Marginal Rate by LastScorpion for celli's Taxfic Challenge April 15, 2010

Wolfe heaved his bulk up from the custom-made chair and headed for the door. I looked up from the germination records. It was 3:56. He was a minute early. I couldn't let him get away with that.

"Don't forget the accountant this evening," I reminded him.

"I don't see why you can't just sign for me, at their office."

We had this conversation every year. "Your taxes, your signature. I mailed mine a week ago." The accountant didn't do my taxes; I did them myself. Of course, all I had to declare was the merely adequate salary that Wolfe paid me and the interest on my perfectly respectable savings account.

Wolfe made an unsatisfied grumbling noise and resumed his interrupted exit. "It's a new guy this year!" I called after him, just to rub it in. He kept walking. "Stevenson retired!" This crack about how old he was getting failed to get any reaction. He went upstairs to spend two hours with Theodore and the orchids, and I went back to the germination records.

When Stevenson was the accountant, he used to be invited to stay for dinner. The new guy was an unknown quantity. Stevenson hadn't even brought him around in person to make the introductions, which was a little bit of a niggling question. I'd had a lot of years to get used to paying attention to niggles.

So when the doorbell rang at 5:52, and that second buzz came up as well, the one *inside* my head, it wasn't really that much of a surprise. I hit the buzzer for a Code Red and grabbed my Marley.

The man on the stoop didn't seem to have come with a showdown in mind, but then again he wouldn't. My heart was pounding like a sledgehammer, and I didn't seem to have quite enough air, but I got out through the door and crowded him back a little so I could close it behind me, and I made sure to feel the click of the lock engaging. "We don't want any," I said.

We really, really didn't.

Spring, 1916

"...and we won't be back 'til it's over, over there."

I liked to think I was as patriotic as anybody, more so than some, but I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the singing. What did they think, that the Huns would be frightened by their chirpiness? It was a damn childish way to run an army.

"Three kings," Saul said. "Read 'em and weep."

I just shook my head and smiled. It wasn't as if I hadn't known he'd clean me out before I sat down with the cards and him. One of the other fellows in the card game looked like he might want to start trouble, but I wasn't worried. Ever since I woke up in Ohio in 1820, with our wagon burned and my mother and sister and horses gone, and tracked them all down and got them back, it takes a lot more to worry me than most can come up with. I don't know when Saul died the first time, but he's got to be even older than I am. He buzzes so soft and low in a man's head that you can hardly hear him unless you're in the same room and know just what you're listening for, but I figure he's just being stealthy. Saul says there's never been a time since the collapse of the Temple in Jerusalem that a Jew could get away with killing a lot of men, even in self-defense, and Wolfe's theorized the 'loudness' of the buzz is related to the number of heads a man's taken -- Lily Rowan's quiet, too, which bears him out -- so it's no wonder Saul's easy to overlook. Or it could just be that he bluffs really well.

The war, like all wars apparently, was all about hurry-up-and-wait. Also mud, and blood. Trench warfare didn't seem like the best plan to me, but then again I wasn't in charge. It'd been a good fifty years since I'd first felt that buzz, and gotten the first version of the fairy-story my life had become, from a scruffy-looking Scotsman I met during the first declared war I was ever a party to. That one didn't really have trenches. This one didn't really have slaves.

Saul's head whipped up a second or two before mine did, and he was out of sight before the guy came up to where I could get a look at him. I thought that might be a little bit of an overreaction, considering the red cross on the man's uniform, but better safe than sorry, I suppose.

The man looked like I could probably take him if I had to, and as a sergeant in this man's army, I was responsible for seeing what the gentleman wanted in the American ranks here anyhow. The other boys were quickly stowing away the cards and wagers (cigarettes mostly), ready to skedaddle. I stood up. "Can I help you?"

"I am Franz Brunier, of the Red Cross," the man said, with a surprisingly sweet smile. "I have come to inspect the conditions of your prisoners of war, but I seem to have become disoriented."

Well, that was nice and polite. "Archie Goodwin, sergeant, U.S. Army. I can take you to the stockade."

Fritz thanked me and I showed him the way. We met again after the war, and then again when he came to New York years later. The war that had left his feet such a mess was the French Revolution, when the Republicans had beaten him and thrown him out into the snow for being a kitchen boy for the aristocracy. The French had done for him again when Napoleon's troops killed him, years later, during their invasion of Switzerland. No wonder he always makes sure people know he isn't French, despite the accent.

It's a funny thing. I've never met an immortal during wartime who wanted to kill me.

"I am Frederick Hess. It is the Gathering," hissed the accountant.

"Not interested." I caught his elbow as he moved for the shortsword concealed under his coat, and did something nasty to it. He gasped, and I showed him my gun. "Don't be stupid," I advised him.

"In the end there can be only one!"

"Balls. In the end there'll be at least half a dozen, if I have anything to say about it, and I will." There'd be more, actually, if I could fix it. Call me sentimental, but I'd do my best to keep Purley and Cramer and even Rowcliffe around as long as I could. And I'd been after Lily to move in with us for years -- she fell off a horse in 1925, got right back on as soon as she came around, and just never grew a day older. She says that she's not worried about somebody taking her head, that she's already older than her grandmother ever got to be, and a person has to live her own life.

The guy twitched for his sword again, and I put his face against the wall, not gently. Apparently he was a slow learner. "Let me explain something to you. This is not the Wild West, or Ancient Rome, or some sort of stupid game. This is the Borough of Manhattan. It is broad daylight. If you were to come at me with a sword, I would shoot you in self-defense. Then I would take you inside to the basement, and tie you up very securely, and call certain cops. You would be in the penalty box for a number of years, and your game would go on without you. We are not playing."

I've never seen Wolfe take a head. He'd opted out of the Game before I was even born.

I met Wolfe and Theodore after the Great War. I kicked around Europe for a while after it was over; my nephews and nieces in Ohio wouldn't really understand why Uncle Archie never got any older, so I stayed away after about the turn of the century. Parts of the continent were pretty wild in those days, so I felt right at home. To be honest, the Balkan foothills of 1920 were less foreign than Ohio of 1920, since I'd never known them before.

I caught the lightning show in the distance one night, and shouldered my pack to go take a look. It's curiosity that'll kill me, some day, if I'm not careful. Wolfe was a big guy even then, wielding a huge club and standing guard as Theodore lay panting on the ground, with an axe and a headless body next to him. "Who are you?" Wolfe challenged me, as I came up over the rise. He was a lot closer than I'd expected him to be. The first thing he ever surprised me with was how quick and quiet he can move when he wants to. It's not that he buzzes quiet; he's one of the loudest I've ever heard. It's more that he always seems further away than he is, or maybe just that the direction it indicates he's in is always a little off. I have no idea how he does it, or even if he knows.

I wasn't looking for any trouble, just curious, so I stepped back out of club's reach a little, and spread my hands. "Whoa, no need to worry. I'm Archie Goodwin."

"Of?" he prompted.

"I don't know, Ohio maybe? Who are you?"

There was the tiniest hesitation before he spoke, just enough for me to know that this wasn't his original name. That meant he was pretty old, as far as I'd ever been able to gather -- less than five hundred years or so, they seem to be proud of keeping their own names. It's some sort of etiquette, the declaring of names before a fight, but it's not inherent to the immortal state, like no fighting on holy ground. Reasonable people believe that leads to big explosions, like Pompeii.

"I am Nero Wolfe; this is Theodore Horstmann. This --" he gestured at the corpse, "--was a private quarrel, of long standing. We do not necessarily have any quarrel with you, Mr. Goodwin."

"I'm glad to hear it." I put my hands down. Wolfe had a little accent I couldn't quite place, and we were, after all, at the back end of nowhere as far as Europe goes. "How did you know to speak English to me?"

Wolfe's cheeks tightened a little. It wasn't until I'd known him a few years longer that I realized that was a condescending smile. "You are obviously American. From your clothes and your bearing, I would say you were lately a sergeant in the United States of America army, taking a few years to 'see Europe' after the cessation of the recent 'World War'. You have been an Immortal for approximately one hundred years. You are carrying a pistol and a large knife, but you do not intend to kill either of us unless it becomes necessary in self-defense."

"You're very observant."

Horstmann was getting to his feet and glowering at me. Wolfe gave him a nod, and he bent and started efficiently looting the headless body on the ground, keeping his axe within easy reach the whole time.

"Tell me, Mr. Goodwin, are you enjoying the ridiculous Game of headhunters in which you find yourself embroiled?"

I'd tried to find out more about how it was all supposed to work for a few decades, right after the Civil War, but I'd never really managed to make much sense of it. "It all seems a little old-fashioned, if you don't mind my saying so."

"Precisely. I have no use for such shenanigans myself. Of course, we have just met, and you have no reason to believe me. Were I a bandit of the hills, I would lull you with such talk, and take your Quickening and your purse. There is, however, a former shrine within an easy distance -- you are acquainted with the effects of Holy Ground? We might easily camp together, and become better acquainted as well."

"Don't mind if I do."

Theodore sniffed disapprovingly and led the way. Wolfe walked beside me where the path permitted, and in front of me where it was too narrow. He certainly wasn't worried I'd try to take his head.

They led me through a little notch in the hillside and into a sort of a rocky glade, or a leafy open-roofed cave. I could feel that the little niche in the hillside was Holy Ground all right, though I didn't know how a person ever could have found it if he didn't already know it was there. Theodore built a fire, and Wolfe cooked a meal. It was the first dinner I ever ate with him, but far from the last. We parted the next morning as friends, or something like it.

For years I thought that Wolfe had originally been a Doge in Venice, but recently I've leaned more towards the idea that he was originally from Ancient Rome. I know he starved to death in 1916 (probably a bunch of times in a row; that's how it works for us, starving to death) and met Theodore that same year. I'm sure he's been poisoned by at least three separate wives, which in my opinion is perfectly understandable. (There's a reason why I'm the one to put up with Wolfe day in and day out, and Fritz is the one to do the cooking.) He doesn't answer questions about himself, but he tells stories.

He's a very good liar, but I'm a pretty good detective.

I took my hands off Hess and backed up, and watched him make up his mind as to whether he was going to do something unbelievably stupid or not. "Get off of this stoop and never come back," I warned him, "or else you'll find yourself plugged through the pump and imprisoned. Game over."

He gave me a dirty look, straightened up, and went.

"Drop the papers, too," I called after him. "They're not yours."

He dropped the folder on the ground and raised his hand to show it empty, not looking back. I decided I'd gather the papers together after he was gone, and watched him to the end of the block. Then I buzzed the all clear for Fritz on the doorbell, and went to pick up the tax forms and documentation. By the time Fritz let me in, I was swearing to myself. I couldn't just let Wolfe sign these, considering the obvious untrustworthiness of the tax preparer. I'd done our income taxes myself when they were first implemented, mine and Wolfe's and the business taxes, too, but that was a long time ago and they're a lot more complicated nowadays. Fritzie Durkin, the youngest of Fred's brood (may he rest in peace) always raved about how easy TurboTax was for the little security outfit he runs. Maybe I'd get a copy of that and give it a try. We still had a week. I'd heard they were giving automatic approval on extensions to file these days....

The phone rang.

"Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking."

"Escamillo, one of these days you're really going to have to change that. Doesn't it occur to either of you that it's *conspicuous* to have the same person answering the phone for sixty-five years?"

Lily had been on this "moving on" kick for a while now. The reason I'd come to New York in the first place was that Saul had said it was a place you didn't have to reinvent yourself every few years. The city would reinvent itself around you. Of course, government record-keeping had advanced quite a bit since then.

"We'll take it under consideration. I'm a little distracted; the new accountant just threatened my life."

"Oh, Archie! That's terrible! Did you have to, you know...."

"Kill him? Nah."

"Oh, good. I know how much you hate that."

"Almost as much as I hate having to do the taxes myself," I grumbled.

"Oh! I have a new accountant! You'll love her; she's a thousand years old! And beautiful. And she's still building up her business, so she'll probably be happy to help you out, even at this late date. And she can easily help you change your identities and everything around enough to be going on with for another sixty-five years. Of course, I know how prejudiced you all are, but she's really very good."

I smiled at the phone, which wasn't any use, of course. "Well, Wolfe will hate having to do business with a woman, but beggars can't be choosers. It is already April."

"Oh, well, that, too. But also Janette's a vampire."