A Family Affair by Rex Stout

Her shoulders stopped trembling. I said, “You could have done this downstairs. He would have just got up and walked out. And I could have brought you something from the kitchen. Up here there’s nothing to drink but water.”

She lifted her head enough to move her lips. “I don’t want a drink. I wanted this. I want your arms around me.”

“You do not. You just want arms around you, not necessarily mine. Not that I mind pinch-hitting. Come and sit down.”

Her arms loosened. I patted her back again, then [134] put my hands up and around and got her wrists. She let go and straightened up and even used a hand to brush her hair back from her eyes and adjust the fur thing that was perched on it. There were two chairs, a big easy one over by the reading lamp and a small straight one at the little desk. I steered her across to the big one and went and brought the small one.

She had come guessing and she would have to leave guessing. Of course I would have liked to know a lot of things that she knew, and her arms around my neck with her shoulders shaking showed that I could probably pry them out of her, but if I tried to, she would have known how much I knew, and that wouldn’t do. Not yet. So as I sat I said, “I’m sorry that’s all I have for you Mrs. Bassett, just a pair of arms. If you thought I could tell you something that the police don’t know or won’t tell, I can’t. We aren’t talking to the police because we have nothing to say. If you have read some of my books, you must know that Nero Wolfe is one of a land. I admit I’m a little curious about you. Miss Rowan told me you never read books. Why have you read some of mine?”

From the way her big brown eyes looked at me, you wouldn’t have thought she had just had her arms around my neck. Nor from her tone as she asked, “What else did she tell you about me?”

“Nothing much. She just mentioned that she had seen you and you had asked her about me.”

“I asked her about you because I knew she knew you and your picture was in the paper.”

“Sure. Yours was too. Why did you read some of my books? “I didn’t. I told her I did because I knew about her and you.”

She stood up. “I’m sorry I came. I guess I -I just thought…”

She shook her head. “I don’t [135] know what I thought I don’t want- My coat’s in there where he is.”

I was up. I told her I would get her coat and went and opened the door, and she came. That elevator is one of a kind too; it complains more about going down than about going up. Downstairs, she stayed in the hall when I went into the office for her coat Wolfe wasn’t there; presumably he had gone to the kitchen. I wrote on a sheet of my memo pad.

NW: I’m taking Mrs. B. home. Probably not back for lunch.

AG I put it under a paperweight on his desk, went to the hall with Mrs. Bassett’s mink or sable or sea otter and held it for her, put my coat on, and let us out. Her Rolls-Royce was there at the curb, but I didn’t go and open the door for her because as we descended to the sidewalk the chauffeur climbed out and had it open by the time she was down. When he got back in and it rolled, I walked to Ninth Avenue and turned uptown.

It was ten minutes past noon when I pushed the button in the vestibule at 318 West Fifty-fourth Street. Three minutes passed with no response, and I shook my head. They might have cleared out. It had been four days since the daughter had been killed; the old man might be in a hospital. They might even have gone back to France. But then her voice came, exactly as before: “Who ees eet?”

“Archie Goodwin, from Nero Wolfe. I don’t want to bother Mr. Ducos, and anyway” I don’t speak French, as you know. I’d like to come up, if you can spare a few minutes.”

“What for? I don’t know anything.”

[136] “Maybe not, but Nero Wolfe and I would appreciate it Sill voo play.”

“You don’t speak French.”

“I know I don’t, but everybody knows those three words, even dummies like me. Please?”

“Well … for Nero Wolfe …”

The click sounded, and I pushed the door and was in, and the elevator was there with the door open. Upstairs, the door of the apartment was open too and she was there on the sill, white apron and cap exactly as before. She looked even shorter and dumpier, and the crease in the double chin looked deeper. From the way she stood and the expression on her face, it was obvious I wasn’t going to be invited in, so I had to try throwing a punch, hoping it would land.

“I suppose I call you Marie,” I said.

She nodded. “That’s my name.”

You’ll have to supply her accent; I’m not going to try to spell it.

“Well, Marie, you probably prefer straight talk, so I’ll just say that I know you heard Miss Ducos and me talk that evening. You must have. You told the police about the slip of paper, and other things. Or you may have heard Mr. Ducos and Nero Wolfe talking. I’m not saying you listened when you shouldn’t, I’m just saying that you heard. I don’t know if you heard Miss Ducos tell me that you didn’t like her. Did you?”

“I don’t listen when I shouldn’t listen.”

“I didn’t say you do. But you must know she didn’t like you. A woman knows when another woman doesn’t like her.”

“She’s dead, but it won’t hurt her to say I didn’t like her. I didn’t hate her, I had no reason to hate her. And she’s dead. You didn’t come just to tell me I didn’t like her.”

“No. It’s warm in here.”

I took my coat off. “I came [137] because we think there’s something here that will help us find the man who killed Pierre. Probably the slip of paper, but it could be something else. That’s what I was looking for in Pierre’s room. But I didn’t find it, and maybe it wasn’t there, maybe it was in her room, and of course she knew it was. Maybe it’s still there, and that’s what I came for, to see if I can find it.”

No visible reaction. She just said. The police looked in her room.”

“Of course, naturally they would, but they probably weren’t very thorough. Anyway, they didn’t find it, so I would like to try. Nero Wolfe could have come to ask Mr. Ducos to let me look, but he didn’t want to bother him. You can stay with me to see that I don’t do anything I shouldn’t do.”

She was shaking her head. “No.”

She repeated it “No.”

There are a thousand ways of saying no and I had heard a lot of them. Sometimes it’s more the eyes than the tone of voice that tells you what kind of a no it is. Her little dark eyes, nearly black, were a little too close together, and they blinked a little too often. It was ten to one that I couldn’t sell her, but even money, maybe better, that I could buy her. “Look, Marie,” I said, “you know a man gave Pierre a hundred dollars for that slip of paper.”

“No. A hundred dollars? I don’t know that.”

“Well, he did. But Pierre might have made a copy of it. And Lucile might have found it and made a copy too.”

My hand went to my pocket and came out with the little roll I had taken from the cash box. I draped my coat over my arm to have both hands and peeled off five of the ten twenties and returned them to my pocket. “All right,” I said, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to give me a chance to find Lucile’s copy or to find something else that may be in her [138] room. It may take five minutes or it may take five hours. Here, take it.”

Her eyes said she would, but her hands didn’t move. The white apron had two little pockets, and I folded the bills into a little wad and stuck it in her left pocket, and said, “If you don’t want to stay with me, you can search me before I leave.”

“Only her room,” she said.

“Right,” I said, and she backed up, and I entered. She turned, and I followed her down the hall to Lucile’s room. She entered but went in only a couple of steps, and I crossed to a chair by a window and put my coat on it.

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Categories: Stout, Rex