THREE DOORS TO DEATH
THREE NERO WOLFE MYSTERYS
BY REX STOUT
LOOKING over the scripts of these accounts of three of Nero Wolfe’s cases, it struck me that they might give a stranger a wrong impression of him, so 1 thought it wouldn’t hurt to put in this foreword for those who haven’t met him before. In only one of these three cases did he get paid—I mean paid money—for working on it, and that might give someone a woolly idea which could develop into a nuisance. I want to make it clear that Wolfe does not solve murders just for the hell of it. He does it to make a living, which includes me, since he can’t live the way he likes to without signing my pay check each and every Friday afternoon. Also please note that in the other two cases he did get something: in one, the satisfaction of doing a favor for an old and dear friend, and in the other, a fill-in for Theodore.
With that warning, I like the idea of putting these three cases together because they make a kind of complicated pattern of pairs. In two of them Wolfe got no fee. In two of them he had to forge a document to get a crack started. In two of them the homicide was strictly a family affair. In two of them I became acquainted with a young female, not the same one, who might have sent my pulse up a beat if she hadn’t been quite so close to a murder. So I think they’ll be a little more interesting, in a bunch like this, provided they don’t start people phoning in to ask me to ask Wolfe to solve murders as a gift. I’m just telling you.
SHE said, in her nicely managed voice that was a pleasure to listen to, “Daumery and Nieder.”
I asked her politely, “Will you spell it, please?”
I meant the Daumery, since I already had the Nieder down in my notebook, her name being, so she had said, Cynthia Nieder.
Her lovely bright blue eyes changed expression to show that she suspected me of kidding her—as if I had asked her to spell Shakespeare or Charlie Chaplin. But I was so obviously innocent that the eyes changed again and she smiled.
She spelled Daumery and added, “Four ninety-six Seventh Avenue. That’s what we get for being so cocky about how famous we are—we get asked how to spell it. What if someone asked you how to spell Nero Wolfe?”
“Try it,” I suggested, smiling back at her. I extended a hand. “Put your fingers on my pulse and ask me. But don’t ask me how to spell Archie Goodwin, which is me. That would hurt.”
Wolfe grunted peevishly and readjusted a few hundred of his pounds in his built-to-order high-test chair behind his desk. “You made,” he told our visitor, “an appointment to see me. I supposed you needed a detective. If so tell me what for, without encouraging Mr. Goodwin to start caterwauling. It takes very little to set him off.”
I let it go by, though I am much more particular than his insult implied. I felt like indulging him because he had just bought a new Cadillac sedan, which meant that I, Archie Goodwin, had a new car, because, of the four men who lived in Nero Wolfe’s brownstone house on West 35th Street not far from the river, I was the only one who drove. Wolfe himself, who suspected all machinery with moving parts of being in a plot to get him, rarely left the house for any reason whatever, and never—well, hardly ever—on business. He stayed in his office, on the ground floor of the house, and used his brain if and when I could pester him into it. Fritz Brenner, chef and supervisor of household comforts, knew how to drive but pretended he didn’t, and had no license. Theodore Horstmann, curator of the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, thought walking was good for people and was still, at his age, trying to prove it.
That left me. In addition to being chief assistant detective, bookkeeper and stenographer, the flea in the elephant’s ear, and balance wheel, I was also chauffeur and errand boy. Therefore the new car was, in effect, mine, and I thought I ought to show my appreciation by letting him call roe a tomcat at least once. Another thing, the car had cost plenty, and we hadn’t been offered an acceptable job for over a week. We could use a fee. This blueeyed female treat looked as if she wasn’t short on cash, and if I riled Wolfe about a little thing like a personal insult he might react by broadening out and insulting her too, and she might go somewhere else to shop.
So all I did was grin understandingly at Cynthia Nieder, brandish my pen over my notebook, and clear my throat.
“DAUMERY and Nieder,” Cynthia said, “is as good a name as there is on Seventh Avenue, including Fifty-seventh Street, but of course if you’re not in the garment trade and know nothing about it—1 imagine your wives would know the name all right.”
“No wife,” I stated. “Neither of us. That’s why we caterwaul.”
“Well, if you had one she would know about Daumery and Nieder. We make top-quality coats, suits, and dresses, and we confine our line, even here in New York. The business was started twenty years ago by two men, Jean Daumery and Paul Nieder—my Uncle Paul—my father’s brother. It’s—”
“Excuse me,” Wolfe put in. “Will it save time to tell you that I don’t do industrial surveillance?”
“No, that’s not it,” she said, waving it away. “I know you don’t. It’s about him, my uncle. Uncle Paul.”
She frowned, and was looking at the window beyond Wolfe’s desk as if she were seeing something. Then her shoulders lifted and dropped again, and she went back to Wolfe.
“You need some background,” she told him. “At least I think it would be better. Daumery was the business head of the firm, the organizer and manager and salesman, and Uncle Paul was the designer, the creator. If it hadn’t been for him Daumery wouldn’t have had anything to manage and sell. They owned it together—a fifty fifty partnership- It was my uncle’s half that I inherited when my uncle killed himself—anyway, that’s how it was announced, that he committed suicide—a little over a year ago.”
That gave me two thoughts: one, that I had been right about her having the price of a fee; and two, that we were probably in for another job of translating a suicide into a murder.
“I suppose I should tell about me,” Cynthia was saying. “I was born and brought up out West, in Oregon. My father and mother died when I was fourteen, and Uncle Paul sent for me, and I came to New York and lived with him. He wasn’t married. We didn’t get along very well together, I guess because we were so much alike, because I’m creative too; but it wasn’t really so bad, we just fought all the time. And when it came down to it he let me have my way. He was determined about my going to college, but I knew I was creative and it would be a waste of dme. We fought about it every day, and finally he said if I didn’t go to college I would have to earn my living, and then what do you think he did? He gave me a job modeling for Daumery and Nieder at top salary! That’s what he was like! Actually he was wonderful. He gave me the run of the place too, to catch on about designing, but of course he wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t known I had unusual talent.”
“What kind of talent?” Wolfe asked skeptically.
“As a clothes designer, of course,” she said, as if that were the only talent worth mentioning. “I was only eighteen—that was three years ago—and completely without training, and for two years I only modeled and caught onto things, but I had a few little chances to show what I could do. I was surprised that my uncle was willing to help me along, because most established designers are so jealous; but he did. Then he went West on a vacation, and then the word came that he had killed himself. Maybe I ought to tell you why I wasn’t surprised that he had killed himself.”
“Maybe,” Wolfe conceded.
“Because I knew how unhappy he was- Helen Daumery had died. A horse she was riding had gone crazy and thrown her off on some stones and killed her. She was Daumery’s wife—the wife of my uncle’s partner—and my uncle was in love with her. She had been one of their models—she was much younger than Daumery—and I think she was the only woman Uncle Paul ever loved—anyhow he certainly loved her. She didn’t love him because she didn’t love anybody but herself, but I think she probably gave him the cherry out of her cocktail just because she enjoyed having him like that when no other woman could get him. She would.”