Officially, I was fired that Saturday evening in May of 1954, but it was also an emergency. I thought it over, then used my spare key, the one I hadn't dropped onto Nero Wolfe’s desk, to open the front door of the old Brownstone on 35th street.
My bounce that morning hadn't been one of Wolfe’s serious efforts. After those, I disappear for a day or two, until I get an all-clear message from Saul or until I decide that we need to repeat our last conversation in a different key. This morning had been more of a display of temperament on Wolfe’s part. He was feeling peevish because the gunshot wound in his leg hurt, even before I told him that, since the wound in question was wholly voluntary, his behavior was out of bounds. Then it had become a race between his firing me and my quitting him.
To tell the truth, being fired had given me a day off, and some much needed breathing space. Wolfe and I had been spending a lot of time together lately, both in Montenegro and on the ship coming back to the States. I’d intended to take a vacation when we returned, but--
No, since I’m typing this up only to unsnarl a mental traffic jam, I’ll tell the truth. I would have been stuck with him even without the bullet. When we got home, I knew he’d chew over what had happened to Marko Vukcic and Carla, and I’d meant to stay around long enough to make sure that he’d settled down before I took some well-earned time off. However, like most simple ideas around Nero Wolfe, my notion hadn't made it past his first scheme.
The god-damned fat genius and his so-called romantic nature: it’s hard enough keeping hostile strangers away without his helping them. Looking back, it was now obvious that Wolfe had annoyed me all the way across both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic just to keep me from figuring out why his supposed plan for capturing our pet assassin was so feeble. He’d already decided to have Zov arrested on a charge that would stick Stateside, that of shooting Nero Wolfe in front of a crowd of witnesses. He’d probably figured it would give the police all the incentive they needed to take Zov apart and pry a confession out of him.
Wolfe’s such a pigheaded egotist I doubt he cared he might get killed. As I’d pointed out to him this morning, he hadn't bothered to consider where that would leave Fritz, Theodore, and me, stranded without paychecks in the midst of a soggy economy. But he didn’t fire me until I got lyrical about the orchids on the roof pining away, yearning after him. Wolfe hates anyone but himself getting sarcastic about what serves him as a love life.
When I went in and hung up my hat and coat on the rack in the front hall, the lights in the office were on. I’d expected that from Fritz’s phone call. What I hadn't anticipated was finding Wolfe asleep behind his desk.
I have to give him his due. He seemed fairly dignified for someone sleeping in a chair, even a custom-made chair of Brazilian Mauro. His features were relaxed, his mouth was closed firmly, and his fingers were laced across the midpoint of his extra-large belly. The only give away was his breathing. His cheeks would puff up a little and his lips would push out as he exhaled, then pull back in as he inhaled. It was as if he was sorting out a case in slow motion.
I looked him over for a few moments, while working on my temper. Since I wasn’t on the payroll, I didn’t bother to turn down the volume or water down the sarcasm when I said, “Sweet. Touching, even. Were you intending to camp out until Fritz returns next week?”
Wolfe’s eyes shot open, then focused on me. “What the devil are you doing here?” He wakes up fast, which is irritating to someone like me who shambles until after the first glass of orange juice.
“Fritz called me from the hospital. I’d left him some numbers he could try in an emergency. He seemed to think you might get in trouble if he went to help his lady friend, a pretty accurate assessment, from what I’m seeing in front of me.”
“I was merely recouping my stamina before going upstairs.” He flipped a hand towards his applewood stick next to the desk. “I have recovered, as you are well aware, a good part of my mobility.”
“Not as much as you think you have. Three to two you would have tried it, ended up on the floor, and gotten to wait until Theodore came back from New Jersey on Monday. That would have been charming.”
“Bah.” There was something different about his eyes when he glared at me. They seemed darker than usual. I frowned, then stepped forward and checked his desk. Instead of the usual beer, he had a pitcher of water and a half-filled tumbler parked on the desk top. Next to them sat a brown glass bottle with a pasted-on, typed label, filled with pills.
Wolfe and I feel about the same when it comes to drugs, so I had let the fact he wasn’t taking his pain-killers go by without comment. But he’d sure picked a great time to change his mind, even if he’d done it so he could get himself upstairs without help and without damage. I put both palms flat on his desk and leaned in to check his pupils. Like an idiot, I forgot the move would also bring me within his range.
I caught it when his nostrils flared, even though the shift was barely visible. Since he has a nose like the world’s fattest bloodhound, I was sure he got the entire message even beneath the scent of several shots of rye from earlier in the evening. I freely admit, Fritz’s call had interrupted me, the subsequent words with my host had rushed me, and I hadn't taken time to effectively wash up. And my host that evening had worn truly memorable cologne.
Wolfe knew better than to ask me where I’d been, but his tongue was still running loose. “I thought you would go to Miss Rowan.”
“Now, really. That’s none of your business. Since I am feeling generous, I’ll merely note she’s out of town, in Boston, enjoying the company of some people she knows I don’t like.” I looked at him, daring him to continue.
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed, but his tone was mild when he said, “Given that you are not currently in my employ, it is true your evenings are none of my concern.”
I kept quiet. He hadn't missed it, but he might let it slide.
He had to keep going, though. His big shoulders raised a fraction of an inch and fell. “In any case, I am in no position to criticize.” Hearing himself, he blinked, once.
My mouth fell open, before I caught it and grinned. “News to me, sir.”
His chin came up a fraction. “In my youth, I was not exempt from the archaic customs of my birthplace.”
It was my turn to blink. He didn’t seem inclined to explain. I straightened up, circled around, and parked myself on the corner of his desk. Then I picked up the medicine bottle and read the label. “I must write a thank-you letter to the AMA about these. They are obviously another remarkable advance we owe to modern medical research. Just think of all our hard work prying the truth out of suspects, when we only had to load up Fritz’s pâté with--”
Contrary to certain people’s opinions, I react to that command only if I feel like it, and, being fired, I didn’t feel like it. “What kind of archaic custom are we talking about? I thought it was the Greeks who used to act that way, or the Turks. Not--”
Wolfe closed his eyes and said a word in a lingo I now recognized as Serbo-Croat. Since I thought he was exercising his right to free speech at my expense, I waited. He opened his eyes, realized I hadn't understood, and repeated the word, slowly. I didn’t want to be there all night so I parroted it back to him. “Pobretinsvo.”
He shuddered. “Enough, Archie. That will suffice. The word translates, roughly, as ‘making blood brothers’. It refers to an indissoluble, life-long bond between men, formerly sanctified by a Church ceremony. There was certainly no requirement for a physical consummation, but it sometimes occurred.”
If my brain had been a safe, you would have heard the noise as all the tumblers fell into place. I caught myself tugging my lower lip and stopped. “Marko. But Marko was a chaser, a womanizer, and you’re sure not pious enough to be celibate because of some ritual.”
“Events sculpt men in diverse ways. Marko left that part of his life behind, as did I, and we continued on in differing directions. Still, my ego is such that I admit when I have given my word, even if that word is no longer germane.”
Slowly, I sat up straight and set the medicine bottle back down. “Don’t take any more of these pills.”
“I have no intention of doing so.”
“You should have said something.” If you had asked me, I would have thought I would sound angry. Instead, my words came out sounding almost awed. I’m not sure why.
“For what reason? As you have often stated when circumstances were reversed, it was none of your business.”
I considered him. He considered me. Neither one of us was up to peak form, but the silence still stretched longer than it should have. At last, I said, “It could have been.”
“Archie--” It wasn’t a growl and it wasn’t a murmur. It was something in between.
I shrugged. “I don’t work for you right now, so I might as well say it. You’re the genius; you could have figured it out. For some reason, you didn’t want to know.”
“I will not be a lackey to my lust.” This time, it was a growl.
I hiked a single eyebrow. That last crack was worth it. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“Bosh.” His eyelids, which had been drooping, pulled up so he could scowl at me. “Do not bother to pretend to a modesty your vanity can not support. I have never given you a disquisition upon the aesthetics of your person, and I do not intend to start now. We have both agreed your intimate behavior is not my concern.”
I realized I wanted to touch him, just to see what would happen, but that wasn’t a surprise. Getting a reaction out of Nero Wolfe is not only a job, it’s become one of my life’s hobbies, and now he was being provocative in a whole new way. It may also be noted that I’d been dragged away from my evening’s entertainment before I’d have chosen to leave, and part of me felt he owed me for that. The great detective saw something in my eyes. In a gesture I’d never seen from him before, he ran two fingertips across his lips.
I said, my voice rough, “You can relax. Have I given you reason to think I’ve gone stupid? I know when we’re walking along the edge of a cliff, thank you.” For once, I was sore but not at him. I simply wasn’t crazy about the joke that life had played on us both for the last couple of decades.
Again, he could have dropped it, but he was too conceited for that. “You are correct in one respect, Archie. I did not want to know. I had no intention of losing your talents and capacities merely in order to safeguard myself against worry, and the only request that one needs never worry about making is an impossible request.”
“Oh. Is that so? Well, start worrying, sir.” I turned my head. “I have been informed this side is my good profile.”
It hung in the balance until the folds of his cheeks pulled back in what he took to be a smile. “I would beg to disagree.” His tone was polite but firm. He’d remembered in time that he’d already fired me and was determined to show he was no more vulnerable than the next man. Too bad for him that, according to Kinsey, he had to do better than the next two men to beat the odds.
I turned my head to face the other direction, and then used the smile I reserve for cutting in on a dance floor.
His eyes narrowed. “Stop that.”
Good enough. I let the smile widen into a grin.
“There is no need to drive the nail home with a sledgehammer. I take your point. I will cease trying to dictate your choices in such matters, even when they involve extreme improbabilities.”
That was a satisfactory end to the conversation and I could have left it there. I didn’t. “Am I still fired?”
“No, confound you. Are you returning?”
“As of eight o’clock tomorrow morning, I guess I am. However, we still have one issue to get straight.” I could have used another shot of rye, but my tongue was busy proving I’d had enough already. “If and when I take a bullet, don’t grandstand like you did with Marko.”
Wolfe snorted, but his tone was polite when he said, “Very well. I can not speak to all conceivable circumstances, but I will take the least desperate option. Will that suffice you?”
I thought it over. “Yeah.”
“Then, I place the same onus upon you.”
“Okay, that’s fair.”
He extended his hand and mine met it. We shook. I didn’t want to let go but I did. His hand didn’t exactly spring away from mine, a fact which I report without comment.
Maybe I should have needed a while to get adjusted but I didn’t. The scenery seemed to have shifted between the acts. “For the sake of information, I don’t push my way into other people’s beds. Most times, I let my friends ask.”
“Indeed.” He made it neutral, but his restraint was showing. I understood. I have to admit, on the rare occasions we are forced to it, because of the tension, these sorts of discussions tend to end in words. But, since this one had started with words, there was no place left to go. Except one.
Wolfe’s gaze shifted to the applewood, which he surveyed without favor. “It is late and I do not trust these analgesics to perform their proper role for long.” He looked back at me. I didn’t work for him, so he made it a request. “Archie, will you take me up to my bedroom?”
“Yes, sir.” What the hell. After all, he had asked.
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