And it’s the final installment in our three-part adaptation of “The Careworn Cuff,” from the old Nero Wolfe radio show staring Sidney Greenstreet. It’s not going to make much sense of you don’t read Part One, and Part Two, first.
The Careworn Cuff – Part Three (of Three)
I was back at my desk as Wolfe related what I had missed. It seemed that the brownstone had been pretty busy while I was taking Miss Spencer to her temporary lodgings. Wolfe was nearly as good as me at reporting, though, not surprisingly, he tended towards lazy. I had told him to give it all to me.
“So, I awoke to a noise. It was not the front door.”
Wolfe – “Archie?”
Intruder – “No, not Archie.”
“A man moved to the office doorway. I cannot say that I was surprised at who it was.”
Wolfe – “Ah, our impatient and nonmusical friend. I did not hear the bell. You must have come in through a window. I hope you didn’t break anything.”
Wolfe – “How are you Mister…not Porter, of course.”
Intruder – Where’s the girl?”
Wolfe – “That question is beginning to bore me. I don’t know.”
Intruder – “I think she’s here.”
Wolfe – “So did the police. I might add that they were slightly closer to the truth. Incidentally, what makes you think that she was Porter’s accomplice?”
Intruder – “She must have been.”
Wolfe – “Nonsense. She wasn’t. Porter was blackmailing her, just as he was blackmailing you. In her case, it was letters. In yours, a previous criminal record, perhaps. That your employers might be interested in.”
Intruder – “I want to know where she is. Maybe this would help you remember.”
Wolfe- “Good heavens. Don’t point a pistol at me. It annoys me.”
“The doorbell rang at this point.”
Wolfe – “Ah, the police, I should think. Why don’t you open the door for them? And then accompany them out?”
Intruder – “Oh no, I’m leaving. If I don’t find that girl, I’ll be back.”
“And so he left, Archie, presumably by the same window through which he entered.”
I gave Wolfe a sour look. “Yeah. And he was sneaking out as I arrived.”
I had returned from my errand to find Cramer, Stebbins, and three uniformed men on the stoop. Cramer was banging on the door with his fist, yelling, “Damnit Wolfe, I know you’re in there. Where else would you be? Get Goodwin to open up the damn door!”
I had put the Heron in the garage and walked back to see the party on the doorstep. I walked up to the crowd.
“Excuse me, fellas. Can I help?”
The regular cops had seen me coming, but Cramer and Stebbins had been focused on the door, which was still not opening. Now, they turned to me.
“Goodwin? What are you doing out here?”
That seemed like a ridiculous question, even if Cramer was upset.
“I’m trying to get back into my house, but there’s a crowd of seedy-looking characters out front.”
Stebbins snarled, “Can it, Goodwin.”
“That’s his line,” I said, indicating his boss, with my thumb.
Cramer came down and stood in front of me, waving a paper in my face.
“Your fat boss won’t get up and come open the door. This is a search warrant. Now open the damn door and let me in to give it to Wolfe!”
I took the warrant and looked it over. Everything seemed to be in order. There was nothing to gain in keeping the police out. And of course, Miss Spencer was safely tucked away. I decided to be gracious.
“Certainly, my good man. Wouldn’t want to keep public servants from doing their duty.”
I moved past Cramer before he could reply and nudged Stebbins a bit so I could put my key in the door. I unlocked it and opened, hop-stepping ahead of the group to get to the office ahead of them.
Wolfe was leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, hands resting on his large stomach.
“There’s a paper boy here for you.”
Cramer and company were right on my heels and he moved around me and stopped in front of Wolfe’s desk. Stebbins came in part-way, keeping an eye on me in case I made a move for his boss. The uniformed men stayed in the hall.
“All right, Wolfe. I’ve got the search warrant. Open your eyes and hold out your fat paw.”
Couldn’t anybody be nice anymore?
Wolfe opened his eyes and glared at Cramer. He sat forward and took the paper. Not even bothering to look at it, he tossed it on his desk. I smiled.
“Go ahead and execute your search, Inspector. You will not find Miss Spencer on the premises.
“You’re not even going to read it, eh?”
“You’re not fatuous enough to hand me a search warrant unless it was adequate, Inspector. “
“For a plugged nickel, I’d…”
He turned and called out to the men in the doorway, “All right, boys. Cover the house. You know what to do.”
“Archie, I believe a window in the rear may be open. Please go close it.”
I knew there was more to the matter, since he never left windows open, other than the one in his bedroom at night. But I didn’t ask, with the guests present.
“Unless the matter is attended to, the house might be filled with fresh air.”
Cramer couldn’t resist asking, “What’s the matter with that?”
Wolfe made a face. “Fresh air is deadly poison. It clogs the lungs.”
Cramer snorted in disgust and headed towards the stairs, Stebbins trailing.
“And may I point out that the warrant you clutch in your hands is not a lease on the house. Finish your search quickly if you please.”
That stopped him. Cramer turned and gave Wolfe an evil grin. “Actually, that’s exactly what it is, Wolfe. We’ll try not to make too much of a mess.” He and Purley left the room and started up the stairs.
Wolfe called after them, “And when you are done…why not try Hoboken?”
He was not pleased that Cramer was going to search the place from top to bottom. But he also knew Cramer’s suspicions were not without foundation. After all, Dorothy Spencer had been here when Cramer asked to search the house. We were just smart enough to make sure she wasn’t there when he didn’t have to ask.
I wandered over to the bookshelves. I didn’t think that Wolfe was done talking to me about political theory and the U.S. Constitution. I searched titles and found The Framing of the Constitution of the United States, by Max Farrand. I had some time to kill, and doing a little homework might come in handy at the dinner table.
Wolfe was already buried in his Paine book, and paid me no attention. I sat down at my desk to wait things out, knowing that whatever the police might find, it certainly couldn’t be Dorothy Spencer.
I opened to a random page and began reading:
It has already been shown that the wretched condition of the government finances, and the unsatisfactory state of foreign and domestic trade, were responsible for the calling of the Philadelphia convention. The two subjects were closely connected. In the matter of trade, a uniform policy was necessary, and that uniformity could only be obtained by granting the central government full power over trade and commerce, both foreign and domestic.
Cramer found nothing, of course. His men made less of a mess than others had in previous searches. Since they were looking for a woman, tossing my desk, or Wolfe’s book cases, would have just been petty. Not that Cramer wasn’t above that sort of thing. But where Lieutenant Rowcliffe would take every opportunity to get at us, the Inspector could show some restraint.
He didn’t even respond to my “Did you look under the orchids?” as he left. Once, Wolfe had hidden a client from Rowcliffe up in the greenhouse. Rowcliffe was certain that she had been somewhere in the place, but neither he, nor Cramer, ever learned how they’d been outsmarted.
Settled back in the office, with Fritz tidying things up, I was surprised when Wolfe looked up from his book. “Archie. I notice that the Max Farrand book is missing from its spot on the shelf.”
I had put it in my drawer. I try to take care of other people’s possessions. Anything could, and almost had, happen in that office.
“Yes sir. It’s here in my desk. Since you’re so interested in it lately, I thought I’d see what all the hullabaloo is about.”
You wouldn’t notice, but the slight downturn at the corner of his mouth was a grimace. “Yes. That was quite a ‘hullabaloo’ they had in Philadelphia in 1787. What do you think of it?”
I had managed two chapters so far, and it wasn’t something I would be recommending at the next party I attended. “Well. It’s a little dry.”
“Dry.” The way he said it indicated I didn’t deserve to read Farrand.
“Yes sir. Dry.”
“Farrand is perhaps the foremost American scholar in this field. He does not write about the Constitution so as to give you something to talk about at parties.”
How in the world did that son of a gun do things like that? I doubted I would ever know.
“Regardless, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic. Perhaps we could invite Mister Parker over. He has a strong interest in the law of the land; beyond its immediate application to his work.
Nathaniel Parker was the only lawyer that Wolfe liked. He did what needed to be done, without badgering Wolfe for extra information about the matter at hand. I made sure that we always paid promptly, which he appreciated.
I nodded positively. “Sure.” I wasn’t looking forward to listening to those two go on about American jurisprudence based on the Constitution, but the food would be good. And we had dined with far less pleasant men than Parker.
I didn’t want him to start asking about Farrand. “I’m sorry I missed the imitation Mister Porter.”
Wolfe looked up from his book. “Yes. Perhaps we can arrange for you to meet him in the morning.”
Wolfe wasn’t known for unnecessary joking. “Oh? He left his calling card with name and address on it?”
“In a sense, Archie. He dropped his handkerchief here on my desk.”
Yes, there was a handkerchief on his desk. I am a detective, but I admit, in all the excitement, I hadn’t paid particular attention to it. Wolfe does like a neat desk, though.
“Oh. A handkerchief. Anything written on it?”
“Kindly come over here.”
He made no move to hand it to me, so I picked it up, at his gesture.
It didn’t look used, so I picked it up and took a sniff.
“So it does. In fact, that’s what I smelled when I let him out on his earlier…err…first visit.”
He wrinkled his nose in disapproval. “I have no doubt. Our unknown friend’s clothes carry the odor. Therefore…”
“You will go out immediately to the nearest drugstore and buy a specimen of every cake of soap manufactured in this country.”
I looked at him. He was serious.
“Okay. Since we don’t have a client any more, it’s your money.”
Two department store and three drug store visits later, I was sitting across from Wolfe’s desk in one of the yellow chairs. Somewhere between fifty and one hundred bars of soap were on his desk. We had already filled up one trash can with soap and wrappers, the latter of which he called ‘detritus.’
I surveyed the collection of personal cleaning products. “Look at all the things I learn in being your employee. Why, I never realized just how many different brands of soap are made in this country.”
“You should listen to the radio more often. It’s full of advertisements for these things. And Clipper Craft suits.”
He made a face. I understood. The idea of off-the-rack suits for someone shaped like him was ludicrous.
“So far, we’ve sniffed thirty-seven cakes and none of them smelled like Porter.”
I picked up number thirty eight and inhaled. Then inhaled again. “Hey.”
He held out his hand. “Let me have it.”
You haven’t met Orrie Cather yet, but he’s an operative we sometimes use. He’s got his points, and he’s generally reliable. But he’s got the notion in his head that he’d be a good fit for my job. Now, in this instance, I can see him tossing the soap to Wolfe. And that’s one reason he couldn’t be a permanent fixture behind my desk.
Wolfe took the soap from my hand and smelled. “Indeed. That is the soap we are looking for.”
“Or smelling for.”
He didn’t even bother to acknowledge that one.
He looked at the wrapper and frowned. “It’s labeled Orchid Ovals. I should say, basely mislabeled. Orchids have no odor.”
I didn’t point out that an odorless soap wouldn’t be that useful.
He put down the soap and leaned back, satisfied. “Our task for the evening is finished.”
Wolfe’s ability to not work really was something to marvel at. “Finished? How? All we know is that the guy washes with a basely mislabeled soap.”
“Come now, Archie. The odor would never have been so persistent if such were the case. Unquestionably, our visitor works for a soap company that makes Orchid Ovals.”
He paused and looked me in the eye. “Every employee of a plant at which perfume in large quantities is used, inevitably carries the odor on their clothes.”
I got it. “Oh. And you’ve already deduced he works in an office.”
So…I go see him in the morning?”
I was looking forward to learning what ‘Not Mister Porter’s’ real name was.
“You know, Mister Wolfe; what with getting hotel rooms for girls and visiting perfume factories, I’m beginning to feel like a maiden aunt.”
“Bah. No one would ever mistake you for a maiden aunt, Archie.”
“Thanks. That another deduction?”
No, not at all. Maiden aunts rarely need a shave.” He actually laughed at that one. I did not.
The offices for American Soap Syndicate were in a small building connected to a large plant. The smell of soap – not Orchid Oval, just soap – was strong as I got out of the Heron sedan in the parking lot. I found myself standing in front of a desk, where a not unattractive brunette had just answered the phone as I entered a neat looking reception area.
“Orchid ovals, what line? One moment, please.”
She transferred the call and looked up at me.
“Oh. Can I do anything for you sir?”
There was a little something in her voice. “Yeah…”
My own wasn’t quite up to snuff. I cleared my throat. “Let’s postpone that question and slip in another one. I’m looking for one of your office people. He’s in his forties, five foot ten, brown hair and eyes, speaks in a sharp, thick voice-“
“He owes you money too.”
“Who owes me money?”
She rolled her eyes. “Mister Wheeler. The man you were describing, silly.”
She said ‘silly’ like she wouldn’t mind further exploring matters with me over lunch.
“He owes everybody money, in spite of the fact that he’s office manager and makes lots and lots of money. How much does he owe you?”
“Oh, not an awful lot. It won’t break me if I don’t get it. Is he in yet?”
I pride myself on always delivering for Nero Wolfe. And I was about to collar our unwanted housebreaker.
“He was, but he went home He was sort of sick.”
Sometimes, you just can’t get all the breaks.
Uh huh. He got a phone call from somebody and rushed out.”
That didn’t sound good.
I gave her my best smile. Orrie Cather might not think it was as good as his, but it did the trick.
“Could you give me his address? I’ll just bring him a bowl of soup.”
She smiled back and looked it up.
“Well, thank you for your help.” I turned and started towards the door, figuring my next move.
She called after me, “You didn’t answer my question yet. I’m off at 5. My name is Gwen.”
“We’ll talk more when I come back, Gwen.”
I stopped at a nearby drug store and dialed the number I knew best.
“Who is this?”
“Archie here. Our unknown’s name is Wheeler. He left the office this morning, sick. After he got a mysterious phone call.”
“Archie. Get to Dorothy Spencer at once and bring her here. Surely she is the subject of Mister Wheeler’s attentions.
“Right.” I headed for her hotel, determined to actually bring back the package this time.
I had stashed her at the Continental Hotel and managed to park within two blocks. I had an elevator to myself up to the ninth floor. I went down the hallway to room 909.
I knocked, but nobody answered. She was supposed to stay there in the room.
I knocked again, harder.
The door moved inward and I stepped inside. If you’re thinking I should have suspected something might have been wrong, and exercised a little caution, you’re right. I should have.
Maybe I was just happy I had gotten her, after missing on Wheeler. Well, I found Wheeler.
He was standing there with a gun aimed at my stomach. “Shut that door behind you, Goodwin.”
“Never mind pulling triggers, I’ll shut it.” I did as I was instructed.
Sitting over on the sofa was Dorothy Spencer. She didn’t look harmed. I thought that the place was empty, but it turned out to be a party.
She looked at me, not much hope on her face. “Archie”
“I would prefer silence. Keep your hands high, Goodwin.”
“That’s unhealthy, you know. All the blood will run down into my head.”
“You won’t be so funny in a minute, wise guy.”
“Archie, he murdered Charles.”
I can’t say that came as a complete surprise to me. Even discounting that he was holding a gun on me.
“He did, huh?” I looked from her to him.
“Mister Wheeler, you really shouldn’t have. It’s against the law.”
I was trying to decide what to do, if anything. With my arms up, rushing him seemed a sure ticket to death. But just getting shot didn’t seem like a great plan, either. I looked over at the girl. She wasn’t going to be any help.
“Get in the bathroom, both of you.”
That would spell curtains. He probably wanted us in the bath tub, so there’d be less blood on the floor.
“I already shaved.”
She was looking at Wheeler. Her voice broke a little.
“I phoned him, I thought maybe he had my letters. I invited him over. Not so smart, huh?”
“Porter couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his other victims. I couldn’t have him talking about me.”
Maybe if he got close enough I could make a last ditch effort to get him. I wanted to keep him talking, rather than shooting.
“He was gonna force Dorothy to marry him. Did you find his material, Wheeler?”
An evil grin spread across his face. “Yes, in an office, he kept as a front.”
The grin turned into a genuine smile. “It’s all burned. Gone.”
I gave him a puzzled look. “Then why all the melodrama?”
“You know about me: So does she. I can’t trust anyone. Get into that bathroom, I said.”
“Look, let’s not lose our heads here, okay?”
The gun stayed steady.
“Get moving Goodwin.”
“I like it here.”
“All right. Then here is where you’ll get it.”
I had closed, but not locked the door. It flew open with a crash. Wheeler turned towards the door as gunshots rang out. I started to jump towards him, down low, hoping his hot would go over my head.
I heard a woman scream. Had to be Dorothy Spencer. Wheeler was collapsing and his waist was where his knees should have been. He fell, dead weight.
I didn’t even realize that I said, “Hey. I’m not hit.”
“That’s because I shot him, Goodwin.”
Purley Stebbins’ bulky frame filled the doorway, with a uniformed cop behind him, gun out.
I was shaking a little as I climbed to my feet and moved over to Dorothy Spencer, who was sitting on the couch, wide-eyed.
“Stebbins. You flat-footed angel.”
He moved into the room and prodded Wheeler with his shoe. No signs of life.
“It’s lucky for you my flat feet got me here in time.”
“Just for that, I’ll buy you a pair of arch supports for your birthday.”
I looked at Wheeler, dead on the floor, and then back up to Purley. The other cop had moved inside and closed the door, standing with his back to it. I’m not sure whether he was keeping people out or us in.
How in the world had Stebbins known to come to Dorothy Spencer’s apartment? He shouldn’t even have known where she was hidden away.
“I’m beginning not to believe this. You had it all figured out?”
He had the grace to look sheepish, which is not something he does often. Ever, really.
“Well, not exactly. That is-“
The light bulb went on. “Wolfe sent you here, didn’t he?”
“Well, yeah. He phoned in to headquarters and suggested one of us shoot down here and do some rescue work.
Suddenly, he started laughing.
“What are you laughing at?”
Still chuckling, he said, “Wolfe wasn’t sure whether you’d need rescuing from Wheeler.”
“Or whether Miss Spencer would need rescuing from you.”
“You’ve been a very foolish young woman, Miss Spencer. I suggest in the future you exercise a great deal more care in your correspondence.”
Of course, Dorothy Spencer and I had answered a lot of questions at headquarters. They seemed happy with the blackmail angle, though Wheeler apparently destroying all of the evidence didn’t help prove that part. But there weren’t any holes in our stories. She was still explaining things when they were done with me. I offered to stay and wait for her, but she told me to go home. She would come to the brownstone when she could.
It’s a rare occasion when they don’t try to trip me up on my statement. That’s how I knew they felt things were wrapped up. I signed mine and left.
Inspector Cramer had stopped by to talk with Wolfe. He didn’t thank him for identifying Porter’s killer. Though, he did enjoy asking me how it felt having my life saved by Stebbins. He had waited to ask in front of Wolfe, which was childish. And I didn’t like the way he grinned about it, but I let it pass. After all, the lieutenant had bailed me out of a bad spot. Cramer actually chuckled as he put on his coat to leave.
Dorothy Spencer had come over after the police finished with her, and the three of us were in the office.
“I shall, Mister Wolfe. How can I thank you?”
I put in, “One way would be to listen wide-eyed, while he explains the case.”
“Flummery. I have no intention-“
This was too much. When it came to showing how brilliant he had been in solving a case, Wolfe could out-preen a peacock.
“Oh come on, stop stalling.”
Dorothy added her plea. “Please, Mister Wolfe.”
His concession wasn’t exactly Lee surrendering at Appomattox.
“Well, I’d be very happy to.”
Sure. He might as well have added, ‘Just try and stop me.’
“A man came to me and offered me ten thousand dollars to drop a client I didn’t have. Why? Because, obviously, he wished to direct my attention to that client.”
“Yes, you, Miss Spencer. Now then, he identified himself as Charles Porter, a musician. But I immediately noticed his cuffs.”
He let it hang. What a ham.
“His cuffs? I don’t understand.”
“His right sleeve cuff was far more worn than his left. A piano player would have evenly worn cuffs. I immediately deduced that he was a right-handed office worker.
“I decided to gather further evidence for my conclusion. As he was leaving, I tested him and discovered that he knew nothing of music.”
“The da capo routine.”
Apparently my help was not needed. He shot me a look, though not much of one.
“Precisely. Therefore, he was an imposter. But to what purpose this charade?”
I had to admit, he was good. Dorothy was hanging on his words.
“His purpose was to indicate, by no means subtly, that enmity existed between yourself and Charles Porter. Thus, when Porter was found murdered, I would presumably be convinced that you, balked in your effort to enlist my aid against him, had engaged in most foul and bloody murder.”
“Most foul and bloody murder is very fancy, Dorothy. Shows he likes you.”
That got me more of a look this time. Apparently I should be seen, and not heard. He continued.
“I thereupon asked myself why should an unknown man seek to convince me that Dorothy Spencer was Porter’s murderer.”
“And being the brilliant detective that you are, you answered yourself.”
That got what for him would be a frown. “Yes, Archie. There was one reason only. Because he intended to murder Porter himself. As he did. For which peccadillo, he has, thanks to Sergeant Stebbins’ accuracy with a revolver, paid for with his own life.”
He paused. “Quod erat demonstrandum.”
“Latin for ‘that’s what you wanted to know,’ Dorothy.”
“Thank you so much, Mister Wolfe.” She turned and gave me a warm smile. “And you too, Archie.”
“Can I give you a ride to your place? You’re done with that hotel.”
Her smile got warmer. “I would like that.”
I got up and walked her out of the office. I looked back and saw that Wolfe had already leaned back, put his hands on his mound and closed his eyes. Having to work really does take it out of him.
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.