The first time I saw Nero Wolfe, I was looking down at him from the back of Blue, a spavined old chunk of a horse who should’ve been out to pasture years ago. Wolfe was the big new land-owner on the south shore of the Peninsula. Like lots of folks who moved into our county in the twenties, he’d come for the space and the view, not to be a real rancher or timber man. But land still has to be tended, so I figured there’d be chores to be done. Because everyone else was still avoiding him, not being sure of just what kind of Damn Fool Easterner he was, Wolfe was my best chance of finding work, and I needed work bad. Real soon I’d discover he was neither a fool nor an Easterner, although the jury’s still out on the damned part.
When I rode up, all there was to see was a fat dude in an overcoat and a funny hat walking down the path from the main house to the gazebo, poking at stuff alongside the path with his walking stick. Miss Henrietta Stanson, the previous owner, had built that gazebo on the point overlooking the bay so that she could sit there and scowl at the ocean. They said she was still scowling when they found her dead in the gazebo, but her spook wouldn’t be haunting Wolfe. She would have approved of him. Like her, he didn’t hold with rudeness, he didn’t hold with visitors, and he didn’t hold with lot of other things, including being told what to do. He sure did hold with telling everyone else what to do, though. He also scowled. He scowled at me as I rode up and commenced to telling me what to do right off, wanting to start as he meant to go on, I guess.
“Why are you riding that animal through my garden? Get down, young man. I like eyes at a level.”
He had a point, but I wasn’t giving in just because of that. Pa had taught me the hard way that giving ground doesn’t do you much good. I swung down off Blue and said, “It’s no kind of a garden, mister.” It wasn’t, either. Miss Stanson, the previous decade, had decided that she didn’t hold with gardens. As a result, the trees had started to come back and it was hard to tell where the forest and brush ended and the lawn began. Only the path up to the gazebo had been kept clear.
“It will not be improved by being trampled by the hooves of that poor substitute for a riding animal.” Blue let out a loose, sloppy noise, and Wolfe glared at him and then moved the glare to me. Looking back, I know what he was seeing: a tall, skinny kid dressed in ragged jeans and flannel, with kind-of red hair and a bad attitude. I do not know even now why he didn’t just send me about my business. Maybe he had figured out how much trouble he’d gotten himself into, buying the Stanson estate, and figured he could pump a youngster for the local lore. Maybe it was because of how skinny I was; he purely hates to see anyone go hungry, even a woman, even a kid. But whatever it was, instead of ordering me off the property, he asked, “Is there something you want, Mr…?”
“I ain’t…” I saw him wince and, since I wanted that job, adjusted, “am not a mister. My name’s Archie Goodwin, and I came to ask if there was any work you wanted done.”
“There is a great deal of work that I wish to have done, but what makes you think you would be qualified to do it, Mr. Goodwin?”
I would have thought he was a fat bastard, except that he hadn't been in the county long enough to hear about me, so I only thought he was fat. “I been working for Kyle McCreedy for the past two years, but he got smashed up good by a tree he was topping last winter and he’s selling up and moving to town. I can do just about anything you might want.”
He snorted, not like he didn’t believe me, but for some reason of his own. “If my estimation of your age is correct, you will give me leave to doubt that statement.”
That fired me up. Stupid, given how much I wanted a job, but I was no good at buttoning my lip over my opinions then and haven’t gotten much better since. Maybe I also wanted to start as I meant to go on. “You sure as heck need someone. Everyone knows you been here three months, and ai—haven’t hired anyone but some Chinks to come clean for you and do your garden. The damn house is going to fall into the bay, real soon now.”
“Chinks?” He raised both eyebrows at me.
Hell. Come to tell truth, I’d caught that word from Pa, and I didn’t use it much when I was thinking straight. Old Man Wang over to Cripple Creek had been pretty good to me, and he didn’t like the word Chink either. “Chinamen. But none of them do carpentry or paint or anything. I know them. They’re all cleaners and gardeners.”
“Indeed. It is true that I will be hiring some workmen soon, but you are also correct in as much as they will not resolve the problem of maintenance. You say that you are known to my gardeners? I will speak with them and discover what they have to say of you.”
And serve me right for running my tongue, was what he didn’t add. I don’t know why I didn’t show him Blue’s ass right then and there. Maybe it was because of his clever way of giving me hell, maybe it was because I really wanted that job. On both sides, our first meeting was pretty much a mystery. A lot of life’s important events start out obscure, I’ve noticed. “Okay. You want me to stop on by later?”
His eyes narrowed down, and his lips stuck out and then pulled back in. It must have took some of the pressure off his brain, because he reached a decision back behind his eyes. “You are welcome to stay for lunch, Mr. Goodwin, if you have some manner of disposing of that beast.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wolfe, I’d appreciate that.” He was surprised at my being polite, I could tell, but my mother had succeeded in wedging a few manners into me before she’d died. “I can put Blue back in the old carriage house.”
“It will suffice. Come, Mr. Goodwin, Fritz Brenner, my chef, is experimenting with poaching the local salmon, and we must not be late.”
I guess I hadn’t completely ruined my name with the gardeners because he hired me.
Those first months, I helped clean rooms that hadn't seen a duster since 1910, scraped acres of wood, and painted. The rambling Victorian mansion was sound but needed a lot of fixing. I found I was enjoying helping to put it back together. Sometimes I even got carried away. Then, when it was too late to for me to ride home safely after work, dinner, and his lecturing me, Wolfe would let me sleep over in a spare room.
I fixed up the carriage house for Blue and Wolfe’s automobile. Wolfe paid John Sing, the boss of the cleaning crew, to teach me how to drive. The workmen arrived, and he bellowed at me from below as I climbed all over the outside of the house to double-check the job after the outside painters were done. The electrician from San Francisco showed me how to replace the fuses in the brand new box down cellar, and how to fuel and run the generator. I got used to Wolfe’s cook, Fritz, fussing over me and slipping me treats. More and more of my stuff moved into the extra bedroom with me, where it would be safe; Wolfe finally had me pull everything out, paint and paper, and scavenge the attic for some proper furniture. I stopped going back to Pa’s place.
The last time I saw my Pa, I was fifteen and had been working for Wolfe for a year. Pa hadn't even noticed that I’d packed up and been gone for months. I don’t think he ever would have noticed, except he’d sold all the other horses in the string and went looking for Blue, to try and turn him into bottle money. Mind you, he’d promised he wouldn’t ever take Blue, but that had been years ago, soon after my Ma’s death, and he still worried about other things besides drinking and feeding his temper, back then.
I’d gained some weight and started putting on inches, which may be why he didn’t recognize me when I came to see what all the noise was about. He had A.J., the deputy sheriff with him, and when I came boiling up with a paint scraper, he was standing on the front porch busy accusing Wolfe of everything from kidnapping to murder.
Wolfe turned his head long enough to narrow his eyes slightly in warning, so I pulled up short and stood there next to him, scowling, waiting for Pa to stop ranting and notice me. Every so often, A.J. would try to interrupt Pa, fail, and slap his hat against his trouser leg in exasperation. In the background, Fritz, John Sing, and Dave Williams, the head gardener, were all watching warily, still holding on to whatever tools they’d grabbed for weapons when the commotion started. Pa had a reputation. Today, though, he felt more like working his mouth than his fists. Finally, A.J. lost patience, whacked Pa in the shoulder, and pointed at me.
Pa looked, shrugged, and started up again. He still hadn't recognized me. I snorted and pulled the hat off my head. The movement caught his eye and he stopped yapping long enough to peer at me suspiciously. “Archie?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s me.” I tried to keep it flat. I must not have succeeded because Wolfe stepped forward and took a firm grip on my shoulder.
“You see?” Pa yapped. “White slavery! I told you, he’s a white slaver! The man’s turned Archie into a corn-hole bandit!”
He hadn't told A.J. anything of the kind until just then, but that didn’t matter. I felt my jaw drop, and I blurted out, “What the heck are you talking about, white slavery? I’m a boy! And I didn’t steal any crops or nothing when I left, neither. Ma gave me Blue!”
Now, if I had sat and thought about it for a month ahead of time, I could not have come up with a better response. A.J. blushed brick red and grabbed Pa’s arm, to keep him from lurching forward and trying to attack Wolfe. I kind of wish A.J.’d missed. Wolfe could have folded Pa in half without breaking into a sweat.
Wolfe said, in that cold voice that makes you think he can top you off without having to use a saw, “You signed a paper releasing parental rights to your son five months ago. If you have drunk through your funds, that is none of my concern. Archie is not some stray hound, available for casual reclamation and re-sale.”
“Like I’d go back there anyhow,” I said, pretty hot.
Wolfe turned and gave me a glare. “Why aren’t you in school? And why were you wearing that ridiculous hat?”
“It’s a half-holiday,” I protested. “I finished my essay on Mr. Monroe’s doctrine already, and I’ve seen the moving picture in town. Jimmy Lloyd is helping his people clear some cedars, Fritz is trying to cook a soufflé, and it’s your time in the greenhouses, so I thought I’d paint that latticework. You know I’m only two bucks away from earning a new sail for my dingy.”
Through all this, Pa kept trying to talk nasty, and A.J. kept shutting him up. Finally Pa did what anyone from our county could have predicted and swung on A.J., who knocked him out with one clean blow. “Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Wolfe.” A.J. unconsciously scrubbed his knuckles against one hip. “It’s not like everybody doesn’t know how things really stand, but we didn’t know you had the paperwork to back it up.”
Wolfe only gave him a look. He turned the look onto Pa, sprawled out on the porch, and then onto me. It softened, although I was probably the only one who could tell. “Are you well, Archie?”
“Yeah,” I said, a bit doubtful. I wasn’t sure what he was worried about me for. I hadn't known he’d been smart enough to get everything down in writing, but that wasn’t anything for me to worry about. The reverse of worrying, maybe.
He looked up at the sun. “You do have two hours of daylight left, if you hurry.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and scooted. I knew there were still some things that Wolfe could handle better than me, and legal matters was one of them. That was one reason I’d let him bully me into going back to school.
Being in most ways a pretty normal kid, with a normal kid’s curiosity, I asked around careful-like until I found out how a guy could be a white-slave. It was maybe two months after that when a new and guilty story joined my collection of bed-time entertainments. I knew it’d never really happen, because Wolfe wasn’t an evil foreigner like seemed to be called for, but I could always put a turban on him in my lights-out imaginings.
As the years went by, with some supervision from Wolfe, I took over keeping the account books. Soon I was on my own as I cut paychecks, listed expenses, and answered letters from the bank in San Francisco. When I graduated High School, Wolfe tried to get me to go on to college but I wasn’t having any of that. Instead, I retired Blue to a field at the edge of the estate and bought myself a roadster.
I dated. I dated some more. I visited a couple of bordellos up the coast a ways. After encountering a storm on a three day solo sail when I wasn’t sure I was coming back, I saw the expression on Wolfe’s face when I returned. After that, even with what I now knew, I couldn’t get myself to leave. It took Pearl Harbor to solve my problem for me.
What I thought would be the last time I would see Nero Wolfe was in a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. I’d gotten shore leave before we shipped out, called Wolfe, and we’d just managed to meet up for three hours at the end of my leave before I had to report back to the transport depot. I wasn’t surprised he’d made the effort. Even though he’d come along too late to occupy the same sort of place in my life that Ma and Kyle, my old boss, had, he didn’t know that. He’d done a fine job of turning me into a man. It wasn’t his fault, the kind of man I’d become.
The war had been a relief, in a way. I’d tried, and failed, to change myself. Joining the Marines was a clean way of getting away from Wolfe before I did something and got kicked out of what would probably be the last home I’d ever know. It also gave me a chance to see if I could feed the twisted-up part of me until it stopped hungering. That hadn't worked; all I’d done was waste the leaves when I could have gone home and had some peace before I went out and found my bullet.
Wolfe and I had talked about nothing in particular, about news that I already knew from Fritz’s letters and his own. The food had been great and we had lingered. It had gotten late, and Wolfe had insisted on taking me back to the depot in a taxi so there would be no chance of my being AWOL.
What I did next, I still flush a little to recall, it was so cheesy. I faked falling asleep. I leaned on his shoulder. I snored all over him. Yeah, I was that desperate. What the hell? I could be dignified, or I could take the feel of him, his heat, the sound of his heart beat and his breathing, with me to where I was going. It seemed like a pretty easy choice to me. I hadn't figured on how tired I was, though. When he shook me, just outside the gate, I’d really dozed off.
“Archie. Wake up. We’re here.”
“Wha--” What happened next was an accident, I swear, if one I’ll be grateful for until the day I die. The door on my side of that rattle-trap old taxi, pressed back into service for the duration, was jammed. I had to scramble over Wolfe and I brushed against him in passing.
The Master-at-Arms at the gate may have wondered why I was grinning like a maniac, but I couldn’t help it. Wolfe’d been hard. And he’d made a noise at the accidental touch. Oh, I’d pretended not to notice, but—well. I guess I’d just have to make sure I came back, after all, so we could discuss the matter at some length.
I saw more of the world than I’d ever known existed, and a lot of it was nasty and wanted to kill me. I returned the favor, but I didn’t enjoy it. Like all of the guys, I had my magic to pull me through. Some men had Bibles, some had holy medals their mothers had given them, some had snapshots of their girlfriends. I had a packet of letters full of too many big words, written in a large, clear hand with a fancy European fountain pen.
When I finally found my bullet I didn’t want it any more. So, I was diving and it caught me in the leg instead of in the head. For a minute, I thought I was dying, and I knew I should have written him, said something, kissed him, even, before I left. I was relieved, when I woke up, to find that I hadn't run out of time, after all.
The first time I saw Nero Wolfe after I returned from the Pacific, I was riding in a battered jeep that had been liberated by some soon-to-be veterans. They drove up into the estate and fell quiet as we rounded the house and approached the gazebo. Something about what Wolfe had done with the place had made them drop the hollering and joshing that had accompanied most of our drive up the coast, and their farewells were subdued as I slung my kit over the side and got, a bit painfully, out of the back. Their silence let me see the estate with new eyes. It had grown into a rich man’s kingdom, a private paradise of sweeping green lawns, swaths of wildflowers blooming, trimmed hedges, grottos, and, everywhere you looked, the great, towering, coastal redwood trees spreading out to and guarding the borders of the property. At the center of it all was the big Victorian, with the sea behind it stretching out to the horizon. But I only had eyes for one part of the view. Wolfe, who had been walking up towards the Gazebo in his overcoat and Homburg, poking at the slugs alongside the path with his blackthorn, had turned back and now stood waiting for me.
The jeep drove off and left me, standing still as he was, also waiting. I’m not sure what we were both waiting for, but, when I moved, it was like I had broken a spell. I abandoned my kitbag where it lay and walked up to him. “Hello, sir.”
“Archie. It is good to have you back.” Very gravely he held out his hand and I took it almost as gravely. We shook. I looked into his eyes to see if I could find traces of what I now expected, but if it was there, it was well hidden.
“Good to be back. Mind if I walk along?”
“No.” He turned and resumed his exercise. I strolled alongside him, frankly relieved by his slow pace. My leg still turned tricky on me now and then, and I doubted I would ever again be as swift as I had been as a youngster before the war. When we got out to the gazebo, he sat down in his armchair and scowled at the ocean for a bit before he asked me, “Did you not enjoy San Francisco?”
“I enjoyed it quite a bit. Big cities are as lively as I thought they would be. Lots of things to do, a passel of lessons to learn.”
“I have always found that to be the case.” He fell silent again, then suddenly asked, “Will this be an extended visit? You are welcome to stay as long as you wish, of course.”
“Well, it depends.” He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t ask otherwise. I knew to keep going. “It depends on you, and if you’re going to want to have me for a guest after we talk.”
He wasn’t wary, he was supercilious, which I had figured on. “You blether.”
“Nah. I just had to ask a question, is all.” I let silence fall for a few seconds, then looked deep into the dark brown eyes. He knew what was coming, I could tell. “Mr. Wolfe, are you a homo?”
He flinched like I had hit him. “Yes.” I was glad to see him glare at me after he said it. I’d thought about how to have this conversation again and again, and one of the few things I’d feared is that he was altogether ashamed of himself somewhere deep inside, and admitting it to me would break him. I sighed with relief, and let him see it. His eyes narrowed. I grinned.
“Good, because so am I.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” His reply was too swift. He was going to be stubborn. I didn’t feel like putting up with it, so I risked my leg and went to my knees on the redwood planking of the floor in front of him, leaned forwards between his thighs, and touched him where he would know I wasn’t kidding. He tried to recoil but that’s hard to do in an armchair. I managed to get in close before he could push me away, wrapped my arms around his waist, and laughed up at him, then stropped up and down against his legs and groin.
He strained back away and growled, “Stop it, you jackanapes. If this is your misplaced idea of gratitude…”
I was sliding down him. “Hell, no. Seems to me you have just as much reason to be grateful as I do.” He made an outraged noise and grabbed my ears and yanked, hard. I yelped and laughed again. It was okay. I hadn’t expected him just to give up.
His body wasn’t helping him, though. Underneath my cheek, he was hardening. “Come on, boss, you must have dreamed this in your bed at night about a thousand times. Come on, let me have you.”
I was a bit limited in what I could do because I needed to keep my hands behind him and my face against him, so there’d be no way for him to apply pressure without actually damaging me. He tried yanking at my hair, and I used my teeth a little, around the fly. He groaned, before he could catch himself, but he hadn’t given up yet. He said, “You do not actually want this.” That was stupid and he knew it; he was only hoping to get my mouth away from him when I sassed him in reply. But I could keep my face pressed against him as I talked and I did. It was nice. Wolfe felt good: clean, warm, and soothingly familiar, all at the same time. He was better than anything I’d had the privilege of handling in the past few years, out in the Pacific.
The memories were what prompted me to say, “Bullshit. I been jerking off to you now and again since I was fifteen. We’ve been to some strange places together in my head, including onto some stinking coral beaches.” He went still beneath me and stopped trying to pry me off, so I added. “That’s when I knew it was hopeless. Yanking away in some scrape trench, trying to be quiet, daydreaming it was you yelling at me, touching me, instead of Betty Grable? Pansy. Ignore the rifle, the stripes, the fucking ribbons. Fag.” I was shuddering, and his hands went to his belt. He knew what we both needed just then and it was damn raw. When he undid himself I buried my face in him, then took him into my mouth. It was all true. It was what I really wanted.
He said my name, ran his hands through my hair and over my face, cursed, and generally came unglued. I relished every minute of it, including when he came in my mouth. When I was done swallowing, I freed my lips to grin at him. “See? No hope. Homo.”
“Bah,” he said, and tugged at me. “Such language, Archie, is a crude and simplistic description of a complex phenomenon.” My leg locked, and he frowned when he had to help me up. “I thought you wrote in your letters that your wound was minor.”
“If I had told you how bad it was, you would have come up to the hospital and fussed at me, and I would have done something interesting and screwed up my discharge. This way, at least I get all my veteran’s benefits.”
“Your reasoning is incomplete and proceeds from puerile assumptions.” He moved me over to the old chaise lounge and eased me down onto it. “Take off your trousers.” I grinned at him some more. He grunted. “Don’t be unduly optimistic. I merely wish to see how badly damaged you are.” When I got them off, he growled again, but not softly this time. Now it was his turn to go to his knees, but it wasn’t my cock he kissed, it was the scar. Not, mind you, that it felt bad, but I thought I could put those lips of his to better use.
“That scar climbs pretty high, you know. A couple of inches higher and you wouldn’t be able to return my services. You’d have had to settle for riding a gelding.” I felt him snort against me. “You can check it if you don’t believe me.” He didn’t say anything, but his lips and tongue moved upwards, along the scar. Shortly it was my turn to pray and curse. Right in the middle of it, he yanked my chain about bad language, and I deployed some more for him. Enough to say, it was almost worth the wait.
Afterwards, when we had neatened up, he sat beside me, his stick in one hand, my left hand cradled in the other. He scowled out to sea as if we were two strangers sitting on a bench in Golden Gate Park, pretending to ignore the gentle way his thumb was caressing my palm. It was just like him.
I was content to sit quietly. The past four years had given me my fill of adventure and then some, and I wanted nothing more than to go back to being the steward of this tiny kingdom.
Wolfe said, “This place will grow to be too small for you. It was too small even before you left.”
“You may not want to admit it, but there are such things as trains and autos. San Francisco’s a nice place to be a visitor, every now and then. You should try it.”
“Pfui.” His thumb hesitated, then scraped gently. I narrowed my eyes a bit at the pleasure of it. Having had a bellyful of the responsibilities of adulthood, it was nice to find a privilege I could enjoy. “Do you truly wish to--”
I raised a single eyebrow at him. “Gee, Mr. Wolfe, do I want to try something that I’ve desperately yearned for since I was a youngster? Heck, no, I don’t want that at all.”
The corners of his lips unfurled slightly. “I apologize. Suddenly achieving that which is most desired tends to cloud the intellect.”
“You got that right, sir.” I swung his hand a little. “Don’t worry about it. You never grabbed when I needed protecting more than pleasure. Now I can take care of myself, and so it’s time for some fun. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t, but nothing will change what you’ve already done for me. You were resigned to pushing away from the table after finishing that one course. Nothing wrong with having dessert, instead.”
He finally looked at me full on, his eyebrows raised and his lips pursed, but his dark eyes warm. “You deliberately recall to me that it is time for lunch, in order to distract me from the difficulties that I should be pointing out to you of such an arrangement.”
I shrugged, unrepentant.
He snorted. “Come along then, if you must.” He let go of my hand and got up onto his feet. He didn’t offer to help me up, but he did wait, and then he strolled slowly along side of me, grumbling about the difficulties of gardening in wartime. All around us was the life he’d nurtured, green and abundant. I felt myself relaxing. I knew without his having to tell me that I’d finally made it home.
Return to the archive