When a fellow shamus gets charged with murder, Wolfe comes to his rescue
Staten Island would be forgettable were it not for the gleaming Tabernacle of the Silver Spire, where thousands of congregants come every Sunday to hear the sermons of Barnabas Bay. Millions more tune in on television, giving the good Reverend international fame, and a chance to spread the gospel from New York City’s harbor all the way to South Korea. But threatening notes have been appearing in the collection bag, suggesting that one of the faithful has decided it’s time this good shepherd get the hook.
Believing organized religion is nothing more than a scam, rotund sleuth Nero Wolfe refuses to investigate the threats, instead recommending veteran investigator Fred Durkin for the case. But when Durkin is accused of murdering the Reverend’s assistant, Wolfe fights to clear his name. He may not be a Christian, but he will always help a brother in need.
About the Author
Robert Goldsborough (b. 1937) is an American author best known for continuing Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe series. Born in Chicago, he attended Northwestern University and upon graduation went to work for the Associated Press, beginning a lifelong career in journalism that would include long periods at the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age. While at the Tribune , Goldsborough began writing mysteries in the voice of Rex Stout, the creator of iconic sleuths Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor (1986), was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Nine more Wolfe mysteries followed, including Death on Deadline (1987) and Fade to Black (1990). Stop the Presses! (2016) is his most recent novel.
Read an Excerpt
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
With two baritone belches of the horn, the Samuel I. Newhouse eased from its slip at South Ferry, and we were on the briny. It being the middle of the day, only a couple of dozen people or so were scattered throughout the big boat, most of them either reading or dozing or trying to wriggle into comfortable positions on the molded, one-size-fits-all blue plastic seats.
The interior of the ferry had all the charm of a warehouse, and after five minutes of trying to get comfortable myself, I went out onto the small deck at the bow and let the May breeze blow across my face. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, New York's newest tourist attraction, were off to the right—make that the starboard, mate—and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge arched gracefully to port, while dead ahead through the haze of New York Harbor, the low green hills of Staten Island began to take form.
That morning as I sat in the kitchen of Nero Wolfe's brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street devouring wheatcakes and the Times, I recalled the last time I had been on Staten Island, which most New Yorkers don't even think of as part of the city—when they think of it at all. That was almost ten years ago, when Wolfe took a case involving an arrogant old art collector on the island whose prized Cézanne had been filched from his house and replaced with a good but not great copy.
All arrows pointed to the collector's crotchety and somewhat larcenous maid, but it turned out the switch had been pulled by a guy posing as a gas company employee who said he'd been sent out to find a leak in the line. Anyway, thanks to Wolfe's brainpower and my leg power, the phony gas man, a onetime art history student with a police record as long as a pickpocket's fingers, got nailed, the Cézanne was recovered, and our bank balance received a healthy and much-needed transfusion.
This time, however, I was venturing forth to the borough of Richmond on what both Wolfe and I considered far more momentous business. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself, so I'll start where they say you're supposed to start—at the beginning.
The beginning was a rainy May morning—a Thursday, for those among you who want specifics. Wolfe was upstairs in the brownstone's rooftop greenhouse puttering with his beloved orchids, as is his sacred routine from nine to eleven every morning and four to six in the P.M. I sat at my desk in the office, entering orchid-germination records into the personal computer, as is part of my own more or less sacred routine.
The doorbell rang at ten-seventeen, and because the brownstone's Most Valuable Player, chef Fritz Brenner, was out buying provisions that later would be part of three-star meals, I did the honors, walking down the hall and peering through the one-way glass in the front door. The visitor on the stoop was high-shouldered and barrel-chested, and in his vested charcoal pinstripe, he looked like a banker faced with the prospect of having to give a loan, or maybe he was just suffering gas pains. But he didn't seem like the type to carry a concealed weapon, so I swung the door open.
"Good morning," I said with gusto. "We already have a set of Britannicas and currently subscribe to no fewer than eleven magazines—I can show you the list. Also, everyone who lives here is well insured, and we are not in the market for a vacuum cleaner, a set of genuine horsehair brushes, or a food processor. Now, what can I do for you, or you for me?"
I didn't even get a lip twitch for my efforts. "I am here to seek Nero Wolfe's counsel," the banker-type intoned somberly. "May I assume that you are Archie Goodwin, his associate?"
"Assume to your heart's content," I said. "Before this conversation goes a single sentence further, however, I must warn you that Mr. Wolfe sees no one—repeat, no one—without an appointment. And because I am the keeper of the appointment book, I am keenly aware that you don't have one—an appointment, that is."
"Correct. I realize that I took a chance by coming here without telephoning first. Maybe that was an ill-conceived strategy, but I thought perhaps you, Mr. Goodwin, would be willing to hear my supplication and decide whether it merits Mr. Wolfe's consideration."
"That's a lot of syllables, but I'm used to all that and more from my employer. Tell you what: If you promise not to toss too many more big words around, I'll hear your—what was it—supplication? No guarantees, though."
"No guarantees," the banker-type agreed, still poker-faced.
"Another thing," I told him, planting myself in the doorway. "Is it fair to assume that your parents gave you a name?"
"What? Oh, yes, of course." He made a pathetic stab at smiling. It was gas pains, I decided. "Please excuse my manners. My name is Lloyd Morgan, and I work very closely with the Reverend Barnabas Bay."
"Bay as in that big church I've read about over on Staten Island, the one with the bells-and-whistles TV show?"
"The Tabernacle of the Silver Spire." Morgan rolled the syllables around proudly, as if they themselves were holy. "We feel our televised service is quite tasteful, however."
"Well, anyway, that's the place," I said, ushering Morgan into the brownstone and down the hall to the office. I pointed him at the red leather chair in front of Wolfe's desk and slid in behind my own desk, swiveling to face him. "Mr. Wolfe is up playing with his orchids," I told our visitor, "and he won't be back down until eleven. But you have my undivided attention; what's the problem?"
Morgan considered the well-tended nails on his thick fingers, then took what I assume was a thoughtful breath before making eye contact. "First off, Barney—that's what Father Bay asks everybody on the staff to call him—knows I'm here, although he doesn't entirely approve. He considers me a worrywart. That is the exact word he used: 'worrywart,'" Morgan said in an offended tone. "However, worrywart or not, I insisted that we needed outside help and informed him of Nero Wolfe, whom he'd never heard of."
"The poor fellow must be living in a state of sensory deprivation," I deadpanned. "Everyone has heard of Nero Wolfe, probably even those Sherpa guides up on Mount Everest." Okay, so I was having a little fun at the poor guy's expense, mainly because I knew he wouldn't pick up on it. He didn't. In fact, the expression on his round, slightly ruddy face remained unchanged, which is to say basically blank. No smile, no frown, no scowl, no nothing.
"Barney maintains an incredible schedule," Morgan went on without apology, defending his boss, which is always worth a few points in my book. "It seems like he's on the move every minute—a speech to the ministerial council in Newark, a benefit dinner for one of our shelters for the homeless in the Bronx, the mayor's prayer breakfast downtown. He probably doesn't always peruse the newspapers as thoroughly as he should."
"Maybe none of us does." I almost liked Morgan—but not quite. "Now that we've agreed on something, how do you see Nero Wolfe helping you and the good reverend?"
Morgan, who had primly declined my offer of coffee, did loosen to the extent of unbuttoning his suitcoat, which was progress. Then he cleared his throat several times, which was not. "Mr. Goodwin, may I assume that this conversation is utterly confidential?"
"You may, unless a crime has been committed, in which case, as a private investigator licensed by the sovereign state of New York, I am required to report said crime. No choice." Okay, so there have been a few times—make it quite a few—when I've done some fudging with that particular requirement.
Morgan tilted his head back, apparently trying to look superior. "Noactual crime has been committed—yet. But we, at least some of us, are greatly concerned that one will be."
"So I gather. Go on."
More throat clearing. "You have, of course, never been to the tabernacle."
"Correct." I nodded with a smile, mildly irked by the "of course" but amused by the disapproval in his voice.
"Well," he sniffed, "then you probably aren't aware that we get a total of some twelve thousand every Sunday attending our three morning services plus our evening service."
"Impressive. But I gather one of those twelve thousand is causing you and your leader grief."
"What makes you think that?"
I shrugged. "Give me a shred of credit. Look, for the last few minutes, we've been tiptoeing around each other like two cautious welterweights in Round One. I could probably sit here for another hour or more trying to guess your problem, but I won't—I've got other things that I'm paid to do. Now, I suggest you unload whatever it is you've got and let me see it before I get on with the rest of my life."
"All right, it's just that this is difficult to talk about," Morgan said stiffly. "For the last six Sundays, we've gotten very disturbing notes in the offering pouch—all directed at Barney."
"Pardon my ignorance, but what's an offering pouch?"
Another superiority sniff. "As I am sure you know, most churches send plates down the pews for the offering—the collection, if you will. But some, and we are among them, circulate cloth or leather pouches through the congregation—they have handles and they're about this deep," he said, holding one palm about a foot above the other. "For one thing, it's easier to be private about your offering if you're giving cash, and for another, our sanctuary is so big that if we passed conventional plates, they'd all overflow—even if we had twenty of them. The pouches hold a great deal more than a plate."
"Okay, so what do these 'disturbing notes' say?"
Morgan looked to be having more gas pains. "I've brought them." He sighed, reaching into his suitcoat and drawing out a packet of folded sheets that were paper-clipped together. He eyed me for several seconds, trying to decide whether I was trustworthy. Apparently I passed his trust test, if only barely. He handed over the small bundle, but turned loose of it like a widow giving her Social Security check to a mugger.
"As I said, there are six notes," he told me. "They are arranged in the order in which they came."
I slipped the paper clip off, holding the sheets by the edges so as not to add my fingerprints to heaven knows how many others already there. The white sheets all were the same size, six by nine inches, probably from the same pad, and each had a message handprinted in capitals in black ink from a felt-tipped pen. Here they are, in sequence:
REV BAY: MISFORTUNE PURSUES THE SINNER, (PROVERBS 13:21)
REV. BAY: TAKE YOUR EVIL DEEDS OUT OF MY SIGHT (ISAIAH 1:16)
REVEREND BAY: THE STING OF DEATH IS SIN (I CORINTHIANS 15:56)
REV. BAY: DEATH IS THE DESTINY OF EVERY MAN (ECCLESIASTES 7:2)
REVER. BAY: YOU DESERVE TO DIE. (I KINGS 2:26)
REV. BAY: THE TIME IS NEAR (REVELATION 1:13)
"Pretty ominous-sounding stuff," I said to Morgan. "Does your Mr. Bay get this sort of message often?"
"Reverend Bay does not," he replied, squaring his shoulders and looking offended. "Oh, once in a while, we find a note in the offering pouch expressing disapproval—usually mildly—about something in a sermon or in some other part of the service, which isn't unusual in a church our size. But this ..."
"What does Bay think about the notes?"
"He professes indifference," Morgan said irritably. "Feels it's just the doings of some 'misguided soul,' to use his words."
"You don't agree, of course, or you wouldn't be here."
"Mr. Goodwin, these are the work of a psychopath, someone who I believe is truly dangerous."
"Maybe that's the case," I conceded, flipping open my notebook. "You say these have been coming for six weeks, which figures—there are six of them. Along about the third Sunday, didn't you, or someone else at the church, get suspicious and start watching more closely as the collection was taken?"
Morgan flushed. "We should have, of course. But we—Barney, me, the rest of the staff—all believed this was the handiwork of a demented individual, perhaps someone who was just passing through New York and soon would be gone. We get a lot of one- or two-time visitors from out of town."
"Does Bay have any enemies? Or any secrets that would make him vulnerable to, say, blackmail?"
Lloyd Morgan shook his head almost violently. "No, sir, and I must tell you I resent that suggestion."
"Hold it right there. You walked in here—without an appointment, I hasten to point out—looking for help. Nobody twisted your arm to come. If you feel like doing any resenting, you can damn well do it outside, on your way back to Staten Island."
That deflated the boy's radials. He bit his lower lip and took an economy-sized breath. "I'm sorry. This has been stressful for all of us, and I guess it shows. As far as enemies, Barney doesn't have any that I'm aware of—or that he's aware of, to hear him talk. Oh, there are ministries in the New York area that are jealous of his success, but it's inconceivable that one of their members would resort to this sort of despicable behavior."
"Uh-huh. How would you describe the makeup of your flock?"
Morgan leaned back and laced his hands behind his head, which suggested that I was about to get more answer than I'd requested. "Mr. Goodwin, our membership, or 'flock,' as you so quaintly term it, is something over twelve thousand strong, and that's not to mention the hundreds of thousands in our 'electronic congregation,' who watch on TV from every single state, every Canadian province, and sixteen other countries, including Korea and the Philippines.
"Demographically, our members are a healthy mix. Of the twelve thousand plus, more than half are under thirty-five, and forty-four percent are single. And you'll probably be surprised to learn that almost four thousand of them live in Manhattan—many in the Village, East Village, and Soho. And several hundred ride over on the ferry weekly. Would you have guessed that?"
"Never," I said solemnly.
That brought forth a thin smile, which Wolfe would have described as smug. "I thought not," he said in a satisfied tone that made me yearn to help him out the door.
"Have you begun any type of internal investigation, or tried to at least figure out where the note-writer sits every week?"
"No. As I said before, we kept hoping it would ... go away by itself."
"These things rarely do. What about the police?"
Morgan shuddered, and I noticed beads of perspiration on his ample forehead. "With due respect to the authorities, this is the last course we want to pursue—at least at this point. As you of course know, the past few years have been difficult ones for high-profile ministries, particularly ones with a television arm. Now, I don't for one instant mean to compare us with some of the evangelists you've heard all too much about in the media. But the fact is, because of them and the awful image they have, we are very skittish about any kind of publicity that could be construed as sensational. And we are naturally quite concerned that if we called in the authorities, word would inevitably get to the press. Now do you see why I asked earlier if our talk was confidential?"
"I do. But if the situation worries you as much as you indicate, doesn't it really warrant bringing in the police?"
"Perhaps eventually." Morgan nodded. "But we—Barney, me, the other church leaders—thought that we'd try an alternative first."
"All right. But there are a couple things you should know from the start. First, Mr. Wolfe doesn't come cheap, and—"
"We are prepared to meet all but the most exorbitant demands." You had to give the man credit; he raised pomposity to an art form.
"And you may well find Mr. Wolfe's demands exorbitant," I told him. "But second, and this you can't do a damn thing about, he also is far from the world's biggest fan of organized religion—regardless of who's doing the organizing. Now that I've said that, don't ever make the mistake of trying to duel with him over biblical quotes; he knows that book better than I know the batting averages of the last Mets championship team. And believe me, I can give you those figures right down to earned run averages."
Morgan passed a handkerchief across his dewy forehead and sighed. "So are you suggesting that we look elsewhere for aid?"
"Not necessarily. But I do feel you should know exactly how the cards lie, and frankly, I'm not sure you have openers. However, Mr. Wolfe will be in the office in twelve minutes, and I'll discuss the matter with him then. How can I reach you?"
Excerpted from Silver Spire by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 1992 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Can't remember this one, but I do remember not caring much for all the Goldsborough follow-ups.
Not as good as earlier ones
Whoa, like, totes AMAZIN', BRO!!! ((I'm talking like some characters in my story.... :D)) I always think that my main character and your main character would be, like, BFFS!! :3 ~Echo