Coelogyne and Parhelion
It was 1936. Don't ask me what we were doing in Egypt because I wasn't entirely sure myself. Something had blown up for Wolfe, and he'd hightailed it to the modest estate he owned in Alexandria. I never knew he had it in him, but sometimes he has the power to completely astonish me.
"Pack your bags, Archie," he said as he stormed into the office one morning. His face was red and he was breathing through his mouth. "You've never been to Alexandria, I'd imagine, but you'll need summer wear. The weather is quite hot. Best bring your sidearm and the necessary papers." My mouth must have hung open half a mile or more, because he stopped and frowned at me. “It will be easier if you do this right away. We must get to the airport before two."
It took a few more seconds for my brain to switch back on. Before he'd stormed in, I had been going through my little black book, trying to find some entertainment for the evening. Now I found myself in a position quite unfamiliar to me. "Have you considered the preposterousness of this notion?" I was trying to get a word in edgewise, but he motored on through my complaints.
"Sunshades may be a necessary accessory." He was at the safe, removing packs of bills from the float. "I know you have a great deal of clothes, but I assure you that most of them are not suited or the climate. Travel light. What you require after our arrival we can easily obtain."
The rest of the morning passed in a whirl, and by the time I gathered my fractured wits, we were Already in an airplane and halfway to Alexandria. Though this had been his idea, Wolfe hated airplanes and had his eyes closed tightly against the idea that we were in a metal contraption defying the laws of gravity which every other thing obeyed. I tried not to think about it until we were on the ground, when I finally gave in to provocation.
"Why are we here?"
He refused to open his eyes.
"Not that I object, mind you. I just saw a sloe-eyed girl who may be the woman of my dreams. At least, from what I could see over the veil--"
"Archie, shut up." His voice was tight, and his grip was clamped onto the front seat of the taxi. "How do you expect me to expound upon anything while being transported in this mobile death trap?"
For once, I had to admit, he had a point. So far, in our trip from the airport through the streets of Alexandria we had barely missed making the acquaintance of a British Brigadier General's staff car, a camel, and a street stall loaded with copper pots. The driver kept twisting around in his seat to give Wolfe admiring looks.
"Hey, watch the road!"
"Ah, Effendi! I know very good hotel, also interesting restaurant with good show!"
"No," Wolfe said.
"We have to eat," I pointed out, straining for reason in the face of provocation.
"I would prefer to keep both my digestion and my temperance. We would lose one or the other, depending upon this rascal's estimation of us."
The driver did not look insulted. He made a sharp turn into an alley about three inches wider than the taxi, and said, "Maybe you want Turkish bath, instead? Very nice attendants..."
Egypt was not turning out to be like I had expected from the postcards my Aunt Dahlia sent back when I was a kid. "What about the pyramids?"
That, as I hoped, caused Wolfe's eyes to fly open wide. "Archie. You are attempting to flummox me, or to annoy me. In either case, you have succeeded. You are well aware that the ancient archaeological sites are several days travel up the Nile by water from Alexandria."
I held on to reason. It was a strain. We seemed to be approaching a fruit market. "From what you've told me, we may well be going to Luxor. Hell, we may be going to the Mountains of the Moon, for all I know."
"Nonsense. You have seen the address on the envelopes I mail to Egypt. We are going to visit the household of Sir Robert Sinclair, and will then proceed on to my own house."
The driver chipped in, "This good market. Nice apricots, dates. You want?" We came to an abrupt stop. He managed to roll the window half way down before it stuck, and then entered into negotiations with the nearest vendor in a lingo I didn't recognize.
Wolfe sat still for about half a minute, and then bellowed. An awed hush fell within earshot. He continued on in the local speech, and then clapped his hands peremptorily. Looking slightly subdued, the driver started the car.
"I am not a tourist!"
"No, sir," I said. I made it grave.
"We shall proceed to Sir Robert's house, without delay. There I shall retrieve the keys to my own residence, where we will be able to get in out of this detestable dust and noise."
"And flies. Don't forget the flies," I added, only wanting to help. He glared at me, and then refused to speak for the rest of the trip.
He left me in the taxi when he went in to see Sir Robert, which was sheer provocation on his part. I leaned over the front seat to have a little discussion with our driver, about his recommendations for diversions for the young and enterprising American tourist.
"What does a fellow do around here for fun?" I asked the driver. Maybe I just wanted to hear myself talk, in order to help with the illusion that this mad romp that Wolfe had enlisted me for was all routine.
"The streets are maybe not so fun." The driver turned and rested his arm across the back of his seat. "There are some fellows who are not so nice, excuse me for saying, who might follow a pretty boy to somewhere dark. Especially if you are alone." He gave a conspiratorial wink. "However, if you wish not to be alone, I would recommend The Garden of Delights. It is a bathhouse not far from here. A good place to meet people."
I raised an eyebrow at this, and felt prudish. Half an hour in the city and already there were propositions. I should have brought another notebook to fill.
"Garden of Delights? Who gave it that name?"
"It is better in the local tongue, of course," the driver grinned. "I am sure your Mister Wolfe will be able to explain the local customs." He swiveled back around as Wolfe jerked the side door open.
"My Mister Wolfe would be happy to explain." I grinned at him with my winning smile as he scowled at the ring of keys he'd procured from Sir Robert.
"What are you on about, Archie?" The keys went into the pocket of his linen slacks.
"Is it true the nightlife here leaves something to be desired?" He snorted through his nose and tapped the back of the seat. The car started moving again, and our conversation was over before it had even begun.
Wolfe's house wasn't as big as a pyramid, but it was getting pretty close. Whatever had caused him to refer to this residence as a "house" was probably in the same vein of madness that had dragged us off to Alexandria to begin with. The villa was whitewashed outside, with a high wall to ward off those strange folks the driver had warned me about. Once we got inside, I was immediately taken with the cool expanse of stone tiles. I had not brought appropriate footwear, and I was sweltering.
I walked around the place in my bare feet, trying to guess the layout. There was an internal courtyard with a modestly-sized swimming pool and a dry fountain. Several bedrooms had windows which faced into the courtyard. The kitchen was at the back of the house, and, true to Wolfe's fashion, was fully stocked and outfitted in the latest appliances. I saw no sign of a Fritz, but I was sure that there would be one here before long. I raided the refrigerator and took a pint of milk out to the poolside. The sun beat down with a ferocity unmatched by the cooler climate of the Americas. I rolled up my pant legs and dangled my feet in the pool, trying to settle my thoughts.
I was halfway through the milk and wet up to my shins when Wolfe re-appeared. He was wearing a few acres of a white caftan and his tan linen pants showed at the bottom of it. His house slippers were dark leather sandals. He looked as comfortable as he would have at home in the brownstone. All he needed was a bottle of beer in one hand.
"In this sun you will burn badly, Archie," he said, motioning at the pair of lounge chairs off to one side, in the shade of the overhung roof. "It is best to relax until the afternoon when the sun is not quite as strong."
"Damn it," I snapped, "You didn't drag me all the way out here to give me advice about exposure. I'm surprised you're still mostly dressed, in this weather." I pulled my feet out of the pool and reclaimed the milk glass. Wolfe grunted and made for the settee.
It was a remarkable feat of engineering that the thing actually supported his weight. It must have been custom-built like the chair in his office. He closed his eyes. After a few seconds, I took the chair next to him.
"Alexandria is a unique city," he said without opening his eyes. "You would do well to learn as much as you can about it."
"I already had some hints from that maniac of a cab driver." I was prodding Wolfe, and it was even more infuriating because he was not allowing himself to be prodded. "The locals are somewhat depraved, and it's not safe for pretty boys like me to talk the streets alone."
That got him. His eyes opened.
"You are conceited," he snapped. "I have seen prettier locals, and you are every bit as depraved as they are."
Wolfe has a habit I've always objected to. In fact, he has a lot of habits I've always objected to, but this may be my least favorite. Whenever he decides that I'm too annoying to be tolerated, he deals me out.
After flying several thousand miles, it's damn annoying to have nothing more to do than nurse a sunburn and refuse to buy fake scarabs. I held out for two days before I cracked, and told a taxi-driver to take me to The Garden of Delights. He didn't say anything, but I noticed he eyed me in the wired-on rear view mirror for most of the trip. That may explain the brush with the mule cart.
I'm not sure what I expected. The Garden didn't look like much from the outside. I should have taken my clue from the Garden back in Manhattan, and known enough not to judge a building by its facade. Instead, I shrugged, and went inside. If nothing else, mentioning my expedition would annoy Wolfe.
The interior was white-washed, cool and detailed with ceramic tile work. The attendants gave me sideways glances of interest, but said nothing. The clerk at the carved teak-wood desk stood, came up to me, and said softly, "How may we be of assistance to the foreign gentleman?"
"This is a Turkish bath?" I felt like an idiot. Wolfe has taken a lot of trouble to train me out of obvious questions like that. However, it turned out not to be so obvious as I thought.
"Yes, that is one of the services we provide, Effendi." He smiled, gently, as if at a slightly retarded child. "Do you wish a bath?"
"Yes. And a, um, shave." His smile widened, slightly. I grabbed the first idea that came into my mind. "Maybe a massage, too?"
"Of course." After naming a figure, he bowed and clapped his hands together. Two young men came and led me away down a blue-tiled corridor. I had been so busy trying to convert the local currency in my head, that I was stripped and wrapped in a towel before I realized that I might have made a mistake.
At first, it seemed that I hadn't erred. Nothing unusual happened. The steam room was hot. I sweated. I kept expecting the door to open and admit I didn't know what, but I was alone in the bath. The kid who came in to sluice me down talked to me cheerfully, paying no attention to the fact that I was both naked and unable to understand a word he was saying. He did mime that I should wrap a towel around my hips before accompanying him into the warm room for my massage.
The masseuse was a competent looking man, a few years younger than myself. He had a friendly looking face, dominated by a large nose and an intelligent looking pair of brown eyes. He reminded me a little of Saul. He gestured for me to lay down on the table, face down, and began to work on my shoulders.
He was good. I felt the tension of the last three days flowing out of me as his callused hands kneaded their way down my spine and along my legs. I tried to figure out what Wolfe was up to, but thought kept slipping away from me and warmth kept taking its place. My story is that I was half-asleep by the time he indicated that I should roll over, and I'm sticking to it.
I vaguely noticed his hands slowing as they moved across my chest, still kneading. By the time they were on my stomach, the motion couldn't be called kneading anymore. When he reached down and gripped me, it could only be called a caress.
Maybe I should have knocked his hands away, but it had been a week, and I didn't need Wolfe's briefing to know to stay away from the local women. And, his hands were talented. Soon, his mouth proved to be even more talented. I let him go on. Eventually, I helped out. It rocked me when I came, in a way that wasn't just physical.
Looking back, I give myself some credit. I tipped, and I got all my clothes back on before I made it out the front door. Grabbing the first taxi I saw, I told the driver to head back to Wolfe's little kingdom and, for the first time since I'd been in Egypt, ignored how he went about carrying out my wishes. I was too busy thinking one thought, over and over.
This was all Wolfe's fault.
Wolfe was enthroned on his settee when I returned, a book propped up on his belly. I didn't go into the courtyard, but repaired to my room and watched him loaf. If he was here for any business, I sure wasn't seeing any of it.
He'd had three callers in the first week. One was a fruit salesman who was intent on securing the rights to supply Wolfe's household--there was now a local Fritz, who took the smallest bedroom and cooked as well as was to be expected--with figs and dates . His hand was sticky when we shook, though I didn't decline a sample of his wares. The second caller brought books, which were all in a cursive script I could make neither head nor tail of. Wolfe bought ten of them. They were in a pile next to his lounge. The third caller was a man that Wolfe did not introduce me to. In fact, he shooed me from the room almost immediately, and they conversed in tongues thereafter. Listening at keyholes isn't as rewarding as it sounds when you're in a foreign country.
So, I admit I was more than a little irritated at Wolfe's complacency, and I finally snapped at him over dinner that night. He was carrying on about The Book of the Dead, and the history of the Pharaohs, and I didn't give a damn.
"Please tell me you've got something else on your mind other than putting me in a coma," I said, between mouthfuls. "If we were working on a murder, I could stand all this grisly talk and I might think you were getting somewhere, but so far all I've got is a sunburn on the back of my neck and a new pair of sandals."
Wolfe speared his food with a fork and took a large bite. I could see he wasn't going to humor me much longer. He chewed leisurely and swallowed the mouthful with a long draught of water. When he spoke, it sounded pre-rehearsed. The goddamned genius was fuming.
"Archie, I don't presume to tell you how to live your life," he started. I opened my mouth to answer that yes, he did, but he shushed me before I said a word. "As much as I admire the concise pragmatism of your philosophy that love is a hunt, it suggests a type of predation that I cannot join you in. My nature, as I have so often told you, is romantic at its root. This does not encompass your experimental paramours and philandering. If you are to embark on any such pursuits while under this roof, though, I should warn you that there are some things that, even here, are frowned upon."
His sheer impudence made my blood boil. "There are more things in heaven and earth," I snapped, and tossed my fork onto the table. It bounced. "Just because you think you own me doesn't mean you have any right to lecture me. If you trusted me, if you gave me any sort of respect, then maybe I wouldn't be out sporting! You ever think of that when you lie in bed at night?"
He surprised me by drawing himself to his feet and staring me down from his end of the table.
"Archie, get out of my sight." I had never heard his voice so cold before.
When Wolfe yells, he really means it, and when he's quiet he is usually even angrier. This was as close to murder as he had ever gotten.
"I will go where I want, when I want, and right now I'm leaving. I quit. I don't know why you brought me here, unless it was to moralize, and I'm sick of it. Goddamn you." It felt petulant but I meant it. I turned on my heel and marched out of the dining room.
For a while, I wandered the streets. They were full of people, but I'd never felt so alone in my life. I ignored the veiled women, the merchants trying to sell me souvenirs, even the kids running along side of me yelling for cigarettes. Every now and then training would cause me to check my watch and wallet, but I wasn’t really thinking. I wasn’t even paying attention, except when the cluster of young thugs in white robes started towards me in a side street, thinking I was a lost tourist and legitimate prey. Turning towards them, I could feel my face stretching into a grin, and I was full of a fierce gladness. I was ready for a fight, and didn’t really care if it ended with my losing. It must have shown, because they slowed midway, milled about jabbering, and then backed off when a cop came around a corner, swinging a long, hardwood club by its thong. The policeman gave me a hard look, but when I tipped my hat, he let me go to resume my wanderings.
My feet must have know where I was going, even if I didn’t. I came out of my daze to see the Garden of Delights in front of me. As I looked at the unappealing façade, I scrubbed the palms of my hands on my trousers once, and then again, before noticing two women on a neighboring roof peering down at me over the parapet and giggling with each other. I went inside.
The same soft-voiced clerk was at the same desk in the lobby. It must only have been experience that made him look different to me, somehow both weary and louche. I noticed that his table was inlayed on top with an inlaid fruit-bearing tree in shell and tropical woods. Something, some time had scored deeply across the table top, cracking the pink shell that formed the peaches on the most heavily laden branch. The clerk followed my gaze, and shifted his accounts book over the inlay. "How may we be of assistance to you, Effendi?"
I had to clear my throat to get the words out, and they sounded harsh.
"Company. I’d like a steam bath, and some company."
The clerk nodded, collected his fee—it seemed higher—and summoned two young men, different ones than before, to take me off to the steam bath. This time, it was already occupied.
He was, to my surprise, blond and in his early twenties. By his haircut and pale skin, he was a Northern European. He looked tough, and sported some sort of a tattoo on his shoulder that I couldn’t quite make out through the steam. Perhaps he had been a sailor. He didn’t open his eyes when I came in, but his lips twisted. Not really my sort, if I had a sort when it came to men. He reminded me of some of the cops down around Hell’s Kitchen.
When I sank down on the bench, I realized all I really wanted was a steam bath and a soak, followed by a few drinks and bed. The guy I’d paid for was good looking, with all the muscles in the right places, but I wasn’t all that interested. If I was honest with myself, I was mainly here to try and score a point on Wolfe, which was stupid, a lot like the fight we’d just had. Most times, when Wolfe and I fight, he deserves everything I say. This time, though, I had a sinking feeling I had gone over the top and, by doing so, blown the argument. I hate to lose my temper, and I hate to lose fights with Wolfe. So, what had I been thinking? Wolfe was always trying to meddle in my private life, but usually I just laughed in his face. What the hell had I said that crap about trust and respect for? What did I mean? Maybe Egypt was getting to me, or maybe it was boredom, or maybe it was what happened here.
I’d gotten that far when the guy opened his eyes. They were pale blue, and as I watched, narrowed in surprise. He gave me an up-and-down survey, the kind I’ve been treating women to for years, and followed it up with an impressed grimace. He undid his towel with graceful deliberation and tossed it onto the bench beside him. I bet he’d never felt shy in the high school locker room. Mother Nature did well by him.
Once or twice a girl has decided she’s ready on an evening when I’d rather have gone home and read a magazine, or argued with Wolfe about railroad trains or men’s shoes. I’ve never had any problem coping. I didn’t have a problem now, although I made a mental note to never again go anywhere I couldn’t ask for my money back because I wasn’t sure my companion would speak English. He sat there, working himself and running his other hand up and down his muscled hairless chest, growing more and more impressive. I sighed, and undid my towel. His eyes, narrowed with interest and slid down to my crotch, and then suddenly he sat bolt upright, and barked, "Jude?"
"What?" I had a horrible feeling that I knew what he’d just asked me.
"Ich hab’ dich eine Frage gestellt. Bist du ein Jude?" His face was twisted with contempt and revulsion.
I stared at him a moment, and then said, slowly, with full deliberation, "Why, you low-down cock-sucking kraut son of a bitch. Hitler’s mother has a mustache." He wasn’t what I really wanted, but he was about to give me what I really needed.
He didn’t know much English, but I guess my meaning got across. He lunged across the space between us, and it sure wasn’t to give me a kiss.
Here’s a piece of advice. Don’t fight all-out naked, in a room lined with stone and tile. I won, but it was on points. When I staggered out, I was wiping the blood out of my one good eye so I could see where I was going. I meant to get out of here if I had to crawl. Two of the attendants got a good look at me and fled, yelling. In their tongue it went through my head like a jack-hammer. I stopped to staunch the bleeding on my forearm with one of my towels—the Nazi bastard bit---and had to pause to wait for the room to stop whirling. I vaguely noticed an increasing fuss building around me. I staggered on.
As I approached the lobby, my fuss seemed to be intercepting someone else’s fuss. Rounding a corner, I came face to face with my rival commotion. It was Wolfe, bellowing, and being trailed by the desk clerk and half the remaining attendants. Their remonstrations were in vain; he was determined to go somewhere. He caught sight of me, pulled himself up, and opened his mouth to roar. I clapped my hands over my ears—it hurt—and lost one of my towels. He gritted his teeth, and then said in a tone only twice as acidic as normal, "Archie, what have you been doing?"
I grinned. "Fighting. But you should see the other guy." My last towel slipped, and I tried to grab for it, which was another mistake. The room spun about me, and everything went grey.
As I headed for the floor, something caught me, and Wolfe opened up operations as a fog-horn again, about two inches from my right ear. My last thought, before the darkness swallowed me up, was that I wished he would turn down the volume.
To hell with Alexandria. To hell with the new leather sandals, the marble floors, Wolfe's enormous caftan and all of the attendants at the baths. I didn't even know where I was until I opened my eyes again, and by that time a few things had happened. Someone had moved me into the warm room, and I was laying flat on my back on one of the tables. Wolfe was mopping at my face with a wet towel.
"I hope you've finished proving yourself," he muttered. The towel was stained orange with my blood. He re-folded it and laid it across my head.
"I could go another ten rounds. Take off your towel." This struck me as extraordinarily funny, and I giggled. Wolfe pursed his lips.
"Obviously the floors here are harder than your skull."
"Some of the patrons, too." I sat up. The room didn't spin as much as I thought it would, but there was a lump over my eye and I knew I had the beginnings of a great shiner. I was still shaken, though, and having Wolfe sit beside me wearing next to nothing was beginning to take its toll on my remaining sanity.
"Say, you haven't seen my clothes anywhere, have you?" I think the proper term would be 'punch-drunk,' and, boy, was I losing it. All I was wearing was a small towel. It wasn't even wrapped around me. Someone had graciously placed it over my hips like they'd set a place mat on a dining room table. I knew who that would have been. "You've got enough towel for the both of us, so gimme."
Wolfe snorted, but he also blushed. I didn't think he had it in him. I made a grab for the edge of his towel and he slapped my hand away.
Wolfe's strong, and uses it when he thinks he needs it. He put one flipper in the center of my chest and pushed me back down flat on the table. "Archie, would you cease attempting to worsen your condition? You may have a concussion."
"Probably not. I would have vomited all over you by now, if that were the case." I blinked. "You're blushing."
"Bah. You are not only a jackanapes, but a picaroon. Do you have any idea of how much cash it cost to recompense this establishment for your unique method of recovering your putative manhood?"
Dressed only in the towel, he was large, and very hairy. A very hairy big bare man. A big bear very hairy barely...I blinked again and tried to focus. "Maybe I am having a concussion."
"At that, you are probably in better shape than your opponent. He is unconscious, and liable to remain so for several more hours."
I made a rude noise with my lips. "He was a Nazi anti-Semite creep."
Wolfe grunted. "Yes, I recognized his tattoo. It seems the man belongs to the new Luftwaffe expeditionary force in Spain, appropriately named the Condor Legion after nature's largest flying carrion-eaters. He must either be on leave or on special assignment." He shook his head. "While I understand your temptation, and even sympathize with you, it was no place to fight your battle."
I grinned. It hurt, but it was only meant to distract. I slid a hand covertly towards Wolfe again. "Not my fault. They misunderstood me. I wanted an employee and got that clown, instead. Let's take him home, throw him in the swimming pool, and see if all the muscles make him sink."
He ignored my suggestion. "I have had him dispatched to a local hospital. Given the reputation of the Garden of Delights, I doubt he will report his encounter with you to the authorities. You must be careful, however, not to cross his path in the future, or that of his comrades."
I snorted. "I'm not trapped into a feud with him and his buddies, he's trapped in to a feud with me and my buddies. What do you say, boss, best two out of three?"
As I had hoped, his eyes squeezed almost shut in his irritation, and he started to growl, "Don't call me bo--" when I got the towel away from him. It made the room spin again, but it was worth it.
I took a good look while he wasted several seconds glaring at me, and said, "I told you so! We win, two to one."
I'll give him this: he has a good sense of his own dignity. He didn't bother to try covering up. He merely said, his voice calm, "Archie, what is the matter with you?" Then his eyes widened slightly, seemingly surprised that such a direct question had made it out from between his lips.
I was tired, and a little nauseous. I lay back, cuddling his towel, and told it, "Same problem as in New York. Too many lies. I want to go home."
He felt my forehead carefully, and looked into my eyes. "Indeed. We should return to the house."
Now that he was doing at least one thing I wanted, I felt generous. "It's not all your fault."
"No?" He raised his eyebrows a tenth of an inch. "You are uncommonly charitable." His hand was gentle as it combed through my hair, separating the strands matted with blood. "Perhaps you are too charitable."
"Nah. Let's go home." I closed my eyes, which made me feel better, and added, "You can peek if you want to."
"Archie, shut up." I felt his lips brush my cheek, and smirked. It's the last fragment I remember clearly before going under again, and he would soon enough wish my memory had been as badly off as my head.
No, I do remember one more event. I refused to let go of his towel.
Wolfe was concerned about me for the total time it took to throw clothes on me and drag me to the taxi. After the car started, he was more preoccupied in keeping his eyes shut so he didn't have to witness all our near-death experiences in the crowded streets. I admit I didn't want to look, either, and the jolting around wasn't doing too much for my abused brain. I closed my eyes and slumped back. It might almost have been a tender scene if we hadn't hit a rut just then. It made me slide off the seat and I was almost wedged good and tight between the seats, but Wolfe spared one eye and a strong arm, and managed to rescue me. He didn't mention the incident when we returned to his palace. Instead, he relied on his typical cure-all for any situation. "Have you eaten?"
"Not unless you count about a half pint of blood I think I swallowed when that Nazi creep slugged me." I felt my forehead gingerly. It was good he was offering me food. Maybe he'd calmed down and decided not to try to make me do any other stupid tricks. Getting myself killed in a foreign country would be quite inconvenient for him.
He led me to the kitchen and started making an omelette. What he needed with a stove was beyond me. I'd have bet five dollars that an egg would cook to perfection on the tile in the courtyard at high noon with just a teaspoon of butter. He didn't speak to me while he was cooking. I didn't speak to him. I just sulked and held a cold cloth to my face. The lump was getting puffier. Pretty soon my eye would be completely shut.
Sometimes things happen over meals with Wolfe. Sometimes he spots the murderer or blackmailer and sometimes he expounds on his latest theory regarding oyster cultivation. Sometimes something much more remarkable happens. He put the omelette in front of me and said "Eat. You'll feel better." Then he pulled up a chair for himself and sat down to watch me. I ate. And damn him, he was right. It did make me feel better.
"You realize, of course, that I did not intend to badger you earlier," he said, softly. If I'd been sharper, I'd have said he said it gently. It was uncharacteristic. "But my... concern... for your well-being is paramount to my other worries. That we should both live such completely different lives and still co-habitate is a miracle I do not understand. Perhaps I am not meant to understand." He cleared his throat and watched me eat the omelette. I was still too sore to be mouthy, so I let him talk. "Perhaps you think I am an old fool for my convictions in regards to your relationships. You may rebuke me if you see fit, Archie, but surely you must understand this most basic sentiment."
"Did you say 'sentiment'?" The last of the omelette was gone and I pushed the plate back. Wolfe was silent. "You came to rescue me in nothing but a towel, which, might I add, was most impressive, because you were worried I might do something silly and still the only 'sentiment' you seem to have for me is anxiety that I might be hungry! And the real sentiment is dancing circles around both of us, and you haven't even seen it yet."
"Preposterous," he huffed. I pointed a finger at him, which I knew he hated, but it was dramatic and I did it anyway.
"You're worried you're going to lose me to another man, because you haven't even decided what to do with me yet, but you aren’t going to say that!" This was all sounding so easy. I thought I was making it up to taunt him, but as the words came out it all sounded true. "So you drag me off to your luxurious retreat to seduce me. Then it backfires because you haven't got the guts to say what you want to say, and you take it out on me because you want to take me like you're sure other men do, and you don't have any theories to explain that." He took a breath to fuel his words with, but I cut him off. "If you're going to say it, say it, but if you're not, then don't, and we can both act like adults again, and--"
I don't know what I was going to say then, because he pulled me twelve inches closer across the table and growled "Shut up," before he blocked the rest of my words with his mouth.
It says something about how Wolfe kisses that I ignored the edge of the table cutting into the bruise on my hip, ignored the way my swollen lip was being further abused, and ignored the remnants of the omelette plastering itself onto my trousers. All I paid attention to was that mouth and that tongue, plundering me with graceful urgency. It was as fierce as the fight had been, but in a far different way. All my aches and pains receded, and the bulk and heat of his body filled my universe. He was about as easy to ignore as the sun outside, and as scorching.
He pulled back suddenly and sank into his chair, his big chest heaving, and I could tell by his eyes he didn't know if he was going to bolt or grab me again. I'd already had one interrupted encounter today, and I wasn't putting myself through that again, especially with Wolfe. I reached across the table and wrapped a fist into the collar-line of his big, white caftan. It was easy to get a secure grip. That's what he gets for wearing a nomad's tent.
He put one hand around my wrist, stroked the back of my fist with his thumb, and watched without moving as I edged around the table towards him without ever turning him loose. His eyes were huge and dark. I know I was smiling. He tilted his head slightly, took a deep breath, and said, with a warning note in his voice, "Archie you are injured. This is not--"
"Shut up, sir." My smile widened into a grin, even though it made my lip hurt. I'd always wanted a chance to say that to him. I stepped in close, leaned down, and, this time, I kissed him.
Often, when I'm with a girl, a fraction of my mind spends those first kisses wondering what's going to happen next, and how I'm going to make it happen. Not so with Wolfe. My entire attention was devoted to his mouth, and those tiny wrinkles at its corners, and the small brown mole just above his right jawbone, halfway between the chin and the ear. It all seemed urgently interesting, and every time his breath caught something hot kept score in my gut.
When I backed off a little to catch my breath, he growled and surged up onto his feet. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close, then damned if he didn't try again. "Injudicious doesn’t--" He ran down, and no wonder. As long as he was going to support me, I had decided to take advantage. I moved one of my legs in tight between his own. The big faker. He was hard as a rock.
"Yes, sir," I said brightly, and stropped my leg against him. Don't ever fight by the rules when the outcome isn't certain, I've always said.
He snorted and nuzzled my ear. There's a spot just below and back from the lobe--in any case, he pulled me tight against his own leg and after that I sort of lost track for a while.
I know I got that caftan off of him. Without it Wolfe was an even more impressive sight than he'd been in the warm room. He had to get my shirt, trousers, and shorts off of me by himself: I was too stiff and bruised to do it without derailing matters. He paused when he had me stripped, and took a good look. So did I. I could tell by the red splotches slowly darkening across my body that I wouldn't be going anywhere tomorrow. His face was a picture, torn between desire and concern. While I appreciated the fact he was paying proper attention, there was no way in hell he was getting out of this one. I grabbed his hand and put it where it was really needed. He pursed his lips admonishingly, but his hand was already exploring me.
"That's it," I told him, just wanting to be helpful.
"Archie," he growled. I liked the low, thick note in his voice. It let me know I had his full and urgent, if exasperated, attention. He wrapped his free hand around my cock and began to pump, as his other hand cupped and delicately stroked my balls.
A few minutes of that treatment and I was, to my mild surprise, not only ready but eager to give it up. But he wouldn't let me, and it's hell trying to argue with someone that you are exchanging much desired hand-jobs with. So, I got to find out how they did it in the old days, back in Greece, instead.
I leant over that kitchen table with him wrapped around me, his hips thrusting against me and his hands on me, and felt like the prince of the world. My own hips were working with him and I could feel the heat radiating out from my skin. Everything seemed to focus down to Wolfe's diamond bright touch, and the swollen heat of my cock. I felt his own cock twitch between my thighs, then twitch again as he neared his peak, and I deliberately tightened on him. He bellowed.
It amazes me, the words we said then, as we staggered around on the edge. It's funny how in a crisis you'll proclaim feelings that you don't normally believe in. Still, we both said it, and we both knew we meant it at the time. It would be something to consider later, long after his hand had finished caressing my chest as he cradled me against him, as we both leaned wearily against the table, long after my fierce grin of satisfaction at the evidence of his surrender between my thighs had faded.
Wolfe kissed me, once, lingeringly, and said, "Is there any course of action you will not undertake, to win a debate?"
I considered for a moment, and then snorted. "Nope. And that's sweet, coming from you, the man who dragged me all the way to Egypt to prove a point about my love life." I tried stretching, but it hurt too much. "Well, at least your timing is good. I'll probably need help getting into the shower tomorrow morning, and I'd hate to embarrass you."
"Words finally fail me, Archie." And they did, too, but his hands did not.
Wolfe had his own bedroom in the villa, and I had mine, and that presented difficulties when it came time to turn in. The kitchen table, however sturdy, was no place to spend the night. I hemmed and hawed about it because Wolfe had done the big favor of undressing me, and if I was to put on fresh shorts, I needed to know if there was a chance they'd end up on the floor again before morning. After Wolfe's demonstration in the kitchen, I'd thrown on a housecoat so he wouldn't feel left out when he put the tent on again. I could see why he wore it in this climate. It was much breezier.
Most of the house was dark now, but there was still light under Wolfe's door. I padded over on bare feet and tapped with a knuckle.
"What is it, Archie?" He sounded gruff but I poked my head in anyway.
"Well, about what I said before." He was lying in bed with an expanse of white sheeting draped over him. "If I get out of bed tomorrow it'll be by some divine miracle. I'm surprised I'm still walking, after that Greek lesson, actually." This caused a corner of his mouth to twitch into a tiny smile. "So I was wondering. Are you planning at any point tomorrow to have me buck naked again for any purpose? I'm asking because it might be a disadvantage for me to put on my pajamas just so you can take them off again."
He snorted, which was as good as a chuckle in my books. "It would be more comfortable to sleep in the flesh, as it were," he said, simply.
I limped over to the bed and surveyed the expanse of cotton.
"Is this Egyptian cotton, sir?" I asked with a grin.
"Get in, Archie," he sighed, "or you'll be whining at the door all night."
I eased my aching body onto the remaining quarter of the bed that Wolfe wasn't occupying. There was plenty of room for both of us. He switched off the light. I admit that at that point, I wondered whether he was wearing pajamas or not, but after about five seconds my tired brain switched off and I slept.
I didn't find out that night, or the next morning either, because when I woke up, three-quarters of the bed was empty and water was running in the bathroom suite. I would have got up and investigated, but I hurt like hell. My eye was completely swollen shut and the cut on my lip and the bite on my arm had both scabbed over. The rest of me was bruised and tender, and the parts of me that weren't bruised, Wolfe had done a good job of tenderizing the night before. I lay there for a few minutes, looking at the ceiling and thinking how I should ask Wolfe for a raise, now that my job description had changed.
After considering the matter for a while, while checking for cracks in the ceiling, I decided raises weren't the real difficulty. My pay was determined by what I did while I was working, and the sort of activities we tried out last night together weren't anything I'd call work, even when done during working hours. It was closer to taking a coffee break, although perhaps taking a milk break would be a more appropriate term, in my case.
No, the real problem would be at Christmas and birthdays. I could expect something impressive in the way of presents this year, which was fine, but I would have to come up with something special in return, and that was hard enough before last night's events. You try buying for a rich, self-indulgent genius, and see how well you do.
I was glumly wondering if Fritz would agree to be gilded when nature called. I managed to make it out of Wolfe's bed and head towards the bathroom, but it was grim. Only the fact that I had the strength of ten because I was no longer pure kept me staggering across the hand- knotted Ferghahan, rather than measuring it out with my prone body.
In the bathroom, I made it to the john all right, but Wolfe must have heard me over the water. He yanked open the curtain that divided off the shower alcove from the rest of the room, and scowled at me like an enraged bull walrus. Three long strides and he caught me, just in time, because he had distracted me from the difficult task of standing upright and I was sagging.
"I won't ask if you have any sense, because the answer to that question was obvious years ago," he said, grimly.
I didn't dignify that with a reply, but went right to my main concern. "Hot water." I remember it as being grave rather than plaintive, but I may give myself too much credit.
"Indeed." We staggered back into the shower together. I let out a yelp as the water hit my cuts and bruises--he likes it hot--but managed to stay under the spray long enough for it to start feeling good. I tried to scrub down, but I even needed help there.
"Stay still," Wolfe said, and took over washing me. For the most part it felt good. His hands were gentle, and he knew how to deal with the sore spots. He'd had an adventurous youth himself, and had probably learned what to do the hard way.
I have no idea where, in his adventurous youth, he learned how to do what he did next. I was amazed to see, as he soaped around my groin, that I was showing signs of interest. It impressed me with myself. Wolfe noticed too, of course, and his grunt was one of the amused ones. His hand was very gentle as he worked me, and I stared dreamily up at the steam, letting myself drift off into the blended sensations of hot water, sex, and Wolfe. It caught me completely by surprise when he knelt down--I only noticed because of the rude-sounding word he said in Serbo-Croat when he cracked one knee against the tiles--and I stared down at him in bemusement, not really able to believe that he was going to--
He took me in his mouth. I was shuddering within a minute, and half-sobbing in two. That was fatigue: he had to support me with both his hands on my loins to keep me upright until he was finished. Not that I would have let him stop. His mouth was wetter and warmer than the water, and he consumed me with a relish I'd always though he reserved for haute cuisine alone. It's inspiring to know you rank that high, never mind the raw need that it fires. My language when I came was colorful, and I yanked his hair hard, but he didn't seem to mind. I think he was chuckling around me. Whatever it was, it felt good, too.
I sagged. He rubbed me down with a towel, and with the small amount of cooperation I was able to provide, got me back into his bed. I went out like a K.O.ed boxer, and when I woke up again, I could tell by the light it was late in the evening. Knowing Wolfe, that was his plan from the beginning. I suppose it was better than a day spent wide awake and hurting. I managed to turn my head, and he was sitting in the armchair next to the bed, reading a book called *Mr. Tomkins in Wonderland*. There was a tray on the table beside him, holding plates of food and two glasses, one half-full of beer. You'd think, from the look of him, that he'd never so much as had his vest off in my presence. I cleared my throat.
He stuck one finger in the book, and looked over at me inquiringly. "Yes, Archie?"
I considered all the topics we could or should discuss, and settled for starting with simplicity. "Ow."
He grunted--one of, but a different one of, the amused grunts--put the book down, and picked up a plate and a fork from the tray.
As far as I can recall, and this would be stretching my memory because the early days are hazy, the last time I was spoon-fed was when I was a baby. Actually, strike that: someone must have fed me when I was in the hospital with that bullet in my lung, but I haven't the faintest notion of who it was, since I was pumped to the gills with morphine and watching bugs crawl over the backs of my hands.
I admit to playing it up a bit. But it isn't every day you can trick Wolfe, and if I was holding out for a new roadster at Christmas, I'd better make sure he was good and hooked on me. Either that or a pony. I hadn't decided yet. When I was finished, he put down the dish and smirked at me.
"That was highly unnecessary," he stated. I felt a grin starting on one side of my face and let it stay there. It felt rakish.
"I must be black and blue all over. Did you check while I was asleep?"
"While you were asleep, a man came to call. Tomorrow he is bringing very special merchandise, and you must be on your best behavior."
"Do they have orchids in Egypt?" I asked innocently.
"Don't be fatuous, Archie. He has tempted me with rumors of ancient manuscripts. I am almost as intrigued by this as if he had told me he had a blue orchid in his possession. He must be seen." There was a gleam in his eye that was usually only reserved for guilty parties. He was flushed. Obviously, this was very exciting.
"You want me to hold the door, or hold a gun?" I asked. "I can probably hold a door, if I had a hot shower first, but a gun might be too heavy for me."
"Pfui. I have seen men hurt worse do much more for themselves," Wolfe snorted. "You are spoiled by circumstance."
"Yeah," I said wistfully. "Circumstantially, I know that sooner or later you're gonna want back in here." I patted the mattress with the palm of my hand. "And I don't know if I'm quite ready to give it up. It's cozy."
He rose to his feet and whipped back the sheet that covered me. He grabbed me, not lightly either, by one ankle and pulled. I yelped, but I didn't hurt as much as I'd tried to make him think. The damned genius. I twisted at the right moment and caught myself from falling to the floor. He let go and I sat on the edge of the bed.
"It is endearing to a point," he told me, "after which it is mendacious and extortionate."
"I can think some of the same things about you, you know." My housecoat was in arm's reach and I shrugged into it stiffly. "I don't know about mendacious. Unless you count bringing me here under false pretenses. Are you here because of your insatiable thirst for knowledge, or your thirst for me? Bear in mind that my brain was in top working order this morning, though most of my body wasn't."
He bit his lip and nodded perhaps a sixteenth of an inch. "I knew you would say as much," he said. But he didn't answer my question.
"Well, if you're quite finished wrestling, I think I've got a bed with my own name on it, even though it isn't quite as cozy because there's only me in it." I rose and headed for the door. "But you know where I live, so if you need anything, just bellow."
He muttered something as I went out the door, but it couldn't have been in English, so I didn't turn around.
Half an hour later, I punched my pillow up for the fourth time, and grumpily settled back into place on my mattress. This was some sort of revenge by the universe for all the apartments I had sauntered out of, over the years, after the main event was done. Two or three o’clock in the morning, and I’d be back in my bed in the Brownstone, enjoying being able to stretch out my legs between the cool sheets without worrying about anyone else’s toenails. Now my sheets were pleasantly roomy and soft, and I couldn’t get to sleep. It was ridiculous, but damned if I was going to be the one to give in.
If I can’t settle my mind after a certain amount of time, I stop trying to sleep. I got up, put on my robe, and padded off towards the kitchen. Coptic Fritz—his real name was Shenouda—slept in the smallest bedroom on the other side of the house, so I didn’t have to worry about waking up anyone else. I raided the refrigerator, made myself a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk, sat down at the table, and found myself staring fixedly at the tabletop. I recognized that scratch. I had seen it at length, under interesting circumstances, yesterday evening. Picking up my plate and glass, I decided to go elsewhere to eat.
It was still hot in the house. I wandered around a little, and then headed for the staircase to the roof. The two women who had giggled at me, that day by the Garden of Delights were only following the local custom. In summer, around here, private life was largely lived on the roofs, at night. I emerged from the carved wooded door to the staircase and crossed over to the far parapet, where I remembered there being, from my tour, some chairs and a table.
One of the chairs was occupied. "Archie."
"I can leave," I said.
Wolfe snorted. I thought it over, and shrugged. Setting my plate and glass down on the table, next to his two plates, I took a chair. Neither of us spoke. I ate my sandwich and drank my milk.
There was a breeze off of the Mediterranean, and the lights of Alexandria were dim enough that you could see not only the moon but stars. That sure wasn’t the case in Manhattan any more. The palms in the courtyard rustled, and I could smell some sort of night-blooming flower. Somewhere on a roof in the neighborhood a woman was singing. She sounded like a cat thrown into a washing machine.
Even at that time, I must have spent over a thousand and one nights with Wolfe, either talking or sitting around together. We’d never been shy with each other, so that couldn’t be the case here and now. Stubborn, was more like it. I cleared my throat. It wasn’t necessary to see him to know that he grimaced. He hates that noise, so I did it again.
"Did you injure your throat?" His voice was honey-sweet. It made me want to kick him, which put us back on track.
"No, just my ankle." He grunted. It was skeptical, which was the last shove I needed. I got up, walked over to him, and plopped down onto his lap. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and said, in a fair imitation of a Village lurker, "Hi, there, Big Guy."
He made a noise. It was one I hadn't heard out of him before, something like steam coming from an over-fired boiler. Then he got his control back, and said, "Your musculature makes you quite dense, Archie, and you are crushing my thighs." The sound of grinding teeth was behind the words, if you knew how to listen for it.
"Yeah, well, this chair is pressing against the bruises on my hip. I’m sore, in more ways than one, I’m tired, and I want to get some sleep. For some crazy reason, my body wants that sleep to occur in your bed. Please, sir, can we both admit that we’re now screwing each other, so we can settle down and I can get some rest?"
He looped his arms around my waist and sighed, letting out about a bushel of air. "Screwing."
"I know, you don’t like slang, but damned if I’m going to call it fornicating."
Wolfe pursed his lips in distaste. I was close enough to see it even in the dark. "I admit to your point. Very well then, call it what you choose." He sighed again. "I was worried about obtaining enough rest, myself, to be in a fit state to deal with our visitor tomorrow, but I can see that my stratagem for remedying the situation is useless. If you still wish to do so, we can retire together and attempt to sleep."
I didn’t ask him why he hadn't just said at the time that I was too distracting to keep in his bed. He hadn't wanted to admit it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to, either, in his place. In fact, I was annoyed with myself over the effect that sitting on his lap was having on me. You would think I could do at least as well as a nightclub show girl under these circumstances, but no. I wanted to squirm, which was undignified as hell.
"What is all this, anyway?" My voice sounded querulous even to my own ears, and it was a rhetorical question, one thing I don’t blame Wolfe for disliking.
He didn’t call me on it, though. Instead, he shifted slightly underneath me, and gave proof that I wasn’t merely crushing him. "I’m not sure," he said, his voice grim.
We both knew he was lying. I would give five to one that the same suspicion was growing in both of us, and that neither of us was pleased. Infatuation was one possible explanation, but I’d been through that before and no sane person could ever be infatuated with Wolfe, anyway. The alternative explanation, however, was even less attractive, given the deep skepticism Wolfe and I share on that subject. I felt like a Unitarian confronted by an angel announcing the second coming, and he probably felt even worse.
"It could be the sex," I said, with no real conviction, and slung one arm around his back.
He growled, and kissed the nape of my neck.
"You’ve been going short for years," I pointed out. His hair was like fine silk as I ran my fingers through it. Strange: I would have thought it would have been coarse.
"That is hardly applicable to your case," he said against my chin. I arched my neck back to give him better access as he tasted me.
"True, but I haven’t done it much with men." The nice feature of his armless chair was it let me turn so I was straddling him. I was still probably crushing his thighs, but what was happening between those thighs was much more pleasant. Our hips rocked, grinding our groins together. Good, but it wouldn’t be enough for long.
Wolfe seemed to have lost track of what we were discussing. Come to think of it, I wasn’t really sure myself. His hands on my ass were pulling me tight into him. I was kissing him deeply, ignoring the fact that I was making my lip worse again, when I heard about the only noise that could have caught my attention. Somebody, down in the street below, was muttering to his companion in German.
Wolfe's spine stiffened and he broke our mutual suction. He cocked an ear.
"You weren't expecting company at this hour, were you?" I whispered. He shushed me immediately. The voices below us moved towards the front of the house.
I slid off him before he had time to shove me, and when he got up he headed for the door to the house.
"Trouble?" I was close behind on the way down the stairs. He shrugged half an inch.
"It may be nothing," he said, "but your encounter yesterday may have drawn unwanted attention. Stay on your guard."
It's hard making your way through a dark house with one good eye. It distorts your perspective. It made me stub my toe on a brass urn in the foyer. I bit back a yelp and ended up running headlong into Wolfe, who had stopped silently before me. How he manages to walk as quietly as I usually do, while weighing substantially more, I will never know. It might be the genius in him.
The genius was listening very closely at the narrow barred window beside the front door. I hear no sounds of espionage, but I was optimistic. It might be fun to take more Nazis for a spin. Maybe even with the Marley .38!
"If they break in, can I shoot them?" I whispered.
Wolfe batted at me with one hand to quiet me. "Confound it, Archie, I can hear nothing with your inane babble." He sighed heavily and turned to head back to the rear of the house. "I heard one say, ‘this is the house,’ and the other use words that included ‘Arschloch.’ I believe he was referring to you."
"Dare I even ask what he said?" I tagged along after Wolfe. He had given in, after all, and I fully intended to try out his mattress some more.
"You would be quite familiar with it." He said with as close to a smirk as he ever got. He turned back the sheets on his whale-sized bed. "A-R-S-C-H-L-O-C-H; there is a dictionary in the library, you may look it up tomorrow morning."
I didn't get a chance to look it up that morning, though eventually he told me what it meant. We had other problems that morning when, at nine o'clock, Wolfe's appointment failed to materialize. At nine-fifteen, Wolfe was practically fuming, and would have been pacing the hallway if it wasn't a bit too close to exercise. At nine-thirty, I decided he could wait without me. I didn't speak the language, and it was starting to get hot. I went to take a quick dip in the pool and clear my brain. The bruises were definitely in fine form today; they positively glowed. Wolfe might have been impressed at the range of colors and forms if he hadn't been busy having an aneurysm.
At nine forty-five, when I was toweling myself off gingerly, there was a short knock at the front door. I say short not because it was brief, but because it came from the paneling on the door, not the brass knocker. I opened the door in my towel and a loose housecoat. How gauche.
A small, dirty child, about waist-high, ran into the house and started jabbering. Wolfe was in the hallway about a fraction of a second later. It was getting quite crowded. I backed off, deciding to find appropriate clothing for the occasion.
When I got back downstairs, Wolfe had sent the kid on his way. He had gone into the library to park himself in the one chair in the house he seemed to feel comfortable in, and had put on a thunderous expression. His lips were pushed slightly forwards, and his eyebrows were down about an eighth of an inch.
"So, are we expecting the cops?" I glanced at him to check and see if he was impressed.
He wasn’t. "Your deduction was fairly obvious, given that Mr. Rhamad did not appear for his appointment this morning. I also note that you covered your wager by not stating about what the constabulary would be inquiring."
"I’d give three to two on murder, with a side bet that our friends from last night had something to do with it." I sat down in a leather armchair. Since I wasn’t having to take notes, there was no sense in my not being comfortable.
"It would not be a profitable wager for me. The boy, who belongs to Mr. Rhamad’s household, claims to have seen three blond and athletic-looking Europeans leaving Mr. Rhamad’s workshop just before dawn this morning. He said they were speaking a language he didn’t recognize, and he knows a smattering of both French and English."
"What was the kid doing up at that hour?"
The corner of Wolfe’s mouth twitched microscopically. "He had been sleeping on the roof with his mother, as is the custom in many households during summer, and rather than go back downstairs to relieve himself, he decided to do it quietly over the parapet and into the alley."
I snorted. "I hope his aim was good."
"He was not yet violating sanitary standards when he saw the men, which is just as well. I doubt he would have survived being noticed by German agents." He sighed. "I had hoped your usual talent for serendipity remained back home without you, but it seems to have accompanied you here."
I straightened up in my chair. The slightly martyred tone, probably due to his being unable to call Saul and shuffle me out of the danger zone, meant he was finally ready to empty the pack.
He made a face. "This is what comes of doing favors for institutions, rather than individuals."
"What?" I sat bolt upright. "Somebody sent you here and you’re not getting paid? Not even with a recipe or an orchid?"
"There is no need to emphasize my foolishness," he said, his voice grumpy. "I was called by--" he mentioned a name well known in the Roosevelt administration, "—and asked to make this trip as a favor to my country. Bah. Arrant twaddle. If I hadn't allowed myself to be distracted by the idea of viewing such a rare manuscript, no matter if dedicated to such an farcical topic, I would not be here being subjected to--"
"Excuse me, sir, but we may not have a lot of time, and you’re drifting. The government wants you to get some book for them?"
"Not obtain it, but make sure that others did not obtain it. The late Mr. Rhamad owed me a certain debt of gratitude, and it was thought that I might be able to prevail upon him to redirect the book to me from the then highest bidders."
"Specifically, the Luftwaffe. They did not want the volume themselves, you understand. Apparently it was to be part of some complex trade that would result in certain elements in the German government recanting on their opposition to a major increase in funding and resources for the Condor Legion."
It sounded like a ball of snakes to me. I though it over. "Aren’t we neutral on Spain?"
"Yes. I suspect that another part of the complex deal, having to do with the possible nationalization of the German branches of certain U.S. corporations, has more to do with our presence here than the admittedly dangerous expansion of the German Air Force." His eyes opened wide. "I do not like being used as a cat’s paw, but I seem to be unable to resist the temptation to foul the German nest, even in so small a matter as this."
"And, you had something else in mind, as well." He scowled, but didn’t deny it. "So, what is this book that all the fuss is about."
"Ah, that." One corner of his mouth twisted a little out of line. "It was supposedly a survivor of the repeated looting of the Library of Alexandria, preserved in one of the mortuary complexes that underlie much of this city."
I was patient. "What is it called? Who wrote it? Did the Luftwaffe get it?"
"The boy says they were not carrying anything. Since the "book" would have consisted of a number of scrolls, I believe we may safely assume that Rhamad secreted the book someplace else than his workshop, as was often his custom in such circumstances."
I was still patient, but it was wearing thin. "Book. Title. Author. Some time before the arrival of the entire Egyptian constabulary would be nice."
He decided to brazen it out. "Petronius. A complete, unexpurgated text of the *Satyricon*."
Too bad for him that, like most boys of my generation, I had religiously memorized the title of every classic book that might even have a hint of a mention of something to do with sex. And what had been said about the *Satyricon*---I roared.
He didn't even have the heart to tell me to shut up.
I expected the representatives of the Law to be just as noisy as the child had been, but I was impressed when they showed up and didn't track mud or camel dung into Wolfe's foyer. I wasn't allowed to say I was impressed, though. Wolfe had forbidden me to speak a word in our guests' presence. It was part of some giant plan he had, that of course he wouldn’t fully explain.
"Just be silent, Archie. I will expatiate later."
The local inspector was a small, neat man with very white teeth, and he spoke English pretty well. I almost missed the ferocity of Inspector Cramer, at that point. His assistant came and stood just inside the door to the library and stayed there. I sat in a chair and played dumb like Wolfe had asked.
First, the Inspector glanced at me and said a few words to Wolfe. Wolfe replied with some words of his own concoction. I'm not even going to try to spell them here, but the Inspector understood, and nodded, and asked a question. Wolfe answered in English.
"Yes, of course he can, and must, be trusted." Wolfe motioned to the chair I'd brought up and set down facing him. The Inspector nodded and sat. "Despite his current appearance, this man is very valuable to me, and I would trust him with my life."
"I suppose I should not ask what happened to him." The Inspector had a soft voice and a cute little lisp. I made a mental note to try it out on Wolfe sometime and see what his reaction would be.
"There was an altercation, that much I will say, but you need not know more. Tell me, instead, about Mr. Rhamad."
I think the Inspector swore, but it wasn't in English, and Wolfe wouldn't translate it for me.
"He, also, was the victim of an altercation," the Inspector said. "When we entered his workshop, all was destroyed. There were papers and books thrown to the ground. Everything had been searched. Finally, we found Mr. Rhamad under a bookshelf with his neck broken. Strangled."
"That is a tragedy." Wolfe sighed. "Have you questioned his family?"
"It is customary for Mr. Rhamad to work late at his shop, and it was not unusual for him to stay there all night. As he had an appointment with you this morning, he was not missed until his grandson came to find him, as the child was to accompany him here."
Wolfe pursed his lips.
“The child did not say why he was accompanying Mr. Rhamad?" Wolfe was being tactful. I wondered how much the Inspector knew.
"I do not know. In truth, the family does not know, and we have been unable to find out." The Inspector shifted in his chair and leaned forward. "I suppose that I should ask you but I doubt you will say."
I gave the man points right then and there. He suspected something was up but Wolfe wasn't giving anything away. And now he'd answered all of Wolfe's questions and had nothing left.
After that, the conversation was polite but no major facts were unearthed. No one saw Rhamad after 6 o'clock in the evening, and only the boy had seen the three men leaving the workshop. It was remarkable, but there was no mention of scrolls or manuscripts at all.
Wolfe lapsed back into Arabic finally, and the Inspector seemed relieved. They spoke for a few minutes, and the Inspector was frowning when they finished. Wolfe smiled and must have said goodbye, because finally the Inspector departed and took his silent assistant with him. I saw them to the door. When I got back into the library, Wolfe was sitting with his eyes closed. I had hoped for lip action but there was none. So, instead of waiting, I went to a shelf and got down the pocket German dictionary and looked up some words. I was working on the dirty ones, when Wolfe roused himself.
"You may continue your language lessons at a later time, Archie. I would send you alone on this errand, but your appearance would not let you travel discreetly. I told the Inspector you could not understand Arabic, and you did not speak English. Otherwise he would have questioned you." He had an amused look on his face. I frowned.
"Okay, what did you tell him? Why don't I speak English?"
"I found it somewhat appropriate, considering your loquacity, to tell him you are a mute."
"How brilliant of you," I snapped. He held up a hand and smiled.
"No more questions. Incidentally, I also told him you are my nephew, and you are here because you have always wanted to see Egypt. Pitying you, I brought you along with me. And, this afternoon you want to see a dealer of antiquities in the same street as Mr. Rhamad's workshop. I, of course must accompany you to translate."
"Great. Are we going to Rhamad's workshop?"
He nodded. "You'd best bring your gun," he said, and levered himself out of the chair. He headed for the kitchen to check on the state of luncheon.
"Schiessen," I said.
He didn't correct my German, so I knew he was more worried than he let on.
After a lunch that involved lamb, rice, and spices wrapped up in some of the local flat bread, we went to the Rhamad workshop. I noticed that our driver looked familiar, but didn’t say anything. Wolfe’s smart enough to notice these little items when he’s not in the middle of a self-indulgent fit, so I figured he would spot the driver when he was on firm ground, paying . That’s what he got for making me mute, having to touch coins in order to make change, which was another of the five thousand parts of life that he disapproves of. In the meantime, I turned my attention to the challenge of trying to spot a tail when we were in a vehicle that liked making random darts at pedestrians and walls. It was tricky, but I decided we had a follower. Our tail’s shortcut between two stacks of crated chickens was the give away: even for Alexandria, that struck me as extreme.
None of the females of the Rhamad household were included in the group that came to greet us, but it made no difference to the reception Wolfe got. The men of the house descended on him as if he were the last ice salesman in Egypt. I almost had to pry one over-enthusiast off of Wolfe, who was getting that strained look around the corners of his eyes that means a stranger is touching him and there’s nothing he can do about it. It was the man’s good luck that he backed off and began babbling at Wolfe at a rate of about a hundred miles per minute, instead. Wolfe listened for a time, held up one hand, and then asked a few questions in yet another language I didn’t recognize. There seemed about as much agreement on what language to be obscure in locally as there was back in New York City. The answers Wolfe got back seemed to displease him; he made more gestures, and we were escorted through the house to what had obviously been the workshop.
One look around, and I knew the source of all the false scarabs that people had been trying to sell me this last week. Amid the debris, the place seemed to contain half the contents of King Tut’s tomb and the tools to manufacture it all with. Since, from the look of the house, Rhamad hadn't been as rich as all that, it was safe to assume that he and his family had quite a sideline going in "reproductions" for the tourists.
Wolfe went over to a desk piled high with papers someone had scooped up off the floor, so I decided to search the rest of the place, since objects don’t speak any particular language. Our guide jittered around for a bit until Wolfe dismissed him, firmly. It was a safe bet that he was lurking somewhere just outside the door.
Half an hour’s work convinced me of two notions. First, all Egyptian mysteries should be investigated by British amateurs, because they always find a mysterious scrap of papyrus crumpled up behind a desk with the murderer’s childhood nickname in hieroglyphics one it. I have to make do with the sparse clues left behind by reasonably intelligent perpetrators and professional villains. Second, besides being vandalized, the place had been searched at least twice. Assuming that one search was conducted by the local police, that left another party who had come, looked, and left without wanting to be too obvious.
Wolfe grunted. "This is a waste of time. Come, Archie, let us return to the house."
I followed him, without saying a word, all the way back through Rhamad’s house, past the relatives, during the taxi ride—our driver was unfamiliar to me, this time—and into our house. Inside the foyer, I said "Well, that was fun. You noticed the place had been tossed twice, of course?"
"Indeed. Satisfactory. I assumed that was the case, but your experience in these matters is more extensive than mine, and it is good to have my reconstruction of events confirmed."
He was pouring on the butter. I raised one eyebrow at him, which he hates because he can’t do it, and followed him as he turned and went to the library. It was darn polite of me, I think, to wait the ten minutes while Wolfe called Shenouda in and got his beer and some snacks before I called him on it. "What is it that I won’t like? Did he leave a letter with your American name on it where the cops and everyone else could find it?"
"Don’t be absurd. All of our correspondence used the name I employed while formerly in this region." He eyed me, and then apparently decided that honesty was the greater part of valor. "You are correct that I am contemplating a course of action you may not enjoy. I remember from my previous visit to Alexandria the location of some of Mr. Rhamad’s caches."
"Would that be the ones in the burial tunnels?"
His head dipped, almost imperceptibly. "Yes. I have eliminated the most obvious possibility, but the system of tunnels is disrupted and there are several isolated sections to check. You may wish to get some rest before we leave, early this evening. Your appearance is extremely, even excessively dramatic."
"Looks great, feels great." I sighed. "What I really need is to stretch out. I’m going back to my swim."
The pool was worth twenty of anything they have back home. First off, the weather in New York had nothing on Egypt, and no pool I'd ever seen was quite as perfect as this. Trust Wolfe to have a custom-built, aquamarine-tiled swimming pool half a world away from where he lived. It should be up on the roof of the brownstone, but here it was in Alexandria. I made use of it, with gusto. I was on my third starfish, floating on my back with my face upturned, when there was a ripple across the surface of the pool. Actually, it was more like a small tidal wave. To save myself from choking, I put my feet down and looked over.
This must have been what the watchman on the Titanic saw before the ship struck the iceberg. It was equally as impressive. Wolfe had traded his clothes for expansive yellow bathing shorts and was wading into the pool. I envied him his buoyancy.
There is an equation in physics that demonstrates the mutual attraction of two bodies in water. I'm not making this up, but it was a long time ago and I forget the particulars. Needless to say, the theorem was correct. I floated over to Wolfe.
"I was going to take a nap after my swim but it seems there are further tensions that need to be resolved." He didn't say anything, but the look in his eyes said enough. "Do you want me to shut up now, or is speaking English okay?"
"I'd prefer you to remain your incorrigible, irritating self," he said, half-smiling.
I don't know what came over me, but I dived under his feet and came up behind him. I wrapped my legs around his waist and threw my arms over his shoulders. With my head on his shoulder, I breathed in his ear.
"You know, the shower was good. I was hardly in any condition to reciprocate, but let me show you what I meant to do."
I beached Wolfe in the shallows near the steps, and straddled his hips. This was the position we had been in on the roof, with the exception of the water, and it was comfortable. He had closed his eyes against the sun, so I kissed him hard on the mouth to get his attention.
I need not have made the effort, because he soon showed me that his attention was easy to obtain. I could feel it pressing against my thigh and it needed my urgent attention. I took a deep breath and went under. The logistics of contacts of this sort underwater are quite mind-boggling. To describe it here would involve a lot of bubbles, and gasping for breath, but I was nowhere near drowning.
On one of my trips up to the surface to get some air, he grabbed me, pulled me into his arms, and kissed me. I wrapped my arms and legs around him, and he growled in my ear, "Archie, you’ll drown."
I grinned at him. "Is that anything like how I’ll melt in a quarter inch of rain, or die of starvation if I skip one meal?" He was shuddering underneath me, so I rode him a little, just to keep the pot boiling. "Quit interrupting. You always tell me it’s rude."
The breath hissed between his teeth. "Archie."
He didn’t seem to know quite why he’d said my name, which was entertaining. Wolfe has too high an opinion of his own control. He likes to think the same about me, though, and sometimes tries to prove it. He eased me back a little, and took me out of my swimsuit. I indulged him. After a while, I reciprocated.
Wolfe finished first, not surprising, given the strain I’d put him under. I made approving noises as he unraveled, and when he was done, he growled, "You would make an excellent cheerleader." His sated, flushed air kept me from taking it too hard. So did what his hand was doing with my cock.
"Rah, rah, rah," I said. "This could have done wonders for my grid-iron performance back home."
He snorted, said, "I’m sure it did," and speed up his work. I let myself half-lean, half-float against him, and grabbed his arms. It was nice not to have to worry about being too rough or too fast. When I came, I gritted my teeth and clamped hard, and his only reaction was to caress my ass. Afterwards, we just drifted for a few minutes, without saying anything. The sex was getting better. I knew what that said about the two of us, even if Wolfe didn’t. He probably did.
I looked him over, assessing. "You’re going to look cute as hell peeling off a sunburn. And you’d be amazed where you can get it."
Wolfe growled at me, but got out of the pool. We both toweled and put our robes back on, before Wolfe marched back into the house, obviously intent on a shower. He’s finicky that way. I trailed along, to see if I could find any way to annoy him some more. There was no reason to go slack just because we were violating international standards of decency together.
As we crossed the main hall, we were intercepted by Shenouda and informed, "A man from the German Embassy is here to see you, sir. I have put him in the library."
"Thank you," Wolfe said, and veered without breaking step. I followed, grinning. There was a tiny twitch of Wolfe’s lips that I recognized. If you ever get a chance to see an elephant prepare to squash a skunk, you should take it. It’s fun.
The German was a skinny, tall guy with wire-rimmed glasses, holding white gloves in the same hand as his cane. I noticed that Shenouda had somehow forgotten to take his gloves and hat: the perfect servant. He rose to his feet as we entered, but Wolfe ignored him and crossed to his favorite chair. Our visitor smiled, but it was about an inch deep. I smiled back, but, for some reason, it didn’t make him any happier. There’s no pleasing some people.
I took the chair I’d colonized for myself a few days back, and picked up the notebook and pen I was keeping on the table next to my elbow, in case of emergencies. That wiped the smile off of the German’s face, which improved my day some more. He took out a visiting card from a silver case, and handed it to Wolfe, who examined it and passed it across to me. He was Herr Schmidt, the assistant cultural liaison to the German embassy in Cairo. I’m educated enough to know his name and title meant that he was their spymaster.
I glanced at Wolfe as he settled himself in, and pointed at my mouth with one eyebrow raised. He nodded. The German was too busy watching him to care about me. So I stayed quiet. I'd ask for bonus pay at a later date for putting up with Wolfe's eccentric treatment of me. Come to think of it, I was already getting a bonus above and beyond that which Wolfe was paying me. Maybe I'd just stay quiet because he gave a damn good blow job. That nearly made me lose my concentration for a moment as parts of me thought about not sitting in an office.
When my brain finally returned to the situation at hand, Herr Schmidt was seated in the chair opposite from Wolfe. He'd laid his hat and gloves to the side of his chair. The cane leaned against his leg.
"You must forgive my dishabille, but I was not expecting company." Wolfe said smoothly.
"I did not wish to disturb you but I was compelled to speak with you." Schmidt's accent was tight and precise and made me think of walking on nails with my bare feet. "Perhaps you have indeed come to Alexandria with your 'nephew' to educate him. I do not question you in this regard. But you have not been entirely truthful with the local authorities. They might accept your explanation without question, but I am harder to persuade otherwise."
Wolfe's expression was stony. I expected him to huff out of the room at Schmidt's attitude.
"Perhaps it would be more truthful if you stated you had certain reasons to believe that I am lying," he said, slowly. "As a diplomat, it might be more becoming. A straightforward accusation of perjury is more courageous than a threat or a hint."
Schmidt tightened his lips, which gave him the air of a very tall, blonde lizard. "I threaten no-one."
"Indeed, that is why you have arrived in my home unannounced, cowed my house servant and cast aspersions on my nephew."
I had to hand it to Wolfe. He was playing a fantastic game of poker without a deck of cards. I should have been making notes for my next night out with Saul, Lon and Orrie, if we lived through this game to get back to New York.
"Very well," Schmidt said after beating back the anger creeping into his voice. "Then I shall be blunt. If the reason for your presence in this city should be proven substantially different than what you have told the local police, I may be required to speak with you again."
"I shall relish it."
Schmidt rose, and took his can, hat and gloves with him. If he had the nerve to wear gloves in this weather he was probably a lot more dangerous than he looked. Right now he looked like a herd of starving Doberman Pinschers to me. He must have gotten to Wolfe, too, because he actually heaved himself out of his chair and saw Schmidt to the door. I followed behind like an uncertain puppy. Maybe the guy would pull a knife on Wolfe and run out.
He practically did. At the sill, Schmidt turned and said lightly, "By the way, does your nephew travel alone in this city?"
"Ah." Wolfe stalled as smoothly as the German had. He shook his head violently, three shakes full. "He would be waylaid in five minutes. Thank you for your warning."
When the door closed Wolfe turned to me with a scowl.
"You think he knows something?"
"Pfui. You know very well why he came and, if he has identified you, then we are compromised. We are going to get nowhere if you continue to advertise your belligerence with that black eye."
"Yeah, I was getting to that. There's a pair of sunglasses in my suitcase. I think we'd better move if we want to track down that scroll before Schmidt does."
"Herr Schmidt is only the representative. We are up against a worse opponent, and we must act quickly."
When he wants to, Wolfe can move at a good pace, and it's like watching a freight train start off. It takes a few minutes, but the momentum is hard to stop. By the time I'd dressed and donned my dark glasses, he'd dressed and loaded up a lumpy packsack. He gave it to me at the door.
"You will carry this. I trust you have your gun?"
I showed him where I was carrying the Marley .38. "Am I still your nephew, or can I cut the silent partner schtick?"
"I admit that you are out of your element here, but it would not be safe for either of us to travel alone, now." Wolfe steeled himself and opened the door. A taxi was standing at the end of the walk. "Not a word while we are within earshot of anyone."
"Okay, wait." I pulled him back inside. "If this driver looks familiar we're going to go somewhere else. It's starting to get on my nerves."
"I have already taken care of that. This man is a personal friend and he can be trusted." Wolfe was standing face to face, only a few inches away from me.
"As much as me?" I breathed. He tilted his head up half an inch and I kissed him quickly before we started down the walk to the taxi.
He examined me for a moment, and the corners of his lips quirked up. Then he touched my lips with one forefinger, began to say something, grunted instead, and turned towards the taxi.
Our driver was the oldest living man I'd seen in Alexandria, a raisin with eyes in a turban and robes. He cackled at me when I got into the cab, and said something to Wolfe, who grunted tolerantly and responded with what sounded like directions. We pulled away from the front of the house and were off to the races.
I'd been worrying about tails, but I shouldn't have bothered. Since we'd been in Egypt, I'd thought I'd had some wild cab rides, but this was the genuine article. I would have considered screaming like a roller-coaster rider to show my appreciation of a master at work, but I was too busy making sure we hadn't picked up anyone dumb enough to try and follow us. I didn't spot anything, although I couldn't be positive. We were swerving so much that my field of vision never stayed put long enough for me to focus.
At last, after too long a trip, we pulled up in front of an undistinguished shop in a street of undistinguished shops. Our driver creaked out of the taxi and started slowly polishing its hood with a dirty rag and exchanging comments with the crowd of kids that appeared out of nowhere. Wolfe and I got out, and he waited patiently as I shook my head once or twice, trying to regain my balance. He was showing off. I'd known him long enough to tell he was green around the edges.
Inside, a shopkeeper sat on a stool next to trays full of dark objects that reeked of vinegar. Wolfe dickered with him for some of the goods---pickled squid--before the shopkeeper bowed us through into the back of his store. In one corner, beneath a rough-hewn door, was a set of stairs that took us down into the basement. The merchant took an oil lamp down from a peg and led us past stacks of barrels. The wooden trap door was in a corner. He handed Wolfe the lamp, and left.
We stood still until we heard the thud of the upper door closing and stayed still a minute longer. Outside of our circle of light was nothing but darkness and silence. Then Wolfe nodded, and I grabbed the two handholds in the door and heaved. The stones of the stairs beneath leading down had been cemented. When I glanced at Wolfe his lips twitched, and I remembered he had told me, in one of his lunchtime lecture series, that the Romans invented concrete. Anthony and Cleopatra. This set of passages must be from the Roman's time in Egypt. We went down the stairs.
I had expected damp, since Alexandria stands on the shores of the Mediterranean. In fact, it was dusty, a rock dust that got into my mouth and nose and made me want to sneeze. We worked our way through several passages, and past a choke-point that I don't know how Wolfe squeezed by, even to this day. Now I knew why Rhamad had been bringing his grandson with him on his visit.
We weren't the first ones down there, by a long shot. The walls were filled with large rectangular niches, empty except for rubble, faint traces of paint, and graffiti in several languages. Once or twice Wolfe stopped to examine the graffiti, and then changed directions. I felt we'd tramped for miles, although my body told me it was only a few blocks, before we turned into a small chamber.
It was fairly well lit by the lamp, and dry. In one corner stood a stacked pile of stones that looked as if some Centurion had forgotten them there after construction was done. Wolfe gestured, and I sighed and started shifting stones. Beneath them was an old stone sarcophagus. I got the crowbar out of the packsack and set to work. Inside, it was filled with small crates.
I confess, the contents were impressive. Stone statues of animal-headed gods, vases with naked men running around them, alabaster carvings of lollypop people with no faces--someone had taken a random selection from the antiquities collection at the Met and shoved it into boxes. There weren't any scrolls, though. I looked at Wolfe and shrugged. I could see him sigh. The son of a bitch: he made me put those stones back before we left.
To this day I'm grateful that the next three caches didn't have stones stacked on them. They all had lots of dust and darkness, though. One had hieroglyphics, although even to my eyes they were badly carved, and the sound of small, scurrying animals. One was filled with the smell of salt water, and dripped. The last we visited was the best preserved. The entrance was below the Jewish quarter. This time our driver stayed in the car, and his replies through the window to the pack of children were curt. For the first time, though, he undid a sticky bundle he'd had shoved in the glove compartment, and gave them candy from it. We went through a silversmith's shop, past cross-legged workers dressed in black who were tapping patiently away on tiny anvils making tinier silver links, down some stairs, and through several storage rooms into a small, empty, barrel-vaulted cellar.
The trap door located there was more of a stone manhole cover. I opened it up, looked at the shaft dubiously, and looked at Wolfe. He scowled, and so I sighed and pulled out the largest item in the backpack: a steel bar with hooks at both ends and a webbing of rope attached to it.
I will spare you the joy of getting Wolfe down a rope ladder in the dark. I wish someone had spared me. Enough to say that I couldn't manage him and the ropes, and the flashlight, so we had to work in the dark. When he let go and dropped the last few feet, I grabbed him and tried to steady him, but we lurched a few feet, with stone grit crunching beneath our feet, before we reeled into a wall. He propped himself up to breath for a minute, and so did I.
I was trying to choose between asking if Wolfe could support me on his shoulders long enough for me to catch the bottom of the rope ladder when we exited, and taking the flashlight back out of the backpack, when I became aware of my surroundings. You're almost never in real darkness. Usually, your eyes adjust and some light is coming from somewhere. This, though, was the genuine article. All that I could see was black. All that I could hear was the sound that is not a sound of air shifting slightly in a still room, and the rasp of Wolfe trying not to breathe hard. All I could feel was cool, rough stone against my skin, and the heavy warmth of Wolfe half-pressed against me.
It twisted through me so hard and hot I shook with it. Even at the time, I knew it was dumb, but I didn't care. And he was no help. It hit him, too. His face turned to mine, and we kissed, savagely, in that uncompromising darkness, in that ancient mortuary tunnel beneath Alexandria.
I had no intentions or plans, only wants and needs. I dumped the backpack and it was only good luck that kept it close by us. I was too busy undoing his shirt by touch to notice where it went, so busy that I popped two of his buttons. When I pushed him back into the wall and ran my hands across his chest, and then followed them with my mouth, I was only thinking of Wolfe. He was sensitive to my touch. When my tongue traveled from the silken tickling hair to the hard pebbling of one nipple, his arms tightened so strongly that I felt my ribs creak. That didn't stop me. I smiled in the dark, making sure he felt it against his skin, and lashed at him with my tongue before my lips joined in.
I could hear another noise now. It was Wolfe, making an odd guttural sound. He pushed me away, unzipped my pants, and shucked both them and my boxers down. Then I heard the crunch of his knees hitting the stone grit. In the dark, the feeling of his mouth hot and supple on my cock was so intense I almost shouted from it.
I took it for what seemed like forever and was probably about two minutes, before I decided it wasn't enough. "Come on, damn it," I said. My voice sounded harsh, urgent even to my ears. "Come on, you know you want to." And he did.
It's not like I thought through my decision, but maybe it was a decision better made without thinking. I helped yank him up onto his feet, and then we paused to kiss again. It smelled of sex, and I could taste myself on his tongue, which didn't calm me down any. He fumbled in his pockets before he found what he wanted. I've never asked him what he used. All I cared about was that, once again, his hands gripped my ass, but this time they spread me slightly before his slick and oily finger pushed into me.
It felt great. My teeth clamped shut, by good luck on the material of his suit coat. I turned loose and swore, instead, as he worked me a little. His other hand grasped my cock, and I swore again. As if that was a signal we both recognized, he turned me and I braced my folded arms against the wall. I heard him unzip, and then I felt his hands grip my hips.
"Archie." In the dark, deep and strained.
"Yeah. Go." I leant my forehead against my arms. I didn't know what to expect, but my body was hot with wanting it, and wanting it now.
Don't ask me what it would be like for anyone else. All I know is that, as the warm heavy flesh pushed into me, I didn't think I could take it, but I was greedy for it anyway. I pushed back onto his cock, and he growled, for real this time. He couldn't talk, but he worked in farther, and I groaned. He didn't stop. He knew me well enough to tell I wasn't groaning with pain.
By the time Wolfe was all the way in, I was staring blindly at the wall inches away in the dark, amazed and filled with fire. He leaned forwards and put his own arms on the wall, to take some of his weight, to slow himself down, which let me feel him pressed against my back. His hips shifted, and we moved together. Something he was hitting down there was filling me with so much heat I could feel the muscles in my thighs trembling. His breaths were almost sobs as he managed to get one hand down and around my cock.
It was too much. He'd hardly started stroking me when I came, screaming, and adding my bit to the antiquarian remains of Alexandria. I ground back into him hard, and it was his turn to groan, as if I'd rabbit-punched him. He didn't relent, though. His cock working in me and his hand working on me demanded it all, and I gave it to him.
Then it was my turn to growl. I had him well seated, and I squeezed down on him hard to let him know it. His weight pushed me into the wall, and I grinned as I shielded my face against my forearms. He wasn't gentle, but I'm not soft, and I matched him fierce movement for fierce movement until he peaked. When he came, he pressed against me as if he wanted to weld the two of us together, and it didn't seem like a bad idea. At that moment, we felt like one four-legged animal.
Once again, we stood together in the absolute darkness, propped up by the wall, trying to catch our breaths. It seemed like years had passed in minutes. I coughed, and said, "Do you want to split the honors for stupidity? Not that I'm complaining, you understand."
"Bah," he said, and kissed the side of my neck. "Don't move for a minute." He worked himself out of me, and I winced.
I leaned over and got my trousers, and brushed against the backpack in the dark. After I hauled my pants up I got out the flashlight. "You would have to be large. I always said you were a pain in--"
"Not only picayune, Archie, but too late, as well."
"It makes a difference, I'd bet." I turned the flashlight on and checked my sleeves for damage, and then tried a stretch and squat. My body was not pleased, but was in a good enough mood to forgive me. It would have to do.
"I've never cared to approach the matter experimentally." He looked at his handkerchief, pursed his lips, and stuffed it into a pocket. I smirked at him, and shifted the flashlight so most of the light pooled on the floor of the chamber.
For the fourth time, we threaded our way through a web of stone passages. As we rounded a corner, I blinked when my eyes met those of a figure painted on the wall. He carried two torches and had the ears of a dog.
"A chthonic deity," Wolfe said, his voice pitched not to carry.
I was going to reply, when I caught a faint, distant noise. I clapped one hand over the light, and Wolfe and I stood in the silence, our ears straining. The noise came again, and then again, louder and clearer. It was the sound of footsteps, somewhere close, somewhere in the black passages beneath Alexandria with us.
I am not known for my cowardice. At least, I am not known to very many people for my cowardice, but when I heard those footsteps I grabbed Wolfe's arm with all my might. Maybe it was the dark, or maybe it was the impending doom of a legion of Germans with Lugers, but my heart was pounding in my throat.
"Archie, what is the matter?"
"You're the genius," I said, "You work it out. Do we wait for those guys to kill us, or do we kill them first?"
"This way." Wolfe moved towards the dog-headed mural with my flashlight.
"Do you have a plan?"
"I recall there being more exits than entrances to these tunnels." He was working at something in a corner, and when I went to help him, he had retrieved an object wrapped in a musty old cloth. It didn't look big enough to be the scrolls. Abruptly, Wolfe turned and made his way across the chamber to a low door. He paused a moment, listening at the footsteps. They were definitely getting close.
"I know you have a strong stomach, Archie, but still I apologize. Follow me, for our lives may depend on it." I was going to tell him I'd follow him anywhere, but the words died on my lips as soon as he pulled me inside.
I've seen my share of dead bodies. I've also seen enough for Wolfe's share, and Fritz's share, and probably Saul and Fred and Orrie's shares as well. I've seen them one at a time, and sometimes in rapid succession, but I’d never seen them like this.
Wolfe's flickering torch lit up stacks of thigh bones, mounds of skulls, and niches and alcoves packed with remains. He moved without disturbing the grisly treasures, silently and swiftly. The footsteps had reached the chamber with the dog-headed torchbearer. We were past and away, moving further into the twisting labyrinth. No one in their right minds would try to follow us, even if they knew we were down here. I wasn't even sure we were down here. I was convinced we'd both had a bad dream and we'd wake up from it soon to have breakfast in bed.
Somehow, I didn't trip over someone's great-great grandmother, and there were no landslides of anything horrible. Surprisingly, the bones were all well-preserved. It was probably the dry air down here. It was doing a good job right now of preserving my lungs. I wheezed, and I could hear Wolfe breathing heavily in front of me. Since he had the light, when he stopped, I ran smack into him. He grunted.
"What now?" I whispered. He turned and shone his light on a hole in the walls of the chamber. "What's in there?"
"This is no time to begin asking vapid questions, nor is it opportune to be afraid of the absence of light, just now." He motioned me into the hole. I shivered, and climbed in.
It was a tight fit with both of us inside, but fortunately we were pretty close with each other, and neither of us was too ticklish. When Wolfe doused the light, there was only the sounds of our breathing, and the dry sounds of someone disturbing masonry in the dog chamber. Then there was swearing. In German. If I'd had my notebook handy I'd have written them down, but I missed my chance.
"Okay." I breathed, hardly audible. "What are they not finding, that you've got in here?" Wolfe's leg was pressed against me. He shifted slightly and passed the musty bundle to me. I felt a hard, round object inside the wrapping. He turned the flashlight on and covered it with the palm of his hand. The red glow faintly illuminated our hideout as I unwrapped the treasure.
It was a carved wooden sphere, unevenly shaped, about the size of my fist. The dark grain of the wood was oiled, and there was inlay around the top. It looked to be a kind of fruit.
"Rhamad is no fool," Wolfe breathed. "We now know exactly where to retrieve our treasure."
"Sure." I stared dully at the fruit. "If we aren’t buried alive, I'm going straight to market to buy a basket of peaches. The scroll is hidden in the third bushel from the left."
Wolfe's foot jerked a little. He kicked me. I re-wrapped the sphere and he tucked it into the bottom of the packsack. From the sounds of the swearing in the dog's room, things had reached a peak. I strained to reach for my gun.
There was a silence, then a sudden sound of shouting, not in German. The new voices were speaking English, with British accents. I started to shift and Wolfe grabbed me. "The enemies of my enemy is not necessarily my friend," he muttered.
It wasn’t understanding his words that stopped me, but trying to figure out what he had said. By the time I had puzzled it out, the scuffling had started in the Dog’s room. They seemed to take forever to finish, but it was only a few minutes until the noises receded. I writhed out of the hole, took the flashlight, and then pulled Wolfe out after me.
For one horrible moment I though he was stuck and we would be trapped in the chambers of horrors forever, but he came loose and almost pushed me into a stack of tibias. We held on to each other all the way back out through the passages of dry bones to the dog chamber.
"Can these bones live?" I asked Wolfe. He shushed me, and then shook his head back and forth, like a puzzled bull before he selected our next turn. But he must have picked right, because two more turns brought us back out into the chamber of the dog eared man.
As we entered, a sudden surge of dizziness made me realize we had been breathing bad air the whole time we were in the mortuary passages. Wolfe must have been storing extra oxygen in his fat. I paused a moment to breath deeply and listen. I heard nothing but a steady dripping sound. I swung around the flashlight. It was the blond from the baths. He was sprawled out on the ground, dead.
I was still a little shaky, but I had recovered enough to keep my voice down. "I thought dead men didn’t bleed," I said, stupidly.
"You can not argue with gravity, Archie"
He was right, of course. The blood was dripping out of Blondie’s slit throat and pooling on the floor.
"We’d better go before his friends come back for him."
"If they return at all." I could see Wolfe’s lips quirk. "They may have been taken away by the British agents."
"That’s not all the Limeys may have taken," I said, suddenly. My wits were clearing, and I was beginning to think again. "Let’s go."
My suspicions were right. When we got back to the shaft we had climbed down, our rope ladder was gone.
"I guess it wouldn't do to stand on your shoulders. I wouldn't want to strain you, and I'd have to pull you up afterwards, and I don't want to strain me." I stared up at the small slivers of light shining between the boards of the trap door. Wolfe looked up briefly, then turned his attention to the graffiti-covered walls. "Are you going to read dirty words or are we getting out of here?"
"Patience, Archie." His calm was, as it usually is, infuriating. He was mouthing words to himself, running his hands across the rough walls.
"Are you sure? Maybe there's something in Braille on there we could use." I wasn't panicked, but I felt close to it. The bad air in the tombs, combined with the now-inescapable darkness was making me jittery. Wolfe wrenched his attention away from the wall and put both hands heavily on my shoulders.
"Archie," he said, "Look at me." He shook me so heartily I nearly dropped the flashlight, but it brought an ounce of sense back into my head. "As I said before, there are other ways out. It would be folly to maintain only one exit. The writing on the walls is a rudimentary code and I must decipher the directions."
So I sat with my back against the wall while he pitted his massive brain against the half-illiterate ancients who'd first chalked up the instructions. The backs of my thighs were sore, and my back ached. When we got back to the villa, the first thing I was going to do was have a hot shower. Company was optional. The way Wolfe was going, if he got me over one more piece of furniture in the next forty-eight hours, I'd probably be bedridden for a week. Masochistically, the prospect appealed to me.
"I have it," he said abruptly. I scrambled to my feet, and he pointed my light down a corridor that shot off the one we were in currently. The ceiling got lower and the walls narrower, but not so much that Wolfe had to shed any of his clothing. He took the light and I followed behind him again.
After a few twists and turns, and several more moments of deciphering, the passageway started to rise upwards a little. The air also became fresher, and even a little moist.
"Say, we aren't coming up in Alexandria bay, are we?" I asked suspiciously.
"So you've noticed," he said smugly. "Be on your guard, for there may be people about."
We continued rising until the ceiling sprang into a vault. The walls spread, and there were bricks under our feet instead of bone dust. Now passageways began appearing, peeling off left and right at regular intervals. It was positively damp, the walls were sweating, and in some places there were puddles on the floor. It was a welcome change for my poor lungs.
Ahead of Wolfe there was a studded wooden door. He pressed at it, and it was unlocked. It swung open without a sound on well-oiled hinges. Beyond was a huge, vaulted cellar. There was the hot red glow of a tended furnace beyond an archway, and the smell of steam and smoke.
"I believe you are familiar with this place." Wolfe ushered me through the door and into the cellar. "Or, rather, with its patrons. We shall have to change our clothes. Come with me."
He led me to one side of the cellar, and up a flight of stone steps. As we came out into the marbled hallway, I could have killed him. We were back in the baths.
But it turned out Wolfe’s death would have to wait for a later opportunity. We heard the harsh sounds boot heels make on marble floors approaching from around the corner, glanced at each other, and charged across the corridor. Wolfe charging for a door is like an elephant charging for a tiny waterhole, so I let him go through first before I followed him, and shut and bolted the door behind us.
When I pressed my ear to the keyhole, I could hear that the heels were continuing down the cross corridor, away from us. Well, at least now we knew how the Luftwaffe had gotten into the tunnels without tripping over us. I straightened up and turned around. We were in a linen closet, filled with baskets and baskets of towels. Wolfe was groping around in a pile of used laundry and, without thinking, I stepped forward and slapped his hand away. He gave me a tremendous glower, and I returned an exasperated look and mouthed, You don’t know where those have been. His eyes narrowed to slits, and he waggled one commanding forefinger across the small room at a basket filled with the largest size of towels.
We had to abandon our clothes by hiding them in an empty basket and piling some hand towels on top of them. There was not enough room for them in the single, large towel that I knew from experience was all a patron would condescend to carry, and they were covered with an odd-smelling dust from the passages that announced where we’d been to anyone who was interested. Wolfe hid the bag with the wooden fruit in his towel along with our wallets, and I managed to keep my Marley, the small crowbar and some pliers from the contents backpack. Now that my brain had opened shop again, I knew I’d need the tools later.
Trying to skulk down the corridors of a luxurious and decadent Turkish bath, dressed only in a towel, while evading Nazis, is one of life’s experiences to be missed, if you ask me. I could vaguely make out the layout of the building we were sneaking through. The rooms were built in concentric rectangles, divided by cross-corridors, around the steam and warm rooms, which were probably located directly above the furnaces we had passed in the basement. When we climbed up from the tombs, we came out on the far side of the building from the main entrance. As Europeans, we would stick out like sore thumbs in any of the outer rings of rooms, and that had been the way the boots were heading, as well. The route that made the most sense was for us to cut across the center of the building, through the warm rooms.
We made it down a connecting corridor into the patron’s area without being seen. That was luck: the place was busier than I had ever seen it before. Three times we had to hide or switch directions to avoid meeting with the owners of voices speaking the local lingo. The fourth time, Wolfe crossed to the far side of the passage we were skulking down, opened a door, and gestured me in.
It was a steam room, and its several occupants were---busy, too much so to notice us. We went out the far door and into a warm room, and then through yet another door and into another, smaller steam room, an empty one this time. To my surprise, Wolfe sank down on the room’s one bench. When I raised one eyebrow inquiringly, he said only, "Dirty faces." Right. Our clothes wouldn’t be the only part of us covered in dust. I sat down next to him, willing to wait in silence while we worked up enough of a sweat to sluice off the tomb muck.
My body figured that it was exhausted, and tried to make me fall asleep. I told it fat chance. Then it wanted to tell me all about old bruises and new strains. Big deal, I said. Next, it decided to relax and be happy. That would have been fine if I hadn't looked over at Wolfe. He was sitting with his eyes closed and his hands laced across his belly. On his chest, off to one side, I could see a faint red mark of teeth amidst the fur, from where I had nipped him in the underground chamber. I swallowed. His eyes opened, and he looked at me, scowling, before something shifted behind his eyes. I glanced down. A single drop of sweat was trickling down through the dust on my torso, heading for—No.
The towels were so covered with streaks of dirt that we had to abandon them after we finished wiping ourselves down. It wasn’t a problem. The patrons in the far steam room were still busy, so we stole their towels from the warm room. That left us with an extra, each. We departed out the last door of the warm room, which let out into a small, richly decorated corridor I hadn't seen before. At the end of the corridor was a pair of filigreed wooden doors. carved with a pair of peacocks. Wolfe squared his shoulders, opened both doors, and we went in. We had found the center chamber of the building: the room containing the heated pool.
It was about as big as Wolfe’s pool back at his little palace, but not as deep, and it was seeing a lot more use. It held a few handfuls of men, mostly locals with a few Europeans mixed in, lounging against the blue and gold tiled rim of the pool in pairs and small groups, gossiping, eating and drinking from small trays held out by the attendants, paddling idly, and—I met Wolfe’s gaze and he shrugged. Great. He was a lot of help. I looked up at the gilded skylights to see if there was any help there. Nope.
One of the poolside attendants approached us, and quietly made what was obviously an offer to help with our towels. I looked at him. He was the masseuse from my first visit.
Some days, architecture refuses to cooperate. I wanted the floor to open and swallow at least one of the three of us, but no dice. Instead the attendant looked at me and looked at Wolfe, smiled, and made some extended comments to Wolfe. Wolfe nodded, said a few sentences in return, quirked his lips, and put one hand in the small of my back to steer me towards the edge of the pool. I glared at him, and he said, his lips still quirked, "Among your other virtues, it seems we may include tipping with extreme generosity. Satisfactory, Archie."
"I hadn't mastered the local currency," I said, still glaring. At his gesture, I handed the towels I was carrying to the attendant, who displayed no signs of surprise at their weight. Then I paused. Wolfe unwrapped the towel from around his waist and waggled a forefinger at me. I unwrapped my own. After all, it wasn’t like I had anything either the attendant or Wolfe hadn't already seen. I refused to take into account the twenty or twenty five other occupants of the room.
We got into the pool, and our self-appointed attendant sank down on his heels against the nearest wall to guard our towels and await our requests. I saw Wolfe glance around, and knew, from long experience, that he was considering ordering food and drink. I had limbered up my mouth to share what I thought of that idea, when I heard the main doors open behind me, and the sound of boot heels on tile.
A brief thought flashed across my mind, and that was what the papers back home would make of my and Wolfe's death, by whatever means, if we were found naked, floating together in the pool of a Turkish bath. Then the rational part of me said what the hell, and I surreptitiously turned to see who our new arrivals were.
Two tall incredibly tanned blonde men were scanning the room with the intensity usually reserved for hunting dogs pointing for game. In this case, I had a pretty good idea who the game was: us, or someone fitting our descriptions. I froze.
Wolfe's brain sometimes works faster than mine, and the workmanship is admittedly better, so by the time I'd realized they were probably going to kill us, he'd already figured out a solution to the problem. He grabbed me and started kissing me. I would have said frantically, but there was reason behind it. Intensely, then. That would have to suffice.
It was brilliant, hiding right there in front of them. With my back turned, they didn't see my black eye, and Wolfe was shielding what bits of him he could with the rest of me. He busied his hands across my back. Between his kisses and biting, I mumbled "No furniture this time, I'm sore."
I'd wager fifty bucks the Germans weren't looking for a carnal couple highly involved with each other, right there smack dab in the middle of the pool room. On the salary Wolfe paid me, I could afford to be wrong, but I would have cleaned up right then and there. They looked right and left, and then started off towards the exit on the other side of the room, where heated passages led to the steam rooms again. They passed through the doors, boots clicking authoritatively, and Wolfe let me go.
"I was just starting to enjoy myself." It sounded like whining but I'd had a rough day. Wolfe looked about for our attendant, who was there at the pool edge in the blink of an eye. He ordered food, of course, because what else can you do when you're Wolfe and being chased by Nazis? Aside from the obvious, of course, and that was molesting your ever-willing assistant.
When my masseuse brought us food, I noticed that the wad of money Wolfe pulled out of his wallet was bulky, and his instructions about the disposal of the dishes seemed to go on for a while. Our attendant bowed, and left the room again. We leaned against the edge of the pool and Wolfe used his bulk to block me from view of the doors while he fed me grapes, and olives, and savory pastes wrapped up in scraps of flat bread.
"I saw this at the pictures back in Chillicothe, once, during a movie about Rome. It made me ambitious."
"Congratulations, then, for having achieved your life’s resolve." The far door opened, and he pulled me close and allowed his hands to roam. The hounds weren’t pausing, but passing through, as they returned the way they had come. It was too bad I couldn’t understand what the other patrons were saying. They seemed to approve of the free floor show the Nazis were providing, and I might have expanded my vocabulary some more.
"They’re not after us. They would have spotted my hair."
"I agree, although its usual color is somewhat muted by the stone dust from our first stop of the evening. It is a peculiarly intractable substance, which is why Italian stone masons wear caps. No, my explorations are merely intended to keep us in the background of their attention. No young man of that political persuasion would dare to let his eyes linger on our activities, which will, in turn, keep your description from moving to the forefront of his consciousness."
"Good, although that doesn’t mean you have to move your hand. Anyhow, that’s not my point. If they’re not after us, who are they after?"
I have to admit that one of my other life resolves is to see that particular expression more often on Nero Wolfe’s face. "You remind me, from time to time, of how far above the mean for the population your intelligence is." He kissed me with a focused possessiveness that would have made my toes curl in other circumstances. Okay, it made my toes curl right there and then. After an interlude, he added, "The clerk." The only reason I didn’t yell Eureka was because Wolfe has taught me to despise cliches.
"Do you think he took the scrolls with him?"
"I doubt it. They would be altogether too conspicuous if he was in a hurry to escape. Nonetheless, it is time that we were moving on—ah." His last comment was triggered by the return of our attendant, bearing towels and robes.
Now I knew why the attendant had been gone a while. It must have been a chore to find another patron of Wolfe’s dimensions to lift a robe from. My new garb was a stylish and sporty little number with horizontal blue stripes, and Wolfe’s rather resembled his caftan, but with more embroidery. There was also some cloth strips, one of which Wolfe wrapped around my head. The attendant quickly toweled us both down, with a merry comment or two when he reached my loins. I gave him a look.
The corners of Wolfe’s mouth twitched. "He expresses his admiration, Archie."
"I’m impressing myself, too, but not with my timing. By the way, you’d better warn him to blow this joint."
"Indeed. Too many parties are taking an interest in the Garden of Delights." He spoke to our attendant again. The man’s face went a little grim as he listened, and he made a gesture of thanks with his palms pressed together when Wolfe was done. Wolfe hesitated—he likes to keep expenses down—and then took the rest of the money out of his wallet and pressed it into the hands of our attendant. "We can go now."
He took my right arm through his own, I tucked the towels under my other arm, and we made fast work of crossing the far rooms. We only had to change directions once to avoid someone wearing European shoes. As he passed the archway we ducked through, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face: Schmidt, the assistant cultural attaché. Matters were coming to a head.
We paused at the edge of the lobby. It was empty, aside from a workman slowly sweeping the floor beneath one of the glowing alabaster lamps, and yet another crew-cut blond, this one in a white linen suit, reading a paper and leaning against one of the pillars by the door. The ledger on the clerk’s desk was missing, and so was the clerk.
"Gemmah bai deblohn," I told Wolfe. No need to announce our presence by speaking good American English.
He towed me across the lobby, lecturing me in what was probably Coptic the entire way. As we passed the blond, the man looked over the top of his paper, and then dropped it, pages fluttering all around him to the floor. Too late. I let him have it with the crowbar.
As he sagged to the floor, the janitor stopped sweeping, and stood gaping at us as we hurried back across the lobby to the clerk’s desk. One look at it convinced me that it would be an extended procedure to get it open without damaging the contents. But it wasn’t very large, and the woodwork had a lot of filigree to it. I grabbed one side and heaved, and the desk came up off the floor with only a little reluctance. Wolfe glared at me, but grabbed the other side and we carried it across the lobby towards the front entrance. As we passed the janitor, he finally finished staring, opened up his mouth, and let out a holler. We picked up the pace.
The full moon was bright when we emerged at the top of the steps, so we didn’t trip and kill ourselves on the way down. We’d made it to the street before we started hearing noises from the Garden of Delights. A lot of them were in German.
"Crap," I said.
"Crap, indeed," Wolfe said grimly, looking in the opposite direction. Down the main street, rapidly approaching, were a number of British military cars filled with men.
Wolfe let out a piercing whistle, and there was the answering grind of a taxi's starter. The same battered cab we'd traveled in earlier was back, and the same shrunken raisin driver was driving. The late hour had not dulled his ability for speech, either, and he babbled away after Wolfe and I shoved the desk into the back seat of the car.
Wolfe ducked down as low as he could to avoid being seen, and I tried to do the same. But there isn't much room left after Wolfe and a desk get into the back of a car, and my kidneys were most unceremoniously violated by a sharp corner. I yelped. We passed a knot of men waving flashlights and yelling. In English, I noted, and it sounded a lot like, "stop, you bastards," but I claim it could have been anything.
Wolfe was cussing because my foot was dangerously near his chin. I wrenched the desk around to give me a little more hip-room. Wolfe leaned forward and gave urgent directions to our maniacal driver. He cackled, spun the wheel hard to the left, and we careened off towards home.
There were only a few minutes to act after we entered the gates of Wolfe's residence. We dragged the desk into the library and Wolfe attacked it with the crowbar. The top came off with a crack, and beneath the inlaid surface was a compartment. It had been built to look as if the top was one thick piece of wood. Nestled inside the shallow cavity were four rolls of parchment, wrapped in linen and bound with grey cord. Wolfe scooped them up and examined them as he headed for the kitchen.
"Archie, do you feel like going for a swim?" he asked. He rummaged through the cupboards. I nodded.
"Sure, a midnight swim? Let me guess, we've been home alone all night, and Shenouda can corroborate."
"Precisely." Wolfe came away from the cupboard with a large, dark-blue glass jar. It must have held olive oil or fruit at one time, but now it was awaiting a far nobler purpose. Wolfe slid the scrolls inside and fastened the lid tightly. "This should be quite waterproof. Please dive down to the bottom of the pool and put it under the grate. I will deal with the desk." I was halfway to the door to the courtyard when he stopped me. "Oh, and also you must give me your clothes. There must be no evidence we were at the Garden of Delights."
Grinning, I shucked off my borrowed finery and took the jar with me into the pool.
Wolfe returned to the courtyard a few minutes later, in his yellow shorts. He was carrying two bathrobes and my swim trunks.
"Any revisions to the script?" I asked him. I swam over to the edge of the pool and put my chin on the edge. He handed me my shorts.
"Unless you would have the Luftwaffe and Herr Schmidt express their admiration as well, you should put those on." I smirked and put them on underwater while he entered the pool. "Shenouda will answer the door."
"Am I still your nephew?" I resisted the main urge I had, namely to leap on Wolfe right then and there. Instead I waded over to him and put my hand on his chest. Our eyes met. He smiled the tiniest smile and put his hand on mine. He squeezed it reassuringly.
"Doubtless they know you are not, so there is no further need for our subterfuge."
I leaned in and snuck a short kiss before the knocking started at the front door.
When Schmidt stormed in, I was cleverly doing a lazy breaststroke and Wolfe was disengaging himself from the water. Schmidt was red in the face, and the second he saw Wolfe he started to yell.
"Herr Wolfe, you have lied to me!" He was so angry he forgot which language he was yelling in, and switched back and forth between German and English. Wolfe filled me in on some of it later, so this is basically how it went at the time. "And you have lied to the government of this country! And the police! I do not know a single person you have not lied to in your time here!"
"Herr Schmidt, you have a most peculiar and untimely habit of interrupting my daily constitution." Wolfe growled. "You are flinging insults unwisely. Please calm yourself. It distresses me to have a houseguest in so foul a temper."
Schmidt sputtered with rage, but he managed to pull himself up short before he could use any of the words I'd looked up in the dictionary. Too bad. I was disappointed.
"Do you concede," he said stiffly, "that you have lied to me? That you have led the police to believe you are on vacation? And that you have yet to tell the truth to anyone?"
"I haven't lied to my nephew," Wolfe said blankly. This produced a scream of rage from Schmidt. "He is not your nephew!" He stormed to the edge of the pool and waved his walking stick at me threateningly. "He is a dangerous character who has assaulted one of my officers at a place of recreation!"
Wolfe turned to me as if in surprise. "Is this true?" he asked. I shrugged, and continued my lap. Wolfe turned back to Schmidt. "Where is the officer who was assaulted? Can he offer some proof?"
Schmidt nearly swallowed his tongue, but his self-righteousness was wearing thin a little. He lapsed back into German. "He is not available at this time." He was stammering. Wolfe pressed in.
"If he is not available, you have no grounds for defense," he said dangerously. "Unless you care to tell the local police exactly where your officer is, and what circumstances put him there, then you cannot storm into my house and accuse me of lying to you. You are duplicitous, Herr Schmidt. But I admire your nerve. My nephew will see you out, sir."
I sprang from the pool and helped him firmly to the front door with a hand at his elbow, and one at his wrist. He was seething when I evicted him.
"Good night, Herr Schmidt." Wolfe said pleasantly. I waved as he sputtered outside the gates.
"You haven't heard the last of this, Herr Wolfe!" he spat. He stormed towards his car, which was pulled up haphazardly onto the curb.
"Nice to see you again, Herr Schmidt," I called, and slammed the door. That was the end of Act One. I had a hunch we'd see more company soon, and Act Two was going to be pretty much the same.
"Our next visitors will not be so easy to dispose of," Wolfe said.
Shenouda drifted through the room and flashed us an "okay" sign. He seemed so pleased at his mastery of Yankee communication that I returned his gesture. He grinned widely and hurried off. "That exchange would be obscene upon the Isle of Cypress," Wolfe added, dryly.
"Remind me of that when I’m dumb enough to go there," I said. After Wolfe went to speak with Shenouda briefly we got back into the pool, and I tried the Australian crawl for a while, to see if I could swamp Wolfe. He bobbed in my wake like a buoy.
I had switched over to the backstroke when the British arrived. I swam over to the side of the pool, folded my arms on the tiled edge there, and gave their leader an interested look. He was short and round-faced and had a small, mousy mustache. He had a good tailor, I’ll say that much for him, but otherwise he was entirely forgettable: a perfect spy.
Wolfe had hauled himself up to the edge of the pool and was gazing inquiringly at our visitor. "Sir?" He widened his gaze to include the two tough-seeming characters that flanked the spy-master on either side." Gentlemen?"
The Brit did a little bob, halfway between a bow and a nod. "Mr. Wolfe, I am Anthony Greville. I apologize for intruding at this ghastly hour." He turned to me and repeated his gesture. "Mr. Goodwin. I am an admirer of your work. A great pity I was in Cairo, and we did not meet earlier. I would have liked to ask you out to dine at my club."
He sure was more dangerous than Schmidt. I gave him a lazy wave, and decided to poke. "You can still ask, if you want. Nice town you have here. I’d like to try one of the local restaurants."
Greville’s expression was mildly embarrassed. "I’m afraid that won’t be possible now, Mr. Goodwin." He turned back to Wolfe. "His Majesty’s administration in Egypt has declared you persona non grata, actually. You have one full day to leave this country." He paused, and then, with the air of a man attempting to be helpful, said, "There is an empty first-class cabin on a U.S.-flagged liner sailing to New York. I had my aide check for you."
"The Monroe? Thank you, Mr. Greville, but that will not be needed. I have made other arrangements for our transport. We will be leaving in the morning."
"Ah. I see. One other matter?" Greville proffered the crown magistrate’s permit to search with the delicacy of a headwaiter presenting the check. Wolfe received it like a Rockefeller, as if it meant nothing to him.
Greville was efficient. He’d brought a squad with him, probably the same men we’d dodged at the Garden of Delights, and they went through the house with care. As they worked, Wolfe went and got a book, offered it to Greville with courteous irony to be checked, had Shenouda light a poolside torch, and read. I watched Shenouda enjoy himself by following the Brits around and practicing movie slang on them for a while, and then dozed on the poolside furniture for an hour or two while they finished. I half-woke at one point when one of the policemen stripped down and splashed around in the pool, but I had confidence in the smuggler’s cache Wolfe had installed in the side of the pool drain. My faith proved justified and I went all the way back to sleep. When I woke up again, the night had grown chill, and Greville was saying good night, his lips pressed together just a bit more tightly than when he’d arrived. Wolfe had tapped me with his book.
"Say goodbye to Mr. Greville, Archie."
"Huh?" I wake up slow. "Oh, sorry. Goodbye, Mr. Greville. Send me a book in New York, and I’ll autograph it for you."
I have to hand it to him, Greville managed to crack a smile. "I’ll do that, Mr. Goodwin. Obviously, your tales are not as overblown as I had previously thought."
"Nah. Mr. Wolfe doesn’t like playing fast and lose with the facts, at least not more than is needed to protect our clients. He prefers to save up for special occasions."
"I see." He bowed to Wolfe, full out this time. "I shall keep that in mind, the next time you visit Egypt, Mr. Wolfe. You will forgive me if I hope it is not on my watch."
Wolfe nodded. It was almost benign. He needed to get back to New York; Egypt was doing strange things to his manners. "Good night, Mr. Greville."
"Good night, Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Goodwin. There will be men to escort you to your—ship? I thought so, in the morning."
He took his personal guards and left. Wolfe didn’t even wait for him to clear the door before he said, "Shenouda packed. I know you would usually object, Archie, but, since our luggage will undoubtedly be searched, I thought you would be willing to make an exception in this case."
"You thought right." I wondered what he had in mind for the scrolls, but I stood and stretched instead. "Well, if we’re sailing tomorrow, I’d like to get some sleep tonight."
"A judicious course of action. Come, Archie." I grinned at him and he raised his eyebrows. When we went into the house, one of Greville’s men was sitting in the hall. Wolfe ignored him, so I did, too. We went into the wing with the bedrooms, and I paused at the door to my room to say good night. To my surprise, Wolfe nodded towards his bedroom. I followed him, blinking, into his room, and waited for him to close the door before I raised my eyebrows questioningly.
Wolfe stepped in close and murmured, "I have had a chance to assess the young man left to stand guard, in hopes that we would attempt to overpower him and escape. There is a very good chance that, if we linger, he will try to eavesdrop upon us and, given sufficient provocation, report to his superiors that legal grounds exist for retaining us in this country."
"I do not want to sample an Egyptian jail, especially while accused of sodomy," I objected.
He gave me an exasperated look. "Archie, we have been declared persona non grata. They do not want us, they wish only the scrolls, and no one in the United States would believe such a fantastic tale on the evidence of a single British agent under these circumstances. His superiors will so inform him. Your other alliances are both now unavailable to testify, if you will remember, but that is not the point."
I rarely pull ahead of Wolfe, but he usually doesn’t lap me, either. "Can Shenouda swim?" A slow grin was spreading over my face.
"Like a very quiet fish. Once we are gone, they will search the house again, this time with precision. I can not risk that." He paused, and frowned. "What are you grinning at, you jackanapes?"
"You, sir," I said, and grabbed him.
No telling why he was surprised. He tried, alternately, to pry me off and reason with me, all the way across the room and down onto the bed. "Archie, you'll make yourself ill. You are already weary, and your body has been sorely abused. Cease attempting to prove yourself to me; I already know you are intrepid and able." I laughed at him, pushed him back on the coverlet, and kissed him. No matter what he said, his mouth was eager against mine, his lips firm velvet, searching. Our tongues continued our debate, parrying and thrusting, then making peace, caressing and exploring.
I broke away for some air, and to be sure. "If it's a matter of feeling too tired, I can wait, of course. We've had a busy day." I counted just how busy in my head, slowly, because he was distracting me, and added "Yeah. Busy. Uhnm." He had moved on across my neck and shoulder, down my arm, and was suckling my fingers and caressing my palm with his mouth, which kept him from answering me. One other, more direct, way to check: I used my free hand to work his trunks down as I lay beside him, squirmed around, and took a look. He started work on the back of my knees, damn it.
The evidence was persuasive, I admit it. "Not too tired. Okay, mmm, careful", I said, and kissed his cock. He grunted, and managed to get out something about this not being his idea of my taking care. It didn't quite make sense, because I was licking along the bottom of his shaft towards the tip. He settled for yanking at my own trunks, and lost the end of his little speech when he got them down, rolled me part way on top of him, and took me into his mouth.
My muscles complained at the position, but they'd just have to cope. We couldn't keep it going for long, but it was great while it lasted. When I had to back off, he had turned loose himself to catch his breath, and I swarmed back up him for another long kiss and a gaze. His eyes were narrow slits and I think he stole the smile from the Mona Lisa. He reached down and worked himself a little, with the intent consideration he gives to checking the maturity of an orchid. "Impetuous, radiant, exquisite whelp." His tone was both ironic and--well, I liked it, whatever it was.
I grinned and mock-flexed my arms as I lay beside him. "That's me, all right. Exquisite." I batted my eyelashes at him, and he snorted, and then chuckled, his voice deep. I'm not sure why, but that decided it for me. I assessed him as he lay there, looking like an old moss-back, the one the younger bulls underestimate, and felt a fierce possessiveness claw through me. Time to place my brand. "Roll over."
Wolfe raised his eyebrows, but I saw his cock twitch in his own grip.
"It'll keep the wear and tear on me down." My voice sounded strange in my own ears. I looked around the bedside table and found what I now knew would have to be there, somewhere: the hand lotion.
That was the last ride I took in Egypt that I'll never forget. When I went in the first time he swore at me, but not to get me to stop. He was tight, and hot, and eager around me, and the knowledge that he was yielding to me was almost as exciting as what we were doing. Almost. He was working himself against the pillow beneath him and making a lot of noise as I thrust against him. I said some stuff--never mind what, some of it made no sense--and pushed in to my root, ground at him, and groaned. The waves of heat were rolling over me, focusing down to where Wolfe and I were joined together. Then the first spasm hit.
I cried out and grabbed him tight, wanting it to be deep in him, as if it was going to be part of him forever. The baritone voice encouraging me, praising me, was all I wanted to hear. For a minute that stretched, everything was only Wolfe and I, as it should be.
When I was done, I pulled him onto his side so I could add my hand to his. My other arm was around that barrel chest as he came, and I could feel it heave as he gasped for breath and spent. His weight pressed hard on my arm afterwards, but I didn't care. I wanted to feel his heart under my hand as its pace slowed to a firm, even, beat.
We barely got cleaned up before I practically passed out. I slept well, which is probably the only reason why I didn't shoot him when he woke me up the next morning to go and catch our ship.
The kid the Brits had left behind acted like we had leprosy, which, for some reason, struck me as funny as hell. I'd grin at him and he'd go stiff, and then pale slightly. After a while Wolfe noticed what I was doing, glared at me, and told me to cut it out. He then apologized, which for some reason made the kid go even paler.
I shook hands gravely with Shenouda, told him I'd take him to a ball game when and if he made it to New York, and picked up our suitcases. When we went outside, two cars were parked by the gate. Greville was standing, waiting, outside the first one, his manner indistinguishable from the night before. They drove us to the docks, which made for the first calm trip we'd had through the streets of Alexandria. I craned my neck around trying to get glimpses of everything I'd missed. Wolfe clutched the seat in front of him, acting like he was still in an Alexandrine Taxi.
At the pier they searched both us and our luggage before they let us board, and Greville sighed and smiled when they found nothing. His handshake was firm, and he looked each of us in the eye. I gave him a friendly smile to show that there were no hard feelings on my part, especially since we'd won.
Wolfe had booked us into a suite. If he was going to suffer, he was going to do it in style. I didn't feel like arguing, since I'm not that fond of sneaking down corridors. We didn't bother to go on deck and see the last of Egypt. I was escorting him to the ship's library, so he could be irritated by the selection of books available, and to the bar and grill, so he could be horrified by the cooking. Then we went to the radio shack.
Wolfe read the radiogram from Alexandria back in our cabin. "Shenouda reports that they were searching the house even as he left."
"Do you think that they'll find the entrance to the mortuary tunnels in the basement, now that they can spend some time at it?"
"I would imagine so. Odd, that it never occurred to them to wonder why I would retain an house empty in Egypt for all these years. My name on the title was a convenience for Rhamad and for his business, and it was good to have a place of refuge, in case it was ever needed." He heaved out about half a bushel of air. "The first scroll should already be ready to leave in today's diplomatic pouch from the embassy in Cairo."
"I wonder where they'll end up."
Wolfe grunted, and looked dour. "There are rumors of a government warehouse outside of Baltimore. Pfui." His eyes turned to me, and warmed. "Do you wish to go up on deck and meet our fellow passengers?"
I was amazed. "What am I, a pulp hero?" I held my arms out. "Look at me, I'm a mess. A multi-colored junk heap. I'm going to bed and staying there, for about a week. Lots and lots of bed rest, that's what I need."
His eyes were amused. "You will starve, Archie."
My look at him was full of hope. "There's a fruit basket in the living room."
He actually laughed. He does that, about once a year. "The contents will not be of the best quality, but--very well. Pineapple? Apricot? Grapes?"
I nodded, and then stopped, because it hurt. "All of the above, yes, sir." It was definitely time to go and lie down. I wondered if he would peel the grapes for me.
And so, Wolfe and I bid a fond farewell to the colorful natives and attractive locals of exotic, mysterious Egypt. I don't expect we'll be back for a while, but that's all right. We have other exotic, mysterious regions to explore together, and ones where I don't have to listen to Wolfe bellyache about the food, the transportation, and the accommodations. Like the old saw says, all the best trips begin at home. In bed, I might add.