A Family Affair by Rex Stout

[118] That’s probably what Wolfe has in mind. I’m glad to be in on it. So here’s my privileged communication.”

I drank, milk and then bourbon for a change, and proceeded to confide in my lawyer.

An hour and a half later, at five minutes past eight, Parker dropped me off at Thirty-fifth Street and Eighth Avenue. I would stretch my legs for a block and a half. He new had plenty of facts but could offer no suggestion on what to do with them, since I still intended to hang on. It was ten to one that he would have liked to advise me to turn loose but couldn’t on account of Wolfe. That looked to me a lot like conflict of interest, but I had learned not to try splitting hairs with a lawyer. They think you’re not in their class. Anyway we shook hands before I climbed out.

At the brownstone the chain bolt was on and I had to ring for Fritz. I am not rubbing it in when I say that he pinched his nose when I took my coat off; a super cook has a super sense of smell.

“I don’t need to say,” he said. “Anyway, here you are, grace a Dieu. You look terrible.”

I kept the coat on my arm. “I feel worse. This will have to go to the cleaners, and so will I. In about two hours I’ll come down and clean out the refrigerator and shelves for you, and you can start over. He’s in the dining room?”

“No, I took up a tray, a plain omelet with five eggs and bread for toast, and coffee. Before that he had me rub lilac vegetal on his back. The paper said you were in jail, all of you. Are you going to tell me anything? He didn’t.”

“It’s like this, Fritz. I know ten thousand details that you don’t know, but the one important detail, what’s going to happen next-I’m no better off than you are. You tell me something. You know him as [119] well as I do, maybe better. What’s the French word for crazy? Insane. Batty.”

“Fou. Insense.”

” I like fou. Is he fou?”

“No. He looked me in my eye.”

“Okay, then wait and see. Do me a favor. Buzz him on the house phone and tell him I’m home.”

“But you’ll see him. He’ll see you.”

“No he won’t. I’m not fou either. You’ll see me in two hours.”

I headed for the stairs.

[120] 13 You would expect – anyway, I would-that the main assault in the campaign of the media to get the story to the American people would come from the Gazette. The Gazette was the leader in emphasizing flavor and color in everything from markets to murders, and also there was the habit of my exchanging tits for tats with Lon Cohen. But the worst two were Bill Wengert of the Times and Art Hollis of CBS News. Now that the dinner party at Rusterman’s was in the picture-nobody knew exactly how-and the murder of Harvey H. Bassett of NATELEC was connected with the other two-nobody knew exactly why -probably the brass at the Times was on Wengert’s neck. And Hollis, the damn fool, had sold CBS the idea of sending a crew with equipment to Nero Wolfe’s office for a twenty-six-minute interview without first arranging to get them in. So for a couple of days a fair amount of my time and energy was devoted to public relations. Omitting the details, I will only remark that it is not a good idea to persuade the Times that any future item of news with your name in it will not be fit to print.

The most interesting incident Tuesday morning was my walking to a building on Thirty-fourth Street to enter a booth and push levers on a voting machine. I have never understood why anybody passes up that [121] bargain. It doesn’t cost a cent, and for that couple of minutes you’re the star of the show, with top billing. It’s the only way that really counts for you to say I’m it, I’m the one that decides what’s going to happen and who’s going to make it happen. It’s the only time I really feel important and know I have a right to. Wonderful. Sometimes the feeling lasts all the way home if somebody doesn’t bump me.

There was no sight or sound of Wolfe until he came down for lunch. No sound of the elevator, so he didn’t go up to the plant rooms. I knew he was alive and breathing, because Fritz told me he cleaned up a normal breakfast, and also, when I returned from voting and a walk around a few blocks, Fritz reported that Parker had phoned and Wolfe had taken it up in his room. And the program for lunch was normal-baked bluefish stuffed with ground shrimp, and endive salad with watercress. When Wolfe came down at a quarter past one he looked in at the office door to tell me good morning, though it wasn’t mom-ing, and then crossed to the dining room. I had considered eating in the kitchen but had decided that we would have to be on speaking terms, since we had the same counsel. Also it would have given Fritz one more reason to worry, and he didn’t need it.

As I got seated at the table, Wolfe asked if there had been any word from Fred or Orrie, and I said yes, they had called and I had told them to stand by, I would call them as soon as I knew what to say. He didn’t mention Saul, so I assumed he had called while I was out, though Fritz hadn’t said so. And he didn’t mention the call from Parker. So evidently, although we were on speaking terms, the speaking wasn’t going to include the matter of our right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When he had carved the bluefish and Fritz had brought me mine and taken his, he asked me where he should go to vote and I told him. Then he asked how many seats I thought [122] the Democrats would gain in the House and the Senate, and we discussed it in detail. Then he asked if I had split the ticket, and I said yes, I had voted for Carey but not for dark, and we discussed that.

It was quite a performance. Over the years he had had relapses and grouches, and once or twice he had come close to a tantrum, but this was a new one. Our licenses had been suspended, if we crossed the river to Jersey or drove up to Westport or Danbury we would be locked up without bail, and we had three men out on the same limb with us, but pfui. Skip it. It will all come out in the wash. And Fritz was right, he wasn’t fou, he had merely decided that, since the situation was absolutely hopeless, he would ignore it. When we left the table at ten minutes past two, I decided to give him twenty-four hours and then issue an ultimatum, if necessary.

Four hours later I wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure of anything. When we left the dining room he had neither crossed the hall to the office nor taken the elevator back to his room; he had announced that he was going to go and vote and reached to the rack for the coat he had brought down. Certainly; voting was one of the few personal errands that got him out in any weather. But at a quarter past six he hadn’t come back, and that was ridiculous. Four hours. All bets were off. He was in a hospital or the morgue, or in an airplane headed for Montenegro. I was regretting that I hadn’t turned on the six-o’clock news and considering whether to start phoning now or wait until after dinner when the doorbell rang and I went to the hall, and there he was. He never carried keys. I went and opened the door and he entered, said, “I decided to do an errand,” and unbuttoned his coat.

I said, “Much traffic?”

He said, “Of course. There always is.”

As I hung up his coat I decided not to wait until [123] tomorrow for the ultimatum. After dinner in the office, when Fritz had gone with the coffee tray. Wolfe went to the kitchen, and I went up to my room to stand at the window and consider how to word it.

That meal stands out as the one I enjoyed least of all the ones I have had at that table. I really thought It might be the last one, but I used my knife and fork as usual, and chewed and swallowed, and heard what he said about things like the expressions on the people’s faces as they stood in line in front of the voting booths. When we went to the office and sat and Fritz came with the coffee, I still hadn’t decided how to start the ultimatum, but that didn’t bother me. I knew from long experience that it would go better if I let it start itself.

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