A Family Affair by Rex Stout

He turned a palm up. “Gentlemen. I know why you’re here, of course. At present the officers of the law have no reason to assume that any of you were implicated in a homicide. Two homicides. Naturally they have inquired about Mr. Bassett’s movements and activities immediately prior to his death, but he was a busy man of affairs, and they probably know nothing of that dinner a week earlier. If they knew what I know, they would not merely assume that one or more of you might be implicated; you would be the main focus of their investigation.”

He turned to me. “Your notebook, Archie.”

I got it, and a pen. He had closed his eyes. He opened them to see that I was equipped, and closed them again. “Not a letterhead, plain paper. Merely a list of questions. How long had you known Mr. Bassett and what were your relations with him? Why [85] were you included in a meeting called by him to discuss Richard Nixon’s use or abuse of tape recorders? Did you know that Mr. Bassett felt that Mr. Nixon had debased and polluted tape recorders, comma, and did you agree with him? Have you ever been involved in any activity connected with the phenomena called Watergate, comma, and if so what and how and when? Have you ever had any contact with anyone connected with Watergate? To your knowledge, comma, even hearsay, comma, have any of the other five guests ever been connected in any way with Watergate, comma, and if so who? Where were you and what were you doing last Friday night, comma, October twenty-fifth, comma, from six P.M. to two A.M.? Where were you and what were you doing last Monday, comma, October twenty-eighth, comma, from twelve noon to twelve midnight?”

He opened his eyes. “Six carbons. No, only five, we won’t need one. No hurry.”

He turned to them. “That, gentlemen, is a sample of the questions you are going to be asked. Either by me or by the police. You have a choice. You realize that-” “This has gone far enough. Too far. Wolfe, I am a senior vice-president of the fourth largest bank in New York. We will pay you one hundred thousand dollars to represent our interests. One half tomorrow in cash, and the remainder guaranteed-probably by us jointly and certainly by me personally. Orally. Not in writing.”

Willard K. Hahn’s voice was soft and low, but the kind of soft and low you don’t have to strain to hear. He was a square. He would have been obviously a square even without his square jaw and square shoulders-the opposite of Vilar with his points.

Wolfe was looking down his nose at him. “Not a good offer, Mr. Hahn. If as payment for services, too much. If as a bribe to muzzle me, not enough.”

[86] It’s for services. Too much? You saying too much, when you have just said we would be the main focus of a murder investigation? Vilar says you charge the highest fees in New York. If I need something, I buy it and I pay for it. I knew Harvey Bassett for twenty years. He was a good customer of my bank. And he’s dead. Ben Igoe says he had an obsession about Richard Nixon and the tapes, and that’s true, he did, but that wasn’t his only obsession. When I heard of his death, how he died, my first thought was his wife -his obsession about her. Have you-” “Goddam it, Hahn, you would!”

Igoe’s strong baritone. “You would drag her in!”

“You’re damn right I would. He would drag her in, he always did, you know that, you ought to. Or he would drag her out.”

Back to Wolfe. “That slip of paper. If one of us handed him a slip of paper, it wouldn’t have been about Nixon and tapes. That was what we were talking about, Nixon and tapes, why hand him a slip of paper, why not just say it? Evidently you think that slip of paper had something to do with his being murdered. If it did, it wasn’t about tapes. I know nothing about it, I never heard of it until Ben Igoe told me what Goodwin told him, but when he did I- What did I say, Ben?”

“You said it was probably about Dora. Huh. You would.”

“I think,” Roman Vilar said, “that we should stick to what brought us here. That list of questions, Mr. Wolfe. You say they’ll be asked either by you or by the police. Asked by you now? Here and now?”

“No,” Wolfe said. “It would take a night and a day. I didn’t invite you to come in a body; you invited yourselves. I intended to see you, but singly, after getting reports from the men I sent to make inquiries. I suggest that-” “You won’t see me singly.”

Ackerman, the Washington lawyer. He sounded like John Mitchell, too-at [87] least the way Mitchell sounded on television. “You won’t see me at all. I’m surprised that you don’t seem to realize what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get us to go along with you on a cover-up, and not a cover-up of a break-in to look at some papers, a cover-up of a murder. You say two murders. Of course I don’t want to be involved in a murder investigation, nobody does, but at least I’m not guilty. But the way you’re playing it, if I go along with you, I would be guilty. A cover-up of a murder. Obstruction of justice. Urquhart asked you if this is being recorded. I hope it is. When I talk to the District Attorney I would enjoy being able to tell him that this is on tape and he can-” “No,” Hahn, the banker, said. You wouldn’t think such a low, soft voice could cut in, but it did. “You’re not going to talk to the District Attorney or anyone else. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think we’ll be charged with obstruction of justice merely because a private detective told us that a man said something about a slip of paper, and I do not want to be involved in a murder investigation. I don’t think any of us -” Two or three voices, not soft and low, stopped him. I could try to sort it out and report it, but I won’t because it wouldn’t decide anything. Wolfe just sat and took it in. I got his eye and asked a question by pointing to my notebook and then the typewriter, but he shook his head.

But it did decide something. When it became obvious that they were all stringing along with Hahn, and Ackerman was a minority of one, Wolfe stopped the yapping by raising his voice.

“Please! Perhaps I can help. Mr. Ackerman is a member of the bar, and I am not, but his position is not tenable. Probably Watergate has made him excessively sensitive about cover-ups. Four lawyers have been disbarred, and more will be. But you can’t be [88] charged with obstruction of justice when all you have is hearsay. Perhaps I can be charged, but my taking that risk is of no concern to you. If Mr. Ackerman talks to the District Attorney, I’ll be in a pickle, but he’ll probably regret it, guilty or not.”

He looked at the wall clock. “It’s past ten o’clock. As I said, I must see each of you singly. Mr. Ackerman, you may want to get back to Washington. Why not stay now and let the others go?”

“No,” Hahn said. “I repeat my offer. One hundred thousand dollars.”

That started them off again, all of them but Ackerman and Vilar, and again I won’t try to sort it out. But three of them got to their feet, and soon Urquhart left the red leather chair and made it four, and I got up and crossed to the door to the hall. Again there was a clear majority, and when Vilar and Igoe joined me at the door Wolfe spoke up.

“You will hear from me. All of you. From Mr. Good-win. He will telephone and make appointments to suit your convenience-and mine. The best hours for me are eleven in the morning, six in the afternoon, and nine in the evening, but for this I would trim. I don’t want to protract it, and neither do you. There will -” I missed the rest because Igoe had headed for the front and I went to help with his coat and hat.

When all five of them were out and the door shut, and I returned to the office, Ackerman was in the red leather chair, leaning back with his legs crossed. He was big and broad, and the yellow chairs were much smaller. As I crossed to my desk he was saying, “. . . but you don’t know anything about me except that I look like John N. Mitchell.”

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