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The neat little man resented it. He was hurt. “No, sir,” he protested, “you are wrong. It is not what you called it, sordid familial flimflam. It is perfectly legitimate for me to inquire into anything affecting the disposal of the fortune my father made, is it not?”
Weighing rather less than half as much as Nero Wolfe, he was lost in the red leather chair three steps from the end of Wolfe’s desk. Comfortably filling his own outsized chair behind the desk, Wolfe was scowling at the would-be client, Mr. Herman Lewent of New York and Paris. I, at my desk with notebook and pen, was neutral, because it was Friday and I had a weekend date, and if Lewent’s job was urgent and we took it, good-by weekend.
Wolfe, as usual when solicited, was torn. He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink, and his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars. The only source of dollars was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge, was a little stack of lettuce with a rubber band around it. Herman Lewent, who had put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars.
Nevertheless Wolfe, who hated to work and was torn, demanded, “Why is it legitimate?”
Lewent was small all over. He was slim and short, his hands and feet were tiny, and his features were in scale, with a pinched little mouth that had no room at all for lips. Also he was old enough to have started to shrink some and show creases. Still I would not have called him a squirt. When his quick little gray eyes met yours straight, as they did, you had the feeling that he knew a lot of the answers and could supply good guesses on the ones he hadn’t worked out.
He was still resenting Wolfe but holding it in. “I came to you,” he said, “because this is a very delicate matter, and the combination you have here, you and Mr. Goodwin, may be able to handle it. So I’m prepared to suffer your rudeness. The inquiry is legitimate because it was my father who made the fortune—in mining, mostly copper mining. My mother died when I was a child, and I never learned how to behave myself. I have never learned, and I am now too old to. A few months ago I had three mistresses, one in Paris, one in Toulouse, and one in Rome, and one of them tried to poison me.”
I gave him an eye and decided to believe nothing he said. He just wasn’t built for it.
He was proceeding. “I am no longer wild; I’m too old; but I was wild when young. Though my father didn’t approve of me and finally refused to see me, he didn’t let me starve—in fact, he was fairly generous. But when he died—I was thirty-six then; that was twenty years ago—he left everything to my sister, Beryl, with a request that she consider my needs. She did so, up to a point, until she died a year ago. She was born knowing how to behave, my sister was. I was abroad when she died—I have lived mostly abroad—but of course I flew over for the funeral.”
He shrugged like a Frenchman, or anyhow not like an American. “Out of all the millions she had inherited from our father, she left me nothing. Not a cent, not a sou. It all went to her husband, Theodore Huck, with a request that he consider my needs, worded exactly like the request in my father’s will. As I said, my sister knew how to behave. I had a talk with Huck and suggested that it would be simpler to transfer a lump sum to me—say a million or even half a million—but he thought not. He said he knew what Beryl’s wishes were and felt bound to carry them out, and he agreed to send me the same amount she had been sending the last two years, a thousand dollars a month. I didn’t do what I should have done.”
He wanted a question, and Wolfe obliged. “What should you have done?”
“I should have killed him. He sat there in his wheelchair—his arteries have gone bad, and he can’t walk—he sat there in my father’s house, the owner of it, and he said he would send me a thousand a month from the money my father had made. It was an invitation to murder. If I had killed him, with due precaution of course, under my sister’s will I would have received for the rest of my life an annual income of some forty thousand dollars. The idea did occur to me, but I’m no good at all with any kind of intricacy, and though I have never learned how to behave, my instinct of self-preservation is damned keen.”
He gestured. “That’s what brought me here, that instinct. If for any reason this creature, this brother-in-law, this Theodore Huck in a wheelchair, stopped considering my needs, I would shortly die of starvation. I am incapable of sustaining life, even my own—especially my own. So when, at my rooms in Paris, I received a communication warning me of possible danger, I took a plane to New York. My brother-in-law made me welcome at my father’s house—damned gracious of him—and I’ve been there nearly two weeks now, and I’m stumped, and that’s why I’m here. There are three—”
He stopped abruptly, aimed the quick little gray eyes at me, sent them back to Wolfe, and said, “This is confidential.”
Wolfe nodded. “Things discussed in this room usually are. Your risk, sir.”
“Well.” He screwed his pinched little mouth, making it even smaller. He shrugged. “Well. I think the warning I got was valid. There are three women in that house with him, besides the cook and maids: the housekeeper, Mrs. Cassie O’Shea, who is a widow; a nurse, Miss Sylvia Marcy; and a so-called secretary, Miss Dorothy Riff. They’re all after him, and I think one of them is getting him, but I don’t know which one and I can’t find out. The trouble is, I have developed a formula for getting on terms with women, but in this case I can’t use it and I’m lost. I need to know as soon as possible which one of those women is landing my brother-in-law.”
Wolfe snorted. “So you can intervene? With your formula?”
“Good God, no.” Lewent was shocked. “It would be a damned nuisance, and anyway there would soon be another one and I would have time for nothing else. Also I would like to get back to Europe before the holidays. I merely want to engage her sympathetic interest. I want to secure her friendship. I want to make absolutely certain that she will be permanently well disposed toward me after she lands Huck. That will take me three weeks if it is Miss Marcy or Miss Riff, four if it is Mrs. O’Shea. It is not a sordid familial flimflam. It’s a perfectly legitimate inquiry. Isn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” Wolfe conceded. “But it’s fantastic.”
“Not at all. It’s practical and damned sensible. My income for the rest of my life depends entirely on the goodwill of my brother-in-law. If he marries, especially if he marries a woman considerably younger than he is, how long will his goodwill last—twelve thousand dollars’ worth, year after year—if his wife hasn’t got it too?”
Wolfe grunted. “What precisely would be my engagement?”
“To find out as soon as possible which one of them is hooking him.” Lewent aimed a thumb at the little stack he had put on Wolfe’s desk. “That thousand dollars is yours, succeed or fail, but it will have to cover everything because it’s all I can afford. It might seem hardly worth your while, but actually, since you never leave this house on business, it will take little of your time and talent. The work will be done by Mr. Goodwin, and you have to pay his salary anyhow, and the expense will be negligible—taxi fares to and from my father’s house on Sixty-ninth Street, now owned by Theodore Huck. I know something of Goodwin’s record and prowess, and one trip, one day, might be all he would require—with consultation with you, of course. He can go up there with me now.”
I didn’t throw him a kiss. I can take a compliment raw, with no chaser, as well as the next one, but I hope I have learned how to behave, and I had a weekend date.
Wolfe’s scowl had deteriorated to a mild frown. “You say you received a warning. From whom?”
“From Paul Thayer, Huck’s nephew. Huck lets him live there in the house. He’s as useless as I am—he composes music that no one will listen to. He hopes to inherit some of my father’s money from Huck, and he got alarmed and wrote me.”
“What alarmed him?”
“Some little things and one big thing. A man with cases came from Tiffany’s and was with Huck in his study for nearly an hour. That could mean only one thing: Huck was buying something expensive for a woman—one of those three.”
“Why? There are other women.”