Prelude: Snippet by SFK
Archie feels the cool familiarity of the red leather chair beneath his hands, but still he almost weeps. The sad songs swirl out from the radio and pool at his feet in a thick mass. He's feeling sentimental and regrets that he and Wolfe never danced by the light of anything. In a brief moment of hysteria he thinks that, could the tender orchids up on the roof speak, they'd approve of what he'd done (or not done). He chuckles a little, small bourbon-breaths escaping the corners of his mouth, past the gritted teeth and pained smile. He laughs because he knows that the orchids are his children now, all of them--even the ugly ones.
There are no second chances. I know that. I didn’t need it rubbed in. But, that’s exactly what fate seemed determined to do.
When I turned the key in the lock of the brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street, not one thing had changed. Going through the front door was like walking through a time warp. Behind me, below the front stoop, the sidewalk was decorated with graffiti, black plastic trash bags, and light poles plastered with stickers for bad club bands. The woman who’d watched me suspiciously from the bay window across the street had been African-American, good-looking in a dashiki, and had hefted her cell phone significantly at me when she saw a stranger approaching the house she knew should be empty. I’d tipped my fedora in return, waved the key ring, and watched her roll her eyes before returning to her after-work tipple. It was a bright, dry summer day in the first decade of the new millennia, and Manhattan was going about its business. I was trying to go about my business, too, but the past was reaching out and pawing at my cuffs like a bum who wanted some spare change.
I wish Fritz hadn't left it all to me when he lost an argument with an automobile.
Panel of one-way glass in the front door: the same. Big wooden hat and coat rack in the hall: the same. Arts and Crafts sideboard: the same. Everything was clean, swept and polished, nicely maintained. It was a museum on a closed day. Come and visit Wolfe House. This twentieth-century warren of a private investigator has been preserved in its pristine state since the great man’s murder in the mid-eighties. A stunning example of the living environment of the eccentric upper-middle class professional of the day, the brownstone…ah, nuts.
The kitchen, at least, had changed a little. No microwave allowed in Fritz’s lair, of course, but there was a food processor, a dishwasher, and a rack of those fancy new knives, the odd-handled ones with edges that will cut through plate steel. There wasn’t a note. Somehow I’d thought there would be, but there wasn’t. But, when I opened the refrigerator, I found a gallon of almost-fresh milk, an unopened box of crackers, and a block of Fritz’s home-made headcheese inside, waiting for me. Headcheese takes a week or two to go bad. I made myself a snack and ate it before I looked around and found the brandy. Half a shot later, I was braced up well enough to keep going.
I started down in the basement before I worked up through all three floors and onto the roof. Stripped bare in the last sunlight, the room where I had spent so many years was bad. The dust-sheeted bedroom on the floor below it was worse. But, I didn’t really have problems until I walked through the door into the greenhouse.
They weren’t perfect. Maybe that’s what got to me. Hired help can only do so much when not supervised by finicky attention and a will of steel. The ranked orchids were still glorious, still included single plants that made me catch my breath, but I also saw new hybrids with dull colors, flowers that looked like bored spiders or waxy bugs. I knew enough to understand that the odd plants were interesting, were the off-spring of older hybrids, but Wolfe would have thrown a fit. He had an aesthete’s passion for bathing himself in color, for surrounding himself with beauty. Wolfe--
On the way down the stairs, I decided I knew where I could find a poison more to my tastes, and I was right. In the bottom drawer of the desk that had once been mine, a bottle of bourbon still lurked. I poured three fingers but couldn’t get myself to settle into that all-too-familiar seat. Instead, I went over to the red leather chair, put the drink down on the small table where our clients had once written checks, and sat. I looked at the desk in front of me and the custom-built yellow chair behind it.
The office was still. No sound of typewriter keys, or turning pages, or faint noises of breathing broke the silence. I needed noise. Maybe the now-antique radio still worked. Of course it did.
I stay away from the old songs. Lily taught me to enjoy classical; a lot of the tunes kids like these days are pretty good to dance to if you let the music carry you away. I don’t think Fritz worried as much as I do about memories, though. He had the radio tuned in to an oldies station. They were spinning an extended set of standards, show tunes that I danced to back in the thirties, forties, and fifties at the Flamingo Room and the Crystal Ballroom, at all the long-closed places full of long-dead people. I should be with them, wherever they are, all my long-gone dance partners like Lily, all my dead like Saul, like Fritz, like Wolfe.
I never danced with Wolfe.
Another slug of bourbon burned some sense back into me. Of course I never danced with Nero Wolfe. Whatever I saw move from time to time behind the narrowed slits of his eyelids, he was a man. I was a man. That was the twentieth century, and we were both men. I was his employee, his sidekick, his whatever-we-never-found-a-name-for, not his wife. We had no social bond, no physical relationship, no children. The only thing Wolfe ever pollinated was the orchids growing up on the roof, all the beautiful, mortal offspring of our hard work, trapped in an unchanging brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street, still flourishing. They were about to be set free. I’d given them all away.
I’d sold the rest, every room, every furnishing, every brown stone. The money and I, and the gifts that my friends had given me, were all I needed where I was going.
A little bourbon still coated the bottom of the shot glass. I let gravity coax the last sweet drops of fire between my lips, and then left the unwashed glass behind me on my own desk. It was time to go. Two decades spent waiting for wrinkles, or reaping, or Wolfe to wash out of my memories was more than enough. Even if he still somehow kept me from following him, it was time to leave.
Whatever had distracted people from our ageless bodies couldn’t cover up the slow pace of my shifting habits. I was good enough at letting loose that I was never completely out of place, but I was now noticeably--eccentric. More and more often people thought I was some kind of neurotic trying to imitate the legendary Archie Goodwin, a legend whose name I’d boosted to drum up business, and I was sick of it. In a new place perhaps I could be myself again, with tastes understood to be my own. I was looking forward to being a post-modern P. I. with a new life, if old memories. Wolfe would have approved. He admired my resourcefulness when faced by barriers.
Wolfe. Fine; I’d be honest with my new self. Wolfe. After all, what’s a hard-boiled dick, even these days, without a busted heart?
I went to the kitchen, said a last good-bye as affectionate and firm as the one I’d heard read out to me in the lawyer’s office last week, and then went out the front door and locked it behind me. When I passed a mailbox, I stuck the key into the pre-stamped, padded envelope I had in my breast pocket and mailed it. On my way downtown, two teenaged girls in a coffeehouse window noticed me and chattered to one another behind their hands. They were too young to be anything I wanted, but what the hell. It still felt good. A bike messenger strapping down a package paused to give me a wary, respectful assessment before he surprised me with a come-hither glance underneath his eyelashes. I just grinned and repaid the favor by letting him see I’d noticed the legs. After all, it’s the twenty-first century now, and I’m still growing even if the image in the mirror never changes in the mornings.
At the Club Roscoe, I checked my fedora but kept my suit coat. These days I always carry a gun. It’s a new world, but it still has the same old bad habits.
Although it was early in the evening, the dance floor was busy, so it was easy enough to kill some time. I was dancing when I felt the gaze of the guy I’d come to meet. Although we’d worked together on and off for two years, it was the first time we’d met face-to-face. Given the amount of money I was about to hand over to him, that made sense. I made my excuses to my partner when the song was done and worked over to the table at the side of the room.
A pair of blue eyes was assessing me warily. I hadn't seen them before, but I knew who the eyes, the blond hair, and the hawk-like nose belonged to. I grinned. “Hey, Cole.”
His expression didn’t change. “Mr. Goodwin. Much the same as ever, I see.” That was Cole for you. He suspected something, I knew, but he kept whatever insider information he owned sealed up tight between his ears. Locked lips were a necessary trait for a successful “computer security consultant”, and he was the best.
“Do you have what I ordered?” A new start, a new way of life: he had what I wanted, all right. Without a word, he unzipped his canvas bag and pulled out a manila envelope. I traded it to him for a slip of paper with a URL and a name on it. As I examined the contents of the envelope, he booted up his hand-held and checked the web. It was all there: driver’s license, social security card, and transcripts in the name of Archie Lowell, my new identity. Cole had suggested the last name, but I hadn't argued. I swear, sometimes I think romanticism is the most virulent of the social diseases floating around these days.
When I was satisfied that everything was in order, I gave him a second piece of paper and he entered the password. After surveying figures, he nodded, curtly.
We’d spent quite a bit of time together on-line while he was trolling for results, so I didn’t hesitate to ask him, “What are you going to do with all the money?”
He didn’t hesitate to answer me, either. But then, like a lot of the silicon age’s boy geniuses, he enjoyed the taste of his own words. “Move elsewhere. Become respectable. Get a real job. It’s time.” He considered his future and made a noise. I’d have to call it a grunt.
For some reason, my skin was prickling. Over the years and decades, I’ve learned to respect that feeling. “So? How old are you, anyhow?”
“I am nineteen, rapidly approaching twenty, and I am tired of an itinerant lifestyle.” He frowned. “It’s too dangerous, too uncomfortable. I want to have the witnesses I need to confirm my documents.”
Before I’d even thought it through, I shrugged. “If you need people to go with your paper trail, why don’t you come and work for the new me for a while? Between us, we can get the kind of business that will keep us clear of shady background investigations,” I nodded at him, “or divorce work,” I jerked a thumb at my own chest. I was coasting on intuition, but that was okay. Unlike Saul, I’ve never minded a little company on the job. Besides, if he didn’t work out, he could always quit. Or, I could fire him.
“All right.” He blinked and pursed his lips like his own words had caught him by surprise. He hurried on, “I’m certain there must be things you can teach me.”
Arrogant little bastard. Okay, not so little, and the arrogance probably was necessary. From what he’d dropped here and there, he had been on his own for a while. He and his parents weren’t on speaking terms, and I could guess why. I assessed him again, the exquisite grooming, the well-chosen suit, the decent set of muscles for someone who spent most of his time behind a screen or a book.
The club’s D. J. put on his first number for the evening. Erasure: it was nostalgia night, and the retro crowd was out in force. I looked at the young face across from me and trusted to my intuition one last time. “Do you want to dance?’
The eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed again. I watched, fascinated, as the lips pushed out slightly, once, and pulled back in. “Yes, Mr. Lowell, I believe I’d enjoy that.”
“Call me Archie, kid,” I said and grinned at him.
He looked annoyed. “Don’t call me kid, sir.” The sir was pretty sarcastic, but he also stood up and offered me a hand.
I took it. “Fine. This time, I’ll lead.” He scowled. We went.
There are no second chances, no ways to go back and rub out the mistakes you made. There are only chances.
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