If you're thinking I don't usually do this, you're right. When there's a story to tell, Archie's usually the one doing the telling. He likes it, and he's almost as good at it as he thinks he is. I have to admit, he's got a way with words. But this story? You won't hear it from him.
Mr. Wolfe scowled, not at me. "The situation has grown intolerable."
"Yes, sir," I agreed. "It is a problem." I leaned back in my chair and waited. I knew what was coming next.
"Well? Won't you reconsider?"
"With all due respect, Mr. Wolfe, you know what my answer is." The scowl was now directed at me. I shook my head and shrugged. "I enjoy working for you. You're my best client, a good friend, and I will always do what I can to make myself available to you when you need me. But I like being my own boss. I've put in too many hours over the years, put too much money into someone else's pocket, for me to give that up now."
"I cannot deny that you are probably better off as an independent, Saul," he admitted grudgingly. "But confound it, things can't go on like this."
"I'm sure Bascom feels bad about what happened. Maybe if you talk to him, give him another chance..." I stopped when he shook his head.
"I have spoken to Del Bascom, and he was suitably chagrined over the puerile performance of his man. He promised it would never happen again, but how can I be sure of that?" He turned up a palm. "Using his operatives as the occasion warrants may be unavoidable, but relying on them on a daily basis is unacceptable. Neither Bascom, nor any other agency in town, can be counted on to consistently supply the right individual when I need him."
I could see his point. The big outfits like Bascom's or the Metropolitan were okay when all you needed were no-frills eyes, ears, and legs, but if you were expecting brains to come with the package, good luck. The quality and caliber of their operatives were passable at best, and if you go by Wolfe's standards, they weren't even that.
He said, "Pfui. I must have someone directly in my employ, someone reliable and intelligent. I see no other alternative."
"You're acquainted with most of the free lancers in town, at least by reputation. Did you have one of them in mind?"
"You are the only one I know of who meets the necessary criteria, Saul, but I won't press the issue." His lips pursed slightly. "You are well aware of what I require, have you any other suggestions?" he asked.
I thought about it for a moment. "Are you dead set on someone who already has their ticket? Because there are advantages to looking outside the club. I mean, you can teach a reasonably savvy and able-bodied guy the trade, the basic nuts and bolts of the job. But some of the other things, the intangibles, those are harder to come by."
"You mean, someone who will put up with my eccentricities," he said dryly. I didn't answer that with words, I didn't have to. The corner of Wolfe's mouth twitched and he went on, "I suppose that would have to be a significant consideration in selecting a suitable candidate. But to answer your question: no, he wouldn't need to have a license in hand to start, since he would be working under my auspices."
I nodded as I got to my feet. "It's still a tall order, but I'll keep my eyes open and my ear to the ground, and maybe someone will turn up. Thanks again for the dinner, sir."
"You're welcome. Good night, Saul."
Truth to tell, I figured the odds of finding someone to fit the bill were slim to none. I put out a few quiet feelers over the next couple of weeks, but I wasn't surprised when they didn't pan out. Not that there would have been a shortage of interested applicants, if word got out that Wolfe was looking to hire an assistant, but let's face it—it was going to take a special kind of guy to handle that job, to handle him. I hadn't seen the like, and honestly, I didn't think I would.
Divorce work wasn't exactly on the top of my hit parade, but a case came by way of a referral from a very good business client, so I took it on as a favor to him. His sister, Theresa Collaci, suspected her husband of having an affair. Too many nights spent away from home, supposedly on business, had convinced her that he had another woman stashed away somewhere. She wanted me to prove her suspicions, get the goods on him and his mistress.
Mrs. Collaci was a tall, heavy-set woman in her early fifties. She had the kind of face people tactfully called "handsome"—strong features, prominent bone structure; undoubtedly very striking in her prime, but not ever what you would call pretty, not by any stretch of the imagination. She'd fixed me with a steely glare. "I won't be made a fool of, Mr. Panzer. Lucas is mine. I'm going to make him pay dearly for cheating on me." I didn't doubt her for a second. That night, when Collaci slipped out of their Upper East Side home, I slipped into the shadows behind him.
Collaci was a few years older than his wife, of average height, with a barrel chest and broad shoulders that must've come from years spent in hard manual labor. His custom-tailored suit and gold cufflinks proclaimed that he didn't have to do it anymore, though. He looked every bit the distinguished executive, from his elegantly graying temples down to his shiny wingtips. He didn't particularly seem like the philandering type, but then again, you never knew. If all adulterers looked the part, people wouldn't need us private dicks to dig up the dirt, and there'd be a lot fewer jobs to go around.
Collaci drove off in his roadster and I followed him in a hack. The cabbie, who went by the name "Seesaw," was a friend of mine. It was late and traffic was thin, but Seesaw knew what he was doing, kept a discreet distance, and I could tell Collaci hadn't spotted the tail. It surprised me a little when we turned toward the industrial part of town. There weren't very many kept women that wanted to be kept in that neighborhood.
I started to have serious misgivings when we ended up out at the waterfront. I knew Collaci ran a shipping operation, and began to wonder if the man really was working late. Still, there was something fishy about the whole thing, no pun intended. I waited a while, then I left Seesaw at the entrance to the docks with instructions to sit tight, and went in on foot.
I took my time and watched my step as I made my way between the long buildings. There was just enough fog hanging in the air to give a man a false sense of security, make him feel anonymous and invisible as he moved through it. It would be easy to get careless and let your guard down. Sure enough, noises up ahead told me that somebody forgot how sounds carry a long way near the water. Sloppy. I let my ears steer me in the right direction.
A block of yellow light appeared, an open door to one of the warehouses. I crept up quietly and stood off to one side. From where I was, I couldn't see anything, but the sounds I heard were definitely coming from within. I inched closer, crouched down, and peered around the jamb. There still wasn't anyone in sight, but several rows of casks gave away the show. Collaci was cheating, all right, but not on his wife. He was two-timing Uncle Sam.
In those dark days between the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments, rum-running off the Jersey shoreline was a very profitable enterprise, as long as you managed to avoid the Coast Guard patrols. Collaci apparently did.
Using a stack of crates as cover, I snuck into the building. It was well lit inside, and I tucked myself up as tight against the boxes as I could, so as not to throw a shadow. I hoped no one was coming late to the party, as I was a sitting duck with my back to the door, and the noise from the other end of the room would drown out any footsteps behind me until it was too late.
But the noise—it was the sound of someone getting the living daylights beat out of him, the unmistakable sound of fists meeting flesh, over and over. I raised my head slowly over the top of the stack until I could see what the rumpus was.
Collaci was standing with his arms folded across his chest, watching impassively as three goons worked over some poor schmuck. Two of the gorillas were propping up the human punching bag, while the third was getting in some practice with his jab and his right cross. The punching bag looked bad; he was conscious, but I didn't think that was going to last very long, one way or another. Then Collaci raised a hand, and the palooka backed off.
"Serves you right, Red," Collaci said, shaking his head. "You should have taken the deal I offered you. All you had to do was look the other way."
Red's head lolled a bit, then it came up, and his one good eye tracked until it found Collaci. "Nuts. Smuggling booze is one thing, but dope? No dice."
Collaci froze. "What the hell are you talking about?" he growled.
"I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I know mesca when I smell it. And your hop-head boys," Red gestured with his chin, "they talk too much when they hit the smack."
Collaci's face turned ugly. "Maybe they do shoot their mouth off, but so do you, wiseass. When I hired you, I thought you'd come around, figure out where the smart money was. I was wrong, and I hate being wrong. Consider this your notice of termination." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a gun. He waved it at the bruisers who were holding Red, and they stepped away. Red swayed a little, but managed to stay on his feet. He faced Collaci without flinching. I think he even smiled, although the blood made it hard to be sure.
I was heeled, but judging by the bulges under their jackets, so were Collaci's men. Outnumbered and outgunned—I didn't see any way of coming out of this clean, but I was stuck. I pulled out my roscoe and yelled, "Freeze!"
Then things got a little ... hectic.
"You were quite lucky to have avoided injury, or worse. Not many men would have run that kind of risk for a total stranger." Wolfe shook his head.
"Come on, sir, you wouldn't have let a man be murdered in cold blood either." He gave a noncommittal grunt, and I tried not to smile. "It was a close thing, true enough, but I had the element of surprise on my side. And the kid." Yeah, he was a surprise, too.
When I shouted, 'Freeze,' he was the only one who didn't; just for a second, but that made all the difference. He threw himself at Collaci with more speed and strength than I thought he had left in him, and they wrestled for control of the gun. It went off, Collaci went down, and suddenly things weren't quite so lopsided anymore. The thugs scrabbled for their holsters, but they were slow off the mark. Like I said, sloppy. When the smoke cleared, me and Red were the only ones standing. Three of them, including Collaci, never would again.
"What happened afterwards?" Wolfe asked.
"We got hauled down to the Tenth for a grilling, naturally, but it was more a formality than anything. The cops had searched the warehouse and found a huge stash of Lucas Collaci's drugs, guns, and liquor. Between that evidence and the confession from the remaining goon, they knew the shootings were self-defense, so they let us walk. I don't think Cramer was too thrilled about that. He's a good cop and a decent guy, but you know how he gets whenever he finds private detectives sniffing around his turf."
"I do indeed," Wolfe said dryly. "The Captain may not have liked it, but it would have been foolish to charge the two of you under those circumstances, and Cramer is no fool. I understand he is up for a promotion. The last thing he would want to do is jeopardize that with the false arrest of two upstanding citizens who took down the operations of a major dope peddler. Think how that would read in the newspapers."
"Yeah." I grinned. "You should have heard the kid, Mr. Wolfe. He told the cops that he and I had been performing a public service, and that they should pin a medal on us. I thought Cramer was going to pop a blood vessel."
Wolfe snorted. "I can well imagine. How is he doing?"
"After we left the precinct, I took him to St. Vincent's. He was roughed up pretty bad, but nothing was broken, and he wouldn't let them check him in. I think he was worried about the bill, being unemployed and all, so the doctor just patched him up and released him. I've been visiting him at his boarding house, and he seems to be managing okay."
"Has he no family?"
"Not around here, no. He really is just a kid; a Midwestern farm boy trying to make it in the big city. He took business courses back in high school, probably thought that was going to be his meal ticket, but..." Wolfe nodded. The whole world had yet to truly recover from Black Tuesday, and New York was no exception.
"So. You like him."
I nodded. "I do."
"Young, brash, and cocky."
"Yes, but also quick, intelligent, and gutsy," I countered.
Wolfe leaned back in his chair and looked at me intently. "The Chinese believe that if you save someone's life, you become responsible for it."
I shook my head. "That's not it, sir. Look, I agree he's what you might call an unlikely specimen. But let's be frank: We both know it will take a horse of a different color to be your assistant, especially the kind of assistant you want. I think he has what it takes. Why not meet him and see for yourself? Maybe give him a little assignment, see how he does?"
He thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "I trust your judgment, Saul. If you think he has potential, we must find out how far that potential reaches." His eyes crinkled a little in the corners. "Let's see if your dark horse is the right color."
"Mr. Wolfe, this is Archie Goodwin."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Goodwin."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wolfe. Oh, and call me Archie. Mr. Goodwin's my father."
"As you wish. You prefer that to 'Red,' I take it."
Archie grimaced. "Collaci thought that was funny, for some reason. I don't."
"Very well. Please, sit down."
I motioned Archie to the red leather chair, and took a yellow one that was off to the side. There was silence for a minute or so as they each took their measure of the other for the first time.
Wolfe is impressive, and not just because of his size. He has a commanding, charismatic presence and a voice that demands your attention, and holds it, too. He's not given to big, sweeping physical gestures, but somehow that makes his little ones all that much more significant. If a fellow was paying attention, he'd know that there was horsepower working behind those shrewd brown eyes, and one glance at Archie told me he was paying attention.
For his part, Archie was still sporting some mighty colorful bruises and a black eye that made him look less than impressive and more than a little disreputable. However, if you looked past that, you could tell that under normal circumstances, he'd have no trouble in the looks department. He was, as advertised, not a redhead—technically speaking, anyway. He was tall and muscular without being bulky, and moved with an easy grace. His voice was pleasant, his grin charming. But his greatest asset, at least to my mind, was his confidence. In our admittedly short acquaintance, I had yet to see him cowed by anyone or anything—not Collaci with his .45, not Cramer, not even Wolfe. It wasn't arrogance, though I could see it might come across that way to others. He just ... knew who he was.
Wolfe noticed it, too. "You don't blend in well, do you?"
Archie smiled and pointed out, "I could say the same thing about you, sir."
"That may be, but it is not necessary for me to do so. It may, however, be necessary for you."
"Don't worry, I'll manage," Archie said matter-of-factly.
Wolfe frowned. "You do understand what the job requires?"
"I get the general idea. Part office work, part field work, and a partridge in a pear tree. I'm sure being your personal assistant means I'll wear a lot of different hats, am I right?"
"Yes. A confidential assistant. Discretion will be paramount. Can you control your impulses?"
Archie nodded thoughtfully, all business for the moment. "I think so. 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, yours is the earth and everything that's in it.'"
"Kipling," Wolfe said approvingly.
Archie gave an embarrassed laugh and rubbed his chin. "Yeah, something I read once for a school assignment, years ago."
"Once? Do you mean to say, you memorized it from a single reading?" Wolfe asked, curious.
"Sure. That poem's short, a piece of cake. Memorizing things has always come easy for me. I've won a lot of bar bets by reciting the Declaration of Independence backwards, that kind of thing. Maybe I'm just one of them idiot savant types."
Wolfe humpfed. "That remains to be seen, but I highly doubt that Saul would have brought an idiot to see me, savant or not. Would you care to give a further demonstration of your talent? Perhaps you could give me a full report of what happened to you and Saul."
"All of it?" Archie raised a brow. "The warehouse and the police station?"
"Yes, in as much detail as possible. Describe it so I can see it and hear it, what was done and what was said and by whom, verbatim if you can."
Archie glanced at me, but I just shrugged and nodded. It was up to him now. He shrugged back, opened his mouth, and proceeded to deliver a blow by blow that didn't miss a trick. It was near perfect, and all the more amazing as he'd had no reason to think he'd have to remember everything at the time. Of course, he'd given his statement to the cops once before, but this went above and beyond that. He covered all the bases, didn't leave out a thing of consequence. His description of the players, especially Cramer, was right on the money. My smile stretched wider and wider, and when Wolfe looked at me, he didn't need my confirming nod to know that Archie had knocked it clear out of the park.
"Satisfactory, Saul." He shifted back to Archie. "That was very satisfactory."
Lovin' babe. Archie didn't know what that word really meant yet, but he was going to get a chance to find out.
I thought that was pretty damn satisfactory, myself.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It's been interesting, watching them over the years. Mr. Wolfe once said that their tolerance of each other is a constantly recurring miracle. I can't dispute that, but I don't suppose either of them could function without the other, not any more, regardless of what they might say. The last time they did was years ago, under pretty extreme circumstances, and it almost cost—
Well, actually, that story's not mine to tell. Sorry, you'll have to ask Archie about that one.
But this story? This one is mine, even if I don't tell it much. The beginning of a beautiful friendship. And you heard it straight from the horse's mouth.