I--Special Midnight Spook Show! If You Have a Weak Heart, Better Stay Home!
Down through the years, there have been a lot of jobs I’ve done for Nero Wolfe, jumbo-sized genius and my boss, that I have no desire to report, but the Burgess case was the worst of them. That’s why I’m typing it up, even though my publisher would never purchase it, and my readers will never see it. I’m hoping it will do me some good, turning what happened into neat rows of letters on ordinary, light-weight typing paper. Maybe, then, I’ll mend. Maybe the nightmares will stop. Maybe I can digest what I learned about myself. Maybe.
The tale’s not tough for reasons most people would guess. Sure, I stepped over the line that surrounds what a P. I. is supposed to do, but I’ve crossed that border before, both for my own sake and for Wolfe. Sure, there was fear, pain, and death, but those are a part of my job anyhow whether I choose to remind the public of it or not. No, this is a tough tale because it tells how I dropped the ball and left someone else with my error in a game where penalties are paid in blood. The only way my screw-up could have been worse is if it had been someone innocent, like Fritz or Lily, who paid the price instead of--but that’s getting ahead of myself.
Mrs. Clayton, our eleven o’clock appointment on that rainy October day in 1939, struck me as the type of woman that a photograph doesn’t do justice to. Her grey eyes were too lively under their sooty lashes, and the expressions that chased each other across her face were too fast and too vivid to be captured by film. It made you forget she was supposed to be just another affluent society matron in her late forties who draped her neat figure in blue linen and pearls before spending the afternoons sipping tea at Bergdorf-Goodman’s or gossiping quietly with her friends in front of the paintings at some mid-town art gallery. She moved with a supple grace that made it a pleasure to watch her settle into the red leather chair even before she crossed one silk-clad calf over the other.
She gazed searchingly at Wolfe when he entered the office and, to my surprise, smiled. It wasn’t a polite matron’s stretching of closed lips but something you’d expect to see on the face of a street kid. I found myself grinning along with her and reached for my notebook to cover my reaction before Wolfe took it as a cue to get huffy and send her away. That autumn had been quiet, the bank balance was lean, and I didn’t want to let him have the chance to be lazy. By the time I put pen to paper, she had mastered herself and was as serene as any one of the Renaissance Madonnas that the ladies who lunch survey at the Morgan Library.
“Madam?” Wolfe asked, sounding about half as rude as he could have.
“Forgive me, Mr. Wolfe. I was expecting someone larger.”
Wolfe shot me a sharp glance, so I made a production out of adding a period after ‘larger’ in my notes. “That is not surprising, given the colorful locutions in Mr. Goodwin’s written descriptions of me. The impression his case reports leave behind tends to override the evidence of any number of photographs in the popular press.”
“I’m bothering you with an irrelevancy. I’ve come today to ask you to look into the death of my nephew.”
That made me perk up. Our usual dustups are with embezzlement, theft, blackmail, and the other small nuisances we can bounce from the lives of those prosperous enough to afford Wolfe’s fees. But there is no challenge for a private investigator like a murder. It’s like fighting in the bout that tops the card at the Garden.
“My nephew’s name was Henry Burgess.”
I remembered the case from the papers, all right, even though it had been written up as a human interest story, not a crime. Burgess had been attending a midnight spook show fancied up for café society at a place called The Inferno, down in the Village. Like most spook shows, the act had combined a flashy magic show and a few gory stage illusions with a five minute blackout finale, during which luminescent horrors on sheer cloth were waved at the patrons by invisible accomplices. Given the way that crowds like to panic in the dark, a lively time was customarily had by all.
However, last Friday’s show had been something special. When the lights had come back up after the blackout, Burgess had been slumped over his dinner at his floor-side table, dead. The papers had reported the corpse had an expression of indescribable horror on its features even though I’d give a hundred to one that it’d worn the usual slack look of the newly deceased. In any case, the incident had caused quite a fuss. Since the club used the usual gaudy warnings to spice up their publicity, the Inferno was legally in the clear, and their show was still playing to ghoulishly packed houses every night but Monday, dinner reservations optional but recommended.
Wolfe said dryly, “I will assume that you have some evidence your nephew did not, as the witnesses and autopsy suggest, suffer a cardiac arrest brought on by the excitement of the performance?”
“I have no problem accepting that he died of a heart attack, Mr. Wolfe. I’m more interested in what caused that attack. One of the party he was hosting at dinner, my secretary Miss Harrison, said that the last thing they saw before they heard Hank fall over was a ghostly parrot.” She smiled again, but this time it didn’t reach her eyes. “It may sound farcical, even under the circumstances, but Hank had a horror of parrots, what a modern doctor would call a phobia. He also had a weak heart.”
“I agree; a parrot is not a creature that one would, as a rule, enlist to terrify the credulous. Was this phobia well known among his associates?”
“Not to all his associates, but everyone at that table knew about it. He was sitting with my Miss Harrison, Dr. Hornbeck, who was Hank’s physician and is an alienist, Mrs. Hornbeck, Roscoe Behrens, an old friend of Hank’s from college, and Hank’s sister, Martha.”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “It might have been an accident. There are such things as coincidences, madam.”
“There are also such things as murders, Mr. Wolfe. I’m not assuming. I only want to know one way or the other.” She unsnapped the gold clasps on her handbag. “I understand that you often view money as a token of earnestness. Five thousand dollars?” She removed a check. Even from where I sat, I could tell it was already filled out, with “Mrs. Harold Clayton” signed to it in a bold, firm hand.
It may have had an effect. Wolfe, as I have often noted, is not immune to the charms of money, and he has less armor than usual against women who are able to decide fast and move quickly to back up their decisions. He nodded brusquely. “Very well. I will need to ask you some questions about the company that evening, and I will require you to help me arrange interviews with them, here.” I had gotten up to take the check from her and put it on his desk, and that’s when the case went off the rails. He picked it up and held it for a second too long before he put it back down. His gaze turned into a glare that he turned onto her. “Did you write this yourself?”
I paused by her chair. I won’t call it a stupid question, but it came close enough to rivet my attention. Mrs. Clayton kept her composure, though. “Certainly. I am the widow of a jeweler who had stores on the Upper East Side, in Connecticut, and on Long Island. I worked closely with him as a senior designer while he was alive, so I am quite used to managing my own financial affairs.” Since I’d told him all that when I gave him the report from the bank on her financial status, I wondered what he was after.
He waggled a finger at her. “Does your own first name begin with an E?”
I caught up with him. E. A. Clayton and Wolfe had been arguing the fine points of labellum structure through the mail for the past three years.
She gave him that cheeky grin again. “Yes, Ethel. I very much dislike both that name and my middle name, which is Annabelle. And, yes, before you ask, I do live on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d come down to my apartment in Manhattan to attend the biannual regional meeting of the Atlantic Horticultural Society the week my nephew died.”
“Bah.” Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “You knew I would recognize your handwriting.”
“I thought you might. However, I assumed that, if I was handing you a check, I’d have at least advanced to making my case.”
“Don’t attempt to play fair, madam. It does not suit your gender.”
The grin got wider, but her tone was serious. “I’m not trying to play fair, Mr. Wolfe, I’m trying to hire you. If my suspicions are justified, playing fair is the last thing I want to do.”
He grunted. “Flummery, but reasonable unction under the circumstances.” His eyes went to the clock. “I still need to ask you a number of questions before we can view a particular Cymbidium mirandas that will best demonstrate my point in my last letter about hybrid structural drift. A nuisance, but a necessary one if I am to earn my fee.”
Mrs. Clayton nodded sympathetically. It was genuine, too. I’d had to type up and file enough of their correspondence to know that she would agree with his priorities. I got about nine pages of background notes before half past twelve. She stayed to lunch.
Afterwards, Wolfe took her up to the greenhouses on the roof, and they were up there all the time I spent telephoning Lon Cohen, getting the others in the nightclub group on the line to set up appointments, and canceling my date to go dancing with Lily Rowan that evening.
Mrs. Clayton stayed to dinner, too. She consumed her entire share of the wild duck with delight and spotted the chervil in the Vatel sauce. Fritz, Wolfe’s chef, couldn’t decide whether to beam or frown at her praise.
She was still in Wolfe’s office, arguing the fine points of Cattleyas with him, when I went out at eight. I used my most dulcet tones to wish him a good evening, but he only grunted and waved me away before demanding to know her views on Harvey’s last article on sepal arrangement. I didn’t know I was muttering until the cabby gave me a sharp glance in his rear-view mirror and asked to see some cash before he would drive me down to the Village. Since I was well equipped with soft, folding green, just in case I had to introduce myself to the maitre d’ of the Inferno and needed a suitable greeting card, he shut up and drove, leaving me to my sorrows.
Given all of that, I was not in a mood to be impressed by the nightclub’s décor. I might, on another evening, have admitted that the little red horns and long red tails on the waitresses were cute, but then I might have had to say something about the same outfit on the waiters and bus boys, and that would have made the exercise pointless. As to the black and red velvet drapes, and the framed Dorè illustrations: if the Inferno exists, I’d expect concrete, barbed wire, and blast furnaces, myself.
Having criticized the surroundings to my satisfaction, I felt free to concentrate on making bets with myself about who in the audience was a stooge for the magician. I narrowed my list down to three possibilities before settling on one particular brunette. Her evening gown struck me as able to conceal any number of sins. The chum she was with seemed to be a recent acquaintance, and, when I cut in on them on the dance floor, she came away from him and into my arms with an eagerness that didn’t square with the automatic way she moved her feet. There’s a particular, mechanical style that someone who doesn’t really like dancing uses when they’ve heard the same band too many times, no matter how graceful they are. I bent my efforts towards making myself charming. It worked well enough that I got her name - Winnie, short for Winifred, not Winston - and her company as the evening strolled along towards midnight. I never got her full attention, though, which was another hint that I was on the right trail.
I will say that the magician, a character called The Great Fernando, knew his business. His hypnotism routine was slick, and his magic tricks were staged up close to the audience, which is tough but impressive. He had the spirit of the thing, too. When he held up the head that he had chopped off of a volunteer, it was gruesome enough to make me twitch, and it provoked a lot of noise from the other patrons. One buxom dame in a too-tight gown fainted, deploying a lot of limb along the way, a maneuver much appreciated by her affluent, out-of-town escort. Winnie shrieked right along with the other women, but I got the feeling her heart wasn’t in it. I divided my attention between her and the sight of Fernando being great while saving back some brain cells to compose descriptions that would irritate Wolfe the next morning.
Sure enough, during the blackout, the luminous skeleton and one of the glowing ghouls moved in a way that indicated - to eyes trained by Saul Panzer, at least - that they were worked by the woman across from me. I couldn’t hear clearly enough to prove my suspicions, what with all the gasps, groans, and shrieks from the patrons, but when the lights finally came back up, Winnie’s cleavage heaved in a way that I associate more with effort than fear.
If she was a paid employee, she was probably ready to go home. On a hunch, I asked her if she’d like to visit Central Park with me the next day. My hunch was right. She considered, smiled, and said, “All right, buster, I guess I owe you one for not giving me away. You’re right, I don’t get out enough, and I’m sick of cigarette fumes and drunks. So you’re on, but you’re doing the paddling, too.”
I suppressed a wince. Paddle boats: what I will do for the sake of a lead. But I kept at it valiantly, and spent another hour making sure my consultant wasn’t going to change her mind before I wended my weary way home.
When I went inside the front door to the old house on west Thirty-Fifth Street, I checked to see if Mrs. Clayton’s coat still hung on the front hall rack and then got mad at myself for checking. The only person in a worse mood than me at breakfast the next morning was Fritz. He shared my alarm at the strong impression Mrs. Clayton had made on Wolfe, but all the fellow feeling didn’t calm me down any.
As it turned out, the case itself was not that difficult. I spent some time trying to look dignified while pumping my knees in a paddle boat and found out from Winnie that two of Fernando’s assistants had resigned from the act the day after Burgess died, which may have been suggestive or may have indicated nothing more than a morbid fear of the cops. Wolfe put Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin onto the trail of the missing assistants and turned both his and my attention to the dinner companions.
In the course of two days of interviews, we discovered Burgess was more interested in polo and boxing than the investment bank he worked at, that, in Dr, Hornbeck’s opinion, a parrot phobia has been described in the psychoanalytical literature as rooted within a sexual preoccupation with elderly maiden ladies, and that busy, middle-aged shrinks with bored wives should not expose them to amateur sportsmen like Harry’s good friend Roscoe. We also found out that Miss Susan Harrison was considered to be above reproach by her employer and extremely decorative by me.
To begin with, there were the legs, which were long and supple. I tried them out in action, at the Flamingo, expecting to uncover some flaw. But, aside from a certain stiffness and lack of cling, she could dance like a pro and anticipated every move I made. Next, there was the figure, which was neat with good hips, and the dress sense, which seemed to have been copied from Mrs. Clayton without a hitch. Finally, there was the face, wary around a pair of dark eyes that hinted at enough expertise to make me want to melt the wariness into approval. On Wolfe’s instructions, at which I did not feel inclined to kick, I spent some time trying to warm the gaze. After three days and two evenings, I hadn't succeeded, but I had gotten the generous lips to relax and even quirk with amusement when I asked her opinion of her fellow spook spectators.
“Didn’t I tell Mr. Wolfe all about this, in painful detail?”
“Maybe I want to see if you can repeat the performance, or maybe I only want to sit back and watch your lips move. Humor me?”
She gave me a knowing look, smiled a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, and took a long and considering drink from her Brandy Alexander before she spoke. “It could have been any of them. It could have been me, I suppose. Hank wasn’t my favorite person. I thought he needed to grow up, and I wasn’t much good at hiding my opinion. We fought.” She shrugged.
“She liked him, but Martha’s still impressed by experience. That will pass.”
“The doctor and his wife?”
“Hank introduced Roscoe to Mrs. Doctor Hornbeck, and, knowing him, Hank did it meaning to make mischief. Of course, losing Hank would have meant losing touch with a fascinating case of psychosomatic illness, so the Doctor was suffering from mixed feelings. I bet you can’t spell psychosomatic.”
I spelled it for her.
“Okay, I was wrong. Now I bet you did well in your county-wide spelling bee. Mrs. Doctor Hornbeck made a play for Hank and it bounced. She’s probably too busy right now with Roscoe to hold much of a grudge, but you never know.”
“What about Roscoe?”
“Roscoe.” All the warmth was out of her eyes again. “Roscoe’s on a voyage of self-discovery, busy learning all about his favorite subject. I wouldn’t let myself be drawn into tutoring him, so I may not be the one to give you a fair opinion.”
“I’ll take it anyhow.” Roscoe’s had been an interesting interview; I’d have reserved him a room at the nut house myself. I wanted to see if her unfair opinion matched my own.
“His sense of humor is worse than Hank’s. He’s cruel. He loved that spook show not so much for what occurred but for what it did to the crowd. I’d bet it was his idea to have the dinner party at the Inferno.” She shook her head. “Roscoe spooks me more than any of those fake spirits of the dead.”
Susan had gone stiff and formal again, so I decided I’d done enough work for the evening and led her out onto the floor. While we danced, I kept the conversation relaxed, telling her some stories about Ohio, and about Wolfe and his orchids. After two more circuits, I was impressed enough to make it clear I wouldn’t mind seeing her when the case was over. She didn’t argue. She liked to dance, she said, her gaze on me considering.
Between work and my social life, I had enough going on to keep me happy if it hadn’t been for two little problems, one professional and one personal. On the professional side, Fred had found his man and fetched him back to the Brownstone for us to admire, but that interview was a wash. However, Saul’s man had disappeared, which did not bode well given that Saul is the best street operative in New York City and maybe the country around it. On the personal side, Wolfe was trying to break all speed records for driving me nuts.
Mrs. Clayton had been back three times, once for a report, once for another extended session up in the plant rooms, and once for dinner. Wolfe had demanded Saucisse Minuit for her, and then he actually quirked the corners of his lips up at her commentary. Over their two heads, my eyes met Fritz’s before he retreated from the dining room. It was all I could do to keep from following him back to the kitchen, leaving Wolfe and Mrs. Clayton alone together until someone came to his or her senses. By then, I was willing to give odds that the someone in question would not be Wolfe.
On Wednesday morning, Saul Panzer had called to let us know that he’d gotten a lead on his man, and that the lead led to Florida. While Wolfe was on the phone with Mrs. Clayton, confirming that she was willing to authorize Saul’s trip expenses, she said something, and he chuckled. I blotted the entry I was making in the ledger and had to break out the ink eraser.
On Friday, Saul found his man in Coral Beach and telephoned back his report. Sure enough, Roscoe, in a fit of the jollies, had paid the assistant to substitute a luminous parrot for the usual luminous ghost. There was nothing actionable about it, of course, and there would be no way to prove intent, but between Saul’s report and what I’d dug up about Roscoe’s character, it was obvious to any unfair observer that he was to blame. There were more leads that we could have followed up on, but when Mrs. Clayton heard Saul’s report she sighed deeply and asked us to send her a bill. That, I figured, was that.
By that time, the attention I had paid to the distaff side of business had led to a certain amount of tension between my very good friend Miss Rowan and me, so I agreed to spend the weekend visiting with her. Usually, I don’t work detailed descriptions of my leisure hours into reports of our cases, but I’ll make an exception for this purgative of a tale. For the past few months, Lily and I had been discussing what the degree of friendship was between us. I felt our then-current arrangements were working out fine, but she was balking and wouldn’t explain why. All she’d made clear was that it wasn’t a question of too few honorable intentions on my part.
“To be honest, Escamillo,” she said to me that Sunday as we sprawled out on lawn chairs, enjoying the garden of her little shack of eighteen rooms up in Westchester county, “you’re making me nervous. It’s a policy of mine never to keep company with anyone who I might seriously try to marry or who is already married. You’re clear on one count, but--” She trailed off and shrugged, gracefully.
Since I had just spent half an hour re-hashing Wolfe’s opinions of women and marriage for her, with commentary on his current behavior in light of his views, I felt confident when I said, “Okay, I promise to resist any proposal on your part with all of my might and main.” I flexed an arm to demonstrate might.
She took a long drag off her cigarette, blew smoke up at the leaves of the elm tree sheltering us, and asked it, “Of course he picked the wrong alternative, but what did I expect?”
I found I wasn’t in the mood for sophisticated wit, so, when she proved reluctant to explain in any detail, our weekend ended sooner than it might have. It didn’t sweeten my temper any, on my return to the brownstone, to find Wolfe over at my desk, trying to figure out how to ship an orchid to Martha’s Vineyard.
Monday was my birthday. Monday, I made my mistake, and it was a bad one.
It began shortly before lunch. I was still full of warm contentment and Fritz’s best flapjacks, as was the custom of the day. Fritz always makes a special fuss over my birthday breakfast in the morning. Then, after a salutation when he first comes into the office, Wolfe ignores my nativity for the rest of the day, probably because the excitement of sustained celebration might be too much for him. So I usually take the afternoon off to spend time with a friend before returning to the brownstone for a second magnificent effort on Fritz’s part at dinner and a gift from Wolfe that appears, without comment, by my place at the dining room table. In the evenings, though, Wolfe--well, none of that applied this year.
Just after he finished dictating replies to the morning mail, Wolfe looked up at me and said, “Mrs. Clayton called this weekend while you were gone. She wishes to continue with the case. Have you already prepared her bill? She will be arriving before dinner tonight and may wish to review the expenses thus far.”
There was a pause. “Yes, sir. I was going to mail it this morning. Do you want me to leave it on your desk when I go out, instead?” Even though I could hear the blood pounding in my ears, my voice was level, the second part of my mistake.
Wolfe gave me a sharp look, seemed to think about saying something, and then didn’t. That was his mistake, the one reason, in retrospect, that I don’t feel worse than I do. The silence in the office for the next few minutes was thick, broken only by the sounds of turning pages and typewriter keys. When I thought I had myself firmly enough under control, I left the day’s correspondence for him to check while I went up to my room. Given the events of the weekend, Lily was off limits, so I started working my way through the telephone numbers of my other current acquaintances. As it turned out, Susan Harrison was free just then. At that exact moment, the irony of it suited me fine.
I went by the office long enough to put the morning mail into envelopes and stamp them before I stopped briefly by the kitchen to warn Fritz, who was dishing up Wolfe’s ham and sweetbread mousse, that I wouldn’t be there for dinner. I don’t know what he read in my face because he started to say something and then quit. I shook my head at him and left without another word.
II--Double Horror! Ladies Should Have Male Escorts!
When I got through the front door of the brownstone, I moved fast. I had a destination, but mostly I wanted to be somewhere else. I’d walked about four blocks, barely noticing the other pedestrians, before I pulled myself together enough to hail a cab. Somewhere down inside where I keep my gut instincts, I already knew I was making a mistake, but I didn’t want to think about what it was and why I was making it, so I ignored my hunch.
Susan had wanted us to meet downtown, at a place I’ll call the Treble Clef. When I arrived, she waved at me from a table across the room. It was past one and the place was mobbed, although it didn’t look like the usual office lunchtime crowd. Mostly, they struck me as Broadway extras and hoofers making bad choices about what they should consume in order to wake up and face the day. I worked through the crowd and waited while Susan finished saying good-bye to some character she obviously knew before she turned her attention to me.
“I’m thinking of changing my name to Friday. Is the footprint on my neck visible?”
To my surprise, that was the comment that finally did it. I got a genuine smile that made it from her lips to her eyes. “Having labor-management difficulties?”
“I’m trying to forget. That must be why I’m ordering a drink.” I turned to the waiter, who was hovering with the air of a guy who spent a lot of time waiting out other people’s verbal firework displays. “Scotch on the rocks.”
“Ginger Ale, please.” He left, and she said, “Right now, my life is easy that way. Mrs Clayton and I get along very, very well. So what do you need from me in order to distract you from your woes?”
“How about--I’m not sure. Do you have any suggestions?”
She pursed her lips. “Would you like to try some shopping on Bleecker Street?”
“Let me guess. We would be heading for the business at number 614, Harry’s Cavern of Mysteries. It was second on my own list of magic suppliers.”
She smiled. “I was directed to Harry by a man I know. He says the Cavern is absolutely the only place in town for a really good cheesecloth skeleton.”
“That’s who you were talking to as I arrived? It occurred to Mrs. Clayton, over the weekend, to wonder if Roscoe has ever bought the ingredients for a glowing parrot, I bet.”
“Aren’t we all the clever ones?” It was only a little sarcastic. I gave her a grin, and she said, “There we go. I knew you had more than one model in stock.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s part of an entire line, brand new for fall.” I considered her. Most times I tend to agree with Wolfe’s opinion of female dicks, and I have even less time for amateur snooping than he does, but today I was in a mood to be contrary. My scotch arrived simultaneously with my decision, so I paid the tab, downed half the shot in a single slug, and stood up. “Shall we go?”
We left. As we went out through the door, a patrol cop pushing past us in the opposite direction paused to give us a sharp gaze, decided we weren’t what he wanted, and kept going. When I glanced over at Susan before I hailed another taxi, her face had closed up shop again. Being still on the road to perdition, I started to ask her about it, then didn’t.
When we came into his store, the thin, balding middle-aged guy who looked like he might be named Harry was solemnly watching an amputated hand crawl across the front counter. Hearing the bell over the door jangle, he looked up and asked, “May I help you, sir? Madam?”
“We’re looking--hey, watch it.”
He reached out and caught the hand, which was about to fall off the edge of the counter, and set it down on its back. The fingers twitched rhythmically. “Pesky little devil. He does tend to get away. I’m sorry, sir, you were saying?”
“I understand you are the man to talk to about blackout effects.”
He beamed. “Yes, that’s quite true. Were you thinking of something special? I have an interesting floating skull, very new, that’s never been taken on the road.”
Since I was picturing Wolfe’s reaction to a floating skull, I shook my head with real regret as I took out my identification. “I’m afraid not. My name is Archie Goodwin. I’m a private investigator.” I displayed my permit. He examined it with some care, taking long enough at the job that my eyes flicked down to follow his gaze. My permit was in the kidskin leather card case stamped in gold leaf that Wolfe had given me for my--hastily, I returned the case to my breast pocket.
Harry switched his attention to my face, which he scrutinized with a mix of fellow-feeling, interest, and mild, automatic hostility, kind of the way a fireman looks at a policeman. “How can I help you?” The tone was not as friendly as before, but it was more curious.
“Has this man ever been in your shop?” I was already carrying a photograph of Roscoe, and I got it out. He took it from me and inspected it with the same lingering attention he’d given my permit. When I thought to glance over at Susan, she was smiling faintly. In retrospect, I’d have to call her smile sardonic. Don’t mind me, she mouthed.
I didn’t. I turned my attention back to Harry. He finished considering and said, “Of course, it’s Mr. Smith.”
With an effort, I kept my face straight. “Do you remember any of his purchases?”
“Umm.” He sucked air in past his teeth, and rolled his eyes up to consult the memories he’d filed in the ceiling. “I don’t believe he bought a thing.”
“Umm. No, paying. Quite the usual arrangement, with Fernando. The Great, you understand, not Fernando the Mysterious.”
“Yes. Does Mr. Smith always pay for Fernando?”
“Or any of the others, whenever he wants something special, exclusive for a club appearance or a private party. Discount, ten percent, very standard for trade and venue owners.”
I asked, speaking as slowly as he was since the pieces were falling into place inside my head, “Mr. Smith owns the Inferno?”
“Umm,” he said, and judiciously added, “silent partner.”
“How droll of Roscoe,” Susan said, to no one in particular.
I coaxed a list of purchases out of Harry before we left. The last item Roscoe had bought for the Great Fernando was a nice assortment of floating blackout apparitions, along with extra luminescent paint and black cheesecloth, for maintenance. When we left, I didn’t call Wolfe. Instead, I took Susan out to a late lunch at Rusterman’s.
The conversation was good and the food was better. Susan had finally warmed up to me, and her laughter had been worth waiting for. Since she didn’t seem to be in a hurry, and I was getting somewhere with her, we took our time over lunch. I’d been a patron at Rusterman’s often enough that the waiters knew not to hurry me when I was with a companion, not that you ever rush in a place like that. Lunch might have lasted even longer than it did if Marko Vukcic, the owner of Rusterman’s, the resident culinary genius, and the oldest friend Wolfe admitted to, hadn’t come over to our table both to congratulate me on my birthday and to admire Susan at close range.
“Archie!” Marko beamed his good will. “Many happy returns, and I wish you many more happy years to come. I see you are already celebrating in the best way a man can.” He beamed even more widely at Susan, who stretched her lips politely in return. “But what is this?” His attention had turned to my plate. “It is not that I doubt your capacity, my young friend, but consuming Tournedos Beauharnais before one of Fritz’s sincere efforts may strain even your valiant digestion.” He clucked at me. “And I will be the one reproved if Nero hears about it.”
That pinned me beneath a cleft stick. I didn’t want Wolfe to know where I was and who I was with. No, to be honest, I didn’t want Wolfe to know where I was and who I was with just yet. “Don’t worry; it’s only four o’clock. I have plenty of time to recover before dinner, so the issue won’t arise.”
“Now, now, Archie. Even with all the confusion about daylight savings time, I am sure I am correct when I say that it is approaching six in the evening.” He made a show of consulting his pocket watch. “Five fifty-two.”
Susan made a distressed noise. “Is that how late it’s gotten? I’m supposed to be back for dinner at seven.”
My head turned towards her slowly. “Pardon me?”
“Eddie will be coming straight home from Mr. Wolfe’s, after she warns him about Roscoe’s visit on Saturday, and after she drops off--” Her hand flew to her lips. “Oh, I am sorry. Please forget I said that last bit.”
I stared at her. Then I turned back to Marko. “Marko, would you mind if I talked to Miss Harrison alone for a minute, please?”
“Of course not,” he murmured sympathetically, and pulled a quick fade to greet an early dinner patron.
I waited to have some empty space around us before I said, “A senior designer, and the widow of a jeweler. She was going to drop off my birthday present.” My voice was quiet. Somewhere inside of my head, I was beginning the long fall down a very dark set of stairs.
“Don’t ask me for details because I won’t tell you.” She wasn’t smiling when she said it, though.
“Nothing to do with orchids, I’d bet, even though she’s as potty about them as Wolfe is. Come to think of it, it must have been convenient. He always has trouble shopping over the telephone when he’s feeling fussy about what he’s buying. Nice that he ran into someone he considers trustworthy.” For the first time I was really looking at Susan, looking at her dressed in linen and pearls that she wore with the exact same stylish understatement as her employer, seeing her as she sat regarding me with a distant, experienced wariness. As I mulled over our dates of the past week, I hit a landing and bounced. “Trustworthy, sure she is. And so are you. Nuts.”
“You didn’t know?” The surprise in Susan’s voice was a compliment but one that I was in no mood to hear.
“No. I know that belonging to the Sapphic sisterhood’s not always a matter of wearing men’s evening dress and hanging around in bars, but--” I hit another landing.
After a pause, she shrugged. “I was sure you knew, after I figured out about Mr. Wolfe. And you.”
I ran out of stairs and fell.
“No.” It was my voice, but I wasn’t running it. “I’m sorry, but no. It’s been a bad couple of weeks, and I’ve been being slow.” There didn’t seem to be any bottom to the dark rushing past me.
“That’s all right.” She gave me a smile half-way between her early wariness and her later warmth. “I’m afraid I do have to go, though, if I’m going to make it home before Eddie - Mrs. Clayton - does.”
My hand waved and my lips stretched. It must have been good enough, because she gave me a better smile in return, got up, and left. I remained, still plummeting, as my frantic, thrashing, pin-wheeling mind reviewed the events of the day. Had I asked Harry at the magic shop not to call his very good customer, Mr. Smith? In fact, did I have any idea of where Roscoe was at all?
No, I realized, I didn’t. And that’s when I slammed into the ground.
III--Triple Terror Blackout! We Bet You Can’t Take It!
It was maybe a minute before I was up on my feet and heading for the kitchen. When I burst through the swinging doors, the chef de cuisine didn’t even glance up from the squabs he was briskly flipping over in a pan, but everyone else gaped at me. Felix, Marko’s headwaiter, recovered first and asked, “Mr. Goodwin, what is wrong?”
Felix had gotten a good look at me and he knows his job. Moving as smoothly as if he was on casters, he led me down a back corridor to a cubbyhole of an office crowded with vegetable crate lids, a desk covered with invoices and packing lists, and a telephone. I grabbed the receiver and dialed.
Fritz answered on the first ring. “Archie?” I recognized the underlying note in his voice, and it made me cold.
What I hate most in a recurrent nightmare is when you realize you’ve been chased by this monster before, and the cliff edge is coming up in front of you all over again, and you’re either going to fall or be shredded into bloody rags one more time. Déjà vu. It was the Chapin case again. My published report on the Chapin case--goddammit, I’d been the one who told the world-wide public what would work on Wolfe. My hand tightened on the phone. “Where is he?”
“After that woman left, the young girl, Miss Martha Burgess, came and talked with him. She gave him an envelope. Then a man joined them, and Mr. Wolfe left with them both.” Fritz knew what it was all about now, too. “Archie, find them.”
I didn’t bother with reassurances, because he wouldn’t have believed them. Instead, I hung up so I could get going, which was probably more soothing for him than lies would have been. I turned, hesitated, then turned back and picked up the phone again.
“Is Miss Martha Burgess there? This is Mr. Goodwin, of Nero Wolfe’s office, calling.”
“I’ll see if she’s available to speak with you, Mr. Goodwin. Just a minute, please.” The maid went off. The polite phrase was the one they use when someone was in. I waited. It seemed like the maid must be crawling. I looked up at the clock on the wall, and the second hand was moving so slowly I thought it was broken.
When the person at the other end picked up the receiver, I heard an intake of breath before a young female voice asked, “Mr. Goodwin?” She let it hang there. She was ready to bolt.
I took a deep breath myself, let it out, and got control. “Miss Burgess. I understand you saw Mr. Wolfe today?”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. “Yes.” I knew what must be behind that wary tone in her voice. I couldn’t afford to spook her.
It was a dangerous chance to take, but--“I’m supposed to be bringing some files for Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Behrens to review, but we were cut off before I got the address. Do you know where they were going?”
Her voice was relieved. “Oh, no, I’m sorry, I don’t. Roscoe told me they would be talking over legal matters and I shouldn’t eavesdrop or chatter on about his business all over town.” She sounded a little aggrieved by his lack of faith in her. “He put me in a taxi before he hailed another cab.”
The cops could find the cab. It would only take them hours.
Since I was on her and Roscoe’s side, now I was her friend. Sure enough, she got chatty. “Were the cufflinks I delivered to Mr. Wolfe evidence?”
Gently, gently. “Were they square gold cufflinks with an A engraved on them?”
“Why, that’s right.” My cufflinks. How the hell had Roscoe gotten a pair of my cufflinks?
“Yes, they were evidence, then. Was Mr. Wolfe pleased to see them?”
She giggled. “You know, I can’t tell with Mr. Wolfe. His face is so blank all the time. But he made a noise like this.” She grunted. She was a good little mimic: I could sort out which grunt it was. I felt sick.
“He’s funny that way.”
“I don’t understand his jokes, either.”
My chin jerked up. “Oh? What did he say that was amusing?”
“Was it? Funny, I mean? Roscoe turned away the first taxicab that came to the curb, and Mr. Wolfe asked him if he was waiting for Charon.”
There it was. Now I knew. Wolfe and Roscoe were headed straight to hell.
I got rid of her and made for the exit. On the way I ran into Marko, who was coming to see what was wrong.
“I need your car.” I stuck a hand out.
For a moment, he looked at me in a way that reminded me of Wolfe, and then he went back into the office and opened a drawer. He took out a key ring and handed it to me. “The tank is full,” he said simply.
I drove with care on the way down to the Village. It would take too long, especially after he got a gander at my operator’s license, to disentangle myself from a traffic cop. So I had plenty of time to make and discard plans, which I did for a while until I realized it was useless to try and anticipate something I knew nothing about and quit. It was only making my nerves worse. I’d paused to leave messages for Saul and Fred, the one fast precaution I could take. Otherwise, I would just have to rely on my own judgment in the light of experience. That was what Wolfe always told me to do. Wolfe. I wasn’t going to think about that, either. It seemed like a very long drive.
Since I had someone else’s car, I only had to park a block away from the Inferno. I double-parked. The car would probably be ticketed, but that didn’t matter. What was more important was that Winnie had given me a rough layout of the club, and one of Saul’s reports had added details to her information. I knew where to find the back door. It would be locked, but Marko’s trunk contained all the tools that you’d want if you were a man who drives far out into the country to inspect farms for restaurant supplies. That door wasn’t locked for long.
It was a murder investigation, and I was armed. I got out my gun. I checked to make sure a round was chambered and the safety was off.
When I got inside, I shut the door behind me. It was dark, and the open door would be a dead giveaway. I knew that backstage there was a rig-up where you could use a single switch to extinguish every source of illumination in most of the club for the blackout finale. It was thrown. There was no good reason to leave that switch thrown. Somewhere, hidden in the dark, they were here.
I hate the dark. Oh, I don’t mind night, or the dark of a theater, but this was utter, pitch blackness, the kind that makes your eyes work too hard because they can’t believe there isn’t any light to be seen, anywhere. Somewhere in the dark, Roscoe was prowling, clutching whatever weapon appealed to his sick sense of humor. Somewhere in the dark, Wolfe was waiting. Alive, he had to be alive. He might be gagged. If he was dead, it didn’t matter what weapon Roscoe was using, I would--I got my feet moving.
When it really matters, it’s hard to move silently through a place in the dark. The effort can give you nightmares. I made my way deeper into the club, pausing, listening, letting my hands and ears do as much of the work as possible. I found that my intuition was doing more for me than my brain, so I let it go. On a hunch, I made my way through the black corridors and the green room, out across the stage, and into the opposite wing. I almost had a heart attack myself when I reached out and touched a skeleton, the kind you see every time you go to your doctor’s office. When I realized what it was, I laced my fingers through the rib cage to keep it from swinging into the stand and making more noise. There was a tiny, dry sound of bone on bone, and I held my breath, listening.
Se fosse tutto pieno il mio dimando,
rispuso’ io lui, voi non sareste ancora
de l’umana natura posto in bando;
Somewhere in the black, a deep voice was speaking.
Che ‘n la mente m’e fitta, e or m’accora,
la cara e buona imagine paterna
di voi quando nel mondo ad ora ad ora
m’insegnavate come l’uom s’etterna:
It was Wolfe. I half-swallowed something too close to a sob to let it out. From the direction of his voice, I must have moved past him on the stage and kept going, and his ears had caught the faint noise of my passage. After all these years, he knew how I moved when I was trying to be stealthy. I reversed course, navigating by his voice.
e quant’ io l’abbia in grado, mentr’ io vivo
convien che ne la mia lingua si scerna.
Cio che narrate di mio corso scrivo--
Knowing Wolfe, he’d probably been reciting on and off for hours, hoping I’d hear, knowing I’d need something to find him by, not wanting to give me away to Roscoe if I did show up.
That crazy son of a bitch had squeezed Wolfe into a prop casket, and then strapped him in. I hit my shins on it in the dark and squatted down fast, then ran my hands up over the varnished sides, past the metal handles, across the edge, and onto him. Even though I’d heard his voice in the dark, when I felt his chest and hip warm under my hands, I had to hesitate for a moment with my eyes closed before I could get myself busy working on loosening the straps. As I was unbuckling the one across his chest, I touched something moist soaked into the satin lining, a too-familiar wetness.
I leaned in close, and my face brushed his as I muttered, low and fierce, “Where the hell did he get you?”
His breath was warm against my cheek, his volume no louder than my own. “Along the back, on the right side. I made the mistake of attempting to evade him, but he is younger than I and his reflexes are good. It was just as well that he’d put down his gun in favor of that ridiculous headman’s ax.”
It was just like him to go on and on and not tell me what I really needed to hear. “How bad?”
“It hurts.” The fact that he was being terse, instead of panicking, told me it was bad. I hurriedly unbuckled the hip strap, fumbled, jammed it, and had to spend time searching around, trying to get it loose. I used both hands and got up underneath it, but it resisted. I searched around some more. It was taking way too long.
“Archie, cut it.” Wolfe’s low voice was curt. He was right. Any minute now Roscoe could come back or flip the lights on, or the joint could catch fire, or Wolfe could finish bleeding to death.
I took out my pocketknife and got it open before I put my other hand back on him to find the leather strap, so I wouldn’t perform informal surgery by mistake. I didn’t trust my reflexes by then. I slid my hand slowly along the lower edge of the strap, fingers hooked beneath the leather, checking for slack. It moved across his groin, hot even through the cloth, hard beneath the back of my hand.
Falling down the stairs. Falling off a cliff. Falling out of a plane, with no parachute, in the dark. He made an agonized noise, and I quickly pressed my face back against his own. “Pipe down. Reflex. It doesn’t matter.” Without any instruction from me, my hand gently stroked the bulge it had rested on. “Relax.” He turned his head slightly and our lips met. It was just a brush, but sometimes it hits you all at once. Stupid comment, bad place, no time; I got a firm grip on the strap across his hips and started to saw.
All the time I worked, the skin on my back was crawling, expecting a blow. It seemed to take forever, although I got through the leather in a minute or two. The knife had a very good blade, of very good steel. Wolfe had given it to me.
Since I’d learned my lesson, I got the strap unbuckled from his legs without a hitch. Then we both paused, listening. Nothing. I made my mind filter out the minute sounds Wolfe made, which was hard, and listened again. Still nothing.
“It’s going to make a lot of noise, getting you out of there.” Now I was noticing that I was half plastered across him when I muttered into his ear. “The tight squeeze is probably holding the wound shut, too. You’ll bleed.”
“Leave me the knife. He’s out there; I heard noise before you came. Find him.” I hesitated. He was right, but I hesitated. “Confound you, I think the blood has clotted. I have one good arm. He won’t be expecting it.” He was right. I gave him the knife and moved off again into the dark.
If I’d thought I was having fun before, the next half hour was a screamingly amusing time. All I really wanted to do was listen for noises around the casket, but that was a good way to get both of us killed. I’ve never heard such silence in such dark. The only sounds were the tiny creaks that any building makes, but in that black they might as well have been pistol shots. Once, something scuttled across the floor a few feet away from me, and I almost plugged whatever it was. Twice more Wolfe opened up, one time with something in Serbo-Croatian and one time in English, I think with one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I froze as he talked since I couldn’t hear anything with him speaking. At last, he had a completely captive audience.
When I finally found Roscoe, it was because I tripped over him in the foyer. I went down hard and slammed into a table on the way, pushing a bunch of menus and a potted plant off of it. It was damn well loud, and I came close to blowing my own leg off. I quickly twisted around and got my free hand on his skin. Unlike Wolfe’s, his skin was a little too cool. I checked to see if he was faking. Nope. I hunted around some more and found his gun, his flashlight, and the ax. Then I got the hell away from him, knocking over a chair in the process.
I didn’t say anything on the way to the cut-off switch because I still didn’t know what had happened to Roscoe. Wolfe didn’t say anything, either, and it must have been hard. When I flipped on the lights, I jumped for the edge of the wings and pivoted fast. Nothing but empty tables and that damned casket. Every light in the place was now on and I kept checking for visitors, but I was moving towards the casket at the same time. When I got a load of the blood on the floor, on the casket, and on Wolfe, I could have shot him. It was amazing he had enough left over to get a--leave the god-damned knife, indeed.
He had sense enough to keep still, but he glowered at me anyway. “What happened?”
“He’s dead. No bleeding, no apparent injury. Maybe he had a heart attack.”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “Bah.” He shifted.
“Cut it out. If you try to get out of the box, you’ll start bleeding again. Take his gun; I’m heading for a phone.”
“After you call, check him again.” I would have kicked him, but it would have meant getting him out of the casket, and then it would have been my fault if he bled to death.
The ambulance attendants thought the whole set-up was spooky. The cops thought Wolfe jammed into a casket was hilarious. Having heard the Doctor’s comments on lateral pressure on slash wounds, how satin handles liquids, and Wolfe’s good luck, I wasn’t amused at all, not one bit.
On the way to the hospital, Wolfe opened his eyes. “Well?”
I knew better than to tell him to rest. “It seems Roscoe had gone to get a nice orchid to lie on your chest. I dumped it onto the floor when I knocked the table over. Phalaenopsis.” He scowled at me. “The doctor thought Roscoe’s death looked like a heart attack, too.”
He closed his eyelids again, and grimaced petulantly. “I don’t trust coincidences when they are so aesthetically pleasing. There is still work left for us to do.” He didn’t say anything else and, for once, neither did I. I just gazed, first at him and then at the dark rushing by us outside, back and forth.
IV--Extra Shock Show! See It Happen Right Before Your Startled Eyes!
Several full days of hard work later, we were ready to close the case. To tell the truth, I had needed the time. During the days, I could concentrate on supervising Saul and Fred and taking care of my own fair share of the detection. But, when night came, I had to sleep, and when I slept I dreamt. Again and again I was back in the blackout until my alarm sounded and I woke up sweating or worse. Then I had to go to Wolfe’s bedroom where, lying on his side atop black silk sheets and sulky without his yellow silk pajama tops, he’d listen to our results and give me more instructions. I had a hard time looking at him while he was talking to me although I couldn’t tell you if it was the bandages or the great stretch of grizzled, hairy chest that I was trying not to see. In either case, he never called me on it.
Doc Volmer said it was much too early for Wolfe to be up and about, but he went ahead and made sure the stitches were healthy, then told me what would be needed in the way of informal tailoring if Wolfe was going to get dressed. The doc’s taken care of our household for too long to expect Wolfe to listen when the bit’s between his teeth. He also didn’t expect Wolfe to take his pain medication, but he still prescribed it and gave careful instructions as to how it should be used and what should be guarded against. Doc Volmer takes his Hippocratic Oath seriously. As a result, Wolfe was in reasonable shape, if sitting well forward in the chair behind his desk, when he gave Mrs. Clayton her final report.
Wolfe very rarely loses, but he doesn’t always win, either. When Mrs. Clayton got settled in the red leather chair, with Susan in the yellow chair next to her, Wolfe had to tell them that we hadn't found enough to prove what he’d deduced and probably never would.
Mrs. Clayton’s laugh was a little bitter. “I said I only wanted to know one way or the other, and I’m getting my wish. It’s no more than I deserve, I guess.”
Wolfe scowled at her. “Pfui. Don’t fall into gross superstitions about causality. Your error was egregious but had nothing to do with the cunning or lack thereof of our true opponent.”
“I suppose so.” She shook her head. “I still shouldn’t have talked to Roscoe in my workroom on Saturday, when I was trying to decide what to do next. Granted, I had no idea that he knew enough about sleight-of-hand to palm the samples you gave me. However, given what you’d told me about Roscoe’s idea of a joke, I certainly shouldn’t have answered his questions about what project I was working on, or described Mr. Goodwin's other cufflinks just in order to put off confronting him a few minutes longer. I’m still sorry.”
She wasn’t as sorry as I was, and you can take that however you want.
“You’re wandering again. We may not be able to hold the true miscreant accountable, but my ego still demands some recompense. For that, I will need your assistance.” His eyes narrowed. “Pay attention, madam.”
She did, and she must have done her part of the job well enough because Doctor Hornbeck was in the office the next day at five o’clock.
“Mr. Wolfe, I can’t say I’m glad to see you again. I’m a busy man. We’re approaching the holidays, and that puts an undue strain on many of my patients.”
You wouldn’t think it to look at him. He was tall, grave-faced, and dignified, and his manners beat Doc Volmer’s like a drum. But, knowing what I did now, if I’d taken three bullets I’d crawl six blocks past him to get to Volmer.
“I will not keep you long, Doctor. I only ask for your indulgence while I share a few thoughts with you. It required some effort, but I and my employees discovered that the late Mr. Behrens was known to take vitamins to help him deal with the brisk pace of his double life. A mislaid pill was found behind the washstand in his bathroom, a pill that mimicked the appearance of a type of vitamin your office distributes, a pill that, when analyzed, was found to consist of an interesting mixture of controlled stimulants. Taken with some regularity, the mixture would weaken the heart and exacerbate any tendency towards mental instability as well.” Wolfe glared at Doctor Hornbeck, and his voice was abruptly so stark that I started. “If you were so consumed by your jealousy and your supposedly violated honor, why did you not yield to passion? There is something cleaner about a gun, a knife, than such machinations.” He paused and pressed his lips together before he opened them again to say flatly, “In the Inferno, far below the fire that bathes the cruel and the violent, is the lowest circle, of ice. The traitors to duty lie there, entombed by the bitter cold that epitomizes their crimes.”
Hornbeck’s tone was conversational as he said, “I notice, from your careful choice of phrasing, Mr. Wolfe, that you intend only to share some interesting, not actionable, information with me. Please allow me, in my turn, to share some information with you. A few months ago, Roscoe asked me for a prescription during his annual check-up. He told me he needed treatment for an on-going case of syphilis.” Hornbeck paused to let all the implications of that little splash of acid sink in for a few seconds. “After some painful minutes of my having nothing to say, since I would not ask the question he wanted me to, he laughed and told me that it was just a joke. However, his manner made his meaning somewhat ambiguous. Quite typical of him, I think. Although I had nothing to do with his sorry demise, he’s better off dead. Neither he nor his protégée Hank will much be missed. That’s all I have to impart.”
Wolfe moved his good shoulder up and down a fraction of an inch. “Indeed, there is little more to be said. My client professes herself satisfied. Such information as I have, which is more than I have shared with you, I will pass along to men whose profession better suits them to a tedious sorting through minutiae. Given that, there is no reason for you to try and silence me. Look to yourself, Doctor Hornbeck. I will not bother.” He paused, and his eyelids drooped until they were almost shut. “I did take the precaution of making sure one other person had the knowledge she needed to see to her own self.”
There was a noise at the door to the office, and we all turned to look at the slim little blond firebrand standing there with her face flushed and her chin up. Behind her, Mrs. Clayton had one restraining hand on her shoulder, but it wasn’t needed. Mrs. Hornbeck knew what she wanted to say and she said it. “I heard it all, Alfred. For once, this evening, you’re just going to have to discuss dinner with Cook yourself. Psychoanalytical theories or no psychoanalytical theories, I really wonder how well you’ll do. I really wonder how well you’ll do without my money, too, but I won’t be around to find out. I’m leaving for Reno with Eddie and Susan on the next train. Don’t bother trying to find me. They and their friends know all about keeping men away.” She turned, took Mrs. Clayton’s arm, and left. We all heard the noise of the front door slamming behind them.
At the sound, Wolfe dipped his chin slightly, his version of a judicious nod. “Before Mr. Goodwin concealed Mrs. Hornbeck in a place where she could hear this interview, she told me that she had never seriously considered yielding to Mr. Behrens’ attentions. He was too jejune for her tastes, and, in any case, she was married.” Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “It is too bad that you did not think to inquire before you acted. It is better to ask.”
Hornbeck still didn’t lose his composure. He only got up and went.
After I made sure the front door was locked behind him, I came back into the office and stood in front of Wolfe’s desk. “So, were those last two sentences intended for other ears than his?” I demanded.
Wolfe’s eyes met mine. “Only my own.” He reached for his current book with his left hand. I went back to my desk, sat down, and swiveled towards my typewriter.
V--Win Free Two for One Passes! We Dare You to Look Inside!
I think Wolfe knows what I’ve been working on, even though he’s sitting on the edge of his seat pretending to read his book: Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits. He keeps getting stuck on paragraphs, lingering for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the words he’s seeing in front of him. He still hasn’t rung for beer even though he drained his last bottle an hour ago, it’s late, and he’s well under his daily limit. The fat bum is being stubborn. He hasn’t even asked me what the pages are that I’m rolling one at a time out of my typewriter, although they obviously have nothing to do with work. So let him wonder.
There’s a scar forming across his back, running up one side and onto his shoulder, that wasn’t there before Burgess died. It’s going to match the one on my chest and arm where a coolie got me with a broken bottle, the time Wolfe sent me down to a tramp steamer to ask them about Chinese cooking, and they all jumped me. That was the one I almost quit over, before he came to the hospital in a taxi to bring me home. His scar’s not too bad. It doesn’t compare for ugly with the older marks on him, the ones he won’t talk about, the ones from his work in Europe and from the trenches. But it’s the only one I helped put onto his fat hide.
Now it’s my turn to pretend to ignore him. I keep typing.
“You’re being irrational. Set it to one side. Nothing occurred for which I do not take the responsibility.”
Bastard. He’s not talking about my mistake or the wound.
“Confound it, stop pounding on that audible instrument of torture and look at me.”
So I stopped, but I’m finishing this up later on the machine up in my own bedroom. When I’m done, I’ll burn it. Or maybe I’ll add it to the stack in the safe deposit box that I keep in the same bank vault where Wolfe stores his own private papers. That doesn’t matter.
What matters is what happened next, when I stopped typing and swiveled my chair around to face him.
Wolfe scowled. “What worries you more, the scar or the events it commemorates? And what portion of those events truly disturbs you?”
He doesn’t ask rhetorical questions, so I gave him the courtesy of an answer. But I didn’t bother to make it sweet. “Nothing you mentioned is what’s eating at me, sir. Sure, I’m sore about decorating your hide, but I didn’t enjoy getting you kidnapped by the Chapin dame, either, and we both buried that one just fine.”
“It’s the not the other part that’s bothering me, either. To be accurate, it’s bothering you. I’m okay; you’re the one who’s walking around like a hog on ice.”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like that analogy,” he declared.
“Nuts. It’s not that easy to distract me. Would it be possible, sir, for you to stop acting as if, any second now, I’m going to run out the front door screaming like a newly deflowered virgin?” I knew I’d made a mistake the minute the words came out of my mouth by the way he snorted. Or was it a mistake?
“Very well, then. We have known each other long enough for me to accept your assurances on such matters.” He closed his eyes and sighed about enough air to push a sailboat across the Hudson. “There is one other loose end to be neatly tied, though.”
“What, Mrs. Clayton stole one of the Cattleya while you were busy being abducted?”
He opened his eyes and glared. “No! Don’t be puerile.” Abruptly, he reached his left arm across himself to tug at one of his right-hand desk drawers. As far forward as he was sitting, and as much bulk as he had in the way, it was no surprise that he had problems.
I put up with this comedy routine for a few seconds, then lost patience and got up to go help him. When I had it open, I stood above him with my head tilted. “You could try pushing your chair back with your legs and turning to one side, you know. The effort would do your heart good.”
Wolfe ignored me in favor of the contents of the drawer. Underneath some papers, he found a small black velvet box that he pulled out and passed over with a petulant scowl.
I took it and weighed it in my hand. More than a decade, and it was the first time he’d actually handed one of them to me. Squashing the thought, I opened the box. Gold cufflinks, each decorated with a single orchid entwined around a P. I. badge. The engraving was better than first-rate. I shot my left cuff, removed the initialed number I was wearing, and replaced it with one of the links from the box.
He surveyed the result. “Satisfactory.”
“Yeah, another good call on your part. I’m going to have a tough time at Christmas this year.” I’d put the other link in, and scooped up both the old cufflinks. On an impulse, I dropped them onto his desk blotter, next to his left hand. “Keep these for me.”
For a moment, his big hand stayed relaxed. Then, suddenly, it scooped them up, tightened around them, and clenched so hard I saw the knuckles whiten. His face tilted up and his gaze met mine.
In the end, it was easy. After all, Wolfe likes eyes at a level. I had to be careful of his back and shoulder. I worked my hands into his hair as I leaned over. I don’t know what kind of a kiss I intended, but the soft heavy lips seemed to somehow demand my best effort, so that’s what I provided. I’m good enough that I could be provoking even when I was being distracted by the spicy scent of his aftershave, the clean salt-sweet taste of his skin, the particular way his hair slid through my fingers, the hundred and one small discoveries that you make when you first explore someone that you want. He was driving me crazy. But, by the time we separated, a muscle was twitching in his neck, which served him right.
Wolfe brusquely shoved my old cufflinks into his vest pocket, and then snarled, “Get me up onto my feet.” Great. He was so damaged that he couldn’t even flee without assistance. Since he couldn’t use both arms to lever himself up like usual, I had to help haul him out of the chair, and he gave me hell the entire time. It made me want to swear at him, to laugh at him, to kiss him again. Once he was on his feet I acted on my final impulse. Because I was still being careful of his back, he was the one who wrapped an arm around me. The hard pressure of his hand and arm stroking slowly up and down my spine, then spreading out across my rear, added a certain thrill to the experience. The feeling of his tongue tormenting my own added more than a thrill. My breathing had picked up again by the time we broke apart, and Wolfe was on the verge of panting.
I said, “You’re not even supposed to be up out of your bed, and now you have me afraid to put you back into it.”
“Afraid, Archie?” His tone was dry, but his voice was dark, rough with what I’d awoken in him. “That seems unlike you. Are you sure you’ve picked the correct word?”
“Wary, cautious, circumspect. Do you want me to check the Webster’s, sir?” Giving in to an urge I’ve had more times over the years than I’d care to admit, I leaned forward and nipped him sharply on the jaw. Wolfe growled, his big arm came back up, and he yanked me tight against him again.
Now it was my turn to shudder. He has good hands, deft and strong. Even the right one was making my life both warmer and more difficult by resting just above my belt, tracing the muscles of my side through the fabric of my shirt with one deliberate finger. I pushed in closer and shifted a leg. If I was considering lying to myself about what was going on, which I was not, the evidence was now right at hand. “All right, that’s it. We’d better continue this upstairs, or something’s going to happen to your stitches.”
My past experience let me help him to the elevator and hotfoot it up the stairs as if it was yesterday night and nothing had happened between us. But when the elevator door opened on the second floor and I saw him standing there, fat, irritated, and concerned, a combination of nerves and need slammed me right in the gut. The longer the fall, the harder the landing, and I’d been picking up speed on this one for years, no matter how recently I’d spotted the floor rushing up to meet me.
His eyes, which had been watching my face, narrowed, and then he grasped my elbow with his left hand. Before I’d recovered from my surprise he’d towed me all the way up the stairs to my own room, let me go, and opened the door. I don’t know what he thought he was going to do, but I stepped inside and pulled him in after me. It was worth it just to see how his face went slack with what had to be shock, in the one second before we kissed again.
“You can’t be more surprised than I am,” I said during the next intermission. “If anyone had told me a year ago I would let you in here when I wasn’t ill and could resist--”
“Shut up,” he said with a scowl on his face. “It is bad enough that I am physically hindered in circumstances I never dared to envision occurring. If I pause to consider how improbable this is or how long it’s--”
Do I have to admit I’d been over this border before? Wolfe wasn’t the only one worrying about how long it’d been. “Stage fright,” I said sympathetically, unbuttoning his vest. “I’ve had it myself, although not since that time sitting on the porch swing back in Ohio with--” His half-closed lids didn’t move, but his eyes did, and I saw them. He reached out his good hand, he firmly grasped me through my trousers, and I shut up.
It was the bed I’d paid for in the house he owned, but neither of us cared much about whose mouth touched whose skin, whose nipples, whose groin first. In the end, Wolfe took me into the clever, savage, familiar warmth of his mouth first, but only because he was the one with the sliced-up back. I had to sit him on the edge of the bed to return the favor, and he ended up almost pulling a stitch at the end. When we were done, I got him back to his own room, meaning to arrange him decoratively among all the black silk and black pillows and leave him there. But the fall had been too long. We ended up rutting in his bed together. I was the one who pulled him onto me, and I neither screamed nor ran when it was over. I couldn’t have anyhow; we both spent so hard that we passed out in his bed like incompetent Joe College Lotharios. I slept without dreams, with him, all night. It was only by the grace of a curtain left open that I woke up in time to avoid giving Fritz the shock of his life when he came in with Wolfe’s breakfast tray.
So here I sit. There’s a suitcase in the closet behind me that I could pull down, pack up, and take with me when I leave. I know how to earn a salary. I’m fine on my own. There are also a lot of women out there who would compete to put the halter around my neck, and even a few who would let me range. I can live my life without Nero Wolfe.
I can crawl across my life like an amputated hand crawling across the counter in a magic store. All I have to do is cut off my brain, heart, and body, so that one part of me will be free. No.
Instead, what I’m going to do is take a shower, get dressed, and put in my new cufflinks. I’ll go downstairs late for breakfast, kid around with Fritz, and read my newspaper. I’ll do the office chores, Wolfe will come in at eleven and say good morning, and I’ll say it too. Maybe, just to get comfortable, we’ll fight about the mail; it’s been a tough couple of weeks. But nothing needs to change, except maybe how we spend some of my evenings at home.
Okay, if I don’t leave, then someday somebody will look at me, see a monster, scream, and run away. And, someday, I will see the dead. Wolfe’s older than me; I’m rasher than Wolfe. One day one of us will stand beside the other one’s grave. So what? Terrors like that belong in a spook show.
Spook shows, I’ve decided, are strictly for suckers.
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