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I’m sorry, sir,” I said. I tried to sound sorry. “But I told you two days ago, Monday, that I had a date for Friday afternoon, and you said all right. So I’ll drive you to Long Island Saturday or Sunday.”
Nero Wolfe shook his head. “That won’t do. Mr. Thompson’s ship docks Friday morning, and he will be at Mr. Hewitt’s place only until Saturday noon, when he leaves for New Orleans. As you know, he is the best hybridizer in England, and I am grateful to Mr. Hewitt for inviting me to spend a few hours with him. As I remember, the drive takes about an hour and a half, so we should leave at twelve-thirty.”
“I decided to count ten, and swiveled my chair, facing my desk, so as to have privacy for it. As usual when we have no important case going, we had been getting on each other’s nerves for a week, and I admit I was a little touchy, but his taking it for granted like that was a little too much. When I had finished the count I turned my head, to where he was perched on his throne behind his desk, and darned if he hadn’t gone back to his book, making it plain that he regarded it as settled. That was much too much. I swiveled my chair to confront him.
“I really am sorry,” I said, not trying to sound sorry, “but I have to keep that date Friday afternoon. It’s a Christmas party at the office of Kurt Bottweill—you remember him, we did a job for him a few months ago, the stolen tapestries. You may not remember a member of his staff named Margot Dickey, but I do. I have been seeing her some, and I promised her I’d go to the party. We never have a Christmas office party here. As for going to Long Island, your idea that a car is a death trap if I’m not driving it is unsound. You can take a taxi, or hire a Baxter man, or get Saul Panzer to drive you.”
Wolfe had lowered his book. “I hope to get some useful information from Mr. Thompson, and you will take notes.”
“Not if I’m not there. Hewitt’s secretary knows orchid terms as well as I do. So do you.”
I admit those last three words were a bit strong, but he shouldn’t have gone back to his book. His lips tightened. “Archie. How many times in the past year have I asked you to drive me somewhere?”
“If you call it asking, maybe eighteen or twenty.”
“Not excessive, surely. If my feeling that you alone are to be trusted at the wheel of a car is an aberration, I have it. We will leave for Mr. Hewitt’s place Friday at twelve-thirty.”
So there we were. I took a breath, but I didn’t need to count ten again. If he was to be taught a lesson, and he certainly needed one, luckily I had in my possession a document that would make it good. Reaching to my inside breast pocket, I took out a folded sheet of paper.
“I didn’t intend,” I told him, “to spring this on you until tomorrow, or maybe even later, but I guess it will have to be now. Just as well, I suppose.”
I left my chair, unfolded the paper, and handed it to him. He put his book down to take it, gave it a look, shot a glance at me, looked at the paper again, and let it drop on his desk.
He snorted. “Pfui. What flummery is this?”
“No flummery. As you see, it’s a marriage license for Archie Goodwin and Margot Dickey. It cost me two bucks. I could be mushy about it, but I won’t. I will only say that if I am hooked at last, it took an expert. She intends to spread the tidings at the Christmas office party, and of course I have to be there. When you announce you have caught a fish it helps to have the fish present in person. Frankly, I would prefer to drive you to Long Island, but it can’t be done.”
The effect was all I could have asked. He gazed at me through narrowed eyes long enough to count eleven, then picked up the document and gazed at it. He flicked it to the edge of the desk as if it were crawling with germs, and focused on me again.
“You are deranged,” he said evenly and distinctly. “Sit down.”
“I nodded. “I suppose,” I agreed, remaining upright, “It’s a form of madness, but so what if I’ve got it? Like what Margot was reading to me the other night—some poet, I think it was some Greek—‘O love, resistless in thy might, thou triumphest even—’”
“Shut up and sit down!”
“Yes, sir.” I didn’t move. “But we’re not rushing it. We haven’t set the date, and there’ll be plenty of time to decide on adjustments. You may not want me here any more, but that’s up to you. As far as I’m concerned, I would like to stay. My long association with you has had its flaws, but I would hate to end it. The pay is okay, especially if I get a raise the first of the year, which is a week from Monday. I have grown to regard this old brownstone as my home, although you own it and although there are two creaky boards in the floor of my room. I appreciate working for the greatest private detective in the free world, no matter how eccentric he is. I appreciate being able to go up to the plant rooms whenever I feel like it and look at ten thousand orchids, especially the odontoglossums. I fully appreciate—”
“I’m too worked up to sit. I fully appreciate Fritz’s cooking. I like the billiard table in the basement. I like West Thirty-fifth Street. I like the one-way glass panel in the front door. I like this rug I’m standing on. I like your favorite color, yellow. I have told Margot all this, and more, including the fact that you are allergic to women. We have discussed it, and we think it may be worth trying, say for a month, when we get back from the honeymoon. My room could be our bedroom, and the other room on that floor could be our living room. There are plenty of closets. We could eat with you, as I have been, or we could eat up there, as you prefer. If the trial works out, new furniture or redecorating would be up to us. She will keep her job with Kurt Bottweill, so she wouldn’t be here during the day, and since he’s an interior decorator we would get things wholesale. Of course we merely suggest this for your consideration. It’s your house.”
I picked up my marriage license, folded it, and returned it to my pocket.
His eyes had stayed narrow and his lips tight. “I don’t believe it,” he growled. “What about Miss Rowan?”
“We won’t drag Miss Rowan into this,” I said stiffly.
“What about the thousands of others you dally with?”
“Not thousands. Not even a thousand. I’ll have to look up ‘dally.’ They’ll get theirs, as Margot has got hers. As you see, I’m deranged only up to a point. I realize—”
“No, sir. I know this will have to be discussed, but right now you’re stirred up and it would be better to wait for a day or two, or maybe more. By Saturday the idea of a woman in the house may have you boiling even worse than you are now, or it may have cooled you down to a simmer. If the former, no discussion will be needed. If the latter, you may decide it’s worth a try. I hope you do.”
I turned and walked out.
In the hall I hesitated. I could have gone up to my room and phoned from there, but in his present state it was quite possible he would listen in from his desk, and the call I wanted to make was personal. So I got my hat and coat from the rack, let myself out, descended the stoop steps, walked to the drugstore on Ninth Avenue, found the booth unoccupied, and dialed a number. In a moment a musical little voice—more a chirp than a voice—was in my ear.
“Kurt Bottweill’s studio, good morning.”
“This is Archie Goodwin, Cherry. May I speak to Margot?”
“Why, certainly. Just a moment.”
“It was a fairly long moment. Then another voice. “Archie, darling!”
“Yes, my own. I’ve got it.”
“I knew you could!”
“Sure, I can do anything. Not only that, you said up to a hundred bucks, and I thought I would have to part with twenty at least, but it only took five. And not only that, but it’s on me, because I’ve already had my money’s worth of fun out of it, and more. I’ll tell you about it when I see you. Shall I send it up by messenger?”
“No, I don’t think—I’d better come and get it. Where are you?”
“In a phone booth. I’d just as soon not go back to the office right now because Mr. Wolfe wants to be alone to boil, so how about the Tulip Bar at the Churchill in twenty minutes? I feel like buying you a drink.”
“I feel like buying you a drink!”
“She should, since I was treating her to a marriage license.”