Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour.
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen's eye:
I am sick; I must die.
Thomas Nashe, Summer's Last Will and Testament
He walks the blue sky above the mountain peaks. The sun throws his shadow behind him, long and black across cloud-tops that roil as they build bright, white towers with the afternoon’s heat. At first, all he hears are the whispers and sighs of the wind as it plucks at his clothing; absently, he buttons his suit jacket and tucks his tie into the top of his vest to keep the breeze from turning them into banners. Then he hears the faint scream of a stooping hawk. He watches it dive. Like a thunderbolt it falls, and then mounts, wings beating, carrying some creature that fled the horseman galloping along the trail far below.
The urgency in the rider’s speed across the steep mountainside attracts his attention. The tiny figure is more vivid than all the slopes of grey, fractured talus, all the clumps of aspens shedding gold-coin leaves, all the shattered-glass-glittering streams pouring down the bottoms of ravines. Something in the moving speck of red-gold and brown draws him. He lets himself fall to Earth.
When the word reached me, I was packing into the Montana backcountry. It isn’t the same as it was back before every other junior vice president decided to fancy himself a mountain man, but if you try, you can still find some space. This was the first time I had made the effort in recent years. I used to trek with Lily, and it isn’t the same without her. Still, I had finally gotten it through my thick skull that it didn’t do her any good to give up everything that was ours together. It should have been obvious, I suppose, but, then, I’m no Nero Wolfe.
I never thought I’d be grateful for cell phones. I refuse to carry the things, but the BLM rangers at Lone Pine station have no such privilege. One of them had ridden up Fool’s Creek to bring me the news: a perk of celebrity, I guess. I liked to think of myself as being alone, but every ranch hand and line worker between Idaho and the east face probably knew exactly where I was.
The trip to the trailhead took me an hour less than it should have. I knew it wouldn’t help Wolfe if I broke my leg along the way, but it didn’t seem to matter. Pete Hoskins met me with a pick-up truck from the ranch, and took my horse. Poor Confound-it: I hope he was given a good rub-down and some mash after that wild ride. I wasn’t there to double-check on it.
In the middle of the week, the red-eye from Billings to New York often takes off half-empty, which was fine by me, since I wasn’t in the mood for company. My upgrade to first class had left me alone in my row, and I put my seat back and turned my head to the window. Not that I could sleep, but it kept me from having to talk to other passengers, and it warned off the stewardess, a lithesome brunette who eyed me with interest when she brought me my bourbon and branch before take-off. I clicked off the light and tried to think, but I couldn’t make anything out of the traffic-jam in my head. So, for two hundred miles, I stared out the window at the faint glint of water below us where the moonlight reflected off the rivers and lakes of the Great Plains. Still telling myself that I’d never get to sleep, I dozed off. I dreamed of Wolfe, of course.
Archie scowls at him. Three quarters of a century has barely altered that look: it holds all the unspoken exasperation a seventeen-year-old feels with authority, diluted only by a tincture of familiar warmth. Three quarters of a century has hardly changed Archie’s appearance. No white lightens the red-blond of Archie’s hair, and no wrinkles devour Archie’s skin. The body is still hale and graceful with youth. That is his work, and he is proud of it. He is not proud of the eyes, shadowed by pain, and the chin, carried as if defying a blow. That, too, is his work.
The chin tilts, and Archie’s eyebrows rise as he surveys how rebellious hands refuse obedience and insist on curling tight around the arms of the tormenting airplane seat.
“I’m tired just watching you. Are you going to hold the plane up all the way to New York?”
“Don’t be obtuse. You know how much I dislike these machines.” Unjust: unfair to blame that which is not to blame, unfair to ask Archie to understand that which he does not understand himself.
He knows neither the germ nor the rootstock of his power, but only what it can do. As the plane cleaves the sky, he knows he can reach out and re-mold the landscape above which it flies to accord with his desires. It is his faculty to choose, from amongst all the probabilities that chance and choice cultivate, the one current moment that he wishes to be real. It is a tantalizing knowledge, a temptation that twists his innards with fear. Travel makes it harder to resist his desires, as the extra nows that machines make possible pour temptingly through his hands, his to sort and cultivate as he will. Each time he journeys, he is burdened by the apprehension that he will rend the world asunder to satisfy a whim. A therapist would tell him that he is suffering from a panic disorder arising from a megalomaniacal feeling of power, a neat explanation save for its one flaw. Experience has taught him that the feeling of power is not megalomaniac, but justified.
Archie has turned his attention back to the window. “We’re passing over the Appalachians. Not much longer now. Save some energy for fending off boarders from the taxi.”
“Not necessary. I will not be riding with you.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“…Sir?” Someone was shaking my shoulder. It was the dark-haired stewardess. “We’re half an hour outside of JFK. I’ve brought you your coffees.”
I’m never bright when I’ve just woken up, but I caught the plural. “Coffees?”
“For you and the other gentleman.” She looked bemused. “He’s not in the washroom, I hope. The seatbelt light is on.”
I have a limited amount of mental space available for brooding and it was already in use, so I dismissed her mistake as so much jet lag, and didn’t worry about whether it was mine or hers.
The taxi I caught at the terminal had the only quiet driver in the tri-state area. He made up for his handicap by playing African techno-reggae the entire trip, but you have to take your good luck as it comes. As we headed for Manhattan, I surveyed the early morning outside the cab window without favor. Yesterday I had watched the bald eagles over the Montana peaks and I thought I was free. Today, I watched the commuters boxed into their cars on the parkway, and I knew I was free. It wasn’t an improvement.
They say that you never really understand your own mortality until a parent dies. I wouldn’t know: my father and mother died when I was still young, and it didn’t teach me anything. It would take the death of someone else, someone more like a parent, to let me check if the old saw was true, and I had been spared that, so far. Wolfe’s death wouldn’t—didn’t—count for a number of reasons, one of which my mind flinched away from. Fritz’s death just might do the trick, but I had no intention of finding out for sure. When I caught sight of him in the hospital waiting room, sitting in an ugly plastic bowl chair with his head bandaged, for the first time since I’d known him he looked like someone his real age. I knew he needed taking care of, and that was both my job and my trust.
He saw me, and stood. “Archie.” His accent had thickened, too.
There are times when it’s stupid to worry about when you were really born. Like any contemporary man would, I went and wrapped my arms around him. He let himself lean against me for a few seconds, and then darned if I didn’t realize he was patting my shoulder. I pulled away. “How are you doing?”
His gesture was a masterpiece of disdain. “This place. How could they bring him here? It is appalling.”
“So, then, why are you here? Couldn’t Ms. Parker take care of—business—for you? You should be resting.”
“Have you not—ah, of course not. I called for you before it happened.” He gripped my forearm with both hands, and his voice was gentle. “Archie, they can not find him.”
His hostages to fortune stand together, vulnerable and embattled in their two fragile bodies. His hands twitch as he sorts the seeds of chance that would bloom into happier nows for them. He can sense the alternate realities waiting to exist: both of them, sitting in the kitchen of the brownstone, happily arguing how best to cook eggs; one bringing the other a glass of milk; one bringing the other a bag of fennel, fresh from the market; one showing the other, with face drained white, a bold newspaper headline that screams “Plague”. Sensing a sudden danger in his outward searching he laces his fingers together to still them as he listens.
“Can’t find - you don’t just lose - ” Archie pauses. “On the other hand, this is New York City. Okay, you do just lose bodies. But I’d never thought it would happen to Nero Wolfe.” His lips twitch slightly in a bitter shadow of his usual grin. “They’ll never hear the end of it in the tabloids.”
Fritz shrugs magnificent indifference. “Yes, it is no more than one would expect, in these days. However, it was not a bureaucratic error, Archie. There were a number of medical persons in the ambulance, when--” Fritz spreads the fingers of both hands wide. “--poof. And the poor attendants were shot dead, as well.”
Archie considers this. “He couldn’t have gotten up and walked away? He really was dead?”
“Oh, yes, it must have been so.” Fritz’s tone is gentle, but somehow hints at desolation. “There was little left of the chest. I think they were continuing to try only because they do not like to give up.”
“Yeah, they might get sued if they gave up too fast.” Archie seems to regret this statement. The anger, whomever it may be truly directed at, is too close to the surface of his words. He stretches, and then looks up at the ceiling, rubbing his neck, obviously searching for some inspiration. Finding none there, he turns back to Fritz. “I’ve been traveling for the last day or so, and I’m bushed. I can’t think. Are you okay? Is there anything else to be done here, right now?”
Fritz seems to be relieved to step back into his accustomed role. “No, Archie. Let us go home, and I will make you a proper breakfast.”
Archie puts an arm around Fritz’s shoulders, and steers him towards the door. “That’d be swell. Given what I’ve learned about hospital cuisine over the years, I’d bet you haven’t eaten, either. You know what he would say about that.”
He follows them as they go.
All that caution, all those years, and a sawed-off shotgun got him in the end. Whoever it was clubbed down Fritz when he opened the front door and pumped two rounds into Wolfe when he went out to see what the ruckus was all about. The murderer had been playing delivery boy, I expect, and I meant to track him down and have a few quiet words with him. But now all that would have to wait. Nero the Great, Master of Mystic Genius had decided to pull one last trick after the show was over, and I needed to loiter in the audience until I found out what was up his big, yellow sleeve. Even from beyond the grave, he had to be annoying.
The press were still swarming pretty thick around the brownstone, and there were yellow plastic strings of police tape strung everywhere out front, so we went in by the rear door to the yard, and up into the kitchen. Fritz showed no inclination to go out into the hall, and I admit I was stalling off that trip myself. Shotguns are not neat, and collecting evidence does not include cleaning up, as far as the cops are concerned.
I looked at the kitchen, and it was as if I had never seen it before. All of it was the same but it seemed strange, as if someone had sneaked the contents of a familiar photograph into my real house. I wanted nothing more than to put my head down on the kitchen table to see if my world, when I lifted it up again, had gone back to normal.
I needed breakfast.
Fritz obliged with Eggs au Beurre Noir and sausage from a guy in Wisconsin who knows how to do it right. As he poured my orange juice, he said, “It is like that other time, the time with that dreadful man, when he left. I wish he would say something when he is about to do these things.”
I paused with the glass half raised to my mouth. “He left us notes, back then.” I set the glass down. “Did you look?”
He could have pointed out to me that he had been knocked out cold, and since then, been at the hospital. But he was Fritz. “No.” His eyes held an excited gleam.
“Wait here,” I said, and went to the office. It was a good thing I had remembered to pin Fritz down. The hall was a mess. I might have had problems myself if I hadn't been in such a hurry to get to my desk. Sure enough, there on my blotter, was an envelope addressed in the familiar handwriting. The room seemed to shift for a moment, and I swore. The damned overweight excuse for a dime-store Buddha. If he had been here right now, my resignation couldn’t have come out of my mouth fast enough to suit me. I ignored how my hands shook as I slit open the envelope and read:
I do not comprehend my exact circumstances.
Beware of Mr. Harrison R. Greene of this city.
You know you have my entire confidence…
He changed the world to leave them word; some temptations no mortal should resist. Others must be resisted. He is not a god; in the exercise of his power, he is not even a genius. He cannot trace all the results of his cross-pollinations into the future. The possibilities of the future are too varied, the forces that shape the growth of the present too cryptic.
He still remembers his horror when his own growth, the blow to his head, the unspeakable insanity upon insanity of the Great War, some factor he doesn’t understand, unearthed the buried talent. He had meant to alter nothing; he had only wanted to live. After the shell fell by the trench he crouched within, as the darkness closed in around the circle of concerned faces above him, his hands had spasmed, he had reached out and…changed the world. The results had not been what he would have wished for. Not at all. Who would wish to trade lying in one’s own gore, for standing covered in bloody bits that had, moments before, been three of ones’ few close friends?
It was not that he was a self-sacrificing man. Far from it: his years as a secret policeman for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire had honed a nature that he knew to be both self-centered and dangerous. But, as he had confessed before to ears both cynical and sympathetic, he was also a romantic man. He had traveled with great reluctance to that dark, still lake of power down deep within the center of his being. He had not wanted to pay the tolls along this road to his desires. He had barricaded the route downwards with all the defenses he could construct: the Epicureanism, the rationalism, the scientism, the atheism. It soothed his ego to consider how he had tamed monstrosity and might into eccentricity and intuition.
He had taken few chances. Yes, he had bound timelessness to the brownstone, telling himself that the less he was disturbed, the less he would have to resist. If it had also served to fend off entropy from those who had chosen to stay with him, how could he object? When he detected, he had listened to the murmurs that told him what human actions and natural chances had lead to a present moment, although he had ignored the whispers of how those presents could be changed. However, so often as he watched beauty had turned to dust, strength to rust, wit to bitterness, and he had done nothing. He would not bring down disaster, he told himself, trying to avert tragedy.
Even this last time, he had, with all his will, stilled his hands as he saw the barrel of the shotgun pivot so slowly towards him. Fritz lay sprawled on the floor in the hall, the bright, flowing blood showing that he still lived, and Archie rode, unknowing, in the high country of Montana. Who knew but that the now of his own safety grew from their flesh torn apart, shielding his own?
Flesh, though, has its own temptations. As he was thrown back with such force that all he could feel was roaring shock, he had reached out, involuntarily, far past where he had ever reached before, out toward where all that was twirled into strangeness…and changed the world.
I threw him the finger. A man has his limits, and I had reached mine. He always says that cursing should be reserved for when it is truly needed, and this was it. I didn’t know where he was, but I chose to believe he could see me, and I wanted to share.
It made me feel better, which was the point, I suppose, and so I went back to the kitchen to tell Fritz about the note. It was all he needed. He was humming as he went to the phone and summoned the emergency cleaning service to deal with what was now reduced in his mind to a disgusting mess in the hall. For my part, I went to call Cindy Lincoln at the Gazette. She was the smartest of their new city reporters and the best at keeping her mouth shut, and I didn’t want to waste my time providing gossip for the news room.
“Archie. I am so sorry, hon. Is there anything I can do?” Her dark, sweet alto was warm with sympathy.
“I’m asking for a favor, Cindy. You heard about what happened to Wolfe on the way to the hospital?”
“Yes, he was headed for the hospital and he disappeared. That poor ambulance crew. At least Mr. Wolfe was still alive--” Her voice grew a little more distant as her professional instincts came on-line.
That stopped me for a moment. It wasn’t the story Fritz had given me, and years in our household have made Fritz a stone-cold reliable witness. Something had changed.
“Sorry. I need information, if you have it, about a man named Harrison Greene.” I spelled it for her. There was a silence broken only by the faint sound of keys clicking.
“Got it. Say, Cowboy, are you going to use this in a way that would get little ol’ Cindy in trouble?”
“No, word of honor. I really only need a line on this character. That’s not to say if a boulder fell on his head I would mourn, but I’m not in the mood to lift any rocks today. I’m busy.”
“Busy with my future exclusive?”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
“All right, then,” she paused, “and I wish you luck finding him.” We both knew she didn’t mean Greene.
Greene turned out to be an urban nutcase. When I was young, they used to buttonhole you and explain how the Jews ran the world economy, or how F. D. R. was possessed by a demon. These days they favored black helicopters and gray aliens. Otherwise, they haven’t changed much. Greene was of the strain that starts out respectable and then goes gaga. He had been an actuary until two years ago, when his employers discovered how he spent his spare time sending out e-mails proposing that the insurance industry, after being taken over by extra-terrestrials during the great airship scare of the late 1800’s, sank the Titanic and blew up that building in Oklahoma City. Seemingly, the noise his behind made bouncing down fourteen flights of stairs to the exit was something special, and he had sued. He lost, but the papers had fun with the case when it came to trial during silly season. Usually Wolfe and I have nothing to do with his species, but, as I jotted down my notes, I had a sinking feeling that I knew how our paths had crossed with his. Records, unlike people, don’t lose track of dates, and insane people, unlike sane people, don’t reject bizarre facts out of hand because they’re bizarre.
I let Cindy condole me some more, and then hung up and sat frowning at Wolfe’s chair. I wished I could see him. I’d give odds he was around. Then I had a thought, one that struck me as a good idea even if I was deluding myself about The Ghost and Mr. Goodwin. After checking on Fritz, I went upstairs.
Many years ago, when Saul died down in the Keys, his neighbor shipped me some mementos and an envelope. The envelope contained a long letter about the kind of matters you want to wrap up with a close friend when you know you’re dying, but it had also held a second, smaller envelope. Saul had scrawled on the outside of it, in a shaky version of his usual handwriting: “Archie, you’ll know when to open this.” He was, as usual, right. Now was the time.
When I put Saul’s letter down, I gave in to the impulse I’d been stifling all morning and put my head down on my folded arms. I’d wondered why, when Saul would call and talk for hours, he wouldn’t let either Wolfe or I go to see him at the end. I hadn't known what Wolfe had told him, about his weird abilities, and I sure as hell hadn't known what he and Wolfe had shared, a long time before I knew either of them. Saul must have been afraid that the way he was going would make Wolfe slip, or that I would get upset and force Wolfe to cut loose. He was sharp, but he should have known better. It wasn’t what we wanted that would have mattered, but what he wanted.
My hands were trembling again. Maybe I should have been shaking at the thought of what Wolfe could have done, if he’d wanted to. I wasn’t, but not because I’m stupid. After all, although it takes some power to keep from aging, it takes a Grand Coulee’s worth of power to keep this nation of youth-worshipers from noticing that you aren’t aging. So, sure, Wolfe was a danger. But being a private detective is dangerous, too, and I’ve written before how I feel about that.
No, I was shaking because I was mad at myself. I don’t like making mistakes while I’m on the job, and I’d made a bad one. Oh, I didn’t mind that I’d screwed up my books, lying when I thought I was telling the truth about Wolfe: it had protected him from stupid strangers. But I was burned that I’d lied to myself as well, especially since I’d known, down deep, damn well how he’d felt about me. I suppose I hadn't wanted to admit that I couldn’t provide him with everything he needed.
“Archie, you are being absurd.”
Archie’s head jerks up from his folded arms. “Am I dreaming again?”
He wants to soothe Archie. It is something of a relief that he desires to do so using only his hands and not his powers. He lets himself grasp Archie’s shoulder in a gesture he would never dare if they were together in the waking world.
Somewhat to his surprise, Archie pats the hand. “Did you know Saul left me a letter?”
“No, but I am not surprised. He was a paragon at intuiting what might be needed in the future. He was a paragon all together.”
“Yeah, he was. And, almost, your lover.”
Now that the moment has finally arrived, he is unexpectedly calm. “Yes. Does the realization disturb you?”
“I have a right to an opinion?” Archie snorts. “No, I haven’t been out to lunch for the past thirty years, although right now I don’t blame you for thinking so. It shows good taste, at least on your part.”
He feels his cheeks pulling back a bit. “And, on Saul’s part?”
“Well, sir, I never noted Saul showing any symptoms of temporary insanity, but it can happen to the best--” Archie stops abruptly and shakes his head. “Great, you’re dead, or dying, and we’re sitting here playing "Hearts and Flowers". I sure hope I’m getting some rest while I’m talking to you. What’s with this Greene character?”
“I received a series of letters from him, while you were gone, detailing my extraterrestrial origins, and demanding that I immediately confess to our conspiracies in the national media.”
“Why didn’t you put Jamil on it?”
“Do you take me for a witling? You will find, among the affairs that you must settle, an account of hours worked by him, and bills from George and the Bonner Agency, as well. Until he appeared on the front stoop, Mr. Greene seemed to have vanished from the face of the Earth.”
Archie frowns, obviously thinking. He notices, with an odd pang, that he has been stroking Archie’s shoulder, and Archie has unconsciously leaned into his touch. He does not deceive himself that the movement indicates all that he would wish; it is only that, after so many years, the body comes to know where comfort and warmth may safely be sought. It is a victory, of sorts, if a bitter-sweet one.
Somehow I sensed that there wasn’t time to go over all the work that Jamil, George, and the Bonner operatives had done. They all knew their business. Instead, I had to think of something that they wouldn’t have tried, maybe because it crawled too far out on a limb. Then, I’d have to crawl out on that limb myself and hope it didn’t break under me.
Perhaps it’s because I’m an author myself that it occurred to me. Greene sure wasn’t working as an actuary these days, but he was somehow making a living if he had the resources to kidnap and hide a bull elephant like Wolfe. The man had a hell of an imagination, was a researcher, and could write. I pulled my bedroom phone to me and called my publisher.
It wasn’t the first person I spoke with who told me, or even the fifth. But I found someone who was willing to talk, someone who had grown tired of a job with an imprint specializing in conspiracy books and the occult, and was thinking of moving on to a more respectable genre, like pornography. Greene, under three different nom-de-plumes, was one of their best-selling authors. I jotted down the names, said thanks, and hung up.
Next I called in favors. When it comes to personal information, it’s easier to attack than defend, even if the defender is careful, computer-literate, and paranoid. There is always a person out there a little bit better than you are. I know a person who knows that person, and he found Greene’s address for me, up in the Berkshires. Greene had the title of his land under one of his pseudonyms, as I had suspected.
I would have liked to have called in the police or the troopers, but I had no way to explain where my information had come from, and the cops in that part of the state didn’t know me. I tried calling Jamil and George, either of whom would have taken it on faith, but neither was in. It would be ironic if they were still out somewhere trying to track down Greene. I didn’t have time to savor the irony. Somewhere inside my skull a clock was ticking. I got out my Worthington 10mm autoloader - it wasn’t an occasion for subtlety - and headed for the garage where our cars were kept.
At last, near the end, the fear has left him and he is once again free to enjoy the pleasures of travel. Even the ring cities are more attractive when they are not silently demanding to the edge of his endurance that he rescue them from their ugliness by changing what is. Once they reach the open countryside, the drive grows more attractive still. It is the last full glory of autumn, and the leaves banner defiance against the approaching winter, all in flaming reds and golds. The voices whispering of change are faint, little more than a counterpoint to the breeze stirring the trees. Above them, the sky, although not the intense blue of Montana, is clear and bright, and the clouds scudding overhead are as brilliant as those he remembers. All in all, the day is beautiful, but it serves him only as a backdrop to the man who drives the automobile.
Archie seems to sense his presence. From time to time his eyes flick to the rear-view mirror, as if expecting to see a familiar passenger in the seat behind him. As the miles roll away beneath the tires, the shoulders in front of him gradually relax, and comfort seems to enfold the car. Archie must believe he is in good time. He undoubtedly plans a rescue, and a triumphal return to the accompaniment of sarcastic commentary. Given this extended trip to refine his verbal composition, his commentary might even have verged upon wit. It is a pity that Archie is not making the drive for the reason that he believes.
It was a horrible arrival. During the drive, I felt like I was sinking into some sort of trance, in which Wolfe was with me, the world was full of pretty colors, and everything would always be all right. It was a wonder I hadn't fallen asleep behind the wheel and met a gorgeous semi-truck head on. Maybe Wolfe had loaded the dice for me. But, in any case, the ruts on the dirt road leading to Greene’s place jarred me fully awake. I felt like someone had poured sand in my eyes, and then, to top off the joke, had hidden the rest of it in my clothes. I parked the Heron in a clearing before the mailbox that marked Greene’s driveway. Getting back in there did a number on the suspension, but I didn’t want Greene returning, if he was out, to find the Heron sitting in front of his house.
After locking the car, and checking that I still had my gun, I went the rest of the way on foot. I’m not a woodsman, but I’m also not a fool. I stuck to the edge of the driveway and moved slowly, letting my ears work for me. His house was about a quarter of a mile from his nearest neighbor, up a serious slope. Par for the course in those woods.
If I had expected something nice in the way of domestic architecture, I had been fooling myself. Squatting in a clearing in the midst of all those maples and birches decked out in fall colors, the cinderblock house looked like a pig at the prom. There was no car out front, and, after circling the house just within the protection of the woods, I decided there was no car out back, either. It would be stupid to try to sneak, so I didn’t. I walked quickly up to the front door, slid to one side, and peered in a window. No one. No one but Wolfe, that is. Pulling my gun, I went in.
It was pretty stark inside: just a desk with a typewriter on it, a chair, a coffee-table, some bookcases, and an open kitchenette, none of it very clean. The bed was unmade and had several wooden crates stacked on it. Going by what was wired together and scattered across the sheets, the cases were full of explosives.
But even the science experiment on the bed couldn’t hold my attention. I’d found Wolfe, but only just. Greene, who was obviously something special in the way of a maniac, had set up his own little home I. C. U. But he must have stopped after lesson three of the correspondence course. It didn’t look very coherent. The I.V. stand was a tangle, and God only knew what was dripping down those plastic tubes into Wolfe. Not to mention the fact that, having a lot more faith in his talents as a doctor than I did, Greene had strapped the unconscious Wolfe to his cot. I looked around for the phone to call 911, and, of course, there wasn’t one.
Jesus, what a mess. When was I going to learn? I had forgotten to bring along a cell phone, and here was Wolfe, looking like amateur night down at Frankenstein’s lab. I went over and checked his throat. He had a pulse, but it was thready and—
“Kill me, Archie.” He knows the words sound in Archie’s mind, rather than his ears.
“What are you, nuts?”
“You have your gun with you. Kill me. It is much too dangerous for me to die at the whim of one who is insane enough to divert chance. If it is by your hand, I should be able to resist the impulse to meddle.”
Archie snorts. His face is so pale with fatigue that the red-gold stubble shines brightly against his skin. “Oh, yeah, as if you could ever resist meddling before. And if you screw up, you’ll probably turn me into a newt. No, sir, I’m getting you out of here.”
“Don’t be a dunce. You can’t,” he softens his tone, “because I am already dying. Only a sustained series of ridiculously low-probability events has kept my body alive until now.”
“Then you’d better keep right on coughing up the miracles, because I’m not killing you on account of some saucer nut.” As if to emphasize his point, he holsters the Worthington. “Quit ghosting around, climb back into your body, and let’s get going.”
“Archie, there are no such things as ghosts.”
Archie grits his teeth. “Stubborn doesn’t even begin to describe it. Stubborn is entirely insufficient. Maybe baboon comes a little closer, but--”
He has never pointed it out, but when Archie is very upset the Ohio cornfields can be heard in his voice. It is not a beautiful sound, but he listens to it with slow pleasure, as if to music. His thoughts are thickening. His body calls to him. He can feel it tempting him with promises of resolution and rest. If only he believed it could provide what it offers, he would be inclined to accept.
“Hey, snap out of it.” So lovely. “Come on, talk to me.”
Panic and detective work do not mix. Greene must have parked his car some distance away, just like I had, and been walking through the woods, admiring the autumn foliage. I didn’t have the time to get my gun clear when I heard the front door open.
“Mr. Goodwin!” He had the nerve to sound pleased to see me. The shotgun in his hands wasn’t happy, though. It was pointed at Wolfe. “Would you mind obeying your conditioning by taking that gun and throwing it out through the doorway?” The voice wasn’t frightening, or even formidable, but had a whining note I’d somehow expected. It was too bad his body didn’t match the voice. He was six feet two and built like a quarterback. Only the bad haircut fit my mental image of him.
I thought about trying to bluff, or stall, but he was too spooked, and the space was too tight. At least he didn’t seem inclined to plug me right away. I took out my gun. “Conditioning?”
“Yes, of course, your programming. Out the door, please.”
I tossed, feeling almost sick as I heard the thud of the gun landing on the dirt of the driveway outside.
Greene shut the door and gave me a friendly smile. “He wouldn’t have kept you for so long without safeguards to protect himself, of course. It’s all right. I don’t blame you.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying not to make it sarcastic Few things I’ve done have been more of a strain.
“You’re welcome. One reason I’ve kept him alive, rather than dissecting him to provide the samples I need for biological analysis, is that I thought you might be drawn here by your conditioning to protect his existence, and I could use it to help you break free. You will assist me or I will kill him. The medical trials will eventually release you from your state of mental subjugation. Then you can provide me with additional details for my report.”
“You’re writing a book? About your notion that Wolfe is an alien?”
“I already have a contract with my publisher,” he said simply, and I made a mental note about another visit I had to make. He waved for me to stand over by the far wall with the shotgun, and stepped into the kitchenette. “He should be dead by now. They have amazing recuperative powers. What a series of advances it will spur in the biological sciences.”
“He’s dying.” It came out flatter than I meant it to.
“That only appears to be the case. He will regenerate soon enough.” He frowned, and opened a drawer. “Perhaps we had best help things along a little, though.” He took out a long-bladed knife, one used for boning roasts, if memory served me well.
“That won’t help, I promise. I’ve lived with him long enough to know.”
He shook his head, all full of sympathy. “An illusion, overlaid on top of your true memories. Given the number of times you have undoubtedly been abused down through the years, your repression must be formidable.” Coming back into the living room, he leaned the shotgun against a wall and hefted the knife experimentally. “Germ samples, I suppose, and tissue operations, and anal probes, quite a lot of them. He’s had you since you were, what, seventeen? Underneath your conditioning, it will be pleasant for you to know you are revenged. I’m sure that, with all your years of service, you have picked up quite a lot of knowledge. I’ve read your books. By using your memory and clerical skills, we should be able to prepare accounts of all of their future plans for publication with very little time wasted.” He peered at me with great self-satisfaction. “I’ll sign over ten percent of the royalties, of course.”
Something inside me snapped. I said, my voice pitched low, “You’re wrong, but it doesn’t matter. I’d let Wolfe butt-fuck me a thousand times before I’d let you hand me a fortune once.”
Greene frowned and said, in that whining voice, “I suppose that, after repeated anal probes, the victim grows accustomed to, and even learns to enjoy, the procedure.” He should have shut up and paid attention, because I was moving.
Killing is a kind of dance, too. The entire room seemed alive, with blood whispering through it, as I went towards him, half-crouched. Wolfe told me once not to throw a knife at a man coming in fast and low, but no one had told Greene that. He let fly, probably intending to grab the shotgun, and I almost twisted out of the way. Almost, but not quite. But I was still moving and I got to him with my hands.
After a while I realized I was snarling and shaking a limp thing, and I threw it onto the bed. Then, dazed and trembling, I went and sank down onto the floor next to Wolfe’s cot, and said to his unconscious body, “All right, that’s it. If we get out of here alive, you are going to fix this stupid situation. I am damn well tired of being taken for your boy with nothing more to show for it than free bed and board. I can’t even persuade a saucer nut. I can’t even persuade myself.” Then I decided I was babbling, and tried to staunch the blood with some towels from the heap on the coffee-table. It didn’t hurt much, and I felt cold, which was bad. I had to get Wolfe out of this fun-house, so I had to get help. Maybe Greene had a cell-phone on him, or in his car.
I thought Greene was dead, and had ignored him after I tossed him onto the bed. That was a mistake. I should have remembered just how much of a mistake it could be, but I seemed to be thinking through a molasses-thick red fog. I hadn't even made it back up onto my feet when his science project blew, and hammered us through the cinderblocks.
He is rushing away, Archie clutched to him. In a moment, the currents of soft darkness will tear them apart. He sees Archie’s pale, blood-stained lips move to shape a word: hurry.
It is suddenly so clear to him. Time seems to slow, and then to crawl. Archie’s dimming eyes are languidly widening as they stare into his own. He knows now who he is, and what he is doing, and how long he must continue before he can rest. If he could, he would chuckle. Ego, always ego; it is good that Archie chooses to stay by his side.
The beckoning world-lines all around them extend not only outwards into probability and backwards into the past, but forwards into the branching futures, forming a pattern it seems he could read, if there was only the time. He does not have enough time, but he has all the time he needs. He stretches one hand out, taking care not to lose his grip on Archie with the other, searching. He will pluck out the knowledge, if not the power. He will grant Archie’s wish. This is the very seed, the shoot, the flower of the now that he desires. It is a risk. He will be vulnerable. Even so, he reaches out and…changes the world.
Martinez pulls his car up to the curb, fast, before someone else snags the rare empty space in front of the hamburger stand by the bay. He rolls down the window and calls out to the rangy figure sitting on a bike, dressed in cycling shorts, muscle shirt, and helmet, “Hola, Conrad.”
Conrad grins, and then bins his milkshake before he walks the bike over to the curb. “Hey, muchacho. How’s my grande-nosed Knight of the Streets today?”
“Well enough to stick your nonsense up where the sun doesn’t shine, hijo. What’s going on? Where’d you get the bike?”
The look on Conrad’s face can only be described as complacent. Martinez bites back a grin of his own.
“Birthday gift from His Largeness, man. He always pretends not to know it’s coming up, and then Humphry marches out the cake and the present shows up in the office.”
“Happy birthday.” Martinez’s own gift will be waiting when Conrad gets back to the Victorian on Nob Hill. “But what the hell are you going to do with a bike in this town?”
“Like, it’s a mountain bike. Good exercise. A little dangerous. Wonderful fun, all that riding up and down.” He flicks a suggestive glance under his eyelashes at Martinez, who snorts. The kid is appealing, he supposes, with the red-gold hair, muscles, and attitude, but Martinez moved him along to where he could do some good when they first met.
“So, why aren’t you out conquering the highways and by-ways, instead of wasting my time?”
“Just wanted to check in with you, here, where I could see your face. Nothing special on tap, for this evening?”
Martinez is amused. “No, not a thing.”
“That’s fine. We’re not running any operations, so I took the day off from my classes at the university to do a little shopping. Then something occurred to me. Although I don’t have to worry about any calls from home interrupting,” his expression holds the utter disdain for family of one who has been ejected for perversion by his relatives at sixteen, “he might take a notion to get you fine dudes in for dinner. I love you guys, to be sure, but it’s a special occasion and I don’t want you stepping on my plans.”
“What plans?” Martinez thinks he already knows, and this time he doesn’t bother to bottle up his amusement.
“Hey, remember? It’s my birthday, and I get anything I want.” Conrad’s grin is both sweet and wicked as his graceful hands lace together to mime some bright, winged creature falling to earth, like an eagle, like a thunderbolt. “I’m twenty-one today, and, whether he knows it or not, the Big Guy’s finally going down.”
Return to the archive