Read The Golden Spiders Online

Authors: Rex Stout

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #General, #Political, #Private Investigators, #Wolfe, #Nero (Fictitious character), #New York (N.Y.), #Crime, #Goodwin, #Archie (Fictitious character), #Private Investigators - New York (State) - New York

The Golden Spiders

BOOK: The Golden Spiders
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Rex Stout

The Golden Spiders

Introduction

My library owes no debt to Mr. Dewey’s decimals, none to alphabetical order. The Nero Wolfe novels are shelved among “books of comfort,” which I loosely define as novels riveting enough to hold my attention in the dreaded dentist’s chair, yet never filled with onstage gore. Reading a Nero Wolfe is akin to visiting the home of an old friend or returning to the same inn on Cape Cod each year, nodding in delight at the familiar star-patterned quilt on the same canopied bed in the usual room, finding the idyllic view from the patio unchanged, unspoiled.

During stressful times I’ve devoured the Wolfe novels, charging so briskly through the canon that many of the titles seem interchangeable. Caught without reading material in an airport, I have, more than once, purchased a title I already own, only to discover the error at ten thousand feet. I’ll cheerfully reread a Wolfe novel for the fourth or fifth time rather than resort to an airline magazine.

What should the reader expect from a Nero Wolfe novel-besides superb plotting, well-developed main characters, and crisp prose?

A quick summary of the house rules:

At 325 West Thirty-fifth Street, Wolfe devotes the hours of 9 to 11 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. to the cultivation and propagation of orchids.

Theodore Horstmann, gardener par excellence, supervises Wolfe’s participation in the above.

Fritz prepares outstanding cuisine.

No interruptions are allowed during meals; conversation is encouraged.

All guests and clients are offered refreshment.

Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s stalwart assistant, answers the door. He is available for a wisecrack. He’ll punch a bad guy in the jaw. He’ll dance with a woman if she’s on the “right” side of thirty, and he can samba and rumba with the best.

Other than a well-heeled widow or two (clients), murderesses (surely more than statistically justifiable), and the occasionally glimpsed Lily Rowan, (whose name combines both flower and tree; perhaps she should be kept in the potting shed),
no women are allowed
within the all-male clubhouse on West Thirty-fifth. They are not even to be included among the cleaning crew. The entire gender is suspect and illogical. Each and every one might burst into tears, which would be
intolerable
!

Since the maintenance of the brownstone requires a substantial monthly outlay of cash, Nero Wolfe uses his Holmesian powers of observation and deduction to solve crimes that have baffled, or will soon baffle, the New York police force.

The Golden Spiders
is atypical Stout, atypical Wolfe, and as such I take particular delight in introducing it to both devoted fans and new readers. The novel begins with humor, involves a child, and contains a personal element of vengeance. All rarities.

The opening of a Nero Wolfe novel is usually a set piece, a ritualistic “feather-duster” scene, containing the obligatory paragraphs defining Fritz’s and Theodore’s roles in the Thirty-fifth Street menage as well as a description of the red leather chair and the immense globe in Wolfe’s spacious book-lined office.

As practiced by Rex Stout, the consummate pro, the detective novel generally begins with the client’s initial visit, scheduled well within Wolfe’s carefully prescribed hours. The client sits in the red leather chair. The client may be telling the truth; the client may be lying. If the client has sufficient financial assets, Wolfe takes the case.

The Golden Spiders
starts in the kitchen with a fit of Wolfian petulance brought on by a disagreement over the proper preparation of starlings. Archie, amused by Wolfe’s childish behavior, invites a child, a neighborhood tough who’d never ordinarily be admitted to Wolfe’s presence, much less considered as a client, to join Wolfe at the table, shattering precedent and rules alike.

Archie’s playfulness has terrible consequences.

We accept that the writer of amateur-sleuth detective novels has a built-in credibility problem. Why does our hardworking chef, writer, or actor keep stumbling over those unpleasant corpses? Why doesn’t the chef, writer, or actor behave in a normal fashion, i.e., call the police and leave the investigation to them? It’s less obvious that the writer of the professional detective series has her or his motivational problems as well. How does the detective become personally involved in each case? A fictional detective is not a neurosurgeon, for whom emotional detachment might be considered a plus. If she or he is to grasp and hold the reader, even the most curmudgeonly detective must find a reason beyond the check at the rainbow’s end to pursue a case to its conclusion. Generally, it’s Archie, our Everyman on a good day, who provides this sympathy, this bond. Rarely does Wolfe become engaged, much less enraged, by the crime in question.

Wolfe hates interruptions during meals. He dislikes children. He abhors deviations from his schedule. All of these indignities are heaped upon him in
The Golden Spiders
. They grate. They affect his appetite. They cause him to accept a retainer of four dollars and thirty cents from-horrors!-a teary-eyed woman.

They do my heart good.

I have loved and read these books all my life, and yet I rub my hands in secret satisfaction.

Let the old misogynist suffer.

Linda Barnes

June 1994

Chapter 1

When the doorbell rings while Nero Wolfe and I are at dinner, in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, ordinarily it is left to Fritz to answer it. But that evening I went myself, knowing that Fritz was in no mood to handle a caller, no matter who it was.

Fritz’s mood should be explained. Each year around the middle of May, by arrangement, a farmer who lives up near Brewster shoots eighteen or twenty starlings, puts them in a bag, and gets in his car and drives to New York. It is understood that they are to be delivered to our door within two hours after they were winged. Fritz dresses them and sprinkles them with salt, and, at the proper moment, brushes them with melted butter, wraps them in sage leaves, grills them, and arranges them on a platter of hot polenta, which is thick porridge of fine-ground yellow cornmeal with butter, grated cheese, and salt and pepper.

It is an expensive meal and a happy one, and Wolfe always looks forward to it, but that day he put on an exhibition. When the platter was brought in, steaming, and placed before him, he sniffed, ducked his head and sniffed again, and straightened to look up at Fritz.

“The sage?”

“No, sir.”

“What do you mean, no, sir?”

“I thought you might like it once in a style I have suggested, with saffron and tarragon. Much fresh tarragon, with just a touch of saffron, which is the way-”

“Remove it!”

Fritz went rigid and his lips tightened.

“You did not consult me,” Wolfe said coldly. “To find that without warning one of my favorite dishes has been radically altered is an unpleasant shock. It may possibly be edible, but I am in no humor to risk it. Please dispose of it and bring me four coddled eggs and a piece of toast.”

Fritz, knowing Wolfe as well as I did, aware that this was a stroke of discipline that hurt Wolfe more than it did him and that it would be useless to try to parley, reached for the platter, but I put in, “I’ll take some if you don’t mind. If the smell won’t keep you from enjoying your eggs?”

Wolfe glared at me.

That was how Fritz acquired the mood that made me think it advisable for me to answer the door. When the bell rang Wolfe had finished his eggs and was drinking coffee, really a pitiful sight, and I was toward the end of a second helping of the starlings and polenta, which was certainly edible. Going to the hall and the front, I didn’t bother to snap the light switch because there was still enough twilight for me to see, through the one-way glass panel, that the customer on the stoop was not our ship coming in.

I pulled the door open and told him politely, “Wrong number.”

I was polite by policy, my established policy of promoting the idea of peace on earth with the neighborhood kids. It made life smoother in that street, where there was a fair amount of ball throwing and other activities.

“Guess again,” he told me in a low nervous alto, not too rude. “You’re Archie Goodwin. I’ve gotta see Nero Wolfe.”

“What’s your name?”

“Pete.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“Drossos. Pete Drossos.”

“What do you want to see Mr. Wolfe about?”

“I gotta case. I’ll tell him.”

He was a wiry little specimen with black hair that needed a trim and sharp black eyes, the top of his head coming about level with the knot of my four-in-hand. I had seen him around the neighborhood but had nothing either for or against him. The thing was to ease him off without starting a feud, and ordinarily I would have gone at it, but after Wolfe’s childish performance with Fritz I thought it would do him good to have another child to play with. Naturally he would snarl and snap, but if Pete got scratched I could salve him afterward. So I invited him in and escorted him to the dining room.

Wolfe was refilling his coffee cup. He shot a glance at Pete, who I admit was not dressed up, put the pot down, looked straight at me, and spoke.

“Archie. I will not have interruptions at meals.”

I nodded sympathetically. “I know, but this wasn’t a meal. Call eggs a meal? This is Mr. Peter Drossos. He wants to consult you about a case. I was going to tell him you’re busy, but I remembered you got sore because Fritz didn’t consult you, and I didn’t want you to get sore at Pete too. He’s a neighbor of ours, and you know, love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Ragging Wolfe is always a gamble. A quick reflex explosion may split the air; but if it doesn’t, if he takes a second for a look at it, you’re apt to find yourself topped. That time he took several seconds, sipping coffee, and then addressed our caller courteously. “Sit down, Mr. Drossos.”

“I’m not mister, I’m Pete.”

“Very well, Pete, sit down. Turn more to face me, please. Thank you. You wish to consult me?”

“Yeah, I gotta case.”

“I always welcome a case, but the timing is a little unfortunate because Mr. Goodwin was going out this evening to see a billiard match, and now of course he will have to stay here to take down all that you say and all that I say. Archie, get your notebook, please?”

As I said, it’s always a gamble. He had his thumb in my eye. I went across the hall to the office for a notebook and pen, and when I returned Fritz was there with coffee for me and cookies and a bottle of Coke for Pete. I said nothing. My pen and notebook would do the recording almost automatically, needing about a fifth of my brain, and I would see the rest of it devising plans for getting from under.

Pete was talking. “I guess it’s okay him taking it down, but I gotta watch my end. This is strictly under the lid.”

“If you mean it’s confidential, certainly.”

“Then I’ll spill it. I know there’s some private eyes you can’t open up to, but you’re different. We know all about you around here. I know how you feel about the lousy cops, just like I do. So I’ll lay it out.”

“Please do.”

“Okay. What time is it?”

I looked at my wrist watch. “Ten to eight.”

“Then it happened an hour ago. I know sometimes everything hangs on the time element, and right after it happened I went and looked at the clock in the drugstore near the corner, and it was a quarter to seven. I was working the wipe racket there at the corner of Thirty-fifth and Ninth, and a Caddy stopped-”

“Please. What’s the wipe racket?”

“Why, you know, a car stops for the light and you hop to it with a rag and start wiping the window, and if it’s a man and he lets you go on to the windshield you’ve got him for at least a dime. If it’s a woman and she lets you go on, maybe you’ve got her and maybe not. That’s a chance you take. Well, this Caddy stopped-”

“What’s a Caddy?”

From the look that appeared in the sharp black eyes, Pete was beginning to suspect that he had picked the wrong private eye. I cut in to show him that anyhow one of us wasn’t a moron, telling Wolfe, “A Cadillac automobile.”

“I see. It stopped?”

“Yeah, for the light. I went for the window by the driver. It was a woman. She turned her face around to me to look straight at me and she said something. I don’t think she made any sound, or anyway if she did I didn’t hear anything through the window because it was up nearly to the top, but she worked her lips with it and I could tell what it was. She said, ‘Help. Get a cop.’ Like this, look.”

He made the words with his lips, overdoing it some, without producing any noise. Wolfe nodded appreciatively. He turned to me. “Archie. Make a sketch of Pete’s mouth doing that pantomime.”

“Later,” I said obligingly. “After you’ve gone to bed.”

“It was plain as it could be,” Pete went on. “‘Help, get a cop.’ It hit me, it sure did. I tried to keep my face deadpan, I knew that was the way to take it, but I guess I didn’t, because the man was looking at me and he-”

“Where was the man?”

“There on the seat with her. There was just them two in the car. I guess he saw by my face something had hit me, because he jabbed the gun against her harder and she jerked her head around-”

“Did you see the gun?”

“No, but I’m not a dope, am I? What else would make her want a cop and then jerk her head like that? What do you think it was, a lead pencil?”

“I prefer the gun. And then?”

“I backed up a little. All I had was a piece of rag, and him with a six gun. Now this next part-don’t get me wrong, I got no use for cops. I feel about cops just like you. But it happened so quick I didn’t realize just what I was doing, and I admit I looked around for a cop. I didn’t see one, so I hopped to the sidewalk to see around the corner, and by the time I looked again the light had changed, and there went the car. I tried to flag another car to trail it, but nobody would stop. I thought I might catch it at Eighth Avenue and ran as fast as I could down Thirty-fifth, but it hit a green light at Eighth and went on through when I was only halfway there. But I got the license number.”

He reached in his pants pocket, pulled out a little scrap of paper, and read from it: “Connecticut, Y,Y, nine, four, three, two.”

“Excellent.” Wolfe returned his empty cup to the saucer. “Have you given that to the police?”

“Me?” Pete was scornful. “The cops? Look, am I screwy? I go to the precinct and tell a flattie, or even say I get to a sarge and tell him, and what? First he don’t believe me and then he chases me and then I’m marked. It don’t hurt
you
to be marked, because you’re a private eye with a license and you’ve got something on a lot of inspectors.”

“I have? What?”

“Don’t ask me. But everybody knows you’re loaded with dirt on some big boys or you’d have been rubbed out long ago. But a kid like me can’t risk it to be marked even if I’m straight. I hate cops, but you don’t have to be a crook to hate cops. I keep telling my mother I’m straight, and I am straight, but I’m telling you it takes a lot of guts. What do you think of this case I got?”

Wolfe considered. “It seems a little-uh-hazy.”

“Yeah, that’s why I came to you. I went to a place I go to when I want to think, and I went all over it. I saw it was a swell case if I handled it right. The car was a Caddy, a dark gray fifty-two Caddy. The man looked mean, but he looked like dough, he looked like he might have two or three more Caddies. The woman did too. She wasn’t as old as my mother, but I guess I can’t go by that because my mother has done a lot of hard work, and I bet she never did work. She had a scratch on her face, on her left cheek, and her face was all twisted saying that to me, ‘Help, get a cop’; but, thinking it over, I decided she was a good-looker. She had big gold spiders for earrings, spiders with their legs stretched out. Pure gold.”

Wolfe grunted.

“Okay,” Pete conceded, “they looked like gold. They wasn’t brass. Anyhow, the whole layout said dough, and what I was thinking went like this: I got a case with people with dough, and how do I handle it so I’ll get some? There might be up to fifty dollars in it if I handle it right. If he kills her I can identify him and get the reward. I can tell what she said to me and how he jabbed the gun in her-”

“You didn’t see a gun.”

“That’s a detail. If he didn’t kill her, if he just made her do something or tell him something or give him something, I can go and put it up to him, either he comes across with fifty bucks, or maybe a hundred, or I hang it on him.”

“That would be blackmail.”

“Okay.” Pete brushed cookie crumbs from his fingers onto the tray. “That’s why I decided I had to see you after I thought it over. I saw I couldn’t handle it alone and I’d have to cut you in, but you understand it’s my case. Maybe you think I was a sap to tell you that license number before we made a deal, but I don’t. If you get onto him and corner him and try to cross me and hog it, I’ll still have to identify him, so it will be up to me. If blackmail’s out, you can figure it so it’s not blackmail. What do you say we split fifty-fifty?”

“I’ll tell you, Pete.” Wolfe pushed his chair back and got his bulk comfortably settled in a new position. “If we are to join hands on your case I think I should tell you a few things about the science and art of detection. Mr. Goodwin will of course take it down, and when he types it he will make a copy for you. But first he’ll make a phone call. Archie, you have that license number. Call Mr. Cramer’s office and give them that number. Say that you have information that that car, or its owner or operator, may have been involved in a violation of a law in this city in the past two hours, and suggest a routine check. Do not be more definite. Say that our information is unverified and inquiry should be discreet.”

BOOK: The Golden Spiders
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