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Black Market Blues

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For Whenrabbitsattack

**

I can't say that Nero Wolfe let me get shot just because he wanted me to be quiet; that's much too simple. But wartime makes people do funny things sometimes. For example, I tried to enlist in the army so I could get sent to Europe and shoot bullets at some Nazis. (Wolfe pulled strings for that one and got me an undeserved commission and, among other things, a desk job and a safe place to sit out most of the action - none of which I wanted.)

With Wolfe, the war didn't seem to interrupt his schedule all that often. He kept his hours in the greenhouse and read a prodigious amount of books while sitting at his desk. There were, however, meetings with G-men I was not privy to. They came at any hour of the day or night in shiny black staff cars, and they didn't smile at all when I tried to take their hats and coats. Occasionally Wolfe would huff and puff about bureaucracy, and how the Army was promoting all the wrong people, and I would have to step in.

"General Carpenter has asked me to go to Washington again," I told Wolfe one morning as he came down from his orchids. "After the Peter Root case, he's worried about your judgement. After all, if you can't tell who's a murderer, and let one into your house, perhaps you're wrong about my abilities on the battlefield. I'm highly trained, after all, and should be let out once in a while."

"Pfui." He didn't even proclaim it so much as mutter it to the pages of his book. "I forbade you to go to Europe and General Carpenter knows that. I have done him enough services in the past six months that he will honour my request to have you remain assigned to my cases."

"That's fine for me, as long as I'm till in the army. What can I do? I could go AWOL, of course: you'd probably like the peace and quiet. I could sell state secrets to a German, if you'd let me into your meetings to learn any!" I knew that it didn't matter what I said, but only the fact that I continued to do so even under the scrutiny of his best glower. "The court-martial would be stupendous. You'd probably be ruined and have to go into hiding. I might be put to death -"

"Hm." He cleared his throat in the way that told me I'd gotten to him, so I shut up. "Archie, I understand your concerns. As a young man, you would naturally find the romance and glamour of the actions overseas enchanting."

"And the girls."

He ignored me. "In spite of how irritating you can be, you are quite indispensable. Unfortunately for me, you will continue to chafe at the bit until you get your way. I will not send you to the Theatre of War, but that is not to say you cannot be of some use on the home front."

I perked up a little at this. "Can I shoot someone?"

Wolfe's mouth twitched in a well-repressed grimace. "I would prefer if you did not. It solves very little of our problems." He pushed a letter across the desk, and I picked it up and gave it a look. "Mr. Panzer has been assigned to an undercover position at a training facility outside the city, and he has requested your assistance. He believes there could be a black-market trade in Army commodities but has been unable to trace the destination of the goods. I should think you would do well at this; your energy and drive make you the perfect candidate."

**

Saul was at the supply depot of a local induction station, so Wolfe sent me uptown with my duffel bag and fatigues to join in the fun. When I got there I got a haircut, then a drill sergeant yelled at me and made me do a thousand push ups, run in the mud of a football field until I was muddy and soaked to the skin, and then I got to eat lunch. As I was picking through the unidentifiable mess that the army liked to call 'grub' (which Wolfe would undeniably call 'pig swill'), a quiet little man insinuated himself unobtrusively at my elbow.

"Mind if I sit here?" It was Saul. He wore Corporal's chevrons and a short, brutal haircut. "I got an afternoon shift at the depot and I need a grunt. I got you assigned to my roster. Think you can play a Private, Major?"

I grinned into my mashed gruel. "Why not? I've been playing a soldier this whole war so far. This is the closest I've come to the actual military."

Saul said nothing, but he gave a small smile and dug into his plate of something.

"Of course, if the afternoon's entertainments is more of the same, I'm probably pretty lucky to be indoors."

Saul shrugged. "You're not a C.O. anymore, Private Goodwin. Don't forget that."

And boy, was I reminded quickly. After mess, I got to line up and march around while being yelled at some more, then sent down to Saul's supply crib with aching legs and blistered feet. He showed me through the stacks of trousers, shirts and crates of boots, the piles of socks, undershirts and BVDs with a quiet sort of pride.

"The boys come in with their papers, we kit them up and sign them off. It's not that difficult, but speed and accuracy are important," he explained. "Sometimes we don't have the sizes, or things are marked wrong. That's our problem. Sometimes we get repeat customers, they've misplaced something, or they need repairs, that's paperwork." He shrugged, and handed me a clipboard with a sheaf of paper on it. "You'll like paperwork. It's better than obstacle courses in the rain."

"Almost anything is."

Saul quirked an eyebrow at me. "You say that now, you might change your mind after a couple of weeks in this place. Like I told Wolfe, there's something else going on here that's not just regular supply issues. Things are going missing, paperwork's being faked. The kid I'm putting you with knows more than he should about a lot of the nationality tensions going on uptown. Something doesn't smell right to me."

"And you want me to sniff out a rat? I guess it's a good thing I'm Wolfe's trained terrier."

There was a new group of recruits coming in at 1400, so I got myself acquainted with the forms and the stacks of underclothes, and then was ready for the onslaught. By the time I got everything situated, Saul had his other minions at his beck and call. I joined the other two privates and Saul came by and gave us our assignments.

"Stapleton, I'm going to have to put you with Goodwin today. You show him the ropes today and I'll take Rosenbaum. We're taking general mess uniform and you'll do kit."

Private Stapleton was a square-headed and rather muscle bound young thug wearing those ubiquitous army-issue spectacles wartime had accustomed us to. I figured he was working the depot because he'd fog up on the football (or battle) field. The supply chain was pretty much where all the substandard recruits ended up; the short sighted, the chronically nervous and the shrimps. I had my briefing from Wolfe, and my poor performance on the field to back it up.

"Tough break, huh?" I chatted him up between compiling rucksacks and mess kits for recruits so new that, like me, they still had razor burn from their buzz cuts. "I coulda been anywhere else but here, and wouldn't you know: crack shot like me and they won't let me over there to shoot Fritz. I gotta wait til some quack says my asthma's cured before they'd ever consider deploying me."

"Yeah, real shame." I didn't like Stapleton, and it wasn't just his face that was unpleasant: pretty much everything about him was. He had an oily voice and the vocal eloquence of a bullfrog. "Though if you really wanna kill some Krauts you just gotta head to Yorkville." He paused a moment and then added, under his breath; "A couple of Jews wouldn't hurt either. Decrease the chances of the Nazis invading us when they get here."

So. This was what Saul had been talking about. Sure, there were some street incidents going on uptown and the police had it figured it was racially-motivated, but I'd never heard any self-respecting American say we should just march right up there. I figured I'd push right into his good side, if he had one, and steeled myself to say some wonderfully horrible things.

"Just think, a couple years ago they were touring New York City in that big special airship of theirs." This was true: I'd seen the Graf Zeppelin when it was visiting Chicago, and had gone out to Lakehurst in New Jersey to see it moored there. It was a giant, silver beauty of a thing, but strange and weird to see it fly so silently and effortlessly. I had not, however, been at Lakehurst during that fateful landing of the Hindenberg, for which I was pretty grateful. "Taking photos, you can take all the photos you need from a ship going that slowly."

A wave of recruits came through, and for a good half hour we worked in silence, stacking their arms with olive drab goodies and making them sign everything away. Through this, I watched Stapleton's face remain impassive, almost carved from stone.

"And don't think those prying perverts were just taking pictures of our towns," he croaked after the wave had receded and we were back to our routine of folding, stacking and counting "I hear they got whole spank-magazines put together of decent Christian girls that they spied in high-rises and on rooftops." Stapleton didn't sound disgusted, though I'm betting he thought he did. He sounded more impressed at the ingenuity of this obvious falsehood, and would probably be an avid 'reader' of said magazines. "Nothing sacred about America to them, the whole lot of them outghta just be dropping bombs on the whole continent, never mind saving all them repressed people."

"Well, I guess since I'm never getting over there, I can't do much." I straightened a stack of gaiters and double-checked the size list for the field overcoats, waterproof, men's, on my clipboard.

"Listen," he leaned closer to me and glanced around to make sure Saul and Private Rosenbaum weren't anywhere in sight. "You look like a nice guy. You know we got a problem in this country, same as them Krauts do. We all do what we can. I got some friends who tried to join the army too, but the good old U.S. of A wouldn't take 'em, so they've taken things into their own hands. We're meeting tonight, and if you wanna come, you can bring 'em a little donation." He motioned at the piles of supplies, which I knew were so badly needed both at home and overseas. "It's pretty simple. I'll show you what to do on the papers the next time someone comes through."

And so he did: the next hapless recruit came through, stammering and loaded up with so much gear he could barely see over the top. Stapleton grabbed an extra pair of cold-weather boots, a webbing belt and a folding shovel, made the kid sign for them, then tossed them into the trash can when nobody but myself was watching. It was an inelegant manoeuvre, but I had to admit it was successful, for at the end of our shift, Saul gave us orders to clean the crib, hand over the paperwork and take the garbage on our way out: Dismissed!

I trucked wearily down the corridor next to Stapleton with my trash can over one shoulder like an exhausted Santa Claus on Boxing Day. He showed me where the tip was, and then laced the boots and shovel together with the webbing and wrapped them up in some old newspapers.

"No one looks for good stuff in the garbage anymore, not since this rationing campaign," he complained. "But now you just drop by with your bag, and easy peasey." He pushed a wadded-up note into my hand. "Then come by this address tonight at 2100 to drop the stuff off, and I'll introduce you to some of my friends."

I was finally rid of greasy Stapleton by the end of the day, and at 1800 I messed again, filled up on more gruel, scrubbed myself clean in a shower with nineteen of my closest friends, and then ducked out to see Saul before I left the depot. I told him the events so far, and he nodded.

"I had a feeling it was something like that," he said. "But I'm his supervisor, and unfortunately a little more Semitic than, say, a Smith or a Goodwin. Be careful up there, Archie," he warned me. "Say, have you been issued a sidearm?"

"Are you kidding? They don't even trust me with my own tin helmet yet."

Saul drew a little pocket revolver and pressed it into my palm. "Hopefully you won't have to use it, but Wolfe would never forgive me if something happened to you."

I took it, somewhat reluctantly, but then I remembered the news that had come out of the Yorkville neighbourhood in the past few weeks about street gangs. No anti-Semitic actions, thank God, but there was a strong right-wing component that was pushing through the German businesses, trying to split the sympathizers from the regular folk. There had been some street fights and a couple of business had been defaced. And I was walking right into the thick of it.

"Well, my mother didn't raise a fool, and If anything happens, hey, I've done basic training, I can take care of myself." The revolver made me feel a little more secure, but now that I had an inkling of what I was getting myself into, it didn't feel all that reassured.

But Saul gave me a pat on the shoulder, and let me go without any more words.

**

I met Stapleton in front of the Café Mozart, still in my fatigues, with my duffel bag over my shoulder. I was feeling pretty well, all things (and waterlogged obstacle courses) considered. He met me with a rare, guarded smile on his soapy face.

"There's some friends of mine who'd appreciate the stuff in your bag," he said with a jerk of his chin. "Let's go inside for a coffee and we can talk."

"Yeah, sure." I was getting that feeling where the hair on the back of your neck stands up and you think someone's got a knife to your ribs, but I went in anyway.

Stapleton's friends were variations on a theme: squat, mean specimens of humanity, all of them with severe haircuts, all of them like some kind of thug line up that Kramer would kill to put together. They greeted me with a modicum of courtesy. Stapleton took the lead:

"Mitch, Lenny, this is Private Goodwin. He's just started with me at the depot." He pushed me forward to shake hands with the guys; I was impressed when I can away with all my fingers intact. "He's brought a present of goodwill for the movement. Show them, Goodwin."

I hucked the duffel onto the table and pulled out the boots (size ten), shovel and web belt. Mitch's face split into an ugly grin, and he grabbed the boots.

"Well done, Stan you actually got something in my size for a change." He grinned and shucked off his ill-worn shoes and laced into the boots.

"You'll want to break those in first," I warned him, "Tender feet and new boots don't go well at first march. I'm paying the price for that myself, that obstacle course this morning, and then the 10-mile run has done a number on my tootsies. You'll want good thick socks."

Lenny scowled at me, but grabbed the web belt and shovel from the tabletop and stuffed them into his own bag. "Yeah, so Goodwin. Stan here brought you to our little group, you've shown your good faith, now we're gonna go on a little outing."

I stammered over the sudden lump in my throat. "An outing?"

"It's nothing big. We're just gonna go and show a couple people who disagree with us that they gotta change their minds, is all." Lenny hefted the folding pack shovel that I'd provided. "All we're gonna do is intimidate them a little. Come on, boys." He heaved himself up from the table and wielded the shovel like a baton.

I could feel the weight of the revolver on my hip, and hoped I wouldn't have to use it. "We're going to go right now?"

"Sure, pretty boy, what are you waiting for, the great invasion?"

"Oh, you know, I've got Basic again tomorrow morning, I don't want to start anything tonight."

I was starting to get nervous, thinking that we'd have to start breaking windows or setting fires. We kitted up, and grabbed a couple of thick iron bars from behind the coffee shop bar. But oh, thank God, before we could start anything, a couple of large, burly gentlemen in white MP helmets busted into the place.

"Nobody move! Stanley Stapleton, Mitchell Saunders and Leonard Martin, you are being detained for acts against the U.S. Army!" One of the white helmets went to clamp irons on a couple of the thugs, but Stapleton managed to tear himself away and made for the door.

On second thought, I probably should have left it up to the badged-and-suited Military Police to apprehend the criminals, but I was so used to having to chase down Wolfe's suspects that I felt compelled to give chase.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Goodwin!" Mitch was tearing down the street swinging wildly at me with the folded shovel. "You some kinda hero or something?"

I didn't say anything, just concentrated on my feet and the layers of skin that were peeling off my poor abused feet as I stamped down the pavement. He turned, swung wildly at me with the shovel and missed, then I got at him. I grabbed his coattails and the two of us fell to the cement. He tried to punch me in the face, but missed, and the two of us scrabbled on the pavement for a few moments. The comforting weight of the revolver left my pocket, and clattered into the gutter. I tried to reach it, but it was too late; Mitch had already gotten a hold of it, and aimed it at me!

**

Now, after the fact, I can say that it didn't hurt half as much as the time I took a bullet in the lung, or even as much as the blisters and raw flesh that my time on the football field caused me. Thankfully, Mitch's aim was terrible and he only nicked me in the arm, but he did end up putting a hole in my army-issue overcoat which I ended up having to sign a requisition for, and Saul wasn't too pleased that I wasn't going to be working the rest of my assignment at his depot. But the diversion of goods from the supply depot was accounted for, the army was pleased that we'd stopped the leak, and I had seen enough action that would stick with me.

Wolfe didn't say much that following morning when he came down from his orchids and my arm was in a sling. He deposited his freshly-cut orchid vase on the corner of his desk, settled his bulk in his custom-made armchair and made a motion to open his current book. I cleared my throat. He peered over at me.

"Ah, yes, Major Goodwin. Mister Panzer reports to me that the takedown of the black-marker operation was successful, of course barring the incident in which you sustained your unfortunate injury. Seven people in total were arrested; the three gentlemen that you were acquainted with, as well as four others in a pro-Fascist organization operating in the Yorkville neighbourhood." He proclaimed. I might have been a little fuzzy from the pain in my arm, but I think what he gave me might just have been a smile.

"Not bad, getting injured in the line of duty."

He narrowed his eyes in a scowl and pursed his lips. "Of course, while your presence was sanctioned by myself and Mister Panzer, you are not eligible for a war wound citation." He spat the last few words bitterly.

"You think that's why I went off on this crazy caper?" I would have waved my arms around and given him a hard time, but I was still getting over the events of the day before and was still pretty sore. Instead, I just let Wolfe have his way for a change. "I wanted a bit of scenery beyond the walls of this office that I spend every day looking at. If I have to do it with a hole in me, that's still better than the day before."

Wolfe squinted at me over the top of his book. "You no longer wish to be deployed to Europe?"

"Oh, I still wish to be deployed, but I'm pretty much giving it up. What with my invented asthma and my flock of mother hens looking over me, I doubt I'd get as far as the ports." I wiggled the fingers of my wounded arm. "I'd rather get my medals for actual work instead of lying to an entire induction station."

"Hm. Well, I am expecting a caller this afternoon. I shall not be requiring your services. You should rest up." Wolfe opened his book and turned to his most recent marked page without another word.

Which I suppose was the best course of action. After all, I'd asked for it, and he'd given it to me. And hell, I'd had enough of basic training. I was taking the afternoon off to heal up, and soak my feet.

END.