Ellery Queen

A Fine and Private Place

© 1971

“The graves a fine and private place.”

– Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

“So is the womb.”

– George Whalley, Poetic Process


Under normal conditions the ovum lies in the uterus for about 24 hours. Waiting.

AUGUST 9, 1962

Wallace Ryerson Whyte stepped out into space with an astronaut’s confidence that the laws of the universe would not let him fall. Faith sustained him: he remained suspended over the East River, hidden far below by the mists that had gathered after the soaking day at the dropping temperatures of twilight.

The narrow little penthouse balcony with its guardian stone gargoyles had been a conceit of its fin de siecle architect, venting his homosexual dislike for the giddy ladies of his era. The tall man never gave it a thought. He leaned on the parapet and settled himself to use what time he had.

He was puffing characteristically on a $250 Charatan pipe loaded with Medal of Honor tobacco at a dollar an ounce, and characteristically there was an ember burn on the browh velvet lapel of his Edwardian jacket. The ember was still daintily glowing. But he was trying to penetrate the murk stirring below to the reason for Importuna’s summons and he did not notice the burn. He concentrated with his rather oriental eyes. They were squinty outdoors eyes deliberately trained to go with the saddle leather of his face, which had been weathered in his club. He was tall and contained, his elegance a touch raffish; not quite the man of distinction. He contrived to conceal liis intelligence behind the facade of his lineage, which was overgrown with the dusty virtues of his class. His father had long ago disinherited him, making him the first male of his line in three generations to have to work for a living.

He puffed and mused.

It was a serious matter, obviously. He had had occasion to visit one or another of the three uppermost apartments at Number 99 East often enough, for private accountings or other confidential business connected witli the Importuna Industries conglomerate, but Nino Importuna did not invite his executives to his penthouse after office hours for ordinary business. Or ordinary pleasure, either.

A small tremolo fluttered the smoker’s spine.

Nino had found out.

God had found out.

Judgment Day…

The tall man was tapping his pipe on the parapet, watching the sparks die away and reflecting on his options, when a nasty voice said from the drawing room, “Sir?” making the syllable sound as if it were composed of four letters. He turned with reflexively inquiring brows, covering up by habit. It was Nino’s muttonchopped man, Crump, who had admitted him to the penthouse. Crump was one of the few hallmarked English butlers left on Manhattan Island, and he possessed the sixth sense of his breed. “Mr. Importuna will see you now. Sir. If you will follow me?”

He sauntered after the man, trying to ignore the spiteful flunky back, thinking how much better the mural ceiling, the pastry arabesquework of the walls, the grand marble fireplace, the quatrefoiled cathedral windows suited him than Importuna. But the thought was like the tobacco sparks. True, he had never entirely accommodated himself to the central fact of his existence, which was that he had no talent for making the Importuna kind of money-how many men had?-but he did not allow this failing to hobble his life style. Above all he was a practitioner of the possible.

Crump glided before him to the threshold of the holy of holies, stepped aside, and-between successive blinks, he could have sworn-departed through a solid wall.

In the sanctum, behind a pontifical Florentine table that had descended authentically from a Medici, sat its pontiff. Nino Importuna was a squat man whose broad and fleshy body had been built by the genes of peasants and a childhood of pasta-corporally a very ordinary-looking southern Italian type. But his massive head was far from ordinary. The nose jutted from his face like a bowsprit. The small mouth seemed womanishly soft, but this was a deception of nature: when he smiled and exhibited his very large white teeth, which was seldom, the softness turned into something terrifying. There was an olive-oil patina to the darkness of his barbered cheeks and jowls that toned well with the dull gloss of his black-dyed hair. But it was the eyes underneath the strong, still naturally black brows that gave his face its commanding character. The color of stale, muddy espresso, they were bitter and without warmth or love, almost without humanity… the eyes of an enemy.

These eyes were fixed on the tall man. Their owner’s hands were pressed together in the Diirer attitude, at his chin; lids half shut. But the industrial genius of the Importuna empire was not praying; and to the visitor the eyes were not half shut but half open-not drooping from fatigue but on the slitted qui vive.

It was bad, all right.

“Entrate pure.” There was as usual nothing to be interpreted from the heavy Italian-American voice. Or perhaps it had been just a few decibels more resonant? lie waved toward a chair.

The tall man came obediently in and sat down. The chair was dumpy, like Importuna, with protuberant carving in bumps and lumps that made sitting almost intentionally uncomfortable. Yes, very bad… Nino called this room, with semantic fidelity, his den. A den it was, windowless and dim, and foul with the stench of his crooked-stogy smoke, his flO-an-ounce after-shave, and whatever it was he rubbed into his coarse gray hair to blacken it; the only smell missing was of stale blood, from old kills.

The tall man smiled at his fancy.

“You’re happy today?” Importuna said.

“Beg pardon?”

“You’re smiling. Did you just enjoy a woman?”

“Hardly, Nino. I came directly here from the office when I got your message.”

“Then what are you smiling at?”

The famous Importuna technique.

“Nothing, Nino.” The famous employee defense. “Just something that passed through my mind.”

“A joke?”

“No. Well, yes. In a way.”

“What? Tell me, amico. Today I would like to hear something to make me smile,

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