Nero Wolfe was drunk. I can think of no other word for it. He wasn’t blotto, plastered, or loose -- he was drunk. It caught me completely by surprise when I came into the office after my evening out and found him sitting in the red leather chair. It wasn’t the seat; sometimes he moves there with a favorite book and a snifter of brandy when he doesn’t feel sleepy so he can tire himself out by sitting in a less-than-perfect chair. It was his appearance. This evening, when he looked up as I came into the office, his skin was flushed, his eyes were red and watery, and his muscles were loose. He peered up at me as I crossed the Keraghan carpet to stand in front of him, and Wolfe is not the peering sort. For a moment he seemed startled to see me there. Fair enough. I was feeling pretty startled myself. In fact, my first impulse when I understood the state he was in was to leave, but something about the expression in his eyes nailed me to the floor where I stood.
“Archie,” Wolfe said, his words balanced as carefully as so many eggs, “I’ve had a blow. Andrew Romney is dead and it was my fault.”
I should have known at once what it was he’d been sulking about, but I had been trying not to think about Romney’s death myself. To be frank, it was my fault as much as Wolfe’s. A second homicide was what I got for letting him get lazy in the middle of a murder case.
Wolfe had been investigating William Caiden’s death for five long days by the time Romney was murdered. Not that the cops had been doing any better, mind you; before we took on the case, they had labored hard but gotten nowhere because the upper-crust lavender sort that Caiden ran with was immune to the Homicide Squad’s idea of blandishment. One minute after the first nasty crack emerged from Lieutenant Rowcliff’s mouth everyone involved suddenly developed amnesia. Two weeks of the resulting hi-jinks had been enough to make the widow, an affluent and artsy society matron who was even more affluent now that she’d inherited her husband’s wad, lose enough patience for us to get a phone call.
When Mrs. Caiden hired us, she must have had some idea of where our investigations might lead because she’d given us the names of several of her late husband’s very good friends and of a few of her own. She didn’t care about “that”, she said with a toss of her head, she only wanted the murderer caught and the police to be taught a lesson in manners. Since it was right after tax time and the checking account was lean and hungry, Wolfe let himself be talked into taking the case.
We did a good job of hauling in the entire light-heeled load and turning them inside-out. Eventually we were left with four men: Quincy Lambert, Van Carey, Stephen Knoph-Phillips, and Andrew Romney, all of whom had been in the Greenwich Village apartment the night of Caiden’s murder. Someone had remained after the others left, and that someone had probably killed him. After Wolfe had talked to all four of them, he had eliminated Romney using some mysterious standard of his own. And there matters stuck for the three days until Romney was murdered.
Wolfe had been in a state ever since Inspector Cramer had dropped by to tell us about the second murder. As soon as Cramer left, Wolfe had gone straight to bed and stayed there eating nothing but soup for twenty-four hours, a species of behavior he hadn’t indulged in for years. This morning the fat genius had finally come downstairs and told me to call Saul, but then he changed his mind, fidgeted, and picked up his latest book, poetry by some guy named Auden. I think Romney recommended it. Wolfe stared at the same page for fifteen minutes: I timed him. He picked through his lunch, when it was rice and mushroom fritters, and afterwards refused to discuss the murders at all. Instead, he had pretended to do the London Times crossword puzzle. Then, he left for the orchids eight minutes early. To sum matters up, he had been driving me crazy all day, crazy enough that I had gone out that evening to keep from quitting on him in the middle of a case.
Now that he had finally confessed what was gnawing at him, I was disgusted. I think it’s because I was both annoyed and still shaken by his condition that my reply popped out of my mouth without editing. “Bullshit it was your fault, sir, unless you’ve taken to shooting poets when I’m not here to stop you.”
He nodded at me sagely. “You do not understand, but you are not to blame. I have not presented you with all the facts needed for understanding.” When he examined the snifter in his hand, he seemed to be surprised that it was empty. He put it down.
Before he could complain about eyes at a level I turned one of the yellow chairs to face him and sat down myself. I could tell we were in for a full nine innings.
Wolfe considered me, then asked, “Do you remember that Mr. Cramer was forced to admit that the police were unable to discover the whereabouts of Mr. Romney earlier on the night of his murder?”
“Yeah, not a surprise. Anyone with Romney’s tastes and background should know how to shake off a tail.” Just because Romney had stuck in my craw was no reason not to give the guy his due. For a poet, and a pansy poet at that, he had been a fairly tough number. He had fought in the Spanish Civil War, come back to write articles for the kind of magazines only high-brows read that savaged both the Commies and the Nazis, and then battled both groups in the street brawls that swirled around the Bund rallies over in Newark. There were one or two scars on the knuckles of his long, elegant fingers. I think he enjoyed being difficult, which was probably why Wolfe had decided to like him.
“He spent that evening here, with me.”
I sat frozen for what must have been ten seconds, before I said, carefully, “Not sharing that little fact with Cramer and the police could get your P. I. license yanked, but you know that already. I’m sure you have some wonderful explanation for your decision to clam up, being a genius and all.”
Wolfe didn’t even have the strength left to growl. Instead, he looked around, probably for the snifter. I didn’t help him, as I hoped he wasn’t feeling energetic enough to get up and search for it. He wasn’t. Giving up, he examined my face, instead. After a long pause, he said heavily, “Mr. Romney was here for dinner, at my invitation. The rest of the evening, we discussed poetry and politics.”
Suddenly I knew what was coming next. My stomach knew it, too. “How late did he leave?”
“He did not stay the entire night. He left abruptly around twenty minutes past midnight, after I refused his intimate proposal.”
My jaw dropped, before I could tell it not to. I tightened it back up again, but it was too late.
“Confound it, Archie!” Wolfe bellowed, and then winced. His own voice was too loud for him. On the half-a-handful of occasions I’ve seen him drink enough to be temperamental, his ears have gotten sensitive. He tried again. “You know full well--” It trailed off and stopped. That pause was so long that you could hear the brownstone creaking and sighing around us as it settled in for the night.
I was the one to get it out. “Yeah, you like guys; big deal, so d--.” I caught the end of it in time, but I wasn’t pleased that he’d goaded me into blurting out as much as I had. It broke our unspoken law, even if it was justified by what had happened to Andrew Romney.
“No!” It sounded tight, like he was forcing the word out past clenched teeth. “Or rather, yes, but that was not the relevant fact. If I had agreed, and kept Mr. Romney with me here, he would not now be dead.”
It was as if someone had changed me into stone, like in a kid’s fairy tale.
“If I had kept Mr. Romney with me, as I wished to, the murderer would not have found a second victim.” His voice got low but I didn’t need volume to hear him. It was as if his words were hammers. “If I had kept Mr. Romney with me, a great poet would not have died. But I did not. I was afraid.”
And there it was. Nero Wolfe, who would freely admit to breaking into a sweat at the thought of a car engine throwing a cylinder or a woman bursting into tears, was drinking himself blind because he had been afraid to accept another man’s advances.
God damn Romney, anyhow. If he had been such a great observer of men, he should have noticed how wary Wolfe was of being handled. Maybe he had thought that Wolfe was just playing touchophobic to keep from dealing with women. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had thought that myself, but I found out otherwise. So had Romney, but it seems he hadn’t liked Wolfe saying no and it had accidentally gotten him killed. And now we would have to clean up his mess.
I raised one eyebrow. “If you look at it another way, it’s his being so damn huffy about your turning him down that got him into trouble. Unless you bellowed at him, of course. That would drive anyone out into the streets.”
“Archie--” His tone of voice was sweet on the surface but dangerous underneath. Good: the suffering martyr act wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
“Tell you what. If you’re feeling so guilty, why don’t you even matters up? If it’ll make you feel better, you make a pass at me, I’ll say no, and you can dash outside and throw yourself under a taxi.” I jerked a thumb at my desk. “Shall I call you a cab?”
Wolfe heaved himself to his feet and marched over to where I was sitting, scowling all the way. He moved okay, considering his condition. When he made it to me, he stood swaying very slightly. “You should not jest about such matters.”
“That’s the drink talking,” I said and got up myself. It did seem possible that I was about to be toppled upon and I wanted to be prepared. The Chillicothe Boy Scout troop master would have been proud.
He reached out and grasped my upper arm. For one startled moment I thought he was taking me up on my offer, but he was only having more problems with balance, which annoyed him. “Bah. The brandy I have consumed is causing me more difficulties with mobility than articulation.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that your mouth would be the last thing to go. That must have its uses.” I admit, in retrospect, as a comment it was over the top.
“You are insolent.” Good: he was sounding more like his usual self. However, I thought too soon. The corners of his lips rose into a smile that must have been all of a half-inch tall. “It is true that I will need assistance to my bedroom.” I could feel through his hand on my arm that his rate of swaying was increasing. I grabbed his shoulders before he gained enough speed that I wouldn’t be able to stop him from going over.
“Okay, sir. Off we go.”
I usually avoid the elevator. It takes all the different kinds of exercise I can find to keep my slim figure, given Fritz’s cooking, and Wolfe consumes all the oxygen in the car, anyway. But tonight I propped him up against the rear wall and pushed the button for the second floor. I heard a noise that made me afraid the elevator was malfunctioning, until I realized that it was the sound of Nero Wolfe humming.
When I got him into his bedroom and seated on top of the puffy black coverlet of the bed, he sat staring at his shoes like they belonged to someone else, someone who had snuck them onto his feet to annoy him. I knew what that meant. If I wanted to get any sleep, I was going to have to get him undressed. Kneeling down, I undid his laces and tugged off the shoes, one at a time. “Just remember that drinking makes the whole world move like a train, and you won’t be so tempted to indulge.” The last time I’d valeted him like this was when we were taking the train to the Kanawah Spa. It had been a dismal experience. At least this time he wasn’t bellowing that the locomotive had derailed and we’d both be killed while I was yanking his socks off. “Come on, boss, back up onto your feet.”
He must have been fading a little. He didn’t even get annoyed at my calling him boss. I crooked a finger and he held out his hands so I could undo his cuff-links. I was grateful he had that much sense left. In his state, watching him undo the solid-gold linked disks would have been worth ten minutes of amusement per link. When I checked his face to see how far he was gone before I tried to deal with his suit, he had his brows knitted and was staring at me as if he was trying to read a clue he had tattooed behind one of my ears. It made me uneasy. I decided to distract him.
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken advantage, but I was curious, and I figured I might never again find Wolfe in a state where he was willing to talk about it. “Just what was it with Romney, anyhow? You don’t exactly fling yourself at every pretty boy who wanders into the office during a murder investigation. Why would you have done it with him?”
He peered at me - it was an annoying expression and I wished he would stop using it - and the corners of his lips went up the usual sixteenth of an inch. “I do not know what confuses you, Archie. He had many of your appealing traits, including the charisma that radiates from self-confident grace, and you have always been successful enough in your pursuits.”
“Not always,” I objected, “as you have reason to know.” I could have kicked myself, but there was no reason to make my slip more obvious.
He chuckled. Damn: I’d hoped he’d missed it. I dumped his cufflinks on the bedside table, taking the excuse it gave me to turn away. When I turned back around he was holding out his arms so I could get the suit jacket off of him. I decided to try a different tack. “You know who did it?”
“I suspect but have no proof. It is the same person who murdered William Caiden. Perhaps if I had worked harder on finding evidence against Caiden’s murderer--” He shut his mouth and brooded.
“Now, that’s a rarity, to hear you repent being lazy.”
“Not surprising, Archie, given the differences between your and my definition of work.”
He was trying to undo his tie and was half-way to strangling himself. Not that it wasn’t a good idea, but he was messing it up, so I intervened. “You weren’t exactly working the genius hard, either. If we’re going to get this guy we’ll need a direction. Or do you want me to whistle up Saul and Fred and see what we can do on our own?”
“Don’t be snide. It is unattractive. Have Saul, Fred and Orrie here tomorrow morning and I’ll give you all instructions.”
“If you’re in a state where you’re capable of talking, you will. I’d recommend a couple of glasses of water now, before the hangover hits.” After I made sure he was parked back on the bed, I stowed his shirt in the laundry hamper while he grimaced his way through a glass of water from the pitcher on the table. He didn’t spill, much.
I got his yellow silk pajamas from the dresser where he hung them up each morning, brought them over to him, and sighed. The moment of truth was approaching, but he had drifted, deciding to pick up the trio of books he had on his night stand, probably to choose which one of the three was going to watch him wash his face. He held them out at arm’s length and peered at the spines. I frowned. One of the books looked familiar. He caught my look and said, “Puns as titles may be cherished by publishers, Archie, but--” He didn’t so much trail off as stop dead. He set the books back down on his night stand carefully, quietly, as if they might explode. The familiar dust jacket on the bottom was still easy to recognize. The book that it covered was one of my own.
Every year, pretty much without fail, I write a case up for publication. And every year I give one of my author’s five free copies to Nero Wolfe, inscribed, as thanks for the trouble he takes in going through my galley proofs to make sure I haven’t left anyone recognizable enough to get sued or let anything too personal slip out without knowing. I’ve never known what happened to the books next since my type of writing isn’t anything like his type of reading. They sure weren’t kept in the office. If I’d thought about it much, I would have assumed he gave them away when I wasn’t looking, to spare my feelings. Apparently, that hadn’t been the case. Seemingly, they had been leading a secret life, all of them, somewhere in Nero Wolfe’s bedroom alongside the likes of Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which were the titles of the books piled on top of my own.
I put the pajamas down on his bed and said, “On your feet. One last stretch and you’re home with the door locked behind you. And about time, too. Your slip is showing.” I meant it to sound snotty but it didn’t come out that way. His eyes narrowed a little. I tried again. “It’s fine, I know you dog-ear my pages.” Damn it, that wasn’t right either. I gritted my teeth.
Fortunately, he had gotten back up and the resulting challenge to his balance was enough to keep both of us busy for the next minute or so.
“Okay,” I said at the end of a fairly hectic interval. Now I had the proper grim note in my voice.
“This is appalling.”
“Yup. Hold on to the foot of the bed while I get your belt.”
“I am imposing on you.” As if that was something unique.
“If you fall over, you won’t be imposing on me, you’ll be impacting on me, mostly on my ribs.” I was almost done with his trousers, so to distract him I said, “I wandered into a museum once and saw a picture that this reminds me of. A big fat fellow, like you but older, and so drunk he was falling off of his ass and onto a groom.”
“Huh?” I said. I had the pajama trousers ready; I only had to get him to step into them.
“Papposilenus intoxicated amidst the Bacche. I would imagine you glanced at the mannerist execution by Rienaldo hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which case his companion was not a groom, but a faun.” He looked down at me and his lips stretched out a little. “An appropriate comparison for this one night, I admit.”
“Thanks.” I got back up. “I’m enlightened.” I wasn’t too sarcastic. He didn’t deserve it. He wasn’t that bad a drunk, all things considered, not ugly or aggressive or weepy or musical. He was only--Nero Wolfe, intoxicated.
The pajama tops were all that was left to deal with and he was struggling into them very slowly and gravely on his own, but with enough success that I could have left him alone. Instead I reached over and buttoned him up, maybe in gratitude for how much easier he was to valet drunk than inside of a moving machine.
His eyes shadowed, he watched me finish and then sighed a bushel or so of air. “Thank you, Archie. This evening would have been even more difficult without you.”
“That’s the drink talking again,” I told him tolerantly. “In the morning, I’ll pretend you insulted me.”
He snorted and the corners of his lips quirked up. Then he leaned forward and kissed me.
I saw it coming, and I could have ducked. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t. Maybe I was feeling territorial, or maybe I couldn’t believe he had unlocked the gate after all these years, or maybe I’d remembered when I was young and thought I knew what he desired and hadn’t known, and wanted to see what I’d missed. I guess I can type it here because these pages will never see the light of day. I not only didn’t duck, but when he listed a little, I moved to intercept him.
His lips were soft, mobile, and oddly familiar, like the features of someone in a photograph are when you meet him face to face. His breath was heavy with an old brandy fine enough that it was pleasant. His skin against mine rasped a little, unmistakably a man’s skin and not a woman’s. His tongue--
I should have ended it by that point, but I hadn’t. His tongue was warm, firm. His tongue touched my lips, teased through, and met my own.
I kissed him.
I wrapped my arms around him fiercely and hugged him, too, the way you see in war movies at the end when the last two survivors head off to different units. What I was mainly doing, though, was kissing him, and being kissed myself.
It wasn’t the greatest of all kisses. He was pretty drunk and I was half stunned. But he was also Nero Wolfe, and that, I discovered, made a difference to me. My head swam, and not just with the brandy fumes.
When we were done we pulled apart a little and looked at each other, frowning slightly. It was a rare sight, both of us confused at the same time.
“You touched me,” he said. Right, like it was my fault.
“You kissed me,” I corrected him. For some reason, I had to add, “And you didn’t squirm when I kissed you back.”
He sat back down on the bed and scowled slightly, his eyes narrowed, obviously trying to work it out. For some reason, that reaction was more of a relief to me than if he’d been struck with total amnesia. He looked up at me and said, “My extreme aversion to intimate touch seems to have eased, in your case.”
“You’re used to me.” I pulled the covers out of his way, and he swung his big bare feet around, still scowling.
“Perhaps, or perhaps, because we--” He let it trail off, which was just as well. Admitting to being a pansy was one of our private misdemeanors. Mentioning that other matter between us was a felony.
“Maybe. Probably. Do you need anything else but the lights off?” I’d gotten the covers up to where he could decorate with them to his own satisfaction.
He licked his teeth and grunted. “I could use a sustained session with a toothbrush but I would undoubtedly fall over if I attempted it. Still, my breath must be vivid.”
I grinned. “I’ll say.”
He snorted. “Baboon. Good night, Archie.”
“Night, sir.” I turned out the lights from the switch by the door.
In the hall outside his bedroom, I shook my head and hitched my trousers. Intoxicated. Thank God he drank as rarely as he did. Then I opened his door again, stuck my head back inside, and asked, “It was the widow, Mrs. Caiden, right?”
“Archie!” It was a full-out bellow. “Go to bed!”
I closed the door for the second time that night and grinned. It was the wife, all right, and he hates it when I get there on my own before he tells me all about it.
There’s a sequel to this story.
Mrs. Caiden was a tough nut to crack without leaving a mess, so Wolfe pulled one of his fancy set-ups and she ended up killing herself. Given the circumstances, he wasn’t feeling very sympathetic. My emotions were a little more mixed; I’d now read some of Romney’s poetry and I still couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but she also murdered her husband and bit Fred Durkin during the final confrontation, so she probably deserved what she got. Wolfe kept the retainer since he’d done what she hired him for, and the expenses had been so low we made a small profit. His little journey into human fallibility passed without comment between us for a good, long time.
One morning, though, he came down from the plant rooms to find a package wrapped in gift paper on top of the mail. He scowled at it and then turned the scowl onto me. “What is this?”
“It’s that festive time of year,” I said brightly, looking up from my typewriter. It was September. “Maybe it’s a present.”
He picked up the package from his desk and the corners of his lips quirked. “Pfui.” He opened the package and I went back to my typing. It was the inscribed copy of my latest book, of course.
I heard him flip open the front cover and knew what he was reading:
After six books I’ve run out of graceful ways to say thanks, so this
will just have to be,
with Love and Kisses,
He didn’t throw it at my head, but his arm twitched; I looked up and saw it. Then he got up and came over to my desk, probably not sure en route if he was going to smack me with it or return it before he fired me, but I was ready for him. I’d opened the bottom door of my desk and gotten out the bottle of rye I keep there and was holding it out towards him. He stopped.
“Do you need some of this first?” I asked him.
His eyes narrowed to slits, he examined me before he spoke. “No.”
“Good,” I said, put the bottle away, and stood up.
Intoxicated: that’s the word for it, intoxicated.
Return to the archive