Characters: Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fritz Brenner, Orrie Cather, Fred Durkin, Inspector Kramer
Pairings: none, passing reference to Archie/Lily Rowan
Warnings: assault and injuries inccured
Word count: 4,105
Summary: Archie takes a beating, requiring Wolfe to adapt to temporary life without his legs.
Author's notes: This was inspired by a prompt donutsweeper had in her Yuletide letter, which I saw and have pondered on and off since then until I decided to write it. My Nero Wolfe is a bit rusty, so I hope everyone sounds like themselves. I've especially never tried to write from Wolfe's point of view before. My thesaurus got a good work out. :-D
It was a well-known fact that Nero Wolfe rarely, if ever, left the brownstone on West 35th Street. Archie’s stories painted him as a recluse, but that was an inaccurate term. Hermit would be better. Hermits devoted themselves to their homes, shutting themselves in because they were content there. Recluses hid away from the world; hermits relished the separation from it.
Wolfe had seen enough of the world for his tastes. He’d seen wars that tore apart villages and countries, his own homeland ripped apart. He’d known hunger unto starvation, been freezing cold, and seen death up close. He now lived in comfort, in an oasis where he was safe, warm, well-fed and surrounded by books and beauty. Why would he wish to subject himself to the noise and ugliness of the outside? He’d be a fool to. Furthermore, he had no need. Archie was his legs--and better than his own. He was employee and explorer, determined to ferret out what he was needed to find. He enjoyed it much more than Wolfe ever could.
He was trying of course, beyond measure. A man who talked because he thought he was clever, smiled because he thought he was charming, and laughed because he thought he was witty. And he was, to some degree, all those things. Enough to be tolerable, not enough to be pestiferous. Most of the time, anyway. Not all of it.
Today, Wolfe had to be his own legs. Archie’s weren’t available. He pulled on his coat and wrapped his scarf around his neck to brave the city, donning the armor he would need to navigate the noisy jungle of New York alone.
When Wolfe did leave the brownstone, on those rare occasions, Archie played the role of guide. He lived and breathed New York, despite, like Wolfe, being an immigrant to it. Archie knew its ins and outs, where to go and how best to get there. He drove with confidence and sense. Alone, Wolfe had to make all those decisions himself. Hail his own cab, trust the driver to know the best route to take, and to weave his way through the deadlocked traffic that congested the streets like phlegm.
“Beekman-Downtown Hospital,” Wolfe declared, setting himself in the rear seat of the cab. There was never enough room in cars and Wolfe felt like a sardine crammed into a tin, holding onto the door handle as the cab pulled out--some sort of anchor against the current they swam through.
Cramer had offered to take Wolfe in his own car when he’d come, hat in hand, to tell of Archie’s injuries. How he’d been found beaten and been taken to the hospital where they’d performed surgery directly to remove the blood from his chest cavities.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s bad,” Cramer had said, in his usual blunt, inelegant way. “But he’s alive for now, and the docs think he might stay that way.”
Wolfe had thanked him and sent him on his way, refusing the offer to bring him to the hospital. It was well-meant, but arrangements had to be made, explanations given. Wolfe would not simply rise and hop into a car and go. He would go when he was ready. Archie would keep or he wouldn’t, but Wolfe’s actions wouldn’t affect the outcome. He could affect other aspects and so those he would tend to first.
He’d started by phoning Saul, who’d leaped to action with only a report on the situation from Wolfe. He hadn’t even had to make the request.
“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll call Fred and Orrie, and we’ll have the bastard done in no time.”
That finished, Wolfe had gone to tell Fritz to hold supper. It was such a subtile event that Fritz immediately demanded to know what horrible thing had occurred to sour Wolfe’s stomach. Rather than Fritz stopping his preparations, Wolfe had left him working twice as hard at them, muttering ‘poor Archie’ to himself under his breath as he deboned the chicken. He didn’t offer to come, nor did Wolfe expect or want him to. Fritz would affect what he could affect, too, which was the state of empty stomachs. A cure for most ails, if not Archie’s at present.
By the time Wolfe arrived at the hospital, there was a cramp in his hand from clinging so tightly to the door handle, and his back teeth hurt from clenching his jaw with such ferocity. The sensation only worsened when he entered the hospital, feeling surrounded by people, jammed in despite having plenty of room around him. The noise and smell and heat were unpleasant--more than unpleasant, intolerable. But it had to be tolerated, at least for now.
Cramer had given him the floor and ward number where Archie was being cared for. It wasn’t hard to find it for anyone with a brain. There was a desk in front of a set of swinging doors at which a woman in a starched cap and blue dress sat, in charge of sending away unsuitable parties but looking unfit to even stand-up to a mouse. Archie would appreciate her, she had the kind of aesthetic he favored--demure and sweet, with blonde hair and large blue eyes that were covered in too much make-up. There were lights on in them, which was more than could be said of some of Archie’s conquests.
“Hello, may I help you?”
Wolfe explained his presence in succinct terms so as to discourage conversation or sympathy.
“I can take you in, sir, but we only allow one visitor at a time for a maximum of five minutes. This ward is for very sick patients, and they need quiet in order to recover.”
Her prattling, insipid tone would have been better used on dunces and babies, and Wolfe’s back teeth throbbed as he ground down on them again. “I won’t need longer than that.”
“Please follow me.”
Behind the swinging doors, a corridor stretched down with small rooms on either side of it, large glass windows set into the walls to allow a view of the patients within. The click of Wolfe’s shoes on the floor made the most noise in the ward, it was otherwise nearly silent. The nurse stopped partway down the corridor and gestured to a room on the left.
“You’re welcome to go in if you’d like, but please don’t touch the patient and use a quiet voice if you speak,” the nurse simpered.
Wolfe bit down on the urge to tell her that he thought he could suppress the need to beat on his chest and wail over Archie’s supine form. A man of his age and size could hardly be expected to be some sort of histrionic fool. He gave a curt nod and hoped she would leave. She didn’t.
He ignored her, first stepping up to the window to get an idea of Archie’s state from afar. He was in a metal-railed bed, his torso naked aside from bandages wrapped around it which Wolfe could see just above where the blanket was drawn up his chest. An IV bottle hung above him sending fluid down through the tubing to his hand. He was asleep, thoroughly so, unnaturally so; a drug-induced sleep. His breath came in erratic bursts: first deep, then shallow, then two fast, then three slow, then shallow, then deep, then very fast. His face was swollen and bruised but from a distance looked like no more than a few punches had hit their mark--he might have been able to shield himself from them. Or perhaps the assailant or assailants concentrated elsewhere on his body.
“I’d like to speak to an attending physician,” Wolfe told the nurse, who hovered with a sympathetic, solemn air nearby.
“Of course, I’ll go see if I can find someone to speak to you,” she cooed.
Once she’d left, Wolfe moved aside the curtain hanging over the doorway (this ward seemed to have no actual doors to close off rooms) and went inside to take a closer look. There were no chairs to sit down in; it was not a place made for visitors. The room was small and sterile with no windows, just the bed and a table beside it. Something closer to a prison cell.
Up close, Wolfe’s initial assessment changed little. Archie was pale, speaking to the blood loss or perhaps the trauma he’d undergone. His face was smooth and unlined, making him look younger than his thirty-two years. Wolfe had never seen Archie in repose, and he didn’t care for it. Certainly not this repose, this forced repose that made him so still and lifeless, two things Archie never was. Archie was life bound up in a body that could barely contain it. He hadn’t lost that life, not yet at least, but some of it was drained, and Wolfe found that disconcerting. More than he would have thought given that that life was so often annoying to him.
His arms were laid either side of him on the bed, and Wolfe tilted at the waist to take a look. As he suspected, there were defensive wounds that told him Archie had fought back. He was no pugilist, but he could defend himself if necessary, so the attack must have taken him off-guard or been particularly vicious.
Cramer had asked Wolfe what case Archie had been on and refused to believe Wolfe’s honest answer that there was none. They hadn’t had a case for weeks, something Archie had grown disgruntled by, doing his routine of making himself as conspicuous as possible: sighing at his desk, walking to the safe to report the state of the money within, ruffling newspapers, reporting on anomalies. The boredom was what had driven him from the brownstone that evening, declaring he needed to get fresh air and exercise before he calcified at his desk. He’d purposefully been vague about whether he’d return for dinner because he knew it would cause consternation. All his usual rigmarole to propel Wolfe into action.
With no case, the cause of Archie’s assault was unknown. It might have been about a woman, but Archie wouldn’t have invited violence over it. He would have charmed his way out of the situation and given up his claim on her. It would have had to be an unwonted woman to warrant that response and, if one such woman existed, he would have goaded Wolfe with her knowing how much Wolfe disliked the idea of anything in his brownstone oasis changing.
Archie wasn’t quick to anger, not the sort to take after someone over an insult. Perhaps in order to protect someone he felt was in danger, but whom? It was a problem to solve, one that would be solved when Wolfe had all the facts.
A nurse bustled in, this one a different version than the previous one. She was tall and handsome, with long, strong legs, and little makeup on her sharp face. She gave Wolfe a nod and said, in a practical, soft voice: “I’m here to check Mr. Goodwin’s vitals. You don’t have to leave.”
Wolfe nodded back, grateful to not have sympathy thrown at him. He had been wondering if he should say anything to Archie, but the choice was taken from him. He wouldn’t speak in front of the nurse, and there was nothing to be said. If Archie could hear him, Wolfe’s voice wouldn’t bring any comfort or encourage him to get well any faster. Archie had a will of his own and a strong one, he would use it to fight against death. Whether he won was another matter, but Wolfe couldn’t control that.
As much as he might want to.
The nurse took Archie’s pulse and blood pressure and counted his breathing, all without Archie responding in any way. If he couldn’t move in response to the tightness of the cuff on his arm, he was unlikely to come to consciousness anytime soon. No need to wait around.
The nurse wrote down her findings on a chart and slipped from the room again. It was time for Wolfe to go as well. He could speak to the doctor in less confined surroundings.
“I’m taking care of matters,” he said, on the off-chance Archie could hear him. “You can rest and recover yourself.”
For one of the first times in all their acquaintance, Archie didn’t have a response.
Wolfe didn’t return to the hospital again. Once he’d spoken to the doctor (a competent, straightforward man), he found a cab to take him back to West 35th street and his oasis there, where he stayed, following his schedule as usual.
He’d been warned and prepared for the possible outcomes. Archie might start bleeding again. He might develop a clot. He might contract pneumonia. He might get an infection. All those could be deadly. For the present, he was being kept under heavy sedation to allow his body to heal, but when that sedation was gone, if he woke up, there was no knowing if any damage had been done to his brain or spine. Of all possibilities, Archie being hindered physically or mentally were the ones that Wolfe worried about. With any luck, a brain injury would render him so simple as to be unaware of the problem, if that was to be his fate, but being confined to a wheelchair would be hard on him. Wolfe found his mind wandering to that when it was otherwise unoccupied, as futile as any worry was.
Archie had plenty of visitors even without Wolfe. Saul, Fred, and Orrie all were in and out in the course of their investigation, as was Cramer. Miss Rowan went in to see him. All of them stopped by the brownstone or phoned Wolfe to report to him. After two days, Archie was moved to a ward for patients requiring less intensive care. On the third day, they eased off his medication. By the fourth day, he was awake long enough for them to assess his state. All his limbs moved and his brain seemed unaffected, other than his failure to remember what happened. It wasn’t uncommon, the doctor explained to Saul, who then told Wolfe. There was no significance to the memory loss. It was merely inconvenient, given the difficulty it added to solving the case.
Not an insuperable one, of course. Leads crawled out of the woodwork, teased and coerced by Saul, Fred, and Orrie, who combed the city in search of the assailants. They became Wolfe’s legs in the absence of Archie’s, and the information they brought allowed Wolfe to piece together the events.
Archie had been to the cinema; there was a ticket stub in his pocket. No one at the theater remembered seeing him, which meant nothing out of the ordinary had taken place there to draw notice to him. Saul canvassed the area around the alley where Archie had been found and spoke to the person who found him, but he offered little in the way of information that wasn’t already known. Orrie discovered that Archie had dined at a nearby eatery, the kind of place Wolfe despised and, even with all that had taken place, Wolfe was annoyed that Archie had chosen to eat there instead of coming home to the proper meal Fritz had been preparing. No doubt that had been Archie’s intention--to cause consternation. He’d managed to do it in a different way.
Orrie’s flirtation with the witness at the diner brought forth information that Archie had exchanged words with a fellow patron that seemed to her to be hostile. The man had left in a huff, and Archie finished his meal and left without further incident. She described the man in admirable detail, right down to his meal order.
The men went to work on chasing him down.
Fritz went in to visit Archie around this time, armed with a hamper of food under his arm. He didn’t trust the hospital to provide adequate nourishment--a suspicion Wolfe shared. He returned later that day and came into the office, which was such rare occurrence that Wolfe felt it required beer, but his instinctive pressing of the button failed to summon Fritz, who was already there. Thankfully, Fritz was too agitated to notice Wolfe’s blunder.
“He wouldn’t eat,” Fritz lamented. “Poor Archie. I brought his favorites, and he kept the hamper, but he did not eat anything.”
Wolfe gestured for Fritz to take the red chair. “Did he give a reason?”
“He said he wanted to wait until he could appreciate it,” Fritz said, placing himself down and slumping in dejection.
Wolfe was out of his depth at providing any sort of comfort. “That seems reasonable,” he said. In fact, a good sign. Obviously, Archie could still make logical decisions. “How is his health?”
Fritz gave a Gallic shrug. “He was sleepy, but he wasn’t in pain. I didn’t stay long.” He leaned forward, concerned. “He was very quiet.”
Wolfe felt a small shiver of worry go through him. “I don’t imagine that will last.”
A week after Archie’s assault, a squirming young man was heaved into Wolfe’s office by Saul, Fred, and Orrie together. The assailant. It was a plain and simple matter of revenge. Wolfe barely remembered him, but evidently, they’d help to convict him of some crime years earlier--one he felt entirely justified in having committed--and in the ensuing time period his life had fallen apart. Aside from prison, his wife had left him and taken his children, and he found it difficult to find work.
“Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have embezzled the money in the first place,” Orrie offered, as he stood behind the red chair, ready, as were Saul and Fred, to put him in his place if needed.
The man had encountered Archie in the diner, recognized him, and being a little drunk (a state Wolfe had the impression was common), decided to confront him. Archie’s usual ease and sarcasm had only angered him and, when he went off to become drunker, decided the best course of action was to return to the diner, follow him to a secluded area, and show his anger with a blunt instrument.
“And in doing so have ruined your life even further,” Wolfe pointed out. “I suggest in future you accept the consequences of your actions and move on. You’ll certainly rue them this time.”
“What, are you going to get your boys to beat me up like I did yours?” the man wondered, cocksure in a way that was laughable.
“Petty violence begets further petty violence. I’ve seen enough in my lifetime. I’ll leave you to the authorities. They’re on their way.” Wolfe rose from his chair; it was time to see to the orchids. This man was not worth his time and certainly not worth changing his unchangeable schedule. “I only wished to assess you for myself. What happens to you now is none of my concern. See that he stays put, please.”
“You got it, boss,” Fred said, looking, as ever, like a loyal bulldog chomping to be rewarded.
The man was gone when Wolfe came back downstairs, and Saul, Fred, and Orrie were seated in the office, sharing a drink and looking pleased with themselves. Perhaps things would start to normalize themselves now. But that wouldn’t happen until Archie was home.
Archie was gone for a full three weeks from the brownstone. During his absence, Wolfe felt the whole of his oasis was slightly off-kilter. Not enough to be disturbing or unmanageable, but there was a noticeable gap where Archie should be and wasn’t. Not to mention all the little tasks he did in a day that went undone. Saul had taken over Archie’s desk during the investigation, but he did none of the filing or record-keeping Archie did, and a neat pile of bills, papers, and records stood in the center of it when he was gone.
Wolfe received a phone call on the morning Archie came home, transferred up to the orchid rooms via Fritz, who insisted it was important.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m your confidential assistant, and I’m being held hostage by a girl in a blue dress and some guys in white coats,” Archie’s voice drawled through the receiver. “I’m busting out of this joint in half an hour. I wouldn’t interrupt you at this time normally but thought you should know in case my daring escapade results in my death. Tell my ma I loved her.”
“Your mother is already deceased,” Wolfe replied, as he gave the cattleya amethystoglossa an inspection. “What do you need?”
“Some rope, a monkey, and something to wear home.”
After going so long without being annoyed by Archie’s irreverence, it was almost pleasant to feel it again.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Wolfe saw the third item on the list got to the hospital via Saul, and Archie returned wearing it an hour later. Wolfe was down in the office by this time and intended to rise from his desk to meet him but was only half out of his chair before Saul came in.
Archie eased himself through the door after him with care, stiff in movement. His wounds had healed outwardly, his face back to its normal color or something closer to it. It was paler, and he had a thinness to him that Wolfe didn’t like. Proper food would see it right again. Saul, despite his short stature being dwarfed by Archie’s height, was spotting him like a mother watched a toddler on his first legs, waiting to step in if disaster struck.
“Hey, I remember this place,” Archie declared. “Looks like home...except someone’s been sitting in my big chair…” He eyed his desk, eyebrows knitted together in perturbation.
Saul raised his hands in innocence. “Just ‘til we got the guy who worked you over. I only moved a few things.”
Archie’s brow further knitted. “Did Orrie sit at my desk?”
“No,” Saul said. “We wouldn’t let him.”
Archie’s brows relaxed. He made his way over, sitting down in his chair and smoothing his hands out on the wood. “Guess you can go, Goldilocks. Thanks for the lift. Your cheque is in the mail.” He looked at the pile of papers in front of him. “Actually, looks like it’s not, but I’ll sort it out.”
Saul, Fred, and Orrie had already refused payment for their services, something Wolfe intended to keep to himself. Saul seemed to agree, as he shot an amused look Wolfe’s way that had an air of conspiracy to it.
“Sure thing, Archie,” he said. “Glad you’re back on your feet.”
Wolfe lowered his chin in a nod to him as he saw himself out. Archie frowned at his desk and started to restore its proper order. Wolfe opened his mouth to speak, but Archie was already nattering again.
“I see you’ve been real on top of the paperwork while I’ve been gone. Phone, water, electricity, all paid for and up to date.” He tossed bills from one pile into another pointedly. “Sometimes I don’t think you pay me enough for what I do. Though I can’t fault the medical, I got a private room and everything.” He spun in his chair to face Wolfe. “They wanted to keep me another week, but I said nothing doing. Still, I’m supposed to be on bedrest, and they only let me out because I told them we had an elevator, so we’re going to have to share or else I’ll be a liar for saying I wouldn’t take the stairs.”
There were things Wolfe could have said. Hello, for example--he’d yet to manage that. He could have said it was good to see him or that he looked too thin and wonder what they’d been feeding him. He could have said that he’d been concerned and was glad that he’d come through intact. He could have apologized for not visiting in the hospital. He could have said it was a relief to have him back. That it felt as though some wrong had been righted.
But none of that was required and would be pure overemotionalism. Instead, Wolfe scowled and said, “That won’t be a problem.”
“Welcome home,” Wolfe added and picked up a book to read.
Archie leaned back in his chair and reached for a sheet of paper to place in his typewriter. Wolfe would give him twenty minutes before he suggested he lie down with the anticipation the suggestion would be refused. “Thank you, sir.”
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