I do not ordinarily resent depositing checks in Wolfe’s bank account, given that the outlay for his establishment includes among other sundry expenses my salary and the upkeep of the old brownstone on West 35th Street, in which I live and eat. But when I finally got home from Lily Rowan’s place that night, shortly after the hour had made it to the single digits, and saw the check from the Bellowes Company endorsed and waiting on my desk, I gave it a glare on my way upstairs. It complicated the situation, which didn’t need it any.
We’d finished that job only a few days ago: a full-time affair tracking down an embezzler who’d been several cuts above the usual till-skimmer, and I’d had to spend two weeks in their offices more often than not. In my absence, Wolfe had been forced to sort his own mail, dial the phone for himself, and on one occasion answer the door. After that Herculean effort, he was all set to resume his natural state of extreme indolence, and the check meant he now had twelve thousand more reasons to avoid taking any new jobs.
I rolled out of bed half an hour early the next morning and fought my way through the fog in time to climb the stairs and corner Wolfe over his breakfast tray with Lily's problem. "I fully recognize it's beneath you," I told him, having given him a sketch. "The necklace is only worth a measly twenty or thirty grand, and it's not as though you've ever considered yourself in Miss Rowan's debt — "
"Grrh," Wolfe said, so I took it that my point had been made and moved on.
"It's got a few interesting points," I said. "The trick isn't getting the necklace back, I could handle that part easy. The problem is how to do it without the other one finding out the necklace ever got taken."
It wasn't that I was particularly worried about the feelings of either Miss Margaret Sullivan or Mr. James Rourke, despite their being Lily's cousins something removed. As far as I was concerned, they hadn't been removed far enough. Granted that when your father has put together a healthy pile from scratch, you have to expect distant relations to poke out of the woodwork now and then looking for a handout, there is no need for the relations to make a blood-sport out of it.
Under normal circumstances, Lily wouldn't have had any difficulty bouncing a pair of unwelcome house guests, related or not. But the doctors had just announced that Lily's great-aunt, having held on tooth and nail long past any reasonable expiration date, was finally making for the exit. To give you a picture of her feelings towards the old lady, Lily had a big old wooden hope chest at the foot of her bed containing among other assorted items her mother's wedding dress, the tablecloth her grandmother had brought with her from Ireland on the boat, and a baby blanket which said great-aunt had knitted a certain number of years previously. At that, I guess it wasn't the poor old lady's fault that somewhere along the way a piranha had sneaked into her branch of the family tree, with results in the later generation as mentioned. I understand piranhas are just as happy to eat each other if nothing else is around.
"Miss Sullivan and Mr. Rourke arrived at Lily's penthouse two days ago and were tolerated on account of family feeling,” I went on. “They are both in theory ornaments to society, but what society, is the question. Lily's father, who as you know was not short on scratch, set up a trust fund for the old lady a while back, and she had a hard time finding anything much better to spend it on than her descendants. I guess she hasn't been able to leave the house for the last decade or so.
"They are both interested in getting a piece of the old lady's pie, but the twist is they are at least as interested in making sure the other one doesn't get a bigger piece. The atmosphere hasn't been what you would call congenial. Lily got the necklace out of the safe last night on account of going to a charity banquet, which made an excuse for escaping. Both of them saw her wearing it and both made comments thereupon. They had officially retired for the night by the time Lily came back, and she left the necklace on her dresser while she went into the bathroom to wash up. When she came out, it was gone.
"Opportunity is a cinch. The door to the bedroom was open a crack, and the water was running. Either one of them could have come in and snagged it, no risk involved. If Lily had come out, they would have claimed to be waiting to talk to her — "
"Pfui," he said. "Why didn't she summon servants and search their rooms at once?"
I was patient. "Well, and what if she found it? It's a sure bet that the so-called innocent one would make a stink about the guilty one to the great-aunt, not to mention it's even odds that the one who took the necklace planted it on the other. That would be a hell of a note for the old lady to go out on."
Wolfe scowled at me. He doesn't much like Lily anyway, as he has never forgiven her for that time he was forced to submit to being sprayed with her perfume, but I admit he wouldn't have liked this case any even if it had come to him hand-delivered on a silver platter with a side of shad roe. "Hyenas."
"Sure," I said. "But right now, the only hyena that knows about it is the one that took the necklace, and that's how it's got to stay. Miss Rowan isn't looking to press charges. She's looking to get the necklace back along with a leash to keep the guilty party from going on any more adventures, without setting off the other one. She does," I added, "expect to pay. Two thousand dollars, ten percent of the necklace."
Wolfe wasn't quite done trying to wriggle off the hook. "By now the thief will have removed the necklace to a different location entirely, unless he is witless."
"Nope," I said firmly. "Lily's no flatfloot, and the doctor's an old friend. As soon as she spotted the necklace gone, she had him call the house to announce that the old lady was in a bad way, and they'd all better stay close by the phone for word. The two maids and the butler are sticking to the front door in shifts, and the back one has been locked up tight. Neither of them have gotten in or out."
Wolfe growled under his breath and eyed me. I knew the problem he was wrestling with: he didn’t want to work, but he knew that I knew that too, and here I was asking, so what were the odds I’d quit if he turned me down flat? It didn’t help him any that I was asking for Lily, who he knows perfectly well would be the odds-on favorite to land me, if anyone was taking bets. I kept my face expectant, as if it hadn’t occurred to me he wouldn’t take it on, and let him wrestle with it.
"Confound it," he muttered. He was going to have to work after all. "Call Saul."
I would’ve raised an eyebrow, but knowing it annoys him, I refrained. I could make a concession now and then, too.
Lily opened up the back door to let me and Saul in. "They're in their rooms," she said.
"Did they buy it?" I asked.
"When I was selling?" Lily said, reproachfully. "I made it good. I asked them if they’d seen it, then I told them I must have dropped it behind the dresser. Neither of them batted an eye.”
"That was too much to hope for," I said. "Okay. We haven't got a lot of time, and you know the program."
She nodded and took Saul with her down the hall. I saw him take one glance from under his soft cap at the rest of the apartment as he followed her, which meant that he had the layout of the place down for good, with light or without. I took myself to the living room and settled into an easy chair with the paper.
I had to admit, this particular stunt of Wolfe's struck me as more than a little loopy. It wasn't going to get the necklace back, and it couldn't hold up for long. Not to mention the chances that one or both of them would get wise to the real question. But I'd known better than to say so. Wolfe had been watching me with narrowed eyes while he gave me instructions, and one peep would have been enough to get the whole thing called off.
At least things did go according to the program. About three minutes after I landed, here came Margaret to have a confidential chat. The charms on offer weren't insubstantial if you hadn't seen behind the curtains, and she'd tried them on me, but she'd had enough sense, after I'd stiff-armed her first tentative come-on, not to keep at it. Since then she'd pretended that she'd never dreamed of me as anything other than a pal and a manly hero.
"Archie," she said, sinking languidly into what I called the sofa and she called the divan, "it's unbearable, it really is. Not a peep from her doctor since last night, but they won't let us so much as poke our heads in. And of course people go gaga at the end. What if Nana can't speak to us, by the time they let us see her?"
Pretty heartbreaking, if her real concern hadn't been making sure Nana would still be able to talk to her lawyers and revise her will. I was saved answering because James sailed in right on her heels. I never see much need for women to pay attention to other male specimens when I am around, but I can admit without rancor that he made a reasonable case, also strictly on first impressions. The family resemblance was significant. If you say I am biased when I vote that of the three of them, Lily took the laurels, okay by me.
Apparently the two of them were sweet as pie if you had a solo performance. I say apparently because in the last two weeks, I had yet to spend more than five minutes in a room with one of them before the second one came running to make sure that the other one wasn’t somehow digging up an advantage. I don’t want to give you the idea that either of them were cuckoo enough to think I could sway the outcome, seeing how I’d never even met the great-aunt and Lily has never needed help from me or anybody else making up her mind. It was just a reflex. Anybody in range was a potential referee.
“Archie, how was the event? I’m afraid Lily came home to bad news,” he said. “It’s worrying not to know anything more, although of course I wouldn’t want her doctors to be spending any time updating us when they could be doing their best for her.”
Margaret’s eyes were already narrowing, but I hope that’s enough of the two of them for you. It was enough for me. I sat there and took it for another ten minutes of back and forth, interjecting a minimum, and then there went the gunshots and the breaking glass. Margaret gave a squeal. “Stay here!” I snapped, and went. Of course they followed me, at a healthy distance. I headed for Lily’s bedroom, gun out, and kicked open the door. Lily was lying sprawled on the carpet with a blood stain spreading underneath her, and the safe and the window to the balcony were open.
I fired a couple of shots out the window, then went down to my knees next to Lily and checked the pulse. The two of them made it behind me, making noises of horror, until I stood and turned to face them. “Shut up,” I said, flatly. “She’s gone.”
They both came along back to the office meekly enough. They tried to put up a half-hearted fuss, only until I said, “I saw him, and I know him. He’s not a burglar. If you want, I can call the cops first and tell them that Lily got taken out by a hit man, and who do you think is going to be tops on their list of suspects? If she had a will, it’s news to me, and that means it’s all going straight to your Nana. If you didn’t do it, you want Wolfe to convince me you didn’t, and if you did, go ahead and call the cops if you want to try and stall for a few more hours. That’s all you’ll get out of it, and don’t think I won’t start digging hard at the one who makes that call.”
They both darted looks at each other and quit arguing.
I put them in the front room while I reported to Wolfe, then let them into the office. He regarded them from behind his desk while I performed introductions. “I will not yet offer you my condolences,” he said. “Miss Rowan was by no means my intimate friend, but she was a remarkable and vivacious woman, and for the moment the evidence suggests that one or the other of you were responsible for her death. Cui bono? Naturally and obviously, the two of you.”
“Or him,” James retorted. “Maybe Lily did have a will.”
Wolfe snorted. “If your only hope to defend yourself is by implicating Mr. Goodwin, your situation is precarious indeed. The police may pursue such a ragged thread. I need not.” He held up an open palm. “If you please. Mr. Goodwin has risked a great deal to bring you here, rather than summoning the police to Miss Rowan’s apartment. We cannot delay for much longer. The police are ideally suited to pursue the typical lines of inquiry. If one of you has recently obtained a large quantity of money in cash, or begun to frequent the sorts of places where you might have made the acquaintance of the murderer, they will surely discover it before we will. If we are to establish your innocence to our satisfaction, we must approach our inquiry from another angle. Miss Sullivan, when was the last time you saw your grandmother?”
When Wolfe goes after someone, it can all be over in fifteen minutes, or it can take fifteen hours, and it’s even odds whether or not I can figure out what he’s fishing for. This time I was in the dark and stayed there for the next half-hour while he asked them a couple of thousand questions apiece about their grandmother and her health. What changed things wasn’t any sudden insight, it was the doorbell going, and when I stuck my head out into the hallway for a look I recognized the face on the other side of the one-way glass without any effort of memory required.
I left the chain on and cracked the door an inch, no more. “No, thanks,” I said.
Inspector Cramer’s face was as bleak as it came. “Dammit, Goodwin,” he said. “I don’t blame you losing your head, but you know better. Open up. What the hell did you do with the body, pack it with the orchids again?”
I was glad of the one-inch opening, which gave me a second to arrange my face before he got a good look at it. “Hang on,” I told him, and shut the door. I went back to the office. Wolfe was still grilling the two of them about what they’d written in their last Christmas cards to the great-aunt.
“Sorry for the interruption,” I said. “Not mine. It’s Inspector Cramer. Someone must have given it to him -- probably the maid.”
Wolfe scowled. “Well? Bring him in. There’s no help for it.”
I eyed Wolfe sidelong and went back for the door. Cramer stumped past me and on into the office. Wolfe raised a hand as soon as he got in the door. “Mr. Cramer,” he said, “I grant that you have been imposed upon. If you will give me your forbearance for perhaps ten more minutes, I hope to resolve this matter.”
That paused Cramer. “You do,” he said, flatly. Wolfe inclined his head, roughly a quarter of an inch. Cramer looked over at me and got no help. He knew, none better, just how good it was when Wolfe claimed to be about to close the books. He looked at the two guests. He took out a cigar and stuck it between his teeth, bit down on it to relieve his feelings, and sat down in the red leather chair. “You can have ten. Not fifteen.”
“I doubt I shall need that many,” Wolfe said. “Miss Sullivan, one final question: before your last visit, did Mr. Rourke express to you a disgust at vermin, perhaps specifically rats, that he had seen at your grandmother’s home?”
She and Rourke had both been staring at Cramer like a couple of rabbits. She jerked around and stared at Wolfe. “How could you —” she blurted.
Wolfe nodded. “May I assume that you subsequently during your next visit purchased rat poison and attempted to eliminate the problem?”
“I — yes, I did, but I don’t see — ” Margaret said.
“What does any of this have to do with Lily getting shot?” Rourke said belligerently. “You haven’t asked us about that at all!”
Wolfe sighed. “No, and there is an excellent reason for that. Now, if you please,” he added, over his shoulder towards the painting of the waterfall. Lily appeared in the doorway a few moments later, looking pale and furious, with Saul beside her.
Cramer stood up. “The goddamn hell,” he said.
“As you see, Mr. Cramer, Miss Rowan is unharmed. The man seen fleeing the scene was Mr. Panzer —”
“By God, this time you’ve gone too far,” Cramer said. He threw the cigar at the trash can, missed it by half a foot. “I’m taking you in for obstruction —”
“Surely not, Mr. Cramer,” Wolfe said. “Surely not. It cannot be called obstruction of justice simply because I have invoked your department prior to the final snip of the shears of Atropos. If you will send the medical examiner to Miss Rowan’s great-aunt, I believe you will find her suffering the effects of a gradually increasing degree of arsenic poisoning.”
Margaret was on her feet too now. “I’m not — I didn’t —”
“No, of course not,” Wolfe said. “I imagine Mr. Rourke had already obtained the poison earlier, through some highly untraceable means, before inducing you to purchase some so openly. However, you may as well take them both,” he added to Cramer. “Although Miss Sullivan’s crime does not fall within your purview, I am reasonably certain that a theft of twenty thousand dollars will interest some of your colleagues.”
Wolfe had timed it all beautifully. Cramer had no sooner left with both of the cousins in tow than it was lunchtime. and thanks to the inviolate rule of no business talk at meals, Lily and I got to stew for what felt as long as the filling of the short rib raviolis that Fritz had been working on for two days. Saul and Wolfe spent the whole time discussing Japanese architecture. We didn’t get answers until we were back in the office afterwards and Wolfe had opened his third bottle of beer of the day.
“Okay,” I said. “How did you figure that Rourke was poisoning his grandmother?”
Wolfe turned up a palm. “Surely it was obvious,” he said. “In fact, I had an inkling immediately after your first description. Would either of them have passed up so ideal an opportunity to frame the other? And if the second had come in and found the necklace already gone, surely he or she would have sent up a hue and cry at once.
“It was possible the idea had simply not occurred to the second, but once Miss Rowan had told them both that the necklace was gone, I found it implausible that the innocent party would not have immediately accused the other.
“The only explanation for such forbearance would be a plot that trumped any possible advantage which that machination might have hoped to gain. Mr. Rourke surely guessed that Miss Sullivan had taken the necklace. He did not care: once she had been convicted for the murder of their grandmother, even if the will had been altered in her favor, she would have been disinherited, and he as the next of kin would succeed to the estate.
“I am sorry, Miss Rowan,” he added, “that I was unable to meet all the terms of your engagement. I trust you will be able to console your great-aunt.”
“She’s a Rowan,” Lily said grimly. “She’ll do all right now she’s not being fed rat poison anymore.”
Lily thanked me more personally before she left, doing all right herself, too. I went back to the office after seeing her into a cab. Wolfe had invited Saul to join him in a rousing game of chess, which I can leave, no taking involved. “All right,” I said. “One more piece: did you have Saul ring Cramer, or did you give him a call yourself?”
“Come now, Archie,” Wolfe said. “Surely you don’t imagine Mr. Cramer would have been so tolerant if he had been invoked through anything but a misunderstanding.”
“You called the maid,” I said. Wolfe didn’t deny it. I glared at him. “If you hadn’t handed Cramer an attempted murderer —”
“By then I already knew that either Mr. Rourke or Miss Sullivan were almost certainly guilty,” Wolfe said, dismissive, and pushed a pawn down the board.
At that, if he ever does fall off the tightrope on one of those walks, I guess I’ll go down with him, so I can’t complain too much about his balance.