“Sometimes I think thoughts I shouldn’t, ones I don’t want to, but do.” Michael White looked earnestly at Nero Wolfe, and then turned to look at me. He needed to make sure we understood.
“Neither I nor my assistant, Mr. Goodwin, is without flaws. We comprehend. However, what do your qualms have to do with your being here tonight?” Wolfe wasn’t as brusque as I’d thought he’d be given how much more he’d rather spend his after-dinner hours with a book than a client.
White ducked his head. “Excuse me, Mr. Wolfe. I’m a man of my hands, not a talker, so I have problems putting words together well. I may circle some, but I’ll make it to my point eventually.”
Wolfe grunted. “You paid for this time, sir. Use it as you will.”
White had paid for our time that evening in May of 1935 to the tune of five hundred bucks, in cash. The c-notes on Wolfe’s desk would finance a leisurely browse through Jones and Scully’s orchid catalogue or fund shad roe season in the kitchen. It was no wonder Wolfe was displaying what served him for tolerance even if I wished the guy would hurry up. Something about White got on my nerves.
“I think about how I want something, something that’s impossible.” White nodded to himself. “It’s been like that for years.”
Nothing about White’s appearance could be held against him. He was a skinny guy a year or two past my age, but he was in good shape, and someone with taste had helped him buy his suit. He had black hair that he kept combed back and horn rims that he kept pushed forwards, half way down his nose. His shoes matched his suit but were scuffed, as if it hadn't occurred to him that leather needs to be polished every now and then.
“I want--” White said and licked his lips. “I want---” I felt like putting down my pen and telling him to get a grip on himself. Being stuck on whatever it was wouldn’t make it any better and was irritating to boot. Two to one it would turn out to be some female other than his wife, and then I could escort him out of the office. Wolfe refused to touch what he called domestic discord, a benefit of being the world’s greatest private detective. “I have this stupid urge. Only for a moment, then it goes away.” His hand reached out to caress something invisible.
I admit my bad mood wasn’t all White’s fault. He had no way of knowing that he was treading on a corn. Every once in a while, there was a crazy notion that zipped through my brain, annoying me some, and this had been one of those days. There had been a lot more of those days lately. White was reminding me, and I wished he would stop.
“My urge is illegal, of course, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s such a peculiar impulse. I’d never do anything about it. That’s what I tell myself, at least.”
Wolfe’s eyes were narrowed, which meant he was paying attention. Still, I saw them shift behind his eyelids. He’s no fan of a long build-up, unless it’s his own.
“I guess I have problems because it’s so close to a big part of my life. I’m invited so much, I say yes often enough, that it sort of makes sense that I can’t stop when I should and that the thinking slops over where it doesn’t belong.” White’s smile was both shy and preoccupied. “Oh, every once in a while I kind of let myself daydream a little, but not for long. It would be wrong. Ridiculous. Perverse.” He took a deep breath. “I am highly respected, a noted analytical chemist. I’m the best-informed expert in the world today on the composition of the pigments used in American painting of the late nineteenth century. There is no real chance that I would steal a Thomas Eakins from a gallery to add to my own collection.”
Art; he was only talking about art. Nuts.
My gaze rested briefly on the money upon my desk. It would have reconciled me to Mr. White’s maundering by itself, but his attitude did not lack dignity when he spoke. “Sometimes I think thoughts I shouldn’t, ones I don’t want to, but do.” His eyes met mine, and then he turned his head to look at Archie, who stretched his lips politely although his posture, to one who knew him, reserved judgment.
I grasped full well what the man meant, but wondered if he did himself. “Neither I nor my assistant, Mr. Goodwin, is without flaws. We comprehend. However, what do your qualms have to do with your being here tonight?”
White made his excuses and resumed his story. It took him a while to move past his preoccupation with his own urges to the nub of his problem, but that is a type of circumlocution I am familiar with. In a career as an investigator spanning four continents and thousands of hours of interrogation, I have grown familiar with the behavior of men wrestling with their own natures. After lifetimes of self-reflection, it shocks them to find that they are still strangers to themselves. It does not shock me. For years, I have observed the jungle of emotions that surrounds the walled garden of my own mind and seen the movements in the shadows.
The hunger for possession takes on many forms, and a yearning for beauty is an urge I understand. I was relieved that, in Mr. White’s case, the difficulty involved only an object, not a person. As Mr. White, at last, reached the crux of his desires, I savored the unintentional irony of his words, even though I could tell that his circuitous phrasing was galling Archie, who favors a blunt, if colorful, clarity.
“I’m part-owner of the Araceli Gallery here in Manhattan, and I do a lot of the analytical work on the works the gallery handles. We are - were - about to put an previously unknown Eakins on the market, one that has only recently reemerged from a private collection.” He paused for a moment, entranced by some inner vision, then continued. “When I got back from a business trip to the Yale University Art Gallery this morning and went to the Araceli, meaning to check on how the cleaning was going, I discovered that the Eakins had vanished while I was gone.”
“I take it that you were startled to find the painting you desired so passionately had, in fact, been stolen.”
“Yes, Mr. Wolfe.” His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared very slightly. It was obviously maddening him that someone else had committed the sort of act that he had resisted for so long, if with no real difficulty. “There hasn’t been a fuss. We don’t want publicity--at least, most of us don’t want publicity. It was agreed among the six people who had keys to the storage room where the painting was being kept that I, as the only person with a strong alibi, should approach you. The others are chipping in to help cover the costs, but I’ll be your client.”
“I do not think much of alibis, Mr. White. If I accept your case, you will be investigated along with the others.”
He looked relieved. “Good. Good. You have to understand, these folks are my friends. Whoever did it, I don’t want to be mending fences with the other four. If you’re bothering me, too--oh, sorry, Mr. Wolfe.”
“Don’t apologize. You will soon discover that being investigated is worse than a bother.” I felt no particular inclination to work, but more money was always welcome. There would be other benefits. Archie had not been challenged by our last case, a trivial matter of fraud, and grew restive. He had been increasingly restless for the past several months, I had noted, a perturbation that had not been calmed by his busy social schedule or the mundane difficulties we had been employed to resolve since the Chapin case. If he could not have the excitement of a murder investigation, he had to be kept occupied. Otherwise, he would pester me until I either dispatched him on vacation or fired him, again. Either action would be pointless. His absences were as loud as his presence.
Archie, mistaking my brief silence for hesitation, swiveled in his seat to give me an admonishing stare. There was a faint, cupric glint from his cheeks as he turned. Yet again, he had found an excuse not to shave that morning. He goaded me. On impulse, I permitted it.
“Very well, Mr. White. Mr. Goodwin will write you a receipt.”
The Araceli Gallery, on the Upper East Side, obviously catered to the old-fashioned moneyed crowd. No cubism or social realism on these walls. Instead, there were plenty of pictures you might see reproduced in prints back in Ohio: landscapes of mountains and beaches, still-lifes of dead rabbits and fruit bowls, portraits of someone else’s ancestors dressed up in fine silks and wool to impress 1800’s society. The well-groomed character at the discreet desk gave me a thoughtful look, then got up, went into the back, and reemerged with an even better groomed man that I would have bet was Thomas Araceli.
I would have won. “Mr. Goodwin?” His voice was cheerful and full of pep, even with the Boston accent. “I’m Thomas Araceli.” I used his handshake as a chance to look him over. His suit was British, but the pale blond hair and narrow features were all New England. The lively blue eyes were at odds with the rest of the appearance. You could imagine him tossing crates of tea into a harbor for fun. He somehow gave the impression of being ready to jump around with enthusiasm at my presence, holding himself back only out of respect for both our dignities. I’d bet he sold a lot of art to bored matrons and elderly ladies.
“I’m ready for that look-see you promised me on the phone.”
“Sure. If you’ll come this way?” He led me into the back, where a quiet brunette was painstakingly working a mat loose from a grubby oil painting. “Cressida. This is Archie Goodwin.”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t shake hands, Mr. Goodwin.” Her gaze was cool but not hostile as she held up a stained, white-gloved left hand. The move displayed a nicely-rounded shoulder. “Oils from the skin just compound the difficulties.”
Beneath the glove, there was a bulge around the base of the ring finger, so she was out of bounds. But she was still worth a manly grin of sympathy. I offered it to her. The smile she gave in return was amused but unimpressed. The smile she shifted onto Araceli warmed right up.
He almost quivered. “We’re going to check the storeroom, Cressy.”
“Don’t you mean Mr. Goodwin is going to check the storeroom, and you’re going to chatter at him?” Her look was at odds with the words.
He clutched at his heart. “You slay me, kid.” It sounded strange, delivered in a clench-teethed drawl. Taking my arm, he led me on, saying cheerfully, “Cressy’s right, I do talk too much. Never work with the one you love, Mr. Goodwin. You get in the habit of actually saying what you think, and that’s deadly for sales.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. How sure are you that none of the staff could have gotten their hands on a key?”
“Not absolutely positive, of course, but pretty darn certain. We all agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to the staff if we got careless. Then they might be suspected if anything turned up missing.” He grinned ruefully and got out a ring of keys. It took him a minute to get the door open. “New lock,” he said, apologetically. Seemingly, he wasn’t prepared to risk the rest of the contents of the storage room on ‘pretty darn certain’, which helped raise my opinion of him.
I recognized the workmanship on the room, but I still took enough time to go over the place and be sure. Then I checked the doors and the ventilation shafts. Like I’d been warned, Araceli talked the entire time.
“…really a nice example of Eakin’s sports paintings, which weren’t as influential in their day as the nude studies or the realistic group portraits, like The Gross Clinic, but are more salable now. We were glad to have it.”
I took my chance to wedge a conversational foot in the door. “Will losing it cause problems for the gallery?”
Araceli shook his head. “No. That’s the funny thing. It belongs to one of our owners, which is why she picked us to market the painting for her.” He started to run one hand through his hair and then stopped himself. “Mrs. Graham wants her Eakins back, of course. She was the only one of us who voted for calling the cops. Her father was on the commissioner’s board around T .R.’s time, so she considers herself a great supporter of the police.” He threw back his head and produced a laugh half way between a whinny and a guffaw.
I’d seen enough. “Do you have the locksmith’s report?”
“Yes, indeed. We use Duncan and Leibowitz, and Leibowitz himself came out. He said that, if his eyes weren’t failing him, the intruder used a key.” I recognized the name of the locksmith, too. Unless they had been careless about duplicates, the Eakins had been lifted by one of the key-holding partners in the gallery.
We went back into the workroom, and I watched Mrs. Araceli remove the last of the mat and check the canvas revealed while Araceli went to find the report for me. I asked her, “Were you surprised the painting was gone?”
She nodded to herself at the bright colors that had been hidden by the mat, and then looked up at me. “Yes. Didn’t Mike tell you?”
“He did, but we repeat questions a lot during our investigation.”
“Just like in a detective novel.” Smiling, she reached for a twist of cotton resting in a small saucer of liquid. She dabbed at a tiny patch of dirty canvas, never taking her eyes off her work, and said, “Mrs. Graham had wanted to show the painting to a gentleman friend, the art critic for the Gazette. They came over to the gallery after hours, straight from a show in the Village. As part-owner, she has keys, of course. When she found the Eakins was gone, she telephoned all of us. We met at once, except for Mike, who was out of town.”
“ ‘All of us’ being the owners?”
“That’s right. There are six, counting Mike. The others are Mrs. Graham, her son Roy, and his fiancée Chloe McIntyre. Chloe’s a painter and Roy’s an art historian; we all went to school together. And then, of course, there’s Tommy and I. We supervise the gallery on a day by day basis.”
“Here we go.” Araceli waved the report in triumph. “Do you want to take it with you, Mr. Goodwin?”
“Yes, thanks. By the way, did you manage to clear your schedule?”
“That we have. Tomorrow morning is fine.” Araceli added, to his wife, “Jerry Bradford is coming in late, on the one-twenty express, so I said we could see Mr. Wolfe at eleven.” He put a hand on her shoulder, and she nodded to show she’d heard without looking up from the delicate dabbing operation. But I noticed that she leaned into his grip a little.
After Wolfe came down from the orchids at eleven, and I reported to him, he gave a peevish grunt. “What was the justification for that egregious display?”
I turned a hand up at him. “No special reason. They like being in harness together would be my guess.”
“Bah. You can’t pick plums in a desert.”
He was letting his prejudices run away with him and deserved a good yank on the reins. I leaned back in my chair, crossed my legs, and laced my hands together behind my head. “Oh, I don’t know. I can see myself enjoying a shoulder now and then, especially one like that. It’s all a matter of finding the right woman to make it a permanent proposition. Sure, it may be tough, but if I search for long enough--”
“Flummery,” he said and reached for one of the three books stacked on his desk. “You’ll never let a female place the halter around your neck. For all your romanticism, you lack that type of impulsive streak.” Absent-mindedly, his fat fingers stroked gently over the cover of his book. He was reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night again, part of the set he’d had the Swedish kid re-bind for him last winter after our juicy pay-off for the Chapin affair, so the kid would have some business and wouldn’t starve to death. Romanticism. He should talk.
I hoisted an eyebrow at him and rolled a sheet of paper into my typewriter.
Mrs. Graham proved to be a female of a particularly annoying type. Obviously a woman of intelligence and education, she concealed her true nature beneath a façade of meekness and indecision. She was undoubtedly as dangerous to men in her youth as a fly is to trout, and even now she would pose problems for the unwary. When, at six o’clock that evening, she was escorted by her son into the office, she looked around the room with an air of uncertainty. I noted, however, that her eyes paused for a fraction of a second upon my Leonardo sketch and the Holbein reproductions before moving on.
“Roy, I need a chair.” She was standing next to the red leather chair, where Archie had placed her.
Her son, no doubt used to such shenanigans, said, “This one looks nice, Mother. Why don’t you try it?”
“Oh, yes, I see.” She sank down gracefully into the chair, and sat perched on its edge. Her posture was subdued. Her eyes were more those of a falcon than a dove.
Roy Graham took the seat next to hers. He was an uncommonly handsome young man, with an epicene appearance that was, to some extent, redeemed by a fine pair of hazel eyes. The set of his mouth was both rueful and amused. I detected no hints of nervousness about him. Archie, his face grave but his lips pressed together, moved a yellow chair for him so that he could sit next to his mother.
It did not take me many questions to get the measure of Mrs. Graham. “The painting has been in our family for a while, Mr. Wolfe, but I only inherited it recently. It really wasn’t anything appropriate for my household, so I decided to have it cleaned and sold. A pugilist, clad for the ring. Not at all proper for a drawing room.” Her mouth twisted in distress, but her gaze was calm. I noticed she did not glance at her son, whose opinion of the desirability of the painting might have been expected to differ from her own.
I turned my attention to him. “Mr. Graham, you are an art historian. Was this a particularly notable work?”
“In my opinion, Eakins is underestimated right now, Mr. Wolfe. The first decent monograph only came out from the Whitney two years ago, and there’s been a marked revival of interest since then. Over the next few decades, the value placed on his work will rise, and this painting was an excellent example of what made him distinctive among his peers. So I recommended against selling, given the current depression, but I can understand why Mother’s opinion would differ from my own.” He removed an invisible particle of fluff from his coat sleeve, obviously to hide a wry smile.
There was a sharp, annoyed glitter beneath Mrs. Graham’s demurely lowered lids.
I snorted. Really, the woman was insufferable. “Do you have a photograph of the painting?”
“Yes.” Mr. Graham looked over at his mother, who obediently reached for her handbag. I had wondered why she was carrying such a large purse, but obviously it was to hold the studio portrait print in its manila envelope. Archie got up from his desk to receive the photograph and hand it on to me. I took and examined it. The young boxer portrayed stood with one hand raised high by a referee, his defeated opponent sprawled out at his feet. As might be expected with Thomas Eakins, the man’s musculature was delineated with passionate care. However, what made the picture extraordinary in my eyes was the faint expression of doubt on the young pugilist’s features, the slight curve of his torso as he turned to look down at his fallen foe. I felt myself grunt. As a rule, I avoid such depictions. I value my peace. Although it is illogical, I resent that my work exposes me to what I am compelled to abjure in my private life. It irritates me that society erodes the very barriers it demands.
Almost imperceptibly, Archie stirred from where he stood by my desk, and then held out a hand. He would need to be familiar with the painting; there was nothing blatant about the composition that should disturb him. It would be more revealing to refuse than consent. I passed the photograph to him. As he examined it, I narrowed my eyes at our guests.
“You can see the relationship of the composition to those of Taking the Count, Between the Rounds, and Salutat,” Mr. Graham said, his languid tenor voice warm with enthusiasm. “I’ve done some research, and I believe the painting is one referred to by Eakins in his studio inventories as To the Victor. He called it a study, but he must have decided it was finished enough to sell to Grandfather Morris.”
“Your grandfather was very fond of boxing, as were his friends,” Mrs. Graham interpolated, a faint note of disapproval in her voice.
I raised my eyebrows. “Given your evident distaste for the painting, I am surprised that you are so eager to retrieve it, madam.”
She humphed. “Money, Mr. Wolfe, is money.” Archie did not look up from the photograph, but his lips twitched. There is always a moment in the interviews when it becomes obvious how my clients are able to afford my fees.
Interrogating witnesses is much like net fishing in surf, an art I was taught in my youth. It is numbing. It demands patience, repetition, careful attention, and the realization that this may not be the day one sees results. An hour of questions collected details that meant nothing to me then, but might eventually ensnare my prey. When we had finally freed the brownstone of that female and her offspring, Archie returned to the office, closed his notebook, and picked up the picture again. Examining it, he said, “Nice work. I should take a closer look at this Eakins guy.”
“Then you would do best to go to Philadelphia. A great many of his paintings are in the museums there.”
Archie grinned. “Not even for a case. Do you want this back?”
“No.” My memory is such that the painting would stay with me no matter what my preference might be. I did not need to further my acquaintanceship with Thomas Eakins. It did not surprise me that Archie had forgotten I had read the recent monograph about the artist. I rid myself of it quickly, although not because of any flaw in the writing. It is only that I have discovered that certain men’s conceptions of life are intended for those who engage, not for those who retreat. It is a pity that Archie is repelled by Philadelphia.
My weekly poker game was that same night. When I found myself alone with Saul Panzer in the kitchen of his apartment, while helping him arrange some sandwiches, I asked, “You free to tell me about White’s alibi?”
“It’s a theft case,” Saul said. “You know he’s not going to shut you out on one of those.” Saul Panzer, besides being an amateur poker sharpie who now had ten bucks of my money in his wallet, is the best street operative in Manhattan. He was Wolfe’s freelancer of choice when the job had to be done right, and he had spent the day out in New Haven checking up on our client of record.
I snorted. “I wouldn’t put it past Wolfe to clam up. For some reason, this job is getting to him.”
“I doubt it’s anything to do with Mr. Michael White. He’s clean as a whistle. No gambling, no drinking, no girls, no nothing.” Saul used a bottle opener to uncap a beer, and then took a long swig before he poured the rest into a glass.
“Hey, Louis Pasteur. You going to give that away or keep it?” I asked.
Saul ignored me. “We both know there’s no such thing as a perfect alibi, but White’s is close. I wouldn’t work on him first unless Mr. Wolfe tells you to. You going to carry those sandwiches in or merely stand there admiring them?”
I raised both eyebrows to achieve the proper supercilious expression, balanced the plate on the tips of my fingers just like a waiter at Rusterman’s, and preceded Saul back into the living room.
The next morning, I was in the office opening mail when the phone on my desk rang. I picked it up on the third ring. “Nero Wolfe’s office, Archie Goodwin speaking.”
“Mr. Goodwin? Thomas Araceli.” He didn’t need to tell me; the clenched tones were a dead give-away. “I’m afraid something has come up. Mr. Bradford--well, would it be possible to re-schedule our appointment?”
“Sure,” I said, rolling my eyes up towards the greenhouse on the roof. “How about this evening at six? Or we can meet later if we have to.”
There was a moment of hesitation on the other end of the line. “Tomorrow? Tomorrow morning at the same time?”
“That would be fine.”
“All right, then. I’m terribly sorry about this.”
I let him dangle for a moment, and then said, “I’m sure Mr. Wolfe won’t mind. Good bye, Mr. Araceli.”
“Yes. Goodbye, Mr. Goodwin.”
I looked at the receiver and permitted my eyebrows to climb. I really was sure that Wolfe wouldn’t mind, but not for the usual reason the fat genius would be glad not to interview a witness. Even I could tell from Araceli’s call that--I shook my head. I knew what needed to come next, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I tend to avoid interrupting Wolfe in the greenhouse up on the brownstone’s roof more than you might expect, given how much I like the display the ten thousand orchids put on. For one thing, Theodore Horstman, Wolfe’s orchid nurse, gives me a pain. For another, being disturbed at his recreation never puts Wolfe in the best of moods. However, there’s also a third reason I don’t go up there during a case, unannounced, more often than I have to.
When I came out of the stairwell, through the well-oiled doors, and entered the warm room, I caught Wolfe by surprise. He was pollinating an Acacallis cyanea, and I stopped dead, knowing better than to start talking in the middle of that. It’s a finicky business.
I stood silently by, watching. His hands moved deftly, caressingly, parting the blue-violet petals to give the brush bearing the pollinia access to the stigma. His fat, oblong face was intent. The hands that you know should be clumsy were adroit, exact, and delicate. I swallowed a curse as that stupid notion scuttled through my brain again.
“Well, Archie?” His tone was curt and his eyes were on the orchid. He was letting me know that I should have called first, but that was exactly why I hadn’t. Given any excuse, he would have put me off, and, if I was right, we were now on a schedule.
“The Aracelis canceled their appointment. He was lying about why.”
He pivoted on the stool to glare at me, but I gave it right back to him. He knew my coming up to the greenhouse meant that I was feeling stubborn.
“Confound it!” His tone was just as petulant as I had expected. “You don’t need my instructions. Go and get her.”
“What if she doesn’t want to come?”
“Use your wiles. Do what you have to. Why are you asking me about this?” To give him credit, he probably genuinely wanted to know. We both acknowledge that I’m the expert in certain branches of female psychology.
“Just don’t blame me if I end up telegraphing you from the Left Bank. A female artist and a good-looking one at that: I always wanted to have my portrait painted. We’ll name the first enfant after you.”
“Bah.” He turned his attention back to the orchid. I squashed an impulse to have another go at him and left.
I dislike having my routine disrupted, a fact of which Archie is well aware. Thus, my day had already veered in a direction I detested when the doorbell rang and Fritz Brenner, my chef and factotum, came into the office.
“M. Wolfe. There is a young lady at the front door.” From Fritz’s attitude and tone, I already knew that the female in question was both attractive and unconventional enough to arouse mixed feelings in Fritz’s breast. It was no great feat of deduction to realize who the young lady must be.
“Show Miss McIntyre in.”
I am rarely impressed by feminine beauty, but there are women whose attractions are obvious even to me. Miss McIntyre was one such. She was a slim blonde with grey eyes, and moved with the sort of lithe confidence that implied she was not used to worrying about the opinions of others because she already assumed she had their admiration. She wore paint-daubed slacks and a smock, which I took to be a kind of uniform of her profession. Her long hair was tied back with a rag of silk, revealing a remarkable set of cheek-bones. She did not hesitate at the door to the office, but appropriated the red leather chair.
“Good morning, Mr. Wolfe. I’m sorry to bust in on you like this, but Cressy called up first thing this morning and asked me not to see you before she talked to me. Then Tom called me, then Roy did, and then Mike was on the phone. I wasn’t getting any work done, so I came right over.”
I allowed myself one last moment of peace behind my own closed eyelids before I proceeded to attempt to deal with her. No matter what her talent as a painter - and our other interviewees had assured me that her talent was considerable - Miss McIntyre was an excellent example of a type of individual I am grateful to avoid. “Will you have something to drink, Miss McIntyre?”
She smiled up at Fritz. “Soda water, please.” As Fritz retreated, disconcerted, she stared around the office intently and then stared at me, without speaking, for almost half a minute. I endured, suspecting what her next words would be.
“I’ve read all of Mr. Goodwin’s case reports.” That, I had not expected, but it did not surprise me. “I’d love to paint you, Mr. Wolfe. Your curves and masses are wonderful.” That, I had anticipated. Artistic temperament in combination with femininity may be enough to overwhelm linear thinking, but human nature still follows patterns
“Given what your fellows say of you, I appreciate the implied compliment. However, as you have read, I am not especially portable and I do not leave this house except upon the most pressing and personal concerns. This office is not an atelier. I am afraid I have to decline your request.”
She paused to take her soda water from Fritz and said calmly, “It was worth a try.” She surveyed me again, and then added, following some train of associations of her own, “I don’t know why everybody is so worried about the Eakins. You’d think it was a hot watch, the kind you can unload on some street corner in the Tenderloin.”
“No, but paintings are not difficult to conceal, even for an amateur. Remember, if you will, what happened to La Gioconda.”
She laughed. “That would be wonderful. Mrs. Graham would faint at the idea of her painting spending years tucked away inside a working man’s trunk.”
I stretched my lips politely. “I have been hired to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
She shook her head, her attention drifting elsewhere. “No, you’re supposed to make sure we don’t all start lunging at each other’s throats, as if we would.” She frowned, gazing past me. “That fake painting of the Washington Monument is terrible. If you’re going to try and cover a peephole, you need a busier subject. I’ll paint you something better, something more natural. Maybe a forest, Hudson School style.”
I should have known better than to try--I heard the front door open. Archie had returned from his vain attempt to net my guest. I held up my hand, palm towards her. “Wait, Miss McIntyre. Just wait.”
She tucked her legs up underneath her, placed one arm across the top of the chair, and curved around to watch the office door with evident interest. When Archie entered, she favored him with the same intent stare she had used upon me earlier, before turning back and saying, “Good lines and planes. I’d adore doing a cubist composition of the two of you together, even if cubism is passé.”
Archie paused on his way to his desk. I gave him a look, to convey my opinion of her. He raised one eyebrow and sat. While he opened his notebook, I said, “Since she was being disturbed by her co-owners and friends via the telephone, Miss McIntyre thought she would come and share the experience with us.”
“Actually, I came to talk. But now I don’t know. You may find out more than I want you to, Mr. Wolfe.” She gave me a scowl that, I did not doubt, was meant to convey distrust, but that only succeeded in making her look slightly myopic. “I know I don’t trust you, Mr. Goodwin. Your reputation precedes you. You’re the biggest natural hazard on the dance floors of mid-Manhattan.” Archie tried to appear solemn, but could not entirely suppress an incredulous smile. For all his egotism, he has an odd streak of humility about the straight-forward approach he employs with females, one that causes him to underestimate his effectiveness as a hunter. The dolphin eats as often as the shark.
“Then we find ourselves at a stand. If you do not trust me, it will do me no good to offer you that ragged banner, my word of honor. You must inform me, Miss McIntyre, how this conundrum may be resolved, unless you prefer to return home to respond to the telephoned entreaties of your friends.”
She knit her brow, obviously employing whatever served her in place of logic. “I suppose there’s more than one way to resist. Okay, you make a deal with me, or I don’t talk.”
It would be hopeless to tell her that I do not make deals with witnesses. It would be hopeless to try and tell her anything. I mentally adjusted the bill for this case upwards and turned to Archie.
His voice was tolerant, in a nicely-gauged challenge. “It’s mostly for effect, sir, but she’s not kidding about the bargain.” He turned to Miss McIntyre. “Katharine Hepburn, right? With maybe a dash of a very young Myrna Loy?”
Again, she twisted around in the chair, and her eyes narrowed. “You. As bad as reported. That’s it, Bub. You are going to suffer.” She turned back to me. “Fine. First, I get to replace that horrible mess behind your head. The thought of it in the same room as a Leonardo and a Sepeshy will give me nightmares, otherwise.”
I wanted this pesky case to be finished; it led me into folly. I sighed. “Agreed, Miss McIntyre, if you, in your turn, will abandon all attempts to seem fascinating.”
She threw back her head and laughed, in much the same way Archie had described Mr. Araceli as laughing. It must be an affliction imposed by a shared background and education. “Fair enough. But one other thing. I need to know how you both move.” The words might still have seemed nonsensical, but I knew the timbre of someone speaking with heartfelt passion. “There’s a composition to be had out of the two of you, and I want it.” Without thinking, her fingers flexed, as if grasping a brush. I sensed Archie’s attention sharpen.
“You have seen us both move, madam.” I knew, but wanted to hear, her reply.
“Not really. Not when it matters. I’d like to see you holding something you care about, Mr. Wolfe. Maybe a book or those orchids? And Mr. Goodwin--since I don’t think he’ll pick a fight for me, dancing.” She stretched out her arm and pointed one paint-stained finger at him. “You first.”
He grinned. It did not reach his eyes. “If it’s a performance you want, I’m no Fred Astaire.”
She shrugged. “Did I say you were? There’s a radio on that wall.” She pivoted her arm over her head to point backwards without looking. “It’s the movement I want, Mr. Goodwin, not a show. Take it, or leave it.” I narrowed my eyes at Archie. He returned my silent query with an almost imperceptible nod.
With deliberation, Archie capped his fountain pen. Then he got up, went over to the radio, and switched it on. A so-called soap opera was being performed. He knows my opinion of such shows. He paused with his head tilted for a few seconds, the corners of his lips quirked, before he deliberately turned the dial and found some instrumental music. He moved to the open space in the center of the carpet. His eyes, as they met mine, were lively with ironic humor. Then his expression grew distant, almost rapt, as he listened to the melody and extended his arms to greet some invisible partner.
Miss McIntyre had twisted entirely around in the red leather chair to watch, her attention at the same time hungry and impersonal. I confess I intended to close my eyes. I did not.
I am not a fool. I never watch Archie dance. But, that morning, I did.
A disinterested observer might have seen nothing but a man moving with leisured, ordered grace around a small patch of carpet, his face both pleasant and severe. I am not a disinterested observer. The curve of the arm, the tilt of the torso, the smooth, harmonious sweep of every movement were both known and alien to me, as if they were the sound of a familiar voice singing or the feel of the flesh hidden just below the plunge of a woman’s neckline.
It was not long; it was a slice of my lifetime. Archie stopped, facing us, and his eyes met my own. For a fraction of a second there was no barrier, no mocking humor, no pride in his strength. There was only pleasure. Then there was pleasure at my pleasure, and then the familiar tolerant cynicism measured out the proper distance between us again. His gaze moved on to Miss McIntyre. It was a great deal to encompass in a heart-beat, but, as even Archie will tell you, I am a genius.
I was beginning to get some idea of why this case was getting to Wolfe. It was starting to get to me, too. That damn urge--what I really wanted was to go over to Wolfe’s desk, and make some crack as an excuse for another look into those dark eyes. I would have taken a good fight, so I could storm out and find the oxygen I badly needed. Instead, I had to settle for switching off the radio before I turned my attention to a female who was reducing me to lines and planes.
She nodded. I got the feeling she wasn’t really seeing me at all. Then her chin swung towards Wolfe and her eyes got sharp again. “Mr. Wolfe?”
Wolfe might have been considering balking, but I gave him a speaking look. So, he settled for scowling at her before heaving himself up onto his feet and stalking over to the bookshelves. His face on the way over was petulant, but all the leather and cloth spines cast their usual spell on him. His face smoothed out, and he looked like an escaped elephant finally able to reach the peanut vendor’s cart. After a moment of consideration, his lips twisted faintly and he reached out and pulled down a book, big finger grasping the sides of the spines to keep from tugging at the top of the binding. I passed him on the way to my desk, and he turned slightly towards me, checking, before he flipped open the cover. It was Shakespeare again, the Merry Wives of Windsor this time.
He glanced up from its pages, and said, his voice dry, “I am unaccustomed to performing.”
I couldn’t help it. I snorted. He glared before he turned his attention back to the book as the nearest available opportunity to snub me. For a minute his concentration was up for grabs and then something on the page caught his attention.
I swiveled in my chair to watch Miss McIntyre. As far as she was concerned, Wolfe could have been the elephant he resembled, if an entrancing one. It made me want to pick her up, carry her outside, dump her on the stoop, and lock the front door behind her. But that’s an impulse I’ve had with witnesses before, so I settled for flipping to a fresh page in my notebook and uncapping my pen again.
When I looked back up, Wolfe was finishing what he was reading. I saw a little of what she must be seeing: his deft fingers, the slight movements of his mobile lips, the air of concentration that hinted there was as much weight behind his eyes as was pressing his shoes down into the Keraghan. Then he closed the covers firmly, as if he was shutting a door, and put the book away. He turned back to Miss McIntyre, who had actually squeezed her eyes shut and wrinkled her forehead. “Well, madam?”
Her eyes opened. “Thank you, Mr. Wolfe. If I get anything, and I think I will, I’ll send you an invitation to the gallery opening. You won’t come, of course.”
I have to say, Wolfe kept his eye on his target. “You show at the Araceli, Miss McIntyre?”
“No. As I’m sure you’ve heard, they hang older styles than mine. Actually, I don’t go up there much at all; I invested part of my trust fund as a favor to my friends. I’m working roughly within the boundaries of a current school, a collection of groups that calls themselves the surrealists.” Her expression went distant again, in a different way than before. “I’ve got to return to France for a while, even if it means putting up with all the pamphlet barrages between the groups.”
Wolfe only grunted, and got his bulk redistributed in his chair. He’d made a long hike and he resented it.
Her expression cleared. “I said I’d talk and I will, even though nobody wants me to tell you a thing.”
“The ‘thing’ in question being the fact that you forged the so-called Eakins. Why?”
Whang into the gold. Someday I’ll see him miss, but that wasn’t the day. She opened her eyes wide, then gravely saluted. “I meant it to be a gift for Mike. That’s what I intended. He’s crazy for those sports paintings of Eakins.”
“Is Mr. White a fan of pugilism?”
“I imagined not.” Wolfe’s voice was dry. She got a mulish expression on her face, and I saw his shoulders shift a fraction of an inch as he prepared to dig in. He was just about to shift the first shovel-full when the doorbell rang.
I wasn’t surprised to see all of them, with the exception of Mrs. Graham, there on the front stoop. I opened the door.
“We have to see Mr. Wolfe.” Apparently, White could speak to the point in a crisis.
“Wait, please,” I said. Closing the door, I went back into the office and said, “Everyone but Mother.”
Wolfe grunted, satisfied. “Good. We can be rid of this muddle. Let them in.”
When I got them into the office and seated, no one had tried to boot Miss McIntyre out of the red leather chair. She was flanked by the Aracelis on one side, and by Roy Graham and Michael White on the other. The Aracelis were holding hands; I saw Wolfe consider scowling and then decide to ignore them, instead.
“Gentlemen and ladies, it may save time if I tell you that, immediately before your arrival, Miss McIntyre admitted to having painted To the Victor.”
I thought there would be noise but there wasn’t. Instead they all exchanged glances before they looked back at Wolfe. Miss McIntyre had not been kidding. They were a tight little gang.
“Allow me to give you my postulated sequence of events. Where I am wrong, you may correct me.” Wolfe moved his eyes across the chairs, taking a straw poll, and then, satisfied, continued, “To the Victor was originally intended as a gift for Mr. White, who is very fond of the work of Thomas Eakins but who has also been unable to obtain a painting from the genre he favors. Miss McIntyre, a creature of artistic passion, overshot her goal by signing, aging, and framing her creation, so that its quality as a substitute would be acceptable to her tastes. However, it then fell into the hands of Mrs. Graham, under circumstances which Miss McIntyre refuses to elucidate.” He paused and waited. Five faces were turned to his, four trying to be cryptic and one wearing an expression of bewilderment. Mike White was the odd man out.
“Mrs. Graham, although aware that the painting was technically a forgery, intended to sell it through the Araceli Gallery. Or did she? I believe not.” That gave it away. Wolfe was tightrope walking, testing his theory by watching their reactions, the big faker.
Roy Graham’s lips quirked and he shook his head. “You’re right, Mr. Wolfe. Mother didn’t mean to sell. Tom told me the reserve price--much too high.”
“I believe she originally intended to keep the painting as something she could hold over the head of her son’s fiancée. For some reason, she felt she needed an extra source of influence in that direction.” Wolfe grimaced. “However, Mr. Graham accidentally saw the forgery, and his mother quickly improvised an explanation for its presence. In his enthusiasm, Mr. Graham researched it and found that it matched one described in sources well enough to justify a tentative attribution as an actual Eakins painting, To the Victor. At that point, Mrs. Graham changed her goal. Offering a forgery vouched for by a co-owner would damage the reputation of the Araceli Gallery, possibly irreparably. If the painting was consigned and advertised as being for sale and then exposed, it could be used as a wedge between Roy Graham and his friends, one in particular”
Graham knuckled his forehead; White turned the bewildered look onto him. I was having no problem following Wolfe’s thinking now that I saw them all in the same room together.
“Mrs. Araceli, who has a conservationist’s knowledge of paintings, examined To the Victor as part of the cleaning process and realized the work was a forgery. Not knowing the original source of the painting or the details of its consignment, knowing only that it was soon to be examined both by an art critic and by Mr. White, a man of earnest veracity and probity, she was in a quandary. She decided to conceal the painting for a short time until she could consult with her husband and friends.”
Cressy Araceli leaned forward. “I shipped it to a dealer in Boston, then telephoned him to say I made a mistake and ask him to ship the crate back unopened as soon as he got it. It’s at the gallery right now, still in my original, mislabeled crate.” Tom Araceli shook his head at her but managed, at the same time, to look proud.
Wolfe nodded a polite eighth of an inch. “The simplest methods are often the best. It was your misfortune that Mrs. Graham tried to spring her trap by showing the painting to her acquaintance the art critic before you had a chance to rally your fellows. When Mrs. Graham found it gone, she insisted on calling the police. You persuaded her to accept me as an alternative but then, realizing the dangers that lay ahead of you, confessed to your husband. He, in turn, talked with Mr. Graham and Mr. White. Mr. Graham, knowing his mother and her concerns and being quite familiar with Miss McIntyre’s artistic impulses, was able to induce the true origins of the painting.”
“It explained why Grandfather Morris didn’t leave it to me,” Graham said simply.
Wolfe grunted. “I take it you did not share all the background details with Mr. White, Mr. Araceli?”
Tom Araceli looked at the ceiling, his wife at the carpet. Roy examined his folded hands. White’s eyes narrowed. He chose to work on Miss McIntyre, which would have been my choice, too. “Okay, Chloe, what’s the rest of the story?”
She blinked. “I want to go back to Paris. Mrs. Graham wanted Roy and me to get married. She was trying to persuade me to her way of thinking.”
“Jupiter, Chloe, don’t put me off.” His shoulders suddenly looked larger underneath his nice suit as he squared them. “Why didn’t you give me the dashed painting? I would have warned you--how did Mother Graham get her hands on it?”
Chloe’s eyes narrowed. I got the impression he was the audience she’d been angling for all along. Wolfe thought so too, from the way he laced his fingers across his stomach. “I wanted Roy to give it to you. I took it over to the house so that he could see it, but Mrs. Graham moved it while I was upstairs looking for Roy. I think one corner of the varnish was still a little tacky from being aged.” She turned to Graham. “You were out,” she said sweetly. “I was surprised, since Mike was on a business trip.”
Graham looked as if he wanted to reach over and poke her, hard.
“If you don’t want to tell him about a little thing like you-know-what, you should be able to understand why I didn’t want to tell you your mother was going in for theft and blackmail.” She pulled her knees up underneath her chin, wrapped her arms around them, and huddled into the red leather chair with the air of a martyr. “I didn’t know she would try and sell it through the gallery. She has money in the gallery.”
“I’m buying out her share with part of my inheritance from Grandfather Morris. She didn’t like my decision, I guess.” Graham shook his head, exasperated. “I’m going to have to speak with her about all this.”
“I still don’t understand.” White’s jaw jutted out stubbornly.
Graham clapped his hand to his forehead. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Mike! Mother felt it was time that Chloe and I were married. According to her, I was acting just like my grandfather, spending all together too much time with my male friends, that is to say, you. I even pick your suits out for you, man!” He sighed. “But if you speak one more word to me about Thomas Eakins, Walt Whitman, the absolute male, vigorous outdoors sports, or us being camarados, Mr. Wolfe may have the shortest murder investigation of his career on his hands.”
“Oh. Oh.” I couldn’t believe it: White blushed like a bride. I was disgusted.
“Thick as a brick about some stuff, our Mike,” Tom Araceli observed to the office ceiling.
That was all the reaction the great revelation got from the rest of the gang. As I shoveled them back out the front door, White was in the middle of a long maunder about manly fellowship. The Aracelis were looking indulgent, Miss McIntyre seemed to be daydreaming about lines and movement, and Roy Graham was modeling the attitude of a man handed the Star of India taped to a stick of lit dynamite.
When I returned to the office, Wolfe was scowling at the check on his desk.
“What’s the matter, sir? You soaked them good for three measly days of work, especially considering that they figured it out before you did. I know Saul didn’t charter a special train to New Haven.”
“That young woman.” He shook his head a good third of an inch in either direction, pretty violent for him.
“It’s not like you have to take the phony Eakins. You only promised to accept the new one she’s painting to put over the peephole.” I shook my head right back at him. “She wouldn’t be inflicting the fake on you if you hadn’t said she had artistic passions, rather than female ones. You wounded her vanity.”
“Pfui,” he said, and reached for a book.
“Oh, I don’t know. She had nice shoulders. I can’t believe that Roy Graham didn’t land her before she wiggled off the hook. I wonder if she can dance.”
“Why don’t you ask her, Archie?” He made it sweet.
“Maybe I will, since Roy’s going to be off being camarados with Mike.” It would be time for lunch soon, and it was shad roe en casserole today. After this morning, my nerves weren’t up to the sight of him dealing with shad roe. He licked his lips, at length. A good, strong push against the almost immovable object and I’d be out the door of the brownstone, free of him and on my way to a corned beef sandwich, milk, and a movie. I held out my arms. “She seemed to think I move well.”
Wolfe stretched his lips. It wasn’t what served him for his real smile. He ostentatiously opened his book.
I swooped low, in a mock tango dip, and then straightened, facing the bookshelves. Something was out of place--“For cripe’s sake.”
Wolfe grunted, not looking up.
“The Shakespeare’s put away upside down. Do you want me to flip it over?”
“No,” Wolfe growled, set his book down, and started to lever himself to his feet. The custom-bound editions are one of the three things he’s not fond of my touching, the other two being uncut orchids and him.
At last I had my lever. “That’s odd, sir. Something must have distracted you.”
He ignored me.
“I think I can guess what is was, and it shows good taste on your part. She’s a doll. Nice blonde hair, nice grey eyes, nice long legs. And talented, too, if a little impulsive. Tell her all about how you got your Leonardo. That’ll fetch her.”
“Archie, shut up.” He was almost rough with the Shakespeare as he shoved it back into its place, right side up.
It would probably get me fired, but I kept going. “I’d wait a few dinners before you squeeze her shoulder, though. She needs a subtle approach. Maybe you could have her paint you with the orchids.”
He marched towards me in that odd, light-on-his-feet way he has. “Archie.” His voice was quiet, which meant trouble. He halted, and I should have piped down then, to hear what he thought I had coming to me.
An urge, a pointless crazy notion, made me finish. “They need to know your intentions before you touch them, especially if it’s around the neck or the head. I’ve always--”
Archie had been in my household, had worked for me, for eight years. I had frequently dealt with want. On one or two occasions, I had even dealt with need. But I had never dealt with simple impulse, relentless, incognate, unpredictable. Stepping forward, my body moving precipitately as it will in a crisis, I placed a hand on the curve where the strong muscles of his shoulder flow into his neck.
There should have been a frozen moment of shock or a bark of surprised laughter. There should not have been a noise of satisfaction.
And there it was, my stupid urge at last played out. Wolfe touched me. He grasped my shoulder, and I leaned into it.
His hand slid to the nape of my neck and rested there. His eyes met mine. I guess we were waiting for the sky to fall. It was ridiculous. He was only touching my neck, something no worse than familiar even from Nero Wolfe. After eight years, a guy could get that familiar. His thumb stroked forward, across to the front of my throat. My pulse lurched forwards into a gallop. I felt the flair of excitement catch him, felt the small tremble go through the firm grip of his hand. So, that was why he didn’t want me touching him.
I could ignore it, pull away. I could lash out and take a swing at him. I could pick words pungent enough to salvage my pride.
Instead I closed my eyes. “What happens next?” Impulsive: that’s me.
“If you have any sense, you will leave at once and go out to a motion picture. Archie, do you have any idea--”
He opened his eyes, so grey, so very clear. “Yes, sir, I do. I thought you didn’t. You thought I didn’t. I guess we were both wrong.”
Of all his possible responses, that was the one I had not anticipated. I confess it, I was flummoxed. He gauged my expression, grinned, and asked, “Well, what are you waiting for?”
What I was waiting for, I realized, had already occurred many years ago. I took my final step forward and pulled him into my arms.
Wolfe made me change the description of To the Victor when I mentioned it in a case report years later. In a fit of what he considers to be humor, he had hung the fake Eakins where I would see it every time I turned to see his fat face, right next to the painting of a waterfall Miss McIntyre did for him to cover the peephole.
Even now, after years of familiarity, I look at that kid boxer standing over his older, larger opponent and wonder what he’s thinking. I’ve seen the picture enough times to notice something else, too. On the face of the fighter on the mat, almost hidden by the shadows, his battered, swollen lips are curved with the faintest hint of a smile. I wonder if the big guy took a dive. On reflection, I’d give it four to one, so maybe they both won the fight. It can happen, I’ve found.
But, even in a draw, to the victors belong the spoils.
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