Read an Excerpt
Since it was the deciding factor, I might as well begin by describing it. It was a pink slip of paper three inches wide and seven inches long, and it told the First National City Bank to pay to the order of Nero Wolfe one hundred thousand and 00/100 dollars. Signed, Rachel Bruner. It was there on Wolfe’s desk, where Mrs. Bruner had put it. After doing so, she had returned to the red leather chair.
She had been there half an hour, having arrived a few minutes after six o’clock. Since her secretary had phoned for an appointment only three hours earlier there hadn’t been much time to check on her, but more than enough for the widow who had inherited the residual estate of Lloyd Bruner. At least eight of the several dozen buildings Bruner had left to her were more than twelve stories high, and one of them could be seen from anywhere within eye range—north, east, south, or west. All that had been necessary, really, was to ring Lon Cohen at the Gazette to ask if there was any news not fit to print about anyone named Bruner, but I made a couple of other calls, to a vice-president of our bank and to Nathaniel Parker, the lawyer. I got nothing, except at one point the vice-president said, “Oh … a funny thing …” and stopped.
I asked what.
Pause. “Nothing, really. Mr. Abernathy, our president, got a book from her.…”
“What kind of a book?”
“It—I forget. If you will excuse me, Mr. Goodwin, I’m rather busy.”
So all I had on her, as I answered the doorbell in the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street and let her in, and ushered her to the office, was that she had sent a man a book. After she was in the red leather chair I put her coat, which was at least a match for a sable number for which a friend of mine had paid eighteen grand, on the couch, sat at my desk, and took her in. She was a little too short and too much filled out to be rated elegant, even if her tan woolen dress was a Dior, and her face was too round, but there was nothing wrong with the brown-black eyes she aimed at Wolfe as she asked him if she needed to tell him who she was.
He was regarding her without enthusiasm. The trouble was, a new year had just started, and it seemed likely that he was going to have to go to work. In a November or December, when he was already in a tax bracket that would take three-quarters—more, formerly—of any additional income, turning down jobs was practically automatic, but January was different, and this was the fifth of January, and this woman was stacked. He didn’t like it. “Mr. Goodwin named you,” he said coldly, “and I read newspapers.”
She nodded. “I know you do. I know a great deal about you, that’s why I’m here. I want you to do something that perhaps no other man alive could do. You read books too. Have you read one entitled The FBI Nobody Knows?”
“Then I don’t need to tell you about it. Did it impress you?”
“My goodness, you’re curt.”
“I answered your questions, madam.”
“I know you did. I can be curt too. That book impressed me. It impressed me so strongly that I bought ten thousand copies of it and sent them to people all over the country.”
“Indeed.” Wolfe’s brow was up an eighth of an inch.
“Yes. I sent them to the members of the cabinet, the Supreme Court justices, governors of all the states, all senators and representatives, members of state legislatures, publishers of newspapers and magazines, and editors, heads of corporations and banks, network executives and broadcasters, columnists, district attorneys, educators, and others—oh yes, chiefs of police. Do I need to explain why I did that?”
“Not to me.”
“There was a flash in the brown-black eyes. “I don’t like your tone. I want you to do something, and I’ll pay you the limit and beyond the limit, there is no limit, but there’s no point in going on unless— You said that book impressed you favorably. Do you mean you agree with the author’s opinion of the FBI?”
“With some minor qualifications, yes.”
“And of J. Edgar Hoover?”
“Then it won’t surprise you to hear that I am being followed day and night. I believe ‘tailed’ is the word. So is my son, and my daughter, and my secretary, and my brother. My telephones are tapped. Some of the employees at the Bruner Corporation have been questioned. It occupies two floors of the Bruner Building and there are more than a hundred employees. Does that surprise you?”
“No.” Wolfe grinned. “Did you send letters with the books?”
“Not letters. My personal card with a brief message.”
“Then you shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Well, I am. I was. I’m not just a congressman, or someone like an editor or a broadcaster or a college professor, with a job I can’t afford to lose. Does that megalomaniac think he can hurt me?”
“Pfui. He is hurting you.”
“No. He’s merely annoying me. Some of my associates and personal friends are being questioned—discreetly, of course, careful excuses, of course. It started about two weeks ago. I think my phones were tapped about ten days ago. My lawyers say there is probably no way to stop it, but they are considering it. They are one of the biggest and best firms in New York, and even they are afraid of the FBI! They disapprove; they say it was ‘ill-advised’ and ‘quixotic,’ my sending the books. I don’t care what they say. When I read that book I was furious. I called the publishers and they sent a man to see me, and he said they had sold less than twenty thousand copies. In a country with nearly two hundred million people, and twenty-six million of them had voted for Goldwater! I thought of paying for some ads, but decided it would be better to send the books, and I got a forty-percent discount on them.” She curled her fingers over the chair arms. “Now he’s annoying me and I want him stopped. I want you to stop him.”
Wolfe shook his head. “Preposterous.”
She reached to the stand at her elbow for her brown leather bag, opened it, took out a checkfold and a pen, opened the fold on the stand, no hurry, and wrote, the stub first, with care. Methodical. She tore the check out, got up and put it on Wolfe’s desk, and returned to the chair. “That fifty thousand dollars,” she said, “is only a retainer. I said there would be no limit.”
Wolfe didn’t even give the check a glance. “Madam,” he said, “I am neither a thaumaturge nor a dunce. If you are being followed, you were followed here, and it will be assumed that you came to hire me. Probably another has already arrived to start surveillance of this house; if not, it will be started the instant there is any indication that I have been ass enough to take the job.” His head turned. “Archie. How many agents have they in New York?”
“Oh …” I pursed my lips. “I don’t know, maybe two hundred. They come and go.”
He went back to her. “I have one. Mr. Goodwin. I never leave my house on business. It would—”
“You have Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather.”
Ordinarily that would have touched him, her rattling off their names like that, but not then. “I wouldn’t ask them to take the risk,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect Mr. Goodwin to take it. Anyway, it would be futile and fatuous. You say ‘stop him.’ You mean, I take it, compel the FBI to stop annoying you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nor do I.” He shook his head. “No, madam. You invited it, and you have it. I don’t say that I disapprove of your sending the books, but I agree with the lawyers that it was quixotic. The don endured afflictions; so must you. They wont keep it up forever, and, as you say, you’re not a congressman or a drudge with a job to lose. But don’t send any more books.”
She was biting her lip. “I thought you were afraid of nobody and nothing.”
“Afraid?” I can dodge folly without backing into fear.”
“I said no other man alive could do it.”
“Then you’re in a box.”
She got her bag and opened it, took out the checkfold and pen, wrote again, the stub first as before, stepped to his desk and picked up the first check and replaced it with the new one, and returned to the chair.
“That hundred thousand dollars,” she said, “is merely a retainer. I will pay all expenses. If you succeed, your fee, determined by you, will be in addition to the retainer. If you fail, you will have the hundred thousand.”