Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 20 - Triple Jeopardy
Home to Roost Rex Stout My nephew Arthur was the romantic type, said Mrs. Benjamin Rackell with the least possible movement of her thin tight lips. He thought being a Communist was romantic.
Nero Wolfe, behind his desk in his outsized chair that thought nothing of his seventh of a ton, scowled at her. I, at my own desk with a notebook and pen,
permitted myself a private grin, not unsympathetic. Wolfe was controlling himself under severe provocation. The appointment for Mr. Rackell to call at Wolfes office on the ground floor of his old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, at six p.m., had been made by phone by a secretary in the office of the Rackell Importing Company, and nothing had been said about a wife coming along. And the wife, no treat as a spectacle to begin with, was an interrupter and a cliche tosser, enough to make Wolfe scowl at any man, let alone a woman.
But, he objected, not too caustic, you say that he was not a Communist, that,
on the contrary, he was acting for the FBI when he joined the Communist party.
He would have loved to tell her to get lost. But his house had five stories,
counting the basement and the plant rooms full of orchids on the roof, and there was Fritz the chef and Theodore the botanist and me, Archie Goodwin, the fairly confidential assistant, with nothing to carry the load but his income as a private detective; and the Rackell check for three thousand bucks, offered as a retainer, was under a paperweight on his desk.
Thats just it, Mrs. Rackell said impatiently. Isnt it romantic to work for the FBI'But that wasnt why he did it; he did it to serve his country, and thats why they killed him. His being the romantic type had nothing to do with it.
Wolfe made a face and undertook to bypass her. His eyes went to Rackell. She would probably have called her husband the stubby type, with his short arms and legs, but he was no runt. His trunk was long and broad and his head long and narrow. His eyes pointed down at the corners, and so did his mouth, making him look mournful.
Wolfe asked him, Have you spoken with the FBI, Mr. Rackell'
But the wife answered. No, he hasnt, she said. I went myself yesterday, and I never heard anything to equal it. They wouldnt tell me a single thing. They wouldnt even admit Arthur was working for them as a spy for his country! They said it was a matter for the New York police and I should talk to them - as if I hadnt!
I told you, Pauline, Rackell said mildly but not timidly, that the FBI wont tell people things. And the police wont either, not when its murder, and especially when the Communists come into it. Thats why I insisted on coming to Nero Wolfe to find out whats going on. If the FBI doesnt want it known that Arthur was with them, even if it means not getting his murderer, what else can you expect'
I expect justice! Mrs. Rackell declared, her lips actually moving visibly.
I gave it a line to itself in the notebook.
Wolfe was frowning at Rackell. There seems to be some confusion. I understood that you want a murder investigated. Now you say you came to me to find out whats going on. If you mean you want me to investigate the police and the FBI,
thats too big a bite.
I didnt say that, Rackell protested.
No, but clear it up. What do you want'
Rackells down-pointing eyes looked even mournfuller.
We want facts, he declared. I think the police and the FBI are quite capable of sacrificing the rights of a private citizen to what they consider the public interest. Our nephew was murdered, and my wife had a right to ask them what line theyre proceeding on, and they wouldnt tell her. I dont intend to just let it go at that. Is this a democracy or isnt it'Im not-
No! the wife snapped. Its not a democracy, its a republic.
I suggest, said Wolfe, exasperated, that I recapitulate to see if I have it straight. Ill combine what I have read in the papers with what you have told me. He focused on the wife, probably figuring that she would be less apt to cut in if he held her eye. Arthur Rackell, your husbands orphaned nephew, was a fairly efficient employee of his importing business, drawing a good salary,
living at your home here in New York, on Sixty-eighth Street. Some three years ago you noted that he was taking a radically leftist position in discussions of political and social questions, and you remonstrated without effect. As time passed he became more leftist and more outspoken, until his opinions and arguments were identical with the Communist line. You, both you and your husband, argued with him and entreated him, but -
I did, Mrs. Rackell snapped. My husband didnt.
Now, Pauline, Rackell protested. I argued with him some. He looked at Wolfe.
I didnt entreat him because I didnt think I had a right to. I dont believe in entreating people about their convictions. I was paying him a salary and I didnt want him to think he had to - The importer fluttered a hand. I liked Arthur, and he was my brothers son.
In any case, Wolfe went on brusquely, still at the wife, he did not change.
He stubbornly adhered to the Communist position. He applauded the Communist attack in Korea and denounced the action of the United Nations. You finally found it insufferable and gave him an ultimatum: either he would abandon his outrageous -
Not an ultimatum, Mrs. Rackell corrected. My husband refused to permit it. I merely -
Wolfe outspoke her. At least you made it plain that you had had enough and he was no longer welcome in your home. You must have made it fairly strong, since he was moved to disclose an extremely tight secret: that he had been persuaded by the FBI, back in nineteen forty-eight, to join the Communist party for the purpose of espionage. No easy admonition would have dragged that out of him,
I didnt say it was easy. I told him - She stopped, and the thin lips really did tighten. She relaxed them enough to let words out. I think he thought he would lose his job, and he was well paid. Much more than he earned, the amount of work he did.
Wolfe nodded. Anyhow, he told you his secret, and you promised to keep it,
becoming a confederate. Privately admiring him, with others you had to pretend to maintain your condemnation. You told your husband and no one else. That was about a week ago, you say'
And Saturday evening, three days ago, your nephew was murdered. Now to that.
You have added little to what the papers have carried, but lets see. He left the apartment, your home, and took a taxi to Chezars restaurant, where he had a dinner engagement. He had invited three women and two men to dine with him, and they were all there when he arrived, in the bar. When your nephew came they went with him to the table he had reserved and had cocktails. He took a small metal box from -
Gold is a metal, madam. He took it from a pocket, his side coat pocket, put it on the table, and left it there while he conferred with the waiter. There was conversation. When plates and rolls and butter were brought, the pillbox got pushed around. It was on the table altogether some ten or twelve minutes. When hors doeuvres were served, your nephew started to eat, remembered the pillbox,
found it behind the basket of rolls, got from it a vitamin capsule, swallowed the capsule with a sip of water, and began on his hors doeuvres. Six or seven minutes later he suddenly cried out, sprang to his feet, overturning his chair,
made convulsive gestures, became rigid, collapsed and crumpled to the floor, and died. A doctor arrived shortly, but he was already dead. It has been found that two other capsules in the metal box, similar in appearance to the one he took,
contained what they were supposed to and were harmless; but your nephew had swallowed potassium cyanide. He was murdered by replacing a vitamin capsule with a capsule filled with poison.
Certainly. Thats what-
Ill go on, please. You were and are convinced that the substitution was made by one of his dinner companions who is a Communist and who learned that your nephew was acting for the FBI, and you so informed Inspector Cramer of the police. You were not satisfied with his acceptance of that information,
especially in a subsequent talk with him yesterday morning, Monday, and went yourself to the office of the FBI, saw a Mr. Anstrey, and found him noncommittal. He took the position that a homicide in Manhattan is the business of the New York police. Exasperated, you went to Inspector Cramers office, were unable to see him, talked with a sergeant named Stebbins, came away further exasperated, regarded with favor your husbands suggestion, made this morning,
that I be consulted, and here you are. Have I left out anything important'
One little point. Rackell cleared his throat. Our telling Inspector Cramer about Arthurs joining the Communist party for the FBI - that was in confidence.
Of course this talk with you is confidential too, naturally, since were your clients.
Wolfe shook his head. Not yet. You want to hire me to investigate the death of your nephew'
Then you should know that while no one excels me in discretion I will not work under restrictions.
Thats fair enough.
Good. Ill let you know tomorrow, probably by noon.
Wolfe reached to push the paperweight aside and pick up the check. Shall I keep this meanwhile and return it if I cant take the job'
Rackell frowned, perplexed. His wife snapped, Why on earth couldnt you take it'
I dont know, madam. I hope to. I need the money. But Ill have to look into it a little - discreetly, of course. Ill let you know tomorrow at the latest. He extended a hand with the check. Unless you prefer to take this and try elsewhere.
They didnt like it, especially her. She even left the red leather chair to take the check, her lips tight, but after some give-and-take with her husband they decided to let it ride, and she put the check back on the desk. They wanted to give us more details, especially about their nephews five dinner guests, but Wolfe said that could wait, and they left, none too pleased. As I let them out at the front door Rackell gave me a polite thank-you nod, but she didnt even know I was there.
Returning to the office, I got the check and put it in the safe and then stood to regard Wolfe. His nose was twitching. He looked as if he had an oyster with horseradish on it in his mouth, a combination he detests.
It cant be helped, I told him. It takes all kinds to make a clientele. What are we going to look into a little'
He sighed. Get Mr. Wengert of the FBI. You want to see him, this evening if possible. Ill talk.
Its nearly seven oclock.
I went to the phone on my desk, dialed RE 2-3500, talked to a stranger and to a man I had met a couple of times, and reported to Wolfe, Not available. Tomorrow morning.
Make an appointment.
I did so and hung up.
Wolfe sat scowling at me. He spoke. Ill give you instructions after dinner.
Have we got the Gazette of the past three days'
Let me have them, please. Confound it. He sighed again. Saturday, and tomorrows Wednesday. Like a warmed-over meal. He came erect and his face brightened. I wonder how Fritz is making out with that fish.
He left his chair and headed for the hall and the kitchen.
Wednesday morning all the air in Manhattan was conditioned - the wrong way. It was no place for penguins. On my way to Foley Square my jacket was beside me on the seat of the taxi, but when I had paid the driver and got out I put it on.
Sweat or no sweat, I had to show the world that a private detective can be tough enough to take it.
When, after some waiting, I got admitted to Wengerts big corner room I found him in his shirt sleeves with his tie and collar loosened. He got up to shake hands and invited me to sit. We exchanged remarks.
I havent seen you, I told him, since you got elevated here.
Youre welcome. I notice youve got brass in your voice, but I guess that cant be helped. Mr. Wolfe sends his regards.
Give him mine. His voice warmed up a little, just perceptibly. Ill never forget how he came through on that mercury thing. He glanced at the watch on his wrist. What can I do for you, Goodwin'
Back a few years, when we had been in G2 together, it had been Archie, but then he hadnt had a corner room with five phones on his desk. I crossed my legs to show there was no rush.
Not a thing, I told him. Mr. Wolfe just wants to clear. Yesterday a man and wife named Rackell came to see him. They want him to investigate the death of their nephew, Arthur Rackell. Do you know about it, or do you want to call someone in'Mrs. Rackell has talked with a Mr. Anstrey.
I know. Go ahead.
Then I wont have to draw pictures. Our bank says that Rackell rates seven figures west of the decimal point, and we would like to earn a fee by tagging a murderer, but our country right or wrong. We would hate to torpedo the ship of state in this bad weather. The Rackells came to Mr. Wolfe because they think the FBI and the NYPD regard the death of Arthur as a regrettable but minor incident.
They say he was killed by a Commie who discovered that he was an FBI plant.
Before we proceed on that theory Mr. Wolfe wants to clear with you. Of course you may not want to say, even under the rug to us, that he was yours. May you'
Its hotter than yesterday, Wengert stated.
Yeah. Would you care to make any sign at all, for instance a wink'
Then Ill try something more general. There has been nothing in the papers about the Commie angle, not a word, so there has been no mention of the FBI. Is the FBI working on the murder, officially or otherwise'
Much hotter, he said.
It sure is. How about the others, the five dinner guests'Of course theyre our meat. Any suggestions, requests, or orders'Any strings you wouldnt want us to trip on'
The humidity, too.
Absolutely. I realize that you would like to tell us to lay off on general principles, but youre afraid there might be a headline tomorrow, FBI warns Nero Wolfe to keep hands off of Rackell murder. Besides, if you give us a stop sign youll have to say why or well keep going. Just to clean it up, is there any question I might ask that would take your mind off the weather'