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I didn’t mind it at all,” our visitor said gruffly but affably. “It’s a pleasure.” He glanced around. “I like rooms that men work in. This is a good one.”
I was still swallowing my surprise that he actually looked like a miner, at least my idea of one, with his big bones and rough weathered skin and hands that would have been right at home around a pick handle. Certainly swinging a pick was not what he got paid for as chairman of the board of the Continental Mines Corporation, which had its own building down on Nassau Street not far from Wall.
I was also surprised at the tone he was using. When, the day before, a masculine voice had given a name on the phone and asked when Nero Wolfe could call at his office, and I had explained why I had to say never, and it had ended by arranging an appointment at Wolfe’s office for eleven the next morning, I had followed up with a routine check on a prospective client by calling Lon Cohen at the Gazette. Lon had told me that the only reason James U. Sperling didn’t bite ears off was because he took whole heads and ate them bones and all. But there he was, slouching in the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk like a big friendly roughneck, and I’ve just told you what he said when Wolfe started the conversation by explaining that he never left the office on business and expressing a regret that Sperling had had to come all the way to our place on West Thirty-fifth Street nearly to Eleventh Avenue. He said it was a pleasure!
“It will do,” Wolfe murmured in a gratified tone. He was behind his desk, leaning back in his custom-made chair, which was warranted safe for a quarter of a ton and which might some day really be put to the test if its owner didn’t level off. He added, “If you’ll tell me what your problem is perhaps I can make your trip a good investment.”
Seated at my own desk, at a right angle to Wolfe’s and not far away, I allowed myself a mild private grin. Since the condition of his bank balance did not require the use of sales pressure to snare a client, I knew why he was spreading the sugar. He was merely being sociable because Sperling had said he liked the office. Wolfe didn’t like the office, which was on the first floor of the old brownstone house he owned. He didn’t like it, he loved it, and it was a good thing he did, since he was spending his life in it—except when he was in the kitchen with Fritz, or in the dining room across the hall at mealtime, or upstairs asleep, or in the plant rooms up on the roof, enjoying the orchids and pretending he was helping Theodore with the work.
My private grin was interrupted by Sperling firing a question at me: “Your name’s Goodwin, isn’t it? Archie Goodwin?”
I admitted it. He went to Wolfe.
“It’s a confidential matter.”
Wolfe nodded. “Most matters discussed in this office are. That’s commonplace in the detective business. Mr. Goodwin and I are used to it.”
“It’s a family matter.”
Wolfe frowned, and I joined in. With that opening it was a good twenty-to-one shot that we were going to be asked to tail a wife, and that was out of bounds for us. But James U. Sperling went on.
“I tell you that because you’d learn it anyhow.” He put a hand to the inside breast pocket of his coat and pulled out a bulky envelope. “These reports will tell you that much. They’re from the Bascom Detective Agency. You know them?”
“I know Mr. Bascom.” Wolfe was still frowning. “I don’t like ground that’s been tramped over.”
Sperling went right on by. “I had used them on business matters and found them competent, so I went to Bascom with this. I wanted information about a man named Rony, Louis Rony, and they’ve been at it a full month and they haven’t got it, and I need it urgently. Yesterday I decided to call them off and try you. I’ve looked you up, and if you’ve earned your reputation I should have come to you first.” He smiled like an angel, surprising me again, and convincing me that he would stand watching. “Apparently you have no equal.”
Wolfe grunted, trying not to look pleased. “There was a man in Marseille—but he’s not available and he doesn’t speak English. What information do you want about Mr. Rony?”
“I want proof that he’s a Communist. If you get it and get it soon, your bill can be whatever you want to make it.”
Wolfe shook his head. “I don’t take jobs on those terms. You don’t know he’s a Communist, or you wouldn’t be bidding so high for proof. If he isn’t, I can’t very well get evidence that he is. As for my bill being whatever I want to make it, my bills always are. But I charge for what I do, and I can do nothing that is excluded by circumstance. What I dig up is of necessity contingent on what has been buried, but the extent of my digging isn’t, nor my fee.”
“You talk too much,” Sperling said impatiently but not impolitely.
“Do I?” Wolfe cocked an eye at him. “Then you talk.” He nodded sidewise at me. “Your notebook, Archie.”
The miner waited until I had it ready, open at a fresh page, and then spoke crisply, starting with a spelling lesson. “L-o-u-i-s. R-o-n-y. He’s in the Manhattan phone book, both his law office and his home, his apartment—and anyway, it’s all in that.” He indicated the bulky envelope, which he had tossed onto Wolfe’s desk. “I have two daughters. Madeline is twenty-six and Gwenn is twenty-two. Gwenn was smart enough to graduate with honors at Smith a year ago, and I’m almost sure she’s sane, but she’s too damn curious and she turns her nose up at rules. She hasn’t worked her way out of the notion that you can have independence without earning it. Of course it’s all right to be romantic at her age, but she overdoes it, and I think what first attracted her to this man Rony was his reputation as a champion of the weak and downtrodden, which he has got by saving criminals from the punishment they deserve.”
“I think I’ve seen his name,” Wolfe murmured. “Haven’t I, Archie?”
I nodded. “So have I. It was him that got What’s-her-name, that baby peddler, out from under a couple of months ago. He seems to be on his way to the front page.”
“Or to jail,” Sperling snapped, and there was nothing angelic about his tone. “I think I handled this wrong, and I’m damned sure my wife did. It was the same old mistake, and God only knows why parents go on making it. We even told her, and him too, that he would no longer be admitted into our home, and of course you know what the reaction was to that. The only concession she made, and I doubt if that was to us, was never to come home after daylight.”
“Is she pregnant?” Wolfe inquired.
Sperling stiffened. “What did you say?” His voice was suddenly as hard as the hardest ore ever found in any mine. Unquestionably he expected it to crush Wolfe into pretending he hadn’t opened his mouth, but it didn’t.
“I asked if your daughter is pregnant. If the question is immaterial I withdraw it, but surely it isn’t preposterous unless she also turns her nose up at natural laws.”
“She is my daughter,” Sperling said in the same hard tone. Then suddenly his rigidity gave way. All the stiff muscles loosened, and he was laughing. When he laughed he roared, and he really meant it. In a moment he controlled it enough to speak. “Did you hear what I said?” he demanded.
Wolfe nodded. “If I can believe my ears.”
“You can.” Sperling smiled like an angel. “I suppose with any man that’s one of his tenderest spots, but I might be expected to remember that I am not just any man. To the best of my knowledge my daughter is not pregnant, and she would have a right to be astonished if she were. That’s not it. A little over a month ago my wife and I decided to correct the mistake we had made, and she told Gwenn that Rony would be welcome at our home as often as she wanted him there. That same day I put Bascom onto him. You’re quite right that I can’t prove he’s a Communist or I wouldn’t have had to come to you, but I’m convinced that he is.”
“What convinced you?”
“The way he talks, the way I’ve sized him up, the way he practices his profession—and there are things in Bascom’s reports, you’ll see that when you read them—”
“But Mr. Bascom got no proof.”
“No. Damn it.”
“Whom do you call a Communist? A liberal? A pink intellectual? A member of the party? How far left do you start?”
Sperling smiled. “It depends on where I am and who I’m talking to. There are occasions when it may be expedient to apply the term to anyone left of center. But to you I’m using it realistically. I think Rony is a member of the Communist party.”
“If and when you get proof, what are you going to do with it?”
“Show it to my daughter. But it has to be proof. She already knows what I think; I told her long ago. Of course she told Rony, and he looked me in the eye and denied it.”
Wolfe grunted. “You may be wasting your time and money. Even if you get proof, what if it turns out that your daughter regards a Communist party card as a credential for romance?”