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Authors: Rex Stout

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“Okay,” I told her, “I’ll see what I can do,” and stepped aside for her to enter. After taking her coat and hanging it on the rack and escorting her to the office, I gave her one of the yellow chairs near me instead of the red leather one at the end of Wolfe’s desk. She sat with her back straight and her feet together—nice little feet in fairly sensible gray shoes. I told her that Wolfe wouldn’t be available until six o’clock.

“It will be better,” I said, “if I see him first and tell him about you. In fact, it will be essential. My name is Archie Goodwin. What is yours?”

“I know about you,” she said. “Of course. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.”

“Many thanks. Some people who know about me have a different reaction. And your name?”

She was eyeing me. “I’d rather not,” she said, “until I know if Mr. Wolfe will take my case. It’s private. It’s very confidential.”

I shook my head. “No go. You’ll have to tell him what your case is before he decides if he’ll take it, and I’ll be sitting here listening. So? Also I’ll have to tell him more about you than you’re thirty-five years old, weigh a hundred and twenty pounds, and wear no earrings, before he decides if he’ll even see you.”

She almost smiled. “I’m forty-two.”

I grinned. “See? I need facts. Who you are and what you want.”

Her mouth worked. “It’s
very
confidential.” Her mouth worked some more. “But there was no sense in coming unless I tell you.”

“Right.”

She laced her fingers. “All right. My name is Bertha Aaron. It is spelled with two A’s. I am the private secretary of Mr. Lamont Otis, senior partner in the law firm of Otis, Edey, Heydecker, and Jett. Their office is
on Madison Avenue at Fifty-first Street. I’m worried about something that happened recently and I want Mr. Wolfe to investigate it. I can pay him a reasonable fee, but it might develop that he will be paid by the firm. It
might.

“Were you sent here by someone in the firm?”

“No. Nobody sent me. Nobody knows I’m here.”

“What happened?”

Her fingers laced tighter. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” she said. “I didn’t realize … maybe I’d better not.”

“Suit yourself, Miss Aaron,
Miss
Aaron?”

“Yes. I am not married.” Her fingers flew apart to make fists and her lips tightened. “This is silly. I’ve got to. I owe it to Mr. Otis. I’ve been with him for twenty years and he has been wonderful to me. I couldn’t go to him about this because he’s seventy-five years old and he has a bad heart and it might kill him. He comes to the office every day, but it’s a strain and he doesn’t do much, only he knows more than all the rest of them put together.” Her fists opened. “What happened was that I saw a member of the firm with our opponent in a very important case, one of the biggest cases we’ve ever had, at a place where they wouldn’t have met if they hadn’t wanted to keep it secret.”

“You mean with the opposing counsel?”

“No. The client. With opposing counsel it might possibly have been all right.”

“Which member of the firm?”

“I’m not going to say. I’m not going to tell Mr. Wolfe his name until he agrees to take the case. He doesn’t have to know that in order to decide. If you wonder why I came, I’ve already said why I can’t tell Mr. Otis about it, and I was afraid to go to any of the others because if one of them was a traitor another one might be in it with him, or even more than one. How could I be sure? There are only four members of the firm, but of course there are others associated—nineteen altogether. I wouldn’t trust any of them, not on a thing like this.” She made fists again. “You can understand that. You see what a hole I’m in.”

“Sure. But you could be wrong. Of course that’s unethical, a lawyer meeting with an enemy client, but there could be exceptions. It might have been accidental. When and where did you see them?”

“Last Monday, a week ago today. In the evening. They were together in a booth in a cheap restaurant—more of a lunchroom. The kind of place she would never go to, never. She would never go to that part of town. Neither would I, ordinarily, but I was on a personal errand and I went in there to use the phone. They didn’t see me.”

“Then one of the members of the firm is a woman?”

Her eyes widened. “Oh. I said ‘she.’ I meant the opposing client. We have a woman lawyer as one of the associates, just an employee really, but no woman firm member.” She laced her fingers. “It couldn’t possibly have been accidental. But of course it was conceivable, just barely conceivable, that he wasn’t a traitor, that there was some explanation, and that made it even harder for me to decide what to do. But now I know. After worrying about it for a whole week I couldn’t stand it any longer, and this afternoon I decided the only thing I
could
do was tell him and see what he said. If he had a good explanation, all right. But he didn’t. The way he took it, the way it hit him, there isn’t any question about it. He’s a traitor.”

“What did he say?”

“It wasn’t so much what he said as how he looked. He said he had a satisfactory explanation, that he was acting in the interest of our client, but that he couldn’t tell me more than that until the matter had developed further. Certainly within a week, he said, and possibly tomorrow. So I knew I had to do something, and I was afraid to go to Mr. Otis because his heart has been worse lately, and I wouldn’t go to another firm member. I even thought of going to the opposing counsel, but of course that wouldn’t do. Then I thought of Nero Wolfe, and I put on my hat and coat and came. Now it’s urgent. You can see it’s urgent?”

I nodded. “It could be. Depending on the kind of case
involved. Mr. Wolfe might agree to take the job before you name the alleged traitor, but he would have to know first what the case is about—your firm’s case. There are some kinds he won’t touch, even indirectly. What is it?”

“I don’t want …” She let it hang. “Does he have to know that?”

“Certainly. Anyhow, you’ve told me the name of your firm and it’s a big important case and the opposing client is a woman, and with that I could—but I don’t have to. I read the papers. Is your client Morton Sorell?”

“Yes.”

“And the opposing client is Rita Sorell, his wife?”

“Yes.”

I glanced at my wrist watch and saw 5:39, left my chair, told her, “Cross your fingers and sit tight,” and headed for the hall and the stairs. Two new factors had entered and now dominated the situation: that if our first bank deposit of the new year came from the Sorell pile it would not be hay; and that one of the kind of jobs Wolfe wouldn’t touch, even indirectly, was divorce stuff. It would take some doing, and as I mounted the three flights to the roof of the old brownstone my brain was going faster than my feet. In the vestibule of the plant rooms I paused, not for breath but to plan the approach, decided that was no good because it would depend on his mood, and entered. You might think it impossible to go down the aisles between the benches of those three rooms—cool, tropical, and intermediate—without noticing the flashes and banks of color, but that day I did, and then was in the potting room.

Wolfe was over at the side bench peering at a pseudo-bulb through a magnifying glass. Theodore Horstmann, the fourth member of the household, who was exactly half Wolfe’s weight, 137 to 270, was opening a bag of osmundine. I crossed over and told Wolfe’s back, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I have a problem.”

He took ten seconds to decide he had heard me, then
removed the glass from his eye and demanded, “What time is it?”

“Nineteen minutes to six.”

“It can wait nineteen minutes.”

“I know, but there’s a snag. If you came down and found her there in the office with no warning it would be hopeless.”

“Find whom?”

“A woman named Bertha Aaron. She came uninvited. She’s in a hole, and it’s a new kind of hole. I came up to describe it to you so you can decide whether I go down and shoo her out or you come down and give it a look.”

“You have interrupted me. You have violated our understanding.”

“I know it, but I said excuse me, and since you’re already interrupted I might as well tell you. She is the private secretary of Lamont Otis, senior partner …”

I told him, and at least he didn’t go back to the pseudo-bulb with the glass. At one point there was even a gleam in his eye. He has made the claim, to me, that the one and only thing that impels him to work is his desire to live in what he calls acceptable circumstances in the old brownstone on West 35th Street, Manhattan, which he owns, with Fritz as chef and Theodore as orchid tender and me as goat (not his word), but the gleam in his eye was not at the prospect of a big fee, because I hadn’t yet mentioned the name Sorell. The gleam was when he saw that, as I had said, it was a new kind of hole. We had never looked into one just like it.

Then came the ticklish part. “By the way,” I said, “there’s one little detail you may not like, but it’s only a side issue. In the case in question her firm’s client is Morton Sorell. You know.”

“Of course.”

“And the opposing client she saw a member of the firm with is Mrs. Morton Sorell. You may remember that you made a comment about her a few weeks ago after you had read the morning paper. What the paper
said was that she was suing him for thirty thousand a month for a separation allowance, but the talk around town is that he wants a divorce and her asking price is a flat thirty million bucks, and that’s probably what Miss Aaron calls the case. However, that’s only a detail. What Miss Aaron wants is merely—”

“No.” He was scowling at me. “So that’s why you pranced in here.”

“I didn’t prance. I walked.”

“You knew quite well I would have nothing to do with it.”

“I knew you wouldn’t get divorce evidence, and neither would I. I knew you wouldn’t work for a wife against a husband or vice versa, but what has that got to do with this? You wouldn’t have to touch—”

“No! I will not. That marital squabble might be the central point of the matter. I will not! Send her away.”

I had flubbed it. Or maybe I hadn’t; maybe it had been hopeless no matter how I handled it; but then it had been a flub to try, so in any case I had flubbed it. I don’t like to flub, and it wouldn’t make it any worse to try to talk him out of it, or rather into it, so I did, for a good ten minutes, but it neither changed the situation nor improved the atmosphere. He ended it by saying that he would go to his room to put on a necktie, and I would please ring him there on the house phone to tell him that she had gone.

Going down the three flights I was tempted. I could ring him not to say that she was gone but that we were going; that I was taking a leave of absence to haul her out of the hole. It wasn’t a new temptation; I had had it before; and I had to admit that on other occasions it had been more attractive. To begin with, if I made the offer she might decline it, and I had done enough flubbing for one day. So as I crossed the hall to the office I was arranging my face so she would know the answer as soon as she looked at me. Then as I entered I rearranged it, or it rearranged itself, and I stopped and stood. Two objects were there on the rug which had been elsewhere when I left: a big hunk of jade which
Wolfe used for a paperweight, which had been on his desk, and Bertha Aaron, who had been in a chair.

She was on her side, with one leg straight and one bent at the knee. I went to her and squatted. Her lips were blue, her tongue was showing, and her eyes were open and popping; and around her neck, knotted at the side, was Wolfe’s necktie. She was gone. But if you get a case of strangulation soon enough there may be a chance, and I got the scissors from my desk drawer. The tie was so tight that I had to poke hard to get my finger under. When I had the tie off I rolled her over on her back. Nuts, I thought, she’s gone, but I picked pieces of fluff from the rug, put one across her nose and one on her mouth, and held my breath for twenty seconds. She wasn’t breathing. I took her hand and pressed on a fingernail, and it stayed white when I removed the pressure. Her blood wasn’t moving. Still there might be a chance if I got an expert quick enough, say in two minutes, and I went to my desk and dialed the number of Doc Vollmer, who lived down the street only a minute away. He was out. “To hell with it,” I said, louder than necessary since there was no one but me to hear, and sat to take a breath.

I sat and stared at her a while, maybe a minute, just feeling, not thinking. I was too damn sore to think. I was sore at Wolfe, not at me, the idea being that it had been ten minutes past six when I found her, and if he had come down with me at six o’clock we might have been in time. I swiveled to the house phone and buzzed his room, and when he answered I said, “Okay, come on down. She’s gone,” and hung up.

He always uses the elevator to and from the plant rooms, but his room is only one flight up. When I heard his door open and close I got up and stood six inches from her head and folded my arms, facing the door to the hall. There was the sound of his steps, and then him. He crossed the threshold, stopped, glared at Bertha Aaron, shifted it to me, and bellowed, “You said she was gone!”

“Yes, sir. She is. She’s dead.”

“Nonsense!”

“No, sir.” I sidestepped. “As you see.”

He approached, still glaring, and aimed the glare down at her, for not more than three seconds. Then he circled around her and me, went to his oversized made-to-order chair behind his desk, sat, took in air clear down as far as it would go, and let it out again. “I presume,” he said, not bellowing, “that she was alive when you left her to come up to me.”

“Yes, sir. Sitting in that chair.” I pointed. “She was alone. No one came with her. The door was locked, as always. As you know, Fritz is out shopping. When I found her she was on her side and I turned her over to test for breathing—after I cut the necktie off. I phoned Doc—”

“What necktie?”

I pointed again. “The one you left on your desk. It was around her throat. Probably she was knocked out first with that paperweight”—I pointed again—“but it was the necktie that stopped her breathing, as you can see by her face. I cut—”

“Do you dare to suggest that she was strangled with
my
necktie?”

BOOK: Homicide Trinity
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