NERO WOLFE in
The Mother Hunt by Rex Stout
When the doorbell rang a little after eleven that Tuesday morning in early June and I went to the hall and took a look through the one-way glass panel in the front door, I saw what, or whom, I expected to see: a face a little too narrow, gray eyes a little too big, and a figure a little too thin for the best curves. I knew who it was because she had phoned Monday afternoon for an appointment, and I knew what she looked like because I had seen her a few times at theaters or restaurants.
Also I had known enough about her, part public record and part hearsay, to brief Nero Wolfe without doing any research. She was the widow of Richard Valdon, the novelist, who had died some nine months ago drowned in somebody’s swimming pool in Westchester and since four of his books had been best sellers and one of them, Never Dream Again, had topped a million copies at $5.95, she should have no trouble paying a bill from a private detective if and when she got one. After reading Never Dream Again, five or six years ago, Wolfe had chucked it by giving it to a library, but he had thought better of a later one, His Own Image, and it had a place on the shelves. Presumably that was why he took the trouble to lift his bulk from the chair when I ushered her to the office, and to stand until she was seated in the red leather chair near the end of his desk. As I went to my desk and sat I was not agog. She had said on the phone that she wanted to consult Wolfe about something very personal and confidential, but she didn’t look as if she were being pinched where it hurt. It would probably be something routine like an anonymous letter or a missing relative.
Putting her bag on the stand at her elbow, she turned her head for a look around, stopped her big gray eyes at me for half a second as she turned back, and said to Wolfe, My husband would have liked this room.
M-m, Wolfe said. I liked one of his books, with reservations. How old was he when he died?
How old are you?
That was for my benefit. He had a triple conviction: that a) his animus toward women made it impossible for him to judge any single specimen; that b) I needed only an hour with any woman alive to tag her; and that c) he could help out by asking some blunt impertinent question, his favorite one being how old are you. It’s hopeless to try to set him right.
At that, the way Lucy Valdon took it was a clue. She smiled and said, Old enough, plenty old enough. I’m twenty-six. Old enough to know when I need help and here I am. It’s about it’s extremely confidential. She glanced at me.
Wolfe nodded. It usually is. My ears are Mr. Goodwin’s and his are mine, professionally. As for confidence, I don’t suppose you have committed a major crime?
She smiled again. It came quick and went quick, but she meant it. I wouldn’t have the nerve. No, no crime. I want you to find somebody for me.
I thought, uh-huh, here we go. Cousin Mildred is missing and Aunt Amanda has asked her rich niece to hire a detective. But she went on: It’s a little well, it’s kind of fantastic. I have a baby, and I want to know who the mother is. As I said, this is confidential, but it’s not really a secret. My maid and my cook know about it, and my lawyer, and two of my friends, but that’s all, because I’m not sure I’m going to keep it the baby.
Wolfe was frowning at her, and no wonder. I’m not a judge of babies, madam.
Of course not. What I want but I must tell you. I’ve had it two weeks. Two weeks ago Sunday, May twentieth, the phone rang and I answered it, and a voice said there was something in my vestibule, and I went to look, and there it was on the door, wrapped in a blanket. I took it in, and pinned to the blanket inside was a slip of paper. She got her bag from the stand and opened it, and by the time she had the paper out I was there to take it. A glance was enough to read what was on it, but instead of handing it to Wolfe across his desk I circled around to him for another look as he held it. It was a four-by-six piece of ordinary cheap paper, and the message on it, in five crooked lines, printed with one of those rubber-stamp outfits for kids, was brief and to the point:
MRS. RICHARD VALDON, THIS BABY IS FOR YOU BECAUSE A BOY SHOULD LIVE IN HIS FATHERS HOUSE.
There were two pinholes near a corner. Wolfe put it on his desk, turned to her, and asked a question. Indeed?
I don’t know, she said. Of course I don’t. But it could be true.
Is it likely or merely credible?
I guess it’s likely. She closed the bag and returned it to the stand. I mean it’s likely that it could have happened. She gestured with the hand that sported a wedding ring. Her eyes came to me and back to Wolfe. This is in confidence, you know.
Well… since I’m telling you I want you to understand. Dick and I were married two years ago it will be two years next month. We were in love, I still think we were, but I admit that for me there was this too, that he was a famous man, that I would be Mrs. Richard Valdon. And for hint there was my well, who I was. I was an Armstead. I didn’t know how much that meant to him until after we were married, when he realized that I was sick and tired of being an Armstead.
She took a breath. He had a sort of a Don Juan reputation before he married me, but it was probably exaggerated those things often are. For two months we were completely… She stopped and her eyes closed. In a moment they opened. Then was nothing for me but us, and I think for him too. I’m sure. After that I simply don’t know, I only know it wasn’t the same. During that year, the last year of his life, he may have had one woman, or two, or a dozen I just don’t know. He could have had, I know that. So the baby what did I say? It’s likely that it could have happened. You understand?
Wolfe nodded. So far. And your problem?
The baby, of course. I intended to have one, or two or three, I sincerely did, and Dick wanted to, but I wanted to wait. I put it off. When he died that was hard, maybe the hardest, that he had wanted me to have a baby and I had put it off. Now there is one, and I have it. She pointed at the slip of paper on Wolfe’s desk. I think what that says is right. I think a boy should live in his father’s house, and certainly he should have his father’s name. But the problem is, was Richard Valdon this baby’s father? She gestured. There!
Wolfe snorted. Pfui. Never to be solved and you know it. Homer said it: no man can know who was his father. Shakespeare said it: it is a wise father that knows his own child. I can’t help you, madam. No one can.
She smiled. I can say pfui’ too. Of course you can help me. I know you can’t prove that Dick was the father, but you can find out who put the baby in my vestibule, and who its mother is, and then we can Here. She got her bag and opened it. I have figured it out. She produced another slip of paper, not the same size or kind. The doctor said the baby was four months old, that evening, the day it came, May twentieth, so I used that date. She looked at the paper. So it was born about January twentieth, so it was conceived about April twentieth, last year. When you know who the mother is you can find out about her and Dick, how sure it is, or anyway how likely it is, that they were together then. That won’t prove this baby is his son, but it can come close close enough. And besides, if it’s just a trick, if Dick wasn’t the father and couldn’t have been, and you find that out, that would help me, wouldn’t it? So the first thing is to find out who left it in my vestibule, and then who the mother is. Then I may want to ask her some questions myself, but I don’t. Well, we’ll see.