It all started with a new glue, a miraculous glue, or so the salesman told me. That’s probably not the romantic opening some of my readers might hope for, but it’s the truth, and, given the way the kids are talking these days, it’s the truth that a few of them may want to read. So here is the affair of the glue, all nicely typed up and stored out of Wolfe’s reach, waiting for when the two of us stop being news and start being history.
To return to my tale, back during August of 1929, glue didn’t come in neat plastic bottles but in glass jars with little brushes. It was messy if it spilled, and I kept the lid of the jar in my desk drawer firmly screwed down. Wolfe usually kept his lid firmly screwed down, too, but the past couple of weeks had been trying for him.
His bootlegger had been arrested, and he resents changing any part of his routine. As is his usual practice, he passed some of the annoyance along to me, this time by insisting he had to sample the wares of every vendor on the west side of Manhattan before settling down with a new supplier. Since I’d spent a few months freelancing for one of the big brewers before he hired me, and still knew a lot of the correct names, he proposed to use me as his go-between. It would involve looking up a lot of characters I’d been happy to leave behind me, the anticipation of which put me in a mood far from sweet. In the mean time, his supply of good suds was running low, and he had been forced to cut down from his usual six quarts a day.
As a result, the atmosphere in the brownstone was stormy. Fritz would look at us both each time he came in to bring the beer and shake his head a little before he retreated to the kitchen. Usually, such a reaction from Fritz would be enough to pull me up short, but not this time. I was annoyed because Saul Panzer, who had been tutoring me on the fine points of being a street operative, had decided I was ready to help him with a tricky case and Wolfe had spoiled it. Saul had me tracing the man he suspected of masterminding a series of scams in the Jewelry District when Wolfe ordered me back to the office to help out with the beer crisis by visiting my former colleagues.
From his attitude, I suspected that Wolfe, too, had some other problems to deal with, but I didn’t care. I’d been being mouthy all morning. The past year had taught me that Wolfe, unlike anyone I’d known back in Ohio, would let me say what I wanted to as long as I followed his orders, and I had taken full advantage of my freedom of speech. It had done no good. He had proved immune to my treatment.
I spun around in my office chair to face him. “Look,” I said, lifting the ear-piece from the hook and letting it fall back again, “a telephone. I happen to know that you can use it to speak with people very far away, people who will deliver beer to you, here, where you can drink it in peace because I’ve gone back to work.”
He didn’t even have the courtesy to grunt. He only turned a page in the book he was reading: something by some Greek. Later I would be able to sort out Herodotus when I saw him, but it was early days.
“Didn’t you enjoy Greenberg’s homebrew? I’m telling you, you won’t find any better.”
“You don’t like beer.” He said it without looking up.
“Yes, sir, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to folks who do like beer. How about you let me cross off the worst of the ones left on the list? Mr. “Gouger” Martinelli, for example. His so-called suds would poison a Bowery cockroach.”
He lifted his shoulders about an eighth of an inch and let them fall. I stared at him, frustrated. I wasn’t sure if it meant yes, or no, or shut up, although I suspected the latter. It was a damn difficult business working for a man with his emotions throttled down so low. Half the time I couldn’t tell what he really wanted from me, and it was getting under my skin.
“Okay, I choose to take that as no, which leaves me with eight more places to visit today. If I hustle, and skip lunch, I should be able to get to them all.”
That fetched him. I’d already figured out that he was a little nuts about my eating regular meals. He stuck a fat finger in his book and scowled at me. “Confound it! You may eliminate from the list the four establishments that you view as the most hopeless, if you cease tormenting me with this egregious babble.” He went so far as to glance over at the clock. It was quarter past eleven, which was no help to him at all. Lunch wouldn’t be until half past twelve.
“If you’d accepted the offer that dame in sable was about to make to you on Monday, I’d be out investigating for her, rather than sitting here bothering you.”
“It would have involved her marriage. I do not take work of that nature, as you well know.”
“Nuts. How can you tell? You stopped her before she got five words out.”
“Her name was Mrs. Walter van Hoskins, and the rumors of her impending marital dissolution were reported in the Gazette three weeks ago this Friday.”
I tightened my jaw. Wolfe expected my memory to keep up with his own, and it didn’t. The exercises he’d given me were helping, but he could still lap me on any occasion when I wasn’t paying close attention. It was the last straw. “Fine. I’m going out.” And he would be lucky if it wasn’t permanent.
“Good. Make sure to eat something around noon.” The fat hippo. I wished he would stop doing that.
The first two visits of the day passed without incident, but when I got to the third name on the list, my heart sank. Mr. O’Hare had been an associate of my late employer, and their association had ended in the same trade dispute during which I had shot two guys who were attempting to torch the pier I was guarding. Because I had been defending city property - not to mention numerous crates of imported hooch labeled as olive oil - from arson, I had gone free, but there had been a lot of fuss, and I had been fired to quiet the noise. I doubted O’Hare had forgotten my name in the last year, and if he remembered my name he might remember some other details about me, as well. I really wanted to skip his establishment, but I couldn’t. Wolfe assumed that I would do the jobs he gave me, and there was something about his assumption that drove me on as naggings and beatings never had.
O’Hare had set up shop in a warehouse down on an alley off of Fifteenth. The place didn’t look like much. I checked around the way Saul had taught me, before I tried the man-sized entrance in the big roll-back door to the loading dock. It was open, and, cautiously, I went in.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I saw three men. Two were talking in low tones as they examined a tank truck, but the all-too-familiar third had noticed my arrival. It was Vincent “Cutesy” Malone, who had worked as a guard for my former employer, Mr. Markham. Cutesy hadn't earned his nickname by his charm.
“Well, if it ain’t Archie “the punk” Goodwin.” He smiled unpleasantly, and rolled around the toothpick in the corner of his mouth. His voice echoed loudly through the mostly empty warehouse, and the other two men looked up from their conversation to see what was going on.
Walking slowly towards him, I gave him my best profile. “Care to repeat that? I had something in my ears and couldn’t hear you.”
“Jeez, lemme see.” He straightened slowly from the wall he was leaning against, and furrowed his brow. “What was it I just said? Archie the gonsel? Archie the geycat? Archie the--”
I never got to find out if he could keep up the alliteration, because I slugged him. You’d think he might have been expecting it, and maybe he was, but he sure wasn’t expecting the roll of nickels I kept in my pocket for emergencies. Over the years to come, Wolfe would talk me out of such refinements, but it came in handy that day. I caught him low and he let out a whooshing noise and folded nicely to meet my uppercut.
It’s a sign of how well Cutesy was liked that the other two men didn’t jump to help. The taller, older one, in fact, took off his straw boater and fanned himself with it as he looked, first at Cutesy stretched out on the floor, and then at me, standing with my fists still clenched. “It’s such a hot day. Really, it’s too hot to be brawling.”
I straightened up warily, then slipped the roll back into my pocket. “Yes, sir, I’d have to agree with you on that. How are you, Mr. O’Hare?”
“Very good, thank you, my boy. What brings you to these humble parts? I understood you had gone uptown to work for Nero Wolfe.”
“I have. That’s why I’m here. His former supplier had an unexpected visitor, and so Mr. Wolfe would like to sample some of your product. It would be worth your while, since he drinks enough beer to float the Aquitania in his belly.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll send over a barrel of the best lager.” I noticed that his shorter companion had started at the sound of Wolfe’s name, and was now pretending not to listen. Both Wolfe and Saul had warned me never to do that. Eavesdropping is the normal human impulse, and if someone passes up an opportunity for it, it usually signals they are hiding something.
“Nice to see you again, Mr. O’Hare.” No sense in loitering around to take Cutesy’s temperature now that my business was done. I couldn’t depend on his glass jaw to save me every time.
“Fine, fine,” he repeated, and wandered back towards the tank truck. He waved for his companion, who I could see now was some sort of bohunk thug, to follow. The man moved reluctantly, looking back over his shoulder at me. As I left, I heard him start up a conversation in a foreign lingo, probably German since O’Hare was, in fact, as German as sauerkraut. He had changed his name during the Great War for ease of commerce and gotten the spelling wrong.
My last visit, to a nice old Italian in a basement establishment down by the docks, went off without a hitch. I headed back to the brownstone with the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from a dumb job disposed of. Wolfe would have his beer, and there still might be time to get in on Saul’s action.
It was around six by the time I put my key in the front door of the brownstone, and I expected Wolfe to be down from the plant rooms on the third story and installed behind his desk with a beer and his book. What I didn’t expect was to overhear the sound of voices, talking together in German. One of the voices was Wolfe’s, and the other I thought I recognized from earlier in the afternoon. I finished hanging up my hat and coat, but the roll of nickels came with me as I soft-footed it to the office door.
It was the thug from O’Hare’s, all right. His expression was nasty, but Wolfe’s expression, as usual, was calm. Not, I was beginning to understand, that the calm painted across Wolfe’s face meant much. Inside he might be anything from furious to skipping with joy. I couldn’t tell for sure, but based on my close observations of the past year, I’d put my money on annoyed.
Somehow I knew Wolfe had seen but was ignoring me. The thug leaned forward in a way I didn’t like and slammed both of his fists down onto his knees to emphasize the noises he was producing. I chose to take that as my cue to saunter into the office, turning a cold eye onto Wolfe’s visitor on the way to my desk. Our visitor half rose from his yellow chair when he saw me, and then settled back. Even so, instead of tending to any of the paperwork on my desk, I sat gazing at him, to let him know that I intended to referee this match.
Wolfe turned to me. “Archie. Did you get my beer?” The visitor made protesting sounds, but Wolfe ignored him.
“Yes, sir. Expect three barrels of the best to appear some time tomorrow.” I gave our visitor the eye again. “I hope he brought the fourth one with him. Mr. O’Hare promised you lager, and he belongs to O’Hare.”
“No, he did not bring my beer, a lamentable exercise of inefficiency. However, I believe Herr Kainmar views himself as belonging only to himself.” Wolfe’s tone was mild. Maybe I could get some little signs made for him that said “happy” and “sad” and so forth.
“You don’t have to ignore me as if I were a deaf man,” Kainmar butted in. The accent wasn’t as bad as I had expected, but he was still no native New Yorker.
“My dear Herr Kainmar,” Wolfe said, in a voice like silk, “I have never ignored you. I do not ignore you now. I only tell you that what you request is impossible and that, by persisting, you waste both our times; a pity, since I understand that you are, once again, a very busy man.”
Kainmar leaned forward, and I cleared my throat. He leaned back. “So, Wolfe. Under the fat, you have not changed at all. You remain stubborn, unwise, and,” his gaze moved around the office and ended on me, “too fond of beauty.”
I scowled at him. He must have learned his English in a movie palace, since he talked like a screen villain’s title cards. Wolfe shot me a sharp glance before he turned his eyes back to Kainmar and said, “This gets us nowhere. Archie?”
“My pleasure, sir.” I got up, went to stand over Kainmar and said, “Goodbye.” I admit I hoped that he would start something, but he didn’t. He was out the door with his hat and coat in less than a minute and a quarter, a new record for the brownstone.
When I went back into the office, Wolfe was reading his book again, which steamed me. I had been thinking of staying home in case of trouble, but I changed my mind and said, “If the beer crisis is over with, I’d like to get back to Saul. I’m skipping out on my final exam, remember?”
He gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. It made me uneasy, but I ignored it. I was still too young to have learned to rely on my hunches. “Of course, Archie, I know you are eager to firm your grip on those fine points of detection that reward instinct over ratiocination.” I was pretty sure he was being sarcastic, but to hell with it. “Go, by all means, but have dinner en route.”
“Yes, sir.” I wished he would stop that. Grabbing my own hat and coat, I left before Wolfe could change his mind.
All that effort, and it was a bust. Our man holed up in a hotel room belonging to a bobbed little blond, apparently set for the night. I was prepared to wait, but Saul, whose experience in such matters was hard to argue with, said it was pointless and sent me home.
When I got back to the brownstone around two, Wolfe was still awake. That didn’t surprise me as much as it might have because, in those years, the nightmares were still pretty frequent. I don’t know where he spent the war, but it sure wasn’t behind the lines drinking beer and scowling at the barmaids. Wherever it was had left him with some bad problems sleeping. In fact, about a month after I had first moved in, his anguished bellowing had woken me up, and I had charged into his bedroom with revolver drawn, embarrassing us both. I started wearing pajamas after that, and he had an alarm system installed in the hallway.
I didn’t expect the sight that greeted me when I entered the office, though. He appeared to be trying to pray while cursing in a low, level voice. Wolfe only curses when he means it, so I knew he was in some kind of a fix. He heard me enter, looked up at me, and put his joined hands down on his desk. “Archie. Were your endeavors met with success?”
“No, sir.” I went over to his desk. “Let me see.”
He glared at me. He had spilled the new glue from my desk all over his blotter, the papers on it, a metal box, and his hands. Then, he had stuck his hands together. “There is no need for you to be concerned. Heat will loosen the bond.”
At times, he was just plain impossible. “That would do you a hell of a lot of good with your hands glued together, and I’d like to see you try, but I’d also like to get to bed some time tonight. Unless you can scrub with your elbows, you’d better let me do it.” I went to the bathroom in the corner of the office and doused a rag with hot water.
As I worked, Wolfe kept leaning away from me. I knew he hated to be touched, so I let him get away with it twice, but the third time I snapped, “Hold still. It’s not like I’m poisonous, and I bathed this morning.”
“Confound it, I am aware of that,” he said, peevishly. “Can’t you yank them apart?”
“So I can enjoy how you behave during the three days your skin is growing back? No, thanks.” I tugged, gently. The big hands were warm between my own, and more muscular than I had expected. I got his index fingers apart, and he grunted. “Hurts, I bet. Try not to twitch too much.”
The breath puffed out of his nostrils, and I used the towel to work on the glob holding the heels of his hands together. “What was so important that it couldn’t wait for me to get back here? I would have warned you off the stuff. It’s lousy. I keep meaning to get a new bottle of a different brand.”
I was so close that I could see the tiny twitch of a muscle by the corner of his eye when I said “lousy.” Maybe that was what had been missing when I tried to learn his expressions: proximity. “I was preparing some documents to be mailed and wished to affix a photograph to a sheet of paper, so that it would not be damaged in the post.”
Without intending to, I glanced down. There was a photograph in the middle of the mess on his desk, a print old enough that it was faded and its corners were curling up. It depicted our visitor of the afternoon wearing a uniform that even I recognized. The star-shaped insignia and the Cyrillic lettering are pretty distinctive.
I whistled. “Re-introducing your old acquaintance Kainmar to immigration? Well, I won’t kick. Anyone who works for O’Hare deserves what he gets, in my book.”
He growled low and tried to yank his hands away. Without thinking, I yanked back, and our eyes met. The growl had been annoyed, but his eyelids were heavy and drooping, and his lips looked firm and full. Even on Wolfe, I knew what that meant.
“Stop pulling,” I said, absently. I looked down and finished working his hands apart while I thought fast. I hadn't known he wanted to. And he hadn't asked for it, even though he wanted to, which was, well - in any case, it sure was better than - I made my decision. I took a deep breath, let go of his newly-freed hands, and slipped my hand into his suit jacket, to press the palm flat against his chest.
He froze. Looking back on it, that was his mistake. If he had shied away, I would have assumed he was telling the truth about hating anyone to touch him. As it was, even through the thick silk of his vest and the layers of his clothing, I could feel the nipple hardening. I leaned in towards his mouth.
His hand shot up and grabbed my wrist. The grip was very strong but careful; it was like wearing an iron cuff lined with velvet. “No, Archie.”
I sighed. “You’re only being stubborn. I figured out a while ago that you must know. You wouldn’t let me live here without checking my background.”
“Why, in order to enumerate your shenanigans with young women?” His voice was dry but calm, considering the circumstances. “Yes, as you deduced, I did have you researched, but I put little stock in the exaggerations of rumor. Thank you for your offer. However, it is no longer necessary for you to secure your survival in this way.”
His assumption annoyed me. I slowly spread my fingers apart, and slipped my forefinger up under his tie and between the buttons of his shirt to touch flesh. The way his eyes darkened was interesting. “It’s not for my safety, it’s because I can.”
The folds of his cheeks pulled away a little from the corners of his mouth, but his tone was grave. “Then I must thank you once again before I refuse.” He gently hauled my hand away, before he let go of my wrist.
“Okay, you’re the boss.” He scowled, and I flexed my wrist. “Just as well you were careful, though. I may need that hand.”
“Indeed. You even flatter my ego. This evening must be cherished for that rare event, if for no other reason.” He pushed his chair back and levered himself onto his feet, but I noticed he was careful to circle around the end of the desk away from me. “Good night, Archie.”
I snorted in reply. After that encounter, not even Wolfe could persuade me he was serene enough for a good night’s sleep.
The next month was irritating. I was up against a problem I hadn't faced before. Courting girls is easy. You spend time with them, tell them what you like about them, really listen to them, and wait. Courting men, in my limited experience, is easy, too. You tell them what you’ll do and no wait. Wolfe, as was to be expected of a fourteen-caret pain in the behind, fell into neither category.
To make it all the more annoying for me, I seemed to have finally cracked his secret code. I could tell that he was sawing back and forth between fuming, melancholy, and alarm. The alarm, at least, was a complement, but it wasn’t what I was after. I was nineteen, used to catching what I’d decided to chase, and determined to run down Wolfe. He showed no signs of cooperating. Like I said, irritating.
I spent a lot of time with Saul. Now, finally, when I didn’t want him to, Wolfe was deferring all of his little personal errands so that Saul and I could work some extended hours together. I hadn't been sent out for a duck or onions or thrip repellent for weeks. It was getting on my nerves.
One overcast Thursday morning, Saul said to me, “There isn’t much left I can teach you that experience can’t teach you better. Go back to Mr. Wolfe and tell him he’s wasting his money.”
“He won’t listen. He’s having a relapse. At least he waited until after Cairns was cleared, but now he’s experimenting with a hundred and fifty ways to eat turkey. Fritz is losing his marbles, and I’m thinking of moving to the YMCA.”
Saul took such a deep drag from his cigarette that his cheeks hollowed, blew out the smoke, and looked amused. “Some things will never change.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” I brooded on life’s injustices for a minute, while Saul waited to see if I had anything else to say. He’s good at that. “I guess I’d better go back to the brownstone.”
“No pictures you haven’t watched, and it’s too early for the clubs to be open for dancing. I guess you’d better.” He crushed out his cigarette on a wall, and clapped me on the shoulder. “See you, Archie.”
Saul tugged his cap lower over his eyes and headed down the block. Just before he reached the corner, he turned and called back. “Archie!”
“Yeah?” I don’t know how he knew I’d still be standing there, gazing after him.
“Keep trying!” He turned and walked away. That’s Saul for you.
I hoofed it uptown to Thirty-Fifth Street and let myself in. On the way, it started to rain, and, as I turned my coat collar up, I decided enough was enough. I was starting to act sappy, and that was not to be put up with. Wolfe and I were having it out.
It was eleven thirty, and Wolfe was behind his desk. At last, he must be snapping out of it. He looked up as I came in and said, “Good morning, Archie. I hope you did not suffer unduly from the rain.” He was doing it again. I wished he would stop that.
I ran a hand through my hair, and it came away wet. “I don’t seem to be melting, thank you, sir.”
“You are perturbed.”
“Yes, you are right. I am perturbed.” I stalked towards Wolfe’s desk, intending to have my say, and then paused when I saw the photographs spread out on his desk blotter. Even from a distance I could tell that they were about as old as the picture that had put paid to Herr Kainmar. I looked at Wolfe. One corner of his mouth was twisted a little out of line. “So, who are the photos of?”
He didn’t take the chance to correct my usage, which was a bad sign. “They are all of persons I once knew.”
Curious, I craned my neck. Two men, one of them dark, hawk-faced and tall, one short and plump with curly hair. A homely boy in glasses holding a shotgun and three partridges. A group of roughly-clad soldiers, one of whom I recognized: Marko Vukcic. Saul Panzer, in an AEF uniform. A skinny toddler of uncertain gender, squinting at the camera. A beautiful woman in a black ball gown, her face bored and sullen. Fritz, looking younger, looking like he’d crawled through hell. Others that I couldn’t make out well. “I know some of them. There’s a problem?”
Wolfe’s big, fat fingers spread out suddenly and gathered the photographs in. “One is missing, the one that I was a fool to keep.” He scooped them up and put them away in a battered metal box.
I didn’t have to ask. I just knew. “Blackmail?”
“Perhaps. Central European politics are extremely volatile at the moment, not, you understand, that they are ever very stable.”
Something was nagging at me. “Did you double check?”
He scowled. “What do you mean?”
“I know you’re a genius and I’m not, and I know you’re thinking that Kainmar or his agent has been here, which is reasonable given how you worked him, but did you double check? I recognize the box, and you had it out the night you spilled the glue.”
It had to gall, but he was too smart to let that stop him. He picked the box up, flipped it over, and there it was, stuck to the bottom. I got a glimpse before his hand covered it. He and his friend had been skinny-dipping, and his friend had decided to horse around. I wouldn’t have recognized Wolfe if it weren’t for the familiar scowl. I’ll always wonder who had the guts to trigger the shutter while facing that expression.
I perched myself on the arm of the red leather chair and watched with great interest as he peeled off and shredded the offending picture, put the photographs and box away in his desk, and then sat, nostrils slightly flared, eyes narrowed, for a good ten seconds. When, at last, he spoke, his voice was flat with the effort of holding it in. “This is intolerable. I have not slept. I have not eaten.” I raised my eyebrows at that, but held my peace. “I can not think, and am rapidly becoming a consummate witling.” He glared at me.
“No, sir. You are not shoveling this one off onto me. I offered you a solution to your problem.”
He tried to wiggle a forefinger at me, but couldn’t. It was stuck to his middle finger. He looked at the fingers. He looked at his desk, and looked at me. He snorted. He was laughing.
Oh, a stranger wouldn’t have recognized it, but I had heard it once before. He was laughing. I was so amazed that I sat bolt upright and stared at him. He pointed the glued-together fingers at me, and snorted again. I shook my head, and went to get a wet rag from the office bathroom.
I stayed in that evening. Saul telephoned after dinner, and Wolfe listened, with his eyes squeezed to narrow slits, to what Saul had to say. I hadn't been invited to stay on the line, so I pretended to be busy with the hybridization records. Wolfe had added so many orchids to the collection upstairs this last year that he was thinking of hiring someone full-time to take care of them. It couldn’t happen soon enough for me. Orchids were pretty, but I had a black thumb and was tired of being growled at about what happened when I was drafted into helping. Bad enough having to sort out the Latin names. I was reminding myself of how to spell bractescens when Wolfe hung up the phone.
“Saul says that you are done with your training. Satisfactory.”
Not looking up from my desk, I jotted down the second c in the ledger. “Thank you, sir. Do I get a raise?”
“Yes. However, we will discuss what the amount should be this Friday.” He paused. “Saul’s timing is fortuitous, because there is another matter I wish to discuss with you, first.”
I put my pen down. “Oh, yeah? Could it be about…sex?”
“Don’t be blunt: it neither suits you nor advances your purpose. Archie, why have you determined upon seducing me?”
Now, that was blunt. I could do better, though. “Because you want me to.”
“Bah. Most women and some men would want you to, but I discern no symptoms of your impending death from exhaustion.”
I put my feet up on my desk, laced my hands behind my head, and sought inspiration from the office ceiling. “Because you’re attractive? Maybe you’re convenient? Perhaps I want a big raise?”
He snorted. The doorbell rang.
It was after hours, so I kept the door on the chain when I opened it a crack to see who was on the stoop. It was Mr. O’Hare.
“Wait, please,” I told him, and closed the door and locked it before reporting to Wolfe. “It’s O’Hare.”
“What the devil does he want?” Wolfe considered. “I suppose you had better let him in, but be careful.”
I gave him a cool look. I had, after all, just graduated with honors from the Saul Panzer School of private inquiry, and I considered the warning unnecessary.
O’Hare ambled into the office and took the red leather chair. I went back to my desk and decided it would be a good time to clean my revolver, or, at least, to take it out of my desk drawer to check for dirt.
Wolfe didn’t bother to nod. “Sir. Is there some matter you wish to discuss with me?”
O’Hare’s voice was mild, but his pale blue eyes were sharp. “I came by to thank you for disposing of a problem for me.”
“Indeed?” Polite, but noncommittal.
“Yes, sir. I’m not interested in politics, you understand, I’m in the business of selling beverages. When I discovered Mr. Keinmar was involved with certain radical parties, I was shocked.”
Wolfe produced an indifferent grunt. I hiked an eyebrow at him.
“Shocked. I’ve been given to understand that I have you to thank for the revocation of Mr. Keinmar’s visa, and I do thank you for it. Men like that give our industry a terrible reputation. I wish the immigration service would spend more time in our neighborhood.”
I bet he did. The boys from Sicily were pressing hard, just then.
“I could use the services of a man like yourself, a capable man, to check backgrounds and resolve these unfortunate personnel issues for me. Would you consider a retainer of twenty-five dollars a week adequate?”
The amount was way too low for a first bid. I tensed slightly.
“Mr. O’Hare.” Wolfe’s voice was almost gentle. “I am afraid that I must refuse your generous offer, for several reasons I consider cogent. For one, it is my understanding that an employee of yours and Mr. Goodwin has had the kind of dealings in the past that make it desirable that they not encounter each other in the future. Mr. Goodwin is young and, as such, inclined to be energetic and impulsive.”
O’Hare’s thin lips stretched slowly into a smile. It was unpleasant. “That’s not a problem, Mr. Wolfe, that’s a recommendation. Too many of the boys are lazy, these days. I like a young man who hustles, yes I do, and I can see that you do, too.”
There it was, out on the table. It was more subtle than I’d thought O’Hare was capable of, but it was still pretty raw.
“Indeed? How fortunate, then, that I have secured Mr. Goodwin’s services for my own. Aside from his impulsiveness and admiration of his own wit, I have found him to be reasonably competent. Let us be frank, Mr. O’Hare.” Wolfe wiggled his forefinger “You hope to use Mr. Goodwin’s past against him and so, against me. However, mere rumor will not suffice you. Mr. Goodwin is already too easily recognized by the habitués of the dancehalls and rooftop restaurants of Manhattan for your imputations to be given credence. As well, those who might provide direct support for your tale are dead, are they not, Archie?”
“Yes, sir. Markham ‘fell’ into the Hudson last year, and drowned.” My voice was harsh, and I cleared my throat. “Poet Tommy died in the arms of the white cross out in Arizona, or so I heard. He was the last of them. All Markham’s other ‘bo friends, at least the ones I met when I rodded with Tommy, are gone. Hobo doesn’t make for a long life.”
“You see? I am afraid we have no other business, Mr. O’Hare. Allow me to wish you a good evening.”
The cold blue gaze slid from Wolfe to me, and back again. O’Hare obviously wanted to keep trying, but there was nothing left for him to use. He had pulled the trigger and his round had misfired. He got up, and I saw him to the front door. I was very careful to make sure it was locked behind him.
When I returned to the office, Fritz had been there and gone. Wolfe had a glass of beer from the keg in the kitchen - from Greenberg’s - and there was a glass of milk on my desk. I didn’t say anything. I picked up my glass and drank deep.
“Do you understand now, Archie, why I spurn your generosity?” The tone he had used with O’Hare had sounded gentle. This was the genuine article.
“Nuts. Life’s dangerous. I could get run over by an automobile tomorrow.” I snorted. “Or so you tell me, every time I set foot outside the front door.”
“I am responsible--”
“Like hell you are, sir. You only sign my paycheck, and I can, let me remind you, quit any time that I want to. What I do with my personal life is my own business, right?”
He examined me, lips pursed, and then his shoulders lifted about an eighth of an inch and fell again. “You are unaccountable.”
“So?” I finished the milk. “What do you care? If it makes me feel l--hell, what do you care?”
“Indeed.” He put a bookmark into his book, used both hands to lever his bulk up onto his feet, and then nodded at me. “I am going to bed. Goodnight, Archie.”
“As soon as I do the office chores, I’m hitting the sack myself.”
“I won’t bother with the alarm outside my bedroom, then.” He marched out of the office. I shook my head. What a piece of work is Nero Wolfe.
The next day I found that, in my hurry, I’d forgotten to empty the office trash.
My only uncertainty about the entire affair, all these years later, is: Did Saul call O’Hare that evening before he called to talk to Wolfe? I suppose I’ll never know.
Return to the archive