Of Rain and Sneezes
Folks who read detective stories are the most curious bunch I know. No matter how detailed my records are, they always ask for more. How many books in the office have yellow bindings? The exact angle at which Fritz skims while making the headcheese? Does Wolfe spend his nights sliding down his black silk bed covers in his yellow silk pajamas? Is Wolfe a woman? (This from a guy who called himself the President of the Baker Street Irregulars.) And will I please remember to include a pronunciation guide in that vocabulary of Wolfean grunts I plan to publish? I once read some of these requests to Wolfe, hoping to tease a new kind of grunt out of him, but all I got was a meager "pfui."
"Just 'Pfui?' " I didn't intend to croak it, but I did. Wolfe's hand hovered above the page he was reading and he turned his head towards me right in time to see me sneeze.
I tried to come up with a suitable comeback. All I managed was another sneeze. By the fifth I was really getting the hang of it. A couple of explosions later something inside my nose decided enough was enough. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and saw a look of grim determination in Wolfe's face. It was not often that he had to deal with a serial sneezer, but he didn't scuttle.
"I'm calling Dr. Volmer."
"That would be your fifth phone call today. Aren't you worried about developing disproportionate musculature on your phone hand?"
This little exchange happened shortly after Wolfe came back from his afternoon session with the orchids. Several hours later, having won the Volmer duel by the narrowest of margins, I announced cheerily, "Enjoy your evening, gentlemen. The Muses call," and was off. Wolfe, who never needed anything as shocking as a couple of sneezes to cancel any outdoor activity, was less than impressed and showed so by frowning at the globe he was studying.
Her name was Sheila Kerrigan and she was a real eye-stopper. And a mouth-stopper too. When I first saw her, it took me full five seconds to recover and fire my best lines at her. It must have been the ankles. Or lashes. Or a combination thereof. I decided it merited a thorough investigation. On that night I treated her to a dinner at Rusterman's, tested her at the Flamingo and walked her home. Half of my mind was already choosing a tune to whistle on my way back to the West 35th, when she whirled around and whispered: "Archie?"
By the time she finished her tale, my enthusiasm for the pretty florist from the neighborhood diminished a little. Unlike Wolfe I am perfectly content to accept a hint of a promise instead of a fat paycheck, if the eyes and the surrounding structure appeal to me. This lady, however, needed brawn, not brains and my years with Wolfe have somehow taken away appetite for that particular kind of compliment. Nevertheless, I did what was expected of me. I rescued her brother from a bunch of bozos fumbling their way into bad guys little league and delivered the package, ruffled, but undamaged into the hands of the gushing family. By the time all eight of them launched into a second hugging spree and I was getting cornered fast by two mustached yetis named Dorothy and Agatha I felt it was time to walk away into the glorious sunrise. Except that the sun was rather hard to see through all the rain that started pouring in. When I came home I was soaked to the bone and ready for bed.
The next couple of days were a blur. I remember feeling totally light and carefree. I remember talking a lot. I remember talking to Sheila who kept saying pfui in an impossibly deep voice. Fritz said I'd hardly eaten anything for three days. Doc Volmer said I had a severe bout of flu. Wolfe said the Spanish flu epidemics, thought to be derived from a swine disease, killed more than 500,000 in the U.S. in 1918. His lectures are not bad, but he usually overdoes on details. Maybe I'll let him record our cases one day and the fans will finally be happy. I filed the thought away for further use and tried another spoonful of Fritz's chicken soup. My hand shook. It must have been a severe bout of nostalgia. I haven't eaten chicken soup for ages.
The chair from his bedroom was placed next to my bed. It made my room look very small. There was a dendrobium on the desk that made my African violet look like a weed.
"You forgot to bring the globe." The thought of Wolfe camping in my room with practically nothing but me to stare on made me a bit uneasy. The fact that the spoon rattled on the soup bowl without my explicit permission, doubly so.
"I would have, had you insisted on staying delirious for another day," Wolfe replied peevishly. That called for a grin and I almost managed.
"How many times did Sheila call?"
"Miss Kerrigan attempted to reach you fourteen times." I followed Wolfe's disgusted glare and saw an armful of tulips exiled to a provisionary flower stand in the far corner of the room.
I must have been busy developing another line of attack, because Wolfe's next move caught me by surprise. He reached out, snatched the spoon from my hand and said gravely: "Fritz minced both the meat and the vegetables. You can simply drink it."
"Wonderful. As soon as I am finished I'll start balancing objects on my nose, so don't you go anywhere."
I'll be damned if his cheeks didn't unfurl for a tenth of an inch. The patented Wolfe smile. Teased out at such a slight provocation. I guess I really was dying before. I finished the soup and, after a suitable interval, yawned. Then I closed my eyes and told myself that since he didn't seem to catch my hurricane-sized drift, it would be fun to catch him dozing off in that chair.
Five hours later a pressing business woke me up. I checked the clock. One a.m. Wolfe was still in his chair, sleeping like a baby hippo. I managed not to trip over my own feet on the way to the bathroom; a real feat considered they felt like they belonged to someone else entirely. I splashed cold water on my face and checked my looks for the first time in three days. I though I should call Sheila right away. She did say surviving a shipwreck was romantic. Then I started to negotiate the miles separating me from my bed. The bathroom door was already several feet behind when something huge came at me from the left and stabilized my position. Since I wasn't really falling, I took it personally.
"You should have woken me up." His voice was a bit hoarse. From sleep, I guess.
"I am perfectly all right. You should have warned me you're training for a nurse now." I tried to stop clinging to his arm, but my legs wouldn't cooperate. "Besides, you know me, man of action."
"Doctor Volmer said prolonged supervision was advisable."
There was something in his voice I couldn't place, so I prodded further. "Really? How many days ago was that?"
Wolfe growled, sneaked his other hand under my knees, lifted me up and a few strides later I was deposited in my bed. He then arranged his mass into his chair and watched me with his lids half- closed. That fat show-off.
"A bumpy ride," I remarked, to show just how unimpressed I was.
"I haven't had that much chance to practice," grunted Wolfe.
I was grateful for the dark. Not that I blushed anymore, but it saved me the trouble of having to rearrange my face. If he meant I crumpled more than once during this flu thing I'd rather not hear it. If I really did, I would hear no end of it. I took a deep breath, but Wolfe spoke first.
"Archie." Funny what night does to sounds. This time it was almost gentle.
"If you promise to call me or Fritz whenever you'll be needing something, I will restore your privacy."
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
"Don't be puerile," he growled and sailed off.
Of course, that wasn't the end of it. I recovered quickly enough, but to this day sneezes bring out the worst in Wolfe and rain gives him shudders he doesn't bother to suppress. Fritz offers prophylactic shots of chicken soup every time the sky drizzles and certain level of moisture in the air never fails to conjure an electric blanket in my room. The worst casualty, however, was my favorite "man of action" line. So far, I've invented at least a dozen variations. I don't know why I bother. No matter how I phrase it Wolfe's cheeks invariably unfurl for that patented tenth of an inch.