Archie returns to the brownstone on West 35th Street in the winter of 1944. Saul brings him from the train station in the cold hush of 3 a.m., the streets glossy with frost under a heavy pink sky. There is a quiet, savage twist of satisfaction to see Archie cross the threshold of Wolfe’s household once more. A sense of things set right.
But Nero Wolfe’s pleasure is as delicate as a wisp of cricket’s bone. Archie is thin. His hand is small and spiney in Wolfe’s when he grasps it in welcome.
His smile is tired and crooked, knowing in the dark. He does not let go.
When the army calls, Archie goes. Whatever effort Wolfe had made to keep Archie from it -- and Archie is sure, with the absolute certainty of his own particular brand of unknowing, that Wolfe did make the effort -- dissolves into quiet failure. Neither of them speak of it.
Dinner is shad roe aux fines herbs, followed by duckling roasted in cider with Spanish sauce. Saul is at the table and Fred, too. A notable deviation given Fred’s previous trespasses, but Archie is going to war and all things seem permissible.
The topic at dinner, lead --as always -- by Wolfe, is innocuous and thorough. A survey of organic architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright’s many sins propagating, unchecked, out in the wilds of Pennsylvania.
No mention of the war, or Archie’s bag by the door.
Archie knows that this is Wolfe being polite. This is Wolfe bowing to circumstance.
When Fred has left and Fritz has retreated to the solace of his kitchen, Wolfe clasps Archie’s hand. He makes no production of it. It’s the simplest and most unassuming of gestures, palm sliding warm against palm, but the base of Archie’s spine tingles for it all the same, as though it were something else entirely.
Saul takes him to the train station, slinging Archie’s bag over his narrow shoulder with his usual wary silence and half smile that make Archie grin back.
On the platform, amidst a sea of hurried red-cheeked commuters, Saul pauses, fingers catching at Archie’s elbow. He pulls a trench lighter from his pocket, the brass nicked and scratched with use. Saul strikes it once, the brief lick of sparks sighing a crackle before giving way to a tiny flame.
He nods once before passing it to Archie.
There are no orchids where he’s going, no three-foot globe and plush red chair.
In Normandy a grenade punches the sound from Archie’s ears. He bleeds, deafened and dumb-struck at the bottom of a hole in the black ground. For a long moment, he’s aware of nothing but the hot trickle of blood down his neck and the cool rain of dirt on his face. The brightness of the stars and the kaleidoscope riot of anti-aircraft fire flood his vision in a wash of quivering war-light.
And then nothing.
What they do to him, when he’s well enough for it, is not unfamiliar. From either end.
Sprawled in the dirt of his cell, Archie’s mind wanders. The light, flittering edges of his consciousness snag on the old peaks of long unvisited memories, and catch, briefly, on the sharpest bits.
Billy Johansson turning in a pool of dusty attic light towards Archie and pulling him down with ink smudged fingers between a heavy stack of Encyclopedias and lopsided towers of National Geographic. Billy smells like paper and graphite. His mouth is softer than Archie has supposed, but he has no base line, yet, to judge it against. Only the snapping thrill of desire cracking down his spine and coiling low in his belly. He’s clumsy, blindly rubbing the erect parts of himself against the warmth of another body. It’s a thrilling sort of uncertainty, and Billy trembles, too. Archie is light headed with the scent of books and fresh sweat, moans –
- Peter Bronquist’s knuckles crashing into the meat of Archie’s cheek while his cronies crow behind him. There are words flung at him. Squat, ugly, and dangerous words that make Archie’s bloodied lip curl and his fists ball. Maybe the acid in his belly is shame. He doesn’t know.
He muffles it with the sound of Peter’s nose breaking, stifles it with the pound of his blood and the ache in his foot from where he kicks, hard, until frantic arms pull him away.
Archie puts it away, after – Billy and the inclination. It’s a load of trouble for him so he unloads it. Pragmatism is his first, best virtue and none can tell him differently.
He loses Saul’s lighter and maybe a few other things, too.
They do a number on him, maybe the last one.
Either way, Archie knows he’s cracked when the next time he opens his eyes he’s looking down at himself.
He takes in the whole soiled mess. The mottled green bruises and dark, gummy blood coating sallow skin, tinged blue with cold. Grit under the finger nails, mud caked to the feet, shit and the last dregs of dirty snow. All the sordid details.
What’s on the floor is rotten and Archie wants no part of it.
It’s Wolfe in the darkness. The entire seventh of a ton of him situated in the only chair in the world built to bear his weight.
“Nothing doing, sir. I’m off the clock.”
Wolfe, or the idea of Wolfe, Archie supposes, shakes his head. A massive engineering effort.
The visage of his delusion is suffused in the soft light of the office at dawn, honeyed rays from the windows falling agreeably across the afghan rug and catching neatly on the brass details of Wolfe’s desk blotter. Dust motes drift dreamily behind his head. The yellow leather of his custom made chair looks plush in the rising light, as though inviting touch. It would be smooth, Archie thinks, warm under his hand.
Archie feels himself twist, feels himself roil on the inside. There’s no point anymore in not knowing the shape of his desires, the queer, untenable nature of them having grown deep, strange and hungry in the dark places of himself. And nothing certainly, to hide from a figment his own imagination - the last spasm of derring do before his number is well and truly up – but Archie has his pride, still.
“I prefer the world with you in it.”
Pompous bastard, so goddamn entitled to his own convenience.
Archie turns back to the meat on the floor, and is repulsed. Its eyes are open, unseeing. Its hands, once so clever, so fast and easy with the quick snapping keys of the type writer, the slick butt of the gun and smooth skin of a woman – are curled weakly around nothing now, the knuckles scabby with blood where the cold air has dried out the skin and left it cracked with want.
Archie, who has lived so fully in his body, so proud of his freedom and movement, has no appetite for it now, here at the end of the world, where everything has gone to chill and gunmetal.
And even if he could, even if he wanted to -
“What the hell for?”
Wolfe is inscrutable, untouched and untouchable.
“There, Archie, you are mistaken.” His raises his hand, palm up – Archie hears the sigh of yellow silk under expensive wool – and proffers it.
As much as Archie wants to be rid of the thing on the floor, the fact remains that he wants this more. Wolfe’s hand in the darkness, deft and sure.
Wolfe crawled back inside himself, once, in the shadow of a cold mountain while his brothers in arms froze in rags under the cruel snow. Archie had far less than even that - the woeful camaraderie of the dead - to goad him back towards life.
Archie does not let go of his hand. Wolfe does not withdraw it. He has asked for just this, and knows the cost. He will rise to meet it, with whatever passion might be had.
Archie returns to the brownstone on West 35th Street in the winter of 1944.
All things seem permissible.