Authors: Rex Stout
“I don’t suggest, I state. It was pulled tight with a slipknot and then passed around her neck again and tied with a granny.” I stepped to where I had dropped it on the rug, picked it up, and put it on his desk. “As you see. I do dare to suggest that if it hadn’t been here handy he would have had to use something else, maybe his handkerchief. Also that if we had come down a little sooner—”
“This is insupportable.”
“I will not accept it.”
“No, sir. I could burn the tie and we could tell Cramer that whatever he used he must have waited until he was sure she was dead and then removed it and took it—”
“Shut up. She told you that nobody knew she came here.”
“Bah,” I said. “Not a chance and you know it. We’re stuck. I put off calling until you came down only to be polite. If I put it off any longer that will only make it worse because I’ll have to tell them the exact time I found her.” I looked at my wrist. “It’s already been twenty-one minutes. Would you rather make the call yourself?”
No reply. He was staring down at the necktie, with his jaw set and his mouth so tight he had no lips. I gave him five seconds, to be polite, and then went to the kitchen, to the phone on the table where I ate breakfast, and dialed a number.
nspector Cramer of Homicide West finished the last page of the statement I had typed and signed, put it on top of the other pages on the table, tapped it with a finger, and spoke. “I still think you’re lying, Goodwin.”
It was a quarter past eleven. We were in the dining room. The gang of scientists had finished in the office and departed, and it was no longer out of bounds, but I had no special desire to move back in. For one thing, they had taken the rug, along with Wolfe’s necktie and the paperweight and a few other items. Of course they had also taken Bertha Aaron, so I wouldn’t have to see her again, but even so I was perfectly willing to stay in the dining room. They had brought the typewriter there after the fingerprint detail had finished with it, so I could type the statement.
Now, after nearly five hours, they were gone, all except Sergeant Purley Stebbins, who was in the office
using the phone, and Cramer. Fritz was in the kitchen, on his third bottle of wine, absolutely miserable. Added to the humiliation of a homicide in the house he kept was the incredible fact that Wolfe had passed up a meal. He had refused to eat a bite. Around eight o’clock he had gone up to his room, and Fritz had gone up twice with a tray, and he had only snarled at him. When I had gone up at 10:30 with a statement for him to sign, and told him they were taking the rug, he made a noise but had no words. With all that for background in addition to my personal reactions, it was no wonder that when Cramer told me he still thought I was lying I was outspoken.
“I’ve been trying for years,” I said, “to think who it is you remind me of. I just remembered. It was a certain animal I saw once in a cage. It begins with B. Are you going to take me down or not?”
“No.” His big round face is always redder at night, making his gray hair look whiter. “You can save the wisecracks. You wouldn’t lie about anything that can be checked, but we can’t check your account of what she told you. She’s dead. Accepting your statement, and Wolfe’s, that you have never had any dealings with her or anyone connected with that law firm, you might still save something for your private use—or change something. One thing especially. You ask me to believe that she told—”
“Excuse me. I don’t care a single measly damn what you believe. Neither does Mr. Wolfe. You can’t name anything we wouldn’t rather have done than report what happened, but we had no choice, so we reported it and you have our statements. If you know what she said better than I do, that’s fine with me.”
“I was talking,” he said.
“Yeah. I was interrupting.”
“You say that she gave you all those details, how she saw a member of the firm in a cheap restaurant or lunchroom with an opposing client, the day she saw him, her telling him about it this afternoon, all the rest of it, including naming Mrs. Sorell, but she didn’t name
the member of the firm. I don’t believe it.” He tapped the statement and his head came forward. “And I’m telling you this, Goodwin. If you use that name for your private purposes and profit, and that includes Wolfe, if you get yourselves hired to investigate this murder and you use information you have withheld from me to solve the case and collect a fee, I’ll get you for it if it costs me an eye!”
I cocked my head. “Look,” I said. “Apparently you don’t realize. It’s already been on the radio, and tomorrow it will be in the papers, that a woman who had come to consult Nero Wolfe was murdered in his office, strangled with his necktie, while he was up playing with his orchids and chatting with Archie Goodwin. I can hear the horse laugh from here. Mr. Wolfe couldn’t swallow any dinner; he wouldn’t even try. We knew and felt all this the second we saw her there on the floor. If we had known which member of the firm it was, if she had told me his name, what would we have done? You ought to know, since you claim you know us. I would have gone after him. Mr. Wolfe would have left the office, shut the door, and gone to the kitchen, and would have been there drinking beer when Fritz came home. When he went to the office and discovered the body would have depended on when and what he heard from me. With any luck I would have got here with the murderer before you and the scientists arrived. That wouldn’t have erased the fact that she had been strangled with his necktie, but it would have blurred it. I give you this just to show you that you don’t know us as well as you think you do. As for your believing me, I couldn’t care less.”
His sharp gray eyes were narrowed at me. “So you would have gone and got him. So he killed her. Huh? How did he know she was here? How did he get in?”
I produced a word I’ll leave out, and added, “Again? I have discussed that with Stebbins, and Rowcliff, and you. Now again?”
“What the hell,” he said. He folded the statement and stuck it in his pocket, shoved his chair back, got up,
growled at me, “If it costs me both eyes,” and tramped out. From the hall he spoke to Stebbins in the office. It will give you some idea of how low I was when I say that I didn’t even go to the hall to see that they took only what belonged to them. You might think that after being in the house five hours Purley would have stepped to the door to say good night, but no. I heard the front door close with a bang, so it was Purley. Cramer never banged doors.
I slumped further down in my chair. At twenty minutes to midnight I said aloud, “I could go for a walk,” but apparently that didn’t appeal to me. At 11:45 I arose, picked up the carbons of my statement, went to the office, and put them in a drawer of my desk. Looking around, I saw that they had left it in fairly decent shape. I went and brought the typewriter and put it where it belonged, tried the door of the safe, went to the hall to see that the front door was locked and put the chain bolt on, and proceeded to the kitchen. Fritz was in my breakfast chair, humped over with his forehead on the edge of the table.
“You’re pie-eyed,” I said.
His head came up. “No, Archie. I have tried, but no.”
“Go to bed.”
“No. He will be hungry.”
“He may never be hungry again. Pleasant dreams.”
I went to the hall, mounted one flight, turned left, tapped on the door, heard a sound that was half growl and half groan, opened the door, and entered. Wolfe, fully clothed, wearing a necktie, was in the big chair with a book.
“They’ve gone,” I said. “Last ones out, Cramer and Stebbins. Fritz is standing watch in the kitchen expecting a call for food. You’d better buzz him. Is there any alternative to going to bed?”
“Can you sleep?” he demanded.
“Probably. I always have.”
“I can’t read.” He put the book down. “Have you ever known me to show rancor?”
“I’d have to look in the dictionary. What is it exactly?”
“Vehement ill will. Intense malignity.”
“I have it now, and it is in the way. I can’t think clearly. I intend to expose that wretch before the police do. I want Saul and Orrie and Fred here at eight o’clock in the morning. I have no idea what their errands will be, but I shall know by morning. After you reach them sleep if you can.”
“I don’t have to sleep if there’s something better to do.”
“Not tonight. This confounded rancor is a pimple on the brain. My mental processes haven’t been so muddled in many years. I wouldn’t have thought—”
The doorbell was ringing. Now that the army of occupation was gone, that was to be expected, since Cramer had allowed no reporters or photographers to enter the house. I had considered disconnecting the bell for the night, and now, as I descended the stairs, I decided that I would. Fritz, at the door to the kitchen, looked relieved when he saw me. He had switched on the stoop light.
If it was a reporter he was a veteran, and he had brought a helper along, or maybe a girl friend just for company. I was in no hurry getting to the door, sizing them up through the one-way panel. He was a six-footer in a well-cut and well-fitted dark gray overcoat, a light gray woolen scarf, and a gray homburg, with a long bony face with deep lines. She could have been his pretty little granddaughter, but her fur coat fastened clear up and her matching fur cloche covered everything but the little oval of her face. I removed the chain bolt and swung the door open and said, “Yes, sir?”
He said, “I am Lamont Otis. This is Mr. Nero Wolfe’s house?”
“I would like to see him. About my secretary, Miss Bertha Aaron. About information I have received from the police. This is Miss Ann Paige, my associate, a
member of the bar. My coming at this hour is justified, I think, by the circumstances. I think Mr. Wolfe will agree.”
“I do too,” I agreed. “But if you don’t mind—” I crossed the sill to the stoop and sang out, “Who are you over there? Gillian? Murphy? Come here a minute!”
A figure emerged from the shadows across the street. As he crossed the pavement I peered, and as he reached the curb on our side I spoke. “Oh, Wylie. Come on up.”
He stood at the foot of the seven steps. “For what?” he demanded.
“May I ask,” Lamont Otis asked, “what this is for?”
“You may. An inspector named Cramer is in danger of losing an eye and that would be a shame. I’ll appreciate it if you’ll answer a simple question: were you asked to come here by either Mr. Wolfe or me?”
“Was your coming entirely your own idea?”
“Yes. But I don’t—”
“Excuse me. You heard him, Wylie? Include it in your report. It will save wear and tear on Cramer’s nerves. Much obliged for—”
“Who is he?” the dick demanded.
I ignored it. Backing up, I invited them in, and when I shut the door I put the bolt on. Otis let me take his hat and coat, but Ann Paige kept hers. The house was cooling off for the night. In the office, sitting, she unfastened the coat but kept it over her shoulders. I went to the thermostat on the wall and pushed it up to 70, and then went to my desk and buzzed Wolfe’s room on the house phone. I should have gone up to get him, since he might balk at seeing company until he had dealt with the pimple on his brain, but I had had enough for one day of leaving visitors alone in the office, and one of these had a bum pump.
Wolfe’s growl came, “Yes?”
“Mr. Lamont Otis is here. With an associate, Miss Ann Paige, also a member of the bar. He thinks you will
agree that his coming at this hour is justified by the circumstances.”
Silence. Nothing for some five seconds, then the click of his hanging up. You feel foolish holding a dead receiver to your ear, so I cradled it but didn’t swivel to face the company. It was even money whether he was coming or not, and I put my eyes on my wrist watch. If he didn’t come in five minutes I would go up after him. I turned and told Otis, “You won’t mind a short wait.”
He nodded. “It was in this room?”
“Yes. She was there.” I pointed to a spot a few inches in front of Ann Paige’s feet. Otis was in the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk. “There was a rug but they took it to the laboratory. Of course they—I’m sorry, Miss Paige. I shouldn’t have pointed.” She had pushed her chair back and shut her eyes.
She swallowed, and opened the eyes. They looked black in that light but could have been dark violet. “You’re Archie Goodwin,” she said.
“You were—you found her.”
“Had she been … Was there any …”
“She had been hit on the back of her head with a paperweight, a chunk of jade, and then strangled with a necktie that happened to be here on a desk. There was no sign of a struggle. The blow knocked her out, and probably she—”
My voice had kept me from hearing Wolfe’s steps on the stairs. He entered, stopped to tilt his head an eighth of an inch to Ann Paige, again to Otis, went to his chair behind his desk, sat, and aimed his eyes at Otis.
“You are Mr. Lamont Otis?”
“I owe you an apology. A weak word; there should be a better one. A valued and trusted employee of yours has died by violence under my roof. She was valued and trusted?”
“I deeply regret it. If you came to reproach me, proceed.”
“I didn’t come to reproach you.” The lines of Otis’s face were furrows in the better light. “I came to find out what happened. The police and the District Attorney’s office have told me how she was killed, but not why she was here. I think they know but are reserving it. I think I have a right to know. Bertha Aaron had been in my confidence for years, and I believe I was in hers, and I knew nothing of any trouble she might be in that would lead her to come to you. Why was she here?”
Wolfe, rubbing his nose with a fingertip, regarded him. “How old are you, Mr. Otis?”
Ann Paige made a noise. The veteran lawyer, who had probably objected to ten thousand questions as irrelevant, said merely, “I’m seventy-five. Why?”
“I do not intend to have another death in my office to apologize for, this time induced by me. Miss Aaron told Mr. Goodwin that the reason she did not go to you with her problem was that she feared the effect on you. Her words, Archie?”