A Family Affair by Rex Stout

She drank champagne, emptied her glass. I put down my glass, bent down to take her slipper off-blue silk or something with streaks of gold or something-poured a couple of ounces of champagne in it, lifted it to my mouth, and drank.

“That’s how I like you,” I said. “Hereafter I would leave my license as a detective at home if I had one. It’s been suspended.”

[129] 14 When I went to bed and to sleep Tuesday night, I knew I was going to do something in the morning but didn’t know what. I only knew that when Wolfe came down, either from the plant rooms at eleven or later for lunch, I wouldn’t be there. When I opened my eyes and rolled out Wednesday morning, I knew exactly where I would be at eleven o’clock and what I would be doing. It’s very convenient to have a Chairman of the Board who decides things while you sleep. At eleven o’clock I would be in the bedroom of the late Lucile Ducos, determined to find something. There had to be something; otherwise it might take weeks, even months.

I would have liked to go right after breakfast, but it was advisable not to tackle the white apron, now known as Marie Garrou, until she had had time to give Grandpa Ducos his breakfast and get him and his wheelchair to the window in the front room, and at least get a good start on the rest of the daily routine. So as I finished my second cup of coffee I told Fritz I would leave at ten-thirty on a personal errand, and would he please tell Wolfe, who had gone up to the plant rooms, that I wouldn’t be there for lunch. He asked if he should answer the phone, and I said sure, we still had our freedom of speech.

[130] The office had been neglected for several days and needed attention. The film of dust on the chairs that hadn’t been used. The stack of junk mail that had accumulated. The smell of the water in the vase on Wolfe’s desk. And a dozen other details. So I didn’t get away at ten-thirty. It was twenty minutes of eleven when I got ten double sawbucks from the cash box, wrote “11/6 AC 200” in the book, and closed the door of the safe. As I turned for a look around to see if I had missed anything, the doorbell rang.

It’s true that there had been several pictures of her in the Gazette and one in the Times, but I assert that I would have known her anyway. It was so fit, so natural, for Mrs. Harvey Bassett to show, that when a woman was there on the stoop it had to be her. I had gone two miles at eleven o’clock at night to ask Lily Rowan a question about her, and there she was.

I went and opened the door and said, “Good morning,” and she said, “I’m Dora Bassett. You’re Archie Goodwin,” and walked in and kept going, down the hall.

Any way you look at it, surely I was glad to see her, but I wasn’t. For about twelve hours I had known that seeing her would certainly be on the program, but I would choose the time and place. Since Wolfe had gone up to the plant rooms, he would come down at the usual hour, and it was twelve minutes to eleven. If I followed precedent I would either go up there or go and buzz him from the kitchen, but precedent had been ignored for more than a week. So when I entered the office I didn’t even glance at her-she was standing in the middle of the room-as I crossed to my desk. I sat and reached for the house phone and pushed the button.

He answered quicker than usual. “Yes?”

“Me. Mrs. Harvey H. Bassett just came. I didn’t invite her. Perhaps you did.”

[131] “No.”

Silence. “I’ll be down at once.”

As I hung up she said, “I didn’t come to see Nero Wolfe. I came to see you.”

I looked at her. So that was Doraymee. The front of her mink or sable or sea-otter coat-it has got to the point where I can’t tell cony from coonskin-was open, showing black silk or polyester. She was small but not tiny. Her face was small too, and if it hadn’t been so made up, perhaps for the first time since she had lost her husband, it would probably have been easy to look at.

I stood up. “He’s coming down, so you’ll see both of us. I’ll take your coat?”

“I want to see you.”

She tried to smile. “I know a a lot about you, from your books and from Lily Rowan.”

“Then you must have known Mr. Wolfe’s schedule, to the office at eleven o’clock. He’ll want to meet you, naturally.”

I moved. “I might as well take your coat.”

She looked doubtful, then turned for me to get it. I put it on the couch, and when I turned she was in the red leather chair. As I went to my chair she said, “You’re taller than I expected. And more-more rougher. Lily thinks you’re graceful.”

That simply wasn’t so. Lily did not think I was graceful. Was she trying to butter me and be subtle about it? I didn’t have time to decide how to reply because the elevator had hit the bottom and I had to make sure my face was ready for Wolfe. He was not going to have the satisfaction of knowing I had caught up until I was ready.

He went to his desk and turned the chair so he would be facing her. As he sat she said, louder and stronger than before, “I came to see Archie Goodwin.”

He said, just stating a fact, “This is my office, Mrs. Bassett.”

“We could go to another room.”

[132] I didn’t have the slightest idea of his game plan. He might have merely wanted to have a look at her and hear her voice, and intended to get up and go to the kitchen. So I told her, “I work for Mr. Wolfe, Mrs. Bassett.”

If it sounded sarcastic to him, fine. “I would tell him whatever you said to me. Go ahead.”

She looked at me. She had fine brown eyes, really too big for her small face. Her make-up hadn’t included phony lashes. “I wanted to ask you about my husband,” she said. “From the newspapers and television, they seem to think his death-his-his murder -that the murder of that waiter was connected with it. And then his daughter. And he was murdered here.”

She looked at Wolfe. “Here in your house.”

“He was indeed,” he said. “What do you want to ask about your husband?”

“Why, I just-” She cleared her throat. “It has been five days, nearly a week, and the police don’t tell me anything. I thought you might. They must think you know because they arrested you because you won’t talk. I thought you might tell me . . .”

She fluttered a hand. “Tell me what you know.”

“Then you’ve wasted a trip, madam. I spent two days and nights in jail rather than tell the police. Ill tell you one thing I know: the murders of your husband and that waiter are connected. And that woman. Of course I could tell you an assortment of lies, but I doubt if it’s worth the effort. I’ll tell you what I think: I think you could tell me something. It might help if you knew I wouldn’t repeat it to the police. To anyone. I wouldn’t. I give you my word, and my word is good.”

She regarded him, her eyes straight at him. She opened her mouth and closed it again, tight. She looked at me. “Couldn’t we go to another room?”

I stood up. Sometimes you don’t have to make a decision, not even your subconscious; it’s just there.

[133] “Certainly,” I said. “My room’s upstairs. Just leave your coat here.”

I use the elevator about once a month, and never alone. As I took her out to it I wished there had been a mirror there on the wall so I could see Wolfe’s face. In the last couple of days I had spent a lot of minutes wondering about him, and now he would spend some wondering about me. As the elevator fought its way up and we went down the hall and entered my room and I shut the door, my mind should have been on her and what line to take, but it wasn’t. It was downstairs enjoying Wolfe.

But the line I would take was decided by her, not by me. As I turned from closing the door she put hands on me. First she gripped my arms, then she had her arms around my neck with her face pressed against my middle ribs, her shoulders trembling. Well. With a woman in that position you can’t even guess. She may be suggesting that you take her clothes off or she may be grabbing the nearest solid object to keep on her feet. But it seems silly just to let your arms hang, and I had mine around her, patting her back. In a minute I gave her fanny a couple of little pats, which is one way of asking a question. Her hold around my neck didn’t tighten, which is one way of answering it.

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