I didn’t fool with a taxi, and it wasn’t worth while to take the roadster, which as usual was at the curb, and fight to park it. From Wolfe’s house in West 35th Street, not far from the Hudson, where he had lived for over twenty years, and I had slept on the same floor with him for eight, it was only a hop, skip, and jump to the new Seaboard Building, in the twenties, also near the river. I hoofed it, considering meanwhile the oddities of my errand. Why had Anthony D. Perry, president of the Seaboard Products Corporation, taken the trouble to come to our office to tell us about an ordinary good clean theft? As the Tel & Tel say in their ads, why not telephone? And if he felt so confident that Clara Fox hadn’t done it, did he suspect she was being framed or what? And so on.
Having been in the Seaboard Building before, and even, if you would believe it, in the office of the president himself, I knew my way around. I remembered what the executive reception clerk on the thirty-second floor looked like, and so was expecting no treat in that quarter, and got none. I now knew also that she was called Miss Vawter, and so addressed her, noting that her ears stuck out at about the same angle as three years previously. She was expecting me, and without bothering to pry her thin lips open she waved me to the end of the corridor.
In Perry’s office, which was an enormous room furnished in The Office Beautiful style with four big windows giving a sweeping view of the river, there was a gathering waiting for me. I went in and shut the door behind me and looked them over. Perry was seated at his desk with his back to the windows, frowning at his cigar smoke. A bony-looking medium-sized man, with hair somewhat grayer than Perry’s, brown eyes too close together, and pointed ears, sat nearby. A woman something over thirty, with a flat nose, who could have got a job as schoolteacher just on her looks, stood at a comer of Perry’s desk. She looked as it she might have been doing some crying. In another chair, out a little, another woman sat with her back to me as I entered. On my way approaching Perry I caught a glimpse of her face as I went by, and saw that additional glimpses probably wouldn’t hurt me any.
Perry grunted at me. He spoke to the others. “This is the man. Mr. Goodwin, from Nero Wolfe’s office.” He indicated with nods, in succession, the woman sitting, the one standing, and the man. “Miss Fox. Miss Garish. Mr. Muir.”
I nodded around, and looked at Perry. “You said you’ve got some developments?”
“Yes.” He knocked ashes from his cigar, looked at Muir, and then at me. ««You know most of the facts, Goodwin. Let’s come to the point. When I returned I found that Mr. Muir had called Miss Fox to his office, had accused her of stealing the money, and was questioning her in the presence of Miss Barish. This was contrary to the instructions I had given. He now insists on calling in the police.”
Muir spoke to me, smoothly. “You’re in on a family quarrel, Mr. Goodwin.” He leveled his eyes at Perry. “As I’ve said. Perry, I accept your instructions on all business matters. This is more personal than business. The money was taken from my desk. I was responsible for it. I know who stole it, I am prepared to swear out a warrant, and I intend to do so.”
Perry stared back at him. “Nonsense. I’ve told you that my authority extends to all the affairs of this office.” His tone could have been used to ice a highball. “You may be ready to swear out a warrant and expose yourself to the risk of being sued for false arrest, but I will not permit a vicepresident of this corporation to take that risk. I went to the trouble of engaging the best man in New York City, Nero Wolfe, to investigate this. I even took pains that Miss Fox should not know she was suspected before the investigation. I admit that I do not believe she is a thief. That is my opinion. If evidence is uncovered to prove me wrong, then I’m wrong.”
“Evidence?” Muir’s jaw had tightened. “Uncovered? A clever man like Nero Wolfe might either cover or uncover. No? Depending on what you paid him for.”
Perry smiled a controlled smile. “You’re an ass, Muir, to say a thing like that. I’m the president of this company, and you’re an ass to suggest I might betray its interests, either the most important or the most trivial. Mr. Goodwin heard my conversation with his employer. He can tell you what I engaged him to do.”
No doubt he could tell me what he has been instructed to tell me.”
“I’d go easy, Muir.” Perry was sdll smiling. “The kind of insinuations you re making might run into something serious. You shouldn’t bark around without considering the chances of starting a real dogfight, and I shouldn’t think you’d want a fight over a triviality like this.”
1’riviality?” Muir started to tremble. I saw his hand on the chair arm begin to shake, and he gripped the wood. He turned his eyes from Perry onto Clara Fox, sitting a few feet away, and the look in them made it plain why trivialities were out. Of course I didn’t know whether he was hating her because she had lifted the thirty grand or because she had stepped on his toe, but from where I stood it looked like something much fancier than either of those. If looks could kill she would have been at least a darned sick woman.
Then he shifted from her to me, and he had to pinch his voice. “I won’t ask you to report the conversation you heard, Mr. Goodwin. But of course you’ve had instructions and hints from Mr. Perry, so you might as well have some from me.” He got up, walked around the desk, and stood in front of me. “I presume that an important part of your investigation will be to follow Miss Fox’s movements, to learn if possible what she has done with the money. When you see her entering a theater or an expensive restaurant with Mr. Perry, don’t suppose she is squandering the money that way. Mr. Perry will be paying. Or if you see Mr. Perry entering her apartment of an evening, it will not he to help her dispose of the evidence. His visit will be for another purpose.”
He turned and left the room, neither slow nor fast. He shut the door behind him, softly. I didn’t see him, I heard him; I was looking at the others. Miss Barish stared at Miss Fox and turned pale. Perry’s only visible reaction was to drop his dead cigar into the ash tray and push she tray away. The first move came from Miss Fox. She stood up.
The idea occurred to me that on account of active emotions she was probably better looking at that moment than she ordinarily was, but even discounting for that there was plenty to go on. In my detached impersonal way I warmed to her completely at exactly that moment when she stood up and looked at Anthony D. Perry. She had brown hair, neither long nor boyish bob, just a swell lot of careless hair, and her eyes were brown too and you could see at a glance that they would never tell you anything except what she wanted them to.
She spoke. “May I go now, Mr. Perry? It’s past five o’clock, and I have an appointment.”
Perry looked at her with no surprise. Evidently he knew her. He said, “Mr. Goodwin will want to talk with you.”
“I know he will. Will the morning do? Am I to come to work tomorrow?”
“Of course. I refer you to Goodwin. He has charge of this now, and the responsibility is his.”
I shook my head. “Excuse me, Mr. Perry. Mr. Wolfe said he would decide whether he’d handle this or not after my preliminary investigation. As far as Miss Fox is concerned, tomorrow will suit me fine.” I looked at her. “ Nine o’clock?”
She nodded– “Not that I have anything to tell you about that money, except that I didn’t take it and never saw it. I have told Mr. Perry and Mr. Muir that. I may go then? Good night.”
She was perfectly cool and sweet. From the way she was handling herself, no one would have supposed she had any notion that she was standing on a hot spot. She included all of us in her good-night glance, and turned and walked out as self-possessed as a young doe not knowing that there’s a gun pointed at it and a finger on the trigger.
When the door was shut Perry turned to me briskly. “Where do you want to start, Goodwin? Would fingerprints around the drawer of Muir’s desk do any good?”
I grinned at him and shook my head. “Only for practice, and I don’t need any. I’d like to have a chat with Muir. He must know it won’t do to have Miss Fox arrested just because she was in his room. Maybe he thinks he knows where the money is.”
Perry said, “Miss Barish is Mr. Muir’s secretary.”
“Oh.” I looked at the woman with the flat nose still standing there. I said to her, “It was you that typed the cablegram while Miss Fox waited in Muir’s room. Did you notice—”
Perry homed in. “You can talk with Miss Barish later.” He glanced at the clock on the wall, which said 5:20. “Or, if you prefer, you can talk with her here, now.” He shoved his chair back and got up. “If you need me, I’ll be in the directors’ room, at the other end. I’m late now, for a conference. It won’t take long. I’ll ask Muir to stay, and Miss Vawter also, in case you want to see her.” He had moved around to the front of his desk, and halted there. “One thing, Goodwin, about Muir. I advise you to forget his ridiculous outburst. He’s jerky and nervous, and the truth is he’s too old for the strain business puts on a man nowadays. Disregard his nonsense. Well?”
“Sure.” I waved a hand. “Let him rave.”
Perry frowned at me, nodded, and left the room.
The best chair in sight was the one Perry had just vacated, so I went around and took it. Miss Barish stood with her shoulders hanging, squeezing her handkerchief and looking straight at me. I said, friendly, “Move around and sit down—there, where Muir was. So you’re Muir’s secretary.”
“Yes, sir.” She got onto the edge of the chair.
“Been his secretary eleven years.”
“Cut out the sir. Okay? I’m not gray-headed. So Muir looked through your belongings last Friday and didn’t find the money?”
Her eyes darkened. “Certainly he didn’t find it.”
“Right. Did he make a thorough search of your room?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care if he did.”
“Now don’t get sore. I don’t care either. After you copied the cablegram and took the original back to Miss Fox in Muir’s room, what was she carrying when she left there?”
“She was carrying the cablegram.”
“But where did she have the thirty grand, down her sock? Didn’t it show?”
Miss Barish compressed her lips to show that she was putting up with me. “I did not see Miss Fox carrying anything except the cablegram. I have told Mr. Muir and Mr. Perry that I did not see Miss Fox carrying anything except the cablegram.”
I grinned at her. “And you are now telling Mr. Goodwin that you did not see Miss Fox carrying anything except the cablegram. Check. Are you a friend of Miss Fox’s?”
“No. Not a real friend. I don’t like her.”
“Egad. Why don’t you like her?”
“Because she is extremely attractive, and I am homely. Because she has been here only three years and she could be Mr. Perry’s private secretary tomorrow if she wanted to, and that is the job I have wanted ever since I came here. Also because she is cleverer than I am.”
I looked at Miss Barish more interested, at all the frankness. Deciding to see how far down the frankness went, I popped at her, “How long has Miss Fox been Perry’s mistress?”
She went red as a beet. Her eyes dropped, and she shook her head. Finally she looked up at me again, but didn’t say anything.
I tried another one. “Then tell me this. How long has Muir been trying to get her away from Perry?”
Her eyes got dark again, and the color stayed. She stared at me a minute, then all at once rose to her feet and stood there squeezing her handkerchief. Her voice trembled a little, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
“I don’t know whether that’s any of your business, Mr. Goodwin, but it’s none of mine. Don’t you see … don’t you see how this is a temptation to me? Couldn’t I have said I saw her carrying something out of that room?” She squeezed the handkerchief harder. “Well … I didn’t say it. Don’t I have to keep my self-respect? I’ll go out of my way too, I don’t know anything about it, but I don’t believe Clara Fox has ever been anybody’s mistress. She wouldn’t have to be, she’s too clever. I don’t know anything about that money either, but if you want to ask me questions to see if I do, go ahead.”
I said, “School’s out. Go on home. I may want you again in the morning, but I doubt it.”
She turned pale as fast as she had turned red. She certainly was a creature of moods. I got up from Perry’s chair and walked all the way across the room to open the door and stand and hold it. She went past, still squeezing the handkerchief and mumbling good night to me, and I shut the door.
Feeling for a cigarette and finding I didn’t have any, I went back to the windows and stood surveying the view. As I had suspected, the thing wasn’t a good clean theft at all, it was some kind of a mess. From the business standpoint, it was obvious that the thing to do was go back and tell Nero Wolfe it was a case of refusing to let the administrative heads of the Seaboard Products Corporation use our office for a washtub to dump their dirty linen in. But what reined me up on that was my professional curiosity about Clara Fox. If sneak thieves came as cool and sweet as that, it was about time I found it out. And if she wasn’t one, my instinctive dislike of a frame-up made me hesitate about leaving her parked against a fireplug.
I was fairly well disgusted, and got more disgusted, after gazing out of the window for a while, when I felt in my pockets again for a cigarette with no results.
I wandered around The Office Beautiful a little, sightseeing and cogitating, and then went out to the corridor. It was empty. Of course, it was after office hours. All its spacious width and length, there was no traffic, and it was dimmer than it had been when I entered, for no more lights were turned on and it was getting dark outdoors. There were doors along one side, and at the farther end the double doors, closed, of the director’s room. I heard a cough, and turned, and saw Miss Vawter, the executive reception clerk, sitting in the comer under a light with a magazine.
She said in a vinegar voice, “I’m remaining after hours because Mr. Perry said you might want to speak to me.”
She was a pain all around. I said, “Please continue remaining. Which is Muir’s room?”
She pointed to one of the doors, and I headed for it I was reaching out for the knob when she screeched at me, “You can’t go in there like that! Mr. Muir is out.”
I called to her, “Do tell. If you want to interrupt Mr. Perry in his conference, go to the directors’ room and give the alarm. I’m investigating.”
I went on in, shut the door, found the wall switch, and turned on the lights. As I did so, a door in another wall opened, and Miss Barish appeared. She stood and looked without saying anything.
I observed, “I thought I told you to go home.”
“I can’t.” Her color wasn’t working either way. “When Mr. Muir is here I’m not supposed to go until he dismisses me. He is in conference.”
“I see. That your room? May I come in?”
She stepped back and I entered– It was a small neat room with one window and the usual stenographic and filing equipment. I let the eyes rove, and then asked her, “Would you mind leaving me here for a minute with the door shut, while you go to Muir’s desk and open and dose a couple of drawers? I’d like to see how much din it makes.”
She said, “I was typing.” “So you were. All right, forget it. Come and show me which drawer the money was in.”
She moved ahead of me, led the way to Muir’s desk, and pulled open one of the drawers, the second one from the top on the right. There was nothing in it but a stack of envelopes. I reached out and closed it, then opened and closed it again, grinning as I remembered Perry’s suggestion about fingerprints. Then I left the desk and strolled around a little. It was just a vice-president’s office, smaller and modester than Perry’s but still by no means a pigpen. I noticed one detail, or rather three, a little out of the ordinary. There was no portrait of Abraham Lincoln nor replica of the Declaration of Independence on the walls, but there were three different good-sized photographs of three different good-looking women, hanging framed.
I turned to Miss Barish, who was still standing by the desk. “Who are all the handsome ladies?”
“They are Mr. Muir’s wives.”
“Nol Honest to God? Mostly dead?”
“I don’t know. None of them is with him now.”
“Too bad. It looks like he’s sentimental.”
She shook her head. “Mr. Muir is a sensual man.”
She was having another frank spell. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to six, giving me another five minutes, so I thought I might as well use them on her. I opened up, friendly, but although she seemed to be willing to risk a little more chat with me, I didn’t really get any facts. All I learned was what I already knew, that she had no reason to suppose that Clara Fox had lifted the jack, and that if there was a frame-up she wasn’t in on it. When the five minutes was up I turned to go, and at that moment the door opened and Muir came in.
Seeing us, he stopped, then came on again, to his desk. “You may go, Miss Barish. If you want to talk with me, Goodwin, sit down.”
Miss Barish disappeared into her room. I said, “I won’t keep you now, Mr. Muir. I suppose you’ll be here in the morning?”
“Where else would I be?”
That kind of childishness never riles me. I grinned at the old goat, said, “Okay,” and left him.
Outside in the corridor, down a few paces toward the directors’ room, a group of four or five men stood talking. I saw Perry was among them, and approached. He saw me and came to meet me.
I said, “Nothing more tonight, Mr. Perry. Let’s let Mr. Muir have a chance to cool off. I’ll report to Nero Wolfe.”
Perry frowned. “He can phone me at my home any time this evening. It’s in the book.”
“Thanks. I’ll tell him.”
As I passed Miss Vawter on my way out, still sitting in the corner with her magazine, I said to her out of the side of my mouth, “See you at the Rainbow Room.”