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Authors: Rex Stout

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Political, #Mystery & Detective, #mystery, #Mystery fiction, #Private investigators - New York (State) - New York, #Wolfe; Nero (Fictitious character)

The Rubber Band

BOOK: The Rubber Band
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The Rubber Band
Rex Stout

In all his years of detecting, the unflappable Nero Wolfe has never encountered an investigation as damnably messy as this one. For what began as a clean case of larceny quickly sank into a quagmire of blackmail and broken promises, international scandal and cold-blooded murder.

Now Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin must bridge eras and oceans to find the link between a Wild West lynching and a respected British peer. Only then can they save Wolfe’s beautiful young client—and a hotly disputed stake of a cool million dollars.

The Rubber Band
by Rex Stout
Chapter 1

I threw down the magazine section of the Sunday Times and yawned. I looked at Nero Wolfe and yawned again. “Is this bird, S. J. Woolt, any relation or yours?”

Wolfe, letting fly with a dart and getting a king of clubs, paid no attention to me.

I went on. “I suppose not, since he spells it different. The reason I ask, an idea just raced madly into my bean. Why wouldn’t it be good for business if this S. J. Woolf did a picture of you and an article for the Times? God knows you’re full of material.” I took time out to grin, considering Wolfe’s size in the gross or physical aspect, and left the grin on as Wolfe grunted, stooping to pick up a dart he had dropped.

I resumed. “You couldn’t beat it for publicity, and as for class it’s Mount Everest. This guy Woolf only hits the high spots. I’ve been reading his pieces for years, and there’s been Einstein and the Prince of Wales and Babe Ruth and three Presidents of the United States (ones say, can you see very little in the White House) and the King of Siam and similar grandeur. His idea seems to be, champions only. That seems to let you in, and strange as it may appear, I’m not kidding, I really mean it. Among our extended circle there must be a couple of eminent gazabos that know him and would slip him the notion.”

Wolfe still paid no attention to me. As a matter of fact, I didn’t expect him to, since he was busy taking exercise. He had recently got the impression that he weighed too much—which was about the same as if the Atlantic Ocean formed the opinion that it was too wet—and so had added a new item to his daily routine. Since he only went outdoors for things like earthquakes and holocausts, he was rarely guilty of movement except when he was up on the roof with Horstmann and the orchids, from nine to eleven in the morning and four to six in the afternoon, and there was no provision there for pole vaulting.

Hence the new apparatus for a daily workout, which was a beaut. It was scheduled from 3:45 to 4:00 P.M. There was a board about two feet square, faced with cork, with a large circle marked on it, and twenty-six radii and a smaller inner circle, outlined with fine wire, divided the circle’s area into fifty-two sections. Each section had its symbol painted on it, and together they made up a deck of cards; the bull’s-eye, a small disk in the center, was the Joker. There was also a supply of darts, cute little things about four inches long and weighing a couple of ounces, made of wood and feathers with a metal needle-point. The idea was to hang the board up on the wall, stand off ten or fifteen feet, hurl five darts at it and make a poker hand, with the Joker wild. Then you went and pulled the darts out, and hurled them over again. Then you went and pulled …

Obviously, it was pretty darned exciting. What I mean to convey is, it would have been a swell game for a little girls’ kindergarten class; no self-respecting boy over six months of age would have wasted much time with it. Since my only excuse for writing this is to relate the facts of one of Nero Wolfe’s cases, and since I take that trouble only where murder was involved, it may be supposed that I tell about that poker-dart game because later on one of the darts was dipped in poison and used to pink a guy with. Nothing doing. No one ever suffered any injury from those darts that I know of, except me. Over a period of two months Nero Wolfe nicked me for a little worse than eighty-five bucks, playing draw with the Joker and deuces wild, at two bits a go. There was no chance of getting any real accuracy with it, it was mostly luck.

Anyhow, when Wolfe decided he weighed too much, that was what he got. He called the darts javelins. When I found my losses were approaching the century point I decided to stop humoring him, and quit the thing cold, telling him that my doctor had warned me against athlete’s heart. Wolfe kept on with his exercise, and by now, this Sunday I’m telling about, he had got so he could stick the Joker twice out of five shots.

I said, “It would be a good number. You rate it. You admit yourself that you’re a genius. It would get us a lot of new clients. We could take on a permanent staff—”

One of the darts slipped out of Wolfe’s handful, dropped to the floor, and rolled to my feet. Wolfe stood and looked at me. I knew what he wanted, I knew he hated to stoop, but stooping was the only really violent part of that game and I figured he needed the exercise. I sat tight.

Wolfe opened his eyes at me. “I have noticed Mr. Woolfs drawings. They are technically excellent.”

The son of a gun was trying to bribe me to pick up his dart by pretending to be interested in what I had said. I thought to myself, All right, but youll pay for it, let’s just see how long you’ll stand there and stay interested. I picked up the magazine section and opened it to the article, and observed briskly, “This is one of his best. Have you seen it? It’s about some Englishman that’s over here on a government mission—wait—it tells here—”

I found it and read aloud: “‘It is not known whether the Marquis of Clivers is empowered to discuss military and naval arrangements in the Far East; all that has been disclosed is his intention to make a final disposition or the question of spheres of economic influence. That is why, after a week of conferences in Washington with the Departments of State and Commerce, he has come to New York for an indefinite stay to consult with financial and industrial leaders. More and more clearly it is being realized in government circles that the only satisfactory and permanent basis for peace in the Orient is the removal of the present causes of economic friction.’”

I nodded at Wolfe. “You get it? Spheres of economic influence. The same thing that bothered Al Capone and Dutch Schultz. Look where economic friction landed them.”

Wolfe nodded back. “Thank you, Archie. Thank you very much for explaining it to me. Now if you—”

I hurried on. “Wait, it gets lots more interesting than that.” I glanced down the page. “In the picture he looks like a ruler of men—you know, like a master barber or a head waiter, you know the type. It goes on to tell how much he knows about spheres and influences, and his record in the warhe commanded a brigade and he got decorated four times—a noble lord and all prettied up with decorations like a store front—1 say three cheers and let us drink to the King, gendemen! You understand, sir, I’m just summarizing.”

“Yes” Archie. Thank you.”

Wolfe sounded grim.

I took a breath. “Don’t mention it. But the really interesting part is where it tells about his character and his private life. He’s a great gardener. He prunes his own roses! At least it says so, but it’s almost too much to swallow. Then it goes on, new paragraph. While it would be an exaggeration to call the marquis an eccentric, in many ways he fails to conform to the conventional conception of a British peer, probably due in some measure to the tact that in his younger days—he is now sixtyfour—he spent many years, in various activities, in Australia, South America, and the western part of the United States. He is a nephew of the ninth marquis, and succeeded to the tide in 1905, when his uncle and two cousins perished in the sinking of the Rotania off the African coast But under any circumstances he would be an extraordinary person, and his idiosyncrasies, as he is pleased to call them, are definitely his own.”

“He never shoots animals or birds, though he owns some of the best shooting in Scotland —yet he is a famous expert with a pistol and always carries one. Owning a fine stable, he has not been on a horse for fifteen years. He never eats anything between luncheon and dinner, which in England barely misses the aspect of treason. He has never seen a cricket match. Possessing more than a dozen automobiles, he does not know how to drive one. He is an excellent poker player and has popularized the game among a circle of his friends. He is passionately fond of croquet, derides golf as a “corrupter of social decency,” and keeps an American cook at the manor of Pokendam for the purpose of making pumpkin pie. On his frequent trips to the Continent he never fails to take with him—”

There was no point in going on, so I stopped. I had lost my audience. As he stood facing me Wolfe’s eyes had gradually narrowed into slits; and or a sudden he opened his hand and turned it palm down to let the remaining darts fall to the floor, where they rolled in all directions; and Wolfe walked from the room without a word. I heard him in the hall, in the elevator, getting in and banging the door to. Of course he had the excuse that it was four o’clock, his regular time for going to the plant rooms.

I could have left the darts for Fritz to pick up later, but there was no sense in me getting childish just because Wolfe did. So I tore off the sheet of the magazine section I had been reading from, with the picture of the Marquis of Clivers in the center, fastened it to the corkboard with a couple of thumbtacks, gathered up the darts, stood off fifteen feet, and let fly. One of the darts got the marquis in the nose, another in his left eye, two of them in his neck, and the last one missed him by an inch. He was well pinned. Pretty good shooting, I thought, as I went for my hat to venture out to a movie, not knowing then that before he left our city the marquis would treat us to an exhibition of much better shooting with a quite different weapon, nor that on that sheet of newspaper which I had pinnea to the corkboard was a bit of information that would prove to be fairly useful in Nero Wolfe’s professional consideration of a sudden and violent death.

Chapter 2

For the next day, Monday, October 7, my memo pad showed two appointments. Neither displayed any promise of being either lucrative or exciting.

The first one, down for 3:30 in the afternoon, was with a guy named Anthony D. Perry. He was a tycoon, a director of the Metropolitan Trust Company, the bank we did business with, and president of the Seaboard Products Corporation—one of those vague firms occupying six floors of a big skyscraper and selling annually a billion dollars’ worth of something nobody ever actually saw, like soy beans or powdered coconut shells or dried llama’s hoofs. As I say. Perry was a tycoon; he presided at meetings and was appointed on Mayor’s Committees and that kind of hooey. Wolfe had handled a couple of investigations for him in previous years—nothing of any importance. We didn’t know what was on his mind this time; he had telephoned for an appointment.

The second appointment was for 6 P.M. It was a funny one, but we often had funny ones. Saturday morning, October 5, a female voice had phoned that she wanted to see Nero Wolfe. I said okay. She said, yes, but she wanted to bring someone with her who would not arrive in New York until Monday morning, and she would be busy all day, so could they come at 5:30. I said, no, but they could come at six, picking up a pencil to put down her name. But she wasn’t divulging it; she said she would bring her name along with her, and they would arrive at six sharp, and it was very important. It wasn’t much of a date, but I put it on the memo pad and hoped she would turn up, for she had the kind oЈ voice that makes you want to observe it in the Hesh.

Anthony D. Perry was there on the dot at 3:30. Fritz answered the door and brought him to the office. Wolfe was at his desk drinking beer. I sat in my comer and scowled at the probability that Perry was going to ask us to follow the scent of some competitor suspected of unfair trade practices, as he had before, and I did not regard that as a treat. But this time he had a different kind of difficulty, though it was nothing to make your blood run cold. He asked after our health, including me because he was democratic, inquired politely regarding the orchids, and then hitched his chair up and smiled at Wolfe as one man of affairs to another.

“I came to see you, Mr. Wolfe, instead of asking you to call on me, for two reasons. First, because I know you refuse to leave your home to call on anyone whatever, and, second, because the errand I want you to undertake is private and confidential.”

Wolfe nodded. “Either would have sufficed, sir. And the errand?”

“Is, as I say, confidential.” Perry cleared his throat, glancing at me as I opened up my notebook. “I suppose Mr…”

“Goodwin.” Wolfe poured a glass of beer. “Mr. Goodwin’s discretion reaches to infinity. Anything too confidential for him would find me deaf.”

“Very well. I want to engage you for a delicate investigation, one that will require most careful handling. It is in connection with an unfortunate situation that has arisen in our executive offices.” Perry cleared his throat again. “I fear that a young woman, one of our employees, is going to suffer an injustice—a victim of circumstances—unless something is done about it.”

He paused. Wolfe said, “But, Mr. Perry, surely, as the directing head of your corporation, you are its fount of justice—or its opposite?”

Perry smiled. “Not absolutely. At best, a constitutional monarch. Let me eacplain. Our executive offices are on the thirty-second floor of our building—the Seaboard Building. We have some thirty private offices on that floor, officers of the corporation, department heads, and so on. Last Friday one of the officers had in his desk a sum of money in currency, a fairly large sum, which disappeared under circumstances which led him to suspect that it had been taken by—by the employee I spoke of. It was not reported to me until Saturday morning. The officer requested immediate action, but I could not bring myself to believe the employee guilty. She has been—that is, she has always seemed to merit the most complete confidence. In spite of appearances …”

He halted. Wolfe asked, “And you wish us to learn the truth of the matter?”

“Yes. Of course. That’s what I want.” Perry cleared his throat. “But I also want you to consider her record of probity and faithful service. And I would like to ask you, in discussing the affair with Mr. Muir, to give him to understand that you have been engaged to handle it as you would any investigation of a similar nature. In addition, I wish your reports to be made to me personally.”

“I see.” Wolfe’s eyes were halt closed. “It seems a little complex. I would like to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding. Let us make it clear. You are not asking us to discover an arrangement of evidence that will demonstrate the employee’s guilt. Nor are you engaging us to devise satisfactory proof of her innocence. You merely want us to find out the truth.”

“Yes,” Perry smiled. “But I hope and believe that the truth will be her innocence.”

“As it may be. And who is to be our client, you or the Seaboard Products Corporation?”

“Why,.. that hadn’t occurred to me. The corporation, I should think.

That would be best.”

“Good.” Wolfe looked at me. “If you please, Archie.” He leaned back in his chair, twined his fingers at the peak of his middle mound, and closed his eyes.

I whirled on my swivel, with my notebook. “First the money, Mr. Perry.”

“How much?”

“Thirty thousand dollars. In hundred-dollar bills.”

“Egad. Payroll?”

“No.” He hesitated. “Well, yes, call it payroll.”

“It would be better if we knew about it.”

“Is it necessary?”

“Not necessary. Just better. The more we know the less we have to find out.”

“Well… since it is understood this is strictly confidential… you know of course that in connection with our business we need certain privileges in certain foreign countries. In our dealings with the representatives of those countries we sometimes need to employ cash sums.”

“Okay. This Mr. Muir you mentioned, he’s the paymaster?”

“Mr. Ramsey Muir is the senior vice-president of the corporation. He usually handles such. contacts. On this occasion, last Friday, he had a luncheon appointment with a gentleman from Washington. The gentleman missed his train and telephoned that he would come on a later one, arriving at our office at five-thirty. He did so. When the moment arrived for Mr.Muir to open the drawer of his desk, the money was gone. He was of course gready embarrassed.”

“Yeah. When had he put it there?”

An interruption came from Wolfe. He moved to get upright in his chair, then to arise from it.

He looked down at Perry. “You will excuse me, sir. It is the hour for my prescribed exercise and, following that, attention to my plants. If it would amuse you, when you have finished with Mr. Goodwin, to come to the roof and look at them, I would be pleased to have you.” He moved halfway to the door, and turned. “It would be advisable, I think, for Mr. Goodwin to make a preliminary investigation before we definitely undertake the commission you offer us. It appears to present complexities. Good day, sir.”

He went on out. The poker-dart board had been moved to his bedroom that morning, it being a business day with appointments.

“A cautious man.” Perry smiled at me. “Of course his exceptional ability permits him to afford it.”

I saw Perry was sore by the color above his cheekbones. I said, “Yeah. When had he put it there?”

“What? Oh, to be sure. The money had been brought from the bank and placed in Mr. Muir’s desk that morning, but he had looked in the drawer when he returned from lunch, around three o’clock, and saw it intact. At five-thirty it was gone.”

“Was he there all the time?”

“Oh, no. He was in and out. He was with me in my office for twenty minutes or so. He went once to the toilet. For over half an hour, from four to until about four forty, he was in the directors’ room, conferring with other officers and Mr. Savage, our public relations counsel.”

“Was the drawer locked?”

“No.”

“Then anyone might have lifted it.”

Perry shook his head. “The executive reception clerk is at a desk with a view of the entire corridor; that’s her job, to know where everyone is all the time, to facilitate interviews. She knows who went in Muir’s room, and when.”

“Who did?”

“Five people. An office boy with correspondence, another vice-president of the company, Muir’s stenographer, Clara Fox, and myself.”

“Let’s eliminate. I suppose you didn’t take it?”

“No. I almost wish I had. When the office boy was there, Muir was there too. The vice-president, Mr. Arbuthnot, is out of the question. As for Muir’s stenographer, she was still there when the loss was discovered—most of the others had gone home—and she insisted that Muir search her belongings. She has a little room next to Muir’s, and had not been out of it except to enter his room. Besides, he has had her for eleven years, and trusts her.”

“Which leaves Clara Fox.”

“Yes.” Perry cleared his throat. “Clara Fox is our cable clerk—a most responsible position. She translates and decodes all cables and telegrams. She went to Muir’s office around a quarter after four, during his absence, with a decoded message, and waited there while Muir’s stenographer went to her own room to type a copy of it.”

“Has she been with you long?”

“Three years. A little over”

“Did she know the money was there?”

“She probably knew it was in Muir’s office. Two days previously she had handled a cablegram giving instructions for the payment.”

“But you think she didn’t take it.”

Perry opened his mouth and closed it again. I put the eye on him. He didn’t look as if he was really undecided; it seemed rather that he was hunting for the right words. I waited and looked him over. He had clever, careful, blue-gray eyes, a good jaw but a little too square for comfort, hair no grayer than it should be considering be must have been over sixty, a high forehead with a mole on the right temple, and a well-kept healthy skin. Not a layout that you would ordinarily regard as hideous, but at that moment I wasn’t observing it with great favor, because it seemed likely that there was something phony about the pie he was inviting me to stick my finger into; and I give low marks to a guy that asks you to help him work a puzzle and then holds out one of the pieces on you. I don’t mind looking for the fly in a client’s ointment, but why throw in a bunch of hornets?

Perry finally spoke. “In spite of appearances, I am personally of the opinion that Clara Fox did not take that money. It would be a great shock to me to know that she did, and the proof would have to be unassailable.”

“What does she say about it?”

“She hasn’t been asked. Nothing has been said, except to Arbuthnot, Miss Vawter—the executive reception clerk—and Muir’s stenographer. I may as well tell you, Muir wanted to send for the police this morning, and I restrained him.”

“Maybe Miss Vawter took it.”

“She has been with us eighteen years. I would sooner suspect myself. Besides, someone is constantly passing in the corridor. If she left her desk even for a minute it would be noticed.”

“How old is Clara Fox?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Oh. A bit junior, huh? For such a responsible position. Married?”

“No. She is a remarkably competent person.”

“Do you know anything of her habits? Does she collect diamonds or frolic with the geegees?”

Perry stared at me. I said, “Does she bet on horse races?”

He frowned. “Not that I know of. I am not personally intimate with her, and I have not had her spied on.”

“How much does she get and how do you suppose she spends it?”

“Her salary is thirty-six hundred. So far as I know, she lives sensibly and respectably. She has a small flat somewhere, I believe, and she has a little car—1 have seen her driving it. She—1 understand she enjoys the theater.”

“Uh-huh.” I flipped back a page of my notebook and ran my eye over it. “And this Mr. Muir who leaves his drawer unlocked with thirty grand inside—might he have been caught personally with his financial pants down and made use of the money himself?”

Perry smiled and shook his head. “Muir owns some twenty-eight thousand shares of the stock of our corporation, worth over two million dollars at the present market, besides other properties. It was quite usual for him to leave the drawer unlocked under those circumstances.”

I glanced at my notebook again, and lifted my shoulders a shade and let them drop negligently, which meant that I was mildly provoked. The thing looked like a mess, possibly a little nasty, with nothing much to be expected in the way of action or profit. The first step, of course, after what Wolfe had said, was for me to go take a look at the thirty-second floor of the Seaboard Building and enter into conversation. But the clock on the wall said 4:20. At six the attractive telephone voice with her out-of-town friend was expected to arrive; I wanted to be there, and I probably wouldn’t be it I once got started chasing that thirty grand.

I said to Perry, “Okay. I suppose you’ll be at your office in the morning? I’ll be there at nine sharp to look things over. I’ll want to see most of—”

“Tomorrow morning?” Perry was frowning. “Why not now?”

“I have another appointment.”

“Cancel it.” The color topped his cheekbones again. “This is urgent. I am one of Wolfe’s oldest clients. I took the trouble to come here personally—”

“Sorry, Mr. Perry. Won’t tomorrow do? My appointment can’t very well be postponed.”

“Send someone else.”

‘There’s no one available who could handle it.”

This is outrageous!” Perry jerked up in his chair. “I insist on seeing Wolfel”

I shook my head. “You know you can’t. You know darned well he’s ec– centric.” But then I thought, after all, I’ve seen worse guys, and he’s a client, and maybe he can’t help it if he gets on Mayors” Committees, perhaps they nag him. So I got out of my chair and said, “I’ll go upstairs and put it up to Wolfe, he’s the boss. If he says—”

The door of the office opened. I turned– Fritz came in, walking formal as he always did to announce a caller. But he didn’t get to announce this one. The caller came right along, two steps behind Fritz, and I grinned when I saw he was stepping so soft that Fritz didn’t loiow he was there.

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