We’re back this week with the second installment in our three-part adaptation of The Careworn Cuff, from the old Nero Wolfe radio show staring Sidney Greenstreet. If you missed Part One, you really need to read it first. It might not make Part Two any better, but at least it will make sense!
The Careworn Cuff – Part Two (of Three)
I found four Dorothy Spencers listed in the phone book; any of which might be our non-client. Wednesday morning, while Wolfe was upstairs for his morning session with the orchids, I eliminated three of them. I couldn’t get a hold of the fourth, so she was still a possibility. I had just made another unsuccessful attempt when I heard the elevator, struggling under Wolfe’s seventh of a ton. If I worked as hard as that elevator, I would definitely demand a raise.
“Good morning Archie. Did you sleep well?”
It’s the same greeting, every day, even if we had already talked that morning. He went to his desk, carrying the day’s orchid. I had already changed the water in the vase on his desk. That’s one of my daily duties. He must have finished the Van Doren book in his room this morning. He had a new one tucked under his arm as he entered.
Sitting at my desk, I had watched him cross the room, returning his greeting as he reached his own oversized one. I was silent until he was settled in his chair, the book placed on the desk. I now saw that it was The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine. I had a pretty good idea that the discussion at lunch was going to involve Colonial America. History was not one of my favorite subjects as a boy, so I would mostly be listening.
It being 11:01, I thought that a little work discussion might be an appropriate subject for some talk in the office. He had started to get his penknife out, to sharpen it. That was one of his daily routines, even though he rarely used it.
I still had one hand resting on the receiver, which was resting in its cradle. “Well, that’s that. Dorothy Spencer is not in. Anyway, she’s not answering her phone.”
He began sharpening his knife on the whetstone. No response. Apparently, he didn’t find work as suitable a topic as I did.
He stopped and looked up. “I would have to be deaf not to have heard you.”
After a moment. “Archie.”
“Mister Porter assumed erroneously that Dorothy Spencer had employed me. Or perhaps, that she was intending to employ me. That does not explain why he lied about his occupation.”
“Maybe he didn’t lie. After all, your deductions could be wrong.”
I didn’t think that was likely to be a view he was going to agree with.
I didn’t need to be a detective to see that one coming. “Okay. We’ll take care of that right now.”
This seemed to be my day for looking things up in the phone book. I found the number, and dialed.
“Hello, Windsor Hotel? The manager’s office, please.”
A rather attractive voice came on the line. I glanced over at Wolfe, who was looking at his book, still sitting on the desk. He hated to start reading if he knew he was likely to be interrupted.
“Yes, hello. Could you tell me if a Charles Porter plays the piano there? I’ve heard good things about him, but I can’t remember where he performs.”
Yes. Uh huh.”
“Great. Thanks a lot. Say, what do you do after work?”
“Oh. Well, good luck with that.” I hung up.
I turned to Wolfe. “She goes home and beats her husband.”
“Really, Archie. Mister Porter?”
“Bad news, he does play the piano at the Windsor. In the Emerald Room. So where does that leave your deductions?”
“Intact, of course.”
He stopped looking at the book, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. His lips didn’t begin pulling in and out, so he wasn’t really digging in. He was just giving the matter a little thought. I knew there was nothing to gain in bothering him, so I sat quietly.
Without opening his eyes, he spoke. “Yes, naturally.”
Now he did look at me. “I came to the conclusion that Mister Porter was an office worker. We have just discovered that he is not an office worker. Therefore-“
“You were wrong.”
“I’m not wrong, Archie. Therefore, the man who was here was not Charles Porter.”
He really was too egotistical to live. Anybody else I knew, would not automatically assume someone lied about their name, rather than admit he might be wrong. But Wolfe was so certain that he was always correct, that’s exactly what he thought – Without any doubt.
“Well now. Do you think a man of your weight should climb out on a limb like that?”
“Don’t be impudent. If you would kindly do more than make useless comments, look up Porter in the phone book and call him.”
Apparently my key contribution to this case was to look things up in the phone book. I was pretty darn good at it, though.
“Archie, the phone company’s best friend.”
“What do I ask him?”
“There will be no need to ask Mister Porter anything, just phone him.”
“You’re the boss. But I’ve got to say something to him. Civilized human beings actually speak to each other when they’re on the phone”
That was a dig at Wolfe’s habit of greeting callers with “Who is this?” I’ve told him too many times to count, that’s no way to answer the phone. But he views speaking on it as a necessary evil to be minimized as much as possible.
The first two calls didn’t get me the right Charles Porter. I dialed the third.
“Hello, I’d like to speak to Charles Porter.”
A rough voice replied, “So would I. Who is this, please?”
“So would you? Who is-?”
I recognized it now. “Oh, Stebbins.”
His tone of voice changed. “This had better not be-“
That’s right, it’s Archie.”
Purley Stebbins was the right hand man of Inspector Cramer, head of the Homicide Bureau. Stebbins and I weren’t quite enemies, but we didn’t exchange Christmas cards, either.
“Why can’t I get within a mile of a dead body without finding your or your fat boss, Goodwin?”
Yeah. Murder. I don’t suppose you shot Charles Porter? Please?”
“Me? No, I haven’t shot anybody yet today. But if I do, you’ll be the first person I call.”
“Don’t I wish, Goodwin. So, what do you want with Porter?”
Oh…don’t worry about what I want. Just a coincidence. Best of luck with the crime scene and all that.”
I hung up and turned to look directly at Wolfe.
“You expected this, didn’t you?”
“Nonsense. What was Sergeant Stebbins doing there?”
“Stebbins is a homicide man. You know darn well what he was doing there. Maybe Charles Porter was a liar. But he isn’t going to tell any more lies. On account of he was just shot to death.”
“Indeed. I don’t see any obstacles to keeping his $10,000.”
I had no reply to that.
Wolfe was ready to wash his hands of the whole affair and settle in with his book. So, I bothered him about it until he agreed to let me go over to Porter’s apartment. Since we wouldn’t be passing any expenses on to the client, I walked around the corner and took the Heron, instead of snagging a taxi. I only had to park a couple blocks away from Porter’s address, which was a break.
It was a nondescript three-story building. Porter lived, or had lived, on the second floor. Knocking on the door, I was greeted by Stebbins.
“Well, well, well. If it ain’t Archie Goodwin. Come in, Goodwin.”
He stood aside. I could play nice, too. “Thank you, Sergeant Stebbins.”
“I’ve been expecting you.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, Purley.”
“Ha ha ha ha.”
The ‘nice’ vanished from his voice. Stebbins was no-nonsense about murder.
“Why did you phone Porter?”
I decided to tell him the truth. “Because his right coat cuff was more worn out than his left.”
“Is that why you killed him?”
“No, actually I killed him because he didn’t know his da capo…Hey…”
I had stopped looking at Purley and at the body on the floor.
“Yeah, ‘Hey.’ He don’t look so good anymore. Guys who stop bullets with their face never look good.”
Even though the sight of the body didn’t warrant it, I smiled a little.
“Purley, you’ve been robbed.”
Stebbins never liked it when I smiled at him. Not without reason, to his credit. “What’s that?”
I pointed. “That corpse is not Porter.”
His confidence returned. “Now relax, Goodwin. Relax. His fingerprints were on file, and they check. His girlfriend says he’s Porter. If he could get up and talk, he’d tell you he was Porter. Now, what makes you think he isn’t Porter?”
“Well, because when he visited us earlier tonight, that’s not what he looked like. Even with his face rearranged by a bullet, that isn’t…Say. You said ‘girlfriend’?”
Yes, I said ‘girlfriend’. She’s in the next room, mopping up. She kinda broke down when we brought her here. You know dames.”
I had a sinking feeling. “You brought her here. Don’t tell me what her name is.”
He looked at me funny. “Since you don’t want to know, why shouldn’t I? It’s Spencer. Dorothy Spencer.
“Oh boy. That’s what I was afraid of.”
Before I could decide what, if anything, I wanted to say, or ask, a door to another room opened and a very attractive woman came in.
“Sergeant I…” She saw me and stopped. “Oh.”
She looked at Stebbins questioningly.
“Ignore him. He comes with the woodwork.”
I needed to take charge of things. “His name is Goodwin, Miss Spencer. Archie Goodwin. Find what you were looking for?”
That caught her off guard. “What I was looking-?”
“Somebody’s gone through this place like a minor league hurricane. You?”
She cleared her throat before responding. “What business is it-“
I wanted to keep her off balance. “Of Mine? None, maybe. On the other hand, Nero Wolfe might have other ideas. Matter of fact, I’m sure he would. Miss Spencer, why don’t you go see him? His address is 601 West 35th Street.”
“Well. I don’t see why-“
“You want your boyfriend’s murderer found, don’t you?”
That stepped on Stebbins’ toes. “Now listen Goodwin, the police are working on this.”
“Sure. They’ll see to it nobody harms a corpse.”
It was time to go before Stebbins decided to haul me in for questioning.
“Good bye Miss Spencer. Don’t forget that address. 601 West 35th Street.”
I looked over my shoulder as I went through the doorway.
“Believe it or not, you used to be a client of ours.”
She had no idea what I was talking about. But then, how could she?
I got back in time for lunch, which was a Fritz concoction of beef tips, braised in a burgundy wine, over his homemade biscuits. Growing up, a staple in my household had been creamed chipped beef on toast. I can tell you, since the non-creamy version is commonly served to common soldiers in the military, that’s one reason I won’t be enlisting outside of Military Intelligence. But Fritz’s variation could be on the menu at Rusterman’s.
We were back in the office after lunch. Since work is never to be discussed at the table, I had to wait to update him on my visit to Charles Porter’s apartment. And in case you were wondering, Wolfe discussed what he called the ‘false dichotomy’ between agricultural and industrial states in the Convention of 1787.
He wanted it verbatim, which was easy for me. I had been trained to recite hours long conversations between four or more people. He didn’t have any questions, and I had only just finished when the doorbell rang.
I went to the door and saw Dorothy Spencer outside. She must have debated on whether or not to accept my invitation. Which was a good thing, since Wolfe would not have disrupted lunch to see her. And I doubted I could get her to hang around, or come back later.
I opened up and gave her a friendly grin. “Hello, Miss Spencer. Come in.”
“Thank you.” She let me take her coat and waited for me to lead her to the office. I stopped at the door and waved her in. She took several steps and stopped.
“Is the large sitting-down gentleman behind the desk.”
I moved past her and indicated that she should take the red chair, saying to Wolfe “This is Dorothy Spencer.”
He did not get up. “You will forgive me for not rising. It is due to the necessary conservation of energy. Rather than rudeness.”
He nodded an eighth of an inch at the chair. “Please be seated.”
She did so, and I went over to my desk and sat down, watching her.
“Now, then Miss Spencer. Have the police found anything but dust in Mister Porter’s closet?”
You never knew what question Wolfe was going to ask. I had never seen anybody better at opening up with an off speed pitch, when someone was expecting a fastball. Or even looking for a curve.
“You were engaged to Mister Spencer?”
“That ring you’re wearing, he gave it to you?”
She looked down at a rock that I would not be embarrassed to put on a woman’s finger, if the notion ever seemed advisable to me.
“May I see it?” Wolfe held out his hand. This was quite an exertion for him. I didn’t bother to get up and help. Some exercise was good for him.
She seemed uncertain and looked at me. I did my best to convey the impression that Wolfe hadn’t ever been arrested for theft. Apparently I was successful.
“Well…All right.” She removed it from her finger and leaned forward. Her arm wasn’t long enough and she had to stand up to give it to him. “Here.”
He held it up and eyed it. Wolfe keeps a large magnifying glass on his desk, but he didn’t bother to use it.
“Expensive. Yes. Very expensive. You may have it back.”
He didn’t even bother to hold it out, just looked impassively at her. His thoughts on hospitality changed when they required effort on his part. I stood up and moved over to his desk, taking the ring. I gave it a quick look at I handed it to Miss Spencer. It was a nice ring.
“Thank you.” She put it back on her finger and Wolfe’s voice brought her attention back to him.
“Miss Spencer, why are you marrying Charles Porter?”
“I loved him.”
“Pfui.” I’ve never heard another word that could be so dismissive, as when Wolfe said ‘Pfui.’ And it’s not ‘phooey,’ though I can’t explain the difference.
“Mister Porter, according to Archie’s description, was twice your age, but with considerably less than half your attractiveness.”
He paused. “Love may perhaps be blind, but it is not astigmatic.”
He let it hang, waiting for her to respond.
“I…I don’t know what you mean.”
“Come now, Miss Spencer. What were you searching for under the nose of the police?”
“Searching? Me?. Why, for nothing. Nothing at all.”
It was all fastballs, now, and she wasn’t dug in at the plate.
“How did your fiancé earn his money?”
“He played the piano. He played it-“
“Really. I am not some inexperienced assistant district attorney. What he earned there in a year would not begin to pay for the ring he gave you.”
I knew that she was holding back, but I really did feel bad for her. She didn’t have a hope of even fouling one off.
“Please try again.”
“I don’t…” She had to stop and clear her throat. “I don’t know how he made his money.”
Wolfe bore in on her. He didn’t raise his voice, but it was harder.
“I suggest that you do. I suggest that he earned money by the same method that he induced you to consider marrying him. Blackmail.”
“Why was he blackmailing you?”
Whatever starch she had was gone.
“He had some old letters I had written when I was too young to know any better.” There wasn’t any sign of affection her voice.
“Your motives for murdering Porter would be twofold then: recovery of the blackmail material, and the avoidance of marriage to a man you disliked.”
“I didn’t kill Charles.” She put some force into that.
The doorbell rang. I was already up and moving before Wolfe looked at me. Fritz wouldn’t let anyone in on his own, but I wanted to be sure everything was jake first. I type ‘jake’ here because Wolfe hates that word and I don’t get to use it in his presence.
“Archie. Take Miss Spencer to the guest room next to yours. Lock her in. That must be the police.
“Miss Spencer, the authorities likely want to speak with you. I suggest you avoid that unpleasant activity, at present.”
She nodded without speaking.
“Let’s go. Quick.”
I led her up the steps and to the second floor, where my room was. I told her to stay put and I would come get her when the coast was clear. She shouldn’t make a sound, or open the door for anyone besides me.
The doorbell rang again, and this time there was some pounding on it. I pulled the door shut and heard her lock it. Good girl.
I stuck my head in the office. “Do I know Dorothy Spencer is here?”
“You know nothing. A simple role for you to play.”
I growled. That was uncalled for. “I haven’t got time to resent that insult right now, but wait until the next time you drop a collar button.”
He called out, “If it’s Mister Cramer, let him in.”
I recognized Cramer’s felt hat and broad shoulders, and opened up for him.
“Welcome! How is the homicide department?”
“Can it Goodwin. Where’s Wolfe?”
He didn’t even bother to take off his hat, merely removing it and clutching it in his hand as he headed down the hall.
I couldn’t resist. “Big surprise. It’s not lunchtime, so he’s sitting at his desk.”
I think that sometimes, Cramer doesn’t even realize he’s mad. He’s just so used to being annoyed with Wolfe, and me, that he marches into the office on automatic. This was one of those times. He caught himself before he spoke and came to a stop behind the red chair.
He nodded. “Wolfe.’ His tone wasn’t belligerent. Though I wouldn’t call it ‘friendly.’
“Good evening, Mister Cramer. Won’t you have a seat?”
Cramer looked at me. “If there’s a pretty woman involved, you’re usually around, Goodwin. Where’s Dorothy Spencer?”
That felt like another pot shot. “I think you got the wrong address, Inspector. This is not the Bureau of Missing Persons.”
He didn’t bother to reply and turned to face Wolfe. “The District attorney would like to talk to her.”
“I shall tell her so, the next time we meet.”
The flush of red on his neck showed that he started to get mad, but kept it to himself. “That could be right now. She’s in this house.”
Wolfe sent his eyes around the room without moving his head. “Really? I don’t see her.”
From the way he was clutching it, I was glad that Cramer’s hands were on his hat, and not my neck.
“Mind if I look around for myself?”
“You have a search warrant, of course.”
“As it so happens, no. But in the interest of cooperation-“
“Flummery. Your definition of cooperation is usually a unilateral effort on my part, sir.”
He looked at me. “Archie, the inspector’s leaving.”
He was licked and he knew it. I’m not sure what he thought this visit was going to accomplish. He wasn’t in very good form today.
“Ok, ok, I’m leaving. I suppose by the time I get back with a warrant, she’ll be in Hoboken.”
“Hoboken. Where’s that?”
I honestly don’t know if Wolfe was kidding or not. What he didn’t know could fill an encyclopedia.
Cramer thought he’d try again. He pointed his hat at Wolfe. “Look Wolfe. You can go too far. One of these days, you won’t be able to talk yourself out of it. I-“
He stopped, and the flush had moved up from his neck to his cheeks.
“Aw, the hell with it. Trail me to the door Goodwin, to show what a good detective you are.”
That was definitely uncalled for. What ever happened to being civil?
I followed Cramer out of the office and held the door for him. He ignored my cheery “Have a nice day” and went down to the curb, where his chauffeured sedan was waiting. He climbed in and I watched the car drive away. Looking up the street both ways, I didn’t see any suspicious vehicles keeping an eye on us.
I returned to the office, standing in the doorway.
“I don’t think Cramer is going to be inviting us over for Sunday dinner anytime soon.”
He made a face. “Yes. Most unfortunate.”
“Archie, take Miss Spencer to a respectable hotel. Register her under an assumed name. She is to stay there until notified otherwise. Luckily, the good inspector neglected to inform us that she’s the leading suspect in a murder case. Therefore, we are not accessories after the fact. I don’t want her arrested for murder as yet.
“So, we’ll keep her under wraps. Or maybe, her beauty has won you over.”
“I cannot imagine there is anyone who finds you as amusing as you yourself do.”
I raised one eyebrow, which is something he can’t do.
“Go fetch Miss Spencer. Return here immediately.”
“I’m on my way. And what are you going to be doing while I am gone?”
“I shall be…thinking.”
‘Thinking’ my fanny. He would be asleep before we got to the car.
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.