Here’s the second chapter of an adaptation of an old Nero Wolfe radio show, starring Sidney Greenstreet. It won’t make much sense if you don’t read Chapter One first. Heck, it might not anyways, but at least there’s a chance!
Wolfe picked up his book, indicating that he had no more interest in the discussion until our would-be-client arrived. Knowing that Porter would be here soon, I updated a few more records, waiting for the doorbell to ring. Which it did, just shy of fifteen minutes later.
Since Fritz wasn’t home, I went out into the hall and to the door. I looked through the one-way glass and sized up our visitor. Charles Porter did not impress. He was a couple inches shorter than me, and under his light-weight coat, he didn’t look like he carried any extra pounds. Or even enough of them. He didn’t appear to be very happy with his lot in life at present, but a lot of folks on that stoop weren’t, so I didn’t hold that against him. I opened the door and said, “Mister Porter?”
“Naturally I‘m Charles Porter. Who else would I be?”
Okay. I’d been hung up on twice this evening, – once by this joker – and Wolfe had insulted me. People needed to learn some manners, so I fired one off.
“It’s a large field.”
He looked at me, puzzled. “What?”
There was no point in continuing on. And he had come to make a contribution to our coffers, so I stepped aside and let him enter.
“Never mind. Come in.”
“I’m Archie Goodwin,” I said, as I took his coat and hat.
Before I could even put them on the oversized rack, he snapped, “Where’s Wolfe?”
He and Wolfe should get along really well. I might just sit back and watch the fireworks.
“Mister Wolfe is in here.” He started off, but I grabbed his arm and brought him to a halt. Moving ahead of him, I said, “Follow me” and went down the hall and into the office.
“Mister Wolfe, this is Mister Porter.”
Wolfe does not shake hands. And rarely does he stand up. He nodded his head an eighth of an inch and said, “Good evening.”
“Fat, aren’t you?”
As Saul Panzer, the best operative you’ll never meet in this case, would say, ‘Lovin’ babe.’
Charles Porter could use a few lessons in how to deal with people. He’d been abrupt, surly, and lacking in pleasantries, with me. And he opened up to Wolfe with an insult. Not that he was wrong about Wolfe’s dimensions, but that was no way to start a conversation. Especially with someone you wanted to do something for you. Or, if I had understood him correctly on the phone, do nothing for you. Still, the principle is the same.
With Fritz out, Wolfe had prepared a dish of roast beef, with garlic and chive potatoes, julienned carrots, a simple salad and some wine from the basement. Now, well-fed, sitting in the only chair in the world that really fit him, and facing a potential client, with the possibility of earning a fat fee for doing nothing, he wasn’t about to be riled by what was technically just an observation.
“It’s moderately noticeable. Archie, a chair for Mister Porter.”
Wolfe has said that a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality, but I hadn’t even been given a chance to guide him to the red chair before the ‘fat’ comment. I started to steer him to it, but he wasn’t interested in sitting.
“Don’t bother, I’m too impatient to sit. When I have business to take care of, I take care of it quickly.”
“That’s as it may be, Mister Porter. But I like eyes at a level. Please sit.”
Porter thought he was going to refuse, but changed his mind. He moved over to the chair.
He looked as bony as I had guessed, and he was sitting down, but not leaning back. His feet were on the floor and his elbows were on the armrests. His back was straight. He didn’t look even the slightest bit comfortable. Good.
Without bothering to turn his head towards me, he said, “Send him out of the room.”
If I wasn’t so self-assured, he might have given me a complex.
Wolfe barely shook his head. “Mister Goodwin? Nonsense. He’s my assistant. He remains.”
“I don’t like it.”
I couldn’t imagine a single thing he did like.
“Archie, show Mister Porter out.” I don’t think Wolfe really meant it. But he wasn’t going to spend the evening having Porter aggravate him. He was derailing the train before it got out of the station.
“Now wait!” He didn’t show any signs of getting up. Wolfe’s ploy worked. He was putting on the brake.
“No need to get temperamental. Perhaps I’m a little, well, abrupt.”
I had remained in my chair. I could have always gone and removed him, with one arm tied behind my back, if Wolfe had been insistent that he leave.
“Rather, you are rude.”
“I’m a worried man.” He looked like a man with digestive issues, but to each their own.
Wolfe inhaled and exhaled. His lassitude – another word I had learned from him – was in danger of being disrupted.
“And you are also impatient. You’re wasting time, Mister Porter”
“I suppose I am. The reason I came to you is…”
Apparently he had caught motion out of the corner of his eye and his head snapped around towards me.
“Young man. What are you doing with that notebook?”
If Wolfe hadn’t run out of patience with Mister Charles Porter, I certainly had. “Getting ready to make marks in it.”
“But. Oh…Fine.” He turned away from me. “You have a client named Dorothy Spencer.”
“Have I?” No one could give away less with a comment than Nero Wolfe.
Porter looked like he’d just taken a big swig of prune juice. And he didn’t like prune juice. “There’s no need to be coy about it. I happen to know.”
“And you know?”
He leaned forward. “I want you to drop her.”
I’m not sure that I ever saw Wolfe lose a game of verbal cat and mouse. When he was really pushed into a tight spot, he would concede something. which he darn well knew was a rock solid fact, as a hypothetical. And then, without ever acknowledging he had agreed or submitted to anything, proceed as if he had. Porter wasn’t even close to making that happen.
“Refuse to handle her case. Close the books on her. You know what I mean.”
“Mister Porter.” Wolfe leaned forward a little. You call my home. Then rush over and disturb my evening. To tell me to drop a client that you presume I have. Really, sir. Now, why should I do that?”
His voice sharpened. “The girl has no money. I have.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
He reached into his suit coat and pulled out an envelope. To this day, I’m still not sure how he managed to get it to fit in that pocket, but clearly, he had.
“Perhaps this will.”
He held the envelope out to Wolfe, who made no move to take it. That would have required unnecessary effort. I stood in front of Porter. I’d had enough of his attitude, so I just held out my hand and said, “Give.”
Apparently, being rude was so natural to him, he didn’t notice that quality in others. He handed it to me. He was still watching me when I sat down and opened it up.
Crisp, one-hundred dollar bills. Quite a few. I took them out.
“You don’t need to count them. That’s five thousand dollars.”
I paid no attention and began using the math skills I’d learned as a boy in Chillicothe, Ohio. I’d have checked the total, even if the client didn’t annoy me.
He was right. Fifty one-hundred dollar bills. I looked up at Wolfe. “It’s five thousand dollars.”
Peevish. “Didn’t I just tell you that?” He looked at Wolfe. “That’s just a down payment. There’s $5,000 more when you agree to my demand.”
I kept my eyes on Wolfe. He did not like to have ‘demand’ thrown at him.
“Very good, Archie.” He looked forward. “Mister Porter.”
I got my receipt book and started writing one out. If I had things pegged right, I had never been surer that Wolfe was keeping money.
“First, let us call it ‘your request.’”
“Let me be clear. I want no misunderstanding. You are paying me ten thousand dollars, in order that I refuse to act for Miss Spencer. Nothing more.”
“What does she suspect you of?”
“I said nothing about-.” He caught himself. “That is…You must know that as well as I do.”
Porter had arrived, absolutely certain he would get what he wanted. I was pretty sure he always felt that way. But if he was a piranha, he was facing a shark. He certainly wasn’t in charge right now.
“Possibly. Nevertheless. What does she suspect you of?”
He grimaced. “Being a blackmailer.” No denial. No protest. He probably was one.
Wolfe leaned back again. “I see. Whereas your occupation really is?”
“I’m a musician. A pianist. I appear nightly at the Windsor Hotel.”
I couldn’t imagine there was much friendly banter in his show.
“Archie, have you made out a receipt for Mister Porter?”
“Give it to him and show him to the door.”
Wolfe was done with Porter and wanted to read his book until going upstairs to bed.
“Okay.” I got up. “Mister Porter.”
Danged if he didn’t stay in his chair and ignore me completely!
“Mister Wolfe. I want your assurance that the entire affair is definitely finished.”
“My association with Miss Spencer, you mean? You have my assurance that it is. I shall expect the remaining five thousand dollars, sir.”
Wolfe would get up and go to the kitchen if this went on any longer. He had walked out on many a client sitting in that chair.
But Porter had what he wanted and pushed himself out of the chair. That can be a difficult task for a lot of people. If he hadn’t been leaning forward, feet planted, I don’t think he could have done it.
I handed him the receipt and followed him to the doorway. Then, Wolfe surprised me.
“Oh, Mister Porter.”
He stopped and turned. I kept my eyes on him.
“You’ll forgive a classical allusion; da capo”
It had no obvious effect on him. “Yes. Thank you. Good night.”
He turned and went towards the front door. I watched him go. After that performance, he could get his own coat and hat. Which he did. Once, a killer, leaving in a huff, had accidentally grabbed my coat instead of his own. For that mistake, he lost his liberty, and Wolfe, for a very short time, gained a dog.
Without bothering even a glance back, he unlocked the door and let himself out.
I went, locking the door, but leaving the chain off. Fritz would let himself in. He could take the steps down from the sidewalk and unlock the door to his basement room. But on nights like this, he would come in through the front, go to the kitchen, and humming softly, prepare a drink, and snack on something from the fridge. Or perhaps some of his home-made bread. Eventually he would close up shop and go down to bed.
I returned to the office. “Being a grade a junior detective, I noticed something about Mister Porter. He smells.”
“Bah. Some perfume or other. Did you notice anything peculiar about his appearance?”
I gave it a little thought. “Well, he isn’t exactly a fashion plate. Of course, how could he be with that sour puss? No, nothing comes to mind.”
“His right coat cuff is more worn than his left cuff.”
He looked down at his book and added, “And da capo happens to be a musical term meaning ‘starting in from the beginning.’
“Oh. Ohhh. Porter thought it mean ‘finished.’
Wolfe picked up his book, but rather than opening it, looked at me. “Yes, he did. Therefore, Mister Porter is a liar. His ignorance of a common musical term indicates that he is not a musician. The worn right coat cuff, that he is an office worker.”
He removed the gold bookmark, which had been given to him by a client, and began reading.
I had one more thing to say.
“But even if Porter is a liar, there is something else. He paid you ten thousand dollars to drop a client named Dorothy Spencer.”
He said, “Indeed?” without looking up.
I got up and headed towards the kitchen to get a glass of milk. Stopping at the door to the hall, I said, “We’ve never had a client with that name.”
He murmured. “No, we haven’t. And if we never do, we will have met his terms, and thus, earned our ten thousand dollars.”
I knew he was done working for the evening, so I continued on to the kitchen, wondering how in the world we had fallen into that job.