In those rare moments when he allowed himself to think about it, Saul used to believe it was Wolfe.
Every now and then, in those dangerous silences before Wolfe revealed killers for who they were, Saul permitted an absurd and romantic notion to cross his mind: if any man could make time stand down, it was Nero Wolfe. The way his genius and ego railed against an uninvited intrusion, his staunch refusal to acknowledge interruptions in his rigidly enforced routine – it was a ridiculous idea, but it seemed to Saul that Wolfe's great stubbornness was such that the laws that governed all men simply abandoned the field when it came to him.
The idea did not trouble Saul as much as it should have, perhaps because he was otherwise occupied with the more unsettling question of why no one seemed to notice. From the start, he suspected that was Wolfe, too.
On a grey, not particularly inspiring November day, Saul spots Archie leaving a greasy spoon on East Broadway. Instead of calling out Saul follows him. Archie cuts a clean figure against the grey-coated, red-cheeked evening crowd, moving easy and sure around overburdened shoppers and distracted pairs of women chatting down the side walk. When he abruptly changes direction, Saul feels a welcome surge of anticipation.
There is a game he and Archie play when the fickle ministrations of time and luck coalesce into an opportunity. Saul has a knack for tailing that he does not understand, one for knowing, just in time, what a man will do just before he does it. It's an interesting experience to set that knack against Archie's ability to evade. If Archie wants to shake a tail, he shakes it, as any employee of the New York Police Department could attest to. For all that he is unmatched in shadowing a mark, he does not know what Archie will do next.
They dodge and weave through crowds and slow moving traffic, and Saul has to double back twice before he manages to hook Archie. They meet half way behind Rusterman's, short of breath, Archie's grin sharp and bright even in the poor light of dusk. It's a nice view, so Saul admires it.
"Well, it's official. You are a hound, but can you dance?"
Saul is too used to hiding behind his face – once a necessity and now an instinct, the souvenir of bloodier days across the ocean – to smile openly, but Archie has a talent for reading people.
Saul Panzer doesn't learn what kind of temper he has until he finds himself in a bar in lower Manhattan in the winter of a year that will pass him by with the same kind of half-noticed languor that will color the many years to come. He also learns exactly what it will take for him to bungle a job for the first time.
The man Wolfe hired him to watch sits at the bar. Bennie Hinkly has dark hair and the near-delicate features that Orrie had before he took his life on Nero Wolfe's stoop. Hinkly stares at Archie in a way that Saul doesn't care for, for close to an hour. While Archie is occupied with a woman he would later describe as "highly decorative", Saul breaks protocol and approaches him.
Saul begins a conversation with only the vaguest idea of what exactly he wants from it and from Hinkly, aware that he's gained Archie's attention with this sudden breach, but strangely unwilling to amend it. In the end, it takes two shots of whiskey and very little effort on Saul's part to get Hinkly to make the sort of lewd admission that could get him time in the clink.
What it gets Hinkly instead is a broken nose.
Saul wraps a handkerchief around his screaming knuckles and nods at Archie who doesn't quite gape at him.
"Finish your milk."
If asked, Saul couldn't say exactly when his absurd and romantic notion shifted from Wolfe to Archie, merely that once it did, it seemed to fit. Probably it had to do with all the ways Archie didn't change when he came back from his own stint in the muddy trenches Saul still dreams about.
Archie who wandered into their lives with no past of his own, just a shifting tapestry of dead ends and a colorful string of clever, unreliable narration. Archie, who sometimes seems more like the idea of what a man should be, than the real thing.
It worries Saul when he lets it, the way time doesn't seem to touch Archie, Wolfe or himself. He is unsettled by the lines on his own face, fewer than Archie let on in his books, fewer still than a man his age ought to have.
But Archie bleeds as red as any other man, and that has always been enough for Saul.
He and Wolfe discuss it the night Archie takes a bullet to the lung. In a phone booth outside the hospital Saul dials the brownstone. He ignores the cold, faintly greasy plastic of the phone against his cheek as he stares out past the smudged glass at the hospital entrance. Fred is there, slouched in a chair in a pale blue waiting room, face scrubbed clean of tears.
Wolfe answers after three rings and Saul is still a hired operative, so he reports.
Archie's blood is still under his finger nails.
"Do you think -" he cuts himself off, awkward in his skin and unsure. Distantly, he is embarrassed to sound vulnerable in this way, to this man. Wolfe spares him further difficulties and tackles the issue himself.
"In the past I have told Archie to bow to circumstance, as all things must. I told him this in an effort to anchor him, though any attempt to govern another, least of all him, is of course, folly. In this instance, I hope he does not bow."
Saul flexes his grip on the phone, considering the knot in his belly, the strange alien weight of it and what it means. Of what kind of man it makes him.
"He will weather it, Saul, or he will not."
Wolfe does not say, "As will you."
Saul Panzer's life is measured in milk and orchids and the business of the dead. He can hardly remember a time when it was not.
He buys his first computer from a girl with pink dreadlocks and black horn rimmed glasses. She wears a red double-breasted frock with a roll collar and a single string of pearls. Under the hydrogen glare of the store lighting she is a pale and strange creature behind the counter, a disconcerting and gross imitation of what girls her age now call "vintage fashion".
There is a rock in Saul Panzer, a center that holds, but in that moment he is moved by doubt, by a pang of naked vulnerability and the unfamiliar trappings of fear. For a moment he wants this girl to explain herself and everything else. He wants to scrub the make-up off her face and make her tell him everything she knows. He wants her to reassure him – this is the world, new and strange in ways he never expected, but still his world.
Saul writes her a check for an expensive computer that will be out of date in a year.
Wolfe dies on a Tuesday.
Archie disappears Sunday.
It feels strange to be out in a world without Nero Wolfe in it. But Archie is still in it, so Saul follows him across continents and hotel rooms, determined not to be shaken loose. Saul is not the showman Wolfe was, and he needs no agent to compel him in any desired direction, but he still has something to offer and he won't be driven from his purpose, no matter how many cities and dead ends Archie leads him to.
Saul chases him for a year.
Archie beats him back to the brownstone on West 35th Street by four hours, long enough for Saul to consider and reject nine programs before deciding to play this by ear.
Archie is a man of action. Saul can be, too. In the middle of Wolfe's hallway, he acts on an entirely different sort of absurd and romantic notion. He and Archie meet half way.
They sit on the floor of the office after, their backs against Wolfe's desk as they watch the snow falling on the other side of the window. The brush of Archie's knuckles across the back of his open hand is full of strange new possibilities.
Saul Panzer considers the future.