Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout

Prisoner’s Base

Chapter I

In Nero Wolfe’s old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street that Monday afternoon in June, the atmosphere was sparky. I mention it not to make an issue of Wolfe’s bad habits, but because it is to the point. It was the atmosphere that got us a roomer.

What had stirred it up was a comment made by Wolfe three days earlier. Each Friday morning at eleven, when he comes down to the office on the first floor from the plant rooms on the roof, Wolfe signs the salary checks for Fritz and Theodore and me, hands me mine, and keeps the other two because he likes to deliver them personally. That morning, as he passed mine across his desk, he made a remark.

“Thank you for waiting for it.”

My brows went up. “What’s the matter? Bugs on the orchids?”

“No. But I saw your bag in the hall, and I note your finery. Straining as you are to be gone, it is gracious of you to wait for this pittance, this meager return for your excessive labors in the week nearly ended. Especially since the bank balance is at its lowest point in two years.”

I controlled myself. “That deserves an answer, and here it is. As for finery, I am headed for a weekend in the country and am dressed accordingly. As for straining, I am not.” I glanced at my wrist. “I have ample time to get the car and drive to Sixty-third Street to get Miss Rowan. As for pittance, right. As for excessive labors, I have had to spend most of my time recently sitting on my prat only because you have seen fit to turn down four offers of jobs in a row. As for the week nearly ended, meaning that I am dashing off to carouse before the week is out for which I am being paid, you’ve known about it for a month, and what’s here to keep me? As for the bank balance, there I admit you have a point. I’m the bookkeeper and I know, and I’m willing to help. It’s only a pittance anyway, what the hell.”

I took my check, with thumbs and forefingers at the middle of its top edge, tore it across, put the halves together and tore again, dropped the shreds into my waste-basket, and turned and started for the door. His bellow came at me.


I wheeled and glared at him. He glared back. “Pfui,” he said.

“Nuts,” I said, and turned and went.

That was what created the atmosphere. When I returned from the country late Sunday night he had gone up to bed. By Monday morning the air might possibly have cleared if it hadn’t been for the torn-up check. We both knew the stub would have to be voided and a new check drawn, but he wasn’t going to tell me to do it without being asked, and I wasn’t going to do it without being told. A man has his pride. With that between us, the stiffness Monday morning lasted through lunch and beyond, into the afternoon.

Around 4:30 I was at my desk, working on the germination records, when the doorbell rang. Ordinarily, unless instructions have been given, Fritz answers it, but that day my legs needed stretching and I went. Swinging the door open, I took in a sight that led me to an agreeable conclusion. The suitcase and hatbox could have held a salesman’s samples, but the young woman in the light peach-colored dress and tailored jacket was surely no peddler. Calling on Nero Wolfe with luggage, ten to one she was a prospective client from out of town, and, coming straight from the station or airport, in a hurry. Such a one was welcome.

With the hatbox dangling from her hand, she crossed the threshold, brushed past me, and said, “You’re Archie Goodwin. Will you bring my suitcase in? Please?”

I did so, closed the door, and deposited the suitcase against the wall. She put the hatbox down beside it and straightened to speak.

“I want to see Nero Wolfe, but of course he’s always up in the plant rooms from four to six. That’s why I picked this time to come, I want to see you first.” Her eyes moved. “That’s the door to the front room.” Her eyes moved again, aimed the length of the hall, “That’s the stairs, and the door to the dining room on the right and to the office on the left. The hall’s wider than I expected. Shall we go to the office?”

I had never seen eyes like hers. Either they were brownish gray flecked with brownish yellow, or brownish yellow flecked with brownish gray. They were deep in, wide apart, and moved fast.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

That was phony. She must have been used to people, at first sight of those eyes, staring at them; she probably expected it. I told her nothing was the matter, took her to the office and gave her a chair, sat at my desk, and observed, “So you’ve been here before.”

She shook her head. “A friend of mine was here a long while ago, and then of course I’ve read about it.” She looked around, twisting her head to the right and then to the left. “I wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t known a good deal about it, and about Nero Wolfe and you.” She leveled the eyes at me, and, finding it difficult to meet them casually, I met them consciously. She went on, “I thought it would be better to tell you about it first because I’m not sure I would know how to put it to Nero Wolfe. You see, I’m trying to work something out. I wonder—do you know what I think I need right now?”

“No. What?”

“A Coke and rum with some lime and lots of ice. I don’t suppose you’ve got Meyer’s?”

It seemed to me she was crowding a little, but I said sure, we had everything, and got up to step to Wolfe’s desk and ring for Fritz. When he had come and got the order, and I was back in my chair, she spoke again. “Fritz looks younger than I expected,” she said.

I leaned back and clasped my hands behind my head. “You’re welcome to a drink, even a Coke and rum,” I told her, “and I’m enjoying your company, that’s okay, but if you want me to tell you how to put something to Mr Wolfe maybe you’d better start.”

“Not till I’ve had the drink,” she said firmly.

She not only had the drink, she made herself at home. After Fritz had brought it and she had taken a couple of sips, she murmured something about its being warm and removed the jacket and dropped it on the seat of the red leather chair. Furthermore, she took off the straw thing she had on her head, fingered her hair back, and got a mirror from her bag and gave herself a brief look. Then, with her glass in her hand, and sipping intermittently, she moved to my desk for a glance at the germination cards, crossed to the big globe and gave it a gentle spin, and went to the shelves and looked at titles of books. When her glass was empty she put it on a table, went to her chair and sat, and gave me the eyes.

“I’m beginning to get myself together,” she told me.

“Good. Don’t rush it.”

“I won’t. I’m not a rusher. I’m a very cautious girl—believe me, I am. I never rushed but one thing in my life, and that one was enough. I’m not sure I’m over it yet. I think maybe I should have another drink.”

I decided against it. I couldn’t deny that the effect Coke and rum had on her was pleasant; it tuned her up and emphasized her charms, which were fair enough without the emphasis. But this was office hours, and I wanted to find out if she had any potential as a client. So I decided to dodge the drink problem with a polite suggestion, but before I had it framed she demanded, “Does the door of the south room on the third floor have a bolt on the inside?”

I frowned at her. I was beginning to suspect she was something we couldn’t use, like for instance a female writer getting material for a magazine piece on a famous detective’s home, but even so she was not the kind to be led out by the ear and rolled off the stoop down the steps to the sidewalk. There was no good reason, considering the eyes, why she shouldn’t be humored up to a point.

“No,” I said. “Why, do you think it needs one?”

“Maybe not,” she conceded, “but I thought I’d feel better if it had. You see, that’s where I want to sleep.”

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Categories: Stout, Rex