The Final Deduction
“Your name, please?”
I asked her only as a matter of form. Having seen her picture in newspapers and magazines at least a dozen times, and having seen her in person at the Flamingo and other spots around town, I had of course recognized her through the one-way glass in the door as I went down the hall to answer the doorbell, though she wasn’t prinked up for show. There was nothing dowdy about her brown tailored suit or fur stole or the hundred- dollar pancake on her head, but her round white face, too white there in daylight, which could be quite passable in a restaurant or theater lobby, could have stood some attention. It was actually flabby, and the rims of her eyes were red and swollen. She spoke.
“I don’t think…” She let it hang a moment, then said, “But you’re Archie Goodwin.”
I nodded. “And you’re Althea Vail. Since you have no appointment, I’ll have to tell Mr Wolfe what you want to see him about.”
“I’d rather tell him myself. It’s very confidential and very urgent.”
I didn’t insist. Getting around as I do, and hearing a lot of this and that, both true and false, I had a guess on what was probably biting her, and if that was it I would enjoy watching Wolfe’s face as she spilled it, and hearing him turn her down. So I admitted her. The usual routine with a stranger who has no appointment is to leave him or her on the stoop while I go and tell Wolfe, but I can make exceptions, and it was a raw windy day for late April, so I took her to the front room, the first door on your left when you are inside, returned to the hall, and went to the second door on the left, to the office.
Wolfe was on his feet over by the big globe, glaring at a spot on it. When I had gone to answer the bell he had been glaring at Cuba, but he had shifted to Laos.
“A woman,” I said.
He stuck with Laos. “No,” he said.
“Probably,” I conceded. “But she says it’s urgent and confidential, and she could pay a six-figure fee without batting an eye. Her name is Althea Vail. Mrs Jimmy Vail. You read newspapers thoroughly, so you must know that even the
“I didn’t leave her on the stoop because of the weather. She’s in the front room. I have heard talk of her, and I understand that she is prompt pay.”
He turned. “Confound it,” he growled. He took in a bushel of air through his nose, let it out through his mouth, and moved. Behind his desk he stood, a living mountain, beside his oversized chair. He seldom rises to receive a caller, woman or man, but since he was already on his feet it would take no energy to be polite, so why not? I went and opened the connecting door to the front room, told Mrs Vail to come, presented her, and convoyed her to the red leather chair near the end of Wolfe’s desk. Sitting, she gave the stole a backward toss, and it would have slid to the floor if I hadn’t caught it. Wolfe had lowered his 285 pounds into his chair and was scowling at her, his normal attitude to anyone, especially a woman, who had the gall to come uninvited to the old brownstone on West 35th Street, his house, expecting him to go to work.
Althea Vail put her brown leather bag on the stand at her elbow. “First,” she said, “I’d better tell you how I got here.”
“Not material,” Wolfe muttered.
“Yes it is,” she declared. It came out hoarse, and she cleared her throat. “You’ll see why. But first of all it has to be understood that what I’m going to tell you is absolutely in confidence. I know about you, I know your reputation, or I wouldn’t be here, but it has to be definite that this is in
Wolfe grunted. “If you know about me, madam, you should know that that’s fatuous. If you want to hire me to do a job, what is it? If I take it, a retainer may or may not be required. As for confidence, nothing that you tell me will be revealed unless it involves a crime which I am obliged, as a citizen and a licensed private detective, to report to authority. I speak also for Mr Goodwin, who is in my employ and who-”
“It does involve a crime. Kidnaping is a crime.”
“It is indeed.”
“But it must
My brows were up. Seated at my desk, my chair swiveled to face her, I crossed off the guess I had made. Apparently I wouldn’t get to watch Wolfe’s face while a woman asked him to tail her husband, or to hear him