It took me until a little after eight to find him. He’d skipped all the usual places and company, and was sitting in a bar on Miller with a shot glass of Old Sandy in front of him. He had his dark grey suit jacket off and folded up on the seat next to him with his snap-brim perched on top of the pile. I slipped onto the fake ox-hide stool on the other side of him. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I.
The bartender gave me a look, so I ordered a martini, not because I usually drink them, but because I don’t. Still, I know how they should taste. Like I’d thought, the guy didn’t know how to make them right. When it came, I fished the green olive out and dumped it onto the paper napkin before taking a sip. Too much vermouth in the mix; it was almost sweet.
Archie sure wasn’t. He’d been watching me, without looking, the whole time I’d been parked next to him, and he hadn't said a word. Instead, he’d slowly worked on lowering the level of liquid in front of him.
I took out a pharaoh and rolled it around in my fingers before putting it in my mouth. He still didn’t say anything, and he hates what I smoke. So, I lit up and had a few puffs before I spoke. “Archie.”
“Saul.” He shut back up and had another swallow. He was far enough along that he had to tilt his head back to get the bourbon to flow.
I nursed the pharaoh and examined my drink for a while. On the rare occasions that Archie shuts up it’s better to leave him alone, but I didn’t have time for that. I did have time to choose my approach. “I need your help.” It was harder to get out than I’d thought it would be.
For the first time, he brought his head around towards me. He started to say something, and then asked, instead, “For what?” When I met him back in ’27 it would have been “what for?” but that was before he spent ten years as Nero Wolfe’s legman.
“Alvin Spakey has a guy I need back. You can pry him loose, if you want to.”
Without speaking, Archie held up two fingers and waited for the barkeep to refill his glass. When he’d emptied it down to a level he liked, he said, “To do the job right, both Wolfe and I will have to be there when the screws are applied. And I’m not working for him right now.”
I nodded. Archie knows how to twist an arm, but he also runs his mouth, so the real hard cases don’t take him as seriously as they do Mr. Wolfe. As a P. I., Mr. Wolfe can roll over almost anyone all by himself, but he doesn’t leave his house on Thirty-fifth street unless he has to. Archie’s the one who meets the public. I needed them both.
“How bad was it this time?” I asked him. Usually, the separations are a vacation for them. When they aren’t, it’s trouble.
He didn’t quite look at me. Instead, he ran one finger around the rim of his glass and frowned at it. “Are you going to call him?”
“Yeah, I’m calling him.”
“Then I’ll go over there with you.”
When I was a kid, a fellow in my situation who got that answer would have said a lot. But, since the Great War, we’ve all forgotten how to talk to each other. Still, even though I lost most of my own words in the trenches, I do remember one. “Thanks.”
He shrugged, not dismissing, just not talking. Archie grew up in this brave new world. No matter how much he moves his jaw, some things he can’t say.
Too bad for him.
When I called Mr. Wolfe, he picked up the phone on the first ring but didn’t speak. Even though he’s heavy, you couldn’t hear him breathe, either. “Mr. Wolfe, it’s Saul.” There was no reason to leave him hanging.
Then the breath came out of him before he spoke. “Saul.”
“I need to see you, sir, on personal business. I know it’s late. May I come over?” I paused, and then made myself add, “Archie’s said he’ll come along.” Back at the bar, Archie was working through his refill a lot quicker than he’d been drinking when I arrived.
For a few seconds, the line was silent, except for the crackles, before he said, “No man may choose his hour of need. Fritz is out, but the front door will be unlocked.”
“Thanks,” I said, for the second time that evening. Again it was quiet, and then he grunted. Archie could have told you exactly what that meant, but I didn’t bother with the details. I got the gist. So, I hung up the receiver, moved my cap from out of my side pocket and onto my head, and then went to fetch Archie and a taxi.
On the way over to the brownstone Archie kept to himself. He didn’t say a word, not even when the hack almost clipped the fender of a Buick sedan. If I’d had a choice, I’d have left him alone with his liquor and the company he’d have been looking for next.
I didn’t have a choice. Over in Brooklyn, there was a slim brunette waiting with quiet anxiety for her husband to come home. And that husband wasn’t me, no matter how much I wished he was.
It wasn’t the loudest fight that Wolfe and I ever had, on that February morning in 1938, or the longest, but it was probably the deadliest.
To begin with, I’d started my day in a foul mood. My dream of the night before stayed with me all the way through my shower, my exercise, and my breakfast. Even a morning walk failed to blow the sand out of my skull.
Wolfe, when he came down from the plant rooms, didn’t look happy himself. I thought it might be fungi in the orchid seedlings again until I saw his eyes. He doesn’t make much of it and I don’t mention it in my case reports, but he has nightmares. They get worse when he travels; once, in our hotel room at the Katawah Spa, he--I’m drifting.
Wolfe was carrying around that heavy, weary look that showed he wasn’t sleeping well. It meant I could expect another day of icy petulance.
We also hadn't taken a case in three weeks. Wolfe didn’t care. He was touring British literature. That morning he finished up Alice in Wonderland and went to the shelves for a new sight to see. I shoved aside the stack of germination records on my desk and watched, the taste in my mouth somewhere between sour and bitter. He returned to his desk with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It’s part of my job to goad him, but some days I feel more inclined towards that task than others. That day, between my mood and Theodore’s idea of handwriting, I was full of enthusiasm for my duty.
“When I read the account in the Gazette of you being discovered on skid row, dead of starvation, they’ll have found you with a book in your hand.”
He ignored me.
“I know that working as a P. I. is something to be jammed into the five minutes a day you aren’t preoccupied with orchids, books, and food, but you’ve devoted maybe three minutes to work in the past fortnight. Even for you, that’s a record.”
He was still pretending to ignore me, but his lips had thinned.
“I’m getting tired of having nothing to do but sit here and look decorative whenever I finish the exciting jobs of updating and filing the germination records. After all, I could be decorating a dance floor or a particular lady’s boudoir, instead, and getting some reward for my efforts. Or I could be working, a peculiar little habit I like to call my own.”
He glanced up. “Archie. I am glad to know that your looks are deemed worthy of recompense by the inhabitants of boudoirs. However, I must point out that, if such is the case, your being decorative is a form of work. Therefore, you may cease badgering me.” He looked back down at his book.
Wolfe had earned a good, hard jab by that particular block. I was tired, though, and we’d discussed his work habits so many times that I couldn’t come up with anything original enough to do his last remarks justice. So instead, I cleared my throat and made a comment about his book, the first crack that popped into my head.
It fetched him. He put the book down. “Do you truly consider that word part of the English language?”
“Yes sir, I do, when it applies.”
“I do not.” He seemed to think that settled it.
Before he could open the cover again, I said, “Big-shot writer or no big-shot writer, it still applies.” I repeated my original observation. “I just can’t believe you’re going straight from a kid’s book to that faggy fantasy.”
There was a pause, then, “I met the author once, as a boy, in Paris.” Like most of what Wolfe says about his past, it could have been true or it could have been nothing but a lie for effect; no odds either way. He lowered the book and gave me a narrow-eyed look of warning. “There was a kinship even then.”
Of men who used gaudy language, he probably meant, or guys who spend too much time worrying about the color of their neckties. It hung in the balance, maybe for a second, and then my bad night tipped it. I cringed in mock horror and revulsion. But I didn’t even get the accompanying remark out of my mouth before he spoke.
His tone was still polite but as cold as the winter outside. The words hit me like so many falling icicles. “Since you find that kinship intolerable, to the point that it swamps your courage, you will not wish to linger in this office, in my presence, a minute longer than you need to. If you will draw the check for your two weeks severance pay, you may leave it on my desk for me to sign, so that there is no chance that the brush of my fingers might accidentally infect you with this hideous disease you so fear.”
I gaped at him. The look in his worn-out brown eyes - it must be a lie - I wanted to say - he’d really meant - I got up without a word and went to the safe. By the time I was out the front door, I still hadn’t found the words.
Maybe there weren’t any.
To me, Saul Panzer, this is the most important story about Nero Wolfe.
When I’d been in the trenches for two weeks, I became a messenger. They had short lives and that was why I volunteered. It was why I had gone Over There in the first place. Even when I was young I saw what other people ignored, and knew that the Great War was all about soldiers dying. Although I was a kid, I was practical. In 1917, France was the place to make suicide look like stupid courage.
The sector I was traversing late that afternoon was quiet. although artillerymen still practiced and shells still fell, there hadn’t been an assault for three weeks. I was behind the forward line, taking a short-cut across a stretch of abandoned trenches. After watching and waiting, I’d climbed up into the open and crossed the churned-up mud, veering around stumps of trees and craters half-filled with water. I was clambering over a pile of dirt that had once been the parapet of a lateral trench, crouched low, when I heard the tearing noise. I dove for the nearest hole.
I still don’t know where the stray shell started from, our side or theirs. You never did know. When I came to, I was cold and wet, my head held a bucket’s worth of pain, and I was pinned by a support timber for a dug-out roof. I lay for a while staring at what I eventually figured out were some scraps of uniform and a soil-stained tibia. Then I tried to move and couldn’t. I thought about yelling. I didn’t.
I was stuck in that hole for hours. At first I tried to shift the beam, but after a while I only waited. Every now and then stray rounds fell. Sooner or later, either a shell would find me or a patrol would, and my wait would end. Meanwhile, the rats waited, too. They were plump beneath their black coats streaked with mud. As it got dim, I could hear them moving just beyond arm’s reach.
When I heard something much larger move in the thickening darkness, I opened my mouth and then shut it again. It could be anyone, even a German. It wasn’t. It was Nero Wolfe.
He was already using the name, although he’d admit it was phony. The lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders weren’t fake, only irregular. Since the U.S. Army now realized what kind of trouble it was in, officers with field experience were at a premium. Lieutenant Wolfe had a lot of experience, and his English was good except for an accent he was losing fast. The last message I had collected had been his. I vaguely knew he had something to do with intelligence. I didn’t care. He was only another pair of hands that gave me papers, even if the dark eyes above the hands were closer to what I saw in mirrors than most.
Other than that, he was merely a broad-shouldered guy with some strength. It wasn’t his looks that made me surprised to see him. He crawled into the shell hole, paused, and then tried to move the beam that had me pinned. His luck was no better than mine had been. When he saw it was useless, he moved big, impersonal hands across me. His voice was quiet when he said, “Nothing that will kill you.”
“When it is fully dark, I will go back and get men to help me shift this timber.”
“If you can.”
“If I can.” He didn’t argue it, but he didn’t sound worried, either. Instead, he put a canteen to my lips.
When he left a few hours later, I didn’t really expect him to return. But he did, and they got me loose. That was good, since I wasn’t as sure about what I wanted as I had been in the morning. As the days went by, I changed my mind back and forth a few times before I decided to live. If life was a novel, I would have died then. Life’s real, though, so I made it through to the Armistice.
Sometimes Wolfe and I would talk, although officers and enlisted men weren’t supposed to mingle. That didn’t stop us. In the end, I gave him my address in Brooklyn. I admit I was surprised when he showed up so long after the war was over, long after I’d talked to Susannah, long after I’d become a P. I., long after I’d moved to Manhattan and away from trouble. But I was still pleased.
What I wanted was first liquor and then a woman, and I wasn’t feeling as choosy as usual about either. What I got was first Saul Panzer with a problem and then Nero Wolfe in a pet.
I have to admit, Wolfe had no difficulty meeting my eyes where I sat in the yellow chair, even after what he’d said. He’s not gutless, just not interested in courage. For the first few minutes I gave maybe two-thirds of my attention to Saul while he described how Jerry, his old pal from Brooklyn, had fallen afoul of Alvin Spakey the racketeer. Then I yanked my own collar and made myself concentrate. Saul needed help, not a feature role in the kind of Drama Guild problem play that gets shut down by the vice boys.
“This is typical of Jerry. He’s honest, but he goes through walls head-first. At least he’d left a letter for Susannah, his wife, to open tomorrow in case he didn’t come home, and she had the sense to open it this morning. Then she called me.” Saul shrugged. “I remembered that you and Archie ran across Spakey while I was out of town for Del Bascom, working on that arson business two years ago.”
Wolfe heard Saul out, and then nodded, maybe an extra eighth of an inch than usual. “You were right to come to us, Saul. We do indeed have leverage upon Mr. Spakey.” He turned his head in my direction. “Archie. Would you please find the file on the Hackler case?”
I got up and dug it out of the file drawers. When he took it, I made sure that our fingertips brushed. Our eyes met. Then I went and I sat back down in the chair at my desk. Wolfe considered me a moment longer, lips pursed, before he flipped open the manila folder. “Yes, as I thought, it is here.” He selected one of the documents. “This should be enough to prove that we can enforce our threats.”
I got a pair of Marley .38’s out of the safe, the Heron sedan out of the garage, and we all went downtown. We didn’t bother to phone to let them know we were coming.
This is what Lieutenant Wolfe and I talked about while we waited for dark to fall.
He didn’t offer me a cigarette and I didn’t ask. Neither of us was that stupid. Instead, he pulled a pack of Blackjack chewing gum out of his pocket and raised his eyebrows. I nodded. After first cleaning his fingertips on the inside of his uniform blouse, he unwrapped a stick and slipped it between my lips. I can still taste the licorice when I think about it now. He unwrapped another piece for himself, to give his taste buds something to do. In the south, a full-scale artillery barrage was opening up. There were flashes of red light against the darkening ridge and noises that no one would mistake for thunder. Around us, an occasional stray round still added to the atmosphere.
Wolfe said idly, “You have not been here long enough to have such dead eyes, but you do.”
I would have shrugged, but not beneath that beam. It was in my voice, though, when I asked, “Is that why you kept watching me? It can’t be because of my beautiful face.” Even given my nose, folks already forgot I was there.
“The eyes are unusual in a Yankee, yes. Were you a soldier in America, or a criminal, perhaps?”
“No, but I wanted to be a cop. My father was a ward boss--you know what that is?”
“He was a ward boss in Brooklyn and could have gotten me onto the force.” The sound of my own voice filled me with the same distant surprise as Wolfe’s staying had. “He thought I should go to college, but I wanted a steady job because I meant to get married to what we call the girl next door. Not really next door, you see, but we grew up on the same block. Her name’s Susannah. She has a way of smiling that makes you warm. She’s happy almost all the time, but she’s too sharp for it to be phony. It’s just her way. Was her way.”
“She--” he searched for the right word “--jilted you?” The low voice in the near-dark was rough with some memory.
“No, I jilted her. We had announced the engagement when my father had a talk with me. It turned out he knew a lot more about Susannah than I did.” I hesitated, and then told him exactly what the old man had said that night. He heard me out with nothing but a grunt when I was done.
“I thought it might be losing a woman.” Even back then, he liked being right. “When it is not horror alone, usually it is unbearable loss.”
“What else is there to say? You have told your tale to the wrong person, Corporal Panzer, if you expect me to be appalled. I have heard men confess to worse than bad luck, much worse.” He fell quiet.
The shell that broke the silence spattered us both with mud. It stirred up the usual trench stink of graveyard earth laced with urine. Lieutenant Wolfe said something sharp in a tongue I didn’t recognize.
I said, “Even then, I couldn’t stand to hurt her more than I had to. I told her I was volunteering before I asked for my ring back. I said I wouldn’t drag her down with me if I died.”
“Indeed. A story that will work well if you do die. What do you intend to say if you return alive?”
“I’m not returning.”
He ignored me. “There are several falsehoods that would work well if you live, of course. The most obvious, at least to me, is--” He suggested something that made me stare.
I found my voice. “Lovin’ babe.”
The Lieutenant’s mouth twisted. “No. Which is the point.” He sounded like he knew. He turned a hand up. “You could leave her behind. It would be the simple way, the intelligent way.”
I knew, if I lived, I would have to see her. Not anything else, just see her. “How do I convince her I’m--” I couldn’t even say it.
He spat the gum out into the muck and then told me. I knew what he was telling me about himself, too, but that was okay. I was in no place to criticize, any way you looked at it.
Spakey thought he was going to be difficult, but he wasn’t, not after Saul and I talked to his strong-arm men and Wolfe talked to him. In the end, we made a trade. Spakey would give us Jerry and we would take Jerry. We would also go away, which was the pay-off for the deal from Spakey’s point of view.
When we got outside, there was something about Jerry’s attitude towards Saul that I really didn’t get. Even though Saul had just saved his hide, and been forced to pistol-whip a man while doing it, Jerry had one massive arm draped protectively around Saul’s shoulders and was teasing him like he was some favorite, frail kid brother who had to be coaxed into staying out of drafts. He didn’t seem to be at all worried about the fact that Saul had ridden out on his wife’s command as if he were Lancelot dispatched by Guinevere to rescue King Arthur. Instead, Jerry seemed to have mixed up Saul with Galahad, a mistake I’ve never made.
Saul was playing up to it, too. He was using the husky tones and sweet smile that make him seem more like a housecat than a panther as he caught Jerry up on how Susannah was doing and then introduced him to Wolfe and me.
Jerry didn’t try to shake hands with Wolfe, which made me think he’d already heard a lot about us. Turned out he had a good, firm grip when he clasped my hand, although he went easier than he needed to as we shook.
“Thanks, Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Goodwin,” he said earnestly. “I was sure in over my head this time. Good thing Saulie here was around to help me out.”
I blinked. Saulie. That was one for the books.
Wolfe was also acting strange. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but he was making a different kind of fuss than usual. He’d decided to be fastidious, delicately tugging his gloves on over each fat finger, one joint at a time. Then he clucked over his canary silk scarf. By the time I finally realized what he was playing at, we were on the avenue where I’d parked the sedan, and I couldn’t shoot him the way he deserved for fear of upsetting the few pedestrians still out in the cold.
However, it was a near thing when he started in about how nasty and dirty the slush was. So I made our excuses to Jerry and Saul, and got Wolfe shoved into the Heron before I lost all patience and shot him, spectators or no spectators. Once inside, he shut his eyes, grabbed the strap, and braced himself against the inevitable collision he anticipates from any moving vehicle. I kept my peace. When I spoke, I wanted his full attention.
Momentum allowed me to get Wolfe inside the brownstone, peel the homburg and overcoat off of him, and move him on into the office, all before he’d realized he didn’t have to be neurotic any more. Then I let fly. “No wonder I can dance. If I’d known all these years that I worked for Edward Everett Horton, I would have realized my name was really Fred Astaire.”
Wolfe stopped pouring beer long enough to scowl. “What egregious twaddle are you trying to embellish now?”
Of course he wouldn’t acknowledge the reference. I don’t think he’s ever seen a movie with a soundtrack in his life. I went and closed the office door, then turned to let him have it in a form he couldn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Oh, la, Mr. Wolfe. Your brusque tones are injuring the delicate sensibilities already strained to their limits by the hideous revelations of this day.”
He almost choked on his beer. I folded my arms and waited out his glare. “Archie--”
I limply hoisted one palm to interrupt him. “No, it is too much. Seeing the exquisite manners that indicate strange urges, so casually displayed by the gentlemen I most admire--” I fluttered my eyelashes, then pressed the back of my hand to my forehead. “I am overcome. I may faint.”
He closed his eyes. He opened them again. This time, when he spoke, his tone was almost mild. “I cannot fire you. I have already done that. Twice would be a pointless gesture.”
“Once was a pointless gesture.”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Did you, or did you not, comprehend what I said to you this morning?”
“I had all afternoon, and several drinks, to think it over if I didn’t. I still say pointless.” I went to sit in the red leather chair. “What the hell? Why tell me?” For some reason, it came out sounding tired. “It’s not catching. It doesn’t even show, not that you care.” It was my turn to glare. “Usually it doesn’t show.”
“There was a reason for that farce.”
“Some problem of Saul’s. Okay, now that I’m thinking again, I get it. One day I’ll pry out of him why he wants Jerry to think he and his friends are the world’s toughest fruit-plates. Or maybe I won’t, since there’s a pretty obvious answer to that question.” Wolfe shrugged, one of his microscopic twitches. “But that doesn’t let you off the hook.”
To Archie Goodwin, this may be the most important story about Saul Panzer, although Archie’s never heard it.
Back in 1927, Mr. Wolfe asked for my opinion. Like usual, he started with a speech. “The young man’s typing is excellent, his manners are acceptable if crude, and he fancies himself a so-called he-man.” Wolfe paused to snort. “There is some intelligence. Within certain constraints, even the appearance could be useful.” It was a question if you listened close enough.
I took a deep breath, and I lied. “He’s a devil for the ladies. Nothing about his libido that Ohio wouldn’t recognize. No reason to ever lose sleep over him. It’d be futile.” No sense in saying that trouble doesn’t always start below the belt and move up, either. Mr. Wolfe wouldn’t have believed it. So I didn’t bother to tell him what I knew about Archie’s background or point out that the grey eyes already went eager when Archie heard the sound of the elevator.
Mr. Wolfe grunted. “Satisfactory. Between all that you have told me and what I have observed, Mr. Goodwin may make an acceptable employee. I am weary of the incompetents the clerical agencies provide.” He sighed. “It is good to have it confirmed that, like Fritz, he will not trouble my peace.”
You can call it revenge. Since the war, Mr. Wolfe had been building walls to keep out life, and there was no reason for him to get off that easy. He had made me live, after all, and living turned out to be tougher than dying. Or you can call it a gift, both to him and to the angry, damaged kid upstairs. Take your pick.
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you still here, then? Saul’s difficulty is resolved.”
I shrugged. He scowled at me. I set my chin and glared back at him. For a while our gazes locked, each one of us waiting for the other to say something. After some time had gone by, I realized that I didn’t have the words I needed to say something and neither did he. So, slowly, giving him time to stop me, I took the check for my severance pay out of my pocket and shredded it. Wolfe watched me until I was finished, and then said, “Don’t ever use that word in my presence again.”
“You’re the boss, sir.” I threw the scraps of the check into my wastepaper basket.
He let my crack slip by. Instead, he asked, “Do you need my assurance that I will never bother you with my--difficulty?”
That earned him a lifted eyebrow. “Stop worrying, would you? You’re not exactly Hedy Lamarr. I don’t care.” It was a lie, I admit it. There’s nothing like knowing you can’t have something to make it vaguely interesting. It wasn’t a possibility worth finding a new job over, though. For one thing, I didn’t want to move all my bedroom furniture in February. For another, it wasn’t as if anything was ever going to happen.
“Indeed. Nor do I enjoy having my peace disturbed. As you imply, it is a valid fact but an irrelevant one.” More brusquely than usual, Wolfe picked up his book.
Again, a lie. Maybe Wolfe would never touch me, or I him, but speaking still made it different. Better. There was a hum to the taut silence that was always between us, that had to be between us according to all the rules beaten into me and taught by pain to him. Now that I had recognized that note, it almost seemed like I could dance to it--
And what a load of crap that was. I shoved it all out of my mind, straightened my tie, and reached for the pile of germination records I’d abandoned in the morning, hoping to get a few done before I went upstairs to bed. I swear the damn things breed while I’m not looking.
That morning, before our fight, I had woken from a dream of his hands.
Early in the fifties, Archie made a mistake in one of his case reports and gifted me with a wife and kids in Brooklyn. Some slip-up.
He was letting me know that he knew. When we were driving back from the Polo Grounds two Saturdays after the book came out, I asked him, “When did you meet Susannah?”
Archie’s voice was calm. “I didn’t. I ran into her youngest daughter, Deborah the lawyer, when the D.A.’s office was emptying me out about the Ewing case. She was interesting, so I started moving in over a plate of stale ham and cheese on rye. When I realized who her mother was, I backed away slowly.” He tapped the roadster’s accelerator, caught the light, and kept going. “The lady was smart enough to let it be, which wasn’t a surprise, given the job she did turning out my pockets. Sharp eyes, very clever.”
“The kids were all lucky. They have their dad’s guts and good nature, but the looks and the brains come from their mother. Nice combination.”
Archie kept his tone even. “Deborah got Jerry’s height, too. But her nose was a touch too big for her features.”
Yeah, he’d figured it out. “I think it turned out fine on the girls. Just as well, since it skipped Susannah, so she had no warning.” I showed him my last card. “You should have seen what the nose looked like on my old man. If he wasn’t such a charmer, he never would have gotten as far as he did with all those neighborhood housewives, like Susannah’s Ma the year before Susannah was born. They would have been too busy laughing at his face to be interested.”
Archie didn’t let go. I hadn’t expected him to. “Why did you ask her for your ring back before you went to France? You could have kept quiet--”
“No I couldn’t. Susannah wanted children.” I realized I’d misunderstood him and shut up.
“Okay, why didn’t you tell her the truth when you got back?”
“Come on, Archie, we were young, in love, and engaged. Even before I volunteered, it was too late for the truth.” I saw him wince, but he kept his eyes on the road. “In France, Mr. Wolfe gave me a good idea for how I could take the blame, a reason that would be rough enough for her to believe, but one that wouldn’t make her sick with herself. One that would let me keep an eye on her. He’s a smart liar.”
He let me change the subject. “Yeah, no one knows how to lie like he does, or tell the truth in that certain, special way. I’d think he was the model for the Sphinx, if he wasn’t so damn fat.” It was more indulgent than annoyed.
Since the World Wars, we’ve all forgotten how to talk to each other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to, or try. “He’d told you the truth, that day when I found you drinking?”
“Nope. Too early. Or about right, the way it worked out in the end.” He still didn’t look at me, but he was waiting.
“Good. The world’s unhappy enough without guys like us making it worse.”
He shrugged, but I could tell he was glad to have someone else know, someone who thought it was okay. I was glad too, for that matter. After a pause, he made a wise crack about the Red Sox’s relief pitcher, and grinned when I snorted in reply.
Inspector Cramer of Homicide said once that about the only two men I’d lie for are Mr. Wolfe and Archie. He was right about that, and he was right that they’d do the same for me. It’s kind of funny that we, who all make our living digging up the truth, built our friendships on lies. It’s kind of funny, but I’m not laughing.
I’ll settle for being grateful.
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