Introduction by Robert B. Parker
“It is always a treat to read a Nero Wolfe mystery. The man has entered our folklore.”—The New York Times Book Review
A grand master of the form, Rex Stout is one of America’s greatest mystery writers, and his literary creation Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time. Together, Stout and Wolfe have entertained—and puzzled—millions of mystery fans around the world. Now, with his perambulatory man-about-town, Archie Goodwin, the arrogant, gourmandizing, sedentary sleuth is back in the original seventy-three cases of crime and detection written by the inimitable master himself, Rex Stout.
About the Author
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It would not be strictly true to say that Wolfe and I were not speaking that Monday morning in May.
We had certainly spoken the night before. Getting home—home being the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street owned by Wolfe, and occupied by him and Fritz and Theodore and me—around two a.m., I had been surprised to find him still up, at his desk in the office, reading a book. From the look he gave me as I entered, it was plain that something was eating him, but as I crossed to the safe to check that it was locked for the night I was supposing that he had been riled by the book, when he snapped at my back, “Where have you been?”
I turned. “Now really,” I said. “On what ground?”
He was glaring. “I should have asked, where have you not been. Miss Rowan has telephoned five times, first shortly after eight o’clock, last half an hour ago. If I had gone to bed she wouldn’t have let me sleep. As you know, Fritz was out for the evening.”
“Hasn’t he come home?”
“Yes, but he must be up to get breakfast and I didn’t want him pestered. You said you were going to the Flamingo Club with Miss Rowan. You didn’t. She telephoned five times. So I, not you, have spent the evening with her, and I haven’t enjoyed it. Is that sufficient ground?”
“No, sir.” I was at his desk, looking down at him. “Not for demanding to know where I’ve been. Shall we try it over? I’ll go out and come in again, and you’ll say you don’t like to be interrupted when you’re reading and you wish I had let you know I intended to teach Miss Rowan a lesson but no doubt I have a good explanation, and I’ll say I’m sorry but when I left here I didn’t know she would need a lesson. I only knew it when I took the elevator up to her penthouse and found that there were people there whom she knows I don’t like. So I beat it. Where I went is irrelevant, but if you insist I can give you a number to call and ask for Mrs. Schrebenwelder. If her husband answers, disguise your voice and say—”
“Pfui. You could have phoned.”
Of course that left him wide open. He was merely being childish, since my phoning to tell him I had changed my program for the evening wouldn’t have kept Lily Rowan from interrupting his reading. I admit it isn’t noble to jab a man when his arms are hanging, but having just taught Lily a lesson I thought I might as well teach him one too, and did so. I may have been a little too enthusiastic. Anyway, when I left to go up to bed we didn’t say good night.
But it wouldn’t be true to say that we were not speaking Monday morning. When he came down from the plant rooms at eleven o’clock I said good morning distinctly, and he muttered it as he crossed to his desk. By the time Otis Jarrell arrived at noon, by appointment, we had exchanged at least twenty words, maybe more. I remember that at one point he asked what the bank balance was and I told him. But the air was frosty, and when I answered the doorbell and ushered Otis Jarrell into the office, and to the red leather chair at the end of Wolfe’s desk, Wolfe practically beamed at him as he inquired, “Well, sir, what is your problem?”
For him that was gushing. It was for my benefit. The idea was to show me that he was actually in the best of humor, nothing wrong with him at all, that if his manner with me was somewhat reserved it was only because I had been very difficult, and it was a pleasure, by contrast, to make contact with a fellow being who would appreciate amenities.
He was aware that the fellow being, Otis Jarrell, had at least one point in his favor: he was rated upwards of thirty million dollars. Checking on him, as I do when it’s feasible on everyone who makes an appointment to see Nero Wolfe, I had learned, in addition to that important item, that he listed himself in Who’s Who as “capitalist,” which seemed a little vague; that he maintained no office outside of his home, on Fifth Avenue in the Seventies; that he was fifty-three years old; that (this through a phone call to Lon Cohen of the Gazette) he had a reputation as a tough operator who could smell a chance for a squeeze play in his sleep; and that he had never been in jail.
He didn’t look tough, he looked flabby, but of course that’s no sign. The toughest guy I ever ran into had cheeks that needed a brassière. Jarrell’s weren’t that bad, but they were starting to sag. And although the tailor who had been paid three hundred bucks, or maybe four hundred, for making his brown shadowstriped suit had done his best, the pants had a problem with a ridge of surplus flesh when he sat.
But that wasn’t the problem that had brought the capitalist to Nero Wolfe. With his sharp brown eyes leveled at Wolfe’s big face, he said, “I want to hire you on a confidential matter. Absolutely confidential. I know your reputation or I wouldn’t be here, and your man’s, Goodwin’s, too. Before I tell you what it is I want your word that you’ll take it on and keep it to yourselves, both of you.”
“My dear sir.” Wolfe, still needing to show me that he was perfectly willing to have sociable intercourse with one who deserved it, was indulgent. “You can’t expect me to commit myself to a job without knowing what it is. You say you know my reputation; then you are satisfied of my discretion or you wouldn’t have come. Short of complicity in a felony, I can keep a secret even if I’m not working on it. So can Mr. Goodwin.”
“Jarrell’s eyes moved, darted, and met mine. I looked discreet.
He went back to Wolfe. “This may help.” His hand went to a pocket and came out again with a brown envelope. From it he extracted a bundle of engravings held by a paper band. He tossed the bundle onto Wolfe’s desk, looked around for a wastebasket, saw none, and dropped the envelope on the floor. “There’s ten thousand dollars for a retainer. If I gave you a check it might be known, possibly by someone I don’t want to know it. It will be charged to expense without your name appearing. I don’t need a receipt.”
It was a little raw, but there is always human nature, and net without taxes instead of net after taxes certainly has its attractions. I thought I saw two of Wolfe’s fingers twitch a little, but the state of our relations may have influenced me.
“I prefer,” he said dryly, “to give a receipt for anything I accept. What do you want me to do?”
Jarrell opened his mouth, closed it, made a decision, and spoke. “I want you to get a snake out of my house. Out of my family.” He made fists. “My daughter-in-law. My son’s wife. It must be absolutely confidential. I want you to get evidence of things she has done, things I know damn well she has done, and she will have to go!” He defisted to gesture. “You get the proof and I’ll know what to do with it! My son will divorce her. He’ll have to. All I need—”
Wolfe stopped him. “If you please, Mr. Jarrell. You’ll have to go elsewhere. I don’t deal with marital afflictions.”
“It’s not marital. She’s my daughter-in-law.”
“You spoke of divorce. Divorce is assuredly marital. You want evidence that will effect divorce.” Wolfe straightened a finger to point at the bundle of bills. “With that inducement you should get it, if it exists—or even if it doesn’t.”
Jarrell shook his head. “You’ve got it wrong. Wait till I tell you about her. She’s a snake. She’s not a good wife, I’m sure she’s two-timing my son, that’s true, but that’s only part of it. She’s cheating me too. I’ll have to explain how I operate. My office is at my home; I keep a secretary and a stenographer there. They live there. Also my wife, and my son and his wife, and my daughter, and my wife’s brother. I buy and sell. I buy and sell anything from a barn full of horses to a corporation full of red ink. What I have is cash on hand, plenty of it, and everybody knows it from Rome to Honolulu, so I don’t need much of an office. If you know anyone who needs money and has something that is worth money, refer him to me.”
“I shall.” Wolfe was still demonstrating, to me, so he was patient. “About your daughter-in-law?”
“This is about her. Three times in the past year I’ve had deals ruined by people who must have had information of my plans. I think they got that information through her. I don’t know exactly how she got it—that’s part of the job I want you to do—but on one of the deals the man who got in ahead of me, a man named Brigham, Corey Brigham—I’m sure she’s playing with him, but I can’t prove it. I want to prove it. If you want to call that a marital affliction, all right, but it’s not my marital affliction. My marital affliction is named Trella, and I can handle her myself. Another thing, my daughter-in-law is turning my home into a madhouse, or trying to. She wants to take over. She’s damned slick about it, but that’s what she’s after. I want her out of there.”