I’ve previously mentioned the radio show, The Adventures of Nero Wolfe, starring Sidney Greenstreet. And back in 2017, to middling results, I had written up one of those episodes, Stamped for Murder, as a novella. I tried to stay too true to the dialogue, and to Greenstreet’s rather un-Wolfean portrayal. But, you only have to kick me in the head three or four times before I catch on, so I decided to try again. Below is the first installment of a three-part adaptation of another episode, The Case of the Careworn Cuff. This time, I think I did a much better job of emulating Stout, rather than Greenstreet. Read on, and enjoy!
The Careworn Cuff – Part One
Nero Wolfe was the most brilliant, and also the laziest, detective in the world. He rarely left his brownstone on West 35th Street, and never on business. I lived there, eating the amazing grub prepared by Fritz Brenner, a wonderful chef (do NOT call him a ‘cook’) and a gentle soul. But also a good man in a pinch. His war experiences had hardened him more than appearances might indicate, and he had the scars to prove it. The fourth and final occupant was Theodore Horstmann: more on him in a moment.
Wolfe used his brain, which was only slightly smaller than his prodigious waistline, and his even more massive ego, to pay for the upkeep. Which was considerable. I doubt too many other citizens of New York City ate as well as Wolfe did. And he probably could have bought his own brewery with his beer bill. And of course, there were the orchids.
No matter what some detective stories might lead you to believe, crimes can’t be solved solely from an armchair. Another surprise: crimes don’t only take place while you’re a guest at a country estate. Although, there was that affair of the missing rubies while I was staying at Lily Rowan’s Westchester digs. But that’s another story for another session at the typewriter.
I am a private eye, duly licensed by the State of New York. I earned my keep and salary by doing the physical work in Wolfe’s cases, which often involved tasks only slightly easier than bringing him the moon. The guns in the house were mine, I drove the Heron Sedan which Wolfe bought, and I ventured into the (according to Wolfe) wild outdoors, as required. I also took care of my room, which was on the second floor, and my desk, where I spent much of my time. A man’s got to have his castle. Even if it’s inside another man’s castle.
Because Wolfe spent very little time in the front room, the furniture was the least expensive he owned, and there wasn’t a chair which he found remotely comfortable. The fireplace was rarely used, though Wolfe had once fed it a dictionary for the intolerable offense of stating that ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ could be used interchangeably.
That particular Tuesday, I had been sitting at my desk, updating the day’s germination records, which documented the lives of Wolfe’s 10,000 orchids. They were kept in a greenhouse on the roof and tended to by Horstmann, who was not one of my favorite people. Wolfe ‘worked’ up there from 9 to 11 and 4 to 6, every day but Sunday, and Theodore coddled him far too much for my liking. It was fair to say that I probably knew more about orchids than any other living detective not named ‘Nero Wolfe.’ I can’t say that had ever been useful, but you never knew in this business.
Wolfe’s current book, Carl Van Doren’s The Great Rehearsal: The Story of the Making and Ratifying of the Constitution of the United States, was on his desk, unopened. I hadn’t read it, but I didn’t see why I needed some German telling me about American democracy. They had been pretty short of that commodity a few years back when I dressed up like a major for Uncle Sam every morning. Sadly, I never did get to deliver that crushing remark I had thought up. Maybe in the next war.
He was leaning back in his chair, hands folded on the prominent mound of his stomach. In a voice barely above a murmur, he asked, “Archie, have you looked at that window?”
As the only one of us who was actually doing any work, I looked at him – in exasperation. But, he had a point. Fritz had mentioned it yesterday morning, in my hearing. One of the local lads, aspiring to be the next Tommy Heinrich, had smashed one through a window during a game of stickball a few weeks back. A man had come and replaced the glass, but while dusting in the room, Fritz had noticed a breeze leaking through. I hadn’t gotten around to following up on it. But, I think Wolfe just wanted me out of the room so I didn’t disturb his nap. Apparently my desk work was very noisy.
Now I was in the front room, inspecting said window. I was no glazier, but the air seeping through seemed likely due to shoddy repair work. If you’re impressed that I know what a window fixer is called, don’t be. Wolfe had used the term when he told me to “find someone to come fix that blasted window.” Another benefit of my job is that Wolfe knows more words than Shakespeare, and there’s bound to be some mental osmosis. See: that’s another one.
I had just decided that Bernie Harnstein would have to come back and do the job properly this time, when I heard the phone ring. There wasn’t one in the room, but I had left the connecting door with the office open, and the ringing from the two phones in there carried clearly through.
I only had time to turn toward the office when it came. “Archie.”
I did I take a few leisurely steps in the proper direction. But I wasn’t going to rush to my desk when there was a phone less than three feet from his hand.
Another ring. “Archie.” Louder, and with some annoyance in it. Good. The beast was awakening.
I got to the door and started in to the office at the third ring.
His eyes were still closed, but a slight downturn of the edge of his lips indicated his displeasure. “Is your hearing as deficient as your mental acuity? Answer the phone.”
I let that pass and said, over the next ring, “But it’s right there on your desk. All you have to do is lean forward.”
His eyes opened. “Confound it Archie, do you think I’m an athlete?”
I had pushed it as far as I reasonably should. Reaching my desk and grabbing the receiver, I sat down.
During the day, it’s his office. But since this was the evening and he lived here, I didn’t feel that worked.
“Nero Wolfe’s residence. Archie Goodwin speaking.”
I listened for a few moments.
“Nope. Wrong number, mister.”
The call ended without even an apology for inconveniencing me. I hung up on my end.
I’m sorry, sir. Did that annoying phone awaken you?”
“I was not asleep. I was merely…concentrating.”
I raised one eyebrow. He hates it when I do that, because he can’t. “On what? We’re out of work. There’s nothing to concentrate on.”
“It may have escaped your errant attention, there are other subjects for thought besides murder.”
“Sure, sure. Blondes.”
You know, you’re right at that. And Brunettes.”
He leaned forward and eyed me coldly. “Pfui.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say about any girl. Even if she happens to be a brunette.”
“Go away. You annoy me.”
“Suppose I do go. Who will get your beer for you?
“Fritz, of course.”
“Fritz happens to be off tonight. He went to see that Wagner opera.”
Wolfe thought for a moment. “Eula Beal. She is not without talent.”
I was still annoyed that he wouldn’t answer his own phone when I wasn’t even in the room. “You can always get your beer for yourself.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Archie.”
“There are exactly twenty-three steps between here and the kitchen. I’ve counted them”
As I very well knew, he abominated strenuous physical activity. He had used that very descriptor before.
“Twenty-three steps times two is forty six. You could walk very slow.”
“Nonsense. And it’s ‘slowly.’”
He paused. “But now that you mention it, I happen to be mildly thirsty, Archie. Would you…”
I pounced on that opportunity like Bobby Thomson jumping on an inside fastball at the Polo Grounds.
“Now that I mention it, you better pass on the beer tonight.”
The eyes, which had softened a little at the thought of beer, went cold again.
“I repeat: Nonsense.”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our stock is running low. Because something else is also running low.”
“And what would that be?”
The thing that pays for all of this.” I waved my arms. “Including beer. Which only you drink. Money.”
“You are being overly dramatic. There’s plenty in the bank.”
To switch sporting metaphors, the hook was set and it was time to start reeling him in.
“Sure. But very little of it is yours. You remember that batch of orchids you bought last week?”
“Of course I do. Magnificent specimens of Dendrobium taurinium. They came from the Malaku islands in Indonesia. Did you know that the Indonesians have been struggling to throw off the shackles of Dutch colonialism since Japan surrendered?”
Oh no. He wasn’t going to change the subject.
“Yes. Glad you liked them. I just got a magnificent bill for them this morning.”
I nodded. “It was large.”
He pulled in a bushel full of air and pushed it back out. “Confound it. We must work.”
The fish was almost in the net. Just a little more.
“You’ve turned down almost half-a-dozen cases in the last two weeks alone.”
Part of my job was goading Wolfe into acting against his natural disposition. Meaning, to make him work. I could goad, but I had never guilted him into action. He certainly didn’t show any signs of self-recrimination now.
“One of them may still require me.”
“Most of them hired other detectives. They couldn’t just sit around and wait for you to run out of money.”
I looked thoughtful. “However…”
“There was a Mister Wenseslis, who might still be in need. I didn’t tell you about him.”
And, the fish was wriggling above the net.
“What was his problem?”
“As I remember, he’s being followed by midgets. He wanted you to do something about it. Not that he minded the midgets, so much.”
Looking at Wolfe’s face, I didn’t think I was the front runner for ‘Employee of the Week.’
“It was the elephants they were riding.”
“The man needs a psychiatrist, not a detective. You’ve made your point. Anyone else that might still be in need?”
I had achieved my goal. Which was to needle him for not working. And, to make him accept that it was time to work, even if that was the last thing he wanted to do. Which, it usually was.
“I can check my files and do a little cold calling, but I haven’t noticed anything particularly promising in the papers. I don’t think…”
The phone again. What were the odds that it was a client at our hour of need?
“Aha, saved by the bell!”
“Your choice of vernacular is one of your many Achilles heels, Archie. Another cliché like that and I shall-”
“Answer the phone yourself?”
“Find an assistant with a greater comprehension of the English language. I’m sure that the pool of middle-school graduates can produce a suitable candidate. See who that is.”
I didn’t dignify that with a remark; instead, I answered the phone. I listened to a reedy voice on the other end.
“Yes, Mister Wolfe is in. Yes, he’ll be in. He always is.”
After some squawking, he hung up. It’s really a shame that telephone etiquette simply wasn’t being observed these days.
I turned to Wolfe, who was trying to appear disinterested.
That was a Mister Charles Porter. And he was in quite a hurry. He’s on his way over right now. Should be here within ten minutes.
“A prospective client, I trust?”
“Ten thousand dollars’ worth of prospective client.”
Wolfe came as close to a smile as he gets. Not that anyone but Fritz or I would recognize it.
“Splendid, Archie. My beer.”
The fat son of a gun. With the possibility of a client hoofing his way over, I couldn’t continue badgering him about needing a case. And not getting him a beer, with Fritz out, would just be petty. And that was his department, not mine.
“Okay, but I’m not sure you’re going to accept his offer.”
“Oh. And what does he want me to do for his fee?”
I cleared my throat. “That’s the point. If I heard him right, he wants you to do…nothing.”
Wolfe picked up his book, indicating that he had no more interest in the discussion until our would-be-client arrived. Knowing that Porter would be here soon, I updated a few more records, waiting for the doorbell to ring. Which it did, just shy of fifteen minutes later.
Since Fritz wasn’t home, I went out into the hall and to the door. I looked through the one-way glass and sized up our visitor. Charles Porter did not impress. He was a couple inches shorter than me, and under his light-weight coat, he didn’t look like he carried any extra weight. He didn’t appear to be very happy with his lot in life at present, but a lot of folks on that stoop weren’t, so I didn’t hold that against him. I opened the door and said, “Mister Porter?”
“Naturally I‘m Charles Porter. Who else would I be?”
Okay. I’d been hung up on twice this evening, – once by this joker – and Wolfe had insulted me. People needed to learn some manners, so I fired one off.
“It’s a large field.”
He looked at me, puzzled. “What?”
There was no point in continuing on. And he had come to make a contribution to our coffers, so I stepped aside and let him enter.
“Never mind. Come on in.”
“I’m Archie Goodwin,” I said, as I took his coat and hat.
Before I could even put them on the oversized rack, he snapped, “Where’s Wolfe?”
He and Wolfe should get along really well. I might just sit back and watch the fireworks.
“Mister Wolfe is in here.” He started off, but I grabbed his arm and brought him to a halt. Moving ahead of him, I said, “Follow me” and went down the hall and into the office.
“Mister Wolfe, this is Mister Porter.”
Wolfe does not shake hands. And rarely does he stand up. He nodded his head an eighth of an inch and said, “Good evening.”
“Fat, aren’t you?”
As Saul Panzer, the best operative you’ll never meet in this case, would say, ‘Lovin’ babe.’
Charles Porter could use a few lessons in how to deal with people. He’d been abrupt, surly, and lacking in pleasantries, with me. And he opened up to Wolfe with an insult. Not that he was wrong, but that was no way to start a conversation. Especially with someone you wanted to do something for you. Or, if I had understood him correctly on the phone, do nothing for you. Still, the principle is the same.
With Fritz out, Wolfe had prepared a dish of roast beef, with garlic and chive potatoes, julienned carrots, a simple salad and some wine from the basement. Now, well-fed, sitting in the only chair in the world that really fit him, and facing a potential client, with the possibility of earning a fat fee for doing nothing, he wasn’t about to be riled by what was technically just an observation.
“It’s moderately noticeable. Archie, a chair for Mister Porter.”
Wolfe has said that a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality, but I hadn’t even been given a chance to guide him to the red chair before the ‘fat’ comment. I started to steer him to it, but he wasn’t interested in sitting.
“Don’t bother, I’m too impatient to sit. When I have business to take care of, I take care of it quickly.”
“That’s as it may be, Mister Porter. But I like eyes at a level. Please sit.”
Porter thought he was going to refuse, but changed his mind. He moved over to the chair.
He looked as bony as I had guessed, and he was sitting down, but not leaning back. His feet were on the floor and his elbows were on the armrests. His back was straight. He didn’t look even the slightest bit comfortable. Good.
Without bothering to turn his head towards me, he said, “Send him out of the room.”
If I wasn’t so self-assured, he might have given me a complex.
Wolfe barely shook his head. “Mister Goodwin? Nonsense. He’s my assistant. He remains.”
“I don’t like it.”
I couldn’t imagine what he did like.
“Archie, show Mister Porter out.” I don’t think Wolfe really meant it. But he wasn’t going to spend the evening having Porter aggravate him. He was derailing the train before it got out of the station.
“Now wait!” He didn’t show any signs of getting up. Wolfe’s ploy worked. He was putting on the brake.
“No need to get temperamental. Perhaps I’m a little, well, abrupt.”
I had remained in my chair. I could have always gone and removed him, with one arm tied behind my back, if Wolfe had been insistent that he leave.
“Rather, you are rude.”
“I’m a worried man.” He looked like a man with digestive issues, but to each their own.
Wolfe inhaled and exhaled. His lassitude – another word I had learned from him – was in danger of being disrupted.
“And you are also impatient. You’re wasting time, Mister Porter”
“I suppose I am. The reason I came to you is…”
Apparently he had caught motion out of the corner of his eye and his head snapped around towards me.
“Young man. What are you doing with that notebook?”
If Wolfe hadn’t run out of patience with Mister Charles Porter, I certainly had. “Getting ready to make marks in it.”
“But. Oh…Fine.” He turned away from me. “You have a client named Dorothy Spencer.”
“Have I?” No one could give away less with a comment than Nero Wolfe.
Porter looked like he’d just taken a big swig of prune juice. And he didn’t like prune juice. “There’s no need to be coy about it. I happen to know.”
“And you know?”
He leaned forward. “I want you to drop her.”
I’m not sure that I ever saw Wolfe lose a game of verbal cat and mouse. When he was really pushed into a tight spot, he would concede something which he darn well knew was a rock solid fact, as a hypothetical. And then, without ever acknowledging he had agreed or submitted to anything, proceed as if he had. Porter wasn’t even close to making that happen.
“Refuse to handle her case. Close the books on her. You know what I mean.”
“Mister Porter.” Wolfe leaned forward a little. You call my home. Then rush over and disturb my evening. To tell me to drop a client that you presume I have. Really, sir. Now, why should I do that?”
His voice sharpened. “The girl has no money. I have.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
He reached into his suit coat and pulled out an envelope. To this day, I’m still not sure how he managed to get it to fit in that pocket, but clearly, he had.
“Perhaps this will.”
He held the envelope out to Wolfe, who made no move to take it. That would have required unnecessary effort. I stood in front of Porter. I’d had enough of his attitude, so I just held out my hand and said, “Give.”
Apparently, being rude was so natural to him, he didn’t notice that quality in others. He handed it to me. He was still watching me when I sat down and opened it up.
Crisp, one-hundred dollar bills. Quite a few. I took them out.
“You don’t need to count them. That’s five thousand dollars.”
I paid no attention and began using the math skills I’d learned as a boy in Chillicothe, Ohio. I’d have checked the total, even if the client didn’t annoy me.
He was right. Fifty one-hundred dollar bills. I looked up at Wolfe. “It’s five thousand dollars.”
“Didn’t I just tell you that?” He looked at Wolfe. “That’s just a down payment. There’s $5,000 more when you agree to my demand.”
I kept my eyes on Wolfe. He did not like to have ‘demand’ thrown at him.
“Very good, Archie.” He looked forward. “Mister Porter.”
I got out my receipt book and started writing one out. If I had things pegged right, I had never been surer Wolfe was keeping money.
“First, let us call it ‘your request.’”
“Let me be clear. I want no misunderstanding.” You are paying me ten thousand dollars, in order that I refuse to act for Miss Spencer. Nothing more.”
“What does she suspect you of?”
“I said nothing about-.” He caught himself. “That is…You must know that as well as I do.”
Porter had arrived, absolutely certain he would get what he wanted. I was pretty sure he always felt that way. But if he was a piranha, he was facing a shark. He certainly wasn’t in charge right now.
“Possibly. Nevertheless. What does she suspect you of?”
He grimaced. “Being a blackmailer.” No denial. No protest. He probably was one.
Wolfe leaned back again. “I see. Whereas your occupation really is?
“I’m a musician. A pianist. I appear nightly at the Windsor Hotel.”
I couldn’t imagine there was much friendly banter in his show.
“Archie, have you made out a receipt for Mister Porter?”
“Give it to him and show him to the door.”
Wolfe was done with Porter and wanted to read his book until going upstairs to bed.
“Okay.” I got up. “Mister Porter.”
Danged if he didn’t stay in his chair and ignore me completely!
“Mister Wolfe. I want your assurance that the entire affair is definitely finished.”
“My association with Miss Spencer, you mean? You have my assurance that it is. I shall expect the remaining five thousand dollars, sir.”
Wolfe would get up and go to the kitchen if this went on any longer. He had walked out on many a client sitting in that chair.
But Porter had what he wanted and pushed himself out of the chair. That can be a difficult task for a lot of people. If he hadn’t been leaning forward, feet planted, I don’t think he could have done it.
I handed him the receipt and followed him to the doorway. Then, Wolfe surprised me.
“Oh, Mister Porter.”
He stopped and turned. I kept my eyes on him.
“You’ll forgive a classical allusion; da capo”
It had no obvious effect on him. “Yes. Thank you. Good night.”
He turned and went towards the front door. I watched him go. After that performance, he could get his own coat and hat. Which he did. Once, a killer, leaving in a huff, had accidentally grabbed my coat, instead of his own. For that mistake, he lost his liberty, and Wolfe, for a very short time, gained a dog. I still think ‘Champion Nero of Bandiskoot’ was a better name than ‘Jet.’
Without bothering even a glance back, he unlocked the door and let himself out.
I went, locking the door, but leaving the chain off. Fritz would let himself in. He could take the steps down from the sidewalk and unlock the door to his basement room. But on nights like this, he would come in through the front, go to the kitchen, and humming softly, prepare a drink, and snack on something from the fridge. Or perhaps some of his home-made bread. Eventually he would close up shop and go down to bed.
I returned to the office. “Being a Grade A junior detective, I noticed something about Mister Porter. He smells.”
“Bah. Some perfume, or other. Did you notice anything peculiar about his appearance?”
I gave it a little thought. “Well, he isn’t exactly a fashion plate. Of course, how could he be with that sour puss? No, nothing comes to mind.”
“His right coat cuff is more worn than his left cuff.”
He looked down at his book and added, “And da capo happens to be a musical term meaning ‘starting in from the beginning.’
“Oh. Ohhh. Porter thought it mean ‘done,’ or ‘complete,’ or something.
Wolfe picked up his book, but rather than opening it, looked at me. “Yes, he did. Therefore, Mister Porter is a liar. His ignorance of a common musical term indicates that he is not a musician. The worn right coat cuff, that he is an office worker.”
He removed the gold bookmark given to him by a client and began reading.
“But even if Porter is a liar, there is something else. He is paying you ten thousand dollars to drop a client named Dorothy Spencer.”
He said, “Indeed?” without looking up.
I got up and headed towards the kitchen to get a glass of milk. Stopping at the door to the hall, I said, “We’ve never had a client with that name.”
He murmured. “No, we haven’t. And if we never do, we will have met his terms, and thus, earned our ten thousand dollars.”
I knew he was done working for the evening, so I continued on to the kitchen, wondering how in the world we had fallen into that job.
PRIOR NERO WOLFE POSTS
The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V and VI. Rumor is that submissions are down and he’s returning to the series in 2020.