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Most of the people who come to see Nero Wolfe by appointment, especially from as far away as Nebraska, show some sign of being in trouble, but that one didn’t. With his clear unwrinkled skin and alert brown eyes and thin straight mouth, he didn’t even look his age. I knew his age, sixty-one. When a telegram had come from James R. Herold, Omaha, Nebraska, asking for an appointment Monday afternoon, of course I had checked on him. He was sole owner of the Herold Hardware Company, wholesale, a highly respected citizen, and rated at over half a million—a perfect prospect for a worthy fee if he had real trouble. Seeing him had been a letdown. From his looks, he might merely be after a testimonial for a gadget to trim orchid plants. He had settled back comfortably in the red leather chair.
“I guess,” he said, “I’d better tell you why I picked you.”
“As you please,” Wolfe muttered from behind his desk. For half an hour after lunch he never gets above a mutter unless he has to.
Herold crossed his legs. “It’s about my son. I want to find my son. About a month ago I put ads in the New York papers, and I contacted the New York police, and—What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Go on.”
It was not nothing. Wolfe had made a face. I, at my desk, could have told Herold that unless his problem smelled like real money he might as well quit right there. One man who had made “contact” a verb in that office had paid an extra thousand bucks for the privilege, though he hadn’t known it.
Herold looked doubtful; then his face cleared. “Oh. You don’t like poking in a police matter, but that’s all right. I’ve been keeping after the Missing Persons Bureau, a Lieutenant Murphy, and I’ve run some more newspaper ads in the Personals, but they’ve got no results at all, and my wife was getting impatient about it, so I phoned Lieutenant Murphy from Omaha and told him I wanted to hire a private detective agency and asked him to recommend one. He said he couldn’t do that, but I can be pretty determined when I want to, and he gave me your name. He said that on a job like finding a missing person you yourself wouldn’t be much because you were too fat and lazy, but that you had two men, one named Archie Goodwin and one named Saul Panzer, who were tops for that kind of work. So I wired you for an appointment.”
Wolfe made the noise he uses for a chuckle, and moved a finger to indicate me. “This is Mr. Goodwin. Tell him about it.”
“He’s in your employ, isn’t he?”
“Yes. My confidential assistant.”
“Then I’ll tell you. I like to deal with principals. My son Paul is my only son—I have two daughters. When he graduated from college, the University of Nebraska, I took him into my business, wholesale hardware. That was in nineteen forty-five, eleven years ago. He had been a little wild in college, but I thought he would settle into the harness, but he didn’t. He stole twenty-six thousand dollars of the firm’s money, and I kicked him out.” His straight thin mouth tightened a little. “Out of the business and out of the house. He left Omaha and I never saw him again. I didn’t want to see him, but now I do and my wife does. One month ago, on March eighth, I learned that he didn’t take that money. I learned who did, and it has been proven beyond all doubt. That’s being attended to, the thief is being taken care of, and now I want to find my son.” He got a large envelope from his pocket, took things from it, and left his chair. “That’s a picture of him, taken in June nineteen forty-five, the latest one I have.” He handed me one too. “Here are six copies of it, and of course I can get more.” He returned to the chair and sat. “He got a raw deal and I want to make it square with him. I have nothing to apologize for, because at the time there was good evidence that he had taken the money, but now I know he didn’t and I’ve got to find him. My wife is very impatient about it.”
The picture was of a round-cheeked kid in a mortarboard and gown, with a dimple in his chin. No visible resemblance to his father. As for the father, he certainly wasn’t being maudlin. You could say he was bearing up well in the circumstances, or you could say he was plain cold fish. I preferred the latter.
Wolfe dropped the picture on the desk top. “Evidently,” he muttered, “you think he’s in New York. Why?”
“Because every year my wife and daughters have been getting cards from him on their birthdays—you know, those birthday cards. I suspected all along that my wife was corresponding with him, but she says not. She admits she would have, but he never gave her an address. He never wrote her except the cards, and they were all postmarked New York.”
“When did the last one come?”
“November nineteenth, less than five months ago. My daughter Marjorie’s birthday. Postmarked New York like the others.”
“Anything else? Has anyone ever seen him here?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Have the police made any progress?”
“No. None whatever. I’m not complaining; I guess they’ve tried; but of course in a great city like this they’ve got their hands full of problems and I’m only one. I’m pretty sure he came straight to New York from Omaha, by train, back eleven years ago, but I haven’t been able to verify it. The police had several men on it for a week, or they said they had, but now I think they’ve only got one, and I agree with my wife that I’ve got to do something. I’ve been neglecting my business.”
“That will never do,” Wolfe said dryly. Apparently he favored the cold-fish slant too. “And no results from the newspaper advertisements?”
“No. I got letters from five detective agencies offering to help me—of course the replies were to a box number—and quite a few, at least two dozen, from crackpots and impostors. The police investigated all of them, and they were all duds.”
“How were the advertisements worded?”
“I wrote them myself. They were all alike.” Herold got a big leather wallet from his breast pocket, fished in it, and extracted a clipping. He twisted in his chair to get better light from a window, and read:
PAUL HEROLD, WHO LEFT OMAHA, NEBRASKA, IN 1945, WILL LEARN SOMETHING TO HIS ADVANTAGE BY COMMUNICATING WITH HIS FATHER IMMEDIATELY. IT HAS BEEN LEARNED THAT A MISTAKE WAS MADE. ALSO ANYONE WHO SEES THIS AD AND KNOWS ANYTHING OF THE SAID PAUL HEROLD’S WHEREABOUTS, EITHER NOW OR AT ANY TIME DURING THE PAST TEN YEARS, IS REQUESTED TO COMMUNICATE AND A PROPER REWARD WILL BE GIVEN.
“I ran that in five New York papers.” He returned the clipping to the wallet and the wallet to the pocket. “Thirty times altogether. Money wasted. I don’t mind spending money, but I hate to waste it.”
Wolfe grunted. “You might waste it on me—or on Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Panzer. Your son may have changed his name on arrival in New York—indeed, that seems likely, since neither the police nor the advertisements have found any trace of him. Do you know if he took luggage with him when he left Omaha?”
“Yes, he took all his clothes and some personal things. He had a trunk and a suitcase and a bag.”
“Were his initials on any of it?”
“His initials?” Herold frowned. “Why—Oh, yes. They were on the trunk and the suitcase, presents from his mother. My wife. Why?”
“Just PH, or a middle initial?”
“He has no middle name. Just PH. Why?”
“Because if he changed his name he probably found it convenient to keep the PH. Initials on luggage have dictated ten thousand aliases. Even so, Mr. Herold, assuming the PH, it is a knotty and toilsome job, for we must also assume that your son prefers not to be found, since the advertisements failed to flush him. I suggest that you let him be.”
“You mean quit looking for him?”
“I can’t. My wife and my daughters—Anyway, I won’t. Right is right. I’ve got to find him.”
“And you want to hire me?”
“Yes. You and Goodwin and Panzer.”
“Then I must inform you that it may take months, the expenses will be considerable, the amount of my bill will not be contingent on success, and I charge big fees.”
“I know you do. Lieutenant Murphy told me.” Herold looked more like a man in trouble than when he came in. “But I can call you off at any time.”
“All right.” He took a breath. “You want a retainer.”
“As an advance for expenses. More important, I want all the information you can give me.” Wolfe’s head turned. “Archie, your notebook.”
I already had it out.