A Family Affair by Rex Stout

Roman Vilar was not Just a security errand boy. Fred had told me that Vilar Associates was maybe the biggest and best-known outfit in industrial security, and on the phone I had to go through two secretaries to get him. And he didn’t start the conversation by inviting questions, far from it. He offered Wolfe a job, and me too.

“Before we get onto Harvey Bassett and your problem,” he said, “I’d like to make a suggestion. One of my associates suggested it when I told him I was coming here, and three of us discussed it. We have some good investigators on our staff-two of them are absolutely top drawer-but as my associate said, think what it would mean if we were going after a contract with a big corporation, if we could say that if a really tough situation turned up we would put our best man on it, Nero Wolfe. Think what just the name would do. Of course there would be a certain amount of work for you, not too much, we know how you feel about work, but the main thing will be the name. I don’t have to tell you how famous [95] you are, you know that, and that’s not all. There is also Archie Goodwin. We want him too, and the starting figure will be a hundred and twenty thousand for you, ten thousand a month, and thirty-six thousand for Goodwin, three thousand a month. We would prefer a five-year contract, but it could be three years if you prefer that, or even an option to terminate it at the end of a year if you would rather have it that way. Starting the first of the year, two months from now, but of course we could announce it immediately. I can see it, nothing loud or flashy, just a simple one-sentence announcement: ‘If a major problem arises, our Nero Wolfe will be available.’

” He was leaning forward in the chair, all his points pointing-chin, nose, ears. “Of course,” he said, “I don’t expect an immediate answer. You’ll want to consider it. You’ll want to find out about us. But it’s a firm offer. I would sign a contract here and now.”

“Yes,” Wolfe said, I’ll want to find out about you. Where were you and what were you doing last Friday night, October twenty-fifth, from six P.M. to two A.M.?”

Vilar slid back in the chair. He grinned. 1 didn’t expect that” Wolfe nodded. “A fair exchange. Near the end of my talk with Mr. Ackerman last evening he asked if I really believe one of you six men killed Harvey Bassett, and I said of course, I am paying three men forty dollars an hour to inquire about you. That isn’t ten thousand dollars a month, but it’s a thick slice. It shouldn’t take a month. You’re in the security business. Richard Nixon’s main buoy, in his frantic effort to keep himself afloat, was his plea of national security. Have you been involved in any way with any of the phenomena included in the term “Water-gate’?”


[96] “Have you had any connection with anyone who has been involved?”

“One of the technicians who examined that tape with an eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap has done some work for me. Look, Wolfe. In my business I don’t answer questions, I ask them. Forget it. Where I was last Friday night, for instance. Go fly a kite. We should have gone along with Ackerman. I may go to the DA myself. Why don’t you? Why did you turn Hahn down? What are you trying to sell?”

Wolfe wiggled a finger. Regression again. Water-gate had really loosened his hinges. “I’m not selling anything, Mr. Vilar.”

Vi-lar. “I’m buying satisfaction. Harvey Bassett wanted you to say that Richard Nixon had made it harder for you to sell your services. Had he in fact made it easier?”


Vilar stood up, no rush, taking his time. He looked down at Wolfe. It gives you an edge to look down at a man. “Well,” he said, “111 go to the DA myself.”

“I doubt it,” Wolfe said. He turned to me. “What odds, Archie?”

I pursed my lips. “Four to one.”

Back to Vilar. “I’ll make it five to one. A hundred dollars to twenty that you won’t.”

Vilar turned and marched out. “Marched” is wrong. Marching takes good full steps, and his legs weren’t long enough. I followed him out and to the front with the idea of asking for a raise, four grand a month instead of three, but decided it wasn’t the right moment. Back in the office I told Wolfe, “Actually it’s ten to one. He’s the kind that lets out all his sail and then puffs to make his own wind.”

His eyes narrowed at me. “Who wrote that? Or said it?”

“I did. I’ve been looking through that book you just bought. The Southern Voyages, by that admiral, and I feel nautical. Is Vilar a murderer?”

[97] “No. Possibly Bassett, but not Pierre. He wouldn’t risk getting that bomb. Security. Confound it, I doubt if any of them would; they have all submitted to the constraint of prudence. Do you agree?”

“No. One of them might have known where he could get hold of one without anybody knowing. And Igoe could probably make one himself.”

He grunted. “He is of course a menace. There is only one object on earth that frightens me: a physicist working on a new trick. Pfui. Reports?”

“Nothing to start a crack. Orrie didn’t get a glimmer at Rusterman’s, and I gave him Igoe. Saul, Judd is so solid and upright and well liked that he’ll probably get a monument. Fred, everybody has a good word for Vilar, but he suspects that if any of them had had enough to drink it would be a different story. Acker-” “When they call at one, tell them to come at six.”

“I already have. They aren’t earning their pay and they know it. Ackerman called from Washington to warn us that we may be phoning or talking on tape. That check on your desk is for the cash box, it’s low. The letter from Hewitt about a new orchid was mailed last Saturday. Six days from Long Island to Manhattan. Forty-two miles. I could walk it in one day.”

He reached for the pile of mail, glanced through it, and got up and went to the kitchen. Lunch was to be spareribs with a red-wine sauce that used eight herbs and spices, and he wanted to be sure Fritz didn’t skimp on the garlic. They disagree about garlic. Montenegro vs. Switzerland.

As a rule I keep personal matters out of these reports, but since you know that I had got to Benjamin Igoe through Lily Rowan, I should mention that I had called her twice to let her know that I had seen him and it had led to developments. That afternoon, after we had disposed of the spareribs and answered the mail and I had been to the bank to cash [98] the check, and Wolfe had gone up for his afternoon session with the orchids, I rang her again, told her that I was still out of jail, and said that I would probably be free to spend the weekend as she had suggested if I would still be welcome.

“I’m pretty sure I could stand you for an hour,” she said, “and then we’ll see. Anyway I want to look at you. I just got back from lunch with Dora Bassett at her house, and she asked about you again. And she has never seen you. Have you got some kind of draw that doesn’t even need wires? Electronic?”

“No. Do me a favor. Don’t even mention electronics in my hearing. I’m sick and tired of electronics. Two favors. Tell me what she asked about me.”

“Oh, don’t get ideas. Nothing personal. She just asked if I had seen you and had you found out who put the bomb in Pierre’s coat, but of course she didn’t call him Pierre, she said ‘that man’ or ‘that waiter.’

I have a right to call him Pierre. As you know, I think he was the best waiter that ever fed me. He remembered that I like my fork at the right of my plate after just one time.”

But she didn’t ask what or how or why or when, although she knew we were working on it. Incredible. I’d buy a pedestal and put her on it if I thought she would stay. She would either fall off or climb down, I don’t know which.

Again at six o’clock, when Wolfe came down, there was someone in the red leather chair. Saul Panzer, and Fred and Orrie were in two yellow ones. For a change we all had martinis. Fred didn’t like the taste of gin but he wanted to be sociable. Wolfe would ring for beer, but he didn’t, and that was a bad sign. When he skips beer, have your raincoat and rubbers handy.

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