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Archie Meets Nero Wolfe
By Robert Goldsborough
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
Even though September was barely half over, the wind off the Hudson made me wish I had worn my new fur-lined jacket. In the two-plus weeks I had patrolled the Moreland Import Company docks, each night seemed colder than the one before it. At this rate, I would freeze before Halloween.
I wouldn't have taken the job if anything better had turned up, but I felt lucky just to have work of any kind. I saw enough of those long lines on the sidewalks outside the soup kitchens to appreciate getting a paycheck, even a small one. Besides, I was not about to go back to Chillicothe, Ohio, with my tail between my legs.
Bates had told me to be especially alert, what with the big shipment of Swiss watches and fancy clocks on the boat that docked an hour before I came on duty. They would get unloaded tomorrow morning. "Probably nothin' will happen, kid, but we don't want to take no chances," he said, patting me on the shoulder. "Remember, if you see anybody messin' around, fire into the air. That'll bring the cops soon enough and scare 'em away."
I fingered the revolver nestled in the holster on my hip. Although I had hunted ducks with a shotgun along the rivers back home with my father, I had never used a pistol and figured I wouldn't have to on this job.
I had just finished my third circuit of the long pier and found myself staring at the lights of New Jersey across the river when I heard a sound like the scuffing of a shoe somewhere behind me. I flattened myself against the wall of the warehouse and pulled out my flashlight. Before I could turn it on, though, I saw a figure disappear around the bow of the ship.
"Stop!" I yelled, running toward the bow. I fired one shot into the air, startled by its report. I slowed as I got close to where I had seen the figure and was about to fire into the air again when another shot was fired—at me!
The shell buried itself in the wall of the warehouse just over my shoulder, which sent me into a fast crouch. Cold night or not, I started sweating as I crawled around the bow of the big freighter, gun drawn. Two men, silhouetted against those Jersey shore lights, began to shinny like monkeys up one of the hawsers that secured the freighter to the dock.
"Stop!" I shouted again. Both men fired this time, but their aim was bad because they struggled to hold on to both the rope and their guns as they swayed. My aim was better. I got off a pair of shots, and two bodies thudded onto the dock.
And they turned out to be bodies, all right, though I didn't know it yet. I approached them with my revolver still drawn, but relaxed when I saw that their guns were several feet from them and they were not moving. The realization began to hit me: I had just killed two people.
Suddenly, I found myself in a spotlight. "Hold it right there!" a voice holding an electric torch boomed. "Drop the gun. Hands in the air!"
I did both, fast.
"Lord Almighty, what have we got here?" a heavyset New York cop said as he shone his torch in my face and studied my uniform. "Are the piers so hard up they're hirin' teenagers as guards now?"
"Blame it on this cursed Depression, Murph," a second cop said as he ran up to us, wheezing. "They can get these young guys cheap."
"How old are you, son?" the first cop asked.
"Nineteen. And they fired at me first, after I'd given them a warning shot into the air," I said, gesturing toward the two prone figures with a shaking hand and then pointing out the bullet hole in the wall of the pier. "There's a big order of expensive Swiss watches and clocks on board," I added. "I was told to be extra-cautious tonight."
"Well, I'll be damned, it's Jake McCaffey," the second cop said, shining his light on one face, then the other. "And his two-bit sidekick, Rumson. This pair has been pulling heists, or trying to, on the docks along here for years. Well, they'll never do it again," he added without emotion.
"What's your name, son?" asked the one called Murph.
"Archie Goodwin," I said hoarsely.
"Well, Archie Goodwin, it looks like they shot first all right, but you'll still have to come down to the precinct. There's reports to file, questions to answer, like it or not."
I ended up spending three-plus hours at the Tenth Precinct, which I learned also was headquarters for Homicide West. For at least two of those hours, I got grilled by a surly lieutenant named Rowcliff, who had bulging eyes and a snarling voice that broke into a stutter when he got excited, which seemed to be much of the time.
He kept trying to get me to say that I fired at the robbers first. I was nervous, but when I wouldn't budge off my story, his stuttering got worse, which would have been funny under different circumstances. In the end, Rowcliff gave up with a growl, and I was told to go but to let the cops know where to reach me, which I did.
Back in my room, I went over the events of the night, asking myself what I should have done differently. No good answer popped up. Two men, bad men, were dead. Why wasn't I feeling better about it?
The next afternoon when I reported for work, I was met at the door of the Moreland Import office by my boss, Luke Bates. "Sorry, Goodwin, but we're going to have to let you go," he said with a shrug.
"Why? I was just—"
"I know, I know. You were just protecting the ship and its cargo, which we appreciate. But having a trigger-happy guard is bad for the company's image. That's just how it is."
"You know they fired at me first, after I had fired into the air," I said. "And that they'd been looting on these docks for years."
He shrugged again, as if to underscore his helplessness. "Tell you what, it's against regulations given what a short time you've been here, but I'll authorize a week's severance pay to go along with your two weeks' wages."
So it was that after my first month in New York, I had the equivalent of three weeks' salary in my pocket, along with no job and no prospects.CHAPTER 2
I trudged back to my rooming house on West Fifty-Second Street near Tenth Avenue, wishing I knew Manhattan well enough to find a speakeasy and get a drink, assuming they would even serve me, given my age. I had come to the city to get away from the dullness of small-town Ohio and find excitement. That had not taken long at all.
The first thing that caught my eye back in my small, tired third-floor room was the copy of Black Mask magazine on the nightstand. I had picked up the habit of buying the occasional detective magazine a couple of years earlier. Reading about fictional private eyes and their cases was okay, as far as it went, but I felt that if given a fair chance, I'd be as smart as any of the shamuses in those pulps.
I thumbed idly through Black Mask then set it down, making a decision. On a shelf next to the pay telephone in the hall outside my room sat Manhattan's fat classified directory. I turned to "detective agencies" and started down the alphabet, going past AAA Investigations and ACE People Finders as too slick-sounding. A little farther along, I stopped at the listing for the Bascom Detective Agency, which had an address only six blocks away from the rooming house.
A pawnshop with a half-dozen musical instruments behind its dusty windows occupied the street level of the run-down, narrow, four-story building. A sign over a door to the right of the shop listed the building's upstairs tenants: Madame LeBlanc—Reader-Adviser; Holman's Coin & Stamp Shop; The Bascom Detective Agency.
The open-cage elevator piloted by a bald, tobacco-chewing scrag in a sweat-stained shirt rattled its way to the fourth floor, depositing me across the hall from a frosted glass door that simply read BASCOM. I thought about knocking then decided to just push on in. A woman with a pinched face who could have voted for U. S. Grant for president looked up at me over rimless glasses from a small desk in a small anteroom. So much for the image of the detective with the voluptuous secretary.
"Yes?" she said, arching a painted eyebrow and giving me a look suggesting that I had wandered into the wrong place by mistake.
"I'd like to see ... Mr. Bascom, is it?"
"Is he expecting you?" she said with a sniff.
"No, but I believe he would want to see me."
"Really?" She sniffed again. "Your name?"
"And your business?"
"It's confidential. Very confidential."
She sniffed a third time and stepped to a partially open door behind her desk that had no name on it. She looked in and said, "Del, there's a Mr. Archie Goodwin out here who wants to see you. He says it's confidential. Very confidential."
The person inside must have said something like "Send him in" because the sniffer stepped aside, letting me enter the sanctum. To say the room was unimpressive did it a favor. The lone window looked out on the blank brick wall of the building next door. A single battered desk was piled high with messy stacks of paper. Behind the desk sat a fiftyish man with mottled skin, a double chin, unruly leaden-colored hair, and a four-inch scar on one cheek. So much for the image of the lean, square-jawed detective.
"Yeah, what can I do for you?" he muttered, pulling the stub of a cigar from his mouth.
"You are Mr. Bascom?"
"Del Bascom, that's me. What's so confidential, kid?"
"I need a job," I said, sliding uninvited into the scarred guest chair in front of his desk.
"So do millions of other Americans," Bascom said in a world-weary tone. "What makes you so special?"
"I've got the makings of one hell of a detective," I told him.
"That so? What kind of experience you got?"
"None yet. Give me a week to prove myself. I'll work free. How can you beat a deal like that?"
"Lemme lay out the situation for you, kid," Bascom said, planting both beefy hands palms down on his desk. "You're looking at the entire staff of this operation, other than Wilda out front, and I'm stuck with her—she's my wife's aunt, and I don't need trouble at home. I used to have a couple of operatives on the payroll, but business isn't exactly breaking down the door these days, and now I only use freelancers, which is almost never."
"It won't cost you anything to give me a try," I argued.
Bascom sighed. "You got any kind of work record at all? What were you doing before you walked in here?"
"I was a night guard at one of the North River piers."
"That so? I read a short bit in this morning's Daily News that a couple grifters got bumped off someplace along there last night. Helluva thing."
"I was the one who bumped them off."
Bascom's mouth dropped open. "The hell you say! Who were you working for?"
"The Moreland operation. I reported to Luke Bates."
"Geez, I know Bates. Did a job for him a few years back," Bascom said. "One of his dock crew was pilfering watches and jewelry. Didn't take us long to nail the stupe."
"Watches, that's just what these guys last night were after, and fancy clocks, so I was told."
"So you did Moreland a favor. You get tired of working for them?"
"They canned me. Said I was trigger-happy."
"I never fired a pistol in my life until last night. And I got shot at first. I'm only walking around because their aim was lousy."
Bascom leaned back and stroked his stubble-covered chin. "The name's Archie Goodwin, right? Mind if I call Bates?"
"Be my guest," I said as he thumbed through a dog-eared notebook and picked up his phone.
"Hey, Luke, it's Del Bascom. How you been?"
"Yeah, things are plenty tight here, too. Understand you had quite a ruckus there last night. No kidding? Jake McCaffey caught it, huh? Well, he was lucky to have lived this long, the swine."
Bascom listened for another minute or so, then said, "Luke, I've got a guy here named Archie Goodwin. What do you think of him? Uh-huh ... yeah ... yeah, uh-huh. Okay. Yeah, we ought to grab a bite one of these days. Be good to get caught up."
He cradled the receiver and fixed his gaze on me. "Bates says you're a good man, as far as he could tell after two weeks on the job. He didn't want to sack you, but Old Man Moreland wouldn't budge. He thinks any publicity for his operation is bad publicity, never mind that you did them a big favor by getting rid of McCaffey and his lamebrained sidekick. Word on the street is those two knocked off a couple of guys some years back but never got fingered for it."
"They almost knocked off a third one last night," I said. "How about giving me a try on something? Like I said, it won't cost you a cent."
Bascom sat back and rubbed his chin again. "Tell you what, Goodwin, I've got this job I put a freelancer on, but he didn't get anyplace at all with it. It's a missing persons case—maybe." He went over to a filing cabinet and pulled out a thin file, handing it to me. "Wilda will show you the empty office that got used back when I had a staff. Take a look at what's in here, and see if it gives you any ideas."
I plopped down at one of the two desks in a windowless office next door to Wilda's anteroom and opened the folder, marked CHAPMAN. After twenty minutes, I had digested everything Bascom and his freelance operative, a guy named Phelps, had learned, which wasn't much. The client was one Muriel Chapman, age forty-seven, at an address on the Upper West Side. Her husband, Clarence, age fifty-one, had failed to return home from work as a salesman in the camera department at Macy's Herald Square store on the first Friday in September, now more than two weeks ago. She had heard nothing whatever from or about him in that time.
She had told Bascom her husband was "honest, hardworking, a good provider who neither smoked nor drank." The couple, native New Yorkers, had been married twenty-four years and was childless.
The police had been notified regarding missing persons and unidentified bodies, but nothing had turned up about Clarence Chapman. A snapshot in the folder showed him to be a middle-aged man with a handsome, angular face, a thin mustache, and dark, slick hair parted in the middle.
Bascom suggested to Mrs. Chapman that perhaps her husband wanted to lose himself, but she replied vehemently (so the report said) that "he was very happy here," and she quickly volunteered that "he never looked at other women, even really beautiful ones who passed us on the street." She added that none of his clothes were missing, other than what he wore the day he disappeared.
Phelps had talked to the manager of Macy's camera department, who told him Chapman was a model employee, never late, always well dressed, and that virtually every month, he led the department in sales. The manager had no idea why he hadn't shown up for work.
I took the picture of Chapman, closed the folder, and went into Bascom's office. "Okay, I've been through the stuff," I told him. "Anybody made a check of camera shops around town?"
Bascom threw me a disappointed look. "Now why would we do that?"
"Maybe he's selling cameras someplace else now. The guy's got to live."
"Think, Goodwin. The only way he could get a job with another camera outfit would be to use Macy's as a reference, and his new store would surely call Macy's to verify his service and his ability. Chapman's boss would have told Phelps if somebody had called there checking on him."
"Yeah, I suppose. But I'd like to poke around anyway. Just call it a hunch."
"Go ahead," Bascom said, rolling his eyes. "What the hell, it's not costing me anything."CHAPTER 3
Tearing out the pages listing camera stores from one of the Manhattan classified directories in Bascom's office, I drew a frown from Wilda and grinned at her in response. I didn't bother to count the number of listings, but there were plenty. My knowledge of the island's street system and addresses wasn't very good yet, but I knew enough that I could put together a plan. Besides, I had bought a map of Manhattan, and I'm a quick learner.
I began by ruling out any shops within six blocks of Macy's, which I now knew was at Thirty-Fourth Street and Broadway. Too much chance of Chapman being recognized in that neighborhood. Same on the Upper West Side, specifically centering on the intersection of Eighty-Third and Amsterdam, where the Chapman apartment was.
That left the rest of Manhattan, plus Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the farther reaches of Queens, as well as the other boroughs. But I chose to focus on Manhattan, realizing that even so I might be setting out on a wild goose chase that would give Bascom something to laugh about with his fellow operatives.
Excerpted from Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 2012 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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What People are Saying About This
“Archie and Nero Wolfe fans rejoice! Robert Goldsborough, who so deftly and ably continued the Wolfe series a few years back, has returned to tell the story every fan wanted to hear: the origin of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. This book has a hardboiled sheen worthy of the period it recreates and captures Stout’s recurring characters—not just Archie and Wolfe—with a fidelity that is damn near supernatural. And Archie’s voice and Wolfe’s grand demeanor are spot on. Here’s hoping Goldsborough finds a dozen more untold cases as he channels the great Rex Stout.” —Max Allan Collins, author of Bye Bye, Baby “Devotees of the late Rex Stout’s bestsellers will be pleasantly surprised.” —Publishers Weekly “Robert Goldsborough brings Nero Wolfe, late of Rex Stout, gloriously back to life.” —Chicago “Mr. Goldsborough has all of the late writer’s stylistic mannerisms down pat.” —The New York Times