A Family Affair by Rex Stout

Wolfe drank coffee and leaned back. “Here reality takes over from invention. This you already know. At half past eleven o’clock this morning Orrie Gather rang my doorbell and was hurtled down to the sidewalk, dead. Evidently he had two of those bombs, since Sergeant Stebbins has told me that scraps of aluminum have been found similar to those found ten days ago on the floor of that room upstairs. Also evidently he didn’t wait to see if he would be admitted, because he knew he wouldn’t be.”

He straightened up and emptied his second cup and reached to put it on the tray. “There’s more coffee, still hot, if you would like some. I’ve finished.”

Cramer was staring at him. “And you say you’re going to loaf. Drift. It’s incredible. You’re incredible. You’re at peace. Good God.”

Wolfe nodded. “You haven’t had time to consider it from either angle. First your angle. Assume that Orrie Gather is alive and this conversation has not taken place. Where would you stand? Not only would you have no evidence against him; you wouldn’t even suspect that he was involved.”

He turned to me. “What odds would you give that he would never suspect it?”

“A hundred to one. At least.”

Back to Cramer. “And you should have. The one item of solid evidence, one that would have been persuasive for a jury, was the slip of paper with Orrie’s name on it, which Lucile Ducos had hidden in a book. Your men searched her room and didn’t find it. Archie and Saul did find it. You don’t know now [165] whether it has been destroyed or is there in my safe. With me, and Archie and Saul and Fred and Orrie, standing mute, you would not only have no evidence, you would have no suspicion. Orrie would be in no jeopardy and almost certainly never would be. In time you would add three to your list of unsolved homicides.”

Cramer just sat with his jaw clamped. Of course what really hurt was the slip of paper they had missed. If they had found it- No. I prefer not to put in black and white what it would have been like if they had found it.

“Apparently,” Wolfe said, “you don’t wish to comment. So much for your angle. Now the other angle -the District Attorney. Orrie Gather is not alive. Assume that when you leave here you go to the District Attorney- No, it’s past ten o’clock. Assume that in the morning you go to him and report this conversation. Even assume that it is being recorded on a contraption on your person-” “You know damn well it isn’t.”

“Assume that it is, and you give it to him. With Orrie Gather dead, what can he do? He can’t prefer charges against him, even for three murders. He would of course like to get us, all four of us-have our bail rescinded, lock us up, put us on trial, and convict us. Convict us of what, with us standing mute? Withholding evidence? Evidence of what? Not of murder; no murder will have been legally established. It can’t be legally established without someone to charge and convict. Establish a murder by charging us with complicity, and us standing mute? Pfui. Somehow manage to get a report, even a tape recording, of this conversation, into an action of law? Again pfui. I had merely amused myself by inventing a rigmarole of suppositions. I had cozened you.”

He turned a palm up. “Being a resourceful man, he could probably pester us, though I don’t know ex- [166] actly how. He has his position and his staff, the power and prestige of his office, but I have resources too. I have ten million people who like to be informed and diverted, and a comfortable relationship with a popular newspaper. If he chooses to try to get satisfaction, I’ll try to make him regret it.”

He turned to me again. “Archie, what odds that we’ll have our licenses back before the end of the year?”

I lifted my shoulders and let them down. “Offhand, I’d say twenty to one.”

Back to Cramer. “That will be satisfactory for me. I am already in an uncomfortably high tax bracket for the year and would take no jobs anyway. If you want to ask questions about my elaborate supposition, I may answer them.”

“I want to ask one. How did she hide the slip of paper in the book? Put it in between the pages?”

“No. She put it on the inside of the back caver, face down, and pasted a sheet of paper over it.”

“What’s the title of the book?”

“The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. I read about a third of it.”

“Where is it?”

Wolfe flipped a hand. “I suppose it has been destroyed.”

“Balls. You wouldn’t. Wolfe, I want that book. And the slip of paper.”

“Mr. Cramer.”

Wolfe cocked his head. “You haven’t reflected. If you reprimand the men who searched that room for misfeasance, whether or not you show them the slip of paper and the book, where will you be? You’ll be committed. You will have to report this entire conversation to the District Attorney, of course telling him that you think it was a collection not of suppositions but of facts. You may decide to report it to him anyway, but I doubt it. As I said, your mental processes have limits, but you are not dumb. You would probably be prodded into a long and difficult [167] investigation that couldn’t possibly have an adequate result-for instance, you might discover how Mr. Bassett learned Orrie Gather’s name and address, but then what? No matter what you discover, even what solid evidence you get, the dominant fact, that Orrie Gather is dead, will remain.”

“And you killed him. Your men killed him on your order.”

Wolfe nodded. “I won’t challenge your right to put it like that. Of course I would put it differently. I might say that the ultimate responsibility for his death rests with the performance of the genes at the instant of his conception, but that could be construed as a rejection of free will, and I do not reject it. If it pleases you to say that I killed him, I won’t contend. You have worked hard on it for ten days and should have some satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction my ass.”

He stood up. “Yes, ten days. I’ll reflect on it all right.”

He went and got his coat and put it on and came back, to the comer of Wolfe’s desk, and said, “I’m going home and try to get some sleep. You probably have never had to try to get some sleep. You probably never will.”

He turned, saw the globe, and went and whirled it so hard that it hadn’t quite stopped when he was through to the hall. When the sound came of the front door closing, Wolfe said, “Will you bring brandy, Archie? And two glasses. If Fritz is up, bring him and three glasses. We’ll try to get some sleep.”

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