The boy is singing in the trees. His voice, which is low for a child his age, resonates throughout the night.
He has never seen an orchid. He has seen a corpse.
He has not gained his signature weight that will give him the intimidating physical presence to loom over all he encounters. He does have the grace that is buried deep beneath it. He has the speed that will enable him to move as fast he wants to when he has to.
He is still years further away from being Wolfe and farther from New York. Beyond that, he has yet to meet Saul, and Fritz, and still later, Archie. There will be women, none of whom he will marry, though some he will come to respect. There will be clients, most of whom will pay. Some of them will try to kill him and some will die in his house.
But for now, he is a boy in Montenegro and his voice carries far.
"Jedina si za slobodu
Ti ostala srpskom rodu.
Dat ce Bog i sveta Mati
Da se jednom sve povrati."
He will remember these words when he takes care of Anna and when Marko lies cold in the morgue. They will come to memory when he is left standing, men at his feet, in battlegrounds and plush, heated rooms.
He will murmur them one morning, Archie lying quietly beside him, as they search for a killer in the dark mountains of his birth.
It is thought by those less knowing that Wolfe is the only actual detective in his office, though Archie would point out that if that were the case, why have they been taking money from the checkbook? Wolfe may enjoy his solitude, but he does not wish to work alone.
He selects his men carefully, not with an eye to prestige or billing, but to who will be best suited for the work. His men are drawn to him, for their own reasons.
Fred knows the least, which is what makes him the easiest to hire. He is reliable, a man who will follow orders without questioning what they lead to. He is unshakable, and Wolfe will always be much greater in his mind than anyone else. Fred flourishes, knowing his place.
Orrie does not know understand what his position is and pushes to get more. He is in the uncomfortable position of realizing he is not the best, but thinking he has to be better than most. Wolfe watches him with the knowledge that when Orrie finally quits his service, it will not be an easy ending. He will be right.
Saul can see, too, how things will end and how they came about, and this is why Wolfe and Archie trust him the most. He can see why Wolfe employs Orrie, but depends on Archie. He can see how things fit into Wolfe's schemes and he is content with what that means.
Archie is Archie and all that entails. Wolfe would not have him differently.
At 8 a.m., Wolfe takes his breakfast. He has been known to stretch it to 8:15, but he makes it a point to say nothing until he is finished.
Orchids at 9 a.m. and Theodore readies himself and the plants for Wolfe's inspection. He knows Wolfe will come back at 4 p.m. Visitors may be allowed to see the orchids if Wolfe is favorably impressed.
Archie sees Wolfe at 11 a.m. and is, on occasion, relieved by this fact.
Lunch is two hours later and dinner is at 7:15 p.m. There may or may not be a guest. Criticism of the food, by anyone other than Wolfe and a chosen few, is a dangerous maneuver not to be recommended.
There may be clients during other hours, but they risk ejection if they attempt to alter the hours set forth in any way. This is all known, or made clear, within minutes of arrival.
The schedule is set, and to interrupt it is to court disaster, or at least a bout of distemper. Wolfe is considered to be an immovable object in many ways. But Fritz knows that this has not always been the case. It is likely that at some point, rules will be bent.
Archie has always maintained he is irresistible.
"You are by far my favorite dancer," Lily said and sat down at their table. The Flamingo Club was particularly busy that night. Archie liked to believe still that they were the best couple on the floor. On this night, there was no one to prove him wrong.
"I thought I was your only one," Archie teased, joining her.
She laughed. "You are not the first man I have danced with. And I hardly think that I am the only woman you take out."
They smiled at each other until the waiter, bringing in flutes of champagne, interrupted them.
"Though where you learned to dance so well is a mystery to me," Lily added after the man left. "I have teachers, but none of them were half as much fun as you."
"I've had good partners."
"And you are Escamillo. I suppose it is in your nature to dance. Whether you do it with me or with Wolfe, you are constantly practicing your technique. It's hardly fair to any woman who has to rely on nightclubs to get her sport."
"You think Wolfe and I do the cha-cha in the office when no one's looking?"
"Not exactly like that." She reached over and took hold of her glass. "You do remember Wolfe is a bull as well. You flap the red cape and he charges after you. You dance around, taunting him into action, as you have said yourself to me."
Archie reached over and took his glass. "But no scars on me, right?"
Lily smiled again. Archie became suspicious of the gleam in her eye. In his experience, women with that look led to eventful evenings that included a dead body or two along the way.
"You had best watch yourself, Escamillo. In the end, the odds are in favor of the bull." This time the smile twisted at the corner of her mouth as she raised her glass of champagne. "It is only a matter of time until even the best fighter gets gored."
A moment later, Archie had regained his composure enough to clink glasses.
The evening had been going well. The food had been consistently superb, though that was not surprising, and the conversation had been well received.
Marko pushed back his chair and sighed in contentment. Then he threw a glance over at Wolfe. "There is this book now that I was given by one of my friends from a man in England that I think you would find interesting. The man's name was curious, Berlin, I think?"
"The songwriter?" Archie asked.
Marko chuckled. "No, not that one. Another one. Ah, that's it. Isaiah."
"I am familiar with the name." Wolfe finally contributed.
"But of course, you are. You know all men."
"There is a point to this," Wolfe said. He hated to have his digestion interrupted, and literary criticism was not a topic that lent itself well to the purpose.
"It's amusing. He had a quote from a Greek in it. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing."
"So what does that mean?" Archie was leaning forward, ignoring Wolfe's grimace.
"Well, you would be a fox. A man of many talents, but no overwhelming cause, I believe. Whereas a man such as myself has a cause and uses his abilities to support it."
Wolfe looked over at him at the last statement. Marko seemed lost in thought, but at Wolfe's questioning look, he roused. "And that would make me a hedgehog, if I follow that amusing theory."
"What would that make Wolfe?" Archie grinned.
Marko laughed. "Ah, but does not his name say it all?"
"Puns," Wolfe said eventually, with great distaste, "are one of the lowest forms of humor."
When Orrie Cather blows himself up at Wolfe's door, it is another death in a long line of deaths that Wolfe can call his own.
That people die for him is without question. Johnny Keems could have answered this. So could many of Wolfe's clients. They die on his doorstep and Wolfe takes most as a personal insult. Sometimes he solves cases simply out of affront.
That Wolfe may cause many deaths is also a known factor. There are corpses without names in the Balkans. More recently, several murderers never see the inside of a prison, but make the front page of the papers and the obituaries. Cramer can never prove how Wolfe makes it happen, but he knows it happens. The weapon may be a Mafia triggerman or a murderer's own bomb, but Wolfe kills them nonetheless.
This is Wolfe's justice and it can be as implacable as the hours of his day.
Archie's girlfriends are always lovely. Their hair color may change, their eyes may be brown or green, but they are consistently some of the most attractive women in whatever place he finds himself.
They may be mothers, daughters, secretaries or socialites. They are spirited, intelligent, good dancers, terrible liars, decent food critics, or avid appreciators of flowers. They come to him as clients, witnesses, or relatives of both. Some of them turn out to be murderers.
And the pattern is often the same. Archie will flirt with them, he will protect them, and Wolfe will be annoyed by most of them. He respects Archie's talents, however, and knows with a certainty that with most of them, they will be gone in a month.
Archie is chivalric without fail, but the women do not stay. Some get married. Some die. Some merely disappear and neither Archie nor Wolfe ever hears of them again.
The only one who remains is Lily and she knows far more about Archie's duties and commitments than they do.
The bell rang in the manner that inimitably marked the appearance of Inspector Cramer. Wolfe had contemplated sending Archie to block him at the door, but Archie's usual bravado of quitting several hours ago had put a stop to that idea.
Fritz apologetically showed Cramer in, which Wolfe acknowledged with a nod of the head.
Cramer looked around. "Where's Goodwin?"
"He is out, for the moment."
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
"I am not his keeper."
"I thought you knew where everyone was at all times, especially with him."
"Do you have a point here or are you merely taking over his services of badgering?"
Cramer ran a hand through his hair. His personal dispute with the universe was well marked on his face. "Yeah, well, maybe you can explain why one of my men spotted a guy on Fifth Avenue several hours ago who bears a pretty good resemblance to Goodwin talking to a girl that just turned up dead on Seventh."
It was now Wolfe's turn to show annoyance. "And you believe Archie's involved in the man's death?"
Cramer sighed. "You and I both know the kid doesn't tend to off people, but damn it, Wolfe, if you're investigating something I have the right to know before I see any more bodies turn up in the morgue."
"Inspector Cramer, I can assure you I am not currently involved in any cases. If Archie has chosen to take on a client, it is his own responsibility. He is currently, as he put it, letting someone else take over the job of making me work."
"In other words, he quit again?"
"He believes he is no longer under my service and is not reporting to me on his activities. If you wish to find and question him, I can give you no assistance in that regard."
"But he's going to show up here sooner or later. I might as well save time and wait until he comes back."
It only took one displeased grunt from Wolfe, but that was enough to make Cramer's long-simmering temper explode.
"Look, I've known you long enough to know that when he's involved, you're going to be involved. It's just a matter of time and I'm too damn tired to wait until you two work out who's getting paid and who has to apologize to who."
Wolfe stared coldly back. "If and when Archie decides to come back, you may question him then. Until that occasion, I cannot allow you to interrupt my evening."
"Fine. But the minute you see Goodwin, tell him he has to talk to me. You know it's better me than some D.A." Cramer stormed out of the office, grabbing his coat.
At the front door, he yelled back. "Oh, and Merry Christmas."
Wolfe waited until Cramer had slammed the door behind him, before sitting back in his chair and closing his eyes.
There were many times in which Wolfe could have acted upon his impulses, times that would have been far more suitable for narrative purposes.
He could have confessed after the disastrous holiday party, in which Archie learned that humiliation for Wolfe in any guise was preferable to loss. But Archie did not press and Wolfe could not explain on his own.
He could have said something at any time in dealing with Zeck, or when it was all over and everyone was safe again and another threat taken care of. But he said nothing that would have been construed as a romantic proposal.
There were bombs, attempts on their both lives, numerous close escapes with engagements and marriages on Archie's parts, and trips overseas that were rarely relaxing. Any of these could have conceivably led to a situation in which someone fell into someone's arms or made a last minute confession under the belief of certain death.
Perhaps the best time for Wolfe to have declared undying love was when he first saw Archie and knew that all his plans were likely to becoming far more complicated than he initially anticipated.
But this was what he said. "I suppose you are going to be troublesome."
And Archie never said no.
The latest client was a poet and a horrible one at that. I knew Wolfe had his own list of writers whose mention would send his muscles twitching, and I had a feeling I could add this one to the list. Still, he was doing his best to be polite, considering he was paying us a good deal of money, though I figured Wolfe had doubled the bill as his own form of criticism.
"You know," Randolph said to Wolfe, "I intend to write a poem about you in my next book. For all you've done."
This did not impress Wolfe, but I perked up. The last dedication he had gotten, notwithstanding my own work, was from Paul Chapin, whose book gave me a solid month's worth of material to use against Wolfe. There was something about seeing your boss referred to as a "horrible man whose death was richly deserved" that could make you feel warm on the inside, particularly if he had been in one of his moods.
"That is not necessary, Mr. Randolph. Your payment is adequate."
"No, I insist. You've read my poems, right?"
Wolfe had, but I didn't think Randolph particularly wanted to hear the comments Wolfe had made ten seconds after I began my rendition of "Upon Viewing a Snowy Road, While I Was Walking."
"I have. I must insist that it is not called for. I would prefer to keep my matters private." This, for Wolfe, was a declaration of war.
Randolph seemed inclined to drop it after Wolfe said that, and left the office, dropping a check on Wolfe's desk. Since it didn't bounce and he didn't call back, I assumed Randolph was done and the office would be free again from literary terror.
It was seven months later at the end of a blackmail case that was neither neat nor remunerative when Wolfe received a package in the mail.
The clock struck eleven as he greeted me, then scowled down at my hands. "What is that?"
"Well, sir, it appears Randolph was overcome with your splendor and felt he just had to write a ten-page poem. It's called `Genius, Visited In New York.'"
I'll give Wolfe credit. He lasted until "golden lion of wisdom."
There is little in life Wolfe has feared. Violent men can be dealt with, for the violence often makes them more stupid and prone to error. He has not met Zeck yet, so he has no experience with the man's coldly murderous precision.
Wolfe may dislike vehicles, bad weather, and a litany of objects and situations, but they fill him with distaste, not with fear.
He has been imprisoned, threatened, and intimidated, but Wolfe remains calm throughout, knowing he will prevail.
In the hospital, Archie breathing shallowly, oxygen pumped to his lungs, Wolfe does not know what will happen.
And now he is afraid.
Archie will make no speeches about beauty. He will use neither the words he uses on women, nor will there be gifts of flowers. There will be no dancing at the Flamingo, no dates in theatres, no exchanges of intimate dialogue over the phone.
Likewise, Wolfe will not launch into any grand declarations. He will not suddenly venture out of the house to pursue dates in restaurants, nor will he spontaneously decide to read from romance novels.
In this, matters proceed as they always have in any case where Wolfe openly displays a vulnerability to Archie. Nothing will be said, but everything will be understood, quickly and quietly.
Though things will change. That, too, goes without saying.
Much later, after clients, cases, and even friends have all come to an ending, Archie sits on Wolfe's bed. The house has not changed for the most part, though Fritz and Theodore no longer watch over their domains.
"There is much I regret, Archie," Wolfe says.
Archie says nothing to this. He has his own. Lily left the world as lightly as when she met him, laughing at a man too foolish and brave, she said, to accept any form of defeat. She was too young, he thinks, but he is used to that with his friends.
"I should have let you go long before this point," he adds when Archie is still silent.
"I wouldn't have left you. At least, not permanently."
"No, you are far too stubborn to try to control. I gave up years ago."
Archie grips Wolfe's hand and leans over to kiss him. Wolfe touches him as carefully and firmly as when they first kissed.
Time passes, though it never seems to in the brownstone. Wolfe begins sinking back into his pillow. It is snowing outside and the front door will likely be blocked in the morning. Archie reminds himself to call about it.
Wolfe closes his eyes, and Archie stays for a few more minutes, before letting go of his hand. A shadow falls across the room, and when Archie looks to the window, he sees a flock of birds mounting to the sky.