Archie Goodwin is chipper as he strolls home from his weekly poker game, money in his pocket and a smile on his lips. He has just reached Nero Wolfe’s stately brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street when a sedan whips around the corner and two gunshots ring out, nearly hitting Goodwin. It is a warning, and the message is clear: The next bullet will not miss.
Rotund investigator Nero Wolfe has made more than his fair share of enemies over the years, and it seems one of them has decided to strike, targeting Wolfe’s indefatigable assistant. Some might run for cover, but Archie Goodwin is not the type. With the help of Wolfe’s brainpower, Goodwin will find the man who wants him dead—unless the killer gets to Goodwin first.
Nero Award–winning author Robert Goldsborough continues the brilliant work of Rex Stout in this classic mystery series. According to Publishers Weekly, “Goldsborough cleverly captures the tone and language of the originals. Rex Stout fans can only hope he has no plans to wind up the series soon.”
About the Author
Robert Goldsborough is an American author best known for continuing Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe series. Born in Chicago, he attended Northwestern University and upon graduation went to work for the Associated Press, beginning a lifelong career in journalism that would include long periods at the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age. While at the Tribune, Goldsborough began writing mysteries in the voice of Rex Stout, the creator of iconic sleuths Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor (1986), was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Archie Goes Home is the fifteenth book in the series.
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Archie in the Crosshairs
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
As nights in July go, it was as pleasant as New York offers, although my positive mood as I walked across town may have been because of my successful session with the cards at Saul Panzer's apartment on East Thirty-Eighth Street. A group of us play low-stakes poker there every Thursday, and I usually finish the games with my wallet somewhat lighter than when I start.
Saul is normally the big winner, although Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette usually comes away in the black, too. Tonight, though, both Saul and Lon were losers for a change, while Bill Gore did slightly better than break even, Fred Durkin had decent winnings, and I was eighty dollars to the good—my biggest payday in recent memory.
I smiled as I relived the well-concealed heart flush I was dealt in seven-card stud. Saul held a not-so-well-hidden jack-high straight, and he kept raising me, to his ultimate dismay. The biggest pot of the night, by far, rolled my way when the cards came down. Now, normally, I take a taxi home after these games, but the combination of the beautiful weather and the exhilaration of victory propelled me to walk the thirteen blocks west and then slightly south to the old brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street that I have called home for more than half of my life. And besides, I needed the exercise.
My spirits were so high that I even violated a personal rule and gave a fin to a limping panhandler who was working the corner of Park and Thirty-Seventh. I had a good idea where he would spend the Abe, but at the moment, I didn't particularly care. All was well with the world.
As I entered the final block of my walk, I was vaguely aware of a car approaching from behind. Probably a cab hauling a late-night reveler home, I thought as I dug into my pocket for the front-door key. But before I could reach it, two gunshots pierced the night stillness, and I thought I heard an impact against one of the walls to my left. Instinctively, I dropped to the sidewalk as the car—it was not a cab, but rather a dark-colored Dodge or Plymouth sedan—roared away, tires squealing as it turned at the intersection and tore away into the night.
So much for my long-held perception that I possessed a sixth sense when it came to detecting approaching danger. I never saw it coming.
Slowly, I got to my feet and brushed off my pants. An upstairs window opened in one of the brownstones across the street that filled the usually peaceful stretch of West Thirty-Fifth Street. "What was that?" a hoarse female voice demanded. "Who's out there? What happened? You—are you all right?"
I ignored her and climbed the front steps, holding my keys with a shaking hand. But before I could reach the door, it swung open.
"Archie, what is happening?" said Fritz Brenner, clad in a bathrobe, his brow furrowed. "The shots ...?"
"That's what they were, no doubt about it," I said, swallowing hard and wishing I had something—anything—to drink. "Is Wolfe awake?"
Fritz shook his head. "You know him, Archie; he could sleep right through a hurricane."
"Well by all means, let him sleep through this, too. And don't tell him about it when you take him breakfast in his room. We wouldn't want to interfere with his digestion," I said, adding, "I'll fill him in after eleven, when he's finished his session with the orchids."
"Was someone shooting at you, Archie?" Fritz looked as shaken as I felt.
"I hardly think so," I said, trying, without much success, to appear calm. "Maybe it was some joy-riders who'd had themselves a snootful," I added, not believing my own words.
"But Archie, we haven't had any gunshots along here for years. Not since—"
"I know," I said, cutting him off. "Not since Arnold Zeck's crew machine-gunned the plant rooms."
"But that was some time ago," Fritz said. "Maybe I should stay up and keep watch on the street."
"You will do no such thing. Nobody's coming back to shoot up the neighborhood," I said with a bravado I did not feel. "You need your sleep, and so do I."
With that, Fritz bowed his head and, with a mournful expression, turned to go downstairs to his room while I went upstairs to mine.CHAPTER 2
The next morning, I took my breakfast at the small table in the kitchen as usual. Fritz dished up wheat cakes, cornbread, bacon, and orange juice, which I consumed as I paged through both the Times and the Gazette. By tacit agreement, no mention was made of the previous night's activities.
Once I was settled at my desk in the office with a cup of coffee, I opened the morning mail, placed it on Wolfe's blotter, and then typed up the correspondence he had dictated the day before. I had just finished all of it when I heard the whirr of the elevator just after eleven, signaling Wolfe's descent from the plant rooms.
"Good morning, Archie, did you sleep well?" he asked, as he does when he enters the office each morning.
"Better than I had any right to," I said as he settled into the reinforced desk chair—built to support his seventh of a ton—and pushed the button under his desk, the signal for Fritz to bring beer. He raised his eyebrows in response to my comment.
"Shots were fired outside the house late last night," I told him.
"I heard nothing."
"It has been said that you can sleep through a hurricane."
"Confound it, report!"
"Yes, sir." I proceeded to relate the events as he leaned back, fingers interlaced over his middle mound. When I finished, he came forward and opened the first of two chilled bottles of beer, pouring himself a glass and watching the foam dissipate.
"Do you feel you were the target of the shots?" he asked after his first taste.
"I don't know. I'm not aware of anyone in particular who has something in for me. I really haven't any—"
The phone rang, and I swiveled in my chair to answer it. "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking."
"I wish to speak to Mr. Wolfe," a high-pitched voice, likely male and probably disguised, responded.
"Who is calling?"
"I assure you, Mr. Wolfe will wish to speak to me."
I cupped the mouthpiece and turned to Wolfe. "Wants to talk to you, won't give a name."
He nodded and picked up his instrument. I stayed on the line.
"Correct. And you are?"
"My name is of no consequence. May I assume Mr. Goodwin is listening?"
"You may assume whatever you choose."
"I hope he is hearing this, because what I have to say relates directly to him. He is going to die."
"So shall we all, sir. What is your point?"
A snort. "You are being philosophical, Mr. Wolfe."
"Suit yourself. I repeat that Mr. Goodwin is going to die, and in the not-too-distant future. He could have died last night, but the time has not yet come. The shots, fired just a few feet from him, were off-target by design."
Wolfe's jaw tightened. "What is it you are intending to accomplish?" he asked.
"The killing of Mr. Goodwin, of course."
"As retribution against you."
"Should I not then be the focus of your animus?"
Another snort. "Easier said than done. It is widely known that you rarely leave your citadel, regrettably making you a most elusive target. Mr. Goodwin, on the other hand, is what might be termed 'a man about town.' Besides, removing Mr. Goodwin is a most effective way of neutralizing you. Without him, you are a crippled genius—if in fact you truly possess genius, which remains open to question. Oh, with Mr. Goodwin out of the picture, I suppose you could bring Mr. Panzer on board as your adjutant, although as crafty and clever as he is, I doubt the synergy would be the same. And if he did by chance become as effective as Mr. Goodwin has been, he too would be removed."
"A pretty speech, sir. Now I want—"
"That is all I have to say for the moment, Mr. Wolfe. We will talk again soon. Good day." The line went dead.
"He was afraid we'd put a trace on him, probably," I said. "What do you make of this?"
Before Wolfe could respond, the doorbell rang, and I went down the hall to see who our visitor was. I was not surprised to see the bulky figure of Homicide Inspector Lionel T. Cramer through the one-way glass. I went back and reported to Wolfe, who scowled and dipped his chin—the signal to let the inspector in.
"Good morning," I said as I pulled the front door open. "We were not expecting you."
"I'll just bet that you weren't," Cramer growled, barreling by me and heading down the hall to the office uninvited—his modus operandi when he dropped in without advance notice, as was invariably the case.
Some words here about Inspector Cramer: He has been on the New York City police force since before I came to the city, and he has known Nero Wolfe longer than I have. When he comes to the brownstone, it is invariably because he is angry—usually at Wolfe, me, or both of us, and usually because he feels we are impeding the work of the police department.
The two men have a grudging admiration for each other. Cramer, for his part, knows damn well that Wolfe may be his best hope at solving a case; and Wolfe respects Cramer's toughness, bravery, and honesty—if not his volatile temper.
"You must be in the middle of something really hot," the inspector snapped as he dropped into the red leather chair at the end of Wolfe's desk, plugging an unlit cigar into his mouth as he so often does in his visits to us.
"After all these years, I should be used to your surprise visits and cryptic comments, but you continue to outdo yourself," Wolfe remarked dryly. "What brings you here today?"
"Hah! Playing dumb, eh? It doesn't suit you and never has. Care to comment on last night's activities on the street just outside your door?"
Wolfe drank his beer and dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief. "I don't have enough information to comment. Perhaps you can elucidate."
"You're damned right I can elucidate," Cramer said. "As if you weren't aware of it, at approximately twelve fifty-five this morning, a neighbor of yours, a spinster named Edith Baxter, heard shots. Do you happen to know her?"
"I do not."
"What was I thinking?" Cramer said, slapping his forehead. "Of course you wouldn't know her. You've only lived here since New York was a small Dutch village, but I doubt if you could name a single neighbor other than your own Doctor Vollmer, since you almost never step outside. Anyway, Miss Baxter—the woman made very sure we knew she was a miss—said she heard two gunshots in the street and went to her bedroom window. She says a car screeched away—I'm using her word, screeched—and she saw a man prone on the sidewalk."
"Fascinating," Wolfe said, steepling his hands.
"Yeah, isn't it? And wait—it gets even more fascinating. Miss Baxter said the man on the sidewalk, who was wearing a suit and hat, got up as the car drove away and went into one of the houses along the block. This house, so she says. And from her description of the man, it could very well have been Goodwin here."
Wolfe turned to me. "Archie, do you have a comment?"
I knew what he wanted me to say. "Yes, sir, Mr. Cramer is correct. That was me, all right. I was walking home from my weekly poker game at Saul's when somebody in a car fired a couple of shots and then drove away fast. As the woman correctly stated, I dropped down onto the sidewalk. I was about to tell you about it when the inspector arrived."
"Do you believe you were the target of the shots?" Wolfe asked.
"I can't think why. It was probably some drunken kids out tearing up on a beautiful night," I said.
Cramer scowled. "And you didn't think to report it?"
"There was nothing to report, Inspector. I couldn't identify the car, it all happened so fast. As your Miss Baxter so correctly reported, I was prone and in no position to see the license plate—if the car even had one. About all I can say is that it probably was a prewar Dodge or a Plymouth, and I'm not even positive about that—or even about its color."
"And I suppose you both are going to tell me this had nothing to do with a case you're working on?" Cramer said.
"I have no commissions at the present time, nor have I had any recently," Wolfe said. "I am curious as to why you are investigating this, sir. There has been no homicide."
"As you very well know, we also investigate attempted homicides, and from where I'm sitting, this sure as my Aunt Betsy looks like an attempt on Goodwin. By the way, you may be interested to know that both slugs were recovered from the outside wall of one of your neighboring brownstones, the one just to the east. Thirty-two caliber, both of them, and they were embedded in the stone about eight feet above the sidewalk. Whoever fired was a lousy shot."
"Assuming the target really was Mr. Goodwin," Wolfe put in.
"Yeah, and until I learn differently, I'm going to stay with that assumption, thank you very much," Cramer said, gesturing toward me with his gnawed stogie. "This is not exactly a block where gunfire is common. The main thing that differentiates it from lots of similar blocks in this part of town is that you just happen to live here. And I'm not a great believer in coincidences."
"Nor am I, sir," Wolfe replied. "Although this occurrence may be one."
"Nuts. And I suppose that you're going to stick with your story that you're not working on anything right now?"
"It is not a story, sir, it is a fact. I have not undertaken a case in weeks, and I have no prospects for one at present."
Wolfe was telling the truth, as I knew only too well, since I maintain the checkbook, among my other duties. The current balance was at its lowest level in almost three years.
"As usual, I find myself wasting my time in this room," Cramer said with a snort, getting to his feet and jamming his battered fedora onto his head. "By God, I know I've said this before, Wolfe, but it bears repeating: One of these days, you're going to get too clever for your own good. I know something's going on here, but getting information from you is like trying to wring blood out of a turnip." Having delivered his speech, the homicide inspector glared at each of us in turn and stormed down the hall to the front door, with me trailing in his wake and locking the door behind him.CHAPTER 3
When I got back to the office, I found Wolfe in a somber mood, and I was feeling pretty somber myself. "We've made a lot of enemies over the years," I remarked as I dropped into my desk chair.
"Did you recognize the voice on the telephone?" he asked.
"No, but then it probably was disguised, with that high pitch and all."
"Perhaps. Do you have any thoughts?"
"I'm reminded of something you have said several times over the years: 'If someone has decided to kill you, and he is possessed of ordinary intelligence, you will die,' or words to that effect."
"There are always exceptions," Wolfe said, but his tone lacked conviction.
"In this case, I am all for exceptions. Where do we go from here?"
Wolfe drew in a bushel of air and let it out slowly. "Whenever you leave this house—and ventures out should be severely limited for now—you must use the rear exit." He was referring to a narrow passageway behind the brownstone that goes between a warehouse and an auto repair shop and leads out to Thirty-Fourth Street. At our end of the path, there is a solid wood gate seven feet high that has no knob or latch on the outside, only a Hotchkiss lock. But if someone is expected and knocks on the gate, it can be opened from the kitchen with the push of a button.
"So now I learn that I am under a form of house arrest. That's hardly an action plan, is it?"
"We find ourselves at war," Wolfe declared. "It is incumbent upon me to act, as I am the cause of these straits."
"A quibble," I said, using one of his favorite words. "At the risk of appearing self-important, I have done my share to alienate a variety of people in past investigations of ours. It is possible we may be dealing with someone who is holding a grudge against me, not you."
"I think it unlikely, but I am not about to debate the point, Archie. We have work to do."
"As in ...?"
"As in reviewing all of our cases over the last two decades. Anything older would no doubt be fruitless."
Excerpted from Archie in the Crosshairs by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 2015 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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