New Wolfe for the New Year

John D. MacDonald is my favorite author. And it’s safe to say that I’m pretty deeply immersed in the worlds of Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons. But there’s no mystery series I enjoy reading more than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. To start the new year, here’s the first part of an original Wolfe short story.  I really enjoy writing Archie Goodwin.

Wolfe_CramerI was sitting at my little table in the kitchen of the brownstone on West 35th Street, eating wheat cakes with maple syrup. Fritz stood at the stove, eyeing my stack reserves, gauging when to start another batch. I had The Times open before me and was noticing that the agreeable weather would be continuing for a few more days. Having grown up in Ohio, I had adapted to Fall in New York City with no difficulties at all. “How is he?” Fritz asked, breaking our comfortable silence.

He was referring of course, to our employer, Nero Wolfe. The man took following a routine to levels never before aspired to by mortal man. But on this particular Tuesday morning, he had awoken to a coughing fit and complained of a sore throat.

Nero Wolfe is the largest individual that I know. Furthermore, he can also be the world’s biggest squawking infant. An event that even slightly disturbs his orderly routine can cause fits of pique any woman would envy. But if anything, whether man-made or act of God, or something in between, causes him to miss his daily 9 – 11 AM session on the roof with his beloved orchids, woe to those who encounter him.

Since I had to take up the glass of hot water with lemon and sugar, his own homemade remedy for throat problems, I was the one who incurred his wrath. You’d be amazed at how many ways you can screw up such a simple task; I certainly was. I’d describe him as being churlish, but that would be casting aspersions on such people everywhere.

Around a mouthful of wheat cake, soaked in butter, I replied “It’s a toss-up which of us was more incompetent: you in preparing the hot water or me in carrying it upstairs.” Such conversation came easy to me and I didn’t have to stop reading the paper to engage in it.

Fritz turned away and muttered something in German that I probably wouldn’t have understood even if I’d heard it properly. So I said “Genau.”

The chef looked up at me sharply, but I gave no notice. “Archie, I never know when you are being serious or not.”

“That’s part of my charm, Fritz. Keeps people off balance. Who’d want to engage me in conversation if I weren’t such a complex and fascinating individual?”

Since I was almost finished with the day’s news I told him that I wouldn’t be needing any more breakfast and swallowed the last of my milk. As he cleared my plate away, the house phone rang. I picked it up and cheerily said “Nero Wolfe’s hospice and care center. Doctor Goodwin speaking. How may I…”

“Shut up,” Wolfe peevishly cut me off. “Spare me your witticisms today. While they are normally mundane, my endangered condition today renders them deathly dull.”

It’s always nice to receive praise from one’s own boss. I was sure my cheeks were suffused with a ruddy glow, though Fritz was somehow restrained enough to withhold comment. I merely waited silently.

“Are you there Archie? Speak up!” There were four of us living at the townhouse: Wolfe, Fritz, myself, and Theodore Horstmann, who took care of the gardening duties. In a contest of civility, our employer would run a distant last and even be lapped a time or two.

“Well, I’m assuming that you didn’t call because you wanted to hear the melodious sound of my voice, and your sore throat precludes eating right now, so I am simply awaiting instructions, faithful lap dog that I am.” Fritz made a clucking sound at this and moved into the pantry, shaking his head.

“You will never be as clever as you think you are, Archie. I want you to take care of the morning mail and deposit any checks immediately.”

I looked at the clock. It was 9:45. Since Wolfe was incommunicado at this time six days a week, I didn’t exactly need this complex guidance. “Gee boss,” I said with exaggerated stupidity. “Are you sure I can handle that all by my lonesome? I mean, I’ve only been doing that every morning for how many years now?”

“Pfui,” was followed by the sound of Wolfe slamming down the phone. His humor did not improve with ill health.

“You should not taunt him so.” Fritz had returned and was washing dishes in the sink. “He may take it into his head to replace you.”

“No chance, Fritz my boy. You and I, and Theodore for that matter, are part of Wolfe’s obsessively ordered household. He could no more stand someone other than me depositing his fee checks than to have a different person than you bring him his beer on a tray. We are a part of this townhouse. As long as we perform our functions adequately, which I pride myself on doing nearly on a daily basis, we’re here to the grave. At least, his funeral. Now, if you can abide without my company, I’m going to sort through the morning’s correspondence before he calls down to check on me. Let me know if he needs anything. I’ll shield you from his warm glow and take it up myself.

Having settled into my desk in the office, I did exactly as instructed. I was still working on typing a response to one of his hothouse suppliers when Fritz came in and told me we had a visitor. Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard the bell.

When I heard the name, I uttered a sigh and braced myself. Moving to the hall and pulling open the door the scant few inches the chain allowed, I greeted Inspector Fergus T. Cramer, the head of the Homicide division. The policeman and I were real buddies; just like a snake and a mongoose.

“We’re not buying any Fuller brushes today, my good man. Move along before I call the police.”

“Can it Goodwin. I’m here to see you.”

Surprised, I told him Wolfe wasn’t feeling well and any of his tricks to get inside to see him would have lasting repercussions.

“I can barely stand Wolfe when he’s in what he calls a good mood, Goodwin. I can’t imagine what he’s like ill. I’m here to talk to you.”

“Your word?”

“Yeah, yeah. Open the damn door and let me in.”

If he made a dash up the stairs, Wolfe would never admit him without a warrant ever again and he knew it, so I opened up and took his hat and coat. He didn’t say a word, walked the well-trod path to the office, turned a yellow chair to face my desk and sat.

I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him sitting anywhere but in the big red chair that faced Wolfe’s desk. But since he was here to talk to me, I guess he didn’t need that one today.

He barely looked at me as he took a cigar out of his jacket, peeled it and then placed it in his mouth, unlit. I had rarely seen him without one of them at hand, but it was a rare event when he lit one in my presence. Since he instantly assumed that Wolfe and I were hiding something from him from his first sentence, I couldn’t imagine that he had any great use for it to focus his thoughts. I would lay five to one it was to keep from saying half the things that crossed his mind. The half that he did say was certainly enough

“So, you want to see me. My fan club grows. What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why you fled a crime scene this morning, for starters. And don’t bother denying it. I’ve got a witness who saw you exit the apartment.”

I can equivocate with the best of them, but I’ll admit that this one surprised me. I hadn’t left the house since yesterday before dinner. I told Cramer as much.

His voice rose a bit. “Don’t bother giving me the runaround. I could take you downtown and hold you as a material witness without batting an eye, but I want to hear your cute explanation for this. I’m sure Wolfe will add to it as well.”

“Look here. You can just get down off of your hind legs for a minute. I have no idea what you’re talking about, and Wolfe is sick in bed. I’d lay one to one that you’re about the last person he wants to come down here to see this morning.

Cramer just kept chewing on his cigar, looking at me. “Well, let’s hear it.”

“Ok, Mister officer, sir.” Where was I supposed to be, and when, exactly?”

“So, gonna play with me, huh? OK. I didn’t expect any different. But it’s nice having the hole card for a change. This morning, at 7:15 AM, you were at the apartment of Veronica Chance. A guy across the hall saw you leaving. He was out there because he’d heard strange sounds coming from her place. When he went to investigate, you were at the end of the hallway ducking into the stairwell. He knocked on her door, got no answer, found it unlocked, went in, and there she was.”

“You need to work on your endings, Inspector. You’re never going to write the great American novel like that. It lacks suspense.”

“Funny, Goodwin. See, the laugh is that the broad was dead. Strangled with a scarf. Now, why were you there? What are you and Wolfe working on that involves Veronica Chance?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’ve never heard of her, and I’m sure Wolfe hasn’t either. I’ve been here all morning and was asleep in my very own bed, alone, unfortunately, at 7:15. You’ve got the wrong guy.”

He was rubbing his hands together. “This is going to be a good one. I’ve got you nailed flat and you’re denying everything. You always play it close to your fancy vest. You were there, and you don’t do much without your boss’ ok, so Wolfe knows why you were there. Maybe you had a lover’s quarrel and killed her. I don’t know, and at the moment, I don’t care. You’re a material witness and it looks like I’m going to have to take you in.”

“Inspector, come on. You can’t be serious.” He just smiled and chewed on his cigar. “Look. Why don’t you take me to Chance’s apartment? You can refresh my memory on how and why I killed her, and you can have this nosy neighbor get a look at me on the close-up and tell you I’m not the guy. Then I can get back to earning my pay here. Just let me go up and tell Wolfe I’m going out.”

“Nothing doing. I’ll take you over there so I can see the look on your face when the neighbor makes you cold, but I’m not letting you go upstairs and sneak out the fire escape.”

“Yeah. You got me. I’m going to flee a cop ready with a murder wrap on me. Maybe I could spend the rest of my life in Canada. Wise up, Inspector. If you’re willing to get a little exercise for a change, you can go upstairs with me and stand in front of the door like a watchdog. Let’s go.”

With that, I rose and moved to the stairs. He looked at the elevator like maybe we should take it instead, but I started up and he had no choice but to follow. “Now, you wait right here and I’ll be out in a minute” I said as I paused in front of Wolfe’s door.

I knocked and went inside before Wolfe could respond. He gave me a startled look. I wouldn’t say he sat up, but he wriggled some of his bulk around to face me. I locked the door, held a finger to my lips and shushed him. I moved to his side and whispered, “Cramer is outside your door. He says I fled a murder scene this morning and is riding me hard. I was in bed and have no idea what he’s on to. The dead dame is Veronica Chance. I’ve never heard of her. Is there anything going on with her that you haven’t seen fit to tell your able assistant? Maybe an angle Saul or Fred are working?”

Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin were two private dicks that Wolfe used more than occasionally. Saul was nearly as good as I was and Fred was muscle that came in handy. Sometimes the boss kept me apprised of their doings, and other times I was totally in the dark.

Already annoyed that he wasn’t feeling well, my intrusion did not improve his disposition in the least. But he quickly figured that the easiest way to get rid of me and avoid any chance of having to speak to Cramer was to answer my question. Still, I don’t think he could have used a more sulky tone. “No, I have no idea who Veronica Chance is, or was, nor do I care. I don’t have anything for Saul or Fred right now. And before you ask, Orrie is not on a case, either. Get rid of Cramer and leave me alone.

His concern for my situation more than made up for the minimal pay that he provided me. I shook my head and ushered Cramer back downstairs. It was cool enough for my light overcoat, and grabbing my hat, I followed him out to his car.

Veronica Chance lived, or had lived, on the fifth floor of a twelve story building on the east side. It was nothing to be ashamed of, but it was unlikely to make the cover of any magazines. There were two flatfoots in the lobby who nodded at Cramer as we passed by. He’d had enough exercise for the day and we took the elevator up to five. It was easy to see which apartment was hers.

About a third of the way down the hall, a door was open and a uniformed man stood sentry. Inside, there wasn’t as much activity as I’d expected. A few of the lab boys looked to just be finishing and were packing up their stuff. One pulled Cramer into the bedroom for a private conversation.

The place was tastefully done in a mild blue. There was a small kitchenette to the right that Fritz wouldn’t have used to make soup, with a dining table in the corner of the main room. The couch was all right, with sequined pillows featuring her initials on them. Next to a stuffed chair in the corner was a radio, and a bathroom was next to the kitchen. The door to the bedroom was in the left wall. Of course, easily the most distinctive feature was the body of Veronica Chance, slumped in the corner of the couch. Apparently the scarf had been removed, but an angry red welt was visible around her throat. The couch was out from the wall, not flush against it and it looked like someone had been standing behind it, strangling her from there. She’d never had a chance.

Her hair was jet black and she wore a brown dress that extended well below her knees, though it was disarranged from her brief struggle. I stepped closer and saw that one of her fingernails on the right hand was broken off. It was the only indication in the entire place that she wasn’t a tidy person. I guess struggling to stay alive can do that to you. I wondered who had decided to end her life.

Cramer came out of the room and told the lab boys to have the body taken away. I stopped one of them and asked if they’d found the missing piece of nail around the couch. He looked at Cramer with raised eyebrows. The inspector nodded his head. “Yeah, we bagged it and took it away earlier.”

That’s what I figured. It had broken off during the struggle with her attacker. She’d probably grabbed his forearms, though to no effect. The homicide dicks probably had that figured, but I wasn’t about to add to their status as mental giants. They got paid to figure those things out. I was here as a possible suspect. Sure, you might think that helping them would help me, but Cramer and his boys rubbed me wrong, and I rarely gave them the full red carpet just on principle.

The lab men left and it was just Cramer and me. “So, Goodwin, she look familiar? Now, it’s possible that you didn’t kill her. Maybe you came, she was already dead, and you beat it to inform Wolfe. You two are always playing games instead of helping me do my job. Did you kill her, or just find the corpse?”

I was getting hot. “Look you bull-headed buffoon. You rousted me out of my office this morning, now you’re standing over a dead body accusing me of knowing something about this killing. No, wait, they took the body. Scratch that last.”

I took a deep breath and looked at a spot two inches over his left shoulder.

“I tell you, I’ve never heard of or seen this woman before. Nero Wolfe doesn’t know her either, and she’s got nothing to do with any case we’re on. I wasn’t here this morning, yesterday morning, or the morning before that.”

He had another cigar clenched between his teeth. I wondered what the life expectancy of one of those things was. He chewed on them like a baby with a pacifier. “You’re too cute for your own good. I know you were here, and I’m going to prove it. Then maybe you’ll change your tune. Let’s go across the way.”

With that, he ushered me out the front door and into the hallway. I noticed that the carpet was a light brown, worn to the point of being threadbare. I can’t tell you why this caught my attention, but it did. I didn’t get to look at it for very long, since Cramer took me two doors further down the hall and knocked on another door. I heard the elevator ring and looked back to see a middle-aged couple exit it. It was a pretty good distance from where I stood, and noticed that the stairs were only a few yards from the elevator doors.

My attention was drawn back to the door in front of me because it opened up and I found myself looking at a mousy little guy no more than five foot six. He looked like a mild mannered accountant who was perpetually hen-pecked by his wife. All he needed was a pair of thick-lensed peepers to complete the look.

“Officer, what can I do for you? I’ve already been over everything I know. Who is this man with you?”

I’m not sure which happened first: a smile forming on my face or Cramer’s outburst. “Who is this? What do you mean? Don’t you recognize Goodwin? You said you recognized him earlier this morning!”

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