A Family Affair by Rex Stout

It was a corner room with four windows, so he wasn’t a stock clerk, though you might have thought so from his brown overalls with big pockets full of things. He was standing over by a filing cabinet. I had never seen a more worried face. That might have been expected, since the president of his company had died only five days ago, but those brow wrinkles had taken at least five years. So it was a surprise when he said in a good strong baritone, “A message from Nero Wolfe? What the hell. Huh?”

[64] My voice went up a little without being told to. “I said message, but it’s really a question. It’s a little complicated, so if you can spare a few minutes-” “I can never spare a few minutes, but my mind needs something to take it off of the goddam problems. All right, ten minutes.”

He looked at his watch. “Let’s sit down.”

There was a big desk near a window, but that was probably where the goddam problems were, and he crossed to a couch over by the far wall. He sat and crossed his legs in spite of the loaded pockets, and I pulled a chair around to face him.

Til try to keep it brief, but you’ll need a little background. For a couple of years Nero Wolfe was in charge of Rusterman’s restaurant as trustee, and a man named Felix Mauer was under him. Now Felix is in charge, but he often asks Nero Wolfe for advice, and Mr. Wolfe and I often eat there. We ate lunch there yesterday, and Felix-” “Huh. A waiter from that restaurant was killed in Wolfe’s house, a bomb, and you found the body. Huh?”

“Right, That’s why we were there yesterday, to ask questions. The waiter’s name was Pierre Ducos, and he waited on you at dinner in an upstairs room at Rusterman’s on Friday, October eighteenth. Twelve days ago. Harvey H. Bassett was the host. You remember it?”

“Of course I remember it It was the last meal I ever ate with him.”

“Do you remember the waiter?”

“I never remember people. I only remember diffractions and emissions.”

“Mr. Wolfe and I knew Pierre well, and he knew us. When he came there late Monday night, he told me a man was going to kill him. He also told me about the dinner on October eighteenth, and he told me he saw one of the guests hand Bassett a slip of [65] paper and Bassett put it in his wallet, and that was all. He said he wanted to tell Nero Wolfe the rest of it because he was the greatest detective in the world. I took him upstairs to a bedroom, and apparently you know what happened then, like a couple of million other people. Well, there you are. That dinner had been eleven days ago, and why did he tell me about that and about the slip of paper one of you handed Bassett? That’s why I’m here, and it brings me to the question I want to ask; did you hand Bassett a slip of paper, and what was on it?”

“No. Huh.”

“Did you see one of the others hand him one?”

“No. Huh.”

He seemed to be scowling at me, but it could have been just the wrinkles.

“Then I have to ask a favor, or rather Nero Wolfe does. We asked Felix who the guests were at that dinner, and the only one he could name was you. He said someone had told him who you were, Benjamin Igoe, the well-known scientist. I don’t know if you like to be called a scientist, but that’s what Felix was told.”

“I don’t believe it Goddam it, I am not well known.”

“Maybe you are and don’t know it. That’s what Felix told me. You can call him and ask him.”

“Who told him that?”

. “He didn’t say. He’s there now. Give him a ring.”

I thought he probably would, there and then. Nine men out of ten would have, or maybe only seven or eight.

But not him. He just said, “Huh. By god, if I’m famous it’s about time I found out. I’m sixty-four years old. You want a favor?”

“Nero Wolfe does. I’m just the errand boy. He wants-” “You’re a licensed private investigator. Well known,” “You can’t believe what you read in the paper. I am [66] not well known.”

I wanted to say huh but didn’t. “Mr. Wolfe wants the names of all the men who were at that dinner, but if you never remember people, of course you can’t tell me.”

“I remember the names of everything, including people.”

He proved it. “Did Pierre Ducos tell you what we talked about?”

I shook my head. “He only told me what I told you.”

“We talked about tape recorders. That’s what Harvey had us together for. Did you know Harvey Bassett?”

“No. Of course I had heard of him, he was well known too.”

“I knew him all my life, most of it, we were at college together. He was three years older than me. I was a prodigy. Huh. No more. I took physics, and he took business. He made a billion dollars more or less, but up to the day he died he couldn’t tell an electron from a kilovolt. Also he was unbalanced. He had obsessions. He had one about Richard Nixon. That was why he had us there. He made the equipment for electronic recording, or rather that was one of the things we made and he sold, and he thought Nixon had debased it. Polluted it. He wanted to do something about it but didn’t know what. So he had us-” He bit it off and looked at his watch. “Goddam it, twelve minutes.”

He jumped up, more like twenty-four than sixty-four. He moved, but I grabbed his arm and said firmly, “Goddam it, the names.”

“Oh. Did I say I would?”

He crossed to the desk, sat, got a pad of paper and a pen, and wrote, fast, so fast that I knew it wouldn’t be legible. But it was. I had stepped over, and he tore it off and handed it to me, and a glance was enough. All five of them.

“Mr. Wolfe will be grateful,” I said, and meant it. “Damn grateful. He never leaves his house, and al – [67] most certainly he will want to tell you so and have a talk. Is there any chance you would drop in on him, perhaps on your way home?”

“I doubt it. I suppose I might. My kind of work, I never know what I’m going to do. Huh. You get out of here.”

Turning, I said, “Huh.”

I didn’t really say it, it just came out. And I walked out.

Also I walked the ten blocks down to Thirty-fifth Street and across town to the old brownstone. As I mounted the stoop it was half past four and Wolfe would be up in the plant rooms, and I hung up my coat and went to the office, sat, and looked at the list. He had written not only the names, but also what they did. If my time hadn’t been up, he might have included ages and addresses. I tossed it on the desk and sat and looked at the picture. It was now an entirely new ballgame. By tossing Richard Nixon into that dinner party he had put a completely new face on it. Knowing Wolfe as I did, that was obvious. It was so obvious that it took me only ten minutes to decide what to do first, and I did it. I got at the phone and dialed a number.

It took more than half an hour to get all three of them. Actually I only got Fred; for Saul and Orrie I had to leave urgent messages. Then I pulled the typewriter around and made five copies of the list of names. I don’t have to type it here for you because I already have. Then I typed the conversation with Igoe, verbatim, one carbon. I usually don’t read things over, but I did that, and was on the second page when the elevator rattled coming down and clanked at the bottom, and Wolfe came.

He went to his desk and sat and said, “You’re back.”

He rarely says things that are obvious, but he says that fairly often because it’s a miracle that I’m not limping or bleeding after spending hours out in the concrete jungle.

[68] “Yes, sir. I’ll try to cover it all before dinner. I saw Felix and Lon Cohen and Miss Rowan and Felix again and one of the guests at that dinner named Benjamin Igoe, an electronics engineer with NATELEC, Bassett’s company, and you’ll want it all, but I prefer to give you the last one first. Igoe. I’ve typed my talk with him for the record.”

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Categories: Stout, Rex