Authors: Rex Stout
“Nor me,” Edey said. He was the compact undersized one and his thin tenor fitted him fine.
“Nor me,” Heydecker said. “What has Wolfe told you?”
“Not much. I haven’t been here long.” Jett looked at Wolfe.
Wolfe obliged. He cleared his throat. “I presume that you gentlemen have come with the same purpose as Mr. Jett. He asks for any information that will give light, with emphasis on the reason for Miss Aaron’s coming to see me. He assumes—”
Heydecker cut in. “That’s it. What was she here for?”
“If you please. He assumes from the circumstances that she was killed because she was here, to prevent a revelation she meant to make, and that is plausible. But surely the police and the District Attorney haven’t withheld
of the details from you. Haven’t they told you that she didn’t see me?”
“No,” Edey said. “They haven’t told me.”
“Nor me,” Heydecker said.
“Then I tell you. She came without appointment. Mr. Goodwin admitted her. She asked to see me on a confidential matter. I was engaged elsewhere, upstairs, and Mr. Goodwin came to tell me she was here. We had a matter under consideration and discussed it at some length, and when we came down her dead body was here.” He pointed at Heydecker’s feet. “There. So she
couldn’t tell me what she came for, since I never saw her alive.”
“Then I don’t get it,” Edey declared. The brilliant idea man was using his brain. “If she didn’t tell you, you couldn’t tell the police or the District Attorney. But if they don’t know what she came to see you about, why do they think she was killed by someone in our office? It’s conceivable that they got that information from someone else, but so soon? They started in on me at seven o’clock this morning. And I conclude from their questions that they don’t merely think it, they think they know it.”
“They do, unquestionably,” Heydecker agreed. “Mr. Goodwin. You admitted her. She was alone?” That was the brilliant trial lawyer.
“Yes.” Since we weren’t before the bench I omitted the “sir.”
“You saw no one else around? On the sidewalk?”
“No. Of course it was dark. It was twenty minutes past five. On January fifth the sun set at 4:46.” By gum, he wasn’t going to trap me.
“You conducted her to this room?”
“Leaving the outer door open perhaps?”
“Are you certain of that?”
“Yes. If I have one habit that’s totally automatic, it’s closing that door and making sure it’s locked.”
“Automatic habits are dangerous things, Mr. Goodwin. Sometimes they fail you. When you brought her to this room did you sit?”
“Where I am now.”
“Where did she sit?”
“About where you are. About three feet closer to me.”
“What did she say?”
“That she wanted to see Nero Wolfe about something
urgent. No, she said that at the door. She said her case was private and very confidential.”
“She used the word ‘case’?”
“What else did she say?”
“That her name was Bertha Aaron and she was the private secretary of Mr. Lamont Otis, senior partner in the law firm of Otis, Edey, Heydecker, and Jett.”
“What else did she say?”
Naturally I had known that the time would come to lie, and decided this was it. “Nothing,” I said.
“You are Nero Wolfe’s confidential assistant. He was engaged elsewhere. Do you expect me to believe that you did not insist on knowing the nature of her case before you went to him?”
The phone rang. “Not if you’d rather not,” I said, and swiveled, lifted the receiver and spoke. “Nero Wolfe’s residence, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
I recognized the voice. “This is Rita Sorell, Mr. Goodwin. I have decided—”
“Hold it please. Just a second.” I pressed a palm over the transmitter and told Wolfe, “That woman you sent a card to. The one who told me I was handsome.” He reached for his receiver and put it to his ear and I returned to mine. “Okay. You have decided?”
“I have decided that it will be best to tell you what you came this morning to find out. I have decided that you were too clever for me, not mentioning at all what you had written on the card, when that was what you came for. Your saying that you made it up, that you tried to write something that would make me curious—you didn’t expect me to believe that. You were too clever for me. So I might as well confess, since you already know it. I did sit with a man in a booth in a lunchroom one evening last week—what evening was it?”
“That’s right. And you want to know who the man was. Don’t you?”
“It would help.”
“I want to help. You are
handsome. His name is Gregory Jett.”
“Many thanks. If you want to help—”
She had hung up.
cradled the receiver and rotated my chair. Wolfe pushed his phone back and said, “She is a confounded nuisance.”
“I suppose we’ll have to humor her.”
“Yes, sir. Or shoot her.”
“Not a welcome option.” He arose. “Gentlemen, I must ask you to excuse me. Come, Archie.” He headed for the hall and I got up and followed. Turning left, he pushed the door to the kitchen. Fritz was there at the big table, chopping an onion. The door swung shut.
Wolfe turned to face me. “Very well. You know her. You have seen her and talked with her. What about it?”
“I’d have to toss a coin. Several coins. You have seen Jett and talked with him. It could be that she merely wanted to find out if we already knew who it was, and if so she might have named the right one and she might not. Or it might have been a real squeal; she decided that Jett killed Bertha Aaron, and either she loves justice no matter what it costs her, or she was afraid Jett might break and her spot would be too hot for comfort. I prefer the latter. Or it wasn’t Jett, it was Edey or Heydecker, and she is trying to ball it up—and she may be sore at Jett on account of the episode. If it backfires, if we already know it was Edey or Heydecker,
what the hell. Telling me on the phone isn’t swearing to it on the stand. She can deny she called me. Or she might—”
“That’s enough for now. Have you a choice?”
“No, sir. I told you she’s a gem.”
He grunted. He reached for a piece of onion, put it in his mouth, and chewed. When it was down he asked Fritz, “Ebenezer?” and Fritz told him no, Elite. He turned to me. “In any case, she has ripped it open. Even if she is merely trying to muddle it we can’t afford to assume that she hasn’t communicated with him—or soon will.”
“She couldn’t unless he phoned her. They’ve been at the DA’s office all morning.”
He nodded. “Then we’ll tell him first. You’ll have to recant.”
“Right. Do we save anything?”
“I think not. The gist first and we’ll see.”
He made for the door. In the hall we heard a voice from the office, Edey’s thin tenor, but it stopped as we appeared. As I passed in front of Heydecker he stuck a foot out, but possibly not to trip me; he may have been merely shifting in his chair.
When Wolfe was settled in his he spoke. “Gentlemen, Mr. Goodwin and I have decided that you deserve candor. That was Mrs. Morton Sorell on the phone. What she said persuaded us—”
“Did you say
Heydecker demanded. He was gawking and so was Edey. Evidently Jett never gawked.
“I did. Archie?”
I focused on Heydecker. “If she had called twenty seconds earlier,” I told him, “I wouldn’t have had to waste a lie. I did insist on knowing the nature of Bertha Aaron’s case before I went to Mr. Wolfe, and she told me. She said she had accidentally seen a member of the firm in secret conference with Mrs. Morton Sorell, the firm’s opponent in an important case. She said that after worrying about it for a week she had told him about it that afternoon, yesterday, and asked for an
explanation, and he didn’t have one, so he was a traitor. She said she was afraid to tell Mr. Otis because he had a weak heart and it might kill him, and she wouldn’t tell another firm member because he might be a traitor too. So she had come to Nero Wolfe.”
I had been wrong about Jett. Now he was gawking too. He found his tongue first. “This is incredible. I don’t believe it!”
“Nor I,” Heydecker said.
“Nor I,” Edey said, his tenor a squeak.
“Do you expect us to believe,” Heydecker demanded, “that Bertha Aaron would come to an outsider with a story that would gravely damage the firm if it became known?”
Wolfe cut in. “No more cross-examination, Mr. Heydecker. I indulged you before, but not now. If questions are to be asked I’ll do the asking. As for Mr. Goodwin’s bona fides, he has given a signed statement to the police, and he is not an ass. Also—”
“The police?” Edey squeaked. “Good God!”
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Jett declared.
Wolfe ignored them. “Also I allowed Mr. Otis to read a copy of the statement when he came here last night. He agreed not to divulge its contents when he came here last night. He agreed not to divulge its contents before ten o’clock tomorrow morning, to give me till then to plan a course—a course based on the natural assumption that Miss Aaron was killed by the man she had accused of treachery—an assumption I share with the police. Evidently the police have preferred to reserve the statement, and so have I, but not now—since Mrs. Sorell has named the member of your firm she was seen with. On the phone just now. One of you.”
“This isn’t real,” Edey squeaked. “This is a nightmare.” Heydecker sputtered, “Do you dare to suggest—”
“No, Mr. Heydecker.” Wolfe flattened a palm on his desk. “I will not submit to questioning; I will choose the facts I’m willing to share. I suggest nothing; I am reporting. I neglecting to say that Miss Aaron did not
name the member of the firm she had seen with Mrs. Sorell. Now Mrs. Sorell has named him, but I am not satisfied of her veracity. Mr. Goodwin saw her this morning and found her devious. I’m not going to tell you whom she named, and that will make the pressure on one of you almost unendurable.”
The pressure wasn’t exactly endurable for any of them. They were exchanging glances, and they weren’t glances of sympathy and partnership. In a spot like that the idea I mentioned might be expected to work, but it didn’t. Two of them were really suspicious of their partners and one was only pretending to be, but it would have taken a better man than me to pick him; better even than Wolfe, whose eyes, narrowed to slits, were taking them in.
He was going on. “The obvious assumption is that you—one of you—followed Miss Aaron when she left the premises yesterday after she had challenged you, and when you saw her enter my house your alarm was acute and exigent. You sought a telephone and rang this number. In Mr. Goodwin’s absence she answered the phone, and consented to admit you. If you can—”
“It was pure chance that she was alone,” Edey objected. The idea man.
“Pfui. If I’m not answering questions, Mr. Edey, neither am I debating trifles. With your trained minds that is no knot for you. Speaking again to one of you: if you could be identified by inquiry into your whereabouts and movements yesterday afternoon the police would have the job already done and you would be in custody. All that they have been told by you and by the entire personnel of your office is being checked by an army of men well qualified for the task. But since they have reserved the information supplied by Mr. Goodwin, I doubt if they have asked you about Monday evening of last week. Eight days ago. Have they?”
“Why should they?” It was Jett.
“Because that was when one of you was seen by Miss Aaron in conference with Mrs. Sorell. I’m going to ask you now, but first I should tell you of an understanding
I had with Mr. Otis last night. In exchange for information he furnished I agreed that in exposing the murderer I would minimize, as far as possible, the damage to the reputation of his firm. I will observe that agreement, so manifestly, for two of you, the sooner this is over the better. Mr. Jett. How did you spend Monday evening, December twenty-ninth, say from six o’clock to midnight?”
Jett’s eyes were still deep-set, but they weren’t dreamy. They had been glued on Wolfe ever since I had recanted, and he hadn’t moved a muscle. He spoke. “If this is straight, if all you’ve said is true, including the phone call from Mrs. Sorell, the damage to the firm is done and you can do nothing to minimize it. No one under heaven can.”
“I can try. I intend to.”
“By meeting contingencies as they arise.”
Heydecker put in, “You say Mr. Otis knows all this? He was here last night?”
“Yes. I am not a parrot and you are not deaf. Well, Mr. Jett? Monday evening of last week?”
“I was at a theater with a friend.”
“The friend’s name?”
“Miss Ann Paige.”
“The Drew. The play was
Practice Makes Perfect
. Miss Paige and I left the office together shortly before six and had dinner at Rusterman’s. We were together continuously until after midnight.”
“Thank you. Mr. Edey?”
“That was the Monday before New Year’s,” Edey said. “I got home before six o’clock and ate dinner there and was there all evening.”
“No. My son and his wife and two children spent the holiday week with us. They went to the opera with my wife and daughter, and I stayed home with the children.”
“How old are the children?”
“Two and four.”
“Where is your home?”
“An apartment. Park Avenue and Sixty-ninth Street.”
“Did you go out at all?”
“Thank you. Mr. Heydecker?”
“I was at the Manhattan Chess Club watching the tournament. Bobby Fischer won his adjourned game with Weinstein in fifty-eight moves. Larry Evans drew with Kalme and Reshevsky drew with Mednis.”
“Where is the Manhattan Chess Club?”
“West Sixty-fourth Street.”
“Did play start at six o’clock?”
“Certainly not. I was in court all day and had things to do at the office. My secretary and I had sandwiches at my desk.”
“What time did you leave the office?”