other than his fists or a gun. I don't want him to become a detective simply because it is the only avenue open to him."

The spirit touched my sleeve, and we turned back to the hall, and went out to the street. The crowds of Manhattan swirled around us, going about the business of shopping, meeting friends on the street with cries of "Merry Christmas", and in general looking pleased with themselves, despite the diminished state of their pocketbooks.

We were soon at a small storefront displaying the name of a detective agency that could hardly be considered one of Mr. Wolfe's rivals. Inside, Saul Panzer sat in his usual fashion, feet drawn up under the chair, peering at a photograph.

"I really hate to ask you to do this on Christmas Day," the man behind the desk said. "I was hoping to wrap this up before now. If I'm gone on Christmas, the wife, well, the kids really look forward to having me there, you know. But I can't afford to botch this job. I need the fee. It's just a surveillance. I doubt any thing will happen, but I'll pay you double for the day."

"Don't worry about it." Saul made a small, dismissive gesture with one hand. "I'm doing okay this year. Nero Wolfe still has me on his payroll. If I don't have a job on with him, or something on the side, I spend time with the kid he hired, trying to teach him the basics."

"Great. More competition. Just what I need."

"I wouldn't worry just yet. It will be awhile. Goodwin's bright enough, but he keeps wanting to put the cart before the horse. Mr. Wolfe has confidence in him though, so I keep trying. Why don't you tell me more about this job?"

We listened as the dick gave Saul the particulars and then followed him out the door. But as Saul turned left, we headed right.

The suburbs of Manhattan, if they may be called that, are full of neighborhoods in which the residents fight against the reality of their lives to maintain an air of middle-class gentility. It was into one of these we strolled, in time to see Fred Durkin mount the stairs of a small and aging house with a bound. In his arms he carried a good size package wrapped in brown paper.

"Fannie! Fan, honey, I'm home."

I knew Fred was married, but if I had bothered to imagine, which I hadn't, I wouldn't have imagined the woman I saw before me. I'm sure I would have created a stolid Irish lass instead of the warm Italian woman who embraced Fred. She was a little rounder in the hip than was fashionable, but still, one could not deny her beauty.

"What's this then?" she asked, having favored Fred with a kiss passionate enough to make me avert my eyes.

"A gift from Mr. Wolfe. One of his hams. It will make a nice addition to this evening's supper."

Fannie opened the package and drew it to her nose.

"Mmm. Smells wonderful. It's the least he could do, after all."

"Now, honey. Don't fuss. Somebody needed to look after Archie last night. And it was only a little after midnight when I got back."

"I don't know what all the concern is. He's not exactly an innocent, and no prize to boot, if what you say is true."

"He's okay. Just, I don't know, unhappy somehow. Unhappy deep down."

"How can he be, living in that kind of luxury? He should appreciate it. More likely, he's just a spoiled little punk."

"No, that's not it. Not exactly. Mr. Wolfe thinks the world of him, really thinks he can make something of himself. And Saul thinks so, too. That is, if he can buckle down and learn a few things. There's just something about him, something, I don't know, not right."

"Well, he's disrupted our Christmas enough for one year. Enough of Archie Goodwin. At least we'll have a ham to contribute to the family feast."

We withdrew to the street as Fred and his wife discussed what else might be welcome at the supper table that would not be too dear to purchase.

"Look, I admitted to the last guy that I was a jerk. I'll add punk to it if you like. But I really don't see . . . "

The spirit had taken hold of my arm and I felt myself being swirled through space with a sickening speed. We landed once again in my Aunt Margie's house. My mother and sister stood at the sink, peeling potatoes.

"I was hoping to get a letter from your brother, yesterday."

"I'm sure he sent it, Mother. It's just the mail service. You know it's slow this time of year."

"Yes, that must be it." My mother turned to put a handful of potatoes into the pot, and lifted her apron dab at her eyes behind my sister's back.

"You know, that's really low. I get it. I'm no good." I turned to confront Christmas Present, but he was no longer there. As I turned back to the sink, I found the kitchen empty. I could hear the sound of weeping behind me, and followed it into the living room.


Stave Four

The living room was dark, the sun dipping below the horizon behind the drawn curtains. My mother sat alone on the sofa, weeping. One hand covered her face, the other held a telegram. If I had to guess, I'd say she was about sixty.

"Guess we're in the future," I said to no one in particular.

I turned to look around and found myself face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Future, or face to cowl as it were. He didn't bother to introduce himself, but clutched me by the sleeve, and I felt the same sickening sensation I had on my last trip. We were soon back in the brownstone. The office was softly lit. Wolfe sat behind his desk, Saul in front of it. Fred was standing in front of one of the windows, staring into the darkness. Fritz passed around refreshments, his eyes rimmed in red.

"I'm sorry Mr. Wolfe. I should have stopped him. I saw the gun at the last minute. I tried to warn him, but I wasn't in time."

"No Saul, it's not your fault. I blame myself entirely. I knew he wasn't ready, but I gave into his badgering. I knew better."

Fred turned back to the room. His face was tear streaked. "I should have grabbed him. I reached out, but I missed. I should have moved faster."

I didn't have time to take the scene in fully before the specter touched me again. This time, I found myself in a cemetery, next to a freshly dug grave. Even though I knew it was coming, I felt a churning in the pit of my stomach.

"Look. Couldn't we just skip this part? I mean, it's probably years off, right? I'll fix things up."

The ghost pointed a bony finger at the grave. I turned back to look at the stone. What I saw made me cold to my very core.

"No! That can't be right. That's just next year. How can I . . ? I can't just die. I can't."

I was still pleading for my life when I realized that the spirit was gone, and with him, the grave.


Stave Five

I was back in my bedroom. A quick look at the clock revealed that it was almost nine. I hurried from my bead, bathed my form, scraped my face and put on my Sunday best.

I've always appreciated Fritz's habit of leaving me to eat my breakfast in peace and quiet, and never more so than that morning. I had a lot of planning to do, and it was difficult enough with the distraction of hot cakes, sausages and the world's best scrambled eggs. After I had slowed down some on both the partaking and the thinking, I asked Fritz if Wolfe had gone up to baby-sit the orchids in Theodore's absence. He replied in the positive, but said it would probably be a short session.

"Don't let him worry if I'm not home when he comes down. I have a few errands to run this morning, but I promise to be back before lunch."

New York is famous for always being open, and Christmas Day is no exception. It wasn't too hard to find a greengrocers where I could pick up some apples and oranges. Fred couldn't have looked more surprised if Herbert Hoover had shown up at his front door.

"Archie, hey."

"And Merry Christmas to you, too," I replied.

"Fred, who's at the door?"

"This must be Fannie. You're even more lovely than Fred let on." I turned on my best smile. "I'm Archie Goodwin. I just thought I'd spread a little Christmas cheer," I said handing her the bag of fruit. "It's not much."

"No, no, they're wonderful." I watched as she inhaled the aromatic mixture of apples and oranges just as she had the ham.

"Fred, you're being rude. You shouldn't leave Mr. Goodwin standing on the doorstep."

Fred was starting to snap out of his confusion, and stood back to let me in.

"That's okay, I've got a couple more errands to run before I get back home. I just wanted to drop off the fruit, and have a word with Fred."

Fannie turned on her own smile before turning her back and heading into the house.

I leaned in close to Fred. "Listen," I said, "I'm planning on spending New Year's Eve with Mr. Wolfe, at the brownstone. That should simplify your life some." I gave him a wink and caught a glimpse of the confusion closing in again before I turned back to the street.

There was no point in trying to sneak up on Saul, so I didn't even try. I slipped into the car and handed over the bag of food I'd picked up at a deli.

"Season's Greetings, and all that."

He eyed me suspiciously. "Something wrong at Wolfe's?"

"No. I just thought you might like some company so I tracked you down. I'm practicing to be a detective, you know."

"Yeah, sure, I know."

Saul ate and we talked. Well, mostly he talked and I listened. He told me about the mark, and the neighborhood and the people he'd seen that day. Sooner than I wanted it to be, it was time for me to head back to the brownstone.

I slipped into the chair behind my desk with more than a few minutes left before the lunch bell. Wolfe looked up, and I was sure I saw a wave of relief cross his features. I'd have to give Fritz a few lectures on how to stop Wolfe from worrying when I was out.

"Good morning, Archie. Did you sleep well?"

For a moment, I thought about telling him the truth, but decided he would just think I was being a wise ass.

"Yes, sir. Sorry I was out when you came down. I had a few errands to run."

Lunch was a light affair, since the main event was planned for that evening. I spent the first part of the afternoon doing some office chores, but when I the aroma of pumpkin pie wafted down the hall, I headed for the kitchen. It had been awhile since I had volunteered to help Fritz prepare a meal, and he happily put me to work peeling potatoes and cleaning sprouts. Once everything was underway, I headed upstairs to clean up and put the finishing touches on the presents I had bought.

Dinner was a feast. Goose seasoned with tarragon, sprouts, roasted potatoes. I made sure I left room for two pieces of pumpkin pie. I wouldn't want Fritz to think I wasn't grateful for it. Afterwards, we passed around the presents. I'd gotten new ones that morning, to replace the ones I had bought with little thought earlier in the week. They were simple, but well received.

My present from Wolfe was a handsome fountain pen. I knew just who I would write first, and before I went to bed that night. I was still admiring it after we retired to the office for coffee, when an idea popped into my head.

"You know, I could probably devise some sort of code, some way of taking down letters so you wouldn't have to write them out long hand. Between that and my memory, I bet I could type them up perfectly, as long as you would spell out the names of the orchids. I could look up the long words."

Wolfe slowly closed his eyes and then opened them. "We shall have to try that, Archie. It may be a sound plan."

I turned away from him as he picked up a book, and started a letter to my mother.

If this were a work of fiction, I could tell you I lived the rest of my life a shining beacon to civility and good works. I could really lie and tell you I stopped being a punk, but you'd know better. It took me a number of years to grow out of that phase of my life, and some, Inspector Cramer for one, would say I never did. As for being spoiled, if you ask Lily Rowan, she'll tell you I'll always be spoiled as long as I live with Wolfe and Fritz, and that's likely to be a long time.

I have tried to live a better life, though. I even remembered to warn Saul about our suspect's hidden gun the next Christmas, without offering to go along on the stakeout. As for that chain around my neck, I have no doubt that it is many years longer, and light as the air itself. And that's no humbug.

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