A Family Affair by Rex Stout


“Yes. We’re going to see Pierre’s father.”

I stared at him. ” ‘We’?”

“Yes. If you brought him to the office we would be interrupted. Since Mr. Cramer and the District Attorney have been unable to find us, there may already be a warrant.”

“I could bring him here.”

“At nearly eighty, he may not be able to walk. Also tile daughter may be there.”

“Parking in the fifties is impossible. There may be three or four flights and no elevator.”

“Well see. Can it be brought to the side entrance?”

I said of course and got his coat and hat. It cer- [26] tainly was all in the family. For a client, no matter how urgent or how big a fee, it had never come to this and never would. He took the elevator in the rear and I took the one in front, since I had to tell Otto where to send the car.

The West Fifties are a mixture of everything from the “21” Club to grimy walkups and warehouses, but I knew that block on Fifty-fourth was mostly old brownstones, and there was a parking lot near Tenth Avenue. When we were in and rolling, I suggested going to the garage and leaving the Heron, which Wolfe owns and I drive, and taking a taxi, but he thinks a moving vehicle with anyone but me at the wheel is even a bigger risk and vetoed it. So I crossed to Tenth Avenue and then uptown, and there was space at the parking lot. Only one long block to walk.

Number 318 wasn’t too bad. Some of those brownstones had been done over inside, and that one even had wooden paneling in the vestibule, and a house phone. I pushed the fourth button up, which was tagged Ducos, put the receiver to my ear, and in a minute a female voice said, “Who ees eet?”

If it was Pierre’s daughter, I thought she should have better manners, but probably she had been given a busy day by a string of city employees and journalists. It was ten minutes past three.

“Nero Wolfe,” I told her. “W-Î-L-F-E. To see Mr. Ducos. He will probably know the name. And Good-win, Archie Goodwin. We knew Pierre for years.”

“Parlez-vous franfais?”

she said.

I knew that much, barely. “Mr. Wolfe does,” I said. “Hold it.”

I turned. “She said parly voo fransay. Here.”

He took the receiver, and I moved to make room. He didn’t have to stoop quite as much as me to get his mouth at the right level. Since what he said was for me only noise, I spent the couple of minutes enjoying the idea of a homicide dick pushing that button and hearing parly voo fransay, and hop- [27] ing it was Lieutenant Rowcliff. Also a couple of journalists I had met, especially Bill Wengert of the Times. When Wolfe hung up the receiver, I put a hand on the inside door and, when the click sounded, pushed it open. And there was a do it-yourself elevator with the door standing open.

If you speak French and would prefer to have a verbatim report of Wolfe’s conversation with Leon Ducos, Pierre’s father, I’m sorry I can’t deliver. All I got was an idea of how it was going from their tones and looks. I’ll report what I saw. First, at the door of the apartment it wasn’t Pierre’s sister. She had said good-by to fifty and maybe even sixty. She was short and dumpy, with a round face and a double chin, and she sported a little white apron, and a little white cap thing on top of her gray hair. Probably she spoke English, at least some, but she didn’t look it. She took Wolfe’s coat and hat and ushered us to the front room. Ducos was there in a wheelchair by a window. The best way to describe him is just to say that he was shriveled but still tough. He probably weighed thirty pounds less than he had at fifty, but what was left of him was intact, and when I took his offered hand I felt his grip. During the hour and twenty minutes we were there he didn’t say a word that I understood. Probably he spoke no English at all, and that was why she had asked if I spoke French.

In twenty minutes, even less, their tone and manner had made it plain that no blood would be shed, and I left my chair, looked around, and crossed to a cabinet with a glass door and shelves in the far comer. Most of the shelves had things like little ivory and china figures and sea shells and a wooden apple, but on one there was a collection of inscribed trophies, silver cups and a medal that might have been gold, and a couple of ribbons. The only word on them that I knew was a name, Leon Ducos. Evidently his bistro had done something that people liked. I sent my [28] eyes around, detecting. You do that in the home of a man who has just been murdered, and, as usual, nothing suggested anything. A framed photograph on a table was probably of Pierre’s mother.

The white apron appeared at a door nearby and went and said something to Ducos, and he shook his head, and as she was leaving I asked if I could use the bathroom. She showed me, down the hall, and I went, though I really had nothing much to pass but the time, and on the way back there was an open door and I entered. A good detective doesn’t have to be invited. There had been no signs anywhere of a daughter, but that room was full of them. It was here. Everything in it said so, and one of the items tagged her good-the contents of a bookcase over by the wall. There were some novels and nonfiction, some of whose titles I recognized, hard covers, and some paperbacks with French titles, but the interesting shelf was the middle one. There were books by Betty Friedan and Kate Millett and four or five more I had heard of, and three by Simone de Beauvoir in French. Of course one or two of them might be on anybody’s shelf, but not a whole library. I took one of them out for a look, and her name, Lucile Ducos, was on the title page, and a second one also, and was reaching for another when a voice came from behind.

“What are you doing?”

The white apron. “Nothing much,” I said. “I couldn’t join in or even understand them and saw these books as I was passing. Are they yours?”

“No. She wouldn’t want a man in here, and she wouldn’t want a man handling her books.”

I won’t try to spell her accent.

“I’m sorry. Don’t tell her, but of course there’ll be fingerprints. I didn’t touch anything else.”

“Did you say your name’s Archie Goodwin?”

“I did. It is.”

“I knew about you from him. And the radio today.

[29] You’re a detective. And a policeman wanted to know if you had been here. He told me to call a number if you came.”

“I’ll bet he did. Are you going to?”

“I don’t know, I’ll ask Muhsieuw Ducos.”

I can’t spell Muhsieuw the way she said it.

Evidently she wasn’t going to leave me there, so I moved, on past her at the door and back to the front room. They were still jabbering, and I went and stood at another window, looking out at the traffic.

It was a quarter past four when we were back in the Heron and rolling out of the parking lot. To Ninth Avenue and downtown. All Wolfe had said was that Ducos had told him something and we would go home and discuss it. He doesn’t talk when he’s walking or in the car. At the garage Tom said a dick had come a little before noon to see if the car was thereof course it had been-and another one had come around four o’clock and asked if he knew where I had gone with it. From there around the comer and half a block on Thirty-fifth Street to the brownstone, more exercise for Wolfe, and I knew why. If I had driven him home and then taken the car to the garage, somebody might be camped on the stoop.

There wasn’t. We mounted the seven steps, and I pushed the button and Fritz came, saw us through the one-way glass panel, slid the chain bolt, and opened the door, and we entered. As I hung Wolfe’s coat up he asked Fritz, “Did that man come?”

“Yes, sir. Two of them. They’re up there now. Several men came, five of them not counting those two, The phone has rung nine times. Since you weren’t sure about dinner, I didn’t stuff the capon, so it may be a little late. It’s nearly five o’clock.”

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Categories: Stout, Rex