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I was standing there in the office with my hands in my pockets, glaring down at the necktie on Nero Wolfe’s desk, when the doorbell rang.
Since it would be a different story, and possibly no story at all, if the necktie hadn’t been there, I had better explain about it. It was the one Wolfe had worn that morning—brown silk with little yellow curlicues, a Christmas gift from a former client. At lunch Fritz, coming to remove the leavings of the spareribs and bring the salad and cheese, had told Wolfe there was a drop of sauce on his tie, and Wolfe had dabbed at it with his napkin; and later, when we had left the dining room to cross the hall to the office, he had removed the tie and put it on his desk. He can’t stand a spot on his clothes, even in private. But he hadn’t thought it worth the effort to go up to his room for another one, since no callers were expected, and when four o’clock came and he left for his afternoon session with the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, his shirt was still unbuttoned at the neck and the tie was still on his desk.
It annoyed me. It annoyed Fritz too when, shortly after four, he came to say he was going shopping and would be gone two hours. His eye caught the tie and fastened on it. His brows went up.
“Schlampick,” I said.
He nodded. “You know my respect and esteem for him. He has great spirit and character, and of course he is a great detective, but there is a limit to the duties of a chef and housekeeper. One must draw the line somewhere. Besides, there is my arthritis. You haven’t got arthritis, Archie.”
“Maybe not,” I conceded, “but if you rate a limit so do I. My list of functions from confidential assistant detective down to errand boy is a mile long, but it does not include valeting. Arthritis is beside the point. Consider the dignity of man. He could have taken it on his way up to the plant rooms.”
“You could put it in a drawer.”
“That would be evading the issue.”
“I suppose so.” He nodded. “I agree. It is a delicate affair. I must be going.” He went.
So, having finished the office chores at 5:20, including a couple of personal phone calls, I had left my desk and was standing to glare down at the necktie when the doorbell rang. That made the affair even more delicate. A necktie with a greasy spot should not be on the desk of a man of great spirit and character when a visitor enters. But by then I had got stubborn about it as a matter of principle, and anyway it might be merely someone with a parcel. Going to the hall for a look, I saw through the one-way glass panel of the front door that it was a stranger, a middle-aged female with a pointed nose and a round chin, not a good design, in a sensible gray coat and a black turban. She had no parcel. I went and opened the door and told her good afternoon. She said she wanted to see Nero Wolfe. I said Mr. Wolfe was engaged, and besides, he saw people only by appointment. She said she knew that, but this was urgent. She had to see him and would wait till he was free.
There were several factors: that we had nothing on the fire at the moment; that the year was only five days old and therefore the income-tax bracket didn’t enter into it; that I wanted something to do besides recording the vital statistics of orchids; that I was annoyed at him for leaving the tie on his desk; and that she didn’t try to push but kept her distance, with her dark eyes, good eyes, straight at me.
“Okay,” I told her, “I’ll see what I can do,” and stepped aside for her to enter. After taking her coat and hanging it on the rack and escorting her to the office, I gave her one of the yellow chairs near me instead of the red leather one at the end of Wolfe’s desk. She sat with her back straight and her feet together—nice little feet in fairly sensible gray shoes. I told her that Wolfe wouldn’t be available until six o’clock.
“It will be better,” I said, “if I see him first and tell him about you. In fact, it will be essential. My name is Archie Goodwin. What is yours?”
“I know about you,” she said. “Of course. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
“Many thanks. Some people who know about me have a different reaction. And your name?”
She was eyeing me. “I’d rather not,” she said, “until I know if Mr. Wolfe will take my case. It’s private. It’s very confidential.”
I shook my head. “No go. You’ll have to tell him what your case is before he decides if he’ll take it, and I’ll be sitting here listening. So? Also I’ll have to tell him more about you than you’re thirty-five years old, weigh a hundred and twenty pounds, and wear no earrings, before he decides if he’ll even see you.”
She almost smiled. “I’m forty-two.”
I grinned. “See? I need facts. Who you are and what you want.”
Her mouth worked. “It’s very confidential.” Her mouth worked some more. “But there was no sense in coming unless I tell you.”
She laced her fingers. “All right. My name is Bertha Aaron. It is spelled with two A’s. I am the private secretary of Mr. Lamont Otis, senior partner in the law firm of Otis, Edey, Heydecker, and Jett. Their office is on Madison Avenue at Fifty-first Street. I’m worried about something that happened recently and I want Mr. Wolfe to investigate it. I can pay him a reasonable fee, but it might develop that he will be paid by the firm. It might.”
“Were you sent here by someone in the firm?”
“No. Nobody sent me. Nobody knows I’m here.”
Her fingers laced tighter. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” she said. “I didn’t realize … maybe I’d better not.”
“Suit yourself, Miss Aaron, Miss Aaron?”
“Yes. I am not married.” Her fingers flew apart to make fists and her lips tightened. “This is silly. I’ve got to. I owe it to Mr. Otis. I’ve been with him for twenty years and he has been wonderful to me. I couldn’t go to him about this because he’s seventy-five years old and he has a bad heart and it might kill him. He comes to the office every day, but it’s a strain and he doesn’t do much, only he knows more than all the rest of them put together.” Her fists opened. “What happened was that I saw a member of the firm with our opponent in a very important case, one of the biggest cases we’ve ever had, at a place where they wouldn’t have met if they hadn’t wanted to keep it secret.”
“You mean with the opposing counsel?”
“No. The client. With opposing counsel it might possibly have been all right.”
“Which member of the firm?”
“I’m not going to say. I’m not going to tell Mr. Wolfe his name until he agrees to take the case. He doesn’t have to know that in order to decide. If you wonder why I came, I’ve already said why I can’t tell Mr. Otis about it, and I was afraid to go to any of the others because if one of them was a traitor another one might be in it with him, or even more than one. How could I be sure? There are only four members of the firm, but of course there are others associated—nineteen altogether. I wouldn’t trust any of them, not on a thing like this.” She made fists again. “You can understand that. You see what a hole I’m in.”
“Sure. But you could be wrong. Of course that’s unethical, a lawyer meeting with an enemy client, but there could be exceptions. It might have been accidental. When and where did you see them?”
“Last Monday, a week ago today. In the evening. They were together in a booth in a cheap restaurant—more of a lunchroom. The kind of place she would never go to, never. She would never go to that part of town. Neither would I, ordinarily, but I was on a personal errand and I went in there to use the phone. They didn’t see me.”
“Then one of the members of the firm is a woman?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh. I said ‘she.’ I meant the opposing client. We have a woman lawyer as one of the associates, just an employee really, but no woman firm member.” She laced her fingers. “It couldn’t possibly have been accidental. But of course it was conceivable, just barely conceivable, that he wasn’t a traitor, that there was some explanation, and that made it even harder for me to decide what to do. But now I know. After worrying about it for a whole week I couldn’t stand it any longer, and this afternoon I decided the only thing I could do was tell him and see what he said. If he had a good explanation, all right. But he didn’t. The way he took it, the way it hit him, there isn’t any question about it. He’s a traitor.”