I let Saul Panzer in when he came. There was no longer any reason why I shouldn’t relinquish the job of answering the door, which normally belonged to Fritz, but it seemed tactful to give him time to cool off a little; and besides, if I left him to his own devices in the kitchen a while longer without interruption, there was a chance that he would bounce a stewpan on Johnny’s bean, which would have done them both good.
So I let Saul in and parked him in the front room, and also, a little later, I opened up for the Marquis of Clivers. Whereupon I experienced a delightful surprise, for he had his nephew along. Apparently there was no wedding on today; Horrocks looked sturdy and wholesome in a sack suit that hung like a dream, and I got so interested looking at it that I almost (orgot it was him inside of it. I suggested him toward the office and said to Clivers, “Mr. Wolfe would like to see you upstairs. Three flights. Climb, or elevator?”
He was looking concentrated and sour. He said climb, and I took him up to the plant rooms and showed him Wolfe and left him there.
When I got back down Horrocks was still standing in the hall.
“If you want to wait,” I said, “there’s a place in the office to hold the back of your lap. You know, chair.”
“The back of my lap?” He stared, and by gum, he worked at it till he got it. “Oh, quite. Thanks awfully. But I … I say, you know, Miss Fox got quite a wetting. Didn’t she?”
“Yeah, she was good and damp.”
“And I suppose she is still here, what?”
It was merely a question of which would be less irritating, to let him go on and circle around it for a while, or cut the knot for him and hand him the pieces. Deciding for the latter, I said, “Wait here,” and mounted the stairs again. They seemed to have quieted down in the south room.
I knocked and went in and told Clara Fox, “That young diplomat is down below and wants to see you and I’m going to send him up. Keep him in here. We’re going to be busy in the office, and it gives me the spirit of seventy-six to look at him.”
She made a dive for her vanity case, and I descended to the hall again and told Horrocks he knew the way.
It was ten after eleven. There was nothing for me to do but sit down and suck my finger. There was one thing I would have liked to remind Wolfe of before the party began, but I didn’t myself know bow important it was, and anyway I had no idea how he intended to stage it. There was even a chance that this was to be only a dress rehearsal, a preliminary, to see what a little panic would do, but that wouldn’t be like him. The only hint he condescended to give me was to ring me on the house phone and tell me he would come down with Clivers after the others had arrived, and until then I was to say nothing of Clivers’ presence. I went in to see if Saul was talking, but he wasn’t, so I went back and sat down and felt my pulse.
The two contingents, official and Seaboard, showed up within three minutes of each other. I let them in. The official came first. I took them to the office, where I had chairs pulled up. Skinner looked bilious, Hombert harassed, and Cramer moderately grim. When they saw Wolfe wasn’t in the office they started to get exasperated, but I silenced them with a few well chosen phrases, and then the bell rang again and I went for the second batch.
Muir and Perry were together. Perry smiled a tight smile at me and told me good morning, but Muir wasn’t having any amenities; I saw his hand tremble a little as he hung his hat up, and he could have gone from that right on into permanent palsy without any tears wasted as far as I was con cemed. I nodded them ahead.
They stopped dead inside the office door, at sight of the trio already there. Muir looked astonished and furious; Perry seemed surprised, looking from one to the other, and then turned to me. “I thought… Wolfe said eleventhirty, so I understood from Muir … if these gentlemen …”
“It’s all right.” I grinned at him. “Mr. Wolfe has arranged for a little con ference. Have chairs. Do you know Mr. Hombert, the Police Commissioner? Inspector Cramer? Mr. Ramsey Muir. Mr. Anthony D. Perry.”
I got to the house phone on my desk and buzzed the plant rooms. Wolfe answered, and I told him, “All here.” The two bunches of eminent visitors were putting on a first class exhibition of bad manners; neither had expected to see the other. Cramer looked around at them, slowly from one face to another, and then looked at me with a gleam in his eyes. Hombert was grumbling something to Perry. Skinner turned and croaked at me, “What kind of damn nonsense is this?” I just shook my head at him, and then I heard the creak of the elevator, and a moment later the door of the office opened and Wolfe entered with another visitor whom none of them had expected to see.
They approached. Wolfe stopped, and inclined his head. “Good morning, gentlemen. I believe some of you have met Lord Clivers. Not you, Mr. Perry? No. Mr. Muir. Mr. Skinner, our District Attorney. I want to thank all of you for being so punctual….”
I was seeing a few things. First, Clivers stood staring directly at Perry, reminding me of how Harlan Scovil had stared at him two days before, and Clivers had thrust his right hand into the side pocket of his coat and didn’t take it out. Second, Perry was staring back, and his temples were moving and his eyes were small and hard. Third, Inspector Cramer had put his weight forward in his chair and his feet back under him, but he was sitting too far away, the other side of Skinner, to get anywhere quick.
I swiveled and opened a drawer unostentatiously and got out my automatic and laid it on the desk at my elbow. Hombert was starting to bellyache. “I don’t know, Wolfe, what kind of a high-handed procedure you think—”
Wolfe, who had moved around the desk and into his chair, put up a palm at him. “Please, Mr. Hombert. I think it is always advisable to take a shortcut when it is feasible. That’s why I requested a favor of Lord Clivers.” He looked at Clivers. “Be seated, sir. And tell us, have you ever met Mr. Perry before?”
Clivers, with his hand still in his pocket, lowered himself into his chair, which was between Hombert and me, without taking his eyes off Perry. “I have,” he said gruffly. “By gad, you were right. He’s Coleman. Rubber Coleman.”
Perry just looked at him.
Wolfe asked softly, “What about it, Mr. Perry?”
You could see from Perry’s chin that this teeth were damped. His eyes went suddenly from Clivers to Wolfe and stayed there; then he looked at me, and I returned it. His shoulders started going up, slowly up, high, as he took in a long breath, and then slowly they started down again. When they touched bottom he looked at Wolfe again and said, “I’m not talking. Not just now. You go on.”
Wolfe nodded. “I don’t blame you, sir. It’s a lot to give up, to surrender that old secret.” He glanced around the circle. “You gentlemen may remember, from Miss Fox’s story last night, that Rubber Coleman was the man who led that little band of rescuers forty years ago. That was Mr. Perry here. But you do not yet know that on account of that obligation Lord Clivers, in the year 1906, twenty-nine years ago, paid Coleman—Mr. Perry—the sum or one million dollars. Nor that this Coleman-Perry has never, to this day, distributed any of that sum as he agreed to do.”
Cramer grunted and moved himself another inch forward. Skinner was sunk in his chair with his elbows on its arms and his fingertips placed neatly together, his narrowed eyes moving from Wolfe to Clivers to Perry and back again. Hombert was biting his lip and watching Clivers.
Muir suddenly squeaked, “What’s all this about? What has this got to do—”
Wolfe snapped at him, “Shut up. You are here, sir, because that seemed the easiest way to bring Mr. Perry, and because I thought you should know the truth regarding your charge against Miss Fox. If you wish to leave, do so; if you stay, hold your tongue.”
Clivers put in brusquely, “I didn’t agree to this man’s presence.”
Wolfe nodded. “I think you may leave that to me. After all. Lord Clivers, it was you who originally started this, and if the hen has come home to roost and I am to pluck it for you, I must be permitted a voice in the method.” He turned abruptly. “What about it, Mr. Perry? You’ve had a moment for reflection. You were Rubber Coleman, weren’t you?”
“I’m not talking.” Perry was gazing at him, and this time he didn’t have to strain the words through his teeth. His Bps compressed a little, his idea being that he was smiling. “Lord Clivers may quite possibly be mistaken.”
He tried the smile again. “It may even be that he will … will realize his mistake.” He looked around. “You know me, Mr. Skinner. You too, Mr. Hombert. I am glad you are here. I have evidence to present to you that this man Wolfe is engaged in a malicious attempt to damage my reputation and that of my vice-president and the firm I direct. Mr. Muir will bear me out.” He turned small hard eyes on Wolfe. “I’ll give you rope. All you want. Go on.”
Wolfe nodded admiringly. “Superlative.” He leaned back and surveyed the group. “Gentlemen, I must ask you to listen, and bear with me. You will reach my conclusion only if I describe my progress toward it. I’ll make it as brief as possible.
“It began some forty-five hours ago, when Mr. Perry called here and asked me to investigate a theft of thirty thousand dollars from the drawer of Mr. Muir’s desk. Mr. Goodwin called at the Seaboard office and asked questions. He was there from four-forty-five until five-fifty-five, and for a period of thirty-five minutes, from five-twenty until five-fifty-five, he saw neither Mr. Perry nor Mr. Muir, because they had gone to a conference in the directors’ room. The case seemed to have undesirable features, and we decided not to handle it. I find I shall need some beer.”
He reached to push the button, and leaned back again. “You know of Harlan Scovil’s visit to this office Monday afternoon. Well, he saw Mr. Perry here. He not only saw him, he stared at him. You know of the phone call, at five-twenty-six, which summoned Mr. Scovil to his death. Monday night, in addition to these things, I also knew the story which Miss Fox had related to us in the presence of Mr. Walsh and Miss Lindquist; and when, having engaged myself in Miss Fox’s interest, it became necessary to consider the murder of Harlan Scovil, I scanned the possibilities as they presented themselves at that moment.
“Assuming, until disproven, that Harlan Scovil’s murder was connected with the Rubber Band affair, the first possibility was of course Lord Clivers himself, but Tuesday morning he was eliminated, when I learned that the murderer was alone in the automobile. An article in Sunday’s Times, which Mr. Goodwin had kindly read to me, stated that Lord Clivers did not know how to drive a car, and on Tuesday, yesterday, I corroborated that through an agent in London, at the same time acquiring various bits of information regarding Lord Clivers. The second possibility was Michael Walsh. I had talked with him and formed a certain judgment of him, and no motive was apparent, but he remained a possibility. The same applied to Miss Lindquist. Miss Fox was definitely out of it, because I had upon consideration accepted her as a client.”
Somebody burst out, “Ha!” Hombert ventured a comment, while Wolfe poured beer and gulped, but it went unheeded. Wolfe wiped his Ups and went on.
“Among the known possibilities, the most promising one was Anthony D. Perry. On account of the phone call which took Mr. Scovil to the street to die, it was practically certain that his murderer had known he was in this office; and because, so far as I was aware, Mr. Perry was the only person who had known that, it seemed at least worth while to accept it as a conjecture. Through Metropolitan Biographies and also through inquiries by one of my men, I got at least negative support for the conjecture; and I got positive support by talking over long distance to Nebraska, with Miss Lindquist’s father. He remembered with considerable accuracy the appearance of the face and figure of Rubber Coleman, and while of course there could be no real identification by a telephone talk after forty years, still it was support. I asked Mr. Lindquist, in fact, for descriptions of all the men concerned in that affair, thinking there might be some complication more involved than this most obvious one, but it was his description of Rubber Coleman which most nearly approximated that of Mr, Perry. The next step—”
“Wait a minute, Wolfe.” Skinner’s croak was imperative. “You can’t do this. Not this way. If you’ve got a case, I’m the District Attorney. If you haven’t-” Perry cut in, “Let him alone! Let him hang himself.”
Hombert muttered something to Cramer, and the inspector rumbled back.
Clivers spoke up. “I’m concerned in this. Let Wolfe talk.” He used a finger of his left hand to point at Perry because his right hand was still in his coat pocket. “That man is Rubber Coleman. Wolfe learned that, didn’t he? What the devil have the rest of you done, except annoy me?”
Perry leveled his eyes at the marquis. “You’re mistaken, Lord Clivers. You’ll regret this.”
Wolfe had taken advantage of the opportunity to finish his botde and ring for another. Now he looked around. “You gendemen may be curious why, if Mr. Perry is not Rubber Coleman, he does not express indignant wonderment at what I am talking about Oh, he could explain that. Long ago, shordy after she entered Seaboard’s employ, Miss Fox told him the story which you heard from her last night. He knows all about the Rubber Band, from her, and also about her efforts to find its surviving members. And by the way, as regards the identity—did Mr. Walsh telephone you around five o’clock yesterday afternoon, Lord Clivers, and tell you he had just found Rubber Coleman?”
Clivers nodded. “He did.”
“Yes.” Wolfe looked at Cramer. “As you informed me, immediately after leaving the Seaboard office, where he had gone on account of his unfortunate suspicions regarding Miss Fox and myself after Harlan Scovil had been killed, Mr. Walsh sought a telephone. There—as can doubdess be verified by inquiry, along with multitudinous other details—he had seen Mr. Perry. It is a pity he did not inform me, since in that case he would still be alive; but what he did do was to phone Lord Clivers, with whom he had had a talk in the morning. He had called at the Hotel Portland and Lord Clivers had considered it advisable to see him, had informed him of the payment which had been made to Rubber Coleman long before, and had declared his intention of giving him a respectable sum of money. Now, learning from Mr. Walsh over the telephone that he had found Rubber Coleman, Lord Clivers saw that immediate and purposeful action was required if publicity was to be avoided; and he told Mr. Walsh that around seven o’clock that evening, on his way to a dinner engagement, he would stop in at the place Mr. Walsh was working, which was a short distance from his hotel. I have been told these details within the last hour. Is that correct, sir?”
Clivers nodded. “It is.”
Wolfe looked at Perry, but Perry’s eyes were fixed on Clivers. Wolfe said, “So, for the identity, we have Mr. Lindquist’s description, Mr. Walsh’s phone call, and Lord Clivers’ present recognition. Why, after forty years, Mr. Scovil and Mr. Walsh should have recognized Rubber Coleman is, I think, easily explicable. On account of the circumstances, their minds were at the moment filled with vivid memories of that old event, and alert with suspicion. They might have passed Mr. Perry a hundred times on the street without a second glance at him, but in the situations in which they saw him recollection jumped for them.” He looked again at the Seaboard president, and again asked, “What about it now, Mr. Perry? Won’t you give us that?”
Perry moved his eyes at him. He spoke smoothly. “I’m still not talking. I’m listening.” He suddenly, spasmodically, jerked forward, and there was a stir around the circle. Cramer’s bulk tensed in his chair. Skinner’s hands dropped. Clivers stiffened. I got my hand to my desk, on the gun. I don’t think Perry noticed any of it, for his gaze stayed on Wolfe, and he jerked back again and set his jaw. He said not quite so smoothly, “You go on.”
Wolfe shook his head. “You’re a stubborn man, Mr. Perry. However-as I started to say, the next step for me, yesterday afternoon, was to get in touch with Mr. Walsh, persuade him of my good faith, show him a photograph of Mr. Perry, and substantiate my conjecture. That became doubly important and urgent after Lord Clivers called here and I learned of the payment that had been made to Coleman in 1906.1 considered the idea of asking Lord Clivers for a description of Coleman, and even possibly showing him Perry’s photograph, but rejected it I was at that moment by no means convinced of his devotion to scruple, and even had I been, I would not have cared to alarm him further by showing him the imminence of Coleman s discovery—and the lid blown off the pot First I needed Mr. Walsh, so I sent a man to Fifty-fifth Street to reconnoiter.
“Of course, I had found out other things. For instance, one of my men had visited the directors’ room of the Seaboard Products Corporation and learned that it has a second door, into the public hall, through which Mr. Perry might easily have departed at five-twenty or [hereabouts Monday afternoon on some errand, and returned some thirty minutes later, without Mr. Goodwin’s knowledge. Questions to his business associates who were present might elicit answers. For another instance, Miss Fox had breakfast with me yesterday morning—and I assure you, Mr. Skinner, I did not waste the time in foolish queries as to where her mother used to keep letters sixteen years ago.
“Combining information with conjecture, I get a fair picture of some of Mr. Perry’s precautionary activities. In the spring of 1932 he saw an advertisement in a newspaper seeking knowledge of the whereabouts of Michael Walsh and Rubber Coleman. In a roundabout way he learned who had inserted it; and a month later Clara Fox was in the employ of the Seaboard Products Corporation. He could keep an eye on her, and did so. He cultivated her company, and earned a degree of her confidence. When she found Harlan Scovil, and later Hilda Lindquist, and still later Michael Walsh, he knew of it. He tried to convince her of the foolishness of her enterprise, but without success. Then suddenly, last Thursday, he learned she had found Lord Clivers, and he at once took measures to hamstring her. He may even then have considered murder and rejected it; at any rate, he decided that sending her to prison as a thief would completely discredit her and would be sufficient. He knew that her initiative was the only active force threatening him, and that with her removed there would be little danger. An opportunity was providentially at hand. Friday afternoon he himself took that thirty thousand dollars from Mr. Muir’s desk, and sent Miss Fox into that room with a cablegram to be copied. I don’t know—”
Muir had popped up out of his chair and was squealing, “By God, I believe it! By God if I don’t! And all the time you were plotting against her! You dirty sneak, you dirty—”
Cramer, agile on his feet, had a hand on Muir’s shoulder. “All right, all right, you just sit down and we’ll all believe it. Come on, now.” He eased him down, Muir chattering.
Perry said contemptuously, bitingly, “So that’s you, Muir.” He whirled, and there was a quality in his movement that made me touch my gun again. “Wolfe, all this you’re inventing, you’ll eat it.” He added slowly, “And it will finish you.”
Wolfe shook his head. “Oh no, sir, I assure you.” He sighed. “To continue: I don’t know how and when Mr. Perry concealed the money in Miss Fox’s automobile, but one of my men has uncovered a possibility which the police can easily follow. At any rate, it is certain that he did. That is unimportant. Another thing that moved him to action was the fact that Clara Fox had told him that, having heard him speak favorably of the abilities of Nero Wolfe, she had decided to engage me in the Rubber Band enterprise. Apparently Mr. Perry did give my competence a high rating, for he took the trouble to come here himself to get me to act for the Seaboard Products Corporation, which would of course have prevented me from taking Miss Fox as a client.
“But he had an unpleasant surprise here. He was sitting in that chair, the one he is in now, when a man walked into the room and said, ‘My name’s Harlan Scovil.’ And the man stared at Mr. Perry. We cannot know whether he definitely recognized him as Rubber Coleman or whether Mr. Perry merely suspected that he did. In any event, it was enough to convince Mr. Perry that something more drastic than a framed-up larceny charge was called for without delay; for obviously it would not do for any living person to have even the remotest suspicion that there was any connection between Anthony D. Perry, corporation president, bank director, multi-millionaire, and eminent citizen, and the Rubber Band. Lord Clivers tells me that forty years ago Rubber Coleman was headstrong, sharp of purpose, and quick on the trigger. Apparently he has retained those characteristics. He went to his office and at once phoned Mr. Goodwin to come there. At five-twenty he went to the directors’ room. A moment later he excused himself to his associates, left by the door to the public hall, descended to the ground floor and telephoned Harlan Scovil, saying what we can only guess at but certainly arranging a rendezvous, went to the street and selected a parked automobile and took it, drove to where Scovil was approaching the rendezvous and shot him dead, abandoned the car on Ninth Avenue, and returned to the Seaboard Building and the directors’ room. It was an action admirably quickwitted, direct and conclusive, with probably not one chance in a million of it’s being discovered but for the fact that Miss Fox had happened to pick me to collect a fantastic debt for her.”
Wolfe paused to open and pour beer. Skinner said, “I hope you’ve got something, Wolfe. I hope to heaven you’ve got something, because if you haven’t …”
Wolfe drank, and put his glass down. “I know. I can see the open jaws of the waiting beasts.” He thumbed at Perry. “This one here in front. But let him wait a little longer. Let us go on to last evening. That is quite simple. We are not concerned with the details of how Mr. Walsh got to see Mr. Perry at his office yesterday afternoon; it is enough to know that he did, since he phoned Lord Clivers that he had found Rubber Coleman. Well, there was only one thing for Mr. Perry to do, and he did it. Shortly after half past six o’clock he entered that building enclosure by one of the ways we know of—possibly he is a member of the Orient Club, another point for inquirycrept up on old Mr. Walsh and shot him in the back of the head, probably muffling the sound of the shot by wrapping the gun in his overcoat or something else, moved the body to the vicinity of the telephone it it was not already there, left by the way he had come, and drove rapidly—”
“Wait a minute!” Cramer broke in, gruff. “How do you fit that? We know the exact time of that shot, two minutes to seven, when Walsh called you on the phone. And you heard the shot. We already know—”
“Please, Mr. Cramer.” Wolfe was patient. “I’m not telling you what you already know; this, for you, is news. I was saying, Mr. Perry drove rapidly downtown and arrived at this office at exactly seven o’clock.”
Hombert jerked up and snorted. Cramer stared at Wolfe, slowly shaking his head. Skinner, frowning, demanded, “Are you crazy, Wolfe? Yesterday you told us you heard the shot that killed Walsh, at six-fifty-eight. Now you say that Perry fired it, and then got to your office at seven o’clock.” He snarled, “Well?”
“Precisely.” Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. “Do you remember that last night I told you that I was confronted by a difficulty which had to be solved before anything could be done? That was it. You have just stated it. Archie, please tell Saul to go ahead.” I got up and went and opened the door to the front room. Saul Panzer was sitting there. I called to him, “Hey, Mr. Wolfe says to go ahead.” Saul made for the hall and I heard him going out the front door.
Wolfe was saying, “It was ingenious and daring for Mr. Perry to arrange for Mr. Goodwin and me to furnish his alibi. But of course, strictly speaking, it was not an alibi he had in mind; it was a chronology of events which would exclude from my mind any possibility of his connection with Mr. Walsh’s death. Such a connection was not supposed to occur to anyone, and above all not to me; for it is fairly certain that up to the time of his arrival here today Mr. Perry felt satisfactorily assured that no one had the faintest suspicion of his interest in this affair. There had been two chances against him: Harlan Scovil might have spoken to Mr. Goodwin between the time that Mr. Perry left here Monday afternoon and the time he phoned to summon Mr. Goodwin to his office; or Mr. Walsh might have communicated with me between five and six yesterday. But he thought not, for there was no indication of it from us; and he had proceeded to kill both of them as soon as he could reasonably manage it. So he arranged—”
Skinner growled, “Get on. He may not have had an alibi in mind, but he seems to have one. What about it?”
“As I say, sir, that was my difficulty. It will be resolved for you shortly. I thought it better-ah! Get it, Archie.”
It was the phone. I swiveled and took it, and found myself exchanging greetings with Mr. Panzer. I told Wolfe, “Saul.”
He nodded, and got brisk. “Give Mr. Skinner your chair. If you would please take that receiver, Mr. Skinner? I want you to hear something. And you, Mr. Cramer, take mine—here—the cord isn’t long enough, I’m afraid you’ll have to stand. Kindly keep the receiver fairly snug on your ear. Now, Mr. Skinner, speak into the transmitter, ‘Ready.’ That one word will be enough.”
Skinner, at my phone, croaked, “Ready.” The next development was funny. He gave a jump, and turned to glare at Wolfe, while Cramer, at Wolfe’s phone, jerked a little too, and yelled into the transmitter, “HeyS Hey, you!”
Wolfe said, “Hang up, gentlemen, and be seated. Mr. Skinner, please! That demonstration was really necessary. What you heard was Saul Panzer in a telephone booth at the druggist’s on the next comer. There, of course, the instrument is attached to the wall. What he did was this.”
Wolfe reached into his pocket and took out a big rubber band. He removed the receiver from his French phone, looped the band over the transmitter end, stretched it out, and let it Sip. He replaced the receiver.
“That’s all,” he announced. “That was the shot Mr. Goodwin and I heard over the telephone. The band must be three-quarters of an inch wide, and thick, as I learned from experiments this morning– On this instrument, of course, it is nothing; but on the transmitter of a pay-station phone, with the impact and jar and vibration simultaneous, the effect is startling. Didn’t you find it so, Mr. Skinner?”
“I’ll be damned,” Cramer muttered. “I will be damned.”
Skinner said, “It’s amazing. I’d have sworn it was a gun.”
“Yes.” Wolfe’s eyes, half shut, were on Perry. “I must congratulate you, sir. Not only efficient, but appropriate. Rubber Coleman. The Rubber Band. I fancy that was how the idea happened to occur to you. Most ingenious, and ludicrously simple. I wish you would tell us what old friend or employee you got to help you try it out, for surely you took that precaution. It would save Mr. Cramer a lot of trouble.”
Wolfe was over one hurdle, anyway. He had Skinner and Hombert and Cramer with him, sewed up. When he had begun talking they had kept their eyes mostly on him, with only occasional glances at Perry; then, as he had uncovered one point after another, they had” gradually looked more at Perry; and by now, while still listening to Wolfe, they weren’t bothering to look at him much. Their gaze was on Perry, and stayed there, and, for that matter, so was mine and Muir’s and Clivers’. Perry was obviously expecting too much of himself. He had waited too long for a convenient spot to open up with indignation or defiance or a counter-attack, and no doubt Wolfe’s little act with the rubber band had been a complete surprise to him. He was by no means ready to break down and have a good cry, because he wasn’t that kind of a dog, but you could see he was stretched too tight. Just as none of us could take our eyes off him, he couldn’t take his off Wolfe. From where I sat I could see his temples moving, plain.
He didn’t say anything.
Skinner’s bass rumbled, “You’ve made up a good story, Wolfe. I’ve got a suggestion. How about leaving your man here to entertain Perry for a while and the rest of us go somewhere for a little talk? I need to ask some questions.”
Wolfe shook his head. “Not at this moment, sir, it you please. Patience; my reasons will appear. First, is the chronology clear to all of you? At or about six-thirty-five Mr. Perry killed Mr. Walsh, leaving his body near the telephone, and immediately drove downtown, stopping, perhaps, at the same drug store where Saul Panzer just now demonstrated for us. I think that likely, for that store has a side entrance through which the phone booths can be approached with little exposure to observation. From there he phoned here, disguising his voice, and snapping his rubber band. Two minutes later he was at my door, having established the moment at which Michael Walsh was killed. There was of course the risk that by accident the body had been discovered in the twenty minutes which had elapsed, but it was slight, and in any event there was nothing to point to him. As it happened, he had great luck, for not only was the body not discovered prematurely, it was discovered at precisely the proper moment, and by Lord Clivers himself! I think it highly improbable that Mr. Perry knew that Lord Clivers was expected there at that hour, or indeed at all; that was coincidence. How he must have preened himself last evening—for we are all vainer of our luck than of our merits—when he learned the news! The happy smile of Providence! Isn’t that so, Mr. Perry?”
Perry smiled into Wolfe’s face—a thin tight smile, but he made a go of it. He said, “I’m still listening … but it strikes me you’re about through. As Mr. Skinner says, you’ve made up a good story.” He stopped, and his jaw worked a little, then he went on. “Of course you don’t expect me to reply to it, but I’m going to, only not with words. You’re in a plot to blackmail Lord Clivers, but that’s his business. I’m going back to my office and get my lawyer, and I’m going to come down on you for slander and for conspiracy, and also your man Goodwin. I am also going to swear out a warrant against Clara Fox, and this time there’ll be no nonsense about withdrawing it.” He clamped his jaw, and loosened it again. “You’re done, Wolfe. I’m telling you, you’re done.”
“Oh, no.” Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. “You spoke too soon, sir. I am not done. Let me finish my slander and give you more basis for your action. I’m not boring you, am I? No.”
Wolfe looked at the District Attorney. “I am aware, Mr. Skinner, that I have exasperated you, but in the end I think you will agree that my procedure was well advised. First, on account of the undesirable publicity in connection with Lord Clivers, and the fact that he is soon to sail for home, prompt action was essential. Second, there was the advantage of showing Mr. Perry all at once how many holes he will have to plug up, for he is bound to get frantic about it and make a fool of himself. He was really sanguine enough to expect to keep his connection with this completely concealed. His leaving the directors’ room Monday afternoon and returning; his access to Clara Fox’s car for concealing the money, which is now being investigated by one of my men, Orrie Gather; the visit to him by Michael Walsh; his entrance into, and exit from, the building enclosure last evening; his overcoat, perhaps, which he wrapped around his pistol; his entering the corner drug store to telephone; all these and a dozen other details are capable of inquiry; and, finding himself confronted by so many problems all requiring immediate attention, he is sure to put his foot in it.”
Skinner grunted in disgust. “Do you mean to say you’ve given us all you’ve got? And now you’re letting him know it?”
“But I’ve got all that’s necessary.” Wolfe sighed. “For, since we are all convinced that Mr. Perry did kill Harlan Scovil and Michael Walsh, it is of no consequence whether he can be legally convicted and executed.”
Cramer muttered, “Uh-huh, you’re nuts.” Skinner and Hombert stared, speechless.
“Because,” Wolfe went on, “he is rendered incapable of further mischief anyway; and even if you regard the criminal law as an instrument of barbarous vengeance, he is going to pay. What is it that he has been trying so desperately to preserve, with all his ruthless cunning? His position in society, his high repute among his fellow men, his nimbus as a master biped. Well, he will lose all that, which should be enough for any law.” He extended his hand. “May I have those papers. Lord Clivers?”
Clivers reached to his breast pocket and pulled out an envelope, and I got it and handed it to Wolfe. Wolfe opened the flap and extracted some pieces of paper, and unfolded them, with the usual nicety of his fingers, “I have here,” he said, “a document dated Silver City, Nevada, June second, 1895, in which George Rowley agrees to make a certain future compensation for services rendered. It is signed by him, and attested by Michael Walsh and Rubber Coleman as witnesses. I also have another, same date, headed PLEDGE OF THE RUBBER BAND, containing an agreement signed by various persons. I also have one dated London, England, August eleventh, 1906, which is a receipt for two hundred thousand, seven hundred sixty-one pounds, signed by Rubber Coleman, Gilbert Fox, Harlan Scovil, Turtle-back, Victor Lindquist, and Michael Walsh. After the Turtle-back,’ in parentheses, appears the name William Mollen. I also have a check £or the same amount, dated September nineteenth, drawn to the order of James N. Coleman and endorsed by him for payment.”
Wolfe looked around at them. “The point here is, gentlemen, that none of those men except Coleman ever saw that receipt. He forged the names of all the others.” He whirled suddenly to Perry, and his voice was a whip.
“Well, sir? Is that slander?”
Perry held himself. But his voice was squeezed in his throat. “It is. They signed it.”
“Ha! They signed it? So at last we have it that you’re Rubber Coleman?”
“Certainly I’m Coleman. They signed it, and they got their share.”
“Oh, no.” Wolfe pointed a finger at him and held it there. “You’ve made a bad mistake, sir; you didn’t kill enough men. Victor Lindquist is still alive and in possession of all his faculties. I talked to him yesterday on the telephone, and I warned him against any tricks that might be tried. His testimony, with the corroboration we already have, will be ample for an English court. Slander? Pfui!” He turned to the others. “So you see, it isn’t really so important to convict Mr. Perry of murder. He is now past sixty. I don’t know the English penalty for forgery, but certainly he will be well over seventy when he emerges from jail, discredited, broken, a pitiable relic—”
Wolfe told me later that his idea was to work Perry into a state where he would then and there sign checks for Clara Fox and Victor Lindquist, and Walsh’s and ScoviTs heirs if any, for their share of the million dollars. I don’t know. Anyhow, the checks didn’t get signed, because dead men can’t write even their names.
It happened like lightning, a bunch of reflexes. Perry jerked out a gun and turned it on Wolfe and pulled the trigger. Hombert yelled and Cramer jumped. I could never have got across in time to topple him, and anyway, as I say, it was reflex. I grabbed my gun and let him have it, but then Cramer was there and I quit. There was a lot of noise. Perry was down, sunk in bis chair, and they were pawing him. I dived around the desk for Wolfe, who was sitting there looking surprised for once in his Ufe, feeling with his right hand at his upper left arm.
Him protesting, I pulled his coat open and the sleeve oS, and the spot of blood on the outside of the arm of the canary-yellow shirt looked better to me than any orchid. I stuck my Bnger in the hole the bullet had made and ripped the sleeve and took a look, and then grinned into the fat devil’s face. “Just the meat, and not much of that. You don’t use that arm much anyhow.”
I heard Cramer behind me, “Dead as a doornail,” and turned to see the major casualty. They had let it come on out of the chair and stretched it on the floor. The inspector was kneeling by it, and the others standing, and Clivers and Skinner were busy putting out a fire. Clivers was pulling and rubbing at the bottom front of one side of his coat, where the bullet and flame had gone through when he pulled the trigger with his hand still in his pocket, and Skinner was helping him. He must have plugged Perry onetenth of a second before I did.
Cramer stood up. He said heavily, “One in the right shoulder, and one clear through him, through the heart. Well, he asked for it.”
I said, “The shoulder was mine. I was high.”
“Surely not, Archie.” It was behind me, Wolfe murmuring. We looked at him; he was sopping blood off of his arm with his handkerchief. “Surely not. Do you want Lord Clivers’ picture in the Gazette again? We must protect him. You can stand the responsibility of a justifiable homicide. You can—what do you call it, Mr. Cramer’?—take the rap.”