More Deaths Than One
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
by Rex Stout
For the third time I went over the final additions and subtractions on the first page of Form 1040, to make good and sure. Then I swivelled my chair to face Nero Wolfe, who was seated behind his desk to the right of mine reading a book of poems by a guy named Van Doren, Mark Van Doren. So I thought I might as well use a poetry word.
“It’s bleak,” I said.
There was no sign that he heard.
“Bleak,” I repeated. “If it means what I think it does. Bleak!” His eyes didn’t lift from the page, but he murmured, “What’s bleak?” “Figures.” I leaned to slide the Form 1040 across the waxed grain of his desk.
“This is March thirteenth. Four thousand three hundred and twelve dollars and sixty-eight cents, in addition to the four quarterly instalments already paid.
Then we have to send in 1040-ES for 1948, and a cheque for ten thousand bucks goes with it.” I clasped my fingers at the back of my head and asked grimly, “Bleak or not?” He asked what the bank balance was and I told him. “Of course,” I conceded, “that will take care of the two wallops from our rich uncle just mentioned, also a loaf of bread and a sliver of shad roe, but weeks pass and bills arrive, not to be so crude as to speak of paying Fritz and Theodore and me.” Wolfe had put down the poetry and was scowling at the Form 1040, pretending he could add. I raised my voice: “But you own this house and furniture, except the chair and other items in my room which I bought myself, and you’re the boss and you know best. Sure. That electric company bird would have been good for at least a grand over and above expenses on his forgery problem, but you wouldn’t be bothered. Mrs What’s-her-name would have paid twice that, plenty, for the lowdown on that so-called musician, but you were too busy reading. That lawyer by the name of Clifford was in a bad hole and had to buy help, but he had dandruff. That actress and her gentleman protector—” “Archie, shut up.” “Yes, sir. Also what do you do? You come down from your beautiful orchids day before yesterday and breeze in here and tell me merrily to draw another man-size cheque for that World Government outfit. When I meekly mention that the science of book-keeping has two main branches, first addition and second subtraction—” “Leave the room!” I snarled in his direction, swivelled back to my desk position, got the typewriter in place, inserted paper with carbon, and started to tap out, from my work sheet, Schedule G for line 6 of Schedule C. Time passed and I went on with the job, now and then darting a glance to the right to see if he had had the brass to resume on the book. He hadn’t. He was leaning back in his chair, which was big enough for two but not two of him, motionless, with his eyes closed. The tempest was raging. I had a private grin and went on with my work. Somewhat later, when I was finishing Schedule F for line 16 of Schedule C, a growl came from him: “Archie.” “Yes, sir.” I swivelled.
“A man condemning the income tax because of the annoyance it gave him or the expense it puts him to is merely a dog baring its teeth, and he forfeits the privileges of civilized discourse. But it is permissible to criticize it on other and impersonal grounds. A government, like an individual, spends money for any or all of three reasons: because it needs to, because it wants to, or simply because it has to spend. The last is much the shabbiest. It is arguable, if not manifest, that a substantial proportion of this great spring flood of billions pouring into the Treasury will in effect get spent for that last shabby reason.”
“Yeah. So we deduct something? How do I word it?” Wolfe half opened his eyes. “You are sure of your figures?” “Only too sure.” “Did you cheat much?” “Average. Nothing indecent.” “I have to pay the amounts you named?” “Either that or forfeit privileges.” “Very well.” Wolfe sighed clear down, sat a minute, and straightened his chair.
“Confound it. There was a time when a thousand dinars a year was ample for me.
Get Mr Richards of the Federal Broadcasting Company.” I frowned at him, trying to guess; then, because I knew he was using up a lot of energy sitting up straight, I gave up, found the number in the book, dialled, and, by using Wolfe’s name, got through to Richards three minutes under par for a vice-president. Wolfe took his phone, exchanged greetings, and went on: “In my office two years ago, Mr Richards, when you handed me a cheque, you said that you felt you were still in my debt—in spite of the size of that cheque. So I’m presuming to ask a favour of you. I want some confidential information. What amount of money is involved, weekly let us say, in the radio programme of Miss Madeline Fraser?” “Oh.” There was a pause. Richard’s voice had been friendly and even warm. Now it backed off a little: “How did you get connected with that?” “I’m not connected with it, not in any way. But I would appreciate the information—confidentially. Is it too much for me?” “It’s an extremely unfortunate situation, for Miss Fraser, for the network, for the sponsors—every one concerned. You wouldn’t care to tell me why you’re interested?” “I’d rather not.” Wolfe was brusque. “I’m sorry I bothered you—” “You’re not bothering me, or if you are you’re welcome. The information you want isn’t published, but everyone in radio knows it. Everyone in radio knows everything. Exactly what do you want?” “The total sum involved.” “Well…let’s see…counting air time, it’s on nearly two hundred stations…production, talent, scripts, everything…roughly, thirty thousand dollars a week.” “Nonsense,” Wolfe said curtly.
“Why nonsense?” “It’s monstrous. That’s over a million and a half a year.” “No, around a million and a quarter, on account of the summer vacation.” “Even so. I suppose Miss Fraser gets a material segment of it?” “Quite material. Every one knows that too. Her take is around five thousand a week, but the way she splits it with her manager, Miss Koppel, is one thing everyone doesn’t know—at least I don’t.” Richards’s voice had warmed up again.
“You know, Mr Wolfe, if you felt like doing me a little favour right back you could tell me confidentially what you want with this.” But all he got from Wolfe was thanks, and he was gentleman enough to take them without insisting on the return favour. After Wolfe had pushed the phone away he remarked to me: “Good heavens. Twelve hundred thousand dollars!” I, feeling better because it was obvious what he was up to, grinned at him.
“Yes, sir. You would go over big on the air. You could read poetry. By the way, if you want to hear her earn her segment, she’s on every Tuesday and Friday morning from eleven to twelve. You’d get pointers. Was that your idea?” “No.” He was gruff. “My idea is to land a job I know how to do. Take your notebook. These instructions will be a little complicated on account of the contingencies to be provided for.” I got my notebook from a drawer.
After three tries that Saturday at the listed Manhattan number of Madeline Fraser, with don’t answer as the only result, I finally resorted to Lon Cohen of the Gazette and he dug it out for me that both Miss Fraser and her manager, Miss Deborah Koppel, were weekending up in Connecticut.
As a citizen in good standing—anyway pretty good—my tendency was to wish the New York Police Department good luck in its contacts with crime, but I frankly hoped that Inspector Cramer and his homicide scientists wouldn’t get Scotch tape on the Orchard case before we had a chance to inspect the contents. Judging from the newspaper accounts I had read, it didn’t seem likely that Cramer was getting set to toot a trumpet, but you can never tell how much is being held back, so I was all for driving to Connecticut and horning in on the weekend, but Wolfe vetoed it and told me to wait until Monday.
By noon Sunday he had finished the book of poems and was drawing pictures of horses on sheets from his memo pad, testing a theory he had run across somewhere that you can analyse a man’s character from the way he draws a horse. I had completed Forms 1040 and 1040-ES and, with cheques enclosed, they had been mailed. After lunch I hung around the kitchen a while, listening to Wolfe and Fritz Brenner, the chef and household jewel, arguing whether horse mackerel is as good as Mediterranean tunny fish for vitello tonnato—which, as prepared by Fritz, is the finest thing on earth to do with tender young veal. When the argument began to bore me because there was no Mediterranean tunny fish to be had anyhow, I went up to the top floor, to the plant rooms that had been built on the roof, and spent a couple of hours with Theodore Horstmann on the germination records. Then, remembering that on account of a date with a lady I wouldn’t have the evening for it, I went down three flights to the office, took the newspapers for five days to my desk, and read everything they had on the Orchard case.