In the dark before moonrise, in the New Mexican night, two men fight. They lurch into the sharp embrace of a clump of dry mesquite, which cracks loudly under them as they stumble and fall, to roll together in the dust of the dry stream bed, grappling and hitting each other. At last, one, who wears a U.S. Army Sergeant’s uniform, gets a forearm around his opponent’s throat and rolls the other man beneath him. He locks his arm around his neck and tightens. His opponent makes a noise too strangled to be called choking. For just a moment, the Sergeant hesitates, and his opponent squirms frantically. Then the Sergeant tightens his grip, gains hold on the man’s chin with his other hand, shifts his knee, and twists. There is another sharp crack, but this new noise is not that of desert-dry wood fracturing. The clean desert air, still spiced with mesquite, now reeks with the final failure of a human body.
The Sergeant lurches to his feet and stands for a moment with his chest heaving. He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, once, then twice. His shoulders hunch as he seems to fight some battle with himself. At last he wins and speaks softly. “Nuts.” The word shakes slightly, and he says it again. “Nuts.” This time, it is firm. The Sergeant returns to the body, squats down, and reaches out towards the unbuttoned coat.
“The documents were in his jeep.” The deep, accented voice is pitched low, meant to carry to the Sergeant from the top of the arroyo bank and no farther.
The Sergeant stands and looks up into the dark. “That would have been nice to know an hour ago.” His tone is sarcastic but holds underlying notes of welcome and relief.
“You’d better get back to the bar. It’s busy enough on a Friday that I doubt they’ll have noticed you were gone. Leave the body. I’ll take care of it.”
“And, hello to you, too.” The Sergeant goes over to the steep side of the small arroyo and clambers up. He is deft and strong enough that, even with only starlight for illumination, he climbs most of the eight feet of dirt and rock without difficulties. But, as he comes up over the edge, the crumbling dirt slides out from underneath his feet and he flails for a moment before he catches hold of the large hand held out to him. He is hauled up, seemingly without effort, and pulled into the shadow of a tall clump of bunch grasses. Both men crouch in its shadow, to avoid being silhouetted above the lip of the arroyo by what little light there is.
There is no trace of his earlier tension when the Sergeant asks, “Do you think you can make it look like an accident?”
“Had he been drinking?”
“Yeah, or he wouldn’t have tried to shoot me with the safety still on.”
“That will help. Given the way he died, we’ll see if a driving accident will serve to explain his death. You should go back.”
The Sergeant shoots his companion a sideways glance. “Sure you won’t need any help lugging him off, dealing with his jeep?”
The fat man’s voice is weary, more so than his words would seem to justify. “There’s no time for fuss. I’ve been driving for months now, long enough to learn what I need to know.” He starts to rise.
The Sergeant reaches out and grabs his shoulder. “Let me help.” Both men pause, as if surprised. It is impossible to tell if they are startled by the words, the gesture, or both.
Recovering, the fat man says, “Yes, of course. It will go faster and speed is imp—we have to hurry.”
Without further discussion, they follow the course of the dry arroyo upstream until it shallows, then return back along its bed to retrieve the body. They carry their limp burden between them in silence until the Sergeant says, “It would be hilarious if it rained up in the Sandias right now. When the wall of water came down this arroyo you’d float, of course, but this corpse and I--”
“Fuck off,” the fat man says, half-absently.
The Sergeant almost misses a step. “Now, that’s good,” he retorts, his tone both admiring and full of laughter.
“Shut up, would you? This role is hard enough to stay in, as it is.”
“Hey, everyone knows Sergeant Arnie Waldrop is a smart-ass. If it’s time for us to scare up an acquaintanceship, and I guess it is, you’d better get used to that again, Mr. Hideg.”
“Huh,” his companion says dubiously, but he does not argue.
“You’ll have to give me a lift, anyhow. My ex-pal here, the warrant officer, did.”
An hour later, they drive through the desert night in Hideg’s truck, still silent. It is a comfortable silence, as if they have known each other long enough to be quiet with each other. Neither looks behind to where the rising moon illuminates a thread of smoke, curling into the night sky from the rubble that used to be a jeep and a man, scattered all in pieces across the bottom of a canyon.
Every now and then, I was asked why I didn’t write up more of the cases Nero Wolfe and I took, to fill the time between assignments from Army Intelligence during World War II. I always shrugged and said the Army kept us too busy to accept much outside work. My response was true, as far as it went, although not in any way I could discuss. Until recently, there was one story in particular that I wouldn’t have dared to relate. All my readers would have had to shoot themselves after flipping through the pages of my account, which would have been hell on my sales figures. However, a lot of what went on in the background has finally been declassified and certain customs have also changed, so I can finally redeem a promise to an old friend by telling this tale, even though the friend in question is no longer around to read the results. When I asked Wolfe what he thought, he was busy reading some book about string theory and only grunted at me, so he has no one to blame but himself if he doesn’t like what I write.
That particular Wednesday in the fall of 1944, Wolfe had me wavering between admiration and irritation. I was admiring because he had, once again, allowed himself to be transported to General Carpenter’s New York offices without a murmur of complaint, even though the interview would take place during the hours he should be up on the roof with the orchids. I was irritated because his attitude implied that the drive across Manhattan with me behind the wheel of his pre-war Huron sedan was the equivalent of a fifty mile hike with a full field pack, which I thought was laying it on darn thick.
In the end, admiration won out. Wolfe didn’t say a word even when we were trapped in the elevator with a WAC lieutenant wearing non-regulation perfume. He turned the doorknob to Carpenter’s offices all by himself, since I was now an officer and, by congressional fiat, a gentleman. Out of respect for my uniform, he had lately decided I should not be opening doors for him when strangers could see.
When we came in, a Sergeant got up from behind his typewriter and opened the General’s own door for us, so I wasn’t forced to watch Wolfe martyr himself twice. I followed Wolfe across the waiting room into the inner sanctum, and then almost stepped on his heels when he hesitated for a second upon recognizing Carpenter’s other visitor. The pause may only have been noticeable to me, since Wolfe kept moving.
Because of the company, I exchanged military courtesies with the General while Wolfe took off his hat and moored himself in the second biggest chair in the room. It was a little too tight for his stern but he didn’t grimace, which left him three for three in the good behavior tournament. I went and stood behind his chair.
“General Carpenter.” Wolfe bobbed his chin almost an eighth of an inch. He thought enough of our latest boss to acknowledge that he’d braved the horrors of motorized transport all the way from Washington D.C. to talk to us.
“Mr. Wolfe.” Carpenter had been working with Wolfe for months now, so he didn’t bother with much in the way of pleasantries. “You know Special Agent Stahl, I believe?”
“Yes.” Wolfe didn’t spice the word with any emotion, but he had to be feeling something at seeing Stahl hogging the best seat in the house. I gave Stahl a cheerful smile. Stahl looked officially stern and aloof, quite a switch from the officially friendly and reserved attitude he’d employed the first time we’d all met. It had been Stahl who had barged into the Brownstone, about seven years ago during the Balkan Princess affair, and all but accused Wolfe of being a spy. Wolfe had been so annoyed that he had lied to the G-man about his birth place from sheer pique, something I’d never heard before and never expect to hear again. When Stahl found out a few weeks later that he’d been taken, it had hurt his pride. To say no love was lost between the two men was pitching it way too soft.
“I’ve asked you to visit us today, instead of summoning Major Goodwin as I usually do, because we have an unusual request for you. Agent Stahl?” I wondered if Stahl noticed his special had just gotten lost somewhere.
Stahl flipped open a manila folder he had been cradling in his lap. He picked up the piece of paper on top of the pile inside and frowned at it. “I believe you speak Hungarian, Mr. Wolfe?” Somehow Stahl made it sound like an accusation.
“I do, although I may sound somewhat rusty to the native ear. I have not had a chance to refresh my colloquial vocabulary in the past eighteen years.” Wolfe’s face was still, but I could tell that, if he wasn’t so stubborn, he’d be frowning right back at Stahl.
Stahl ignored Wolfe’s answer. Instead, he pulled out a photograph from a few layers into his file, frowned at it, frowned at Wolfe, and shook his head, dubiously. General Carpenter watched this performance without comment. If I had been in civvies I would have had plenty to say, but I was trying to pretend I was a military man, so I distracted myself by wondering if Wolfe would be interrogating a foreign national and deciding on how I could keep the notes for the session.
Wolfe was still being patient and patriotic. He opened his eyes wide at Stahl, which made him look attentive, even though it really meant he was bored. Stahl beat him to the next punch. “You have been trained in surveying? The military analysis of terrain? You were taught advanced mathematics at your academy?”
“The answer to all of your questions, sir, is yes, with the same caveat of long disuse in each case. Major Goodwin is the practical mathematician, not I.”
Shaking his head, Stahl ignored Wolfe and looked over at Carpenter. “I still don’t like it. There are some dubious political contacts in his file--”
Carpenter cut him off. “Dubious compared to what, Mr. Stahl? Dependable agents with the experience and skills that we need, let alone the background, are thin on the ground right now, in case you hadn't noticed. I know the F. B. I. has domestic jurisdiction but it’s been agreed that a subtler approach is needed, in this case. General Groves--” He let it trail off, with an air of having made his point.
Stahl made a noise indicating that he wasn’t happy but knew he wouldn’t be allowed to share. Carpenter laced his fingers on his desk and said to Wolfe, “We want you to do some fieldwork for us, under wraps.”
I got my neck turned in time to see Wolfe’s reaction, a slight narrowing of the eyes. “I assume you have a reason to try and use a saw to drive a nail.”
Carpenter nodded curtly, opened the drawer to his desk, and took out a large photograph. When I moved to take it from him and give it to Wolfe, the general shot me a look I couldn’t quite read. I suppressed the urge to take a peek before I handed the photo over.
Wolfe examined the photograph. “I see. The resemblance is noticeable and could be improved upon. Who is he?”
“Rudi Hideg. He was a special type of surveyor, a civilian employee of the government, and also a double agent. Our double agent. He died two days ago.”
“How fortuitous.” Wolfe’s voice was quite dry.
“What do you mean by that?” For a moment, Stahl’s voice was unofficial.
“Nothing, Mr. Stahl, except that it seems Mr. Hideg’s untimely death is about to disrupt my living arrangements.”
“Correct,” Carpenter said. “We want you to take Hideg’s place, Wolfe. After some intensive briefing and retraining in surveying, we’ll move you to where you can build some background and take care of a particular task for us, before you start your primary assignment. Hideg was already about to be shifted, so it’s an ideal time to ease you into his place.” Carpenter smiled, although it didn’t reach his eyes. “Agent Stahl’s colleagues are satisfied that Mr. Hideg’s death was an accident.”
Wolfe grunted. He was keeping his opinion about that to himself and to me. “I’ll need to see the records of that investigation, of course.”
It was only his fine manners, something like those of a high-class insurance agent, which kept Stahl from clutching the manila folder tight to his chest.
Carpenter nodded. “You’ll get them. We’ll also have some friends in the press write up items about you while you’re gone, to cover your absence. Major Goodwin can help with that and I assume your man Fritz will, as well.”
I felt my grin try to stiffen and made myself relax. To tell the truth, I was still sore about the combat transfers I’d requested and hadn't gotten. The idea of being parked in Manhattan, while Wolfe was running around doing God knows what, stank.
Wolfe’s eyes flicked to me and away. “When will I leave?” He didn’t even ask if he had a choice. He’d become as monomaniacal about his intelligence work as he had been about trying to get into the army.
“As soon as possible, before Hideg’s absence is noted. Tomorrow would be best.”
“Very well. You have arranged for premises where the necessary alterations to my appearance can occur?” Wolfe had figured out the best way to annoy Stahl. He was ignoring the G-man, who was still giving him critical looks, as if he wasn’t sure that Wolfe could be trusted with a fire policy and a can of gasoline in the same room.
“We have.” Carpenter was curt.
Wolfe was curter. “Very well.”
It wasn’t very well. It wasn’t well at all, in my opinion. But it was war and the Army was fighting it. The next morning, for the first time ever, I was the one who sat in the office while Wolfe went out the front door of the brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street. I didn’t like that morning and I didn’t like the mornings that followed as I cleaned up the cases Wolfe had been working on before he went on his mission. It was two long weeks after Wolfe left before I got some sort of an explanation and my own marching orders. Stahl wasn’t part of the audience.
Rudi Hideg likes pool, and smoking, and drinking late into the night. The Albuquerque pool hall allows him to indulge in all three pursuits at once. He leans over the green felt of the table that Friday night, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his eyes narrowed in concentration over his cue. “Seven to the corner.”
The army sergeant, who Hideg has met in a bar and talked into playing a game with him, snorts. I’m not that green, Pops. Which corner are we referring to, here?”
Hideg taps the corner of the table to his left.
“Okay. It’s your dime.”
“You bet it is.” Hideg shoots, and smiles when the three-cushion shot deposits the ball exactly where he said it would.
“Fuck.” It is more amused than annoyed.
“Aaaand,” Hideg drawls the word out with evident pleasure, “eight to the side pocket. The right side pocket,” he adds piously. He sinks that shot as well, straightens, and rubs the small of his back.
“I guess that gut of yours doesn’t get nearly as much in the way as I thought it would.”
“Haven’t you heard? Never play pool with a man called Fats.”
“Well, call me hustled. Nah, call me Arnie Waldrop.”
“I am Rudi Hideg.” He sticks out a hand and they shake. “You want another game? Free, this time. These guys around here, they are no sort of challenge and they won’t play me anymore anyhow, the sissies.”
“Sure, what the hell. Rack ‘em up.”
An hour and a half later, the two men go out together for Chinese. They seem to have found more interests in common: hunting, politics, women. The evening they spend together is raucous and, when Waldrop returns to his motel, it is Hideg who gives him a ride.
I spent another two weeks learning how to act as if I’d lived in barracks, since I’d never been in barracks even before I got my new name. In the end, it wasn’t hard, being Arnie Waldrop. If I‘d headed for Chicago instead of Manhattan when I left Ohio, I might have actually become him. Sergeant Waldrop was a toughie and a sharpie, an ex-cop and former P.I. always willing to cut a deal if the money was right, a guy with some pride but nothing much in the way of ethics. He performed his role as an M. P. well and his routines as a shady character better than well. He got around.
I spent five months as Waldrop just outside of a new industrial complex along the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee, and in all that time I never saw a stage show, ate a decent meal, or set one foot onto a dance floor. I made over two thousand bucks and spent maybe a tenth of it in whore houses, the first time I’d patronized that kind of establishment in decades. Another slice of my payments I took in the form of more leave than I deserved. I had lots of buddies and no friends. I had the reward of a rocker to go with my stripes. I was lucky not to have the clap.
One night in a hotel room, sitting with a half-empty bottle of rye in front of me, chain-smoking cigarettes, I suddenly realized I missed Wolfe. It was a hell of a shock.
Over the next couple of weeks, I told myself I missed having a decent life and sophisticated company. All true, but my first revelation was the important one. Of the absent people, places, and things that had left gaps in my life, Wolfe had left the biggest, and not just because of his size. I’d never been away from him for more than two months since I’d turned eighteen. I’d never known, never wanted to know, how much I could miss him. That night, the bottle of rye was drained dry by the time I hit the sack: the fat bastard. That next morning, when I gazed into the mirror, all I saw were the red, watery eyes of Arnie Waldrop, fucked up and far from home.
It was a relief when I was transferred to New Mexico. Outside my train window, the scenery shifted from the eastern kind, where trees grow unless you cut them down, to the western kind, where trees won’t grow unless you water them. The ground cover got sparser and the sky seemed to get bigger. Inside the train, the poker game went on for hundreds of miles. My winnings included a Japanese skull, which I returned to the kid leatherneck who bid it. Maybe I should have kept it; he said it was going to be a gift to his girlfriend. Somewhere in the middle of Missouri, I went to the can and passed the report I’d assembled on the security weaknesses around Oak Ridge to a courier who got off the train in Kansas City.
It didn’t take me long to make new buddies in New Mexico. This time, I took even more of my payment in extra leave. I needed the free time to work my way into the underbelly of the city, down to where the draft dodgers and the black marketers had their lairs. Albuquerque was a small town back then, little more than two intersecting strips of motels, bean joints, and other traps for tourists along the highways that quartered the place, but the war had brought the same grubby prosperity to the southwest that it had brought to the rest of the nation, and the bars and dance halls stayed open late. I still couldn’t dance in public and I still danced in private, although the b-girls were as bored with me as the taxi dancers would have been.
There were always people around me. On the base, I couldn’t take a shower or a dump away from my fellow soldiers. In town, I was surrounded by losers, grifters, hard-working citizens in the wrong places, and all the small sharks that preyed on the late night shoals of fish. Even out in the desert, I didn’t seem to be able to turn around without finding some Indian standing there, thinking his own thoughts, contemplating me and my jeep. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to identify what the invisible waves of emotion were that I felt sleeting through me. Call me stupid for ignoring the obvious, but it had been decades since I had been lonely.
I was in a seedy bar called the Csa del Amgos - the other letters on the neon sign were burnt out - when I craned my neck to check the crowd and saw him. It was a hell of a shock, to spot Wolfe in those surroundings. I had to look twice to be sure that it was really him, sitting on a beleaguered barstool, swapping off-color jokes with the bartender. They’d made him a blond, for Christ’s sake, and he’d dropped weight again. It was on my second, seemingly casual, survey that I decided he hadn't lost any fat, he only looked smaller in the western shirt and denim work pants. The deep voice was the same but the accent and vocabulary sure weren’t. He had a birthmark, and a suntan. He didn’t seem to see me.
I went back to that bar several times. They’d ordered me to hold off before finding Wolfe, to make sure I was in the clear. So, I told myself I was returning because I needed a public place to meet one of my newest buddies, a warrant officer deeply rooted in the black market soil spread across northern New Mexico. The guy had relatives in every small town throughout the rio arriba, which made him think he was invulnerable. I didn’t trust him any farther than I could throw him. He had no sense of proportion. As an example, he was the kind of clown who would steal the construction plans for a top secret site, not to sell to the enemy but so he could find a way to smuggle twenty pound bags of sugar and T-bone steaks out of the Quonsets, and gasoline out of the motor pool, without getting caught. He was also the kind of clown who would try and shoot someone he’d gotten paranoid about, instead of asking questions first.
I was glad, that night in the desert, that Wolfe had seen me and had decided, for some reason of his own, to follow me. At least I was glad until we got back to town, wandered into the pool hall, and I received a second shock. It turned out Wolfe had been letting Marko win at billiards all those years, during the monthly games in the basement of the brownstone. I was reminded of the time he took up darts and cleaned me out of a week’s salary. He gave me a pain in the neck.
Something about the irritation made it harder than ever to be Arnie.
“Go to hell, Rudi.”
“What, and take all your lost money with me? It will be a long time before you find it there, given the mob I’m expecting.” Hideg makes a grandiose gesture, of the sort he is fond of, that encompasses the Saturday night crowd in the bar.
“Why do you think I’m going to spend any of my Sunday, the last precious day of my seventy-two hours of leave, with a bunch of rattlesnakes? If I want bad food and worse heat, I can go back to base, where at least there’s running water.”
“Look, the blue variety of the mineral is very pretty stuff and rock hounds will pay some money for it. No one else is collecting because of the gasoline rationing. The mines have been abandoned for years, decades, and no one cares if we take what we find. We can make a hundred bucks, or even two, for a day’s work, with no trouble and no hazard.”
“Work’s the key word here. I don’t like breaking into a sweat, especially from carrying a huge load of rocks half a mile underground, through the dark.” Waldrop has to raise his voice to be heard. The volume in the bar has picked up as part of the Saturday late shift from one of the local war plants filters in. A number of the workers are women, arriving in chattering, friendly clusters seeking a little fun or on their own, hunting for some extra cash.
One of the latter, a rangy welder with her auburn hair now styled like Veronica Lake, a woman who seems to have known long days and longer nights, crowds in next to Hideg on the worn leatherette bench. He throws an idle arm around her shoulder and she allows herself to be pulled up close against him.
Waldrop snorts. “You’re wasting your time, sister.”
She gives him an incredulous glance from under pencil-thin brows, before turning to Hideg. “Buy a girl a drink, Rudi? It was real hot on the floor today.” Her voice is a surprise, low and mellow.
“You bet, but Arnie is not kidding. We are heading out into the desert tomorrow to do some rock hunting, so I must be good.” He raises two fingers at the waitress hurrying past their table.
She smirks. “You, good? That’s a laugh and a half. C’mon, don’t be a spoil-sport.” She trails the nails of one carmine-tipped hand down his chest and back up again, but there is something practiced about the gesture that robs it of appeal. “I have a friend who wouldn’t mind meeting tall, dark, and handsome, here.”
“No, no,” Hideg waves an admonishing finger at her. “The competition is too stiff, even without Arnie’s pretty face around to be compared with this ugly mug.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You do okay for yourself, Rudi.” The smile she gives him is almost real. Her drink arrives in a cocktail glass with an olive floating in it, but Waldrop knows the glass holds nothing but colored water. He would not expect otherwise. He doesn’t know why he feels so irritated by the amateur b-girl, as she sips the fake drink and flirts with Hideg, her hand still making weary, tantalizing promises as it drifts across his body.
Waldrop manages to leave it alone for about ten minutes and three more fingers of scotch before he interrupts, abruptly. “Tell me more about these rocks.”
Hideg looks at him reproachfully. “I do not think that Dolores is interested in zinc compounds.”
“Yeah, well, I am.” He grins, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Sorry, Dolores. This table is taken for the evening.”
“You see how I am bullied?” Hideg asks the woman, sadly. “Perhaps I shall see you next Saturday, yes?”
She knows her cue when she hears it. Reluctantly, she gets up and moves on, although not before giving Waldrop a look that is both unfriendly and assessing. For some reason, Waldrop wants to protest her assessment, but he is not sure why.
After Hideg says his farewells, he turns back to Waldrop. “So, what do you say? Are we going hunting? I have the topographical maps back at my apartment.”
Waldrop grimaces. “Okay, Rudi. Okay.”
Wolfe never told me where he got to spend his own half year of joy, but I’m pretty sure some of the jobs he did were political. It’s the only solo time he had when he could have buddied up to Mr. Jones, fellow country-man and his paid escort into the U.S. communist party over the next few years. Dealing with those sorts must have made Wolfe happy even before they moved him out to work in the deserts of New Mexico, where he could eat corned beef out of a can and skip personal hygiene for days.
Looking back on it, although Wolfe never said anything, he must have realized what we were both safeguarding, each in our own way. I’m sure they gave him a list to memorize, like the one they gave to me, of “sensitive” items to watch out for. He’d always followed physics before the war, as closely as any inert genius could. The only time I’d ever seen him leave the brownstone just to meet someone who had nothing to do with orchids or cooking had been the night when he went to a dinner party to sit at the same table as Albert Einstein. He had to know the name of the show the eggheads were about to raise the curtain on.
Hell, why am I bothering to make excuses for him? Wolfe sure doesn’t need them. He’s too egotistical to want them. To make a long story short, he snapped.
But then, so did I.
Hideg’s apartment is simple, merely rented furniture wedged into rented rooms. It has a weary, slightly seedy air, as if the man who lives in it isn’t there often enough to notice much or doesn’t care about what he sees. When Waldrop follows Hideg inside, he hesitates and frowns before he closes the door behind them, as if he’s spotted something unexpected, something that displeases him. From the direction of his gaze, it may be the rug on the living room floor. In a state full of weavers who create cut-rate beauty for oblivious tourists, the rug is not only cheap but ugly, with clashing colors battling in a pointless modern design. Past residents seem to have used it as an ash tray.
Hideg pulls a bottle of scotch out of a cabinet in the kitchenette and pours a finger each into two water glasses. He hands one to Waldrop, who, almost absent-mindedly, drains it and sets the glass down on a coffee table already covered with ancient ring marks. As Hideg downs his own drink, Waldrop wanders around the small living room, frowning, opening drawers that try to stick, running fingers across dusty picture frames bordering murky landscape prints.
“You’re nervous as a cat this evening, my friend,” Hideg says, as he turns his glass upside down on the drain board next to the sink without washing it.
“This place needs to be cleaned.”
“I am a busy man. It is just a way station, a cheap apartment--” Hideg trails off and shrugs.
“I hate this,” Waldrop says, abruptly.
Something about the tone of his voice makes Hideg’s eyes narrow. His tone is less friendly, less indifferent, when he says, “You do not have to live here. Your life is all packed up in a foot locker or laid out across an army cot, open to any man’s inspection.”
“Neatly packed, nicely laid out. You should have some pride, Rudi.”
“I do not need pride. I have my work.”
“Yeah, I saw. She was a piece of work, all right. Does she give volume discounts?”
“Coming from you, that is amusing.” Now there is a note of warning in the words.
“I don’t need to be amusing. I have some pride.”
“Oh, that is the pride you employ when you visit your many, many women?” There is a sarcastic whine to Hideg’s voice now that might be unfamiliar to his colleagues, but that Waldrop knows very well indeed.
He turns and stalks towards Hideg, a familiar anger frothing through his veins, warming him. “Nice to know that you’re keeping track, although I have to wonder why. Given the spectator sport you were providing this evening, do you want to come along some time and kibitz?”
There is a silence that seems to stretch. Finally, “You’re drunk.”
“If I am, you are, too.”
Hideg snorts. “Stop attempting to provoke me.” The words, the tone, are both familiar, blurring the present and the past. Waldrop clenches his fists, and then deliberately opens them, his gaze locked with Hideg’s.
It hangs in the balance for a minute, until Hideg says, almost rashly, “I don’t want this. No.” He goes to the door and puts one hand on the knob. “Get out. Go soak your head until you are sober.”
Waldrop starts to leave, but then pauses. “You’re lying, you know.”
“I’m not lying.”
“If you’re going to throw me out and make it stick, don’t lie. You don’t want me to leave. You know damn well what you want. You’ve wanted it for ye--”
“Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up.” The words are Hideg’s, but the urgent, dark eyes are Nero Wolfe’s. He seizes Archie by the shoulder and wrenches him around, throws his other hand across Archie’s mouth to dam the spate of words. Archie knocks the hand over his mouth away.
“Get your fat paws--” Instead of yanking off the hand on his shoulder, Archie grabs it and squeezes so hard he feels the bones under the padding and muscle grind against each other. When Wolfe suddenly crowds him back into the door, it leaves Archie with one arm trapped against his own chest. Wolfe kisses him. The free arm that he cocks back to pound Wolfe’s kidney hesitates, then wraps around Wolfe’s back instead, fist knotting into the dust-stained fabric of Wolfe’s jacket.
There is nothing sweet about the kiss, nothing romantic. They grind their mouths against each other with lips wide open. Their tongues battle and plunge, the wet rawness of it as audible in the room as the sound of the door creaking, first from the double impact, then from the rhythmic pressure as their bodies work against each other. There is a taste to it of scotch and salt, and desperation.
Neither man speaks, not even to curse or to ask. As if responding to some inaudible signal, they move back into the living room still entangled, almost lurching into a floor lamp, ending up on the couch with its stained chintz, even then kissing with an almost vicious urgency. When Archie pushes back from the heavy, well-known body that he has straddled beneath him, it is only in order to undo his belt and fly. Then it is Wolfe who knocks Archie’s own hand away. The hands, the familiar hands, seize Archie instead and he exhales, sharply.
As Wolfe works him, Archie’s lips pull back from his teeth in nothing like a grin. His own hand, when he forces it between them and rubs it roughly over bulging fabric, is purposeful, direct. He undoes the heavy Levis and claims what he finds there as if it is something he wants and has discovered, willing, in the hands of others. Wolfe’s teeth grit and Archie leans down to kiss him, bite at him. Wolfe snarls in Archie’s ear, then once again captures Archie’s mouth. He tenses. He moves in Archie’s grasp and spends. Archie’s own peak almost takes him by surprise, but then he leans forward and grinds against Wolfe deliberately as he comes. Through the blood pounding in his ears, he hears the voice swearing as if it belongs to someone else, some guy he doesn’t know.
Afterwards, as he sprawls out across Wolfe, he tries to find something to say amidst the vast, white wastes of his mind. It isn’t there. Instead, he falls asleep.
What the hell happened? The answer was nothing. There was nothing that could have happened.
It was the middle of a war, after all, and both of us were doing jobs that we knew might make a difference in who would win and when. Under those circumstances, you don’t go to G-2 and say, “Excuse me, but I’ve suddenly turned into a fruit and swapped hand jobs with my hippo of a boss, the man I’ve lived with for fifteen years, the one who’s provided me with an entire second career describing what a fatheaded, egomaniacal, pain in the ass he can be. Would you please transfer me to combat duty, now?” That kind of thing just doesn’t happen and, when it does, the Army has some damn unsympathetic general regulations in place to take care of anyone dumb enough to admit to it.
We slept on that ugly couch together through the burnt-out remnants of the night. It was his stirring that woke me up. I rolled off of him and hit the carpet, which really woke me up, before I went to stick my head into the battered old refrigerator, even though the oven looked more attractive right then and there. Most of it was empty, but there was a fresh half-gallon bottle of milk on the top shelf. I quashed my first impulse and got a glass.
When we passed each other on the way to and from the bathroom, we both stopped. I don’t know what he saw on my face, and I couldn’t name to you what I saw in his eyes. After a few seconds, he grunted. Somewhere inside, I felt something relax. Without a word, he headed for the kitchen.
In the shower I realized I had bruises: what a surprise. I’d probably put a few dents in Wolfe’s hide, as well. I still wasn’t really thinking. I’m stubborn that way. I shaved, instead, and put my uniform shirt and trousers back on, even though they were--dirty. Somewhere out in the living room was my kit bag, but I wasn’t hunting around for it, just yet. Instead, I borrowed the toothbrush Wolfe had left out on the sink, which shows what kind of state we both were in.
I don’t know if Hideg was supposed to be able to cook or not, but Wolfe made me breakfast. It wasn’t much, but I don’t think he’s capable of botching scrambled eggs. It was the best meal I’d had in months, which exasperated me all over again. I set the fork down on my plate abruptly, caught his eye, and closed the mouth I’d opened. Our gazes met and the corners of his lips twisted, just barely visible, before his mouth stretched wide into Rudi Hideg’s smile.
“Are you prepared to brave the rattlesnakes, then, Arnie?” Hideg’s voice was cheerful when he asked me that but his eyes were not.
We left right after breakfast, early enough that we’d be done with the mine before nightfall. Somehow, Wolfe-as-Hideg had gotten his hands on a C sticker for his truck, so the tank was full. Even so, he’d put a jerry can that sloshed, full of black-market gasoline, into the back before we left. I knew we were in for a trip and I was right. We drove for hours. Luckily, it was close enough to winter that the heat wasn’t too brutal and we brought plenty of water along for the ride. The temperature dropped a little as we left the Rio Grande and climbed into the mountains.
Last night and the night before, Wolfe-as-Hideg drove. This morning, he’d let me take the wheel, which was easier on us both. We needed the vacation for our nerves. What had happened didn’t belong to Wolfe and Archie, but it didn’t belong to Hideg and Arnie, either. Somehow, each stepping between our two roles, we’d fallen into a gap.
It was funny, having Wolfe sitting on the front seat beside me. He looked like Hideg should, mostly relaxed and attentive, maybe a little shadowed from the dangerous stunt he’d pulled off with his new pal, but I could sense the tumult one layer down. He wanted to have a fit, and having it about being in an automobile would have suited him just fine. I admit, I would have enjoyed commenting on his reactions, but neither of us had our fun that morning, Instead, we drove in such silence as we could muster between us, in an old Ford truck with bad springs, along New Mexico state roads.
There wasn’t much left of the town that had surrounded the mine, back when they had still been taking silver out of the dusty, adobe-colored mountains. I spotted some crumbling walls, a small Catholic chapel the locals kept up, and part of the old mill and head frame, half-obscured by the stubby, dark-green piñon pines. We left the truck where it would be visible from the opening of the tunnel we were going into after Wolfe fooled around in the engine compartment and made it impossible for someone to drive off and leave us stranded. I was as impressed as hell but I didn’t let it show, of course.
Even hiking up to the mine, we kept our peace. Noise carries strangely in the mountains, through that clear, desert air. I could hear a steer arguing with a patch of prickly pear off somewhere out of eyeshot and I didn’t want any strangers getting an earful of me arguing with Wolfe in the same way.
We’d only gotten a few feet inside the mine when Wolfe gestured me over to one side, against a wall. After inspecting it for obnoxious tenants, he sat down on a shelf of concrete that had once, by the rust stains on it, supported machinery, and listened. There was no place else to park so I sat next to him. In a minute my ears had adjusted to the silence and it seemed I could hear all the way back to Albuquerque. My eyes adjusted, too, and I could admire the view, framed by the mine entrance, of the sweep of the hill back down to our truck.
When Wolfe spoke, he pitched it low and kept it turned back towards the darkness of the tunnel and shafts. “Archie.”
For the first time in months, I was talking with Nero Wolfe. Funny, I had to take a deep breath and let it out before I could speak. “Yes, sir?” I managed my voice the same way he had.
He released maybe a bushel and a half of air. “There is a collection of mineral samples in a duffle bag, stored a little ways into the mine. We can pick them up before we leave.”
I wasn’t going to ask if he’d gotten the rocks together himself. If he said yes, I’d have keeled over in a dead faint.
“This is as safe a place to talk as I could think of, both isolated and with clear boundaries.” Wolfe was referring to the fact that, when you’re deep in disguise, it’s a real wrench, and dangerous, too, to get in and out of it. He was right. It did help to have a distinct place for changing over. It didn’t help as much as it should have, given how we’d bollixed up the night before, but it helped. “Since you have deliberately been placed in proximity to me after this extensive delay, I believe you must have some additional information for me from our mutual superiors. Report.”
He was right about what had to come first, too. I took another deep breath and began. “Yes, sir. G-2 has reason to believe, from local political sources, that the Albuquerque field office of the F.B.I. is compromised and you might be contacted as a result. In English, that means they suspect--”
“You do not need to translate. I have already been approached by the man in question.”
I stared as his features, dim in the shadow of the tunnel. Until then, I don’t think I’d really believed my briefing. “You’re kidding. What kind of a--” I broke it off and shook my head. “Who the hell would try to sell a secret this big to the Japs or Germans?” Wolfe raised his eyebrows. That was all it took. I caught what I’d missed. “He thinks you’re a Commie.”
“Yes. Although he’s not actually doing it for ideological reasons, but out of pique. His soul is filled with bile. Apparently, Mr. Hoover has a habit of transferring agents who have displeased him, for one reason or another, to unpleasant and rustic surroundings. I am not aware of the entire history behind our man’s relocation to Albuquerque, but we can assume it was not a happy one. Since it is well known that Mr. Hoover hates communists far more than any other group, including our current enemies, I do not find it amazing that the traitor wishes to pass along information to the Soviet Union. Also, given recent history, it is easier to deceive oneself about the nature and motives of the Communists than those of the Axis. It was sheer happenstance that I chanced across him before he approached some authentic ally of the Soviets.” Wolfe turned to gaze out towards the brilliant desert landscape from the dark of the mine tunnel. His eyes squinted against the sunlight. “Such luck can not be relied upon forever. The weight of this secret makes men wish to shift it onto shoulders they view as stronger than their own. Someone will talk again, soon. Eventually, the secret will belong to any nation that has the leisure and resources to devote to the needed industrial development.”
I shouldn’t have asked, but I did. “Do you know what it is?”
He shouldn’t have answered, either. “I can conjecture. It is, most likely, a city killer, one that employs certain elemental physical properties to produce the effect of wave after wave of bombing raids in a single device.” He sagged. I wouldn’t have believed it until I saw it.
That was when I proved just how stupid I can be.
Archie’s voice is sarcastic. His eyes are indulgent. “I hope someone is paying you, if you’re now taking responsibility for running the war.”
Abruptly, Wolfe puffs out a small breath of air and sits up straight. “Indeed. You are correct to reprove me for such a blatant display of romanticism, even if my circumstances are taxing.”
“So, concentrate on what we’re doing, then.” Instinctively, Archie is running a hand up and down Wolfe’s back, the way he would with a woman friend who was upset but trying to be sensible.
“Archie.” The tone in Wolfe’s voice causes Archie’s hand to pause. Wolfe reaches out slowly and grasps Archie’s chin, then leans in and touches his lips briefly to Archie’s own. Then he lets go and growls, “We shall find some excuse--”
“Nuts. Did you hear what I just said?” Archie puts one hand on Wolfe’s chest, fingers splayed out and tense. Wolfe’s eyes are dark and faintly bemused as he looks down. “I never let any of my female friends get in the way of doing my job. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’m not making any exceptions for it.” He takes a grip on the front of Wolfe’s shirt and yanks.
Wolfe puts both hands on Archie’s shoulders to keep from being pulled in. “Based on the optimism of your review of your past behavior, it seems you overestimate both your disinterest and your independence. Since you are the novice here, permit me to enlighten you.” His hands clench hard. “You are courting self-revulsion and social oblivion.” His lips push out, pull in. “Do not deceive yourself. You would be no less the homosexual if it is was my mouth on your cock, your cock in my ass.”
Archie’s head goes back as if he has been slapped. “God damn you. Shock tactics won’t work.”
Wolfe snorts. “Do you truly need to know how often, and to what degree, I have courted damnation? Let us see, then.” His hands move swiftly, dropping from the shoulders to the belt, unbuckling, unzipping. “It would be easier if you tell me to stop.”
There is a rasp of cloth on skin and concrete as Wolfe yanks, forcing both the trousers and boxers down past Archie’s hips. He bends down before he says, his breath warm on Archie’s cock, “You know I rarely bluff you.” The tongue laps out, retreats. “This is not one of those times.”
“You’re trying to scare me off with a blow job? Let me point out here, guys beg for those.” Wolfe’s mouth closes around his target. “Jesus!” It is impossible to tell if the comment refers to Wolfe’s tactics or his skill. Archie leans back against the rough wall of the mine, his fists clenched against his hips, staring blindly up at the dim cross-bracing above him. He doesn’t look down even when Wolfe releases him and goes to his knees, on the tunnel floor, between Archie’s legs.
“I am not sure why you think I will limit myself to this.” The two big hands tug the trousers down to Archie’s ankles, spread Archie’s thighs wide. Wolfe’s mouth lowers again, samples, suckles, then parts company long enough to say, “It is not too late to stop me, by force or otherwise.”
“No.” Is it stubbornness? Is it desire? The mouth descends again. Archie feels, rather than hears, the sigh around him. Wolfe runs one deliberate hand up the underside of his leg, before he pushes it between the rough, cold concrete and Archie’s buttocks. The large hand searches beneath him, finds the cleft. A fingertip touches him, knowingly, before it pauses and the mouth around him turns gentle.
Chills and flushes are chasing one another across Archie’s skin. He feels ill, but also hot, racked by his own need. Some small part of him is proud that none of this shows in his voice when he says, “Still not scaring me.”
Wolfe’s mouth comes off him again. “Think.” His eyes are narrowed, bright, worried, hungry.
“Do it. Come on, prove your point. If you can.”
Wolfe shakes his head slightly, even as he works his finger up Archie’s ass. Archie clenches his teeth to smother the gasp, since he doesn’t want to hear what it might convey. Suddenly, Wolfe lowers his head and takes Archie deep. Archie’s hands move, twine into Wolfe’s hair.
“Yeah.” He is spiked by fire, surrounded by flame. His hips work. He is watching now, and it is good to see. After a time, he gets words out. “Okay, now I’m scared. Damn, boss.”
There is a rumble around his cock and he laughs, although the sound twists into something else as the first surge tears out of him.
When it is over, he leans forward, propping himself against Wolfe, half-embracing him with one arm slung around Wolfe’s shoulders. “I’m either going to throw up or kiss you.”
“Please be sure of your choice before you start to do either.” Wolfe gently disentangles himself, gets to his feet, winces, reaches over and picks up a canteen.
“That had to be hell on your knees.” Archie says it idly, trying to decide if he has the energy to hike up his trousers yet or not.
Wolfe grunts as he scrubs. “This appalling role is difficult for my knees, as well as every other part of me.”
“I’d noticed that,” Archie says, as he lets his gaze drop. His grin widens.
“I like to think of it as observant.” He stretches out one hand to touch Wolfe, and then rubs soothingly. “So, are you going to sit down, or are you going to stand there looking like Hickory Caesar Grindon for the rest of the afternoon?”
“You are running mad.”
“No, I just can’t stand the thought of seeing that smug look you get on your face when you’ve taken me at something that’s supposed to be my specialty, again.” He pulls on Wolfe’s belt. “Move closer.” Wolfe does, his lips pressed tightly together. “This may call for some coaching.”
Wolfe’s voice is a growl. “Precipitate. Impolitic.” He is undoing his own trousers.
“Maybe, and maybe more than I can handle.” Archie examines what is revealed in front of him, then raises one eyebrow. “We’ll see. I promise not to throw up.”
“I am stunned by your skilled, seductive rhetoric at this intimate juncture.” The sarcasm is undiluted, which is fine. It’s reassuring.
“I’m feeling a little stunned myself, right now.” When Archie finally moves, it is with confidence. He brushes his lips against Wolfe’s cock, pauses to assess, smiles slowly, and then opens his mouth.
When it was over, I was honest enough to admit to myself that I’d liked it.
Maybe, I’d think, during the weeks that followed, maybe Wolfe was right. Maybe I should have turned tail and run.
At first, I didn’t run because I couldn’t, not without ducking my responsibilities, without bruising my ego in front of Wolfe. Next, I didn’t run because it was all about Arnie Waldrop, not me. When that excuse wore thin, I stayed put because I was confused.
Back then, I wasn’t one to share oxygen for long with any guy I knew to be a sissy, and I kept the usual wary eye out. But somehow, the judgment had never seemed to apply when it came to Nero Wolfe, even though his fastidious, exquisitely-groomed, self-indulgent character was one I would have rejected in any other man. Now, when he’d at last provided solid proof of perversion in the first degree, all the surface evidence went the other way. Out west, his heavy, lined features were brown and tough, and he enforced his will in the mean streets we walked down like some fat, grizzled sheriff in a B western, all the more dangerous because he’d smile before he shot you. He wasn’t what I’d been taught to expect from a pansy. I didn’t know who this stranger was. I didn’t know who I was anymore, either, but it sure wasn’t what I had been afraid of, all those years.
What did I think it would change? Don’t ask me now. I’d always noticed which guy was good-looking and which one wasn’t, who was a snappy dresser and who was a joke, whether a man’s voice was alluring or whether it would send women running in the other direction. I’d been looking, I’d been seeing, I just hadn't been thinking about what it might all mean to me. Now I was, and it didn’t change a thing.
That was lucky because no one had changed my job description, either. I almost got busted back to lance corporal for razzing a green shave-tail so obviously that he figured it out, but saved myself by breaking up a gang of PX bandits that had been a burr under our Colonel’s saddle. The head of the motor pool tried stripping a new shipment of recruits naked in his floating craps game, but cut it out when I informed him that chickens plucked bare laid no eggs and I was expecting some breakfast. When I wasn’t wasting my time with such trivial affairs, I was bumming around with Rudi Hideg, letting myself be involved with his schemes, listening to his speeches about the inequities of our society, and going back to his apartment with him to engage in even more dubious behavior.
The Staff Captain (G-2) has called Sergeant Waldrop into his office to complain about the security risks of the current system of civilian parking, and complain he does, at length. Occasionally he grows acidic and pedantic enough that his clerk, outside the Captain’s door, rolls his eyes at the private who is seated next to him, sorting through files. Neither man knows that, inside the office, Sergeant Waldrop is reading a sheet of paper hand-delivered from Washington.
The Captain is good at his job, so he is not altogether surprised to see the sly features of Arnie Waldrop shift for a moment, as the Sergeant finishes reading the message, into the visage of someone smarter, sadder, and stronger. For that brief time, the Sergeant looks vaguely familiar, as if the Captain has seen him before in some other context entirely. Then the moment passes and the Sergeant, still interjecting the occasional, respectful “Yes, sir” into the pauses in the flow of complaints, reaches over and steals the Captain’s ronson from off his desk, to burn the message in an ashtray. At the end of the interview, the Captain grows slightly apologetic and lights a cigarette, before he asks how the Sergeant is enjoying New Mexico. The smoke serves to cover the smell of burnt paper.
Later that day in the officer’s mess, to set the seal on his unspoken apology, the Captain suggests to a Lieutenant that some leave might be in order for Sergeant Waldrop. The Lieutenant thinks that Waldrop gets all together too much leave as it is, but he’s been in the service long enough to know an order when he hears one. He shrugs mentally and obeys.
That weekend, Waldrop is coiled around his older friend in a very unmilitary posture, when he drops his lips to Hideg’s ear and murmurs, “Carpenter sends his regards. They’ve decided it’s all too awful for words. You’re supposed to arrange a Nero Wolfe special for our clean-cut acquaintance. Want me to steal a grenade and paint it pink?”
The phrasing may have been sarcastic but he does not protest when he is seized roughly and pushed down into the bedclothes. His own hands, as they rove, are pensive with what he would rather break an arm than name: sympathy.
I still don’t know why it bothered Wolfe so much. He’s pretty loyal to this country, given his background. He doesn’t much like futile gestures of revenge, at least in others. It wasn’t that our man wrung his supposedly romantic heart. I never met the guy at any length, but, from what Wolfe let drop later, he had all the charm of a two by four. Special Agent B. Arnold was humorless and never let his socks down, which is probably how he got into his fix in the first place. Guys like that don’t roll well with the punches. Wolfe’s death toll of induced suicides had climbed into double figures over the years, not counting the ones he didn’t anticipate, so it wasn’t the shock of the new that was upsetting him. Maybe he was only throwing a fit at disposing of someone on anyone else’s say-so but his own.
We made another trip to collect rocks and talk. I was sorting through a pile of them, checking for the ones with the best color, as Wolfe said, “The only danger is the chance of our fueling his drive towards revenge. He must be rushed, so that he does not have time to brood, to decide upon making some sort of final gesture. It is to our advantage that, unlike some, he is not prone to physical expression of his impulses.” He flicked a glance at me.
That was already an old discussion between the two of us, even before our new circumstances, so I ignored the crack in favor of asking, “Are you sure you have all his records? If he’s smart, he may have set up some sort of drop, in case of accidents.”
“I doubt it. He is intelligent, but out of his depth. Although the Bureau seems unwilling to shoot their own dog,” his nostrils flared before he continued, “they, or the myrmidons of Army Intelligence, are quite competent enough to perform a covert search through his possessions after he has been disposed of. I would hazard that someone does not want to deal with the political ramifications of prosecuting an individual betraying us to a military ally at this juncture in history.”
“Especially when the military ally doesn’t even know the guy exists. They could have censored--” I broke off, shaking my head, before Wolfe could get in a comment about futile speculation. “Okay, what about the old you-only-have-one-choice-to-make-here routine? He has a wife and kids that you say he’s fond of, and it seems appropriate, given the circumstances.”
He grunted. “I agree. Very well, then.” His voice dropped even lower, down to a drawling murmur, as he gave me the set-up.
It wasn’t too hard. Our man didn’t have a lot of experience with being on the receiving end. His specialty, before the war, had been analyzing numbers. He’d joined the Bureau after training as an accountant and had been good at it, which is why he was working on the project that he was. They thought he could keep up with all the scientists and their clever notions. He was also clever enough that, like Wolfe, he could come to some conclusions about what they were doing, and develop notions about what he wanted to do with his conclusions. But none of his skills taught him what to do when someone like Wolfe decided to break him.
By the time Wolfe and I left him alone with his gun in the cheap hotel room, Wolfe seemed certain the guy wasn’t going to run and I agreed. We retired, not because we couldn’t have stayed and watched if we had to, but because we knew it would be messy and messes make for forensic evidence. The fact that someone innocent would have to clean up the mess was my only real problem with our tactics. I hope they got overtime.
The two men stand together, waiting. At the sound of a shot in the next room, Waldrop briefly opens the connecting door with a handkerchief draped over his hand, grimaces, and closes it again before locking it. They cross the room to its other side, open that connecting door, go into the adjoining room, pick up their suitcases, and leave. Given the nature of the hotel’s clientele, even if they were somehow found and interviewed, no one would be surprised that they chose to retreat before the arrival of the police. Given that they have already paid for the room for five hours, they do not have to stop at the front desk to check out. Even so, Arnie turns out the lights before they leave.
No one ever explained directly to the Agent’s widow exactly what kind of a place her husband chose to end his life in. She will hear the rumors and will fiercely resent them. She will never know what other poisonous labels could have followed the steps of herself and her children throughout the rest of their lives.
I would have to agree with Wolfe that there was no satisfaction in the job. Maybe I’d feel better if we had done more good. We had no way of knowing, as we were busy plugging our outside leaks, that a physicist named Klaus Fuchs, up in Los Alamos, was drilling hole after hole from inside the security dam. It may not even have mattered, in the end. Like Wolfe had figured, the Reds sure were interested in our big secret, and, when the war was over, they had plenty of resources and leisure to dedicate to their interest. It was only four years after we fused sand into jade-colored glass in the New Mexican desert that the Soviet Union did the same in the deserts of Kazakhstan.
The other work Wolfe and I did, separately and together, probably had more useful results, even if it was a lot less dramatic. Several black marketers, a couple of extortionists, two corrupt state officials, a bunch of dishonest contractors, and a murderer-for-hire all got swept up during those months, all in the name of protecting a secret we only knew by its shadow.
We were in a cheap motor hotel outside of San Antonio, a tiny pueblo southeast of Socorro, going over the results of our meeting the day before with a guy who rustled construction equipment, when we got to know the secret by its light.
Early as the hour is, Archie is awake. The thunderstorm around two a.m. woke him as it approached. Now he lies on the lumpy mattress listening to the thunder, watching the flashes of the lightning illuminating the cinder block walls of the room, brilliant through the gaps around the faded curtains on the windows.
Archie wonders if Wolfe is awake, wonders what he is thinking about. He hopes it’s not the secret but fears that it is. As for himself, he feels the growls of thunder go through his entire body, stirring his blood, reminding him of the Ohio storms of his youth. Then, there had been no one to go to, no one who would comprehend the excitement tinged with terror. Tonight, he gets up, graceful and silent as a cat, and pads over to the room’s other bed. He looks down, during a flash of lightning, at the man who shares all his secrets, including the one they will never speak of, not even between themselves. Wolfe, too, is awake, and he pushes the blanket and sheet to one side without speaking. Archie gets into bed with him.
There is something in it of the times he has been with women, and something in it of the hunting he’s done with Wolfe down through the years. As they kiss and caress each other, they almost wrestle in their eagerness. The cheap bed creaks beneath them but that doesn’t matter now. Taste is more important, and smell, and touch. Every intimate sense tells Archie that he’s with the fat man, where he wants to be.
The well-known body has no beauty to make his blood surge, nothing about it to fire his instincts. All Wolfe has is knowledge, skill, and an unspoken sense of the dark and light strands twisted together through Archie’s psyche. It is more than enough.
“Yeah. You first.”
Being sodomized gets better with practice, like most physical acts. Not that it was bad the first time, but it’s grown more potent as the days have turned first to weeks, then to months. Archie manages to keep quiet as Wolfe kisses him, nips at him, caresses him with rough affection. Even when the clever mouth savors the one gourmet dish it is now allowed, Archie bites at his own wrist to muffle his commentary. Thunder may cover the sounds they make in the night, but it’s better not to drift into dangerous habits.
He stretches out on his belly for a moment as Wolfe readies him. He reaches out towards the four corners of the mattress with his four limbs, gripping at he doesn’t know what, as the oily thumb works inside him. There is a receding rumble of thunder and two strong hands on his shoulders, a familiar, hot pressure demanding his accommodation, then hairy skin and heavy weight pushing him down into the coarse sheets, shielding him and stripping him, all at once.
Wolfe rides him hard, pushing towards the edge of pleasure. Archie doesn’t complain, even though he knows it means a long, sore trip later that day. He has learned he finds his greatest satisfaction out in the border lands. When Wolfe shudders on him, coming inside him, his smile, unseen in the dark, is feral, satisfied by what he knows is his due tribute. Then it is his turn to both punish and reward Wolfe for the secret that means more to them than the secret they are sworn to protect with their lives.
They know that they love each other.
Neither man believes in love, except as a shared delusion. However, they do believe in the tight, physical grip of sex, so Archie makes sure he ruts into Wolfe for the long minutes needed until Wolfe is hard and hot again, straining for release in Archie’s hand. When Wolfe spends, it is a triumph that drags Archie into its train.
It was a wild trip together and they are fastidious men. They take turns showering, waiting the long time necessary for the hot water to run so early in the morning. Outside, the thunderstorm has passed. Inside, Archie is restless and full of eager energy, so Wolfe indulges him with the scent of their prey. They turn on the lights and discuss, in careful, low tones, in voices that are not really their own, the deal that they were offered and the ways in which that deal can be turned against its maker. Archie is framing an especially sarcastic comment, to be delivered with great enjoyment, when the Manhattan project reaches its first fruition.
All at once, the room is bright as day, a day lit by a thousand suns. Archie feels his heart pound hard, twice, before the light dims. Wolfe’s features, etched into age by the brilliance, go entirely blank. After the light dies, both men sit frozen for long seconds, before they suddenly get up and make for the windows. Archie arrives first and is pulling the curtain back when the air blast hits. With the slap of noise, the ground and the building shake.
They crowd close to the glass. Off to the southeast, above the weary cottonwood tree next to the gravel parking lot, the high, thin clouds are pink on their undersides with the light of a false dawn. The thunder rumbles on and on, coming from nowhere, coming from everywhere, echoing back and forth from the hills of the Journada del Muerto. The handful of other occupants are emerging from their rooms, pointing and exclaiming in the light spilling out from the open doors. Two of the other guests are tough-looking young men with short haircuts, already clean-shaven at five-thirty in the morning. Archie reaches up and pulls the curtains shut, as he sighs harshly.
Wolfe looks at him. Wolfe’s lips twist slightly at the corners. They share a glance of silent, mutual comprehension before they speak of who will go first in the tiny, dusty bathroom, to finish preparing for a day that’s arrived much too soon.
Hours later, when they go out to Wolfe’s truck after checking out in the office, there is a dying hawk in the open truck bed, its feathers seared all along one side. Its beak is wide open as it gasps with pain. Archie pulls on a pair of canvas work gloves and, with a twist that he learned on chickens in his boyhood in Chillicothe, breaks its neck.
A few months later, I, and everyone else, found out from the newspapers that the nickname for the implosion-type bomb they used at Trinity site was Fat Man.
That was it, really. It was easy enough to figure out the war was heading elsewhere. It was only a week later when Sergeant Arnie Waldrop got a transfer, Rudi Hideg accepted a new job, and the two of us went to report to General Carpenter in Washington. Wolfe celebrated his freedom by being impossible throughout the entire train trip across the country. There was still a war on, but he felt he’d earned the right to be difficult, and I guess he had, at that. I didn’t tell him so. I had built up a head of steam and welcomed the chance to bleed some of it off. If it wasn’t for the fact that I didn’t work for him, he would have fired me. If we hadn't had a major series of reports to prepare, I would have quit, got off the train, and bummed a ride. As it was, we were both feeling frosty by the time we got to Washington.
The Pentagon fixed all that. There’s nothing like the career military mind to get Wolfe and me moving in the same direction: as far away as possible. After one serious session with the General, we spent three days being passed from Colonel to Major to Colonel to Minor. It was all the reward we ever got for our efforts, which only bothered me because I’d been hoping for a promotion. I knew my being referred to as “Colonel” once I was back in civvies would annoy Wolfe no end and I’d been looking forward to it.
Half way through day four, Wolfe summoned a taxi and headed for Union Station. That gave me the excuse I needed to follow him, so we could both get back to the Brownstone and to work on our new assignment, dealing with a touchy matter involving foreign bullion reserves in Manhattan. We were still sorting it out when the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki and it was over.
There was one other matter to be sorted out, as well.
Wolfe looks up from his book at Archie and frowns. “I thought you were gone for the weekend, on leave.”
Archie is briskly unbuttoning his uniform jacket. “Yes, sir, you thought right, but I changed my mind.” He hangs the jacket up over the back of his desk chair and unknots his tie. “Sometimes I get tired of nightclubs and house parties, and want something different.”
“Bah.” Wolfe goes back to his reading, ostentatiously ignoring Archie.
Archie pays no attention to this as he unbuttons his collar and his cuffs, and then speaks. “So,” he smothers a yawn, “shall I gloss it over, or do you want it raw and up front?”
Wolfe tilts his book away from himself and narrows his eyes, before he says, politely, “You amaze me.”
“Yeah?” Something about Archie’s grin is softer than usual. “I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or an insult. Did you really think, just because I wanted to catch up with old friends, I wouldn’t be back? Or were you trying to find out how to keep yourself up on the roof, now that you’ve seen Paree?”
“Don’t be insufferably droll,” Wolfe says, and snorts before he adds, “Although I sometimes wonder why I bother to castigate you for behavior I know you will not deign to alter.”
“Good question.” Archie strolls over to Wolfe’s desk, then around it with the air of a cat who knows he is welcome. The hand he puts on Wolfe’s shoulder has something of the mixed territoriality and affection of a cat’s attentions, too. “Here’s another good question. Do I ask you, do you ask me, or do we flip a coin?”
Wolfe grunts, marks his book with a piece of paper, gets both hands on the arms of his custom-made chair, and levers himself to his feet. “You might as well save your breath. I’m sure you can find something more original to do with it.” He reaches out and starts undoing the shirt buttons where Archie stopped. “You inevitably can.” The tone of his voice is resigned, sardonic, and warm, all at once.
The other famous comment after the Trinity test was “now we are all sons of bitches”. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had a choice. I’ve been something of a son of a bitch my whole life, and the same applies to Nero Wolfe.
I don’t brood over it much: I have several acquaintances, including one who emigrated from Japan after the war, who would have died in any invasion of the Home Islands. I have also seen the photographs of what happened when that other Fat Man blew, and I know what horrors we can expect the next time around. But those aren’t the images that I have to push out of my mind, some nights, before I can sleep. One that needs shoving is the slack, dead features of a warrant officer after I broke his neck to make my job easier, the face of a guy who may have been cleaner than the Agency that wanted him gone. Too bad: it just goes to show, once again, that life’s not simple, not easy, not at all the way they tell you it is. My real regret is that it took so long for me to figure out what that could mean for me, right in my very own home.
Return to the archive