The cab let me out at 10th Avenue and West Thirty-Fourth Street, a block from my destination. I tipped the driver a dime and used my legs to carry me the rest of the way to a brownstone like thousands of other New York City brownstones. This one, however, held my future employer, Nero Wolfe.
I'm Archie Goodwin, twenty-seven years of age, and in need of a job. Which Wolfe was about to give me, although he didn't know it.
I mounted the steps and knocked on the door at precisely one minute to eleven. An older man with a pink face, who could have been a Christmas elf if he had been shorter and younger and dressed in red and green, opened the door. It was Fritz Brenner, Wolfe's live-in cook. He pointed a wooden spoon at me, not threateningly.
"Archie Goodwin. I'm here to see Mr. Wolfe about the position as his confidential assistant." I stepped into the hall wearing my most winning smile and my second-best suit.
The tall cherub looked hopeful. "Of course, Mr. Goodwin."
After he disposed of my hat and coat, I stopped and got my bearings. The hall was large, running nearly the length of the house. The front room and the office were to the left; the dining room and kitchen were to the right. Fritz took me to the office, but did not announce me.
I saw why; it was empty. I checked my watch. It was two minutes after eleven. Wolfe should be down from his plant rooms on the roof by now. I sat in a swell-looking red leather chair and tried not to fidget. A moment later I heard a rumble, and knew it was the elevator. I relaxed; the fat genius was on his way.
I stood. I would have held my hat in my hands if Fritz hadn't taken it from me.
Wolfe entered the room. "Good morning, Mr. Goodwin." He sat in the custom-made chair behind his desk. "Please sit."
I obeyed. I knew he hated to stretch his neck. Or any other part of him, apparently. I had been well briefed, but the size of him took me aback because he moved absolutely silently.
He studied me for a moment, then pressed a button to summon Fritz, who appeared with a tray. On it were three unopened bottles of beer and two tall Pilsner glasses.
"Would you care for beer?" Wolfe said.
"No, thank you, sir. I prefer Scotch." I spoke confidently, even though we were deep in the hell of Prohibition.
Fritz set the tray down on Wolfe's desk, unloaded, then bustled to a bar and poured. He put a generous tumbler of Scotch on a small table on my right, then removed the tray, the extra beer glass, and himself. I took a sip of the single malt and stifled a moan. I had tasted nothing but bathtub gin for longer than I cared to recall.
"Please tell me about yourself," Wolfe said. He wiped beer foam off his lips with a handkerchief.
It was not a pleasantry. I told him about everything: growing up on a farm in Ohio, my best subjects in school, arriving in New York City five years earlier at the age of twenty-two, finding employment with Pinkerton's, then working on my own as a private detective. I told him I enjoyed prizefights and poker and baseball, but spent most of my money on clothing, Broadway shows, and taking young ladies dancing. I used my own style of shorthand, could accurately fire a gun, typed fifty words a minute, obeyed all traffic laws, spoke and read only American, and preferred my steaks medium rare.
He had imbibed six beers by the time I finished, Fritz appearing at intervals with the tray. I had refreshed my Scotch on my own.
"You are distressingly gauche," Wolfe said.
"We eat lunch in this household at one. You may join me."
I had survived the first two hours. Suppressing a grin, I followed Wolfe into the dining room, amazed he had an appetite after all the beer he had put away. He sat at the head of the table; I sat to his right.
What followed was more remarkable than the Scotch. Potato and leek soup, which Fritz called vichyssoise, grilled salmon cut into fancy round shapes and drizzled with some kind of sauce, fresh peas with pearl onions, mixed fruit that tasted like brandy, and a crumbly cheese that made my eyes water. I crawled after Wolfe to the office, where we had our coffee.
"Have you ever eaten a meal like that?" Wolfe asked smugly.
Busy with the food, I had kept quiet during lunch. Between bites, Wolfe had talked of the peasant origins of French cuisine, the banality of popular radio, and the tyranny of the internal combustion engine. I had agreed with everything he said.
By making it to the coffee stage, I had outperformed ninety-five percent of all respondents. It was smart, apparently, to keep my mouth shut. Wolfe was not a man who tired of hearing himself expound. To be fair, he hadn't shown any impatience with my long-windedness earlier. He was tirelessly curious, which was one of the things that made him the world's best detective.
Wolfe folded his hands over his belly and looked nearly asleep. I was not taken in.
"Mr. Goodwin, you believe that you can perform this job to my satisfaction?"
He tried to daunt me by describing my non-detecting duties, which were many and irritating. Handling the mail, dusting the office, keeping the household accounts, maintaining the plant records, piloting Wolfe's Heron sedan, dealing with callers, answering the telephone, and eating lunch and dinner with Wolfe every day. I would be on my own for breakfast in the kitchen, at a time agreeable to my internal schedule and Fritz.
Describing the food arrangements took up a great deal of his lecture. I did not tell him I could make do with corned beef on rye at a lunch counter.
"You are required to live on the premises, Mr. Goodwin."
"If you take the position, your room, which you may furnish if you prefer, is across from mine on the second floor. I can communicate with you via the house phone. I may call you at any time of the day or night while we are employed on a case."
"Yes, sir." I would be his serf, and glad of it.
"You are not entangled with a woman?" he asked gruffly.
"No wife, no sweetheart." I did not mention my mother, my sister, or my aunts. They were in Ohio and didn't count.
"I do not welcome women on these premises," he said, even more gruffly. "With the exception of clients."
I knew this already, but for the first time since tasting the Scotch my enthusiasm waned. Discriminating against half the human race was downright wasteful, especially when... I told myself to put a cork in it. "Yes, sir."
It was now three. In one hour, Wolfe would board the elevator and return to the plant rooms. Would we continue the interview? Too few had made it this far to be of help in predicting what came next.
When I saw Wolfe's hand inch toward a thick book on his desk, I stood.
"It has been an honor and a pleasure, sir," I said.
Wolfe did not stand or give me his hand, but that was typical and I was not offended. In the hall, Fritz produced my hat and coat.
"Don't worry, Fritz," I said. "It's in the bag. I'll have that fat lump earning enough to keep you in caviar for the rest of your life."
"I hope so, Mr. Goodwin. I had planned to roast a goose with a dressing of foie gras and chestnuts for Christmas day, but now I fear I must make do with saddle of lamb."
I patted him on the shoulder and beat it.
If Wolfe decided to hire me, the wait could be long, several days at least. I knew this from Fritz, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Lon Cohen, Nathaniel Parker, and Dr. Vollmer; I had interviewed everyone who wanted Wolfe working again, leaving out Theodore, Wolfe's orchid man, who was surly with anything not green.
The call came from Wolfe the morning of Christmas Eve. He had ruminated for only two days, which was a bad sign. I tried to sound cheerful when he asked me to stop by at two o'clock. After lunch was also a bad sign.
I splurged and took a cab from my flat in Brooklyn. Once again, I got out of the cab a block early so I could get my blood moving before the battle began.
Fritz's report was gloomy. "He barely touched his lunch, and he is three beers over his quota."
I patted him on the shoulder again and went to the office, sitting in the red leather chair without an invitation. Wolfe was behind his desk and already provided with beer.
"Thank you for being prompt, Mr. Goodwin. I regret to inform you that I cannot offer you the position. I fear that, being of different temperaments, we would clash."
"You're right, sir." I got up and poured Scotch and sat back down. "I'm stubborn and you're pigheaded."
Wolfe gave me his glare.
"The trouble is, sir, you are lazy and don't want to work. You have been interviewing potential assistants for nine months. Prior to that, you went through sixteen in two years. I'm restricting myself to those that survived at least a week, by the way. The longest lasted only four months. Not having an assistant is the perfect excuse to do nothing but sit in that chair, read books, and drink beer."
Wolfe thundered "Shut up!" at me. I was rattled, but kept going.
"You fired Wakefield because he ate breakfast in his undershirt. You dumped Burrows because he slurped his soup. We'll skip over Denny—I knew him at Pinkerton's, and he was a louse. Novack put a book back on the shelf upside down. McCaffrey took more than his fair share of starlings."
I had eleven more examples to go, but he was on the move, standing up and preparing to stalk out of the room. Fritz, looking desperate, appeared in the doorway with more beer. The distraction worked. Wolfe sat down again.
"You cannot convince me with negatives." Wolfe had gone icy on me. "Give me a positive. Why should I hire you?"
I settled myself in the chair and gave him, verbatim, his complete rant two days earlier at lunch. I didn't give him just the words, but also his actions, such as sneaking more salmon when he thought I wasn't looking. He listened with his eyes half-closed, occasionally swallowing beer and wiping foam off his lips before resuming his meditation.
When I finished, he opened his eyes completely and said, "Go."
I stood, not hurrying. "It has been an honor and a pleasure, sir. If you change your mind and hire me, I quit in advance."
I had made it to the hall when the doorbell rang. Fritz opened the front door and was attacked by a giant animal, which turned out to be a middle-aged woman in a silver-tipped mink that brushed the floor. She pushed past us and went straight for Wolfe's office.
I followed so I could see the genius at work. It would be entertaining; the woman had to be a client, and she seemed about to blow her stack.
I had her wrong. She sank into the red leather chair, then immediately stood and paced in a tight circle. "Mr. Wolfe, I beg you—"
"Madam, we have discussed it, and my answer is no."
She burst into tears. She did not cover her face with her hands, employ a handkerchief, or turn away. She just let us have it.
Wolfe stood and inched toward the door. "Confound it! Do something, Goodwin!"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I've already quit."
Touched by the look of sheer panic on his face, I stopped clowning and took the pile of mink by the shoulders. She sobbed on my manly breast for a moment, then I gave her my handkerchief and got her settled on the red leather chair. As soon as she was perched on it, I fetched her a stiff whiskey. She tossed it back like a lady and looked me over.
"Thank you, young man," she said calmly, as if weeping in Wolfe's office was a regular pastime for her. Perhaps it was. "You're very presentable. I loathe those baggy pants young men are wearing. You show restraint. Is that suit St. Laurie?"
"You have a good eye, ma'am. Since we are being honest, may I say that a woman with legs like yours should not hide them under a fur, no matter how handsome?"
She blushed, which took ten years off her age.
Wolfe was inching back towards his desk, not yet committing himself.
"I shall leave you to it," I said sarcastically.
I decided to celebrate the holiday New York-style. I telephoned my mother in Ohio and wished her a Merry Christmas, then headed to a billiard room near Times Square. There were plenty of fellows there like myself: lacking in holiday cheer. After a couple of hours of winning and losing the same five bucks, I joined a poker game in a backroom. The betting was quickly out of hand, but I was raking it in and had no complaints.
At eleven, two men invited me to a private club in the country, where, they said, the action never stopped. They were too well dressed to belong to the dump-in-the-ditch crowd, so, deciding it was in the holiday spirit to give them a chance to win their money back, I accompanied them in their roadster.
The club was in a swank country house with all the trimmings: bootlegged French champagne—or at least something that tasted like it—roulette, craps, poker, and baccarat.
I stuck to poker. My winning streak held for a while, even though the house had a lot of class to keep up. My luck started to go with my second drink. The champagne had a lot of kick—too much kick. I accused someone of doctoring it. Fists may have changed hands. I ended up on the floor with someone leaning over me and getting personal with my pockets.
"He's a dick," a voice said. Then the kicking started.
I came to in the back of a squad car with its lights on, siren off, so as not to disturb the tone of the neighborhood. We arrived at a rustic jail, where, after a blur of a booking, I was dumped into a holding tank full of my fellow citizens.
"I know my rights," I said. One of my eyes had swollen shut, but that didn't improve my view of Police Sergeant Con Noonan, who was gloating over my detective license, and me.
"You have the right to shut up," Noonan said. "You know what happens to punks like you in Westchester County?"
"Is that where I am? I thought I was in Siberia. I get a phone call, Russki."
"Who are you going to call on Christmas? Santa Claus?"
"What's the charge?"
"You're joking. I have two hundred—"
"You have nothing, punk. Not a dime to your name."
I had been cleaned out. Didn't matter by whom; I wasn't going to see it again. Merry Christmas from Westchester County.
"Come on, look at this suit. Do I look down and out to you?" I was wasting air. I decided to pull a rabbit out of my now flattened hat. "You're looking at the new confidential assistant of Nero Wolfe, buster."
Noonan was not impressed, and said so.
It took more wrangling, but eventually I got my phone call. I dialed the brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street. Fritz answered. Before I finished telling him of my predicament, Wolfe picked up an extension, presumably the one in his bedroom, and roared at me.
When I told him I had been rolled at a private club in Westchester, he surprised me. "Describe the house."
I did. It took ten minutes.
"Did you meet your host?"
"No," I said.
"Very well. How will you extricate yourself?"
"I have to prove employment, sir."
"Speak to Captain Dykes. He's reliable."
I asked for Dykes, but Noonan pretended deafness, so I was back in the holding cell. I started itching, and someone, not me, was sick on my pants. My head began to throb and I guess I passed out.
"Get up, Goodwin."
I opened my one good eye. It was not Noonan. "Are you Dykes?"
"Yeah, it's your lucky day. Your boss is here."
If it was a gag, I had no choice but to go along with it. I followed Dykes into a lobby that had never seen better days. In it, Wolfe was standing next to Fred Durkin. I goggled.
"Mr. Goodwin, can you drive in your condition?" Wolfe appeared furious, but not with me.
Fred looked hurt. "I only went five miles over the speed limit! You said it was urgent!"
Wolfe grimaced. "Never confuse haste with negligence."
"Sure, I can drive," I said. "I'm warning you, though, that I stink, and I might have fleas."
Paperwork delayed us until the freezing dawn. I opened the door of the Heron for Wolfe and assisted him into the back seat, then sat behind the wheel. Fred sat next to me, holding his nose.
"Mr. Goodwin," Wolfe said. "Do you understand women?"
"Yes, sir. I've understood many."
Wolfe snorted. "Jabber. Archie, take us home."