Rex Stout – Nero Wolfe – Final Deduction
“Your name, please?”
I asked her only as a matter of form. Having seen her picture in newspapers and magazines at least a dozen times, and having seen her in person at the Flamingo and other spots around town, I had of course recognized her through the one-way glass in the door as I went down the hall to answer the doorbell, though she wasn’t prinked up for show. There was nothing dowdy about her brown tailored suit or fur stole or the hundred-dollar pancake on her head, but her round white face, too white there in daylight, which could be quite passable in a restaurant or theater lobby, could have stood some attention. It was actually flabby, and the rims of her eyes were red and swollen. She spoke.
“I don’t think…” She let it hang a moment, then said, “But you’re Archie Goodwin.”
I nodded. “And you’re Althea Vail. Since you have no appointment, I’ll have to tell Mr Wolfe what you want to see him about.”
“I’d rather tell him myself. It’s very confidential and very urgent.”
I didn’t insist. Getting around as I do, and hearing a lot of this and that, both true and false, I had a guess on what was probably biting her, and if that was it I would enjoy watching Wolfe’s face as she spilled it, and hearing him turn her down. So I admitted her. The usual routine with a stranger who has no appointment is to leave him or her on the stoop while I go and tell Wolfe, but I can make exceptions, and it was a raw windy day for late April, so I took her to the front room, the first door on your left when you are inside, returned to the hall, and went to the second door on the left, to the office.
Wolfe was on his feet over by the big globe, glaring at a spot on it. When I had gone to answer the bell he had been glaring at Cuba, but he had shifted to Laos.
“A woman,” I said.
He stuck with Laos. “No,” he said.
“Probably,” I conceded. “But she says it’s urgent and confidential, and she could pay a six-figure fee without batting an eye. Her name is Althea Vail. Mrs Jimmy Vail. You read newspapers thoroughly, so you must know that even the Times calls him Jimmy. Her eyes are red, presumably from crying, but she is now under control. I don’t think she’ll blubber.”
“I didn’t leave her on the stoop because of the weather. She’s in the front room. I have heard talk of her, and I understand that she is prompt pay.”
He turned. “Confound it,” he growled. He took in a bushel of air through his nose, let it out through his mouth, and moved. Behind his desk he stood, a living mountain, beside his oversized chair. He seldom rises to receive a caller, woman or man, but since he was already on his feet it would take no energy to be polite, so why not? I went and opened the connecting door to the front room, told Mrs Vail to come, presented her, and convoyed her to the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk. Sitting, she gave the stole a backward toss, and it would have slid to the floor if I hadn’t caught it. Wolfe had lowered his 285 pounds into his chair and was scowling at her, his normal attitude to anyone, especially a woman, who had the gall to come uninvited to the old brownstone on West 35th Street, his house, expecting him to go to work.
Althea Vail put her brown leather bag on the stand at her elbow. “First,” she said, “I’d better tell you how I got here.”
“Not material,” Wolfe muttered.
“Yes it is,” she declared. It came out hoarse, and she cleared her throat. “You’ll see why. But first of all it has to be understood that what I’m going to tell you is absolutely in confidence. I know about you, I know your reputation, or I wouldn’t be here, but it has to be definite that this is in complete confidence. Of course I’m going to give you a check as a retainer, and perhaps I should do that before…” She reached to the stand for her bag. “Ten thousand dollars?”
Wolfe grunted. “If you know about me, madam, you should know that that’s fatuous. If you want to hire me to do a job, what is it? If I take it, a retainer may or may not be required. As for confidence, nothing that you tell me will be revealed unless it involves a crime which I am obliged, as a citizen and a licensed private detective, to report to authority. I speak also for Mr Goodwin, who is in my employ and who-”
“It does involve a crime. Kidnaping is a crime.”
“It is indeed.”
“But it must not be reported to authority.”
My brows were up. Seated at my desk, my chair swiveled to face her, I crossed off the guess I had made. Apparently I wouldn’t get to watch Wolfe’s face while a woman asked him to tail her husband, or to hear him turn her down. He was speaking.
“Certainly kidnaping is unique. The obligation not to withhold knowledge of a major crime must sometimes bow to other considerations, for instance saving a life. Is that your concern?”
“Then you may trust our discretion. We make no firm commitment, but we are not fools. I suppose you have been warned to tell no one of your predicament?”
“Then I was wrong. How you got here is material. How did you?”
“I phoned a friend of mine, Helen Blount, who lives in an apartment on Seventy-fifth Street, and arranged it with her. The main entrance to the apartment house is on Seventy-fifth Street, but the service entrance is on Seventy-fourth Street. I phoned her at half past ten. I told my chauffeur to have my car out front at half past eleven. At half past eleven I went out and got in my car and was driven to my friend’s address. I didn’t look behind to see if I was being followed because I was afraid the chauffeur would notice. I got out and went into the apartment house-the men there know me-and I went to the basement and through to the service entrance on Seventy-fourth Street, and Helen Blount was there in her car, and I got in, and she drove me here. So I don’t think there’s the slightest chance that they know I’m seeing Nero Wolfe. Do you?”
Wolfe turned to me. “Archie?”
I nodded. “Good enough. Hundred to one. But if someone’s waiting in Seventy-fifth Street to see her home and she never shows, he’ll wonder. It would be a good idea to go back before too long and enter on Seventy-fourth and leave on Seventy-fifth. I would advise it.”
Her red-rimmed eyes were at me. “Of course. What would be too long?”
“That depends on how patient and careful he is, and I don’t know him.” I glanced at my wrist. “It’s twenty-five after twelve. You got there a little more than half an hour ago. You could reasonably be expected to stay with your friend quite a while, hours maybe. But if he knows you well enough to know that your friend Helen Blount lives there he might call her number and ask for you and be told that you’re not there and you haven’t been there. I have never known a kidnaper personally, but from what I’ve read and heard I’ve got the impression that they’re very sensitive.”
She shook her head. “He won’t be told that. Helen told her maid what to say. If anyone asks for me, or her either, he’ll be told that we’re busy and can’t come to the phone.”
“Good for you. But there’s Helen Blount. She knows you came to see Nero Wolfe.”
“She doesn’t know what for. That’s all right, I can trust her, I know I can.” Her eyes went back to Wolfe. “So that’s how I got here. When I leave I have to go to my bank, and then I’ll go back to Seventy-fourth Street.” It was coming out hoarse again, and she cleared her throat and coughed. “It’s my husband,” she said. She got her bag and opened it and took out an envelope. “He didn’t come home Sunday night, and yesterday this came in the mail.”
Her chair was too far away for her to hand it to Wolfe without getting up, and of course he wouldn’t, so I did. It was an ordinary off-white envelope with a typewritten address to Mrs Jimmy Vail, 994 Fifth Avenue, New York City, no zone number, and was post-marked BRYANT STA APR 23 1961 11:30 PM. Sunday, day before yesterday. The flap had been cut clean with a knife or opener, no jagged edges. I handed it to Wolfe, and after a glance at the address and postmark he removed the contents, a folded sheet of cheap bond paper, also off-white, five by eight unfolded, the kind you get in scratch pads. He held it to his left, so I could read it too. We no longer have it, but from some shots I took of it the next day I can have it reproduced for you to look at. It may tell you what it told Wolfe about the person who typed it. Here it is: