This wasn’t the first time I’d been a guest of the NYPD Homicide Division, but they didn’t usually have me cast in the starring role. Being held as a material witness was no picnic, but it beat being arrested for murder. As things stood, I couldn’t even enjoy provoking Lieutenant Rowcliff. My record was two minutes and twenty seconds between Rowcliff entering the room and him stuttering uncontrollably. I have a standing bet with Saul Panzer that I can shave the twenty seconds off of that figure. Rowcliff was chomping at the bit with the prospect of fitting me for a noose or at least a stretch of 20 to life, so it would have been easy to rile him. But given the circumstances, I had clammed up. Name, rank, and serial number and nothing else until I talked to Nathaniel Parker, Nero Wolfe’s lawyer and, by extension, my lawyer, at least when I was arrested on Nero Wolfe’s business.
The thing that had me worried was that Inspector Cramer and company had it mostly right; they had arrested me for shooting someone I had actually shot. As my employer once said “Nothing is simpler than to kill a man; the difficulties arise in attempting to avoid the consequences.” What Cramer didn’t know, and I wasn’t saying, was that the other party had tried to shoot me first. The only reason I was enjoying their eight-by-eight cell rather than Aubrey Haines was that I was a better shot than he was.
I suppose Haines had a right to be sore, since he’d found me in his girlfriend’s apartment, which was supposed to be empty since she was supposed to be in Florida acquiring an attractive glow on the beach. Where she actually was was in the south room of Nero Wolfe’s brownstone on West 35th Street. But as far as the employees of the City of New York were concerned, the only fact worth knowing was that Aubrey Haines had a bullet in him that came from my gun. Technically it was Nero Wolfe’s gun; I just fire it. And after a thing that happened in 1935, I always carry it when we’re working on a murder case. After five hours of not talking to Rowcliff, a dinner that wasn’t worthy of the name, and a night tossing and turning on a mattress that must’ve been stuffed with bricks, I thought about trying to see if I could use that technicality to pin the rope necktie on Wolfe.
I was a little sore as I’d been sent to find something in that apartment but the genius hadn’t thought it necessary to tell me what I was looking for. He just said I’d know it if I found it. Sometimes he thinks I work better when my “experience guided by intuition” isn’t burdened by facts. Sometimes I think he doesn’t know himself what he’s looking for and is just sending me on fishing expeditions. Sometimes his fishing expeditions work. I didn’t think this was going to be one of those times.
I used my one phone call to ring the brownstone. It was 5:37 pm and Wolfe was upstairs for his usual 4 – 6 session with the ten thousand orchids that live on the roof, so I left a message with Fritz.
“It’s me. I’ve been delayed and I’m going to miss dinner.”
“Oh, Archie, it is the Sole Meunière. I will save a filet to cook for you if you are late. If you are very late, you will have it for brunch tomorrow. I have also some oysters, but they will not keep.”
“You know I love your sole, Fritz, but I may not be home for brunch tomorrow either. I’ve been arrested. They think I shot someone. Tell Mr. Wolfe that I didn’t find what he wanted and to send Parker to the 10th Precinct.”
“Mon dieu! Archie, you know your being in jail ruins his appetite.”
“I know no such thing.”
“It is true. He will eat the sole, but he will not enjoy it.”
“Well, I will eat a ham sandwich and I won’t enjoy that. So we’re even.”
That was almost a day ago and there was still no sign of Parker. While ignoring Rowcliff, which also causes him to stutter but more slowly, I contemplated what might be delaying Parker’s rescue attempt. Which got me nowhere, but it passed the time. The only reason I could come up with for me still being in the jug was that the DA was recommending I be denied bail. Which was either flattering or insulting, I hadn’t decided which. It didn’t occur to me that Wolfe wouldn’t send Parker.
When that topic got old, I contemplated whether Wolfe would miss me while I was in Sing Sing and who he would get to replace me. Saul Panzer was the only man in the world who might possibly do my job better than I could. His memory was as good as mine and he was a better tail than me by a hair. But Saul liked the freelance lifestyle of working when he pleased. And he could afford to work only when he pleased with the hourly rate he asked for and got. Besides, Saul wouldn’t be good at the delicate art of needling Wolfe just enough to get him to work but not enough to get fired. Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather weren’t in the same league as Saul. Wolfe trusted Fred but could never bear to live with him as Fred liked to put vinegar on things and Wolfe wouldn’t insult Fritz’s cooking like that.
My reverie was broken by Inspector Cramer himself sticking his head in the door of the interrogation room. He was chomping angrily on a nice Cuban cigar that didn’t deserve the abuse. “Let him go.”
“Bu bu but …” Rowcliff was reluctant to turn me loose, like a dog with a favorite toy. “Forensics confirmed the bu bu bullet …”
“Let him go,” Cramer snarled.
“Not that I don’t appreciate it,” I said, “but what caused the change of heart?”
“Get out of here before I change my mind, Goodwin. I’ve just come back from watching a fat genius pull rabbits out of his hat and I don’t have the patience to deal with you right now.”
I was curious as to the particular genus and species of rabbits Wolfe had had in his hat as the hutch had been empty when I left home the day before, but I could see that I wasn’t going to get anything out of Cramer. I said buh buh bye to Rowcliff as he escorted me to the front desk to collect my valuables.
As I was fastening my wristwatch, a Christmas present from the fat genius, I spotted Lon Cohen. Lon, in addition to being a semi-regular at Saul Panzer’s poker games, is an editor at the Gazette and is sometimes willing to trade unpublished information for future favors. I wasn’t surprised to see Lon hanging about the police station, but I was surprised that he seemed to be waiting for me.
“Quote for the front page, Archie?” he asked.
“Can't help you, Lon. I’m in the dark here. I don’t even know how or why I’ve been sprung. Five minutes ago I was an accused murderer.”
“Now you’re a hero of the people. You’re the man who stopped serial killer Aubrey Haines and saved countless women from a gruesome death and the City of New York from having to pay for a trial.”
“That’s news to me,” I replied.
“It’ll be the headline of the morning edition; Mr. Wolfe insisted on that when he invited me to attend the showdown at his office. He also insisted that I include the fact that Inspector Cramer had the people’s hero in prison. He said that in front of Cramer, too. I’ve never seen Wolfe so angry. He actually called Cramer a dunce and a nincompoop as he was explaining how your search of Miss Gannon’s apartment and the fact that Haines’s love letters were missing was the crucial clue and ‘incontrovertible’ proof that Haines was guilty.” Lon waved the camera he’d been carrying. “You want to find an empty cell and pose for a picture of the hero behind bars or should I run a stock photo?”
“I’m not going near another jail cell if I can help it. They have bugs. If you want a quote, you can say that the hero of the people thinks that the City of New York gave him fleas for his troubles. And make sure you use the picture of my good side.”
“Which one’s that?”
“The one that makes me look ruggedly handsome,” I tossed over my shoulder on my way out of the station. I paused on the steps outside to draw a lungful of fresh air and savor being a free man. A familiar back sedan was parked at the curb with Saul Panzer standing next to it. Saul opened the back door of the car and Nero Wolfe hauled his seventh of a ton out onto the sidewalk.
It was unprecedented for Mr. Wolfe to voluntarily ride in a motor car. He considered them barely restrained beasts of uncertain temperament and if circumstances forced him to endure a car ride he insisted that I was the only driver he would trust. But not only had he voluntarily gotten in a car not driven by me to make his way to a police station, he had done it at 4:30 in the afternoon when he should’ve been upstairs playing with his orchids.
I raised my eyebrow at him. I loved doing that ever since he once told me it disconcerted him. “I said ‘send Parker’, not ‘bust Inspector Cramer back to Sergeant and then come get me yourself’. Obviously you need me to answer the phone. Fritz is no good at taking messages.”
“Pfui. Do you need a declaration? I suppose killing a man in my service has earned you one. Yes, I need you. You are a thorn in my posterior, but I find that I am unaccustomed to the quiet your absence creates. Now get in the car. I refuse to soliloquize on street corners for the amusement of passersby.”
I got behind the wheel, leaving Saul the passenger seat. "I missed you too."