First, Rex Stout’s great detective, Nero Wolfe, develops an appetite for the sweet taste of revenge when someone slips something most foul into his lunch—in a case motivated by the most “alimentary” of passions. Then, a couturier’s beautiful sister uses Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s man about town, as her ready-made alibi—and maybe her fall guy—unless Wolfe can spot the loose ends in a nearly seamless crime. Finally, Wolfe has a run-in with the law after a mysterious old woman leaves a package at the detective’s West Thirty-fifth Street brownstone that pits him against a cunning criminal—and the U.S. federal government.
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In the old brownstone house which was the dwelling, and also contained the office, of Nero Wolfe on West 35th Street near the Hudson River, in New York, heavy gloom had penetrated into every corner of every room, so that there was no escaping from it.
Fritz Brenner was in bed with the grippe.
If it had been Theodore Horstmann, who nursed the 3,000 orchids on the top floor, it would have been merely an inconvenience. If it had been me, Archie Goodwin, secretary, bodyguard, goad, and goat, Wolfe would have been no worse than peevish. But Fritz was the cook; and such a cook that Marko Vukcic of Rusterman’s famous restaurant, had once offered a fantastic sum for his release to the major leagues, and met with scornful refusal from Wolfe and Fritz both. On that Tuesday in November the kitchen had not seen him for three days, and the resulting situation was not funny. I’ll skip the awful details—for instance, the desperate and disastrous struggle that took place Sunday afternoon between Wolfe and a couple of ducklings—and go on with the climax.
It was lunchtime Tuesday. Wolfe and I were at the dining table. I was doing all right with a can of beans I had got at the delicatessen. Wolfe, his broad face dour and dismal, took a spoonful of stuff from a little glass jar that had just been opened, dabbed it onto the end of a roll, bit it off, and chewed. All of a sudden, with nothing to warn me, there was an explosion like the bursting of a ten-inch shell. Instinctively I dropped my sandwich and put up my hands to protect my face, but too late. Little gobs of the stuff, and particles of masticated roll, peppered me like shrapnel.
I glared at him. “Well,” I said witheringly. I removed something from my eyelid with the corner of my napkin. “If you think for one moment you can get away—”
I left it hanging. With as black a fury on his face as any I had ever seen there, he was on his feet and heading for the kitchen. I stayed in my chair. After I had done what I could with the napkin, hearing meanwhile the garglings and splashings of Wolfe at the kitchen sink, I reached for the jar, took a look at the contents, and sniffed it. I inspected the label. It was small and to the point:
TINGLEY’S TIDBITS—Since 1881—
The Best Liver Pâté No. 3
I was sniffing at it again when Wolfe marched in with a tray containing three bottles of beer, a chunk of cheese, and a roll of salami. He sat down without a word and started slicing salami.
“The last man who spat at me,” I said casually, “got three bullets in his heart before he hit the floor.”
“Pfui,” Wolfe said coldly.
“And at least,” I continued, “he really meant it. Whereas you were merely being childish and trying to show what a supersensitive gourmet you are—”
“Shut up. Did you taste it?”
“Do so. It’s full of poison.”
I regarded him suspiciously. It was ten to one he was stringing me, but, after all, there were a good many people who would have regarded the death of Nero Wolfe as a ray of sunshine in a dark world, and a few of them had made efforts to bring it about. I picked up the jar and a spoon, procured a morsel about the size of a pea, and put it in my mouth. A moment later I discreetly but hastily ejected it into my napkin, went to the kitchen and did some rinsing, returned to the dining-room and took a good large bite from a dill pickle. After the pickle’s pungency had to some extent quieted the turmoil in my taste buds, I reached for the jar and smelled it again.
“That’s funny,” I said.
Wolfe made a growling noise.
“I mean,” I continued hastily, “that I don’t understand it. How could it be some fiend trying to poison you? I bought it at Bruegel’s and brought it home myself, and I opened it, and I’d swear the lid hadn’t been tampered with. But I don’t blame you for spitting, even though I happened to be in the line of fire. If that’s Tingley’s idea of a rare, exotic flavor to tempt the jaded appetite—”
“That will do, Archie.” Wolfe put down his empty glass. I had never heard his tone more menacing. “I am not impressed by your failure to understand this abominable outrage. I might bring myself to tolerate it if some frightened or vindictive person shot me to death, but this is insupportable.” He made the growling noise again. “My food. You know my attitude toward food.” He aimed a rigid finger at the jar, and his voice trembled with ferocity. “Whoever put that in there is going to regret it.”
He said no more, and I concentrated on the beans and pickles and milk. When he had finished the cheese he got up and left the room, taking the third bottle of beer along, and when I was through I cleared the table and went to the kitchen and washed up. Then I proceeded to the office. He had his mass deposited in the oversized chair behind his desk, and was leaning back with his eyes closed and a twist to his lips which showed that the beer descending his gullet had washed no wrath down with it. Without opening his eyes he muttered at me, “Where’s that jar?”
“Right here.” I put it on his desk.
“Get Mr. Whipple, at the laboratory.”
I sat at my desk, and looked up the number and dialed it. When I told Wolfe I had Whipple he got himself upright and reached for his phone and spoke to it:
“Mr. Whipple?… This is Nero Wolfe. Good afternoon, sir. Can you do an analysis for me right away?… I don’t know. It’s a glass jar containing a substance which I foolishly presumed to be edible.… I have no idea. Mr. Goodwin will take it down to you immediately.”
I was glad to have an errand that would take me away from that den of dejection for an hour or so, but something more immediate intervened. The doorbell rang and, since Fritz was out of commission, I went to answer it. Swinging the front door open, I found myself confronted by something pleasant. While she didn’t reach the spectacular and I’m not saying that I caught my breath, one comprehensive glance at her gave me the feeling that it was foolish to regard the world as an abode of affliction merely because Fritz had the grippe. Her cheeks had soft in-curves and her eyes were a kind of chartreuse, something the color of my bathroom walls upstairs. They looked worried.
“Hello,” I said enthusiastically.
“Mr. Nero Wolfe?” she asked in a nice voice from west of Pittsburgh. “My name is Amy Duncan.”
I knew it was hopeless. With Wolfe in a state of mingled rage and despondency, and with the bank balance in a flourishing condition, if I had gone and told him that a good-looking girl named Duncan wanted to see him, no matter what about, he would only have been churlish. Whereas there was a chance … I invited her in, escorted her down the hall and into the office, and pulled up a chair for her.
“Miss Duncan, Mr. Wolfe,” I said, and sat down. “She wants to ask you something.”
Wolfe, not even glancing at her, glared at me. “Confound you!” he muttered. “I’m engaged. I’m busy.” He transferred it to the visitor: “Miss Duncan, you are the victim of my assistant’s crack-brained impudence. So am I. I see people only by appointment.”
She smiled at him. “I’m sorry, but now that I’m here it won’t take long—”
“No.” His eyes came back to me. “Archie, when you have shown Miss Duncan out, come back here.”
He was obviously completely out of control. As for that, I was somewhat edgy myself, after the three days I had just gone through and it looked to me as if a little cooling off might be advisable before any further interchange of sentiments. So I arose and told him firmly, “I’ll run along down to the laboratory. Maybe I can give Miss Duncan a lift.” I picked up the jar. “Do you want me to wait—?”
“Where did you get that?” Amy Duncan said.
I looked at her in astonishment. “Get it? This jar?”
“Yes. Where did you get it?”
“Bought it. Sixty-five cents.”
“And you’re taking it to a laboratory? Why? Does it taste funny? Oh, I’ll bet it does! Bitter?”
I gawked at her in amazement. Wolfe, upright, his eyes narrowed at her, snapped, “Why do you ask that?”
“Because,” she said, “I recognized the label. And taking it to a laboratory—that’s what I came to see you about! Isn’t that odd? A jar of it right here—”
On any other man Wolfe’s expression would have indicated a state of speechlessness, but I have never yet seen him flabbergasted to a point where he was unable to articulate. “Do you mean to say,” he demanded, “that you were actually aware of this infamous plot? That you knew of this unspeakable insult to my palate and my digestion?”
“Oh, no! But I know it has quinine in it.”
“Quinine!” he roared.
She nodded. “I suppose so.” She stretched a hand toward me. “May I look at it?” I handed her the jar. She removed the lid, took a tiny dab of the contents on the tip of her little finger, licked it off with her tongue, and waited for the effect. It didn’t take long. “Br-r-uh!” she said, and swallowed twice. “It sure is bitter. That’s it, all right.” She put the jar on the desk. “How very odd—”
“Not odd,” Wolfe said grimly. “Odd is not the word. You say it has quinine in it. You knew that as soon as you saw it. Who put it in?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I came to see you for, to ask you to find out. You see, it’s my uncle—May I tell you about it?”
She started to wriggle out of her coat, and I helped her with it and got it out of her way so she could settle back in her chair. She thanked me with a friendly little smile containing no trace of quinine, and I returned to my desk and got out a notebook and flipped to a blank page.
“Arthur Tingley,” she said, “is my uncle. My mother’s brother. He owns Tingley’s Tidbits. And he’s such a pigheaded—” She flushed. “Well, he is pigheaded. He actually suspects me of having something to do with that quinine, just because—for no reason at all!”
“Are you saying,” Wolfe demanded incredulously, “that the scoundrel, knowing that his confounded tidbits contain quinine, continues to distribute them?”
“No,” she shook her head, “he’s not a scoundrel. That’s not it. It was only a few weeks ago that they learned about the quinine. Complaints began to come in, and thousands of jars were returned from all over the country. He had them analyzed, and lots of them contained quinine. Of course, it was only a small proportion of the whole output—it’s a pretty big business. He tried to investigate it, and Miss Yates—she’s in charge of production—took all possible precautions, but it’s happened again in recent shipments.”