I’m working on my second adaptation of a Nero Wolfe radio play, starring Sydney Greenstreet. Here’s the first one, Stamped for Murder. Below is chapter one, which is mostly of my own devising. The radio play didn’t have much depth before the second telephone call. Hopefully, with all of my BlackGate.com projects going on, I can still get this done sooner, rather than later. Enjoy!
Nero Wolfe was the most brilliant, and also the laziest, detective in the world. He rarely left his brownstone on West 35th Street, and never on business. I lived there, eating the amazing grub prepared by Fritz Brenner, a wonderful chef (do NOT call him a ‘cook’) and a gentle soul. But also a good man in a pinch. His war experiences had hardened him more than appearances might indicate, and he had the scars to prove it. The fourth and final occupant was Theodore Horstmann: more on him in a moment.
Wolfe used his brain, which was only slightly smaller than his prodigious waistline, and his even more massive ego, to pay for the upkeep. Which was considerable. I doubt too many other citizens of New York City ate as well as Wolfe did. And he probably could have bought his own brewery with his beer bill. And of course, there were the orchids.
No matter what some detective stories might lead you to believe, crimes can’t be solved solely from an armchair. Another surprise: crimes don’t only take place while you’re a guest at a country estate. Although, there was that affair of the missing rubies while I was staying at Lily Rowan’s Westchester digs. But that’s another story for another session at the typewriter.
I am a private eye, duly licensed by the State of New York. I earned my keep and salary by doing the physical work in Wolfe’s cases, which often involved tasks only slightly easier than bringing him the moon. The guns in the house were mine, I drove the Heron Sedan which Wolfe bought, and I ventured into the (according to Wolfe) wild outdoors, as required. I also took care of my room, which was on the second floor, and my desk, where I spent much of my time. A man’s got to have his castle. Even if it’s inside another man’s castle.
Because Wolfe spent very little time in the front room, the furniture was the least expensive he owned, and there wasn’t a chair which he found remotely comfortable. The fireplace was rarely used, though Wolfe had once fed it a dictionary for the intolerable offense of stating that ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ could be used interchangeably.
That particular Tuesday, I had been sitting at my desk, updating the day’s germination records, which documented the lives of Wolfe’s 10,000 orchids. They were kept in a greenhouse on the roof and tended to by Horstmann, who was not one of my favorite people. Wolfe ‘worked’ up there from 9 to 11 and 4 to 6, every day but Sunday, and Theodore coddled him far too much for my liking. It was fair to say that I probably knew more about orchids than any other living detective not named ‘Nero Wolfe.’ I can’t say that had ever been useful, but you never knew in that business.
Wolfe’s current book, Carl Van Doren’s ‘The Great Rehearsal: The Story of the Making and Ratifying of the Constitution of the United States,’ was on his desk, unopened. I hadn’t read it, but I didn’t see why I needed some German telling me about American democracy. They had been pretty short of that commodity a few years back when I dressed up like a major for Uncle Sam every morning. Sadly, I never did get to deliver that crushing remark I had thought up. Maybe in the next war.
He was leaning back in his chair, hands folded on the prominent mound of his stomach. In a voice barely above a murmur, he asked, “Archie, have you looked at that window?”
As the only one of us who was actually doing any work, I looked up in exasperation. But, he had a point. Fritz had mentioned it yesterday morning, in my hearing. One of the local lads, aspiring to be the next Tommy Heinrich, had smashed one through a window during a game of stickball a few weeks back. A man had come and replaced the glass, but while dusting in the room, Fritz had noticed a breeze leaking through. I hadn’t gotten around to following up on it. But, I think Wolfe just wanted me out of the room so I didn’t disturb his nap. Apparently my desk work was very noisy.
Now I was in the front room, inspecting said window. I was no glazier, but the air seeping through seemed likely due to shoddy repair work. If you’re impressed that I know what a window fixer is called, don’t be. Wolfe had used the term when he told me to “find someone to come fix that blasted window.” Another benefit of my job is that Wolfe knows more words than Shakespeare, and there’s bound to be some mental osmosis. See: that’s another one.
I had just decided that Bernie Harnstein would have to come back and do the job properly this time, when I heard the phone ring. There wasn’t one in the room, but I had left the connecting door with the office open, and the ringing from the two phones in there carried clearly through.
I only had time to turn toward the office when it came. “Archie.”
I did take a few leisurely steps in the proper direction. But I wasn’t going to rush to my desk when there was a phone less than three feet from his hand.
Another ring. “Archie.” Louder, and with some annoyance in it. Good. The beast was awakening.
I got to the door and started in to the office at the third ring.
His eyes were still closed, but a slight downturn of the edge of his lips indicated his displeasure. “Is your hearing as deficient as your mental acuity? Answer the phone.”
I let that pass and said, over the next ring, “But it’s right there on your desk. All you have to do is lean forward.”
His eyes opened. “Confound it Archie, do you think I’m an athlete?”
I had pushed it as far as I reasonably should. Reaching my desk and grabbing the receiver, I sat down.
During the day, it’s his office. But since this was the evening and he lived here, I didn’t feel that worked.
“Nero Wolfe’s residence. Archie Goodwin speaking.”
I listened for a few moments.
“Nope. Wrong number, mister.”
The call ended without even an apology for inconveniencing me. I hung up on my end.
“I’m sorry, sir. Did that annoying phone awaken you?”
“I was not asleep. I was merely…concentrating.”
I raised one eyebrow. He hates it when I do that, because he can’t. “On what? We’re out of work. There’s nothing to concentrate on.”
“It may have escaped your errant attention, there are other subjects for thought besides murder.”
“Sure, sure. Blondes.”
“You know, you’re right at that. And Brunettes.”
He leaned forward and eyed me coldly. “Pfui.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say about any girl. Even if she happens to be a brunette.”
“Go away. You annoy me.”
“Suppose I do go. Who will get your beer for you?
“Fritz, of course.”
“Fritz happens to be off tonight. He went to see that Wagner opera.”
Wolfe thought for a moment. “Eula Beal. She is not without talent.”
I was still annoyed that he wouldn’t answer his own phone when I wasn’t even in the room. “You can always get your beer for yourself.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Archie.”
“There are exactly twenty-three steps between here and the kitchen. I’ve counted them”
As I very well knew, he abominated strenuous physical activity. He had used that very descriptor before.
“Twenty-three steps times two is forty six. You could walk very slow.”
“Nonsense. And it’s ‘slowly.’”
He paused. “But now that you mention it, I happen to be mildly thirsty, Archie. Would you…”
I pounced on that opportunity like Bobby Thomson jumping on an inside fastball at the Polo Grounds.
“Now that I mention it, you better pass on the beer tonight.”
The eyes, which had softened a little at the thought of beer, went cold again.
“I repeat: Nonsense.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our stock is running low. Because something else is also running low.”
“And what would that be?”
“The thing that pays for all of this.” I waved my arms. “Including beer. Which only you drink. Money.”
“You are being overly dramatic. There’s plenty in the bank.”
To switch sporting metaphors, the hook was set and it was time to start reeling him in.
“Sure. But very little of it is yours. You remember that batch of orchids you bought last week?”
“Of course I do. Magnificent specimens of Dendrobium taurinium. They came from the Malaku islands in Indonesia. Did you know that the Indonesians have been struggling to throw off the shackles of Dutch colonialism since Japan surrendered?”
Oh no. He wasn’t going to change the subject.
“Yes. Glad you liked them. I just got a magnificent bill for them this morning.”
I nodded. “It was large.”
He pulled in a bushel full of air and pushed it back out. “Confound it. We must work.”
The fish was almost in the net. Just a little more.
“You’ve turned down almost half-a-dozen cases in the last two weeks alone.”
Part of my job was goading Wolfe into acting against his natural disposition. Meaning, to make him work. I could goad, but I had never guilted him into action. He certainly didn’t show any signs of self-recrimination now.
“One of them may still require me.”
“Most of them hired other detectives. They couldn’t just sit around and wait for you to run out of money.”
I looked thoughtful. “However…”
“There was a Mister Wenseslis, who might still be in need. I didn’t tell you about him.”
And, the fish was wriggling above the net.
“What was his problem?”
“As I remember, he’s being followed by midgets. He wanted you to do something about it. Not that he minded the midgets, so much.”
Looking at Wolfe’s face, I didn’t think I was the front runner for ‘Employee of the Week.’
“It was the elephants they were riding.”
“The man needs a psychiatrist, not a detective. You’ve made your point. Anyone else that might still be in need?”
I had achieved my goal. Which was to needle him for not working. And, to make him accept that it was time to work, even if that was the last thing he wanted to do. Which, it usually was.
“I can check my files and do a little cold calling, but I haven’t noticed anything particularly promising in the papers. I don’t think…”
The phone again. What were the odds that it was a client at our hour of need?
“Aha, saved by the bell!”
“Your choice of vernacular is one of your many Achilles heels, Archie. Another cliché like that and I shall-”
“Answer the phone yourself?”
“Find an assistant with a greater comprehension of the English language. I’m sure that the pool of middle-school graduates can produce a suitable candidate. See who that is.”
I didn’t dignify that with a remark; instead, I answered the phone. I listened to a reedy voice on the other end.
“Yes, Mister Wolfe is in. Yes, he’ll be in. He always is.”
After some squawking, he hung up. It’s really a shame that telephone etiquette simply wasn’t being observed these days.
I turned to Wolfe, who was trying to appear disinterested.
That was a Mister Charles Porter. And he was in quite a hurry. He’s on his way over right now. Should be here within ten minutes.
“A prospective client, I trust?”
“Ten thousand dollars worth of prospective client.”
Wolfe came as close to a smile as he gets. Not that anyone but Fritz or I would recognize it.
“Splendid, Archie. My beer.”
The fat son of a gun. With the possibility of a client hoofing his way over, I couldn’t continue badgering him about needing a case. And not getting him a beer, with Fritz out, would just be petty. And that was his department, not mine.
“Okay, but I’m not sure you’re going to accept his offer.”
“Oh. And what does he want me to do for his fee?”
I cleared my throat. “That’s the point. If I heard him right, he wants you to do…nothing.”
If you liked this, here’s a link to Chapter Two. More coming!