Author's note:  the prison slang used in this story is defined in this glossary.


Iron House




“No, Archie.  I don’t want to make you accessory to a felony--or is it a misdemeanor?”

“Nuts.  I’d love to share a cell with you.”

--Rex Stout, The Golden Spiders


Sure, I know why you want to hear all about it, Father.  You’re hoping for one of those “Oh, do not do as I have done” confessions, right?  No?

Nice of you to care, but I never spent much time worrying about my immortal soul.  Neither did he, as far as I could see, and I could see pretty far.  But, I’ll tell you what I will do.  You listen to what I have to say without piping up, you put it under that seal of the confessional that you priests value so much, and I promise I’ll give you all the details and let you ask questions after.  That’s as far as I’ll go, though I will add my word’s been known to be good for years around here.

It’s a deal?  Let’s go, then.

When I first got to Manhattan from Ohio, I was a pearl-diver, washing dishes in a diner.  Next I got a job guarding a pier and shot two guys, and that was the end of my life as a city sophisticate.  Both dock rats died, and it turned out that one of them had an uncle who was an alderman and the other one I’d known and not liked.  Since they had no real reason to be where they were, I didn’t end up fried, but it was close.  Close enough that they sent me upstate to Mannerheim Maximum Security as a lifer, instead.

I may have been a Hoosier, as green as grass, but I knew I was headed for trouble.  I’d already had to fight off some wolves in the various holding cells at the first mill they’d had me in, and I figured I’d be in for more of the same as soon as I was settled.  The bulls hosed us down and deloused us, issued us our thin, grey clothing and the standard roster of threats, and sorted us out.  One of them, a middling-build, balding, squinty guy who hadn't bothered to torment anyone in particular, looked me over and grinned.  I could tell he had something in mind and that I probably wouldn’t like whatever it was.

The cracked ribs that were my final farewell from the screws at my first pen had taught me something, if not much.  I kept my teeth squeezed together, an exercise I’d been practicing too often in the last couple of months.  I had no idea how unhappy pen life could be, back then, for a natural smart-ass and I didn’t much care.  Looking back, I wouldn’t have survived if my luck hadn't changed when Squinty decided to put me in with Wolfe to pay off a favor.  Looking back, I don’t know what to think of that.

When Screw Squinty finally parked me in my cell, my new roommate and I appraised each other.  It was an interesting moment because, barring unforeseen circumstances, we would be living together for a long time.  In the twenties, Mannerheim Facility was strictly for hard-timers and attitude cases, so you saw the same faces for years unless a lag irritated someone enough that he slipped on the ice and broke his neck. 

My future roomie was a big guy, maybe fifteen years older than me, about my height but with a burlier build.  He was even a little fat, which in the pen is as much of a warning as the buzz of a rattler’s tail.  It means a guy has seniority, or influence, or is a pet of the administration;  there aren’t a lot of ways to get enough sit-down time and decent food to layer on the lard.  We both had something of the same coloring.  He was brown, I’m close to a red-head.  That was good, because one of life’s saddest lessons is that most folks treat other folks that look like themselves the best.  Finally, I checked his eyes.  A small shiver went through me and I wondered why.  His eyes were brown and very shrewd but not immediately threatening. 

His gaze lingered for a moment on my split lip and the slightly hunched over way I was standing, but he seemed to decide he was done staring at me at about the same time that I was done staring at him.  “Good afternoon,” he said, and I blinked.  Courtesy was not big in the circles within which I had been moving the past few months.  “My name is Nero Wolfe.  Do you have any objection to taking the top bunk?”

“Nope,” I said, “and, given how we’re both built, it sounds like a very good idea.”

“Satisfactory,” he said, his tone still courteous, if distant.  “May I ask your name?”

“Archie Goodwin.  Archie’s not short for Archibald.”  I added the information that no one asks for but everyone expects to get.  “One count of Murder One, one count of Murder Two.”

The corners of his lips twitched a tiny amount.  It was like his face was on strike for higher wages.  “You’re innocent, of course.”

“No, I’m guilty, just misclassified.”  His eyes narrowed and his gaze sharpened.  Something in my last statement had captured his attention.

“Indeed.  I am also in prison for first-degree murder although I am, in fact, innocent.  The deed was done by a man with one eye.  I do not expect you to believe me, of course.”

“Thanks,” I said.  He was still being polite.

“I read about your case in the newspapers.  You were, if the accounts were accurate, not only misclassified but technically innocent.  It is unfortunate that, at this point, you no longer have practical legal recourse.”  I raised an eyebrow at him, and he added, “I am the prison librarian.”  I raised the other eyebrow, and his lips turned up, very slightly.  I might have missed it if we hadn't been right on top of each other in the tiny cell.  “Yes, we have a library.  Mannerheim’s is a progressive regime, you will find.  Our warden is a great student of modern sociology.  Observe, if you will, how we share cells in this new wing in order to enhance our social development.” 

We shared another social, assessing look.  He was arrogant and probably in deep with the screws, since he’d been given time off during the day to meet me, but at least he was entertaining.  By then I’d already figured out what time would only serve to confirm, that grey, clutching boredom is one of the deadliest enemies behind bars.

He reached some sort of a conclusion.  “If you wish any information about your new surroundings, please allow me to assist you.”

I tilted my head.  “Cost?”  I tried to keep the tone neutral, but I must have failed.

“Not of that currency.  I do have some influence that can be deployed on your behalf, but you will find that I am, insofar as it is possible in prison, a lazy man. That leads me to propose a different mode of exchange.  I could use a young and vigorous man to run errands for me, and his being my cellmate would be doubly convenient.”

I nodded cautious agreement and said, “It might be worth a three month’s trial.”

The corners of his lips twitched.  “I see you consider yourself jocose, Mr. Goodwin.”

I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but I could guess.  “You may as well call me Archie.  We’ve been formally introduced by one of our guards, after all.”

“Thank you, Archie.”  I noticed he didn’t return the favor, which told me something about our future relationship.  “Do you read?”

I shrugged.  “Not really.  Books make me antsy.”

“A pity.  You will miss the consolation they provide, in weeks to come.”  He was right about that. 

I soon found out that I’d cut a strong deal.  Wolfe was the prison fixer, the clever guy who knows the rules and can get around them to get you anything.  His protection kept the jockers away from me and kept my trial by fire down to a rough bare-knuckles bout in the corner of the yard that I won.   I’m pretty sure he was the reason why I, a new lag, got a job in the woodshop - so called, it was really a factory - that put me behind a typewriter for a few hours a day and kept me checking jigs for the rest of the time.  So, I tried to hold up my end of our bargain, spending a fair amount of time passing items between suppliers and customers and carrying his messages.  After a while I appointed myself Wolfe’s sidewinder as well, not, to my surprise, that he seemed to need one.  It was a while longer before I found out that he’d developed some reputation as a shiv man, long before I’d arrived.

It was good I had Wolfe because otherwise I might have murdered some random fish, who would probably have deserved it but might not have deserved it from me, just to break the tedium.  Prison life is not as exciting as the movies tell you.  For the most part, it’s dull, ugly, and lonely, with occasional violent outbursts.  Most of the violence is also dull, ugly, and lonely.  The screws don’t bother to hate you, they just fear and despise you and make that clear with frequent insults and occasional beatings.  The other lags want to stay out of your way unless they think you’re good for something they want.  Most times, your cellmate, if you have one, annoys you just short of killing him. 

Wolfe sometimes pushed me past that point, but I never did it.  Maybe it was because he always talked like one free man speaking to another, which I needed, since I could feel the walls closing in around me.  Of course, there were also problems with the way he spoke to me, the main one being that he seemed to think God had appointed him to be my very own professor.   Still, I knew I could cope, as long as it was distracting.  We fought a lot, but that was distracting, too.  In the end it all worked out okay, not that it seemed like it would in the beginning.

“You are nuts.  Sir.  No one can do that.”  I was sitting with my eyes open glaring at an assortment of odds and ends spilled out on his bunk.

“If you would trouble to bestir your brain, Archie, you can.  If you will,” He picked up the bits of junk, gestured for me to scoop from my stash, and closed his eyes.

I took six or seven objects and threw them onto the bed.  He snapped open his eyes and flicked them shut again.  “In a formation something like a hexagon with the two left sides extended.  From the upper left, moving clockwise.  A water-smoothed pebble, shaped much like a kidney, with the convex curve to the left, the size of the first joint of my thumb, light grey with micaceous specks.  A feather, black, about two and a quarter…”  He got all six right, again.  “If you practice, if you concentrate, your mind will do your bidding.  You have the memory, but it is undisciplined and unruly.”

That tone was in his voice again.  He’d been being snotty all evening.  My patience snapped.  “Do you really want undisciplined and unruly?  Have you listened to yourself, recently?”

His gaze turned to a glare.  “Don’t be choleric.  I am not some whipping boy upon whom you may vent your spleen.”  His tone was even and low so as not to attract the attention of the screw.  For one thing, that would mean losing our toys because we had been annoying.  For another thing, our guard was hung-over tonight and might be in a mood to throw someone in the hole.  That someone would be me, of course, not Wolfe.

“No, you’re a pompous hippo who thinks I have the mental capacity of an ape and can’t resist letting me know your opinion.” I realized I was using Wolfe’s sort of words and got hotter.  “I can’t keep it down.  I’m going upstairs.  Fuck you, sir.”  He hated what he called vulgarity.  I swung up into my own bunk.  He made a big deal of cleaning up and lay on his bed, reading.  The silence was thick.  The screw came by on his rounds, peered into the cell, and departed, satisfied.  We had a call-from-cell muster.  It was an hour before Wolfe coughed and made a comment about the chow in the dining hall.  I commented back.  Soon, I was sitting on his bunk, knitting my brows over another scattering of odds and ends.  This time I got the details right on six out of seven.

The food was horrible, but Wolfe and I sat across from each other in the dining hall and nagged each other into eating.  Part of my share from our ventures went towards smoked beef, dried corn kernels, and candy bars, and so did much of his.  We needed the extra fuel.  All the prisoners were always cold;  our clothes were too thin and wore out too fast, but the manufacturer had a brother-in-law who was a state senator.  In the frozen yards, the various courts stood around stomping their feet and trying to intimidate each other or jawing about women in a way that would make a billy-goat puke.  I avoided them all.  Back in our cell, Wolfe would talk with me until I thought I would go nuts and then would read until I prodded him back into conversation. 

Work was boring, too.  The woodshop was comfortable but too easy.  However, I found excitement could be worse.  Being Wolfe’s sidekick was interesting but not always in an enjoyable way.  Once I had to beat the snot out of a customer who though the best way out of a deal he didn’t like was to beat the snot out of me.  The screws thought it was amusing and let us go on fighting.  We grunted and shuffled around each other in the frozen slush of the yard, our breaths puffing out like we were cattle in winter, the thudding sounds of our blows muffled by the cold.  A circle of lags formed around us, their faces expressionless and their eyes alive and hungry.  Afterwards, back in our cell, Wolfe washed my face with a wet rag and then wrapped his blanket around my shoulders until I stopped shaking from the chill.  His hands were firm and gentle as he checked my face and teeth for damage.  That night I woke up shaking again, with my heart pounding and my spunk sticky on my belly, wondering what I had been dreaming about, not really wanting to know.

My nightmares had started after a few months at Mannerheim.  When a year passed, and I really came to believe I wasn’t going anywhere, I stopped having nightmares and started having problems sleeping.  Then, for a week or so, all I wanted to do was sleep until Wolfe and I had a huge fight and I went back to not being able to doze off.  I would lie on my bunk nights, staring towards the picture I’d put up of Gloria Swanson and trying not to brood.  Often, hoping to sleep, I would jack off, attempting to keep it quiet.  Wolfe didn’t snore, he breathed vigorously.  It seemed rude to return the favor by waking him up with my love life.

As for Wolfe, he didn’t lie awake, and he didn’t seem to have a love life.  What he had was books and conniving.  He was always reading or scheming, whenever he wasn’t sleeping.  He could connive like nothing I’d ever seen.  Even the guards would come to him for clever ways to get out of their fixes with the job or their wives.  He had a way of talking to them, polite but on the ragged fringe of rudeness, which they not only swallowed but seemed to make them respect him.  It was as if they didn’t believe that he would dare to talk to them that way unless he had something with which to back it up.  Given the talking, the plotting and the reading, it took me quite a while, maybe longer than it should have, to figure out he was having as many problems as I was.

It could be his difficulties were worse than mine.  I don’t like being told what to do, but Wolfe not only didn’t like that, he didn’t like being touched, he didn’t like his surroundings ugly, he didn’t like public bathing, he didn’t like a thousand other major and minor annoyances you can’t avoid in prison.   It all came to a head one evening just before lights out.  He was in the cell’s one straight-backed chair, reading as usual, and I was about a foot away from him, cross-legged on his bunk, folding up scraps of paper to use for spills.  When I looked up he was sitting perfectly still, his eyes squeezed shut, a ferocious scowl on his face and tears slowly leaking down from the corners of his eyes.  Involuntarily, I glanced at the bars.  We were supposed to be checked before lights out, but we were at the end of the block - a prized position because we only had one neighbor - and Doobie, our current guard, was dangerously sloppy and didn’t always bother to look into our cell.

I reached out and clamped one hand on his shoulder.  First he flinched, and then he settled.  He didn’t stop weeping, but his face uncrumpled from the scowl and there was a kind of dignity to it.  When he was done, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and I slapped his shoulder, once.  He had to blow his nose, too.  That made me roll my eyes, and he lifted his eyebrows in return.  The whole business was over by the time Doobie showed, which was good since he picked that evening to look in our cell.

After the climb upstairs, I lay on my cot feeling sulky and sore.  My personal rule number one of prison is don’t start any relationships.  They are more trouble than they are worth.  And here I was falling in with Wolfe, who might be short, for all I knew, or headed for a back room parole.  I wasn’t even getting my ashes hauled out of it since Wolfe was no cute little punk.  That title was reserved for me, in fact, although not when anyone knew I was listening.

He wasn’t breathing loudly.  I snaked to the edge of my bunk, hung over, and looked.  In the faint light spilling in from outside the bars, his eyes were open.  I put both hands to my cheek and mimed sleeping, which almost made me fall over the edge, but he pushed his lips out at me.  He was going to be stubborn, I could tell.  Fine.

For a couple of hours, we held a no-sleeping competition.  I lay awake above, he lay awake below.  Doobie came by for what would probably be his last pass of the night and departed.  Stag, across the corridor, whimpered to himself in his sleep, as he did two nights out of three.  Lower down the tiers, on Broadway, a fish was weeping audibly and being congratulated by the older lags until one of the screws shut them all up.  Outside, very faint, very far away, I heard the whistle of a locomotive, the Limited, with the night mail.  Fine.

I had to spring a leak, always a pain since we weren’t supposed to be out of bed and weren’t allowed to flush the can until morning.  It was one more price to be paid for staying awake.  I swung down and took care of it, then went back to the bunks.  Wolfe still wasn’t breathing loud.  I hesitated, rolled in next to him to see what the hell was going on, and then pulled the blanket over us, in case Doobie had decided this was his night to train for the Olympics.

Wolfe looked at me.  “What is it?”  I asked, although it was closer to a murmur of “Whad iz id.”  You learn to talk without sounds that will carry, in prison.

He wasn’t dumb enough to turn his back on me.  “I made the mistake of re-reading Seneca.”

I was exasperated.  Wolfe had told me about Seneca’s time as a Roman lag.  It was just like him to shake off the iron house and then suddenly let someone who died two thousand years ago turn him into Laughing Boy.  “You said you were an Epicurean.”

His snort was more of a puff.  “Seneca is persuasive.”

“Seneca is dead, and I’m not feeling too good myself.  I need to get some sleep, and I can’t do it with you lying awake down here.”

“You mean you can’t do what is needed to expedite sleep as long as I am awake.”

So I hadn't always been as quiet as I had hoped.  It wasn’t my fault.  The damn bunks creaked.  “What’s it to you?  You should try it yourself.  It’s better than lying awake.”

“I have the same problem as you.”  His voice was very dry.

I hate it when he wins arguments.  I decided to end-run this one.  “Okay, then, let’s get into gear, enhance our social development, and get some sleep.”  I found him under the blankets and wrapped a palm around him.  For a minute after I touched him, he just lay there, and I wondered if I had a problem.  His cock was arguing otherwise, though, even before his hand found me.

I should have known that, with Wolfe, no matter what the circumstances, there would be talk.  He coached me through it, his voice a low murmur from the shadows, telling me what he wanted and demanding that I tell him the same.  I will admit it made for more entertainment than the business-like job I had intended.  When we were done, he sacrificed a couple of the paper spills I’d made that afternoon, and then said, “Good night, Archie.  Sleep well.”

“Yeah.  Good night, sir. You, too.”  I climbed back up into my roost, but I waited for him to breathe deep before I let myself drift off.

So, that’s how it began.  Like usually happens in life, one thing led to another.  There weren’t any problems with the other lags since, as I’d half noticed, they’d assumed we were dating from the day I arrived.  The screws didn’t get it.  I walked too tall and talked too tough for them to figure me as pretty, would be my guess.  I slept better and so did he.  I liked the games we played when we tussled after lights out although there were limits to what he would do.  Once, in the showers, I accidentally dropped the soap in front of him, and the other lags all whooped.  He scowled ferociously at me from where he stood as the water streamed down in shining rivulets across his hairy skin, and I grinned at him and flipped them off.  He wouldn’t have taken the chance, anyhow.

As I relaxed, he introduced me again to some of his court members, and I formed some more alliances.   He tended to tie to the tougher, smarter, “Your Honor, I honestly didn’t mean to squeeze her neck so hard,” types, mostly Jews and Irish, although they were all innocent, of course.  I was soon doing well in the court checkers competition.  Wolfe would get me magazines from the library, and I was learning to settle down and read.  In the mornings, I worked up an exercise routine that he tolerated benevolently but with an underlying interest that I have to admit I liked.  Between his scheming and my talking, we had the business running as if it was on ball-bearings.  Most of our accounts were now stored in my head, neatly organized.  And, the most important change, I had something to look forward to.

Then, two years later, the second of the new cell blocks opened, a rough tip was shipped in from one of the down-state bullpens, and we had a little trouble for a while.  In an unusual alliance, Wolfe’s court combined with some of the other veteran courts, including the local Italians, to let the newcomers know that we liked a quiet life at Mannerheim.  But one of the new lags, a real tough character named “Cutter” Mazicelli, didn’t get the message.  Instead, he decided to blame all of life’s difficulties on Wolfe, which was tragic because he tripped and impaled himself on a piece of scrap before he had a chance to learn better.  For some reason, my reputation climbed after the sad accident, maybe because of my foresight in warning Cutter about the dangers of rusty metal after Wolfe got a slash on his arm from some wire out in the yard.

The Italians thanked us.  The leader of the newcomers had had a personal animus against Don Gerello, who had recently joined us on a fist for disrupting trade relations in the hooch industry.  It was all a misunderstanding, of course, and he would soon be out for good behavior, but the Don still appreciated Wolfe’s help in keeping our iron house clean.  He told us so himself out in the yard, while waving his cigar around.  “Mr. Wolfe, if there is ever any little favor I can do for yourself or your ace-deuce, here, you have but to ask.”

Wolfe bowed a little, looking as placid and as dangerous as a feral boar rooting for acorns, if cleaner.  “I appreciate your courtesy, Don Gerello.  It is always a pleasure to deal with a gentleman such as yourself.”

Gerello and Wolfe could keep it up for an entire exercise period and sometimes did.  It was like being at a convict’s ball put on by the Albany Rotary club.  I clapped my hands together to warm them - we had eleven months of winter at Mannerheim and July, and this wasn’t July - and looked over at one of Don Gerello’s strong-arm men, who shrugged at me, tolerantly.  A month ago, only Wolfe’s reputation and my fights had kept him and his friends from trying to line up on me.  Now, I was a heavyweight with hot nuts who was taking what I could get.  Punk wasn’t even whispered any more, after Cutter died.

Little did we older lags know that these new fish were men of few, but stupid, ideas.  Having decided that they couldn’t rule our kingdom behind bars, they figured it was time for a revolution, instead.  Anyone with his brains intact knows that what little good comes from such gestures never comes to those who instigate them, but that realization hadn't filtered into their heads.  They thought they could start a riot and use the subsequent confusion to go over the wall.

Their golden opportunity was provided to them by my old acquaintance Doobie.  He had been rotated out of our block and replaced by Squinty, which had forced us to be more careful about our love life but had otherwise led to nothing worse than Squinty smirking at me.  But Doobie apparently continued with his sad and sorry ways because one ice-cold winter day around lunchtime, while I was at work in the woodshop, I heard the sound of shots coming from the administration block.  I later found out that Doobie had let himself be conned into opening the guardroom door for an unfamiliar trusty, and some of the new lags had rushed the door, doused him with acid, and made it inside to the weapons store.

There were a lot of exclamations and milling around on the factory floor, and two or three of the inmates took the chance to grab tools and start a melee with our own screws.  As for me, I took the chance to grab a table leg and fade.  If I knew Wolfe, he would be more worried about his damn books than anything else, and if somebody decided to treat them to a torch job--

I made it across the covered walkway to the Administration building okay although I heard more noise and shouting out in the south yard, and somebody started up the sirens.  The nearest door was wide open, but no one was around.  Inside, easing around a corner, I almost ran head on into one of the down-state tip men. He was using the butt of a shotgun to try and break into a room.  I don’t know what he thought was behind the door, but it looked like a john to me.  Now, here was a waste of good time and a good gun, and I needed that piece more than he did.  Besides, he was too careless to be heeled.  He let me get behind him with my table leg.

Leaving him on the floor, I went up a stairwell and came out onto the stone flags of the east wing, just in time to find trouble.  A group of prisoners had caught two visitors and their escort and taken them hostage.  The problem was, the visitors were a pair of female social workers, one older, one younger, and the escort was Squinty.

I always told Wolfe that sometimes it’s better to move fast than to think deep.  Here was one such occasion.  I stepped out into the corridor with the shotgun held loose but level.  “Sorry, boys, but I’ve been sent to pick up our guests.” 

There were five of them, and the three I knew couldn’t have led sailors into a whorehouse.  They had taken Squinty’s gun but had then wasted time knocking him around and groping at the women.  The older gal looked furious, the younger kitten was all teary-eyed, and Squinty just looked tense.  I could tell he was the only one with any notion of how bad the situation could and probably would soon get.

The fish with Squinty’s gun looked like he wanted to wave it around some and intimidate me.  I hoped he didn’t manage his own piece that way.  I eyed him coldly, letting the shotgun pivot around, and said, “Don Gerello wants these folks.”

They wavered.  I gestured with my chin at Squinty, who proved, once again, that someone was home between his ears.  He grabbed the women, one by each arm, and steered them towards me.  The older one gave him a sharp look and allowed herself to be led.  I noticed that his hand left a bloody print on her sleeve.  The younger one could have been controlled by a five year old, as long as he wore long pants.

I herded them into the stairwell and got the door locked and bolted before their former captors managed to find enough mind between them to make up.  We had gone down half a flight before they decided to shoot the door open, which doesn’t work in real life like it does in the pictures.  It only jams the lock.  Even so, the kitten screamed, but that was okay.  It wasn’t like they didn’t know where we’d gone.  Squinty was moving fast and so was the tough old hen, and, between the three, of us we swept through the first story wing - Little Miss yelped again when she saw the man I’d dropped - back into another stairwell and up to the library without running into anyone.

Sure enough, Wolfe was sitting just inside the door to the library with a fire ax.  When I brought my party in, he looked at them in disgust and demanded, “Where did you find them,” like I was a kid bringing home a box of toads.

“Some mugs had them on the second floor and couldn’t decide whether to rape them all or have them in for tea.”  I should have been more refined in my language.  Little Miss promptly launched into hysterics, but Old Auntie swung like a pinch-hitter and she shut up, sat down, and was leaky some more. 

Wolfe eyed Auntie with approval.  “Thank you, madam.  I’m afraid we do not have time for indulgences of that sort.  Can you, instead, assist this gentleman with his more significant injuries?”  She nodded, her face grim, and started tearing strips from her dress coat’s lining.

I pointed an elbow at Squinty.  “I figured you might want him intact.  Now, can we get out of here?”

Wolfe turned his attention to me.  “I am not a gull, Archie, whatever you may think.  I realize that we stand in imminent peril of having this building burnt down around our ears.”

“You should let me have the shotgun,” Squinty said, merely stating a thought.

“Your trigger finger is broken,” I pointed out.  “Not to mention, we’re in a building full of the biggest dopes in this pen, probably - ” there was a volley of shots from downstairs “ - certainly mostly armed.  If your buddies show up, I’ll lose the gun and try to look stupid and innocent.”

“The first half won’t be difficult, Goodwin.”

“Is everyone a damn comedian around here?”  I glared at Squinty.  He glared back at me.

Auntie paused from tying up Squinty’s hand to say, “If you gentlemen are quite finished--”

Wolfe gave her the amazed look I’d save for a unicorn.  Of course, a female with sense was about that rare, in his book.  “They are never finished, madam.  We had best try the steam tunnel, now, before someone of near-normal intelligence thinks to effectively guard the stairwells.”

The first stairwell was blocked.  The second, when we listened, had men in it.  The last, though, seemed empty.  We went down to the basement.  I had to prop Squinty up a little;  he’d had a busy day.  Wolfe took the shotgun.  He claimed to know how to use it but, fortunately, wasn’t called upon to prove his claims.

The boilers for the Administration building at Mannerheim are stoked by convict labor, of course, so they want the steam house well away from the actual structure.  This means a small steam tunnel runs from the basement in Administration, past two outbuildings, to the steam generating house.  The tunnel is locked down at both ends, but lags go in every so often for maintenance.  Given subsequent events, I think I give nothing away when I say that it was a favorite long term storage place for items of interest, and both Wolfe and I had some idea of its layout.

I used the fire ax to get us into the tunnel while Wolfe stood guard.  We were anxious, but no one came to see what all the noise was about.  Squinty was muttering with Auntie - in her place, I’d want a briefing, too - and Little Miss watched me swing the ax with her hands squeezed together and her eyes huge, as if I was fighting a bull or something.  We hustled everyone into the tunnel, and I pulled what was left of the door shut behind us and wedged it closed with my table leg.  It wouldn’t hold for long, but it was better than nothing.

The brick-lined tunnel was dark, drippy, and slimy, but at least it was warm.  I had to coax Little Miss down it by telling her how brave and strong and pretty she was, at length.  Maybe it was even true;  I haven’t spent much time with upper-crust girls.  All I know is that Auntie managed to make it through without repeatedly raising the possibility of spiders.  Wolfe was in a mood to eat spiders raw, by then, and Squinty had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of another.

We got to the other end and I gestured for the others to wait while I listened at the door.  I heard noises.  Wolfe came up to me and worked the inside of the hinges and hasp with the edge of the ax blade.  They cooperated in a way that suggested someone had worked them before.  In the faint light around the edge of the door, I saw Squinty mouth a couple of rude words.  Auntie clamped a firm hand over Little Miss’ mouth, to keep her quiet, and nodded to me.  I went through the door.

Human nature is funny.  The stokers, realists to a man, instead of joining in the festivities had retreated into the steam house basement with kitchen pickings and prune-juice, to enjoy the heat and swap doleful predictions about the aftermath of the riot.  When they saw me with the shotgun, they got very still.  Wolfe came in after me and bowed to the senior stoker, who nodded his head cautiously in return.  Their eyebrows climbed when they saw Squinty and the women behind us.

“I’m afraid we need to pass through.  I hope you will excuse us,” Wolfe said.

“Nothin’ to do with us,” the senior stoker observed, and his colleagues bobbed their heads in agreement.

“I ain’t seeing nothing,” Squinty said, his voice distant.  “Nothing at all.”

“He a wise boss, a family man,” one of the younger stokers observed, and, with that, we crossed by the furnace to the exit.  Little Miss stared at the stokers as she passed, and they stared back at her with a solemnity I could tell covered considerable amusement.  You’d think she’d never ridden in a Pullman.  On the stairs, she waved at them.  Maybe she had ridden in a Pullman and formed illusions.  It was just as well she couldn’t understand their slang as we departed.

By the time we got to the front of the steam house, the screws and some uniformed strangers were ready to sweep the courtyard between us and the metal shop, which was emitting smoke but not bullets.  Wolfe and I glanced at each other, I handed Squinty the shotgun, and Wolfe chucked the fire ax into a corner.  I kicked the door open and Squinty went outside first.

Wolfe and I ended up stretched out, kissing the dirt with our hands laced behind our necks, while they led the women away.  A few of the guards wanted to kick us around a little - they weren’t used to all the excitement - but Squinty wouldn’t let them.  That was about the end of the riots as far as we were concerned.  We missed the rest of the fires, the lock-downs, and the fire hoses turned onto the lags in the north yard.  We missed the final assault and the round-up of the escaped prisoners.  We spent the next two days jammed together into a single box in the hole, chained to opposite walls, until our prison administration decided that it wasn’t mad at us.  In the frigid dark, Wolfe recited poetry.  I explained baseball to him.  Then it was back to our cell.

With all that, nothing much seemed to change.  Our fellows had torched most of the shops, the oldest cell block, and the Administration building, but the East Wing hadn't caught, so Wolfe still had his job.  Among the punitive measures, no one suggested shutting down the library, not with the social workers praising Wolfe in the press.  I already had my cushy slot in the woodshop, which had survived, and, due to Wolfe’s influence, I was already treated a lot like a trusty.  The other lags might have been a problem if they had decided we had monopolized resources that could have made the riots more of a success, but they were preoccupied with something else.  Later, it became obvious that the something else was hiding the firearms that disappeared during the first riots, but that is another, and bloodier, story.

Three months had passed when Wolfe was taken out of our cell, late one Sunday afternoon.  Almost two hours later, he was returned.  He was pale and as close to showing strong emotion as I’d ever seen him, with one exception.

“What is it?”  I said.  Even I could tell my voice was tense.

“I was called in to hear a letter written by Miss Higgson, the elder of our two guests this last winter.  It appears that, by mobilizing friends and fellow alumni of her women’s college, she was able to track down a Mr. Jerry R. Johnson who was dying of tuberculosis in a charity sanitarium in New Mexico.  He was a man notable primarily for his violent history in New York State and for his single eye.  His deathbed confession was--of peculiar interest to me.”

“The man with one eye,” I said, almost blankly.

“It cleared me of all charges.  That might not have been enough by itself, of course;  the justice system, above all else, loathes admitting to error. However, two witnesses came forward to confirm elements of his story.”

“Let me guess.  A nice old Italian couple?”


I checked the cell bars and then leaned close.  “Were any of these people telling anything like the truth?”

He gave me a look.  In another man, I might have called it sorrowful.  “Archie, everyone in the iron house--”

“--is always innocent.  Okay, okay.”

Now, if it were up to me, I would take a man proven innocent out of a place like Mannerheim at once.  But, the penal authorities view such matters differently.  They offered to move him into the protection block while his papers ground through;  I really wish I’d been there to see his reaction.  Not that he was in any danger from our colleagues.  They were openly admiring that he’d somehow found a lazy man’s way over the wall.  They still talk it up as his greatest fix.  Wolfe had a week to brief me on his on-going deals and on some sources and pressure points he had never shared with me before.  However, the days galloped by, and soon it was time for him to go.

Wolfe’s last night, lights out, and I heard Squinty’s footsteps come down to our end of the block, pause between the last pair of cells before ours, reverse course, and head in the other direction.  I grinned, rather wryly, in the dark.  I had first met Squinty paying off a favor, and he was still doing it.  Well, if I was going to stick my neck out to rescue a screw, I was glad it was one who didn’t carry his brains in his stick.  I eeled over the edge and down into Wolfe’s bunk.

He was waiting for me, his eyes wide open in the dark.  Without a word, he rolled me beneath him and did to me what he would never do as a prisoner.  Later, when the Limited came by, I wasn’t listening for the whistle’s mournful cry.  I was giving part of me to Wolfe to carry away with him outside the wall, back into freedom.

And so Wolfe was cut loose.  The way the world works, that should have been the last I ever saw of him.  After all, what would he want with a violent, ignorant, young guy like me in a country full of beautiful women and educated men?  I’d been told otherwise, but once again I lay awake in my bunk at night, listening to my new cellmate snore.  When I finally slept, it was because we had snow.  I dreamed of lying out in the north yard, in its hissing silence, until the whiteness wrapped me up and took me away.  He would have Pfui-ed me good for that one.

The next visiting day was the first time I’d ever had a visitor.  Wolfe was sharp in his new suit, a snappy job in grey flannel over a yellow silk shirt and a pearl-grey silk tie with little gold specks on it.  He’d come to introduce me to my new lawyer, a tall, thin fellow who called me “sir” and “Mr. Goodwin”, and praised my self-sacrifice and social development in saving Squinty and the females from my fellow lags.  Then Wolfe dismissed the mouthpiece and laced his fingers over his stomach, which was already bulging.  I knew it.  The minute he could get to some decent food, he was turning into a chow hound.  He needed his leash yanked.

“You’re looking plump.”

“Shut up.”  He scowled.  “I have to have some source of consolation.  It is better outside, but there is too much noise and too many people who jostle me.  And machines:  taxi drivers are maniacs.  Can you drive?”

Something knotted in my belly untied, and I felt myself relax.  “Yup.  I’m rusty, though.”

He waggled a forefinger at me.  “You can be instructed.  I want your situation resolved before I am crushed to death, either by an uncontrolled mass of metal or some fatuous female seeking affection.  This is intolerable, Archie.”

I glanced at the guard to see if he had sorted out Wolfe’s comments - fat chance - and back at Wolfe.  Iron and concrete between us, and it was still all my fault.  He hadn't changed.  I let myself grin.  “I’ll notify the warden of your requirements, sir.”

My taking over Wolfe’s share of our business kept me busy and out of trouble.  Every two weeks Wolfe would visit me, and somehow my supplies of cigarettes, candy bars, and stills of Jean Harlow expanded afterwards.  He’d chew the rag with me about idiotic subjects that had nothing to do with the pen, and I’d go back to my cell feeling better.  Contrary to what he thought, it wasn’t the stash or the talk that kept me calm, it was the confirmation of my theory that he would keep coming back until I was stabbed dead or he ate himself into busting a vein, whichever came first.

As it turned out, that alderman with the dead nephew had, with the Depression, fallen afoul of the new political set-up.  Witnesses showed up to attest to what bad boys both the dock rats were.  And, Wolfe gave me a vivid and dry word portrait of Little Miss testifying with shining, wide eyes to the Governor’s Commission on the 1933 Mannerheim riots about my valor in rescuing her bare-handed from vicious criminals, as Auntie looked on with her lips pursed in a prim, ironic smile.  It took a year, but one day the new warden called me in to let me know that the governor was signing my pardon.  Little Miss is probably waiting by the telephone right now to see if her black knight will call her, trembling with some sort of emotion at the thought of saying no, thank you.

So here you are, Father, sent by the family to see if this murderer has learned his lessons well enough not to come after Little Miss, no matter what she says.  Oh, I’ve learned, all right.  I’ve learned a lot.  It’s just that my conclusions aren’t ones you would approve of.  Still, I’ve confessed all my sins to you, and you’ve listened well.  Sometimes, a cynic like Wolfe might say, you’ve even listened intently.  I give you permission to ask about my plans if you really want to hear them.

No, nothing dangerous to others.  I want an automobile ride through unfenced fields and forests, a long, hot soak, a nice suit of clothes, beefsteak and apple pie, a tall glass of milk.  I want a big bed with soft cotton sheets.  I want a certain someone with me in that bed, calling out my name as he rides my ass, hard.  I want a tongue bath, courtesy of Nero Wolfe.

Hey, where are you off to, in such a hurry?  You’ve forgotten the cigarettes that you promised me and have to get them?  Oh, too bad, but you don’t have to go to all that trouble.  This is my last Camel for a while.  Wolfe really doesn’t like the tang of tobacco on my breath, when we kiss.


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