Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 14 - Trouble in Triplicate
Nero Wolfe gives me the creeps. I warn my friends to stay away from him. He is anything but ideal.
He grows those damn flowers, for one thing. They're orchids brought indoors from the nether reaches of the rain forest, as I understand it. In blossom, orchids look like veined slices of flesh, slivers of pale tissue, of muscle limp in humidity. They're fed on feces and filtered sky. Orchids are a rare delicacy when grown indoors in New York City, on the roof of a brownstone on Thirty-fifth Street. I suspect Nero Wolfe of eating them.
Of course, he's always eating. Nero Wolfe is a monster screaming to be fed. The ravenous Wolfe, whose body exists only to be endlessly fed, is the plant from another planet. But which one'Nero Wolfe is also the imperial, if closeted, mind. Rather than bodiless, he has been given a body grown too large, grown to universal uselessness. I think the planet he's from exists within the solar system of our own thought processes. He's the huge embodiment of the human mind.
Locked inside his own Draculan loathing of direct sunlight, of the outdoors (as if exposure would blister him), Nero Wolfe is the mystery reader's brain in a jar. He's a brain with a voice, but a voice of mere reasonings afloat in the solution of crimes.
That's as spooky as it gets. Yessiree, we've got a monster on our hands. Folded inside all that idle flesh is the working metaphor of the working mind. Thought, like tiny bits of light, is brought into the shadowy recesses, absorbed and stored, swollen with the occasional illumination of a blossoming idea. This is spooky stuff in a big way. It gives me chills. And I love it. But I no more want to touch him than I want to drill a hole in my skull and place a fingertip to my pulsing brain. Luckily, I don't have to touch Nero Wolfe to know him. I have Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, to do that for me.
It generally takes reading three Nero Wolfe stories, in any order, before one begins to fully understand what's going on between the mammoth man locked inside the brownstone and his seeming errand boy, likable Archie Goodwin. It is the relationship of these two characters that makes up the heart and soul of Rex Stout's work. I like to think of it as a marriage of men, though I don't always understand how the two of them get along. Archie is normal, after all.
Those who have mistaken Archie Goodwin as mere chronicler, as sounding board; those who have read one or two Nero Wolfe mysteries, by once or twice picking up a book found in a room or on a train, are missing the game. Three doses of Stout and the magic begins. Three doses of Stout, in any order, and Archie takes over as the character of interest.
Archie is Nero Wolfe's sustenance. The immobile genius thrives on the details of Archie Goodwin's activities. And Archie, despite his reluctance at times, is wedded to the eunuch mind inside the boundless bulk of Nero Wolfe.
They need each other. Archie feeds Nero Wolfe precise pieces of reality, facts from the real world outside the prison of Wolfe's brownstone on Thirty-fifth Street, outside the prison of Wolfe's intolerable immobility. Archie tends the monster so that the monster may live.
Why does Archie want him to live'Archie Goodwin's need of Nero Wolfe is less easily defined. Archie, who possesses the complete range of humanity, from red-hot lust to the good humor of sassing the boss, is attracted to the genius of Nero Wolfe. Sometimes it seems that Archie's own sense of justice keeps him feeding the freak. Archie wants the various crimes solved for the benefit of mankind.
Other times, Archie just gets a kick out of showing up the cops. He couldn't do that without Nero Wolfe. Archie gets real satisfaction from Nero Wolfe's successes. Maybe it's an addiction. You'll have to ask him. Maybe it's a trick Nero Wolfe is playing on him. Who wouldn't want to be a vital part of the solution to a mystery'Archie can't break the habit. And Nero Wolfe can't function without Archie. By manipulating him, however, Nero Wolfe controls Archie Goodwin and is thereby himself continuously fed. Like I said, pretty normal stuff for a marriage.
Rex Stout, as an author, can't function without the reader. And the reader is manipulated by being continuously fed. It's frightening, but after three doses of Rex Stout you, too, may be addicted. The fat white spider in the brownstone on Thirty-fifth Street catches another fly.
I caution you not to read this book unless you are prepared to be trapped, unless you are prepared for your own demise. I find Nero Wolfe, the fertile, the fecund mind, troubling, as troubling as I find the dark corners of my own mind.
I can't get away from either one of them.
By reading Trouble in Triplicate you'll be caught up by Archie and the monster mind. You won't escape. There'll be no place to hide.
Trouble in Triplicate is trouble in kind. It requires three stories of brownstone to contain the bulk of Nero Wolfe. If after reading three Nero Wolfe mysteries you are capable of pulling yourself free from the clutches of Rex Stout, you are stronger than most. You are stronger than Archie or I. We're destined to return, to open the door to Nero Wolfe's creepy old brownstone and walk right in for another but never a final time.
That Monday afternoon in October, life indoors was getting to be more than I cared to take. Meaning, by indoors, the office of Nero Wolfe, where I worked, on the ground floor of the house he owned on West Thirty-fifth Street not far from North River. Relief was due soon, since he spent two hours every afternoon, from four to six, with the orchids up in the plant rooms on the roof, but it was still thirty minutes short of four o'clock and I had had all of him I could stand for a while. I wasn't blaming him; I was merely fed up with him. It was smack in the middle of the Great Meat Shortage, when millions of pigs and steers, much to the regret of the growers and slaughterers, had sneaked off and hid in order to sell their lives dear, and to Nero Wolfe a meal without meat was an insult. His temper had got so bad that I had offered to let him eat me, and it would be best to skip his retort. By that Monday afternoon he had got so desperate that he had started taking long walks, as, for instance, back and forth between his chair and the bookshelves, and sometimes even through the door into the front room, which faced on Thirty-fifth Street.
So at three-thirty I told him I was going out for an errand down the street, and he was sunk so far in misery and malice that he didn't even demand to know what the errand was. Then, just as I was reaching for my hat on the rack in the hall, the doorbell rang. I let the hat wait, stepped to the door and opened it, and what I saw jerked my mind loose from the fastenings where it had got glued onto Wolfe's huff. Standing there on the stoop was one of the most obvious articles I had ever looked at. Though the sun had been shining all day and still was, he had on a raincoat, belted tight. His hat, a glossy black felt number, was too small for him, and it looked out of place for the lids of his light gray eyes to be open because his face was embalmed-or, at least, after he had breathed his last and had been embalmed, his face would look exactly the way it looked now. 'Your name's Goodwin,' he told me impolitely, without overexerting any muscles.
'Thanks,' I thanked him. 'How much do I weigh?'
But he was serious-minded. 'Come on out.' He jerked a thumb backwards. 'Guy here in a car wants to see you.'
I pause for character identification, wanting to make it clear that I neither scream with fear nor start pulling the trigger every time I see a stranger with an embalmed face reach in his pocket for a cigarette. But in his long career as a private detective Nero Wolfe has aroused many emotions in many people, some of them tenacious, and since I have been employed by him for over ten years my name is undoubtedly on a few lists along with his. So I told the face to hold it a minute, stepped back inside and swung the door shut, went to the office and across to my desk, opened a drawer and took a gun, and put it in my side coat-pocket, leaving my hand there.
As I was heading back for the hall Wolfe demanded peevishly, 'What is it'A mouse?'
'No, sir,' I said coldly. 'I was asked to descend to the sidewalk to approach a man in a car. The car is at the curb. I recognized the man in it as Dazy Perrit. Since he is one of our most famous citizens I suppose you have heard of him. His latest title is King of the Black Market. He may have formed an opinion, contrary to yours, that I would be good broiled.'
I went. Outdoors on the stoop, after shutting the door and hearing the lock click, I took my hand from my pocket to show the face what was in it, put it back in the pocket, descended the steps to the sidewalk, and crossed to the car, a big black sedan. The man inside cranked the window down.
From behind my right shoulder a voice was saying, 'He's got his hand on a gun in his pocket.'
'Then he's damn silly,' the man in the car said through the window, 'to let you behind him.'
'Huh-uh.' I looked through at Dazy Perrit. It all depended on the conversation. 'Mr. Wolfe knows you're here. What do you want?'
'I want to see Wolfe.'
I shook my head. 'Nope.' I was ignoring the hired man. This was the closest I had ever been to Dazy Perrit. To most people he would have seemed a big fat man, but to me, used as I was to the magnitude of Nero Wolfe, he was merely rounded out. His face, smooth and shaved to the pink, was too big for his nose and mouth, but that was unimportant on account of the eyes. Everything he had done and might do was in his black eyes.
'Nope,' I said. 'I told you on the phone this morning that Mr. Wolfe is too busy to see you. He's got more work than he can handle now.'
'I intend to see him. Go in and tell him.'
'Lookit, mister.' I put an elbow on the window sill and leaned in to him. 'Don't think I'm laughing you off. People who laugh you off are apt to show up soon at a funeral, playing the lead. Okay. But neither am I asking any favors. Whatever you have in mind, and you're being pretty damn stubborn about it, Mr. Wolfe wants no part of it. That may make you sore, which would be a pity and should be avoided if possible, but not half as sore as you would be if you rolled something out in front of him and let him look and then he didn't like it. That would be really bad, either for him or for you, and don't be too sure-'
It was a bellow from my right rear. I straightened and wheeled, and saw the upper half of Wolfe filling the space left by a window he had opened-the rear window of the front room.
He bellowed again, 'What does Mr. Perrit want?'
'Nothing,' I called. 'He just stopped by-'
'He wants to see you,' the face put in.
'Then confound it, Archie, bring him in here!'
'Bring him in!'
The window banged shut and Wolfe was gone. The face looked searchingly up and down the street, and across, then reached past me to open the door of the car, and Dazy Perrit climbed out.
1. Before I Die. I
I decided I didn't know as much about underworld royalty as I thought I did.
Surely the thing would have been for the hired man to come along, watching for treachery in all directions at once, but Dazy Perrit told him to stay by the car and entered the house alone with me. Two paces inside the office he stopped to make a survey, probably merely through force of habit, like a veteran general playing golf on a strange course automatically picking out the best spots to place artillery units or hide his tanks. I walked on past him and sat down at my desk, warning myself not to underestimate his potentialities just because he was six inches shorter than me. I was too sore at Wolfe to speak. 'Be seated, sir,' Wolfe said graciously.
Perrit had finished surveying the premises and was surveying Wolfe. After five seconds he spoke as if he were a little irritated. 'I don't like it in here. I've got something private for you. Come out and sit in my car.'
I was really on edge because I was sure Wolfe would make himself obnoxious, and getting obnoxious with Dazy Perrit simply had no percentage. But Wolfe said, 'My dear sir,' and chuckled in a friendly manner. 'I rarely leave my house. I do like it here. I would be an idiot to leave this chair, made to fit me-'
'I know, I know,' Perrit said impatiently. He aimed the black eyes at me. 'You go out and sit in my car.'
'No, sir,' Wolfe said emphatically. 'Do be seated. That red leather chair is the best one. I do nothing without Mr. Goodwin. If you confided in me, no matter what, under a pledge of confidence, I would tell it all to him as soon as you left.'
'You might make exceptions. I might be a good exception to start with.'
'No, sir.' Wolfe was courteous but firm. 'Sit down, Mr. Perrit. Even if you decide against trusting secrets to Mr. Goodwin and me, there's a little matter I'd like to discuss with you.'
Perrit was no hemmer and hawer. He took three steps to the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe's desk, lowered himself into it, and asked, 'What do you want to discuss?'
'Well.' Wolfe's eyes went half shut. 'In my own field I am an expert, and I sell expert information, advice, and services. I am not intimately acquainted with your activities, but I understand that you are also an expert-uh, in a different field. Presumably you know where certain things are and how they may be got. I am on the whole a respectable and virtuous citizen, but like everyone else I have my smudges. Where is some meat?'
'Oh.' Perrit sounded chilly. 'Maybe I've got you lined up wrong. You want a slice of the meat racket?'
'No. I want slices of beef and pork. I want some meat to eat. Lamb. Veal.'
So that was it. I gazed at my boss in bitter disgust. He had lost all sense of proportion. For the sake of making a wild grab for a rib roast, he had left his chair, walked clear to the front room, opened a window, and invited the most deadly specimen between the Battery and Yonkers into his house. 'Oh,' Perrit said, not so cool, 'you're just hungry.'
'Yes, I am.'
'That's too bad. I'm not a butcher and I'm not a retailer. In fact I'm not in meat at all. But I'll see-' He broke it off and looked at me as if I was the butler. 'Ring Lincoln six-three two three two, between seven and ten in the morning and ask for Tom and use my name.'
'Thank you, sir.' Wolfe was as sweet as stick candy. 'I assure you this is appreciated. Now for your own business. Mr. Goodwin told you on the phone this morning that I was too busy to see you. Of course that was flummery. What was in his mind was that while the occupational hazards are relatively high in the detective business, in your business-that is to say, in any activity connected with you-they are substantially higher, and a combination of the two would be inadvisable. I must admit, regretfully, that I agree with him. It would be foolish for you to entrust me with secrets only to be told that I can't undertake a job for you, so I tell you in advance. I'm sorry.'
'I need help,' Perrit said.
'Doubtless, or you wouldn't have-'
'I don't often need help. When I do I get the best there is. I like everything the best. For what I need now, I've picked you as the best. I pay for what I get.' Perrit took from his breast pocket a neat little stack of bills, unfolded, held with a rubber band, and tossed it onto Wolfe's desk. 'Fifty Cs. Five grand. That will do for a start. I'm being blackmailed and your job is to stop it.' I goggled at him. The idea of Dazy Perrit being pestered by a blackmailer was about the same as Billy Sunday being pestered by an evangelist trying to convert him.
'But I've told you, Mr. Per-'
'I'm being blackmailed by my daughter. That's one thing nobody in the world knows except me, and now you and this man of yours. Here's another thing, and this is even more particular. This is very particular. I wouldn't tell it to my mother even if I still had one, but I need help. My daughter is-'
Dazy Perrit was not easy to stop, but I made it positive enough to stop him. I was out of my chair, standing in front of him. 'I want to warn you,' I told his eyes, 'that Mr. Wolfe is fully as stubborn as you are. This is damn dangerous for all concerned. He's told you he doesn't want to hear it, and neither do I!'
I turned savagely to Wolfe. 'Good God, what's wrong with spaghetti and cheese?'
I picked up the stack of bills and stuck them out at Perrit.
He ignored it. His eyes hadn't even shifted to me. He went on to Wolfe, 'The particular thing is that my daughter isn't really my daughter-the one that's blackmailing me, I mean. Now you know that too, you and this man. I said that nobody else in the world knows it, but she does. I have got a daughter, born in nineteen twenty-five, twenty-one years ago. She'll be twenty-one next month, November eighth. There's a job for you to do with her too. What's up?'
'You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Perrit.' Wolfe had glanced at the wall clock, pushed his chair back from the desk, and was manipulating his bulk upright. He moved from behind the desk and then stopped, because Perrit, also on his feet, was standing square in his path.
'Where you going?' Perrit asked in a tone which implied that no conceivable answer would be acceptable. I stood up too, my hand leaving my pocket with the gun in it-that is, in my hand. That may strike some as corny, but it was instinctive and the instinct was sound. I got around town some and was fairly well informed, and so far as I knew no serious argument with Dazy Perrit had ever been settled with any tool but a gun; and up to then Perrit had done all the settling, either personally or by staff work. With what he had already spilled I could see nothing ahead but one fine mess, and I still believe, corn or no corn, that if he had so much as poked a finger at Wolfe's central bulge I would have dropped him.
But Wolfe said, unperturbed, 'I always spend from four to six upstairs with my plants. Always. If you insist on confiding your troubles to me, tell Mr. Goodwin about it. I'll phone you this evening or in the morning.' The point was settled, not with words, but with eyes. Wolfe's eyes won. Perrit moved a step to the right. Wolfe went on by and out, and a moment later the bang of the door on his personal elevator sounded.
Perrit sat down and told me, 'You're crazy. Both of you. What's that thing in your hand for'Crazy as bedbugs.'
I put the gun on the desk and heaved a sigh. 'Okay, tell me about it.'