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Poison à la Carte
I slanted my eyes down to meet her big brown ones, which were slanted up. “No,” I said, “I’m neither a producer nor an agent. My name’s Archie Goodwin, and I’m here because I’m a friend of the cook. My reason for wanting it is purely personal.”
“I know,” she said, “it’s my dimples. Men often swoon.”
I shook my head. “It’s your earrings. They remind me of a girl I once loved in vain. Perhaps if I get to know you well enough—who can tell?”
“Not me,” she declared. “Let me alone. I’m nervous, and I don’t want to spill the soup. The name is Nora Jaret, without an H, and the number is Stanhope five, six-six-two-one. The earrings were a present from Sir Laurence Olivier. I was sitting on his knee.”
I wrote the number down in my notebook, thanked her, and looked around. Most of the collection of attractive young females were gathered in an alcove between two cupboards, but one was over by a table watching Felix stir something in a bowl. Her profile was fine and her hair was the color of corn silk just before it starts to turn. I crossed to her, and when she turned her head I spoke. “Good evening, Miss—Miss?”
“Annis,” she said. “Carol Annis.”
I wrote it down, and told her my name. “I am not blunt by nature,” I said, “but you’re busy, or soon will be, and there isn’t time to talk up to it. I was standing watching you, and all of a sudden I had an impulse to ask you for your phone number, and I’m no good at fighting impulses. Now that you’re close up it’s even stronger, and I guess we’ll have to humor it.”
But I may be giving a wrong impression. Actually I had no special hankering that Tuesday evening for new telephone numbers; I was doing it for Fritz. But that could give a wrong impression too, so I’ll have to explain.
One day in February, Lewis Hewitt, the millionaire and orchid fancier for whom Nero Wolfe had once handled a tough problem, had told Wolfe that the Ten for Aristology wanted Fritz Brenner to cook their annual dinner, to be given as usual on April first, Brillat-Savarin’s birthday. When Wolfe said he had never heard of the Ten for Aristology, Hewitt explained that it was a group of ten men pursuing the ideal of perfection in food and drink, and he was one of them. Wolfe had swiveled to the dictionary on its stand at a corner of his desk, and after consulting it had declared that “aristology” meant the science of dining, and therefore the Ten were witlings, since dining was not a science but an art. After a long argument Hewitt had admitted he was licked and had agreed that the name should be changed, and Wolfe had given him permission to ask Fritz to cook the dinner.
In fact, Wolfe was pleased, though of course he wouldn’t say so. It took a big slice of his income as a private detective to pay Fritz Brenner, chef and house keeper in the old brownstone on West 35th Street—about the same as the slice that came to me as his assistant detective and man Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday—not to mention what it took to supply the kitchen with the raw materials of Fritz’s productions. Since I am also the bookkeeper, I can certify that for the year 1957 the kitchen and Fritz cost only slightly less than the plant rooms on the roof bulging with orchids. So when Hewitt made it clear that the Ten, though they might be dubs at picking names, were true and trustworthy gourmets, that the dinner would be at the home of Benjamin Schriver, the shipping magnate, who wrote a letter to the Times every year on September first denouncing the use of horseradish on oysters, and that the cook would have a free hand on the menu and the Ten would furnish whatever he desired, Wolfe pushed a button to summon Fritz. There was a little hitch when Fritz refused to commit himself until he had seen the Schriver kitchen, but Hewitt settled that by escorting him out front to his Heron town car and driving him down to Eleventh Street to inspect the kitchen.
That’s where I was that Tuesday evening, April first, collecting phone numbers: in the kitchen of the four-story Schriver house on Eleventh Street west of Fifth Avenue. Wolfe and I had been invited by Schriver, and though Wolfe dislikes eating with strangers and thinks that more than six at table spoils a meal, he knew Fritz’s feelings would be hurt if he didn’t go; and besides, if he stayed home who would cook his dinner? Even so, he would probably have balked if he had learned of one detail which Fritz and I knew about but had carefully kept from him: that the table was to be served by twelve young women, one for each guest.
When Hewitt had told me that, I had protested that I wouldn’t be responsible for Wolfe’s conduct when the orgy got under way, that he would certainly stamp out of the house when the girls started to squeal. Good lord, Hewitt said, nothing like that; that wasn’t the idea at all. It was merely that the Ten had gone to ancient Greece not only for their name but also for other precedents. Hebe, the goddess of youth, had been cupbearer to the gods, so it was the custom of the Ten for Aristology to be waited on by maidens in appropriate dress. When I asked where they got the maidens he said through a theatrical agency, and added that at that time of year there were always hundreds of young actresses out of a job glad to grab at a chance to make fifty bucks, with a good meal thrown in, by spending an evening carrying food, one plate at a time. Originally they had hired experienced waitresses from an agency, but they had tripped on their stolas.
Wolfe and I had arrived at seven on the dot, and after we had met our host and the rest of the Ten, and had sampled oysters and our choice of five white wines, I had made my way to the kitchen to see how Fritz was making out. He was tasting from a pot on the range, with no more sign of fluster than if he had been at home getting dinner for Wolfe and me. Felix and Zoltan, from Rusterman’s, were there to help, so I didn’t ask if I was needed.
And there were the Hebes, cupbearers to the gods, twelve of them, in their stolas, deep rich purple, flowing garments to their ankles. Very nice. It gave me an idea. Fritz likes to pretend that he has reason to believe that no damsel is safe within a mile of me, which doesn’t make sense since you can’t tell much about them a mile off, and I thought it would do him good to see me operate at close quarters. Also it was a challenge and an interesting sociological experiment. The first two had been a cinch: one named Fern Faber, so she said, a tall self-made blonde with a wide lazy mouth, and Nora Jaret with the big brown eyes and dimples. Now I was after this Carol Annis with hair like corn silk.
“I have no sense of humor,” she said, and turned back to watch Felix stir.
I stuck. “That’s a different kind of humor and an impulse like mine isn’t funny. It hurts. Maybe I can guess it. Is it Hebe one, oh-oh-oh-oh?”
“Apparently not. Plato two, three-four-five-six?”
She said, without turning her head, “It’s listed Gorham eight, three-two-one-seven.” Her head jerked to me. “Please?” It jerked back again.
It rather sounded as if she meant please go away, not please ring her as soon as possible, but I wrote it down anyway, for the record, and moved off. The rest of them were still grouped in the alcove, and I crossed over. The deep purple of the stolas was a good contrast for their pretty young faces topped by nine different colors and styles of hairdos. As I came up the chatter stopped and the faces turned to me.
“At ease,” I told them. “I have no official standing. I am merely one of the guests, invited because I’m a friend of the cook, and I have a personal problem. I would prefer to discuss it with each of you separately and privately, but since there isn’t time for that I am—”
“I know who you are,” one declared. “You’re a detective and you work for Nero Wolfe. You’re Archie Goodwin.”
She was a redhead with milky skin. “I don’t deny it,” I told her, “but I’m not here professionally. I don’t ask if I’ve met you because if I had I wouldn’t have forgot—”
“You haven’t met me. I’ve seen you and I’ve seen your picture. You like yourself. Don’t you?”
“Certainly. I string along with the majority. We’ll take a vote. How many of you like yourselves? Raise your hands.”
A hand went up with a bare arm shooting out of the purple folds, then two more, then the rest of them, including the redhead.
“Okay,” I said, “that’s settled. Unanimous. My problem is that I decided to look you over and ask the most absolutely irresistibly beautiful and fascinating one of the bunch for her phone number, and I’m stalled. You are all it. In beauty and fascination you are all far beyond the wildest dreams of any poet, and I’m not a poet. So obviously I’m in a fix. How can I possibly pick on one of you, any one, when—”
“Nuts.” It was the redhead. “Me, of course. Peggy Choate. Argyle two, three-three-four-eight. Don’t call before noon.”
Excerpted from "Three at Wolfe's Door"
Copyright © 1995 Rex Stout.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
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