Who Am I?
Based on 'A Christmas Party' in Four to Go, by Rex Stout. Lyrics to 'Who Am I' by Will Young. Only the (best of) intentions are mine; Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are the property of Rex Stout.
Sometimes you know you push me so hard
I don't know how I feel
You almost make me doubt I feel at all
If only I were certain, one way or the other; the difficulty is that I know you, Archie, or I should do by now, but I am never sure of you. How many times have you played that card, either to bait or to goad, with my reaction balanced on the knife edge of familiarity? Once you said: 'Sooner or later one of my threats to get married will turn out not to be a gag. How are you going to know' I have often had cause to wonder if my understanding of your nature is based upon reason or experience: do I expect too little of you, or too much? You allow yourself to fit so neatly into a compartment of my microcosm, and it is a temptation to take our relationship for granted; but just as your room in this house is independently furnished and financed, so must I realise that I have only your loyalty and your service, not your life.
I know that all you're asking for's a little place in my heart
But I don't find it easy to give
Maybe I get a little selfish sometimes
Why shouldn't I?
Perhaps I was too much the unmoveable object to his irresistible force: that licence was undoubtedly burning a hole in his pocket, and he has a remarkable eye for mischief that does not require external stimulation, but had I not imposed my will upon his, there might have been room for one of us to manoeuvre. 'We will leave': selfish ego resounding against youthful defiance. I can recall only too well how I would have taken such dictation at his age. When he turned his back to me, his head bowed towards his desk so that I could see the sharp line of his hair above his collar, I knew that this would become another battle in our cold war of pride; as he looked up, I was ready, book in hand, to fight.
What I told him was 'You will take notes', and that I needed him there with me at Lewis Hewitt's, but I did not mean simply to drive the car or record Arthur Thompson's horticultural wisdom: Archie's presence is a reassuring contact with the comfortable routine that I occasionally have to forgo, and I prefer to know that he is nearby. A selfish caprice, but as I told Archie about his transporting me in the car, I have it. Yet I could no more have owned to this truth, appealing to his self-importance, than I could have openly faced the instinctive fear produced when I read his name on that incredible piece of paper. I had no grounds to demand that he sacrifice his arrangements for mine – Lewis Hewitt does not require any more of my labour or my talents than I do of his, and an invitation to his Long Island home could hardly be considered business – but my equilibrium had been unsettled by Archie's announcement, and I confess that I sought sanctuary in obstinacy. He is my employee, and I had given him a task; if I knew that he would balk, and yet still refused to temporise or yield, then I must accept the consequences.
And who am I to tell you
That I would never let you down
But no one else could love you
Half as much as I do now
Well, I wouldn't be myself at all
When it was only his company I demanded, honesty seemed excessive, and I economised on words as I would never cheat with ingredients; now it is his compliance and his collusion that I depend upon, and still I fear to speak. Were only the murder of Kurt Bottweill and my clandestine observation of the crime at issue, I would not hesitate to involve Archie; on the contrary, I could not act without him. But there is a delicate balance between trust and respect to be maintained, and I cannot risk losing either: how do I confront the matter whilst evading the motive?
His room is a cocoon of shadows and the artificial glow of a winter's evening, but I dare not turn on the lights, as I am unable to judge the petty routine of the police officers called to Bottweill's studio and Archie would be sure to notice his own windows on returning home. The lowered blinds are open to afford meagre definition to his dresser, his desk, his bookcase; behind the door as I stand on the threshold, the rest of the room dwells in the deeper recesses of dusk. In my hand, the white gloves that I wore as part of my ridiculous masquerade stand out from the gloom with a spectral radiance, refusing to share my discretion. Pouring vintage champagne in the guise of a commercial mascot is a charade that I should not have even considered, let alone conceived, but now I must signal my defeat to him. But I will not face him and own to my weakness, especially as it far from conquered.
Margot Dickey. Bah! A decoration, a dalliance; I saw instantly how she would appeal to him, with her slender height and selective curves, but a dance partner is not a wife, and she seemed possessed of little more to recommend her. And then her smooth voice curled around his name, and I faced the greatest measure of my subterfuge: would he know me? I wore a mask and the requisite froth of white whiskers, but I could do little to adjust my carriage or veil the intensity in my gaze, if I caught his attention. It was a further test of intellect versus instinct: he should not have expected to find me there, but the intimacy of our constant association was a risk that I could not gauge. I knew, even before that woman's pronouncement, that he had arrived: I followed his light step with my ears, whilst my nose told me that he was wearing aftershave for a social occasion, but I did not raise my eyes from the yellow label on the champagne before me. How I managed even a perfunctory reply to that gregarious Irishman's supposed wit, with Archie so close and his ears always open, I can now only marvel at. But intuition failed him, and he had no cause for suspicion, so I was able to observe him with her.
His presence is like a vapour here: that same light scent lingering by the bottles on his dresser; a stir of clean, warm air from an open window in the bathroom; the base note of typewriter oil and dry, artificial air from the heating. I cross to his desk, glancing at the notepads beside the machine, at the clean ashtray, and the dictionary I bought for him many years ago. His mother and father follow my progress from a framed studio portrait, their features at once familiar and distinct as I regard them. There is a low, stiff-backed chair beside the desk, and after a mental calculation, I allow myself a brief respite to consider. The arms press against my hips as I ease down onto the edge of the cushion, but the peace and solitude is more of a comfort. My eyes are drawn instinctively to the bookshelf at my elbow: at the score of non-fiction titles purchased by Archie and more fondly upon the overflow of my own library. The light blue spine of Herblock's Here and Now leans against the leather binding of a stray encyclopaedia volume, and I smile at Archie's appreciation of such sardonic humour. The dust jacket is cool to the touch as I automatically smooth over the cover with a flat palm, resting its spine on the white gloves as I leaf through the pages.
Wherever I leave these brazen accessories, he will find them, but it should be sooner rather than later – and must lead to only one pertinent conclusion. Any implicit understanding privately reached might propel us out of this deadlock, but would be of no practical merit in the investigation of a murder; Bottweill's death has at once complicated and clarified matters, but I owe him this final gesture. At Rusterman's, he seemed to enjoy the joke, yet I suspect he was shrewd enough to detect the desperation behind my deception – perhaps I was also under observation at the Christmas party, as I watched Archie talking and smiling with that woman. I opened the door to jealousy, but did not mean to admit humiliation or evict my pride.
If he does not come into contact with that boorish lieutenant, Archie will be home soon, and he must find me predictably sedentary and composed in my routine. I reach to replace the book that I am nursing, but it is still in my hand as I lever myself up from the chair. At the door, after a last glance around the room, I lay the gloves on the edge of the dresser, and set Here and Now upon the deceptive purity of their white touch.