I have often been asked how I first became acquainted with Nero Wolfe, that gargantuan, egocentric, orchid-growing, beer-drinking, self-proclaimed genius, undoubtedly the world’s greatest detective. Admittedly, my answers have been a little vague, partly in deference to the privacy of people involved but, more important, to safeguard the well-being of one, Archie Goodwin.
You may recall a couple of early references:
“Born in Ohio. Public high school, pretty good at geometry and football, graduated with honor but no honors. Went to college two weeks, decided it was childish, came to New York and got a job guarding a pier, shot and killed two men and was fired, was recommended to Nero Wolfe for a chore he wanted done, did it, was offered a full-time job by Mr. Wolfe, took it.”
On another occasion:
“The only girl I had ever been really soft on had found another bargain she liked better. That was how I happened to meet Wolfe – but that story isn’t for me to tell, at least not yet. There are one or two little points that would need clearing up some day.”
Perhaps that day has finally arrived. Both of the above statements are true, as far as they go. Oh, I know I have a reputation for dissembling, as Inspector Cramer of the NYPD would be glad to attest. Sometimes, bending the truth a little is for a serious purpose. But mostly, it’s pure flippancy on my part, merely to satisfy a whim, a mood, or to just plain rebel against conformity, never intended to be taken literally. In fact, about the only person I’ve never been able to bamboozle at all is the second (and last) girl I’ve really been soft on, Lily Rowan. When I first met her, I fed her a perfectly plausible line. She simply looked at me, through the most beautiful azure eyes ever created, and asked softly, “Is any of it straight?” In my most sincere manner, I hastened to assure her it was all true but the words which came out, solely of their own volition, were, “No, it’s firecrackers.”
The events leading up to my initial meeting with Wolfe involved a lot more than firecrackers. You might even call them a whole Fourth of July explosion. Except that they happened in December. In 1926. When, as an adventurous and (I hate to admit it but you’ll find out anyway) naive youth of 18, fresh out of Chillicothe, Ohio, I was ready to take on the Big City of New York.
They materialized out of the mist, two dark shadows silhouetted against the dim light from the warehouse office window. A foghorn wailed mournfully in the distance. Somewhere down river a ship’s bell clanged as if in answer. Silently, the two men advanced towards the window. Peering in, they saw exactly what they expected, a uniformed figure, presumably that dumb kid security guard, back to the window, hunched over his desk, probably half asleep. They never hesitated, raised their Tommy guns and shattered the office window with a series of staccato blasts. Enough bullets to kill a dozen men ripped into the back of the slumping figure at the desk. Another blast from the guns blew away the door lock and sent the door flying open. Without a word, the two gunmen marched through the door to view their handiwork...
You want to know how I ever got into that fool predicament? Or, more to the point, how I got out? Then we’ll have to go back a way. But relax. I’m far too short of a Wolfean ego to write an autobiography. However, you’ll have to forgive a touch of nostalgia.
To begin with, I was born in Chillicothe, Ohio. You thought it was Canton? Or maybe Zanesville? Either would have been quite a trick inasmuch as my mother was in Chillicothe at the time. And I did attend the State University in Columbus for a couple of weeks, mainly to please my mother. Oh, I know that long ago, I implied that my mother and father were both dead. That was half firecrackers. At that particular time, it simply suited my mood to be an orphan. I’m happy to say that my mother is still very much alive, occasionally visits New York, and enjoys dining with Wolfe and me.
But, back to college. Although the Jazz Age hadn’t quite caught up with Chillicothe, it was running wild on the Ohio State campus. The students, if I may resort to hyperbole, prided themselves on non-conformity. Yet, they were all mirror-images of each other in their oversized sweaters, baggy pants and saddle shoes, patent-leather hair combed back, stiffened with slickum, and parted in the middle, appropriate shells for the embryonic brains below. They majored in hip flasks, ukuleles and Greek fraternities with names I couldn’t even pronounce. If William Jennings Bryan could have put those morons on the witness stand during the recent Scopes trial, he’d have had no trouble at all proving that man couldn’t have descended from monkeys. Descended? The monkeys would have sued for libel.
The few classes I attended were dreary lessons by disinterested professors from dull books written by dead people (i.e., dead now, questionable then.) The only live ones we studied were Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. I couldn’t understand the one (I doubt the profs did either) and the answer to any question about the other was “sex”. Even the so-called students would have got that right. I would have had A+! Perhaps if the college were co-ed I could have persevered...
Mainly, however, I couldn’t stand sitting (is that a non-sequitur?) in class all day. Even now, when Wolfe and I are between cases or when he pig-headedly refuses to work on a current case, I have to get out of the office and walk through the streets of New York.
My mother wasn’t too happy when I returned to the farm and told her I wanted to head for New York. Being the wonderful lady she is, she finally agreed and even staked me with part of the tuition money she’d set aside for college.
When I say “farm”, that may be a small firecracker. But you’ll have to visualize it to understand the exciting contrast of leaving it for Times Square. It wasn’t much of a farm by Midwestern standards, only about three acres. In the garden behind the house were rows of leaf lettuce, radishes, butter beans, carrots, cabbages, potatoes and those two most succulent Ohio crops, lush tomatoes and sweet corn. Around the front of the house were violets, tulips, narcissus, peonies and iris. I can still smell the sweet scent of the honeysuckle that climbed our porch railing.
In the spring, fruit trees blossomed in bursts of pink and white to yield seasonal and fall crops of cherries, plums and apples. In back were clumps of berry bushes, rhubarb, asparagus and an arbor of Concord grapes. What our major domo and chef, Fritz Brenner, couldn’t have done with these! If Wolfe had ever known about them, he’d probably have had me commuting to Ohio every week for fresh fruit and vegetables!
Rhode Island Reds pecked away in the yard by the chicken house near the barn. Farther back, in fact a lot farther, a pair of China Poland porkers rooted and grunted in the mud and slurped from the overflowing trough. In the pasture were too few cows to be called a herd but quite enough to supply my favorite beverage. And beyond, the pasture was bordered by dark woods which, when I was a youngster, seemed like the end of the world.
Describing the scenes of my lost youth, I’m tempted to wax sentimental. But, at heart, I was never really a country boy. If anything, I always was and still like to think of myself as a man of action. And, to me, the Big City has always been where the action is. After the Thanksgiving Holidays, while I was packing to leave, my mother handed me an old Colt .45 Army automatic which had belonged to my father. She’d heard a lot about crime in New York and figured I should have some protection. To humor her, I tucked it in my suitcase and forgot about it. All it did later was save my life.
As I was leaving, my sister Meg, from childhood the object of bickering and rough-housing that masked a deep underlying mutual affection, handed me a package containing sandwiches and a cake she’d baked especially for me (she who hated to cook). I was startled to see tears in her eyes, gave her a quick peck on the cheek, and had to leave quickly to avoid choking up myself.
I walked to the nearby highway and caught a bus bound for Cleveland where I would board the 20th Century Limited out of Chicago to New York. I’d argued with my mother that it would be a lot cheaper to take the cross-country bus all the way but she insisted I go first class. During the nearly 200 mile trip to Cleveland, I amused myself by watching the billboards as they flashed by. “I’d Walk A Mile For A Camel”. I was in good shape – I could do that. “Ivory Soap – 99 44/100 % Pure”. In this far from perfect world, that seemed close enough. But that slogan will never last. And finally, a series that read, “THE 50 CENT JAR/SO LARGE/BY HECK/EVEN THE SCOTCH/NOW SHAVE THE NECK/BURMA SHAVE”. By the time I got to Cleveland, I’d decided to smoke Camels, wash with Ivory and shave with Burma Shave every day whether I needed it or not. Look out Broadway, here I come!
If you’re not a native New Yorker (is anyone?) you’re bound to remember your first impression of that great metropolis. It was Saturday, a clear, crisp December morning, when my train pulled into Grand Central Station. The porters actually rolled out a red carpet across the platform and into the station. Talk about First Class. Thanks, Mom! Carrying my one bulging suitcase, I walked out onto 42nd Street in a state of exhilaration and excitement right smack into the clamor of Manhattan. More cars, buses and taxis than I’d seen in a lifetime raced each other through the streets. The crowded sidewalks teemed with frantic people rushing in every direction, all with the air of reaching some important goal known only to themselves. The pace was faster, the buildings taller, the girls prettier, the skirts shorter...
I turned west on 42nd Street towards Broadway and Times Square, gawking like any tourist at the people, the store windows already dressed in their Christmas finery, and searching for the Woolworth Building, tallest in the world, towering high above the other skyscrapers. As the crowd thinned a little, my eyes were drawn as if by a magnet towards a young woman walking in my direction. Somehow, she stood out from all the others, a tall, lithe, shapely figure striding confidently ahead with exceptional grace and poise. As I watched in ill-concealed admiration, something to which she was undoubtedly accustomed, I noticed a seedy-looking guy, dressed in a bulky sweater and stocking cap, moving purposefully toward her. Suddenly, he snatched her purse and darted in my direction, dodging pedestrians, none of whom paid the slightest attention. Ashe came near, I dropped my suitcase and threw myself, all 190 pounds, in a body block that would have made my high school football coach proud. The would-be thief sprawled in one direction, the stolen purse flying from his grasp in another. No longer concerned with him, I hurried to rescue the purse while he raced off and disappeared into the crowd. Still, no passers-by paid any attention, just nonchalantly kept walking by as though this were an every day occasion. Maybe it was, at that.
Now you might say I acted foolishly without thinking. In retrospect, I like to think I reacted with intelligence and courage. These are qualities which have always been my guide. In any event, it was a terrific way to meet the most beautiful girl in the world. She was a knockout, a real doll! When I returned her purse, her dark green eyes flashed from shock and anger to relief. High cheekbones accented a tiny nose and perfectly shaped mouth. Auburn hair peeked out from under a perky cloche hat. Her coat matched her eyes and set off her features perfectly.
As she thanked me, one of New York’s finest (where are they when you need them?) approached and asked if either of us was hurt. My clothing was a little the worse for wear but otherwise we were both in good shape, especially hers. As the cop was leaving he took me aside and said, “That was a damn fool thing you did. If that mugger had a knife or a gun, you could be dead now. Better leave police work in the hands of the law.” I glared at his departing back and don’t know if he heard my reply, “Yeah, leave police work in the hands of the law and leave the lady’s purse in the hands of the crook.” In the years to come, that type of conflict was destined to be played over and over again.
When I turned back I could see the young lady was shivering slightly as the reaction set in. Over her mild protest, I offered to take her home, hailed a taxi, and she gave me an address on 38th Street. During the short ride, she relaxed enough to tell me her name was Dolores Day, that she was a hoofer, a professional dancer, but she was presently “at liberty.” She smiled and said, “That’s a fancy way of saying I’m currently out of work. Meanwhile, I’m working part time as a stenographer in a waterfront warehouse office.”
We reached her apartment all too soon. I dismissed the taxi and escorted her to the door. On impulse I said “If you’re ‘at liberty’ and like to dance, I’m ‘at liberty,’ too. Why don’t we try it together tonight? I’m probably not in your class as a dancer, but I promise not to step all over your toes. And we’ll go somewhere special for dinner. After all this is my first day in New York so help me make it a real occasion!” She hesitated for a moment but to my relief, and frankly surprise, she agreed that I could pick her up at eight. I almost danced all the way back to Grand Central where I bought a road map of Manhattan and a copy of the Daily News. Perusing the Classified Section, an ad (I better say advertisement) for a rooming house in Greenwich Village caught my eye. I knew the Village wasn’t the swellest neighborhood in New York but somehow it intrigued me. And the advertisement promised clean, cheap, furnished rooms. I grabbed a cab to the corner of 6th Avenue and 9th Street, located the boarding house, examined the available room, liked it, rented it. Finally, I was ready for the Big Adventure.
My first week in New York was noteworthy primarily for a whirlwind romance and the prospects of a new job. You don’t need details about the former, but a few highlights might be of interest. After settling in my second-floor room, I went out and bought a couple of late afternoon newspapers. The Evening Graphic, a tabloid, featured lurid articles such as “Love Nest on Park Avenue,” a photo of the esteemed mayor of New York, “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker in the area of a scantily-clad chorus girl, and a follow-up story on the nationally beloved evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. She had failed to return from an excursion last spring. After 37 days, while her whereabouts remained a well-publicized mystery, she staggered out of a desert in Arizona, claiming she’d just escaped from kidnappers. According to the article, there was ample evidence that she’d been off on a month-long fling with her boyfriend. I decided that paper should have been called the “Porno Graphic”.
The Gazette was a lot different and it became my favorite New York paper. It included a great Amusement Section, filled with movie, restaurant, and nightclub advertisements. A restaurant called Rusterman’s sounded expensive but probably worth it. My eye was also caught by one for the Flamingo which read as follows: “Sophisticates...” (That’s me!) “... attune your souls to happiness and synchronize your toes with tempo by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.” I was more than ready for a little soul attunement and toe synchronization!
The landlady charged me a nickel a call on the telephone in the downstairs hall, and stood nearby to make sure the calls were local as I made reservations for both places. That ought to impress Dolores! I shaved with Burma Shave, including my neck, took a a bath with Ivory Soap, and dressed with special care in my gray suit with pinstripes, a light blue shirt, fresh collar, and dark blue tie. I was at Dolores’ apartment on the dot of eight. She kept me waiting only ten minutes. She was breathtaking in a flowered party dress that came just about to her knees. Her shapely legs were encased in silk stockings, rolled just below the knees, evidently in the latest style. Her gleaming auburn hair was “bobbed” in the most modern fashion. A single strand of pearls adorned her gorgeous neck.
From the beginning, we were completely at ease with each other. The dinner at Rusterman’s was the best I’d ever had (Sorry, Mom) but I blanched a little when the check came. At The Flamingo, we blended perfectly and Dolores taught me the latest dance craze, the Charleston. I admit I never did quite get the hang of crossing my hands on my knees, mostly because I thought it was pretty silly. I was also surprised when, back at the table, she took out her compact and powdered – her knees! But they were cute knees. And she certainly was my idea of a Broadway glamour girl.
During the week, we held hands through the new movie, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, Mary Astor and Warner Oland at the brand new Warner Theatre. It was easy to see why such theatres were called “palaces”. The center of the mezzanine was big enough for an eight-day bicycle race. It featured marble figures in a flowing fountain. The walls displayed ancient statuary in gilded niches. The theatre itself seated 5300 people but they might as well all have been statues for Dolores and I couldn’t have been more alone in a crowd.
The movie featured something billed as “REVOLUTIONARY”. It was called Vitaphone Synchronization. During the film, you could actually recognize sounds – like the clashing of swords and the pealing of bells. The movie was preceded by Vitaphone Shorts in which you could both see and hear the Philharmonic Orchestra playing Wagner’s overture to Tannhauser, plus selections from Rigoletto and Pagliacci. (Years later, Lily taught me to enjoy that kind of music.) A message at the end announced that same day soon movies would actually talk. I figured this might be a boon to the illiterate movie fan, but on the whole it was probably just another short-lived Hollywood fad.
Dolores also introduced me to my first speakeasy and that newly invented drink, the cocktail. Frankly, I could get along fine without either, especially the latter. She told me there were over 100,000 speakeasies in New York and that you could get a glass of liquor in any building on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Obviously, the constabulary looked the other way. At the Club Gallant, which was in Washington Square not far from my rooming house, I was embarrassed when the doorman asked for my membership card. I needn’t have worried. The exchange of a single simoleon brought me an elaborate wallet-sized card, good forever. That was only the beginning though. Before we got out of there, it cost us nearly a sawbuck.
As we entered, the doorman called my attention to a plaque on the wall, headlined “Rules for Nightclub Goers. I still remember every one.
You might find a few amusing:
“Do not ask to play the drums. The drum heads are not as tough as some other heads. Besides, it has a tendency to disturb the rhythm.”
“Examine your bill when the waiter presents it. Remember, even they are human beings and are liable to err – intentionally or otherwise.”
Please do not offer to escort the cloakroom girl home. Her husband, who is an ex-prizefighter, is there for that purpose.”
You can see we were having a ball. But don’t think it was all fun and games. I was attempting to find gainful employment and always seemed to strike out whenever it came to “experience”. One night, at the end of our first week, Dolores told me that the manager of the warehouse where she worked part time was looking for a security guard. She said it wasn’t much of a job but might tide me over until I found something better. I wasn’t too enthusiastic because it meant night work. But she said we could still see each other on occasional afternoons, play that Chinese game, Mah Jongg, which was sweeping the country, go to a movie, or just take a walk in Central Park. Sounded fine. She phoned the manager, a man named Mike Jablonski, and set up an appointment for the next day.
Saturday morning was cold, gray and overcast. My rooming house wasn’t too far from the Hudson River. I dressed warmly in a heavy sweater and cap, which I thought appropriate for the waterfront, walked north on 6th Avenue to 23rd Street, then west directly on to Pier 64. The pier was about a furlong removed from the main waterfront buildings. A lone warehouse, seemingly standing aloof from its neighbors, looked out on the Hudson. On close inspection, there was no good reason for this particular warehouse to be putting on airs. Its red brick exterior showed definite signs of aging. Yet, it appeared solid enough to withstand any ocean storms.
Everything was quiet on Pier 64, in direct contrast to the rest of the waterfront which was teeming with activity. Several large ships were docked, with huge cranes engaged in loading and off-loading. Longshoremen were wheeling heavily burdened hand trucks in and out of various buildings.
I wasn’t too thrilled with my first view of the mighty Hudson with its odor of dead fish and with filthy flotsam and jetsam bobbing up and down against the dock. Across the river, on the Jersey side, was a large sprawling city which I learned later was Hoboken. Off in the distance to the far left, where the Hudson joined the Upper Bay that led to the Atlantic, I could see the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. I don’t mind saying that my heart beat a little faster at my first sight of this proud Lady.
Like the others, the warehouse loading dock faced the waterfront where it was handy to ships’ cargoes. A narrow alley to the right provided access to non-sea-going vehicles. A solid looking door next to the loading dock evidently led to the manager’s office. A man seated with his back to the window was partly visible. I knocked and walked in. “Mr. Jablonski?” I asked.
He swiveled around and glared at me through bloodshot eyes that must have been having a hard time recovering from the night before. Bristly black hair and a bristly black mustache framed a dark-complexioned face with high cheekbones. An almost invisible scar, running from his right eye to the corner of his mouth, actually emphasized his rugged good looks. His features were quite handsome in a coarse, rough and ready kind of way. His body was big and powerful looking, just slightly showing signs of running to fat. Across the grapefruit sized biceps of his left arm, visible under his rolled up shirtsleeve, was a heartshaped tattoo with the word, “MOTHER”, emblazoned across it. Hey, I figured, if he loves his mother, he can’t be all bad. But I still didn’t like the look in his eyes.
There was an empty chair next to his desk but he didn’t offer it. He didn’t offer to shake hands, either. He grunted through half-clenched teeth as though he hated to make the effort to talk.
I admitted it.
He waved me to the empty chair.
“Miss Day recommended you,” he began, “and her judgment is usually sound, especially where men are concerned. But, hell, you’re just a kid. I hope she didn’t go all female because you happen to be good-looking in a college-boy type of way.”
I was beginning to dislike him. Without conscious effort, the remainder of that interview could have become a part of the curriculum of the Harvard Business School as a classic example of How Not To Get A Job.
“Come to think of it,” I replied, “she did say I had a profile like John Barrymore.” I slowly and deliberately turned my head to the side. “What do you think? A little too much nose?” Then, I continued. “But she must have thought I had other assets.”
He smiled but there was no warmth in it. “Tell me about ’em, kid.” (How I hated that!) “You think you got guts enough to take care of this pier and warehouse?”
That did it. I now decided I didn’t want his damn’ job. So I played the country bumpkin to the hilt.
“Dern tootin’,” I drawled, “back home I did a pretty good job guarding our henhouse and barn. There’s a lot of dead foxes, weasels, raccoons and dirty rats who could prove it, to say nothin’ of some would-be chicken thieves with their rear ends full of buckshot.”
He didn’t know whether I was putting him on or not. After a moment, he decided to play it straight. “You know how to shoot a gun?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said proudly, “I’m a regular Davy Crockett, Dan’l Boone and Buffalo Bill all rolled into one. I kin shoot a squirrel’s eye out at ninety feet!”
By this time, he should have booted me out on my rear end, or at least tried. Instead, he put on the hail fellow well met. “OK, Goodwin,” he said, “I like your spunk. You won’t have to worry about guns though. This warehouse is full of precision machine parts. They’re valuable enough but they wouldn’t be worth anything to a thief. He’d never be able to get rid of ’em. There’s never been a robbery attempt here and I certainly don’t expect any.
“This is a full-time job though,” he continued, “seven days a week from 7 in the evening to 7 the next morning. These are tough hours but the pay is good. Also, about once a month, when a big shipment comes in, we have to put on a night shift for a week. We don’t need a guard then so you get a week off with pay.” He mentioned a salary that was a lot higher than I’d expected. “Come along, and I’ll show you around.”
I still hadn’t decided to take the job but I went along anyway. There wasn’t much to see, just aisle after aisle stacked to the ceiling with cardboard containers. Several workmen were moving the cartons around in hand trucks. With the boss nearby, they were trying hard to look busy.
Back in the office, Jablonski opened a door to a small closet and brought out a security guard uniform and handed it to me. “I think this will fit you all right,” he said. Then, he reached into his desk drawer, took out a revolver, and gave it to me. It was a .38 special, a brand I wasn’t familiar with. “You won’t need this,” he said, “but it’s loaded, just in case. Be careful with it. I’ll be here Monday night when you check in.”
On that note, we shook hands and I left with a good deal to think about.
Sunday, I tried to sort out my feelings about that interview with Jablonski. It simply didn’t make sense. First, why did he overlook my obviously flippant responses to his questions? That certainly wasn’t his style. Second, why offer a salary that was way out of line with the requirements of the job? Third, why hire me at all considering his expressed contempt for my so-called youth and inexperience? None of it added up.
I examined the revolver he had given me. It looked as though it hadn’t been used for years. I broke open the cylinder. Except for the chamber under the hammer, it was fully loaded. I ejected the cartridges and decided to take the gun apart. It was badly in need of cleaning. The firing pin didn’t look quite right. On closer scrutiny, I could see that the end was filed down. That gun would misfire. It was useless.
I reassembled it and tucked it away in my bottom drawer. I took out the old Army Colt automatic, cleaned it thoroughly, and made sure the magazine was fully loaded. Then, it was time to decide on my future course of action. It was obvious that I was being set up. But for what? Of course, the sensible thing would be to bow out and chalk it up to experience. But I was just curious enough, stubborn enough, and, I admit, with enough youthful pride to resent being played for a sucker. I decided to see it through. There was no doubt about Jablonski’s role.
Reluctantly, I began to wonder about Dolores. It bothered me so much that it must have taken all of 30 seconds for me to get to sleep that night.
With less than two weeks ’til Christmas, I spent most of Monday morning in Macy’s, selecting presents for my mother and sister, and getting the wrapped packages off in the mail. In the afternoon, for the the first time since I was in the cradle, I took a nap in preparation for my night’s work. After a so-so meal in a nearby diner, I dressed for action. The uniform coat was a little large so I wore a heavy sweater underneath. It would probably be cold in that warehouse, even with a Franklin Stove in the office. My Colt .45 didn’t make much of a bulge in the pocket. I met Jablonski at the warehouse, determined to show no sign of suspicion. He offered some last-minute instructions which were pretty routine, gave me a key to the office, and his home phone number to call in case of emergency which he assured me would be unnecessary.
As soon as he was gone, I locked the office door and made sure the overhead doors at the loading dock were securely fastened. I went through the warehouse, aisle by aisle, comer by corner, to make sure I was alone. Then, it was time to find out exactly what kind of precision tools the cartons contained. I very carefully opened several cartons at random, examined the contents, and resealed the cartons. Just as I suspected, the precision tools were all liquid, Scotch, Bourbon, Gin, Rum and Rye. Back in the office, I stayed in the shadows and kept my eye on the door while I pondered this new information. About 2:30 a.m. my reverie was interrupted by a discrete knock on the door. It was another uniformed figure, this time in the uniform of the NYPD. With my hand gripping the automatic in my pocket, I cautiously let him in. In a brogue as thick as the fog rolling off the river, he proudly introduced himself as Officer Francis Xavier Mulrooney. “Sure, ’tis a pleasure to meet you, me boyo,” he began. “Me beat’s right along Twelfth Avenue and I’ve got in the habit of droppin’ in here each night for a few minutes to warm me old bones. ’Tis not surprised I am though to find another new security guard. Nobody can put up with Jablonski very long. You wouldn’t be havin’ a wee drop, now would you, to help ward off the chill?”
I told him I thought we could spare a wee drop, went into the back, opened a carton, brought out a bottle of rye, and poured him a generous wee drop. He downed it in one gulp. “Sure an’ that hits the spot,” he said, so I poured him another. “You know, me boy,” he went on, “half the warehouses on the waterfront are filled with bootleg booze. But ’tis no concern of mine. The gangs and unions here take care of their own troubles. As for me, I’ve got enough troubles o’ me own what with the speaks, the streetwalkers, the pawnshops and family squabbles on me own beat. ’Tis a rare night indeed when I’m not callin’ the paddy wagon to cart someone off to jail.”
As he left, he turned to me and said, “You seem like a fine lad, Goodwin, me boy. Take a word o’ warnin’ from an old cop. Keep a sharp eye on that Polack, Jablonski. He’s no good atall atall.” It was a warning I didn’t need but I thanked him just the same.
The next few nights were pretty much repeats. Mulrooney dropped in for his nightly libation. I suspected he had a few other watering holes as well. Nevertheless, I began to look forward to his visits. I learned a lot from him about the waterfront and the neighborhood. Although he might prove to be a welcome ally, I kept my suspicions about Jablonski to myself.
Everything exploded into action on Saturday. It began a little after noon when I heard the phone ring in the downstairs hall. In a moment, the landlady knocked on my door. “Mr. Goodwin! You’re wanted on the phone. It’s a woman!” The way she spit it out made it appear that it must be the Whore of Babylon calling, or at least a “fallen woman”.
It was Dolores. She sounded breathless. “Oh, Archie, I’m so glad I caught you. Something terrible has happened and I’m getting ready to leave New York but I had to see you first.” Her voice broke. She was obviously in a state of excitement, bordering on hysteria. I tried to calm her. “Relax! Slow down! Are you at home?” She said she was and I said I’d be there as fast as I could, and broke all records getting to her apartment. She let me in and immediately closed the door, fastened the chain, and broke into tears. I held her and did my best to soothe her. The apartment was in a state of disarray, clothes and personal articles strewn on the floor, open suitcases partly packed.
When her emotions were under control, she brushed away the tears, took out her compact, and repaired the damage to her beautiful features as best she could. I was glad to see that she powdered her nose and not her knees. I took this as a good sign, cleared a place on the divan, sat beside her and listened while she explained, haltingly at first, then with growing confidence.
“I’m so frightened,” she began. “I have to tell you that for a long time, Mike Jablonski and I were,” she hesitated, then added, “close. Oh, I knew he was a small-time gangster and that the warehouse was full of bootleg booze. Somehow, that just seemed intriguing and made him more interesting. I’d never met anyone like him and, for a time, I was hopelessly in love.”
Here, she paused as if groping for the right words. “Gradually, I came to see another side of him, a rough side, a cruel side. I began to be afraid of him, scared even to leave my job. And even though it’s been over, on my part, for a long time, I still had to hide the fact that you and I were seeing each other. I’m afraid, though, that he began to suspect. Yet, in my ignorance, when I recommended you for the security guard position, I really thought I was doing you a favor.” She shuddered. “Instead, I might have been sending you to your death.” A tear rolled down her cheek but she brushed it away and continued. “This morning, when I was working at the office, I overheard Mike on the phone. I was typing a bill of lading so, at first, I paid no attention. Mike was mostly just listening, anyway, until suddenly I caught the words ‘hi-jack’ and ‘security guard’. I continued typing but tried to listen more carefully. I didn’t get it all but heard enough to realize that Mike was planning to have his own warehouse robbed. And it’s supposed to take place tonight! The last thing I heard him say was, ‘You won’t have any trouble with the country bumpkin’.
“When he hung up, he looked at me kind of funny and asked if I’d heard any of his conversation. I assured him I hadn’t but I don’t think he believed me. If he decides I heard too much, I know he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me. That’s when I realized that I don’t belong here and why I’m packing to catch the afternoon train back home to Kansas. But I couldn’t leave without seeing you for one last time and warning you not to go near that warehouse tonight!
“You know, Archie, I like you, I really do. But I’ve been kidding myself all along trying to be a Big City girl. It took all this to make me see that at heart I’m really just another kid from the country. You’re different. I know you’ll make it big in New York. The only thing I’m sorry about is leaving you, that we couldn’t get to know one another better. Maybe if we’d met under different circumstances...”
Here, she stopped, and I was afraid the waterworks would start again. I tried to persuade her to stay, that I’d take care of Jablonski, but it was no use. Finally, I patted her hand, looked into those gorgeous emerald eyes for the last time, and said, “If it will make you feel any better, you’re more than enough of a Big City girl for me. You swept me right off my feet which are usually planted solidly on good old terra firma. C’mon, I’ll help you pack and see that you get to the station and on that train for home.”
Which I did. We kissed good bye, each with our own mixed feelings of relief and regret. Just before she boarded the train, she said, “You know, Archie, even my name is phony. It isn’t really Dolores Day. That was just a stage name.” She paused and added wistfully, “I guess now it will never get up in lights on Broadway.” She didn’t offer her real name and I didn’t ask. I watched as the train pulled out of the station, leaving clouds of white smoke in its wake, and carrying her off into eternity, leaving only the bittersweet memory of my first love. I’ll never forget her. But I won’t tell Lily.
So much for sentiment. Now, I had more practical problems to ponder.
It was late afternoon when I returned to my room. There wasn’t much time to get ready for the evening’s entertainment. I made a few preparations and, making sure my landlady was otherwise occupied, I sneaked out with a couple of pillows under my coat.
At the warehouse, I made the usual survey to be certain I was alone. Then, I got to work, fashioning a man-sized dummy from the pillows and packing straw from the warehouse. Dressed in my uniform coat and hat, hunched over the desk, back to the window, the dummy looked pretty life-like. I stepped outside to make sure. It wouldn’t fool anyone on close inspection but, through the window, in the dim light of the office lamp, it should serve its purpose.
Satisfied, I positioned myself in the shadows of the warehouse where I could watch the office without being seen. I was pretty much on edge, not really nervous or afraid, just keyed up from anticipation and from trying to maintain a patience that didn’t come to me naturally.
So now, we’re up to date. You have a good idea of just how I got into the situation described in the opening paragraph of this narrative. Next, you’ll see just how I got out of it. Sort of.
Although all my senses were keenly alert, I didn’t hear the truck pull into the alley. My watch said 2:03 when the two gunmen arrived, tattooed the window, door and dummy with rapid blasts from their Tommy guns, as I previously explained, and marched through the door to view their handiwork. That’s when I stepped from the shadows of the warehouse interior, my Colt .45 leveled unwaveringly at the two men. For a moment, they stood utterly still, frozen in time, all the world like two statues in a Greek tableau. Alert for the slightest movement, in a voice I was proud came out without a tremor, I quietly told them to drop their weapons which were now dangling from their arms, pointed towards the floor. They reacted exactly as I had anticipated. Recovering quickly from the shock of my sudden appearance, they each started to raise their guns in my direction. My first shot caught the nearest gunman dead-center in the chest. My next didn’t vary a millimeter as it downed the second. As they fell, I kicked away their weapons and knelt to make sure they were out of commission. They were. Permanently.
Shaken as I was, I couldn’t resist one parting remark, quite possibly a fitting epitaph. “Sorry, gentlemen, but the dummy you shot wasn’t me.” Then, it was my turn to go into shock but I didn’t have time to give in to it.
The sound of running feet outside brought me back to action. I turned, gun still leveled steadily, and was relieved to see my friend, Officer Mulrooney, come puffing into the office.
“Glory be!” he exclaimed, looking at the two bodies on the floor. “Are they dead? Are you all right?”
I assured him that they were and I was and filled him in briefly.
“Sure an’ I try to keep out of any trouble on the docks,” he said, “but when I heard the gunfire, I thought you might be needin’ help. And, indeed, me boy, it seems that you do. The Homicide Bureau doesn’t take kindly to killings anywhere, even on the waterfront. And, in spite of evidence to the contrary, which they sometimes conveniently overlook, they’re often quick to assume the one doin’ the killin’ is the guilty party.”
He thought for a moment. The racket from the gunfire was evidently no cause for concern along the rest of the waterfront which, I had come to learn, kept strictly to their own business. Finally, Mulrooney, almost as if thinking aloud, offered a suggestion. “Tell you what, me friend, you could be in a heap o’ trouble. Now there’s a friend o’ mine in Homicide who used to patrol this same beat as mine. Many a night, we were partners together. He’s tough but a square shooter. Is that phone still working?”
He picked it up, jiggled the hook, finally got the operator and put through a call to Homicide West. He talked with a Sergeant Cramer, quickly filled him in on the situation here, listened a moment and hung up. He told me Cramer was on his way and warned me to play it absolutely straight with him.
In exactly twelve minutes, a police car pulled up on the dock, stopped in front of the office, and two men got out. The first, who gruffly introduced himself as Sergeant Cramer, was a big man with a sizeable bottom and heavy, broad shoulders underneath a thick, muscular neck. His round face was beet-red, probably from the cold. Sharp blue-gray eyes, under bushy gray eyebrows, looked as though they didn’t miss much. He wore an old felt hat. His open overcoat revealed a three-piece suit. The other dick, a Sergeant Purley Stebbins, was also big and broad. His bony face sprouted oversized ears and pig-bristle eyebrows above a firm square jaw. There was a no-nonsense quality to both men.
Cramer took out a big cigar, lit it, and asked Mulrooney a couple of quick questions before turning to me. “All right, Goodwin,” he growled, “how did you know these two goons were going to hit this morning?” I expected that question and had a ready answer. “I got a phone call yesterday morning, tipping me off.” Of course, he wanted to know who made the call but I had already decided to make no mention of Dolores. As for Jablonski, I wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with him, but I wanted him for myself. So I merely said, “It was Mr. Anonymous.”
Cramer didn’t believe me but he gave up for the moment. He told Mulrooney to stay until he could send a lab and forensic crew to take care of the bodies. Then, he gruffly ordered me into the car and Stebbins drove us to Homicide West on 20th Street.
At Police Headquarters, I was immediately hustled into an interview room where both Cramer and Stebbins hammered away at me as though I were the criminal rather than the Knight in Shining Armor. With growing skepticism, they kept asking the same questions in a hundred different ways:
“Who tipped you off, and why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who were the hi-jackers?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who owns the warehouse?”
“I don’t know – a guy named Jablonski manages it.”
Cramer turned to Stebbins and told him to get hold of Jablonski and find out if he knew anything. I could have told him that would be an exercise in futility. Then, he resumed with the questions,
“What’s stored in the warehouse?” (They hadn’t bothered to check.)
“Precision Machine Parts.”
The only question they didn’t really care about was that last one. By this time, I’d come to realize that the NYPD had no inclination to help the Feds enforce the 18th Amendment.
Finally, I had to remind them, “Hey, I’m the good guy, remember? The guy that was doing the job he was hired for? The guy who took on a couple of hoods? I’m not looking for any medal but I don’t need this. How about knocking it off?”
By the time they gave up, I was thoroughly annoyed. That’s when they turned me over to a Lieutenant Rowcliff, a nattily dressed individual who some people might even consider handsome. To me, that illusion was spoiled by his fishy pop eyes and a voice that came out in snarls. It was hate at first sight, on both our parts, and the years have only strengthened it. I soon discovered one weakness and was quick to exploit it.
He began with a little different tack which he’d never have taken if he had any idea how I reacted to threats. “Goodwin, is it?” he snarled. He waved my Colt .45 under my nose. “You got a license for this gun?”
I told him the gun had belonged to my father who left it to me when he died. “It served in the war and it’s been in the family for two generations,” I said, “I guess that’s license enough.”
He grinned and rubbed his hands together, “On the contrary,” he said. “Under the Sullivan Law, I can put you in jail for twelve months. Keep that in mind while you give me some straight answers!”
The questions were the same I’d been hearing for the last couple of hours. So were the answers. That was when I noticed that RowclifF had a tendency to stutter. I started to s-s-stammer m-m-my answers. In five minutes, I had him stuttering completely out of control. Kind of mean, maybe, but he gave me plenty of provocation.
It’s anybody’s guess what might have happened if it weren’t for the entrance of still another law official. He was well-dressed, well-groomed and well-spoken. Still, inwardly, I groaned, “Here we go again.”
He dismissed Rowcliff, introduced himself as District Attorney Dick Morley, and offered me a cigarette which I accepted. What next, I wondered, the blindfold and the firing squad? Fortunately, he had other ideas. He explained that he had talked with Cramer and Stebbins, whom he described as thoroughly competent detectives. Nevertheless, he wanted to hear my story first-hand. I gave him the laundered version. When I finished, he surprised me by saying he had no reason to doubt my account of what happened. He added, “I have an idea there are a few details you’ve chosen to leave out. You evidently have your own reasons and I doubt that these omissions are pertinent.”
Then, he continued, “That was a profoundly stupid thing you did, taking on two armed gunmen all by yourself. It’s a miracle you weren’t killed.” He paused. “On the other hand, I wish more of our citizens would act with that same courage and resourcefulness. Goodwin, I’d like to shake your hand.” We shook. He asked me to drop in at his office on Leonard Street on Monday to dictate a complete report to a steno. He said they’d have to keep my gun as material evidence but that it would be returned when I got a license for it. He offered to get me a ride home but I decided I needed a walk in the brisk December air to clear out the cobwebs. It was 6:05 am when I walked out of the station. I’d evidently been tried and convicted of being a concerned citizen, and released on good behavior. Finally, my day was over. Or so I thought.
It was still dark when I walked out of the police station. 20th Street was deserted except for a lone figure who seemed to be waiting for someone. He was. For me. He stepped up and introduced himself as Harry Foster, a reporter for The Gazette, working the police beat. He’d heard about the shooting on Pier 64. The homicide dicks had refused to give him any details. He wanted to ask me some questions.
As a high school football player back in Ohio, I’d learned that it could be beneficial to cooperate with the news media. Do them a favor and later you could call in your marker. And who knew when I might need a favor? “Harry,” I said, “I’ve just finished answering the same questions 196 times by actual count. Maybe one more time and I can get it right. But at this moment, my nether region, which is usually pretty complacent, is sending up complaints about being empty. See that restaurant across the street?” I asked, pointing. “It’s probably a cop hangout but I’m going over there and order enough ham and eggs to keep two pigs and a flock of hens busy and enough milk to drain a herd of cows. If you want to join me, come ahead.”
He was an eager young man and proceeded to ask the right questions. It was a relief not to be treated like a murderous psychopath. I gave him the same story I’d given the cops. He got a real kick out of the dummy, said it made a swell story, and showed his gratitude by actually picking up the check.
With my stomach now mildly complaining about being too full instead of too empty, I felt fortified enough to walk briskly back to my rooming house. I needed a good eight hours sleep. I didn’t get it. Before I could turn into the house, I felt a gun jammed none too gently into my back. Two gorillas escorted, if that’s the right word, me into a long, black limousine. They frisked me expertly. One drove. The other kept me covered, warned me to keep quiet, and added that The Angel wanted to see me. Fortunately; he was not referring to St. Peter! Just about everyone had heard about The Angel, and I was no exception. I reached into the filing, chamber of my mind and came up with a name, Giuseppe DeAngelo. He controlled the bootleg racket in Manhattan. His friends called him “The Angel”. He had a reputation for being ruthless to his enemies, unbelievably generous to his friends. I wondered in which category I belonged.
It didn’t take long to find out. The limo pulled into a reserved parking space right in front of the Plaza Hotel. With Tweedledee and Tweedledum on either side of me, half carrying me across the elegant lobby, we took the elevator to the top floor and into what was probably the most luxurious suite in the hotel.
The Angel was seated at a table by himself, working on a steak and egg breakfast. I expected to see Neanderthal Man disguised in a pinstripe suit, black shirt and white tie, smoking a cigar and talking out of the corner of his mouth. Instead, the most notorious gangster in New York could have posed for the Chairman of the Board of General Motors. Probably in his late fifties, he was impeccably groomed, with jet black hair slightly grayed at the temples. He was tastefully dressed in a maroon smoking jacket, light blue shirt, open at the neck, Ascot tie, and grey slacks.
One of the gorillas told him I was “clean”. He indicated a chair, dismissed the two goons and politely asked if I’d had breakfast. This seemed like such a good sign that I almost ordered a second breakfast but compromised on a cup of coffee. He carefully poured and handed me a steaming cup. I was beginning to feel like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
“I understand,” he began in a low, cultured voice, “that you killed two men who were trying to hijack my warehouse.”
“Your warehouse?” I asked. “I never did know who owned it.”
“My name doesn’t appear on the deed,” he explained, “but in order to control all the liquor in Manhattan, I own warehouses all over the city. Now, I want to know exactly what happened at Pier 64.”
“You, the cops and the great unwashed public,” I exclaimed. Then, I recounted exactly what had happened from the beginning, I explained that I hadn’t mentioned Jablonski to the cops because I had a score to settle with him myself.
“Don’t worry about Jablonski,” he said. “I’ve known for some time that he was skimming off a case or two every now and then, just enough so he figured it wouldn’t be noticed. I noticed, all right, but I could overlook minor transgressions. Evidently, he got greedy. I won’t overlook that.
“Goodwin,” he continued, “you did a damn’ fine job, trying to keep that warehouse from being sacked. I doubt if the cops will bother to inform the Feds about the warehouse contents. Even if they were notified, I pay them enough to look the other way. Still, you may well have saved me several hundred cases. And I like the way you did it. I could use a man like you. How about coming to work for me?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I replied. “I appreciate the offer but somehow I seem to have a keen desire to live out my allotted three score and ten. Meaning no offense, the life expectancy in your business seems considerably less than that.”
For the first time, he smiled and I swear he was putting me on when he added, “OK, Goodwin. But I could let you have Jablonski’s job.”
“No thanks,” I responded. I’m not cut out for warehouse work.” Then I added, “Not enough excitement.”
This time he laughed out loud. “By the way,” he asked, “did you ever get paid for your week’s work?”
“Come to think of it,” I answered. “I never did.”
He opened his wallet, extracted a bill, folded it and tucked it in my pocket. “That ought to cover it.” he said. Then, he added in a completely serious tone, “But I still owe you.” He tore off a sheet from a notebook, jotted down a telephone number, and handed it to me. “I move around a lot,” he said, “but you can always reach me through this number.”
I examined it carefully, then tore it into small pieces. His eyes narrowed and his voice was ice cold when he asked, “You don’t need a friend?”
I assured him that after all I’d been through, nobody needed a friend more than I. “However, I explained, “I seem to have a magnetic attraction for various officials of the law. I wouldn’t want this number to fall into their hands. And I don’t think you would, either.” I tapped my forehead. “That number is locked in here – permanently. I may never need to use it but if I do, I can call it out next week, next year or any time in the future. You really don’t owe me, anyway, but I sincerely appreciate your offer.”
He rose from the table, shook hands and yelled tor his two goons. “This man is OK,” he told them. “Treat him right. Now take him home or anywhere he wants to go.”
Home was fine. When I walked in the door, there was one more obstacle to overcome in the form of the wicked witch, otherwise known as my landlady, who stood with folded arms blocking my way to the stairs. Before she could utter a word, I said, “I know, I know, I owe you for two pillows. And, for the inconvenience, I’ll double whatever they’re worth.”
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the bill The Angel had given me. My eyes bulged. Ben Franklin was staring at me. It was a C-Note – a cool hundred simoleons! I’d never seen one before. Pretty good for a week’s work. I hastily put it back, took out my wallet and paid her, suggesting that she could buy two pillows and still have enough left over for a broomstick. With that, on this memorable Sunday morning, I went up, flopped in my bed, and slept until late Monday morning. I didn’t miss the pillows at all.
It was early afternoon when I arrived at the District Attorney’s office. A shapely receptionist with pert, heart-shaped features set off by long blonde hair, counter to the current style but far more attractive to my eye, ushered me into an empty room. I was immediately joined by a steno whose tailored suit and no-nonsense attitude discouraged anything but the business at hand. She competently typed my report as quickly as I could dictate it, handed me the finished copy, had me sign it, and witnessed it herself.
As I started to leave, and was wondering how to get the receptionist’s telephone number (I had recovered quickly from a broken heart!) she informed me that the DA wanted to see me. He was seated behind a large desk, covered with papers and forms. I waited while he glanced at my report, then added it to one of the piles.
“Goodwin,” he said, “I thought, you should know that Michael Jablonski has dropped out of sight. We wanted to question him. Any idea of where he might be?”
My guess would have been at the bottom of the Hudson River, weighted down with cement blocks. But I didn’t say so. “All I had was a telephone number,” I replied. “I never even knew his address.”
“He lived in a run-down rooming house in the Bronx,” explained the DA, “but he’s flown the coop. It probably isn’t important anyway. We’ll pick him up sooner or later.”
Maybe his body, I thought. As far as I was concerned, it was justice well-deserved. After all, Jablonski had forced my girl out of New York and done his best to kill me. Of course, I didn’t express these thoughts.
The DA then looked at me carefully as though appraising me for the first time. He said he assumed I was looking for another job. I assured him I was. He explained that an acquaintance of his, who had recently started in business as a private detective, was looking for someone to carry out a special chore. “It might be just a one-time job,” he explained, “but who knows? It could possibly lead to something more permanent.”
He picked up the phone, gave the operator a number, and spoke into the mouthpiece, “Good afternoon. Dick Morley here. I have a young man with me, Archie Goodwin, who I thought displayed unusual resourcefulness in preventing a hi jacking the other night. You may have read about it. If you’re still looking for a man of action, he might just be the man.” He listened for a moment, hung up, made a notation on a slip of paper, and handed it to me. “He’ll see you at 8:30 this evening.” He rose from his desk as if ending the interview, then, almost as an afterthought, added, “He’s a little, er, eccentric. Don’t let that deceive you. He is unquestionably the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.”
I thanked him. On the way out, I stopped at the receptionist’s desk and said “I seem to have misplaced your telephone number.” She smiled sweetly and replied, “What a coincidence. So have I.” She turned and went back to her work. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all. As I went out, I looked at the slip of paper the DA had given me. It simply read: “NERO WOLFE, 918 WEST 35TH STREET.”
On the way back to the rooming house, I picked up the early afternoon edition of The Gazette. The hijacking didn’t rate a front page article but in the first section Foster had done a creditable job of reporting. The use of the dummy was featured prominently.
After an uneventful dinner, I dressed carefully in my best blue suit, blue shirt, clean collar and striped tie, put a shine on my shoes, and brushed off my overcoat and felt hat. I then walked to 918 West 35th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. No. 918 was a four-story brownhouse with similar buildings adjacent to either side. Incidentally, if you’re ever looking for No. 918 you’ll find it approximately in the middle of the Hudson River. For reasons which I’m sure are obvious, the exact location of Nero Wolfe’s office must forever remain in the realm of “firecrackers”.
It was exactly 8:25 when I mounted the steps of the old brownstone, rang the bell, and was admitted by a pleasant-appearing man of middle age who asked my name and introduced himself as Fritz Brenner. He was casually but neatly dressed in slacks and a sport jacket, the only incongruous article being a pair of worn slippers. He asked for my coat and hat. I assured him I was perfectly capable of hanging them up myself, and did so. Somehow, I’ve always found it slightly demeaning to be waited on. He led me into a large room, said that Mr. Wolfe would be with me shortly, and left. I’d never been in a room anything like this one. Spacious and high-ceilinged, the walls lined with shelves, it appeared to be a combination office and living room. The floor was covered with the largest, most colorful oriental rug I’d ever seen. A bright yellow couch adorned one end of the room. At least a half-dozen yellow chairs were scattered throughout. Yellow drapes were drawn over the windows. To my right was a globe that wasn’t much smaller than the world it represented. It must have measured at least three feet in diameter. A huge, old-fashioned safe was in one corner. The shelves held more books than the entire Chillicothe Public Library.
By far, the most dominant feature was an enormous desk in the far corner. Its reddish-dark wood literally glowed in the lamplight. Behind the desk was a beautiful leather-covered chair that must have been custom-built for a giant. On the desk was a vase containing a spray of exotic tropical flowers of a kind that never grew in my mother’s garden. The Sunday edition of The New York Times was open at a half finished crossword puzzle, a fad which had recently become fashionable, presumably among intellectuals. The only other item on the desk was a book with a foreign title I couldn’t begin to pronounce, Mein Kampf, by somebody named Adolph Hitler. In about the middle of the book was a dog-eared page, evidently marking the reader’s progress. On the wall behind the desk was a non descript picture of the Washington Monument, seemingly completely out of character as part of this tasteful, luxurious decor. Beside a small table in front of the desk was another yellow chair in which I was seated. It’s actually taken me a lot longer to describe these unique surroundings than to experience the deep impression they made. I felt comfortable in this room. Somehow, it seemed that I belonged here, and I was fully relaxed when the giant entered.
As impressive as the room was, the mere presence of this man dwarfed everything else. If Paul Whiteman was known as The Prince of Whales, this man must be at least The King of Elephants. Yet, for all his bulk, his movements were smooth, efficient, even graceful as he walked into the room and lowered his corpulence into his chair. Ever seated, he was a most dominating figure, a massive, well-proportioned body, big oblong face which could justifiably be called handsome, gleaming white teeth and dark brown hair neatly trimmed and blushed. He was conservatively dressed in a brown suit with vest. Why wasn’t I surprised that his immaculate shirt was bright yellow?
I rose to greet him as he acknowledged my presence with a nod that must have moved his head a whole eighth of an inch. In a low, cultured voice, he said, “Please be seated. I like eyes at a level.”
When I complied, he continued, “You are Archibald Goodwin?”
“No, sir,” I replied, “It’s Archie. That’s the way I was christened and that’s the way it is.”
“Good,” he responded, “I appreciate exactitude. Tell me, Archie, how many steps lead to my front stoop?”
Of all the questions I might have been asked, this one would never have entered my fertile imagination. Yet, I didn’t have to hesitate for a moment. “Seven”, I replied firmly.
The folds of his cheeks pulled away slightly from the corners of his mouth. I took this to be a smile. “Excellent.” he said, “I could ask that same question of a hundred first-time visitors without getting the correct answer. Nevertheless, I expected it from you. Having read The Gazette’s account of your experience at Pier 64, and your ingenious deception with the dummy, it didn’t take a genius to infer that you are a devotee of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You evidently read books.”
“Yes, sir. When I was a young boy, the Sherlock Holmes stories were my favorites. I was somehow impressed with Holmes’ chiding Watson for not knowing the number of steps leading from the downstairs hall to their rooms on the floor above. You undoubtedly recall that Holmes told Watson, ‘You see, but you do not observe.’ Ever since then, I’ve trained myself to observe most carefully, even in seemingly trivial matters such as the number of stairs.”
“I am delighted to see that you not only read, you also learn,” he said, “And I applaud your choice. I have a boundless admiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or for Dr. John H. Watson if you prefer. What other books do you read?”
“Certainly not the kind you do, sir,” I said, “if that book on your desk is any example.”
His face darkened and his mouth grew grim. “It is indeed a pity,” he growled, “that few people will ever read Mein Kampf, fewer will understand it, and even fewer will take it seriously. It is nothing less than a blueprint for the next World War, written by a madman. I know the Germans. I have fought them and killed many. But if we continue with this subject, it will only infuriate me, And I am furious enough already, being shamefully deprived of a decent glass of beer, incidentally the only worthwhile product ever imported from Germany. I have carefully sampled every available substitute, even including Pabst Doppel Beer, near beer. Pfui! I have also tried bootleg beer, so watered down that you might just as well take a bath in it. Prohibition! Bah! The very word is un-American!”
Well, the DA said he was eccentric.
He took in about a bushel of air and exhaled slowly. “I have read the brief newspaper article about the hi jacking attempt. Now, in your own words, I want a complete report.”
“Yes, sir. You want every detail?”
“If your memory is up to it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my memory, sir.” Then I proceeded to prove it by giving him every detail, including verbatim conversations from the warning I received from Dolores right through my meeting with the District Attorney. I omitted nothing except my session with The Angel. This did not seem pertinent. As I talked, he sat back in his chair, fingers interlaced over his ample middle, eyes half-closed. For a moment, I thought I was putting him to sleep but some sixth-sense told me he wasn’t missing a single word. When I finished, he opened his eyes and asked: “Was it necessary to kill those two gunmen?”
“Necessary?” I asked. “Certainly not. I had two definite options. Either kill them or stand there and be killed. Somehow, although I am far from bloodthirsty, I preferred the former option.”
“Understandable,” he agreed. “Still, I am a little puzzled that, having been duly warned, you nevertheless chose to return to the warehouse and face a possibly fatal danger.”
“Mr. Wolfe,” I asked, “has anyone ever tried to make a fool of you?”
“And you let them get away with it?”
A corner of his mouth twitched. I later came to realize this was about as close as he ever came to a smile.
“Archie,” he conceded, “you have made your point.” Then he continued, “District Attorney Morley, whose opinion I respect, assured me that you were resourceful and not without valor. From meeting you, I also conclude that you are inquisitive, observant, alert and impetuous. In short, you are a man of adequate intelligence and action. With a little restraint on impetuosity, I find these to be admirable qualities. Now, I shall outline my problem in the event that you are willing to perform a task which may require all of these qualities and may possibly be of some danger.”
“I shall try,” I replied.
“What did you say?” he cried.
“I said I shall try!” I replied.
“Great Hounds and Cerberus!” he exclaimed. “A man of quality who also occasionally uses the English language with precision!”
With that, he proceeded to outline the task he wanted performed.
Wolfe began his explanation. “There is a restaurant called Rusterman’s...”
“One of the best,” I interrupted. “Their Tournedos Beauharnais are superb. I still have trouble pronouncing it but had no difficulty at all consuming a kingsized portion.”
“Archie, you amaze me,” he replied. But he seemed more amused than amazed. “Their restaurant serves the finest meals in New York, with one exception, those prepared and served here by Fritz Brenner who admitted you this evening. The restaurant is owned by Herman Rusterman, a fine gentleman of the old school. Now in his eighties, his body is still active, his mind still sharp. He puts in a full day every day at the restaurant, supervising the menu and chatting with longtime customers. He leaves the actual management of the restaurant to a man named Marko Vukcic, whom I have known since we were boys together in Montenegro and whom I value as my oldest and dearest friend. A monthly dinner at Rusterman’s is among the few occasions when I venture forth from this house.
“On my last visit, a few days ago, it was evident that Marko was deeply troubled. Yet, being a man of fierce independence, he refused to confide in me. I am worried about him. In the field of haute cuisine. Marko has no peers. Unfortunately, in other areas, he is inclined to be headstrong, gullible, over-sanguine, volatile and naive. It would be no surprise if he were experiencing problems with some woman. But with him, this is constant. It would not upset him to the extent of his present agitation. I believe the problem concerns the restaurant in some way. To investigate and attempt to determine the exact nature of the problem requires a continuing surveillance of the operation at Rusterman’s.
“You are indeed observant enough to realize that my anatomical structure militates against the degree of mobility necessary for my continuing presence at Rusterman’s. That is why I need a man of intelligence with a potential for action, someone in whom I have complete confidence. On occasion, I employ experienced independent operatives when I require outside assistance. But they are all known to Marko. And I don’t want him to have any indication that I am spying on him. “Archie, do you have any talent for dissembling?”
“You mean acting? Playing a part? Well, Hollywood never came knocking at my door as a result of my performance in a few Shakespearean plays in our High School Dramatic Society. But I don’t think my acting had old Will spinning in his grave. Come to think of it though, he might have been shaking with laughter. Anyway, I do go along with his premise that ‘all the world’s a stage’ and I do not wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“You will not need the thespian talent required at Stratford-on-Avon. Do you own a tuxedo?”
“A monkey suit? No, and I’m afraid I left my Rolls Royce at home.” He ignored this.
“Rent one. A good one.” I assumed he meant a tuxedo, not a Rolls. “Then report to Rusterman’s tomorrow at noon. In the meantime, I shall inform Marko that you have been recommended to me by a friend as someone who is planning to open a high-class restaurant in, say, Chillicothe. I shall explain that you would benefit greatly from observing the operation at Rusterman’s, in all phases, with special emphasis on the business end. That will give you access to the offices above the restaurant where Marko spends most of his time. You will put in long hours, from the time the restaurant opens at noon until it closes long after serving late-night meals to the Broadway theatre-going crowd. You can pretend to be helping the Maitre D’. Keep an eye on the patrons. Wander in and out of the kitchen. Spend time in the business offices. You will see. You will observe. You will report. And, while I have no logical reason to fear for Marko’s safety except for a certain instinct I have learned to trust, you will look out for Marko as best you can without his realizing it. Can you do all that?”
“If I can navigate through the maze of your multisyllabic vocabulary, I infer that you want me to be a combination actor, diplomat, detective and bodyguard. Yes, I can do that.”
“Congratulations, Archie. The number of people who use the word ‘infer’ correctly can be numbered among those who observe such details as the number of stairs. If your dramatic teacher is as competent as your English teacher, you will have no difficulty in performing the task which is basically as I implied and you inferred.”
He reached into his desk drawer and brought forth a .38 automatic. “I doubt very much that you will need this,” he said, “Nevertheless, I assure you it is in good working order. I shall make arrangements with Marko for you to be at the restaurant tomorrow noon. I am not sure how long your surveillance will be necessary. Your pay will be commensurate with the job. Report to me by phone at 11 o’clock each morning. Of course, if there is any emergency, report at once.”
He rose and offered his hand. At the time, I had no realization of the full significance of that magnanimous gesture. I shook his hand warmly, rescued my hat and coat, and left.
All dolled up in my rented monkey suit, white shirt, black tie and spats, I could have been ready for the Junior Prom! But I sure didn’t have a ball as I danced through the tragic events of my first day as a restaurateur.
Before that first day was through, I felt like the schoolboy who told his teacher he learned more about whales from reading Moby Dick than he cared to know. My lessons in the food business convinced me that all I ever wanted from a restaurant was a good table, competent service and a gourmet menu. At that, I was given the specialty of the house not only in dining but also in education into the mysteries of haute cuisine. You don’t need the details but, in view of what took place later, you ought to be familiar with the stage and the cast of characters.
Rusterman’s was a relatively small restaurant, located on East 54th Street, occupying the first two floors of an attractive brownhouse. You enter past a small cloak room into a large, comfortable lounge with a gleaming mahogany bar at one end. The shelves behind the bar were empty because Rusterman’s was one of the few eating establishments in New York that did not serve bootleg booze. I was given to understand that both Mr. Rusterman and Mr. Vukcic, as proud naturalized American citizens, felt a genuine debt to their adopted country, including responsibility for strict obedience to the laws of the land, even those like Prohibition, which they felt made no sense.
The lounge led into the main dining room, elegant, spacious, luxurious in decor. The kitchen was off to one side. The floor above included private offices in front for Rusterman and Vukcic, a business office for general bookkeeping and accounting, and three small private dining rooms in the rear. Vukcic occupied the apartment above the restaurant.
So much for the stage. The main cast of characters included Herman Rusterman, tall and lean, whose white hair and unlined features belied his eighty-plus years. He was every inch a gracious gentleman, with the courtesy and cordiality of old-world charm. In contrast, Marko Vukcic was huge, not fat. His swarthy features were framed by a dense tangle of dark hair, reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Impressive and competent, he was one of the world’s greatest chefs.
The rest of the staff, whom I met that day, included Felix Martin, Maitre D’, Pierre Ducos, head waiter, Vincent, the burly doorman, Joe, Leo and Antonio, waiters, and Suzanne, fair and buxom bookkeeper.
It was almost 2 AM before tilings had quieted down enough for me to consider packing it in. A couple of waiters were still cleaning up downstairs. I was in the office with Vukcic when he said, “Archie, aside from the obvious talent of the chef and the service of a competent staff, the key to any restaurant’s success is in the quality of food it serves. I take pride that we, at Rusterman’s, pay closer attention to this principle than any restaurant in New York. For example, in the next hour or so, the few hardy deep-sea fishermen who still brave the seas in winter will begin bringing in their catch to the Fish Pier. Many’s the cold night I’ve spent wailing for them to come in so I could select the best and freshest fish. Now, I leave that important chore to Felix. He’ll be leaving soon. This is a part of your education you must experience personally. So here’s your chance to accompany Felix this morning.”
His manner was disarmingly pleasant. Suspiciously so. Could this be his sadistic idea of getting back at Wolfe for saddling him with me as a neophyte? Standing at the Fish Pier at 3 AM on a cold, wintry night in December was the last experience I wanted. So, naturally, I reached into the depths of my dramatic talent (was Hamlet ever thus harassed?), smiled sweetly and lied, “I’d like nothing better.”
As I passed Mr. Rusterman’s office on my way to the back stairs, I could see he was still working. Vukcic, evidently headed for his upstairs apartment, whispered to me that Rusterman liked to review the day’s activities and make notes of any suggestions for the next day before leaving for home.
The rear entrance led into an alley where Felix was loading the back of a truck with two huge copper tubs filled with cracked ice. I helped him and explained that Mr. Vukcic wanted me to go with him. He seemed glad of the company. On the way, I used whatever tact I had left over at this hour of the morning to pump him about whatever might be troubling Vukcic. He told me it all started a couple of days ago when he heard the sounds of a loud argument coming from Mr. Rusterman’s office. He said that Rusterman and Vukcic were behind closed doors with a third man, evidently a stranger, whom he did not see come in. Ever since then, he said, Mr. Vukcic had seemed very much on edge.
After selecting and packing our catch of the day, I could sympathize more with the schoolboy and the whales. Felix offered to drop me off at my room on the way back. I could see that he hoped I’d stay with him to help him unload. Inasmuch as the whole night was shot anyway, I figured I might as well buy a little good will.
When we drove up to the restaurant, I was appalled to see flashing lights and a couple of police cars parked in front. Even at that late hour, a small crowd had materialized. They always seem to emerge full-blown at a crime scene. And I was afraid to think what this crime scene might be.
We parked the truck in back of the police cars. A uniformed cop tried to stop us from entering but let us in when we convinced him we were employees. The lights were on both downstairs and upstairs. We rushed up to Mr. Rusterman’s office where we were stopped by a burly plain clothes detective. I recognized Sergeant Purley Stebbins but before I could speak, he snarled, “Hold it! I know you. You’re Goodwin! What in hell are you doing here?”
I looked past him into the office. The stark scene is etched into my mind, as clear today as it was then. The body of Herman Rusterman was lying in front of his desk, crumpled in the unmistakable posture of death. A small trickle of blood had stained the carpet beside him. Vukcic was seated, his body slumped, head bowed, hands shackled. Sergeant Cramer was standing beside him. Antonio, the waiter, stood aloof in the corner.
“I work here,” I replied to Stebbins, the simplest explanation being the best explanation. “What happened?”
Cramer motioned for me and Felix to enter. In answer to his question, we explained how we had just returned from the Fish Pier. Again, I asked, “What happened?”
Vukcic looked up. “Mr. Goodwin! Archie! You will tell Nero?” Cramer growled, “Who’s Nero?”
“A friend of Mr. Vukcic,” I replied. For the third time, I asked, “What happened?”
It was Vukcic who replied. Intuitively, I felt it might be best if he kept quiet but I had to know the facts. Cramer was content to let him talk. The slight accent I’d noticed before became more pronounced. “Those Cossacks!” he cried. “They do not believe me. I tell them the truth. When you and Felix leave, I remember I have not made out tomorrow’s menu. I come back from upstairs and go to my office. In a few minutes, I hear a shot from Mr. Rusterman s office. I rush in and grapple with the hoodlum who shot him. But that slippery devil breaks loose. I pick up his gun, which he drops in the struggle, and chase him down the back stairs into the alley toward the street. I do not dare shoot for fear I would hit some innocent passer-by. I fire in the air to scare him but he gets away. When I come back, Mr. Rusterman is dead.” His voice broke but he continued. “That’s when that fool, Antonio, comes in. I tell him to call the police. Then we wait. I do not know he is a Brutus! When the police come, Antonio, that liar, tells them he sees me shoot Mr. Rusterman.” He paused and looked up at me, tears streaming from his eyes. “You will tell Nero? He will help!”
“Did you recognize the one who did shoot him?” I asked.
“Recognize him? Of course! You think I forget that slimy bastard? I tell these policemen. He was bootlegger who come last week and want to sell booze for the restaurant. I tell him no, no, no! He say he not only sell booze, he sell protection. I say we need no protection. He say I may change my mind and he will come back. I throw him out! You see what he did. You tell Nero?”
Here Cramer interrupted. “This Nero better be good. First, Vukcic here tells a cock ’n’ bull story about the little man who wasn’t here. No one saw him. And he gives us a description that would fit most of the male population of New York. Then, we find the murder weapon. It will undoubtedly have Vukcic’s prints all over it. A paraffin test will show he fired the gun. But he invents another story about shooting in the air. Balls! Finally, we have an eye witness who saw him shoot Rusterman. And, Antonio tells us it’s common knowledge that Vukcic inherits the restaurant on Rusterman’s death. It’s an open and shut case. Motive, opportunity, murder! That’s more than enough to book Mr. Vukcic and send him to the hot seat. Tell his friend Nero that!”
I said I would and left. Felix came downstairs with me. “That liar, Antonio”, he said, “he’s no good. I should have fired him long ago!”
That seemed to call for further questioning. I made a mental note to follow up. Right then, I was anxious to get my thoughts together before reporting to Wolfe. When I walked out the door, the dawn of a gray December day was just beginning to break.
The small crowd outside had begun to break up. Only a few stragglers remained. As I walked past them, a voice called out, “Hey, Goodwin! You shoot somebody else?”
The speaker stepped forth. It was Harry Foster of The Gazette. “This is getting to be a habit,” he said, “finding you at the scene of the crime. Can you fill me in on what happened?”
“You better put me on the payroll,” I replied. “Better yet, I’ll tell you what happened in exchange for a little information. Deal?”
“If I can,” he answered. “Let’s do it over breakfast. ”
An all-night diner was open about a block down Madison Avenue. While I dug into sausage and pancakes, I pondered just how much to tell Foster. I decided to make no mention of Wolfe, and to stick with my story of getting a job with Rusterman’s. Otherwise, I gave him the bare facts as I knew them. Then I added, “I’ve only known Mr. Vukcic for a short time but I’m a pretty darn good judge of character. Also, he was decent enough to give me a job when I most needed it. So I feel I owe him. There’s no way he could have killed Mr. Rusterman. I’m convinced of his innocence.
“Now, you know and I know the bootleg business in this area is controlled by The Angel. But this doesn’t sound like his type of operation. First of all, Rusterman’s is too small for him to bother with. In addition, he’s too smart to call attention to himself by having a prominent restaurant owner killed. So what’s the answer? Someone’s trying to muscle in on his racket. I want to know who. You cover the police beat. You must have some idea of who’s trying to break in.”
He thought for a minute. “Archie,” he said, “there’s been some activity of this kind among a few of the smaller establishments around here. But I honestly don’t know who’s behind it. It didn’t seem important, at least not until this killing.” He paused, then added, “There’s one guy on our paper who knows more about what’s going on in this city than the cops, the feds and the pols all put together. His name is Lon Cohen. He’s an awful busy guy but I’ll try and get you an appointment to see him. Where can I reach you?”
I thanked him and told him I’d call him at The Gazette later in the morning. Then, I figured it was time to get in touch with Mr. Wolfe. I wasn’t looking forward to it. My watch said 8:15 when I stepped into a phone booth, parted with a nickel in the slot, and gave the operator Wolfe’s number. Fritz Brenner answered. He told me emphatically that Mr. Wolfe was having breakfast and couldn’t be disturbed. I finally convinced him that this was an emergency and he reluctantly put me through. Wolfe answered with one word, “Yes?” It sounded like a bear growling. I quickly outlined what had happened. His response was even more like a bear, “Grrrhhh!” Then, finally, one more word, “Come.”
I beat a little old lady to a cab and headed for West 35th Street. Fritz admitted me and led me immediately into the office. The bear was there waiting. Knowing his deep affection for Mr. Vukcic. I was apprehensive about what kind of reception I’d get. His first words both surprised and encouraged me. “Archie, have you had breakfast?” When I assured him I’d eaten, he simply uttered one word, “Report.”
He leaned back, eyes closed to mere slits, as I’d seen him once before. The index finger of his right hand was slowly making circles on the arm of his chair, the only indication that he was awake. I reported my activities, including word-for-word conversations from the time I’d entered Rusterman’s right through my conversation with Foster. Although my report lasted over an hour, he listened patiently without interruption. When I finished, I awaited his reaction with some trepidation. He took a deep breath, relieving the office of about a bushel of air, exhaled slowly and finally spoke.
“Archie, I can find no fault with your performance. Also, I express my gratitude for your obvious belief in Marko’s innocence and in your desire to help. We must begin by accepting the accuracy of his account.” My relief at his use of that plural pronoun knew no bounds! Then, he continued. “With the damning evidence against him, the only way to exonerate him is to identify the actual culprit and provide evidence of his guilt. Confound it! The police, with all their facilities, could locate him much more easily than we can. But it is so much simpler for them to make a quick arrest and consider the case closed. We can assume they will make no effort in that direction. Bah!
“My first step will be to engage Henry Barber, the best legal counsel available, for Marko’s defense. We must get a better description of the assailant. And perhaps Mr. Barber can persuade the police to begin a search for the real murderer although that is a faint hope.
“I commend your action in seeking information from the news media. Follow up on that as soon as possible and report back to me. For the time being, you can use that empty desk and the phone. We should have no problem in proving that Antonio is lying. I shall have to see him. But that can wait.”
I immediately went to the desk and phoned Harry Foster. He said that Lon Cohen had agreed to see me late that afternoon, after the paper had been put to bed. When I relayed this information to Wolfe, he suggested that I get some sleep while I could. “There is a guest room on the floor above,” he said. “You might as well use it.” He rang for Fritz and told him to make sure the room was in readiness. Then, he turned to me and added, “Archie, after being up all night, I realize you must be exhausted. However, it will be worth your while to take a few minutes to relax first. Come.”
We walked into the hall and stepped into a small elevator that was never intended for two, especially when Wolfe was one of the two. I managed to squeeze in and we rose slowly to the floor above. It would be a gross understatement to say I was unprepared for the panorama of color and shapes which surrounded me as we entered the plant rooms. The initial impact was that I had stepped into a tropical forest. I recalled an article I’d read about long ago, entitled, “The Book of Life”, a title Dr. Watson thought was over-ambitious, in which Sherlock Holmes claimed, “From a single drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without ever having seen or heard of one or the other.” Maybe. But if you’ve seen one orchid, or even a raceme of blossoms, it would be impossible to visualize the effect of hundreds of these exotic plants in full bloom. We moved slowly from the tropical room through a second room where the temperature was moderate into a cool room, each with hundreds of blossoms. I was not conscious of individual shapes or colors, only of a beauty I had never before experienced. And, as often as I have visited those plant rooms (which were soon moved to the rooftop gardens above) they never fail to create an emotion that’s as indescribable as their beauty.
Wolfe introduced me to Theodore Horstmann, a dour individual who cared for the plants, even to the extent of sleeping in a small room in the corner of the plant rooms. Fritz, whose room was opposite the plant rooms (before he took over the basement) approached and said my room was ready. Wolfe instructed him to wake me at 4 o’clock.
Wolfe later told me that you don’t look at color, you feel it. All I know is that I was thoroughly relaxed and at peace with the world. I walked to the floor below, undressed quickly, and never got to sleep faster or slept more soundly.
Fritz awakened me at 4 pm. Although I like my full eight hours, I felt remarkably refreshed. My rented tuxedo was a little the worse for wear but it was all I had so I climbed into it. I left off the spats. Fritz met me downstairs and politely asked if I’d like something to eat. I told him I’d settle for a glass of milk and followed him into the kitchen. I didn’t object when he added a plate of sandwiches, thin slivers of ham topped with pineapple rings on thin toast, warm from the broiler. After putting away two of them, I figured I could easily get used to Fritz’s larder. Thus fortified, I decided to walk to The Gazette building at the address Foster had given me in the upper Forties near First Avenue. I walked through huge revolving doors into a spacious lobby, lavishly decorated with Christmas trees and greenery, dominated by an enormous Gazette sign high up on the marble wall. As I’d been instructed, I took the express elevator to the 20th floor and walked through the open office door that was simply labeled Lon Cohen. If he ever had a tide, I don’t know to this day what it could be. Yet, I was soon to learn that this office, just two doors down from the publisher, is the unquestionable command center of The Gazette. You’d never know it from the tiny 9 x 12 area with its cluttered desk. And you’d never take Lon Cohen for the top executive he is, judging from his dark complexion, black hair slicked back on his head, neat appearance and quiet manner. He was talking on one of three phones on his desk but waved me to a vacant chair. I swept some newspapers on the floor, hung up my hat and coat, and sat down.
“I take it you’re Mr. Goodwin,” he greeted me as he cradled the phone. “My, aren’t we fancy? Do you always make your calls in formal clothes?”
I replied in kind. “Not always,” I said. “But I was given to understand that you were a real big shot around here so I decided to arrive in style instead of in my usual crummy old work clothes.”
He smiled. “Mr. Goodwin,” he began hut I interrupted him. “I wish you’d call me Archie,” I said. “Even in my expensive rented tuxedo, I still think of Mr. Goodwin as my father.”
“OK, Archie,” he continued. “You seem to have a penchant for turning up at the scene of the crime. First, at Pier 64, now at Rusterman’s.” So he was well informed. I decided to level with him. “I never planned to be at the scene of a crime when I took a job at Pier 64. But being at Rusterman’s was no coincidence. Nero Wolfe, a private detective and friend of Mr. Vukcic, had an inkling that trouble was brewing at the restaurant. He hired me to help him investigate. Unfortunately, I was unable to prevent Mr. Rusterman’s death. Now, Mr. Wolfe and I intend to prove Mr. Vukcic’s innocence.”
Cohen’s eyebrows lifted in obvious surprise. “Archie, I appreciate your candor. It’s not often I experience that quality. Seems to me I’ve heard of Nero Wolfe. Doesn’t Saul Panzer do some work for him?”
“Never heard of him,” I replied.
“Now I remember,” continued Cohen. “Isn’t Wolfe supposed to be some kind of genius?”
“He must be,” I answered. “He sits at home playing with his orchids and eating gourmet meals while I do all the work.”
“OK,” said Cohen, “How can I help?”
“We figure that someone tried to shake down Rusterman, lost his head, and ended up killing him. I’m sure you’re aware that The Angel controls the bootleg business in this area but this doesn’t sound like his racket. It’s probably some small-time hood trying to muscle in. Harry Foster thought you might have some idea of what’s going on.”
Cohen thought for a moment. “For the last few weeks, we’ve been aware that someone was playing the protection racket with some of the small businesses in midtown Manhattan. Frankly, it didn’t interest us as any great scoop. More lurid crimes are committed here every day. And they’re the kind that sell newspapers.
“However, perhaps I can give you one lead. I happen to know that Dopplemeyer’s Delicatessen was recently scared into paying protection money. Jacob Dopplemeyer, whom I’ve patronized for years, told me about it in confidence. I suggested he go to the police but, like so many immigrants, he doesn’t trust them. I don’t have the time, the staff or the inclination to look into such a small-time story but I do feel sorry for Dopplemeyer. Maybe he might give you some helpful information.” He picked up one of the phones, instructed someone to get Dopplemeyer, then held a brief conversation. He wrote down an address and handed it to me. “He’s still scared to death but agreed to see you. Try not to frighten him more.” Then, he added, “I’d appreciate getting the inside dope if it’s at all newsworthy.” I picked up my hat and coat. “You’ll be the second to know – after Mr. Wolfe.”
As I headed out the door, he seemed to have an afterthought. There was a twinkle in his eye as he remarked with studied casualness, “By the way, Archie, as I said, I like a man with candor. Especially in a card game. Do you by any chance ever indulge in the lucrative game of poker?” .
With a straight face, I replied, “You never heard of Riverboat Goodwin, the scourge of the Mississippi? Let me say that while I am indeed a man of candor, don’t count on that to give you the slightest hint as to whether my hand’s full of aces or an absolute bust. In addition to candor, I also have some expertise in dissembling. I just learned that word from Mr. Wolfe, but I learned to dissemble long ago. Sure, I play poker, as long as the stakes aren’t too high.”
He grinned. “We always leave the suckers enough for carfare,” he said. “Call me after Christmas and we’ll arrange for a game. But, in the meantime, get rid of that damn’ tux. It ain’t your style.”
“My monkey suit?” I said. “That’s my gamblin’ outfit. The cut of the coat is just right to hide a few aces up the sleeves.”
He waved me away. “So long, sucker,” he said. I saluted and left.
It was just after 6 o’clock when I left The Gazette. I debated whether to call Wolfe. I’d learned enough about his habits to know he’d be down from the plant rooms but not yet at the dinner table. Still, the next step seemed obvious. I looked at the slip Lon had given me. It showed an address on 39th Street near Lexington. As it wasn’t much out of my way, I decided to see what I could learn from Dopplemeyer before making my report.
The aroma as I entered the delicatessen, a blend of all those wonderful deli spices, made me forget I’d eaten just a few hours before. It seemed that all of New York was rushing in and out, departing with last-minute supper selections of fresh bread, cheese, meats, pickles, dumplings, lox and bagels. They were keeping the two counter people busy, a short, roly-poly character, with Dutch-Boy blonde hair and a bushy blonde mustache, whom I took to be Dopplemeyer, and a pretty blonde fraulein who was also on the roly-poly side but with all the rolies and polies in all the right places.
A couple of small tables in the rear, presently unoccupied, were evidently for customers who couldn’t wait to get home with their purchases. I decided I was one of them. When I had a chance, I introduced myself to Dopplemeyer, told him I’d wait ’til he had a few minutes, and ordered a glass of milk and a pastrami on rye. He suggested I take a seat and in a few minutes the fraulein brought my milk arid sandwich to the table. I was glad to see that the lower portion of her anatomy, which had been hidden behind the counter, was every bit as shapely as the upper region. The sandwich, served with a huge saltwater pickle right out of the barrel, was every bit as delicious as I’d anticipated.
After about ten minutes, when the last customer had finally left, Dopplemeyer closed and locked the door and sat down at the table. I was surprised and not at all displeased that he brought the fraulein with him and introduced her as his daughter, Frieda. On closer inspection, she was even more shapely than I thought. She gave me a big dimpled smile, which I returned, but Dopplemeyer was all business. He was nervous and fidgety, frequently darting glances around as if he were fearful of finding a spy in every corner. I tried to calm him by assuring him I intended to find out who was extorting money from him and put a stop to it. I told him not to worry. He said he wasn’t afraid for himself, only for his daughter. I asked him to describe how he got into this fix, starting from the beginning.
It was pretty much the same story as with Vukcic. He was a little vague at first but with a little encouragement from me, and Roly-Poly chiming in now and then, I was able to extract a few details. Last week, just as he and Frieda were closing, a shabbily dressed man with a stocking cap obscuring half his face barged in and offered to supply bottled booze for him to sell to his customers. Dopplemeyer wanted no part of it. Then, the intruder offered protection. When Dopplemeyer protested that he didn’t need protection, the bootlegger made it clear that unless he went along with it, bad things could happen to Frieda. He would have resisted but Frieda was the light of his life and he’d do anything to keep her safe.
The booze was delivered by arrangement late the next night by a couple of nondescript workmen. Word quickly got around among the customers. His business actually picked up. However, Dopplemeyer was scared out of his wits. He didn’t know whether he was more frightened of the gangster or the cops. In Berlin, where he came from, the German police weren’t exactly friends of the little man.
So far so good. But I didn’t get what I wanted most, a good description of the mobster. Dopplemeyer and his daughter had seen him only that one time in a darkened delicatessen. I kept probing but the most I learned was that the man was big. Dark. Rough. Tough. Wore a stocking cap. Had a mustache. Needed a shave. Smelled bad. That about narrowed it down to half the population of Manhattan.
Finally, I asked if he knew when the first payment was due. His angry response was interspersed with a few choice Teutonic curses I’d never heard but were clearly not meant for polite conversation. Even if I could, I wouldn’t translate. After all, this is a family narrative. Anyway, you get the idea.
“Ja!” he sputtered. “Dot scum! What time do I close Christmas Eve, he asks. Like a dummkopf I tell him vier – four o’clock. He orders me to wait after closing time ’til he comes to collect. Then, he laughs in my face and says, ‘Be sure to have my Christmas present ready!’ He was still laughing when he left.”
All kinds of possibilities were running through my mind; I thought it best to check them out with the genius. I told Dopplemeyer that he’d hear from me the next day. I wasn’t quite as confident as I made out. As I was leaving, Frieda wished me Auf Wiedersehen and insisted on giving me a piece of her very own apple strudel. I chewed on it as I walked toward 35th Street. I also chewed on the information I’d gathered. The information wasn’t entirely digestible. The strudel was delicious. About the only thing I decided was that I’d like to have another piece of Frieda’s strudel.
Wolfe was in his office reading one of three books on his desk. I noticed the title, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. I hoped it would rise and shed a little light on our problem. Wolfe looked up and asked if I’d had dinner. I told him I’d had deli delicacies topped off with roly-poly strudel. He frowned, placed a bookmark carefully between the pages, laid down the book and asked, “Well?”
“Not too well,” I replied, “but at least a start.” I then gave him a full report. As before, he sat back, eyes closed to narrow slits, sat up and uttered one word, “Satisfactory.” I didn’t realize then that this was about the highest praise he ever offered.
As I was about to make a suggestion, the doorbell rang. Fritz answered it and ushered in a dignified looking gentleman, well groomed, nattily dressed in a blue pinstripe suit. Wolfe shook hands with him and introduced him as Henry Barber, the lawyer he’d engaged for Vukcic. Barber told us that Vukcic was being held without bail. Barber had to pull a few strings but was finally allowed to see Vukcic as long as Rowcliff and Cramer were present. Wolfe asked for a full report. I must admit that I was secretly pleased as, unlike my report, Wolfe had to keep interrupting and asking questions to keep him on track and get the information he wanted.
Barber won my approval by declaring that Rowcliff was an idiot and that Cramer was not nearly as convinced as he pretended regarding Vukcic’s guilt. Vukcic had evidently calmed down since I last saw him, and gave Barber a fairly lucid account of what had happened, along with a few details I hadn’t extracted. My attention perked up when he began to relay Vukcic’s description of his assailant. It sounded very much like a description I’d heard just a couple of hours before – large man, dark complexion, mustache, stocking cap, dirty, smelly. I really became excited when he mentioned a slight facial scar.
Without saying a word, I got up abruptly, walked over to the empty desk, looked up a telephone number from a book in the drawer and gave it to the operator. When it was answered, I asked one question, listened a moment and hung up. Wolfe, evidently furious at my seeming impertinence, was glaring at me without a word. Even that couldn’t spoil my moment of triumph. “Mr. Wolfe,” I cried, “I believe I know who killed Mr. Rusterman!”
Both Wolfe and Barber looked at me as though I’d lost what few marbles I might have possessed. I hastened to explain. “That description which Mr. Barber elicited from Mr. Vukcic fits the description of a man I know all too well, one Mike Jablonski! When he turned up missing after that warehouse fiasco, I assumed that The Angel had sent him to a watery grave. But...”
If I thought Wolfe would be pleased with this information, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. He interrupted in a tone that cut like a knife. “Who,” he asked icily, “or what is The Angel?”
For an expert engaged in criminal investigation, there were astonishing gaps in Wolfe’s knowledge of the criminal element in Manhattan. I quickly explained about my meeting with Giuseppe DeAngelo and how he had told me he’d take care of Jablonski. “Why,” Wolfe asked in a voice that dripped venom, “was I not told about your meeting with this so-called Angel?” I stammered that I didn’t think it had anything to do with my assignment.
“Mr. Goodwin,” he retorted, “you are not paid to think. Confound it, you are paid to provide information – in its entirety! I shall decide what is and isn’t relevant. Bah! With the facts you have just disclosed, this investigation might well have taken an entirely different tack. Now, please continue.”
Thoroughly chastened, I went on. “Mr. Vukcic’s description of his assailant pretty closely matches the description of the hoodlum who pulled the protection racket on poor Dopplemeyer. I just phoned him and asked if the man who shook him down had a facial scar. That evidently jogged his memory. His answer was, ‘Ach der lieber! Ja!’ I took this for an affirmative. Now all we have to do is catch him. And I think...”
I never got to tell him what I thought. Maybe it was because he’d just told me I wasn’t paid to think. In any event, he was no longer with me. Slumped in his chair, with his eyes completely closed, his lips began to move slowly in and out. For a moment, I thought he might be having a stroke. I started to rise from my chair. Barber, who knew him well, stopped me. He put his finger to his lips, leaned close to me and whispered, “Shhh. You are witnessing genius at work. Wait.”
We waited about twenty minutes. Wolfe slowly opened his eyes and said simply, “Instructions.” He then talked for another twenty minutes while I made a few notes on a piece of scrap paper from the desk. When he had finished, he picked up a book, not the one he’d been reading. Does the man read three books at once? I have trouble enough with one. Maybe he is a genius after all.
As I was leaving, he called, “Archie!” I was relieved to be on a first-name basis again. He continued, “I usually do not offer free advice but I shall make an exception that might just save you a little of your hard-earned wages. I doubt very much that you would make a good poker player.”
While I pondered this, he added, “And, Archie, get rid of that fool... monkey suit.”
Early Thursday morning, I was at the delicatessen when it opened. Dopplemeyer greeted me with a hearty “Guten Morgen”. I explained the program of the day to him and Frieda. We agreed that I would sit at one of the back tables, with a cup of coffee and a newspaper as props, where I could keep my eye on anything that went on.
With one exception, it was an uneventful day. Frieda kept me well supplied with hot coffee, freshly ground at the counter, and later with a continuing parade of knockwurst and sauerbratten and liverwurst and sauerkraut and, of course, strudel. From time to time, I got up and walked around, taking inventory inside and outside. Early in the morning, I noticed a car parked across the street a little way down from the deli. I couldn’t get a good look at the driver who was slumped down behind the wheel. An hour later, he was still there. I checked again just before noon and he still hadn’t moved. It looked like time to investigate.
I put on my hat and coat, walked slowly across the street, and strolled casually past the parked car. As far as I could see, it was occupied by a nose, attached to a little man in a shabby brown suit, no overcoat in spite of the below freezing weather, and an old brown cap on his head. He was smoking a cigarette. The smoke, drifting through a partially opened window, brought an aroma that reminded me of the stuff we used to put in the fields back home to help the crops grow.
I knocked on the window and he rolled it down without hesitation. My right hand had a firm grip on the automatic in my coat pocket. In my most polite voice, I asked, “Would you mind explaining why you’re parked here with your eye on the delicatessen?”
He wasn’t the least perturbed. “Please don’t misunderstand this next motion, Mr. Goodwin,” he said. So he knew who I was. My hand tightened on the automatic. “I am going to reach slowly into my breast pocket for identification.”
I followed his movement closely, ready to act at the first wrong move. But he simply pulled out a leather wallet and handed it to me. I opened it and observed a private investigator’s license in the name of Saul Panzer. The name seemed to ring a bell. Then I remembered it was mentioned by Lon Cohen. I handed it back and asked again what he was doing here.
“Mr. Wolfe explained your assignment to me,” he replied, “and asked me to provide backup in case you needed it.”
“Why the hell should I need it?” I asked irritably. “I’m only after one man, not an army! And why in hell didn’t Wolfe tell me?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” replied Panzer. “But I can tell you this. I’ve done work for him before and he frequently operates on the theory that the less anyone knows, the better he’ll perform. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory but it’s hard to quarrel with the success Mr. Wolfe always has. My guess would be that he believed you would be more efficient if you felt the entire responsibility was on your shoulders.”
I was still mad so I took it out on him. “Well, you’re one hell of a detective!” I exclaimed. “A baby could have spotted you casing the joint.”
“Archie,” he said quietly. “Neither you nor anyone else would have noticed me unless I wanted to be noticed. In spite of Mr. Wolfe’s theories, I thought it best if you knew you could count on help if you needed it. This way we have both inside and outside surveillance. “Otherwise,” he assured me, “I wouldn’t be out here freezing my butt off and starving to death.”
I couldn’t stay mad at the little guy. “Stay here.” I said, “and I’ll get you some of the best knockwurst and sauerkraut you’ve ever tasted. And maybe you can get the fraulein to warm you up.” We shook hands. I returned to the deli and asked Frieda to bring him a hearty meal.
Dopplemeyer closed up shop about 6 PM. I waved good-bye to Panzer and walked to West 35th to make my report. I arrived just at dinner time and was pleased when Wolfe asked me to join him. We sat down in the dining room. As I dug into a heaping plate of savory pork fillets, braised in spiced wine, and salad with a delectable dressing that Fritz called “Devil’s Rain”, I began to report. He stopped me with, “Archie, there is little enough leisure time to relax and enjoy the bounty of this great land, enhanced by the culinary skills of a master chef. Let us not spoil it by talking business.”
He then asked if I’d seen an item in the paper about a Dr. Robert H. Goddard who had fired the first liquid fuel propelled rocket in some obscure little town in Massachusetts. “It rated just one small paragraph in The Times,” he said. “They have no realization of its tremendous significance. Within our lifetime, the invention of this rocket will enable us to place a man on the moon and to learn more about this universe than we have learned in the entire history of time.” He then discoursed for an hour on the exploration of interplanetary space. I thought again about the logician who could infer an entire Atlantic from a single drop of water. But a man on the moon because of a dinky Fourth of July skyrocket? Horse Apples! But I had the good sense not to say anything.
After dinner, we retired to the office. I gravitated to the empty desk as if I belonged there. Over coffee, I gave Wolfe a brief report on the day’s surveillance, including my meeting with Panzer. I was careful not to express my initial feelings about having backup. Anyway, by this time, I kind of liked the little guy with the big nose, and agreed to myself that he might be helpful.
Wolfe had no comment except to say that Saul must have felt it would be beneficial for us to work together. This merely confirmed the fact that I hadn’t spotted him due to any carelessness on his part.
Wolfe repeated his instructions for the next day, then added, “I have no intention of having Marko languish in jail over Christmas. This holiday means a great deal to him. Therefore, I am determined to exonerate him before the day is over tomorrow. In all probability, I can accomplish this only if two of our assumptions are correct: first, that the man who killed Rusterman is the same hoodlum that’s harassing Dopplemeyer; second, that you bring him to me tomorrow. Otherwise, I shall look like a complete witling to the law and everyone else. More important, we shall have failed. Archie, I am counting on you.”
I assured him I’d do my best, and went back to my rooming house. I needed a good night’s sleep.
Friday. Christmas Eve. What a way to spend it! Yet, it was filled with anticipation. Although I had promised Dopplemeyer no involvement on his part, it wasn’t quite working out that way. However, as he could see the possible end to his trouble, he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, if anything, he had begun to overcome his fear.
Saul was already parked across the street when I arrived at the delicatessen. As we waited through that long day, time seemed to stand still. There were few customers, most evidently busy with last-minute Christmas shopping. The few who did come in were usually after a last-minute bottle of Christmas cheer.
As the clock wound down toward closing time, I retired to the small back office where I would be out of sight but still able to keep my eye on the front door. I thought it best for Frieda to come with me. Ordinarily, I would have welcomed the close quarters away from the watchful eye of Dopplemeyer but my mind was on other things. At 4 o’clock, Dopplemeyer closed and locked the door, pulled down the shades on the windows that fronted the street, and dimmed the interior lights. Still we waited. 5 o’clock. 6 o’clock. 7 o’clock. The tension mounted with every slow minute.
Suddenly, the silence was shattered by a loud knocking at the door. In the stillness and semi-darkness it sounded like thunder. The figure outlined in the doorway couldn’t have been more unexpected, even if it was Christmas Eve. I nodded to Dopplemeyer to open the door. Santa Claus walked in!
As he entered, I could see that Saul was crossing the street. Santa swaggered in, reeling slightly. He evidently had a head start on the Christmas cheer. He took a small sack from his shoulder and held it out toward Dopplemeyer.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he roared. “It’s old Santa. This old Santa don’t give no presents. This old Santa takes. Time to pay old Santa for whiskey and protection. Time to fill up the old sack. Hurry!” I felt a tingling up my spine as I recognized the voice.
Dopplemeyer played his part well. He mumbled that he had to open the cash register. As he moved toward the counter, Santa turned to accompany him. That’s when I broke quickly from the office, gun in hand. At the same time, Saul rushed in through the front door. Old Santa didn’t stand a chance. I jammed my gun, none too gently, into his back. Saul quickly frisked him and retrieved a fully-loaded revolver and a wicked-looking knife. I reached over, pulled off his whiskers, and grinned at Saul. “Saul, meet Santa Claus, otherwise known as Mike Jablonski!”
Jablonski didn’t recognize me at first. Then, it dawned on him. “Goodwin!” he exclaimed. “Yeah!” I replied. “That hick hayseed from the country! Let me assure you this gun is in perfect working condition. I have a score to settle with you and I’d like nothing better than to put a slug in your fat gizzard right here and now. Make just one funny move and you’re gone!”
I told Saul to keep him covered. Then, I went to the phone in the back room and made two calls. The first was to a number I had locked in my memory. The second was to Wolfe. I filled him in quickly. For the second time since I’d met him, I heard one word, “Satisfactory.”
By this time, the street was pretty well deserted. Making sure no one saw us, we hustled Jablonski into Saul’s car. Dopplemeyer and his daughter came with us. In a few minutes, we pulled up in front of the old brownstone. Fritz let us in. As instructed, Saul led Jablonski into the front room and closed the door behind them. The Dopplemeyers and I entered the office.
Quite a sight greeted us. Wolfe, seated at his desk, loomed like some Far Eastern Sultan holding court. Seated in yellow chairs before him were Barber, Vukcic, Morley, Rowcliff, Cramer, Stebbins, Felix and Antonio. I finally admitted to myself that Wolfe must be a genius to get this gang there on Christmas Eve. And don’t think he ever let me forget it, as he frequently reminded me, on the many occasions he gave me the impossible task of getting people to his office for one of his charades. But that was in the future. As soon as Vukcic saw me, he jumped up and embraced me like a brother.
I made sure that Dopplemeyer and Frieda were comfortable, then took the chair at the empty desk. Wolfe made the introductions. Nothing like old world courtesy when you’re after a murderer!
The introductions, however, were the full extent of courtesy, old world or any other kind. From here on in, Wolfe was in complete control and he let everyone know it. “With the exception of those kindly assisting me in this case,” he began, “I make no apologies for this gathering on Christmas Eve. Each of you here tonight is motivated by one reason only, that of self interest.
“One who has been outrageously accused and imprisoned is as innocent as that Babe who was born nearly two thousand years ago tonight, and who was later just as falsely accused and crucified. Even after that mockery of a trial so long ago, it seems that civilization has progressed no further. A man must prove his own innocence rather than rely on the wheels of justice to provide proof, beyond any doubt, of his guilt.
“This farce has gone on long enough. Tonight, I intend to prove conclusively that Marko Vukcic is innocent of the ridiculous charge of murder. In doing so, I shall provide sufficient evidence for the arrest of the culprit who did kill Mr. Rusterman. I warn you, this session may last well into the night. I have many questions to ask and will not desist until I have satisfactory answers to them all.”
Here Rowcliff intervened. “I wish to state unequivocally that this is not an official investigation. It is not sanctioned by the Police Department or by the District Attorney’s office. No one is under compulsion to answer this man’s questions and you are all free to leave at any time.”
There was a general stirring among the group but no one made any move to leave. Wolfe glared at Rowcliff. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” he said with thinly disguised sarcasm. “I was about to add that clarification. May I point out that the freedom to leave applies most sincerely to yourself.”
Rowcliff started to reply. I put in my two cents worth. “L-l-lieutenant,” I drawled, “Sh-sh-shut up!” He turned almost white with rage but he had the good sense to shut up.
Wolfe then continued, “I understand that the evidence against Mr. Vukcic consists primarily of the flimsy motive of greed and the testimony of a so-called eyewitness. Neither of these is valid. The supposed motive of greed is so absurd that it hardly needs examination. Let us dispense with it once and for all. “Marko,” he asked, “what is your position at Rusterman’s?”
You could sense the roar of the cornered lion behind Marko’s response. “Nero,” he growled, “you know very well that I am Master Chef and also Manager of the restaurant.”
“And do you consider yourself well-paid?”
There was the hint of a sob in Vukcic’s voice as he answered calmly but proudly. “Herman Rusterman was the most generous man I have ever known. My salary as Master Chef was as high as any of those in the largest restaurants in New York! When old age prevented Mr. Rusterman from continuing active management, he insisted on, what you call, profit sharing? This more than doubled my salary. I have all the money I need.”
“And now that he has so sadly left us,” continued Wolfe, “I understand that his will bequeathed ownership of the restaurant entirely in your hands. How does this affect your position and income?”
Vukcic looked at Wolfe with amazement. “Why, of course, I continue as Master Chef and Manager. That’s all I ever wanted. I do not need ownership. Believe me, I would rather have his friendship and guidance. He was an old man, with not much longer to live. But he should not have died in this way!”
His voice broke and a lone tear rolled down his cheek. No one in that room could doubt his sincerity. Wolfe allowed the silence to remain unbroken for a full minute. “I believe we can now dispense with greed,” he continued in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. He slowly looked around the room. No one uttered a word. Abruptly, he turned his icy glare on Antonio. “You,” he snarled, “tell us exactly what you claim to have seen the night Mr. Rusterman was killed.”
Antonio’s shifty eyes darted around the room as if seeking help. He got none. He wet his lips and, without looking at Wolfe, began almost in a monotone. “I am cleaning in dining room when I hear sound of loud argument upstairs. I go up to see what is happening. Door to Mr. Rusterman’s office is part open. I hear Mr. Vukcic make threats. I stay back in hall where I am not seen but can peek in. I see Mr. Vukcic take out gun and shoot Mr. Rusterman.”
Wolfe regarded him coldly. “That,” he remarked, “is a most interesting story, especially considering that every word you uttered is a blatant lie.”
Wolfe turned to Felix and asked, “From the dining room downstairs, is it possible to hear anything in the floor above?”
“Absolutely not,” replied Felix. “If that were possible it would disturb the diners. We cannot have that. The walls upstairs are soundproof. And the door from the stairs is always left closed. Furthermore, no one except myself is ever allowed upstairs under any circumstance. Antonio lies.”
Wolfe turned again to Antonio. “Is it not true,” he continued, “that you were recently given your notice for incompetence and insubordination? That you held Mr. Vukcic responsible? That you saw the shooting as your opportunity to get back at him? That...”
Antonio kept interrupting each question with “No! No! No!” But each answer carried less conviction. He kept looking at Felix with both resentment and fear. Finally, Felix spoke directly to him. “Antonio,” he said quietly, “you are no damn good. You know perfectly well that Mr. Vukcic ordered me to fire you two weeks ago. I should have kicked you out right then. Instead, in the spirit of the Christmas Season, I said you could stay until the end of the year. This is the way you repay!”
As Felix was speaking, Antonio had shrunk further back in his chair. Wolfe’s steely glare pierced him like a pin through an insect. “There’s no place to hide,” he declared. “Admit your malfeasance!”
Antonio had had enough. With downcast eyes, he stammered, “Yes, yes! I lied.”
“So much for your eyewitness,” Wolfe said with disgust. He addressed the District Attorney. “Inasmuch as his accusations were not made under oath, I suppose you can’t charge him with perjury. Archie, get him out of my sight, and bring in the guest in the front room.”
I grabbed Antonio and propelled him into the hall, handed him his hat and coat, and booted him out the front door. Then, Saul and I brought Jablonski to the office. As soon as we entered, Vukcic jumped to his feet and shouted, “That’s him! That’s the scum who murdered Mr. Rusterman! Let me at him!” He lunged forward and it took both Cramer and Stebbins to hold him back. We seated Jablonski away from Vukcic. Saul remained standing behind his chair. I returned to the desk.
Wolfe continued, “Gentlemen, and Lady,” he conceded, “in spite of the gay red and white costume, this is not Santa Claus. Rather than a saint, it is a devil named Michael Jablonski. He attempted to murder Mr. Goodwin. He attempted to extort money from Mr. Dopplemeyer.” He paused. “And he murdered Mr. Rusterman.”
The proverbial pin dropping would have sounded like a thunderclap in the deadly silence that pervaded the office. There was not only a complete absence of sound but also of movement. Both were finally broken by Rowcliff. He stood up and sputtered, “Those are serious charges. If any of them are true, you are guilty of withholding evidence and obstructing justice. I’ll have your license!”
“Pfui!” interrupted Wolfe. “Sit down. All we have done is unearthed evidence and i identified a criminal, something the police should have accomplished long ago.”
District Attorney Morley spoke for the first time. “This is all very interesting,
Mr. Wolfe, but you still haven’t proved any of these charges.”
“Must I do everything?” growled Wolfe. “Archie, is this the man who gave you a defective gun and set you up to be killed?” I assured him it was. “Mr. Dopplemeyer,” he continued, “is this the man who tried to extort money by threatening the life of your daughter?” “Ja!” was the answer. “Mr. Vukcic, is this the man you encountered in Mr. Rusterman’s office moments after he was murdered?” “Just let me at him!” roared Vukcic. Wolfe spoke to Morley. “There are three legitimate eyewitnesses,” he declared.
He then turned to Jablonski. Unlike Antonio, Jablonski stubbornly maintained his innocence. The warehouse robbery? He had no idea the gun he gave Mr. Goodwin was defective. The delicatessen? He was simply on a mission of good will in the spirit of Christmas. Mr. Rusterman? He never heard of him! He even had the audacity to accuse me of kidnapping him!
No matter how hard Wolfe pried, he couldn’t shake him. Finally, the District Attorney intervened.
“Mr. Wolfe,” he said quietly, “you have certainly provided enough evidence to charge Mr. Jablonski with extortion. I’m not sure there’s enough evidence on the warehouse. As for the murder of Mr. Rusterman, we have only Mr. Vukcic’s word. This is neither sufficient to charge Mr. Jablonski nor to exonerate Mr. Vukcic.”
Jablonski sat there smirking. I felt like taking a poke at him and beating it out of him. But after having seen Wolfe in action, I knew he hadn’t even begun. Like a maestro leading a symphony orchestra to a crescendo, he started probing, almost softly at first, then with increasing tempo and volume. Questions came thick and fast. You could sense Jablonski’s confidence beginning to wane. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow. He started to hesitate more and more with his answers, Gradually, his shoulders slumped. His jaw started to sag. His lips quivered. His voice grew hoarse. Before our very eyes, he became a different person, obviously cracking under the strain of a master interrogator. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before he broke. However, just as it seemed to everyone that Wolfe was about to administer the coup de grace, the doorbell rang. Having arranged previously with Fritz, I went to answer it. I pulled back the curtain in the door window and peered out. I smiled to see not only The Angel but also Tweedledee and Tweedledum! I opened the door and spoke briefly to the two goons who immediately left. The Angel brushed aside my offer to take his hat and coat. I ushered him into the office. All eyes turned towards us.
The party was finally over. The minions of the law left with Jablonski in tow. The DA seemed pleased with the result. The Homicide cops were just pleased to get out of there. Vukcic, with bear hugs all around, couldn’t wait to get back to his beloved restaurant to make sure it survived his absence. He left with Felix. Barber, who had performed a minor miracle in getting Vukcic, the DA, and the cops out on Christmas Eve, hurried to his own celebration. Saul said he’d drive the Dopplemeyers home. As Fritz and I escorted each group to the door, I could see it was beginning to snow. Perhaps Nature would cover the sins of the city for one brief period in time.
As the Dopplemeyers started the Auf Wiedersehens, the clock began to strike twelve. We all just stopped and listened to the chimes usher in Christmas day. Mr. Dopplemeyer paused and, with slight embarrassment, stammered that he and Frieda always followed an old German tradition at Christmas. He put his arm around his daughter. Shyly, but with growing confidence, in a clear, sweet soprano voice, she began the most beautiful Christmas Carol in the world. The strains of “Stille Nacht” echoed throughout the hall. Dopplemeyer’s tenor provided perfect harmony. I have never heard a more lovely rendition. It touched us all.
As I was helping Frieda on with her coat, she handed me a package. “Special Christmas strudel,” she smiled. On impulse, I asked if she had a date for New Year’s Eve. She smiled again and answered, “Nein.” I couldn’t resist hamming it up. “Nine?” I exclaimed. “You have nine dates?” She shook her head. “Nein. No. Is verboten. By der poppa.” Der poppa, taking it all in, grinned broadly and said, “Mit Mr. Archie, is OK.” So Frieda and I agreed to see in my first New Year in New York together.
Wolfe, standing in the hallway, didn’t miss any of this. When they had left, he remarked, “Archie, you seem to have a way with young women.” Then, almost to himself, “That could be an asset. Then again it could be a distraction.” He continued, “Archie, your performance for the past few days has been satisfactory, with the exception of withholding information about that character you call The Angel. I don’t like surprises. However, for the most part, you have acted reasonably. In time, with your native intelligence supplemented by experience, you might become quite useful.
“I need an assistant. Saul is the absolute best at what he does. But what he does isn’t what I need full time. Besides, I do not believe he would want to relinquish his other clients completely. I am willing to offer you the position. We can agree on an adequate salary. The position would include the best meals in New York, served by a master chef, namely Fritz. Also, you could move into the spare room upstairs. I’ll order furniture right after Christmas. In the meantime, you could stay in the guest room.”
“No, sir,” I replied firmly.
“You do not accept my offer?” growled Wolfe.
“Mr. Wolfe,” I replied, “I would indeed enjoy working for you. In addition to the leg-work you require, I can see several ways I could be helpful in the office. And while I am with you, I guarantee complete loyalty. At the same time, always remember that I am my own man, free and independent. For example, I shall select and pay for my own furniture. I shall choose what I want, not necessarily what you want. That way, too, you’ll have to pay me at least enough to take care of the installments. If, to use your own word, this is satisfactory, you have an assistant. Otherwise, I might just marry Roly, or Frieda, and live on love and strudel.”
Wolfe carefully removed his seventh of a ton from his chair, approached me and looked closely into my eyes. “Archie,” he said, “I can predict some stormy days ahead in our relationship. Nevertheless, I believe it can be mutually beneficial.” He extended his hand and we shook warmly.
That brings me to the beginning, how it all started. But there were still a couple of surprises in store that I might as well share. Wolfe reached into his desk drawer, removed a brightly wrapped package, and handed it to me. I opened it carefully to expose a brand new Wembly automatic and shoulder holster plus a license for the gun.
Wolfe said, almost apologetically, “I realize that this hardly seems appropriate in the spirit of Christmas. Yet, in the future, it might help you keep the peace.”
He then handed me an envelope. Inside was a private investigator’s license issued by the State of New York in the name of Archie Goodwin. Wolfe explained, “Normally, there are tangled ribbons of red tape and interminable waiting periods in order to obtain a license for guns, even longer for a private investigator’s license. I seldom ask for favors, especially from politicians. I despise bureaucracy. However, a powerful Tammany Hall district leader, a smart Irishman named Rowan, owes me several favors. In anticipation of your acceptance of my offer, I prevailed on him to cut through the red tape and procure these licenses.”
I thanked him, then asked him to wait a moment while I went to the kitchen. When I returned, a smiling Fritz was with me, carrying a tray with glasses and a huge pitcher filled to the brim with beer. He carefully deposited it on the desk in front of Wolfe. That was one of the few times I ever saw Wolfe show surprise. He looked first at Fritz, then at me, then carefully poured beer into a glass and watched the foam settle to just the right level he liked. He raised the glass and drank deeply, wiped his upper lip, closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“There’s a keg cooling in the cellar,” I explained. The two goons with The Angel brought it tonight. Seems like we’re both calling in favors. You see, The Angel was grateful to me, first for preventing the robbery of his warehouse, and, second, for locating Jablonski and helping to make sure he’d end up in the pokey. He insisted on returning the favors. A fresh keg will be delivered here each week. And, as I’m sure you’ve discovered, this is the real stuff, not some watered down slop.” Fritz, having been told I didn’t much care for beer, had brought a bottle of pre-prohibition brandy. Wolfe insisted on pouring a drink for both me and Fritz. I opened the strudel. It tasted swell with brandy. It didn’t seem appropriate with beer but Wolfe put away his share and suggested that Fritz obtain the recipe.
Wolfe raised his glass and remarked, “This has been a most satisfactory case. It is the first one I’ve ever undertaken where there was no fee involved. Yet, even without a fee, I have received the rich harvest of barley and hops. And, while I am always willing to give Uncle Sam his due,” he made a sound that must have been intended for a chuckle, “I do not see how I could possibly list bootleg beer under “Income” on my tax form. “There is an old German proverb,” he continued, “which, loosely translated, proclaims, ‘In Heaven ain’t no beer – gotta drink it here.’ The grammar in the English translation is so atrocious it actually pains me – but the sentiment is sound. This is probably the nearest I shall ever get to Heaven.”
He continued, almost dreamily, “I am not inclined to wax sentimental or to conjure up symbols where none exists. Yet, my dearest friend is home for Christmas. We have had a visit from an angel, albeit hardly one of the celestial variety. My cup runneth over with a hearty brew that to me is more valuable than frankincense or myrrh or even gold. It would not strain credulity too much to assume we are Three Wise Men, although with varying degrees of wisdom. And, among our blessings, there is plenty of room for all three of us here at the Inn.
“So, I say unto you, Merry Christmas!” Fritz solemnly echoed, “Joyeux Noel!” Wolfe continued, “While Peace on Earth may be an impossible goal, let us fervently hope that together we can at least bring some small measure of that priceless ingredient to our own little corner of the universe.”
Looking back, I guess we accomplished that goal. But in so doing, we more often than not shattered the peace in the old brownstone. And I fervently hope we’ll keep right on doing so.
Ed. (Mr. Burns) Note: Wolfe and Archie have certainly attained immortality, at least in our memories. Just as Holmes and Watson forever stalk criminals through the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London, so, too, will Wolfe and Archie continue to bring some measure of Peace to New York – in our memory, in our hearts, and for all eternity.
William S. Baring-Gould
Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street
The Brownstone House of Nero Wolfe
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study In Scarlet
A Scandal In Bohemia
The Adventure of the Empty House
Rev. Frederick G. Gotwald
The Nero Wolfe Handbook
The Nero Wolfe Companion
The Warner Bros. Story
Rex Stout: A Biography
George T. Simon
The Big Bands
The Smithsonian Magazine
Dr. Goddard and the Magic Rocket
Seventy-Three Novels and Short Stories
The Nero Wolfe Cookbook
The Fabulous Twenties
The Burns Family
Three Generations – for their interest, encouragement and critique
The Gazette Editor — There you have it. Finally we learn of how Archie came to New York and of how he came to join with Nero Wolfe to form the second most famous fictional detective duo in history. It is a fascinating story and we thank Charles Burns for bringing it to us.