Authors: Rex Stout
“Around eight o’clock. My secretary would know.”
“What time did you arrive at the chess club?”
“Fifteen or twenty minutes after I left the office.” Heydecker suddenly moved and was on his feet. “This is ridiculous,” he declared. “You may be on the square, Wolfe, I don’t know. If you are, God help us.” He turned. “I’m going to see Otis. You coming, Frank?”
He was. The brilliant idea man, judging from his expression, had none at all. He pulled his feet back, moved his head slowly from side to side to tell hope good-by, and arose. They didn’t ask the eleven-percent partner to join them, and apparently he wasn’t going to, but as I was reaching for Edey’s ulster on the hall rack here came Jett, and when I opened the door he was the first one out. I stood on the stoop, getting a breath of air, and watched them heading for Ninth Avenue three abreast, a solid front of mutual trust and understanding, in a pig’s eye.
In the office, Wolfe was leaning back with his eyes closed. As I reached my desk the phone rang. It was Saul Panzer, to report that there had been no sign of Mrs. Sorell. I told him to hold the wire and relayed it to
Wolfe, and asked if he wanted to put them on the alibis we had just collected. “Pfui,” he said, and I told Saul to carry on.
I swiveled. “I was afraid,” I said, “that you might be desperate enough to try it, checking their alibis. It’s very interesting, the different ways there are of cracking a case. It depends on who you are. If you’re just a top-flight detective, me for instance, all you can do is detect. You’d rather go after an alibi than eat. When you ask a man where he was at eleven minutes past eight you put it in your notebook, and you wear out a pair of shoes looking for somebody who says he was somewhere else. But if you’re a genius you don’t give a damn about alibis. You ask him where he was only to keep the conversation going while you wait for something to click. You don’t even listen—”
“Nonsense,” he growled. “They have no alibis.”
I nodded. “You didn’t listen.”
“I did listen. Their alibis are worthless. One with his fiancée, one watching a chess tournament, one at home with young children in bed asleep. Bah. I asked on the chance that one of them, possibly two, might be eliminated, but no. There are still three.”
“Then genius is all that’s left. Unless you have an idea for another card I could take to Mrs. Sorell. I wouldn’t mind. I like the way she says
“No doubt. Could you do anything with her?”
“I could try. She might possibly make another decision—for instance, to sign a statement. Or if she has decided to hire you I could bring her, and you could have a go at her yourself. She has marvelous eyelashes.”
He grunted. “It may come to that. We’ll see after lunch. It may be that after they have talked with Mr. Otis—yes, Fritz?”
“Lunch is ready, sir.”
never got to check an alibi, but it was a close shave. Who made it close was Inspector Cramer.
Since Wolfe refuses to work either his brain or his tongue on business at table, and a murder case is business even when he has no client and no fee is in prospect, no progress was made during lunch, but when we returned to the office he buckled down and tried to think of something for me to do. The trouble was that the problem was too damn simple. We knew that one of three men had committed murder, and how and when. Okay, which one? Eeny meeny murder mo. Even the why was plain enough; Mrs. Sorell had hooked him with an offer, either of a big slice of the thirty million she was after or of more personal favors. Any approach you could think of was already cluttered with cops, except Mrs. Sorrell, and even if I got to her again I had nothing to use for a pry. What it called for was a good stiff dose of genius, and apparently Wolfe’s was taking the day off. Sitting there in the office after lunch I may have got a little too personal with him or he wouldn’t have bellowed at me to go ahead and check their alibis. “Glad to,” I said, and went to the hall for my hat and coat, and saw visitors on the stoop, not strangers. I opened the door just as Cramer pushed the bell button, and inquired, “Have you an appointment?”
“I have in my pocket,” he said, “a warrant for your arrest as a material witness. Also one for Wolfe. I warned you.”
There were two ways of looking at it. One was that he didn’t mean to shoot unless he had to. If he had really wanted to haul us in he would have sent a couple of dicks after us instead of coming himself with Sergeant
Purley Stebbins. The other was that here was a good opportunity to teach Wolfe a lesson. A couple of the right kind of impolite remarks would have made Cramer sore enough to go ahead and serve the warrants, and spending several hours in custody, and possibly all night, would probably cure Wolfe of leaving neckties on his desk. But I would have had to go along, which wouldn’t have been fair, so I wheeled and marched to the office, relying on Purley to shut the door, and told Wolfe: “Cramer and Stebbins with warrants. An inspector to take you and a sergeant to take me, which is an honor.” He glared at me and then transferred it to them as they entered.
Cramer said, “I warned you last night,” draped his coat on the arm of the red leather chair, and sat.
Wolfe snorted. “Tommyrot.”
Cramer took papers from his pocket. “I’ll serve these only if I have to. If I do I know what will happen, you’ll refuse to talk and so will Goodwin, and you’ll be out on bail as soon as Parker can swing it. But it will be on your record and that won’t close it. Held as a material witness is one thing, and charged with interfering with the operation of justice is another. In the interest of justice we were withholding the contents of the statements you and Goodwin gave us, and you knew it, and you revealed them. To men suspected of murder. Frank Edey has admitted it. He phoned an assistant district attorney.”
The brilliant idea man again.
“He’s a jackass,” Wolfe declared.
“Yeah. Since you told them in confidence.”
“I did not. I asked for no pledges and got none. But I made it plain that if I put my finger on the murderer before you do I’ll protect that law firm from injury as far as possible. If Mr. Edey is innocent it was to his interest not to have me interrupted by you. If he’s guilty, all the worse.”
“Who’s your client? Otis?”
“I have no client. I am going to avenge an affront to my dignity and self-esteem. Your threat to charge me
with interference with the operation of justice is puerile. I am not meddling in a matter that does not concern me. I cannot escape the ignominy of having my necktie presented in a courtroom as an exhibit of the prosecution; I may even have to suffer the indignity of being called to the stand to identify it; but I want the satisfaction of exposing the culprit who used it. In telling Mr. Otis and his partners what Miss Aaron said to Mr. Goodwin, in revealing the nature of the menace to their firm, I served my legitimate personal interest and I violated no law.”
“You knew damn well we were withholding it!”
Wolfe’s shoulders went up an eighth of an inch. “I am not bound to respect your tactics, either by statute or by custom. You and I are not lawyers; ask the District Attorney if a charge would hold.” He upturned a palm. “Mr. Cramer. This is pointless. You have a warrant for my arrest as a material witness?”
“Yes. And one for Goodwin.”
“But you don’t serve them, for the reason you have given, so they are only cudgels for you to brandish. To what end? What do you want?”
A low growl escaped Sergeant Purley Stebbins, who had stayed on his feet behind Cramer’s chair. There is one thing that would give Purley more pleasure than to take Wolfe or me in, and that would be to take both of us. Wolfe cuffed to him and me cuffed to Wolfe would be perfect. The growl was for disappointment and I gave him a sympathetic grin as he went to a chair and sat.
“I want the truth,” Cramer said.
“Pfui,” Wolfe said.
Cramer nodded. “Phooey is right. If I take Goodwin’s statement as it stands, if he put nothing in and left nothing out, one of those three men—Edey, Heydecker, Jett—one of them killed Bertha Aaron. I don’t have to go into that. You agree?”
“But if a jury takes Goodwin’s statement as it stands, it would be impossible to get one of those men convicted. She got here at 5:20, and he was with her in this
room until 5:39, when he went up to you in the plant rooms. It was 6:10 when he returned and found the body. All right, now for them. If one of them had a talk with her yesterday afternoon, or if one of them left the office when she did, or just before or just after, we can’t pin it down. We haven’t so far and I doubt if we will. They have private offices; their secretaries are in other rooms. Naturally we’re still checking on movements and phone calls and other details, but it comes down to this. That list, Purley.”
Stebbins got a paper from his pocket and handed it over and Cramer studied it briefly. “They had a conference scheduled for 5:30 on some corporation case, no connection with Sorell. In Frank Edey’s office. Edey was there when Jett came in a minute or two before 5:30. They were there together when Heydecker came at 5:45. Heydecker said he had gone out on an errand which took longer than he expected. The three of them stayed there, discussing the case, until 6:35. So even if you erase Edey and Jett and take Heydecker, what have you got? Goodwin says he left her here, alive, at 5:39. They say Heydecker joined the conference at 5:45. That gives him six minutes after tailing her here to phone this number, come and be admitted by her, kill her, and get back to that office more than a mile away. Phooey. And one of them couldn’t have come and killed her after the conference. On that I don’t have to take what Goodwin says; he phoned in and reported it at 6:31, and the conference lasted to 6:35. How do you like it?”
Wolfe was scowling at him. “Not at all. What was Heydecker’s errand?”
“He went to three theaters to buy tickets. You might think a man with his income would get them through an agency, but he’s close. We’ve checked that. He is. They don’t remember him at the theaters.”
“Did neither Edey nor Jett leave the office at all between 4:30 and 5:30?”
“Not known. They say they didn’t, and no one says
they did, but it’s open. What difference does it make, since even Heydecker is out?”
“Not much. And of course the assumption that one of them hired a thug to kill her isn’t tenable.”
“Certainly not. Here in your office with your necktie? Nuts. You can take your pick of three assumptions. One.” Cramer stuck a finger up. “They’re lying. That conference didn’t start at 5:30 and/or Heydecker didn’t join them at 5:45. Two.” Another finger. “When Bertha Aaron said ‘member of the firm’ she merely meant one of the lawyers associated with the firm. There are nineteen of them. If Goodwin’s statement is accurate I doubt it. Three.” Another finger. “Goodwin’s statement is phony. She didn’t say ‘member of the firm.’ God knows what she did say. It may be
phony. I admit that can never be proved, since she’s dead, and no matter what the facts turn out to be when we get them he will still claim that’s what she said. Take your pick.”
Wolfe grunted. “I reject the last. Granting that Mr. Goodwin is capable of so monstrous a hoax, I would have to be a party to it, since he reported to me on his conversation with Miss Aaron before she died—or while she died. I also reject the second. As you know, I talked with Mr. Otis last night. He was positive that she would not have used that phrase, ‘member of the firm,’ in any but its literal sense.”
“Look, Wolfe.” Cramer uncrossed his legs and put his feet flat. “You admit you want the glory of getting him before we do.”
“Not the glory. The satisfaction.”
“Okay. I understand that. I can imagine how you felt when you saw her lying there with your necktie around her throat. I know how fast your mind works when it has to. It would take you two seconds to realize that Goodwin’s report of what she had told him could never be checked. You wanted the satisfaction of getting him. It would take you maybe five minutes to think it over and tell Goodwin how to fake his report so we would spend a couple of days chasing around getting nowhere. With your goddamn ego that would seem to you perfectly
all right. You wouldn’t be obstructing justice; you would be bringing a murderer
justice. Remembering the stunts I have seen you pull, do you deny you would be capable of that?”
“No. Given sufficient impulse, no. But I didn’t. Let me settle this. I am convinced that when Mr. Goodwin came to the plant rooms and told me what Miss Aaron had said to him he reported fully and accurately, and the statement he signed corresponds in every respect with what he told me. So if you came, armed with warrants, to challenge it, you’re wasting your time and mine. Archie, get Mr. Parker.”
Since the number of Nathaniel Parker, the lawyer, was one of those I knew best and I didn’t have to consult the book, I swiveled and dialed. When I had him Wolfe got on his phone.
“Mr. Parker? Good afternoon. Mr. Cramer is here waving warrants at Mr. Goodwin and me…. No. Materni witnesses. He may or may not serve them. Please have your secretary ring my number every ten minutes. If Fritz tells you that we have gone with Mr. Cramer you will know what to do…. Yes, of course. Thank you.”
As he hung up Cramer left his chair, spoke to Stebbins, got his coat from the chair arm, and tramped out, with Purley at his heels. I stepped to the hall to see that both of them were outside when the door shut. When I returned, Wolfe was leaning back with his eyes closed, his fists on his chair arms, and his mouth working. When he does that with his lips, pushing them out and pulling them in, out and in, he is not to be interrupted, so I crossed to my desk and sat. That can last anywhere from two minutes to half an hour.
That time it wasn’t much more than two minutes. He opened Ms eyes, straightened up, and growled, “Did he omit the fourth assumption deliberately? Has it occurred to him?”
“I doubt it. He was concentrating on us. But it soon will.”
“It has occurred to you?”
“Sure. From that time-table it’s obvious. When it
does occur to him he’ll probably mess it up. It’s not the kind he’s good at.”