Prelude: presto, ironico non troppo
One Sunday afternoon, not long before he died, Marko Vukcic made a little slip which, many years later, had big results. The lady I had intended to take out for a picnic stood me up at the last minute, and I had accepted the consolation prize of sticking around the brownstone for a game of pool and one of the magnificent repasts that Fritz helped Wolfe conjure up to show Marko what Rustermann’s Restaurant was missing. Perhaps it was the quality of the cuisine that made Marko take one drink too many -- who knows? In any case, after dinner, as he and Wolfe took coffee and discussed the arts, he made a comment in Serbo-Croatian, to which Wolfe responded with a frown and a quick glance in my direction. Luckily, I was placid with good food and undemanding company, and said, lazily, “Go right ahead, gentlemen, don’t mind me.”
“There, you see, Nero? Young Archie agrees with me. It is a shame and a disgrace.”
I made sure my face was straight. “You are right. I have often told him that. A ‘shame and a disgrace’ is too weak. I would call it an appalling disaster.” I had no idea what we were talking about, of course.
Wolfe glowered at me. “Twaddle, Archie. You don’t have to pretend to comprehension only in order to needle--”
Marko interrupted, “No, no, he is right. You were so beautiful.”
I frankly goggled. Nero Wolfe has a lot of interesting and notable qualities, but beauty is not one of them. I might, if I was feeling lenient and trying to tease one of my female friends, go so far as to call him stylish, but beauty was ridiculous.
“Bah. You exaggerate: I was never so gifted.” One corner of his mouth was twisted a little out of line. “Now, Marko, I have a brandy that Lewis gave me this last Christmas of which I wish to hear your opinion.”
Vukcic allowed himself to be diverted, but even as Wolfe heaved himself out of his chair, I saw him shake his head, and heard him mutter, “--like an angel.” I made a mental note to bring it up with Wolfe on a suitable occasion, but subsequent events pushed Marko’s comments out of my mind. Even so, he’d planted the seed that, several years later, would bear strange fruit.
I—Lament: largo, doloroso
I’ve never written about her in my accounts. It was too private, and cut too close to the bone. Anthea Trevor, the flautist, came as close as any woman ever did to putting the halter around my neck. She had long, chestnut-brown hair, a neat figure, and rich brown eyes that were bright with intelligence. When she listened to you, her face was intent with concentration, and she always thought before she spoke and spoke before she fought. I can give you an RCA-Victor Red Seal album number to prove how talented she was, but it wouldn’t do justice to her calm competence in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera. We met, in fact, at a benefit affair for the Met that a former client had invited me to, where I was jostled into spilling a little champagne on her dress. She passed it off with a joke, and I ended the evening by taking her dancing. At the Rainbow Room, she moved across the floor like she was soaring. After a month, I found myself lingering in front of the windows of the jewelers in the diamond district. In three months, I was going inside and talking prices.
It was at a soiree in her apartment on the Upper East Side that I heard Tripun Dolvan, an elderly cellist and one of her academic patrons, mention Montenegro. Ever since my over-seas adventure, I felt a propitiatory interest in Wolfe’s old home turf, so I excused myself and went over to join the little clump of long-hairs around Dolvan.
“…Of course, Prince Niklo is the modern Montenegrin composer that everyone has heard of,” he was saying when I arrived, which caused me to hike an eyebrow. I had never heard of this Niklo character. “…but, in my opinion, Prince Goran, called the Bogomil, was, by far, the better composer of the two. I once had the privilege of hearing him sing part of his lieder cycle that he based on the folk songs of the people. Poetic, yet entirely…”
Anthea caught my eye from across the room and smiled at me, and I lost track of the conversation. I only remembered it later because it shows how hard the universe likes to laugh at you. She was talking with Dolvan sixteen days later, as they crossed a street on their way to a rehearsal, when a car ran the light.
Her best friend called me, half-hysterical with grief, from the hospital. It took me several minutes to get her calmed down enough to tell me what had happened. About half a minute into the conversation, Wolfe looked up from his book. Two minutes later, he had put it down without marking his place. When I hung up the phone, he picked the receiver back up and called a taxi.
“I can walk,” I said. I don’t know what my voice sounded like.
He didn’t bother with Bah, or Pfui. He went to the hall and got our hats and coats. I watched him, numb enough that I wasn’t even surprised.
In the packed hospital waiting room, he sat in one of the too-small chairs with both hands folded over his cane while I paced back and forth. When I would tire and sit next to him, he would proffer the pack of cigarettes he had taken out of the bottom drawer of my desk before we left, and I would remove one, light it, puff two or three times, and then crush it out in the ashtray. I still had half a pack left when the doctor came out to tell us she was dead.
There was no place for me. Her relatives, stern Yankees all, moved silently in to take care of what needed to be done. Her friends fussed; the best friend had hysterics, again. Wolfe glared at her for a minute, shifted his gaze to me, and then took my elbow and steered me out of the room. The ride to the brownstone was as quiet and still as the ride to the hospital had been, with one exception. Halfway back, when we stopped at a red light, he took my hand into his own. His grip was firm; his large palm was warm and dry. I let my hand stay where it was. The taxi driver looked into the rear-view mirror and started to say something, and then caught Wolfe’s gaze and thought better of it.
The brandy was already waiting in the decanter when we arrived. I drank a glass, and looked dazedly around for something to do. It was almost two o’clock. Wolfe, who had been talking to Fritz in low tones, grasped my arm and brought me with him up to the greenhouse. I wondered, vaguely, if he needed something heavy moved. When we came out onto the roof, Theodore was off somewhere, on some errand, I supposed. I wandered around the warm room as Wolfe worked. He was fussing over some pots of Angræcum sesquipedale when I started to cry.
He got himself upright, came over to me, and put one hand on my shoulder. As the sobs grew and began to rack me, he pulled me in close to brace me up. I leaned my head against him and wept so hard that the tears and mucus streaming down my face ruined his silk shirt and stained his tie. I’d like to claim it was otherwise, but that’s how it was.
When I was done, I sat dull, washed-out, and empty on a potting stool. I didn’t even resist when he fetched a wet rag and carefully cleaned my face, as if I was an orchid that needed its leaves scrubbed for thrips. Then he got another stool and sat beside me, silent and waiting.
It must have been more than a quarter of an hour before I spoke. I had to push the words up from below the surface of the ocean. “I guess I was serious.”
“Yes,” he said. His voice was dark and heavy, fit for so grave an assent.
“I need to know--” I said, and paused. I looked at him and gritted my teeth, hard.
“I will call Inspector Cramer myself.” He drew in a deep breath, and released it. “Had you already asked her?”
“Yeah. We, I was trying to figure out how to tell--” I stopped and bowed my head, so I wouldn’t have to see his expression.
He leaned forward, took my face between his two hands, and gently kissed my forehead. Then, before I could fracture again, he got up briskly and offered a hand to pull me to my feet. I looked at it, gave a sigh that was more of a groan, took it, and got up. I always take the stairs, but this time I rode down with him in the elevator.
Wolfe was as good as his word. He phoned Cramer while I sat and gazed at the day’s orchids, Epidendrum cinnabarinum, in the vase on his desk. I couldn’t understand why they could be dead and still so beautiful, while she—well, I had seen too many bodies down through the years to have illusions about what they look like. Now they all came back to haunt me, the drained or livid faces I had pushed away in the name of business or justice or danger. There would be no such mercy now. When Wolfe told me that Cramer and the police were sure that it had been an accident, it was almost more than I could bear.
I don’t have to worry about blotting the next few months from my memory, because they are already unreal to me. Only a couple of scenes stand out as I look back on them. One was the funeral, on a cool and windswept day in a small white church, in a small green town in the hills of New Hampshire. It was all simple; I could almost see her standing in the back of the church, by the doors opened wide to the wind, wearing that tiny, almost imperceptible dimple that appeared when she saw anything being done with real grace.
Wolfe had sent Saul along to drive me there and back again, and I, with some vague notion of what I owed stirring beneath the grey sea of pain, had not argued. Saul is the perfect companion at a funeral, carrying as he does an air of melancholy that is particularly his own. Afterwards, we sat on the stone wall that edged the graveyard and I stared at the rectangular patch of raw, red ground in the middle of the grass, the straggling ranks of granite grey headstones, and the heavily leafed trees of the cemetery, waiting for feeling to return to me. Saul smoked cigarettes with a seemingly infinite leisure, his eyes squinting against the wind and the late afternoon sun. When the shadows began to stretch, he crushed a butt out on some stones stacked by the wall, and led me back to the car.
Dark had fallen, and we were half way back to Manhattan when I suddenly said to Saul, “How’s Wolfe?”
Saul didn’t pretend to not understand me. “Well, your being like this is hard on him, but he’s doing okay. You’re being smart, which helps.”
“Not enough strength for stupidity,” I said, rather absently. The grey tide was rolling back in again.
“That’s fine. You coast, we’ll cope.”
I took him at his word. I have never been such a loss as a detective as I was in those next few months. Granted, I still could have lapped Fred on most matters and given Orrie a serious run for his money, but I was nowhere near up to my usual standard. Wolfe waited patiently for me to snap out of it, even though once or twice, without particularly caring, I could sense he was reining himself back.
Once was on the day that left me with my third strong memory, when I came back to the brownstone with several packages for Fritz, only to discover a small elderly woman dressed in a severe but fashionable black dress ensconced in the red leather chair. She gave me a swift, sideways glance out of clear grey eyes when I looked in on Wolfe, but didn’t say anything to me. I knitted my brow at her for a minute, knowing that I had seen her somewhere before, sometime recently, before I shrugged and gave it up as a bad bargain, and continued on to the kitchen. I thought I heard a faint snort from the office behind me, and felt a flash of irritation. It was the first real annoyance I had felt in weeks, and it pegged the incident firmly in my mind.
By the time I really noticed what was going on with the accounts, I was starting to mend. I was entering the expenses for an insurance case I had cleared up pretty much on my own, and saw some figures in a familiar hand. Frowning, I pulled my notebook over to me and started adding columns of numbers. After a few minutes I looked over at Wolfe and cleared my throat.
He scowled and tilted his book forward so he could look at me over its edge: it was Hoover’s translation of De Re Metallica, and it was big. “Yes, Archie?”
“Saul’s been doing some work for us?”
“Yes.” His tone was not encouraging, but what else was new?
“Anything I should know about?”
He inspected me for a moment. “No.”
I looked back at him, and felt the familiar exasperation go through me. “All right, sir. If you need me, I’ll be right here typing up the germination records. Sitting at my desk. Doing nothing in particular.”
Something stirred behind his eyes. “Why, thank you for that information, Archie. I will certainly keep it in mind.” It was the tone that made me want to kick him, even if it did seem like a lot of work at the moment. I shook my head, and reached for the large pile of notes from upstairs.
The next Wednesday was the annual meeting of the Manhattan Orchid Society, and Wolfe had been invited to give the keynote address, on the uses of sphagnum moss or something equally vital. He offered to have Saul drive him, and I gave him an incredulous stare. “Saul and I are supposed to be friends. How long do you think that will last, sir, if I stick him with evenings filled by your reactions to lady horticulturists?”
He scowled. He hates being reminded that the majority of the society’s members are women. “You are exaggerating for dramatic effect.”
I snorted. If he chose to think that, fine. I still remembered his monologue on the orchid-covered hat that Madame Secretary had worn last year.
So, promptly at seven that balmy Wednesday evening, we left the brownstone in the Heron Sedan for the Exploration Club’s lecture room on east Sixty-Fifth by the park, where the Orchid Society met for its bust-up each year. Three hours later, we were standing at the base of the marble steps beneath the famous bronze of Magellan, and I was contemplating Wolfe’s keister and what a pleasure it would be to plant my foot in it when a shot cracked out. Wolfe spun around and was down.
I was on top of him two seconds later, cursing the fact that my Marley was back in my desk drawer at the brownstone. “Down! Gun!” I shouted at the passers-by, who were standing around gaping, like so many dairy cows at a fence, and then said to Wolfe, “Where did he get you?”
“He didn’t,” Wolfe said, his voice muffled. “My walking stick. Confound it, Archie…”
“Shut up,” I told him. Another shot had just chipped stone off of the plinth above us, and a tiny flake traced a stinging line across my cheek. I saw a beat cop running towards us, drawing his gun. The bystanders were finally getting the message and starting to yell and scatter. Wolfe was bulky beneath me, and I have never been so nakedly aware of how much more of him there is than me. I spread out across him in a way that, in other circumstances, could have gotten me arrested for public indecency, and tried to get a line of sight on the shooter.
The cop ducked low behind the Heron, and called out to me, “Where?”
“The wall to the Park, by the chestnut tree. I hope to God he’s gone, though.”
“You and me both, brother,” he said, and jumped out to tackle a dame in furs who had been standing, frowning, through the entire action, apparently already composing the letter she was going to write to the editor of the Times tomorrow morning. The noises of whistles and sirens were growing closer, and the screams more distant, as our local crowd stampeded outwards in a panic to meet their rescuers.
Wolfe was still rumbling beneath me like a volcano about to erupt. “Shut up,” I said, again. My voice shook this time, so I took my own advice. The first squad car pulled up to the curb.
When I retrieved Wolfe’s blackthorn, the bullet had snapped it cleanly in two.
It took several hours, and a great deal of sarcasm from Sergeant Purley Stebbins about the length of the enemies list that we provided him with, to get us untangled from the police and back to the brownstone. Wolfe was still in a temper about his blackthorn cane, and I was still in a temper.
Fritz met us at the door and visibly didn’t fuss until he was sure we were both intact, at which point Wolfe ordered him to bed. He obviously wanted to do the same to me, but I wasn’t having any. When, in the office, he picked up the bottle to pour his beer, he put it down again, frowned, and flexed his hand. I marched up to his desk and grabbed his wrist to take a look. Sure enough, it was badly bruised from the force with which the handle had been wrenched out of it.
Wolfe glared at me. I was touching him without permission. I glared back. Suddenly, I shuddered, once, like a terrified dog. His face went still and his eyes narrowed, and he stopped trying to tug his wrist away. I let him go anyhow and laced my fingers through his, careful to stay away from his palm. He reached up with his free hand to delicately brush the cut on my cheek with the backs of his fingers. We stayed like that for maybe half a minute, saying something silent and unstoppable.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to try and cope with the waves of emotion that were rolling over me, like breakers ahead of a storm. Some of my feelings anyone would have predicted, a few I could have told you about, and one frightened me. My eyes opened and met his to see my fear reflected in their dark brown depths.
Don’t take this to mean I’m a coward. I think I’ve given good proof over the years that I’m not. But this feeling was the exception to bravery that every man was supposed to make in those days, and dread. Fat lot of good dread did me. Ever since I was a kid I had done what was expected, and covered over the possibility I knew was there in layers of sport and games. Anthea’s death had been a hammer strike, though, and now the would-be shooter had yanked loose a shard from my shell.
My fingers clenched on Wolfe’s, and his clamped on my own, like two climbers slipping over the edge of a cliff together. His lips rounded and let out a silent whistle of what was probably pain, and I grinned, a rictus imitation of my usual expression. There was no use pretending. We spent so much time fighting that most of our important messages passed between, or behind, or without words. We both knew what had just happened. With great care, I let him go. Without speaking, he poured his beer and took a deep drink. True to his habit, he licked the foam from his lips, but his eyes, as they met mine again, were aware and filled with ironic amusement.
As if that had been some cue for us to resume the show of our normal lives, I said, my voice annoyed, “Are you running an investigation that you haven’t told me about?”
“Yes. It had reached the point where I was about to inform you of what Saul and I had discovered, when this evening’s events intervened.”
The phone rang. It was Lon Cohen, taking a chance that we would still be up, relentless in hopes of a beat. Knowing we’d probably need his services soon, I glanced over at Wolfe, who nodded his head a fraction of an inch. I picked up the receiver, fed Lon a load of pablum about the dramatic attempt on Nero Wolfe’s life, and hung up to find that Wolfe had removed a file folder of reports from one of his desk drawers.
“It was Anthea, wasn’t it?” I asked him, my voice flat, taking the papers from him. “She was murdered.”
“There, understandably, you err. It was not Miss Trevor, but Dr. Dolvan who was the target of our assassin.”
II—Sarabande: accelerando, risoluto
Archie’s eyes were hungry as he looked through the folder of reports at his desk. It was not the hunger for destruction that I had feared to see immediately after Miss Trevor’s death, but a hunger for the universe to be set aright, to be forced into making sense, that I could sympathize with and abet. I waited, flexing my hand surreptitiously, while he read.
A blow: I had taken a blow. There could be no other excuse for such an exposure. Decades ago, I had learned that both my heart and loins held too much passion for my discernment to rule, and vowed never again to form the link with another human being that would leave me so open to foolishness and betrayal. I had thought until today - such is the human capacity for self-deception - that I had kept my word. How the fates must have been laughing at me, for believing that my will matched my intent.
Oh, I had had inklings of the truth, but I had dismissed them. Archie, I told myself, was as necessary to my prosperity as Theodore was to my orchids’ flowering, and it was not only normal but healthy to feel affection for such an adept supporter. Just as I value Fritz, I had come to value Archie, or so I thought. I ignored my already dangerous tendency to favor one over another, to esteem Saul and disdain Orrie, to pamper Fritz and ignore Theodore. I refused to consider that Archie’s charms might appeal to more than my eyes. Worst of all, I would not let myself ponder what role I played in Archie’s own interior life, and the deep pleasure that my role brought to me.
One never values until one has lost. When I realized, that black day, that my Archie was deeply infatuated with his Miss Trevor, I was stricken. Their relationship had been nothing like the warm but restricted part of his life he has long shared with the volatile, independent, and intelligent Miss Rowan. Here, displayed, was the raw desire to possess, and I was jealous. However, my reaction shrank - had to shrink - into insignificance before the necessity to succor Archie. All was Archie and nothing was me, and it did not matter what that meant.
I wish never again to see his lips so pinched, the fiery shine of his hair so deadened, his grey eyes so like dirty sea ice. He walked slowly, hunched in around himself like a man in his seventies, not his thirties. His grace left him, and he turned to respond to voices as if forcing himself to arise from the bottom of the ocean. I wanted to rage at a cosmos that would dare to serve Archie as I, in my time, had been served. Again, though, my anger had to pale before his necessities.
With what anxious care I had rescued him, shielded him, coaxed him back to life, I cannot bring myself to write. But not ever, not on any subtle dish, nor on any fragile bloom, have I expended the effort I did during those weeks. I do not begrudge it. The cost was cheap, as I saw the life return to him. Gradually, he came fully aware of his surroundings, and returned to himself. Never before had I enjoyed his insolence as I did when I heard that first annoyed remark about his exclusion from Saul’s activities. In the wash of relief and—another emotion—I think I would have sworn to rejoice in anything I saw cross Archie’s features, as long as it was vital.
But what I had perceived in Archie’s face tonight was as direct as a slap. He saw what I felt, and I saw my passion reiterated in his eyes. Perhaps it was the emotional realignment of someone bereft that betrayed him; perhaps my behavior during his pain had unintentionally opened a passage for some deep wellspring of feeling to work its way to the surface. It did not matter. Now, not only was I vulnerable, but so, too, was the one I would most protect. And I feared: for the first time in years, I no longer knew what lay ahead in the days and weeks to come. And I burned: this craving must have lain smoldering within me, waiting for fuel, for decades. I had known. I had lied, but I had known.
Enough. Archie was considering Saul’s report, his face thoughtful, beautiful. He looked up. “The motorist. This Sendal guy. It wasn’t just that he was careless about his driving.” He tapped the page in front of him. “The talk Saul had with his mechanic was suggestive.”
“Indeed. So obvious that it was easy to overlook. No interaction with either of the victims, a completely clean record, a model citizen, prostrate with grief. The police claim to value means and opportunity over motive, but they can still be biased by the apparent lack of a reason why. Saul, and others, have been looking into possible connections between Dr. Sendal and either Dr. Dolvan or Miss Trevor.”
Archie leafed through the contents of the folder and stopped at one report. “Delicate touch, having Dol Bonner’s agency do the background on Anthea, by the way. I didn’t know you had it in you, sir.”
“You are welcome. She was a talented individual.”
“I thought you said music was a remnant of barbarism,” Archie replied, and then waved a hand, seemingly fearing that his words had sounded harsher than he intended. I understood.
“That does not mean it cannot be done well or ill. I comprehend the fact that she was a gifted musician.”
When he looked at me, his eyes were pools of pain. I don’t know what he saw on my own features, but his jaw firmed and he said, “I’m glad that her life was as straight-forward as I thought it was.”
“She was an admirable young woman, as Dr. Dolvan was an admirable man. His life, though, contained complications that hers did not. One collection of evidence that you will not find in that folder is my conversation with his widow.”
“The older lady I saw you speaking with, a few Tuesdays back?”
“Yes. She had many interesting matters of which to speak, but, for our purposes, only three important bits of information to offer. First, Dr. Dolvan was a conflicted man, who detested personal confrontations, but who also held strong opinions on matters both intellectual and moral. Second, although he would not have claimed the title for himself, he was not only a superb cellist and teacher, but also a thoughtful and highly esteemed ethnographic musicologist. Third, he had some other job beside his work at the conservatory, of which he would not speak, and that consumed large amounts of his supposedly free time. For a while I was diverted by the will-o-the-wisp of political involvement, but both my own interrogations and Saul’s investigations have assured me that such was not the case.”
“You figured out something, though,” Archie said, his voice certain. His eyes upon me were intent, and warm. I ignored my own treacherous response.
“I offer you another consideration, that you may have noted in passing but then discarded as, seemingly, did the police. Dr. Sendal, our guilt-ridden motorist, is also one of the great names in cultural anthropology, known for the quality of his original research, frequently published in academic journals and honored for his disquisitions on the backwaters of Europe.” I made sure my tone was gentle, when I added, “You, yourself, had given me the first link in my chain several months ago, when you reported a bit of intellectual grand-standing that occurred during one of Miss Trevor’s parties.
Archie’s expression was uncomprehending, but then closed into concentration as he utilized his fine memory and tolerable cognitive powers. Abruptly, his face twisted, and his upper lip pulled back in what I can only term a snarl.
“Archie,” I said, pitching my voice low, in my most soothing register.
He waved an impatient hand at me. “I’m okay. You don’t have to lock up the guns. When are you pulling him in, though? “
“Tomorrow, after dinner. I arranged for an appointment this morning, and see no reason to alter my schedule.” Even I could tell my tone was dry. “After all, Dr. Sendal has had a busy evening, and so have we.”
I was not surprised that Dr. Sendal risked coming to me that next evening; it would have been too suggestive to ignore a request for an interview endorsed by the widow of one of his victims and the fiancée of the other. It was of interest that he did not protest upon seeing Inspector Cramer of Homicide East and his minion, Sergeant Purley Stebbins, seated in two of the yellow chairs when Saul showed him into the office. It provided me with a measure of the intellectual arrogance that I was about to confront.
Often, I arrange such encounters to force a response out of a malefactor. Tonight, I had no such intent. I knew I had the tool that would break Sendal, and nothing would keep me from using it. This session would serve, instead, to alert the police that any harm occurring to myself or Archie should most likely be laid at Sendal’s door. Of more import, it would allow Archie to see his enemy crushed.
The notes of strain about Dr. Sendel were subtle, and for most onlookers would have been drowned out by his air of academic elegance. He was a tall man who carried himself with the ease of a scion of affluence. No professorial tweed here: the black wool suit was of British cut and fit, the waistcoat and tie were silk. When he looked at me, his long, bony face was both melancholy and quizzical.
“I was happy to respond to your clients’ request, Mr. Wolfe, but I am unaware of how I might be of assistance to you. My guilt is a matter of public record. Aside from that, I am not sure what you might need with an anthropologist and ethnologist.”
I looked at him, and felt my lips try to thin. I suppressed the urge. Archie, at his desk, had his head bent over his notebook as if he feared what his eyes would reveal if he were to look up.
“Dr. Sendal, I did not ask you here to assist me, but to inform you. I have gathered information that I wish you to hear, so you may know that I am aware of your deeds.”
“The accident? Surely the papers--” His face twisted. It was well done: I saw both Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins shift and look uneasy. Saul’s intent gaze never left Sendal’s hands.
“Not the two deaths, no, although I have learned details about them the police did not uncover. I refer to your career as an intellectual thief.”
A man may govern his muscles but not his blood. Sendal was one such. His face was bewildered, but his complexion betrayed him. He whitened before he flushed as he said, “Mr. Wolfe, your words are strong. Too strong, I think.” But he had already lost, and every other man in the office had the experience to know it. Sergeant Stebbins stilled and lost his air of unease; Inspector Cramer slowly, deliberately unwrapped a cigar and placed it between his lips.
I regarded Sendal for a moment, letting him twist on my hook. Archie had, at last, looked up from his notes and his own eyes were pitiless and feral. Having gauged my man, I waited until he was about to expostulate again before I began to speak. I would lecture, using a form of rhetoric he was conditioned to respect and fear.
“I do not know when you first began to plagiarize other’s research. I believe the common pattern is for such behavior to begin early in the offender’s career, but no mind. Your work can be traced to its true sources later, once it is understood that the problem exists. I do know that you decided this last year to publish under your own name the labors of an obscure member of an obscure Balkan royal house, without crediting either his research or his transcriptions.”
Sendal managed to smile. “You have an interesting fantasy life, Mr. Wolfe.” He smoothed out his features and firmed his chin. “One I may have to discuss with my lawyer.”
It is odd, the threats that men consider effective. I turned up a palm, and continued, “You were adept at plagiarism, skilled at finding orphaned materials that could not easily be tracked to their original sources. When, on your latest trip to Europe, you happened across the rejected manuscript of Montenegrin songs in - Vienna, I expect? It can be checked - you took your discovery as due tribute to your fortunate stars. Several papers on musical ethnology of the mountain peoples of the Balkans, supposedly based on source material you had collected yourself from refugees and natives during necessarily clandestine travels, would be another academic triumph. It would be simple enough to destroy the manuscript afterwards, and so, you thought, all evidence. But you were wrong about your luck. In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected. One of the anonymous reviewers for the academic journal you submitted the second paper in your series to was the only scholar in this country who could have recognized the distinctive style of the original author.
“He could recognize the original author, and he did. He brooded for weeks on the appropriate steps to take in such a scandalously blatant case of plagiarism by such a prominent scholar and educator. The problem preoccupied him, so much so that he could not help talking around its fringes whenever he had the slightest opportunity to do so. It was during one such moment of catharsis that he was overheard by my associate, Mr. Goodwin, discussing the lieder cycle Prince Goran based on Montenegrin folk songs. But, Dr. Dolvan, loath to cause destruction as good men often are, hesitated.
“Not so you. In your arrogance, when the letter of acceptance did not come back as quickly as you thought it should, you contacted a friend on the staff of the anthropology journal in question and extracted the names of the two reviewers. A mistake, Dr. Sendal: that left a trail. When you read Dr. Dolvan’s name and recognized it as Montenegrin, you knew that disaster threatened and you decided to act.”
Sendal had grown quiet and was listening intently, no doubt seeking a gap in the net closing about him. Inspector Cramer kept an incredulous expression on his features, but I had seen him exchange a brief glance with Sergeant Stebbins and the Sergeant shift closer to Dr. Sendal’s chair. Archie had returned to taking notes, although I could sense his tension.
“Your one clever idea was the realization that the best way to cover up a peccadillo is with an iniquity. The average citizen would consider it a greater disgrace to accidentally slay two of his fellows than to use a few pages of an abandoned manuscript without attribution. Only another academic would share your understanding that accidents, and even crimes, fade from memory, but original research trails its subtle nimbus of glory down through the decades as long as scholarship continues.
“I don’t know how long you stalked your prey, awaiting your opportunity. I only know you grew impatient. When you saw your chance, only to see it impeded by an innocent young woman, you did not hesitate. To kill Dr. Dolvan was evil, but comprehensible. To slay Miss Trevor was not the act of a murderer, but of a wild swine, unfit for human company.”
I heard a small, snapping noise and risked a glance. Archie had broken his pen. His head turned toward mine, and he gave a tiny nod. He was still his own master. But my pause had allowed opportunity for another to speak. Inspector Cramer pulled the cigar out from between his lips and said, “All right, Wolfe, this is a very pretty story. But, if the last copy of the manuscript was destroyed, how the hell are you going to prove that Dr. Sendal stole those songs?”
I have given many gifts to Archie down through the years, but always from my abundance and not from my poverty. This time, I wished to proffer a costly offering, to demonstrate that I shared his commitment to a justice that must be served without consideration of expense. I folded my hands together on my desk, sat up straight, tested my voice, and sang.
It would be lying to say that I had never sung, in recent years. Music is a remnant of barbarism, but all men are barbarians, now and again. I have sung to hear myself, sung out of curiosity, sung because it is a part of me, if one I no longer enjoy. It has been an indulgence more private than private sensuality, and one for which I have required the same solitude. So, when I opened my mouth, I knew what to expect. No one else in that room did, though.
III—Duet: rubato unison, appasionato
To say you could have heard a pin drop would have been wrong, but only because Wolfe’s voice would have drowned it out. I didn’t hear, for example, when Cramer’s cigar dropped from between his lips; I only saw, from the corner of my eye, that he caught it. I saw Purley shake his head, and Saul slowly, radiantly smile, and Sendal gradually blanch again. Now, at last, I knew what Vukcic had been talking about when he said “…like an angel,” before he died.
Sure, Wolfe was rusty, and he should have warmed up. But I have heard a lot of singers over the years, from the bandstand of the Flamingo Room to the stage of the Met, and I could recognize amazing. His singing voice was a high baritone, but rich and flowing and dark, like liquid mahogany. He brought that Montenegrin folk song out from between his lips as if his heart came with it. It was as beautiful as anything I’ve ever done, or seen done, on a dance floor.
After the last note died out in the office, and while we were all still quiet, the corners of his lips twisted and he said, in his speaking voice, “As you hear, Inspector Cramer, I can provide all the evidence you need, including the author’s original copy of the manuscript. Because of the requirements of U.S. citizenship, I renounced my title when I came to this country, which led me to change my name. In Montenegro, I was known not as Nero Wolfe, but as Prince Goran Petrovic.” He frowned at Dr. Sendal and added in a mild tone calculated to cut to the bone, “I do not appreciate your plagiarism, Dr. Sendal. That collection of songs cost me a great deal of trouble to assemble.”
The egotistical genius can’t resist his grand finale, but this time I found I was inclined to forgive him.
Sendal leaned forwards and buried his head in his hands, and his shoulders shook. Purley was not gentle when he removed him, and I didn’t give a damn. He could bounce Sendal down all seven steps of the front stoop on his head, but Anthea would still be dead. As far as I’m concerned, revenge isn’t a dish best eaten cold. It’s just scraping the garbage off the plate.
Cramer and Saul stayed behind, and it was to them, and to me, that Wolfe said, in an odd sort of apology, “For diplomacy’s sake, I had been sent to an Austro-Hungarian military academy and had subsequently chosen to serve the Empire, so, for the second time, I left my friends and—brothers—behind me when I sided against the Empire to fight at Mojkovak. After turning my coat twice and then seeing Montenegro annexed to Serbia, there was no place remaining for me. This country seemed the proper destination for a wolfshead prince such as I am.”
Saul shook his head slowly, his lips still curved. I snorted. It was Cramer, of all people, who said with a rare note of grudging approval in his voice, “Yeah, well, you didn’t give it all up, Wolfe. You’re still a royal pain in the ass.” He smiled, and then, seeming to realize what his face was doing, abruptly got up and followed Purley out. Saul went after him to help him find the door.
Wolfe looked at me. I looked at him. Finding my voice, I said, “That’s it, then? That’s been the big mystery all these years?”
“And what’s with hiding the voice? As far as I know, there’s no requirement to stop singing upon being granted U.S. citizenship."
His tone was weary when he said, “Many of those songs were collected from a woman quite active in Montenegran politics. She was very fierce and passionate, and her voice was like the mountains themselves. However, in the end, she found my actions more deserving of the attentions of the Serbian Secret Police than herself. I do not think she was ever lonely for long, but, then, she died young. Carla very much resembled her mother.”
“Right. So we’re starting out on an even footing. Forget it.”
Wolfe grunted. “I wish that I could. It distorts my thinking, I know.”
He’d done more damage to his sacred privacy in the last few minutes than in all our years together. And he’d done it to wrap up my case. Nuts. I hate owing that big a debt. I said, abruptly, “Do you know what I felt, when I realized Anthea was dead?”
“Shut up. I had three feelings. I was stunned. I was so full of grief, it tore me up inside. And I was relieved.”
He had opened his mouth to say something else, but he closed it again. Instead he levered himself up, and came over to my desk as I talked, his eyes on mine the entire trip.
“That’s probably why it hit me so hard. Because I knew I had made a mistake, and I only found it out when she was killed. Bad timing.”
He grunted: the one that was dubious, but sympathetic. He was smart enough to know that there were no words he could say that I would hear, right then.
I stood up and looked him over. It’s a little hard to do when you’re one foot apart, but I’ve had practice. “I don’t think it’s all my fault. It’s tough, when you’ve spent so much time with women, to figure out that you’re some fat guy’s wife.”
Wolfe made a noise, and put both hands on my upper arms. I closed my eyes, and then opened them again. It was strange, letting myself feel what being close to him was like. I’d known about the intensity, and chalked it up to his genius. The excitement, I thought, came from our hunting together. What the hell had I been thinking about the heat, though? Absently, I reached over and undid his tie. His grip tightened on my arms. I asked him, “Did you get it?”
“No. I knew I esteemed you, but not how, or to what degree.” One hand slid up into the hair at the nape of my neck, and paused. I undid his collar button, and then kept going. “My - confusion - was as complete as your own. I am sorry, Archie, deeply sorry that it took Miss Trevor’s death to entirely clarify matters for me.”
I leaned forwards and kissed the hollow of his throat, and then licked it before I said against his skin, “You would have let me marry her and not said a word.” As he held me to him, his other hand was tugging my shirt out of my trousers. He got it free and ran a large palm up my spine. I worked across his collarbone with tongue and teeth, and then kissed the sweet spot where the shoulder meets the neck.
His head tilted, almost blindly, towards the ceiling, and he told it, “What else would you have had me do? I knew there was a bond between us, but you have always gone your own way both physically and socially. You were a free man, and so free to wed, as you demonstrated with that idiotic affair of the marriage license. And I had promised myself to remain detached, celibate.” His rear was pushed back against my desk now, and we had closed so much that I was straddling one of his legs, with my own thigh tight against his groin. At some point I had gone hard and so had he. We didn’t speak for a minute as we worked against each other, although our breathing was harsh. Even through our clothes, it felt good.
I leaned back a little, but I couldn’t get myself to stop. “Some celibate.” He snorted acknowledgement. “Hell, this is good.”
“Stupid, too.” I had spread open his vest and shirt, and put both hands on his chest. His nipples were as hard as his cock, and I could feel his heart racing.
“Yes.” His hands abruptly dropped to my ass, to hold me hard against him, so we couldn’t move. It didn’t help. It still felt good, just being pressed tight against him, although I wanted more. I ached. His skin tasted of salt when I licked it.
He let out a deep breath that was almost a sob, and started doing a number on my ear that was probably illegal in most states. He managed to pause and get out, “You are the veteran. Have you no control over this?” before resuming operations.
“And how helpful are you being, sir?” The fat bastard. I tilted my head away, and then turned it to him. Our lips met. He tasted of thyme, of mace, and maybe, a little of mint. His tongue danced with mine. Every place we touched, the blood was burning through my skin. I felt him large and hot against my leg, and knew what we were going to do, if I could make myself move back long enough to get some clothes out of the way. I slipped a hand between us to try, and ended up rubbing the back of it across him. He was impressive and that should have worried me, but I’d used up my ration of dread for the month. I didn’t want to feel weak any more, I wanted to be tough again, able to take it. I undid his fly.
The only way to judge some pleasures is to try them out. I used the same hard stroke on him that I like to use on myself, and he grunted and pushed into it. “Ah. Archie.”
“Yeah. Surprise, surprise. So, how about--” He had me out and wrapped up in seconds. I’ve never said his hands weren’t graceful. In fact, they’re graceful, and strong, and skilled, although it would feed his arrogance to tell him so.
There was a pleasant, if lively, interval before I managed to get out, “I hope one of us knows what he’s doing, although that wouldn’t be me. Not the big number, I never got that far. Did you?”
“I have.” He ran a fingertip along the slit at the tip of my cock, and then delicately ran a fingernail around the ridge. “Do you approve of this?” His tone of voice would have turned Don Juan green with envy.
“Yes, sir, but I’m trying to concentrate here.” He chuckled and started pumping me again, and, when my hips thrust in response, I felt him move a little in my hand. But I knew what would fetch him. “Come on, I want you. I need to burn it all out.”
“I am not an acetylene torch,” Wolfe said, but he pulled me tight into an embrace and I wrapped my arms around him. There was more heat in the embrace, and shelter, and some other stuff I’ll save for my scrapbook. “Very well.”
All that warm-up and we rushed the pitch: not surprising, I guess. After I’d yanked the boxers down my hips, it was almost gun oil. If it hadn’t been for the gunk I kept in my desk to block the damage filing did to my fingertips, it would have been. When he pushed slick fingers up into me and worked them, the world focused down to what he was doing. I started when he suddenly asked, “Are you ready?”
He worries about me at the oddest times. I might be prepared to admit I enjoy the fussing, but not to him. Suspended over flames by his hand in front and his hand behind, I still managed a grin. “Let’s see. I got the dinners, the flowers, the shows—gee, sir, I guess it’s time to make your move.”
“Do you think I disagree with you?” He pulled his fingers out, leaned me forwards against my desk, and spread my cheeks with his big hands. “Do you believe I’m able to debate with you?” I felt the tip of him against me, and told myself to relax. It’s been years since I was the virgin, but I did okay. It was easy, in fact. When he worked his cock up my ass, it was just another version of us getting rough because we had drawn close, something that had happened about a thousand times before.
There was no question of who would lead. We went through that hard dance together, like we’d learned the steps with each other, although I’d never mark a beat on a ballroom floor with language so strong. The force of it, the inevitability of it, the instructions that his hand gave me, brought me to my climax fast, and I arced back against him, solid and familiar behind me, as I spent. I came for him because I wanted to, and he paid me tribute afterwards by bending me forward and driving into me ruthlessly before he called out and ground his hips against my ass. It shook me, but together, not apart.
He was heavy, and his panting was loud in my ear. When he started to pull out, I put one hand back on his hip to stop him. “Hold it. I want always to remember you, just as you are right now.”
“Don’t be puerile,” he growled. “Your sense of humor is appalling enough without that.” He rubbed my thigh with his free hand, gently. “Did I press you too hard into your desk?”
“I didn’t break anything.” And I hadn’t, although I felt like I might be walking with care for a few days. It was worth it, though. A huge weight I hadn’t known I was carrying was gone, replaced by another, more comfortable weight. I was wrung out, and free. I glanced around the office, vaguely registering Wolfe’s mutters about his tie clip and vest buttons, the notebook and pen we’d knocked onto the floor, the closed door to the hall--
I was still trying to figure out that last item when the phone rang. Habit caused me to pick up before I stopped to consider my unusual situation. “Nero Wolfe’s office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
It was Lon again. “Archie. What’s this I hear about an arrest over at your place?”
“Yup, he did it again. The fat genius nailed a double murderer and the guy who shot at him, all with one blow. He’s having fun with the hammer, tonight” Wolfe’s hand tightened on my leg, but he knew better than to distract me while I was on the phone. “If you want to send over a couple of your boys, he’ll tell you all about it. We need a little favor in return, though.”
“Murder? Yeah? What kind of favor?” Lon was trying to take the corner from eagerness into caution too fast, and not doing very well.
“Can you send over one of your brighter feature or op-ed writers, as well? There’s a scandal in academia that we want all the high-brows to read about.”
“Oh, is that all?” I could almost hear him think Sunday supplement. “Sure. Fifteen minutes?”
“More like an hour. We still have some cleaning up to do, here.” I felt, rather than heard, a snort from Wolfe as I cradled the receiver. His hand slid over, and gently stroked. I leaned back into him and sighed, and I have to admit, it came out sounding contented.
A sharp young patrolman spotted Sendal’s pistol in a storm drain, and the jury decided to believe the parade of tweed-jacketed and horn-rimmed witnesses about his cheating ways, especially after Wolfe duplicated his little performance in the office and added a free lecture on the Montenegrin tradition of folk music. Sendal rode the bumps at Sing-Sing; I was invited to attend, but didn’t.
The coverage of the trial was sensational, but the public response wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The only letters that really annoyed Wolfe were the ones from the guy at the State Department and from the woman who wanted to have his baby in order to hasten the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. I made sure that little classic was on top of the pile of mail on his desk, the day it arrived. All other inquiries addressed to Prince Goran were acknowledged either by stony silence, or a curt note saying that the addressee was now known as Mr. Nero Wolfe, and had been since his arrival in the U.S.
I also added a new chore to my long list: to get Wolfe to stop being so stuck up about music. After all, he’d certainly proved he was just as mortal as the rest of us. I started working in little hints every now and then. One day Wolfe turned to me and said, “Archie, I did not admit to having been a musician only in order to provide you with another matter to badger me about.”
“I’m not trying to nag you; I’m only saying that with Christmas coming up, we might sing some carols.” His glare almost set a new record, and I was hard pressed to keep the grin off of my face. “We could do duets. I’ll do “White Christmas”, and you respond with “Good Prince Wenceslas,” then I’ll sing “Rudolf--”
“Shut up!” He tried to bottle it up, but failed, and kept going, “Such call and response singing would not be duets, in any case, but closer in form to verse anthems, if not--”
But why should I bother you with a lecture on musical forms and Montenegrin Christmas carols? Enough to say, I got him a decent stereo system for Christmas, and we started having music with our meals, now and then. It seems even he admits that eating is not entirely a rational process. Sometimes he plays music at night in his bedroom, too.
One lunch, as we listened to my RCA-Victor record of Anthea’s flute concerto, he suddenly set his fork down and started singing along with her, quietly, as if he knew the same music she did, by heart, and shared her passion for it. He probably does, come to think of it. I know that I do, and have for a long time now.
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