About the Author:
Rex Stout (1886–1975) wrote dozens of short stories, novellas, and full-length mystery novels, most featuring his two indelible characters, the peerless detective Nero Wolfe and his handy sidekick, Archie Goodwin.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
If it hadn’t been raining and blowing that raw Tuesday morning in March I would have been out, walking to the bank to deposit a couple of checks, when Austin Byne phoned me, and he might have tried somebody else. But more likely not. He would probably have rung again later, so I can’t blame all this on the weather. As it was, I was there in the office, oiling the typewriter and the two Marley .38’s, for which we had permits, from the same can of oil, when the phone rang and I lifted it and spoke.
“Nero Wolfe’s office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Hello there. This is Byne. Dinky Byne.”
There it is in print for you, but it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t get it. It sounded more like a dying bullfrog than a man.
“Clear your throat,” I suggested, “or sneeze or something, and try again.”
“That wouldn’t help. My tubes are all clogged. Tubes. Clogged. Understand? Dinky Byne—B-y-n-e.”
“Oh, hallo. I won’t ask how you are, hearing how you sound. My sympathy.”
“I need it. I need more than sympathy, too.” It was coming through slightly better. “I need help. Will you do me a hell of a favor?”
I made a face. “I might. If I can do it sitting down and it doesn’t cost me any teeth.”
“It won’t cost you a thing. You know my Aunt Louise. Mrs. Robert Robilotti.”
“Only professionally. Mr. Wolfe did a job for her once, recovered some jewelry. That is, she hired him and I did the job—and she didn’t like me. She resented a remark I made.”
“That won’t matter. She forgets remarks. I suppose you know about the dinner party she gives every year on the birthday date of my Uncle Albert, now resting in peace perhaps?”
“Sure. Who doesn’t?”
“Well, that’s it. Today. Seven o’clock. And I’m to be one of the chevaliers, and listen to me, and I’ve got some fever. I can’t go. She’ll be sore as the devil if she has to scout around for a fill-in, and when I phone her I want to tell her she won’t have to, that I’ve already got one. Mr. Archie Goodwin. You’re a better chevalier than me any day. She knows you, and she has forgotten the remark you made, and anyhow she has resented a hundred remarks I’ve made, and you’ll know exactly how to treat the lady guests. Black tie, seven o’clock, and you know the address. After I phone her, of course she’ll ring you to confirm it. And you can do it sitting down, and I’ll guarantee nothing will be served that will break your teeth. She has a good cook. My God, I didn’t think I could talk so long. How about it, Archie?”
“I’m chewing on it,” I told him. “You waited long enough.”
“Yeah, I know, but I kept thinking I might be able to make it, until I pried my eyes open this morning. I’ll do the same for you some day.”
“You can’t. I haven’t got a billionaire aunt. I doubt if she has forgotten the remark I made because it was fairly sharp. What if she vetoes me? You’d have to ring me again to call it off, and then ring someone else, and you shouldn’t talk that much, and besides, my feelings would be hurt.”
I was merely stalling, partly because I wanted to hear him talk some more. It sounded to me as if his croak had flaws in it. Clogged tubes have no effect on your esses, as in “seven” and “sitting,” but he was trying to produce one, and he turned “long” into “lawd” when it should have been more like “lawg.” So I was suspecting that the croak was a phony. If I hadn’t had my full share of ego I might also have been curious as to why he had picked on me, since we were not chums, but of course that was no problem. If your ego is in good shape you will pretend you’re surprised if a National Chairman calls to tell you his party wants to nominate you for President of the United States, but you’re not really surprised.
I only stalled him long enough to be satisfied that the croak was a fake before I agreed to take it on. The fact was that the idea appealed to me. It would be a new experience and should increase my knowledge of human nature. It might also be a little ticklish, and even dismal, but it would be interesting to see how they handled it. Not to mention how I would handle it myself. So I told him I would stand by for a call from his Aunt Louise.
It came in less than half an hour. I had finished the oiling job and was putting the guns in their drawer in my desk when the phone rang. A voice I recognized said she was Mrs. Robilotti’s secretary and Mrs. Robilotti wished to speak with me, and I said, “Is it jewelry again, Miss Fromm?” and she said, “She will tell you what it is, Mr. Goodwin.”
Then another voice, also recognized. “Mr. Goodwin?”
“My nephew Austin Byne says he phoned you.”
“I guess he did.”
“You guess he did?”
“The voice said it was Byne, but it could have been a seal trying to bark.”
“He has laryngitis. He told you so. Apparently you haven’t changed any. He says that he asked you to take his place at dinner at my home this evening, and you said you would if I invited you. Is that correct?”
I admitted it.
“He says that you are acquainted with the nature and significance of the affair.”
“Of course I am. So are fifty million other people—or more.”
“I know. I regret the publicity it has received in the past, but I refuse to abandon it. I owe it to my dear first husband’s memory. I am inviting you, Mr. Goodwin.”
“Okay. I accept the invitation as a favor to your nephew. Thank you.”
“Very well.” A pause. “Of course it is not usual, on inviting a dinner guest, to caution him about his conduct, but for this occasion some care is required. You appreciate that?”
“Tact and discretion are necessary.”
“I’ll bring mine along,” I assured her.
“And of course refinement.”
“I’ll borrow some.” I decided she needed a little comfort. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Robilotti, I understand the set-up and you can count on me clear through to the coffee and even after. Relax. I am fully briefed. Tact, discretion, refinement, black tie, seven o’clock.”
“Then I’ll expect you. Please hold the wire. My secretary will give you the names of those who will be present. It will simplify the introductions if you know them in advance.”
Miss Fromm got on again. “Mr. Goodwin?”
“You should have paper and pencil.”
“I always have. Shoot.”
“Stop me if I go too fast. There will be twelve at table. Mr. and Mrs. Robilotti. Miss Celia Grantham and Mr. Cecil Grantham. They are Mrs. Robilotti’s son and daughter by her first husband.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Miss Helen Yarmis. Miss Ethel Varr. Miss Faith Usher. Am I going too fast?”
I told her no.
“Miss Rose Tuttle. Mr. Paul Schuster. Mr. Beverly Kent. Mr. Edwin Laidlaw. Yourself. That makes twelve. Miss Varr will be on your right and Miss Tuttle will be on your left.”
I thanked her and hung up. Now that I was booked, I wasn’t so sure I liked it. It would be interesting, but it might also be a strain on the nerves. However, I was booked, and I rang Byne at the number he had given me and told him he could stay home and gargle. Then I went to Wolfe’s desk and wrote on his calendar Mrs. Robilotti’s name and phone number. He wants to know where to reach me when I’m out, even when we have nothing important on, in case someone yells for help and will pay for it. Then I went to the hall, turned left, and pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen. Fritz was at the big table, spreading anchovy butter on shad roes.
“Cross me off for dinner,” I told him. “I’m doing my good deed for the year and getting it over with.”
He stopped spreading to look at me. “That’s too bad. Veal birds in casserole. You know, with mushrooms and white wine.”
“I’ll miss it. But there may be something edible where I’m going.”
“Perhaps a client?”
He was not being nosy. Fritz Brenner does not pry into other people’s private affairs, not even mine. But he has a legitimate interest in the welfare of that establishment, of the people who live in that old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street, and he merely wanted to know if my dinner engagement was likely to promote it. It took a lot of cash. I had to be paid. He had to be paid. Theodore Horstmann, who spent all his days and sometimes part of his nights with the ten thousand orchids up in the plant rooms, had to be paid. We all had to be fed, and with the kind of grub that Wolfe preferred and provided and Fritz prepared. Not only did the orchids have to be fed, but only that week Wolfe had bought a Coelogyne from Burma for eight hundred bucks, and that was just routine. And so on and on and on, and the only source of current income was people with problems who were able and willing to pay a detective to handle them. Fritz knew we had no case going at the moment, and he was only asking if my dinner date might lead to one.
I shook my head. “Nope, not a client.” I got on a stool. “A former client, Mrs. Robert Robilotti—someone swiped a million dollars’ worth of rings and bracelets from her a couple of years ago and we got them back—and I need some advice. You may not be as great an expert on women as you are on food, but you have had your dealings, as I well know, and I would appreciate some suggestions on how to act this evening.”
He snorted. “Act with women? You? Ha! With your thousand triumphs! Advice from me? Archie, that is upside down!”
“Thanks for the plug, but these women are special.” With a fingertip I wiped up a speck of anchovy butter that had dropped on the table and licked it off. “Here’s the problem. This Mrs. Robilotti’s first husband was Albert Grantham, who spent the last ten years of his life doing things with part of the three or four hundred million dollars he had inherited—things to improve the world, including the people in it. I assume you will admit that a girl who has a baby but no husband needs improving.”
Fritz pursed his lips. “First I would have to see the girl and the baby. They might be charming.”
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