Authors: Stout, Rex
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 43 - The Father Hunt
It happens once or twice a week. Lily Rowan and I, returning from a show or party or hockey game, leave the elevator and approach the door of her penthouse on top of the apartment building on Sixty-third Street between Madison and Park, and there is the key question. Mine is, Do I stay back and let her do it'Hers is, Does she stay back and let me do it'We have never discussed it, and it is always handled the same way. When she gets out her key as we leave the elevator she gives me a smile which means, “Yes, you have one, but it’s my door,” and I smile back and follow her to it. It is understood that mine is for situations that seldom arise.
That Thursday afternoon in August we had been to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets clobber the Giants, which they had done, 8 to 3, and it was only twenty past five when she used her key. Inside, she called out to Mimi, the maid, that she was home, and went to the bathroom, and I went to the bar in a corner of the oversized living room, with its 19-by-34 Kashan rug, for gin and ice and tonic and glasses. By the time I got out to the terrace with the tray she was there, at a table under the awning, studying the scorecard I had kept.
“Yes, sir,” she said as I put the tray down, “Harrelson got three hits and batted in two runs. If he was here I’d hug him. Good.”
“Then I’m glad he’s not here.” I gave her her drink and sat. “If you hugged that kid good you’d crack a rib.”
A voice came. “I’m going, Miss Rowan.”
Our heads turned. The young woman in the doorway to the living room was a newcomer to the penthouse. I had
seen her only twice, and she was easy to look at, with just enough round places, just round enough, properly spotted on her five-foot-four getup, and her warm dark skin just right for her quick brown eyes. Her dark-brown hair was bunched at the back. Her name was Amy Denovo and she had got a diploma from Smith in June. Lily had hired her ten days ago, at a hundred a week, to help her find and arrange material for a book a man was going to write about Lily’s father, who had made a pile building sewers and other items and had left her enough boodle to keep a dozen penthouses.
She answered a couple of questions Lily asked, and left, and we talked baseball, concentrating on what the Mets had, if anything, besides Tommy Davis and Bud Harrel-son and Tom Seaver, and what they might have if we lived long enough. We dawdled with the drinks, and at six o’clock I got up to go, leaving Lily plenty of time to change for a dinner she had been hooked for, where people were going to abolish ghettos by making speeches. I had a date, later, where I intended to abolish the welfare of some friends of mine by drawing another ace or maybe jack.
But down in the lobby I was intercepted. Albert, the doorman, was moving to open the door for me when a voice spoke my name and I turned, and Amy Denovo left a chair and was coming. She gave me a nice little smile and said, “Could you give me a few minutes to ask you something?”
I said, “Sure, shoot,” and she glanced at Albert, and he took the hint and went outside. I said we might as well sit and we went to a bench at the wall, but the door opened again and a man and woman entered, crossed to the elevator, and stood.
Amy Denovo said, “It is rather public, isn’t it'I said a few minutes, but I suppose& it might be more than just a few. If you could'And I& it’s very personal& I mean personal to me.”
I hadn’t noticed the dimples before. They are always more taking on a dark skin than on a light skin. “You’re twenty-two,” I said.
“Then maybe one minute will do it. Don’t marry him
now, you’re too young to know. Wait a year at least, and-“
“Oh, it isn’t that! It’s very personal.”
“Don’t think marriage isn’t personal. It’s too damn personal, that’s the trouble. If you mean a few hours, not a few minutes, I’m sorry; I have an eight o’clock date, but there’s a place around the corner that sells drinks and makes good egg-and-anchovy sandwiches. If you like anchovies.”
The door opened and two women entered and headed for the elevator. That was not the place to discuss very personal matters.
She was all right to walk with, no leading or lagging and no silly step-stretching. At that time of day in August there was plenty of room in the back at The Cooler, and we got the corner table where Lily and I had often had a snack. When the waitress had taken our order and left, I asked if she wanted to put off being personal until we had something inside.
She shook her head. “I might as well& ” She let it hang ten seconds and then blurted, “I want you to find my father.”
I raised a brow. “Have you lost him?”
“No. I haven’t lost him& because I never had him.” She said it fast, as if someone was trying to stop her. “I decided I had to tell somebody-that was a month ago- and then I got this job with Miss Rowan and I found out that she knows you, and I met you, and of course I know about you and Nero Wolfe. But I don’t want Nero Wolfe to do it, I want you to.”
There were no dimples, and the quick brown eyes were fastened on me.
“That won’t work,” I told her. “I’m on full time with Mr. Wolfe, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week when they’re needed, and I don’t take jobs on my own. But I have a loose hour”-I looked at my watch- “and twenty minutes, and if you want a suggestion I might possibly have one. No charge.”
“But I need more than a suggestion.”
“You’re not in a position to judge. You’re too involved.”
“I’m involved all right.” The eyes stayed at me. “I
couldn’t tell this to anybody but you. Not anybody. When I met you last week, the first time, I felt it then, I knew it, that you were the one man in the world that I could trust to do it. I never had that feeling about a man before-or woman either.”
“That’s just dandy,” I said, “but save the soap. Did you say you never had your father?”
Her eyes darted away as the waitress came with the drinks and sandwiches. When we had been served and were alone again she tried to smile. “That wasn’t just figurative.” She kept her voice low and I needed my good ears. “I meant that literally. I never had a father. I don’t know who he was. Is. I don’t know what my name is, what it should be. Nobody knows about it-nobody. Now you know. I don’t think Denovo was my mother’s real name. I don’t think she was ever married. Do you know what Denovo means'Two Latin words, de novo?” “Something about new. A nova is a new star.” “It means ‘anew.’ ‘Afresh.’ She started anew, afresh, she started over, and she took the name Denovo. I wish I knew for sure.”
“Have you asked her?”
“No. I wanted to, I was going to, and now I can’t. She’s dead.”
“When did she die?”
“In May. Just two weeks before I graduated. By a car. A hit-and-run driver.” “Did they get him?”
“No. They haven’t found him. They are still looking; they say they are.”
“What about relatives'A sister, a brother& ” “There aren’t any.”
“There must be. Everyone has relatives.” “No. None. Of course there might be some under her real name.”
“Have you got any'Cousins, uncles, aunts& ” “No.”
It was getting messy. Or rather, it was getting too damn pure and simple. I knew people who liked to think of themselves as loners, but Amy Denovo really was one; with her it wasn’t just thinking. I suggested that we might try the sandwiches, and she agreed and took one, and took
a bite. Naturally, when I am eating with someone, male or female, for the first time, I notice the details of his or her performance, since it tells a lot about the person, but that time I didn’t because the way she took a bite, or chewed, or swallowed, or licked her lips, had no bearing on the fix she was in. I did observe that there was nothing wrong with her appetite, and she proved that she liked the egg-and-anchovy combo by taking her full share. She asked if it was on Nero Wolfe’s list of favorites, and I said no, he would probably sneer at it. When the platter was empty she said she hadn’t thought it would make her hungry, telling someone the secret she had kept bottled up so long, but it had. She gave me a little smile, the dimples coming, and said, “We don’t really know ourselves, do we?”
“It depends,” I said. “Some of us know too much, and some not enough. I don’t want to know why I get out of bed mornings in a fog, I might never sleep again. To hell with it, I always find my way out. As for you, you’re not in a fog, you’re under a spotlight that you turned on yourself. Why don’t you just turn it off?”
“I did not turn it on myself. Other people did it, especially my mother. I can’t turn it off.”
“Well, then. What’s your biggest question'Your mother’s real name and so on, or your father?”
“My father, of course. After all, I have lived with my mother all my life, and I suppose my wanting to know her real name and things about her is just& well, curiosity. But I must know about my father. Is he alive'Who is he'What is he'His genes made me!”
I nodded. “Yeah, you went to Smith. You learned too much about genes. Mr. Wolfe said once that scientists should keep their findings strictly to themselves; by spilling it they just complicate things for other people. Would you like some coffee?”
“They have good sweet things.”
She shook her head. “I admit I could eat anything, it’s really amazing, my being so hungry, but I’d rather not. What do you& 'You said you might have a suggestion.”
“I know I did.” I turned a hand over on the table. “You’ve got a tough one. I’m afraid you need more than
a suggestion, even from the one man you can trust. Sure, I filed that. To get what you want-there’s one chance in a million that a week or so of poking around would crack it, but it would probably be a long and very expensive job. How much money have you got?”
“Not much. Of course I would want to pay you.”
“Not me. I explained that. But Nero Wolfe has inflated ideas about fees; that’s why I would have to know exactly how you are fixed. If you care to tell me.”
“Certainly I’ll tell you. I have never earned any money, not enough to mention, and anyway I’ve spent it. I only have what my mother left, after paying the& for the cremation. She left instructions about that. There’s a little more than two thousand dollars in the bank, that’s all. There are no debts and I don’t owe anyone anything.”
I had a brow up. “What did your mother do for-no, that’s immaterial. She made enough to send you to an expensive college. Unless someone helped?”
“No. She did it all. You were going to ask what she did for a living. She was with a television producer, the same one from as far back as I can remember. I suppose she got fifteen thousand a year, maybe more. She never told me.” The quick brown eyes were straight at me. “If I paid Nero Wolfe the two thousand dollars he would have you work on it, wouldn’t he?”
I shook my head. “He wouldn’t even discuss it. He would know it might take a year, and he thinks nothing of billing a client five grand for a one-week job. You said you know about him, but apparently you don’t. He’s pigheaded and high-nosed and toplofty, and he thinks he’s the best detective in the world, and so do I, or I would have moved out long ago. I think you deserve some help with your problem, and you certainly need it, and I like your dimples, but if I told him about you and suggested an appointment he would just glare at me. He would think I had a hinge loose. I do have one idea that you might want to consider. Miss Rowan likes to do things for people, and she has a stack, and if you-“
“Don’t you dare tell her about me!”
“Keep your seat. I wouldn’t dream of telling her, or anyone. I merely thought you might tell her yourself, and-“
“I wouldn’t tell anybody!”
“Okay, I won’t either. Your eyes have a fine flash.” I regarded her. “Look, Miss Denovo. I’m shutting the door only because I have to. Myself, I would like to tackle it because it would probably have some interesting angles and twists and it would be nice to have a client it is a pleasure to look at. Besides, there would be the possibility of having to deal with a murder. When you hear about-“
“Certainly. It’s only a bare possibility, but it popped up because when you hear of a hit-and-run death and the driver hasn’t been tagged, it does pop up. I mention it only because it’s one of the reasons why I would like to tackle it. But there’s not a sliver of a chance with Mr. Wolfe, and there you are. I’m sorry, I really am.”
She shook her head, with her eyes staying at me. “But Mr. Goodwin. This leaves me helpless.” Apparently the murder possibility hadn’t fazed her. “What can I do'I can’t tell somebody else.”
That was that. I wasn’t feeling particularly cocky twenty minutes later, as I flagged a taxi headed downtown on Park Avenue and gave the hackie Saul Panzer’s address. Working for and with the best detective in the world- which you don’t have to swallow-is fine, but when you have been told by a pretty girl that you are the one man in the world she can trust, even if it was pure soap, and you have stiff-armed her, you are not on your high horse. I slouched in the taxi and tried to steer my mind back to baseball and the Mets.
It was six minutes to eight when I got out at the corner of Thirty-eighth and Park. As for what happened to my friends’ welfare, not to mention mine, I’ll skip it. Sometimes the cards simply will not cooperate.