Never trust the ones who look like nothing in particular. Wolfe and I had broken that rule, and now we were paying the price.
I had plenty of leisure to notice details, since time seemed to have slowed as if fate had slammed on the brakes. Wolfe sat in his custom-made desk chair with his eyes slightly narrowed in annoyance. His tie, a snappy yellow-on-blue foulard silk number, was being crushed by Chauncey’s forearm. That was what was irritating him: one of his eccentricities is his hatred of being touched by strangers, and having an arm looped around your windpipe sure falls into that category.
I’d known before I’d made it half-way across the office that I was too late. Chauncey had been quicker than either of us, quicker than me, quicker than Wolfe, who can move like an avalanche when he wants to. The snub-nosed revolver had already been drawn and pointed towards Wolfe’s head by the time I was out of my chair and moving. I had managed to stop in front of Wolfe’s desk. My arms had shifted away from my sides and the grimace had peeled off of my face before my thoughts caught up to what was happening. Instead, I’d hunched my shoulders and tried to seem innocuous, not a threat.
“What did you mean by that question?” Chauncey had yelped, while poking the gun at Wolfe like it was a sharp stick. Then he’d bounded to the side of Wolfe’s chair and pushed the barrel of the revolver into Wolfe’s ear before he wrapped his other arm around Wolfe’s neck. He was short enough that he didn’t have to bend much to do it; given Wolfe’s bulk, he looked like a Pomeranian trying to drag down a fat bulldog. His pop-eyed gaze rolled back and forth between Wolfe and me.
There was no trace of fear in Wolfe’s voice, of course. “I meant just what I said, Mr. Chauncey. Were you aware that Miss Austin had reason to wish Mr. Drexel dead?”
Drexel was the victim of the murder we’d been hired to clear up, and Miss Susannah Austin was one of the witnesses, a sweet-voiced honey blond who’d been Drexel’s secretary. I’d taken her out dancing two nights ago, at Wolfe’s suggestion. She’d done fine on the dance floor, allowing for the giggles, but as a source of information she’d been strictly a bust.
“Of course she had reason, but she wouldn’t have killed him. Even though she could have. Maybe she should have. He was always after her, groping her, making suggestions. He was filthy.” I didn’t like the way his voice shook. Nerves and guns don’t go well together.
“Yes, my inquiries had discovered that,” Wolfe said. “Is there anyone else who, in your opinion, might have had reason to contemplate Mr. Drexel’s demise?”
Although the leading candidate was standing in front of us, I understood why Wolfe was playing it the way he was. It was already halfway to working. Chauncey was still threatening to clean out Wolfe’s ears the thorough way, but he was obviously thinking, too. The unaccustomed effort was furrowing a line between his brows. “There was Mrs. Drexel. And Mr. Stauperton, Drexel’s partner. Drexel was chasing after his wife. Oh, I don’t know.” His tone had turned petulant. “All the men in that office are filthy. They look and talk behind their hands. I’ve heard them. Always staring at the women. They should leave them alone and stick to their own kind. But they don’t.” Suddenly, his chin jerked up, and his gaze rolled back to me. “He’s another of them.”
“Mr. Goodwin? What leads you to that conclusion?”
“He went out with Miss Austin. I heard her talking to the other girls in the typing pool. They went dancing. I’m sure he wanted something…something dirty.”
“Mr. Chauncey,” Wolfe’s words still had that narrow thread of irritation strung through them, “it was I who instructed Mr. Goodwin to acquaint himself with Miss Austin, in search of information about this case. I frequently require Mr. Goodwin to dance attendance on young women as a part of his duties. That does not mean that he has either the time or energy to solicit their more intimate companionship.”
“I don’t know--”
“Of course you do not know. You are not actually acquainted with Mr. Goodwin; at best, you have encountered the public persona that he assumes for the sake of his readership. I assure you, Mr. Goodwin did not impose upon Miss Austin.” Now his voice was quiet, almost gentle, and his eyes had half closed. He was working the genius hard. “You have my word on that.”
Abruptly, Chauncey let go and backed a couple of feet away from the chair. The gun began swinging back and forth between Wolfe and me, which was an improvement. Before, if he’d lost his nerve or his temper, Wolfe would have been gone. Now, if Chauncey looked likely to pull the trigger, I could jump him and have some chance of surviving.
Chauncey said, his tone huffy, “I don’t believe you. The ones who look like him are always after something. Always.”
Wolfe’s shoulders moved up and down a fraction of an inch. “I admit your observation does apply to Mr. Goodwin but it is also irrelevant to your preoccupation. His activities with women are strictly social. He is, what I believe is termed in the vernacular, a ‘walking-out man.’ ”
“That’s ‘poodle-walker’, sir.” I had to give myself points. My voice sounded calm. I wasn’t in love with how Wolfe was working this, but, given what Chauncey had been babbling, his method might do the trick.
One term or the other, Chauncey got the implication. The gun slowed down a little and his pop-eyes widened. The effect was not charming. “I don’t believe you.” His tone was uncertain, not disgusted. Wolfe had called it right.
It was my turn to shrug. “I don’t like sharing the details of my true domestic arrangements with the great American public. So, shoot me.”
“Archie.” Wolfe’s one word was half-irritated, half-indulgent. Somewhere, I found a grin to give him in return.
“No, you’re lying.” Chauncey licked his lips. The tension must be drying him out. I could have used a drink myself, just then.
Wolfe snorted. “Granted that I would hardly be discussing this with you under other circumstances, I still speak the truth. I have all the evidence of that truth I require, although it is not of a nature that I can or will share with you.”
“Lying. You’re lying. You can’t prove it. I would be able to tell.”
I shook my head, then walked around the side of the desk away from Chauncey and put my hand on Wolfe’s shoulder. He had the sense not to shrug it off. “Look, do you need a list? I’ve chosen to live with him since I was eighteen. He gives me cars, clothes, all sorts of gifts, and I tell the world about them. I stay, even though he can be the biggest pain in the ass in Manhattan and he keeps me, likewise. If you know anything at all, you know it goes on from there. We could be here the rest of the day.” Chauncey was staring at me as if I was a snake and he was a sparrow. The gun was still on target, though. “Miss Austin’s nice, I’m sure, but between my other friends and Mr. Wolfe, there’s not a lot of space left over in my little black book to pencil her into.”
Chauncey shook his head, mutely.
“It’s not like we all come with labels, you know.” Almost: the revolver dipped for a second. One bit of baloney to drive it home, and maybe—“Look, we’re not performing chimps, but--” The angle had to be just right. I stepped forwards, turned towards the chair and leaned down. The lips alone would have been useless, but I added a few flourishes.
Wolfe has good peripheral vision and he kept his eyes open a slit, so he saw when Chauncey got distracted and the gun moved. I felt his cue and lunged sideways into Chauncey, tackling the arm holding the revolver. It was a damn desperate trick, but it worked. I got the gun away from Chauncey and cold-cocked him with it.
“Well?” Wolfe demanded, his hands clenched on the arms of his chair.
I checked the drum. “Empty.”
“Trumpery dramatics, and I am neither a psychoanalyst nor a producer. Keep the weapon. Eject him.”
“With pleasure.” I hauled Chauncey over my shoulders and lugged him into the hall, got the front door open, and dumped him down on the stoop. I didn’t slam the door behind him before I locked it, but only because I’m strong-willed that way.
Back in the office, Wolfe greeted me with a scowl. “Archie--”
“You missed it, too, sir. He picks his suits so badly there was no bulge to give it away.”
I must have sounded as sore as I felt, because he grunted. “Was it that objectionable a stratagem?”
“No.” This time, when I leaned down to him, he closed his eyes. It was quite a while before he opened them again. “After all, it was true. I just don’t enjoy being reminded by an eight-ball like that of how much time I spend horsing around, telling lies.”
He grunted again. “It is the irreconcilable conflict between our society’s mores and your ego’s need for the independent income from your writing that is at fault, not you. Get your notebook. We still have a murderer to apprehend.”
As it turned out, the murderer wasn’t Chauncey. Just as well; he tried his little trick again on the cops and they found him a permanent solution to his problem.
For our part, Wolfe and I stick to our less drastic choice. As far as we’re concerned, it’s bad enough that dirt-obsessed little men can hold our truth hostage to their fears. We’re keeping our lives to ourselves.
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