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Wolfe looked at our visitor with his eyes wide open—a sign, with him, either of indifference or of irritation. In this case it was obvious that he was irritated.
“I repeat, Mr. Frost, it is useless,” he declared. “I never leave my home on business. No man’s pertinacity can coerce me. I told you that five days ago. Good day, sir.”
Llewellyn Frost blinked, but made no move to acknowledge the dismissal. On the contrary, he settled back in his chair.
He nodded patiently. “I know, I humored you last Wednesday, Mr. Wolfe, because there was another possibility that seemed worth trying. But it was no good. Now there’s no other way. You’ll have to go up there. You can forget your build-up as an eccentric genius for once—anyhow, an exception will do it good. The flaw that heightens the perfection. The stutter that accents the eloquence. Good Lord, it’s only twenty blocks, Fifty-second between Fifth and Madison. A taxi will take us there in eight minutes.”
“Indeed.” Wolfe stirred in his chair; he was boiling. “How old are you, Mr. Frost?”
“Hardly young enough to justify your childish effrontery. So. You humored me! You speak of my build-up! And you undertake to stampede me into a frantic dash through the maelstrom of the city’s traffic—in a taxicab! Sir, I would not enter a taxicab for a chance to solve the Sphinx’s deepest riddle with all the Nile’s cargo as my reward!” He sank his voice to an outraged murmur. “Good God. A taxicab.”
I grinned a bravo at him, twirling my pencil as I sat at my desk, eight feet from his. Having worked for Nero Wolfe for nine years, there were a few points I wasn’t skeptical about any more. For instance: That he was the best private detective north of the South Pole. That he was convinced that outdoor air was apt to clog the lungs. That it short-circuited his nervous system to be jiggled and jostled. That he would have starved to death if anything had happened to Fritz Brenner, on account of his firm belief that no one’s cooking but Fritz’s was fit to eat. There were other points too, of a different sort, but I’ll pass them up since Nero Wolfe will probably read this.
Young Mr. Frost quietly stared at him. “You’re having a grand time, Mr. Wolfe. Aren’t you?” Frost nodded. “Sure you are. A girl has been murdered. Another one—maybe more—is in danger. You offer yourself as an expert in these matters, don’t you? That part’s all right, there’s no question but that you’re an expert. And a girl’s been murdered, and others are in great and immediate peril, and you rant like Booth and Barrett about a taxicab in a maelstrom. I appreciate good acting; I ought to, since I’m in show business. But in your case I should think there would be times when a decent regard for human suffering and misfortune would make you wipe off the make-up. And if you’re really playing it straight, that only makes it worse. If, rather than undergo a little personal inconvenience—”
“No good, Mr. Frost.” Wolfe was slowly shaking his head. “Do you expect to bully me into a defense of my conduct? Nonsense. If a girl has been murdered, there are the police. Others are in peril? They have my sympathy, but they hold no option on my professional services. I cannot chase perils away with a wave of my hand, and I will not ride in a taxicab. I will not ride in anything, even my own car with Mr. Goodwin driving, except to meet my personal contingencies. You observe my bulk. I am not immovable, but my flesh has a constitutional reluctance to sudden, violent or sustained displacement. You spoke of ‘decent regard.’ How about a decent regard for the privacy of my dwelling? I use this room as an office, but this house is my home. Good day, sir.”
The young man flushed, but did not move. “You won’t go?” he demanded.
“I will not.”
“Twenty blocks, eight minutes, your own car.”
“Confound it, no.”
Frost frowned at him. He muttered to himself, “They don’t come any stubborner.” He reached to his inside coat pocket and pulled out some papers, selected one and unfolded it and glanced at it, and returned the others. He looked at Wolfe:
“I’ve spent most of two days getting this thing signed. Now, wait a minute, hold your horses. When Molly Lauck was poisoned, a week ago today, it looked phony from the beginning. By Wednesday, two days later, it was plain that the cops were running around in circles, and I came to you. I know about you, I know you’re the one and only. As you know, I tried to get McNair and the others down here to your office and they wouldn’t come, and I tried to get you up there and you wouldn’t go, and I invited you to go to hell. That was five days ago. I’ve paid another detective three hundred dollars for a lot of nothing, and the cops from the inspector down are about as good as Fanny Brice would be for Juliet. Anyhow, it’s a tough one, and I doubt if anyone could crack it but you. I decided that Saturday, and during the weekend I covered a lot of territory.” He pushed the paper at Wolfe. “What do you say to that?”
Wolfe took it and read it. I saw his eyes go slowly half-shut, and knew that whatever it was, its effect on his irritation was pronounced. He glanced over it again, looked at Llewellyn Frost through slits, and then extended the paper toward me. I got up to take it. It was typewritten on a sheet of good bond, plain, and was dated New York City, March 28, 1936:
TO MR. NERO WOLFE:
At the request of Llewellyn Frost, we, the undersigned, beg you and urge you to investigate the death of Molly Lauck, who was poisoned on March 23 at the office of Boyden McNair Incorporated on 52nd Street, New York. We entreat you to visit McNair’s office for that purpose.
We respectfully remind you that once each year you leave your home to attend the Metropolitan Orchid Show, and we suggest that the present urgency, while not as great to you personally, appears to us to warrant an equal sacrifice of your comfort and convenience.
With high esteem,
T. M. O’GORMAN
CHAS. E. SHANKS
I handed the document back to Wolfe and sat down and grinned at him. He folded it and slipped it under the block of petrified wood which he used for a paperweight. Frost said:
“That was the best I could think of, to get you. I had to have you. This thing has to be ripped open. I got Del Pritchard up there and he was lost. I had to get you somehow. Will you come?”
Wolfe’s forefinger was doing a little circle on the arm of his chair. “Why the devil,” he demanded, “did they sign that thing?”
“Because I asked them to. I explained. I told them that no one but you could solve it and you had to be persuaded. I told them that besides money and food the only thing you were interested in was orchids, and that there was nobody who could exert any influence on you but them, the best orchid-growers in America. I had letters of introduction to them. I did it right. You notice I restricted my list to the very best. Will you come?”
Wolfe sighed. “Alec Martin has forty thousand plants at Rutherford. He wouldn’t sign it, eh?”
“He would if I’d gone after him. Glueckner told me that you regard Martin as tricky and an inferior grower. Will you come?”
“Humbug.” Wolfe sighed again. “An infernal imposition.” He wiggled a finger at the young man. “Look here. You seem to be prepared to stop at nothing. You interrupt these expert and worthy men at their tasks to get them to sign this idiotic paper. You badger me. Why?”
“Because I want you to solve this case.”
“Because no one else can. Wait till you see—”
“Yes. Thank you. But why your overwhelming interest in the case? The murdered girl—what was she to you?”
“Nothing.” Frost hesitated. He went on, “She was nothing to me. I knew her—an acquaintance. But the danger—damn it, let me tell you about it. The way it happened—”
“Please, Mr. Frost.” Wolfe was crisp. “Permit me. If the murdered girl was nothing to you, what standing will there be for an investigator engaged by you? If you could not persuade Mr. McNair and the others to come to me, it would be futile for me to go to them.”
“No, it wouldn’t. I’ll explain that—”
“Very well. Another point. I charge high fees.”
The young man flushed. “I know you do.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Look, Mr. Wolfe. I’ve thrown away a lot of my father’s money since I put on long pants. A good gob of it in the past two years, producing shows, and they were all flops. But now I’ve got a hit. It opened two weeks ago, and it’s a ten weeks buy. Bullets for Breakfast. I’ll have plenty of cash to pay your fee. If only you’ll find out where the hell that poison came from—and help me find a way.…”
He stopped. Wolfe prompted him, “Yes, sir? A way—”
Frost frowned. “A way to get my cousin out of that murderous hole. My ortho-cousin, the daughter of my father’s brother.”