All lies and jest
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
- Paul Simon, The Boxer
I set the phone in its cradle and swiveled to face the fat genius who signs my paycheck. He was about two thirds of the way through a book on Roman baths. The bank balance was the lowest it had been all year, but getting Nero Wolfe to work was still going to take a bit of finesse. “That was John Hunt, the Broadway producer. He didn’t want to tell me why he was asking for an appointment, wanted to save the story for you, but I finally got it out of him that he is being blackmailed and would like it to stop. I told him that you were on strike and wouldn’t be taking any new cases until your demands for live lobsters had been met. He says he has a private plane and will send his pilot to Maine to pick you up as many lobsters as you like if you will take the case.” Wolfe had had me calling around for lobsters earlier that morning. Apparently there was currently a shortage of jumbo crustaceans in the city.
“Don't be absurd. You told him no such thing,” Wolfe said without looking up from his book. I guess the social and community role played by Roman baths was more interesting than blackmail or lobsters. Or maybe he just thought the lobsters were theoretical and not actual.
“No, sir,” I replied, “I didn’t. But I could. He does have a private plane, I read about it in the Gazette. And he sounds like he’s really in the soup. I’d guess he’s good for at least a dozen lobsters on top of the usual fee.”
Wolfe looked up, put a finger in his book, and appeared to consider a moment. “Tell him to come at 6 pm.”
I grinned. “Yes, sir. I thought you’d say that. It’s already done.”
Wolfe went back to his book. “Some day you will overstep your bounds, Archie.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “And then you’ll fire me. But after that the thought of Orrie or Fred sitting across the office from you all day will give you the heebie jeebies and you’ll forgive me and hire me back.”
I closed the front door behind Hunt and escorted him into the office, showing him to the red leather chair at corner of Nero Wolfe’s desk. “Mr. Wolfe will be right down.”
Right on cue, the door opened and Wolfe crossed to his desk. “Mr. Hunt. You will forgive me if I don’t shake hands. I am disinclined to it and it is one minor discourtesy that I permit myself.” He settled his seventh of a ton into his favorite custom-made chair. “Archie, your notebook. Mr. Hunt, I understand that you are being blackmailed?”
Hunt blanched. “My God. You don’t waste any time, do you?”
Wolfe raised his shoulders the quarter of an inch that passed for a shrug from him. “It is true that I do not mince words. My time is valuable and so is yours.”
“Yes, dammit,” Hunt replied. “I am being blackmailed. I got a letter and a photograph in today’s mail. Here’s the letter.” He took a paper out of his breast pocket and I went to get it and pass it to Wolfe. “It demands $10,000 in cash to be left at a Chinese restaurant on Lafayette Street by next Tuesday. If I don’t pay, they’ll send the photo to the press.”
“And the photo?” Wolfe asked.
Hunt shook his head. “I’m not showing you the photo. It’s enough to know that it’s real and it’s damaging and I know exactly where and when it had to be taken.”
“That is a valuable thing to know,” Wolfe conceded. “It will narrow things down quite a bit. But first, what exactly are you hiring me to do, Mr. Hunt?”
Hunt squared his shoulders and steeled himself to match Wolfe’s bluntness. “I want you to get the blackmailer and destroy the negatives of that photo and any others, without looking at them, before anyone else sees them.”
“What precisely do you mean by ‘get’ the blackmailer? Naming them is likely an achievable task. Seeing that they are prosecuted and locked up, without the evidence supplied by that photo, may be impossible. And in that context, destroying the negatives would be tampering with evidence of a crime, which I could not undertake. Also, I do not work cheaply. It may turn out that it would cost more to pay me than to pay the blackmailer.”
Hunt took a cigarette case out of his pocket and lit one up. “Mr. Wolfe, I’m a proud and stubborn man. This has gotten under my skin and I’m not going to let it go. It’s the invasion of my privacy that bothers me more than the money. If I have to pay someone ten grand, I’d rather it was you than a blackmailer. I want you to find out who was in the storeroom next to my office between 2 and 3 pm on June 8th and I want you to recover the negatives of any photos they took while on my property. How’s that?”
“Satisfactory,” Wolfe replied. “Tell me about this storeroom.”
“The situation shown in the photo happened in my office at the Grandville Theater on June 8th, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. I know that for sure. From the angle of the photo, it had to have been taken from the storeroom next to my office. There are two doors into the storeroom, one from my office and one from the hall. I suppose that someone must have peeked through the storeroom door into my office and, well,” Hunt paused, “I was otherwise occupied and didn’t notice.”
Wolfe pushed the button on his desk to ring for beer. “I must have every detail you can provide. This may take some time. Would you like a drink?”
In the end, it took two hours and only stopped then because dinner was ready. The doors to the storeroom were kept locked at all times and there were four people other than Hunt who had keys – the Grandville's costume mistress, Linda Davis, the property master, Jim Moore, Hunt’s secretary, Nina Simmons, and the manager of the theater, Thomas Wright. All of them had worked there for years and all were at the theater on the 8th. As far as Hunt knew, none of them was particularly hard up for money and none of them had any reason to bear him a grudge. He still wouldn’t let loose on what he was up to in his office at 2 pm on the 8th. Whatever it was, as far as he knew no one else knew about it or could have anticipated it. Wolfe tried to get him to turn over the photo so I could look into what kind of camera it had been taken with, but nothing doing. It turns out that probably wouldn’t have helped, though, as there was a 35 mm Leica in the storeroom that was used for publicity photos and would’ve been right at hand, possibly already loaded with film from a recent shoot.
I started the next morning with a private tour of the Grandville and a visit to the surrounding fire escapes and rooftops. Hunt’s office had one window, but it looked out onto an alley and a blank wall. Unless you were a window washer hanging off scaffolding, there wasn’t any vantage point for taking a photo through the window. The storeroom door was off in a corner of Hunt's office, with a good view of most of the room, and didn't squeak when opened. The other door out of the storeroom was in a back hallway without much traffic. After the theater, I had lunch at the Chinese restaurant, but that was a dead end. They seemed to be a legitimate business, with a decent broiled duck, and no one there knew anything. It looked to me like our blackmailer was trusting to chance. They pick a random restaurant to have the money delivered to and then they walk in and ask if their package for 123 La Forge Street was mistakenly delivered to 123 Lafayette Street. If they see any kind of surveillance, they ditch the pick up and tell Hunt to behave and leave another package at another location. If someone else picks up the package before they do, same thing. Basically, since they hold all the cards, and negatives, Hunt’s the one who takes the risk with something going wrong. Wolfe agreed.
That left us with interviewing the suspects as our best way forward. Getting Hunt to ok that was a chore. In the end, Wolfe suggested that Hunt tell the four Grandville employees who had keys to the storeroom that something was missing and he had engaged Nero Wolfe to find out who took it. Of course, the blackmailer would guess that was a lie. But with any luck they wanted the money badly enough to hang on to the negatives in the hopes of our failing and their getting rich on Tuesday.
When Wolfe came down from his afternoon session with the orchids, they had all shown up, and then some. Hunt's secretary, Nina Simmons, had brought a friend named Terry Robbins. She introduced him as her dance instructor, which seemed like a strange companion to bring to a detective’s office. Given the short leash she kept him on, never getting more than two feet away from him, it looked like he was more to her than just a teacher. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable with her hovering but he was a friendly fellow overall, smiling as he accepted my offer of a drink.
Wolfe addressed the group. “Ladies and gentlemen, I won’t presume to thank you for coming as it is not on my account that you are here but rather on Mr. Hunt’s. As he has no doubt told you, he has reason to believe that something in the storeroom of the Grandville Theater has been tampered with and he has engaged me to discover who is responsible. Mr. Wright, Mr. Moore, Miss Davis, and Miss Simmons, you have the only keys to that storeroom other than the one held by Mr. Hunt. Do any of you dispute that fact?”
“See here,” blurted Moore, a small, nervous fellow prone to rubbing his palms on his trouser legs. “Why all this mystery? Why don’t you tell us what’s missing from the storeroom? Maybe something just didn’t get put away and one of us knows where it is!”
“Mr. Moore, I assure you that my vagueness has a purpose. At this point, only one of you knows what that purpose is. That is the person I am seeking. Things will go more quickly if you will allow me to ask the questions. I am particularly interested in the afternoon of June 8th, which was Tuesday of last week. Where were each of you from noon until 5 pm on that day? Mr. Wright, let’s begin with you.”
Tom Wright was a quiet, competent sort with a shiny bald dome and ears that stuck out like handles on the sides of it. “The 8th? That’s easy,” he replied. “We had auditions that day. I was in the house with Edgar Cohn, the director of our next show, calling out names and taking notes of Edgar’s favorites. We had a steady stream of talent coming through the whole afternoon. We didn't even leave for lunch, Nina brought us sandwiches.”
“Miss Davis, where were you during these auditions?” Wolfe asked.
Linda Davis was a petite blond in a powder blue dress that looked like it had been tailored for her, which it probably had as it showed her every curve off to best advantage. I had put her in the yellow chair closest to my desk, where I had a good view of her uncommonly nice legs. "I was taking the measurements of all the dancers auditioning for the chorus. Like Tom said, there was a steady stream of people coming through. I remember it because I was dying for a break by the time we wrapped things up around six."
Moore, whose legs were hidden in his trousers but probably not nearly so nice, nodded his agreement. "It was busy that day. I was on the stage painting backdrops so I saw the crowd coming through. But what has that got to do with whatever is missing? Say, maybe one of the actors took it!"
Wolfe wiggled his finger at Moore. "Let us stipulate that the events of interest that afternoon happened in the storeroom of the Grandville Theater, to which the individuals in this room possess the only known keys. Were you on stage the entire afternoon? More specifically, did you enter the storeroom at any time that afternoon? Perhaps for additional painting supplies?"
"No, sir." Moore had a sour look, like someone was trying to feed him lemons. "I did have to go get more paint, but the paint is in the basement, not the storeroom. I wasn't in the storeroom that day, but as property master I feel like the storeroom is my responsibility. So I don't like the implication that I'm not doing my job and am letting things go missing. I'm sorry, Mr. Hunt, sir, I don't mean to criticize, but if you or Tom have a problem with my work I wish you'd spoken to me about it first."
Hunt hurried to reassure him. "No, Jim, no. It's nothing like that. I'm sorry for not going into details, but as Wolfe said, it's best that we don't at this point."
Wolfe turned toward Nina Simmons, a tall, willowy brunette, “Miss Simmons?”
She smiled at him and shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m no help, Mr. Wolfe. It’s true that I was at the theater the day of the auditions, but after I fetched the sandwiches Tom mentioned I left for a private dance lesson with Terry and it ran long. I’m not sure when I got back to the theater, but I don’t think it was until nearly five. Do you remember Terry, dear?”
Terry Robbins looked more like a quarterback than a dance teacher, but like Wolfe he moved surprisingly gracefully for a tall, broad shouldered guy. Right now he looked more ill at ease than graceful.
“Mr. Robbins,” Wolfe questioned, “can you corroborate that Miss Simmons was with you on the afternoon of June 8th?”
Robbins nodded. “Yes, she was.”
“What time did she leave you?” Wolfe asked.
Robbins hesitated and his reply sounded more like a question than an answer. “I’m not sure,” he said. “It may have been about four?”
“Are multi-hour dance lessons typical?” Wolfe inquired.
“Oh, no, Mr. Wolfe,” Miss Simmons interjected. “Terry was doing that as a favor to me. I am trying to master the tango just now and it helps me to practice the moves over and over.” She smiled.
Wolfe turned back to the other three. “Miss Davis. Did you leave the front of the theater at any time that afternoon? To procure tools? To use the restroom? To acquire coffee or other refreshments?”
“No,” she responded. “I have a boy who fetches things so I don’t need to leave and risk missing any of the girls who are auditioning. They’re coming in and out so fast and I need to make sure I get all of them.”
Wolfe probed again. “Mr. Wright, the same question to you.”
“No, Mr. Wolfe,” he replied. “I was there through the entirety of the auditions. And Mr. Cohn can vouch for that.”
“Mr. Moore, you did leave the stage?” Wolfe asked.
He started. “Yes, but I was nowhere near the storeroom.”
Wolfe surveyed the lot of them. “Has any of you loaned your storeroom key to anyone else within the past month?” Wright, Moore, Davis, and Simmons all shook their heads. “Mr. Hunt?”
Hunt had had trouble meeting anyone’s eyes the entire time and had spent the last few minutes fiddling with his cigarette. But now he drew himself together and replied firmly, “My key has been in my possession the entire time.”
Wolfe asked another hour of questions. Were any of them in financial trouble? Had any of them noticed anything out of the ordinary about the storeroom or any of its contents? I wished he’d ask about the camera, but that was skirting too close to the bits we weren’t talking about. Eventually, he thanked them for their time and said that he would likely be in touch with them again the next day.
Once we were alone, Wolfe closed his eyes and began to work his lips in and out. I started typing up my notes while I waited. Finally, he opened his eyes. "You are a betting man, Archie. Which of those people would you choose to be our blackmailer?"
“Moore is jumpy,” I said. “But I think that’s just nerves. He probably could’ve snuck into the storeroom without anyone noticing given that they all had better things to pay attention to. But I don’t think our blackmailer is the nervous sort, not with poking cameras through doorways and arranging pickups at random Chinese restaurants. Moore’s out if you ask me. Wright has a level head, which fits with our blackmailer’s profile, but he was right next to an outside witness the whole time. I think he’s clear. Miss Davis is going to be my new girlfriend, so I don’t think I can be impartial where she is concerned. My money is on Nina Simmons. I get the impression she’s up to something. And why'd she bother to bring her alibi along with her?”
“I agree that she is our most likely prospect, but I would like to address the matter of her alibi before we devote an army to searching her dwelling and tracing her movements, trying to find those negatives. Archie, you will arrange to meet Mr. Robbins tonight. It is obvious that he is lying to protect Miss Simmons. You must persuade him to step down as her champion and tell the truth.”
“He’s lying like a rug,” I said. “But how do you figure he’s lying about her being there? He could be lying about why she was there to cover up that they’re having an affair.”
“Pfui,” Wolfe replied. “There is no affair between them. It is obvious that Mr. Robbins’ tastes do not run in that direction.”
I considered that. Robbins was a dance instructor and there were those who might suppose that was a sissy sort of occupation. But to me it seemed like a fine excuse for getting paid to hold women in your arms. “Ok, I’ll bite. How can you tell?”
“Highly trained powers of observation and a knowledge of human nature.” He paused a moment as if considering whether to continue. “You are usually a fairly good judge of character yourself. I have noted before that you seem to have a curious blind spot on this topic.”
I shrugged. “And you have a blind spot on the topic of the value of a good ham sandwich but do I give you a hard time about it? Ok, how badly do we want this information? How much can I rough him up?”
Wolfe sighed. “Quite badly. And not at all. You must use your not inconsiderable charm, rather than your fists, to persuade Mr. Robbins to confide in you.”
“And you think that’ll work just because Robbins is light in the loafers?” I asked. “Let’s say he is. What’s to say that I’m his type? I know enough about human nature to know that not just any girl could charm me.”
“Indeed,” Wolfe replied. “For as much as you have the reputation of a ladies man, you are remarkably resistant to the allures of most women. I must again appeal to observation and appreciation of the psyche of my fellow man. I think you will find that if you are able to regard Mr. Robbins in a manner similar to the way in which you approach a pretty woman whose company you enjoy, he will respond favorably.”
I shrugged. “You’re the strategist, I’m just the leg man. If this is the plan, I’m game to give it a try. But you’re paying the doctor’s bills if he takes a swipe at me and knocks some teeth loose.”
“Archie, I would not send you on an errand that was beyond your capabilities. I have every confidence that if you apply yourself, you will find that the power of your charisma extends farther than you had supposed.”
I picked up the phone and started to dial. “I’ll do my best. But warn Fritz to lay in some vichyssoise and mashed potatoes for my upcoming convalescence. Maybe some of that Crème Ninon too. Best pea soup I’ve ever had even if it doesn’t have any ham in it.”
There are guys who would do a half-hearted job of an errand they didn’t much like so that they wouldn’t be asked to do it again. I’m not one of those guys. It’s dishonest. You either have the guts to say ‘no’ up front or you take pride in your work and do it the best you can. I thought about Wolfe’s advice to approach Robbins like he was a pretty woman. Wolfe has other blind spots than the virtues of ham sandwiches and the fairer sex is one of them. What he doesn’t understand is that a woman doesn’t need to be pretty. Sure, it helps. And I’d prefer it, if possible. But I can enjoy dancing with almost any woman and sometimes I have to, whether as a duty to a hostess or to butter up a girl he sent me to fetch. The key is to find something about her to admire. Maybe she’s got a face only a mother could love but the curve of her calf is breathtaking. Or maybe she’s got gorgeous shoulders or a laugh like a cascade of angels’ bells or hair like silk. Once you find something you can genuinely appreciate, that shows in your eyes and your voice and in how you are when you’re standing next to her. People can tell when you admire them and they like it. They want more of it.
As I walked into the Old Town Bar, I thought about Robbins. He was a big guy, a little taller and a little broader than me, with dark hair and blue eyes. Imagine Cary Grant if he had Jimmy Stewart’s blue eyes and Clark Gable’s smile and he moved like Gene Kelly. When you put it like that, there was plenty to admire if you bothered to look. And he was standing there at the marble topped bar, waiting for me.
“Thanks for meeting me,” I said as I shook his hand. He had a warm hand and a good firm handshake. “Let’s get a booth and sit down.”
He looked a little wary, but he nodded. “Okay. What can I get you to drink?” he asked. “I’ve got a whiskey.”
Once we were sitting down and I’d had a sip of my highball, I fired the first missile in my campaign of charm. Or maybe it was Wolfe’s campaign, since it was his idea. “I’m supposed to be pumping you for information on Nina Simmons, but it wouldn’t be square of me to do that while enjoying a drink you bought me.” I smiled. “So let’s just shoot the breeze and I’ll tell Wolfe that you’re a steel vault and I couldn’t get anything out of you. How long have you been a dance teacher?”
“About five years. I started off as a performer on stage, but I prefer teaching to performing,” He took a healthy swallow of his drink and I watched the glass press against his Clark Gable smile. “Actually, if I’m being honest, I prefer choreography but that’s hard to break into and teaching is pretty close though less creative.”
“Seems to me that choreography is teaching professionals, in a way, so I can see the connection. I’m only an amateur,” I said, “but I know that dancing with inexperienced partners is a challenge so I’d imagine that teaching them is a far cry from working with professionals?”
“Yes.” He shrugged and I watched his Cary Grant shoulders lift his double-breasted navy suit jacket. “That’s true. But it’s hard to break into Broadway choreography. You have to know the right people. Teaching pays the bills and I get to dance. How about you? How long have you been a detective?”
“Since I came to New York. It pays the bills, I don’t have to punch a time clock, and I get to help people.”
His Jimmy Stewart eyes gave me a searching look. “I had thought that a detective’s job was to find things out. But I can see that you do help people.”
I cocked my head to one side. “Sometimes it’s easy. But sometimes people want the help but can’t ask for it because it’s hard for them to admit that they’ve been taken in.”
He nodded. “Yes. Sometimes saying how they’ve been tricked puts them into more danger.”
I nodded back. “That’s why it’s good that I’m such a trustworthy guy.” I held my breath.
“You already know, don’t you, that I wasn’t with Nina that Tuesday afternoon?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t know if it helps you to hear me say it in private, but I’m saying it. I don’t know where she was, but she wasn’t with me. I’m only saying it to you, though, off the record, just us, over drinks. I can’t say it in public. And not just because she has backstage connections and I still dream of the great white way.”
“She has a hold on you,” I guessed.
“She appears to have a habit of that,” I said. “I think Mr. Wolfe can stop her. We’ll try to keep you out of it if we can. Does her hold on you involve photographs by any chance?”
Robbins shook his head. “No. Letters someone wrote to me that I oughtn’t have left in an unlocked drawer.”
“Right,” I said. “We may run into them in the process of our investigation. If we do, I’ll try to get them back to you.” Business having been accomplished, I ordered another round of drinks and asked Robbins about the ballet bit in Oklahoma, which I had recently seen with Lily. With the weight of his secrets off of him, he smiled more and was more animated. He talked with his hands as he described the ballet. It wasn’t quite like seeing him dance, but it was close.
Knowing that Simmons was definitely our target, it was just a matter of time, which was fine except for the fact that we were up against a countdown clock. Wolfe put Saul, Fred, Orrie, and five of Del Bascom’s men on searching her apartment, tracing her movements and trying to find where she had the pictures developed, where she’d hidden the negatives, and how she’d gotten into the theater without anyone noticing she was back. The last was the easiest. The back stage door by the dressing rooms was left unlocked for fire safety and with everyone in front or on stage for the auditions it would’ve been easy for her to slip in unseen.
The rest took longer. Hunt was starting to ask for a plan B for what to do if we didn’t have the negatives before the assigned drop time on Tuesday. It was Monday afternoon before Saul made the crucial break and found the train station locker where she had her stash. We had the name Hunt wanted and we had the negatives. We had a whole lot more than that too. Hunt and Robbins hadn’t been her only victims. After assuring Hunt that things were under control, Wolfe went up for his usual 4 pm session with his orchids and I carefully left Hunt in the room with Simmons' trunk of other people’s indiscretions, which I had not yet inventoried, while I went and got a glass of milk. When I finally did inventory it, before turning it over to the cops, Hunt’s negatives were nowhere to be found. It’s possible that a few others things may have been mislaid when I left myself alone with the trunk before inventorying it. There were, for example, no letters to Terry Robbins in the inventory.
The lobsters arrived yesterday, a dozen smallish ones and one behemoth that must be at least five pounds. Fritz prepared the first batch simply, steamed and served with melted butter, roasted corn, and new potatoes. The ones still crawling around in their crate of seaweed are slated for lobster Newburg tonight and a lobster and fennel pot pie on deck for tomorrow.
I’ve been back to the Old Town occasionally for a drink or a piece of pie. It was odd. I found myself enjoying a glance at my fellow patrons, as I sometimes do. Only it wasn’t just ladies' calves I caught myself looking at. Sometimes it was what a well-cut suit did for a fellow’s shoulders. And not so I could ask him who his tailor was. At first it was only at the Old Town. Then it was only in bars. Now it’s everywhere. At first it was only strangers. Now it’s not. Finding what I could appreciate about Robbins has got me noticing what there is to appreciate about other men. Men I’ve known for years. Take Wolfe, for example. I'd watched him potting orchids for years but I hadn't really noticed how gentle and deft his hands were when he worked with the plants. I'd sat at the same table with him for years, but I'd never really noticed the look on his face when he closed his eyes to concentrate on what was happening in his mouth.
And you know what? Sometimes I think Wolfe knows. I catch this speculative look in his eye and sometimes I think that he engineered this on purpose, that he wanted me to realize that I had those kind of thoughts in me. Does that mean what it looks to mean? And if so, what now? He did hire me to be his man of action.