I’m back! What? Really? Well, I’m sure SOMEBODY noticed I took a four-month hiatus from my weekly column here at Black Gate. Anywhoo… Last year, I wrote a Nero Wolfe pastiche for The Wolfe Pack fan group. It’s THE place for fans of the corpulent detective. I took “By His Own Hand” – an Alphabet Hicks short story written by Rex Stout – made it a solo case for Archie Goodwin, and reworked it a bit. And… I added one of my favorite pulp ‘PIs’, W.T. Ballard’s Hollywood studio troubleshooter, Bill Lennox (whom I wrote about here at Black Gate). Below is that story, which takes place during Nero Wolfe’s own hiatus. As always, I do my best to emulate Stout’s writing style, and his characters. Writing as Archie is something I enjoy doing very much.
A Matter of Identity – Bob Byrne (based on a short story by Rex Stout)
I was sitting at my office desk, eating a sandwich from Mike’s Deli, which was only a couple blocks around the corner. Growing up, I hadn’t been crazy about fried bologna, but that place did it right — with a mustard even Wolfe would approve of. ‘Wolfe’ being Nero Wolfe, my former employer. It had been six months since Arnold Zeck forced him into decamping from the brownstone in the middle of the night. Never one to sit around — and I certainly wasn’t going to be Lily’s kept man — I hung out my shingle as an independent private investigator and took a small office on the tenth floor of a downtown high-rise. I didn’t have any need for a secretary. I could handle the paperwork, and I had plenty of experience paying bills and typing up reports. Maybe if business got too much to handle, I’d bring someone in part-time. But that didn’t look to be a problem just yet.
As my own boss, my level of work activity wasn’t dependent upon Wolfe’s mood. He had been invariably against taking on a case unless all but forced to. However, this also meant that I was responsible for drumming up my own trade. People did not beat a path to my door because I was widely known as a genius. Of course, there were people who knew me as ‘Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin’: a term I never agreed with. I am my own man, and no one else’s. But I had a good reputation, and some folks hired me because they’d heard about my work. I also took on some piece work from Del Bascom when I had the time and inclination.
I didn’t have anything going on at present, so I was enjoying my sandwich and reading in the Gazette about Adam Nicoll. If you don’t know who Nicoll is, I can’t imagine how that’s the case. He might as well change his name to Kelvin Kay, the most popular gumshoe in the United States. Of course, Kay is fictional, but Nicoll had made six or seven movies about him. Based on the box office receipts, both men and women enjoyed his performance. Or rather, they had, since he was now dead. And that’s what the Gazette, the Times, the Post, and every other paper in town was reporting on today. Hollywood stars dying in New York City was front page stuff.
I was halfway through my sandwich when the door opened. If I were some Black Mask writer, I would type something like, “The dame came through the door with legs that needed their own altitude warning.” Instead, I just said with a smile, “Lily, this is a pleasant surprise,” as I rose to my feet.
If you’ve read any of my accounts before, you know that Lily Rowan is a special friend who I spend a great deal of time with. Her father was an Irish immigrant who made a fortune building sewers and was part of the Tammany Hall crowd. She was rich, beautiful, and independent.
She came around the desk, let me give her a peck on the cheek, and then sat in the guest chair. It wasn’t quite Wolfe’s red chair. Or even one of the yellow ones. But it worked, and since I had paid for it, and I never sat in it, that’s all I needed from it. I try to keep my expectations simple. It keeps me from being disappointed too often.
“What brings you to lighten up my dingy workplace with your radiance, love?” I took a bite of my sandwich. It really was good.
She looked around. In addition to the desk and chairs, I had a couple of plain filing cabinets, a side table, and a cross between a sofa and a love seat. It had been affordable, whatever its identity crisis. A couple lamps added to the light coming in from the window, which looked down onto Madison Street, in the forties. Like the chair, the place was functional, and I could afford the rent. And the elevator worked, which was a convenience most of my clients wanted. They weren’t as used to taking stairs as I was.
“Ever the charmer, aren’t you Escamillo?”
That was the first name Lily ever called me, just after a bull had run me out of a pasture in upstate New York. It had stuck. If you’re not familiar with that name, you should go to the opera more. But don’t bother inviting me along.
“But since you asked, I’m here to talk about Adam Nicoll.”
I raised an eyebrow, but continued chewing. A gentleman doesn’t talk to a lady with his mouth full. I admit that wasn’t what I had expected her to say, though.
“We haven’t talked about it yet, but I had dinner with him Tuesday evening. “
That got her the other eyebrow. It was now Thursday, which meant she had been spending time with him not long before he died. “Had I been displaced in your affections? Will the police be coming to me as a suspect: the jealous ex?”
She rolled her eyes, which she did attractively. “You’ve found me out. I was going back to California with him, where he would divorce his wife and spoil me for the rest of my life.” She paused and eyed me. “I guess it’s back to Plan B.”
“That’s me. Good old Plan B.”
She winked at me. She had a good wink. “Tuesday night, Paul Griffin hosted a dinner party at his apartment in an old mansion on Central Park West. You might have heard he’s trying to put Kelvin Kay on Broadway.”
I took another bite and nodded. I had indeed heard about that.
“Well, he got Barry Maddox, who’s had some successes, to produce. And Amy Quong, from the movies and television show, is coming east to play Cricket on stage.”
I gave Lily points for using the full word. Wolfe hadn’t allowed me to say ‘TV’ in his house. Not that he could stop me from doing it now.
“Well, they cast Ernest Levitan as Kay.”
I swallowed. “Hoo boy. How did Adam Nicoll take that?”
She laughed. “Not well. That’s why he’s in town. He and his wife flew in to put a stop to the whole production.”
I actually put down the sandwich this time. This was getting interesting. “You don’t say. And suddenly, he’s dead.”
She nodded. “Griffin had all the important parties, including Nicoll’s wife Cynthia – who, by the way, is a lush – to dinner at his place. I think he was trying to keep things peaceable. I had backed one of his plays, ‘The Red Wall,’ which Maddox had consulted on. I think he wanted me there in part to hit me up for a few dollars, but also in the hope that my presence would encourage the others to behave.”
I picked up the last bit of my sandwich. “And how did that work out?” I took the final bite.
She shivered. “You can imagine the size of the egos involved. My presence was certainly not any kind of deterrent to anybody. There was an air of strained civility for a few minutes after I arrived, but it didn’t last.”
I finished off my soda. Lack of access to Fritz’s kitchen was one major drawback to not working out of the brownstone. I drank less coffee during my days. And the stuff I got from nearby places wasn’t nearly up to Fritz’s quality. But we all make do in trying times. And I’ve certainly had worse sandwiches while out on a case.
“As you can imagine, Adam Nicoll is not happy someone else will be donning his fedora. One that he wears very well,” she added with a wry smile.
“’Wore,’ my pet, not ‘wears.’” She got my own sardonic grin in return.
“Don’t be petty, Archie. The man is dead.”
I just nodded in agreement and waited for her to continue.
“He made it very clear that he would be perfectly happy to play Kay on stage, but his movie and television commitments as the face of Kelvin Kay simply made that impossible. And he said, not very nicely, that Levitan wanted the part because he wants to take the character over entirely from him.”
She twirled her fingers; it’s a cute gesture. “Levitan told him that wasn’t his intent at all. But perhaps that would be for the best, as it was a terrific role and people were saying that Nicoll was lousing it up and would ruin it for good in another year.”
“They had the knives out, eh?”
“You’d call it a cat fight if they were women, Archie. Nicoll responded by kindly sharing his thoughts on Levinton’s acting ability.”
“Not a fan, eh?”
She asked if I had anything to drink. I had thought about a water dispenser, but hadn’t felt the need for one, since it was just me here. I shook my head, but said I’d take her out for something after we finished our conversation.
She sighed. Not like Wolfe sighed. When he did it, he was conveying a cosmic unfairness in whatever he was being asked to do. Such as field a suggestion from Fritz on an alternate seasoning for a dish, or use his brain for work purposes. Or, heaven forbid, admit an unwanted female into the office. And to Wolfe, every female was unwanted. Though he admitted a certain fondness for Lily. She didn’t fit his image of women. Meaning, they couldn’t really control their emotions and just experienced brief periods of quiet between hysterical outbursts. When he went on about their pretensions to fill roles above their station, I liked to bring up Jane Austen, who he considered a great writer. It made him grumpy, but usually ended the conversation.
“Apparently, at some prior point, and not necessarily that evening, Nicoll had stated that if Maddox went forward with Levitan, he (Nicoll) would get an injunction and file suit against the producer. He claimed a ‘proprietary right in common law,’ according to his lawyer’s take on it”
“Amy Quong, who is some kind of a delicate little flower, said that she loved all of them, and she was sure that Adam wasn’t mad at her for wanting to perform on Broadway with Levitan, and she was sure that he wouldn’t do those nasty things he was threatening.”
Lily all but rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to be joining the Amy Quong fan club. From what I’d seen of her on screen, I wouldn’t mind if it included a meet and greet. She continued.
“I don’t know what a ‘proprietary right in common law’ is, but I wouldn’t bet a dollar against his doing whatever he could to stop that play. Whether he had a chance to win in court or not.”
I agreed. “Did Mrs. Nicoll have anything to say?”
“She was already two sheets to the wind and working on the third one. I’ve heard she hates it out in Hollywood and wants to move back here.”
I saw the sudden glint in her eye. “What is it you are suddenly dying to tell me? I know that look.”
“You know who she was married to before Nicoll?”
“No, but I do know that you’re gleefully going to tell me.”
“Yes I am.” She paused. “Barry Maddox.”
I admit, my mouth probably dropped open, and she laughed at me. “What a mess.”
“It certainly is.”
“Does he want her back?” I asked.
“Does she want him back?”
“Don’t know, but I doubt it. I do know that she’s urging her husband to push for the part so that they can move back here for the run. His conflicting schedule doesn’t interest her.”
“I’m guessing that Maddox isn’t backing down.”
“Oh, not at all. He’s got a script he likes, a lead he wants, a full cast hired, and a theater rented. He told Nicoll to go choke himself.”
“Certainly seems like a delightful dinner party. What did they serve?”
“Roast beef. It was passable. Want to hear what the host added to the conversation?”
I leaned forward, eyes widening in exaggeration. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“I bet.” She looked around as if hoping that a drink had magically appeared, then resumed. “He said that he would be perfectly happy with Nicoll doing the play – though Maddox jumped in to make it clear he didn’t feel the same. But if Nicoll had other obligations, that was that. He was sure that a successful play would just make the movies, and TV show, and books, even more popular.”
I grunted. “That sounds about as likely to go over with Nicoll as me getting Fritz to boil hot dogs for lunch.”
She grinned. “That’s about right. Paul Griffin offered to pay Nicoll the same salary that Levitan was earning for the run of the play.”
I raised my eyebrows. That was a rather generous offer; even if it was to hold off legal action. I told her so.
“I agree. And there’s more. He also told Maddox that he would pay for any legal expenses, and damages, which he might suffer, if Nicoll did take action.”
I sat back. “Boy. Griffin must really want this play. From what I’ve seen, the book sales are still strong. And they will probably go up with the movie coming out next year. It’s not like Kelvin Kay is a dying franchise.”
She rose to her feet. “Nothing was decided that I could tell. They stopped talking about Kay during dessert – which was a bland tart – and some other topics were actually of interest. I didn’t stick around too long after we were done eating. I was sure the sniping would start again. And Griffin seemed too preoccupied with everything to make his pitch. I called a cab and left them to sort things out.”
I rose too, asking “Know who killed him?” as I followed her out and locked the door behind us.
“I’m not the detective. You figure it out.”
As we went down the hallway to the elevator, I was wondering if anything she told me pointed a finger at Adam Nicoll’s killer. Since I didn’t have a client, my interest was just an occupational hazard.
I stayed late that night, working on the books and pondering an offer that had come in from Bascom. I looked down on Madison Street, a flowing river of car headlights amid the street lamps. As I was leaving, the phone rang. “Archie Goodwin. It’s your dime.” I had to come up with something that felt like me, after all those years of answering Wolfe’s phone, “Nero Wolfe’s Office. Archie Goodwin speaking.”
It was Paul Griffin. He wanted to hire me to find out who killed Adam Nicoll. He and the other dinner guests had spent the entire day being grilled by the police, as well as by the district attorney’s office. A big movie star from out of town, being killed here, was a publicity black eye. I told Griffin that I didn’t take jobs over the phone, and I could come see him in the morning. He said, “No, no. I’ll come to you.” Since he had called here, I assumed he knew I wasn’t working out of the Brownstone, but I gave him the address to be sure. I offered again to visit him, but he said that he wanted to get away from his place in case the police decided to drag him in again. We agreed on 9:00.
I found that my habit of eight hours sleep, getting cleaned up, and eating breakfast, delayed the start of my work day when I still had to drive to the office, rather than just walk down the hall from the kitchen to my desk. I rarely started the work day before 9:30, but Griffin had seemed antsy. Tired, but antsy. I’d get going early for him. Plus, I was a little bored.
Back at the brownstone, Fritz had left sausage rolls, baked with his home-made pastry, in the warmer for me. I ate them with a cheese sauce which he could sell commercially.
Some day, I’d have to move out, and I would certainly miss his cooking. I propped open the evening papers and read them at my breakfast table in the kitchen. No surprise that Adam Nicoll was the main attraction.
He had been poisoned. No one else had gotten sick at the dinner, but it was too convenient a gathering of people who had problems with Nicoll, to simply toss aside. I’m sure the police searched the kitchen and the trash at Griffin’s place with a fine tooth comb. They hadn’t identified the source of the poison, but it certainly made murder likely. There wasn’t much else new. A couple of the seedier sheets played up the war over Kelvin Kay, implying that the play could go ahead with Leviton now, with no problems for anyone involved. They stayed short of libel, of course.
I went into the basement and chinned with Fritz for a few minutes. He was tired from his day at Rusterman’s, which is where he was working, since Master of Haute Cuisine to Nero Wolfe was no longer a viable job. I thanked him for the supper and went upstairs. Looking in on the office out of habit, I went up to my room and got into bed. But I lay there for awhile, thinking about the Kelvin Kay affair.
I got in a little early the next morning. I wanted to be ready for Paul Griffin’s visit. I didn’t like to be rushed when I didn’t have to be. And since Nero Wolfe was no longer making immediate, and nearly impossible, demands, I could prepare myself on my own schedule.
So I was surprised when a few minutes after 9:00 the next morning, the door opened. I looked up from my paper and rose, but I was pretty sure the man walking in wasn’t Paul Griffin. He was as tall as me, and stockier in the shoulders, though not at all fat. I suppose he was handsome, but you could tell by the face he had been in his share of fights. On the phone yesterday, Griffin hadn’t sounded at all like this guy looked.
“You Archie Goodwin?”
“That’s what is says on the door. Can I help you?”
He gave a half-grin, took off his hat, and sank into the visitor chair. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
To be fair, he looked tired, but that didn’t excuse the attitude. “Since you know my name, how about yours?”
His smile grew a bit more genuine and he handed me a card: ‘Bill Lennox, Consolidated Pictures.’ There was no title.
I knew that Consolidated made the Kelvin Kay pictures. “You’re a long way from home, Mister Lennox.”
I got an actual smile this time. He waved the hat at me. “You can drop the Mister. And yeah, I am. Sorry if I seem rude. I had to wrap something up yesterday evening and caught a red-eye out here from the coast. I’ve had more sleep before.”
I decided to give him that one. “Fair enough. But I have an appointment-”
“With Paul Griffin. I know. I’m here in his place.”
I looked skeptical.
“You probably know that Adam Nicoll was a big star at Consolidated. The studio was getting ready to make another Kelvin Kay movie. Those things are gold.”
“I had heard something along those lines.”
“Sure you did. Nicoll was typecast as Kay, and he wasn’t an opener in any other roles, but Consolidated could count on a good bottom line from a Kay movie.”
“And you’re here…?”
“To make sure the studio doesn’t end up with too much damage. Consolidated is already down some drawing power with Nicoll gone. Bad publicity would just make things worse.”
Ncioll’s death was a big money issue for Consolidated. Lennox must be a troubleshooter, sent to mnimize the damage. “I see. Like, say, if Paul Griffin killed him, and the Kelvin Kay franchise was suddenly not worth much of anything anymore.”
“You’re a bright guy. I think we could get along.” He yawned. “I talked with Griffin when I got in, and he told me about this meeting. So I took it for him. Do you know who Sol Spurck is?”
Spurck wasn’t the President of the Board at Consolidated, but he may well have had the most power there. “I’ve heard of him.”
“I’m here on his behalf. So, Griffin is probably going to listen to any suggestions I make. Spurck would like it if the studio continued to make Kelvin Kay movies.”
I thought it over. He didn’t seem to be a guy bluffing his way through a conversation. “Okay. What do you want from me?”
“You seem like an okay guy, Goodwin. I was a crime reporter in Chicago before I went out West. I know the real thing when I see it. You’re not a phony, like so many people in the movie racket. I’m not going to get in the way of justice. I just want to try and keep Consolidated in a good light. I’ll do what I can to help you in your job for Griffin. I just ask that you help me do mine, as long as it doesn’t cause you problems.” He leaned forward and stuck out his hand.
I liked him. I shook his hand. “All right. We’ll see how that works.”
He stood up. “I’ll have Griffin call you and set up another time to come meet you. He and the others at that dinner party all got grilled pretty good by the police.” He paused. “So, Lily Rowan is your girlfriend.” He must not have liked the look on my face, for he put his hands up, palms out. “Hey, easy, tiger. I just brought it up because that’s how Griffin told me he decided to call you for help. She was at that dinner where they were all busy throwing words at each other.”
I was still annoyed. “Miss Rowan and I spend time together, yes.”
He was grinning. “Fair enough. Your business is your business. To the extent it doesn’t interact with mine.” The grin slipped just a little. “I’m not your enemy. Expect a call from Griffin shortly. Can I reach you here?”
I thought about it. I had sprung for a service to get my calls when I was out. I didn’t have a Fritz to answer for me. “Sure.” I gave him the number, and he said he already had it from Griffin. We said goodbye. He stopped at the door and turned back. “When I find the time, I’m a writer too. Curse of the journalist. I’ll have to look up a couple of your cases to read on the flight back.” He grinned one last time and closed the door behind him.
I sat back down, swiveled my chair and looked out the window at the building across the street. Consolidated Studios had lost their Kelvin Kay. Publicity would be a major issue. What if his wife killed him? The tattle sheets on the west coast would love the lurid headlines. Or what if it was Griffin? No more Kelvin Kay books. And movies. Amy Quong was under contract to them. She wouldn’t be a favored son – make that daughter – for the killing.
But their bad publicity wasn’t my problem – except to the extent that Bill Lennox got in my way trying to minimize it. I’d have to keep an eye on him when he was in my line of sight. But my job, if I took it, was going to be to find out who killed Adam Nicoll.
I decided to pass on that Bascom offer, for now. I could go back to it if the Griffin thing didn’t work out. I spent five fruitless minutes wondering what Wolfe was doing right now. I needed a new pair of socks, so I went out to buy some, and grabbed a meal at a lunch counter. And then I went to visit Peter Griffin. No use waiting around for him to call me. If he hadn’t been hauled downtown again, he could become a client. Or not. Lennox might be there, but I wasn’t about to start changing my plans on his account.
Someone had converted one of those old rock piles in a desirable location into apartments. Griffin answered his door himself, looking harassed. When I saw who was standing behind him, I understood why.
“Goodwin. Don’t I ever get a break from you?”
“Purley. What a pleasant surprise. Now we can have tea.”
Griffin appeared perplexed. I nodded politely to him and asked if I could come in.
Purley Stebbins is the right-hand man to Inspector Cramer at Homicide. He’s as honest as a cop can get, which is probably why he’s never risen above Sergeant. And he works hard at his job, every day. He also would like to see all private detectives, including yours truly, dumped in the harbor. He’s never happy to see me show up in one of his cases.
Griffin moved backwards, bouncing off of Stebbins, who probably didn’t even notice. He was solid. Griffin turned around and Purley realized he was being rude. He stepped aside and Griffin led the two of us into a large living room, which was as cluttered with chairs, tables, statues on pedestals, couches, and cabinets, as any room I had ever seen. There was even a musnud, which was an Indian chair with cushions. There is no end to the things I know about because I spent so much time around Nero Wolfe.
I navigated my way to an empty chair and sat, thankful I had avoided breaking anything on the way. Stebbins still looked constipated.
“Your fat boss isn’t back, is he, Goodwin?”
I gave him the look that deserved. “You can tell Inspector Cramer he’s still going to have to solve his cases on his own; if he can. I have no idea where Mister Wolfe is, and when, or even if, he’s coming back.”
I’m not certain he fully believed me. Which is about the same as saying that Wolfe preferred not to take the stairs. “Then what are you doing here?”
I got up and handed him one of my cards, then sat again. “I thought about applying for the police academy, since I needed a job. But I just don’t like the lines of the uniforms. I don’t think they would flatter me. So I set up shop for myself.”
He looked at the card and made a face, then back to me. “I suppose at least now I only gotta deal with you, and not Wolfe. So, that’s an improvement. But why couldn’t you become a street sweeper or somethin’?
“Tut, tut, my good man. The New York City Police Department has already lost the assistance of Nero Wolfe. Do you really think it could continue to function without me as well?”
He growled at me. I mean it. It was a growl. “What are you doing here anyways, Goodwin?”
I smiled graciously. “Mister Griffin wished to engage my services to help get to the bottom of this unfortunate Nicoll matter.”
I hadn’t seen a sour expression like that since before Wolfe had disappeared. “Is that right, Mister Griffin?”
I don’t think our host was enjoying this double visit. “Why, yes. Yes, it is. I’m cooperating fully with you folks, but I want to hire Mister Goodwin to investigate, as well.”
Stebbins had apparently had enough of this visit. He looked at me and said, “Nuts. You’re still in my hair.”
Which technically speaking, wasn’t true. He didn’t really have any hair. He turned back to Griffin. “I’ll be back if we need you more. Don’t go anywhere.” Griffin got up and escorted Stebbins out. I examined the room’s overflowing contents while I waited. There were huge portraits of Kelvin Kay, and Cricket, on easels against one wall. Griffin could create some space if he would hang them up. But I don’t think feng shui was a big concern here.
I won’t bore you with a word-by-word report of our talk. The police had questioned the dinner guests in detail. Soon the papers would have it that Nicoll had been poisoned by a vitamin capsule, which had been tampered with. He took one of the pills every morning, and one every evening. It had been something of a joke at the dinner. In fact, the bottle had been passed around, and even left on a table during the party.
According to the police, someone had injected cyanide into a capsule, then placed it in the bottle with the other vitamins. Of course, there was no proof exactly when this was done. But the attendees were certainly prime suspects.
All of them had gotten together and appointed Griffin, who knew Lily best, to ask me to look into Nicoll’s death and try to clear them. They would jointly pay the fee. One thing I did find out was that the vitamin bottle was a new one, and hadn’t been opened before it was used at the dinner. So, it was less likely that somebody had put the fake capsule inside beforehand. If it happened at the plant, there wasn’t much I could do about that.
I told Griffin that I wanted to see everybody who was at the dinner. There at his place, tonight at 8. I felt like Nero Wolfe, who had given me similar orders over the years. He started to protest, but I stopped him. “Look. You want me to get this thing solved, which will get the cops off of your back. And everyone else’s, too. And you can move on with your play. It’s bound to be a hit with this kind of publicity. The public are ghouls.”
The thought of the police leaving him alone was probably foremost in his mind. He relaxed, sitting back in his chair. I got his assurance he would do his best, which I encouraged him to excel at. I wanted all of them there. I used his phone to call a cab and went back to the brownstone. Fritz would be at Rusterman’s, and I wanted to sit at my old desk. As I rode in the back of the taxi, I was pretty sure I knew who had killed Adam Nicoll, and why. I just hadn’t entirely worked out how. Sometimes I wished I was a genius like Nero Wolfe.
The gang was all there when I arrived, having fed myself from what was available in the brownstone’s kitchen. I thought about getting there early, and staging one of those ‘parties’ that Cramer always accused Wolfe of, but that’s not my style. I wasn’t particularly surprised when Bill Lennox answered the door. He had called me earlier, wanting to know what I planned on revealing. I put him off, telling him he would find out when everybody else did. He didn’t like that, and tried different angles, hoping to see what direction things were going. “Look. Consolidated doesn’t reveal who the killer is in the second reel. Kelvin Kay solves the case in the big finale.” I gave him nothing, and he finally gave up.
I had told Griffin that I wanted to talk to the group around his big dinner table. If they were spread all over the wilds of his great room, I wouldn’t be able to see even half of them at the same time. I hadn’t limbered up my neck enough for the gymnastics that would be needed. Fortunately, he had listened to me, and I joined them at the table. Lennox had apparently delegated himself the seat of honor on my right. Presumably to keep a close watch on me; and on his interests.
“Oh look, it’s the dee-tective.” Cynthia Nicoll had clearly started imbibing well before I got there. “Figure out who killed my husband?”
“Be quiet, Cynthia. Crawl back into your bottle,” from her ex-husband. That must have been quite a marriage.
“Oh, pooh, Barry. Now you can put on your biiiiig show.” She turned a contemptuous glare on Amy Quong. “And you can play your precious Cricket on Broadway now, darling.”
Amy smiled at her nicely, but said nothing.
Griffin cleared his throat. I took it as a sign that I should take charge of the proceedings. I’m not sure what he was afraid of. Worrying that Cynthia Nicoll would fall out of her chair seemed a reasonable bet, though, so I obliged.
“Thank you all for coming tonight. I know you’ve been asked a lot of questions by the police.”
“And the DA’s office.” That was Ernest Leviton, who said those four words very theatrically. I suspect he said most things that way.
“Yes, and the DA folks as well. Certainly.” I continued. “I think I can put an end to that, here tonight. They will leave you alone after.”
Amy Quong chirped, “Oh, that would be wonderful!” She was a very positive person.
Lennox knew what I meant, and he played along. “And how do you propose to do that, Goodwin?”
“”I’m glad you asked me that, Bill. May I call you Bill? I’m going to expose the murderer.”
There was a collection of gasps and exclamations. Lennox was looking at faces. I was too.
Griffin said, “You know who killed Adam?”
“”I think so.”
He looked tired. “Then the police will go away. Who did it?”
“Well, let’s look at motives.” I leaned in to look past Lennox at Barry Maddox. “You certainly are a winner with Nicoll dead.”
He barked out a short laugh. “Come now. All that bluster about proprietary ownership of a fictional character. He would have been laughed out of court.”
I nodded agreeably. “Maybe so. But he could have probably delayed the start of the play. And who knows how long he could have stalled things?”
“Nicoll was a blowhard who thought he could get anything he wanted because he was a big Hollywood star. In one role, anyways. He wasn’t going to stop this production.”
“He got me, darling Barry.”
“Which I’m sure he regretted to his very recent dying day.”
I cut in. Those two could go at it all day. Well, until she passed out, anyways. Might not be such a long exchange at that. “You certainly can’t be too sad that Adam Nicoll is dead.” That was for Ernest Levitan, who was on the other side of Maddox.
“The real winner was Kelvin Kay. Adam Nicoll was killing him. A few more of those dreadful movies and Kay would soon be as irrelevant as Philo Vance. Kay’s fans are the winners.”
I wasn’t much of a Vance fan, but to be fair, there hadn’t been any new novels because S. S. Van Dine had died.
I’d never heard anybody not on a stage or a screen say ‘dreadful’ the way he did. The guy dripped pretensiousness. I didn’t need to hear any more of him for now. I turned to Lennox. “With Nicoll dead, if Mister Levitan here is a success on Broadway, he’d certainly be a strong candidate to take over the role in movies and the television show, wouldn’t he?”
Lennox started at me without expression, then grinned. “Consolidated will certainly work with Mister Griffin, and pursue all possible avenues related to continuing the Kelvin Kay brand.”
I grinned right back at him. “Good answer, Bill.”
“A big problem for you two went away with Nicoll’s death.” I looked across from Levitan to Amy Quong. “And I understand that Nicoll wasn’t happy you were going to do the play.”’
She looked at me sadly. “He didn’t really mean it. Adam and I got along famously.” I thought that Cynthia Nicoll might make a rude noise, but she didn’t seem to be paying attention to the conversation. “He wasn’t going to stay mad at me. We would have made a wonderful film in the Fall.”
I wondered what it would take to make something not be wonderful for her. Life was always just a wonderful thing.
I moved on to Cynthia Nicoll. Her look made it clear she wasn’t a fan of mine. “Well? I’m waiting. Go ahead, Sherlock.”
I changed directions. Not that it was a difficult thing to do with her. She was still drinking. “You don’t like Hollywood, do you?|
“Huh?” I tried not to be dazzled by her eloquence.
“You didn’t like it out on the West Coast. You wanted your husband to come back and play Kelvin Kay on stage.”
“Ha!” That was Levitan. I ignored him.
She tried to think her way through the alcohol. “Sure. So you think I killed him? He sure as hell wasn’t gonna get the part then.” She snorted.
“No. But if he were dead, you could come back here permanently.”
“And do what? Sit around and play the sorry widow? No thank you. Try again, buster.”
“If it hadn’t been an unopened bottle, which several of you testified to, you could have put a poisoned capsule in while you were still in California. Then he takes it here in New York, randomly one day, and you’re no more suspect than anyone else..”
She took a drink. “Sure, gumshoe. But it was an unopened bottle. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Talking with her wasn’t a productive use of words. Probably not just at this moment, either.
I looked at Lennox with a ‘You’re not going to like this” expression.’ He didn’t seem particularly surprised. I turned to Peter Griffin.
“I hope you didn’t save the best for last, Mister Goodwin.”
“Nero Wolfe liked to say that he never took on a murderer for a client. Though we could quibble over that point. But it seems I won’t be able to make that same claim.”
He stared at me without responding.
“Lily Rowan filled me in on doings at your dinner gathering with Adam Nicoll. It was far from a cordial affair.”
“Given the circumstances, I hardly expected that it would be. I was just hoping to settle Adam down some.”
I nodded in agreement. “Sure. You were trying to hold together the Kelvin Kay empire. Kay was your creation, but millions of fans identified him with Adam Nicoll. Not you. That must have stung.”
Nicoll glared at me for just the briefest of an instant. “Adam’s movies, and the television show, boosted book sales. And my contracts for them were quite satisfactory. I had no kick.”
“Yeah, the money was certainly good. And you had the play coming, if you could get around Nicoll.”
I surveyed the table, stopping at Maddox. “Mister Maddox, I understand that Paul Griffin offered to pay for any legal expenses you might incur if Adam Nicoll took action to stop the production.”
He looked at Griffin, then me. “Yes, he did. He knows we’re going to be a smash on Broadway and wanted to make sure I didn’t let Adams’ bluster scare me off.” He snorted. “He was full of hot air. We were going ahead with the play, Adam Nicoll be damned!”
I eyed Griffin. “And in that same conversation, you told Nicoll that you would pay him what you were paying Levitan for the run of the production.”
He frowned at me now. “I was trying to placate Adam. I thought maybe if I could make it worth his while financially, he’d quit trying to stop the play.” There was a flash of contempt in his eyes.
“It must have really gotten your goat that you had to bribe Nicoll to let you do a play with your own creation.”
He didn’t say a word. I’d set him up with the off-speed stuff, but it was time to rear back and close it out with the heat.
“I hardly see how you could make both of those commitments. You’d be wrecked financially. Unless…you knew you wouldn’t have to deliver on either of them.”
“You think I’ve got a crystal ball or something?”
“No, I don’t. I do think you were certain that Adam Nicoll was going to be dead. You could promise the moon and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
He sat up straight and laughed. I’ve heard more convincing ones. “So you’re saying I killed him?”
Amy Quong let out a gasp. I think it was just for effect.
“Partly, yes. But you might not have had a clear opportunity to put the poisoned capsule in the bottle. But you could give it to someone else who would have no trouble doing so.”
I looked at Cynthia Nicoll, and then everyone else did as well. “In fact, I think the widow Nicoll came to you, looking for a way to dispose of her husband, who was not making her life the dream she had pictured when she threw over Mister Maddox for him.”
“Hey!” Maddox didn’t like that.
“Sorry. Statement withdrawn, your honor.”
“And you two cooked up the idea for the poisoned capsule together. She told you to fix one up – or maybe more – and she’d put it in the bottle when he wasn’t around. Safe and easy. He might not even pick the lucky one until after he was back in California.”
I saw that Lennox was watching Griffin with a look of understanding. He was a bright guy. I wouldn’t mind seeing him work some time.
Apparently my words got through the alcohol barrier she had erected. “Now wait a minute, Sherlock. I didn’t go to Peter. He came to me. It was his idea to kill Adam, and the whole capsule thing.”
“Shut up, you drunken fool!” Griffin wasn’t calm any longer.
“Don’t tell me to ‘shut up,’ you louse! They’re not hanging all of this on me.”
“I said shut up.” He got out of his seat and started towards her, but Lennox was there and wrapped him up.
“It really steamed you that people thought of Nicoll, not you, when they thought of Kelvin Kay. And on top of that, he was trying to stop you from going forward without him on Broadway. You might as well just have been a well-paid typist, as far as control of Kay went.”
There was no fire in Griffin’s eyes. He just slumped in Lennox’s grasp.
I arose and said, “I’ll call Homicide. Looks like your Kelvin Kay movies are done, Bill. Sorry about that.”
He grinned. “Griffin wouldn’t have been my first choice. But we’ll figure something out. We always do.”
I shook my head as I picked up the phone and dialed a number I knew well. Hollywood. What a racket.
“Hello, is Sergeant Stebbins around?”
(This story originally appeared in the Fall – 2020 issue of The Wolfe Pack Gazette)
Stay at Home
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: Stay at Home – Days 24 and 25
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 26
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 27
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 28 and 29
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 30
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 31
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 32 and 33
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 will be back yet again in 2022.
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 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 organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series.
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.