Archie’s always saying he’ll write this story down, but I don’t know. He doesn’t really like to talk about the time before he worked for Nero Wolfe. He’s got his reasons. In any case, if he does decide to write it, I’m sure his version will be different than mine. That’s the way life is. Everyone has his own view.
My name is Saul Panzer. I’m a freelance operative. I spent a couple of years in the army where they taught me two things. One was how to investigate crimes. The other was how to follow orders. I learned a couple of things, too. I learned that I was a better investigator when I didn’t have to follow too many orders. When I got out, I worked for an agency long enough to get my licenses taken care of, then I set out on my own.
I started doing jobs for Nero Wolfe fairly early on in my career. I liked that he was particular about the cases he took. No messy divorces or family businesses gone wrong. He treated the operatives he hired on the level, too. You never had to worry about the check being short or expenses going unpaid. Archie always says I could have his job, just for the asking, but we both know I don’t meet all of Wolfe’s requirements.
Enough about me. I started out to tell you the story of how Archie Goodwin met Nero Wolfe. It all began one Tuesday evening in May. Wolfe’s client, a Mr. Elmont Nichols, had a little shipping problem. Seems he was an importer of specialty teas. His company imported tea leaves from India and China to England, where they were specially blended for use in the best of eating establishments, and shipped here. Except two of his shipments had gone missing recently. One of them in the early hours of the past Monday morning. That particular incident had been accompanied by the killing of two men by a dock guard. The police were sure they knew who was behind the heists, but they weren’t making much headway with the culprit. Mr. Nichols wasn‘t impressed.
The suspect was one Lonnie Brougham, a small time hood whose rackets did not include anything so savory as lifting crates from docks. The aforementioned dead men were a couple of his goons. Brougham was telling the cops he’d had nothing to do with the whole deal, and frankly, my research had turned up the same answer. I hate coming up short for Wolfe like that, but what can you do?
"Perhaps," he said after I had given him my report, "the dock guard can give us some insight. The one that shot Mr. Brougham’s men."
"Yes. See if you can locate him. I’d like to see him tomorrow morning."
I didn’t anticipate having any problems locating Goodwin. I know most of the guys that run the docks by name, and his boss, Jack Mahoney, was an old acquaintance of mine. I knew he’d be in his office, such as it was, by nine Wednesday morning, so I stopped in to see him.
Jack was sorry to inform me that he’d been told to let Goodwin go. And he was sorry. Goodwin had been one his better employees. He always showed up for work, and he was never drunk. That’s saying a lot in his business. But the company was little upset about having two dead men and a lot of cops on their hands, not to mention the missing merchandise. He’d given Goodwin three day’s pay, even though he shouldn’t have. The police had kept the company’s gun as evidence, and he should have docked him for it. There’d be hell to pay, but, he’d liked the kid. I always knew Jack had a big heart. An address and description were forthcoming.
"He boards at Rita Murphy’s. About six feet tall, but he doesn’t weigh much more than you. All angles, knees and elbows. Kind of like a foal that hasn’t grown into his legs yet. And his hair is a sort of roan color. Don’t say that to him, though. If the kid has one fault, it’s that his temper is fast out of the gate, and he does have a temper about that hair."
Once a track hound, always a track hound.
The boarding house was easy enough to find. I knew what it would be like without stepping a foot inside. Cramped, airless rooms, a shared bath on each floor, and 13 bad meals a week. Two a day Monday through Saturday, one on Sunday. The lady of the house told me Mr. Goodwin had gone out in search of gainful employment, specifically, to an empty lot a couple of miles away where jobless men loitered in hopes of being picked to do day labor for a few cents an hour. I started out in that direction, hoping he hadn‘t been offered anything. It’s wrong to hope an honest man can’t find work, but I didn’t want to go back to Wolfe’s empty handed again.
I didn’t have to hoof it very far. A man matching Goodwin’s description passed by me, head down, shoulders hunched, a few blocks up. I took a chance.
"Yeah?" He turned back to look at me.
I try to control my reactions when I’m playing poker or on a job, but it just slipped out. There were a few things no one had bothered to mention about Goodwin, not the papers, not Jack. Jack had called him a kid, but I hadn’t taken him at his word. When you’re 60, everybody’s a kid. But the face that peered back at me couldn’t have been owned by someone more than 18, and that was pushing it. The fresh bruises that covered it hadn’t come up, either. "Lovin’ babe."
Goodwin cocked his head.
"The bulls really did a number on you," I covered.
He shrugged. "I had a disagreement with gentleman named Rowcliff about how two other gentlemen happened to end up dead on a dock the other night. He tried to persuade me to see it his way."
I should have known. "Yeah, I’ve seen his persuasion before. Tough luck."
The kid shrugged again. "Is there something I can do for you, mister..?
"Panzer," I supplied, "Saul Panzer. I’m a private investigator, on a case for a man named Nero Wolfe. Ever hear of him?"
"Sure, yeah. I read the papers."
"Mr. Wolfe would like to ask you a few questions, about that night on the dock."
"I don’t know what I could tell him that he hasn’t read in the papers."
It was my turn to shrug. "Mr. Wolfe is an unusual man. Sometimes he can hear the same story ten other people have listened to, and get something new from it. He thinks of questions to ask that the other guys don’t. You might know something that you don’t realize is important. Look, I‘ll make it worth your while. Mr. Wolfe won‘t be available for another hour or so. I‘ll stand you a breakfast. We can talk over a few things before we go."
I could see the idea of a decent meal had appeal.
"Yeah, well" He crooked his head in the direction of the boarding house. "Let me go change my clothes. I don’t want to sit in some rich man’s office looking like I’m ready to dig a ditch."
The suit he changed into wasn’t haute couture, but it was neatly pressed, and the shirt was clean. I took him to one of my favorite greasy spoons, slipping the dame behind the cash register a wink. I brought sources in here pretty often, and we had a system.
It was still crowded, despite the hour, but Archie and I managed to nab a booth. Before we were settled, Polly brought over a couple of cups of coffee, some rye toast for me, and a full spread for Archie. Somebody else could wait.
"You got some racket going here, Mr. Panzer. Magically appearing food." He flashed Polly a smile that made her blush like the virgin she wasn’t. "If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, or expense," he glanced at me, "could I get a glass of milk?" I nodded, and she fetched.
While he went at his food, I went over the basics. I told him about the brownstone, not to be offended if Wolfe didn’t offer to shake his hand, to answer the questions the best he could, and that Wolfe liked 'Eyes at a level.'
When he had slowed up some I slipped in a few questions, just conversationally. You never know when you’ll need information about someone. He told me he was from Ohio, and that things weren’t great back there. He was 18, and a high school graduate, and that was about all there was to the life of Archie Goodwin. I didn’t believe the last part. Hell, I wasn’t sure I believed he was 18 and a high school graduate. When he finished the last of his milk, we cabbed it to West 35th Street.
Fritz is a good doorman. Whatever he was thinking that day, as he let Archie and me in, he never let it show. Wolfe, on the other hand, threw me a glance as I walked over to my favorite seat. I shook my head. Nobody had warned me, either. Archie stood, uncertain, for a moment, and then sat in the red chair. Wolfe went through his usual patter.
"Would you like something to drink, Mr. Goodwin? I’m having beer."
The beer, milk and coffee duly requested and delivered, he got down to brass tacks.
"Mr. Goodwin, I understand you killed two men, who were employed by a Mr. Brougham, on Monday morning."
"It was self defense"
"Yes. In any case, I was wondering if you could tell me a few things about that night. I understand these men were trying to steal some cargo from a dock."
"No, they weren’t."
"They weren’t? But surely you told the police they were there to commit a robbery, and that you stopped them."
"No, I didn’t."
"Indeed. And do you have any idea why they were there, with loaded weapons, if not to steal?"
"Sure, they were there to see me."
"To see you. For any particular reason?"
Archie looked my way, and I nodded. He straightened himself up a little and took a sip of milk. Wolfe waited.
"Well you see, Lonnie, Mr. Brougham, is in the business of supplying a certain sort of merchandise on an hourly hire basis, and he’s been running short lately. One of his customers got a bit rough about a week ago and the merchandise ended up floating face down in the river. Another customer decided he wanted to take permanent possession. Lonnie, he’s suggested a few times that it might be best for my health if I ended up in his inventory, but I’ve always declined. Monday night, he decided he didn’t want to take no for an answer, so he sent a couple of his boys over to discuss it with me. I guess they didn’t think I would use that gun, or maybe they thought I didn’t know how. But they were wrong, and now they’re dead."
"And you led the police to believe they’d been there to steal?"
Goodwin struggled with his temper. "I did not." It came out even, but through a tight jaw. "That mook Rowcliff was going to make a career out of pinning a murder rap on me. We’d been going at it for a couple of hours already when one of the uniforms came in and told him there’d been a robbery on the pier where the shooting had gone down. Next thing I know, he’s decided I was just doing my job. It was probably easier to pick up Brougham than to keep working on me. I hadn’t budged from my story since I got there, and he was running out of body parts to bruise. I knew Lonnie didn’t have anything to do with any theft off the dock, but I wasn’t really in the mood to share that information."
"Well, this leaves us no better off than we were before, Saul. All we’ve done is further verify that Mr. Brougham is not our thief. We’re no closer to knowing who is."
"That would be Sam Grassman," Archie offered.
"Runs drugs, mostly to Chinatown," I said. "He’s not a capo, but he does have a good sized operation. He doesn’t manufacture, so he’d have to get the stuff here, somehow."
"Perhaps, Mr. Goodwin, it would be easier if you just told us what you know, from the beginning." He leaned back in his chair, and fixed his half closed eyes on the kid. I have to give it to Archie, I’ve seen more experience men intimidated by that look.
"It all started Sunday morning. I’d waited around after my shift to pick up my pay."
"You get paid on Sunday?"
"No, no we get paid on Friday. But the security company likes to give us our chicken feed in checks, just to keep it legal. Most of us don’t have bank accounts, so we sign the checks over to Jack, he’s the foreman, and, for a small fee, he cashes them for us."
Yeah, I always knew Jack had a big heart, and a secondary source of income.
"The money’s back in the office by Saturday, but that’s a real bad day to have extra brass in your pocket, you know? I usually wait until Sunday to pick it up, that way the landlady’s sure to get hers." Goodwin eyed Wolfe, to see if he could start his narrative again. No further interruptions forthcoming, he continued.
"The house only serves one meal on Sunday, and that’s at three, so I headed to a local diner to grab some breakfast."
Wolfe shuddered at the thought of one meal a day, but didn’t interrupt again.
"The joint was packed. There was an empty spot at the counter, way in the back, so I headed for it. As I sat down, I realized that the guy in the booth opposite was Sam Grassman. He’d been pointed out to me several times as someone to contact if I wanted some dope, and someone to avoid if I didn’t. He had his back to the wall, so he could look out at the crowd. I couldn’t see the face of the gorilla he was with. Grassman gave me the once over, but I guess I didn’t register as dangerous. The last thing most people think of when they see me is that there might be a brain between my ears. Anyway, he goes on talking to the gorilla about the boat having come in and the gum being on it."
"Opium," I explained.
The kid looked annoyed for a second, then half closed his own eyes. "He says ‘Willis wrapped the gum in tin foil and put some in each of the boxes, just like last time. We’ll have to rip through the whole shit load. I wish the little fuck could find a more efficient way to hide the crap, but I guess you get what you pay for. The boys won’t unload the crates on Sunday, so we’ll have to sit tight until tomorrow night.‘ He went on to describe the boat and the crates he’s after, and I was pretty sure it was one that came in to my patch the night before."
He opened his eyes again. "So, Monday night, I’m hanging around seeing if I can catch Grassman’s goons, when Lonnie decides to send over a couple of his own. I shoot them, I go to jail, the crates get lifted, I get out of jail. End of story."
At some point Wolfe’s finger started making little circles on the arm of his chair. I hadn’t thought to warn the kid about it. I hadn’t foreseen a situation where it would come up. It was too late now. Wolfe doesn’t raise his voice when he’s really angry. It gets low and tense. There’s an edge to it you could shave with.
"Did it not occur to you to enlighten the authorities with what you had heard, Mr. Goodwin? Did it not occur to you that if you caught Mr. Grassman’s ‘goons’ he would retaliate? Or that Mr. Brougham will do so once he is release, as he will no likely presume, as we have, that you told the police he was involved with the robbery? You have put yourself in grave danger, and you make no effort to avoid it. Are these the actions of a prudent man?"
If you had asked me before hand, I would have put it at ten to one the kid would lose his temper. I would have been wrong. Archie drew himself up and looked Wolfe in the eye.
"Look Mr. Wolfe, I get paid to guard that dock. Or at least I did. It wasn’t a great job, but I did my best. Sometimes that meant putting myself in danger. Not like that’s anything new. I don’t know how things look these days to people who live in fancy houses like this one, but things aren’t too great in my world. Back in Ohio, there are a lot of farms going under, a lot of mortgages being foreclosed, a lot of angry people. I came here hoping for better. Maybe there are better things here, I just found more of the same. My job on the docks barely paid my room and board. And that was working seven nights. I used to work couple of times a week, carting away dirt at construction sites, or hauling bricks, to pay for some luxuries like having my landlady boil my clothes clean twice a month, or eating more than once on Sunday. Now, I can’t even get that. With this beat up mug, I look like a trouble maker. I don’t have the money to get away from this, and even if I did, there’s no one waiting with open arms to take me in. I’m not an idiot, but I’m not a coward, either. Besides, if I did get away, it’s not like they couldn’t find out where I’d gone. You’d think in a big city like this there’d be some privacy, but I swear there’s more gossip in the Bowery than there ever was in Chillicothe. Anyway, I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it."
Wolfe stared into space for a few seconds, and then closed his eyes and started his lips moving. I had warned Archie about this particular habit, so he just sat back and waited. It didn’t take long.
"I have a plan. We’ll discuss it after lunch."
I wasn’t worried about Archie breaking bread at Wolfe’s table. He’d been a steady eater at breakfast, but not an ill-mannered one. The sweetbreads amandine and cold green-corn pudding were items he’d probably never seen before, but he handled them with aplomb. At the end of the meal he did something that, if I had to think about, I might think sealed his fate. He thanked Wolfe for inviting him to lunch, and told Fritz it was probably the best thing he’d ever eaten. Then he flashed Fritz the same smile he’d used on Polly. Fritz blushed, too, but I can’t comment on the state of his virtue.
Back in the office, Wolfe outlined his plan.
"Mr. Goodwin, are you willing to do a small job for me? I will, of course, pay you for your time and expenses."
Archie looked skeptical, but said "Sure."
"Later this evening, Mr. Panzer will visit you at your rooming house. Please have a parcel prepared for him, with any articles you might need to stay here for several nights. While you may be willing to endanger your life for the sake of your job, I am not willing to do so for the sake of my client."
"Tomorrow morning, you will go back to dock, and any other areas you frequent, and make it clear that you know that Mr. Brougham is not responsible for the robbery. Indicate that you do know who is responsible, but don’t name him. Make sure people know you’ve seen me about the case. If you see anyone acting particularly nervous about your revelations, come here immediately. In any case, be back in time for lunch. It will be served at 1:15. I‘ll see to it that you have taxi fare."
"Once word of your ‘gossip’ has gotten back to Mr. Grassman, I’m sure Mr. Panzer will be able to persuade him to meet me here for a discussion, where we will be joined by my client, and the authorities. Friday evening, after dinner, would be optimal."
Archie left a few minutes later with his marching orders, and a fin in his pocket. I stayed on for a few more instructions.
The scuttlebutt Archie spread around did the job. I had things set up with Grassman by Friday morning. I was surprised, when I got to the brownstone Friday at eleven, to find Wolfe alone in his office, deep in the recesses of a book.
"Mr. Goodwin upstairs contemplating life?"
"Mr. Goodwin’s nature does not lend itself to contemplation, nor, it seems, to other quiet or sedentary pursuits. He has, thus far, assisted Theodore and me in the repotting of a number of orchids, typed some quite lengthy correspondence and advised me as to the short comings of my newspaper filing system. He has also assisted Fritz with the laundry. Currently, he is being instructed on the proper way to prepare vegetables for a ratatouille."
I didn’t hear any screaming coming from the kitchen, so either Goodwin was dead, or Fritz was actually tolerating having him in his domain. Come to think of it, I’d known Wolfe to be nearly apoplectic for far lesser disturbances. He wasn’t even ruffled. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself. There was a definite look of amusement in his eyes. Twenty-four hours. The kid had been there less than twenty-four hours and he already had both of them wrapped around his little finger.
"Were you able to verify the information he gave you?"
"Yes, sir. An Archie Goodwin graduated from high school in Chillicothe, Ohio last year. He’s eighteen years old, not in any trouble with the police before Monday, either here or back in Ohio. I’d say the kid is who he says he is."
I never have been sure whether it was my report that was satisfactory, or Archie’s background.
"And Mr. Grassman will be here at ten?"
"Good. Mr. Cramer will be here. I told him I had some information about Monday’s deaths. I’ve asked him to bring reinforcements. I believe everything is in place. We have only to wait."
When I got back to the brownstone that evening, Archie and Fritz were putting finishing touches on the room. Archie was grousing that Wolfe wouldn’t let him stay in the office to see the fireworks. He’d been ordered to the alcove to peer through the trick picture on the wall.
"He doesn’t think any more people should know my face than already do. Can you beat that?"
I could see Wolfe’s point. Archie’s face was almost back to normal. The bruises had turned a sickly color of yellow, but most of the swelling was gone. There was a slight bump to the middle of his nose that probably wasn’t there before, but would be from then on. It was the sort of face people remember, even then.
Cramer and his men were the first to arrive. Fritz answered the door, while Archie headed for cover. The client was next, and finally Grassman. You could say that he was not delighted to find the cops there, but it was too late once he was in the office. Cramer told him to find a seat and stay in it. He had the muscle to enforce his request.
Wolfe’s entered and the show began. He explained to the gathered parties that Mr. Grassman had been smuggling opium in Mr. Nichols tea shipments, and that the death of two men Monday had been an unrelated diversion, but no doubt one Mr. Grassman had welcomed.
Of course, Grassman denied it all. Unfortunately for him, while Goodwin and I had been stirring things up, Wolfe had been on the phone to London. His associate there, Hitchcock, had tracked down Willis, who had spilled the beans. Grassman should have paid him more.
Cramer’s men hustled Grassman out to a waiting car, and Fritz saw the client out to the front door.
Cramer was upset to find out that the only information on Monday’s deaths was that they definitely weren’t connected to the robbery and demanded to know what Wolfe wasn’t letting on.
Wolfe merely wagged his index finger at Cramer and said, "I wasn’t hired to find out anything about those deaths, only about the robbery. I understand that it was self defense. Perhaps the dead men thought the guard had been paid recently, and were trying to rob him?"
"Yeah, perhaps. Balls!" Cramer stormed out of the office and down the hall.
The kid wandered back into the room after all the company had left, and started to rearrange the furniture. Wolfe waved him off with a flip of his hand.
"Archie, leave that."
If he noticed Goodwin’s crestfallen look, he didn’t let on.
"It’s late. You should go to bed. You can help Fritz straighten things out in the morning, after breakfast. I’d like you to type a report of this affair, in triplicate. We can go over it when I come down from the plant rooms."
"Yes, sir. Good night. Good night, Mr. Panzer." I think he took the stairs three at a time.
I almost asked Wolfe if he had decided to take permanent possession, but I knew he wouldn’t find it humorous.
"Are you going to offer Mr. Goodwin a job?"
"I think it would be for the best. He can type and shoot a gun. He has an abundance of energy, and does not seem adverse to assisting with household chores. He is seems clever enough to be trained in the art of investigation, and young enough not to have a multitude of bad habits. Besides," he said, nodding his head at Fritz, who had just come in to clear away the dirty glassware, "Fritz likes him."
"He is a nice boy, even if he does prefer to eat breakfast in the kitchen."
Well, that’s it. The rest is history. Archie is still there, typing, filing, and eating breakfast in the kitchen. Every once in awhile, Wolfe lets him out to do some sleuthing, too.
Even if Wolfe offered me Archie’s job, I couldn’t do it. Not that he would. He told me once that he had arranged his office so that everything within view was aesthetically pleasing. That way, his thought processes are never jarred as he gazes around the room.
Aesthetically pleasing. That’s Archie. Even with the bump on his nose.
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