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"You're almost fifteen minutes early," I told the elegant-looking visitor who stood erect on our front stoop. "We don't deny admission on a technicality like that, though. And I've seen your picture in the newspapers—more than once. Come on in."
"Thank you," Horace Vinson said with a smile, smoothing well-tended salt-and-pepper hair that had been ruffled by rude April winds. "I thought the cab ride down here would take a lot longer. You, of course, are Archie Goodwin. I, too, have seen your picture in the papers. And I recognize your voice from yesterday."
I grinned back and held out a paw. "Guilty as charged. He won't be down until eleven, but there's no reason you can't park yourself in his office. I'll even keep you company at no extra charge," I said as I hung his expensive Burberry on a peg and led him down the hall.
Vinson squinted cornflower-blue eyes as he stood in the doorway to the largest room in the house and nodded approvingly. "Just as I pictured it. Arguably the most famous work space in Manhattan. And from a quick look, very possibly the most comfortable, too."
"Unless you are a murderer Nero Wolfe is about to finger. Have a seat. Can I get you coffee?"
Vinson said yes, heavy on the cream, as he settled into the red leather chair in front of the desk. I went to the kitchen, where Fritz Brenner, chef extraordinaire, keeps a pot warm all morning. Fritz looked at me anxiously as I filled a cup with java and the cow's finest. "Too early to tell," I responded to his unspoken question. "Of course Mr. Wolfe hasn't even seen him yet, let alone heard him out. If something of interest develops, you'll be the fourth to know."
Fritz sighed and turned back to building the cassoulet Castelnaudary that Wolfe and I would be devouring in the dining room in a little more than two hours. He frets when Wolfe isn't working, which means he almost always frets. Fritz figures we're constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, and nothing I ever tell him to the contrary seems to help.
Actually, this time I was more than a little worried myself. We hadn't done any work in months, unless you count the child's play in which we—make that I—collared the Fifth Avenue jewelry store clerk who made a cute little game of substituting passable imitations for the expensive ice in his employer's display cases and carting the genuine articles away. It took all of three days before I doped out which of eight employees in the pricey store was making the switches. I caught the poor wretch in the act, and our reward was enough to keep Wolfe in beer, books, and bouillabaisse for a couple of moons.
Not that we hadn't had other recent opportunities for gainful employment, as in a pair of potential cases, each of which would have given the bank balance a healthy transfusion. But both times, Wolfe found excuses for taking a pass. The real reason he turned thumbs down—and I told him so—was downright laziness, combined with a contrary streak as wide as his back.
I should correct myself. Lazy is not a word to be strictly applied to Nero Wolfe. Stubborn, yes, but not lazy. He allots four hours every day—nine to eleven in the morning and four to six in the afternoon—to nurturing the ten thousand orchids in the plant rooms on the roof of the brownstone. Most of the rest of his waking hours are spent either in the dining room devouring Fritz's superb lunches and dinners, or in his office, where he devours anywhere from five to ten books a week, sometimes juggling three at a time. Okay, the guy's not doing push-ups, but his mind is in high gear, so scratch the lazy comment.
My roles in the operation are varied. I handle Wolfe's correspondence, balance the books, work with our live-in orchid nurse, Theodore Horstmann, to keep the germination records up to date, and serve as so-called man of action when the two of us are working at being private detectives—duly licensed by the Sovereign State of New York. I also function as a burr under Wolfe's saddle when he doesn't feel like working. Obviously, I hadn't been a real good burr of late, and I'd been indulging in mopery on that April Tuesday morning when the phone rang.
"Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking."
"Mr. Goodwin, my name is Horace Vinson. I am in the publishing business, and I would like to engage Nero Wolfe to investigate a murder."
The good old direct approach; that's a guaranteed way to get my attention. Another is name recognition, and I immediately recognized Vinson's name. "Who got murdered?" I asked, poising a pencil above my stenographer's pad.
"Charles Childress. He was shot a week ago."
"The writer," I said. "Found in his apartment in Greenwich Village last Tuesday, an apparent suicide. Three paragraphs in the Gazette the next day, somewhere back around page thirteen."
The response was a snort. "Suicide, hell! Charles was killed. Those idiots who masquerade as police in this town don't think so, but I know so. Are you interested or not?"
I told Horace Vinson I'd take it up with Wolfe, which I did when he descended from the plant rooms. That brought the glare I was expecting, so I got up and walked all of three paces from my desk to his, placing a computer printout on his blotter. "That," I told Wolfe, "is the result of your consistent refusal to reenter the work force. You may recognize those figures as our bank balance. Note how the last nine entries have been withdrawals. Note also that if we continue at the current pace, we will be forced to file for bankruptcy after another fourteen withdrawals."
"Your mathematics are suspect, as usual," Wolfe said with an air of unconcern.
"Okay, maybe you've got some other funds tucked away, a fortune you've never told me about. Even so, given our monthly expenses, you'd need at least—"
"Archie, shut up!"
Wolfe closed his eyes, presumably because looking at me was more than he could bear. He stayed that way for over a minute, then awoke and favored me with another glare. "Confound it, call Mr. Vinson, tell him to be here tomorrow at eleven."
Which is why I was sitting in the office chatting with Horace Vinson, editor-in-chief of Monarch Press, at eleven the next morning when the groan of the elevator announced Wolfe's descent from the plant rooms. The lord of the manor paused at the office door, dipped his head a fraction of an inch in our guest's direction, then detoured around his desk, placing a raceme of orchids in a vase on the blotter before settling into the chair that was expressly constructed to support his seventh of a ton. "Mr. Vinson," he said. His version of an effusive greeting.
"Mr. Wolfe, good to meet you. My God, those flowers are stunning."
"Doritaenopsis, a crossing of Phalaenopsis and Doritis," Wolfe replied. Vinson may not have known it, but he had said precisely the right thing; Nero Wolfe loves to have his orchids gushed over.
"Would you like more coffee or something else to drink?" he asked Vinson. "I am going to have beer."
"Not just yet. Mr. Goodwin told you why I am here?"
"The death of a writer. Mr. Childress. One of your authors, I believe."
Vinson shifted in the red leather chair and studied his pearl cufflink. "Yes, one of my authors," he said huskily. "He was shot last week—eight days ago now—in his apartment in the Village."
Wolfe paused to pour beer from one of two chilled bottles Fritz had just brought in. "I read the newspaper accounts." He frowned at the foam in his glass. "The police have labeled it a suicide."
"Nonsense! Charles had everything to live for. He was a relatively successful writer, he had a terrific future, and he was about to be married to a beautiful woman whom he loved and doted on."
"He was shot with his own gun, and when Mr. Goodwin telephoned the police yesterday at my direction, he was informed by Sergeant Stebbins of Homicide that the only fingerprints on the weapon were his own," Wolfe said evenly.
Vinson leaned forward and placed his palms on his knees. "Mr. Wolfe, surely you have seen enough murders to realize that killers know how to make their handiwork seem like something else."
"I have," Wolfe said, drinking beer and dabbing his lips with a handkerchief. "Tell me why someone would want to kill Mr. Childress."
Vinson's well-tailored shoulders sagged, and he dropped back into the chair with a sigh. "All right. First off, Charles was, well, not the most pleasant person you'd ever be likely to run into. Some people found him boastful and arrogant, to say the least."
"Do you agree with that assessment?"
"Mr. Wolfe, Charles Childress was a talented writer—not brilliant, but with an ability that I felt was soon to come to full flower, if you'll pardon the hyperbole. And he possessed a well-developed sense of self. He knew what his strengths were. And he wasn't the least bit reticent about proclaiming them."
"Fanfaronade is not a trait conducive to the development of friendships, but rarely is it the primary stimulus for murder," Wolfe observed. Yep, I was there. He really said it.
"Fanfaronade, as you term it, was only a part of Charles's problem," Vinson replied without missing a beat, forming a chapel with his long, bony fingers. "He also was contentious, combative, and exceedingly vengeful. Does the name Wilbur Hobbs mean anything to you?"
Wolfe grunted. "He attempts to review books for the Gazette."
That brought a slight smile to the editor's angular face. "Well said. As you probably know, Charles was the continuator of the long and extremely popular series of detective novels, the Sergeant Barnstable stories, which were originated by Darius Sawyer in the forties."
"I learned as much from the newspaper reports on Mr. Childress's death," Wolfe replied dryly. "My current schedule does not allow for the reading of detective fiction, let alone its so-called continuation by a second author."
Vinson shrugged and let his eyes travel over Wolfe's bookshelves. "Actually, some detective stories qualify as solid literature, better certainly than a lot of the non-genre work being turned out today. And I happen to think Charles did a fine job of capturing the spirit and flavor of Sawyer's writing. Of course, my opinion could be termed suspect, as I am the one who picked Charles to be the series continuator after Sawyer died. I had read the books he'd done previously, for another publisher, and I felt he had potential to ultimately go beyond writing mysteries. Anyway, Wilbur Hobbs has been rough on all three of Charles's Barnstable books, and he was particularly savage in reviewing the last one, which we published about six weeks ago."
Wolfe drained his glass. He refilled it from the second bottle. "I read the review. How have other critics treated Mr. Childress's work?"
"Mixed," Vinson said. "Most range from mildly favorable to mildly negative, but nothing like Hobbs, who is a nasty, vituperative little man. As you know, his Gazette review of the most recent Barnstable book, Death in the North Meadow, was incredibly mean-spirited. Among other things, he called it a 'towering exercise in mimicry' and said that 'Any self-respecting lover of mysteries should treat this volume as if it were a radioactive cobalt isotope.' "
Vinson exhaled. "Charles never took criticism particularly well, and Hobbs's piece—it occupied all of page three in the Gazette 's Sunday book review section—really lit his wick. He fired off an article to the Manhattan Literary Times blasting Hobbs. I tried to talk him out of submitting the piece—there's almost never anything to be gained by lashing back at a critic—but he was adamant. Are you familiar with the MLT?
Wolfe said no, and Vinson went on. "It's a self-styled avant-garde weekly tabloid that thrives on controversy. Of course they printed Charles's article, in which he attacked Hobbs as 'a preening poseur, a peacock, a dandified and self-important satrap who is trying desperately, yea, pitifully, to become an arbiter of public taste, which is roughly equivalent to John Travolta trying to fit into Astaire's white tie and tails.' Quite a sentence, eh? But that wasn't the worst of it. Charles all but accused Hobbs of being on the take, of accepting gifts—financial and otherwise—from authors and publishers whose works he praises in print."
"Is there substance to that charge?"
Vinson set his jaw, then nodded reluctantly. "Possibly. It has been rumored in the publishing community for years, but nobody had ever come out and said anything publicly before. There's no question about Hobbs having his favorites—both among writers and publishing houses. You can pretty well predict how he's going to react to a book—with fawning praise or fiery vitriol—depending on who the writer and publisher are. Hobbs doesn't like Monarch, never has, despite our having had two Pulitzer Prize winners and five National Book Awards in the last six years. Why doesn't he like us?" Vinson asked, anticipating Wolfe's question. "Because nobody in our house, from me on down to the lowest editorial assistant, will kowtow to the little viper. We've never made any secret of our feelings about the man, and I've even written to the publisher of the Gazette complaining about the obvious bias in Hobbs's reviews. And he certainly didn't like Charles Childress. After the MLT piece came out, almost a month ago, Hobbs phoned me in a fury. He made loud noises about a lawsuit, but that's the last I heard about it."
Wolfe leaned back and scowled. "Has Mr. Hobbs ever approached anyone at your company soliciting money or other favors?"
"A few years ago, two editors on our staff mentioned he tossed out some veiled hints to them that he was open to 'offers,' is how I think he termed it," Vinson responded sourly. "Both editors assured me they pretended they didn't understand what he was talking about. Apparently, Hobbs did not press the issue with either of them, but soon after those episodes, we started getting execrable reviews from him on virtually every one of our books."
"Is it commonplace for book reviewers to accept cadeaux from publishers?"
"It is not. God knows I've been angry at reviewers through the years, but always because I disagreed with their literary opinions. Then Wilbur Hobbs came along. With him, I question the motives for those opinions."
"And you suggest that Mr. Hobbs committed murder in retaliation for the scathing indictment Mr. Childress had penned about him?"
"I see that as a distinct possibility," Vinson responded with a scowl of his own. "Although it is by no means the only possibility."
"Indeed?" Wolfe raised his eyebrows.
Vinson nodded grimly. "I can think of two other people who might also take satisfaction in helping to end Charles Childress's life."
Wolfe's eyebrows stayed up. "Sir, I confess amazement that book publishing holds such potential for violence."
"I wish I could honestly tell you I was amazed myself," Vinson replied earnestly. "But I've been in this business for forty years, and there's damn little that can surprise me anymore."
I could tell that Wolfe was still amazed, but he pulled himself together long enough to finish the beer in his glass.CHAPTER 2
I refilled vinson's cup, and he took two sips before going on. "I thought about all of this for a long time before calling you," he told Wolfe, rubbing a palm along his well-defined jaw. "As I said earlier, Charles Childress was contentious. And if anything, that's an understatement. In the last few months, Charles had fought—quite publicly—with both his editor at Monarch and with his agent, Franklin Ott. Charles and the editor, Keith Billings, who oversaw our mystery line, didn't get along from the start, and I'm sorry to say their relationship had deteriorated through Charles's three Barnstable books. He felt Billings over-edited him and made capricious changes. Keith, for his part, claimed the books' plots were both weak and slipshod and badly needed shoring up."
Vinson sighed. "Both of them were to some degree correct, and it seemed that every time I turned around I was mediating one of their battles. Finally, Frank Ott called and told me Charles wouldn't write for Monarch anymore unless he got assigned a new editor. I gave in and tabbed someone else to work with him on his next book. Billings quit in a rage, feeling, perhaps with some justification, that his authority had been undercut. He now is working for another publisher—Westman & Lane—I'm sorry to say."
"You valued the writer more than the editor," Wolfe remarked.
Excerpted from The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 1994 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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