Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Wolfe had told me the same, so I took five twenties from the expense wallet and forked it over. 'I must say,' he commented, folding the bills neatly and stuffing them in his waistband pocket, 'this is a large return for a small effort. I am aware that I may earn it-ah, suddenly and unexpectedly.' He leaned toward me. 'Though I may tell you confidentially, Archie, that I expect nothing to happen. I am sanguine by nature.'
'Yeah,' I told him, 'me too.' I opened the drawer of my desk, the middle one on the right, where I kept armament, got out the shoulder holster and put it on, and selected the gun that was my property-the other two belonged to Wolfe. There were only three cartridges in it, so I pulled the drawer open farther to get to the ammunition compartment and filled the cylinder. As I shoved the gun into the holster I happened to glance at Hackett and saw that he had a new face. The line of his lips was tight, and his eyes looked startled, wary, and concentrated.
'It hadn't occurred to me before,' he said, and his voice had changed too. 'This Mr. Wolfe is quite an article, and you're his man. I am doing this with the understanding that someone may mistake me for Mr. Wolfe and try to kill me, but I have only his word for it that that is actually the situation. If it's more complicated than that, and the intention is for you to shoot me yourself, I want to say emphatically that that would not be fair.'
I grinned at him sympathetically, trying to make up for my blunder, realizing that I should not have dressed for the occasion in his presence. The sight of the gun, a real gun and real cartridges, had scared him stiff. If he ran out on us now and we had to advertise again to find a new one-my God, I had just handed him a hundred bucks!
'Listen,' I told him earnestly, 'you said a minute ago that you expect nothing to happen. You may be right. I'm inclined to agree with you. But in case somebody does undertake to perform, I am wearing this little number'-I patted under my arm where the gun was-'for two purposes: first, to keep you from getting hurt; and second, if you do get hurt, to hurt him worse.' It seemed to satisfy him, for his eyes got less concentrated, but he didn't resume with the ginger snaps. At least I had accomplished that much. Using a matter-of-fact tone, which I thought would reassure him, I explained that he was to go to Wolfe's room at eleven-thirty for instructions, which would include our afternoon outing.
To tell the truth, by the time the afternoon was over and I had him back in the house again, a little after five-thirty, I had to maintain a firm hold on such details as ginger snaps and his calling me Archie to keep from admiring him.
During that extended expedition we made stops at Brooks Brothers, Rusterman's, the Churchill, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Botanical Gardens, and three or four others. He occupied the rear seat, of course, because Wolfe always did, and the mirror showed me that he sat back comfortably, taking in the sights, a lot more imperturbable than Wolfe himself would have been, since Wolfe disliked motion, detested bumps, and had a settled notion that all the other cars had turned out for the express purpose of colliding with his.
When we made one of our stops and Hackett got out to cross the sidewalk, he was okay. He didn't hurry or dodge or jerk or weave, but just walked. In Wolfe's hat and coat and stick, he might even have fooled me. I had to hand it to him, in spite of the fact that the whole show struck me as the biggest bust Wolfe had ever concocted. At night it might be different, but here in broad daylight, and with no discernible evidence that anyone was on our trail, I felt foolish, futile, and fatuous, and still I had to keep alert, covering all directions, with the gun in my hand resting on the seat.
Nothing happened. Not a damn thing.
Back at the house, I left Hackett in the office and went to the kitchen, where Wolfe was sitting at the big table drinking beer and watching Fritz make tomato juice. His daily routine was of course all shot. I reported, 'They tried to get him from the top of the Palisades with a howitzer, but missed him. He has a little bruise on his left elbow from the revolving door at Rusterman's, but otherwise unhurt.'
Wolfe grunted. 'How did he behave?'
Wolfe grunted again. 'After dark we may more reasonably expect results. I repeat what I told you at noon: you will take an active part in the interview with Miss Geer, but you will restrain yourself. If you permit yourself to get fanciful, there is no telling what the effect may be on Mr. Hackett. As you know, his instructions are precise, but his discipline is questionable. See that she speaks up, so I can hear her. Seat her at the corner of my desk farthest from you so I will have a good view of her. The view through that hole is restricted.'
But as it turned out, I wasn't able to obey orders. It was then nearly six o'clock. When the doorbell rang a few minutes later and I went to answer it, glancing in at the office on my way down the hall to make sure that Hackett didn't have his feet up on the desk, I opened the door to find that Miss Geer hadn't ventured alone on the streets of the great city after all. Major Emil Jensen was there with her.
I had the door open. It wouldn't have been courteous to slam it shut again and leave them on the stoop while I considered matters, so I dallied on the doorsill. 'Well,' I said brightly, 'two on one hook?'
Jensen said hello. Jane said, 'You couldn't have had that thought up, because Major Jensen decided to come on the spur of the moment. We were having cocktails.' She looked me up and down; it was true that I was sort of blocking the way and not moving. 'May we come in?' Certainly I could have told Jensen we only had one extra chair so he had better go for a walk, but if there was going to be anything accomplished by having either of those two get the idea that Hackett was Nero Wolfe, I would have picked him for the experiment rather than her. On the other hand, with Hackett primed only for her it would have been crowding our luck to confront him with both of them; and anyway, I couldn't take such a chance on my own hook. I needed advice from headquarters. So I decided to herd them into the front room, and ask them to wait, and go to consult Wolfe.
'Sure,' I said hospitably, 'enter.' I gave them gangway, and when they were in, shut the door and opened the door to the front room. 'In there, please. Find seats. If you don't mind waiting a minute-' I had got myself headed back for the hall before noticing an unfortunate fact: the door from the front room to the office was standing open. That was careless of me, but I hadn't expected complications. If they moved across, as they naturally would, Hackett sitting in the office would be in plain sight. But what the hell, that was what he was there for. So I kept going, down the hall to the turn into the alcove at the far end, found Wolfe there ready to take position at the peep-hole, and muttered to him: 'She brought an outrider along. Major Jensen. I put them in the front room. The door into the office is open. Well?'
He scowled at me. He whispered, 'Confound it. Return to the front room by way of the office, closing that door as you go. Tell Major Jensen to wait, that I wish to speak with Miss Geer privately. Take her to the office by way of the hall, and when you-'
Somebody fired a gun.
At least that's what it sounded like, and the sound didn't come from outdoors.
The walls and the air vibrated. Judging by the noise, I might have fired it myself, but I hadn't. I moved. In three jumps I was at the door to the office.
Hackett was sitting there, looking startled and speechless. I dashed through to the front room. Jensen and Jane were there, on their feet, she off to the right and he to the left, both also startled and speechless, staring at each other.
Their hands were empty, except for Jane's bag. I might have been inclined to let it go for Hackett biting a ginger snap if it hadn't been for the smell. I knew that smell. I snapped at Jensen, 'Well?'
'Well yourself.' He had transferred the stare to me. 'What the hell was it?'
'Did you fire a gun?'
'No. Did you?'
I pivoted to Jane. 'Did you?'
'You-you idiot,' she stammered. She was trying not to tremble. 'Why would I fire a gun?'
'Let me see that one in your hand,' Jensen demanded. I looked at my hand and was surprised to see a gun in it. I must have snatched it from the holster automatically en route.
'Not it,' I said. I poked the muzzle to within an inch of Jensen's nose. 'Was it?'
He sniffed. 'No.' He felt the barrel, found it cold, and shook his head.
I said, 'But a gun was fired inside here. Do you smell it?'
'Certainly I smell it.'
'Okay. Let's join Mr. Wolfe and discuss it. Through there.' I indicated the door to the office with a flourish of the gun.
Jane started jabbering, but I paid no attention. She was merely jabbering, something indignant about a put-up job and so on. She was disinclined to enter the office, but when Jensen went she followed him and I brought up the rear.
'This is Mr. Nero Wolfe,' I said. 'Sit down.' I was using my best judgment and figured I was playing it right because Wolfe was nowhere in sight. I had to decide what to do with them while I found the gun and maybe the bullet.
Jane was still trying to jabber, but she stopped when Jensen blurted, 'Wolfe has blood on his head!'
I stared at Hackett. He was standing up behind the desk, leaning forward with his hand resting on the desk, looking the three of us over with an expression that left it open whether he was dazed, scared, or angry, or all three. He didn't seem to hear Jensen's words. When I did I saw the blood on Hackett's left ear and dribbling down the side of his neck. I took in a breath and yelled, 'Fritz!'
He appeared instantly, probably having been standing by in the hall by Wolfe's direction. I told him to come here, and when he came handed him my gun. 'If anybody reaches for a handkerchief, shoot.'
'Those instructions,' Jensen said sharply, 'are dangerous if he-'
'He's all right.'
'I would like you to search me.' Jensen stuck his hands toward the ceiling.
'That,' I said, 'is more like it,' and crossed to him and explored him from neck to ankles, invited him to relax in a chair, and turned to Jane. She darted me a look of pure and lofty disgust and backed away as from a noxious miasma.
I remarked, 'If you refuse to stand inspection and then you happen to make a gesture and Fritz shoots you in the tummy, don't blame me.'
She darted more looks, but took it. I felt her over not quite as comprehensively as I had Jensen, took her bag and glanced in it and returned it to her, and then stepped around Wolfe's desk to examine Hackett's blood. He wasn't screaming or moaning, but the expression on his face was something. After Jensen had announced the blood, he had put his hand up to feel, and he was staring at the red on his fingers with his big jaw hanging open.
'My head?' he croaked. 'Is it my head?'
The exhibition he was making of himself was no help to Nero Wolfe's reputation for intrepidity. After a brief look I told him distinctly, 'No, sir. Nothing but a nick in the upper outside corner of your ear.' I wiped with my handkerchief. 'You might go to the bathroom and use a towel.'
'I am not-hurt?'
I could have murdered him. Instead, I told Fritz, standing there with my gun, that unnecessary movements were still forbidden, and took Hackett to the bathroom in the far corner and shut the door behind me. While I showed him the ear in the mirror and dabbed on some iodine and taped on a bandage, I told him to stay in there until his nerves calmed down and then rejoin us, act detached and superior, and let me do the talking. He said he would, but at that moment I would have traded him for one wet cigarette.
As I reappeared in the office, Jane shot at me, 'Did you search him?' I ignored her and circled around Wolfe's desk for a look at the back of the chair. The head-rest was upholstered in brown leather; and about eight inches from the top and a foot from the side edge, a spot that would naturally have been on a line behind Hackett's left ear as he sat, there was a hole in the leather. I looked behind, and there was another hole on the rear side. I looked at the wall back of the chair and found still another hole, torn into the plaster. From the bottom draw of my desk I got a screwdriver and hammer, started chiseling, ran against a stud, and went to work with the point of my knife. When I finally turned around I held a small object between my thumb and finger. As I did so Hackett emerged from the bathroom, apparently more composed.
'Bullet,' I said informatively. 'Thirty-eight. Passed through Mr. Wolfe's ear and the back of his chair and ruined the wall. Patched plaster is an eyesore.'
Jane sputtered. Jensen sat and gazed at me with narrowed eyes. Hackett said, in what he probably thought was a detached and superior tone, 'I'll search them again.' I tried not to glare at him.
'No, sir,' I said deferentially, 'I made sure of that. But I suggest-'
'It could be,' Jensen put in, 'that Wolfe fired that bullet himself.'
'Yeah?' I returned his gaze. 'Mr. Wolfe would be glad to let you inspect his face for powder marks.'
'He washed them off in the bathroom,' Jane snapped.
'They don't wash off.' I continued to Jensen, 'I'll lend you a magnifying glass. You can examine the leather on the chair too.'
By gum, he took me up. He nodded and arose, and I got the glass from Wolfe's desk, the big one. First he went over the chair, the portion in the neighborhood of the bullet hole, and then crossed to Hackett and gave his face and ear a look. Hackett stood still, with his lips compressed and his eyes straight ahead.
Jensen gave me back the glass and returned to his seat. I asked him, 'Did Mr. Wolfe shoot himself in the ear?'
'No,' he admitted. 'Not unless he had the gun wrapped.'
'Sure.' My tone cut slices off of them. 'He tied a pillow around it, held it at arm's length, pointing it at his ear, and pulled the trigger. How would you like to try demonstrating it'Keeping the bullet within an inch of your frontal lobe?'
He never stopped gazing at me. 'I am,' he declared, 'being completely objective. With some difficulty. I agree it is highly improbable.'
'If I understand what happened-' Hackett began, but I doubted if he was going to offer anything useful, so I cut him off.
'Excuse me, sir. The bullet helps, but the gun would help still more. Let's be objective too. We might possibly find the object in the front room.' I moved, touching his elbow to take him along. 'Fritz, see that they stay put.'
'I,' said Jensen, getting up, 'would like to be present-'
'The hell you would.' I wheeled to him. My voice may have gone up a notch. 'Sit down, brother. I am trying not to fly off the handle. I am trying not to be rude. Whose house is this, with bullets zipping around'I swear to God Fritz will shoot you in the knee.' He had another remark to contribute, and so did Jane, but I disregarded them and wrangled Hackett ahead of me into the front room and shut the soundproof door. Hackett began to talk, but I shut him off.
He insisted he had something to say. I told him to spill it. 'It seems incredible,' he asserted, meeting my eye and choosing his words, 'that one of them could have shot at me from in here, through the open door, without me seeing anything.'
'You said that before, in the bathroom. You also said you didn't remember whether your eyes were open or shut, or where you were looking, when you heard that shot.' I moved my face to within fourteen inches of his. 'See here. If you are suspecting that I shot at you, or that Wolfe did, you have got fleas or other insects playing tag in your brain and should have it attended to. One thing alone: the way the bullet went, straight past your ear and into the chair back, it had to come from in front, the general direction of that door and this room. It couldn't have come from the door in the hall or anywhere else, because we haven't got a gun that shoots a curve. I can't help it if your eyes were focused somewhere else or were closed or you went temporarily blind. You will please sit in that chair against the wall and not move or talk.'
He grumbled but obeyed. I surveyed the field. On the assumption that the gun had been fired in that room, I adopted the theory that either it was still there or it had been transported or propelled without. As for transportation, I had got there not more than five seconds after the shot and found them there staring at each other. As for propulsion, the windows were closed and the Venetian blinds down. I preferred the first alternative and began to search.
Obviously it couldn't be anything abstruse, since five seconds wasn't long enough to pry up a floor board or make a hole in a table leg, so I tried easier places, like under furniture and behind cushions. It might be thought that under the circumstances I would have been dead sure of finding it, but I had the curious feeling that I probably wouldn't no matter how thoroughly I looked; I have never understood why. If it was a hunch it was a bad day for hunches, because when I came to the big vase on the table between the windows and peeked into it and saw something white and stuck my hand in, I felt the gun. Getting it by the trigger guard, I lifted it out. Judging by smell, it had been fired recently, but of course it had had time to cool off. It was an old Granville thirty-eight, next door to rusty. The white object I had seen was an ordinary cotton handkerchief, man's size, with a tear in it through which the butt of the gun protruded. With proper care about touching, I opened the cylinder and found there were five loaded cartridges and one shell.
Hackett was there beside me, trying to say things. I got brusque with him.
'Yes, it's a gun, recently fired, and not mine or Wolfe's. Is it yours'No'Good. Okay, keep your shirt on. We're going back in there, and there will be sufficient employment for my brain without interference from you. Do not try to help me. See how long you can go without speaking a word. Just look wise as if you knew it all. If this ends as it ought to, you'll get an extra hundred. Agreed?'
I'll be damned if he didn't say, 'Two hundred. I was shot at. I came within an inch of getting killed.' I told him he'd have to talk the second hundred out of Wolfe and opened the door to the office and followed him through. He detoured around Jane Geer and went and sat in the chair he had just escaped being a corpse in. I swiveled my own chair to face it out and sat down too.
Jensen demanded sharply, 'What have you got there?'
'This,' I said cheerfully, 'is a veteran revolver, a Granville thirty-eight, which has been fired not too long ago.' I lowered it gently onto my desk. 'Fritz, give me back my gun.' He brought it. I kept it in my hand. 'Thank you. I found this other affair in the vase on the table in there, dressed in a handkerchief. Five unused cartridges and one used. It's a stranger here. Never saw it before. It appears to put the finishing touch on a critical situation.'
Jane exploded. She cabled me an unspeakable rat. She said she wanted a lawyer and intended to go to one immediately. She called Hackett three or four things.
She said it was the dirtiest frame-up in history. 'Now,' she told Hackett, 'I know damned well you framed Peter Root. I let that skunk Goodwin talk me out of it!' She was out of her chair, spitting fire. It was spectacular. 'You won't get away with it this time! You incredible louse!'