Authors: Rex Stout
“I wonder.” She smiled.
“You wonder what?”
“Nothing. I was talking to myself.” She shook her head. “I won’t go now. Perhaps … I’ll think it over.” She stood up. “I’m sorry I can’t help, I’m truly sorry, but I had never met that—what was her name?”
“Bertha Aaron.” I was on my feet.
“I had never heard of her.” She glanced at the card, the one I had handed her. “I may ring you later today. I’ll think it over.”
She went with me to the foyer, and as I reached for the doorknob she offered a hand and I took it. There was nothing flabby about her clasp.
When you leave an elevator at the lobby floor of the Churchill Towers you have three choices. To the right is the main entrance. To the left and then right is a side entrance, and to the left and left again is another. I left by the main entrance, stopped a moment on the sidewalk to put my coat on and pull at my ear, and turned downtown, in no hurry. At the corner I was joined by a little guy with a big nose who looked, at first sight, as if he might make forty bucks a week waxing floors. Actually Saul Panzer was the best operative in the metropolitan area and his rate was ten dollars an hour.
“Any sign of a dick?” I asked him.
“None I know, and I think none I don’t know. You saw her?”
“Yeah. I doubt if they’re on her. I stung her and she may be moving. The boys are covering?”
“Yes. Fred at the north entrance and Orrie at the south. I hope she takes the front.”
“So do I. See you in court.”
He wheeled and was gone, and I stepped to the curb and flagged a taxi. It was 11:40 when it rolled to the curb in front of the old brownstone on 35th Street.
After mounting the seven steps to the stoop, using my key to get in, and putting my hat coat on the rack in the hall, I went to the office. Wolfe would of course be settled in his chair behind his desk with his current book, since his morning session in the plant rooms ended at eleven o’clock. But he wasn’t. His chair was empty, but the red leather one was occupied, by a stranger. I kept going for a look at his front, and said good morning. He said good morning.
He was a poet above the neck, with deep-set dreamy eyes, a wide sulky mouth, and a pointed modeled chin, but he would have had to sell a lot of poems to pay for that suit and shirt and tie, not to mention the Parvis of London shoes. Having given him enough of a glance for that, and not caring to ask him where Wolfe was, I returned to the hall and turned left, toward the kitchen; and there, in the alcove at the end of the hall, was Wolfe, standing at the hole. The hole was through the wall at eye level. On the office side it was covered by a picture of a waterfall. On this side, in the alcove, it was covered by nothing, and you could not only hear through but also see through.
I didn’t stop. Pushing the two-way door to the kitchen, I held it for Wolfe to enter and then let it swing back.
“You forgot to leave a necktie on your desk,” I told him.
He grunted. “We’ll discuss that some day, the necktie. That is Gregory Jett. He has spent the morning at the District Attorney’s office. I excused myself because I wanted to hear from you before talking with him, and I thought I might as well observe him.”
“Good idea. He might have muttered to himself, ‘By golly, the rug is gone.’ Did he?”
“No. Did you see that woman?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a gem. There is now no question about Bertha Aaron’s basic fact, that a member of the firm was with Mrs. Sorell in a lunchroom.”
“She admitted it?”
“No, sir, but she confirmed it. We talked for twenty minutes, and she never mentioned the card after the first half a minute, when she merely said it was crazy and asked me where I got it. She told me I was handsome twice, she smiled at me six times, she said she had never heard of Bertha Aaron, and she asked if you would work for her. She may phone for an appointment. Do you want it verbatim now?”
“Later will do. The men are there?”
“Yes. I spoke with Saul when I left. That’s wasted. She’s not a fool, anything but. Of course it was a blow to learn that that meeting in the lunchroom is known, but she won’t panic. Also of course, she doesn’t know how we got onto it. She may not have suspected that there was any connection between that meeting and the murder of Bertha Aaron. It’s even possible she doesn’t suspect it now, though that’s doubtful. If and when she does she will also suspect that the man she was with in the lunchroom killed Bertha Aaron, and that will be hard to live with, but even then she won’t panic. She is a very tough article and she is still after thirty million bucks. Looking at her as she smiled at me and told me I was handsome, which may have been her honest opinion in spite of my flat nose, you would never have guessed that I had just sent her a card announcing that her pet secret had been spilled. She’s a gem. If I had thirty million I’d be glad to buy her a lunch. What’s biting Gregory Jett?”
“I don’t know. We shall see.” He pushed the door open and passed through and I followed.
As Wolfe detoured around the red leather chair Jett spoke. “I said my business was urgent. You’re rather cheeky, aren’t you?”
“Moderately so.” Wolfe got his mass adjusted in his
seat and swiveled to face him. “If there is pressure, sir, it is on you, not on me. Am I concerned?”
“You are involved.” The deep-set dreamy eyes came to me. “Is your name Goodwin? Archie Goodwin?”
I said yes.
“Last night you gave a statement to the police about your conversation with Bertha Aaron, and you gave a copy of it to Lamont Otis, the senior member of my firm.”
“Did I?” I was polite. “I only work here. I only do what Mr. Wolfe tells me to. Ask him.”
“I’m not asking, I’m telling.” He returned to Wolfe. “I want to know what is in that statement. Mr. Otis is an old man and his heart is weak. He was under shock when he came here, from the tragic news of the death of his secretary, who was murdered here in your office, in circumstances which as far as I know them were certainly no credit to you or Goodwin. It must have been obvious that he was under shock, and it was certainly obvious that he is an old man. To show him that statement was irresponsible and reprehensible. As his associate, his partner, I want to know what is in it.”
Wolfe had leaned back and lowered his chin. “Well. When cheek meets cheek. You are manifestly indomitable and I must buckle my breastplate. I choose to deny that there is any such statement. Then?”
“Poppycock. I know there is.”
“Your evidence?” Wolfe wiggled a finger. “Mr. Jett. This is fatuous. Someone has told you the statement exists or you would be an idiot to come and bark at me. Who told you, and when?”
“Someone who—in whom I have the utmost confidence.”
“Mr. Otis himself?”
Jett set his teeth on his lower lip. After chewing on it a little he shifted to the upper lip. He had nice white teeth.
“You must be under shock too,” Wolfe said, “to suppose
you could come with that demand without disclosing the source of your information. Is her name Ann Paige?”
“I will tell you that only in confidence.”
“Then I don’t want it. I will take it as private information entrusted to my discretion, but not in confidence. I am still denying that such a statement exists.”
“Damn you!” Jett hit the arm of his chair. “She was here with him! She saw Goodwin hand it to him! She saw him read it!”
Wolfe nodded. “That’s better. When did Miss Paige tell you about it? This morning?”
“No. Last night. She phoned me.”
“At what hour?”
“Around midnight. A little after.”
“Had she left here with Mr. Otis?”
“You know damn well she hadn’t. She had climbed out a window.”
“And phoned you at once.” Wolfe straightened up. “If you are to trust my discretion you must give it ground. I may then tell you what the statement contains, or I may not. I reject the reason you have given, or implied, for your concern—solicitude for Mr. Otis. Your explanation must account not only for your concern but also for Miss Paige’s flight through a window. You—”
“It wasn’t a flight! Goodwin had locked the door!”
“He would have opened it on request. You said your business is urgent. How and to whom? You are trying my patience. With your trained legal mind, you know it is futile to feed me inanities.”
Jett looked at me. I set my jaw and firmed my lips to show him that I didn’t care for inanities either. He went back to Wolfe.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ll trust your discretion, since there is no alternative. When Otis told Miss Paige she had to leave, she suspected that Miss Aaron had told Goodwin something about me. She thought—”
“Why about you? There had been no hint of it.”
“Because he said to her, ‘I couldn’t trust you on
She thought he knew that she couldn’t be trusted in a
matter that concerned me. That is true—I hope it is true. Miss Paige and I are engaged to marry. It has not been announced, but our mutual interest is probably no secret to our associates, since we have made no effort to conceal it. Added to that was the fact that she knew that Miss Aaron might have had knowledge, or at least suspicion, of a certain—uh—episode in which I had been involved. An episode of which Mr. Otis would have violently disapproved. You said my explanation must account both for my concern and for Miss Paige’s leaving through a window. It does.”
“What was the episode?”
Jett shook his head. “I wouldn’t tell you that even in confidence.”
“What was its nature?”
“It was a personal matter.”
“Did it bear on the interests of your firm or your partners?”
“No. It was strictly personal.”
“Did it touch your professional reputation or integrity?”
“It did not.”
“Was a woman involved?”
Jett shook his head. “I’m not a cad, Mr. Wolfe.”
“Was it Mrs. Morton Sorell?”
Jett’s mouth opened, and for three breaths his jaw muscles weren’t functioning. Then he spoke. “So that was it. Miss Paige was right. I want—I demand to see that statement.”
“Not yet, sir. Later, perhaps—or not. Do you maintain that the episode involving Mrs. Sorell had no relation to your firm’s interests or your professional integrity?”
“I do. It was purely personal, and it was brief.”
“When did it occur?”
“About a year ago.”
“When did you last see her?”
“About a month ago, at a party. I didn’t speak with her.”
“When were you last with her tête-à-tête?”
“I haven’t been since—not for nearly a year.”
“But you are still seriously perturbed at the chance that Mr. Otis has learned of the episode?”
“Certainly. Mr. Sorell is our client, and his wife is our opponent in a very important matter. Mr. Otis might suspect that the episode is—was not merely an episode. He has not told me of the statement you showed him, and I can’t approach him about it because he has ordered Miss Paige not to mention it to anyone, and she didn’t tell him she had already told me. I want to see it. I have a right to see it!”
“Don’t start barking again.” Wolfe rested his elbows on the chair arms and put his fingers together. “I’ll tell you this: there is nothing in the statement, either explicit or allusive, about the episode you have described. That should relieve your mind. Beyond that—”
The doorbell rang.
was wrong about them. As soon as I got a look at them through the one-way panel I guessed who they were, but I had the labels mixed. My guess was that the big broad-shouldered one in a dark blue chesterfield tailored to give him a waist, and a homburg to match, was Edey, fifty-five, and the compact little guy in a brown ulster with a belt was Heydecker, forty-seven, but when I opened the door and the chesterfield said they wanted to see Nero Wolfe, and I asked for names, he said, “This gentleman is Frank Edey and I am Miles Heydecker. We are—”
“I know who you are. Step in.”
Since age has priority I helped Edey off with his ulster, putting it on a hanger, and let Heydecker manage his chesterfield, and then took them to the front room and invited them to sit. If I opened the connecting door to the office Jett’s voice could be heard and there was no point in his trusting Wolfe’s discretion if he couldn’t trust mine, so I went around through the hall, crossed to my desk, wrote “Edey and Heydecker” on my memo pad, tore the sheet off, and handed it to Wolfe. He glanced at it and looked at Jett.
“We’re at an impasse. You refuse to answer further questions unless I tell you the contents of the statement, and I won’t do that. Mr. Edey and Mr. Heydecker are here. Will you stay or go?”
“Edey?” Jett stood up. “Heydecker? Here?”
“Yes, sir. Uninvited and unexpected. You may leave unseen if you wish.”
Evidently he didn’t wish anything except to see the statement. He didn’t want to go and he didn’t want to stay. When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to decide, Wolfe decided for him by giving me a nod, and I went and opened the connecting door and told the newcomers to come in. Then I stepped aside and looked on, at their surprise at seeing Jett, their manners as they introduced themselves to Wolfe, the way they handled their eyes. I had never completely squelched the idea that when you are in a room with three men and you know that one of them committed a murder, especially when he committed it in that room only eighteen hours ago, it will show if you watch close enough. I knew from experience that the idea wasn’t worth a damn, that if you did see something that seemed to point you were probably wrong, but I still had it and still have it. I was so busy with it that I didn’t go to my desk and sit until Jett was back in the red leather chair and the newcomers were on two of the yellow ones, facing Wolfe, and Heydecker, the big broad-shouldered man, was speaking.
His eyes were at Jett. “We came,” he said, “for information, and I suppose you did too, Greg. Unless you got more at the DA’s office than we did.”
“I got damn little,” Jett said. “I didn’t even see Howie, my old schoolmate. They didn’t answer questions, they asked them. A lot of them I didn’t answer and they shouldn’t have been asked—about our affairs and our clients. Naturally I answered the relevant ones, the routine stuff about my relations with Bertha Aaron and my whereabouts and movements yesterday afternoon. Not only mine, but others’. Particularly if anyone had spoken at length with Bertha, and if anyone had left the office with her or soon after her. Obviously they think she was killed by someone connected with the firm, but they don’t say why—at least not to me.”