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I stood and sent my eyes around. It’s just routine, when leaving a place where you aren’t supposed to be, to consider if and where you have touched things, but that time it went beyond mere routine. I made certain. There were plenty of things in the room—fancy chairs, a marble fireplace without a fire, a de luxe television console, a coffee table in front of a big couch with a collection of magazines, and so forth. Deciding I had touched nothing, I turned and stepped back into the bedroom. Nearly everything there was too soft to take a fingerprint—the wall-to-wall carpet, the pink coverlet on the king-size bed, the upholstered chairs, the pink satin fronts on the three pieces of furniture. I crossed for another look at the body of a woman on the floor a couple of feet from the bed, on its back with the legs spread out and one arm bent. I hadn’t had to touch it to check that it was just a body or to see the big dent in the skull, but was there one chance in a million that I had put fingers on the heavy marble ashtray lying there? The butts and ashes that had been in it were scattered around, and it was a good bet that it had made the dent in the skull. I shook my head; I couldn’t possibly have been such an ape.
I left. Of course I had to use my handkerchief on the doorknob, inside and outside, and I used a knuckle on the button that summoned the do-it-yourself elevator, and also, in the elevator, on the 1 button. I dabbed the 4 button, which I had pushed coming in, with my handkerchief. There was no one in the little lobby down below, and since I had been gloved when I entered I didn’t have to bother about the knobs of the outside door. As I headed west, toward Lexington Avenue, I turned up my overcoat collar and put my gloves on. It was the coldest day of the winter, with a gusty wind.
I don’t try to do any hard thinking while I’m walking, you bump into people, but anyway it didn’t even call for guessing, let alone thinking. What was needed was asking, and the person to ask lived on the second floor of a walkup on 52nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Since this was 39th Street, thirteen short blocks up and four long blocks crosstown. My watch said 4:36. Getting a taxi at that time of day is a career, and there was no hurry. He was on a job. I walked.
It was one minute to five when I entered a phone booth in a bar and grill on Eighth Avenue and dialed a number. When Fritz answered I asked him to buzz the plant rooms, and after a wait a growl came: “Yes?”
“Me,” I said. “I’ve run into a snag on this personal errand and I don’t know when I’ll be back. Probably not in time for dinner.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Can I reach you if a need arises?”
“Very well.” He hung up.
He was being tolerant because I was on a personal errand, none of his business. He hates to be bothered when he’s up with the orchids, and if the errand had been for him he would have said I should have told Fritz.
Outside again, half a block west, cold-faced but with the blood going good, I entered a vestibule and pushed the button marked Cather. After two more pushes there was still no click—as expected. It was too damn cold to hang around, so I headed back for Eighth Avenue, with a notion about five or six fingers of bourbon, but with me the time for bourbon is when I’m going to let down, not when I have to pick up, so I went to a drugstore counter instead and got coffee.
When the coffee was down I went to the booth and dialed a number, hung up after ten rings with no answer, returned to the counter, and bought a glass of milk. Another trip to the booth; still no answer, and I ordered a corned beef on rye and coffee. There is never any rye bread in the kitchen of the old brown-stone on West 35th Street. It was twenty minutes past six, on my fifth try at the phone, after the second piece of pumpkin pie and the fourth cup of coffee, when a voice said hello.
“Orrie? Archie. You alone?”
“Sure, I’m always alone. Did you go?”
“What’d you get?”
“I’d rather show you. Expect me in two minutes.”
“What the hell, I’ll come—”
“I’m in the neighborhood. Two minutes.” I hung up.
I didn’t stop to put on my overcoat and gloves. Two minutes of near-zero wind is a good test of your staying power. When I pushed the button in the vestibule the click came quick, and when I entered and started up the stairs Orrie called down from the top, “Hell, I could have come.”
Once Nero Wolfe, showing off, said to me, “Vultus est index animi,” and I said, “That’s not Greek,” and he said, “A Latin proverb. The face is the index of the mind.” It depends on whose face and whose mind. Across from you at the poker table, Saul Panzer’s face is an index of absolutely nothing. But you keep on trying, and I was still at it on Orrie Gather’s face after he showed me in and took my hat and coat and we sat. I sat and eyed him until he demanded, “Can’t you place me?”
I said, “Vultus est index animi.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ve often wondered. What the hell’s eating you?”
“Just curiosity. Is it possible that you’re playing me?”
“For God’s sake. Playing you how? For what?”
“I wish I knew.” I crossed my legs. “Okay, I’ll report. I followed the script. I arrived at a quarter past four on the dot, pushed the button several times, got no reaction as expected, used the key you gave me, took the elevator to the fourth floor, used the other key, and entered. No one in the living room, and I went to the bedroom. I don’t say someone was there, because properly speaking a corpse is not someone. It was on the floor not far from the bed. I had never seen Isabel Kerr or a picture of her, but I suppose it had been her. A pink thing with lace and pink slippers, no stockings. A couple of—”
“You’re saying she was dead?”
“Don’t interrupt. A couple of inches over five feet, hundred and ten pounds, well-designed oval face, blue eyes, lots of clover-blossom-honey hair, small ears close—”
“By God. By God.”
“Stop interrupting. Mr. Wolfe never does. I didn’t have to touch her to check. I mean it. There was a bruise on the forehead and a big dent in the skull, two inches above and back of the left ear. On the floor, three feet from her right shoulder, was a marble ashtray which looked heavy enough to dent a thicker skull than hers probably was. There were purple spots on an arm and a leg. Cadaveric lividities to you. Her forehead was good and cold, and—”
“You said you didn’t touch her.”
“I touch with my fingers. I don’t call applying a wrist to a forehead or a leg touching. The leg was cold too. It had been a corpse for at least five hours and probably more. The ashtray had been wiped. There were butts and ashes on the carpet but no particles on the tray. I was in there a total of about six minutes. The idea of staying to look for things didn’t appeal to me.” I put a hand in a pocket and got something. “Here are your keys.”
He didn’t see them. His jaw was clamped. He unclamped it to say, “Playing you. For God’s sake. Playing you.”
“Naturally I’m curious.”
He got up and went through a doorway. I tossed the keys onto a table by a window and looked around. It was a good-sized room with three windows, with furniture that would do all right for a bachelor who wasn’t fussy. The only light was from a pair of bulbs in a wall bracket, but there was a lamp by an easy chair that wasn’t turned on. Orrie came back with a bottle and two glasses and offered me one, but I said no thanks, I had just dined. He put one glass down and poured in the other, took a healthy gulp, made a face, and sat down.
“Playing you,” he said. “Nuts. Now you ask me where I’ve been since eight o’clock this morning and can I prove it.”
I shook my head. “Since I’m merely curious, that would be stretching it. If I wanted to be nasty I would have opened up by barking at you something like, ‘Why did you leave the ashtray on the floor?’ Of course we do have to consider facts, such as the fact that I may be the only one besides you who knows that her being dead pulls a thorn for you. A bad thorn in deep. So of course I’m curious about one detail. Did you kill her?”
“No. My God, Archie. Am I a sap?”