Wolfe knew that Billie Clark was the murderer. He knew that she killed her cousin to keep him quiet about some of her other activities, too numerous to mention here. But he let her go.
Clark had originally hired Wolfe to find her cousin's murderer and actually convinced everyone that she was afraid for her life. At one point, I was comforting her while she was waiting for Wolfe.
Wolfe never falls for a pretty face but Clark had something that fascinated and un-nerved him at the same time. He told her that she would be under his protection until he caught the killer. He was as close to heartbroken as I ever seen him when he came to the conclusion that she did it. I remember him sitting back in his chair and putting his hands on his stomach. "She did it, Archie," he said simply and completely ignored the beer that Fritz had brought in for him.
Wolfe wasn't planning on letting Clark escape justice. He just couldn't turn her over to the police in his own office where he had said that he'd protect her. His sense of honor wouldn't allow that, but he'd turn everything he had over to Inspector Cramer so that he could find and arrest her.
"Are you sure about this?" I asked when Clark rang the bell.
"Bring her in, Archie," Wolfe said calmly.
I shrugged. "Yes, sir." I walked to the front door, let Clark in, and took her to Wolfe's office. She sat down and looked at him expectantly.
"I've discovered who killed your cousin," Wolfe said to her.
"Who?" Clark asked, sitting forward in the chair. I have to admit that she was a good actress.
"You," Wolfe answered flatly.
"Me?" Clark exclaimed, giving an almost perfect imitation of shocked innocence.
"Yes, you, and don't bother denying it. I'll be turning all the evidence over to the police," Wolfe stated and held up a hand. "They should be here in about three minutes so you should go now."
"Well, if you'd rather they captured..." Wolfe began but Clark didn't wait for him to finish. She stood up and quickly left.
I heard her footsteps in the hall and then the front door slammed. "I guess she doesn’t want to sample the NYPD’s hospitality,” I said and then asked, “Are you sure that was a good idea?"
Wolfe shook his head slightly. "No, but she thought she was under my protection. I have no doubt that Mr. Cramer will catch up with her, but I couldn't have him taking her from here."
That was Wolfe's logic and most of the time, it worked towards everyone's benefit. I didn't have any doubts either that Cramer would catch Clark, but I'd catch something else from Cramer later. I figured that it would take all of my talent to defrost him from the icy mood he'd be in after this one.
A few minutes later, Cramer showed up with Sergeant Purley Stebbins and it didn't take Wolfe long to explain who the murderer was and why. Not more than ten minutes passed since Clark hurriedly left the house.
"I think I saw Billie Clark on the street just as we were coming," Stebbins said after Wolfe finished.
"Yes, I'm sure you did," Wolfe replied. "Ms. Clark was in quite a hurry to leave."
I noticed Cramer begin to grind his cigar between his teeth. Instead of the explosion that Wolfe and I both expected, he stood up calmly, while Stebbins shot up onto his feet. He motioned to Stebbins, who almost ran out the door. Then he gave me a brief, irritated glare and shifted his stare back to Wolfe. "You mean to tell me that you let a killer walk away?" he asked in barely contained excitement and annoyance.
"I had to," Wolfe stated. “She thought she was under my protection.”
Cramer sighed. "I'll deal with you later after I've taken care of Ms. Clark."
"I certainly hope you do catch her. She's a dangerous woman."
Cramer didn't say anything to that, turned on his heel, and walked out, without another look at me. I stared after him until the door slammed. I turned back to Wolfe. "That went well."
Wolfe ignored my sarcasm and just grunted. Suddenly, we heard gunshots and shouting coming from outside. I quickly stood up and headed to the door. I didn't pay any attention to Wolfe, who was moving at the lightening speed of a turtle.
I got to the door just as someone started banging on it. A panicked young officer stared at me and Stebbins yelled, "Dermont, call an ambulance!"
Dermont rushed past me and I stepped onto the stoop. I stared at the chaos in front of me. Policemen were rushing every which way. I swallowed when I didn't see Cramer. I scanned the crowd and finally caught sight of Stebbins crouching near the ground with several other cops. They were huddled around something. There were a couple other groups as well. Stebbins briefly met my gaze and looked away to shout out orders.
"What happened?" I asked Dermont when he came back out of the house.
He stopped and glared at me. His expression asked why he should tell me anything.
"This is Mr. Wolfe's house," I coaxed and pointed to Wolfe who was standing in the hall. "It would be nice to know what's going on."
Dermont kept glaring but answered, "We chased the suspect to the second story of the empty building across the street. She began shooting at us. She was actually a pretty good shot and kept us out of there for almost ten minutes. She shot two men before we finally got a beat on her and took her out."
"Where is Inspector Cramer?" I asked even though I already knew. If Cramer was okay, he would've come in storming at Wolfe for putting his men in danger.
"Over there," Dermont answered, pointing to Stebbins. "He took a slug in the chest."
For a moment, I had trouble breathing. Dermont walked past me and I sank down onto the stoop. My hands were shaking, so I sat on them and just stared at where I knew Cramer was laying. Soon the ambulance came and he and the other wounded cop were loaded on.
Stebbins watched the ambulance speed away. He stared in the direction it had gone for a solid five minutes. Then he looked down at his hands, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped them off. He stuffed it back in his pocket and approached the brownstone.
Stebbins stopped before the first step. He was staring at the ground and absently rubbing his fingers together. For a moment, I focused on his hands and the traces of Cramer's blood that I saw there. "Is he alive?" I asked.
"Yeah," Stebbins answered. His voice was strangely calm and he looked at me with hooded eyes. He mounted the few stairs and I followed him into the house. He walked up Wolfe, who hadn't moved, and showed him his red-stained hands. "His blood's on your hands, too."
Cramer once told me that the police department was a brotherhood and seeing Stebbins at that moment convinced me. He stared at Wolfe, willing my employer to understand. Finally he put his hands down to his sides and stood there quietly. He seemed too overwhelmed to be angry, but I had no doubt that every cop in the city was going to be pissed at us.
"You have my deepest apologies," Wolfe said. His eyes flickered from Stebbins to me and then back to the Sergeant again.
Stebbins sighed, shook his head, and then turned and left without another word. I stepped out of the way and continued to stare at Wolfe, whose face was entirely still as if carved out of stone. "I never thought..." his voice trailed off in confusion.
"Just a minute. You said yourself that she was dangerous. She killed her cousin and we let her walk away." I wouldn't let him say that he didn't know and get away with it. Neither he nor I were going to get off the hook that easy. Stebbins was right. Cramer's blood was on our hands, too.
Wolfe was about to say something but nodded instead. We stood in silence and finally he said, "I let my judgment become clouded and this is what happened." He paused and gazed at me steadily. "I'm sorry, Archie. It will never happen again." Then he went to the elevator and disappeared upstairs.
I let out a long breath and rested my hands on my knees. All I could hear was my own breathing. All I could think about was Cramer and the image of him being loaded onto the ambulance. At least he's alive, I told myself, but that didn't help very much.
The newspapers ran the story but left the part where Wolfe let Clark go out. That was the best thing for all concerned but....
I didn't go to the hospital. I figured that Stebbins wouldn't let me see Cramer. I'd see him when he got out and try to make up what I owed him. After three days of stewing, Wolfe told me to go to the hospital.
"Why?" I asked.
"I want to know how the good Inspector is doing," Wolfe answered. He took his eyes off his book and fastened them on me. "And so do you."
"What makes you think anyone at the hospital will tell me anything?" I asked and shifted in my chair. Suddenly I couldn't get comfortable. "And Stebbins is probably sitting outside Cramer's room like a watchdog."
"You're a skilled operative, Archie. I'm sure you'll find a way."
"Confound it, go. Neither of us will be able to get our lives back to normal until you do," Wolfe
There was no use arguing with Wolfe, so I went. After all, our lives were anything but normal and he hated having his routine disturbed. He had hardly eaten anything since that night and he'd lost his taste for beer and I was having trouble concentrating and getting a good night's sleep.
It didn't take much work for me to get Cramer's room number. I think the nurse gave it to me because of how pathetic I looked. Even I couldn't delude myself into thinking I could be suave at that point in time. I also stopped off in a hospital bathroom and I did look pathetic. There were bags under my eyes and they weren't as clear as they usually are. "Thanks a lot Inspector," I muttered.
I stopped outside Cramer's room and wondered what I was going to do when I went in there. I jammed my hands in my pockets and told myself to get going.
"He's asleep," Stebbins said beside me.
I hadn't seen Stebbins coming. The Sergeant isn't exactly light-of-foot, but he caught me totally off guard. "Hi, Stebbins."
"Walk with me, Goodwin."
"Walk with me," Stebbins repeated and began walking down the hall.
I fell into step beside him, trying to figure out what he wanted. He soon answered that by clearing his throat and saying, "He asked for you on the sidewalk."
My head shot up and I stared at Stebbins, who gazed straight ahead. "He did?"
Stebbins nodded shortly. "I didn't know what to make of it until I saw how you reacted that night. You've seen combat and violence before and you're usually calm and cool. I wondered why you looked like you'd been punched in the gut. And now, you've shown up here."
"I think you might be reading too much into this," I stated but knew it wasn't very convincing. Cramer and I had always been careful because we knew that people wouldn't react well.
"I don't think I am."
What could I say? He was right, but how could I admit it? The only other person who knew about me and Cramer was Wolfe and he'd never mentioned it. He knew that my first loyalty was still to him and only made reference to it to get me to go to the hospital.
"How long?" Stebbins asked, breaking into my train of thought.
For the first time, Stebbins stared me straight in the face. There was no anger or resentment. "How long?"
I sighed and answered honestly, "Almost a year."
"Okay," I repeated. "Is that it?"
"Yes," Stebbins said, staring straight ahead again.
"Because..." he began. Then his face grew red. "Because..." Again, he faltered and growled in frustrated embarrassment. "Because he's happier with you than he was before," he said quickly.
I stopped short and Stebbins stopped, too. He gave a small laugh. "We were all trying to figure out who his new woman was."
I grinned at that but another thought occurred to me. "If you figured it out..."
"Don't worry. I'm the only one. It would never occur to anyone else," Stebbins replied with assurance.
"Are you sure?"
Stebbins nodded. "Your secret's safe with me, but I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it for him."
"Okay," I said simply. We'd both had enough of sharing our feelings so I didn't push him for any more.
We resumed our journey down the hall and Stebbins said, "If you tell anyone about this little discussion, even the Inspector, I'll deny it."
I had no plans to tell anyone. His eyes were focused ahead again and his chin was jutting out a little. Then he glanced at me and all I had to do was nod.
The next day, I came back to see Cramer. The door to his room was open and I heard a bunch of people inside. I took a quick look and saw a group of cops visiting with him. Stebbins saw me and nodded slightly. "All right fellas," he said, standing up. "I think we've bugged the Inspector enough for now. Let's give him a breather."
I ducked into the room next door and tipped my hat to the man in the hospital bed. "Sir." A few seconds later, everyone had filed out of Cramer's room and I heard Stebbins say, "See ya later, Boss."
I glanced back at the man one more time. "Sorry." Then I slipped into Cramer's room. He looked at me when I shut the door.
"Goodwin," he said.
"Hey," I answered, jamming my hands into my pockets.
"I was wondering when you'd decide to put in an appearance."
"Yeah," I muttered, still standing by the door.
"Goodwin, come over here."
I did as he asked and went to stand near the bed. I wanted to touch him, but my hand wouldn't move.
Cramer searched my face. "It's not your fault," he stated quietly.
"Yes it is. If we hadn't let her go..."
"She might've started shooting in Wolfe's office and actually killed someone," Cramer finished. "I'm going to be fine. Officer Hughes is going to be fine."
"Let it go, Goodwin," Cramer interrupted firmly.
"I'm sorry," I blurted.
"I know. Now, let it go."
I took his hand and put it against my forehead. I was not crying. I do not cry, but I was close. After I let go of his hand, he touched my face. "There is one thing you can do for me," he said.
"Bring me a cigar."
I laughed. "I think I can manage that."
"I do plan on guilting your fat boss later," Cramer said half-seriously, with just a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"Good. He deserves it."
Cramer got serious again. "Thanks for coming to see me, Goodwin."
"It's my pleasure, Inspector."
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