Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
I was upright by then and I turned to Violet. She was on her hands and knees, trying to get up. As I moved to her she crumpled. I knelt down for a look and saw that one bullet had torn through her cheek, but obviously there were others.
I told her, 'Quit moving, kid. Quiet.' Then I said, though you won't believe it and I find it hard to believe myself, 'Angel Food.'
She quit moving soon enough. 'Uh-uh-' she said. She was gasping, and in between gasps sucking in breath with a hiss. She was trying to talk. 'It's-uh-uh-shame,' she got out. Her chin came up and she screamed at me, 'Shame!' Then she gave up and flopped.
I raised up for a glance around. Windows were opening and voices came, and someone was running my way down the sidewalk from Fifth Avenue. The door of the apartment house at the other end of the awning opened, and a man in uniform came out and toward me, a doorman or elevator man. I saw that the one coming down the sidewalk was a cop, so I got upright, called out, 'Doctor!' and dived into the apartment house. The lobby was empty, and so was the elevator, with its door standing open. I found the switchboard, plugged in, pushed a button, and dialed a number, trying to remember if I had left it connected to the extension in Wolfe's room, which I certainly should have done from force of habit.
I had. Finally his voice came. 'Nero Wolfe speaking.'
'Archie. I took her home. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the apartment house on Seventy-eighth Street. A guy came along in a car and started shooting, and then got away. She is dead. Tell Fritz-'
'Are you hurt?'
'I'll tell the world I'm hurt, but not with bullets. That bastard Perrit decided to get her and to use us for proof of something, and you can figure out what while I spend the night as a quiz Idd. Tell Fritz-'
A voice came at me from behind. 'Get offa that phone! Now!'
Lieutenant Rowcliff of Homicide was one of the reasons why I doubted if the world would ever reach the point of universal brotherhood. It didn't seem feasible as long as opinions were still loose like mine of Rowcliff.
At ten minutes to three in the morning, in a torture chamber at the 19th Precinct on East Sixty-seventh Street, where he had established emergency headquarters, Rowcliff said to me, 'Very well.' He never used vulgar expressions like okay. 'Very well, we'll lock you up.'
I was yawning, and had to wait till it was finished before answering him. Then I remarked, 'You've said that four times. I don't like the idea, and neither will Mr. Wolfe or his lawyer, but I prefer it to more of this. Proceed.'
He merely sat and scowled at me, but no vulgar scowl, a Rowcliff scowl.
'Let me summarize it,' I offered. 'Dazy Perrit came to see Mr. Wolfe, to consult him. If I had information for you on that, which I haven't, it would be only secondhand. The place for you to get that is from Mr. Wolfe.'
'I have told you,' Rowcliff said coldly, 'that I have sent a man to see Wolfe, twice, two men, and they were not allowed to enter. The door is bolted, as usual. That man Brenner talked through a crack and said that Wolfe was asleep and he wouldn't disturb him. That is the impudent and arrogant attitude to be expected.'
'Try him after breakfast,' I suggested. 'Say, eleven o'clock.' I was pleased to learn that my undelivered message to Fritz had not been necessary. 'Of course I won't be there to let you in if I'm in a cell. Then, at eleven-forty, twenty minutes before midnight, Perrit's daughter arrived, apparently to consult Mr. Wolfe about the same thing as her father. You can get that from Mr. Wolfe too. When they were through I escorted Miss Perrit home, with her driving her car. We arrived about twelve-thirty. I glanced at both my wristwatch and the dash clock at Columbus Circle, and it was twelve-twenty-six. We were standing-'
'That's all down.'
'Okay, and so is this. The man in the car had a handkerchief tied-'
'How do you know it was a handkerchief?'
'Oh, my God, we're off again. Something white then, possibly torn from his shirttail, which is why I wouldn't know him from Adam, because most of his face was behind it. I don't know whether he was after her or me or both, though I admit it was her he hit. There was a license plate on the car but I couldn't make it out, or didn't, which is unimportant since I understand it was hot, having been liberated less than a mile away an hour or so earlier. And found less than six blocks away, near the Eighty-sixth Street subway station. I would like to know if any of my bullets-'
'Where's Dazy Perrit?'
'You mean now?'
'I have no idea.'
'Is he holed up in Wolfe's house?'
'Good lord, no. It makes my teeth chatter just to think of it.'
'Did your teeth chatter yesterday, when he was there arranging things with Wolfe?'
'Look, Lieutenant,' I said grimly. 'It will soon be dawn. I've told it over and over, all I know. I am now going to clam up. I knew a man once who insisted on hunting ducks with a shotgun with a recoil that knocked him flat on his prat every time he pulled the trigger. He seemed to love it. In a way you remind me of him. You know damn well the man to tell you what Perrit and his daughter wanted is Mr. Wolfe. You know damn well I can't tell you. You also know that if you hold me Mr. Wolfe will resent it and you won't be able to depend on a thing he says. What do you want to do, get in another jab in a private feud or solve a murder'I warn you I'm going to take a nap, either in a chair, on a cot, or home in bed.'
'Get out of here,' Rowcliff commanded. 'Go on, get.'
He pushed a button and passed the word, and a minute later I was on the sidewalk. What had restrained Rowcliff, I was well aware, was nothing said by me, but his uncertainty regarding the amount of cooperation his superior officer, Inspector Cramer, would be wanting from Wolfe.
Anyhow, as I voted against trying to flush a taxi and headed for the subway, it wasn't Rowcliff I was concentrating on, it was Dazy Perrit. I had come within an ace of spilling it to Rowcliff to give the cops a good start, but knew that wouldn't do before seeing Wolfe. I also, on my way home to Wolfe's house, did some useless wondering, like wondering if it was the face named Archie who had done the job.
But mostly I was trying to add it up, and couldn't even begin. The starting point was this, that Perrit had decided to erase Violet without delay. That much was a cinch. But what was the big idea of dragging Wolfe in, not to mention me'
How could he use the Wolfe part as a cover, either for the police or for anyone else, without letting it out that Violet was a phony'And wasn't that supposed to be the one thing he didn't want'The reason I particularly wanted those and other questions answered was because I had a certain idea. I am no one-man pestilence; the only times I have shot people it has been purely ad lib, to meet an urgent contingency; but I had decided I would have to shoot Dazy Perrit. It wasn't merely a hangover from my sensation as I had stood with Violet gripping my arm, watching that gun blaze away at us; it was a realization of where Wolfe and I were sitting and would go on sitting. The risks we took in the cases we worked on, that was all right, that was just part of it. But to be tangled up with the inside affairs of the Perrits and Meekers wasn't taking a risk, it was simply checking out, with the date of departure the only thing still to be settled.
So as I transferred to the shuttle at Grand Central I was going to shoot Perrit the first chance I got. Four minutes later, when I was transferring again at Times Square, shooting Perrit was obviously the very worst thing I could do. In another four minutes, as I emerged into Thirty-fourth Street, anything and everything was the worst thing I could do. As I felt then, the guy I really wanted to shoot was Wolfe, for having opened that window and yelled to me to bring Perrit in, in a frantic snatch at a pork chop. Turning up Ninth Avenue to Thirty-fifth and then west again, I let the brain float. I was getting close to bed and having a letdown, after all the excitement, followed by two hours of tight feelings at the precinct station with the city employees. As I neared our stoop I changed my mind again about going to Wolfe's room for a bedside chat. It could wait till morning. I was getting some satisfaction out of that as I lifted my foot for the first step up to our door, and then instantaneously the satisfaction was gone. What chased it was two men. They came out of the dark corner behind the stone wall of the stoop, and there they were, close enough to touch.
The one on the right was the face named Archie. The one on the left, and a little back, was Dazy Perrit. The face had a gun showing, in his hand. Perrit's hands were in his coat-pockets. My guns hadn't been taken from me, since I had tickets for them, but the one in my coat-pocket wasn't loaded, and my armpit holster might as well have been up in Yonkers, since my topcoat was buttoned.
'I want to ask you about tonight,' Perrit said. 'My car's around the corner on Eleventh Avenue. Go ahead. We'll come behind.'
'We can talk here,' I told him. 'I've often talked to people here.' This was certainly my chance to shoot him, a perfect set-up for self-defense, but I postponed it. 'What do you want to ask me?'
'Get going,' he said, in a tone a little different. It was a cockeyed situation.
If I refused to budge I didn't think they would drill me, because that would have been silly. If that was what they had in mind they wouldn't have started conversing. If I went up the stoop and put the key in the door I still didn't think they would drill me, but there were two objections to it. First, they might start operations short of drilling and one thing leads to another; and second, the door was bolted on the inside and I would have to rouse Fritz. Not to mention, third, that with Fritz roused and the door open they would probably decide to come in for a visit.
I decided to stand pat. 'I like it-' I started, and stopped, hearing the sound of a car coming. I turned my head to look, because the sound of a car coming got on my nerves after my recent experience with it, and also because it might be a police car if Rowcliff had decided not to wait till eleven o'clock for another try at Wolfe. But it was only a taxicab. They often came through there late at night, on their way to the nest, a company garage around the corner.
I turned back to them. 'I like it here. Even if I had ideas, which I haven't, my gun's empty, so relax. I emptied it-'
I didn't duck or dive, I just dropped, flat on the sidewalk, and started rolling. I was thinking I mustn't bang my head against the stone of the stoop.
This time I didn't see the man in the taxicab at all, even enough of a glimpse to see if he had something white over his face, I was moving too fast, rolling to get around the corner. I had, as I remember it, no sign of an impulse to reach for my gun. If I thought at all I suppose I was thinking that if a man in a taxicab wanted to make holes in Perrit and the face it was nothing to me. I had, and have, no notion what they were doing, but later examination showed that some of the noise I heard was made by them, using their own ammunition.
That noise stopped. The noise of the taxi moving from the scene tapered off. I stuck my head around the corner of the stoop, saw a form as flat as mine had been and much quieter, and scrambled to my feet. There were two forms, the other one around the other corner of the stoop, and it was twitching a little. I saw it still had a gun in its hand, so I stepped over and kicked it out and away. I knelt, first to one and then to the other, for a brief inspection, and finding it likely that no one would ever again consider it dangerous to turn his back on them, mounted the stoop to the front door and pushed the button for Fritz, my private rings. But the rings weren't needed. Before my finger left the button the door opened for the crack of two inches allowed by the chain of the bolt and a voice came through.
'Me, Fritz. Open-'
'Do you need help?'
'I need help to get in. Open up.'
He slid the bolt and I pushed and entered. 'Did you kill somebody?' he inquired.
Wolfe's bellow sounded from the hall one flight up. 'Archie! What the devil is it now?'
His tone implied that I owed him apologies, past due, for interfering with his sleep.
'Corpses on the sidewalk in front, and it might have been me!' I called to him bitterly, and went to the office and dialed Rhinelander 4-1445, the 19th Precinct Station House.
So Rowcliff didn't have to wait until eleven o'clock for a go at Wolfe, after all. Very few performances were beyond the range of Wolfe's special strain of gall, but keeping himself inaccessible with Dazy Perrit and a hired man shot down in front of his house while chatting with me would really have been out of bounds. At four-five A.M. he received Rowcliff and a sergeant in his bedroom. I missed that interview because I was occupied at the time, in the office with a committee of the squad, by request. I learned later that Wolfe had given them a peep under the lid but by no means removed it. He told them that Perrit had said he was being blackmailed by his daughter and wanted him to invent a way to make her stop, that he, Wolfe, had accepted the job, that the daughter had come to the office at Perrit's command, and that he, Wolfe, had threatened to inform the police of Salt Lake City, where she was wanted, if she didn't behave herself.
The other items he kept, such as Violet being a phony and the kind of lever she was using to heist her father. He left Beulah out entirely. I learned this later, and didn't know then how far he was going, so down in the office with the committee I backed away from everything but the outdoor facts, adding nothing to my popularity but not really endangering my health.
The understanding had been that a specified number could enter for conversation with Wolfe and me, but that the house was not to be used for a command post, so the turmoil out front, complete with spotlights, was not allowed to spill over the sill, and Fritz was standing by. I was taken out twice, first to go all over it on the spot, and the second time to try to catch me in contradictions, but no one ever even suggested that I should go for a ride. From the way they acted it wasn't hard to tell why: they were sorry for me. I hadn't had time to analyze the situation enough to realize how awful right they were.
That went on long after daylight was showing, until the sun was entering at the window beyond Wolfe's desk. As soon as they were all gone, including Rowcliff and the sergeant from Wolfe's room, Fritz went to the kitchen and started breakfast. I mounted one flight, knocked on the door, was told to enter, and did so. Wolfe, in yellow silk pajamas and yellow slippers with turned-up toes, was coming out of the bathroom. 'Well,' I began, 'I hope to God-'
The phone rang. Whenever I left the office I plugged in extensions. Wolfe's instrument, on his bedside table, was bright yellow and I didn't like it. I crossed over and got it and told the transmitter, 'Nero Wolfe's office.'
'Archie'Saul. I want the boss.'
I told Wolfe, 'Saul Panzer.'
He nodded, approaching. 'Good. Go up to your room and look at your face. It needs washing.'
'So would yours if you had spent the night rolling around on sidewalks. You mean you have private business with Saul'Have you got him working on something?'
'Certainly. Mr. Perrit's job.'
'I phoned him last evening while you were taking Miss Page home. Go and wash your face.'
I went. Usually I resented it when Wolfe froze me out of operations with one of the men he used, but now I was too played out to bother, and besides, Saul was different. It was hard to resent anything about a guy as good as Saul Panzer. At the mirror in my bathroom I saw that there was no question about my face, so I attended to it, deciding to postpone shaving until after breakfast, and then went back down one flight to Wolfe's room. He had finished his private talk with Saul and was sitting in his underwear, putting on his socks. 'What do you want to discuss?' I asked him.
I stared indignantly. 'Well, by God.'
He grunted. 'At the moment there is nothing to discuss. You're out of it. I told Mr. Rowcliff that I engaged to make Mr. Perrit's daughter stop blackmailing him, and that I threatened her with exposure to the police, and that's all. He's an imbecile. He intimated that I am liable to prosecution for attempting to blackmail the daughter.' Wolfe straightened up. 'By the way, I suppose it would be futile to call that number, Lincoln six-three two three two, now that Mr. Perrit is dead?'
'I'm out of it,' I said through my teeth and went down to the kitchen for breakfast. Out of it! Look who was calling Rowcliff an imbecile! I even forgot to taste the first three pancakes as they went down. My breakfast was interrupted four times by phone calls. Of course that would go on all day. Only one of the four, the last one, required reporting to Wolfe, which suited me fine, since I wished to keep communication with him at the lowest possible minimum. By that time he had finished breakfast and gone up to the plant room, so I gave him a buzz on the house phone. 'A man called,' I told him, 'and said his name is L. A. Schwartz and he's Dazy Perrit's lawyer. He wanted to come to see you immediately. I told him eleven o'clock. I have his number. If you regard him as out of it too, I can ring him and tell him not to come.'
'Eleven will do,' Wolfe said. 'Did you try that Lincoln number'Mr. Perrit said between seven and ten.'
'No,' I said and hung up.
For the next hour and three-quarters my main job would have been to stay awake if it hadn't been for the phone. Stalling journalists had got to be routine with me over the years, but it took time to handle it so they wouldn't get down on us. One of the calls was a sample of what might be expected from life from then on as long as it lasted. A guy with a hoarse voice, so hoarse I wished he would take time out to clear his throat, said he was a friend of Dazy Perrit's and he would like to ask me a couple of questions, and would I meet him at the Seven-Eleven Club some time that afternoon'I told him I was tied up at the office but if he would give me his name and number I would ring him if I found I could make it. He said he didn't know where he would be, so skip it and he would try again. Then he said, 'It was too bad you wasn't tied up at the office last night,' and hung up.
Another call came from Saul Panzer just before eleven. I put it through to Wolfe and was instructed to stay off the line, an instruction I didn't need since I was out of it. Before they were through talking the doorbell rang again, for about the tenth time since the cops had left, and this time it was not a gate-crasher to be shooed off but a customer with a reserved seat. I allowed L. A. Schwartz to enter, told him Wolfe would soon appear, and herded him to the office and to a chair. I wouldn't have picked him for Dazy Perrit's lawyer. For one thing, he wore old-fashioned nose-pinchers for glasses, which didn't seem to be the thing. He was sixty, skinny, and silent. I thought I might keep myself awake another five minutes by striking up a conversation, but I got a total of not more than ten words out of him. He sat with his briefcase on his lap and every thirty seconds pulled at the lobe of his right ear. I had abandoned him by the time the sound of Wolfe's elevator came.
On his way across to his desk Wolfe halted to acknowledge the introduction, made by me in spite of being out of it, purely for the sake of appearances. Then he went to his chair, sat and got himself adjusted, leaned back, and took in the visitor with half-closed eyes.
'Well, sir?' he asked.
Schwartz blinked against the light from the window. 'I must apologize,' he said, 'for being urgent about this appointment, but I felt there should be no delay.'
He sounded formal. 'I gathered from Mr. Perrit last evening that you had not explicitly given your assent, and therefore-'
'May I ask, assent to what?'
'To your appointment, in his will, as executor of his estate and in effect the guardian of his daughter. Did you?'
'Utterly'-Wolfe wiggled a finger at him-'preposterous.'
'I was afraid of that,' Schwartz said regretfully. 'It will complicate matters. I'm afraid it's partly my fault, drafting the documents in such haste. There is a question whether the fifty thousand dollars provided for that purpose will go to the executor if the executor is not you but someone appointed by a court.'
Wolfe grunted. His eyes opened and then half closed again. 'Tell me about it,' he said.