I hadn’t thought much of the letter when it came, addressed to yours truly. I noticed only the unremarkable facts that the address was penciled and that there was a smudge on one corner from a balky roller or the postman’s thumb. Either cause would not have surprised me. The letter interrupted me only until I saw it into the wire letter holder on the corner of my desk.
I was otherwise occupied, and I won’t say busy because I wasn’t, dealing myself another hand of solitaire. I didn’t know if it was even called a hand, and I didn’t care. There were still ten minutes left until Wolfe came downstairs in his elevator and I’d planned on looking rakish. I thought about putting one foot up on the desk and tilting my hat down over my eyes. I could also take up smoking again. It would look ridiculous, and it would irritate Wolfe to no end, which would probably be beneficial. But, then again, I didn’t want to be the cause of an embolism any more than I wanted one myself, and a gentleman never wears a hat indoors. My fedora was on a hook in the front hall.
I was losing terribly to myself, and instead of cheating, (which Wolfe says encourages moral turpitude), I decided to scout out the kitchen. Fritz was by the sink, deftly shucking boiled eggs and placing them in a deep china bowl.
“Party favors?” I asked him as I fetched myself a glass of milk. He hummed briefly to himself before deeming it proper to answer me.
“Devilled.” He answered in his tone that meant business.
Further questioning proved futile, and I returned to my desk and stared at my irksome cards. The Queen of Diamonds was too busy with her bouquet to pay much attention to anything else. Who could blame her, really? Her date hadn’t turned up yet. I was wondering how she got the flowers in the first place when I heard the elevator start on its way down.
I had waited to open the letter because there was no mail for Wolfe today, and I knew at least this would irritate him a little. Probably more than playing cards would, in any case. So when he lumbered in for my “good morning” I didn’t say it but looked very busy as I examined the envelope. He settled his bulk behind his desk and eyed the row of cards. He grunted.
“Now, here’s a letter that shows good taste.” I held it up against the light, playing detective. “Before I open it, should I take fingerprints, do you think? Or is the postal system so full of criminals and miscreants that I shouldn’t take the time?”
He looked at me with an expression meant to freeze me in my tracks. I didn’t let it stop me.
“There’s no mail for you today, but if you feel you need the exercise, you can open this one for me and I can get back to my card game.”
He glared and reached for his latest book, “The American Language” by H. L. Mencken, a thick volume on etymology which was no doubt was full of substantial theories and used long, complicated words. I got out my letter-opener and slit the envelope.
There was only a single sheet of paper inside, and it was pastel pink. Scrawled in the centre, in dark pencil, were the words “Sophie Carver (Flamingo Club) , LE 4-1719. Confidential.”
I wouldn’t have opened the envelope if I had known what sort of trouble Miss Sophie Carver (Confidential) was in. But I was bored, and the phone number excited me. I picked up the receiver and dialed. Sooner or later, Wolfe was bound to ask what was going on, and then he’d have to talk to me.
“Mister Goodwin,” she said when I’d reached the appropriate party, “I must see Nero Wolfe as soon as possible. I’m in trouble and I need his help.” She didn’t give me more details, and, to be fair, I didn’t press her. It was screwy to send a letter asking for a phone call. Some girls are funny that way.
“Sure, you can come right over.” I didn’t give her the address because she’d obviously looked it up or hadn’t lost the card I’d given her after we’d danced. She said she would arrive at half past eleven. I looked at the clock. I said that would be fine. She rang off and I cradled the phone.
“You’re lucky, it was just an admirer from The Flamingo,” I told Wolfe. “Sophie Carver. She dances like a movie star, and she happens to think I’m a pretty swell guy. She’s sending me love notes in the post. You can read it if you’re finished that chapter.”
He snorted through his nose like a bull. Wolfe sure was in a mood this morning. Of course he was fuming about my late evening, which I hadn’t intended to go so well - or so late - but he wasn’t going to say anything. He could stonewall me, but if I played this right he’d just end up boring himself. Sometimes that’s the best way to get him moving again.
I turned back to my game of solitaire and counted to sixty. I played a card. I cleared my throat and counted to sixty again. Before I could play another card, Wolfe opened his mouth.
“How is the financial situation?” He didn’t raise his eyes from the book, but I could tell he’d stopped reading. His eyes were still. I knew he’d been working on that sentence since he’d come down from the plant rooms. I leaned back in my chair and watched him.
“We’re comfortable, but, quite frankly, I’m bored. And I can tell you’re bored, because you’ve read that book before, though you’re not going to admit it. And if I have to play another hand of solitaire against myself I may as well be outside. And if I’m outside–“
“Confound it, if you must play the fool with cards there are propagation reports still to be filed!” Wolfe snapped, but he still hadn’t taken his eyes from the page. I knew something was eating him.
“Say, you’re sore because I didn’t dine in last night, because I danced and had a fine time with a lovely woman, and because I didn’t tell you when I’d be home.”
Wolfe snorted and turned the page as a ruse. “Nonsense. You should advise Fritz sooner when you decide to go gallivanting about, so he doesn’t prepare too much food.”
“That’s ridiculous. He made just enough, you ate it all, and I know it. Not a scrap went to waste.” I slid a card out from the bottom of a pile and cheated it under the Queen of Diamonds. “The dancing at the Flamingo was not to be missed, even for Fritz’s divine Cutlets Parmigiana. I finished the propagation reports before you came downstairs this morning. And, by the way, I think you should see this Miss Carver. She’s coming to see you in twenty-five minutes.”
Wolfe dug in his vest pocket for his watch, which gave away his anxiety. He could have looked up from his book at the clock, but that would have meant looking past me to its shelf, which was too close.
“Very well,” he rumbled.
Wolfe doesn’t like women as a whole, and girls in particular. I see nothing wrong with women, as they are better dancers than most men, and no one stares if you’re holding onto one too tightly, but that’s beside the point. Wolfe didn’t like this woman because she was a girl, and because she was wearing a tailored pink suit and a pert hat with an egret feather in it. She didn’t look the same as she had at the Flamingo, but I had no doubt it was her because her suit was the same color as her note's stationary. I wasn’t sure about the feather.
Wolfe had relinquished etymology for Miss Carver and wasn’t happy about the change. She sat in the red leather chair and looked nervous. When faced with Wolfe’s genius, some people were. I got out my notebook, just in case, and gave her a brotherly smile to help the atmosphere.
“Mister Wolfe, I am being threatened by an acquaintance of mine.” She pronounced “acquaintance” as though it was distasteful to her. “I believe he is having me followed, but I haven’t seen him doing it. I want you to find him and stop him. Archie - Mister Goodwin - was kind enough to leave me his card and so I came to see you.”
Wolfe shot me a look when she said my name. He cleared his throat. “Miss Carver, the police are usually quite efficient and I am sure there is no need for my help or Mister Goodwin’s in this matter.” Her face whitened and she let out a small cry.
“The police can’t help,” she said sharply. Her eyes were wide and dark. “I suppose you’ve heard of the Heron Acres Estate, the private hospital uptown?”
“I have,” he said. There had been an article in the papers when the building sold. Now neighbors were complaining about its condition, dubbing it “Heroin Acre.” That was as much as either Wolfe or I knew. Sophie knew more.
“This acquaintance of mine, he bought it when it closed down and is using it as a base of operations. I can’t see the police because he was using me as a mule.” She bit her lip and looked down at her hands.
“You were running drugs for this man?” Wolfe wasn’t shocked, but I was. I managed to control my face and keep the noise to a minimum. She didn’t look like the kind of girl who’d carry merchandise like that. But, then, I supposed that’s why she’d been chosen.
“I was, and I still do, from time to time, when he forces me. The police mustn’t know, or they’d arrest me and he’d get away.” I expected to see big bright tears welling up in her eyes, but there weren’t. She had her emotions pretty well under control.
Sophie Carver was pretty good playing the old heartstrings, but somehow Wolfe resisted. He frowned a quarter of an inch and said sharply, “Deal with the police. They are not unsympathetic to damsels in distress. I, however, am not a common thug.”
“Confound it, woman, if you want a bodyguard or a common thug, I am sure Mister Goodwin can recommend one! But don’t waste my time!” He reached out a hand and took up his book again. I rose and escorted Miss Carver to the hallway.
“He really is brutish.” She dabbed at her eyes with a pocket handkerchief and composed herself.
“Ah, Mister Wolfe’s splenetic temperament leaves much to be desired.” The door to the office was open, and I knew Wolfe could hear me. “There are a few minutes between eleven and one where he is civil, but apparently not today. Shall I call you a taxi?”
Sophie Carver laughed in spite of herself.
“Why, aren’t you gallant.” She smiled. She reminded me of one of those sad porcelain dolls that little girls neglect because they are too expensive. When she smiled, she really was quite pretty.
“Gallant’s my middle name. I don’t have it printed on the cards because it takes up too much space.” I held her overcoat for her as she slid into it.
“Are you busy tonight?” she asked me smoothly. “Just a few drinks and a dance or two?”
For any woman who dances the way she did, I’d walk to the moon and back, even if she was carrying a pound of heroin in her purse. Of course I said yes.
We danced until Sophie Carver tired, and had one glass of champagne too many. I flagged a taxi and saw her home.
“I haven’t had a night like this in a long time!” she sighed, leaning on my shoulder as the cab turned into her street. “I have so much on my mind. Won’t you come up for a few minutes?”
Wolfe had been peevish when I left, and I could only imagine his irritation on the second morning of my continuing fall from grace. If I stayed to discover what exactly Sophie had on her mind, I could be there all night, and would definitely not get enough sleep for another full day of resentful Wolfe. I sighed and patted her lovely shoulder. I felt very brotherly by the time I walked her to the door of her apartment building. She kissed me. I felt very brotherly indeed.
The cab hadn’t gone more than five blocks toward the old brownstone on 35th, when I felt a lump under me on the seat. I dug it out. It was Sophie’s pearl-studded clutch, a padded seafoam satin to match her dress.
“Turn around,” I asked the cabbie, and when we got to Sophie’s apartment again, I gave him a sawbuck and said “If I’m not back in ten minutes, take it up with my boss.” I slipped him my card and went up the walk, feeling pretty dapper.
There was an intercom box and a button, but it was broken. So was the lock on the front door. I pushed it open with my foot and moved across the lobby. Raised voices were coming from the second floor, where Miss Carver’s apartment was. I tiptoed up the stairs and held back outside her door. It was open a full inch, and there was light inside. It trickled onto the carpet in the hallway.
There was a man inside, and he was yelling with a voice that was rough enough to sand with. Sophie was crying.
“Spense, I haven’t got your money or your merchandise!”
“That’s too bad, Sophe, it really is, but you really messed up going to see that Private cop. One of my guys saw you leaving that joint, and it doesn’t look good.”
“I can explain!” she cried.
“I’m sick of your goddamn explanations. You’re coming back to work for me.”
There was the sound of a scuffle, and the dry sound of a hand striking flesh. I heard her cry out. At that point, faced with two choices that were equally unappealing, and armed only with a seafoam clutch, I knocked boldly on the door, swung it open and gave a big, friendly grin.
“Miss Carver?” I strode over to Sophie, who was crumpled on the couch with her face half-hidden in her hands. “Remember me? You left this in the taxi.”
The man who had been yelling shut up quickly, but his face was still beet red. He also had two thugs with him, who had been hanging back and hugging the wall when I came in. Now they came forward. Both of them had big hands and necks like cement piles. I hitched up my pant legs and sat next to Sophie.
“What’s the big idea, wise guy?” The red-faced man growled.
"Archie Goodwin. I’m a friend and casual dancing partner of Miss Carver. That’s not what’s printed on my business cards, but give it time.”
“Very funny. You’re in the wrong room, pal, and I don’t see an orchestra here to play you out.” He got very hard-looking, and motioned to the two goons. “These boys will show you the door.”
“Are you associates of Miss Carver? Perhaps the infamous ex?”
He laughed, and it was a sound like falling bricks. “A sweet-talker, this one. You sure know how to pick ‘em, Sophe.”
She looked up from her hands and spat viciously, “I picked you, Spense.”
He laughed again, then grabbed her wrists, hard, and twisted her to her feet. “Leave the gigolo, Sophe, and go with him.” He pushed her towards one of the thugs. I was on my feet and moving, the clutch purse swinging. That caught Spense off guard, and I sucker punched him on the jaw before the clutch hit the floor. The second thug was faster than I thought. He grabbed my arm and had it behind my back before I could blink. Spense was on top of me in a flash.
“You fight as well as you dance, nancy?” He grimaced, and socked me one in the ribs that had me gasping. Sophie screamed as the big boy dragged her down the stairs.
“I can dance if it’s a fair fight, but not two on one,” I managed when I drew breath. “You should try it sometime.”
He slugged me in the face and my vision swam. The thug dropped me to the floor, and followed Spense out the door. I tried to get up but my legs weren’t listening. I felt like a landed fish. Sophie was still fighting; I could hear her screams out in the street. I managed to hook an arm over the couch and pull myself up. My ears were buzzing, and I shook my head to clear it. That seemed to work well enough. I made for the door, wishing I’d brought my gun. I’d wish it several more times before long. When you dress for dancing, you never think about a tango like this.
I paused for breath outside and listened for the sound of footsteps. Since there hadn’t been any newly-parked cars since my last visit to the front door, I figured they’d parked behind the building, where an alley ran off northwards. It was folly, rushing in headlong with no weapon, but there was nothing for it. I clenched my fist and found the clutch was still there. At least I’d die accessorized.
The alley was dark, just the way they show it in detective pictures. I could hear footsteps at the other end of it, and Sophie’s crying. No car doors had slammed yet, so I was in luck. A row of battered trash cans grinned out from the side wall. I was moving carefully, not playing tough this time. The man I was following wasn’t playing either. I took a deep breath and dived right in. It was gloomy at the end of the alley, and the only thing that made it more scenic was the profusion of rotted garbage that had accumulated over the years.
“Give it up!” I yelled out, trying to sound like I wasn’t afraid. My heart was pounding. “You can’t run too far.”
There was a yell of anger from behind a pile of leaking garbage bags. A bottle smashed near my toe. I drew back along the wall, beneath a fire escape, looking for something to toss back at him.
“You’d better watch out, Goodwin!” Spense yelled. Another bottle smashed against the wall near my head. I ducked as pieces of glass sprayed over me. “We’ll be mailing you home in a pine box!”
“In how many pieces?” I was ever the smart-mouth, and sometimes it got me in trouble. I backed away from the glass, attempting a retreat. I couldn’t see him, but he could obviously see me, and was trying for the broken bottle World Series.
“Archie!” Sophie’s last fling at freedom was to scream out my name. I heard a car door slam, and lights came on, blinding me. The ignition caught and the gears clashed as the engine roared into life. With the bricks at my back, there was nowhere left to go. As the car lurched nearer, something huge and hard slapped me across the shoulder and I fell hard onto the hood. I blinked up at Sophie’s stunned face a moment, before I slid off the hood and hit the pavement. I saw the night sky, brief and clear, before everything went quiet and black.
I saw stars when I woke, too, but these weren’t constellations. They were splashes of pain against my eyelids, white hot and dull red. My head throbbed and there was a taste in my mouth that might have been blood. My eyes felt too big for my skull. I cracked one of them open.
There used to be private sanitariums where a man could go, take a three-day liquor cure and not be seen. When Heron Acres had been funded and functioning, it’d had quite a reputation for efficiency, comfort and cleanliness. I couldn’t be the judge of that now, but from its looks, the room had seen better days. The tiles were still green and white, and the fixtures were chromed. The window, which was higher than my head, was barred, and beyond it I could see only white sky.
Whatever I was laying on wasn’t comfortable, but it probably wasn’t meant to be. When I tried to move, I discovered I’d been strapped down. I also found gauze and a lump of sticking plaster across my left shoulder. It was a good thing I’d been securely fastened because it gave me time to think, and reason everything out clearly. What I thought about was the broken bones I felt rubbing together. It hurt like the devil.
The door opened and I turned my head, which I regretted because it made my shoulder scream, and watched a girl come in. She was wearing a white short-sleeved dress and carrying a small syringe and a bottle. When she saw he looking she nearly dropped both of them.
“Oh,” she said, breathless in the way frightened girls are when they try to pretend they aren’t, “you’re awake.” She smoothed her pale blonde hair, which was already drawn back into a bun tight enough to snap a quarter on.
“What gives?” I tried. She wasn’t giving. There was a pinprick in my arm and she drew back, waiting.
I thought she looked like an angel, if angels came to rundown sanitariums to give out shots, but before I could tell her I lost it and fell back into the dreamless blackness.
The second time around wasn’t any more pleasant than the first. The sky outside the high window was black instead of white. The room was still dirty tile and chrome. I was still tied down, and I still hurt. But this time there was another fellow in the room with me.
By the looks of him, his mother was a bulldog. He had wide shoulders, very little neck and a lot of face. He was wearing a squashed felt hat far back on his head, and it didn’t suit him. His teeth were clamped to a foul-smelling cigar. He was relaxing on a stool, picking his nails with the corner of a business card. My business card. When he saw my eyes were open, he bristled with authority and tossed the card to the floor.
“So you’re Goodwin.” He was halfway between amused and wanting to rip my throat out. “Spense says you were at the apartment when he came to collect, and you might be dangerous.” He left me a little space for an answer. Miraculously, I kept my mouth shut. Whatever had been in that shot the blonde gave me, it was making my head spin.
Bulldog chewed on his cigar a bit more. Then he took the thing out of his mouth and jabbed at me with the wet end.
“Think you’re a tough guy, dontcha Goodwin. Running after a fella with a gun. Who knows what mighta happened.”
“I think got a pretty fair idea when I waltzed with Spense.” This guy was about as tough as a rhinoceros and just as intimidating. It was galling me we hadn’t been properly introduced. “I see you’ve put my card to good use. Are you going to make a move or do I have to guess your name?”
Bulldog laughed to himself, which meant his face folded up even more as he wheezed. The cigar went back into his mouth.
“You know, what I heard about you is true, Goodwin.” He said around the cigar. “First things first. My name is Ernie Roach, which shouldn’t mean anything to you at all.”
“You’ll pardon me if I don’t shake your hand.” I said tightly. The big guy liked my talk. I just wanted to hear what the hell he was after.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve,” he told me, “barging in on my boys like that. Suppose we’d gotten nasty and decided to retire you more permanently. Your boss Mr. Wolfe woulda had a hard time replacing you.”
“I got a guy who’d take my place at the drop of a hat, but I think Wolfe would be broken up about it and he might take it a bit personally.”
I was thinking Wolfe might pine for a few minutes between eleven o’clock and five after eleven, whereupon Saul would come into the office, sit in my chair, and Wolfe would hire him to track down the fiends that killed me. After the criminals had been brought to justice, my belongings would either be auctioned or pawned, except for my gun and typewriter, most likely. The gun would be buried with me, but typewriters are too expensive to replace, and anyhow it would just weigh down the coffin. I’d probably get a flat black stone and an arrangement of Tolumnia sylvestris. I guess that’s what happens when you die. Some girls would cry, but that was to be expected. They always cry at funerals. Whatever this had to do with Bulldog, or rather, with Roach, none of it mattered. This was the truth as I could see it, and, well, I thought he should know. I wasn’t trying to scare him. I doubt I could have anyway, but I thought he needed to know someone would miss me.
“No one knows you’re here.” Roach sneered. It was his most attractive look yet. It really brought out the lines of his jowls. “Except Sophie, my boys, and that little piece of a nurse you might have met earlier. I’m gonna deal with you first, and after I get my money back from Sophie, we’ll deal with her.”
“Say,” I stuttered, “what do you want with her anyway?” I almost never stutter, except with Rowcliff, and excepting now. It wasn’t on purpose.
“She owes me for running off with my dope on a deal.” His grin made the back side of a warthog look attractive; the front end, too. He could make anything look good if he stood next to it long enough. “If I don’t get either my cash or the merchandise returned to me, I may be compelled to ice her.”
“Compelled, huh?” There was the old Goodwin wit and charm coming back to me. “Who let you read their dictionary? Or did you see that written somewhere in the tough guy phrasebook?”
He slapped me across the face with a hand that could have been cast iron. It shook my back teeth. When my eyes rolled forward again, he was sitting back like he’d never moved a muscle.
“You think you’re smart, dontcha Goodwin?” Roach growled.
“Some people think so. I’d say it depends on the subject.” A warm trickle of what was probably blood inched its way down my cheek from my right nostril. “Say, you’re pretty forward, I almost never get slapped on the first date. When were you planning on killing me?”
“I was thinking about mailing you back to your boss in several small packages, in brown paper.” The cigar went back in Roach’s mouth and he sucked at it. The smoke was starting to get to me. I could feel myself turning green. “I might mail parts of Sophie back as well. Just the best parts, only the best.” I closed my eyes as he mulled the thought over in his brain. The talk, or maybe it was the pain or the smoke, was turning my stomach. “She ran off on a delivery she was supposed to be making. Spense thought he could sweet-talk it out of her, what she did with the merch. He thinks she fenced it to hire you and Wolfe.”
“I think you should know that Mister Wolfe did not accept a dime from Miss Carver in any form,” I got out through clenched teeth. “In fact, he turned her out on her ear. I know nothing about any merchandise, but I have a vested interest in Miss Carver. She is a fantastic dancing partner, so I’m letting you slap me around to humor you. If your boys hadn’t shot at me and run me over in their car, you’d only have her to question, and you’d be getting just as far, which is nowhere. But by trying to be tough you’ve caught my attention. Now what do you want?”
We would have gone on to talking about other things, probably ways to kill me or something just as amusing, but the door opened and my favorite little quarter-bouncing nurse came in. Roach got off the stool.
“Ernie, you gotta fella outside.” Her hips and the rest of her swayed over to my side, and I admit that I was beginning to feel lightheaded again.
“What fella?” Roach tore the dying stub of the cigar from his mouth and tossed it into a corner.
“Says he’s Leo Rikes. That sound familiar? He wasn’t on your client list but he says it’s urgent.” She perched her hip on the stool and toyed with a small phial and a syringe. “Said he was with a girl last night who gave him the address. He’s pretty jumpy.” She drew a shot into the barrel of the syringe.
“Yeah, junk’ll do that to you,” Roach grumbled and slammed the door behind him. He didn’t bolt it. The blonde nurse had a rubber tube around my arm by now. She was going to stick me again.
“You don’t want to do that,” I said, trying to gather my wits. Another stick, and I’d be out of it for who knows how long. Roach would have ample time to perform unspeakable acts on both myself and Miss Carver, and I’d wake up just in time to be killed. It wouldn’t be pleasant.
She quivered when I spoke. She held the needle ready, but her hand was shaking. I could hear Roach outside the door.
“What’s in the shot?” I blurted.
“It’s for pain mostly,” she said, "but Ernie said put something extra in it to keep you easy.”
“How easy does he want me?” My pulse was racing now as I gained ground. “Don’t give it to me. Empty it, leave here, and don’t lock the door.”
“You’re going to have the french fits soon if I don’t give this to you.” She bit her lip gingerly. “You wouldn’t want that.”
“I’d want to be mailed home in pieces even less than that.” We didn’t have much time and I had to hook her now. “Are you a registered nurse?”
“I didn’t go to college to end up giving shots in a junk joint,” she snapped, “but who does?”
“I’ll get you out, too.” I was feeling heroic, in spite of the pieces I was in. “Just undo the straps and go back out like everything’s normal.” I didn’t have a plan past that point, but I figured one would present itself in time. “Where’s Miss Carver? You didn’t dope her, did you?”
“She’s fine, she’s in the other room with Ernie and Spense.”
“Okay,” I whispered fiercely, “empty the syringe. Now!”
Her eyes blazed. I thought for a moment she was going to stick me. But she pulled the rubber tube off my arm and emptied the syringe into the corner where Roach’s cigar had gone. Her light hands loosened the straps across my chest and arms. I laid back and closed my eyes against the dizziness. I heard her go to the door, open it and close it behind her. The voices on the other side were louder now. Roach was arguing with someone.
“I told you!” The man named Rikes was whining. “It was that broad, we were at a dance club and she said to come see you or her if I was low! Well, I’m low!”
“We don’t do business if you ain’t down on my list, mister, and you ain’t there,” Roach said. I forced myself to sit up, and pain streamed from my shoulder. The gauze and tape were holding me together, but not for much longer. I stumbled to the door and listened hard.
“I got the money, here it is!” Rikes screeched. “I need you, Roach, you can’t let me down!”
The money seemed to have turned Roach’s head, because his voice dropped twenty decibels as he considered.
“Fifteen more will get you a private room.” He grunted. “Privacy and your own works. No questions asked, no time limit.”
I knew it was crazy to try to break out of a sanitarium when there were at least four large thugs and two girls in the next room. But, by now, I’d recognized Leo Rikes’ voice and placed him. It was one in a million before, but now I’d give the odds as two to one that I had help at last. Since I'd had so much success with my entrance before, at Miss Carver's apartment, I thought it would be worth a try once more. I summoned up all my strength, leaned back and kicked the door open with my foot. All heads turned as I tried to walk confidently into the room. It was more of a stagger.
"Hello, Saul, what gives?" I asked brightly.
Now, some thugs are pretty tight when they’re in a group, and some get spoiled by the illusion of power in numbers and get sloppy. My guess was that Roach and Spense had never had anyone stand up to them before. There were seven people in the room, which was a sort of doctor’s office converted into a lounge by the addition of a few chairs. Sophie and the girl nurse were off to one side, in a corner. The two thugs were on either side of Saul, and Spense and Roach were facing him. All heads except Saul’s turned to face me, which was a mistake. Spense’s mouth dropped open. Saul reached quickly into the ratty jacket he was wearing and pulled out a revolver. He had one for me, too, and as he kicked it across the floor towards me, he fired his own gun into the ceiling. The diversion worked, and by the time I got my hand around the gun, everyone was watching Saul again. There were swift footsteps outside in the hallway.
“Back up!” Saul yelled, stepping back to give the thugs more room to surrender. When Roach looked around and saw I had a gun too, his face went red.
“What’s the big idea!” he snarled. Saul waved him back, and before anyone could move, the door burst open and Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin came in. They also had guns.
“Against the wall!” Orrie yelled to the four men. The thugs looked beaten. Spense looked like he was about to wet his pants. Only Roach was peeved enough to resist, and Fred wrestled him to the wall himself.
I would like to say that I held the gun while Fred and Orrie subdued everyone, or that I helped Sophie and the nurse out of the building. It would seem very heroic. The truth, however, was that at that point I did a very unheroic thing, which I hope never to do again during a fight. I doubled over, found a decent corner, and lost my lunch.
Things moved very quickly after that. Orrie took off with the girls in a taxi to West 35th street. Someone produced several sets of handcuffs and roped in Roach, Spense and the thugs. I helped Saul and Fred by not getting in the way, and by not falling over. I nearly did, on the way down the stairs, but Saul caught me and held me up, not an easy feat when you’re already holding a gun on some angry felons.
It was dark outside, and there were two cars parked at the roundabout drive. Fred hauled the boys into the back of one car, and Saul poured me into the backseat of the other. By the looks of things, the party was re-convening at Wolfe’s.
We got to the brownstone in no more pieces than we had left Heron Acres, but I was too numb to be astonished when Wolfe opened the door himself. Fred and Saul hustled the four men inside, and I got halfway up the stairs myself when my legs gave out. I felt like I was going to lay there forever. I rested my head against the cold stone of the top step.
“Saul! Fred!” Wolfe was blustering, “Someone help him! Confound it!”
Then there was a strong hand at my side, and someone was helping me into the hallway. Dizzily, I turned my head, and it was Wolfe. He put me on the couch in the office with a curt, “Don’t move,” and pulled a blanket over me. Then all hell broke loose.
Spense made a mad lunge for Miss Carver, and she screamed and wouldn’t sit down. Roach was yelling and smoking a cigar at the same time, and the two thugs were about to murder Fred with their bare hands. Wolfe drew himself up to his full height, and bellowed “Sit down, all of you!”
In the silence that followed, all that could be heard was Miss Carver’s weeping. Slowly, everyone sat down.
“Mister Roach, “ Wolfe said coldly, “for reasons unknown, you have abducted and injured my associate, Mister Goodwin.”
“He was working for Sophie.” Roach growled, “she paid him my money!”
“I didn’t!” Sophie cried, “I told you, I don’t have any money!”
Wolfe scowled, “From the beginning, if you please. Miss Carver came here yesterday afternoon to ask me for protection from you. She told me you were having her followed.”
“Spense was following her, yeah. I told him to get my merchandise back for me.” Roach shrugged. Spense was sullen. “But she didn’t have it. She fenced it to buy Goodwin so she’d have protection.”
“That’s a goddamned lie!” I managed to choke out. It was getting more unreal, and I was having a hard time concentrating on the company at hand. My skin was turning to ice.
“Thank you, Archie.” Wolfe turned to Miss Carver. “Did you pay Mister Goodwin or myself any money?”
“No,” she shook her head, “I didn’t give you one red cent.”
“Do you know where Mister Roach’s merchandise is at this time?”
Unless my eyes deceived me, Sophie Carver blushed. It wasn’t a blush of embarrassment, but one I’d say was caused by being caught right in the middle of an affair she’d started. Wolfe saw it and latched on. “Miss Carver,” he said forcefully, “If you are concealing facts from me, I shall telephone the police and tell them of your association with these gentlemen. Then you will all be taken downtown and charged.”
She stiffened and sat up very straight. “I don’t know where it is at this time,” she said.
“Then you are implying that, at some point previously, you were aware of its location. Is this so?” I was amazed at Wolfe, and I should have seen it coming. But I’d had a hard couple of days, so it couldn’t be helped. Sophie looked down at her feet.
“It was in my purse,” she said, sounding very small. “I was supposed to deliver it to a guy at The Flamingo, but I didn’t. I was going to hawk it to get enough money to leave town to get away from Ernie. I had such a swell time with Archie that I decided I’d do it the next day, but I left my purse in the taxi. Archie brought it back to my apartment. I don’t know what happened to it after that.”
“Goodwin, you bastard!” Spense leapt to his feet and started towards me. Fred jumped on him and held him back.
“Mister Spense, please control yourself. I believe you’ve done enough damage to Mister Goodwin.” Wolfe’s voice was hard as rock. “Archie, where is Miss Carver’s purse?”
The ice on my skin was working its way through my blood now, and my teeth were chattering. I was shivering under the blanket. “I dropped it in the alley behind the apartment when he shot me,” I said, shuddering. “It’ll still be there, ask him.” Wolfe nodded. I continued, “Have you had enough? And can you call a doctor, 'cause I’m probably going to die now and you wouldn’t want to have to send this couch out to get cleaned. Blood is murder to get out.” I closed my eyes and my heartbeat pounded in my head. I thought I heard Wolfe say “satisfactory,” but at that point I couldn’t have cared less. There was a commotion somewhere down around my feet. It might have been the nurse. Wolfe grunted.
“Very well, give him the shot.”
Then there was real, true black, and if Wolfe wanted to send out the couch to get cleaned, everything was fine by me.
Whoever said that elaborate dishes were the most tempting to the appetite was wrong. It was chicken soup, plain and simple, with no juniper berries, sage, thyme, bay leaf or any extraneous matter save the addition of egg noodles, that woke me at last. I was in my own pajamas, in my own room and in my own bed. I looked around, gingerly because of the bandages on my shoulder, and saw Wolfe sitting in an armchair drawn up to the bedside. Beside him was a tray with a steaming bowl of chicken soup.
“What th--" I started to ask, but Wolfe clucked and nodded at the soup.
“Eat first,” he said, “you will think better with something in your stomach.”
My left arm was in a sling, and I was propped up on pillows, so Wolfe set the tray onto my lap and gave me the spoon. Not a word passed between us until the last drop of soup had passed my lips. Then Wolfe took the tray away from me, and sat back with his hands folded across his belly.
“I can’t see you if you sit over there,” I griped, trying to find a position where I could report directly to him without causing me any more pain. “I’d have to turn my head, and it hurts, so if you don’t mind I’ll just stare at the ceiling.” A quarter-inch of scowl crossed his face, that much I saw, and I laid back down again.
“There’s no reason to be so fidgety,” he grumbled. It was either move the chair or talk to my ear, and he’d chosen the ear, so I let him continue. “Your injuries have been attended to by Doctor Vollmer and the prognosis is good. The break was a clean one, despite the bullet, and it should heal without too much intervention.”
“What about the dope they stuck me with?” I tilted my head a few inches to the left so I could watch him. He blinked once, slowly.
“The symptoms you experienced last night while in withdrawal will not be as severe the second time around. Mister Roach’s medical associate suggested only half a dose to assist with your distress, so that the subsequent withdrawal would be more mild. It was heroin.” He stated the last fact calmly, without a quiver.
“Yeah, I had figured as much. Where are they now?” My shoulder was itching under the bandages. Beneath the itch was a deeper-running ache from my shoulder across my chest. Lying propped up on pillows hadn’t helped it any.
“The police arrested those four men this morning, in an alleyway behind Miss Carver’s apartment building. One of them had, in his possession, a beaded turquoise purse with sixteen ounces of heroin inside. When they were taken to the station, it was discovered they had not paid property taxes on Heron Estates in six years.”
“I’ll be damned. If it worked for Al Capone, it’ll work for them.”
The best was yet to come. The longer the four felons stayed at the station, the more offenses the police had discovered. A search of the vehicle they had been driving that night turned up three pounds of pure-grade heroin, a few bags of marijuana, and copious bottles of prescription medication. In all, they had been collectively charged with four counts of possession, two counts of trafficking, two attempted robberies, possession of an unlicensed firearm and non-payment of property taxes.
“Prosecuting for non-payment of taxes,” Wolfe said, “is an unorthodox, but completely effective, method of bringing miscreants to trial.”
“You realize,” I muttered, “that I haven’t made a statement to a police officer yet. I was shot, run over by a car, and then a girl stuck me with heroin, and the whole thing went down while I was asleep. Am I going to draft a statement before they arrest me?”
“You won’t.” Wolfe replied lightly. “There is no need. Those men are in far too much trouble as it is. Your statement would cause unnecessary agitation to the police, and I see little need to assist them in this matter.”
“No need?” The pain in my shoulder was forgotten momentarily as a hot flush came to my cheeks. “You sat at home, twirling your thumbs, while I was out getting murdered by a bunch of thugs, and I don’t even get to comment on it?”
“Since Miss Carver is not, nor was ever, our paying client, nothing that happened is worth my bearing witness to. I am not a philanthropist, Archie. I have been harassed by the police far too often.” Wolfe’s voice was hard again. He clenched his hands on the arms of the chair. “And as you are unlikely to set foot outside of this house for a few days, we shall allow the matter to rest in the hands of the law.”
“That,” I said tightly, “is the most self-centered, self-righteous thing I have ever heard.” Wolfe surged to his feet, a dark scowl on his face. As he reached the door, I called after him, “And you’re a god-damned vulture to sit here and feed me, just to tell me that you have no concern for my well-being! When you see Fritz, tell him thanks for the soup.”
He paused at the door, with one hand on the jamb.
“I will do no such thing,” he muttered, barely audible.
“And why not!?”
“Today is Sunday,” he replied.
There have only been a few occasions in my time in Wolfe’s employ that I have been at an actual loss for words. According to Wolfe it was Sunday, and Sunday was Fritz’s day of rest, which meant I had just signed, sealed and delivered my own notice of termination. It only took a few seconds for all this information to seep into my abused brain. If I had been in his place, you can bet I’d have been out the door and halfway down the stairs, but it takes considerably more effort to motivate a seventh of a ton. When I sat up to call him back, he was still at the door.
“I’ll draft my letter of resignation when I get to the typewriter,” I blurted, my head spinning from the sudden movement. “I can have it for you by tomorrow.”
“You think me callous,” he said, still not turning to face me, “but you are in no condition to be jailed and I would not allow you to be. Though the events which occurred were, in part, instigated by you, those men shall not testify to your involvement and neither shall you.”
“If you’re going to talk, sit down.” Gingerly, I laid back on the pillows. Wolfe turned and dragged the armchair twelve inches further down, and when he re-settled his bulk, I could see his face without twisting.
“The cab-driver was fortunately level-headed enough to telephone the brownstone instead of ringing the doorbell after he heard the gunshot in the alley behind Miss Carver’s apartment. Saul and Orrie were here by nine o’clock Friday morning and we discussed retrieval methods. Fred was commissioned as backup once your whereabouts were determined.” He took a deep breath and let it out in a puff. “I admit I was most concerned for your well-being. A concern, it seems, that were well-founded.”
“I was a little concerned for my well-being too, now that you mention it.” The genius of Wolfe is such that, in spite of the intended meaning of his words, he always sounds as if he’s being condescending. It took me years to figure out what he was really thinking behind it all, and a few more to start repeating his own double-talk back to him. It had worked pretty well until now.
There was silence between us that I hardly wanted to break. His eyebrows drew together, but not in the scowl I was used to seeing. It seemed more like a look of regret, if geniuses had regrets. His mouth pursed thoughtfully, but he stayed quiet.
“Okay, admit it.” As much fun as it was to watch him turn on his own spit, I had to put him out of his misery. “You were worried. You answered the phone in the middle of the night because you wanted me to call and say I wasn’t coming home, but it wasn’t me, and I wasn’t coming home.”
“It was three-fifteen in the morning,” he muttered. I carried on.
“And you couldn’t sleep after the cabbie told you about the gunshot, so you rounded up Saul and Orrie to bust me out. And if I’m right about this, you probably didn’t move from that chair the whole time Doc Vollmer was here, or after.”
I have never seen Wolfe sputter, but he continues to surprise me.
“Preposterous, Archie!” I noticed that he didn’t head for the door, though, which probably meant something. “I said I had concerns for your well-being. You don’t have to presume I had any more motivation than that.”
“Say it.” I knew I was pushing hard. Maybe so, but it isn’t every day I get a rise out of Wolfe, and this one was fun. He was squirming, and he knew it.
"Come on, just say it, it won’t kill you.”
“All right,” he heaved a great sigh, “I am sorry that my worries were not unfounded, and you are correct in your assumption that I have been here all night.”
“Except when you made that soup,” I pointed out.
“Yes, yes, the soup was a necessity.” He made more wrinkles in his forehead that weren’t quite angry. I didn’t know how to classify them. I had never seen them before. “Are you satisfied now?”
My grin took him by surprise, I guess, because the wrinkles left his face and he didn’t seem to mind my next question. It doesn’t bear repeating here, though it should be mentioned that he took my arm without hesitation, and that I felt much more human after a visit to the john.
The doorbell rang at half-past ten, on a Wednesday morning a week and a half later. I was up but had my arm in a sling, so I answered the door in my shirtsleeves. I didn’t expect applause, but Wolfe was with his orchids, and Fritz was with his filet mignon, and I get paid a salary to do something other than sit on my backside. I was also losing a one-handed game of solitaire which, if you’ve ever tried it, is like shuffling a deck of minnows. I peeked through the one-way glass and forgot all about the minnows. The little blonde nurse from Heroin Acres was back, this time dressed in civilian clothes. I snapped the bolt off and ushered her into the hall.
“You look all right,” she said after the door was closed. “The arm’s not giving you any trouble, is it?”
“If you came to see Mister Wolfe, he’s upstairs being eccentric until eleven o’clock and won’t be down until then.” I gave her a winning grin. It has been known to knock the stockings off girls at twenty paces. She shook her head and dug into her purse.
“Here,” she said, and thrust a bulky white envelope into my hand. As I hefted it, she tucked the purse closed again and squared her shoulders. “Consider it a debt of gratitude from Miss Carver and myself.”
“The police found her place emptied out. Was that your doing?” The envelope felt like money. It positively smelled of it. I quashed my trained instincts and resisted the urge to tear it open with my teeth.
“Ernie had some money left at the Estate, so when Wolfe let us go we went back there. I’m sorry he made me give you those shots.” Her delicate face blushed high on the cheekbones.
“Well, there were some good things that happened because of those shots, but it’s not my business to discuss.” I held up the envelope. “Is this part of Ernie’s money?”
“Just a part,” she said coolly, “two thousand dollars. I hope it’s enough for you to forgive Miss Carver. She didn’t want to see what they’d done to you, so she sent me.” She touched the corner of my jaw lightly with two fingers. “You look fine to me.”
“I feel fine, thanks very much.” I pocketed the envelope and opened the door for her. She went out onto the steps. “I think I look fine to certain other people as well. Thanks for the second opinion.” She smiled silently and descended the steps. A cab was drawn to the curb waiting for her, and she got in. It drew away slowly, and I watched it go.
The envelope contained a fat pile of hundred-dollar bills, and I split them into two piles, one half for Wolfe and one for me. I was going to put his half under the paperweight on his desk, so that when he came downstairs he’d have something to occupy himself with aside from me. I was quite forbidden, he had told me, to do anything heavier than dusting until I was healed. Typing was completely banned because I was very slow and made mistakes, and so we were answering his mail in longhand. It irritated him to no end.
But then an idea struck me. I am not a genius, but I have had some turns in my time. I’ve been known to have hunches, and sometimes they pan out. But this was nothing near a mere hunch. It was a positively, unadulterated stroke of brilliance. I shuffled the two piles of money back together and wrote a short note that read “fifty percent upon receipt of services.” It was quarter to eleven when I snuck upstairs to Wolfe’s room and laid the packet under his pillow on the enormous bed. I disturbed nothing.
When Wolfe came downstairs, he snapped first, “Don’t slouch, Archie,” and then, “What the devil are you smiling at?” I didn’t tell him. He would find out soon enough, and boy, would it be worth it.