Nero Wolfe made the unusual request to have me include my personal observations and feelings in this addendum to my formal report on the Whitaker/Cadell case as a reminder to himself of the damage that complacency and arrogance can do to even the cleverest of geniuses.
This would be one of the hardest things I would ever write. My feelings were still too painful to examine closely, but respect for my employer won out, as well as old habit. My heart told me to obey this request before I started work on the formal office report. From the beginning, I decided I would leave out nothing.
Perhaps Wolfe had put too much faith in his own abilities; yet I, too, bear responsibility for how the tragedy of that day in the office played itself out.
I have one great talent that Wolfe depends on, that only I can do well. The best I can say is that I can read a person's mind. That isn't what really happens, but words cannot describe adequately what I do. Somehow I can take in a witness or suspect's body language; what they say, or don't say; and by intuition be able to find just the information Wolfe needs. I've tailed people for hours with them never being the wiser. Being small and plain, I can disappear into my surroundings, secure in the knowledge that most people don't look at me twice. I'm a professional ghost.
Needless to say, this aptitude is invaluable in an operative. It is the one ability that cannot be taught. One either has the talent or he doesn't. Of all the people I've worked with over the years, only Nero Wolfe can do better. Archie has accused me several times over the years of being a wizard.
My abilities failed me completely with respect to the Whitaker/Cadell case. In my meager defense, I can only say that perhaps I too was blinded by the same complacency and pride as Wolfe. That is the my only explanation for how I failed on that day when Cadell lost control and shot Archie. If anyone could have seen what was coming, it should have been me. No amount of self-talk or delusion can absolve me of the hideous mistake I made.
As I sat by Archie's hospital bed those endless hours, the mantra of my thoughts ran, 'my fault... how stupid of me... my fault...' Like a newsreel, the image of Archie lying on the floor, blood covering his shirt, gasping frantically for breath played itself over and over in my mind. I can still hear Wolfe's frantic voice trying to soothe Archie, imploring him not to die. I had to wrest Archie out of Wolfe's arms in order to staunch the blood flow with a towel. Blood stained my hands and arms up to my elbows. I still smell the blood on my hands, no matter how much I wash.
Besides Cadell, I had been the only person armed in that office. I am still flattened by the enormity of my mistake. I found I couldn't even bring myself to look Wolfe in the eyes, certain I would see the accusation there. Other than a few random phrases, I didn't speak to Wolfe at all during the desperate days and nights when it seemed a surety that Archie would die.
I was sitting, as I had been doing for several days, in an uncomfortable straight-backed wooden chair pulled close to Archie's hospital bed. It was difficult to reconcile this pale, silent figure lying on the bed, covered with an oxygen tent, with the vital charismatic Archie Goodwin I knew. Women, and not just a few men, too, either wanted to mother him, feed him, or fuck him. I suspect Nero Wolfe has for quite some time wanted to do two out of three. When I'm being honest with myself, I want to do the same.
When had I started thinking of Archie as a man and not a boy? He was just a skinny young thing, barely out of his teens when I first met him, all elbows and knees. Mr. Wolfe saw something special in that gawky boy and hired him to be his assistant. Together, Wolfe and I trained this young Archie Goodwin to become one of the best operatives in New York City. Well, Archie repaid our trust in full that night, offering his very life for the protection of Nero Wolfe.
I lost count of the despairing hours that Archie was lost in delirium or coma, his fever so high at times that all he did was writhe and moan. The febrile convulsions were the worst. It took four of us to hold him down so the stitches wouldn't rip apart. It broke my heart to see gentle Fritz cry over Archie's suffering.
Wolfe, Fritz, Fred, myself, and occasionally Inspector Cramer were intimate partners in Archie's battle for his life. One morning, the fever broke and Archie lapsed into a healing sleep. The doctors proclaimed that the worst was now past us, and it only remained for Archie to get well enough to come home. I pictured Fritz back at the brownstone busily imagining the dishes he would cook for the young invalid.
Early the next day, I was alone with Archie in his room. He was sleeping quietly, awakening only for brief moments. Mr. Wolfe had gone home for a change of clothes and some decent food. I was going home myself when Wolfe returned for some much needed rest. The gentle hiss of the oxygen tent, the quiet of the room, and my own exhaustion all combined to pull me into a troubled sleep.
I drifted into the nightmare that was my constant companion since the shooting. I was back in Wolfe's office. I saw Cadell's smiling face and heard the gun fire. I watched in horrified slow motion as the bullet pierced Archie's chest. My dream was frighteningly graphic. I saw his back explode as the bullet went through him. He fell to the floor with a strangled cry, reaching blood-covered, trembling hands out to me, begging for my help.
In the strange world of dreams, Wolfe was standing at his desk with an old-fashioned blunderbuss, pointing the large muzzle straight at my heart. His face was stern, sad, and terrible all at once. His fury at me made my dream heart clench. I was crying out, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" as the gun fired with a deafening blast, ripping me apart. Wolfe's voice echoed in my ears, over my own screams, "Saul, how could you? Saul, Saul..". I was unaware of tears streaming down my face.
A gentle hand was shaking my shoulder. "Saul, Saul, wake up. You have been dreaming." I snapped awake and saw Wolfe standing over me. I startled, ashamed to be caught in such a revealing moment. "Mr. Wolfe! Sorry sir, I must have drifted off." I wiped the back of my hand hastily across my eyes to blot the treasonous tears. I swallowed thickly and said, "Archie has been sleeping for most of the morning. All has been quiet."
Wolfe pulled a wooden chair from the corner of the room and set it down beside me. He lowered his bulk into the rickety seat with a groan. After settling himself, he spent the next few minutes looking Archie over carefully. He picked up Archie's limp hand and held it as if taking a pulse. "His hands are finally warm.", he muttered, putting Archie's hand gently on the bed. "They were so cold for too long".
That little bit of small talk over, I could see that Wolfe had something to say to me. I steeled myself for recrimination, termination, anything. I steeled myself to take it like a man. I straightened up in my chair and looked Nero Wolfe eyes at a level for the first time in days. I was unprepared for what he said next.
"Archie nearly died for my overweening pride, Saul. I thought I had Cadell at my mercy. I lost control of the situation, and I should not have. Arrogance and complacency are dangerous enough vices by themselves, but when combined they are deadly in our line of work."
I must have gaped at him in my surprise. I took in for the first time how grey and tired he looked. This was not the powerful Nero Wolfe I worked for. Sitting in front of me was an exhausted man, worn down by hours of anguish. I mentally slapped myself; of course he was suffering, worse than me.
Wolfe's eyes wavered slightly, his gaze softening as he looked at me again, "Your suffering has not gone unnoticed by me, Saul", he said quietly. "I know you hold yourself responsible for Archie's injury. You must believe with every fiber of your being that you were not. You must also know that I hold myself completely responsible for this botchery."
I continued to stare at him as he continued, "Saul, I need you to do a favor for me, just between us. I've always depended on your unbiased reports during a case. Now I'm asking you to reverse your perspective. I need to see this event, in all it's grand stupidity and hubris, with eyes other than my own. I would like a chronicle of your thoughts and feelings about this case, so when I start to fool myself into thinking I was not so blind, that I really did do all I could, I will read your narrative as a reminder of what my arrogance nearly cost me."
I looked into his haunted brown eyes, shadowed with fatigue, and saw the shame and sorrow there. The same look was mirrored in my own brown eyes. I considered his request for several minutes. My emotions were still raw as I answered, "You may not like what I write, sir." My voice grew husky as I continued, "I failed to read Cadell. I was enjoying watching him squirm." There, the ugly truth was out. My eyes started to water again. He regarded my tightly clasped hands, then put his own over them. I blinked back tears, touched by his tenderness. In the decade I had been working for him, this is the first time Wolfe had touched me.
Wolfe put the tip of a finger lightly on my lips. "No, Saul. You will never find peace of mind if you continue to think this way. Your abilities will be clouded by guilt, and you will never trust yourself again. You know you did not have a clear shot until it was too late."
Instead of firing me, he was offering me redemption. Could I forgive myself?
I marveled at the great heart of this man. Not for the first time, I was reminded of why I accepted a retainer to work for Nero Wolfe alone out of all the private investigators in New York.
He continued in a subdued voice, "I consider the fault to be mine and mine alone. Cadell was in my house by my command. My egoism precluded me from considering fully the peril we were in. I was a fool for not watching him closer; he and that woman, Cynthia Whitaker. Women's behavior is a constant bafflement to me. Who would have thought anyone would be duncical enough to bite a police inspector? Cramer's hand required ten stitches to close the wound."
We both shook our heads in wonderment. Wolfe spoke again after a brief silence, "Now I want to hear no more from you, Saul, about any mistakes you think you made." Wolfe's hands resumed their place on his ample belly, the tender moment gone. His voice regained its usual briskness, and he said, "Okay, Saul?"
I smiled at his use of the word, "Okay". Wolfe rarely used colloquialisms. I felt my smile go all the way up to my eyes this time, "Yeah. I mean yes, Mr. Wolfe, I'll do exactly as you ask. You can count on me."
It wouldn't come today or tomorrow, but I could see that the healing for myself had begun. I hoped the same would happen for Wolfe.
A wan smile crossed my lips. "Alright Mr. Wolfe. I'll tell you one thing right now, though. It is time for our boy to resume carrying a gun when he when he leaves the office on a job. I'll get Archie a shoulder holster and a nice .22 as soon as he is well enough to be back to work."
Wolfe chuckled, "You may be right at that, Saul. The young imp is going to be ecstatic to be told he can carry weaponry once more. I'll depend on you to take care of that matter."
We heard a slurred whisper from the bed. Archie was awake and struggling to keep his eyes open as he said, "Heard that.. my gun.. big as Saul's... a .38, definitely a .38.". His eyes drooped closed as he went back to sleep.
Wolfe was smiling wide enough that I saw teeth. A heavy weight slid off my chest, enabling me to breathe freely since I couldn't remember. I now knew that everything would be all right. I had been through the refiner's fire, and had emerged on the other side smarter and leaner. I would never take our clients for granted again.
Soon we would all be on the hunt again, but we would be older and wiser this time. We could mourn lost innocence, but that would be foolish. We would be harder now and less trusting; united by tragedy and our regard for each other. We had seen what could be lost, and I, for one, would never forget it.