Having wrapped up my ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column at BlackGate.com and deciding to take a break from the entire Holmes world, I’ve immersed myself in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. It’s my favorite series. And I’ve been writing some scenes featuring Wolfe and/or Archie Goodwin. Eventually I’ll be plotting out and writing a couple of short stories, but for now, I’m just working on emulating Stout’s voice as best I can. I will say, writing Wolfe and Archie is a ton of fun!
I was sitting at the 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 progress, gauging when to start another. I had The Times open before me and didn’t mind 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 who 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 nine-to-elven in the morning 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 churlish 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 easily 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.”
He 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 wasn’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 by Theodore, who won’t win any awards for congeniality.
“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 of disapproval at this and moved to the pantry, shaking his head.
“You will never be as clever as you think you are, Archie. No man could be. 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 in a tone of 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. Of course, it wasn’t much to notice in good health, either.
“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 someone other than you bring him his beer on a tray. We are a part of this brownstone. 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 soil 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 Homicide West. 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 and rush upstairs 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.”
“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 not often 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 his very 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, you want to play, 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 probably knows why. Then again, maybe you had a lover’s quarrel and killed her. I don’t know, and at the moment, I don’t care. 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. I will never get used to the sight of Nero Wolfe in a couple acres of yellow pajamas. I don’t know that anyone ever could.
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 damsel 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 is working?”
Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin were two private operatives that Wolfe used more than occasionally. Saul was the best in the business 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.