So, last year, as the Pandemic settled in like an unwanted relative who just came for a week and is still tying up the bathroom, I did a series of posts for the FB Page of the Nero Wolfe fan club, The Wolfe Pack. I speculated on what Stay at Home would be like for Archie, living in the Brownstone with Nero Wolfe, Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Hortsmann. I have already re-posted days one through twenty-one. Here are days twenty-four (April 14) and twenty-five (April 15). It helps if you read the series in order, so I’ve included links to the earlier entries.
DAY TWENTY FOUR – 2020 Stay at Home
The doorbell rang. I’ve certainly typed that many times in my accounts of Nero Wolfe’s cases. But it was something that wasn’t happening much lately. Other than food deliveries for Fritz, visitors were few and far between. Wolfe didn’t even bother acknowledging it, knowing it wouldn’t be a potential, and certainly uninvited client. I moved out into the hall and heard Fritz in the kitchen, still cleaning up from lunch.
Looking through the one-way glass, I was surprised to see the not-quite-as familiar lately profile of the head of Homicide West, Inspector Cramer. He was calling something out to his driver and turned when he heard me open the door two inches, the chain still on.
“I’m sorry, sir. Wolfe & Goodwin Investigations is temporarily closed. Our esteemed governor does not feel that private detectives provide an essential service in these troubled times. May I suggest you visit your local precinct station? Of course, it is a step down in quality of service, but those dedicated public servants are open 24/7.”
“You’ll clown at your own funeral, Goodwin. The only good thing about this lockdown is I haven’t had to listen to you for three weeks. Open up. I want to talk to Wolfe.”
“Now hold on. We’ve kept this place virus free. Who knows where you’ve been? Let me see if I can let you in.”
“Cut the crap-” I’m sure the next word was ‘Goodwin,’ but it was muffled by the door, which I had closed on him.
I stopped at the doorway to the office. “It’s the man about the chair.” That was my favorite code name for the inspector.
He looked up from his book. “What?”
“Yes sir. It seems that the New York police force cannot function without your assistance. Since we’re not on a case, he can’t be coming here to yell at us, a pastime which he greatly enjoys, as you well know. I’d guess he’s really stuck on something, and wants you to bail him out.”
“That man can still be a nuisance.”
“Yes, sir, that he can be. I can bounce him. He’s probably carrying the plague.”
“Confound it, let him in.” he growled.
I was halfway to the front door when I stopped, returned to the office, and moved the red chair an appropriate distance from both of our desks. Then I went and opened the door wide. “Come in. I’ll let you hang up your own hat and coat, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, Goodwin. I wouldn’t want to give you cooties.”
That wasn’t fair, but I let it pass.
I let him walk into the office ahead of me, keeping six feet behind. He saw where I had put the red chair, walked over to it, sat down, then waited until I was seated at my desk. “What, no mask?” he said with a sour expression.
I hadn’t thought of that. I would put one on the table beside the chair next time we had a guest. That should be fun. “No, I think social distancing alone will work, Inspector.”
He turned away from me and said to Wolfe, “I don’t know you can be stuck inside with him all day, Wolfe.”
“As we just acknowledged Easter, I shall just note that we all have our crosses to bear. Would you like a beer?”
“No. Uh, no thank you. Not today.”
Cramer had to resist the natural urge to badger Wolfe. There was something about sitting in that red chair, looking at the two of us behind our desks, which worked him up. I’ll admit, not without cause much of the time. But he was here to be nice today, and he wasn’t wired that way. He had to bend his will.
“I take it that the current crisis has not obviated the desire of man to kill his fellow man?”
“Obviate, huh? If you mean am I still busy, yeah, I am. With everybody cooped up inside together, the precinct houses are responding to a lot of fights and assaults. But they’re still killing each other out there. Though not quite as often. Thank heaven for that, at least.”
“I see. Well, that’s one small thing to be thankful for.”
He took a cigar from a pocket, probably out of habit. He used it to help control his temper, and he couldn’t be mad at us already. Like I said, he had to fight himself to not fight us. He didn’t even begin rolling it between his palms.
“I don’t imagine much has changed for you.” He paused – that probably didn’t sound as friendly as he meant it. “That is, everybody healthy? Fritz okay?” He was so used to boiling over with us, he was clumsy with social niceties. He didn’t need them very often in this office.
“We have been spared so far. Mrs. Cramer is well, I trust?”
“She’s fine. Still thinks we should be allowed to go to church on Sunday.” He shook his head.
“In a sense, we are huddled inside our homes as the virus passes by us outside, as the Jews did during the night of Passover in ancient Egypt.” Wolfe did know the Bible. It even helped us in tag Conroy O’Malley as a murderer.
“Yeah” Cramer agreed without conviction. He looked tired, but much more so than normal. He worked long days, and I’m sure some of his men were out sick, increasing the workload.
“What brings you here today? Surely you haven’t come to accuse us of meddling in a murder investigation.”
“No, no. Not this time. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of folks are dying in group homes. The virus gets passed around like graft in Tammany Hall.”
I gave him points for the local historical reference.
“That is not surprising.” Wolfe was being amiable.
“No, it’s not. Dozens are dying that way every day. But there was one on Thursday that I got a call for, and something’s not sitting right.”
“But you were called. Something was amiss.”
“One of the nurses there said that there was something going on to a local cop, and he passed it on to us.
“You, or Mister Stebbins, went there?”
“I did. The nurse was a guy in his mid-thirties. A complainer, who didn’t get along with anybody.”
“He may just be stirring up trouble,” I interjected.
He began rolling the cigar. “Maybe. But there’s something I can’t put my finger on.”
Maybe Wolfe was bored. Or he was silently acknowledging it took effort on Cramer’s part to come ask for help. Especially when he faced the happy prospect of not having to see us for at least another month. So, he decided to lend a hand. Or at least, his mind. There was no legwork for me to perform, but I stuck in my two cents when I could.
Now, Fergus T. Cramer is no genius. He’s got a brain, but he gets places through hard work and persistence. I’ve never seen him give up. He even got removed from the Cheney Boone case because he refused to quit following one lead. A lead which turned out to be the key to the case. Wolfe had expressed his admiration at the time. The dunces that Cramer worked for had taken him off the case for following that lead. Real leadership there.
Now, he had spent parts of two days looking into the death of a seventy-five year old man, a Talbert Meeker.
Wolfe tried a couple different approaches, trying to get a wedge in. With the lack of information, it looked hopeless to me. Wolfe did seem a little too fixated on the patient’s respirator, from my viewpoint.
Cramer said that he had other things to work on, but he wasn’t giving up on this one. He thanked Wolfe for his time, which had been about 45 minutes.
I followed him partway to the door. He looked at me as he put his hat on. “I know there’s something there, Goodwin.”
I wished him luck and told him to give Purley my regards. I allowed the door to shut behind him, then went through the usual cleaning routine, from the front door to the office. We’re not taking unnecessary chances. Once I was back at my desk, I said, “Why do you think it was about the respirator?”
“I would send you out to look at that room if this were a paying case. But it’s not our affair. I have given Mister Cramer things to think about. And it was he who first mentioned the respirator. Perhaps he’ll hit upon some key.”
Okay. Just so that today’s notes aren’t entirely about Cramer, I’ll mention movie night. I explained to Fritz that Bogart made a lot movies where he wasn’t the star: he was just a supporting actor. And since he had quite a few of them early in his career, we needed to watch those, too. He agreed. Tonight was one of my favorites in that category.
Edward G. Robinson is a cop who goes deep undercover in Bullets or Ballots. Bogie is gangster Bugs Fenner, and he doesn’t trust the new guy. With Barton MacLane, Joan Blondell, and Ward Bond, it’s got a great cast. I love it. It’s not a big budget flick, like James Cagney and Bogart’s The Roaring Twenties, but it’s still a great watch. Fritz loved the scene where Cagney takes care of Bogart’s eavesdropping on him. And of course, there’s a big shootout at the end. I think this may be Bogart’s best gangster role – though he had quite a few of them. Fritz made popcorn. Nobody makes popcorn like he does. Have I mentioned that it’s a real treat, getting my fodder from Fritz, in this job?
DAY TWENTY FIVE – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)
Cramer called about that nursing home case. Turns out, one of the other patients had a long-standing grudge against the deceased. He snuck into the room in the middle of the night and took off the oxygen mask, and left. He snuck back in later, after the patient had died. But he put it back on wrong. They had taken pictures of the victim when they discovered he had died overnight. The nurse on duty swore the mask was on correctly before. One the police cleared him, Cramer got on the right path and they caught the guy.
I thanked him for the update and he hung up. Wolfe had been right, it was the respirator that was the key. I would have to decide if his ego needed bolstering, or to forget about it.
I made a phone call myself. I asked Sally Colt how she and Dol Bonner were making out. Sally is a female operative who I have worked with a few times over the years. And she works for Bonner, the city’s leading female detective. If I ever want to make Fritz sweat, I just tell him that Wolfe is thinking of inviting Dol over for dinner. Fritz is convinced she and Wolfe will get married, go into business together, and she’ll take over the brownstone. It would be funny, but he’s so scared, it’s actually pathetic.
Sally said that Dol had closed things down, but would revisit the situation in another month or so. She wanted her people to stay healthy, which I understood. Sally was staying home, lounging in her pajamas, reading mysteries and drinking cherry cokes. She was starting to get a little restless, but not too much. We were having a nice talk, and then she giggled. Oh well. She suggested we go to lunch when the world was back to normal, and I agreed.
While Thursday is usually our poker night, this entry is happening on a Wednesday. Because tonight, I tried our first online poker game. Lon, Saul, and Bob Goldsboro, from the Tribune, spent a little under two hours trying it out. You may wonder why I didn’t invite Fred. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t a card game he needed, like Lon did. He needed an escape from his house, and an online game wouldn’t help with that. In fact, just the opposite. Franny would not be pleased if Fred holed up in a room to ‘hang out’ with the guys for a couple hours, while she wrangled the kids and cooked and cleaned.
I picked one that included a window for each of the other players. It could get a little laggy with four of us, and it was tough to use it to try and read faces. Being a Grade A private eye, I like to think I have that skill. Partway through the session, we switched and just went with audio. The lag stopped and it flowed more smoothly.
The actual card playing part worked pretty well. And it was good to talk and joke with friends. We might try again next week. I’ll think about it. I’m still trying to adjust to what might be a ‘new normal.’ I’m still comparing to how things were. That’s going to be a process. By the way, Saul cleaned our clocks. Second place wasn’t even worth mentioning.
After we ended the game, I went to the kitchen for some milk and leftover muffins. Fritz was downstairs in his room for the evening. With the poker game, we agreed to skip movie night together. In honor of Jackie Robinson Day, I sat down in the front room and watched 42, the movie about him. I don’t know how he kept his temper those first two years. I would have been in a fight every day. A heck of a ballplayer and an amazing person. Even if he was a Dodger and retired rather than play for the Giants. We can’t all be perfect.
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 1 and 2
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 3 and 4
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 5, 6, and 7
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 8, 9, and 10
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 11, 12, and 13
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home Days 14 and 15
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home Days 16 and 17
Nero Wolfe’s Browsnstone: Stay at Home – Days 18 and 19
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 20 and 21
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 22 and 23
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: No Voting Day
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone
3 Good Reasons
The Greenstreet Chronicles (Pastiches based on the Radio Show)
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in 2019 and 2020. Bet on a 2021 sighting.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
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.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.