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Authors: Rex Stout

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I supplied them. “‘He has a bad heart and it might kill him.’”

Otis snorted. “Bosh! My heart has given me a little trouble and I’ve had to slow down, but it would take more than a problem to kill me. I’ve been dealing with problems all my life, some pretty tough ones.”

“She exaggerated it,” Ann Paige said. “I mean Miss Aaron. I mean she was so devoted to Mr. Otis that she had an exaggerated idea about his heart condition.”

“Why did you come here with him?” Wolfe demanded.

“Not because of his heart. Because I was at his apartment, working with him on a brief, when the news came about Bertha, and when he decided to see you he asked me to come with him. I do shorthand.”

“You heard Mr. Goodwin quote Miss Aaron. If I tell Mr. Otis what she was afraid to tell him, what her problem was, will you take responsibility for the effect on him?”

Otis exploded. “Damn it, I take the responsibility! It’s
my
heart!”

“I doubt,” Ann Paige said, “if the effect of telling him would be as bad as the effect of
not
telling him. I take no responsibility, but you have me as a witness that he insisted.”

“I not only insist,” Otis said. “I assert my right to the information, since it must have concerned me.”

“Very well,” Wolfe said. “Miss Aaron arrived here at twenty minutes past five this afternoon—now yesterday afternoon—uninvited and unexpected. She spoke for some twenty minutes with Mr. Goodwin and he went upstairs to confer with me. He was away half an hour. She was alone on this floor. You know what greeted him when he returned. He has given the police a statement which includes his conversation with her.” His head turned. “Archie, give Mr. Otis a copy of the statement.”

I got it from my desk drawer and went and handed it to him. I had a notion to stand by, in case Bertha Aaron had been right about the effect it would have on him and he crumpled, but from up there I couldn’t see his face, so I returned to my chair; but after half a century of practicing law his face knew how to behave. All that happened was that his jaw tightened a little, and once a muscle twitched at the side of his neck. He read it clear through twice, first fast and then taking his time. When he had finished he folded it neatly, fumbling a little, and was putting it in the breast pocket of his jacket.

“No,” Wolfe said emphatically. “I disclose the information at my discretion, but that’s a copy of a statement given the police. You can’t have it.”

Otis ignored him. He looked at his associate, and his neck muscle twitched again. “I shouldn’t have brought you, Ann,” he said. “You’ll have to leave.”

Her eyes met his. “Believe me, Mr. Otis, you can trust me. On anything. Believe me. If it’s that bad you shouldn’t be alone with it.”

“I must be. I couldn’t trust you on
this.
You’ll have to leave.”

I stood up. “You can wait in the front room, Miss Paige. The wall and door are soundproofed.”

She didn’t like it, but she came. I opened the door to the front room and turned the lights on, and then went and locked the door to the hall and put the key in my pocket. Back in the office as I was crossing to my desk Otis asked, “How good is the soundproofing?”

“Good for anything under a loud yell,” I told him.

He focused on Wolfe. “I am not surprised,” he said, “that Miss Aaron thought it would kill me. I am surprised that it hasn’t. You say the police have this statement?”

“Yes. And this conversation is ended unless you return that copy. Mr. Goodwin has no corroboration. It is a dangerous document for him to sign except under constraint of police authority.”

“But I need—”

“Archie. Get it.”

I stood up. The heart was certainly getting tested. But as I took a step his hand went to his pocket, and when I reached him he had it out and handed it over.

“That’s better,” Wolfe said. “I have extended my apology and regret, and we have given you all the information we have. I add this: first, that nothing in that statement will be revealed to anyone by Mr. Goodwin or me without your consent; and second, that my self-esteem has been severely injured and it would give me great satisfaction to expose the murderer. Granted that that’s a job for the police, for me it is my job. I would welcome your help, not as my client; I would accept no fee. I realize that at the moment you are under shock, that you are overwhelmed by the disaster in prospect for the firm you head; and when your mind clears you may be tempted by the possibility of minimizing the damage by dealing with your intramural treachery yourself, and letting the culprit escape his doom. If you went about it with sufficient resourcefulness and ingenuity it is conceivable that the police could be cheated of their prey, but not that I could be.”

“You are making a wholly unwarranted assumption,” Otis said.

“I am not making an assumption. I am merely telling you my intention. The police hypothesis, and mine, is the obvious one: that a member of your firm killed Miss Aaron. Though the law does not insist that the testimony against him in court must include proof of his motive, inevitably it would. Will you assert that you won’t try to prevent that? That you will not regard the reputation of your firm as your prime concern?”

Otis opened his mouth and closed it again.

Wolfe nodded. “I thought not. Then I advise you to help me. If you do, I’ll have two objectives, to get the murderer and to see that your firm suffers as little as possible; if you don’t, I’ll have only one. As for the police, I doubt if they’ll expect you to cooperate, since they are not nincompoops. They will realize that you have a deeper interest than the satisfaction of justice. Well, sir?”

Otis’s palms were cupping his knees and his head was tilted forward so he could study the back of his left hand. His eyes shifted to his right hand, and when that too had been properly studied he lifted his head and spoke. “You used the word ‘hypothesis,’ and that’s all it is, that a member of my firm killed Miss Aaron. How did he know she was here? She said that nobody knew.”

“He could have followed her. Evidently she left your office soon after she talked with him. Archie?”

“She probably walked,” I said. “Between fifteen and twenty-five minutes, depending on her rate. At that time of day empty taxis are scarce, and crosstown they crawl. It would have been a cinch to tail her on foot.”

“How did he get in?” Otis demanded. “Did he sneak in unseen when you admitted her?”

“No. You have read my statement. He saw her enter and knew this is Nero Wolfe’s address. He went to a phone booth and rang this number and she answered. Here.” I tapped my phone. “With me not here that would be automatic for a trained secretary. I had not pushed the button so it didn’t ring in the plant rooms. It
would ring in the kitchen, but Fritz wasn’t there. She answered it, and he said he wanted to see her at once and would give her a satisfactory explanation, and she told him to come here. When he came she was at the front door and let him in. All he was expecting to do was stall for time, but when he learned that she was alone on this floor and she hadn’t seen Mr. Wolfe he had another idea and acted on it. Two minutes would have been plenty for the whole operation, even less.”

“All that is mere conjecture.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t present. But it fits. If you have one that fits better I do shorthand.”

“The police have covered everything here for fingerprints.”

“Sure. But it was below freezing outdoors and I suppose the members of your firm wear gloves.”

“You say that he learned she hadn’t seen Wolfe, but she had talked with you.”

“She didn’t tell him that she had told me. It wouldn’t take many words for him to learn that she was alone and hadn’t seen Mr. Wolfe. Either that, or she did tell him but he went ahead anyhow. The former is more probable and I like it better.”

He studied me a while, then he closed his eyes and his head tilted again. When his eyes opened he put them at Wolfe. “Mr. Wolfe. I reserve comment on your suggestion that I would be moved by personal considerations to balk justice. You ask me to help you. How?”

“By giving me information. By answering questions. Your mind is trained in inquiry; you know what I will ask.”

“I’ll know better when I hear you. Go ahead and we’ll see.”

Wolfe looked at the wall clock. “It’s nearly an hour past midnight, and this will be prolonged. It will be a tiresome wait for Miss Paige.”

“Of course,” Otis agreed. He looked at me. “Will you ask her to step in?”

I got up and crossed to the door to the front room. As I entered, words were at the tip of my tongue, but that
was as far as they got. She wasn’t there. Through a wide-open window cold air was streaming in. As I went to it and stuck my head out I was prepared to see her lying there with one of my neckties around her throat, though I hadn’t left one in the room. It was a relief to see that the areaway, eight feet down, was unoccupied.

Chapter 3

A
roar came from the office. “Archie! What the devil are you up to?”

I shut the window, glanced around to see if there were any signs of violence or if she had left a note, saw neither, and rejoined the conference.

“She’s gone,” I said. “Leaving no message. When I—”

“Why did you open a window?”

“I didn’t. I closed it. When I took her in there I locked the door to the hall so she couldn’t wander around and hear things she wasn’t supposed to, so when she got tired waiting the window was the only way out.”

“She climbed out a window?” Otis demanded.

“Yes, sir. It’s a mere conjecture, but it fits. The window was wide open, and she’s not in the room, and she’s not outside. I looked.”

“I can’t believe it. Miss Paige is a level-headed and reliable—” He bit it off. “No. No! I no longer know who is reliable.” He rested his elbow on the chair arm and propped his head with his hand. “May I have a glass of water?”

Wolfe suggested brandy, but he said he wanted water, and I went to the kitchen and brought some. He got a little metal box from a pocket, took out two pills, and washed them down.

“Will they help?” Wolfe asked. “The pills?”

“Yes. The
pills
are reliable.” He handed me the glass.

“Then we may proceed?”

“Yes.”

“Have you any notion why Miss Paige was impelled to leave by a window?”

“No. It’s extraordinary. Damn it, Wolfe, I have no notions of anything! Can’t you see I’m lost?”

“I can. Shall we put it off?”

“No!”

“Very well. My assumption that Miss Aaron was killed by a member of your firm, call him X, rests on a prior assumption, that when she spoke with Mr. Goodwin she was candid and her facts were accurate. Would you challenge that assumption?”

Otis looked at me. “Tell me something. I know what she said from your statement, and it sounded like her, but how was she—her voice and manner? Did she seem in any way … well, out of control? Unbalanced?”

“No, sir,” I told him. “She sat with her back straight and her feet together, and she met my eyes all the time.”

He nodded. “She would. She always did.” To Wolfe: “At this time, here privately with you, I don’t challenge your assumption.”

“Do you challenge the other one, that X killed her?”

“I neither challenge it nor accept it.”

“Pfui. You’re not an ostrich, Mr. Otis. Next: if Miss Aaron’s facts were accurate, it must be supposed that X was in a position to give Mrs. Sorell information that would help her substantially in her action against her husband, your client. That is true?”

“Of course.” Otis was going to add something, decided not to, and then changed his mind again. “Again here privately with you, it’s not merely her action at law. It’s blackmail. Perhaps not technically, but that’s what it amounts to. Her demands are exorbitant and preposterous. It’s extortion.”

“And a member of your firm could give her weapons. Which one or ones?”

Otis shook his head. “I won’t answer that.”

Wolfe’s brows went up. “Sir? If you pretend to help at all that’s the very least you can do. If you’re rejecting my proposal say so and I’ll get on without you. By noon tomorrow—today—the police will have that elementary question answered. It may take me longer.”

“It certainly may,” Otis said. “You haven’t mentioned a third assumption you’re making. You are assuming that Goodwin was candid and accurate in reporting what Miss Aaron said.”

“Bah.” Wolfe was disgusted. “You are gibbering. If you hope to impeach Mr. Goodwin you are indeed forlorn. You might as well go. If you regain your faculties later and wish to communicate with me I’ll be here.” He pushed his chair back.

“No.” Otis extended a hand. “Good God, man, I’m trapped! It’s not my faculties! I have my faculties.”

“Then use them. Which member of your firm was in a position to betray its interests to Mrs. Sorell?”

“They all were. Our client is vulnerable in certain respects, and the situation is extremely difficult, and we have frequently conferred together on it. I mean, of course, my three partners. It could have only been one of them, partly because none of our associates was in our confidence on this matter, but mainly because Miss Aaron told Goodwin it was a member of the firm. She wouldn’t have used that phrase, ‘member of the firm,’ loosely. For her it had a specific and restricted application. She could only have meant Frank Edey, Miles Heydecker, or Gregory Jett. And that’s incredible!”

“Incredible literally or rhetorically? Do you disbelieve Miss Aaron—or, in desperation, Mr. Goodwin? Here with me privately?”

“No.”

Wolfe turned a palm up. “Then let’s get at it. It is equally incredible for all three of those men, or are there preferences?”

During the next hour Otis balked at least a dozen times, and on some details—for instance, the respects in which Morton Sorell was vulnerable—he clammed
up absolutely, but I had enough to fill nine pages of my notebook.

Frank Edey, fifty-five, married with two sons and a daughter, wife living, got twenty-seven per cent of the firm’s net income. (Otis’s share was forty per cent.) He was a brilliant idea man but seldom went to court. He had drafted the marriage agreement which had been signed by Morton Sorell and Rita Ramsey when they got yoked four years ago. Personal financial condition, sound. Relations with wife and children, so-so. Interest in other women, definitely yes, but fairly discreet. Interest in Mrs. Sorell casual so far as Otis knew.

BOOK: Homicide Trinity
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