Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Meeker stood up.
Morton Schane didn't move.
Fabian asked, 'You got anything else?'
'Nothing but proof,' Wolfe told him, but his eyes stuck to Schane. 'Last evening Mr. Perrit's daughter and this young man dined with us. One or two remarks he made stirred a faint suspicion in me. It was very faint, the merest breath, but it was simple to test him. He was in his last year at law school. I asked him if he had learned to draft torts, and he said he had. A tort is an act, not a document, as any law student would know. You can't draft a tort any more than you can draft a burglary. That settled him. I had my chef save his wineglass, and after Mr. Schane had left I got in touch with Mr. Panzer and made various arrangements. One resulted in our learning, through the FBI and their fingerprint files, of Mr. Schane's background and record. Another arrangement, that Mr. Panzer should pick up Mr. Schane last evening in front of the building where Mr. Perrit's daughter lives, and keep on his trail-'
Morton still had his temerity. His hand went for his hip like a frog for a fly.
He did get his gun out, because Fabian's first bullet missed, and he even pulled the trigger, but all he hit was plaster. Then he splashed back on the couch, pulling the trigger again. By that time Meeker was shooting too, which I have never understood, but it was something never seen before and surely never will be again-Fabian and Thumbs Meeker blazing away at the same target. Morton slithered off of the couch onto the floor. That was his last move.
Six days later, Monday again, Wolfe came down from the plant rooms at six o'clock, negotiated himself into his chair behind his desk, and rang for beer. I turned away from my typewriter and spoke. 'The evening paper says that the District Attorney has decided not to charge Meeker or Fabian because a man has a right to defend himself, and all witnesses agree that Schane shot first.'
'Perfectly sound,' Wolfe murmured.
'Sure. But that reminds me. So far you have refused to loosen up. I would like to make it clear that I do not believe that Saul was on Schane's tail that night. He damn well didn't tail him through Seventy-eighth Street, nor later through our street, either, when Schane was in his hot taxicab. I think you put that in because you knew it was the one thing that was sure to make Schane go for his gun.'
'Not sound at all. Mere conjecture.'
'I like it. Another thing. I now think you did have a program. I think you invited Schwartz to come at two o'clock because you wanted a witness, not me who works for you, to what you said to Fabian. You intended to tell Fabian a good deal, maybe everything, about Schane, but do it in such a way that you couldn't be charged with incitement to crime. You could be doing it just to put us in the clear. You didn't have a thing on Schane for the murders. You didn't know then that he was fool enough to go on carrying the gun he had killed them with. You knew Fabian would get Schane, and so your ward wouldn't marry him, which you didn't approve of. You thought Beulah was so hipped on him that she would take him in spite of his past-since the killings couldn't be pinned on him-whereas the fact was that after she had seen me he was just a vague spot to her.'
'Shut up. I want to read.'
'Yes, sir. In an hour or so. Then Schane came here with her and insisted on joining us in the office, and right away you began to ad lib. You figured that with Fabian and Saul and me all here, one of us was bound to plug him before he plugged you. By the way, in the excitement I didn't see Saul shoot at all, but it was his bullet that went through the middle of Schane's pump and lodged in his spine. When Meeker showed up too I suppose you thought there was nothing to it, which speaks louder for your optimism than it does for your mathematics. If I had known how you had it sketched I would have offered twelve for five that he would get you, at least some part of you, before he was stopped. I had seen him in action, shooting out of car windows in dim street light.'
Wolfe sighed. 'I suppose you have to get it out of your system.'
'I do, and this is the day for it. With meat controls taken off last night, what is there to fear'But I am willing to be rode too, because on one count I have it coming. I told you that just before Violet quit for good, while I was kneeling there by her, she said, 'It's a shame. Shame!' Of course she didn't. What she said was, 'It's Schane. Schane!' I fumbled that one, and hereafter I'll wash my ears better. Now I suppose you'll tell me that you knew-'
The phone rang. I got it, used the customary formula, and a voice came.
'May I speak to Mr. Harold Stevens?'
'He's not in,' I said courteously. 'Gone to Central Park for his health. Will anyone else do?'
'You might if you weren't so busy. When I was down there Friday signing those papers you were too busy to offer to drive me home. Harold Stevens always drove me home.'
'Naturally. Harold was on the make. He was after money. I shy off from rich women because I am not a dough-hound. Was there any particular problem?'
'No, nothing, except that I started to decide where to go for dinner, and I'm sick of all the restaurants around here, and-'
'Not another word. I know just how you feel. You were wishing you didn't have to eat alone, and I was wishing I didn't have to eat with the person I was going to eat with. Meet me at seven o'clock at Ribeiro's, Fifty-second Street east of Lexington, downtown side. Got it?'
'Yes, but I didn't-'
'Certainly you did. So did I. I'll be at the bar. I don't suppose you can properly go dancing for two or three years, but we're resourceful. We can sit somewhere and talk about health-oh, no, that's Harold. Seven o'clock?'
I hung up and told Wolfe, 'Okay, go on and read. I'm going up and change my shirt. I'm dining with your new ward, but don't jump to the conclusion that I'm thinking of marrying her. I don't want you dragging Fabian and Thumbs Meeker down here again on my account.'
He paid us a visit the day he stopped the bullet. Ben Jensen was a publisher, a politician, and in my opinion a poop. I had had a sneaking idea that he would have gone ahead and bought the inside Army dope that Captain Peter Root had offered to sell him if he had been able to figure out a way of using it without any risk of losing a hunk of hide. But he had played it safe and had cooperated with Nero Wolfe like a good little boy. That had been a couple of months before.
Now, early on a Tuesday morning, he phoned to say he wanted to see Wolfe. When I told him that Wolfe would be occupied with the orchids, as usual, until eleven o'clock, he fussed a little and made a date for eleven sharp. He arrived five minutes ahead of time, and I escorted him into the office and invited him to deposit his big bony frame in the red leather chair. After he sat down he asked me, 'Don't I remember you'Aren't you Major Goodwin?'
'You're not in uniform.'
'I was just noticing,' I said, 'that you need a haircut. At your age, with your gray hair, it looks better trimmed. More distinguished. Shall we continue with the personal remarks?'
There was the clang of Wolfe's personal elevator out in the hall, and a moment later Wolfe entered, exchanged greetings with the caller, and got himself, all of his two hundred and sixty-some pounds, lowered into his personal chair behind his desk.
Ben Jensen said, 'Something I wanted to show you-got it in the mail this morning,' and took an envelope from his pocket and stood up to hand it across.
Wolfe glanced at the envelope, removed a piece of paper from it and glanced at that, and passed them along to me. The envelope was addressed to Ben Jensen, neatly hand-printed in ink. The piece of paper had been clipped from something, all four edges, with scissors or a sharp knife, and it had printed on it, not by hand, in large black script:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE-
AND I WILL WATCH YOU DIE!
Wolfe murmured, 'Well, sir?'
'I can tell you,' I put in, 'free for nothing, where this came from.'
Jensen snapped at me. 'You mean who sent it?'
'Oh, no. For that I would charge. It was clipped from an ad for a movie called Meeting at Dawn. The movie of the century. I saw the ad last week in the American Magazine. I suppose it's in all the magazines. If you could find-'
Wolfe made a noise at me and murmured again at Jensen, 'Well, sir?'
'What am I going to do?' Jensen demanded.
'I'm sure I don't know. Have you any notion who sent it?'
'No. None at all.' Jensen sounded grieved. 'Damn it, I don't like it. It's not just the usual junk from an anonymous crank. Look at it! It's direct and to the point. I think someone's going to try to kill me, and I don't know who or why or when or how. I suppose tracing it is out of the question, but I want some protection. I want to buy it from you.'
I put up a hand to cover a yawn. I knew there would be nothing doing-no case, no fee, no excitement. In the years I had been living in Nero Wolfe's house on West Thirty-fifth Street, acting as a goad, prod, lever, irritant, and chief assistant in the detective business, I had heard him tell at least fifty scared people, of all conditions and ages, that if someone had determined to kill them and was going to be stubborn about it he would probably succeed. On occasion, when the bank balance was doing a dive, he had furnished Gather or Durkin or Panzer or Keems as a bodyguard at a hundred percent mark-up, but now they were all fighting Germans or Japs, and anyhow, we had just deposited a five-figure check from a certain client.
Jensen got sore, naturally, but Wolfe only murmured at him that he might succeed in interesting the police or that we would be glad to give him a list of reliable detective agencies which would provide companions for his movements as long as he remained alive-at sixty bucks for twenty-four hours. Jensen said that wasn't it, he wanted to hire Wolfe's brains. Wolfe merely made a face and shook his head. Then Jensen wanted to know what about Goodwin'Wolfe said that Major Goodwin was an officer in the United States Army.
'He's not in uniform,' Jensen growled.
Wolfe grunted. 'He'll waste his money. I doubt the urgency of his peril. A man planning a murder doesn't spend his energy clipping pieces out of advertisements of motion pictures.'
That was Tuesday. The next morning, Wednesday, the papers headlined the murder of Ben Jensen on the front page. Eating breakfast in the kitchen with Fritz, as usual, I was only halfway through the report in the Times when the doorbell rang, and when I answered it I found on the stoop our old friend Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Squad.
2. Help Wanted, Male. I
Nero Wolfe said, 'Not interested, not involved, and not curious.'
He was a sight, as he always was when propped up in bed with his breakfast tray.
The custom was for Fritz to deliver the tray to his room on the second floor at eight o'clock. It was now eight-fifteen, and already down the gullet were the peaches and cream, most of the unrationed bacon, and two-thirds of the eggs, not to mention coffee and the green tomato jam. The black silk coverlet was folded back, and you had to look to tell where the yellow percale sheet ended and the yellow pajamas began. Few people except Fritz and me ever got to see him like that, but he had stretched a point for Inspector Cramer, who knew that from nine to eleven he would be up in the plant rooms with the orchids and unavailable.
'In the past dozen years,' Cramer said in his ordinary growl, without any particular feeling, 'you have told me, I suppose, in round figures, ten million lies.' The commas were chews on his unlighted cigar. He looked the way he always did when he had been working all night-peevish and put upon but under control, all except his hair, which had forgotten where the part went.
Wolfe, who was hard to rile at breakfast, swallowed toast and jam and then coffee, ignoring the insult. Cramer said, 'He came to see you yesterday morning, twelve hours before he was killed. You don't deny that.'
'And I have told you what for,' Wolfe said politely. 'He had received that threat and said he wanted to hire my brains. I declined to work for him and he went away. That was all.'
'Why did you decline to work for him'What had he done to you?'
'Nothing.' Wolfe poured coffee. 'I don't do that kind of work. A man whose life is threatened anonymously is either in no danger at all, or his danger is so acute and so ubiquitous that his position is hopeless. My only previous association with Mr. Jensen was in connection with an attempt by an Army captain named Peter Root to sell him inside Army information for political purposes. Together we got the necessary evidence and Captain Root was court-martialed. Mr. Jensen was impressed, so he said, by my handling of that case. I suppose that was why he came to me when he wanted help.'
'Did he think the threat came from someone connected with Captain Root?'
'No. Root wasn't mentioned. He said he had no idea who intended to kill him.'
Cramer humphed. 'That's what he told Tim Cornwall too. Cornwall thinks you passed because you knew or suspected it was too hot to handle. Naturally Cornwall is bitter. He has lost his best man.'
'Indeed,' Wolfe said mildly. 'If that was his best man& '
'So Cornwall says,' Cramer insisted, 'and he's dead. Name of Doyle, been in the game twenty years, with a good record. The picture as we've got it doesn't necessarily condemn him. Jensen went to Cornwall and Mayor yesterday about noon, and Cornwall assigned Doyle as a guard. We've traced all their movements-nothing special. In the evening Doyle went along to a meeting at a midtown club. They left the dub at eleven-twenty, and apparently went straight home, on the subway or a bus, to the apartment house where Jensen lived on Seventy-third Street near Madison. It was eleven-forty-five when they were found dead on the sidewalk at the entrance to the apartment house. Both shot in the heart with a thirty-eight, Doyle from behind and Jensen from the front. We have the bullets. No powder marks. No nothing.'
Wolfe murmured sarcastically, putting down his coffee cup and indicating that since I was there I might as well remove the tray, 'Mr. Cornwall's test man.'
'Nuts,' Cramer objected to the sarcasm. 'He was shot in the back. There's a narrow passage ten paces away where the guy could have hid. Or the shots could have come from a passing car, or from across the street-though that would have taken some shooting, two right in the pump. We haven't found anybody who heard the shots. The doorman was in the basement stoking the water heater, the excuse for that being that they're short of men like everybody else. The elevator man was on his way to the tenth floor with a passenger, a tenant. The bodies were discovered by two women on their way home from a movie. It must have happened not more than a minute before they came by, but they had just got off a Madison Avenue bus at the corner.'
Wolfe got out of bed, which was an operation deserving an audience. He glanced at the clock on the bed table. It was eight-thirty-five.
'I know, I know,' Cramer growled. 'You've got to get dressed and get upstairs to your goddam horticulture. The tenant going up in the elevator was a prominent doctor who barely knew Jensen by sight. The two women who found the bodies are Seventh Avenue models who never heard of Jensen. The elevator man has worked there over twenty years without displaying a grudge, and Jensen was a generous tipper and popular with the bunch. The doorman is a fat nitwit who was hired two weeks ago only because of the manpower situation and doesn't know the tenants by name. Beyond those, all we have is the population of New York City and the guests who arrive and depart daily and nightly. That's why I came to you, and for God's sake, give me what you've got. You can see I need it.'
The mountain of yellow pajamas moved. 'I repeat. I am not interested, not involved, and not curious.' Wolfe headed for the bathroom.
Two minutes later, downstairs, as I opened the front door for Inspector Cramer's exit, he turned to me with his cigar tilted up from the corner of his mouth to about a quarter to one and observed, 'One thing about that black silk bed cover, it can be used for his shroud when the time comes. Let me know, and I'll come and help sew on it.'
I eyed him coldly. 'You scold us when we lie, and you scold us when we tell the truth. What does the city pay you for anyhow?'
Back in the office there was the morning mail, which had been ignored on account of the interruption of the early visitor. I got busy with the opener. There was the usual collection of circulars, catalogues, appeals, requests for advice without enclosed check, and other items, fully up to the pre-war standard, and I was getting toward the bottom of the stack without encountering anything startling or promising when I slit another envelope and there it was.
I stared at it. I picked up the envelope and stared at that. I don't often talk to myself, but I said loud enough for me to hear, 'My goodness.' Then I left the rest of the mail for later and went and mounted the three flights to the plant rooms on the roof. Proceeding through the first three departments, past everything from rows of generating flasks to Cattleya hybrids covered with blooms, I found Wolfe in the potting room, with Theodore Horstmann, the orchid nurse, examining a crate of sphagnum that had just arrived.
'Well?' he demanded with no sign of friendliness. The general idea was that when he was up there I interrupted him at my peril.
'I suppose,' I said carelessly, 'that I shouldn't have bothered you, but I ran across something in the mail that I thought you'd find amusing,' and I put them on the bench before him, side by side: the envelope with his name and address printed on it by hand, in ink, and the piece of paper that had been clipped from something with scissors or a sharp knife, reading in large black script, printed but not by hand:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE-
AND I WILL WATCH YOU DIE!
'It sure is a coincidence,' I remarked, grinning at him.