Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
At one point I thought Dazy Perrit was going to break down and cry. That was when he was telling me that his daughter, his real daughter, was up among the top of her class at Columbia. Apparently that made him feel so proud he could hardly bear it.
It wasn't really very complicated. In his early days in St. Louis Perrit had got married and there was a daughter. Then three things happened in the same week: the daughter had her second birthday, the mother died, and Perrit got three years in the hoosegow for a stick-up. I got only a rough sketch of this and practically nothing of the years that followed, up to 1945; all he gave me was that somewhere along the line, when he had begun to get prosperous, he had got daughter-conscious and had dug her up somewhere in Missouri. He didn't say where or how he had got her away, but in order to give me the picture he had to explain that she didn't know she was his daughter. She thought he was merely representing her father, who was very wealthy and couldn't disclose himself because he was planning to get elected President of the United States or something.
'It was okay,' Dazy Perrit said sourly. 'It was working fine. I saw her about every three months and gave her money. Plenty. It was a break for me when she picked a school right here in town. Then Thumbs Meeker hitched it up. He sent a punk to tell me that if there was any little favor he could do for my daughter just to let him know.'
That, of course, from my standpoint, made it even sweeter. Mr. Meeker, called Thumbs on account of his favorite method of getting information from reluctant persons, in which he used both thumbs, was the cave man on the other side of the mountain. If to be associated with Dazy Perrit in anything whatever was a doubtful pleasure, to be yanked in between him and Thumbs Meeker was enough to start ulcers.
I went on listening to Perrit because there was nothing else to do but shoot him, and I had missed the psychological moment for that. It appeared from developments, he said, that Meeker had not actually tagged his daughter but had merely learned that he had one concealed somewhere. But, he said, the one thing on earth he was afraid of was that someone would find his daughter and tell her the facts. That was what had ruined his life, having a daughter.
'It ruined me,' he said, 'because it put water in my guts. Where she's concerned I can't think straight and I can't act straight. You've heard I'm tough'You've heard that?'
'Yeah, I've heard it said.'
'Okay, I'm tough. But there's plenty of tough ones. The point is I've got brains. I've got better brains than any man I've ever met. If I had got started on another track I could have been anything you care to name. But where she's concerned my brains don't work. Look at my coming here and spilling this. Worse yet, look at what I did a year ago April. I rented a penthouse off Fifth Avenue and brought a girl there as my daughter. I knew it was dumb but my brain wouldn't work and I did it.'
That, he explained, had been for the purpose of drawing Thumbs Meeker off, and also anyone else who might be interested in the Perrit family. With his daughter living there, in the penthouse with him, naturally no one would continue searching for her other places, especially in colleges. It was a very fine arrangement. He had his secret all sewed up.
'Then,' Perrit said, with a sudden change in his tone and a gleam showing in his eyes that I would not have liked at all if he had been talking about me instead of to me, 'the little bitch used the pliers on me.' On that I got details, which he furnished without referring to any notes. The squeeze had started the week before Christmas with a demand for a thousand bucks cash in addition to her weekly allowance of a century. Thereafter she had requested and received:
Late January $1500
Middle of February 1000
End of April 5000
Early in June 3000
Last of July 5000
Last of August 8000
'Interesting,' I said, 'how she went down, then up again, then down, then up again. Interesting psychologically.'
'It strikes you as funny, does it?'
'I didn't say funny, I said interesting. And by the way, there aren't many people, I'm not saying I'm not one of them, but there are very few, who would believe a word of it. She has nicked you for nearly twenty-five grand. Why didn't she happen to have an accident, say about the third nick, like getting in the way of flying pieces of metal or something?'
'That's all exaggerated,' Perrit said as if he were disappointed in me. 'They start rumors and everyone believes them.'
'Nuts.' I grinned at him. 'This is off the record, where I hope to God it stays. Why didn't you handle her or have her handled?'
'My daughter'My own daughter?'
'She wasn't. She isn't.'
'As far as anyone knows she is. I would have had to do it myself, and even then it would have been very risky. She has got that all figured. What if she disappears'How would Thumbs Meeker and others dope it'I'd be right back where I started, and they'd be looking for trails again. I've looked at it from every angle and it's no go.'
I shrugged. 'Then you're stuck with an expensive daughter.'
'I'm stuck with a glutton and a damn fool. Last night she hit me for fifty grand. That settles it. I've got to have help.'
I whistled. 'That takes it beyond psychology. But does she have to disappear'Why don't you try something short of curtains?'
'I have. Do you think I've shelled out with a smile?'
'No. I don't.'
'Right. I haven't. But there are limits to that too, since I've got her there as my daughter. So I need help. I know lots of people, and I know a lot about lots more. I guess I must know forty or fifty lawyers, and there isn't one of them I'd spill this to or any part of it. I picked on Nero Wolfe because from what I know of him he's got brains, and mine won't work on this. It's up to Wolfe to dope out a way to handle her.' He pointed at the stack of bills. 'That's just for a start. I'll pay what it's worth, and it's worth plenty.'
'He won't touch it.'
Perrit ignored that completely. I was beginning to believe that the secret of his success was a gimmick on his eardrums that tuned out all unwanted sounds.
'You'll need,' he said, 'more than you've got if you're going to handle her. You'll need it all. Her name as my daughter is Violet Perrit. Her real name is Angelina Murphy. How I got onto her doesn't matter, but she is absolutely covered. She was on the jump in Salt Lake from a rolling and cleaning charge under the name of Sally Smith, and I went out there and got her myself. She's smooth and no disgrace. When I say my brain wouldn't work, for instance, I doped it that I'd have her sewed up because Salt Lake would like to have her back if she got tricky, but it didn't take her long to realize that I couldn't unload her.'
He told me a lot more that I didn't want to know, but of course the lions were already loose and more wouldn't matter. After he finished with Violet Angelina Sally he shifted scenery and the curtain went up on Columbia. His real daughter's name was Beulah Page, and from the change in his voice when he spoke of her I fully expected him to pull out a wallet and begin showing me snapshots, but he didn't. To hear him tell it, she had the rest of the students panting along behind in a cloud of dust. He gave what seemed to me to be unnecessary details, which I suppose was understandable since there was no one else on earth he could tell about her, except Nero Wolfe, and Wolfe was up with his orchids and paying me to listen-though not near enough. Nothing like enough, if this ended the way I was suspecting it might.
'As I told Wolfe,' Perrit said, 'there's a job for him to do with my daughter too. That's another danger. There's a possibility that she might be recognized. She strongly resembles her mother.'
'For God's sake,' I protested, 'whatever Mr. Wolfe may be, he is no plastic surgeon. Try the Red Book.'
'That's funny, is it?' Perrit asked.
The words weren't much, but I admit that for the first time his tone hit me in the spine. It put him down on a lower level, and at the same time brought him a lot closer and a lot meaner. Probably members of his staff or the rank and file used it oftener than he did, now that he was at the top. It was the voice of the killer. Apparently cracks about most things might pass without trouble, but no cracks about Beulah.
'Not very,' I said courteously. 'Better luck next time. But if you expect Mr. Wolfe to arrange for your daughter to stop resembling her mother-'
'I don't. You talk too much. She looks like her mother, but what makes it stick out is a trick she has of sitting with her shoulders down, sort of slumped forward, and then straightening up in a certain way, with a little jerk. Her mother did exactly the same thing, and the first time I saw my daughter do it, about a year ago, I saw it was a dead give-away. If anyone who knew her mother happened to see her do that, there's a good chance they would tumble. I tried to get her to stop it, as well as I could considering who I'm supposed to be, but it didn't work and I was afraid to emphasize it. I want Wolfe to get her to stop straightening up like that.'
Naturally, five arguments and three or four cracks were on the tip of my tongue, but I set the brake. The only hope was to get him out of there as soon as possible, before he got in an order to tutor Beulah in math, which he had informed me was the only thing she was less than perfect in. But he wasn't ready to go, though he had spent nearly an hour with me. He had more information about Angelina Violet Sally that he thought might be helpful, suggestions about the best approach to his daughter, remarks regarding the need for immediate and effective action, and various other details. Another secret of his success, I gathered, was that he was good and thorough.
Finally he was on his feet, ready to go. 'Violet,' he said, 'will still do what I tell her. She thinks she's going to clean me. You say Wolfe won't leave the house. If you want her down here, ring me and I'll see that she comes. You wrote down those phone numbers.'
Answering not his words but his tone, I said, 'You saw me put them in the safe.'
'Keep 'em there. Come out and open the door and call Archie.'
I stared at him. 'Call who?'
'I said Archie.'
That made the day perfect. The embalmed face's name was Archie. I took Perrit to the hall, got him his hat and coat, opened the door and stuck my head out for a look, and growled over my shoulder, 'All clear. Call him yourself.'
He didn't have to. My namesake, standing on the alert at the rear corner of the black sedan, had heard the door open and now crossed to the foot of the stoop steps, looked up at his employer, and announced, 'Okay.' Dazy Perrit descended the steps and got in the back seat of the car. The face got in front and started the engine, and they rolled off.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. Fritz Brenner, the chef and groom of the chambers, was there, cutting chives into atoms. He smiled at me.
'Boy, does it va,' I told him, and took a gulp of milk. 'The only question left is, what color shrouds do we like.'
I made a full and honest report to Wolfe, when he came down to the office from the plant rooms at six o'clock, only because it no longer mattered. Not only did I not want to try to persuade him to lay off, I was even afraid he might. With me crammed to the gills with Dazy Perrit's closest and fondest secrets, no kind of a brush-off would have been worth a damn. I was, if you want the facts, scared stiff. So nothing was further from my mind than trying to make Wolfe obstinate by riding him.
At seven o'clock I was telling him, 'Incidentally, that Lincoln number he gave me is probably the real thing. T-bone. Chateaubriand, as Fritz calls it. Pig's liver. Fresh pork tenderloin. Of course it will be useless to ring Tom in the morning if we're not still in good with Dazy-and his five grand in our safe.'
Wolfe muttered at me, 'Get Mr. Perrit.'
Then difficulties arose. At the third number on the list I finally got Perrit, and he said we could expect Violet at Wolfe's office at nine o'clock that evening. It took less than twenty words, discreetly selected at both ends, with no names mentioned, to complete the conversation. Perrit could have been on a party line and no harm done. But in ten minutes he called back to say that previous engagements interfered and the visitor wouldn't arrive until eleven-thirty. I said that was pretty late and maybe tomorrow would do. No, he said, it would be tonight, between eleven-thirty and midnight. Wolfe, who had listened in at his desk, grunted and told me, 'Get the daughter.'
'The daughter. Miss Page.'
'But what the hell. There's no rush about making her stop straightening up with a jerk. That was just-'
'We don't even know there is a daughter. All we have is what Mr. Perrit told us. I want to see her. At the very least, I want you to see her.'
'You going to introduce me to her?'
'Pfui. She is twenty-one years old. Flummox her.' That wasn't as much of a chore as some he had been known to give me, since Perrit had given me what he thought would be an in. I referred to the list of numbers, dialed one, and after the third buzz there was a voice in my ear.
'Hello, hello, hello?'
It didn't sound at all like a Phi Beta Kappa, but I reserved judgment and proceeded.
'May I speak to Miss Beulah Page?'
'Sure. Talking. Are you a preacher?'
'No, Miss Page, I'm not. My name is Stevens, Harold Stevens, from Dayton, Ohio. May I have a minute?'
'Sure. Only it's too bad you're not a preacher.'
'It certainly is, if you want one. What I want to ask, I would like very much to have a talk with you, this evening, if possible, because I'll be in the city only a short while. I want to tell you about the Dayton Community Health Center, and, frankly, we thought you might be willing to help us out with a small contribution. You see, the fame of your generosity in matters of community health work has gone pretty far. And I'd like to tell you what we're doing and planning. I promise not to take much of your time. Perhaps I could run up to see you right now'I could be there in twenty minutes.'
'I don't-' A pause. 'I'm particularly interested in health work.'
'I know you are,' I said warmly.
'The reason I spoke about a preacher, I'm going to be married. We just decided to, just before the phone rang.'
'Well! That's just fine! I can be there in twenty minutes. Of course I shouldn't butt in, but I won't be in the city-'
'That's all right. Come ahead. Come on and come ahead.'
'Thank you very much.'
I pushed the phone back and told Wolfe, 'Lit. Not plastered, but lit.'
He was busy pouring beer, which Fritz had brought, and uttered only a low growl. Nor did he make any comment as he observed me returning the gun, still lying on my desk, to my side coat-pocket, and arranging its little brother, which I got from a drawer, in an armpit holster of my own design.
I did not actually expect ambush and sudden death as I emerged from the house into the early October dark, but I wasn't kidding myself that any street or any two-legged animal that had become an object of interest to Dazy Perrit was exactly the same street or the same animal it had been before. And though there is absolutely nothing wrong with my nervous system, things looked and felt different as I went to the garage around the corner, got the convertible, and headed uptown.