A Family Affair by Rex Stout

“Pierre wasn’t going to ruin you.”

“Yes, he was. When he learned about Bassett he remembered about me and the slip of paper. I had been damn fool enough to give him a hundred dollars for the slip of paper. He demanded a thousand dollars. A grand. He came that Sunday, two days after Bassett, and asked for a grand. He said that was all [153] he wanted, he wouldn’t come back, but you know how that is. You said once that all blackmailers ought to be shot.”

“You didn’t shoot him. Sunday? The next day or evening you went to that room at Rusterman’s and put that thing in his coat pocket. Then his daughter was going to ruin you, and you shot her, and they’ve got that bullet too. You had another bomb, probably got two for the price of one, but you couldn’t use it on her because she knew what had killed her father. And you brought it with you here tonight. I thought Saul did a good job with his voice on the phone, but I suppose after killing three people your nerves are on edge. And we are going to ruin you.”

Saul got up and left the room. Sometimes a trip to the bathroom can’t be postponed. But it wasn’t the bathroom; his footsteps on the tiled hall floor went on to the kitchen. Fred rose and stretched his legs and sat down again. Orrie glanced up at him and then sent his eves back to me. No one spoke. Footsteps again, and Saul was back. Instead of returning to his chair, he joined me and on the couch between us he put what he had gone for: a roll of adhesive tape, a pair of pliers, and a couple of paper towels. He got the Don Pedro cigar tube from his pocket, checked the cap again, gripped it in the middle with the pliers, wiped it good with a paper towel, laid it on the edge of the other paper towel, and rolled the towel around it, tucking in the ends. Then about a yard of adhesive tape, all the way with both ends covered. A very neat wrapping job, with an appreciative audience.

“Well keep the gun,” he said. “As you said, Archie, we’re not going to turn him in, but well keep it just in case. But he can have this. Right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Now that you’ve gift-wrapped it. Fred?”

“I guess so.”

Fred nodded. “Okay.”

[154] Saul got up and offered it, but Orrie didn’t take it. His hands were on his knees, the curled fingers moving in and out a little as if they couldn’t decide whether to make fists. He hadn’t taken his topcoat off. Saul stepped to him, pulled open his topcoat and jacket, put the tube back where he had found it, in the inside breast pocket, and went to his chair. Orrie’s hand went into the pocket and came out again, empty.

“Dora Bassett came to see us this morning,” I told Orrie. “I took her up to my room, and we had a talk. I’ll see Jill tomorrow, if she’s not on a flight.”

“I’ll go along,” Fred said. “I like Jill.”

“I’ll start with Del Bascom,” Saul said. “Then Pete Vawter.”

Orrie stood up and said, “I’m going to see Nero Wolfe.”

We all stared at him. Fred said, “Jesus Christ.”

Saul said, “How are you going to get in?”

I said, “He won’t. Of course not. He’s cracked.”

Orrie turned and walked out. Saul got up and followed, and I tagged along, and Fred was right behind me. My mind was on a point of etiquette-should you open the door for a departing guest in whose pocket you have just put a bomb that you hope he’ll use? Saul didn’t; he stayed behind. Orrie not only opened the door, he pulled it shut after him, with us standing there. The spring lock clicked in place, but Saul slid the bolt, which was sensible. Orrie was good with locks, and he just might have ideas. Apparently no one felt like talking; we stood there.

“No bets,” I said. “No bets either way.”

“Me neither,” Saul said. “Not a dime. If it takes a year, it will be a bad year for all of us. And you have a family, Fred.”

“Right here and now,” Fred said, “I’ve got me, and [155] I’m empty. I could swallow some of that salami I turned down, if you can spare it.”

“That’s a bet,” Saul said and headed for the kitchen.

[156] 17 At a quarter past eleven Thursday morning I pushed the button at the door of the old brownstone for Fritz to come and slide the bolt. Behind my elbows were Saul and Fred. Fred had gone home to his own bed and come back at nine o’clock, but I had slept on the couch in Saul’s living room. I hadn’t overslept, and neither had Saul; we had turned on the radio at six and seven and eight and nine and ten, so we were well informed on current events. A little after ten I had called the Gazette and left word for Lon Cohen that .1 could be reached at Saul’s place until eleven and then at the office. I hadn’t called Wolfe. I had told him we were going to decide what to do, and let him think we were spending the night at it. For breakfast Saul and I had had two thick slices of broiled ham, six poached eggs, and about a dozen thin slices of buttered toast sprinkled with chives. Saul grows chives in a sixteen-inch box in his kitchen window.

It wouldn’t be accurate reporting to say that Wolfe’s mouth dropped open when he saw us walk in, but it might have, though it never had, if he hadn’t heard our voices in the hall. What he did do, he put on an act. He finished a paragraph in a book he was reading, took his time inserting the thin strip of gold he [157] used for a bookmark, put the book down, and said, “Good morning.”

Saul went to the red leather chair, Fred pulled up a yellow one, and I went to my desk, sat, and said, “I have asked Saul to report. He was the host.”

Saul said, “Fred came about an hour after Archie phoned you. I called Orrie and asked him to come at nine o’clock. We decided to try to make him kill himself. When he came we jumped him without warning. He had his gun as usual, and in a pocket of his jacket he had a Don Pedro cigar tube. We went in and sat down and talked for about half an hour. Mostly Archie talked. He told him we were going to make it impossible for him to live. Orrie said Bassett was going to ruin him and Pierre hit him for a thousand dollars. I sealed the cigar tube with adhesive tape and put it back in his pocket, but we kept his gun. He left a little before ten o’clock.”

Wolfe said, “Satisfactory,” but he said it only with his eyes. His mouth stayed shut tight. He leaned back and closed his eyes and breathed deep. Saul looked at me and was going to say something, but he didn’t get it out because he was interrupted by a noise. Two noises. First the ring of the doorbell, and a moment later a shattering crack and clatter, somewhere close. We jumped and ran to the hall, Fred in front because he was closest. But in the hall he stopped and I passed him. As I neared the front door I slowed because the floor was covered with pieces of glass. There was nothing left of the glass panel in the door, three feet by four feet, but some jagged edges. I slid the bolt and opened the door enough to get through and stepped out.

Down on the sidewalk at the foot of the steps was Orrie Cather’s topcoat. From up above that’s just what it was, his topcoat. I went down the seven steps, and then I could see his face. There was nothing much [158] wrong with his face. He had liked his face too much to hold it the way Pierre had held it. Nine days and ten hours had passed, two hundred and twenty-six hours, since I had stood and looked down at what had been Pierre’s face.

I lifted my head, and Saul and Fred were there, one on each side. “Okay,” I said, “stand by. I’m going in and ring Lon Cohen. I owe him something.”

[159] 18 At half past nine that evening Wolfe and I were leaving the dining room, an hour later than usual, for after-dinner coffee in the office, when the doorbell rang. Wolfe shot a glance at the front door. He didn’t stop, but he had seen who it was, because I had stood my ground with Ralph Kerner of Town House Services and insisted that the temporary emergency job on the front door had to include some one-way glass. The bolt was a new one and wasn’t well fitted. I slid it and opened up, and Inspector Cramer entered.

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