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The Missing Chemist

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The creaking of the elevator told me it was 11 am and Wolfe would be coming through the office door in a moment. I had finished opening the mail and typing up the latest notes on the orchids that occupy the top floor of the brownstone. Wolfe walked in with a raceme of Laelia gouldiana for the vase on his desk.

“A Miss Dahlia Baxter will be here at 6.30. If the rest of her matches her lilting voice, she may gain my heart, causing me to woo her and perhaps even leave here. I will of course invite you to the wedding.”

Wolfe grunted.

“She didn’t say why she wanted to come, only that it was urgent, she had to meet with you today. The bank balance being what it is, which is to say lower than I would like, I told her to come over.”

“Very well.” Wolfe settled in his chair and picked up the crossword puzzle. He was trying out several different newspapers, annoyed by what he considered misuse of a phrase in the former paper’s crossword. I suspected he was enjoying picking apart the new options.

After lunch (chicken liver and mushrooms) I went out to stretch my legs and pick up some things for Fritz. Shad roe was on the menu tonight and the herbs delivered by the grocer were not fines enough to meet Fritz’s standards.

At 6.32 the doorbell rang. I looked out on the stoop and what I saw was not far off from what I had imagined. The hair was a little darker maybe. She looked to be in her mid-20s and wore a hat and blue matching coat that suggested she had more taste than money with which to indulge it. She had all the requisite features, arranged in a way that was pleasing to the eye. Very pleasing.

I opened the door, took her things, and escorted her to the red leather chair in front of Wolfe’s desk.

He nodded at her. “Forgive me for not standing, it is size rather than rudeness that keeps me sitting.”

“Mr. Wolfe, thank you for seeing me today. I am sorry not to have been more forthcoming over the phone. I thought it better to explain in person.”

Wolfe waited until I was seated at my desk and had my notepad out. “What is troubling you, Miss Baxter?”

“My brother, Edward. has been missing for several days. The police are not concerned and say it’s not unusual for a young man not to speak with his sister for days. He and I have always been close, we lost our mother when we were quite young, and while it may not be unusual for most young man, it’s quite unlike him. I would like to hire you to find him and - and if necessary, help him out of whatever situation he is in.”

“You believe he is in some kind of trouble. Does he drink or gamble, or have any other vices?”

“No, he is a quiet and serious young man. He studied chemistry at college and has worked in laboratories since graduating. That is why it is strange. He has always been serious and reliable.”

“The police are generally good at finding people, eventually. Do you believe they have not been diligent in their efforts to locate him? I will be frank, Miss Baxter. My fees are commensurate with my abilities. I do not leave the house and I may need to engage one or more of a trusted group of men, and their fees and expenses would be part of the entire cost.”

Dahlia Baxter twisted her hands and then clasped them together tightly. “Mr. Wolfe, my brother is my only living relative. I have a job, I work as a switchboard operator. I live simply, in a rooming house with other young ladies. What I am saying is, I have some money saved up and I would like to hire you to help find him sooner than the police might.”

She reached into her pocketbook and took out an envelope. “Here is $500. I realize you are a genius with many high profile clients, that this is not much compared with other cases I have read about in the papers. It means more to me than your finding embezzlers means to those companies.”

I thought she might start with the waterworks. Wolfe has left the room for less, he hates what he calls hysterics.

“Very well, I will devote one day to the search, Miss Baxter. If I learn anything of value, I will consider what I will do next.”

Miss Baxter agreed to call her brother's landlady and set up a time the following morning when I could go have a look at his room. She said the police hadn't been there yet, all they had done was take down information at the station. We went through a few more routine questions before she left.

The next morning I set out after my usual breakfast with Fritz in the kitchen. The weather was starting to lean toward winter so I wore the coat Wolfe gave me last Christmas, a classy long wool number, with my fedora. It reinforced the detective look.

Mrs. Sanders was all you'd expect of a landlady with a group of young men under her roof, no frills and no nonsense. She immediately sized me up and found me unobjectionable. Maybe it was the coat. She hadn't seen young Baxter in two days. His hat and coat were gone, she didn't know what else might or might not be missing. He was a quiet young man, very polite, didn't seem to be one for the ladies. With five other men under her roof, it wasn’t too surprising that she hadn’t paid close attention to one that never caused any trouble.

Edward’s room was on the second floor. We walked up the stairs and followed the hall to the back. She unlocked the room door and left, saying she’d send the maid up. There wasn’t much to look at - narrow bed, wardrobe, a small table and straight-backed chair.

Edward owned some clothes, several books full of chemical symbols, and not a lot else. His papers were neatly organized. A few empty hangers in the wardrobe suggested what you’d expect, that he had been wearing a suit and shirt when he left the house. Then I finally found something useful - a letter from a couple of months before saying how pleased the Monnarine Company was to offer him a position as a chemist. According to his sister, he worked at a lab at one of the universities. Had he accepted the job and not told her, or had he simply kept the letter for his own reasons. I folded the letter and put it in my pocket.

There was a knock at the door and a small, young-looking woman wearing an apron entered. “Are you the maid?”

“Yes sir, my name is Sally Anderson.”

Sally had worked for Mrs. Sanders for around two years. Young Baxter had lived there the entire time, she said he was pleasant and friendly, and kinder than others in the house. He asked her about her family or how her day had been. He didn’t have any specific interest in her, that’s just how he was with people. That wasn’t much else she could tell me about him. She cleaned his room every other day but it wasn’t much work, he usually left it in good order.

Before I left I had another brief chat with Mrs. Sanders. Edward had hosted the occasional visitor, usually another serious young man who spent time talking in the front parlor using big words that Mrs. Sanders had no understanding of, not did she feel the need to.

By that time I’d been at the rooming house over an hour. I hoofed it back to the brownstone and returned a good half hour before lunch. Wolfe has a hard rule prohibiting work talk when eating. I’ve seen him try to hold a conversation on current topics when surrounded by a group of people who can do nothing but glare at each other. He does his best to avoid such conflict.

I’d arrived in time for a full briefing. Wolfe listened with little reaction. His face moved a shade at my description of the room and, almost imperceptibly, when I told him about the letter. He reviewed it only briefly, then told me to call and check on both employers. He also asked me to call in Saul Panzer.

“Are you sure, Miss Baxter’s deposit will only go so far.” Saul gets $40 a day plus expenses, and he’s worth every cent.

“Yes, Archie.” Wolfe stood and walked out to confer with Fritz about whether the cutlets should be fried in butter or a mix of butter and oil.

Saul arrived almost to the minute we finished lunch. Wolfe wanted me to visit the employers in person, which meant I couldn’t stay for his briefing if I were to see both before five pm.

I took the Hudson out and drove to the university, where Dahlia thought her brother was working. I chatted for about fifteen minutes with a young Miss Parker who answered the phone and ordered science-y things (her words) for the department. She reinforced what I learned at his boarding house - Edward was a nice young man: quiet, thoughtful, and smart, but she didn’t know much else about him.

I was unable to get past her to the chemists but didn’t feel that mattered much. Edward had in fact left the lab nearly three months before for a job at a private pharmaceutical company.

At Monnarine I wasn’t even so fortunate as to come across a Miss Parker. The atmosphere there was tense and the older woman at the entrance was not letting anyone cross the barrier without a golden ticket. I had the feeling this had less to do with my questions and more with something bigger.

When I returned home Wolfe was finishing his second round on the fourth floor with Theodore Horstmann and the orchids. I pulled out the stack of the day’s newspapers. It was higher than usual because of Wolfe’s crossword explorations. In the third section of one I found a brief article reporting that a New York physician had notified the Food and Drug Administration of deaths possibly caused by a drug sold by Monnarine.

Wolfe walked in, sat down, and pressed the buzzer for Fritz to bring him a beer.

“You had read this news about Monnarine.”

“I had. When you told me Mr. Baxter had apparently taken a job there, I recalled the tragic story. I engaged Saul to visit inexpensive hotels in the vicinity of Monnarine’s offices, to see if the young man is temporarily residing in one of them.”

Just then the doorbell rang. When I looked out of the one-way glass, two familiar faces looked back. I opened the door wide. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“We’d like to talk to you and Wolfe about why you were down at Monnarine’s offices today,” Inspector Cramer stalked inside and headed for the office, Purley Stebbins close behind. They didn’t stop to leave hats or coats on the rack.

“Good evening Inspector, Sergeant. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Cramer sat on the edge of the red chair and removed his hat. “Who is your client and why was Goodwin at Monnarine’s offices today?”

“You know I rarely reveal my client’s names. Why do you need to know?”

“Monnarine is having some problems with one of their products, you probably read that in the news. It seems as though it kills people instead of making them better. That will be in the papers tomorrow. What won’t be in the papers is that Harvey Wilson, their lead chemist, may have killed himself.”

“May have?”

“There have already been a few angry visitors to the company office, so it may be he had some help. And one of the employees has gone missing, he hasn’t been at work since the company first learned the news.”

“Have you any evidence that he was involved in Mr. Wilson’s death?”

“We’d like to talk to him, hear his side of what happened. It may not be significant, but it is suspicious that he’s missing.”

“Then you should be out looking for him rather than badgering me. Confound it.” Wolfe glared across the desk. “I have nothing to tell you, Inspector. Until you informed me, I had not heard of Mr. Wilson’s demise and no one has engaged me in any work involving his death or the Monnarine corporation.”

“Whenever Goodwin shows up somewhere there may have been a murder, it’s not to convey condolences. If I find out either of you withheld anything that could help our investigation - “ Cramer stood up and glared at first Wolfe, then me. He turned on his heel, putting his hat on as he strode out of the room. Old Purley followed close behind.

I walked out in the hall to make sure they had exited. Given the news Cramer brought, I thought it prudent to put the chain on the door.

I telephoned Miss Baxter to give her an update on the case and ask whether her brother might have been working at Monnarine rather than the university. I omitted our visit from New York’s finest.

“No, he didn’t say anything to me about changing jobs.” She was quiet for a minute. “Maybe he hasn’t shared with me as much as I thought.”

That night was uneventful. Saul phoned around 9 pm, no luck finding the kid yet. Wolfe told him to start again the next morning.

The next day, nada. As the hours passed with no news, Wolfe began to get testy. After he snapped at me when I offered to help Saul, I went out for some fresh air. I wasn’t in the mood to lunch with Wolfe so I got a Reuben and glass of milk at the corner sandwich shop. In the evening I took Lily Rowan out dancing, but after an hour she told me my head was clearly elsewhere, so I took her home and then hit the sack.

The only thing of note that day was a call from Miss Baxter. The police had been to see her and ask when was the last time she saw her brother.

“I didn’t tell them about hiring Mr. Wolfe to look into his disappearance. I’m afraid though, something might be terribly wrong.”

I reassured her that we were doing all we could to find her brother, and that she was much better off with Wolfe’s genius than the police. When we found him, we would contact her and not involve the police until or unless it was necessary.

The second morning passed as quietly. I opened the mail and sorted the bills and letters. Wolfe discarded another crossword puzzle as inadequate. A little after 3 the doorbell rang. I called out to Fritz that I would answer. There on the stoop was Saul and a sandy-haired kid wearing a dark coat and hat that looked a shade too big for him. I took the chain off the door and let them in.

“Am I glad to see your face. Bring him into the office.” I hung their hats and coats and so almost missed Saul’s introduction.

“Mr. Wolfe, I found Mr. Edward Baxter here at a hotel a couple of miles from Monnarine’s offices. He has had a tough few days and was reluctant to come, but I convinced him that seeing you would be the best way out of his situation.”

“Please sit, Mr. Baxter. You look pale. Have you eaten recently?”

Edward shook his head as he slowly sat on the red leather chair.

The thought of anyone missing even one meal was appalling to Wolfe. He buzzed for Fritz. “Bring Mr. Baxter the consommé from last night and some sandwiches. Another beer for me. Saul? Archie?”

After Fritz brought the food and drinks, Wolfe informed Edward that he was to eat before he said anything more. We didn’t have to wait long. The kid laid into those sandwiches as if he hadn’t eaten in a few days, which was likely the case.

“Now sir. Your sister hired me to find you after going to the police and reporting your absence with no results. She was concerned, naturally. The next day, the police called upon me and were quite keen to speak with a Monnarine employee who had gone missing around the time it was becoming clear that Monnarine had sold a drug that killed rather than cured. I owe it to her to let her know you have been found. I owe the police nothing. You may recount your story and know that it will go no further, except by your choice.”

Edward nodded. “I’m ready to tell what happened. At first I was so shocked - and horrified - I wasn’t really thinking at all.”

“Why don’t you start with why you took the job at Monnarine, and why you did not tell your sister even though she insisted that you two were quite close.”

“We are close. She has it in her head that our parents wanted me to work at a university. I liked the university well enough. Then Monnarine came calling and offered me more money, a good amount more. I thought she might disapprove and - and I don’t like arguing. I kept putting off telling her.” He sighed.

“It sounded like it would be similar work, so I took the job. For the most part it was about the same. We compounded chemicals into drugs that were to help people. They also were to make money for the company, of course. A week ago, we got word that a recently issued drug was deadly. The president had wanted to put something new out and we rushed it. I had asked about testing it, same as we used to do at the university, and was told there wasn’t anything new so testing wasn’t needed.”

“The day after we heard the news, I was working late. All of the other chemists had left. The head chemist was in his office and the president stormed in. He shut the door behind him but I could still hear the yelling. The president said the Food and Drug Administration was going to make Monnarine contact everyone who had bought the drug and send it back, at the company’s expense. The publicity could ruin the company. The head chemist retorted that if he had been allowed more time, this would not have happened. There was more yelling and then a terrible bang. I didn’t wait around to see what happened, I grabbed my hat and coat and ran out.

“Once I was outside, I started walking to clear my head. I wasn’t sure if either of the men knew I was there, or whether the bang was simply a noise or something more serious.”

Wolfe had let him go on without interruption, but now spoke. “I believe you know what the bang was.”

Edward looked down and nodded. “It sounded like a shot.”

“When the police were here they informed me the chief chemist at Monnarine had died, possibly at his own hand though that was not certain. Is there any other entrance to chief chemist’s office? Could someone else have been involved?”

“No sir. There is only one door to the office. I did not see anyone else go in or leave while this was all happening.”

Wolfe nodded. “From what you have said, a guilty man may go free if you do not speak to the police. If you prefer not to go to them I can invite Inspector Cramer here.”

“Would you call him please. And I’d like to see my sister.”

I called her rooming house and caught her on her way to dinner, then called Cramer at the station. I could tell he was mad when he found out the missing Monnarine employee was in Wolfe’s office. He’s usually mad and he usually gets over it.

Miss Baxter showed up fifteen minutes later with a young man who had a possessive air about him.

“Edward!” she rushed over and hugged him. “I was so worried. Why didn’t you call me?”

“I was in a real pickle and I couldn’t think of what to do, so I didn’t do anything. That is, until Mr. Panzer found me.”

The doorbell rang. This time Cramer and Purley stopped to let me take their coats and hats.

I left young Baxter in the red chair and sat his sister and the Inspector in the yellow chairs flanking him. I put her nearer to my desk so I’d have a good view during the proceedings.

After Edward told his story again, Inspector Cramer asked him a couple of questions, then admitted, “Something about the scene looked off. Of course, if you had stayed we would have found all of this out sooner.”

Dahlia was indignant. “And risked his own life! Besides, I reported Edward as missing to the local police station and I don’t think anything was done to find him! If the police had made even half the effort Mr. Wolfe and his men did, you might have found him sooner.”

Cramer stood. He didn’t acknowledge her accusation, only told Edward to come to the station the next morning to formally give his statement.

The rest of them left soon after. Miss Baxter fussed over Edward, who seemed rather glad of the attention. And from the look on Miss Baxter’s young man’s face, Wolfe had no need to fear that her charms would take me away.

It was another two weeks before Wolfe decided he had tested other newspapers’ crosswords thoroughly enough and found one that was satisfactory.