Archie Goodwin and Saul Panzer have ventured into the wilds of northern Manhattan to watch the Giants take on the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. The national anthem is just winding down when Panzer spies a notable in the box seats: state senator Orson Milbank, a silver-haired scoundrel with enemies in every corner of upstate New York. In the fourth inning, a monstrous line drive brings every fan in the grandstand to his feet—every fan save for one silver-haired senator, who has been shot dead by a sniper in the upper deck.
Archie’s employer—the rotund genius Nero Wolfe—has no interest in investigating the stadium slaying, but Archie is swayed by the senator’s suspiciously lovely widow. Her husband was mired hip-deep in corruption, and sorting out who killed him will be a task far less pleasant than an afternoon at the ball park.
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Murder in the Ball Park
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2013 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
Saul Panzer and I have been going to baseball games in New York for years, almost since I started working for Nero Wolfe. Somehow, I became a Giants fan early on, probably because a satisfied client of Wolfe's gave me tickets to a game at the Polo Grounds the first year that I lived and toiled in the old brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street over near the Hudson River.
For those of you new to these narratives, some words about Saul Panzer before we move on. Truth be told, he will not bowl you over with his appearance. He stands about five foot seven, and I doubt he'd push the needle on a bathroom scale beyond the 140 mark. His wrinkled mug is about two-thirds nose, and he invariably needs a shave. He has rust-colored hair that rarely sees a comb, and his shoulders stoop, one lower than the other. He's usually garbed in an old suit, gray or brown, and a battered flat cap that's every bit as old as his suits.
But do not for a single moment let the man's appearance fool you. Saul happens to be the best freelance operative—by far—in what is this country's largest city—by far. He makes himself invisible when he's holding a tail, and he sniffs out clues better than the finest bloodhound pacing nervously in the police kennel. Because of this, and other attributes, he always has more business than he can handle, although he has been known to drop any case he's working on to tackle a job for Nero Wolfe when asked.
He admires Wolfe, and the feeling is reciprocated. "I trust Saul more than might be thought credible," Wolfe has said on several occasions—a feeling I strongly second. A bachelor, Saul lives on the top floor of a remodeled building on East Thirty-Eighth Street. His digs include a spacious living room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with—yes— books, several museum-quality oil paintings on the walls, a grand piano, and a bar well stocked with brands that boast quality labels.
The best poker player I have had the bad fortune to go up against, Saul makes good money—both with cards and as a detective—and he invests it wisely. He owns two buildings in Brooklyn that I'm aware of and currently has his eye on another one.
While we're on the subject of Brooklyn, Saul is a lifelong Dodgers fan, which is how we happen to attend two games a season together—one each at the Polo Grounds and at Ebbets Field over on the other side of the East River in Brooklyn. This tradition began when Saul ragged me about rooting for the Giants. The result was that we bet on each of the games we attend, with the loser buying dinner at Rusterman's Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, the world-class eatery owned and operated by Marko Vukcic, Nero Wolfe's oldest and best friend.
We've been fairly even in the years since we began this ongoing wager, although I had won the last two times and was feeling pretty confident that sunny mid-June afternoon in the Polo Grounds up at the north end of Manhattan, given that the Giants were leading the league and were several games ahead of the Dodgers, the preseason league favorites, who were struggling in third place.
"Archie, old friend, I can sense your smugness," Saul said with a sly grin as we slid into our front-row seats slightly to the third-base side of home plate and halfway between the two dugouts. He was barely seated when he fired up one of those foul—smelling Egyptian cigarettes he insists on buying. "But pride cometh before a fall, and my beloved Bums have their best pitcher going today, none other than Ace Farley. I see a free meal at Rusterman's in my very near future. I can almost taste the tournedos Beauharnais that you will be treating me to, Mr. Goodwin."
"Not so fast, transplanted Brooklynite. You know that we've got our own top hurler going, Hawk Harrigan, who's won his last six games, three of them shutouts. So I fully expect that this very evening, I will be feasting on perdrix en casserole, courtesy of one S. Panzer, misguided Dodgers aficionado. As for the tournedos, feel free to order them. After all, you're the one who will be picking up the tab."
The raillery over, we settled back in our seats, each with a beer and a hot dog, and awaited the start of the game. We quickly got to our feet, however, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" blared in a static-filled recording as a group of some twenty Boy Scouts in uniform trooped smartly onto the field, each of them holding an American flag high.
When the national anthem ended, the public address announcer informed us that today was Flag Day, and that the Giants were honoring the Stars and Stripes. As the Scouts marched off the field, an entourage led by a uniformed usher made its way down the aisle to our right. The procession of five, all of them smiling and waving small American flags, was led by a lean, white-haired man with chiseled features and a three-piece plaid suit that looked like it would cost your average working stiff six months' wages.
"You know just about everybody important in this town. Who's the swell with the snow on his summit?" I asked Saul, gesturing toward the fashion plate.
"Archie, that 'swell,' as you choose to term him, is none other than the Honorable Orson David Milbank, a state senator representing some of the most well-heeled residents of the Empire State—the three counties just north of the city and east of the mighty Hudson. And he is pretty well heeled himself. His father made a fortune in the scrap-metal business, and Orson inherited most of it. He'll never have to work another day in his life, unless you count sitting in the capitol up in Albany deciding how to spend the state's money. Or more properly, our money."
"Milbank—oh yeah, he's been in the news a lot lately, right? The one who's trying to block a new road being planned to run north from the city?"
"That's your man. Lots of residents in his district up the Hudson are dead-set against this Northern Parkway, as they're calling it. Those folks moved up there to get away from the hectic pace of the metropolis, and they see the road as an infringement upon their God-given, bucolic, country-squire way of life. A lot of them may work in New York City, but they don't like the idea of living here, heaven forbid," Saul said with a scowl.
"So who's in favor of the road?"
"A lot of businesses, the local chambers of commerce, and real estate agents and developers, as you would expect. They all view it as a potential boon to the local economy."
"What are the odds of the thing being built?"
Saul shrugged. "I haven't followed the maneuverings all that closely, but I can tell you this much: Milbank is taking a lot of heat from commercial interests up north who want to see the road built. It seems the senator has got some skeletons they threaten to haul out of his closet."
"Just for starters, some of those millionaire gentlemen farmers in his district are said to have been slipping him money, big money, under the table to block the parkway—as if he needs more dough. And one of those so-called farmers happens to be Franco Bacelli."
"Meaning, of course, the senator is in bed with the Mob and its kingpin. You said that's just for starters?"
Saul nodded. "Our Mr. Milbank has been in bed with more than the Mob, or so his detractors claim."
"As in his love life?"
"Archie, as I have so often said, you are one quick study. The senator is on his second wife, the much-younger Elise DuVal, a flashy redhead who acted—if you can call it that— in a couple of grade-B Hollywood films a few years back. She also happens to be on marriage number two herself. Word is that neither of them pays much attention to their wedding vows."
"Come to think of it, I've seen that lovely lady's picture in the paper on occasion. Having been divorced doesn't seem to have stopped the man from being elected," I observed.
"And reelected, a number of times," Saul said. "His first wife apparently had some serious mental problems and is in an institution, so the public has generally sympathized with him."
"You are a veritable font of information," I told Saul. "Where do you amass all of this knowledge?"
"On slow days, I admit to reading the gossip columns in the tabloids," he said between sips of beer. "For instance, I know from these columns that the nicely constructed blonde wearing blue and sitting just to the right of the senator is his press secretary, one Mona Fentress, and that she and Milbank spend a lot of time together, planning ... well, strategy."
"Pardon my political ignorance," I said, "but why does a mere state senator even need a press secretary?"
"Most of them don't need one, or have one, but Orson Milbank thinks big. He has dreams that stretch far beyond the confines of Albany, so I've read," Saul answered. "The political columns say he's got his eye on getting a seat in that real senate, the one that meets in Washington, so it helps to have someone who can get your name in the papers, and frequently. But that's enough talk of this puffed-up politician. Let's watch some baseball."
That's what we did, and good baseball it was—if, like me, you enjoy good pitching. For three-plus innings, Harrigan and Farley showed why they were the top men on their respective pitching staffs, mowing down the opponents' batters with surgical efficiency. Each team had only one hit going into the New York fourth, when Reed Mason, the Giants' best hitter, smashed a line drive to left field. The small weekday gathering of a few thousand rose with a cheer as the ball barely cleared the close-in wall less than three hundred feet from home plate and just beyond the reach of the Dodgers' leaping left fielder.
I was among those cheering, and as I turned to slap Saul on the back, I saw that the Milbank entourage had turned inward, all of them looking down rather than admiring the path of the home run. I realized the tableau lacked one figure—the white-haired senator himself.
"Oh my God, help! Someone please help!" Mona Fentress keened, hands pressed to cheeks as she sunk to her knees. "The senator, the senator ..."
I don't remember now, but I may very well have knocked someone down as I ran to the huddled cluster of people in the senator's box. Milbank, arms akimbo, was draped across his seat and the armrest of the one next to him, ice-blue eyes staring skyward and mouth open.
"Shot," Saul snapped from behind me, pointing to a crimson hole in the left side of Milbank's head.
"Is he ...?" one of the senator's lackeys asked.
Panzer nodded after pressing his fingers against Milbank's carotid. "Shot, but from where?" he asked. All of us looked toward the yawning grandstands in left field, which were empty as is often the case on weekday afternoon games.
By now, ushers and a lone uniformed policeman had converged on the scene as a collective gasp came from the crowd. Both dugouts emptied, with the Giants and Dodgers changing roles from performers to awed spectators as they stared toward the seats in the first row.
The cop, a thickset, red-faced sergeant named Blake, elbowed his way past all of us and stared down at Milbank. "All right, everybody clear the area now—out, all of you. This is a crime scene, and the medics are on the way. Let's give them some room now, everybody."
"Sounds like a good idea," I told Saul. "I don't want to be here when Inspector Cramer or, heaven forbid, his dull-witted, stuttering underling, Lieutenant George Rowcliff, shows up. Each of them would try to pin this on me somehow."
"Archie, I'm with you all the way. I have a feeling there will be no more baseball today, and there's nothing we can contribute by hanging around here. How 'bout we each pick up our own check at Rusterman's tonight?"
"A capital idea indeed," I said. "We just witnessed what, of course, was a murder, and for once, I won't be trying to talk Wolfe into taking the case." At the time I spoke those words, I really meant them.CHAPTER 2
For the next week and then some, the city's intensely competitive daily newspapers vented about Senator Orson Milbank's very public shooting, which was widely accepted as premeditated murder.
"When an esteemed and respected public figure is assassinated in a public arena, surrounded by thousands of his fellow citizens, rampant and unbridled lawlessness has truly permeated our city," the New York Daily Mirror raged in a front-page editorial under the headline the wild west comes to manhattan–. Its rival tabloid, the New York Daily News, offered a fifty-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the capture of the gunman, whom the police believe fired from the upper deck of the Polo Grounds' left-field stands. The Gazette weighed in with its own editorial that called the killing "an affront to each and every law-abiding citizen of this city and this state." The New York Times editorial termed the event "yet another example of a societal breakdown in the nation's fabric."
The mayor felt the heat, as did Police Commissioner Humbert, who in a press conference boasted, "The department is marshaling all of its considerable resources in the hunt for this vicious and brazen killer, and we shall not stop until he is apprehended and brought to the justice that he so rightly deserves."
After the commissioner had finished his scripted statement, the reporters climbed all over him, demanding to know what progress had been made. "I have no further comment at this time," Humbert harrumphed, storming from the lectern and retreating to the sanctuary of his office.
From the beginning, Nero Wolfe viewed the Milbank affair with a marked lack of interest. After all, he currently enjoyed an unusually healthy bank balance, having just successfully wrapped up a lucrative case in which a wealthy Connecticut dowager's Cézanne landscape painting got safely returned to her. The valuable oil had disappeared from her Fairfield County mansion, and Wolfe, without leaving his sturdy office chair—but with my invaluable observations from sniffing around the lady's sprawling estate—had identified the thief, one of the estate's groundskeepers, who now awaited trial in our neighboring state to the east.
On a sunny morning, I sat at my desk in the office, typing the letters Wolfe had dictated the previous afternoon, when the phone rang. "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking," I pronounced into the mouthpiece.
"Hello, Mr. Archie Goodwin, I would like to make an appointment with Nero Wolfe." The voice was female, soft, and silky. I liked it.
"May I ask the reason for your appointment?"
"You may. My name is Elise DuVal. It is possible that you have heard of me."
"It is possible," I agreed.
"Are you toying with me, Archie Goodwin?"
"By no means, Miss DuVal! Let it never be said that I treat a potential client with anything less than the fullest respect. Nonetheless, I will repeat my question: What is the reason for your wanting to see Nero Wolfe?"
"As I am led to believe, you, like Mr. Wolfe, are a licensed private investigator. As such, you need not even have to ask that question. I assume you read the newspapers and listen to the radio and now even watch the television, so the answer should be obvious to you."
"Perhaps I am somewhat dense, as has been suggested by a number of people. I would like to hear the answer from your very own lips."
Elise DuVal's exaggerated sigh came through the wire. "All right, here it is, as if you didn't already know: I want Nero Wolfe—which I suppose means you, as well—to find my husband's killer."
"But isn't that precisely what the police are attempting to do—and around the clock, no less?"
"Hah! Attempting is the word. It has been ten days now, if you have been counting, and they are absolutely nowhere. I have been to see that idiot Commissioner Humbert, and also to see Inspector Cramer. He—Cramer, I mean—is no idiot, but he seems to be every bit as lost as Humbert. From everything I've been hearing, when your boss accepts a case, he always gets results."
"You are correct, but first he has to agree to take a case, and often—very often—that is the hardest part."
"He will accept the case if I can see him, and I gather that is where you come in. I understand from my very well-placed sources that you are the gatekeeper, right?"
"I guess you could say so, among my many other functions here. But before I can try to persuade Mr. Wolfe, you need to persuade me that it's worth my time to argue with him."
"It seems to me that he would relish the challenge," Elise said. "A high-profile story like this. Just think of the publicity he would get."
"Miss DuVal, you may possess what you believe are well-placed sources, but it is clear you don't know as much about Nero Wolfe as you think. Over the years, he has amassed mountains of attention—we have scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings to attest to his success. At this stage, he does not feel he needs more publicity, nor does he go out of his way to seek it."
"But he surely doesn't say no to more money, does he?" she purred. "And believe me, money is not an issue here. I am prepared to bring a blank check to you and have Mr. Wolfe fill in an amount."
Now Elise DuVal really did have my full attention. "Before we go on, do you have any theories as to who shot your husband?"
Excerpted from Murder in the Ball Park by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 2013 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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