The man hesitates before he opens the bottom drawer of the desk and removes a bottle from it. He is unshaven, his tie is undone, and he is still wearing his fedora. With the care of one who has already had a drink too many, he pours himself three fingers of rye before corking the bottle and returning it to its drawer. Lifting the brimming shot-glass, he mockingly toasts the door in front of him and sips. From where he sits, the gilt letters painted on the frosted glass are reversed and obscured, but he doesn’t need to see them to know what they read: Archie Goodwin, Licensed Private Investigator. His head tilts back and his eyes close as he takes a deep swig. It is why he does not see the looming bulk that blots out the light through the glass of the door to his office.
The knock catches him by surprise. He stares blankly at the door for a moment before setting down his glass. Taking off his hat, he throws it towards the hat stand. When it misses, he blearily considers retrieving it until a second knock causes him to say, too loudly, “Come in.”
The door opens. Nero Wolfe stands in the corridor, a large cardboard box wrapped in brown paper and string cradled in his arms. Archie Goodwin blinks uncertainly for a moment before plastering a scowl onto his own face. His voice, when he speaks, is cool. “Oh. Hello.”
Without waiting for an invitation, Wolfe enters the office. “When I telephoned your apartment the maid said that you had gone to your office, on a Sunday.” He frees one hand to shut the door behind him.
“Yeah.” There is a silence, of the kind that stretches. Finally, as if the words are forced out of him, Archie adds, “Try that chair.” His nod indicates a leather armchair of larger than normal proportions and padding.
“Thank you.” Wolfe walks over to Archie’s desk, puts the box down on an empty corner and checks to make sure that it is settled securely before he goes and sits. The chair is a comfortable fit.
“Would you like a drink?” Archie picks up the shot-glass and takes another sip.
“No.” Wolfe says nothing else. He sits in silence, eyes narrowed. After a pause, he pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
It dawns on Archie that Nero Wolfe, of all people, is at a loss for words. He smirks. The expression is unpleasant. “So, you dropped by for a little high-society gossip?”
“I did not.” Wolfe draws himself up. “From what I am given to understand, there has been a great deal too much prattle about your domestic life recently.”
“I see. You had Lon Cohen over for dinner.” Archie snorts. “A lot of the stories are exaggerated.”
“It was my hope that all of the stories were fabulations, not exaggerations.” Wolfe hesitates, and then adds, “I understand that I no longer have the right to meddle, but you are not speaking of your difficulties to anyone, not even to Saul.”
“Chalk it up to pride.” Archie’s tone is as flat as gun metal.
“Comprehensible and even admirable. However, on Friday I received a telephone call from Del Bascom. Your wife attempted to engage his agency’s services in order to ascertain if evidence can be obtained of your infidelity. And yet, it is a matter of public commentary and some amazement that you have not removed your head from the yoke since you have been wed. Is she mad?”
Archie shakes his head. “I suppose it was too much to expect, for Del not to call you after he called me. No, she’s crazy like a fox. I’m being reminded of what my options are, is all.” He opens the bottom drawer, pulls out the bottle of rye, and contemplates the level of the amber liquid. “That’s what I’m doing here on a Sunday afternoon. Contemplating my options.” He replaces the bottle and closes the drawer. “Not, as you said, that it’s any concern of yours. Not any more. Not after our wedding reception.” The spark of anger he has been nursing all afternoon flares.
Wolfe’s gaze slides away from Archie’s.
“Anyhow, I doubt you’ve done a lick of work since I left. You haven’t really needed to for years, not with what you have stowed away in the safe deposit box. It was probably a relief to get rid of me, so you could finally get some rest.” Archie’s voice is almost sneering, but his eyes do not meet Wolfe’s. “No wonder you’ve lost touch. You must be the last person in town to hear about what’s been going on.”
“I find it inexplicable that you should tolerate such behavior, but I have found this entire affair inexplicable since its beginnings. If she wishes her freedom, why does she not divorce you?” Wolfe’s voice is a rumble at the bottom of his register.
“What makes you think she wants to be free? I married a brilliant woman. She knows there are advantages to this set-up.” Archie props his feet up on the desk and shrugs. “Why should she bother to walk out on me? Sure, she’s been stepping out, but, as she views the situation, I started it. So, I can choose whether I want to keep stepping out myself or start walking.” He reaches for the shot glass, and disposes of its contents in two hard swallows. It fuels the spark smoldering in his gut. “But, enough about me. What are you doing here? What’s in the package?” He still refuses to meet Wolfe’s gaze.
Wolfe heaves himself back up and goes over to undo the string and open the lid of the box that he set down on the desk. Carefully, he reaches inside and removes its contents: a large orchid. It is a glorious plant, robust with health, bearing three delicate yellow blooms. Archie knows it well, for it is unique and he spent a great deal of time following its genesis and fortunes in the hybridization records. He told his bride its name at the wedding reception, Miltonia Nero Wolfe. She laughed. Now, when he sees it, his lips part slightly. He takes his feet down off the desk. “But…she told me it was dead. She said the maid knocked it off its plinth and threw away what was left, and by the time it was found it was past recovering. She fired the maid before I got back.” He stares at the orchid. “I had to apologize for how mad it made me.” He feels something inside him burst into flames: anger, hot and bright.
“It was delivered to the brownstone by a messenger service forty-seven days after your wedding, with your name on the shipping slip.” Wolfe is delicately inspecting the plant to make sure it has taken no damage from a taxi ride in a cardboard box. “I had assumed that you returned it because of what happened at the wedding reception. However, after hearing the anecdotes about your wife’s follies, I thought you might wish it back, perhaps for your office.”
Archie stares at Wolfe and feels his stomach twist. The bile rises into his throat in a searing, acid wash as the rage in him searches for a release. His eyes, when he raises them to meet Wolfe’s own, are terrible.
“Take it the fuck away. I don’t want it.” He rises to his feet, the blood pounding in his ears. He vaguely senses that his face is flushing. “I don’t want it. Why would I want it? Why would I want anything from you, ever again?” He is around the desk and his hands are on Wolfe’s shoulders, gripping him bruisingly, shaking him as if Wolfe weighed no more than a jockey. “You touched me, god damn you. Right there at the reception, when anyone could have walked in on us, you put your dirty faggot lips on me and kissed me, fondled me, took my--”
The blow is as hard as it is unexpected. It takes him across the face and knocks loose his grip on Wolfe’s shoulders. He reels, catches himself against the edge of the desk, and then lifts one shaking hand to touch his mouth. The fingertips come away bright with blood. Unthinking, he turns and shows the fingers to Wolfe, who stands, chest heaving, arm cocked back, as if for another blow. Their eyes meet. Wolfe brings his own hand down to cover his mouth and Archie steps forward, reaching out to do he knows not what. Wolfe suddenly grabs Archie’s arm, pulls him close, and kisses him, roughly.
The kiss is answered. Their lips meet so fiercely that their teeth click together and, when they pull apart, both their mouths are stained with red. Wolfe step back, chest heaving, and his tongue darts out to taste his lips. He shudders. His eyes close. He cannot be said to cringe, but there is rigidity in his posture that hints he is forcing himself not to flee. “Archie. I struck you. I…ventured to take liberties. Again. I am sorry.”
Archie takes a deep breath and lets it out, takes another one in and speaks. “Forget it. I worked hard to earn that, so you can have the one punch for free. No more, though, not ever.” Archie feels the side of his face, and then waggles his jaw back and forth. “I’m glad you don’t wear a ring. Even so, it’s going to be a goddamned gaudy bruise.”
Before he can catch himself, Wolfe opens his eyes and scowls. “As you well know, profanity is a symptom of an inadequate vocabulary.”
Archie looks at him incredulously, and then laughs. He laughs so hard that he has to support himself on the desk again and it is impossible to tell just when the laughter turns so harsh it borders on sobs. Wolfe hesitates. When he sees the glint, he hesitates no longer but pulls Archie back into his arms. Archie suffers himself to be gathered in, but pounds Wolfe, once, hard on the back. “Damn it, damn it, why didn’t you tell me how you felt at the reception instead of doing what you did? Some genius you are, you fat son of a bitch.”
He pushes himself away, and pulls out the handkerchief from his breast pocket. As he wipes his face, Wolfe backs slowly away and sits down in the armchair. Then Wolfe stirs, works his shoulders, and settles back again.
Archie dumps his handkerchief into the waste paper basket. His voice is still thick when he says, “Yes, I want the orchid back.” He leans on the edge of his desk and reaches out to touch one bloom with weary gentleness. He feels as if a sharp blow would reduce him to ashes.
“It is yours, of course. It has been since I gave it to you.”
“Yeah, no joke. You gave me everything and I never once asked why. So, call me stupid.”
“You should not castigate yourself. You gave a great deal to me, as well, down through our years together.”
“I hate the sound of that. It’s like dirt falling onto the lid of a coffin. I don’t want it to be over. I want my job back. I want my home back. I want you back, more than anything, even though I don’t know why. I’m no pansy, crying for Daddy.” Archie closes his eyes and massages his forehead with one hand. “At least, I don’t think I am.”
Wolfe frowns. “What do you mean? I have seen no perversity in you and surely I would have noticed, given my own, now evident, inclinations.”
“Don’t worry, you’re not going blind. There was nothing to be seen before the wedding, if I don’t count kid stuff. Although maybe I should.” A silence falls. Archie says, without opening his eyes, “I think, if you chuckle, I’ll be the one who swings this time.”
Wolfe grunts, but says nothing.
After another pause, Archie continues. “That night? After the - mess - at the wedding reception? I said your name.” Archie looks up in time to catch Wolfe’s eyes narrowing slightly. “That’s right, just when you’re thinking of, at the worst possible moment in the sack. I told you she was smart. She had to pry me loose from you, so she knew I wasn’t reciting your address.” He snorts. “And some address it would have to have been, for me to use that tone of voice. Anyhow, she has her pride and I bruised it, bad. She’s been bruising me back ever since.”
Wolfe’s lips quirk at the corners, although his eyes are dark. “That wasn’t what I intended, Archie. What happened after your wedding was a mishap.”
“I’ve known you long enough to understand that.” Archie gingerly touches his lip again, checking to make sure that the bleeding has stopped. “You were saying goodbye and got carried away by your romantic nature, right?” His tone is not entirely sarcastic. “You mentioned once that it almost got you killed a few times when you were young.”
“Yes, including an occasion when I was waylaid by several thugs in an alley, led by one I had considered my friend. It is both humiliating and dangerous to be beaten by a man that one has approached in true affection. I found it better to refrain from such risk-laden ventures, after that. This is the result. My strategy was obviously flawed.” Wolfe inspects his knuckles and the corners of his lips droop slightly downwards.
Archie raises one eyebrow. “You did pretty good, considering, but I’m not surprised you snapped. You’re no eunuch, no matter what you think.” He looks at the bottom drawer of his desk and decides against opening it again. “We can’t go back, you know.”
“No. Having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge we are cast out from our Eden.” Wolfe sighs, heavily.
“Yeah.” Archie pauses, thinks. “So, the only way left is forward.” He nods to himself, once, and asks, “Well?”
“I dislike nebulous questions, Archie.”
“Are you going to invite me over for dinner, or not?” His mouth twitches. “Something soft, that will sop up the drink.”
Once again, silence reigns. Wolfe tilts his head. His lips pull in and push out, and then he asks, voice grave, “Mr. Goodwin, would you care to dine with me this evening?”
“My pleasure, Mr. Wolfe. Feel free to invite me out for dancing afterwards, although you’ll have to hold off on trying for anything else. I’m a respectable, married man, you know.” The tone is bitterly ironic, but the grin is real. “At least, I am until the divorce goes through. Forward into the wilderness, Mr. Wolfe.”
“Indeed, Mr. Goodwin.”
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