In this one I slipped in a new detective named Lew Ross to help out. - AH
I'm a happy guy. Everyone says so, and I don't disagree. So you may be wondering what I was doing, yelling and screaming, red in the face, that "Abortion is Murder" and "Save Our Babies" as I walked the picket line outside of a funeral home in mid-town Manhattan. When the limo pulled up to the front door, and the murdered doctor's daughter tried to gain entry, I was right there with the others blocking her way and shouting obscenities. I may not have looked very happy, but I was.
I was even happier when I pocketed the $50. I was paid for my time by the guy who hired me, along with the other rent-a-shouters. In case you don't know, a lot of the people on picket lines are just folks looking to make a few extra bucks. I made a mental note of the license plate on my paymaster's car, as well as the make and model. I'd already snapped a bunch of photographs while I was marching around. All in all, a productive afternoon.
With nothing else to do, I walked to the subway and caught an uptown local. I changed cars a couple of times, then jumped on a cross-town bus. I love just wandering around, looking at people, and after a while I hailed a cab, just for a couple of blocks, and then I walked in and out of a couple of stores. When I was satisfied no one was following me I took the train downtown to where my real job is. Happy.
I picked up my credentials and my shield. I can't carry them when I'm on a job because mostly I work undercover. I'm a Detective 2nd assigned to the New York County District Attorney's office, where I will likely finish out my career. One time there was a feature article in one of the tabloids, including my picture, about some of my undercover "exploits." The Chief of Detectives was decidedly unhappy about that, and unceremoniously bounced me over to the D.A.'s squad. Not quite purgatory, but nowhere I wanted to be. I still had hopes of a bump up to First, but I knew I needed to get back to the puzzle palace for that to happen. Unless I got shot on the job, and I didn't want it that bad.
I'm a Greek-American, or Italian-American, or Jewish, or any other swarthy type, when I go under, although I also do non-descript pretty well. I guess I relate to that pop singer Neil Sedaka. People are always speculating about his ethnicity too. One thing I will tell you is that I'm not part of the Irish Catholic Mafia still firmly entrenched in the higher echelons of NYPD. My name, by the way, is Lew Ross, make of it what you will.
I vouchered the $50. In the old days I would have pocketed it or donated it to the widows and orphans fund, but times have changed. Unlike a lot of the old-timers, I think they've changed for the better. The young guys (I still say guys but have no big problems with female cops) are better trained, more physically fit, and in many ways more professional than when I was starting out. The downside is a much bigger emphasis on rules and regulations, and working around lawyers is its own kind of pain in the ass. But I'd lucked out this time. ADA Lauren Rodgers was okay. She didn't try to micromanage and generally went along with whatever schemes I concocted. I had noticed of late that she was developing an almost maternal concern about me. "Are you sure that would be safe?" "Are you sure you won't be recognized?" Did I say maternal? Maybe more like a daughter concerned about her old man.
The case was a deceptively simple one. A midtown GP gets blown up by a remotely activated bomb contained in a package on the stoop when he opens the front door to his office. No one sees anything. No suspicious people lingering in the vicinity; no usable forensics; the bomb uses material you can buy in any appliance store; we know it was intended for the doc because he lives alone and it happened early Sunday morning. Oh yeah, and we got a hate group called STOP (Stop Terminating Our Progeny) claiming responsibility and demonstrating at the funeral.
Only problem is, I can't find STOP.
“Parkinson’s?” I asked.
Wolfe and I were relaxing in the office after a splendid dinner prepared by Wolfe’s personal chef, Fritz Brenner. Our guest had been Edwin Vollmer, owner of a neighboring brownstone and known affectionately to his friends and patients as “Doc.” I like to think that he and I were friends, and on more occasions than I care to remember I had certainly qualified as a patient. Always available, he had patched me up numerous times when I ended up on the short end of a struggle with what some like to call “the criminal element.”
That’s an occupational hazard for a working detective in the world’s greatest city, especially since I worked for Nero Wolfe, a certifiable genius and a bona fide immovable object. In addition to prodding him into seeing clients in the brownstone which tripled as his home, his office, and the repository of his world-class collection of orchids in the plant-room upstairs, my duties included balancing the books, keeping unwanted visitors at bay, and going out and being his “Mr. Outside,” gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, reporting verbatim when required, all so he could solve cases that stymied the police. My name is Archie Goodwin.
Doc Vollmer was one of the few people outside of his professional endeavors as the world’s greatest, and fattest, detective, with whom Wolfe enjoyed a cordial relationship. The two of them were having another one of their, to me, tedious discussions about Shakespeare. This one was focused on his use of poisons as plot devices. Vollmer maintained that there was sufficient medical knowledge at the time for Shakespeare to have known the properties of individual poisons which appear throughout the corpus, whereas Wolfe argued that the very unscientific names, "hebenon" which killed Hamlet's father, "the wild pansy" in "Midsummer Night's Dream," and Juliet's sleeping potion and the poison Romeo swallowed, both unnamed, mitigated in favor of Shakespeare taking the same poetic license he did with historical facts. I got lost when Vollmer argued that poison was a factor in Lear as well, and that no scientific expertise was required to address poisoned filial relations. I completely zoned out when he brought up "Troilus and Cressida," which sure wasn't on any reading list when I had to read Shakespeare back in Ohio. I didn't know or care who Thersites was or why the Doc believed we can all be fooled into praying to Caduceus rather than Asclepius. They all just sounded like good car names to me.
Overall he seemed more subdued than usual; gone was the usual good-natured badinage. It was kind of a bittersweet dinner this time – Doc told us that his “concierge” practice was not working out, and he was likely to have to close his practice.
“I’ve practiced old-school medicine ever since I went out on my own. I didn’t do it to get rich. I like being a healer, I like taking the time to get to know my patients, and to see them through all of the challenging and exciting and sometimes heart-breaking life cycle events we all have to face. And I like to think that in my own way I’ve enriched their lives, just as I know they’ve become almost like a family to me.”
When Vollmer said that I couldn’t help thinking about his boy, killed in the war. A volunteer, he served as a medic in a forward area, and lost his life ministering to wounded comrades. A widower for decades before that, I knew that Vollmer had a daughter, also a physician, with an “uptown” practice, and I knew that they were not close.
The Doc had done well financially in the early years of his practice, and there were some parallels with Wolfe’s career in that he owned his own brownstone, which he used as his residence and his office. But the changing nature of medical practice had squeezed him, as it had so many others. Exorbitant malpractice insurance premiums, excessive overhead costs, wrestling with the government over slow and sometimes inadequate reimbursement for services rendered, had been tough on him. Unwilling to join an HMO, where he felt he would be pushed to process patients too quickly, and unwilling to join a more lucrative practice elsewhere, he had been persuaded to try the new “concierge” approach: patients would pay him a flat yearly fee, a high one, and he would be available at all times; first priority in the waiting room, and available for long-distance consultations if someone became ill or got injured while out of town.
Nice concept. Wolfe and I were the first to sign up. Wolfe is not profligate with his money, and as keeper of the books I knew that we could continue to use the medical coverage we already had. Vollmer refused to close out current patients, just as he refused to turn away Medicare or Medicaid patients. Nevertheless, we felt that since we had been getting concierge care all these years anyway, it was only right that we should pay for it.
But now I wondered if financial considerations were the real driving force in his impending retirement. His hands trembled noticeably during dinner and at one point I thought he might actually need help operating utensils on one of Fritz' specialties, broiled squab in glazed Brussels sprouts. Hence my inquiry about Parkinson's.
"Perhaps, Archie, perhaps just the inexorable march of time, coupled with the attendant pressure of a failing practice. I wonder what physical manifestations would result should I ever feel that I was faltering in my chosen profession, to which I have devoted so many years and so much energy."
I had played some baseball as a kid, and there was nothing I liked better than a big fat soft pitch right across the center of the plate. Wolfe opening up a dialogue about physical manifestations, given his physique, and having the gall to talk about expending energy, would normally have caused a torrent of good-natured abuse from me, but I decided to file it away for future reference when it might be needed. Right now the bank balance was in real good shape, unlike Wolfe . . . okay, that just slipped out, you can see how I have to expend energy just to control myself. But I had no good reason to burrow under his skin, which might lead to a prolonged back and forth, and I had plans for the evening which needed some preparation so I decided to leave it alone, remarking only that I guessed there were only really two types of people, those who are ill and those who will eventually become ill.
"Why, Archie, I didn't realize you were acquainted with Paul Cowan's writings." The only Paul Cowan I knew was a bookie on the Upper East Side, and believe me, he didn't write much besides numbers. So I merely shrugged and turned my attention to some papers on my desk. Wolfe wasn't the only occupant of the brownstone who knew how to be enigmatic.
A few days passed. Routine errands, including a trip up to Westchester to look over a new nursery which had been ballyhooed in the papers for state of the art growing methods and some interesting new hybrids. Wolfe would not deign to risk his physique or expend his energy in a motor vehicle unless absolutely necessary, and his "satisfactory" when I reported in full was his way of thanking me for my thoroughness as well as my intrepidity. I have to admit that even if not energetically, he did a sweet job of dissuading a potential blackmailer from his stated intention to ruin one of our city's leading socialites by exposing a pattern of "indiscretions." We were paid handsomely for that one, and the only jab I took at Wolfe was when we received invitations to Doc Vollmer's retirement dinner and Wolfe told me that he would not attend.
"I know you have a rule that you never leave the house on business. But you've broken that rule in the past. And besides, this isn't business, and even if it hardly ever happens, you certainly leave the house for social occasions when it suits you. You should be flattered to have been invited. It's a small gathering in his house for crying out loud. Less than a one minute walk. And I'll be right by your side to fend off your legion of admirers."
Wolfe was adamant. The thought of braving the elements (New York weather in May can be brutal), having to forego Fritz' cooking, and be in a room where women would presumably be present and even have the effrontery to engage him in conversation, were all too much for him. So I rsvp'd his deepest regrets, sent a plant arrangement, which to his credit, Wolfe personally put together, and prepared for a pleasant evening.
I admit that when the day came I was more than a bit curious about the guest list. Over the years Doc had employed a number of nurse/receptionists and although he was a pillar of rectitude, as a trained observer I couldn't help but notice how pretty they all were. Generally from the Midwest, never from a big city, rosy cheeked and ranging in age from 25 to 30, I wondered if subconsciously they reminded him of his wife.
From time to time spatial propinquity had come in handy, and I had dated a number of them. First, and foremost, way back when, was Jennie Patterson. We had a lot in common. She was Jennie, not Jennifer much less Genevieve, and I was Archie, never Archibald. Both from the Midwest, we had each come to New York intent on making our mark. I never looked back. A series of "adventures" propelled me into Wolfe's orbit and his gravitational pull, professionally that is, led me to my role as a detective.
With Jennie it was a bit different. Having recently been graduated from nursing school, she wanted the excitement of the big city and I think the parade of diverse patients she saw every day satisfied that need. Dating a "private eye" only added to the thrill, but at heart she remained a small town girl with very normal desires. I think the whirlwind of dining at Rusterman's, dancing at the Churchill, and opening nights on Broadway became something of a check-off list for her, and long, romantic drives in the country gradually segued into conversations about how nice the houses looked, and whether there were good schools nearby.
I never misled her, and it became apparent to us both, notwithstanding a strong mutual attraction, that we wanted different things. We parted friends, and by that time she had enrolled in a night course to sharpen her bookkeeping skills, where she met a budding accountant named Bill Amerigo.
They hit it off immediately. Maybe an "Amerigo" seemed as exotic as a detective, or maybe he was just the right guy in those respects in which I never would be, but they soon married and settled down in his hometown of Port Jefferson out on the Island. For a while we would exchange Christmas cards, so I knew they had been able to upgrade from their tract house when he struck out on his own and opened a tax and accounting service in a local strip mall. Jennie kept the books and doubled as receptionist until the kids came along, and so far as I knew they were living the dream.
I'd like to think that being an experienced detective has sharpened my instincts, but I had no premonition at all about the horror show that was about to unfold. That afternoon, upstairs in my bedroom, supplied by Wolfe but with furnishings paid for by me, I was tying my four-in-hand and looking forward to the festivities when I heard sirens go past my window. I didn't even bother to look outside. Sirens in the big city, any time day or night, are nothing special. But when they dopplered down, and then I could hear more sirens, and more, I decided it was worth a look.
Coming down the stoop the first thing I noticed was the stickball kids had all moseyed on down the block to where the fire engines and police cars had stopped. I joined the gathering crowd and then it hit me. The action was centered on the entrance to Doc's brownstone, or what was left of it. Wolfe likes to tell me I have no feel for phenomena, whatever the hell that means, but it didn't take an ATF expert to know that there had been an explosion and anyone in the immediate vicinity was likely dead.
I took a quick survey and decided my most likely target was a young female officer helping provide perimeter security. I've said before that Wolfe has an inflated idea about my ability to charm the ladies, and the fact is it was her youth, not her gender, that made me target her.
"Officer, my name is Goodwin, I live down the block and I had an appointment with Doctor Vollmer, the owner and resident of that building. Can you tell me what happened?"
"Sir, this is either a crime scene or a serious accident, and either way we won't be releasing any information on the scene. I'd suggest you go back home."
Cops sure have become a lot more polite these days, maybe there is something to these video-cams. Usually I would get a "move along, Bub."
"Perhaps I can help if identification is needed. I'm a licensed investigator and I know the inhabitants and staff. I've worked with NYPD many times. Who is the ranking officer on the scene?"
"Thank you, Mr. Goodwin. I'll be sure to relay that information. She turned to look at me full bore, and I was looking into the coldest pair of cop eyes I had ever seen . . . and the message in them was clear as a bell: "Move along, Bub."
As the firefighters were putting out the last of the flames I watched as a body was removed on a covered gurney. I decided it was time to report to Wolfe.
When I returned home Wolfe was in the office struggling with Andre Malreaux' "Les Noyers de l' Altenburg." He was reading the original French version, but that wasn't the struggle. French was one of several languages in which he was comfortable. Wolfe will dog-ear pages when he comes across a phrase or an idea he finds especially worthwhile, but I had noticed that this time he had actually "un" dog-eared some of the pages he had turned down, which I took to mean that he was having second thoughts; hence the struggle. You might think I'd been snooping, but I am merely reporting, trained observer that I am.
"I know how you hate to be interrupted when you're improving your mind, and perhaps you didn't hear the explosion."
"Or the sirens."
He sighed, not in a good way, put the book down, and fixed me with the second cold stare I'd received that day.
"No, sir, I wish it was. The front of Doc Vollmer's stoop has been blown up, and at least one dead body has been removed from the scene.
You might think that news like this would cause Wolfe to go outside to look, overcoming his seventh-of-a-ton inertia. He did not, and I prefer to take it as a compliment that instead he simply said, "Report."
I had little to tell him, and didn't feel the need to stress my strikeout with the young officer, knowing that he would rub it in by saying something like, "I suppose she wasn't comely." After I finished I waited for instructions. Nothing.
"What do we do next?" I admit my tone could have been nicer, but I was feeling pretty raw.
"Archie, I share your esteem for Doctor Vollmer and your hope that he is unscathed. Tonight was to be his party and I assume he was no longer seeing patients and any employees probably had the day off. But before you go charging off to tilt at windmills that may not be there, why not do what you are singularly equipped to do? Get the facts. Surely Mr. Cohen . . . "
Of course he was right. We no longer had any cachet within the NYPD, with Cramer MIA and Purley Stebbins gone. Our brief honeymoon with Rowcliff hadn't lasted long, and that relationship returning to the status quo ante sealed it up. Besides, it might not even be a homicide, could be a gas main explosion, could be it wasn't the Doc's body on the gurney. So I called Lon Cohen at the Gazette.
I thought it might take me two or three tries to get him because Lon, whose exact title is a mystery to me, is the only person I know who has two phones on his desk and uses them both at the same time. He is the pinup for type A personality. But I got lucky: in this day of caller ID he wanted me as badly as I wanted him.
"Hi, Arch, unless you're calling to tell me Wolfe has already cracked it and I get the exclusive, I gotta go! Things are jumping."
"Slow down, Lon, Wolfe hasn't cracked anything but a bag of walnuts lately. I'm calling about the explosion . . . "
"Yeah, yeah, the one that killed Dr. Vollmer, right down the block from you. Hey, you knew him, right? What can you tell me?"
"Lon, for crying out loud, slow down. I don't know a damn thing. Please tell me what the hell happened!"
"Okay, Arch, sorry. At about 3:00 this afternoon a package was delivered to Vollmer's address. Vollmer picked it up off the stoop and it exploded, killing him on the spot. That's all we have. May I include anything about you and Wolfe in our lead? Can you give me a quote, are you on the case, any leads?"
"Lon, until just now we didn't know anything. Give me some time to process this. Vollmer was a friend, but you know how Wolfe is. Please don't even reference this call. When the time comes, I'll give you everything we have."
I guess what happened next, or to put it more precisely, what didn't happen, won't surprise anyone who's been following my reports about Wolfe's cases over the years. I could report it verbatim, but you don't need it. I asked if I should round up Fred Durkin and maybe even see if Bill Gore was still working, but Wolfe merely shrugged, not even his usual eighth of an inch, and said that we had no case. Things got a little heated, mostly on my part, and I made some pointed remarks about his callousness in the face of his friend's murder. I may have gone too far, reminding him of his willingness to risk life and limb (especially mine) when Marko Vukcic was murdered. We had no case and no client then, yet Wolfe had gone across the ocean all the way back to Montenegro to track down the killer.
When he murmured in what he thinks is a soothing tone that the police would certainly leave no stone unturned this time, and that no one but he could have solved Marko's murder, I decided it was pointless to remonstrate further. But even if Wolfe was too fat and too lazy to engage his brain, I wasn't without skill or resources of my own.
Lon kept me posted over the next couple of days, but the only lead was a call that came in to the Gazette from someone who identified herself as a member of "STOP" (Stop Taking Our Progeny), an anti-abortion group, who claimed that Vollmer had gotten what he deserved.
The police were investigating "all possible leads" which could mean anything from they were closing in on the killer, or didn't have a clue. All they knew for sure that the bomb was a simple device, easily assembled with over-the-counter materials which were virtually untraceable. The triggering mechanism was activated not by a timer, but in real time, and the cops surmised that Vollmer was indeed the target. Alone in his house, he apparently answered the doorbell and was killed as he bent over to pick up the package left on his stoop. The forensic boys were so far unable to discover any traceable markings on the package.
The homicide dicks were of course canvassing the neighborhood to look for any likely vantage points the killer could have used as an observation post, and were questioning all the people on the block to see if anyone saw any suspicious behavior. According to Lon it was a losing proposition so far, but I had to admit Wolfe was right; if routine like this would garner any results, I would be no match for the resources the cops would devote to this kind of investigation.
I was surprised about Doc Vollmer being a target for the anti-abortion crowd. I didn't know all that much about his practice, but it just didn't add up. I thought maybe a disgruntled patient a more likely avenue to pursue, and I wanted to start by going through his medical records. There was no way I could get into the Vollmer brownstone on my own hook. It was a cordoned off crime scene unlikely to be available for the foreseeable future. But I thought the authorities might grant me some leeway if I was representing his sole heir.
So the next morning I put on my darkest suit, the gray chalk stripe barely visible, a subdued tie, and headed uptown to meet Vollmer's daughter. Normally I would have taken Wolfe's latest vehicular acquisition, a fully-loaded Toyota Land Cruiser, but as a matter of principle I wouldn't use his car since I was operating on my own. Plus it would be a chore hauling it around mid-town Manhattan. I didn't think a phone call to her office would get me very far and when I arrived the receptionist was suitably guarded about her whereabouts, and absolutely resolute that she was not authorized to provide the doctor's personal contact information. Wolfe would have been pleased that contact was not a verb in the receptionist's lexicon.
A call to Lon Cohen revealed that Vollmer's daughter, who I will refer to as Anne from now on, was at a funeral home not six blocks away. While the Gazette was a cut above the tabloids, this was a front page murder on a slow news day, and one of his enterprising reporters was discreetly following her after being brushed off with a "no comment." Luckily for me the reporter was anxious to show Lon just how enterprising he was, and had just called in.
I thought about the best approach to take as I walked the six blocks to the funeral home. I've been around enough homicides so that death and all its manifestations is nothing new to me, but I could never get over my antipathy to corpse dressers. I know that's unfair, but it is what it is, and I decided to just play it straight.
Even making allowances for her grief, I have to say that Anne Vollmer, M.D., Diplomate with the American Society of Internal Medicine, struck me as a cold fish. I remained unobtrusive at the funeral home, figuring I would have a better shot in a less forbidding setting, and it was no problem to follow her home. I've had plenty of practice at tailing people who were on their guard, but for her it was a straight shot to her Park Avenue high rise. Again I thought my luck was holding; I preferred to tackle her at home where I thought she might be more amenable to what I was going to propose, and the doorman proved no problem when I presented a card from the funeral home which I had palmed, and explained in subdued tones that we had some final arrangements to discuss in view of the unfortunate situation. While I sometimes resent it when people mistake me for a reporter, I can hardly complain when I am mistaken for something I am pretending to be.
Her maid admitted me without any qualms; apparently I may have to consider the undertaking game if and when Wolfe tells me I'm fired and means it or I quit for real. The apartment was well appointed, but decorated in a cold and impersonal style which I was quickly to learn suited Anne Vollmer.
When she joined me in what I guess was the drawing room she did not ask me to sit and came quickly to the point. "I don't understand why you are here. I believe I just concluded making all of the arrangements for my father's funeral."
Before I could answer I heard the muted chimes of the doorbell, and the maid escorted a specimen in who would never have been taken for an undertaker. A nine hundred dollar suit, chiseled chin, and distinguished graying at the temples framed by a two hundred dollar haircut, I would have pegged him for a Broadway producer or a Wall Street wunderkind.
"You're Archie Goodwin, the famous detective, aren't you?" The deep baritone matched the outfit. He had approached Anne and put a protective arm around her shoulder. "Everything all right, dear?" he asked before I could reply. I couldn't place him but my picture has been in the papers often enough, or maybe we had even crossed paths during one of my forays into the upper social strata.
Anyway, I was in the soup now. My plan had been to minimize the ruse by which I had gained entry into the apartment but she had visibly stiffened at his announcement, and now I would have to deal with her and Sir Lancelot. But maybe not. I don't know how she did it, but without using her hands or stepping away or even shrugging him off, somehow she removed his arm.
"Yes, of course I'm all right." Cold as ice. Turning to me, "Please explain why you are here, and why you felt the need to come here using false pretenses."
"Dr. Vollmer, I apologize for any confusion I caused. I didn't want to intrude on your privacy at the funeral home and apparently I left the impression with your doorman that I was from the funeral home when I said that I had just seen you there."
Still no invitation to sit, and I knew I had to keep going fast and get away from that rather thin alibi.
"I'm here because I was a friend of your father and I would like your permission to see his office and examine his patient records. I believe they may shed light on who is responsible for his death."
Before I could go any further she let me have it. "Mr. Goodwin, I know who you are. My father spoke of you and your Nero Wolfe (and yes, she said it as nasty as it reads). I am confident the authorities will do their job and find out who is responsible for my father's murder. Frankly, I resent your effort to insinuate yourself and Nero Wolfe into my affairs, my grief, at a time like this. I have no interest in sensationalizing this matter."
It wasn't easy but I held my temper. I knew she and the Doc hadn't been close, but I couldn't help but feel that she resented the glare of publicity attendant on his death more than she mourned her father.
"Doctor, please believe me that I am here as a friend of your father. Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. Most of our work never involves publicity of any kind. The fact is, Wolfe doesn't like it and certainly doesn't need it." Yes, I was playing the Wolfe card, even if I wasn't driving his car. I continued, "What you can believe is that Wolfe has a proven track record of solving cases that no one else, including the authorities, as you put it, could even get a handle on. Won't you allow me the opportunity to try to repay your father for the many services he provided me?"
"That does seem reasonable, doesn't it?" Apparently I had an ally in the baritone.
"No, it certainly does not." She wasn't a repulsive specimen, but far too severe and pinched for my taste, and of course the tone of the conversation wasn't helping. "Please leave."
There was no point reporting to Wolfe. He had firmly told me that as far as he was concerned there was nothing for us to do, and I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how badly I had struck out. It wouldn't do to have him reassess his opinion that females were putty in my hands, or that I had deliberately worked his name into the conversation. With no further information available at the Gazette and without any entree into the NYPD, I have to admit I was feeling pretty frustrated.
When the day of the funeral arrived, I had no plans to do anything other than attend and pay my final respects. Wolfe, of course, would be at home, playing with his orchids or reading or eating, depending on the time of day.
I got a big surprise when I arrived at the funeral home. There was a rowdy crowd of people blocking the entrance to the building, carrying signs protesting abortion, and identifying the protesters as members of STOP. The funeral director and one of his minions were trying without success to get them to move across the street. Just then Anne Vollmer emerged from a limousine, and she was visibly shaken by what she saw. You might think that I manfully stepped up, shouldering aside the miscreants as I escorted her inside, but you'd be wrong. First of all, it wasn't my job, and second of all, I didn't think she would be happy to see me under any circumstances. Plus I wanted to get any intell I could. I sidled up to one of the sign-bearers, a kid who looked to be in his late teens, and asked him what was going on. "I don't know, man, they pay me good bucks to march up and down." I guess he read the contempt on my face. "Hey, it helps me pay my tuition."
The next one I targeted was an older guy, and even to a trained observer like me, the best description I can give you is "non-descript." And yet I was sure I had seen him somewhere before. Not for the first time I wished Saul Panzer was around. No question if Saul had even seen him once he could tell me the date, the place, and lots more if I needed it. But as I got closer this guy seemed to be aware of me and moved away. Still marching, still shouting slurs about Vollmer and other "murderers," but keeping his distance from me.
Just then a squad car rolled up and the cops efficiently made a path for Anne Vollmer to enter, and I followed her in. There were already several people there, and more followed. I did not see Jennie Amerigo although I did recognize several of the women who had worked for the Doc, as well as a number of people from the neighborhood. The rest were likely friends and colleagues of his as well as Anne's. For some reason I was surprised that the Baritone arrived by himself.
The service was nice although a bit impersonal I thought. I'm not sure the minister knew Doc, and I didn't get the impression he knew Anne either. No mention was made of the crowd outside. I saw the wreath Wolfe had sent, and was surprised that Jennie hadn't sent one. Maybe she didn't know.
Any discussion of business was verboten at dinner, but since we didn't have a case I figured I could ruin Wolfe's digestion by describing the funeral in detail. When I got to the part about the protesters he reacted as I thought he would. "Pfui. A mob in masquerade is nevertheless a mob. Why didn't the police arrest them?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe it's a matter of something called Free Speech. You may have heard of it."
"I'm familiar with the judicial rulings on this matter, but from your description of them I'll wager they had no permit. STOP doesn't seem to be one of the groups that regularly plays in this arena."
Interesting that Wolfe had an opinion about STOP. I know he reads the newspapers carefully, and it was a fair assumption from what had been printed so far that they were certainly not a well-known group, but Wolfe is usually very careful about assumptions. I wondered if he had bestirred himself to make inquiries without letting me know. It wouldn't be the first time, but we were both too bull-headed to address the issue head on.
"You know, I 'm a bit surprised at your reaction," I told him. I've heard you defend John Brown on the grounds that his violent actions were the logical outcome of his abhorrence for slavery, itself indefensible. So if people believe life begins at conception, then their violent . . . "
That's as far as I got. I won't say he choked on his food but I had clearly riled him. "Archie, your attempt at Hegelian dialectic is inapposite, and would lead to a totally dystopian society. We have a judicial system . . . "
I was ready for that one, even if I didn't know Hegel from hemorrhoids. "Yes, sir, but I seem to recall the judicial system didn't work back then. Ever hear of Dred Scott? It didn't work for Martin Luther King. Ever hear of his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail?’ So if the pro-life crowd believes that life is being snuffed out…"
"Enough! Do you think I don't know the strategy behind your puerile attempt to defend contumacious blatherskites?”
The conversation kind of petered out after that. It was clear to me that Wolfe was not going to engage in anything remotely resembling detective work, and, of course, I could understand why: his herculean labors in the plant room on the roof, four hours a day, which consisted mainly of annoying Theodore, the expert in residence who actually did the work tending Wolfe's collection, would exhaust a lesser man.
But neither had he forbidden me from making inquiries. Shut off by Anne Vollmer from any access to Doc's records, and knowing that STOP, having claimed responsibility, was being thoroughly vetted by the police, I wanted to at least know what there was to know about their investigation. However, there were limits on what Lon Cohen could find out, and I had no hook into the NYPD, so I decided to play a long shot. I called and made an appointment to see New York County's Acting District Attorney, Irwin Mandel (nee Mandelbaum).
I was surprised that it took me only a few minutes to work my way to Mandel on the phone; from receptionist to private secretary to executive assistant, but "Archie Goodwin from Nero Wolfe's office on a confidential matter" finally did the trick, and Mandel told me to use the Leonard Street entrance, where I could be escorted in away from prying eyes.
Mandel was a career prosecutor in an office which still enjoyed a reputation for probity and excellence, in large part due to the line of District Attorneys who, although elected, for the most part put politics aside in hiring and in carrying out the responsibility to prosecute criminals throughout the borough of Manhattan. From Hogan to Morgenthau to Mandel's erstwhile boss, Gerard Cummings, who keeled over from a heart attack one day and never recovered, they all served the city well, re-elected with little or no opposition. As the senior Assistant D.A., Mandel was in a different position. If he wanted to move up to the top job he would have to enter the race as a candidate, and there was already no shortage of jockeying in both Parties for that nomination. If he didn't move up, there was no guarantee he would retain his job, assuming that he wanted to. Word on the street was that he was actively courting both Parties, hoping to be swept in on a Fusion ticket.
We'd had a checkered relationship with Mandel over the years. Wolfe had embarrassed him in court on at least one occasion, and frustrated his prosecution of our clients more than once. On the other hand, he was a straight shooter and as far as I knew, never went along with efforts of some in the law enforcement community to pull our licenses or haul us in for questioning out of pique. And given his tenuous career status, he couldn't afford to refuse to see me, knowing Wolfe's penchant to use the newspapers when frustrated by lack of cooperation. That kind of publicity could prove fatal to his career.
I was ushered in to his office. He had chosen not to occupy the D.A.'s more palatial suite, and during an interview had guardedly said that unless and until he was elected by the people, he thought it more appropriate not to, but wanted everyone to know the office would continue to carry out its responsibilities without fear or favor. He was as good as his word, and high profile prosecutions of Wall Street insider trading and police corruption kept his name in the news. There was nothing flashy about him in court, but he was at home in front of juries, and continued to first chair the big ones. He was popular with the press. The News called him Mandy, and the Post called him Mandello; a good sign, as big public figures are the ones who get the monickers, and the votes. Remember Rocky and Lefky?
After we shook hands he invited me to sit. There were no real formalities to go through. He knew I hadn't come to contribute to his campaign, and I knew he didn't care how I was and probably cared even less about Wolfe. So I plunged right in. "I'd like to talk to you about the Vollmer murder. As you may know, he was both a neighbor and a friend, and Mr. Wolfe and I are interested in seeing to it that whoever did this is punished... As I know you are."
That last bit of grease was probably unnecessary, but one offshoot of the police corruption cases he had brought involved allegations that the Irish Catholic Mafia which still overpopulated the Department was dragging its feet in incidents involving attacks on doctors and clinics providing services to women who wanted to terminate their pregnancy. While refusing to be drawn into the abortion controversy, the D.A.'s office had made it clear that it would prosecute any and all offenders, and hadn't hesitated to use their own investigators when deemed necessary.
As to the way I was shading it about Wolfe's "interest," I knew I might someday have to report this conversation to Wolfe verbatim, and I could justify saying we were interested. If Mandel took that to mean that we had a client, or that we had information to share, so much the better.
"Yes, I know. We've had two field reports about you poking around." I guess my face reflected my reaction to his choice of words. He continued, "No offense, I never have a problem with concerned citizens, especially experts like you and Wolfe, uh, exercising their, uh, rights to know what's going on."
Well, that cinched it for me - he was definitely going to make a run for the job, and if this was any indication, he wouldn't be half-bad at the straddling he'd have to do to get elected. I could only imagine Cramer's reaction: he would have demanded to know what we knew, who our client was, and he wouldn't have been particularly nice about it.
I was curious about the field reports. I knew that in any major investigation, and they don't get more major than murder, the field notes police officers routinely make of contacts with members of the public which are out of the ordinary will get reviewed by the detectives. Mandel wouldn't have had time to secure that information from NYPD; I had only called for the appointment that morning. This told me the investigation was being run out of the D.A.'s office, with Mandel personally on top of it, which I took as a stroke of good luck.
I figured the first field write-up must have been ol' blue eyes, the young beat cop standing post at the crime scene, but I didn't know where the second one came from. I was about to find out.
"Look, I want to level with you Mr. Mandel. We have nothing concrete to trade with you, and I'd like to keep this off the record. All we have is skepticism that this so-called STOP outfit had anything to do with Doc Vollmer's murder. I'm hoping you can tell me whether we're barking up a wrong tree, and also what we should know so we don't interfere with your investigation."
There was a long pause. If I had ever tried this with Cramer he would have seen right through it and probably thrown his unlit cigar right at my head. Mandel probably saw through it too, but he clearly had some other things to consider. His next comment was a puzzler, but I kept a poker face. Working for Wolfe, and refining that poker face at the weekly games with Lon and Saul, stood me in good stead. What he said was, "So Lew was right. You did 'make' him at the demonstration." He hit his intercom button: "Marge, please ask Detective Ross to step into my office."
A moment later my mystery man from the STOP demonstration at the funeral parlor strode in. Now I remembered why he had looked so familiar. Lew Ross had been seconded to the D.A.'s squad years ago, and, like most New Yorkers, I had seen his picture in the papers. He was Everyman, and had worked undercover as a butcher at the Hunts Point meat market, as a bonded messenger on Wall Street, and even as a Bowery derelict. He nodded to me and said, "Thanks for not blowing my cover uptown."
I remained non-committal. "Never even occurred to me."
"Mr. Goodwin wants us to know that he and Nero Wolfe think the STOP people are not involved in Dr. Vollmer's murder. They are trying to be helpful. They think it would be helpful if they knew what we have so they don't inadvertently interfere. Is that about right, Goodwin?"
Okay, time for Mandel to take the gloves off, and I had no hard feelings. He might be willing to cozy up to me one on one, after all, I'm a registered voter, but Ross was a cop, and a highly respected one, and Mandel couldn't afford to lose credibility with the troops.
I'd had time to run a bunch of scenarios in my mind on the way downtown, and at this point I was once again reduced to telling the truth, no tricks. I figured if it worked I could square it with Wolfe later.
"Mr. Mandel, Mr. Wolfe has no client. I repeat, no client and no expectation that there will be one. We're talking about a purely personal interest here. Vollmer was a decent human being who did not deserve what he got. He had earned the right to enjoy a long and healthy retirement. I told you before I came here with nothing to trade in return for your information, but in fact I do have something to offer. Me."
Maybe a full 30 seconds went by. Mandel was an experienced trial lawyer, and Ross an experienced interrogator; they both knew the advantage of waiting; most people are congenitally wired against silence, and will just keep talking, often blurting out things better left unsaid, but I was no novice at the game and I wanted the ball in their court.
"Okayyyy", Mandel dragged out the second syllable, "so what exactly are you proposing?"
"I want you to take me on as a ‘special,’ with full access to your investigation and credentials to match."
"Sure,” said Ross, “maybe you'd like me to chauffeur you and Wolfe around too."
I took a deep breath, a five count, and then shot my wad. There was no turning back now. "I'm putting my cards on the table. Mr. Wolfe has no interest in becoming involved in this case. He doesn't even know I'm here. That's on the level. I'll have to tell him, if you agree, and he won't be happy. I'm perfectly willing to do any scut work you hand me, and it can be understood that I will work at your direction, Detective, if that's what Mr. Mandel decides. You can have it in writing, including a non-disclosure agreement you draft and I sign." I turned to face Mandel. "You agreed to see me. I'm enough of a detective to know you've got nowhere on this case so far, even with a first-rate dick like Ross and all of the other resources at your disposal. We're not pals, and we never will be. We've bumped heads before and maybe we will again. But think about it. What have you got to lose? I'm not without resources and skills and more than my share of luck. If I help you find the killer, it's another front page feather in your cap and we both know you can use it. If I'm a bust, what have you lost? Neither one of us needs that kind of publicity."
Another pause, this time it was Ross who jumped in. "Assuming you have something to offer, and maybe you do, I still don't see what you get out of this. You and Wolfe, or maybe we're really just talking about you, have never been shy about muscling in on police investigations without so much as a by your leave. Why all this?"
"Look, you're right, and I will continue to investigate with or without your approval. You can count on it. And I won't be obligated to give you a damn thing if I'm on my own. But I'm not getting anywhere. My friendship with Vollmer didn't even get me to first base with his daughter. I have some lines of inquiry I'd like to pursue and just maybe an official imprimatur will do the trick."
"What lines of inquiry?" This from Mandel. "You're going to have to show some good faith here."
"Okay, I'll show you mine. If STOP is a non-starter, no pun intended, how about a disgruntled former patient? Anne Vollmer won't let me near the Doc's records. Remember, I knew Vollmer and there just might be something there that could jog my memory, maybe an off-hand comment that would take on weight now."
Mandel and Ross exchanged glances. I realized that like Wolfe and me, these two pros were comfortable with each other and that there were unspoken understandings between them.
"Goodwin, whether I remain here after the election, you better believe this office has a long memory. If you are screwing us over, you will regret it. That's a promise."
I smiled, for the first time since I saw Doc Vollmer's body being carried out by the EMTs. "Call me Archie."
Mandel didn't waste any time. I waited in the anteroom for no more than fifteen minutes, and when summoned back in I was handed. a contract specifying in very general terms my duties as a Special Investigator on the D.A.'s squad. I was issued paper credentials, no shield or firearm, and there was even an adequate salary, which I declined. I preferred to draw my rather more generous pay from Wolfe, but Mandel insisted that for legal reasons I had to accept some remuneration, so I became a dollar-a-year man, just like the big industrialists who helped win WW II.
Ross and I left together, not exactly shower buddies, but no more open animus than to be expected between a cop and a private eye. It was a bit early for my taste, but Ross wanted lunch before we settled in to reviewing his case files, and although not up to Fritz' standards, the sandwich place around the corner from the Courthouse did a nice job. Ross had the corned beef on a roll, with two helpings of potato salad, and I smiled thinking of Wolfe's reaction when he told the counterman to "gut the bread," a New Yorker's way of cutting carbs.
I learned a couple of things as we ate, seated by ourselves in the back before the lunch crowd descended. My hunch about STOP was on the money. To be precise, there was no STOP. "It's like the SLA, it's bullshit, it doesn't exist. Patty Hearst's kidnappers weren't Symbionese, they weren't an Army, and the only thing they liberated was bank money. So far as we've been able to tell, STOP is not real. None of the other protest groups ever heard of them."
"But you're a pro at infiltrating criminal enterprises, and I spotted you at their demonstration. What do you mean they don't exist?"
"Look, Archie, you don't have to grease me. We're both good at our job so let's concentrate on finding out who killed your friend. What I mean is, I got hired through a cut-out, same as the other demonstrators, and I could never find out who hired me. Even the people who paid me don't know. It's rent-a-shouter incorporated. I think STOP is classic misdirection. Someone wanted your friend dead, someone who doesn't want to get caught. So we end up chasing our tails for some anti-abortion wack jobs who don't exist."
"Okay, Lew, so now we go through Doc's records, interview office staff and patients looking for someone with a grievance, along with anyone else who knew him who might give us a lead. Right?"
"Yeah, only we need to move fast, that daughter of his is making noises that she wants to close up the brownstone including the office. She's a real pain in the ass."
Anne Vollmer wanted to take immediate possession of her father's medical records, claiming doctor-patient privilege would be violated by the intrusive eyes of the police. While that claim was thin, the D.A. didn't want to risk a loss in Surrogate's Court, which wasn't his bailiwick, and was where any decision about decedent's property would be rendered. She also let it slip that in his long years of practice, extending back before Roe v. Wade, and before the proliferation of specialists, a neighborhood G.P. like Vollmer would likely have performed at least some abortions, possibly under the rubric of "routine D&Cs" and the city would incur expensive lawsuits by women whose privacy was now being violated.
So we had to work fast. Ross had already begun going through the records. They were mostly paper copies; the Doc had only gone digital when the concierge managers took over. I printed all the digital records, patient information, appointment date, diagnostics, treatment, follow-up, billing records, office supplies, the works. Even a cursory glance told me Doc's concierge practice was indeed hemorrhaging money. For his part, Ross made notes on any patients whose experience with the Doc appeared as if it could have led to hard feelings about the treatment received. I helped him and we ended up with a list that would require a lot of interviews. At that, we both knew a bare treatment record wouldn't tell the whole story so we also made a list of every patient the Doc had seen. Our hope was that in talking to his receptionists and nurses we might be able to winnow it down.
We worked non-stop until my stomach was rumbling, and it occurred to me that this was as good a time as any to let Wolfe know what I was doing. Of course it would be risky springing Ross on him, but Wolfe is resolute that no one in his house should go hungry, so I suggested a break so I could go home and change clothes. It was plausible, as we would have to pull an all-nighter to finish by the morrow’s deadline that had been agreed to by Mandel and Anne's lawyer. I had already seen that Ross kept several changes of clothing in his car, including hats, union badges, reversible jackets, crutches, and other paraphernalia to keep him below the radar and unrecognizable.
As we ambled down the block I have to admit I was also hoping Wolfe would want in. Between us Ross and I weren't likely to miss anything obvious, but I had a feeling that we could use all the help we could get.
In accordance with standard routine the door was chained shut when I am out of the house, and after peering through the peephole Fritz responded to my ringing the bell. I performed introductions, and of course Fritz was a bit nonplussed that I was accompanied by one of New York's finest. "It's okay, Fritz, friend not foe. I'll just take him into the office to meet Mr. Wolfe."
"Will your friend be staying for dinner? Mr. Wolfe didn't say anything to me."
"Oh I think not, but just in case, can you provide for one more?"
"Of course, Archie." A bit cool. Fritz and I were pals but he took his job seriously and I did know better than to sandbag him at the last minute.
So on we went, Ross and me, into the office. Wolfe was comfortably ensconced in his custom-built chair, pretending to read when I knew he was really concentrating on the delicious odors emanating from the kitchen.
I performed introductions once again, and briefly explained that Detective Ross was the lead investigator in the Vollmer case, and that we had spent all afternoon gathering information and were going to return to it as soon as I had changed clothes.
Wolfe would normally have had some rather pointed, and I admit justified, remarks at my expense for thinking that was an adequate explanation as to where I had been or what was really going on, but "a guest is jewel on the cushion of hospitality" and all that, so as long as Ross was in his house Wolfe would refrain from any nastiness at my expense.
Before I could figure a way to wangle a dinner invitation, Ross spoke up. I wasn't taking notes and I don't speak Serbian but I do recognize it, and he launched with something like "drago mi je, dohro vece," which was enough to get Wolfe to warm up a bit, asking Ross if he was fluent. Ross said he was not, but then got an almost-smile from Wolfe with "znati jedan jezik nije dovoljno," which I later learned meant "one language is never enough." More back and forth followed and before I knew it they were examining the huge globe in the office. Ross closed the deal with "boga ti," and I recognize a compliment in any language, and believe me, Nero Wolfe is not immune to compliments.
Discussion of current cases is prohibited at table and although it wasn't Wolfe's case I didn't want to push my luck, so I let him lead the conversation and it never did come around to Vollmer. I think Ross was surprised; he probably assumed I was lying all along about Wolfe not being involved, but I didn't care. If I could get Wolfe into it even incrementally I would settle for that. Sooner or later his curiosity was bound to get the better of him.
So we talked, or they did. You might think that Wolfe, with a real live copper available, might take advantage of the opportunity to mine for information about oh, I don't know, crime, since the flourishing of our million dollar operation, food, books, plants, salaries, depended on his ability as detective. You'd be wrong. Wolfe was on to me and wasn't going to allow conversation at dinner to drift into a discussion of a case, even if the case was mine and not his. No business talk at the table, period.
So they mostly talked about the restaurant business, a natural subject for Wolfe; although he seldom left the brownstone, and almost never ate in restaurants, he knows more about food than anyone I know, including Fritz, and that's saying something. Turns out in addition to working undercover as a butcher at the Hunt's Point meat market, Ross had also put time in at some high-end food palaces, so they had lots to talk about. As for me, I concentrated on one of Fritz's specialties, lamb kidneys in a beet soup called borscht.
I'll spare you the details and just tell you that Wolfe can be insufferable when he wants to lord it over me with his knowledge of the arcane, but he is polite to a fault with guests. And he didn't need to strain to be polite with Ross, who also knew quite a lot about borscht, pronouncing it "borsh." At first I was worried - would this be akin to Fred Durkin's seasoning gauchery which got him banished to the kitchen? Turns out that is an acceptable pronunciation in some of the ethnic enclaves which claim to have originated this delicacy, and Ross sealed the deal with his description of "white borsh," a variation of the beet-based standard. That was a new one on Wolfe and he was excited about it, at least I think he was. I don't think Fritz was particularly happy by this turn in the conversation, and I knew I'd have to make it up to him.
Interesting turn of events. I'm working with a private eye named Archie Goodwin. Mandel is sweating the load on this case. It's a hot potato and it's been dumped on us by One PP, and I guess he figures any port in a storm. Politics is above my pay grade, as they say. A woman's right to choose, late term abortion, mining of stem cells or body parts; none of this matters to me. As one of my old partners used to say, "moider is moider." I love New York.
As far as partners go, I like Goodwin well enough. He's smart, and as far as I can tell he has no agenda here other than to catch the killer. If his boss Nero Wolfe ends up grabbing the credit and getting the headlines, that's okay by me. I don't need publicity, I need to close cases.
Speaking of Wolfe, I can't quite figure out his deal. Everyone's heard all about him so I was interested in meeting him. Goodwin engineered a dinner invitation for me and it wasn't what I expected. The food was great, don't get me wrong, but Wolfe showed absolutely no interest in the Vollmer case. So maybe Goodwin was telling the truth when he said he's on his own on this one. Wolfe is kind of quirky and we ended up talking about borscht! I don't think his snooty cook liked it when I told him about a different way to make it. If that meal is any indication it's no wonder Wolfe is so fat.
Speaking of partners, and private eyes, I gotta tell ya, the movies and t.v. shows always depict police partners as buddies and always show the cops and the private dicks at loggerheads. Fact is, these days the Department tries to mix it up and rotate partners. The feeling is that too much togetherness can break down some of the inhibitions against corruption. I don't know about that. What I'm trying to say is, there are partners and then there are partners.
I still get together once a year with one of my old patrol partners. We were both uniformed cops, riding around in a radio car, when two mugs come running out of a bodega up in Washington Heights and they're shooting back into the store, and we can see the store owner in the doorway firing away with his sawed off. My partner had a lot of years in, and I was no rookie but I had never fired my weapon except on the range, never even drawn it. We'd hauled in our share of drunk and disorderlies, busted up some domestic disputes, and that kind of thing, but you're never really ready for the OK Corral. Training and muscle memory are all you got. Slam on the brakes, out of the car using the door for cover and open fire. Maybe in the movies they yell "drop your weapon" and then shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand, but in real life you aim for upper body mass, hoping you'll hit him somewhere if you don't choke on your own adrenaline.
My partner got a bump up to Sergeant, and I got a gold shield. I liked my promotion to Detective Second a lot better. That was a reward for detective work, not getting shot at. Speaking of detective work, again: not like the movies. A lot more perspiration than inspiration as Thomas Edison said about inventing. And as far as private investigators, some are a problem, some are real sleazebags, but the working relationship between them and us can be real good. The insurance investigators for example have a lot of specialized knowledge they're willing to share, the guys doing security work often have information we can use, and on it goes. Besides, half the guys I know on the force are counting down 'til retirement and plan to go private.
Don't know how I got on that tangent. Back to Goodwin. He's okay so far and he holds up his end on the work. We burrowed through Vollmer's records all night, and spent the next day comparing notes and dividing up and prioritizing the leads. I had one in particular I wanted, and Goodwin wanted to talk to one of Vollmer's nurses who he had been friends with.
As you know, Mr. Wolfe asked me to fill in around the office while you're working with the dick from the D.A.'s squad. Some day you'll have to tell me what the straight skinny is on that, but whatever you and Mr. Wolfe are cooking up, I'm sure it's a lulu.
I'm getting the hang of the germination records, although every time I have to ask old Horstmann a question he gives me attitude. And I don't want to bother Mr. Wolfe. The phone inquiries and the occasional errands are a cinch. I know you do a lot more than that for him, and I hope I didn't overstep when I looked at the collection of Vollmer's medical records you left on your desk.
I see what you mean about too many leads. There are a lot of patients who might not have been satisfied with their course of treatment or the medical results, and I hope you can narrow it down. Vollmer must have been a dynamo. I can't believe how many patients he was seeing right up to the end. I'm not a fan of assembly line medicine. Kind of sad that with all that billing he still couldn't make ends meet but his overhead and service expenses were out of sight. Makes me glad all I need is 2 suits, my old .45, some ammo and the occasional new pair of shoes.
Anyway, I'm holding down the fort and if you need me for anything just let me know.
cc Mr. Wolfe
In some ways being a cop is like working in the Emergency Room of a hospital. It's all about triage. On the street, the first thing you do is secure the crime scene. This can run the gamut from cuffing a perp, separating the husband and wife, or whoever, in a domestic beef, or just putting up the crime scene tape. Same thing for a detective. Don't get me wrong. Most of the cases that we "solve" don't involve brilliant deductions or eagle-eyed observation and analysis of trace evidence. Sure, there's some of that but most cases get closed when we get a tip from an informant, when the crime lab does its thing, or we plain get lucky. But hope springs eternal as they say, and when I'm the lead detective I "triage" the best leads to myself.
So after going through Vollmer's patient files I parceled out some leads among the other dicks on the D.A. Squad, knowing the leads wouldn't get priority over their own cases but that in due time they would get run down. Meanwhile, I thought I might have a good one from one patient file in particular. Mrs. _________ had been a patient of Vollmer for a couple of years. Routine stuff, she was a young woman in good health. He had performed a D&C on her in his office. I know enough to know what that is, generally why it's done, and that it's pretty routine stuff - not that I would consider it routine if it was happening to me. I also know that it can be a cover for abortion, that docs would sometimes write it up that way either because of legal concerns or if that's what the patient wanted. Don't get me wrong. I'm no expert in female anatomy, that's been pointed out to me by at least one ex-girlfriend.
What I found interesting was that she later developed sepsis, for which he treated her. The file ended with a "patient deceased" notation a short while later.
Abortion? Maybe. Malpractice? Maybe again. Could either be a motive for murder? I've seen murders committed for a helluva lot less. A quick check on the husband cinched it that this was the best lead so far. He had been a patient of Vollmer as well, and his medical history revealed an injury he suffered as a Machinist Mate in the Navy. Someone had put that bomb together, and while the materials were readily available it's not as easy as you think to construct a remotely triggered device.
He had moved from the neighborhood shortly after his wife died, but I had no trouble finding him. Again, no brilliant detective work, just a couple of minutes in the phone directories revealed he was living in Queens. Goodwin had his lead, this one was mine and I was on my way. Maybe I should have called downtown for company, but this was real preliminary and I never even considered it.
Nor did it occur to me to check in with the local precinct. Technically, working with the D.A.'s squad entitled me to skip that formality, but it was a mistake, especially since I was out of my jurisdiction, having left Manhattan. Oh, I was still an NYPD cop and Queens is part of the city, but Queens has its own DA and as a courtesy I could have at least let them know I was around. The one thing I did right was making sure I was wearing the right daily colors, which would signify to other cops if I got in trouble that I was on the job.
I mulled over a couple of approaches as I drove over the 59th Street Bridge, aka the Queensboro. I decided to play it sort of straight if I had to - I would identify myself as a cop but focus on his wife's death, playing up the botched abortion angle. He wouldn't be in custody, and technically he wasn't a suspect yet in the bombing, so anything I got would be good in court. But my default go-to is always undercover, so I was hoping not to identify myself and just cozy up to him as a customer first.
Once I had settled on that I had my usual good laugh driving over the bridge. Some people know this bridge because of the Simon and Garfunkel song, but to cops it's part of the lore. A despondent husband, betrayed by his wife, is on top of the bridge, screwing up his courage to jump. A call goes out and a patrol guy named Jerry Stein is first on the scene. He rolls up and makes a command decision to ignore the traffic tie-up and then he climbs up. Other patrol cars respond, so now traffic is moving, the neck stretchers are on their way, and it's just Jerry and the jumper on top of the bridge. Jerry signals that no one else should come up, the jumper is screaming, "No more cops, I'm gonna jump, don't come any closer!"
Some people say Jerry talked the guy down by telling him that if he jumped, he, the cop, would have to go in after him and that he had a wife and kids and he didn't know how to swim. "So be a good lad and go home and hang yourself." That's an old cop story. Part of the lore.
What really happened is even better. Jerry talks to the guy, they're up there swaying in the wind, and Jerry is scared shitless. But he gets the guy talking, and the guy is a Catholic. Now Jerry hasn't been in any house of worship since his Bar-Mitzvah, where he stunned his parents with a speech which welcomed his "friends, relatives, and others." Nevertheless, Jerry gives him the spiel about suicide being a mortal sin, and he promises that if the guy doesn't jump, he'll bring a priest up to take his confession. The Departmental Chaplain is called, he weighs about 300 and there is no way he is going up, so he gets a young seminarian to do it. The young almost-a-priest and Jerry go back up, the kid is terrific, and talks the guy down with the promise that he will not be arrested, he is not in any trouble, and the two of them will go to church and pray.
As soon as they hit the roadway Jerry cracks the guy's skull open and hauls him away. I would have done the same. Jerry's been getting free drinks off that story ever since. I love New York.
My suspect had a machine shop over in Queens, so I decided to check him out there. I considered a bunch of approaches but decided to do it straight once I got there. There was no credible way I could wander in to get a spare key made or ask him to repair a vacuum cleaner. It was apparent this was no customer-oriented business. First off, it was located in a rundown half-abandoned warehouse area, and when I walked in it didn't look like there were any jobs, or much else, going on. A little runty guy was off in a corner, and my ex-sailor was looking over a ledger on a dusty counter.
I flashed my badge and launched into a spiel about medical malpractice cases. I hoped to get him talking and that sure wouldn't happen if I started in about bombs. So I mentioned his wife and told him that her medical history and subsequent death were part of a major investigation. He looked genuinely puzzled.
"But she was killed in a hit-and-run. And she was healthy. She'd had some internal problems and some kind of infection, but she was up and around and on the mend. What the hell is going on?"
That last wasn't quite friendly, but I didn't have time to get back on track. The runt was up and running flat out toward me and the crowbar in his hand didn't look like a talking stick. I turned to deal with him and, as they say, the lights went out. Mr. Machinist whacked me with the barrel end of a shotgun he kept under the counter. I didn't even hear what happened next. Before they finished me off the cavalry arrived. Feds no less.
I wasn't to know it until later, but I was flying solo again. Ross had fouled out; jumped the gun on approaching a suspect and landed in the hospital for his trouble. The Feds had had his guy under tight surveillance for some time (which is what saved Lew's life) and there was no way he was implicated in Doc's murder. Still, I couldn't blame Ross. I would probably have done the same thing in his shoes.
I didn't have any suspect in mind as I drove out to Port Jefferson. I was still looking for a hook, and I thought Jennie Amerigo might be able to tell me some things about the Doc's practice. She certainly would have known if there were abortions going on, and I needed to know if that was still in the cards. Plus I figured she could tell me generally about the level of care he provided and the likelihood of disgruntled patients with a grudge.
As I drove up the Amerigo driveway I was surprised to see the lawn could use a trim. There was also mail overflowing from the mailbox. I had called first, spoken to a sullen teenager (is there any other kind?) and been assured that Mom would be in the house. A different kid answered the bell; not sullen, but clearly unhappy if the red eyes were any indication.
I waited in the living room and rose when Jennie came in. She did not look well. I fully expected that after a number of years and three kids she would not be the same lighthearted girl I had known but there was something else to it.
"We aren't really receiving people any more but I appreciate you coming all the way out here. Joe would have appreciated it, too. Can I offer you something to eat or drink? The neighbors keep bringing tons of food."
It hit me then. I should have noticed the black crepe-framed picture of Joe on the piano. I was visiting a house of mourning.
"Jennie, I don't know what to say. I didn't know about Joe. I came for something else. If this is a bad time we can reschedule."
"No, Archie, I'm actually glad to see you. There is something I think I want to ask you. But first tell me why you are here."
I explained about Doc Vollmer's murder and the theories about abortion or disgruntled patients bent on revenge. She appeared lost in thought and I wondered if she was processing any of what I told her.
She started to cry and uncharacteristically I was at a loss as to what to do. Wouldn't have been a problem for Wolfe. I had seen him skedaddle at light speed at the mere trembling of a woman's lower lip. I started to rise, thinking maybe I could offer a shoulder, but she waved me off and composed herself.
"Doc was a wonderful man. He loved his patients and would do anything for them. Back then there were girls who "got in trouble" and had nowhere to go legally. But I don't know whether he did any abortions. If he did he wouldn't have told me. It certainly was not going on with any regularity when I worked for him. That I would have known. And as far as patients with a grudge, who knows? He was a good doctor but things don't always go the way they should."
I waited, but she was lost in thought again. I looked around the room. It was nicely, but not ostentatiously furnished, with a lot of family photographs including one in particular that caught my eye. A much younger Jennie, Joe, and a man I had met recently, all in cap and gown.
"I didn't know about Dr. Vollmer being killed. If there is any way I can help I would be glad to, but we really haven't been in touch for a long time. I'm sorry he didn't even get to enjoy his retirement party. And I feel bad because the last time we talked he told me he had some questions about his billing records and asked if Joe or I could help out, but we were kind of busy and then Joe died and I never did get back to him."
My first waking thought was not for my physical well-being. I came to gradually, and realized I was in a hospital bed. Lauren Rogers was leaning over me rubbing ice chips on my lips. She was far from the cool, self-contained ADA I had come to know and respect. Her mascara had run, and she was trying hard to hold back the tears. I could move all my limbs so I knew I wasn't hurt too bad. No, my first thought was the realization that my career with the NYPD was probably over.
"Why the ice?" I asked her.
"I don't know, I saw it in a movie."
"Thanks, but you're giving me the chills."
She stiffened a bit at that and some of her reserve crept back in. "Okay, glad you're back to your normal self, I'll be going."
And with that she gathered up her things and left. I knew I had some repair work ahead of me but now wasn't the time or place. I was pretty sure I was going to have a lot of time on my hands.
My next visitor did nothing to dispel that conclusion. Allow me to introduce Deputy Inspector Salvatore Raluso. Sal and I were running mates at the Academy, and our last names got us assigned together for a lot of classwork and a lot of the practical exercises. We became pretty good friends. I did real well in a couple of the Academy assignments but was no match for Sal. He was a true shining star, but never the type of guy whose success you would begrudge. His rise in the Department was meteoric, and he is a lock for Inspector as soon as the next round of promotions opens up.
His official job was running the executive office for city-wide assignments. Unofficially, he was the "Rabbi" for the Italian cops, and looked out for his boys. He had taken to calling me "Luigi" or “Detective Rossi” as a way of putting me under his protective umbrella, and I had no complaints.
He came right to the point. "Rossi, what the f---! No partner? No backup? No notice to the precinct or so much as a by-your-leave to the Queens DA? And to cap it off, you screw up an ATF op that was six months in the making!”
I figured this wasn't the time for me to talk.
"Not that we give a crap about ATF. And it's the tobacco boys no less. The guy who slugged you and his sidekick are in custody for aiding and abetting interstate transfer of untaxed cigarettes. Apparently they were building the containers that attached to the undercarriage of trucks. Like anyone cares about that. You're lucky that's what they were working. If this was terrorism, or even just guns . . . "
"How bad am I jammed up?"
"Well, you caught two breaks. Number one, you got hurt, and NYPD takes care of its own. And it seems our federal compadres failed to liaise with us. No one in Queens or One PP knew anything about their shitty little tobacco op. So they're not going to ask for your head. It's a Mexican Standoff with the Feds."
"But it's a different story with the Chief of Ds. You're off the DA's squad as of now and that's permanent. Mandel went to bat for you but got nowhere, and that ADA I saw leaving just now tried to sell the story that you were working under her supervision and whatever you did was her responsibility. You must be a helluva swordsman."
I let that slide. "So, how bad am I jammed up?" I asked again.
"You been listening to me?! You think I'm some kind of magician, I can just wave a wand? You got two choices, and this is the best, and I mean the absolute best I can do. One: Internal Affairs, and if you take it they're gonna bury you. I mean real shoo-fly shit, doing integrity probes of rookies. IA is bad enough under the best circumstances but you won't get near a corruption case or a DA's office or a blue ribbon panel, and you can kiss undercover goodbye.
Two: I got a buddy runs a precinct on Staten Island. He'll take you, in the bag, no plainclothes, as kind of a community liaison."
Funny thing. I had gained full consciousness, and I understood and appreciated what Lou was telling me, and what he was willing to do for me. I knew I could have been brought up on Departmental charges and could lose my grade to say nothing of my job. But all I could think about right then was I was never going to close the Vollmer case.
"When do I have to decide?"
"Right now you're on the injured list. Stay there, let our docs look you over. Maybe you're hurt worse than we know."
Did he wink when he said that? I couldn't tell.
I was gathering up my things the next afternoon, anticipating release from the hospital after being pushed, pulled and probed by the team of interns doing their morning rounds. The paperwork shouldn't take too long. I'd been concussed, no apparent permanent damage, no loss of brain function, and you can just skip the remarks about the lack of brain function that got me in this jam in the first place.
So I'm just biding my time, when in walks none other than RTD Mooney. Don't get me wrong. The Department has some first-rate physicians on the payroll, and they don't skimp on bringing in specialists when needed. But Mooney was a first rate hack. I don't know where he got his license, or whether he ever was any good, but the monicker RTD stood for "Return To Duty," because that was his automatic discharge report every time an officer was injured. There's a story that Mooney got to the hospital one time as a cop who'd been shot was receiving the last rites, and Mooney tried to discharge him Return to Duty.
He takes one look at me, doesn't even look at the chart hanging off my bed, and starts filling out the Department form. He's humming to himself, and I'm actually thinking of giving him a good smack, when he looks at me again and smiles.
"You Italian boys really know how to stick together, don't you?"
Not really snide, just a little obnoxious and maybe a little envious? This, coming from a guy who is on the payroll strictly due to his parochial school connections. But who am I to complain? If I'm Italian this time around, it can only mean one thing: Lou Raluso has pulled a rabbit out of his capello.
Sure enough, when the good doctor waves good-bye and walks out the door, I am up in a flash to see what he has "diagnosed." Jumping up like that sets off some serious pain inside my skull, and it takes a minute before my head clears and I can read: "Temporary Disability / Minimum 10 Months. " Internal Affairs and Staten Island can kiss my ass; I got a reprieve. A lot can happen in ten months. A city - wide election might shake things up. I could come back on top. And if not? Ten months is kind of an odd diagnosis, isn't it? Six months, one year, ten days, all have a credible ring, but ten months? And then it hits me. My pension. I "vest" in just under ten months. If I'm still facing IA or the Borough of Richmond, I can put in my papers. Like I've said before, I'm a happy guy.
"Jennie, who is this guy?" I pointed to the graduation picture.
"Oh, that's our old classmate Barry Buckman. We all graduated from business school together. Why do you ask?"
"No reason, I think I've met him somewhere." Now I had a name for the Baritone. I waited for more.
"He's been a great friend to Joe and me over the years. Joe's accounting practice had its ups and downs, but we could always count on Barry to throw business our way. He's very big in the medical service industry, Caduceus Incorporated, maybe you've heard of them?" It didn't ring any bells.
"What happened to Joe? Had he been in poor health?"
"No, and that's what I wanted to ask you, Archie. Joe took good care of himself, worked out regularly, and I saw to it that we all eat healthy. But lately he seemed pre-occupied, really stressed. I couldn't get him to tell me why. And then one day at work he just collapsed and died of a heart attack."
"Jennie, I'm so sorry. But I don't know what you're asking me."
"I want to know what was bothering him so bad. He was my husband. We had a good marriage. At least I thought we did."
"Jennie, people die. Even healthy people. Remember Jim Fixx? And there could be a million reasons he was stressed. Business ups and downs, like you said. And if you're thinking another woman, do you really want to go there? As a detective I can tell you that sometimes when you start looking…" She started to cut me off then and I quickly interposed, "And as your friend I really don't think…"
There was an uncomfortable silence and I told her again how sorry I was and took my leave. I was bothered all the way back to the city; I felt I hadn't handled things well and I also wondered if maybe I was missing something. I decided to confront Wolfe once and for all.
The next morning as Wolfe entered the office there was still a coolness between us. I knew I had left him high and dry with not so much as a by-your-leave, and I assumed that it was only a matter of time before he brought it up, so I decided to get my oar in the water first.
"I know you have no interest in Doc Vollmer's murder. But as you know, Lew Ross is no longer on the case, the D.A. is no further along than when we started, and I'm asking you to at least let me report. As a favor to me, will you please engage your brain. I need the help. I'm asking you."
He nodded, barely, but with Wolfe that was good enough and I reported verbatim.
Now if you don't know Wolfe, what happened next will seem odd, but it made the hair on my neck stand on end. That may be a cliché, but I'm telling you, it happens every time.
Not a sound, just Wolfe leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, and his lips going in and out, in and out. This one lasted for 53 minutes - not a record, but a good long time. I'm not saying Wolfe has never pulled a fast one on me, but when this happens it's for real, and I knew enough not to try to interrupt or rush him.
When he opened his eyes he simply said, "Your notebook, please. Instructions. No, wait, ask Fred to join us. He is in the plant rooms talking to Theodore. They will both welcome the interruption."
The instructions led to another contretemps between Wolfe and me. "Archie, please arrange for Dr. Vollmer, Mr. Buckman, and Mr. Mandel to be here this evening. That will be all for you now. You will know where to find these people and I suggest you go immediately. They will doubtless take some persuading."
"Now wait just a darn minute!" I didn't want to get into it with Fred present, but if Wolfe had something, I wanted it, and he could have let Fred wait upstairs. He had to know I'd be really miffed. Maybe he thought Fred being there would spare him another blowup between us.
"Okay, I asked for your help, but I'm not your damned errand boy. I want to know..."
"You want to know what, Archie?" he interrupted, with that voice that could interrupt a waterfall. "You have all the information I have, indeed you have had some of it for days, you and Mr. Ross, and yet here we are. I am ready to name a murderer, and you cavil at my methods?! Confound it, you asked for my help."
"I'll get them all right, but this tears it for you and me."
Since Mr. Goodwin is emotionally and geographically indisposed to finish his narrative, I will assume that responsibility in the hope that it will help to restore relations between us. Mr. Goodwin is an intrepid and gifted investigator, and it is no reflection on him that the solution to this matter eluded him. It is to his credit that he did not succumb to the misdirection that Anne Vollmer created, the idea that Dr. Vollmer was an abortionist who fell afoul of a vigilante right to life organization.
Perhaps in time he and Mr. Ross, who impressed me as both capable and possessed of a rare knack for conversation which does not irritate me, would also have realized that the murderer was not someone wronged by Dr. Vollmer and seeking revenge; rather, Dr. Vollmer was first victimized and then murdered when his killer feared exposure by him.
I say this with no pride. My own skills and ability, such as they are, are often wanting, and I am certainly aware of the irony that it was none other than Fred Durkin, whose skills are commendable but not particularly of the mental variety, who provided the impetus to my arriving at the solution. It should have been obvious much sooner.
Occam's Razor may be an overly resorted to cliché, but it provides a valuable lesson in the solution of many murders. As Mr. Ross said in his report, this was never a complex case. Vollmer was killed because of his daughter's avarice and cold-blooded lack of any filial devotion. The latter fact was, if not known to me, certainly no surprise. I knew she and her father barely saw one another, despite a shared profession, and spatial propinquity (yes, I am borrowing that phrase from Mr. Goodwin's report, and I hope when he reads this he will recognize the rare compliment. I seldom use another's choice of words. I am satisfied with my ability on that score).
In our conversation the evening before his death Dr. Vollmer seemed preoccupied with Lear although as a medical man it would have made more sense to stay on the topic of the poison used in Romeo and Juliet. Did he foresee his own death or was he merely regretting his ill usage at the hands of his daughter? I shall not speculate. As to his inapposite reference to Troilus and Cressida, I will not fault myself for lacking omniscience nor am I possessed of precognition. Even had I pursued his comment about mistaking Caduceus, who represents venality, for Asclepius, the true god of medicine, it was only his murder that led me to disambiguate this reference and learn about his daughter's haste in wanting to secure all his records, as well as her misdirection about abortions in order to lend credence to 'STOP' as the culprit. The realization that his daughter had gulled him into a mercenary rather than a medical path must have weighed heavily on him.
Nor shall I speculate on how deeply, if at all, Mr. Amerigo was enmeshed in the fraudulent billing scheme underlying the concierge practice. The police may never be able to prove that he was murdered or prove Anne Vollmer's involvement in his murder, and there is no reason to burden his widow and children with the specter of his possible criminality.
My instructions to Fred Durkin were straightforward and did not merit Mr. Goodwin's finesse. Perhaps I erred in summarily excluding him, but I wanted the element of surprise when I confronted Dr. Vollmer's killers. I say killers because it is immaterial who built and planted the bomb. Whether it was one or both of them Mr. Mandel will have no difficulty convicting them both.
Once the good doctor discovered the extent of the fraudulent billing, ruinous to his practice, his fate was sealed. His call to Mrs. Amerigo asking for her help in reviewing the books was something she would have innocently repeated to her husband, whose livelihood depended on the work assigned to him by Buckman, including the Caduceus accounts. Whether Amerigo was already suspicious, or whether this aroused his suspicions, or whether he was himself implicated, it is certain that he communicated it to Buckman, who in turn told Anne Vollmer.
In Mr. Goodwin's absence I have asked Fred Durkin to act as my assistant. It is not a happy solution for either of us, and I think we will both be relieved when I can find a replacement. I remain hopeful that Archie will return. In the meantime I have asked Fritz to arrange for Mr. Ross to come to dine with me. I detected some resistance on Fritz' part, notwithstanding my assurance that the door remains open to Archie at any time of his choosing. -NW
Lily Rowan and I spent the day fly fishing at her place in Montana and we'll eat what we caught. We set out to shoot game yesterday but didn't see anything worth eating, except a deer, and neither of us had the heart for it.
You could say I'm licking my wounds, or sulking like Achilles in his tent, except Lily's "rustic ranch" is no tent. But I am taking some time to sort out my feelings. Of course I'm angry at Wolfe. He didn't need to be so high-handed. But with Wolfe that isn't anything new, and I know deep down that even if he had jumped in the day of Doc's murder we wouldn't have been able to save Joe Amerigo.
Pursuant to Wolfe's instructions, Fred was able to quickly confirm that the Doc's billing records were simply impossible for any one human being, it was clear that the concierge practice was a dodge for a major league billing scam; Fred turned up a couple of fake patients and there are probably lots more, in addition to billing for procedures that likely never took place and huge discrepancies in supplies paid for but never delivered. Even his cursory look revealed that Anne Vollmer and Barry Buckman had a vast network of medical clients, and their bank records reveal off-shore accounts which will help convict them. When confronted by Wolfe Buckman couldn't wait to fold in the hopes of getting a deal. He'll roll over on her and they'll both go down for it along with any accessories who worked the bomb. The cops, knowing what to look for, won't have too hard a time finding corroborating evidence.
Wolfe's session with Mandel was one for the books. He insisted on seeing Wolfe alone before the others arrived. Wolfe gave him enough to satisfy him, and enough so that Mandel made a major concession.
"Your office can have the credit for solving this case, Mr. Mandel, but I have several conditions. They are non-negotiable. The first is that you terminate Mr. Goodwin's employment forthwith." That was an easy one. I didn't mind but it just added fuel to the fire that he did this without consulting me.
"Done. And the second?"
"You are to arrange for Mr. Ross' promotion to Detective First Grade upon his return to full duty status."
"I can't do that. It's out of my hands. The Police Department… "
That's as far as he got. "Mr. Mandel, you are reportedly involved in a major election battle. The credit for solving this homicide will go a long way to sweeping you into office, especially when it is coupled with having exposed a wide-ranging medical insurance fraud. I am sure you need no education from me on the RICO statute. There will be headline after headline, and editorial after editorial, commending you as that investigation proceeds.
"You may use the telephone on this desk to call whomever you deem appropriate to ensure Mr. Ross' promotion. If you do not, I will use it to make contact with my attorney, and we will launch a Qui Tam lawsuit, and we will collect millions of dollars as relators in the inevitable prosecution that follows. I am told your colleagues in the Federal prosecutors office at Foley Square are particularly generous to whistleblowers.”
So Lew Ross gets taken care of after all. Hey, I don't begrudge him his good fortune. I doubt if he or Mandel will ever realize what an empty bluff that was. Nero Wolfe initiating a lawsuit? Where he would have to be interviewed, deposed, and ultimately have to testify? Give me a break.
There is one thread left hanging, and I don't plan to pull it. I'm sure Wolfe thought of it, too. Joe Amerigo's heart attack sure was convenient for Vollmer and Buckman. With her medical knowledge and Buckman's access to him, I can't help but wonder if they injected him with something. A full-scale autopsy looking for a toxin might have revealed it, but that isn't something that happens when a guy keels over at his desk.
As for me, I'm not sure what the future holds. I called Fritz just to say hi and he seemed really upset. I guess he misses me.