So, in 2020, 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 Horstmann. I have already re-posted days one through thirty-nine. Here are days forty-two (May 2) and forty-three (May 3). It helps if you read the series in order, so I’ve included links to the earlier entries.
Day Forty Two – 2020 Stay at Home
Lewis Hewitt called early this morning, which was a surprise. He was more prone to call after lunch or in the evening. Wolfe would say that he was excitable. But that didn’t really matter, because my employer was upstairs in the plant room; spending money, not earning it. I had only just entered the office after breakfast in the kitchen with Fritz, when the phone rang. “Nero Wolfe’s Office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Archie, this is Lewis Hewitt. I must speak with Wolfe.” Now, normally, he would say ‘Mister Wolfe’ in this situation. And his voice would be a lot calmer than it sounded.
“Being the orchid fancier that you are, you know that he’s in the plant rooms upstairs from nine until eleven, every day but Sunday. And Sunday it ain’t.”
“Yes, yes, I know, Archie. But I need his help. He needs to come out here to my house.”
I laughed. I know, that wasn’t polite. But his demand required one. “Really now. Unless you had a new strain to show him, or even give to him, summoning him out to your place, even though it’s only Manhattan, isn’t likely. Now, with this Pandemic – have you got all your wires connected today?”
He sighed. “Yes, yes, of course, he’s even less likely to go out now. Drat.” He paused. “What about you? Will you come here?”
Me? “What do you need me for? I can tell a Cattelya from an Oncidium, of course, but I’m no Wolfe.”
“What in the world are you talking about, man? What have flowers got to do with this?”
I shook my head. “Look. You called me. Not the other way around. What are we talking about? Or not talking about.”
“Oh. I haven’t told you, have I? There’s been a murder.” That word always got my attention and made me sit up a little straighter.
“Suppose you tell me what happened, in some kind of order?” Hewitt was a smart guy, but he could get flustered, like he did at that flower show at the Grand Central Palace. “Take a deep breath, and go.”
“Yes, yes. Terrible thing. There’s a small house on the edge of my property. A retired professor lives there. He owns the house. It’s an odd inclusion in the deed, but it’s not relevant. He’s a quiet fellow, mostly keeps to himself. Has guests occasionally. Bit absent-minded, but harmless. Well…he was, anyways.”
“So, he’s dead?”
“Yes. His name is…err, was, George Noble.”
“Mrs. Nilsson is his housekeeper. She came to the house this morning and found him dead in his study. She called the police, of course. They notified me. You’ve got to come out here and help. The newspapers will love a big story about a murder at my mansion!”
Being cooped up with Wolfe for over a month was starting to get on my nerves. Going out to a murder scene would certainly be more interesting than staying around here. Normally, I would call Wolfe up in the plant rooms to clear it with him. But there wasn’t any work for me to do here. And he might say no, just to be…himself.
“All right, I’ll leave now. You can fill me in when I get there. Don’t say anything to anybody.”
“But I don’t know anything.”
“All the more reason for you not to talk to anyone. I’ll be at your door before you know it.”
I wrote a short note to Wolfe, explaining that Hewitt needed my help on something. I added that I would bring back the orchids he had tried to make me go get. That should take some of the edge off of his anger. This was definitely an instance where it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Adjusting my shoulder holster and a gun, I stopped in the kitchen to let Fritz know that I would likely
be gone for quite a while and not to worry about dinner for me.
He rolled his eyes and shooed me away.
That’s all for today. I need to hit the sack. I will tell you that Hewitt definitely didn’t have all the facts, as I found out when I got to Long Island.
Day Forty Three – 2020 Stay at Home
I made a quick call to Saul Panzer, the one guy in the world I would trust to have my back; and trust to keep it intact. “You want to go check out a murder at Lewis Hewitt’s place?”
I went to the garage and got Wolfe’s Heron. Parking at Hewitt’s mansion wouldn’t be a problem, and I didn’t have a client to charge a cab ride to. I picked up Saul, and to say traffic was light would be an understatement. We got there in no time at all. Mask in place, gloves on, I rang the doorbell and Hewitt answered it himself.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Archie. The police say it’s suicide.”
I stepped inside and he shut the door behind me. “So, not murder? Suicide?”
“Well, that’s what the inspector said. But Mrs. Nilsson called and said the doctor doesn’t think it could be one . It’s all a mess.” He was actually wringing his hands.
“All right, all right. Settle down. Why don’t we drive to this Noble’s house and see what’s what?”
His face clearly relieved, he said, “Certainly. I was hoping you’d want to go there. I’ll drive.”
The thought of an overly excited Lewis Hewitt driving me to the scene of a dead body did not appeal.
“I’ll drive. You guide.”
Loaded into the Heron, the three of us headed back out onto the road. Saul let Hewitt sit up front, and it didn’t take very long to reach a small house. Cars were parked on the road and on the grass, as well in addition to the driveway. I took a spot on the side of the road far enough away that I wouldn’t have any trouble backing out, and we walked up to the front door, where a man in uniform nodded to Hewitt and stepped aside.
It wasn’t a very big house, and we were in a large front room that had a couple of doors to other rooms. There were several men in plainclothes standing about, talking to each other. All wore masks. A bulky man with a bushy mustache looked up, saw my host, and walked over to us, stopping a few feet away.
“Mister Hewitt. I see you’ve brought your own detective. Already feeling my men and I aren’t up to snuff?”
Hewitt gave him a pained smile. “Now, Inspector, you know that’s not true.”
The man looked at me with a frown, though it quickly passed. “Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s man.”
I nodded. “That’s my name, but I’m my own man.” I would have held out my hand, but not these days. Not even gloved. It’s a habit I planned on getting out of. “I’m happy to assist in any way I can, Inspector.”
He nodded, not in disapproval. “Brackenreid. Tom Brackenreid. Since you’re here, you might as well give your opinion.” He weaved past a few men and took us into an office. It looked like the one you’d expect of a retired professor. Piles of papers and books all around. Of course, the dead man on the floor, next to the chair behind his desk, was the most out-of-place thing in the room. He had a gunshot wound behind the left ear.
I saw the gun sitting on the edge of the desk, next to a big ashtray full of smoked cigarettes. I was surprised I couldn’t smell them. They looked stronger than the ones I used to smoke years ago. “Was that found there?”
With an unhappy look towards somebody I couldn’t see in the front room, he shook his head. “No, it was in his right hand.” He sighed. Not in Wolfe’s league, but nothing to be ashamed of. “The doctor, thinking it suicide, moved it to the desk while he examined the body. The responding officer said it was in the hand, but the fingers weren’t closed around it.”
Saul had stopped in the doorway and called my name. I turned and he looked at the broken door jamb with raised eyebrows. The Inspector saw this and said, “The door was locked on the inside. We had to force it open.”
“It was still locked when you got here?”
He shook his head. “Mrs. Nilsson couldn’t get an answer to her knocks, then calls. The Johnsons didn’t have anything to add, so she called the local station. They sent out a man and he forced it open. He called it in immediately and I came, followed by the usual crew.”
Saul asked, “Who are the Johnsons?”
“House guests. You can meet them shortly.” He didn’t seem annoyed at our questions, though I admit we hadn’t been much help yet, either.
“Did you find the key?”
He shook his head again. “No. And the windows were all closed and bolted.” He looked at the body.
“The killer shot him, made it look like suicide, locked the door behind him, and left with the key.”
I looked at Saul, who gave me a ‘Could be’ look. Brackenreid moved us back out into the front room, which was now only occupied by the medical examiner, who was apparently on his way out as well.
“Doctor Gilson, still say time of death is between eleven PM and two this morning?”
Gilson was thin, fussy-looking, and, well, fussy. He had a high-pitched, reedy voice. Without bothering to hide his petulance, he confirmed his earlier opinion and left. I gave Brackenreid a look.
“He’s a good medical man, but short on manners. You know the type.”
Saul even laughed out loud at that one. I agreed, “Yeah, I’ve run across someone like that a time or two.” The Inspector wasn’t really listening. I asked if we could talk to Mrs. Nilsson before meeting the house guests. In private. He nodded and led Saul and I through a doorway.
My first thought was that I would not want to get into a wrestling match with the stocky woman sitting in a chair by a window. I’m not sure I could take her. She had been the housekeeper here since Noble had moved in. She lived in an apartment off-site and came every morning, except Sunday. I wondered idly if I should try to fix her up with Theodore. She could lunch with him and his sister.
Between her and Brackenreid, Saul and I learned that the Johnsons had come two days ago. She had never heard of them before, and she thought that Professor Johnson wasn’t very pleased to see them, even though he invited them to stay at the house. She had the feeling that they had invited themselves.
When she had left a little before nine last night, Johnson and the Professor were in the large room, watching a movie on the television. Something tickled the back of my mind.
“Did he smoke in his room at night?”
She had a mild Swedish accent, but I won’t try to reproduce it. “Yes, he did. He said he could only sleep a few hours a night. And he was reading always, reading, reading. He would stay up most of the night, smoking and reading.”
She thought about this. “He would leave it open a few inches, unless it was too cold.”
We left her there and found a man and woman sitting on the sofa in the front room, apparently not talking with Hewitt. They were the Johnsons. He looked a little rough and she looked a little cheap. Saul nudged me on the elbow when he saw them. I stepped away and got an angle on him, but he was looking at Hewitt, apparently uninterested in the visitors.
I kept an eye on Saul while Brackenreid talked to Mr. Johnson. He was irritated. And irritating, for that matter. He insisted that he had an important meeting which he couldn’t miss. His wife seemed like an airhead, going on and on about how terrible all of this was.
I was surprised when Saul said that he was going to see if there was any coffee in the kitchen. And he hoped there would be some sugar. That last part was one of a series of codes we had worked out for different situations. This one meant that I should be ready to back his play. I shifted my weight but didn’t give any other signs. Johnson, still blustering at the unimpressed Brackenreid, didn’t notice.
Saul went into the kitchen and I heard him looking in cupboards and drawers. Brackenreid was trying to calm down Johnson, who wasn’t making any progress at getting out of there.
Saul came back into the room and circled around behind Johnson. He yelled out “Arch” and wrapped him up in a bear hug there was no way the man could break out of. When Saul grabbed you, you stayed grabbed. I lunged over and got a good grip on Mrs. Johnson, just to make sure she didn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.
Brackenreid just stood there with his mouth open. Hewitt had gotten up and was just as confused.
I called out to any officers still around and the one still outside came in, confused.
“Inspector,” Saul said, “This is Gary Lukens. He’s wanted for blackmail and suspicion of murder. I don’t recognize her, but he usually works with an accomplice.”
Johnson/Lukens had been struggling ineffectually, but the energy seemed to go out of him and he went slack. Saul stayed alert.
Brackenreid looked at Saul doubtfully. “I look at the wanted lists every week. I didn’t see him.”
“I got a glimpse at it at a substation a couple years ago.”
The Inspector started to argue, but I stopped him. “Give it up. Mister Panzer has never forgotten a face in his career. I guarantee you that’s Lukens, and his picture was out. You can let Johnson bring charges against him if he’s wrong.”
Saul nodded. “I won’t squawk. It’s him.”
That was good enough for the policeman. I think that fact that the gunshot was behind the left ear, and the gun was in the right hand, gave him enough doubts that Lukens looked like someone worth checking into. He thanked us for our help and said we could go. He and the officer could handle things.
I gathered up Lewis Hewitt and we headed out. In the car, I said, “You recognized him right away?”
“Yeah. He’s a bad egg. I won’t be surprised at all if he had some blackmail scheme he was trying to run on Noble. Noble didn’t go for it and Lukens ended up shooting him.”
I shook my head. Saul’s memory for faces was nearly flawless.
The news provided all the rest of the story. Saul’s theory was on the money. It was actually Noble’s gun, and Lukens said he wrestled it away from him and shot the old man in self defense. Of course, with all the other details, including making it look like a suicide, it wasn’t a very strong defense. He was found guilty, while his ‘wife,’ just his latest criminal partner, sold him out for a softer sentence.
But that certainly livened up my weekend!
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: Stay at Home – Days 34 and 35
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 36
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 37
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 38
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 39
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 40 & 41
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 its 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.