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What a night.
Or perhaps I should say, what a night, again, because the night before tonight—and I’ll write down the skinny on that in just a sec— Nero Wolfe and I had been struggling to come to terms with the loss—albeit temporary, we hoped—of Fritz Brenner. After Wolfe, Fritz was probably the most important person in the household. Fritz’s cooking makes the world go round, and if you think I’m exaggerating, let me know and I’ll invite you over for dinner some time.
But we had lost him because some damn so-and-so decided that besides tossing Wolfe’s office, his purview included giving Fritz a good roughing up. Fortunately no bones were broken, but Fritz had a concussion and was otherwise badly enough bruised that the medical establishment declared that he needed to spend a few days “under observation,” as the lingo goes.
And so we were without Fritz, and Wolfe was not taking it well. He had no backup chef that he trusted, and although Rusterman’s made up some of the deficit Wolfe couldn’t bring himself to eat there three times a day. He therefore had to exert himself in the kitchen, and exertion is something that Wolfe avoids except under duress, even for something as close to his heart as good food.
Anyway, what had happened was this: tonight is Monday, the 14th of October, and yesterday night was Sunday, the 13th. It was Theodore’s day off, so he had gone to New Jersey to visit his sister and wouldn’t be back until later that night. Wolfe had decided to dine at Rusterman’s, and I was out dining and dancing with a lovely girl who put the capital “E” in elegant and could hold up her end of a conversation without any prompting at all. Fritz had been feeling a little under the weather, so he stayed home. I guess he must have heard something going on upstairs, because when Wolfe got back from dinner he found Fritz beaten unconscious in the office and signs that someone had been pawing through the books and files. Of course they didn’t find anything important because we keep that stuff locked well away, but that was small comfort.
I arrived home a little before 2:00am to find the place a hornet’s nest of New York City’s finest. Wolfe and Horstmann were both standing out on the sidewalk talking with Purley Stebbins. The thing that worried me wasn’t the crowd of prowlers in the street or the flow of officialdom going in and out the front door, it was that Purley’s expression actually seemed to be one of sympathy towards Wolfe.
Wolfe saw me staring slackjawed at the scene, and roared.
“Archie! Confound it, don’t stand there like a dolt. Are you only just arriving?”
I hurried over to join him and Horstmann. “Yes, I am, and I expect that soon I’ll be wishing I was only just going. What in hell happened?”
“Where were you between 9:00 this evening and around midnight?” said Purley. I guess he hates me well enough that even when he gives Wolfe sympathy he doesn’t have any left over to spread around.
“I’ll answer that, maybe, if I know why it is you’re asking.”
Wolfe answered for him. “Someone broke in. They rifled the office. Apparently Fritz caught them in the act. He’s been taken to hospital.”
I guess I must have looked how I felt—like I had been punched in the gut—because Horstmann immediately said, “He’s probably going to be okay; the doctors said it’s mostly bruises and a mild concussion. They just want to watch him for a bit.”
“So, Goodwin” said Purley, ever the gentleman in times of sorrow, “where were you?”
“You don’t think I made the mess in there and bonked Fritz on the head, do you? That’s a bit of a stretch and a low blow, even for you.”
“Mr Goodwin has a point, Sergeant,” said Wolfe. “What motive would he have? Archie is a valued member of my household and has always been on good terms with Mr Brenner. Surely you know us well enough to understand that.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Purley, “but I gotta ask all the same. It’s procedure. I need to know where you and Horstmann were at that time, too.”
“And I suppose our alibis will be duly checked?” asked Wolfe.
Purley nodded. “That’s procedure, too.”
“Very well,” said Wolfe. “I was dining at Rusterman’s with Marko Vukčić. I left home at approximately 8:30pm and went directly to the restaurant. I returned here at 12:21 and found the front door closed but unlocked. No lights were on. I went into the office and found it in disarray. Mr Brenner was on the floor in front of my desk, beaten unconscious. I ascertained that he was still alive. I phoned for an ambulance, and then for the police.”
“I got home a few minutes after Mr Wolfe,” said Theodore. “I spent the day in New Jersey with my sister. I had been on the 10:03 from Trenton to Penn Station, but it got in very late. I don’t remember the exact time. Then I walked from the station to here.”
Purley scribbled all this down in his little notebook, then looked up at me.
“Okay, I’ll talk. I was at the Flamingo from 9:00pm until 1:00am for dinner and dancing with a lady friend of mine. I saw her home and then came here.”
“You can provide a name and address for your lady friend?” said Purley.
“Sure I can, but the question is will I? I don’t like the suggestion that I would try to rob my employer and then bash one of my best friends on the head.”
“Mr Goodwin will provide you with further information at such time when it becomes necessary, Sergeant,” said Wolfe. “Now, the night is chill, it is very late, and the parade of officers and their assistants through my front door ceased some time ago. Might we be allowed to go to our rest?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Purley. “But I expect you to be ready with that information when we need it.”
“We will provide such information as is legally required of us at such time as it becomes required,” said Wolfe. “Archie, Theodore, come.”
And then the whole seventh of a ton of Wolfe sailed up the front steps and in through the front door, with Horstmann and me in his wake. We shut the door against the cold and the good Sergeant, and left our coats and hats on the rack in the front hallway. There were three of us in the house, but knowing that Fritz was absent and where he was made the place feel terribly empty.
Wolfe took a deep breath, then told Theodore that he could call it a night. I knew better than to expect the same for me, so I headed to the office, opened the door, and switched on a light. Wolfe hadn’t been kidding: the place was tossed, and thoroughly, by someone who was in a hurry, determined to be thorough, and who didn’t care if we noticed what they had been up to.
“See whether anything is missing here,” said Wolfe, “and then report to me. I shall join you presently. I am going to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I don’t expect that the police made any great strides in finding evidence for the culprits, and I don’t want to let this go until morning. Confound it, and in my own house, too. This really is quite intolerable.”
Wolfe stumped off to the kitchen. I knew better than to follow him. He wasn’t just making coffee against the night’s work: he was worried sick about Fritz and needed to spend some time alone in the place that mattered most to the both of them. I don’t think Wolfe is a praying man, but that evening probably came closest to changing that.
Leaving Wolfe to his job, I went to mine. Wolfe wasn’t kidding about thoroughness. Pretty much every book had been taken from the shelves, riffled through, and then tossed aside. Loose papers had been taken out of my desk and out of Wolfe’s, and strewn about the room. They had made an attempt to force the locked drawers, but hadn’t had much joy there, and thankfully they hadn’t found the hidden safe. I suspected they hadn’t found what they were after, but I didn’t want to cut any corners, so I got to work.
Good thing Wolfe makes strong coffee. It was going to be a very, very long night.
No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. This is, indeed, an Avengers story, but since it’s a crossover with Nero Wolfe, I decided to write it (or at least part thereof) in Archie Goodwin’s voice. Because I can. You will just have to wait for A Certain British Secret Agent to make his appearance, which I promise he will do with his usual flair.
For those of you who have not the pleasure of Archie and Nero Wolfe’s acquaintance, you can find out more about them here.