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Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: 2020 Stay at Home – Days 11, 12, and 13

Thursday, May 14th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ArchieFritzHopefully by now, you know what this series is all about. Over at The Wolfe Pack Facebook Group page, I am doing daily entries from Archie’s notebooks, as he endures Stay at Home with Nero Wolfe in these pandemic days. Over the weekend, I hit forty-three straight days, and over 41,000 words. You can check out the group for all of the posts. And there are links to to the first ten days down at the bottom of this post – plus all my other Nero Wolfe writings here at Black Gate.

 

DAY ELEVEN – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)

Saul Panzer called today. Del Bascom was always scrambling to make payroll and turn a profit, and he was still finding jobs related to essential services. Saul had agreed to help him track down some money that had gone missing from a bank. He said that seemed healthier than trying to track down some masks taken from a hospital. I was surprised he was doing any work at all out in the danger zone. He didn’t need the money. Maybe he was tired of practicing the piano.

“Bascom told me that Bill Gore is in the hospital. It looks bad.”

Oh. “Covid 19?”

“Yeah. He was working for Bascom and called off sick one morning. Then, a couple days later, he called him from the hospital.”

We talked for a couple more minutes and then he rang off.

Bill Gore. Wolfe hadn’t used him in years. Gore was mostly muscle. He was bigger and stronger than Fred Durkin, but when he started thinking on his own, he caused more trouble than Johnny Keems used to when he started thinking he was smarter than me.

With me, Saul, Orrie, and Fred, we didn’t really need Bill for anything. Years ago, I’d said something he thought was hilarious. And ever after that, he laughed at just about everything from me. Now, a man likes his humor to be appreciated, but that wore thin pretty fast. He was okay to work with, but I can’t say I missed him after Wolfe cut him loose.

I hadn’t seen him for at least five or six years. We’d happened to be renewing our driver’s licenses at the same time. We talked for a while, not about anything important. Between the lockdown and his catching the virus, I sure wouldn’t be seeing him any time soon. Maybe not ever.

Wolfe and I were in the office after dinner. We hadn’t gotten on each other’s nerves at all today. Between sips of coffee I said, “Saul told me that Bill Gore has it.”

He looked up from book, something to do with Malthusan economics; whatever that was. “Covid19?”

“Yes sir. Saul’s helping Bascom out on a bank job and he heard it from him.”

I was surprised he didn’t comment on Saul recklessly putting himself in danger. He was a valuable operative for us. “That is most unfortunate for Mister Gore.”

“That’s one word for it, yes. Unfortunate. That is a word. He might choose something a little stronger.”

“Your droll attempts at linguistic humor are no more successful now than they were before the current crisis.”

I ignored that. “He wasn’t in Saul’s class, or even Orrie’s. But I have wondered why you never used him again after the Armstrong case. He did okay on that.”

“His performance in the Armstrong affair had no bearing on my decision to discontinue the use of his services.”

I leaned forward. “Do tell.”

He sighed and stared at me. “I will acknowledge that your badgering of me during this past week has declined considerably. I won’t give you cause to practice.”

He leaned back in his chair and half-closed his eyes. “Some weeks after the end of that matter, he came here one afternoon. You were out somewhere, doing something.”

It was nice to hear what a valuable cog I was in the machine here.

“Frtiz answered the door and told him that I was unavailable. It was shortly after five. He knew I was in the plant rooms, but he had come anyways.” Wolfe shook his head a third of an inch. “He continued to opportune Fritz, saying it was extremely urgent and he couldn’t wait any longer. Fritz finally relented and brought him upstairs.”

I whistled softly.

“Yes. Fritz and I discussed that afterwards, you can be sure. He was concerned with dinner preparations and couldn’t handle the distraction at the door.”

He grunted and continued. “Mister Gore had a…scheme to propose. He had learned from some associate of dubious character that there was going to be a jewel robbery. He knew by whom, and where. The witling suggested that after the robbery occurred, I call the victim and offer my services.”

I smiled. I would have liked to see that pitch in person.

“That goofy grin on your face tells me you see how preposterous the whole thing was. He would ‘lead the investigation,’ as he put it, and apprehend the culprit and recover the jewels.”

Wolfe actually snorted in disgust.

“Since I don’t remember depositing a fee check from a grateful client, can I assume you passed on his offer?”

“The man was an ass. I told him, very clearly, what I thought of his idea, and of him. I ordered him out of the house.”

I leaned back and laughed. This was great! “Yeah, he could make Fred look like a brain surgeon sometimes, there’s no doubt about that. I can see why you didn’t call him again. And since we did fine without him, not calling him became a habit.”

Wolfe glared at me.

“What?”

“The man was an unmitigated imbecile, but that’s not the worst of it.”

I was curious. “You don’t say.”

“It would seem he took offense with my response to his proposal.”

I interrupted, “Yeah, and the tone you delivered it in.”

On his way out, he…took an orchid.”

My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I’m not kidding you. “What?”

There was a pot missing from the cool room. I did not move it. Theodore said he did not, and he had no reason to. I am certain that, llicking his wounds and displeased with his treatment, the miscreant took it with him.”

“Oh my.” Saul would have said ‘Lovin babe.’

“Fritz didn’t see him on the way out?’ I asked.

“No.”

Deadpan, I said, “You didn’t call the police?”

He didn’t even bother to reply.

“And never again did Bill Gore work for Nero Wolfe.”

“Indeed.”

He picked up his book, the conversation over. If the virus killed Bill, Wolfe would be not be sending an orchid over for him. I guess I never realized how dumb Bill really was. He had certainly never mentioned any of this to me. Even if he didn’t think that Wolfe suspected that he took the flower, he probably didn’t ever want to work for him again after the verbal assault. Some day, Wolfe is going to unload one of those on somebody when I’m not around and they’re going to pound him for it.

Well, I hoped that Bill Gore recovered, anyways.

 

DAY TWELVE– 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)

“We could go to your house in Egypt.”

The after-dinner coffee was finished and the office was quiet. I had updated the antivirus software on my PC, then done a full scan. We were remaining virus-free, human and technology-wise. I had decided to toss out a conversation starter.

Nero Wolfe looked up from the Times crossword puzzle that he was easily solving. “Since your weekly poker gathering at Mister Panzer’s is still cancelled, you have decided that badgering me will substitute for tonight’s entertainment?”

“No sir, not at all. It seems like a fair question.”

“Nonsense.”

“Look. We’re sitting right here in the heart of this nation’s hot spot. New York’s got over eight times more reported cases than any other state. Over 25% of the nation’s deaths have occurred here in the City. Why, we’ve had more deaths than they’ve even got cases in Philadelphia.”

“We are secure here in this house. We are well-provisioned, with hygienic procedures in place.”

“Yes sir.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “So, you propose that you and I, and Fritz, I suppose, fly halfway across the world and wait out this pandemic in my house there?”

I pretended to consider the matter. “It is an idea. We can’t take the orchids, so Theodore will have to stay here with them. That’s a win.” I paused. “A very big win.”

“And we would fly there?”

The thought of being on a boat that was indefinitely quarantined and unable to dock and disembark passengers, with Wolfe, was too hellish to ponder. “Of course.”

“You know that all mechanical modes of travel are merely contrivances predestined to maim and kill all who foolishly put themselves into their power.”

I nodded in agreement. “Yes, I do believe that you may have mentioned something to that effect before.”

“And you would make the current crisis worse by having me fly halfway around the world. Possibly enclosed in one of those contraptions of death with infected travelers, spewing virulent germs into the air I must breathe.”

I made no comment. He wouldn’t fly in normal times, let alone now.

“Do you know the fatality rate for this virus in Egypt?”

Yes, I did, since I knew he’d ask. “6.7%.”

“And I believe that same rate here in the United States is 2.3%.”

I generously agreed. “Sure.”

“Contracting the disease is almost three times as deadly there as it is here.”

“I can’t fault your math skills. I’ll grant you, the numbers aren’t favorable.”

“Bah. If the apocalypse was here, and Egypt was untouched, it might be worth discussing. At present, it is merely fatuous.”

I knew it would take something extraordinary for Wolfe to abandon his orchids. NYC being the most dangerous spot in America certainly wouldn’t be enough. “It was just a thought. We’ll keep hunkering down. We’ll save Egypt as an emergency fall-back option.”

“Yes, Archie, we shall do that.” Based on the look he gave me, I don’t think he meant it.

“Okay then, that’s the plan.” There wasn’t anything to gain in annoying him more. I got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. I was thinking I would show Fritz The Caine Mutiny tonight.

 

DAY THIRTEEN – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)

I was at my computer in the office, looking at news from other areas today, when I saw something disturbing. Well, I saw a lot of disturbing things. Some even more than seeing Nero Wolfe in his acre of pajamas, in bed. While food remains in demand all across America, various supply chains are being disrupted. And one of those problem areas is related to something I hold dear: milk.

Dairy farms are having trouble getting their milk to markets. They also took a big hit with schools closing nationwide. Kids at school drink lots of milk. A good life-long habit, I’ll add. And you’ve got lots of restaurants closing, or just offering pickup and drive thru. So, those outlets are drying up. A dairy farmer in Wisconsin was dumping over 4,000 gallons a day, straight from his cows to a manure pit, under instructions from his dairy association. The horror! I surfed around a little and saw that it was becoming a problem in upstate New York, too. I got up, went into the kitchen, and drank a pitcher of milk. I wasn’t going to take it for granted.

“They’ve cancelled the Easter Parade for next Sunday.”

We were sitting in the office and Nero Wolfe didn’t even bother to look up from a magazine article on orchid hybridizing. “I shall adjust my schedule accordingly.”

I was just warming up. “Thousands of your fellow New Yorkers will be disappointed. Just because you don’t believe in civic events doesn’t mean they don’t matter.”

He did look up now. “Civic events. Teeming masses jammed shoulder-to-shoulder just so they can gawk at people – walking. Walking to no purpose.” He grimaced. “It’s preposterous.”

“Yes sir. I can see how you would look at it that way. I myself find the sea of women’s hats to be a distraction. And it’s not their hats that I want to look at.”

He let that pass without comment.

“It’s no skin off my nose, anyways. I hadn’t planned on going.” I paused. “Unless of course, you were going to arrange another flower theft and I needed to be on-site to supervise.”

While Wolfe had ended up getting the orchid he was after, the Easter Parade Caper had not gone smoothly. Anybody not named Nero Wolfe would have been embarrassed with his actions. I hadn’t brought it up in years, but I knew he still didn’t like to hear about it.

“That’s enough, Archie.”

I decided to let it go at that. He hadn’t been any more annoying than normal today.

You might be wondering how I was doing on that hit and run cold case. Don’t bother – I hadn’t come up with a single angle. Purley Stebbins once told me the police never forget a hit and run. When Wolfe takes on a client, and especially when he takes a retainer, we both do everything we can to solve the case. And I’d done my best on it. I even kept at it on my own for two weeks after Wolfe quit. There just wasn’t anything to get a hold of. I didn’t put the file back in the basement, but I wasn’t very cheery about it.

Frustrated with myself, I sat down at the typewriter while Wolfe was upstairs in the plant rooms and started hammering out an account of a case we actually did solve. I looked at my notebooks for the Janet Slaney killing and decided to do some writing. Well, typing. At least I knew I could accomplish something. Yesterday’s suggestion that we decamp to Egypt might have been why this one came to mind, as you’ll see by the opening:

“Do you have another one of those chairs in the Egypt house?”

While it is no mean feat for me to rile Nero Wolfe, and he can routinely ignore my needling, it is quite rare for me to leave him speechless.

His seventh of a ton was comfortably settled into what I have long believed to be the one chair specifically designed to hold it. There are two other chairs in the house he can sit in without complaint; one in his bedroom and one downstairs in the basement. But only when he was planted behind the large desk in his office did he seem to be properly fitted to his seat.

Marking the page, he placed his current book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The War in South Africa; It’s Causes and Conduct, face down on the desk. You might think I’m not paying the proper respect to Sherlock Holmes’ creator by dropping the ‘Sir’, but this is America and there’s no room for knights here: Especially ones of dubious character.

He looked at me in puzzled silence. Surprised, his tongue reflexively called up one of his favorite phrases. “What flummery is this?”

I knew I had him hooked. “No sir, not flummery. I have always assumed that chair you currently have pinned to the floor is a one-of-a-kind Nero Wolfe special. There certainly aren’t any others here in the house, or anywhere else, since you rarely go out.”

I paused to make sure he wasn’t going to pick up his book again and tune me out. “But you might have another chair custom fit for you in that Egypt house you threaten to retire to every so often.”

“And what of it if I do?”

“Well, then, I’d have to quit. All this time, I have been your man Friday, and I would have been operating under a misassumption. The very foundation of our working relationship would have been a lie. Who knows what other sure things I might have been wrong about?”

He snorted. While physical activities are not among Wolfe’s strengths, he was a world class snorter.

“Sure, blow it off. But things can never be the same. I’ll find a hotel room for tonight and send for my things.”

“Archie!”

“Yes, sir?”

“Pfui. This is the only chair of its like anywhere in the world. And even if I did have another like it, your logic that you would have to leave my employ is not merely faulty. It is puerile. What is the purpose of this annoyance?”

I smiled. “You caught me. I just wanted to make sure I had your attention.”

“You are going to continue badgering me until you have made your point?”

“Certainly.”

He pressed a button under his desk, once long, once short, telling Fritz to bring him beer.

The look he gave me could frost one of the ten thousand orchids he kept in a greenhouse on the roof, but he knew I wouldn’t let him read in quiet until I’d had my say.

Not long after this exchange, Inspector Cramer led me from the brownstone in cuffs. It was quite a morning. You’ll learn all about it someday.

PRIOR NERO WOLFE POSTS

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes

Meet Nero Wolfe
The R-Rated Nero Wolfe
Radio & Screen Wolfe
A&E’s ‘A Nero Wolfe Mystery’
A Sidney Greenstreet Nero Wolfe Pastiche – ‘Stamped for Murder’ (The Greenstreet Chronicles)

Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone

3 Good Reasons – ‘Not Quite Dead Enough’
3 Good Reasons – ‘Murder is Corny’
The Mets in “Please Pass the Guilt”
The Careworn Cuff – Part One (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
The Careworn Cuff – Part Two (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
The Careworn Cuff – Part Three (The Greenstreet Chronicles)
3 Good Reasons – ‘Immune to Murder’
The Lost 1959 Pilot
2020 Stay At Home – Days One and Two
2020 Stay at Home – Days Three and Four
2020 Stay at Home – Days Five, Six, and Seven
2020 Stay at Home – Days Eight, Nine, and Ten


Bob_Houston_HatCroppedBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and again from August through December, 2019. 

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, VI and XXI.

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