Born in Ohio. Public high school, pretty good at geometry and football, graduated with honor but no honors. Went to college two weeks, decided it was childish, came to New York and got a job guarding a pier, shot and killed two men and was fired, was recommended to Nero Wolfe for a shore he wanted done, did it, was offered a full-time job by Mr. Wolfe, took it, still have it.
-Archie Goodwin, in Rex Stout's "Fourth of July Picnic"
Thanks so much for writing. I’m glad to hear that you’re well. You say don’t worry about you, but old habits are hard to break. You know that Joe spent some time in New York. He says your address is in a bad part of town. But I guess you know what you’re doing.
May I give your address to Mom, or will you write her yourself? Not everything was her fault, you know. I think she did the best she could. I know, I’m a fine one to talk.
I miss having you here. There’s no one to challenge me at gin. Mom doesn’t think women should play any card game but bridge, but I just smile and nod and keep beating the pants off Joe. Unfortunately, he is starting to wise up and only plays when he wants to make up to me. So you see, if you ever want to come back, your presence here will be quite welcome.
In all seriousness, take care of yourself. Whatever you decide about Mom, keep writing to me. I like to hear from you. I know you can lick New York if you try.
It was bad because I knew this one. A couple of cops were milling around trying to look busy. They pointed their flashlights up and down the pier and huddled beside pylons trying to keep warm. Actually, there wasn’t much for them to do aside from wait for the meat wagon. No one stopped me when I went to look at the body. They must have been a little surprised though to see someone poking his nose into this. Down by the piers we get a little too much attention from the wrong arm of law. Not one in a hundred would lift a finger to help a cop. That’s not quite true. They might lift a particular finger.
I had been on my way to start my shift when I saw all the activity at Pier 11. The cops had pulled the body from the river and laid it out near the water’s edge. Now they were wandering around, looking official. In a way it was odd that the cops were giving this so much attention. Usually a working girl getting cut up isn’t a high priority. Probably somewhere below directing traffic. But the deaths were getting out of hand. This was the third girl in as many weeks. And like I said, I knew this one.
I work a night shift. Ten at night to six in the morning, guarding Pier 12. God knows if anything there is worth guarding, but they pay me for it. Few people are wandering around at those hours. Sometimes the only people I see are the girls. Some of them occasionally come up to me to chat. This one was one of the regulars.
She called herself Rose, and that may actually have been her real name. The first time she came up to me she asked to bum a cigarette. I gave her one and lit it for her.
“Is this the part where I ask how’s business?”
“It is if you want to depress me. No one wants any tonight.”
I nodded, “Yeah, men are like that. It’s hard to get them in the mood. You have to woo them.”
She barked out a laugh. “Woo. My God.”
After that she started coming up to me off and on whenever it was quiet and business was slow. We’d lean against the pylons and talk a bit.
“Is this the part where I ask you what a pretty thing like you is doing on the docks?”
“You really are the most depressing guy I know. And anyway, that’s my line. Jesus, Farmboy how bad was home that you had to go and come here?”
“Oh this place has its points. The bracing sea air. All the interesting people you meet.”
“You watch out for those interesting people,” she said sharply.
“I know, mother.”
“No, you don’t know. Listen to mother. Just watch yourself. There’s some bad stuff going on. Some of these interesting people aren’t only interested in girls.”
That was six days ago. Now what was left of her was lying on the ground, badly cut up and fished out of the river. And there were a bunch of cops. Rose herself didn’t rate it. But Rose was number three. At least three that anyone knew of. The cops couldn’t ignore it.
“Hey, you! What are you doing over there?”
I straightened to look at a big, slick looking bull. “I knew her.”
“Yeah? How many times a week did you know her?”
I gave the appropriate response and the cop started to raise his stick. I backed off. It was either that or shoot him and that seemed a bit drastic.
I left. There was nothing I could do for her. I wondered if anyone would claim her. She had told me once that she was from New Jersey. As I walked up the street, I wondered if she had family. She never mentioned any, but then again, we barely knew each other. I didn’t kid myself that I was so upset just because someone I knew had got killed. I was sorry for her, sure. But I was also annoyed with myself. Here I was standing around guarding some damn fishing boats when half a block away some poor girl was getting her guts ripped out. Right under my nose.
So I wasn’t in a great mood when the feeling hit me. It’s a funny thing about intuition. When I was just a toddler I thought the best way to spend my day involved leaving the house. I never got farther than the front gate. My mother always said it was because she had eyes in the back of her head. I never really believed her. But she was telling the truth. And it was inherited. My neck hairs were standing up. I stopped in front of my pier and put my hand in my pocket to grip my Colt. I turned quickly and looked into the darkness.
“Just come out.”
For a moment there was nothing. Then, from the shadows, I saw the figure of a man emerge. As he approached, I saw that he wasn’t much to look at. He was a little guy with a big nose and a sad looking face. He didn’t seem overly concerned with the fact that I had spotted him.
“What do you want?”
He gave me a slight smile. “That was pretty good, but I was coming up to talk to you anyway.”
To my own ears I sounded like some ten cent tough guy. I guess I sounded like it to him too, because he wasn’t any too intimidated. He held out both hands towards me.
“I’m not a cop. I just wanted to talk to you about that girl.”
“If you’re not a cop, why should I talk to you?”
“Why shouldn’t you?”
Well, okay. He had me there. “I’m supposed to be working. Come and walk with me.”
He came up to me and we started off up the pier. Close up, he didn’t look any more impressive. He had one of those faces that you forget about as soon as you stop looking at him. He strolled along with me for a little bit, apparently in no hurry at all. Finally he spoke in a low voice.
“What was her name?”
I told him what I knew about Rose, which wasn’t much. He didn’t ask any questions, just took it all in. I couldn’t imagine why he cared, unless he was some reporter.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ve opened up. Now it’s your turn. Who are you and why do you care?”
He gave a soft chuckle, “You know, you did it wrong. Here’s rule number one. Don’t give everything away and then ask for what you want. Negotiate up front.”
“Nuts. Here’s a rule for you. I’ve had a really bad night. Don’t make me mad.”
This time just his eyes laughed. “That’s actually rule number 64, never provoke a red head.”
If he was trying not to provoke me, he was doing a bad job. I’m not a red head.
“Relax Goodwin, you can have it all. I’m Saul Panzer. I’m a private detective.”
“I didn’t tell you my name, Saul Panzer.”
“You didn’t have to. I made it my business to know about you. You work for Jack Cornell, guarding Pier 12.”
I had underestimated him. Maybe he didn’t look like much, but he seemed to know a lot. “I sound like an interesting guy. Why does a private detective care about Rose?”
He shrugged. “A private detective cares about pieces of a puzzle. She’s a piece. Look Goodwin, I can’t tell you everything because it’s not really up to me. I’m only telling you this much so you know it’s not just about the girls. There’s other stuff going on here. I know you’re one of the good ones, so watch yourself.”
“Not you too.”
“Me too, what?”
“Telling me to be careful.”
His whole body tensed up. “Who else told you to be careful?”
“Uh, uh. Rule number one. Who are you working for and what’s going on?”
For a moment he just looked at me. Then he gave me that small smile. He probably thought he was laughing. “They said you were quick. Suppose I just make something up?”
“Suppose I do. John D. Rockefeller told me to be careful. We meet for lunch.”
“I bet you do.” He looked at me long enough for me to start feeling self-conscious. I was wearing a thin coat against the chilly night air, no hat or gloves. I knew I looked tired. The night shift plays hell with your sleep patterns. Finally, he spoke again. “What are you doing at eleven tomorrow morning?”
“Make an exception.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a wallet and fished out a card. “Here, be at this address at eleven. I’ll be there and we’ll talk some more.”
I looked at the card. “Nero Wolfe? You weren’t kidding you’re a private detective. This must be one hell of a puzzle.”
He was already wandering off. “Come and see for yourself, Goodwin.”
Eleven o’clock the next morning found me mounting the steps of a large brownstone on West 35th Street. I’d had exactly two hours of sleep and I was feeling it. I should have figured, the hell with it and stayed in bed. The only problem was I couldn’t leave it alone. Rose and I weren’t any great friends, but she was another voice in the dark. If she was part of a puzzle, then I wanted a look at the puzzle. Also I was damn curious about Wolfe. There were a lot more famous people in the city, but few as eccentric. My previous exposure to eccentric people was limited to a great aunt who kept seventeen cats. If half the stories about Wolfe were true, he put her in the shade.
At the top of the steps I pressed the doorbell. The door was opened by a tidy looking older guy who looked at me appraisingly, but seemed friendly enough.
“I’m Archie Goodwin. Saul Panzer told me to come.”
“Yes, sir. Please come in.” This guy wasn’t American. His accent was a new one. I guess I’d call it French. He took my coat and led me down the hall to a side room.
“Mr. Goodwin is here, sir.”
“Thank you, Fritz. Come in Mr. Goodwin.”
I entered. To my right was a large brown desk. Behind it was a large brown man. Saul Panzer was in a red chair facing the desk. The man behind the desk, who could only be Nero Wolfe, looked me over and then spoke indignantly to Panzer, “Nonsense, Saul. What is this, flummery?”
If Panzer was offended by Wolfe’s tone, he didn’t show it. If anything he looked amused, “No sir. This is Archie Goodwin.”
Wolfe turned back to me. “Bah, this is farcical. Mr. Goodwin, sit down. I prefer eyes at a level.”
I took a yellow chair near Panzer. Wolfe regarded me, not happily.
“How old are you, Mr. Goodwin?”
I cocked a glance at Panzer, who had got me into this, but he was no help. “Look, Panzer asked me to come here, so here I am when I should be sleeping. And right away you start with personal questions. Do I ask you how much you weigh?”
Wolfe’s eyes narrowed at me. “Saul?” he snapped.
“Archie Goodwin is 19 years old. Born and raised in Chillicothe, Ohio. Came to New York in September of last year. Has been working at the South Street docks ever since then.”
I suppose my jaw dropped. Before I could work up a reply, Wolfe beat me to it.
“Good heavens. Nineteen. Are you quite sure about him, Saul? No, never mind, of course you are, you asked him to come. Mr. Goodwin, you are here because I am desperate. I’m at an impasse and I need your assistance. Mr. Panzer informed me that you were acquainted with the young woman whose body was recovered last night.”
I answered cautiously, “we weren’t any great friends if that’s what you’re asking, but we knew each other, yeah.”
“Just so. I need you to try and recollect any conversations you may have had with her, particularly recent conversations.”
“Yeah, that’s what Panzer asked. Why?”
“Because it may be relevant to a matter that I am investigating.”
“Okay. Relevant how?”
Wolfe put a halt to that ping pong match. “Mr. Goodwin. You are very young, but Saul assures me that you have some sense. I will explain the matter more fully to you if I need to. However, I ask you to consider this. The person who killed your acquaintance is almost certainly implicated in the matter that I am investigating. Any assistance that you can provide may aid in catching this person. I doubt that you are indifferent to his capture.”
No, I wasn’t indifferent. Three girls in three weeks. We were all jumping at shadows. I turned it over in my head. There seemed to be no reason not to talk to him. I knew Nero Wolfe had a reputation for getting results and making the cops look like monkeys. If he could catch this guy, then more power to him. The cops sure weren’t getting anywhere.
“Okay. I last spoke to her a week ago. Last Tuesday night. Or I should say Wednesday morning.”
I proceeded to tell Wolfe about my last conversation with Rose, the one in which she had told me to be careful. As I was telling it I could see again her pale, plain face looking up at me, her voice was raspy in the night air. When I finished both Wolfe and Panzer were staring at me like I had grown a tail.
“Indeed,” Wolfe said, “Was that approximately what she said?”
“That was what she said.”
“How confident are you in your recollection?”
“That was what she said.”
“Very well then.” I still had my tail. He went back to Panzer. “Well Saul, this is a validation.”
“Yes sir. But now we have a problem.”
At that point, the doorbell rang. Wolfe ignored it and kept right on talking.
“We do. They rebuff all discussion?”
“Yes sir. They don’t know me and they’re all pretty jumpy right now.”
The doorman then entered the office. He gave me a doubtful look and spoke to Wolfe.
“Sir, that woman is here.”
Wolfe didn’t get a chance to respond. A woman brushed right past the doorman and barreled into the office. She was a big woman, both tall and hefty. She was an older woman, but she was well-taken care of. Her gray suit hadn’t come off the rack. She pointed quick brown eyes at Wolfe and spoke to him in exasperated tones.
“What is happening? I haven’t heard from you in over a week. The press keeps asking questions and I don’t know what to say. The police do nothing.”
Wolfe scowled at her. “I am engaged at the moment, Madam.”
“I don’t care. I’ve waited over a week. You said you’d call me if you had news.”
“And so I will. I have no news for you. I’m working on the matter.”
“Three weeks since he disappeared. Three weeks! Have you done anything at all?”
That’s when the penny dropped. I was looking at Mrs. Reina Walker. The story had been all over the papers. Her only son, the apple of her eye, the spring in her step, had disappeared three weeks ago. It was widely thought that Morton Walker had been kidnapped, but no ransom demand ever came.
“I am pursuing the matter. When I have anything to report, I will call you.” Wolfe was losing patience.
“Three weeks!” She put a hand to her head and looked around her for the first time. Panzer had vacated the red chair when she entered the room. She now sank into it and her eyes found me.
“I don’t know you.”
“No, ma’am. I’m Archie Goodwin.”
“Archie Goodwin. Are you helping Mr. Wolfe with this?”
Of course that was the question. I gave her a professional smile. “Yes, ma’am.”
“What are you doing.”
Wolfe started blustering. “Madam, I say again-“
I cut in. That approach wouldn’t get him anywhere. “You know ma’am, you actually look sensible.”
“I am. I am always sensible.”
“Then you should act sensibly. You hired Mr. Wolfe because he can get results. And now what, are you going to fire him because you don’t like the way he’s doing it?”
“No, of course not! But I haven’t heard anything!”
“Well, I can sympathize. There just hasn’t been time. Now we can spend our time trying to find out what happened to your son, or we can spend our time reporting back to you, which do you prefer?”
She was already starting to crumple. “It’s just that he’s my son.”
I was sympathetic. “I know. That makes it extra tough. It’s no wonder you’re not thinking. But that’s why you hired Mr. Wolfe, to do your thinking for you.”
“Mr. Wolfe said he was probably dead.”
I wondered what I had stepped into. And Wolfe was no help at all, just sitting there watching us.
I leaned towards her and let her have my eyes. She looked scared and exhausted. I picked up one of her hands. “If he’s dead then it will be hard for you. But we’re not there yet. Let us work. You’ll know when we know.”
She squeezed my hand. “Will you call me? I want you to call me.”
“Yes, I’ll call.”
“Thank you. That’s all I wanted.”
I helped Mrs. Walker up and she tottered out. I sat back down and looked at Wolfe. He was leaning back in his chair and glaring at me. “Mr. Goodwin, do you always interject yourself into matters that don’t concern you?”
“I don’t know. Talk to me about a matter that doesn’t concern me and let’s see what I do. You two asked for my help. It wasn’t my idea to come here.”
Wolfe turned to Panzer, who was openly grinning at him.
“Very well,” he snapped, “I bow to circumstances. Mr. Goodwin, I’m going to take you into my confidence. I don’t relish this, but I see no alternative. I will need your help.”
“I thought I already helped you.”
“You did. You confirmed a theory. Now I must further explore that theory and for that, I need you. I don’t pretend that your desire to capture the man responsible for the deaths of those young women is sufficient motivation for you to take up this task. I can’t pay you as an agent because you are not licensed as a private detective. However, I can and will pay your expenses. In addition, if we are successful, it is likely that Mrs. Walker will be inclined to offer you a reward. She seemed to favor you. Will these terms be acceptable?”
“I don’t know. It depends on what you want me to do.”
“Yes, it does. I must first explain the matter to you. Do you have a dollar?”
He ran his eyes over me. I lifted my chin and stared back, flatly.
“No matter. A penny will do.”
I fished around in my pocket and came up with a dime, which I placed on the edge of his desk.
“You are now my client and this conversation is confidential. I have been hired to discover what happened to Morton Walker. By your display with Mrs. Walker, I gather that you have heard of him.”
I nodded. Everyone had heard of him. He was what the papers called a bon vivant. An uptown swell. A good looking, long-time bachelor with a moneyed family. He had disappeared a few weeks ago.
“If Mr. Walker is alive, I am to discover his whereabouts. If he is dead, I am to discover how he died. He is most likely dead. Through great ingenuity and effort, Mr. Panzer and I discovered that Mr. Walker occasionally visited the South Street docks. I should not say “occasionally”. His visits were fairly frequent and they were made at night.”
Wolfe turned his palm up towards me. “The fact that a man of his background frequented the docks was interesting. One would expect that he would confine his relations to those of his own sphere. He did not and that, as I say, was unusual. Private investigators are suspicious of unusual facts.
Shortly after Mr. Walker’s disappearance, the body of the first murdered young woman was found. The murder itself would not be unusual, but for the particularly brutal way in which she was killed. Her gullet was slit and her tongue cut out.”
Something must have showed on my face because he added, “you didn’t know that. Good. It is not generally known. The other two unfortunates were mutilated in the same manner. Theses three deaths were more than unusual, they were highly suggestive. You are aware that the removal of the tongue is a symbolic gesture?”
I cleared my throat. “I’ve heard of it. I didn’t realize their tongues were cut. I thought it was just-,” I stopped and started again. “You cut out someone’s tongue when you don’t want them talking.”
“Precisely. As of this morning, I had those two facts. A man was missing from an area in which he should not have been. Shortly after his disappearance, three women were murdered in a suggestive manner. You have now given me a third fact. One of the woman who was killed had seen or heard something that caused her particular concern. These three facts lead to my current hypothesis. These women saw or heard something that has bearing on the disappearance of Mr. Walker. They were slain to prevent their disclosing it.”
I slid a glance at Panzer who seemed to accept all of this like it was perfectly logical.
“Yeah, I guess that’s one hypothesis. Here’s another. The girls all picked up a guy with a short fuse. Walker fell in the river.”
“The police have been exploring that theory for weeks and have got no where. I prefer my version.”
“Have you told the cops your version?”
“No. For two reasons. First, and most salient for me, is that I am a private investigator. I charge large fees for my mental processes. I do not simply give away my theories to the police. Second, I don’t believe the police would adequately act on any information that I provided. Saul?”
“Who is the detective in charge of the murders of those women?”
“Is he competent?”
“As you see, Mr. Goodwin. No, I will not go to the police. This is my theory and I intend to test it.”
“Apparently, you intend for me to test it. What am I supposed to do that you and Panzer can’t?”
“First an assumption. If those women possessed information, then others of their ilk may also have this information. You are needed to discover whether or not this is a valid assumption. Talk to those women. Find out what they know.”
I goggled at him. “Is that all?”
He was serene. “Yes, that’s all.”
“Look, Mr. Wolfe, if what you’re saying is true, then why would they tell me anything? Not a whole lot of girls find me charming enough to risk losing their tongue for.”
“It may be that they will tell you nothing. This, however, is an avenue that the police have neglected and it is worth trying. Saul informs me that you are known to some of those women and that they are well disposed towards you. To a stranger, they would say nothing, to you they might be more forthcoming.”
It seemed looney. I may have a healthy opinion of myself, but I wasn’t so far gone as to think that all I had to do was smile at a girl and she’d tell me something that could get her killed. As I thought about it, I realized that I was trying to come up with a way to work it. Apparently some part of me had decided to do it and was just now getting around to informing the rest of me.
“Okay. I don’t guarantee anything, but I’ll try.”
“I ask for no guarantees. This whole exercise is probably futile, but I am desperate. You will need more information about Mr. Walker.”
Wolfe then filled me in about Walker. Walker was thirty eight. Despite family pressure, he had never married. He devoted his life to having a good time and ran with a bunch of other young men, similarly situated. His family was new money. They were desperate to know what happened to their one and only son. Like Wolfe said, a guy like Walker had no business being on the lower east side. We all three went back and forth on Walker. It was after one when Wolfe finally pushed his chair back.
“It is my lunch time. Mr. Goodwin, I invite you to join me. Saul?”
Panzer shook his head. “Much as I hate to refuse, I’ve got a little job to finish this afternoon.”
“Very well. Be here tomorrow at six, I will have a few things to discuss with you. Please come with me, Mr. Goodwin.”
Panzer left us and I followed Wolfe across the hall to a large dining room. It seemed kind of extravagant for one person, but then, judging from his size, he probably rated dining pretty high. His refrigerator probably had its own room.
We were served by my doorman, who Wolfe introduced as Fritz Brenner. The meal was some kind of bird that I had no idea how to handle. I had to watch Wolfe to see how he did it. I thought I was being subtle, but I guess not because he quickly slowed down to display to me how I was supposed to eat it.
I had thought we would continue on with Walker while we ate, but when I brought it up, he vetoed it.
“I don’t discuss business at the table. It interferes with digestion.”
Instead he wanted to talk about immigration patterns, of all things. He started with Ireland and then made the grand tour of Europe, ending up in Germany. I was able to contribute a little since I lived near the German quarter and certainly saw a lot of immigrants. Wolfe mentioned that newcomers always tended to stick together.
“You and I are both immigrants to New York.”
“Yeah, I get the feeling you come from farther away than I do.”
“I do. I am from Montenegro, which you have likely never heard of.”
That would have struck me as patronizing, except that it was true.
“I would have guessed somewhere in Europe. You don’t sound like you’re from New York.”
“Nor do you.”
“I haven’t been here that long. I might yet pick up the accent.”
“I wouldn’t seek to acquire it. Your own voice is pleasant enough.”
The meal seemed to pass quickly. When we finished, Wolfe took me back to the office to see if I had any questions. I told him I thought I had it all.
“You recall all I told you about Mr. Walker?”
“I got it. I remember.”
He grunted. “What was the first thing I said to you?”
“You didn’t say it to me, you said it to Panzer. You said, “Nonsense, Saul. What is this, flummery?”
He grunted again. “Yes. That is what I said.”
“What is that anyway, flummery?”
His broad cheeks unfolded slightly. “It means nonsense, an absurdity. If the meaning of a word is unclear from its context, you should look it up.”
“Thanks, I left my dictionary at home.”
“When you are here, you may use one of mine.”
The way he talked it figured that he would have more than one dictionary. We finished it up and I agreed to report back to him if I found out anything.
He pressed a little button on his desk and Fritz Brenner appeared to escort me out. In the hallway, I offered Brenner my hand. “Thanks for feeding me, Mr. Brenner.”
He took my hand and positively beamed at me. “It is a pleasure to cook for someone who appreciates it. It’s good for Mr. Wolfe to have someone to talk with.”
He looked confused. I grinned at him and left, bent on getting a few hours sleep before I started work.
The night was cold again. With as little sleep as I’d had, I had to keep sternly reminding myself to stay sharp. Circumstances weren’t helping to keep me awake. I saw almost no one walking around. As the night wore on, I began to worry that all of the girls had been driven inside, either by fear or by the cold.
Finally, a little before three, my luck changed. A girl stepped out of the shadows of a warehouse across from my pier. I quickly lit a cigarette as a lure and she ambled over. She was one I knew by sight, but not by name.
“Hey Farmboy, got any to share?”
“Sure.” I handed her a cigarette and lit it for her. We both leaned against a pylon to smoke.
“Not many of you out tonight.”
She snorted. “Hell, do you blame us? But we’ve got to eat.”
She was a blonde, but it probably wasn’t natural. She looked tired and dejected.
“You be careful. Rose just talked to me last week.”
“Rose. You should have told her to be careful.”
“Yeah, I should have.”
I blew smoke and we both stared at the river. She spoke, “I heard you saw her. After they found her, I mean.”
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. I heard the others were the same.”
“Did you see any of the others?
“No, just Rose.”
“I knew the first girl too. Lucy.”
“Did I know her?”
“No. She knew you though. She talked about you. She didn’t want to talk to you though. She thought that would be too forward. Forward. Huh. Imagine. She was like that though. A funny kind of polite.”
“She talked about me?”
She threw her butt into the river. “A lot of the girls talk about you. Farmboy. Archie.”
“What do they say?”
“Mostly they say you should go home.”
“What do you say?”
She sighed. “The other guards, they act like they don’t see us, you know? Or else they act like we’re something they stepped in. They’re no good to us. All the girls want to stay close to your pier now. So I guess I don’t really want you to go home.”
For a little bit neither one of said anything. We just watched the river flow.
“You carry a gun, right Archie?”
“If, say, one of us needed help, you’d help, right?”
I looked at her. “I’ll put on the suit of armor anytime you say, but I like to know why I’m shooting someone. The cops can be touchy about stuff like that. Look, I know it’s not your boss doing this. I’d guess killing his girls would be bad for business.”
“Him. He’s scared himself. You won’t see him around after dark.”
She shrugged and started to go. I spoke quickly. “Rose told me she heard things.”
“Rose had a goddamned big mouth.”
I grabbed her arm. “Settle down sister. I’m still your Farmboy in shining armor. But if you want my protection I’ve got to know what I’m protecting you from.”
She was starting to scare. “I don’t want your protection.”
“Then you’re an idiot. Look at it this way, if only a few of you know what’s going on, then only a few of you are targets. Easy pickings. Rose didn’t tell me anything. I doubt she told anyone. And still she got it because whoever cut her figured all he had to do was get rid of a few people and he was safe. But suppose a lot more people know. Then he’s got a problem. He’s either got to get out or he’s got to try to kill a whole hell of a lot of people and how’s he going to do that?”
“Look, I tell you and I go to the top of the list.”
“So put me at the top of the list. Go to ground for a few days. Business is bad enough with this going on, you really think you’ll miss much?”
She bit her lip and I pushed on.
“Can you really keep going like this? He cuts up girls whether they talk or not.”
“Okay Farmboy. I’m not telling you, see. All I’m saying is that you should maybe pay attention to Pier 10.”
I nodded. “I’ll do that. In the meantime, you disappear. Go to the Bahamas for a little while.”
Walking away, she gave a short, tense laugh, “I’ll have to sell my diamonds first.”
So now, just like that, I had something for Wolfe. The deal was that I was to report back to him as soon as I heard anything. But Pier 10 was close by. I didn’t know whether it was guarded or not, but I felt it wouldn’t hurt to walk by on my way home.
I finished out my shift and headed out to play detective. Only two boats were docked in the slips at Pier 10. Usually the east side piers docked fishing boats and tugs. Sometimes we’d get cargo, which made the guards necessary. Cargo ships could hold anything from window panes to opium. If a pier was well guarded, that meant it either got a lot of cargo, or the cargo that it did get was questionable.
I approached Pier 10 and saw that it was guarded. He was big guy with the face of a frog and the body of a draft horse. I approached as a friendly colleague. The glare he gave me made it instantly apparent that we were not about to form the International Brotherhood of Pier Guards.
“What the hell do you want, punk?”
That set the tone. I wasn’t about to get anything out of him. I stayed only long enough to check out the two boats. One was a tug. The other was a cargo boat, the Delia. The Delia looked like it was undergoing some repairs so it had probably been there awhile. I looked my fill until the Frog Horse started getting aggressive. He finally told me to beat it and I sauntered off.
I made it back to my boarding house and called the number on Wolfe’s business card. I got Brenner, the cook.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Goodwin, Mr. Wolfe is unavailable until eleven.”
“Look, Mr. Brenner, I really think he’d want to know about this.”
“Please, one moment, Mr. Goodwin.”
It was longer than a moment, but when he came back on he told me that Wolfe wanted me there at eleven. I hung up feeling put upon. I needed sleep and here I was traipsing across town again. One the other hand, I might get a meal out of it and taxi fare could probably be counted as an expense.
At eleven, there I was, as obedient as a collie. Brenner led me into the office and there was Wolfe, sitting at his desk sorting his mail. He put it down when he saw me.
“Good morning Mr. Goodwin, have you slept?”
“Not yet. I will when I get home.”
“Would you like some coffee?”
“No thanks, but I’ll take some milk if you have any.”
Brenner yes sirred him and wafted out.
“Now then, you have something for me?”
“One of the girls spoke to me last night.”
He leaned back in his chair and gave me his full attention. It was like having a light suddenly shined in your eyes. I wanted to blink and step back.
“Mr. Goodwin, to the best of your ability, tell me exactly what she said.”
After yesterday, that request didn’t entirely come out of the blue. It did give me pause though. My full conversation with the blonde had lasted over half an hour. I thought back and saw her again come out of the shadows towards me, lured by the glow of my cigarette. I started from there and narrated the entire scene. At one point, Brenner entered with my milk and I briefly lost the picture, but I picked back up again.
Throughout it all, Wolfe leaned back and watched me. When he wanted to listen, he could listen. When I finished, he straightened up.
“Satisfactory, Mr. Goodwin.”
This is the funny part. Back in Ohio I had a teacher who also used that word on me. When she said it, it gave me the feeling that I was barely adequate and far below the standards one could reasonably expect from the inmates at Scioto Grammar School. When Wolfe said it, it was different. I felt like I’d been given the key to the city. I plunged on.
“Pier 10 has two boats docked right now. One is a tug. The other is cargo, the Delia. The guard is a big guy, not friendly.”
That got me a scowl.
“You went by there?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“That was unduly precipitous. Several people have warned you to be wary. You should have stayed away.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“No doubt you have learned to do so. But it’s foolish to spurn good advice when it is offered to you. Saul will want to hear this information and may have questions for you. He will be here at six. You will stay here until then.”
I thought briefly about protesting, but it would be foolish to spurn a free meal. If I fell asleep on him that would be his problem. He went back to his mail while I fidgeted. I watched him go through his letters until he couldn’t take it any more.
“Mr. Goodwin, keep still. This room contains many books. Take one. Read and be quiet.”
I got up to look at books. I pulled out a thick volume, went to the red chair, and started thumbing through it. “How do you spell precipitous?”
Wolfe sighed. “Jabber.”
I finished up with the “p’s” and flipped to the “j’s”. I improved my mind for bit and then became aware of a slow clacking noise. Looking up I saw Wolfe frowning before a typewriter on a little table next to his desk. He was slowly pecking away. I watched for awhile. It was pathetic.
“Why do you own a typewriter if you can’t type?”
“Are you never silent?”
I grinned at him. “Sure. I’m silent when I’m being entertained. Keep typing and I’ll pipe right down.”
“Confound you.” He pulled the paper out of the machine and crumpled it up. I rose and walked over.
“Let me do it. It’ll keep me awake.”
His machine was a lot nicer than the one I learned on. Once I got back up to speed, I could really fly on it. We finished the mail and Brenner called us in to lunch. Either Brenner knew in advance that I would be eating with Wolfe again, or he always made enough for two. Looking at Wolfe, I suspected the latter. The talk at lunch was about the role of the printing press in the rise of Protestantism. Brenner kept popping in and out. At one point while Wolfe was holding forth, Brenner caught my eye and winked at me.
After lunch I was pretty much ordered to take a nap so I’d be alert when Panzer arrived. Wolfe had Brenner take me to a guest room on the third floor. I took the opportunity to quiz him a bit about Wolfe.
“What does he do in the mornings?”
“Mr. Wolfe is in the plant rooms from nine to eleven in the morning and from four to six in the afternoon.”
“Plants? Well, I guess it beats cats. Thanks for showing me up here, Mr. Brenner.”
“It’s a pleasure to have you here sir. But you must not call me Mr. Brenner. I’m Fritz.”
That sounded awfully feudal, but it was their house. “Okay, but you have to promise not to call me sir.”
“Very well, Mr. Goodwin.”
I sighed. “Okay, we’ll work on that.”
Normally, when I sleep, I sleep. But by now my body was so thrown off schedule it didn’t know what I was up to. I lay on the bed barefoot, beltless, and in my shirtsleeves and let myself drift. I’ll never know exactly what woke me, but I finally pried my eyes open and turned towards the door.
Wolfe was standing in the doorway. Standing up like that, he didn’t really look like a fat man. He was tall and bulky, and he gave the impression of solidity. There was nothing flabby about him. He had been standing quietly in the doorway watching me sleep.
“I apologize for intruding, but Saul has arrived.”
I suppose I made some sort of reply. It usually takes me awhile to work up to full sentences. I pulled on my shirt and reached for my shoes. All the while, Wolfe was watching me.
“You shouldn’t work nights. It’s barbaric.”
Which struck me as a hell of a dumb thing to say. I sure didn’t choose to work nights. I formulated a witty comeback, which came out a grunt and finished dressing. By the time we reached the office, my brain and tongue were working again.
Panzer was there in the red chair. Wolfe went to his desk and I took a yellow chair.
Panzer looked at me like he was wondering what I was doing there. It was a legitimate question. I wondered it myself. But Wolfe was waiting, so he didn’t waste time with me.
“Yes sir. I found two people who were able to verify your theory. If I had a little more time, I could probably find more. He wasn’t very discrete.”
“We don’t need any more. A new avenue has presented itself. Mr. Goodwin, will you tell Mr. Panzer what you told me this morning.”
I gave Panzer everything I’d given Wolfe, including my visit to Pier 10. When I was done, Panzer transferred his eyes from me to Wolfe.
“It’s obviously the Delia.”
“Yes. You will attempt to confirm that tonight.”
I butted in. “You’re going to try to poke around the Delia?”
“I’m going to look around.”
“Uh huh. I think I mentioned that Pier 10 is guarded. This type of guard is new to your experience. He’s not suave and personable. In fact he’s likely to shoot you.”
Panzer nodded. “Oh, I’ll be careful.”
“Right. You’ll need help with him. I’ll go with you. I can keep his attention.”
Wolfe interjected. “No. You’re out of it.”
“The hell I am. This is going on right in my backyard. I’m a guard. I’ve got the paycheck to prove it. I intend to guard.”
“No. You will stay away from that pier.”
“Why are you so hot to deal me out?”
“Because the danger is even greater for you than it is for Saul.”
“Look, I know he’s been around longer, but I’m not totally green.”
“It is not that. Very well. You have earned the right to some information. You will recall that I told you that Mr. Walker was a bachelor who came from a large family. His family is, in fact, of a dynastic bent. Yet Mr. Walker never married. This was odd. When circumstances are odd, I investigate them. It became evident that Mr. Walker confined his intimate relationships to young men. Further inquiries revealed that Mr. Walker met some of these men near the South Street docks.”
So Walker was that way. Funny, I had never heard any talk about him. And I sure never heard about him visiting the docks. “You’re saying he liked rough trade.”
He made a face. “I’m saying he preferred men of a lower economic caste.”
“That would be one way of putting it. So he got into trouble while he was out trolling by the docks.”
“Essentially. Saul has just confirmed his activities. You are aware that young women sometimes disappear from the streets?”
“Yes. It happens.”
“What are their disappearances ascribed to?”
“Probably they get picked up and, well, used, and then thrown in the river.”
“That is a likely scenario. Here is another one. An individual, call him the principal, wishes to secure a young woman. He does not, however, want to expose himself to the risk of public scrutiny. Thus, he seeks an agent to act on his behalf. The agent secures the woman and presents her to his principal. Once the principal has achieved his objective, she is returned to the agent. The agent then either dismisses her or disposes of her.”
He said it casually, as though this kind of peddling was just a fact of life. Maybe it was. There were still some things I didn’t know. “You’re saying there’s someone out there selling girls.”
He gave a tiny shrug. “It has been known to occur. Now take it a step further. You know that young women periodically disappear. Did you also know that young men do as well?”
I felt my ears redden. “No. I don’t usually hear about the men.”
“They are perhaps more discrete than the women.”
“Are you saying Walker was a principal? That he tried to get men that way?”
“No. Mr. Walker apparently had no compunctions about visiting South Street. He needed no agent. However, when Mr. Walker was engaged in one of his expeditions, he dressed to blend in with his surroundings.”
That’s why I never heard of him visiting the docks. He wasn’t dressed like a swell. He was dressed like one of us. He could have been mistaken for a local. “My God, someone grabbed him.”
“That is my theory.”
“What’s on the Delia?”
“An agent must have a base of operations. It could not always be possible for him to immediately turn over an acquisition to a principal. Last week, Saul began to look for such a base. By that time two young women had been killed near the piers. Saul began to pay special attention to the area near the piers. When that woman spoke to you, it confirmed that these women had been killed because of something they had seen. Something near the piers. You have now provided the final piece of the puzzle. They saw something at Pier 10.”
“You think Walker is on the Delia?”
“I doubt it. Too much time has passed. However, it may contain clues to his fate.”
I looked over at Panzer. “Brother, you’re going to need me.”
Wolfe spoke again. “No. It is too hazardous for you. Your role is finished.”
“Why is it so hazardous for me?” I demanded.
It was Panzer who answered in his quiet, reasonable voice. “Archie, this guy deals in people. He’s scouting around looking for merchandise. Say he catches me. If so, well, that’s not good, but it’s a straight fight. He doesn’t want me. He just wants me gone. But if you show up it’s a different story. He might want you.”
“Why would he want me?”
Saul shook his head at me, “Look in the mirror, kid.”
That was just nuts. I turned back to Wolfe. “If not me then someone else.”
“Saul is more than competent. His mission at this point is not to board the Delia, but only to ascertain if it has been the scene of any recent activity.”
I looked back at Saul. “I still don’t like it.”
“It’ll be okay. Thanks for the warning about the guard.”
“I hope it’s enough.” I stood. “I need to get going.”
“You should dine with us before you leave.”
“You don’t know how much I hate to refuse, but I have to get ready for work.”
“Fritz will be disappointed.”
“Not as disappointed as I am. Tell him I’ll remember him always.”
Wolfe snorted and actually stood up. He approached me and offered a hand.
“Your performance has been satisfactory. You will come back here to receive your expense money and whatever reward may result.”
“Say the word. I’ll see myself out. Good luck, Panzer.”
I left and headed back to the lower east side. I needed to clean up and change before work. It may not have been strictly necessary to walk by Pier 10 on my way home, but it was a public street, and I was a taxpayer.
If there had been anything worth guarding that night, I would have been sunk. As is happened, the only things docked were two fishing boats and a tug so my failure to keep my mind on the job was beside the point. All night I kept looking down the street towards Pier 10, which was silly because I couldn’t see anything from where I was.
By two a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore. I certainly wasn’t doing any damn good where I was. I decided to be unduly precipitous and headed down the street. If Wolfe and Panzer didn’t like it, that was too bad. As I approached Pier 10, I kept a wary eye out for the Frog Horse, who also might have taken it into his head to stroll about.
Except that I didn’t see the Pier 10 guard. Not only wasn’t he walking about, he wasn’t at his post where he should have been. I stopped in front of the pier and cautiously looked around. The light was dim from a little sliver of moon, but Frog Horse would be difficult to miss. He wasn’t around.
I stepped onto the pier, held my breath for ten seconds and listened. Nothing. With great ingenuity and effort, I edged towards the Delia. I stopped every few steps to listen. At twelve steps away from the plank, I heard voices. At the foot of the plank, I could make out words.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”
“You took care of the whores just fine.”
“No one cared about them. But if this guy shows up in pieces you think the cops will look the other way?”
“So throw him in the river.”
I checked my pocket for my Colt and moved slowly up the plank. The voices were coming from below deck. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to stalk quietly below deck on a cargo boat while wearing size ten work boots, but it’s not an activity that I’d recommend. After about a million years I wound up outside a door to a cabin. The door was halfway shut. I pressed up behind it and listened.
“Look, I don’t care what you guys are doing here. You think I don’t know about opium. Everyone knows. Nobody cares. I was just looking for a date.”
It was Panzer’s voice. He was on the right side of the room.
“Why the hell did you grab him?”
“You said keep people away. He was sniffing around.”
The guard and someone else. The someone else must have been the one Wolfe called the agent. Their voices came from the middle of the room, slightly to my left.
“Hell, you’ll have to plug him. Then make sure he doesn’t float.”
I pulled out my gun, took a breath and kicked the door in.
The guard was my priority. I knew he was armed. He had his piece out. When I kicked the door in, he whirled and turned it on me. I shot first and he crumpled.
At Panzer’s cry I ducked and a knife went whizzing by my ear. Apparently the agent was our knife man. By the time I straightened out, he had another knife in his hand was about to let fly. I took him square in the chest at eight feet away. He pitched backwards and fell to the floor.
I don’t know how long I stood in the center of the room. I slowly became aware of two things. First, I was trembling and couldn’t stop. Second, Panzer was calling me.
“Archie, “ he said gently, “Archie come here and let me loose.”
Panzer was sitting on the floor with his hands bound. I told myself to stop trembling and found the knife that had gone by me. I quickly cut through the ropes. He rubbed his wrists and stood.
“Thanks.” He walked over to the guard and knelt to examine him. Then he did the same to the agent.
“Okay, they’re gone.”
“Okay.” It was funny. I had told my body to stop shaking, but apparently my voice hadn’t got the message yet.
“They would have killed both of us. It was self defense.”
“Yeah, okay.” I took a breath and shook it off. “So now what?”
“First we look around, then we call the cops.”
“Right, Walker. Anything in particular we’re looking for?”
“Just something to show he was here.”
It wasn’t much of a search. They hadn’t bothered to hide anything so everything was right out in the open. In one drawer there were locks of hair. Another held handkerchiefs. On a side table were several wallets. Panzer went over to the wallets while I started thumbing through a stack of papers.
“I’ve got it. His wallet. The I.D. is still in it.”
I barely heard him. The papers I was going through were little bits and pieces of memos that people had carried with them. There were a few keepsake photographs as well. And there, right near the top of the stack, was a photo of Rose.
It was stiff, posed picture. It must have been taken years ago. In it she looked tense and unhappy. I wondered if it had been taken in New Jersey. I pocketed it and followed Panzer out.
Amazingly enough, the cops responded quickly to Panzer’s call. Not so amazingly, they didn’t believe a word we said. Even with Panzer there to corroborate me, they weren’t buying my story. Their theory seemed to be that I enjoyed creeping on to boats and laying waste to the crew. I found myself cuffed and headed downtown. In all the excitement, I lost track of Panzer.
Once downtown, I got an idea of how important they thought I was. No lowly beat cop to interrogate me. I got George Rowcliff himself. He had three unsolved stabbings and now he had two men who I had shot to death. So naturally I had stabbed the girls. I remembered Panzer saying that Rowcliff was incompetent. Panzer would get no argument from me. Rowcliff couldn’t shake me from my basic position that I had shot two men who had threatened me after they had snatched a friend. Why had they grabbed Panzer? I didn’t know, he would have to ask them. And on and on. Finally, a little before nine in the morning, he gave up and sent me down to lock up.
I wouldn’t want to go through that morning again. I was thrown in an economy suite. Six other guys were there before me. All it lacked was hungry lions. I spent most of my time with my back to the wall and my fists up. They seemed to have the impression that I was not only a punk, but also easy pickings. For a while there was some doubt about the outcome. Fortunately, only three of them actually wanted to play and one of the three was discouraged by two sharp jabs to the kidney.
The other two were less persuadable. I got in some good shots, but so did they. My face took a couple of hits, but that was to be expected. What really got me was a shot from the larger specimen. I was engaged with his pal when he managed to get in three good, quick punches to my left rib cage. I nearly went down, but held on long enough to give him a hard kick in the kneecap. He howled and they both drew back to reevaluate. We were eyeing each other and waiting for the bell to start round two when a guard showed up and called my name. I edged towards the door and was let out while my roommates grumbled unprintable things.
“You know,” I told the guard, “if I protected a pier the way you protect these cells no one would ever dock in New York. The excitement would be too much for them.”
“Shut up. You’re wanted upstairs.”
I did shut up. Not because of his request, but because I was busy thinking. During my stay in the coliseum I had wondered if I had been cut loose. I had lost track of Panzer and for all I knew he and Wolfe had simply finished their investigation and gone on with their lives. I didn’t think they would entirely abandon me, but I doubted I was a priority. My usefulness was at an end so they had no reason to stick their necks out for me.
But now I was being taken upstairs. Either the cops were serious about pinning five deaths on me or Wolfe had somehow pulled some strings.
I was taken up three flights to a small office. In it was a desk, several chairs, a red faced inspector, and Saul Panzer. Panzer’s eyes widened when he saw me, so I guessed my face had marks.
The inspector bellowed at the guard. “What the hell happened to him?”
“Sorry, Inspector Cramer. He picked a fight with some of the boys in lock up and got tagged before we could break it up.”
Cramer snorted. “Picked a fight. Right. Get out.”
“He’s not cuffed.”
“He doesn’t need to be. Get out.”
The guard left, not missed by any of us.
“Sit down Goodwin. Panzer’s been telling me a story.”
“Is there a happy ending?”
“By God, not for me. Rowcliff.”
That was all he could bring himself to say about Rowcliff.
“You seem to have made an impression on Nero Wolfe. He’s made some phone calls. The people he called called other people, and they called me. Now we’re all going to see Wolfe.”
“Oh,” I looked at Panzer, “we are?”
He nodded, still looking at my face.
Cramer butted in. “We are. It’s a trade. I get some murders solved and Wolfe gets you.”
That sounded like a good deal for Cramer, but he didn’t sound appreciative.
Panzer stood up. “Shall we go?”
“Yeah, I know,” Cramer grumbled, “It’s after eleven.”
We all filed out and headed downstairs. Cramer led the way while Panzer walked next to me. He touched my arm.
“Yeah. You should see the other guys.”
“It took awhile to get a hold of people.”
“I can only imagine the kind of people that Wolfe can get a hold of. Look, Panzer, I want you to know I appreciate it. You have no idea how much. But why did he bother?”
For a long moment Panzer didn’t say anything. Then he gave me his quiet smile. “I think you better call me Saul.”
Cramer, Saul and I arrived at Wolfe’s at 11:30. Fritz let us in. When he saw me he let out a noise that sounded like “tchah.” He patted my shoulder as he helped me off with my coat. He didn’t help Cramer with his coat.
Fritz led us into the office and there was Wolfe behind his desk. At that point I was tired and sore. I was a strong candidate for a murder rap and I had probably lost my job. But seeing him sitting there behind his desk I got an odd, peaceful feeling. Like somehow he would just fix everything. I wanted to lean up against him. It was silly, but there it was.
Wolfe’s reaction upon seeing me was considerably more vocal than my reaction at seeing him.
“Good heavens, Mr. Cramer! What did you do to him?”
“Nothing. There was a fight in his cell.”
“Good heavens. Mr. Goodwin, are you well?”
“I’m okay,” I said, although I actually wasn’t entirely sure about that. My ribs were probably cracked.
Cramer nudged me towards one of the yellow chairs. “He’s still a suspect until you tell us different.”
Cramer put his paw on my shoulder and pushed me to sit. I was a bit off balance and went down harder than he intended. For a second, the office went dim. When I came back to myself, I was bent forward in the chair and my face was being cradled by two big hands.
“Archie, breathe slowly.”
I did as I was told and after a moment I was able to raise my head enough to see Nero Wolfe’s broad face a few inches from mine. His palms were against my cheeks and his right thumb was stroking the left side of my face.
“Your face is bruised and you are in obvious pain. Were you injured anywhere else?”
It took me a second to understand what he was asking me. When I caught on I flushed and shook my head.
“I’m all right. It’s just that my ribs are sore and I’m pretty tired.” I looked into his brown eyes and quirked my mouth at him. “I’m also hungry.”
He chuckled, patted my cheek and let me go. “There I believe I can help you.”
He crossed to his desk and rang for Fritz. Fritz quickly appeared in the doorway.
“Fritz, take Archie to his room and bring him a tray. Sandwiches will do.”
“Wait a minute. Goodwin is still a suspect.”
“Nonsense, Mr. Cramer!” Wolfe bellowed. “Mr. Goodwin should never have been detained. It was a stupendous feat of jackassery to do so. Had that ninny Rowcliff the foresight to approach Mr. Goodwin for assistance early in his investigation he may have had a chance at solving those three murders. I say he may have, but I doubt it. I doubt Mr. Rowcliff’s ability to competently resolve any matter!”
“Now hold it right there!”
“No, Mr. Cramer.” Now Wolfe’s voice was icy. “You and your men have bungled this matter at every turn. Mr. Goodwin’s arrest was the apex of your folly. You wish to know who killed those women. Very well, I have agreed to tell you. But I will do so on my terms. Mr. Goodwin is not a suspect and he will not be charged with any crime.”
Cramer hated it. His jaw was clenched so tight I thought molars would crack. “You know you get it your way. You already spoke to the Commissioner.”
“Very well then, we understand each other. Fritz?”
So I didn’t get to hear any more fireworks. Saul told me later that I didn’t miss much. Wolfe laid out the case and showed Cramer some items that Saul had taken from the Delia. He suggested that Cramer do a thorough search of the boat. They would probably find more items from the dead agent’s victims.
After Fritz fed me, I fell asleep. I didn’t wake until after nine that night. It was a cinch I wouldn’t get a Christmas bonus. I was probably already fired, but I scrambled to go anyway. On my way out, I went to the office to say goodbye to Wolfe. He was there alone.
“Ah, you’re awake. Come in.”
“I wanted to thank you for squaring me with the cops.”
“You should never have been arrested.”
“I’m with you on that.”
“Please sit down. I told you I prefer eyes at a level.”
I sat. “I’m on my way out to see if I still have a job.”
He scowled. “You should not work when you’re injured.”
I grinned. “Well, I’m with you that too, but as you probably noticed, I like to eat.”
“As do I. I have a request. Saul has gone to fetch Mrs. Walker. In order to earn my fee, I must explain to her the fate of her son. I would like for you to be here to answer questions. If it later becomes necessary, I will speak to your employer.”
“That I would like to hear. He’s not a big talker. Look, I admit I’m curious. I’d like to stay. I’m probably fired anyway, after last night. They like us to have guns, but they tend to frown upon us actually killing people.”
“That was self defense. You had no choice.”
I had gone over it several times in my head. That’s the trouble with having a good memory, it’s hard to forget things. But I knew Wolfe was right. If I hadn’t fired, Saul and I would both be dead.
“Saul will be here shortly. I’m going to have some beer. Would you like a glass of milk?”
I accepted and he rang for Fritz. While we waited he asked me a bit about Ohio. He didn’t ask about anything too personal. Instead, he stuck to questions about the landscape. I told him about the river and the Appalachian foothills. He seemed to have a real thing for mountains.
Before we knew it, Saul arrived with Mrs. Walker. She was wearing a fur wrap that probably cost more than I make in a year.
She looked at me when she entered and did a double take. “Are you all right, Mr. Goodwin?”
I had forgotten about my face. “Yes, ma’am. Mr. Wolfe has some news for you.”
“Madam, you recall that I told you that it was extremely likely that your son was dead.”
She nodded. Her right hand was kneading her thigh. I leaned towards her.
“It is now a certainty that he is dead.”
I’ll give this to her. She was tough. All she did was swallow and nod. Wolfe went on to give her a highly edited version of events. He explained that Walker had been walking near the South Street docks when he encountered a man. The man had killed him and thrown him in the river.
“As you know, Mr. Panzer is the one who traced your son to the docks. Mr. Goodwin, who worked at the docks, then assisted us in discovering the man responsible for killing your son. That man is now dead.”
Wolfe then produced Walker’s wallet. Saul got up and took it from him to hand to her. She held it without knowing what to do with it.
“They threw him in the river?”
“I think that most likely, yes.”
“I don’t-Mr. Goodwin, you worked down there?”
“Yes.” She lifted a hand to me and I took it.
“What did-“ she swallowed and started again. “What would my son be doing there?”
She sat there privileged and cared for. She had probably never visited the lower east side, much less the docks. If she knew her boy had liked men, she probably would have shipped him off somewhere.
And yet there she was clutching my hand like without it she would go under and drown. Maybe she didn’t understand her son, but she was willing to pay Wolfe’s fees to find out what happened to him. Her image of him may not have been true, but it was hers and she loved it. And I could keep it safe.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Walker, I really don’t know what he was doing there.” I pursed my lips to consider. “I sometimes see men like your son talking with the public works people. They’re doing a lot of construction down there.”
She nodded slowly. “Perhaps that was it.”
She stood up. “I had to know, Mr. Wolfe. I was his mother.” She turned to me. “You understand, I had to know.” I nodded and Saul took her elbow to lead her out.
After they left, I spoke to Wolfe. “You didn’t tell her everything.”
“Nor did you. There was no point. For thirty eight years she had misunderstood her son. No knowledge of his life could help her now.”
“Huh. If she didn’t know him at all, then why go through so much trouble to find out what happened to him?”
His shoulders lifted a quarter of an inch. “She told you her reason. She was his mother.”
Another word to look up. I thought I already knew what it meant.
I stood up. “I’m going to head home. I’ve got a long day of job hunting ahead of me.”
“I told you I prefer eyes at a level,” he said peevishly.
“And I told you I was leaving.”
“You are too headlong. Sit down, Archie. I have a matter to discuss with you.”
I sat, eyes at a level.
I got your letter. Thanks for giving me your new address. Joe says you’re moving up in the world.
Your new employer sounds interesting, to say the least. You know darned well I’ve never had shad roe. Eight to five he makes you eat snails.
Mom told me she got a letter from you. I’m glad to hear it. I know it was hard and there’s a lot to forgive, but after all, she’s the only mother we’ve got.