Down on the sidewalk the shades of night were not keeping the metropolitan bipeds from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Striding north toward 3^ th Street, I let the brain skip from this to that and back again, and decided that the spot Clara Fox was standing on was probably worse than hot, it was sizzling. Had she lit the fire herself? I left that in unfinished business.
I got home just at six o’clock and, knowing that Wolfe wouldn’t be down for a few minutes yet, I went to the office to see if the Wyoming wonder had thought of any new suspicions and if his colleagues had shown up.
The office was empty. I went through to the front room to see if he had moved his base there, but it was empty too. I beat it to the kitchen. Fritz was there, sitting with his slippers off, reading that newspaper in French.
I asked him, “What did you do with him?”
“Qui? Aui, Ie monsieur—” Fritz giggled. “Excuse me, Archie. You mean the gentleman who was waiting.”
“He received a telephone call.” Fritz leaned over and began pulling on his slippers. “Time already for Mr. Wolfe!”
“He got a phone call here?”
Fritz nodded. “About half an hour after you left. More maybe. Wait till I look.” He went to the stand where the kitchen phone extension was kept, and glanced at his memo pad. “That’s right. Five-twenty-six. Twenty-six minutes past five.”
“Who was it?”
Fritz’s brows went up. “Should I know, Archie.” He thought he was using slang. “A gentleman said he wished to speak to Mr. Scovil in case he was here, and I went to the office and asked if it was Mr. Scovil, and he talked from your desk, and then he got up and put on his hat and went out.”
“Leave any message?”
“No. I had come back to the kitchen, closing the office door for his privacy but leaving this one open as you said, and he came out and went in a hurry. He said nothing at all.” I lifted the shoulders and let them drop. “He’ll be back. He wants to see a kind of a man named Nero Wolfe. What’s on the menu?”
Fritz told me, and let me take a sniff at the sauce steaming on the simmer plate; then I heard the elevator and went back to the office. Wolfe entered, crossed to his chair and got himself lowered, rang for beer and took the opener out of the drawer, and then vouchsafed me a glance.
“Pleasant afternoon, Archie?”
“No, sir. Putrid. I went around to Perry’s office.”
“Indeed. A man of action must expect such vexations. Tell me about it.”
“Well, Perry left here just after I came down, but about eight minutes after that he phoned and instructed me to come galloping. Having the best interests of my employer in mind I went.”
“Notwithstanding the physical law that the contents can be no larger than the container.” Fritz arrived with two botdes of beer; Wolfe opened and poured one, and drank. “Go on.”
“Yes, sir. I disregard your wit, because I’d like to show you this picture before the company arrives, and they’re already ten minutes late. By the way, the company we already had has departed. He claimed to be part of the six-o’clock appointment and said he would wait, but Fritz says he got a phone call and went in a hurry. Maybe the appointment is off. Anyhow, here’s the Perry puzzle….”
I laid it out for him, in the way that he always liked to get a crop of facts, no matter how trivial or how crucial. I told him what everybody looked like, and what they did, and what they said fairly verbatim. He finished the first botde of beer meanwhile, and had the second well on its way when I got through. I ratded it off and then leaned back and took a sip from a glass of milk I had brought from the kitchen.
Wolfe pinched his nose. “Ptui! Hyenas. And your conclusions?”
“Maybe hyenas. Yeah.” I took another sip. “On principle I don’t like Perry, but it’s possible he’s just using all the decency he has left after a life of evil. You have forbidden me to use the word louse, so I would say that Muir is an insect. Clara Fox is the ideal of my dreams, but it wouldn’t stun me to know that she lifted the roll, though I’d be surprised.”
Wolfe nodded. “You may remember that four years ago Mr. Perry objected to our bill for an investigation of his competitors’ trade practices. I presume that now he would like us to shovel the mud from his executive offices for twelve dollars a day. It is not practicable always to sneer at mud; there’s too much of it. So it gives the greater pleasure to do so when we can afford it. At present our bank balance is agreeable to contemplate. Pfui!” He lifted his glass and emptied it and wiped his lips with his handkerchief.
“Okay,” I agreed. “But there’s something else to consider. Perry wants you to phone him this evening. If you take the case on we’ll at least get expenses, and if you don’t take it on Clara Fox may get five years for grand larceny and I’ll have to move to Ossining so as to be near her and take her tidbits on visiting day. Balance the mud-shoveling against the loss of my services—but that sounds like visitors. I’ll finish my appeal later.”
I had heard the doorbell sending Fritz into the hall and down it to the door. I glanced at the clock: 6:30; they were half an hour late. I remembered the attractive telephone voice, and wondered if we were going to have another nymph, cool and sweet in distress, on our hands.
Fritz came in and shut the door behind him, and announced callers. Wolfe nodded. Fritz went out, and after a second in came a man and two women. The man and the second woman I was barely aware of, because I was busy looking at the one in front. It certainly was a nymph cool and sweet in distress. Evidently she knew enough about Nero Wolfe to recognize him, for with only a swift glance at me she came forward to Wolte’s desk and spoke.
“Mr. Wolfe? I telephoned on Saturday. I’m sorry to be late for the appointment. My name is Clara Fox.” She turned. “This is Miss Hilda Lindquist and Mr. Michael Walsh.”
Wolfe nodded at her and at them. “It is bulk, not boorishness, that keeps me in my chair.” He wiggled a finger at me. “Mr. Archie Goodwin. Chairs, Archie?”
I obliged, while Clara Fox was saying, “I met Mr. Goodwin this afternoon, in Mr. Perry’s office.” I thought to myself, you did indeed, and for not recognizing your voice I’ll let them lock roe in the cell next to yours when you go up the river.
“Indeed.” Wolfe had his eyes half closed, which meant he was missing nothing. “Mr. Walsh’s chair to the right, please. Thank you.”
Miss Fox was taking off her gloves. “First I’d like to explain why we’re late. I said on the telephone that I couldn’t make the appointment before Monday because I was expecting someone from out of town who had to be here. It was a man from out west named Harlan Scovil. He arrived this morning, and I saw him during the lunch hour, and arranged to meet him at a quarter past five, at his hotel, to bring him here. I went for him, but he wasn’t there. I waited and … well, I tried to make some inquiries. Then I met Miss Lindquist and Mr. Walsh, as agreed, and we went back to Mr. Scovil’s hotel again. We waited until a quarter past six, and decided it would be better to come on without him.”
“Is his presence essential?”
“I wouldn’t say essential. At least not at this moment. We left word, and he may join us here any second. He must see you too, before we can do anything. I should warn you, Mr. Wolfe, I have a very long story to tell.”
She hadn’t looked at me once. I decided to quit looking at her, and tried her companions. They were just barely people. Of course I remembered Harlan Scovil telling Anthony D. Perry that he wasn’t Mike Walsh.
Apparently this bird was. He was a scrawny little mick, built wiry, over sixty and maybe even seventy, dressed cheap but dean, sitting only half in his chair and keeping an ear palmed with his right hand. The Lindquist dame, with a good square face and wearing a good brown dress, had size, though I wouldn’t have called her massive, first because it would have been only a half-truth, and second because she might have socked me. I guess she was a fine woman, of the kind that would be more apt to be snapping a coffee cup in her fingers than a champagne glass. Remembering Harlan Scovil to boot, it looked to me as if, whatever game Miss Fox was training for, she was picking some odd numbers for her team.
Wolfe had told her that the longer the story the sooner it ought to begin, and she was saying, “It began forty years ago, in Silver City, Nevada. But before I start it, Mr. Wolfe, I ought to tell you something that I hope will make you interested. I’ve found out all I could about you, and I understand that you have remarkable abilities and an equally remarkable opinion of their cash value to people you do things for.”
Wolfe sighed. “Each of us must choose his own brand of banditry, Miss Fox.”
“Certainly. That is what I have done. If you agree to help us, and if we are successful, your fee will be one hundred thousand dollars.”
Mike Walsh leaned forward and blurted, “Ten per cent! Fair enough?”
Hilda Undquist frowned at him. Clara Fox paid no attention. Wolfe said, “The fee always depends. You couldn’t hire me to hand you the moon.”
She laughed at him, and although I had my notebook out I decided to look at her in the pauses. She said, “I won’t need it. Is Mr. Goodwin going to take down everything? With the understanding that if you decide not to help us his notes are to be given to me?”
Cagey Clara. The creases of Wolfe’s cheeks unfolded a little. “By all means.”
“All right.” She brushed her hair back. “I said it began forty years ago, but I won’t start there. I’ll start when I was nine years old, in 1918, the year my father was killed in the war, in France. I don’t remember my father much. He was killed in 1918, and he sent my mother a letter which she didn’t get until nearly a year later, because instead of trusting it to the army mail he gave it to another soldier to bring home. My mother read it then, but I never knew of it until seven years later, in 192,6, when my mother gave it to me on her deathbed. I was seventeen years old. I loved my mother very dearly.”
She stopped. It would have been a good spot for a moist film over her eyes or a catch in her voice, but apparently she had just stopped to swallow. She swallowed twice, ha the pause I was looking at her. She went on.
“I didn’t read the letter until a month later. I knew it was a letter father had written to mother eight years before, and with mother gone it didn’t seem to be of any importance to me. But on account of what mother had said, about a month after she died I read it. I have it with me. I’ll have to read it to you.”
She opened her alligator-skin handbag and took out a folded paper. She jerked it open and glanced at it, and back at Wolfe. “May I?”
“Do I see typewriting?”
She nodded. “This is a copy. The original is put away.” She brushed her hair back with a hand up and dipping swift like a bird. “This isn’t a complete copy. There is—this is—just the part to read.
“So, dearest Lola, since a man can’t tell what is going to nap-pen to him ‘here, or when, I’ve decided to write you about a little incident that occurred last week, and make arrangements to he sure it gets to you, in case I never get home to tell you about it. Ill have to begin away hack.
“I’ve told you a lot of wild tales about the old days in Nevada. I’ve told you this one too, hut I’ll repeat it here hriefty. It was at Silver City, in 189?. I was 25 years old, so it was 10 years before I met you. I was broke, and so was the gang of youngsters I’m telling about. They were all youngsters but one. We weren’t friends, there was no such thing as a friend around there. Most of the bunch of 2000 or so that inhabited Silver City camp at that time were a good deal older than us, which was how we happened to get together—temporarily. Everything was temporaryi “The ringleader of our gang was a kid we called Rubber on account of the way he bounced back up when he got knocked down. His name was Cole-man, but I never knew his first name, or if 1 did 1 can’t remember it, though I’ve often tried. Because Rubber was our leader, someone cracked a joke one day that we should call ourselves The Rubber Band, and we did. Pretty soon most of Silver City was calling us that.
“One of the gang, a kid named George Rowley, shot a man and killed him. From what I heard—I didn’t see it—he had as good a right to shoot as was usually needed around there, but the trouble was that the one he killed happened to he a member of the Vigilance Committee. It was at night, 24 hows after the shooting, that they decided to hang him. Rowley hadn’t had sense enough to make a getaway, so they took him and shut him up in a shanty until daylight, with one of their number for a guard, an Irishman. As Harlan Scovil would say—I’ll never forget Harlan—he was a kind of a man named Mike Walsh.
“Rowley went after his guard, Mike Walsh. I mean talking to him. Finally, around midnight, he persuaded Mike to send for Rubber Cole-man. Rubber had a talk with him and. Mike. Then there was a lot of conspiring, and Rubber did a lot of dickering with Rowley. We were gathered in the dark in the sagebrush out hack of John’s Palace, a shack out at the edge of the city—”
Clara Fox looked up. “My father underscored the word city.”
Wolfe nodded. “Properly, no doubt.”
She went on: “—and we had been drinking some and were having a swell time. Around two o’clock Rubber showed up again and lit matches to show us a paper George Rowley had signed, with him and Mike Walsh as witnesses. I’ve told you about it. I cant give it to you word for word, hut this is exactly what it said. It said that his real name wasnt George Rowley, and that he wasn’t giving his real name in writing, hut that he had told it to Rubber Coleman. It said that he was from a wealthy family in England, and that if he got out of Silver City alive he would go hack there, and some day he would get a share of the family pile. It said it wouldn’t be a major share because he wasn’t an oldest son. Then it hereby agreed that whenever and whatever he got out of his family connections, he would give us half of it, provided we got him safe out of Silver City and safe from pursuit, before the time came to hang him.
“We were young, and thought we were adventurers, and we were half drunk or maybe more. I doubt if any of us had any idea that we would ever get hold of any of the noble English wealth, except possibly Rubber Cole-man, but the idea of the night rescue of a member of our gang was all to the good. Rubber had another paper ready too, all written up. It was headed, PLEDGE OF THE RUBBER BAND, and we all signed it. It had already been signed by Mike Walsh. In it we agreed to an equal division of anything coming from George Rowley, no matter who got it or when.
“We were all broke except Vie Lindquist, who had a bag of gold dust. It was Rubber’s suggestion that we get Turtle-back in. Turtle-back was an oldtimer who owned the fastest horse in Silver City. tie had no use for that kind of a horse; he only happened to own it because he had won it in a poker game a few days before. I went with Rubber down to Turtle-back’s shanty. We offered him Vie Lindquist’s dust for the horse, but he said it wasn’t enough. We had expected that. Then Rubber explained to him what was up, told him the whole story, and offered him an equal share with the rest of us, for the horse, and the dust to boot. Turtle-back was still half asleep. Finally, when he got the idea, he blinked at us, and then all of a sudden he slapped his knee and began to guffaw. He said that by God he always had wanted to own a part of England, and anyway he would probably lose the horse before he got a chance to ride it much. Rubber got out the PLEDGE OF THE RUBBER BAND, but Turtle-back wouldn’t have his name added to it, saying he didn’t like to have his name written down anywhere. He would trust us to see that he got his share. Rubber scribbled out a bill of sale for the horse, but Turtle-back wouldn’t sign that either; he said 1 was there as a witness, the horse was ours, and that was enough. He put on his boots and took us over to Johnson’s corral, and we saddled the horse, a palomino with a white face, and led it around the long way, back of the shacks and tents and along a gully, to where the gang was.
“We rescued George Rowley all right. You’ve heard me tell about it, how we loosened a couple of boards and then set fire to the shanty where they had him, and how he busted out of the loose place in the excitement, and how Mike Walsh, who was known to be a dead shot, emptied two guns at him without hitting him. Rowley was in the saddle and away before anyone else realized it, and nobody bothered to chase him because they were too busy putting out the fire.
“The story came out later about our buying Turtle-back’s horse, but by that time people’s minds were on something else, and anyway our chief offense was that we had started the fire and it couldn’t he proved we had done that. It might have been different if the man we helped to escape had done something really criminal, like cheating at cards or stealing somebody’s dust.
“So far as I know, none of us ever saw Rowley or heard of him since that night. You’ve heard me mention twenty times, when you and I were having hard going, that I’d like to find him and leam if he owed me anything, but you know I never did and of course I meant it more or less as a joke anyhow. But recently, here in Prance, two things have come up about it. The first one is a thought that’s in my mind all the time, what if I do get mine over here, what kind of a fix am I leaving you and the kid in? My little daughter Clara—God how I’d love to see her. And you. To hell with that stuff when it’s no use, but I’d gladly stand up and let the damn Germans shoot me tomorrow morning if I could see you two right this minute. The answer to my question is, a hell of a fix. M,y life would end more useless than it started, leaving my wife and daughter without a single solitary damn thing.
“The other thing that’s come up is that I’ve seen George Rowley. It was one day last week. I may have told you that the lobe of his right ear was gone—he said he had it hacked off in Australia —hut I don’t think I really knew him by that. There probably is a mighty good print of his mug in my mind somewhere, and I just simply knew it was him. After twenty-three years! I was out with a survey detail about a mile back of the front trenches, laying out new communication lines, and a big car came along. British. The car stopped. It had four British officers in it, and one of them called to me and I went over and he asked for directions to our division headquarters. I gave them to him, and he looked at my insignia and asked if we Americans let our captains dig ditches. 1 had seen by his insignia that he was a brigade commander. I grinned at him and said that in our army everybody worked hut the privates. He looked at me closer and said, ‘By Gad, it’s Gil Foxl’
I said. Yes, sir. General Rowley?’ He shook his head and laughed and told the driver to go on, and the car jumped forward, and he turned to wave his hand at me.
“So he’s alive, or he was last •week, and not in the poorhouse, or whatever they call it in England. I’ve made various efforts to find out who Ize was, but without success. Maybe I will soon. In the meantime, I’m writing this down and disposing of it, because, although it may sound far-fetched and even a little batty, the fact is that this is the only thing resembling a legacy that I can leave to you and Clara. After all, I did risk my life that night in Silver City, on the strength of a bargain understood and recorded, and if that Englishman is rolling in it there’s no reason why he shouldn’t pay up. It is my hope and wish that you will make every effort to see that he does, not only for your sake but for our daughter’s sake. That may sound melodramatic, but the things that are going on over here get you that way. As soon as I find out who he is I’ll get this back and add that to it.
“Another thing. If you do find him and get a grubstake out of it, you must not use it to pay that $26,0001 owe those people out in California. You must promise me this. You must, dearest Lola. I’m bestowing this legacy on you and Clara, not them! I say this because \ fenow that you know how much that debt has worried me for ten years. Though 1 wasn’t really responsible for that tangle, it’s true that it would give me more pleasure to straighten that out than anything in the world except to see you and Clara, but if I die that business can die with me. Of course, if you should get such a big pile of dough that you’re embarrassed—but miracles like that don’t happen.
“If something should come out of it, it must be split with the rest of the gang if you can find them. I don’t know a thing about any of them except Harlan Scovil, and I haven’t neard from him for several years. The last address I had for him is in the little red book in the drawer of my desk. One of the difficulties is that you haven’t got the paper that George Rowley signed. Rubber Coleman, by agreement, kept both that and the PLEDGE OF THE RUBBER BAND. Maybe you can find Cole-man. Or maybe Rowley is a decent guy and will pay without any paper. Either sounds highly improbable. Hell, it’s all a daydream. Anyhow, I nave every intention of getting back to you safe and sound, and if I do you’ll never see this unless I bring it along as a souvenir.
“Here are the names of everybody that was in on it: George Rowley. Rubber Coleman (I don’t know his first name). Victor Lindquist. Harlan Scovil ^you’ve met him, go after him first). Mike Walsh (he was a little older, maybe 32 at the time, not one of the Rubber Band). Turtle-back was a good deal older, probably dead now, and that’s all the name I knew for him. And last but by no means least, yours truly, and how truly it would take a year to tell, Gilbert Fox, the writer of these presents.”
Clara Fox stopped. She ran her eyes over the last sentence again, then placed that sheet at the back, folded them up, and returned them to her handbag. She put her hand up and brushed back her hair, and sat and looked at Wolfe. No one said anything.
Finally Wolfe sighed. He opened his eyes at her. “Well, Miss Fox. It appears to be the moon that you want after all.”
She shook her head. “I know who George Rowley is. He is now in New York.”
“And this, I presume”—Wolfe nodded—“is Mr. Victor Lindquist’s daughter.” He nodded again. “And this gendeman is the Mr. Walsh who emptied two guns at Mr. Rowley without hitting him.”
Mike Walsh blurted, “I could have hit him!”
“Granted, sir. And you. Miss Fox, would very much like to have twentysix thousand dollars, no doubt with accrued interest, to discharge debts of your dead father. In other words, you need something a little less than thirty thousand.”
She stared at him. She glanced at me, then back at him, and asked coolly, “Am I here as your client, Mr. Wolfe, or as a suspected thief?”
He wiggled a finger at her. “Neither as yet. Please do not be so foolish as to be offended. If I show you my mind, it is only to save dme and avoid irrelevancies. Haven’t I sat and listened patiently for ten minutes although I dislike being read aloud to?”
“Indeed. I believe it is. Let us proceed. Tell me about Mr. George Rowley.”
But that had to be postponed. I had heard the doorbell, and Fritz going down the hall, and a murmur from outside. Now I shook my head at Clara Fox and showed her my palm to stop her, as the office door opened and Fritz came in and closed it behind him.
“A man to see you, sir. I told him you were engaged.”
I bounced up. There were only two kinds of men Fritz didn’t announce as gentlemen; one he suspected of wanting to sell something, and a policeman, uniform or not. He could smell one a mile off. So I bounced up and demanded, “A cop?”
I whirled to Wolfe. “Ever since I saw Muir looking at Miss Fox today I’ve been thinking she ought to have a lightning rod. Would you like to have her pinched in here, or out in the hall?”
Wolfe nodded and snapped, “Very well, Archie.”
I crossed quick and got myself against the closed office door, and spoke not too loud to Fritz, pointing to the door that opened into the front room. “Go through that way and lock the door from the front room to the hall.”
He moved. I turned to the others. “Go in there and sit down, and if you don’t talk any it won’t disturb us.”
Walsh and Miss Lindquist stared at me.
Clara Fox said to Wolfe, “I’m not your client yet.”
He said, “Nor yet a suspect. Here. Please humor Mr. Goodwin.”
She got up and went and the others followed her. Fritz came back and I told him to shut that door and lock it and give me the key. Then I went back to my desk and sat down, while Fritz, at a nod from Wolfe, went to the hall for the visitor.
The cop came in, and I was surprised to see that it was a guy I knew. Surprised, because the last time I had heard of Slim Foltz he had been on the Homicide Squad, detailed to the District Attorney’s office.
“Hi, Goodwin.” He had his own clothes on. He came on across with his hat in his hand. “Hello, Mr. Wolfe. I’m Foltz, Homicide Squad.”
“Good evening, sir. Be seated.”
The dick put his hat on the desk and sat down, and reached in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “There was a man shot down the street an hour or so ago. Shot plenty, five bullets in him. Killed. This piece of paper was in his pocket, with your name and address on it. Along with other names. Do you know anything about him?”
Wolfe shook his head. “Except that he’s dead. Not, that is, at this moment. If I knew his name, perhaps …”
“Yeah. His name was on a hunting license, also in his pocket. State of Wyoming. Harlan Scovil.”
“Indeed. It is possible Mr. Goodwin can help you out. Archie’?”
I was thinking to myself, hell, he didn’t come for her after all. But I was just as well pleased she wasn’t in the room.