It must have been the constant strain that got to him at last and tripped up his tongue. That, and the fact I looked dead. Hell, I felt dead. I found out later that I had sliced open my scalp and leaked like a homeowner’s cheap plumbing. When I came to, and tried to open my eyes, I couldn’t do it. The lids were stuck shut with blood. And something had a hold on me.
You see, one problem with Wolfe’s way of life is that it includes too damn many packages. By my count, we have been blind-sided six times now by deliveries, twice with explosive results. But there is no way for Wolfe to sit in his chair and get what he wants without having objects sent over. And I can’t guarantee everything, unless I can see each item wrapped, transported, and unwrapped, which is too much to ask for even by a man who can send me up to 75th and Broadway for a single jar of green olives.
That particular day, I wasn’t expecting trouble and the package was scheduled. It had the correct return address on it, of an orchid fancier down in Florida. I gave it the once over, but it felt about right and looked fine. Since Wolfe had mentioned its contents twice in the past three days, which, for him, is showing the hysteria of a kid who’s spotted the ice cream truck, I put it on top of the pile of mail on his desk.
At five to eleven I heard the sound of the elevator and looked up from the plant germination records. The bank account was plump and Wolfe was resisting taking on any new work, so I figured his look at his new orchid was about as interesting as my day was going to get. He came into the room, said “Good morning, Archie,” and spotted the package.
“Good morning, Sir.” I enjoyed watching him trying not to seem eager. “It’s such a nice day that I thought you might want to head back up to the roof. After all, we’ve been gentlemen of leisure for almost a month now, and there is no sense in risking raising a sweat by opening the mail.”
“Pfui.” He had gone so far as to pick up the package to examine it, but, at my dig, his head jerked around and he gave me a look meant to scald.
I got up and stepped around my desk. “No, not Pfui. I have decided I am changing my ways. Relaxation At All Costs is my new motto. Give that over, and I’ll call Fritz to open it.” I held out one hand.
“You are being intolerably jocund.” I’ll swear he almost clutched the package to his chest, but he recollected himself in time and settled for tearing one end of the wrapping open.
I will never know what tipped me off, but I think it may have been the slight flare of Wolfe’s nostrils, like a predator that scents something hostile. Time seemed to slow. I leapt forward, and he started to turn, probably to try and shield me. I was almost fast enough. I got it away and aloft with one arm, and knocked Wolfe off his feet with the rest of me. The package arced behind his desk, and it must have hit something on the way to the floor. My world went white and struck me.
Later, the explosives expert told me that our bomber was an idiot who couldn’t light a firework on the Fourth of July. Only a small part of the plastique detonated properly, and most of the force of the blast bounced off Wolfe’s desk and back towards the wall behind it. It was enough to save Wolfe’s life, and my own.
I would like to let you know how it feels to be blown up, but I can’t. I lost that part of my memory to the blast. I just remember feeling--strange. The next thing I knew was the voice.
“Archie. Bogati, Archie.”
He sounded bad. I tried to ask what was wrong, but my mouth wasn’t doing so well, either.
A hand felt the front of my throat. I felt the shudder that went through him when he got my pulse, and tried to move.
Well, that put the fat into the fire. But, even after a word for the record books, there was something important for me to do. I used a lot of energy, pried my eyes open, and got a good look at him. His huge face was looming over me like the sun over the East River, and it was his arm I had felt around me. He didn’t look damaged, thank God, just mussed up a little. One hand was moving over me, probably to check for injuries. A waste, damn it, not that I was in any state to take advantage. Nothing felt broken, but part of the desktop had splintered, and I had some wood in me.
“Mon Dieu!” It was Fritz, at the door to the office.
“Call Doctor Vollmer.” Wolfe turned his face back to me. “Don’t try to move. You may have internal injuries, or a concussion.”
This time my voice worked like I told it to. “Too late, I heard you.” I had almost run myself out of steam, but I managed to add, “Me, too.”
“Archie. Shut up.”
I felt I could let him try to bully me the whole day long, since it meant that he was still alive and lumbering. As for myself, I didn’t feel too bad, considering. I wasn’t heading for shock, just bleeding. That wasn’t good enough for Wolfe, of course. He had his handkerchief out and pressed against a tear in my arm. Every time I tried to shift, he gave a sort of warning rumble, like an over-protective elephant. I admit it: each time I heard that noise it gave me an odd, warm twist in my gut. But then, I have understood myself for a long time now.
If you are still with me at this point, and have read some of my other accounts, you are probably wondering what the hell is going on, since I am well known as a man for the ladies. Even Wolfe admits my talents when it comes to the fairer sex. They like how I dance, and how I talk. I like how they look, and how they think. One lady in particular might have staked her claim if we both hadn’t had other commitments. You probably believe these feelings make the other so much hog swill. But the real world is not that simple. And as for my accounts? When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was an amateur conjurer. I spent most of one summer following him around and begging him to show me how his tricks were done. He told me about a thousand times to figure them out for myself, but I kept pestering him and I wore him down enough that he gave me one hint. “See here, Archie,” he said, “when I’m working, you know where I gesture towards the most?” I nodded. “Well, you look someplace else, because you think I’m trying to divert you. I am diverting you, but I’m diverting you by pointing in the right direction.” So, read the books and figure it out for yourselves.
Wolfe didn’t let me go until Doc Vollmer came and said it was okay to move me. In fact, he only backed up when Fritz, Theodore, and the Doc shifted me from the floor to the office couch. Doc Vollmer suggested sending me to the hospital then, but Wolfe, who knows my opinion of that idea, said no. Between the ambulance and the hospital food, it made perfect sense to him that I, unless at death’s door, would resist the trip. So I was treated to a couple of hours of lights shined into my eyes, splinters removed, and stitches. When he had a chance to examine me, the Doc was amazed at how little structural damage had been done.
“Luck,” I said, and let my eyes slide towards Wolfe, who was sitting by me in the red leather chair. “My rabbit’s foot must have worked.”
“Confound it, you are giving way to a superstitious delirium. I would suggest that you cease prattling and conserve your energy for your recuperation.”
“You’re just sore because your favorite chair got blown up.”
By the time the Doc was done and I had my pain pills, I felt capable of eating some food, and said so. Wolfe took my arm and eased me into the dining room. Fritz had junked whatever plans he must have made for lunch, and served chicken bisque, creamed corn, and omelets herbes, food meant to comfort. I was so touched I might have choked up, if I hadn’t been busy shoveling it all down, instead. Wolfe, as usual, sat at the other end of the table, but he managed to give an impression of hovering.
After lunch, I started yawning, but I hung on until Saul Panzer arrived. Saul is just about the best outdoors detective in New York City, and I wasn’t taking any chances until I knew someone I trusted was guarding Wolfe. When I let him in, Saul looked me over and shook his head, but managed to dig up a smile. “Missed you again, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m tough. Point me in the right direction and me and my two broken legs, three concussions, and four liver diseases will go out and arrest the black-hearted villain, just like in the movies.”
Wolfe grunted hello to Saul, and lumbered on by us, heading for the elevator to the plant rooms. I turned to watch him go. His eyes didn’t meet mine. I turned back to Saul.
“Keep Wolfe out of the way when the workmen come in, okay? We don’t know who the problem is, and it would be too easy to let in an unexpected guest.”
Saul looked at me. His eyes, shaded by that monumental nose, were concerned. “Teach your grandmother. Archie, is something wrong?”
“I’ll let you know in about a week.”
I slept almost until half past six, and my dreams were odd. I would wake up and just about recapture what had happened that afternoon, but then I’d shift onto some stitches and lose it. I might not even have made it to dinner if Fritz hadn’t called me on the house phone. As it was, I barely had time to wash around the worst of the damage, put on some clean clothes, and make it downstairs on schedule. Not, as it turned out, that I needed to have bothered.
Dinner was so exasperating that I almost gave it up right then. Wolfe had invited Saul to eat with us, but Saul had demurred and gone off on his own business, and I soon found out why. Food usually makes Wolfe happy and expansive, but tonight he was doing a bad imitation of his usual behavior. He talked and talked, but something in his expression made me think he really wanted to be done and gone. He looked at the table, the food, Fritz, the décor: in fact, at every place but me. And, to top it off, my stitches itched. I was so steamed that, to this day, I couldn’t tell you what, besides the fish, I was forking into my mouth. Given the quality of Fritz’s cuisine, that is a heck of a thing to have to write.
When dinner ended, I gave up and went to my room. I read a book until bedtime, which really means that I sat around brooding. What was Wolfe thinking? Did he really imagine, after all these years, I was going to let it slide? At last I decided to give Wolfe the night to simmer, since, after all, I wasn’t looking for his opinion of a new strain of Phalaenopsis. Even the genius might need some time to work on this problem. However, I couldn’t sleep. My bruises and stitches hurt enough to keep me restless, but not enough to distract me from my thoughts. I spent a few hours measuring the carpet in my room with my feet, and then gave up, turned off the alarm, and went down the stairs to the second floor. At the door to Wolfe’s bedroom, I knocked and said, “It’s me.”
There was a long pause. I finally had enough of waiting and went in. When I opened the door to his bedroom, he was sitting up in bed, dressed in about a cubic mile of yellow silk pajamas, scowling at me.
“I assume that you have some reason for disturbing me at this hour.”
I walked over to him and looked admiring. “You are a piece of work. The little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam couldn’t do it better. I especially liked the two-hour lecture on Minoan archaeology at dinner. What a great diversion. I’m sure Fritz didn’t notice at all when you didn’t finish your one and only serving of salmon russe.”
Wolfe frowned and tried to look as if everything was under control, but his index finger was tracing little circles on the black silk coverlet. He should have known that habit would give him away some day.
“I would assume that you are referring to the events in the office this afternoon. I can assure you, there will be no occurrence in the future of the kind of remark that perturbed you.”
“Yeah. That is just about what I expected. Protect Archie. Make my decision for me.”
Wolfe took in about a bushel of air, released it, and said in a tight voice, “This is insufferable. Leave this room.”
“Very well.” I went to the door, and then turned. I knew it was childish, but I had to get it said while I could. “Just in case you had any doubts. You’re lazy, and conceited, and you’re way too fat, but I love you, too.”
I had the door half open before he spoke.
I shut it, turned, and stalked back over to the bed. Wolfe tilted his head to look up at me.
“Archie. You are being ridiculous. I was, you understand, somewhat deranged by my mingled emotions of affection and relief.”
“You see what happens,” I told him bitterly, “you can claim insanity and run away. But I’m left sitting with my cards on the table. And you know me. You know I wouldn’t lie to you, not about a thing like that. That makes you the only one with a chance to turn yellow.” I leaned in, so he could see my face and know I wasn’t just riding him. “My God, it’s too damn much. If you’re going to pretend any more, you’ve got to fire me.”
Wolfe was beyond bellowing my name. He gave an inarticulate growl, and actually put one fat flipper in the middle of my chest to try and push me away. But I was mad, and I wasn’t having any of it. I grabbed his wrist, yanked it aside, leaned down, and kissed him. And, since I figured that this was the end of an era, I made the most of it.
It must have been a good minute before I pulled back and said, “Okay, now you can fire me.”
That’s only the second time in all these years I’ve left Nero Wolfe speechless. He stared at me, his dark eyes wide. I felt his pulse ticking fast in the hollow of his throat.
What the hell. I went back for seconds.
If, like me, you saw that movie with the crazy sea captain who keeps trying to harpoon the white blimp, you can guess what happened next. I may have got the first licks in, but Wolfe can move fast when he really wants to, and he’s strong. He pinned me to him by wrapping his arms around me, and pulled me under. And that, I think, is all I need to tell you about that.
Much later, while I punched a black pillow up to my standards, I said, “I once asked Lily Rowan why she stopped calling me Escamillo.”
He looked up from what he was doing, and asked, “Archie, do even these circumstances not curb your taste for irrelevancies?”
“Sure,” I said indulgently, “you don’t care.” I ran my hands through his hair. “But I’m going to tell you anyway. She said she stopped it the day she realized that I could actually get gored by a bull.”
Return to the archive