8A2967. From archive, 2006: Collection W/G, Box 53A. Partial page of text, typed on standard paper with manual typewriter, additional penciled corrections:
What is it about people who want to do their best for you? I’d had dinner the evening before with a friend who just wanted to help, and ended up being chased into a corner I really didn’t like, with the tickets for a vacation to Norway practically stuffed into my hands. This morning, I was at my office, staring at the face of the next to last person who’d done me a very big favor while only trying to help. It had ended up in a disaster that took years to sort out, and I still had a debt to repay. Now, my creditor had walked through my door and called in the note.
My name is Archie Goodwin, and I’m a P.I. I used to share a Brownstone on Thirty-fifth street with my employer, Mr. Nero Wolfe, but a few months ago Wolfe had taken a powder and left me to my own devices. I devised a detective office with my name on the door, and that was where I was sitting now, staring at a face I’d never wanted to see again.
It didn’t take a licensed investigator to detect signs of strain. All the usual Hollywood beauty was on vacation. The soft curls of gold had lost their gleam, and the rich, full lips were pale from being pressed together so hard. Graceful hands were clasped tightly together around the purse, probably to still their trembling.
The liquid, dark-blue eyes lifted to mine were haunted. “Archie, you have to help me. You are my only hope.”
“I already said I would do it, even though it stinks to high heaven.” I waved it away with one hand and scowled. “What kind of a cliché is that, anyway, ‘you are my only hope’? Is that from one of those scripts you write? It’s not even true. There are plenty of cops out in California, and I understand they all love the chance to do the studios a little favor, so if your cops call our cops--”
“Not this time. If they were to see the other face in the photographs…” the delicate shoulders I still had dreams about rose and fell in a shrug. “Well, Louella and Hedda have very deep pockets. What they could pay a New York City policeman, or clerk…” the smoky voice died away into a dramatic silence.
I suppressed an urge to roll my eyes. The dead-end years under contract as a would-be ‘bright and shining star in the cinema firmament’ had sure left their mark on my old flame. “Will this be gratis?”
Long lashes blinked indignantly at me. “Why, Archie! I haven’t changed that much since Chillicothe, have I? The handbag is borrowed from a friend, can’t be traced back, and is filled with cash, enough to pay him off with money left over for you.”
“Okay, all right, I’m sorry. You rattled me when you pounced in the corridor like that, is all, and you’ve been circling the main point ever since. What’s the name of this guy you followed out here from L.A., the one who has the photographs?” The all-too familiar tongue moistened lips nervously, but otherwise stayed still. “So he’s dangerous. That’s where I’m supposed to come in. Give it up, Homer.”
“Roeder. His name is Pete Roeder.”
Scrawled across bottom of page in pencil, (hand is G’s, underlined): Forget it, I’m even screwing up the typing. Start over. Don’t tell what really happened. Make something up.
I woke to hunger, I lived with hunger, I slept with hunger. It seemed I would die with hunger, although that, I would usually have been told, was dramatizing myself with a vengeance. I missed the man who would have accused me of self-indulgence. I was glad to have had the practice of twenty years of living with him, and, so, of dwelling with hunger unausuaged. The experience kept me strong.
The face in the mirror belonged to a stranger. I had not seen anything like it since my youth in Montenegro, and it had never looked entirely like this. The wrinkles were bad, but the beard was almost enough to make me blench. Almost, but not quite: I was no longer a blenching man, and had not been for many years before this perilous masquerade. It was only the quiet of the morning, and my hunger, that reminded me of that other, earlier self. Now my name was Pete Roeder, a fact I could not let myself forget.
Pete was baleful; Pete was a black-ganger. Pete was something else as well, something that let him join right in with Arnold Zeck and his flesh-eating crew. Pete was a wolf, whose prey was younger men, and dangerous withal.
I had considered the matter for years, and had rejected the obvious solution several times, before bowing to the exigencies of the situation. It seemed some less drastic stratagem might serve to defeat that arch-villain Zeck, but that was a notion supported only by my self-deception. When Archie called me that evening from Westhampton, I knew what I had to do. I walked out of my house, leaving behind an open door and three hand-written notes. I went to Texas, where I broke my promise to myself and starved again, losing weight to lose my identity. I moved on to Los Angeles, into a shadow world within which I had not circulated for years, and turned from protector to predator. Now I gazed into the mirror and saw Pete, and my household was scattered.
They were all men capable of caring for themselves, of course, and this was especially true of Archie. But the heart, however deeply buried, has its concerns, and my heart had lost its insulation. During the day I kept faith. At night, I lay awake, wondering if he would return to me. I would not have blamed him if he did not. Freedom is sweet. Would that I possessed it.
Long ago and far away, H. George Carey, screenwriter extraordinary, had taken a rap for me. When his father had chanced across the two of us I had fled, leaving Homer with no way to deny what we had been doing. Homer had refused to say who had been with him, indulging in what Chillicothe termed abomination. True, his punishment had been military school, when mine would have been savage beatings, but Homer had still sacrificed himself. He had even crept out to loan me his savings when I finally figured out that there was nothing for me in Chillicothe. I left Ohio behind then and, with it, all the Goodwins and Lambeths who, after my parents died, shuffled me from household to household, enjoying the sight of my back. Before I left, I promised Homer that all he would ever have to do was ask, and I would do anything in my power to assist him. Eventually I had paid back the money, and Homer had left Chillicothe himself. He had gone out to Hollywood, prospered, and never redeemed my promise. But, now he had asked, and I would help. It wasn’t his fault I didn’t want the memories he brought with him.
In the week after Homer went back to Southern California, I did as neat a bit of detection as I have ever done in my career. Homer had wanted to stick around and back-seat drive, but I was firm. It was no good, I pointed out, his getting pried loose from a blackmailer only to run into trouble for being absent without leave from his studio contract. He went with many an over-the-shoulder glance, after extracting a promise from me of a weekly report. It was a small enough payment to get him out of my office and my life. To me, he was Chillicothe, Ohio walking, and I was tired of my desire to pick up a shovel and bury him. Or, perhaps, I was just tired. I felt tired a lot, that summer when Wolfe was gone.
It came as no kind of a surprise to find that Roeder had hooked up with Zeck’s gang. Perhaps the discovery should have made me back quietly away, but it didn’t. In fact, I viewed it as a bonus for taking a kind of case I have never liked. Zeck had busted up my happy home, and anything that brought me within the range where I could decide if I wanted to take a poke at him was all right by me.
However, Zeck’s neighborhood was not one in which I wanted to meet my friends and fellow detectives. So, I handled all the work myself, and managed to locate Roeder and find out his schedule by the end of the sixth day. After considering several approaches, I settled on the simplest one. Roeder got picked up for work by a driver every day at eight. At 7:55 A.M. that Wednesday morning, as Roeder walked out the front door of his apartment house, I walked up and fell into step beside him.
Homer had given me a good description, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Roeder looked like the offspring of a Dutch portrait that had married an accordion. He had brown hair, pleats to his face, and a pointed beard he had grown to give all the grooves something to play with. He had carefully coordinated his blue suit to clash.
I said, “I’m Archie Goodwin, and H. George Carey wants me to talk with you.” I turned my head, caught a sideways glimpse of his hands, and came to a dead stop. I knew those hands. The shape of the fingers--
He stopped, too, and frowned. “Carey? What the hell does he want?” He talked through his nose. Ugly.
A heavy paw fell on my shoulder. His chauffeur had come up from behind me. I was glad the driver couldn’t see my expression. I had enough to juggle, right then, without having to worry about what was showing on my face.
“No, it’s okay, Bill. Goodwin, here, is a friend of a friend from L.A.” He smiled, and the expression was ugly, too. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
It was the invitation I had been angling for, so there was no reason for me to refuse. I didn’t. We got into the car, and Roeder waved for Bill to drive.
There was a charged silence that lasted until Roeder chose to break it. “How about showing some I.D.?”
Without saying anything, I got out my card case and handed it to him.
He took his time examining my detective license. “So, you’re Nero Wolfe’s Boy Friday,” he said, and handed it back..
“When last I looked,” I said coldly, “I was no one else’s boy, on Friday or any other day of the week. Were you born this cute, or did you work up to it?”
“Your name has been mentioned. I caught on that you had a smart mouth on you,” he said, commenting, not criticizing. He leaned forward and told his driver, “Find us a quiet place, where we can talk without interruptions. I’m hungry.”
We rode, again, in silence until we ended up at the Cloverleaf Café, on Twentieth. I spent the drive trying to recover from the shock of his appearance. He was a sight.
The Cloverleaf is one of those Manhattan breakfast cafes that serve huge amounts of food quickly for tiny prices. They keep their economics in balance by buying supplies from places over in Jersey that you don’t want to know about, and by cooking in a manner that would cause Fritz, if he were forced to it, to commit suicide. Roeder and I took a not-very-clean table in a corner, and sat facing each other over Formica beneath a framed, paint-by-numbers picture of a weeping clown. The driver took a table closer to the door. I ordered fried eggs, ham, and milk from our teen-aged waitress. Roeder had the blue-plate special.
He may have been hungry, but he ate with brisk indifference. When he’d put his fork down and picked up his coffee, he tilted his head and considered me. It was the first time I’d looked directly into his shrewd, brown eyes, and it was hard to suppress the tingle it gave me in the small of my back. My own hands had to manage my food for me, because my mind was elsewhere.
He smiled. “Your name has come up, like I said. That boss of yours was trouble.”
“Truer words were never spoken. But I don’t know where he is, so don’t bother asking.”
“Yeah, I know that you clammed. Of course you know where Wolfe is. You could be pried open, but why bother? He’s out of the way, and that’s all my employer cares about.”
I snorted. “It’s all Wolfe cared about, too. Never mind: I’m not here for that. I understand you’re a professional photographer.”
“Now and again,” he said modestly. “I did a little work back in Hollywood, but I’ve been asked to join an East Coast agency, and their offer is too good to refuse. I’ve brought my files with me, so if your friend wants copies of his publicity stills, he’s out of luck.”
“Too bad. He’d pay, of course.”
“Sure he would. I do good work.” He shrugged, and smiled again. I admit it; every time he smiled, my skin crawled. We were out deep in the woods, but that grin showed enough teeth to impress any local predators.
“Well, should I tell him to forget it?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that.” He leaned back in his chair and surveyed me in a way that left no room for doubt. “I didn’t say that, at all.”
Deadly peril sat no more than two tables away. Bill was as much my guard as my servant. He was assigned to me when I was accepted into the organization at a level suitable both to my talent and to the system of extortion I had quickly assembled in Los Angeles. Too hastily assembled, I now knew: I missed, completely, the link between Carey and Archie. I had no excuse. Once, years before, Archie had mentioned, in passing, the name of the boy who had helped him leave Ohio: Homer Carey. I should have made the connection when Carey tried out his vague and pathetic threats on me.
Those threats suggested my actions, as I stared at Archie across that restaurant table. Archie could lie well enough to deceive most men, but not well enough to fool Arnold Zeck. He would be questioned about this encounter, in order to check up on us both. Something must occur to explain the mixture of strong reactions I sensed just beneath his usual, cheerfully insolent exterior. And something must be done to force him away from this mine field. Having met and listened to Homer Carey, I knew what that something would have to be. At last, I had encountered a situation that justified the ridiculous phrase, “he died a little, inside.”
Archie’s face, as I allowed my gaze to drift up and down his body, froze. For a moment, the killer peeked out from behind his eyes. Bill put down his coffee cup with a click, but I ignored him. Archie did not. The shift in his expression would have been imperceptible to anyone who had not known him for years, as I had. The killer now tracked another, waiting for me to unclip his leash. His intuition must have grasped the situation entire. Without intending to, Bill served his ultimate employer by foiling my first effort to push Archie away to safety.
Archie glared at me. “Nuts. If you have some sort of offer to make me, keep going. Otherwise, forget it.”
“Not right now, Goodwin. Not without talking to some other people.” I checked my wristwatch. “I’m already late for work. You in the book? I’ll phone this afternoon.”
“Don’t bother to say who it is. I’ll be able to tell,” he said, offensively, and got up to leave. As he exited, he dropped two dollars on Bill’s table, for the coffee and a tip. If he is ever defeated, it will not be without a fight.
I won’t describe my day. To be frank, I don’t remember most of it. Somehow I ended up in my office, with my suit jacket hung on the coat rack, drinking Rye from the bottle I kept in the bottom drawer of my desk. Two shots on top of café food were enough to convince me I couldn’t find any answers there. I realized I was staring blankly at the dictionary Wolfe gave me for Christmas in ’39. It may have had all the words I ever needed until now, but the answers weren’t in there, either. After a half hour or so of such indulgences, my brain finally unstuck enough to get to work. I turned the situation over and around in my head, but, any way I looked at it, we were in a jam.
Either Homer had been sent by Zeck to set us both up, or he hadn't. If he had, we were dead meat and Zeck was amusing himself, but as far as I knew Zeck had no sense of humor. If he hadn’t, if gremlins were having fun at Wolfe’s and my expense, I had just thrown a huge monkey wrench into the machinery of Wolfe’s plan, whatever it was. I decided there was no point in worrying about the first possibility. As Wolfe has often said, if someone really wants to murder you, you’re dead. That left, as the only course of action that made any sense, helping salvage whatever Wolfe was up to.
It might be bad. I remembered the way Wolfe had moved his eyes up and down me in the café, and had to stop myself from reaching for the bottle again. He had told me a few years back that Zeck did worse than eat young men, and I had thought he was just exaggerating. It seems he had been trying to tell me something, instead. Criminal society, indeed. Wolfe in with that sort, having to touch some other guy--.
I blinked, and put the rye away. One shot too many, obviously. I went to the door of my suite, to see if I could spot an eavesdropper. No dice, of course. It was only nerves telling my feet to get busy. I could safely assume I would be watched from now on, but it wouldn’t be so obvious, not immediately. However, I would have to keep my guard up, all the time. No wonder Wolfe struck me as frazzled. He must have been living this life for months. And I bet he was hungry.
Like I said, I don’t remember most of the rest of the day. I must have done some work, because when I looked at my office ledger later the bills were paid for the month. I’ve forgotten most of it, though, right up until the moment when the phone rang. My hand shot out, and then hovered, waiting for the third ring before it picked up.
“Archie Goodwin’s office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Mr. Goodwin? Pete Roeder, here.”
I squashed an urge to hold the receiver as far away from my ear as possible. “Yes?”
“If you still want to talk about that matter from this morning, we can meet for dinner. This evening at seven?”
He gave me an address in the Village, and abruptly hung up. It seems he was copying his manners from Zeck these days.
I looked at the address I had jotted down on my notepad, and realized that I recognized it. The Black Cat was one of those clubs. I had been right. This would be bad. And the food would probably stink, too.
We could have met at some other such establishment; Zeck’s organization, for example, owned two more private clubs that catered for this clientele. However, of all the ones I knew of, the Black Cat kept the worst cook, and it helped when there was nothing to be had that I would wish to eat. I ordered the food I would detest, and waited. In the interim, I distracted myself by watching Bill out of the corner of my eye, as he sat in a red ersatz-leather booth by the door, nursing a scotch and trying to act as if he was entirely encased in foot-thick armor plating each time one of the male patrons glanced in his direction.
Archie, when he arrived promptly at seven, had not altered his usual demeanor. He was at his ease in a white linen suit and blue cotton shirt. I had given him the gold tie clip for Christmas two years ago. His transit across the room caused a perceptible stir that he did not bother to acknowledge. He stood next to the table and gave me a cheerful grin, but his eyes were wary. “Mr. Roeder.”
“Mr. Goodwin.” I waved across the table. “Have a seat.”
He slid into the booth across from me. “How’s the food here?” Even in the shadows left unlit by the dim lamp hanging over the booth, I could see the trace of irony in the twist of his lips.
“Pretty good. Try the pork chops.” The pork chops were foul. He ordered a cheeseburger.
I settled back and buttered a roll. “I talked to my boss. We’re inclined to accept an offer.” I named a figure. “Plus my commission, of course.”
He whistled. “High pay for low work.”
“Good if you can get it, yeah.”
“My friend’s concerned about copyright violations. If he orders those stills, will he have to worry about additional prints showing up in other publications?”
“We don’t work that way. You’ve seen our firm in action before, Goodwin, and you know. Back-stabbing a client leads to too much strain all around. You pay, you get. That’s all.”
“Okay, I think we can deal. I’ll need to make a phone call.”
“Don’t bother. Someone has already phoned and talked to your client in California.”
“Client? I have a friend who asked me to talk to you. I can understand how you could confuse the two, since you don’t--”
“He said he was sure you would do what you had to. He said you always did.” Archie sat like stone, mute. I hammered at him again. “Also, there’s the matter of my commission.” His eyes narrowed. I put my fork down and smiled.
“Don’t be touchy, Goodwin. With your history, you can’t afford it. Do you want to keep going with this talk in the private dining room, or do you want to wait for your burger, or what?” I will affirm to my dying day that I expected him to get up and leave. The years that we had known each other, I hoped, would spare me from anything worse.
He looked at the cheeseburger the approaching waiter was carrying, and got up. “Something tells me I want to have our little chat on an empty stomach.”
I could not afford a visible pause to indulge my astonishment, or any other emotion, for that matter. I got up myself, and led the way upstairs.
The mahogany-veneer table and chairs, fake leather armchairs, and ashtrays that furnished the private dining room were unexceptional. The couch did not belong here, but it had a certain purpose. Archie glanced around the room, his eyes lingering for a barely perceptible moment on the large painting of a bull that hung across from the couch, and then he chose to lean against one side of the table, his arms folded across his chest. “So, shoot.”
“I thought you might like a less public place to close the deal.”
“And pay your commission?”
“That, too. I think you know my terms already.”
“Sure. It’s a deal,” he said flatly, and walked towards me. “No lips.”
Wolfe wanted to cut and run, I could tell, but there was no place left for him to go. It made me a little gentler than I might otherwise have been. When I wrapped my arms around him and ran my hands up and down his back, I could feel the tension in his muscles. The skin was loose under his clothing, and he was too thin to balance out his big frame. It would have been easy to knock him over and escape. I grabbed the broad shoulders as he wrapped his arms around my waist, to pull me in tight and take my measure with his own hips. Chaste as he had been since I’d known him, he’d found some experience somewhere. It gave me an excuse to rest my chin on his shoulder, and breathe, “Film?”
The hand sliding down my rear squeezed and released once.
Again. I had been afraid that was the case when I saw the painting hung across from the couch rather than over it. The line of sight to us was as bad as I could make it, but there was nothing I could do about microphones.
I slid a hand between us and gathered him in through his trousers. He was half erect. I caressed him, and made it gentle. There was no sense in being rough. Since my body blocked his, no one would see and be impressed. The clean smell of his skin was so familiar that it was almost soothing. His breath smelled of badly-cooked pork chop. I suppressed an urge to tell him he was going to get trichinosis if he didn’t lay off the food in this place.
He was now too far gone to be comfortable, so I unzipped his fly. That part of him was as big as the rest of him—had been. His hips moved restlessly as I explored him, and I pressed together my lips. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to grin, but I did.
“Come on, Goodwin,” he said, “get busy,” and he grabbed me down below. I gave him a pained look. That voice, under these circumstances, was a rude shock. There’s such a thing as too much acting. He undid me, took me into his own fist, and stroked me, once. I was ready for him. His body telegraphed surprise, and I let myself snort, very softly. What the hell did he expect?
We kept it quiet as we worked. The only sound the mike would be picking up was the rustle of cloth rubbing across cloth, and breathing, coming out rough. He was trembling, slightly, beneath the one arm I still had wrapped around his back. For some reason that made my eyes burn, and I blinked, hard. His free hand had wandered up under my shirt, and was delicately stroking the small of my back, trying to sooth, trying to comfort, I could tell. It was comforting, I admit, but not soothing. The reverse, if anything. It was fire.
He was close. A small choking noise made it past his control. He started to pull away, and, without thinking, I clucked impatiently, the way you do at a horse trying to leave the trail. I got his handkerchief out of his pocket and gathered him up again. Not being in a mood to take nonsense, I caught his gaze and gave him a stare as I drove him hard and took him over the edge.
His eyes opened wide and the breath came out of him in heavy pants. His hand clenched around me, and I was taken by surprise when I followed him over.
It was good. Very, very, good.
Afterwards my mind was a blank, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world for Wolfe and I to stand leaning on each other, as we caught our breaths and our pulses slowed. Then I remembered myself and stepped back quickly, before tucking in my shirt and putting myself away with what I hoped looked like angry haste. I wanted to linger, which was nuts. He took his time cleaning up, appropriate under the circumstances, but I threw his handkerchief on the floor and stepped on it.
“Satisfied, Roeder?” I said. I made it nasty, but not as nasty as I could have.
He nodded approval. Since I was used to Wolfe’s tight nods, it was like his head was bobbing up and down on a stick. “Oh, yes, Goodwin, you do an honest deal.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and took out an envelope. I made a noise to acknowledge the fact that he had Homer’s pictures all the time, and he said, almost kindly, “There’s men between you and the exit, don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” I said grimly. I stood, weighing the envelope in my hand, considering the next scene in this little play.
My body knew its first succor in months. I tried to ignore what it murmured to me as Archie opened the envelope to examine its contents. “Negatives and film, twenty four exposures. Okay, it looks like they’re all in here.”
“Money,” I said. He ran one hand through his hair, disarranging it as he mimed frustration. I suppressed an urge to cross to him and smooth it back into place. He took out an envelope from his own coat pocket, and tossed it onto the table top. I picked it up with a briskness I did not feel, and counted the bills it contained. “All right, Goodwin. I’ll be in touch.”
“Don’t bother,” he said, his voice curt, as he turned to go. Suddenly, he froze, and his face went still and hard. It was well done. He turned back. “Wait. I have a question.”
“About Homer. I want to know--”
I raised a hand. “Hold it, Goodwin, questions aren’t free around here, especially the kind you’re going to ask, if I read you right. You should know that, first.”
He worked his fists a few times, and I swallowed, as if I both feared and desired what I saw. It was no great offense against the truth. “Same fee?”
“Yeah; maybe some more, and longer, since I can’t take money for this. And no murder, if you don’t like my answers. Murder is messy.”
“Messy.” He barked out a laugh. “Okay, but we get a room. I don’t trust this place, and I don’t trust you. And, sure as hell, I don’t trust you to set foot in the Brownstone.”
“Deal.” I didn’t bother to offer to shake his hand. Neither of our senses of irony stretched that far.
The money gave me an excuse to dispatch Bill, whose acuity I distrusted, on courier duty and take Jimmy as our driver. I instructed Jimmy, “Go over towards Penn Station. Drive around some,” but en route Archie had us stop at an all-night drugstore, from which he emerged with his hands thrust deep into his coat pockets, and his face slightly flushed. He got back into the automobile, and his voice was harsh as he said, “Let’s go.” After we drove up and down several of the streets around Penn station, Archie suddenly pointed out the window and said, “There.” It was a railway hotel of the type habituated by unsuccessful salesmen and porters.
When I got out of the car I leaned in the driver’s window and told Jimmy to have Bill pick me up the next morning at seven. I had little doubt that Jimmy would park the automobile nearby and, after telephoning for instructions, attempt to eavesdrop on us. However, his necessary distance, and his need to avoid the hotel detective, should provide Archie and I with enough privacy for talk.
The night clerk did not bother to pretend interest. The room was tiny, and furnished only with a chest of drawers, a chair, and a bed. Through the curtains, the hotel sign blinked and darkened, blinked and darkened. Archie surveyed the room, crossed it to pull aside a curtain and look out the window, and snorted.
“What’s up, Goodwin?”
“If you’re not a movie fan, you won’t get it, Roeder.” He took off his fedora and put it on top of the drawers.
“Oh, yeah. Smartass.” I had no notion of what he was talking about. Neither, perhaps, did he, because he let the cloth fall, pulled the curtains tight together, and went over to the bed. He sat on it, winced when it creaked loudly, and bent over to untie his wingtips. I know my posture must have heralded my wariness when he sat up abruptly. He grinned, and then spread his arms wide and said, in a voice meant to carry, “Okay, Roeder, let’s get this over with.”
I sat next to him on the bed. That creak was, if anything, louder than the first. I said, still in Roeder’s voice and softly, “Your sense of humor remains excretable.”
“You think that’s funny,” he said, his own voice pitched low, “try this.” He pulled me down onto the bed and slung one leg across me. He leaned close to mutter in my ear, “Now, this is funny. I was so busy watching for signals from you, I ignored the fire escapes. You can bet an amateur like that driver will give it a try.”
It wasn’t exactly circumstances conducive to romance, and my partner could have frightened Frankenstein’s monster. So I can’t easily explain what happened next, at least not without going into a matter that neither Wolfe nor I will ever discuss head-on. It seemed reasonable, at first, to ditch the clothes rather than wrinkle them: neither of us likes to be a slob, and Roeder wasn’t any different from Wolfe, that way. True, we didn’t have to make such a production of getting them off, but it suited our mood. When his warm body pressed against my own, and his faced loomed above mine in the light and dark, light and dark, it was different. We turned hungry.
We locked limbs and rolled back and forth across the bed, producing all the noise any eavesdropper would need. He kissed me as if he would devour me, and my grip on him probably left bruises the next day. When we broke apart, we were both panting. My tongue and lips moved down along the cords of his neck onto his chest, across the hair, and the slack skin, and the hard muscle beneath it, to a nipple. When I nipped him, he let out his first grunt. It wasn’t his last.
As I explored him, his hands stroked me, first delicate and precise, and then demanding. By the time he was between my thighs, as if from a distance, I heard myself growling. As he began to probe with his fingers, I grabbed his chin and made him look at me. He stared back, eyes intent and possessive. I nodded, he searched a little deeper, and I gasped as he found what he was seeking.
Since we couldn’t say everything we wanted to, we spoke with our bodies. At one point, as he moved powerfully above me, I grabbed one of his hands and dragged it to my lips to muffle myself. I didn’t want anyone to hear me yell out with that tone in my voice. It would not have been the sound of someone forced to do something against his will.
Afterwards, we lay together on the bed and hashed it out in voices pitched not to carry. Occasionally he would turn up his volume and speak of Homer, but I wasn’t paying attention to that. Wolfe thought fast when he needed to, and he’d come up with another plan. I didn’t like it. He really didn’t like it. Neither of us could see an alternative more likely to work. It may have been weighing the risks that started us off again.
The demands of the flesh are absurd, but not when they are his. He was as beautiful as a young tiger, as strong in my arms, and as sleek under my hands. When, as our hunger rose again, he twisted atop me and asked his fierce question, it never occurred to me to refuse. He conquered me, and gloried in his conquest. It was as if he were trying to imprint himself upon my very self, so that no matter what book I read, what flower I held, what suspect I examined, I would see before me a fiery silhouette of Archie.
Yes, I was sodomized, and I reveled in it. At the end it took a not very clean pillow to muffle my cries. Then, soon after, he stifled his own groans against my shoulder. I rejoice at the memory.
When we were done, we both knew it was dangerous to linger any longer. After taking turns at the ugly washstand, we raised our voices harshly to each other, pretending to argue. He allowed his voice to sink sullenly as Roeder made his points, elaborating on the nature of his hold over Goodwin. All the time we spoke Archie stalked, still naked, back and forth across the small and dingy room. Whenever his face was away from the window, he would roll his eyes, grimace, or grin at me. At least our strange encounter had restored the bright defiance that had faded when I had first moved my gaze across his body with hunger. When our final passage of arms ended, Roeder told him, loudly, that he would call if the organization ever wanted to talk with Goodwin, and Archie no longer protested.
After he dressed and left, I forced myself to refrain from going to the window, to watch him emerge onto the streets below. For as long as we have known each other, he has traveled those streets and I have waited. It was no different now, aside from my certainty that he would return to me if he could.
July crawled into August. It was a hot summer, and I stopped wearing a hat when I went out. I sent the photographs to Los Angeles, and hung up when Homer called me. The agency prospered. My friend coaxed me to join her on that trip to Norway, but I dragged my feet. Some days I would find myself standing, looking out the window of my office, wondering what Wolfe was doing. Each morning as I opened up the Gazette over my breakfast, I flipped through it checking for a headline: “Gangland Murder.” Fritz would purse his lips at me until I had finished and taken my first sip of orange juice. Even worse was a notion that I couldn’t get out of my head, that he would just disappear again.
One day in mid-August, the phone rang at my office, and a voice I didn’t recognize asked for Sally. I told whoever it was that he had the wrong number, and hung up. An hour and a half later, I called Saul Panzer to ask if he wanted to join me for lunch. He was on a job, but invited me to take a bite with him in a place over on the lower east side.
I didn’t whisper. It attracts attention. “Saul, I need a weapon.”
“What kind of a weapon?” He picked the top slice of bread up to inspect the contents of his sandwich and frowned. I didn’t blame him. The spoon in this diner was greasy, all right.
“Since you asked, one colder than a Salvation Army Girl in Fairbanks during January.” I made a gesture.
“Cut the Chandler crud, will you, Archie? You know what Wolfe will say if he gets back and you’re talking like that.”
I snorted. “I know. He’ll claim I stood out in the rain too long while he was gone, and got brain fever.” I made myself add, “If he ever comes back.” I doubt Saul was deceived.
“Mm-hmm. I’ll talk to the friends and get back to you by this weekend.” I nodded. Good as done, and, as a bonus, he knew Wolfe was back in circulation. When we needed him, he’d be available.
Five days later, Roeder himself called me. Now that they had something solid on me, I was of interest to their organization. They were always looking for a few bad men. The boss wanted to meet me.
That evening, Roeder picked me up, this time in a black Cadillac.
“Congratulations on your promotion,” I told him. It was snide, but what the hell. “Where is this conference at? The organization’s super-secret headquarters?” I caught the eye of the driver, a man I hadn't seen before, in the rear-view mirror and scowled. He glanced away, so he either didn’t know what Roeder and I had done, or was smart enough not to care.
“That’s right, Goodwin” Roeder’s voice was not getting any better with closer acquaintance. He patted me on the shoulder, and I shrugged it off without turning my head.
“Careful, that fabric wrinkles easy, and I’m dressed to impress.”
“You’re pretty damn cocky.” Again, he wasn’t criticizing, just unenthusiastic.
“If I’m going to be around, you might want to get used to it.” My own attitude wasn’t so much hostile, as annoyed. “And no more samples, free or otherwise.”
“Not if we’re working together. I don’t need the extra sweat. But that’s for my employer to decide.”
I let the conversation lapse. After a few miles, Roeder said, “All right, Goodwin, down on the floor, face down. You don’t get to see where you’re going until you’ve talked to the boss.”
“Have a heart, it’s a hot evening,” I protested, but he was unmoved. The - thin - bastard.
Archie’s indignation would have amused me, if I were not in such a black humor. This entire enterprise was shot through with risk; I did not need Archie to estimate how poor our chances were. Even now, there was a lingering possibility that we had been out-maneuvered, and that our bodies would be found together tomorrow in some humiliating circumstance, as an obvious murder-suicide. Although death was not my main concern. I know that I am a man, and all men are mortal, but death is the end of all fear.
I did fear living with our failure, for however brief a time that life might last. If I had wanted Zeck defeated before I began this charade, now I wanted him ground to powder and dusted from the memory of human kind. Our propinquity had demonstrated to me what I had only suspected, before. My buried romanticism was my golden flaw, my saving sin. Zeck possessed no heart, much genius, and some hunger, and Zeck was a monster. Too little separated us. As long as he existed, I would never be comfortable again.
We were gambling. If Zeck had asked me to bring Archie in for an interview during working hours, there were other plans that we could have employed to try and deal with the abundance of bodyguards and employees, but such schemes were all unlikely to succeed. An off-hours visit would provide us with a golden opportunity to deal with many fewer individuals, but amidst otherwise uncertain circumstances.
Archie has written elsewhere, in his fabulous account of the Rackham case, of the fortress Zeck had surrounded himself with, and of Zeck’s office. He has described the grey-pink room, nestled within concentric layers of concrete and guards. What he did not describe was the personal suite that lay beyond the office, the rooms where Arnold Zeck proved that he knew he was a man, and that all men are hungry, and that hunger is the birth of all fear.
He was not fool enough to indulge his tastes with one companion at a time. That would, over years, provide too many dangerous opportunities when he was otherwise alone. Rather, his entertainments were those that one might expect of a cold man with a cold interest in human flaws. He would keep company with more than one person during his conferences, observing, always observing.
I had dangled bait by reporting how Roeder had gained purchase on Goodwin. The film, such as it was, had confirmed my story, as had the recording. He knew Roeder’s reputation from the west coast; he had collected reports from some of the persons with whom Roeder had been involved. My account implied that Archie was likely to submit to a certain kind of persistent, experienced blandishment. The books that Archie has written helped me; it is a matter of public record that he is swayed by intelligence and eccentricity when forming infatuations and commitments. It took no great mental leap to imagine that these traits might express themselves in interesting ways on a more intimate level.
My report was the reason for the timing of our invitation. As Zeck did not share the ‘weakness’ of Wolfe’s sentimentality, he did not share the ‘weakness’ of Wolfe’s sexual humility. Extrapolating from what he himself would have done, he had always been certain that Archie Goodwin was Nero Wolfe’s catamite. I had gambled that he thought that Archie could be brought to heel once more, by Roeder. Watching the initial steps in that taming would amuse him, tempting him to linger as he conferred with Archie about more mundane matters.
Much would depend on whom Zeck’s bodyguard was this night. Almost always, for these occasions, it was Bela, a recent immigrant from Europe whose Hungarian name, I suspected, concealed Teutonic origins. This man had hungers of his own, ones I do not like to contemplate, even in retrospect. The subtle evening’s entertainment Zeck desired me to provide would probably bore Bela, which would be all the better for our purposes.
We had not set up detailed plans. There was no way we could anticipate every contingency. We had, instead, worked out the signals and supports we wished to have ready for whatever opportunities might arise. I hoped our tactics would be sufficient to our ends. Without turning my head, I observed the side of the road as we drove, retaining only enough attention to reply to Archie’s carpings as he crouched, curled like a hunting cat, on the car floor by my feet. Our raillery served to distract the driver, and to remind me not to react when I saw the empty oil can abandoned by the side of the road, close to a garage at a four-corner outside of Fort Kisco. Our reinforcement was in place. The rest was up to us.
I was searched by the guard in the garage after the car had left. The character in the outer office did it again, with flourishes, and a relish that I didn’t share. My new friend’s name was Bela, it seemed. He checked Roeder, too, which might have been more fun if it wasn’t for the feral gleam in Bela’s blue eyes while he worked. This guy wanted someone to step out of line so that he could enjoy himself hurting them, and he didn’t care who, or why.
I’ve described Zeck’s office elsewhere, and have no particular desire to do so again. We didn’t spend much time there, in any case. Opening a door on the far wall, Bela escorted us into the private suite, where Zeck held his special conferences.
I didn’t like it any better than the office. For one thing, I object to having a fireplace in the center of the room, hood or no hood. For another, the pine paneling had a faint red tint that reminded me of blood, and the color was echoed in the dyed skin upholstery of the metal-framed chairs. On the walls, the paintings were of people who were naked and unhappy, or unhappy, or, unhappily, naked. I mentally dubbed the decor Aryan Modern. Roeder sat on the wide leather couch, and waved me to sit beside him. I gave him a look and sat on the opposite end.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Zeck emerged. He walked across the carpet and sat in the most uncomfortable looking of the armchairs. It was like watching a shark settling into the shallows to wait for prey. For a moment that stretched, he surveyed us. He didn’t seem like much, aside from the cliff of his forehead, until you saw his eyes. They could make you want to shiver, and not know why.
“Archie Goodwin,” he said to me. “We’ve spoken, and I’ve had reports on you from a number of sources.”
“Yeah? Would you like a dissenting opinion?”
“Perhaps later, if I decide it would be of interest.” His eyes had about as much life in them as a land mine. He steepled his fingers. “In order for us not to waste time, I will start by telling you that I am not concerned about the present whereabouts of Nero Wolfe.”
“That’s what he said.” I yanked a thumb at Roeder, who favored me with a look.
“Do you believe him?”
“On Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I think he lies, and on Saturdays I’m sure he does.”
Roeder said, his tone slightly bored, “Tell us about Sundays, Goodwin You know you won’t be happy until you do.”
“On Sundays, you think I lie.” I glared at him.
He frowned, and then smiled slowly. “Maybe. Or maybe I go to a good ballgame, instead.”
Zeck’s eyes slid back and forth between the two of us. I thought I detected a glint in them that made me wish they had stayed flat. He blinked. It was the first time I’d seen him do it. “You are very much as reported, Goodwin. Impressive, but not efficient.”
“You want efficient? I can do that for you. Why am I here?”
I saw a sight then that I really never want to see anything like again. Arnold Zeck smiled.
It was almost impossible to restrain myself. The danger in the room seemed to thicken into red mist, as if there was blood in the air. I castigated myself for losing my focus, and said, “Why do you think, Goodwin? We’ve learned enough about you to know that you won’t be willing to waste your life running penny-ante jobs for rich people. Or do you really want to spend your life finding poodles?”
He shifted restlessly on the couch. It seemed, as I talked, as Zeck talked, that I could feel each individual muscle move in his body, each breath he took, each small change in his posture. The messages passing between us were louder than the conversation. Zeck inquired and offered, I coaxed and demanded, Archie replied and defied. Slowly he shifted towards me on the couch, until, seeming to realize what he was doing, he got up abruptly and moved to an armchair away from me and closer to Zeck. Bela stirred, but stilled again at some invisible signal from Zeck. The glint of interest came and went again in Zeck’s eyes. It was time.
“All right, Goodwin. Sometimes I find that photographs give people a good feel for their options.” I opened the briefcase, and reached in to pull out one of the file folders it contained. Bela, suspicious, moved next to the arm of the couch so that he could peer over my shoulder and watch me. He didn’t see my other hand, supporting the briefcase, gain purchase on the tang of the thin blade sheathed within the thick leather bottom of the case. “Now, take this picture, here--”
I know myself, which is my saving grace. Archie does not know himself, which is his. The rage that had been building in him throughout this entire affair waited for its release, making him taut and needle-sharp. My words unclipped the leash on my beloved, murderous tiger.
There was no time to watch him work. I was too busy with Bela, who had allowed his focus to shift to Archie. My job was only to slow Bela for the critical moments we needed, but luck was with me. Bela should have practiced his draw more after he gave up his black uniform for a pin-stripe suit. It takes time to remove a gun from an unfamiliar type of holster, and he didn’t get the extra seconds he needed, since I retain some abilities from my youth. I had a knife.
By the time I was done, so was Zeck. He may already have been dead, although I doubt it; Archie’s control is good when he is not in battle. He is not one to kill a man in cold blood. It was I who took Bela’s gun and shot Arnold Zeck in the head, twice.
The next part of the job was helped along by the fact that we weren’t too worried about plausibility. I moved Bela, gave him his gun back, and left him. Saul’s knife got its hilt back, and went into Zeck’s hand long enough to pick up prints. I went out into Zeck’s office, and grabbed up the phone. Getting the line to the garage, I dialed, let it ring twice, and hung up. Dialing again, I waited until Saul picked up and said, “Yeah?”
“Me. We’re ready for you now.” I hung up, again.
Working faster than I had ever seen him work, Wolfe was tipping the contents of folders from Zeck’s office - mostly photographic materials, ledger pages, and some papers - into the central hearth in the living room, and burning them. Whenever the flames would die down, he would add fuel from the liquor cabinet. It was one hell of a use for single-malt Scotch. Now and then he would leaf through a file, throw it onto the flames, and blink for a while, probably because of the fumes. I wiped surfaces, and then went and joined him. While I was helping transport material from the bedroom, there was a pattern of knocks on the office door. I opened it to find Saul on the other side, tucking a nylon stocking into his hip pocket.
“Any trouble?” I asked.
“No. I came in with the car, like you said. The guard was nodding off, can you believe it? Never even saw my face. He’s outside, away from the building, tied up loose and out cold. I had him well before the alarm went off.” He caught sight of Wolfe over my shoulder, and his eyes widened.
“Yeah, it’s a nightmare,” I said. “Don’t ask him how he feels about it.”
“Saul,” Wolfe said, and broke off operations long enough to come over and shake his hand. “Would you please wipe the surfaces clean of fingerprints, again, before you join us?”
I didn’t mind the double-check. I had no desire to ride the lightning for the sake of a character like Zeck and remembering all the places that can hold prints is a tricky job.
It seemed to take hours, but, when I looked at my watch, only about ninety minutes had passed before we were done. Wolfe and I and Saul all finished around the same time, and then Saul brought in the kerosene from the car. Wolfe hesitated over two of the pictures on the living room walls, but, in the end, they joined the contents of the offices and suite as part of Zeck’s funeral pyre.
Zeck, as Wolfe had surmised, had arranged for files to be delivered after his death, in order to discourage his potential successors. Interesting packages turned up at city desks of three major metropolitan dailies, including at the Gazette’s. Several people disappeared; whether they went by themselves or with assistance was never made clear. Pete Roeder was one of them, although it turned out not to have been necessary. Even though the investigations dragged on for months, Roeder’s name never surfaced. Zeck must not have placed Roeder’s file yet, an unexpected bonus of our having moved fast. Wolfe can go back to Los Angeles, if he ever wants to. I think he would eat at a White Castle first.
Of course Wolfe didn’t return for a couple of months, since the timing would have been too obvious. We spent our vacation getting suntans, eating, and amusing ourselves until enough time had passed for the news of Zeck’s death to have reached anywhere in the world. When Wolfe came back from his supposed retirement, he had lost the beard, and filled out some pleats. He told Lon Cohen about his house in Egypt over dinner. Lon snorted, and helped himself to another squab.
I know Cramer suspected something, but there was nothing he could use. To be fair, I don’t think he or any of the other cops tried very hard: they’d known more about the man I’ve called Zeck than they wanted to. For a few weeks after the book I stitched together from the “Rackham” and “Zeck” cases came out Cramer would turn a little red around the ears every time he saw me. But, after calling me five kinds of liar so many times before, he couldn’t turn around and accuse me of publishing the truth in what was an obvious fairy tale.
Nothing really changed at the Brownstone. Only one thing was different. I didn’t make it to Norway until the next year, when my book amused her enough that my friend forgave me for a state of affairs existing, in all ways but one, long before she and I met.
Wolfe and I still argue about which one of us killed Zeck.
Archie lay sprawled on the bed, with one arm flung across my chest. I slowly stroked his back, feeling the muscles flex and relax under my hand, steel under chamois. “Can you live with what I demanded of you?”
“Sure, I can live with it. I don’t even want to think about the kids in some of Zeck’s personal snapshots that we burned.” Archie’s hand moved restlessly across my chest. “It didn’t help me any, killing that monster, and I thought it would. I should have known better.”
“Yes. Justice rarely suffices as one believes it will, before enforcing it. It did me no good after prison in Algeria, for example. The world still closed in about me.”
“Algeria, huh?” There was a silence, but a comfortable one, all things considered. “It’s nice to be back in the Brownstone, even if I’m going to slip off these sheets any minute now. I’ve always wondered, why silk?”
I grunted. It was good to not have to repress the impulse. “I enjoy the texture against my skin.”
He grinned. “Yeah, for the five whole minutes before your yellow silk pajamas slide you across the black silk sheets and onto the floor.” He pulled himself to me and bent his head to my throat. I am still amazed he wished to continue this new aspect of our relationship after our return. I do not allow my amazement to hinder our pleasures. His breath is hot against my skin.
Archie is correct when he notes that silk does not mix well with sweat. However, the sensation--
Afterwards, we lay together, once again intertwined. Sleep comes reluctantly to us both, some nights, no matter what Archie may claim in his imaginative narrations. Exercise helps, though, and so does conversation. I asked him, “Do you wish me to remain thin?”
He didn’t look at me. “The way you’re eating, you’re bothering to inquire? If you don’t slow down, you’re going to bust a vein. But, if I pretend to get a vote, I vote no.”
“Why?” I believed I understood him, but I wished to be sure.
“Nuts. You have to ask? You’re the one who said you looked like some old-time prince named Philibert. Even without the beard, it’s pretty grim.” He added, slowly, “And I need something to hold on to,” and then grinned as he said, “since it keeps me from sliding onto the carpet, head first.”
I had heard what I needed to hear. “Indeed. The damage would be calculable.” We kissed. His lips were sweeter than wine, than honey, than freedom. Hunger, at last, was sated.
Many years ago, I walked away from Chillicothe without looking back. Many years ago less one, I walked into the Brownstone without looking forward. I’ve never entirely left since, even when I could, even when other people thought that I should. Maybe now, if they knew, everyone would demand that I must, but to hell with that.
I read a book, one time, that said all Montenegran men were great warriors, great poets, and lazy bums. Skipping over the genius, it’s as good a description of Wolfe as any I’ve ever written, except for one. I still live with Wolfe. I still work for Wolfe. To tell the truth, I did the entire time he was gone. I suppose that’s no surprise. Like I’ve written elsewhere, he may be a pain in the ass, but wherever he is, he’s still my favorite fatty.
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