“I have never completely understood Wolfe’s attitude on food and eating and probably never will. In some ways it’s strictly personal.”
--Archie Goodwin, in Rex Stout’s The Final Deduction
We were on the run that October, although our troubles hadn't come from one of Wolfe’s fancy set-ups falling apart. Instead, we’d had bad luck. An Assistant D.A. with a career to make wanted to convict the unconvictable Nero Wolfe on a perjury charge, and the police let our alibi board a transatlantic liner. Although our English associate, Hitchcock, was picking through the trash of Europe to find the man, his search would take time, which meant that, even though we were innocent, we were in a fix. Our PI licenses were suspended and, if we stayed in New York, we would be visiting first a courtroom and then a jail. So, during the thin slice of time before formal charges were sworn out, we decided to take a vacation. And, since we needed to be in the last place on earth the police would ever look for Nero Wolfe, we took that vacation in Hollywood.
I will never, ever, forget the trip across country. Even though we rode the Zephyr for the sake of Wolfe’s digestion, it did no good. He hates machines that move, and he detests being away from the brownstone and the ten thousand orchids on its roof. The clothing he was wearing for his false identity were ugly and got on his nerves. Worst of all, he was leaving Fritz behind in Manhattan. Not that Wolfe had argued--much. He knew we were already asking for trouble by both hiding in the same place. Add a Swiss chef to our household and you might as well nail a sign to the door announcing the new winter quarters of Nero Wolfe’s Traveling Circus. But, although Wolfe understands necessity, that doesn’t mean he likes it. This trip was typical of the kind of performance he can put on when the mood takes him. He sorrowed. He sulked. He damn near pouted. He had no trouble at all playing his role as a New Jersey accountant heading west for a funeral. The other passengers took one look at him and lowered their voices.
I was supposed to be Wolfe’s loyal son, but I decided that I didn’t mourn my late aunt all that much, and I took a vacation from him in the club car. It was too bad that my friendship with a young, Nevada-bound, society matron didn’t have time to ripen before Reno, but as events would later prove, it was just as well. After she left, I went back to hand-hold Wolfe, who was now being martyred in the dining car. Since I was able to resist the urge to boot his fundament off the train, Wolfe and I rode on through to Union Station. It was a relief to change identities again, in a Pico hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
A man Wolfe had done a favor for loaned us his little Spanish bungalow of fifteen or so rooms in the Hollywood Hills. The house wasn’t bad, although the way Wolfe acted you would have thought it was a cold water flat on the Lower East Side. For one thing, it was all built on one floor, so he didn’t have to deal with stairs. For another thing, the house cleaners that came in weekly were male, so he didn’t have to cope with females. Best of all, it was free, which was good because we hadn't been able to bring along enough money for a rental up to Wolfe’s standards. The phony IDs made by a character I knew back in New York had eaten up a lot of our cash, but Wolfe was now Mr. Wilkins, a writer, and I was Andrew Groves, his secretary.
Wolfe settled in and, lacking anything else to do, tried to read himself to death. He might have succeeded, too, if he hadn't needed to go out, since a fat recluse would be a target with the police looking for Nero Wolfe. He decided that the one place in public where he could sit down in a decent chair and expect to be left alone was at the library. My guess is that all the books went to his head, because he branched out into bookstores, which is how the trouble began. I came home one day to find him in a mood, surrounded by large volumes with their pages dog-eared.
“Archie, these books are rubbish. Their purchasers are being incited to commit barbarisms unknown to the Vandals.”
I looked at the spines. They were all cookbooks. “Yes, sir. Nice of you to take an interest in the American housewife.”
He grunted. That struck home. He had been asked several times to write a cookbook himself and had refused. He thought the average American cook was too maladjusted to profit from his erudition. Now, although he would never admit it, he was so bored that he was desperate. He tugged on the mustache he was cultivating, a gesture he knew got on my nerves.
“Bosh. Since I am allegedly an author, perhaps it is time that I actually write something. It certainly would not be difficult to do a better job than these clod-pated swindlers have.” He narrowed his eyes at the stacks. It seems they weren’t even worth glaring at.
Maybe I should have tried harder to stop him, but I was feeling desperate myself. The weather was beautiful, the house was luxurious, and I had no work. I wanted, I needed, to be hunting something, even if it was only something for one of Wolfe’s hobbies. So, I let him develop a notion. It was a mistake.
In short order, Wolfe cured me of my longing for activity. He had me running all over Southern California trying to find ingredients that he could have located within a few square miles back home. I put more wear on the household roadster in those first four weeks than I had put on either of Wolfe’s automobiles in the last four years. I went as far north as Santa Barbara for olives, as far south as Tijuana for cactus fruit, and as far east as Palm Springs for dates. If he could have done it, Wolfe would have sent me driving as far west as the Channel Islands for abalone. In between the trips, I typed up endless cards recording the results of Wolfe’s culinary experiments.
At first, it seemed to help us both. I got used to the fact that I couldn’t take a decent walk without some clown almost running me over, and started using the swimming pool in the central courtyard. I found out where the local nightclubs and ballrooms were, and made some friends. I tanned. Wolfe stopped losing weight from his unaccustomed expeditions, and put it back on from his cooking. I quit twice, and was fired once, each time with cause. Life was almost satisfactory.
The rest of our exile might have been more of the same, if it wasn’t for one of my new friends. I had met Sam at the Tropics Club one Friday, after the escorts of a starlet had mistaken my admiration of her dancing skills for another type of admiration all together. Sam had waded in on my side, just to keep the odds even. We had ended up, three hours later, drinking milk and swapping lies at a delicatessen on Wilshire.
Sam reminded me of Saul Panzer. He had the same air of always knowing one more fact than I did, the same rumpled clothes, and the same big nose. In his case, the knowing attitude came from two decades of knocking together sets for the film studios. He was that rarest of birds, a Hollywood native, and he spun a good yarn. It was Sam who showed me the nightclubs where I could find partners for either of the kinds of dancing I enjoy.
After a few weeks of acquaintance, Sam invited me along for some fishing with his friends. Every other Saturday, he and his pals rented a boat and took it out to try for swordfish and tiger shark. The friends were our sort of guys, he told me, waggling his eyebrows. I grinned. I had already met enough Hollywood predators to want to avoid them, and I appreciated his referral. Would I like to go along, he asked? I would. As I had anticipated, Wolfe gave me a grocery list.
That Wednesday, he had me drive out into the San Bernardino Mountains to buy cherries, a little chore that ended up keeping me out overnight. I stopped on the way back Thursday morning and picked up a live turkey from a farmer outside of Pomona. I will spare you what happened next in the kitchen, but will note that, by the end of Friday, I was determined to make the most of my day off.
There were four of them. Sam, I knew. Burt was a stunt man with the leathery face and slightly bowed knees that come from years in the saddle. I discovered later that he was from the Panhandle, the first real cowboy I’d met in Hollywood. Steve was a lawyer and reminded me of Orrie Cather, which, I have to admit, pretty much ruined him for me. Johnny, I’d seen before. He was a character actor who specialized in hoods and villains. Unlike most of the guys with his kind of face, guys who come from middle-class neighborhoods in Muncie, Indiana, Johnny was a genuine veteran of the New York streets. From what he let drop, I got the idea that he had drifted out to Hollywood a few years back, when the east coast started getting too organized for his taste.
They all seemed pleasant enough but I spent the most time with Johnny, who reminded me of what I was missing. I admit I was homesick. It was a pleasure to talk with him about the neighborhoods, to compare the places we both knew, and to give him the latest news on who was doing what to who. As we talked, we fished side by side for about an hour. He was being Italian, speaking with his hands, and touching me for emphasis. It took me a while to realize that he was also coming on to me.
I balled up one fist, and then shook it loose. Instead I stepped back and gave him a look. He raised both hands, palms outward, and shrugged.
“Hey, can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Sam looked up from where he was baiting a hook. He scowled. “Dang it, Johnny, I told you. Andy’s with Mr. Wilkins. Keep your mitts off.”
“Johnny, you’re jes’ a big ol’ horndog. Down, boy.” That was Burt’s contribution. Steve, the lawyer, snickered.
“Fluff off, you queens,” Johnny said good-naturedly, reeling in his line. This led to some catcalling back and forth that left no room for doubts.
Call me an idiot for not figuring it out sooner. It’s not like I hadn't run into them before, working as a private investigator. I’d even met some that I’d give the time of day to, including one or two of our former clients. However, I was used to a slicker, softer version of the article than these guys. I might have spotted Steve-the-lawyer. But I would have given twenty to one that Burt, Sam, and Johnny weren’t that way.
Sam must have sensed I was sore. He came over and set up his line next to me. “Don’t mind Johnny. He’s never had a steady and doesn’t know how it can be.”
I looked at Sam. Hell, it wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t even the first one to make the mistake. If I had a quarter for every spicy variant on ‘Nero Wolfe’s little Archie’ I’d heard down through the years, I’d have season tickets for the Yankees. Maybe, back when I was fresh from Ohio, I might have tried to plug everyone who pinned that label on me, but Wolfe had been filing my rough edges smooth for a lot of years. I said, keeping the volume down, “I’m normal, Sam.”
Sam blinked, and his face went solemn. “Oh, yeah?”
“Sam,” I was patient, “you met me in a dance club, picking up girls.”
“Andy,” he was patient back, “a lot of the young guys do that now and then. Especially the high-octane numbers like you.” His arm snapped back and then forwards as he cast. “This is Hollywood, not New York. Take advantage of it.”
We fished, and I had another beer. After all, it wasn’t like I could walk home alone. Although I did think about it, later, when Burt crooned a cowboy song: he sang through his nose. We caught some fins, including a type of fish that Wolfe had ordered, that I made sure got on ice. After a while, my curiosity got the best of me.
I asked Sam, “So, what made you peg me as being, you know?” Maybe I could change my tailor.
He snorted. “Stop, look, and listen. You notice more about a guy than how his cojones compare to yours. You check out everyone, not just the females. And you never, ever, shut up about Mr. Wilkins. Hell, I though I was bad about my Juanito.”
Well, I couldn’t explain to him how being a detective makes you look at people. But, I didn’t want to hear about Juanito, either. “Was that it?”
“Aside from the deadly Ds: dress, dancing, dining etiquette, and Dorothy Parker as your scriptwriter. You got ‘em all, son. Good thing for you that you’re such a tough guy, or we’d need a barnacle scraper to get the chorus boys off of you.”
“Ah, nuts.” I had another beer. It was that kind of a trip.
I told myself that the misunderstanding was good for our cover, and that I should relax. I would like to think that I switched to Bourbon as part of this relaxation. Or maybe, looking back, I’m just kidding myself. In any case, we were all pretty loose by the time the boat got in, except for Burt. He said he was off the booze and was going to stay dryer than a poor man’s oil derrick, and he did. The others got kind of loud. I don’t think I was that bad, although I did make everyone wait while I dickered with some Portuguese fisherman for Wolfe’s lobsters. It didn’t take long, and I wasn’t taken to the cleaners. Much.
Johnny, the lobsters, and I sat in the back of Burt’s truck for the entire trip home. Johnny apologized for putting the moves on me, and sang me a song in Italian to prove how sorry he was. Then we tried to decide who was the stupidest cop on the homicide squad. That took a while.
When I got out of the truck, Johnny handed me the seafood, and said, “Before I tell anyone from the old neighborhood, I’ll sleep with the lobsters.” He put one finger by the side of his nose, and winked.
“Okay.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was a fine fellow to say it. I headed for the front door. Johnny followed, and, since I couldn’t seem to get my keys out, leaned on the front doorbell for me.
After a minute or so, Wolfe opened the door. For some reason, he was scowling. I grinned and tried to hand him the lobsters. He looked at me, at the lobsters, at Johnny still ringing the doorbell, and at Burt’s truck with its set of cow horns wired to the radiator.
I put the lobsters down. I felt hurt that he didn’t like them. It must have shown on my face. He turned to Johnny. “You, sir. You may cease ringing the doorbell, and return to your compatriots. I will take care of Mr. Groves.”
“Don’ worry, Mr. Wilkins. I didn’t break your sweet paisano. He wouldn’t even lemme muss him up a little.” Johnny gave Wolfe a cheerful leer, and staggered back up the front walk. The other guys all hung out the truck windows, calling out joyous greetings. Wolfe’s jaw tightened, and he waved them off from the curb as if he was launching the Met orchestra into Wagner.
When the truck pulled away, he picked up the lobsters and headed for the kitchen. I followed him, pausing only to deal with an armchair that attacked me. When I arrived, Wolfe was closing the refrigerator. My luck was in. He had turned his temper down to simmer.
He looked me over and glared. “You are intoxicated.”
“Yes, sir, I had a few drinks. I was provoked. I was surrounded by Indians.”
His eyes narrowed. “There is no need for you to report your experiences to me. Today is your day off.”
“Lots and lots of Indians. They knew me. I was a blood brother. You see? I told you I was one thirty-second Cherokee. Or was it Iroquois? How, Big Chief Black Wolf. Your noble hunter bringum you fresh lobsters.”
“Archie, shut up. Go to bed.” He turned and marched out of the kitchen.
“But it’s still light out,” I told the gas range.
By dinner that night, the household temperature had dropped to frigid. Wolfe had tried a variant on Lobster Wellington that I considered a waste of fresh seafood, and I had a headache, even after my nap and cold shower. He talked at me about the eccentricities of California state water politics. By the time he set out the cheese board, loaded with the sort of soft cheeses that I hate, I was fed up. I stood.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, but, as you’ve pointed out, it’s my day off, and I’d like to get in some dancing.” I carried my plate into the kitchen, did a fast clean up, and left by the back door.
What happened next, I am not proud of. I avoided the Tropics, and went on down to the Ballroom at the Pier. It was the place where girls who couldn’t even make it to studio secretary went to play. Since delusions of potential stardom due to beauty are a common reason for immigration to southern California, they were an attractive bunch. I had my pick of Miss Hicktowns, and settled on a handsome brunette named Dolores. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and was determined to cure her insanity with shock treatment. I tried to look electric, and it worked. When I left her place at two in the morning, I had twice proven how normal I was, to the fervent compliments of my dancing partner. I felt lower than the heels on a flatfoot’s working shoes.
The morning after, Wolfe sent me to Little Tokyo for fish sauce, with a stop at Olivera Street for cumin and a chili riestra. The days dragged on. I brought lamb back from the Basque shepherds of Chino, and eggs from an ostrich farm in the Valley. On the surface, things were back to normal, but something in the depths was stirring.
Wolfe and I get on each other’s nerves, so we spend a lot of time arguing. We’re used to it; if you catch me in the right mood, I might admit we kind of enjoy it. Usually we’d chew over a little incident like my fishing trip for days. Not this time, though. Without saying a word, we agreed that nothing had happened. We were pretty darn polite about it, and about everything else as well. It wasn’t normal. I started sneaking looks at Wolfe, to check and see if he was ready to snap. And, when I wasn’t looking, I could tell he was doing the same thing to me.
Sam called me up and invited me to join him and a couple of starlets for dinner down in China Town. As part of the return to normalcy, I took him up on it. The evening went okay, although it only took me an hour to figure out that the girls were more interested in each other than in either Sam or I. But the conversation was good, and so was the food. Afterwards we strolled around and looked into the shop windows. I steered us into an herbalist, and Sam smiled. “Mr. Wilkins still working on his cookbook?”
“Yep. At least he’s not sending me down to the tramp steamers. I got jumped that way once, a few years back.” I handed the shopkeeper Wolfe’s note. He chattered at me in Chinese. When I shrugged, he started piling small packages wrapped in silk on the counter in front of me. The shopkeeper’s wife lured the girls away into an alcove to look at embroidered slippers.
“I hope he wasn’t too peeved at you about Johnny.” Sam’s voice was elaborately casual. He examined a lacquered blowfish hanging from the ceiling.
“Mr. Wilkins knows there wasn’t anything to be peeved about. Not that my days off are any of his business.”
I must have had my hackles up, because Sam shook his head. “I told Johnny nothing doing, but he asked me to try. You made a hell of an impression on him.”
“Yeah, well.” I started swapping hand gestures with the old Chinaman as we argued prices. You don’t need to share a language to discuss the fine points of money.
We made it out of the neighborhood intact, if you ignored the three pairs of slippers, Wolfe’s herbs, and a silk dressing gown that I figured was going to Juanito, although I wasn’t stupid enough to ask. We went on to the Tropics, where my mood improved when I found out that both of the girls could dance. Just for practice, I tried to interest the brunette in broadening her horizons, but she only smiled at me tolerantly. According to her, although the view from behind me was good, it wasn’t that good. I’ve been around long enough to know when I’m being gently dropped on my head, so I shut up and tangoed.
What with one thing and another, it was about one o’clock when I parked the roadster in the garage and went inside. I went to the library to drop off Wolfe’s packages, and he was sitting in the biggest of the household chairs, frowning at a pile of index cards. He looked up and his lips tightened, and then relaxed.
“Did you have a pleasant evening, Archie?”
“Yes, sir. Both of the young ladies could dance, and I only paid twice as much as I should have for your supplies.” I set the packages down in front of him, and he untied one and sniffed its contents.
“This isn’t correct.” He started to glare at me, remembered that we weren’t fighting, and asked, “Where is the list that I gave to you?”
I got it out and handed it to him. He picked up the scrap of silk, examined the label, and settled for glaring at it instead of me.
“The herbalist must have substituted deer testes for star anise. My transposition from the herbalry may have been erroneous.” He caught my look and added, “Deer testes are, in some regions of China, held to be both an aphrodisiac and a lure for the lubricious.”
“Yup. He mixed up the order, all right.”
His lips pursed sourly for a moment before he could smooth them out.
“I’ll go back tomorrow and get the right stuff.” I reached over, picked up the package, and weighed it in the palm of my hand. “What do you want me to do with this, since I know you won’t be wanting it?”
He sighed, turned both hands over, and placed them, palms down, on the desk in front of him. “Archie, I am aware that, given your active temperament, this detestable exile has placed a great strain upon you. Do not use that as a justification for goading me.”
I examined the package. It held what looked like tiny scraps of dried leather. “Well, I sure don’t need this. In fact, at my present rate, I’m going to have to start carrying a glove to field the foul balls. All of the sudden, everyone seems to think I catch left-handed.”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed.
“Although I guess it’s useful to have something to fall back on, in case the ladies ever go on strike.”
“Damnation, don’t taunt me.”
I stared. He never curses. His face was white. Without another word, he got his massive bulk pushed up onto his feet, and marched out of the room. What the hell?
It’s very rare that I have trouble getting to sleep, but I had to think a while that night before I could nod off. I decided I knew what Wolfe’s problem was, and I didn’t like it one bit. Even worse, if I was correct, I had been stomping all over his big, fat feet by not paying attention, a notion that didn’t make me any happier with myself. I finally dozed off, and slept uneasily.
Although I didn’t remember my dreams, I woke up ready for action. “Shut up,” I snarled down at myself, and stomped off for a cold shower.
That morning, it rained. In fact, it didn’t just rain, it poured. Even so, I was glad to spend the day out. It wouldn’t have done me any good at all, in that mood, to be cooped up in the house with Wolfe. I drove back to China Town. When I had done my business and escaped, burdened only with the herbs and a bronze incense burner shaped like a tiger, I headed down to Santa Monica. For a few hours I wandered around the amusement park on the pier, until I saw the ad on the midway for the half-man, half-woman show and left. The streets were slick and nasty. On the way back to Hollywood, I almost got clipped by some dust-bowl refugee in a Model T. I decided then that I hated California: movie stars, palm trees, ocean, and all.
When I joined Wolfe at the table that evening I was on edge, but he had prepared abalone with prosciutto, and green corn pudding for desert. From him, it was an apology, so I pretended to have forgotten what happened the night before. Afterwards, Wolfe retired to the sitting room to turn the dials on the radio for a while, and I caught up with my typing. Outside it was still raining, and the wind had picked up. Every time a gust rattled the windows, a palm frond would blow off one of the trees around the house, land on the roof tiles, and slither off onto the patio. It plucked at my nerves. The third time I caught myself reaching for the gun I wasn’t wearing, I covered my typewriter, put the incense burner on his desk, and went to bed with a magazine. The lead article was about touring sunny Southern California. I threw it across the room and turned off the light.
In my dream, I was seventeen again.
I thought I was tough, back then, when I first met Wolfe. Behind my attitude, though, I desperately wanted the job he offered me. My chances looked good. He seemed to have swallowed my stories about my age and experience. He only told me five years later that he knew I was glossing over the truth. I also thought he was impressed by why I was fired from my first job - for shooting two men - which shows how green I was. I hadn't learned yet what Wolfe already knew: killing people makes you grow older, not up.
When he told me I would have to live in the brownstone, as part of the job, I was wary. I had already had offers with strings attached. He must have noticed my reaction, because when he listed the eccentricities I would have to put up with, he included his dislike of being touched. What I didn’t know then was that we had both edited the truth. He was omitting the fact that he doesn’t mind being touched by the handful of people he actually trusts. I was omitting the fact that I had already been attached by a few strings.
Since I hate people who whine about their families, I’ll just say I don’t get along well with what is left of mine. When I got to New York, until I got my hands on some fake papers, my pockets were empty. It’s my bad luck that I like to eat, and to sleep indoors. As a result, once or twice, I agreed to certain offers. It turned out not to be a fate worse than death.
It took me a few years to jam down what I had discovered about myself on those expeditions, and lock the lid on the knowledge. I was a tough guy, and tough guys don’t feel afraid, or lonely, or hungry for a touch. Or if they do, tough guys chase women to get what they need. So, that’s what I did. It turned out I was good at it, and I saw no reason to start busting things open.
In my dream, I was sitting through my job interview with Wolfe. I already knew he was a pain in the ass. I had just helped him find the murderer of a certain professional woman I had liked, so I also knew that he was a genius. When the case had gotten ugly, he had gone out of his way to protect me. It gave me an odd feeling about him, about myself, about us. I was looking at him warily. I wasn’t sure that I would reject the deal I thought he would offer me.
This time I woke up and swore. I had made myself forget, and that had taken care of it. At least, that had taken care of it until Sam, Johnny, and the boys had reminded me that all tough guys don’t walk straight. And, it had sure never occurred to me that there might be someone else to worry about. Hell. It was just like him to sit on something like this for years, and leave me looking like an idiot when I finally caught on.
It took me a while to talk myself into getting up and going to breakfast. I don’t like mornings on the best of days, which this wasn’t. Wolfe understands, so when I staggered into the kitchen, he looked at me, grunted, and stopped chopping parsley. He mixed me up an omelet and let me eat it without talking. Then, just so I wouldn’t think he was getting soft, he made a production of dirtying up a few pots and dumping them by the sink for me to take care of later. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kick him, or--I got up, made some excuse, and left.
I decided that the recipe index cards needed my attention, and rattled the typewriter keys fiercely, hoping it would keep Wolfe at bay. He left me alone, but I kept making mistakes. By mid-morning I was fed up. I resolved to forget it, and go for a swim.
The fast laps should have driven the thoughts out of my head. It didn’t work. It was like the door to a closet crammed with junk had been opened, and everything inside was cascading out onto the floor. I had to stop fooling around and sort out the mess.
My first new notion had been about Wolfe. It was hard to work it out from memories of Wolfe, who was supposed to hate being touched, having me valet him, shove him in and out of vehicles, shake his hand, and accept his support, but if I was honest, I could do it. I thought it over. I wasn’t just his employee, or his companion, or, that old saw, the son he never had. Wolfe wanted me. In fact, I would give three to one he had wanted me for years. I turned the notion over in my mind and realized it felt well-worn, like it was old news.
It was harder to make myself grab the next piece. How did I feel about it? I swam several more laps before I had the guts to fish that answer up. I didn’t mind Wolfe’s attitude. No, that was yellow. I liked Wolfe’s attitude. I thought it was great that this fat egomaniac looked at me like I was an orchid or a blueberry-stuffed grouse, like something he could use for his pleasure.
But that way of putting it was self-indulgent, and not fair to Wolfe. He had given up a lot of orchids and grouse for me over the years. With the possible exception of Fritz--but no, he’d even sacrificed Fritz’s best interests for mine. I was what mattered the most to him. I was what he lov--.
I almost rammed my head into the concrete at one end of the pool, and had to grab the side. As I floated there, I heard a noise, shook the water out of my eyes, and looked around. I had forgotten what day it was. Nero Wolfe, in all his glory, was sitting by the pool.
Once a week, the house was cleaned from top to bottom. When our housekeepers arrive at the brownstone, Wolfe retreats to the greenhouse on the roof. Here, there was no greenhouse and he was forced out into the courtyard. It had high adobe walls and earthen tiles, so he could squint his eyes and pretend that he was in a large conservatory built around a reflecting pool with a thyroid condition. He could also ignore the breezes and the obnoxious, chirping birds. The sun, though, was an enemy that he had to defend against. So he swathed himself in yellow silk lounging pajamas, a robe, an ascot, and a big straw hat. I had considered suggesting that he add zinc oxide and sun glasses for the full Hollywood Producer look, but had decided that it would be too cruel to kick him when he was that far down. He would sit bolt upright in a lounger under a beach umbrella, read his book, and suffer. I usually avoided all this weekly martyrdom, but I hadn't been keeping good track of the days. Something on my mind, I guess.
I folded my arms on the edge of the pool and surveyed him. My stomach was saying odd things, but I quashed it.
“Most people would take a lounger as an invitation to lounge. Not you.”
He did not react.
“To you, it is an instrument of torture to be endured only because it’s wide enough to haul your load. You have your principles.”
He turned a page.
I straight-armed myself over the edge of the pool, and got up. I was streaming water, and my towel was on the lounger next to Wolfe’s. I walked over to get it. He continued to ignore me, which was sheer provocation on his part. He knows I hate being ignored. I dried off, spread my towel out over the lounger, and pointedly lounged.
I don’t know if I would have gotten a reaction out of him. A monarch butterfly bumbled over the wall and into the garden. It fluttered across the pool before perching, wings beating slowly, on the spine of Wolfe’s book. Its wings were a brilliant orange touched with black, like an Epidendrum citroninum, but Wolfe glared at it as if it was a woman having hysterics. Maybe he would have liked it better if it was yellow.
“Looks like you have a visitor.”
“Don’t be mawkish.” He got my point, though, and blew on it gently to persuade it to fly away. It fluttered off. I grinned, and he turned his glare towards me. But my years of experience defeated him. I caught it when the glare changed to something else.
I swallowed, but I wasn’t the one to look away first. He was.
Easing back on the lounger, I scowled at a drop of water running down from my knee to my thigh. I wasn’t annoyed enough to make him talk, but I wasn’t relaxed enough to get up and walk away. Instead, I felt tense, but the tension was mixed with something else.
I looked up again, and caught him sneaking another glance at me. Our gazes caught and held. Seconds ticked by. My stomach seized its chance, and heat started spreading out from it across my skin. I may have flushed. So he says.
“Archie,” he said, in the gruff tone he uses when he’s afraid he might be acting soft.
I was surprised that my voice was steady. “I’ll look away if you look away.”
His eyes narrowed a bit, and the flesh of his cheeks unfolded a good millimeter. For him that was a belly laugh; it should have broken the spell, but it didn’t.
He was getting to me, damn it. In a minute I was going to retreat for my own sake instead of his, which would be bad for my morale. I ignored what my body was doing, leaned back, and closed my eyes. It was so quiet I could hear the birds rustling in the bougainvillea, the cleaning crew in the front yard talking and laughing as they left for the week, even the lapping of the pool water against the blue tiles. I heard Wolfe turn a page. I would give five to one he couldn’t tell me what was printed on it.
He sighed, releasing a bushel of air. “Is it necessary for us to discuss it?”
“Well,” I said, not opening my eyes, “it’s likely that one of us would weasel, words would fly, and I’d either quit or get fired. You know the facts of life, even though you pretend not to. Just let me know if you have any requests.”
“Balderdash. You are not a dance band. Cease confabulating.”
I rolled onto my side, facing him, and opened my eyes. “Look. I’m not thrilled that I’m showing my hand, here. It’s embarrassing, and it implies that I have expectations when I don’t. I’m not trying to crowd you, whatever it looks like.”
Damned if he didn’t reach over and smooth my hair back from my forehead. “I know. You are too brilliant a hunter for that, especially in your amatory forays. It is a wise predator who knows not to crowd the prey.”
I grinned. “You always did think too much of my skills with the fairer sex.” I sat up and stared. “You’ve been jealous!”
He grunted. “I would have thought that was obvious.”
“Not to me, it wasn’t. How long has this been going on?”
“On your part?” He pursed his lips. “It would be presumptive of me to speculate. On my part? Since we first met.”
His bluntness knocked the wind out of me. It seems I’d gotten to him with that crack about weaseling, and he had taken the gloves off. I shook my head slowly, feeling as if I was trying to settle my brains back into place. Now who was shutting down who? Yes, I know I was the one who implied we shouldn’t discuss it, so I deserved what I’d gotten. But I still couldn’t let Wolfe get away with it. It would be too fattening for his ego, which was already approaching the size of Madison Square Garden.
“Right. I thought I was the only one looking for some action. What did I know? I was seventeen at the time, if you’ll remember.”
“I don’t believe you.” His voice was as flat as I’ve ever heard it.
I raised one eyebrow at him, amazed. “Nero Wolfe, the world’s greatest detective. And you missed it.”
“Don’t be provocative. There is no reason for me to believe you, given that your behavior has been unabatedly, almost relentlessly, heterosexual.”
“A couple of dapper, older gents could testify otherwise. I’ve never told you everything I did. You know that’s part of our deal, even if we’ve never spelled it out.” I shrugged. “But this is an emergency.”
He opened his mouth, and then closed it. His eyes shut and his lips pushed in, and then out, about three times. It was interesting to watch. In those few seconds he probably got through all the brooding that had taken me weeks.
“Are you serious in proposing that we—” he trailed off. All those words, and he couldn’t say it.
I didn’t have to think it over, I was past that point. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.” His face was a picture. I grinned. “It’s okay. If you don’t know what to do, I think I can figure it out.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t be absurd. Look at me. I am a monument to self-indulgence. I know, as you have so often stated, that you find me physically repellent.”
He meant it. I was incredulous. “Let me get this straight. I can’t get you to worry about busting a vein, but you’ll worry about my taste in beauty?” I got up and sat down next to him on the lounger. I could tell he wanted to scoot away from me, but there wasn’t room. “Hell, I know what it really is. You’re afraid of the sustained exertion.”
“Archie, it would be best if you refrained from flippancy.” On top of everything else, he hates it when I use big words A muscle in his jaw started to twitch.
“You might work up a sweat. I bet I could get your pulse pounding, and you’re worried that--”
“Shut up,” he breathed, and pulled me to him.
Not bad, for rusty, was my first thought. It was also, for a while, my last thought, since we took our time and made a decent job of it. I should have known, though. That mouth of his; there was more than one reason I had always watched it. After several minutes, I had to pull back a bit. I’d been getting greedy.
I propped myself up, looked at him, and realized that I finally had him lounging on the damn poolside furniture. Since he had me half on top of him, it’s a miracle that nothing had collapsed. His hair was disarranged, and his pajama top was unbuttoned. His breathing was deep and heavy. I smiled, and his eyes narrowed a bit before he smiled himself. He drew me back down and started paying attention to the nape of my neck.
As his mouth tasted me, his fingers stroked my bare back and chest with all the delicacy he usually reserves for pollinating the orchids. I’m not all that sensitive, but his touch was raising gooseflesh and making me shudder. Everything about him, the warmth, the scent, the feel of him, let me know that it was Wolfe and I wanted him. And the bulge my thigh was pressed against left me with no doubt that it was the same for him.
Reaching down, I touched him. “I haven’t done this for a while to anyone else, but it’s like riding a bicycle,” I said as I grasped his bulk through the silk and watched his eyes darken, “you never really forget.” Trust Wolfe to have a button fly on his lounging pajamas. I undid it and released him. He practically sprang into my hands. There was more of him than I expected, given how fat he was.
I was impressed. “Big man.”
He grunted, but I think it had more to do with the feel of my hand working on him than anything I was saying. He tasted good when I nuzzled into his neck and I liked his smell, clean with a hint of the spices he had been working with in the kitchen that morning. When I glanced at his face, his eyes were narrowed to slits as he watched me stroke him. His cock throbbed in my grip, and I grinned as I caressed the head of it with my thumb.
“All right?” I asked him. I knew it had been a while for him, and I wanted to be sure.
“Don’t be obtuse,” he told me, but the corners of his mouth were turned up. “As you must be aware,” he said, and his cheeks unfurled another millimeter, “very satisfactory, indeed.”
“And we’re just getting started.” I slid down and took him in my mouth. He let out a half-smothered bellow and grabbed the sides of the lounger. I thought I heard it creak, but was too busy to care. Half my mind was remembering to keep my lips over my teeth and breath through my nose, and the rest of me was enjoying how Wolfe was coming unraveled. It didn’t take him long to finish, which was good because I was out of practice. He thrust forwards, and spilled into my mouth. I swallowed. Better than I recalled; I seem to remember hearing something about beer drinkers tasting okay. I gave him a last kiss and looked up. It’s corny, I know, but when I saw his expression my heart seemed to leap up in my chest. He was looking at me like I was the breeder of heaven’s orchids, and had offered him his pick.
He tugged me up to him, and we kissed. When we were done, he looked at me again, with a searching expression. I don't know what he was worried about finding, but he must not have found it, because he hugged me and let out a sigh like a steam locomotive. I couldn’t help it. I hugged him back, fiercely. Then I thrust against him, once, just to remind him that I was still hungry.
Wolfe surprised the hell out of me. By the time he’d investigated me thoroughly, with pauses to interrogate my nipples and navel, I was moaning. When those big hands tugged down my trunks so that his mouth could take me in, my eyes just about rolled back in their sockets. I’ve noted in the past that Wolfe’s memory is phenomenal. He must have been recalling something that happened before I knew him, because I’ll never believe a novice could be that good. I think I was telling him so, since he paused for a moment to give me a look that I can only call sultry. What the hell; for once, he really deserved to have his ego stroked. I wanted to hold on for a while, to enjoy the feel of it, the sight of it, but Wolfe wasn’t having any. He pushed forwards hard to take me in deep. There was an ominous, snapping noise from the lounger. I threw my head back and whooped with sheer exuberance as I came.
When I had the attention to spare I saw he’d stood up and was scowling at the lounger. He was quite a sight, given the hairy triangle of bare skin exposed from shoulders to groin, but he still made my breath catch. I laughed. He glared. Our eyes met, and his expression softened. “Confound it, I always knew this contraption could not be depended upon. Get up before it does you an injury.”
I arose with proper leisure, ignoring the sound effects from the lounger. We had busted it, all right. My trunks were down around my ankles. I hauled them back into position, as Wolfe tried to restore himself to some semblance of decency. It might have fooled a stranger, but it didn’t work on me for a second. He had a look about him, an air of lush, rich contentment, as if he’d finally eaten the perfect meal. For once, I felt no urge to disturb him. Instead I strolled over to him, pushed his hands aside, and re-buttoned his pajama top correctly. While I did it, he grasped my shoulders, his hands gentle but loose. He wanted me to know I could get away if I wanted to. For a genius, he can be a damn fool sometimes.
I was committed. Funny, I would have thought I would feel regret, but instead I felt relaxed. Maybe it was so easy because Wolfe and I had finally found a way to express what was between us without using the three words we both most distrusted. In any case, I decided that I had better make it clear that I wanted a regular slot on his schedule, and that I was offering him one on mine.
“No raise for this, sir. I’ll just add it to my duties. After all, you already employ me to ride you. Same basic idea.” I leered at him, to prove that I knew how.
He gave me a look that could scorch. “Archie, you are well aware that I detest puns.”
“Yeah, I know. Annoyance is good for you. It gives your face exercise.”
“Bah. You are incorrigible.” He laced his arm through mine, the way I’ve seen the men down around Mulberry Street do it. We walked back toward the house.
“Speaking of which, I’ll still see women.”
“As is to be expected.” He sounded supercilious, a word he taught me as much by example as explanation.
“Maybe it’ll be better, now. Maybe I won’t be so--urgent.” I wasn’t sure where that had come from.
Wolfe glanced at me. “Perhaps, but don’t fast for my sake.”
“This, from the man who took over a decade to decide what he really wants for dinner?”
“Dinner?” He narrowed his eyes to slits and considered. “Shrimp Bordelaise. After we have finished, do you think that there will still be enough time remaining before five o’clock for you to drive to the harbor and obtain three pounds of fresh shrimp?”
There was only one thing to say to that, so I said it. “Nuts. Let’s go inside and see what else you can develop a taste for.”
That’s one set of recipes that will never be published.
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