Authors: Rex Stout
Also there had been nothing doing for more than a week, since we had cleaned up the Brigham forgery case, and my mind needed exercise as much as my legs and lungs, so walking crosstown and back I figured out
what was in the package. After discarding a dozen guesses that didn’t appeal to me I decided it was the Hope diamond. The one that had been sent to Washington was a phony. I was still working on various details, such as Hattie Annis’s real name and station and how she had got hold of it, on the last stretch approaching the old brownstone, and therefore got nearly to the stoop before I saw that it was occupied. Perched on the top step was exactly the kind of female Wolfe expects to see when I talk him into seeing one. The right age, the right face, the right legs—what showed of them below the edge of her fur coat. The coat was not mink or sable. As I started to mount she got up.
“Well,” she said. “A grand idea, this outdoor waiting room, but there ought to be magazines.”
I reached her level. The top of her fuzzy little turban was even with my nose. “I suppose you rang?” I asked.
“I did. And was told through a crack that Mr. Wolfe was engaged and Mr. Goodwin was out. Mr. Goodwin, I presume?”
“Right.” I had my key ring out. “I’ll bring some magazines. Which ones do you like?”
“Let’s go in and look them over.”
Wolfe wouldn’t be down for more than half an hour, and it would be interesting to know what she was selling, so I used the key on the door and swung it open. When I had disposed of my hat and coat on the hall rack I ushered her to the office, moved one of the yellow chairs up for her, and went to my desk and sat.
“We have no vacancies at the moment,” I said, “but you can leave your number. Don’t call us, we’ll call—”
“That’s pretty corny,” she said. She had thrown her coat open to drape it over the back of the chair, revealing other personal details that went fine with the face and legs.
“Okay,” I conceded. “It’s your turn.”
“My name is Tammy Baxter. Short for Tamiris. I haven’t decided yet which one to use on a theater program when the time comes. What do you think, Tammy or Tamiris?”
“It would depend on the part. If it’s the lead in a musical, Tammy. If it packs some weight, O’Neill for instance, Tamiris.”
“It’s more apt to be a girl at one of the tables in the night-club scene. The one who jumps up and says, ‘Come on, Bill, let’s get out of here.’ That’s her big line.” She fluttered a gloved hand. “Oh, well. What do you care? Why don’t you ask me what I want?”
“I’m putting it off because I may not have it.”
“That’s nice. I like that. That’s a good line, only you threw it away. There should be a pause after ‘off.’ ‘I’m putting it off … because I may not have it.’ Try it again.”
“Nuts. I said it the way I felt it. You actresses are all alike. I was getting a sociable feeling about you and look what you’ve done to it. What do you want?”
She laughed a little ripple. “I’m not an actress, I’m only going to be. I don’t want anything much, just to ask about my landlady, Miss Annis—Hattie Annis. Has she been here?”
I raised a brow. “Here? When?”
“I’ll ask.” I turned my head and sang out, “Fritz!” and when he appeared, in the doorway to the hall, I inquired, “Did anyone besides this lady come while I was out?”
“No, sir.” He always sirs me when there is company, and I can’t make him stop.
“Any phone calls?”
“Okay. Thank you, sir.” He went, and I told Tammy or Tamiris, “Apparently not. You say your landlady?”
She nodded. “That’s funny.”
“Why, did you tell her to come?”
“No, she told me. She said she was going to take something—she was going to see Nero Wolfe about something. She wouldn’t say what, and after she left I began to worry about her. She never got here?”
“You heard what Fritz said. Why should you worry?”
“You would too if you knew her. She almost never
leaves the house, and she never goes more than a block away. She’s not a loony, really, but she’s not quite all there, and I should have come with her. We all feel responsible for her. Her house is an awful dump, but anybody in show business, or even trying to be, can have a room for five dollars a week, and it doesn’t have to be every week. So we feel responsible. I certainly hope—” She stood up, letting it hang. “If she comes will you phone me?”
“Sure.” She gave me the number and I jotted it down, and then went to hold her coat. My feelings were mixed. It would have been a pleasure to relieve her mind, but of what? What if her real worry was about the Hope diamond, which she had had under her mattress, and she knew or suspected that Hattie Annis had snitched it? I would have liked to put her in the front room, supplied with magazines, to wait until her landlady arrived, but you can’t afford to be sentimental when the fate of a million-dollar diamond is at stake, so I let her go. Another consideration was that it would be enough of a job to sell Wolfe on seeing Hattie Annis without also accounting for the presence of another female in the front room. He can stand having one woman under his roof temporarily if he has to, but not two at once.
At eleven o’clock on the nose the sound of the elevator came, and its usual clang as it jolted to a stop at the bottom, and he entered, told me good morning, went to his desk, got his seventh of a ton deposited in the oversized custom-built chair, fingered through the mail, glanced at his desk calendar, and spoke.
“No check from Brigham?”
“Yes, sir, it came.” I swiveled to face him. “Without comment. I took it to the bank. Also my weakness has cropped up again, but with a new slant.”
He grunted. “Which weakness?”
“Women. One came, a stranger, and I told her to come back at eleven-fifteen. The trouble is, she’s a type that never appealed to me before. I hope to goodness my taste hasn’t shifted. I want your opinion.”
“No, sir. It’s a real problem. Wait till you see her.”
“I’m not going to see her.”
“Then I’m stuck. She has a strange fascination. Nobody believes in witches casting spells any more. I certainly don’t, but I don’t know. As for what she wants to see you about, that’s simple. She has got something that she thinks is good for a reward, and she’s coming to you instead of the police because she hates cops. I don’t know what it is or where she got it. That part’s easy, you can deal with that in two minutes, but what about me? Have I got a screw loose?”
“Yes.” He picked up the top item from the little pile of mail, an airmail letter from an orchid hunter in Venezuela, and started to read it. I swung my chair around and started sharpening pencils that didn’t need it. The noise of the sharpener gets on his nerves. I was on the fourth pencil when his voice came.
“Stop that,” he growled. “A witch?”
“She must be.”
“I’ll give her two minutes.”
You can appreciate what I had accomplished only if you know how allergic he is to strangers, especially women, and how much he hates to work, especially when a respectable check has just been deposited. Besides that satisfaction I had something to look forward to, seeing his expression when I escorted Hattie Annis in. I thought I might as well go and retrieve the package from under the couch and put it in my desk drawer, but vetoed it. It could stay put till she came. Wolfe finished the letter from the orchid hunter and started on a circular from a manufacturer of an automatic humidifier.
Eleven-seventeen and the bell didn’t ring. At 11:20 Wolfe looked up to say that he had some letters to give me but didn’t like to be interrupted, and I said neither did I. At 11:25 he got up and went to the kitchen, probably to sample the chestnut soup, in which he and Fritz had decided to include tarragon for the first time. At 11:30 I went to the front room and got the package. Nuts to her, if she couldn’t be punctual for an appointment.
She would get her package back, at the door, and that would be all. I was straightening up after fishing it from under the couch when the bell rang, and had it in my hand when I went to the hall.
It was her all right, but through the one-way glass panel I noticed a couple of changes as I stepped to the door: there was a button on her coat where one had been been missing, and her face needed washing even more than it had before. Her whole right cheek was a dark smudge. Touched by the button, I decided to hear her excuse for being late, if any, but as I opened the door she collapsed. No moan, no sound at all, she just crumpled. I jumped and grabbed her, so she didn’t go clear down, but she was out, dead weight. I tightened my right arm around her to free my left to toss the package into the hall and then gathered her up, crossed the sill, and kicked the door shut.
As I was turning to the front room Wolfe’s voice came. “What the devil is that?”
“A woman,” I said, and kept going. On her feet I would have guessed her at not more than a hundred and fifteen pounds, but loose and sagging she was a good deal heavier. I put her on the couch, on her back, straightened her legs, and took a look. She was breathing shallow, but no gasping. I slipped a hand under her middle and lifted, and stuffed a couple of cushions beneath her hips. As I took her wrist and put a finger on her pulse Wolfe’s voice came at my back.
“Get Doctor Vollmer.”
I turned my head. He had meant it for Fritz, who had appeared at the door. “Hold it,” I said. “I think she just fainted.”
“Nonsense,” Wolfe snapped. “Women do not faint.”
I had heard that one before. His basis for it was not medical but personal; he is convinced that unless she has a really good excuse, like being slugged with a club, any woman who passes out is merely putting on an act—a subhead under his fundamental principle that every woman is always putting on an act. Ignoring it, I checked her pulse, which was weak and slow but not too
bad, asked Fritz to bring my overcoat and open a window, and went to the lavatory for the smelling salts. I was waving the bottle under her nose and Fritz was spreading the coat over her when her eyes opened. She blinked at me and started to lift her head, and I put my hand on her brow.
“I know you,” she said, barely audible. “I must have made it.”
“Only to the door,” I told her. “You flopped on the stoop and I carried you in. Lie still. Shut your eyes and catch up on your breathing.”
“Brandy?” Fritz asked me.
“I don’t like brandy,” she said.
“I don’t like tea. Where’s my bag?”
“Coffee,” I told Fritz. “She must like something.” He went. Wolfe had disappeared. “Sniff this,” I told her, handing her the bottle, and went to the hall. The package was over by the rack, and her handbag was on the floor near the wall. I didn’t know how it got there, and I still don’t, but since I reject Wolfe’s fundamental principle I assume that a fainting woman can hang onto something. Returning to the patient, I was just in time to keep her from rolling off the couch. She was trying to pull the cushions out from under her middle. When I put a hand on her shoulder she protested, “Pillows are for heads, Buster. Can’t you tell my head from my fanny? Give me the bag.”
I handed it to her and she turned onto her side, propping on her elbow, to open it. Apparently her concern was for a particular item, for after a brief glance inside she was closing it, but I said, “Here, put this in,” and offered the package.
She didn’t take it. “So I’m still alive,” she said. “I’m froze stiff, but I’m alive. Don’t Nero Wolfe believe in heat?”
“It’s seventy in here,” I told her. “When you faint your blood does something. Here’s your package.”
“Did you open it?”
“I knew you wouldn’t. I’m still dizzy.” Her head went back down. “You’re such a detective, maybe you can tell me what he was going to do if he killed me. He would have had to stop the car and get out to get the bag. Wouldn’t he?”
“I should think so. If it was the bag he wanted.”
“Of course it was.” She took a deep breath, and another. “He thought the package was in it. Anyhow, it was your fault I was there, what you said about the button. I’ve been intending to sew that button on for a month, and when you said to have one put on and charge it to you, that was too much. I hadn’t done anything about my clothes on account of a man for twenty years, and here was a man offering to buy me a button. So I went home and sewed it on.”
She stopped to breathe. I stuck the package in my pocket. “Where is home?” I asked.
“Forty-seventh Street. Between Eighth and Ninth. So that’s why I was there, but you keep your head, Buster. Don’t offer to buy me some hair dye. When I left I was going to take a Ninth Avenue bus to come back here, and walking along Forty-seventh Street the car came on the sidewalk behind me and hit me here.” She touched her right hip. “Bumping up over the curb must have spoiled his aim. It didn’t hit me hard enough to knock me down, so I must have stumbled when I jumped. Anyhow I fell, and I must have rolled over more than once because I was walking near the curb and I came against a building. Is that Nero Wolfe?”
The door to the office had opened and Wolfe was there, scowling at us. I told her yes, and told him. “Miss Hattie Annis. She’s telling me why she was late for her appointment. She went to her house on Forty-seventh Street, and coming back a car climbed the curb and hit her. I know there’s no chair here big enough for you, but she ought to stay flat a little longer.”
“I am capable of standing for two minutes,” he said stiffly.
“You don’t look it,” Hattie said. “You would do fine for Falstaff.”
“Finish it,” I told her. “And the car went on?”
“It must have. When I got up it was gone. A man and a woman helped me up, and another man stopped, but nothing was broke and I could walk. So I walked. I didn’t want to try climbing on a bus. I kept in close to the buildings, and I stopped to rest about every block, and the last two blocks I didn’t think I would make it, but I did. How did you know I was there if I fainted?”
“You rang the bell. I caught you before you hit bottom.”
“And you carried me in and I missed it. Carried by a man and didn’t know it. What’s life up to?”
Wolfe came in a step. “Madam. I told Mr. Goodwin I would give you two minutes.”