Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 34 - Too Many Clients
When he had got deposited in the red leather chair I went to my desk, whirled my chair to face him, sat, and regarded him politely but without enthusiasm. It was only partly that his $39.95 suit didn’t fit and needed pressing and his $3.00 shirt was on its second or third day; it was more him than his clothes. There was nothing wrong with his long bony face and broad forehead, but he simply didn’t have the air of a man who might make a sizable contribution to Nero Wolfe’s bank balance.
Which at that moment, that Monday afternoon in early May, was down to $14,194.62, after deducting the checks I had just drawn and put on Wolfe’s desk for him to sign. That may look fairly respectable, but. What with the weekly wages of Theodore Horstmann, the orchid valet, Fritz Brenner, chef and house steward, and me, the handy man; and with grocery bills, including such items as the fresh caviar which Wolfe sometimes stirred into his coddled eggs at breakfast; and with the various needs of the orchids in the plant rooms up on the roof of the old brownstone, not to mention new additions to the collection; and with this and that and these and those, the minimum monthly outgo of that establishment averaged more than five grand. Also, the June 15 income-tax installment would be due in five weeks. So, with no prospect of a fat fee in sight, it was beginning to look as if a trip to the safe-deposit box might be called for before the Fourth of July.
Therefore, when the doorbell had rung and, going to the hall for a look through the one-way glass of the front door, I had seen an adult male stranger with no sample case, it had seemed fitting to open the door wide and give him a cordial eye. He had said, “This is Nero Wolfe’s house, isn’t it?” and I had said yes but Mr. Wolfe wouldn’t be available until six o’clock, and he had said, “I know, he’s up in the plant rooms from four to six, but I want to see Archie Goodwin. You’re Mr. Goodwin?” I had admitted it and asked him what about, and he had said he wanted to consult me professionally. By then I had sized him up, or thought I had, and it didn’t look very promising, but time could be wasted with him as well as without him, so I had taken him to the office. Another point against him was that he had no hat. Ninety-eight per cent of men who can pay big fees wear hats.
Leaning back in the red leather chair with his chin lowered and his intelligent gray eyes aimed at me, he spoke. “I’ll have to tell you who I am, of course.”
I shook my head. “Not unless it’s material.”
“It is.” He crossed his legs. The tops of his socks, gray with little red dots, were down nearly to his shoes. “Else there was no use coming. I want to consult you in the strictest confidence.”
I nodded. “Naturally. But this is Nero Wolfe’s office, and I work for him. If you get a bill it will be from him.”
“I know.” Apparently that was a triviality. His eyes were intelligent. “I expect a bill and I’ll pay it. I can speak in assured confidence?”
“Certainly. Unless you’re loaded with something too heavy for me to hold, like murder or treason.”
He smiled. “Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out. Treason doth never prosper. I am loaded with neither. None of my crimes is statutory. Then in confidence, Mr. Goodwin, my name is Yeager, Thomas G. Yeager. You may possibly have seen or heard it, though I am no celebrity. I live at Three-forty East Sixty-eighth Street. My firm, of which I am executive vice-president, is Continental Plastic Products, with offices in the Empire State Building.”
I did not blink. Continental Plastic Products might be a giant with three or four floors, or it might have two small rooms with the only phone on the executive vice-president’s desk. Even so, I knew that block in East 68th Street, and it was no slum, far from it. This character might wear a $39.95 suit because he didn’t give a damn and didn’t have to. I know a chairman of the board of a billion-dollar corporation, one of the 2 per cent, who never gets his shoes shined and shaves three times a week.
I had my notebook and was writing in it. Yeager was saying, “My home phone number is not listed. It’s Chisholm five, three-two-three-two. I came at a time when I knew Wolfe would be busy, to see you, because there’s no point in explaining it to him since he would merely assign you to it. I think I am being followed, and I want to make sure, and if I am I want to know who is following me.”
“That’s kindergarten stuff.” I tossed the notebook on my desk. “Any reputable agency will handle that for you at ten dollars an hour. Mr. Wolfe has a different approach to the fee question.”
“I know he has. That’s unimportant.” He waved it away. “But it’s vitally important to find out if I’m being followed, and quickly, and especially who it is. What agency at ten dollars an hour would have a man as good as you?”
“That’s not the point. Even if I’m only half as good as I think I am it would still be a pity to waste me on spotting a tail. And what if there’s no tail to spot'How long would it take to convince you'Say ten days, twelve horns a day, at a hundred dollars an hour. Twelve thousand bucks plus expenses. Even if you�”
“It wouldn’t be ten days.” He had lifted his chin. “I’m sure it wouldn’t. And it wouldn’t be twelve hours a day. If you’ll let me explain, Mr. Goodwin. I think I am being followed only at certain times, or that I will be. Specifically, I suspect that I shall be followed when I leave my house this evening at seven o’clock to go crosstown, across the park, to an address on Eighty-second Street. One-fifty-six West Eighty-second Street. Perhaps the best plan would be for you to be at my house when I leave, but of course I shall leave the tactics to you. I don’t want to be followed to that address. I don’t want it known that I have any connection with it. If I am not followed, that would end it for today, and I would call on you again only when I intend to go there again.”
“When would that be?”
“I can’t say definitely. Possibly later in the week, perhaps some day next week. I could notify you a day in advance.” “How will you go, your car or a taxi?”
“Which is more important to you, not to be followed to that address, or to know whether you’re followed or not, or to identify the tail if you have one?”
“They’re all important.”
“Well.” I screwed my lips. “I admit it’s a little special. I mentioned a hundred dollars an hour, but that’s for routine. The shoe would have to fit the foot, with Mr. Wolfe doing the fitting and you the footing.”
He smiled. “There will be no difficulty about that. Then I’ll expect you around seven. A little before?”
“Probably.” I got my notebook. “Will the tail be someone you know?”
“I don’t know. It might be.”
“Man or woman?”
“I couldn’t say. I don’t know.”
“An operative or a do-it-yourself?”
“I don’t know. It could be either.”
“Spotting him will be simple. Then what'If he’s an operative I might recognize him, but that wouldn’t help much. Of course I can pull him off whether I recognize him or not, but I can’t squeeze his client’s name out of him.”
“But you can pull him off?”
“Sure. How much would the client’s name be worth to you'It might come high.”
“I don’t think . . .” He hesitated. “I don’t believe I would care to do that.”
That didn’t seem to fit, but I skipped it. “If it’s someone on his own, of course I’ll pull him off, and what else'Do you want him to know he’s been spotted?”
He considered it for three seconds. “I think not. Better not, I think.”
“Then I can’t snap a picture of him. I can only give you a description.”
“That will suffice.”
“Okay.” I dropped the notebook on my desk. “Your address on Sixty-eighth Street, that’s not an apartment building, is it?” “No, it’s a house. My house.”
“Then I shouldn’t enter it and I shouldn’t get too near it. If it’s an operative he would probably recognize me. This is how it will be. At seven o’clock on the dot you will leave the house, walk to Second Avenue�don’t cross it�and turn left. About thirty paces from the corner is a lunchroom, and in front�”
“How do you happen to know that?”
“There aren’t many blocks in Manhattan I don’t know. In front of the lunchroom, either at the curb or double-parked, a blue and yellow taxi will be standing with the driver in it and the flag down. The driver will have a big square face and big ears. You will say to him, ‘You need a shave,’ and he will say, ‘My face is tender.’ To make sure, when you get in look at his name on the card. It will be Albert Goller.” I spelled it. “Do you want to write it down?”
“Then don’t forget it. Give him the address on West Eighty-second Street and sit back and relax. That’s all for you. Whatever the driver does, he’ll know what he’s doing. Don’t keep looking back; that might make it a little harder.”
He was smiling. “It didn’t take you long to set the stage, did it?”
“I haven’t got long.” I glanced up at the clock on the wall. “It’s nearly five.” I stood up. “I’ll be seeing you, but you won’t be seeing me.”
“Wonderful,” he said, leaving the chair. “Measure your mind’s height by the shade it casts. I knew you would be the man for it.” He moved and offered a hand. “Don’t bother to show me out, I know the way.”
I went along, as always for some years, ever since the day a visitor left the door unlatched, sneaked back in, and hid behind the couch in the front room, and during the night went through everything in the office he could open. At the door I asked him what the name of the hackie would be, and he told me. Returning, I went on past the door of the office to the kitchen, got a glass from the shelf and a carton of milk from the refrigerator.
Fritz, at the center table mincing shallots, gave me a look and spoke.
“That is an insult. I pull your nose. My shad roe aux fines herbes is a dish for a king.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a king.” I poured milk. “Also I’m leaving soon on an errand and I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“Ah'A personal errand.”
“No.” I took a sip. “I’ll not only answer your question, I’ll ask it for you. Having noticed that we haven’t had a client worth a damn for nearly six weeks, you want to know if we have one now, and I don’t blame you. It’s possible but not likely. It looks like more peanuts.” I took a sip. “You may have to invent a dish for a king made of peanut butter.”
“Not impossible, Archie. The problem would be to crack the oil. Not vinegar; it would take too much. Perhaps lime juice, with or without a drop or two of onion juice. I’ll try it tomorrow.”
I told him to let me know how he made out, took the milk to the office, got at the phone at my desk, dialed the number of the Gazette, and got Lon Cohen. He said he was too busy to spare time for anything but a front-page lead or an invitation to a poker game. I said I was out of both items at the moment but would put them on back order, and meanwhile I would hold the line while he went to the morgue to see if they had anything on Thomas G. Yeager, executive vice-president of Continental Plastic Products, residing at 340 East 68th Street. He said he knew the name, they probably had a file on him, and he would send for it and call back. In ten minutes he did so. Continental Plastic Products was one of the big ones; its main plant was in Cleveland, and its sales and executive offices were in the Empire State Building. Thomas G. Yeager had been its executive vice-president for five years and was in the saddle. He was married and had a daughter, Anne, unmarried, and a son, Thomas G. Junior, married. He was a member of . . .
I told Lon that was all I needed, thanked him, hung up, and buzzed the plant rooms on the house phone. After a wait Wolfe’s voice came, gruff of course.
“Sorry to interrupt. A man named Yeager came. He wants to know if he is being tailed and by whom. He expects to be soaked and doesn’t mind because no one but me is good enough. I have checked on him and he can stand it, and I might as well earn a couple of weeks’ pay. I’ll be gone when you come down. His name and address are in my notebook. I’ll be back before bedtime.”
“And tomorrow'How long will it last?”
“It won’t. If it does we’ll get Saul or Fred. I’ll explain later.
It’s just a chore.”
“Very well.” He hung up, and I took the phone and dialed a number that would get me Al Goller.
Two hours later, at twenty minutes past seven, I was sitting in a taxi parked on 67th Street between Second and Third Avenues, twisted around for a view through the rear window. If Yeager had left his house at 7:00 sharp, he should have been in Al Goller’s cab by 7:04, and Al should have turned the corner into 67th Street by 7:06. But it was 7:20, and no sign of him.
It was useless trying to guess what the hitch was, so I did. By 7:30 I had a collection of a dozen guesses, both plain and fancy. At 7:35 I was too annoyed to bother to guess. At 7:40 I told Mike Collins, the hackie, who was no stranger, “Nuts. I’ll take a look,” got out, and walked to the corner. Al was still there in his cab in front of the lunchroom. When the light showed green I crossed the avenue, went on to the cab, and asked Al, “Where is he?”
He yawned. “All I know is where he isn’t.”
“I’ll ring him. If he comes while I’m inside, have trouble starting your engine until I come out and go. Give me time to get back to Mike.”
He nodded and started another yawn, and I went into the lunchroom, found the phone booth in the rear, and dialed CH5-3232. After four rings I had a male voice in my ear. “Mrs. Yeager’s residence.”
“May I speak with Mr. Yeager?”
“He’s not available at the moment. Who is this, please?”
I hung up. Not only did I know the voice of Sergeant Purley Stebbins of Homicide West, but also it was I who some years back had informed him that when one answers the phone at the home of the John Does one says not “Mr. Doe’s residence” but “Mrs. Doe’s residence.” So I hung up, departed, signed to Al Goller to stay put, walked to the corner of 68th Street and turned right, and proceeded far enough to see that the dick behind the wheel of the PD car double-parked in front of Number 340 was the one who usually drove Stebbins. Whirling, I went back the way I had come, to the lunchroom and the phone booth, dialed the number of the Gazette, asked for Lon Cohen, and got him. My intention was to ask him if he had heard of any interesting murders recently, but I didn’t get to.
His voice came. “Archie?”
“Right. Have you-“
“How the hell did you know Thomas G. Yeager was going to be murdered when you called me three horns ago?” “I didn’t. I don’t. I merely-“
“Balls. But I appreciate it. Thanks for a page-one box. nero wolfe scoops the cops again. I’m writing it now: ‘Nero Wolfe, private eye extraordinary, was plunging into the Yeager murder case more than two hours before the body was discovered in an excavation on West Eighty-second Street. At five-five p.m. his lackey, Archie Goodwin, phoned the Gazette office to get�’”
“You’ll eat it. The whole world knows I’m not a lackey, I’m a flunky, and the idea of Nero Wolfe plunging. Besides, this is the first time I’ve phoned you for a month. If someone called and imitated my voice it was probably the murderer, and if you had been smart enough to keep him on while you had the call traced you might have�”
“Okay. Start over. When can you give me something?”
“When I have something to give. I always do, don’t I'Pretend I didn’t know Yeager had been murdered until you told me. Where is the excavation on West Eighty-second Street?”
“Between Columbus and Amsterdam.”
“When was the body found?”
“Ten after seven. Fifty minutes ago. Under a tarp at the bottom of a hole dug by Con Edison. Boys climbed in to retrieve a ball that had rolled in.”
I took a second. “The body must have rolled in since five o’clock; that’s when Con Ed men usually quit if it’s not an emergency. Didn’t anyone see it roll in and pull the tarp over it?”
“How do I know'We got it only half an hour ago.”
“How sure is the identification?”
“Positive. One of the men we sent knew him. He phoned just five minutes ago.”
“How do you know he was murdered?”
“That’s not official yet, but there’s a hole in the side of his head that he didn’t make with his finger. Look, Archie. His file from the morgue was here on my desk when the flash came. Within an hour everybody here will know that I sent for it two hours in advance. I don’t mind being mysterious, but it could be a nuisance if this gets big. So I mention that I sent for the file because of a call from you, and someone who likes to do favors mentions it to someone at Homicide, and then?”
“Then I cooperate with the cops as usual. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Fine. It’ll be a pleasure to see you.”
I went out to the sidewalk, got into Al’s cab, and told him to roll around the corner to Mike. As he pulled away from the curb he said his instructions were to accept only a passenger who told him he needed a shave, and I told him all right, he needed a shave. There was no space at the curb on 67th Street near Mike, so we stopped alongside, and I got out and stood between the two cabs, at the open front windows.
“The party’s off,” I told them. “Circumstances beyond my control. I mentioned no figure to you because of unknown factors, such as how long it would take, but since you have only had to sit around a while, maybe twenty apiece would be enough. What do you think?”
Mike said, “Yeah,” and Al said, “Sure. What happened?”
I got out my wallet and took out six twenties. “So we’ll make it three times that,” I said, “because you are not dumb. I haven’t told you the name of the client, but I described him, and you know he was coming from around the corner on Sixty-eighth Street, and he was going to West Eighty-second Street. So when you read in the paper tomorrow about a man named Thomas G. Yeager who lived at Three-forty East Sixty-eighth Street, that his body was found at seven-ten this evening in a hole on West Eighty-second Street, with a hole in his head, you will wonder.
When a man wonders about something, he likes to talk about it. So here’s sixty bucks apiece. What I want is a chance to satisfy my curiosity without being bothered by cops wanting to know why I arranged this setup. Why the hell did he go on his own instead of sticking to our program'I will add that he didn’t say or hint that he expected or feared any violence; he only wanted to find out if he was being tailed, and if so he wanted the tail pulled off and identified if possible. That’s what I told you and that’s how it was. I haven’t the faintest idea who killed him or why. You know all I know. I would just as soon have nobody else know it until I look around a little. You guys have known me �how long?”
“Five years,” Mike said.
“Eight years,” Al said. “How did you find out he got it'If his body was found only an hour ago�”
“When I rang his house I recognized the voice that answered, a Homicide sergeant, Purley Stebbins. When I went around the corner I recognized the driver of a PD car parked in front of Number Three-forty. When I phoned a newspaperman I know and asked for news I got it. I am saving nothing; you have it all. Here’s your sixty bucks.”
Al reached to get a corner of one twenty with a finger and thumb and slipped it out. “This’ll do,” he said. “This is enough for my time, and keeping my Up buttoned is just personal. I’ll enjoy it. Every cop I see I can think, You bastard, what I know and you don’t.”
Mike, grinning, took his three twenties. “I’m different,” he said. “Just as apt as not I’d tell everybody in reach, including cops, but now I can’t because I’d have to give your forty bucks back. I may not be noble but I’m honest.” He put the bills in a pocket and extended a paw. “But we’d better shake on it just to be sure.”
We shook, and I got back into Al’s cab and told him to take me to the Gazette building.
If Lon Cohen had a title, I didn’t know what it was and I doubt if he did. Just his name was on the door of the little room on the twentieth floor, two doors down from the corner office of the publisher, and in that situation you would think he would be out of the dust stirred up by the daily whirlwind of a newspaper, but he always seemed to be up, not only on what had just happened but on what was just going to happen. We kept no account of how we stood on give and take over the years, but it pretty well evened up.
He was very dark�dark skin stretched tight over his neat little face, dark brown deep-set eyes, hair almost black, slicked back and up over his sloping dome. He was next to the best of the poker players I occasionally spent a night with, the best being Saul Panzer, whom you will meet later. When I entered the little room that Monday evening he was on the phone, and I took the chair at the end of his desk and sat and listened. It went on for minutes, and all he said was “No” nine times. When he hung up I said, “Just a yes man.”
“I have to make a call,” he said. “Here, pass the time.” He picked up a cardboard folder and handed it to me and returned to the phone.
It was the file on Thomas G. Yeager. Not bulky�a dozen or so newspaper clippings, four typewritten memos, tear sheets of an article in a trade journal, Plastics Today, and three photographs. Two of the photographs were studio jobs with his name typed at the bottom, and one was of a gathering in the Churchill ballroom, with a typed caption pasted on: “Thomas G. Yeager speaking at the banquet of the National Plastics Association, Churchill Hotel, New York City, October 19, 1958.” He was at the mike on the stage with his arm raised for a gesture. I read the memos and glanced through the clippings, and was looking over the article when Lon finished at the phone and turned.
“All right, give,” he demanded.
I closed the folder and put it on the desk. “I came,” I said, “to make a deal, but first you should know something. I have never seen Thomas G. Yeager or spoken with him or had any communication from him, and neither has Mr. Wolfe. I know absolutely nothing about him except what you told me on the phone and what I just read in that folder.”
Lon was smiling. “Okay for the record. Now just between you and me.”
“The same, believe it or not. But I heard something just before I phoned you at five o’clock that made me curious about him. For the time being I would prefer to keep what I heard to myself�for at least twenty-four hours and maybe longer. I expect to be busy and I don’t want to spend tomorrow at the DA’s office. So it’s not necessary for anyone to know that I rang you this afternoon to ask about Yeager.”
“It may be desirable. For me. I sent for his file. If I say I dreamed something was going to happen to him people might talk.”
I grinned at him. “Come off it. You haven’t even got a pair. You can say anything you damn please. You can say someone told you something off the record and you’re hanging on to it. Besides, I’m offering a deal. If you’ll forget about my curiosity about Yeager until further notice, I’ll put you on my Christmas card fist. This year it will be an abstract painting in twenty colors and the message will be ‘We want to share with you this picture of us bathing the dog, greetings of the season from Archie and Mehitabel and the children.’”
“You haven’t got a Mehitabel or any children.”
“Sure, that’s why it will be abstract.”
He eyed me. “You could give me something not for quotation. Or something to hold until you’re ready to let go.”
“No. Not now. If and when, I know your number.”
“As usual.” He raised his hands, palms up. “I have things to do. Drop in some day.” His phone rang, and he turned to it, and I went.
On my way to the elevator and going down, I looked it over. I had told Wolfe I would be back before bedtime, but it was only nine o’clock. I was hungry. I could go to a soda counter for a bite and decide how to proceed while I bit, but the trouble was that I knew darned well what I wanted to do, and it might take all night. Besides, although it was understood that when I was out on an errand I would be guided by intelligence and experience, as Wolfe had put it, it was also understood that if things got complicated I would phone. And the phone was no good for this, not only because he hated talking on the phone about anything whatever, but also because it had to be handled just right or he would refuse to play. So I flagged a taxi and gave the driver the address of the old brownstone on West 35th Street.
Arriving, I mounted the seven steps to the stoop and pushed the bell button. My key isn’t enough when the chain bolt is on, as it usually is when I’m out. When Fritz opened the door and I entered, he tried not to look a question at me but couldn’t keep it out of his eyes-the same question he hadn’t asked that afternoon: Did we have a client'I told him it was still possible, and I was empty, and could he spare a hunk of bread and a glass of milk'He said but of course, he would bring it, and I went to the office.
Wolfe was at his desk with a book, leaning back in the only chair in the world that he can sit down in without making a face, made to order by his design and under his supervision. The reading light in the wall above and behind his left shoulder was the only one on in the room, and like that, with the light at that angle, he looks even bigger than he is. Like a mountain with the sun rising behind it. As I entered and flipped the wall switch to cut him down to size, he spoke. He said, “Umph.” As I crossed to my desk he asked, “Have you eaten?”
“No.” I sat. “Fritz is bringing something.”
Surprise with a touch of annoyance. Ordinarily, when an errand has made me miss a meal and I come home hungry, I go to the kitchen to eat. The exceptions are when I have something to report that shouldn’t wait, and when he is settled down for the evening with a book he is in no mood to listen to a report, no matter what.
I nodded. “I have something on my chest.”
His lips tightened. The book, a big thick one, was spread open, held with both hands. He closed it on a finger to keep his place, heaved a sigh, and demanded, “What?”
I decided it was useless to try circling around. With him you have to fit the tactics to the atmosphere. “That slip I put on your desk,” I said. “The bank balance after drawing those checks. The June tax payment will be due in thirty-seven days. Of course we could file an amended declaration if someone doesn’t turn up with a major problem and a retainer to match.”
He was scowling at me. “Must you harp on the obvious?”
“I’m not harping. I haven’t mentioned it for three days. I refer to it now because I would like to have permission to take a stab at digging up a client instead of sitting here on my fanny waiting for one to turn up. I’m getting calluses on my rump.”